It’s a mess, isn’t it?
A while back I wrote about peace. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. The specifics have changed, but the principles remain.
Now more than ever.
In the US, today is Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who have given “the last full measure of devotion,” who have died in the military service of our country. In an odd way, it’s a reminder of both the brokenness of our world—the ongoing frequency of war and the toll it takes on entire generations of families who have lost loved ones either to death or to deep psychological scars—and the pervasiveness of the image of God, reflected in the courage and self-sacrifice of those who serve.
There’s no more Christ-like action than to offer your life for those you love (Jn 15.13). I suppose no soldier actually intends to sacrifice his life; to paraphrase General George Patton, you win not so much by dying for your country as by making the other guy die for his country. That doesn’t lessen the significance of their sacrifice; every soldier is prepared to make that sacrifice, even as he takes steps to minimize the likelihood that he’ll have to.
Some of those who died never saw it coming and felt no pain in that moment. Others, however, made a deliberate choice to die in order to save their buddies, some by falling on a grenade, others in other ways. In that last moment, they were well past the point of “taking a risk”; they acted intentionally to give their lives for those they loved.
I have known men who saw such things—men who were the loved ones for whom others intentionally took the proverbial—or not at all proverbial—bullet. Most of them never, or almost never, talked about it. These were strong men, the Greatest Generation, tough and hard, but not hard enough, not tough enough, to hold back tears when they spoke of such things.
They came back, carrying heavy invisible loads of survivors’ guilt, and they paid private visits to the families of those who had died, and the ones I knew lived the rest of their lives in the memories of their heroes, their saviors. Indeed, living their lives, the lives paid for with the lifeblood of their friends, was the only chance they had to make some sort of repayment.
And live they did. They raised families, they worked hard, they formed the backbone of the greatest nation of all time. In the main, the defects of that nation today—and there are many—cannot be laid at their feet. They lived well, honoring the sacrifices of their unimaginably brave and devoted buddies.
And some of them, those who were able, have stood at the graves of their friends, heads bowed, deep in grief, wishing for a chance, just a moment, to speak one more time with their savior, to express their gratitude, to tell him about the life they’ve lived and the good they’ve done and the joys they’ve seen, to assure him that they’ve tried to make his sacrifice Worth It. And to say, through tears, how much they wish that he could have experienced those things with them.
We stand in their shoes.
Someone has died for us as well.
He did see it coming, for all eternity, and he planned it himself as the just means of justifying, not his friends, but those who hated him without reason and by their own choice.
It was not painless. Indeed, the form of his death may well have been the most painful ever devised, and the most shameful as well.
How shall we then live?
We don’t need to stand by his grave and weep, because there is no grave, because there is no body. Unlike our honored dead, this Savior emerged from his grave, taking death by the throat and squeezing every bit of power and authority out of it, crushing the serpent’s head.
He is not there. He is risen. As. He. Said.
How shall we then live?
To the fullest. In honor of his sacrifice, in eternal service to him. This do in remembrance.
Since this is my last post before Good Friday and Easter, I’d like to interrupt the current series for a meditation.
I’ve appreciated the writing of American writer John Updike for many years. I think my interest was first stirred when I learned that he had written a series of short stories set in the fictional town of Olinger, PA, in a book appropriately called Olinger Stories. I later came across his short story “Pigeon Feathers,” the story of a boy’s crisis of faith through the influence of H. G. Wells and a defective local Lutheran minister, which was resolved through the death of a simple barn pigeon. The last sentence of that story really got me.
Eventually I came across his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” which I offer here as a meditation. I don’t believe anything I can say could improve on what he has already said.
He is risen. Indeed.
mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
For the first time in my lifetime, the entire globe is wrapped in complete, and admitted, uncertainty.
I suppose the Cuban Missile Crisis back in 1962 came close, but that lasted only 13 days, and I suspect that a lot of people in corners of the globe were unaware that it was happening at the time. Here in Greenville, where we lost one of our own, we still memorialize it.
But now we’re dealing with a virus, which isn’t open to dissuasion and is no respecter of persons, and which, for whatever reasons, is pretty much everywhere. Add to that the ubiquity of media information—informed and uninformed—and the fact that suddenly everyone’s an expert in epidemiology, and you have a perfect storm of uncertainty, and all the consequences that it brings.
Different cultures deal with uncertainty in different ways. The Germans and the Swiss are stereotyped as planners, regimented and orderly. (I’ve found that like all stereotypes, this one is far too simplistic.) In various developing countries, I’ve noticed that uncertainty comes with the territory; you live one day at a time, getting up early to carry in the day’s water, and then going to the market to get the day’s food. Whenever the infrastructure is unreliable, the residents get used to the power or water outages, or the torn-up highways, and the culture develops a sort of resignation that often results in considerably better mental health than, say, most Americans would manifest in similar circumstances. In fact, American tourists in those cultures are largely responsible for the “Ugly American” stereotype all too common overseas.
