Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Courage to Do (as explained by an Original Orthodox Rebel)

The following is from p. 218 of Oswald Chamber's The Moral Foundations of Life:

An artist is one who not only sees, but is prepared to pay the price of acquiring the technical knowledge to express what he or she sees. 'Artistic people' are those who have not enough art in them to make them work at the technique of art whereby they can express themselves; they indulge in moods and tones and impressions. Consequently, there are more artistic people than there are artists. The same is true of poetry. There are many people with poetic notions, but very few poets. It is not enough for people to feel the divine flame burning in them; unless they go into the concentrated, slogging business of learning the technique of expression, their geniuses will be of no use to anyone.

Apply these illustrations spiritually: if we have not enough of the life of God in us to overcome the difficulty of expressing it in our bodies, then we are living impoverished spiritual lives. Think of the illuminations the Spirit of God has given you. He expected you to bring your physical body, that He made, into obedience to the vision, and you never attempted to but let it drift, and when the crisis came and God looked for you to be His mouthpiece, you crumbled all to pieces. You had not formed the habit of apprehending; your physical machine was not under control. It is a terrible thing to sit down to anything.

Beware of being sidetracked by the idea that you can develop a spiritual life apart from physical accompaniments. It is a desperately dangerous thing to allow the spiritual vision to go ahead of the physical obedience.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 7: Our Deliverance (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"...deliver us from evil...." Luke 11:4b KJV

"The prince of darkness grim.
We tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure,
For, lo, his doom is sure!" -Martin Luther

God gives us the weapons of our warfare, but victory does not belong to us. It does not even depend on us. If it did, then we would be doomed to wage a long defeat: a valiant effort in futile struggle. Deliverance does not fall to us; it falls to God. This truth is the greatest weapon that we have against all the grim assaults of the enemy: victory is ours in Christ. He has overcome the world, and thus we can be of good cheer (John 16:33). When the battles and trials are long and dark and sore, we can go through all things with a song, for we are not engaged in the long defeat. Rather, we are engaged in the long triumph.

When you pray, remember your deliverance. Remember your salvation. Know that you can call upon your Father in Heaven, and He will deliver you, and there is nothing that the darkness can do about it, for it is absolutely powerless before the light (John 1:5). Remember that you belong to Christ, and Christ has already won. There is now, therefore, no condemnation, no darkness, no evil, no failure or fear that can separate you from the love of the Father and the victory of the Son. We do not pray "deliver us from evil" in vain hope but rather in confident surety. We are children of the King and brothers of the Victor. His name is above every name, and His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. His will will be done on earth as it is in Heaven, and He does not leave us alone with the darkness without and within but provides strength and deliverance for all who call upon His name. Amen, and amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Come Get Your Kicks, Biblical Style (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Route 66: A Crash Course in Navigating Life with the Bible, by Krish Kandiah. Oxford, UK: Monarch Books, 2011. 192 pgs. (including study guides and bibliographies)

Introduction: The Bible is not meant to be an obfuscating code book or a static artifact. It is the living word of God (Heb. 4:12) whereby God has spoken to us (Heb. 1:1-2) so that we may have direction as His children (II Tim. 3:16). Without its continued speaking of the truth into our lives, our spiritual growth would stunt and our walk with God would stagnate. Thus, it is a necessity. Unfortunately, it is also a difficulty. The Bible is a big collection of multiple books written in multiple different genres within multiple different cultural and historical settings that no longer exist today. Understanding its seemingly archaic notions and then effectively applying them to 21st century life feels daunting to say the least. In light of such an issue, author Krish Kandiah hopes to make it less daunting. In Route 66, he seeks to connect the Bible back to our lives through "a journey to discover how the 66 books of the Bible help us to know God and how to live for him" (7). As generic as that sounds, Kandiah's approach proves to be surprising.

