Archive for August, 2013

I spent this afternoon mowing the lawn and pulling spider webs off my skin.

Sometime in the course of this process of grass cutting and web-clearing it occurred to me that arachnophobia isn’t entirely irrational. The greatest arachnophobe I know calls spiders “eight-legged devils,” and not without reason. The devil’s m.o. is to ensnare. Does the wide world afford a better picture of ensnaring temptation, of close-clinging sin, than the spider’s web? When I run through webs their tensile strength astonishes me; strands cling to my beard even after thorough washing.

In turn, the image changed how I view Scripture. The Word of God, which St Paul calls the “sword of the Spirit,” appeared all the more valuable. We do not fully understand its value until we use it the way Beren used his sword in the Nan Dungortheb, the way Bilbo, Frodo and Sam used Sting in Mirkwood and Cirith Ungol: both to sever cords and to slay monsters.


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I panted after honors, wealth, marriage — and you just laughed. These ambitions gave me nothing but trouble, made more intense by your kindness in making them bitter since they were not you. Here is my heart, Lord, you who lead me to this account and testimony, let my soul adhere to you, who extricated me from the clinging muck of death.

Augustine, Confessions 117 (Garry Wills trans., Penguin 2008).

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Students of the folk-lore of the United States of America are no doubt familiar with the quaint old story of Clarence MacFadden. Clarence MacFadden, it seems, was ‘wishful to dance, but his feet wasn’t gaited that way. So he sought a professor and asked him his price, and said he was willing to pay. The professor’ (the legend goes on) ‘looked down with alarm at his feet and marked their enormous expanse; and he tacked on a five to his regular price for teaching MacFadden to dance.’

I have often been struck by the close similarity between the case of Clarence and that of Henry Wallace Mills. One difference alone presents itself. It would seem to have been mere vanity and ambition that stimulated the former; whereas the motive force which drove Henry Mills to defy Nature and attempt dancing was the purer one of love. He did it to please his wife. Had he never gone to Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, that popular holiday resort, and there met Minnie Hill, he would doubtless have continued to spend in peaceful reading the hours not given over to work at the New York bank at which he was employed as paying-cashier. For Henry was a voracious reader. His idea of a pleasant evening was to get back to his little flat, take off his coat, put on his slippers, light a pipe, and go on from the point where he had left off the night before in his perusal of the BIS-CAL volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—making notes as he read in a stout notebook. He read the BIS-CAL volume because, after many days, he had finished the A-AND, AND-AUS, and the AUS-BIS. There was something admirable—and yet a little horrible—about Henry’s method of study. He went after Learning with the cold and dispassionate relentlessness of a stoat pursuing a rabbit. The ordinary man who is paying instalments on the Encyclopaedia Britannica is apt to get over-excited and to skip impatiently to Volume XXVIII (VET-ZYM) to see how it all comes out in the end. Not so Henry. His was not a frivolous mind. He intended to read the Encyclopaedia through, and he was not going to spoil his pleasure by peeping ahead.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Man With Two Left Feet, in The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1919).

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“What things?”

That’s how Jesus — after snatching victory from the belly of defeat — answered the question, “are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” I love His answer — funny, sly, casual, and yet very probing. He was, of course, the only one who really did know. Those who are “on the right side of history” need no trumpet to announce it. For no -ism ever raised a man from the dead.

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THERE were three distinct stages in the evolution of Annette Brougham’s attitude towards the knocking in the room above. In the beginning it had been merely a vague discomfort. Absorbed in the composition of her waltz, she had heard it almost subconsciously. The second stage set in when it became a physical pain like red-hot pincers wrenching her mind from her music. Finally, with a thrill in indignation, she knew it for what it was—an insult. The unseen brute disliked her playing, and was intimating his views with a boot-heel.

Defiantly, with her foot on the loud pedal, she struck—almost slapped—the keys once more.

‘Bang!’ from the room above. ‘Bang! Bang!’

Annette rose. Her face was pink, her chin tilted. Her eyes sparkled with the light of battle. She left the room and started to mount the stairs. No spectator, however just, could have helped feeling a pang of pity for the wretched man who stood unconscious of imminent doom, possibly even triumphant, behind the door at which she was on the point of tapping.

‘Come in!’ cried the voice, rather a pleasant voice; but what is a pleasant voice if the soul be vile?

Annette went in. The room was a typical Chelsea studio, scantily furnished and lacking a carpet. In the centre was an easel, behind which were visible a pair of trousered legs. A cloud of grey smoke was curling up over the top of the easel.

‘I beg your pardon,’ began Annette.

‘I don’t want any models at present,’ said the Brute. ‘Leave your card on the table.’

‘I am not a model,’ said Annette, coldly. ‘I merely came—’

At this the Brute emerged from his fortifications and, removing his pipe from his mouth, jerked his chair out into the open.

‘I beg your pardon,’ he said. ‘Won’t you sit down?’

