What Comes Before Wealth and Honor?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1f/Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2.jpg/350px-Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2.jpg

The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet, 1857

If I had to name the writer I believe to be the very best at putting things clearly, it would be CS Lewis.

 

In one letter he wrote that one of the things a writer should do is make sure that what he has written cannot be taken to mean something other than what he intended to say.  Seems like an obvious bit of advice, but it is easier said than done.  Lewis does it, though.  You may disagree with what he is saying, but you won’t mistake it; you’ll know what he intended.  It may be provocative and it may be unpopular, but it is never vague.

 

And yet, and yet. . . when he tries to describe one of the great virtues, he seems to doubt that he is quite up to the task.  The virtue I am talking about is humility.  Lewis treats the subject perhaps most thoroughly in his most famous work, Mere Christianity, and he deals with it in that Chapter entitled The Great Sin.

The great sin, of course, is pride, which Lewis emphasizes is “the essential vice, the utmost evil”:

Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

And:

. . . pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Given the ruinous power of pride and its pervasiveness (Lewis says that it is the one vice of which no one in the world is free) we’d have to say that humility is an accordingly important virtue.  If it is pride that leads to every other vice, we might fairly say that it is the virtue of humility that leads to – or allows one to see and consider – every other virtue.

And yet. .  . and yet . . . when Lewis discusses humility in the chapter, he spends most of his time telling us what it is not.  Time well spent, in my view, because we do have this erroneous idea that prevails that humility is the same thing as modesty.  Often the “modesty” we see exhibited day to day is false modesty, another dress put on to make the wearer appear virtuous.

 

The Bible contains many different kinds of writing.

Some of it, perhaps those parts with which we are most familiar, are direct pronouncements: “Blessed are the meek,” says our Lord Jesus Christ, “for they shall inherit the earth.”  And then: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son. . . .”

But the Book of Ruth is not that kind of writing.  This book reads more like a short story.  By its own terms, it is historical – it is a story about real events that happened to real people.  But it is, nonetheless, a story.  It is the work of a writer who planned it and put in what he or she wanted and, likewise, left out what she didn’t.    It has a plot and characters and it unfolds to a climactic and happy ending.  Although it has much to tell us about God, it is not what you would call a tract.  It’s not in your face about faith or salvation.  It’s a story, and one that anyone could enjoy, no matter how they feel about religion or the faith of the Bible.

We Christians should not feel uncomfortable with this literary form; it was a favorite vehicle of our Lord, who time after time told stories to make his points about the character of God and the nature of His kingdom.

What other chapters in the Bible may tell us through straight-out pronouncements, the Book of Ruth shows us through human drama.  And one thing it quite poignantly and accurately portrays is the virtue of humility.

Most folks would point immediately to Ruth’s decision to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, out of Ruth’s homeland and into Israel where she would be a sojourner and alien, without standing or means.  That’s humility – Ruth does not put her own interests first.  From a selfish point of view, Ruth’s prospects would have been immeasurably better if she would have taken Naomi’s first advice and returned to Moab and her mother and father and to a real possibility of another marriage and the establishment of another home.

I’ve got no argument with that, but my attention is drawn elsewhere in the story and particularly to Ruth’s decision to go a’gleaning.   It’s her idea.  Nobody suggests it to her and there are good reasons why they wouldn’t have.  Gleaning is hard work.  It’s done in the heat of the late summer when the crops are being harvested and it consisted of picking up those pieces of the crop that no one else wanted.  It’s hard, sweaty work and it is done with only the prospect of meager, subsistence-type reward.  Moreover, it involved a certain amount of risk to Ruth.

This may be just a ”guy –thing” and something that many may criticize me for, but I think Ruth was something of a looker.  And I think that fact is important to the story.

What is my evidence in support of that?

  1. Boaz’s immediate interest in Ruth when he first sees her in his field. Yes, of course, the story tells us plainly that Boaz was impressed with Ruth’s character.  He knows of Ruth’s selfless act of devotion to Naomi and to Israel’s God, but Boaz’s immediate attention to Ruth is before he knows who she is.  Tell me,  he says, who is this new girl in my field.  Maybe these are just the words of a good steward of the land who wants to know who is active on his property, but the man in me says “no.”  I think the writer is telling us – without saying it directly – that Boaz found something attractive about Ruth at first sight.
  2. Boaz’s statement to Ruth when she presents herself to him as a potential marriage partner. As Eugene Peterson translates it, Boaz tells Ruth:

. . . you could have had your pick of any of the young men around.

  1. And there is simply no disguising Boaz’s ecstasy when Ruth makes her proposal of marriage to him. If this were simply a matter of Boaz doing the duty that the customs of the day imposed on him I don’t think we would see the enthusiastic speech and the careful and immediate execution of a plan to make the marriage happen.

I may not be a Hebrew and I may not know much about the customs and sensibilities of the people who lived in Israel a thousand years before Christ.  But I am a guy and this evidence speaks pretty clearly to me.  In getting Ruth as a wife, Boaz thinks he has won the lottery (and he has) and maybe that is because he’s so impressed with her character (he is and he is right to be) but there is something in his tone of voice and in his immediacy of decision and response that tells me that there is something else at work here.  Something elemental, fundamental.

