Up or Down?

I am over 6′ 1″, which places me roughly in the top 10% of American males for height. Practically, this means it is unusual for me to meet someone I have to look up to see their face. For some people, though, that is a normal experience, a normal frame of reference.

Our frame of reference is also dependent on our focus. I have noticed that my wife and I tend to see different things when we are out walking. She is generally the first to point out snails, while I tend to point out birds. She saw a deer the other night before I ever noticed it. Our visual filters are tuned to different things and different parts of our field of vision. (She watches where she’s walking, while I usually don’t.)

Where we focus determines our evaluation of ourselves and others. Economically, Americans generally have very skewed views. Our concept of poverty equates to middle to upper class in many countries. Clean drinking water, indoor plumbing, an automobile, and a phone. These are goals or even dreams in some parts of the world. They are baseline “requirements” for us.

Where we focus also frames our self assessment in terms of sanctification. It is easy to find examples to make us feel pretty smug about our perceived holiness. It is easy to become like the Pharisee Jesus holds up in contrast to the tax collector.

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

Luke 18:10-12 ESV

This is lazy. We don’t have to look very hard to find someone to feel superior to. The person with the unruly child in the grocery. The aggressive driver on the freeway. Our foul-mouthed coworker. We look around and feel like the Pharisee, “Thank goodness I’m not like them.”

The standard we are called to is a bit more stringent than that, however.

Therefore you must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 ESV

It is as if we are children standing over an anthill basking in our colossal stature. Jesus places a hand under our chin and shifts our gaze to the towering redwood under which we are standing. We are not as tall, strong, or good as we think we are.

If we hold before our gaze the lives of the Saints, the Apostles, and our Lord, we find that we are far from perfect. We are put off by minor inconveniences, we willingly fill our minds with impurity, and we seek our own comfort above all else.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Hebrews 11:32-38 ESV

O Lord, who gave sight to the blind, let us have the scales removed from our eyes that we may see you clearly, and so rightly judge ourselves as unworthy sinners. May we be moved to extend grace and mercy to our fellow man as we are penitent before your holiness. Cleanse us by your Holy Spirit that we may love you and serve you only. Amen.

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Filed under Humility, Hypocrisy, Penitence, Sanctification

Countdown

I wrote back in February about an idea I had for a year of rereading books. It raises the question: when does a year start? The first of January, like my challenge to myself to write daily? Near the beginning of December with Advent, like the liturgical year? Around the first of September, like the traditional school year? It seems to depend on whether the activity is tied to anything that falls into any of these rhythms.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to make sense to base my year of rereading on a “school year” approach. There will be some changes around then that would make it fit personally. With the beginning of the school year fast approaching, I need to have my list cued up. I jotted down several titles in February. Here’s a list (in no particular order) and some comments on each, in case you’re in need of some reading material.

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law
Law writes a challenging book on what it means to live a holy life. It’s a good dose of challenge to break loose complacency.

The Road to Eternal Life,  William Casey
Casey is an Australian monk and arguably the best living monastic author. In this book, he examines the prologue to the Rule of Benedict, drawing lessons from it that apply to religious and secular alike.

Sacred Reading, William Casey
In this volume, Casey examines and instructs in the ancient art of lectio divinia. It is practical and challenging and a good introduction to this devotional practice.

Living in the Truth, William Casey
My first introduction to Casey was this book of reflections on the seventh chapter of the Rule of Benedict, which deals with humility.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede
A classic of both history and religion. I read this several years ago as I made my transition into the Anglican Church.

Evangelical is Not Enough, Thomas Howard
Another Canterbury trail book that it seems would be good to revisit now that I’m several years on this side. Howard is a Catholic, but his critiques of evangelicalism are worth considering even if you have no leanings toward Rome.

Spiritual Direction, Martin Thornton
This is one of the most recent reads for me on this list. Thornton does a good job of giving a practical guide to what it means to provide spiritual direction.

English Spirituality, Martin Thornton
Both a history and a call to deeper spiritual engagement. This is not a light read, but it is certainly accessible. If you want something to serve as a springboard to classical Christian authors, this would be it.

Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton
A classic that C.S. Lewis credits as a key point in his journey back to faith. I don’t remember much more than that, so I figure I should re-engage.

