Friday, February 7, 2014

Decisions I'll Never Regret

I've lived fifty years on this earth and I have a lot of regrets. But one thing I can say that I have never regretted was a decision to forgive.

Decades ago I had an employer, a professing Christian, active in ministry. He was a charismatic man with big dreams, and his employees were devoted to him. But his dreams were bigger than the reality in which we all lived, and the business foundered.  Paychecks became sporadic, but his bright optimism, our belief in his vision, and our loyalty kept us around. Eventually, however, it got to the point that he neglected to pay us for weeks on end. This went on for two or three months before I finally quit, but there were others of us who stayed far longer waiting for that oft-promised ship, carrying its thousands of dollars of back-pay, to come in. One of the last straws came for me when I learned that all the while we were not getting paid, our boss was renting a luxury home in Dana Point. I was indignant.

I, too, was a professing Christian then. I knew that the Scriptures teach a man not to  withhold wages from his workers. When I finally quit I took my case to the Labor Board to try to force payment. But before I got very far in the process my conscience began to trouble me:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?...To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?"  1 Cor. 6:1,6-7
And there was also this:
"and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Mt. 6:12
So I abandoned my claim and wrote my former boss a letter forgiving him the debt he owed me.

When I look back in my memory at that time of my life, what I remember is the joy of being able to look that man in the eye again and smile, and to see him smile in return.  I have never regretted that decision, or any decision to forgive after that. The freedom to love is more precious than anything it might cost. And it does cost. In order to forgive I had to determine to absorb the loss and the offense that had come with it.

These many years later I have come to understand more fully the gospel I never really grasped all those years ago.  Back then I followed, when I followed, as one following a rule book.  But even then I experienced the sweet reward of warm affection that forgiveness brings.

In order to have true fellowship, we must break down every barrier to love and relationship. This means we must forgive offenses, over and over. And, yes, this also means we must absorb the costs.
"And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him..." Colossians 1:21-22
This is what God did for us in Christ.  He absorbed our sin against Him at the cost of His precious and sinless life. He did this while we were still his enemies, and this is what he calls us to do  for each other.
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." Col. 3:12-14
This harmony is worth everything it cost Christ and everything it costs us. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

In Praise of Dish Soap

 It's been a while since I've offered any new cleaning tips or recommendations.  That's because what I've been doing all along, and have recorded in previous posts, has been serving me just fine.  But, as we all know, necessity is the mother of invention, and need arose recently for me to discover something new - or, rather, rediscover something not new at all.  You see, I ran out of Mr. Clean and I needed something to mop a floor with that would be gentle and not leave streaks.  Then I remembered back to the days of my youthful poverty when I would mop my kitchen floors with dish soap rather than buy some special product.  So I took my empty spray-bottle added a few drops of dish soap* and filled it the rest of the way with warm water.  A short time later I was looking at perfectly shiny, streak-free floors.

Being out of Mr. Clean for the rest of that day, I ended up using the dish soap mixture on everything I would have used Mr. Clean for.  It was perfect.  Excited, I spent the week trying it out on several other applications.  It removed the fingerprints from door jambs nicely.  It's great for appliance fronts and even stainless steel.  It cleans marble and stone counter-tops to a streak-free shine. It even works well on bathtubs and showers, provided they are not coated with heavy buildup. Most surprising of all, to me, it was even better than the name brand glass-cleaners for windows and mirrors.  Just spray on, rub around with a sponge (if necessary), and wipe dry.  And all this for a fraction of the price of Mr. Clean and window cleaners.

With a spray bottle of dish-soapy water on hand, I've found the only other products I need on a daily/routine basis are 409 (or other degreaser) for more heavy-duty messes like stove-tops or the insides of microwaves, a bleach-based scouring powder, Barkeeper's Friend, and Endust. (See my previous posts for other quality products I recommend and their particular uses.)

An added advantage I noticed, as someone who cleans for a living, is that it does not irritate my lungs.  There are no fumes, so I get no cough.  Now, for a professional, there can be a downside to this, though, as the house will smell less like the cleaning products that the general public has come to associate with "clean".  If this is becomes a problem, you can add a little Mr. Clean, or your preferred all-purpose cleaning concentrate to your soapy water bottle.  You'll still be using fewer chemicals and fewer dollars each day.

Finally,  I know what some of you are thinking: "What about GERMS?!"  Yes, I understand.  This is why I recommend a bleach based product for the toilet bowl and sink area.  And you still may prefer to use a specialized product for the bathroom surfaces.  That's fine.  But keep in mind that the scientific community is no longer encouraging the use of any antibacterial products which are not either bleach or alcohol based in non-hospital settings.  Look for soapy water to be making a come-back!


*  I am not specifically endorsing Dawn here, though it is a good brand.  Any quality brand of dish soap will do the trick.  I cannot recommend the cheap brands, however.  Very often they are watered down and require you to use twice as much, which defeats the purpose as far as I'm concerned.

P.S. You can also use a dab dishsoap on a grease-spot before laundering to prevent a permanent grease stain.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

That Disappointing Gift

While the world and its Christians are clamoring over the controversy du jour*, I've decided to take a break, and a different tack. This will probably come as a disappointment to those who would rather spend their time engaging in culture wars.  But that's okay, because it's almost Christmas, and that feels like the perfect time to talk about disappointment.

Christmas is a time for gifts, for giving and receiving them. This is as it should be. We do this in rememberance of the great gift that God gave to humanity on the night that Jesus Christ was born, or at least that was the original intent. Two thousand years later, the gift-giving has taken on a life of its own as part of our commercial culture and has left its roots in the dust. Which, I think, is a macro-reflection of our disappointment with God's gift to us.

Think of all the effort and resources you have invested this Christmas season into making or purchasing just the right gift for the ones you love most dearly. Your hope is to meet their needs, to see them smile, to let them know how much you care and how precious they are to you, and to bless them.

God, the greatest giver, planned from the beginning of time to give the people he would create the greatest gift imaginable.  He gave them life and relationship with him, and they did not value it.  We know this because God told them there was only one thing they could do to forfeit it. There was just one prohibition, no other rules but this one simple command, this single marker of God's authority over them and the life he'd given them. They had everything, yet they were willing to risk it all for a taste of the one thing in their world they were told they could not have.

Even so, none of this came as a surprise to God.  He knew the limits of the creatures he had made. Life itself was not the greatest gift, but the first step to it. There was something more God wanted give.  He planned from the beginning to do something so astonishing as to be almost unthinkable.  He would give a gift that would demonstrate once and for all the nature and extent of his love, and those who would recognize it and value it would have the greatest treasure of all:  God himself.

What greater gift can anyone give than himself?

And so God sent his own Son to sacrifice his life for the ones who had rejected his original gift of life. His Son died our death so that we can enter into His life. Through His Son God offers peace and reconciliation - and sonship.  Through Christ, the Son of God, we, too, can become God's sons.
"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God..." John 1:12
Christians, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Col. 1:13-14)  Our sins are forgiven!  We have peace with God and a place in the kingdom of his dearly loved Son.  It doesn't get any better than this! What more could we dream of or hope for than this one thing?

