When Asked for Advice

First, though it has not been stated this way, I want to say that I think the question should not be what decision would I take in your situation. I might take the opposite one, and I don’t want you to think, whatever your decision is, I’ll think the less of you. Not that you are predisposed, but if the question is considered in terms of whether anybody else but you would make the same decision, then it lends itself to that. It is not humane to give advice that way. And feel free not to take any of my advice.The person who provides advice and then is disappointed when you don’t take it and complains that it has been wasted is suffering in a most unenviable way of a greater than average want of humility, I think.

That is obvious though. Still, I want to start with the obvious. When we study Scripture it is good to start with the obvious, and to ask the obvious questions, proceeding from obvious to remote. For one thing you will get the richness of detail if you start by being observant, and observation starts with what is first observable, or obvious. For another, this will bring you to the thing the intended way. It is like a castle: how you come to it matters. You can have a castle that a highway leads to, with a long, curving exit, and signs to take you to the parking lot beside it. But if you come that way to such a castle, you will not find the kind of castle anybody searching for a castle really seeks: you’ll find a tourist trap or a hotel. If you come to it walking, riding a horse or on a wagon, over the hill, seeing it come into view, not mocked by the sounds of traffic or other profane intrusions, but sitting in the world it belongs to and thus inhabited and still defended, then you have a chance of finding the kind of castle people set out in quest for. The same with Scripture, and I think the same with the considerations of life. So it is obvious what the question must not be; but what, then, is the question?

I think it is a question of the considerations that you need for your decision: what must be taken into account. I don’t have specifics, so I offer what I do have. These are necessary for a good decision, though they don’t guarantee it. But I think they are mainly what Scripture means when it talks about the Lord’s guidance. Some of these are obvious, but I have at least three.

The Defining Moment

The most obvious consideration for a Christian as to the things of this life is to judge them all in the light of that defining moment which is the Second Coming. Here is why we are taught in Scripture that the Second Coming exists: so that we live in its light. It is the defining moment of our present existence because it is the moment in which all our decisions are to be judged. Then we will stand naked before Jesus Christ, being known in the light of his countenance. Only that which matters in that moment matters now, and that is all.

If the New Testament says anything repeatedly to the Christian in this present world it is that he should watch and pray. And by that it means that only what matters in the moment of the Lord’s Second Coming matters at all. We are to watch and pray, and there is rich meaning beneath the literal meaning. Watching and praying are to permeate our lives. We are to desire and be shaped by that defining moment, preparing for it, longing for it, waiting for it with attention and hope.

We await it with attention; that is the care and duty of watching and praying. But we await it with hope, which is the longing that motivates that same watching and praying. I think the watching and praying includes both attitudes since both activities are work and pleasure. So the question is, what are my decisions now doing for my desires? Not only what do I desire, but what ought I to desire, and what effect will the alternatives have on my heart and its desires. Jesus Christ is coming to look on the heart–that is what it means to stand naked before him. You either desire one thing, or you are not pure in heart (Kierkegaard). What will order and consolidate your yearnings for that defining moment of this present existence? To live with this consciousness is in a sense to watch and pray.

We are plants of the day growing in a world of darkness. All around us are the plants of night, but we must not grow the way they do because the day is coming and we are of it instead. ‘Watch and pray’ calls us to grow so that we flourish in what we do not yet have but which is present as an inner principle. In this way the sayings of Christ, the teachings of Scripture are light for our present life: life does not consist in possessions, he who will save his life shall lose it, blessed are the meek, many that are first shall be last, it is more blessed to give than to receive, is anything too wonderful for God.

Vocation

Nothing is too wonderful for God. What lies beyond the defining moment of our present existence is our true life. That is why it is interesting that Jesus says that to him who overcomes he will give a white stone with a name written that no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. You know enough about language to know that a name goes with the vocative and that that corresponds with vocation. What is it to have your name given to you unalterably and secretly that way? When God names, when he calls something, what does not even exist begins to be. What is it to have a secret name he calls us to beyond this life?

It is our true life, and our true and permanent vocation (I get that from C.S. Lewis who got it from George Macdonald, but I think they get it from Scripture). Something of that so-powerful vocation comes into this world and urges us mysteriously toward that thing we do not yet know which still summons us. It summons us because the reward is already being held out: it is real and it is not a disappointment. The vocations of this life are perhaps shadows, fragments, hints in shards and glimmers of that Vocation. I think when you see that name you will know it has always been your true name. How can the name God gives you be anything else?

