We Need Thanksgiving

November 25, 2014

I hate listening to the news these days, which is saying something because ordinarily I am a bit of a news junkie. I know I share this feeling. All the polls say that Americans are sick to death of ranting and blame. Yet they seem to increase, like nausea on a winding road.

It’s odd, because by some measures we are doing okay. The economy may not be great but it is much better than most. We survived the Great Recession. Crime is down. The flow of illegal immigrants is down. We aren’t fighting any major wars, and while we worry about events in Syria and Africa, they aren’t having much direct impact on us. Not yet, anyway.

And yet as a people we seem so bitterly unhappy, and preoccupied with blame.

I can trot out my favorite suspects and play the blame game with the best of them, but it’s monumentally unproductive. All sides have been ramping it up for years, maybe for decades, and all they seem to provide is more kvetching, more anger, more bitter denunciations.

I think it’s a spiritual disease. Not a political disease, one that can be solved by campaign reform or electoral victories for the good guys or constitutional jurisprudence or whatever your favorite recipe may be. I’m not denying there may be something in those recipes, but I don’t think the lack of them explains the sour mood and I doubt that the attaining of them will change this resentment. I think it’s a spiritual disease that we must all, one by one, family by family, group by group, deal with.

This coming holiday, Thanksgiving, is meant as medicine for this disease. It is only one day, intended for us to stop and be thankful. Deliberately. Thoughtfully. Prayerfully. Even joyfully. We really do have a lot for which we should be grateful.

Hemingway the Creep

November 19, 2014

I have been reading about the Spanish Civil War lately, partly because it is my daughter’s specialty and partly because it is so very interesting in its own right. It was the Vietnam war of its day—passionately argued over, saturated by media coverage, attracting celebrities. Also very deadly and very disheartening.

One excellent, gossipy book is Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, which tells the story of the war through a number of more-or-less celebrity couples that experience it: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn among them. Hemingway was cheating on his wife and doing his macho bluster thing, writing dispatches that suggested he was seeing a lot more combat close up than he ever did. As Vaill writes of him—in this and also in Everybody Was So Young—Hemingway was a truly repellant human being. As to cheating on his (several) wives it does not seem that he was promiscuous so much as he was a born cheater, in a self-glorifying, self-justifying way. He trashed many of his friends in print, including people who had helped him a lot and put up with him a lot. He was vicious with those who (he thought) crossed him. He drank too much, bragged constantly, thought it was a great thing to knock somebody down. Ick.

But my daughter reminded me, as I went on about this, that he was also quite a writer. I hadn’t read him since I was in college. I remembered good things regarding the depressing The Sun Also Rises, but I was thinking that the rest was mostly Hemingway’s macho schtick. Which it is, I think. But with my daughter’s encouragement I re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a wonderful book, probably the best war book I have ever read. I can only conclude that Hemingway, when he stopped talking and sat down to write, became a much more contrite and controlled human being.

It’s a small reminder that people of great talent are human beings, and that even dreadful human beings may have something truly great in them. I like this quote from Philo of Alexander: “Be gentle with each person you meet, for each of them is fighting a great battle.”  

Interview with Eric Metaxas

November 5, 2014

My interview with Eric Metaxas is now online. He’s talking about his new book Miracles. He has an interesting take… for one, he doesn’t particularly focus on healings or other material happenings; he’s just as interested in appearances of angels or in voices directing someone out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He understands miracles as irruptions of the heavenly realm into the earthly; and as such he pays almost no attention to “proof,” like X-rays before and after, and much more to the question of reliable human testimony. He’s basically saying: trustworthy people have experiences that suggest a wider reality than the purely physical. The nature of reality is more than what meets the eye.


November 3, 2014

Craig Barnes (Body and Soul) describes the plight of highly successful young people raised in families that gave them every opportunity. They have great jobs, cool cars and their own apartments, yet they go to therapists lamenting that they aren’t happy. “After the therapist pokes around a bit, revealing how wonderful their lives actually are, the young adults say, ‘Well, I guess I am happy. But I could be happier.’ Right. Of course, we could always be happier.”

Barnes goes on to say that the pursuit of happiness is not a good foundation for a worthy life. And he reminds us that seeking after total happiness is not a new phenomenon, relevant only to affluent, pampered Americans. “According to the biblical story of creation, we were placed in a garden in which we did not have everything. In the middle of the Garden of Eden was a tree with forbidden fruit, the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ And every day Adam and Eve had to walk by this tree and remember that they were never created to have it all. That is God’s idea of paradise.

