Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come unto me, and I will give you rest

I've often thought that there is a bit of a puzzle in Jesus' promise of rest to those who come to him:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matt. 11:28-30

But in numerous other places Jesus tells his followers that they will have tribulations and troubles in this world, that they will suffer, that they will be persecuted. (John 16:33; John 16:2; Matt. 5:11-12) And a central Christian teaching is that if we suffer with Christ we shall reign with Christ. (2 Tim. 2:12)

We have all known people who never seem to get much rest, people who are grievously wearied by the chances and changes of this mortal life. Perhaps a mother has a child with an illness that requires constant monitoring. Perhaps a husband has a wife with dementia who needs constant care. Perhaps a person suffers from a painful illness and gets little sleep.

And we all have our own times in life when we don't feel at all rested, when we feel bone-tired and don't see the end of some tunnel or other. It might be a tunnel of overwork, of some grief that seems to have no end in sight, of an uncongenial work situation, of a physical ailment. Even if we tell ourselves that things could be a lot worse, we still may wonder where the rest is.

It's easy enough to say that Jesus was promising his followers spiritual rest, but what exactly does that mean? Is it, perhaps, a promise only for the afterlife, or does it have an application in this life?

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I don't have answers to all of these questions. I do have, however, a thought that came to me today when part of the "come unto me" verse was read at the "comfortable words" in the liturgy: I often find that the thought of good people, specific good people, is a kind of mental resting place and refreshment. There are such people in the world. Think of someone you know who is a light for others--someone loving, honest, loyal, and just plain good.

As Christians we are committed to the view that all of that goodness comes from God. We give thanks to God for his great glory, but it's sometimes a little hard to grasp that glory, for the Father dwells in light unapproachable. Hence the Son came, incarnate, to reveal the Father. So to begin with, the very thought of Jesus is a rest for the soul, a rest for the mind. Here is a sinless One who will never fail us, never turn out to be wicked, who has shown his love for us in giving his life. Here at last is someone we can count on.

But even Our Lord is somewhat removed from our daily life, if only because we never knew him personally. And say what one will, a theanthropic, sinless person never seems quite as graspable as a sinful, but good, non-theanthropic person. I believe the current jargon term is "relatable." But here, too, God caters to our weakness, for He gives us the Communion of Saints, which takes us back to those people whom you know and justifiably trust. Those people are prisms reflecting the immortal light of God. Resting in the thought of a lovable man of good character or a crusty saint who has fought the good fight, you are in fact thanking God (indirectly) for His great glory.

So while I don't know all the things that Jesus had in mind when he said, "Come unto me, and I will give you rest," I do know that there is one thing that can give the Christian spiritual rest: Contemplating the goodness of God as reflected in the saints, and not only the officially canonized ones, either. If you are a Christian, you are part of their company, the "blessed company of all faithful people," and you can humbly enjoy the thought that there is goodness in this world, amidst all the sadness, pain, restlessness, fatigue, faithlessness, and evil. Remembering that gives one a small, temporary window into the God's-eye view. For God knows, and we can know, too, that the game is worth the candle, and that all the evil in the world will ultimately be entirely swamped by the goodness and joy of the redeemed.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A few random comments about vegetarianism

I actually don't think vegetarianism is important. In fact, I think so-called factory farming is more important for human well-being than vegetarianism is for human ethics. I realize that this may be a surprising position to some. Also, I can have respect for Christians who believe that animals are always or routinely, much less legally, treated unethically in so-called "factory farming" (though I'm pretty certain they are wrong about that given the heavy regulation of the food-farming industry) if those Christians place a much higher priority on the truly civilization-urgent issues of our time, such as abortion and the homosexual-transgender agenda. What I have really no patience for are "millennial ethics priorities" that leave the marriage and/or abortion issues largely untouched and un-thought-through while spending oodles of time agonizing over and evangelizing for vegetarianism. (In passing, I've been influenced quite a bit by the work of Wesley J. Smith on these issues, but his blog posts are now difficult to search, so I'll just link this book, which I don't happen to own, that has a chapter or two on the subject.)

A few other thoughts I've written to various people lately that I thought I might as well throw into a blog post, which will be rather disorganized. This next comment is addressed to what strikes me as the incredibly silly, shallow argument that likens animal-product consumption to eating the brains of puppies deliberately bred in a horribly painful way to make them tasty. (Yes, there really is such an "argument" out there.) Or, in general, the "argument" that implies that we eat meat and/or animal products only out of lazy hedonism.
I want also to say quite openly that I would actually oppose even the voluntary cessation of all that is called "factory farming," because I consider the efficient production of large quantities of meat, dairy, eggs, etc., to be quite important to human nutrition given the population of both the developed world and the world as a whole. Animal products are not a luxury eaten by hedonistic, morally oblivious gluttons. They are an important part of a natural, omnivorous human diet that efficiently delivers necessary nutrients in a form likely actually to be eaten by large numbers of human beings. It is therefore important for them to be produced in such a quantity that these products are readily available and affordable.
A few more words about that: The idea that there is something low and unworthy about eating food that tastes good has a certain almost unhealthy asceticism about it, as though morally perfect beings would get all their nutrition in some tasteless, unenjoyable fashion or would eat only out of duty. The good taste of animal products, and their high concentrations of important nutrients such as protein, iron, and the essential B12 (which, no, is not found in seaweed!) come together to make it relatively easy for an omnivore to eat a diet containing enough of these nutrients. That's actually important to human flourishing. If you have to get absolutely essential nutrients by taking supplements (and vegans, especially, do have to obtain supplements or specially fortified food for their B12), then your diet is insufficiently nutritious and varied. You can do that if you choose, but there is no moral requirement for people in general to do that, and indeed it is unlikely that mankind as a whole is going to get the diet it needs in that way.

