Some Further Thoughts on Lions

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I wrote recently about Saint Antony’s teaching on the powerlessness of the devil.

I stand by that assessment, but perhaps a few more words are in order. Satan prowls about like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. But he’s on a leash, as it were. He cannot act entirely freely because he is restrained by the power of God.

In my first post, I reflected on seeing lions at the zoo as a child. Since that post, I visited our local zoo with my daughter and granddaughter. There we saw lions, tigers, and a grizzly bear. At no time during our visit was I afraid of the animals in the zoo. The boundaries and barriers are well-established.

If I chose to enter the lion’s habitat, however, the equation would change, wouldn’t it? Suddenly I would be at risk. The situation is the same with the demonic. We are able to put ourselves in the position of being compromised.

The devil roars to try to scare us into negotiating. Or sometimes, he tries to lure us into his lair by looking cute and cuddly, or sexy, or powerful, or whatever it takes to get our attention.

Don’t be fooled.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

James 4:7-8 RSV

Just because he’s caged doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to devour you. Don’t put your hand in the cage. He’s waiting to rip your arm off. But if you stay out of his lair, you’re safe.

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Thoughts on the Problem of Evil

Bishop Robert Barron did a fine job of outlining the “problem of evil” in a recent podcast. In case you are unfamiliar with this concept, it runs like this: God is good. God is all-powerful. Bad things happen. Therefore, either God is not good or God is not all-powerful.

I promised to discuss some of my thoughts on this in my last post. Understand, then, that this isn’t a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil, but some of my reflections that Bishop Barron did not cover.

First, I find it interesting that few people ever discuss “the problem of good.” God is just. God is all-powerful. We are all guilty before God of breaking his commandments. Good things happen to us anyway. Why is this not a counter-example against his justice or omnipotence? To me, it is just as valid as the prior argument.

The answer, it seems, is that we don’t mind unmerited favor, but we get really touchy about any possible unmerited disfavor. We are all selfish. Sit two children next to each other and give one 3 cookies and the other 4 cookies and you’ll see the objections fly from the first, but not the second unless you have an exceptional child.

Another observation: we tend to find what we are looking for. If I go through a day looking for things to complain about, I can certainly find a long list. But, if I am looking for things to be thankful for, I can generate a long list there as well. It is hard to find contentment when you are focused on all your sources of discontent.

Yes, every life has its share of legitimate suffering, some more than others. Some of this suffering is truly outside our control, while a good deal is self-inflicted, or is at the least made worse by us. I am no Pollyanna. I am a combat veteran who has watched people die. I’ve knocked on too many doors to tell someone their son or husband isn’t coming home anymore.

But I also wake up every morning. I see the world God has created around me. I have my family and friends. I have a roof over my head and food in my pantry. Life is good because God is a merciful and generous God, even to sinners like me.

Mine is not a pain-free life. I’ve felt my appendix rupture. I can’t run anymore because of nerve issues in my hip. But I can still walk. And I received medical care in time to keep my appendicitis from being fatal, like it would have been had it happened a century earlier.

The problem of evil is mostly “solved” by the existence of freedom that God gave us so we could choose to love him. That freedom comes with a risk, a risk that we will choose to not love him, a risk that we will choose to do evil, and we all do, to differing degrees. Yet, the sun rises in the east every day, the rains come, the crops grow, and our life goes on. God is ridiculously good to us.

If you have trouble seeing that, I recommend the one thousand gifts challenge. Ann Voskamp wrote a book a few years ago detailing her challenge to herself to list three things per day that she is thankful for, with no repeats, for a year. The math comes out to slightly more than 1,000 things.

It is a good exercise, one that my wife and I practice. Three things you are thankful for each day. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. They are all blessings that ultimately have their source in God.

It may be that we can solve our problem of evil, at least to an extent, by being thankful for what we have.* There is one other thing we can do as well, but I’ll save that for next time.


* This is not to say that we shouldn’t work for justice in our world and seek to alleviate others’ suffering. Of course we should. We are commanded to do works of mercy.

