The Limits of Pretending Friends

First in the field of blesseds according to Jesus is being "poor in spirit." It is a unique way to start a sermon, and certainly not an easy sell to a worldling who (thinks he) wants blessing. Previously we considered the second in the list, namely, that mourning is a blessing that includes the promise of comfort. As one example, Paul called the Corinthians to mourn over sin in their midst (1 Corinthians 5:2). They likewise would have been benefited by planting this tree in their soul: humility (1 Corinthians 5:6).

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Again I want to argue that the happiness is not just in the future, or in the grasp of the future now by faith. There is blessing coming later (a kingdom), there is blessing in the current knowledge of what is coming (hope), but it is blessing to have a proper view of one's self.

Humility is a blessing because self-exaltation turns out to be really hard. It is a discouraging work to hunt for reasons to praise something or someone (like oneself) that isn't so great, let alone to lobby a group to pretend there is greatness. Most pride has the unfortunate position of not fitting with reality, and even friends have limits for credible imagination.

Humility is also a blessing because it hurts less to be corrected. We sin, or we make mistakes, and pride multiplies the original problem: it makes us defensive and distanciung, and it makes the fall farther when the strike hits. A humble person is already low; you can’t crash to the floor when you’re already on it.

And humility is a blessing because it shuts the gate to a number of other sins. Pride is what provokes anger (“How dare you not praise me!"), bitterness (“Why don't you recognize me?"), envy ("I deserve to have that."), and slander (“They do not deserve to have that!").

Jesus promises the heavenly kingdom to the humble, and the humbled are blessed in the humility itself.

Better Than Unbreakable

I recently read a brilliant illustration. Imagine you wanted to send a priceless wine glass to a friend through the mail. You would find a reinforced box and wrap the glass with thick layers of soft padding. You would double-tape the box and, before sending it, you’d write in all-caps with a fat red Sharpie on multiple sides, “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE.” The glass is valuable but easily breakable.

What is the opposite of that? As the author of the book observes, and I admit that it was what first came into my mind, most people think the opposite of the wine glass is something such as a hard cover book. Wrap it in a tough box or wrap it with tissue paper, it probably won’t matter. Will the post office be careful with the package? Also, it doesn’t matter. A book can survive a lot and isn’t likely to be busted.

Between the two, which type of student would we want most? Our sixth year Omnibus (a History/Lit/Theology combo) class finished Moby Dick a few weeks ago. I audit the class but am behind in my reading, so I more recently came across this exhortation from Ishmael about halfway through the story; it’s about the benefits of being like a whale.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (pp. 334-335). Penguin Publishing Group)

I like that: an internal temperature of one’s own no matter the season. But, this is not actually the opposite of the wine glass. The book is sturdy, (and, as Melville argues, a whale is self-controlled), and that is good, but sturdy is not the opposite of fragile. The opposite of easily breakable would be some substance or some product that not only survives, it gets better being knocked around. Imagine writing on the outside of the box: “MISHANDLE LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS!” By the time the package arrived, having been thrown against walls and dropped on the floor and kicked out of the truck, the contents have gained value, not lost it. This is more than robust, this is antifragile (which is the name of the book I’m reading).

The principle applies to many domains: economies, governments, science, health, as well as education and individual persons/students. A number of things benefit from some stress, from some tension, from some difficulty. This affects what kind of persons we want to be. It affects what kind of persons we want our students to become.

Our society is doing a great job at making fragile persons, including Generation Snowflake that needs puppy petting therapy rooms in order to recover from hearing a new idea, especially one that challenges long-held but shallow-rooted assumptions. Written on the side of our schools: “Fragile: Don’t touch.”

It doesn’t need to be that way.

My wife regularly says, though she doesn’t claim to have come up with it, that we ought to be preparing our kids for the road and not preparing the road for our kids. Parents want their kids to do well, to succeed, to pass them. But this doesn’t happen by making everything smooth and easy. Our kids will succeed not when we’ve put enough padding around them that they “survive.” Besides, we can actually do better than making them sturdy. What if we trained them in such a way that when the world throws crazy things at them they thrive?

