Beatitudes (Audio)

The Beatitudes are a distinctive passage of scripture. The passage is familiar to most people—it begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and proceeds into a list of several other “Blessed are” statements, including “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Yet most people are also fuzzy on what Jesus is saying here, and unclear about why he began the Sermon on the Mount with these odd-sounding lines.

I recently had the chance to speak about the Beatitudes at the Village Church of Mariemont. In the audio at the link below, the voice you’ll hear introducing me is that of Todd Keyes, the Village Church’s pastor.

Listen here to my talk about the Beatitudes.

(Link will take you to a new screen. You might need to hit the download icon at the top of that screen before audio will play.)

Miracles and Science (My Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather’s Book)

Francis Jones Lamb wrote one the best books on the subject of miracles that I have ever come across. I might be biased, but I don’t think so—the family connection is not that close. Born in 1825, Lamb is my great grandfather’s great grandfather. I learned about him and his 1909 book, Miracles and Science, only this year.

He was a lawyer. His book draws on this background to address the question of the credibility of the Bible’s accounts of miraculous events. Specifically, he notes that the Bible satisfies our own society’s legal definition of a document that qualifies as credible evidence.

The Bible is not like other religious texts. It does not claim to have been delivered from beyond or above. The New Testament, in particular, is not made up of claims of revelation (the sole exception being the one book that goes by that name), but instead it consists of accounts and letters that refer to events that were known to witnesses at the time.

Our own system of law occasionally refers to documents of just this sort. In Lamb’s 19th century, for example, land that had been in one family’s possession for generations might have had no documentation formally detailing the ownership, and no living witnesses to describe how and under what terms the land was obtained. Legal disputes related to this ownership were therefore resolved by looking to ancient letters and other accounts, to try to fathom what people at the time seemed to believe about the property. With regard to ancient questions, the law considers this to be reasonable proof, because it is the highest-quality evidence that we can expect to obtain across a large gulf of time.

Similarly, the New Testament’s gospels and letters constitute reasonable proof of the events to which they refer. We would certainly have far better evidence of these events if we had camera footage from 2,000 years ago or a 2,000-year-old eyewitness who was still alive to speak. But because this kind of evidence does not exist and cannot exist, it is unreasonable to demand it. The most reasonable response to the long-accepted accounts of Jesus’ life is to regard these accounts as credible, including the accounts of the works that he and his followers did. Thus we can reasonably assume that the people in the first century saw miracles.

Meanwhile, we do not see miracles. This is the other major issue Lamb confronts. Christian writers and speakers often try to close the distance between biblical times and our time by leaving open the question of whether miracles can occur today. They do this by softening the definition of what constitutes a miracle. However, an event that is merely unlikely, even if it is an answer to prayer, does not match the miracles the Bible portrays. Jesus and his immediate followers did not do the unlikely; they did the impossible. Water turned to wine, people spontaneously healed, and one man (actually two men, for a brief moment) walked on the surface of a lake. Moreover, these events were not in dispute. Many of these events were performed publicly in front of numerous witnesses, and the miraculous nature of the events was so undeniable that doubters were turned around by what they saw (John 10:38). Today, supernatural events of this kind of clarity and renown are not happening. Why this difference?

Why do miracles occur in the Bible but do not seem to occur within the lives we live today?

The interesting thing about this question is that it contains its own answer.

In the Old Testament, when God spoke a message for Moses to give to Pharaoh, God expected Pharaoh to ask for a miracle as proof. He prepared Moses to answer this request. In Pharaoh’s sight, Moses was to turn a rod into a living snake (Exodus 7:9).

In the New Testament, when Jesus drove moneychangers from the temple, the Jews asked him, “What miracle do you do to show that you have this authority?” (John 2:18).

Throughout the Bible, in other words—in Old Testament and New—this one principle related to God speaking seems deeply established. Namely: If God expresses his will, there is a miracle to confirm that this is indeed God speaking.

At the temple, Jesus answered the Jews’ question. It was apparently a valid question to ask.

And with Moses, God did not regard Pharaoh as impudent for asking for confirmation. On the contrary, he readied Moses to give this confirmation.

The picture that emerges from these two biblical episodes, and from other passages Lamb cites, is that looking for a miracle to confirm God speaking is reasonable and necessary prudence. If there is no miracle to accompany a divine message, then it is not a divine message.

