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October 2008

Finding an Imperative


After many years of trying to use ready-made devotionals aimed at children for family devotions, I am abandoning them. First of all, there is a certain dumbing down of the mysteries of Scripture and delights of investigation by the study of it. We sometimes never get past what the writers say. Second, the stories are sometimes inapplicable or plain corny. Finally, while they refer to Scripture, they do not often encourage self study or a pondering wonderment. My kids finally just said give us Scripture. Now some of that may be because they perceive it to be shorter, but I have to think some of their desire is to deal with Scripture on its own terms and find their own answers.

So this week my wife gave us all six scriptures, taking Luke 1 and dividing it up into 4-6 verses a day. We're going to try and read it in personal devotions each day and think of one application we can share at the dinner table or at some coming together that day. For three days now I have done this. It takes about 5 minutes. I tried to come up with a 2-4 word imperative phrase for each passage. What surprises me is that it's not difficult at all, even when you are dealing with a passage that is simply an incomplete piece of historical narrative. However, given the counsel of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, a verse that commends the usefulness of all Scripture, why am I surprised?

Pursue the truth. In Luke 1: 1-4, something you might skim by as an introduction to the "real" book, Luke says that while many have written up the truth of the Gospel stories, stories handed down to him, he himself "carefully investigated everything from the beginning." Luke made the truth his own by pursuing it himself. So while I may benefit from the insights of others, in the end I need to pursue the truth myself, investigating things I have a question about on my own. It also was a good reminder that the Christian faith and church tradition I have passed down to my children is mine, not theirs', at least not until they make it their own. They may do so and not wind up looking doctrinally precisely like their parents, nor need they. (I raised little Calvinists but need to let go of that if need be!)

Persevere in faithfulness. In Luke 1:5-10, we are told of the priest Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, and what stood out to me was that they were "upright in the sight of the Lord," and yet "they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years." In that culture, barrenness was stigmatic, and there must have been some (and maybe they were among them) that questioned why God did not bless them, and yet they persevered. The lesson to me is to persevere in faith, even for a lifetime, even when there is no fruitfulness to perceive, and in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Pray unceasingly. In Luke 1:11-17, the angel of the Lord appears before Zechariah and tells him that he will have a son, John (the Baptist), and not just any son but one who will be a "joy and delight" and who will bring back to the Lord many of the people of Israel. The angel says "[Y]our prayer has been heard." The implication is that all of those barren years the prayer for a child had been made, unceasingly, and heard. It tells me that I need to pray unceasingly and doggedly, even about the same thing, for as long as it takes. I have a few things to "worry" God with daily!

As it goes, this week we have had different things that have kept us from discussing these verses as a family. And yet, I'm eager to do so. I hope my children are as well. One of them recently asked me "why they had to read the Bible since they had already read it." Maybe an exercise like this will show them why. It sure reminds me of the ability of Scripture to speak afresh into your present circumstance no matter how many times you read it. I'm old. I should know this by now.

Prisons of Our Own Design

prison “I refuse to be/ locked up in here like a prison cell./ All I ever get is a meal and four walls./ I used to be just fine in here/ but not anymore./ Gonna break these steels bars.”  (Jill Phillips, “Steel Bars,” from Self-Titled)

Early in my legal career, I met a woman imprisoned in her own bitterness.  Ramona had suffered a palsy of the right side of her face which had left her disfigured, with one side of her face without muscle tone.  Those given to dark humor referred to her as the “woman of fallen countenance,” but there was nothing really funny about it. For five years Ramona had seen doctors, lawyers, and therapists, seeking a way out of her misery.  By the time she sued the doctors and I met her (I represented the doctors), her face had recovered some of its tone, and she looked surprising good.  The palsy, at least, was not what made her ugly.  Rather, it was the bitterness that had taken root in her.  Her eyes, face, tone of voice, gait, and posture all communicated her bitterness.  Though she could have recovered and been a moderately attractive woman, wearing her bitterness, nursing it over the years, had warped her.  She was in a prison of her own design.

A friend of mine who does physical therapy for the elderly reports seeing the same kind of physical manifestations of bitterness, a nursing of grudges or regrets or lack of gratitude, that infects some of the aged.  The circumstances don’t really matter.  She cared for two women who were Holocaust survivors.  One smiled and was grateful for anything done for her; the other had a sour expression and cursed all who came near.  I hope I never become the latter.

Jesus said he came to set the prisoners free.  It is Jesus who was prophesized would “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:7).  Whatever steel bars we have erected around our souls, He will free us.  The funny thing is that the way out is open, the door is not locked from the outside but from within.  And when we get out we will realize the poverty of a “meal and four walls,” of whatever plan, emotion, or material things we clung to.