The Devil Can’t Make You Do It

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“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” 1 Peter 5:8-9a RSV

I remember visiting Brookfield Zoo in Chicago as a child. The lions were in actual cages in a large concrete building and near feeding time, they would pace and roar. Their roar would reverberate inside the building, making them seem all the more ferocious.

I also remember watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (or more recently, BBC’s Planet Earth) and seeing lions hunt for food in the wild. They are quiet as they slink through the tall grass of the Serengeti, edging closer to an antelope.

We see the same dynamic in domesticated cats. Open a can of tuna and you will soon be aware of your cat’s presence as they meow and rub up against your legs. But drag a string slowly across the floor and they are silent as they crouch and prepare to pounce on their unsuspecting prey.

In light of this, what do we make of Peter’s exhortation? Surely he knew of the danger of lions and how they hunt. Saint Antony gives us the key.

“Since our Lord lived, the enemy is fallen, and his powers have lost their strength. Therefore, though he can do nothing, nevertheless, like a fallen tyrant, he does not rest, but threatens, though it be but words.”¹

He continues,

“…they do not see us as friendly to them, that they should spare us; and they have no love of justice, that they should amend. On the contrary, they are wicked and desire nothing so much as to injure those who seek virtue and honor God. The reason they do nothing is because they can do nothing, except threaten; if they could, they would not wait, but would do the evil at once, since their will is quite ready for it, especially against us.”²

As further evidence, Antony cites the opening of the book of Job, where Satan comes before God. God brags on Job to Satan, but Satan challenges God, saying, “Does Job fear God for naught? Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:9-10) In response to this, God allows Satan to afflict Job.

If Satan could have afflicted Job without permission, wouldn’t he? But he could not do evil against Job without the acquiescence of God.

(Yes, this leaves open the whole so-called problem of evil, which I will address in a future post.)

Back to our opening verse from 1 Peter. The devil prowls about like a roaring lion. Yes, he can make a lot of noise and be annoying, but he has no power against us if we are in Christ. He is just a noisy cat who wants what we have, but can’t get it. Meow.

The devil can’t make you do anything.

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¹ Saint Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony of the Desert, in Fahey, William Edmund, editor, The Foundations of Western Monasticism, Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2013. p. 35

² ibid. Emphasis added.

Where We Place Ourselves Matters

I like birds. I’ve been watching them for years. I have often said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that my life verse is Matthew 6:26, “Consider the birds of the air.” Jesus makes reference to them in terms of the Father’s care for them. They neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

But there are other things to be learned from them and even from seeking to see them. Where you place yourself matters. At the most basic level, you need to get outside or be able to at least see outside.

Recently I’ve been chasing a particular bird, the Western Tanager. My chase has been motivated by three things. First, it is a striking species, yellow and black with a red face. Second, as the name implies, it only occurs in the western part of North America. Since I am getting ready to move east again in a few days, my chances of seeing this particular bird are limited. Third, I have never seen one. In birding parlance, that means if I see one, it would be a “lifer,” a new bird for my life list.

Many birders keep a list of species they have seen, and I do as well. It serves as a record of what I have seen and can serve as motivation to get out and see more. It makes watching the birds into a game because it is a means of keeping score. I can look back on my list and remember where I have been, and what I have seen.

But there are challenges. As has been noted by many, birds have wings, and they use them frequently. There is no guarantee that you will see a particular bird. Many migrate, and all move from place to place.

If you don’t care what birds you see, just getting outside is sufficient to see something most of the time. Eventually, if you want to see new things, you have to go to new places. My travels around the country and to different parts of the world have aided in my endeavor to see new birds.

My favorite birds tend to be those on or near water. I like waterfowl, waders (herons and related birds), and shorebirds. Part of the attraction is they tend to be fairly easy to observe. Songbirds such as warblers and tanagers are smaller and more active. They spend their lives in the midst of trees, which have a habit of getting in the way of seeing them clearly. They rarely sit in one spot and allow you to look at them for a long time.

But I have seen almost all the waterfowl of North America, and the waders as well. If I want to see new birds, without traveling great distances, I need to look in other places, which brings me to my main point here.

