Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Live This Life (Follow-up to Terminal)

A few days ago my thoughts were focused on the fact that we are all "terminal." Today my mind turns to the things within us that drive us to keep on living. We have likely all known someone who planned to "live a hard life, have a good time, and die young" only to be surprised when they managed to achieve some measure of greater age and found that they did not want to die. Agatha Christie once said,
"I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing."
Similarly, Dylan Thomas wrote,
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

There is certainly something within that keeps striving to live at almost any cost; and I would not want to discourage anyone from choosing to stay alive. Perhaps the best we can do is determine to know that we are indeed dying a little every day; and then, also know that every moment we have on this earth counts for something. We can choose how we will live these days we have on earth. There are many who choose to live each one in pursuit of personal gain. There are also many who choose to help others achieve a measure of success. Still another group seeks to "Love the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart, soul, strength, and mind and love [their] neighbour" as themselves. (Luke 10:27) The question I must ask myself is, "How will I live and die upon this earth?"

Saturday, October 3, 2015


"Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent."[1]
In a culture that speaks little about death, in a society where it is more and more common to have no funeral or memorial service, we still cannot hide the fact that death is inevitable. I have had friends that died at 58, I have friends that are alive at 96. We all know that one day we must leave this place. We await the mystery of death.

Richard John Neuhaus (May 14, 1936 – January 8, 2009) wrote an essay which was published in February of 2000. In this essay he considers his attitude toward death after nearly dying in 1993. It is a marvelous essay and I encourage you to read it here.

Following two surgeries to repair the damage caused by a large tumor that had ruptured his colon, the surgeon told Neuhaus, “It was as though you had been hit twice by a Mack truck going sixty miles an hour. I didn’t think you’d survive.” As he began to recover and regain enough strength to walk around the block, he recounts some of his feelings as he realized we are all “born toward dying.”
"Shuffling around the block and then, later, around several blocks, I was tired of [New York]. Death was everywhere. The children at the playground at 19th Street and Second Avenue I saw as corpses covered with putrefying skin. The bright young model prancing up Park Avenue with her portfolio under her arm and dreaming of the success she is to be, doesn’t she know she’s going to die, that she’s already dying? I wanted to cry out to everybody and everything, “Don’t you know what’s happening?” But I didn’t. Let them be in their innocence and ignorance."
Neuhaus knew that we are all dying. From the moment we are born, we struggle against it, but we are all dying.

Jon Foreman, in a song from the EP Wonderlands, reminds us that we are all “Terminal.” We’re fatally flawed and we must not “let our spirit die before our body does.”

(words and music by Jon Foreman)

The doctor says I’m dying
I die a little every day
He’s got no prescription
That could take my death away
The doctor says, "It don’t look so good"
It’s terminal

Some folks die in offices
One day at a time
They could live a hundred years
But their soul’s already died
Don’t let your spirit die before your body does
We’re terminal, we’re terminal, we're terminal

We are, we are the living souls
With terminal hearts, terminal parts
Flickering like candles, shimmering like candles
We're fatally flawed, fatally flawed

Whenever I start cursing
At the traffic or the phone
I remind myself that we have all got
Cancer in our bones
Don’t yell at the dead
Show a little respect
It’s terminal, it's terminal

We are, we are the living souls
With terminal hearts, terminal parts
Flickering like candles, flickering like candles
We're fatally flawed, we're fatally flawed

We are, we are the living souls
With terminal hearts, terminal parts
Flickering like candles, flickering like candles
We're fatally flawed, we're fatally flawed

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust
For our days here are like grass
We flourish like a flower of the field
The wind blows and it is gone
And its place remembers it no more
Naked we came from our mother’s womb
And naked we will depart
For we bring nothing into the world
And we can take nothing away”

We are, we are, we are, we are, we are the living souls
With terminal hearts, terminal parts
Flickering like candles, flickering like candles
We're fatally flawed, in the image of God.

Of course, both Neuhaus and Foreman are right: we are terminal. I hope that doesn’t come as a shock to you. Some of us have been fortunate to live many good years on this earth. We know all too many who have died before their time. But, what is before their time? What is before my time? Does anyone know how many days he or she has been given on this earth? “Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone - as though we had never been here” (Psalm 103:15, 16). Oh, God, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12) for we are fatally flawed, in the image of God. We’re terminal.

