Re-reading

Visiting an old friend, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow:

JayberCrowsmall quotesIf you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.

p. 149.


As a lover of allusions, I get a kick out of the references to Bunyan, Dante and a certain famous hymn.

On honest uncertainty at a funeral

Between the stirrup

James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*

We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.


*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.

Good Friday

IV

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

 T.S. Eliot, “East Coker, pt. IV,” Four Quartets (1940).

No excerpts

current reading 2Sarah Willard writes about choices, and the will of God and finding a place to light, mentioning Jayber Crow, and Amy Carmichael and Galatians 5. Today, I am giving no excerpts—you need to read this whole thing: “Freedom also for her to stay (and our ever sure place to light),” Blind Mule Blog (Apr. 8, 2019) [link].

You should follow this wise young woman.


Another piece you should just read in its entirety is Kyle Korver, “Privileged,” The Player’s Tribune (Apr. 8, 2019) [link], in which he thinks about how white men should react to racism.

 

Pain and resolution

current reading 2Connor Gwin, “Things We Cannot Say,” Mockingbird (Mar. 20, 2019) [link] has a compelling take on silence, pain, and grace in the church. Any one of these would be worth your time, any two intriguing, but it is the combination which is compelling:

small quotes blueIt is almost trite to say that people are hurting. We all know it intellectually. The truth is much more startling. A majority of people are in an incredible amount of pain (emotional, spiritual, physical). No one has it all together. In fact, most people are on the verge of falling apart. People are always in a crisis, coming out of a crisis, or heading into a crisis. This is one of the only things in life that we can guarantee to be true.

He goes on from there — you should, too.


Sarah Willard, “New Things Coming On,” Blind Mule Blog (Mar. 20, 2019) [link] writes (beautifully, as always) about conflict and resolution, and how what we think of as resolution is too timid for what God is planning.

small quotes blueWhat kind of storyteller expects anyone to believe the kind of things we see in this life alone? The threads of his work aren’t tidy, and sometimes they can’t be followed and they break off in all the worst places, but in the end you see it secure and whole, and not the dishrag you imagined at all, but a tapestry filling the whole world, with every scene more beautiful than the last, where those of a cool unfriendliness meet over a hillside and listen to each other, where sad old things have passed away and you feel a pressure on your shoulders… for it’d really be wise, my friend, to sit down for the sight of all the new things coming on.

She also mentions a piece which she wrote recently for Chronic Joy, which is a blog for people who suffer chronic pain — “War Stories and White Fences” (Mar. 20, 2019) [link].

Both pieces are well worth your time.

Pushing away grace

Reading Genesis WellIn my church, we sometimes find it most loving to be “careful with the images” in the sense that (for example) when we pray on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day we want to be gentle, knowing that there are some who would like to be mothers but can not; and some who had fathers who did not remotely model Godly fatherhood. That makes this passage particularly poignant:

small quotes blue[Some biblical] images we recognize from our own experience, but once we have grasped them, they in turn cause us to revise the way we carry out the activity. An example would be God as father; as Proverbs 3:12 has it, “for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” There is no reason to suppose that the compilers of Proverbs had a too-rosy view of what actual fathers are like; they could no doubt be every bit as distant, abusive, short-tempered, or just plain inconsistent in Israel as they can in the modern West. But most people have an intuition of what a father ought to be and can use that for thinking about God. The image has a varied texture.

So God is compared to a father not because fathers are perfect fathers but because God is a perfect father.

Another instance is Psalm 103:13, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” Those who meet the image halfway, allowing imagination and intuition to prevent experience from making them cynical, may find their own practice of fathering is changed to be more like what they perceive God’s to be, infusing tender compassion into moral education.

C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well 76 (2018) [amazon].

A brilliant point I think, but here is what I thought when I read it—those who will not meet the image (fatherhood, marriage, parental compassion, exuberant celebration, feasting, fertility) halfway because of past experience push away a part of the grace offered to them.

And we each need grace too much to push any of it away.

Let us open our hearts to the metaphors in which God speaks.

Reading

current reading 2Three of my favorite online writers. Please realize these pull quotes aren’t the main course:

Alan Jacobs, “Defilement and Expulsion,” Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 11, 2019) [link]:

small quotes blueWhen a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert, “Second Wife, Second Life” Fathom (Feb. 11, 2019) [link]:

small quotes blueI suppose there is such a thing as what some would call their no-fault divorce, but I have never seen one entirely without faults.

