Creed or Chaos

 

Dorothy Sayers

 

 

Last week we spent some time talking about Dorothy Sayers.  She was a contemporary of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and a part of the literary society – The Inklings – they shared at Oxford before and during WWII.  We made reference to Sayer’s essay, “Creed or Chaos,” that was written in 1940 and decried what she considered the abysmal lack of understanding of the faith then in England.

Since then I have picked up another one of Sayers’ books, this one called The Mind of The Maker.  To borrow a corny line from a movie (or two) It’s not what you think it is.  That is, it isn’t primarily a book about theology.  The “maker” that Sayers has in mind as she writes the book is not primarily the maker of the universe, but rather the human artist – the writer, painter, sculptor or composer who uses his or her imagination to create.

In the book, she argues that the trinitarian nature of God is reflected in His creation, to include most profoundly those He created in His image – human beings.  In creating the universe, God acted in His trinitarian nature and, Sayers argues, when women and men create, they – on a much lower scale or level – necessarily employ trinitarian steps.

I have not gotten into the meat of the book yet, but I have read the Introduction written by Madeline L’Engle, the author of the Wrinkle In Time Quintet and no stranger herself to the creative process.  She says a couple of interesting things that I think may relate to our present study of the creeds.

First, that theological statements – like those in the creeds – are statements of fact about the nature of God and the nature of the universe and thus have great practical application.  That is, if we know something about the nature of the universe and the God who created it, we may be better equipped to navigate our way through life.  Less likely to stumble or err.

The other thing she says is this:

. .  . the statements in the creeds came into being not because the early Fathers were eager to force the limitations of language onto what they believed about the nature of God, but to combat heresy, statements that distorted the truth about the nature of the Creator.

 

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Wine on The Lees

Isaiah 25:6

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

 

 

If the image of wine settling on its lees (dregs) in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is one that suggests stagnation and accordant ruination, the image in Isaiah 25: 6 seems to be opposite.  That is, in Isaiah the wine that is “on the lees” is “well refined” and fit for God’s “feast of fat things.”   The wine that is “on the lees” in Isaiah is the best wine and better, apparently, for having been kept on the lees!

What can we make of this?   Maybe the best advice would be simply that these two apparently contrary images are not meant to be compared.  They were written at different times and to address different situations and no responsible Bible scholar would waste any time in trying to compare or contrast them.  It’s apples to oranges.

And yet. And yet.  The idea in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is so familiar to those of us who occupy the pews in Middle America.  This is the riff or saw or even cliché that the preachers use to warn us against staying in our “comfort zones.”  We need to get out there and engage the culture, make our witness.  All of that.

I wonder if it might be legitimately argued that the passage in Isaiah may be a kind of counterpoint to all of that.  I wonder if there may be wisdom in allowing Christians to “settle on their lees” and be thereby deepened and strengthened, not embittered.

Not in the sense of becoming complacent or self-sufficient, but in steeping in the gospel and all that it implies.  If you read Rod Dreher (and if you are concerned with the state of the church in modern life, you must read Rod Dreher) you will see constant reference in his prolific posting to the shallowness of the theology in the so-called “Evangelical” churches.  The complaint he cites has to do with the church culture becoming focused on entertainment and hipness and losing sight of tradition and the deeper truths those traditions testify to.  Just a few months ago I heard some people talking about someone who had left a local mega-church for greener pastures because the new church they had found had a better praise band.  Dreher argues – and repeatedly cites research to support – that the generation now rising in the church is all about emotion and little else and that the churches they frequent do little to change this.  In fact, they foster and even exploit it.

Thus, when confronted with any sort of sob story, these youngsters will be quick to abandon any of the church’s teachings on sexual morality.  It’s all about what feels good.  Come on in and turn it up to eleven.

 

 

 

Settled on Its Lees

And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

 

Yesterday I posted a meditation on Psalm 55, particularly verse 19 and that line of that verse that says “Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”  I wrote yesterday about how this line, particularly as it is translated in the King James, intrigued me and convinced me that what was being communicated here was not the idea of the unchanging nature of God as other, more recent translations would imply; and not merely the idea that the people about whom the psalmist wrote had refused to repent.

I wrote yesterday that the line seemed to me to be aimed at people who have insulated themselves from life; from the changes that life inevitably brings and that require us to search ourselves, admit our insufficiencies and thus acknowledge our dependence on God’s grace.

I said then that any such insulation is false.  It is at best short-lived for no matter how thick our insulation may be – no matter how much money we have in the bank; no matter how strong our bodies are today and no matter how prosperous and happy are those whose flourishing is necessary for our own happiness – life inevitably breaks through it all and shows us once again how tenuous our hold on sanity and life is and how dependent we are on Him for our daily bread.

