Sunday, July 29, 2007

Five Smooth Stones

This item can be considered a companion to last October’s post I called Jawbone of an Ass.

Recently I reflected on David’s encounter with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58), and for the first time noticed something that gave me a cool insight. As I read through the account, there were the usual observations I had seen before. At nine feet tall, Goliath was a pituitary giant. These unfortunate folks usually have weak hearts. The man also wore heavy bronze armor and carried bronze and iron weapons. He clearly had some strengths, but also a few obvious weaknesses. With his size, his movements would have been ponderous and he would have tired easily. The opponent most likely to be successful against him would have to be someone who could move quickly and keep out of range of his weapons.

Goliath’s taunts of the Israelite army were a large part of his assault. A voice that was no doubt booming and his formidable size with overlarge weapons surely made it easy to daunt the Israelite army. His challenge to single combat really ratcheted up the stakes. It is no wonder that the Israelites couldn’t find anyone willing to meet Goliath. The war of nerves was pretty one-sided, but that was only because the Israelite army was thinking in the same terms as the Philistines—matching strength for strength.

David reset the terms by asking, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26b) —that is, David didn’t see a giant who had all the advantage by brawn and force; rather, he saw one who was at a fatal disadvantage because he was opposing the army of the people who served the true God—even if that same army was failing to remember that. In short, David recognized that this was not a secular battle but a spiritual battle—and he was confident of victory because he was dedicated to the living God.

From an encounter based on sword against sword, armed warrior against armed warrior, David changed things by forsaking armor and even conventional weapons. When he stepped out unarmored and apparently weaponless to confront the giant, Goliath protested, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43b) Goliath had failed to realize that the terms of battle had shifted. David announced the new terms in the exchange of boasts before the fight when he cried, “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand” (1 Samuel 17:45b-46a).

See, David was totally confident that the Lord would deliver Goliath and that he would prevail in the clash. Still, confronting Goliath in the valley while two armies watched from the ridges must have taken a lot of courage. With that courage, in spite of his youth, David could also depend on his experience against lions and bears, as he had informed Saul. So David went out with both faith in God and his own skill and cunning. The sling was precisely the right weapon with which to do battle against Goliath.

The new insight I mentioned above came to me when I read that David had chosen “five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet” (1 Samuel 17:40). The thing is, he took five stones. Though fully confident in the Lord, he didn’t take just one stone; he admitted to himself the possibility that he might miss the first time—and the second, third, and fourth. David knew that his success against Goliath would have to depend not only on the Lord’s favor and grace, but also on his own courage, his successful defense of his flock against lions and bears, and his skill with the sling, and he knew that these were fallible and he had to be prepared for catastrophe. That is, alongside the grace of God he would have to work for the victory.

So it often is with the faithful. Many times, like the Israelite army, we think by a secular measure and therefore refuse to go to battle because we are vastly outnumbered and outgunned and we are unnerved by formidable opposition. On the other hand our dependence on the Lord may be such that we only “pick up one stone”; we expect deliverance by a miracle and fail to see that we have to do our part with everything we’ve got—our own courage, our own experience, our own skills, and our own possibility of missing the mark once or twice or more often than that when the battle is joined. God will not abandon us, but usually neither will he do all the work.

In nearly every specific task in Scripture that God asks of his people, they have to do something. Noah had to build an ark. Ananias had to go to Saul to lay hands on him after his conversion. Etc., etc. God assures us the victory, but we cannot be mere spectators to it. We have to do our part, and that means going forth confidently while also admitting the possibility of setbacks and failures. Taking five smooth stones is by no means evidence of distrust in God—on the contrary, it is recognizing that within God’s grace we are subject to failure and reversal even as we go forward on the winning side to ultimate victory.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sin, Forgiveness, and Love: Part I

According to Luke, the first generation Church had two emphases in its preaching: the resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. “It is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47); and “By his own right hand God has now raised [Jesus] up to be leader and Saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins through him to Israel” (Acts 5:31).

There are so many other areas of Christian life and belief that are now preached that I wonder if somehow we have lost sight of the immensity of the declaration that sins can be forgiven. For Luke, it was the first, most amazing promise of Christian profession. (Of course, one has to have a sense of sin before the promise of forgiveness will have any appeal. That is difficult today, even in the Church, but still true.)

