Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One thought led to another…

I watched the stock market plummet yesterday, and thought about the effects of fear and greed. Gordon Gekko's rant rang in my ears: "Greed is good! Greed is right! Greed works! Greed will save the USA!" What fools we are.

Then I thought of that occasion on which a man asked Jesus to serve as an arbiter and make his brother share their inheritance. Jesus refused the request, but went on to do the man a greater kindness: He pointed out the motive behind the man's request and it's consequences: "Beware of greed, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses"

And then, because parables wake up things within us, Jesus told a story about a man who harvested a bumper crop and began to make plans to increase and enjoy his wealth. "But God said to him, 'Foolish man! This night your soul will be required of you… So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:13-21).

All of which reminded me of a story I heard years ago about an investment counselor who encountered a genie on the way to the office. When granted a wish he asked for a copy of The Wall Street Journal one year hence and hurriedly turned to the market page to plan his killing.

He got more than he bargained for, however. There on the opposite page he spied his own face—in an obituary describing his death in an automobile accident the previous day.

That's the trouble with greed, you know: it's not our goods that go. We go.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Parable:

"Once upon a time there was a small city with only a few people in it. A
great king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks around
it. There lived in that city a poor,[1] wise man who saved the city by his
wisdom. But, when the siege was over, no one remembered that poor man."
-Ecclesiastes 9:14-15

Luther, in his commentary on this verse, insists that there's an enduring principle here, and cites as his example, the story of Themistocles, the Athenian soldier and statesman who convinced his fellow Athenians that a powerful navy was needed to protect them against the Persians. During the second Persian invasion under Xerxes I, he commanded the Athenian squadron and through his strategy won the Battle of Salamis, drove the Persian army from Greek soil and saved his city. A few years later fell out of favor, was ostracized by his countrymen and banished from Athens. "Thus, Luther concludes, "Themistocles did much good for his city, but received much ingratitude."

Both stories are ancient examples of the modern cliché that no good deed ever goes unpunished.

The crowd, for some perverse reason, will always prefer proud fools to humble, wise woman and men, and will quickly forget the good that their wisdom has done. No matter. "Wisdom is (still) better than strength" even if "the wisdom of the poor man is despised" (vs. 16). It's better to be a quiet, honest sage who, though forgotten, leaves much good behind, than a swaggering, vociferous fool who, though many applaud him, "destroys much good" (vs. 18).

Accordingly, what matters in the end is not the recognition and gratitude we receive for the work we've done, but the souls of those gentle folk in which we've sown the seeds of righteousness. Put another way: "Wisdom is vindicated by the children she leaves behind." -Luke 7:35


[1] The Hebrew word here, misken ("poor") means humble or "poor in spirit"
(Cf., its use in Isaiah 66:2).

Monday, September 22, 2008

by George MacDonald

By degrees,
They knew not how, men trusted in him. When
He spoke, his word had all the force of deeds
That lay unsaid within him. To be good
Is more than holy words or definite acts;
Embodying itself unconsciously
In simple forms of human helpfulness,
And understanding of the need that prays.
And when he read the weary tales of crime,
And wretchedness and white-faced children, sad
With hunger, and neglect, and cruel words,
He would walk sadly for an afternoon,
With head down-bent, and pondering footstep slow;
And to himself conclude: "The best I can
For the great world, is, just the best I can
For this my world. The influence will go
In widening circles to the darksome lanes
In London's self." When a philanthropist
Said pompously: "With your great gifts you ought
To work for the great world, not spend yourself
On common labours like a common man;"
He answered him: "The world is in God's hands.
This part he gives to me; for which my past,
Built up on loves inherited, hath made
Me fittest. Neither will He let me think
Primaeval, godlike work too low to need,
For its perfection, manhood's noblest powers
And deepest knowledge, far beyond my gifts.
And for the crowds of men, in whom a soul
Cries through the windows of their hollow eyes
For bare humanity, and leave to grow,-
Would I could help them! But all crowds are made
Of individuals; and their grief, and pain,
And thirst, and hunger, all are of the one,
Not of the many. And the power that helps
Enters the individual, and extends
Thence in a thousand gentle influences
To other hearts. It is not made one's own
By laying hold of an allotted share
Of general good divided faithfully.
Now here I labour whole upon the place
Where they have known me from my childhood up.
I know the individual man; and he
Knows me. If there is power in me to help,
It goeth forth beyond the present will,
Clothing itself in very common deeds
Of any humble day's necessity:
I would not always consciously do good;
Not always feel a helper of the men,
Who make me full return for my poor deeds
(Which I must do for my own highest sake,
If I forgot my brethren for themselves)
By human trust, and confidence of eyes
That look me in the face, and hands that do
My work at will -'tis more than I deserve.
But in the city, with a few lame words,
And a few scanty handfuls of weak coin,
Misunderstood, or, at the best, unknown,
I should toil on, and seldom reach the man.
And if I leave the thing that lieth next,
To go and do the thing that is afar,
I take the very strength out of my deed,
Seeking the needy not for pure need's sake."

