Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday Meanderings

Sad Stories from Life in the Absence of Grace

Middle Eastern women who, for whatever reason, have lost their virginity prior to marriage face danger and difficult choices.


Tea Time?

Here's some food for thought: What if the Tea Party Movement was black?


 An Unexpected Tear-jerker

Yes, the anthropomorphism of a plastic grocery bag can break even this jaded heart. Have a go...


A link found between depression and chocolate consumption

Now that you're all teary-eyed, read this before heading for the chocolate comfort. Did I really need a study to tell me this? Let's hope the next study will prove causality....

When the "buts" rule.

I really wish sometimes that I could just pull a William Lobdell and turn my back on the whole thing...but I can't. I can't not be a Christian. I can't not hope in the Gospel. But sometimes it feels like that's the only thing Christian about me.

If the Gospel is true, then my hoping in it should be enough. But from the church at large I often get the strong sense that it's not. Though I don't live a lifestyle which would invoke church discipline - not even close - I often feel that I'm not Christian enough for those around me. Oh how I long to be able to say, "We are saved by grace alone, not by works" without the person I'm speaking to immediately saying, "Well, yes, but...."

I know the "but". I don't deny that Christ changes His people. Of course He changes people. He's changed me, but apparently not into what others seem to expect or want.

It's an odd thing, how that little "but" changes the whole emphasis, shifts the whole focus. In fact, the statement following a "but" often reveals what is really of main importance to the objector. I remember in my early days as a "Calvinist", when I still attended what most Reformed folks would consider an "Arminian" church, there were many times when I would find myself in a friendly group discussion about God's saving work in someone's life, when someone would pipe in, "But they have to choose!" Sometimes the statement was so ridiculously apropos of nothing that conversation would screech to a halt, everyone wondering what on earth brought on the outburst. But even when the statement was more appropriate to the context there was still this sense that someone had spoken something so obvious and so fundamental as to detract from the whole point, as if one showed up at the Kentucky Derby and exclaimed, "Look, horses!" Well...yes...there are horses at the Derby. And just as horses are intrinsic to horse racing, the choice to follow Christ is a natural part, a necessary product of being a new creature in Christ. I'm not denying that a choice will be made (in fact a lifetime of choices will be made), it's just that the choice is not the point. The work of God in us to will and to do according to His good purpose is the point. Our choice is the product of that. But, the person with that mindset has revealed something about his perspective. For that person, their choice is the big thing. Their choice to follow Christ is the focus, and to them the continued choosing to follow Him is the heart of the Christian life.

In Reformed circles, on the other hand, I see a different "but" at work. When I say a person is saved by faith alone, in Christ alone apart from the works of the law; when I say the law is obsolete or that Christians are not under the law, I nearly invariably find myself amended with, "But there has to be a change of life" or "but Christ makes us able to do the law". (I will refrain from dickering over what might be implied by that last statement and simply take it to be another way of saying the first.) To this I would respond, as with the first "but", "well...yes...of course." A changed life is a necessary by-product of God's working in us to will and to do according to His good purpose. But our change is not the point. My point is the method our salvation, not the outcome. And as with the other "but", the strong drive to interject reveals something of an emphasis. This "but", like the other, shifts the emphasis back onto man's works. Grace, rather than being admired for it's own beauty, is quickly swept aside, as if it were too risky to look at, too dangerous to be reveled in. It amazes me how threatened we feel by grace, how quick we are to get back to what we are more comfortable with, what is measurable, the externals - our works. As quickly as we can we want the focus away from Christ and His completed work on our behalf, and back onto ourselves and our performance.

So we all have our "buts". None of us is perfect in either our doctrine or the weight we place on particular doctrines. "Arminians" have a problem with the tendency to view works as a means of maintaining their salvation, fearing that when they sin they might lose it. Calvinists have their own disturbing tendency to view works as the proof of their salvation, fearing that sin is proof they never were saved in the first place. The end outcome of either can be a desperate urge to focus not on Christ and His work on our behalf, but on our works - our lifestyles. Our lifestyles keep us saved, on the one hand, or prove we are saved on the other. As with obsessive lovers, the object of our passion shifts from the lover to keeping the lover. We lose the joy of the relationship in the perverse fear of losing it, or finding out it never meant anything in the first place.

