J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine

41GGwig2LTL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_A few months ago David Bentley Hart published an article in First Things in which he recommended twenty-five fairly obscure books that should be read.  The first he mentioned was J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine.  I decided to check it out and I’m glad I did.

The Peregrine consists essentially of excerpts from J.A. Baker’s journals chronicling what can only be described as his obsession with Peregrine falcons.  One might wonder why, then, this book has such a strong cult following.  How exciting can one man’s observations of birds be?

As it turns out, it can be quite exciting and unsettling and thought-provoking indeed.

The Peregrine is hailed for its haunting and sometimes transcendent use of language, and rightfully so.  It is an absolutely stunning book in terms of its language and there are some amazing passages of very unusual descriptive force.  Lovers of words will find themselves caught up in Baker’s tremendous linguistic craftsmanship.

Then there is the commentary on man.  The Peregrine could almost be seen as a jeremiad against the destructive capabilities and foolishness of man.  The book is seen by many as a classic and critically important environmentalist text.  Baker was writing at a time when the Peregrine was being obliterated through environmentally hazardous farming practices. These, along with a temporary all-out assault on the Peregrine by the British government in the form of appeals to the population to kill the bird because the falcons were killing homing pigeons carrying crucial war-time information, took the bird to the very brink of extinction in England.  This threat of extinction for the bird is a situation that, happily, is no longer the case, but when Baker wrote he was juxtaposing the majesty of these birds with the callous cruelty of man.  There are chilling passages and bleak passages that go beyond pessimism into something like an anthropology of loathing.  Baker famously proclaims that animals fear man because we, not they, are the true killers in the world.

Finally, there is Baker himself.  Baker sounds as if he was a fairly reclusive individual (to an extent).  He battled crippling arthritis that wreaked havoc in his body.  There are unsettling passages in the book in which Baker seems to be identifying with the Peregrine to an degree that is almost alarming.  He seems, at times, to see himself as a falcon and he certainly appears very much to wish he could be one.  There is an obsessive quality to all of this that flirts with the manic.  I was not surprised to learn that filmmaker Werner Herzog loves this book.  It is the kind of thing Herzog would love and it is reminiscent of the story of Timothy Treadwell that Herzog told in his film “Grizzly Man.”

Suffice it to say, this is not merely a story about birds, though, if it was, Baker’s handling of it would still be worthy of deep and careful consideration.  It is a story about nature, human and animal, and about the world as it is and as it could be.  It is also autobiographical in a subversive and surprising way.  One feels that one understands Baker after reading this book in a way that one could not had this been a straight-forward autobiography.

This is a beautiful and haunting work of art.  Read it.

3 John

3_john_title3 John

1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. 11 Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true. 13 I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. 15 Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name.

Todd Bumgarner has written an interesting article for church planters entitled, “6 Types of People You Meet in Church Planting.” This is helpful article for church planters but, in truth, I believe it could apply to most churches in general. Here are Bumgarner’s “6 Types”:


These are the folks who are all-in. They’ve caught the vision and want to help in any way possible. They are servant-leaders and their commitment is apparent via a verbal conversation in which they express it…Folks who are in the family use phrases with first-personal plurals like “our church” or “we can do this.”


These are people who are interested in what you’re doing, excited about what you’re doing, have come to one or more of your vision meetings, or otherwise expressed their interest/excitement. People in this category require patience. Often people on the fence are plugged in to other church communities, and asking them to uproot from that to join what you’re doing is a complicated decision and process.


On Facebook, having a lot of fans is great; in a church plant—not so much. Fans love what you’re doing, express their excitement, follow you on Twitter, meet you for coffee, let you buy them lunch, but never come to anything that you organize. Fans are typically podcasting Driscoll, reading Piper, and can give you the latest update on Chandler’s cancer faster than it takes for you to find it on the web.

Fans will suck the energy out of you.


Friends are typically gospel-centered people who are playing in the same league but on a different team. They are interested in what you’re doing, realize the importance of it, and want to support you in any way they can, but in the end are plugged-into and committed to another church. Friends are great, but they’re not family.


