Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Limits of Pain-free Doctrine

"Some of us have absorbed a form of theology with all the answers.  We can offer standard answers to every problem that comes along, especially if the problem is afflicting some other person.  Our certainty and dogmatism give us such assurance, our systematic theology is so well articulated, that we leave precious little scope for mystery, awe, unknowns.  Then, when we ourselves face devastating catastrophe, and we find that the certainties we have propounded with such confidence offer us little relief, our despair is the bleaker: we begin to question the most basic elements of our faith.  Had we recognized that in addition to great certainties there are great gaps in our comprehension, perhaps we would have been less torn up to find that the mere certainties proved inadequate in our own hour of need.

It becomes important, then, to decide just where the mysteries and the certainties are. Christianity that is nothing but certainties quickly becomes haughty and arrogant, rigid and unbending. Worse, it leaves the Christian open to the most excruciating doubt when the vicissitudes of life finally knock out the supporting pillars. The God of such Christianity is just not big enough to be trusted when you are up to your neck in the muck of pain and defeat. Conversely, Christianity that is nothing but mystery leaves nothing to proclaim, and makes faith indistinguishable from blind credulity...." - D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?

It is through pain, and even confusion, that our beliefs are tried.

This brings to mind one of my recent posts, which I am thankful to have contemplated when I did, just before my recent loss. Death, and subsequent grief, are not the straightforward things I'd imagined. I was nowhere near as prepared as I might have liked to think for the death of my mother, even in spite of her long decline. My "mere certainties proved inadequate in [my] own hour of need". I have ample reason to believe that my mother is with the Lord, but somehow, even in spite of that, I found myself on a spiritual level staring in the face the reality of death for everyone who dies, not just my own mother. Every where and every day some deeply beloved person is dying, and someone is aching and weeping at their side. If my doctrine is true, not all of these people end up spending their eternity in heaven. For some reason witnessing the passing of my own mother brought all this home to me, breaking my heart at the thought of hell, and left me re-asking all the questions I once had pat answers for. I've had to come to grips with a God who sends real people, deeply loved people, to hell. If I cannot, I cannot claim to believe or trust the God of the Bible. And, yet, I do believe in that God. As I've agonized, and struggled with that doctrine too horrible for words, I've found that I keep returning to the truth of Scripture. No matter which way I turn I find the only satisfactory comfort in this life happens to be found between the covers of the very same Book which teaches of the worst horrors. I find my dread there, and my hope as well. I find shelter in the arms of the very One I fear. What it comes down to, I suppose, is not that my doctrine was false, but that I was far too glib. The memory of my loose discussions of death and hell make me cringe. Jesus wept when confronted with the death of his dear friend. Even though He was about to raise him, the tragedy of death, even the death of a believing one, broke His heart. It was with a broken heart that Christ raised Lazarus. Hard truth spoken apart from broken-hearted pain is a cold and heartless thing. May the Lord forgive me the times I've done it, and grant that I never again spout cold doctrine from an un-broken heart.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Hymn of Godly Comfort for Those Hurting and Confused

Be Still My Soul

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In ev'ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav'nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know his love, his heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From his own fullness all he takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast'ning on
When we shall be for ever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Messiah Promised....Isaiah 53

The Purpose of that Baby in the Manger

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see
and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Our loss...

This is my mother Geraldine, looking lovely for my wedding almost three years ago.  She did not use a wheelchair normally, fighting to continue living independently to the last.  But she was frail even then and could not have managed such a big day without it.  She passed away yesterday at the age of 87 from kidney failure.  It was a long infirmity.  Her last seven or so years were lived, amazingly, with only 25% kidney function.  Yesterday, after five days in the hospital, her kidneys finally failed completely. She went to be with her Lord just before six o'clock in the evening with her family at her bedside.

In spite of her obvious weakness and recent decline, in spite of her many close calls, in spite of her age and all her preparations, I still find myself entirely unprepared to lose her, or to live without her. Nothing she said, nothing I thought, prepared me for this.  And then, there is so much to do. I knew there would be, but it is still a shock.

