Mr. Standfast

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

December 30, 2004

Thanks for Your Prayers

I want to take this opportunity to thank those people who have prayed for me and especially for John's family. I particularly want to mention Feeble Knees, who blogged about John's death along with the shocking catastrophe in Asia.

I don't expect to be posting much between now and the funeral tomorrow, and perhaps not until Saturday afternoon. We are doing well, although feeling a little embattled. I am not going to say anything regarding the tsunami and its aftermath, not quite yet anyway, simply because words fail me. Nothing I can say would amount to a hill of beans. There is a time for silence, as Solomon once said. Perhaps this is one of those times.

December 29, 2004

At Loose Ends

As I mentioned in yesterday's "comment" I'm feeling all at loose ends since I heard the news about John. Is this what grieving is? This feeling of disharmony, of everything being "out of joint"?

I will get back to regular blogging in a day or two. John was an occasional reader of Mr. Standfast and always encouraged me in it. His funeral is in two days, at the church in which he and Janel were married three months ago.

Lately I've been reading and rereading Romans 8, in which Paul writes, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."

In heaven the all-encompassing glory of God is revealed to us and even "in" us. Remember that it is His glory revealed in us, not our own. But the point is, what we now catch only in fleeting glimpses, because of our blindness, our fallenness, the "glorified" saints in heaven experience and participate in continually. Heaven is a place of continual revelation of the endless glory of God. Continual joy-filled astonishment at His goodness.

Paul goes on to say, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified."

In the meantime, we wait eagerly. We groan. We are often out-of-sorts, impatient, crying out for the fulfillment of the ancient promises. I thank God that He has given me the right to call him Father, and to cry out to Him, Abba, and that He understands even my groaning. And I thank Him that my friend John knows a glory beyond my feeble comprehension, and that I will know it too someday.

December 27, 2004

John Cadman, 1977-2004

If you were with me back in October, you may remember that I was best man at my friend John's wedding. I wrote about it here. This evening I learned from his wife, Janel, that John passed away this afternoon of a massive seizure. He was 26 years old.

John was big, gentle, and loving. Built like a linebacker, he loved dance, poetry, and freely expressed emotion. Most of all he loved people. My kayaking expeditions with John on Casco Bay were among the finest experiences of my life.

I know a couple of things for sure. I know Janel is devastated. She doesn't understand. I don't understand. When she spoke to me this evening, she said with an almost supernatural calmness, "Honey passed away this afternoon." Honey passed away.

The other thing I know is that John is at home with the Lord. He loved God with all his heart. He is dancing now in Heaven with beautiful abandon, honoring his Lord.

Christmas in Iraq

Best Christmas post I've seen has got to be from Training for Eternity. The blogger is Chaplain Lewis, stationed in Iraq:

From Bastogne to Baghdad, Christmas and war have always seemed to travel hand in hand. Soldiers from most generations have endured Christmas in the face of battle. And in the past 36 hours I have learned two very important lessons about Christmas, the nature of war, and the spirit of the American Warrior.

Lesson Number One ... war is unrelenting. Despite the fact that today is a national holiday and a time normally spent relaxing, opening presents, and watching or playing football, the fighting didn't stop. Throughout the day the drone of war could be heard in just about every direction. Whether it was an aircraft of some sort zipping overhead, the rapid ping of nearby gunfire, or the thump of a distant explosion, it didn't stop. War continues at a breakneck pace. Even in moments of relative silence it hung in the air. There is no escaping the fact that we are in harms way. Some more than others.

Lesson Number Two ... Christmas is unrelenting. Last night we held a Christmas Eve service in celebration of the birth of Jesus. In that service, I came to realize that the American soldier is indeed a unique and awesome individual. Despite the roar of mortars in the background, smiling faces sang, Silent Night. Despite the complete lack of greenery for miles, men of all ranks shook hands and sang, Deck the Halls. And despite being away from friends and family, our battle-hardened brothers joyfully sang, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Men who look like they'd just as soon break you in half as speak to you, smiled at one another and hugged one another as wishes of "Merry Christmas" echoed throughout our little chapel. . . .
Also, go on over to Not Perfection for a Christmas in Iraq post from another perspective. Enough said.

Christmas Recap

Had a wonderful Christmas. This one will forever be known as the Cookie Christmas, since that's what we ate all day. Friends Paul and Meghan joined in the fun and laughter, and we all played Sniglets for hours on end (so really it was the Cookies and Sniglets Christmas).

And for background music we had:

Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer
Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company
Blind Boys of Alabama: I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord
Jolie Holland: Escondido

And all of this was so good as to make my ears glow, so filled were they with wonderful sounds!

December 25, 2004

Christmas Prayer

I'm praying that all my regulars (you happy few) would have a Christmas that is simply overflowing with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. And that in all your celebrating the name of Jesus would be lifted high. We celebrate the birth of our king!

December 24, 2004

The Greater Gift

Chapters 2 to 4 (roughly) in John's Gospel repeatedly depict the contrast between things spiritual and things earthly. Moreover, Jesus announces by his words and actions that the "spiritual" is now on offer. In a sense it replaces the earthly (as Jesus replaced water with wine at the wedding-feast). He tells the Samaritan woman at Sychar, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." (4:10) The woman is at first only interested in earthly water, but Jesus promises another kind. You can see the woman's mindset, after a few moments of confusion and mental stumbling, begin at last to shift.

The offer of this spiritual water propels the Samaritan woman toward a momentous recognition. A choice is at hand. She can dismiss this ragged fellow as a wandering crank, or she can receive the gift on offer. The gift of God, Jesus called it. I read in the IVP Commentary on John that this phrase was "a comprehensive term for everything that God bestows on man for his salvation."

So there is a gift on offer, a gift of God. Well, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, much depends on our "sense of the giver." That is, who offers this marvelous gift? Is it truly a "gift of God," or is that just the sales pitch of some wandering desert mystic, angling for food and a bed for the night?

