Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dad and numbering our days

Over the past few days, we've learned that Dad is battling an aggressive cancer that has moved pretty far along. We still don't know all of the details. The best guess seems to be melanoma recurring inside his body and metastasizing. They started radiation on his brain today (1st of 10 days). After that, it looks like immuno-therapy for the many tumors in his body.
The odd thing is that his only noticeable symptom was little bits of numbness over the past six weeks and slurred speech a week ago. The good news: no pain. The bad news: the numbness got them looking for the wrong things-- and with no pain, it got a lot further down the road.
We're praying for medicine and what looks like it'd be a miracle. Pray also for my mom and my sister (who are local and thus much more involved)-- that they would have strength for the day. Dad is a tough bird and otherwise has been in really good health. Pray for his continued good spirits and that we may sense the Lord's presence in a special way the next few weeks. Thanks in advance for your prayers.

A few reflections: 
1.) In day-to-day life, I perceive that I err on the Arminian side of things-- trying to take control of things, emphasizing my (hopefully, Spirit-led) free will, etc. In the larger moments of life, I perceive that I err on the Calvinistic side of things-- God's in control; I have little control...all good and well, except that it can move into passivity and fatalism. 

2.) The Lord reminds us through the Psalmist of the wisdom of "numbering our days". We don't know whether Dad has 30 or 3,000 left? Heck, none of us knows if we have 30 or 3,000. Martin Luther is said to have said that if today were his last day, he'd plant a tree. The point? Live every day like you have 3000 left and live every day as if it's your last. Make every day count. 

3.) In one of my small laments about what if Dad dies and we had little warning-- and why God would do that-- it struck me that God gets blamed however we exit. 
a.) If someone is killed suddenly, we're prone to complain that we didn't "get a chance to say goodbye." 
b.) If someone has a long, slow, painful death, we're prone to complain about the pain. 
c.) If Dad dies in 30 days after little pain, how on earth could I complain about that-- at least, next to the alternatives. 
d.) My two grandmothers died at about 90 years old and we had no complaints. Who does, in such circumstances? But we can't all live until 90 and then exit. This would create a number of perverse disincentives. So, what's left? The "system" we have today, within fallen Creation. The punchline: Again, number your days aright. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

letter to an old best friend (on the occasion of his 50th birthday): some biographical memories and reflections on friendship

August 20, 2015

Dear Jon,

Congratulations on reaching the big 5-0! I hope you have a great celebration with family and friends! (You may remember that I beat you to 50 by a few months. For me, it’s so far, so good!)

Ben was thoughtful enough to ask your old and current friends for some memories—and he had a good enough memory to add an old-timer like me to the list. Hopefully, you and yours will enjoy my little contribution...

Although the bulk of my memories of you go back to our days in Malone, there are a handful of others:
-I remember our little family visiting your family in Indy, including time with young Ben & Nathaniel and y’all wrestling with Jen’s cancer. Most of all, I remember Jen and Tonia taking Zach to visit your pediatrician for his “asthma-like condition”. This preceded a tough drive home to Jeffersonville—watching him labor to breathe as we hit heavy traffic south of Indy on I-265 (nothing new under the sun, huh?) and then drove through rural Indiana—two of the scariest hours of my life.

-I remember visiting you and Jen at Duke on my way back to Texas A&M in January 1987. The visit was fine—aside from you two absolutely kicking my arse in Clue. After heading south, I had to return to your apartment, with my stay extended by my clutch’s failure outside of Gibsonville—where a man named Leroy (yes, I still have the receipt; see: enclosed) did lengthy and expensive repairs. After a great Christmas break in No. VA, I was not at all excited about returning for my second semester of grad school, even a week late. But after Leroy and then a freak/providential snowstorm in Birmingham forcing me off the interstate and into an inner-city hotel, I was thrilled to get back to Aggieland.

-We exchanged quite a few letters back in the day, I’m sure. But I can only find one in my files from June 1981 (enclosed). During that time period, I remember your wrestling with leukemia. One weird, little memory: visiting you in the hospital, I twisted a balloon and popped it near you, causing you considerable pain/angst. And I have a distinct memory of crying when I first learned the news about the leukemia. (That’s the second time I remember crying; the first is when my cat Kiki died in Malone.) Remembering it today, tears return to my eyes, reliving some combination of that pain and the joy of your return to full health. I thank God that you’ve reached 50 years!

As for Malone, a whole slew of memories (aside from Simeb)…
-playing baseball and some of its derivatives, esp. with Leo and Chris Benware: in “the field” next to our house; “off the roof” (or whatever creative name we gave it); and reaching over the fence (of the Benware’s porch) to make a home-run-saving catch

-street hockey with Chris Kimberly (?); biking up the “big hill” to your house; were you my partner in crime when I propelled a beechnut with a tennis racket into the side of a car—and then ate Rocky Road ice cream awaiting my semi-probable doom?

