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My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Tag Archives: love

Who is my neighbor?

Over the course of this year, I hope to read through all the Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald.  I have blogged on old George before and I find his writing sublime.  More importantly, I find his understanding of the nature of God to be so refreshing to my soul, that I put his work in the rarefied air (at least in my humble opinion) of such writers as Thomas Merton, A. W. Tozer, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton.  Simply put, perhaps no other post-biblical writer has drawn me closer to the Presence of God at work in my life than George MacDonald.

This week, I take an excerpt from the sermon Love Thy Neighbor as this week’s quote of the week.  Loving my neighbor is not something that I easily do because of my rampant self-centeredness.  I’d much rather love my friends or love my family.  I find it very easy to love the one who loves me or the one who will do something for me.  All others fall into the hazy mist created by the very selfish question, who is my neighbor?  In that hazy mist, I vainly think I can choose who I have to love and who I can get away with not loving.  MacDonald, like Jesus, clears the fog from my eyes.

Who is my neighbor?

He with whom I have any transactions, any human dealings whatever.  Not the man only with whom I dine; not the friend only with whom I share my thoughts; not the man only whom my compassion would lift from some slough; but the man who makes my clothes; the man who prints my book; the man who drives me in his cab; the man who begs from me in the street, to whom it may be, for brotherhood’s sake, I must not give; yea, even the man who condescends to me.  With all and each there is a chance of doing the part of a neighbor; if in no other way yet by speaking truly, acting justly, and thinking kindly.  Even these deeds will help to that love which is born of righteousness.  All true action clears the springs of right feeling, and lets their waters rise and flow.  A man must not choose his neighbor; he must take the neighbor that God sends him.  In Him, whoever he be, lies, hidden or revealed, a beautiful brother.  The neighbor is just the man who is next to you at the moment, the man with whom any business has brought you in contact.

Thus will love spread and spread in wider and stronger pulses till the whole human race will be to the man sacredly lovely.  Drink-debased, vice-defeatured, pride-puffed, wealth-bollen, vanity-smeared, they will yet be brothers, yet be sisters, yet be God-born neighbors. Any rough-hewn semblance of humanity will at length be enough to move the man to reverence and affection.  It is harder for some to learn thus than for others.  There are whose first impulse is ever to repel and not to receive.

You can insert my name here at this point.

But learn they may, and learn they must.  Even these may grow in this grace until a countenance unknown will awake in them a yearning of affection rising to pain, because there is for it no expression, and they can only give the man to God and be still.

Then, there is hope.  May the God who loves me firstly and purely and roundly and magnificently teach me of this love for my fellow man, yea my neighbor, not the one I choose for myself, but the one next to me, the one God has given me.  Indeed!  May He teach us all.

Walden

Henry David Thoreau’s classic work, Walden is the latest book I have completed in my quest this year.  It was a tremendous read.  Thoreau is a masterful writer and I felt as if I were really in Massachusetts as I devoured his exquisite prose and his stark detail.  I will forever take with me the images, sounds, and feelings surrounding Walden pond and the reality of nature that it speaks.  Beyond that, the book served as a call to simplicity amidst the fervor of my complex existence and its celebration of an unfamiliar depth of living resonated deep within me.  Walden revealed to me the beauty and wonder of creation in an out-of-the-way wood in Massachusetts.  It also revealed to me the heart of Henry David Thoreau, part poet, part philosopher, and part preacher.

As a poet, Thoreau shines.  When discussing even the most ubiquitous and ordinary things of our shared existence, his prose brings them to life in a way that only a few can muster.  Consider the following words about the wind which blew at Walden:

The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.  The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it. 

Doesn’t that make you want to run outside and, upraised to tip-toe height, proudly lean into the wind chin first?  Thoreau has made acquaintance with the wind at Walden.  He knows the wind, this breath of the gods, and he is just as cheered by its appearing as he is melancholy at its passing.  Who of us knows the wind or even thinks thoughts about it?  Few there are that can hear its song, fewer still who can give voice to it and sing along.

Thoreau the poet becomes Thoreau the philosopher as he turns these images and sounds into the poetry and music of nature that indeed they are.  His words reveal the depth of creation and as such, they help to bring us into union with it.  It is through the lens of this union between man and nature that we come to understand if not Thoreau’s philosophy of life, then at least his philosophy of living.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by its experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

One learns very early on that Thoreau has found life to be sublime and Walden is the account of knowing it by experience.  The whole of the book is Thoreau’s argument for sublimity over meanness as the pervasive philosophy of life.  Yet, as full as the book is of sublime truths in all of their natural beauty, it is also checkered with smaller, but not insignificant barbs against the meanness of life, namely the kind of life lived outside of the Walden experience.  This is a life is marked more by trade and commerce than by music and wonder.   It is a life where the conveyances of modern living like the post office (For my part, I could easily do without the post office.  I think that there are very few important communications made through it) and the railroad (We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us) serve primarily to distract us from the realness of life (Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.)

