Implication and Transcendence

I suspect that the book of Job doesn’t show up on Twitter much. It’s not given to verse-snatching quotes. There are plenty of one-liners within it, but we should be wary of pulling “lessons” out of sections of Job since the lesson is the entire book. It is not given to parsing out for a sermon series, though we could, and we do.

What I mean is this: we are spiritual determinists, just like Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. We may be children of the enlightenment, but the idea of cause and effect has been around much longer than the recent acceleration of science. If you will allow me to over-simplify, Job’s basic lament is, “I am good, so why is this happening to me?” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar counter with, “This is happening to you so you obviously aren’t good.” These are two applications of the same view of God. If we do good before God, he does good to us, but if we sin before God, he does bad to us. It is viewing our relationship with God fundamentally as a system of reward and punishment.

This isn’t an idea we create out of nothing; it is placed before us by God. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 is a clear teaching in this regard. Follow my commandments and it will go well with you in the land you are going in to possess. Turn away from my commandments and I will bring punishment upon you and cast you out of the land. This is a legitimate part of our understanding of God. But it must only be a part, and not the whole. In chapter 33 of Job, Elihu speaks up. God’s ways are above man’s ways. God is sovereign. God is superior. God transcends our understanding.

Medicine allows us to have a higher quality of comfort, but it distorts our view of suffering. We live in war against discomfort and suffering. If something hurts, we expect there to be a way to make it stop. We tolerate pain only to the point that it is more “of a pain” to seek out a remedy than the pain itself. But suffering can be a means of sanctification, a means of drawing near to God. Suffering is a means of participating in Christ.

We tend to not even consider these positive aspects of suffering when we have a cause and effect view of obedience along with a medicine cabinet full of medicine. When suffering enters our lives, we expect a pill to take it away. When suffering enters another’s life, we assume some sin has precipitated it.

We miss a common thread of the call of God — that it brings suffering. Moses was tending his flock with his wife and in-laws just fine until that burning bush. Peter and Andrew were making their living as anglers. Paul had a promising position in the pharisaical institution. Even Jesus was with God in heaven before the incarnation.

God does not call us to make us happy or fulfilled. He calls us to be holy, to be set apart, to be consecrated. Consecrated items, after the pattern of Leviticus, spend a lot of time near fire and blood. There is blessing there, but it is a completely different type of blessing than we usually envision.

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Filed under Faith, Job, Reward, Suffering

Parlor Walls and Their Contents

We live in a neighborhood of townhouses, so we all have the same basic floor plan. The front room is a living room, and with several windows in that room, we can easily see how big our neighbors’ televisions are on our evening walks. Even when the blinds are closed, there is always a tell-tale blue glow coming from each house.

Since our floor plan only has one wall upon which these giant televisions will fit, they tend to be in the same spot in every townhouse in our neighborhood. As we walked back to our house a few nights ago, the kids had the lights on and the blinds were still up so we could see inside very clearly. It struck me that we have two big bookshelves in place of the giant television.

I already knew that of course, but I saw it freshly that night. Instead of a giant glowing parlor wall, we have books. I had the momentary thought that I needed to hurry inside to close the blinds before the firemen saw them.

100786-_sx540_

Just because we have a wall of books, doesn’t mean we are better than our television-imbibing neighbors. If we placed a cross-section of the average Barnes & Noble in our house, we’d be subject to the same influences. Most best-sellers are just as base as any prime-time television program.

My wife is working on systematically reading through a section of our books and some of them are being culled from the collection as she does. I appreciate her efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff. Until 1948, the Catholic Church maintained a list of prohibited books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. It was officially abolished in 1966. We generally recoil at the idea of censorship today, but self-regulation is a mark of maturity.

Instead of focusing on what not to read, we should focus on the good, on finding things worth reading. The list of books I recommend and endorse for reading is much shorter than the ones I don’t. As I have written before, I tend to judge people by their bookshelves (or lack thereof). Though it’s not our reason for choosing books, allowing my neighbors to see books on our wall instead of a television does make a statement, if anyone notices.

Everything we do or don’t do makes a statement about who we are and what we value. I want our bookshelves to be excuse-free. Someone should be able to look at our books and get a pretty accurate reflection of who we are and what we value. I don’t have to agree 100% with every statement on every page, though. I will retain the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology as reference works, even though I have significant issues with parts of both.

What we value enough to give predominant placement in our homes is not something we should take lightly. Not only because others will judge us by what they see (or don’t), but because the environment we shape for ourselves will in turn shape us.