We know that heaven is a society; it is called a family, it is called a city; we know we will be with the rest of the redeemed in an ordered way. It seems to me that then we shall have a well-ordered society since it will be a perfect society. In a perfectly ordered society each one will have a unique place, that best suited to that person, and nobody will be left out. That is the point of the Vocation, a name no other knows: we have a Destiny, something nobody else can do. Not one that puffs up, but one that gives us our perfect place in a system of order which excludes nothing, and one that makes sense of our existence by allowing us best to contribute to the happiness and prosperity of the whole. You are meant to know God in a way none of the rest of us are made to see, but are also meant to help us all to see what only you can. At least, that is how I put it all together: the question of a society, the question of this secret, the endless quest for knowing God, and the greater blessedness of giving than receiving. We shall receive one inexhaustible thing, we shall give to all our fellows; forever both.

That is what, in our present existence, helps us understand that we cannot live the life of others. There are principles, there are prudent guidelines, but there are no two same lives because there is a name no other human knows. Let us not make too much of it, but let us never forget it. It is our liberty if it is held in light of the expectation that we have. It is our freedom if Christ is our sole master. This consideration is about asking, what am I for? What am I good at, what do I like? These things can be shallowly construed, or wisely. What ought you to cultivate, what are your limitations? T.S. Eliot once observed that you never know what your limits are till you’re tested beyond them. What have you learned soberly, not capriciously or whimsically about yourself? It is not an excuse to do irresponsibly, but it is the freedom to discern an important inner tendency.

An example: T.S. Eliot went to Paris when he was in graduate school at Harvard. He noticed things about Europe that, when he returned to America, made him think. He was a graduate student at Harvard and was teaching by the time he began his dissertation. He went to study in Germany, had to leave for England because of the war, studied at Oxford a year and did well. He was by this time expected to return to Harvard to the certainty of a faculty appointment. That’s when he abruptly married Vivien to the consternation of his family and the amazement of his faculty advisors. They wrote, explained the opportunity still existed and continued to do so for a good long time. He finished the dissertation from afar and they thought it was great, urged him to return. He stayed in London scraping along, married to the neurotic woman who in so many ways was good for his poetry and bad for his life, worked himself to a breakdown supporting himself and writing, and has been vindicated. We don’t know what the alternative would have been: stability, a good marriage, being a stupendous philosopher at Harvard, perhaps, and life in America which his every instinct told him to flee. In London he relentlessly pursued the purification of the dialect of the tribe. Selflessly, you might say, with all the attendant circumstances for his life both good and bad, honorable if never remunerative. It is hard to judge, and who knows really what the alternative would have brought, but I don’t think he ever regretted that decision. The point of the example is that he knew: the important inner tendency.

That’s perhaps the more controversial point. It is an instinct, in a way, and so it must be prey to vanity and all kinds of silliness. But what determined person has ever proceeded without it that you can think of? Not headstrong, but temperate and yet determined. There is a point at which other people’s advice stops and can go no further; it is because of this.

Luck

Speaking of determinism, in Spanish the word for luck is ‘suerte’. It combines chance and fate, or destiny in a way that the English words do not–to my seeming–and I think respect in that it is an accurate symbol. The word adventure spoke to this kind of thing when it was what a knight errant endeavored. Whether another knight, ten of them ill-disposed, a giant or and enchantment, the knight who came upon the circumstance would adventure himself, trusting to God, since that is why he prepared, spent his vigil, learned knightliness and armed himself. You see this in the Chronicles of Narnia, in The Last Battle, in the attitude of King Tirian and Jewel the Unicorn, and of course very much in Mallory. Take the adventure God brings. Don’t put so much stock in decisions that you worry about them afterward. Continue forward, learning from mistakes and thus redeeming them. Perhaps what made Eliot was not so much the decision, but his persevering under the circumstances. That’s a consoling thought.

You must adventure yourself and not endlessly deliberate–even if you make the wrong choice. What do you really want? The choice is put before you because it is a choice for you, and you have been faced with it alone. We like others to validate our choices, but that is not how persons of proper resolution always are able to proceed.

Here is where it hurts us to have a gratitude-for-everything attitude that is not ‘critical’ and provides no useful criterion for life. In the name of politeness, which has its place, we can judge nothing by anything higher than politeness. We are told to admire what is not admirable in people and the result is avarice masquerading as prudence, indecision masquerading as care, so many errors, and all undetected because we are at least polite but no more. It gets in the decision making way. Politeness is good, but there are higher goods. We need Jane Austen, whose decisions are sensible, well-considered, and who illustrates faults properly and with care and taste. Even the diction of those times was a diction of discrimination, tailored to the search for proper judgment.