For a long time, like so many believers I thought that we need do no more than confess our sins and so be forgiven. “If we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil” (1 John 1:9). Simple. And, of course, true. But over the years, as my understanding of theology has grown and my experience as a sinner, spiritual director, and one who hears confessions has broadened, I have come to realize that this simple thing has layers to it. Reflecting on the layers provides a rich understanding of Luke’s great claim that “because Jesus is risen from the dead, sins may be forgiven.”

For most of my adult life I have done a moral self-examination each day and confessed my sins to God, and then several times a year made a more thorough inventory for confession to a priest. But in the past few years my daily prayer in this area has expanded. Now I begin each day by praying that when I sin you will protect others from any harm that might come to them because of me, and show me my sin, bring me to repentance and confession, have mercy on me, forgive me, restore me to you and grant reconciliation with any whom I have offended, help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, give me desire and grace for amendment of life, and let me live in joy.

Following are brief reflections on this prayer, line by line.

When I sin, protect others from any harm that might come to them because of me
This is the first part of the prayer, coming even before I pray that I will know what my sin is. I intend this to be an act of love for others, that they will be protected from the consequences of my sin even before I ask to know my sins and ask for forgiveness. “Protect others before setting me right,” is what I mean.

At the same time, I do realize that whenever I sin, others will be hurt regardless of my prayer. It is the network of human contact and relationships that we live in that makes this so, just as it makes love possible. No one sins alone, and no sin is solitary. By this prayer, then, I really mean to commit anyone who is affected by any sin of mine into the care of God so that the sin’s effects will become means of blessing, redemption, and growing in love.

It also asks that whoever I sin against will be loving toward me by showing me my sin and bring me into a deeper understanding of God’s love. Whenever I sin against someone, I put myself into their power, for they have the potential to show me the power of God and his love in a fashion I could not receive in any other way.

Show me my sin
Knowing for sure what one’s sin is may not be as easy as one might think. It’s more than just acknowledging that one had lost one’s temper, neglected to help someone in need, or whatever. We human beings have many ways of avoiding an unpleasant truth. Some want to grab all the blame if something goes sour, others become defensive, others rationalize, and still others look for someone else to blame—or a combination of these responses. All of them are ways in which people refuse to see what is true. Being set right with God after a sin requires first simply acknowledging not just facts, but truth—neither claiming blame wrongly (for that denies to others the opportunity to recognize their own sin, which is unloving to them), nor refusing to listen, nor defending oneself (and there is always some proper reason to do so), nor rationalizing, etc.

It can take real discernment to prise the truth out of a situation. In addition to hurt, there is shame, blame, defensiveness, fear of being thought poorly of by others, etc. John’s, “If we acknowledge our sins,” can be very difficult to do, even if we want to acknowledge them. Often it takes another who loves us who can and will show us the truth, as Nathan told King David: “You are the man!” And David responded properly and admirably, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:7, 13). Until Nathan confronted him, David had intrigued to hide his sin, and by doing so became more and more embroiled in it.

A few years ago, for example, I became angry at someone at an important event in his life. Later he came to me, gently and humbly, and showed me how inappropriate my anger had been. We were quickly reconciled and I was greatly blessed by his love and truth-telling.

Bring me to repentance and confession
Recognizing one’s sin provides no guarantee of moving on to the next step. After recognition, one must come to repentance. Repentance means not only saying, “I have sinned,” but being sorry for it and wishing to fix it. There are times when someone may say, “Yes, okay, I did it, but...” And “but” is followed by rationalization, blaming someone else, pointing out someone else’s sin, or even an excuse for why the sin was really okay.

Repentance (which may include contrition or a feeling of sorrow and empathy with offended parties) must lead to confession. In confession, one frankly names one’s sins. Confession must be made to God, quite often to the offended parties, and sometimes to “the Church” in one form or another. If no sin is solitary, neither is any sin just against God alone. Just as love of God and love of neighbor must go together, sin is also against both God and neighbor. In the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent, at one point the penitent says, “I confess to Almighty God” and “to his Church...” It is at this point that the penitent begins to gain power over his sin; it is true that to name something gives one power over it.

Have mercy on me
The request for mercy must come before asking for forgiveness. Mercy acknowledges the debt that a sin has created, and that it is really unpayable. The penitent can never pay the debt, and must have a measure of understanding the debt before he can value and receive the forgiveness. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is a prayer that Jesus highly commended. (See Luke 18:13.)

