Category Archives: Christian life

Politics and Bearing Witness

Alan Jacobs:

It may be that the most important political acts I can perform do not involve siding with one of the existing parties, or even necessarily to vote at all, but to try to bear witness through word and action to this double vision of the earthly city: a long defeat followed by a longer joy.

The phrase “long defeat” comes from J. R. R. Tolkien, who in The Lord of the Rings puts it in the mouth of Galadriel, and in a letter uses it himself: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

The promise of a “final victory” is the context of the “long joy.”   Stanley Fish coined that phrase in response to a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Adam gets too readily excited about a scene from the future revealed to him by the archangel Michael, so that when the darker realities of the situation are revealed to him he finds himself “of short joy bereft.” Michael warns Adam that he needs to cure himself of political and social idealism and focus instead on the simple but challenging work of obedience to God. Fish explains the “politics” that Michael recommends to Adam: “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being — the politics of long joy — is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.”

Jacobs concludes:

We are too prone, I believe, to think that voting is the definitive political act. That would be true only if politics simply belongs to the government. There is a far vaster sphere of politics — the life of the polis — that belongs to everyday acts of ordinary people. In this maybe Gandalf is a pretty good guide: “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

A Long Defeat, A Final Victory

 

Trying Not to Increase the Clamour

 

“More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.”

Quoted from George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, (1903), by Stephen Pentz at First Known When Lost.

 

Who Should We Think With?

I enjoy history so was intrigued to read an article titled “Reimagining a History PhD-Doing Academia outside of Academia”.  In it Dr. Paul Gutacker of Baylor refers to Brazos Fellows, which he directs and enjoys:

I serve as director of Brazos Fellows, a nine-month fellowship for college graduates. Brazos Fellows helps young adults explore their vocation in a community that studies, works, and prays together—while aiming to bring together the life of the mind and the life of worship by situating serious theological and historical study in the local church. As you can imagine, this is immensely rewarding work for a religious historian such as myself. If you’d like to read more about the intellectual community Brazos Fellows seeks to cultivate, you can check out my recent post at the Baylor Graduate School blog.

I did check out the referenced post, which refers to a book by Alan Jacobs that already sounded interesting to me, but more so now:

In his brilliant little book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Baylor professor Alan Jacobs takes on a commonly-held myth—the idea that our best thinking happens when we “think for ourselves.” This axiom just doesn’t match up with how thinking works. “To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable,” Jacobs concludes, “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.”(p. 37) Rather than trying to think for ourselves, Jacobs argues that we should consider who we should think with. We should ask: what makes a good thinking partner? What makes a community trustworthy to think with?

……our work at Brazos Fellows presumes that Jacobs is essentially correct: we aren’t meant to ask the big questions on our own. This is true when it comes to questions of discernment—what was I made for? What am I good at, and how does that relate to my vocation?—and more fundamental questions about what it means to be human, to be embodied, to live in society. At Brazos Fellows, we ask these questions with the church—both the church throughout time and the church globally. Put in Jacobs’ terms, we aim for our team of instructors and tutors to be a trustworthy community to think with.

After one year of directing the Brazos Fellows, it’s been immensely rewarding to see the results. Our fellows, such as Jess Schurz (B.A., Baylor ’18), are asking questions like “What is the spiritual value of loneliness?” and “How does beauty invite us deeper into reality?”  Now, in our second year, a new cohort of fellows is exploring big questions like “what can the early church teach us about our cultural assumptions about death?” I can’t wait to see what questions they ask next.

Read it all here.  How wonderful it must be to be a part of that community.

Guided by Thinking, Not Feeling

From a sermon by Alistair Begg on Christian living:

Now, in the divine order of things, God’s purpose is this: that our thinking was supposed to be informed and shaped and governed by his revelation. Okay? So that the way in which we think, in the purposes of God, was that we were supposed to “think God’s thoughts after him,”[5] as it has been said. And it is when we think on the basis of God’s revelation—what he has made known of himself and of his purposes—that we then inform and we influence and we direct our powers of volition. So it is as I learn to think correctly that I then bring my doing into line with my right thinking.

That’s why we’ve got such a dreadful predicament in evangelicalism, because by and large evangelicals don’t think! It’s not a feature of evangelical Christianity, thinking. You talk to people about issues, they don’t know the issues. They only know the heroes. And then they line up behind the heroes: “What did Mr. X say about it? Oh, I like him. I think I probably believe what he believes. Oh, no, I like him a little better. I think I believe what he believes.” But they don’t think the issues out. And it is imperative that our thinking, then, constrains our doing. And that’s, you see, what transforms it all.

