Tag: meditations

Parallel Straight Lines: Connection through Contradiction

Parallel straight lines, Denis reflected, meet only at infinity. He might talk forever of care-chamber sleep and she of meteorology till the end of time. Did one ever establish contact with anyone? We are all parallel straight lines (Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow, p. 18).

I mentioned in my post on Crome Yellow that I would comment on a couple of quotes from the book. This is the first of those quotes.

I do not want to get into the mathematical idea of parallel lines meeting at infinity. I had to take an intermediate algebra class in college. Let’s just say it’s not my forte. But the idea itself is intriguing.

Tim Keller regularly uses The Stepford Wives as an illustration of our need for contradiction. When you have a wife that cannot contradict you, then you have no possibility for an actual relationship. The same, he says, goes for God. We hear things like, ‘I could never believe in a God who would do X.’ We want God to conform to our own moral norms. We want to mold him in our own image. But, says Keller, if God cannot contradict you, then you have no real basis for a relationship. There are some holes in this logic, I think, but the point is well taken nonetheless.

The parallel lines idea makes this point in a more logical way. If you are on a parallel line with someone, if you are exactly the same, then you do not meet in this life. In order to have connection we need contradiction. In order to meet someone there needs to be some sort of perpendicularity. Hence the need for a God who contradicts us, who calls us out on our differences. I can see the case being made for people as well (not just for God).

Tension and Attention in Turning Pages

You’re reading a book – or at least you call yourself reading it. You zone out. You’ve turned two pages and come to the realization that your eyes have covered the words on those pages but hardly any of them has moved from the eyes to the mind.

I was reading a book while my kids were taking a bath. They came into my room and started talking. I was half reading the book and half listening to them. After turning a page I realized that by half reading and half listening I wasn’t actually listening or reading at all. Not a word on the pages registered and not a word my kids said registered. Perhaps this is a metaphor for life?

It goes back to an idea I’ve discussed on the blog before: ignore-ance (not ignorance). Ignore-ance is the conscious decision to ignore something. I needed to decide in that moment which object was a) more worthy of my attention and b) more worthy of ignoring. I found both to be worthy of attention and neither worthy of ignoring. The net result was the opposite of what I intended: they both got ignored.

We flip through pages without the words penetrating our souls. We flip through life without people penetrating our souls. And we are surprised to find that we are shallow in our intellects, emotion, and experience.

On Exercise as Worship

At sunrise thirty young people ran out into the clearing; they fanned out, their faces turned towards the sun, and began to bend down, to drop to their knees, to bow, to lie flat on their faces, to stretch out their arms, to lift up their hands, and then to drop back down on their knees again. All this lasted for a quarter of an hour.

From a distance you might have thought they were praying.

In this age, no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives.

But they would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls.

No, these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises.

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, At the Start of the Day, from Stories and Prose Poems, p. 216

I went on a Solzhenitsyn binge a while back. I didn’t write much about it. But tonight, before the kids went to bed, we all huddled up while I read some of his poems (they’re really small meditations on various life events). This one struck me afresh. Perhaps it is because I’ve started a new exercise program. After dropping a bunch of weight a few years ago, I’ve tried to stay in good shape for a while now; but I’ve become rededicated. I find that physical discipline has helped my spiritual discipline tremendously over the years. At least, in my experience, physical discipline sets a rhythm that can be conducive to spiritual discipline. But I’ve always fought to keep priorities straight, keeping in minds the words of the apostle:

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come (1 Tim. 4:8, KJV).

Solzhenitsyn reminds us just how much exercise can look like worship. He never denies that it is profitable. He only points out the great paradox that people will often admire physical exercise and discipline without giving any thought to spiritual devotion, or even jeering at those who are spiritually disciplined. If someone raise their hands up during yoga class, hooray. But if someone raises them up in worship, not so much. We lack balance.

Are we as active in the spiritual gymnasium of the Means of Grace as we are in the gyms of this world? As we long for a certain body type, a certain physique, a certain look, do we long to be built up spiritually into the image of Christ? If not, when we bow down, and prostrate ourselves, and raise our hands up in exercise, we really are involved in a sort of idolatrous prayer. When we press up heavy weights on the bench press or in the squat rack, we are only living out a strange parable – that the weight will always be there. No spotter can ease our burdens. The burden of the self-worshiper is so great that it will weigh him, and pound  him, down to the very depths.  As we meticulously plan each meal as though it were a holy sacrament offered up to the god of self, in remembrance of the law of macronutrients,  do we remember that man does not live by bread alone? Do we remember that as the body is meant to live on food, so the soul is meant to live on Christ?

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

This is not to devalue physical exercise. Rather, it is to value it by putting it in its proper place. As Lewis was fond of saying, if you turn something into a god it will become a demon. Find balance.

Music of the Spheres: The Heavens as a Hymnbook

I will say up front that this is one of the most helpful paragraphs I have ever read:

The unreasonable creatures are in some sort said to glorify him: [Psalm 19:1] ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ How? They give occasion and afford matter whence we may take hints to glorify him. As in music there are the notes set out in the book, and the tongue that sins, or hand that play, which makes the music. The creatures are the notes, or music, that is set, and have the notes, the keys, and characters of the harmonious glory of God stamped upon them, Rom. i. 20. But then there must be an understanding creature, that hath skill and ability, to utter forth the music and harmony of all these.

