Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Benefits of Suffering

It's one of those days today, when all the divine signposts are pointing the same way, and I really don't want to go down their suggested path.

C.S. Lewis' "The Problem of Pain" does indeed explore the question of a good God in a horrible world, but one of the chapters particularly explores why it's necessary for humans to grasp pain's necessity. Mostly, Lewis knows man's tendency - to constantly ascribe issues to forces outside of himself, and make them the problem, instead of looking inward for the issues and upward for the solution.

His chapter on "Fallen Man" reminds me why I don't read the book that often, but the chapters on "Human Pain" contain wisdom beyond the popular quote, "[Pain] is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world". There's the graphic description of real childhood issues: "the bitter, prolonged rage at every thwarting, the burst of passionate tears, the black, Satanic wish to kill or die rather than to give in". An honest adult, reading that, will remember a time when that desire to act childlike (in that sense) has resurfaced, and not too long ago. For me, it was just today.

God often promises things that I'd rather see than hear about, because I'd rather receive and go on about 'my business' than ask, only to hear Him say, "that would be good but this is better for you right now". Lewis speaks about this 'second level' convincingly, and it's at this moment that I wish he were not so articulate. "If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us...What then can God do in our interests but make 'our own life' less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness?"

Lewis is right in explaining that at the back of our minds lurks the false hope in a God who acts more like a "senile benevolence" who likes to see His creatures just enjoying themselves. That would mean He must ignore our sin and the effects of sin on our world, just as we would like to ignore it and walk on in happy ignorance. We would rather not be made 'perfect by suffering', and our Lord Himself asked to be let off of the most painful experience on this earth. Christ's equal wish to submit in obedience to the Father's will is not as palatable. If left to myself, I would act as the puppy in Lewis' illustration: "Let Him but sheathe the sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over - I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness".

Confusion between God's methods and God's intent makes it hard to distinguish between His use of pain and suffering, to bring us to Himself, and the fact that they are not good in and of themselves. Hence the dark voice that whispers to us, 'well, if suffering is so great, why not do God's work for Him, and use it on others instead of waiting for them to use it on us?' "What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads...Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse - though by mercy it may save - those who do the simple evil." And then the kicker: "If you do [Satan's] work, you must be prepared for his wages."

So when I took a break and picked up Charles Spurgeon's "Power in the Blood", it was really to avoid more points on the benefits of the "rebel will" being broken to God's purposes. The first chapter's title destroyed that hope: "Healing by the Stripes of Jesus". Then the innocent pen on my dresser: "Do not be afraid...." (Luke 12:32) That's where I go when I'd like to ignore God's signposts - into a tailspin of fear, control, and mastery of my own course. All useless nonsense, but a powerful temptation. The cure? Keep reading, and resist. It will flee soon. Temptation doesn't stick around for rejection. That's why God's love is so amazing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pin's 2012 Book List

Hopefully, this list will become famous - more so than the fictional BBC list, featuring both "Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe". Unnecessarily raunchy "classic" literature has been weeded out - stuff blacklisted 100 years ago - and focused on those Must Reads for which I've never made time. Since I'd have to read 3 classic books per week to finish in a year, I'm giving myself 3 years. One book per week-and-a-half, with an annual 2 weeks off for good behavior. Some are "shoulds", some are "wants", some are "weird selection from Mum's bookshelves", but they're nearly all upwards of 50 years old...and some are very long.

1. Pudd'nhead Wilson - Mark Twain
2. Ulysses - James Joyce
3. Le Morte D'Arthur
4. Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift
5. John Calvin's Institutes - John Calvin
6. The Voyage Out - Virginia Woolf
7. Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes
8. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
9. The Ox-Bow Incident - Walter Van Tilburg Clark
10. The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane
11. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman - Ernest Gaines
12. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
13. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
14. Lord Jim- Joseph Conrad
15. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
16. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
17. The Death of Artemio Cruz - Carlos Fuentes
18. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
19. Death in Venice - Thomas Mann
20. The Stranger - Albert Camus
21. Cry, the Beloved Country - Alan Paton
22. All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque
23. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
24. Madame Curie - Eve Curie
25. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee - Dee Brown
26. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin - Benjamin Franklin
27. The Republic - Plato
28. Democracy in America - Alexis de Toqueville
29. Wealth of Nations- Adam Smith
30. Gulag Archipelago - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (3)
31. Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
32. The Origin of Species - Charles Darwin
33. Doctor Faustus - Christopher Marlowe
34. Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller
35. The Complete Poetry of John Donne - John Donne
36. The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri
37. Dracula - Bram Stoker
38. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
39. War & Peace - Leo Tolstoy
40. Phineas Finn - Anthony Trollope
41. The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
42. Tortured For Christ - Richard Wurmbrand
43. A Man Called Peter - Catherine Marshall
44. The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury
45. McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader - New American Library
46. In Six Days - edited by John Ashton
47. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
48. East of Eden - John Steinbeck
49. The Iliad - Homer
50. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea - Jules Verne
51. Invisble Man - Ralph Ellison
52. The Aeneid - Virgil
53. Paradise Lost - John Milton
54. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass - Frederick Douglass
55. The Art of War - Sun Tzu
56. My Name is Asher Lev - Chaim Potok
57. She - Rider Haggard
58. The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux
59. Winnie-the-Pooh - A.A. Milne
60. The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
61. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
62. The Red and the Black - Roger Stendal
63. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
64. Rob Roy - Sir Walter Scott
65. The Book of Mormon - Joseph Smith
66. Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens
67. Don Juan - George Gordon Byron
68. Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset
69. Mary Poppins - P.L. Travers
70. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
71. Metamorphoses - Ovid
72. Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe
73. Life of Samuel Johnson - James Boswell
74. The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien
75. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling - Henry Fielding
76. Confessions of an English Opium Eater - Thomas de Quincy
77. Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
78. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred Watson
79. Drinking With Calvin & Luther - Jim West
80. An Incomplete Education - Judy Jones & William Wilson
81. A History of Ireland - Mike Cronin
82. The Nibelungenlied - Heritage Press Translation
83. The Travels of Marco Polo - Werner Forman & Cottie Burland
84. Simon Schama's History of Britain (3)
85. Desiring God - John Piper
86. Jews, God and History - Max Dimont
87. David Livingstone - T. Banks Maclachlan
88. Thomas Guthrie - Oliphant Smeaton
89. What the Bible Teaches About Marriage - Anthony Selvaggio
90. The True Bounds of Christian Freedom - Samuel Bolton
91. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya - Ruth Tucker
92. The Excellent Wife - Martha Peace
93. Death in the City - Francis Schaeffer
94. He Is There and He Is Not Silent - Francis Schaeffer
95. The World of Patience Gromes - Scott C. Davis
96. Life's Handicap - Rudyard Kipling
97. The Fisherman's Lady - George MacDonald
98. A Light in the Window - Jan Karon
99. The Face Is Familiar - Ogden Nash
100. The Man Who Never Was - Ewen Montagu

