and he went out, not knowing

and he went out, not knowing (Hebrews 11:8, KJV)

Last night, our group was studying Genesis chapter 12, and the calling of Abraham. Such a remarkable story, the more you think of it. We were struck again by the radical nature of the call – leave everything, and go to the land I’ll show you – and the bold immediacy of Abraham’s response – and Abraham went out. The question, as always, is – how do we account for this?

Often discussions of this text center on the faith of Abraham, and certainly that is a central theme. But what a couple of people pointed out last night is the hope in the story. As one man said, the very act of Abraham going out is an act of incredible hope.

Think of Abraham – 75 years old and childless. We know this is hard for both he and his wife. We must imagine that they had given up all hope of children by this point. We must imagine they have reconciled themselves to their situation and have settled in to life as they knew it, with certain possibilities for their lives no longer even considered.

Indeed, quite apart from Abraham’s own personal circumstances, Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gifts of the Jews, writes that all the ancient cultures surrounding him rejected any hope for change or progress. The world envisioned by the wise ancients before and surrounding Abraham was a closed world, where a man’s fate was fixed, written in the stars and ultimately meaningless. Death rules, nothing can be changed, and the wisest thing we can do is realize this reality and come to peace with things as they are.

And yet: Abraham went out.

Whatever he imagined for his future, it is hard to think that before the call he pictured setting off for new lands, following a new god (who turns out to be THE God), on his way to having descendants as numerous as the stars. Surely he never dreamed of that being in his future.

But then, here comes the call of God. And with it, a whole new view of the present and the future opens before him, out in a new land, following after this new God. And so Abraham went out not knowing, but trusting, and hoping.

Cahill writes:

“Out of ancient humanity, which from the dim beginnings of its consciousness has read its eternal verities in the stars, comes a party traveling by no known compass. Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all its striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of moral imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.”

Into hoplessness, comes the hope-giving call of God.

Getting the Bible Inside

Eugene Peterson:
“A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doingsomething. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.
I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.
Maybe discipline has become a cliché. Maybe there are new ways to talk about it. Maybe we’re right on the edge of that.”

We get a completely new set of people

Thomas Long, writing in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, imagines a funeral for a wife and mother named Annette. The funeral he imagines is, like so many others, “sweet and nostalgic”, featuring readings of Psalm 23 and Proverbs 31, and celebrating that she “was a good woman, a good Christian”. He continues:
“we go to the grave where Annette now lies next to her husband and her parents in the family plot in the cemetery, and it will forever be this way. ‘We will always remember her,’ we say.
But of course it’s a white lie; we won’t remember her always. All of the pieces of Annette’s funeral were fine as far as they went, but the fact is, they were built on the illusion that this land is our permanent home. We get a completely new set of people every 100 years, and it will not be too many generations before no one living much remembers Annette at all. If history rolls on long enough, her church will disappear, the building will disintegrate, the congregation will be scattered, and the cemetery will be covered by the dust, the tombstones long disintegrated.
This is exactly the perspective on life and mortality that is so common in Scripture, and so uncommon today. Rather humbling, in fact, and sobering. And a perspective that even at a funeral is hard to get people to face. But that is precisely why a Christian funeral should not be simply nostalgic and sweet, but built on a more clear-eyed view not only of the reality of death, but also a firm proclamation of Christian hope. For:
“if Annette will be forgotten to history, she will be remembered by God, and she worships now in a building not made with hands. The funeral, then, should honor this land – the person Annette has been, the things she has done, the relationships she formed – but the funeral should not be consumed with nostalgia for Annette’s past nor ours, because our hope does not lie in this land alone, but in the city whose architect and builder is God.”

Freeing your listeners to decide for themselves

leif

Leif Enger:

“The lovely part of being a witness is that you can’t compel belief. All you can do is say: here is what happened. In saying this the witness is only doing his job; how people respond is their own burden, their own responsibility. Whom would you say has more credibility: the man who pounds on the table insisting his story is true, or the one who, having the reputation of honesty, frees his listeners to decide for themselves?”

The Benefits of Providence in The Hobbit

the hobbit

At the insistent urging of my wife (who loves all of Tolkien’s books) and wanting to read the book before I saw the movie, I finally read The Hobbit this December. It was, of course, great.

Reaching the end, I was struck with the book’s final lines:

“‘Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!’ said Bilbo.

‘Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.

Besides being a fitting and sublime ending, the passage is a terrific illustration of the Christian doctrine of providence.