At this point Jesus begins to reveal who he is to the woman. He tells her things about her life that he simply shouldn't know. A light seems to go on inside her. She begins at last to understand. The earthly has been pierced by the spiritual, the light of eternity has entered a woman's darkness, and where the light is, the darkness must flee.

Three things: this water that Jesus offers is a gift of God, it is spiritual as opposed to earthly, and it encompasses everything necessary to salvation ("it wells up to eternal life"). Let's look more closely at that last piece of information. This water "wells up." It is not a stagnant pond, or a deep well into which one has to drop one's bucket. It's a spring. It wells up, and it wells up "unto enternal life." It is the provision of God for life everlasting.

The woman, though, is still thinking in earthly terms. "Living water" literally means "running water." That, we might say, is its earthly meaning. The Samaritan woman is still not comprehending. Does this mean I won't have to come for water every day? As the IVP commentary puts it, "Jesus is offering her eternal life, but she thinks he is talking about indoor plumbing."

Earthly thirst might be temporarily slaked by earthly water, but here is a provision for spiritual thirst that will not run out, and that one does not labor for, and that sustains not merely the physical, the earthly, life of the man, but the spiritual man, even unto eternity. (v.14)

The IVP commentary again: "Jacob gave a well that provides water, but Jesus is the giver of a greater gift, living water. ... Jesus not only brings revelation of God but gives the Spirit by which this revelation is internalized in believers, giving birth to spirit (3:6)."

It is only by the Spirit that we can ever understand spiritual things. Only by means of the gift itself, in other words, that we can even begin to comprehend either the gift or the Giver. Our place is only to receive.

Now, we are only scratching the surface of this passage, of course, but I just wanted to use it to show the great value of the gift that God offers through Christ. It is the transfer of citizenship from an earthly kingdom, destined to fall, to a heavenly and eternal kingdom. It is everything that pertains to life, real life, godliness, spiritual maturity, and heavenly treasures. And when we receive it, our whole point of view shifts from the earthly to the spiritual.

And why does God offer such a gift? Because He, the Giver, loves us, his wayward children, with a love that chases us down, a love that rescues, a love that saves. The gift of God in Christ is all this and more, and it is to the baby in the manger as the oak is to the acorn. What we celebrate, when we celebrate the birth of that baby, is God's costly provision of salvation for those who, like the Samaritan woman, were stumbling in the dark.

Let's be bold about declaring the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas is not fundamentally about receiving earthly gifts, but about receiving the gift of God, which is to say, eternal life through Christ Jesus.

December 23, 2004

The Two Christmases

Two holidays coincide, this time of year, and both, confusingly, go by the same name: Christmas. There is secular Christmas, and then there is--oh, what shall we call it--spiritual Christmas. The secular version, though younger, and indeed though a cultural offspring of spiritual Christmas, sharing many of its same values, has come to be the dominant of the two holidays.

This morning I read John 3, where Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about the new birth. He says something very challenging, very "in your face," to poor befuddled Nicodemus. He says, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." A few paragraphs later, John the Baptizer says something very similar. "The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth."

There is a quite literal divisiveness about the Gospel, as these passages and many others indicate. It seems that everything comes down to how a person answers the question that Jesus put famously to Peter: "Who do you say that I am?" There are those who stand with Peter: "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." And there are those who stand, well, elsewhere.

Similarly, the spiritual Christmas celebrated by some at this time of year is a divisive, exclusive holiday (or, more precisely, holy-day). It is from above, and it calls forth a response that is one either of recognition or denial. Those who observe this spiritual version of Christmas are celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who, they say, was God incarnate, God with us, Emmanuel. In other words, whether you celebrate spiritual Christmas or not comes down to who you say Jesus of Nazareth was and is.

Secular Christmas is, on the other hand, inclusive. No prickly questions of religion need mar the celebration. It is not a "holy-day" but a holiday. A day, ideally, of cheerfulness, charity, family, love. All who believe in these things may join in the festivities. Gift-giving is the central ritual of secular Christmas. Instead of Jesus in the manger, presents under the tree. To exclude anyone from such largesse would seem downright Scrooge-ish.

As I've mentioned, secular Christmas is of course the dominant of the two holidays. One reason for this is that its values coincide quite nicely with retailing interests, with which indeed secular Christmas seems inextricably bound. It might be tempting to say that secular Christmas is marred by covetousness, but that would not be quite right. Human beings are marred by covetousness, and secular Christmas happens to be a human creation that seems peculiarly designed to encourage that particular sinful inclination.

But that is not to say that spiritual Christmas is pristine and uncontaminated. It is contaminated to the extent that it has been influenced by its secular counterpart. To the extent, that is, that the central focus, Jesus of Nazareth, has been replaced by the ritual of gift-giving. If you can imagine Christmas without presents, and it still makes you happy, you just might be celebrating spiritual Christmas.

December 22, 2004

A Couple of Christmas Goodies

I found this at Mysterium Tremendum. It was too good, too appropriate, not to borrow:

by Mary Coleridge

I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in a manger.
The oxen knew him, had Him in their care,
To men He was a stranger.
The safety of the world was lying there,
And the world's danger.

And then there's this from the incomparable Dr. George Grant, who is considering the familiar lyrics of The 12 Days of Christmas:

What is clear is that festive song praised the feasting and good will of the Yuletide season by detailing the gifts of Gospel. So for instance, instead of referring to a suitor, the "true love" mentioned in the song refers to the wooing suitor of Heaven: God Himself. The "me" receiving the gifts is symbolic of every covenant believer. The partridge in the pear tree is Jesus Christ, and in the song, He is symbolically presented as a mother partridge who feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The pear tree itself is often portrayed in Medieval literature (as is the apple tree) of the means of grace by which the gifts of God are bestowed upon men and nations.

And so it goes throughout the whole song: the two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments; the three French hens are faith, hope and charity; the four calling birds are the four Gospels; the five gold rings are the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses in the Old Testament; the six geese a-laying are the six days of creation; the seven swans a-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount; the nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Spirit; the ten lords a-leaping are the freedoms of the Ten Commandments; the eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful disciples; the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve cardinal doctrines of the Apostles' Creed.

