Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

February 28, 2004

Psalm 31:1-5

In you, o Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.

Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.

Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.

Free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.

Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, o Lord, the God of truth.


Who am I depending on? Where is my fortress? Where do I hide when the danger comes? If Jesus, who might have saved himself instead of fallen men, trusted instead in the Father's will, why then should I trust in something else?


Trust is connected with obedience. If I refuse to walk in the way of obedience, and yet I say I trust the Father, I am a liar, and already caught in the Enemy's trap.


Trust is confidence. If I say, "Jesus, you have the words of eternal life," but I cannot say, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit," then in truth I have no refuge at all, and my house is built on the sand of pious words only. Sorry indeed is my state when the storm approaches.

February 27, 2004


I actually admire Rebecca Writes for her promise never to post anything at all regarding The Passion of the Christ. There is always something refreshing, in my opinion, about a person's refusal to join the parade, whatever the parade might be.

I speak of the parade of blogger commentaries (blogmentaries?) on the Gibson flick. I had intended to refrain from joining the gab-fest, but yesterday, in a weak moment, I gave in. I mentioned the movie, and admitted that I probably wouldn't be seeing it. Then, last night, it was the first subject of discussion at our small group meeting. So you see, I can't seem to escape the discussion.

With all that as self-justifying prelude, herewith a few thoughts on the cultural phenomenon that is The Passion of the Christ.

As I said yesterday, the movie sounds too ghastly for my taste. I have a rule about these things. I really don't care if the violence has "redeeming value" or not (and in the case of The Passion, it most certainly does), or whether the movie is "brilliant" or not. I simply refuse to subject myself to the gruesome, detailed violence that seems so much a part of modern film.

That having been said, I understand that many truly important and powerful movies have included levels of violence that surpass my threshold of tolerance. Some of these (Saving Private Ryan, American History X for two examples) I have seen and valued despite their violence. I also understand that there is a Christian tradition which emphasizes meditation on the crucifixion of Jesus as a spiritually rewarding exercise.

But I want to emphasize that not all those who are troubled by The Passion's violence should be relegated to the category of Greeks (to whom the cross is always folly) or, even worse, Christ-haters. There are even, I think, some sound theological reasons to be troubled.

As I mentioned yesterday and wish to expound on today, it is possible in my opinion to over-emphasize the violence done to Jesus. Some of the reactions I've heard have tended to suggest that such an emphasis reminds us of the degree of our own guilt. This much violence had to be done to Jesus, this line of reasoning infers, in order to cover the sins of the world. But this is getting things seriously wrong, I think. As if each punch, each whip-stroke, accounted for a portion of our sin, and the accumulated violence done to Jesus equals the accumulated guilt of the world's sin. This is almost a mathematical perspective on the atonement, and would justify I suppose, the careful contemplation of every detail of Christ's suffering (since only thus could our sin and guilt be accurately tallied, only thus the depths of our depravity appreciated).

But what made Christ's death sufficient (even sufficient unto the salvation of all who believe) was not the degree of violence done to Him prior to the point of death, but His degree of innocence. That Christ was the Son of God, that He was perfect in every way, the "unblemished lamb," is what makes the crucifixion sufficient to cover my sin and yours. If Jesus had once sinned, if He had once strayed from the Father's will, it would have utterly undone the plan of God to salvage His fallen creation. This is why Satan tried so hard to tempt Him into sin just at the beginning of His ministry.

Other men have suffered even as much physical abuse, I suppose, as Christ (such is the appalling history of human cruelty). But none of these others was innocent, and none of them was God. For me then, a more valid and rewarding object of contemplation might be something that emphasizes not simply that Jesus paid such a high price for our sin, but that the Jesus who did so was God, which is after all the burden of John 3:16 (and indeed the entire Gospel of John). This is exactily where Paul places the emphasis in his great paeans to Christ (see for example Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-23). Here the deity of Christ is not merely the context, it is the dominant theme. This is an important point I think. Gibson is free to emphasize the violence of the crucifixion, and I do not begrudge him that emphasis, but it is at least arguable that such an emphasis does an injustice to the New Testament message.

Now, I hasten to add that I do not consider the movie heretical or necessarily dangerous to a sound faith. I am not against other people seeing the movie. I am not commenting on the genuineness of Gibson's faith or questioning the integrity of those who are deeply moved by the film. Not in the least. I am only "working out" in words the reasons for my own reservations. And I'm simply suggesting that fans of this film cut its critics (at least some of them) some slack.