This is our mission at ECS. The school board finalized our mission statement last summer.

We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.

This is a battle. It requires wisdom to really see a culture, it requires strength to carry a culture, it requires wisdom and strength and courage and hope to advance a culture.

The world is certainly offering her alternative to a Christ-honoring culture. The chaos and the volatility that come with denying the Lordship of Christ is bad, but, for the right kind of person, such chaos is the perfect opportunity. The culture of unbelief is hostile, but it is also self-defeating. It can’t stand on its own; it has to borrow any truth it depends on. Our students are being equipped not merely to withstand the attack, but to take advantage of every weakness in the system and tip it over.

Such training requires a variety of things, including the “tools of classical education.” This is an old pedagogy, with a Dorothy Sayers twist that emphasizes certain parts of training with certain ages of development. There are three categories of these tools considered under the heading of the Trivium (one of the things that goes into the Classical school difference): Grammar, Dialectic/Logic, and Rhetoric.

Antifragile students know their facts. They know that there are only three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. They live in a world of “he”s and “she”s and “it”s. What an advantage to distinguish male and female and not only when choosing a restroom or hooking up a sound system. They know that two plus two equals four, all the time, because God made it that way. Our youngest students sing about the Bible and about the catechism and about the parts of speech because they love to sing and because they don’t have any doubt about God’s good gifts in creation. This is the Grammar stage.

Antifragile students test their arguments as well as the advertising propaganda shot at them. They know that syllogisms can be valid, but not sound, yet we’re looking for both. They live in a world of good, better, and best, and are learning to distinguish which is which according to created categories and according to the standard of God’s Word. This is the Logic stage.

Antifragile students express their ideas. They’ve assembled truth and assessed what is good and they prepare to adorn their persuasions. They are polishing their prose, poetry, and presentations. “Rhetoric is the class that’s trying to turn [students] into a leader” (Rebekah Merkle, Classical Me, Classical Thee). This is the Rhetoric stage.

We train students in the grammar stage to be curious, to love to collect and chant (HIC HAEC HOC!). We train students in the logic stage to be (a good sort of) contrarian, to love to correct and question. And we train students in the rhetoric stage to be creative, to love producing and shaping not just consuming and being shaped.

All of these things together work toward making courageous, Christ-loving, Christ-honoring students. We need young men and women who can choose well and advance at crosswords we as parents and teachers can’t currently see. We’re working to equip students who get stronger by figuring things out, with a deadline, with others depending on them.

I love C.S. Lewis’ quote about how favorable conditions never come. “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.” We want students who want unfavorable conditions anyway. It’s not inconsequential that it was Bard (a synonym for poet) the Bowman who shot down the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, and it’s not just coincidence that the only time Smaug’s weak spot showed is when he was flying and attacking.

At ECS we are laboring, with laughter, to produce a certain kind of antifragile person who is “impossible to sneak up on” (Merkle), who is part of a community of those who not only are not easily broken, but who relish the opportunities to build in a broken world.

The above were notes from my talk at our school’s most recent Information Night.

Fixed in Mind

The argument for church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 assumes at least a couple things. First, from the sinful man's perspective, he still wanted to be associated with the congregation. Paul confronted the flock for not removing the man; he had not removed himself. Whatever he was getting from his membership, he didn't want to lose it. Second, from the congregation's perspective, they should have something that the sinful man should want. Once removed and delivered over to Satan and the flesh, that bitter taste should turn him back to the fold.

In a similar remembrance that produced repentance, the prodigal son remembered all the blessings in his father's house. The difference for the prodigal, of course, is that he had left on his own whereas the disciplined man was removed. But what happened to the prodigal would hopefully happen to the disciplined man: he would remember all the blessings among God's people.