All in all, the song is a joyous reminder of all we celebrate this Christmas—from the crèche to the cross.
Who woulda thunk?

December 21, 2004


From John Bunyan:

Christians are like the several flowers in a garden that have each of them the dew of heaven, which, being shaken with the wind, they let fall at each other's roots, whereby they are jointly nourished, and become nourishers of each other.
Found at Eternal Perspectives Ministries.

A Sense of the Gift

Yesterday I said that Christmas begins with “the sense of a Giver.” That, of course, is not all there is to say about this over-burdened holiday. But it’s not a bad place to begin. To begin what, you ask? To begin to disentangle Christmas, as best we can, from the grappling hooks of culture and history.

So, begin with the Giver. The Father of Lights. The Giver of all good things. The Master Potter, the Creator, the One who spoke all things into being and said, at the end of His labors, that it was good.

And then to the Giver's gift! It is not at all like other gifts. It is no ordinary thing, chosen from a shelf in a store from among a thousand others just the same, then wrapped up in fetching paper and tied with a grandiose bow. Such a gift would not befit the Giver. No, in this case the gift is extravagant, but comes in a plain wrapper. Not merely plain, so seems this gift, not merely humble, but even--in the old sense of the word--–mean. Nothing at all, really. Easily shoved aside in preference to larger, grander packages under the tree.

But this gift is from the Giver. Pause here to consider the true nature of His gift. This gift was the Word, the logos, the very wisdom of God enfleshed; it was with God from the beginning, and it was God. In this Gift was life, and that life was the light of men. The true light, incomprehensible, the light that shines in darkness, and that no darkness can encompass.

A grand gift, no? But see, it’s only a baby, you say. Born into what we would surely call poverty these days. And in a barn, no less. A helpless baby, vulnerable, conceived in a troubled land to care-worn parents. This? This was the gift? This child the logos of God, dwelling among us in the very shape and substance of mortality?

Years later, Paul, a follower of the Way, speaking of this same Gift, this baby, would write that, "“Though He was in very nature God," He did not grasp or cling to godliness, but made Himself nothing! And being found in the appearance of a baby in the womb of a girl, He continued to humble Himself, to subject himself to the confines of time and mortality, here in the world of men, and to walk the walk of a man, even unto a humiliating and seemingly senseless death.”

However you and yours might celebrate Christmas, if you too are a follower of the Way, this is what you celebrate. John, one of the first such followers, said simply, "We beheld His glory." Angels abounded at the scene of His birth. The Eternal had entered into time, for the purpose of retrieving the lost. God's great plan to save His creation was coming to pass at last. In a barn. In David's town, Bethlehem.

And the darkness could not comprehend it.

December 20, 2004

The Sense of a Giver

I suppose I've disentangled myself from much that we call Christmas here in America. I don't send cards, don't buy many presents. Call me Ebenezer Scrooge, I guess. Somehow what was once a day has become a "season." That special feeling, that "spirit of Christmas," is coaxed into being by fancy advertising back around Thanksgiving. The "season" of Christmas, in other words, just happens to coincide with the buying patterns of Christmas shoppers.

Me, I'm kind of interested in "keeping" Christmas by stripping it back to its essentials. While there are certainly many fine things about the secular Christmas that dominates our culture every December--such as family, love, charity--but doesn't it always feel somewhat ginned up? And isn't it often, for many, nothing more than a riot of excess, ending in dissipation?

I hope this doesn't sound mean and small of me, but I want Christmas to be only a day again, not an artificially elongated "season." When I was a child I learned to look forward to an unusual "sensation" that I would feel while lying in bed on the night of Christmas Eve. This was not merely the excited expectation of gifts, at least I don't think so. No, I learned to expect a strange and pleasant feeling as of the presence of vastness--such as one might feel, I suppose, standing at the side of the Grand Canyon, or under the dome of St. Peter's. It was lovely and awesome, and it always seemed a kind visitation or gift--associated with a giver, in other words. This "giver" I presumed to be Santa Claus himself, whom I believed in strenuously--precisely because of this "feeling" of mine--long after other kids had grown knowing and cynical.

That, for me, is something very close to the "spirit" of Christmas. I would call it now, "the sense of a Giver." Christmas is not Christmas without the sense that it comes down to us, along with all good things, from the Father of Lights.

December 19, 2004


From Graham Cooke's Crafted Prayer:

You have to lose your ability to panic if you are going to walk with God. You have to lose your ability to worry if you are going to walk with God. There is a secret place set aside for each of us. God is love, and in his love, He has set aside a place where we can live in Him no matter what. He loves to teach people where that place is, because when His children get into their secret place, they can enjoy life fully. I does not matter what comes against them--they rise to the challenge. Without stillness our experience of God is limited. Stillness is the precursor to rest in the Lord, a spiritual discipline drawing us into continual experience of His presence. It is this rest, this stillness, this secret place of God, that releases unbroken communion with Him--it releases what the Bible calls unceasing prayer.

December 18, 2004

Saturday Book Notes

I want to make book-blogging a regular weekly feature here at Mr. Standfast. I happen to be one of those people who simply can't get enough of books. I simply can't not be reading something. I remember as a boy upsetting my parents just a little, because we had gone to Scranton's Nay Aug Park, which had a small amusement park, a zoo, a rather dramatic gorge, and even a giant glacial pot hole (if I'm not mistaken). But despite all these obvious attractions for a thirteen year old boy, I was so engrossed in reading The Lord of the Rings that I simply stayed in the back seat of my step-father's Ford Fairlane, oblivious to everything around me.

Well, I haven't changed a bit. This year I will have read about 36 books, I think, not that numbers really matter. Actually, according to this report from the NEA (PDF), I'm not even an "Avid Book Reader." An avid reader, says the NEA, is one who reads 50 or more books per year. No, I am merely a "Frequent Book Reader" (12-49 books annually). That's the NEA's definition. But the Lovely L, whose authority is greater even than the NEA's, says I'm pretty darn avid.