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Filed under General, Reading

Tools for the Journey: Wonder

Tools

I am continuing to address the question, now with various means for personal devotion. You may find a list of all posts in this series here.

We have a hummingbird feeder in front of our house. Throughout the day, the Anna’s Hummingbirds in our neighborhood will come and hover to feed and then flit away. They are amazing little creatures who weigh slightly more than a penny, yet migrate thousands of miles. They incite in me — when I bother to pay attention for the few seconds one is in sight — a sense of wonder.

Wonder, awe, amazement, marvel, bewilderment, and astonishment. These are not categories we typically place our daily observations, actions, and experiences into. We are doers. We are explainers. We are not usually appreciators. When we do pause to appreciate, it is often only in the shallow sense of how something makes us feel, not in what it is apart from us.

God, however, is not always so transparently pragmatic. At times, he desires us to just be present with him and to him. There is a time for everything, a time to do and a time to just be.

When we think of wonder in our CGI special-effects age, we often think it has to be bigger than life, novel, and over-powering. If our sense of wonder is only triggered by the next bigger thing, though, we will quickly lose all wonder. That kind of wow has its limits.

Wonder can come from a blade of grass or a single burning candle. A verse, or partial verse, of Scripture can capture our heart and mind. The way the light highlights a certain subtle feature of a child’s face.

To open ourselves to wonder is to open ourselves to living in a God-saturated world. To allow ourselves to believe not only in an all-powerful, all-knowing, unmoved mover, but also the God who comes as a still small voice in the midst of quiet.

Wonder used to be the province of children and the elderly, since working-age adults and parents are challenged to have the time and attitude necessary for it. Children, surrounded by a world that is new around every corner, and the elderly with more time to sit, think, and watch, tended to be the keepers of wonder. But now, as I see ever-younger children toting smartphones and tablets, I fear for our capacity to wonder. As these succeeding generations come of age, will they have any memory of wonder to call them back to the practice when they are consigned to a rocking chair watching their grandchildren in the yard?

To cultivate wonder is largely a passive activity. In order to experience it, we must be unhurried. We must be open. We need to allow it, not try to do it. We can’t demand that God wow us. To have a sense of wonder is to be humble, to feel immensely small in so great a universe and yet simultaneously awe-struck that God knows our name and listens to our prayers.

Historically, this sense of deep wonder is called contemplation. Much has been written on it, yet to read about it is to be in danger of trying to do it. Telling someone to go be awestruck by the sunset tonight doesn’t work. The closest we can get to bringing someone else into wonder is the hushed, “C’mere, you have to see this,” that we reserve for deer on the front lawn, young siblings cuddled together in the playroom, and other such unplanned moments of awe.

We can’t do wonder, but we can be open to it. Ask God to make you open to the wonder of him, his creation, and ultimately, his love.

Gracious Lord, creator of heaven and earth, grant that I may be still enough to see, quiet enough to hear, and aware enough to shift my attention to you. Teach me to live in awareness of you and the ways you demonstrate your love all around me, that I may be with you and you with me, as you are with your Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forevermore, Amen.

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Filed under Contemplation, Prayer, Wonder, Worship

Rendering with Pen and Ink

In my perusal of the dictionary a while ago, it occurred to me that the act of writing could be fit into most meanings of the word “render.” With the aid of an online dictionary, allow me to make my case so you may render your verdict.

Render, rendered, rendering
transitive verb
1a :  to melt down <render suet>; also :  to extract by melting <render lard>

A pot of the kind used to render whale blubber into oil.

This is a great metaphor for the way I tend to write. Place a large quantity of information in my mental pot, turn on low heat, and stir. Hopefully, it eventually cooks down to something useful. A synthesis is reached and can be poured out upon the paper.

b :  to treat so as to convert into industrial fats and oils or fertilizer

Alas, sometimes the act of writing feels like this. Especially when working toward a very tightly prescribed form. I’m thinking particularly of writing performance evaluations within the military. Industrial fats and fertilizer, indeed.

2a :  to transmit to another :  deliver

headers-document-delivery

If writing fails to do this, then it is not good writing. Writing has to make clear to another what you mean.

b :  give up, yield

Occasionally — when the muse perches upon your desk and inspiration explodes forth — writing feels like this. The prime consideration is to get out of the way as much as possible and let it flow forth.

c :  to furnish for consideration, approval, or information: as (1) :  to hand down (a legal judgment) (2) :  to agree on and report (a verdict)

legal

This is perhaps the most obvious place where “render” fits with the act of writing. All three of these are often done in writing or recorded by it.

