Thursday, November 05, 2009

Is Jesus My Boyfriend?

I read two blog posts today that I don't think are directly related to each other, but which couldn't correspond any better if they were.

The first is a post on one of my favorite blogs, Abraham Piper's 22 Words, which had the title "The problem with disliking Jesus-is-your-boyfriend music is that Jesus is (y)our boyfriend":
I’m uncomfortable as anyone with Christians being Jesus’ lover.

But that’s my fault. I shouldn’t blame those who thrill to this metaphor.
The purpose of this particular blog is to have the entire post be under 22 words, so obviously there's no room for exposition of his view (this also explains the rather long titles).

The second is a post from Professor John Stackhouse (Regent College) entitled "Jesus, I'm NOT in Love with You," in which he argues against "Jesus-is-my-boyfriend" music by saying that loving Christ and being in love with Christ are two completely different things, and that being in love with someone is something reserved only for your spouse. He goes into much more detail than Piper does, and I think his most compelling argument is the following:
But the New Testament never calls Christians Jesus’ fiancĂ©es or his brides. Instead, it is the Church collectively, and only the Church as a whole, that relates to Jesus this way–just as individual Israelites did not relate to Yhwh as so many spouses, but only the nation of Israel as nation was his beloved bride.
So who is right? Is Jesus my boyfriend or not? Are those songs helpful or not? I think the question comes down to the nature of an individual's relationship to the community.

My initial thought is that although Stackhouse is basically right, I don't know if the community can be separated from the individual that dramatically. I think there's overlap where it's not necessarily a problem to sing those songs, although I think there are maybe better things you could be singing about.

But those are just my preliminary thoughts. What are your thoughts?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Allegiance to...who?

So Dr. Richard Gamble, the professor who influenced my last post on system building so greatly, has just written a review for the American Conservative of the American Patriot's Bible (which, coincidentally, I first directed his attention to several months least I think I was among the first). Within his scathing review, he states much more eloquently than I can the system constructed by the modern evangelical movement.
Modern American evangelicalism has its own way of reconciling church and state. It imagines an ideal American founding on Christian principles, blames the nation’s decline on secularists, and mobilizes politically active believers to “reclaim” America as God’s chosen land. It sees no inherent conflict between America and the gospel. Christianity is safe for America’s political and economic order. In fact, a return to the Bible’s wisdom and morality would automatically heal the nation and secure its bright future. No one need choose between allegiance to Christ and allegiance to America.
It's a great article in general, which I highly encourage you to read.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Contra Ideologica

In recent years I have begun to become disenchanted with the modern political system. This is not the disenchantment of the pessimist or the idealist, but the disenchantment of perspective. Specifically, it is a disenchantment with the modern Christian conservative movement, because I believe that the modern conservative movement has completely missed the point. Throughout their material, you see statements about America being a Christian nation and how we need to bring America back to Christ, how if we could just have a revival then all our problems would be solved, if the church would come out from the cave into which it has retreated and would start actually preaching the gospel again, we could get this country back on the right track.

Now, I agree that the church in America has failed in many ways to preach the gospel, and I agree that revival is necessary for the salvation of souls, but that's not my point in this essay. Neither is it my objective to argue about America being a Christian nation, although I think that is a faulty, misguided statement. My primary point is that this mindset in which the conservative movement finds itself is fundamentally misguided. It is an attempt to devise a system with which to save the world, to set forth an "if we only do this, then everything will be all right." I think this is a fundamental mistake, one that affects the way we view and interact with the world. But why is this so dangerous?

(In all that I'm about to say, I must acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Richard Gamble and his Western Heritage Since 1600 class, which has shaped my thinking on this subject significantly. Also, thanks to Rebecca Duberstein and Dakota Fuller, who helped me to refine many of these thoughts on that long car ride home from school.)