Anyway, this past week I finished reading The Flame Tree. A wonderful YA book (that's librarian-speak for "young adult") that depicts the explosive intersection of Christianity and Islam in Indonesia, played out in the life of a 12 year old boy, the son of American missionaries. Although not marketed as a Christian book (thank God), this is a grace-drenched first novel from Richard Lewis. Highly recommended.

Setting aside The Flame Tree, I picked up Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. I've only just started this one, but I've got to say that the opening page really hooked me. This book's voice is utterly winsome. I can usually tell whether I'm going to like a novel or not by page 5 at the outermost. This one I know I'm going to love. I knew it from the opening sentence.

A while back The Thinklings featured a discussion of the five most essential Christian books. And that's where I read about James W. Sire's How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. I'm both enjoying and learning as I read this one, which is surely a good combination.

Ah, but now I'm wondering, if I really learn to read slowly, as Sire advises, what are my chances of ever becoming an "Avid Book Reader"?

December 17, 2004

Friday is Link-day

When a blogger has nothing particularly insightful to say (and, what is far more unusual, knows it), said blogger simply LINKS. Thus:

Charles Krauthammer is one of my two or three favorites of the "commenting class." In his latest column, he writes: "It is Christmastime, and what would Christmas be without the usual platoon of annoying pettifoggers rising annually to strip Christmas of any Christian content?" Read the whole thing here (login required, but hey, it's the Washington Post! Go ahead, if only to read Mr. Krauthammer.)


Then there's Leonard Sweets "A Learned to Learner Litany of Transformation." I just kinda like it. It's starts out:

I used to be a learned professor. Now I'm a learner.

When I was learned, life was a quiz show. Now that I'm a learner, life is a discovery channel.

When I was learned, it was a question of how much I knew. Now that I'm a learner, it's a question of how much I'm being stretched.

When I was learned, knowledge was everything. Now that I'm a learner, kindness is everything.

When I was learned, knowledge went to my head. Now that I'm a learner, knowledge travels the longest foot in the universe–-the foot that separates my head from my heart.

When I was learned, I used to point my finger and pontificate. Now that I'm a learner, I slap my forehead all the time.
Read the whole thing here.


Didn't you like that just a little? Well here's more from Sweet. An excerpt from "A Magna Carta of Trust by an Out-of-control Disciple":

I am not here to please the dominant culture or to serve any all-show/no-go bureaucracies. I live to please my Lord and Savior. My spiritual taste-buds have graduated from fizz and froth to Fire and Ice. Sometimes I'm called to sharpen the cutting edge, and sometimes to blunt the cutting edge. Don't give me that old-time religion. Don't give me that new-time religion. Give me that all-time religion that's as hard as rock and as soft as snow.

I've stopped trying to make life work, and started trying to make life sing. I'm finished with second-hand sensations, third-rate dreams, low-risk high-rise trades and goose-stepping, flag-waving crusades. I no longer live by and for anything but everything God-breathed, Christ-centered, and Spirit-driven.

I can't be bought by any personalities or perks, positions or prizes. I won't give up, though I will give in... to openness of mind, humbleness of heart, and generosity of spirit. When short-handed and hard-pressed, I will never again hang in there. I will stand in there, I will run in there, I will pray in there, I will sacrifice in there, I will endure in there-- in fact I will do everything in there but hang. My face is upward, my feet are forward, my eyes are focused, my way is cloudy, my knees are worn, my seat uncreased, my heart burdened, my spirit light, my road narrow, my mission wide.
Read the whole thing here.

December 15, 2004

Miles & Miles & Miles of Heart

The Bible says, "You gotta have heart." No, wait a minute, the Bible doesn’t say that, the song from “Damn Yankees” says that. It’s so easy to get mixed up.

The truth is, the Bible says – or at least implies – that you already have "heart." We’ve all got heart. The big question is, to what or whom are our hearts turned? What is the focus, the preoccupation, of our hearts?

Is there a word that we use more blithely, more carelessly, than "heart"? We say things like, "I asked Jesus to come into my heart, and my life was changed forever." Yeah, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I happen to know – from personal experience – that only moments after we let Jesus in the front door of our hearts, we boot him out the back. Moments after we commit our hearts to Jesus (or whatever, or whomever), our hearts our wandering after something or someone else.

If you ask me, our hearts are inconstant, unreliable, and fetishistic. If you ask me, it would do us no harm to be more careful about what we say regarding our hearts. It would do us no harm, and might even do us great good, to speak of heart as the Scriptures speak of them. To be informed, that is, of what God says about our hearts.

December 14, 2004

Happy Pappy Day!

I went to visit my friends Gift and Kimberley last night. That's right, his name is Gift, which is pretty cool, don't you think? Anyway, their children are Zolie, who is 4, and Tando, who is maybe 1-and-a-half. Both of them greeted me with a joyful chorus of "Happy Pappy Day! Happy Pappy Day!"

"Happy Pappy Day?" I said in bewilderment. "What's that?"

Zolie answered, "It's the day we celebrate CAKE!"

Of course! How could I have forgotten? And a Happy Pappy Day to you, too!

December 13, 2004

Quotatious about Calling

C. S. Lewis (1):

"The more we get what we now call 'ourselves' out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call 'Myself' becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop."

C. S. Lewis (2):
"This world is a great sculptor's shop. We are the statues and there is a rumor going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life."

Os Guinness (1):
"The truth of calling provides a profound basis for responsibility. 'In the beginning was the Word' -- and in the beginning was a Word to us. Each of our lives is therefore relational and aural at core. All we are is a hearing and response. We are responsible because we are response-able."

Os Guinness (2):
"Personally summoned by the Creator of the universe, we are given a meaning in what we do that flames over every inch of our lives. Challenged, inspired, rebuked by God's call, we cannot for a moment settle down to the comfortable, the mediocre, the banal, and the boring. The call is always to the higher, the deeper, and the farther."

Soren Kierckegaard (1):
"All the shrewdness of 'man' seeks one thing: to be able to live without responsibility."

Soren Kierckegaard (2):
Faith's significance for society "ought to be to do everything to make every man eternally responsible for every hour he lives, even for the least thing he undertakes, for this is Christianity."

