Archive for May, 2020

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This is the next meditation I’ll be doing on the Psalms in this season over Zoom, on Thursday, May 21st at 7pm EST.  The event is open to everyone.  Email me at nick.nowalk@gmail.com if you are interested in joining us, and I will send you the Zoom link.

“As we treat the Word of God, so God treats us.” (John Albert Bengel)

Psalm 91

Immanuel Kant famously proposed three core questions which perpetually interest all human beings and for which philosophy is obligated to chart a course:  What can I know? What must I do? and, finally: What may I hope for?  In the Christian faith, a popular and quintessential answer to this question is found in the breathtaking vision of Psalm 91. Here the sorrowful, heartbroken laments of Psalm 90 are met by the outlandishly generous and joyful promises of God. A cursory reading of Psalm 91 seems to promise us the world (including, it must be said in this season, protection from the horrors of plague and pestilence!). In a word, Psalm 91 appears to guarantee nothing less than our lasting and comprehensive flourishing as human beings, with freedom from all possible harm and fear, if we but trust in the Lord and take cover under the shadow of His wings.

Yet disturbing objections must soon intrude upon any who would naively listen to such unrealistic assurances in the middle of a history like ours.  Psalm 91 seems too good to be true, perhaps more so than any other text in the Bible.  What about the many pastors and Christian leaders who have appealed to Psalm 91 to assure Christians that they would not be exposed to or die from Covid-19 as long as they trust in God, only to find such boasts disproved by reality?  Indeed, it is not accidental that the optimistic promises of Psalm 91 are found elsewhere bandied about by Job’s dimwitted, “orthodox” friends (Job 5:8-27), who coldheartedly seek to persuade the devastated Job that his lack of faith and obedience to God are the direct and inevitable causes of his suffering.  Even more provocatively, we find the language of Psalm 91 rehashed for Jesus while he is being tempted in the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry, now on the deceitful lips of Satan (Matthew 4:5-6, Luke 4:9-11).  “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Shakespeare once quipped in The Merchant of Venice on account of of this diabolical moment. “An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart.  Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” If we learn anything from Job and Jesus here, it is that the tantalizing promises of Psalm 91 are more complicated and liable to distortion before the all-too-human desires for safety from and control over suffering than we might initially suspect.

And so back to Kant, in light of Psalm 91: what, exactly, may I hope for in this life from God? What, precisely, has God promised to those who trust Him?  What may we actually believe God for in the midst of the unpredictable, chaotic perils of life?  What may I legitimately expect from God if I am reluctantly single, or involuntarily childless, or long unemployed (or miserably employed), or chronically sick, or stuck in any number of challenging, unsatisfying circumstances in my life? As Augustine knew well, the two extremes of false hope and despair stand before us as equally disastrous temptations here.  Yet the danger represented by Job’s friends and Satan (false hope) is obvious enough, once it is noticed.  For many of us in the modern world, perhaps the opposite tendency pulls on us more subtly and with deadlier impact: namely, to so nuance and qualify the promises of God that, when we finally come to it, we are left holding nothing concrete or practical in our hands as we look to an uncertain future through the now vague, disillusioned eyes of “faith.”  Psalm 91 holds a crucial key to discerning the shape of God’s faithfulness as He has promised to care for us in our lives.  But we need to listen carefully to what is being said here—and to what is not being said.  And we need to labor hard to articulate the logic of God’s promises to His people, for His glory and our lasting welfare.  Please join us for a meditation on Psalm 91 next Thursday, May 21st at 7pm EST, followed by an opportunity for interactive Q & A.  Feel free to extend this invitation to others.

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Saruman“I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.” And the title seemed to anger him.  “Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!” he scoffed…”I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-Maker, Saruman of Many Colours!” I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven with all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.  “White!” he sneered.  “It serves as a beginning.  White cloth may be dyed.  The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

“You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends,” said he.  “I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.” He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed.  “The Elder Days are gone.  The Middle Days are passing.  The Younger Days are beginning.  The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule.  But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

“And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!” he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice.  “I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me.  A new Power is rising.  Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all.  There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor.  This then is the choice before you, before us.  We may join with that Power.  It would be wise, Gandalf.  There is hope that way.  Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.  As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it.  We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.  There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”

“Saruman,” I said, “I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant.  I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.”…

“And why not, Gandalf?” he whispered. “Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.  That is in truth why I brought you here.  For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe that you know where this precious thing now lies.  Is it not so? Or why do the Nine ask for the Shire, and what is your business there?” As he said this a lust which he could not conceal shone suddenly in his eyes.

“Saruman,” I said, standing away from him, “only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we! But I would not give it, nay, I would not give even news of it to you, now that I learn your mind.  You were head of the Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last.  Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself.  I will take neither.  Have you others to offer?” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 258-60)

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Augustine“C. S. Lewis writes of ‘the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell.’  It is in fact that concentration upon self, not longing for God, that ultimately obliterates the person of the neighbor…Although it is true that we find happiness only if our love finally rests in God, our loves are one, and there is no jumping ahead to the end of the story.  Here and now we are given others to love, and in loving them we hold open in ourselves the gap that only God can fill, the wound that only God can heal.  Here and now we accept the incompleteness and vulnerability that love brings in its wake…We can never really become invulnerable to loss.  There is no self-sufficiency here and now, because we are drawn out of ourselves in love for both God and our neighbors.  Our happiness depends on both objects of love, and therefore others must not be obliterated.  Nor will we be self-sufficient there and then, when we rest in God in heaven.  Our happiness will still be dependent on God–but no longer dependent on any others…

Pride always ends with an isolated self who seeks to be the author of the conditions of its own happiness.  If Augustine is right, it is this assertion of self, not a longing for God, that finally obliterates the other.  None of us is permitted veto power over the happiness of others in heaven, for in the presence of God there must be fullness of joy.  But Augustine can believe this without supposing that the presence of others is unimportant or adds nothing to one’s joy.  Each shares his own vision of God with others, thereby enriching the vision of all; for, as Augustine writes in the Confessions, ‘when many people rejoice together, the joy of each individual is all the richer, since each one inflames the other and the warmth spreads throughout them all’ (8:4).  Moreover, the God who draws us to himself and who is alone our sufficiency is never a tyrant who seeks to obliterate all other objects of our love.  To turn in love toward that God is to turn toward One in whom we are given others to love.  But they are–always and only–loved ‘in God’; for, apart from that location they can never truly be themselves.

When in the Paradiso Dante finally comes face-to-face with Beatrice, when his longing to see her has brought him to where one sees God, she then returns to her place within the heavenly ranks–smiling once more at him, and, then, turning her face to ‘the eternal fountain.’  The austerity of the moment is overpowering, and of course one might–as Nussbaum does–find that austerity offensive.  But Beatrice does not leave Dante; rather, together they are to gaze at the love that moves the sun and the other stars.  In God they are given back to each other, that each may enrich the vision of the other.  Augustine sees–and bends the knee before–a similar truth, a vision of that God who continually gives us the neighbor to love.  Recalling in the Confessions that Nebridius now lives ‘in the bosom of Abraham’–whatever, as Augustine characteristically adds, that may mean.  ‘Now he no longer turns his ear to my lips; he turns his own spiritual lips to your fountain and drinks his fill of all the wisdom that he can desire, happy without end.  And I do not think that he is so inebriated with that wisdom as to forget me; since it is of you, Lord, that he drinks, and you are mindful of us.’ (9.3).” (Gilbert MeilaenderThe Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, pp. 41-45)

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