I Miss Being a Man-Mountain: Gulliver #7

If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read Chapters I-II of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.

Another week, and with it another voyage alongside Lemuel Gulliver. Having glanced through the story of Brobdingnag at the footnotes, I’ve noticed one significant difference in this second tale: his time in Brobdingnag seems less about Swift picking on particular English contemporaries, perhaps to spend more time considering Gulliver himself? The footnotes contain definitions and clarifications, but far fewer name references. On the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu, Gulliver was a magnificent Man-Mountain, observing and analyzing from his elevated perspective. He spoke from a position of dignity, respect, and valor. As such, his opinions carried a certain weight.

Times change.

Now, on the island of Brobdingnag, Gulliver himself is in the position of being quite small. He has quickly become the lesser creature, already compared to a weasel! Of all the details in the opening chapters, I was drawn to Gulliver’s comparison to his own experiences on Lilliput:

“I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second voyage against the advice of all my friends and relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the world: where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my hand, and perform those other actions which will be recorded for ever in the chronicles of that empire, while posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by millions. I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for, as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me?” 

Gulliver recalls with fondness how great it was to be big, significant in the eyes of all who looked upon. It was good to be the Man-Mountain! And now, the tables have turned and Gulliver finds himself at the mercy of these larger creatures. But notice the irony of his own statement! He takes it for granted that human creatures are more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk! As I understand the narrative, Gulliver considers himself throughout his adventures to be the standard in humanity. In other words, he is normal. Lilliputians are small, Brobdingnagians are large. He remains normal. And I suppose it is possible to maintain that perspective, but it’s hard to avoid the obvious fact that, in the eyes of the Lilliputians, Gulliver would have been the more savage and cruel creature – proportionate with his bulk.

The comparisons continue as he observes the giants. He describes their complexion with a touch of horror, their eyes with a note of humor. He describes the accommodations they provide as being rough and coarse – their finest linens seeming as sackcloth. With every colorful description, Gulliver is further casting light upon his own nature through the eyes of a Lilliputian. At times, he does recognize what he is doing, referring back to his friends on the tiny island. As I read the story, with these details, and observe the lack of contemporary references in footnotes, I can’t help but believe Brobdingnag exists (at least in these early chapters), to provide a commentary on the story we’ve just completed, shedding light on the narrator himself!

 

On Pride and Surrender

Gulliver taps into something very human in these words from the Christian perspective – though I understand this was certainly not Swift’s intention! I couldn’t help but think of the very natural progression in the young Christian. Original sin reveals that pride lies at the core of the human heart. The desire to rule, to be a self-significant Man-Mountain, is rampant and among our most basic realities. For the Christian, the transition from being ruler of my own roost to being a subject in the Kingdom of Christ is humbling, and, if I’m to be honest, troubling. Coming to grips with the effects of depravity, lingering sin, and eternal shortcomings is nothing short of life-altering. Surrender is a painful endeavor, particularly because surrender highlights my inability where I once saw myself as wholly sufficient and the possessor of elevated opinions.

The apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church, though, provide help. Too many Christians believe in free will without giving any consideration to what Martin Luther called the bondage of the will. Yes, we are free creatures and we decide here and there as our little hearts desire. But under the light of Romans 6, it becomes clear that our freedom is in bondage to one master or Another. Apart from Christ, we are slaves to sin. Our free hearts desire sin, and so we pursue sin. In Christ, we are slaves to righteousness. Our free hearts desire righteousness, and so we pursue righteousness. Romans 7 then goes on to describe the internal struggle that results from the lingering nature of sin amidst our pursuit of that which God describes as right and good.

I find Romans 6 & 7 helpful because they remind me that even when I was a Man-Mountain, sovereign in my own eyes, utterly free in my sin, I was not so large. I was responsible, but not sovereign. I was prostrating myself, albeit in ignorance, to a damning master. This truth serves both to humble my heart which is oh-so-prone to pride, and to magnify the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ – Jesus who loved me though I stood as his enemy. Jesus who loved me in order that I might cease to be the Man-Mountain and instead strive to stand among the least in the eternal Kingdom of my Lord.