So let me ask this question today:  is this the gift you really wanted? Or are you disappointed? Does it bore you? Have you set it down to go look under the tree for something else, something more? I have to admit that there have been times, yes, even as a Christian, when I have grown weary of Jesus and begun moving on to secondary interests and new experiences.

I listened the other day to an old sermon by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones.  In it he told the story of an African pastor who had made a previous trip to England to tell the churches there about the revivals going on in his native country. When he came back the second time he decided not to tell the people about Africa.  He decided to preach about Jesus.  He told Lloyd-Jones that the people were not happy about it.  These Christians didn't want to hear about Jesus.  They wanted to hear about African revivals.  They were disappointed.

And so I ask again: are you disappointed in the gift of God? Would you rather fill your mind and heart with the latest "Christian" controversy, the latest doctrinal hubbub, the latest Christian political movement, movie, or fad or whatever it might be than with Christ?

On the November before my mother died, not knowing she wouldn't live until Christmas, she decided to buy me an early Christmas present.  She didn't want to wait to give it to me either.  She wanted me to have it right away, because she knew I really needed it.  It wasn't a beautiful gift, I suppose, or a very sentimental one even.  It was a vacuum cleaner.  She knew I'd had nothing but trouble with vacuum cleaners over the years prior, and that it was an ongoing source of frustration for me, a professional house-cleaner. She was not a wealthy woman, but she bought me a really good one, one that I would not have been able to afford on my own, one that would last.  And now that my mother is gone, that vaccuum means more to me than I know how to express.  It filled a need, a real need, and it also showed how much she cared about my life and its little hardships. Four years later, I still use it, and I still think of her with gratitude every time I do.

Christmas in our country and in our hearts has stopped being about Christ because we have lost interest in God's gift.  But why? I believe it is because we have forgotten, or never realized at all, how much we really need it. The best gifts, whether we recognize it or not, are those that meet the greatest needs.  Sadly, though our greatest needs are so often overshadowed in our minds by our greatest desires.

This is why Jesus was rejected from the very beginning.  He was not the kind of Messiah the Jews hoped he would be.  They had been hoping for a military conquerer.  They were disappointed because they did not understand that their land and the Roman occupation were not their real problem. They had had full reign over Palestine and their temple before, more than once. But each time they had sinned, and God had taken it away. The problem was not the land, it was their sin. The real enemy was not Rome, but themselves.  Sin was the great oppressor that God's Messiah came to conquer.  But, like all of us, they enjoyed their sin. That was not the Messiah they wanted. 

So God's gift seemed to them, as it so often does to us, like a booby prize.

May God grant us this Christmas, and every day after, to recognize the greatness of God's gift, and to experience the joy that it is meant to bring.


*For anyone reading this six weeks or six months or six years from today, I'll remind you that the current controversy is over the statements of the star of a "reality" TV program called Duck Dynasty.  By now you will likely need to Google the reference just to recall what this particular fuss was about.  But there's no need to bother.  By the time you are reading this the broohaha will likely have been replaced by another much like it. (Will we ever learn?)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Experiencing God Meets Sola Scriptura*

 * "Sola Scriptura (Latin ablative, 'by Scripture alone') is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness." - Wikipedia
“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” Luke 8:5-8
In my nearly 50 years of life, there has never been a time when I haven't identified in some way as a Christian: first as the nominal Lutheran I was brought up to be, then as a word-of-faith charismatic, then as a "regular" charismatic (during which time I attended an Assemblies of God college), then as a "backslider", then as a Calvary Chapel person, then as a "backslider" again.

It wasn't until around the time of my 40th birthday that I began to question, for the first time ever, whether I really was a Christian at all. I didn't doubt the truth of Christianity or anything like that. But I had seen the difference between myself and the handful of genuine Christians I had encountered over the years. I knew they had something I did not. I didn't know how they got it, but I also wasn't really sure I wanted it.

Later that same year, the life that I had created for myself rose up and stabbed me in the back. Within a month's time I found myself jobless, husbandless, friendless, and physically ill, in that order. I turned with my whole heart and with all of its sin, desperately, to Christ, and He saved me. A few weeks later, as I grieved my losses, I wept, wailing and groaning, begging God to show Himself to me.  I wanted proof that He was with me, that He accepted me, and that He would rebuild my shattered life.  All I got was silence.

Looking back, I'm not surprised.  I was not the only suffering person in the world, though it felt like to me. Why should I be the one to get a visitation? I am also embarrassed, all these years later, at the blindness and deafness of that plea. I was like a fish pleading with Water to reveal itself.  My whole life and every blessing I had ever experienced was from God, yet, at that moment it was all invisible to me.  And then there's the hubris. For two thousand years Christians have followed Christ without having "seen" him, without the benefit of special visitations. And "blessed are they."

It is hubris to expect God to reveal himself, because he already has.  God HAS spoken to men.  He has revealed himself.
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." Heb. 1:1-2a
The word of his Son was given to his apostles and recorded for all time, in that book we call the Bible. If we do not honor the words we have already been given, if we will not consider them as sufficient for life and godliness, then how on earth do we dare to demand or require special experiences in order to trust him?

I thank God for his patience with me through that time of desperation and ignorance.  I wish I could say my change of heart was easy or instantanious.  Though why would I expect it to be? After all, the first disciples saw him face to face, heard his teaching first-hand, witnessed his great miracles, his death, and his resurrection, and yet were slow to believe God's words. I was no different. Like them, I came into it with a lot of misguided ideas about Christ and what it meant to follow him.  I had absorbed a lot of bad teaching, and even misunderstood some good teaching, during my decades in and out of church.

On my very first visit to a Word of Faith church I was taught to speak in tongues. (Yes, I said "taught".  It didn't happen spontaneously, but with instructions on how to do it. My husband says he was taught to do the same in an acting exercise when he was in college.) The fact that I possessed the ability to do this led me to believe I was "still" a Christian for many years in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  Oddly, when I did get saved, I never felt any need or desire to speak in tongues again.

But, my years as a charismatic had also led me to think I was supposed to be hearing from God and getting direct guidance, via still, small voices and the like, on a routine basis. I was supposed to "experience" God in all sorts of goose-bumpy ways. In those days people were always telling me the things God had told them, special messages or prophecies He had given them: "The Lord told me....The Lord led me to...The Lord put it on my heart...The Lord showed me...Thus sayeth the Lord..."  Oh, how they treasured their experiences... and who was I to doubt them? So being a Christian meant hearing voices, picking up on signs, seeing visions, recognizing when "God is doing something". None of this had ever happened to me, so when I really did come to Christ, I had it in my mind that this was what it was like to be a real Christian.

