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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Great Stone Face by Chris White

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also   lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  –Hebrews 12:1-2

The Great Stone Face is a story by American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The rock formation it references had been a popular site and symbol of New Hampshire for some time.  As is true of all things, time and nature took their toll and the formation finally collapsed in 2003:

There was a young lad who lived in the village below a mountain, and there upon the mountain was the image of the Great Stone Face, looking down so solemnly, so seriously, upon the people.  There was a legend that someday someone was coming to that village who would look just like the great stone face, and he would do some wonderful things for the village and would be the means of great blessing.  The story gripped this lad, and he used to slip away and hour after hour would stand looking at that great stone face and thinking of the story about the one who was coming.  Years passed, and that one did not come, and still the young man did what the boy had done, and went to sit and contemplate the majesty and beauty of the great stone face.  By and by youth passed away and middle age came on, and still he could not get rid of that legend; and then old age came, and one day as he walked through the village someone looked at him and exclaimed, ‘he has come! The one who is like the great stone face!’

The moral of the story is that we, like the man, are becoming what we think about day after day.  This is both warning and a tremendous encouragement.  When we continually meditate on the negative things in our lives we become disappointed, disenchanted, and depressing to ourselves and those around us.  When we meditate and consider that which is wholesome, uplifting, positive, and greater than ourselves, it pushes our lives slowly and inexorably in that direction.  The Bible teaches us to have the mind of Christ in ourselves.  Most certainly this is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit, but it is also an invitation to contemplate and meditate upon his life which is the most noble and worthy life that has ever been lived.  We become what we think about daily.  If you want to be Christ like, read and contemplate the Word of God daily.  As the old hymn by Helen Lemmel reminds us :

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Books, Nooks, and Selling Out by Chris White

Well it happened.  Another one of my friends has gone over to the ‘dark side’ and by that I mean they bought a Kindle so they can read e-books to which I can only say a hearty “bah humbug!!”.  I knew these contraptions were here to stay when I was in the legendary Powell’s books of Portland a year ago and a street person (we used to call them winos when I was younger) was sitting in their coffee bar reading away on one.  I guess in one sense, a Kindle or Nook would be the first choice of a street person because they certainly don’t have a place to store books, but I do wonder with the retail price of one how long it would take to raise the money to buy one.  “Hey mister, can you spare some change for a Nook reader?”  It doesn’t sound plausible, but in today’s world anything is possible.  Even though people in my age bracket (50+) are literally tripping over each other to get an e-reader, if you are in your 70’s or 80’s you’re actually swarming (growth in this age bracket was over 179% last year).  Why are people giving up on the book, especially those of us who are old and unhip?  Some people tell me they like to have a whole collection of choices at their fingertips when they have time to read.  In my world that is called a bookcase, but granted some of the best reading moments in the day are waiting in a line or car and it makes no sense to have a stack of books with you.  Others have pointed out that their favorite time to read is on a plane and on vacation and this device makes certain that you don’t have to pack a ton of books in your suitcase to make sure you don’t run out of good material.  Okay, I’ll buy that one.  But I think I saw the real reason the other day when I was walking laps at our local mall: you can enlarge the print size to the point you don’t need to wear your glasses to read anymore.  I will concede it is a pain when no matter how far out you hold your book your eyes can no longer make out the print on the page and glasses are an absolute necessity not an option.  But that said, I just can’t turn my back on the whole book experience.  I love the feel and smell of a new book.  I love beautifully designed covers.  I love the tactile experience of feeling and turning pages.  On some of my more expensive volumes there is leather and stitched binding and gold leaf lettering that smells and looks beautiful and rich.  Then there is the weight in my hands and the sense of accomplishment of finishing a huge book and putting it back on the shelf.  What about the brick and mortar stores and the sheer pleasure of perusing books in a spare hour with a cup of Starbucks in hand?  I was in Barnes and Noble booksellers last night and there was an attendant inside selling and giving top-notch service to customers who wanted to buy their proprietary Nook reader.  I wanted to say to him, “Dude, don’t you know you are sawing off the branch you are sitting on?”  The next step is layoffs, and then the headline “Barnes and Noble Closes It’s Doors Forever”.  I guess I should be happy that there is still a reading culture in America at all, even if it is at the expense of the book culture.  I am all-in for technology that betters our lives, but in this case I remain quite skeptical.  What is being lost in the process of change is for me one of the greatest joys of reading.  Is anybody with me on this?!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Yes We Can! (Legislate morality, that is) by Chris White

