A biting wind blustered across the pebbled and loosely packed path—causing Bartley to shiver under his wool coat. Folding the collar up, he braced as a particularly strong gust threatened to take his feet out from under him. After a brief recovery of balance, he resumed walking briskly against the cold, neither looking west toward the riotous green-gray sea, nor east toward the lush green hills that towered above him—but straight ahead as many do who have a goal in sight.
The sun had been up for some hours, but the grey haze that blanketed the heavens dispersed its piercing rays and created an ambiance that seemed to be from nowhere, and yet everywhere, casting a muted light evenly across the landscape. Bartley found the overcast sky oddly cathartic—in the sort of way that a joyful person finds the sunny day invigorating, or a raging storm feels like home to an angry man. He had been away from home for some time, living out of the pack on his back, doing business wherever the company had sent him. Now, at last, he was coming home.
He used to work in a small store, an establishment run by his father-in-law, located in the same town where he had spent his youth. Years of repeating the same tasks had begun to wear on him, however, and wondering if he had misspent the best years of his life—he dreamed of what might have been. Soon thereafter a bank opened an office down the street and advertised a position for a man of ‘business sense’ to travel up and down the western seaboard (all for good pay of course), reclaiming properties in which the residents had defaulted on their loans. Now, a job described as such does not sound very heartwarming or appealing to most, but Bartley was determined to live out his ‘missed years of adventure’ as he described them, and telling his wife and children goodbye, began trekking down the rocky coast.
The job was great at first, lots of days on the road followed by nights at a local pub or inn. Working with his fellow evictors, Bartley would spend a day or two in a region, making the rounds for the bank on various households; however, evicting people is not a pleasant business, and soon he found the faces of the poor families he saw day after day staring back at him from his glass of ale in the evenings. At the start he had begun each morning spryly, wondering what new place, conversation, or town lay around the next bend, but now he dreaded the rising of the sun—for each new day brought fresh grief to his conscience. While he had once only briefly replied to the letters of his wife and children, giving them barely a thought, he now looked forward to the evening hour to see if a labeled envelope awaited him upon the completion of his daily rigor.
Bartley tucked his hands more deeply into his coat pockets—clenching cold fingers into fists. Watery eyes scanned the rocks in front of him and upon seeing a small dirt detour down to the beach, he turned aside to eat his lunch. Sandpipers darted on nimble legs through the vestiges of waves as Bartley walked along the shoreline. The birds’ feet left trails in the coarse sand, like snapshots of the progress of each little life, until a wave would come rolling across the beach and mask over the tracks as if nothing had disturbed that shore before. “If only life were that simple,” murmured Bartley to himself, thinking about his own footsteps during the preceding months—footprints he would much like to have expunged. Footprints right back to the door of his house with his wife and children waving him away as he disappeared into the dark night. Sometimes forgetfulness is a blessing, but there on the beach, as the sandpipers darted to and fro amidst the foamy water, he knew that he had to remember where he came from to know where he was going.
The day was cool and overcast—not exactly ideal Sunday weather, but good enough if the only ambitions of the day were to sleep. Trying to feel at least somewhat productive, I gathered my computer and a glass of sweet tea and sat down on the sofa to hammer out a few words on a topic as yet undetermined.
After a minute or two of watching the cursor slowly blink on an empty page, I began to feel as though a pair of eyes were upon me. Looking around the room, my gaze fell upon the house’s resident cat. Her body draped with languid dignity across the mantlepiece as cats are wont to do when they feel that they own the world (note: this dignity is present at all times other than when they want food or to be let outside—in which case this façade is quickly lost with hysteric abandon). She looked on me from her lofty throne, eyes quickly communicating her sense of feline superiority and control. Now I have been told, both by Jim Davis and others, that to look away from a cat after making eye contact is a sign of weakness and inferiority. As such, I immediately knew that my sworn duty was to make sure this cat understood her proper place in the universe, and with quick abandonment of my writing project I began to engage in a contest of mortal staring.
I’m not heavy into pet psychology, but assuming that animal psychiatrists are on to something has always made the games more fun. One such study found that if you blink at a cat while maintaining eye contact, a message of ‘friendly’ superiority is communicated as opposed to a hostile one. Now, as much as the fate of the world hung in the balance due to our great struggle, my streak of ‘benevolent-dictator’ had no desire to rub my obvious superiority in her face, and so frequent attempts to ‘blink’ at my opponent were made to little obvious effect.
Steely gaze met steely gaze as the cat and I maintained unbroken eye contact for quite a while, each waiting to see who would crack first. However, after much staring that quickly grew quite embarrassing due to its duration, she glanced away. VICTORY! Turning back the computer screen I realized that she had just given me something to put down on my empty page; but, before even pressing the first keystroke, I felt her gaze upon me again. Realizing that capitulation to her war of attrition at any point would mean ultimate defeat, I hardened my resolve to see this ongoing fight to the bitter end. After many reiterations of the war and victory cycle, hopes were high in the human camp that final victory was just around the corner. However, just as ultimate conquest seemed within reach, my opponent rose gracefully and moved to lie down in a less combative part of the room, leaving our epic struggle with such a carefree air as to say, “I am tired of your stupid antics human, and this game ceases to amuse me, so see you after my nap.”