Another point: It really is difficult to have passion for everything at once, and especially for issues at different ends of the political spectrum. I don't want to say it's impossible, and I know a few exceptions, but by and large, the "millennial ethics" I discussed above are a natural result of the deliberate intention to focus on some issues (poverty, vegetarianism) as some kind of "corrective" to the "religious right." There are only so many hours in a day, and you only have so much capital to spend trying to convince your friends of things and intensely discussing things. If you're spending that capital evangelizing for vegetarianism or writing about it, I'm just going to say that it's plausible that you are spending a lot less time doing other things in the broadly political realm. So to some extent, yes, there is a zero-sum game going on, and there's a reason why one too often finds that the most passionate vegetarian Christians are wishy-washy (at least) on, say, the wrongness of homosexuality and the evil of homosexual "marriage." There was a great blog post by someone-or-other several years ago about this kind of thing: The blogger was told that it's possible to be "pro-life and" and then decided that practically speaking on the progressive Christian side it wasn't working out that way. If I ever find the link again I'll post it.

There is something quasi-religious about vegetarianism and even more about veganism. The old monks would fast for a fast day and feast for a feast day. Human beings find it satisfying to order their lives in an intentional way that feels significant on the intimate level of eating, sleeping, etc. Christianity, however, does not give detailed rules for these things, so we tend to invent them for ourselves as a practical matter. There's nothing wrong with that, but in my opinion it would be a more healthy Christianity to refrain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of Christ's crucifixion or to fast and pray than to refrain from eating meat on all days in honor of animals. It would be better to satisfy one's desire for detailed, religious order by praying the canonical hours than to examine the food one eats at every meal to try to assure oneself that the animals that produced it had a happy life (by anthropomorphic standards of "happy") and died a peaceful death.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

I Can't Even Walk

I just learned of this gospel music standard. I love it. It's a new fave. So much so that I'm going to embed about four or five versions.

Never, ever, ever feel ashamed of telling God that you need him. Never feel that that is selfish, that seeking a relationship with God out of need for Him is insufficiently "pure" in motive. What do we have to give to God but our need of Him, our emptiness, our littleness?

Here is Gordon Mote with a version that has a lot of soul.



Here is a nice version (if you don't mind Jessy Dixon's riffs) in which he's joined by the incomparable Guy Penrod. And Bill Gaither gets everyone singing.



This is another Gaither group one (allegedly), that has no video, though it sounds live. Nice, soft sound. I love the soloist's southern accent (black southern?) you can cut with a knife, but I don't know who he is.

But I think my favorite I've found so far is this short cut with Gordon Mote, not quite so soulful as in the first link, joined by Alabama. Understated and lovely.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Marriage

A blessed feast of St. John the Evangelist to any readers I happen to have. That's today, which happens to be the third day of Christmas. And here's a really cute way to tie the feast day to the topic of this post: It is only in St. John's Gospel that we find the story of the wedding at Cana! So I managed to find an excuse for putting up this post on this particular day. Rim shot!

In real fact, the topic is on my mind because of a debate on Facebook. (What else, right?)

The approximate question at issue was whether or not Christians in the (approximately, evangelical Protestant) church make an "idol" of marriage. Plus assorted other questions such as whether an emphasis upon marriage and questions to young people such as a parents' asking a young man, "When are you going to get married?" understandably make the recipient of the question feel like he is insufficiently valued as an individual.

Now, I don't go to a lot of Protestant evangelical churches, because I'm a member of a continuing Anglican church. So one could argue that I lack information. That is perhaps true, but I do keep in touch with the evangelical scene through a host of friends, through activities like concerts, and through the Internet. And I just don't see this "idolatry" of marriage. On the contrary, I see too many evangelical and other Christian young people not taking an intentional stance toward marriage, not openly talking about their desire for it, not treating it as a normal part of life, and in particular (and in this last point I'm thinking chiefly of young men) not pursuing it actively. Not asking girls out, not getting on a dating site (if your local region is really that devoid of local talent or if you've been having difficulties finding someone), not asking yourself if your standards of physical beauty are artificial and unrealistic. I see late marriage becoming a norm without any excuses given. Very late marriage among the heathens makes a certain amount of perverse sense, because the heathen aren't waiting for marriage for sex (of some kind or another) and often don't value forming families and having babies. Or they consider waiting and then undergoing elaborate fertility treatments to be normal. But for Christians, a failure of intentionality about marriage is not terribly defensible. Even an open, "Gee, I'd like to find a girlfriend and get married, but the economy stinks, and I don't have a job. What should I do?" would be better than the sort of taboo that seems to surround talk of marriage. And in Christian circles there is the additional oddity of what I might call "millenial prudery." Some millenial Christians may tell you that the F-bomb is just another word, but try telling the guys that they might want to get married for reasons of chastity and you've apparently said something dirty and unspiritual.

