Edith Hamilton keeps deep truth alive

In her 1948 book, Witness to the Truth, Edith Hamilton wrote in the Introduction that when times are bad and “storm-driven,” there is a “strong tendency to emphasize men’s baseness or their impotent insignificance.” This happens in both philosophy and art.

Seventy years later, there is still this tendency to bemoan the nature of humanity. Speaking from our not-to-distant past, Hamilton (1867-1963), a scholar of ancient Greece, has insight that may help us today, which is generally what one finds from the great Greeks and those who “know” them.

Philosophy and art have not always been as they are now, and this already was the case in Hamilton’s time.

“A great change has taken place in the intellectual and artistic atmosphere. Plato’s influence through all the centuries up to our own [the mid-20th century] was immensely strong; Platonic philosophy aimed at turning mankind away from baseness, ‘to lift up the wing of the soul,’ Plato wrote, ‘which is renewed and strengthened by the love of the good, the true, the beautiful.'”

Stop and let those words wash over you — ”lift up the wing of the soul” and “love of the good, the true, the beautiful.” There is spiritual uplift in the words. In our time of so much bad behavior, dishonesty, and ugliness of human character it is good to remember to focus on their opposites — the good, the true, the beautiful.

One can say the ugliness has always been with us, dating back to the plucking of that fruit in the first garden. But still, there have been times when humanity reached hard for the good, true, and beautiful.

“‘All things,’ he [Plato] said, ‘poverty or sickness or any other misfortune will work together for good to him who desires to be like God as far as the nature of man allows.’ That voice is not heard now in philosophy. Plato’s solution was to become like God; the solution of modern philosophy is to die.”

The Christian tradition says it a little differently, but it is essentially the same. We Christ followers seek to be more and more like Jesus — God come to earth. We die to self, yes, but it is in order to truly live in God. We do not fly to death; we fly to life.

One more quote from Hamilton, at last for this day:

“In all the great periods of art the artist looked at the world as its Creator did, and found it good. His aim was to make others share in that vision, to clarify for them the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth. When he had painted his picture or written his poem, people would see truth and beauty where they had not before.”

The best of artists do help clarify for us “the truth of beauty and beauty of truth.” They are, however, not alone in the world of the creative. There are some artists of amazing creativity who lift up the ugly, who seem to relish it, to swim in it, not to expose it but to be part of it.

As for me, I seek the artists of beauty and truth. I love bright and lively colors in painting. I like inspiring and encouraging music. And I fall in love with writers who can help me see the good. All great artists are aware of and touch the ugliness, but they do not stay there.

I heard someone say the other day that Buddhism does away with hope. I’m not sure if that is true, but how can one live without hope? I want the hope that comes from the truth and beauty that the best of artists capture.

In this storm-driven day, may we hold on to the good, the true, and the beautiful. And may we exemplify them by seeking to be more like the loving and forgiving Divine.

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Leave the cave; stay in the fray

Elijah “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. . .” (1 Kings 19:3a, NRSV).

People who are trying to be faithful to God can empathize with Elijah — there can be a temptation to run away from it all. They confront evil and injustice as best they can, but still they sometimes want to slink away and hide. It is no fun being attacked and criticized even when you are right.

Faithfulness can be especially hard for those who seek to confront phony religion. Take Elijah. Take Jesus. Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day pulled it off.

The story of Elijah’s run is in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

. . . he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

This guy had just been God’s servant in doing some major religious clean-up work. Miraculous stuff. He goes from big-time faith to no faith in days.

I have known some godly people who can confront evil all day long and be ready for another day of the same — the late James Dunn comes to mind. (Though sometimes I thought he was tilting at windmills.)

Elijah and James Dunn stand out as confronters of bad religion, but a lot of people are trying to do their parts. Still, they may feel inadequate for the tasks. We need Elijah’s angel — a patient angel.

Then he [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.

Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Sometimes we want to lie down under a tree — a live oak, possibly. But then it’s like we hear: “Nope. You can’t lie down town. Take nourishment and get ready for another journey.” We hit the snooze button on such angelic encouragement and go back to sleep, but we all know that a snooze button doesn’t turn off an alarm.

Back to Elijah.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

When we are in the pits we can overstate our situation, and that’s because we misunderstand it and ourselves and our God.

He [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

That would get your attention. You would be like a kid in the old days if someone said a parade was coming to town. Gotta see it!

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;

and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;

and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;

and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Wind, earthquake, fire — but not God. Attention riveted. No God around. Then, silence. And Scripture says at odd thing — Elijah “hears” the silence.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Summoned by silence is almost an oxymoron. Silence does not summon — or does it? Has a parent ever suddenly realized his or her children had grown silent and proceeded to investigate.

Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Why is a prophet in a cave in the wilderness? Prophets are needed in the cities, in the middle of culture, out in the open where evil can be challenged.

He [Elijah] answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah is continuing his earlier riff. God speaks.

Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return. . . .”

So many faithful believers feel like Elijah. They have been trying so hard for so long to be faithful, but no one seems to be listening. And this can happen even in the midst of praise and encouragement.

In the silence, however, we can be encouraged. We can gain a renewed sense of God’s presence. We can get new orders. “Go, return” to the fray, because God is up to something.

And we now have distinct advantages over Elijah. We have the example and teachings of Jesus, and the truth of this Man can change an individual and a world of individuals and their communities. And we have the Spirit of the Creator recreating within each of us the life spark that animated Jesus.

Ah, yes! Leave the cave!

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).

(All quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

 

100 years ago — a family starts & still lives

One hundred years ago today, two young people came together in marriage — William Everett Foster and Fairy Gertrude Morton. They eventually gave birth to four sons. One died very young. One fought in the Battle of the Bulge and survived. One died as an adult, leaving behind a young family. One (third in the order) still lives — my dad.

I’m thinking of these grandparents of mine today. We were not real close, but they laid part of the foundation for my life. Gertrude took my dad to church as a boy, and he never stopped. Everett took my dad into the fields to work as a boy, and my dad didn’t stop until his painful knees stopped him.

Every older person knows that life goes by quickly. As it does, it’s good to remember — even the things you did not experience but which laid the foundation for what you would.

Another way to think of this is that when they married in February, the Great War (our World War 1) was still going on. It would not end until November. Love and war.

First song on shuffle this morning — “Believe in You,” by Amanda Marshall. Just what I needed.

I had already read my Bible and driven to Austin in silence. I turn on my computer, crank up iTunes, and it’s like God speaking to me in Amanda’s voice — a continuation of my prayers.

Somewhere there’s a river

Looking for a stream

Somewhere there’s a dreamer

Looking for a dream

Somewhere there’s a drifter

Trying to find his way

All of us can feel lost sometime. We are looking for something. Evangelical Christians like to talk of “lost” as being before someone decides to follow Christ, to put their faith in Christ. And this is true.

But believers, even those like me who have been a Christian for decades, can feel lost. We’re not, God is still there, but it feels that way.

Somewhere someone’s waiting

To hear somebody say

I believe in you

I can’t even count the ways that

I believe in you

And all I want to do is help you to

Believe in you

There are people all around us who need to hear someone say, “I believe in you.” We need this because sometimes we stop believing in ourselves. We see our failures, our shortcomings, our unfulfillable dreams. We start drifting, trying to find our way.

Somewhere someone’s reaching

Trying to grab that ring

Everyone seems to be reaching, trying to grab the ring of success or just attention. Reaching, reaching, always reaching. It seems so many others have grasped the ring, but we cannot reach it. Like a trapeze artist who misses an exchange, we fall and hope there is a net.

