Sunday, October 16, 2011

These Inward Trials

The life of John Newton reads like a fictional story.  You might not have heard his name before, but I'm willing to bet you know his hymn, the most-recorded song in history, "Amazing Grace."  In the year 1743 when he was young, Newton was on his way to visit some friends when he was captured and forced into naval service.  He lived as a loner with a disregard for authority.  When he attempted to desert the navy, he was captured and as punishment, he was stripped to the waist, tied to the grating, received a flogging of one dozen lashes, and was demoted to the lowest of ranks.  As a result of this, he contemplated suicide for a time.

Eventually, he was released from the military and joined the crew of an Africa-bound slave ship.  After a series of disagreements with the crew of the ship, he was left in Africa where he was enslaved to a slave-trader who brutally mistreated him.  Eventually, he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked by Newton's father to search for him.  Later in life, he became the captain of a ship, and when the ship was about to sink in the midst of a great storm, he called out to God.  After calling out to God, it seems that the cargo of the ship plugged a hole in the hull, so the ship stopped filling up with water and drifted to safety.  As he sailed home to Britain over the next few months, he devoted his time to reading the Bible.  By the time he had reached home, he had given his allegiance and trust to Christ.

Newton later became an Anglican minister, and in addition to writing a number of hymns, he worked to abolish slavery, and he served as a mentor to William Wilberforce.  Newton died shortly after Wilberforce had succeeded in his campaign to abolish the slave-trade in England, which is an amazing story itself. 

To read more about John Newton, I'd recommend either Newton's own autobiography, entitled Out of the Depths, or Jonathan Aitken's new biography, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.  Also of interest to some may be William Wilberforce's biography by Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace:  William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery or the movie chronicling this story, Amazing Grace.

One of my favorite of John Newton's lesser-known hymns is "I Asked the Lord, That I Might Grow." It is below.  Enjoy!
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He'd answer my request,
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

"Lord, why is this?" I trembling cried,
"Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?"
"'Tis in this way," the Lord replied,
"I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may'st seek thy all in me."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Enthralling the Mind with God

How do we help people to love what is lovely?  Very simply, we cause them, ask them, help them to place their minds on the lovely thing concerned.  We assist them to do this in every way possible. Saint Thomas Aquinas remarks that “love is born of an earnest consideration of the object loved.” And: “Love follows knowledge.”  Love is an emotional response aroused in the will by visions of the good.  Contrary to what is often said, love is never blind, though it may not see rightly.  It cannot exist without some vision of the beloved.
     As teachers we therefore bring the lovely thing—in this case, God—before the disciple as fully and as forcibly as possible, putting our best efforts into it.  But we never forget that in the last analysis, as we have already learned from Emily Dickinson, “the soul selects her own society, then shuts the door.”  Though we act, and as intelligently and responsibly as possible, we are always in the position of asking: asking them, asking God, and responding to their responses. 
     God has placed the only key to the innermost parts of the human soul in its own hands and will never take it back to himself or give it to another.  You may even be able to destroy the soul of another, but you will never unlock it against his or her will.  The soul, to continue the words of the poet just quoted, can “close the valves of her attention, like stone.”  She can even lose the key, and have to have help finding it.  She can even refuse the help she desperately needs.  But she will never cease to need to love, which is deeper than the need to be loved. 
     A popular saying is “Take time to smell the roses.”  What does this mean?  To enjoy the rose it is necessary to focus on it and bring the rose as fully before our senses and mind as possible.  To smell a rose you must get close, and you must linger. When we do so, we delight in it.  We love it.
     Taking time to smell the roses leaves enduring impressions of a dear glory that, if sufficiently reengaged , can change the quality of our entire life.  The rose in a very special way—and more generally the flower, even in its most humble forms—is a fragile but irrepressible witness on earth to a “larger” world where good is somehow safe. 
     This simple illustration contains profound truths.  If anyone is to love God and have his or her life filled with that love, God in his glorious reality must be brought before the mind and kept there in such a way that the mind takes root and stays fixed there.  Of course the individual must be willing for this to happen, but any genuine apprentice to Jesus will be willing.  This is the very lesson apprentices have enrolled in his school to learn.
     So the question for the first part of our curriculum is simply how to bring God adequately before the mind and spirit of the disciple.  This is to be done in such a way that love for and delight in God will be elicited and established as the pervasive orientation of the whole self.  It will fill the mind of the willing soul and progress toward an easy and delightful governance of the entire personality.      

—Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A World Without Jobs

Steve Jobs, the Thomas Edison of my day, has died.  I pray that Jobs reached out to the Savior before succumbing to death.  I hope to meet him one day.  However, I can't help but be reminded that the overarching theme of Jobs' life was one of elegant, sleek, empty, secular hope.  I am reminded of the insightful article that Andy Couch wrote in January of this year.  There are excerpts from it below.
As remarkable as Steve Jobs is in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (ruthless and demanding) leader—his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and made it a sign of promise and progress....

Steve Jobs was the evangelist of this particular kind of progress—and he was the perfect evangelist because he had no competing source of hope. In his celebrated Stanford commencement address (which is itself an elegant, excellent model of the genre), he spoke frankly about his initial cancer diagnosis in 2003. It’s worth pondering what Jobs did, and didn’t, say:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.
This is the gospel of a secular age. It has the great virtue of being based only on what we can all perceive—it requires neither revelation nor dogma. And it promises nothing it cannot deliver—since all that is promised is the opportunity to live your own unique life, a hope that is manifestly realizable since it is offered by one who has so spectacularly succeeded by following his own “inner voice, heart and intuition....”

But the genius of Steve Jobs has been to persuade us, at least for a little while, that cold comfort is enough. The world—at least the part of the world in our laptop bags and our pockets, the devices that display our unique lives to others and reflect them to ourselves—will get better. This is the sense in which the tired old cliché of “the Apple faithful” and the “cult of the Mac” is true. It is a religion of hope in a hopeless world, hope that your ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be dated, dusty, and discarded like a 2001 iPod.

A friend of mine says that human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope....

Steve Jobs’s gospel is, in the end, a set of beautifully polished empty promises. But I look on my secular neighbors, millions of them, like sheep without a shepherd, who no longer believe in anything they cannot see, and I cannot help feeling compassion for them, and something like fear. When, not if, Steve Jobs departs the stage, will there be anyone left who can convince them to hope?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


The movie below is a riveting documentary dealing with one of the most controversial issues of our time.  It'll take 30 minutes, but it's worth the watch.