For heaven’s sake, take the call

For months a company called A.R.M. has been calling our home phone. When we see their name on caller I.D., we let it ring. We’re fed up with calls from survey-takers, fund-raisers and political haymakers.

But A.R.M. is in a class by themselves. They call several times a week, at all hours of the day (often at mealtimes). They have called before breakfast and they’ve called after 10:00 at night. This morning the phone rang at 8:10, and I decided I’d had enough of A.R.M., so I answered.

It was of course an automated message. The computerized voice told me that A.R.M. was a debt collection agency, and then asked me if I was Scott H. If I was Scott H., I was supposed to press 1; if I was not Scott H., I was supposed to press 2. I pressed 2.

Then when the message repeated itself, I pressed 2 again. And again and again, until I finally got a contact number for their accounts receivable department, which I promptly called. When a kind woman with a southern accent answered, I explained to her that I was not Scott H., didn’t know Scott H., and that Scott H. had never lived here. I asked her to remove my number from their calling list, which she promised to do.

Had I answered when A.R.M. first started calling, I could have put an end to this perpetual wrong number. But I never wanted to take the time to deal with it. So for months we put up with repeated interruptions during meals and even at bedtime.

The thing is, I had no idea who A.R.M was. What if, instead of being a debt collection agency, they were a law firm hired by the estate of some fabulously wealthy, long-lost uncle who wanted to bestow his millions on me? What if they were a small business in California, whose owner had read my column and was trying to reach me to ask about how to start a relationship with God, but couldn’t do so because I ignored his calls?

I think something like that happens to many of us, only in this case the caller is God himself. He is, according to the Bible, a calling God. He calls people “to belong to Jesus Christ,” calls them into fellowship, calls them “into his kingdom and glory.” The biblical writer Jude even describes God’s people as “those who have been called.”

God is even more persistent than A.R.M. He calls over and over, reaches out to people “day after day, again and again” (Jeremiah 7:25). Indeed, “many are called.”

This morning the phone company has been working next door, and as I write this, my phone and internet are out of order. People may – and I could almost guarantee that they are – calling my house and sending me emails. But I don’t know who is calling and writing, and I don’t know what they are trying to communicate. Their message might even be one of life or death, but I am oblivious to it.

Likewise, individuals who were once able to answer God’s call but didn’t – as I was able to answer A.R.M.’s calls for months, but didn’t – may come to a day when they are no longer able to answer. It’s not necessarily because God has stopped calling but because their ability to receive his calls is no longer in working order.

In a similar way, God may be calling individuals who have lost the ability to receive his calls. The person who ignores God’s call intentionally will ultimately ignore his calls unintentionally. And then the day will come when that person can no longer take his call, even if he or she wants to.

This provides a background to the Bible’s urgent appeal: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” The biblical writers are saying, in effect, “When God is the one calling, for heaven’s sake, take the call!”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/20/2014

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There are no ordinary people

It is common now – among intellectuals and even among government agencies – to deny humans a nature and regard the characteristics once attributed to human nature as merely “social constructs.” Gender, for example, is now viewed by many as an arbitrary social construct.

Such a view is conveniently politically correct, but in denying human nature the proponents of this view cannot help but deny human value. The value once attributed to the human soul has been transferred to the constantly changing judgments of society.

This view of human nature grows out of a philosophical interpretation of reality that discounts the supernatural and understands everything – from the amoeba to Einstein – to be the accidental product of the laws of physics.

The Judeo-Christian view of human nature is decidedly different. “What is mankind,” the psalmist asks God, “that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” The psalmist may not have known what humans are but, whatever they are, he knew that they are important.

The value of human life remains a powerful idea, even as the Judeo-Christian foundations of our society erode. But as that foundation erodes, the superstructure will lean and eventually fall. Without a conceptual foundation for human worth (which many non-theists have attempted to construct but none has to date succeeded), the value of human life will be degraded.

Christian thinkers have, in contrast, celebrated the greatness of the human soul. John Bunyan, author of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” pauses in his comments on the greatness of the human soul to blurt out, “O man! dost thou know what thou art?”

“Older Christian writers,” according to the philosopher Dallas Willard, “used to say that God has hidden the majesty of the human soul from us to prevent our being ruined by vanity.” G. K. Chesterton, through the mouth of his greatest character, Father Brown, says, “All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.”

In section six of “Pensées,” Blaise Pascal pursues the topic of the greatness of the human soul and warns, “It is … dangerous to make [a person] see his greatness too clearly.” Dangerous, that is, if he does not realize his weakness and fallibility as well.

While agreeing that our humanity is expressed through matter, Christians reject the idea that a human being is merely matter. The soul transcends the laws of physics. It can be lost – a frightening possibility – but it can never be without value. Humans are fabulously important.

“There are no ordinary people,” C. S. Lewis once said, “You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” We think we know people, but there is always more to a person than we can see or even imagine. A single human soul is as vast as an ocean.

