"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 June 2005

Self-Denigration vs. Joy

A friend wrote recently about the destructive habit of self-denigration in so many of the now abundant diary-like web logs – even among Christians, who are called to joy. “Life’s terrible, I’m terrible, I’m a wretch, my life is pathetic, I hate myself . . .” is the litany, often with far more details than any but a voyeur should really want to know. I come away from reading a series of such diaries feeling rather like I need a shower to remove the grit and grime of other people’s self-absorption. My friend points out three particular dangers of this bent:

1. “[I]t leads to constant self-absorption. It seldom looks for answers and rarely, if ever, considers any long enough to act upon them.”

2. “[It] is the [. . .] excuse for NOT doing what we were called to do. ‘I have to get my life together before I can reach out.’”

3. “Perpetual agony over something we cannot change will accomplish little, if anything, productive.”

Right after reading this, I came across an especially appropriate meditation in Chambers, as I was catching up on those days I’d missed. In the 21 June entry, he writes, “The continued grubbing on the inside to see whether we are what we ought to be generates a self-centered, morbid type of Christianity, not the robust, simple life of the child of God. [. . .] How long is it going to take God to free us from the morbid habit of thinking about ourselves?”

It is an indication of just how fallen we are that when offered a feast of joy in full forgiveness and intimate fellowship, we choose instead to wallow about in the mire of our imperfections. Paul reminds us that it is sin that makes us fall, that the truth of who we are lies in this: our hearts made whole and perfect in Christ. “Thanks be to God! There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Himself assures us that He has come to bring us joy, His joy: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). He told the disciples right before His crucifixion, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). We see Him now; He is the resurrected Lord: why do we remain in the mire? Why do we refuse the joy that no one but we ourselves can rob us of?

We have the Holy Spirit as the seal of our salvation, and the fruit of the Spirit is . . . oh, I’m a worm, I’m despicable? No, the fruit of the Spirit is joy. Nehemiah tells the Israelites after they have repented of their idolatry to no longer grieve, because “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If we have tired of doing good, of living righteously, perhaps it is because we have sought self instead of Him, focused on sin instead of the forgiving Savior.

Of course there are trials, sometimes horrific ones. Of course there is sorrow, sometimes deep, haunting sorrow. Of course we still stumble, sometimes badly. The world is still the devil’s and our flesh is not yet burned away. (And remember that the disciples went through trials and sorrows that most of us can’t even imagine - after the time that He promised His joy could not be taken from them.)

But our hearts have been made new. And He has promised joy, abundance of joy, fullness of joy – His own joy. This does not mean we will always feel happiness. Joy is not a trumped-up emotion of our fickle flesh or a fleeting response to changing circumstances, but rather a reality of His life in us. “The joy of the Lord,” Nehemiah says. This means that even in the midst of tragedy – much less the mere daily grind of living in a fallen world – His joy is there to sustain us. We rejoice, not in circumstances, but in Him. We recognize that trials can make us more like Him as they force us to rely on Him, know Him, look to Him instead of ourselves, and so we can agree with James to “count it all joy.”

Chambers exhorts us, “Launch out in reckless belief that the Redemption is complete, and then bother no more about yourself [. . .]. There is only one place where we are right, and that is in Christ Jesus.”

Oh, that Paul’s prayer would bear fruit in our lives: that the Father “may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [Christ], having the eyes of [our] understanding enlightened, that [we] may know what is the hope to which He has called [us], what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe [. . .]” (Eph. 1:17-19).

May we stop lying against the truth and begin acting as though we are what He calls us: His glorious inheritance, bought with a price, created and reborn for joy. How dare we slap Him in the face by calling His glorious inheritance a wretched worm, a despicable clod of dirt. His glorious inheritance – humbling and exhilarating and true.

26 June 2005


For a few days, I stopped reading Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest). Now I am trying to catch up, and being rebuked and encouraged at too rapid a rate. I need to discipline myself to read every day; he helps me to understand the Word and the Lord in a way that I need just now.

The June 18th and 19th entries struck me this morning. On the 18th, Chambers describes Peter walking on the water, and beginning to sink when he looks at his surroundings instead of his Lord. He writes, “If you are recognizing your Lord, you have no business with where He engineers your circumstances. The actual things are, but immediately you look at them you are overwhelmed, you cannot recognize Jesus [. . .]. Let actual circumstances be what they may, keep recognizing Jesus, maintain complete reliance on Him.”

On the 19th, he writes, “Jesus did not say – Make converts to your way of thinking, but look after My sheep, see that they get nourished in the knowledge of Me. We count as service what we do in the way of Christian work; Jesus Christ calls service what we are to Him, not what we do for Him. Discipleship is based on devotion to Jesus Christ, not on adherence to a belief or a creed. [. . .] There is no argument and no compulsion, but simply – If you would be My disciple, you must be devoted to Me. A man touched by the Spirit of God suddenly says – ‘Now I see Who Jesus is,’ and that is the source of devotion.” (emphasis added)

This is a constant tension in the Christian walk, it seems. Clearly, we need to know what Jesus taught if we are to live it, so Chambers cannot be speaking against knowledge of the Word here. He teaches from the Word himself, after all. But there are those of us who put knowledge above devotion. We are so concerned to be “right” about every jot and tittle of our intellectual beliefs that we forget the One who inspired us to hold those beliefs in the first place. Chambers, I think, is reminding us to look to Him, be devoted to Him, and the rest will fall into place. When I read the Word with devotion to Him in mind, He will reveal to me what I need to understand. I may not be ready or able to understand some things that others do; that’s all right. I may have a different understanding of some things; that’s all right, too.

