Monday, December 29, 2008

My Wisest Words

I try to put some thought into things I say and write, especially when those things are for public consumption. I try to study where I should, think through what I want to say, and craft my words precisely.

But sometimes things happen that remind me what true wisdom is, and where it can be found. For instance, for the week around Christmas Day we stayed with my daughters' families, and had a grand time with the grandchildren. One of my grandsons is only five months old, so there's not much conversing we can do, but he likes me and I enjoy bouncing him and singing him nonsense syllables. This babbling serves no functional purpose except perhaps as a source of amusement to those watching, and is hardly dignified, but that doesn't matter. My grandson enjoys it, and while I'm doing it, he's all that matters.

Therein lies the wisdom that discursive reason cannot grasp. At his age, the little guy is that curious combination of totally self-centered and utterly unselfconscious. He has not yet learned to be sly, or to work things to his own advantage (those days will come soon enough). He simply exists out of his own center, living life as it happens. That outlook seems contagious, for when I'm playing with him, I find myself doing the same thing. I'm not thinking of his education, or character formation, or any other such weighty things (those days, too, will come soon enough, albeit secondarily for me). I'm simply being grandpa, and enjoying our time together. I'm not planning, or executing, or evaluating, or pondering - I'm just being, and relating out of that being. It's a skill that babies and a few others possess, and we adults tend to lose along the way.

This isn't to say that there isn't virtue in contemplation, or carefully deliberated action. But there's also a place for simply being, and enjoying who you are and who you're with. Hopefully we'll all take some time to do that during this holy season.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Payoff

Temperamentally, I can look at life – particularly Christian discipleship – with a grim eye. I tend to relish themes like counting the cost, and not looking back once you've put your hand to the plow, and the sacrifices necessary to follow Christ. Highlighted in my Bible are verses pertaining to trials and difficulties and struggles. The past two posts on winnowing and smelting are typical of how I look at the Christian life and attendant struggles.

This outlook may be a helpful counterweight to a culture that focuses more on the comfort and benefits of the Gospel that the associated cost – when it pays attention to the Gospel at all. However, even useful counterweights can introduce imbalance if they are not kept in check.

That's why it's helpful for people like me to step back occasionally and remember that the struggle and trial and purification has a goal, and that goal is good. The winnowing ends, and you have good grain. The ore is finally smelted, and you have the pure metal. The trial brings the victory and the cost brings a payoff.

We are now into the Fourth Week of Advent. Four candles are burning in the wreath, and in days it will be Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, the celebration so festive that the Church taught a whole culture how to celebrate it. Every year the Feast comes around as a reminder that yes, we do have a Redeemer. The road to redemption may be long and trying and difficult, but there is a road where there was none before, and that road has an end.

Perhaps symbolically, this Christmas Ellen and I are away from home, at our children's homes, where all of us far-scattered ones are regathered. During the final countdown days of Advent we will be together. There will be conversations and good coffee and books to read to little ones and plenty of rest and fun and feasting. We will celebrate each other, and our Redeemer, and when the joyous morning comes we will exchange gifts as an expression of our love and esteem for each other, in commemoration of the Great Gift Who was given as the ultimate expression of love. Some days later, we will separate again (though we are never far out of touch), for we are still in this life.

But the day will come soon (very soon, in the grand timescale of things) when we won't have to separate any more. The Advent that is this life will come to an end. The purple will be put away, for the penance will be finished, and the white will come out forever. The True Feast will begin, and the full meaning of all the best Christmas mornings and weddings and reunions and family feasts will be realized. We will then taste the fullness of what all those joyous occasions only gave us the scent of.

So enjoy this Christmas, even in the midst of whatever trials you are enduring. May God bless you as you celebrate the Incarnation, the coming of hope beyond hope, and the opening of the road that had been utterly closed to us.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Refining by fire

Smelting is another Scriptural image for purification. This is the process by which metal is extracted from ore. Most of us moderns have learned of it from diagrams or pictures of industrial processes performed in modern factories far removed from where we live. But to people of Biblical times, smelting was much more immediate and familiar. Large quantities of crushed ore were piled into ovens and heated with a charcoal fire while air was pumped in. The result was a lot of useless slag and a very small amount of more concentrated metal-bearing residue. Once you got enough residue, you did the whole process again to separate out more slag (or “dross"), and then typically again and again until you finally had something like workable metal (hence the reference in Psalm 12:6 to “silver...refined seven times").

Every aspect of smelting was dirty, hot, backbreaking work. From making the charcoal to mining and crushing the ore to working the bellows to digging out the furnace, there was nothing glamorous about it. Smelting was a lot of work for very little return, but it was the only way to get metal, which was necessary for survival. It also provided an immediate object lesson in spiritual growth and maturity.

