Monday, May 31, 2010

Come and Die

I'm grateful to Ben Seal over at Unbreakable Joy for this superb quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian, author and martyr. As it is a short post, I hope Ben will forgive me for copying it in full:
The world upon whom grace is thrust as a bargain will grow tired of it, and will not only trample upon the Holy, but also will tear apart those who force it on them. For its own sake, for the sake of the sinner, and for the sake of the community, the Holy is to be protected from cheap surrender. The Gospel is protected by the preaching of repentance which calls sin sin and declares the sinner guilty. The key to loose is protected by the key to bind. The preaching of grace can only be protected by the preaching of repentance.
Bonhoeffer's best-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, begins with a call to remember that "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace." Bonhoeffer was one of those rare men who backed up his words with deeds, choosing to return to Nazi Germany--where he was an outspoken opponent of the regime--on the last scheduled steamer from the US prior to the outbreak of war. Refusing to hide his lamp under a bowl, he was hanged in 1945 for plotting against Hitler.

What do I know of this kind of cost-counting?  Frankly, almost nothing.  My faith costs me shockingly little.  I can barely be bothered to spend a more than few minutes on my knees or in His Word.  I am routinely far more ashamed of the gospel than I can bear to admit, though little more than gentle scorn awaits the gospel's fiercest advocates in our society.  I shudder to contemplate whether His reputation is truly, demonstrably more valuable to me than my own.

If I were to offer a simple but extremely lame excuse for my appalling spiritual vapidity, I might point to my culture.  Western Christianity is comfortable Christianity.  Our challenges are to "make time for God" so that we can "live victoriously" in our suburban neighborhoods.  Don't talk to us about the cost of discipleship ... unless it's tax deductible. 

But as I said, that's just my lame excuse.  The real reason is more elementary ... I'm self-absorbed because I want to be.  My sin isn't just a bad habit, it's a cancer.  I need God's grace more than I can possibly imagine, so I mostly just choose not to imagine. 

One of Bonhoeffer's most profound statements was also one of his simplest:  "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."  Die?  Not now, Lord, I'm busy.  Can it wait until the commercial break?

Death Panels, Memorial Day and Nebuchadnezzar

“this is only the beginning of what they will do” (Gen. 11:6)

Governor Palin made a considerable stir when she coined the phrase “Death Panels” in the context of the current health care debate. However, consider the following hypothetical, but not at all implausible scenario: A man in his 60s has acute diabetes. Already, his circulation has deteriorated to such an extent that there have been amputations, and, if heroic measures continue to be taken, there will be more. The choice that faces him and his family has to do with the point at which they will cease to authorize heroic measures and ask instead for merely palliative care. In effect then, with the members being the man and his family, relying on God for wisdom in the matter, and taking into consideration both his financial circumstances and other very personal matters, what we have already is a sort of “death panel”.

So the stir that Governor Palin caused doesn’t really stem from the fact that men and women will be called to make life-and-death decisions, since that is already a fact of life, but just who those men and women will be, and what their relation will be to the life involved. Even as things are, we find it disturbing that some of them may be pencil-pushers in some insurance company or Medicare office. But, at least as things are, the man and his family have a real say in the matter. However, as things move toward a paradigm where medical care is controlled by central authority, that say will evaporate: “Experts”, who know better than we do, will make the decision for us. It is this “death panel” that causes the stir.

Memorial Day is a good time to pause and reflect on how things got to this point, a point where we cannot not only envision the possibility of government auditors and social workers telling us when it’s time for us to die, but we can envision it happening in the not-too-distant future and, worse yet, can envision ourselves doing little more than whine about it: The purpose of Memorial Day was originally to commemorate the approximately 390,000 who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. In time, it’s purpose expanded to include the approximately 290,000 who died fighting for the Confederacy, and then, given more time, to include those who died in other wars. But the Civil War context is especially important since, in a very real sense, the sort of Constitution we had had, with its Jeffersonian-Jacksonian emphasis on the limitation of government power, was also among the casualties. As James McPherson points out in his “Battle Cry of Freedom”, the dominant theme in the pre-Civil War amendments is found in insistence on the things government “shall not” do. After the Civil war, the phrase “Congress shall have the power” becomes predominant.

The developments latent in this change did not bear fruit immediately, but, with the Progressive Era, things picked up, and they’ve continued to do so since, with only an occasional pause. The character of this process can be captured in the Progressive Era’s contrast between “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”: In that view, we need to outgrow childish individualism and learn to enjoy together the fruits that an enlightened elite will give us. That elite has yet to fully embody itself in one Nebuchadnezzar-like figure (see Daniel 2), but it seems to be collectively as sanctimonious and intolerant of dissent as Nebuchadnezzar was. (Read David Brooks in the Times!) We don’t know what the Lord’s timing is in all this. Perhaps, He will bring the current power structure down and we will again see “a new birth of freedom”, or, perhaps the “coming of the lawless one” (2 Th. 2:9) is just around the corner. Indeed, “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Rather, we are called to be “salt and light” (Mt. 5:13-16), to “put no confidence in princes”, but rather to affirm that “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.” (Ps. 146:3, 5)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

12 + 10 = 12 (more or less)

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3)

Not long ago, I had a Facebook interchange with a man in his early 20s in which we agreed that, where young men staying in school to avoid work is concerned, not much had changed in the last 50 years.