So I admit to just not seeing this "marriage idolatry" that I'm hearing about.

But here are some further questions: Given that Christians are supposed to find their all in all in Jesus Christ, do we need to be teaching more young people that "Jesus is enough" and doing more to affirm the value of the single individual? Is there a real danger that the kinds of things I said in the last paragraph will a) teach people (if they listen to them) to be too "earthly minded" or b) wrongly encourage people to place their true worth in whether or not they are married?

To answer this, let me first say that I think the Catholics are right to have a separate value for celibacy (and even virginity) that is its "own thing," separate from the value for marriage. This seems to me to be clear-thinking and robust. Like extreme poverty, singleness may be a special, difficult, and powerful way of testifying to and serving the kingdom of God. So by no means am I saying that anyone who doesn't get married, or even (more radically) anyone who deliberately chooses not to get married, is doing something immoral. St. Paul makes it very clear that some people legitimately remain single for reasons of being wholly devoted to serving the Lord. He even hints that this is in some sense the better way. Hence the Catholic idea of monks, priests, and nuns who embrace celibacy deliberately.

But that sort of singleness should be highly intentional as well. Choosing singleness as a stony but valuable way of serving the kingdom of God doesn't look like this:  "Well, all the godly women I happen to meet these days aren't very attractive, and all the highly attractive women I meet aren't godly, so I guess I'll just go on my way for the time being, continuing not dating anyone and being single."

Moreover, the people who are truly called to singleness, in the sense of being especially suited for it, are and should be in the minority in the human race generally. God has set up marriage as the glorious way by which mankind is formed into families, by which children are born and nurtured and the human race continued, and by which society is created. Not to mention God's having created sex and intending its satisfaction in marriage. When marriage becomes the minority outcome in the church and in the world, we have a problem. And the problem in Western society generally is the falling-off of marriage for pagan and perverse reasons, so it is all the more important that the Church not fall into the ways of the world by ceasing to value marriage. The married state should be considered the norm. The state of lifelong or even long-term celibacy while young, embraced intentionally for God, should be the exception, though a valuable one.

But what about people who just aren't finding that marriage is "happening" for them, despite legitimate efforts? What about young men who keep getting turned down for dates, or who have had their hearts broken? What about young women whom no one asks out? What about people who are unattractive? What about a person who has some disability (e.g., alcoholism) that he needs to get taken care of before he is a legitimate candidate for marriage himself? Is it not cruel to assert that marriage is a norm and to promote it? Might it not hurt those people's feelings and make them feel un-valued?

One harsh but true fact is just this: Any recognition of normativity is (probably) accidentally going to hurt some people who are unable, through no fault of their own, to achieve the norm. If a society rightly values babies, infertile people are probably going to feel bad. If a society rightly values having a job and not living off of your parents, a disabled person who cannot get a job, or a man who is unemployed for some other reason that he can't help, is going to feel bad. And if a society or even a sub-society like the church values marriage, unmarried people may feel bad. That is a price we pay for having norms at all. It comes with the territory, and it's a bad idea to ditch the norms just to make sure nobody feels bad. For one thing, such feelings are actually helpful for distinguishing between those who are willfully avoiding the good thing for no good reason and those who truly can't help their situation. A culture or sub-culture that highly values children puts pressure on couples not to get married with the deliberate intention of never having children, for no particular reason, just because they don't want to. A culture's high value on work and self-support can help to put pressure on the man who is "failing to launch" and not really trying to be employed, living on his parents for no good reason. Putting a high value on marriage can motivate young people to seek marriage actively, which they (especially young men) should do if they are not specially called to singleness, rather than sitting around passively and then saying that it just didn't happen. In other words, social norms rightly create social guilt in those who willfully flout them. The sadness experienced by those who don't willfully flout them and are debarred through no fault of their own can then be dealt with separately, but in a culture that is trying to denormalize a particular valuable and normal thing, the higher priority should be hanging onto the norms. In short, hard cases make bad law.

Note, too, that you can't really decide whether or not an emphasis on some good thing is too much or exaggerated unless you have some idea of how valuable that thing actually is. Hence, the question of whether or not an emphasis by some group or individual on marriage is excessive is intimately bound up with the question of how much importance should be placed on marriage. The two questions can't be separated. It would be tacky for your uncle to say, "Hey, when are you going to get that plastic surgery to get your nose made perfectly straight?" That's because having a perfectly straight nose is not really very important, especially if one's nose is not visibly deformed. An uncle who said that would be weird. But an uncle who asks a 25-year-old nephew who shows no signs of doing so and doesn't seem to be debarred from marriage in any way, "Hey, when are you going to get married?" is reflecting the legitimate priorities of mankind throughout all of human history.

But okay, then, how should we help those who genuinely are single through no fault of their own, who are saddened by it, and who don't want to be made to feel that they lack value?