Defining Ideology

We must first ask ourselves, what is an ideology? It is a system of beliefs which people put together to explain the world. Think of proponents of an ideology as system-builders. Other words have been used to describe them--Edmund Burke called them the Geometers, C.S. Lewis called them the Conditioners--but let's use system-builders for our purposes. These are men who figure out just how the world works, all of its ins and outs, and boil it down to an understandable system. "What's the problem with that?" you might ask. Burke describes his Geometers as men who build a perfect system in the abstract, full of straight lines, right angles, and flat planes, and then attempt to impose this system onto the real world, a world in which straight lines, right angles, and flat planes don't actually exist.

Examples from History

In other words, system-builders oversimplify the world. Although their ideas may not be wrong, they're far from complete. For some more obvious examples, let's look at three very prominent system-builders from recent memory: Marxists, Darwinists, and Freudians (not-so-coincidentally, the three most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century). Marx, for instance, had some very good insights about class conflict, and figured out just how man works. "Man is an economic being!" he cried. "All his drives are economic drives, and class warfare drives the world forward!" Since he had figured out just how man works, he devised a system of thought around it--an ideology, if you will--which he called communism. Communism showed men just how the world worked, explained human history, and (most importantly) gave them a picture of the future. Since he had men figured out, Marx also knew just what was in their best interest, and thought that if he could just educate men well enough about what their best interest was, the world could not help but turn into a worker's paradise.

Or take Darwin. Darwin realized that man is a biological being, and driven by the need to survive and reproduce. Or take Freud, who realized that man is a psychological being, and driven by the desire for sex with his mother (or something like that). These men constructed systems around their interpretations of the world, often based on true observations, but, as Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man, they take one portion of the truth and "swelling it into madness." The problem with their systems is that they are too complete, too geometrical, too. . .perfect. They're trying to impose straight lines onto a world that has no straight lines.

Burke saw this problem two hundred years ago when he penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Before the French Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, Burke predicted that this so-called Age of Reason could only result in a bloodbath. Why? Because he saw that the revolutionaries were mere Geometers. They had an exalted view of natural rights, of the supremacy of man's reason, and believed that if they could destroy all vestiges of the old system, they could build a new system in its place. Reason would triumph over all and would herald in a new age of man, where this reason alone would reign supreme.

Burke saw that these men would fail because they did not understand one crucial thing about human nature: man is fallen and desperate for power. The French Revolution was merely another system being constructed, around reason and natural rights, and it could only fail because reality is much more complicated than any system can allow for. The year after he wrote his Reflections, thousands of heads rolled in the Paris streets. You could almost call it prophetic.

Or take Fyodor Dostoyevsky's critique in his Notes from Underground. His narrator, the unidentified "Underground Man," rants against all forms of determinism, especially economic and biological (i.e. Marx and Darwin). System-builders believe that they know what is best for mankind, and since men always choose that which is in their best interest, if they are properly educated as to what their best interest is, they must choose it, thereby leading man into some kind of utopia. The Underground Man argues that the problem with this theory is that it discounts one of man's greatest desires, the desire that destroys all systems. This is the desire for independence. If man is told that his choice is inevitable, that he must choose this thing because it is in his best interest, he will instinctively choose something else, something that he knows is not in his best interest. Why? Because his own independence, his ability to make an independent decision, even if it's not in his best interest, is more important to him than getting what is best for him. In a sense, his independence is his best interest. This instinct alone destroys all systems, all determinism, because it shows that man is far more complicated than a system can explain.

G.K. Chesterton points out a slightly different problem in his book Orthodoxy. He points out, "The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite." And he goes on to describe an alien being who is observing humans, who notices that humans are very symmetrical creatures: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs. And so he figures that inside everything is symmetrical as well, and sure enough he finds two brain lobes, two lungs. Then he figures that there absolutely must be two hearts, since there are two of everything else. Yet, then, right when he was so sure he was right, when it was perfectly reasonable to assume there were two hearts, he would be completely wrong. Yet a system can't predict these irregularities in life, the ones that throw off all the straight lines and perfect syllogisms. That's why they never work.