Why do I think that’s so important?  Well, think of it this way: what if this story were made into a movie and we see Ruth the young woman marching into the hot field to labor all day; would we see the story differently if the actor cast to play Ruth was Jennifer Lawrence than if it were Rosie O’Donnell?

And before you go accusing me of the worst chauvinism, let me explain that if Ruth is who I think she was, her decisions are all the more heroic, all the more emblematic of the virtue of humility.  Because, you see, someone like the Jennifer Lawrence Ruth has so much more at stake.  As she decides in favor of Naomi and further decides to place herself in the field of the most grueling and least rewarding labor, she is giving up real alternatives.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis tells us not to imagine that:

if you meet a really humble person he will be what most people call”humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.  Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.

That’s what I see in Ruth – an particularly in her decision to go a’gleaning.  She was faced with duties and not-very-promising opportunities.  But she took what she had.  She did what she could, even though many in her position would have considered that beneath them.

 

Oh boy.  What happens to the truly humble?  Let’s go back to some of those parts of the Bible that are straightforward declarations.  Here is one about humility that is attributed to King Solomon:

Proverbs 22:4

By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life.

Oh, yeah.  The Book of Ruth shows us exactly that!  Ruth humbles herself to the lowest station of life and receives wealth – pressed down, overflowing, shaken together, so great that she can “scarce receive it.” And she receives honor – a new status in her marriage to Boaz – a man of wisdom and consequence!  And life!  In Ruth’s case, a life that goes on and on through her children and posterity who include King David and our Lord Jesus Christ!

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

Meditation on Psalm 140

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from the violent,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
    and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
    the poison of vipers is on their lips.[b]
Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
    protect me from the violent,
    who devise ways to trip my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a snare for me;
    they have spread out the cords of their net
    and have set traps for me along my path.

 

 

This psalm, like many others, is the prayer of a warrior.

There is not a general agreement that David actually wrote this one, but it is attributed to him in the heading and its theme and expression are quite consistent with what we know of David from our study of the Old Testament.  Here the writer finds himself compassed about by enemies – violent and evil men who are determined to undo him.  The psalmist spends some ink describing what low-down creatures his enemies are and then cries to God for deliverance, asking that his enemies be drastically and violently punished.

How is it that people – people like me – have continued to find value and inspiration in this poem when most of us are not warriors?  Most of us are not military men – soldiers on an active battlefield.  Most of us don’t have evil men plotting to take our lives.  How is this poem anything to us?

Because, soldier or not, military career or not, active battlefield or not, all of us are at war.  Well, maybe not all of us are at war.  Some of us may be so oblivious to it that we can’t really be seen as participants.  But there is a war raging that affects us all.  If we give any credence to the New Testament, then we know that there is a spiritual battle being fought right here and in our time between good and evil.  The Bible tells us that the players in this conflict are not mere mortals:

Ephesians 6:12  English Standard Version

12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I’ve spent some time lately here on this blog taking about these “rulers, authorities and cosmic powers” that Paul refers to more than once. (see Colossians 2:8 and Galatians 4:9)  These passages have always intrigued me because they seemed to point to beings or forces that are not directly identified elsewhere in the scriptures.  Kind of spooky in a Stephen King sort of way.  I have never seen any Christian writer say much about them until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Playing God.  He suggests that they are

“shadowy [and supernatural] powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world”   They “are at the root of . . . cultural patterns . . . that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.”

All of that is pretty dramatic.  I don’t doubt it for a minute, but I wrote this post for the purpose of suggesting that most of us normal, non-super-hero type people do have some experience with this kind of thing.  How many times have we, perhaps after years of frustrated effort, said something like “There is just something in that [here insert personal preference: school, town, country, company] that will not let me loose, or that will not let me succeed.”

I wonder if this complaint is truer that we even suspect!   And if it is, how necessary for you and I to recognize what we are up against and to align ourselves with Christ, before whom such powers tremble and flee.

Meditation on Psalm 139

But Wait . . . There’s More!

If I say, “The dark will screen me,

Night will hide me in its curtains,”

Yet darkness is not dark to thee

The night is as clear as the daylight.

Psalm 139: 11-12 (Moffatt)

I’ve been writing about self-deception in my last few posts.  In sum, I’ve said that self-deception is pervasive and that it is often very deep and complicated.  We concoct deceptions to cover up for hurts and failures that we don’t want others to see and don’t particularly want to look at or admit ourselves.  Once a scheme of deception is put into play it can grow and become so established that we may not even recognize it for the lie that it is, even though we made it up ourselves.  It may even be part of our purpose to make ourselves believe it.  That might be handy for a while and it might allow us to cope temporarily, but in the long run such things are dangerous.  They can impede personal growth.  They can prevent us from entering onto deep and satisfying relationships.  I cited the example of Elizabeth Bennett’s self-deception about Mr. Darcy.  He snubbed her, at first, and her pride was hurt.  So, a part of her coping mechanism – self-protection – was to imagine, based on evidence from questionable sources, that Mr. Darcy was the worst of men and that any relationship with him was not to be desired.  So, she allowed herself to think, nothing lost.