Now, I do not deny that there are some who will abuse grace, thinking it a license to sin. This is, after all, the kind of person the apostle Paul, and James, had in mind when they issued such warnings. What I am suggesting is that we save such admonishment for those situations, that we allow grace to reign preeminent in our thoughts and lives. Among active, committed Christians we should think better of each other than to assume that anyone basking in grace is secretly seeking an opportunity to sin. No one who truly loves and values God's grace - no sinner who has ever really experienced what it is to receive God's unmerited favor through the sacrifice of Christ, will treat grace in such a cavalier manner. "God forbid!" is the response of a transformed heart to the suggestion that we should revel in sin so that grace may abound.

We are all sinners. Even those of us who have come to Christ and learned what a hateful enemy sin is continue to sin and to need God's grace to cover us. Let's bathe ourselves and one another in the grace of God, not the law. Let us be ministers of life to one another, not death. For it is "God who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3:6)

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Law, the Gospel, Luther, and the Little Red Hen

In my life I've been burdened, often to the point of complete hopelessness, with the guilt that comes from legalism - that idea that I gain God's favor by my good behavior, and lose it by my sin. I've often felt alone in this struggle, seeing so many people who seem to have it all together, who "do" the Christian life so well, who, even when they will admit to struggling make the struggle sound so spiritual that I feel I can never even sin as spiritually as they do. The truth is, I know for a fact that nothing I do is ever good enough, or pure enough, to measure up to the standard Christ set in His Sermon on the Mount. In my efforts I've ended up swinging like a pendulum between the twin sins of hopeless antinomianism and prideful legalism. I've tortured myself with second-guessing; I've agonized over conversations, worrying that my speech may not have been edifying; I've lived in fear that every wrong decision was my fatal error, the one that perhaps proved I'm not really God's child, or the one that destroys my usefulness in this life forever.

Even when I came to trust Christ five years ago, I was left with some very faulty notions which I'd acquired over decades within the church. These ideas are deeply fixed and don't yield easily to being uprooted; but ever since my conversion I've had this sense that I'm getting it wrong, that I'm missing something, something critical. There were verses like this in my Bible:
"For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? (Heb. 10:1-2, emphasis mine)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1, emphasis mine)
No "consciousness of sins", "no condemnation"? What?

This is not altogether descriptive of my experience, but I want it to be. And so, for the last year or more I have been on a mission to grasp the greatness of God's grace. This mission is in a sense selfish, in that I am in desperate need of God's unmerited favor, knowing as I do the depth of my own sin. But I also know that I can not share with others what I myself do not possess in abundance.When I have an inadequate view of God and His grace, I spread that view wherever I go. If my view of God leaves me feeling weighed down with guilt, this guilt will be my "gift" to others. I want to be joyful and free, and share that gift of freedom and joy with whoever I meet.

That is the background. In this quest I've had my ups and downs. I've found resistance in myself and from others to this grace. I've heard an awful lot about the Law. I've seen a lot of folks try to bring it to bear on the lives of Christians, heaping guilt upon them in the process, and have struggled myself to come to understand the place of the Old Covenant" in this New Covenant life of mine, with some real satisfaction along the way. And interestingly enough, it has been the study our ladies group is doing through Charity and Its Fruits which has inadvertently given me a lot of help along the path, and not just the study itself, but the ladies. Iron really does sharpen iron, in ways we might never expect, and in ways we will never experience if we withdraw from fellowship with one another (Prov. 27:17; Heb. 10:25-25)

But let me back up a few weeks. Our little church has been reeling recently in the wake of a tragedy which struck a family we were dearly fond of. A child has died, apparently as a result of the legalistic belief/discipline system. This has led to a great deal of soul-searching in our community. In my own efforts to come to some understanding I've spent quite a bit of time studying the belief system that led to all this and, as a result, have found my world shrouded in gloom and darkness. I never dreamed that I could still be so terrorized by purveyors of legalism. I learned that my grasp on grace was not as firm as I had hoped. So I've run to the Gospel for help, in particular the book of Galatians and the gift I received for my birthday (six days before the tragic event), Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians. And this is where I finally get to the point of all this.

