William Blake and the God of Good Marriages

wedding-ringsWilliam Blake (1757-1827) was a world-class poet and artist in England whose deceptively simple verses, though they did not resonate loudly in his own time, have served in recent years as shining examples of Romantic poetry in Britain during the time of the French Revolution right across the channel. Two particular publications of his, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), represent what he termed the “contrary states of the human soul”, that is, the divide between the light and the dark that permeates each human heart. Blake was fascinated with the transition from innocence to experience, that elusive process of shedding childhood and donning adulthood, of seeing the sunlight of day set into the mystery of night.

For Blake, something seemed inevitably lost in the move from purity to worldly knowledge. In his poetry, he often ponders the divine, pure, and perhaps even godly innocence of a child and its painful peeling away as he or she becomes more sophisticated, cultured, educated, and experienced. He considers the grinding corrosiveness of city life (as it was flooded by scores of people drawn to the burgeoning, industrialized London) in stark contrast to the Edenic majesty of the countryside; it was a reminder to him of the unfortunate degeneration of aging against the lily-white innocence of a wild childhood in the fields. In short, Blake fixed his focus on the corrupting influence that growing up seems to have on the human experience.

So it is without wonder that one of his short pieces titled “My Pretty Rose Tree” exposes Blake’s nervousness and fear towards marriage as the poem examines the speaker’s attempt to preserve its sanctity and unity. Here’s the text:

A flower was offer’d to me,

Such a flower as May never bore;

But I said “I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,”

And I passed the sweet flower o’er.

 

Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,

To tend her by day and by night;

But my Rose turn’d away with jealousy,

And her thorns were my only delight.

The poem is rather simple: the speaker resists the temptation to abandon his wife for another woman only to discover his wife turning away from him out of jealousy, leaving him in a state of despondency and loneliness.

Blake accomplishes many things in the course of this brief verse. It’s notable his central setting is the pastoral landscape (a favorite for Blake) in which discussions of innocence averting temptation take on symbolic meaning through flowers and rose-trees. One can even see the primal example of sinful enticement from the serpent in Genesis 3 evoked in the sweetness of the offered flower.

But the full power of the poem is its ironic turn in line 7. The reader seems to expect the speaker will be rewarded for his fidelity, that the Rose-tree will embrace her champion for resisting the lure. Yet, that is not Blake’s aim, and that is not his conclusion. So what are we to make of this sorrowful ending? What is Blake getting at?

The lonely, dejected condition of the speaker in the final line is a result of his attempt to create a good marriage on his own merits. He desires acceptance, praise, and devotion from his “Rose-tree” for having courageously and adamantly refused a sinful offer. Look how good I am at resisting temptation, he seems to say as he returns to his tree to “tend her by day and by night.” I have been so careful, so loyal, so good.

Such conceit and self-assurance, however, is not what produces strong, faithful marriages. No husband can hope to serve his wife and tend her well if he is looking to his own strength and grit-teeth commitment for validation. The problem of Blake’s poem – why does the rose-tree reject the speaker when he decidedly “passed the flower o’er”? – cannot be answered by human effort. Only God can bind a man and a woman together. It is not within human reason, imagination, will, or power to create or sustain a marriage. Only God can forge the two to become one flesh, and “what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.”

So Blake’s poem concludes on a painfully tinny, ringing chord, unresolved. The speaker who had hoped his good work had earned a happy marriage is left confused, alone, and nestled knee-deep in thorns, and I cannot help but wonder how many of our marriages end on the same sour note. But I did everything I was supposed to do, the wife mutters. But I never cheated on her, not even once, the husband rants. I followed all the rules, did everything right, cooked and cleaned, provided for and protected…Why is my marriage in such ruins?

The quiet answer to these questions lies only in the God of good marriages. He is the author of all things good. God is Love, and our expressions of love to each other can only be completed in and through His indefinable grace. We cannot earn a good marriage. We can only look to Christ as the center of all things and pray He sustains our union through both the sorrows and the splendor. Remember, we may have excitedly slid rings on each other’s fingers, but only God can keep them there.