Why did the people living in biblical times experience miracles? Because they were living in biblical times! The Bible was being written. While God did not speak the Bible in terms of dictating it, its text is God-infused or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible's contents, these certain documents out of the first century and before, contain timeless truth and spiritual truth, ultimately conveying more and providing for more than what their authors imagined when they were writing or dictating them. The miracles of the first century, performed in many cases by biblical authors, serve to ratify that these were inspired times. That inspiration reaches us today through texts that were recorded within this period.

In a small way, my ancestor’s book also came to stand for something more than what its author imagined it to be, because I am now left with the awareness that publishing books after thinking about scripture is a quirk that recurs in my bloodline. The book is old enough that it's in the public domain—modern editions consist of just image after image of the pages of someone’s original 1909 copy. (Actually, I love this.) A free digital version of these images-as-pages is available through Google, but I found the book hard to read in this form. I purchased a print edition, which is essentially a softcover stack of high-quality photocopies of the original pages. The publisher, Nabu Press, apparently specializes in reprinting public-domain works in this way. I am not affiliated with the publisher and know nothing more than this about the company, but the edition that I purchased is available here.

Fear

The fear of the Lord is not just a trembling concern for the prospect of God’s retribution. Maybe it’s not that at all.

The Lord deliberately made you (Psalm 139:13-16). He places particular desires within your heart (Psalm 37:4). He sets captives free (Luke 4:18).

To take up this freedom ought to bring boldness. To seek the heart’s own desire within a life made by God ought to bring joy. The beginning of fearing the Lord, and perhaps the middle and the end of it as well, is to stop fearing other things.

Timeless

Here is what the material world is all about: death.

The certainty of death encircles and limits everything we do. There is not only the certainty that each life will end in death, but also the certainty that everything that exists will eventually somehow end—whether through dissolution, decay, destruction, or some other loss. Everything vanishes into the void.

Here is what Jesus is all about: life.

Describing his aim and his mission, he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

He repeatedly used the phrase “eternal life.” Famously, he used this phrase in John 3:16. We read that biblical phrase, “eternal life,” and we think of heaven. However, during those times in scripture when Jesus was clearly and directly talking about an afterlife in heaven, he did not use this phrase. He spoke of “paradise” (Luke 23:43) and “my Father’s house” (John 14:2). “Eternal life” is some concept that is distinct from this.

The Greek word in the Bible we translate as “eternal” is aionios. According to the concordance I have closest to hand, a more precise translation would be “perpetual,” which is a slightly different term. I would like to suggest the translation “timeless.”

The very reason we have time is because we have death. According to physicists, the directionality of linear time—that is, the sequence we’re locked into, in which one event follows another event in an order that can’t be reversed—is defined by entropy. Entropy is the tendency toward irreversible decay that is built into the nature of everything made of matter or energy. Through entropy, everything is fundamentally falling apart. What we experience as time is the shadow of entropy’s progression. Thus, we who live inside of linear time are, quite truly, passing through the valley of the shadow of death.

Yet here is what Jesus knows that physics does not: Get beyond this realm in which entropy rules, this realm in which death governs the system, and what you find outside the limits of this realm is not nothing, but life.

Moreover, what lies beyond the boundaries of this world is real life—abundant life—because it is completely unbeholden to time.

“Life after death” does not say nearly enough to describe it. “After” is still a time word. “After” leaves the life still subject to time, still bound inside of death. What Jesus brought could more fittingly be described as “life beyond death,” because now that we know the truth, now that we know about the ultimateness of life, we can look past the rulership of death in this very moment. We can look past it to the life that is timeless, and therefore indestructible, and therefore with us not only after this world is done but also right now. Indestructible life is the certainty that supersedes whatever aspect of death or loss os entropy is taking something away from us today.

We cannot envision this fully. The very brains with which we think are bound within linear time. But when the living God entered physicality as one of us, he conveyed the message as pointedly as it could be conveyed within the realm we do understand. When Jesus died and stood up alive outside the grave, he made two things clear: (1) death is not the final ruler of things and (2) the living God is. Scripture says that if you can get your head and heart around just the essence of these two ideas, then you will be saved from this world’s futility. See Romans 10:9.

In allowing humanity and history to witness his resurrection, Jesus opened a window in the material world. That window had always been there, and maybe a few people such as Enoch had found it, but for all of the rest of us, death was blocking the view. In rising from the dead, Jesus opened a window in the world to reveal the transcendent and welcome truth of the way reality actually works.