"Someone has told me a few days ago, that if something is achievable, then that's a goal. If it's a calling or a dream, then it's not achievable by ourselves. Only God can do it. If God commanded it, and we obey and follow it, then that's faith, but if God didn't say it, and we try to make it happen, then that's testing. A lot of the times the calling can look very weird, like Noah, David... But when He calls, we'll definately know for sure. Usually there's a supernatural experience or prophetic words. Normally there will be a desert experience first after the call, just so that we know that we can't do it by ourselves, and at the end of ourselves, God will make His word happen."

"Do I really believe God is big enough to take care of me? Truly? Then, why haven't I stepped out into the unknown, where He beckons me? If I continually walk away from His directives and gentle encouragements, I will soon become deaf to His whispers. And I will quit growing spiritually. That means I can stretch and grow in knowledge, but if that does not result in praxis, a practical walking out of an inner belief, then I will stagnate. I may sound smart, profound even, but if I don't put the belief to the pavement of this world, my walk with Jesus will seldom progress beyond today's spirituality."

December 12, 2004

Where to Now, Jesus?

I’ve been blogging for a few days now about calling, drawing my cues from The Call, by Os Guinness. I’ve mused on a few simple truths (but the “simple” truths of God are always worthy of our prolonged attention). I’ve remembered, for example, that the call of God originates with God. Our calling does not grow from our dreams and aspirations, it is not our sense of destiny or responsibility or even gifted-ness, but the very "follow me" of the Lord.

I’ve noted also that there is a general call on our lives as believers, and there is a specific call that is unique to us. Today in church my pastor preached from Luke 1:26-36, which is all about the call of God upon a 12-year old Galilean girl named Mary. "Favored one," the angel called her. This was a very specific call, strictly unique, and delivered supernaturally to a scared and puzzled girl.

All of which relates to the personal nature of the calling of God. Sooner or later we all must leave off speaking in generalities, where Jehovah is concerned, whether in the form of creedal statements, however helpful, or historic formulations, however treasured, because our God is a God of relationship. His mercy can bridge the gap caused by sin and also by bad theology. He is the coming-near-God, and his "follow me" is an intensely personal and intimate word.

We cannot manufacture our calling. Neither can we wish it into existence. Abram did not merely wander aimlessly, he followed the supernatural call of God to a place, "a destination and a destiny," that was chosen by God. The Lord met him at the start of the journey. Equipped and provided for him along the way. Directed his steps, and finally brought him into the place that he had picked out for him from the start.

That is calling in a nutshell. I refuse to settle for the deistic conception of a God who came near once, but does so no longer. A God who was personal and intimate once, but is so longer. It occurred to me as I read The Call that, as solid as that book is, I was not going to learn my calling from its pages, nor from the pages of any other book.

So the question remains to be asked: "Where do we go from here, Jesus?" It was Paul who wrote, "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling," and the time comes, and it comes again and again for each of us, when we must face up to that task anew.

The focus of my prayer life in the coming weeks will simply be this issue of calling. Of course I want to serve God in every way that I can right here where I am, but I also realize that God’s call is often a call to leave our comfort zones and our settled ways.

I have a set of wooden bookends that once belonged to my sailor-father, who was nothing if not adventurous. They are in the form of two wooden sailing ships, their great sails filled and billowing with wind. And inscribed at the base of each are the words, "Jesus, Savior, pilot me."

Yes, Lord. And amen.

December 11, 2004

Saturday Book Notes

I've begun reading a YA novel Called The Flame Tree, by Richard Lewis. This is a book I first read about at Brandywine Books, then also at Collected Miscellany. You can read an interview with the author here. So far, The Flame Tree is a very engaging find.

My reading list these days is dominated by distinctly Christian writing of course, but I don't want to limit myself to that. I try to sprinkle in some fiction from time to time, but it must be fiction that challenges. Certainly I've read my share of ephemeral stuff (this year, one may note, for example, the incredibly trivial, but nevertheless amusing, Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs). But, for me, reading is not not just another form of entertainment, not just an alternative to TV, nor is it primarily educational. While it can of course be entertaining and is often at some level educational, it's greatest value for me is that it affords an opportunity to cross the borders of the self and interact with the mind (indeed, with the spirit) of another.

Precisely for this reason reading, like art, like all forms of communication, is an open-ended process. A book is an act of communication. Even something as "big" as, say, War and Peace is nothing more than Tolstoy's "remarks" in a conversation that began long before his time and has continued since. It is a response only, however refined and thoughtful, and one to which the reader in turn responds in a way that is at least as complex, though probably not so literary. So the book is by no means an end in itself; it is not a monument, but a voice. In fact: "the voice of one calling in the wilderness." As are all the voices of men, always.

Now, I am happy to speak of the "greatness" of writers like Tolstoy, but their greatness has entirely to do with their effectiveness in calling forth the reader from the lonely cave of the self. A good book is truly an invitation. The writer speaks the "come forth" that is the sub-text of every true act of communication. The reader's part is not only to listen, then, but also to respond. That, after all, is the nature of communication, and that is also why we consider the refusal to respond a deeply wounding act. To ignore, to "blow off," the words of another is the deepest cut. It is not surprising to me that God chose to communicate with His children by means of the written word, and that everything should hinge on our response. Reading is not only, as they say, "fundamental," but it is also (potentially) "spiritual" in the most literal sense of that over-used word.

December 10, 2004

Calling is "Personal"

God's call is both corporate (general) and personal (specific). This is the point that Susan has been making in her recent comments. We hear much about the corporate aspect of calling from preachers on Sunday mornings, because after all they are preaching to a corporate body. The corporate or general call is to love and service, submitting all that one is, all that one has, for the sake of the lost.

But there is also a personal aspect to calling. There is a specific place for us in God's kingdom plan. A particular place. A place wherein our skills and passions will be put to the service of His Kingdom purposes. As stewards of the mysteries of God we must respect both the corporate and the personal aspects of our calling.