So part of our strategy for purity, preventative and remedial, is joy around the Lord’s Table. We share the blessings of salvation in communion, food for our faith and fellowship among the body in such a way as to fix in a man's mind something desirable. In the case of a disciplined man, the Lord may use remembrance of the shared bread and wine to draw him back. For us, we are encouraged week by week to not want sin more.

A couple Sunday mornings ago we welcomed to the Lord’s table two first-timers. They made their public profession of faith in the waters of baptism the previous Sunday evening, and we want for their first communion to be one of many sweet and serious celebrations. May our proclamation of the Lord's death until He comes be loud and compelling.

In the Orchard of Blessings

In this series of exhortations focused on God’s blessings, it would have been more awkward not to reference the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus sat down to teach He began with what we call the “Beatitudes,” so named due to the Latin word beatus which means “blessed.” Nine verses in a row start with the Greek word makarioi, translated by the plural form beati in the Latin Vulgate, and “blessed” in English. In the orchard of God’s blessings, these nine trees are planted closely together.

Skipping over the first in the list at the moment, here is Matthew 5:4. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Paul uses the same word for mourning (pentheo) in 1 Corinthians 5:2 in reference to how the church should respond to flagrant sin in her midst. Jesus uses it about those who are constantly mourning.

Matthew doesn’t record the reason for mourning, so perhaps it refers to any kind of sadness. But there is good reason in the sermon context to understand it as a grief for sin. That’s certainly true in the Corinth context. A man feels sorrow for the loss of holiness, which he was made to have. He grieves that he has caused insult to God.

Of all the blessings, this one seems the most difficult to connect. Happy are the ones who are sad? But that’s what Jesus says, and it’s not just because of the promise. Yes, those who mourn “will be comforted,” but if comfort was the only piece of blessing, wouldn’t the beatitude need to say, “Those who mourn will be blessed with comfort”? The comfort is blessing, but so is the mourning itself.

Mourning is part of the blessing because it means we see something as God does, and because we’re sharing His reaction to it. Those who are deluded or who are distracting themselves are not blessed, neither are those denying the truth. The blessing is as deep, or shallow, as the mourning.

He Invites Us In

What sort of God looks to make His people happy? This is not a characteristic of the gods of men. The idols men have created, whether in Greek mythology or Norse mythology or even today’s gods who go by less religious sounding names, these gods expect to be made happy by their worshippers. There is only one God, the only true God, who loves to make His worshippers happy. God blesses out of His generous nature.

What sorts of things does God give that make His people happy? We’ve seen that He forgives them, that He makes them fruitful, that He gives them purpose, even if that purpose seems overwhelming, i.e., fill the earth and subdue it. His blessings can be quite big.

His blessings are also personal, especially as God meets with His people in worship. He does not merely send them a message from a distant land, He comes Himself. He does not pronounce forgiveness but remain unapproachable, as if He told a guard to let us through the gate at the border of His kingdom but only let us look across the moat at the high walls of His castle. He invites us in. And this is blessing.

“Blessed is the one you choose
and bring near,
to dwell in your courts!
(Psalm 65:4a)

“For you make him most blessed forever;

you make him glad with the joy of your presence.”
(Psalm 21:6)

“Blessed are those who dwell
in your house, 
ever singing your praise!”

(Psalm 84:4)

Happy are the ones who are near Him in worship, and you can tell who they are because they are the ones who sing. The blessed are anti-silent.

It is only through Christ that we have this access. Through Him “we have both access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). But we really are brought into God’s grace and God’s gladness. 

“May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us
(Psalm 67:1)

Blessing is His fatherly and favorable face upon us. Is this the blessing that we seek when we assemble to worship? Are we prepared to be made this kind of happy by His presence? If not, then we don’t yet understand His blessing nature.

Body and Soul

Where is it most important for you to know that God is at peace with you? Maybe that seems like an odd question, but is it more important for you to know that God is at peace with you in soul or in body?

