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!

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Meditation on Psalm 39

December 26, 2016

(Monday)

 

Psalm 39

 

This psalm is unfamiliar to me.  And, for the moment at least, so much the better.  I read it as something new and the words are themselves, hard-edged and fresh-scented, and do not dissolve immediately into the rote and rhythm of long memory.  I have to pay attention.

 

And I begin my reading in the old – some would say “archaic” – King James translation which makes the reading even more difficult and requires the exercise of imagination.

 

But – worth it!  I find lately that reference to the King James not only gives you that stately cadence and flavor that I’ve grown to love, there are subtleties and nuances that are obvious – or at least visible – in this old translation that don’t show up in the newer ones.  C. S. Lewis recommended that one should read two old books for every new book read.  This, he said, might help stave the tendency for chronological arrogance: the idea that what we think now is true and whatever people thought differently before is simply error.  Maybe that same idea should apply as to Bible translations.

 

No matter which translation you read, though, one dominant theme in this psalm is the evanescence of human life.  We’re here and then we’re gone.  And our striving and achievements don’t amount to much;  “he heapeth up riches and knoweth not who shall gather them . . .”

 

Corollary to this is the psalmist’s prayer for perspective:

 

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. . .

 

For the psalmist, it seems that this earthly life is all he is aware of; all he expects.  He believes himself to be under God’s judgement.  That is why he is suffering.  At the end of the psalm he prays for this relief: “Look away from me [God] that I may rejoice again, before I depart and am no more.”  Wow.  This is not a Christian perspective.  Although there are other psalms that seem to point to an expectation of life after the grave – “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. .  . .”  (Psalm 23) and “thou dost not give me up unto Sheol nor suffer thy godly one to see corruption. . . .”  (Psalm 16)  But here in this psalm, the writer expects nothing beyond this life, so it seems.

There is undoubtedly much wisdom to be gained in a sober reflection of the probable length of our earthly life, but the notion that life continues into eternity provides even more food for thought, even more impetus to change our behavior.

More on The Beast

5And the beast was  . . .   allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.[b] And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation

 

 

We’ve spent a few weeks now wrestling with the image of the sea beast as it appears in Revelation Chapter 13.  We have come to a consensus, I think, along with our commentators, Eugene Peterson and Vern Poythress, that this monster rising from the ocean represents earthly kingdoms or governments.  The idea, then, is that governments may become the tools of Satan.  That’s not hard to believe about some of the governments we’ve heard about, and some we have seen here in our lifetimes.  Again, Jagger and Richards said it pretty plainly, when they put these words in Satan’s mouth in their famous song, “Sympathy for the Devil.”  They speak of the murderous beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the carnage wrought in Europe by Hitler’s Third Reich, and the Medieval hundred years war:

 

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

But what about right now?  What about today and tomorrow?  Right here in the good, old USA?  Here is what Poythress has to say about evil working in democracies:

In democratic countries, the state does not insist on literal worship [as does the beast in Revelation], but citizens are tempted to look to the state as if it were a messiah.  It is the greatest concentration of earthly powers, and so [as the erroneous thinking goes] it must be the remedy for all ills – economic, social, medical, moral and even spiritual.

Poythress, The Returning King, P&R Publishing, 2000, at p. 139

Indeed, it is this very impulse, at the heart of much modern, “progressive” thinking, that was the impetus for much contrarian, intellectual activity after the Second World War.  It may have been Eric Voegelin, an economist who escaped Hitler’s purges, who coined the phrase “immanentizing the eschaton,” meaning the drive – conscious or not – of modern activists to establish utopia here and now through whatever means necessary.

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One of the most intriguing and distinctive aspects of Eugene Peterson’s commentary on this passage is his soft-pedaled suggestion that there is, amid all of the horror of this imagery, something of a comic note:

. . . there is also an unmistakable touch of the ludicrous in St. John’s description [of the beast].  The sea beast is a patchwork job, assembled from left-over parts of leopard, bear, and lion.  St. John allows for [its] capacity to strike terror still, but he also shows [it] as considerably shopworn.  The old beasts have been around too long and are starting to lose their stuffing.

Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, Harper Collins, 1991, at p. 123

 

Saint John writes to prepare the infant congregations in Asia Minor and throughout the Roman Empire for the worst.  For the trouble they will suffer at the hands of government and the agencies of deception that prop those governments up.  But his message, finally, is that evil, despite its capacity to injure and retard the flourishing of humanity, is limited and it is doomed.  It will not finally win the day.  We have seen that in the twentieth century in the fall of the Third Reich and the later fall of the Soviet Union.  Indeed, we may see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Natan Sharansky as men of faith who faced down the great beast of oppressive governments in their day.  Surely these men understood the nature of oppression.  That, despite its power and ability to kill and injure, the great sea beast of absolutist oppression is limited and, finally, doomed.