Summary: Route 66 divides itself up into an 8-week devotional format by dividing up the Bible into its eight main genres: narrative literature, law books, psalms, wisdom literature, the prophets (major and minor), the gospels, the epistles, and apocalypse. Each genre is given one week of five days, and each day is set up with its own devotional entry and subsequent application questions. In addition, each week ends with group application questions, which make Route 66 useful for Sunday school sessions or Bible study groups as well as individual devotions. Each daily entry looks to apply particular Bible truths to daily life by a combination of the following: (a) cultural/historical tidbits about the specific genre or book being studied, (b) devotionally-minded tie-ins, and (c) anecdotal tales to flesh-out a particular application. Overall, the book's approach is simple, straightforward, consistent, and trying to be as practical as possible.

Review: "Practical" is the magic word for Kandiah. In laying out the whole point of the book in the introduction, he states quite simply that he wanted to give Christians a tool that would help them enjoy "the breadth and depth of the Bible" as well as be "packed full of practical help" (7). The "practical help" aspect is really the heartbeat of the whole book. Kandiah obviously didn't want another book of abstract theological musings that focuses too much on the "what" but not the "how". As he puts it, he wants Route 66 to be about "traveling by the [Bible]" rather than "traveling with" it (9), a notion that he unpacks into three principles (9-10): (a) understanding life through the Bible (rather than just understanding the Bible itself), (b) translating the Bible "practically into the nitty-gritty of everyday life," and (c) seeing our time with the Bible not as an obligation to duty, but rather as an invitation into the presence of God.

That last point sounds more like the abstract theologizing that Kandiah is trying to avoid, but it is the true center and value of the whole book, as expressed in what is easily its money quote: "The Bible is not a theological textbook, a small book of calm, a list of rules and regulations, a get-out-of-hell-free card or a fast-paced page-turner ideally adaptable for the big screen. The Bible is God's voice in our hands--he chose to speak to us in a book that is diverse in style, broad in context, grounded in history, deep in theology, true to life and perfect for growing faith whoever and wherever we are" (14). For Kandiah, the daily relevancy of the Bible is not an abstraction, and everyday in the 8-week study is meant to show that it will always matter, regardless of our circumstances. In using the above-mentioned combination of friendly anecdote and devotional musing, he makes good (if shallow) strides in that direction.

Recommendation: The fact that Route 66 doesn't dabble in much "deep theology" does make it a  practically-minded book, but it also makes it a less than meaty devotional fare. That being said, it is, as advertised, a hands-on approach to the Bible and a good (if simple) primer to the different genres and historical/cultural nuances that make the biblical voice unique. The application questions (both group and individual) are definitely the most valuable part of the book, forcing you to engage a passage and its ideas in a far more direct way. In the end, if you're looking for a decent devotional journey, then Mr. Kandiah has a route for you.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 6: Our Weapon (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"...lead us not into temptation...." Luke 11:4b

"And though this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us...." -Martin Luther

The continual provision of God's "daily bread" is not merely a physical provision, for it is not merely physical things that threaten us. That we "wrestle not against flesh and blood" (Eph. 6:12) is a truth that we take too lightly, having been saturated by our skeptical-secularized age. As far as we're concerned, all of our demons are flesh and blood: people and circumstances and mistakes by our own hands. We can't see the plague for the flies, and we ask that God would deliver us from this world with such people in it. In contrast, Jesus said, "I pray not that Thou should take them out of the world, but that Thou should keep them from the evil one" (John 17:15). We subconsciously scoff at notions of "the evil one," trusting instead only what the eyes in our head can see. "Yes, yes, 'the evil one'. Now how about helping me out in my actual present circumstance?" Is there fear in your present circumstance? Doubt? Pride? Anger? All of the above? If so, then you have greater problems than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

When you pray, acknowledge your need of this spiritual safeguarding. The truths of God are a light for the darkness, especially the living darkness that stalks you in the night (Ps. 91:4-6). The wilderness that you wander through is not void of threats, and God's pillar of fire is not merely for show. Its shafts of light will pierce the dark like a rain of a thousand arrows. As they fall into the inky black there will be roars and gnashing of teeth, for the darkness hides a multitude of evils. Our enemy lives by the power of stealth, of blindness and deception. So pray daily that the Lord of Hosts would give to you His truth to wield, so that you will not be lead into temptation, away from the light of God and into the outer dark.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, August 12, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 5: His Mercy (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"...forgive us our sins...." Luke 11:4a