Also note that ideologies are much more subtle than the obvious communism. Capitalism can also become an ideology. When we start believing that free markets are the solution for every problem, we've created a system. But they're even more subtle than that. As humans, we love to have everything figured out. The reason that systems stick so well, why so many people buy into them, is because we want to believe in a geometric world. We want to understand things, to wrap our minds around things, for things to make complete sense to us. Yet we ultimately can't do that. Our minds are too limited, too finite. The world is too complex, too close to rationality and yet too far. Any time we think to ourselves "I have the world figured out" in some small way, we have constructed our own little system. These systems are harmful, and I would argue that they are sinful, since they are an example of our selfish pride seeking to take control over a world that only One can control.

That's why at the outset of this essay I criticized the modern Christian conservative movement. Many in the movement think they have the solution to the nation's problems: we just need a big revival and this country will get back on course. With more Christians in power and more Christians behind them, this country must take a turn for the better, right? Can you see the system being built up here? A system is still a system, even if it centers around Christ. No human plan, not even working for revival, can solve the human condition.

The Alternative

So what is the alternative? Surprisingly, I think the answer is hinted at in Voltaire's Candide. The novel, if you've never read it, is a satire on just about every system Voltaire could think of. It follows Candide, a young boy from Germany, as he travels throughout Europe trying to find his true love Cunegonde while suffering all sorts of terrible tragedies. He dies several times, but through various improbably circumstances comes back to life, his friend and teacher Pangloss also dies several times and becomes severely disfigured, numerous friends suffer various agonizing fates, he gains and loses an enormous fortune, Cunegonde is raped and killed, but also manages to survive somehow...the book goes on and on with these ridiculous stories. One of the ideas which it satirizes the most is the philosophy of Pangloss, who insists that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and thus tries to put a positive spin on everything that happens. When the kind Anabaptist falls into the Bay of Portugal and drowns, Pangloss explains that the bay was formed just in order that the Anabaptist might drown in it, and so on.

Finally, at the end, Candide finds Cunegonde, who is no longer beautiful, and, with Pangloss and several others, settles down in a little cottage, where they all begin to live normal, if quiet, lives, learning to garden and sew and cook. Candide and Pangloss one day are out in the garden, eating oranges and pistachios, when Pangloss launches into one of his explanations for why this must be the best of all possible worlds, for if they had not all died several times and undergone all the tortuous things they had gone through, they would not now be sitting in this garden eating oranges and pistachios. To which Candide responds with one of the best put-downs, in my opinion, in all of literature: "That is all well and good, but let us cultivate our garden."

Do you hear what Candide is saying? Stop trying to construct your little system and explain what got us here and trying to put a positive spin on it. What is more important is to cultivate our garden. I never thought I would come to agree with Voltaire in anything, but at least in this point, partially, I agree with the point he's making.

Samuel Johnson also makes this point in his Rasselas, although he is coming from a much more Christian perspective. The young prince Rasselas escapes with his sister Nekayah from his kingdom, where life is inside an impenetrable ring of mountains and in which there is no pain or trouble, in order to try and find the choice of life that will make him truly happy. His journey is remarkably similar to Candide's, as he meets all different worldviews and people who think they have the world figured out, but who demonstrate time and again that their choice of life does not make them happy. At the end of the book, when all choices have been exhausted and the prince and his party are talking together, the princess seems to speak Johnson's mind when she states "To me, the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity." In other words, we're never going to figure out this life in this life, we must focus on the next life.

So succinctly speaking, what am I proposing as the alternative to building systems? Simply this: stop trying to solve the world's problems, and focus on living your own individual life well. That's it. Don't try and explain the world, and be content to tend your own garden.

But what does this mean? Dr. Gamble, as he was closing the final discussion/lecture of the class which inspired and gave me most of the material for this essay, began telling the story of his father, who was a small pastor in a small New England town who served a small congregation. His church stayed roughly the same size during his pastorate. He never led any major revivals or started huge movements. He just faithfully pastored his church for over forty years. He tended his garden quietly. And those men are just as much heroes as the Billy Grahams and Abraham Lincolns of this world.