We’re paralyzed with fear

And everybody’s listening

‘Cause we all need to hear

I believe in you

I can’t even count the ways that

I believe in you

And all I want to do is help you to

Believe in you

We need someone to believe in us and then to help us believe in ourselves. That seems to be what God is up to. Scripture says God believes us, and in our thoughts and prayers we still seem to hear the Spirit whispering that supporting belief. But sometimes it can be hard for us to hear that Spirit because of the clutter of our own thoughts, and that’s when we need another person to audibly say, “I believe in you.”

I will hold you up

I will help you stand

I will comfort you when you need a friend

I will be the voice that’s calling out

I believe in you

Daniel J. Siegel, a professor of psychiatry, says research has shown it is crucial to “feel we are held within another person’s internal world, in their head and in their heart — relationships that help us thrive and give us resilience.”

Such a beautiful idea — to feel we are held within another person’s internal world. And this reminds me of Jesus’ words.

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me (John 15:4, NKJV).

God, in Christ, desires to hold us within His world, within His love. That can be done in purely spiritual fashion, but it also can be done by each of us for one another.

God believes in us. Someone may also need to hear that I believe in him or her.

 

Face-to-face encounters need understanding, grace

Face-to-face encounters possess great potential for good or evil, and both possible outcomes have been illustrated over the past few days.

First, Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann became part of our national “conversation” as a video went viral showing a grinning Sandmann standing before a drumming Phillips.

Sandmann, a Kentucky teenager, wore a “Make America great again” hat, a symbol of President Trump’s political campaign. Phillips, an older Native American, beat his drum in prayer. With other teenagers in the background, the short video portrayed a confrontation of threat and disrespect for the elder Phillips.

We now know there is more to the story. Sandmann, in my eyes, was being disrespectful. He should have stood aside and let Phillips walk back to where he had been earlier. The group in the background makes it more confrontational because loud, unruly crowds anywhere become threatening, whether or not that is the intent.

The hats, however, provided more fuel; they are a political symbol. Some people, including many Native Americans, view the MAGA hats as representative of a racist president, specifically because of insensitive comments he has made about indigenous people.

More information revealed the broader context of the incident. Sandmann and friends had not descended on Phillips as the short video clip seems to indicate. The situation began when the Catholic boys and another identity group exchanged taunts.

Phillips walked into the group of teenagers while beating his prayer drum in order to diffuse the situation that had not involved the Native American group. Sandmann then stood in Phillips’ way and refused to move. The smile and grin, with friends in the background, conveyed disrespect of this elder to a watching world.

But this became political, not just because of the MAGA caps, but because a Twitter account pushed the provocative clip. Twitter later shut down the account, but the damage had been done. Another essentially anonymous social media presence had ignited a national furor. This account sought to provoke left-leaning Americans; other accounts work up right-wing Americans.

Two new names — Guy Jones and Don Wegman — later entered the national conversation. Jones is a Native American, and Wegman is a MAGA-hat-wearing Anglo man. They met Tuesday at a protest outside the Covington Catholic Diocese. Jones was there to protest; Wegman was there to make personal contact. The two men ended up exchanging phone numbers and planning to meet for coffee.

We need more people like these two — people who will have civil conversations about what they think.

The early church had a problem with people stirring up trouble. There were Judaizers, gnostics, and others. Some people simply like to stir the pot of public discourse, and they usually are not seeking greater understanding and fruitful dialogue. They are seeking to divide.

A frustrated Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.

For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still worldly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, CSB).

We are so prone to act like “mere humans.” I belong to Calvin (or Calvinism). I belong to free will Baptists (or Arminianism). I belong to Conservatives. I belong to Progressives. I belong to Trump. I belong to Clinton.

We can understand this in the world, but it should not be this way among Christ’s people. And we can bring the same respect for differences to our broader social and political context.

Paul talking about church factions:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? … According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 10-11, CSB).

Today, we are thrust into a world in which anything we say or do can be captured and shared globally. Any of us can go viral. We can be both understood and misunderstood when one moment of our lives gets the world’s attention.

But we also are consumers of such messages. It is good to bring grace to our judgments, understanding that we do not know the whole story. We can be thankful we know what is going on and be moved to action while also remembering that one short video or photo can be very misleading.