In spite of all the comfort I've received from these readings, I still was being haunted by the Law, and all the conflicting reports from Christians on what it was supposed to mean to me. "Law and Gospel, Law and Gospel, preach the Law and the Gospel," rang like some sing-song taunt seemingly everywhere I turned. But I don't want that Law! That Law destroys. I need hope. I need the Gospel. And even Luther himself confused me. First he would give me hope. And then he would say some things I just couldn't understand - like this:
"Whoso then can rightly judge between the law and the gospel, let him thank God, and know he is a good minister. In the time of temptation, I confess that I myself do not know how to do it as I ought. Now the way to discern the one from the other is to place the gospel in heaven, and the law on the earth. Call the righteousness of the gospel heavenly, and the righteousness of the law earthly, and put as great difference between the righteousness of the gospel and of the law, as God hath made between the righteousness of the gospel and of the law, as God hath made between heaven and earth, light and darkness, between day and night.
If your conscience be terrified with the sense and feeling of sin, think this within yourself: You are now remaining upon earth; there let the ass labor; there let him serve and carry the burden that is laid upon him; that is, let the body, with its members, be subject to the law. But when you mount up into heaven, then leave the ass with his burden upon earth, for the conscience has nothing to do with the law or works or with the earthly righteousness. So does the ass remain in the valley, but the conscience ascends with Isaac into the mount, knowing nothing at all of the law or works thereof, but only looking to the remission of sins and pure righteousness offered and freely given to us in Christ.
Contrariwise, in civil policy, obedience to the law must be severely required. There nothing must be known as concerning the gospel, conscience, grace, remission of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ Himself, but Moses only, with the law and the works thereof. If we mark well this distinction, neither the one nor the other shall pass its bounds, but the law shall abide without heaven, that is, without the heart and conscience, and the liberty of the gospel should abide without the earth, that is, without the body and the members thereof.
Therefore, as soon as the law and sin come into heaven (that is, into the conscience), let them be cast out. For the conscience ought to know nothing of the law and sin, but of Christ only. On the other side, when grace and liberty come into earth (that is, into the body) then say: you ought not to dwell in the dregs and dunghill of this corporal life, but you belong in heaven....let every Christian learn diligently to discern between the law and the gospel. Let him suffer the law to rule over the body, and the members thereof, but not over the conscience. For that queen and spouse must not be defiled with the law, but must be kept without spot for her only husband Christ, as Paul says (2 Cor. 11:2): 'I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.'"
I've been carrying this passage around in my head for weeks, puzzling over it like a great mystery, wanting desperately to understand what on earth he is talking about, knowing we cannot live a life of lawlessness, but not understanding how rule of law can co-exist with grace.

And that's where my ladies group has once again come to the rescue. It would seem I'm not alone in this confusion. We are all still sorting this out. One gal in particular, a dear friend with small children, has been deeply moved by the desire to parent by grace and to live and teach the gospel of Christ to her children. In the conversation following our study we were discussing how we filter what books, movies, etc. we bring into our homes. This gal told us how she had thrown away her copy of The Little Red Hen because it didn't teach Christian love. This is the story where the hen got some wheat and was forced to do all the work herself to turn it into bread because all her barnyard friends refused her requests for help. In the end, when she had her loaf of bread, she refused to share it with the lazy folks who'd refused to help her along the way. Once she'd reminded us of the plot, we expressed some puzzlement over why she'd objected to the book. My 13 year old niece, who'd been paying attention to the conversation piped in, "But they didn't deserve the bread!". To this my friend replied, "None of us deserve the grace God gives us!"; Well, I couldn't get this conversation out of my head so it followed me home.

The thing is, my friend and my niece were both right. My friend, being an adult and a mommy who loves the Gospel, had read that story from the perspective of the Hen, thinking of how a Christian grace-filled hen should behave. My niece, being still a child, in a home full of children, heard it from the perspective of a child...which is who the story is intended for. She understood that the moral is: "...If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). The point of the story is an earthy one, that no one in this world should presume upon grace. Even Christians, people saved by the free grace of God are not to give food to people who habitually refuse to work for it. Nor would a Christian have refused to help the Little Red Hen and then expected some of the bread. Suddenly it became clear that there is a place for law and grace, even in the lives of Christians, and that in society at large, and in parenting in particular, it is very important to discern the proper place for both. Suddenly Luther's meaning, (and that of so many Scriptures) seemed so simple, so obvious. How could I have missed it all my life? The mystery of "Law and Gospel" and the puzzling words of Luther had been unlocked for me.
"...the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." (Gal.3:24-25) 
"...believers have another schoolmaster in their conscience: not Moses but Christ, who has abolished the law and sin, overcome the wrath of God, and destroyed death. He bids us who labor and are oppressed with calamities to come unto Him. So when we fly to Him, Moses with his law vanishes away..." Martin Luther
The Law was never meant as a means for attaining righteousness or justification. If we learn anything from the book of Hebrews it should be that everyone who has ever been saved, under the Old Covenant or the new, has been saved by grace, through faith and not by works of law. "Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made..." (Gal. 3:19) That offspring is Christ, and we who are in Him. It is we who are in Christ over whom the Law holds no sway. He is the fulfillment of the Law on our behalf and He has written His law, the law of freedom, on our hearts. No one who lived under the Law was saved or in any way justified by their keeping of it, no matter their diligence. In fact, Paul counted his blameless keeping of the Law rubbish - something to be discarded in light of Christ.