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Mercenary For Christ

Drinking coffee and reading the Gospel of Luke would be therapeutic this morning, I thought. And then I came across this passage: (Luke 14)

"25 Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. 27 And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— 29 lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? 31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. 33 So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple."

Sure, I've heard this before and thought 'Yes, yes, I need to remember the sacrifice required of disciples' - as I go on about my work of the day. It's not so much that I counted the cost of the kingdom before I entered; I saw the cost of NOT getting into the kingdom, and it scared the hell (literally) out of me, and I came to Him trembling. Rather like Peter - "Lord, where else shall we go to hear the word of truth?"

Mercenaries are paid soldiers - those who see the benefit of becoming paid assassins. They have no loyalty to any particular country or group, and would cheerfully pack a bag of weapons for whichever group pays them the most. Real soldiers, who spend their lives in defense of their people, their homes and their principles, in order to build something great, despise mercenaries to the bottom of their soul. It's rather like seeing a prostitute with regular customers, claim to be a 'wife'. Any real wife who'd made a real commitment would want to throw up, hearing that kind of nonsense. (For a modern-day example, see Steven Seagal's contempt in Under Siege for the kid who joins the Navy 'on the college program'.)

Sometimes, it hits me that I'm acting like a mercenary for Christ. Unlike a real soldier, I grouse at doing exercises that will prepare me for real battle. Unlike a real soldier, I complain that the rewards aren't big enough, and don't believe my commander(s) when it's said that our rewards in Heaven will be great. I want rewards NOW. I want to be paid now. If Christ really did require me to leave lands and family for Him, simply so that He might be honored, He'd hear about it from me. I'd be like the Persistent Widow, only not in a just cause - solely for my own benefit. Preparing for the Sabbath often finds me wondering "why should I? What's in it for me? Do I have to serve....again?! Didn't You say that Your burden would be light?!"

My sister Karen gave me a plaid pillow to hug when I have these momentary feelings. Taken from Calvin & Hobbes, the script reads - "Haven't I suffered enough?! Where will it all end?" She didn't mean for me to do the Martyr Walk through life, only to hug it (or throw it) when the mood is upon me, and go on about my life after laughing at my own dramatic nature.

DJ calls it "the one-eyed Me Monster". Like the Cyclops, it's ugly and has only a single focus: Self. Yes, intellectually, every Christian knows that one ought to be about Kingdom Business, serve others more than you do yourself, and sacrifice as He did. Quite often, we're made to give up small comforts rather than great things. Like Naaman (II Kings 5), it seems harder to give up pride and dip into a silly river for seven silly turns because a silly prophet told us, rather than be asked to do "some great thing" in order that our spiritual leprosy can be healed. That way, we could say, "Sure, the leprosy went away, but guess what I had to do for it to disappear!" We could be proud of our own contribution then.

So where does that passage in Luke lead? Should I hop in the Red Roadrunner, wave a cheery goodbye to family and friends, and tell them "I'm off to Africa to serve Jesus"? (Should I also bring that worthy continent my unwanted leftovers?) If every one of us would "forsake all that he has", who on earth would be left to build churches, extend hospitality, have bread to break with others, or send aid to our overseas workers?

The previous "Parable of the Great Supper" points out a common human flaw: excuses. The new oxen, the new wife, the new land is taking up all the thoughts and energies of those invited to the Great Supper. 'Put those aside', Jesus says daily, 'and look at Me. All these things WILL be added unto you. I gave them in the first place.'