In addition to those hold-over notions, after my conversion I began voraciously reading a variety of Christian literature, some of it good, some of it dreadful.  I couldn't always tell the difference as they all claimed to be based upon Scripture. Some suggested that Christians should expect to have highly-charged encounters with God and personal experiences of His presence as a matter of course. Some suggested that if I were only more fully surrendered to God I would achieve a higher Christian life - that ethereal "abiding" with Christ - which seemed in the books like a spiritual bliss from which all sorts of lovely spiritual fruits would effortlessly flow.

My life experience with Christianity reads like the Parable of the Sower.  I have been the hard-beaten path on which the word lands but is not understood, so the birds come and snatch it away.  I have been that rocky heart who is filled with exuberance at the word of God but withers when the going gets rough.  I have also been that weedy ground, overgrown with worries and cares which choke out the word before it can bear fruit.  I was, at different times, every bad kind of soil. But there finally came a time when the harsh realities of my life had plowed my heart so well that when it met with sound biblical teaching  the word could put down deep roots and grow.

"Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God." Luke 8:11

Thankfully, during the early days of my faith, there were also sound teachers who taught me a deep reverence for the written word of God.  From them I learned that scripture is the one and only unshifting standard for Christianity. With it you can evaluate everything else.  It is the straight stick, next to which anything crooked becomes glaring. Over time trusting God's word began to win out over the relentless pressure of trying to drag experiences from God. Thank God for his patience; I am  finally convinced that the scriptures contain everything I need to know God and to live a godly life.

The seed is the word of God, and it is the word of God that bears fruit and grows.
"...the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth."  Col. 1: 5b-6
In the scriptures the Spirit gives me understanding of who God is and what his will is for me.  His word really does bear "fruit in every good work" and I increase "in the knowledge of God" on a daily basis as I commit myself to letting God lead and guide me through it.  At long last, after all these years I really am experiencing God on a daily basis, only not in the way I had once been led to expect. My life and my relationships are being transformed as I meet him in his word. My faith has been shored up to withstand tremendous onsloughts. My hope is in Christ, and through His word I see into his face and am daily being transformed. I never knew before how rich the experience of a Christian could be.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sola Scriptura or Sola Commentarium?

Sola Scriptura "is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness." - Wikipedia  
All of my life I have identified in one form or another as a Protestant.  During most of the years following my conversion at age 40, I identified myself as "reformed".  It was during those years that I first heard (or first remember hearing) the term Sola Scriptura.  It is one of five "Solas" that the youngish reformed folks are so fond of having tattooed on their wrists and arms and ankles.

I don't need tattoos to identify myself with the Solas.  They are etched into my heart.  But, it was not always so.  Though I was never a fan of body ink, in my days of being Reformed™, the solas became a bit like tattoos to me - a superficial form of branding, a way of identifying with a certain group in distinction from other groups.

For all of my lofty vaunting of Sola Scriptura, I actually spent far, far less time reading and studying the Scriptures than I did reading books about the Scriptures. I devoured a hundreds of very good books about the Good Book.  I read books of theology, commentaries, and everything in between.  I read Calvin and Piper and Edwards and Owen and Luther and Spurgeon and Pink and Sproul. I adored the Puritans! All of these were the experts. They were the pinnacle of spirituality, and they told me how I should interpret what the Bible says.  They (and my fellow "reformed" friends and bloggers)  decided for me, based upon their particular bents, which doctrines were the ones I should be focusing on and which theological camps I should park myself in. I accepted almost anything I was taught, so long as the teacher was popular, intelligent, and Reformed™.

During those years my soul began to wither, and for the longest time I barely noticed - until a series of tragedies struck.  When they did I found that all my second-hand knowledge wasn't enough to steady my faith. I learned that my pet doctrines were not sufficient to sustain my life and heart. I could not survive on even the best of Christian books alone.  I needed to hear from God for myself. I needed the Scripture, and I needed to know it first-hand.

Now, before I over-state my case, let me say that there were certain truths I learned during those "reformed" years that ultimately would sustain me.  In every book I read, there were many quotes from Scripture.  In most of the books I read, there was some good gospel teaching and a lot of solid truth.  As I said, these books were good books, not junk.  But perhaps the most important legacy of these teachers, for me, was the concept of Sola Scriptura.  Through them I learned to respect God's Word (even if I didn't hear them telling me to study it for myself). From them I learned that there is no point in claiming to be a Christian while at the same time disregarding or dishonoring the very book on which my whole religion is founded (even though, practically speaking, that was exactly what I was doing).  If that book is true, if it really is God's word to man, then that is where I need to go to learn about God.  If it is not, if it is unreliable, or inaccurate, or hit-and-miss, then I had better admit I'm just picking and choosing and making stuff up as I go.  I had better drop the whole thing altogether, and forget about calling myself a Christian at all.

And so, when my faith was desperately threatened, and I felt betrayed - for reasons I won't go into here - by  the modern Reformed movement, and when all sorts of teachings were coming at me from every direction, vying for my allegiance (as they always do with people whose faith is being tested), I knew that if there really is a God (which I never doubted) and I really was a Christian, then I had only one place to turn to learn what was really true about Him and about Christianity: the Bible.

This time I went straight to the source.  And I learned something:  I found very quickly that any doctrine ripped from its context loses something. It loses many things.  It loses the way in which it was taught, the tone of voice, if you will.  It loses the setting and purpose and application for which it was taught.  It loses the effects of all the other doctrines which surround and infuse it and underpin it. Even good doctrine, when misused, becomes unbalanced and un-tempered.

The wrath of God, for instance, has its place in God's character. But it is never to be separated from the holiness and love from which it springs.  The doctrine of hell is likewise inescapable in Scripture, but it is not meant to bring sadistic delight or as a bludgeon. It is a doctrine that was never really expounded until the Savior came.  In other words, the doctrine of hell was brought to us most fully by the very one who also brought salvation.  The teaching about hell was brought with love, by the very one who would suffer to rescue us from it.  The doctrine of God's sovereignty, to give another example, is never treated in Scripture as a philosophical talking point, or a topic for debate, or a test of the legitimacy of one's salvation, or a pat answer for the pain and suffering in people's lives.

The Bible's doctrines, removed from their context, can also be biased by the unique circumstances or, sadly, the sinful bents or attitudes of the teachers. Every good pastor and teacher throughout the ages writes from the perspective of his own time and culture, and with a mind to the unique needs of his own audience.  Those circumstances may or may not resemble our own.  Their teaching, thus, may or may not be best suited to the time or circumstances in which we find ourselves.  For this reason, especially if you are reading non-modern works, it is important to understand the circumstances and history surrounding an individual's writings. This will help discern what is and is not meant by his words, and what is and is not transferable straight through the years to us. Jonathan Edwards,  for example, was generally preaching to congregations full of church-going but nominal Christians.  He struggled to wake people up from their presumed faith and to lead them into genuine relationship with Christ.  (As a lifetime nominal Christian, this was a big part of his original appeal to me.)  A problem arises, however, when you take this kind of teaching and apply it, without caveat, to genuine but sensitive Christian souls.  For them this teaching can be devastating, and even dangerous, leading to discouragement and hoplessness.  I speak from experience.

