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Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Not Now?

“David, after he had served his own generation…fell asleep” (Acts 13:36).

I have a dear friend who served as a missionary in Surinam for may years, but in his final years was stricken with a tragic illness that paralyzed him. At times he wondered why God allowed him to linger on earth. He longed to depart and to be with his Lord.

Perhaps life is very hard for you as well—its pressures seem unbearable—and you wonder why God has allowed you to linger. When Jesus said he was going away to heaven, Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” (John 13:37). You, like Peter, may wonder why your entry into heaven has been postponed: “Why not now?”

God has a wise and loving purpose in leaving us behind. There is work to be done in us that can only be accomplished here on earth: our afflictions, which are for the moment, are working for us “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”(2 Corinthians 4:17). And there is work to be done for others—perhaps only to love and to pray. And so we cannot go home until God’s intentions are perfected. We are, as Augustine said, immortal until our work is done.

Furthermore, our lingering may be an opportunity for others to learn to love. I read somewhere that the Amish believe that the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, the aged, and incapacitated are given as gifts to the community because their presence enlarges us by teaching us compassion and charity.

So, though you may desire release, to live on in the flesh will mean fruitfulness (Philippians 1:21). And there is comfort in waiting: Though heaven may be delayed, it is assured. Have no doubt about it for Jesus said it, “You cannot follow me now, but you shall follow me afterward” (John 13: 36).

DHR

Monday, November 23, 2009

Came across this blog recently:


You by now will have read about the plane crash in Montana which took the lives of 14 people. What you may not have read is that among the victims were members of Bud Feldkamp’s family, including two of his daughters, two sons-in-law, and five grandchildren. Feldkamp, it turns out, is the owner of the nation’s largest privately owned, for-profit abortion chain. His clinics perform more abortions in California even than Planned Parenthood. The plane, in another tragically ironic twist, crashed in a Roman Catholic cemetery which contains a memorial to victims of abortion, the ‘Tomb of the Unborn.’ Pro-lifers had prayed for years in front of his mansion, pleading with him and praying for him to repent and warning him for his children’s sake that, “If you do not hate bloodshed, bloodshed will pursue you.


I thought of a situation Luke mentions in which some people came to Jesus with the report of certain Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Apparently Pilate’s troops had surrounded and slaughtered a group of Jews as they were worshipping in the temple. We don’t know anything about the massacre, but it’s in keeping with what we know of Pilate’s character.

Jesus’ answer was wholly unexpected: “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:2-5).

Jesus’ answer laid bare the hearts of those who reported this event. Apparently, their take on this slaughter was that these “Galileans” were terrible sinners and deserved the punishment they received. Pilate’s cruelty was God’s wrath visited on unrighteousness. “No,” Jesus replied, “Unless you repent you too will perish in your sin.”

All of which reminds me of a severe, law-ridden man who sat across from me at lunch one day and growled, “September 11 is the wrath of God against gays!” I was stunned into silence. I should have said, “Unless you and I repent, we too will perish in our sin.”

Lewis has a magnificent line in Till We Have Faces: “Are not the gods[1] just (‘merely just’ he means)?” “Oh, no. my child. Where would we be if they were?”

Is God just? Of course he is, but he is not merely just. If he were, where could any of us stand? He is also patient, forbearing, limitlessly and unconditionally merciful to us, “not willing that any should perish, but that all (even the worst of us) may come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

DHR

[1] Lewis was a monotheist, but placed this story in the context of an ancient, pagan, pluralistic society.



Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reaching Up

I see little children reaching up with their hands to their mothers, eager to get their attention. It reminds me of my own poor efforts to reach up to God in prayer. My infirmity lies in knowing the exact thing for which I ought to pray.

I’m comforted by Paul’s words: “The Spirit helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

The Apostle’s verb, “helps,” means, “to join in an activity or effort.” God’s Spirit is joined to ours when we pray. He prays along with us “with inexpressible groans;” he sighs often as he prays. He cares for the things we care about; his heart is burdened by our concerns.

More important for me, he prays, “according to God’s will” (Romans 8:27). He knows all the right words to say.

Therefore, I needn’t worry too much about getting my requests exactly right. I only need to reach up, longing for God’s will to be done, knowing that His Spirit will turn my infirmity into prayer. That old Scot, George MacDonald, put it well,

What though my words glance sideways from the thing
Which I would utter in Thine ear, my sire!
Truth in the inward parts Thou dost desire—
Wise hunger, not a fitness fine of speech:
The little child that clamouring fails to reach
With upstretched hand the fringe of her attire,
Yet meets the mother's hand down hurrying.

—George MacDonald

DHR

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When Trouble comes to Stay

“How long, O Lord.”
—Psalm 13:6

My father used to tell a story about a country parson who announced one Sunday that his sermon would be taken from Mark’s recurrent phrase, “And it came to pass…” “That’s the way it is with trouble,” the preacher said. “It doesn’t come to stay; it comes to pass.”

Not always! Sometimes, trouble comes to stay. We lament with David, “How long, O Lord?”

Four times in this brief psalm, David asks that question and rehearses the trouble he’s seen, troubles that seem to have no end. It’s easier to endure trouble when the end is in sight, but what are we to do when our suffering seems to go on forever: An aging and demanding parent who lingers on; a troubled relationship for which there is no resolution; a painful physical condition that has no cure? You ask, “Has God forgotten me forever” (vs. 1).

David’s answer is short and sweet: “I will trust in your love.” This is our assurance as well: no matter what happens to us, we are loved by infinite love. This is the source of a tranquility and joy that transcends every difficulty.

Some years ago, I read a story about a young man who went to Ireland to celebrate his uncle’s eightieth birthday. On day of his birthday, the man and
his uncle got up before dawn and took a walk along the shores of Lake Killarney. Suddenly the uncle, despite his aging and aching body, went skipping down the beach. His nephew said, "Uncle Seamus, you look happy.” “I am, lad,” his uncle replied, You see, my Abba is very fond of me.”

Do you believe that your Father is fond of you? If you can answer, “Oh, yes, He is very fond of me,” then you know something of the great heart of God. He has loved you too much, and given too much, to stop loving you now.

For that reason, “Keep yourself (centered) in the love of God” (Jude 21).

DHR

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

A Russian Folk Tale

Once there was a little Russian peasant girl named Varya who, during harvest time, went into the fields with her mother. While her mother worked collecting the wheat Varya followed and played happily among the tall stalks.

One day after playing for a while in the hot summer sun, Varya lay down exhausted in the shade of a haystack and fell into a deep steep. Her mother worked for many hours thinking that Varya was following as usual, but without knowing it, each step took her further and further way from her sleeping daughter

When Varya awoke she found that her mother was nowhere in sight. She was frightened and lost. Just then some farmers walked passed. Calling out to the farmers, Varya asked them if they had seen her mother One of the farmers asked what her mother looked like. Vary answered, “My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.” The farmers ran to the villages collected the most beautiful looking women they could find and brought them to Varya. She looked at each one and began to cry. Her mother was not among them.

Then…”Varya! Varya!” came a voice.

“Over here,” shouted one of the farmers.

A frantic woman came dashing through the crowd. It was Varya’s mother who, when she got close enough, picked her up and smothered her with hugs and kisses.

To everyone’s surprise, however, Varya’s mother was not beautiful at all. She was, in fact, quite homily. But everyone agreed, she was the most beautiful person in the world.

Chrysostom, an early Christian writer, put it this way:

Here (through God’s word) the apostles and prophets wipe clean and beautify the face, they strip away the marks of senility left by sin, they apply the bloom of youth, they get rid of every wrinkle, stain, and blemish from our souls. Therefore, let us all, men and women, be eager to implant this beauty in ourselves. Sickness withers physical beauty, length of years destroys it, old age drains it dry, death comes and takes it all away. But beauty of the soul cannot be charred by time, disease, old age, death, or any other such thing. It stays constantly in bloom

How can we have this amaranthine beauty? “The LORD takes pleasure in His people…He will beautify the humble" (Psalm 149:4).

DHR

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Horse and Her Boy

My father raised cutting horses, among other things. Consequently I grew up working around horses most of my young life. Unlike my sister, however, who raises Tennessee Walkers these days, I left home with a firm conviction: I will never own a horse! For me, they represented nothing but hard work.

I must say, however, that horses are magnificent creatures. In my opinion they excel other animals in beauty, strength and elegance. I often stop as I drive through this land and watch them grazing a pasture. I almost always think of Dixie, my first and only horse.

When I was about 6 or 7 years old my father decided that I needed a horse of my own to care for and so bought an old bay mare and brought her home to me. She was about 20 years old when he purchased her and lived for four or five years after. For some forgotten reason I named her Dixie.