It will all sort out in the end, after all. Faith is a mystery. None of us has it all down pat; none of us knows all the truth about this mystery – else it would not be a mystery.

Some disagreements about knowledge are very important: when someone says that God does not abhor homosexuality or adultery or divorce, for example, it is important to know that such assertions are wrong and to speak out about clear Scriptural truth. But so many of our disagreements are so much less important, and much of what appears clear to me may not appear nearly so clear to others who love the Lord as much as and more than I do. In these disagreements, I must learn to be humble enough to realize that it is possible (however remotely!) that I am the one in the wrong, and even if I am fully convinced that I am right, to allow that those who disagree may love Him just as much.

(And about the vitally important issues, it is also important to distinguish between someone who is teaching clear untruth and needs rebuke and someone who is seeking truth and needs loving instruction to understand it. Love, based on our devotion to Jesus, makes these distinctions and responds appropriately.)

Chambers speaks against our living for causes instead of for Christ, as Lewis does in Screwtape Letters. It is so much easier to live for a cause. If I put all my energy into what Chambers calls “the cause of humanity,” I avoid the ambiguity of love. I avoid the potential for being hurt, the difficulty of accepting those who are different, the humility of serving fallen people without reference to some list of attributes and beliefs which define their acceptability.

May I learn genuine, deep devotion to the One who gave up all for me. He did not demand of me perfection nor have a checklist in hand, He simply gave me Himself. I would learn to do the same, to remember and live in the awe of that day He first revealed Himself to me, and I said, "Now I see Who Jesus is!"

20 June 2005

Book Questionnaire

Okay, LuCindy, here 'tis:

1. Total number of books owned:
I decided to follow your lead here and do it by rooms; kind of interesting.
kitchen: 2
dining room: 6 (the boy does his schoolwork here)
living room shelves: 82 + lots of pamphlet-type books I didn't bother to count
wooden old-fashioned ice-box piece made by hubby for storage: 28 on top and inside
living room tables: 7
sewing cabinet: 8 + cross-stitch books
hall shelves: 357
study: 20
bedroom: 2
the boy’s room: 150
amazon box: 16 new
office: 572
total 1250 +

on loan ?who knows!
probably some in drawers, too . . . and various boxes
of magazines a plethora, including Touchstone, First Things, Consumer Reports, Popular Mechanics . . .
note: hubby prefers to get his books at the library . . . mainly buys kids’ books for the itsy-bitsys (grandkids)

2. Last books we've bought:
hubby – a Michael Crichton novel and a bunch for the itsy-bitsys at McKays (our wonderful used books store)
the boy – Calvin and Hobbes
me – faculty perks money just used:
The Flying Inn (Chesterton)
Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student
Intellectual Morons
For the Time Being (Dillard!)
From the Dust Returned (Bradbury)
The Bradbury Chronicles (Bradbury biography)
The Nine Tailors (Sayers)
Sayers on Holmes
The Case for Marriage
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Truth and Tolerance (Ratzlinger, now Pope Benedict XVI)
Encyclopedia of Trees (revolving the fantasy in the back of the mind again)
Lilith (MacDonald)
Home-Alone America
Feminism and Biblical Truth
on order: Sayers biography and Are Women Human?

3. Last books I read:
Lilith (Incredible, simply incredible. I am still reeling. I must re-read. And re-read.)
The Case for Marriage (I've mentioned in recent posts)
currently reading the Ring Trilogy as a family (how delightful to read aloud again!)

4. Five books that mean a lot to me:
at this particular moment . . . Phantastes and Lilth, The Ring Trilogy, Jane Eyre, Holy the Firm and The Writing Life (So that’s six! It's hard enough to choose any above all the rest!)

5. Five people to whom to pass the baton:
I'm afraid I don't know 5 bloggers to pass this on to! LuCindy pre-empted some I might have chosen, but I will pass it on to Amy at Over the Rainbow (see sidebar; I haven't figured out how to do a link here yet!). So, Amy, when you get through camp, you're on!

15 June 2005

The Ministry of Marriage

A few years ago, I brought an article on gay marriage into my upper-level Advanced Prose class. I wasn’t that interested in getting into a discussion of the topic itself, but the article made an excellent case for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage, and I wanted to discuss with my students the importance of defining terms if you wish to write well. Innocently, I posed the question to them: “What is the Christian view of the purpose of marriage?”


After a long and uncomfortable pause, during which they all looked mightily perplexed – there is a particularly Christian purpose for marriage? they seemed to be asking – I finally said, “What, do you think it’s just so you can have God-approved sex?”