In The Last Battle, the climax of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, just before the destruction of the Old Narnia and the children and others believers enter into Aslan’s Country, Eustace, Jill, all the surviving dwarfs, and Tirian are thrown into the stable where the false Aslan is kept.  Although Tirian expects to see the inside of the dark, dingy stable, he instead finds that he is in a beautiful, luscious land.  And yet there the dwarves sit, imprisoned by their own unbelief, unable to see the beauty of the land before them.  Eustace and Jill can see the beauty of Aslan’s Country, but the dwarves can see only a dirty stable and its four walls. They are in the prison of their unbelief, willing to settle for a dirty stable over the beauty before them.

Ramona eventually settled her lawsuit against doctors who were, as we admitted early on, negligent in the treatment of an ear  condition.  A sloppy surgeon had severed a facial nerve, causing the palsy.  As a result, she had enough money to provide for herself and her family for the rest of her life, and yet for all I know she may yet be a prisoner of her bitterness, living off the poverty of her new wealth, lacking even the one thing that had kept her going all those years: her lawsuit.  I don’t want to live like that, do you?  When I find myself imprisoned by some fear or entrapped by some unhealthy desire, with God’s help, I’m coming out.  Maybe I was happy once with a meal and four walls, but no more.

Living with Style (Rule Five): Be Open to Change


"Revise and rewrite." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

If you think your life is going well, that while you may not be perfect you may be "practically perfect," as Mary Poppins said, think again. We are not a finished manuscript. The story of our life is being constantly revised and even rewritten, thank God, an often painful process but one in good hands and for good purpose.

Writers know all about this pain, and Strunk and White are right on mark in saying that "it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery." In a time before word processors, they used more vivid imagery to convey the seriousness of what had to be done: "Do not be afraid to seize what has been written and cut it to ribbons. . . . [S]cissors should be brought into play." Ouch! Sometimes, the writer is even taken back to one good page, one good paragraph, or one good sentence, cutting away everything that he worked so hard for, had invested so much in. And yet it's not wasted work. Sometimes a writer has to set out on a path, committing himself to a particular story or theme, before he can discover the better path.

Jeremiah reports the Lord as saying "See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?" (Jer. 9:7). Just as a writer must bring judgment on his writing, cutting away what is dross, so God brings a refining judgment on His people. Sometimes the change is incremental, some specific sin, for example, that besets us. But sometimes, as with the Apostle Paul, we realize that we have spent our whole life serving a God of our on construct and, thus, God reveals how deeply flawed we are and gives us a new place to start from.

A friend of mine recently shared with me how as a teenager he had an image as a Christian youth leader, one he knew was false but one he also tired to carefully maintain. When God revealed his hypocrisy, it was difficult for him to confess it publically, because it meant starting over, confessing that what he had seemed to be was not what he actually was. But he did. He's never regretted that, and his holding on to that image seems ridiculous now, like insisting on writing pulp fiction when you could write a story like "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like him, I have to let go everyday of what I think I am and be open to God's reordering and rewriting of my life.

For Christians, revising and rewriting is really just being open to God's conviction and then responding, being willing to set aside our image of ourselves, our own constructs, and be open to change, even serious change. "Scissors should be brought into play," say Strunk and White. The scissors may cut, but the comfort is that what's given back to us is so much better than what we so tenaciously held on to. He is, after all, the Author of Life. He writes the best stories.


Under a Cheerwine Moon (A Story)


A while back some of you may have followed a serial story I was writing called "Why I Like Cheerwine." I had in mind a novel, with the lives of the two characters, Henry and Bridget, each of whom was on their own trajectory, intersecting in some yet-to-be-determined way. Well, that is still undetermined. However, I recently let Bridget rest for a while and developed a short story around Henry --- a mentally retarded man with a passion for Cheerwine who recently lost his mother. It was my first opportunity in some while to develop a short story of such length. Most of the fiction I have written on Outwalking might be termed mini-fiction.

I was prompted to finish the story by a contest sponsored by Ruminate Magazine and judged by author Bret Lott. I have no great hope of winning the contest, but it was a good incentive to work with a deadline and word limit (5000 words) and make it the best. I am grateful to writer/poet Suzanne Rhodes for her critique. I needed advice! If you would like to read the story, now entitled "Under a Cheerwine Moon," you can access it here. Enjoy!

New Music, Free

I'm quite taken with the new music and marketing approach taken by the folks at Noisetrade. You can download entire albums for whatever you decide to pay, or for referring five friends to Noisetrade. One of the samplers from the site which I have enjoyed is Sandra McCracken's new "Red Balloon." Some of the CDs are samplers, including some songs from a yet-to-be-released or available for purchase CD, and some are the entire CD. McCracken is representative of the quality to be found on this site.