She was a formidable beast for me at my age and with my small stature. The only way I could climb aboard was to lead her to a corral fence and climb it like a ladder. No saddle was small enough, nor stirrups short enough for my legs so I rode bareback most the time.

Dixie was plump which meant that my feet stuck straight out in both directions, which also meant that I had difficulty staying astride. Her only gait—at least the only one I could get out of her—was a hard, bone-jarring trot that unseated me more times than I can count. Whenever I fell off, however, Dixie would simply stop, look balefully at me, and wait while I tried to climb on her back again—which leads me to Dixie’s most admirable trait: she was wonderfully patient.

I’m ashamed to say that I felt no benevolent whatever toward Dixie. I grumbled my way through the daily ritual of swamping out her stall., feeding, watering, currying her and doing all the other chores my father expected of me. Quite often I took out my resentment on Dixie, shoving her away when she leaned on me, whacking her with a brush or curry comb when she accidentally stepped on my toes, being less than gentle when I combed the cockleburs out of her mane and tail. Yet Dixie bore my childish tantrums with stoic patience, never once retaliating in kind. She was indeed a noble creature. Horses “are among those that come into Aslan’s country after the judgment,” C.S Lewis said. If so, I know I’ll find Dixie there

I wish I could be more like Dixie, for she was the personification of what I most long for these days: a patience that overlooks a multitude of offenses.

Impatience is a malady of the elderly, I think—not unique to us certainly, but one to which we most easily fall prey. Frustration over our own troubles and the orneriness of others can make us crotchety and ill-tempered. I have to ask myself, “How do I respond when others aggravate me? Do I respond with patience and sweetness of spirit, or do I react with intolerance and ire?”

To overlook an offense. To forgive seventy-times-seven. To bear with human frailty and failure. To show mercy and kindness to those who exasperate me. To gain such control over my soul… This is the work of God.

DHR

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Hesitant Servant

The “hesitant” servant was not cast off because he produced no results for his master (Matthew 25:14–30). He failed because he failed to do the thing his master asked him to do.

We’re not obliged to produce results either, for results are beyond our control. Our ministries may falter despite our best efforts. The important thing is to do what our Lord has asked us to do.

When we put our eyes on results we may end up doing things our Lord never asked us to do, or worse, we may do what he has asked us not to do. Obedience, however, always produces the result God desires, though we may not see it in our lifetime. Our task is “a long obedience in the right direction,”[2] not knowing the outcome, and leaving the consequences to God.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, the children, Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, are given a set of signs to follow. Later in the story there is a moment of grave danger in which they question the Lion’s wisdom. “Should we obey Aslan?” they ask themselves. “”Oh if only we knew!”

“I think we do know,” replied Puddleglum, the wise, old marsh–wiggle.

“Do you mean you think everything will come right…?” asked Scrubb.

“I don’t know about that,” Puddleglum replied. “You see Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”

Similarly, our Lord does not “tell us what will happen”; he only tells us what to do. If we choose to follow him in obedience. Things may, in fact, get worse! They did in Moses’ case whose obedience brought disheartening opposition from Pharaoh and from the folks he was sent to save. Nevertheless we can trust our Lord’s love and wisdom and follow him in quiet submission no matter what happens. In this way, like dutiful servants, we can “enter into the joy of (our) Lord.” (Matthew25: 21,23).

DHR

[1] Jesus’ word oknere, often translated “lazy,” means reluctant or hesitant.”
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene Peterson and others
WHEN TROUBLE COMES TO STAY

“How long, O LORD.”
—Psalm 13:6

My father used to tell a story about a country parson who announced one Sunday that his sermon would be taken from Mark’s recurring phrase, “And it came to pass…” “That’s the way it is with trouble,” the old preacher said. “It doesn’t come to stay; it comes to pass.”

Not always, however. Sometimes, despite all we do to fend it away, trouble comes to stay. We lament with David, “How long, O LORD?”

Four times in this short psalm David asks that question and rehearses the trouble he’s seen, troubles that go on and on and seem to have no end. It’s easier to endure trouble when the end is in sight, but what are we to do when it seems to go on forever: An aging and demanding parent who lingers on; a troubled relationship for which there is no resolution; a painful physical condition that has no cure? You ask, “Has God forgotten me forever” (vs. 1).

David’s answer is short and sweet: “I will trust in your love.” This is our assurance as well: no matter what, we are loved by infinite love. This is the source of a tranquility and joy that transcends every difficulty.

Some years ago, I read a story about a young man who went to Ireland to celebrate his uncle’s eightieth birthday. On day of his birthday, the man and
his uncle got up before dawn and took a long walk along the shores of Lake Killarney. Suddenly
the uncle, despite his aches and pains, went skipping down the road, beaming from ear to ear. His nephew said, "Uncle Seamus, you look
happy.” His uncle replied, “I am, lad. You see, me
Abba is very fond of me.”
Do you believe that your heavenly Father is fond of you? If you can answer, “Oh, yes, He is very
fond of me,” then you know something of the great heart of God. Believe me, despite the trouble you see, he has loved you too much, and given too much, to stop loving you now.

For that reason, “Keep yourself in the love of God” (Jude 21).

DHR

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

THOU ART INDEED JUST, LORD, IF I CONTEND

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build-but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. [1]


Hopkins begins with a quotation from Israel's prophet, Jeremiah (12:1): "You are indeed just, Lord, if I dispute with you..." He then picks up a theme imbedded in the Old Testament wisdom literature: Why do sinners prosper? [2]

Hopkin's plea is more personal: "Why do sinners prosper while my efforts to do the right thing seem to end in disappointment and failure." It would appear that God, who had been his friend, was now his enemy. God could hardly do more to thwart and defeat him.

He contrasts his own frustration with the flourishing condition of those who live for the "sots and thralls of lust," who, in their "spare" moments, "thrive" more than one who has spent his entire life in the service of God.

Hopkins takes note of the lush "banks and brakes" (hedgerows and thickets) of the countryside which are showing the new growth of spring. He finds them thick with leaves and "laced" (interwoven) with "fretty (indented) chervil (parsley)"

He sees the plants shaken by fresh and refreshing winds. He thinks of birds building nests for their offspring: "Birds build-but not I build." He cannot create life. All he can do is "strain"-toil to produce one work that wakes. He is "Time's eunuch," sterile, useless, hopeless.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in Hopkins-in your own disillusionments and failures: You serve in some part of God's vineyard, but gather little fruit from your labor; you pray for years for a difficult spouse or rebellious child, but see no change in their behavior; you struggle with habitual sin and seem to make no progress. You ask, "Why must disappointment all I endeavor end?"

There is but one cure for us in all our discouragement: to look up to our Father's face-no more than that: "Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain." [3]

DHR

[1] The emphatic opening word of the last line, "Mine," modifies "lord of life."
[2] Job 9 and 21; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Psalm 49 and 73
[3] Or as Jesus would say, "We ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1).
DISCOURAGEMENT

"I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing..." (Isaiah 49:4).

It is a startling fact that the Servant of the Lord, our Lord Jesus—who was made like us—had moments of bitter disappointment. This is one of the many ways in which he, in his humanity, became "acquainted" with our suffering and grief.

Some suggest that these thoughts arose in Gethsemane, but I think moments of discouragement were woven throughout the warp and woof of Jesus' ministry, and were the result of continual opposition, rejection, denial and betrayal. What was diffused throughout his life is condensed in this one verse: "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing..."[1]

"Nevertheless,"[2] the Servant insists, "my judgment is with the Lord, and my work is with my God (49:4)" It is for the Lord alone to judge the success and significance of his work. Furthermore, he is in partnership with his God and thus, in the end, he cannot fail!

So, the solution to our discouragement is to "spend our strength," but to look away from the outcome to the one who is faithful to perfect his work in due time. We may not see what our Lord is doing in our lifetime, but we can know with assurance that our labor is not in vain.

There's a lovely tailpiece to this text:

Indeed (God) has said,

"It is too small a thing that
You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6).

In other words, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"[3]

DHR

[1] Cf., Mark 8:21; 14:27; 14:50; Luke 9:41; John 13:21.
[2] The strong adversative with which this verse begins "But indeed!" emphatically counters what has preceded.
[3] Jesus did not see this promise fulfilled in his lifetime here on earth. Fulfillment was later and through other hands. So it may be for you and for me.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Last week I mentioned 17th century English Puritan divine, Richard Dent, and his book, A Poor Man's Pathway to Heaven. In it he describes a conversation between four men: Theologus (one who has knowledge of God), his old friend Philagathus (a lover of Good), Asunetus (one who does not understand), and Antilegon (the consumate skeptic). In his chapter on "Pride of Dress," Dent goes where few men dare to go: into an appraisal of women's apparel!