If you know the story of the novel Pride and Prejudice, you of course will know that much was lost – or would have been lost – had not Elizabeth been shaken out of her delusions by a determined and articulate Mr. Darcy.  If Lizzy had been allowed to persist in her self-deception, she would have lost her destiny – her happy marriage to Mr. Darcy and her accordant share in his status and wealth.

I also said that a man or woman can concoct their own deceptions – their own false view of the world – but that same man or woman cannot, of their own power, undo the spell that they have cast over themselves.  I said that we are dependent on God for our own repentance – our change in thinking.  I said that God is the initiator and aggressor in His relationship with us and it is through His grace that we may come to see the errors of our ways.  This is at least part of what John Henry Newman had in mind when he wrote these lines from his famous hymn:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved

I quoted from Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”  That’s a pretty good source, but I missed a better one.  The very Psalm that had been the inspiration for the whole self-deception thread contains some verses that are right on point here.  This Psalm is famous for its opening and closing lines:

“Oh, Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. . .”

“Search me, O God, and know my heart

Try me and know my thoughts. . .”

So, there it is; the idea that it is God who brings us out of our web of deception.  What I had not seen though are the indications in the Psalm that the writer was perhaps engaged in his own self-deception.  He was deliberately hiding from God.  I’d read the Psalm in several traditional translations but only yesterday I read it again in James Moffatt’s translation.  Look at his rendering of verse eleven:

If I say, “The dark will screen me,

Night will hide me in its curtains,”

Yet darkness is not dark to thee,

The night is clear at daylight.

So rendered, this verse implies or suggests that the Psalmist is not merely praising God for His powers of perception – for His omniscience – but is reporting that he cannot hide from God, even though he tried.  I didn’t get that from the traditional translations.  This one verse, in Moffatt’s translation, gives a different color or flavor to much of the rest of the psalm.  The verses in wonder of God’s power to see are not abstract, general, or theoretical.  They are the result of personal experience.  The writer has tried to hide from God, but found it impossible.

What is the writer’s conclusion?  What does he say after being searched and found out by God?  His final prayer in the poem is for God to search him and know him again!  What God’s light has led to is freedom!  Freedom from one’s own delusion!

And this is the beginning of new life, full and free.

Waiting For The Lord

Psalm 130:6
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

Waiting implies a relationship with a person.

If we are dealing with the internet – with robots and artificial intelligence – we – if things are working right – don’t have to wait.  We ask Siri how many years Babe Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox and the answer is instantaneous  – six.

But dealing with a human being is not like that.  And dealing with God is even less like that.  It’s true that God loves us, but He knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows what we need and even what we desire better than we know ourselves.  We lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, for many reasons: to cover up for wrongs and failures we don’t want to face up to; to keep up appearances, even to ourselves.  Our self-deceptions are epic in both width and breadth.  It takes work to undo them.  It takes effort to see these deceptions or what they are – to remember why we concocted them in the first place and to at least get to the point where we might honestly assess what the truth might actually have been.

Donald Miller, who makes his living giving counsel to writers, says that everyone has a story and it is not the story that they are telling.  When we talk with another – even with our closest confidant and even in the strictest confidence and even about the matters that our deepest in our soul – we don’t tell the whole truth.  God wants the whole truth.  Not because He wants to embarrass or punish us or to prove to us that, in spite of our protests, life was fair; He wants the truth – wants us to get to the bottom of things and tell ourselves the truth about ourselves – because this is the only way to get the ship righted.  He doesn’t want to let us go on wandering down this dead-end road we’ve created for ourselves.

Jane Austen gives us a dramatic example of this process of “coming clean” in her great novel, Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Bennett receives a letter from Mr. Darcy that contains enough information to convince her that the “reality” or “truth” that she has constructed for herself – that she made her decisions, big decisions, based on – was completely, utterly false.  Here is Elizabeth’s confession:

How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

If that is our natural tendency and bent – and it is – then our relationship with God won’t be one of instant gratification, but, rather, one of long and deep searching and confession.  Thus, “waiting on the Lord” as we hear about it in the Bible and as we think about it may really be more God waiting on us!  That is, waiting on us to “come clean” so that the conversation will be meaningful and not just some feel-good rambling about the person we pretend to be and the wants and needs that we have half-convinced ourselves that we have.

I am not for a minute saying that God will have no help for us until we’ve gotten it all together.  Nope.  I am right there with the Reformers and Protestant tradition in saying and believing that God initiates.  That is, He comes to us – saves us, accepts us – “just as we are,” self-deceptions and all.  What I am trying to say is that the relationship that follows is one that depends on honesty and, given the fact that this is such a task for us – letting go of our precious smoke screens and delusions – there is some waiting involved; maybe a lot.