-Superstar Baseball (I still have it and all of our box scores!), “League” (I kept a few sheets of this), and the “spinner” baseball game you liked (what was that called?); remember the trips to/from Plattsburgh in the back of the (wood-paneled?) station wagon?

-your parents’ hospitality; your little sis Tina was pretty cool; and holding you down so my sister could kiss you

-Captain and Tennille, right? Shaun Cassidy? BTO? Were there others? Egad! (Oh, you didn’t want people to know about that part of your life? Well, send the hush money sooner next time!)

I guess we met through your Dad’s church; I don’t remember for sure. We’ve traveled different paths since then—and we haven’t seen each other in years. All I know is that you were a dear and crucial friend for me in those Malone years. I was a freak (two years ahead of everybody else in the 7th grade), a newcomer in an insular little town, and a few months from some friendly encounters with Scott Regis.

In his second (excellent) book, Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill observes that "Friendship is the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all loves...friendship is entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt." He then quotes C.S. Lewis who said that friendship is "the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary" of the loves.

Friendship may be the least necessary, but it is still of inestimable value. I ended up with a handful of buddies in Malone, but you were my one “friend”. I’ve often told people that “all you need in life” is a few good friends—or even one. And as I share that thought, I always think back to you and our friendship in Malone—when I needed it the most.

I am eternally grateful for your willingness to extend the free hand of friendship to me. May you and yours increasingly experience and exhibit God’s grace…AFA, eric

Jesus and the fear of God

Peter Leithart in Touchstone​: 

On Paul's "Jesus is the beginning of all things", incl. wisdom (Col 1:18) and Solomon's "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pr 1:7a)...

"If Jesus is the beginning of wisdom, he embodies the fear of the Lord...This Christological perspective fills out our understanding of the fear of God. Jesus does not cower before his Father. Instead, he obeys the Father, and fears disobedience. Jesus never retreats before men. As the embodied fear of God, he is fearless in proclaiming and enacting the kingdom of His Father. To fear God, to pursue the way of wisdom, is to follow Jesus."

love and property

S.M. Hutchens in Touchstone​: 

"Men too often take the treating-women-as-property accusation lying down. Of course men and women wish to regard each other as their property-- that is where the attachment begins. I don't see society rejecting love songs or little candy hearts in which the man invites the woman to "be mine". These slip under the radar of all but the nastiest and most vigilant feminists because they are so natural and lovely that ridding ourselves of them would appear so obviously perverse to normal people.

Real women...can see how men treat property they prize...Their hope is not that their man will not treat them as property, but that they will always be prized...Property or loved one? It is not a case of one or the other."

Friday, September 4, 2015

a Labor Secretary who doesn't understand Labor economics (or is a demagogic tool)

An interview with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez...

What a mess! Is he clueless about Econ101 or pandering to partisans? 

-He admits that economic growth and the labor market are sub-standard, even after seven years of "recovery". Thanks to Bush, and esp. Obama and Congress for their repeated kicks in the shorts to the economy and to marginal people.  

-He doesn't mention the THOUSANDS of dollars that he and the Dems love taking away through FICA taxes from the woman trying to raise her family. Hey pal, quit taking so much money from the working poor. Or if you need to do it, please turn in your "I love the poor" button. 

-He says we need tighter labor markets, but then says he wants to increase the minimum wage. Huh? Sounds like a good test question on my first E340 exam. 

-He cites wages instead of compensation. (Thankfully, he mixes a pie metaphor into his recipe for sophistry.) 

Monday, August 31, 2015

our focus on nastier sins and "worse" sinners

Enjoyed a meditation from Simone Weil in Bread and Wine this morning...

She opens by reflecting on the profound evil represented by the cross, especially because of Jesus' association with it. But then she moves to the prominent people behind the cross-- not "monsters", but "ordinary" men. 

Pilate was "a coward" who "cared more about his comfortable position than he did about justice". Caiaphas was "the admired and revered religious leader of the most religious people in that ancient world...a devout and sincerely religious man". But he was "too rigid...thought he had the whole truth" and would promote the damage (and even death) of people who disagreed. Judas disagreed with Jesus' approach and "couldn't wait" for God's timing. Even the carpenter was willing to participate in an unjust system-- at the least, "playing with victims" who merely deserve death-- for a job and a buck. 

As Weil concludes: "These were the things that crucified Jesus...not wild viciousness or sadistic brutality or naked hate, but the civilized vices of cowardice, bigotry, impatience, timidity, falsehood, and indifference-- vices all of us share, the very vices which crucify human beings today." 