Philagathus laments: "(H)ow proud many be of baubles. For when they have spent a good part of the day in tricking and trimming, pricking and pinning, pranking (playing with) and pouncing (teasing hair), girding and lacing, and braving up themselves in most exquisite manner, then out they come into the streets, with their peddler's shop upon their back..."

Asunetas agrees: "What say you, (Theologus), to these doubled and redoubled ruffs (ruffles) which are now in common use, strouting (enlarged) fardingales (hoops) long locks, fore tufts, shag hair, and all these new fashions which are devised and taken up every day? It was never a good world since starching and steeling, busks (corset stays) and whalebones, supporters and rebatos (stiff, flared collars), full moons (circular collars) and hobby-horses (new fashions), painting and dying (came into vogue). And what say you to painting of faces, laying open of naifed (naïve or youthful) breasts, dying of hair, wearing of perriwigs, and other hair coronets and top-gallants? And what say you to our artificial women, which will be better than God hath made them?"[1]

Antilegon: "I marvel you (Theologus) should be earnest in matters of apparel. You know well enough that apparel is an indifferent thing; and that religion and the kingdom of God do not consist in these things."

Theologus. "Apparel in its own nature is a thing indifferent;[2] but immodest, and offensive apparel is not indifferent." Whereupon Philagathus, invites Theologus to, "set us down some directions out of God's holy book, concerning attire."

Theologus' answer is to quote St. Paul, who, "willeth that women should array themselves in comely apparel, with shamefacedness and modesty, as becometh women that profess the fear of God." St. Peter, he adds, "giveth like rules also: for he saith, speaking of Christian matrons, and professors of holy religion, that their apparel must be, 'inward, that the hidden man of the heart may be clothed with a gentle and quiet spirit, which is a thing before God much set by.' For after this manner, saith he, 'in times past, the holy women, which trusted in God, did attire themselves,' as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and such like ancient and grave matrons."

But, Philagathus is undeterred. "I pray you, sir, set down your judgment for outward attire.

Theologus, no legalist, refuses to go beyond scripture: "This is all that I will say, touching the point, that (clothing) must be as the apostle saith: comely, decent, handsome, neat and seemly."

Philagathus: "But who shall judge what is comely, decent, etc? For every man and women will say, their apparel is but decent and cleanly, how gallant, brave, and flauntingsoever they be."

Philagathus' question is well taken: Conventions and fashions change. How shall we judge what clothing is appropriate for our culture?

Theologus answers: "Herein the examples of the most godly, wise, grave, and modest men and women are to be followed: for who can better judge what is comely, and modest, than they."

In other words, propriety rises from within. Inner goodness shows itself outwardly in the way both men and women dress and is the pattern for others.

How eminently practical!

DHR

[1] I have a friend who used to say, "A little powder, a little paint, makes a gal what she ain't."
[2] Theologus, in another place, notes that there are occasions when fine attire is entirely appropriate (in the English court, for example) for the goal is to blend in and not be noticed for our clothes.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS."

The angels keep their ancient places;-
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

-Francis Thompson.

Some years ago I came across a short-story by Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." It begins with a violent storm, after which a fisherman, Pelayo, discovers a half-drowned old man, lying face down in the mud in his courtyard. The man can't stand up because he's impeded by a set of enormous wings.

Staring at this bedraggled birdman, Pelayo and his wife Elisenda decide he is a shipwrecked foreign sailor, somehow managing to overlook the need to explain his wings. Assuming he is nothing but trouble, Pelayo locks the old man in his chicken coop, planning to dispose of him by putting him out to sea on a raft. He and Elisenda wake the next morning to find a crowd of neighbors in the courtyard and a far more complicated situation on their hands.

At first, the villagers treat the old man as a freak; they toss him food and speculate about what should be done with him. The village priest arrives to inspect the captive. He
finds the old man's pathetic appearance to be at odds with the church's traditional image of heavenly messengers. Finding the old man smelly and decrepit, his battered, moth-eaten wings infested with vermin, the priest concludes that, "nothing about him measures up to the proud dignity of angels."

But word has already traveled too far, drawing fantastic crowds and creating a carnival atmosphere. Surrounded by all this activity, the old man takes "no part in his own act," tolerating the abuses and indignities of his treatment with patience.

In time, and with other more exciting prospects, the crowds disappear from Pelayo and Elisenda's courtyard as suddenly as they had come, and the unexplained mystery of the strange birdman is quickly forgotten.

In time, the old man becomes a nuisance, dragging himself about, always underfoot. Elisenda seems to find him everywhere in the house, as if he were duplicating himself just to annoy her. At one point she grows so "exasperated and unhinged" she screams that she is living in a "hell full of angels." Finally the old man's health deteriorates further, and he seems to be near death.

As winter gives way to spring, the old man's condition begins to improve. He seems to sense a change taking place in himself and to know what it means. He tries to stay out of the family's sight, sitting motionless for days in the corner of the courtyard. At night, he quietly sings sailor's songs to himself. Stiff new feathers begin to grow from his wings, and one morning Elisenda sees him trying them out in the courtyard. His first efforts to fly are clumsy, consisting of "ungainly flapping that slipped on the light and couldn't get a grip on the air,'' but he finally manages to take off. Elisenda sighs with relief, '"for herself and for him," as she watches him disappear, "no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea."

An old man with enormous wings, an inconvenient guest, a challenged child, an aging parent... "Some have unwittingly entertained angels."[1]

DHR

[1]Hebrews 13:2. Cf. Genesis 18:1-8

Friday, August 14, 2009

I've been reading a 17th century English Puritan divine, Richard Dent (not to be confused with former Chicago Bears defensive end, Richard Dent), who wrote a book for new Christians entitled, A Poor Man's Pathway to Heaven. It's one of the books that God used to bring about John Bunyon's conversion.

In it he describes a conversation between four men: Theologus (Theologian), his old friend Philagathus (Lover of Good), Asunetus (Clueless), and
Antilegon (Skeptic).

Here's a paragraph that got my attention:

Theologos: Some of God's dear children, in whom no doubt the inward work is
truly and soundly wrought, yet are so troubled and encumbered with a crabbed
and crooked nature, and so clogged with some master sin ; as some with
anger, some with pride, some with covetousness, some with lusts, some one
way, some another; all which breaking out in them, do so blemish them and
their profession that they cannot so shine forth unto men as otherwise no
doubt they would; and this is their wound, their grief, and their heart
smart, and that which costeth them many a tear, and many a prayer: and yet
can they not get the full victory over them, but still they are left in
them, as the prickin the flesh, to humble them.

Philagathus: Yet love should cover a multitude of such infirmities in God's
children.

Theologos. It should do so indeed: but there is great want of love, even in
the best; and the worst sort espying these infirmities in the godly, run
upon them with open mouth and take upon them to condemn them utterly, and to
judge their hearts, saying they be hypocrites, dissemblers, and there is
none worse than they. (That is, those who judge a sinning brother are worse
off than their sinning brothers.)

It reminded me of C. S. Lewis' essay on "Nice and New People":

If you are a poor creature—poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house
full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels—saddled, by no choice of
your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion—nagged day in and day out by
an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends—do not
despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He
knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you
can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He
will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may
astonish us all--not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a
hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be
last).

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity pp 214-215).

It seems to me that Lewis' parenthetical remark makes the Dent's point about those of us who would judge a struggling brother.

DHR

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

WEE BAIRNS

In my college years I worked as a guide at a boys camp, taking campers on treks into Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. On one occasion one of my boys--a rather slow chap-- lagged behind and took the wrong fork on a trail. When we arrived at our campsite he was nowhere to be found. I immediately went out to find him.

Just before dark I came across him sitting by a small lake--utterly lost and alone. In my joy, I gave him a bear hug, hoisted him on my shoulders and carried him down the trail to his companions.

Scottish pastor, George McDonald, describes a young woman finding a "wee bairn" alone and lost in the woods. She gathered him up in her arms and carried the tiny infant home to her father, at which point she gained an insight that "was never afterward to leave her: now she understood the heart of the Son of Man, come to find and carry back the stray children to their Father and his." When afterward she told her father how she felt he answered her "in just four words and no more." 'Lassie, ye hae it!'"

So I would have you know the heart of Jesus, the Son of Man, who came to find and carry back his straying children to their Father, "for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). He came to seek and to save you, no matter how far you may have strayed and how lost you may be. You may not know much about God yet, but if you know that, "Ye hae it!"

DHR

Friday, August 7, 2009

Gerontion[1]

T. S. Eliot

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation[2]
Of the backward devils[3]
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use them for your closer contact?


