Loving Those Closest, Loving Those Far

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Paul will not permit us to compensate for neglecting those nearest us by advertising our compassion for those on another continent. Jesus, it must be remembered, restricted nine-tenths of his ministry to twelve Jews because it was the only way to redeem all Americans. He couldn’t be bothered, said Martin Thornton, with the foreign Canaanites because his work was to save the whole world. The check for the starving child must still be written and the missionary sent, but as an extension of what we are doing at home, not as an exemption from it.

Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light: Galatians and the Free Life in Christ, p. 184

For those in Christ, our loving concern is to be extended to every human being, reaching as far as those whom we are furthest from. But it must not bypass those nearest to us. It must encompass and encounter those in our orbit. It must be given to those we look upon every day, particulary our family, and even our enemies, of whom it has been said are often one and the same. Love begins in the neighborhood, and for householders, in the home.

This is a grand mystery. We are commanded to love. We are commanded to love those in the household of faith. We are commanded to demonstrate love for the world in the same manner Jesus demonstrated his love for us. We are to act in loving concern for those who are suffering, those who are downtrodden, wherever they may be found. We are called to go to the nations. We are sent into the world. We often miss the opportunities that are right in front of our faces, foregoing faithful, straightforward obedience in our immediate circumstances for the pursuit of some grand purpose or glorious cause.

This observation is not meant to condemn. Rather, it is intended to invite reflection and discernment. I have long puzzled over the Christian compulsion to pursue grand ambitions in faraway places to the neglect of fellow citizens sharing the same city or state. And yet, some of these grand efforts have acheived great good, leading to transformation and faith. Work has been done in the name of Christ. Nevertheless, it seems we choose to go around people in order to get to other people whom we believe really need the love of Christ, rather than tending first to the needs of those where we are.

Above, Eugene Peterson resolves the tension by reminding us that ultimately the command to love is fulfilled by way of a both/and rather than an either/or, and that the calling to love in the Christian life is one of integrity. If we extend love to those far away, we had better be faithfullly loving those right here.

I confess I am not as successful in keeping the command to love as well as I would hope. It is not an easy command to keep. In order to demonstrate love for humanity, the Son of God crossed the veil separating heaven from earth. He put off divinity and put on flesh. He left a throne for a manger. He set aside the privileges of deity for poverty. He left the security and stability of God’s throneroom and became a refugee. The Ancient of Days became a baby. He left the position of Creator and took a job as a carpenter. He left home in the Galilean countryside and instead became one who had no place to lay his head. The one who came to us as life and light was plunged into death and darkness. He was propelled to obedience through love, a love for the Father, and a love for us. Jesus put aside a lot, for love.

When I see a love like that, I find a reservoir from which I can draw which is not only a well, but a river of life, which Jesus said springs up in those who embrace him and enter his kingdom. As an eternal spring, its supply is ample for those who are near and for those who are far, both. We cannot exhaust it. It is the love of God.

Resting in the Hands of God’s Care

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Personally, at the beginning of my day–often before arising–I commit my day to the Lord’s care. Usually I do this while meditatively praying through the Lord’s Prayer, and possibly the twenty-third Psalm as well. Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God. I meet it resting in the hands of his care. This helps me to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14), because I have already “placed God in charge” and am trusting him to manage them for my good. I no longer have to manage the weather, planes, and other people.

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, p. 70

There are many avenues by which we may choose to walk with God through life. Signposts, however, do help. Dallas Willard reported beginning each day with the discipline of committing all that would unfold “to the Lord’s care.” There is a natural connection to the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Both of those prayers declare that God is in charge and that provision and protection are available in God’s kingdom. Willard would mediate, or set his thoughts upon, these passages from Scripture, reminding himself God was worthy of trust and God’s power was available to those who call upon him.

Techniques do not bring us closer to God, but the testimonies of those who have gone before us can be suggestive for how we, too, might walk as companions of Christ. It is God’s grace that makes us holy.

The spiritual disciples are wise ways of seeking God, gifts from God that help us in the seeking. They have proven profitable for others who have longed to know God more fully; God continues to meet people through them. To take up a discipline is an act of faith. The discipline of turning the day over to God, acknowledging human limitations and declaring our trust anew, refocuses our vision, humbles our hearts, and heightens our awareness of the subtleties and, on occasion, the thunderclaps of God’s action. Remember, God raised a man from the dead (among other miracles), and some missed it. Turning the day over to God also allows us to relax. We don’t have to make it happen. God is at work.

A Christian spiritual practice like Willard describes would only take moments to complete each day. But it would make a difference, not only for one day, but maybe for a life.

What commitments do you keep? What actions do you take? How do you seek God routinely each day?

Leading? Reforming? Choose Optimism

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“The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment.”

G. K. Chesterton, from this book, found here

There is a lesson here for Christian leaders, not only those with apostolic and evangelistic ministries, but for those who serve humbly within the existing established institutions.

