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Archive for the ‘Meditations’ Category

what kind of god

It is larger than life–its theme, its style and its subject:  an eight-foot tall Creature, stuff of horror but also pitiful, the result of one man’s vain experiment in conquering death.  The music soars, the icebergs float soundlessly.  Near the end, the scientist is pursuing his foul creation across Europe and into the Arctic Circle.  The Creature, amazed that this puny man has not succumbed to exhaustion and death, asks:

What kind of god is so consumed with hate for his creature that he will pursue it to his own destruction?

(For the powerfully moving ending, go and see Frankenstein, the new musical at the Civic Theater, while you still can. The final performance is March 22nd.)

It is impossible not to make comparisons.  Another larger than life story, a man who drew enormous crowds, while igniting hatred against himself, who fed thousands, healed illness, raised the dead without lightning flashes or horrible effects.  And at the end, bleeding, dying in agony…one who had been with him could have asked:

What kind of God is so consumed with love for His creation that He will pursue it to His own crucifixion?

(For the powerfully moving answer, check out any New Testament for one of the gospel accounts.)

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I’m not sure why my thoughts strayed to piano teaching the other morning, when I was praying. (Why do my thoughts ever stray at that time? A perennial question.)  I recalled my conversation with Angela about the “hard parts” needing more practice than the “easy parts.”

“Think about it, honey,” I said. “If some measures are really easy for you, and some give you lots of trouble, how does it help to just start at the beginning and play the piece straight through?  You’d always be playing the easy parts just as much as you do the hard ones.”

It strikes me that this must be true of practice in general, and therefore of practicing the spiritual disciplines, too.  I have the same challenge facing me which faces my piano students:  I have to identify the parts which give me the most problem, so that I can focus more energy on fixing those parts.

So–what are the hard things for me in the Christian walk?  Is it the “praying without ceasing” command?  The love of God with all that I am and have?  The love of others as myself?  Is it tithing or fasting or reading or meditating?  It’s a good solid question, which deserves pray and seeking an answer from God.  Then when the problem is identified, I can further pray about my plan for improving in that area.

Maybe I should start with keeping my thoughts from straying during prayer?

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A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.

–John 13:34-35

I’ve always assumed that Jesus was making an “if–then” statement in the above verse.  In other words, “Since I love you, therefore you should love one another, too.”

But what if  “As…so” means:  “In the same way I love you, thus you must love one another.”

And in WHAT way did Jesus love them?  How would He answer that?

  • I loved you by humbling myself to serve you.
  • I loved you meekly, not overwhelming you with displays of power to intimidate you.
  • I always wanted what my Father God wanted for you.  I challenged your thinking gently but persistently.
  • I met your physical needs.
  • I sacrificed My life for you.
  • I showed you the Father.

Lord Jesus, help me to love others the way you love, today, tomorrow and every day.

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Troubled

…You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over…

–Psalm 23:5, Revised English Bible, c. 1976, Oxford University Press.

Anything trouble you about this translation?  It certainly brought me up short when I read it last night in The Divine Hours, pocket edition (Phyllis Tickle, editor).  After looking at all 18 available English translations on Bible Gateway (along with both French translations), I’m even more puzzled as to how “enemies” or “foes” or “adversaries” could have become “those who trouble me”.

Lots of people trouble me, often without intention or even awareness on their part.  My sons trouble me, a lot.  Some politicians trouble me, big time.  Rude sales clerks irk me.  But are they the adversaries in the presence of whom God has spread a banquet for me? I am going to assume that “those who trouble me” must imply that they intentionally want to cause me trouble.

I’m fascinated by how much that simple change of phrase has personalized this verse for me…a verse I never could relate to, since I don’t consider myself to have any enemies per se.   I’m fascinated–but troubled, because the immediate mental picture which sprang to mind was of our younger son.  I’d just had yet another long conversation with him about how he sees no evidence of God’s goodness or truth in his life, and no value in the Bible.  (To his credit, he is really wrestling with these issues, talking frankly with us and not letting go of his anger.  We find this much more encouraging than his apathy would be.)

