Category Archives: advice

Letter 47: To L- What I Cannot Say Sunday

I am writing you now ahead of our meeting because I doubt I will get a chance to say much to you privately, and much of what I want to say will not fit the sort of things I expect will be said at that time.  You will hear much about faith, and God’s promises, and God’s power, and God’s love, but very little of His mystery.

I have no idea what it’s like to have your disease, nor do I know you well enough to guess what you might be thinking.  I do know suffering, however.  I have battled what I now know to be Depression for much of my life.  It can manifest itself as bouts of fear and anxiety, but mostly it is just a slow dripping faucet of inner gloom.  There have been times when the sense of pain has been overwhelming.  I would like to say that I prayed and it ended, but it didn’t.  This appears to be something I am going to have to live with, and some days I do better with it than others.

I believe God can and does heal, but not always.  Too many people I’ve prayed for have not gotten well for me to say otherwise.

When I was a teenager, a girl in your youth group was diagnosed with cancer.  We prayed, hard.  We prayed in tongues as well as in English.  Within the fashions of the time, we did everything we were supposed to do, and yet she died.  That has stayed with me all these years.  Nothing was said about it afterwards.  The church had put in all this effort and energy, and when it did not yield the desired results, we dropped it and walked away as if nothing had happened.

It doesn’t fit with our message.  We want success, and success is healing.  We are told to pray in faith, to pray in tongues, to pray out loud– as an aside, have you ever noticed that most guides to prayer get down to “How to Get What You Want From God”?  Jesus Himself tells us to pray constantly, to batter Heaven with our request.  Yet He also tells us there is no need for endless repetition, and that faith the size of a mustard seed will prevail.  I’m not sure which one applies.

This is not a new problem, of course.  When you get to your required philosophy course in college, and I hope you take one, you will learn that it goes by the name, “The Problem of Evil.”  “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does evil occur?”  This is one of the central questions of the Job.  If you re-read it, you’ll notice God never answers Job’s question about why all of this happened to him.  Yet Job ends the book satisfied.  He has seen God, and that was enough.

We’re supposed to be cheerful and confident under such trying circumstances, but I want to assure you that it’s okay if you’re not.  I can even understand if you want to tell off God.  I have, on occasion.  He’s big enough to handle it.  It’s interesting that for all his complaints to God, God does not rebuke Job.  God does, however, rebuke Job’s friends for their efforts to defend God.  Take comfort from this in the trying times.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I will be praying for your healing Sunday, as I have been for some time, but I will also be praying that He will strengthen you, and open you up to His mystery.

From your work in television, you know that the characters on screen are to carry on unaware that there is a soundstage enveloping them.  They are in the moment of their story, and the goings on outside of that are hidden from them.  So it is with us.

God means to build saints, and there is a whole story going on to achieve this that lies just outside our vision.  Much of it will make little sense until we reach our journey’s end.  We have Christ as our Guide and token, He who died to rise again and prepare a place for us where there shall be no more tears and no more night.

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Letter 41: Can I Get a Witness?

For the past several years, I have attempted to grow herbs for my wife to use in her cooking.  I have had mixed results.  We had some early success with basil, but then it abruptly died, and last year’s crop was wiped out, twice.  The parsley grew, but never became bountiful.  Our chives took over a year to amount to anything, and my wife often forgot that they were available for use.  I killed our first attempt at rosemary.  Our thyme flourished late last year, but has either died or gone dormant.  I am not sure which.  Only the oregano has flourished.  I am hoping for better results this year.

It has been a humbling lesson.  I have some control over the process.  I can water the plants and do my best to see that they get sufficient sun, but that’s about it.  Pests, drought, torrential rains, and cloudy days are outside my power.  Then too, the seeds might be bad.

Our pastor has been urging us to be seeking souls to win to Christ.  Echoing the prayers of one “Praying Hyde,” he has exhorted us to implore God for “Just one soul, Lord, just one soul.”  He points us to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.  Preferably we would then prevail upon them to worship with our congregation.

But how do we do that?  I am aware that we are supposed to attest to the truth of the Gospel in our lives, and share this good news with others.  The hidden implication is that without the Gospel, those around us are condemned to an eternity in Hell.  Thus, by not winning their souls, we are damning others.  But I can’t bring myself to go out and start telling people about Jesus.  Whenever I’ve come across people with such a focus, I am generally repelled.  I try to avoid them when I can.  If I can’t stand such people, why should I wish to become one?

I wonder if I am a bad Christian for failing in this missionary mandate.  I mean I certainly don’t wish to condemn anyone to Hell.  I do believe in the life-changing power of the Gospel, but I want people to be interested in it of their own accord.  What if they’re not interested?  I will not force it down their throats.

In I Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul draws on an agricultural image to describe the process of evangelism and discipleship.  One plants, another waters, and God gives the harvest.  We are each responsible for our part in the process, but only our part.  God is ultimately responsible for the harvest.