Looking through this window, we see that life wins. Death does not contain us. It is a joyful discovery. Free of the subjugation, free of grasping for temporary victories in a losing war, we can at last change direction and live a different way. Death (and entropy, and time), where is thy sting? Death does not contain us, and seeing this, we can also see the next point, which is that death does not have to constrain us.

These Words

The most important fact in all of reality is that God exists. What are you to do with this fact?

From more than 3,000 years ago, here is quite possibly the ultimate writing on the subject:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. —Deuteronomy 6:4-7

A few observations about this passage:

1. “You shall love the Lord…” leads directly to “… and these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.” Compare that with Jesus’ words: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In Old Testament and New, in documents written about 1,500 years apart, we find these two statements of the same idea—that the way to love God is to value highly and take seriously what he has said to us. (Indeed, the source of the two statements was the same. Jesus said Moses, traditional author of the passage above, was in fact writing about him—John 5:46).

2. Look at the activities mentioned in the passage above. They include sitting, walking, sleeping, waking. Meanwhile, there is no mention of any mountaintop experience, no mention of ritual. God, the creator of each day, is the author of our everyday lives. The mundane is not boring to him. He invites us into a life in which simple activities are lit up with sacredness, with nearness to him.

3. Are we to obey the words of the Lord’s commands? Strikingly, the passage above does not literally say this. It says we are to revere and treasure the commands—these words shall be in your heart. Perhaps this is because, as sinners, it is impossible that we would perfectly obey. We are instead called to be transformed by loving what God has said, and treating it as holy enough to aspire to be true to it. Even in the line attributed to Jesus in point #1 above, the original Greek word was tereo, which has the sense of “guard” rather than “obey.” “You shall keep my commandments” (emphasis mine) is how the King James expresses it.

4. You shall teach them diligently to your children. We have a generational responsibility. This treasure we keep is to be passed to its next possessors and guardians, and we are to do this diligently.

5. How do we treasure the treasure? The plain answer, out of the passage above, is that we revere the treasure at least in part by talking about it. The Deuteronomy passage entails considerable talking. The Law of scripture is, in this respect, considerably different from the sets of regulations that make up human laws. The Ten Commandments are concise and straightforward on the surface, yet flower with implication and meaning the more they are examined, the more they are discussed. Anyone claiming to know God’s Law so well and so fully that discussion was at an end would be contradicting scripture.

E-Books, Printed Books, and Axes

If I love a hardcopy book, then chances are good that I will still have that book in 20 years. I can pull that book down from my shelf and revisit whatever notes I wrote in the margins when I first wrestled with its ideas.

If I love an e-book, chances are not as good that I will still have it in 20 years. For digital media, 20 years is a long time. Across that length of time, it is likely that the e-reader I use will have been eclipsed by a different and better platform. The maker of the latest platform may or may not see value in supporting the legacy content I purchased for a different device. The “e” in e-book could stand for “ephemeral.”

As a result, I have this new consideration to factor in whenever I contemplate purchasing a book. Namely: Is this a book that has the potential to so elevate my thinking that I will want to be able to return to it, and return to the conversation I originally had with it, well into the future? Obviously, this is a tough call to make about a book I haven’t read yet.

We could call these great books “axes” in a nod to Franz Kafka. He wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Because of the problem of still-changing digital platforms, I tend to view books such as these as needing to be purchased and experienced in hardcopy. Axes, in other words, still need to kill trees.

I Will Give You Some Advice, and God Be With You

I’ve written about body, soul, and spirit. The Bible implies that each of our lives is comprised of these three realms. But the framework goes even farther. These three realms also account for the different priorities we follow and the different choices we make.

Here is what I mean:

1. We make emotional choices. We follow feelings or impulses founded on, say, increasing our pleasure or defending our turf. Or—this is the most common of all—we follow feelings or impulses aimed at maintaining our comfort. The emotions that arise within us tend to focus on the body.

2. We make rational choices. We choose actions and objectives based on what we think we would like to attain, and we make plans according to the best of our ability to analyze and anticipate. The thinking mind is the driver of the soul.

3. We seek to obey the will of God. Here, God makes the choice and we who believe seek to follow in it, even though what we follow is a mystery. God leads, because his knowledge and aims surpass our understanding. The means by which God moves us is through his Spirit animating our spirit.

This framework makes several things clear.

