For Itself

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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.
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.

From poets.org

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.

Brother Lawrence on How to Practice God’s Presence

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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.

An Unbroken Life of Humble Quiet Adoration

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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.

Planning Toward Spiritual Growth

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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.

My Chief Care

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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.

Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus

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Truth is the point of reference we share with all human beings. No one can live without truth. Though we may disagree about which particular things are true or false, allegiance to the truth–whatever the truth may be–permits us to stand alongside every person as honest fellow inquirers. Our attitude is therefore not one of ‘us and them,’ but of ‘we.’ And we are forever here to learn and not only to teach.

Dallas Willard, “Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus” in Renewing the Christian Mind

Apologetics is the Christian discipline of theological argumentation concerned with the defense of particular doctrines, beliefs, or practices. The Latin term apologia translates “defense.” Christian apologists often cite 1 Peter 3:15, which in part reads, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Cast out of your mind the notion that argument can only be conducted in anger, or that arguments are always and only about power. Calm, reasoned arguments can be made. And they are often made. If willingly entered into by parties who are share a common objective of arriving at what is true, good, and beautiful, arguments can be decided on the merits. Arguments can be helpful. I wrote yesterday about arguments, not for the sake of argument, but toward wisdom, or the maturation and development of the human soul.

In that same essay cited above, Willard writes:

So, if at all possible–sometimes it is not, due to others–we ‘give our account’ in an atmosphere of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. However firm we may be in our convictions, we do not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile, or defensive. For we know that Jesus himself would not do so because we cannot help people in that way. He had no need of it, nor do we. And in apologetics as elsewhere, he is our model and our master. Our confidence is totally in him. That is the ‘special place’ we give him in our hearts–how we ‘sanctify Christ in our hearts as Lord’–in the crucial service of apologetics.

I’ve always been struck by Willard’s contention that “Love of those we deal with will help us to observe them accurately and to stay entirely away from manipulating them–meanwhile intensely longing for them to recognize that Jesus Christ is master of the cosmos in which they live.” Willard understood apologetics to be a helping ministry, and as such, it must be conducted in a spirit of neighborly love.

Thus, to be an effective apologist requires undergoing a spiritual formation, not only a disciplining of the mind but of the body, wherein one is free to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to reason freely and without fear, to seek the good of the other, to put self aside, from a place of security derivative of one’s position as a child and servant of God.

Argument Yes, But Toward Wisdom

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But there is some blundering through the failure of instructors; they teach us to argue, not to live, and some error among pupils, who bring to their instructors not the purpose of developing their soul but their intelligence. So what used to be philosophy, the love of wisdom, has become philology, the love of argument.

Seneca, Selected Letters, #108.24

Seneca lived in the first century, and in his letters addresses human concerns as old as dirt. The ancient philosophers observed, quite often, the distinction between the philosopher and the sophist. I read Plato on the subject while in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and I’ve been thinking about this problem ever since. Who is the person of true wisdom, and who is playacting? And how can you tell?

Seneca’s Letter 108 addresses these questions. He observes that some teachers and instructors who present themselves as learned memorize quotations and familiarize themselves with the great sages of the tradition not to gain mastery in the art of skillful living but instead to present themselves, in appearance, as being persons of wisdom without the substance thereof.

In the closing remarks of Letter 108, Seneca writes:

. . . I want to remind you that listening to philosophers and reading their work is for the purpose of attaining a blessed life, not so as to hunt archaic or artificial language and extravagant images and figures of speech, but to learn beneficial instructions and glorious and spirited sayings which will presently be turned into action. May we learn such things so thoroughly that what were words become deeds. For I think nobody deserved worse of all mortal men than those who learned philosophy as if it were a saleable skill, who live in a fashion different from how they declare that one should live. They are parading themselves around as examples of a useless training, open to every failing they denounce. Such a teacher cannot benefit me any more than a seasick pilot in a hurricane. One must hold on to the helm as the breakers snatch it and struggle with the seas itself, one must rescue the sails from the wind; what help can a ship’s steersman give me who is stupefied and throwing up? Yet how much worse a storm buffets life than tosses any boat? We must not talk but steer. Everything these men say, everything they throw out as the crowd listens to them, is borrowed property: Plato said that, or Zeno said it, or Chrysippus and Posidonius and an immense squadron of so many names of this kind. I will tell you how the speakers can prove that these sayings are their own: let them practice what they preached.

Letter 108.35

Sounds almost biblical.

The subject matter I teach is called “practical theology.” In my view there is no other kind, for in the end all theology, if it is sound, has direct application to reality as it is lived and experienced.

If our arguments are only quibbles about words, and are not in an effort to grasp what is true, we are only sophists and not sages.

In the Christian tradition, it is not enough to rely on “borrowed property.” God’s outside wisdom must be possessed, transforming us from within. This comes not through words, but through a Word, the Word who is Christ. God’s wisdom can be possessed by us, not through argument, but atonement. Wisdom is not arrived upon through abstraction, but by way of an encounter with a person, a living Lord who as our Teacher contours his Way to the exact, particular needs of every student who enters his school of kingdom living.