Young, Restless, and Reformed Homeboys on Lenten Fasting

Last spring, I wrote about my skepticism about the newfound trendiness of lenten fasting among Evangelicals of my generation. The trend continues apace. Here’s Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs (it’s a “parish” of the more famous New Life) explaining why his charismatic and low-church congregation is holding an Ash Wednesday service today:

So, no, you don’t have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church—for the past 1200 years—and with the people of God—for thousands of years before that!—and humbly repent and seek God’s face. It is the beginning of a fast season, Lent. Lent—like every other season of the Church Calendar—is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.

Packiam is endemic of how most Lent-adopters talk about church history: They denigrate (explicitly or implicitly) their low-church Evangelicalism as unmoored from tradition and underscore how adopting the liturgical practice connects them to the historic church. But what if the best way to express trans-generational solidarity with the millions of believers who have walked before you is by eschewing Lent? That’s the argument I want to support below.

Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy

Here’s the thing. Evangelicalism has been around for centuries and its practice is strongly rooted in the past. In the churches I’ve attended over the past decade (sometimes called Young, Restless, and Reformed), most worship songs are rearrangements of lyrics penned by eighteenth-century figures Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley. And what’s true of the songs is true of the theology, long-dead folks like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon are revered, a phenomenon summed-up by the famous Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy t-shirt on the cover for Colin Hansen’s article describing this movement. In their sermons and theological treatises, these YRR Homeboys said quite a lot about keeping the season of Lent. Here’s a sampling of takes from the sixteenth (John Calvin), seventeenth (John Owen), eighteenth (Jonathan Edwards), nineteenth (Charles Spurgeon), and twentieth centuries (Martyn Lloyd-Jones).

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20 (1536)
Calvin is clearly hostile to describing lenten fasting as an imitation of Christ.

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .

John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656)
Owen is a very interesting case because he wrote extensively on the Christian practice for mortification of the flesh. However, he was very clear to differentiate the gospel practice of mortification from practices of “popish devotionists.”

That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched at by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.

Later, in the same piece, he specifically condemns the practice of abstaining from “sin for a season.”

And herein is the Roman mortification grievously peccant; they drive all sorts of persons to it, without the least consideration whether they have a principle for it or no. Yea, they are so far from calling on men to believe, that they may be able to mortify their lusts, that they call men to mortification instead of believing. The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends. Faith with them is but a general assent to the doctrine taught in their church; and mortification the betaking of a man by a vow to some certain course of life, wherein he denies himself something of the use of the things of this world, not without a considerable compensation. Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Their boasting of their mortification is but their glorying in their shame. Some casuists among ourselves, who, overlooking the necessity of regeneration, do avowedly give this for a direction to all sorts of persons that complain of any sin or lust, that they should vow against it, at least for a season, a month or so, seem to have a scantling of light in the mystery of the gospel, much like that of Nicodemus when he came first to Christ. They bid men vow to abstain from their sin for a season. This commonly makes their lust more impetuous. Perhaps with great perplexity they keep their word; perhaps not, which increases their guilt and torment. Is their sin at all mortified hereby? Do they find a conquest over it? Is their condition changed, though they attain a relinquishment of it? Are they not still in the gall of bitterness? Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw, yet, which is worse, without strength? What promise hath any unregenerate man to countenance him in this work? what assistance for the performance of it? Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions. They may make men self-justiciaries or hypocrites, not Christians.

Jonathan Edwards, An Attempt to Promote Agreement in Extraordinary Prayer (1745)
Edwards ridicules the no-flesh-but-fish rule while discussing how the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg (on an island named Cape-Breton by the English) during King George’s War heralded the ascendance of the gospel and the downfall of superstitious Roman Catholic countries.

And one thing with relation to the taking of Cape-Breton, though it may seem trivial, yet I do not think to be altogether inconsiderable in the present case; and that is, that thereby the antiChristian dominions are deprived of a very great part of their fish, which makes no small part of the food and support of popish countries; their superstition forbidding them to eat any flesh for near a third part of the year. This they were supplied with much more from Cape-Breton than from any place in the world in the possession of papists. And the contention of France with the Dutch, deprives them of most of their supplies of this sort, which they had elsewhere. When the prophet Isaiah foretells the depriving Egypt of its wealth and temporal supplies, under the figure of drying up their rivers, this is particularly mentioned, that they should be deprived of their fish.