Similarly, we like to focus on "nastier" sins and "worse" sinners. It helps keep the heat off of us-- or so it seems. In Amos' day, it was easier to pound the sins of the pagans. (Don't you love the masterful way in which God leads him to convict the sinners in his home country?!) For Paul, the famous passage in Romans 1 on homosexual conduct serves, at least in part, as a useful way to convince us that we're all sinners-- on his way to Romans 6:23-- that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. (Accept the gift, please!!) 

And today, it's still the same. In politics, it's usually the sins of the other party, while we ignore or downplay our own party's sins. (Don't you love seeing that on FB!) In everyday life, since Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, we want to avoid blame and point to the (supposedly greater) sins of others. In terms of theodicy and eschatology, we want God to come to earth to intervene to deal with the sinners. But many of us don't want to stop our own sin-- or want God to intervene so forcefully on account of our own sins. 

In each case, it's the same. Don't fool yourself into thinking you don't sin-- or that your sins are "mild". Every day, we do serious damage and injustice to those around us. Accept the grace of God as payment for those sins-- and then let that grace live within you in your daily life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

nuggets from Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work"

I've always enjoyed Kathleen Norris, including this small meditation on mundane and never-ending household tasks, spiritual disciplines, and worship. 

On seeing a Catholic family get-together: The marvelous abundance and seemingly bottomless hospitality were overwhelming to my timid Protestant soul–the feasting! The drinking! The toddlers, dogs and cats contending for scraps underneath the picnic tables and the family potluck the night before the wedding! Enough for everyone; more than enough. Amazing. (p. 1-2) 

Observing a priest during communion: "Look at that! The priest is cleaning up! He's doing the dishes!" (2) And then, "homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception." (3) 

But laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems like the more useful of the tasks. But both are the work that God has given us to do." (29)

Revolutionary Road (and still trying to figure out the 1950s)

In some circles, the 1950s are hailed as a peak of American civilization. Of course, this ignores the manner in which African-Americans were treated during that time. When brought up, the point is quickly granted before the wistful look re-emerges-- with that one exception. 

Still, one wonders the extent to which it's true-- or to be more exact, the extent to which it's complete. The parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s-- and for purveyors of the 1950s-near-utopia, this is problematic, given their view of the 1960s. 

It's a more visceral and subjective concern, but when times and people are "too nice", it worries me a lot. A similar mistake rears its head in imagining Jesus Christ to be largely a nice guy who jumped on the cross and then conquered death and encouraged us to be nicer to each other. 

Attendance at churches and self-identification as a "Christian" peaks during this time as well. But to what extent was this a bastardization of Christianity as "civil religion"-- a syncretistic merger of benign morality, belief in "God" and America, opposition to the godless USSR and its communist leaders, a desire to return (or at least go) to something pleasant (after the Depression and WWII), and so on? 

In our time, it is said that Christianity is fading, but the more likely description is that nominal and cultural Christianity are fading-- while discipleship and biblical Christianity will remain constant, or likely, grow (as it is, generally, around the world). 

I was interested to read this essay by Janie Cheaney in World, including the introduction it gave me to the Richard Yates' novel, Revolutionary Road. She underlines an aspect of the novel-- and presumably one part of the 1950s experience: that the niceness of the 1950s was, for some people, oppressive to them. They wanted to experience more than "the suburbs" and consumer amenities; they wanted purpose and meaning. In a time of relative peace and abundance, the struggle moved from survival to larger issues that were not being met by the culture and "the World". 

I'm happy to report that the book was well-written, but its themes are depressing and the approaches of its characters are fruitless and pathetic in the full sense of the word. DiCaprio and Winslet starred in the 2008 film adaptation of the book, but I don't recall hearing anything about it. Has anyone seen the film? 

This interview in CT with David Brooks adds some flavor on the same era and similar ideas: 

Q: You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?
A: Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful....
Q: How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

A: We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sanders and Trump

Sanders and Trump are similar but different...

Sanders is tapping into the left-wing of the party and those who are bothered enough (on principle) by the mess of a Clinton candidacy.

Trump is tapping into the subset of the Tea Party which is bothered by immigration and trade-- and others who value celebrity and a non-PC approach to things.

Neither has a chance to win their party's nomination. The Sanders candidacy underlines one aspect of the weakness of Clinton-- and along with other, more profound weaknesses-- points to the likely triumph of Biden or another "mainstream candidate". The Trump candidacy will fade-- with his support either moving to other Tea-Partyish candidates or undermining them (if this transition takes too long).