By the way, for a discussion of the theological issues involved here, have a look at What Mel Missed by Frederica Matthewes-Green. She says it better than I could ever have.

February 25, 2004

I probably won't be going to see The Passion. This seems almost like a sacrilege on my part, I know. It's just that I don't think I would be able to stand the sheer horrific brutality of it. I suppose the film might be a great evangelism tool, as everyone is saying, but its focus on the last 12 hours of Christ's life, to the exclusion of His three year ministry--proclaiming the Kingdom of God, healing, teaching--does run the risk, it seems to me, of skewing the Gospel message somewhat. Rammesh Ponnuru, writing for The National Review Online, writes the following about the movie's usefulness as an evangelism tool:

Some of my friends have asked me whether I thought the movie would make non-Christians reconsider their faiths or unfaiths. It is not beyond the Lord's power to reach people's hearts in this way. But I suspect that Christ crucified will remain folly to the Greeks. The movie may make Christianity seem more, rather than less, alien and strange. As powerful as I believe this movie is, I have no doubt that there will be those who choose to mock it. There are Christophobes among us; and these are not people for whom the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. They are people who, for various reasons, some of them understandable, all of them sad, are alarmed by any sign of increased Christian vigor.

What do you think?

By the way, click here for an interesting and, it seems to me, balanced review.

February 24, 2004

Continuing the quotation from Kierkegaard (see previous post):

You have loved us first, o God. Alas, we speak of it in terms of history, as if you have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing you have loved us first many times and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You--You are the first--You have loved us first; if I arise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever. And yet we always speak ungratefully as if You have loved us first only once.


I spent yesterday sleeping and reading. Isn't that just about perfect? The last 4 hours of the evening I was consumed in reading and finishing The Return of the King. These books have restored to me the great joy of reading. It's been a long time since I've known the deep pleasure of being enraptured by a book. This was the pleasure I knew as a child. It seemed, and still seems, like something deeply important. More by far than simply whiling the time with a pleasant fantasy. Tolkien awakened me. That's what it feels like, and that's what it felt like when I first read his books as a young man. Maybe all our lives are just a struggle to wake up, and so we need these gentle nudges. A good book is like a breeze at the window, stirring the curtains. Did you forget, my son, that you are alive, and the world is beautiful?


These are the people I know that need jobs right now: Terri, Rick, Caleb, Elias, Gift, Nate. There may be others, but that's all I can think of at the moment. Please pray for them, you who read these names.

February 22, 2004

Battling a cold these last few days. Drat! It really cramps my style! This morning the world is white again. They'll be some digging out if we want to go to church. Hmmmm!


Here's a prayer from Soren Kierkegaard:

Father in Heaven! You have loved us first, help us never to forget that you are love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seductions of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom you have commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

February 20, 2004

April Morning, 1966

Something very different today. A fresh poem, hot from the pen. Reactions appreciated!

April Morning, 1966

There stood the familiar row of homes--
my street--my block--

and in a parallel line the ancient maples--
slow lives--brave and serene--

and between these trees and these houses
the sidewalk--my path--my way--

poured in another age--
cracked and buckling with the slow grinding pressure
from beneath of mighty roots--

and above all this, the incomprehensible sky--
and under it all, the teeming earth--

and in the middle of it all, the simple me--
Child-fool in the Promised Land--

so how could not my soul have whispered then,
"For you . . . for you . . . for you . . .. "

February 19, 2004

Something Beautiful

I saw something beautiful today.

It was a woman feeding ducks. This was in South Portland, where Trout Brook empties into the cove, just beside the supermarket. These ducks stay there all winter, huddled on the ice. But now they were gathering around this woman like school children to a beloved teacher, and she was bending over and dropping bread into their upturned beaks, making sure not one of them went hungry. She was saying, "Not you . . . you've had yours . . . you . . . and you . . ." And the ducks were quacking eagerly as if to say, ". . . me . . . me . . . me . . .me . . . me . . ."

So that was my something beautiful. Oh, and the gulls! The gulls were circling watchfully right over her head, just the way they circle a fishing boat. Maybe ten or twelve of them, a whirling feathery vortex in the air. I should tell someome!

February 18, 2004

Just stopping here for a moment before I rush off to work. I just wanted to say thanks to Berry and to Doug for their responses to yesterday's post. It so happens that through responses like these I have discovered many of the fine blogs listed in my blogroll to the right. In this case, Berry's blog was new to me and a pleasant discovery. I'll definitely be stopping by there from now on.