He concluded with this thought: "As young idealists, we often fail to see how much of life is taken up by mundane things. In our lifetimes, how much of our lives are taken up in getting dressed, brushing our teeth, doing the dishes, or mowing the lawn? We live a mundane life that may contain flashes of greatness. The great challenge, then, is to live the mundane life well."

Author Paul David Tripp also says something very similar, which I will quote at length because I think he hits the nail on the head:
You and I don’t do many significant things in our lives. We only make 3-4 major decisions. Most of us will not be written up in history books. Sorry, it’s true. For most of us, several decades after we die, the people we leave behind will struggle to remember the events of our lives. You live in the utterly mundane. You live in little moments. And if God doesn’t rule your little moments He doesn’t rule you because that is where you live. I think one of the big problems we make in our marriage is when we name little moments as “little moments” and say they are not important. If the character of a life is not set by four or five big moments but is set by 10,000 little moments, every little moment of your life is important. That’s where your life is formed and that’s where your relationships are built and formed. We cannot back away from the little moments because that happens to be where we live. And our God is a God of the little moments. He enters those little moments with his truth and wisdom and grace. (What Did You Expect?)
Our temptation is to get so caught up in those 4 or 5 big decisions that we miss the life we're supposed to be living, the life that God gave us to live. As Christians, we're called to live faithfully in our homes, in our families and communities, in our churches and schools. We're called to faithfully tend our gardens, not to change the world.

But Wait a Minute...

Now, at this point I can see several of you jumping up and down, waving your hand for my attention. "This is all true," I can hear you saying, "but are you saying that Christians are not supposed to try to spread the gospel? That we're not supposed to impact our culture with the truth? That we're not supposed to attempt to sanctify our government with God-glorifying national policies? That we're not supposed to be salt and light to the world?"

And that is exactly what I'm not saying. What I'm arguing for is not a retreat from engagement with the world. Far from it, I am arguing that Christians need to be constantly on guard and meeting the world head on. That's one of the primary purposes of this blog: it's a place where I seek to engage the ideas of the world and counter them with biblical truth.

Instead, what I am arguing for is a reorientation of our goals and priorities as we engage the world. To use Princess Nekayah once again, we will never achieve perfect happiness in this world. We will never contrive the perfect system that will remove all problems from the world. Revival will not solve the world's problems, or even America's problems, because man is still fallen and we still live in a fallen world. Revival springs up and looks flashy, but it quickly dies back down, leaving few people actually changed. We've supposedly had up to four "Great Awakenings" in this country (depending on who you ask), and yet today we are drifting towards an ever more secular society.

Instead, our focus must be on heaven. We know that revival is not the answer to the world's problems, for Christ is the answer. We seek to bring Christ to a lost world, not to save mankind, but to save men, individual men. Burke criticized the French revolutionaries and their supporters for being so concerned with mankind that they lose sight of actual men. Gamble paraphrased him with "Jesus tells us to love all men individually, not all men collectively."

So be a politician. End the Sudanese sex-slave trade. Write a book. Film a movie. Build an orphanage in Mexico. But be clear on what your purpose is. Your purpose is not to find a way to solve the world's problems. Your purpose is to love the world as Christ loves the world, and through loving the world to bring lost sheep back to their shepherd. Ultimately, you are called to live your life faithfully wherever God has placed you, with whatever talents he has given you. You're not meant to save the world. Leave that to the Savior, and tend your garden faithfully.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Influential Books and Music

I know I haven't posted in forever, and it would be amazing if anyone checked back here for some real material, but I really am working on not one but two posts right now. One of them might as well be an essay that I'm posting, since it will be that long, but hopefully someone will still read it, and the other one is my argument against the existence of natural rights. So check back if you're interested. But if you're ahead.

I got tagged on Facebook by the one and only Christy Somerville to list fifteen books that have stuck with me after I've read them. I don't feel like tagging folks, so I thought I'd do it here. These are in the order they occurred to me.

