Meditation on Psalm 40

 

We Evangelicals are criticized for using the phrase “personal relationship with the Lord.”

No, maybe that’s unfair.  Maybe I should say that we are often criticized for abusing that phrase.  Perhaps the notion is that some of us take this to ridiculous extreme.  Every traffic light, every chance meeting, every trip to the store, all is a part of God’s wonderful plan for our lives and we know it and we might even let folks know that we have a pretty good idea how it’s all going to “work together for the good.”

A little of that goes a long, long way.

Oh, but we can err on the other side of this, too.  We can forget that God is involved in our lives and that He is working for the good in all that we do; in all that happens to us.  It is so easy to lose sight of that.  One reason, I guess, is that we are so turned off by those around us who just know that God prevented them from getting a parking ticket this morning.  But maybe the more dominant reason is our dogged penchant for self-sufficiency and self-reliance.  That is, we want to see ourselves in control of our lives.  It’s not as scary that way and it makes us feel better about ourselves, I guess.

And for many of us much of day to day life goes smoothly.   There is food on the table; we have enough health and strength to get through the day’s tasks and then there is plenty of entertainment around to keep us occupied.  We may be settled enough in our lives to have forgotten some of life’s rough passages.  You know, those places in life where we felt lost or helpless or threatened.  Alone and powerless.  Where we called on God and He delivered us.

It may even be that we lose sight of our desires.  Instead of hoping and dreaming for beauty and delight and fulfillment, we dismiss it all as so much adolescent fantasy and settle in and settle.  Rather than continuing to hope that God will “make the justice of our cause shine like the noonday sun,” we simply forget that we had a cause at all

One great curative to all such self-satisfaction, all such pride, and all such surrender are the Psalms of David.

You want to see someone who had a personal relationship with the Lord?  Well, David is the archetype for that.  For David, life was an adventure. Reliance on God was a matter of life and death, literally; daily.   For David, life’s rewards were from the hand of God and were abundant and fulfilling.

Many, oh Lord my God, are the wonders you have done

The things you planned for us no one can recount to you

Were I to speak of them, they would be too many to declare

For David, life’s failures and disappointments could not be ignored or assuaged or supplanted by distractions and diversions.  No, David took his disappointments and frustrations not to the local pub and not to any man cave, but to the Lord.  He did not engineer ways to buffer or numb himself to the frustrations of life, he remembered them, he agonized over them and he laid them before God:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me and heard my cry.  He brought me up out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

Likewise, David did not minimize his own failings.  He did not ignore how his own blindness had led to his trouble:

Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head; therefore my heart faileth me.

Look at the heart of this man!  How unabashed he is in his confession and grief!  How total his reliance on God!  How complete his memory of past deliverance.  How the hope for vindication rises in him!  He can taste it!

Would we be better men if we knew David’s desire?  Would we be less likely to dismiss or dilute our own desires if we had even a half-measure of David’s trust in God?  That is, trust in His power, His righteousness, and in His love for each one of us:

But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me

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The World’s Second-Oldest Faith

 

 

I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.

 

I’m a layman.  An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page.  There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.

Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.

It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history.  We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned.  But I always wondered this:  what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?”   I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway?  Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective?  That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil.  And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil?  Isn’t that kind of the point?

If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.”  It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.

It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point.  I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil.  That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.

I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking,  but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.

That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.

Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained.  The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States.  Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.”  This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.

In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party.   At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism.   Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.

What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:

It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first.  That is, to faith in God.

 

The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider  and comment on, but rather that there is too much.  His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.

What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.

And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way  – is very much alive and kicking.

It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block  the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong.  No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity.  They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress.  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.

Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

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I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

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Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do.

Image result for ruth and boaz

 

Boaz of Bethlehem:  Attorney at Law

 

 

 

By its own terms, the Book of Ruth is historical.

 

The story of Ruth is about a few common people who lived in Israel during the period of the Judges, more than a thousand years before Christ.  They were common people, but not just any common people, for, as the writer tells us, they had the uncommon destiny of becoming the great-grandparents of King David and, accordingly, ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So the story of Ruth, by its own terms, is history; and account of real events that happened to real people.  But it reads like fiction – like the very best fiction.  That is to say that it is neither polemic nor explicitly didactic.  Rather, it is presented as a story that unfolds, scene by scene with a plot and character development.  We feel for the characters; we don’t see what’s coming; and we revel in the happy ending.