Sarah Willard, “Greatest Treasure,” Blind Mule Blog (Feb. 6, 2019) [link]:

small quotes blueThe hardest thing about loving elderly people, and caring for them, is death. It has a way of taking people, you know, clear off the face of the earth.

What about sin?

current reading 2It is hard for non-believers to understand just why Christians are always so concerned with the idea of sin. Simeon Zahl, in an essay reprinted in Mockingbird (“Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin”) explains why, and why this is significant.

small quotes blueWhen I try to explain [to my students] that Christians have traditionally believed that human beings are deeply flawed from birth, and furthermore that God is profoundly unhappy about these flaws, I watch my students’ eyes grow skeptical. I watch their postures shift the way students always do when they disagree with what you are telling them. . . .

*    *    *

My point is this: in the edifice of Christian belief, the doctrine of sin is a major load-bearing structure. It is not theologically optional. To lose it, or to downplay it, or to reframe it in terms that are less offensive to our sense of self-worth, is in the long run to render Christianity unintelligible to people.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who made much the same point in his essay “God in the Dock”:

small quotes blueThe greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.

God in the Dock, 243–4 (1970).

Zahl goes on to offer some ways of thinking about sin which may communicate the truth about sin to modern people (like each of us) who have been trained to think in very different terms. He ends by saying:

small quotes blueIt is only in our sickness that we recognize the Physician. It is our sin that makes Christ intelligible to us.

Worth the time.

Longing and love

current reading 2SW writes about our mistaken desire for permanence in this world, when it is really another country for which we long:

I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does.

Sarah Willard, “In Ruins,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 2, 2018) [link].


CG reminds us that in the end it is impossible for us to overstate God’s love or to rationalize it:

We have such a hard time accepting that God’s love truly reaches out to all people, even the people we hate or disagree with, and even (especially?) to we ourselves. We insist on qualifying grace, which necessarily renders that grace null and void. We worry that if people start to believe that grace is true in all cases and that God loves people with reckless abandon all hell will break loose.

Connor Gwin, “Qualifying the Reckless Love of God,” Mockingbird (Sept. 24, 2018) [link].

Judgment

Judgment&JusticeOur teaching elder has been teaching through the book of Revelation, and it doesn’t look easy. One thing which has been pretty obvious (at least after chapter 5 or so) is that there is a lot of judgment to be meted out in the future.

Of course there is a lot of judgment being meted out now, too.

Everyone, not just Christians, wants justice to be done. More than half of the outrage on the internet is just that kind of thing—people want judgment on Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Donald Trump, Peter Strzok, the molesting priests, Serena Williams, etc., for the things they did (or we think they did).*

Of course we disagree about the particulars, either because we identify with the person being judged, or we simply don’t know enough of the facts, or because we are willing to give some people the benefit of the doubt.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song which begins “Do you feel the world is broken?” and it is hard to believe that there are many people — believers or not — who would not say “yes.”

Everyone feels the need for justice, and thus first for judgment. Religious people are notorious for it, but non-religious people seem to feel the same way. (It’s a big reason for non-belief—how could a good God permit natural disasters and human evil to occur?)

Some people recognize that honestly, they too, deserve to be judged.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Gulag Archipelago (1973).

The most obvious theme of the book of Revelation is that, in the end, God wins. But a second theme is that there must be judgment on evil; indeed there must be judgment on all evil.

But that judgment is beyond me, because I simply don’t know enough. I cannot tell whether a person meant what they said, or whether what they did was outside their control, or whether they were warped by the actions of their parents, or whether . . . I just don’t know. And I wouldn’t really make a good judge, because, by all that is fair, that judgment should fall on me, not just Hitler and Harvey Weinstein, because I think and do evil, too.

And in the face of that, the most hopeful message of Revelation is that the God, who has judged and will judge with perfect knowledge, and perfect righteousness, nevertheless offers grace so that none need be separated from his love.

That’s not the whole story, but it is a pretty important part.

*I think only a tiny minority thinks everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want. If you feel like that is a sustainable position, then I guess I am not really writing to you.