3a :  to give in return or retribution

There are some class assignments I have written in a spirit of retribution. And there are some things I have written trying to capture deep gratitude to God.

b (1) :  give back, restore (2) :  reflect, echo

Mideast Jerusalem Mosque Manuscripts

Since a fair amount of my writing is inspired or in honor of the early church fathers and their thoughts and writing, this is accurate. I am attempting to restore their thought to our modern thought. I seek to echo and reflect what they wrote.

c :  to give in acknowledgment of dependence or obligation :  pay

I’m not sure I’ve ever had an original idea. (I’m not sure there are any left in this world.) I acknowledge those who have gone before and try to pay it forward by bringing those thoughts to others.

d :  to do (a service) for another

All writing is at least potentially a service for another. The act of writing something makes it accessible to someone else. It may be a blog thousands read or a journal only discovered after the author dies, but writing captures those thoughts for another.

4a (1) :  to cause to be or become :  make <enough rainfall … to render irrigation unnecessary — P. E. James> <rendered him helpless> (2) :  impart

The word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, are all constructed (1) in order that a thought, idea, feeling, or image may be passed from me to you (2).

b (1) :  to reproduce or represent by artistic or verbal means :  depict (2) :  to give a performance of (3) :  to produce a copy or version of <the documents are rendered in the original French> (4) :  to execute the motions of <render a salute>

I’m not sure I’d describe myself as artistic, but I do hope I depict what I set about to. It is a performance of sorts, but again, there is not much room for originality since we are all copying, knowingly or unknowingly. Some days, it is an act of will, to sit down and go through the motions of getting to 500.

c :  translate

I don’t have the linguistic skills to do proper translation from one language to another, but perhaps I do translate from one medium to another. From old, translated manuscript to this shiny medium of blog.

5:  to direct the execution of :  administer <render justice>

Since some of what I write is instructional, this is fair. “This is how you should proceed.”

6:  to apply a coat of plaster or cement directly to

cement-rendering

I hope I avoid plastering, but maybe, by the grace of God, occasionally something I write is cemented directly to my reader. I have had that experience while reading.

intransitive verb
:  to give recompense

Pay To

Much I have written on these pages and elsewhere is a payment or a return in kind to something someone else has said or written, and many of my sources of this variety are unattributed.

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Filed under Writing

Rescued for a Reason

I went to college before smartphones, apps, and online banking, and I didn’t have e-mail until my junior year, and even then, only because it was a class requirement. There were no automatic, instant transfers into my bank account from home so I had to wait for checks to arrive in the mail. It was not a bad system, though it seems totally foreign compared to how I send money to my college daughter now.

I remember being excited one day as a college freshman because some money (finally!) arrived from home. What does a young college student do with that? I intercepted my girlfriend in the cafeteria line and took her out for pizza, of course. After all, that’s what I wanted the money for — to woo my woman.

In Luke chapter 15:1-10 we read of two lost things being found: a sheep and a coin. One in 100 is lost; the shepherd seeks it out. One in ten is lost; the woman cleans house until she finds it. In both cases, the finders rejoice and call their friends to help them celebrate.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:1-10 (ESV)

Have you ever stopped to think that the celebration could have resulted in the sacrifice of the thing found? “Let’s party! I found my lost sheep. I’ll cook it up; it will be delicious. Bring some potato salad.” “Rejoice with me, for I found my lost coin. Let’s go shopping!” We don’t know that it went that way, but we don’t know that it didn’t either.

Paul was lost, and then was found on the Damascus road. He was not found in order to go back to being a more enlightened, better-behaved Pharisee. Paul’s conversion cost him everything he had worked for up to that point. Far from receiving him with open arms, his former peers in Jerusalem wanted him dead. His own people, the Jews, were largely hostile to him when he became the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Not a dream job for a good Jewish boy like Saul.

We are valuable to God, so much so that he seeks us out and rejoices when we finally allow ourselves to be found. But when we are found, it’s not just so God can give us a pat on the head and a ticket to heaven and then let us go on being lost in the wilderness or under the couch. It’s so we can get back to fulfilling what he created us for in the first place: giving honor to him — even if as a sacrifice.

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Filed under Grace, Obedience, Paul

Weighty Tomes

Books are heavy. That’s why they get packed in small boxes when you move. This also becomes an issue when traveling. If you are a bibliophile and a traveler, you know what I am talking about.

I have learned that carry-on bags never get weighed like checked baggage. Granted, it requires you to tote your bag of books all over the airport. I always try to look casual while passing through the gate. No reason to trigger some airline employee’s memory from training that there is, in fact, a weight limit to carry-on bags. Wheeled carry-ons help.