“And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord. And the waters shall fall from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up; and they shall turn the rivers far away, and the brooks of defense shall be emptied and dried up. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.” Isaiah 19:4-8.

This is expressed in the prophecies of drying up the waters, i.e. the supplies of Egypt; and this probably is implied in the prophecies of drying up the waters of that city which is spiritually called Egypt. And it may be noted, that this is not only a supply that the church of antichrist has literally out of the waters, but is that part which is eminently the supply and food of their antiChristian superstition, or which their popish religion makes necessary for them.

 Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David (1885) and sermon on Song of Solomon 1 (1886)
Spurgeon expresses general reservations about all traditions of men.

When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, “Is this a law of the God of Jacob?” and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.

He is especially critical of Lent’s call to mourn as if our Lord was taken away.

Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him!

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, sermon from John 1 (1962)
Lloyd-Jones is blunt in his appraisal.

Lent, of course, is a relic of Roman Catholicism. One can easily understand it in such an organization – it gives power to the priest, and so on – but there is, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever in favour of it in the New Testament, and it simply leads to this show of wisdom and human will power. It is people adding their works to the grace of God, and this is essentially Roman Catholic teaching. Well, my friends, let us get rid of this, let us not waste our time with it. We are to be led by the Spirit always.

Evangelicalism is a tradition too

I’m sure that an Evangelical Lent-adopter would protest that he isn’t going to do Lent in a “popish” way and thus evade the censure of the YRR Homeboys. If that were the case, why did none of these figures advocate for a reformed lenten fast instead of condemning the practice entirely? Furthermore, if the point for the adopters is to participate in an ancient tradition along with saints of previous centuries, it doesn’t make sense to radically alter the practice as traditionally performed.

My point is simple. Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.

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A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” — Matthew 7:7-11

The power of this passage is the very perversity of the image it draws. How strangely cruel would a man have to be to give a destructive non sequitur instead of life-giving food? “Ha! That isn’t a rock-hard crust on that bread; it’s a ROCK!”

But I think Jesus means to press us into a corner here. He is encouraging us to pray, to seek from God what we need and to trust his provision. Trusting in the Father’s provision is one of Jesus’ great themes. It is why he has just called our attention to the birds and the lilies, and commands us not to worry about how our needs will be met. But this passage comes in the same discourse in which Jesus promises his followers great suffering and grief. Far from being an overlooked reality that undermines Jesus’ point in the passage, I suspect Jesus intends to push us into the tension between the promise of God’s goodness and the rocky and snakish things he sends our way.

 

God can seem alien to us at times, even cruel. His understanding exceeds our own far more than a human father’s exceeds that of the youngest child. His ways are infinitely more unsearchable than that of a dad who holds his kid down to receive a shot. Indeed, we would know hardly a thing about God unless he revealed it to us.

Bread rolls

Bread rolls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So sometimes, it is hard to see the goodness in what Cowper described as “a frowning Providence.” And yet, a key part of God’s self-revelation is that he watches his people, neither slumbering nor sleeping. Like a nesting hen, sheltering the hatchlings. He is a loving Father who gives good gifts. And yet the world is full of snakes.

This difficulty is made worse when we just don’t understand what is happening. When friends and family suffer. When natural goods, rightly desired, are placed out of reach. When we see that one of the greatest impediments to our flourishing is staring at us in the mirror. It is hard to see how a loving Father can be watching over all of that.

Instead, it is easy to covet, easy to resent. It is easy to say that it is all wrong, and should not be happening. Not in the sense of, “it is a fallen world and I long for paradise,” but in the sense of “what kind of God could allow this?” Or to wonder if our concerns are too small for God to notice. For the Christian, that attitude is doubly false, since Jesus Christ himself, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” says that God pays mind even to the fall of a sparrow.

And yet, there is an odd thing about invoking God’s providence in difficult times. It is a classic piece of bad comforting to simply tell someone, “God is in control.” Even so, recognizing, resting in, and/or wrestling with God’s control over circumstances can be a powerful form of reassurance. Why the disconnect? Continue reading

This is Not Vanity: Reflections on Turning Thirty

I have, that I can remember, never marked my birthdays here at Mere-O.  For most of my online history, I have kept such moments private, as making much of them invariably seems to satisfy no one.

