Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Lesson from the Leviathans

Today when we observe the whale, we see an affable, albeit mysterious fellow.  The sort of chap who is widely traveled and deeply learned, yet feels no need to share the full extent of his experiences.  (Whales seldom have Twitter accounts, much less write their own tweets.)  My point is that, should you encounter a whale, you will most likely be met with mild curiosity if you are deemed worthy of attention at all.  This isn’t noteworthy unless you consider that there are few other species against which we have waged such a bloody and far reaching campaign (excluding our fellow humans, of course).  Yet despite the previous hostilities, the whale’s primary concern remains, even around us, doing those things which whales do.  Herein, I think, lies the cardinal virtue of the whale: despite the challenges he faces and despite his grandiose size and power, he remains faithful to his divinely appointed business as a whale.  Sometimes, the issue we run up against is that, in the midst of our daily lives, we forget our divinely appointed business as humans.  Therefore, perhaps we can learn a thing or two by considering the whale.

Now as I hold up the whale for our reflection, it is not my aim or intent to try and outdo King Solomon who held up the ant for us in a similar fashion.  Rather, I wish only to follow his example (and that of our Lord Jesus Christ, for that matter) in pointing us to nature as a way to better direct our hearts and minds to God.

The first objection that may be raised against the whale’s example of living with and for God is that it is a brute beast who doesn’t possess the same level of intelligence or consciousness as we do.  This is undeniable.  However, what we can take away from this point is that while a whale is relieved of our level of intelligence, he is also relieved of much of the mental humbug that comes with that intelligence.  That is, there is an undeniable simplicity of thought which guides his actions: the whale’s pattern of thought always begins with God’s blueprint.  On the other hand, because we have the ability to engage in lofty thoughts, we are able to deviate from God’s blueprint for our minds.  This habit of straying from the straight and narrow is what we often call our sinful nature.  The cue that we can take from our cetacean planet-mates is to remember that our relationship with God has a, fundamentally, simple basis:  to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  This is what we aim to start from and allow to guide all of our thoughts and actions.

Another objection that may be raised is that the whale has the luxury of being able to focus on following God’s leading only because he is so large and is the master of his domain.  To the first point, about his size, I don’t think we can ascribe his calmness and clarity of thought to his size.  After all, in my reckoning, it is when we think of ourselves as big that we are most likely to be upset by trivial things.  To the second point, about being master of his domain, I think we have more in common with the whale’s situation than we may realize.  Recall, if you will, that the whale is a mammal who breathes through lungs living in a world of water.  It is only when he ascends to the surface that he is able to fill his lungs with life-sustaining air.  One might say that the whale is in the ocean but not of the ocean.  Similarly, as Christians, we are in the world but not of the world. This is why, like the whale, we must periodically ascend to the surface of the worldly ocean, spouting our prayers and breathing in God.

The whale, like all of nature’s denizens, helps us learn how to better live with God.  As more complicated members of creation, it is good for us to be reminded from time to time of the basics of life, that we should seek God first and foremost.  The whale also demonstrates for us the necessity of sticking our heads out of the sometimes turbulent and cloudy waters of life in order to be filled and refreshed by God.  So may we all endeavor to spout often and spout fully so that we may thrive in the sea that is life on earth, always looking above for our true fulfillment.  Thus concludes this little meditation on the mighty whale.

Chibi Whales


Remembering the Last Things – Part 2

Previously we discussed contemplating the final judgment in which all of humanity shall stand before God. In particular, we focused on the Scriptural precedent for such ruminations. With that groundwork laid, we will now proceed to more practical matters.

Part 1 was wrapped up with the juxtaposition of the fearsomeness of the judgment and the precious hope of grace. As we weigh anchor and set out for this particular cruising ground of meditation, it is of great importance that we understand our purpose in doing so. Although compunction (a holy sorrow for our sins) is a part of this line of thought, it is only a part and not the sum of the whole. These meditations do not end in despair, but quite the opposite: they renew our trust in God’s grace and urge us on in our pilgrimage here on earth.

In order to present some form and order for our line of thought I will defer to Evagrius Ponticus, a figure from the deserts of ancient Christianity. Despite some of his theological shortcomings, his insight and ability as a guide for the soul remain potent helps for us.

“Evagrius said, ‘While you sit in your cell, recall your attention, and remember the day of your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Shrink from the vanity of the world outside. Be retiring, and be careful to keep your vow of quiet, and you will not weaken. Remember the souls in hell. Meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Remember too the day of resurrection, imaging God’s terrible and awful judgment. Bring into your sight the confusion of sinners before God and His Christ, before angels and archangels and powers, and all the human race, punishment, everlasting fire, the worm that never dies, the darkness of Tartarus – and above them all the sound of the gnashing teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your eyes the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son, before angels and archangels and the powers, and all the people in the kingdom of heaven and its gifts, joy and peace. Remember all this. Weep and lament for the judgment of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, whether you in your cell or outside it. Keep these memories in your mind and so cast out of it the sordid thoughts that harm you.’”

-Excerpt from “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” translated by Benedicta Ward

Evagrius’ roadmap begins with the acceptance of our own mortality. This subject alone is a peculiar one, for, as a culture, we typically spend a great deal of time in shoving this fact to the back of our consciousness rather than accepting and living with it. However, taking time to remember that our lives are, in fact, finite helps us to get a more concrete grasp on our existence and reminds us that there will come a time when the physical overlay will be rolled back to reveal the eternal.