"It is through the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed...." Lam. 3:22

As riots rage elsewhere and unrest boils at home, there is the question about what exactly will it take to make the human animal behave itself. What will it take to make humanity behave humanely? What do we need? More laws? Less laws? More government assistance? Less government interference? None of the above. The truth is that it is forgiveness that we need. Not changes and proposals and improvements and utopic visions, but forgiveness for who we are at what we have done. It is not ourselves that we need to forgive, for we are not the one's offended. It is God who has been offended, Him and his holiness. We may forgive each other all day long if we like, but it will not do us one lick of good. Without the mercies of the Lord we will all be consumed, and He has called all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

When you pray, it would do you good to acknowledge this one great secret of the Christian life: day-by-day we are upheld by the mercies of God and nothing more. If it were not for Him, we would all perish; not just at Judgment Day, but everyday. We abide, safe and secure, by the mercies of our Lord. Take stock of your days and you will find that you did not need forgiveness merely on the day of your salvation; rather, you needed forgiveness everyday following, forgiveness that is yours because you belong to Christ (Colossians 3:3; I John 1:7). Everyday has sufficient evil unto itself, and thus everyday we need the mercies of God. It is God who keeps your foot from falling. It is God who saves you from the snares of the enemy and the snares of yourself. It is God who makes sure that "we are not consumed." He forgives our sins daily, and each moment from Him is a new beginning wherein we walk in newness of life.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mozart Metalheads (musical musings by an orthodox rebel)

It is amazing what human beings can do with music, not just the musical pieces themselves but also what can be done with those pieces. A piano piece can be played on the guitar, which can be played on the violin, which can be played on the xylophone, which can be played on a piccolo. Something loud and thunderous can be made soft and gorgeous while something contemplative and quiet can be made into a rock ballad. The expressive possibilities seem endless, and they can be quiet fun to explore, though the exploration can produce some surprising results.

I once heard someone (some anonymous voice in a comment section somewhere) say that the musical style of "metal" lends itself well to classical interpretation. Simply put, those shredding guitar rifts and heavy-handed back-beats can be quite effectively transposed into a string ensemble. I have found (from random suggestions and searches on iTunes, Facebook, and Youtube) many "tribute" albums to various bands where all of their songs were played on the piano (or a violin and piano, or with a string quartet), and I had seen many of those albums pay tribute to "metal" bands as well. Thus, the assertion did not surprise me.

Recently, however, I was visiting a blog that I frequent often. Every Monday it posts something about music, and this Monday it had a professional video from a concert for a band called Apocalyptica. They are a Finnish metal band that specializes in something called (brace yourself) "cello metal". That's right: cello metal. Three out of the four members are classically trained cellist (and the fourth one can play one as well), and they make their cellos the centerpiece of their act. As proof of this, I present to you the video from that blog, and I want you to pay attention to this video. Nevermind that the four men on stage look like a typical "metal" band (i.e., they're aptly dressed for Halloween, and one's missing his shirt), or that the stage looks like it is set for a "metal" band (complete with skulls!). Instead of all that, pay attention to these two things: 

(1) The song itself. It is a rendition of "Nothing Else Matters," by Metallica (I've linked to the song in case you want to listen to it for reference). I've randomly heard this song before (on Pandora Radio), and it sounded like a typical metal song I suppose (my experience is very limited); but I've never heard it done like this before. Apocalyptica takes it and transposes it into a cello quartet piece that is (no joke) hauntingly beautiful. It sounds like something any Mozart-purist would be in tears over. Listen to that and then think: that used to be a metal song by Metallica. Amazing.

(2) The people in the audience. "Metalheads" one and all, yes? Perhaps, yet when the classical sounds begin to resonate from the stage, there is no chorus of boos or chants of "BORING!". They are all into it. Seriously into it. I don't know why, but I found that to be pleasantly surprising (which I fear means that I am a snob).