As Luther later says:
"We must learn to discern all laws, yea, even the law of God, and all works, from the promise of the gospel, and from faith, that we may define Christ rightly. For Christ is no law, and therefore He is no exacter of the law and works, but 'He is the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (Jn :29). So victory over sin and death, salvation and everlasting life, came not by the law, nor by the works of the law, nor yet by the power of free will, but by Jesus Christ only and alone."

The Law cannot change our hearts or make us want to obey, or make us love God. That is not what it is for. What it can do is cause us to see how far we fall short of God's holy standard. Beyond that, a work of God is necessary to make us flee to Him for help rather than away from Him in fear, or shaking our fist at Him in anger and rebellion. It was never intended to give spiritual life as it is not of faith.

So law is for the flesh, and those who are of the flesh, and we answer in the flesh for deeds committed in the flesh. Let me see if I can explain. Suppose a person commits a murder and is sentenced to death. Imagine, that while she is in prison, awaiting execution someone has compassion on her and tells her the good news that God sent His Son to pay the penalty for her sin, and she believes and is saved. In the weeks before her sentence is carried out she becomes a new creature, and yet we cannot ask the governor of the state to overturn her conviction based upon this. She must face the penalty for the deed committed in the flesh in her flesh. But, in the sight of God, she is innocent, all her guilt is gone. She can face her death in hope of eternal life in Christ. Her life no longer consists of the life in the flesh. Her life is hidden in God. Likewise, all of us, even if we become Christians, still face the fleshly penalty for our sin - death.

Now, let's imagine that this same murderess rejects the Gospel of Christ and goes to her death with the same murderous heart with which she lived her life. She, by dying pays the penalty of her sin in the flesh, but this by no means atones for her sin before God. In a sense she has paid for her sin against her fellow man, but has yet to answer for her rebellion against the Creator of them both. No amount of fleshy penance can pay for sin of the spirit. This is what Christ was teaching in His Sermon on the the Mount, when He said, for example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." There is a level of sin which the law never addressed, which Christ introduced - a kind of law which no fleshly obedience or penalty could ever touch. There is a law of the spirit, a law which answers not to flesh and blood councils, but to God. Temporal penance cannot purge the soul of guilt, and was never intended to.

We, if we are Christians, live by the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), the law of freedom (James 1:25;2:12), which is of the spirit. No temporal law can ever touch our hearts, and should not be allowed to mar our conscience. In the sight of God we are as perfect as if we never sinned. No temporal law, or sin we commit, changes how He sees us, and yet while we live in the flesh, we are subject to such laws. So, if I exceed the speed limit and am caught, I must pay the fine. But before God I am still righteous. If allow my dog off the leash and it harms another person, I must bear the earthly responsibility for whatever happens, but I can still approach my heavenly Father with boldness, assured of His love for me. Of course we are not to use our freedom as an occasion to sin (Gal. 5:13), but if we do sin, we know that if we confess our sins He will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Now, let me get back to The Little Red Hen. As we have seen, law is given as a guardian for those not yet ruled by the Spirit of Christ. It is for children and unbelievers, and indeed guides us all as to deeds of the flesh, since none of us are yet perfect in godliness. In this sense, it is important that we not lose sight of the benefits of law. We live in a sinful world in which the existence of a rule of law sets some limits on the acts of the flesh, preventing anarchy. It is our fleshly duty as parents, as well as the loving thing to do for them, to teach our children to honor the laws of our land and the Ten Commandments. It will save them and those they come into contact with a great deal of avoidable suffering. If the Little Red Hen were to habitually give away bread to the lazy, she would not be teaching them to help others, but to use others as a means to their ends. She would be teaching them to presume upon her kindness, to think it is owed to them. Grace is given to those who truly recognize how undeserving they are. We need to be taught, from childhood, what right behavior looks like, whether or not we will be able to live up to it, because it honors the Creator, because it makes this world a far less monstrous place, and because it is in our falling short of a recognized standard that we will truly understand our need for grace.

