Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Meek shall inherit?

 What then is meekness?

The answer seems complicated, perhaps because the simple meaning of the word, the meaning we all know, is one we recoil from. It does not seem like a virtue, something to be extolled or sought after. I have heard people try to substitute some more desirable trait in order to make meekness acceptable. “Meekness is courage,” they say, though clearly that is not the meaning of the word. No one, apparently, wants to be meek.

The dictionary says, “humbly patient or quiet in nature, as under provocation from others.”

So patience under provocation gives us a good handle. And the world is a provocating place, right? How patient under provocation will I be today? I’m less than optimistic! Provocation, in fact, is always our ready excuse. “You provoked me!”

Meekness is the opposite of assertiveness. Maybe a meek person doesn’t stand up for his rights and so he gets walked over by many. A meek person does not kick against the goads or rage maniacally against the dying of the light. Meek can seem weak, and maybe a recognition of our weakness lies behind meekness. The meek do not jockey for position, assume they deserve the honored seat at the table, or (alternatively) whine because they weren’t invited to the soiree. 

Ambition does not reside well with meekness. When ambition comes into the presence of meekness it is chastened, even embarrassed, and seeks a way out. The meek are not scrappers, strivers, or warriors. The meek do not envy the powerful or yearn for their power. The meek are not going to be in the vanguard of anyone’s revolution. The meek did not attend the January 6 rally in Washington or run through the streets of Portland tossing Molotovs. Neither are many of them fighting in anyone’s army. In a world run by the meek, there would never be war.

And finally, it is well to remember that the world will more often than not make doormats of the meek. The meek, it seems, are always the losers. And that’s why it’s so strikingly counter-intuitive, so shocking, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

That’s just seems like pure nonsense. Either that or it’s the power of God in Christ. So when Jesus says, “The first shall be last and the last first,” it would not be wrong to think of these “last” as the meek. The ones who chose the lowest place at the table, the ones who the world scoffs at as wimps.

It’s the strong that inherit stuff, not the meek. It’s the go-getter, the assertive types, staking their claim and defending their turf, who come out on top. That’s our way of thinking. But to all this Jesus shrugs and says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

True repentance = true meekness.

Friday, January 22, 2021

On the prevalence of tosh

 Reasonable people agree that on most issues "reasonable people can disagree." 

But what we have today is the choice by both major political factions, on every issue, not even to attempt to engage with the critique of the other side, but simply to delegitimize it as "radical," "communist," "far right," "far left," etc. In other words, to rule it out, as off limits, a matter that is outside the bounds of "reasonable people." The range of available alternative views becomes, by this means, narrower by the day. 

This is the predominant tactic, the preset, of both sides on almost every issue. This is why almost every conversation on matters political (from impeachment to minimum wage law to border security to the Electoral College to gun rights) winds up sounding like complete tosh. 

The idea of weighing pros and cons has become a quaint anachronism. Advocates for one position simply rule out alternative views as partisan (implying that only their own view is the result of objective analysis). In this rhetorical move we see the glimmer of an authoritarian new day, when only the views of one side are available to the public. "Reasonable people" turn out to be progressives only or conservatives only, and every complex issue is trimmed to neatly fit the prevailing view.

Barrack Obama was a subtle practitioner of this art, and Donald Trump an un-sublte one. Perhaps it is asking to much to expect anything else from politicians, but the rest of us might try to be more open-minded. Still, I expect nothing but partisan tosh.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Chimera Called Unity

 I thought President Biden's inauguration speech was quite good. The rhetoric was generally hopeful without being "soaring," patriotic without absurd hyperbole, humble and yet determined. Most of all it left an impression of the man himself, which may be its most important accomplishment. The man himself seems genuine, earnest, determined, and also humble (a refreshing change). 

I thought the weakest part of Mr. Biden's speech was his central theme of unity. Not only is any sort of real unity nothing more than a fleeting pipe dream, but the American political system does not depend on it. In fact, politics is a means for dealing with inevitable disunity. This is a point that Madison made strongly in his debate with Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788.