The infinite indebtedness of sin is shown in the parable of the servant whose debt “ran into millions” (Matthew 18:24), whose master forgave him when he begged for patience. But the master rescinded the forgiveness when it became evident that the servant had no understanding of what had been done for him. We see it also in the simple but moving account of two debtors Jesus provided when he ate a meal in the home of a Pharisee: “Which of them will love him more?” asked Jesus. “The one who was let off more, I suppose,” Simon answered. “You are right,” said Jesus” (Luke 7:42b-43).

Forgive me
Having acknowledged that the debt is unpayable, then the penitent can request forgiveness by claiming the power of the sacrifice (and resurrection) of Jesus, which makes possible the removal of the sin. The incredible, powerful, mystical foundation to the truth that sins may be forgiven is explained in some detail in Hebrews, the Biblical letter that addresses the theme of the high priesthood of Jesus: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” “Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins,” and “by virtue of that one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all who are sanctified” (Hebrews 9:22b; 10:12, 14).

The request for forgiveness is utterly dependent upon the love of the One to whom the request is made. We put ourselves completely in the power of the Other, making ourselves vulnerable as a loved person, plowing through and overcoming all the ways listed above by which we can resist knowing our sins. And this makes it possible for us to receive love in a robust way that cannot be known in any other fashion.

The rest of my reflections will appear in a few days.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Girl on a Bus

In March 1995 I was in London for a meeting of leaders of the Society of the Holy Cross. Having arrived a few days before the meeting was to begin, I decided to take a bus to Oxford to get a look at the C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams sites. I got onto the vehicle and took a window seat about halfway down the aisle on the right side. A horde of young people of student age poured in around me. By the time the bus was about ready to roll, I was the only person aboard over thirty years old (except for the driver), and the seat next to me was the only vacant spot.

At the last second a young woman volplaned into the bus, hurled her coins into the receptacle, and—by default—sat next to me. The vehicle rolled away from the curb kerb and we had embarked on the hour or so drive to Oxford. Within two minutes she had introduced herself. She was 26 years old, a producer of documentaries for the BBC, her mother was Jamaican, she would soon be going to Africa to shoot a film, and was now on her way to visit a friend who lived near Oxford. She worked ’way too many hours and had forced herself to take a few days off to rest. Then she asked me where I was going and what I was in London for. I told her.

When she learned I was a priest, her eyes opened wide and she began to talk about faith. She was thinking of becoming a Christian. Most of her friends were atheists or agnostics, but her mother was a Christian and had been praying for her daughter. She interrogated me about belief in Jesus, and before long we were heavily animated in conversation. It was incredibly fun, just exhilarating, to talk about Jesus to someone who was eager for the witness.

We lost track of time. The bus pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. We paid no attention. The bus driver said, “Miss? Here’s your stop.” We kept talking. The young woman didn’t hear him as we continued our conversation. The other conversations around us gradually ceased and everyone was looking at her. “Miss?” said the driver, louder this time. “Miss! Here’s your stop!”

“Ohh!” she cried and leaped up. The thanked me profusely for the exchange and bounded toward the door.

What’s your name?” I shouted after her. “I’ll pray for you.”

“It’s Laurel!” she exclaimed. “Thanks!” And out the door she shot.

The bus pulled away from the side of the road and continued on into Oxford. The students’ conversations gradually resumed. I felt immensely satisfied and thought to myself that gee, in a few months I could call or write to the London offices of the BBC and ask for a young producer of documentaries named Laurel and try to find out how she was doing and whether she had decided to become a Christian.

Immediately I received a profound spiritual smack on the back of my head. It wasn’t the person in the seat behind me, but the smack was almost as tangible as if it had been. A voice nearly shouted in my head, “Leave her alone! You’ve done your part. You played your role in her conversion. You are to pray for her every day for one year. You will not try to find or contact her, and you will not learn in this life what happens to her.”

It was refreshing. I think from that experience I learned more about how God is the true evangelist in all encounters in which we are “personal evangelists” than in anything else I’d ever done in evangelism. I was greatly blessed by being the instrument of God for one hour on a bus from London to Oxford. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

So, being both obedient and literal, I prayed for Laurel for one year to the day. But twelve years later I know that I, at least, was greatly changed by the encounter.

The next day in Oxford, among the Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams sites I visited, I strolled along Addison’s Walk (pictured below). This was where, on a long autumn night in 1931, Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson talked about Christianity. Lewis later reported that the walk had been instrumental in his own coming to faith.