But today I enter my 30s, which for the purposes of Mere-O has struck me as having some significance.  After all, I made something of a mark on the world by penning an essay on the new evangelical phenomenon, a phenomenon that I stand squarely in the middle of.  That phenomenon is slowly becoming parents and will, like me, quickly be confronted by the reality that we are no longer the new evangelicals, but have been (inevitably) superseded by the “new new evangelicals.”  The charm and excuse of being a youngster can only get me so far, and has probably gone on too long.  Eventually, I shall have to figure out something real to say.  And so for the rest of us.

It is something of an opportunity to reflect on that brilliant question posed by Martin Bashir to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs: “How does a hard-core, ganster rapper, hip-hop producer enter middle age?”  I’m not there yet, but it is coming quickly.  My hope is to enter it gracefully, to appreciate my youth as youth and nothing more, and to do all that I can to add to that long ladder of dwarves on giant shoulders.

And yet, gratitude:  oh the gratitude I feel.  I was planning on celebrating and saying thank you by giving away books.  I started with my book, and disliked the thought of another clumsy attempt at self-promotion.  I moved to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, on grounds that if there is one book you should read in 2012, it’s probably that one (and the year after, and the next one too).  But frankly, the thought of giving away gifts doesn’t quite do the whole thing justice.  It lacks elegance when done online, and is too easily reduced to another marketing gimmick.  We’ll save such fun for other times.

My heart, though, genuinely overfloweth.  This blog has been a part of my life for nearly the past 8 years.  I could wax on nostalgically about our time, but nostalgia borders on being a sin.  Except about one’s wife, and she’s been a part of my life for nearly as long.  She has put up with long hours of writing, which when it comes down to it is a rather solitary task.  If there is a reason that I keep plodding along here at Mere-O, her fierce and faithful partisanship is it.  Once could not hope for a better interlocutor, or a more critical editor.

And the rest of it.  So many readers through the years, so many emails (probably too many emails, but that is another story), so many challenges and comments and kind words.  So many new friends, and still so many folks that I have yet to meet.  My twenties were a season of joy upon great joy, of blessing and goodness that is wholly undeserved.  The little community here at Mere-O made a remarkable reality possible:  the existence of a book, an imperfect offering that if I live long enough will be rewritten from the ground up, but a remarkable and stunning opportunity that many people do not get in their lifetime.

Existence is enough, and a miracle in itself:  I have, for whatever reason, been given the extraordinary privilege of finding a spot that fits me well.  Not the sort of thing you take for granted, given the rarity of its occurrence throughout the world.  And so I’ll double down on the work, and churn out another few thousand words (though not for this post);  if this writing is a vocation I am about, as I believe my twenties showed it to be, then the gratitude must take a different form, a form that is expressed within my life and my work.

Which is only to say, I only have words this time, words that hopefully resonate as deeply as I feel them:  thank you.  (The “you” is underspecified, as it should be, for the set includes both the God in whom we all live and move and those who happen to be reading.)   If anything, I hope that my thirties manifest my gratitude through my work:  more beautiful prose, more careful thinking, more frequent discussions, and more charitable interactions with those I come near.

Last year, I wrote a piece for Relevant Magazine that was as good, I think, as any I have yet written.  It is, perhaps, pedantic to quote oneself in one’s own post, but I’ll claim it as my only birthday privilege:

The preciousness of our lives does not depend upon whether we live them for an hour or a hundred years, but upon the one who gives that life to us. All our work is as transient as our days, and only if the Lord establishes it will it remain until the end. But it is enough for us to say, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice, and be glad in it,” for all that the Lord makes is good. We should embrace G.K. Chesterton’s childlike wonder and take so much joy at the sun’s rising that we eagerly say, “Do it again!” But we will also work, not because we may die this day, but because our diligence is the grateful response to the recognition that our lives and time are not our own. And because as George MacDonald put it, “Those who are diligent will soon be cheerful.”

