This past Monday morning my son went out the garage door to shoot hoops before school. As soon as he exited the door, he re-entered the house, and shouted up the stairway, “Dad, we got a breeze!” After playing an early afternoon soccer game with temperatures in the upper 90s on Saturday, and enduring another warm day on Sunday, cool air settled over Central Texas Monday during the overnight hours. During my morning walk, it was 57 degrees. I wore a vest for the first time this fall.
David’s eruption of enthusiasm for the change in weather has remained my favorite moment of the week. I already knew the weather was cooler before he announced the fact. But his discovery and declaration warmed my heart. It is as though he walked into something that was too good not to share with another, and the other he chose was me.
I found this moment an entryway into meditation on praise and celebration and gratitude, on awe and wonder and childlikeness. We had found ourselves in a prolonged heat wave and then woke one day to find moving air that no longer felt like a blow dryer but instead relieved and refreshed our bodies. Without announcement, conditions changed. The realization was felt before it was thought. I wonder if that is what it was like when a lame person Jesus commanded to stand up and walk stood up and walked, or a man with a withered hand stretched out his arm and found strength, or a blind person commanded to see opened their eyes and perceived. First, incomprehension. Then delight.
The day’s graces are not always a cool breeze, so evident you cannot miss them. But sometimes they are. And when they are, we not only invite others to share in our joy. We return thanks to the gift giver. We praise the Lord.
I’ve been a faithful reader of Os Guinness for years, and most of his more recent titles have concerned themselves with America specifically or the West more broadly: Impossible People, The Case for Civility, A Free People’s Suicide, Last Call for Liberty, The Magna Carta of Humanity, and now Zero Hour America: History’s Ultimatum over Freedom and the Answer We Must Give (InterVarsity Press, 2022)1. I heard him speak at The University of Kansas in 2006. He was one of several speakers in a series called “Difficult Dialogues on Knowledge, Faith, and Reason.” I met him briefly after his presentation and asked him to sign a copy of Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin. He was winsome and kind.2
In his latest book, Guinness is very concerned for America and for the state of the American experiment. Guinness writes, “America will fall–unless.” He says this book is not a “doomsday pronouncement” but a wake-up call to the internal movements, ideas, and forces that will lead to America’s implosion if left unchecked. Guinness warns that the enemies are already inside the gates. Sounds like gloom and doom to me.
In these types of rhetorical political debates gloom and doom is pretty common, and memory is always pretty short. If we’re in a battle for America’s future, the stakes are high. I think Guinness rightly diagnoses the paradox of freedom as a major source of America’s strife (“the fact that the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom“), that freedom is understood more in negative than positive terms in this country (freedom from and not freedom for), that apart from faith we are under-resourced in the forgiveness and reconciliation department, and that civics education is important (not the self-loathing kind, but the sober and judicious kind that acknowledges past wrongs while maintaining and preserving good and central truths and traditions). I think these are all worthwhile points of concern and debate. I just don’t think these fault lines mean that it is “zero hour,” the absolute moment of decision. It is quite possible that zero hour has already passed, and may soon come again.
Besides, it is always zero hour.
In his final chapter, Guinness cites Friedrich Hegel’s famous statement, “What experience and history teaches us is this–that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” That’s a dramatic overstatement. But Hegel gets away with it because, as Guinness observes, “nothing lasts forever, and each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.”
In Top Gun: Maverick, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is told by an admiral, “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed to extinction.”
Maverick replies, “Maybe so, sir, but not today.”3
America, as an experiment in ordered liberty, must say something similar every day. There are 330 million people in this country. We are geographically enormous and regionally diverse. We’re not nearly as bad as our critics say, nor as spotless as our apologists claim. But we’re a pretty good place. Millions of people migrate to this country each year, most of whom wish to stay. And plenty of our citizen go about their lives quietly, doing their jobs, going to Little League games, and playing Bunko with their friends. But I guess Bunko doesn’t test well in focus groups, while apocalyptic messaging does.
While it might be politically advantageous and rhetorically effective to claim that the end of the world is near, isn’t it always so?
Yes, it is. We just don’t know how near. Which is why reading a prophet like Guinness is helpful, at least for me, in understanding our times, tracking intellectual currents, diagnosing problems, and assisting me in thinking through America’s history, ideals, values, and possibility, and advocating for a vision of our common life that aligns more closely with what is best about this place, while also works to address present wrongs and move us toward a greater approximation of justice.
