Sunday, December 31, 2006

Skilful engine of torture

I’m reading a book called “The Most Famous Man in America” the biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. Henry grew up in a very strict and severe home, and as I read about it I find myself wanting to run to his rescue.
Let me quote a pharagraph or two.

“Adding to the physical hardships of life in the Beecher household was the heavy weight of orthodox religion. Every day began and ended with family prayers, Bible reading, and hymn singing. Every child past seven attended a heavy schedule of prayer meetings, lectures, and religious sevices in the drafty meeting house, as well as regular religious instruction at school. Undue frivolity was discouraged, so they did not celebrate Christmas or birthdays. Dancing, theater, and all but the most high-toned ficton were forbidden. Sundays were spent in quiet contemeplation---
a special torment for fidgety children.
But this sour picture tells only half the story. Although the Beechers were plain and pious, they were not stuffy or stodgy. They brimmed with high spirits, quick enthusiasm, and an almost eccentric disregard for social conventions. “There is” as Lyman’s youngest daughter noted, “ the strangest and most interesting combination in our family of fun and seriousness.”
Lyman, the father, was truly a rare father. Impulsive and emotional, he was blessed with a “passionate love of children,” as Catharine, the oldest put it, treating his children with “all the tenderness of a mother and the untiring activity and devotedness of a nurse, father and friend. He loved to romp with the kids, and had a knack for making hard work fun--- telling stories as they peeled apples on autumn evenings, making a game out of stacking firewood, and leading them on expeditions into the woods to pick berries or collect nuts or catch fish.”

When I read that I thought that his good nature and love towards the kids would surely balance out the severity of doctrine. But it did not. To a child, they all suffered feeling unworthy and never knowing if God really loved them or if they would be damned.

“The burden of original sin was compounded by the capriciousness of salvation. In the Calvinist universe of the day, salvation was considered a supernatural act, a testament to God’s sovereignty and mercy, not merely a reward for good behavior.
So how would a person know if he or she had been saved? Of course no one could be certain of their fate until they caught sight of the pealy gates, but revivalists like Lyman Beecher believed that the saving grace of God would descend like a lightning bolt, in a moment of intense visceral revelation. If you did not experience the anguish and the crisis, if God did not choose to make you one of his special “elect” then it didn’t matter how good or faithful you had been, chances were you were going to hell. A famous jingle neatly captured the paradox:

You can and you can’t
You shall and you shan’t;
You will and you won’t
You’re damned if you do,
And damned if you don’t.

“Thus was this system calculated, like a skilful engine of torture,” Harriet, one of the daughters, concluded, “to produce all the mental anguish of the most perfect sense of helplessness with the most torturing sense of responsibility.”

When I read the last lines about the skilful engine of torture producing helplessness and responisbility, my heart just bled for those in a belief system like that.
The circumstances of my salvation; where I was in the world and God came into it through secular music and drew me out by opening the word to me, has always caused me to see Christ as my rescuer, and I have had a sense of security all my Christian life. In Hannah Hurnard’s book Hinds’ Feet On High Places, there is a familiar passage that describes my concept of God, I’ll begin the quote where Much-Afraid has been decieved by Pride who has her in his grip saying –

“Come back, Much-afraid,” Pride urged vehemently. “Give it up before it is too late. In your heart of hearts you know that what I am saying is true and that you will be put to shame before everybody. Give it up while there is still time. Is a merely fictitious promise of living on the High Places worth the cost you are asked to pay for it? What is it that you seek there in that mythological Kingdom above?
Entirely against her will, and simply because he seemed to have her at his mercy, Much-Afraid let the words be dragged out of her. “I am seeking the Kingdom of Love,” she said faintly.
“I thought as much,” sneered Pride. “Seeking your heart’s desire, eh? And now, Much-Afraid, have a little pride, ask yourself honestly, are you not so ugly and deformed that nobody even in the Valley really loves you? That is the brutal truth.
Then how much less will you be welcomed in the Kingdom of Love, where they say nothing but unblemished beauty and perfection is admitted? Can you really expect to find what you are seeking; no, I tell you again that you feel this yourself and you know it. Then be honest at least and give it up. Turn back with me before it is too late.
Poor Much-Afraid! The urge to turn back seemed almost irresistible, but at that moment when she stood held in the clutch of Pride, feeling as though every word he spoke was the hideous truth, she had an inner vision of the face of the Shepherd. She remembered the look with which he had promised her, “ I pledge myself to bring you there, and that you shall not be put to shame.” Then it was as though she heard him again, repeating softly, as though looking at some radiant vision in the distance:

Behold, thou art fair, my love; thou hast dove’s eyes.
Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee.