Created to Create

The following is an article I wrote on creativity in writing and Christian education originally published on Landmark Christian School’s blog.


old typewriter (focus on text)In Ephesians 5:1, Paul instructs his fellow believers to “be imitators of God as dearly loved children.” Therefore, as followers of Christ and His Word, our first duty in following this command must be to determine, “Well, what is God like?” In opening the Bible, then, to discover the character of God through His revelation in Scripture, we should note the first description we stumble upon: “In the beginning, God created…”

The human capacity for creativity, wonder, and imagination is not only a gift from God to bring Him glory through wholehearted expression and majestic praise but also a mandate; just as the Creator was creative in the design of all things, so must His creation be creative as a way of magnifying Christ through imitating God. When God fashioned Adam from little turrets of dirt and the swirling breath of life, He was not merely stirring human history into existence; He was training us in the way we should perpetuate human history. God, the Grand Storyteller, taught His characters how to tell stories. God revealed the essence of His divinity by sparking divinity in our first family and threading that divinity through thousands of years of plot. When we thus breathe life into the skin of our own protagonists and bid them walk among us in our fictions, when we strain courageously to perfect our poetic effort, when we sing glorious harmonies of praise in reverberating cathedrals, we come as close to the wild invention of God as our finitude allows. We press toward godliness. We imitate God.

This truth is compounded as Paul exhorts us in another letter that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). It is notable that the Greek word rendered as “workmanship” here in Ephesians is poiema, from which we can clearly see our English word poem. So, we are, quite truly, the poetry of God, created in the loving care of a master wordsmith. We are a robust, abundant, vibrant kaleidoscope of God’s artistic pleasure, penned with brilliant passion, and when He “saw all that He had made, [He declared] it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, emphasis added).

So, since the poetry and creativity of God is rich and imaginative, we must see that the education of our next generation is not simply a means of hardwiring them for social contribution but a full-throated movement to awaken their wonder, to intensify their desire for truth, goodness, and beauty and, from that desire, to pursue creatively the worship of a glorious God. We must train our students to express themselves well, to write with passion and authority, but, more importantly, we must teach them to approach their individual calling, whatever it may be, with godly creativity – that, whatever they do, they do it with all their heart unto the Lord (Col. 3:23). We cannot be in the business of piling young people onto the conveyer belt to college, cookie-cutting them into monochrome caricatures of human beings. They are the living, breathing poetry of God, descendants of the very dust and bone of Eden, with voices and diverse passions. By teaching them to think creatively not only in a Creative Writing elective but also in math, science, physical fitness, history, and athletics, we are raising them to imitate God in all His multifaceted character.

As educators, we recognize not every student is called to a writing career. However, the world needs businessmen and bakers, mechanics and managers, and my prayer is that we provide it with Christian graduates that, like Daniel, rise to the top of their field for the excellent spirit within them. But the world certainly cannot bear the weight of any more graduates who shuffle through life bored and half-asleep. As Douglas Wilson once quipped, we cannot live in a world where “the bland lead the bland.” Creative thinking and creative writing are essential tools not only to our scholarship but to our souls. Creativity is the signature of God on the well-rounded human being, fully equipped to navigate a broken and creaking world with the fire of a full imagination.

May we all learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). May we raise (and be) a generation that sees the glory of God in all things, that creatively expresses His praise in every word with plenty of color and sonorous splendor. May we truly absorb the words of John Piper:

 “[W]hen a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin. The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, and communicated boringly. Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world – all of it – rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.”

Deus Ex Machina

cos-01-miranda-kerr-november-deOne of the most powerful insights I’ve heard regarding the nature of worship is that our worship is transformative; in effect, we become like what we worship. 