No Man is an Island,  Thomas Merton
I picked this up secondhand after reading Disputed Questions. Merton is often hailed as the greatest 20th century Catholic writer. He is very good at his craft and very insightful, though I’m a bit leery of his later works as he seems to have become infatuated with Eastern Religions before his death.

Pastoral Rule, Gregory the Great
Written as instruction to bishops, a great primer for what it means to provide pastoral care and spiritual direction. On my first reading, I found myself being addressed as a congregant. I hope to draw lessons as a shepherd this time through.

Proslogion, Anselm of Canterbury
Another fairly recent read. The best example of what Thornton calls the speculative-affective synthesis I have found. Profoundly theological while simultaneously thoroughly devotional. Plus, short enough to read in one sitting.

Christian Doctrine, Augustine of Hippo
Somewhat misleading title. It is really more of a handbook on preaching and teaching written by one of the greats.

Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
On any list of classic Christian literature. I haven’t read it since college. Time to revisit.

Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis
Some great reflections on what it means to pray.

Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis
Another classic that I haven’t read in decades. I noticed it referenced frequently in other stuff I was reading so I put it on the list to look at again.

Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard
Willard’s examination of the Sermon on the Mount. This was a key text when I led a study on the Sermon on the Mount a few years ago. Willard’s sharp intellect asks important questions and draws challenging conclusions.

Holy Writing, Sacred Text, John Barton
A follow-up read from The Bible Made Impossible (It was heavily footnoted in that work.) which gives a thorough look at what it means to call a book canonical and how that determination was made.

Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard
Willard’s classic look at the spiritual disciplines and the ideas and assumptions behind them.

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Filed under Book Review, Reading

A Journey or a Mission?

It is a common metaphor for our life and what we perceive to be its purpose—a journey. It seems fitting, because like a journey, our life has a start and a finish. There are landmarks and mileposts along the way. Breakdowns, detours, and crossroads.

Occasionally when I’m driving, usually on some busy highway, I wonder, “Where are all these people going?” At any given moment I may be witnessing a glimpse of hundreds of journeys. It can seem as chaotic as watching an ant on an anthill.

From our perspective, our life may well seem like a journey. We are always our own frame of reference. There’s no getting around it; my life is all about me. The problem is, it’s a limited perspective and it’s not God’s perspective, though we can begin to assume it is. We know God loves and cares about us so he must care about “my journey.”

This perspective, though, quickly reduces God to a heavenly AAA. He’s there to give me directions and help me out if something goes wrong on my journey. Spiritual roadside assistance. Prayer becomes like the OnStar System in some vehicles. Push the button, get some directions, carry on.

This is a very western, a very American, way of viewing things. (My) life, (my) liberty and pursuit of (my) happiness. It is not the only way, nor is it the best way, of viewing our lives. We like this way because it reinforces our perspective that we are the center of our universe. But it’s not true. We are not the center of the universe.

Instead of a journey, consider your life as a mission. Not some individualized mission or calling as a way to spiritualize your journey. Think of yourself as one of the 160,000 Allied soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944. Yes, there were 160,000 journeys and a good number of them ended that day, but arguably, there was only one mission: establish a beachhead in France to allow onward movement onto the continent to culminate in the destruction of the Third Reich.

Certainly there were sub-tasks within that overarching mission. The Rangers at Point Du Hoc had a different task than the paratroopers at  Sainte-Mère-Église or the pilots of the landing craft. But all worked toward that one mission: establish a beachhead, defeat Hitler. 160,000 stories brought together for one purpose.

Soldiers endure hardship. Rain, cold, heat, hunger, and fatigue. They learn to sleep, eat, and fight anywhere. Sometimes they are given seemingly impossible tasks. Some tasks do turn out to be impossible. In order for a mission to succeed, a commander must find the balance between caring for his troops and being willing to place them in harm’s way.

God cares for us, but he is also willing to place us in harm’s way. God cares for us, but he is willing to accept the loss of some in order for the mission to succeed. That’s not a view we readily embrace as Americans. We don’t uphold self-sacrifice to a greater cause much anymore. But our mission requires it.

We can hardly open the Scriptures without being confronted by individuals working to fulfill their mission. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Paul and Silas. Jesus of Nazareth. May we be inspired by their example to set aside our journey for God’s mission.