I often found myself nodding in agreement as I read this book.  My heart leaped with affirmation of the nobility of simplicity and the sacredness of nature.  Thoreau is not the first writer to tell us that nature can tell us much about our human experience (Psalm 8 and Psalm 104 come to mind) but his words are some of the most powerful I have read recently.  Deliberate living that inspires me to “suck the marrow out of life” and “live sturdily and Spartan-like” stirred a very deep chord in me, but it was not the deepest chord in me.  When I realized this, Thoreau the philosopher disappeared and Thoreau the preacher came into my heart’s view.  With a fiery rhetoric and well-reasoned argument, Brother Thoreau pounds away from behind his pulpit, preaching the gospel of natural revelation and selection.

I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood!  With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it.  The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence.  Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.  Compassion is untenable ground.  It must be expeditious.  Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.

Preacher Thoreau ultimately fails on this point: The human experience cannot be so easily explained or contained even by the majesty of nature.  There are deeper truths that can be learned – Truth behind the truths, so to speak. There are life lessons to be learned from nature, but these are not the highest lessons we can know.  The poetry and the music of our world and its animal inhabitants are indeed beautiful and lovely in our ears, but they do not write their own prose and neither do they compose their own music.  There is much to be lamented about fashioning our lives around machines and technology, but they are gifts to us as well.  Wind and grass and herons and ponds belie the deepest parts of humanity.  They speak not merely of a Creator that forms us (which Thoreau often refers to) but of a Father Who loves us (which is markedly absent from Thoreau’s gospel).  Thoreau would tell us there is much more to flowers than what they are, and yet he dares not go far enough.  Such is often the case with those who know the Creator but do not know the Father.  Preacher Thoreau tells us that compassion is untenable ground and nature is divine as if the two are on opposite sides of each other.  Yet, he fails to tell us (fails to see) that compassion is also one of nature’s greatest songs, sung by winged birds and four-footed mammals alike.  But it is not perfected in nature and thus goes against the gospel of Thoreau.  Compassion only reaches its greatest potential in mankind.

We are capable of the greatest compassion, and the greatest hate.  We are the image-bearers.   We have within us the breath of Life.  We are more than mere animals, more than the top of the of food chain and we are much more than the sum of our parts.  We are sacred.  We are special.  The smallest child knows this to be true deep in his heart.  It is one thing to be created, it is a far different thing to be made.  Love is all the difference.  As mighty and wonderful as Thoreau’s understanding of nature is, it doesn’t go far enough for it doesn’t account for love.

In any event, the book uncovered an old, oft-forgotten corner of my soul, a place that is forever linked to my own pond on my grandfather’s farm, where I traipsed over the hills and explored the rocky creek beds and fished for hours for no other reason than the joy of casting my line one more time.  Every time I went to Walden Pond with Thoreau, a part of me felt like I was going back to my granddaddy’s farm in Northwest Tennessee to fish and explore.  I never had any problem picking up this book to read.  Walden is more than just a reading, it is an adventure!

Tornadoes in Eden

Have you ever wondered what the weather was like in Eden?

“It’s time once again for the Garden of Eden daily weather report, brought to you by The tree of Life: the Tree of Life, the one you’re supposed to eat from.”

“It’s going to be another beautiful day here in the garden of Eden.  The forecast for the day is sunshine and mild temperatures, perfect weather for naked people.  As the day wears on, you don’t have to worry about the sunscreen.  The sky will turn to partly cloudy to protect your tanned skin from becoming sunburned because that’s just how we roll here in Eden.  The evening lows will be just the perfect amount lower than the afternoon highs, great for evening fires, grilled apples, and tender cuddling between man and woman.  It’s another perfect day in a perfect place provided by perfect Providence so enjoy yourselves, love God, and remember, steer clear of that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

I doubt that you have ever thought much about the weather in Eden and why should you?  The idea of the Garden of Eden speaks to us beyond things like weather.  Eden represents perfection.  Everything about it is right; perfect people, perfect relationships, perfect God.  It is a place through which God Himself walks in the cool of the day.  It is a place where man and God speak freely and without hindrance.  Even if you are not a follower of Christ, Eden is representative of the perfect harmony of the cosmos, where all beings are in right relationship with the universe and the universe with them.  It is a utopia in every way.  From this perfection of relationship, everything else follows; food for sustenance, safety, health, environmental stewardship, and dare I say, weather?  While there may be no biblical basis to support the matter, only what my heart tells me, I doubt there were any tornadoes in the Garden of Eden.