Biblical doctrines, without context, can also become theoretical.  They become talking points, topics for speculation and debate, removed from the realm of life and application. It is possible to spend all one's time in reading about doctrine, in talking about doctrine, in debating the best points of doctrine - to feel very spiritual - and to entirely miss the point. For,
"...if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing."  (from 1 Cor. 13:2)
All of our knowledge can amount to nothing.

This is a real danger. I know, because it threatened to swallow me whole, and I didn't even realize it until it was nearly too late.  But God is gracious, and He really is sovereign over my life and my faith. He used some dreadful circumstances to alert me to the trouble I was in. And, yes, he used some good doctrine.

I am thankful that I was taught the value of Scripture, for it was what ultimately sustained me, but only once it became what actually sustained me.  At some point during that time of crisis nearly four years ago, I determined I was going to see what the Bible had to say for itself.  I was going to learn about God from His book directly.  I made up my mind that I was going to spend at least at much time in the Bible as I did in books about the Bible.  Since then I can count on one hand the number of  works of theology I have read (and I have read some that have helped me immensly!).

I have found that the more time I spend in God's word, the more doggedly devoted to the Scriptures I become. I have found that the word of God is sufficient for every spiritual and emotional need. I can know God. I can understand His word. I can trust Him, and I can obey Him. In these years, as my time spent with God the Scriptures has increased, my faith has come alive.  My confidence in Him has turned my most painful circumstances into times of growth and meaning. I have seen him transform my life, and the life of my husband as well, through His word.

I have learned through hard and rich experience that "the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness."  The Word of God really is sufficient for life and godliness.

Thus, Sola Scriptura has tattoed itself on my soul.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanks for Thanksgiving

This week, as I began making preparations for this year's Thanksgiving celebrations, I was full of joy, far more than in other years.  This year we are approaching the holiday with grave financial concerns.  It may, unless the Lord intervenes, be the last holiday season we enjoy in this little house.  Yet, my heart is filled with thanksgiving because I have watched God provide for us year after year, through recession, unemployment, and many heartaches. Through it all, God has taken us, as if by the hand, and led us, nurturing our fledgling faith.  He found us weak, and He strengthened us.  We trust Him with our lives.  Even if we lose everything here on earth, we know our sins are forgiven.  That means we have Him, and He is enough.

And so, I am thankful.

But there is something else.  It's a small thing, but today I am thankful for Thanksgiving.

Reminiscent of when God, through Moses, set the slaves free, and gave them a Sabbath day each week in which to honor Him by resting and trusting Him, Lincoln declared the slaves of our own sinful nation free. And in the midst of our civil war, he established a day set apart for the sole purpose of honoring God:
"The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict....  No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy." - from Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation
I am thankful that this holy day was declared at a time when it was still permissible for a man to govern with open regard to his faith in God and to govern in light of it.  No such faith, or expression of it, would be tolerated in a President in our own day and age. This holiday had a single purpose, one which we (or our courts) would not stomach were it proposed today.  That purpose was to honor God with thanksgiving for His providential care and undeserved mercy for a sinful people.

And yet it was because this very faith reigned in the heart of this man, and enough of the populace, that the end of The American Slave Trade was begun. It was in light of such faith that many were willing to risk their lives for such a thing.  It was in light of this faith that a national day of Thanksgiving would be called in the very heat of the Civil War, not after it.

Today America is, by and large, a people who believe neither in a God who maintains and cares for this world and its inhabitants, nor in His mercy.  Indeed, for people who no longer believe in sin, there is no use for mercy. And, so, in our hearts we are not a thankful people.  Even so, this one day each year we make our feeble efforts to return to our roots.  We try to recapture the joy and heartfelt gratitude of a bygone era.  We drudge up things to be thankful for, try to take stock of blessings we've spent the rest of the year ignoring,  and, if we are so inclined, we will also remember that we did not acquire all these by our fantastic prowess, but that there is a God behind it all - a God who patiently does good while we are at best oblivious, and, at worst ungrateful, petulant, and discontent.

Clinging to nostalgia, Thanksgiving, the holiday, has managed to survive the increasingly godless decades.  It has also hung on by a shift of focus. A holiday must have its joys.  But now the joy is not to be found in the Giver of the gifts, but in the gifts themselves. For decades now, the great moral value of Thanksgiving has ceased to be the humble recognition of the goodness and mercy of God toward sinners. We have traded that more solemn joy for a celebration of food, football, and (at it's loftiest) Family.

Yet for all this supposed thankfulness for Family, we've seen that in the same decades that the people have ceased to honor God, the institution of the family has crumbled.  Broken homes are now the norm. This, come Thanksgiving day, leaves us next to nothing left to focus our thanksgiving on. All the sacred bits are gone. The thankless hearts are empty and commercialism, dependent as it is on discontent, sensing its opportunity, has injected itself into void.

Now we have a new "joy" for our holiday.  Once we've feasted on food and football, we head out to the stores.  There we stuff the bellies of our discontented souls with countless other things which can never satisfy.

Still, discontented as we are, by some miracle, the Thanksgiving holiday, though severed from its moorings, remains afloat.  And I am thankful that our uniquely American holiday, artifact though it seems to be, still exists. I'm thankful that it was created when it was, during that perfect time in our nation's history when such a thing could be.  I'm thankful that it still stands as monument to all those who once believed, to those who still do believe, and to the God who so blessed them, and continues to bless us all.

And I pray, that like the Athenian altar to the Unknown God, it will continue to stand as a reminder to every American that they may have forgotten something very important, and I pray that those of us who have not forgotten, will make use of the opportunity to turn hearts and minds back to God.



Monday, September 16, 2013

When the Holy Spirit meets the Bickersons

My husband and I spend our Thursday evenings doing something a little out of the ordinary: we go to assisted living facilities and recreate old-time radio shows for the entertainment of the residents.  Our little troupe performs old favorites like Baby Snooks, Fibber McGee and Molly, Sam Spade, and The Honeymoon Is Over - better known as The Bickersons.

This Sunday afternoon one of our fellow radio players dropped by the house to rehearse a "new" episode of Fibber McGee.  After we were finished, just for the fun of it, we decided to do a quick read of our latest Bickersons script, even though none of us would actually be the ones performing those roles this time around.  As the title suggests, John and Blanche Bickerson spend every episode bickering, always in the middle of the night. It's rollicking fun to act out their skirmishes.

This is why, after our friend went home, I had the Bickersons on the brain as I closed myself into our tiny bathroom.

Paul and I have lived in our little house with two very small bathrooms ever since our marriage, over six years ago.  It was clear from the earliest weeks here that Paul was never going to agree to use the second bathroom, ever, for any reason.  I don't really know why, but that is the way it is.  And so, all our toiletries, towels, laundry, and grooming tools, along with our overlapping work schedules are crowded into this space.

