“What Sort of World” (part 1 of 3)

riverOne of the central triads of the Christian faith is that God is omnipotent (all-powerful, or “Almighty”), omniscient (All-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere present). This last of the triad, omnipresence, is best understood to be that God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” This phrase is foundational to a particular way of understanding the world—i.e. a sacramental way. A sacramental understanding insists that things are not merely what they appear to be. Things are not just “things.” They are something more. Things are more than they appear because God is everywhere present. In contrast, someone who believes in Literalism or Materialism as an explanation of the world believes that a river is literally a river—and nothing more. But Literalism gives an incomplete and non-biblical view of the world.

Fr Stephen Freeman in his book, Everywhere Present, links the ideas of God being “everywhere present” with the fact that all things are more than they appear to be. He explains:

“What is the Jordan River? It is similar to the question, “Where is God?” On a literal level, the Jordan River cannot be made more the Jordan River than it already is. If God is everywhere present, then on a literal level He cannot be made more present than He already is.

“This is the failure of literalism. It is certainly possible to walk beside the Jordan River and have no idea of where you are. As rivers go, it is just one more stream of water. Angels do not sing as you approach, nor do the waters automatically part when you seek to cross it. The presence of God everywhere is not accompanied by trumpets or Hollywood’s special effects, the lack of such unusual qualities often lead modern men and women to see nothing more than the obvious. It is possible to tour the Sistine Chapel and describe Michelangelo’s ceiling as “a collection of colors.” Such a description, however, could easily evoke the response, “Then you never visited the Sistine Chapel.” [Italics mine]

Is the materialist position correct? Are things only what they appear to be: a river, bread and wine, a person? Is a river merely a quantity of water flowing downhill over rocks and through forests to the sea? Is bread only a mix of yeast and flour and water? Is wine only crushed grapes and yeast? Maybe a person is only a large collection of fantastically complex biochemicals or—perhaps—just a thinking “machine.”

The historic Christian answer is: “No, of course not.”

C. S.Lewis, in his book Voyage of the Dawn Treader, writes of this exchange:

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”

Unfortunately, the materialist view has crept into much modern Christian thinking. Yet, our spirits feel a dis-ease with this truncated view of the world. This world seems so much more. Why? Because it is!

So what sort of world is this, anyway?

“It could be worse”

Amy_CarmichaelIn Lake Wobegon, the folks of Norwegian stock are a tough lot. They are not easily excited, except perhaps by a flock of errant geese inside the local Catholic church, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. The opposite is true too. They rarely complain when things go awry. Like water off the backs of those geese, frustrations and adverse events (like a failed rhubarb pie), simply cause a momentary pause in their lives. They merely shrug and say, “It could be worse.”

Of course, in real life—the life you and I actually live—much worse things happen than a failed pie, brownies made with salt rather than sugar, or a car that won’t start one cold morning. Sometimes there is very great suffering. Sometimes there is great frustration and grief and tragedy and anguish.

What do we say then? “It could be worse”? Is that the response of true contentment?

Sometimes—perhaps all the time—this is how we deal with problems in our lives. Our idea of contentment is so shallow that we resort to trite expressions which largely mean nothing, and console no one (including ourselves).

And the truth is, it could be worse. Any tragedy and grief can be magnified. Is our rest and recourse merely to acknowledge that we have not suffered ultimate suffering? Doesn’t this make other sufferings, penultimate sufferings, seem of little account?

The insipid statement that “It could be worse” is useless. We cannot deal with our lesser grief and lesser disappointments merely by acknowledging that they could be greater.

Further, these sufferings cannot be truly understood only by recognizing that God has given me much peace and goodness in other areas. The loss of a child is not assuaged by the recognition that I have another child who is healthy or that I have a good job.

So what, then, do we do?

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) suffered greatly in her life, particularly after a severe fall which injured her so severely that she was confined to bed for many years. She wrote:

“It is twenty-one years this year since I could sit up, and for nineteen years it has been this one position in bed; but isn’t it wonderful that He enables us to triumph, and to rejoice in Him?”