Of course one’s own family being adversaries is not an unbiblical notion either.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
” ‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

–Matthew 10:34-39, NIV, emphasis mine.

At this point, the aggressor in our home is hoping (at least this is his overt goal) to make us admit that our faith is unsubstantiated, bogus.  He troubles us with hostile, inflammatory language.  Sometimes I refuse to engage. Once I answered his question in writing, and may choose to do so again.   My hope is that somewhere in the midst of this battle–much of which is being waged with his own spirit–the Holy Spirit will be able to pierce the shell of willful unbelief with truth.  The bonds of self-deception are thick and tangled, and I know there is only One who can set him free.

This said, I return to the psalm and I wonder:  What is the purpose of spreading a table in front of one’s foes?  Is it a picture of being vindicated publicly?  Divinely favored, in the face of those who have questioned, “Where is your God?”  Did any of King David’s enemies turn to the Lord when they saw that God was with him? I’m betting they did. All of which brings me back to that verse I mentioned in a post last week:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

–I Peter 3:15

As I bear witness to the ways that God encourages me–and I’d better be paying attention to those daily ways!–with gentleness and respect, might not the one who now troubles me begin to develop a hunger for the feast that I enjoy?  Indeed, I think he’s already getting hunger pangs.  He just can’t admit it yet.

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I commented to a book-loving friend that I felt as if I’d read the same book over and over again throughout 2008.  The theme of why the Christian Church (in general, but the American church in particular) has such limited impact on society, and the importance of getting back to obedient discipleship (or apprenticeship) and spreading the message of the Kingdom, are treated over and over, a modern theme and variations.  Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren and Dallas Willard–among others–are all preaching this message in compelling ways to Christians, seekers and many who are disenchanted with organized religion.

I decided to begin a new year by trying (again) to read a classic text which has been gathering dust on my shelf while I read all these newcomers:  The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  After just a few pages I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.  Sixty years ago, in the midst of a world war, in a different country, in a different language, and there’s the theme yet again.   Is it the most important message anyone can deliver, or am I personally being hounded by heaven?  And if the latter, what am I to do about it?

Bonhoeffer makes an intriguing case for the paradox that both the following statements are equally true at the same time:

Only he who believes is obedient.

Only he who is obedient believes.

In other words, obedience is impossible for an unbeliever…and it is nonnegotiable for a believer.  Bonhoeffer seems to see obedience rather than faith as the “first” step.  Jesus calls, we obey the call which leads to belief which compels us to further obedience and deeper faith.

And so this got me to thinking:  I know two young men who once professed belief.  Now they deny any spiritual convictions whatsoever.  They want to do their own thing.  I certainly don’t expect them to “obey” like believers when they don’t believe.  But I wonder:  is it a measure of integrity that they have jettisoned belief because they see the necessary connection between faith and action?  Or are they simply trading one sin (disobedience) for another (dishonesty)–talking themselves out of legitimate faith in order to avoid the guilt of disobedience?  Or does it even matter?  If they are not obedient, then in Bonhoeffer’s view, they are not believers, period.

And what will make them want to believe? Surely it will be a call from Christ, though who knows how or when it will come.  Meanwhile, do they see any Christians being obedient to their faith?  That seems to be the recurring question: what has God ever done for you? How is your life different/better because you believe?

And I am chagrined to find that I stumble over the answer to that.  One of my resolutions this week is to take seriously Peter’s charge:  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (I Peter 3:15) I’m pretty sure that’s a charge to which I need to be obedient.

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Have you ever noticed that when you learn something new, suddenly you hear about it everywhere?  Or you get a different car, and now it seems that every other car on the road is the same make?  It’s not as if the word ‘acedia’ is coming up in conversations all over the place, but the concept certainly is.

In Sunday School our teacher was talking about “settling” for less in life, and why we don’t pursue spiritual things more aggressively.  Some people mentioned fear of failure or fear of rejection. Others said they don’t have time.  Some admitted that we do other things instead, because we’re seeking to fulfill an immediate need.  I suggested that actually we’re not fulfilling any real need, but trying to numb ourselves against our own dissatisfaction.