One of the popular old saws of social liberalism, libertarianism, and libertines is that “you can’t legislate morality!”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  While moral rectitude is entirely a personal choice and ultimately cannot be coerced, moral behavior can and often is.  Examples of this are not hard to find.  D.U.I.I. laws, the prohibition of child pornography, and the state department of weights and measures are simple ways we as a society punish drunkenness and encourage sobriety, state that not all human sexual expression is acceptable or free speech, and prevent businesses from profiting through cheating their customers.  This doesn’t mean we have banished evil desires in our citizenry, for the desire to cheat or be intoxicated may be very present, but such desires are slowed or stopped through legal requirements or the fear of legal consequences.  Francis Beckwith in his wonderful book Politics for Christians calls efforts to legislate morality the building of a moral ecology in a community or society.  A good moral ecology makes people thrive where a bad moral ecology causes people great misery.  There is a reason why people don’t willingly live in neighborhoods rife with crime, drugs, and prostitution and why people who can, prefer to live in neighborhoods and cities that regulate human vice and make public investments in things that uplift the human soul like parks, libraries, and culture.  One of the great historic achievements of Europe from the Puritan to the Victorian age was what was called the “reformation of manners.”  This was the great social effort that rid Europe of things like human slavery and predatory child labor, but also made it possible for poor children to get an education and relieved the misery of the slums with compassionate acts of charity.  Certainly all evil was not rooted out, but overall, the whole of society if not improved greatly was significantly less miserable than it had been.  Many involved in this movement were motivated by Christian commitments, while others were simply humanitarians, but ultimately the bulk of their improvements came as the result of legislation.  In the last century, America experimented with the Volstead Act of 1919 otherwise known as prohibition.  In popular lore, prohibition did nothing but stir up trouble forcing good honest citizens to go blind drinking their own bathtub gin and cower in fear as their cities were taken over by organized crime.  These things did happen.  But when prohibition was repealed, organized crime did not go away and people still made moonshine.  This would suggest that prohibition was not the cause of such things as much as it was an occasion for them.  What hasn’t made it into popular understanding is the reality that during the prohibition years (which actually permitted beer and wine) many of nation’s social problems that are related to alcohol consumption were either arrested or in decline.  Put another way, while it didn’t eradicate alcoholism, making it harder to be an alcoholic for those ten years did elevate the overall well-being of America.  I’m not suggesting the repeal of the Blaine Act (which repealed prohibition) but rather the recognition that legislation can improve morality and this in turn can improve society.  Although it really is the wisdom of Solomon, his words in Proverbs 14:34 seem almost patently obvious: “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”  The real misery of today is that many of our nation’s leaders seem afraid to say that there is such a thing as right and wrong, moral and immoral (unless they can tax it!).  It is time for those of us with a moral compass (and this includes more than just Christians) to speak up and say no to the emerging anarchy of amorality.  And this means voting and getting involved in moral values politics to the level of our ability.  In doing so, we will never eradicate evil or even achieve a morally upright society, but we will all be significantly less miserable than we are today.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Three Secrets to a Disappointing Life by Chris White

At home we have a coffee mug that has a line drawn around the middle.  Above the line it says “half-full” and below the line it reads “half-empty”.  The glass being half-empty or half-full has never been an issue with me.  I’ve always figured anyone who can’t face the fact that their drink is almost gone is one less person I have to contend with when I go for a free refill.   One thing that does bother me about people with a naturally positive disposition is they tend to overlook obstacles in life and achieve great things in spite of them.  On the other hand melancholia has its benefits too.  We hope for the best but when the worst happens we are not in any way surprised or disappointed.  This leads me to the point of my essay which is my advice for ensuring that your life will never be quite what you want it to be:

  1.  Focus on yourself first.  People who tend to focus on how they feel, how they are getting along in life, and how they are performing are guaranteed disappointment!  Martin Luther said that man was ‘incurvatus in se’ or turned in upon himself.  When I meditate on what this would look like in the physical world, it makes me think of a hunchback.  Who wouldn't want a physique like that?!  Christ calls people to find their life in Him and His was a life that regarded all others as the focus of His love and service.  So definitely avoid any challenge to put others ahead of yourself.

  1. Always take the shortcut.  Whether on a hike or working, doing your taxes or business dealings, remember that getting from point A to point B the fastest is what really matters.  After all, there’s probably not going to be a reward for taking ‘the road less traveled’ so why struggle with ethics, virtue, or even hard work?  I’m sure somewhere it’s been written, ‘anything worth having is worth having instantly’ because results are far more important than character!  Right?

  1. Prioritize continually your net worth.  Make certain you postpone all family vacations, avoid dinners out with your spouse, and definitely no helpful gifts to loved ones or good causes (unless you can write them off on your taxes!).  If you fritter your money away on these needless expenses, you won’t be able to look forward to living in a nice nursing home when you are old or leaving behind a large estate for your relatives to fight over.  Nobody ever got rich by being generous with their money.

Well, there you have it, my three secrets to a thoroughly disappointing life.  Follow them and you will have success.  Those wishing for a different outcome might consider taking my advice and doing just the opposite.  However, please note that I can’t guarantee anything for those who don’t follow my program.  My expertise is very limited when it comes to positive outcomes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review of A Path Through Suffering by Elisabeth Elliot

Dear friends gave me this book as a Christmas present a few weeks ago.  Many people would probably think to themselves “oh, goody! …a book on suffering…just what I always wanted for the holidays!”  Those who truly know me know that the holidays are a form of suffering to me all their own.  Despite my winter melancholia, I don’t despise mirth and jollility like a Grinch, but rather fear situations where the expectations of happiness are super high.  Perhaps it is just performance anxiety, but I digress.  But all levity aside, I’d like to recommend this book to everyone. 

We live in a culture than likes to avoid, mask, and deny all suffering, yet look around any room of people and you see suffering people.  If it isn’t broken health, it’s a broken heart or mind or faith or family.  The author Elisabeth Elliot, who has certainly experienced her own journey with suffering, guides us gently and compassionately to the conclusion that while our pain and suffering are certainly real and by no means enjoyable, it seems to be God’s most useful tool to bring about his design for the shape of our soul.  The promise of the book is a path through suffering and what she does is show us that since suffering is universal to the human experience, what is important is how we suffer, not whether we will suffer.

Some of the wisdom that I found most helpful in this book was having the right perspective on my suffering and the reality that patient endurance usually outlasts anything we are going through.  I also appreciated her point that in suffering relationships sometimes the only constructive thing we can do is keep a close watch on our reactions to the other person and continually choose to forgive them when they hurt us.  She also makes a point that there is a temptation that comes with suffering to turn completely inward and this is the antithesis of God’s plan for us.  Having a focus outside of ourselves and what God is doing in this world frequently ameliorates our own momentary pain.  Another area she addresses is when we are doing good things for the Lord and then seemingly in a moment all our work is swept away or we are sidelined.  This, she asserts, is rarely chastisement, but rather the pruning the Lord does to accomplish even greater fruitfulness.  The vine’s perspective is pain and loss, but the vinedresser knows that in the cutting away, room is made for greater growth and productivity.

I think the author is successful in showing us the way through suffering is not an escape route but a journey into understanding the sufferings of Christ more deeply and recognizing that as members of his body we continue his suffering as needed to accomplish the fulfillment of His glorious kingdom.