Chasing Rabbits

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David Bentley Hart, in a recent edition of his newsletter Leaves in the Wind, wrote:

As of five days ago, Leaves in the Wind has entered into its third year of existence. Once again, my deep thanks to all my subscribers for making it possible for me to write in the way I like to write. One of the basic pieces of advice that Substack offers to every writer who uses its platform is that he or she should ideally confine his or her publication to a specific topic (baking, UFOs, folk music, extremist politics, pet-grooming—that sort of thing), since that as a rule is what attracts subscriptions. Obviously, I have done precisely the opposite; I have never wanted to write about one thing and one thing only, even if I could make money by doing so, because I simply do not have that kind of mind. I have tried to make a virtue out of my tendency toward wandering attention, since I really have no discretion in the matter; it will wander whether I want it to do so or not. And you good and gracious souls allow me to flatter myself I have succeeded—at least, well enough to have retained your good will.

When I began writing on the web twenty years ago, the same advice prevailed. Pick a topic, stick with it, and build up your content base. Cultivate a niche audience. Find out what readers want. Cater to those desires. Stay on theme. Stay on schedule. Sing your song. Keep singing. Publish. Publish. Publish. Second verse, same as the first.

My approach to writing in public has changed over the years. My understanding of what I’ve been doing, and my philosophy of writing, has been developed and refined. I began with the desire to share thoughts, advocate for ideas, make connections, and build community. I started playing around with blogs in the days of Xanga and GeoCities, published a few short essays on a short lived MySpace site, and was an early adopter of several major social media services, which were places to keep writing, or to share writing. As a writer, I eventually landed on WordPress, which has served my purposes just fine. I’ve written beyond my home space. I’ve been thankful for those opportunities, when they’ve arisen.

There has been a theme to my work. I’ve written mainly about Christianity and my experiences as a person of faith. I’ve always written about theology and the Bible; more recently I have focused on Christian spiritual formation. I’ve relayed anecdotes and shared sermons and captured plenty of quotes and sometimes added brief commentary. I’ve written devotionally. I’ve written personally. I’ve shared news about my family. I’ve ocassionally commented on technology, developments in higher education, and philosophical ideas. Recently, I’ve shared music playlists that, for me, are snapshots in time. I write about books, both reviews of individual works and summations of what I’ve read, the latter an annual issue that attracts the interest of a few friends at the start of each year.

I’ve never had a large readership. I confess this used to concern me. I’ve let that concern go. The ideas I write about are of interest to me, and the practice of writing has helped me develop my voice and improve my craft. Eugene Peterson once suggested that I shouldn’t write for an audiencce, I should write for the truth, and only if I feel a fire in my bones. My pursuit is not a broad readership, but clearer thinking and a better understanding of myself, the world, and, ultimately, the truth. Writing crystalizes thought. Writing is also a practice, if practiced well, not only conveys what you know, but leads you to discoveries formerly unknown and ways of expressing things that you did not know were in there, inside you, things you did not know you could say or were capable of saying. Words represent thoughts. The thoughts come out. Sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are a jumble. You work with the words. You move them around. You wrestle with them. They wrestle back. You hope they hang where you place them, and that they hang together in a manner that makes sense not only to you, but to others. We seek meaning. We share meaning. Writing is an act of meaning-making. We benefit from the work. Writing, when it is made a public artefact, can also benefit others, maybe even a broad swath of humankind.

If you write in public, you send your words out into the world. You are a mind, reaching out to other minds. Maybe those ideas catch on. Maybe they make sense. Or maybe they drift into the digital ether, collecting the equivalent of computational dust. Putting work out there is an act of faith. You don’t really know what will happen.

David Bentley Hart writes, “I have never wanted to write about one thing and one thing only, even if I could make money by doing so, because I simply do not have that kind of mind. I have tried to make a virtue out of my tendency toward wandering attention, since I really have no discretion in the matter; it will wander whether I want it to do so or not.”

That approach resonates with me. I am not nearly as skilled a writer as he is, nor a polymath, nor as accomplished. But that doesn’t matter.

I can chase rabbits. I might even catch a few. It could even be fun. That’s what writing is. Chasing ideas. Acquiring needed provisions (not only reading, but experience). Going out on the hunt. Having an adventure. Opening up to contingency. Some successes could be plain luck. Other successess will be born of hard work. Nothing will happen if you don’t show up, sit in the chair, dance with the ideas, make choices, commit, and share. You might find delight in composing a good sentence. Someone else might delight in reading one. Experiences might align; they might not. Delight is not the only possible experience a writer or a reader may have. Boring? Possible. But heaven forbid it.

If you’re a writer, or considering a writing practice, by all means, write. If you’re a reader. Thanks. Thanks for joining the chase.

Old Hardware, Once Treasured, Begs

Hard times.