It seems to me that the first step is acknowledging that their sadness is legitimate and understandable--a real grief, in fact. I think Christians, and Western society generally, do fairly well at this for infertility. There's plenty of talk about the deep grief of infertility. But there is less talk about the deep sadness of singleness. One is forced to conclude that such grief is viewed as "drama queen" territory, as over-the-top, etc. But as one insightful Facebook friend pointed out, the two are bound up together. If grief over infertility is legitimate, it seems like grief over singleness must also be legitimate, since getting married is (morally) a prerequisite to having children. And as I pointed out in this post, if a man is planning to get married and wants to have children, then his future wife's biological clock is his own biological clock, even if he doesn't yet know who she is. There are still some men who, like Jim Elliot whom I quoted in that post, realize that and are pained by it as they continue to be unmarried. Certainly most women cannot avoid thinking about it.

The second step, in a Christian context, is promulgating a deep theology of suffering. If someone does not seem called to singleness by temperament or special task but nonetheless is single for some reason beyond his control, then he is suffering a sadness and a privation and has to learn the hard lesson of offering that pain up to Christ and living with loss. In the total set of lessons to be learned as part of a theology of suffering, the lesson that "Jesus is enough" is indeed one, but the phrase sounds like a cliche and hence is not wisely put front and center. Would you say to a man who had lost a limb, or a child, "Jesus is enough?" Probably not. In the course of his grief for his limb or his child, he does need to wrestle with and grasp the truth that we are ultimately made for God and seek union with God as our highest end. But the very profundity of that truth is degraded by applying it like a bandaid. Normally the man would walk through life with all of his limbs, with his wife, and with his children and would find union with God in part by way of these human goods, not by being deprived of them. When one of these normal human goods is either taken from a man or not vouchsafed to him in a timely way, finding more perfect union with God through the way of suffering and negation is extremely tough, and holding a Bible study in which we gather the single people and say earnestly to them, "You need to find your value in Jesus because he's enough, not in marriage" probably doesn't make much more sense as either a pastoral strategy or a theological approach than doing something similar with the infertile couples or the severely disabled.

Ironically, those most likely to be "helped" by being told that Jesus alone is enough are those who don't actually admit the strong normativity of marriage and who prefer (for whatever reason) to take no steps to that end themselves. They are likely to be soothed by being told that it's all those others promoting marriage who are wrong and idolatrous, tactless and hurtful, and that the young people are pursuing a higher and more spiritual way by letting the matter slide and getting on with single life while, at most, vaguely "waiting for the right person to come along." (Again, to be clear, as a complementarian I place more of an onus on males to be pursuing than on females, though there are also steps that females can take to show interest, etc., in a ladylike fashion.) The person who is really in most need of pastoral assistance because he (or she) is genuinely grieved by the single state may (I would guess) find the "Jesus is enough" pep talk cold comfort indeed.

Third, I think we should suggest to people in that situation that they be open, as befits a given context, about their desire to be married. No, I'm not recommending going on your Facebook status all the time and loudly bewailing your single state to all the world. But here are some recommendations: When there are people in your life who do reflect that legitimate priority on marriage (see the uncle example above) and who are close enough to you that they have a legitimate interest in knowing, be willing to communicate with them. If you're dating someone or even "sort of" dating someone, don't treat this as some dark secret. (The strange taboos of different generations are something of a mystery.) Tell your uncle, "Well, there is a young lady I'm getting to know and praying about. We'll see if anything comes of it." More painfully and vulnerably, if someone is "on your case" about not getting married and this is painful because there is some problem that has beset your efforts, instead of getting mad at this person who doesn't know the circumstances and developing a theory that "the church is idolatrous about marriage," be willing to sketch those circumstances for him: "Uncle Paul, I would really like to be married and have tried dating, but unfortunately the girls are not interested in me, and I'm not getting anywhere." If a hearty and tactless Uncle Paul then responds, "Nonsense! Why would any girl not want to date a handsome fellow like you?" then that really is Uncle Paul's problem. But if Uncle Paul is a reasonable, sensible, and minimally sensitive man, he'll express sympathy and offer to pray with you for God's will in the on-going situation. On the other hand, if you think that God is calling you to some difficult and dangerous path where you can't take a family, so you are intentionally remaining single, you can explain that as well. If you think none of this is Uncle Paul's business, fine and dandy. Maybe it isn't. But in that case be prepared to have Uncle Paul lack understanding of your situation, which probably has nothing to do with idolatry.

This recommendation of openness between the generations also helps (I'll admit) to "smoke out" those who just want to be left alone and who aren't actually seeking a spouse and having no luck. After all, if what you could in honesty tell Uncle Paul isn't that the girls are turning you down or that the guys aren't asking you out or even that you're recovering from a broken heart but rather something vague like "I guess I just haven't run into the right one yet" or "It just isn't the right time yet" or other anodyne and uninformative phrases, Uncle Paul may correctly conclude that you and he have quite different ideas about the value of marriage itself.

Again, let me emphasize that these thoughts arise not out of a lack of empathy for the unwillingly single but precisely from empathy with them. We live in a dysfunctional society, and nowhere more so than in the area of sex. The less marriage is considered a norm, the more situations we will have where people are discontentedly or unwillingly single, because it takes two suitable people, together, to get married! If there are fewer chaste, marriage-minded young women, the chaste, marriage-minded young men will have fewer options. If there are fewer chaste, marriage-minded young men, the chaste, marriage-minded young women will have fewer options. Hence the most practical way to help the unwillingly single is to promote both chastity and marriage-mindedness among the members of the opposite sex who are in contact with the unwillingly single. And the most spiritual way to help the unwillingly single is to admit their sadness, admit the problems of our Western society, admit their sense that the fallenness of the world is, one way or another, hitting them, and help them to find the help of God to comfort and sustain them along their way.