What?! She had been bed-ridden for 21 years? Note that her response was not, “It could be worse. I could have been in bed for 22 years.” Such a statement is cold and uncaring and trivializes her pain.

No. Her response, her source of true contentment, is not that it could have been worse, but that she is able to rejoice in God, to triumph in Him who has made her—and us—“more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

 

 

 

Inauguration Day

real-snowflake-under-microscope-wallpaper-2Inauguration Day

Rivers flow
Winds blow

Rain falls
Crows call

Icicles drip
Trains zip

Finches sing
Bells ring

Acorns wait
Enemies hate

Horses graze
Fires blaze

Men plow
Partners vow

Wounded cry
Shoppers buy

Poor dream
Dying scream

Friends care
Demons dare

Women pray
Children play

Sun sets
Strangers met

Babies sleep
Rich keep

Lovers kiss
Clouds drift

And high above the stone
droplets join hands in the cold
And freeze into six points
as they have done for all time
And drift—slow, slow—
pulled by the mighty earth
And descend in a whisper
to the shoulder of a man’s
black coat who says,
at that very moment,
“So help me God.”

Hoyt’s Crabapple Tree

crabapplesMy great-grandfather was known by his great-grandchildren as simply “Hoyt”—his given name. Why he wasn’t called Daddy Martin is a great and haunting family mystery. We called him by his first name only. At the time (1960s) this might have been considered an indication of disrespect but that notion is unthinkable—absolutely unthinkable.

He was a tall, lanky man who life would seem appallingly ordinary by today’s standards. He worked for Houston Lighting and Power back in the days of Reddy Kilowatt. To me, he always seemed old, always seemed patient, always seemed kind. He did not dress in the latest fashion, he eschewed all fancy trappings of any sort, he lived in a small frame house that, by today’s standards, would be embarrassingly “plain.” The rooms of their home were lined with wallpaper rather than paint (I can still recall the pattern!), and the house smelled that peculiar scent of “old people.”

He had a small porch at his front door and, from that door, I could always see two things which have been cemented in my memory. And both memories are connected with his care for his plants.

To the side of his porch, Hoyt would tie strings from the floor of the porch to the ceiling and plant morning glories that would twist their way up the string through the summer, decorating his house with large purple blossoms.

But it is his crabapple tree which has become the point of heritage. In his front yard, to the left of his door, there stood a crabapple tree that would reliably put forth pink blooms each spring, and then followed by ripening crabapples over the summer. Not one to waste anything, he’d have my great-grandmother “put up” those crabapples as deep red jelly in Mason jars. Of course, we’d then slather that jelly along with gobs of butter on my great-grandmother’s homemade (of course! What else was there?!) buttermilk biscuits.

I have many tangible memories that give me great pleasure and make me proud. (Read “Mother Midge’s Jewels” if you’ve forgotten!) But that crabapple tree is special. It is a living gift. Hoyt’s daughter took a seedling from that tree many years ago and planted it in her front yard. My mom and dad have one in their front yard. And guess what? I have two in my front yard. One for me, and one to pass on to my daughter. She can then pass it on to my grandsons.

That original tree has given its progeny over 60 years, carefully passed down through five generations so far. Is it only a tree? Hardly. For it brings to my mind, every time I see it, that life is not about the accumulation of possessions, not about a career, not about power or control or protection, but about love. Love passed down. Love freely given.

Steve Allen’s Prayer

praying-handsI collect quotes. Quotes of all sorts. A lot of quotes (34 pages so far). I collect quotes with which I disagree if the statement is profound and well said. Several years ago, I came across a comment by Steve Allen (1921-2000), the television host, musician, actor, comedian and writer. His thoughts on prayer are worth hearing:

“If you pray for rain long enough, it eventually does fall. If you pray for floodwaters to abate, they eventually do. The same happens in the absence of prayers.”

