Sermon illustration, free to a good home

We got stuck behind a gravel truck yesterday, and there was a sign on the back that I completely misread. It was a single word above an arrow pointing to the right (no idea exactly what it was indicating). At first glance, I thought the word was “FUTURE”; only when we got closer was I able to see that it actually said “SUICIDE.”

“There is a way that seemeth right unto a man….”


Worth remembering

There is a limit to the doctrine of the prayer of faith. We are not to expect that God will give us everything we choose to ask for. We know that we sometimes ask, and do not receive, because we ask amiss. If we ask for that which is not promised–if we run counter to the spirit which the Lord would have us cultivate–if we ask contrary to his will, or to the decrees of his providence–if we ask merely for the gratification of our own ease, and without an eye to his glory, we must not expect that we shall receive. Yet, when we ask in faith, nothing doubting, if we receive not the precise thing asked for, we shall receive an equivalent, and more than an equivalent, for it. … If he does not give you precisely what you ask for, he will give you that which is tantamount to it, and that which you will greatly rejoice to receive in lieu thereof. Be then, dear reader, much in prayer, and make this evening a season of earnest intercession, but take heed what you ask.

— C. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Evening devotion for May 19

The Rainbow Connection and the Inconsolable Secret

For some reason “The Rainbow Connection” popped into my head a few minutes ago, and I got to thinking about some of the questions it asks.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what’s on the other side?
What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing,
And what do we think we might see?

Now, of course there are standard Christian answers to some of these questions–“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1), and the rainbow is a sign of God’s promise, particularly the promise to Noah that He would never again flood the earth (Gen. 9:13). But that’s not really what the song is asking about. Instead, the real answer is something more like this:

“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—”
–G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

And that, as C. S. Lewis explains in “The Weight of Glory,” is indeed what we’re searching for in the rainbows and the stars:

The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

… At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

Yes, we do (or should) feel awe at God’s handiwork when we stargaze and gratitude for His promises when we see rainbows, especially unexpected ones. But what keeps drawing us back to such things, resisting those who would tell us that “Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, / And rainbows have nothing to hide,” is that sense that we are seeing only the back of the world, the wrong side of the door, the inconsolable secret that we were made for something beyond this world, that our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.

And thus I say, with apologies to Williams and Ascher:
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
We lovers of Jesus–you’ll see.

Non Nobis Domine

I’ve been surprised recently by some traffic coming to this post on catcalling from this article on lust and beauty by my friend Alan. It has “given me furiously to think,” as Poirot would say. I’d hesitated to post those thoughts because they’re neither particularly detailed nor particularly original (not that I’ve tried to track down sources). But after reading this post by my friend Amanda, I think they might be worth sharing anyway.

A good chunk of our problems with beauty–desiring it, chasing after it, not recognizing it in ourselves, whatever–is a serious misunderstanding of the purpose of human life. We’re not made to please ourselves. Others are not made to please us, nor are we ultimately made to please others.

We are made to please God.

Now, that’s not as onerous a purpose as it sounds. Pleasing God can mean taking delight in His creation, enjoying the fellowship of others, and receiving His gifts with gratitude and grace. It can mean giving as freely as we have received. And for some people, it can mean all the great things that come with marriage when it lives up to the allegory of the relationship between Christ and the church.

But recognizing that, in the immortal words of VeggieTales, “God made you special and He loves you very much” should shift our understanding of what we’re doing here. We shouldn’t be obsessing about our looks in the hope of feeing better about ourselves or of getting attention. We should be caring for our bodies because God gave them to us and expects us to be good stewards of His gifts. We shouldn’t view others’ beauty as something that is owed to us, and we definitely shouldn’t view ourselves as “God’s gift to men/women.” We’re meant to reflect God’s glory and His beauty to others and back to God Himself, regardless of what our outsides look like.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”)

“You have made us for Yourself,” prays Augustine in the Confessions, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” I don’t think any of us will completely get this right until that day, when at last we will be His finished handiwork and both as fully like Him and as fully ourselves as we can be. But all the same… “Not to us, o Lord, not to us, but to Your Name give glory” (Ps. 115:1).

