Tuesday, October 22, 2013

He Today; I Tomorrow

“All of us are weak and frail; hold no man more frail than yourself.” —Thomas à Kempis. The Imitation of Christ.

17th century English Puritan divine Richard Dent—not to be confused with former Chicago Bears defensive end, Richard Dent—wrote a book for new Christians entitled, A Poor Man’s Pathway to Heaven. It’s one of the books God used to bring about John Bunyan’s conversion.

In the book 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 or two 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 costs 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 pricking 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 (fellow–Christians), run upon them with open mouth and take upon them to condemn them utterly, and to judge their hearts, saying they be hypocrites, dissemblers. There is none worse than they.

A capricious kindness that makes no moral judgments is alien to biblical thought, but so is a judgmental spirit that has no mercy or love for those who are struggling upward into the light. Knowing our own wretchedness moves us toward deep compassion for those who founder for we know that we also are capable of sudden and complete moral collapse. As a friend of mine once put it, “He today; I tomorrow!”[1]  

Like Pharisees
do we condemn
before both man and God,
one who slipped
and whose clothing
is smeared with sod;

Could we but hear
His voice,
stern above our own,
“let him without sin
among you,
cast the first stone.”

—Ruth Bell Graham

[1] Some years ago I mentioned to a group of men that we’re all only thirty minutes away from sexual failure. One Diogenean soul muttered, “it wouldn’t take me that long.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Paying Attention

“Happy is the one that considers the poor…” (Psalm 41:1).

Some folks are poor in possessions and appearance; others in faith, hope and love. Even if we can’t alleviate the poverty of those we meet along the way we can “consider” the poor, a verb that means, “to pay attention.”

G.K. Chesterton defines a saint as one that exaggerates what the world neglects, and what is neglected today is the art of paying attention. Few seem to be aware of the pain that exists all around them; they go their way inattentive and unmoved. As Jesus put it in his day, “the love of many has grown cold.” 

In such a world it’s not hard to find some misery to alleviate: a divorcee or widow, stricken with loneliness; a weary parent kept awake at night by an unwell child; a frightened man awaiting cancer surgery in the morning; a care–worn checker in a grocery store working a second or third job to make ends meet; a young boy who’s never had enough father; a single mother whose flood of worries has washed her hope away; a lonely old man who believes he has outlived his usefulness; a hurting heart behind your own front door. Perhaps you don’t have much to give, but you can pay attention. You can see beyond what others see to the possibilities of mercy, compassion and understanding.

John Newton wrote on one occasion, “If, as I go home, a child has dropped a halfpenny, and if, by giving another, I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this.” This is “paying attention.”

One summer, several years ago, I came across a book entitled The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow. It is the diary of a twelve-year-old child who lived at the turn of the century in lumber camps in western Oregon. As I read Opal’s diary I was awed by her simple compassion and sensitivity. Though abused as a child she was never swallowed up in self-pity, but freely gave herself away. Here’s a brief excerpt from her diary:

When the churning was done, the mama did lift all the little lumps of butter out of the churn. Then she did pat them together in a big lump, and this she put away in the butter box in the woodshed. When she went to lay herself down to rest on the bed, she did call me to rub her head. I like to rub the mama's head, for it does help the worry lines to go away. Often I rub her head, for it is often she does have longings to have it so. And I do think it is very nice to help people have what they do have longings for.

Perhaps today by some act of kindness you and I can rub someone’s worry lines away, for it’s very nice to help people have what they do have longings for.”

One last thought: There's an upside imbedded in the beatitude. In the oldest and oddest paradox of all, we’re happiest when we're thinking of others. Consider those who think only of themselves, who grasp and grab and play it safe. The life they save is the life they lose. In the end it’s worth nothing to anyone including themselves, a featureless, lifeless parody of those that have lived and cared for others. The only life worth living, it seems, is the one that is given away.

The realm of happiness is easily entered: “Consider the poor.”


Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Good Use of our Minds

“The artist must purify the source.”
— Novelist François Mauriac

Thomas Aquinas said there are five intellectual virtues: Wisdom, Science, Understanding, Art and Prudence. They are “intellectual” in that each involves the acquisition of a certain kind of knowledge, and “virtues” in that there is some good in each acquisition.

Wisdom is divine knowledge—the knowledge of God’s moral will. Science is empirical knowledge—knowledge gained by observation of created things. Understanding is intuitive knowledge—a perception of those things we know without reason or instruction. Art is practical knowledge—“know-how” (doing). Prudence is the habit of moral behavior (being).

Wisdom, the knowledge of moral good, prepares the mind for the other intellectual virtues and determines our performance in each one.

The principle is clear in the realm of prudence, for goodness begins with the knowledge of God’s moral will. We are given intellect and the ability to reason that we may know and pursue the good, the true and the beautiful.[1]

The principle is equally true in the realms of science and intuition. Moral wisdom results in greater objectivity, perception, insight and clarity. Good scientists do good science. As C. S. Lewis put it, “anyone who is honestly trying to [live a moral life] will soon find his intelligence sharpened.”

The principle is no less true in the realm of art. What makes for good artists and artisans? Again, the answer is divine wisdom for there is feedback from moral virtue to the arts: Morally good people tend to be more insightful. They are better painters, poets, novelists, and playwrights. 

On the other hand, morally impure artists tend to produce impure and impoverished art, which explains, in part, why literature, television, cinema and the other media are so banal and boring these days. There is little originality, imagination, inspiration or creativity to draw us in, so they must titillate our libidos with sex and nudity to keep our attention.[2] Nowhere is this more evident than in the current spate of silly and salacious sitcoms. Ernie Kovacs got it exactly right:  “Television: A medium. So called because it's neither rare nor well done.”  
I think here of J.R. R. Tolkien's philosophy of creation and subcreation. Creation, as such (making something out of nothing) is the exclusive province of God: He thinks and speaks everything into being. Those who aspire to create can only echo his thoughts (or distort them). An artist’s yearnings after goodness, truth and beauty are reflected in art that speaks from God's heart to ours: “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7).

“What is to reach the heart must come from above,” Ludwig van Beethoven said. Put another way, “Worship and adoration of the Lord is the source of profound wisdom; insight into life comes from knowing the Holy One” (Proverbs 9:10).


[1] When pre–enlightenment theologians used the word “reason” they were not defining the term as we do as rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that independent human reason is the means by which we discover truth. “Reason,” for ancient writers, is the capacity to understand divine reason as it is disclosed in nature and revelation, an ability given solely to human beings. 
[2] I picked up a book this week that was first written forty years ago. It did not sell well when it was originally published for it was not well written. The author revised and “modernized it” solely by adding a number of explicit sex scenes.

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