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That brings me to another observation.  The governments that have survived long term – one thinks of England and, to a lesser degree, the US – are governments that are, by their own terms, by their own constitutions, limited governments.  There are checks and balances.  There are inalienable human and civil rights afforded to individuals.  There are – and this may be the biggest concession of all – term limits.  Is it a mere coincidence that these governments have survived while the absolutist, monolithic states have crumbled?   Are the limitations on government – beginning with the Magna Carta – born of the biblical idea portrayed here in Revelation  – an admission that the sea beast is doomed?  That government – human government – cannot pretend to absolute power?

 

copyright 2016

 

Meditation on Psalm 27

When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.

 

I’ve written a bit in the last few days about David’s authorship of the Psalms.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to him in the bible text, but there is apparently some disagreement among scholars about what the actual evidence – or lack thereof – suggests about who actually wrote which psalm.  I’ve noted that CS Lewis remarked that there appears to be a general agreement that David is the actual author of Psalm 18.  That notion really resonates with me.

I am not saying that I line up with those who hold that all the Psalms that are attributed to David in the biblical text were not actually written by him.  I have not heard the arguments.  I guess my default position would be to view the plain meaning of the text as authoritative.

But Psalm 18, as I said before, is distinctive.  That Psalm, more than others, I think, is so full of the experience of physical battle that it is easy for me to think that it is the product of King David’s imagination.  Psalm 18 has a different feel to it.

This morning, continuing my Psalm-a-day practice, I came upon Psalm 27.  Not a particularly well-known Psalm.  If someone had asked me cold to quote something from Psalm 27, I could not have done it.  Having said that, however, there are verses in this Psalm – particularly verses 1, 4, 8 and 14 – that resonate like ringing bells when read.

If I were involved in some project to determine which of the Psalms were actually the work of David, I would tend to put this one into his column.  It’s attributed to him in the note above the text, but it is also full of the imagery of war and battle.  It is apparently a Psalm that is written based upon vivid and consequential personal experience.  The writer speaks of being delivered from enemies.  There is, in this psalm, an expression of profound love of God.  The writer longs to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.”

This writer has been in battles.  David’s sincere and gut-level love of God comes out of his trust in God and his experience of God’s deliverance from the foe.  He knows danger and he knows deliverance.  This is what is missing from so many modern lives, I think.  We do not see life as a battle.  Or, if we do, we see it as a battle that is long-since lost or one that we have no hope of ever winning.

That’s not how David saw things and that is not the perspective of faith.   David fought and won.  He bet the ranch and won.  Time and time again.

As Christians, we know that the final battle against evil has been fought and won on the cross of Jesus Christ.  But we nonetheless are faced with our own existential battles as we live our lives, day by day.  There is the battle for meaningful and fulfilling relationships.  The battle for understanding.  The battle for sustenance and survival.  The battle against sin on our own lives – against pride and laziness, for starters.  These battles, if we are to take David’s poetry as authoritative, may be won or lost.  Yes, of course, we will trust in God.  But we must not ignore the stakes of life.  Something real is at stake in every day, in every conversation, in every effort.  Faith means having the hope that we may win.

A Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of God in heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.

Chewing on Chapter One

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us[b]for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known[c] to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians with an excited, seemingly breathless recitation of the blessings we have in Christ.  If I read this first part of the letter in any of the standard translations, I can easily get lost.  Paul is definitely fired up.  His language here – if the translations are to be trusted – is what we folk out in the country call “high flown.”  But is he fired up about blessings that have to do with our status before God, like the escape from the final judgement we deserve?  Such blessings are “unspeakably great,” but they have to do with what seem in a way – dare I say it – abstractions.  That is, they have to do with metaphysical realities that we may appreciate through a glass darkly in an intellectual way here and now but only fully enjoy and experience after we die.

Understand, readers.  These are not the conclusions of any scholar or theologian.  They are merely the immediate reactions and questions of a lay reader.

Here is what I want to know:  How do these spiritual blessings change or affect our lives, here and now.  Of course, of course, they must change our long-term perspective.  We need not fear death.  We need not fear judgement.  And, again, lest I be accused of ingratitude or stupidity, let me say:  these blessings – these here-and-now effects – are unspeakably great.

But is there more?  Is there something else?  Are the lives of believers changed in concrete ways in the day-to-day living?

Let’s go on.  Moffat translates verses nine through ten in this way:

So richly has God lavished upon us his grace, granting us complete insight and understanding of the open secret of his will, showing us how it was the purpose of his design so to order it in the fullness of the ages that all things in heaven and earth alike should be gathered up in Christ.

So, we are in on the great (open) secret.  The great mystery.  We know the end of history.  The ushering in of the Messianic Kingdom.  The Kingdom of God, where justice will prevail and where every tear will be wiped away and where the lion will lie down with the lamb and the child will put his hand over the adder’s den.  All of that.

Again, this gives us perspective.  God will finally prevail.  In the end, all will be well.  But just how does that perspective change everyday living?

Time for a break.  More later.