We live in a world of media, and I wonder how much of our time connected to a computer, an IPod, a DVD screen or a video game is meant to distract us from a whole list of “shoulds” or “what ifs” or “if onlys”?   Acedia is the demon of “I’ll think about that later”…”I’m too tired now”…”it doesn’t really matter anyway”…  A generation of procrastinating students don’t do any homework at all because “when am I ever going to use this information in the real world?”  They plug into ear-damaging music, send each other messages filled with wild fantasy, play endless rounds of Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto.  And of course this is so much more useful in the “real world”…

I’m not trying to sound like a last-generation fogey.  My generation turns on the TV, picks up the phone, eats another cookie, reads a magazine or a novel, checks e-mail again.  We’re all professional-level procrastinators, and I think it’s the spirit of the age.  Acedia isn’t just a personal demon any more.  It’s a prime tool of the prince of the power of the air(waves) which makes us feel mildly productive when we’re only getting better at avoiding what’s important.  Our instant access to world news increases our helpless despair…what can I do about war in Israel, or another shooting in a shopping mall, or the plummeting stock market?

What we don’t ask is, “What is my next-door neighbor’s greatest need?”  Heck, often we don’t even know her name.  What we don’t ask is, “What could I do for two hours this week to better my community?”  I’m preaching to myself here, folks, so if this doesn’t apply to you I’m envious.  It definitely applies to me.   And I really hope that these thoughts and ideas and images don’t go away any time soon. I hope they keep coming up.  Maybe then I’ll do something about them.

For one idea of a social issue to pursue, you could read Jon’s post for today, where he talks about his friend, Dian.

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The quote above is Dante again, to which Kathleen Norris responds: “The question presumes the freedom to choose; if I am truthful with myself, I recognize that in midlife, there are many days in which I indeed choose to sin and wither. Even if I can think of ways in which I might rouse myself from lethargy, I resist acting on them.” (Acedia & Me, page 201)

The picture of sinning as withering makes it clear that the choice of passivity, non-caring, is a self-destructive one. Isn’t it ironic that we sometimes get to this place of lead-limbed inaction through a misguided sense of ‘taking care of myself for a change’?

Perhaps I become weary with doing good—and as Ruth pointed out in a comment recently, it may be that I was doing too much, or taking on burdens not rightly mine. In any event, I am not seeking God’s face and asking for my proper work (Ephesians 2:10). It may begin to feel as if God is requiring too much of me. So I deaden myself to agape and replace it with a languid narcissism, acedia. I reject discipline as being tedious or repetitive. I embrace the new, the sensational.

But though I may think I’m seeking an exciting life, I’m really only looking for new ways to be passively entertained. My senses become dulled to what is productive, life-affirming and God-honoring. In any “activity” I should ask: who am I serving with this? If the answer is too often “me” then acedia rules our hearts.

Now listen: we’re not talking about the healthy care for one’s physical, mental and emotional health. And an occasional self-indulgence as a “treat” is a vastly different thing from wallowing in amusement—a word which literally means to not think. But like the naughty boys in Pinocchio who are enslaved because of a surfeit of sweets, sin “so easily entangles” us…once we awaken to truth, it can seem like a hole too deep to climb out of.

I wonder if perhaps acedia is sometimes a defense mechanism we use when we think we’re too far gone. We choose to deceive ourselves into thinking that “it doesn’t matter” what we do or don’t do. The demon’s lies seem plausible at times when we feel that either God doesn’t care what we do, or we can never live a life that pleases Him enough, so why try? As Norris says, “When we are convinced that we are beyond the reach of grace, acedia has done its work.”

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I think my previous post may have been unclear.  I was following my own train of thought about anger and acedia, based on just a few sentences in Norris’ book.  She takes a passage from Dante’s inferno, describing the fourth circle of hell, where “the angry are denied the mercy of forgetting” and stand naked in the mire striking at one another. Nearby, sunk in the bog and barely visible are the slothful who ignored beauty while they were alive.  “Inside us, we bore acedia’s dismal smoke…”

The juxtaposition of anger and acedia strikes Norris as meaningful, and so she explores it. “When unexpressed anger builds up inside, people perform even legitimate duties carelessly and resentfully, often focusing on others as the source of their troubles.”  Notice that Norris doesn’t specify that the anger is caused by someone else, or that one’s resentment is expressed necessarily against the person with whom you are angry.  I imagine this could as easily be a case of “kicking the dog”–taking out one’s frustration on an innocent third party.  The passage isn’t definitively about one or the other…her point is only that acedia is sometimes linked to anger.