That’s the work of politics. We all have a part to play. I try to play mine, not only as a voter, and not only as a citizen, but also as a person of Christian faith.
1. Amazon affiliate link.
2.He also signed a copy of Time for Truth to Molly and I. We attended the talk together.
3. I’m really glad I saw this movie. You should see it, too.
Here is Charles Bernstein’s Why Do You Love the Poem?
For the sentiment. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the sentiment.From poets.org
For the message. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the message.
For the music. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the music.
For the spirit. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the spirit.
For the intelligence. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the intelligence.
For the courage. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the courage.
For the inspiration. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the inspiration.
For the emotion. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the emotion.
For the vocabulary. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the vocabulary.
For the poet. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the poet.
For the meaning. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the meaning.
For what it stands for. — Then you don’t love the poem you love what it stands for.
For the words. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the words.
For the syntax. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the syntax.
For the politics. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the politics.
For the beauty. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the beauty.
For the outrage. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the outrage.
For the tenderness. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the tenderness.
For the hope. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the hope.
For itself. — Then you love the poem.
This poem arrived in my inbox on July 27, and I’ve kept it there, returning now and again. I subscribe to their poem-a-day email newsletter. Not every selection that hits my inbox connects with me. Most don’t. But this one has hung with me.
My reason for returning is tangentially related to the poem. Bernstein makes a fine distinction between our appreciation of a thing for what it is in itself and our appreciation of a thing for its benefits. He’s right to do so. Our love for a thing can be self-centered rather than other-centered. We get this wrong all the time.
This isn’t just true of poems, or movies, or painting or other forms of art. It can be true of our relationships with friends, family, loved ones. It can be true of our relationship to God.
That’s why we should always search our hearts and examine our motivations. Do we love first because of a benefit we receive or because of an appreciation of something intrinsically good, true, and beautiful standing apart from my experience?
If we get the order wrong, we dishonor the moment, the person, the encounter. But if we get the order right, the benefits only increase in their richness, glowing more magnificently, appreciated more deeply, because we have rightly appraised their source.
The presence of God is the concentration of the soul’s attention on God, remembering that He is always present.
I know a person who for forty years has practiced the presence of God, to which he gives several other names. Sometimes he calls it a simple act–a clear and distinct knowledge of God–and sometimes he calls it a vague view or a general, loving look at God–a remembrance of Him. He also refers to it as attention to God, silent communion with God, confidence in God, or the life and peace of the soul. To sum up, this person has told me that all these descriptions of the presence of God are merely synonyms that signify the same thing, a reality that has become natural to him.
My friend says that by dwelling in the presence of God he has established such a sweet communion with the Lord that His spirit abides, without much effort, in the restful peace of God. In this center of rest, he is filled with a faith that equips him to handle anything that comes into his life.Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 67
Brother Lawrence stresses this kind of communion with God is by God’s grace, that it is the result of sustained attention and discipline, and that it occurs in the depths of a person at the level of soul as a result of cultivated heart to heart interaction between the individual and God. This kind of interaction may seem natural once it has become established in life, but only in the sense that it is the kind of interaction with God that we were made for, having experienced a supernatural restoration through the workings of God’s grace that is what Christians mean when they speak of salvation’s fullness. Salvation is not only rescue, but healing.
Many Christian people I know desire this kind of interactive, steady, ongoing interaction with God. But others do not believe it is possible–at least not for them. Brother Lawrence states that this is possible. Indeed, believing that it is possible opens the door to the realization of dwelling more fully in God’s presence.
Brother Lawrence then describes the means. First “is a new life, received by salvation through the blood of Christ.” This Carmelite lay brother, recording his wisdom in the seventeenth century, understood that entry into God’s presence involved the receiving of new life, or regeneration.
The second means is “faithfully practicing God’s presence.” Simple. Or so it sounds. Doing this requires that “the soul’s eyes must be kept on God, particularly when something is being done in the outside world.” Maybe it isn’t so simple. But be patient. The key is stick-to-itiveness. Brother Lawrence writes, “Since much time and effort are needed to perfect this practice, one should not be discouraged by failure.”