And yet I know the Lord is faithful.  His loving-kindness endures forever.  He will see us through.  My life is changed forever.  I'm only beginning to know in what ways.  I will be taking a break from my blog for a time, until I've wrapped up her affairs and until the Lord gives me a voice again.  Thanks to all of you for your loving support, prayers, and understanding during this time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Charity and Its Fruits - a brief holiday hiatus

I apologize for the late timing of this announcement, but the decision was only arrived at yesterday morning, and I've been caught up in a flurry of activity since.  Yesterday morning found the hostess of our meeting sick in bed and my own mother in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.  Another of our Chico group has, within the last week, given birth to a first-born son. Under the circumstances and with Christmas just around the corner, I've decided to put our study on hold until the first Monday of the New Year.  Lord willing things will have settled a bit so that we can once again focus on our reading.  My apologies for those following along on-line, but I must consider the ladies in my own fellowship of first priority in these decisions.  Accept my thanks in advance for your patience.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Science Saturday

You can fool a crow once, after that...nevermore

"Here's a surprise: Wild crows can recognize individual people. They can pick a person out of a crowd, follow them, and remember them — apparently for years. But people — even people who love crows — usually can't tell them apart. So what we have for you are two experiments that tell this story."
 Listen to the interview, read the story, and watch the accompanying video here.


News in Germs

"A new Northwestern University study suggests that American parents should ease up on antibacterial soap and perhaps allow their little ones a romp or two in the mud --- or at least a much better acquaintance with everyday germs."
You can read the rest of the story here.

ht goes to: Sandy 


Admittedly late for Thanksgiving, but certainly in time for Christmas...
another bird story

Reading the Classics with Paul - Of Mice and Men, conclusions

As I announced last week, my dear and gifted husband is hosting a reading group on his blog  of the "10 Essential Penguin Classics"   Dutiful wife that I am, I'm doing my best to read along. This is the second and final installment of our first reading together, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck.  You may read my thoughts on the first installment here.

There are two events which occur early in the story, which set the tone for and inform the events that follow - or perhaps there are three: The dead mouse in Lennie's hand in the opening scene, the putting down of Candy's loyal and beloved dog by the self-serving and uncaring Carlson, and, though this may just be an extension of hints from the dead mouse, there's Curly's crushed hand.  There's been some discussion within our group of the use of foreshadowing, that it can be abused; but the consensus among us seems to be that Steinbeck used it well. I would say, when used rightly, or in this case brilliantly, it brings a realness as uncanny as life.  I can't tell you how many times I've looked back, it's usually back, at my own life only to see clearly the shadows which forewarned of each tragic event, though I did not, or would not, see them at the time.  I've looked on the lives of others I know, those close to me, those not close at all, and seen shadows looming of which they appear oblivious.  Few of life's human tragedies, at least in my experience, appear without notice from the ether.

George, I think, sensed this.  The others lived in a place of permanent gloom and groped about for small comforts, or patches of light, bits of warmth - brothels, pulp-fiction, puppies, horseshoes.  George, on the other hand traveled, seeing the looming cloud following him, hoping it could be outrun, or outsmarted.  It hadn't cloaked him as it had the others and become usual.  He had his dreams, and they were his ray of sunshine. And as unlikely as it would seem, as he was clearly no hero, no great man, George's humble dream, his little light, illuminated for a time a small circle of hope to others along his path. For Lennie in particular, that hope was the only light he knew.  One might wonder what made him to differ from the rest - why he dreamed of something beyond the next bottle or the nearest whorehouse.  What set him apart was Lenny.  Lenny was the cloud, but Lenny was also the reason for his hope.  Though Lenny was doom personified, because he was without malice, and powerless to be anything other than what he was, George had compassion for him. In the end it became clear what I sometimes doubted - George loved Lenny.  It was not a perfect love, but it was a committed love, and it was the best love George had to give.  It was this love that kept him dreaming, this love that kept him striving and thinking beyond the next meal and the weekend. Love set him thinking beyond his own animal instincts.  Love set him apart from every other character in the story.

Candy loved his old dog; but in the end his cowardice proved stronger. First, he would not stand up to the one who, for the sake of convenience, wanted the dog dead.  Finally, he allowed the dog to die at the hand of the one who hated it. He failed a test, and in the end found himself less a man than he was before.  Candy's remorse left a mark on George's soul: "You seen what they done to my dog tonight?  They says he wasn't no good to himself nor nobody else.  When they can me here I wisht somebody'd shoot me, But they won't do nothing like that, I won't have no place to go, an' I can't get no more jobs....I ought to have shot that dog myself, George.  I shouldn't ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog."  No doubt these words informed George's final actions.