The meaning of our work is never certain, and will not be clear until the end of all things, and it all certainly feels empty and fruitless every now and then.  But the trudging looks like a wonder once on the other side, as the new day brings newer and brighter mercies.   The dawn is ever breaking, the darkness present but in retreat.  And so the work continues apace.  As Eliot puts the task before us:

A Church for all
and a job for each
Every man to his work.

The work shall be established, but not by our hands.   As one friend put it, this is not vanity.  Mere-O, marriage, my family and friends, the emails with readers and the writing of a book–it is not, nor will it be, in vain.  And for that, upon my thirtieth birthday, I am profoundly and genuinely grateful.

Because of My Mother

As I type this I am watching a smug and self-important young woman on a Sunday morning show give a monologue on The Pill. On this Mother’s Day, she is telling the nation how great it is that women no longer need to have children, including jokes about how much more impactful The Pill has been on the pro-choice movement than Roe v. Wade.

As a culture we really do try to celebrate motherhood, but are now unable to do so without simultaneously reminding everyone “but you don’t need to if you don’t want to! It’s just another life-style choice!” Somehow, this comes across to me as inauthentic. Yes, I suppose you could call it a life-style, but if anyone has ever had or even known a good mother, you know it isn’t like any other.

My mother was a child of 1970’s San Francisco. Everything about my mom should have made her a lifelong, picture-perfect feminist at a time and a place where it would have been very cool. She is razor sharp, beautiful, accomplished, and hard working. She could have been anything, but in 1984, she chose to just be with her new baby, me.

My Mom is now 52. She has raised three successful and happy daughters. She spent the majority of her life not only staying at home with us, but home-schooling us. We were always, ALWAYS, around. In a very tangible way, her life was about us. There really isn’t anything I can do to communicate what that means to me now. But I am going to try.

Because of my mom, I was born. From that moment on, because of my mom, I was cared for, intimately and thoroughly. Because of my mom I was given an education that most would envy. Because of my mom and dad I was taken to church every Sunday, a church that they thoughtfully chose and stayed faithful to for many years. Because of me and my sisters, my smart, attractive mom spent most of her time cooking, cleaning, and assuring us that reading, math, and writing skills were really of significant advantage to us, even if they weren’t as fun as playing with the cat. Because of my mom’s household hard work and economy, my dad’s time working away from the family was never wasted. Because of my mom, all three of us girls were able to go to college, not only because she prepared us well, but because she took a job at the university to help pay tuition. Most importantly, because of my mom, we were loved unceasingly and unquestionably.

There is much more I could say, but I think there might be only one more example needed, and in order to tell it, I will need to be more transparent than I usually like to be on the wide-open internet. In the last year, I have struggled with anxiety attacks. In the last few weeks, they have escalated to the point that I can’t sleep. I am getting the professional help I need, but nights are still hard. Last night was particularly bad. I was at my parent’s house and so very tired from a week of not sleeping. My mom stayed up with me for a while, but then she crawled into bed with me and talked with me about Jesus until I could fall asleep. So, after 26 years of life, and 8 years of living away from my parents, last night, the night before a day that is meant to be a celebration of motherhood, because of my mom, I could go to sleep.

I find myself wanting to make some caveats at the end of this post, assurance to woman who don’t have children or acknowledgement that dads are important too (and my dad really was right there with my mom through most of this stuff), but there are different times for that. For now, I want to talk about mothers, and my mother in particular. Yours is a vocation (yes, vocation) straight from Jesus himself. You spend your whole days caring for the little children that Christ cared for so much. Speaking right now as one of those children, we cannot thank you enough.

The Mystery of Faith: A Brief Reflection for Thanksgiving

As Christians, we are a people who live in a present that is shaped definitively by the past and the future. The meaning of our present, of our contemporary lives and relationships, is fixed, but not yet revealed. We take shape only in relationship to the eternal, which Boethius famously defined as the “simultaneously whole and perfect possession of everlasting life.”