Knowing this is a challenging but indispensable practice for the spiritual life, since all that we speak and feel and think and do is a reflection of the condition of our hearts before God, Brother Lawrence counsels that, as you begin seeking to practice God’s presence, “it would not be wrong to offer short phrases that are inspired by love, such as ‘Lord, I am all Yours,’ ‘God of love, I love you with all my heart,’ or ‘Lord, use me according to Your will.’ However, remember to keep the mind from wandering or returning to the world. Hold you attention on God alone by exercising your will to remain in His presence.” When you attention wanes, you speak reminders over your life. This is prayer.
The foremost challenge I experience in practicing this spiritual discipline is remembering, and attention. Brother Lawrence writes that we practice God’s presence by first remembering God is present. Turning the focus of the full self toward God, we make operative what we already confess and, by experience, confirm to be true. God is with us. We then learn to remain with God, not only in moments of quiet time or devotion (though these are immense helpful when kept and observed), but in all of life’s moments.
The Christian hope includes the belief that we will spend eternity in the presence of God. What we now experience in part, we will then receive in full. Why not begin experiencing a greater glimpse of what that means now? “As now, so then,” as one of my old teachers would say. We may not only benefit by living more completing in the love and joy and power that is found in Christ. We will then also magnify Christ as we become increasingly conformed to him.
But to some at least He gives an amazing stayedness in Him, a well-nigh unbroken life of humble quiet adoration in His Presence, in the depths of our being. Day and night, winter and summer, sunshine and shadow, He is here, the great Champion. And we are with Him, held in His Tenderness, quickened into quietness and peace, children in Paradise before the Fall, walking with Him in the garden in the heat as well as the cool of the day. Here is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakeableness, firmness of life-orientation. We are become what [George] Fox calls “established men.”
Such men are not found merely among the canonized Saints of the Church. They are the John Woolmans of today. They are housewives and hand workers, plumbers and teachers, learned and unlettered, black and white, poor and perchance even rich. They exist, and happy is the church that contains them. They may not be known widely, nor serve on boards of trustees, or preach in pulpits. Where pride in one’s learning is found, there they are not. For they do not confuse acquaintance with theology and church history with commitment and the life lived in the secret sanctuary. Cleaving simply through forms and externals, they dwell in immediacy with Him who is the abiding Light behind all changing forms, really nullifying much of the external trappings of religion. They have found the secret of the Nazarene, and, not content to assent to it intellectually, they have committed themselves to it in action, and walk in newness of life in the vast fellowship of unceasing prayer.Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 15-16
You could be one of these people. I could be one of these people.
Kelly writes about the life of inward prayer in a way that is clear and compelling, showing how prayer can be cultivated from the level of our conscious thought life and progressing further, deeper within, to become the rooted and established orientation of the soul. This is what he means by “an amazing stayedness,” or a “well-nigh unbroken life of quiet adoration.” How is this cultivated? By a conscious decision of the will, and a steadfast commitment of the heart. And, of course, God’s grace.
Psalm 16:8 says, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” With practice and a disciplining of the heart and mind, this is possible. You could be one of these people. I could be one of these people.
The crucial thing is that, as disciples, we have a plan for carrying out the decision we have made to devote ourselves to becoming like our master and lord–to increasingly live in the character and power of Christ. Disciples are those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end, under the guidance of the word and the spirit. This is how the disciple lives.Dallas Willard, “Discipleship as Apprenticeship” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks, p. 284
When I was a seminarian, I wrote a twenty-eight page “life vision” document. I offered my autobiography, analyzed my life’s ups and downs to that moment, considered my gifts and opportunities, articulated my understanding of my call, outlined my goals, and presented a vision for what my life with God might look like. In the few years following this assignment I returned to this document now and again. It’s on a hard drive somewhere in the bottom of a drawer now. I did find it a helpful exercise at the time. It got me to think carefully about my intentions.
In the past five years, I have relied upon a personal “rule of life” document that contains daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual commitments that are practical, measurable and move me toward growth in my life with God. It is one page long and hangs on the wall in my home office. Most of the commitments found there have been integrated into my routines. I live in “close contact” with these commitments. So when I review this document, it is often to quickly gauge the degree to which I am living in accord with the practices I have identified, to notice if I am off track, and to make course corrections as necessary, all to the end of keeping me on track concerning my big goal, which is becoming the person God has made me to be in Christ Jesus.
