Art and Beauty: Wendell Berry’s Essays

In his collection of essays What Are People For, Wendell Berry writes about the role of despair and sorrow in producing hope and joy. It’s just great.

Reading these essays has gotten better and better the further in I’ve gotten. It’s really some beautiful stuff. I only wish I was reading the physical copy of this collection, and not a kindle version on my iPhone…

Anyway, on suffering, Berry says,

“[S]omething more is involved that is even harder to talk about because it is only slightly understandable, and that is the part that suffering plays in the economy of the spirit. It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow…

“Is it necessary, as some appear to have supposed, to cultivate despair and sorrow in order to know hope and joy? No, for there will always be enough despair and sorrow. And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don’t need to worry about that.”

Wendell Berry, from an essay entitled “A Poem of Difficult Hope.”

Book Review: “Eternity Changes Everything”

Eternity Changes Everything by Stephen Witmer. The Good Book Company, 2014. $10.49.

I really do agree with Stephen Witmer in this book, that “[there’s a] reason we’re not restless for the new creation: we’re not really certain it is our future” (71). As Christians, we have an incredibly joyous and hopeful future that has been secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. And many Christians either don’t know enough about what Scripture tells us about our future, or if we do, we’re so surrounded by distractions in our culture and our ever-busier schedules that we don’t look forward to our future. Witmer’s book is very helpful as a simple, joy-filled exhortation to think often and deeply about the new creation, and the surety of our life there with Christ. It must be hard to try to write a short book about such a weighty topic, but Witmer pulls it off, I think. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s concise and powerful, and effective in its friendly tone. Jared Wilson is right-on in his endorsement, that “Reading this is like enjoying a coffee with a new friend as he shares the secret of the universe with you.”

The driving point of the book is that contemplating eternity rightly will give us “restless patience,” which is a term Witmer coins and then uses throughout. This is a very helpful concept. We should be restless for Christ’s return and for the new heavens and new earth, and patient as we wait because we know that is all secured by Christ already. Witmer points us to Paul’s life for an illustration of this tension, saying, “Paul didn’t settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn’t live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future;” and, “his circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment” (66-67). Witmer’s point is that a Christ-centered restless patience fuels our hard work in every area of our lives, specifically for Christ’s Kingdom; and that we can be patient through the worst of trials in this life, because we are confident of how little it all compares with the glory of the new creation. In one of my favorite sections of the book, Witmer says,

“If you’ve settled for now, you have placed yourself on a path to inevitable despair. Why? Because we live in a broken, sinful world. God still hasn’t fully asserted his kingly rule over the earth. Because it’s broken, this world cannot satisfy. The absolute best job won’t perfectly satisfy. Nor will the best house, marriage, food, or vacation. Settling for now is the path to despair.

“Here’s an irony: the best way to enjoy this world is to not settle for it. When you see this world as a preparation for the next, not as the be-all-end-all to your happiness, you can suffer its disappointments without being crushed, and savor its delights without forgetting there’s better to come” (69).

And this is the reality that Witmer encourages us to live in: that everything is changed by knowing about, and being confident in our eternal life, in the new heavens and new earth, with Christ as our King. We can work hard in every area of our lives, whether it’s painting our house or preaching the Gospel to our neighbors, because it’s all valuable to our King who is moving all of history toward a great, joyous culmination and completion. And we can suffer any wrong, and any trial that God ordains on the way, because of that secured future. No matter what happens, our bright future with Christ is totally fixed and secured, and we will enter into it. You’ll see Witmer, in this short book, fall in with authors like C.S. Lewis and John Piper, who work to exhort us to see every good thing in this life as both an echo of Eden, and a signpost pointing to the new creation; and see every trial as God-ordained, refining and preparing us for our eternal life with Christ. I heartily recommend this book. Its message is extremely valuable, especially in a materialistic culture that preaches faith in shallow, material, passing pleasures, and that doesn’t know how to deal with the actual brokenness of life. I pray it will encourage you to live in light of our glorious future as Christ’s redeemed church, and be restlessly patient for our true home, through every trial and joy.

Here’s one more great quote, which I hope illustrates how valuable of a read this is:

“Joy in an imperfect present flows to us from a perfect future. If our joy is in the things we have now, losing them is the worst thing that can happen; all our joy goes with them. [But if] our joy is in the things we will enjoy in our eternal future, nothing we might lose now can touch our joy. We’re free to enjoy the things we have now without worrying about their impermanence; we’re free to lose them without feeling that our life has gone, too” 69-70).