“Each of us is also created to live a life in which something will always be missing. This is simply the nature of being a creature rather than the Creator, who alone is whole and complete and lacking in nothing. But the holes in our little piece of paradise can drive us wild with anxiety. So rather than enjoy the blessings of the many fruits we are given, we become obsessed about what we don’t have.” So, as the Genesis story goes, while living in paradise we manage to create Paradise Lost.

I found this a striking thought: Paradise is described as a place where we do not have everything.

Barnes is not suggesting that we settle for mediocrity. Rather, he is speaking of a life lived fully within limits. “Living fully” does not mean having everything, it means fully applying yourself to loving God and neighbor. As another catechism puts it, “The chief end of humanity is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” That turns out to be anything but mediocrity: it demands my soul, my life, my all.


October 28, 2014

In Body and Soul, Craig Barnes’ commentary on the Heidelberg Confession, he tells of a well-educated and successful woman holed up in her law office late at night, hoping that a senior partner in the firm will notice. Her life is miserable. In fact she would say she has no life. However, this is the only way she knows to make her life better. She finds the job meaningless, but she keeps pushing harder at it.

By contrast, Barnes tells the story of a woman with a poorly paid low-level job in a bottling plant who nonetheless is thankful she has any kind of job at all. After work she heads to a homeless shelter to do unpaid low-level work serving meals.

Yet, “If you ask the miserable woman in the law office if she would be willing to change places with the joyful woman in the bottling plant, the chances are great that she would say, ‘Well, no. I don’t think so.’ “

Given the chance to abandon our high-flying ambitions for a peon’s satisfaction and peace, we are likely to decline. We keep doing what we know how to do, which is to try harder. We plan to create joy through our successful choices, and to stave off misery. When it doesn’t work, we automatically think we just didn’t try hard enough.

Barnes says this illustrates “the addictive power of sin,” which pulls us far from “the delight we find only in communion with God, a delight that does not depend on our circumstances.” He adds, “I have been a pastor long enough to know that just because people are miserable, that does not mean they want to change.”

He’s not suggesting that we should quit work and head for a monastery. That would be merely another avenue of seeking happiness through good choices. No, he’s suggesting—actually, he’s saying the Heidelberg Catechism declares—that we cannot solve our addiction at all. What we can do is recognize our helpless misery. We can recognize that our only comfort comes from belonging to a mediator who loves us and can enter our lives and rescue us through the love of God.

According to the catechism, you learn to recognize your misery by listening to God’s Law, which tells you (very simply) to love God with all your being and to love your neighbor as yourself.

We can be exposed and embarrassed in many ways. The woman in the law office may be exposed when her legal brief is critiqued, or when her lack of a social life is a source for others’ amusement. Where does that leave her? Merely with another chance to try harder at what does not work. The embarrassment and exposure that come from knowing who and how you should love, however, is truly revealing. It reveals emptiness. It reveals our deepest misery, which—thanks to Jesus—is the place from where we can be lifted like a child. Oddly, in that place we may find comfort, even in misery, assuming we trust the one who will lift us.

Great Speech by David Brooks

October 27, 2014

A friend sent me this speech by David Brooks to a gathering of Christians. It is quite helpful and extremely moving.  I strongly commend it to you.


October 23, 2014

Our small group has been studying the Heidelberg Catechism, using a book called Body and Soul by Craig Barnes. The first question alone makes the catechism worthwhile.

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Barnes says that our culture is dedicated to the myth of the right choices. This is the underlying narrative in nearly every graduation speech, and in much child-rearing, and in most how-to books. Make the right choices—of school, spouse, career, friends, clothes, make-up—and you will be happy. This emphasis on choice makes us very anxious people—since, of course, we cannot know what the right choices are in most cases, and even when we make the best choices we often remain quite unhappy.

By contrast, the comfort of the gospel is “the discovery that our lives do not belong to us.” (p. 29) This startling and counter-intuitive assertion is the basis for everything that follows.

I find it interesting that the catechism, written nearly 500 years ago (by a 28-year-old pastor), begins with comfort—and comfort in the first-person singular. While much of faith (and the catechism) deals with communities of people, comfort is always singular. This is what we want to know: what comforts me, in life and in death?

The answer, that I belong to someone else, someone great and faithful, speaks to me very deeply.

This comfort applies to both body and soul. It is not a purely spiritual comfort. It encompasses sickness and mental illness and Alzheimers and much else. Nor is it a purely material comfort—it reaches far beyond the promises of prosperity.