Next we contemplate and consider the horrors and suffering of souls in hell. It is important here to do two things: first, to remember that this outcome is the result of one’s own hardness of heart and refusal to accept salvation; second, to recall these things in a direct and real manner, not as the reminiscence of some Sulphur-laden outburst from the pulpit. If we only think of it as something that we’ve been told by a preacher or evangelism tract, it is very easy for hell to become a sort of boogeyman: perhaps disconcerting, but nothing more than a story told to make us behave. In the sort of meditation we are talking about here, we take out the middlemen and think upon hell in all of its horrific reality. This may bring us a little too close for comfort, but it is only natural that we should be upset by the eventualities of sin.

From the depths of hell, we move on to ponder the flipside of eternity: the joy and peace of heaven. Just as we embraced the realities of hell, we now turn to the realities of heaven, not as a sugar-coated bauble meant to entice us towards good behavior but as our ultimate goal and fulfillment, the Promised Land which God seeks to bring us to where we shall be with Him forever. This practice helps us familiarize ourselves with and acquire a taste for the things of heaven. This is not to say that godliness is an acquired taste, it isn’t that we must teach ourselves to like it. Rather, it is more the case that we must take the time to seek it out and allow ourselves to partake of it. For in many ways, the temptations of the devil are aimed at drawing our attention from heaven and warping our desire so that it seeks purely earthly things.

Evagrius concludes by urging us to keep the content of our meditation in mind at all times, to remain mindful of the truth we have pondered. This helps us to see things more accurately, in light of eternity. Perhaps the most accurate and succinct way to describe our meditations on heaven and hell is a realignment of the soul. It is a way in which we shake off the deceit of the devil’s machinations and allow God to clear away the corrosion that has built up on the eyes of our hearts so that we can see the world as it really is. We step back, humbled, from the idols of self-righteousness that we have erected and recommit ourselves to making God our all-in-all, casting ourselves upon His great mercy and love.

Further Exploration:

Here is a condensed version of Evagrius’ order of meditation:

  • Remember your own mortality, one day you will die
  • Recall the suffering and regret of souls in hell
  • Recall the joy and peace of souls in heaven
  • Remember these things and so aim at avoiding hell and pursuing heaven

Scripture to think on:

  • Matthew 25:31-46
  • Revelation 20:11-21:8

Remembering the Last Things – Part 1

There are many things that we can think and meditate upon for the profit of our souls. One that is often recommended to us by the Christians of antiquity is our inevitable death and judgment before God. Granted, in a time in which we have seen and continue to see such topics handled with all the finesse and discretion of rusty cleaver, contemplating death and judgment is less than appealing and seems to be the purview of a rabid and thoughtless theology. However, what I would like to ask of you is to set those impressions aside as best you can and approach this idea on its own, for what it is.

Let’s start with a Scriptural precedent for such contemplations, for they do not have their origins in the desire of one person to control another. Rather, they spring from the desire that a person should control him/herself. (While I won’t touch on it directly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the entirety of the book of Revelation here.)

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

-2 Corinthians 5:1-10

Paul calls the church’s attention to the final judgment in order to give them perspective on their current condition; a perspective that includes eternity.

Peter also urges us to remain mindful of the Day of Judgment in light of the evils we encounter in life:

“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.”

-1 Peter 4:17-19

In both of these instances from Scripture, the final judgment is not presented to invoke mindless fear, but as occasion for thoughtful reflection and, in particular, introspection. It is such recollection that helps to keep us anchored to God as we navigate the seas of life.

Yet another instance in Scripture in which are urged to be mindful of the last things comes from Christ Himself. Throughout Matthew 24:45-25:46, Jesus provides us with four parables that we might meditate upon the final judgment; namely, the parable of the faithful servant and the evil servant (24:45-51), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), the parable of the talents (25:14-30), and the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). To whom is Christ telling these parables? His disciples. The meditation of judgment is presented to those following Christ that we should be careful to be prepared; that we should search our hearts and see to it that, insofar as it has been given to us, we live our lives in response to the grace we receive from God. Sometimes we may fall into overlooking our daily struggle with sin and become self-conceited. It is from such pride, I think, that a great many errors of churches spring. It leads us to veer from our calling to follow God and to instead serve ourselves and act as though we were self-sufficient, having no need of God other than as a mascot of our organization.

Now it bears mentioning where the idea of assurance of salvation/“perseverance of the saints” fits into this topic we’ve been discussing. If we trust in God to bring us safely to the port of heaven, what practical gain is there for us in contemplating His judgment? There is much that could be said of this concept, but here I will only provide a brief and pragmatically oriented response. First, when Scripture speaks to us of election, assurance of salvation, and so forth, a large portion of what is being communicated to us is that our trust in God in never misplaced. Second, concerning the intersection of our trust in God’s grace and our consideration of the fires of hell, I offer 2 Peter 1:10 where the apostle writes the following after a brief call to continued spiritual growth, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble;”

So we can see that Scripture encourages us to pause and remember that God will judge all people at the appointed time. Such practice is good for our soul because it reminds us not to become complacent or careless in our Christian walk. Paul sums up well the purpose of the reminders of fearsome judgment and precious hope we see in Scripture when he writes the following concerning the instances seen in the Old Testament:

“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

-1 Corinthians 10:11-13