Living with Style (Rule Four): Have Substance

style “Write with nouns and verbs.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

Admittedly, this is one rule I had to think about before making a broader application of it to life in general. Times like this make me wonder if I’m stretching the analogy. But I don’t think so. A good life is surely like good writing, and so why shouldn’t every rule of writing apply?

Good writing is rooted in the particulars of place and time. Nouns and verbs, and not airy adjectives, are what “give to good writing its toughness and color.” Similarly, we all know when we are speaking to someone who has many words, even some that sound quite impressive, but which mean absolutely nothing because they are not rooted in more substantial particulars. You can fill my head with what you plan to do, your ideals, and so on, but until you actually tell me exactly what you will do and when you will do it and how you will do it, it’s fluff, mere prefatory language that leaves me shaking my head and wondering “what was that all about?” Say what you will, but “[t]he adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Nor can grand promises and expressions of hope pull a noncommittal person out of a tight spot.

Having worked in the music business at one time, I know all about this. Label A&R reps are adept at stroking the client, flattering egos hungry for praise, loving every idea, hopeful about all things, sure that this record will launch a career, only to fail to deliver. When they tire of talking, they simply stop returning your call. Many a day I would have preferred being told “We don’t like the record, and we don’t want to sell it.” The Bible does say, after all, to “let your yes be yes and your no be no. . .” (Mt. 5:37a). The simple truth, nouns and verbs, is so much clearer, so much tougher, than all the wasted adjectives.

Sometime, listen to children speak. They use nouns and verbs. They speak plainly. They may offend by their frankness, but they offend plainly, not subtlety. Strunk once said “if you’re going to be obscure, be obscure clearly.”  Similarly, he might have said, “if you are going to offend, offend clearly.” Have substance, in other words. Say what you mean. Make it concrete.

In its often spare sentences, Scripture is a reminder that plain speak is commended.  “Come, follow me.” “Take, eat.”  “Feed my lambs.”  Even, “Come and have breakfast.”  Jesus himself spoke directly and simply, most often with strong nouns and verbs.  When you know who you are and what you are about, your conversation is not cluttered with needless adjectives, endless qualifications.  Would that politicians would learn such directness!

The bottom line:  Have substance.  Speak plainly and directly.  Qualify only when necessary.

Staying Put


"If there's one thing that makes me want to puke, it's a friendly divorce," Bebb said. "If it's got to be, give me a divorce that's hateful. When you're friends, stay put. So what if it's not all moonlight and roses? What is? Stay put because if you don't, you'll spend the rest of your life looking to find each other in the face of strangers." (Leo Bebb, in The Book of Bebb, by Frederick Buechner)

Isn't this so true? It takes two hands for me to count the number of Christians I know who have separated and divorced in the last several years, and most not on the basis of unfaithfulness but on some incompatibility. One man I know left his wife and young kids only to end up marrying again a couple years later to a woman who (you guessed it) resembles his former wife, only younger. It takes little imagination to see that what men or women in such situations are chasing is some idealized version of what they had (or thought they had) in their first spouse. But it's a fiction, really, because there was no practically perfect spouse as there never was a practically perfect person.

There are marriages that have been so wounded that they often can't go on, as in the case of adultery or abuse. Even though I can cite examples of marriages that went on in spite of these breaches of unity, even thrived, being the sinful people that we are God has made concessions to our nature. Thank God some people do get to start over.

But there are also couples not plagued by unfaithfulness or abuse who should never have married, as they wake up after the honeymoon and realize they have nothing in common and don't particularly like each other. I suppose that in God's providence one should never say something should never have happened, yet in such cases it's tempting to want to just hit rewind and unwind the whole debacle, but it doesn't work so easily. There is damage in the unwinding. Rather, in this case, they need to find out what there is to like about one another and find or develop some common interests. Fly fishing? Classical music? They can just pretend they ordered a mail order bride or husband and start from square one. It's proven that love can follow commitment. Divorce is unlikely to lead to a happy marriage elsewhere, as it is rashness and lack of commitment that got them into this pickle of a marriage in the first place. So, stay put.

Bebb again: "Even if you get split up and married off to somebody different, you'll be forever phoning each other long distance and trading the kids back and forth. Antonio, he'll be coming round every time there's a birthday or somebody's took sick. They'll all of them say isn't it something how those two get on so friendly even so." If you can't live with them, you can't live without them either.

Unhappiness is portable, someone once said. That's true of marriages as well as other commitments --- like where you live, or where you go to church, or the job you have. There's a lot of wisdom in just staying put and learning to deal with it, to be content where you are. Life isn't Disneyland. Rest on Jesus and fight your way out. In the end it won't matter where we lived or who we married, but what God did through us in that place. We'll be done looking for love in the face of a stranger or new life in a new location. We'll find it in the face of Jesus.