(Thomas Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation, p. 498).

Goodwin uses the analogy, we could say, of a hymn book in relation to the shining of the glory of God in creation. The heavens declare the glory of God like a hymnbook declares music. That is, if the heavens are to effective in God’s purposes, they must be read and sung.

I cannot read music. But I can read words. And so I get maybe half the benefit of a hymnbook. I use one every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, and I am able to sing songs that I do not know by heart because of it. A pianist, however, is able to play songs that he or she does not know by heart. I see circles and lines in black ink, she sees music. I see glory, but she sees more glory. And so, in some ways, she is more able to glorify God with that book, because, in light of her knowledge, she can use her instrument to make something that I cannot, and therefore glorify God in a way that I cannot.

The heavens, Goodwin says, are like that hymnbook. There is glory in them. Can you read it? Can you make music out of them? Do you look at the winter sky and, as it were, hear the ‘music of the spheres’? Or, at least, does it cause you to sing?

I was never interested in the planets until I started reading C.S. Lewis, and especially after reading Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia. But since then I have studied the planets as an interested layman. And so, as I was having a dull drive home from work one night, a bright star, just beside the crescent moon, caught my eye. I began to pan the sky for other stars. I couldn’t find any. And so, I thought to myself, ‘that must be Venus!’

Though Venus had stared at me many nights, I had never really seen her. And there she was, the Evening Star, otherwise known as the Morning Star. I thought of how the Book of Revelation calls Jesus Christ the Morning Star. I thought of how he promised to give us the Morning Star. I thought of the amazing fact that Earth’s sister planet was there, suspended in mid-air, circling around the sun at great speed, but appearing as a still star. I found myself praising God for, and in, this train of thought. For the first time, I understood something of that note in that heavenly hymnbook. Venus was declaring the glory of God. That moment has stuck with me now for over a month. I even wrote a poem about it (HERE).

I have learned not to look at space as space. The Bible calls it ‘the heavens.’ Space is empty. The heavens are full – full of fascinating things, and full of God’s glory.

But the hymnbook analogy has its limitations. I once heard someone, I can’t remember who, ask this question: If a beautiful tree grows deep in the rainforests, where no man has set foot in man years, does that tree glorify God? It almost sounds like the old dilemma of a tree falling when no one is there to hear it. The answer to that dilemma is simple. Who cares if we are not there to hear it, God is there. A lonely tree glorifies God because it is not really lonely – it has a heavenly audience. God sees all, and rejoices in the works of his own hand.

And so, I think, perhaps, Goodwin pushes the analogy too far, as if the hymnbook had no value in itself were there no one to read it. For God can read it. And God can make music of his own. Analogies are never perfect.

And therefore, it is good to see the heavens as a heavenly hymnal of sorts. The black sky is God’s staff. The planets are his bass clef. The stars are his treble clef. We need pianists, violinists, organists, etc. now to read and play. And a gospel to make us a sing.

You can read related thoughts HERE and HERE.

The Conquestor and the Conquered King (Joshua)

Reading the first 11 chapters of Joshua with my family recently, I could not help but be struck by the idea of king, after king, after king being not only defeated, but hanged upon trees:

  • Joshua 8:29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.
  • Joshua 10:1 ¶ As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king
  • Joshua 10:28 ¶ As for Makkedah, Joshua captured it on that day and struck it, and its king, with the edge of the sword. He devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining. And he did to the king of Makkedah just as he had done to the king of Jericho.
  • Joshua 10:29 ¶ Then Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Makkedah to Libnah and fought against Libnah. 30 And the LORD gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel. And he struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left none remaining in it. And he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho.

In all, Joshua, chapters 2-12, records that thirty-one kings (cf. Josh. 12:24) were defeated by the people of Israel, many of whom were apparently hanged upon trees.

How do you explain this to children? That’s the issue I face every night as I read with my family. And biblical theology leads to an answer.

This past Sunday, we were having family catechism time, and we read the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 26:

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

With this being the case, Jesus is our greater Joshua, conquering all his and our enemies. But therein lies the problem. We are, by nature, his enemies. We are those who are to be conquered (especially Gentiles like myself and my family). We are those who are to be ‘devoted to destruction,’ or placed ‘under the ban.’ If we are to be on his side, he must first subdue us to himself. He must win us. We must become his trophies of war.

But how can it be? The answer is hinted at in the text of Joshua. For Jesus is not only our greater Joshua, but he is a King who is hanged on a tree. He is not only the conqueror, he is the conquered. He himself must be placed under the ban of God’s holy wrath. He must be devoted to destruction in our behalf. The conquering King must become the conquered King. Therefore, it is not only Joshua himself who points us to our greater Joshua, but those cursed kings of Jericho and Ai. The Commander of the Lord’s army must become their representative in his death. Indeed it is fitting that the Roman soldiers mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ (Mark 15:18). They got it. Pilate got it as well:

  • John 19:19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

Jesus was a casualty of war – another King hanged on a tree.

  • Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”- 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

But this King didn’t stay dead. That’s why we have life. And that’s what I must tell my family day after day.