1. Christ Our Mediator--C.J. Mahaney
2. God is the Gospel--John Piper
3. Orthodoxy--G.K. Chesterton
4. Peace Like a River--Leif Enger
5. The Count of Monte Cristo--Alexandre Dumas
6. The Chronicles of Narnia--C.S. Lewis
7. The Scarlet Letter--Nathanial Hawthorne
8. The Iliad--Homer
9. Macbeth--William Shakespeare
10. Gilead--Marilynne Robinson
11. Speaker for the Dead--Orson Scott Card
12. Holes--Louis Sachar
13. The Hound of the Baskervilles--Arthur Conan Doyle
14. A Tale of Two Cities--Charles Dickens
15. Paradise Lost--John Milton

And since I'm doing this, I might as well throw up a post I started forever ago and never finished. I wanted to compile my fifteen favorite albums of all time, but hit a roadblock when I had a bunch of albums I wanted to include because I was nostalgic about them from my childhood, not because I thought they were particularly great in reality. So I cheated, and I made two lists: my nostalgia list and my real list. The first list is in order of when they influenced me, starting from early childhood and ending in high school. The second list is in alphabetical order by artist.


1. The Man from Snowy River
2. The Parent Trap
3. The Prince of Egypt
4. Rich Mullins - Songs
5. Steven Curtis Chapman - Speechless
6. Chris Rice - Past the Edges
7. Michael W. Smith - Live the Life
8. Avalon - Oxygen
9. Steven Curtis Chapman - Declaration
10. FFH - Have I Ever Told You
11. Mark Schultz - Song Cinema
12. Big Daddy Weave - One and Only
13. Relient K - The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek
14. Casting Crowns - Casting Crowns
15. Godspell

Favorite Albums:
1. Anberlin - Cities
2. Caedmon's Call - 40 Acres
3. Chris Rice - Amusing
4. David Crowder*Band - A Collision (or 3+4=7)
5. House of Heroes - The End is Not the End
6. Jars of Clay - Good Monsters
7. Les Miserables
8. Mae - The Everglow
9. The Ragamuffins and Friends - The Jesus Record
10. Relient K - mmHmm
11. Rich Mullins - A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band
12. Simon and Garfunkel - Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme
13. Switchfoot - The Beautiful Letdown
14. Third Day - Wire
15. U2 - Joshua Tree

Sunday, April 12, 2009

As He Said

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

--Matthew 28:1-9

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

--Luke 24:25-27

The Lord is risen! Our faith is not in vain, for all that was prophesied has been fulfilled. Christ is risen from the dead, and death is conquered forever!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A Herd of Bulls and Tigers

I've been reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy recently, and his amazing insight keeps flooring me. I don't agree with everything he says, but like Lewis I think he gets a whole lot right, and even when he gets it wrong it's healthy to think about why, because he raises excellent points.

In light of my previous post, I thought the following quote was particularly amazing. To give context, he's just spent a chapter arguing for why Christianity makes sense of the world by simultaneously affirming two seemingly contradictory premises, balancing them off each other to create one beautiful whole. He concludes the chapter by saying this:
It is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch, but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious...Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless. (101-102)
I encourage you all to get your hands on this book and wrestle through it. It will be well worth your while.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I tend to be a reactionary person. If everyone is absolutely in love with something, my natural tendency is to avoid it and/or put it down. For example, when Lord of the Rings was massively popular, I did not even bother seeing any of them until just before Return of the King came out in theaters. Here at school, everyone is in love with C.S. Lewis, and so my natural response is to argue with them as to why C.S. Lewis is not really all that great, and to point out all the things he gets wrong, and its only when I sit down to read Screwtape Letters again that I realize, well, I may not agree with every word this man says, but he does have a lot of amazing things to say.