G.K. Beale, who authored a book with a similar title, puts it this way: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.” This concept has made its way through my mind quite often over the past few years, and I continue to dwell on its real-time implications in our modern culture.

I am currently teaching through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my British Literature students. Sir Gawain is a medieval poem that follows the challenges and trials of one of King Arthur’s most noble knights as he seeks to prove himself worthy of honor. As I’ve been rereading through the story, I have found myself quite struck by a particular quality of Sir Gawain’s quest. On the outside of his shield, the side he brandishes in the face of combat, is a pentangle, a five-angled star that symbolizes the ideal perfection and exaltation of a true knight. The chivalrous knight par excellence is brave, good, chaste, loyal, and unerring in his manner and conduct; he is the paragon of medieval society. The only problem is that behind the knight’s armor stands a mere man – utterly unable to achieve such a standard of perfection.

This notion of expectation vs. reality cuts deep to the bone of our American society. For example, I have encountered a number of young ladies in my classes over the years who are beside themselves trying frantically to reach the bar of feminine beauty and fashion that they feel our media culture has thrust on their small shoulders. “Whatever it takes to look like her” has become their mantra, “accept me!” their daily cry. And so, as an inevitable result, we have waves of girls dragging the ghosts of self-loathing, inadequacy, and shame down the halls. We have girls pushed toward seduction with their hearts stitched tight in straitjackets. In short, we have girls who are told to reveal as much and as little as they can – show your skin, hide your scars.

Prodded by the flood of advertising and celebrity mania, these young ladies are being converted to a hollow religion, a new devotion towards thousands of graven images carved on our magazine covers, spreading the lie that these are the women that girls ought to look like. But in our heart we know they are no longer really women; they are our feminine form of the deus ex machina – goddesses out of machines. Mangled by the digital scalpel, processed through the filters of Photoshop, airbrushing, and cosmetic overload, these women in the spotlight have become mere echoes, shadows of their true humanity. They are a part of a smoke-and-mirrors gimmick, a ruse. I can almost hear the Wizard now: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Yet, the principle remains: we become like what we worship (Ps. 115:8). We reflect what we behold (2 Cor. 3:18). Contrary to what they are told, these young ladies pining for acceptance and worth by straining to look like cover girls are not becoming more beautiful; they are becoming less human. They are worshipping an image of edited humanity, images of women scrubbed of their flaws. This ache to see oneself as, and ultimately become, utterly flawless is a consequence of the primal temptation to be God. We are running Eden on repeat, reaching to take and eat of the fruit with every glance at the mirror.

How gracious is our God for spilling his blood, his real, warm, human blood, to buy us out of our cold, self-absorbed condition. May we yearn, like Moses, to see glimpses of God’s glory and, to quote the old hymn, “turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face.” May we see Jesus and “behold his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). May we learn to acknowledge our brokenness, our failure, our human limitations and look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For we are most certainly becoming like what we worship; let us worship the God of mercy and of grace who forgives our sin and truly makes all things new.

The Joyous Noise in Beowulf

meduseldHaving just completed a three week study of Beowulf with my British Literature students, I am again struck by one of the more subtle, yet striking passages early in the poem.

To set the scene, King Hrothgar is celebrating with his thanes in the glorious golden mead-hall Herot, an Edenic image of heaven and ultimate koinonia fellowship. As the men pass the communion cup around the magnificent hall, full of dancing and revelry, the king’s bard begins to sing of creation and God’s almighty power:

“Loud in that hall, the harp’s rejoicing / Call and the poet’s clear songs, sung / Of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling / The Almighty making the earth, shaping / These beautiful plains marked off by oceans […] And then / As now warriors sang of their pleasure”

This moment, with all of its wild and boisterous celebration of God, provides a remarkable perspective on the right view of Christian worship. The noble warriors, toasting their king and pledging loyalty to their queen, fill the evening with hearty laughter, rowdy storytelling, and robust psalm-singing as they praise God for the blessing of creation and the joy of Christian camaraderie. They are not tamed, domesticated, effete Christian men, calmly tucking in their shirts and going about their business. Nor are they mindless brutes, scoffing at all this “girly” singing and storytelling. They are mighty men, knuckles sore from battle and throats sore from exuberant singing. Remember, the same man who sawed off the head of Goliath would later write a poem about it (Psalm 9).

