Happiness and Ethics

My readings from yesterday and today in Deuteronomy were both ethical in nature. God lays down laws for his people that go against what they might naturally think or feel or do. His desire is that they recognize His Truth, and in so doing alter their behavior accordingly.

So, I began asking some co-workers questions about how they make ethical decisions. Their answers seemed to compete between two desires... the desire to be nice to people on the one hand, and the desire to be consistent with their atheistic world views on the other. The result was a sort of mish-mashed relativism, where they will say that PERSONALLY they would not, say, kill a pregnant woman to save a group of ten other people, but they also would not say that it is wrong for someone else to do so.

At heart, they believe the key goal in life is to be happy, to be content with decisions, to enjoy life. Because they are young and educated and financially stable, this seems within grasp for them. And yet I feel they will struggle when the storms come with the question of whether their life has value and purpose.

In Augustine's Confessions, he is using lies and rhetoric (before he became a Christian) to gain status and power in the world. While doing so, he comes across a drunk beggar in the street:

Sighing, I spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from such madness. I was dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time. Despite all our efforts, we still aimed only to attain the very happiness that this beggar had reached before us-and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins gotten by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and torturous turning, namely, the joy of a passing bliss. He had not gained true joy, but at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one that was even more untrue.

This caused me to recall why Christian morality is and should be so entirely different from the world. Our message is that our base desires and strivings are essentially false. Though our natural instinct is to sacrifice only at the altar of self-worship through pleasure, it is not what is best or healthiest for our true joy.

Instead, we must first recognize an Objective Truth outside of our contained little lives, and submit our moral choices to the guidelines that flow from that moral truth. For the Christian, this means submitting moral decisions to the prism of God's glory; we find true joy by responding to the good news with faith and repentence, by living to the glory of Him who has saved us, and by entering into His joy and rest when our time here is done.

How much more consistent, how much more beautiful is this picture! The strivings of the world are but begging for coins to get drunk, but the life of the Christian is one of submission and obedience for the purpose of greatest joy in God's glorification.

Keep these things in mind when you are tempted by the things of this world. Remember, as Steven Curtis Chapman sings, that your chains are gone.


On Leaving and the Purposes of God

Augustine, remembering his mother's fierce desire for him to stay in Carthage rather than move to Rome, because she feared he would never come to faith:

What was it, O Lord, that she was asking of You in such a flood of tears, but that you would not allow me to sail? Nevertheless, You, took Your own secret counsel and, noting the real point to her desire, didn't grant what she was asking in order to grant to her what she had always sought.

The wind blew and filled our sails, and the shore dropped out of sight. Wild with grief, my mother was there the next morning, and filling Your ears with complaints and groans which You disregarded. At the very same time, You used my longings as the means to hasten me toward the fulfillment of all my longing, thus the earthly part of my mother's love was justly purged by the pain of sorrow. Still, like all mothers, though even more than others, she loved to have me with her. She had no idea what joy You were preparing for her through my departure.

Classic Augustine; full of wisdom, full of truth.


And So We Worship the Stars

In Deuteronomy 17, God lays out a stiff penalty. If a person turns away from Him to, "worship the stars," or a variety of other false gods, they are to be stoned.

This got me thinking about the ways in which we worship the stars. For instance, our culture has an incredible fascination with celebrity. I can hardly believe the importance people place on Katie Holmes hair, Britney Spears' domestic instability, Will Smith's upper body, or Alex Rodriguez's marriage.

But there are other ways as well. I imagine myself worshiping the stars, and see myself looking in the great nothingness of the dark sky... with hope. Out there, bright points of light could be the seats of the gods, or holes in a black tapestry hinting at glory beyond. I am taken away from everyday frustration and into a world of possibility, where boredom flees and drudgery dies.

When I imagine this heart condition, I see how it carries over to other activities I do even now. I am prone to placing great hope in the starry panorama of technology, where new ideas and solutions can create a happier and more efficient world. I keep close track of new ideas in math and urban design and storytelling and fuel efficiency hoping these things will make life more comfortable and joyful. I allow myself to mentally say, "If this one thing happened, life could be so much better." Rather than merely enjoy new ideas, I place hope for future joy in their hands. In so doing, I worship the stars.

We as Christians must be very careful about the things that fascinate us. While we serve a God not seen, it is all too easy to take comfort in our physical interests. When these interests move from joys to hopes, we risk displacing the power found in God with the amusement found in hobbies.