So, on this day as I pondered  how odd our bathroom arrangement is,  it occurred to me that it is even stranger that we have never, in all these years, had an argument or even a memorable bicker over the use of this room. How is that even possible?

The fact is I have often been annoyed about the bathroom situation. At times I have even thought, "I should just move all his stuff into the other room!"  But I have never acted on those thoughts. I know he has his reasons (incomprehensible to me) for wanting to share this bathroom.  I also know that he has been just as inconvenienced as I have been by this arrangement.  Yet he has never uttered a complaint.

Why?

And a snippet of Scripture came to mind:
"...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control..." Gal. 5: 22-23a
The Holy Spirit?

Really?

When I was a teen attending a charismatic church, this is not what I was told to look for.  Not even close. But, based upon what I had been taught, I if I did decide I needed self-control, I would have expected God to zap me with it, maybe as a result of someone laying hands on me.  It would be a dramatic miracle. Poof! I'd be self-controlled.  But self-control was not really on my radar.  When the Holy Spirit is at work, people speak in tongues, or are healed.  The Holy Spirit does hair-raising things. Or so I thought.

Self-control? Not bickering over the bathroom?

Yawn...

A few years back, I was enjoying a Puritan-esque sovereignty-of-God revival.  The Puritans, thank God, did value the fruits of the Spirit, and by this time, so did I.  Through them I came to see self-control as an evidence of God's work of grace.  Its presence was something miraculous that God bestowed on us, a sign that we are truly saved. A work solely of God's grace - so only He would get the glory. It's absence was cause for self-examination - reason to doubt whether I was really saved or not.  The only recourse was to repent, pray for my salvation, again, just in case, and pray harder for self-control to be given to me by God as a sovereign act of divine grace.

How strange it is that these two nearly opposite theological perspectives had left me with the same notion: that whatever work God does in our lives comes as if by magic.  Just pray and wait.

But if there is anything I've learned over the last few years, it's that God seldom works that way.  The day in-day out of the Christian life is miraculous alright, but it seldom feels like it. What this spiritual fruit called self control more often looks and feels like is me actually controlling myself, day by day and moment by moment making decisions about how I am going to behave.  It is called "self-control" for a reason.  It means I take responsibility for my own actions and take control of my own self.

So, what does this work of the Spirit look like in my life?  What does it feel like?  It looks like an irritated Me, deciding to let it go, for the sake of my husband.  It feels like choosing kindness over selfish anger. It feels a lot like something I do, not something God does.

And yet, I know myself well enough to know that me making those kinds of choices on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis is an absolute miracle. The miracle is found in a heart that actually desires to love God and neighbor. Were it not for the work of Christ in my life, were it not for an understanding of the Scripture, were it not for solid biblical teaching, my married life would be one long miserable Bickersons episode.



Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Today Is the Day

At age forty-six* I shredded my mother’s papers. It was ten months after she died, at age eighty-seven. The documents spanned twenty years of life, hers and mine. Hundreds of bills fretted over. Hundreds of checks written. Thousands of moments represented: fears, pain, courage, labor, dreams, and prayers. A fourth of her life. Half of mine.

Two evenings spent, shredded it all.

Life is short. Shorter than I imagined. You think eighty-seven years is a long time. But it’s not, not when you’re the one living it. And you are.

I don’t know when my time will come, but I know that it will seem to me then as though no time had passed at all. “How did I get to be so old?” I will ask. I know, because I’ve asked it already. And what will I say then that I’ve lived for? Will I say that I’ve lived and loved well? If my time comes today I’m afraid I’ll say “no”.

Today is the day to repent.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:24-31

Today is the day to do the one thing God wants,  ”seek him and…reach out for him and find him.” Oh, He makes it so simple. Why do I insist on complicating things?

*Today I found this article which I wrote nearly three years ago in a private blog that I am now in the process of re-purposing. It didn't hurt so much to read it now as I did when I first wrote it. In fact, it encouraged me. So I've moved it here.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How Will the Children Find Peace?

My family was ahead of its time. Mine was not the idyllic late-sixties childhood. I was a latch-key kid a decade or more before there was a name for such a thing.  But even before my latch-key days I was ahead of my time. I attended a unique private school in Culver City, CA which provided both before and after school care.

It began in my pre-K year. I must have been four years old.  My mother and I would get up early in the morning, while it was still dark, to get me dressed in my uniform.  I ate my breakfast, and then we were off to work.  Mom would pull the car up to the curb in front of the school.  There Mrs. Aiken was waiting to escort me through the glass double-doors of that two-story building. It all seems so ritzy in retrospect - as if I were the daughter of a president or a celebrity. At the time it felt ordinary.

Inside those doors they taught the little ones, pre-K and Kindergarten, to sing in French.  They taught us to use paste, and not to eat it. They let us play, too, in the miniature wooden kitchen, and with a little wooden train set.

When we reached 1st Grade we wore different uniforms through those doors.  Gone were the neat stiff blue-jeans and checked collared shirts. Big kids, we wore navy jumpers, white blouses and saddle shoes, and navy cardigans with a crest over our hearts.  Now we were taught that if we were not busy with an assignment, we were to sit silent and still, hands folded and two feet on the ground.

They also taught us to dance.  It was an escape for little girls like me, from sitting still, and from sports. On Monday, Tap.  On Tuesday, Ballet. On Wednesday, Tap.  On Thursday, Ballet.  And so it alternated five days a week, every week of the school year.  Ballet was the great joy of my early school years.

We also learned Spanish, and English, and Math, and spelling.  I worked hard.  We all did. To do otherwise was impermissible. As the hours passed we were ushered from one room to the next to learn each subject in a group organized not by grade-level but by our ability and personal progress.

I learned fast and well behind those doors.  I also worked late.

This school not only provided morning supervision before classes, but after-school care, decades before such programs would become commonplace.  As a result, I would arrive at school between 7 and 7:30 in the morning and remain behind those doors until 5:30 or 6, depending on how long my mom remained trapped in L.A. traffic.  At certain times of the year it would be barely light when I was dropped off and dark when I got picked up to finally go home.  I still remember the desolation of sometimes being the last child left, dark windows in my periphery, waiting to go home.

And so, I remember my first day at Sunday School.

It was shortly after my mom remarried and we moved to a different town. For some reason, my mom got it into her head to join the Lutheran church up the street.  Perhaps we always went to church, but this is the first I remember of it.

As we got out of the car, Mom handed me a quarter, and I burst in to tears.

"What's the matter, Laurie?"

It was money for the offering plate.

But I thought it was lunch money. I thought was being sent off for another day of school, on the weekend. I was heartbroken.

Sadly, aside from felt-boards and smells, that first moment is all I remember of the years of Sunday School that would follow.  I would never love it, because it would always represent for me a theft from the few precious unscheduled hours of my life.