Finally, though law is essential in parenting and in public life, we must never lose sight of its limitations. Law cannot change the heart. The most careful obedience may make us fine, upstanding citizens, but cannot earn us right-standing before God. Nor can temporal penalties can ever purge a heart of sin or guilt. If I steal from my neighbor, and return what I stole, with interest, I have repaid my neighbor - that is all. I have not absolved my guilt before God. If my child disobeys me, all I can require is a temporal recompense, whatever is appropriate to the offense. I cannot absolve her guilt before God. I am also free to extend grace to my child, forgiving his offense against me and requiring no penalty, but this will not be seen as grace unless some understanding of law has been established. And so I find myself finally and joyfully able to understand and concur with Luther when he describes the true rule of Christianity this way:

"...a man must be taught by the law to know himself, so he may learn to say: 'All have sinned and come short of the glory of God' (Rom. 3:10); also: 'Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned' (Ps.51:4). When a man is humbled by the law, and brought to the knowledge of himself, then follows true repentance (for true repentance begins at the fear and judgment of God), and he sees himself to be so great a sinner that he can find no means how he may be delivered from his sin by his own strength, endeavor and works....Terrified by the law and utterly despairing of his own strength, he looks about and sighs for the help of another, a mediator and savior. Then comes in good time the healthful word of the gospel, which says, 'Son, thy sins be forgiven thee' (Mt. 9:2). Believe in Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins. If you feel your sins and their burden, look not upon them in yourself, but remember that they are translated and laid upon Christ..."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Science Saturday - pondering eternity

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Isaiah 55:8-9

Is this how you imagine our solar system?

Well, it is the way I always have, and likely most of you, too. And there's good reason for this. It's really about the best we can do. But it's not good enough. The truth is, as I've quoted here again and again: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." (Ps.19:1) The more we learn about God's creation, the more awe we feel. Even those who do not believe in the Creator cannot escape the awe. It is this sense of overwhelming wonder which, in many cases drives scientists from day to day. I share their wonder, reveling with them in their discoveries, and then some, because what they discover reveals to me more and more of the divine power and eternal nature of God and renews my reverence for Him. What a Being!

Now, back to artists' renditions of our solar systems. They are helpful, certainly beautiful, but woefully inadequate, as any attempt of the finite to grasp hold of the infinite will inevitably be; but we mustn't let that stop us trying. Which brings me to the bit I wanted to share today. I'm deviating from my norm of sharing links and clips to bring you a mind-boggling excerpt from Bill Bryson's modern classic, A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he talks us through a trip to the edge of our own solar system:
"It's almost beyond imagining. Space, you see, is just enormous - just enormous. Let's imagine, for purposes of edification and entertainment, that we are about to go on a journey by rocketship. We won't go terribly far - just to the edge of our own solar system - but we need to get a fix on how big a place space is and what a small part of it we occupy.
Now the bad news, I'm afraid, is that we won't be home for supper. Even at the speed of light, it would take seven hours to get to Pluto. But of course we can't travel at anything like that speed. We'll have to go at the speed of a spaceship, and these are rather more lumbering. The best speeds yet achieved by any human object are those of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which are now flying away from us at about thirty-five thousand miles an hour.
The reason the Voyager craft were launched when they were (in August and September 1977) was that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were aligned in a way that happens only once every 175 years. This enabled the two Voyagers to use a 'gravity assist' technique in which the craft were successively flung from one gassy giant to the next in a kind of cosmic version of 'crack the whip.' Even so, it took them nine years to reach Uranus and a dozen to cross the orbit of Pluto....At all events, it's going to be a long trip.
Now the first thing you are likely to realize is that space is extremely well named and rather dismayingly uneventful. Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it - the Sun, the planets and their moons, the billion or so tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt, comets, and other miscellaneous drifting detritus - fill less than a trillionth of the available space. You also quickly realize that none of the maps you have ever seen of the solar system were remotely drawn to scale. Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighborly intervals - the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations - but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same piece of paper. Neptune in reality isn't just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it's way beyond Jupiter - five times farther from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 percent as much sunlight as Jupiter.
Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn't possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn't come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was not bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over thirty-five feet away.
So the solar system is really quite enormous. By the time we reach Pluto, we have come so far that the Sun - our dear, warm, skin-tanning, life-giving Sun-has shrunk to the size of a pinhead. It is little more than a bright star. In such a lonely void you can begin to understand how even the most significant objects - Pluto's moon, for example - have escaped attention. In this respect, Pluto has hardly been alone. Until the Voyager expeditions, Neptune was thought to have two moons; Voyager found six more. When I was a boy, the solar system was thought to contain thirty moons. The total now is 'at least ninety.' about a third of which have been found in just the last ten years.
The point to remember, of course, is that when considering the universe at large we don't actually know what is in our own solar system.
Now, the other thing you will notice as we speed past Pluto is that we are speeding past Pluto. If you check your itinerary, you will see that this is a trip to the edge of our solar system, and I'm afraid we're not there yet. Pluto may be the last object marked on schoolroom chart, but the system doesn't end there. In fact, it isn't even close to ending there. We won't get to the solar system's edge until we have passed through the Oort cloud, a vast celestial real of drifting comets, and we won't reach the Oort cloud for another - I'm so sorry about this - ten thousand years. Far from marking the outer edge of the solar system, as those schoolroom maps so cavalierly imply, Pluto is barely one-fifty-thousandth of the way.
Of course we have no prospect of such a journey. A trip of 240,000 miles to the Moon still represents a very big undertaking for us. A manned mission to Mars, called for by the first President Bush in a moment of passing giddiness, was quietly dropped when someone worked out that it would cost $450 billion and probably result in the death of all the crew (their DNA torn to tatters by high-energy solar particles from which they could not be shielded).
Based on what we know now and can reasonably imagine, there is absolutely no prospect that any human being will ever visit the edge of our own solar system - ever. It is just too far. As it is, even with the Hubble telescope, we can't see even into the Oort cloud, so we don't actually know that it is there. Its existence is probable but entirely hypothetical."