When Carlson's gun went missing, I didn't guess the end.  Perhaps Lenny took it for self-defense, or maybe George took it, remembering the dog and wanting to protect Lenny from the heartless Carlson. But, with the echoes of the single shot which brought an end to Candy's dog still ringing, and the words of Candy still fresh in my ears, "I shouldn't ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog," The end, when it came, seemed right.  Not good - right. When Paul told me the fate of the real "Lenny" of Steinbeck's experience, I was able to sense our author's desire to right the wrong.  The real "Lenny" broke the neck of another man,  and was institutionalized - in a day when such a fate meant an existence about as close to hell as this earth can manage. Steinbeck sought the best end his realism would permit, a more merciful tragedy.

As always, Steinbeck's hope is in man and, though he would doubtless never have put it this way, in the last vestiges of the image of God stamped upon him.  And this, I think, is what makes him one of the great writers. He sees things as they are.  He sees the limits of man, the darkness of man, the hopelessness of man.  He sees the glimpses of beauty, the love and longing, the hope and desire. He doesn't pretend or offer false hope.  His fiction is honest, stories that are not lies or pipe-dreams.  Knowing nothing really of Steinbeck but what I glean from his fiction, I would say he was a humanist, possibly a deist, maybe a socialist, definitely a realist - and that's all. That he was not a Christian man is clear, and, in a sense this makes his work especially valuable to those who are.  It is easy for Christians in our day to enter the enclaves of their own sub-culture, and buffer themselves with layer upon layer of separation from the harsh realities of life - and from unbelievers.  We can separate ourselves from the deep cries of pain of the world of hopeless humanity. We can become reliant upon platitudes, cliches, pat answers to the point that we are no longer even honest about our own pain, our own darkness, our own ugliness. We hide the light we've been given under a bushel and in doing so not only darken the world around us, but extinguish the light in ourselves.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Charity, a Most Excellent Way - Part Two

(This week we continue our reading together of the Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. We have just concluded the reading of the "Application" portion of Lecture Two. We will continue with the "Doctrine" portion of Lecture Two in next week's reading. This is the pattern we will be using for the entirety of the reading. The notes below will follow Edwards' own outline directly, with all direct quotes from the text in italics. My goal is to make each post edifying on its own, even for those who are not reading along with us. I will welcome your questions or comments in the form below.) 

Our study group in Chico is undergoing some growing pains.  One of our participants just gave birth to her first child this weekend!  Amid the flurry such an event inevitably causes among a small group of women, our study for this week was again postponed. Rather than keep our on-line participants on hold for a second consecutive week, however, I've decided to post this week's notes anyway. This may lead to another intermezzo next week, or perhaps not.  We shall see. For now, let's move on to the application portion of Lecture Two.

In the improvement* of the subject, I remark:
*When Puritans use the expression “improve on” they mean to apply the doctrine to our practice. So this is Edwards' way of introducing the application portion of his lecture. 

1.  If saving grace is a greater blessing than the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, we may doubtless hence argue, that it is the greatest privilege and blessing that ever God bestows on any person in this world.” 
"...the saving grace of God in the heart, working a holy and divine temper in the soul, is the greatest blessing that ever men receive in this world: greater than any natural gifts, greater than the greatest natural abilities, greater than any acquired endowments of mind, greater than the most universal learning, greater than any outward wealth and honour, greater than to be a king or an emperor, greater than to be taken from the sheepcote, as David was, and made king over all Israel; and all the riches and honour and magnificence of Solomon, in all his glory, are not to be compared with it."

"Great was the privilege that God bestowed on the blessed virgin Mary, in granting that of her should be born the Son of God....yet even that was not so great a privilege as to have the grace of God in the heart; to have Christ, as it were, born in the soul, as he himself dot expressly teach us..."

"As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, 'Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!' But he said, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'" (Luke 11:27-28)
"While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers!' For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'" (Mt.12:46-50)

2. Hence these two kinds of privileges are not to be confounded, by taking things that have some appearance of an extraordinary miraculous gift of the Spirit, for sure signs of grace.