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Filed under Priorities, Sanctification, Suffering

Not The Way It Is Supposed To Work

Who was the greatest king in the Old Testament? David? Solomon? Nope, it was Josiah. It’s not my opinion; you can read the pronouncement for yourself:

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.

2 Kings 23:25

He certainly seems to have earned the title. Crowned king as an eight year old boy (2 Kings 22:1), he repaired the temple which led to the rediscovery of the Book of the Law (22:8). Josiah is cut to the quick when he hears the words of the law. A prophetess is consulted who gives the message that Judah will be destroyed, but since Josiah was penitent, it won’t happen in his lifetime (22:19).

Most of chapter 23 tells of the aggressive reforms Josiah undertook, seeking to cleanse Judah from idolatry and heresy. They even kept the Passover for the first time since before Saul was made king (23:22). By almost any measure, it seems Josiah did all that a king could do in order to turn Judah around and avert God’s wrath. Yet, right on the heels of the pronouncement of how great he was that we read above, we find this:

Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah…

2 Kings 23:26

What are we to do with that? It certainly cuts against the grain of the way we like to think of God. It is not the way it is supposed to work.

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Psalm 103:8

It says slow to anger, not that he never will. The Lord tolerated lots of nonsense from Israel and Judah before allowing them to be overrun by the Gentiles. (Nearly 400 years of nonsense, in fact.)

There are a few lessons we can draw from Josiah. First, the Psalms tells us where to place our hope and where not to.

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.

Psalm 146:3-4

Josiah was a great king. Oh that we would see such a leader today in our country—in any country. But leaders can only do so much. Leaders also need followers in order to be effective. We don’t have much evidence that Judah shared Josiah’s penitent heart.

Second, and more importantly, God is a God of justice and judgement. Yes, he is a God of love and mercy, but that is not the whole picture. He isn’t some apathetic homeroom teacher who will let us do whatever we want as long as we don’t burn the school down. We either forget or neglect that too often.

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries….“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:26-27, 30-31

Too often I find myself living like I have a blank check from Jesus to cover all my sins. The Scriptures tell us a different story. More penitence and less presumption are what I need.

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Filed under Grace, Law, Leadership, Penitence

Finding a New Groove

Life is coming closer to routine again. Tomorrow I will unpack the garage and try to get that organized. We have pictures on the walls and most of the moving clutter is gone. My desk is set up in front of a window (that opens) so I can gaze into our front yard and listen to the birds and rushing water outside. (It’s just the sprinkler runoff in the storm drain, but it’s still soothing, though wasteful.)

A new location and a new position at work mean different drums to get in sync with. It takes some time to find the rhythms and adapt to a new normal. My wife and I have started nightly walks which has been a good addition. I haven’t been able to find much time to read in the evenings yet, but I think that will come as we continue to settle.

We met some of our neighbors on one of our walks and in our small talk, we learned that they lived in their previous house for 25 years before moving to Washington. I tried not to look at them like they just told me they were from Mars, but I’m not sure I managed to hide my astonishment. Such has not been our lot and it’s hard to even imagine. They seemed equally amazed at how often and how far we have moved.

Moving is a chance for a new beginning. It’s a clean start in some respects, at work, with neighbors, new friends, new church. I can see advantages to the Benedictine ideal of stability, but I can also find benefit from our wandering pilgrimage, though not just the assumed benefits of seeing new places. While that can be interesting, it can also be distracting. The life of a tourist is no different than that of a channel surfing couch potato—both are searching for novelty.

One of the benefits, if seized, of moving frequently is that it forces a judgement of priorities and this is most obvious regarding material things. How many times are we going to move this and not use it? Based on glimpses into the garages of many military neighbors, some never learn this lesson, but to be confronted with all of your worldly possessions on parade as they are packed and loaded onto a truck and then unloaded and unpacked can certainly cause each item’s value to be assessed.

More importantly, our habits come under scrutiny. One of the reasons Benedict and many of the Desert Fathers prescribed stability as being paramount to a monk’s development is that it is difficult to maintain a set routine of prayer through transitions. Airplanes, hotel rooms, and other unfamiliar surroundings pose a challenge to an ordered existence. It is comforting to now have my desk arrayed in the corner of our living room where I can sit each morning with my coffee and perform the morning office. It may not be an altar in the proper sense, but it is a personal symbol of stability and routine. I am glad it is reestablished as it gives me hope that I am closer to a new groove.