And so, today, forty years or more later, when I see mommies and daddies rushing kids from here to there, from one scheduled, supervised activity to the next, my heart breaks a little.  How will those children ever view church as anything but another thing on the already-full schedule?  How will they ever recognize Christ as anything more than an add-on to an already-full life?  How will they ever have the quiet moments to recognize the beauty of God's creation, to commune with their own souls, to count their blessings and reckon with their sins?  When will they consider life and beauty, death and eternity?

As I consider how pressured I felt back then, how precious my unstructured down-time was to me, I think how much worse things would have been if I also had the technology available to me that kids have now. Would I have ever read a book just because I wanted to, drawn a picture just for the joy of it, or prayed in the quiet emptiness of my own room?


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Reflecting on the Parenting of God

There are a lot of little babies bringing new life to our church these days, and the rounds of baby showers have given me reason to think back over my own years as a mother of small children.  I did not have the blessing of faith as I raised my little ones, and so, like many others, I have lots of regrets.  In spite of this, I was asked recently to give a devotional message at one of these showers.  I agreed before realizing I had no idea what a woman with my history could have to say to these young Christian mommies. 

And so I decided to share the things I most wish I had known.  I share them here in hopes one or two other mommies might find encouragement.  

It starts off a little bit sad, but I promise it doesn't end that way:

When I first moved away from the big city where I was raised, I was a single mom with two small children. I was on my own in a new town and terrified. I had drifted away from church several years before, but, considering my circumstances, I decided it was time to go back to church, and to start trying to live like a Christian.

Some time later, a young pastor handed me a book on how to train children the Christian way.

This book promised that if I followed its instructions, I would have perfectly happy and obedient children who would then naturally obey God, believe the Gospel, and be saved.

This book nearly ruined my life.

It filled my mind with fear and suspicion. It taught me to read the worst motives into my children's hearts – to see undesirable or disobedient behavior as rebellion: not distractability, not exhaustion, not incomprehension, not immaturity, not hunger, not frustration, not feeling overwhelmed, not fear – rebellion. It did not even permit children to be shy. (Shy behavior was rude behavior in the eyes of this author.) This book taught me to see them as wicked and devious little rebels who must be taught perfect obedience by force of will, and the frequent, systematic use of the rod.

If I had truly understood the character of God, if I had understood nature of His grace, I wouldn't have fallen for it.

If I had understood the love and kindness of God, I would have thrown the book away.

As it happened, thankfully, I couldn't bring myself to follow its harsh methods, but my heart was poisoned anyway by its adversarial view of the parent-child relationship.

Even more, I was poisoned by the thought that this is how God treats his own children - that the Christian life is one of striving for perfection under the constant threat of punishment or retribution.

A little while later, I picked up another book promoted by the same pastor. In it, the Sermon on the Mount was laid out like the Law of Moses – as the standard of perfection God expected from His children. I only got to Chapter 3 or 4 before I realized I could never live up to God's expectations. I could never please Him. The Bible became, for me, the words of a relentless God with impossible expectations.

I gave up hope. I put my Bible on a shelf, and, for nearly a decade, I hid from this exacting, terrifying God.

As I've looked back at that dark time of my life I've learned that the way we see God will affect the way we parent our children, and the way we parent our children profoundly impacts our relationship with God.

And so, I would like share a few thoughts from Psalm 103 and encourage you to see what kind of father God truly is to his children, so that you will be able to better reflect His character as you raise your own little ones:

103 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!

The most important characteristic of your parenting is the condition of your own soul. And so, like King David, who shepherded a whole nation, you who shepherd a little bitty flock need to take charge of your soul and teach it to bless the Lord:

2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

Whether it be hope, whether it be trust, whether it be confidence, whether it be love – you cannot give to your child what you don't have. You can only teach what you yourself understand. And so, if you want your little ones to love and trust God, you must love and trust him yourself. Like Israel, the way to do this is to recount the many blessings you have experienced in His care:

He has forgiven your every sin – even the ones you don't realize you've committed.

He has given you every ounce of strength and health you enjoy.

Just as he redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt and gave them a kingdom of their own, so He has snatched us from the cruel captivity of sin and death and placed us in the Kingdom of His own Son. In His kingdom love and mercy are the crowns he places on our heads.

6 The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.

God is not a slave-driver. He is not a harsh task-master. His eye is on the weak and oppressed, ready to work justice for those whose leaders lord it over them. Israel was oppressed under the the heel of a mighty nation. From the midst of their slavery they cried out to God. He sent them a deliverer to reveal His character to them.And this is what they saw:

8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.

To chide means to express disapproval of, to scold or reproach. How many times a day do you think, or say, or do something sinful? Imagine how dreadful it would be if God actually chided you each and every time. This is why the apostle Paul tells Fathers, “do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Verse 10 has been my comfort more times than I can count. God is not a tit for tat Father. He is not standing by waiting to catch us and chastise us for every wrong we commit. His love covers a multitude of sins. It is because of this that we can approach him with hope. It is because of this that we can run to him rather than from Him when we sin. It is because of this that we can offer grace to our children.

13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

God knows our frame. As He teaches and corrects us, He always keeps our weakness and limitations in mind. He knows His wrath would shatter us, and so, because He loves us, he shows us great compassion. 

 This is the heart of God toward us, his grown-up children. 

This is His heart for our little ones. 

 I pray it will be yours as well.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why I Am a Christian

This past week the leader of our church small-group gave us a homework assignment:  Imagine that noted scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins has requested that Christians write to him explaining why they believe what they believe.  Write a letter in response.  

The following is my homework.  I share it here for the sake of anyone who may be curious as to why, in this age of scientific discovery, I continue to adhere to the Christian faith.

Dear Mr. Dawkins,

In this letter, I am pretending that you have asked me to explain why I am a Christian. As you are a noted atheist, I will begin more simply with why I believe in God. For the first 40 years of my life I lived as a nominal Christian (which most Americans were in those days before it became so fashionable to disassociate with religion). I experienced occasional bouts of evangelical fervor interspersed with long stretches of practical atheism - times when I lived as though there is no God and yet without openly denouncing my religion.

I've lived the last eight-plus years, beginning at the age of 40, as a committed Christian. Since then, Christ has been my hope and the Scriptures (the Christian bible) my guide. They have been the source of all hope, joy, and meaning in my life. They have instructed my thoughts and attitudes. My faith has dramatically reshaped me into the person I am today.

I always prided myself on being a person devoted to truth, though, in truth, I was mostly a person devoted to my own self-preservation and personal happiness. I liked whatever truths were convenient to my goals and disregarded all the rest so much as my conscience and societal pressures permitted. For me, God was many things. On the one hand, He was someone I could to go to for help or defense, assuming I believed my life and cause was worthy enough to assure He would be on my side. On the other hand, He was someone whose judgment I feared, thus my years of avoidance. I was never particularly interested in knowing God for His own sake, or in knowing what He really intended in creating this world, or me. I also never seriously considered any atheistic arguments, having believed in God my whole life. One great truth I have learned is that there is a vast difference between believing in God, even the Christians' God, and being a Christian.