That’s why the hymn writer says, if I may pause for a moment, “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my heart with praise, my lips with song.”[6]Now, this isn’t the same as saying, “I just want to praise you, lift my hands and say I love you.”[7] Because as I’ve mentioned to you before, the circumstance of the hymn writer in the first instance may have been absolutely brutal. His job may have been lost, his marital existence may have been fractured, his children may have been a challenge to him. And if then he was going to allow the circumstances of his life to determine joy or sorrow, he has no chance in the world. So what then will grant to that individual stability? The answer is, “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my heart with praise, my lips with song.” In other words, it is his thinking that then determines his doing.

[5] Attributed to Johannes Kepler.

[6] Horatius Bonar, “Not What I Am, O Lord, but What Thou Art.” Paraphrase

[7] Arthur Tannous, “I Just Want to Praise You” (1984).

Not Christian Politics

In 1996 Neuhaus wrote an article titled Against Christian Politics that was published in “First Things.” It is quite lengthy but, I think,  worth thinking about still, 23 years later.  From the piece:
In recent American history, [the religionizing of politics and politicizing of religion]started on the left in the aftermath of the mainline churches’ moral euphoria in having been so very right about the early civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the years that followed, that euphoria inflated the moral certitude of those churches, and their bureaucracies were soon pronouncing God’s definite opinion on almost every question in public dispute.
That could not last very long, and it didn’t. After a while the members of those churches turned a deaf ear to their leaders, and then began drifting away, leaving mainline Protestantism in a spiral of decline that has yet to hit bottom.
Of course the more publicly potent religionizing of politics is today on the right of the ideological spectrum…. The conflation of Christian faith with a specific political agenda inevitably leads to the distortion of faith. The equally inevitable failure to achieve something worthy of being called “Christian politics” produces a crisis in which people will feel forced to choose between their politics and their faith. Devotion to “God and country” is a fine thing, but when the two are given equal standing “country” will always fall far short of what people hope for and they will then find themselves faced with the prospect of “God or country.”

….A very long time ago, when Christians were a persecuted minority of maybe fifty thousand in the great empire of Rome, an anonymous writer explained to a pagan named Diognetus the way it is with this peculiar people. Until Our Lord returns in glory, Christians do well to embrace the second century “Letter to Diognetus” as their vade mecum:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are ‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

…Christian political engagement is an endlessly difficult subject. Our Lord said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but he did not accommodate us by spelling out the details. Over two thousand years, Christians have again and again thought they got the mix just right, only to have it blow up in their faces—and, not so incidentally, in the faces of others. We’re always having to go back to the drawing board, which is to say, to first things. Even when, especially when, we are most intensely engaged in the battle, first things must be kept first in mind. It is not easy but it is imperative. It profits us nothing if we win all the political battles while losing our own souls.
….Christians are commanded to love their neighbors, and politics is one way—by no means the most important way—of doing that. In a democracy, everybody is asked to accept a measure of political responsibility, and most do. For some it is their life’s work, as in “vocation.” Like everything worth doing, it is worth doing well. And, for those who are called to do it, even when they frequently fail, it is also worth doing poorly. Christians engaged in politics, we may hope, will bring to the task the gifts of personal integrity and devotion to the common good. But that does not make their engagement “Christian politics.” It is still just politics. A Christian engineer who builds a really good bridge has not built a “Christian bridge.” The merit of the project depends upon qualities pertinent to the “bridgeness” of the thing, although we may believe that those qualities are well served by the Christian conviction and integrity of the builder.

 

 

 

From our church bulletin this week, suggested as something to “ponder” during the prelude:

What does the dark night of the soul involve?  We may have a sense of dryness, aloneness, even lostness.  Any over dependence on the emotional life is stripped away.  The notion, often heard today, that such experiences should be avoided and that we always should live in peace and comfort, joy and celebration only, betrays the fact that much of contemporary experiences is surface slush.  The dark night is one of the ways God brings us into a hush, a stillness so that he may work an inner transformation upon the soul.

              —Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Richard Foster, 1978.Screenshot 2019-03-06 12.43.35.png

My own copy is from 1978.   I don’t remember that phrase “surface slush”, but I recognize the meaning and will hold the image.