Anyway, check out the video and see what you think:

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 4: His Truth (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"Give us day-by-day our daily bread...." Luke 11:3

"It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'" Matt. 4:4

There are many provisions that God gives to His children, but none is more precious than the truths of His word. If there is one thing that we are in continual need of, it is a continual dose of reality. Everyday our hearts and minds are pulled apart by a million different distractions, overclouded with terrible fogs and distortions of the world. Our fears would slay us and our anger consume us and our doubts paralyze us. Left to our own meager wit and wisdom, we will get along fine for a few steps; but once the way becomes shrouded in a horror of great darkness, we will long for the joy of the psalmist: "Thy word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path" (Ps. 119:105). The way is dark, but there is light given to us day-by-day if we will but ask for it.

When you pray, ask often and always for the daily bread of God's word, a regular dose of His truth and reality. The living word is the voice of God that speaks order into our chaos, and whether we are on great journeys or taking small steps, there will be light. When the sun fades, there will be the moon; when the moon fades, there will be the stars; and when every star fades behind dark clouds, there will be flashes of lightning with every storm. Furthermore, at all times God Himself will be your every-present fireside in the wilderness, speaking His truth to the darkness without and within. There is no escaping this provision. Every sentence, phrase, and word that you take from Him will sit in your soul like an undying ember, whose fire the Spirit will ignite in due time.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Legalists and Shades of Grey: Why everyone is wrong (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

The following is a comment I dropped over at another blog. My comment was in relation to a discussion about legalists and literature, viz., how they usually approach all literature from a very narrow point-of-view that prevents the literature from having any positive growth and/or change in their life. I agreed with most of what was said, up until a certain paragraph. That was where the fun began.

"For every [legalist], plot can be boiled down to these elements: Someone is right. Someone is wrong. And Someone is bound to be damned if they keep it up. That's all that matters. Insight into things like life, love, pain, greed, sacrifice, hate, bravery, desire, and the common human condition are just so much window dressing [to them]." (by "Darrell," the site director for the blog)

I take issue with this statement, Darrell, though not for the reasons that you may think.

I am an English major (having just received my Masters last year) and an aspiring author (I'm working through my first novel even as we speak), and I completely agree with your main premise: [Legalists] do not get out of books what they're supposed to get out of books (viz., an enlightenment and enlargement of the mind and soul) because they come to every book with a narrowly constructed box that they try to jam everything into kicking and screaming. The world is larger than they suppose, and God larger still. This, we agree on.

However, I disagree that that box is simply "someone's right and someone's wrong and the latter will be damned if they don't turn around." Rather, I think the box is more "someone's right in my specific way and someone's wrong in my specific way and the later will be damned if they don't turn around in my specific way." [Legalists] have their man-made preconceived notions about what is "holy" and what is "damnable," and that is their error: their moral compass has been tinkered with by human hands, and only an act of God can blast the thing apart and rebuild it correctly. In short, their moral compass is skewed and cramped; that is their flaw. I know that you (and everyone here [on your blog]) would soundly agree with that.

Your actual statement, however, seems to imply that the [legalist's] flaw is not that their moral compass is skewed, but rather that they have a moral compass at all. Though I am sure that that was not your overt meaning, I still feel the need to caution against such implications.

Shades of grey do serve a dramatic purpose (both in novels and real life), but our world is not simply shades of grey anymore that it is simply black and white. In fact, if there were no "black and white," then the very concept of "shades of grey" would lose all meaning.

Simply put, "Someone is right [and] Someone is wrong [a]nd Someone is bound to be damned if they keep it up" may be simplistic, but it is still true, at least in this regard: "Except you repent, you will all perish" (Luke 13:3). The truth is that there is someone who is "right" and someone who is "wrong": God is right, and we are wrong; and unless we repent, we will perish. It is either-or. There is no middle ground.