In any case, I appreciate both of them being in there, even if they're both a hot mess on policy matters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

review of Wesley Hill's "Spiritual Friendship"

Spiritual Friendship is the second book by Wesley Hill. I've read and enjoyed both. The first, Washed and Waiting, is autobiographical with a focus on his decision to live a celibate lifestyle as a Christian with a strong homosexual orientation. This book naturally follows the first: what is the role of friendship for him (and those like him)-- but then, by extension, for others in the Church?

Hill opens by noting the "freedom" of friendship among the various types of love (xiii). We don't choose our families of origin-- on either side of the equation. We can divorce, but you're still an ex-spouse to someone (and kids are likely involved). When one flirts and dates, the cool and rational often moves quickly to passion and something less than full-rationality/freedom. In contrast, circumstances certainly impact our range of friends, but we do get to choose our friends.

"Friendship is the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all loves...friendship is entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt." And then quoting C.S. Lewis, it is "the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary". (xiii-xiv)

But this freedom can be abused as permission to avoid or limit the role of friendships in our lives. As an application of Galatians 5:1,13, we should be careful to use our freedom well. (14) "Perhaps that very freedom prevents us from exploring depths of friendship that can be attained only when we accept certain limits and constraints." (xiv)

This leads Hill to a number of provocative questions: "Should we think of friendship as based, above all, on personal preference?...Should we instead consider friendship more along the lines of how we think about more stable, permanent, and binding that we often do?...If so, what needs to change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?" (xv).

Hill divides the book into two parts (xviii-xix). The first half covers the cultural background of friendship (and its recent degradation in Western societies); its history; and a theology of friendship. The second half opens with the intersection between eros and friendship, before moving to a discussion of how we can cultivate committed friendships-- individually and within the Church.

Citing work by Benjamin Myers, Hill notes various myths that argue against the value of friendship. "Reductive evolutionary biology and psychology, in which all human loves must be understood in terms of hard-wired self-interest, have little place for friendship." (13). (No problem. That just creates more fun and makes even more room for just-so stories in the ol' Evolution narrative!) And what is the productive social value of friendship vs. work, vocation and output (13)? It's "shocking lack of utility-- friendship isn't for anything in particular, such as procreation or productivity-- is precisely what makes friendship itself." (68)

Perhaps the key barrier is "the myth of sex"-- the idea that sex must be right around the corner from any intimate/deep friendship (8). Although a valid concern, it is not universal. Among heterosexuals, both its common reality and the myth can certainly bedevils friendships between men and women. For Hill and others with a homosexual orientation, the tension develops between those of the same sex. So, how does one pursue friendship without it devolving into sexual activity? Or for the cynic: can this be done at all? (8)

Along those lines, I like Hill's two epigraphs for chapter 4 (p. 65): "We cannot imagine existing in our culture without the haven of erotic partnership, because our capacity to belong together in more chaste ways is so limited." (Christopher Roberts) And "Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc." (GK Chesterton)

Since the end of my undergrad days (getting past that long dork phase I had), I've had reasonably deep friendships with men and women. At times, it's led to modest temptations that were fended off through a combination of prayer, wisdom, and accountability. Before I was married, it was helpful to believe that celibacy was wisdom-- given that I follow a wise and benevolent God. Once I was married, it's helped to have a well-watered garden at home. It hasn't been perfect (in my heart), but I'd easily take that over the many sins of omission (and commission) that would be the alternative. 

For example, our first Sunday School at Southeast featured young married couples who didn't know how to negotiate their post-wedding relationships with those of the opposite gender. This led to some allergic reactions that were somewhere between amusing and sad. Or there's the all-too-common embrace of the "Billy Graham rule"-- a *complete* avoidance of being alone with pre-pubescents of the opposite gender. While good policy for church leaders (given what's at stake) and perhaps useful as a general principle for those who have special struggles in this realm, it's is (or should be) largely counter-productive for most disciples of Jesus-- at least those who are comfortable in the goodness of God's Kingdom. So, take care and practice wisdom, but avoid legalisms that unnecessarily stilt relationships. .

Back to same-sex relationships, Hill notes research where younger boys instinctively form close male friendships, describing those friendships to researchers in "surprisingly intimate terms" (9). But then as they get older, they are apparently acculturated into putting up boundaries, at least as they describe the relationships to others. They "find no cultural space for the friendship they once enjoyed." (10)

All that said, Hill does argue for a tension between deep friendship and romantic love-- male and female, homosexual and heterosexual. "If I get too close to X, will people think we're attracted to each other? Are we attracted to each other?" (10) Hill notes the frequent conclusion/assumption that friendship can be entirely separated from erotic love, but Hill disagrees, seeing a necessary tension there. "Eros isn't an alternative to friendship; it's one particular form that friendship can assume." (70)

As such, for Hill (at this point in life), as one with strong a homosexual orientation: "The question isn't so much whether my male friendships will involve some sort of romantic attraction. The question is how they will do so, and how my friends and I will choose to respond..." (78). He must "find male friends who wouldn't mind the challenges that come when a friend like me is attracted to them." (82) 

Sometimes, especially in what might merely be relational immaturity, this has resulted in heartache for Hill (92). Or maybe it's a lifelong thing for people who have committed to celibacy or are otherwise single. For straight people, I would imagine an on-going tension between friendship and sexual attraction with some friends of the opposite sex. In this, Hill finds solace and support in the example of Henri Nouwen's homosexual orientation (93ff) and in Lewis' heterosexual orientation with respect to his oldest and dearest friend, Arthur Greeves (77).