That same line – Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God – was still with me this morning and I thought about another verse that had struck me so powerfully long ago that it was still in memory, even though I had made no deliberate attempt to commit it there.  It was a verse, I remembered, about wine having “settled on its lees.”

It turns out that that metaphor – of wine settling on its lees – appears at least three times in the Bible and the idea – when all three of those references are considered – is more complicated than I remembered it being.

The notion in my head was that wine settling on its lees was simply a bad thing.  I understood that “lees” mean the same thing as “dregs.”  Although “lees” isn’t a part of normal, modern speech where I live, the word “dregs” is.  And “dregs” connotes something bad – we speak of “the dregs of society,” or the “dregs of the talent pool,” meaning the worst of it.  That which is left at the bottom after the good stuff is all taken.

I thought that wine that was allowed to set on its lees would become bitter and that good stewardship of wine, as it aged, required that it be poured “from vessel to vessel” to take it off of its lees or dregs, that is, the sediment that would fall out of the juice over time.  There is support for that idea in Jeremiah 48:11:

Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed.

Here at least we have reference to the practice of pouring wine from vessel to vessel to get rid of the lees, dregs or sediment.   Thus, we may think of Moab here as a nation that is complacent in its own strength.  It is insulated from the reality of life; the reality of the world.  Here is how Eugene Peterson translates this same passage:

“Moab has always taken it easy—
lazy as a dog in the sun,
Never had to work for a living,
never faced any trouble,
Never had to grow up,
never once worked up a sweat.
But those days are a thing of the past.
I’ll put him to work at hard labor.
That will wake him up to the world of hard knocks.
That will smash his illusions.

But there is more to this idea of wine settling on its lees.  In at least one other place in the scriptures, wine that is settled on its lees is the best wine.  Look at Isaiah 25: 6

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

So, as is so often the case in the scriptures, if we attempt careful and thorough study, there is more to the picture; more to the story.

We’ll look further tomorrow . . .

Meditation on Psalm 55

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”

 

I try to read a Psalm a day.  The Psalms, it seems, are fit for daily study in that they each may stand alone.  Other books in the Bible may demand a more comprehensive approach – a consideration of broad context and language – but each Psalm is a story or drama unto itself.

 

So many of the psalms are attributed to David.  Some of those are beautiful devotions, like the 23rd, whose metaphor for God as shepherd is surely one of the high points in the whole book.  But many of David’s psalms are shot through with cursing and complaint.  In reading the Psalms, we discover that, for David, life was a battle.  He is constantly in trouble, surrounded by enemies, suffering betrayals and the consequences of his own wrongdoings; in fear of destruction.  Undoubtedly there is value for the modern man or woman in David’s perspective.  So many of us are insulated from the rough and tumble of life that David lived.  We are not encamped on a desert mountain and wakened by the lion and the bear that threatens our sheep and ourselves.  We are not being chased by a lunatic king who is insanely jealous and out to kill us.  We move from air-conditioned summers to comfortably-heated winters.  Our larders are generally full and our homes secure.

What David’s psalms may do for us is awaken us to the fact that, in spite of the comforts we know, life is a battle.  There is something real at stake; something great that may be lost or gained.  To lose sight of this is to surrender to the status quo:  life simply goes on as ever before, each day is more of the same, and we lift our feet from the ground and simply let the earth spin beneath us.  What difference does our effort make, anyway?

Some may fall into such a defeatist, fatalistic view of life as a result of repeated disappointment and failure.   Some may come to see life as not only unfair, but insurmountably unfair, and finally satisfy themselves with those little pleasures that may be found along the primrose path of least resistance.

This morning’s Psalm for me was number 55.  It is in many ways a typical David psalm.  He is in desperate straits (of course) and is pouring his soul out to God; half wishing for complete escape from life (Oh, that I had wings of a dove; then I would fly away into the wilderness and be at peace) and half wishing for immediate victory in the conflict.

As is his wont, he curses his enemies.  For the most part, there is nothing new here, but as I followed along this morning, one phrase did stand out.  David says of his enemies:

Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.

What can that mean?  What does it mean to “have no changes?”  This reading is from the King James Version which is my starting point for reading the Psalms.  The Psalms are poetry, after all, and there should be a certain majesty, ambiguity, mystery and meter about them.   I looked at several newer translations.  There are lots of variations in the translation of this verse.   NIV: “. . . [they] never change their ways and have no fear of God.”   Some translations seem to attribute the modifier suggesting a lack of change to God.   This is from a newer version of the NIV:  “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them . . .”