That second realm above is in tension between the other two. Rational thinking is both the saving grace and the impediment to the quality of our choices. It is a saving grace when rational thinking saves us from our emotion-driven course. It is an impediment when logic’s limited viewpoint stops us from pursuing what the Spirit would have us do. In following a leading from God, wrote Oswald Chambers, “there is no logical statement possible when anyone asks you what you are doing.”

Yet in this very tension, you can see the error we are prone to make in seeking God’s will—or at least the error I am prone to make. While the movement of the Spirit does defy logic, not everything that defies logic is a movement of the Spirit. Most of the time, the choice I have imagined to be “God’s will for me” was in fact just my own emotional bias or yearning dressed up in spiritual clothes.

Far from being emotional, in fact, the revealed will of God would actually be supra-logical. His plan would do logic one better. If you or I ever succeeded at following in his mystery without missteps, then we would see the Creator’s hand working through us to realize life, wholeness, and freedom along a surprisingly elegant path that was hidden from what our logic was able to foresee.

Along the same lines, good advice is also both a saving grace and an impediment. Sound advice from another can save me when feelings blind me, and logical advice from another can help me when I am formulating a logical plan. But advice can be dispiriting when the Spirit is advancing, because the well-intentioned giver of this advice invariably presumes to imagine what the outcome “ought” to be.

This explains the Bible’s seemingly conflicted perspective on seeking advice. According to Proverbs 15:22, plans go awry without counsel. But when Paul was trying to figure out the meaning of his conversion, he reports, “I did not immediately consult with anyone” (Galatians 1:16). Instead, he let the implications of his being called by Christ work through him for three years before he spoke with another apostle (1:18). Even in this meeting, the Bible does not record how much or how little Paul revealed.

How, then, do we give advice? How do we receive it?

I think I see a model in the way Jethro spoke to Moses in a scene out of Exodus. In this scene, Moses was wearing himself out by spending all day listening to his people’s complaints. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, thought he saw a better way.

“Now listen to me,” Jethro said in Exodus 18:19. “I will give you some advice, and God be with you.”

He then proceeded to teach Moses about delegating some of his responsibilities, to better preserve himself for the mission God had for him. It was the right counsel. In giving the advice, one man who was following God spoke out of the best of his judgment to another man who was following God, and divinely liberating instruction flowed through what was said.

God be with you. In the ways that you and I give advice, we should always be willing to say this. In the ways we hear advice, we should always submit to this expectation. As givers and receivers of good but limited human counsel, let us always hope that the best of our wisdom, and perhaps even something better than our own understanding, will find its way into what we hear and say.

Daniel 1:8

The objective of a culture is to draw everyone in and make everyone similar. This isn’t necessarily bad. The pressure to conform sometimes guides people onto a better path. But in many instances, that pressure is detrimental. We have to push back or stand firm in those cases, even when the culture doesn’t think it’s being harmful, even when the culture doesn’t understand.

An example appears in Daniel chapter 1. Daniel was an Israelite taken into the service of Babylon’s king after this nation had conquered Jerusalem. Daniel was given a new, Babylonian name. He was also given Babylonian food, and at this point he pushed back, asking to eat only vegetables instead.

Daniel’s reasoning is not explicitly stated, but we can infer it. The Israelites had been given special dietary rules by God. With Babylonian food, there would have been no way to know whether the food had been prepared in a way that was acceptable. For example, had the meat been an offering to an idol? By sticking to vegetables, Daniel would know he was in the clear.

What is explicitly stated is Daniel’s aim, and this is surprising. Daniel’s priority might be a surprise even to many who know the story.

Daniel 1:8 says: “Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king's food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief official not to defile himself.”

Consider what that verse doesn’t say. It does NOT say, “Daniel determined that God would be angry if he ate the wrong food.”

It does NOT say, “Daniel determined that rules are rules, and to break them would bring dishonor.”

What it does say is that Daniel determined that he would not defile himself. Daniel was thinking about himself. There was something special about him, something worth preserving. Specifically, he was part of a special people. That people was now conquered, dispersed, and being absorbed, making it all the more important to hold to the ways that God had made this people distinct. If Daniel didn’t stick up for this specialness he shared in, then it might be lost.

