For the Illumined Mind

augustineThere is a special breed of Christian, well at least in my opinion, who were brought to life from a state that appeared quite alive to begin with; those people who were actively searching for truth but were unable to grasp it by their own pursuit.

Of course we understand that they were not truly living since all things apart from Christ are spiritually dead, but a special type of person I still feel. The kind of person Paul preached to in Athens, who groped around in the darkness for the Truth who was not far off (Acts 17:27). People like Augustine who reflect: “I enjoyed the books, while not knowing Him from whom came whatever was true or certain in them. For I had my back to the light and my face to the things upon which the light falls: so that my eyes, by which I looked upon the things in the light, were not themselves illumined.”

There is a world of information and knowledge, where truth can be discovered, with many thinkers, readers and writers operating in it; intelligent people who have studied broader and deeper than I ever think I will. But there is one supreme truth that many of these intellectuals will continue to fumble in the darkness for, one that many simple minded men have taken hold of: Christ Jesus! “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18).

But by the mercies of God, “he saves us, not because of the works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:5-6).

This special Christian, who once pursued knowledge by the pattern of the world, is now set free by the mercy of God to think and reason and calculate in truth. I love to watch this person, who so loves to think, suddenly understand the information he has curiously stored up all his life. Their minds reboot and now direct them on a path of living out the will of God. David Peterson in Possessed by God writes,

“It is a fundamental principle of Christian spirituality that God does his sanctifying work through our minds. In so doing he works with our conscious cooperation and permission.”

A great reversal has taken place, the Romans 1:21 man now becomes a Romans 12:2 man and the instruction is to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is.”

But caution, there is still the warning to not be conformed to the world, because the wisdom and influence of the world is very appealing. It draws out our old compulsive nature and deceives us once again into thinking that it is true wisdom. But it is folly because worldly thinking has not been thought through to completion. The godless man looks at life as it is now, as if this is all there is and ever will be. There is no vision of a perfected world; no decision made in light of the eternal. Whether consideration has been given for an entire lifetime or for one-hundred lifetimes, it is still too short-sighted to be fully good, perfect or true. How difficult it is to keep our minds set on things above, allowing the prospect of eternity to shape our perspective. This short life is so distracting and enticing; to pursue comfort, worldly knowledge and acclaim. As explained so well from the pulpit recently, the only gain in death is if to live is Christ (Philippians 1:21). Any other life pursuit will end in loss and prove you to be the greatest fool.

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!” To paraphrase Ephesians 4:18-23: Your mind is no longer futile, ignorant of the eternal or darkened in its understanding. You have heard about Jesus, you were taught in Jesus, as the truth is in Jesus. Therefore, put off your old self, be renewed in your mind and put on the new self.

foreverIt is no wonder that it is the Spirit who works this out in us. He is from the eternal, sets our minds on the eternal and makes us into a new self, preparing us for the eternal. We are being made into forever beings, in the image of our creator, and the preparation begins in our minds (Colossians 3:10). It is amazing that God would go through so much effort to acquire for himself someone like you for forever!

Reader, fabulous and most brilliant mind, be renewed so that your discernment will be clear to see that the most reasonable offering to God is yourself.

Music with Meaning

singing-in-the-carWhen do we utter words least true about our convictions, beliefs and attitudes if not during song? Often our words declared to melody lack scrutiny and we are not held accountable to them. In song the most unfaithful partner is permitted to declare themselves the most devoted lover; the timid observer morphs into an outraged blasphemer; for a few moments we become the very company we would never keep and others pledge allegiance to a belief they would never truly hold.

 

But of course we can say that the inverse is also true. It is when the music plays that our most private thoughts and intimate emotions are released, often revealing a fuller explanation to not only the hearer but ourselves. What we could never put into words suddenly flows freely off the tongue and takes on new and fresh meaning.

I doubt I need to persuade anyone about the power of music, especially in the church context. For it is under many steeples that our leaders have carefully structured the presentation and selection of music, knowing that it has often be used as a tool, a manipulator, to bring about superficial following and devotion. But how should we incorporate music? While we are all aware of its power I think most of us are also aware of its necessity; that we should not, simply out of fear, go without it.

An older person commented on a song we sang in church just the other day, talking about how difficult it is to sing these ‘new’ songs. ‘On the contrary’ I said, ‘many of the modern songs are repetitive and easy to sing in comparison to the range and melody line of some of the hymns.’ As with all our senses, we have preferences to certain tastes, smells and sounds. But these preferences do not come from no-where. They have been molded and influenced by experience.