Yeah, so have I mentioned that I love this? I love blogging, I love hearing from other bloggers, I love the conversations that spring up among us. Somehow, if I'm not mistaken, the sense of community. It makes me wanna dance!

February 17, 2004

Here I am, Lord

In prayer we try, as best we can, to gather up the fragments of our lives and offer them to God. It is not gold or frankincense we offer. It is shattered pottery. Not beautiful, but all we have. We say, here I am, Lord. My life, such as it is, I give to you. I really don't know what you would want with this mess. I think that if I were the Potter, I would have long ago swept all this aside and started over. But not You. That's not Your way. And it occurs to me now that such thoughts are just so much foolishness. As if the clay should say to the Potter, You're wasting Your time. You'll never restore this life to the perfection You had intended. It's too far gone. Give up. You've failed.

And I remember all at once the words, God never fails. This Potter is a master craftsmen. Nothing daunts Him. He will bring to perfect wholeness all that He has begun. The crafting is not over yet. So yes, Father, I do offer these shards and fragments, these broken pieces, to You. I offer them in faith. I know that You do not require more than this. And I know also that the vision with which You began Your mighty work of creation was so perfect, and so pleasing, and so desirable to You, that in order to bring it to pass You gave Your Son for it--for us--on the Cross.

I think the best way to start a prayer is to simply say, Lord, here I am. To offer ourselves. Not pure, not whole, not always with perfect intentions, not in strength but in weakness, not in wisdom but foolishness, not making any claim except our need. We need You, Lord. Come.


  • Listening to: Nickel Creek: This Side.

  • It's great!

    Ecnouragement (1)

    The following is a post from back in early December. I wanted to retrieve it because it's the first in a series and I didn't have permalink then, and I don't know any other way to link to it except to republish it now that I do have permalink. Therefore:

    I've been thinking a lot lately about encouragement as a spiritual gift. That's what Paul called it. A gift from the Holy Spirit for the building up of the children of God. It seems that God understands that since the Fall we have had to live out our lives in the threatening shadow of hopelessness, and that this problem persists well into our salvation walk.

    Therefore, He tells us, encourage one another. You're going to need it. Build each other up. Think the best of one another. Because discouragement is going to be a problem for you. That sense of hopelessness and helplessness under which you labored so fruitlessly before you came to know Me is going to continue to bedevil you.

    There are at least two reason for this, I think. One, of course, is indwelling sin. We are, at some level, keenly aware of this. This awareness bursts out even in Paul at times, as the sheer helplessness of his situation vis a vis sin come clear to him. "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me." That's Romans 7:21. A few verses later (v. 24) he cries out, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" There are times when this simple ineradicable (in human terms) fact just overwhelms us. And suddenly we lose sight of the rest of God's truth for us. We take our eyes off his love and mercy and our attention is focused on our own sinfulness. And we cry with Paul, I'm such a fool. So helpless inadequate to resist temptation. So stupid. So lost. This would be a sad state indeed if there were no way out, no adequate answer from the Father. Paul's question is the right one: Who will save me from myself? And the answer: I will. I have, yes, and I will. My grace and mercy is longer and wider even than your sin, child of mine. I've got it covered.

    The second reason that we continue to need encouragement is the fact that the world is fallen, surrendered into the hands of the evil one, and set sternly against the pilgrim church. Perhaps it can be stated this way: the greater the good that we might do, the greater the opposition the world will bring against you. Many actual passages of encouragement in the epistles are offered in the context of persecution. Not only in Paul's letters, but Peter's too, and in those of the Lord Jesus to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. This combat has a tendency to wear us out. To weaken our faith. To make us vulnerable by taking advantage of our weakness. And this is why we will need to encourage one another. This is why the strong must support the weak and bear with them and nurture them. That's encouragement.

    Now, I want to take a closer look at the word itself. The Greek word is paraklesis, and it means, among other things, to strengthen through consolation. I want to take a closer look at that, but first I want to look at the dictionary meaning of the English word. It literally means to give heart. The word courage was once synonymous with heart (that is, the seat of feeling, the spirit, disposition, nature). Later it came to mean "that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking." That's why, I suppose the song You Gotta Have Heart from Damn Yankees is truly a song of encouragement. Now, the prefix en- essentially turns the noun into a verb. Now it means, to give heart or inspire with courage. To animate. To inspirit. The OED says, "to inspire with courage sufficient for any undertaking; to embolden, make confidant." And: "To allow or promote the continual development of (a natural growth, an industry, a sentiment, etc.)."