Granite is good, solid rock. You can hew it, form it, polish it, even engrave it, and it will hold up. Likewise iron is good metal, suitable for forging and hammering. But ore is neither good rock nor good metal. It is too crumbly and weak to serve as building material, too brittle to be hammered and formed, and even too soft to be used as an abrasive. If it isn't refined, it's useless.

This refining process illustrates two things. One is similar to the lesson of grain and chaff: what looks like a lot is in fact very little of value. A large pile of even high quality iron ore might yield a pound of iron; a large pile of a more precious metal such as copper or silver might only yield an ounce or so – and that only after lots of hard labor.

Another lesson is one that is directly used in Scripture several times: that the trials and struggles of this life are like the fire of the smelting furnace, used by God to separate out the precious spiritual maturity from the slag of the natural life. Thus when God in Deuteronomy 4:20 referred to Egypt as “the iron furnace" out of which He had drawn His people, nobody missed the point. This was not only true personally, as individual Israelites could see how the struggles they'd endured had increased their dependence upon God, but also corporately. According to rabbinic legend, only about 20% of the children of Israel chose to make the Exodus – the remainder stayed behind in Egypt, and their identity and memory is lost to history.

God used this smelting image again and again throughout Scripture. “The wicked" were compared to slag in Psalm 119:119, in Isaiah 1:22-25 Isaiah states that the pure “silver" of obedience has become slag that needs to be purified by trial. God explains to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 22:18 that the nation of Israel has become like slag. God uses the image of refining in Daniel 11:35 to explain how "the wise" will be purified through difficulty, and in Zechariah 13:9 God uses the same image to explain how He will deal with all His people. One of the final prophecies in the Old Testament, Malachi 3:2-3 compares the Messiah to "a refiner's fire".

Which is an interesting thing to keep in mind during Advent. Excitement and anticipation builds as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. A few of us even hope for the Second Coming. But then, the Jews were excited about the Messiah's coming, despite the stern warning of Malachi (read Chapter 3 again) and the nearly brutal words of John the Baptist in his day. The Jews (and we) hope for goodies and good times; what they (and we) are promised is smelting. Sure, the result is good, but it's very hard on the ore, and a lot of useless bulk gets thrown out along the way.

From this perspective, Advent looks less like a countdown to fun and more like a challenge to our courage and character. Do we have the cojones to stand up and ask for "the treatment", knowing that smelting is not only painful to endure, but embarassingly revealing? How will we feel when the furnace cools and we learn that what we thought was a lot going in was mostly useless slag? ("That little hunk at the bottom is it? The rest of this is just junk?") Yet that trial by fire is the only way we become what we're meant to be. Without it, we're nothing more than debris on a hillside.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Chaff of Life

When it comes to purifying things, there are two images that occur repeatedly in Scripture. One is winnowing, and the other is smelting. For most of us in the modern urban West, these examples lack the potency they had for the original hearers, so we tend to just skim over them. But especially in a season like Advent, where purification is a central theme, it's beneficial to look a little closer at both processes, and how they're used in Scripture, to see what we can learn.

When grain is harvested, you get more than just the grain. You get the husks (or hulls), bits of straw, dust, and other debris in there as well. The general term for this is “chaff”, and it's all waste. In order for the grain to be useful, the chaff has to go. In Biblical times, this was usually done by tossing the harvest on a round flat area, known as a threshing floor, and worked over with a stone something like a big rolling pin, or a wooden framework known as a threshing sledge. This broke the grain free from the chaff. Then workers would take things that looked something like leaf rakes, called winnowing fans (or forks), and with them scoop up the contents of the threshing floor and throw it into the air. The grain, being heavier, would fall back down, while the lighter chaff would be blown away.

Winnowing has a couple of effects. First, it substantially reduces the volume of the grain. A bushel of unwinnowed grain might look pretty full, but much of it is fluff. Once it is winnowed, there is a lot less of it, but it is a lot denser, and all of it is valuable. Another thing winnowing does is thin out the impostors. When viewed from the proper angle, an empty hull can look just like a kernel of grain. Only when you pick it up and it crumples between your fingers do you realize that you didn't have what you thought you did.

In the Old Testament, God frequently used the image of winnowing to drive home what He would do with those who ignored His law. One of the significant prophecies John the Baptist made about Jesus pertained to winnowing (“His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:17) The obedient and faithful were the grain, the hypocritical and superficial were the chaff. When the Pharisees heard that, you can be sure they thought of Jeremiah 15:6-9 – and trembled.