 

 

On Being an Imperfect Disciple

  Stuck in a waiting room for several hours of car service I read a lot of Jared C. Wilson’s The Imperfect Disciple today.  Days ago, after starting the book, I almost quit reading, but I am glad I pushed on.
  It had been the title that enticed me to buy the book…  because I know how imperfect I am, and yet I want to be a Christ disciple.  And the first part did not disappoint.  Wilson spent a few pages talking about generic Christians who aren’t perfect (all of them),  but he also confessed/shared some of his own very private struggles.  And he did it in a way that was encouraging and realistic.  I highly recommend the book to anyone who knows they need help living the Christian life.  I was reading today in a section where Wilson discusses the “fruits of the Spirit” according to Galatians.  This from “Be ye Good”:
…Because just as most every human in the world believes themselves to be loving enough, most every human in the world tends to believe they are good enough too.  And, in fact, it’s Bible verses calling us to be good that are taken out of context to distort the true and essential message of Christianity.
    If you were to go up to a stranger right now and ask them what the message of the Christian religion is, I would bet good money they’d tell you some variation of the command “Be good.”
    We reinforce this misunderstanding often enough.  When Christians complain about the sinfulness of unbelievers, when we parade our own good deeds in small and big ways, when we treat others as beneath us, we are communicating in very powerful ways that being good is the point of our faith.
    What does it even mean to “be good”?  How would one know if he or she is good?
    I mean, how good is good enough?  Can we consider ourselves good if we just do some good things?  Can we adopt the Boy Scout’s ethic of one good deed per day?  Or to be considered good do we need to do lots of good things?  What constitutes “a lot”?  If we do more good things than bad things?  How would we even begin to measure this?
    The mind boggles at the sheer uncertainty of it all.  It’s undoubtedly possible for every human being to do good things.  But how could anyone know for sure that he or she is a good person?
    Part of the good news is that being good is not the point of our faith.  Being good is not even possible apart from faith.
    The Reformers taught—rightly, I believe— the justification is the article of doctrine upon which the church will rise or fall.  But how can anyone be justified?
    How can anyone be justified when the Bible is clear that no one is good?  Not a single one of us does good (Rom 3:12).  And yet we rail against the worldliness of the world as if the world could in its own power become good, and we load up our worship services with practical applications, giving short shrift to the gospel, as if “being good” were the point of Christianity.
    I’ll tell you what’s good—the news that reminds us that being good isn’t the point.
 Jesus won’t even let us call Him good without dealing with the implications of it.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)
Now, Jesus isn’t saying that he isn’t good.  But he’s wanting this guy to connect the dots.  He wants him, first of all, to stop throwing the word good around like it applies to anything and everything, as if it’s something easily achieved by our gifts and talents or even our positions and platforms.  By saying that only God is good, Jesus is saying that no normal human being is good.  So if we (rightly) determine that Jesus is good, it should not simply be because he’s an incredible teacher or, as the world tends to see him, an inspirational guru or enlightened life coach.  If we call Jesus good it is only because we call him God.
    And if we are to be good, if we are to have the goodness Paul says comes from the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5), it can only be because we’ve been connected to the very goodness of Jesus by the Spirit.
    In ourselves none of us stands justified.  In Christ we are justified.  In the gospel his goodness becomes ours.
Two things struck me in this passage, that last sentence (which is so reassuring), and the earlier statement “And yet we rail against the worldliness of the world as if the world in its own power could become good.”   I’m still thinking of the implications of accepting that statement as true, and what that means to me in responding to or criticizing non-Christians.

Encouragement for Living a Good Old Age

I have started reading this book.  It IS encouraging and challenging, and very realistic.  Taking the author’s advice, I am reading one (very short) chapter a day and I’m finding it refreshing and hopeful, compared to our culture that urges us to deny our advancing age, and do everything possible to convince ourselves that it isn’t happening.

I don’t feel “old” (most of the time), but I am already 71, so it is a fact.  The good news is I still have work to do, a purpose, and unique opportunities in God’s plan.  God grant me the grace and strength to live to the best of my ability all the days of my life.  This book is a great roadmap for the upcoming days and years for all of us older Christians, and the earlier we read it and think about these things the better it is.

The book.

 

Time: A Redemptive Gift

From our church bulletin today:

For the Christian, time is not meant to be a tyrant, ruling over us.  Nor is the passing of time to be experienced as an enemy, somehow stealing our youth and opportunity.  Rather, time is meant to become a companion, a friend and a teacher, instructing us, offering us a series of invitations to allow the Lord to truly become our King by reigning in our daily lives.  Our conscious awareness of time makes it a path along which the redemptive loving plan of a timeless God is revealed and received.  In Christ, time is now given back to us as a gift.  It offers us a field of choice and a path to holiness and human flourishing.

-Deacon Keith Fournier (www.beliefnet.com).