    That enough for now. I have to get going. Will return in a few days, I hope, with more on this. In the mean time, COURAGE!

    February 16, 2004

    Well, the Lovely L has picked out her autoharp, after much (I mean, MUCH) deliberation. Here it is:

    This has caused as much excitement around this household as we have had in some time. She'll be ordering it today, if all goes well. Yee-hah!

    February 15, 2004

    Choice Words

    Picked this one up from Wishful Thinking. It's a from Frederick Buechner's The Sacred Journey, and it's too good not to repeat:

    The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God's things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak--even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys. We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. But be not affeared, says Caliban, nor is he the only one to say it. "Be not afraid," says another, "for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.

    And this one comes from John Piper's A Godward Life:

    Christians are not fatalists. We do not believe that heredity and environment are the only components that shape us. We believe in God. We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe in change from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). The most powerful worship will be among people whose minds linger in the light of truth and whose hearts-whose emotions-are as near the fire of God as they can be without being consumed. Let us rise and go forward from where we are to the next place of freedom, limping forward in the therapy of grace.

    February 14, 2004

    Encouragement (4)

    Consider the word "consolation."

    Henri Nouwen points out (in Bread for the Journey) that the English word, traced to its Latin origin, means, literally, to be with [con] the lonely one [solus].

    What did Simeon say, after seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple: "I have seen the consolation of Israel." [Luke 2:25]

    Rembrandt's Simeon with Christ Child in the Temple

    Isn't that a beautiful thought? Israel was "lonely" for the Messiah. Remember that by this time God had not spoken in something like 500 years. Would He ever speak again? The Rabbis had said the Messiah would be the Consoler or Comforter. The One who brings hope. Simeon was "righteous and devout" (which means he revered God), and he had been looking for that hope, that consolation, all his life. He had not given up on God. He simply trusted the promise and waited for its fulfillment.

    And when Mary and Joseph brought the boy to the Temple, he knew that his wait was over. Though this was just a helpless infant that he saw before him, he sensed (because the Holy Spirit was "upon" him) that this boy was the Christ and would one day enact the ultimate consolation.

    It's important to note that the Holy Spirit gave Simeon this knowledge. That is very clear from the text. The Holy Spirit always directs people to Jesus. The Spirit was "upon" Simeon, and he saw then with more than ordinary human sight--he saw prophetically. He saw the Consolation of Israel, and what's even more remarkable, he also saw that this Consoler would be "a light to the Gentiles."

    So the Messiah, Jesus, is called here the Consolation. I want to get back to the meaning of that word. I said that the literal meaning was "to be with the lonely one." The Greek word in the original Luke text is "paraklesis."

    Now remember that the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Paraklete. In other words, the Comforter. Alternatively, The Helper. The Consoler. The Encourager. The Advocate. [see John 14:16] Do you get it? Jesus is called, by Simeon, the consolation (or comfort). The Holy Spirit (who always magnifies Jesus) is called, by Jesus himself, the Comforter. So the comfort is Jesus. The comforter is the Holy Spirit. The encouragement (the grounds for hope) is Jesus. The encourager is the Holy Spirit.

    Now I realize I'm kind of rambling here, and this may seem quite rudimentary to you, but I'm just working all this out in my own mind by writing about it. Take a moment to look down a few verses in Luke 2, down from the description of Simeon waiting for the Consolation of Israel, to the the words that Simeon speaks about Jesus. Simeon says, "for my eyes have seen your salvation." And this is really the equation I wanted to get to. The Consolation of Israel was the Salvation of Israel. My consolation, too, my comfort, my help, my hope, is my salvation. That is, my Savior.

    This is ultimate comfort, isn't it? Not just temporary comfort, not just partial comfort. This is eternal stuff we're talking about. And keep this in mind, too: the ministry of consolation is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we are truly walking in the Spirit, we are enacting the Spirit's ministry of consolation. We are ministering comfort to the lost. We are coming along side the lonely. We are offering the Word of Hope to a world darkened by sin. And the point is, we can only do this in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we "walk in the Spirit" (that is, in line with the Spirit's purposes) we are quite literally enacting the ministry of the Holy Spirit by pointing people to Jesus as their one and only ground of hope.