Other translations render the verse to say that the change referred to is that change of heart associated with repentance.

As is often the case, I am far more satisfied and intrigued by this unusual and at first ambiguous rendering in the old King James.  “They have no changes!”  Not that they haven’t repented; not that God is unchanging.  (Those two things are true, but this verse is saying something other than that.)

What the verse says to me – and this distinguishes it from the others – is that the enemies of whom David here speaks walk in false security.  The security of wealth and worldly power.  They are comfortable and consequently feel no need of God.  For them, life is not a battle.

How is that relevant to me?  Well, I am not about to sell the house and by a tent and start keeping sheep.  But I might be a little better at recognizing the realities of life.  Life brings us changes.  They are inevitable.  It is not so much that David’s enemies had no real changes.  They were subject to the vicissitudes of life like every other mortal.  But they had done their best to ignore them.  They filled their lives with insulation and diversion and forgot themselves and their real lives.

I don’t have to search for changes, and neither do you.  They are on our plates every day.  Every day we age.  We may grow wiser or simply duller.  Every day our fortunes change.  Look at those who surround us.  How have their circumstances changed and how completely may we have ignored those changes?  What opportunities are lost and which are gained?

A sober assessment of our own changes will indeed teach us new priorities and of our need for God.  Something real is at stake.  Something great may be lost or gained and, although we are active players in this drama, we in our own strength are insufficient to meet the challenge.

Reading The Psalms

 . . . Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me . . .

 

If the Christian life is a personal relationship with God, then the Christian’s journal is the book of Psalms.  There may be fuller and more complete theology elsewhere, but nowhere else in the Bible do we see such a personal and candid conversation with God.  No holds are barred.  We see every emotion:  grief and doubt and disappointment and repentance.  We see joy and triumph and victory and reward and peace.

In the Psalms we see a human being pouring his soul out to God in every situation.  In reading these poems, we find that our experiences are shared and validated.  We are not the first to have great disappointments and frustrations; we are not the first to be confronted with situations and outcomes we don’t understand.  We are not the first to be confronted with our own mistakes and their consequences.

We are not the first to know that all depends on God’s grace – that we have no hope without it.

Review and Preview

In thy presence is fullness of joy

  In thy right hand are pleasures forevermore

Psalm 16: 1

 

This past Sunday’s lesson was Psalm 16.  There were several thoughtful reactions to the reading of the Psalm.  Some noted that the psalm was comforting, others that it was joyful and worshipful.  The teacher (that’s me) suggested that one of the distinctive features of this psalm is its comprehensiveness.  That is, it takes us through so much of the life of faith: the absolute trust; the turning away from falsehood; the fellowship of kindred minds; the fulfilled life and the hope for eternity.

Another distinction of this psalm is its inclusion of the word “pleasure.”   We sometimes take that word to mean something selfish and shallow and hedonistic – “worldly pleasures,” and all that.  But here it is, right there in the psalm: “In thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

The Hebrew word that is here translated “pleasures” is used 13 times in the Old Testament.  Only twice – here and in a passage in Job – is it actually translated into the English word pleasure.  In most instances, it’s translated as “pleasant” and in a few others to the word “sweet.”

In class we talked about what the word “pleasure has come to mean in modern culture.”  For fun and to make a point we referred to Tom T. Hall’s song “Faster Horses.”  Here is what the old man in the song says constitutes pleasure:

Son, it’s faster horses

Younger women

Older whiskey

And more money

Image result for tom t hall

Tom T. Hall

We were sure that this kind of pleasure was not what the psalmist was promising.  What then is the pleasure that the psalm refers to?  What does the word mean in this context?

We talked of abstractions like “joy” and “peace” and we talked about pleasure being the absence of negatives like sickness and infirmity.

When asked to make these ideas a bit more concrete we came to the notion that joy or pleasure might be the full engagement in those human relationships that mean the most to us.  If we were given time and energy and opportunity to fully share our affection and wisdom with our grandchildren, for example, we’d call that pleasure.

Others suggested that joy or pleasure in this biblical sense might be found in the fullest exercise of our talents and strengths.  One such talent is music and one musician in the class described feeling a desire to do more with her talents than she had ever done.

And this suggests an idea that we did not develop in class, but that I think is fairly raised by the psalm and certainly by the experience of all of us.  Like our musician in class, we all feel like – no matter how close the friendship, no matter how deeply experienced and no matter how finely we may perform musically – or in any other talent – we always are left with the lingering notion that there was more that we did not get to.