“It’s A Wonderful Life” And Great Joyousness

My wife and I have had a problem the last couple years with It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve been watching it as a Christmas tradition. We do love the movie – it’s just great – but what keeps bothering us about the story is that Mr. Potter does a pretty heinous thing, for which he receives no justice, in what we see of the story anyway.

Here’s what happens if you recall: Mr. Potter wants to take control of the Building and Loan, run by George Bailey. Potter tries everything, even hiring George with the promise of much higher pay, to acquire George’s family business and control over the banking and real estate of the town of Bedford Falls. Having tried everything else, Potter swipes an envelope of cash meant to be deposited by the building and loan, putting George and his company at great risk, and starting the tragic trajectory of events the movie is famous for. George tries to find the money to no avail, which leads him to lash out uncharacteristically in anger at his family that night, and leads him out to the bridge in the snowstorm where he’s saved from suicide by Clarence the angel, and is given a chance to see what his life and everyone in it would be like without George Bailey. And on and on it goes, but the seemingly terrible thing about it if your paying attention, is that no justice ever befalls Mr. Potter for his terrible crime against George. George hurts his family, and almost kills himself over this whole mess, which is all Potter’s fault. And no admission, no repentance, no final reckoning in the story for him at all.

But I say “if you’re paying attention” for a reason. By the end, when George is given his life back, and he’s realized how good he has it with such friends and family, we’ve all but forgotten about Potter and what he did to George. Potter’s crime becomes overshadowed by the grace and love that come to George in the end.

Here’s what’s so cool about this film. In spite of the weird theology, or what I guess is really angelology, there’s a deep sense of the triumph of true goodness and love over any wrongs ever done to us in this life. The goodness at the end of the story, and the profound, self-forgetful love shown to George matters far more than the injustice done against him. But old Mr. Potter recedes down and away into his self-made loneliness and misery, a recession that’s mirrored in the last scene of Potter in the film. In that scene we see Potter peering miserably out of his window at George searching the snowy street for the lost money, trying to right the wrong he didn’t even commit. Contrast this with how George’s burdens are borne upward by the love and kindness of his friends. In kind of a Pauline sense, death is swallowed up in victory; miserable avarice is swallowed up in great joyousness.

There’s not much of Christ in this story, but we feel some deeply Christian things here even so.

Social Media And The Worship Team

So I think we all have an understanding that social media poses some unique challenges for us today. We’re socially connected with each other in ways we’ve never been before in history. And for the Church especially, we have some definite things to consider as we think through these connections, and how we engage our culture and one another with our digital, or “post-digital” social media. You might’ve read some things on this topic before, and I don’t want to just say what’s already been said. What I especially have in mind here, is how those in a leadership role in a local church family, and specifically on a worship team, should consider using, or sometimes not using, their pins, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagrams, and whatever other social networks I’ve left out of the mix, or that may be brand new by the time you read this.

1. Our of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (or tweets).

We have to remember that, as Christ tells us in Matthew 12:34, our mouths let loose what’s already taken up residence in our hearts. Do our hearts and mouths produce stuff that worships Christ, seasoned with beauty and kindness; or do they produce the polluted stuff of sin? Since we often let our thumbs type what our mouths would otherwise speak, what do our Facebook status updates and tweets say about the condition of our heart? As members of a worship team specifically, are we modeling what it looks like to have a heart full of living water, or not? And we don’t want to do it for the show – we should want our social networks to be flavored with Christ because our hearts are close to Him, and because we see the world as He sees it. And hopefully others would get a taste of the grace of God and the Gospel through even our social media presence.

2. Dead bodies float with the current. Living people can swim against it.

And we should swim against it if the stream’s current is going to wash us over a precipice. Just because the social currents flow with narcissistic posts and selfies, or with retweets and repins promoting immorality or bitterness, doesn’t mean it’s ok for a Christian to retweet stuff like that. We need to bear in mind that every little retweet or share on Facebook adds to our overall online presence, and how others perceive us. Again, a lot of little posts that seem insignificant might just create a bigger picture, and we should hope that picture is one that glorifies Christ. As believers, we have new life in Christ, and a resulting ability to resist and move differently than the course of the world (Ephesians 2:1-2).