The farm is made up of people who were on the fence and turned out not to be in the family when you called them to commit, or folks who were fans that you simply had to move to the farm, as they were much more interested in hanging out in the grandstands than ever making it onto the field. Instead of being all-in, they’ve verbally or non-verbally stated that they are out. The sad reality of a church planter is that once people are on the farm, it is typically a distraction from the mission to continue to pursue them. If they want to rejoin the fence, trust that they will on their own.


Foes are the critics and the opposite of “family.” We’ve had a few of these in our short history as a church plant…[1]

Maybe you can see yourself somewhere in these categories or maybe you are in your own category altogether! 3 John is interesting because it introduces us to three more categories. Actually, John introduces us to three individuals in 3 John, but we may take these types as well.

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“And the Reaching of the Nations (Part 3)”

4canonsgears2016Luke 10

4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 

In the mid-1980’s, a Russian filmmaker made a controversial and powerful film entitled “Repentance.” This was during the time of glastnost when critiques of Soviet communism were increasingly creeping out of the shadows and into the light of day. The film, Jane Ellis writes, was all the talk of Moscow and “audiences left cinemas in tears.”

The film powerfully and unforgettably stripped the mask from the face of Stalinism: it showed episodes from the life of the recently deceased mayor of a small Georgian town whose body keeps surrealistically reappearing. Among many inhuman acts in his life have been attempts to consign the church to the past. The film’s Christian theme is powerfully restated in its closing sequence. An old woman asks the central female character:

“Is this the road to the church?”

“This is Varlam street. It will not take you to the church.”

“Then what’s the use of it? What good is a road if it does not lead to a church?”

The phrase “Is this the road to the church?” and “What good is a road if it does not lead to a church?” soon entered the language and formed the stuff of newspaper headlines.[1]

In the context of the Soviet suppression of religion, the phrase, “What good is a road that does not lead to a church?” was profoundly politically subversive. It is a good question, but some years back Philip Yancey asked an even more interesting follow-up question. Yancey said that the truly interesting question is not, “What good is a road that does not lead to a church?” but, “What good is a church that does not lead to a road?”

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And the Reaching of the Nations (Part 2)

4canonsgears2016Luke 10

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 

There was an interesting article in The Capital Press entitled, “Sheep rancher ponders future after wolf attacks,” and subtitled, “Rancher Dave Dashiell moved his flock of sheep from near the Huckleberry wolf pack earlier this summer after dozens were killed and others went missing. Now he’s uncertain what his next moves will be following the winter.”

In the article, Dashiell expresses his grief and frustration at what is happening to his herd. Interestingly, he expresses real irritation at not being allowed to know where the wolf packs are, especially as one of the wolves has been tagged with a tracker.

Dashiell and the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association maintain that he should have been privy to radio collar location data on the pack so he could have moved the flock out of harm’s way. The department says it’s working on an agreement with the nearby Spokane Tribe of Indians, which collared a wolf in the Huckleberry pack and has authority over the collar data.

Dashiell was then asked what he would do differently in light of the death of so many of his sheep.

Q. Is there anything at this point you would have done differently?

DD: If we knew the wolves were there, we wouldn’t have been there, we would have gone the other direction. But you have to be some place. I don’t know if there’s tons we would have done differently, but I sure would have had (the department) do stuff differently.[1]

This rancher wanted to know one thing: where are the wolves? That is important information to know. If he knew where the wolves are he could refrain from putting his herd there. But how very different are the words of Jesus to this? When Jesus sent His followers out to proclaim the good news of the gospel. He said, “There are wolves out there…and I’m sending you among them!”

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Obadiah 17-21


17 But in Mount Zion there shall be those who escape, and it shall be holy, and the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions 18 The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau stubble; they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the Lord has spoken. 19 Those of the Negeb shall possess Mount Esau, and those of the Shephelah shall possess the land of the Philistines; they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria, and Benjamin shall possess Gilead. 20 The exiles of this host of the people of Israel shall possess the land of the Canaanites as far as Zarephath, and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the Negeb. 21 Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.