In other words, don't confuse charismatic gifts as trustworthy signs that you or anyone else is a true Christian. (Never forget the sober warning of Matthew 7:21).  As we discussed in last week's reading, Edwards was a cessationist and as such did not believe such "extraordinary gifts" as prophecy, tongues, working of miracles and the like continued in operation beyond the apostolic era. Nor did I find in my own reading any reports of encounters with such phenomena during the "awakenings" or revivals over which he presided. He did however come across folk who claimed any number of other extraordinary experiences. He had also, by the time these lectures were delivered, seen many of those who had professed faith during revival, and boasted such experiences fall away, or if they remained, exhibiting little or no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. It is his concern in this section to ensure that these people not interpret their charismatic experiences as sure signs that they were truly converted.

 As far as the gift of prophecy is concerned, he makes his position quite clear: "...even if it were real, I say - for indeed we have no reason to look on such things, when pretended to in these days, as any other than delusion." He then goes on to list several of the phenomena being reported among his congregation, particularly at the time of the recent revival in their valley, things like: passages of Scripture suddenly coming to mind, visions, and hearing voices. He first explains that a Scripture which comes to mind suddenly is no more meaningful than a Scripture read in its due course, and then dismisses the value of them all by saying: "...for if they are real and from God, they are...no sure signs of grace."
"All the fruits of the Spirit, which we are to lay weight upon as evidential of grace, are summed up in charity, or Christian love; because this is the sum of all grace. And the only way, therefore, in which any can know their good estate, is by discerning the exercises of this divine charity in their hearts; for without charity, let men have what gifts you please, they are nothing."

3. If saving grace is more excellent than the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, then we cannot conclude, from what the Scripture says of the glory of the latter times of the Church, that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit will be granted in those times.

At this point it is helpful to keep Edwards post-millennial eschatological view in mind. I will quote from Mardsen's biography:
“The basic outline of his interpretation was like that most commonly held among his peers. He did not expect to see the full-blown millennium at any moment soon, but rather he saw the revivals as the beginning of a momentous era of both triumph and strife that would culminate in the millennial peace. The last days would be ushered in by a great series of revivals and the ingathering of the gentiles and extraordinary anticipations of millennial spirituality. Yet these latter days would be days of unprecedented conflict as well.”
This definition of post-millennialism from Baker's Dictionary of Theology is also helpful:
“There are many evangelical believers who hold these post-millennial views and think of the millennium as a period in the later days of the church when, under the special power of the Holy Spirit, the work of God shall be greatly revived and believers shall become so aware of their spiritual strength that to a degree unknown before they shall triumph over the powers of evil. This 'golden age' of the church, it is held, will be followed by a brief apostasy – a terrible conflict between the forces of good and evil – and this in turn will be eclipsed by the simultaneous occurrence of the advent of Christ, the general resurrection and the final judgment.”

These are the “latter times” Edwards is likely referring to when he says: "Many have been ready to think, that in those glorious times of the Church which shall be after the calling of the Jews and the destruction of Antichrist, there will be many persons that will be inspired, and endued with a power of working miracles. But what Scripture says concerning the glory of those times does not prove any such thing, or make it probable."
On the contrary, he asserts, 
"Those times may be far the most glorious times of the Church that ever have been without them....if the Spirit be poured out in greater measure in his sanctifying influences; for this, as the apostle expressly asserts, is a more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31). This glory is the greatest glory of the Church of Christ, and the greatest glory which Christ's Church will ever enjoy in any period. This is what will make the Church more like the Church in heaven, where charity or love hath a perfect reign, than any number or degree of extraordinary gifts of the Spirit could do."

