Morning by Morning

"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward." Isaiah 50:4-5

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Purifying Ground

     It has occurred to me that I have lived twice the age of Jesus when He ascended into heaven.  When you are a child looking forward to my age it seems like a very long time.  Long enough that fortunately I can’t remember all that happened.  Not only that, grace and forgiveness have filtered out some of my past wickedness leaving only a pale sepia toned impression of those events.

     Some of those events show up in a quite different light; grace often throws into clear relief the ridiculous side of human actions, so much so that even we can see the humorous side of our stupidity.  At the time those events were embarrassing and the cause of great guilt and remorse.  Further, the record of our sins, through grace, becomes the very stuff of our testimony of redemption.  When Christ Jesus our Kinsman Redeemer redeems us He does so completely.  With joy we can tell another, “These are the foolish things I have done, and I am forgiven.”  Every effective testimony must carry within it the vulnerability of Truth, not an idealization of the past.

     Over all that lengthy period of time, lengthy to me, but only the opening and closing of a door to Him who loves me; over all that lengthy period of time I see at play the law of undulation.  Screwtape fears that we will see and understand that the course of human spiritual experience is an undulating wave, a series of troughs and peaks, moving ever on as we slowly ascend to our heavenly home.

"'So you 'have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away', have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.'"[i]

     Christ Jesus came for this, to become one with us and to catch us up and carry us home to God the Father.[ii]  The pilgrimage of our lives is a Purifying Ground and the God of love is a consuming fire.  As we draw closer to Him the intensity of the fire of His love will burn away our dross.   Being transformed into the image of Christ does not come from keeping a list of rules.  Transformation, purification, comes from drawing close to God, and is a natural result of being close to Him.

     C. S. Lewis often quotes George MacDonald, and published an anthology of Macdonald’s sayings.  The following is his second entry titled “Inexorable Love.’

"Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy. . . . For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected--not in itself, but in the object. . . . Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love's kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire."[iii]

     And again, “As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind. Do not let him suspect the law of undulation.  Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition.”[iv]  From the viewpoint of Screwtape you are to forget that you have read this; remembering can only arm you against his deceptions.

     In those troughs the battle can be hazardous for we travel through the Valley of the Giants; the sons of  Anak are there, whom the Israelites feared. “And there we saw the … the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[v]   What are the contemporary giants that need slaying?  We know them by their old names and they have not changed: Unbelief, Accidie,   Self-love, Anger,  Pride, Addictions, Porneia, and Mammon, and all their maleficent cousins.   The Valley of Giants is part of the Purifying Ground; all must pass through it on the way to Zion.   “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. 11 You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; 12 you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.”[vi]  

     Like Paul kicking against the ox goad[vii] we resist the grace extended to us and often reap the resulting pain of flying in the face of grace.  That is part of the undulation.  There are troughs and there are lofty mountains where we are drawn into the sweet intimacy of God’s love and reassured by His presence we stride forward on our upward journey.  We are not to rest in the troughs, and we are not yet fit to live for ever on the heights, but even as we journey on our pilgrimage we are to embrace with joy the presence of God in both the valleys and the heights. 

     St. Augustine gives us direction on the manner of our pilgrimage, “So now, my brethren, let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil. In the way that travellers are in the habit of singing, sing, but keep on walking. What does it mean, “keep on walking”? Go onward always – but go onward in goodness, for there are, according to the Apostle, some people who go ever onward from bad to worse. If you are going onward, you are walking; but always go onward in goodness, onward in the right faith, onward in good habits and behaviour. Sing, and walk onwards."[viii]

     When we walk as pilgrims through this Purifying Ground on Middle Earth[ix] an attitude born of faith is everything.  While all the valleys may not be as deep as the Abyss and all the Peaks may not be an Everest, the journey downhill and up can be arduous.  Not every spiritual height is alpine, even though some are.  Abide in Christ.  To walk in the Presence is not to walk alone, but to walk with him who brings the comfort of a solemn joy throughout our journey.  Our experience of the Faith is not meant to be cold and distant.

     The great 19th Century Scottish Preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne, observed:

“Some people are afraid of anything like joy in religion.  They have none themselves, and they do not love to see it in others.  Their religion is something like the stars, very high, and very clear, but very cold.  When they see tears of anxiety, or tears of joy, they cry out, Enthusiasm, enthusiasm!  Well, then to the law and to the testimony.  “I sat down under His shadow with great delight” (Songs 2:3).  Is this enthusiasm? O Lord, evermore give us this enthusiasm! May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing!  If it be really sitting under the shadow of Christ, let there be no bounds to your joy.  O if God would but open your eyes, and give you simple, child-like faith, to look to Jesus, to sit under His shadow, then would songs of joy rise from all our dwellings. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice!"[x]

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (new York: Simon and Shuster, 1996), p. 40 [Ch. VIII].
[ii] The Creed of St. Athanasius, “Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.” (BCP, p. 865).
[iii] C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald an Anthology, (New York: Macmillan). p. 1 [Currently available at Amazon].
[iv] Screwtape, p. 44
[v] ESV Numbers 13:33
[vi] ESV Psalm 66:10 -12
[vii] Acts 26:14-15 [ESV]  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'  15 And I said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And the Lord said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
[viii]   St. Augustine, “Universalis”, Saturday 26 November 2011
[ix] “The turning circle of the years had spun . . . Still thirty more since Almighty God, The King of Glory, had been born on this Middle-Earth of ours, light for the faithful In Human form, ”Elene,” trans: Burton Raffel, Poems and Prose from the Middle English, (New York: Vail-Ballou Press, 1998), p. 35, lines 1-7
[x] Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Sermon 2”, in Memoirs and Remains of the Rev. R. M. M’Cheyne, ed. Andrew Bonar, (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, MDCCLXV), p. 316-317.

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