I write this knowing full well that ninety-nine percent of everyone here will agree in some degree with what I am saying, but I still see this as a necessary caution. In correctly pointing out the suffocating claustrophobia that passes for [legalist] moralism, we must not turn and commit the opposite yet equal error of jettisoning black and white morality in its entirety. Shades of grey do exist, and thus we must approach others with compassion and understanding; but black and white exist too, and thus our compassion must include Jesus' warning: without repentance towards God, there is only damnation.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 3: Our Place (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"...Thy will be done...." Luke 11:2b KJV

"We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us." -Martin Luther

When we hallow the name of God, we are acknowledging his place as Creator: His strength, sovereignty, and sufficiency. When we hallow the will of God, we are acknowledging our place as creature: our submission,  surrender, and service. He is Lord, and we are not. It is His purposes that are being fulfilled, not our own paltry ones. We are a purposeful part of His plan; He is not a peripheral part of ours. God has designed a great scheme and order wherein we have a place built for us, a place that we have been built for. Our joy is only found in that place, in His plan, in His will. This is not tyrannical enslavement and slavish duty; this is the joy of all living things, i.e., to finally find where they belong, within the great unfolding will of their Father and Creator.

When you pray, make your request known unto God. Ask what you will, but never forget Who is over all. Remember another of our Lord's prayers (Luke 22:42): He made His heart's desire known to His Father and then concluded, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done." This is not about divine indifference, as though God cared nothing for us or take no notice of our lives; this is about us reaching that "nevertheless". We are to come before our good and gracious Father and make known to Him the things that truly press against our hearts, and then we are to acknowledge God's place above them all. That is not resignation; that is hope. It is joy unspeakable to know that God not only knows what you fear and desire but also is above all your fears and desires. He will bring to pass what He will, and what He wills is all for our good (Jer. 29:11; Rom. 8:28) and His glory (Ps. 46:10). There is no dreariness in this, only love and life more abundant.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Good and Evil in The Space Trilogy (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

The following is from an e-mail I sent to one of my fellow church members. Her book club is reading C.S. Lewis' The Space Trilogy over the next couple of weeks, and she asked if I could send them some starting points for discussion. This is what I could come up with. Enjoy, Lewis fans!

For Lewis, moral goodness was bound up (at least in part) in the concept of hierarchy. Now, hierarchy is a word that is looked down on these days, mainly because the 20th century associated the word solely with tyranny and oppression. However, for Lewis "hierarchy" simply meant that God created the universe in such a way that a particular order is inherent in it. Each created thing has its place in that order, and until it finds that place it will never truly be itself (and thus never "find" itself, "know" itself, etc.). Exactly how Lewis structured this order is up for debate; but it is sufficient enough to say that he (and traditional Christianity) believed in it, and that he also believed that (however else it may be structured) God was at the top, and everything else was below Him. Perhaps the best expression of this order was Lewis' term "The Great Dance" (a concept that he delved into beautifully at the end of Perelandra): everyone has their place and turn in the dance, and it is to their greatest glory and delight that they find that place and dance therein.

If moral goodness for Lewis is bound up in the concept of hierarchy (i.e., finding your place in the dance), then moral badness is bound up in what can be called anarchy (i.e., abandoning your place and/or usurping the place of another). All evil springs from an attempt to upset (and even dissolve) the order; and since it is God who established the order, all attempts to upset/change it are (in effect) an attempt to be God, which is the most primal temptation of man (Gen. 3:5) and the very heart of Satan's fall (Is. 14:12-14).

This contrast between hierarchy and anarchy plays out in every book of The Space Trilogy. In fact, a good place to start studying them would be to see how ":good" characters seem willing to accept the order (to "dance the dance") and how "evil" characters (including "the Bent One" himself) are always trying to upset the order (i.e., to try and "play God," so to speak). Each book present this in its own unique way. For your benefit, however, I will give you a small taste of this theme from the first book, Out of the Silent Planet.

