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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