Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

More Thoughts on Christian Patience

I left off the last post this morning with a note toward balance.

It was kind of an afterthought.  The post was about patience and waiting and I ended with just a bit about what that waiting should be like.  Maybe I should have said a little more about that.

While we, as Christians in this age after the resurrection but before the Second Coming, live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  That’s old news to any of you readers who have spent much time in church.  It’s kind of a cliché in our circles, I guess.

But I thought more about what I wrote this morning as I pedaled up and down the hills and hollows here in my home State of West Virginia on my daily bike ride.  I do almost 17 miles on a “short day,” and that’s what I did today.  This exercise in the open air – and today in the sunlight – always seems to get the mind stirring.

And as it stirred this morning, and as I thought again and again about this morning’s post, some language from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament (The Message) popped into my head.  It relates to the concept of waiting, which I wrote about this morning.  But, like so much of Peterson’s translations, it gives us just a little more emphasis here and there.  I love Peterson’s translations of the Epistles, particularly Galatians and Romans.  He has said that his aim in translating was to give the reader not a literal, word for word translation, but a translation that would be faithful to the look and feel of the original writing.  That is, this writing would sound to us modern readers – have the same “ring” as – the original Greek would have had to the early churches.

Peterson translates a couple of passages in Romans that deal directly with the kind of “waiting in tension” that I wrote about this morning.  Look at this:

Romans 5:3-5

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

 

Look at that!  Patience, yes, but passionate patience that includes great expectancy;  that expects surprise and fulfillment.

Here is one more bit, this one around Romans 8: 23-24 or so:

These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

 

Don’t you think these passages help to understand the nature of the Christian’s waiting?  It’s not a dull, grinding thing that is too timid to hope for much.  Rather, it is “alert expectancy,” “joyful expectancy.”

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 . . .

“It is finished . . .”

John 19:28-30
28 After this, Jesus, knowing[a] that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” 29 Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. 30 So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.

 

 

“It is finished.”  These are words of our Lord spoken immediately before He died on the cross.  What do they mean?  The Greek word that is here translated “finished” is the word “teleos.”    That word does not merely imply that something is “over.”  It means more.  It connotes the idea of completion, accomplishment, and fulfillment.  If we go back only a few verses to verse 28, we read “Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished. . .”   The Greek word there translated “accomplished” is the same word – teleos.   And look at Luke 22: 37, where our Lord says “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me. . .”  Again, the underlying Greek word is teleos, here translated “accomplished.”

What our Lord is saying then is not simply that he is now ready to die and that His physical suffering is over.  Not at all.

****

I have spent 35 years working for and awaiting verdicts.    Verdicts are words of decision and finality and consequence and power.  When a verdict is pronounced, the battle is over.  Someone wins and someone loses.   I have experienced the rush of joy at a favorable verdict and the bitter disappointment of an unfavorable verdict, time and time again.   I know a verdict when I see one, and these three words of our Lord Jesus Christ are a verdict.  Or, rather, the verdict.

These three words mark the end of a spiritual battle that has been raging since the fall of humanity; since the rebellion of Satan.  These words mark and announce the final and ultimate victory; the inevitable defeat of evil.  It is accomplished.

It is all very fine, you may say, for one to take to the pulpit on Good Friday and speak of grand spiritual abstractions such as the final, universal defeat of evil, but what, you may fairly ask, does it mean to me?  It seems very much like I face potent evil every; I face the fallen world and my fallen nature every day.   Do these great words of Christ mean anything to me, here and now?

Yes, they do.    These words not only have universal and ultimate consequences; they have immediate personal consequences for each of our individual lives, here and now.   These three words are perhaps the most compact statement of the gospel anywhere in the Bible.  They not only speak of the last chapter of history, they speak to us directly, in the very fallen circumstances in which we find ourselves.

And one of those immediate, personal consequences is rest.  Once we understand that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves; that all has been accomplished; that all will be well, then we may rest in His grace, rest in His assurance, rest in His promise.  Our eternal destiny is fixed; it does not depend on our own merit.   The Christian life may be one of striving, but for the Christian, there will be no anxious striving.  We are fighting battles in a war that has already been won.

****

These words give us rest and they also give us perspective.  How many times have you heard a coach say “get your head up?”   When the team is down and all looks lost, we tend to drop our gaze and look not ahead, but at our feet.  It is a sure sign that we’ve given up the fight and if we are to have any chance of victory, the coach knows that we’ve got to change the way we’re looking at things.

Tim Anderson, the author of several best-selling books on strength and conditioning, takes the matter deeper.  He says that the human body is designed for a forward gaze:

We are made to keep our heads on the horizon both physically and mentally. When we drop our head, when we drop our thoughts, the body and mind follow. We slouch, we get depressed, we lose confidence and we “wilt.” Holding your gaze on the horizon helps keep your posture strong and your mind agile. When you can see the horizon, you have confidence and hope. You also have awareness and peripheral vision – if threats and attacks are coming, you’re more likely to notice. People that slouch, or mope, look like victims. People that stand tall look like victory.

What is the horizon?  It’s the place where the edge of the earth meets the edge of heaven.  It is the place where our hopes and aspirations meet with mundane life – with the frustrations, disappointments and decay of this mortal life.  It is where all of our unfinished symphonies meet the perfect music of the spheres. The horizon is the farthest focal point we can stretch our gaze to.   It is, if you will, the place where time meets eternity.  Dare we turn our gaze there? In light of all that life has thrown at us, in light of all our failure and disappointment and loss, do we dare to keep our heads up and our gaze forward?

These final words of Christ on the cross tell us that we may.  Indeed, they invite such forward- looking optimism.  In light of Christ; in light of His completed work, what we see on the horizon is not death, but delight.  Not frustration, but fulfillment.  We see an empty cross and an empty tomb and hear the Master’s voice saying “All has been accomplished.  Follow me.  I have prepared a place for you.”  And this is enough.  It is all we need.  Despite our failures and losses, our disappointments and frustrations, we may keep our heads up and our gaze forward and walk on to Him who did finish the work, who has accomplished all.  Then we walk with confidence and awareness, from strength to strength, and on toward Him in whose presence is fullness of joy and in whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.

As Promised

 

In keeping with our study of what worship ought to be, here is the video of the Welsh Church congregation singing “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer.”    I thought I could embed it here, but WordPress won’t let me unless I start paying them $14 a month.  That ain’t gonna happen.  You can see this amazing part of worship by clicking here.

And here is an extra.  Same church, singing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”  Click here.

If you can watch these without being inspired, you should check for a pulse.

 

PS.  Here’s one more.  Click here.