I take great encouragement from this.  It is not incumbent upon me to bring in souls.  I am responsible for keeping my eyes and ears open for the opportunity to bear witness to God’s work in Christ.

This requires, I think, some sensitivity to the people we encounter.  The path to faith is not the same for everyone, nor do we experience God in the same way.  For example, God drew me gradually, over the course of a year.  There was no point at which I “made the decision and came on down.”   If you hit me with the Four Spiritual Laws, I think I might have fled.

All of this is a long way of saying that your witness depends much on your relationships.  It is the people you see every day to whom you will most often witness, if only unconsciously.  The better you know them, the more you can share, and the more they will invite you to share.

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The Helmholtz Resonance

Oh Lord, how true. I get so caught up on whether I am full or not. I am empty, and compared to You, always empty. Fill me, flow through me…..

The Jagged Word

By Ross Engel

It should be no surprise to you, our intrepid readers, that the authors here at Jagged Word do occasionally enjoy beverages that come out of bottles. Water, Wine, Whiskey, Beer. If it can be bottled, we tend to like it. And it is safe to say that we all have our favorites—our go to beverages of choice.

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Letter 37: What Does Scripture Say?

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“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30-31a NASB

  1. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
  2. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
  2. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

– Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (emphasis added)

We have been engaged in a heated discussion at church that I won’t bore you with.  However the argument behind the arguments has been fascinating.  A few have even brought it to the forefront:  What do the Scriptures say?  This question lies at the heart of Protestantism.  We all say that we are guided by Scripture and Scripture only, if we are true to the tradition of sola scriptura.  But that seems to only beg questions that we do not wish to address, hiding, as it were, behind the big book.

To help illustrate this, I want to step outside of a strictly religious context and venture into another world I am familiar with, the world of Law.  Reading judicial opinions it is always fascinating.  You are presented with a particular factual situation, and the judges choose what laws apply to that situation.  Where this gets truly fascinating is when the judges agree on what laws apply, but disagree on how.  This is exactly what we do when it comes to Scripture.  We have a text that we agree is authoritative, but we can read the same text and come to opposite conclusions.  “A government of laws, not of men,” we proudly proclaim, but of course, it is judges who decide what law governs and how.  We keep trying to remove human input to establish absolute authority, but we never can.

When Luther laid out the standard of sola scriptura, he did so with the expectation that he going to an authority that was authentic, unencumbered with decades of human detritus, utterly unassailable, and one that would be clearly understood by all.  While he never explicitly stated it, he also believed that anyone reading Scripture would come to the same conclusions as to its meaning and application, namely his.  He was surprised, hurt, and angry when things didn’t turn out that way, with the Anabaptists getting the worst of it.

Because we are dealing with what we deem Holy Writ, it is simultaneously important that we get it right and that its application and understanding be universal.  It makes disagreements tricky.  Presumably, someone must be wrong, and the consequences can be eternal.  But who?

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…”

We certainly hope that this is true.  Some go so far as to formally ask for the Spirit’s guidance as they read or listen to Scripture.  I’m not sure if God is so interested in the formalities, but certainly we should enter into the Bible with the expectation that God will be there with us, impressing upon us what He wishes us to understand.

But…..

How are we to make sense of this process, and how do we know we’ve got it right?  More importantly, if we wish to engage our neighbor, how do they know we’ve got it right?

Entire books are written on this subject, and I hardly think I can add anything to them.  But even these texts falter on the question of handling differing understandings.

My first fight with my wife faced this problem squarely.  It was out first Christmas together.  I was driving down to her parents, and tuned in the most wonderful live performance of Handel’s Messiah by an early music ensemble from Montreal.  It was spellbinding, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my then girlfriend.  Meanwhile, she was preparing for my arrival by playing Christmas carols on her piano to greet me when I arrived.  I came in, greeted her, and started telling her about the Messiah performance, that she just had to hear.  She got upset, repaired to her room and slammed the door.  I was left staring at the dog, both of us wondering what had just happened.

Slowly, all too slowly, the idea dawned on me.  Maybe she was upset because she wanted me to listen to her playing, and took my enthusiasm for Handel as a criticism of her playing.  At almost the same time, I think the thought struck her that maybe I wasn’t thinking of her piano playing at all.  We talked.  I explained that I didn’t realize that she had planned a special “concert” for me, and that I was just looking to share an experience with her.  Two totally different understandings of the same experience, and each one valid, but so far apart in reaching mutual understanding….

So I conclude with some observations.

First, we are all selective in our use and understanding of Scripture.  Traditional Protestant teaching separates the Old Testament into the moral and the ceremonial Law.  We are to uphold the Ten Commandments, but pass lightly over the directive about preparing sacrifices.  Some wish to restrict themselves to only those things Jesus taught in the Gospels.  Traditional Christian readings of the Song of Songs treat the book as an allegory of God’s love of the Church, yet at the time it was written, there was no church.