The promise of belonging extends to both life and death—that great unmentionable fact. Among other things, this explains why Christians are so dubious about assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is wrapped up in the ideology of better living (and dying) through choice. It breeds the belief that comfort comes through making the right choice as to when one should die. But the catechism claims that the only comfort comes through belonging—and that your death, as your life, belongs to Jesus Christ. This does not imply in any way that we should preserve life at all costs. It merely means that our ideology of choice is undermined, that a deeper reflection will seek to affirm whom we belong to, rather than what our plans should be. If we have paid attention to life at all, we know that our plans prove to be highly fallible. And that is particularly true for our plans about death. There above all we are out of our area of competence. That we belong to Jesus is our only comfort.

Science and Religion Intersect

October 21, 2014

My interview with Owen Gingerich, a retired Harvard astronomer and historian, is on Christianity Today’s website. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/when-science-loses-sight-of-god.html

Gingerich is a wonderfully warm, inviting figure. In his book God’s Planet he analyzes the work of Copernicus, Darwin and Hoyle, showing how Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” for science and religion doesn’t really hold. Gingerich is a subtle thinker, and he doesn’t describe anything in a black-white, slam-dunk-you’re-wrong manner. His love for science really shines through. So, too, does his Christian faith, which is expressed gently but with great confidence.

What Makes a War

October 13, 2014

I just finished reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of the events leading to WWI. She asks the obvious question, how all of Europe could enter such a war apparently without any reason.

She gives multiple explanations:

–the rise of social darwinism that valued struggle and even war as an improving process;

–the increase of nationalism and a valuing of national honor, so that both leaders and public looked for a chance to demonstrate national valor and could not countenance backing away from conflict;

–the intricate alliances formed on behalf of security that caused one assassination—which concerned Austria-Hungary but hardly anyone else—to ripple into world war;

–the persistent success of the international community in averting crises in the decade before, resulting (ironically) in a blithe confidence that peacemaking was inevitable;

–a mistaken analysis that war would necessarily be brief, because no economy could sustain its costs more than a few months;

–and the misfortune that put some unstable and callow leaders at the head of several countries, at the same moment that more cautious leaders fell out of power for various reasons.

MacMillan paints a clear picture of the forces in each of half a dozen countries, but she insists that these forces did not determine what happened. Ultimately, the decision to go to war came down to the will—or the weakness—of a handful of leaders, who pushed for war or failed to push against it. They all went into it blind—either not recognizing the edge of the cliff as they approached it, or believing it to be an opportunity for glory or greater security rather than the absolute horror that the war proved to be.

I found it chilling to absorb the reasons for war in such detail. The lesson we have absorbed so well from WWII—that you must stop the Hitlers of the world while they are still weak—is very different from the lesson we might learn from WWI—that it is possible to drift into war in a spasm of enthusiasm or obligation and then find it a tar pit that cannot be escaped. The hard part is to decide which lesson applies best to any particular situation–to the rise of the Islamic State, for example.

Distinctively Open

October 10, 2014

Visiting my daughter in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, gave me a chance to learn more about the Moravians, who founded Bethlehem in 1741 as their American headquarters. They made me think: there is more than one way of being a sect.

The Moravians were founded on the preaching of John Hus, a Czech priest who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his heterodox ideas, such as worship in the local language instead of Latin. His followers were persecuted—sometimes a lot, sometimes a little—for the next 300 years until some of them found protection from a German nobleman, Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf. He let them build a community on his land, and eventually they began to send out missionaries. Some went to America to reach native Americans and unchurched colonists, and Bethlehem was established. The Bethlehem Moravians carry on today: the town features their denominational college and seminary and their mother church, built to seat 1,500 even when there were only 500 residents of the town.

They weren’t the only sect in the neighborhood. Pennsylvania was founded on a tradition of religious tolerance, and many sects came there from Europe—Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and other less-known groups such as the Harmonists and the Dunkers. Most had experienced persecution because of fiercely held beliefs, and as a result they didn’t mix. For example, the Quakers, who have become such a sympathetic group, would shun not only those who married outside the Quaker meeting, but anybody who attended the wedding. They were sharply separatistic, as sects often are.

The Moravians were as “different” as any of these groups. They shared all possessions in common and lived in “choirs” based on gender and age, so that even married couples lived apart, and children were raised communally. Yet the Moravians’ distinctives were not ends in themselves, but (what they believed to be) practical approaches to their mission. They had come to America to share the good news of Jesus, and therefore reached out to their neighbors—all their neighbors. As I walked through their cemetery, laid out by Count von Zinzendorf in 1741, I saw many graves for African-Americans and native Americans mixed in with all the rest. I do not think you would find that in any other colonial graveyard in America.

Usually, groups that are open to outsiders gradually merge with the rest of society. It is fear of assimilation that keeps them from opening the doors too wide. Surely that is true today, not only for immigrant sects but for all groups that want to maintain their distinctive beliefs and character. The Moravians, whatever their faults, sought a distinctive life that was open. That is a trick I would like to master.


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