May God be with us all, the married and the unmarried, strengthen us, and bring us at last to his heavenly kingdom.

Related post here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Hidden in Plain View is up for pre-order

I'm very excited to announce that Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts is available for pre-order from DeWard Publishing.

This is pre-order only. Actual release date is set for (good Lord willin' and the crik don't rise) March 1, 2017.

There is a free shipping option enabled on all pre-orders of this book, though it is not the default. Be sure to change the shipping at checkout from "priority" to "free shipping."

There were a couple of days during which the book was up for pre-order but free shipping was not yet enabled as an option. If you saw the book advertised on Facebook in the last two days and paid shipping on a pre-order, feel free to request a refund of that shipping payment using the "contact" form on the web site.

It's great to see the book coming closer to being released. I ask my Christian readers to pray that God will use it for his glory.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What I'm re-reading: The Heart of the Family

Just recently I have been re-reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family. This book has been so helpful to me spiritually that I wanted to blog about it, without thereby endorsing it as a literary work for my more literarily stringent readers. 

All quotations in what follows are from the hardcover edition by Coward-McCann (1953). The book is available in a reprint edition from Amazon here.

If you dislike any hint of preachiness in literature, you will dislike Goudge generally and this novel in particular. It is one of her most wordy, and occasionally the wordiness mars the dialogue in ways that even I (lenient though I am) cannot fully excuse.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a profound and painful Christian devotional book in the form of a story, this is the book for you. If you read it with attention and sensitivity, it will change you.

The Heart of the Family is the third and last of Goudge's novels about the Eliot family. The others, in order, are The Bird in the Tree and Pilgrim's Inn (alternative title The Herb of Grace). Set in Hampshire, England, between approximately 1939 and 1952, the Eliot novels are vintage Goudge, including stories about characters you care about combined with meditations on Christianity, marriage, love, and suffering.

I believe that The Heart of the Family can be read on its own, though some acquaintance with the earlier novels would probably be helpful. Pilgrim's Inn is, literarily, the strongest of the three.

The Heart of the Family does not have a great deal of plot, and it is part of the genius of Goudge to be able to do so much with so little plot. The movement of the story lies chiefly in the heart of the character Sebastian Weber, an Austrian (apparently not Jewish) survivor of a post-WWII Russian concentration camp. Formerly a famous concert pianist, Sebastian has suffered the loss of his career and entire family in the course of the war. His wife and several children were killed in the fire-bombing of Hamburg while on a visit there, and his last child died in his arms on a train car when they were taken up as refugees by the Russians and shipped somewhere or other under appalling conditions.

Only forty-eight years old and stranded as a refugee in America, Sebastian can no longer play the piano and suffers from heart failure, poverty, and mental illness (what we would refer to as PTSD). He is taken on for (unneeded) secretarial duties by David Eliot as an act of charity and comes to Damerosehay, the Eliot family home in England, at the beginning of the book. David Eliot is a few years younger than Sebastian, a successful, handsome stage actor, naturally egotistical and selfish but basically kindly, struggling mightily to follow the Christian way of commitment and renunciation despite his own faults. At the moment David is racked with guilt over having had a near-affair with a woman other than his wife while on the American Shakespeare tour on which he met and hired Sebastian. Sebastian knows that he should be grateful to David for taking him on as secretary and giving him a home, and he knows nothing of the semi-affair, but he is filled with envious hatred for David's position in life and anger over having to be beholden to a successful man. Since Goudge persistently brings something like ESP into her novels, there is another reason why Sebastian instinctively hates David, but that is kept as the "big reveal" of the novel, and I won't tell it here.

The movement of the novel consists chiefly in Sebastian's personal growth, recovery of religious faith, and recovery of the ability to love and to experience friendship, including friendship with David Eliot. Goudge also uses the book as an opportunity to give the reader "news"--both circumstantial and spiritual--about the other members of the Eliot family. These are all characters that Goudge readers would have met in the earlier two novels, with a few additions such as a fiance for Ben, David Eliot's 21-year-old cousin.

Into this slight frame Goudge packs quite amazing reflections on suffering, God, and the Christian discipline of "offering up" all things as prayer--pain and pleasure, worries, and struggles with sin. Goudge is simultaneously a sentimental novelist and a stark and uncompromising advocate of Christian mysticism based on a theology of suffering. The combination is unusual, to say the least. What one realizes as one reads and understands Goudge is that everything matters intensely, painfully. Even the things that are good matter in an almost painful way. Joy itself is interwoven with pain, but it is a joyful kind of pain. At the same time, nothing quite matters in the way that you thought it mattered. Personal enjoyment, for example, is both tremendously important--it can be transmuted into worship of God, the giver of all good things--and also unimportant, in the sense that one should be willing to give it up in order to know God more intimately.