4. What cause have they to bless God, and to live to his glory,who have received such a privilege as is implied in the influence of the Holy Spirit working saving grace in the heart.”
There are no other privileges known to man as great as to have the saving grace of God at work in one's heart - "They are as nothing compared with the privilege of being like Christ, and having his love in the heart."
Our astonishment at this great privilege should result in a great desire and sense of obligation to glorify God in our lives:
"Consider, you that hope in God's mercy, how highly he hath advanced and exalted you; and will you not be diligent to live for him? Will you dishonour Christ so as to regard him but little, not giving him your whole heart, but going after the world, neglecting him, and his service, and his glory? Will you not be watchful against yourselves, against a corrupt worldly, proud disposition, that might lead you away from God who has been so kind to you, and from the Saviour who has purchased blessings for you, at the cost of his own agonies and death?...What could God have done more for you than he has done? What privilege could he have bestowed, better in itself, or more worthy to engage your heart in thankfulness?...
"Oh, how should such as you, shew your sense of you high privileges, by the exercises of love!  love that is manifest toward God in obedience, submission, reverence, cheerfulness, joy, and hope; and toward your neighbour, in meekness, sympathy, humility, charitableness, and doing good to all as you have opportunity."
5. The subject exhorts all unrenewed persons, those who are strangers to this grace, to seek this most excellent blessing for themselves.
"Consider how miserable you now are while wholly destitute of this love, far from righteousness, in love with the vanities of the world, and full of enmity against God. How will you endure when he shall deal with you according to what you are, coming forth in anger as your enemy, and executing his fierce wrath against you."

If you are left at the end of this discussion worried, doubtful, wondering if you truly are a recipient of God's grace or not, there is great hope for you. Christ offers His grace freely and is seeking to bestow it on you! Run to him.  Believe the words of Jesus: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out." (John 6:37)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Science Saturday - on paper

As you may have noticed, I get all atwitter when art and science intersect - and this is one of those Saturdays!

Now, whatever you do, don't skip over this link.  You will see some paper art you just won't believe.


Let's see.....How about paper money? What are the chances those bills you're shopping with are drug money?  The numbers might surprise you.


And now, to top it all off, how about a trip to an industrial paper mill?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Reading the Classics with Paul - Of Mice and Men

Well, this is a definite deviation from the usual bent of my blog, but perhaps you won't mind.  My wonderfully ambitious husband is hosting a reading group on his blog  of the "10 Essential Penguin Classics" (Penguin, as in the publisher, not the cute tuxedoed bird, or the Batman villain). Being, as always, the dutiful wife I'll be doing my best to read along.  I'm trying to keep an open mind, but I may still have to draw the line at the Greek dramas which I've hated since, well, since they foisted them on me in my freshman year of high school. We shall see.

The first we are reading in this series is Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck.  I should start by saying, his book East of Eden has long been among my top five favorite works of fiction. I first read it in high school, wrote a paper on it in college, and have read it at least twice since.  I've read Of Mice and Men before, at least once, but not within the last decade.  I've also read Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck was an amazing writer, with an impressive and highly accessible body of work. Like Dickens and Jane Austen (the first that pop to mind), he is very much a writer of his own time and place.  As such his works have a firm cohesiveness, and real consistency.  His stories and characters are not only believable - it's harder to imagine they are not real, and that Steinbeck was not truly a witness to them all.  Beyond that, you could easily imagine any of the characters from one tale being friends to, or relations of, those of each of the others.  Grapes of Wrath could have told the traveling tale of any of these ranch hands. Adam Trask's spread from East of Eden could easily have been the setting for Of Mice and Men. Were it not for the fact that I know he had no son named Curly, I'd be tempted to run with such a theory.

When I read Steinbeck I feel like I'm entering a familiar world - not a pleasant one, mind you - but a familiar one. Being a native Californian and long-time resident of the northern end of the state, his landscapes are mine.  I know those creeks and sycamores.  I know those grass covered hills and valleys checkered with crops.  But it's more than that.  Steinbeck doesn't just know the land.  He knows the people in it.  He renders their hearts as simply and vividly as he does the landscapes.  I know it's true of the land, because I live there; and it's because I know the landscape of my heart that his characters have the ring of authenticity as well.  Like another well-beloved writer, C.S. Lewis, who I also happen to be reading at the moment, the greatest strength of his fiction is his honesty in observation and depth of understanding of human nature.  This is why I say that although his world is familiar, it is not pleasant.

In Steinbeck's world, darkness and light are in constant and steady competition, the dark always a nose in the lead .  His world is like the heart of a man ever walking at dusk along the edge of a chasm, leaning toward some faint light, always on the brink of some conversion. His dark nature steadily pulls him, as inexorable a force as gravity, leaving his arms just too weak to keep a lasting hold on anything good. His world is the real world of real men.  In his world there is hope in despair and there is beauty in the midst of darkness.  In his world hope lies wherever hearts are still capable of treasuring beauty.   