And so as I consider the matter of surrender to the Lord, I realize that it’s not a matter of choosing surrender over personal sovereignty – crying with the saints rather than laughing with the sinners (sorry, Billy Joel). Rather, it is a matter of humble surrender to a good Master over ignorant surrender to a deadly one.

At times, like our friend Gulliver, I miss being the Man-Mountain. But then I remember that being the Man-Mountain was eternally less than I had believed it to be.

 

 

 

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Irregular: Gulliver #6

If you are following along in the Summer Read, we’ve now finished the first voyage in Gulliver’s Travels.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), in his well-researched publication on the writings of Jonathan Swift, discussed his opinions on Gulliver, ranging from high praise for the first two voyages to utter disdain for the final voyage (building suspense!). I found his description of the voyages to be striking:

“No word drops from Gulliver’s pen in vain. Where his work ceases for a moment to satirize the vices of mankind in general, it becomes a stricture upon the parties, politics, and courts of Britain; where it abandons the subject of censure, it presents a lively picture of the vices and follies of the fashionable world, or of the vain pursuits of philosophy, while the parts of the narrative which refer to the traveller’s own adventures form a humorous and striking parody of the manner of old voyagers.”

Layers. First and foremost, Swift is known for his satire. Satire is defined by the good folks at Bing as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” In other words, Gulliver is picking at humanity. Peel that layer and he’s picking at politics. Peel that layer and he’s picking at fashion, philosophy, even the adventure novel itself – particularly Robinson Crusoe. (published 1719, seven years before Gulliver) Swift is regarded by many as being among the greatest satirists of all time, alongside Twain, Rabelais, etc.

And speaking of varied layers, J. Paul Hunter makes the case that Gulliver is not a novel at all. Hunter matches the style of Gulliver to a parody, a comedic imitation. Swift, apparently, is also the Alfred Matthew Yankovic of his generation? He uses the “adventure novel” as the springboard, so the resemblance to that style will be striking, even if the details draw out a certain level of absurdity. In the end, he uses this platform to hold up a mirror to his world.  

Why do I bring this up now?

There is a randomness to Gulliver‘s Travels. He moves from one day to the next, one topic to the next, one kingdom to the next in a manner that can be unsettling. In a matter of pages, he leaves one island, greets another, plans his escape, returns home with a boatload of miniature animals, gains wealth, settles family affairs, and is again on the sea. This after spending nearly equal space discussing the contents of his pockets (which, in and of itself, was a jab at one of the oft-mocked blunders of Robinson Crusoe) in Chapter II.

I typically waffle between two feelings while I’m reading the story. On one level, I feel the biting human commentary, which will only grow stronger by that fourth appalling journey (oh, the suspense!). On another level, I am thankful for footnotes because I feel like I’ve missed a joke. If you feel the same, you’re not alone! But it is the nature of this story to dwell in unpredictability and loose ends – all in the name of social commentary.

As an example, I’d like to share a few of the helpful footnotes:

Chapter I: Robinson Crusoe is also a third son.
Chapter I: Lilliputians reminiscent of pygmies who attacked Hercules.
Chapter I: Abundant urination stories reminiscent of Gargantua by Rabelais.
Chapter II: Emperor’s resemblance thought to describe George I.
Chapter III: Flimnap thought to be Sir Robert Walpole, head of the Whigs
Chapter IV: High heels = Tory/High Church; Low heels = Whig/Low Church
Chapter IV: Big-Endians = Catholics; Little-Endians = Protestants
Chapter V: Visit from Blefuscudians references Bolingbroke’s visit to the French Court in 1712.
Chapter VI: Firefighting probably reflects Swift’s relationship with Queen Anne.
Chapter VII: Visit mocks the Whig Committee of Secrecy.

These are just a few of the many, many contemporary references that season our story. There are more than 80 explanatory footnotes in the nerd version of Lilliput! Layer after layer after layer, Swift draws in various relevant figures and literary works to create a blended story. Where he is truly viewed as a master is in doing so with any sort of appeal. A story doesn’t thrive for nearly three centuries without manufacturing a certain broad and fascinating attraction. Historians can pick the story apart, children can wonder at the absurd circumstances, and we all reside somewhere in between.