Julian the Apostate was an Emperor of Rome who attempted to steer the Empire away from Christianity and back to Rome’s pagan roots. He was considered the last pagan Emperor of Rome. It has been alleged, though many counter-allege that this is apocryphal, that Julian’s last words were, “Vicisti Galilaee,” which translated means, “You have conquered Galilean.” It is seen as his ultimate recognition that Christ was unconquerable and that Christ ultimately had won.

Whether or not Julian said that, the sentiment is vitally important: Vicisti Galilaee! You have conquered, Galilean!

Christ indeed conquers. What God has originally intended God will have. His will will be fulfilled and He will not be frustrated. This is important for us to understand, especially when the evidence seems to point to the contrary. For instance, after Babylon sacked Jerusalem and the Edomites were gloating over the ruins, the Jews, and all the surrounding peoples, must have thought it was the end of the Hebrews as a people. How, after all, can life arise out of the ashes of destruction and despair? How can a decimated people ever hope to see hope dawn again?

The answer is found in Julian’s alleged cry: Vicisti Galilaee! Christ will conquer and, with Him, the people of God will conquer!

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Obadiah 10-16


10 Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. 11 On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. 12 But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress. 13 Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. 14 Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress. 15 For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. 16 For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, so all the nations shall drink continually; they shall drink and swallow, and shall be as though they had never been.

Hillaire Belloc once made an astonishingly chilling statement that tends to stay with one. Richard John Neuhaus observed that Belloc made the statement “from the Sahara as he pondered the ruins of Timgad.” Here is what Belloc said:

We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him in the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence; his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creed refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond, and on these faces there are no smiles.[1]

It is a chilling statement, and a necessary one. It reminds us that the barbarians we wink and giggle at are as dangerous to us as they are to the direct objects of their wrath. When we consider the book of Obadiah, we might say that Edom was tickled by the Babylonian barbarians and particularly by their attack upon Judah. Edom was not afraid…but there were large and awful faces from beyond watching them. These were the faces of the children of God who had received the full brunt of Babylon’s wrath. Moreso, the face of God Himself was watching Edom, and He was not amused.

Inactivity in the face of evil is itself evil activity.

We now see God censuring Edom for their sinful inactivity.

10 Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. 11 On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them.

It is interesting to observe that God condemns Edom’s “violence” against Judah in verse 10 then condemns their aloofness, their distance inactivity in the face of Babylon’s violence against Judah, in verse 11. Edom stood haughtily by while “strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem.” Then we find the bridging thought: “you were like one of them.”

Obadiah 10-11 establishes a vital principle: to stand idly by while evil deeds are done is to be guilty of the evil deeds that have been done! That has been said in many ways over the years, perhaps most famously (and, for the sake of accuracy, allegedly) by Edmund Burke who is supposed to have said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Edom stood by while Babylon sacked Jerusalem. More than that, they gloated. More than that, they picked the carcass of Judah after the attack. For this, God condemned their evil deeds.

We read about this time and time again: crowds of people standing by watching while a person stabs another person to death in the street. We wonder, “Why did not somebody intervene?” We judge, but, in truth, we suspect that we too might be similarly inactive. This was the crime of Edom, Judah’s neighbor.

If you have been to the National Holocaust museum you will likely have seen Martin Niemoller’s powerful little poem, “First they came…” on one of the walls. If you have not, it is most possible that you have heard it in some other context. Niemoller was a pastor who bravely opposed Hitler’s reign of terror. He understood that silence in the face of evil was not an option. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.[2]

Yes, if we do not aid the victims of evil then who will aid us when the evil turns our way? This was Edom: they said nothing and they did nothing. But God saw and God is not mocked even by the insolent pride of a haughty nation.

A person is never nearer destruction than when that person grows comfortable with his or her sins.