What does this do for us here in Advent? It seems to me that the important thing is to notice that chaff is not something harmful like poison ivy, but it is undesirable specifically because it is useless. Even though it is an expectable part of growth (grains cannot grow without hulls), ultimately the chaff is simply discarded. It is natural, it is even useful in its time, but when harvest comes around (which was the purpose of all that tilling and planting and cutting), it is cast aside.

It's also important to note that the chaff is the visible part of the growing. Look out over a field ripe for harvest and you see golden stalks swaying in the breeze, their rich heads rustling as they rub together. Y'know what? All that you can see is waste – ultimately chaff. The valuable part, the kernels of grain, are hidden away and have to be extracted, separated from the hulls and straw. A particular stalk might look robust and impressive, but only after the externals are removed does anyone know how much grain the stalk actually grew.

So it is with our natural life and all the accouterments that go with it. The work schedules and menu plans and home maintenance and retirement accounts are natural and sometimes necessary parts of our lives, but they are concerns that belong to this world. Like the hull that shelters the grain, their purpose is to nurture the spiritual life that is what the Sower really wants from the field of our lives. And if that's true for the productive aspects of our earthly lives, how much more is it true for the movies and the video games and the other idle things with which we fill our time. Again, not that any of those things are innately bad, any more than hulls and straw are, but they're not the goal of our existence.

Perhaps Advent is a time to ask the Harvester to do a little winnowing in our lives. See what harmless but useless distractions He could call to our attention and help us remove. We may not yet be able to experience the ultimate winnowing in our lives, but it may help us to have some of the chaff removed, if only so we can see that our baskets maybe aren't as full as we thought they were – and that much of what they're full of isn't worth all that much.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

We aren't ready

Advent is an interesting season. In the modern West it has been nearly eclipsed by the mercantile Christmas season (or “XMas”, as C.S. Lewis puts it in his classic essay.) Even for those who strive to observe Advent, such as our family, it can seem a season without depth. When I was growing up, Advent was sort of a “mini-Lent”, and we gave things up or made resolutions, but it never had the grim severity that accompanied the season approaching the Passion (for one thing, that steadily increasing sequence of lit candles was a promising countdown to the Big Day!) So the season tended to devolve into flat rituals, such as opening the doors of the Advent calendar and reading the specified verses. Even the Mass readings took on a predictable cant: “A voice cries out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'” “For unto us a Child is born...” The theme of sober preparation, of getting ourselves ready, gets lost in the merriment accompanying the approaching holiday, and lost along with it is the underlying statement implied in that theme.

Implied statement? What would that be?

That we're not ready.

Not ready? How can that be? Aren't we careful to follow all the Church instructions regarding Mass attendance? Do not many of us consecrate even common days to the Lord with Rosaries, or saying the Liturgy of the Hours, or Scripture study? Do we not pray and seek the Lord several times a day?

Perhaps we do. But the ancient cycle of the Church Year was drawn up by men who did those things as well, and in their wisdom they ordained that there should be such a Season, and its message should be: Prepare. It may profit us to examine their reasoning more closely.

In what ways might we be not prepared for Christ's coming? There's an interesting incident in Israel's history that gives a clue. It's in Joshua 24, in the same context as the famous “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” passage (v. 15). In verse 23, Joshua instructs the people to “put away the foreign gods” and to make good on the repeated promises they make to follow the Lord alone (v. 16-24)

But what are these “foreign gods”, and why would this generation of Israelites have any? The literal word is teraphim, and scholars agree that these were household idols – we might call them talismans or good luck charm charms – that people tucked into nooks and crannies of their homes (or tents, as the case may be.) These weren't big, public idols – the last time the Israelites tried that, it was with a golden calf at the foot of Sinai, and the results were catastrophic – but petty little tokens intended to bring luck, or watch over some portion of the hearth or home. In the Israelites' eyes, they weren't so much blatant idolatrous rebellion as minor fetishes.

God didn't see them as minor. He wanted to be the only God the Israelites had, and have His law rule every corner of their lives. But neither did He see these petty godlings as the kind of gross offense the Golden Calf had been. The Israelites brought them out, renounced them, and buried them under a tree.

But you can bet that these petty distractions crept back in over time – as similar things do in our lives. That's why times like Advent are helpful. Perhaps that can be a focus for us: asking God to help us see the petty trinkets and tokens we've let creep in. What are we looking to besides God? What things might He want to clean out? If we did hear a knock on the door of our lives and knew it was Jesus, would we rush to open it for Him? Or would we call out, “just a second!” and scurry about tucking away things we wouldn't want out in plain sight when He walked in? If so, what are those things, and what can we do about them now?