So, through the bushes and into this world burst Lennie and George.  Lennie, is a giant of a man with the mind of a small child: simple and single-minded in his hopes and delights, and nearly entirely selfish. Like every child, he is a darling, and a monster. Mostly he loves things that are soft. He means no harm.  Really, were it not for his size and his very human capacity for rage, he would be entirely harmless.  The dead mouse in his hand, sets the tone for the whole story - a hanging on to a thread of hope in the face of what cannot really end in any way but tragedy.

Reading Steinbeck is like watching a movie. He sets a scene; he introduces characters; he incrementally, just as if we were there, lets us learn what these people are all about.  He gives sub-plots which are prophetic, foreshadowing the final outcome and yet in such a way that the climax is no less a shock. This is so much like life.  How our little lives are a microcosm of a whole world of humanity.  In this, Steinbeck is a genius.

George, well, it's not so clear what to think of George.  Is he a good guy?  Is he a jerk?  As I read on I find that, like all of us (if we're honest about it) he's both. Is he taking advantage of Lenny? Possibly.  Does he love Lenny? Well....he just might.  Why are they on the run? Is it all really Lenny's fault, or does George just trick him into thinking it?  Why on earth are they together?  And then there's this dream.  Poor Lenny wants to hear it over and over like a child's fairy tale. They'll lay low, stay out of trouble, work hard and buy their own place.  Then no one can tell them what to do.  Then Lenny can have rabbits, nice soft rabbits, lots of them.  With that dead mouse in mind, I shudder at the thought of the rabbits.  We know there's no way Lenny can be trusted with rabbits. Why would George tell him this? He had to know it could never be - unless he figured they'd breed faster than Lenny could pet them to death. But, Lenny's whole future and all his dreams are so pathetically wrapped up in this fiction that I wish it could be true for them, and yet, for the sake of the rabbits, hope it's just a dream.

It is intimated early on that George and Lenny are running from some trouble up in Weed involving a Lenny and a little girl.  All we need is the image of the dead mouse to get an idea what kind of trouble that might have been.  They've been lying low for a while, and now headed to a new place of employment, a new world of people to whom we are introduced one by one, most of them roustabouts much like themselves.  One man, Candy, has been there a very long time, along with his aged dog who had lived with him even longer. Candy's devotion to his faithful, blind, and crippled pet was a beautiful and tender thing, but it was not allowed to last. The demise of the dog cast a dark shadow over our characters' new situation, warning us of the coldness in that place toward the useless affections of the heart. The introduction of Curly, the boss's son, the only one in the story with the power of wealth and authority, and the only one who is a pure antagonist, introduces live danger.  He doesn't like big men.  He's got his eyes on Lennie.  Surely nothing good can come from this.  And as if there were not enough evil tidings, in strolls Candy's wife....

Well, I'll leave my thoughts here.  This is a short book.  We read one half this week and will conclude the rest next week.  I'll add my closing thoughts then.  If you've read this far, I thank you for putting up with my ramblings, and I hope you'll be convinced to do some reading of Steinbeck for yourself.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Through Gates of Splendor - Sinners and Buffoons, an Epilogue

It's been a couple of weeks since I reached the end of Through Gates of Splendor, by Elisabeth Elliot. I was tremendously moved by the story, but perhaps even more so by the second Epilogue, written in honor of the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of Elisabeth's husband, Jim. Four decades later her reflections are helpful, her wisdom profound. Until reading this book the version of these events which I carried about in my head were along these lines: Jim and his fellow missionaries went to Ecuador with a passion for a certain tribe. They went; they landed; they were massacred; their widows bravely ventured back toward the murderous tribe and when the killers saw the forgiveness of these women they repented and turned to Christ. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" is a maxim proven yet again. I liked that version. It was clean and it made a certain sense. But the actual events were not so neat and tidy, not in the events leading up to the massacre, not in the aftermath.