Their pinking cheeks and giggles answered.

I was stunned. Young men and women in their early 20s, some on the verge of engagement and most likely to marry within the next 2-5 years, most from Christian families and having grown up in fairly conservative homes, and they had no clue that marriage had a purpose beyond sanctioned sex. Since then, it has become obvious that they are typical of this generation of my students.

No wonder they don’t remain pure. Oh, many of them at this Christian college likely aren’t actually “having sex,” if we define that very narrowly as only one particular action. But they get as close as they can, even asking outright at times at what point physical intimacy becomes sin when you aren’t married. I tell them that if they are asking that question they have crossed the line long ago.

In Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot poses the question “Can a kiss be sin?” Her answer: If it causes you to desire what you cannot licitly have, then yes, indeed, it can be. She and Jim did not kiss until they were engaged. I admire those few of my students who hold such a standard, especially since they are often seen as prudish and repressed killjoys and mocked by their peers. They understand that marriage is not about mere physical fulfillment, and they are trying to forge with only one person a special bond that is based on mutual esteem and commitment, and physical intimacy will become a special privilege of that relationship only.

But I wonder how many of even those understand what marriage is ultimately about?

Waite and Gallagher’s book addresses this question in secular terms. I mentioned in my last post that the basic premise of The Case for Marriage is that marriage “gives people meaning and purpose in life by providing responsibilities that take us out of ourselves and make us care for others.” This relies, however, on defining marriage in a traditional way, not the way many people are trying to define it now. In today’s culture marriage is being re-defined, as Waite and Gallagher describe it, as being “primarily for and about adult happiness” and “not an objective fact but subjective emotion”; in fact, “emotional gratification is the main purpose and benefit of marriage.” This way lies madness . . . but it is the way of even most believers today, it appears.

Waite and Gallagher’s description of the benefits of a marriage in which the two become a real partnership, with life-long commitment to each other, is helpful and true, as far as it goes. For those without a religious commitment, it should be most encouraging. However, the believer in Christ can understand that this secular description is founded on principles of the Word, and that the importance of marriage goes far beyond what Waite and Gallagher discuss.

Marriage was established by God in His initial creation of Adam and Eve. “The two shall become one flesh,” He declared, and they establish a family – the cornerstone of community. Together, they are to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion” over all things in it. They are a partnership as God’s stewards in the earth He created for them.

The New Testament, of course, elaborates on this commitment: marriage is a picture, somehow, of Christ and the Church. As believing spouses live out in marriage the sacrifice of Christ and the response of the Church, they glorify God and serve their neighbors. “This is a mystery,” Paul writes; we are invited, by faith, to be a part of the mystery of His ministry. As we destroy marriage, whether through divorce or by defining it down to personal gratification (which leads to increased divorce), we destroy our witness to His authority and His love.

I have suggested, in Called to Womanhood, a possible mission statement for the family: “To glorify God and edify our neighbors by good stewardship of God’s creation and by demonstrating the relationship God wishes to have with His children through Jesus Christ.” Personal emotional gratification has little to do with this ministry of marriage. But when we focus on service to God and neighbor, even when we don’t feel like it and the “zing” seems to have disappeared, amazingly, He fills us with joy.

Just another way the paradox of the Christian life works: “[W]hoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).

13 June 2005

"The Case for Marriage"

I'm reading Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's book The Case for Marriage. It's the secular/pragmatic case, one which needs desperately to be made and made well in this culture in which most people (including far too many in the church, sadly) do not recognize the authority of God's Word. Because it is secular, it will be dissatisfying to believers in several ways, but its primary message is one we can all agree is profoundly true:

Marriage is important because it gives people meaning and purpose in life by providing responsibilities that take us out of ourselves and make us care for others.

It's pretty amazing reading about just the economic, health, and personal happiness benefits of marriage that "cohabiting" couples do not receive. Waite and Gallagher make the difference clear: couples who live together do not have the permanent commitment to each other that married couples do, so they value their autonomy and live for themselves, looking towards the likely end of the relationship and how they can be prepared for it. Married couples, by virtue of their commitment, look for ways to make things work and have the freedom to depend on each other.

Amazing how God's ways work even when we don't acknowledge they are His.

04 June 2005

Just as Well

A journal entry from last fall that I ran across, slightly revised:

My best friend was here for a few days, and we ripped the tenure essay to shreds and put it back together. Today I showed my freshmen the effects of a couple of hours work on one particular page, where the typed words are barely visible for the revisions, edits, corrections, stets and arrows. They were suitably awed.

However, when I began talking to them about the importance of words, of precision, of getting an essay to show, as closely as you possibly can, the vision in your head, so that the vision in the reader's head is as close to yours as you can get it in a fallen world, when I talked about words being our only means of doing this and how we must therefore respect (if not love) them and use them as precisely as possible . . .

I was reminded of Dillard in Holy the Firm, at the end of a description of exhorting her creative writing students to know and understand that it takes everything you have to be a writer: "They thought I was raving again. It was just as well."

Oh -- but if just one could catch the vision . . . !