His Facebook “wall” has confirmed my view that another place where things remain pretty much the same is the banter of many young “men”. While the slang may differ and the style too among groups, too many of them sound pretty much the same as they did in junior high school. Where their age is concerned, there seems to be a perverse arithmetic: 12 + 10 = 12

As for the substance of their banter, style and slang aside, a lot of it is predictable, involving filthy language, sexual allusions and homosexual allegations. It was that way 50 years ago. Junior high school boys don’t seem to change.

(It should be said that this state of affairs isn’t always limited to men in their early 20s. I personally first “grew out” of it, then fell back in during my late 30s, until the Lord snatched me out of that particular sewer - among others. Still, I think it’s true that the early 20s is the time when the problem is most acute.)

There were “social networks” too 50 years ago, just not Facebook. When I worked on a construction gang in Nevada before and after my 22nd birthday, we chatted back and forth on the job that way. Then, after work, we retired to a place like “Sue’s Desert Club” in Battle Mountain, where Sue (the madam) and “the girls” joined in. But that was about the extent of the network: All of us, prostitutes included, would have been ashamed to use that kind of talk around our parents, especially our mothers. In the case of us over-grown-12-year-old boys, while we might have refrained around our mothers at 12 out of fear, the extra 10 years had at least changed us so that at 22 we refrained out of respect. So I suppose, at that time, the arithmetic was: 12 + 10 = 12 (plus a bit).

Facebook seems associated with a change in that, at least where this young man’s “wall” is concerned: Though when he speaks of his mother directly, he seems to esteem and respect her, he’s not ashamed to take part in filthy public interchanges where he knows she (and his aunts, and ...) can see what is said. That, at least, seems to have changed in the last 50 years: 12+10 adds up now to less than it did then.

I suppose the defense for this sort of boorishness would turn on the word, “hypocrisy”, an undervalued commodity: While little could be clearer in the gospels than the fact that hypocrisy has no place in the church, La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” tells us that the more we have of it in the civil sphere, the better. Facebook, inasmuch as it lends itself to breaking down the barriers between the private and the public, and doing away with seemly reticence generally, seems to me to reflect an age which is, in a word, growing more “vicious”.

But these periods of history come and go (and will until the Lord returns). So I guess, there’s really “nothing new under the sun”. (Eccl. 1:9) As Solomon put it 3000 years ago: “The bond among fools is guilt.” (Pr. 14:9, Berkeley Version) It’s just that, sometimes, they’re more obnoxious about it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Virtue of Being "Contemptible"

What makes King David such a wonderful study is the extent to which we can not only be inspired by his triumphs, but also identify with his follies.  At least this is true for me. His experience in bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem is one which cuts me to the heart.

Fresh off his anointing as King of Israel and subsequent defeat of the Philistines, David was understandably riding high.  That God had proven so faithful to exalting this shepherd boy from obscurity to royalty ought to have weighed heavily on David, but at this point he became arrogant and careless.  This would be inexplicable were David not a sinner like me, easily intoxicated by his own success.

Awash in confidence, David yet sensed that that the Ark ought to come to Jerusalem, but he delegated its movement to his underlings.  He'd managed to neglect what made the Ark so astonishing--that its purpose was to represent God's holy and immediate presence among His people, and that it therefore was to be approached but once a year, by but one carefully prepared representative, and only with the blood of that special sacrifice which was for the sins of the people. 

But after all, David was the king ... a very important man. 

David had already started to forget that he was king only because Israel had rejected the King of Kings in favor of his predecessor, Saul.  Here was the perfect opportunity for David to lay his own glory aside and firmly reestablish God's sovereignty.  Instead, he busied himself with various kingly duties in Jerusalem as his minions casually transported the symbol of the Lord's holy presence on a cart.  One of these minions--the unfortunate Uzzah--would pay for David's sloppy arrogance (and his own) with his life.

David's next step was naturally to throw a pity party, banishing the Ark to Obed-edom's household.  But as was often true with David, he eventually regained his composure and responded to God's chastisement.  David humbled himself, took off his royal robes, and "danced before the LORD with all his might" as the Ark was moved reverently and properly by the priests.  To his credit, he risked becoming undignified and disrespected before the "important" people in Jerusalem in order to humble himself and thus exalt his God.

As usual, I find more to identify with David in his folly than in his victory.  Like him, I get utterly lost in the task of ensuring the fleeting and illusory wonderfulness of my own life and legacy.  Rather than "consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord", I am preoccupied with my earthly treasures.  Rarely do I doff my "royal robes" and throw myself before God's throne with anything approaching reverent abandon.  I'm too busy protecting my worldly image and the things that bolster it, for fear that I may lose the respect of those who don't ultimately matter.