That being said, one of the biggest areas where this tendency shows itself is when talking about the nature of God. I have friends here who tend to emphasize the love of God to the exclusion of his holiness or justice or wrath, and so my tendency is to downplay the love of God and show them why his holiness or his justice or his wrath is much more important. Or I have friends who tend to emphasize man's free will, especially regarding salvation, and so my tendency is to go overboard defending God's sovereignty to the exclusion of free will.

But one thing I've been learning since I've been at school is that Christianity is all about tensions. It's all about paradox. As humans we want to go all the way to either extreme, but staying the middle course is one of the hardest things for us to do. So the temptation is to say "It's all about God's love" or "It's all about God's holiness," but it takes serious effort and discernment to say "It's all about both God's love and his holiness." You can't downplay one to emphasize the other, because they are both equally true. 1 John 4:8 says "God is love," but Revelation 4:8 calls God "holy, holy, holy" with the triple repetition that is the Hebrew equivilent of our superlative. Both are absolutely true about God, and elevating one over the other, or trying to pick one as God's defining characteristic, is defeating the purpose.

Maybe the two are reconciled in the actual nature of what love is. Love is sacrificially giving of yourself for others ("Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" John 15:13), and God's holiness is his set-apartness from his creation, his purity. Love is essential to God's being, because the three members of the Trinity love each other and give themselves for each other, and this love overflows to loving mankind. And yet God loves mankind because he loves his holiness, and loves his glory, and glorifies himself through acheiving our redemption, so even his love for mankind is an act of love for himself.

But the thing is, I often try to explain or define my uncertainties about God away. Thinking about the previous paragraph may be helpful, but the moment I think I've solved the paradox, that's the moment I completely miss the point. Christianity is all about paradoxes, and its all about mystery. Delve far enough into any doctrine of the Christian faith and you reach a point where you say "Well, I'm stuck. God is so much bigger than me." If you're not comfortable with saying that, I think you've missed who God really is, and you've missed the wonder of the gospel.

Don't try and explain things away. Learn to live with, even embrace paradox. God reveals himself to us in amazing ways when we are no longer convinced that we can learn everything about him, but surrender ourselves to his infinitude.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Glorious Paradox

I've never before enjoyed reading in the Old Testament prophets, since they are usually so dull and boring. Yet the more I read them, the more I find the wonders of the mercy of God on full display.

An excellent example of this comes buried in the middle of Ezekiel. God is defending himself against the charges of the Israelites that they are being punished for their fathers' sins by telling them that "the son shall not die for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (18:20). But then comes this wonderful little passage:
“But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?....For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord, so turn, and live." (18:21-23, 32)
What a beautiful statement about man's free will, and how God has abdicated his sovereignty in order to allow man to make his own decisions, right? Not so fast. Flip over two chapters to the section where God is reprimanding Israel for its constant rebellion against him. Suddenly comes this marvelous treasure:
And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God. (20:44)
So God doesn't deal with us according to our deeds, but according to his mercy, for the glory of his name? How do these two ideas fit together? Short answer: it's the glorious mystery of God's sovereignty. How beautiful a thing it is to lean on the mercy of God!

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Cactus

This is the short story I wrote for our Honours retreat this summer. It was partially inspired by rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. I hope you all enjoy it.

It never snowed in Hartville.
At least, not that Phil had ever seen. And he’d been living there for at least eleven years now, ever since that day he’d stepped out onto the tarmac with his mom and seen the cactus. It looked like one of those cactuses you see in the cartoons, when Yosemite Sam is blasting off those crazy pistols and trips and lands in a ravine, where of course he sits on a cactus and jumps up and yowls and runs around with little cactus spikes sticking out of his butt. It’s a cartoon staple, that cactus, that almost looks human—except a really deformed human, all bent out of shape, with one arm a good foot below the other. Maybe that’s why cartoonists always include it—it adds a sense of deformed humanity to the dry desert.
Phil wasn’t really sure why he had noticed the cactus. It was just sitting there, near the little building that in places like this could be called an airport. It was really nothing more than a waiting room with walls, with one sleepy old lady sitting behind a desk filling out a crossword puzzle. But the cactus stuck with him. It seemed to stare defiantly at the blazing sun, shaking its little spiked paw at the planes flying overheard, as if to say, “How dare you come and put asphalt in the middle of my desert!” In the eleven years that Phil had lived in Hartville, he had always remembered that cactus.

