Live as if in peril

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LETTER XXVI

To Cæsarius, brother of Gregory.

THANKS to God for shewing forth His wonderful power in your person, and for preserving you to your country and to us your friends, from so terrible a death. It remains for us not to be ungrateful, nor unworthy of so great a kindness, but, to the best of our ability, to narrate the marvellous works of God, to celebrate by deed the kindness which we have experienced, and not return thanks by word only. We ought to become in very deed what I, grounding my belief on the miracles wrought in you, am persuaded that you now are. We exhort you still more to serve God, ever increasing your fear more and more, and advancing on to perfection, that we may be made wise stewards of our life, for which the goodness of God has reserved us. For if it is a command to all of us “to yield ourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead,”how much more strongly is not this commanded them who have been lifted up from the gates of death? And this, I believe, would be best effected, did we but desire ever to keep the same mind in which we were at the moment of our perils. For, I ween, the vanity of our life came before us, and we felt that all that belongs to man, exposed as it is to vicissitudes, has about it nothing sure, nothing firm. We felt, as was likely, repentance for the past; and we gave a promise for the future, if we were saved, to serve God and give careful heed to ourselves. If the imminent peril of death gave me any cause for reflection, I think that you must have been moved by the same or nearly the same thoughts. We are therefore bound to pay a binding debt, at once joyous at God’s good gift to us, and, at the same time, anxious about the future. I have ventured to make these suggestions to you. It is yours to receive what I say well and kindly, as you were wont to do when we talked together face to face.

Basil of Caesarea, “Letters,” in St. Basil: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Blomfield Jackson, vol. 8, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 131.

She hath exchanged earth for heaven

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(Thomas Brooks writing to a friend on the loss of his wife):

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I could heartily wish that you and all others concerned in this sad loss, were more taken up in minding the happy exchange that she hath made, than with your present loss.

She hath exchanged earth for heaven,

a wilderness for a paradise,

a prison for a palace,

a house made with hands for one eternal in the heavens, 2 Cor. 5:1, 2.

She hath exchanged imperfection for perfection,

sighing for singing,

mourning for rejoicing,

prayers for praises,

the society of sinful mortals for the company of God, Christ, angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect, Heb. 12:22–24;

an imperfect transient enjoyment of God for a more clear, full, perfect, and permanent enjoyment of God.

She hath exchanged pain for ease,

sickness for health,

a bed of weakness for a bed of spices,

a complete blessedness.

She hath exchanged her brass for silver,

her counters for gold,

and her earthly contentments for heavenly enjoyments.

Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1, “A String of Pearls” (1657) (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 401.

You are before God

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That out there with the lily and the bird you perceive that you are before God,  most often is quite entirely forgotten in talking and conversing with other people. For when two of us talk together, even more so when we are ten or more, it is essily forgotten that you and I, that we two, are before God. But the lily, who is the teacher, is profound. It does not involve itself with you at all; it keeps silent, and by keeping silent it wants to signify to you that you are before God, so that you remember that you are before God – so that might earnestly and in truth become silent before God. 

What is the human self?

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All counseling is ultimately theological: The method and end of counseling are based upon one’s psychology. Psychology derives from certain theological considerations: What is a human being? When one considers just some contemporary answers to the question of self, you will quickly see that the “simple question” what is a human being cannot be easily answered.

Calvin begins the Institutes with the argument that no human being can rightly know himself without first knowing who is before God. Indeed, it is a fundamental proposition of Christianity that everything is ultimately unintelligible without knowing first who we are with respect to God:

Romans 1:21–23 (ESV)

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The reason for such divergent understandings of the human being is that human beings simply are in no position to answer to the question without “outside” help:

In spite of the multiplication of academic disciplines in the twentieth century that focus on the biological, social, psychological, and evolutionary understanding of the human creature, these modern approaches provide a very limited perspective from which the human person can understand the human condition. The sixteenth-century Reformers recognized that it was not enough for human beings to study themselves. That provided too limited a horizon. They could not stand outside themselves to gain the necessary perspective from which they could comprehend the totality of their being and existence. Because we are creatures, what it means to be fully human simply lies beyond the grasp of the human mind. Creatures cannot, by the very definition of what it means to be a creature, comprehend and understand everything about their Creator, and because their relationship with their Creator stands at the heart of their existence, they cannot grasp everything about themselves. Lacking the ability to step outside of themselves, human beings take on a sense of self-exalted importance or find themselves struggling with a sense of insignificance and helplessness within the universe.[1]

[1] Kolb, Robert; Arand, Charles P. (2008-02-01). Genius of Luther’s Theology, The: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (p. 24). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Kirkegaard: Either/Or, Volume 1

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The second essay in Either/Or is “Immediate Stages of the Erotic”: which is a discussion of desire. The primary aspect of this essay is a disquisition on Mozart’s Don Juan. Early in the essay, Kierkegaard sets out the three stages of desire: “If you member that desire is present in all three stages, then you can say that in the first stage, desire is defined as dreaming, in the second as seeking, in the third as desiring.” (I am using Swenson’s translation.)