With which wordy introduction, here are a few salient quotations:
When one was well, the next thing flowed in so easily and naturally but when one was tired to death it sent before it a wave of nervous apprehension. Would one be able to manage? Would one make a mess of it?...Engulfed in this fear Sally had taught herself to think of the next thing as though it were the last thing....If it were the last thing then it did not seem too hard to rally one's forces just once more....[W]hen you took the moment in your hands as selflessly as you were able, past and future were not so much destroyed as gathered into it in one perfect whole, and living for it was not destructive but creative. The moment was no longer the last thing but the one thing, and so nothing else mattered and one would not fail. (p. 65)
The cloudless sky was a cool clear green behind the Island, but overhead it deepened to a blue so glorious that it dazzled the eyes not so much by its brightness as its power. Strange that color could have such power. A lark had braved it and was singing up there, and two great swans passed overhead with a mighty beating of flame-touched wings. But the lark and the swans had the same power. The small bird, tossing almost unseen now above the music that fell like brightness from the air, had lifted the souls of men out of their mortal weariness more surely than any other musician since the world began. And the passing of the swans was as powerful as a rolling of drums. They were Apollo's swans, who according to Socrates sing and rejoice on the day of their death because they foresee the blessings of immortal life. Conquerors of the souls of men, conquerors of time and death; the place of the lark and the swans was in the depth of the blue that would still be there when the sky had let fall the stars "even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs." (p. 90) 

"How can good be lost if it is remembered?" asked Lucilla. "It can be pain to remember, I know, but it is one of those pains that are incumbent on us and the pain lessens if one does not shrink from the duty."
"How can it be a duty to remember?" asked Sebastian.
"I think it is all part of the purging," said Lucilla. "That hard deliberate remembering of good leaves no room for the remembrance of evil. That way we hasten the time. Don't you sometimes think, Mr. Weber, that one of the dreadful discoveries that we shall make in the life to come will be the extent to which we have put the clock back, and kept humanity upon the rack, by the mere unwilled thinking of idle moments?" (pp. 93-94)

This last phrase, "the unwilled thinking of idle moments," has been much on my mind lately. Lucilla Eliot (the great-grandmother and matriarch of the family) relates the problem of uncontrolled thoughts to the good or harm of mankind generally, but it is at least as relevant to the good or harm of the individual soul. How necessary it is for the Christian to be constantly on guard against the temptation to let one's thoughts wander--to hatred, vain regrets, the keeping of grudges, envy, resentment against God, going over painful thoughts profitlessly, or anything else that stands between the soul and Christ. And the Tempter is always ready to guide the course of "the unwilled thinking of idle moments" if we (or the Holy Ghost) do not keep it on the right track.

Yet whom did he hate? The actor who had given him the relief of catharsis or the employer who had been so thoughtful for his comfort? The father telling stories to his little girl or the gray ghost going up the stairs? Was it possible that he hated a mere ghost, the ghost who had been sitting in Banquo's chair when he looked across and saw it empty? A dead man, or a man whose eventual death was so certain that he could be already counted as dead. A man who was being done to death in David Eliot by some terrible adversary; terrible and glorious. [snip]
Abruptly he was awake once more, forcing himself to ask again, [hatred] of whom? and to give a truthful answer. Of a man who possessed all that he had once possessed, fame and the gifts of fame, wife and home and children, and who like himself might one day lose them. Of a man as extravagant, emotional, egocentric and arrogant for all the world to see as he had once been himself, and as deeply sinful in ways known only to himself and to his God, or even only to his God, as he was now. Of himself in fact. Of that dying self who in the eyes of the "terrible," purging the grain, was only the flying chaff. O God, the idiocy of jealousy, indignation, wrath and contention. (pp. 109, 112)

In the immediate context Goudge has quoted both the poem "Carrion Comfort" by G.M. Hopkins and the prayer from the Imitation of Christ that begins, "Take, O Lord, from our hearts all jealousy, indignation, wrath, and contention, and whatsoever may injure charity and lessen brotherly love," and these are wrapped into Sebastian's meditation on his own hatred of David. The idea that each of us is, and must be, a dying man, an egotistical self being done to death by God, is rightly terrifying and yet bracing as well. For that death is the gateway to eternal life, that life of the true self whom God created each of us to be.
Sebastian was beginning to admit that side by side with David's egotism there existed a certain selflessness. Or perhaps that was putting it too strongly. Perhaps it would be truer to say that David had headed his egotism for the loss of it, as a man shooting the rapids deliberately steers his boat for the sickening fall that is just ahead of him. (p. 212)
This is a place where Goudge, for all the demanding nature of her Christian vision, gives us something to grab onto. For if I cannot be selfless right now, I can at least try to "head my egotism for the loss of it" like a man steering a boat for the rapids.

Then there is this insightful bit of dialogue, on the pain that parents feel for the pain of their children and (in this case) grandchildren. Lucilla is speaking at first:

"...Don't you think that in each generation there is some special person who is a candle lighted for the rest?"
"Yes, I do think so," said Sebastian, but he could never speak the name of his son Josef.
"'Light me a candle,'" quoted Lucilla. "Maurice died in a burning of pain. He bore it and so did I. Something of the sort must happen to David and I am as willing as he will be. For Meg, though I shan't see it, I can't bear it and I'm not willing." Her soft old voice was suddenly torn off and died.
"You can and you will be," said Sebastian... (pp. 230-31)

Here is the character Hilary (Lucilla's oldest son) talking to Lucilla about substitution:
"...And then one day, with great difficulty, I suddenly put into practice and knew as truth what of course I had always known theoretically, that if pain is offered to God as prayer then pain and prayer are synonymous....The utterly abominable Thing that prevents your prayer becomes your prayer. And you know what prayer is, Mother. It's all of a piece, the prayer of a mystic or of a child, adoration or intercession, it's all the same thing; whether you feel it or not it is union with God in the deep places where the fountains are. Once you have managed the wrenching effort of substitution the abominable Thing, while remaining utterly detestable for yourself, becomes the channel of grace for others and so the dearest treasure that you have. [snip] [I]t's not just the way you look at it, it's a deliberate and costly action of the will. It can be a real wrenching of the soul....And it's the same with joy as with disaster and Things, lifted up with that same hard effort even the earthly joys are points of contact and have the freshness of eternity in them." (pp. 266-267)
This is at the heart of the idea of "offering up" that is woven throughout the book.

