Monday, August 29, 2011

The Simple Life 

Paul achieved life’s stupendous simplification: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). All progress in the spiritual life is movement toward that conclusion, moving from the many to the one; from the complexities and compulsions of this world to the conviction that few things are necessary, really only one.

This means that progress in the Christian life is not progress toward goodness (as I once thought), but  progress toward loving God—moving toward the point at which we say with the Israel’s poet, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. As for me, the nearness of God is my good” (Psalms 73:25-27).

“Earth has nothing I desire besides you.” That perspective changes the way we look at everything. Suffering and adversity become the means by which we are made hungry and thirsty for God.  Disappointments become the tools that wean us away from our earthly occupation and move us toward a preoccupation with God alone. Even sin, when repented of, becomes a mechanism to push us closer to him. All things, in fact, become useful when viewed as the means to our “chief end,” and our highest good—the nearness of God.

Like Paul, we will always say, “I have not yet obtained all this…” but we must press on to attain it (Philippians 3:12).

And do how do we “press on”? Not through teeth–clenched self–effort. Movement toward God is the result of two things alone: His steady attraction and our humble and self–forgetting response to Him. Like everything else in this life, the initiative begins with God. He seeks us to the end that we may seek him—forever.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

The View from the Back Pew

For over 16 years now Carolyn and I have been observing Sunday morning worship from a benchwarmer’s point of view. From that perspective, I’ve made a few observations and formed a few conclusions that I thought I’d pass along for what they’re worth. As Paul would say, “I give an opinion.” Nothing more.

(1) The era of the forty-five minute sermon may be over

Attention spans have been abridged these days to the point that most folks find it difficult to attend for more than 25–30 minutes, even if the presenter speaks with the tongues of angels. Our culture does not lend its ear to lectures without breaks or opportunities to give feedback. Television is mostly to blame, I suppose, with its thirty-minute segments broken into shorter units by commercials.

Brevity does not mean that sermons necessarily lack content and depth. Depth is a function of insight, orthodoxy, wisdom and clarity, which, in turn, is the product of prayerful meditation on and obedience to the text.

I‘m told that American statesman Edward Everett preceded Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg and delivered an oration that contained 13,609 words and lasted for two hours, but it’s Lincoln’s 268 words that are carved in stone at the end of the National Mall.

There’s a lesson there, or so it seems to me.

(To be continued)


Monday, August 15, 2011

The Third Heaven

 “If here two things, or any parts of them, could occupy the same space, why not 20 or 10,000? — But I dared not think further in that direction." —George MacDonald, Lillith

I took a walk on Spaulding's Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,—who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding's cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; their trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer's cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed… But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy. If it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord.
This is an extract from an essay by Henry David Thoreau entitled “Walking,” in which he plays with the idea of “cohabitancy,” the notion that two realms of reality can exist in the same space at the same time.[1]

Was Thoreau right? Is there an alternate, parallel universe that is “cohabitant” (shares time and space) with our world? Bless my soul, there is! Some call it “heaven.” [2]

We know little about this realm, for little has been revealed. Perhaps that’s because there are no analogies for heaven in our experience.  Paul visited heaven, but could find no words to describe it: he “heard inexpressible things, things that no man is able to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4).[3]

One thing does seem certain, however: heaven is not “over yonder,” as we used to say in Texas, but  here, all around us, sharing our time and space. We could see it if we only have eyes to “see.”

Read the story of Elisha and his servant, trapped in the city of Dothan, surrounded by the Syrian army—two against “horses and chariots and a great army” (2 Kings 6). Elijah’s servant cried out, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” Elisha replied with absolute calm, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then the prophet prayed, “Lord, open his eyes that he may see.” And Elisha’s servant “saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around.”

For a moment Elisha’s servant stole a look into heaven and saw the legions of God surrounding the city, an army of inestimable number, invisible to natural eyes, but ever and always present in the deepest sense possible, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.Hence, we need not fear “ten thousands of people who have set themselves against us all around,” for “the chariots of God are twenty thousand, thousands of thousands; the Lord is among (us)…” (Psalm 3:6; 68:17).[4]

Faith “sees the unseen” (Hebrews 11:27)—the realm of ultimate reality, invisible to those who look on the surface of things.

So keep your eyes open. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by seeing.”


[1] Studies in theoretical physics support Thoreau’s thesis: To account for all physical phenomena there must indeed be an unobservable, parallel universe (or universes) lying in and around our own. (See Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos).

[2] The Bible actually speaks of three heavens: (1) the heaven of the birds and clouds, (2) the heaven of the stars and (3) the “third heaven,” the invisible realm of spiritual realities  (2 Corinthians 12:2).

[3] Paul’s phrase, translated “not lawful” in the Authorized Version, actually means “not possible.”

[4] The Hebrew text of Psalms 68:17 suggests an immeasurable number. Jerome translates, “innumerabilia.”

Friday, August 12, 2011

No Tell-Um Holes

“Give, and it shall be given unto you, full measure, pressed down, running over” (Luke 6:38).

I’ve had some dandy “no tell–um holes” in my day—a high lake on Jug Handle Mountain, a stretch of Billingsley Creek, the upper flow of Smith’s Creek at the foot of the Trinity Mountains, a couple of pools on the South Fork of the Boise River, some riffles on the Owyhee River. But, to be honest, I can’t think of a single fishing hole that I just “happened” upon. All of them have been given to me by a friend.

I’m learning, or would like to learn, to have no “no tell–um holes.” It’s better to give good things away than keep them for oneself. It would seem that giving our stuff away to others would diminish us, but it’s the other way ‘round. Accumulation makes us less than we can be. “It is possible to grow and not to grow, to grow less and to grow bigger, both at once — yes, even to grow by means of not growing at all!" (MacDonald in Lillith).

Dante said that as soon as a soul ceases to say, “Mine,” and says, “Ours,” it makes the transition from a narrow restricted, individual life to a truly free, truly personal, truly creative life. Put in biblical terms, if you share the good things that God has given to you, he will lead you into a “larger” place. Russian poet, Andrei Voznesensky, expressed the thought this way: “The water in living wells / does not stagnate; / the more you tear from your heart / the more of it you keep."

You would think after almost eight decades I would learn the truth of Jesus’ words that a man’s life does not consist of an abundance of things. I’m beginning to learn it, however, not just because he said it, but because I see for myself it is true.

Anyway, you can’t take it with you. Job had it exactly right: “Naked I came into this world and naked I shall return” (Job 1:21).


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