Personally, I appreciate the broad mirror he holds up to humanity, even if I often miss the specific historical irony.

Sir Walter Scott goes on to say of Daniel Defoe (author of Crusoe), and subsequently Swift as well:

“He was well aware that the course of human life is as irregular and capricious as the process of natural vegetation.” 

Maybe irregularity can relate a story to our hearts differently than epic regularity (another term from Scott) because our thoughts and lives, at times, seem to be random. I suppose I would be excited if the zigzag chain of thinking that permeates my typical day spilled out onto a page sounding like Gulliver’s Travels. 

For now, I’ll have to settle for reading the next voyage. Bring on Brobdingnag!

 

 

 

An Ode to Make You Blush: Gulliver #5

Many have responded to Gulliver over the years. In addition to a number of essays and letters of correspondence in the nerd version are a handful of poems inspired by the tales. Lest you think the publications of the day were all prim and proper, this gem is found – word for word – amidst the bunchI have to admit, the style has a strong resemblance to the poems of Alexander Pope also found in the volume. I dare not speculate such a thing! But I felt this one was worth a good laugh.

(If you’ve not read Chapter V in Gulliver’s Travelsyou might not get the joke!)

A Lilliputian Ode on the ENGINE with which Captain Gulliver extinguish’d the Flames in the Royal Palace.
(published anonymously May/June 1727)

I.

Engine strong,
Thick and long!
With Surprize,
Have our Eyes,
View’d its Size;
And its Nose,
Like a Rose;
And its Beard,
Much rever’d!
How it stood,
When the Flood,
Pouring down,
Sav’d the Town!
Ev’n the Queen,
Who has seen
How it plays,
In Amaze
Fury quits;
And has Fits
Of Delight,
Since the Sight.
‘Tis a Thing
Makes the King
Sometimes glad,
Sometimes sad;
Pray Heav’n he run not mad

II.

O how strange
Is the Change
In the Crowd!
Wives are loud
In its Praise;
And with Bays
Want to spread
Its high Head!
Maids, with Joys,
Hear the Boys
Talk it o’er,
And adore!
Husbands now
Jealous grow;
And a-Nights
Are in Frights!
All Day long,
Every Tongue
Says or sings
Wondrous Things.
Titty Tit, (this is a name under which Pope published poems on Gulliver)
Master Wit,
Tries in vain,
Lofty Strain,
To set forth
Its Magnitude and Worth!

III.

Mountain-Man,
He who can
Reach thy Fame,
And proclaim
Stature odd,
Is a GOD.
O descend,
As a Friend,
To our State;
And beget
Such a Race
In this Place.
Female blest,
By thee prest;
Whose fierce Fire
Of Desire
Thy great Tool
Can but cool!
But ’tis such,
That too much
We intreat!
Ah! hard Fate.
One Flame out,
‘Tis past doubt,
That thy Parts
Have rais’d one in our Hearts.

 

 

 

A Vile Torrent: Gulliver #4

If you are following along in the Summer Read, this post assumes you’ve finished Chapter V of Gulliver’s Travels. If you happen to be reading the kiddos’ version, it would help if you’ve read through pg. 37.

On Pace

Despite the extensive vocabulary and the centuries-wide gap in manners of speech, I’m still enjoying Gulliver. I am excited to serve as family narrator for the summer, reading the nerd version aloud to my wife and the kiddos version to our four young ones. At different points, I’ve caught everyone in the family laughing, even our littlest. All along, everyone has listened intently and stayed on board to at least have an understanding of the story. I hope you’ve found a sense of enjoyment in the book as well.

I’ve also enjoyed reading quite slowly. I’m often one to swallow a book quickly, which can have its benefits. But there is a wonderful delight in chewing on the chapters for awhile in order to let them smack me around a bit. If, as Swift has said, truth convicts, then we must let truth speak no matter where we find it!

On Making Water

Mr. Gulliver is not shy about sharing stories involving bodily functions. In fact, they provide some of the lighter moments in his Travels thus far. As I considered the event of the flames in the royal palace (and the unorthodox effort to extinguish), I was again drawn to consider the incident from multiple perspectives.