Os Guinness has much to say about this distinction, but I want to concentrate today on the personal aspect of calling. Guinness makes the point that the call of God is an act of creation. What he calls he calls into being. Our calling is a calling from God, and a gift of God. It is entirely "a God thing." Guinness writes: "Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not but are called by God to be."

Another way of understanding the personal-ness of calling is to remember that calling is a kind of naming. Guinness quotes George Macdonald at length on this theme, and so will I. In 1867 Macdonald preached a sermon on Revelation 2:17 -- "To him that overcometh, I will give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it."

Now in this verse God is speaking of the consummation of His kingdom at the end of time, but there is, of course, an application to the here and now. Macdonald writes:

I say, in brief, the giving of the white stone with the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man. It is the divine judgment, the solemn holy doom of the righteous man, the "Come, thou blessed," spoken to the individual.
Now, this name is personal, it is for you and you alone, for it will be the name that represents the essence of who you are in the Kingdom of God. It it, truly, you identity. Macdonald again:

The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the being, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man's own symbol,--his soul's picture, in a word,--the sign which belongs to him and to no one else. Who can give a man this, his own name? God alone. For no one but God sees what the man is, or even, seeing what he is, could express in a name-word the sum and harmony of what he sees. To whom is this name given? To him that overcometh. When is it given? When he has overcome. Does God then not know what a man is going to become? As surely as he sees the oak which he put there lying in the heart of the acorn. Why then does he wait till the man has become by overcoming ere he settles what his name shall be? He does not wait; he knows his name from the first. But as--although repentance comes because God pardons--yet the man becomes aware of the pardon only in the repentance; so it is only when the man has become his name that God gives him the stone with the name upon it, for then first can he understand what his name signifies. It is the blossom, the perfection, the completion, that determines the name; and God foresees that from the first, because he made it so; but the tree of the soul, before its blossom comes, cannot understand what blossom it is to bear, and could not know what the word meant, which, in representing its own unarrived completeness, named itself. Such a name cannot be given until the man is the name. ...

See, now, what a significance the symbolism of our text assumes. Each of us is a distinct flower or tree in the spiritual garden of God,--precious, each for his own sake, in the eyes of him who is even now making us,--each of us watered and shone upon and filled with life, for the sake of his flower, his completed being, which will blossom out of him at last to the glory and pleasure of the great gardener. For each has within him a secret of the Divinity; each is growing towards the revelation of that secret to himself, and so to the full reception, according to his measure, of the divine. Every moment that he is true to his true self, some new shine of the white stone breaks on his inward eye, some fresh channel is opened upward for the coming glory of the flower, the conscious offering of his whole being in beauty to the Maker.

December 09, 2004

Calling and Love

The secular version of calling is "chasing your dream." Our school teachers urge us on in this chase from the earliest grades, with a conviction that only by this means will we achieve happiness and/or "great things." We even learn that discipline and dedication and sacrifice will be required of us. We learn that our dreams are ours alone, and set us apart, and that in chasing them we will find ourselves, and that we will be marching to the beat of a different drummer, and isn’t that, after all, the very mark of greatness.

This dreaming is the blueprint for great souls, as the world sees it. But in truth it is a kind of idol-worship. We magnify our dreams and bend our very souls to the task of pursuing them. And in fact, it is possible to achieve many great things by this pursuit. In The Call Guinness provides the memorable example of Pablo Picasso. Everything was sacrificed on the alter of his art; even, many would say, his humanity.

But calling is not like that. To walk in one’s calling is a following, not a pursuit. Guinness is helpful here. He contrasts two traditional views of love: eros and agape. Eros he calls "the great ascent." This is "love as desire, yearning, or appetite aroused by the attractive qualities of the object of desire. ... From this perspective, seeking is loving that becomes desiring that becomes possessing that becomes happiness." Or, as the bumper sticker says, "Saw it, wanted it, had to get it, got it."

Agape, though, is "the great descent." In this case, "love seeks out the seeker– not because the seeker is worthy of love but simply because love'’s nature is to love regardless of the worthiness or merit of the one loved." Most Christians have heard it said that Christ modeled agape love. To follow Him is to follow in the way of love. The question of calling then is the question: How best may I--that is, I in particular--show forth the love of Christ?

December 08, 2004

Calling: The Ultimate Why

So the book is entitled The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, by Os Guinness. What follows is not a review of the book, but one part recapitulation of its main points, and another part marginal notes by me as I consider the meaning of "calling" for my own life.

The call of God is summed up in the words spoken by Jesus to the men he had chosen to be his apostles: "Follow me." The question for believers, each step along the way, is (waxing poetical here) "Whither thou, Jesus?"

I’ve heard many people over the years, Christians, say something like this: "I know God has placed a call on my life, but I just don’t know what it is?" Well, broadly speaking, the answer is something like, Love God and love people. Find a way to do this today, and tomorrow, and the next day, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.

Simple, right? But of course it’s not simple. The fact is, we have trouble following Jesus. We have trouble doing what he called us to do, being what he called us to be. Furthermore, many modern believers have been taught to expect abundance of blessings to come to them if they only have faith. Nevertheless, they find themselves slogging from day to day, wondering what they’re doing wrong.

The fact is, the question of calling is a very personal one. Following Jesus is going to have a level of specificity and particularity for each of us, by God’s design, so that the call to follow is "worked out" in my life along different lines than in yours, simply because he has gifted me differently than he has gifted you. So it is not merely egoistic, but spiritually rational to ask, "What does following Jesus look like for me specifically?" Or, as Tolstoy said, "What shall we do and how shall we live?"

Guinness says that God’s calling is so decisive that, once we have dropped our nets and followed, our whole lives, everything we are, everything we do, is lived out in response to that summons. He writes, "That is why calling provides the Archimedian point by which faith moves the world. That is why calling is the most comprehensive reorientation and the most profound motivation in human experience–the ultimate Why for living in all history."

December 07, 2004

More on PDL

Matt Harmless seemed to wonder in his response to yesterday's post just what I had against Purpose-Driven. I have to confess that I over-stepped one of my unwritten rules for Mr. Standfast, which is to remain encouraging and constructive at all times. My remarks yesterday indulged in the forbidden pleasure of sarcasm, which I really abhor. For this I apologize.