Allen was apparently raised Irish Catholic and become a “secular humanist” later in life. His comments on prayer are likely shared by many. In fact, I suspect many Christians share those same thoughts. Or, at least, like Allen, they think that prayer is about the “results.” After all, isn’t the point to obtain an affirmative answer from God? Isn’t the point for the rain to fall or the flood to recede? Isn’t the point to get what you want?

Throughout this year we will pray. Most of the time, our prayers are just rank selfishness—we ask and expect to get what we want. I am among the worst of sinners here. Sometimes, it is truly for others. A few times, it is actually honest. Rarely, if ever, do we say out loud that God has disappointed us. That God could have and should have given us the answer we wanted: a child’s repentance, a wife’s healing, or the overcoming in ourselves of persistent sin. Genuine prayers. Good prayers, in fact. But few, very few.

But there is, in fact, something better than even an affirmative answer to these noble prayers. Hear Evagrius the Solitary (AD 345-399):

“Often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God, and not leaving to Him to arrange things as he knows is best for me. But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry that I did not ask for the will of God to be done; because the thing turned out not to be as I had thought….. Do not be distressed if you do not at once receive from God what you ask. He wishes to give you something better—to make you persevere in your prayer. For what is better than to enjoy the love of God and to be in communion with Him?”

Really? Better than the great job? Better than the receding flood, the new home, the healed child, the latest mission trip? Your ongoing and persistent prayers to God are better than these?

Yes.

For your persistence keeps you in communion with God, and there is nothing better at all.

 

 

FOMO

fomo6-1024x544It wasn’t but a few years ago that we received many Christmas letters. And those letters were stories of perfection. Perfect families leading perfect lives with perfect jobs and perfect children and a perfect faith all wrapped up in a perfect bow. These saccharine stories are no longer frequently sent as the annual update in a Christmas letter. Instead, we receive daily updates on Facebook.

In those distant days, you’d receive the glowing Christmas letters recounting in excruciating detail how perfect everyone’s lives were. How “Bob” just got promoted and will be traveling extensively all over the world (!) as he learns he has become absolutely indispensible to the success of his company. How his stock options have multiplied, now affording them a new cottage in the south of France (can you believe that homes there cost more than $1000 a square foot!). How “Joan’s” business has blossomed too, yet she is still able to work in a soup kitchen every Friday! And how they are both just so busy!! And their children—oh, their perfect children with perfect teeth and perfect jobs and perfect marriages and perfect dogs—bring more joy to their lives than they thought possible! Oh, joy!

Of course, we all know these tales are lies. And we know this because our own Christmas letters are lies—truncated and sanitized versions of our lives, so that we can appear that we “have it all together,” that we “have made it,” that we are “blessed.” And sometimes (frequently?) we have lied to ourselves so much that we really believe our own Christmas tales! Ha!

It is only through self-deceit that we can think so. Nothing like lying to yourself, admiring yourself, and adding a few humble brags to look more “spiritual.” But it’s all a joke, of course. We are still weak and needy. We are still chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14), thinking that even if we don’t have this perfect life, perhaps—just perhaps—we can convince others that we do, and maybe we can convince ourselves.

It never works. We know, deep down, that God sees. And we ourselves know, deep down, what is really there—the nagging disappointment, the emptiness of activities, that peculiar void. We keep those fears suppressed. It’s taken a huge amount of our time and a huge investment in distraction to suppress those failures, inadequacies, and sins (both sins of omission and commission). The repeated “missing of the mark.” The fear of death, of failure, of insignificance, of missing out.

Perhaps the best “New Year’s Resolution” is to confess all these things, to confess our dishonesty, to confess our attempts to satisfy ultimate desires of union with God with a pathetic “making of mud-pies in the gutter.”

We are far too easily pleased.

 

 

 

 

Respect for what?

normandy-us-cem01_800Last week, I discussed the original meaning of profane, from the Latin pro-fanus, meaning “in front of the temple”—which indicates that which is not sacred. Rather than indecency, it originally meant that which is ordinary and common. But all people have a sense of a certain decorum that must be present in certain situations. Obviously, we may disagree what those situations might be, but there are some places and times that demand it nonetheless.

