Parallel Straight Lines: Connection through Contradiction

Parallel straight lines, Denis reflected, meet only at infinity. He might talk forever of care-chamber sleep and she of meteorology till the end of time. Did one ever establish contact with anyone? We are all parallel straight lines (Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow, p. 18).

I mentioned in my post on Crome Yellow that I would comment on a couple of quotes from the book. This is the first of those quotes.

I do not want to get into the mathematical idea of parallel lines meeting at infinity. I had to take an intermediate algebra class in college. Let’s just say it’s not my forte. But the idea itself is intriguing.

Tim Keller regularly uses The Stepford Wives as an illustration of our need for contradiction. When you have a wife that cannot contradict you, then you have no possibility for an actual relationship. The same, he says, goes for God. We hear things like, ‘I could never believe in a God who would do X.’ We want God to conform to our own moral norms. We want to mold him in our own image. But, says Keller, if God cannot contradict you, then you have no real basis for a relationship. There are some holes in this logic, I think, but the point is well taken nonetheless.

The parallel lines idea makes this point in a more logical way. If you are on a parallel line with someone, if you are exactly the same, then you do not meet in this life. In order to have connection we need contradiction. In order to meet someone there needs to be some sort of perpendicularity. Hence the need for a God who contradicts us, who calls us out on our differences. I can see the case being made for people as well (not just for God).

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Tension and Attention in Turning Pages

You’re reading a book – or at least you call yourself reading it. You zone out. You’ve turned two pages and come to the realization that your eyes have covered the words on those pages but hardly any of them has moved from the eyes to the mind.

I was reading a book while my kids were taking a bath. They came into my room and started talking. I was half reading the book and half listening to them. After turning a page I realized that by half reading and half listening I wasn’t actually listening or reading at all. Not a word on the pages registered and not a word my kids said registered. Perhaps this is a metaphor for life?

It goes back to an idea I’ve discussed on the blog before: ignore-ance (not ignorance). Ignore-ance is the conscious decision to ignore something. I needed to decide in that moment which object was a) more worthy of my attention and b) more worthy of ignoring. I found both to be worthy of attention and neither worthy of ignoring. The net result was the opposite of what I intended: they both got ignored.

We flip through pages without the words penetrating our souls. We flip through life without people penetrating our souls. And we are surprised to find that we are shallow in our intellects, emotion, and experience.

On Exercise as Worship

At sunrise thirty young people ran out into the clearing; they fanned out, their faces turned towards the sun, and began to bend down, to drop to their knees, to bow, to lie flat on their faces, to stretch out their arms, to lift up their hands, and then to drop back down on their knees again. All this lasted for a quarter of an hour.

From a distance you might have thought they were praying.

In this age, no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives.

But they would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls.

No, these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises.

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, At the Start of the Day, from Stories and Prose Poems, p. 216

I went on a Solzhenitsyn binge a while back. I didn’t write much about it. But tonight, before the kids went to bed, we all huddled up while I read some of his poems (they’re really small meditations on various life events). This one struck me afresh. Perhaps it is because I’ve started a new exercise program. After dropping a bunch of weight a few years ago, I’ve tried to stay in good shape for a while now; but I’ve become rededicated. I find that physical discipline has helped my spiritual discipline tremendously over the years. At least, in my experience, physical discipline sets a rhythm that can be conducive to spiritual discipline. But I’ve always fought to keep priorities straight, keeping in minds the words of the apostle:

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come (1 Tim. 4:8, KJV).

Solzhenitsyn reminds us just how much exercise can look like worship. He never denies that it is profitable. He only points out the great paradox that people will often admire physical exercise and discipline without giving any thought to spiritual devotion, or even jeering at those who are spiritually disciplined. If someone raise their hands up during yoga class, hooray. But if someone raises them up in worship, not so much. We lack balance.

Are we as active in the spiritual gymnasium of the Means of Grace as we are in the gyms of this world? As we long for a certain body type, a certain physique, a certain look, do we long to be built up spiritually into the image of Christ? If not, when we bow down, and prostrate ourselves, and raise our hands up in exercise, we really are involved in a sort of idolatrous prayer. When we press up heavy weights on the bench press or in the squat rack, we are only living out a strange parable – that the weight will always be there. No spotter can ease our burdens. The burden of the self-worshiper is so great that it will weigh him, and pound  him, down to the very depths.  As we meticulously plan each meal as though it were a holy sacrament offered up to the god of self, in remembrance of the law of macronutrients,  do we remember that man does not live by bread alone? Do we remember that as the body is meant to live on food, so the soul is meant to live on Christ?

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

This is not to devalue physical exercise. Rather, it is to value it by putting it in its proper place. As Lewis was fond of saying, if you turn something into a god it will become a demon. Find balance.