Second, we must confess to our own limited understanding.  We “see through a glass but darkly,” and bear the stain of sin everywhere.  We can see this in the obtuseness of the Disciples, in Peter’s comment about the difficulty in understanding Paul’s letter, and indeed, in our own struggles.  If it were easy, we would have no need of the Spirit’s help.

Third, it can be very difficult to fully grasp what God may be saying to other people.   We can, and should go back to Scripture, but we must bear in mind that everything filters through our own understanding.  In practical experience, only rarely do we hear the same thing at the same time.  I am still called upon to evaluate what you report as coming from God, but I must admit that I cannot live inside your head or your heart.

No matter what we do, everything must pass through our minds.  There is no getting around this.  We can claim that Scripture is self-explanatory, but even then, it must pass through our understanding to become self-explanatory.  God promises to one day write the law in our hearts, and certainly we aspire to so unite our wills with God’s that we will will what He wills, without having to think about it.  But for now, I, at least am not there, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have achieved that union.

So, approach Scripture with expectation, and humility.  Trust that God will guide you, but keep in mind that we may not understand Him aright.  Until we know as we are known, our understanding is provisional and imperfect.  Be respectful of others, and realize that they labor under the same limitations as you.  Pray, pray, pray, for understanding, wisdom and peace.  The good news is that God is more than able to look out for Himself.  Be patient, and let Him do His work.  “‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead  me home.”

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Letter 36: For G, On Her Graduating High School

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Congratulations on graduating high school!  Your Auntie and I are very proud of you.  I hope that you are excited about the next chapter in your life.  We are.  As you enjoy this transition moment, permit me to offer some avuncular advice.  Some of it is advice I wish someone had given me when I stood where you are now.

You are about to embark upon a great adventure, and in a great city to boot.  This is a tremendous opportunity, and I would encourage you to take advantage of it.  Much as when you were a young child, this is a season of exploration, an opportunity to learn more about the world around you.  Take it in.  Relish the sights, and sounds and smells.

Try also to take advantage of the attractions of the city.  It’s not as easy to do as you would think.  Your studies will take up much of your time.  But do go out to see a show or a museum.  Sample some of the different foods on offer.  I’m sure your auntie will be more than happy to help.  And she knows the city.

But for all the new horizons to explore, do not be in a rush.  Take some time to reflect on what you are experiencing.  This is a time to ask questions.  The truth is, while you have been primed to master answers, you will do better to master questions, for those will in time yield the right answers.  Possessing answers without knowing the questions will only confuse you into believing that you know, when you don’t.

This is also a time for making mistakes. Don’t be afraid of them.  You are going to make them despite every effort to avoid them.  That said, don’t do anything knowingly stupid.

You will be meeting people from all over, with very different experiences from you.  Get to know some of these people.  Ask them questions.  I suspect that if you ask most college graduates, what they will remember fondly are the late nights spent talking with other students about the questions great and small.  Does Man have free will?  Was the Designated Hitter a good idea, or should pitchers bat?  Who makes the best pizza?  Long after you forget most of the things you’ve learned in class, you will remember those conversations.

It’s a shame really, that education has become about preparing you for work.  That is important, of course, but college is a really lousy way of accomplishing this.  You will learn most of what you need to do your job on the job.  Forty years ago, most jobs still only required a high school diploma, and many men and women achieved successful careers without one.

Education comes from the Latin root, e ducare, which means “to lead out of,” as in to lead an injured person out of harm’s way.  As applied, the phrase can be understood in two ways.  First, it is the process by which we are led out of ignorance.  This is really a lifelong endeavor, so it becomes important to understand how to learn, and how to apply what you’ve learned.

The other understanding is where I want to focus.  Education can also be the process of drawing out something within you.  I could be the statue that resides in the block of marble, or the book or painting that first hatches in the mind of the artist.  Seen in this way, education becomes the process of becoming more fully a person.  A good educator is able to see that “person” and will work to bring her out.  In time, we hopefully come to recognize ourselves and strive to become more consciously ourselves.

With that in mind, take the time to take classes in subjects that interest you or might help you become more yourself.  You have an opportunity to consult with experts that you may not have again.  Learn something about art, or music, philosophy or religion.  Or maybe it’s the social sciences that pique your interest, where you learn to better understand people.  Don’t try to channel all of your energies into one narrow range of topics.  Look to fill yourself out in knowledge and understanding.

I hope you will choose to share with us at least a glimpse of what you will be seeing and experiencing.  I took up writing when I went off to college, sharing with family and friends what I was doing, some of what I was learning, and some of what I was thinking.  I especially treasure the letters I received back from my grandparents, and the silly post-cards my father sent me.  I’ve saved all of them.  Now that my grandparents are dead, those letters are a piece of them that lives on.

But I have probably detained you long enough.  This is your day to celebrate, and these are just the prolix ponderings of your sentimental uncle who loves you and wishes you well.  Congratulations again on a job well done.  May you continue to blossom and flourish in this next chapter of your life.

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