Music Old vs NewTo quote a favorite writer of mine, F.W Boreham, “And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead…There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past.” When we are transported back into a time that was wonderful we cannot help but sing the song with gladness and joy. Even when we are reminded of times of sadness it allows us to sing with deeper meaning and reflection. It is our ability to feel and be driven by unexplainable emotion that connects us to music, for it is the music that pulls on these strings that are so seldom awakened throughout our tedious routine of life.

When we read the songs in Scripture indeed we are meant to reflect back on some past event and remember with emotion filled praise. Think of Moses & Mariam’s song in Exodus 15 “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea”; David’s Psalm in 1 Chronicles 16 “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts”; the song of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1, praising God for what he has done for his people. We are to remember and be moved to praise. But not only to look back and praise, longing for a past experience to be repeated, but to look forward in great expectation of what is to come. This is what sets songs of worship apart from ordinary music.

“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C.S Lewis

St Augustine rightly treated music with caution. Aware of its power he wrestled with the balance of the moving melody and lyrical content, determined to always uphold the latter. He described himself as having ‘grievously sinned’ when being ‘more moved by the singing rather than the thing that is sung’.  But is it not also true that some words are sung with inappropriate melody? Moving music is not something we should altogether avoid but rather use appropriately. I have often read the words of the Psalms and hymns and been so moved by them, only to hear them sung and feel indifferent and removed. The mood should match the message and when it does I don’t think we should be afraid.

The fact that we are called to sing and not simply to recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from us as worshippers which we seldom experience or express without song. So while we are to be careful of extravagant emotions we should likewise be warned not to suppress those that are necessary – for we should not only sing as the expression of our minds’ understanding for then we could simply speak, but in song our souls should praise and our spirits rejoice!

Friendship

Facebook friendsFriendship has been cheapened. Though we have seen no drastic shift in our lifetime I am convinced that we find ourselves in a generally negative trend with regards to friendship. The tragedy of this trend goes further than losing the richly significant role friendship once played in human life and flourishing, for I believe Christians have lost sight of the crucial role deep friendships play in discipleship and spiritual growth. The cheapening of friendship as an integral part of all of human life, and specifically Christian life, needs assessment and I hope to convince you to revaluate your own understanding of friendship in this brief post.

Defining friendship

Defining friendship is not a simple task. Biblical reference to it is thin and we have largely lost touch with the fullness and rich appreciation many cultures throughout history have attributed to it. A great place to start is to point out that the Christian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has never known anything less than perfect other-person centeredness as Trinity. Our God is relational; his fundamental nature consists of personal intimacy and communion.  As Christoph Schwöbel writes in his essay Recovering Human Dignity, the imago Dei means human relationality is explained by the relationality of God. Adam’s intensely relational capacity sheds light on how it was possible for him to be in a ‘not good’ condition when he walked Eden with his Creator. Because we are created in the image of our God we are created with the need for intimate and self-giving relationships.

St Paul's HouseI do not think that this deep and other-person centred intimacy should be limited to marriage, as many tend to do today. In 1 Samuel 18:1 and Deuteronomy 13:6 we are given a vivid description of friendship as ‘souls knit together.’ Michael Haykin comments that this metaphor says friends are intimate companions to each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings, bearing ideas of strong emotional attachment and loyalty. We are so caught up with the “one flesh” of Genesis 2:24 that we completely overlook the knitting of souls in holy and spiritual friendship. I love how this metaphor in some ways reflects the Trinitarian nature, for there is plurality and oneness, merged yet distinct persons. Despite the scant references to friendship in Scripture, this description alone should enrich our impoverished definition and practice of friendship.

In Spiritual Friendship Aelred of Rievaulx says, “We call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God. I realise some readers might find this comes too close to our definition of marriage. Perhaps that is because we operate with a biblical definition of marriage but a culturally informed definition of friendship. So we limit love to romance, intimacy to physicality, and oneness to marriage. This is far from God’s intention for the gift of friendship and a misunderstanding of the imago Dei.