Here is David's meditation on the interaction of all things and people in God's creation:

As he closed the gate behind him a spray of winter honeysuckle, the dew still on it, touched his face. The sudden breath of scent took him by surprise, the coolness of the dew, the perfect trumpets of pale yellow flowers against the glossy green leaves. The fact of it suddenly filled his whole consciousness, blotting out all other facts....Yet the sight of it, the scent and feel, were the least part of its value, even as his body that saw and felt and breathed was no great thing. It had its reality of invisible good, as he his, but though it was a gift to him, he in his ignorance could not even guess at what it was.
His consciousness, that had narrowed to such a pin point, widened slowly to an awareness of an ocean surface of form and color and movement: the gray faces of men who suffered, the rosy faces of children, women's pearly fairness or blotched unsightliness, the grace of bodies and their degradation, flowers and birds' wings and the beautiful pelts of beasts, sunlight on the water and the flame of burning cities; all just an appearance of invisible good or evil that lived in the depths and could not be seen. Yet not in the still depths, only just below the surface where the flow of interchange was unresting and unceasing. One took and gave unendingly and could not know what one took or what one gave, because one did not know what one was, or who or what it was that gave. One was tossed upon this surface of appearance and could know nothing of the meaning of it, until one had passed through the fear and agony of its total loss. (pp. 284-285) 
Yet, contrary to what David thinks here, Goudge shows that David and Sebastian, and others in the story, actually do know something of the meaning of their interactions, of their takings and givings, even here in this life. And something of the meaning of creation. The mystery of those meanings should only keep us humble and ever open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for we may never know the significance of some act to which we are prompted, or some act that we refuse, for good or for evil.

I'll stop with that quotation. There is much more in the book. I recommend it if you are looking for something profound to read, something that will draw you closer to Christ, even if it is merely good literature and not truly great literature.

I don't know precisely what or whether I will write for Christmas this year, but in any event a blessed last week of Advent to my readers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Undesigned Coincidences in the OT: The Revolt of Libnah

Jehoram, King of Judah (mid-800s B.C.), was the first king in the divided kingdom to follow wholeheartedly after false gods. What do I mean by the divided kingdom? For those of you who aren't Bible geeks, a brief history: after Solomon died, his son Rehoboam refused to lower taxes (!), and this was the immediate cause of a rebellion that had probably been brewing for a long time. A general named Jeroboam took ten of the tribes of Israel under his rule. That came to be known as the Northern Kingdom. Only Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the descendant of David, and they became known as the Southern Kingdom or the Kingdom of Judah.

After that, until the rule of Jehoram, there was (according to the Bible) a pretty striking distinction between the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel, in that the former was ruled over by descendants of David and at least attempted to maintain the religion of the true God, while the latter went after false gods of one sort or another right from the outset of the divided kingdom period, beginning with the worship of the calves in the time of Jeroboam. But that distinction ended when Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, made a fatal error. He arranged a marriage for his son and heir, Jehoram, to Athaliah, the daughter of the wicked Jezebel, wife of Ahab, queen of Israel. (Jezebel was a pagan princess.) Led astray by his wife, Jehoram began to follow after the worship of Baal.

Here are a few verses on the matter from the book of 2 Kings, chapter 8, beginning at verse 16. (In case you're wondering about the reference here to Jehoshaphat, it looks like Jehoram began his own reign as co-regent with his father, a pretty common Ancient Near Eastern practice.)
Now in the fifth year of Joram the son of Ahab king of Israel, Jehoshaphat being then the king of Judah, Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat king of Judah became king. He was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, just as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab became his wife; and he did evil in the sight of the Lord. However, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah, for the sake of David His servant, since He had promised him to give a lamp to him through his sons always....In his days Edom revolted from under the hand of Judah, and made a king over themselves.... So Edom revolted against Judah to this day. Then Libnah revolted at the same time.
We never do hear (that I know of) any highly specific reason why Edom revolts just then, though it is a general fact that the Edomites were vassals of the Kingdom of Judah (previously vassals of David and then Solomon) and were probably ready to revolt at the drop of a hat anyway.

But what about Libnah? Libnah was a city located within the lands of the tribe of Judah. It is mentioned in Joshua (more about that in a moment); it was won from the Canaanites when the land was first conquered. Some archeologists are convinced that they have located ancient Libnah in a dig at Tel Burna, about twelve miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Of course, many things are simply stated both in the historical books of the Bible and in other historical books, without any particular explanation, so it wouldn't be surprising if we never got any further explanation for the early revolt of Libnah, as opposed to some other Judean town, against Jehoram.