The reason for (or meaning of) these rules of conduct is based in a sense of respect. As I asked last week, respect for what?

Joseph Pieper, as usual, has done some careful thinking on this:

“A place of worship usually demand silence; at any rate, uncontrolled shouting and laughter are frowned upon. At the entrance to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, tourists who are clad too scantily are turned back. In such places, the paraphernalia of public curiosity as well are usually eyed with suspicion. In many Christian churches, at least during services, taking pictures is not allowed; the same is true of orthodox Hinduism. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico even resent any camera-equipped visitor who dares so much as to approach the entrance of their underground ceremonial chamber.

“Should the stranger, the outsider, the uninitiated inquire as to the meaning of these rules of conduct, which may appear to him unreasonable and often quite cumbersome, he would be given answers that in spite of all variety in specific instances always agree on this: the reason is to show reverence and respect. Respect for what?”

And thus we’ve arrived at the crucial question: respect for what? Since Pieper has thought about this far more than me, I’ll continue with his thoughts:

“Respect for what? For something that at any rate requires and deserves homage and reverence. Should he persist in asking what concrete and specific reality there be that deserves such reverence, then, presumably, the answers [among the many different groups above] would no longer converge. But they would still unanimously inform the questioner about something that is (or should be) “sacred” to man, be it specified as the “majesty of death”, the dignity of the fatherland, the honor of fallen heroes, or directly as the tangible expression of something divine, if not of God himself.

“All such answers would indeed flow from the common basic conviction that within the world’s total framework of space and time, accessible to man, there do exist specific exceptional and separated spaces and times, distinct from the ordinary, and therefore possessing a special and unique dignity.”

So what are those spaces and times for you? And how do you express that reverence?

Profanum

roman-temple-of-garniI have been fascinated by word origins and their original meanings for a long time. Not because such knowledge is a useful tidbit at a social function (it isn’t) and not because such knowledge will impress others (it often backfires and just makes me look vain). Those unfortunate side effects, however, fail to dissuade me from looking at those origins. I have found them very helpful in how to think and how to act when it comes to contemporary discussions and problem solving.

Take “profanity” for example. It’s a word everyone knows since their early teenage years, when we all began to explore what language can do. Who hasn’t used a select word or two to startle our parents, make us look “grownup” (doesn’t do that either), or make a point to the extreme?

Joseph Pieper, in his fine first chapter of “In Search of the Sacred” reminds us that the original meaning of “profane”

“does not contain any hint of impropriety, for it indicated nothing else than the area in front of the temple (fanum, in Latin), in front of its gates, ‘outside.’”

In other words, the sacred place and object was inside the temple, everything else that was outside was literally “in front of the temple” (pro-fanus): profane, common, ordinary. Which is why profane language is often called “vulgar” which has a host of definitions nowadays, some of which are “common, popular, coarse, unrefined.” Vulgar comes from the word meaning the general public. This is not to suggest that the general public is indecent, but rather to point to a distinction made between what is sacred and what is profane, or what is vulgar, or—better for my point—what is ordinary.

Christians use this term to describe what belongs to God in order to distinguish it from the stuff of ordinary life. Now it is true that there is also a sense in which God is present in everything (He is omnipresent after all). Does that mean ”everything is sacred”? Many writers have noted that if that is true, if everything is sacred, then, in actuality, nothing is. Why? Because there is no distinction made in that declaration. How can something be truly sacred if there are no distinctions at all?

In his book, Pieper notes that all of us intuitively know that there are distinctions in life. Those demarcations may be that we do not wear old shorts, torn T-shirts and flip-flops when we have a personal meeting with the President. Or that we do not build a pipeline over a burial ground. Or that we do not play basketball in a place of worship.

Some may object, as Pieper notes, that these behaviors are mere social rules of conduct, of deference to others, or of expectations for our particular society. But actually, most of us can agree that they are signs of respect.

But now the obvious question: Respect for what?