I was once teaching overseas when the power went out, killing my data projector and thus my PowerPoint. The students sprang into action; here came a generator out of nowhere, and within 5 minutes we were back in business, with no one seeming to think that anything out of the ordinary had happened.
Once I took a team of students to a location where the city-supplied water was out, with no word on when it would be restored. For the five weeks we were there, we trucked in water, hauled it to our quarters in 5-gallon plastic buckets, and did our daily ablutions from smaller buckets. One of the male students and I had an informal contest on how little water we needed to get completely lathered and rinsed. I got it down to a liter—but then, having no hair gave me an unfair advantage.
My culture isn’t used to this sort of thing. Here in the early days of “social distancing,” we seem to be responding with creativity, helpfulness, and even amusement, from the looks of the memes—excepting the hoarders, of course. But as the situation drags on—it will drag on, won’t it? Or are we uncertain about that too?—anxiety increases, and it’s not unfounded. Lives are at risk; jobs are at risk; the economy is at risk—and the list could go on.
The situation doesn’t call for platitudes or for Pollyanna—or certainly not the cavalier dismissal of genuine threats. This is a time for us to pay attention, to care for one another, to sacrifice. It’s not a time to make light of other people’s suffering.
But it is a time for reflection on First Things, on Prime Principles. On what is certain. On Truth.
It is True—
And since these things are True, how do we proceed?
And with attention to the most important things.
Most of us have more time these days than we usually do, since we’re not going to work.
Use it—not for binge-watching whatever, but for loving God, for loving your neighbor, for doing justice, for loving mercy, for walking humbly with your God.
There is a good and wise outcome.
As I noted last time, there are some historical inaccuracies in the film “The Aeronauts,” inaccuracies that I’ve called significant. What are they?
Two big ones.
First, the scientific community did not dismiss Glaisher’s idea. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (which is different from the Royal Society) endorsed his flight.
Second, and much more obvious, Glaisher’s pilot was named not Amelia Rennes, but Henry Coxwell.
If that sounds like a man’s name to you, you’re right.
Thus the two primary conflicts in the movie—the opposition of the scientific community and the cultural prejudice against Glaisher’s pilot simply because she was woman—are fiction. The writers themselves noted that they wanted to “reposition the narrative to be more progressive”—“I wanted it to not be two middle-aged men in a basket. I wanted it to be reflective for a contemporary audience.”
The same article notes that the Royal Society has expressed regret that Coxwell’s significant story has been brushed out of the film.
Should we be upset?
Should we start making some memes? Maybe boycott the movie? Publish the writers’ home addresses, and pictures of their children? Warn them about where liars go?
Well, let’s think about this for a minute. (PSA: Thinking about things for a minute is wise, unless someone’s life is in immediate danger.)
On the one hand, there’s no question that the event didn’t happen as the movie portrays it. The writers had an agenda, and as soon as the word progressive shows up, some people are going to get upset.
But on the other hand—
Some things we ought to fight about. But much more often, we disagree about things and get unnecessarily upset.
Watch the movie, or don’t. Know the facts. Live your life.
Pick your battles.
Like most teachers, I have a break of several weeks over Christmas. As a family we’ve done different things with the time over the years—one year Pam and I went to Germany to see our daughter—but this year was one to just stay home and have minimal plans. I laid out a reading schedule, in preparation for a couple of new-to-me courses this next semester, as well as a couple of writing projects, and progress on those fronts has gone well.
Along the way, I saw a few ads on my phone about a new Amazon movie called “The Aeronauts.” I’ve been a fan of flying from way back, since my days as copilot, navigator, and general right-seat companion to my father, who was a private pilot. This movie was about ballooning, which I’ve never done but would love to, and the trailer looked pretty interesting, so I gave a couple of hours one evening to watching it on my daughter’s Amazon Prime account.
I enjoyed it a lot.
It’s “inspired by true events” from 1862, a story about a young British scientist named James Glaisher, who’s always loved the weather. He wants to study it with a view to learning how to predict it; in other words, he essentially wants to invent meteorology. He figures the best way to study air is to be up in it, where you can take readings and look for patterns. There are no airplanes in 1862, of course, but there are balloons. He’ll need funding to hire one, so he appears before the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The gathered men scoff at the idea that the weather can be predicted, and they walk out of his presentation.
He meets a young woman, Amelia Rennes, who is a balloon pilot and a widow. (She and her late husband, also a balloonist, were trying to set an altitude record when he died in the attempt. To avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you the specifics.) She understandably doesn’t want to fly anymore, but young James convinces her, and they get commercial support for the flight from a showman who hopes to recover his investment by selling tickets.