How significant was that specialness? Listen: When the Israelites had carried the Arc of the Covenant, they carried a picture of themselves. The Arc was a vessel that had the word of God inside. As described in the Book of Exodus, the Arc carried the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Similarly, the Israelites were a vessel that had the “Word” of God inside. They were a vessel through history that would carry a line of descent all the way to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Daniel lived before Christ; he didn’t know this much. The Babylonians around him certainly understood even less. All Daniel knew is that God had made him special by choosing for him to be born into a special people, and that part of living out that specialness was to obey a set of rules that (by design) set the Israelites apart from other peoples.

Is all of this still relevant today? Arguably, Daniel’s example is more broadly relevant now than it was in his own time. We are all vessels. Each of us who believes has God inside (Romans 8:11), and because each of us is unique, it must be that each of us has some unique expression of God manifesting through us. What is the specialness that you are given to protect?

The answer is written on your life or your nature. It might involve the interest you want to follow or the talent you can cultivate. It might involve the area of sensitivity you have to keep safe, or the need to which you ought to attend. It might involve the pain that is a part of you. It might involve the love you don’t wish to have to explain to others.

These things can be awkward to the point of feeling shameful. These things can seem downright weird. But in fact, an appearance of weirdness is the turbulence surrounding specialness. “Looking weird” is what happens when the culture applies its pressure.

There is so much of this pressure that we can’t resist it all. Nor should we. Again, sometimes the culture is right.

But then there are times when even loved ones are pushing us to yield something that we should not yield. The problem in these cases is that the point often seems small. Protecting that particular iota of specialness in that moment seems not worth the trouble. Yielding on this one point seems like a small-enough concession that we expect we can recover the lost ground later.

However, if God has woven something dear into the self he gave you, then likely the stakes are higher than that. What if your specialness is valuable? What if, like Daniel, the worth of what sets you apart and makes you distinct is actually much greater than you are able to understand?

A La Carte

You will never break through if you keep on seeing spirituality as an à la carte menu or a custom-tailored suit. People frequently assert a claim that goes something like this: Rather than being a part of any established faith, I have found my own faith by choosing what works from many different sources.

Two problems with this:

1. What is the doctrine of your modular religion? What is its scripture? The claim of a self-assembled spirituality leaves you with nowhere to go and no means to grow. What is the body of sustenance that would enable you to pursue even deeper understanding than the pieces of belief you have chosen so far?

Even if you pursue a church’s teaching and find yourself discovering the limitations of that teaching, or the reasons why it does not answer your searching, then that outcome would still be more fruitful than simply refusing to engage, or refusing to seek after a faith that goes beyond what you know.

2. Who has the final say? If you have the capacity to identify which elements of this or that spiritual teaching are good—which elements really and truly represent what God would have us believe—then it must be that you have a pre-existing understanding of these matters that is on par with God’s. Moreover, in exercising this capacity, you claim an authority that is greater than God’s, because you are the judge his stuff has to go through before it can be certified as valid.

God began the Ten Commandments with this one: “Have no other gods before me.” One’s own uplifted self can be the “other god” that this command refers to. God did not give this command for his own sake. (He’s doing fine.) Rather, the reason we find our other gods and lower them down is not because those other gods get in God’s way, but because they get in our way. My self-selected spirituality, this choice that seems to make me distinct, is actually a self-imposed curtailment that keeps me small.

How to Defeat a Stronghold

Do not worry, said Jesus in Matthew 6:25. He wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t possible to do.

I worry. Like many, I am imaginative enough to be able to envision many fears. I then serve those fears by scrambling to take measures to prevent the fear that I have imagined from coming to pass.

Perfect love casts out fear, says 1 John 4:18. Perfect love comes from God. I could have more of God’s peace if I (somehow) provided more space and more time for surrendering the activities of my soul to him.

Worry is precisely antithetical to this. In worrying, here is the cycle: I spend time on scrambling to head off fears, which leaves less time for pursuing and experiencing peace, which means I am undernourished and therefore more vulnerable to further worry, which sends me off into additional scrambling.

The reason why the enemies within us are able to launch this kind of ongoing, successive attack within our minds is because they occupy bases of operation in our minds. 2 Corinthians 10:4 says the enemies in our minds live in strongholds.

How do you deal with a stronghold?

In biblical times, the military reality was that defensive measures were more powerful than offensive measures. There was no air power to rain down bombs. In biblical times, when faced with a stronghold, the armies often overcame it only with a blockade or a siege.

That is, the armies confronting a stronghold stopped feeding the fortified base. They could not bring it down, so they stopped supplies from getting in.