Remember that Hill is especially motivated on this topic because of his understanding of the full range of Scripture on homosexual orientation, marriage, sexuality, etc. Since he believes abstinence is God's will for those with homosexual orientations, he's looking for his place in this world; he's trying to make sense of his suffering; and he's trying to find purpose in his calling, 

Hill cites a helpful passage from CS Lewis in comparing his state to John 5's man who is born blind (74-75). We are not told why the man suffers, but we are told that its purpose was that the works of God should be made manifest in him. Likewise, *every* difficulty conceals a potential vocation from God. Sexual abstinence is a negative condition and cannot be the end of the matter. A la Eph 4:25-32, what is the positive to which one is called? Renunciations "can never be the final word. Rather, yielding up one thing is always about the embrace of another. A loss or a place of pain becomes a gateway into a greater benefit that one wouldn't have been able to find without the loss or pain." (75)

In particular, Hill wants "to explore the way my same-sex attractions are inescapably bound up with my gift and calling to I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it is a doorway to blessing and grace." (79) Or "how my being gay might involve what a thoughtful friend of mine has called a special 'genius for friendship'...Might there be...a way in which gay people have, whether by natural inclinations or through childhood trial and error or some combination of the two (among other factors), a sort of enviable insight into how to foster same-sex friendships?" (80) 

I'm not sure why Hill limits this to same-sex friends here, since the stereotype one often hears is that gay men seem to be really good at being friends with straight women. (His focus in the book is same-sex friendships, but still...) As such, "I don't imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends...if I weren't gay." (81) Perhaps. Or again, perhaps it's a natural thing. In any case, "being gay can lead to being chaste, just as being straight can." (81). 

Hill cites the Eberhard/Bonhoeffer friendship and the letters exchanged-- where Eberhard notes that his letters went to Bonhoeffer's fiance and older brother, before him. Even though Eberhard was "closer than a brother" (literally and figuratively), their society recognized blood ties over depth of friendship as the metric by which such things were measured. (24). Of course, part of this is reasonable for the reason given above-- that friendship is, by its nature, based on freedom, with its tendency toward transitory relationships. But the point is still of interest: when should friendship supersede blood ties? 

Theologically, friendship is rated more highly than family in a key sense. Jesus stood common assumptions about family and friends on their head as he announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. Family-- especially one's immediate family-- certainly matters. But family is re-imagined in the NT to emphasize the "family of God"-- that we're adopted into His family. In Mark 3, Jesus defines His family as those who obey the Father-- more important than blood ties not accompanied by obedience. In John 15:15, Jesus calls his disciples "friends". Hill treats this discussion-- and its evolution from pre-Christian views-- at length (see: p. 46-58). 

"We Christians don't care too much about 'friendship' if it only means having acquaintances...we believe in friendship's transformation by the good news of God in Christ...not so much the abandonment of friendship as its revolution and friendship...took friendships based on preference and a pursuit of social status and made them about self-giving love...After Christ, friendship would never be the same." (60-61)

This reading even impacted liturgy for a long while. "Christians came to believe that the truest and most durable relationships were friendships that were sealed with the common participation in the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ. If blood is thicker than water, then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all." (36) Hill describes a rite called adelphopoiesis-- "brother-making"-- where friends would "wed" in "vows of friendship" of "public, communal significance" (28, 35, 37). Historian Alan Bray discovered evidence of these in 2003 and initially assumed it was a "long-forgotten historical precedent for modern same-sex marriage" (34), before figuring out that this rite celebrated deep friendship (between men or women) while the participants were married to others (35). 

Hill wrestles with those who might say it's good that these rites are obsolete now (40-41). Instead, he finds "hope in the possibility of vowed spiritual siblinghood. What we need now isn't disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds..." 

And not just for singles; married folks have the same needs (43). Hill shares a story where a Sunday School community had come together to support one of its members in need. The couple was also visited by secular friends who were amazed at how many friends they had. This sort of thing is uncommon in the World-- and too uncommon in the Church-- when its benefits can be so profound. 

