the simple grace of loving


Poet Christian Wiman:

“There are other moments, too, which are simply moments of life. Simply! I think of the poet Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I have 3-year-old twin daughters. It would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to pretend that they don’t at times drive all thought of God out of my head and make me want to write a series of sonnets in praise of celibacy, but it would be equally insane for me not to acknowledge that they are the source of my greatest happiness. Father Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, defines hell as “the inability to love.” I have known that hell, and I should probably spend my remaining days thanking God that I am free of it.”

When my wife was pregnant for the first time, a friend who had just the year before had his first child, was trying to tell me how great it was to have kids. He said, “It’s amazing. You are filled with so much love.” 

I’ve since thought many times of the simple, surprising truth in this: that one of the greatest graces in life (what makes parenthood so “amazing”) is not anything your children give you or do for you. Rather, it is the gift of being filled full of love for someone else. (And of course, you need not have children to know this kind of other-focused love.)

To learn this is to somehow draw near to the beating heart of all reality. To never learn this – to never know this – is an unspeakable loss.


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?

gratitude and God

I’m not a philosopher. So I’m just poking around here, not trying to claim too much. But it seems to me that one of the best lines of apologetic argument is to argue from the premise of some good of human existence or human flourishing, on to a demonstration that this “good” only makes sense in light of the existence of God.

This is nothing new, but it seems to me potent. Putting together a number of these arguments helps demonstrate that Christianity is the most livable worldview; that it not only makes the best sense of the world logically, but that it makes the most sense of, and is the most consistent in terms of, lived human experience.

C. S. Lewis makes a number of these arguments in Mere Christianity, arguing from the existence of morality or a moral law in the beginning of that book, on to the existence of a Lawgiver; or arguing from the existence of a deep universal, unfulfilled desire, on to the reality of God, as in his chapter on Hope.

So it seems you could put together arguments for God based on things like “gratitude”; something like this:

  1. It is good for humans to live grateful lives. (or, Gratitude is essential to human flourishing.)
  2. Ultimately gratitude makes no sense apart from a transcendant good and an ultimate Giver.
  3. Therefore, there is an ultimate Giver – God.

Philosophers would formulate this better, and they probably have. Chesterton argued this in a number of ways. But it seems to me very fruitful ground for reflection, and for Christian apologetic living. Living a life of gratitude is beautiful and good, and yet that life makes the most sense only in the context of the existence of God. As Chesterton said somewhere, the athiest’s loneliest moment is when something happens that fills him with immense gratitude, and he realizes he has no one to thank.

The truest index of our real situation

C.S. Lewis, from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside – repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other had, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

It is not the end, but it is the road.

In 1521 Martin Luther wrote:

This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.

That is an unpardonable thing to say

Frederick Buechner on the sense of embarrassment provoked by the words “Jesus Saves”:

And maybe at a deeper level still, Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing, if any part at all of what it is trying to mean gets through, what it says to everybody who passes by and most importantly and unforgivably of all, of course, what it says to you is that you need to be saved. Rich man, poor man; young man, old man; educated and uneducated; religious and unreligious – the word is in its way an offense to all of them, all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, ‘You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.’ That is an unpardonable thing to say to a man whether it is true or false but especially if it is true because there he is, trying so hard to be happy, all of us are, to find some kind of inner peace and all in all maybe not making too bad a job of it considering the odds, so that what could be worse psychologically, humanly, than to say to him what amounts  to ‘You will never make it. You have not and you will not, at least not without help.’ 

Ransomed to an awareness of glory

Woody Allen, here, talks about his movie “Midnight in Paris“, about art, meaning, life and New York in the 40’s. I saw the movie and liked it. It seemed more hopeful than much of his recent work, less concerned with the bleak nihilism that he frankly owns as a natural outcome of his atheism. Allen’s nihilism, however, remains and he has a way of articulating this nihilism that many who subscribe to a very similar view of the world wouldn’t as clearly:

“If you become obsessed with films or baseball or your children — or if, in my case, you’re worried about how the third act is going to turn out — you become focused on that and you don’t think about the terrors of life. You become focused on something that’s apparently meaningful, but it’s no more meaningful than the outcome of the Yankees game. I’ll say, ‘Gee, the Yankees lost today,’ and the non baseball fan will say, ‘So what?’ It’s as meaningful as his life or my life. They’re specks of light in an eternal void having no meaning whatsoever in a universe that’s eventually going to not exist. In the end, like in Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I’ve come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day.”

In Allen’s view, borne out in the rest of the article, the artist offers merely a distraction from the tragic reality of the human predicament. Art gets our eyes off death for a minute. Even the most beautiful things, then, are merely flecks of light, passing beautiful distractions. But they are not of any real consequence, and they point to nothing higher. In the face of a merciless reality where all succumb to death and meaninglessness, the artist points away from reality in order to distract. This distraction is the cup of cold water.

But what if beauty and meaning cohere? What if they are intricately interwoven? What if beauty doesn’t point away from ultimate reality, but toward it?

Thomas Howard, in his book Chance or the Dance, (73) writes:

“This is part of the business of poetry, from the nursery rhyme to the Divine Comedy. It addresses our imagination and, with everything that is at its service, it tries to beguile us into the intense awareness of experience…it does not call us away from the ‘real’ world of function into a garden of fancy that never existed anywhere. Rather, its high office is to ransom us from thrall to the deadly myth that life is cluttered and obstructed by necessity, and to return us to life with the awareness that it is packed with glory”.