Time and Weakness

timeLast week, I wrote on how language and thinking are interconnected—that language affects the manner, the way, and the process of our thinking. So, obviously, I have been intrigued by time of late (pun intended, and a poor one at that).

Last week I completed Eugene Vodolazkin’s curious novel “Laurus.” It’s quite a tale: set in medieval Russia with sudden appearances of stories or objects that come from another time, and a main character who intermittently knows future events. In the story, two travelers, on the way to the Holy Land, are discussing time:

“I am going to tell you something strange. It seems ever more to me that there is no time. Everything on earth exists outside of time, otherwise how could I know about the future that has not occurred? I think time is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up, because a person’s consciousness cannot take in all events at once. We are locked up in time because of our weakness.”

And later in their conversation, “We simply need to remember that only the material world needs time.”

What an intriguing idea: only the material world needs time! Such seems true. For God and all his created spiritual beings seem unbounded by time. Yet we are not. Or at least, not yet.

And I’ve never really thought about time being “necessary because of our weakness.” How I’ve longed for treasured moments to linger, for the hours of sweetness of my children’s play to last forever. For idyllic days to be more than a memory. For the energy of youth to be eternal, for the wisdom of older years to remain always vivid.

But maybe time is indeed given because of weakness. Maybe my natural body simply cannot cope with the complexity and the drama and the brightness of all events being an eternal now. This is no doubt true.

What happens when the promised General Resurrection of all peoples comes to pass, when believers are given “spiritual bodies”—a great mystery if there ever was one? Is this how our lives will be eternal? Because our bodies will be somehow spiritual, we are no longer weak and are therefore free of time?

And when I remember the promise that my body will change from a natural one to a spiritual body, I am nearly overwhelmed. Maybe I should be entirely overwhelmed: stunned at the goodness and greatness of God. Unlocked from time, unbound from its restrictions and decay, and enjoying a level of freedom I cannot imagine.

 

 

 

Time, Aliens, and Language

arrival-moviePARTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

If you have not yet seen the movie “Arrival,” and plan to do so, then you may want to read this blog after you see the movie. Not everything will be spoiled, just a little.

Amy Adams’ character has a special gift…or tool…or weapon: She can see into the future. There are several instances of this in the movie, sometimes making it difficult to determine what has passed and what is yet to come. This gift…or tool…or weapon plays a significant role and even is related to her job as a linguist trying to communicate with the aliens. The aliens’ verbal language (grunts and squeals) is unrelated to their “written” arrival-languagelanguage which is a circular ink squirt with numerous tails, knobs, and other irregularities. Like pictograms or ideograms, each stands for an idea or phrase.

These alien “words” may seem like nothing more than a fanciful scribble were it not for a comment she makes that our thinking is determined by our language. In other words, the language we speak actually affects the way we think. That’s a rather startling idea. My use of English and its particular format and sentence structure and pronouns and verb tenses actually causes me to think in a particular way—in an American-English way. And if my native tongue were Mandarin or the Khosian click language, I would naturally think in a different way.

At first, this seems like a great surprise, but a bit of reflection leads me to believe that it is entirely true. How often have we known someone from a different culture, a different language, who thinks very differently than us? And not just because they are from a unique culture and have had different experiences, but because they process information and arrive at conclusions in their own unique way.

So how is the ability to see into the future related to the way language affects our thinking? In the movie, the past, present, and future are sometimes blurred—or at least not independent of one another and not necessarily “sequential.” Obviously, this is very different from our experience and expectations. But the aliens have a particular reason for coming to Earth, and it is related to their view of time. And so their thinking about time is reflected in their language: their nonlinear view of time is reproduced in the non-linearity of their circular “words”—their words that fold back on themselves and never really end, never really stand alone.

What could such a movie scene have to do with me? Well, how does my thinking about time affect my life and my language now? How has my language affected the way I think and plan and live? And when it comes specifically to “time,” have I limited my thinking and my actions because I do not see myself as living an eternal life? An eternal life that begins now, in this life?

How would my life change if I really believe I now possess life eternal?