The title of this poem, "Gerontion," is a derogatory Greek word that means "little old man." The poem opens with the line, "Here I am, an old man in a dry season..."

In the poem Eliot describes a man who has grown old and cold. He wonders, "Is the end of life to know that life has ended? Is existence thus without purpose and meaning--an empty show?" He looks back on his past with profound regret: he who once was close to God now finds himself far away. Beauty has been twisted into fear; fear into doubt. He has lost his passion for God. Why retrieve it when "what is kept" is no longer worth keeping?

The phrase, "I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch," is drawn from a poem by John Henry Newman in which he, as mind and memory faded, lamented that he had "Nor touch, nor taste, nor hearing (of God)."[4] He had lost sight of eternal reality and the age to come.

So, we too may lapse into senility and lose our grip on God,[5] but we have not made our "show" of faith purposelessly, nor have we reached our "conclusion" when at last we "stiffen" in our beds. Despite the weakness and futility of our final years, "the tiger springs." This is Blake's "Christ the Tyger." "Us he devours"; we are his natural prey. Though senility may obliterate our faith and passion for our Lord, he pursues us to the end, for he has promised to keep us from falling and to bring us into his glorious presence without fault or blame.[6] There, once again, we will find his face and hear our name. This is the assurance of One who cannot lie.

Henry Durbanville, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor of another era, writes of an elderly parishioner who lamented, "Pastor, I have forgotten all of God's promises." "Aye," replied Durbanville, "but he has not forgotten one of his promises to you."

DHR

[1] This is but a snippet from a much longer and very difficult poem.
[2] Concitation: The act of stirring up, exciting,
[3] The false-prophets in Dante's Inferno (XX), having presumed to foretell the future, were condemned to walk backwards.
[4] From "The Dream of Gerontius" by John Henry Newman
[5] I have a friend who lapsed into Alzheimer's Disease as he aged. For forty years or more he was a great lover of God and his word. My last visit with him is indelibly traced in my mind: He was sitting up in his deathbed...swearing like a pirate!
[6] Jude 24

Saturday, August 1, 2009

NOBODY

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you-nobody-too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! They'd advertise-you know.

-Emily Dickinson

I'm fond of Emily Dickinson, that strange and solitary person, whose poems reflect an intense desire for obscurity. Her anonymity can be construed as humility--it should not concern us at all that people do not know us--but for some, a retiring nature is grounded in a profound sense of insecurity and a deep dislike for oneself: "I'm someone to be kept out of sight."

Perhaps you're like that: wondering why God ever made you, longing to be someone else. But is it not better to be what God has chosen to make you? "For to have been thought about--born in God's thoughts--and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, most precious thing in all thinking. Is it not...?"(George MacDonald).

David elaborates the same thought in the 139th Psalm, describing himself en utero as God's special creation, pondering "this awesome being that is me!"

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful (Hebrew: awesome!). I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth (his mother's womb), your eyes saw my unformed body (fetus). All the days ordained for me were written in your book (the blueprint for me) before one of them came to be.

Do you realize that you have been thought about and uniquely hand-crafted by God? You are one of a kind, woven together according to a divine template, intricately "embroidered" (David's word) in your mother's womb, a creation that that has no parallel in the universe. "How is it that you came to be you? God thought about you, and so you grew."

Long before you were born, you existed in God's thoughts. Long before your parents loved or neglected you, your peers admired or rejected you, your teachers, colleagues, and employers encouraged or disheartened you, you were known and loved by Love itself. God saw you and took delight in you. He gazed at what he had made and was glad. He loved it and said, "It is good!"

And someday, if you give your self to God, you too will begin to love what he has made, and will forget the self you now abhor. If you could but see yourself now as you will someday be--a lustrous, exquisitely beautiful, immortal being--you would be stupefied.

I think that is why, at least in part, God allowed his disciples to see his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. One early Church Father, the Venerable Bede thought so: "By his loving foresight he (Jesus) prepared them (the disciples) to endure adversity bravely by allowing them to taste for a short time the contemplation of their (own) everlasting glory (beauty)"(Quoted by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3a, 38).

So, there is unimagined splendor ahead, but even now, the love of God is at work in you to transform unsightliness into the inexpressible beauty of holiness.

What once was hurt; what once was friction;
What left a mark, no longer sting.
For Grace makes beauty out of ugly things ("Grace" by U2).

The Love that fills the earth with lovely things is making you lovely. It is beginning now. It will go on forever, for there is no end to infinite love.

DHR

Monday, July 6, 2009

Further thoughts on Grace Abounding...

In 1660, John Bunyan was indicted for preaching the gospel without a license, and sent to Bedford Gaol. There he remained until 1672, when Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. During that time he supported his wife and four children, one of whom was blind, by weaving shoelaces. For twelve years his family lived in wretched poverty. He spoke of his poor blind child, Mary, reduced to begging and exposed to physical abuse.

He tells the story in an appendix to his autobiography, Grace Abounding.

Three times Bunyan petitioned the court for leniency. The last time he sent his wife, Elizabeth, in the hope that her pitiable condition would soften the hearts of the magistrates. Instead, they drove her away.

Bunyan describes her reaction in her own words: "Though I was somewhat timorous at my first entrance into the chamber, yet before I went out, I could not but break forth into tears, not so much because they were so hard-hearted against me, and my husband, but to think what a sad account such poor creatures will have to give at the coming of the Lord, when they shall answer for all things whatsoever they have done in the body, whether it be good or whether it be bad."

I was touched by Elizabeth's tears for those who treated her so cruelly, and her concern for their spiritual well being...and thought of Jeremiah’s sorrow over the imminent destruction of Moab, Judah‘s bitter enemy: “I will weep for Moab, / And I will cry out for all Moab; / I will mourn for the men of Kir Heres (the capital city).”[1]

There is no glee here. Only sorrow. Here again is the face that grace turns toward its adversaries.

DHR

[1] Jeremiah 48:31

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bel Bows Down

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops;[1]
Their idols were on the beasts and on the cattle.
Your carriages were heavily loaded,
A burden to the weary beast.

They stoop, they bow down together;
They could not deliver the burden,
But have themselves gone into captivity.

"Listen to Me, O house of Jacob,
And all the remnant of the house of Israel,
Who have been upheld by Me from birth,
Who have been carried from the womb:

Even to your old age, I am He,
And even to gray hairs I will carry you!
I have made, and I will bear;
Even I will carry, and will deliver you.

-Isaiah 46.1-4

Isaiah foresees the siege of Babylon and the hasty evacuation of her idols. The carts and carriages on which the idols are loaded creak and groan, the weary animals labor under the burden of their load--a reminder that all our human artifacts-the "stuff" we give our devotion to and spend a lifetime acquiring--become a heavy burden at last.

In contrast, God bears (carries) his children from the cradle to the grave. “I made you,” he reminds us, and I will bear you-even to old age...even to gray hairs I will carry you!” [2]

"I made you." Nothing could be more comforting, for He makes nothing that is not good. God brought us into being through the parents he allowed. He permitted the infirmities and liabilities that have attended our years. He allows the cruel calamities that bring us to our knees. All this is that we may cast ourselves on him. His grace is sufficient, for our weakness calls forth his tender, loving care.

"I will bear." Our Lord has borne our sins in his body on the cross. He has borne our grief and sorrows. He has borne our waywardness; put up with our weaknesses; carried us when we could not walk, or stand. Will he then forsake us when we are old and gray? No! "His love in time past forbids (us) to think that he'll leave (us) at last ..."[3]

So we may cast our burdens upon him because he has cared and will continue to care for us. "Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision, / Our God ever yearns His resources to share; / Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing; / Thy Father both thee and thy load will upbear."[4]

DHR


[1] Bel (Baal) was the patron deity of Babylon; Nebo, in their mythology, was his son.
[2] The contrast is precise and vivid in the Hebrew text: The carts and carriages are "loaded" with weight (vs. 1). We are "loaded" upon God (vs. 3). Idols are a "burden" (i.e., a thing carried) (vs. 1); God has "carried" us from the womb (vs. 3). Idolaters cannot "escape" the burden (vs. 2). God carries our burdens and allows us to "escape" the load (vs. 4).
[3] From John Newton, "Begone, Unbelief, My Savior is Near."
[4] Annie Flint, “He Giveth More Grace”


Thursday, June 18, 2009

A New Year Wish

-George Matheson

I sent a New-Year wish to a friend
Who stood at the gate of life's morning hours,
And I breathed it thus: 'From beginning to end
May your path be strewn with flowers!'
But, as I thought of the words I chose,
I paused to ponder if it were well
To leave no place for a thorn in the rose
Of the fate I would foretell.