[1] “Born Toward Dying,” Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, 2009 and 2000, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2009/01/born-toward-dying

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Venus, Mars, Regulus, and Jupiter Are Alright Tonight

Starship 21ZNA9
A good friend of mine
Studies the stars
Venus and Mars
Are alright tonight

"Venus and Mars" lyrics by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney; published by MPL Communications, Inc.

This morning, as I went for my before-sunrise-run, I was greeted by three planets and a bright star, in the eastern sky. The four points of light were Venus, highest and brightest of the four, Regulus, a bright star only 79 light years away, Mars, the red planet, and Jupiter, just above the horizon. They made an inverted vee shape as if they were flying in formation. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Conjunctions of this nature always get me dreaming about space-travel. In my mind’s eye it looked possible to just hop in a plane and fly straight to whichever spot I chose.

Venus would provide a warm but cloudy holiday with lots of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. Regulus would be a long journey, by any mode of transportation, and what we would find there is completely unknown. Mars is becoming the most well-known planet other than earth with the many probes, rovers, and orbiters sending back reams of scientific data. Just this past week it was learned that Mars does indeed have liquid water on its surface at certain times of its solar year. We would have a cold holiday on Mars and would have to bring along our own oxygen for breathing. Jupiter would perhaps be the most exotic vacation destination. Jupiter is a gas giant made up of clouds of frozen hydrogen and helium gas high above a core of liquid metallic hydrogen. The moons around Jupiter would be even more interesting to visit. Io, the largest of the moons, is a hotbed of volcanoes and bubbling pits of molten rock. Europa is covered with a frozen water crust. Perhaps one could have the most fantastic skating party of all time on the surface of Europa.

All of this went through my mind as I ran six kilometers on this boring old terrestrial ball. I turned and ran toward a very bright moon making its way toward setting in the west and I scared a few jack-rabbits with the padding of my athletic shoes. It was a great morning on Earth; but I was dreaming of spending time on other planets. How long will it be before we have colonies on Mars, or the moon, or Venus, or Europa? It is important that we continue to cultivate a desire for exploration that will lead us to other planets, moons, and stars. It is this inquisitive, pioneering, explorative spirit that makes us truly human.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

I have never met Mark A. Noll; but, if we ever do have a conversation together, I expect I would find myself very much agreeing with him. He is the sort of intellectual writer who is unafraid to turn over all of the stones and search for every seed of truth. He desires to take each gem of enlightenment captive to Christ. His most widely read book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, contains many great insights on the way in which mainstream Evangelicalism strayed so far from truth. He says,

. . . in their defense of the supernatural, fundamentalists and their evangelical heirs resemble some cancer patients. In facing a drastic disease, they are willing to undertake a drastic remedy. The treatment of fundamentalism may be said to have succeeded; the patient survived. But at least for the life of the mind, what survived was a patient horribly disfigured by the cure itself.[1]

The disfiguring to which Noll refers is the loss of a critical mind that exhibits a measure of skepticism regarding the miraculous and a healthy measure of skepticism appropriate to the scientific method. He is desirous that all Christians might live within the tension of belief and uncertainty. He further explains. “I was brought up in a Christian environment where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything has significance.”[2]

Still more clearly he says,

Who formed the world of nature (which provides the raw material for physical sciences)? Who formed the universe of human interactions (which is the raw material of politics, economics, sociology, and history)? Who is the source of all harmony, form, and narrative pattern (which is the raw material for art)? Who is the source of the human mind (which is the raw material for philosophy and psychology)? And who, moment by moment, maintains the connection between our minds and the world beyond our minds? God did, and God does.[3]

These words are extremely helpful as we each consider the relationship between faith and science, belief and agnosticism, and spirituality and materialism. May those who have comprehending minds meditate upon these thoughts.

Works Cited

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995.