The purpose of friendship

1. Hedonism. As with all good things, friendship is a gift from God to be gratefully enjoyed. Though he goes on to say more, Aelred writes, “True friendship is the fruit and reward in and of itself”. Hear Augustine in his Confessions on the pleasures of friendship, “To make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together…to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity…to teach each other something…to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival.” Furthermore, if our friendships imitated God’s Trinitarian and self-giving relationality they would provide unending joy, security, and love. Friendship is a gift from God that is entailed in the imago Dei, yet we spend most of our lives content with vague reflections of true friendship.

Spiritual friendship2. Holiness. Moving on from the above point, friendship has to be about more than itself. Friends need a common pursuit, or shared interests and longings. We can say that there must be a shared direction. Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, writes that the best friendships are cultivated when there is something both friends are seriously committed to. To develop this point further, Aelred says that a friend desires nothing that is unbecoming and never fails to wish for what is becoming. It involves willing and not willing the same things for each other; like desires and denials. For Christian friendships, another way of putting this is the pursuit of holiness, spiritual growth and the opposition of sin. I am convinced that the greatest shared direction for any friendship is towards Christlikeness. Listen to this great quote from Gregory of Nazianzus about a close friend, “Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians”

3. Heaven. C.S. Lewis famously said, in The Weight of Glory, that we have never met a mere mortal. We are all eternal. Only people will last forever. The hard truth is however is that while friendship is a wonderful gift from God in the present, not all friendships will last in eternity. In Confessions, Augustine writes about a dear friend, what we might call a ‘best friend,’ who became ill and died in his twenties. Though Augustine joyfully reflects on what they had when his friend was alive, he laments what was lost: “I had poured out my soul on to the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die.” He speaks of his soul being lacerated by the loss of his friend and becoming miserably inconsolable. In the post linked above I make this point: eternal friendship is only enjoyed by those who are in Christ and will be with him in glory. Friendships will tragically end on earth with death, and some will carry on into heaven. With this point we learn that friendship can be one of the most important experiences in our lives, not only because they will continue in glory but also because as Christians we can introduce others to the man who laid down his life for his friends.

Our Desires are Met in God

Broken cisternsContrary to what many people think, biblical Christianity is fond of desire. Scripture presents enjoyment and satisfaction in a brightly positive light, yet we are also taught in Scripture where to primarily direct our desires if they are to be fulfilled and dissuaded from and shown the emptiness of the man’s misguided quest for fulfillment in all the wrong things. Christians can discover healthy avenues for desire and simultaneously learn that our lives are not built around the pursuit of satisfaction. God fixed our desires in us. The mistake many people make is that they will be satisfied through the unchecked pursuit of satisfaction. Yet these impetuous searches are most often unrealistic and always unfulfilling. Desire is good but, to quote Jeremiah, ‘we hew out cisterns that can hold no water’ and wonder why we are perpetually thirsty.

I recently read David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy and in the second book, Shield of Thunder, Gemmell’s Aeneas is dying in bed, feverish and faint from an infected wound, when he has a vision of an immense Mycenaean soldier who fought and died beside him in a defense of Troy. He tells Aeneas that we are tiny flickering flames in the dark for no more than a heartbeat, “When we strive for wealth, glory and fame, it is meaningless. The nations we fight for will one day cease to be. Even the mountains we gaze upon will turn to dust. To truly live we must yearn for that which does not die.” These are arrestingly wise words. But what is the undying that we must yearn for? What is the true life that striving for will not result in those familiar feelings of being unfulfilled despite gratifying our desires?

C.S. Lewis, in his essay The Weight of Glory, memorably wrote of our vain pursuit and misplaced expectations, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The pursuit of real Joy, what we might call the answer to our desires longings, is the obvious theme of Lewis’ autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Alister McGrath’s recent biography of Lewis highlights Blaise Pascal as one of Lewis’ implicit influences, for the French philosopher said that man has an “infinite abyss” inside of him that can only be filled by an “infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” It is not a far step from here to the too oft quoted words of Augustine in Confessions, “You [God] stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Williams - The truce of GodThe former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote in Truce of God that unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment desperate to gratify an immediate hunger. That hunger, writes Williams, is not realised as part of being human and therefore incapable of being plugged by our endless attempts. He goes on to say that we mistakenly set out to organise all things around our self, rather than seeing Christ as the magnetic centre of all things. There is one Person who can satisfy us, for whom we were made, yet we exchange that desire for wanting everything else and tragically spend our lives thinking those many things will replace the single and satisfactory one. Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well have never been truer, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again.”