Infinity in reverse?
Much as space would appear to be a lesson in the infinity of expansion, or, I guess you could say of "bigness", it would seem we can also look within, or downward, or in the reverse scale and see another lesson.... All these years later I remember that day in elementary school, though I can't remember the grade I was in, when the teacher first introduced the idea of negative numbers. My logical child brain revolted. Impossible! There's nothing less than nothing, much less an infinite amount of less than nothing! This was crazy-talk!
I was well into adulthood before I began to recognize or get the slightest hint of understanding as to why early mathematicians tended to also be philosophers.  Mathematics accompany all of creation in a way which I, being totally mathematically disinclined, find profoundly mystical - and I'm no mystic either. Let me see if I can explain what I'm getting at. For every scientific phenomenon, there's an equation. We know many of them. Beyond that, with the help of computers, we've (us humans, I mean, not me personally) been able to produce equations which work but are so complex, and so beyond our ability to comprehend them, that we don't know what they mean. We just know that they work. They explain what they are meant to explain and are able to predict what they were designed to predict. The problem with them is that what they explain is beyond the limits of our human brains' ability to comprehend. What I'm getting at here is that the existence of mathematical possibilities beyond our human capacity for understanding parallels a corresponding existence of realities which also extend beyond our reach. Think of the number zero representing a point in time and space through which infinity goes from larger to smaller, from past to present. As numbers travel from zero infinitely in both directions, it is "conceivable" that so does reality. Which brings me to the following graphic, as mind-blowing as the expanse of the hugeness of outer space is, consider the expanse in the opposite direction - the infinitesimal. Don't skip this. It will only take a moment. Drag the knob at the bottom of the graphic for a peek at the other edge of infinity.

Odds and Ends

Which plate are you seated on?
"This figure shows the boundaries of the tectonic plates that cover the Earth’s surface. A new model from University of Wisconsin-Madison geophysicist Chuck DeMets and collaborators at Rice University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes the movement of nearly all Earth’s tectonic plates with an unprecedented degree of precision."
Beyond taxidermy and mummification...

You may have heard about his controversial Body Worlds exhibit (and for the sake of not drudging up this controversy on this day, I won't link to it). Now Hagens is up to something just as astonishing, but perhaps a bit more appropriate for the masses:
"The controversial Body Worlds creator Gunther von Hagens opens his latest anatomical exhibition at the Neunkirchen Zoo in the state of Saarland, Germany. The 'anatomical safari' contains over 100 animals in various degrees of dissection showing von Hagen's famed plastination process. Presented as a holistic and sculptural anatomical menagerie, the display features the most revered species in the animal kingdom..."
 Read the rest of the story and view a few pictures from the exhibit here.

Do you love Dr. Who? Ever dream of being a Time Lord? Well apparently there are some of his second-cousins walking among us: 
Time Lords walk among us. Two per cent of readers may be surprised to discover that they are members of an elite group with the power to perceive the geography of time.
Read the rest here.
Finally, take a somber trip back in time, back to Pompeii,  August 24, AD79.
Find the story and video of ongoing discovery and preservation of the remains of the victims of the history cataclysm here.