No matter how long I stand by a lake or the ocean, there are very slim odds I will see a tanager of any type. They are forest birds, and spend their time feeding in trees, often in the upper canopy. While it is theoretically possible they might come to me, my chances of seeing them increase when I go to where they prefer to be. I have to place myself in their habitat.

So that is what I have been doing, spending more time in the forested areas of the Pacific Northwest. Today it paid off and I saw a Western Tanager.

Western TanagerI told you he was good looking, didn’t I?

It has occurred to me in the past several days of looking in trees that there are some parallels to our spiritual pursuits as well.

Place matters. Of course, this is not all about geography, but it plays a part. More important is the place we put our hearts and minds. God can speak to us anywhere. Just like it is theoretically possible I could see a tanager anywhere. But if I am seeking a tanager, I am more likely to be successful if I go where one is likely to occur.

For us to find closeness to God, we are more likely to do so in certain places or states of being. It is possible for me to find inspiration on Facebook, but it is much more likely in prayer, worship, or spiritual reading. Just like I can’t really complain about not seeing any tanagers if I spend all my time on the beach, neither can I really complain about spiritual dryness if I don’t spend time in prayer.

Not only that, but I need to have an idea what I am looking for. I need to know that it is possible to see tanagers, to find peace, or grow in holiness. If I have no idea what some of the possible outcomes of prayer are, I am less likely to achieve them.

I placed myself on a rock at the edge of a forested area, I played a recording of the call of the Western Tanager, and I had the experience of spending about 15 minutes watching one and being able to photograph it. There was no guarantee that would work, but without placing myself in that situation, I could pretty well guarantee I would not see one.

Now I need to consider what other rocks I need to plant myself on for a while.

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Consent Isn’t Sufficient

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In the hallways in my workplace are posters detailing the bad things that can happen to you if you engage in sexual assault and harassment. They also give the solution: do nothing without consent. But that is too low of a bar for decision-making. Just because someone says “yes” doesn’t mean we should always carry out our desired action.

Consent turns every interaction into a negotiation, a search to see who will give into our desires. Yet this does nothing to restrain our desires.  It is not a test to help us decide if our desires are good or right. It merely tells us what we can get away with.

Mere consent looks at others as a means to an end, the end of my personal gratification. Consent is not a sufficient basis for building relationships. I give the pump my credit card and it consents to give me gasoline for my car. By any sane measure, I am using the pump to give me what I want. I trade money for miles. This may be fine for economic transactions, but it is not a path to human flourishing.

The disadvantaged will give some sort of consent in hopes that they might possibly gain more from the transaction, but that rarely happens. I have no emotional attachment to gas pumps. I have no loyalty to them either. I will quickly use a different one if it offers me a lower price.

The gas pump gives up from its internal reservoir in the transaction of swiping my card, but it has no say in what I use that gas for. I will use a small amount of it to drive back to my local gas station in another week or so to buy more gas. But one of these days, I will fill up there and drive away for the last time, possibly never to return.

If the gas pump was another human being, the transaction would be dehumanizing. I come as I please, give as little as I can to get what I want to fulfill my desires, and move on without a thought. Yet, this characterizes so much of our human interaction as well.

A better standard would be dignity. Do we seek to uphold the dignity of others, and our own dignity, in our interactions? Too often, the answer is “no.” We are so focused on our own desires that we don’t seek mutually beneficial relationships.

Sure, the gas station is there to make money and I contribute to that enterprise. But people are after more than money. We need money to function economically, but amassing and using money is not intrinsic to human flourishing. Food, water, and shelter are necessary, but they are not the end we seek.

We want to be valued for who we are. We want someone to care about how we are and what we are. In a word, we seek love, and we are willing to trade much for it. To be loved is to have someone who cares about what is important to us, and ultimately, that “us” may be the most important thing.

We want someone to treat us with dignity, and we seek others who we can treat with dignity. Dignity says that they are intrinsically important, not just a means to some part of our personal gratification.