The final scenes of Out of the Silent Planet (where Weston and Devine are brought before the angelic guardian of Malacandra) are some of the most significant scenes in the whole book. There the contrast between hierarchy and anarchy is uniquely expressed in this fact: humanity has a fear of death. Now, fearing death may seem natural enough, but it has apparently so dominated the hearts and minds of men (like Weston) that they seek to defeat death at all costs (even if it means causing more death in the process). For the sake of "Life," and out of a so-called "loyalty to humanity," they will kill and destroy and conquer so that the human race may cheat death and live on forever. The anarchy should be obvious: they are trying to conquer death and control life, two things that only God can do, being the master of both life and death (Deut. 32:39). Since such things are ultimately beyond humanity, those who seek them will succeed in only destroying themselves and others. But the dance will go on.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 2: Our Purpose (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"...Thy Kingdom come...." Luke 11:2a

"His kingdom is forever." -Martin Luther

Prayer is not simply words to the ceiling or words with our self. It is (amongst other things) an acknowledgement of a reality that is greater than us, a reality that is personal, who has a name, and has a purpose to work out. That purpose is not merely one plan out of many, a single option put forth on a cosmic menu. It is the only option, the only reality, the only plan that is unfolding and will be accomplished, rolling along like a great wave that is yet far off but whose coming is whispered by the lesser waves that caress and batter the shoreline. You have but two choices in regard to what is destined to come: learn to ride it or be swept away by it. The Kingdom of God takes no prisoners, and it will have no rivals.

There are no stock characters in the Kingdom of God, no generic cut-outs or plain cookie-cutter Christians. Every one of its citizens (who dwell in the light of its already-but-not-yet status) has been uniquely equipped to be a specific member in the body of Christ, which is the living inauguration of the coming Kingdom. C.S. Lewis called the unfolding, overarching purpose and plan of God "the Great Dance," whereby every point in the pattern, no matter its size, has its place and serves its purpose. The purpose that it was meant to have. When we pray, we acknowledge that purpose. Our purpose. We acknowledge that their is more to our lives and circumstances then ourselves and others. There is a larger picture, a greater vision, a consuming fire that swallows up all of our paltry preferences and dull desires into its brilliance. It is the Kingdom of God, the ripples and reechoings of redemption coming from the very heart of the Trinity itself. When you pray, remember that you are not simply speaking; rather, you are testifying that you belong, viz., to God and to His purposes. You are not some small speck alone in a meaningless void. You belong to a King, and His Kingdom is your Kingdom, and it is coming.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Unnatural Sin (a cultural engagement by an orthodox rebel)

I remember a year ago I was watching the last Rambo movie because my cousin told me it was awesome (for the record, it wasn't). Right before character creation and subtlety were jettisoned out of the airlock and replaced by scene after scene of ever-increasing violence, there was a brief moment of profundity. John Rambo, living in exile somewhere outside of Burma, is asked by a group of Christian missionaries if he would take them to their mission inside of Burma, despite the country being a "war-zone" (i.e., there's crazy people with guns running everywhere). Rambo grudgingly agrees to go and ferries them up river.

Somewhere along that magical ferry ride (after Rambo uses one pistol to kill no less than five bad guys at once), Rambo gets to talking with one of the missionaries. She asks him why he has been so grumpy about what they are doing. Rambo's response is interesting. Apparently, he thinks that the missionaries are all wasting their time. "You're going against what's natural," he says, referring to their pacifistic (and somewhat pretentious) brand of Christianity. "When you're pushed, killin's as easy as breathin'." Judging by the missionary's reaction, she saw his viewpoint as highly defeatist. I saw it as closer to the truth, but not quite.

The problem with the Christian missionaries in the film is their barely implicit denial of original sin (as well as their smugness about that denial). They seem to think that if they "turn the other cheek" by refusing to defend either themselves, their friends, or even the people that are under their care, then the crazy, genocidal militiamen will just throw down their arms and sing "Kumbaya". Or perhaps God will rain down fire upon them (which He sort of did, only the fire's name was Rambo). Of course, the exact opposite happens. Just as Rambo off-handedly predicted, the mission is sacked, the men killed (or taken off to be tortured), and the women raped. Rambo is unsurprised to hear this news, because he had taken and continues to take into account an important fact: the heart of fallen man is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), and expecting sudden mercy and compassion from those who have let human depravity swallow them whole is a fool's dream.