I sat down to wish my wish once more,
And the words to a nobler song were lined:
May thy path be covered from shore to shore
With the flowers thou hast left behind;
Be it thine to pluck from thy way the thorn
And with bleeding hand plant the roses red,
That the sons of men in the days unborn
On a path of flowers may tread.

And such, my soul, is my wish for thee-
Thy Father's wish in the heaven above
That thy road in life may a pathway be
Bedecked with the flowers of love.
The flowers of love are not nature's flowers,
They are not born in the desert air;
They are brought from the heart's far distant bowers,
And must be transplanted there.

Thou shalt find the Canaanite in the land-
I shall not wish that it were not so;
It is good the seed should be sown by thy hand
Where the briers were wont to grow.
Of all good wishes it is the best-
Best use for life and best cure for pain-
That thy hands should toil for another's rest,
And plant for another's gain.


If I could re-write the biographies of those I love, would I ask that God pluck every thorn from the way and "their path be strewn with flowers"? No, though I wish it were not so, "it is good that seed should be sown by (the) hand where briars are wont to grow"; better than flowery beds of ease are the flowers that are left behind.

So I would pray, not for ease and comfort, but for God's strength to endure every pain, for the best seed is sown by the hand "where briers (are) want to grow." This is the "best use for life and the best cure for pain"-that our hands should toil for another's rest and plant love for another's gain.

These plantings are not "nature's flowers," but transplantings from above. They flourish in the heart's "far-distant bower," that place of shade and shelter where we meet with God and our hearts are nourished by his love. Then, through thorny ways he gives the strength to sow seeds of love and leave righteousness and peace behind. There, in our path, "a pine tree shall grow instead of a nettle and a myrtle instead of a thorn. It will be to the LORD's credit, an everlasting monument to his name that will never be effaced" (Isaiah 55:13).

DHR

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Safe!

“We're safe," said Ford, after his first ever teleport transfer (and discovering that he and Arthur had been transported onto the bridge of an enemy space ship). "Ah," said Arthur, "this is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of."

--Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


The Spring of Gihon lies on the eastern flank of Mount Zion and, in Hezekiah's day, lay outside the walls of Jerusalem. Foreseeing a siege by the Assyrian army, and believing that the location of the spring was the city's weak point, Hezekiah drove a shaft from the spring through solid rock and directed the water inside the walls to the Pool of Siloam. He then closed off the "old pool" (the pool of the spring Gihon) and built a second wall to enclose it. Thus Hezekiah made Jerusalem safe.[1]

Isaiah observed: "You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to its Maker, nor did you have respect for Him who fashioned it long ago."[2] The irony of the project, according to the prophet, was that God, who fashioned the spring long ago, deliberately placed it outside the walls. Its location was divinely designed to make Jerusalem weak and vulnerable.[3] Weakness was God's will for the city.

As it turned out, Hezekiah's walls and water system were wasted time and effort. God delivered the city in a way that had nothing to do with their endeavor. You can read the story for yourself in 2 Chronicles 32.

Here again is the abiding principle that God creates weakness in us that we may become strong. Our physical, mental, social, and emotional limitations were fashioned long ago that we may know our Lord's abiding, boundless strength.

Therefore, we can never say of anything God asks us to do, "It is too hard for me," for our weakness, when acknowledged, brings us to prayer and into the presence of God's infinite power. Our weakest points become our strength, if we have regard for him who fashioned those weaknesses long ago.

Paul, who was fond of paradox, put it this way: "When I am weak then I am strong."[4] We're most safe when we're most vulnerable--a "strange usage of the word 'safe,'" I must say.

DHR

[1] Cf., 2 Chronicles 32:20
[2] Isaiah 22:11
[3] It was, in fact, the means by which David gained access to the old Jebusite citadel of Jerusalem when it was in the hands of the Canaanites (2 Samuel 5:6-10).
[4] 2 Corinthians 12:10

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Limping Home

Your rigging hangs loose:
The mast is not held secure,
Thus your sail is not spread.
But an abundance of spoils will be divided
That which limps will have carried off plunder.

-Isaiah 33.23


Isaiah sees an ancient storm-battered sailing ship, limping into port. Topside, her stays are broken, her mast is atilt; her "sail is not spread." A wrecked and ravaged vessel, yet her hold is laden with treasure.

The port of call is a city that heretofore has been too "far off" to see. There one's eyes gaze upon "a king"[1] who is beautiful beyond description. His city is "a place of broad rivers and streams," but no warships ply those waters; "no galleys sail them." There is no terror there, no suffering, no sickness, no sin. "No one living (there) will say, 'I am ill'; and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven." There, at last, our journey will be over, our "tent stakes will never again be pulled up." We will have reached our final destination, "a quiet place," the home that will, at last, heal the homesickness that has marked our days.[2]

And so, though I limp toward that harbor, I must say that my ship is laden with treasure: the comfort of godly parents and a stable home, eternal salvation when but a child, a wise, loving, forgiving wife who lights up my eyes; our three sons and their families that bring me colossal joy; many years to love and serve others; God's forgiveness for all my failings; his grace to renew every effort; his loving kindness that has followed me all my days. Indeed, my hold is filled with the goodness of God.

An ancient bark, limping home, but laden with treasure!--an apt metaphor for this old hull.

DHR

[1] The noun, "king" has no article, but we know the king Isaiah had in mind.
[2] Cf., Isaiah 33:17-24. Cp., Revelation 21:1-22:5

E-musings are archived at http://davidroper.blogspot.com/

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dealing With Opposition

Read:
Mark 11:12-14, 20-24

“Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none…”

Luke 13:7

Jesus and his disciples were making their way down the west slope of the Mount of Olives when our Lord caught sight of a fig tree in the distance. When he approached it he found “nothing but leaves,” not even the buds that normally precede the mature fruit. The tree was utterly barren. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And his disciples “heard him.”

What is this? His pique seems out of character.

The next day, Jesus and his disciples passed by the fig tree and saw that it had withered away. “Look,” Peter said, “the fig tree has withered.” “Have faith in God,” was Jesus’ laconic reply. Then He pointed to the temple mount (the demonstrative “this mountain” suggests that conclusion) and spoke of its ultimate removal. Mount Zion and the temple built on its crest was the center of official resistance to Jesus’ work. There was no spiritual fruit there; only hostility. Israel’s leaders even then were plotting his death. Faith, he insisted, is the means by which this “mountain” of resistance would be removed.

What is this, but a lesson in dealing with opposition. How do we meet resistance? Not by bitter engagement, violence, force and fierce debate, and surely not by passivity, but by faith, i.e., by prayer, the expression of our utter dependence upon God (vs. 23,24). We must put our opponents in His hands, put them out of our thoughts, and go about our work. He will deal with them in due time. As Jesus put it on another occasion, “Every plant that my Father has not planted will be rooted up. Leave them alone” (Matthew 15:13,14).

There is a postscript here: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him…” (vs. 25). We must pray that God will deal with our opponents, and we must forgive them. This is the face that grace turns toward opposition.

DHR

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Heard a Voice Behind Me

-George Matheson

"I heard a voice behind me, as of a trumpet" -Revelation 1:10

I heard a voice behind me;
On the road I had passed it by;
It was lost in the way of the garish day;
It was powerless while it was nigh;
It was like the ram in the thicket
That Abraham did not find
Till he turned his back on the coming track,
And looked on the days behind.

And so, my soul, it is ever
With the blessings round thy head;
They are not known till the bird is flown,
And the bloom of the flower is dead.
Thou art pressing on to the future,
And the past is out of mind
Till the hour of pain calls thee back again
To dwell in the days behind.

Thou art asking a revelation

Of thy Father's guiding love,
And it seems to thee that thy light shall be
From the things that are stored above,
But the path whereon now thou movest
Is itself with mercy lined,
And the brightest gleam of the upper stream
Shall be caught from the days behind.

0 Father of light and leading,
From the top of each rising bill
Let me cast my eye on the road gone by
To mark the steps of Thy will!
For the clouds that surround the present
Shall leave this heart resigned,
When the joy appears in the path of tears
That led through the days behind.


God's will is better seen in retrospect than in prospect, or so it seems to me. It's by casting our "eye on the road gone by" that we most clearly "mark the steps of (his) will."

God has an itinerary for each of us, I believe; a "course" that we must run.[1] Our route is charted in the councils of heaven and rooted in the sovereign purposes of God. Yet our choices are not irrelevant. We make decisions every day, large and small, many of which have life-altering consequences. The question then-forgoing the confounding mystery of God's sovereignty and human free will-is this: How can we, in our choices, correctly reflect his will?