In his discussion of desire and music, he deals a great deal with the matter of reflection and immediacy:

Music can effectively banish thought, even evil thoughts, just as we say about David that this playing exorcised Saul’s evil spirit. On the other, there is a great delusion in this idea, for it is true only in so far as it carries consciousness back into immediacy, and it lulls it therein.

Don Juan, as the writer of this “anonymous” essay explains is “flesh incarnate”, he is desire acting in an individual. He is a seducer. “His love is not psychical but sensuous, and sensuous love, according with its concept, is not faithful, but absolutely faithless; it loves not one but all, that is to say, it seduces all.”

Don Juan is not properly a “deceiver” because he does not even belong to ethical categories. When he seduces, he is not thinking about seduction; it is not a conscious ethical decision. Rather it is merely the constant pouring out of desire, which attaches to any suitable object: “he does not seduce. He desires, and this desire acts seductively. To that extent he seduces. He enjoys the satisfaction of the of desires; as soon as he has enjoyed it, he seeks a new object, and so on endlessly….He desires, and is constantly desiring”.

The one desired by him partakes of his desire which “beautifies and developed the one desired”. The desire itself is so powerful that the desire seduces the object who is changed by the desire. “His power to deceive lies in the essential genius of his sensuousness, whose incarnation he really is.”

There is something here which we should consider. Our contemporary culture functions at the level of such desire. It is a desire which is undifferentiated, erotic (in both senses of the word), and extraordinarily powerful — while completely unreflective.  In fact, the ethical and religious stages of life (which Kierkegaard posits as higher levels of life) are utterly subsumed by the erotic: either the ethical and religious are made to point to the erotic as the highest stage of existence, or they are legally driven from public life.

In prior generations, the ethical and religious limited and controlled expression of the erotic; now the erotic has triumphed (see Albert Mohler’s discussions of “erotic liberty”). Kierkegaard’s (it is in the guise of an anonymous essay) discussion of Don Juan thus has more than academic interest. It helps us understand what is happening about us.

 

Night, when the smoke was changed to fire

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(c) Dr Christopher R. Bayliss; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Dr Christopher R. Bayliss;

Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited.

Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.

But night-time in this dreadful spot!—night, when the smoke was changed to fire; when every chimney spirited up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries—night, when the noise of every strange machine was aggravated by the darkness; when the people near them looked wilder and more savage; when bands of unemployed labourers paraded the roads, or clustered by torch-light round their leaders, who told them, in stern language, of their wrongs, and urged them on to frightful cries and threats; when maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, spurning the tears and prayers of women who would restrain them, rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction, to work no ruin half so surely as their own—night, when carts came rumbling by, filled with rude coffins (for contagious disease and death had been busy with the living crops); when orphans cried, and distracted women shrieked and followed in their wake—night, when some called for bread, and some for drink to drown their cares, and some with tears, and some with staggering feet, and some with bloodshot eyes, went brooding home—night, which, unlike the night that Heaven sends on earth, brought with it no peace, nor quiet, nor signs of blessed sleep—who shall tell the terrors of the night to the young wandering child!

-Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

Fifteen Helps to Become and Remain Meek

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Adopted from Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Saints’ Happiness (1660), “Rules and Helps to Christian Meeknesse”

Meekness is a rare quality, sadly even in professing Christians. It is a supernatural quality, being a gift of the Spirit. But the Spirit would also have use work through means. There are ways of living which are more conducive to godliness. Jeremiah Burroughs gives us 15 means which will help us to become and remain meek:
First, learn to prize the sweetness of a quiet spirit. If you are in a meek frame, you are not merely restraining some contrary impulse, you are not just holding down your anger. To be meek is to be in a peaceful frame despite tempting circumstances. When temptation comes, think of the temptation: this will cause me to lose the sweetness and contentment of heart which I would have if I were to flee this temptation.

Second, covenant with God in the power of Christ to exercise meekness and quietness. You may need to renew this covenant every day, or every morning — you may need to renew this covenant every three hours. Yes, merely determining to give up the sinful passion for a short time will not destroy the sin completely, but it will have the effect of dampening the fire of the sinful passion. “O, if you could be overcome yourselves for a day, you fins so much good, as it would exceedingly help you against another day.”

