Take, and eat

Becky Lynn Black has been fighting cancer for many months now, and recently she learned that the battle is far from over. Her essay is a meditation on how to respond to the news, and I recommend it all to you. I found this part especially helpful.

Today as I got up from a nap, the Lord met me with a new understanding. To choose Him & His way means to live according to the Truth of Scripture. What does this mean, practically-speaking?

It’s like eating a meal. The food is before me on the plate. I can acknowledge the reality of its presence. I can see it. I can discuss it with others. But it does me no good, sitting on the plate. I must first make the decision to eat the food, and then I must act on that decision by lifting it piece by piece into my mouth. Once in my mouth, I chew on it, savoring the taste, considering its texture, interacting personally with it. But it still does me no good. I am more intimately involved with the food, but I can still spit it out.

I have not committed to it until I swallow it. Only after surrendering to it, after allowing it to pass the point of no return, do I gain any benefit from it.

Because with that decision to swallow I set in motion the largely-unconscious absorption of the food into my own body. Blood carries the food to my cells, and my cells now have strength for their work. It is the act of swallowing (not the looking at the plate, not the chewing, but the swallowing) that makes it possible for me to absorb the benefit of the food, so that the food becomes part of me and empowers me.

Truth is like that food. It is real. It is discussed. It is sitting on the plate waiting to see who will “eat”. Truth is the Scriptures, “cooked” by God Himself and placed in front of us. “Come and eat”, He says.

So we gather around the table. We ‘oo’ & ‘ah’, commenting to each other what a wonderful meal. (“Great sermon!”)   In our neat little Bible Studies we discuss the colors, the scents, the layout on the plate . We set up hypothetical situations in which the Truth could be beneficial. A few of us, a very few of us, get brave and put a bite into our mouth. We chew on it. We think & meditate on it. We discuss it with the Lord. We test it against our private thoughts. We wonder if we should trust it and take the swallow.

Only the courageous amongst us go so far as to swallow. Most of us prefer to just slowly starve to death, looking at the plate of Truth, happy to sit around the table with others, from time to time bravely tasting a bit, but never committing to the swallow. Never daring to go beyond the point of no return. Perhaps this is what Jesus referred to when He said “The way is narrow, and few there are who find it.”

Few amongst us are willing to commit to the swallow.

I’ve worked in several corporations, and the response to crisis was almost universally to talk about options for dealing with it—and then to talk some more. I think that the reluctance to commit to some course of action, although foolish, was understandable: deciding what to do was also deciding what not to do, while continuing to talk left all the options open. As long as no choice had been made, nobody was responsible for having made a wrong choice.

Understandable, because human wisdom is at best imperfect and there is never any guarantee that it will choose correctly. But also foolish, because to avoid choosing is as a practical matter the same as rejecting all the options. Fear of failure guarantees that you will fail; paralysis spares you from walking the wrong paths, but also prevents you from walking the right ones.

It’s good to know your Bible. But it’s not good to put off living according to that knowledge with the excuse that further study is called for. The truths of scripture can be pondered endlessly, but they are also straightforward and lie on the very surface of the text. Further study will not overcome your reluctance to obey—in fact, it may increase it as it persuades you that further study is a good unto itself.

Take, and eat. Don’t forget to swallow.

The freedom of self-sufficiency

Sometimes I think I do all my deep thinking in anecdotes, especially favorite anecdotes. For me, they do a much better job of encapsulating wisdom than a saying, even a pithy one. Some I return to again and again, and on occasion I’ll see something new.

One I like comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy, which describes a year or so in Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood. At the end Almanzo is offered a chance to apprentice with the carriagemaker in town. Pa Wilder tells Ma about the offer over supper, and Ma is not too enthusiastic about the idea. [Emphasis added]

“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”

“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But—”

“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to be nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days—he’ll hever be able to call his soul his own.

For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.

“There, there,” Father said, sadly. “Don’t take it too much to heart. Maybe it’s all for the best, somehow.”

“I won’t have Almanzo going the same way!” Mother cried. “I won’t have it, you hear me?”

“I feel the same way you do,” said Father. “But the boy’ll have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he’s twenty-one, but it won’t do any good if he’s wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he’s young enough.”

I love Ma Wilder’s defiant opinion here that the farmer is king because, unlike a merchant or laborer, he does not have to truckle to other people for his living. On my more idealistic days I like to think that this was the prevailing opinion in 1830—but, if so, how far we’ve come!

But I’ve always been uncomfortable with the suggestion of rugged individualism here. Often those who champion agrarianism for its emphasis on self-sufficiency are accused of putting too much value on not needing to depend on others. And sometimes  the accusation is valid. Is self-sufficiency merely the route to personal sovereignty, the blissful state of being able to say to anyone and everyone, “You’re not the boss of me!”?

I was talking this over with Chris on our latest long drive, and suddenly it hit me. The good of self-sufficiency lies not in being free to say no on a whim, but in being free to say no when necessary. Self-sufficiency puts a man in a position where doing the right thing will not cost him his living.

I went back and re-read the passage from Farmer Boy, and was pleased to see that this thought is in there.

Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.

He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and all his mouth and nose were spicy.

“He’s too young to know his own mind,” Mother objected.

Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.

Exhortation, or scolding?

On Doug Wilson’s blog I saw this excerpt from The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes, which is depressingly accurate.

So the [good preacher] doesn’t stand in the pulpit to scold the congregation by essentially calling them bad dogs. It is striking how much of contemporary preaching reduces to this: ‘You bad, bad dogs! Look at what you did.’ And those in the pews respectfully cower and look like guilty golden retrievers who know they have disappointed the master once again.

It made me think of Dug, the dog in Pixar’s UP, and his “I do not like the Cone of Shame!” Unfortunately, I think there is something in us that dearly loves the Cone of Shame. Otherwise why come back week after week for another swat with the newspaper?

I think it was T. David Gordon, in his book Why Johnny Can’t Preach, who pointed out that there is a common variation on this them, namely “Those bad, bad dogs! Look at what they are doing!” At which the congregation mutters, self-satisfied, “Isn’t it a shame what some folks do in the name of Christ.” And the cleverest preachers phrase these exhortations in such a way that it is easy to take them as a general admonition—yes, yes, a good Christian should never do those bad things, or should try harder to do those good things—but hard to take them personally.

Why Galatians 5:4-5 doesn’t serve as a blanket prohibition of such preaching, I’ll never understand.

But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.