We must be as knights, with all that chivalry, in the setting of Jane Austen’s novels and speaking with the care her better characters display, and trust to luck. There is a rightness to being lucky, like Mr. Bilbo Baggins was; a charm. It is the only way to live. Think of the decisions he undertook, and the war within him of the Took and Baggins sides, and how he went on an Adventure and came back quite another hobbit, and much the better for having decided to run out of the house all the way to the Green Dragon at Bywater without so much as a pocket handkerchief.

Jorge Luis Borges has a remarkable poem in which he addresses James Joyce (‘Invocación a Joyce’). Borges speaks of his own life and that of many like him who toiled and chased, scribbled and attempted, and never quite achieved. But, he says, it was the climate out of which Joyce arose, and in which he saw what we could not, and achieved it, and justified the existence of a generation. I do it no justice summarizing it this way (it is a remarkable poem even for Borges), but the point is clear. There are circumstances out of which what we cannot achieve arises, and it is something to contribute to those circumstances. I don’t think we can do so understanding; it is chance to us but not to God.

The great and obvious and sometimes neglected thing about God is his divinity. He his divine in his plans, divine in his goodness, divine in his wisdom and power. He cannot do things badly or meanly or barely. Nor does he browbeat, or torment or tease his own. His gladness and goodness determine your luck.

Epilogue

Forgive the essay, especially since you probably know all this. I find it often helps to be reminded. It was good for me to write it down and get my thinking into some sort of order. Please feel free to complain or object or ask for an elaboration. Or not.

Groan

While I was not paying attention, Northland has been saved. Now there’s an exciting new partnership, exciting new leaders, and exciting new board, and the old ones are going to exciting new things in more temperate climes. The exciting plans one group had will not take place, but other exciting things planned by another group, apparently, now will. It was, is and ever shall be a win-win situation for anybody looking for excitement and with a decent positive outlook. And if you are not excited, you may quite possibly be spiritually comatose or some kind of legalist. HOW CAN YOU NOT BE?

I keep getting asked if I’m excited about things, in this adulterous generation. I was asked if I was excited about being a pastor in Colombia (by an old guy who should have known better) and now if I’m asked all the time if I’m excited about going to Westminster. Presbyterians ask me if I’m excited about going to a Presbyterian seminary. This is not the world John Knox envisioned. This is not Scotland of old which is no more or its sober religion.

Because if you’re not excited, I suppose, you’re either not ready to go or you are pretending to be cool. Pretending to be cool is not cool. Simple straightforward honesty about being excited on the other hand is authentic, and being all shaken up like a two-liter and full of fizz is, admit it, how anything different feels to genuwine people with a decentpositiveoutlook.

And so, after all this time, being assailed in irregular but persistent bombardment with queries whether I can return the cliché answer to the cliché question, I’ve at last come out with a REJOINDER. I shall say the excitement has rendered me almost daily incontinent. This news of Northland nearly did.

Philadelphia Chronicle

We have never been able to be without air conditioning, but we can here. The humidless breezy summer permits it, and I can understand a bit why people enjoy summer.

Still I yearn for the fall. I don’t like summer because it is warm. I’m the kind of person who is glad of the fall because I like to wear clothes. I don’t necessarily like to be well-dressed; I just like having many clothes on me, many layers. It reminds me, I was in the art museum today and it is wonderful how many and how rich the clothes were people were depicted in during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries–though it does not look like they wore many sweaters. Another thing I like are hot rather than cold beverages, and I find he summer is not as conducive to them as other more obliging seasons are. I understand most people don’t share my preferences, however. What I don’t understand, is what they have to live for.

So I long for the fall, and I yearn for it to start school which I am eager for indeed. I go over to the library at Westminster and see that it is not full of books but small and ordered objects not so much full of words, though many of them are merely full of words, as full of possibilities. They are like so many doors into other rooms, or other cities. You don’t have to go far down any of the shelves to be reassured by the abundance awaiting. I’ve discovered Marsilio Ficino, and I intend to know about him.

The Renaissance, you know, is full of these figures–colorful, towering, interesting. I had wanted to do early Church studies in order to get into the great Plotinus. But now that I have Ficino, who needs the early Church? If I can do him, I’ll have to do Plotinus. We’ll see what develops on that score, but there lies a possibility. And there’s Nicolas, and Pico, and all the other chaps, not to mention Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. I keep wondering if there’s a book like Kirk’s Conservative Mind called the Christian Platonic Mind from . . . probably we’d have to start with Philo–from Philo to C.S. Lewis.

One of the most interesting things about books is their interconnectedness. You find something in the world of one, and it is connected by a passageway to another. A library is like a city, all with underground and aboveground connections, openings, ancient shafts and tunnels, alleyways and doors and windows. It is a good thing for the Westminster library that it has interesting holdings, because the premises themselves are little interesting. The most commendable thing about that building seems to me its well-waxed floors. Somebody recently stripped and waxed them, and how they shine. Odd how it has no grace, charm, and barely amenity to it but the floors are kept in top condition.

Speaking of that, I have been surprised at what is available through the Free Library of Philadelphia because their premises are shabbier than Westminster’s library, and their hours of operation very limited. But my first search for things yielded better than I have grown to expect in Columbus. So who knows what riches and splendors here await me. It is like the Reading Terminal Market–a place to which we are constantly drawn, connected as it is to so many worlds of cooking wonder.

Invocación a Joyce

Dispersos en dispersas capitales,
solitarios y muchos,
jugábamos a ser el primer Adán
que dio nombre a las cosas.
Por los vastos declives de la noche
que lindan con la aurora,
buscamos (lo recuerdo aún) las palabras
de la luna, de la muerte, de la mañana
y de los otros hábitos del hombre.
Fuimos el imagismo, el cubismo,
los conventículos y sectas
que las crédulas universidades veneran.
Inventamos la falta de puntuación,
la omisión de mayúsculas,
las estrofas en forma de paloma
de los bibliotecarios de Alejandría.
Ceniza, la labor de nuestras manos
y un fuego ardiente nuestra fe.
Tú, mientras tanto, forjabas
en las ciudades del destierro,
en aquel destierro que fue
tu aborrecido y elegido instrumento,
el arma de tu arte,
erigías tus arduos laberintos,
infinitesimales e infinitos,
admirablemente mezquinos,
más populoso que la historia.
Habremos muerto sin haber divisado
la biforme fiera o la rosa
que son el centro de tu dédalo,
pero la memoria tiene sus talismanes,
sus ecos de Virgilio,
y así en las calles de la noche perduran
tus infiernos espléndidos,
tantas cadencias y metáforas tuyas,
los oros de tu sombra.
Qué importa nuestra cobardía si hay en la tierra
un sólo hombre valiente,
qué importa la tristeza si hubo en el tiempo
alguien que se dijo feliz,
que importa mi perdida generación,
ese vago espejo,
si tus libros la justifican.
Yo soy los otros. Yo soy todos aquellos
que ha rescatado tu obstinado rigor.
Soy los que no conoces y los que salvas.

-Borges

A Middle Notion

On Sunday, June 3, we all went to Southill church, which is very near to Mr. Dilly’s house. It being the first Sunday of the month, the holy sacrament was administered, and I staid to partake of it. When I came afterwards into Dr. Johnson’s room, he said, ‘You did right to stay and receive the communion; I had not thought of it.’ This seemed to imply that he did not choose to approach the altar without a previous preparation, as to which good men entertain different opinions, some holding that it is irreverent to partake of that ordinance without considerable premeditation; others, that whoever is a sincere Christian, and in a proper frame of mind to discharge any other ritual duty of our religion, may, without scruple, discharge this most solemn one. A middle notion I believe to be the just one, which is, that communicants need not think a long train of preparatory forms indispensibly necessary; but neither should they rashly and lightly venture upon so aweful and mysterious an institution. Christians must judge each for himself, what degree of retirement and self-examination is necessary upon each occasion.

-Boswell, Life of Johnson

The Library

I went to the library at WTS today, and now I know where I’m going to spend August. So good to smell the books again, to peruse the possibilities, to pursue interests.

It reminds me that I ought to be reading the books I own before I can’t. Well, I might give up on some things. The library also gives me a place to work that isn’t at home, which can help.

We signed up for the Free Library of Philadelphia, and that no doubt has things, but it is not what the Columbus and suburbs libraries are. Well, I’ll have the seminary for a change of venue, and Elcie’s Cafe, and Giant. And this apartment is going to end up being nice for studying too.

One more thing about the library: I have to get back into the habit of perusing the journals and seeing what’s in them. I do miss a good periodical library because I do peruse. So much more interesting than reading things online too. They have comfortable chairs at WTS. It is like the Bethel Seminary Library, only without the views and windows, shabbier, but more of a maze and with faculty studies everywhere throughout.