Since my conversion, I can say that I truly am a person devoted to truth. I can think of no fate worse than to learn I've based my entire life on a lie. In these last eight years I have listened to argument after argument against faith in God. I do not listen to news sources that favor my religion. I very rarely read Christian “scientific” literature. I learn science from scientists, most of whom are atheists or agnostics, via mainly secular sources. In fact, I listen to atheists, almost daily, and you are among those voices I hear. You, and many others, insist that science invalidates my beliefs, that it disproves God.

I believe both science and scripture have truths to teach us, and I learn from both. I weigh what each has to say. In the past eight years I have yet to hear anything from science which challenges the truths I have learned in Scripture. Yet, I have very often heard science used and interpreted in such a way as to attempt to disprove God.

Is this what science is for?

I always understood the question of science to be “How?” not “Why?”

You are a scientist, and so it makes sense that “How?” would be the foremost question on your mind. Yet just because “How?” is the only question science is equipped to answer, does not that mean it is the only one worth asking. Just because science can't answer the “Why?” does not make it an invalid question. Is it appropriate for science to rule out intentionality in the universe simply because it can't study for it? If that is the case, then I wonder, what place does the question “Why?” have anywhere in our world, and why on earth do we humans persist in asking it? Have you ever honestly considered that there may be some questions which science can never answer, because they are not matters of science at all? How do you account for art, for literature, for philosophy, for all the humanities? Can science explain all these and the deepest and highest aspirations of the human soul? Can science explain why life fights to be lived and to perpetuate itself? Can it explain why there are laws in the universe without which science, along with all the things it studies could never exist?

Certainly you know that there are questions that science is not equipped to answer.

One of the arguments I have heard you make against religions (though Christianity seems to be your pet peeve) is that it is responsible for the greatest atrocities committed by mankind. I have heard you attempt to disassociate atheism from the atrocities which have been committed under its banner by claiming there is no direct line between the ideology of atheism and the violence done in atheistic regimes, and that there is a direct connection between religion and violence. (You tend to treat all religions as equal. They are not.) I think I recall that part of your reasoning here is that atheism has no dogma, no holy book. Atheism doesn't have a bible. That much is true. And yet I assert that there is an even straighter line between atheism and violence than between religion and violence. That line runs straight through human hearts, unfiltered by any religious code. The human heart is capable of dreadful violence. Most religions go to great pains to try to regulate this. Still the violence finds a way to express itself. And, yes, it often uses its own religion as an excuse. The atheist heart needs no excuses. But this is not to say that atheism necessitates violence any more than to say all religion does.

You are a brilliant man. I believe you know full well that the violence done in the name of Christianity over the centuries is not truly in keeping with the teachings of Christianity. So I will move on.

You are a man of science. But you do not seem content to hold science up for what it is and let it speak for itself. You go about not so much as a man with something to prove as a man with something to disprove. There is little need any more to prove the value of science. Most of western society agrees with its value and benefits from it daily. I do understand that there is an element of Christianity which majors in “junk” science. The reason it is junk is that it twists and interprets the data to fit preconceived ideas, rather than letting the data tell its own story. And while I would never presume to call the science you engage in “junk”, I would venture to say that from your mouth science often seems less like a goal in itself than a means to an end - a tool to disprove the thing you have presumed not to exist: God.

And so you approach science with the vengeance of a man seeking to destroy a thing he hates rather than a man seeking truth.

You've devoted your life to undermining belief in God - to dismantling, if possible, any faith that has been placed in Him. I know you believe you're doing a good thing. You are setting people free from slavery to superstition. You have your own gospel – the good news of freedom from the knowledge of God. Yours is a world where each life's meaning is a blank slate waiting to be defined by whoever is living it. After this life there's nothing - nothing to account for, no one to answer to, nothing to fear, nothing to anticipate. The freedom your belief system offers comes from knowing that. It is the freedom to live each moment to the fullest and according to your own terms.

I have allowed my imagination to run wild with the freedom you describe. I've thought long and hard, wondering what would be the way to live if this is all there is, if there is no God, no judge of the universe, no standards, no accountability, no ultimate right or wrong, no punishments, no rewards. There would be no sin, that is true. There would be no guilt, also true. There would be no fear of future judgment. There would also be no reason to respect human life or laws, other than to suit whatever instinctual emotional tendencies I may have, or to avoid society's established penalties (the value of which is hard to establish if there is no purpose in the universe). If men are not created in the image of God, then there's no reason for me not to detest any person of a color not my own, or of lower intelligence, or one who is uglier, or crueler, or kinder, or more beautiful, or richer, or weaker, or older, or sicker.

In fact, we might as well give up talking about human dignity, of the higher good, and the perpetuation of the species. What on earth difference does any of that make? If it's all just random, what difference does any of it really make? I am of no more value than an amoeba, a speck of dust, or a puff of smoke. There is no benefit, or lack thereof in the continuation of any species, or of this world as we know it. There is no reason for me to watch my language, to be kind and gentle, or to seek not to offend. As for those who suffer around me - there is no reason to feel anything but glad that it is them and not me who is suffering - unless of course I could think of something tangible to be gained in assisting them. There is no reason for me to love anyone except to the extent that they please me, and only for as long. There is no reason for me to love my children or care for them, except that pesky maternal instinct which inexplicably and without purpose insists on perpetuating the species. There is no reason not to abuse them or even kill them if I want to. There is no reason for me not to seek revenge if I feel "wronged" - though how I could be wronged, when there's no such thing as right - well.... (If I don't make it "right", who will?) In a godless world all there is for me, a being formed by random happenings, is to follow my moment by moment sense of pleasure and pain (though why I would interpret one as "good" and the other as "bad" would also be a mystery) - or, as the Scripture so nicely says: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die".

I could go on like that, but I hope I've made my point. Your godless gospel, if wholeheartedly embraced and consistently applied, leads to destruction and death. But then, if your view is true, I suppose it doesn't really matter after all. And then again, if it is true, it shouldn't matter so much to you what I or anyone else believes either.

Now, I have probably said enough, but if you have read this far I might as well add a few words explaining why I am convinced that the God of the Bible is the one true God, and why I am a Christian. In short, Christianity is the faith that most accurately represents the world, humanity in particular, as it really is – wonderfully made, so rich with potential, and yet inescapably corrupt. It is the only religion whose God is as vast and powerful as the universe He created, yet so attentive to even the smallest of creatures. This God loves the world He so carefully created and the beings He formed to reflect His own image. This is the only God whose concern for His creatures was so great that He became flesh and sacrificed for their sins. Going further, Christianity is a historical faith based upon a historical figure who entered into a long established religious system (Judaism) fulfilling countless of its prophecies. The life and death of Christ are well documented and are not seriously brought into question, even by secular historians. His mission and even His resurrection are validated by many witnesses – witnesses willing to die rather than deny what they saw. These people gained nothing, no power, no wealth, no prestige in doing so. They did it because they believed. Their testimony is recorded in many voices in Scripture. I trust this testimony and stand near the end of a long line of people who have found the Scriptures to be a living document with power to open eyes to the light of God.