The doctrine of providence is the doctrine that God is the sovereign ruler over all of earth and all of history. He guides history and His plans for it are ultimate and unstoppable. There is plenty more you could say about this, but I think that’s a true, if brief, definition. It is this doctrine that The Hobbit as a whole, and the ending in particular, brings to life. Here are fulfilled prophecies, adventures and escapes that are not the result of “mere luck”, and the reality of a greater purpose at work in the world: providence at work in middle earth.

But what struck me most was the picture of the healthy balance in an individual life resulting from believing in providence.

Notice: the individual is very important!  The greater purpose at work in the world does not happen apart from human beings (or hobbits), but through them. Though God’s purposes are certain – so certain that He alone can speak truly about what the future holds – He accomplishes these purposes using us. He makes His plans and then He gives us a role “in bringing them about”. And so our adventures and our escapes are not the result of coincidence or dumb luck, but are the result of the work of God Himself on our behalf, as He gives us a role in the world’s great story. What significance! Meditate on this for long and we’ll be in awe like David: “What is man that You should make so much of him?

Yet notice also: the individual is really rather small and unimportant! Come now, Gandalf says to Bilbo – you don’t really believe it was your own goodness of character, cunning, and skill that caused all your accomplishments? And you don’t really believe that all your successes were really “just for your sole benefit?” I mean, who do you think you are? “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

The reader, after journeying with Bilbo through many adventures, there and back again, comes to the end only to see in these final lines the thread of providence that ran through the whole story. The thread is illuminated, and the doctrine springs to life. And whether or not you believe it is true, don’t you see the beauty of the doctrine? Don’t you see the healthy balance that comes from it?

On the one hand, your actions really matter as part of a bigger plan, and you are a subject of the attentive care of God Himself.

But on the other: you really shouldn’t get that big of a head about it, shouldn’t be triumphalistic, and shouldn’t walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders.

You don’t really think the ultimate outcome for this wide world depends on you, do you?

hiding behind the ironic mantle

“What will future generations make of this rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness? Will we be satisfied to leave an archive filled with video clips of people doing stupid things? Is an ironic legacy even a legacy at all?

The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks. For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large. People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry.”

From a thought-provoking NY Times article by Christy Wampole. Earlier in the article, she asks:

“Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like?”

Her answer:

“Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”

the art of a good death

Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, takes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic On Death and Dying.

One objection: “the implication in Kubler-Ross’s work that knowledge of impending death somehow drives people rapidly up the stairway of emotional and ethical development is a fiction of the therapeutic culture.”

“The fact is that people die pretty much as they have lived. If someone has been enraged throughout life, we can expect rage at the end. A person who tries to bargain with life, family, physicians, and God on death’s door has probably tried to cut a few deals before. A person who blesses the world at death has not learned this in the last few hours of life but has been shaped to live a life of blessing. As one rabbi said, ‘A Jew is expected to die, as he has lived, with the name of God on his lips.’

The best preparation for dying a Christian death, then, is living a Christian life.”

Long notes that in the past, Christians have developed resources to prepare for death, and specifically for confronting death well and as a Christian. The prime example he gives is the 15th century Ars Moriendi tradition. Ars Moriendi is latin for “The Art of Dying”, and was the name of a pair of latin texts developed in response to the “Black Death” which was currently ravaging Europe.

The texts help the Christian to prepare for death by running through a dress rehearsal of their final moments, and of the kinds of temptations to despair that may assail them at that time. Long notes one dialogue from the Ars Moriendi in which Satan approaches a Christian dying alone:

Satan: You’re frightened, aren’t you?

Dying person: Yes, I am frightened, but I am trusting my Savior who calms my fears.

Satan: Oh really? You think you are going to be rewarded by this Jesus, don’t you? You who have no righteousness.

Dying person: Christ is my righteousness.

Satan: Oh ho, Christ is your righteousness? You think Christ will welcome you to the company of Peter and Paul and the apostles? You who have sinned over and over again?

Dying person: No, I am not going into the company of Peter and Paul. I am going into the company of the thief on the cross, who heard the promise, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.'”

It is striking that this comes from the 15th century (pre-reformation), and was a popular and much used devotional tool. It was also, of course, extremely practical.

Long writes, that having been versed in the Ars Moriendi, “When Christians got to their deathbeds and felt the fear and anxiety and unworthiness that almost every dying person feels, they had been there before. They possessed the language to describe the experience and to speak faithfully in the midst of it.”