Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Any Distance, Any Time

“In journey’s often…” (2 Corinthians 11:26)

For several years now, I’ve been corresponding with a Nepalese pastor who frequently travels with his church members to distant communities in the Himalayas to preach the gospel and plant churches. Recently he sent me his itinerary and asked me to pray:

On 21th - singing, preaching, dancing, and distributing gospel tracts (Thansing, 45 kilometers from Kathmandu)
On 23th - singing, preaching, dancing, Jesus film show and gospel tracts distribution (Amptar, Nuwakot, 120 kilometers from Kathmandu)
On 25th - singing, dancing, preaching in Kathmandu Friends church
On 26th - singing, preaching, dancing,  and gospel tracts distribution (Nalang, Dhading, 130 kilometers from Kathmandu)
On 27th - singing, preaching, dancing,  and gospel tracts distribution (Darbung, Gorkha, 150 kilometers from Kathmandu)
On 28th - singing, preaching, dancing, and gospel tracts distribution (Darbung, Gorkha, 160 kilometers from Kathmandu)
All the programs are followed by a love feast.

I wondered at the vast distances my friend covered on these outings and wrote to ask how his motorcycle was holding up. This was his reply:

"We had wonderful time of marching in the mountains with our church members. All do not have motorcycles and I need to be with them, so we all walked. It was blessed time. Still more places to go."

I thought of my reluctance to venture out of my comfort zone and inconvenience myself: to drive cross-town in the snow to visit a lonely widower; to make my way across the street to help a neighbor at the close of a long, weary day; to get up and answer a knock on the door (when I’m reading and would rather not be bothered) and cheerfully welcome a talkative, elderly friend; to go any time, any place, any distance for the sake of love.

And I thought of our Lord, for whom no distance was too great to go.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Child

“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass…” (Luke 2:15).

Some years ago Carolyn and I took our grandchildren to the Festival of the Trees, a local event in which businesses and organizations decorate Christmas trees, competing with one another in various categories. The display is magnificent.

We were enchanted by the grandeur of the trees as we moved from one to another, pointing and exclaiming. But one of our grandchildren, Melissa, soon lost interest, surfeited by splendor, until she came to a small manger scene and there she paused transfixed.

Nothing else mattered—not the magnificently decorated trees, not Santa Claus who was nearby and beckoning, not even the incredible talking tree. She was captivated by the Child.

We tried our best to urge her on—we wanted to see the rest of the trees—but she lingered behind, wanting to hold the baby, pressing closer to him despite the ribbon stretched around the cradle, keeping her away.

Finally, she agreed to leave, though reluctantly, looking back over her shoulder to get a glimpse of the crèche through the trees. And as we were leaving the building she asked once more to “see the baby.” We returned to the manger and waited while she gazed long and longing at Jesus. 

As Melissa adored Him, I marveled at her simplicity. Unlike her, I often fail to see the Child for the trees. “There are some things worth being a child to get hold of again,” George MacDonald said. “Make me a child again,” I prayed, “at least for tonight.”


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happiness is...

"Present mirth hath present laughter…"
 —William Shakespeare, “Carpe Diem”

I was examining the magazines at our grocery store checkout stand the other day and concluded that happiness is firmness, fitness, prosperity, power, stardom, sex and pleasure. Bless my soul, we’ve forgotten that man does not live by bread alone.

Happiness, of course, is what everyone is seeking. That “end” was established long ago by the likes of Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers, who were musing on something we’ve always known: Regardless of the means, our end is happiness.

Human beings cannot not seek happiness. It’s why we do everything we do: It’s why we become tri–athletes or checker champs; why we speed–climb vertical rocks or turn into recumbent couch potatoes; why we become mechanics, machinists, mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. Masochists hurt themselves because they think that will make them happy. Murderers kill others to make themselves happy. Suicides kill themselves because they can’t stand to be unhappy. We are made to be happy and nothing else will do.

That’s why happiness is said to be our final end by philosophers and theologians, by which they mean that happiness is not the means to anything else. We don’t seek happiness so we can be rich. We don’t seek happiness so we can find love. It’s the other way around: We seek love, wealth and everything else so we can be happy. Thus happiness is our final end.

Happiness is not our chief end, however; that’s God. But even with reference to God, happiness is our final end. We don’t seek happiness to find God; we seek God to find ultimate happiness.