One more word from Paul:

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:2-5, CSB).

 

It’s best to approach Scripture with humility

I received a call Tuesday afternoon. One Christian woman called on behalf of herself and another Christian woman — one in her 20s, one not in her 20s. Speaker phone engaged.

They had a theological question in preparation for a women’s Bible study. The Bible study materials being used including an interpretation my callers found odd.

They conveyed the details. I gave my perspective.

The long and short of my view was that I did not agree with everything the study writer said, but I could see how she (the writer) came to such a view based on Scripture. The Bible doesn’t say the same thing the writer said, but she may be correct in what it means, even though I don’t think so.

We do this all the time. We read Scripture and seek to interpret it. Whenever we move from quoting Scripture to “explaining” it, we have moved into interpretation. This is the stock and trade of every pastor and Bible study leader. A problem arises when we confuse interpretation with what Scripture actually says.

Lots of us take the Bible’s words seriously, but we should be a lot more humble about our interpretations of what it means.

Christians were once convinced the sun circled the earth because of what they read in the Bible. Mind you, the Bible never said such a thing; people interpreted what it said as meaning that. They interpreted wrongly. Just like the folks in the Bible, when I say the sun is going to rise in the east and set in the west, I don’t mean the sun is circling the earth, but someone who did not know better might misunderstand me and misinterpret my words.

Let’s face it, we are not God. There are lots of things we do not know. And since that is the case, it seems a heavy dose of humility might be in order regarding our interpretations.

When the Bible study writer cited above (a woman) and I get to Heaven someday, assuming God lets us both in and we still care about such details, one of us will find out he/she was wrong and one will discover she/he was right. I hope the one who was right will not gloat; there should be no gloating in Heaven.

A little bit of Heaven is needed for our redeemed relationships now. As we try to understand Scripture and apply it, it’s good to also leave room in our theology to know we might be mistaken.

Again, none of us are God. The one Holy Spirit is working to help us know truth, but it’s pretty obvious we are not “listening” very well because we Christ followers come up with lots of different interpretations of the same Bible verses.

Humility! We need more humility regarding our interpretations of Scriptures.

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful (Colossians 3:12-15, CSB).

 

God calls Christians to the divine work of pursuing justice.

The “arc of the moral universe … is bending toward justice.”

These are now famous words, but are they true? What do you see when you do a personal memory scan of what you know about history. Some of us may see an arc toward justice; others of us may wonder.

We surely have not arrived at complete justice in the United States.

We live in a nation of laws, which is a huge step toward greater justice, but those laws are not always justly applied across economic and racial divides.

We live in a nation of inclusiveness that promotes justice for all persons without regard to race or ethnicity, but still bigotry and racism flourish in both language and violence.

Justice and injustice — both are real.

Scripture makes it clear that God is just and wants justice. One reason some people miss this is that in Scripture the words translated as justice or righteousness are often the same words in Hebrew or Greek.

To keep this simple, we can just say that justice and righteousness are intimately connected in Scripture. We can say that God is both righteous and just and also that God’s people are to be both righteous and just.

Matthew 13 illustrates the connection between righteousness and justice, and it shows the importance of both. Jesus said at the end of time all of those who cause sin and are lawless will be thrown out of God’s kingdom. “Then the righteous [just] will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Let anyone who has ears listen” (Mt. 13:43, CSB, bracketed word added).

In short, God’s children are righteous and just.

God is bending the moral universe toward justice, and God has called us to join in this work.

Some may doubt the truth of what Martin Luther King, Jr., said about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, but I think this great pastor described exactly what God is doing and wants all of us to participate in doing.

Here is the full quote from King’s book, Stride Toward Freedom:

But amid all of this we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us, and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.

We struggle or should be struggling in pursuit of God’s great purposes, and one of those is justice. We do not, however, struggle alone. When we pursue God’s purposes we have the Divine energy and power with us. Justice is our struggle, but it is not ours alone.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.