It seems to me that the morose mood of acedia is more likely to be the cause of unjust anger than vice versa.  Perhaps it is a vicious cycle, where the numbness of uncaring provokes an irrational anger which results in more careless action or inaction…And this passage in her book is by no means implying that ALL anger is caring too much about the wrong things.  I think I may have made Dante seem to say that, and I apologize for the confusion.


On the other hand, “be angry and don’t sin” is a useful commandment here…even righteous anger can lead to careless words and acts, or a stewing silence in which the offense grows like cancer until it’s unrecognizable. When I choose to let the sun set on my unresolved anger, am I not choosing to embrace acedia?

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acedia-and-me3“Dante ties anger, which entails caring too much about the wrong things, to acedia, which is caring too little about the right ones.” Acedia and Me, page 202

This sentence from Kathleen Norris’ book made me pause and reflect: Does anger really mean that I care overmuch for unimportant things? Is my interrupted quiet time more important than my son’s need to talk? Is that broken cup worth spewing out words that I can’t take back? The questions may be rhetorical, but they can still sting.

Norris suggests that when we are angry–especially when the anger isn’t verbalized–it comes out in action: a duty is done with resentment, carelessly. And so acedia, non-care, rears its head.

When I sweep away my concern for the right things, the best things, and cease to focus my heart, mind and actions on them, that vacuum is easily filled with more trivial desires. My thwarted will, in the midst of an otherwise empty room, seems hugely important. Any real or imagined slight by my family festers there; perhaps the laundry piles up or a requested item on the grocery list is ‘forgotten’…

Jonah couldn’t bring himself to care about the Ninevites, even after he had preached repentance to them. His resentment of God’s mercy emerged when he became unreasonably angry over the withered gourd whose shade he had enjoyed. His energies were turned inward to his own gratification, and he resented what spoiled his comfort.

What Jonah needed to realize was that God was NOT asking him to minister out of his own superior strength and holiness. Norris points out in an earlier chapter that “we engender compassion not through our strengths but through our common weaknesses.” Jonah was supposed to offer the same mercy that he and all Israel had received.

Prayer (no surprise) is the antidote here. My devotional last week gave me a good quotation to round out this relating of anger and acedia:

“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me…There is no dislike, no personal tension, no estrangement that cannot be overcome by intercession as far as our side of it is concerned…To make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in His mercy”  (from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

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Mary

from Advent Longings, copyright 1997.

“Soon–please, Father, soon,” she pants, shifting her weight on the blanket-draped straw, trying to outwait the pains. This wave over, she lies back, her breathing heavier now than the beasts’, hulking in the gloomy corners.

At least it’s quiet here, she thinks, grateful for relief from the bustling, crowded street…the noise has faded with the end of day, and is more muffled here through the sturdy stable walls. Joseph did his best, gathering blankets, linens, a clay lamp and oil–though it cost them all the little store of coin they had. A servant kindly brought them bread and wine. It will be their last meal before…he comes.  Bread stays their hunger, and wine dims her pain a bit, so she can sleep.

Waking as midnight deepens, far along in pressing, urgent pain, she stares up at the dusty beams.  The lamp’s weak glimmer throws up just enough pale rays to cast odd, wavering shadows, and to make the cattle monstrous.  Try as she might to make no sound, a groan escapes–Joseph wakes at once, attentive, though it isn’t nearly time yet.

Now, however, when she shuts her eyes she is aware of something that approaches–not a shape exactly…more a light.   It’s far away, but she can sense it speeding toward her, and her heartbeat quickens.  Gasping now, with single-minded focus she fixes her eyes on the lamp flame, waiting for what she knows will come.  Now, in the breathy stillness, when she groans again, it is as if the whole world groans with her in eagerness, waiting with her and working, leaning toward that long-awaited light.

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