Our modern English word “happiness” normally means subjective satisfaction or contentment, usually the result of good fortune. A friend approaches me with a goofy grin on his face and I think: “Something good must have happened to him.”  Thus we think of happiness as happenstance. Indeed, our English word “happiness” is based on an Old English word, “hap” that means “chance.”

The word ancient Greek philosophers used for happiness, however, was eudaimonia, best understood by breaking the word down into its component parts:  The prefix, eu, means “good,” daimon is the Greek word for “spirit,” and ia suggests a “lasting state.” So authentic happiness is an enduring state of inner peace. It is knowing, despite all counter-indications, that it is well with one’s soul. For Jews it is shalom.

Here’s the crux: St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Since it is possible to be happy and there are certain acts that make us happy we must in due sequence consider by what acts we may be happy and by what acts we are prevented from attaining it.”

How eminently practical! It’s possible to be happy and there are certain things we can do that will make us happy. Should we not then, “consider by what acts we are prevented from attaining it?

Put simply, the way to be happy is to be good, something about which virtue theorists have agreed for millennia. Plato, in his dialogue, The Republic, said that happiness is elusive, but can be achieved though justice, i.e., doing the right thing. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, said, “Happiness is the reward of virtue” (Ethics 1.9). One of Israel’s poets said the same of his king: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore (for this reason) God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…” (Psalm 45:7). This is also the burden of Jesus’ beatitudes, his instruction on happiness.[1]  “Happiness is…” he insists, and then proceeds to give us a list of seven virtues (Matthew 5:3-10).

“Goodness is better than badness because it’s nicer,” Mammy Yokum said. “Nicer,” surely, but also more happifying. Happiness does not come from wealth, honor, fame, power, pleasure or any bodily good, as our popular culture would have us believe, but in doing the right thing. [2] Should we not gain our understanding of happiness from the wise and not from fools?

So, I ask myself, if I’m made for happiness and happiness comes from goodness why would I choose misery instead of joy? Wretchedness instead of happiness? Because I’m insane, that’s why. There can be no other explanation.

Now, it is true that neither you nor I will ever know complete happiness in this world. The best proof of that premise is that even in those moments when we’re supremely happy, we’re not completely happy. Something is missing. “This world is full of many miseries therefore man cannot be perfectly happy in this life,” Aquinas said,  “but a certain participation of happiness can be had in this life.” [3] Perfect happiness awaits heaven and home.

So, if we want to be as happy as we can be in this world, we must be as good as we can be—overcome our sensuality, immodesty, moodiness, irascibility and intolerance, among other things—something we cannot do unless we want goodness and ask for God’s help every day. “Only God is good,” Jesus said,[4] thus any goodness in us must be the work of His hands. “What a labor He has with us all! Shall we ever, some day, be all, and quite good like Thee?” George MacDonald asks.[5]

God help us.


[1] The word “Beatitudes” comes from a Latin term beatus that means “happy.”
[2] Here I add a parallel premise: If virtue makes us happy, vice makes us sad. Wrong–doing may awaken immediate, short–term, superficial exhilaration, but its after-taste is bitter. The Bible puts it plainly: we enjoy the enjoyment of sin “for a season” (Hebrews 11:25). Thus it occurs to me that I should bear no resentment toward those who direct their wrong–doing against me. I should rather feel pity and compassion.
[3] Summa 111,5,3
[4] Mark 10:18
[5] Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Into My Heart

One Christmas, a long time ago, when our granddaughter Melanie was very small, she was wandering and wondering her way around our living room, gazing intently at Carolyn’s “set–arounds.”

Carolyn has a wonderful array of ornaments and objects she has collected over the years. One of her most cherished items is an olivewood crèche she bought in Bethlehem. Every Christmas it finds its place on our living room coffee table.

Melanie came to the crèche that day and stood over it transfixed for a moment. Then she picked up the carving of the baby Jesus in her tiny hands and drew it up to her heart. She closed her eyes and said, “Baby Jesus, sleep…” and rocked the little olivewood figure of Jesus in her arms. 

Tears sprang to my eyes and I felt the strangest, strongest emotion. I could not have told you then what I was feeling, or why I was so deeply moved, but I knew that something profoundly stirring had occurred.

Later I realized why my heart was so deeply touched by that simple event: it was symbolic of that other childlike act in which we daily take up the wonderful gift of God’s love, our Lord Jesus, and draw him close to our hearts. This is what he longs for—to love and to be loved in return.

There is a song that children sing (and adults too, once we get over our fear of being childlike):

Into my heart, into my heart;
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today; come in to stay;
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

May He dwell deep down in your heart this day.


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