Despite this small setback, the war is not over. Mankind must triumph! For now, however, I content myself to fill out this page and await the hour when her contented snoring ceases and her eyes open, and then we shall once again engage in bitter combat for the fate of the living room.
One does not have to look far during the Christmas season to find images of Christ’s birth: an idyllic scene full of hay, a smiling Mary and Joseph, three wise men with gifts, and friendly looking animals, all surrounding a peacefully sleeping Jesus. This is an amazing image: a king, not coming in power and with a sword, but in abject poverty and humility.
At the core of Christmas we celebrate the great condescension of God himself. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” and again in Philippians 2:6b-8, “Though he [Christ] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The classic manger scene is a beautiful picture of the humiliation and hope of Christ’s life intertwined: the suffering and death and, ultimately, resurrection in victory.
Whenever reading the account of our Lord’s birth today, let us do so in the context of what a recently imprisoned Chinese pastor said, “The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him” (Wang Yi, 2018). If in the beauty of the human birth of our Lord we see the depth of his humility, and how he would go on to even greater and more painful sacrifices out of love, then only can we truly begin to grasp the magnitude of that peaceful manger scene and respond as Zechariah did:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. He has done this to […] remember his holy covenant -the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:68-75)
Since college, the last two months of each year have held a special place in my heart. Part of what has always made holidays helpful for me is how they offer the opportunity to derail from the train-track of everyday existence. By doing so, I can examine the road that has gotten me thus far in a way that is hard to accomplish amid the activities of daily life. Below is passage that I spent some time pondering this past week and found very helpful and timely given the Thanksgiving holiday:
“Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.” Micah 7:8-9
Much like David in Psalm 51, the prophet expresses a hope seated firmly in the goodness and ability of the Lord. Amid his trials, Micah has no problem rectifying his own sinfulness with his status as God’s child -he knows he has committed evil, and with penitent heart submits to the discipline of his father, but all with the forward-looking hope that God will ultimately deliver him and Israel.
Life is easy to live in the weeds: to spend day after day slogging through the routine and grind without giving a thought to the “why’s” of life. Even if we know the hope of the gospel, sometimes darkness can descend: anxiety, depression, shame, recurring sin, broken relationships, broken bodies, and the thorns and thistles of life; however, even when we forget, Christ does not cease to reign. When we sin and wreck our lives, we can stand in hope, even as David and Micah did, knowing that our debt is paid, and deliverance will come. When life is hard and full of pain, we can cry out to God, trusting in his promises, as we remember the words of the Lord to Moses: “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Ex. 6:5).
The last two months of each year are a great time of rejoicing for some, and full of loneliness and hardship for others, but no matter which we are this year, or next, Christ remains unchanged: a deliverer of light on a cold and stormy sea.
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.” Micah 7:18-20
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).
In his essay/devotional last week, Insanity Builds Character, my fellow writer highlighted the importance, nay necessity, of stubborn perseverance to the Christian walk. In that post he mentions the following, “Suffering, pain, adversity, all work to elicit perseverance from a person. In this way (and others not mentioned here but outlined also in James 1 and 1 Peter 4), suffering is actually a blessing to believers, for without suffering we would never learn to persevere in trusting God.” There are many kinds of suffering in the world, but here I want to particularly touch on material and social suffering -or specifically lack thereof.
In the United States, and in some ways the West at large, culture has been largely prosperous in recent centuries, affording opportunities for self betterment unparalleled in previous times; along with that, Western civilization has maintained a social structure largely complementary to, at best, and ambivalent of, at worst, the Christian faith. This is not to say that eras of mass poverty and anti-Christian social movements do not continue to exist, but the prevalence of affluence and Christian nominalism, especially in the U.S., has made it possible to cheaply claim the Christian faith in many cases. This poses a challenge to perseverance in the faith that Peter addresses above: be sober minded, be watchful. It is not so much a trial of suffering as it is a temptation to complacency brought on by the material and social ease that many of us enjoy. As such, it can be easy to try and live out our Christianity so as to not rock the social and material boats of our lives. This is the kind of ‘Christianity’ that is hollow on the inside, the kind that is fundamentally defined, not by what Christ has done, but by a party line or special interest group. This is why perseverance in watchfulness is such a critical part of the Christian walk, and not merely personal watchfulness, but watchfulness performed in conjunction with the community that God has provided: his Church. God’s wrath is stirred up against those who walk complacently in the comfortableness of wealth and do not weep over the injustices on the earth:
“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria,
the notable men of the first of the nations,
to whom the house of Israel comes!
2 Pass over to Calneh, and see,
and from there go to Hamath the great;
then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
Or is their territory greater than your territory,
3 O you who put far away the day of disaster
and bring near the seat of violence?