Just a note to my friends

My dear husband urges me to keep on writing. He says it's what God has given me, and that I should use it.  I, on the other hand, seem to have run out of juice. These last few months have taken a lot out of me. As you may have noticed, it's been all I can do to keep up with our study of Charity and It's Fruits, and the new blog I'm doing together with Paul. I'm a plodding thinker, and a painfully slow writer.  I hope you, friends, will be patient with me during this "dry" time. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Charity and Its Fruits - charity is an humble spirit, part 2

Charity and Its Fruits
Lecture VII, part two

(This week we continue our discussion of the Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. We have just concluded reading the second part of Lecture Seven beginning with Roman Numeral Two. We will begin Lecture Eight next week, reading through Roman Numeral Two. The notes below follow Edwards' 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.)

"Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly." 1 Cor. 13:4,5
II. The spirit of charity is an humble spirit.

1. A spirit of charity, or divine love, implies and tends to humility.
  • First, It implies humility. Simply put, humility is part of what Christian love is. As we discussed last week, it is perfectly possible to acknowledge God, as God, and as all powerful, and yet not love Him. The devils and the damned are examples of this. It is when we see God in all His majesty as lovely, that we are humbled by His greatness and His beauty. The love that is inspired in us is a humble love. As Edwards puts it:
"All grace is wrought in the heart through the knowledge of God, or by the clear discovery of his perfections; and the knowledge of these perfections is the foundation of all grace. And it is the discovery or sense of God as lovely, and not only as lovely, but as infinitely above us in loveliness, that works humility in the heart. Merely having a sense of the fact that God is infinitely above us...will not work humility....and this is evident from the work of the law on the heart of the sinner, and from the experience of devils and damned spirits. Under the work of the law on the heart, persons may have a sense of the awful greatness of God, and yet have no humility, because they have no sense of his loveliness."
Again we see that the law can terrify us. It can awaken our sin and rebellion, but it cannot produce in us a love for God. We know from the testimony of the Old Testament, from the reaction of the Pharisees to Christ, and from those who have clearly seen God's righteousness and power - the devils and the souls the damned, that the law does not inspire love or humility:
"...though they shall so clearly and so terribly see that God is infinitely above them in greatness, yet they will have no humility. They will see themselves at an infinite distance from God, but their hearts will not comply with that distance, and feel as is answerable to it. Because they will not see God's loveliness, they will not know their infinite distance from him in this respect, and therefore will not be led to humility."
"...for love is but the disposition of the heart toward God as lovely...."
Edwards goes on to tell us "when God is truly loved, he is loved as an infinite superior. True love to God is not love to him as an equal." God is God, infinite and eternal. He is not our "buddy". He is Creator, Judge, and Ruler of all creation. When we recognize this we can then stand in humble awe that He, in the person of His Son, has stooped down, in love, to take on human flesh, to become the sacrifice for our wickedness, and the Mediator between us and the Almighty, reconciling us so that we can enjoy the honor of being called His "friends". Friends of the Almighty - humbling indeed!
"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another." John 15:13-17
  • Secondly, It also tends to humility. Humility is not only a quality in divine love, but it is also an effect of it. Edwards gives a couple of ways in which love leans us toward humility. 1) When we love someone, we are willing to see what is great in their character as compared to our own, and desire to see them honored with all the honor due them. This is true of our love for God and our love for man. When we do not love someone the opposite is true. We do not see their value and hate to see them honored, whether it is God or man. 2) Our love for God causes us to hate to see Him sinned against. The more we love Him, the more we hate our sin and the more humble we are before Him.
2. How the gospel tends to draw forth such exercises of love as do especially imply and tend to it.
"A Christian spirit and a gospel spirit are the same."
    • First, Because the gospel leads us to love God as an infinitely condescending God. Edwards, writing in the 18th century, used the word "condescending" in a way which lacks all the negative baggage we've come to attach to it. His meaning would have been along these lines: "to put aside one's dignity or superiority voluntarily and assume equality with one regarded as inferior." By this definition we should be able to recognize that God's condescending to us sinful humans is a truly lovely thing - and it is at the heart of the gospel:
    "The gospel teaches how God...stooped so low as to take an infinitely gracious notice of poor vile worms of the dust, and to concern himself for their salvation, and so as to send his only-begotten Son to die for them, that they might be forgiven, and elevated, and honored, and brought into eternal fellowship with him, and to the perfect enjoyment of himself in heaven for ever."
    • Secondly, The gospel leads us to love Christ as an humble person. Christ, in His humanity, is the greatest example of humility that the world has ever seen. If we love Him, and see His humility as lovely, we will want to emulate it. And if He, our Lord, is humble, how much more ought we to be.
      "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Phil. 2:3-8
    "You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." John 13:13-16
    • Thirdly, The gospel leads us to love Christ as a crucified Savior.
    "As our Savior and Lord, he suffered the greatest ignominy, and was put to the most ignominious death, though he was the Lord of glory. This may well kindle the humility of his followers, and lead them to an humble love to him. For by God sending his Son into the world to suffer such an ignominious death, he did, as it were, pour contempt on all the earthly glory that men are wont to be proud of."
    • Fourthly, The gospel still further tends to lead us to humble exercises of love, because it leads us to love Christ as one that was crucified for our sakes. In it we see the excellence of Christ and the love of Christ, and in it we see the vileness of our sin.