The answer is clear to me, now that I'm older and have more of the past to see. It is by looking back that I see my Father's guiding love. I may not have seen it in process, but I see it now: Love and Wisdom have led me all the way.

So...though clouds "surround the present" and much uncertainty lies ahead, my heart is duly resigned. The "Father of light and leading" will be faithful to show me the way. My task is to follow Him in love and obedience, and leave the next step to Him.

And how will I know the next step? I do not know. I do know, however, that I shall know it when I need to know. "My light shall be from the things that are stored above." On what basis do I make that assertion? By "dwelling on the days behind."

DHR

[1] Cp., Acts 20:24 and 2 Timothy 4:7 Paul's word, dromon, means "a race course."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

DIVINITY

By George Herbert

As men, for fear the stars should sleep and nod
And trip at night, have spheres[1] suppli'd;
As if a star were duller than a clod,
Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav'n they also serve,
Divinity's transcendent sky:
Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.
Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.[2]

Could not that wisdom, which first broacht[3] the wine,
Have thicken'd it with definitions?
And jagg'd[4] his seamless coat, had that been fine,
With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
Was clear as heav'n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which only save,
Surpass in brightness any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray.
Do as ye would be done unto.
O dark instructions; ev'n as dark as day!
Who can these Gordion knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his blood for wine.
Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there design,
Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then burn thy Epicycles,[5] foolish man;
Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.
Faith needs no staff of flesh, but stoutly can
To heav'n alone both go, and lead.


Herbert was a contemporary of philosopher René Descartes who, allegedly, was looking for a way to ground the Christian faith in reason, but, in a striking instance of the Law of Unintended Consequence, set in motion the so-called Cartesian Revolution, a movement away from faith to rationalism.[6] Herbert, aware of Descartes' growing influence, may have penned this poem in response.

He begins with astronomers' efforts to map the skies and develop constructs for the movement of the stars. Presumably, they did so to serve "Divinity's transcendent sky," the world of spiritual realities. They "cut and carved" with human wit (wisdom), but only darkened wise counsel with words. Reason triumphed and faith was laid aside.

Could not the wisdom that "broacht" (opened) the wine at Cana have supplied an explanation for the miracle and "thickened it with definitions"? Jesus could have, but chose not to, nor has he explained everything else that puzzles us. The universe is shrouded in paradox, contradiction and mystery, a phenomenon Rutgers' philosopher, Colin McGinn, calls the Mysterion Position: the notion that our minds are simply incapable of knowing all there is to know. There are absolute limitations to the human intellect that cannot be overcome.

God does draw lines, but, as George MacDonald said, his lines are very thin, and often invisible. To draw hard lines everywhere, therefore, is futile. Worse yet, hard lines divide us and become occasion for acrimonious debate. Hence the old cliché, "No one damns like the orthodox."

For this reason, as I've grown older, my list of absolutes has grown correspondingly shorter. There are essentials of which I have no doubt, but much is mystery to me. I ponder these puzzles periodically, but they don't bother me anymore. I know "there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in (my) philosophy." This is what "saves my head."

This is the sentiment echoed by George MacDonald's father in a letter to his son about the long-standing, divisive debate over God's sovereignty and our free will: "[I cannot] bear to see that which is evidently gospel mystery torn to pieces by those who believe that there is no mystery in the Scriptures and therefore attempt to explain away what it is evidently for the honor of God to conceal. I see so much of mystery in nature, and so much of it in myself, that it would be proof to my mind that the Scriptures were not from God were there nothing in them beyond the grasp of my own mind." [7]

That being said, our Lord did not leave us in the dark with regard to the things that matter, but has given instruction that is "clear as heav'n from whence it came." He has revealed "beams of truth, which only save (sanctify)." These he enumerates: "To love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray. Do as ye would be done unto"-simple directives Herbert describes, with subtle irony, as Gordion knots,[8] and "dark instructions; ev'n as dark as day!" To love and to pray and to do good to others-a few things I know I must do. This is the more excellent way.

Mark Twain said, "It's not the things I don't understand in the Bible that concern me, but the things I do understand."[9] Exactly. It is my prayer that I, at last, may do those things that matter.[10]

DHR

[1] spheres: Concentric hollow globes that were thought to rotate around the earth and carry heavenly bodies, according to the Ptolemaic astronomy of Herbert's day.
[2] lies by: is unused
[3] broacht: opened
[4] jagg'd: torn
[5] Epicycles: In Ptolmaic astronomy, each of the seven planets was thought to move in a circle, the center of which rotated around the earth. Circles within circles, ad infinitum.
[6] Another contemporary, Blaise Pascal, said, "I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God."
[7] In a letter to his son, May 31, 1850
[8] The Gordian Knot is a legend associated with Alexander the Great and is a metaphor for an intractable problem. The irony lies in the fact that this "knot" can be untied by anyone and the darkness of these instructions is "as dark as day(light)."
[9] Mark Twain and Scottish preacher and poet George MacDonald were friends. I do hope MacDonald's gracious Jesus, at some point, found his way into Mark Twain's heart.
[10] Cf., Philippians 1:10. Paul's verb, diaphero, here translated "matter," means, "to make a difference."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Call to Failure

By George Matheson

I had a call to a mission,
Signed in my heart and sealed,
And I felt my success was certain,
And the end seemed already revealed;
The sea was without a murmur,
Unwrinkled its even flow,
And I heard the master commanding,
And I was constrained to go.

But, out from the peaceful haven,
There woke a terrible storm,
And the waves around were in chaos,
And the land appeared without form
And I stretched my hands to the Father
And cried in a chilling fear-
"Didst not Thou pledge Thy presence!
And naught but failure is here!"

Then in the midst of the thunder
There rose a still, small voice,
Clear through the roar of the waters,
Deep through their deafening noise:
"Have I no calls to failure!
Have I no blessing for loss!
Must not the way to thy mission
Lie through the path of thy cross!"

It came as a revelation-
It was worth the price of the gale
To know that the souls that conquer
Must at first be the souls that fail-
To know that where strength is baffled
I have reached the common ground
Where the highest meet with the lowly
Where the heart of man is found

O door of the heart's communion
My Father gave me the key
When he called me out to the ocean,
And summoned the storm to me;
For the wings of the storm that smote me
Were the wings of humanity's breast
As it moved on the face of the waters
And sighed for an ark of rest

Years have gone by since that sadness
And many an hour has come
When the storm in the ships of others
Has signaled me out from home;
Yet I never can see that signal
But I feel how much I owe
To the day that, when called to failure,
My steps were constrained to go.


History is unrepeatable, historians say, but it can be re-lived many times in one's memory. Our successes we like to savor; our failures we'd rather forget. I'm gradually learning, however, "how much I owe to the day that, when called to failure, my steps were constrained to go."

I'm learning that blunders, mistakes and missed opportunities are means of grace and great blessing if we accept them as part of our call. "Souls that conquer must at first be the souls that fail." There is no other way.

Through humiliation our "strength is baffled," we're disabused of our illusions of grandeur and brought low. There, we learn "to meet with the lowly."[1] Our losses enable us "to find the heart of man," i.e., to get "in touch" with its feelings. We can empathize with those who have fallen; we can accept and love them as no other can.

But we must let go of regret. "As long as
we remain [constrained] by things that we wish had not happened, about
mistakes we wish we had not made, part of our heart remains
isolated, unable to bear fruit in the new life ahead of us."[2] Brooding over past disasters intimidates us and turns us away from love; feelings of inadequacy isolate us. We're afraid to venture ourselves again.

But when we accept our failures as simple proof that we're inadequate in the core of our being, God's strength is made perfect in weakness. We have grace to turn outward to others and to do so with greater compassion, wisdom and understanding. Thus our mistakes, by God's grace, are turned into good.

Failure is not ruinous; we are called to failure and owe much to each day that we fail. The lessons that we learn there, "are worth the price of the gale."

DHR

[1] Matheson is thinking here of Romans 12:16 and Paul's admonition to "associate with the lowly."
[2] Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nobody Knows My Name

“As unknown, and yet well known…” (2Corinthians 6.9).

Consider those nameless individuals whose stories appear on the pages of scripture: the woman at the well; the boy who offered his loaves and fishes to Jesus; the widow who gave her last mite; the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus; the Good Samaritan; the repentant thief on the cross. All these good folks live in anonymity; nobody knows their names.

Perhaps you too are unknown, one of those unsung workers who toil for years in obscurity, overlooked and unrewarded by family, church or community, while others “make a name for themselves.” Your life is hidden, your work is unrecognized; no one knows your name.

Rejoice! Your name is written in heaven.