One of the most poignant of the scenes in this story takes place on the floor of Boaz’s threshing room.  You’ll recall that Boaz was a farmer, but not a “dirt farmer.”  He wasn’t eking out a living on a few acres with a few hogs and cows.  He was, as the King James so eloquently puts it, “a mighty man of wealth.”   I compare him to a couple of Jane Austen heroes – Messrs. Darcy and Knightly – both of whom were men of “wealth and influence” and gentlemen farmers.

Early in the story, Ruth, who is without status or income, humbles herself to take on the heavy, sweaty, labor of gleaning in Boaz’s field.  Gleaning was a task reserved for the poorest of the poor, as a kind of social welfare system, and the work was long and hard and the expectations meager.

But our heroine has the good fortune to catch Boaz’s eye on the first day in the field.  Boaz’s interest in Ruth is obvious from the very start and he soon makes his approbation known in his instructions to his own workers.  Ruth is to be unmolested in his field, and she is to be immediately given easier work and greater reward.

Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law.  Her affection for Ruth is genuine and she, being a native Israelite, is familiar with the laws and customs that affect her destiny.  Thus, when the time is ripe – and Naomi is the one who knows when that time is – she sends Ruth down to Boaz’s threshing room to, ahem, as the King James so politely puts it, seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee.

All that is true, to be sure, for if Ruth accomplishes what Naomi had in mind, then she will have rest, in the sense of security, and things will, indeed, be well with her.  But what Naomi has in mind is – dare I say the word – a kind of seduction.  What Naomi wishes for Ruth is that Boaz will marry her.  How great would that be:  Going from a penniless gleaner in the dusty field to the wife of a man of wealth and consequence?  Pretty good catch, Boaz was.

It is probably fair to say that Naomi’s scheme was in every respect a legitimate one.  The story makes it very clear that there would have been nothing wrong with Boaz marrying Ruth and that, in fact, he might have had something of a legal obligation to do so.  And nobody would be hurt.  Boaz has not hidden his affection for Ruth, and there is no evidence in the story that she would displace others in marrying him.

So it was a legitimate scheme, but it was a scheme!  The text itself tells us that Naomi told Ruth to bathe herself and put on her finest perfume and raiment.   How quaint.  Might we say that this was the tenth-century BC version of what twentieth-century AD songwriters have expressed in these lines:

Put on your red dress baby . . .

And:

Wearin’ her pearls and her diamond rings

Got bracelets on her fingers now and everything

Oh, my, my, she looks so fine

Wearin’ her perfume, Chanel number five

 

Naomi is also careful to tell Ruth not to let herself be seen Boaz until he has had his fill of drink.

One is tempted here to another comparison to a Jane Austen novel.  One thinks of Mrs. Bennet and her efforts to get her own daughters married off to rich men.  You see, it is clear from our story – as was clear in Pride and Prejudice – the mother’s (or mother-in-law’s) personal interest is tied up with the interest of the younger girl in getting a rich husband.  In both cases, the older woman will enjoy the security of the rich man’s estate and avoid the miserable prospect of a penurious old age.

All is fair in love and war, and if we read the story to say that Naomi intended that Ruth would seduce Boaz there and then on the threshing-room floor (this conclusion does not call for any stretch of the imagination, really), well then, we might say, so be it.  Boaz was a grown man; he loved Ruth; and their marriage would have, as Mr. Collins wrongly supposed about his own proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, “suited everyone.”

And it is just here that we get to the point of today’s lesson.  Although Boaz obviously welcomed the prospect of marriage to Ruth, he had a cooler head than Naomi or anyone else might have imagined.  Thus, when Boaz is awakened to find the dolled-up girl of his dreams beside him in bed, he does not do “what comes naturally.”   Not only is Boaz awake, he is aware of all of the interests that might be affected by his actions and he curbs himself and immediately embarks on a course to make everything come out right.  Sounds rather Darcy-esque, don’t you think?

We may start our analysis of Boaz here by saying that Boaz had exercised the virtue of temperance.  He had taken a drink or two that evening, but he obviously was not drunk.  Lot was drunk before he had sex with his daughters and Jacob was so drunk on his wedding night that he didn’t realize he was sleeping with big sis Leah and not his beloved Rachel.

But Boaz is not overcome with drink; he keeps his head in the middle of these most seductive circumstances.  He is wise enough to know what everyone is up to.  He knows Naomi; knows her interest in this economic matrix, and he knows how the legal landscape lies, too.   You see, the one bit of wealth that Ruth retained an interest in was a plot of land that had belonged to her late father-in-law, Elimelech.   Boaz knew that and he also knew that there was another relative of his who had first dibs on that plot of land.  But with the land came Ruth.

Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but if he had acted there on the spot it would have been, as they say in the movies, “complicated.”    The man with the prior claim on Elimelech’s land would have been given an out.  He might have argued – probably successfully – that by virtue of what had happened on the threshing-room floor, Ruth was married to Boaz, but nonetheless, by operation of law, he would have retained the right of first refusal for the plot of land.  Thus, the other kinsman might have bought the property, thereby separating the ancestral estate from Ruth and Naomi.  Although Boaz was a wealthy man, he knew such a separation would not be in Ruth’s best interest.  So, with cooled heels and a cool head, he took the matter to court.

I am a lawyer.  I spent a near forty-year career trying criminal cases, mostly in federal court.  And I have to say that when I read the account of Boaz’s practice and procedure here I smile with admiration and approval.  We don’t know everything Boaz knew at the time.  We don’t know anything about this other kinsman who had the right of first refusal on the land purchase.   For all we know, he may have been a real snake.  But we can be sure that Boaz knew, for he played the other party like a violin.  The writer is very careful to detail just how things went down in that legal proceeding.  Boaz gave the good side of the story first – hey, buddy, here’s a nice piece of real estate that you have the right to add to your portfolio . . .

The kinsman bites on that offer, but then comes the catch: there are strings attached.  You see, if you buy the land, you have to take Ruth along with it.  That means marriage and children and the diminution of your present estate that will pass to your present family.  This would not play well at the dinner table at home, so the kinsman passes on the land and Boaz, accordingly, gets exactly what he wants: what is rightly Ruth’s will stay with her and all will, as they say “live happily ever after.”

But if Boaz would have done the deed there on the threshing-room floor, he would have had, as we say in the business, “Brady material,” as he began the legal proceeding at the city gates.  That is, he would have been in the possession of information damaging to his own case that he would have been under an ethical duty to disclose to the other party.

If he had already been married to Ruth – and we are to assume that if Boaz had taken advantage of the situation that had been served up to him the night before, that would have consummated a legal marriage – Boaz would have been under a duty to disclose to the other party that the land could be his without the obligation of taking Ruth on, since Ruth would have been, as they say, already spoken for.

What is so beautiful about this from a lawyer’s point of view is that it is completely clean.  Boaz doesn’t hide anything that the other party has a right to know.  Sure, if that other guy had known that Boaz was sweet on Ruth he might have driven a harder bargain.  Might even have extorted the land away from Boaz by offering to let Ruth go and marry him.

But on the day of the proceeding, there was no legal relationship between Ruth and Boaz.  Thus, there was no legally-established fact to be disclosed.  What foresight!

Thus, Boaz is a man not only of temperance, wealth and consequence, he is a man of prudence!

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

Hey, summer comes along and you switch gears and – in accordance with much protestant tradition – head for the Old Testament to slow things down a bit for the vacation season.  I’ve gone straight for the Book of Ruth.  I am perhaps more of a literary type than lots of Baptist Sunday School teachers.  I am a sucker for Jane Austen and I always keep one of her novels on my nightstand to dip into as I fade off into sleep mode.

You would think that after the first few ( twenty?) times through a Jane Austen novel the reading would be all relaxation and pleasure.  You know – all the real meat of the story already long understood and digested.  No surprises left.

But that’s not my experience.   To steal a phrase from John Sebastian, “the more I see, the more I see there is to see.” In just the last few evenings I’ve been reading middle chapters in Emma.  Chapters where Emma is infatuated with Frank Churchill and is weighing his every word and action as she considers whether she’s in love with him or not.  About this same time, Emma is working to bring poor old Harriet Smith back to her right mind after her ill-fated romantic attachment to the perfidious Mr. Elton.

Austen gives the reader all kinds of clues as she goes along about what’s really going on in Frank Churchill’s mind as he dallies with Emma; clues I missed in the first (and second and on and on) readings.  This book is psychologically dense and sophisticated.

But it is also shot through with standards.  You know – those things that nobody seems to agree about today and that the righteous marchers are now claiming are the remnants of patriarchal oppression, etc.

Here is what Emma finally tells her little friend Harriet to encourage her to stop moping and pining for the lost Mr. Elton who has gone his way and married another (monied) woman:

I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavor to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquility.

