Much of Euro-American culture, and especially its educated elite, has adopted two contradictory and equally useless attitudes toward miracles. The first, starting in mid-1700s, was a full-scale assault on the notion that miracles can happen. The second is a sentimental and vapid dilution of the term to mean anything really good or life-changingly beneficial. I’m not sure when this second attitude developed, but I’d be inclined to date it to the late 1800s as a defensive, and wrong-headed, rearguard action to preserve the language of miracle while emptying it of all meaning. In other words, having conceded the idea that genuine miracles are impossible, some Western Christians domesticated the notion of the miraculous in order to retain the language without its threatening implications. I think this is the wrong approach, and this post will critique the denialist approach, and propose a different definition of “miracle” which I think is more in keeping with its etymology, and with its pre-modern Christian usage. (more…)
Good poetry is hard to find, because it’s even harder to write. These days most verse is trite and sentimental doggerel, and much of the more creative stuff is emotionally self-destructive. Yet there is good poetry out there, which can bring us closer to God.
George Herbert is one of the best poets in the English language, and one of the most famous of the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th C. Here is one of his more famous poems (taken from ccel.org): (more…)
At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!” The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.
This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes. The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly. The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced. People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain. It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it. Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for. No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.
And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey. And in that sense, he chose his own death. Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not. (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.) He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.
Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life. As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Why does this matter? Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?
I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart. She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number. We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday. I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years. I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it. I don’t know what she had been going through.
Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death. In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord. We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters. After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times. I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.
In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways. I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share? What if I had been a more consistent pen pal? Could I have done anything? Might it have mattered? And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.
But I have no use for wishful thinking. Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture. He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence. We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary. The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts. These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.
So let us not fool around with trivialities. Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”