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.

A Love Story

Genesis 29: 9-12
And while he yet spake with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them.
 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother.
 And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.
 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, and that he was Rebekah’s son: and she ran and told her father.

We’ve spent the last few class hours talking about the concept of membership.  We’ve noted that CS Lewis says that the Greek word that is translated to “member” in our English Bibles is actually “of Christian origin.”  And he says that it originally meant something nearly opposite of what it is commonly taken to mean today.  That is, today we think of being “members” of a collective of some sort; say, for example, the Sophomore class at Saint Albans High School.  In that sense, individuals are members of a class because of what they have in common.  They have all completed their freshman year of high school; they all live within the boundaries of the Saint Albans High School school district.

But when Paul wrote of “members” he meant something quite different from that.  The word he used, Lewis tells us, meant something like “organs.”  As in body organs – the liver, kidneys and lungs.  That points to the notion that membership in the church is membership in a body and in a body there are diverse parts and diverse functions and to the idea that we are all different, one from another and that we are to act together in harmony, mutually supporting one another and thereby being and accomplishing things that we could never have otherwise done.

What we have not yet emphasized is what a beautiful and wonderful thing this can be when it is actually practiced – that is, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!  Here, again, is Lewis:

A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolizes the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union which we know to be our true refuge from both solitude and from the collective.

I was reminded of that paragraph as I read and re-read Joe Bird’s recent and very affecting blog posts about his mother and father.  Each of their stories is interesting; they are both very handsome, winsome, intelligent people.  But what also comes through in these fine pieces is how very different they were.  He, the left-brained electrical engineer in charge of planning and executing the construction of major, corporate chemical plants.  She the red-headed rose of little town USA with firecracker wit and a way with paint and brush and line and rhyme.  Boy, their story is surely one that could launch a thousand romantic comedies; and I mean good ones.

One thing Joe did not tell us about his dad is that he was a high-school athlete.  A quarterback, I think.  When I look at this photograph of him at his work as a young man I see a guy who could have been a leading man in a movie and it is not hard to imagine him as the guy who, in his day, had his pick of the girls.

Eugene Bird at work

And then he runs in to this one, who is like none other.

GCB-sailor edited

This one who has a witty response for his every notion and whose relaxed and unrehearsed and radiant smile made him forget every logical, rational objection he might have had and every other girl in the town.  “Oh, my gosh,” he must have thought, “What am I gonna do about this?”

I could imagine something like that.

When I hear this story, I want to hear more.  And I am sure that there is more to tell and I hope that Joe, capable writer that he is, will get to it and continue to share with the world this story that is the reason he is here on the earth.  I think this may be about as good as it gets . . .

Meditation on Psalm 96

 

In this Psalm, all of creation, even that which we would consider inanimate, is called on to praise God:

Let the heavens rejoice

Let the earth be glad

Let the sea roar

Let the field be joyful

And all that is therein

Then shall all of the trees of the wood rejoice

This is not the only place in the Bible where inanimate creation is seen as expressing praise.  Isaiah talks about trees “clapping their hands,” and our Lord tells the Pharisees that if he would silence his disciples, “the very stones would cry out.”

But every time we hear of such marvels, they are expressions of ecstasy.  The heavens rejoice and the trees clap their hands because they are bursting with joy.  It’s almost like they know that singing and clapping would be terribly out of character and thus impertinent for them, but, given the circumstances, they just can’t hold it in.

And the circumstance – at least in the Psalms and the prophets – that the rocks and trees, the skies and seas – anticipate is “judgement.”  How can this be so?  Do we think of the rocks and trees as angry about something or other (heh – maybe mountaintop removal mining) and thus bursting with joy when they see that the bad guys are about to get their comeuppance?

No.  I don’t think that’s the idea at all.  And the teacher who helped me with this – as has so often been the case in my life – was C. S. Lewis.  In his book, Reflections on The Psalms, he explains that when we moderns read the Bible, we tend to think of “judgement” as being like a sentence pronounced against a defendant in a criminal case.  He says that this view of it may be consistent with the way the term is used in the New Testament.  But in the Old Testament, it is usually the case that the judgement that is anticipated is more like judgement for a plaintiff in a civil case where the emphasis is not so much on punishment but on recompense – on being made whole.  Look at Psalm 103, verse 6, where God “executeth righteousness and judgement for all that are oppressed.”  It is judgment “for” and and not “against.”  It’s the kind of judgement that the Psalmist writes about in Psalm 37, where he says of that man who waits on the Lord:

He [God] will bring forth thy righteousness as the light

And thy judgement as the noonday . . .

This is the judgement for which all of creation groans.

What Becomes of The Brokenhearted?

Scorn has broken my heart . . . Psalm 69:20

Jesus tells us that he came to “bind up the brokenhearted.”

This definition of His ministry is not limiting, but expansive, for the only hearts that have not been broken are those that never opened at all.   Heartbreak is not some esoteric experience known only by poets, artists and musicians, it is universal.