Oh, yeah.  All of that stuff.  Who can doubt the importance of any of it?  And is this not what the rising generation ought to learn?  A bit of an aside here, but how much of the world’s problems are due in the final analysis to a failure to mature sexually?  I am out of school here, I know, but it sure looks to me like a lot of this terrorist business is fomented among men who, you know, can’t make it work with a woman.  This guy Q’tub or whatever his name was – the guy who was the philosophical inspiration for Bin Laden, et al – his life story (as told in the great book, The Looming Tower) shows that the turning point in his life , the beginning of his radicalization, was when he was rejected by the young woman who was his childhood infatuation.  In popular American culture, we would think of Teen Angel, the black-jacketed, duck-tailed youngster who rebels (motorcycle and all) because “Betty Lou done me wrong. . . .”

Teen Angel ends up with an arrest record or dies one midnight in a railroad crossing accident.  But in the case of the Islamists, all that frustration and rage fits rather squarely into their religion and the result is something like this:  If I have failed to get what I wanted and if I am unhappy, it can’t be my fault.  It must be the world!  It must be that the prevailing system gives women too much freedom – freedom to tempt and to reject men, for example.  Better start blowing stuff up until we can put them all under burkas, where they belong, so we can be pure and happy as men.

Okay, that’s off of my chest.  Now back to Jane Austen.  Look at how Emma considers the action of Frank Churchill in deciding to travel some thirty miles round trip to get his haircut.  Doesn’t really sound like something anyone should get their noses out of joint about, even though thirty miles (by horseback at that time) was much more of an extravagance then than it is now.  But look at the complexity and subtlety of Emma’s analysis:

It [the journey for the haircut] did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday.  Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent to how his conduct might appear in general . . . .

In the story, of course, the trip for a haircut was really a cover for Frank’s trip to London to buy a piano for his secret love, Jane Fairfax.  So, his real motives were more complex than Emma knew or could judge.   But that takes nothing away from the validity and perspicuity of Emma’s initial reactions based on what she then believed.

Given such sensibilities, such standards, who among us can stand?   Who could please and satisfy such a woman?  Well, someone who is educated, maybe.  Someone who has learned (been taught) a thing or two about selfishness and the fall of man.  Someone who has read Jane Austen, even.

And all of that points to just those things that the righteous marchers now tell us are the problem.  The education that Frank Churchill – and every man – ought to have is right there in the books and culture that it is now vogue to reject.  The Bible.  The church.  The classics.  In the extended and natural family.  And nowhere else.

And, speaking of the Bible, back to the Book of Ruth in the next post – coming soon.

Meditation on Psalm 144

The faith of the Bible is a faith that admits struggle, battle and war.

In my last few posts here I have touched on the theme of spiritual warfare.  I didn’t set out to do that; I’m just following the Psalms, by number, day by day, and then writing my reactions and observations.   But that same theme is expressed in trumpet blasts in the first couple of verses in this morning’s psalm:

Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:

My goodness and my fortress; my high tower and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.

Wow.  This ain’t Buddhism.  But before we go loading up on armor-piercing ammunition, let’s remember that the fight is different today than it was in David’s time.  Today our enemy is not the Philistines.  In fact, today’s enemy is not even “flesh and blood” but, rather, is spiritual.  I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this point, I know, but Paul tells us, time and again, that we fight not against flesh and blood but against the “rulers, authorities, and powers” (Here is a little aside that just occurred to me:  will the rising generation, that has not grown up listening to vinyl records, even get that last, listening to a broken record allusion?)

These “rulers and authorities and powers” are spiritual; they are, as Paul puts it, “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Ahem.  Wow.  This looks pretty spooky, even Stephen Kingish.  But the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is not shy at all about recognizing that there are powers out there who have earthly institutions in their thrall that are strong and determined and evil and a threat to our lives and well-being.

And because today our enemy is different from the enemy of David’s day, our weapons and strategy will, accordingly, be different also.  If you’ve spent much time in church, you will be familiar with Paul’s description of the Christian’s weaponry that immediately follows the passage about the spiritual forces of evil.  You might even remember some of them – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit. . . .  The danger is that we hear these things so many times that they become cliché to us and we might not think much about what they mean – what they actually mean for us, day by day.

I have been watching the Masterpiece production “Wolfe Hall” for the past month or so.  It’s a British made television series – about five or six hours, all told – about the reign of Henry VIII, way back in the 16th century.  His reign is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.  Henry ordered this because he wanted a divorce from Anne Boleyn and the pope would not give it to him.  That is a mere political power struggle in terms of the real motives of Henry and probably in terms of many of the men of that day who opposed him. Normally, such struggles don’t outlive their contestants.   You know that story.  Remember what The Who said about such things: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”  Remember what Shelley said about the great Ozymandias.