God knows who you are and what you’ve done for his sake. Your labor is not in vain. You may receive little or no recognition in this life, but on the day when you stand in our Lord’s presence you will receive unqualified praise (1Corinthians 4:5). He will say to you as he will say to all who have loved and served him, “Well done my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 5:21).

Unknown? You are well–known in the highest circles!

DHR

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Grace of Giving Up

Paul writes, "Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand"(Philippians 4:5).

Disunity comes because we're determined to have our own way. "Only by pride comes contention" (Proverbs 13:10). If we insist on our own rights and
refuse to give ground, controversy and conflict unavoidably follow.

We're not called to sacrifice right principles, of course, and we do have
rights, but for the sake of peace we're called to yield our rights, our
preferences, our opinions, our position, prestige, and power.

What's called for is "gentleness" —epieikes is Paul’s word. It means a
gracious, patient, forbearing spirit—a powerful force that
subdues anger and stubborn self-will.

But, you say, if I don't stand up for my rights I'll lose out. No, "the Lord
is at hand." He is standing by and will never permit his children to suffer
eternal loss. He will give you grace and power for the present and will
compensate you fully for all you have forfeited through courtesy and
kindness. "I tell you the truth," Jesus said "no one who has given up…will
fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come,
eternal life" (Luke 18:29,30).

DHR

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A follow-up to my thoughts on silence (Psalm 37)

In Psalm 38 David describes a series of personal attacks by his critics, in
the midst of which he finds no human help:

My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay
far away. (Psalm 38:11).


(Ironic, isn't it: The more needy we are, the less help we naturally attract
from family and friends. Neediness is off-putting to most folks; only the
gospel corrects that injustice.)

So...David is abandoned to his opponents’ efforts to undo him.

Those who seek my life set their traps, those who would harm me talk of my
ruin; all day long they plot deception. (38:12).


Once again, David's reaction is silence:

I am like a deaf man, who cannot hear, like a mute, who cannot open his
mouth; I have become like a man who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no
reply. I wait for you, O LORD; you will answer, O Lord my God (38:13).


There is a direct contrast here between the rants of David's opponents (vs.
12) and his utter stillness (Heb: "But as for me, I am like a deaf man...")--a stillness based on the
fact that God alone would answer his critics in due time, a response that mirrors
our supreme example:

Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow
His steps: "Who when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He
suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges
justly..." (1 Peter 2:21-23).


DHR
I read Psalm 35 this morning and was struck again by the thought that
silence is almost always the best response to criticism. We can and should
correct people when they misrepresent us, but there is great depth and
dignity in meeting disapproval with silence.

David summarizes the actions of his critics in 11-16

Malicious witnesses rise up; They ask me things that I do not know (charge
me with sins and faults I know nothing about).

They reward me evil for good, To the sorrow of my soul (No good deed goes
unpunished, as they say).

But as for me, when they were sick, My clothing was sackcloth; I humbled
myself with fasting; And my prayer would return to my own heart (I kept
praying for them).

I paced about as though he were my friend or brother; I bowed down heavily,
as one who mourns for his mother.

But in my stumbling (at the first sign of weakness) they rejoiced And
gathered together; Cripples (like me) gathered against me, And I did not
know it (It was done behind my back) They tore at me and did not cease
(attacking my character);

Like court jesters (who mock others), They gnashed at me with their
teeth (tore my reputation to shreds).


Does this sound familiar? Those we've suffered with and deeply cared for are
often the very folks that turn against us. (I've never fully understood that
phenomenon, but it may be that loving, pastoral care raises people's
expectations to the point that they (their expectations) become utterly
unrealistic—for some we become the parent they never had—and any slip
becomes a monumental betrayal.) It is worth noting that this psalm is put
into Jesus' mouth and describes the way those he loved turned against him
(John 15:25). It's good to recall that "the servant is not above his master…"

In the face of this scathing critique David put his soul in God's hands for
his judgment and vindication (vs. 22-24) and left it there. He describes
himself as one of the "quiet ones in the land"(20). I love that line!

Here is F. B. Meyers understanding of the process:

In every age God has had his quiet ones. Retired, from its noise and strife,
withdrawn from its ambitions and jealousies, unshaken by its alarms; because
they had entered into the secret of a life hidden in God. We must have an
outlet for the energies of our nature. If we are unfamiliar with the hidden
depths of eternal life, we shall necessarily live a busy, fussy, frothy,
ambitious, eager life, in created with men and things. But the man who is
intent on the eternal, can be quiet in the temporal.

The man whose house is shallow, but one room in depth, cannot help living on
the street. But directly we begin to dwell deep—deep in God, deep in the
watch for the Master's advent, deep in considering the mysteries of the
kingdom—we become quiet. We fill our little space; we get our daily broad
and and content; we enjoy natural and simple pleasures; we do not strive,
nor cry, nor cause our voice to be heard in the street; we pass through the
world, with noiseless tread, dropping a blessing on all we meet; but, we are
no sooner recognized than we are gone.

Get quiet, beloved soul; tell out thy sorrow and complaint to God. Let not
the greatest business or pressure divert thee from God. When men rag about
thee, go and tell Jesus. When storms and high, hide thee in his secret
place. When others compete for fame and applause, and their passion might
infect thee, got into thy closet, and shut thy door, and quiet thyself as a
weaned babe. For if thy voice is quiet to man, let it never cease to speak
loudly and mightily for man in the ear of God.


DHR

Friday, March 27, 2009

Journey of the Magi

-T. S. Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


I'm drawn to T.S. Eliot's brutal honesty, his willingness to write what he really feels rather than what he would like to feel. "The Journey of the Magi" is one such study in candor.

Christianity came hard for Eliot. Like C. S. Lewis, he was "dragged into the Kingdom kicking and screaming." His was a desperate leap from bitter cynicism to assurance, characterized by a good deal of uncertainty, "wavering between profit and loss," as he put it. Here, in this poem Eliot spells out his ambiguity.

"The Journey of the Magi" purports to be a monologue in which one of the wise men, traveling from the East to find the Christ-child, recounts his journey with all its hardship and perplexities.

The opening paragraph of the poem (in quotes) is a direct quotation from a Nativity sermon by a seventeenth century bishop of the Church of England, Lancelot Andrewes, lines Eliot admired for their stark realism. Instead of the simple Gospel report that "magi from the east arrived in Bethlehem," we read of one man's arduous journey: the cold, the distance, the dirt, the sleepless nights, the regret, the memories of a palace and the pretty girls left behind; and the hostility of those he encountered on the way, their lack of understanding and encouragement, singing in his ears, "This is all folly."

One after another (note the repetitious "and") we learn of the obstacles along the way. The man has little confidence in himself as he pushes toward his goal, haunted by doubt and no assurance that he will find what he seeks at the end of his journey.

The next paragraph opens with a ray of hope: "Then at dawn we came to a temperate valley": dawn and freshness, the rich smell of damp earth and vegetation, running streams and mills beating in the darkness. Yet in the midst of these pleasant surroundings there are ominous signs: three trees silhouetted against the sky and sinister hands dicing (throwing dice) for pieces of silver, and "no information."

Nevertheless the wise man journeys on, and eventually arrives one evening, "not a moment too soon" (catch the moment of heightened expectation!) to find "the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory"-a masterpiece of understatement if there ever was one! The goal of the grueling quest is an anti-climax. There is no feeling of fulfillment; no drama, no excitement, no ecstasy. Only perplexity and paradox.

The old man's faith is firm, "I would do it again," but what was the purpose of it all? Was it only to die to his past life-his friends, and the ease and affluence of his former days? Having found the Child, he cannot go back to the old life and "an alien people clutching their gods." He is no longer at ease there. Yet, his new life is "hard and bitter agony," something "like Death." Is there nothing now to live for but to wait for "another (final) death?"

Here is one man's dark night of the soul, a period of unhappiness and skepticism in which he wonders if it's been worthwhile to leave everything to find and follow Jesus. Whose mind, if we're true to ourselves, has not harbored that thought?

Some individuals live in their heads; they're born with a questioning, inquiring spirit and are predisposed to doubt. It's the way they are, the way God made them. Other's doubts are born of argument: a comment by a respected, but unbelieving university professor, a random word spoken by a friend, an article on the Internet, reflecting the spirit of this age. Or doubt may come through sickness, disappointment, or a friend who succumbs to sin. All give logic to unbelief. What then can we do when "doubt swells and surges, with swelling doubt behind"?

We can take comfort in the thought that doubt is not displeasing to God. He knows how frail and fragile one's faith can be. "A smoking flax He will not quench."[1] He is compassionate, merciful, and infinitely patient with our misgivings. He was himself tempted in all points as we are.[2] He understands.