It is no wonder, then, that the joyous noise of worship in Herot summons the envy and wrath of Grendel, the terrible beast “born of Cain” who is exiled from the mighty hall. At this point, I prefer Seamus Heaney’s translation:

“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, / nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet / telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, / how the Almighty had made the earth / a gleaming plain girdled with waters”

So Grendel attacks Hrothgar’s men out of a supreme irritation by the “din of the loud banquet.” He is furious at their joy. In this way, Grendel embodies the very nature of evil, a jealous, petty fiend livid at the joy of the Lord. He is a demonic figure representative of the Devil himself, and, as C.S. Lewis describes him, Satan is the “cosmic killjoy.” His is an unsatisfying lust, an alienated loneliness, a banal and uncelebrated eternity of selfishness and pride. Who can forget the cry of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as her staggering sledge grates across the thawing ground and she stumbles upon a small party of Narnians celebrating the return of Aslan?

“What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” 

She cannot stand the sight of righteous feasting, of glorious revelry, the “din of the loud banquet.” And neither can Grendel. His attack on Herot, then, and the subsequent arrival of Beowulf show us the power and danger of the right worship of God. As Charles Spurgeon said, “There is no more levity in a hearty laugh than a hearty cry.” We must resist with every ounce of our power the popular notion that Satan has cornered the market on fun and joyful partying. All sin and worldliness can do is drain the potency of glory and gloss it over with a thin coating of happiness and thrill. Only in Christ and the merry jubilation of His people can true wildness and joy be found.

Or, in other words, as Lewis affirms, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

The Watchman Waits for the Morning

I’d like to introduce my wife Kristen Huff as the guest writer for this post. I am thrilled she has taken the opportunity to respond to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman which released earlier this summer.

Disclaimer: Spoiler Alert

Everyo9780062433657ne has that person in their life. You know, the one you look up to. The one who can do no wrong. The one you trust that if all the world goes crazy, he or she will be right there, a consistent moral force to speak truth into your life.

For Scout Finch that person was always her dad, Atticus. He had always been the one to do what was right. He was the rock she and her brother depended on, as well as the one who did what no one else in the town had the guts to do. We all remember the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird. He boldly defended a negro in court at a time when race relations were at the height of social issues.

In Go Set a Watchman, a grown-up Scout finds herself once again observing her father amidst a heated discussion concerning race relations. Yet, she is mortified to see that, instead of being the bold defender of negroes, her dad, and also her fiancé, quietly sit, blending in with the crowd.

She runs from the scene carrying a storm of emotions. What follows is a bout of physical and emotional illness as she tries to grasp the fact that her father has somehow changed, or perhaps was never the man she thought he was. After several attempts to distract herself from the betrayal she feels by those closest to her, she runs to her uncle for answers. His explanation for her devastation is incredibly enlightening:

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious. […] now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings — I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”

I had to stop after this and think. I have been thinking about this scene for several days now, especially in light of recent events at my alma mater, North Greenville University. Do we not often place unrealistic expectations on our leaders, heroes, and parents? We set them up in our minds as these perfect people who, if they sin at all, it is just a small fib or a sharp word here or there. To find out that a moral leader or hero has done something horrible feels like the end of the world to us. Like Scout, we go screaming for answers and assume our entire faith has been shattered.