Having a plan to “increasingly live in the character of power of Christ” is not constraining. The plan I have developed has been a prayerful undertaking. It has been born of trial and error, careful study, and a yielding of the self to Jesus and his leadership. Because it is not written in stone, it is subject to change if God leads in a different direction. I have asked Jesus to make me more like him. He has a clear view of what that might mean. I do not. My understanding is partial, at best, and in certain crucial respects even at the present moment, likely mistaken.
My decision to devote myself to becoming like Jesus began with the realization when I was young that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He was to be obeyed, not because he was God, though that fact is not inconsequential. Rather, Jesus appeared to me then to be undeniably good. His life had authority. I consider this an evidence of grace. Then, later, I began to see that Jesus not only was very wise and reliable as a moral teacher, and not only offered a way of salvation after death, but invited me to experience life with him now in his present, open, and available kingdom.
In the school where I serve now, we invite students to develop a personal covenant or rule of life. We ask them to discern the contours of their life with God and to begin walking the path that Jesus invites them to tread. This plan for discipleship includes the practice of the Christian spiritual disciplines. It also includes the act of envisioning Jesus himself, leading the student along life’s way, not only toward an eternal destination, but in becoming a particular kind of person suited to dwell in eternity, a person displaying Christ “in” them to those whom they encounter, whether at a hospital bedside or a check-out line, in five o’clock traffic or on a pew.
Most Christian people I know are living according to a “way,” having integrated certain habits, practices, and ways of living and being which orient them toward God. The majority of their commitments “stuck” as a result of participation in a community of faith. If asked, they will share that they pray, or routinely worship God, or even study the Bible. They may feel as though they are failing or flailing, but if asked, they will certainly say that they are followers of Jesus Christ, that they desire to know him more fully and resemble him more closely.
But if pressed, I wonder how many of my friends would say they have a plan, that they are “systematically and progressively seeking to rearranged their affairs” to align with Christ and the character of Christ so that he would be made increasingly manifest in their lives. I wonder how many would see that as a sensible or possible outcome of discipleship to Jesus, or as a worthwhile undertaking.
If we desire to work in a particular field and need to receive training in order to have a job in that field, most of us would know we’d be required to save money or secure a loan, go through an application process, complete a course of study, and then use a credential to help us to get a job. Or if we wanted to play a piece of music, or learn a language, we would feel confident in identifying the kinds of things we’d need to plan on and for toward those given ends, and how to evaluate progress in reaching our goal.
We do not possess that same confidence when it comes to Christian discipleship. But this need not be so. The elements needed in order to become like Christ are available to us, for he is available to us. We have access to Jesus and his life through reading the gospels. But we also have access to him through prayer, for he is “with” us. God is with us. If we wish to grow like Christ and live more fully in his kingdom, we simply ask, and he hears us. He will help us to identify the means for growth in him. Those who ask, receive. Those who seek, find.
I really, really like the tracks on this playlist. Listen here.
My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom–still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, and death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: “Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this His love is found, and in accepting this I can give back His love to Him and give myself with it to Him. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting.”
By consenting to His will with joy and doing it with gladness I have His love in my heart, because my will is now the same as His love and I am on the way to becoming what He is, Who is Love. And by accepting all things from Him I receive His joy into my soul, not because things are what they are but because God is Who He is, and His love has willed my joy in them all.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 17-18
Yes. But it can be hard to do.
It becomes easier when one obtains a clear, compelling, truthful, robust, rich, more-fully-comprehensive, sought-after, earnest, biblically-shaped, experientially-informed vision of God. Merton writes the above because he possessed such a vision, a vision of the God “Who is Love,” revealed as Trinity, one God, three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yielding to God and actualizing the divine will becomes an “easy yoke,” to use imagery from Jesus, when one knows intellectually and existentially that God is out for our ultimate good in any and every circumstance in which we find ourselves.
How do we get there? How does it become easier to make my chief care “the thing God has willed for me?” Thinking on God is a beginning. Having thought, and entering a place of worship, not only points us toward our destination. It is itself the path. We do not only make this or that decision as a sacrifice or offering to God. We ourselves become the living sacrifices who are by grace transformed into the image and likeness of the Christ, who leads us in the doing of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.
It is one thing to know the good. It is quite another to become the kind of person who is able to do the thing God has willed. In Christ, becoming the latter is our invitation and opportunity, opened to us by virtue of the resources made available to us by Jesus, presented to us in his kingdom.