    So just to sum up (because I know I've been rambling):

    1) Jesus is our consolation
    2) The Holy Spirit ministers this consolation
    3) This consolation is our salvation
    4) To offer this salvation to others is to offer ultimate, trustworthy, and everlasting hope
    5) Therefore, if you really want to comfort (console, encourage, help) offer Christ
    6) And that is, at least in part, what it means to "walk in the Spirit."

    February 12, 2004

    This is myrtle:

    Also called periwinkle, I gather. Amy Carmichael, in her daily devotional (called Whispers of His Power), says this about myrtle:

    The myrtle plant is small. It's flowers appear insignificant and so do its leaves. But its flowers are really very beautiful, pure white, exquisite under a lens, and of a delicate scent. It's leaves hold a secret. Look through them and you see numbers of small crystal balls; they look like pinpricks in the leaf. Each of these is a little vase of aromatic perfume. Crush the leaf and you will find how sweet it is.

    Within each person is what the Bible calls 'the hidden person of the heart' (1Peter 3:4). A glance does not show it, just as a glance does not show what is in the myrtle leaves. But the moment we are carefully regarded, above all when we are tried in any way (crushed as we crush the myrtle leaf), that moment what is there is known. There is no possible way of deception. Courage or cowardice, truth or falsehood, kindness or selfishness, strength or weakness, it is known; and we are known for what we really are.

    Perhaps you can think of examples of this from your own life. The Bible puts great store by endurance. Thankfully, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. Are you needing to endure a trial? Are you being crushed right now? With Peter I say, Let nothing terrify you (1Peter 3:6). With Jesus I remind you, You are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31). Be faithful. Spread abroad the fragrance of Heaven, which is beautiful to God beyond measure, and to you who endure He will give the crown of life! (Rev. 2:10)

    February 11, 2004

    This is something I just read in Steve Brown's February Letter (here). It's from a book called The Valley of Vision, which is a collection of Puritan prayers. This was just too good to pass up:

    Oh Changeless God,

    Under the conviction of Thy Spirit I learn that
    the more I do, the worse I am,
    the more I know, the less I know,
    the more I love, the more there is to love.

    O wretched man that I am!

    My mind is a bucket without a bottom,
    with no spiritual understanding...

    Give me a broken heart that yet carries home the water of grace.

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!


    The Lovely L. wants to get an autoharp. An autoharp? Yes, that's right, one of these:

    Now, the Lovely L. has never strummed an autoharp more than once or twice in her life, I suppose. But recently our pastor was preaching about spiritual gifts, and asked people if they wanted to receive prayer regarding maturing in their gifts and using them for the Kingdom, and immediately L. received a picture of an autoharp.

    Well, I think that's pretty cool myself. This is something she can use in a small group worship setting. She's talked about it with me and with the boys, and everyone thinks it's a great idea, and now she's so excited about it she couldn't get to sleep last night!

    Oh, and by the way, that woman in the picture is NOT the Lovely L.

    February 10, 2004

    A little while back Susan of What a beautiful day! suggested encouragingly that maybe I should write a book about encouragement. Well, I'm thinking about it. I mean, I'm really thinking about it! Someone once told me that everyone ought to at least TRY to write a book, just so they might know the difficulty and thereby better appreciate those who have done so successfully. Also, the English historian Paul Johnson wrote, in the introduction to his book A History of the American People, that the best way to learn something was to write a book about it. Therefore . . .

    I'm going to write a book about encouragement. There, I've said it. And if any of you, my intrepid Readers, want to help, you can send me your suggested examples of Biblical encouragement. Or you can just write to me to say, I'm pullin' for ya, Champ!

    By the way, my thanks to Between the Cushions for his kind comments a few days back. I especially like your blog because it includes some good history and poetry links, two subjects that interest me a good deal.

    February 08, 2004


    I have a lousy attitude. But the really neat thing is, God treats me as if I had a great attitude. He's not waiting for me to straighten up. He's not waiting for me to purify my motives. He's only waiting for me to come to Him. And despite my not entirely pure motives, in His sovereign will He chooses to use me anyway. How cool is that?

    I'll give you one example. I don't need to go into detail here, but suffice it to say that--to name just one of my less than altruistic motives--I crave the praise of men. This craving after bread that does not truly satisfy intrudes itself on almost everything I do. It colors my love for God, and it sullies my love for people. It is always there, lurking, lurking and accusing. And yet . . .