Let’s do some self-examination for a moment. How many of us really made it through college without some sort of sexual sin? I think, if we are honest, that would be no one. So, there we all are, 18 years old and thinking we are spiritual. Attending chapel, taking part in ministry and secretly making out with our significant other and probably doing a whole lot more than that. I have a feeling our professors/faculty/administrators and, dare I even say, our president had a pretty good idea about our “secret sins,” but did they broadcast it and condemn us for it? No. They just kept on serving us, loving us, and praying for us. Eventually, the Holy Spirit got through, and those of us who were truly saved repented, beginning the process of making things right.

So, here is my conclusion after several days of thinking through this book in light of recent events. We all have a watchman, our conscience, and if we are saved, it is controlled by the Holy Spirit. The best thing to do is what it says in Psalm 130:3-8: 

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

A Person’s a Person

sneetches4-2bxxd4z_categoryAt the time this goes to print, I am substituting for our 6th grade English teacher during her after-lunch period. Needless to say, I am seated at a desk covered with brightly-colored supplies, trays full of classwork, and a beautiful, stately globe.

I am also surrounded by a wriggling bundle of 11-year-olds.

As they fidget, giggle, or pray frantically that God will intervene and provide them the right answer on their vocabulary quiz, I watch as they hurriedly scribble down their responses with determination and delicate care. Some twiddle their pencils, some bite their lips, and some (inevitably) need to go to the bathroom.

Yet, it is not the nervous energy and dangling legs that strikes me. It is the slow realization that I am in the company of a violinist, a lawyer, an insurance agent, a CEO, an actress, an Olympic gold-medalist, a deacon, a coach, a senator, a mother of four, and a city planner. These untied shoelaces and awkward braces adorn the feet and faces of the future, a brave new world that has yet to take form.

I am reminded of Dr. Seuss’ wonderful line from Horton Hears a Who:

“A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Perhaps now, more than ever, such a truth must be recalled and placed center stage in our culture, particularly given the horrendous onslaught of abortion statistics and the CMP videos. However, we must also turn our attention to the positive affirmation behind Seuss’ line. We are in the business of raising a generation of men and women, little persons, who are destined to pick up our torches and carry on with our different tasks, passions, and missions. Like the steady corrosion of Ozymandias’ visage, we are limited to a mere season of influence and opportunity; these little ones will one day pass by our monuments, and the Earth will continue to orbit the sun long after we have gone.

What matters is how we pay the right sort of attention to these people and train them up in the way they should go. And that certainly does not mean we ignore them or indulge them. A person’s a person. We must challenge, discipline, encourage, instruct, support, and inspire them. They are people, called to the work of the LORD, a work that will progress long after we have drawn our last breaths. Let the coal touch their lips and send them into this wide, wide world full of passion and adventure.

Oh, the places they’ll go.

Prince Caspian and the Honourable Shame of Humanity

narnia-illustration-aslanToward the end of Prince Caspian, after the decisive battle for the Narnian throne against the usurper Miraz, Aslan relays to Caspian the story of his heritage to explain his rightful place as the true king of Narnia. His tale, however, is not filled with accounts of glorious kings and queens or daring adventures on the high seas (though Caspian will see plenty on the Dawn Treader). Rather, Aslan recounts stories of thieves, murderers, drunkards, pirates, quarrelers, and fierce tyrants. As Aslan describes this history, the young man’s face sinks into a deep sadness:

“Do you mark all this well, King Caspian?”

“I do indeed, Sir,” said Caspian. “I was wishing that I came of a more honourable lineage.”

What follows from Aslan is perhaps one of the most striking and insightful passages from the whole of the Narnia series:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

This keen and penetrating truth strikes at the heart of young Caspian, instantly quieting him (the next sentence simply states, “Caspian bowed.”). And, if we are reading correctly, it instantly quiets us. One can almost feel the warm, yet powerful breath of the Lion as he commands us to “be content.”

It is true that humanity is characterized by both the responsibility and privilege of bearing the very image of God. We are unordinary. Yet, in this account, we encounter the unbelievably weighty tension between being the jewel of God’s creation and being depraved sons of disobedience. We are both diamonds and dust. Being human is an honor and a shame.