Sincerely,
Laurie M.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Value of Pi

In my previous post I reviewed Life of Pi.  The following is a discussion of the book from a specifically Christian perspective.


Life of Pi was a slow read for me. I took my time chewing it. There were a few points at which I nearly gave up.  A long, long time in a lifeboat on the open sea can do that to a person. I got tired for Pi.  I got bored for him. I hated his existence for him. I was afraid for him. I stopped wanting to share his dreadful adventure. It felt too much like being there. But I could not give up. I think I really needed to experience that promised happy ending.

Art is not always beautiful, though one could argue that there is a kind of beauty in truth even when it is ugly - the beauty that is found in integrity, in capturing of the soul of a moment.  Life of Pi is that kind of art. The scenes Martel paints are unforgettable.  The horrors are not like bad dreams which slip, along with their strangeness, away into obscurity.  Pi's traumas are as mundane and void of magic as real-life horrors generally are.  Likewise for the moments of triumph. There is mastery in his handling of the sense of touch and the imagery of the very close up: the catching of a turtle, the puncture of a fish-hook through a strip of dried flesh, the crumble of a hard biscuit.

As it was slow to chew, Life of Pi has taken even longer to digest. It's been weeks since I finished reading it, and I'm still thinking about it.  Every day something in life calls it back to mind, asking to be held up to Pi, or to be looked at through his lens. I still have not plumbed its depths. Each subsequent evaluation unearths some new discovery, some bit of wisdom I have found useful for me as a Christian. There is, for instance, the always-needed reminder that we humans are alike in our desperate search for meaning in life and the universe.  There is the unspoken reminder that civilization and culture, without whose supports and constraints our humanity rapidly devolves into bestiality, are blessings not to be ignored or regarded with ingratitude. There is the sense of wonder and delight at hearing a story well-told. It is nice to be reminded that great works are still being written, and that they do not have to be lofty, but can  be accessible to an ordinary reader, which Life of Pi certainly is.

But beneath and its vivid imagery and storytelling, the foundation of Life of Pi's genius lies in its perfect integration of storyline with philosophy. Pi's life experiences and his inner landscapes are so artfully interwoven that when he kneels to this god or That, you understand which one and why. In this, Life of Pi is a masterpiece of post-modern philosophical and religious thought and a trenchant expression of what religion means to perhaps the bulk of today's worshipers. In this way, Pi's faith becomes, for the Christian reader, a mirror. Gazing into the faith of Pi, the lines of ones own faith can be examined and compared. Its similarities can be recognized and its weaknesses and strengths exposed. 

I've heard it said that studying comparative religion is the worst thing a Christian can do, that it undermines faith.  This mindset will lead some to think that Life of Pi should be avoided. But I suggest that this is one of the best reasons for a Christian to read it. Faith, by its nature, is a grappler. It is in the process of wrestling that the strengths and weaknesses of our belief systems are revealed. A faith which cannot stand up to the world's art, wisdom, and philosophy is a weak faith indeed. But it will not be strengthened by avoiding challenges. It can only be strengthened through exercise.

A vital Christian faith values the world's masterpieces, but not by swallowing them whole. It deals with art as it does life - as it really is.  It appreciates what is true and beautiful. It acknowledges what is ugly. It contends with what challenges it. It does more than "eat the meat and spit out the bones", enjoying the aspects of culture it likes and ignoring the rest. Rather, in the spirit of the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill,  faith examines the  unpleasant and difficult aspects.  It gains insight into the hearts of men and uses what it learns to build bridges of understanding for the sake of the gospel.  

Pi embraces three religions at once.  He gathered  them one by one and treasures each for its own unique truths, stories, and beauties, as well as for the different needs of his heart that each was able to meet.  Each religion reflects a different facet of life and is true in its own way, or at the very least seeks to explain the realities it sees in its own way. Each offers a lens through which to understand life and its own way of relating to God.  Pi, like the Gandhi he so admired, valued the loveliest qualities of each belief system, sensed no contradiction, and felt no internal compulsion to choose just one. 

A reflective soul, Pi uses his religions much as an artist uses brushes and paints: to interpret life, coloring it with beauty and meaning.  A god of vengeance softens the pain of cruelty with hope of justice. When one is weak and helpless there are strong deities to appeal to. When poverty dirties the landscape, a gilded temple or colorful prayer cloth evoke the ecstatic sense of  a divine presence and provide a respite for the soul and its senses. When life seems meaningless, myths abound that tell the story of why things are as they are.  Sometimes only a hint of a "why", just the slightest notion of control, or the vaguest sense of one's place in a bigger picture is comfort enough to recommend surviving another day. For these ends, Pi views each belief system, even atheism, as valuable. Though he rejects atheism, he places it alongside the rest, a brush he has seen used, but which feels hopeless in his own hands. 

It's not so difficult to understand how Pi is able to live and think in this way.  We Christians, if we are honest about it, must admit that we are inclined to manage our own thoughts and lives, and  religious beliefs in a similarly eclectic fashion.  We pick and choose texts and doctrines which best suit our felt needs, our personal values, our personalities, goals, and political inclinations, and then neglect or ignore whatever is left. In doing so we create our own gods custom-made after our own image, perfectly suited to our own needs and desires, and call them God. Life, as with any history, needs to be interpreted in order to find any meaning, beauty, or value in it, and so the humanity in us instinctively reaches for a brush and our favorite tubes of color and sets to work. 


Battered by sun, wind, and waves, and threatened by starvation, thirst, and predatory beasts, thrust into a Darwinian existence where survival is the only thing, Pi finds himself in an experience the whole of culture is designed to avoid: he is alone with his human soul. The harsh realities of his circumstances become the subject for his creative work. This new and catastrophic history must tempered and colored with meaning. Amazingly he survives.  Disconcertingly, for the Christian reader, he comes through it with all his religions intact.  

We Christians place great stock in testimonies of faith. We love to hear the stories of our brethren who have endured the unbearable and lived to proclaim God's faithfulness through it all.  We take their experiences to be confirmation of the validity of their beliefs, and the the proof of the truth of our religion.  But what are we to do with Pi's epic of faith which places equal value on Christ and idols?  If experience really is the test of truth then what difference does it make if Pi believes in Christ and all those other gods.

Who are we to question his experience?

That is one of the great questions of our age.  It is effective, because it is unanswerable.  The only honest response is that we can't.  We can't walk a mile in anyone else's shoes, because shoes are not souls. The uncomfortable truth is that we are all helpless in the face of someone else's experience. If experience is the measure of truth, and everyone's experience is different, all we can do is throw up our hands, and with Pontius Pilate ask the other great question of our age:
"What is truth?"

That is a question that Pi will not answer for us.