A while ago I was in a discussion with some men about the idea of “soul reports.” A soul report is an account of what’s happening in your soul. What are you learning? What are you excited about? What is difficult? It is curious to me that many Christians don’t seem to like the idea. For all of the criticism these days of superficialness and hypocrisy and focusing on things that don’t matter, isn’t it a good thing to account for our souls? Jesus asked what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul? So how is your soul? Is your soul “found”? How do you know? What is its state?

Our time of communion is for the soul. We’re reminded of Jesus’ death and resurrection to save our souls. Because of Christ we can say when sorrows overwhelm us, “It is well with my soul.”

Of course communion can’t take place just in our souls. There is a material table and it holds tangible bread and wine; it’s not merely a mental picture. We’re supposed to gather together and eat and drink. These are things for the body, our bodies as Christians and together as the Body of Christ.

It is not dualism to care more about two things, such as soul and body, worship and work. Dualism distinguishes in order to care more about only one of the things, and usually that means more about the invisible things. To fight dualism we don’t break down distinctions between things, we exalt the distinctions and what is valuable to both. Celebrate that in Christ your soul will be forever receiving God’s favor. Celebrate that in Christ your body will be resurrected and will forever be together with the saints in the presence of our Savior.

The Very First Blessing

We continue our series of exhortations to confession based on the idea of blessing. Receiving our blessings well is part of our worship as well as part of our witness to the world. We’ve considered already that forgiveness is God’s blessing, as is fruitfulness.

The very first blessing of God to man came on man’s very first day on earth. It is the second use of the word “blessing” in Genesis 1, but applied to human beings in verse 28.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.

God looked on His newly created image-bearers with favor. He had given them life and, in light of how Genesis 2:15-25 fits between verses 27 and 28 in chapter one, God had given them each other. For Adam, breath and a bride were both blessings. But verse 28 makes the blessing seem like still more, and I think the blessing is connected with the rest of the verse. Blessing is purpose.

This is a big purpose. On the large scale, you are blessed to make family and culture and technology. But on the day to day scale, this is hugging and feeding your kids, this is filling the car with gas so you can get to work, this is trying to figure out how to help your boss or co-workers or clients better, this is putting the laundry away and baking bread.

We complain often about some of God’s best gifts to us. Our bodies are tired or hurting, but what an amazing grace that they work at all! Our spouses and our kids give meaning to our accomplishments and they provide stories to tell and retell, but we grumble about the challenges. The long task list doesn’t excite us, it overwhelms us, and it may be because we don’t see the blessings. Are you tired because there is a lot to do? Good, God gave you a lot to do.

Our unbelieving neighbors have been given no less purpose. They are made in God’s image. Though they don’t deserve all the meaning that is around them, their failure to recognize it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it means that they are more accountable for their denial. Life seems to them like vanity and striving after wind, but that’s because they refuse to relate their purpose to their Maker.

God didn’t have to give you relationships or responsibilities. But He did. A person with only potential isn’t finished, and we often give such a person grief, but many having many potentials to pursue is good. God blessed you with purpose. How are you receiving those blessings? Does how you’re receiving them make others jealous?

Making a Mess

In his “Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord and Only Savior Jesus Christ” John Calvin observed:

The devil, knowing that our Lord left nothing more beneficial to the Church than this holy sacrament, according to his accustomed manner, exerted himself from the beginning to contaminate it with error and superstitions, and to corrupt and destroy its fruit, has not ceased to pursue this course, until he has almost wholly subverted this sacrament of the Lord and converted it into falsehood and vanity.

What was true in 1536 is still true today; the devil is still our adversary and he still seeks to spoil our time around the Lord’s Table. Whatever specifics Calvin had in mind, what are the things that make communion “false” today?