Tonia and I have experienced the same thing through Southeast. Previously, it was through a rich experience with the Abundant Life Sunday School class at the main campus of SE. Now, it's through an aggregation of Christian friendships (including some from Abundant Life) at the So. IN campus of SE-- where there are only small groups, which tend to be quite limited in this regard. This Christian vision of friendship (and a vehicle to pursue this easily enough) has led us to a "promised land" of redeemed friendships with men and women-- husbands and wives striving for glorious marriages, trying to raise godly children, finding and pursuing our callings, and enjoying our Abundant Life in Jesus Christ. 

After speaking in such glowing terms about friendship, one might expect Hill to let it rest there-- even seeing friendship as a substitute for marriage. Although he says friendship is great/important and under-rated, he argues that it is still not marriage in chapter 5 (esp. p. 96-100). (As an aside, he also cites the research results on "reparative therapy" which promise relatively little hope for changing one's orientation [p. 73].) Friendship "doesn't solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn't a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship." (98) In fact, biblically, friendship is often "linked to, or even defined by, death" and suffering in the life and ministry of Jesus (100). 

Hill closes by sharing a number prescriptions/recommendations for the pursuit of friendship by individuals and to foster that environment as a church in chapter 6. All of these are good reminders; none of these struck me as particularly insightful: admit the need; start small; start where you are; live in community; practice hospitality; and try to "stay" in place even when it requires some sacrifice.

Hill continues to be helpful as a sadly-radical voice in the wilderness on the topic of homosexuality and Wilderness. Hopefully, he won't be shouted down by the dominant voices in that arena. But here, on friendship, he has a word for all of us. May we follow him down the path of more robust friendships. 

review of Dorothy Sayers' "The Mind of the Maker"

I've blogged on Sayers a number of times. The most prominent: "Why Work?"; Creed or Chaos?; on Mary and Martha and women in general; on women and men; and some hilarious stuff on "men's/women's work". Here, I'm providing a review of her book, The Mind of the Maker.

Sayers starts with thoughts on "the law"-- the purpose of which, in the context of the book, is to lay out the differences between fact and opinion, objective vs. subjective, and so on. (She complains about common reading comprehension problems here. This allows her to continue apace with her primary thesis, rather than having the reader distracted by erroneous ideas of what she's trying to accomplish.)

In this first chapter, Sayers opens with a funny story (p. 1): A stranger to the university observes that students are inside their colleges by midnight and assumes that this is part of the nature of an undergraduate. In fact, "the law has quite a different source-- the College authorities." Should he conclude that the law is independent of student nature? No. In fact, "careful research would reveal that the law depends on considerable antecedent experience of undergraduate nature...[just] not based on it in the way the stranger assumed."

Sayers expands on the story by noting that the term "law" has two popular, but only-somewhat-related uses. There are arbitrary laws for particular circumstances that are "capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered or rescinded without interference with the general scheme of the universe" (3). And there are laws that "designate a generalized statement of fact...[which] cannot be promulgated, altered, suspended or broken at will" (4). The arbitrary laws can have "legitimate" authority if they agree with "popular opinion" sufficiently (7) and if they do not "run counter to the law of nature" (8).

As such, "There is a universal moral law, as distinct from a moral code, which consists of certain statements of fact about the nature of man; and by behaving in conformity with which, man enjoys his true freedom. This is what the Christian Church calls 'the natural law'. The more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behaviour; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called 'judgments of God'." (9) And although frequently conflated, "Christian morality comprises both a moral code and a moral law" (10).

Why does this matter for theology--and thus, practice? "There is a difference between saying: 'If you hold your finger in the fire you will get burned' and saying, 'if you whistle at your work I shall beat you, because the noise gets on my nerves'. The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling. This is the result of a confusion between arbitrary "law" and the "laws" which are statements of fact...Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way." (12)

All that said, the bulk of the book is a discussion of the Trinitarian nature of art, writing, and the creative process-- and by analogy, a help in understanding the Trinitarian nature of God. She argues that "every work or act of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly": the Creative Idea, the Creative Energy/Activity, and the Creative Power (37). You can't have the work of creation without all three; the three are inter-related, but they are distinct. Later, she revisits the same idea in the context of writing in particular: the Book as Thought, Written, and Read (113-115).

On writing and its implications for what we know of God, His word, and The Word (Christ), Sayers notes a number of things:

-Words are an important but ultimately limited look into the the heart of the Author-- even in an autobiography. For us, while the Bible, Nature, and Jesus are crucial revelations to us about the character of God, they are still only dimly observed (90).