With airlines being the misery-inducing organizations that they are, we occasionally travel without checking bags. Since clothes have to go somewhere, do I take an extra pair of pants or another book? (If you’ve never asked yourself that question, you can probably skip the rest of this post.)

But as shoulder-straining as traveling with a bunch of books can be, thinking about backpacking becomes a whole other matter. My “basic load” for Morning and Evening Prayer comes in at about 7 pounds (and a fair amount of volume as well.) Granted, I could swap out for a smaller Bible and prayer book.

Of course, besides devotional material, I want to take other stuff. A field guide for birds, maybe one for dragonflies and one for butterflies. And I still don’t have anything to read, just for fun….. It soon becomes evident that I need to hire a Sherpa to carry my library for me for a weekend backpacking trip. Probably not practical or affordable, and certainly counterproductive to one of the main draws of backcountry camping for me — solitude.

My experiences traveling have also taught me that I usually read less than I think I will, especially if in any suitably non-urban environment. I look for birds and I spend a good amount of time just sitting and thinking. I try to take this into consideration when I travel, but I am a contingency packer by nature.

A contingency packer is someone who stands looking at their bag/suitcase thinking, “What if?” We are the people who take the Boy Scout motto to “be prepared” to heart. I have been trying to curb this instinct in recent years and two things help. First, years of experience of almost never needing my “what if” stuff. Second, the presence of a credit card in my wallet so that in the case of some unforeseen contingency, I can probably buy whatever I need.

This is not true in the wilderness, of course, which is why I occasionally obsess over packing lists for trips I might not even take. Yes, I hear you say, “Just get a Kindle or read on your phone.” Well, no. First, I have an aversion to taking electronics backpacking. The one exception I might make is a camera. Electronics are fragile and heavy, batteries die, and then you are stuck lugging a useless, heavy object.

A book needs no batteries and is much more durable than any glass and plastic contraption. Plus, I carry a flip phone. I’m not reading anything longer than 140 characters on that. So, what shall I do? Well, first things first. I need to find some white space on the calendar to actually go backpacking. Then I can start making hard decisions in earnest.

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Filed under General, Reading

The Frame

Growing up with a dad who worked in a bicycle store was about as good as having a dad who ran a candy store. At least I thought so. I remember coming home from school one day to find a large box by our door. I pulled it inside and called Dad at work. “There’s a box here for you.” He told me to open it up and inside was a chrome Hutch BMX frame.

Dad told me that the frame was for me because somehow he had received an extra. It was now mine and we were going to build me a new BMX bike from the frame up. It wasn’t that I didn’t already have one — my trusty Mongoose was in the garage — but to my young mind, I was moving up. I was going from an off-the-rack bike to custom built. Everybody had a Mongoose, but only serious riders had a Hutch.

Soon we were picking out parts and bringing them home. I realized, even then, I was getting stuff that hadn’t sold well at the store, but I didn’t care. It was different, which made it that much more cool to me. My new bike had slightly narrower tires than the typical BMX bike and I willingly took a Uniseat, which was a narrow piece of plastic permanently attached to a fiberglass seat post. It was made to be lightweight, not comfortable, and it fulfilled both.

When we were done, I had a bike that was the envy of all the neighborhood and it all started with a frame. Before the frame, all the components were in the bike shop, but we had no place to hang them. Since I had nothing to put them on, there was no point in getting them.

The historic creeds of the church function in much the same way, especially the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. They provide a frame upon which to hang more expansive explanations and ancillary doctrines. This is actually pretty important.

Going back to bikes for a minute, take a piece of paper and try to draw one from memory and then compare it to an actual bike. How did you do? Apparently, this is harder than riding one. It’s hard to believe this is so difficult, but perhaps I had an unfair advantage growing up in a bike shop. I’ve worked on dozens of bikes in my life and I still do all my own maintenance to this day.

Part of the difficulty for some to draw a bike might be their focus on the bike’s components. We interact with the things attached to the the frame, and not the frame itself, so most of the drawings have nothing more than wheels, a seat, and handlebars. Some even left off pedals, but it is the frame that is most consistently wrong in all of these drawings.

When you get the frame wrong, the whole thing doesn’t work right. If you gave those same folks a sketch of a frame, they could probably finish the drawing pretty well. The same goes for theology. If we have an orthodox “frame,” it is easier to put the whole thing together in a coherent way. It is not a guarantee, but it gives us the critical piece — the piece that holds the other parts together.

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Filed under Creeds, Doctrine, Theology