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Filed under General

Unpacking

My multitudinous fans may have noticed that I have been slacking lately on my goal to post daily. My writing has dropped down my priority list as other obligations have crowded it recently. Not the least of which has been unpacking.

Not to brag, but this is move 18 in our nearly 25 years of marriage and we have this down pat. Within 36 hours of the movers showing up at our door, all of our inside boxes were unpacked—I still need to tackle garage stuff. Pictures aren’t on the walls quite yet, but they will be soon.

However, this is not the most significant unpacking I have been dealing with this past week. I can’t go into detail, but suffice it to say someone’s box broke open. Not just any box, either—a box of secrets. Unfortunately, these were dark secrets that this individual didn’t want anyone to know about. Once the box broke, he decided he couldn’t live with that box’s contents being all over the street. Now, a grieving wife is left trying to understand this box she didn’t know existed because it was hidden by this man she thought she knew.

It is important to unpack when we move.

Entering into marriage is a significant move and it is not good to have unopened boxes in the new household. Bad news doesn’t get any better with age. Having to unpack a hidden box with your spouse can be a painful undertaking, but it must be done for the integrity of the marriage.

We also must be willing to unpack before God. To lay our hearts, minds and souls bare before his holy gaze. To allow him to consume all that is impure that we might become consecrated for his service. Confession and self-examination are essential spiritual disciplines.

We live in an age where true privacy is hard to come by. With so much of our life being digitized, it is subject to exploitation for commercial and other interests. I think people should have the right to privacy. We ought to be able to keep certain information private. But we must be careful about keeping secrets.

Private information are those things that no one—or not many—needs to know about us. Our ability to retain privacy empowers our ability to have intimacy—emotional, spiritual, physical. If there are things that only my wife knows about me, that demonstrates to her that she has a privileged place in my life.

Secrets are those things that we wish others not to know because their revelation could cause harm or embarrassment. They are things that we will lie to defend. Secrets, in this definition, are anathema to intimacy. They are information we hide from those who would normally know such personal things about us.

While we can manage to live for a great length of time with secrets from other people, we cannot live with secrets from God. Nothing escapes his gaze. To live as though we were keeping secrets from him is to alienate ourselves from him and insult his love for us.

May all your boxes be empty.

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Filed under Relationship

Fret Not

My freshman year of college I took Western Civilization, as many freshmen do. That class was the first time I really enjoyed history. It was the first time history was presented (or I received it) as something more than a procession of dated and events. It was presented as being driven, at least in part, by ideas. It was that course, in part, that led me to major in philosophy.

One day my professor asked the class if we thought the United States was still on the way up, peaking, or beginning to decline. There were students who took all three views, but I was on the “beginning to decline” camp. A quarter of a century later, I stand by that assessment.

peak-means-a-bell-shaped-curve

In a day where police are murdered and tolerance and pluralism continue their stifling march, it is hard to feel optimistic about our country. Our liberty seems increasingly under attack from within.

I was carrying this weight as I sat down to evening prayer last night. The Psalm for the evening was as if someone had picked it out for me in my thoughts.

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Psalm 37:1-11 (ESV)

Fret not. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more. I recommend the entire Psalm to you. It’s as if God is exhorting me to take my own advice to see things from his experience and perspective.

I know that we in America still have the greatest liberty of any country on earth. I pray for our brothers and sisters in other countries who face death and maltreatment much worse than anything we endure. But it concerns me that the Lady in the harbor has become another place of fear instead a beacon of hope. Access is limited and risk assessments are done to thwart possible attacks.

I am enough of a student of history to know that our country has never been perfect. I don’t wish a return to bygone days when we got it all right because I know that time never existed, but I also know there were better times than right now because I am old enough to remember them.

But, as I was reminded by David last night, this world is not my home and my hope comes from the Lord. It is uncomfortable being an alien and a stranger—especially in one’s own country—but if that is to be my lot, if that will prepare me for my heavenly home, then so be it. I will do my best to fret not.

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Filed under Faith, History