3. Just because it’s not wrong doesn’t mean it’s best.

Ultimately, there’s a lot on social networking that could be posted or shared, watched or read, that isn’t really wrong at all. But again my question comes back to this: does our social media presence have a flavor of Christ and the Gospel? Or does our presence there have more of a flavor of the silly, meaningless, banal, self-centered, materialistic popular culture? For leaders in the church, the call seems pretty clear to me. Philippians 4:8 tells us, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Leaders in the church should, first of all, be doing this; then, because we think and dwell on the best things, we lead others to do it by example. Do our posts and pins, memes and Instagrams, show a pattern of dwelling on truth, and on things that are honorable and excellent?

Now again, this isn’t all to advocate simply good, moral behavior. But Scripture is pretty clear that if we’ve come to know Christ as Lord and have been saved from our sins, the Spirit of Christ actually lives inside of us. And that Spirit produces effects in how we think and act, that will ultimately lead to joyful living in Christ. God saved us to enjoy Him, and we often settle for silly, unsatisfying joys instead. Social media is here to stay, but if too much involvement with it leads us to settle for halfhearted joy, and not joy in God alone, I say let it be hanged. I want real joy, which is only found in God, through Jesus Christ. And as we gather as a church each week and sing about God being our highest treasure, and boasting only in Jesus, may that be true of our lives right down to the minutiae of our social networking.

John Piper on C.S. Lewis

This is really a wonderful 7 minute discussion by John Piper, about how he was introduced to the writing of C.S. Lewis, and what he has gained from it. Piper really has something of a wealth of knowledge of Lewis’ works and worldview, and this short piece is very insightful and full of great stuff. This is stuff that will fuel your appreciation of reading Lewis. I recommend multiple listens.

Standing On God’s Promises

One summer several years ago our senior pastor opened his preaching up to suggestions from our congregation, asking us to write our favorite promises of God on the comment cards on Sunday mornings; his intention was to choose from these, and preach a sermon each week on a particular promise. As it happened, only one or two suggestions came in from the four hundred-ish people in attendance at our church’s Sunday morning gatherings. At the time, I wasn’t as up on some of God’s promises that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, I’ve since come to learn about and treasure in God’s Word. I thought it was such a bummer that more didn’t come in, and I’ve often wrestled with that ever since. Was there a big lack in knowledge of God’s promises that He gives us in Scripture? Was it a lack of interest in our pastor serving us with such a preaching series?

If it was either of these reasons, neither is OK. Since that summer, I’ve tried my best to underline promises from God to His people, that I find as I study my Bible. These have been a huge source of encouragement and up-building in my life, and in my relationship with the Savior.

In our Shepherding group, we’ve been studying the book of James. And some of the promises God gives us just in this one book are wonderful comforts. Here are the ones we’ve spent time discussing. I hope you find rest, comfort, and fuel for your joy in Christ in these like we’ve been doing. Again, all by the grace of God, and the grace of the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to the Truth in Scripture. Keep in mind that these promises apply to Christians who have been born again from their sin and spiritual death, into new life in Jesus; God puts his Spirit into a Christian at the moment of new birth, Who then enables us to actually believe these things and live them out. An unbeliever can’t find the same rest and security in God, through Christ. A sinner must be born again (John 3:3-15).

1. God will grant us wisdom to endure our trials and sufferings when we ask for it (James 1:2-8)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

2. When we resist the Devil’s attacks, and stand firm in God and His promises, the Devil flees (James 4:7).

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

3. God will draw near to us when we pursue Him (James 4:8).

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

4. God will exalt, bear up, and hold onto his children when they rest in Him with humility (James 4:6, 10).

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Sorrow And The Door To Joy

“As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter.”

George MacDonald, from Phantastes

    “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

James 1:2-12 ESV

Scripture tells the Christian to count it all joy when God gives us trials and sufferings and sorrows. It’s the way of the cross, and we shouldn’t hope for a different lot than our King willingly took on for us. And because sorrow in this life is the way of the cross and the way of the King, we can have a secure hope, as MacDonald profoundly put it, that sorrow will fling wide the doors of joy that sorrow herself may not enter. Let sorrow come, because God redeems it in the lives of His children – sorrow opens the door to the greatest joys, and God completes us with it.

I think what James gets at, is that God gives us even more of Himself through our sorrows. So, again I say let them come. Let them bring us more of God, and more of Joy than we would’ve had any other way.