Living with Style (Rule Three): Aim for Something


"Work from a suitable design." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

There are people who plan and others who don't. In the most endearing of times, we call the latter "free spirits;" in their most frustrating times, "irresponsible." A suitable design for life is not so much whether to plan or not to plan, however, as whether there is a specific vision that animates our day. The abundant life requires that we aim for something worthy of aspiration, that we envision an end. Slavish adherence to a set of rules or principles is deadening and inflexible and makes us difficult to live with because we are moribund legalists. In contrast, living in the moment and doing as we please, however, is rank antinomianism and gets us nowhere fast --- a slave to our passions of the moment. A suitable design, or vision, keeps us pointed in the right direction and yet malleable in regard to means. We are free within bounds, more free, really, than the free-spirit.

Strunk informs writers that "[d]esign informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose." By extension, we might say that no one really lives without design, without an underlying presuppositional structure for their life, though the design may be subconsciously adhered to, a body of assumptions about life's purpose that have taken root experientially and unnoticed. Both the carpenter and accountant live out of a design. Yet while the design may be subconscious, the point is not that it should be a detailed regimen. Strunk again: "This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into. To compose a laundry list, a writer can work directly from the pile of soiled garments, ticking them off one by one. But to write a biography the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors." I feel that way sometimes. At the end of the day there have been no end to my labors, and yet all I have to look back on is a list of ticked off items with no sense of the larger design they fit into.

Suitable design acknowledges the moving of the Spirit. Take the Apostle Paul, for example. His overriding design or vision was to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-16, NIV), and yet while he planned certain things he was often led by circumstances to change his plan. He advises the saints in Rome "that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now). . . (Rom. 1:13, NIV). One imagines that the logical, methodical mind of Paul would be frustrated at plans gone awry, and yet his larger vision was intact: he preached the Gospel wherever he was to whomever would listen.

In the end, unlike the mere task of writing, Christians acknowledge a design and Designer behind their own temporal designs, a Story behind our stories. Our designs are imitative of a greater design. We have the assurance that even our detours, even the frustrating rabbit-trails we find ourselves on all lead back to the main road, the road Home, and that a good and perfect Author has us in hand.

C.S. Lewis said "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." What is it that you are aiming at? Do you have a suitable design? Strunk says that "even the kind of writing [or, life] that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a secret plan: Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we now think, sensible design." So what direction will you sail?


Living With Style (Rule Two): Act Naturally

Style_3"Write in a way that comes naturally." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

To be yourself must be one of the most often said maxims and most difficult to enact principle of all. "All you gotta do is act naturally," sang Beatle Ringo Starr in 1965, and I'm sure it was taken to heart by the Beat generation, but what after all is it to act naturally? It's sometimes difficult to discern who you are when so much of your life is spent in imitation of others. And yet there is something appealing about being comfortable in your own skin, about being uniquely who you are.

Writers struggle with trying to find their own "voice," to sound like themselves and not someone else. Christians struggle with not imitating the world, with being who God intended them to be and no one else. As Paul tells Gaius, "do not imitate what is evil but what is good" (3 John 11). But neither the call to imitation nor the many others admonitions in Scripture to a holy lifestyle conflict with being who we are, with being unique individuals before God.

Strunk reminds writers that "[t]he use of language begins with imitation," reminding us that the imitative life, which begins in childhood, continues long after, because it is almost impossible not to imitate what one admires. And yet the right kind of imitation is a key to being yourself. Strunk again: "Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Brother Lawrence, the poor monk in charge of sandals, the self-described "great awkward fellow who broke everything," practiced God's presence by continually conversing with Him.  I have no doubt that the man was comfortable in his skin, that he acted naturally.  The monk practiced the presence of God by, as he put it, "keeping the soul's gaze fixed on God in faith --- calmly, humbly and lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude."  He would not quit the conversation.  He habitually looked to God.  He didn't say it was easy but, rather, was a habit formed by trying and failing, trying and failing.  He wasn't at all into imitation, but was focused on God.

Maybe Luther had it right when he summarized our duty as to "love God and do as you please." Or we might rephrase it as "love God and act naturally." If we focus on God, if we practice His presence, we will be on the way to being ourselves, the selves that God created us to be. There's nothing wrong with learning from the lives of other Christians, of seeing the habits of holiness in their life and being inspired to holiness in your own life, just as young writers learn the styles of great writers before they develop their own voice. That unique voice or life is, in the end, a product of many imitations, until unconsciously it becomes the unique person we are. The ironic conclusion is that you don't become yourself or become natural by trying. Rather, aim at God and find yourself. Then your life will "echo the halloos that bear repeating."