How reckless is Nature in the distribution of her gifts! Not only had this black-hearted knocker on floors a pleasant voice, but, in addition, a pleasing exterior. He was slightly dishevelled at the moment, and his hair stood up in a disordered mop; but in spite of these drawbacks, he was quite passably good-looking. Annette admitted this. Though wrathful, she was fair.

‘I thought it was another model,’ he explained. ‘They’ve been coming in at the rate of ten an hour ever since I settled here. I didn’t object at first, but after about the eightieth child of sunny Italy had shown up it began to get on my nerves.’

Annette waited coldly till he had finished.

‘I am sorry,’ she said, in a this-is-where-you-get-yours voice, ‘if my playing disturbed you.’

One would have thought nobody but an Eskimo wearing his furs and winter under-clothing could have withstood the iciness of her manner; but the Brute did not freeze.

‘I am sorry,’ repeated Annette, well below zero, ‘if my playing disturbed you. I live in the room below, and I heard you knocking.’

‘No, no,’ protested the young man, affably; ‘I like it. Really I do.’

‘Then why knock on the floor?’ said Annette, turning to go. ‘It is so bad for my ceiling,’ she said over shoulder. ‘I thought you would not mind my mentioning it. Good afternoon.’

‘No; but one moment. Don’t go.’

She stopped. He was surveying her with a friendly smile. She noticed most reluctantly that he had a nice smile. His composure began to enrage her more and more. Long ere this he should have been writhing at her feet in the dust, crushed and abject.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘I’m awfully sorry, but it’s like this. I love music, but what I mean is, you weren’t playing a tune. It was just the same bit over and over again.’

‘I was trying to get a phrase,’ said Annette, with dignity, but less coldly. In spite of herself she was beginning to thaw. There was something singularly attractive about this shock-headed youth.

‘A phrase?’

‘Of music. For my waltz. I am composing a waltz.’

A look of such unqualified admiration overspread the young man’s face that the last remnants of the ice-pack melted. For the first time since they had met Annette found herself positively liking this blackguardly floor-smiter.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Man Upstairs, in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories (1914).

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. . . since the Logos is full of the Father’s goodness and shines forth from him, he does all things in a way similar to the one who begot him. For if he is without difference in substance, he will also be without difference in power, and for those whose power is identical, the energy also is wholly identical. For “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1.24). And “all things were made through him” (Jn 1.3), and all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1.16). He does not perform the instrumental service of some slave, but perfectly fulfills the creative will of the Father.

St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit 50 (Stephen Hildebrand trans., St Vladimir’s Seminary 2011).

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Text: St Luke 18:1-14

The more I look both at the Church and the world, the more I am persuaded that the pressing need of our time is a sound doctrine of judgment.  For while the word “judge” has fallen into disrepute, judgments are meted out with astonishing frequency, with little sense of proportionality and little seasoning of mercy.  The judges who decry “judgmentalism” hand down the harshest sentences, knowing not what they do.

We judge the way we breathe. Our judicial sentiments act as regularly, as unconsciously, as our breathing reflex.  The question we face, then, is not whether we will judge, but how well.

A first step toward learning to judge well is to acknowledge that God judges. We need to get over saying that. We need to rejoice in saying that. In his epistle to the Romans (2:16), St Paul said that God’s judging the world was part of his gospel. It is good news that we have a good judge who has the wisdom and power to sort things out, to make things clear, to right wrongs, to refute accusations, to justify justly.


The Publican and Pharisee (St Luke 18:9-14)

St Luke tells us, that as Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, he told two parables about the kind of Judge God is. In the first parable, a widow asks an unjust judge for judgment against her adversary. In the second, two parties, a Pharisee and a Publican (tax collector), appear in succession before God, presenting themselves for His judgment.

Note the posture in which the cases appear in the two parables. In the first, the widow appears as civil plaintiff.  Jesus says she is a model for something that the Church corporately, and her members individually, ought to do: come to the Father for judgment against oppressing adversaries — “for he will avenge them speedily” (18:7-8)  In the second, the Pharisee and Publican appear before God as criminal defendants — though only the Publican acknowledges that he’d done anything deserving condemnation (v. 13). Jesus says that for humbling himself, for casting himself wholly upon the mercy of God, the Publican was justified. He, not the Pharisee, walks out of the heavenly court an innocent man (v. 14).

Taken together, the two parables tell us about the kind of Judge God is, and the proper posture for His people to appear before Him. He is the Judge who liberates us from adversaries — and, as such, we should not shrink from approaching Him boldly as plaintiff, asking Him to grant judgment for us, against hardened enemies. We do this, however, knowing He also has absolute power and jurisdiction to judge us, and that only His mercy affords us hope of emerging from that examination justified. Both parables inform the manner in which we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. We need both to reform our imaginations, our hearts, our wills — and our judicial sentiments.

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