God next turns to Edom’s inner disposition over the fall of Judah and condemns their pride.

12 But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress. 13 Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. 14 Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress.

Do not gloat.

Do not rejoice.

Do not boast.

It is true that Judah had fallen as a result of her own sinfulness but Edom was likewise sinning to rejoice over Judah’s judgment. The great ancient preacher Ambrose of Milan saw in this a warning that we should not rejoice when others receive judgment for their sins. Here is what Ambrose prayed:

Preserve, O Lord, your work, guard the gift which you have given even to him who shrank from it. For I knew that I was not worthy to be called a bishop, because I had devoted myself to this world, but by your grace I am what I am. And I am indeed the least of all bishops, and the lowest in merit. Yet since I too have undertaken some labor for your holy church, watch over this fruit. Do not let the one who was lost before you called him to the priesthood be lost when he becomes a priest. And first grant that I may know how with inmost affection to mourn with those who sin; for this is a very great virtue, since it is written, “And you shall not rejoice over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction, and speak not proudly in the day of their trouble.” Grant that so often as the sin of anyone who has fallen is made known to me I may suffer with him and not chide him proudly but mourn and weep, so that weeping over another I may mourn for myself, saying, “Tamar has been more righteous than I.”[3]

What should Edom’s reaction to Judah’s judgment have been? Grief and mourning over their own sinfulness! They should have turned to the one true God and cried out for mercy, for if God will discipline his own people how much more the proud and pagan Edomites who have rejected Him outright?

Beware the temptation to exult over the judgment of the fallen! The judgment of God comes upon all wickedness. The Lord communicates this truth in the next verse.

We will drink judgment unless we are saved by the one Who drank our judgment.

In John Donne’s 17th Meditation, he famously wrote:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.[4]

Edom failed to remember that they were part and parcel of the human race alongside the Jews. They failed to understand that they stood under the judgment of God for their wickedness just like every other person on the earth. They failed to understand that the bell that tolled for Judah likewise tolled for Babylon and for them!

15 For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. 16 For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, so all the nations shall drink continually; they shall drink and swallow, and shall be as though they had never been.

“All nations” stand under the balanced scales of justice and judgment: “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” In verse 16, there is a powerful turn of phrase. Edom had drunk gluttonously on the ruin of Judah, but Edom, and all wicked peoples, would be given the cup of judgment to drink in due time. Whereas the debauchery of their own arrogance led them to blinding drunkenness, the cup of the wrath of God would have quite an opposite effect: “they shall drink and swallow, and shall be as though they had never been.”

This image of drinking the judgment of God to destruction is fascinating, for it is the same image that Jesus drew on in Gethsemane in Matthew 26.

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

See and understand the difference between preening Edom and the humble Christ. Edom sees the fall of Judah and rejoices! Jesus sees the fall of the world and weeps. Edom stands at a distance and taunts. Jesus enters into the world’s pain and brings forgiveness and restoration. Edom took advantage of calamity for its own gain. Jesus set aside all gain and entered our calamity.

Edom drank the cup of wickedness and it led to their judgment. Jesus drank the cup of judgment and it led to our salvation!

We will drink judgment unless we are saved by the one Who drank our judgment.

Jesus drank the cup of the wrath of God so that we would never have to! We come to Jesus, Edomites all, and throw ourselves at His feet…and there we find mercy! For Christ has drunk the cup that I should have drunk and Christ and paid the price that I should have paid!

See wretched Edom there and tremble! You too might fall under the judgment as they did!

But see our merciful Jesus here and rejoice! He took the judgment so that all who will call on His name can be saved!


[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Best of the Public Square. Book Three. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), p.92.

[2] https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392

[3] Alberto Ferreiro, The Twelve Prophets. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament XIV (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p.122.

[4] John Donne, John Donne: Selections from Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions, and Prayers. The Classics of Western Spirituality. (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1990), p.58.