I still like to look at the stars. And I will continue enjoy using statistics and science to solve problems. But my prayer is that my life, considered as a whole, will display faith in my Creator rather than small-minded fascination with his creation.

A Father's Child

Sometimes my little guy wants something. Usually it involves wanting to play, to eat, or to be changed. If none of those helps, he needs a nap. If it is not one of those four things, it means I am out of ideas and I have to use my special emergency word- “Honey?”

As you can see, it is a dire circumstance because his begging face is irresistible. Also it immediately precedes crying, which is just painful. So when Isaiah wants something, if it is reasonable, I give it to him. If it is unreasonable (like not wanting to go to bed), I steel myself to ignore his pitiful cries for freedom.

This is the simple metaphor used by Christ in Matthew 7 to encourage us to make requests of the Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find…or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?...If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

I tend to be comfortable with conflict and challenges- much more comfortable with those things, in fact, than I am with times of peace. Right now my little family is in a time of great peace, and I struggle with restlessness. I want to move on to new battles and challenges, to see lives changed and the Word proclaimed.

On one hand, I need to learn trust and patience. My God is a father more faithful and loving than I could ever be to my own adorable son, how then can I fault the situation he has given us? Each day I am learning to find joy in peace and quiet, when much is at rest. God has placed us here, and I would be ungrateful to overlook the blessings of this time.

At the same time, Christ encourages us to make use of our son ship. As a child of the King, I am to ask for good things with passion and confidence, knowing that God uses my pleading as part of his plan to open new directions and insights. It is as though by crying out, I take a snapshot of a moment in time, so that later I can look back at that snapshot and see how much I have changed; or, more accurately, God has changed me.

So today I work to practice these things; trust and gratefulness for all that God gives, but also desperate pleading for new opportunities to proclaim His gospel to the world. These are the tasks he gives me as a child in my Father’s house. Hopefully without the pouty face.


The Bruce

I am reading a book called, "The Steps to the Empty Throne," the first of a historical novel trilogy about Robert the Bruce. In a poignant set of scenes, you see how the king of England is disrespectful and condescending to his people when they are in a humiliated position; and soon after, you see a young Robert treating his people in a similar situation with great dignity and respect. It is quite beautiful to see how he used his experiences (even negative ones) to drive his leadership.

Today I filled out health insurance forms for a large part of my precious lunch period- half an hour I could have spent reading instead.

However, I find more joy in it than I used to. When I write down, "Samantha Bartlett," as my wife and, "Isaiah Bartlett," as my son, I declare to the world that we are an interdependent family unit, a small community whose fates are inextricably tied together. I am no longer a smart-mouth kid trying to make my mark on the world- I am leader and representative of a small tribe.

Our goals are simple. We are here to honor God in our stewardship of the life he has given us. We love each other deeply, look out for each other's interests, and drive each other nuts (that last one is for internal use only). We will fight when necessary, make alliances when possible, and try to love all consistently (well, Isaiah is a little lacking in this area, but we'll show him some leniency at this point). Our hope is that our presence in your life is a blessing, but we make no apologies when when our goals challenge your preferences.

As our maturation continues and our identity evolves, our greatest purpose is faithfulness.

Like the Bruce, I hope reflection on my experiences, positive and negative, will help me accept leadership of my small community, so we can together pursue the joys of scriptural faithfulness.


Why does God require physical locations?

Is it not interesting that even in Deuteronomy, God requires physical locations? In chapter 12, he requires ONLY making certain types of sacrifices in specific locations no less than seven times. He also commands destruction of physical idol worship locations- high places in mountians and hills, under green trees, and beside large pillars.

Of course, Christians see this same impulse (if you can say God has impulses) in God's emphasis on the local church. We are called to gather in his name and to not give up meeting together, called to share what we have, called to use what gifts we have been given. Why?

I think, at core, it could almost be called a pragmatism. God calls us to these things because he is glorified in his people, be they Jews in the OT or the redeemed in the NT (revealing my New Cov. leanings here). God's people are more able to bring glory to him through coming together, through the combinations and recombinations of their gifts and skills, and through mutual care and protection for each other on various fronts. Ephesians 4 makes it clear- our sharing of gifts makes us stronger.