Thus he. The world-wise schemer for the good
Held his poor peace, and left him to his way.

This poem, excerpted from a much longer work by George MacDonald, has to do with an intellectually gifted young Scot who turns his back on a prestigious academic career to return to his aging father and to the family farm, there to engage in "simple forms of human helpfulness." What a waste," a world-wise schemer lamented and "left him to his way."

So we too may serve in some unnoticed, hidden place, doing nothing more than "very common deeds / Of any humble day's necessity." Others may ask, "Why this waste?"

God wastes nothing. Every act of love, no matter how small, rendered to him, is noted and has eternal consequences. Every place, no matter how small and humble is holy ground. If we are faithful in the small duties of our lives, we will have grace for greater things, should they come our way.[1]

In the meantime, "We must confine ourselves to the present moment without taking thought for the one past or the one to come... Each moment imposes a virtuous obligation on us," Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote. Love is "the duty of the present moment."

But, we ask, what of the world? I too "read the weary tales of crime, / And wretchedness and white-faced children, sad / With hunger, and neglect, and cruel words. What can I do to bring salvation to the world?

"The best I can for the great world, is the best I can do for this my world." My influence on my small part of the world will go where God determines it will go. "And the power that helps / Enters the individual, and extends / Thence in a thousand gentle influences / To other hearts." [2]

Influence is more than high and "holy words and definite acts." It's a simple matter-often an unconscious matter-of human helpfulness: being there, listening, understanding the need, loving and praying. This is what turns daily duty into worship and service. There is no greater spiritual work and no greater influence than that of a gentle, caring, unselfish servant of God.

Evelyn Underhill has written, "Among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind, so long as we link all these by intention with God and the great movement of his Will."

She goes on to say, “We must see that our small action is part of the total action of God."[3] In other words, every small action, done for Jesus’ sake, is part of God's larger work to bring salvation to the world. "All may of Thee partake: / Nothing can be so mean (small) / Which with his tincture, 'for Thy sake,' / Will not grow bright and clean. / A servant with this clause / Makes drudgery divine; / Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws / Makes that and th' action fine."[4]

Having "swept," however, it does no good to ponder the consequences of our actions. Our task is the duty of the moment, whether we experience success or heartbreaking failure. "Every man proclaims his own goodness, but a faithful man who can find?" the wise man mused, lamenting the strange dearth of that simple, noble virtue.

I often think of the Father's words to Jesus at his baptism: "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." What had Jesus done for the past thirty years? He had not worked one miracle, preached a single sermon or done any of the mighty works we normally associate with greatness. Yet, he, by his obedience and love, had gained his Father's unqualified acceptance.

Recently, a friend sent these words, "During the past few months, I've struggled to make sense of what feels like a shrinking vision for my life. I once aspired to greatness-not great in the sense of being President or world famous but great in the sense of dreaming and attempting great things for God... More and more, I'm content to stay close to home. Content to preach to the faithful flock entrusted to my care and who love me more deeply than I deserve. Content to leave the reformation of denominational culture to others gifted in that area. Content with a shrinking sphere of influence. The uncharacteristic contentment baffles me. I've wondered if... Jesus still considers me faithful." He does, my friend. "Well done thou good and faithful servant."

So, for those of us who wonder where we are to begin, we must begin where we are: by loving those nearest to us and giving human help where it's most needed, whether our lives are filled with mundane duties, or matters of international concern. "Who is my neighbor," the rich man asked Jesus, to which our Lord responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and its unexpected answer: The very next person I meet.


[1] Luke 16:10
[2] This was certainly true of poet Amy Carmichael, that cloistered, arthritic, bed-ridden saint who rarely ventured outside her room, yet whose gentle influence has gone in "widening circles" to the ends of the earth.
[3] From The Spiritual Life
[4] George Herbert, "The Elixer"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


--John Berryman (1814-1972)

Nothin’ very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? -I explain that, Mr. Bones,
terms o' your bafflin’ odd sobriety.
Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to Mr. Bones?
-If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long ago to leave me.
A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern sea
spread-eagled on an island, by my knee.
-You is from hunger, Mr. Bones,

I offers you this handkerchief, now set
your left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful sea,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
-I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.

"Mr. Bones" was a character in early 19th century minstrel shows that was a straight man for an "interlocutor," a performer that asked questions and engaged the other actors in conversation. The minstrel-show twist in this poem is that Henry, the interlocutor, Mr. Bones, the straight man, and John Berryman are one in the same.