Third, you must also have repentance and “humiliation” for the days before when you did sin. “Go get alone and apply the salt tears of humiliation onto that [sickness of sin] and see what this will do: humiliation for [sin] that’s past will be a special help for time to come.”

Fourth, watch your heart, take heed of your passions. When you see your heart beginning to stir into a passion, check yourself. A fire is easier to extinguish when it is small than when it gets going. “Look upon passion as if it were poison, and take some remedy immediately: don’t let the poison to continue to work in your heart.”

This applies also between people. Think how often one evil word leads to another evil word. And if it does not immediately break out into open conflict, it may fester as suspicion and dislike. Don’t let this happen. Stop sin as soon as it is seen.

Fifth: we become angry because we want something and don’t get it. Be realistic: you are going to be disappointed in this world. Stop pretending that the world about you will also bring you what you want. If you would merely begin with the realization that you will be disappointed, you not be so surprised and angry when you circumstances or others fall short (and you will fall short for others, too).

Sixth, consider your frailty: you will disappoint others. So, when someone disappoints you, stop and consider, I will do the same myself and very soon. Galatians 6 explains that we have the duty to be about bearing one-another’s burdens. We need to bear up with the weakness of each other.

It is the sinfully proud person who thinks that everyone must please them and they are excused from pleasing anyone.

Seventh, work hard to keep your heart at peace with God.

Eighth, never do anything in anger: especially don’t “confront’ someone in anger. Think of it, a doctor would never pour scalding hot medicine down someone’s throat. When you are in conflict, “keep your passion down and call in the grace of meekness”.

Ninth, when you realize what your passions are heading in a sinful direction stop and redirect your passions. You do not need be controlled by a sudden passion. This is the excellency of a Christian: we do not need to be controlled by our affections, but our affections can be changed.

Tenth, do not multiply words. Be careful to stop speaking so as to avoid provoking another.

Eleventh, mind your own business. If you are diligent in the things God has given you, you won’t have time to be upset about things that are none of your business.

Twelfth, you don’t need to be constantly spying out faults and complaints with others: don’t notice every fault of a co-worker, or a child, or a spouse. “You must see and not see, if you will be of a meek spirit.”

Thirteenth, realize that the Devil labors to get you up into a passion, because then you are easier to tempt to some sin.

Fourteenth, keep the examples of other people of God who demonstrated meekness in trials: don’t be like Cain who killed his brother in anger. Be like Moses who patiently bore attack. Be like Jesus, who is the perfect example of meekness.

Fifteenth, be ready for the next temptation.

Blessed are the Meek

(The introduction for the next lesson in a peacemaking culture):
Meekness is not easy, it is not common, it is not “normal” to human beings. Meekness is a supernatural patience by which the Christian submits joyfully to all of God’s providence and bears gently and quietly the ill use of other people. Thomas Watson explains, “Meekness consists of three things: the bearing of injuries, the forgiving of injuries, the recompensing good for evil.”

Meekness is something which we highly prize in others. It is also something which we think is unnecessary, or foolish, or excused in ourselves. We are very happy when others patiently bear our failings, our mistakes, our anger or neglect. We very easily think that we have no need to bear meekly with others — and, at the same time, think no one has been as meek as we have been in the face unending insults, trials and temptations.

There can be no true peace within the Church, unless there is meekness in the members.

Therefore, in the hope that we can all become more meek — and thus more joyful in our service and more graceful with one-another — we will consider three aspects of meekness this evening:

First, What is meekness?
Second, What makes meekness difficult?
Third — this is a two-part question: What are the blessings of meekness? The blessings for the individual. The blessings for the church.

WHAT IS MEEKNESS: A GENTLE, JOYFUL PATIENCE

Moses is the first person called “meek” in the Scripture. In fact, he was the most meek man in all the earth. The story begins with Miriam and Aaron attacking Moses’ wife (apparently on racist grounds) and Moses’ ministry:

12 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. 2 And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. 3 Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. 4 And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. Numbers 12:1–4 (ESV)

At this point the Lord rebukes the two for attacking Moses. What is of interest for us, is that it is in the meekness of Moses is exposed in the midst of attack. The meekness of Moses shows in that he does not retaliate, rather he actually prays that God will spare Miriam. It is precisely what Peter calls the Christian to:

8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 1 Peter 3:8–9 (ESV)

Peter then quotes Psalm 34 — which sets fort he blessing of the meek.