Jaden threw the pen down. Why on earth am I going on about a cactus? he thought, exasperated with himself. I’ve never even seen a cactus before, or a desert, for crying out loud. Stupid writing assignment. What am I even doing here? Venting? It’s not working at all. And seriously, it was only a birthday. Not a big deal. Yet despite his inner protests, his disappointment still hung inside him, draping itself around his heart so that his chest felt heavy and sticky.
Jaden stood up and started to pace the room. It didn’t help to dwell on it. But it’s not like it’s the first time that Dad’s forgotten my birthday… Jaden shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He had to do something, something else, something to take his mind off his dad. He grabbed his cell phone from his desk and ran downstairs.
“I’m taking the Honda, Mom!” he yelled as he ran out the front door.
“Be back by 7,” she called back, “ I need to take Kelly to Dana’s house.”
Bolting down the front walk, he jumped into the front seat, winced from the hot leather, turned up the stereo, and peeled out of the driveway.

Phil loved snow. Back in Colorado, he used to spend hours building snowmen and having snowball fights with his dad. There was nothing quite like waking up in the morning and seeing a fresh layer of white all over the ground, or like walking through the pine trees listening to the steady crunch, crunch, crunch under your feet as the rest of the world was silent. Nature always seemed quietest in the early morning.
One of the best things about snow was Christmas morning. There was always snow on Christmas morning, and every year Phil would run outside after breakfast and make a snow angel. He figured that since the angels sang over Christ’s birth, it was fitting that there would be one in his front yard every year. In a way, it helped bring the season home to him.
Of course, making an angel in the sand is a lot less comfortable than making one in the snow, but that was all that Phil could make now that he lived in Hartville. A sand angel and a cactus, those were his memories of Hartville. He’d only made the sand angel once, and afterwards had given up. It wasn’t really important anyway.

There was a willow that sat next to Lake Hugo. Its long, droopy branches just brushed the surface of the water, and the gnarly roots made a comfortable seat for a boy whose mood matched the demeanor of the tree. Jaden liked to sit there and watch the Canadian geese swim back and forth on the water, honking like Mack trucks on the highway. Geese made him laugh, the way they took everything so seriously, even fighting over the stale breadcrumbs he sometimes brought from home. Occasionally he’d even see a turtle out on one of the semi-submerged logs, but they didn’t usually stick around too long—the geese probably drove them crazy.
Jaden used his time at the willow to think. Often he’d reminisce about his recent escapades with his best friend, Paul. Just a few weeks ago he and Paul had gone hiking and had gotten lost, ending up spending the night in a lean-to they constructed from scratch. It had been a marvelous amount of fun, except when they made their way back to civilization and found out how worried their moms had been. Of course, his dad hadn’t even been aware that he had been missing… in fact, Jaden wasn’t even sure if he knew now that his boy had once survived a night in the mountains with nothing more than a water bottle and a pocket knife.
Jaden shook his head. He had come out here to clear his mind, not to keep thinking about his dad. He watched a goose hiss at a rabbit that came a little too close to its nest in the bulrushes and smiled. How nice it must be to have a parent willing to stick up for you in a moment of danger. Take advantage of this, he thought, as if the eggs could hear him thinking, this phase doesn’t last for long. He sighed. This wasn’t helping him at all. Usually nature cleared his head, but today it was just distracting him. He eased himself from his seat and patted the willow as he walked back to his car.