If we posit that unity is necessary for progress, as the president suggested, the question then becomes, unity about what? Since on every important political issue there is widespread and earnest disagreement, where does unity come in? I suppose it is in the agreement to vet our differences through politics, rather than, say, mob violence (which 2020 had altogether too much of). The agreement to in fact disagree but not dismiss the other side from the field of political play. There will always be another side. The glass will always be half-full. There is no arc of history leading to one side's chosen land, while the other side's is rejected forever.

To speak of the necessity of unity in order to make progress is, in this sense, not only naive but it embodies the potential for a kind of tyranny of the majority. Being out of sync with the majority opinion, or at least the opinion presently in power, becomes a kind of rebellion against blessed unity. It becomes unpatriotic. If progress requires unity, then our leaders will be forever frustrated (as they in fact have always been).

In our system progress requires debate, coalition building, and legislative compromise. To the extent that the president, as the executive head of only one branch of government after all, can rule apart from legislative enactments, he can keep up the pretense that compromise is not a necessary part of politics, and simply emulate a corporate CEO and issue edicts. To that extent he is not truly a participant in the Madisonian conception of governance at all, but one who has found an end-around, a way to over-ride all that. This was Donald Trump's method of governing, turning the legislature into nothing more than a supporting cast in the drama. 

I don't say all this in order to mount a rhetorical assault on the Biden presidency. I voted for him despite many political disagreements, knowing that disagreements get hashed out in our political system, if it is working as intended, in ways that don't entirely satisfy either side. But I voted for him because I thought he was a man of character, of basic human decency, and I thought that such was what America most needed in this moment. Mr. Biden's inaugural address only confirms that view. There will be plenty of time ti differ about politics, but I'm thankful for a good man in the White House.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Happy Inauguration Day!

Inauguration Day is always one of those rare days when people (some people, at least) set aside their normal and generally wise skepticism about political rhetoric and allow themselves to believe for a moment that the sun's coming out and the roses are blooming. The incoming president is very nearly treated like a savior in some circles. People don't actually sing "Happy Days Are Here Again," but they might as well. Expect a general tone of optimism and relief in the media, and that's not entirely unwarranted. 

Then there are the others who see the inauguration as the first day of a 4-year hellscape. Later today some Fox News ranter will pick apart Biden's inaugural address, providing the key talking-points of the resistance for the next couple of years. That's particularly sad, because as Rick Stearns said on Twitter, "no president deserves blind support or categorical rejection."

But balance, fairness, and historical memory are not hallmarks of our political conversation these days. We are in for the two-party spectacle of folks suddenly loving what they once hated and hating what they once loved (ie. executive orders, deficits, etc.). The only thing that will probably remain consistent is that America will not end its occupations of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and other far-flung places. That's the one thing that never really changes.

So, pardon me while I do not suspend my skepticism, even for a day. Nevertheless, I am delighted that Trump is slinking away at last, and I am breathing a sigh of relief that we will now have an adult as president, someone whom Americans can take seriously and not be ashamed of. 

As for the Trump presidency, I am happy with his judges, with the Abraham Accords (that should be a bigger deal), and, let's see, with the fact that he gave an award to Ricky Skaggs. As for Biden, I am going to keep careful track and at least for a while quell the instinct to criticize. As we often forget, politics ain't everything. I pray for the wisdom of moderation and compromise in the new administration, and that somehow Joe Biden can tamp down the raging animus of these times. May God be with him and his whole team.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Sermon on the Level Place (10): Love Your Enemies

 I’m thinking about the Sermon on the Level Place in Luke 6. Going through it section by section, but trying to see how the whole thing hangs together. Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. 6:27-36 Love your enemies.

    1. 6:32-36 This is the behavior of the “sons of the Most High.”

  2. 6:37-38 What enemy-love looks like: Don’t judge. Be merciful. Forgive.

  3. 6:39-42 Two parables that illustrate the previous points.

  4. 6:43-45 Good tree/bad tree [Q: how does this fit?]

  5. 6:46-49 Build your house on a the Rock (not sand)

Love your enemies

Jesus is giving instructions for his disciples. “Love your enemies” is the overall theme. It sets a very high standard. Verses 27-31 sum it up. Later he is going to talk about a good tree and a bad tree bearing good and bad fruit. Our behavior flows from our essential being, who we are. Whatever pretensions to righteousness we may claim, the truth is in the fruit. So right here we can say that loving your enemies is the kind of fruit that a good tree produces.

That comment shows the connection between (4) & (1). My thinking is that that (2) thru (4) are subsets of (1), but I just want to take a closer look at that.

So Jesus in (1) sets this very high standard which I’m saying is the controlling idea at least for the next 3 sections. So we can put it this way:

Loving the way Jesus commands will look like this:

  • Loving enemies: being merciful.

    • Withholding judgment. [this is very clearly a subset of enemy-loving]

      • Judging others would be like a blind man leading a blind man.

      • It would be like presuming you have perfect sight and only others are the ones in need of an optometrist. Don’t be a hypocrite. Remove your log before you give lessons to others.

      • “no good tree bears bad fruit.” This implies a very serious question: how can I be a good tree? Because only then can I love my enemy as Jesus commands.

Here, being a good tree is like having an umimpeded vision (no log in the eye). It’s also like a sighted man leading a blind man rather than just another blind man leading him. Being a good tree is bearing good fruit, which is the fruit of loving the way Jesus proposes: a love that even extends to enemies. So Jesus is saying here you can’t do that if you’re not a good tree.

So here we have come to the point of a question: how can I be a good tree? I want to be that kind of tree, the kind that produces good fruit. In fact, Jesus is calling these prospective disciples to be good trees among their enemies. The whole sermon has been leading to this. The answer to this question will place you among the blessed or the woeful.

And in the final section Jesus gives his answer: build your house on the rock. I think we should see this as the summation, the drawing together of all that has come before, and the answer to the question, How can I bear good fruit? This is it. This is what the whole section beginning at verse 27 has been leading to.

  • Set very high bar for loving

  • Give examples of behavior that makes the bar

  • And behavior that falls short

  • Put special emphasis on the problem of claiming to have made the bar when you really haven’t: don’t do that

  • Be a good person producing good treasure “out of the abundance of the heart.”

  • How? By building your house (your life) on The Rock. IOW, base everything on Jesus.

Note: At verse 38 Jesus says, “Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over into your lap.” This picture of abundance is returned to in verse 45, but instead of receiving abundance now the “good person” is offering it in the form of high-bar deeds of loving kindness. And not only deeds, but speech. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

Note (2): Jesus himself is speaking out of the abundance of his heart in this entire passage. Jesus, of course, speaks out of the abundance of his heart whenever he speaks. Words themselves are deeds. Words are fruit, good or bad.

In summary, Jesus uses this opportunity in talking to his disciples (this is early in his ministry and they are all quite new, just beginning to learn the true meaning of following Jesus). Jesus throws them into the deep end of the pool right at the start with his call for them to love their enemies.

He has already said that his people will be persecuted (and are blessed because of it!). Now he says, respond to the persecution with love. The call to love his so broad as to include every enemy. The old way was to love those who love you, give to those who give to you, etc. The Jesus Way is to love those who hate you. This love casts the widest possible net.

To love in this way is to be a Jesus follower, a disciple. “Your reward will be great in heaven,” Jesus says. Don’t look for it in the here and now, and above all don’t only love those who can reward you in the here and now (a brown-nosing kind of love). Isn’t God kind even to the ungrateful and evil? To be a Jesus follower is to have that kind of loving kindness for all others.

This kind of loving is elucidated more when Jesus adds, “Don’t judge or condemn people, but forgive them. Then there is a reciprocity offered her, something different than the “reward in heaven.” The like of what you give will be given to you in abundance. Give love, receive love. Give forgiveness, receive forgiveness.

This sort of dynamic will make you worthy to lead the blind (not just another blind person). Right now, that’s what Jesus is: a seeing person (seeing better than any man ever), giving guidance to those who have vision problems. And that’s what he wants his disciples to be. In other words: “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (v.40) They’re also going to be, like Jesus, people with good spiritual vision (spiritual understanding) leading people with faulty vision (faulty spiritual understanding).

But they’re not there yet. At this point, they are more like the person with the log in his eye trying to correct the person with the speck in his eye. The task before the disciples right now, as they sit at the feet of Jesus, is to learn about the log in their own eye and tend to that first. They are never going to be good trees producing good fruit if they don’t do that. They’ll be blind guides leading the blind, or hypocrites trying to fix everybody else when they themselves need the most fixing. Good fruit flows from what’s within (the abundance of the heart) and as we have seen, it is God who puts that abundance there.

Now I should note that Jesus doesn’t suggest that there is a learning period when you receive all this good stuff, and only then comes a practice-time where you go out and actually do the enemy-loving. Not exactly. Jesus calls on his disciples to love their enemies even now, and suggests that the abundance from God will come even as they do that, and out of that abundance, more and better loving might be expected. He pours in, and you pour out, but the first step is to receive your marching order and go do it. Love your enemies. Start now.

At verse 45 Jesus mentions “the good person.” The good person is the person who loves his enemy, who has mercy and forgives, who gives (expecting nothing in return), etc. The good person is the guide with good vision, the good tree producing good fruit. It comes from the abundance within, which itself comes from God.

Note: we who read this may or may not be disciples. Perhaps we hear all this and wonder if we should be. Some of us might back away. Others might be determined to follow, but they naturally wonder if they are going to be able. Jesus has said that God will equip us for the task (v.38) if we would only begin.

And now we come to the big finish (46-49). The ones who are able to do this are not merely the ones who say “Lord, Lord” to Jesus. To claim to be a follower without really following at all is obviously getting back to the idea of hypocrisy, which we saw at verse 42. But to come to Jesus, hear his teaching, and put them into action (loving their enemies, etc.) is like a man who builds a sturdy house that will not fall down in the storm. It’s built on a firm foundation. He dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock beneath. The teaching of Jesus that he is offering in this sermon is that “firm foundation.” To build on anything else is to build on impermanence. It will all be washed away in the storm.

So: listen to Jesus. Do what he says. Trust in the dynamic that Jesus lays out, with God’s abundant love coming to you as you love in the way that Jesus commands. All in all this a revolutionary directive. Enemy-love is going to have a remarkable leavening effect within the empire, but it can be suggested that we in our day have neglected this high calling. To read this sermon is to come back to foundational matters, the stuff on which all else is to be built (if it is to stand). You can’t emphasize this too much. When Jesus gathered is disciples for their first extended teaching-session, this was his message.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Last Weekend of the Big Wait

 It's the last weekend of America's "big wait." 

We wait for the inauguration of a new president, pretty certain that however many qualms we may have about the next four years, they can't be worse than the last four, right?

Trump is leaving office with his lowest approval rating ever, a metric that took an inelegant swan dive after the attack of Trump-loyal terrorists on the capitol on January 6. I cannot think of another president in my lifetime who left office under such a cloud of shame (Nixon excepted). And like Nixon he brought it all on himself.

It turns out that Trump's little personality quirk--the inability to admit a loss or failing--became the trait that torpedoed his chances of leaving office with any prospect of running a viable future campaign to regain the White House. Having turned the presidency into a performance space for his own self-aggrandizing fantasies in which he self-portrays as a kind of whining Colossus at the center and source of all that is good--striding from victory to victory whilst shaming the libs at every turn--defeat was never going to be admissible. Once you build a fantasy world and base your entire reputation on it, even monetize it, well then reality becomes unacceptable. Truth becomes utterly irrelevant.

Now that he is soon to enter his post-presidential period, a time when other post-presidents committed themselves to charity work or rediscovered their love of art or retired to the farm and tended the garden, Donald will no doubt spend his days in persistent fantasy-maintenance, which will require lots of lying (as usual) and the continued attempt to monetize his feverish outrage. You thought you knew self-justification? You ain't seen nothin' yet!

No, I don't expect the gentling of Donald in his old age. He will rave, and he will retain his loyal following, but he will quickly dwindle to nothing more than an old crank leading a horde of misfits. It will all seem rather sad in the end. But in the meantime, the damage he has done to the very nature of our political debate in America, as well as to the Republican Party and Conservatism generally (which he somehow managed to hijack and redefine), will have repercussions for years to come.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Is it true that "Policy is Character"?

 They say that power corrupts, and I believe it's true.

I also believe that power is a particularly strong aphrodisiac for narcissistic personalities. That's amateur psychologizing, sure, but I think history provides us with plenty of evidence.

Then again, I think there's a fair amount of narcissism in everyone.

Given these three assertions, it follows that we should probably be somewhat mistrustful of anyone who seeks power. This is not to lump all people under the same rubric. Some are more narcissistic than others. Some are balanced (aka, mature) and others unbalanced (lacking in self-control).

As a corollary to all that, organizations that are constituted for the express purpose of getting and keeping power (political parties) should be looked on with a great deal of skepticism.

Thus, the idolizing of politicians seems a particularly dangerous trend, but as someone once said, our hearts are idol-factories. If our attention is frequently on, say, sports, our idols will be sports stars. Movies, movie stars. And if our focus is always politics, our idol-factories will produce politician-idols. All this is as common as dew in the morning.

I thought the idolization of Barrack Obama was a pretty serious matter, but the idolization of Donald Trump (hey, he even looks like a golden calf!) has been an undeniable and disastrous phenomenon.

Although I have never before admired Joe Biden much, I have come to admire him this year for his studied moderation, his calm and balanced demeanor. He even seems (shall I say it?) sort of wise!

But that is not an endorsement of all his policy-positions. Some of them are terrible and unwise. Still, I'm grateful for that demeanor. Attitude isn't everything, but it's not nothing. Maturity matters. We have learned that in the last 4 years. Immaturity in power has consequences. Maturity in power should have better consequences. At least I hope it does.

We are probably all familiar with the Churchillian argument, "Character is destiny." Thus, bad character, when given authority, will breed bad outcomes. Not necessarily all it's outcomes will be bad, mind you. Sometimes a leader of bad character will throw a policy-bone to a certain demographic whose support he needs. But once that support is established, he'll turn to feed his narcissistic needs. Most of his effort will be put into policies that simply serve his various lusts or help him keep and increase power.

I ran into a new formulation yesterday (at least new to me). It was this: "Policy is character." This is a version of the argument that we should never mind what the man says or Tweets (stupid or nasty or even racist stuff) but look at his deeds. His policies. That's what's important. You might have hoped your imaginary person-of-character would accomplish this, this, and this. Well look, this bounder, this bully, this serial prevaricator, has accomplished, what, maybe two out of three of your desired policy outcomes! You should get real!

This is a strangely utilitarian definition of "character." Instead of something that resides in the person, integral and predictable, it is now merely a label you put on a leader after you've see his outcomes. But more importantly, it should also be duly noted that the bounder/bully/prevaricator that you are justifying has also produced two or three (or seven or eight) policy-outcomes that were completely in keeping with his bad character. There were a lot more bad outcomes than good. 

In other words, these tricksters pull a whole variety of rabbits out of their hats. Some of them are quite nice. But for a lover of power (see how I'm finally bringing this back to the start?) the policies were always simply gambits to gain, keep, and increase power. Some of them might have been policies you approved us, but what about all the others? It's at least arguable that the dangers inherent in giving power to a narcissist-liar far outweigh the occasional satisfactory outcomes. And I think the past week has proven this to be true as "potential" dangers became real outcomes (it's not the only proof, but it stands in particularly stark relief just now).

To say that "Policy is character" is to fob off the whole question of character (and its connection to outcomes). It is in fact to deny that character is destiny after all, and I suspect one would only argue such a thing if one were trying hard to justify oneself for supporting a bad character in the first place.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Week that Was

Well, it was a week.

I don't need to go over what happened in the past week, except to say it was one of those memorable but terrible times in our history that will always be remembered, like the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion, 9/11. It was on that sort of scale of horror. But it wasn't a lone crank with a gun, nor was it a technological malfunction, nor a foreign invader, it was a crowd of homegrown insurrectionists violently sacking the capital and stopping the very functioning of government on a momentous day.

My dominant feeling as I watched was disgust, with anger coming a close second. Over the last few days I have tried to make sense of it all by reading a lot of responses from news sources and pundits, listening to discussions about political ramifications, etc. Like many others, I have filled my head with this stuff. I have shared a bunch of what seemed the more insightful material on Facebook and the tone of my own words there has often reflected that disgust and anger I felt. 

The president, after inciting the rage that would later result in the evacuation of the Capital building while barbarians forced their way in at the other end, then failed to respond or, later, flubbed his response as only he could do. Muttering that the violence must stop in a strangely detached monotone, he soon moved on to his life-work of nursing his self-story, his imagined grievance-narrative, and vaguely promising that "the fight" was far from over.

Still, he had far fewer defenders than usual this time around. In the wee hours of the morning the Congress finished its work of accepting the Electoral College slates from the states and declaring Joseph Biden our next president. Now they have moved on to considering impeachment proceedings yet again. In the meantime, a host of White House staffers have tendered their resignations, and seemingly everyone who used to work at the White House has condemned their former boss. It almost seems a page has turned. I don't think the man will ever completely recover from this episode.

One of the more interesting responses (to me) was that of Al Mohler, the president of Southern Seminary. In 2016 he declined to support Trump on the grounds that character matters, famously saying that if he were to support Trump he would have to apologize to Bill Clinton. Then in 2020 he opted for the It's-a-binary-choice argument and publicly urged the re-election of the man whose character had been so damning 4 years before. 

Now, in the wake of recent events, he is withdrawing his support. For me he represents one of those people who has simply ceded his self-sought position as a prominent voice of reason or wise councilor to Christendom. All of the dark warning of his character matters phase have come to pass. There is no way he can actually claim he was right both in 2016 and 2020 and now again 2021, but that's exactly what he's doing. When you're burnishing your brand as the wise man of Evangelicalism, you can't ever admit to having once been unwise. In 2016 he said in essence that bad character inevitably leads to bad actions. But in 2021 he justifies his refusal to take anything back or to suggest he might have been wrong at any point by saying that he simply does not accept that this week's bad actions were inevitable. What he once called inevitable he says now (conveniently for him) could never have been imagined to have been inevitable.

For Mohler, as for many others, the proverbial hair-dye is dripping down the side of his face. One of the arguments he likes to make is that it was a binary choice after all (an idea I would quibble with, in any case), but of course we are not talking about whom one votes for in the privacy of the voting booth, but about whom one publicly supports (and urges others to support) as a prominent "thought leader" and so-called influencer in the world of Evangelicalism. In that he certainly didn't have a binary choice. He always did have the option to simply withhold support from either and keep quiet. 

And who will listen to his "deep thoughts" now?

* * *

Read also:

What are the court evangelicals saying?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Sermon on the Level Place (9); Good tree, Bad Tree

 We come now to Luke 6:43-45, often entitled "A Tree and Its Fruit."

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

First of all, we can see by the first word here that this passage is closely connected and follows from the previous passage, where Jesus suggests that we deal with the log in our own eye before we attempt to deal with the mere speck in our brother's eye.

Many of us suffer, apparently, from a kind of blindness. How would it be if the blind only had other blind men to lead them? Jesus seems to have thought that this world was full of the blind leading the blind. As a teacher, then, his goal was to equip his disciples with sight. That reality lies behind the "log in your own eye" story.

But just as a blind man can't lead a blind man, a bad tree can't produce good fruit. That seems obvious, right? But ask yourself what is the fruit that Jesus is talking about here? Seeking the answer to that question in the immediate context, we see that answer may well be vision. And broadening our context to include the whole sermon, the fruit he is speaking about may certainly be love.

Jesus spends a good deal of the sermon re-orienting his disciples toward a radical view of love. This is in fact such a radical view that it will in time cause some of his followers to balk. The log in their eye is their previous understanding of whom they should love, whom they should forgive, whom they should be generous toward. In fact, if they do not remove this log, they will be like blind men leading other blind me. They will not be equipped to lead at all.

So the point of this passage about the good tree and the bad tree is not to get the disciples to strive to be better trees. Not exactly. Jesus addresses this issue elsewhere when he talks about cleaning the inside of the cup, or about how we are not sullied by what goes into us but by what comes out of us. The issue is transformation on the inside, and that's all that Jesus is driving at here.

It is well to keep in mind that this sermon represents Jesus' first lesson to his disciples. It's his introductory lecture. In it he makes some startling assertions about love that will need to be "unpacked," as they say. His call to love enemies is so discomforting, in fact, that many followers of Jesus for centuries to come will lboriously ignore it. The disciples themselves, as we will learn, are not going to understand him fully, not at first. It will take the whole ministry of Jesus over the next two or three years, and then, as Luke will detail in his "Acts of the Apostles," the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, before they even begin to truly understand this teaching.

In the next segment, Jesus will finish his sermon with an answer to the question, how does one become a good tree, bearing good fruit? How does one become a seeing person with no log in his eye, able then to help others with specks in theirs? How does one love enemies? The answer Jesus gives will be brief, symbolic, and require (again) "unpacking." 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Reading Ambitions for 2021

 I won't say 2020 was a great year for reading books. I was a restless reader in 2020, starting one book and moving on quickly to another. That's something I hope to change in 2021. Sometimes it seems like the rise of online-reading, which is generally short-form, with the reader flitting from a sip here, a sip there, like a bee from flower to flower, is dis-equipping us for the long-form, the deep dive. So to counteract that I'm really going to focus on reading all the way to the finish line, including some long-form novels and histories, etc. Perhaps this year I will finally read my first Jane Austin novel!

I also intend to re-read a classic novel this year, both as a test of my reading discipline and because, as every reader knows, great works reward a second look. Do I have what it takes to read War and Peace again?

I begin the new year very near the finish-line in Jonathan Pennington's Jesus the Great Philosopher. Pennington's focus here, as in his previous book, is "human flourishing." In this one he interacts a lot with the great philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome, especially Aristotle and the Stoics. In the coming year I want to read Aristotle and Cicero on politics and perhaps a great Stoic document like The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

So yeah, I want to read a little political philosophy in 2021, both the ancient variety and some of the early American kind as well. I've got a notion to put together a series of titles that will actually take me through America's political history from the Revolution onward. First up in that series, Friends Divided.

For pure fun I like to read classic mysteries and westerns these days. I'll try to fit a few of those in the course of the year. Next up, Charles Portis's modern classic, True Grit. I'll also try to fit in at least one classic scifi or fantasy novel as well. I emphasize "classic" here because the contemporary stuff generally doesn't interest me so much, although I can be persuaded to try one from time to time. Every Heart a Doorway, for example.

And there will be Jesus books of course. I want my focus to remain on Jesus and the four Gospels. I don't have any particular books in mind yet though. Possibly Gentle and Lowly. The thing about Jesus, I'll just say here, is that where he is you will find relentless love and persistent forgiveness. If the emphasis isn't on these things, if we're talking or writing about Jesus and that is not the content and feel of our words, we are misleading people.

On tap for a 2021 devotional: 52 Weeks with Jesus.

And that should do it. I start the new year with the ambition to read well, to read persistently and deeply as well as broadly. But I know I will veer in unexpected directions over the next twelve months (cuz that's what readers do!). Readers are by nature adventurers.

Finallty, I pray that you who read this have a blessed and adventurous year of reading.