In Psalm 69, David laments: “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness:” The heartbreak David complains of here we might classify as vocational.  That is, he now laments his loss of authority and status and influence in his kingdom.  He was once a rock star – a famous warrior, a poet and singer of songs, “a man after God’s own heart.”    But now, he says, “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien to my mother’s children.”  He is “weary of crying.”  That is not to say that he is tired of it and would like to be doing something else, rather that the physical act of crying – its intensity and duration in this instance and experience – has exhausted him.

You and I may not have been rock stars, even in our best days.  But, if we have lived very long at all, we may well relate to what David is describing here.  Once we had the trust and confidence of our friends and co-workers.  We were sure of our own abilities and place in the world.  And then things fell apart.  We woke up to see that those we trusted, in whose friendship we rested, may have plotted against us.  Where we were once valued, we are now second-guessed.  “But now old friends are acting strange.  They shake their heads.  They say I’ve changed.”

***

We may also experience heartbreak in intimate relationships. 

We may experience a terrible break in a relationship with a child, a parent or a sibling.  David knew this pain, too.  There may be no more poignant human story in the Bible than the story of David and Absalom.

If David’s life on the battlefield is an example of how men should approach their careers – being brave and bold and strong and fast – then David’s family life is an example of how men should not approach their domestic lives.  Life in David’s household was marked by one tragedy after another.

The story of David and Absalom is a long and complicated, but for our present purposes we’ll just say that Absalom was David’s favorite son and that when David was old Absalom organized a rebellion against his father, King David, and worked to turn the people of Israel against him.  This rebellion escalated into open battle between those loyal to David and those who had joined Absalom’s rebellion.  In that conflict, Absalom was killed.  When David got word of Absalom’s death, this was his reaction:

II Samuel 18

31 And behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “Good news for my lord the king! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the hand of all who rose up against you.” 32 The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man.” 33 [d] And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

 

But the kind of heartbreak that is most often described in popular culture – in our songs and in our movies and television drama – is the heartbreak occasioned by disappointment in romantic love.  The heartbreak that results from unrequited love or a faithless lover.  In fact, this sort of heartbreak is so often the subject of poetry and song that it becomes a target for parody.  We think of the Mason Williams song, for example:  “You Done Stomped on My Heart and you mashed that sucker flat . . .”

Joni Mitchell had something to say about this kind of heartbreak – about how it is so common these days that we just ignore it – act like it never happened.

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels

A dizzy, dancing way you feel

As every fairy tale comes real

I’ve looked at love that way.

.

But now it’s just another show

You leave them laughing when you go

And if you care, don’t let them know

Don’t give yourself away.

Some will say that this is healthy.  You know – there’s nothing to be done.  “Just get over it and get on with it.  No big deal.  No great loss.  You should be glad.”   But sensibilities have not always been such.

In Jane Austen’s masterful novel, Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet confronts the man who has been responsible for separating her “most beloved sister” from the man she loved and hoped to marry.  Miss Bennet’s idea of romantic love is not so dismissive as Joni Mitchell’s:

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other — of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

Looking Ahead

If the two beasts – the two forces and institutions that Satan employs to carry out his campaign against “those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” – are organized violence (the sea beast) and organized deception (the land beast), John warns his readers not to fight fire with fire – not to respond to violence with violence and not to respond to deception with more deception. Rather, the Christian is to respond to this onslaught of organized violence with endurance and faith:

“Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”

Revelation 13: 10

And to the bombardment of organized deceit with discernment:

18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[e] That number is 666.

Revelation 13: 18

Here is Eugene Peterson:

How do we protect ourselves from organized deceit?  St. John is blunt; use your heads.  Figure out what is going on.  Most of the conspicuous religion that is in vogue at any one time in the country derives from the land beast.  Expose these religious pretensions.

Reversed Thunder, Harper Collins, 1991, at page 126.

In the weeks ahead, let’s meditate on what, exactly, these strategies are.  We’ll start with the idea of endurance.  What, exactly, does John have in mind here?  What does he mean by “endurance?”  We’ll consider these questions:

  1. What is the Christian called to endure?

  2. How does the Christian endure?

  3. How long must the Christian endure?

  4. Why does the Christian endure?

Our Culture of Deception

by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of[d] the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth

Revelation 13: 14

Our popular culture – the whole of it, not just advertising, but political and social discourse of all kinds – is full of deception; full of falsity.

 

 

During yesterday’s class we discussed how we might interpret or understand the “land beast” in today’s world.  We had settled – in agreement with Poythress and Peterson – that the land beast represented “organized deceit,” particularly, at the time the book of Revelation was written, the deception and sensationalism of the corrupt priests of the imperial cult that operated in that day.

 

Since you and I are not subject to an “imperial cult” per se, we talked about how we might see the “land beast” as something more general – something that, indeed, we must battle day by day.  We mentioned that we in the modern world are literally bombarded with organized deceit day by day and hour by hour.  Indeed, I wonder whether John could have possibly imagined how slick and how powerful the machines of advertising that surround us could be.

 

We did all of that in class, and that’s all fine and dandy, but here’s what I missed:  Someone in class said that the land beast might be seen today as “the culture.”  I did not respond (much) but I should have offered a hearty “amen” to that.  Of course.  Our popular culture – the whole of it, not just advertising, but political and social discourse of all kinds – is full of deception; full of falsity.

 

Alan Jacobs writes:

People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.