On Friendship and the Value of Mere Christianity

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. — Augustine of Hippo (attrib.)

Three of my heart’s-sisters are Baptist. So are quite a lot of my other dearest friends and relatives (to say nothing of one of the two church families that nurtured me through high school, my beloved alma mater, and the college where I currently teach).

Another of my heart’s-sisters–one who’s been mistaken for my biological sister, in fact!–is Catholic. And I’ve had a goodly number of other godly Catholic friends and mentors over the years, some life-long, some converts from Protestant denominations of various stripes. As for favorite authors… Bede, Bernard, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Chesterton, Tolkien–need I go on? To say nothing of the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists….

None of these friendships have altered the basic principles behind my theological views or my (virtually non-existant) comfort level with liturgical worship. And that’s not because we never talk theology! We do, in just the way Amanda suggests in this post: respectfully. I understand, even when I don’t agree on the definitions of things or the relative importance placed on them.
More importantly, though, what I’ve found in such friendships is that what we have in common matters far more than what separates us denominationally. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis likens the concept of “mere Christianity” to a hallway from which the various denominations branch off like rooms; it’s important not to hang out in the hall indefinitely, but neither is it good to deny that the hall is there connecting us. He also notes that people whose beliefs are closest to the heart of the teachings of their respective denominations are, paradoxically, closer to each other in terms of faith and practice than they are to people on the fringes of their own denomination. And having known some really fringe wackos in my own church, I can vouch for the truth of that!

No, my Christian friends and I don’t always agree on the details, especially on the points where I’m most adamantly Pentecostal. We all have different gifts, and a lot of us have different callings. But we serve the same Lord, are saved by the same Name, read the same Bible by the light of the same Spirit, and as such are part of the same family of faith. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man or woman availeth much, no matter what name is on the church he or she attends. And every one of my friends–Catholic, Protestant, young, old, married, single, whatever–has made my life far richer than it could have been if I’d even considered letting denominational differences stand in the way of that friendship.
We’re brothers and sisters in Christ. That is what counts.

And besides, every family needs a weirdo to spice things up. :mrgreen:

A brief observation

Might have a longer post on prayer coming later (or not–not entirely sure I actually have anything original to say), but: have you ever noticed that “Sweet Hour of Prayer” makes for a pretty dandy waltz? There’s a sermon in there somewhere….

Of Flood and Drought

Pardon my rambling a wee bit–it does, as usual, arrive somewhere in the end.

Regen, Regen,
Alle pflegen
Sich, darüber
Regen, lass mich
Bin ich dafür
Oder bin ich dagegen?
–Die Prinzen

Rough translation: “Rain, rain, everybody feels the need to get all excited about it. Rain, let me consider, am I for it or against it?”

My sweet friend Bethany has written a beautiful post on the question of rain and its dual nature, blessing to the parched and curse to the flooded. It’s a duality I’ve been struggling with myself in recent months, having rediscovered the Jars of Clay song “Flood” in a season where I’ve felt my theme song to be America’s “A Horse with No Name” (except that I’m still not quite sure I’ve hit the point of “It felt good to be out of the rain” yet). And it’s found a new twist in the last week as I’ve watched the lake levels rise while friends claim to be losing sleep over the loss of life downstream.

There is no silver lining! those friends have screamed. Who cares if the lakes are recovering and the fields are green when people are dead?
But wait, I thought suddenly. Look how much water the lakes have caught. How much worse would things have been had the lakes not been low enough to absorb the flood?

