Time to resist the ‘cult of self and self-fulfillment’

Here are some words from James Montgomery Boice on this Sunday morning:

“What lies at the heart of family breakdown is the sad philosophy that lies at the heart of the breakdown of American society generally, namely, the cult of self and self-fulfillment to be achieved at the cost of nearly everything else. In other words, the problem is unbridled individualism, which is individualism in the most radical sense (‘me alone; no one else matters’), utterly untempered, constrained by not a single moral absolute.”

Christians today have even fallen victim to this disease. This has happened to the point that “Christian” is coming unattached from what the Bible says about being a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Jesus Way.

Politics reveals this. Many Christians have sold their moral souls for political ideas on both the left (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) and the right (protecting the wealthy not the poor, environmental degradation, immigration).

We need to actually read Scripture more, especially the New Testament, instead of listening primarily to what others say and write about Scripture. That’s what I’m going to do right now.

The quote is from Boice’s Foundations for God’s City, p. 23.

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Sirach offers words of Wisdom

We live in a day full of information but often bereft of wisdom.

This morning I read something I had never read before. I went to the Catholic Bible and read from the book of Sirach. Chapter 24 speaks of Wisdom, she who comes forth from the “Creator of all things.”

The Creator, the ancient text says, gave Wisdom a place in which to dwell. The people of Jacob, of Israel became that dwelling.

The passage personifies Wisdom as a woman come to dwell among a people. This paints a beautiful image of what we know from the Old Testament. The writer of Sirach recognized that Israel had been specially blessed as a place for the Creator’s Wisdom to be gradually revealed.

Wisdom speaks of the Creator and Israel:

“Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
I took root in an honored people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage” (vv. 9-12, NRSV, Catholic Edition).

Can’t we see this as we read both the Hebrew Scriptures and then the new Christian testament? Wisdom established. Wisdom taking root.

Wisdom “grew tall” like a tree, Sirach says. She could be seen in her majesty, but she was not only seen. Wisdom “gave forth perfume. She was to be inhaled and enjoyed.

“Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,
and like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,
like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,
and like the odor of incense in the tent ” (v. 15).

And, in the imperfect but fertile Hebrew soil Wisdom spread and gave glorious delights and abundant fruit. And Wisdom issued an invitation for all who desire her to “eat your fill of my fruits.” She also gave a promise, that possession of her would be “sweeter than the honeycomb.”

“Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,
and my branches are glorious and graceful.
Like the vine I bud forth delights,
and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit. [148]
Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb” (vv. 16-20).

And once we taste Wisdom, we want more, because we will never have all of her. And as we obey Wisdom we rise above the sin that so easily ensnares us.

“Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,
and those who work with me will not sin” (vv. 21-22).

Wisdom is found in the law of Moses, the early chapters of our Bible today, Sirach said. This grand woman, Wisdom, is specially revealed in God’s law.

The law of Moses “overflows . . .  with wisdom” like the Pishon and Tigris rivers in the spring (v. 25).

The law of Moses “runs over . . . with understanding” like the Euphrates and the Jordan at harvest time (v. 26).

The law of Moses “pours forth instruction” like the Nile and the Gihon in vintage (v. 27).

The first humans dd not know Wisdom fully, nor will the last (v. 28). This should humble us. We have a tendency to speak with such certainty about the things of God. Will we every learn that there always is more to learn of the Infinite and of Wisdom?

For her thoughts are more abundant than the sea,
and her counsel deeper than the great abyss (v. 29).

But Wisdom makes a promise.

“I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn,
and I will make it clear from far away.
I will again pour out teaching like prophecy,
and leave it to all future generations.
Observe that I have not labored for myself alone,
but for all who seek wisdom” (vv. 32-34).

Such a beautiful thought. The Wisdom of Scripture will again shine forth like a beautiful dawn, and her teachings will be poured out to all future generations. And it is not just for the sake of Wisdom herself, but for everyone who seeks her.

 

Excerpts From: Thomas Nelson. “NRSV, Catholic Edition Bible, eBook.” Apple Books. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/nrsv-catholic-edition-bible-ebook/id386605154?mt=11

Jesus confronts religious arrogance

Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) had an ability to get underneath a story, to capture it as a real and human moment. Such was her rendering of the story of the Sadducees confronting Jesus about the after-life. She captured the authority with which Jesus spoke.

Here is her telling of the story, but I have inserted a more contemporary version of Scripture to make it read easier today, and I’ve inserted some paragraph breaks for the same purpose. Ms. Hamilton:

Jesus’ “mastery was felt by all who confronted him. Some Sadducees, of the powerful priestly party, came to him–by that time he had a certain notoriety as an itinerant preacher–and they planned to put a question to him in such a way that it would make him ridiculous in the eyes in the eyes of the crowd. They did not believe in immortality and they told him a story about a woman who had seven husbands.”

“In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her” (Mark 12:23, NRSV).

“From the experience of all their life they [the Sadducees] thought they were invulnerable in their armour of power and pride, and they were ready for their laugh at the travel-worn wayfarer who faced them.

“But, strangely, as they looked at him it was somehow conveyed to them that their scorn and ridicule did not touch him, did not reach him. He [Jesus] answered them very gravely. Laughter suddenly became impossible. He told them their question was one only ignorance could ask. They were ignorant of the very matters which as priests they professed to know.

Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong” (Mark 12:24-27, NRSV)

“They answered answered him nothing, not a word to oppose the stern rebuke. They were convicted of error before all the crowd and they did not even try to regain their ascendency. They had felt penetrating their panoply of arrogance an authority so commanding that they were helpless to question it, and they went silently away (Hamilton, Witness to the Truth, 140-142).

It is wise to be wary of the arrogance, including the religious arrogance, that leads us to think we understand everything perfectly. Jesus guides us, and we have His Spirit available to us, but we are not Him.

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.

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.

God believes in you and me

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.