The Faithful Few Many

A study of injuries suffered by cats falling from various distances arrived at an unusual conclusion: cats that fall from fewer than six stories and live, have greater injuries than those that fall from higher than six stories. Seeking to explain this unlikely finding, it was suggested that since it takes cats a few stories to right themselves, they can then relax, better enabling them to absorb the impending impact, thus minimizing injury. However, a later interpretation suggested that since dead cats are not usually brought to veterinarians, many of the cats that fell from greater heights were not included in the reports; only the ones that survived their falls were included, skewing the overall results.

This is an example of what is called “survivorship bias.” By only counting the cats that fell from higher heights and survived the study unintentionally distorted the actual likely outcomes of falling cats. Similar errors are made in the assessment of businesses and finance managers when studies only take into account those organizations still in business or traders still active in the market instead of including those that failed and quit.

A similar dynamic may be in play in how we assess the success of our Christian life. As we look at Scripture and Church history, we are far more likely to highlight and therefore compare ourselves against the success stories—say, Joseph, Daniel, or Ruth—than against the “failures”—say, Stephen.

A poignant example of this can be found in Acts 12. That chapter recounts the remarkable story of Peter’s escape from prison thanks to angelic escort, including the touching detail of young Rhoda’s excitement at his unexpected appearance. That the narrative concludes with the execution of the hapless soldiers and later, the grisly death of overweening Herod, only serves to underscore the victory.

However, the chapter begins by relating that Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:2). While I have heard these divergent apostolic outcomes rationalized various ways, my point is that we remember Peter’s story and expect our story to be like his. No one imagines, hopes, expects, or even interprets their lives to be modeling the experience of James here.

But the truth is that across the whole of Scripture and Church history, far more have tasted martyrdom or lived a life of religious tedium than have experienced the angelic rescue of Peter, the dramatic prayer outcomes of George Muller, or the remarkable ministry productivity of George Whitefield. Yet we persistently look to these success stories, not as the individual acts of grace that they are, but as though they set the standard for our personal spiritual expectations. The predictable result is frustration or feelings of failure.

But for every Esther there are thousands of nameless but faithful Israelites. For every Elijah, “seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). For every George Whitefield, a host of faithful pastors. To be sure, these “Heroes of the Faith” serve as examples for us, but they do so primarily in their faith, not in the temporal outcomes of it. How God distributes outcomes is up to him. May we join our daily, undramatic faithfulness to the long history of saints, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, who have gone before us.

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Piecemeal Peace

egg-nestRecently, prompted by Hebrews 3-4, I have been thinking and preaching about rest. These chapters make clear that God has made us for rest but experiencing that rest is no easy matter.

Concurrently I have been reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as revisiting his poetry. I was struck by this short poem on peace. As usual, Hopkins’ phrasing and word choice are initially daunting, but the piece rewards patient attention.

WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
        He comes to brood and sit.

The first two and half lines express a desire for Peace to move from being a bird that flits around Hopkins to being something firm on which he can rest. It is not that he never experiences peace, he makes clear, but that the peace he experiences is fleeting and partial. The alliteration and wordplay of the fifth line almost comes out as stuttering: That piecemeal peace is poor peace. Piecemeal peace is his experience while he yearns for a perfect peace yet to come.

In the second stanza he considers both what happens in peace’s absence as well as in its coming. First, he expresses the expectation that if God withdraws (reaves) his peace, he doesn’t do so without leaving some good behind. And indeed, Hopkins explains that in the absence of peace, one may grow in patience. Recalling the avian imagery of the early lines he says that patience itself “plumes to Peace” in time.

By the last two and a half lines the imagery of Peace as a bird is fixed. And here is perhaps the most thought-provoking concept Hopkins offers. What happens when peace comes? We often think of peace as an absence of conflict or stress. But Hopkins imagines bird-Peace actively; it “comes with work to do.” It does not merely sit and sing–“coo“–in a tranquil, passive soul. Rather, it “comes to brood and sit.

What does Hopkins mean? The brooding and sitting bird broods and sits over an egg. Perhaps he is suggesting that Peace births something within us. It is not an end in itself but comes to create and bring some new thing, some new life within us.

Too often our images of peace and the way we pursue it is in terms of an absence and as an end in itself. But the rest into which God calls us is not a passive rest. It is an active and re-creative rest. The peace of absence–absence of conflict, of noise, of stress–is poor piecemeal peace. The peace of presence plumes beauty and lays and hatches new life.

 

Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

In a dry and weary land

518era9qecl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan chronicles the soul crushing reality of the Dust Bowl. The book is depressing and thought-provoking, equal parts cautionary tale and testament to human perseverance.

He narrates that after years of drought, when rains did come it was hardly helpful.

It rained fast and furious, but the water hit bone-hard ground and drained to long-dry indentations in the earth, filling ravines until they rose in a muddy torrent and smashed sheds and took a horse and then disappeared. It was as if it had not rained at all. 230

Might what is true of soil be equally true of souls? Might neglect and circumstance so parch a person’s soul that the refreshing rain of the grace does as much damage as good? I believe so and it stands as a lesson to ministers of the Word. What might this look like?