I really don't want to get into the whole PDL thing again. I'll just say that, while much of the praise that the book has received has been quite over-the-top, much of the criticism has been every bit as "hyper" as the praise. But see this interview with several level-headed Lutheran pastors for a "fair and balanced" response. By the way, I blogged at length on the subject back in early May: see for example this post, and this one, and this one, and even this one.

As I noted yesterday, I've been reading The Call, by Os Guinness, and I'm finding the book very engaging. So, recalling the famous C. S. Lewis maxim that any book worth reading once is worth reading again, I intend to go back to the start and work through it again, but this second time through summarizing it here at Mr. Standfast. The first time through a book, one's impression is more likely to be of the many trees than of "the forest." The goal of the second reading then is to see the individual parts as a whole; to see the forest, not just the trees. I plan to use this blog as a personal tool to achieve that purpose. And I invite you to come along for the ride.

December 06, 2004

From the Either/Or Department

Thomas Linacre was the personal physician of both Henry VII and Henry VIII. Os Guinness tells a bit of his story:

Late in his life he took Catholic orders and was given a copy of the Gospels to read for the first time. ... Reading the four Gospels himself, Linacre was amazed and troubled: "Either these are not the Gospels," he said, "or we are not Christians."

The Call

I've been reading a wonderful book entitled The Call, by Os Guinness. It's subtitle may remind you of a somewhat better-known Christian book of the past year or two: "Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life." Sound familiar?

Yes, there are some superficial similarities between this book and Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. In fact, it would probably be instructive to compare them closely, but I'm not going to do that here. I will simply say that Warren often writes and thinks not much above the level of a gym teacher's pep-talk, which for me becomes quite tedious in very short order. But Guinness, whose book was first published in 1998, is more stimulating by far. Sure, The Call doesn't come with all the Christian gimcrack that accompanied Warren's feather-weight tome, nor the promises of instant (well, 40 days is almost "instant" in the grand scheme of things) transformation, but it is a book far more worthy of close attention. If you're wondering about your purpose, take a pass on Warren's 40-day medicine show and read instead Guinness' The Call.

December 04, 2004

Tribulation, Perseverance, Character, Hope

Went to a men's group breakfast today. I used to attend this all the time, but haven't in quite a while. They're tackling Phil Strout's God's Relentless Pursuit, which is about being a missional people in the everyday world (not just in exotic mission fields).

We talked a lot about the frustrations and stresses of the daily grind, and I read Romans 5:3-4 to the group--you know, the verse about tribulation leading to perseverance, and perseverance to character, and character to a hope that does not disappointment, for it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Well, I read it, and I acknowledged that it is sometimes a hard verse for us to "receive," and we talked about that for a while. Then, after the meeting, I came home and did some blog-surfing and stumbled across this post from the excellent blog of Kelli Standish, and it just happens to be about that very trouble we have in hearing the truth of this particular Scripture passage.

I also ran into this from John Piper's daily devotional, A Godward Life:

Paul has just said that "tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint" (verses 3-5). In other words, the goal of everything God takes us through is hope. He wants us to feel unwaveringly hopeful through all tribulations.

But how can we? Tribulations by definition are anti-hope. If they felt hopeful in themselves, they wouldn't be tribulations. What's the underlying secret of actually growing in hope through tribulation?

Paul answers in the next line: "Because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has given to us" (verse 5). God's love has been poured out in our hearts. The tense of this verb means that God's love was poured out in our hearts in the past (at our conversion), and it is still present and active.

So Paul's point is that the Spirit-given assurance and enjoyment of the love of God are the secret to growing in hope through tribulation. Tribulation works perseverance and proven character and unashamed hope because, at every point along the way, the Spirit of God is assuring us of the love of God in and through all the trouble.
The Love of God is a current of wonder, a stream of living water, a source of strength, ever-present, ever-abundant, rushing from the very throneroom of heaven. To trust Him means to trust Him now, in the midst of your storm. "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! He has overcome the world." John 16:33b

December 02, 2004

Blogroll Update

I've decided to make some changes in my blogroll. Rather than one long alphabetical string of blogs, I chose to separate them into categories. This is essentially in imitation of Jollyblogger, whose categories are "Culture," "Theolology," "Philosophy," "Politics," "Piety," "Relationships," "Media," and "More Good Blogs."

I decided (at least for now) to go with "The Apologists," "The Diarists," "The Generalists," "The Journalists," "The Blogologists," and "The Specialist."

Now, I fully realize that any given blog is broader than a one-word label. Still, in many cases the label is more or less suitable: Jollyblogger and truly are, for example, "apologists," and apologetics is what they most often do. Of course they do other things too, but I don't think either would be offended by the label I've given them here.

"The Diarists" are people who use their blog as a personal journal. I have to say, I'm really partial to this kind of blog, and so it is a well-represented category here. However, it should be said that some of these "diarists" have also been known to do apologetics, or journalism, or write cultural essays, etc. Again, the label is a generalization, and that's all it is.

"The Generalists" are bloggers who might be prone to write essays on any number of subjects. These are all-purpose bloggers. It's a vague catch-all kind of label for blogs that are difficult to categorize.

"The Journalists" are more likely to comment on the news, or on cultural issues. They write editorials and observe the passing scene.

"The Blogologists," (hey, I had to keep the "-ist" thing going) dedicate themselves to tracking, indexing, aggregating the Christian blog world.

Finally, "The Specialist": Real Live Preacher. He has a category all his own, simply because he clearly doesn't fit neatly into any of the other categories, and, well, as noted above, I just needed to come up with an "-ist" label for the sake of consistency.

And there you have it. Subject to change at the spur of the moment and the dictatorial whimsey of yours truly.