Music of the Spheres: The Heavens as a Hymnbook

I will say up front that this is one of the most helpful paragraphs I have ever read:

The unreasonable creatures are in some sort said to glorify him: [Psalm 19:1] ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ How? They give occasion and afford matter whence we may take hints to glorify him. As in music there are the notes set out in the book, and the tongue that sins, or hand that play, which makes the music. The creatures are the notes, or music, that is set, and have the notes, the keys, and characters of the harmonious glory of God stamped upon them, Rom. i. 20. But then there must be an understanding creature, that hath skill and ability, to utter forth the music and harmony of all these.

(Thomas Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation, p. 498).

Goodwin uses the analogy, we could say, of a hymn book in relation to the shining of the glory of God in creation. The heavens declare the glory of God like a hymnbook declares music. That is, if the heavens are to effective in God’s purposes, they must be read and sung.

I cannot read music. But I can read words. And so I get maybe half the benefit of a hymnbook. I use one every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, and I am able to sing songs that I do not know by heart because of it. A pianist, however, is able to play songs that he or she does not know by heart. I see circles and lines in black ink, she sees music. I see glory, but she sees more glory. And so, in some ways, she is more able to glorify God with that book, because, in light of her knowledge, she can use her instrument to make something that I cannot, and therefore glorify God in a way that I cannot.

The heavens, Goodwin says, are like that hymnbook. There is glory in them. Can you read it? Can you make music out of them? Do you look at the winter sky and, as it were, hear the ‘music of the spheres’? Or, at least, does it cause you to sing?

I was never interested in the planets until I started reading C.S. Lewis, and especially after reading Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia. But since then I have studied the planets as an interested layman. And so, as I was having a dull drive home from work one night, a bright star, just beside the crescent moon, caught my eye. I began to pan the sky for other stars. I couldn’t find any. And so, I thought to myself, ‘that must be Venus!’

Though Venus had stared at me many nights, I had never really seen her. And there she was, the Evening Star, otherwise known as the Morning Star. I thought of how the Book of Revelation calls Jesus Christ the Morning Star. I thought of how he promised to give us the Morning Star. I thought of the amazing fact that Earth’s sister planet was there, suspended in mid-air, circling around the sun at great speed, but appearing as a still star. I found myself praising God for, and in, this train of thought. For the first time, I understood something of that note in that heavenly hymnbook. Venus was declaring the glory of God. That moment has stuck with me now for over a month. I even wrote a poem about it (HERE).

I have learned not to look at space as space. The Bible calls it ‘the heavens.’ Space is empty. The heavens are full – full of fascinating things, and full of God’s glory.

But the hymnbook analogy has its limitations. I once heard someone, I can’t remember who, ask this question: If a beautiful tree grows deep in the rainforests, where no man has set foot in man years, does that tree glorify God? It almost sounds like the old dilemma of a tree falling when no one is there to hear it. The answer to that dilemma is simple. Who cares if we are not there to hear it, God is there. A lonely tree glorifies God because it is not really lonely – it has a heavenly audience. God sees all, and rejoices in the works of his own hand.

And so, I think, perhaps, Goodwin pushes the analogy too far, as if the hymnbook had no value in itself were there no one to read it. For God can read it. And God can make music of his own. Analogies are never perfect.

And therefore, it is good to see the heavens as a heavenly hymnal of sorts. The black sky is God’s staff. The planets are his bass clef. The stars are his treble clef. We need pianists, violinists, organists, etc. now to read and play. And a gospel to make us a sing.

You can read related thoughts HERE and HERE.

The Conquestor and the Conquered King (Joshua)

Reading the first 11 chapters of Joshua with my family recently, I could not help but be struck by the idea of king, after king, after king being not only defeated, but hanged upon trees:

  • Joshua 8:29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.
  • Joshua 10:1 ¶ As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king
  • Joshua 10:28 ¶ As for Makkedah, Joshua captured it on that day and struck it, and its king, with the edge of the sword. He devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining. And he did to the king of Makkedah just as he had done to the king of Jericho.
  • Joshua 10:29 ¶ Then Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Makkedah to Libnah and fought against Libnah. 30 And the LORD gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel. And he struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left none remaining in it. And he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho.

In all, Joshua, chapters 2-12, records that thirty-one kings (cf. Josh. 12:24) were defeated by the people of Israel, many of whom were apparently hanged upon trees.

How do you explain this to children? That’s the issue I face every night as I read with my family. And biblical theology leads to an answer.

This past Sunday, we were having family catechism time, and we read the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 26:

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

With this being the case, Jesus is our greater Joshua, conquering all his and our enemies. But therein lies the problem. We are, by nature, his enemies. We are those who are to be conquered (especially Gentiles like myself and my family). We are those who are to be ‘devoted to destruction,’ or placed ‘under the ban.’ If we are to be on his side, he must first subdue us to himself. He must win us. We must become his trophies of war.