Phil liked to sit out by the airport, under the shade of that lonely cactus, and watch the buzzards circle overhead. Planes only flew into the airport once every few days, and then usually only with the mail, since no sane postal worker wanted to drive all the way to Hartville to deliver congressional fundraising letters. Still, Phil enjoyed the thought that one day a plane was going to come that would take him out of this godforsaken town forever.
And that day wasn’t too far away. In a year and a half he would be shipping off for school, back to the University of Colorado. Of course, since he’d be coming home for winter break, he would still never get a white Christmas, but that couldn’t be helped. At least he’d be out of Hartville nine months of the year.
He glanced back at the cactus. It was still shaking its arms in the same defiant gesture as when he first arrived. “What good has it done you, little cactus,” he said aloud. “Why do you bother standing against the world?” He sighed, and went back to watching the buzzards.

It all happened so fast that Jaden afterward could never quite remember the series of events. One minute he was cresting the hill on his way back home, and the next second the biker seemed to materialize in front of his car. He swerved and crashed through the rail fence next to the road, and then his right front tire hit something and the car began to roll. The pasture was on the side of a mountain, and once the car started rolling it began to pick up speed. Jaden was wearing his seatbelt but it didn’t really matter as he felt himself battered around, and then his head flew forward against the steering wheel and everything went black.

He awoke with the strange feeling that he was hanging upside down and tried to shake his head to reorient himself. A rush of pain quickly awakened him to the fact that he was hanging upside down, and that he was still belted into his seat, and that he had a splitting headache. He gingerly unbuckled his seatbelt and crawled out of the hole where the driver window used to be. Standing up slowly, he turned and surveyed the damage to the car. To call it “totaled” would be an understatement. The vehicle was a smoking, twisted heap of metal, partially wrapped around the gigantic fir tree that had stopped its revolving rush down the mountain.
Jaden’s hand moved to brush away the sweat that was dripping into his eyes, but when he brought it back down it was covered with blood. That would explain the headache, he thought.
A voice behind him caused him to turn around. “Hey, kid! Are you all right?” The cyclist was running down the hill with a look of concern on his face. “Dude, I’m so sorry about that. I must have drifted out into the middle of the road—here, use this on your forehead.” He frantically dug through his backpack and handed Jaden a bandage. “I’ve never seen a car do that before! You must have rolled twenty times! How on earth are you even standing up?”
Jaden was still staring at him, only partially processing the stream of dialogue coming out of the biker’s mouth as he slowly raised the bandage to his forehead. The last question seemed to shake him out of his daze, and he slowly stammered, “I…I don’t really know.”
“Do you have any broken bones?” the cyclist continued, unstrapping his helmet. “You look just fine to me, except for that nasty gash on your forehead. Dude, you really should sit down.” He reached out his hand to grab Jaden’s elbow.
Suddenly Jaden’s knees suddenly began to feel wobbly, and collapsing next to the smoking Honda, his shoulders began heaving as he buried his face in his hands, tears streaming between his blood-stained fingers. As he sat there weeping, a lone goose slowly flew over the wreckage, emitting a single honk as it gazed in wonder on the scene below.

It was Christmas Day. Phil took the day to walk to his usual position under the cactus. The air was unusually crisp, and the sky was overcast as he settled himself down. Today he’d brought a book, a new Ken Follett his mom had given him this morning. After a few minutes, however, he set the book down. He really didn’t feel like reading.
He stared contemplatively at the solid gray sky. He hadn’t seen clouds like this for a long time, not since his days in Colorado. They filled him with a sense of chill foreboding, and his nostrils swelled with the memory of fresh pine. He stood up, slowly, still gazing intensely at the clouds. Maybe this is what they talked about in Genesis, where God split the waters between heaven and earth. It sure felt like he had a gigantic tarp stretched over his head, holding back a rush of something.
Phil shivered. It was remarkably cold today. He decided to head back home where it was warm, and turned and walked away from that deserted strip of asphalt. His mom was sure to be waiting there with some of her fresh-baked peanut blossoms and a cup of hot chocolate—the thought of it made Phil’s mouth water, and he smiled slightly. Merry Christmas, Mom.
And as he plodded slowly home, a solitary snowflake floated gently down and alighted on the outstretched arm of the angry cactus.