-A key difference between the Bible and other writing: "The leading part in this was played, it is alleged, by the Author, who presents it as a brief epitome of the plan of the whole work...Examining the plot of it, we observe at once that if anybody in this play has his feelings spared, it is certainly not the author." (129)

-Another feature of a good Writer/Artist is the freedom He wants for his "characters": He "never desires to subdue his work to himself but always to subdue himself to his work. The more genuinely creative he is, the more he will want his work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of himself." (130)

-Sayers' discussion of miracles was really helpful to me (78-83). What purpose do they serve? In which contexts and to what extent are they "cheap" plot devices? In a literary context, one measure of bad fiction is that problems in writing/plot are "fixed" by "miracles"-- a cul-de-sac is exited by suddenly removing a character or a circumstance. Intervention in a plot is certainly the prerogative of the author, but along the same lines: when would/should we expect God to do miracles? 

"The agents of the miraculous [for the writer are] conversion and coincidence...Yet it will not altogether do to say that neither conversion nor coincidence is ever permissible in a story. Both may legitimately be introduced on one condition, that is, that they are an integral part of the Idea. If it is a story about a coincidence or about a conversion, then the Energy that introduces them will be performing the will of the Idea, and the Power will proceed from that unity of purpose....the will of the creator becomes a character in the story; just as, theologically, all miracles depend on the assumption that God is a character in history. But even so, it is necessary that God should act in conformity with His own character...God will be chary of indulging in irrelevant miracle, and will only use it when it is an integral part of the story." (82-83)

Finally, a problem with modernity, reductionist science, and bad writing (in general and detective fiction in particular). All of them seek to deal with a discrete problem and try to offer us simple "solution". Unfortunately, the problems are complex and the solutions are somewhere between limited and highly flawed. One sees the same problem in economics, when its practice is reduced to something mathematical and the human person and human institutions are reduced to something mechanical. (As a practitioner of detective fiction, it's noteworthy that Sayers has a problem with the genre along these lines [194-204]: The detective problem is always soluble (the purpose of the work!); often completely soluble; soluble in the same terms in which it is set; and (quite) finite.)

Why does it matter? Sayers calls us to live "artistically"-- defined a certain way. "If we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe, we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman...It will at once be asked what is meant by asking the common man to deal with life creatively...If he is required to be...stretched in a leisured manner upon a sofa...the average man cannot afford this. Also, he supposes that the artist exercises complete mastery over his material. But the average man does not feel himself to be a complete master of life (which is his material). Far from it. To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal...Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of 'mastering' one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love...The second thing is, that the words 'problem' and 'solution' as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative." (185-186)

Good stuff, as always, from Sayers-- on life, vocation, work, and our place in this beautiful world!

review of Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark"

Barbara Brown Taylor opens the first chapter of Learning to Walk in the Dark with a reference to Isaiah 45:3's "treasures of darkness" (NASB), fitting since she's trying to mine the concept of darkness-- and our largely negative reactions to it. We often fear darkness-- physically and metaphorically. But how much of that is justified-- biblically and practically? 

In a provocative, practical, easy-to-read book, BBT argues that it's not nearly as justified as we think-- and often causes a lot of damage.  

In her house, growing up, as is common, she was taught to fear the dark: "come in from the dark"; adorn the house with "night lights"; leave a light on in your bedroom when you're sleeping. "The dangerousness of the dark was like the law of gravity. No one could say exactly how it worked, but everyone agreed...The idea that it might be friendly was absurd." (2) As she lay in bed, "all the loose darkness in that room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence..." (3) How to deal with it? "The only strategy I had ever been taught for dealing with my fear of the dark was to turn on the lights and yell for help." (3) The response was to turn on a light, wanting a "quick fix" to the "problem" (4).

For BBT, darkness is "shorthand for anything that scares" her (4). She'd be tempted to eliminate it if she could. And monsters attacked her in her room and the metaphorical darkness of life events has not killed her. In fact, "I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life." Her conclusion: "I need darkness as much as a I need light." (5)

Although these themes are presumably universal (or at least common), BBT focuses on Christianity's largely-negative approach to the theme (6, 10). Darkness is "a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death" (6). While useful and appropriate at some level, "this language creates all sorts of problems": "It divides every day in two...It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God [only] with the sunny part." (6) It also "offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things." (6) 

BBT refers to a "full solar church": an over-arching emphasis on certainty in matters of faith; prosperity in circumstances; and keeping [young] people out of "places of darkness". Downsides? First, as with its cousin, the "Prosperity Gospel", any significant struggles facilely indicate a lack of faith (7). Second, "their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark" (7). Third, she was thankful for the strategy's ability to help keep her on the straight and narrow as a child, but it "also saddled me with a kind of darkness disability that would haunt me for years." (42)

BBT asks: "What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights?" (9) In this, I'm reminded of Lewis' reference to "rats in the cellar"-- that by turning on the lights quickly in our cellars, we often get to see the rats. (If we make a bunch of noise-- warning them-- then they disappear before we can see them...fooling us into thinking they're not really there.) Lewis' point is similar: when you have the opportunity to see darkness in your own heart, don't make excuses and don't flee, but address the darkness that has been (graciously) revealed to you-- and can be dealt with through the blood of Jesus, His cross, and the Spirit.