The Four Canons: “And the Reaching of the Nations (Part 1)”

4canonsgears2016Luke 10

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 

As a church family, we have committed ourselves to what we call “the four canons.” As a church, we would like to become (1) an authentic family (2) around the whole gospel (3) for the glory of God and (4) the reaching of the nations. We believe that these four canons are biblical and God-honoring. What would it look like, though, if we failed to get the fourth canon right?

What if we were an authentic family but did not care about going and reaching the world with the good news of Jesus Christ? It would mean that we had become a cult or a closed society. It would mean that we were obsessed with our own comfort, with maintaining a club just the way we like it.

I have a friend who was passionately calling his church to reach the nations. A lady in the congregation said to him, “Pastor, I know you are right, but honestly we do not want a bunch of new people coming in here and messing things up.” Some years back in another context I was having a conversation with a church member about reaching the kids on the streets around our church. They were not like the majority of folks in our church. They did not know the unspoken rules of decorum. They would sometimes say and do things that were upsetting and off-putting. This particular individual said to me, “Ok, I get that they have a right to come, but do we have to encourage them?” That is what it is to be a family without a sense of mission.

Or what if we got the second canon right but not the fourth? What if our doctrine was solid but we did not reach people? It would mean that we had become some kind of egghead debating society, a group of exclusionary nerds who love the intricacies of theology more than people. I, for one, believe that right theology is essential. What is more, I believe we should love theology! I believe we should guard against false teachings. But what does it say about our theology if it does not lead us to love and reach people? It would mean that in our study of Christ we had missed Christ!

What if we got the third canon right, but not the fourth? What if we were ecstatic for the glory of God but did not care about reaching people? It would mean that we had become a cult of spiritual euphoria, a group obsessed with religious ecstaticism but not with the actual love of the God for whom we claim to be ecstatic.

In so many ways it seems to be the case that whether or not we love and reach people is the great evidence for whether or not we truly understand who Jesus. Toward that end, the sending of the seventy as recounted in Luke 10 is a critically important passage. I believe this passage provides us with a model for the sending of the Church today.

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Obadiah 5-9


If thieves came to you, if plunderers came by night—how you have been destroyed!—would they not steal only enough for themselves? If grape gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings?How Esau has been pillaged, his treasures sought out!All your allies have driven you to your border; those at peace with you have deceived you; they have prevailed against you; those who eat your bread have set a trap beneath you—you have no understanding.Will I not on that day, declares the Lord, destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of Mount Esau?And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman, so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.

Our age is an age that does not seem to believe in divine judgment. There are likely many reasons for this. Perhaps the Church itself has oftentimes not helped to promote a solid, biblical understanding of judgment. Think, for instance, of what it does to the idea of divine judgment when it is attached to, say, petty legalisms or when it is caricatured in an effort to frighten people.

In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the character Yambo (based, at least in part, on Eco’s own life) recalls how his spiritual director frightened him and the other children with a story about judgment.

            One evening the spiritual director stood in front of the altar balustrade, illuminated – like all of us, like the entire chapel – by that single candle that haloed him in light, leaving his face in darkness. Before dismissing us, he told us a story. One night, in a convent school, a girl died, a young, pious, beautiful girl. The next morning, she was stretched out on a catafalque in the nave of the church, and the mourners were reciting their prayers for the deceased, when all of a sudden the corpse sat up, eyes wide and finger pointing at the celebrant, and said in a cavernous voice, “Father, do not pray for me! Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought – and now I am damned!”

            A shudder travels through the audience and spreads to the pews and the vault, seeming almost to make the candle flame flicker. The director exhorts us to go to bed, but no one moves. A long line forms in front of the confessional, everyone intent on giving in to sleep only after the merest hint of sin has been confessed.[1]

How horrible! A pious child had one impure thought and then was cast into hell forever! This is the kind of caricaturing I am talking about. This kind of attempt to shock and to terrify inevitably backfires and actually erodes a right understanding of judgment. Again, perhaps the church is to blame.

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The 4 Canons: “The Glory of God (Part 4)”

4canonsgears2016Romans 8

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

One of the guilty pleasures of my life is reading tweets from the Twitter account called “Werner Twertzog,” which is a parody account that purports to reflect the thoughts of the eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog. It is frequently hilarious, though not always so (this is NOT a wide-open endorsement of it, I hasten to add). The tweets are essentially nihilistic and pessimistic but often make rather poignant points about the absurdity of life as we have arranged it.

Anyway, it is, as I said, a guilty pleasure. I think my favorite Werner Hertzog tweet is this one:

Life is a parade of absurdities and pain, and then we die, alone…So, yes, little girl, I shall buy a box of Thin Mints.

It is, in a sense, humorous. The shocking juxtaposition of the nihilistic philosophy in the first sentence and the desire for Thin Mints in the second (along with the realization that he is saying all of this to a Girl Scout!) really just catches you off guard. And yet, it is also a sad statement. It is sad because, parody or not, there are, in fact, numerous people who view life in just this way: that there is no real and underling meaning to life, that life is a struggle we are doomed to lose, that there is no ultimate purpose, and so we should therefore try to grab what paltry and fleeting pleasures we can while we can.

Put another way, for many people, life really is nothing more than pain and Thin Mints, agony and Girl Scout cookies, despair punctuated by little and largely irrelevant bits of joy.

But that is not how Christians view the world. For the Christian, life is more than pain and Thin Mints. The Christian does not deny the pain (and most do not deny the Thin Mints!). But the Christian sees these aspects of life and interprets them in the life of Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross and the empty tomb. Another way to say this is to say that Christians view all things – pain and death and Thin Mints and birth and life and marriage and health and disease and friendship and betrayal and all things, painful or pleasing, life giving or life-destroying – in the light of the glory of God that has been revealed in and through Jesus Christ. And that glory makes all the difference in how we view and understand a life filled with these things.

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The Four Canons: “For the Glory of God (Part 3)”


Jack Ketchum’s short story, “The Box,” is a haunting little story (the story is better than the movie). The premise is pretty straight-forward though the story is quite enigmatic. A man, his son, and his twin daughters are on a train. There is a man sitting near them who has a box on his lap. It is wrapped like a present. The son asks to see what is inside. The man agrees and cracks open the box just enough for only the boy to see inside. The boy’s grin fades to a look of quiet puzzlement. After that, the boy will not eat. For days he refuses to eat though his parents try desperately to get him to eat. He will not eat and he will not tell anybody what he saw in the box.

A doctor looks the boy over and can find nothing wrong. A psychoanalyst can find nothing wrong either. Some days later, the father catches the boy whispering to his twin sisters. They refuse to say what they are talking about. Now, they will not eat either. Next, they tell the mother. She will not eat. So the boy, the sisters, and their mother begin slowly to waste away. None of them will eat. Soon the man has to take his entire family to the hospital. They are all dying because they will not eat.

The man presses his son: “What did you see in the box that day? What did you see?” The boy says, “Nothing.” Shortly thereafter, the son, the daughters, and the mother all die. The story ends with the father spending his days on the trains trying desperately to find the man with the box.

The story has become something of a modern conversation piece. It is taught in many high schools and colleges. The great question, of course, is, “What was in the box?” Theories are rampant concerning what the boy saw. A popular one is that the boy saw quite literally nothing and that the story is a story about nihilism, the idea that the world has no meaning inside of it and, at its base, the world offers no compelling reason to go on. Others believe the boy did in fact see something and what he saw was so horrible that it made him utterly indifferent about survival. Who knows?

It is an effective little story. It makes one think. The idea that you could see something that would lead to the gradual and then ultimate loss of life itself is terrifying. As I watched and then read this story, it occurred to me that that story is the exact opposite of the Christian story.

Two thousand years ago a group of people claimed to have seen something. They caught a glimpse of something that suddenly gave them a reason to live, and only to live but to live in a way that nobody had ever lived before! They saw something that nourished them, that gave them a sense of vitality and growth and joy!

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