When I obey worry and try to defeat it on its own terms, I am trying to resist a stronghold by pounding on it. Worse, by taking measures and spending time to head off or guard against some unlikely fear that my imagination has concocted, I am not actually just being prudent, but instead I am directly serving the fear. I am directly serving the dark part of my imagination that keeps on concocting these fears, because I feed that dark part of me by accepting its reality. In yielding to fear in this way, I am like the serf outside the stronghold who perhaps pounds on its walls now and again, but who also keeps growing crops for the stronghold and keeps on giving sustenance to the masters inside of it.

Fear and worry, in this context, are two different things. Fear is the feeling. We can’t help what we feel. But worry is the indulgence—the churning of thoughts or the suffering of wasted energy through unnecessary steps. Jesus’ command, “Do not worry,” specifically addressed the choice, the tangible response.

Here, then, is the way to deal with strongholds: Don’t give them tribute. Worry is the example I have used here, but the principle applies to other tributes to other sorts of strongholds as well. Do not give your energy to refuting the stronghold when the price of this resistance is accepting the stronghold's argument first. Pounding against the stronghold might leave you just as consumed as if the enemy had poured out of it and overtaken you.

Instead, turn away. Give your energy and your time to something better, something fully positive. Indeed, in the context of that previously mentioned verse from 2 Corinthians, we can count on divine weapons able to pull down strongholds—perhaps something like air power after all.

Let the war in your mind therefore be a war of attrition. Your lack of engagement leaves your enemy to gradually wither, and might even clear the field for the arrival of a superior force.

34 Years

One of the top ten greatest books I have read in my life is How to Survive in Your Native Land by James Herndon.

I had never heard of this book until I found a first-edition copy priced for $1 on the clearance rack at Duttenhofer’s used book store in Cincinnati.

Apparently, few people see what I have seen in this book. It is still in print, but not in a mass-market version. That clearance rack at Duttenhofer’s seemed like it might have been the last stop before the recycling bin. As far as I can tell, no one has ever made an e-book version.

But the book touched me. The story of Mr. Herndon’s efforts to liberate and lift up the public school class he taught, and his candid account of what he learned about his failures and success, continues to inspire me with a clear and accessible picture of what real possibility looks like, what real hope looks like, and what freedom looks like—the freedom to create and the freedom to be.

That is success for a book. This book found its target. It found someone (me) whose experience of life and understanding of life were improved by what it has to say. I wish for the books I write to have that kind of success.

And that wish puts a crazy spin on otherwise banal business considerations such as marketing and distribution.

Mr. Herndon’s book came out in 1971. I found my own copy in (I think) 2005. That is a difference of 34 years. To increase the chance for books I write to have something like this kind of success—that is, moving people who will be moved to try to move other people in turn—I will need to keep finding and writing the books that are on my heart to write. More, I will need to keep getting them out there, and not allow my plans to be entirely informed by whatever response I see in the short term.

Some copies of these books will be read and appreciated in the short term (I hope). But other copies are destined to travel a long, slow arc, so that whatever value exists outside of today’s context can be discovered and used. Those copies will wait on this shelf or that shelf, or in this pile or that pile, just as my copy of the Herndon book must have done during those 34 years.

That is, some copies of my books—if those books are any good—are time capsules. They will wait, each copy hopefully to be discovered by the future reader who can be uplifted by it, perhaps when that reader does the equivalent of pulling the book from the clearance rack and taking a small chance by paying a dollar.

[PS. Book lovers should watch the wonderful 5-minute video interview with the owner of Duttenhofer’s. Used book stores are like animal shelters, she says, caring for books and protecting them until they make it to their next home.]

Prayer

I’ve been writing about body, soul, and spirit. Here is another way to think about them:

The body is everything about you that exists in the physical world, and is limited to the physical world. This includes your anatomy, stuff, job, and status.

The spirit is the part of you that has its reality in the realm of the eternal. We tend not to know our spirits all that well. We can even shut off contact with the spirit.

The soul is the part of you that could do this shutting off. The soul is the decision-making part of you, the part that has your opinions and experiences, the part that includes your will, plans, expectations, and feelings. The soul can cling entirely to what’s going on in the outer world, the sphere of the body. Or, the soul can be somewhat broken of this. Through being broken, it can become the opening and the conduit by which the spirit can reach the body, by which the kingdom of God can advance, by which the eternal can flow out into the physical.

Lately, I have been thinking about whether I can give daily care and attention—a workout, if you will—to each of these parts of who I am. A work of the body involves building, lifting, running, repairing. A work of the soul involves studying, choosing, planning, laughing. The spirit is the puzzle here. What is an exercise of the spirit?

It should be something that is not primarily a work of the body. It should be something that is not primarily a work of the soul. The answer that increasingly appeals to me is that a work of the spirit is prayer.

But not prayer the way I have often practiced it. That is, not an experience filled entirely with my own imploring and asking. An odd change I’ve recently made is to set a timer before I settle in to pray, under the premise that God knows what I need to ask, hear, or say better than I do. The timer announces when I am finished with praying, thereby taking this decision away from my soul. Thus, I sometimes find that I outlast my busy thoughts. A renewed hope, a clarity of purpose, or a surprising possibility might come to my mind in the last minute before the timer goes off. Finding a state apart from my ego-bound desires in this way is an exercise some would describe as “meditation,” and I don’t mind that label.

Jesus often went to solitary places to pray, says Mark 1:35. What did he do during these times, and what was this praying like? We do not know, because no one was there to observe. However, because he could pray all through the night, as he did in Luke 6:12, it is hard to imagine that he was appealing, imploring, or calling out in intercession during all of this time.

What is an exercise of the spirit? Perhaps this is the very exertion that it is not for me to choose or make. Perhaps one answer to this question is found in letting the body be still, letting the soul be still, and confessing with my patience that I believe that the Spirit might move.


Soul vs. Spirit

I used to think of the kind of writing I am doing right here—writing about scripture and faith—as being spiritual work. I don’t think that anymore.

The Bible describes us as each consisting of three parts—spirit, soul, and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23, for example). Recently, as I described here, I have become more deliberate about giving attention to each of these aspects of the self during the course of every day.

But doing this requires an exercise in identification. In particular, just what is a work of the spirit? Can I even tell? We all tend to understand life through the prism of body and soul alone, and this is still my inclination. The ego, my soul, wants to rule. To that end, a work of the soul—a gratification of mind, pride, or feelings—will dress itself up as spiritual work.

That is the case with this writing. Though I write about spiritual things, this is still a work of the soul. The effort involves concentration, contemplation, and composition, all of which fit my nature and my gifts. Making paragraphs is the way I want to spend my time. It is the way I want to process the world and make use of what I find within it. Both before faith and after faith, I have always been writing. Well before faith, in fact, I was writing books that I hoped some publisher would approve and take on. (None did.)

Don’t misunderstand me. To say that something is a work of the soul is not to impugn it. Not at all! These three parts of who you are—well, they are parts of who you are. Body, soul, and spirit were made by God as part of a complete life. All three parts ought to be nourished, cultivated, and enjoyed. When I write, one of the joyful effects is the peace this work brings me. My soul’s agitation is stilled, sometimes quieting long enough for a softer voice to be heard. This is a good thing, perhaps even a holy thing. Yet there is still the matter of my spirit.

The spirit is our capacity to be connected to the Spirit of God. The spirit is our capacity to be subject to, and dependent upon, a God whose works we cannot predict, because this God is and has always been a Creator.

I asked earlier whether I can tell when I am doing spiritual work. Maybe I can’t. But I can tell when I am not giving attention or permission to the spirit. These are the times when I am comfortable, when I am on my game, when things are tidy and I am smoothly carrying out my list. The spiritual state is inherently a dependent state, a vulnerable state. The soul, by contrast, wants to keep things controlled. Within the soul, a work of the spirit is more likely to feel frightening than soothing. The work likely does not use the talents we comfortably and confidently employ, because the Spirit making use of us is sufficient.

In scripture, it is practically a universal theme that the people God calls out into a special mission (Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Paul are just the examples that quickly come to mind) have to do work and fulfill a role that their makeup and their mix of talents leave them ill-equipped to carry out. Considered in this light, my daytime profession looks more like spiritual work than this writing does, because my profession is where I am more likely to be called to attain some objective that feels just a little bigger and a little beyond what I imagine my capabilities to be.

Another way to think of the work of the spirit, or the work of the Spirit through me, is growth. God is Creator, and the way he continues his creation of me is by growing me. Several things can be said about growth. It is uncertain, because we can’t know what we are growing into until we get there. It is messy, because the old state is disrupted in favor of the new. It is also awkward, because we are off-balance during the change. Finally, growth is inherently straining. The soul would rather avoid all of this, and the soul is not always wrong in seeking to avoid uncertainty, messiness, awkwardness, and strain. However, feeding the spirit often means stepping into the uncomfortable thing. It often means stepping into the precarious thing, the rejectable thing, the taxing thing.

I used to think my spiritual work was this writing, but it’s not. I know how to do this. More recently, though, I have started doing something else: I have begun to put my own books out there when no one else will. Doing this is, among other things, embarrassing. My soul rebels against it. The undertaking is generally unrewarding because its successes are unpredictable and isolated, and yet I can’t deny that the effort and the exposure are stretching and growing me. My writing is a work of the soul, but perhaps I have found a work of the spirit in publishing.

Good Things

James, in the biblical letter that bears his name, wrote that “every good gift is from above,” from God (James 1:17). How, then, do we get more God? One way to experience more of him is implied in this statement. We can know more of God and have more of God by recognizing and appreciating more good things.

In seeking good gifts to recognize in this way, we are bound to consider the physical blessings first. We who are fortunate have food, shelter, family, health—the physical blessings alone are rich, and comprise a long list.

But then you move past the physical blessings. There is even more if you look further, seeking to recognize the abstract blessings that are little seen and aren’t often named. In recognizing these good things, you uncover even more of the desires of God’s nature, even more of the richness of his provision, and even more of the depth and nuance of the work that he is doing.

I look for good things to recognize, and I find that I am both blessed and astonished to realize that I have been given….

A soul

Autonomy

A history of experience that seems to be adding up to something

Uniqueness

This particular present moment

Awareness of him

Time

Finite time, with the promise of something beyond it

History, as a shared context for my connection to other people

Other people

This sense we all have that we are engaged in a story, even a common story

A role. A place in this thing God is doing (whatever it is!)

*  *  *

[PS. The letter of James is quite likely the earliest New Testament text. The letter is, to use a theologically imprecise description, pretty cool. Explore that letter here.]

Admission

Kevin Kelly writes about technology. His book What Technology Wants is a sweeping look at technology as an entity. Our technology is bigger than we are, he argues. The entire sphere of human technology, taken as a whole and considered across history, is advancing along a trend line that existed before we did. Particularly in the book’s sixth chapter, he argues that matter has an inherent tendency toward the emergence of life, and that life has an inherent tendency toward the emergence of mind. These two tendencies together are part of one big ascending trend, he argues, and the ongoing advance of technology is now following this single great arrow in the same direction. Heady stuff.

Yet as I read these big ideas, I encounter a lack that circumscribes what they say and makes them unnecessarily small. A line of questioning is obvious to me that seemingly is not obvious to the author, because the book doesn’t consider it. That line of questioning goes something like this:

1. If we find big patterns in the world, patterns that are bigger than we are, then what is the source of those patterns? If the tendencies Mr. Kelly has seen are real, if they have waited within the world to exert their push, then how did those tendencies get there?

2. Everything made of matter is in decline. That is, everything decays or collapses, except when some being acts upon it to maintain or improve it. But the move from matter to life is a move to a higher-order state. Ditto, the move from life to mind is a move to a higher-order state. Since these advances are moving in the direction opposite from decline, don’t they suggest an action being taken? Don’t they suggest a choice being made?

3. Who, then, is making this choice?

4. And can we know this being?

The lack of attention to God within an inquiry that ought to point to God is not a willful omission. At least, it’s not necessarily so. I once would have ignored this line of questioning myself. I would have assumed that questions like these are pointless because the inquiry can only pixelate at the boundary of such questioning.

That’s not a logical assumption. God, in fact, can be sought. However, the mind is clouded. As the Bible describes it, and as perhaps you have experienced, part of the transformation of a calling into faith is a renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2). God is the one who does this unclouding, and indeed, God is the one who issues that very call (John 6:44). Since we can’t take credit for coming to see something more, I don’t see how we can fault anyone who doesn’t see the same way.

In my new book, I titled the first chapter, “We Admit That He Is There.” Though that admission is simple (or perhaps because it is so simple), I don’t believe we ever make it until the Spirit first draws our attention near enough to do so. He admits us first.

If I am right about that, then the moment of seeing is not our triumph and not even our choice, really, but instead his gift.

Until then, though the unrenewed mind might be brilliant, though the intelligence might range across all it sees, what it sees is nevertheless curtailed, because our human tendency is to avoid looking in the direction of the divine.