But Henry‘s personal battles – his egotistic drive for the endurance of his dynasty – happened to coincide with other things that were happening in the neighborhood at the time.  One such thing was The Reformation.  I am a Protestant Christian.  I have unfettered access to the scriptures in my own language and I am not beholden to priests, popes and councils.  I have heard the Gospel, and I know the freedom that results from His all-sufficient grace.  As Wolfe Hall presents the story – and as I have heard of it from other sources – the official church in Henry’s day fought tooth and nail against all of these spiritual blessings that I enjoy.

I know that there are many who would disagree with this; who would say that I am being too hard on the Catholic church.  Well.  Let’s look at a few cold facts.  The two men who were principally responsible for the translation of the Bible into English – Tyndale and Wycliffe – were both executed.  The defenders of the Roman Catholic Church might argue that these murders were actually carried out not by the Church itself, but by the State.  Technically true.  It was the state that had the power to execute criminals.  But the Catholic Church was the moving force behind these killings, just like the religious establishment in Judea was behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  And the motives were remarkably similar.  In all three instances, the persecutors were motivated by fear – by fear that the true Gospel message would undermine their power; would undermine the privilege of the established elites and the hold they had over the lower classes.

In fact, these dynamics remind me of a story from my days as a Federal prosecutor.  I had the privilege to work alongside another AUSA who was able (a Harvard grad) and energetic.  He came to my State in Appalachia and worked tirelessly to root out the official corruption that had held sway in some of the southern counties for generations.

His work came to fruition in the long-term incarceration of the political bosses of both factions in one of the counties.  One of the established institutions of the corrupt powers in that county was the manipulation of elections.  Votes were bought and paid for.  Ballot boxes were stuffed.  Ballots marked in the “wrong way” were lost and left uncounted.  Even worse, the factions in that county had a so-called “slate” system whereby a candidate bought his or her way onto a list published by the faction and distributed to the ward healers and then to the masses instructing them on how to vote if they wanted their ten bucks or their streets cleared in the winter.

The first election held in the county after the two top political bosses were jailed resulted in an unusual conversation.  In that county, the editor of the only newspaper there had been something of an informant for the government during the long investigations of the bosses.  (He is long dead, now, so there are no worries about harm coming to him.)   On Election Day, one of the low-level ward healers – a loyal member of one of the corrupt factions – came running in to the editor’s office, breathless and beside himself.  “You’re not going to believe this [John].   I’ve never seen anything like it.  People are just out there voting for whoever they want to!”

Another mark of the mentality of corruption in the southern counties of my State came from the mayor of a small town there who, after pleading guilty, was asked why he acted corruptly to get himself elected.  “Things just run better when I’m in charge,” he said.

The notion behind the corruption in both 20th century rural America and 16th century England is the same:  those common people cannot be trusted to do the right thing.  The masses cannot think for themselves.  In there with that bit of twisted philosophy is the pure corruption of power that Lord Acton warned of:  those in power want to stay in power.  They love the status and the privilege.  They want to continue to call the shots and leave the work to others.

Here’s another thing this Wolfe Hall drama taught me.  One of the big players in the drama of Henry’s court and reign was a cat named Thomas More.  Sir Thomas More at that time.  Saint Thomas More today, according to the wisdom of the Roman Catholic Church.

This was not the first time I’d ever heard of Thomas More.  In fact, while I was practicing law, the Catholic Lawyer’s society organized a special service annually to mark the beginning of the term of court and ostensibly to ask God’s blessing on the work we engaged in.  The group went out of their way to make sure that all of us – even us Protestants – were invited to the service.  It was called the “Red Mass,” and the patron Saint of it all was Thomas More

I seriously considered attending.  It sounded kind of right and, you know, ecumenical, and the work we did certainly needed God’s blessing.  But there was a charge for attending.  That’s right.  You had to buy a ticket to get in.  My Protestant soul simply would not allow me to pay a fee to attend a church service and now, after I have watched Wolfe Hall, I’m glad I never participated.

You see, Thomas More murdered Protestants, because they were Protestants.