But how can it be? The answer is hinted at in the text of Joshua. For Jesus is not only our greater Joshua, but he is a King who is hanged on a tree. He is not only the conqueror, he is the conquered. He himself must be placed under the ban of God’s holy wrath. He must be devoted to destruction in our behalf. The conquering King must become the conquered King. Therefore, it is not only Joshua himself who points us to our greater Joshua, but those cursed kings of Jericho and Ai. The Commander of the Lord’s army must become their representative in his death. Indeed it is fitting that the Roman soldiers mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ (Mark 15:18). They got it. Pilate got it as well:

  • John 19:19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

Jesus was a casualty of war – another King hanged on a tree.

  • Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”- 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

But this King didn’t stay dead. That’s why we have life. And that’s what I must tell my family day after day.

Is the Church a Movement? A Rolling Stone vs. A Growing Stone

In light of my previous post concerning Chesterton’s point that the church is not a movement, I ask:

If the church is said to be a movement, should it not be concerned with vertical movement primarily?

  • 2 Kings 19:30 And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward.
  • Isaiah 37:31 And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward.

Downward and upward. Deep and high. This means that our movement is not away from the world or toward the world. But, within the world, we seek to be like a tree with deep roots whose branches reach up to the sky. If this is the case, then, really, there is no movement at all, in the sense that we normally speak of movement. For who says that a tree moves?

Rather than movement, we call this growth. The kingdom is not a like a moving car, but a growing tree:

  • Luke 13:19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

The kingdom is not like a rolling stone, but a growing stone:

  • Daniel 2:35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

The exodus was a movement, and it went in a circle for 40 years. The blessed man is like a tree planted by streams of water, and his movement is down and up. He stands still while all the world moves around him. Jesus was said to be a peripatetic. False. His face was set like a flint. All of his movement culminated in his being lifted up on a cross, planted in a tomb, and then being taken up into heaven:

  • John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
  • Ephesians 4:10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.

No circles, only down and up. That’s the whole point. So, if you consider your church a movement, take note that you must either be moving down and up, or you are not moving at all. And really, even this is not movement, but growth.

As Chesterton puts it in another place,

A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it (The Everlasting Man, p. 256).

A tree defies gravity and earth – gravity as it grows up, earth as it grows down. A dead dog can lie on the ground. But it cannot go up or down unless someone lifts it or buries it. A tree has power of its own. It takes the elements of its environment and uses them for fuel without actually becoming them. Imagine if a tree became the sun. Imagine if a tree became water. It would no longer be a tree. It would no longer ascend, rather it would stay still or go in a circle.

Even Jesus’ command to ‘Go into all the world’ is a call to go downward – ‘into’ the world. A dead thing can go with the world, but only a living thing can go into it. When a tree grows into the soil it changes the soil. Take deep root in his world and let your arms, and alms, reach up to heaven. The church in such a condition can attract ‘the birds of the air’ who will desire ‘to make nests in her branches.’ Take deep root in Christ, be buried, and then ascend with him into heavenly places. Up and down. Then, perhaps, you will go somewhere.

John MacArthur has said many times that he determined early to be concerned with the depth of his ministry, trusting that God would take care of the breadth. That’s a good resolution.

Don’t Put the Kingdom in the Test Tube

In my regular reading of Scripture yesterday, I was struck by this text (KJV):

  • Luke 17:20 ¶ And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: 21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

The word, ‘observation’ particularly struck me, so, of course, I got out my Greek New Testament to see what was going on. Friberg defines the Greek word translated ‘observation’ in this way: ‘the use of observable data to interpret events; observing, looking closely, watching.’

Jesus’ point to his opponents, who wanted to know of the coming of the kingdom, is that they cannot naturally deduce its coming. In fact, they had already missed it in a very important sense – it was already ‘in their midst’ (KJV ‘within you’), because the King was in their midst.

It is as if they are saying, ‘Show me proof of the kingdom! Show me proof of your relation to the kingdom!’ And Jesus responds, ‘There is no proof for you.’ While in fact, the true proof was standing in their midst. But he was no bare, scientific, test tube type of proof. You need spiritual eyes to see the king and his kingdom:

  • John 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

We live in an age where many are saying that if it cannot be experimented upon, if we cannot observe it, if we cannot prove it by the scientific method, then it cannot be called true (though it would seem less and less are taking this position, thankfully). Aside from the fact that you cannot prove the scientific method by the scientific method, we should take note that Jesus points us to the necessity of spiritual sight, without which we will never see the kingdom of God. This doesn’t come through scientific observation – it comes through spiritual eyes joined with God-given faith.