When someone has been cut off from life-giving truth from the Word and relationships with others, when truth comes they may not be able to receive it. Rather it may run swiftly through their minds only compounding the damage done by their drought. This could be in the form of reinforcing self-condemnatory thought patterns or highlighting what they already perceive to be their insensitivity to God’s presence and grace.

What can be done? Slow and steady rains are needed. Grace and truth must be ladled out consistently and in small quantities rather than unloaded in sermonic downpours. Ministers should be sensitive to the possibility that people in this condition are not helped especially by the sermon or the small group; the rush of water is too great. Rather, simple, personal watering of their souls is the remedy. In time they will be ready to receive the heavier rains.

Spiritual IRA

This time of year it is common to hear people making resolutions about their personal habits. Among Christians this often includes the practices of prayer and Bible reading. These are often referred to as “Spiritual Disciplines” and traditionally include other practices such as memorization, meditation, silence & solitude, fasting, stewardship, worship, journaling, and serving. The list varies from author to author.

The term ‘discipline’ captures a part of the reality of these practices; most of them require dedication and perseverance to become part of our lives. But the term carries mostly negative connotations for most of us and may contribute to our lack of enthusiasm at developing them.

Developing these practices is further complicated by the fact that though we may call them disciplines, we often treat them as if they were transactions. That is, we want them to function the way most of our purchases do. We give the “payment” of prayer, reading, a donation, etc. and we expect to receive a “good” in return. The goods expected may be material “blessings” as we sometimes call them, but they may be more nebulous things like personal peace, or immediate insight, or a sense of God’s presence, or personal recognition. We seem to default to expecting a nearly one-to-one correspondence between our acts of personal piety and identifiable outcomes. Further, we want those identifiable outcomes to be nearly immediately recognizable. This usually doesn’t work.

It would perhaps be better to think of these practices as spiritual “investments.” With most of our investments we contribute a certain amount of money and hope to receive something beyond that amount at some later date. The length of time and the scale of increase are largely out of our control. But we know that, by and large, consistent contribution to these investments compounds the accruing benefits.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but it holds true that the dividends of spiritual disciplines are paid out most often in the long term. Much like our retirement funds, Scripture calls us not to occasional, frantic, outbursts of spiritual passion, but to small, regular, honest acts of devotion submitted in faith to the market forces of the Father’s mercy.

What’s the big deal?

I recently discussed the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 with some friends. The text is often used to suggest that Jesus dismissed the woman’s sin, excusing her. If Jesus had done so it would have been in defiance of the law. Would Jesus do that?

But Jesus does not dismiss her sin. Rather, the passage ends with Jesus instructing her to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus clearly regarded her and her assailants as sinners.

Perhaps we want to see Jesus overlooking the woman’s sin in this story because we are much more comfortable with having our sin excused than having it forgiven. C. S. Lewis once admitted:

When I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.

What is the difference?

We excuse people all the time with phrases like, “It’s no problem,” “No worries,” “Think nothing of it,” etc. We are communicating that there has been no offense, no violation.

When we ask God to excuse our sin we are asking him to act as though there has been no offense, as though no sin has been committed. We are asking that He see our sin as we do, as “no big deal.”

Asking for forgiveness, on the other hand, involves our recognition that there has been offense. There has been a violation. A party has been wronged. It cannot be merely overlooked. In asking for forgiveness we see our sin as He does.

On the part of the offended party, offering forgiveness requires grace. Excusing a behavior only requires personal flexibility or moral laxity.

Asking for forgiveness requires humility; we are at the mercy of the offended party to dispense grace or justice. Truly seeking forgiveness involves both our emotions–we are grieved over the offense–and actions–we ‘repent’, change direction. Asking for our sins to be excused includes no remorse and implies that there will be no change in behavior since “it was no big deal.”

Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to ask for; it is hard to give. No wonder we look for substitutes. But when we do, the loss is ours. Because both sin and grace are a big deal.

The “Inconvenience of contrition”

I love/hate it when someone puts something bluntly and directly. In reading A History of Sin by John Portmann I came across the quote below. It concerns the discomfort of confession and contrition. I don’t know if the author intended it to be cutting, but it was.

Worshipping God takes time, just as repenting for sin does. Time gets increasingly scarce in the modern world, and atonement fatigue creeps into the picture. Traditional Jews read aloud from the Torah at least three times a week, and good Muslims face Mecca five times a day to pray. What do ordinary beleivers have to show for themeslves, other than some bumper stickers and lip service to “family values”? Part of the Western sin fatigue stems from the inconvenience of contrition. Saying we’re sorry for somethign we really wanted to do gets in the way of our enjoying life. Further, one of the difficult questions sin poses is why people regret it so deeply – is it to show love for God or to protect ourselves from a more severe punishment? (p. xxi)