Personal evangelism. Tolkien and Dyson did it. I did it. Others do it all the time. God gives the increase.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

World Without An Edge

The term “space race” sounds rather quaint now, but more than four decades ago it was in common use. The Soviet Union (USSR)—a country that formed in 1917 and broke apart and disappeared more than thirteen years ago—and the United States were busting themselves to see who would reach the Moon first. The Soviets electrified the world with a surprise launching of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, just about fifty years ago on October 4, 1957. Their success shocked the United States, which had a couple of spectacular failed launch attempts at about the same time. But the U.S. dug in and less than twelve years later “won” the space race on July 20, 1969 with the first of several manned landings on the Moon.

In a lot of ways, the years of the space race were pretty heady, optimistic times. Underneath the course of normal living was kind of a feeling of having a grand, cultural “dream”. In that era Walt Disney put a lot of “tomorrowland” shows on television, there were plenty of rocket models for preteen and teen boys to build. There was a lot of classic science fiction for kids and adults in the form of movies, television shows, and books. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Tom Corbett were household names long before Captain Kirk. The Griffith Park Planetarium in Los Angeles was a big attraction. Even as a small child I knew the name “Mount Palomar” very well. It was the home of the world’s largest telescope with its 200 inch mirror in the mountains near Temecula, California. Its work began the year I was born—1948.

Rocketry was a popular hobby. One of my neighbors—an older teen to my ten years—designed and tested his own rockets. I remember going out to the desert with him and our fathers and a few others on a Saturday morning, and watching him shoot off rockets he had built. We all got behind a concrete bunker-like thing and he closed the circuits on the electronic launcher. It was just like the movie “October Sky”. It was real.

There was a lot of anticipation that the “space age” would just keep going and that within a few decades human beings would land not only on the Moon but on Mars and beyond. The movie “2001” came out in 1968; its title articulated the expectation that just 33 years after the movie, human beings could be exploring the moons of Jupiter.

I doubt that anyone could have imagined then that after the Moon landings we would just abandon space. The U.S. won the space race, and then the race was over and everyone went home. Interest and national budgets went elsewhere. The dream, the excitement, just faded. I remember in the late 1980s having lunch with a member of the parish who was an engineer for Hughes Aircraft and a published science fiction writer. We were talking about these things, and she shocked me by saying, “I don’t think we even have the ability to go to the Moon right now.”

Well, maybe, just maybe now things are beginning to change. There have been remarkable astronomical discoveries in space in recent years and the general interest seems to be piqued. There are rudimentary plans now to return to the Moon and to prepare for a manned landing on Mars. Robotic probes have gone to every planet of the Solar System and to many of their moons and a few comets and asteroids.

On June 9 this year I finally went to the Mount Palomar Observatory for the first time—fifty years after I first heard about it. (That's me on the stairs.) Though I had seen photos of the Palomar telescope before, I was not prepared for the overwhelming sight of the real thing. It was five or six stories tall, with parts constructed in a shipyard—the only facility at the time with the ability to build such enormous components.

Sadly, light pollution has now cut its ability to see into the heavens to about half what it was. Even so, it was here that the “tenth planet”—the body beyond and larger than Pluto—was discovered in 2003 and popularly labeled as such before the International Astronomical Union decided last August that there are only eight planets now. Pluto, Ceres (in the Asteroid Belt), and the “tenth planet” Eris were defined as dwarf planets. (I think that the status of Sedna, Charon, and Quaoar is still being debated.)

At Palomar there was a display that showed that a new earth-based telescope is in the early stages of planning. It will be more than five times the size of the Palomar telescope, and its ability to see will be eight times better than that of even the space-based Hubble telescope.

I remember well watching the Moon landing in July 1969. I was working at a summer camp in Big Bear. I worked there for four summers and this was the only time that a television was brought out. Never at any other time in my life do I remember the people of Earth being as united as they were on those days when men walked on the Moon. It seemed to me that all the nations, peoples, languages, etc., for this brief moment, realized that they were indeed one race. A racial dream that was many generations old was fulfilled as we watched. “We came in peace for all mankind,” reads the plaque that was laid at Tranquility Base, and everyone knew and believed it.

Are there dreams today? Is there optimism anywhere, culture-wide optimism? Dreams may be insubstantial, but they are solid soul-food for human beings. They remind us of the dignity God has given us by being made in his image, and they cause us to reach outside ourselves. It has been so from the earliest days of humanity. Dreams remind us that the world has no edges. To be cognizant of the immensities of creation and our place in it inspires humility and wonder—both qualities essential for true worship and therefore learning who we really are and what we were made for.