Before Pride could realize what was happening, Much-Afraid uttered a desperate cry for help and was calling up the mountain.

“Come to me, Shepherd! Come quickly! Make no tarrying, O my Lord.”

There was a sound of loose rattling stones and of a prodigous leap, and the next moment the Shepherd was on the path beside them, his face terrible to look at, his Shepherd’s staff raised high above his head.
Only one blow fell, and then Pride dropped the hand he had been grasping so tightly and made off down the path and round the corner, slipping and stumbling on the stones as he went, and was out of sight in a moment.

So, in Much-afraids temptation she was confronted with the same issue as the Beecher’s --
“Are you not so ugly and deformed that nobody even in the Valley really loves you?”
Of course the answer is yes, but in the Shepherd’s eyes we are “altogether fair and there is no spot in thee.”

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Disappointed anointed

I am somewhat reluctant to post the following poem; It is an old poem and many have read it before, at least in part. I believe it contains a lot of truth, and I think anyone that has experienced thirty or forty years of life can attest to the truths. But I also believe His yoke is easy and His burden is light. So finding the balance between, what seem to be, contradicting truths made me think for a while.
I’ll summarize it by saying that the poem spans years, and when you lay out all the Lord brings us to in one poem, it seems overwhelming. And it would be, if we had to deal with it all at one time; but we don’t.
He meets out test and challenge as we can handle it and as we need it, always to the end of being more Christ like.
Much of the difficulty we face is our own stubbornness, and our unwillingness to submit to God’s ways. But I think there is another piece and that is the tenderizing of our hearts. Without experiencing losses in our life we seem to lack an important sensitivity to the needs of others. The following crudely illustrates the point--

“It would seem that, as some flowers need to be crushed before they will give forth all their perfumes, and as the goldfinch is said to sing the most sweetly
when a hot needle is thrust into its eye, so pain and anguish are the conditions of some men’s success, without which it is impossible to evoke the most brilliant displays of their genius.
It was a shrewd remark, therefore, which a great musician once made concerning a promising but passionless cantatrice: “She sings well, but she lacks something, and in that something, everything. If I were single, I would court her; I would marry her; I would maltreat her; I would break her heart; and in six months she would be the greatest singer in Europe.”

I don’t like the concept but there is no denying in my own life, the difficulties and losses have created an attractive scar.

The poem is long, but so is the process.

When Nature Wants a Man

When Nature wants to drill a man
And thrill a man,
When Nature wants to mould a man
To play the noblest part;
When she yearns with all her heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall praise –
Watch her method, watch her ways!
How she ruthlessly perfects
Whom she royally elects;
How she hammers him and hurts him
And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay which only Nature
Understands –
While his tortured heart is crying and he lifts
Beseeching hands! –
How she bends, but never breaks,
When his good she undertakes…..
How she uses who she chooses
And with every purpose fuses him,
By every art induces him
To try his splendor out –
Nature knows what she’s about.

When Nature wants to take a man
And shake a man
And wake a man;
When Nature wants to make a man
To do the Futures will;
When she tries with all her skill
And she yearns with all her soul
To create him large and whole….
With what cunning she prepares him!
How she goads and never spares him,
How she whets him and she frets him
And in poverty begets him….
How she often disappoints
Whom she sacredly anoints.
With what wisdom she will hide him,
Never minding what betide him,
Though his genius sob with slighting and his
Pride may not forget!
Bids him struggle harder yet.
Makes him lonely
So that only
God’s high messages shall reach him
So that she may surely teach him
What the Hierarchy planned.
Though he may not understand
Gives him passions to command –
How remorselessly she spurs him,
With terrific ardor stirs him
When she poignantly prefers him!

When Nature wants to name a man
And fame a man
And tame a man;
When Nature wants to shame a man
To do his heavenly best…
When she tries the highest test
That her reckoning may bring –
When she wants a god or king! --
How she reigns him and restrains him
So his body scarce contains him
While she fires him
And inspires him!
Keeps him yearning, ever burning for a
Tantalizing goal ---
Lures and lacerates his soul
Sets a challenge for his spirit,
Draws it higher when he’s near it –
Makes a jungle, that he clear it;
Makes a desert, that he fear it
And subdue it if he can –
So doth Nature make a man,
Then, to test his spirit’s wrath
Hurls a mountain in his path –
Puts a bitter choice before him
And relentless stands o’er him.
“Climb, or perish!” so she says…..
watch her purpose, watch her ways!