In the span of forty years Elisabeth had seen the tale oversimplified, even mythologized,  with lessons being taken from it which perhaps ought not be, and other lessons missed entirely. It appears to be her concern in this later Epilogue to bring some realism to our dreamy romanticizing of the lives (and deaths) of her husband and his fellow mission workers, herself and the rest of the widows, and others like them who's stories we love to tell and re-tell. As we look at these lives, she would have us see them as they really were, deeply flawed, sinful human beings, serving an almighty, perfect, and sovereign God:

"There is always the urge to oversimplify, to weigh in at once with interpretations that cannot possibly cover all the data or stand up to close inspection.  We know, for example, that time and time again in the history of the Christian church, the blood of martyrs has been its seed. So we are tempted to assume a simple equation here.; Five men died. This will mean x-number of Waorani Christians.

Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Cause and effect are in God's hands. Is it not the part of faith simply to let them rest there? God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice....

For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996.... I believe with all my heart that God's Story has a happy ending....But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive....

The massacre was a hard fact.... It was interpreted according to the measure of one's faith or faithlessness - full of meaning or empty. A triumph or a tragedy. An example of brave obedience or a case of fathomless foolishness. The beginning of a great work, and demonstration of the power of God, a sorrowful first act that would lead to a beautifully predictable third act in which all puzzles would be solved, God would vindicate Himself, Waoranis would be converted, and we could all 'feel good' about our faith...But the danger lies in seizing upon the immediate and hoped-for, as though God's justice is thereby verified, and glossing over as neatly as possible certain other consequences, some of them inevitable, others simply the result of a botched job. In short, in the Waorini story as in other stories, we are consoled as long as we do not examine too closely the unpalatable data. By this evasion we are willing still to call the work 'ours,' to arrogate to ourselves whatever there is of success, and to deny all failure.

A healthier faith seeks a reference point outside all human experience, the Polestar which marks the course of all human events, not forgetting that impenetrable mystery of the interplay of God's will and man's....

I think back to the five men themselves, remembering Pete's agony of indecision as to whether he should join the others in the venture; Ed's eagerness to go even though Marilou was eight months pregnant, his strong assurance that all would be well; Roj's depression and deep sense of failure as a missionary; Nate's extreme caution and determination; Jim's nearly reckless exuberance.

I think of the tensions that developed after the men died among those who had to try to 'pick up the pieces' of the work they had left behind. There was misunderstanding between some of the mission boards as to what part each was to play in continuing efforts to reach the Waoranis.

I think of how, when Rachel and I finally arrived in the Waorani's jungle clearing, we found that what she and Dayuma had been using as the Waorini language was not readily understood. Dayuma had forgotten a large part of it, and had unwittingly jumbled up Waorani, Quichua, a smattering of Spanish, and a little English intonation for good measure.  Then gradually I saw, to my dismay, that Rachel's approach to linguistic work, her interpretation of what the Indians did and said, and the resulting reports she sent out were often radically different from my own.

I think of the Indians themselves - what bewilderment, what inconvenience, what disorientation, what uprooting, what actual disease (polio, for example) they suffered because we missionaries got to them at last! The skeptic points with glee to such woeful facts and we dodge them nimbly, fearing any assessment of the work that may cast suspicion at least on the level of our spirituality if not the validity of our faith.

But we are sinners. And we are buffoons....It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God's and the call is God's and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package - our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses. The God who could take a murderer like Moses and an adulterer like David and a traitor like Peter and make them strong servants of His is a God who can also redeem savage Indians, using as the instruments of His peace a conglomeration of sinners who sometimes look like heroes and sometimes like villains, for 'we are no better than pots of earthenware to contain the treasure [the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ], and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God's alone.'" (2 Cor. 4:7 NEB)
[Emphasis in bold is mine.]

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

...here at Casa Mathers.

Here's our little "count the days to Christmas thingy", which always tugs a bit at my heart.  Each time I move an ornament from the sky to the tree, I miss the little hands and voices of children begging for it to be their turn to do it.

Here's the MagnifiCat, Mango, sitting in front of the stockings all hung on the bookcase with care. (This is the Paul Mathers family we're talking about here!)

Here are the curtains I just hung in the room that, Lord willing, will be transformed into a dining room by next holiday season, so we can host feasts again. Oh, and you can catch a little peek, over there to the right, of the offensive wallpaper you may have heard us decrying these past three years. (To the left you can see I've finally begun peeling it away.)

And, finally, here's our tree. The fabric draped behind it is to cover, you guessed it, the hallucinogen inspired southwestern wallpaper.