God has bestowed great dignity upon each one of us by creating us and the world we live in. He further demonstrates that dignity by not writing us off when we fail to reciprocate with love. He desires us to achieve the highest dignity, to be with him in his presence for eternity. But he doesn’t violate our dignity by forcing it upon us.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to naturally consider the dignity of others or our own. We are too often willing to trade it for whatever we think we need. Yet, undignified is not necessarily the same thing as menial. Sometimes the greatest dignity we can bestow upon another is by being willing to lower ourselves to serve them.

Unfortunately, there are vast throngs out there for whom dignity is not a conscious thought, either their own or others. It makes it a tough market for those who cling to this God-given idea. But if we refuse to take others’ consent in place of seeking their dignity, maybe we can reverse the tide.hall-of-posters

The Breath of God

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With no air conditioning in the house in which I grew up, we left our windows open most of the summer. When I was about eight years old, I remember lying on my bed one day, shirtless, enjoying a gentle breeze moving through my room. More notably, I remember ascribing the breeze to God and equating its feeling upon my skin to having my back rubbed by my mom. It was a moment of loving intimacy.

I was reminded of this yesterday, Pentecost, as we read in the Gospel reading from John about Jesus breathing on his disciples and giving them the Holy Spirit. The Epistle also related the coming of the Holy Spirit through what sounded like a rushing wind. This tie between breath and Spirit goes all the way back to the first verses of Genesis, where we read about the Spirit of God being upon the waters. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, which can mean breath, wind, or spirit.

Feeling someone breathe on you is an indication of intimacy, of closeness. It reveals a physical proximity and a stillness that we don’t share with many people. A child resting his head on your shoulder; lovers in an embrace. It is fitting that this same quiet intimacy is representative of the Spirit of God.

I wonder how the scene in John’s Gospel actually looked. Did Jesus stand in front of the line of Apostles and breathe at them? That seems odd and, to me, unlikely. The text doesn’t give us much detail, but if Jesus breathed on them, it implies, at least to me, a certain intimacy in the situation.

It is good to remember on Pentecost that the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just some mechanical transaction that occurs at our baptism. It is the tender act of the Father bestowing life on his child. Just as he breathed into Adam and gave him life, he breathes into us and gives us new life.

Zugunruhe

As I write, I am a few days away from picking up my clearing papers. For those unfamiliar with military life, that means I will soon start the bureaucratic olympics known as “clearing post,” a multi-week process you must complete before you can move to a new post (and promptly begin in-processing, another multi-day affair.)

We have known when and where we are moving since December, yet we won’t drive away until a week into June. At this point, we are ready to get on with it. I have opined to a few friends that the military should hold our orders until thirty days before we are supposed to leave. Then, one morning our supervisor walks into our office, hands us orders, and tells us to get moving.

Those to whom I have mentioned this idea all say that it would be hard on families. They are probably right, but I find the restlessness of the pre-move equally challenging. Thus, the name of this post: zugunruhe. It is not a theological term, but an ornithological one. It describes the restlessness that is observable in migratory birds in the days before it is time to fly to their breeding grounds. (It seems birds are more casual about the return migration to their wintering grounds.)

For us, the conflict is between being mentally ready to start packing, cleaning, and driving while being too far away from moving day for it to make sense to do too much. I already have lists of things to do and take, and our road trip is mostly planned, but it isn’t yet time to clean the refrigerator and load the car.

This phenomena of being ready to get on with it, whatever it may be, isn’t confined to military relocation. Pregnant women, children before the start or end of school, and anyone on the brink of a significant transition are familiar with the feeling.

These periods are important, however. I learned a while ago, at least on the small scale, to not rush transitions. I remind myself of this frequently when leaving my office for the day. Don’t be in a hurry; make sure you have everything. Thirty seconds now might save you 30 minutes later.

We can feel zugunruhe about our biggest transition as well, the one to the next life. I have periodic bouts of it myself as I look forward to heaven. This life has much to offer, but it is also filled with inconvenience, suffering, and heartache. As Christians, we know it will come to an end. We have hope and we look forward to the fulfillment of that hope.

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away.

Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away.

(Albert E. Brumley, 1929)