    He uses me. He accepts my imperfect love for Him, and he uses and anoints my imperfect love for others. He is looking for faith, but He doesn't require that the faith be perfect. He is looking for those who can say, "Lord, I believe . . . help my unbelief." And that's about as pure, as God-delighting, as we broken men and women ever get. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. To this God may respond with a gentle touch, with an increment of power, a impartation of divine hope, even a filling with His Spirit. To this even angels respond with celebrating, with carols and loud hosannas. And it becomes possible for us to claim with Paul, despite our weakness, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

    February 07, 2004


    Blackcaps in the leafless hedge--
    a brief day--
    small things fluting and leaping.

    Who & Why?

    Just in case anyone is interested (what a hoot!), I thought I'd answer the burning question, who are you and why are you doing this?

    I am Bob Spencer, I hale from the state of Maine (which, for those of you who may not know, happens to be in the far northeastern U.S., by the by), I am the husband of the lovely L., and father of the brave and strong N. and T. Also, I'm a follower of the Way, I attend a Vineyard church (charismatic, in case it matters to anyone), and I desire to be a faithful disciple of Jesus--who is my teacher, my friend, my brother, and my Lord.

    So much for the who. Now for the why. I began blogging a few months ago on a whim. I didn't know if it would keep my interest for more than a week or two. As it turns out, I enjoy it very much. In some ways it fulfills the function of a private journal (though of course it is much more than that). In other words, its usefulness to me is on one level quite personal. It's my scratchpad. I am a writer by instinct, and my mind is working best when I am transferring its thoughts, which would otherwise be wayward and haphazard, into a written form.

    That having been said, a blog is obviously more than a private scratchpad. No matter how few its readers, it is a public "document," and has a potential impact on others. I do not ignore this fact. As I have said many times here, I desire only to encourage my readers. This is not a place for personal rants (although I can rant with the best of them), political opinions (although I've got 'em), or cultural commentary. You won't find posts about the Super Bowl half-time show, the current elections in my country, or my favorite bands. Instead, you will find, I hope, encouragement. The guiding principle here is Hebrews 10:24--"And let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds."

    And that's it. I hope to bless you in some way, and I even hope to be blessed by you. Be of good cheer, for it is the Father's pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

    February 06, 2004

    John 6, among other things

    Ah, Friday morning. I'm sitting at a computer in the student union building at the campus where I work (USM). It's very quiet here and I've got an hour to kill.

    Small group last night was cool. I announced that we would be breaking up in a couple of months. Our group will probably be morphing into three groups at least. Things will not be the same, after PDL. I think that is such a good thing, such an exciting thing, because it's going to nudge people further along in ministry (that is, in their own personal "walking out" of Romans 12:1).

    A new opportunity has opened up for me: to write for a local monthly Christian newspaper (wow, that's almost too many adjectives for one noun to bear). This seems to have come along at just the right time, since I have been asking God to use my writing for His kingdom. So, cool! I'm going to jump in head first! I have no idea at this point what the editor has in mind, but will be meeting with him soon. I covet your prayers.

    I've been reading chapter 6 of John. Actually, since the beginning of the year I've been reading the same chapter each day for a week. Now I'm in chapter 6, next week 7, etc. Does this seem crazy to you? It's been a real blessing to me. It's made me aware of the inadequacy of so much of my reading--that is, my reading has been little more than skimming at times, or a searching out for some nugget of spiritual comfort and nothing more. About two years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book, which really demonstrated to me the need to assess the quality of my reading life. Do I do it well? Am I good at it? Have I settled for a certain modest level of comprehension, taking for granted that the act of reading, which has been so large a part of my life, is simply what it is, and there's nothing I can do to improve on it? Is "voraciously " really such a good way to read?

    So: I am reading the same chapter 7 days in a row. On the 7th day (this is new) I will read the whole book up to the current chapter. So, at the end of the sixth week, I will read chapters 1 through 6. At the end of the seventh week, chapters one through 7. Although I'm not sure about this last part. I expect to be rather occasional in my obedience to that rule. The point of it is not to lose the sense of context--how does the present chapter fit into the overall flow of the book?

    Anyway, there it is. And I'm on chapter 6 of John. Jesus, who had been seeking solitude, is followed to a remote place by a large crowd. We can kind of imagine that most of these are economically down-and-out, physically hurting, politically disenfranchised and just generally frustrated. They're hungry for leadership, they have the makings of a mob, and they're expecting Jesus to fulfill, somehow, the unexpressed longings that underlie their sense of frustration and futility.