There is a problem with Rambo's near-miss assessment, however, and it is in his use of the word "natural".

Oswald Chambers once said that if a man looks seriously at life, at the whole of existence as it really is, then he will find that it is fundamentally tragic rather than logical. Something is not right with the world, something that regularly and effectively upsets all our best-laid plans, hopes, and institutions. Something called Sin. It has wrecked us and the whole of creation with death and all its damnable incarnations. Since the Fall, it has been a part of our existence, a deep and interwoven part.

As deep a part as it may be, however, it is by no means "natural". It is easy to mistake it for such, but it is still not so. It may be commonplace and widespread, but that does not make it "natural". Despite ignorance to the contrary, Sin and death have been and always will be unnatural: abnormalities, deformities, aberrations, what ought not to be. Aberrations do not cease to be such simply because they are prevalent; a disease does not magically become health because it has taken over the whole body. Likewise, just because something is abundant enough to be called "common" does not in any way suddenly make it natural, normal, or moral.

This is a very ancient yet relevant fact. The creation is what it is; but whatever it is, it was not meant to be thus. There was a time before the Fall, where creation existed as it was intended to be, an existence it may yet be again. Until such time, however, we wander through the suffering waste and grim, where the saturation of aberration has become so complete that we stop noticing it. Furthermore, many without and even within the Christian camp would say that certain aberrations are actually natural and as God intended. This is how far the disease has spread: the body no longer sees it as such and instead welcomes it as health.

Rambo had taken into account the one great fact of life: the reality of sin. The problem is that there are two great facts of life, and the second is this: the reality of redemption. Sin may be real, but it is never "natural". There are no "natural" sins; all sin is unnatural. That is what the reality of redemption teaches us; and without that reality, sin is not only real but also all that there is. What's worse, its prevalence could become so accepted that no one calls it sin anymore. They call it "natural," normal, the way things are and thus ought to be. Without the reality of redemption, we have no motivation or means to pierce the darkness; we can only succumb either to despair or blindness, to a hopeless nihilism or an ignorant optimism. Rambo was the former. The Christian missionaries were the later. The Christian Faith is neither.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

"When you pray...." Homily on the Lord's Prayer, Part 1: The Name (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"...hallowed be Thy name...." Luke 11:2a

"That name above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them abideth." -Martin Luther

When we pray, we are acknowledging by the very act itself that God is God and neither we nor anything else is. This is a crucial reality that must be continually reasserted, and prayer is that continual reassertion. The person who prays is acknowledging both their weakness, frailty, and need and God's strength, supremacy, and sufficiency. Even if there is no immediate looming crisis or fear, the one who prays knows who they are: lost without the Lord God of heaven and earth, who is their life and sustaining power (Acts 17:28a). Even the most selfish and narcissistic prayer ever prayed has at least this one sterling quality: the very act (whether or not the one who prays realizes it) establishes who is creature and who is Creator, who is dependent and Who is independent, who is needy and Who possess all things.

When you pray, begin by acknowledging who God is, viz., the One whose name is hallowed above all principalities and powers of heaven and earth. This very act alone will be a powerful point of strength and encouragement. Truth is power, and there is no stronger truth than this: the one whom you call on is God, Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer and Ruler of all things. He has the will and the power to accomplish exceedingly greater than all you could ever hope or dream, from the highest desire to the most intimate detail of your life. Furthermore, this God who is above all powers (including your dismal lack of power) is with you (Josh. 1:9) and knows you (I Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9a) and loves you (Rom. 5:8; I John 4:10) and is for you (Rom. 8:31-32). These are the truths that are encapsulated and acknowledged in the short, prefatory phrase, "hallowed be Thy name"; and those truths are yours forever each and every time that you pray.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011