Someone living on the coast might say, “I know the ocean,” but what that really means is that he or she knows the shoreline within a few miles of home; knows the color the sea turns before a storm; knows when the weather will be fair or foul. But he or she does not know the vast stretches of ocean that reach the coast of Senegal or the lagoons that refresh the Antilles; and still less the landscape of the ocean floor or the creatures that hide in its depths.

Each of us is as vast as an ocean. Thoughts move across our minds like the relentless waves of the sea. Feelings pass over us like the ever-changing clouds. Ideas live in us, frolic in us, like whales in the Pacific. We are, like an ocean, vast and largely unexplored. Those who know us best know only the shoreline. Even we know only the surface of our own thoughts, fears, and emotions. Only our Maker knows what lies in the depths, and what treasures he has placed there. He alone is able to attach true value to us as human beings.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/13/2014

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More from reYOUal Posted

Check out the two latest titles from the Re-YOU series: The Patience of God (8/31/14) and Decisions, Decisions (9/7/14) at the link below.

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If you like it, check out From the Pulpit for more. And try the Music page for a few songs written by my friends and me.

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Use the “show-then-tell” approach

If there is a rule in writing fiction, it is this: Show, don’t tell. John Updike impressed that principle on me many years ago in an essay on writing short stories. More recently, I ran across the same principle at http://www.storiform.com in an essay by M. Talmage Moorhead titled, “My Show-Don’t-Tell Obsession.”

Showing rather than telling, Moorhead explains, provides the reader with “I get it” moments, which more profoundly connect the reader to the work. Descriptions (as opposed to explanations) bypass the linear reasoning of the brain’s cerebral cortex and energize the limbic system, where emotions are processed.

A good story invites the reader in intellectually and emotionally. It doesn’t just teach the reader; it touches the reader, brings the reader into literary union. This cannot happen by the declaration of information alone. Telling the reader that it is raining leaves him outside the story, looking in. Showing him the raindrops as they run down the glass and join in shimmering rivulets opens the door and invites him in.

We certainly see this penchant for showing rather than telling in the teaching of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” The stories he told allowed the disinterested to pass by undisturbed (at least on a conscious level), but invited the seeker in.

When it comes to storytellers, God has no peers. He is forever telling one, great story, in which the appeal to intellect and emotion is perfectly balanced. His story is of course more complex than the stories even our best authors tell. (He literally gives his characters a life of their own, which complicates the story immensely.) But like any good author, he wants us to see and feel the beauty and power of his story, so that we will enter into it willingly.

This is surely one reason for the incarnation. If God could have brought us into his story – that is, if he could have saved us – by sending us an instruction manual, he certainly would have done so. (And some people insist on approaching the Bible in just this way, to their constant frustration.) But that would be like telling us it’s raining, rather than showing us the shimmering rivulets. It would not have invited us in. The incarnation brings us into the story.

This is apparent in the careful wording of the ancient Creed of St. Athanasius. There the Church clarified that the incarnation was accomplished “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God.” The incarnation is the greatest example of God’s “show-don’t-tell” approach to revelation. It is his primary method of inviting us into the story.

The Church is forever struggling to implement the “show-don’t-tell” (or better yet, the “show-then-tell”) approach into its proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.” We find it easier to say in words than to express in action – easier, but less effective. When we merely say it with words, we may help people be Christians in their cerebral cortex but we will leave them pagans in the rest of their lives.

Perhaps this is why Jesus told his apprentices that they were to be like salt and light rather than telling them they were to be like textbooks and lecturers. Of course we need to answer, explain and persuade. There is a place for words, but it is not in the place of deeds. Words augment deeds; they do not replace them.

Jesus told his followers, “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds” (not hear your fine speech or read your eloquent words) “and praise your Father in heaven.” Talk about God is like the dialog in a movie. Actions are like the soundtrack. The dialog can be passionate or wise or clever, but it’s the soundtrack that opens the way for the words to go beyond the mind and reach into the heart.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/6/2014

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Making alterations: Resizing virtue to fit

Everyone wants to be virtuous. It’s part of our DNA. We are born pursuing a standard. We long to fit, or at least fit in. This is just as true of the felon as it is of the lawyer, of the prostitute as it is of the priest.

But what if we do not fit? What if we are not virtuous? There are two courses of action available to us. We can change ourselves to fit the virtue or we can change the virtue to fit us.

I recently bought a pair of trousers off the clearance rack at an Eddie Bauer Outlet. They were quite nice, and the original price on the tag was high. But they had repeatedly been marked down and now they were going for a song. And they just happened to be my size. So I bought them.

But they didn’t fit me. There was an extra inch or two in the waist. They were certainly not the size the tag displayed. So we asked a friend who does alterations to take them in.

That seems to me to be what happens with the virtues. We see them and think, “Yes, I would look good in that (particular virtue). And I’m sure it will fit me. It’s just my size.” Then when we try to wear that virtue we find that it doesn’t fit. It’s too tight or too big. So instead of changing ourselves, we alter the virtue to fit us.

Take chastity, for example. It wasn’t too long ago that a person who was chaste did not engage in sexual relations outside its proper place. President Clinton famously altered the definitions of “sexual relations” in order to preserve a virtuous image for himself. But it is more common still to alter the meaning of “its proper place.”