But as it happens, if we turn to Joshua, we do learn something relevant. In Joshua 21 the Levites demand their portion of the land of Israel in the form of cities. The tribe of Levi--the tribe of the priests--was not given separate lands like the other tribes, but they were supposed to be given cities. Thirteen cities were allotted to the Kohathite descendants of Aaron, an extremely important priestly lineage. Among these priestly cities (Joshua 21:13) was the city of Libnah. This fact is repeated in I Chronicles 6:57. (Chronicles summarizes much information from earlier historical books of the Old Testament.)

So a reason for the revolt of Libnah, specifically, suggests itself immediately: Libnah, being a city of the priests, was especially outraged by Jehoram's introduction of Baal worship in Judah and rose up against him.

J.J. Blunt (from whom I got this coincidence) does not leave the confirmations at that, however. He brings up a further confirmation that this was, indeed, the reason for the revolt of Libnah. Athaliah eventually (after the death of her husband and her son) sets herself up as Queen of Judah and murders (almost) all of her own grandsons in order to secure her throne (2 Kings 11). One grandson, one-year-old Joash, is saved from the massacre by his aunt and secretly raised by Jehoiada the priest, his uncle by marriage. When Joash is seven years old, Jehoiada leads a successful rebellion against Athaliah. The boy king Joash is proclaimed king, the wicked Athaliah killed, and the worship of Baal cast down.

This further history supports the proposition (not at all unlikely in itself) that the resistance to the worship of Baal and to Jehoram and Athaliah was centered in the priestly class. The revolt at Libnah, then, was a premature attempt that broke out when all was not yet ready. In particular, at that time there was not a candidate (even a boy king) for a godly ruler. Some years later (about fourteen years, by Blunt's reckoning), when the unpopular, usurping, and murderous Athaliah was sole ruler, the priestly rebellion foreshadowed at Libnah succeeded.

But see how indirect all of this is! The book of 2 Kings mentions only briefly the revolt of Libnah and gives no reason for it. For this one must turn to Joshua or to I Chronicles, either of which was definitely written by someone other than the author of 2 Kings. And the books of Kings are if anything a source for the books of Chronicles, not vice versa. Nor does the author of Kings assign any reason for the revolt of Libnah, though the author of 2 Chronicles does suggest a connection to Jehoram's idolatry.
Then Libnah revolted at the same time against [Jehoram's] rule, because he had forsaken the LORD God of his fathers. (2 Chron. 21:10)
But even here, and even though the chronicler (if we take the same person to have written or compiled all of Chronicles) has long before listed the cities of the sons of Aaron, including Libnah, he does not express that connection. Why should Libnah, particularly, be offended when Jehoram forsook the Lord God of his fathers? (Digression: This coincidence shows why it is good to have "another pair of eyes" on the details of the argument. Blunt erroneously states [p. 203] that the readers of both Kings and Chronicles would have had no way of knowing anything further about Libnah, but in fact way back in I Chronicles 6 the division of the cities is listed. Even if we were just looking at Chronicles, however, this is extremely indirect, and all the more so since 2 Chronicles 21 does not say what Jehoram's forsaking God has to do with the rebellion of Libnah. Certainly the fact that both parts of the coincidence are included far apart in Chronicles does nothing to weaken the argument from this coincidence for the historicity of Kings.)

As a confirmation of the historicity of the books of Kings, this is the kind of subtle connection that those of us who study undesigned coincidences love. The author of Kings just says that Libnah revolted at the same time as Edom. Yet when one looks into the more detailed history of the land, one finds an extremely plausible explanation which also fits beautifully with the further history of the devotion of the priests to the true God and their eventual rebellion against Athaliah.

Says Blunt,
This is the explanation of the revolt of Libnah. Yet, satisfactory as it is, when we are once fairly in possession of it, the explanation is anything but obvious. Libnah, it is said, revolts, but that revolt is not expressly coupled with the introduction of Baal into the country as a god...nor is any reason alleged why Libnah should feel particularly alive to the ignominy and shame of such an act; for where Libnah was, or what it was, or whereof its inhabitants consisted, are things unknown to the readers of Kings..., and would continue unknown, were they not to take advantage of a hint or two in the Book of Joshua. (p. 203)
Concerning the overthrow of Athaliah, Blunt argues,
But will any man say that the sacred historian [the author of 2 Kings] so ordered his materials, that such incidents as these which I have named should successively turn up--that he guided his hands in all this wittingly--that he let fall, with consummate artifice, first a brief and incidental notice (a mere parenthesis) of the revolt of a single town, suppressing meanwhile all mention of its peculiar constitution and character, though such as prepared it above others for revolt--that then, after abandoning not only Libnah, but the subject of Judah in general, and applying himself [for several chapters] to the affairs of Israel in their turn, he should finally revert to his former topic, or rather a kindred one, and lay before us the history of a general revolt, organized by the Priests; and all in the forlorn hope that the uniform working of the same principle of disaffection in the same party, and for the same cause, in two detached instances, would not pass unobserved; but that such consistency would be detected, and put down to the credit of the narrative at large? This surely is a degree of refinement much beyond belief. (p. 205)
 I couldn't have said it better myself.

Crossposted at What's Wrong With the World