How many of us, like Caspian, look around at our humanity and mourn our tattered lineage? How many videos of tiny fingers and legs in petri dishes can we stomach before we shake our heads in despair at what it has come to mean (or not mean) to be human?

But there, right there, Aslan instructs us to “be content.” In our vacillation between pride and despair, honor and shame in the human race, we must remember to be content. The Lord is sovereign. The Lord is King. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Or, as Lewis would say, “Aslan is on the move.” Remember how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe concludes: the winter is thawing and it promises to be a real spring. Or, as Tolkien would have it, everything sad is coming untrue.

So while we face dark days in our humanity, ruefully wishing our story were more noble, we must bow our heads like Caspian and be content, not in our strength to withstand the coming evils but in the power and certainty of Christ’s victory over all things. Aslan assures Caspian because he has the authority to do so. May we learn to trust the King of kings in our honorable and our shameful days, for He alone will make all things new.

Bilbo Baggins and the Bravery of Willingness

Bilbo BagginsIt is true that we are all characters in the great Story of God, called to our own journeys as we navigate the treacherous waters of a perilous world. It is also true that the dividing line between our actions in these journeys can be as thick as lead, the difference between noble Reepicheep, sailing into the majesty of Aslan’s country, and the self-absorbed Eustace, inching steadily toward the dragon’s den. Some are brave, some are weak.

So a natural question to come would be how we ought to prepare for the journeys we must take. What must I do to prepare for my task? How should I plan my journey? To the well-intentioned Christian, such questions seem righteous. Who doesn’t want to plan and execute an excellent journey for the sake of the Lord? Who doesn’t want to steel himself for the road ahead?

Yet, the answer to these questions is humbling and startling.

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is set up quite comfortably in his cozy life at Bag End. He has a drink, a smoke, and a crackling fire. Out of his window lie the fair hills of the Shire. His breakfasts and second breakfasts are hot and delicious. Yet, it is at this precise stage of his life that Gandalf and a hoard of dwarves descend on his home and change his life forever.

Bilbo was overwhelmingly unprepared, and in one of the most illuminating passages of the book, the narrator claims:

 “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”

The start of Bilbo’s incredible journey “there and back again” does not look like a carefully-scheduled trip with dried ink on the itinerary; Bilbo simply “found himself outside”, moving headlong into the mysterious dark ahead. Who are these dwarves? Where are we going, Gandalf? Will the road be dangerous? Will I live to tell about it? Questions flood his mind with no real assurances. Dwalin simply responds, “Don’t worry! You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.”

Unpreparedness, then, is the key note of Bilbo’s beginning, but it is not his readiness that is praised in the novel; it is his willingness. The remarkable quality of Bilbo’s journey is not in how excellently he mapped out his future but how bravely he faced it with a faithful willingness. Bilbo was not ready for his quest, but he was available for it.

If we were completely prepared for the journey we must take, would we be able to learn and see everything the experience could offer? Would our eyes be transfixed by the awe and wonder around us or would we lazily peruse our agendas and timetables for the next bulleted item? I imagine much of the significance and weight of our journey lies in the surprises in store.

So we, like Bilbo, must open ourselves to the bravery of willingness. We must reject the hesitance and fear that accompany so many of the plans we prescribe for ourselves. Bilbo was by no means prepared for his trek, but he was ultimately willing to accept it. He allowed himself to truly experience the situations he went through, concerned more with the nature of his path than the condition of his feet.

In my lifelong struggle to learn to pray, I pray that God turns my eyes away from self-absorption and worry to a noble willingness to see what He would have me to see and to take each experience with both hands, unashamed and unreserved. Such are the people that see the great things of God: the Moses that doesn’t stutter but shouts boldly, the Peter that doesn’t tread water but stands upon it, the Prodigal that returns for a job and finds a home, the Abraham that is called to a land he’s never known, and the Hebrews who must eat the manna of daily provision.