[1] (Noll 1995)
[2] (Noll 1995)
[3] (Noll 1995)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Loving Our Enemies

In his brilliant novel, Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry creates a particular scene to illustrate a point. Jayber Crow, who is narrating his own story, is the town barber and, as is the lot of a small-town barber, hears many conversations in his barber shop. Some of these conversations are entertaining, amusing, and educational. Others are just plain ignorant. He recounts the following interaction with Troy Chatham.

The war protesters had started making a stir, and the talk in my shop ran pretty much against them. Troy hated them. As his way was, he loved hearing himself say bad things about them.
One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said – it was about the third thing said – “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. . . .
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”
I said, “Jesus Christ.”
And Troy said, “Oh.”
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.[1]

How easy it is to love our enemies in the abstract. It is difficult to love actual people.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

[1] (Berry 2000, 287)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Problem With Quotes

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that I rely heavily upon the writings and sayings of others. I frequently use the words that another has said or written as a jumping off point for exploring my own thoughts. Most of the time, I am confident that this is a fruitful method. Yet, I am also aware of the pitfalls of such an approach and have often witnessed problems with this technique in the writings of others; and so I know that it must also exist in mine. The basic difficulty lies in the fact that by taking one small snippet of a writer's thoughts, we run the risk of missing their meaning and perhaps interpreting their words in the opposite sense in which they were intended. For example, if one searches for quotes written by Wendell Berry in his book, Jayber Crow, you will find, online, a preponderance of quotes which support pessimism toward God or toward his existence. Here is an example of an often used quote that, at first glance, suggests that Berry is a proponent of atheism:

"Well, for instance," I said, "if Jesus said for us to love our enemies - and He did say that, didn't He? - how can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if He said not to pray in public, how come we're all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus' own prayer in the garden wasn't granted, what is there for us to pray, except 'thy will be done,' which there's no use praying because it will be done anyhow?" . . . He said, "Have you any more?"
"Well, for instance," I said, for it had just occurred to me, "suppose you prayed for something and you got it, how do you know how you got it?  How do you know you didn't get it because you were going to get it whether you prayed for it or not?  So how do you know it does any good to pray?  You would need proof, wouldn't you?"
He nodded.
"But there's no way to get any proof."
He shook his head.  We looked at each other.
He said, "Do you have any answers?"
"No," I said. . . . You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."
"And how long is that going to take?"
"I don't know.  As long as you live, perhaps."
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said.  "It may take longer."[1]
The questions Wendell Berry's character, Jayber Crow, asks are typical of one who has had faith and then lost it. They suggest someone who is trying hard to believe in Jesus, but just can't do it. For those who like to draw quotes from Wendell Berry to suggest agnosticism, this is sufficient to prove their point that, it is not rational to believe in a God who answers prayer and interacts with His creation.

Jayber Crow says these words at a point that is one sixth of the way through the book. One has to go a full two-thirds of the way through the book to see the answer Jayber Crow gives himself. The answer, which shows a renewed faith in Jesus, goes like this:

"I finally knew... why Christ's prayer in the garden could not be granted. He had been seeded and birthed into human flesh. He was one of us. Once He had become mortal, He could not become immortal except by dying. That He prayed the prayer at all showed how human He was. That He knew it could not be granted showed his divinity; that He prayed it anyhow showed His mortality, His mortal love of life that His death made immortal. . . .  
If God loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? I prayed to know in my heart His love for the world, and this was my most prideful, foolish, and dangerous prayer. It was my step into the abyss. As soon as I prayed it, I knew that I would die. I knew the old wrong and the death that lay in the world. Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart."[2] 
These are the words of a man who has found a renewal of his faith. These are the words of someone who will trust Jesus. The point is, one must consider the whole body of work before concluding the position of the author on this particular issue. One small, or large, quote does not fully represent the beliefs of Jayber Crow or, by extension, the beliefs of Wendell Berry. The bottom line, for both writers and readers, is that we must not be lazy about investigating the thoughts of an author. Truly substantiating a point may require a good deal more reading than most of us choose to invest. Becoming true scholars, knowledgeable readers, and connoisseurs of words will require a good deal more outlay of time; but, as good scholars will know, the investment is worth the reward.

Works Cited:

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

[1] (Berry 2000, 53, 54)
[2] (Berry 2000, 253, 254)