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!

About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?

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 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.

God As Initiator

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

Psalm 139: 1

I’ve been posting lately about self-deception, how it obstructs our relationship with God, our knowledge of God.  And I have emphasized how deep and involved these deceptions often are and I have at last said that our way out of these prisons we make for ourselves does not lie in ourselves.  That is to say, once we make our own trap, we can’t get out of it by ourselves.

Then this morning, in my devotional reading, I ran across this old poem that says the same thing.  The poet, Francis Thompson, says it much better than I have.  But, it is comforting to me to see the same theme expressed by a great writer.  Makes me more confident that what I am saying is true.  Here is the quote from the poem “The Hound of Heaven:”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him

Deception and Enslavement

In my early years I hid my tears

And passed my days alone
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
My dreams like nets were thrown
To catch the love that I’d heard of
In books and films and songs
Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs

Jackson Browne, “Farther On”

 

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

I’ve been writing for the past few posts about self-deception.  It’s a worthy subject and inexhaustible.  The dimensions and depths of the lies we tell ourselves and about ourselves have no limits.

My college roommate was, and remains, a great friend of mine.  He was and is a practical guy – smart, able, willing to help – and his career as an orthodontist has been a big success.  I gained a lot by being around him those four crazy years.  But he was no philosopher.  He did not deal in speculation or pontificate about the great existential questions.  I guess that’s why this little bit about him has stuck with me for so long.  It was, in a way, out of character for him, but it was one of the most perceptive, trenchant, and perfectly-stated observations I have ever witnessed.

He was arguing with his girlfriend.  This was not a rare thing.  She was a prim, sort of business-school type, who felt she had all things coming to her and rather kept book on my roommate to remind him, as often as necessary, that he was never really quite measuring up.  She was from Pennsylvania and had condescended to attend college in West Virginia, my own – and my roommate’s – home State.

People from Pennsylvania talk differently from people from West Virginia.  They say “you’uns,” we say “ya’ll.”  That kind of thing.    They call that NFL team in Pittsburgh the “Stillers.”

But on this occasion she was complaining to my roommate about his “hillbilly accent.”

“Well, you’ve got an accent, too.”  He replied.

“No, I don’t.  You’re the one with the accent.”

At this moment – this golden moment, in my book – my wise roommate said, without fanfare or ado:

“You’ve got it so bad that you don’t even know you’ve got it. . .”

And that is just it!   With regard to self-deception generally – we’ve got it so bad that we don’t know we’ve got it.  So, it is a very hard trap to get out of, even though we designed it ourselves.

But today I want to write a bit about how the deceptions that imprison us and keep us from being honest to God and thus enjoying a fuller communion with Him are fed and watered by the “powers and principalities” of this world.  If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, you’ll recognize that term.  If you haven’t, it will be a mystery to you.  In my case, both things were true, at least until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book Playing GodYou see, I had read that phrase about the “powers and principalities” time and again and was in that sense familiar with it, but had no real understanding of what it meant.  I guess I thought it was a reference to Satan and his minions.  That is true, I still believe, but look at what Andy Crouch has to say:

The first-century Mediterranean world did not know about zombies, but it did know about shadowy powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world.  The Greeks called them the stoicheia, a word that in our English Bibles is translated “elements” or “elementary principles.”  A handful of times in Paul’s letters we find references to them, as when Paul refers to “the stoicheia of the kosmos” (Colossians 2:8) that once kept his Colossian readers bound in ignorance.

**

In the early Christian’s view, then, there are powerful patterns of life, with more than merely earthly reality, that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.

That helps me.  And what I see in our modern world, for one thing, at least, is the spirit or powers that lurk behind advertising.

I am thinking in particular about the ads I see on television for pickup trucks.  They are all about image – all about cachet.  If you buy this $50,000 truck, you’ll be one of the boys.  You’ll be a tough guy.  A guy who can handle a shovel and a square and who can knock back a few with the boys when the ten-hour shift is over.

 

This is naked exploitation and the people who are doing it have to be aware of that.   I really wonder how many of these trucks are sold to guys who don’t make $50,000 a year, who don’t have construction jobs, who don’t know how to use a square, who don’t know the difference between a joist and a stud, and who couldn’t do a pull-up if their lives depended on it.  I really wonder how many of these $50,000 vehicles are never put into 4-wheel drive.  I really wonder how many of them have clean, unused beds three or four years after purchase.

And yet.  And yet.  These guys buy the big red truck and that’s what they spend their lives paying for.  As Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club:

“working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.”

This is deception.  And it is deception that exploits and enslaves.  Is it not the product of some elemental spirit.

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.