Though we may not ever be prepared for the turns our journey will take, we must be willing to step out into the darkness nonetheless. Just bear in mind we may have to leave our second breakfast half-finished.

Further Up and Further In

the-last-battle“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”

-Jewel the Unicorn, The Last Battle

Goodnight Nobody

Goodnight Nobody

“Goodnight nobody”

So says Margaret Wise Brown’s narrator in the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, a book that was read to me countless times as a child and is a favorite in the current rotation my wife and I are reading to our children. In the midst of the goodnights rendered to kittens, mittens, combs, brushes, and mush throughout the book, this particular sentence is quite startling.

I can’t help thinking of the phrase “Goodnight nobody” as one of the saddest utterances that many today unconsciously whisper as they lie down to sleep. Our American culture, so flooded by the New Atheism, is at war with the thought that there may be a God who built this ship and is sovereignly at the helm. They believe, as C.S. Lewis once did, that there is no God and they are mad at Him for not existing. As a result of this militant atheism, we have seen a noticeable rise in loneliness, meaninglessness, isolation, self-centeredness, and bitterness. Truth is no longer a concrete cornerstone but rather a confetti-gun explosion — everyone gets his own tiny piece of colorful “truth” upon which to build his house. And we all know what happens when the big, bad wolf blows on those houses.

To borrow an analogy from Douglas Wilson, the atheist’s creed is in accordance with John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today”

There is no Heavenly Father for us to say goodnight to. Above us only sky. No eternal, sovereign justice awaiting anyone down here. Above us only sky. Above Dachau? Only sky. Above Ground Zero? Only sky. Above Syria? Only sky. We have certainly imagined, as Lennon desired, all the people living for today, and what we have gotten is a frenzied attempt to freeze time, to stay young forever, to be wealthy forever, to invest more in our online selves than our material selves. Our homes are selfish, our relationships selfish, our conversations selfish. We have exchanged the rod of Moses for the selfie stick of man. We are wound tight around our own axle, constantly getting what we have always wanted, and it’s making us so sad.

So when we lay ourselves down to sleep, we do not pray the Lord our soul to keep. We pray nothing. We say goodnight to nobody. When one of my daughters tumbles down and begins to cry, I swoop her up in my arms and softly say, “Daddy’s got you. It’s okay.” But for the modern atheist, he has no such comfort. For him, there is no cosmic Dad to hold onto, to cry to, to talk to. He has imagined Dad right out of the room and wonders why he feels so alone. He has shut his eyes tight to the notion of a Father God and questions why his world is so dark. In the ultimate analysis, his life is a blank page bearing the tragic inscription: “Goodnight nobody.”

As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, the men and women merely players.” We are all most certainly acting out a grand story (see my discussion of Hamlet). Yet, the atheist must also adopt the bleak words of the Player, the lead actor in a traveling theater troupe in Tom Stoppard’s great play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:

“You don’t understand the humiliation of it, to be tricked out of the single assumption that makes our existence bearable: that somebody is watching. We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people […] We need an audience.”

sisyphus_by_o__v-d66ox90If we are all actors in the cosmic theater of life, then the notion nobody is watching must be the most harrowing of all. Our tragedies and our triumphs would ultimately amount only to the enlargement or diminishment of the boulders that we, like Sisyphus, simply push up the mountainside. Unfortunately, the best the atheist can tell us in response to this horrendous thought is that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

As Christians, we must constantly affirm the existence and presence of the Almighty God who not only created all things and sustains all things but cares for all things. Our lives have meaning because we are playing to His audience. We are seeking to glorify Him. We have received His divine approval. We have purpose. We are not marbles in a box, moving about aimlessly on this pale blue dot in the universe to no eternal or meaningful end. We are children of God. We say goodnight to Him as He lays us down to sleep. We are forgiven when we sin. We are raised to our feet when we fall. And when we come to die, we may echo the words of Christ and commend our spirit not into a blank oblivion but into our Father’s hands.