I don’t think we are in Eden anymore, Toto.

An Act of God

Weather has long been associated with acts of God.  That is why your insurance policy probably has an “act of God” clause.  This is so the insurance company won’t have to pay for God’s presumed handiwork, this being floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, snowstorms, dust bowls, droughts, earthquakes and the like.  “We can’t control those things so we shouldn’t have to pay for them,” says the reluctant insurance agent.  “You will have to go to church to get THAT policy.”  (Note:  the church has a bad record with insurance policies.)

There are some biblical instances of bad weather phenomena that I think could rightly be attributed to God’s divine intervention.  Anytime fire comes down from heaven (here and here), I think that is probably an act of God.  Also, if the earth opens up and devours someone but not everyone present then we can safely assume that God has a hand in it.  But these instances are few and far between.  As such, I think it is reasonable to let the insurance agencies off the hook in these instances.  However, there are other instances where God is not in the storm at all, but is in the quiet whisper after the storm passes by.  The bible tells us that Jesus calmed the storm while out on the boat with the disciples, not that He caused it.  I think it is important to note that the Bible spends precious little time talking about the weather at all as related to other things and ideas.  These instances that are recorded are the exception, not the rule.  The Bible doesn’t exist to show us how God controls the weather.

The Nature of God

We should reform our understandings of acts of God to better reflect the nature of the God we know in Christ.  After all, that is what the Scriptures do.  When we do this, we will see acts of God everywhere.  I can think of two factual stories I heard while participating in disaster relief last year in Alabama.  One is the story of a family that ran to a bathtub to wait out a storm only to realize that the bathtub was too small, so they sought shelter elsewhere.  After the storm had passed, they emerged to find that the bathtub and the bathroom had been destroyed by a tornado.  That sounds like an act of God.  Or consider the 2 year old baby that was found out in a field, miles away from his house relatively unharmed.  That is an outright miracle in every since of the word.  An act of God, indeed!

Destruction and death are not at all what God is about.  Those are things that the evil one likes to do.  Satan is the prince of this world, after all.  If you need a supernatural reason for bad weather, I don’t think it is too far out orthodoxically to imagine satan being behind things like tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes rather than God.  In fact, I find it much more likely.  At the very least, one could say that bad weather is a repercussion of a fallen man and a broken system.  Adam and Eve didn’t get to stay in the Garden.

But What About Job?

Some theologians (like John Piper) like to trot out old Job to help us understand how God could destroy upright people for no reason other than to watch it unfold.  Except, God didn’t do anything to Job, satan did it all.  And there is not another time where God repeats His actions with Job.  The moral of Job, as Gene Edwards puts it, is the understanding that God made the alligator before He made us.  God is God and I am me.  He is Sovereign in all ways and all things.  I can’t even understand how my iphone works.

“But didn’t God allow it to happen?” you ask.

Yes, but that doesn’t make Him bad or malevolent.  He also allows the sun to rise every morning and the earth’s electromagnetic shield to protect us from the sun’s deadliest rays.  Doesn’t that make Him good and beneficent?  There is much more evidence that God is good because of the good things that happen than there is that God is bad because of the bad things that happen.  And therein lies the problem, the weather does not determine God’s badness any more than the sun shining determines His goodness.  So, what does determine God’s goodness (or badness)?

It all centers on how God chooses to relate to us.  If God meant to relate to us as the Sovereign power of the universe, He could have done that in any number of fantastic displays of His power.  Every morning I could wake up to a spectacular cosmic alarm in the heavens.  Every time I sin, there could be a massive earthquake that devastates everything around me (I think this might actually happen spiritually.)  The heavens may declare the glory of God, but they don’t define how He wants to relate to me.  He chooses to relate to me as love, evidenced in the humble Savior of the world.  He means for me to know Him by His love, not by His power.  That’s what makes Him Good, for He is Good in His very nature.

Maybe in this fallen, broken system of sin that we call life, earth and the cosmos, God is at work saving us and protecting us every day in out of the way places and with small, unseen graces from the ravages of a system that would seek to destroy us .  I can’t be sure, of course, but I don’t think there were any tornadoes in Eden.  East of Eden, however, the weather can get pretty rough.