    "...Christ's being crucified for our sakes is the greatest testimony of God against our sins that was ever given. It shows more of God's abhorrence of our sins than any other act or event that God has ever directed or permitted.  The measure of God's abhorrence of our sins is shewn by his having them so terribly punished, and his wrath so executed against them, even when imputed to his own Son."

    1. When we apply this teaching we will see "the excellency of a Christian spirit". Much of the excellence of a true Christian is seen "in his meek and lowly spirit, which makes him so like his Savior."
    2. In light of this teaching we ought "to examine ourselves and see if we are indeed of an humble is not every show and appearance of humility that will stand the test of the gospel. There are various imitations of it that fall short of the reality. Edwards lists several traits which can mimic humility, but are not true Christian humility:
    • affected humility
    • natural low-spiritedness
    • melancholy or despondency (we would call it depression)
    • convictions of conscience (what we would call guilt)
    • counterfeit...humility, wrought by the delusions of Satan
    To understand this last point "counterfeit humility" I found it helpful to look to another work of Edwards, Religious Affections:
    "False [religious] experiences are commonly attended with a counterfeit humility. And it is the very nature of a counterfeit humility, to be highly conceited of itself. False religious affections have generally that tendency, especially when raised to a great height, to make persons think that their humility is great, and accordingly to take much notice of their great attainments in this respect, and admire them....The...reason why such outward acts, and such inward exercises, look like great abasement in such an one, is because he has a high conceit of himself. Whereas if he thought of himself more justly, these things would appear nothing to him, and his humility in them worthy of no regard; but would rather be astonished at his pride, that one so infinitely despicable and vile, is brought no lower before God. When he says in his heart, 'This is a great act of humiliation; it is certainly a sign of great humility in me, that I should feel thus, and do so'; his meaning is, 'This is a great humility for me, for such a one as I, that am so considerable and worthy.' He considers how low he is now brought, and compares this with the height of dignity on which he in his heart thinks he properly stands, and the distance appears very great, and he calls it all mere humility, and as such admires it."
    True humility, on the other hand, is quite unselfconscious. In fact, a truly humble person will be keenly aware of the pride he still possesses. "...his pride appears great to him, and not his humility. For although he is brought much lower than he used to be; yet it don't appear to him worthy of the name of humiliation." (from Religious Affections)

    3. This teaching exhorts those who do not know God's grace to seek it. If you find through this study that all your "humility" is indeed counterfeit, that your personality and actions are characterized by the attitudes and behaviors of pride, then you have little reason to believe that the grace of God is at work in you. You need a new heart, a humble heart, which only Christ can give. If you see the beauty of His humility, run to Him. He will clothe you in grace and give you a humble heart of love.

    4. This teaching exhorts us all to earnestly seek a humble spirit and "to endeavor to be humble in all their behavior toward God and men. - Seek for a deep and abiding sense of your comparative meanness before God and man. Know God....."
    "Humility is a most essential and distinguishing trait in all true piety. It is the attendant of every grace, and in a peculiar manner tends to the purity of Christian feeling. It is the ornament of the spirit; the source of some of the sweetest exercises of Christian experience; the most acceptable sacrifice we can offer to God; the subject of the richest of his promises; the spirit with which he will dwell on earth, and which he will crown with glory in heaven hereafter. Earnestly seek, then, and diligently and prayerfully cherish so humble a spirit, and God shall walk with you here below; and when a few more days shall have passed, he will receive you to the honors bestowed on the people at Christ's right hand."
    If you are a Christian and are experiencing God's grace in your life, you are still no doubt struggling with the lingering effects of pride. Run to Christ. He is the source of all true humility and righteousness.