But this “everlasting life” that structures our lives’ meaning is not an abstract formula, but a concrete reality that took shape–and will take shape–in the historical presence of the man Jesus. As Christians in more liturgical orders proclaim in the “Mystery of Faith:”

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It is this eternal that shapes the temporal, this history and future that defines the present. And as the people of God, this history is by extension and invitation our history. As we proclaim the mystery of faith, we affirm that by his graciousness we are able to identify with him and accept the meaning of his life as the meaning of our own. As the Apostle puts it, “It has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but when we see him, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

This Thanksgiving, then, I am thankful for my history. I am thankful for my parents, for their instruction in the faith and for introducing me to A.W. Tozer, C.S. Lewis, and Andrew Murray. I am thankful for Biola, for John Mark and Torrey Honors, and the role they played in expanding my historical understanding of the Church and its role on earth. And I am most thankful for my all-too-brief history with my lovely wife.

But all these things are inevitably ordered, are structured, around that definitive and final history that is the history of Jesus Christ. And as such, I am most grateful that he has shared his “eternal life” with us, making all that we do in his name now and always.

(Cross posted at Evangel)

Fasting for Strength

“Don’t give into some illusion and lose your power,This man freed India. What have you done?
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast,
like soldiers appearing out of the ground,
pennants flying above them.”

-Rumi

We live in a world as power-hungry as it is powerless. We are enslaved to our baser desires for salt, sugar, bleached flour, alcohol, sleep, sexual satisfaction, and money, and yet we dream of (and often imagines ourselves being) all-powerful arbiters of truth, justice and reality. The former desires are bestial; the latter are still bad, but they are at least human.

Leaving aside the desire for power for the moment, let us do as Evagrius of Pontus recommends, and use a bad vice to attack a worse vice. Let us attack our desires for food sleep and satisfaction by invigorating (for a time) our desire for mastery of ourselves, the world, and others.

Let us be global for a moment… How many of the world’s great leaders, activists, and thinkers, Gandhi, Washington, Thomas Aquinas, Maximos the Confessor, Anthony the Great, Paul of Tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates, or Buddha, displayed in their lives a remarkable degree of ascetic effort? Further, is it conceivable that they were only able to accomplish such great words and deeds because they were masters of their bodily desires?

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before starting his ministry, a ministry that made him (whether you love him or hate him) one of the most famous men in human history. Would he have succeeded in the trials of the ministry that followed if he succumbed to the temptations that preceded? Thomas Aquinas had to spend hours upon hours a day in deep thought in order to become one of the most influential and important (and, in modern day scholarship, I am told, one of the most-studied) thinkers of all time. He gave up many, many drinking parties in order to produce his introductory textbook we call the Summa Theologica. As for Gandhi, would India be free, would anyone know his name if he could not resist the overwhelming pleasure of an apple or a pear?

Without spelling out exactly the connection between the superhuman ability to not-eat and the ability to accomplish other superhuman tasks such as moral reform, intellectual insight, or the nonviolent love of your enemies, can we not at least pause to notice the unnaturally high degree of correlation?

Think of your favorite leader, your hero, your example, anyone. Your pastor, father, grandmother, best friend, former president, apostle, reformer… Anyone you want to be like. Could they tell their stomach what to do? Did it obey? Or did their stomach tell them what to do, and they obeyed? If the former, then be like them, as they are like Christ.

After we have mastered the belly, of course, we will have another fish to fry, the love of power, the deep desire to be glorified for our own achievements. But, hey, baby steps to Jesus.

Fasting for Self-Control

When you’re full of food and drink,
Satan sits where your spirit should,
an ugly metal statue in place of the Kaaba.


When you fast, good habits gather
like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon’s ring.

A table descends to your tents, Jesus’ table.
Expect to see it, when you fast,
this tablespread with other food,
better than the broth of cabbages.

Rumi

There is some uncanny connection between how much you eat, how much you talk, and how much money you spend. There is a proportional relationship between how fast you do one of these things and how fast you do the other.

Jesus went into the desert to prepare for the self-control of carrying a cross up a hill even though, in one sense, he did not need to.

In America, self-control is not much prized. Our goal is not to conform ourselves to the Moral Law by Self-Control, but to conform the cosmos to our will, through technology. This way leads not to mastery, but slavery.

The Older Path is our salvation. Forgo not just fast food but meat, and dairy. See if you don’t discover, like I did, that of all my problems, of all my enemies, I am the worst. And that, when I am conquered by my better self, all other battles become a matter of time.