On the appointed day, with the stands full of paying spectators, the weather looks foreboding, but the two launch anyway, thereby breaking the Most Important Rule of Aviation, as my father often reminded me.
They ascend through a thunderstorm, with all the chaos you’d expect, but eventually break out over the cloud layer. Now’s it’s a matter of seeking to break the current altitude record of 23,000 feet. As those with flying experience know, anything above 14,000 feet is an oxygen level dangerously low for human consciousness, so now the primary conflict is a battle not with scientific close-mindedness in the Royal Society, or the sexism of the day, but the raw elements of nature.
Again, no spoilers. You’ll have to watch it—or read the Wikipedia article—to find out if they make it above 23,000, and/or if they survive the attempt.
But I really, really liked the movie.
As I’ve noted, the film is “inspired by true events,” and that got me thinking: what “true events” inspired the movie? What was the real story?
So I set out to discover what actually happened.
I learned that there are some differences between what really happened and what was portrayed in the movie—differences that most would agree are quite significant.
Now, everybody knows that there are people who make something of a career out of criticizing the way a movie changes a fictional novel (there’s some controversy about that right now with a new release of Little Women) or a historical event. The question of “artistic license” has produced some really heated arguments.
And it occurs to me that this particular example might be useful in helping us think through what’s worth fighting about, and what isn’t.
So next time I’ll tell you what the significant differences are, and we’ll think a little bit about how upset we should—or shouldn’t—be.
We live in a noisy age. It seems that everywhere we go, noise fills the pauses and even runs constantly in the background. In stores and restaurants, the music is constant and often quite loud. (How do people carry on any kind of meaningful conversation in those places?) In the elevator, there’s music—that’s even an official genre, apparently. Go to a professional sporting event, and every pause in the action is filled with the output of the stadium’s DJ. I’m told that what he’s playing is allegedly music. When you get into your car, you automatically reach over and turn on the radio, to fill your environment with music or, worse, people talking—people who quite clearly don’t know what they’re talking about.
I know I sound cynical. I’m not. But I do want to make a point.
Human beings need quiet as certainly as they need exercise. We need time to think, to reflect, to evaluate. To pray.
I’ve noticed that in many of the students I teach, quiet is disturbing. Too quiet. Distracting. Even our library has loosened up on the stereotypical quiet rules as an accommodation to the students’ professed need for background noise—think Starbucks—in order to study.
Our lives are often noisy in ways other than decibels. Many of us pride ourselves on how busy we are, how little time we have. That means, you see, that we’re important, that we’re making a difference. I’m busier than you.
Nyah, nyah, nyah.
My friends, these things ought not so to be.
Now, I know that sometimes we’re unavoidably busy. Some people have to work 3 jobs in order to pay for school. Some people have bedridden relatives or friends, and there’s nobody to share the burden. For most of us, there are seasons of life when we’re simply busier than normal and we have to just grit our teeth and try to get it all done without dying of exhaustion.
But busyness is not a lifestyle we are meant to choose.
We need quiet. Time to think. Time to meditate.
Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still (Ps 4.4).
Meditation isn’t emptying your mind, after the fashion of the Eastern religions. When you empty your mind, it’s like leaving your wallet sitting on the sidewalk; somebody bent on mischief is likely to show up.
In the Bible, meditation is focusing your mind on something and giving it your investigative consideration, turning it over and savoring it as you would good food. My colleague Jim Berg says that if you can worry, you know how to meditate; meditation is just the process of worrying without the pathological aspects.
So what should you focus your mind on? The Bible gives at least 3 legitimate topics:
I note that in order to meditate on God’s Word, you really have to have it in your head. You can’t think about something that isn’t there. I’ve written on that topic before; if you find the prospect of life-changing meditation appealing, that post might be worth reading again.
Recently I’ve been consciously not turning on the radio when I’m alone in the car. It’s a great opportunity to think, to muse, to meditate. I’ve also been cutting out late-night activities so that I can get enough sleep and still get up earlier, when the house is quiet.
There are lots of demands on us, and they deserve our attention and care. But most of us don’t need to be as busy as we are. Maybe we can’t be philosophers sitting on mountaintops or monks chanting in the abbey—in fact, we’re probably a lot more useful as we are—but we can be more thoughtful, more reasoned, more contemplative.
More quiet, to a useful end.
In my work as a college professor I’ve taught a number of courses online, and I’ve designed a few online courses as well. I like the experience.
Because my university has encouraged my professional development in the field, I recently joined several colleagues at a conference addressing online coursework. Just the other day I received a newsletter from the sponsoring organization, and the lead article caught my attention. It’s about characteristics of leaders in rapidly changing fields, of which online education is certainly one.