I remember that Dr. Weaver quoting some passage  – not from the Bible – about friendship not being able to come to full fruition in “such a nook as this.”  The “nook” referred to is, of course, this earthly life, bound as it is by time and mortal limitation.  This was, for him, an intimation of heaven, where all that we have seen as promised in our relationships may be finally fulfilled.

Here is a quote from Pablo Casals, perhaps the greatest cellist who ever lived:

THE MUSICIAN: Pablo Casals, who performed at the UN recently, is 81. He agreed to have Robert Snyder make a movie short, “A Day in the Life of Pablo Casals.” Snyder asked Casals, the world’s foremost cellist, why he continues to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered: “Because I think I am making progress.”

Image result for pablo casals

Pablo Casals

Even for a master musician like Casals, there is the sense that there is more out there, more to be expressed than even he has yet achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Fathers

 

As you know, if you read this blog regularly, I’ve been reading Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings.  She delves deeply into her early life, how her parents surrounded her with books and read to her in their nursery in their home in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the second phase of the book, entitled “Learning to See,” she focuses on her summer vacation north to visit her mother’s parents in West Virginia and her father’s parents in Ohio.   I have lived in West Virginia almost all of my life and so the descriptions of the life she saw here in the early part of the 20th century are very interesting to me.  I have been to the places she writes about – the towns of Clay and Richwood and the country all along the Elk River.

She writes particularly about one such trip she made very early in her life with only her mother.  They traveled by train to Clay, West Virginia and spent time in her grandparents’ home on a mountaintop there.  Eudora’s father came to West Virginia at the end of their visit to, as she puts it, “shepherd us home.”   Although she was very young then, she speaks of this memory about her father’s arrival:

. . . I was not too much of a baby to notice and remember how different it was when my father arrived on the scene.  A difference came over what we were doing, like a change in the wind.

I know what she means.  I remember something of the same in my own early life and I will try to express that before I end this post.  But the idea I have now is perhaps better expressed by Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina.

That book actually began as two books – one the fatal story of Anna and the other the story of the life and redemption of Levin and Kitty.   The second story is far the better one.   Anna’s life is one mistake after another leading to dissolution and finally death but Levin and Kitty’s story is a great love story and a great story of victory in living.

 

Kitty Shcherbatsky

 

 

Kitty and Levin’s story begins with great disappointments on both sides.  Levin is head-over-heels in love with Kitty, but before he can bring himself to propose to her, she becomes enamored with Count Vronsky, who leads her on only to at last disappoint and mortify her by transferring his affections to the married Anna.

Kitty’s family does what it can to help her assuage her grief.  This includes, as the story goes, a trip to a German spa where Kitty meets another girl who works with the halt and the lame at there in service to Christ.  Kitty is drawn to this Varinka and comes to see that her own grief can be forgotten as she immerses herself in sacrificial love.

This is Kitty’s conversion.  It is real, and it is really brought about, on the human plane, by Varinka and a woman for whom Varinka works.  Kitty comes to venerate this older woman.

But when Kitty’s father, an old Russian prince, steeped in experience and tradition, arrives on the scene, things change.  It turns out that the old prince knew the woman Kitty has come to idealize.  When he meets her again at the spa, Kitty can see the woman in a new way through her father’s eyes as he speaks to the woman, as she reacts and as her father comments to her later about the woman’s character and earlier life.

Image result for anna karenina "prince Shcherbatsky"

Prince Shcherbatsky

 

 

Here is Tolstoy:

. . .  with her father’s coming all the world in which she had been living was transformed for Kitty.  She did not give up everything she had learned, but she became aware that she had deceived herself in supposing she could be what she wanted to be. Her eyes were, it seemed, opened; she felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy and self-conceit on the pinnacle to which she had wished to mount.  Moreover, she became aware of all the dreariness of the world of sorrow, of sick and dying people, in which she had been living. The efforts she had made to like it seemed to her intolerable, and she felt a longing to get back quickly into the fresh air, to Russia, to Ergushovo, where, as she knew from letters, her sister Dolly had already gone with her children.

But her affection for Varenka did not wane. As she said good-bye, Kitty begged her to come to them in Russia.

This scene from the book is far deeper and more subtle than I can convey in this post.  It is in fact a masterly dramatization of an elusive but profound dynamic of good fathering.   I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else even try to communicate this, in story or in exposition. Fathers, good fathers, are a sobering influence.  They see the people who surround their children in a different, more mature, less fanciful light.  They are sensitive to any attempt or effort to patronize or exploit their children.  When dad comes around, the nonsense stops.

When dad is not around, the nonsense often goes on unchecked.