    Am I reading too much into it? These people had literally pursued Jesus hungrily. He had crossed the lake in a boat to arrive at this remote place, and most of these people had to walk around the lake to arrive here. In truth, Jesus was seldom able to escape the hungering crowds. Anyway, he feeds them. This is not only a miraculous act, and not only an act of mercy, but the offer of community. This is a let-us-break-bread-together moment. Let us be friends.

    And how do the people respond. Many among them assume that they have found the kind of temporal leader they need. A King! Suddenly the miracle is subsumed in political ambition fueled by long-standing resentment. Rebellion is going on.

    Jesus withdrew from the crowd then, and even departed from them surreptitiously (and miraculously) during the night. Still, some at least follow Him again across the lake and there is a second encounter. Here Jesus confronts them in a way that completely disappoints their expectations. He says, Okay, you saw a few loaves and a few fish feed thousands, and so you want to make me your king. But look here. I am the real bread. That bread you ate was for temporary nourishment, but the bread I offer is life eternal. I offer my very flesh and blood. If you eat of this bread and drink of this blood, you will really live!

    Do you see how Jesus diverted temporal ambitions toward an eternal perspective. He is offering these people a radically different way of understanding, and for some the leap is just too great. They can't accept it. They're offended. It is a clash of worldviews here, and it is a dramatic moment. Many fall away. But the point is, Jesus perceived their need in a different light than they perceived it. They said, here is how we want you to fulfill our need, Jesus. But he said, your need is not what you think. Let me show you your real need.

    The seriousness of what Jesus offers is very clear in this chapter. People are confronted with a choice here, and the responses vary. The real point I want to make is, Jesus used graphically physical imagery to convey a spiritual truth, and directed the attention of his audience thereby from the temporal to the eternal. He had done just this with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, and now with this large crowd.

    We need to remember that this is our task too. To direct people toward the things that last. People are literally consumed with their needs, their issues, and seek to fulfill them in ways that are temporary and often unhealthy. Our best assistance is simply to point people to the bread of life and say, Begin here.

    February 05, 2004

    For Christmas my son gave me a daily devotional by C. S. Lewis. It had been some time since I'd read Lewis, but I'm as captivated by his intelligence now as ever. What wonderful stuff. The book is called A Year with C. S. Lewis. I'm tempted to share long passages from it almost every day, but, exercising great restraint, here's just a short sample (from the January 31 entry): This is my endlessly recurring temptation: to go down to the sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal. . . . Our temptation is to look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact like honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of an income tax in principle. But we dread a rise in the tax. We are very careful to pay no more than is necessary. And we hope--we very ardently hope--that after we have paid it there shall be enough left to live on.

    Yesterday I had two very rewarding conversations. I ran into Manuel quite by chance. I had started off for lunch without my hat. Realizing I would regret going out without it, I turned back, and so encountered Manuel. He has been walking in desert places lately, feeling very unsure of himself, of his future, perhaps of his faith. He told me that he had an opportunity to visit his family in Guatemala and was leaving Friday. I just sensed that this was going to be a very important reunion for him, perhaps a time of spiritual refreshing and renewal. I told him that L. and I would be praying for this. I told him also that I believed that God was calling him into a challenging new field of endeavor, and that often he leads us into the desert in order to prepare us for the task ahead.

    Anyway, I told him all this under a sense of compulsion from the Lord. This was no chance meeting. And Manuel was clearly blessed, clearly happy to have bumped into me. I think it was definitely one of those Kingdom appointments.

    I have been writing much on the subject of encouragement, but in truth God has shown me how often I really fail to encourage--how inadequate I feel to say the right word at the right time. Sometimes, often, the best I can offer is to listen in silence. Once I heard Lance Pittluck say that the Christian life is all about "just showing up." Just being there, being alert to what God is doing in a place, in a person, and joining in. As Pittluck says, when we walk into a Starbucks we should be asking, "Father, what are you up to here?" Because just as the Father loved the Son and showed Him all that He's doing (John 5:20), well, He loves us (because of the Son) and will show us too what He is doing.

    So then I had another conversation, later on, with T., who reads this blog and will recognize herself. And I told her about what I've just told you--the Christian life is all about showing up. And I think it really blessed her. I think God granted me to really build up two people yesterday. To really show up! God is teaching me how easy and how awesome it is to serve Him by encouraging others.