In previous generations, everyone knew the proper place for sexual relations: inside marriage. But authors and scriptwriters began floating the idea that the proper place for sex was inside a committed relationship. As long as you were really committed to the other person, you could have sex and still be virtuous – never mind how long the commitment lasts.

But in recent decades that too has been altered. It’s no longer about committed relationships, it’s about being true to one’s own feelings. As long as people are honest about their feelings (which were once called “lusts”), they will not forfeit their virtue by having indiscriminate sex. Being true to one’s own feeling is now the benchmark of virtue.

The virtue of courage – standing up for what is right, even at the risk of personal harm – has also been altered. The courage celebrated today is an end in itself. It does not stand up for what is right; it stands up in order to be noticed. Or to be thrilled. Bravery has become bravado.

The virtue of tolerance has undergone radical alteration. A tolerant person once put up with people he believed to be in error; he tolerated them, though he was convinced they were wrong. But to be tolerant today one must never suggest that anyone is wrong. Being tolerant now means accepting everyone’s views (and behaviors) as equally legitimate.

Some virtues have not been altered but abandoned to the back of the closet. They are simply not fashionable in today’s climate. Prudence is a good example. Prudence, which is one of the so-called Cardinal Virtues, is all about thinking clearly, seeing where an action will lead and considering its consequences before acting. In an age when feelings are the benchmark of virtue, prudence is about as fashionable as a bowler hat.

Patience is another virtue that has fallen out of favor. Only the powerless and the poor have to wait, and no one wants to be included in their ranks.

This alteration of the virtues is only possible if virtue (and vice) are merely human constructs, arbitrarily chosen. But if the virtues are objective qualities, we’re only fooling ourselves. They cannot be altered to fit us. We have to be altered to fit them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 20, 2014

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You are worth more than you think

How much are you worth? That depends on who is paying the bill. A chemist could get about 50 dollars out of your body (though the cost of extracting the chemicals would be prohibitive). Airlines value a person at about two-and-a-half million, for insurance purposes. Your employer assigns you a value in the form of the salary and benefits package he provides.

The seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated bluntly that a person’s worth was equal to the amount society was willing to pay for what he can do. “The ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of a man,” said Hobbes, “is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power.”

Using an economic scale to gauge human worth has a long history. It is, I think, the way Americans routinely assess worth, but it is hardly the only way. If I give my time to someone, I am making a statement about that person’s worth. Listening is a powerful expression of another’s worth. Even the exercise of good manners makes a statement about the value of those with whom one comes in contact.

But in America, it is hard for us to escape the idea that a person’s value is tied to his wage or, as Hobbes put it, “his price.” This way of thinking shows itself in the ongoing debate about raising the minimum wage. It is a hotly contested and complex debate and both sides make important points. Yet it seems to me they both begin with the assumption that a person’s worth is primarily instrumental – that is, tied to his usefulness – rather than intrinsic.

I believe that assumption to be false and harmful. False because it mistakenly regards society as the final authority on human worth and harmful because it leads the wealthy to disregard the poor and the poor to discredit themselves. Worse, because it measures worth in terms of production, it sees the unborn, the elderly and the mentally challenged as lacking value.

The national disgrace of 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade is evidence that some Americans do not value the unproductive (and potentially costly) unborn. The growing number of states in which assisted suicide is legal suggests that Americans increasingly devalue the aged and infirm. Or it might be that the aged and infirm, rooted in a Hobbesian appraisal of value, believe themselves to be without worth.

One can easily imagine a chronic sufferer in Oregon deciding to commit suicide not because he wants to die – he really doesn’t – but because he doesn’t want to make his family pay (in time and money) for a life which he has been taught is without value. And it is frightfully easy to imagine people who subtly communicate that assessment to their aging family member.

To assign individual worth on the basis of usefulness is to regard people merely as a means to an end. As such, they cannot be the objects of love but only the instruments of advancement. Are there no grounds upon which we can say that every person is valuable?

There are grounds for affirming the worth of every human being, but they are mostly hallowed grounds – that is, religious – and society is reluctant to stand on them. Most religions consider human life sacred, though some only reluctantly ascribe worth to those outside their creed. The one with which I am most familiar, Christianity, assigns great value to all human life, Christian or otherwise.

The basis for this assessment does not lie with society’s appraisal of human life, but with God’s. He values human life as its creator and guardian, but also as its redeemer. So the apostle Peter writes, “…it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you … but with the precious blood of Christ.” As humanity’s creator, God alone has the right to assign a value to human life, and he set it as high as is possible. That means you are worth more than you think – much more.

Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 23, 2014

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New Messages Posted

In July we started a new series at LCC – Re-YOU - which is all about becoming the person God made you to be. There is a process God follows in spiritual formation, and in this series we discover what that looks like. You can now listen to the first two messages: Insight, Decision, Implementation, July 13; When He Came To…, July 20. Click “From the Pulpit Page” in the mast for the link.

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