  • 2 Corinthians 5:7 – For we walk by faith, not by sight.

Snippets: Complete Spiritual Contentment (Matt. 11:28)

Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

I’ve heard the ‘rest’ that Jesus offers described in various ways. Typical modern folk like to think of it purely in psychological terms. But, in the context of biblical theology it takes quite a clear shape:

Rest is rooted in God’s Sabbath-act of resting on the seventh day. After six days of creation, God was content that His works were ‘very good,’ and therefore he ceased. Jesus, along with the author of Hebrews in chapter 4, is playing off of that idea here.

Throughout his ministry he speaks to ‘legalists’ upon whom the demands of the Law are constantly weighing. They have taken seriously God’s charge: ‘You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD’ (Lev. 18:5). They are seeking life in the Law but are, in actuality, only becoming burdened.

The weight of the Law is a greater burden than most of us realize. God’s standard is perfection – perfect obedience. With every attempt at trying to establish our own righteousness before God we will only find the Law therefore to be a weight too great for us to bear. Indeed, the very weight of it it will crush us and bring us down to the depths of hell.

And so, it is in that context that Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all of you who are burdened and weighed down, and I will give you rest.’ Jesus is offering us complete spiritual contentment. He is saying that it is possible that we, like God on the Sabbath, can look back on our labors and say, ‘Behold, it is very good.’

But how can this be so? If we are honest we know that our labors don’t meet up to the standard of God’s Law. This is so because Christ does the work for us. For, as we are justified by faith, we are being judged by His record, not ours. Therefore it is Christ’s work that we look back to, and indeed it is very good.

Not the labors of my hands, can fulfill Thy Law’s demands. Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou Alone. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress, helpless look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Savior or I die.

It is only when we come to this point of absolute trust in the record of Christ that we will find rest. The Christians rest is a resting from efforts to earn a righteous standing before God. It is a rest from seeking to justify myself. It is a rest from worrying whether or not I am good enough, or meet up to the standard. It is an absolute reliance on Christ that lets the soul experience the Sabbath of God.

If you find yourself trying to earn God’s love by moral efforts, or any type of effort for that matter, Jesus’ command to you is that you find rest in him. Jesus is the end of the Law for you. He is the end of self-righteousness. He is the end of pride. Rest from these things. Don’t you see they’re burdening you?

To offer a paraphrase, he is saying, All of you who are working so hard trying to please God. Stop it! Come to me, I’ve already pleased Him for you.

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly (Martin Luther).

Snippets: The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Materialism (Matt. 13:44-46)

Matthew 13:44 ¶ “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 ¶ “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

In context (in relation to the Kingdom), and understood as a parable, we get a window into three types of materialism in this passage: ‘What is materialism?’ Glad you asked. In science, and often philosophy, materialism is the idea that everything that exists is either matter or energy. Simply stated, it says, ‘only matter matters’ (after all, only matter exists). But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about popular materialism: the idea that the accumulation of wealth and material goods are of the utmost importance.

1. Carnal Materialism (i.e. the love of mammon)
We see two men who believe that the accumulation of wealth and material goods are extremely important – so important that they will give up everything for that one particular treasure that they desire. Jesus isn’t condoning that sort of behavior, but He’s saying that if we understand this sort of behavior we have a glimpse into the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.

2. Second materialism – Christian Materialism
This parable is a picture of the Christian in pursuit of Jesus Christ. Christ is the treasure and pearl.

  • Matthew 10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
  • Philippians 3:8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
  • Psalm 17:8 Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,

The people of the Kingdom are like materialists, only it is not mammon that they love. They will give up anything to have Christ. They will deny themselves, give up worldly goods, give up sin, etc.

  • ‘Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.’
  • ‘I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold. I’d rather be his than have riches untold. I’d rather have Jesus than houses or land. I’d rather be led by his nail pierced hand…’

We are materialists and Christ is what matters.

3. Christ’s Materialism
From another angle Jesus himself is the true Materialist. The object of his desire is his people, and he gives up everything to gain them.

  • Zechariah 2:8 For thus said the LORD of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye:
  • Hebrews 12:2 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.
  • John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.

Christ gives up His riches in glory, takes on a nature of dust, and indeed gives up his own life that he might gain the joy of having a people of is own. The King is the great Materialist, and what he delights in is His people.

  • ‘He left his Father’s throne above, so free so infinite His grace. Emptied himself, how great his love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.’

Materialism gives us a glimpse of the gospel and a point of contact with the nonbeliever. If you see a man who loves his car too much, point him to One who is infinitely more valuable and desirable than his car. All sin, in some sense, is simply the treasuring of something above God – i.e. idolatry! We are to repent of our own idolatry and delight supremely in Christ. Having cast that log out of our eye, we can see clearly to get the speck out of our neighbor’s.