We are to be a city on a hill, but as is true of any city, we will only shine if each member participates and accepts responsibility as part of the body.

At the same time, we recognize our severe dependence on the grace of God. Communities of faith, be they large or small, are entirely needy of God's favor for survival. Without it, and without faithful commitment to gospel ministry, they are no better than a bowling club losing members to the local gardening club.

This is probably a piece of why I so enjoy smaller churches. In a church of 50-200 people, you can have true community. People bless each other with gifts, but are not lost in the cracks. They have the opportunity to be a light to the community without devolving into an attraction for the shallow.

At the same time, they are small enough to see their need. They can pray, "O God Almighty, thy sea is so vast and my boat is so small!" and mean it. They can watch the destructive power of sin and know that, "Come Lord Jesus!" is the only hope.

All this to say one thing; commit yourself to your local church. Make sacrifices to contribute. Be there as often as you can. Get to know the members, and fall in love with their quirks and failings (and do not hesitate to make light of your own!). You have no better opportunity to praise your maker than to join hands with fellow believers and display the hope of the gospel.

God loves physical locations, I think, because they force us into the, "warts and wounds," of community, a place where frustration and boredom can run high, but where the friction burns away dross and highlights the beauty and purity of our Father's plan for the world. To that end, then, we must show up.


Discerning Life's Romance

I long for a romantic life. I imagine travelling some mystical world, one that does not include high health care costs or excel spreadsheets. There I enjoy adventure and leisure, with problems that are immediate challenges rather than long term budget shortfalls.

Of course, that place is mere fantasy. And yet, do we not all desire for life to have a romantic flavor, an epic feel, a powerful thematic storyline?

I think this desire explains John Elderidge's popularity. Though theologically imprecise, he captures our internal wish to participate in a story larger than our lives and more poetic than balance sheets and alarm clocks.

It's here that reading Deuteronomy and Augustine's Confessions simultaneously has been such a blessing.

In Deuteronomy, Israel comes together to remember all that God has done for them. Their hearts are strengthened for the coming wars against Canaan (a land of people viewed as "sons of Anak" for their size, living in cities, "fortified up to heaven.") by the memory of all God had done for them, and by reminders of his promises. They are readied to enter this terrifiying land, but "Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you." (D. 9:3)

In Confessions, Augustine celebrates God's action in his life, even referring to the joy of God making him miserable while he was in sin. He prays, "...I confess my shame to Your glory. Bear with me I pray, and give me the grace to retrace in my present memory the devious ways of my past errors and so be able to 'offer to God thanksgiving.'"

In both cases, the people of God find comfort by remembering their past, and discerning the part that past played in the larger story of God's action in the world. Their participation held meaning because both ups and downs had roles in proclaiming God's glory to the world.

From all this, I am reminded to remember. I am called to spend time appreciating (perhaps even articulating) God's action in my history, and to take joy in how he uses my life to glorify His name.

So today, as I fight annoyance at the cost of healthcare or impediments to financial stability, I remember. I recall my wife and son, both brought to an undeserving man desperately needy of their stabilizing influence. I recall my varied job history, and the incredible frustration it brought... along with great preparation in a variety of areas. I recall years of embarassment at having a quick mind that cannot seem to settle down and master any one area- and yet I now see how it has prepared me for ministries that favor just such a mind. I recall anger at my many failures, and then appreciate their value for sanctification.

Joy takes work, and today I celebrate the way God shows himself in our histories, allowing us to see the epic romance of participating in God's plan of glorification.


Conform to Obey

Today's reading from Deuteronomy was chapter 5, where the "younger" exodus generation recalls the bringing of the 10 commandments. The response of the people is wonderful- they are so overcome they cannot stand to remain in God's presence. They ask Moses to hear the word of the Lord for them, and commit themselves to hear and obey what Moses tells them from the Lord.

This recalled to my mind how important obedience is. Quite a breakthrough, right? But obedience is more than simple action response to a command. Real obedience is a constant reshaping of life and character to correctly submit to God. One who truly fears him will accept his desires on his terms, rather than carrying out their version of what he "means." The Israelites here are a good example, because their fear of God leads them to change themselves to better submit.

"And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, 'I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendents forever!'"

I hope that I am growing in my ability to see how I need to change my life to better submit to and obey God out of fear and reverence. If I want to be a minister of the Word, it is key that my life be constantly conforming to better obey.