Looking Back To See The Future

There are two ways to see the future. One is to receive a vision of all time and all reality. The other is to study the past for patterns that are timeless. The first is granted to only a tiny percentage of the population for only the most specific of purposes; the second is open to anyone for the general purposes of edification and wisdom… Recipients of the first include John the Beloved on Patmos Island so he could write the Apocalypse for the Christian Church; Dante Alighieri of Italy so he could complete his moral, political, spiritual and (eventually) his artistic journey; Julian of Norwhich so she could write the Shewings and minister the love of God to humanity. The first is for great saints with great callings. The second is available to any mediocre sinner like myself, who cares to put in some work. The first is given to sometimes unwilling prophets and fore-runners. The second is available to any willing person with some free time and ten bucks for good books at Borders. (Heck, these days, you don’t even need to pay!)

As the year begins, we look forward with many questions, with some anticipation, and some fear. As we sail into 2008, what timeless patterns can we discern in the annals of history, to give us insight, comfort, conviction, and hope?

1. The final victory belongs to Jesus Christ and his Bride. To quote John Mark Reynolds, “Christianity is always losing… But it’s always losing to someone new.” The tides of modernism are swelling to a final pitch. Individualism in philosophy and morality is universal; the only agreement that is politically correct to have with another person is to the insane notion that each of us can (and should) disagree about notions of truth and goodness. The only common ground we have is that we both want to independently come up with our own notions of truth and goodness without discussing them with each other or the ancient thinkers. We are not foolish enough to try this in areas of medicine and biology, even car mechanics, but when it comes to matters of life and death of the self, we throw reason to the wind.

The blind faith in evolution has clouded the intellects but sparked the imaginations and fervent emotions of scientists and other entrepreneurial thinkers who more and more look to technology as the cure for whatever ills beset us as a race. But whatever alternatives to the life of Christ, He remains a faithful germ of sanity inside our latest and insanest innovative “cures.” Likewise, whatever the developing opposition to the life of Christ, he remains invincible and unflappable above the melee, and his people, the New Isreal, experience safety under the shadow of his wings. If killing the master did not even stop him, then why would resisting and slandering and oppressing his followers work? Continue reading

VI. Towards Gratitude

Roots of Self-Responsibility and Optimism

“All is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich

I have suggested that Meister Eckhart is right when he says “Thank You” is not just one of many good and appropriate prayers, but in some way both the capstone and highest crown of prayer, and the source-spring of many virtues.

I have suggested an intuitive definition of gratitude and argued (somewhat haphazardly) that thanksgiving, like almost every feeling, is felt appropriately in response to certain facts, and inappropriately to others. I have suggested that entitlement is another name for that wellspring of sickness, vice, hatred, and estrangement that the Greeks called hubris and the Christian tradition calls pride, and that its opposite disposition, childlike dependence, is both a psychological fact of being human (we do not seem to know where we came from or how we hold together or how to make ourselves whole) and a philosophical clue to what happiness might consist of, namely, joyfully resting in that dependence.

I would now like to take a look at Genesis again to see how two features especially, self-responsibility and optimism, might move us towards being more grateful, and therefore happy, people. Continue reading

V. Dependence is the Only Psychological Fact

Joy is the Only Psychological Fact

“All day I think about it, then at night I say it:
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere,
I am sure of that, and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place, I’ll be completely
sober. Meanwhile, I’m like a bird from another continent.
They day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?

Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip
Of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord,
and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”

-Rumi (Trans. Coleman Barks)
Some somber athiestic type people I have heard will often softly grumble to themselves that people believe in God because of a left-over childhood feeling of dependence. I presume they assert things like this to each other, not only to affirm their belief that God does not in fact exist, but because they think there is a soft-hearted and soft-headed weakness to believing in something just to make you feel better. They think, in their high-mindedness, that believing in the “cold, hard truth” of self-reliance is more austere, more noble, more intellectual, more mature. They think that they perpetual child, the person who is constantly ascribing his happiness or lack thereof to some parental agent outside of themselves is doomed to being a victim and a puppet their whole lives, never claiming the responsibility that is rightfully theirs, never taking life by the horns and making the best of it.

I think what these somber grown-up athiest-type people miss is the unbearable joy of dependence. A young man once asked his master (I believe I read this of Coleman Barks), “What is it like being enlightened?” His master said nothing, but made little sucking noises with his mouth, like a child at the breast.

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