4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
6 who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”
8 The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts:
“I abhor the pride of Jacob
and hate his strongholds,
and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”
So the next time we are at a crossroads, it behooves us to ask ourselves WHY we are saying, doing, voting, spending time the way we are: is it driven by a Godly desire to pursue His glory, or is it a merely a crinkled Christianese wrapper around an idol of ease? The first will honor God and bless our neighbors, the second will only incur judgment and wrath.
The battle between William Kane and Frank Miller in the movie High Noon epitomizes what makes good Western films powerful: the struggle between duty and chaos, good and evil, and self-sacrifice and selfishness. Through the movie’s one hour and twenty-five minute runtime, the audience is given a glimpse into the many motivations that lead men to take what doesn’t belong to them, live in apathy, or stand their ground in the face of insurmountable odds. One facet of the movie that sticks with you long after you leave is the main theme which is interwoven throughout:
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
On this, our weddin’ day
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Wait, wait along
I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave
And I must face a man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave
Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
S’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon
He made a vow while in state prison
Vowed it would be my life or his’n
I’m not afraid of death but oh
What will I do if you leave me?
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
You made that promise as a bride
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Although you’re grievin’, don’t think of leavin’
Now that I need you by my side
Sporting a solid cast with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, High Noon was, and still is upon recent re-visitation, one of my favorite Western films of all time, and well worth a watch if you enjoy tales from the old west.
Having recently finished reading Out of the Silent Planet on holiday, two quotes from separate, but closely tied, passages struck me especially. Not having read the book since high school, almost 8 years ago at this point, most of it was new to me in terms of the ideas presented and general plot; and as is often the case of most ‘first time’ read-throughs where only the veneer of ideas is genuinely discovered, mine was no different. All that to say, even having just finished it, the book already entices me to read again and see what other worldview and cosmological tidbits Lewis has sprinkled throughout this first in his space trilogy.
Quote 1: On Death
“Many thousands of thousand years before this [talking to Weston], when nothing yet lived on your world [earth], the cold death was coming on my harandra. Then I was in deep trouble, not chiefly for the death of my hnau [creatures] -Maleldil [God] does not make them long-livers -but for the things which the lord of your world, who was not yet bound, put into their minds. He would have made them as your people are now -wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it. […]The weakest of my people do not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maledil you would have peace.” (Lewis, 138-139; Chapter 20)
Quote 2: On Bent and Broken Men
“I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [creatures] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa [king] in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey. […The bent one] has left you this one [law] because a bent hnau can do more evil than a broken one.” (Lewis, 137-138)
I like the above conversations between Oyarsa and Weston. Prior to and during this conversation, Weston has waxed eloquent about how ‘humanity’ must be perpetuated at all costs -even if it means sacrificing their physical form, the lives of individuals (like the protagonist), etc. Through this whole dialogue, Lewis demonstrates mankind’s propensity to try and mentally block out and avoid what they know to be their ultimate end. In Weston’s specific case, Lewis also makes an interesting statement that a bent man is more capable of evil than a broken one. A man driven by greed, for example, will only cause so much harm, and is no longer so much a man as an animal since he no longer operates under any pretense of ‘law’ but simply carnal desire. However, the tyranny of the moral busybody, the man who will go to any extreme for a ‘good’ end, can be the most destructive, and Lewis understands this because he saw many such men in his own day, as we do in ours.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” -C.S. Lewis
Life is much like a story -a series of relationships and events that interconnect and develop into something much bigger than the sum of its parts. Similarly, the pleasures of life are not insular -they do not exist as merely singular points within a human life but are rather best appreciated and understood through memory.
At least, that is what C.S. Lewis is saying through a conversation in his book Out of the Silent Planet. Although not a theme by any stretch, in fact it only consists of about a paragraph’s worth of text, the idea hit a major chord with me. During the back and forth between the protagonist Ransom and a hross (ie ‘alien’), Ransom questions why the hrossa, if they find the begetting of children pleasurable, would not seek to beget lots of children, and the hross’s response is quite interesting:
“A pleasure is fully grown only when it is remembered […] What you [human] call remembering is the last part of the pleasure […] When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then -that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.” (Ch. 12, p. 74)
Here Lewis is painting a story-driven worldview through his characters. Denying the popular stance that life is largely a random collection of circumstances, and pleasure in its various forms is to be the ultimate pursuit, he posits rather that pleasure is most accurately found in the memories of the life/lives shaped by the event.
However, this idea is not original to Lewis, but rather an expression of his underlying Christo-centric worldview. A divine author over all things means that there CAN be a larger narrative, and seeing Him as sovereign over all supports the idea that the happenings and relationships of day to day life have a much greater long-term impact than the individual events themselves. No doubt Abraham took great pleasure in the birth of his son Isaac. How much greater, though, is the pleasure he has from seeing the faithfulness of God in the lineage that continued from Isaac to Jesus of Nazareth, and thereon to two thousand years of the gospel being proclaimed to Jew and Gentile? The Bible is full of examples of this, as are all of our lives. Let us remember the pleasures we have been given and be thankful for how much more beautiful they are over a life’s time as God has used them.