Instead, BBT argues for a "lunar spirituality" that "waxes and wanes with the season." (8). Her conclusion is that "darkness is not darkness to God; the night is as bright as the day" (16). Perhaps this is part of what Revelation 21-22 implies with "no more night". 

BBT questions the extent to which darkness is bad, but she also provides examples where it is a good. It's apparently far easier to move chickens in the dark (34). And it's important for sleep and our body's health (61). She also attends the Biblical record to note that the metaphor is more complicated than is often sold. The metaphorical uses are nearly unanimous (43-44). But God makes a promise to Abram through the stars (44). God visits Jacob on his way out of town in a famous dream and wrestles with him on his way back home (44-45). Joseph has his dreams too (45). And a biggie: the major events of Exodus: Passover, parting the Red Sea, and the manna are all at night (45). 

Moreover, "darkness"-- biblically/experientially-- is not merely a night-time phenomenon. When God visits Moses at Mt. Sinai, it's daytime, but it's profound darkness in the cloud that veils and represents God's presence (45-48, 57). "It is an entirely unnatural darkness-- both dangerous and divine-- that contains the presence of" God (47). BBT quotes Gregory of Nyssa who observes that Moses' vision began with light, but as his walk with God progressed, he saw God in the darkness (48). Or from Genesis 32, she asks: "Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape?...Someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound." (85)

Early-on, BBT asks if we could "benefit from learning to walk in the dark" (13) and provides potential examples: someone in deep need of faith; someone whose dreams have died (hard); someone who has lost his landmarks and sense of self (14). Life can be tough; God sends rain on the just and the unjust. How are we to get through this life-- faith-fully? 

Here, BBT distinguishes between the "translation" and "transformation" functions of religion (87). The former seeks to turn circumstances from curse to blessing. The best news of this approach is its effort to "redeem" circumstances. The bad news is that it often leads to avoidance or surface "solutions". The latter seeks to transform character-- "not to comfort the self but to dismantle it". In this case, the "redemption" is of our souls-- direct progress in the on-going work of sanctification.
So, "how do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?" (37) This points us to the role of spiritual disciplines-- their strategic approach, their rigors, their value, etc. Much of it is clearly mental a la Romans 12;1-2. As such, BBT outlines a process: "Give up running the show. Next you sign the waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally, you ask [God] to teach you what you need to know." 

In this, I'm reminded of Daniel 3. Daniel's three friends are being tested by the fires of Nebuchadnezzar. They've decided and declared that they think they'll be saved by God-- but even if not, they're not bowing to the king. They don't so much pray to get out of the trial-- as to go through the trial in a way that honors God. Their first priority is not fear and escape, but obedience and faith. I've often suggested to people that they alter their prayers-- from God changing their circumstances to God keeping them *in* their circumstances, but strengthening them to glorify God in their difficulties. Or as the old prayer goes: "Lord, give me a stronger back not a lighter load."

BBT also other pieces of (childhood) advice in navigating the dark: "Have fun...Be careful...Call on God for help" (38) There are certainly trade-offs, but BBT quotes Brox in asking whether we are "hampered more by brilliance than our ancestors were by the dark." (71)

A few miscellaneous things: 

1.) BBT lays out three "official" levels of darkness/twilight (22-24): "civil" (time for headlights so others can see you); "nautical" (enough stars to navigate; time for your headlights-- for you); and "astronomical" (all stars visible). 

2.) BBT connects the importance of darkness to the value of sleep (69 and ch. 8-- esp. 150-152). Included in this is her spine-tingling experiment to have total darkness in the middle of nowhere (152-163). She endures a scary event, but then provocatively wonders whether it was God or something sinister trying to address her-- noting that she'll (now) never know. For those interested, also check out my review of David Randall's Dreamland, a layperson's guide to sleep research. 

3.) BBT also experiences utter darkness of sight and sound by exploring a cave in chapter 6 (121-122). There are a number of excellent nuggets in this chapter: a.) the need to look back as you go, since "nothing looks the same coming out as it did going in" (126); b.) a reminder a la Chesterton that Jesus was conceived in a cave (womb), born in a cave (where the manger would have been), and was buried and rose from a cave (128); and c.) picking up a stone that glittered with fire while in the cave but looked like gravel outside the cave (130-131), 

4.) Finally, here's more on BBT in Time and a related article in The Atlantic