  • Communion is false if men participate as frauds, that is, if they partake without love and pursuit of righteousness.
  • Communion is false if men participate as if the bread and wine themselves are magical, that is, if they do not partake of the elements by faith.
  • Communion is false if men participate in sadness, that is, if they partake without rejoicing in the salvation Christ purchased for them.
  • Communion is false if men participate in isolation, that is, if they partake either on their own apart from the body or in unresolved conflict with another member in the body.
  • Communion is false if men participate with presumption, that is, if they partake without giving thanks. Jesus gave thanks when He instituted the meal, twice, both before the bread and the wine. Being confident to share communion with God in a meal of peace does not mean He owes it to us.
  • Communion is false if men participate flippantly, that is, if they partake without a sober appreciation of the cost, namely, the death of God’s own Son. To be solemn does not require us to be sullen, but a lack of serious joy disrespects His gift to us.

Satan is working to make a mess of this meal. Is our communion true or false?

Forgiveness Equals Freedom

Of all the things that Christians have, what would make an unbeliever most jealous? Of course those who are outside of Christ, those who don’t have the light of the gospel, are in no better position to determine value than a blind man could count the stars through a telescope with the lens cap still on. For those of us whose eyes are open in Christ and who have His Word about things, we’re actually in a better position to know what the unbeliever should want whether he can express it or not.

The Bible describes how men should want God’s blessing. Our eschatology anticipates that an entire people group will envy what we have from God so much so that they will repent and believe in Christ (for example, Romans 11:11-12). What blessings are such a powerful pull?

There are many blessings that God gives. Last week I wrote that stability and fruitfulness are His blessing, and I started with Psalm 1 because it is a timely reminder as we make plans for a new year. But the verses we read in the liturgy that reminded us of our forgiveness from Psalm 32 state that forgiveness itself is a blessing, and it may be the most important one of all.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(Psalm 32:1–2)

This blessing of forgiveness comes to those who confess that they are sinners. This happiness (the plain meaning of “blessed”) does not come to liars, suppressors, or even to hiders. Verse 3 refers to David’s “bones” that “wasted away” in his silence. Verse 4 describes God’s heavy hand of conviction, drying up strength “as by the heat of summer.”

But when he “acknowledged” and “confessed” (verse 5) he received blessed forgiveness. Men cannot cover their sin on their own, they cannot escape God’s righteous requirements or His all-seeing judgment. Sin is an agonizing burden in the consciences of men. While there is a sense in which discipline equals freedom, and another sense in which gratitude equals freedom, first and foremost forgiveness equals freedom. We who own up and come clean are covered by Christ’s atoning work. How blessed we are.

Hanging up a New Calendar

If you plan to start a new Bible reading plan this year (or if you “cheated” and began at the end of December), you are more than likely going to read Genesis 1. The plan I’m using in 2018 includes the first two chapters for the first day of the year. I always really enjoy the feeling of a new year that goes along with the creation account and the sense of gift and possibility that comes from God.

But, and it’s no more surprising than the inevitable deflation of the Christmas break balloon, Genesis 3 is coming. The ancient dragon is coming. Eve will eat like she’s done every other time. Adam will fail to obey His Maker, and he will doom humanity to death again. For all the optimism that January 1 tends to bring, January 2 is back to work in a world under the curse.

So now is a timely place to remind you that time does not heal all wounds. Hanging up a new calendar has never fixed any relationship. Amazing plans for self-discipline in diet and exercise and communication cannot, by themselves, get anyone back to Edenic paradise.

Depending on your reading plan, maybe you get one day out of 365 (which is a puny percent of the year) where, during your Bible meditation, there is no sin. But in reality we don’t even get that. We are facing, right at 12:00:01 AM on 1/1/18, another year of spiritual enmity, of conflict, of sweaty work, of pain, of death. Here comes another year of seeing our nakedness before God, of the guilt that comes from being deceived or being weak. We are facing another year of sin desiring to rule over us.

Time, past or present or future, does not solve sin, time is a theater for sin. Jesus—dead, buried, and risen from the grave on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures—is the Savior from sin. He is the seed of the woman in whom the serpent’s head is crushed. We enter the year of our Lord 2018, and we do so abiding in Him that His joy may be in us and that our joy may be full.