His defenders will argue against that proposition.   I’ve already mentioned their first defenses – it was the State and not the Church that actually beheaded people and burned them at the stake.  Oh, by the way, Wolfe Hall depicts the burning of a Protestant named John Bainbridge.  Thomas More, according to the TV drama, was up to his neck in this one.  The drama also shows More torturing Bainbridge on the rack until Bainbridge recants his Protestant professions.  (Bainbridge later recanted this recantation and persisted in his Protestant professions until More had him burned.)  I don’t know how historically accurate this scene is, but if it is not accurate, it is a terrible and gratuitous slander of More.  I tend to believe that it is true.  I don’t know why the writers would have made it up.  You can read a pretty fair account of the several tortures and murders that More presided over in this blog post.

In that post, we see a quote from Pope John Paul II:

It can be said that he [More} demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience… even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time“.

Well, yes.  The culture of his time.  He tortured and burned Protestants, but hey, everybody was doing it back then.  But should this not be a standard for canonization:  That is, that “Saints” are those rare people who precisely do not reflect the limits of the culture of their time?  That Saints live and know the Gospel and the way of the cross of Christ and live that life out despite and in contradiction to the “limits of the culture of their time?”  No matter what it costs them.

Thomas More burned and tortured men (those John Paul II dismisses as “heretics”) for holding to Christian doctrines that the Catholic Church now accepts!  As the above-linked blogger asserts, today’s Catholic Church is closer in doctrine to the reformation creeds that Bainbridge and others espoused than it is to the 16th Century Catholic Church.

It is very hard for me to accept the notion that More was a man who knew Jesus Christ and walked faithfully with the one who told Peter to put away his sword.  How could anyone who intimately knew and obeyed the one who bore the cross at the hands of the government and the religious establishment think that violent coercion could be carried out in His name?

I can accept the idea that More was faithful to the established church of his day and that he believed himself righteous in holding to his conviction that Henry should not have his divorce and refusing to recognize Henry as the head of the Church.  But I cannot get away from the notion that this was all – or at least mainly –about power, about political power. About the very kind of power that the scriptures instruct is not ours to wield.  And it is hard to completely dismiss the idea that the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization on More is based at least in part on the fact that More defended the official church and its magisterial powers and not on the selfless Christlikeness of More’s life.

The instruments More employed in his so-called “saintly” life – the rack, the screw, the torch (all of which Bin Laden and his ilk would approve of)  – are not, indeed are the opposite of, those weapons that the scriptures tell us are those of the Christian.  More may have been in some sense a martyr, but it cannot be ignored that he created martyrs.  Six of them, it looks like.

More did his level best to keep the scriptures inaccessible to the masses; perhaps he should have paid more attention to them himself.

As John Paul the Second said, More was a product of the [corrupt] culture/establishment of his day.  He was a man of that season, not a Man For All Seasons.

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

Authorship is attributed to David, and David was a warrior and we can imagine the struggles that this psalm speaks of as being quite literal.  That is, when David speaks of his enemies, he means literal, flesh-and-blood enemies – guys who are wearing the other uniform and who are really out to kill him.

 

For most of you reading this blog –and certainly for the writer of this blog –  the enemy is not so solid and well defined.  In this leveled and paved and air- conditioned world that you and I inhabit, we may even think that the idea that we have enemies who are out to get us and who have “made us to dwell in darkness” to be a bit over dramatic, a bit exaggerated, maybe even ridiculous.

But if we give any attention to the New Testament, we must admit that we do have enemies and that they very much do want to “smite” our lives “down to the ground,” and to “make us dwell in darkness.”  Again, listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Ephesians 6: 12

Likewise, the expression of desire in this psalm should not be strange to us.  David is sure of  the object of his desire.  That object is God: “my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.”   We may not be so sure of the object of our desire, but if we are honest with ourselves and if we have not hidden it beneath some wall of self-deception, we must admit that we want and want very badly something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

That is why this psalm continues to resonate with men and women even in this modern age.  Even among those of us who are privileged to live in secure democracies and in peaceful neighborhoods where we are not threatened physically; even those of us who have every convenience and entertainment.   Even we desire; even we hunger and thirst, like a thirsty land.  Here is C. S. Lewis:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

 

When David writes that “my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate” we should have little trouble relating to him.  We should know.  If we have attempted anything at all – a career, a marriage, the raising of children – we know that we are opposed and powerfully so.  We know that we can be defeated; we can be crushed; we can be depressed.  We know that our desires always outstrip the satisfactions that this earthly life affords.

And so, this psalm is our psalm, and we pray with David, the warrior:

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.

Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter