Abstracting the heart of God

Obeying God has to be done from the basis of our conscience before the Lord, not in rules or principals that have been boiled enough to be written down, even if they’re true and good. God has put eternity in our hearts. Part of our heart touches the bare metal (excuse the software terminology) of God’s will and what is right and wrong. The more layers of abstraction we wrap it in, the more likely we are to actually end up actually missing it. Wrapping things in abstraction is absolutely necessary for teaching and understanding and any kind of written communication, but when that dictates our actions, we miss the heart of God, either a little or a lot.

The bible itself is abstract from the heart of God, wrapped in the OT law and squeezed into the restraints of words and language. (Theology writings and commentary even more so). It’s the best thing we have and everything we need to know about him is in there, but it’s still not him. Knowing him in theory is wise, and a doorway for many. But we must know him in our hearts. Conscience is a good place to start.

If, in trying to do the will of God, we always seek the highest abstract standard of perfection, we show that there is still much we need to learn about the will of God. For God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best. It is better to be a good street sweeper than a bad writer, better to be a good bartender than a bad doctor, and the repentant thief who died with Jesus on Calvary was far more perfect than the holy ones who had Him nailed to the cross.

And yet, abstractly speaking, what is more holy than the priesthood and less holy than the state of a criminal? The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life He listened and obeyed. The Pharisees had kept the law to the letter and had spent their lives in the pursuit of a most scrupulous perfection. But they were so intent upon perfection as a abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way [Jesus] they had no choice but to reject it.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.4 Sec.13

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Prophesying at the bathroom mirror

In the charismatic church I was part of in college, there was a prophet. We’ll call him Marc Mason. Now I know some of you think these prophet guys are a joke or worse. I’m not going to get into that here except to say that he was as legit as they come. He didn’t ever make silly predictions ala Chuck Pierce, and that’s a very good thing. He had an uncanny knack for speaking words of encouragement and admonition in such a way that it was hard to ignore: Like it was God speaking and not just the words of a friend or the preaching of a pastor.

Anyway, I got to hang out with Mr. Mason a few times. I remember helping him repair the fence in his back yard. I also visited him at work, where he administered databases, something which I didn’t realize at the time that would later become my career. People had always told me that Marc was really different in person than he appeared giving bold prophecies at church. Man, was it ever true. I was amazed at how, well, weak he seemed at so many things. He was no handy man. I was used to the mechanical skills and insight of my father. His kids were around and he didn’t have a grip on parenting them. His teenage daughter was largely in a state of rebellion. He himself was timid in speech. He would stutter frequently, but more often would not say anything at all.

Merton talks about different stages in the life of prayer:

So too there is another stage in our prayer, when consolation gives place to fear. It is a place of darkness and anguish and of conversion: for here a great change takes place in our spirit. All our love for God appears to us to have been full of imperfection, as indeed it has. We begin to doubt that we have ever loved Him. With shame and sorrow we find that our love was full of complacency, and that although we thought ourselves modest, we overflowed with conceit. We were to sure of ourselves, not afraid of illusion, not afraid to be recognized be other men as men of prayer.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.48

Marc was more a man of prayer than anyone I knew, yet he himself was very uncomfortable being known AS a man of prayer. I questioned him at length about prophecy and how he thought he ended up with that particular gift. He felt in his prayer time that things would come to him to say. But he felt so stupid saying them. He said he would practice in front of the mirror in the bathroom – trying to put into words what he thought he was hearing in prayer. The less he thought about it the better it went. He was the last person in the room inclined to get up and speak about ANYTHING, but he felt compelled by the holy spirit to somehow say SOMETHING of what he was hearing in prayer.

I think the Lord continually kept him humble along with this. He was to have no claim to fame in himself. In fact, by the traditional elder standards, he was to forever stay unqualified. His wife of 20 years left him about this same time. And yet, I don’t see these things as his fault so much. Yes, they were the result of his own personality weaknesses and sin (just like all my own problems, and yours too). But I think God picked him to speak to in prayer because God always uses what is foolishness to the world to confound the wise. Even the wise who know their bible so well. I can hear people saying right now: “Bah! This guy couldn’t take care of his own family. Why should I listen to anything he says? Pardon me while I get back to me Jonathan Edwards commentary.” Exactly. But if you heard him speak, you would find yourself listening regardless. They are not his own words. Merton tried to get at what this communication may feel like:

Finally, the purest prayer is something on which it is impossible to reflect until after it is over. And when the grace has gone we no longer seek to reflect on it, because we realize that it belongs to another order of things, and that it will be in some sense debased by our reflecting on it. Such prayer desires no witness, even the winess of our own souls. It seeks to keep itself entirely hidden in God. The experience remains in our spirit like a wound, like a scar that will not heal. But we do no reflect upon it. This living wound may become a source of knowledge, if we are to instruct others in the ways of prayer; or else it may become a bar and an obstacle to knowledge, if we are to instruct others in the ways of prayer; or else it may become a bar and an obstacle to knowledge, a seal of silence set upon the soul, closing the way to words and thoughts, so that we can say nothing of it to other men. For the way is left open to God alone. This is like the door spoken of by Ezechiel, which shall remain closed because the King is enthroned within. (p.50)

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On wilderness

This is one of the richest passages in Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:

The prospect of this wilderness is something that so appalls most men that they refuse to enter upon its burning sands and travel among its rocks. They cannot believe that contemplation and sanctity are to be found in a desolation where there is no food and no shelter and no refreshment for their imagination and intellect and for the desires of the nature.

Convinced that perfection is to be measure by brilliant intuitions of God and fervent resolutions of a will on fire with love, persuaded that sanctity is a matter of sensible fervor and tangible results, they will have nothing to do with a contemplation that does not delight their reason and invest their minds and wills with consolations and sensible joy. They want to know where they are going and see what they are doing, and as soon as they enter into regions where their own activity becomes paralyzed and bears no visible fruit, they turn around and go back to the lush fields where they can be sure that they are doing something and getting somewhere.

And if they cannot achieve the results they desire with such intense anxiety, at least they convince themselves that they have made great progress if they have said many prayers, performed many mortifications, preached many sermons, read (and perhaps also written) many books and articles, paged through many books of meditations, acquired hundreds of new and different devotions and girdled the earth with pilgrimages. Not that all of these things are not good in themselves: but there are times in the life of a man when they can become an escape, an anodyne, a refuge from the responsibility of suffering in darkness and obscurity and helplessness, and allowing God to strip us of our false selves and make us into the new men that we are really meant to be. (from chapter 32).

There is so much that could be said here. I’ve heard the “wilderness” mentioned frequently, in the Christian walk, but Merton hits the nail on the head here for what it really feels like. “No refreshment for the imagination or intellect and for desires of nature.” Spiritual depression. Drabness. Not necessarily the loss or questioning of the core of faith, but a loss of joy in living.

It’s easy to see what our next step usually is: Go back to stuff easy results. Foreign mission field sucks? Go back to your campus ministry job and reel those hoards of back-sliding freshman. Pastorate a drag? Time to go back to school for that PhD and get to work on that book idea. Following God, got a wife and kids, but dissatisfied with your day job? Looking for a “refuge from the responsibility of suffering in … obscurity.” Pick up Wild at Heart for a nice hot cup of open theism and go do something exciting (and most likely stupid). Screw the wilderness. Where’s can I buy my ticket out?

Now for the qualifications: Of course sometimes sticking with a bad situation isn’t the right thing to do. Both my wife and I have been too well trained in doing THAT when we probably SHOULD have moved on. Campus ministers are just fine. Thank God for the many helpful writings of Christian scholars who realized they weren’t cut out for being full-time shepherds. Etc. But THAT is the wilderness right there folks. The Lord has something to give us there. Perhaps we listen to him before running back to the green fields.

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Are all the adventures over?

There is a question, sometimes posed as a lament, in many of the writings I’ve come across lately. I could write down quite a list, but I don’t actually remember all the places. Another one came at me today though. It is the idea that there used to still be adventures to be had, unexplored places to chart, great feats to accomplish, but that for the most part, they are all gone. I remember reading as a child about the mysterious jungle of the Congo and how there was still things in there that no man had ever seen and lived to write about. That was an exciting prospect. But now, we have GPS, and I can pull up Google maps and grab the satellite imagery of my own car parked in the lot of my office building. Then I can swing it over a few degrees and peer deep into Africa and see right where that dangerous path by the waterfall leads. What’s the point in going there now?

Thomas Merton, in his book Mystics and Zen Masters, (which is about 90% straight-up history and reads like a graduate dissertation), discusses the story of St. Brendan‘s expeditions and how he found an island paradise somewhere beyond the Atlantic. Nobody could ever find it again though, but tales like this fueled exploration and also deeper desires inside of us. Christopher Columbus would have been well aware of this particular (myth?) when he set out to the new world. Merton (writing in the 1960’s) discusses how the complete mapping of the earth has changed the face of spiritual pilgrimage and wandering. Searching for that special place has forever lost some of it’s potency. Nevertheless, we will pilgrim on because the thing that drives us inside of has not diminished one bit. We are still looking for our creator.

The protagonist in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel The Nautical Chart wrestles with this same deep issue:

Because after so many novels, so many films, and so many songs, there weren’t even innocent drunks anymore. And Coy asked himself, envying him, what the first man felt the first time he went out to hunt a whale, a treasure, or a woman, without having read about it I a book.

Slave to Sin

Being a slave to sin in some area of life has always been a frustrating and somewhat confusing situation to me. I can certainly say, with the apostle Paul:

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.  – Romans 7:15

Merton possibly sheds some light on this situation.

The mere ability to choose between good and evil is the lowest limit of freedom, and the only thing that is free about it is the fact that we can still choose good.

To the extent that you are free to choose evil, you are not free. An evil choice destroys freedom.

We can never choose evil as evil: only as an apparent good. But when we decide to do something that seems to us to be good when it is not really so, we are doing something that we do not really want to do, and therefore we are not really free. (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 199)

Don’t think about this too hard, but DO give it some thought. Don’t be like an invertabrate reporter earlier this week commenting on a related statement made by actor Will Smith:

A Scottish newspaper recently quoted Mr. Smith as saying: “Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘let me do the most evil thing I can do today.’ I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good.’ ” The quote was preceded by the writer’s observation: “Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good.” After Web sites posted articles alleging that Mr. Smith believed Hitler was a good person, the actor issued a statement Monday saying that was an “awful and disgusting lie” and calling Hitler “a vile, heinous vicious killer.”

Vain Novelties and Rumors

Thomas a Kempis on why you don’t need to surf YouTube all evening:

If thou wilt withdraw thyself from speaking vainly, and from gadding idly, as also from listening to novelties and rumors, thou shalt find leisure enough and suitable for meditation on good things. (The Imitation of Christ, Ch. 20)

Thomas A’Kempis with salt

I’ve been working through The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis. Parts of it are really wonderful. Whole sections of it read like they came straight from the Psalms in a style not unlike e.e cummings psalm rewrites that sound better than the originals. Some of it sounds like it’s straight from Proverbs. Good stuff. He also has some very harsh words to say to those obsessed with religious academia and high theological arguments. Those are some of the best parts! I’ll be posting a sampling of that soon.

BUT, (and “That’s a pretty big but(t)” says the little fish in Finding Nemo), A’Kempis also gets on my nerves. The book is chock-full of stuff like this:

Whoso, therefore, withdraweth himself from his acquaintance and friends, God will draw near unto him with his holy angels. It is better for a man to live privately, and to take care of himself, than to neglect his soul, though he could work wonders in the world. It is commendable in a religious person seldom to go abroad, to be unwilling to see or be seen.

Let not thy peace depend on the tongues of men; for whether they speak well or ill, thou are not therefore another man. Where are true peace and true glory? Are they not in [Christ]? And he that desireth not to please men, nor feareth to displease them, shall enjoy much peace. For inordinate love and vain fear ariseth all disquiet of heart and distraction of mind.

It is better often, and safer, that a man should not have many consolations in this life, especially such as are according to the flesh…When a man hath perfect contrition, then is the whole world grievous and bitter unto him.

Stop the tape! That’s easy for you to say. Let’s tear ourself away from the world and meditate on the Lord, rejoicing in quite communion with him. That’s all great, but I think this all needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Why? How dare I question the wisdom of this highly-spiritual church father?

  • He was never married, never had to learn to communicate with a wife.
  • He never had to raise any children.
  • He never had to take care of toddlers. (Yes, this deserves it’s own bullet point.)
  • Living in the monastery, he never had money so he never wrestled with managing finances.
  • He had lots of work to do, but never a job with a boss, staff meetings, finite sick leave, and a house full of dependents hanging on every penny bought home. Just 50+ years of chores.

I think the little bio on the back of the book puts it plainly:

Thomas A’Kempis (c. 1380-1471), a Dutch priest, quietly lived to more than ninety in exercises of devotion, writing and copying, reading, preaching, and exhorting others.

Hey man, whatever floats your boat. Sounds nice actually, but it’s not what God has called me too. Therefore, I won’t get upset about these kinds of idealistic exhortations any more. I won’t feel like a failure! Right…

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