Discovered the above here. Was reminded of “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a short story in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation, in which digitally created entities, or “digients,” interact with human trainers who help them grow and develop. The trouble comes when the software company that developed these digital products goes bankrupt, and the digital world hosting these interactions becomes dated and obsolete. Chiang’s short story is provocative, inviting reflection on how we interact with technology and what it means to be human.

The Macintosh Classic II is a piece of hardware, running software that gives it the appearance of a human face. We do not think of “things” as having personality, but we relate to them as though they do. When they fail us, we get angry at them, as though they possess a will instead of a malfunction. Who among us has not called a computer stupid? We interact with our things, our technology, often more than we do people! The computer on which I’m writing this post is but one link in the chain of technological mediation standing between us. We become attached to our machines, too. We develop a bond, perhaps affections.

Until we upgrade. Then we move on.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see the Macintosh placed on a city street, passed by pedestrians, with few turning their heads. This computer was placed outside an Apple Store, begging for change. The irony. The company that created the machine could bring it in for recycling. But then that’d be the end of that piece of hardware. Before pulling the plug, you’d have to look into those eyes.

It’s a wonderful piece of art, doing what art does, making us evaluate how we see and how we think, raising questions, inviting reflection, pondering what is true.

Free Expression and the Reformation of Morals

Rowan Atkinson, who famously played Mr. Bean, argues here for free expression and free speech. Comedians feel keenly the importance of saying what they believe must be said, including the thing that certain people believe must not be said. They argue fiercely for the freedom to say it, firstly for the sake of their art, but secondly for those without the microphone or the degree of public notariety that has secured them the ability to speak up and speak out. Comedians test public norms and make us revisit the reasons the norms are there at all. Some norms, after all, are built upon falsehoods, and are thus absurd and ridiculous. They only thing maintaining those norms is a mass delusion, a captivity of the mind. Humor sobers us; a good belly laugh drops the scales from our eyes.

It feels as though we are living at a heightened moment of censoriousness in our history, not only because posting the wrong thing on social media can lead to swarming behavior and the heaping on of oppobrium from strangers, but because our awareness of outrage elswhere is felt more acutely right where we live. In other words, we not only know the norms and customs governing the place where we live, but the norms and customs being enforced and upheld elsewhere, those touted in a globalized digital village that is a “no place,” or perhaps an anti-place.

As a result, we self-censor not only on the basis of the known opinions of our peers, but on the basis of what others believe “out there.” And with the ubiquity of cameras, recording devices, and internet feeds, we know we are only a moment away from shaming and infamy, regardless of our degree of celebrity. One only need think of the label “Karen.”

I am of the opinion we are not only presently navigating how best to protect free speech and free expression. I believe we are also navigating a crisis of authority, the dissolution of community, a weakened sense of identity and belonging, and the lack of a shared, consensus view of what constitutes custom or manners. I’m am glad there are those who are defending free speech, arguing for its importance. Free speech is foundational for arriving upon sound answers regarding who we should listen to, to whom we belong, how we understand ourselves, and what we can agree upon as the good, true, right, and beautiful. Discourse can result in discomfort. But discomfort can precede discovery. Civility must be modeled; its shape, too, will be debated.

William Wilberforce, who is well known for his work as an abolitionist, also founded The Society for the Suppression of Vice. In his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes of this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity, Wilberforce took it upon himself to criticize his fellow citizens and advocate not only the Christian faith, but the reformation of manners. He argued not only for religious reform and assent to certain Christian beliefs, but a different way of speaking, acting, and relating with others in society. His positions, no doubt, were debated fiercely!

As discomfiting as it may be, we are in a transitional moment, and old questions are being revisited in light of new problems and new technologies. Before we can reach a shared understanding of free speech, we must debate. Debates are often messy, until consensus emerges. And even when consensus is established, given enough time, the reasons the consensus was arrived upon will be forgotten, a challenging point of view will emerge, and the debate will begin again. This is the cycle of human societies. We experience a crisis. We implement solutions. We enjoy a brief moment of stability. Then, we find, or create, a new crisis. Many new crises are old crises, experienced afresh by a new generation, demanding old wisdom be recovered and applied anew.

Spokespersons for Christ have a role to play in this conversation, not only as defenders of free speech, free expression, and, I would add, religious liberty, but also in advocating a way of life, a way of relating to others within the society. We must reject what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. We must protect the speech rights of others, even if we disagree. But if we disagree, we must offer counter-arguments with respect to what we believe is right toward the end of building a consensus view. These arguments will be offered in words, but also through lives testifying to another Lord and another way of life, and communities—churches—displaying redemption in effect, a foretaste of the world to come. And we must model the kind of civility, respect, long-suffering and patience that we would hope to find among those with whom we will disagree. We must not return evil for evil, but instead overcome evil with good, trusting that truth, ultimately, will prevail.