I was struck by the fact that these characteristics are solidly grounded in biblical principles, even though a great many researchers in the field—most likely a great majority of them—have no commitment whatsoever to the Bible as authoritative.
Here’s the list, with my comments embedded in italics:
This concept is a direct consequence of the image of God in man, which includes dominion. The Bible reminds us that we will be held personally accountable for our exercise of that dominion. Jesus identifies the second great commandment as loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Through general revelation we learn about God by observing the entire cosmos and all that it contains, as well as current and past events and developments, or providence.
Our personhood in the image of God includes our emotional makeup. Although our emotions are tainted by sin and thus are not authoritative or reliable, they still reflect God’s image in a limited way and thus are worthy objects of study.
As God is truth, we are to speak and hear the truth.
We just talked about that, didn’t we?
Of course. Living a lie, or hypocrisy, the Scripture roundly condemns, as it violates the character of God.
Thankfulness is a key element of proper worship, as demonstrated in the Psalms and often elsewhere. As God receives our thanks, so we should imitate him by receiving the thanks of others.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and believers are gifted and empowered for service. God has providentially placed us where we can glorify him by accomplishing his will. Despite the fact that this point likely springs from a humanistic mindset, it is still grounded on biblical truth.
As Ecclesiastes notes.
Nope. Not this one. Truth is not relative, and our perceptions are not in fact reality in all cases. There is absolute truth, which springs from outside of us, and we are successful only as we recognize and orient ourselves toward it.
Not the primary source, of course. But humans are designed to help and provide for one another, under the guiding hand of their Creator.
That’s pretty much a direct quotation of Heb 13.5.
Within the church that is certainly true.
In the providence of God for his people, that is exactly the outcome (Gen 50.20).
Again, in the providence of God, certainly.
The Scripture is clear that all humans are in the image of God (Gen 1.26-27) and that the image persists even in fallen humans (Gen 9.6; Jam 3.9). Everyone has God’s Word written on his heart (Rom 2.15). I think this has at least 2 consequences:
The opportunities are endless.
As we’ve noted earlier, this list of God’s core attributes is repeated throughout the Old Testament, all the way through the age of the prophets and to the return from Babylon. Interestingly, the prophets add a line to the description: “relenting of evil” (Joel 2.13) or “one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4.2).
As the NASB makes clear in the Jonah passage, the word translated “evil” refers here not to moral evil, but to calamity or disaster. God had warned Israel that if they departed from him, he would send calamity their way (Dt 30.15-20). He warned of specific calamities: drought, famine, war, disease (Dt 28.15ff). And Israel played that script out multiple times.
But when his people repent, God relents. He restores the relationship, despite the offense.
Now, when we talk about God relenting, or repenting, or changing his mind, that raises all kinds of logical and theological questions. I plan to deal with that issue in a future post. For now, let’s just grant that the Scripture uses that kind of language about God, as astonishing as it is.
I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t forgive people until they repent, because God doesn’t. Fair enough. But there are some further considerations to the point.
Since God is omniscient, he knows whether our repentance is sincere. Can we know that for certain?
No, we can’t. And interestingly, Jesus tells us to forgive people whenever they ask, with no reference to “sincerity” (Mt 18.22)—and frankly, if my brother asked me to forgive him 490 times for the same thing, I’d start to wonder whether he meant it. But Jesus says to forgive him anyway.
And, come to think of it, when we repent, God know whether we’re going to fail again (and usually, the answer is yes). And he forgives us anyway.
If God, whose plans are perfect, who is never surprised, can forgive and relent of planned disaster, what about us? We’re not omniscient, and our plans aren’t perfect, and we are often surprised. If God can relent, shouldn’t we?
Why not go to your enemy, and offer him your hand, your arms, your friendship? Why not take back the things you said, the threats you made?
Why not make the first move?
The premise of this series is that we ought to treat others—all others—as God has treated us. Mockery, disdain, sarcasm, dismissal, ranting, vilification—God has never done that to us, although we have repeatedly deserved it for the way we’ve treated him.
No, God’s character won’t allow that. Just as he can’t lie, so also he can’t treat us in the ways we so naturally treat people we disagree with, or people we dislike, or people who lie about us or trivialize our concerns.
We need to be like him.
Pick somebody you really dislike—maybe a public figure, maybe a personal acquaintance.
And then think about how God would treat—indeed, has treated—him:
And do those things.
And to get really serious, pray that God would do those things for him too.
Maybe, one relationship at a time, we can be agents of peace rather than strife—lights in the world, instead of darkness.
If your eye is
bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.
If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Mt 6.23).