Big-Picture Thinking

I’m nearly done with The Long Truce, by A. B. Conyers. This book is so rich, so packed with things worth thinking about, that you wind up forgetting far more than you retain. You move from one paragraph to another with a kind of excitement, but as you do you drop two threads of thought for every new one you pick up. Conyers, in fact, says something about this phenomenon, which is really the problem of our own limited-ness, or the limits of our own perspectives, the horizons imposed on us by the simple fact that we are finite beings, and thus cannot ultimately grasp the whole, the unity, because we are so enmeshed in the particular.

This isn’t just idle philosophizing. Getting "the big picture" is going to be a condition of the saved for all eternity in the kingdom of the Lord. Although even then we will not have all knowledge (that belongs only to God), we will have such knowledge as to give us rest at last from, to mention just one thing, the fear that is born of a lack of understanding, and which pervades this present darkness.

Have you ever felt lost in the particular? You go to the mall, say, intending to buy a certain item. That is, you have a plan, a set purpose, and a course of action (right down to the choice of parking space) that is intended to best achieve that aim. But once you’re inside, you are suddenly immersed in an environment designed to make you forget your plan. To live in the moment, responding to the impulse of the moment, and impulse drawn from you by the environment itself. All at once you are being governed not by your own purpose, but by that of another. And suddenly you’re that person with the bumper sticker that reads, "Saw it, loved it, had to get it, got it!"

In the end, this busyness and superficiality is going to lead to a sense of emptiness, confusion, and pointlessness. A sense that the one big thing is being obscured by a million little. Conyers puts it this way:

Something in us responds to the notion that somehow we are related (we know not how) to all things, and all things are somehow related to each other. But what we experience is not whole but partial. Furthermore, it is daily: it is presented to us in little slices of time. It is like riding through the Smokey Mountains, seeing bits of the landscape hedged in by mountains, forced to follow winding roads down ravines and canyons, limited in our sight by banks of fog in the early morning or profound darkness at night. It is hardly the same thing as holding a roadmap in our hand and comprehending the entire region at a glance. In that case, we can place a finger on our destiny, and with a bit of calculation we make sense of where we are and where we are going. Nevertheless, we have what might be called a sense of the telos [Greek word for “ultimate purpose”] even in the most ordinary processes in life, from learning to traveling to creating.
Once we get a grasp, however imperfect, of the big picture, the telos, the ultimate purpose (which is to say, God’s purpose) for ourselves and for all creation, we will not be overwhelmed by the trivial, the local, the daily, the disparate particulars of the here and now.

Returning to Conyers:
The incarnation announces the accomplishment of reconciliation between God and man. It therefore announces the essential goodness of the creation. It is not something to be feared. One’s efforts to know the world are in the end fruitful, even if not in the present. And human beings are not intended to live in deadly conflict, but in the bonds of love and friendship. One can therefore have hope. And if one can have hope, then one can live with trust instead of fear, confidence instead of doubt, openness to the world and its men and women rather than locked into and endless cycle of fear and conflict.
Don’t get lost in the particular. Keep a mental hold on the big picture, the very purpose, the telos, of God. Or, as Paul said, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things." In the Kingdom, that’s what we'll be up to all the time. The particular will remain, but it will be sanctified, not distracting and muddying, but clarifying, pointing us not to confusion but to wholeness, unity, and completeness. All things will be gathered up in Christ. Can somebody shout hallelujah!

December 01, 2004

Books, Books, Books!

I’'m a reader, as you may have noticed by now. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of times spent with good books. I can remember sitting on the rocker of my back porch on fine summer days and reading Dickens, Bradbury, Wells, Verne, and Shakespeare. Those are fond memories that only another reader can truly understand.

Sometimes, even these days, people tell me I read too much. Every reader has heard this at one time or another. All that "book-learnin" addles the brain, ruins the eyes, and turns into an anti-social loner.

To which I say with deep regret, "Oh well . . ."

My lovely friend, Carol, who is as sweet as any person I’ve ever met, laughs whenever I buy a new book. Haven’'t you got enough books, she asks. As if books were like spoons or cars, and there was a certain number of them it was reasonable to possess, and to possess more than that is absurd or perhaps even fetishistic.

I’m usually reading several books at once, which also amazes my friends, although I’m not sure why. Right now I’m slowly making my way through William DeArteaga’s Quenching the Spirit, which is an historical examination of "centuries of opposition to the moving of the Holy Spirit." That’s a topic not often dealt with by historians, and it has enlarged my understanding.

The Long Truce is a heady book of philosophy examining the idea of toleration in Western thought. It’s author, A. B. Conyers, who died in the past year or so, is intensely well-read (no doubt and anti-social loner, him) and I have to admit that this book deserves a closer reading than I am giving it, but I just don’t think I want to go too far down that aisle marked "Philosophy," for fear I should never return to daylight and whimsy.

And I’ve just begun reading The Call, by Os Guinness. This one is ostensibly about purpose (the subject of another recent book, I seem to recall– -- heh heh!), or more precisely, "calling." I think I’m going to like this book. Scratch that. I think I’m going to treasure this book. This is one I do want to engage with on a deep level, and so I expect "calling" to be the subject a more than a few posts here at Mr. Standfast. Expect copious quotations.

Finally, a book arrived in the mail yesterday from This came as a surprise to me, since I haven’t purchased anything from them lately. Lo and behold, it was a gift from my dear brother, way out there in Nebraskaland. Brent knows how much emotional investment I've made in the Boston Red Sox over the years (did I mention they won the World Series this year?), and sent me Stephen King’'s Faithful, which is a chronicle of the momentous 2004 season. Ah, that’s enough to drive away the chill of a Maine winter for sure. I have a good a brother, don’t I?

Stopping by for a Quickie

Well, I had a nice post all ready to go this morning, but Blogger was feeling under the weather and wouldn't cooperate. Now I'm at work and stealing a moment to report in. I suspect the next few posts are going to be about the Biblical concept of "calling," since I've just begun reading a wonderful book on that subject: The Call, by Os Guinness. This looks like a real keeper, and so I'm hoping to blog about what I find therein over the next week or two.

So: I'll catch you on the flipside of the workday, when I'll post this morning's masterpiece (if Blogger lets me, that is)!