    So I just want to walk through my day today saying, Father, what are you up to here? Can I be part of it? What do you want me to do? It's so cool that He let's us play!

    February 03, 2004

    Encouragement (3)

    You will find a good example of Biblical encouragement in the 13th and 14th chapters of Numbers--the story of a military reconnaissance mission. The Israelites had been wandering by this time for forty years in the Sinai desert, and had at last come to the very borders of Canaan. This was the land of promise. Again and again God had told them, "I will give you this land."

    And now that they had reached its borders, He commanded them to send twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scope out the land. Information was what God's people needed at this point. The charge of Moses to the 12 spies was this: "Go up this way into the South, and go up to the mountains, and see what the land is like: whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many; whether the land they dwell in is good or bad; whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or strongholds; whether the land is rich or poor; and whether there are forests there or not. Be of good courage. And bring some of the fruit of the land."

    Well, You know the story. The twelve spies were a hung jury. There was a majority report, representing the perspective of ten of the twelve, and a minority report, offered by Caleb and Joshua. Keep in mind that all twelve had seen the same sights. There was no disagreement on the essential facts. But two among them, Caleb and Joshua, had drawn a radically different conclusion from these facts.

    First, the facts: "We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan." (Numbers 13:28,29)

    And the people, hearing all this, are frightened out of their wits. They're terrified. But now Caleb, keeping his head, speaks up. Caleb is an encourager, and he speaks the can-do of the Lord. "Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it." (Num. 13:30)

    Ah, but now the ten are frightened. They really don't want to do this thing. They can't let Caleb's persuasive words sway the Israelites. So they begin to spin the information. Their fearfulness (and perhaps also their majoritarian pride) will not allow them to hear Caleb, or let anyone else hear him. They quickly drown him out with words intended not to encourage but to discourage. They say, "No, we can't do this. The people there are too strong, the cities too well-fortified. Not only that, but we saw giants there. Giants! Next to them we were like grasshoppers. If we were to go up against them, they would simply devour us."

    And these words have the desired impact. The people go absolutely nuts. They are convinced that certain death awaits them in Canaan. Moses and Aaron have led them into a trap! Suddenly a full-scale rebellion is in progress. They're going to pick new leaders and head back to Egypt.

    Here is where Joshua speaks up. It's interesting to note that, prior to the reconnaissance mission, his name had been Hoshea, which means salvation. But Moses, who was calling him to a new level of leadership, renamed him Joshua, which means salvation is from the Lord. It is an appropriate name. This is what he says: "The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, 'a land which flows with milk and honey.' Only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us. Do not fear them."

    There is more, much more, to this story, but I simply want to make a few observations about discouragers and encouragers.

    About discouragers:

    1) The discouragers often out-number the encouragers. Furthermore, there is a persuasive power in numbers to which fearful men often retreat. The majority view is self-justifying. Something becomes so as long as enough people can be convinced that it's so. This is the classic tactic of the demagogue.

    2) The discouragers, driven by fear, exaggerated the threat. The discouragers, in others words, slanted their information so as to influence the conclusions that would be drawn from it. They were not trustworthy reporters.

    3) The discouragers mistrusted God. They wilfully point people away from God. For example, notice that they tried to scare the Israelites simply by naming the many different "nations" they had encountered. Amelekites, Hittites, Jebusites, etc. But they fail to metion, because they didn't trust, what God had previously promised them through Moses: "Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'To your offspring I will give it.' I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites."

    About encouragers:

    1) Biblical encouragers always point people to God. They remind people of who God is and what He has done. They see things, and they encourage others to see them, from a Heavenly perspective. The reason that Joshua and Caleb were not afraid was because they remembered and trusted God's promise to them. Nothing they'd seen on their reconnaissance mission could make them doubt their Lord.

    2) Biblical encouragement is far more than aglass-is-half-full kind of optimism. It is, instead, what I will call wise optimism. What did Joshua say? "If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land . . ." If the Lord delights in us. And as every descendent of Abraham surely knew, the Lord delights in those who trust Him and seek to follow in His way. Joshua and Caleb were simply reminding the Israelites of their part in the plan of God.

    That's all I've got time for today. I pray that God will encourager your heart, too, dear reader. "If the Lord delights in a man's ways, He will make his steps firm." May the Lord delight in you today. Amen.