There’s a Romans 8:28 in there, but the parable could have several applications, I think. Maybe the fuzziness is due in part to my filtering the idea not only through my own experience but also through that of Jared Padalecki, whose #AlwaysKeepFighting campaign against depression took on new urgency when he worked himself into deep exhaustion that worsened his own struggles, and Carman, who announced earlier this week that his pushing himself too hard too soon after going into remission from cancer was threatening the health of his heart. Thanks be to God, both of these brothers had wise advisors (friends, family, and co-stars in Jared’s case, good doctors in Carman’s) from whom they sought help and whose advice to rest and heal they heeded (Jared by canceling con appearances, Carman by canceling his latest Kickstarter-funded album project); and they also had supportive fan bases encouraging them to take care of themselves.
But of course, we don’t have to be celebrities to have a fan base–Hebrews 12:1 tells us of the “great cloud of witnesses” that’s cheering each of us on, no matter how obscure we are in the eyes of the world. And especially when we’re in times of drought, however literal or metaphorical, it’s important to remember the promise of Psalm 127:2b: “He giveth His beloved sleep.” After all, when Elijah was suicidal in 1 Kings 19, the first thing God did, even before giving him a message of hope, was to make him do nothing but sleep and eat for two days.

I keep thinking back to a message God urgently wanted me to hear at the beginning of this journey, from Priscilla Shirer’s excellent study Discerning the Voice of God, drawn from the story of Moses: “When you’re in the desert season, God is preparing you for the next big thing.”* The seasons of our life aren’t just measures of the passage of time; they also season us, as one seasons wood or metal to strengthen it for a given purpose. And I keep thinking that the droughts of our life, the ones that drain our reservoirs so dangerously, also hollow out a space in our life to contain an oncoming flood. Maybe it’s a flood of blessing, the “pressed down, shaken together, and running over” kind that could have been the ruin of us if God hadn’t made room for it. Maybe it’s a flood of hardship of a kind that only someone who has been through the desert on a horse with no name can weather. Or maybe it’s a matter of God putting us in the gap to absorb a flood, of blessing or of curse, that someone “downriver” from us needs to be spared lest that person be utterly destroyed.

Note that I’m not trying to say the drought of 2011 and the dry years since are unequivocally good times because the land and the lakes have been able to absorb so much of the water dropped by the recent storms. The suffering in this part of the state during this drought has been terrible. Nor do the drought seasons of our lives necessarily cease to be hard or necessarily kill off only sins and other parts of our lives that needed killing off. Romans 8:28 doesn’t mean that the bad things that happen are actually good or that we deserved them in some way. Tolkien captures the tension well in this exchange, between Manwë, the archangel ruling Arda as God’s regent, and Námo Mandos, the archangel of judgment in whose house the souls of Elves rest within Arda, from Chapter 11 of The Silmarillion (emphasis mine):

It is told that after the flight of Melkor [= Lucifer] the Valar sat long unmoved upon their thrones in the Ring of Doom; but they were not idle, as Fëanor declared in the folly of his heart. For the Valar may work many things with thought rather than with hands, and without voices in silence they may hold council one with another. Thus they held vigil in the night of Valinor, and their thought passed back beyond Eä and forth to the End; yet neither power nor wisdom assuaged their grief, and the knowing of evil in the hour of its being. And they mourned not more for the death of the Trees than for the marring of Fëanor: of the works of Melkor one of the most evil. For Fëanor was made the mightiest in all parts of body and mind, in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and in subtlety alike, of all the Children of Ilúvatar [aka Eru = God], and a bright flame was in him. The works of wonder for the glory of Arda that he might otherwise have wrought only Manwë might in some measure conceive. And it was told by the Vanyar who held vigil with the Valar that when the messengers declared to Manwë the answers of Fëanor to his heralds, Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’

But Mandos said: ‘And yet remain evil. To me shall Fëanor come soon.’

It is, rather, a matter of God making all things beautiful in His time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I know in my own life, I’ve sensed God closing doors and changing interests in ways that make me suspect something big is coming from somewhere away upstream… I just pray I’m ready for whatever it is when it hits.

* Funny thing is, when I rewatched that lesson just now, I didn’t hear that exact quote again, even though I remembered her saying it several times. Hmmmmmm….