Nature’s plan is wondrous kind
Could we understand her mind…
Fools are they who call her blind.
When his feet are torn and bleeding
Yet his spirit mounts unheeding,
All his higher powers speeding
Blazing newer paths and fine;
When the force that is divine
Leaps to challenge every failure and his ardor
Still is sweet
And love and hope are burning in the presence
Of defeat ……
Lo, the crisis! Lo, the shout
That must call the leader out.
When the people need salvation
Doth he come to lead the nation ….
Then doth Nature show her plan
When the world has found ---- a man!
Angela Morgan.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Lorraine fell today;
She turned to grasp her walker,
lost her balance
And Lorraine fell today.

Lorraine is known to few;
Another resident in a nursing home,
White haired, simple dress,
She shuffles down to hear us sing,
To hear us speak of Jesus.

When we leave, with an earnest gaze
And a warm hand she says--,
“I’m sure glad you came,
It means so much to us.”
Those simple words
Reach deep within me.
I believe she means it.
And Lorraine fell today.

They called the nurse,
A woman in her late sixties,
She knelt beside Lorraine
And first, eased her embarrassment.
So gentle, so sincere;
Her warmth immediately took me,
The ease in which she comforted Lorraine.
As Lorraine was comforted she began a
protocol of systematic questions.
Not as a nurse, but rather as a close friend.
Affection and admiration rose in me
As I watched nursing at its finest.

I know what a fall can mean;
the loss of mobility.
I was overcome by sadness at the thought.
I want her to remain strong.

But Lorraine fell today.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Good Movies

It has been said, sometimes the greatest discoveries are those lost from the past; so I am going to suggest two movies from the past that are must sees. First, for the whole family is Fiddler on the Roof. This classic from thirty years ago, tells the story of a jewish family and their struggles from oppression as well as the timeless struggles with family. The version with Isaac Stern as the soloist is the original and the one to rent.

The Second film I recommend as a teaching tool against drug use. The version of Jeckel and Hyde starring Spencer Tracy. If you have children ages 11 up, this film, although not a film about drug use, the parallel is so obvious that with a brief introduction by you to your child, they will see the parallel easily. In addition, Ingrid Bergman plays a woman caught in an oppressive relationship that she should end, but as so many women that become victims do, she allows it to go on, to her harm. You have to trust me on this, it is an invaluable tool covering two difficult issues to impress your children with and this makes it so easy.

Bastards blessed

The following is a bit difficult to follow, and the antiquated language unusual, but the message is well worth the struggle.

But should not a godly, gracious man be fully grieved and humbled for his sin?
Grieved, humbled for his sin? Yes, surely. Though the Lord, through the overruling hand of His Grace, works never so much good out of my sin unto me, yet I am to be humbled for it, and the rather to be humbled for it, because He works good out of it.
I have read of the mother of those three learned men, Peter Lombard, Francis Gratian, and Peter Comestor, the three great pillars of the Roman Church (for Lombard wrote the “Sentences”, and Gratian the “Popish Decretals,” and Comestor the “Historia Scholastica”), that when she lay on her death-bed, the priest came unto her, and called upon her for repentance for her whoredoms, for these three, Lombard, Gratian and Comestor, were her bastards, as the popish writers themselves confess in their writings. He told her that she must be greatly afflicted, grieved and humbled for her uncleanness, or else she could not be saved. “Why,” said she, “I confess, indeed, that whoredome and uncleanness is a great sin, but considering what a great deal of good has come to the church of God by my sin, that three such great lights have been brought forth into the world by my sin, I cannot, I will not repent.” And thus it is with many poor ignorant souls. When they see how the Lord by His over ruling hand works good unto them out of their sin, as some outward blessings and mercies, they do not repent of their sin, but rather justify themselves in their sins.
But now take a godly man, a gracious soul; the more he sees the Lord working good out of his sin, the more he is humbled for it; and upon that very ground, because God works good of it, therefore he is humbled the more.”
William Bridge – A Lifting Up For The Downcast.

Having gone through a divorce and having seen the sorrow and difficulties it caused my sons, this piece is so relevant to me. As I witness there successful lives, as I see God working good out of it, it is a humbling thing, and heightens my devotion to a God of second chances.