We can pray, for nothing is of ourselves, not even faith. Faith is a gift of God. [3] "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" is the cry of honest skepticism.[4]

We can turn doubt into action. We can take up the next duty, the very next thing God is asking us to do. Like Mother Teresa, who, if we can belief her biographers, floundered in deep despair in her final years, we can live a life of faith in the midst of our uncertainty. No matter how dark things seem to be there is truth to be lived and, though it seems odd, that obedience can begin to restore our faith. As Jesus said, "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."[5]

Finally, we can ponder Peter's response when Jesus asked his disciples if they too would go away: "Lord, to whom shall we go?"[6]

DHR

[1] Isaiah 42:3
[2] It's worth noting that doubt is not sin, but mere temptation.
[3] Ephesians 2:8,9
[4] Mark 9:24
[5] John 7:17
[6] John 6:68

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nobody

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you-nobody-too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! They'd advertise-you know.

How dreary-to be-somebody
How public-like a frog-
To tell one's name-the lifelong June
To an admiring bog.

-Emily Dickinson

I'm fond of Emily Dickinson, that strange and solitary person, whose poems often reflect her penchant for obscurity. Her desire for anonymity could be construed as humility--it should not concern us at all that people do not know us as long as we know people--but for some, a retiring nature is grounded in a deep dislike for oneself: "I'm someone to be kept out of sight."

Perhaps you're like that: wondering why God ever made you, longing to be someone else. But is it not better to be what God has chosen to make you? "For to have been thought about--born in God's thoughts-and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, most precious thing in all thinking. Is it not...?"[1]

David elaborates the same thought in the 139th Psalm, describing himself en utero as God's special creation, pondering "this awesome being that is me!"

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful (Hebrew: awesome!). I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth (his mother's womb), your eyes saw my unformed body (fetus). All the days ordained for me were written in your book (the blueprint for me) before one of them came to be.

Do you realize that you have been thought about and made by God? You are one of a kind, woven together according to a divine template, intricately "embroidered" in your mother's womb, a creation that that has no parallel in the universe. "How is it that you came to be you? God thought about you, and so you grew."

Long before you were born, you existed in God's thoughts. Long before your parents loved or neglected you, your peers admired or rejected you, your teachers, colleagues, and employers encouraged or disheartened you, you were known and loved by Love itself. God saw you and took delight in you. He gazed at what he had made and was glad. He loved it and said, "It is good!"

Someday soon, you'll love it too and will forget the self you now abhor. If you could but see yourself now as you will be one day--a lustrous, exquisitely beautiful, immortal creature--you would be stupefied and strongly tempted to fall on your knees in worship.

I think that is why, at least in part, God allowed his disciples to see his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. One early Church Father, the so-called Venerable Bede thought so: "By his loving foresight he (Jesus) prepared them (the disciples) to endure adversity bravely by allowing them to taste for a short time the contemplation of their (own) everlasting glory (beauty)."[2]

So, on ahead there is unimagined splendor, but even now, you are being beautified, "metamorphosed" from one degree of glory to the next.[3] The love of God is at work in you to transform unsightliness into the inexpressible beauty of holiness.[4]

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
For Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things [5]

The Love that fills the earth with lovely things is making you lovely. It is happening now. It will go on forever and ever, for there is no end to infinite love.

DHR

[1] George MacDonald
[2] Quoted by Thomas Aquinas, Summa 3a, 38
[3] 2 Corinthians 3:18: Paul's exact word, metamorphoomai, means "to change the essential form or nature of something, to become entirely different" (Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).
[4] Cf., Psalm 149:4: "He (God) is beautifying the humble..."
[5] "Grace," by U2, lyrics by Bono.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The Bright Field

- R.S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits y
ou.

This poem is a simple, lyrical description of a small, sun-lit field and Thomas' reaction to it. The poet notes a ray of sunshine illuminating a field, but hurries on his way and forgets all about it. In retrospect, he realizes he has passed by a field that contains a hidden treasure, worth giving up everything to possess.[1]

So, Thomas concludes, life is not hurrying on to a "receding future"-when we marry, when we have children, when we finally "make it," when we retire. Nor is life hankering after an "imagined past," for past memories are illusory. The past was never what we now remember it to be.[2]

No, life lies in the present, in little glimpses of God that we catch here and there along the way. In spite of the ugliness of our days and nights there are patches of beauty all around us, manifestations of truth and goodness.[3] These are the "thin places" in the walls of the universe where heaven is breaking through-if only, if only, we will take a moment to stop and stare; if only we have eyes to see.

What if Moses had taken a fleeting glance at the burning bush and hurried on. (He had those sheep you know, an important work to do.) Had he gone his way he would have passed up a field that concealed a measureless treasure; he would have missed an historic, life-changing encounter with God.[4]

So then, Thomas would say, life is noticing, seeing, being aware, seeing God's goodness "breaking through." It is turning aside like Moses to the miracle of something like a sun-lit field. Something small, transitory, yet symbolic of the eternity that awaits us.

DHR

[1] Cf., Jesus' parable in Matthew 13:44
[2] "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be." (I once saw those words scrawled on a stall in a men's bathroom at Stanford University back in the '60s.)
[3] Beauty is, as classical philosophers defined it, the "perceptibility (something perceived by the senses) of divine truth and goodness."
[4] Exodus 3:1-22

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Consumed by Fire

-T. S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame [1]
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire [2]
Consumed by either fire or fire.


T. S. Eliot's poetry is complex and difficult. His love of paradox, his references to obscure classical sources and to personal experiences known only to Elliot and a few of his friends make his poems almost incomprehensible, but, in my opinion, they are worth whatever effort we're willing to give them. His insights are often startling.

Here, in this section of a much longer poem,[3] Eliot insists that we have but two choices in life: "fire or fire" --the fire of purification or the fire of perdition. We are "redeemed from fire by fire," saved from the fire of judgment by God's refining flame. But--and here is the thought that grabbed my attention--in either case, God's love is the consuming fire; it is the inferno of both heaven and hell.

Here I quote Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, who, it seems, would heartily agree: "The 'fire' that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same 'fire' that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the 'fire' of God's love; the 'fire' of God Himself who is Love. 'For our God is a consuming fire.' For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the 'consuming fire' of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same 'consuming fire' will be the cause of their weeping' and their 'gnashing of teeth.' Thus it is the Church's spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God's splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light." [4]

Thus, the "fire" of hell may be but a metaphor for the torment of God's eternal love raining down on those who do not love him in return. MacDonald's old Scot, David Elginbrod, had a similar take: "Watever may be meant by the place o' meesery, depen' upo't...it's only anither form o' love shinin' through the fogs o' ill[5], and sae gart leuk[6] something vera different thereby."[7]

Now, I must muse a bit...

It occurs to me that this may be one reason we're called, as God's beloved children, to love our enemies and do good to them.[8] They cannot endure the awful torment of our affection. Love becomes a force they cannot bear.

There's a reflection of that "force" in the first Harry Potter book (the only one I've managed to read). Lily Potter, Harry's mother, so loved Harry that she impregnated her love into her son's skin (somewhat as God does when he pours his love into our "skin"). When Harry's opponent, Professor Quirrell, touched Harry to harm him, her love, the love that ennobled her son, shattered the professor.

Paul agrees: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."[9]

DHR

[1] In Greek mythology, the "intolerable shirt of flame" was a shirt that Hercules' wife gave him that had been poisoned by the blood of a centaur. It drove him to throw himself onto a funeral pyre. Metaphorically, it represents "a source of misfortune from which there is no escape." The only choice is to be consumed by "fire or fire."
[2] "Suspire" means "to sigh sorrowfully."
[3] From "The Four Quartettes: Little Gidding."
[4] Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith vol. 4 (Orthodox Christian Publications Center, 1981). To his quotation I must add George MacDonald's wonderful comment: "The fire of God is unlike its earthly symbol in that it is only at a distance that it burns. When we turn and draw near him it turns into comfort."
[5] fogs o' ill: our confusion about hell's "cruelty."
[6] sae gart leuk: so made like.
[7] From MacDonald's novel, David Elginbrod. Our concept of hell as a place of literal fire may be derived more from Dante than from the gospel. Material fire cannot afflict a spiritual being, so the "fires of hell" could well be symbolic. It's significant to me that our Lord's word for hell was Gehenna, not Hades, the usual word for the nether world. Gehenna was a geographical location, a valley located southwest of Jerusalem that was the refuge dump for the city. Early in Jerusalem's history it was set on fire and burned continually, producing billowing clouds of acrid smoke. To our Lord it represented a powerful symbol for hell as a "cosmic garbage dump," a place of ruined, wasted lives (Cf. Mark 9:43 et. al.).
[8] "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil" (Luke 6.35)
[9] Romans 12:21


DHR