Henry tells his story in the words of Mr. Bones (a.k.a John Berryman) whose father shot himself on the front porch of his home when John was twelve years old. The poet now longs for someone to "set your left foot by my right foot, shoulder to shoulder...arm in arm." Someone to offer him a handkerchief "sandwich"[1] to smother his sobs, someone to give him a reassuring hug.

But he sees no one coming, indeed expects no one to come. Hence the bitter "all that jazz." So Berryman comforts himself instead: "Hum a little, Mr. Bones."

This is the next-to-last of Berryman's 77 Dream Songs and perhaps the strangest and saddest of them all, reflecting more than any his tragic and lonely existence. In 1972, Berryman's life-long depression led him to follow the example of his father and to kill himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In a "modesty of death" he joined his father who "dared so long ago" to leave him.

I can't help but wonder: Would it have made a difference to Mr. Bones if someone had put a hand on his shoulder--someone whose heart was filled with God's love?

It would have been difficult to love Mr. Berryman: He was a unpleasant man, known for his angry tirades, his inclination to bully students, and humiliate his colleagues and would-be friends. Who would have believed that underneath his terrible spite lay bottomless loneliness and longing--that he was "from hunger"?

My teacher and friend Ray Stedman once mused in an off-hand way that, "threatened people are often threatening," thus uttering one of those profound simplicities that help to explain life's perplexities. Why are some folks determined to drive us away? Can it be that tragedy, sorrow and bitter disappointment lie at the root of their anger and aggression? Can we look away from the effect-the dry, hard rage they convey-and look to the cause? Can we bring the love of Christ to bear on our understanding of the sad process that turned them into hostile, unattractive people? Can we offer loving kindness in exchange for spitefulness and hate?

Several years ago I came across a Charles Addams cartoon in the New Yorker Magazine depicting a sour-faced curmudgeon, garbed in rumpled pajamas and robe, standing at his apartment door. He had just secured the door for the night with not one, but four locks. He had shut two deadbolts and had secured the chain latch. Only after the last lock was fastened did he notice a small white envelope stuck beneath the door. On the envelope was a large sticker in the shape of a heart. His security system had been breached. Someone finally got in--with a valentine!

Love always looks for a way!


[1] There's a note of irony here--as though a handkerchief sandwich could satisfy anyone.
There is no one political program, no one political
regime, even democracy, that necessarily follows from the
love of Christ. Each political system has pluses and minuses,
attractive and dangerous features. The key to a good society
is good people. Good people will make good systems. But
good systems will not make good people. Peter Maurin, the
thinker behind Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement,
defined the good society as simply “a society in which it is
easy to be good”.

To say the system is secondary sounds again like a cop-
out. But it is true, for bad people in a society with good
structures will make the structures bad or misuse the good
ones, while good people in a society with bad structures
will make the structures better. It is like putting good peo-
ple in decaying old buildings. They will improve them. But
put bad people in good new buildings and they will destroy
them. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “When the wrong
man uses the right means, the right means work in the
wrong way.”

If people were saints, our political problems would be
solved. They would not be solved magically, but they would
be solved as God would solve them because God would solve
them. For a saint is simply someone who lets God in. And
when God is in, He acts.

Of course, this sounds scandalously simplistic. But it is not
meant to substitute for the hard, specific questions, ques-
tions about institutions and laws and structures. These are
also important. But this is more important.

Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You, (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990) pp. 216-217

Monday, September 1, 2008


Doubt has cast its weird, unwelcome shadows o'er me
Thoughts that life's best and choicest things are o'er.
What but His word can strengthen and restore me.
And this blest fact: that still He goes before.

-J. Danson Smith

Last fall Carolyn and I were driving up a winding mountain road into the Sawtooths when we came across a large band of sheep moving down the road toward us. A lone shepherd with his dogs was in the vanguard, leading his flock out of summer pasture into the lowlands and winter quarters.

We pulled to the side of the road and waited while the flock swirled around us, and watched them until they were out of sight.

I wondered: Sheep are the embodiment of all that is feeble and helpless. Do they fear change, movement, new places?"
Like most old folks, I like the "fold"-the old, familiar places. Like Bilbo, the aging hobbit, "I miss my meal at noon."

But all is shifting and changing these days; I'm being led out, away from familiar haunts and surroundings and into a vast unknown. I wonder: What new limits will overtake me this year, now that I'm older than old? What nameless fears will awaken? Jesus' words come to mind: "When I lead my sheep out, I go before them (John 10:4).

I may well be dismayed at what life holds in store for me this year and next, but my shepherd knows the way I'm taking. And he goes before. He will not lead me down paths too dangerous, too arduous for me; He knows my limits and will strike a leisurely pace. He knows the way to green pasture and good water; all I have to do is follow.

Thus I need not fear tomorrow, or take on its obligations, for tomorrow will take care of itself. God knows all the trouble that lies before me. It "must pass through Him before it gets to me."[1]


[1] F. B. Meyer

Ferns Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the sh...