With the palace on fire, Gulliver used the only viable resource available. He considered it lucky, in fact, to have such an opportunity. And so naturally he availed himself, though I’m pretty sure it would take a Gulliver-sized bladder on a Lilliputian for the effort to have lasted a full three minutes. In any case, the flames were out, the mission accomplished, and the day sufficiently saved.

Despite the preservation of the palace – with a lingering funk – the people are unsure of the method employed by the Man Mountain. Gulliver himself worries that the Emperor will resent his actions. In the end, though Gulliver receives a pardon for the crime (punishable by death!), the Empress chooses to move across the grounds rather than live near such a vile act. She distances herself from the offensive action rather than see (or smell) the effects. Gulliver’s time on the island has taken a turn for the less comfortable. It would seem as though, on a certain level, the royal family might have preferred their home to burn than to be saved in such a manner. Imagine the horror of the scene through the eyes of one 1/12th the size of the giant!

Perspective.

As the footnotes declare, the palace fire is possibly a reference to Queen Anne’s hesitation to elevate Swift in the Anglican church because of his occasionally crude and impious way of telling stories. (Go figure!) If this is the case, then the goal is to join Swift in his smarmy satire and view the situation through the cynical eyes of the author. Maybe we’re supposed to see the whole situation as ridiculous and cheer as the overconfident Lilliputians get theirs. But there is a strange draw in the story that leaves me sympathetic to the Lilliputians as well. I am curious, this time around in reading the book, if I’m drawn to the inhabitants of the other lands as much as I am this first bunch.

Taking the Lilliputian perspective, then, I can’t help but think of sovereignty and blood.

Really, Bob?

Really.

I cannot count the number of times in my life I’ve heard or been asked, why would a good God _________? The question is posed as a response to doubt and pain. If I may toy with the notion of our current chapter, though, I would propose that often times providence feels like the vile torrent of Swift’s Chapter V. Caught within the circumstance, with a perspective far too small and marred by sin, it might appear that we are being defiled in the hands of a irrational God. As a result, we respond in a manner not unlike the Empress… disgust and distance. We stay away from the pain, away from the damage, away from the redeeming quality, because to face the damage is to possibly face the uncomfortable means by which we received care.

Could it be that God might work through pain – not only by passively allowing it, but also by actively ordaining it as his agent in this cursed world – in order to bring the greatest redemption? To be quite honest, sometimes our palaces need a little “made water” in order to let go of them as a means of ultimate security. The irony of Swift’s beef with the Queen is that in what seems like taking out his frustration through a tale of filthy firefighting, he was illustrating the point he may have failed to believe… that sometimes the vile torrent is a means of grace. Setback and pain are warning signs that something is amiss, and a clear signal that our eyes may be fixed on the wrong mighty fortress.

I think of biblical redemption and what is often considered the vile torrent that brings peace – blood. And this all in the name of supreme love? For those who cannot bring themselves to find comfort in the bloody reality of salvation, typified in animal sacrifice and fulfilled in the cross of Christ, they too respond with disgust and distance. Yet it is the disgusting and vile blood that saves. At the risk of sounding irreverent in the face of a story such as the palace fire, there is something very real to consider… God’s ordained means of saving have rarely if ever resembled the expected. And to be quite honest, if we’re not willing to embrace mystery in humility, his means are often downright difficult.

I don’t want to press to far in aligning Gulliver with God in the story. I don’t believe that to be the point. But I can’t help but see the parallels when the so-small-yet-so-puffed-up race encounter the giant beyond their comprehension. I don’t see God in Gulliver as much as I see myself in the Lilliputians.

 

“… For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2Corinthians 1:8b-9 ESV)

“So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

 

 

 

The Man-Mountain: Gulliver #3

If you are following along in the Summer Read, this post was born of Chapters I-III of Gulliver’s Travels. If you happen to be reading the kiddos’ version, it would help if you’ve read through pg. 27.

On Selecting Your Shoes

Rather than combine two ideas into a single post, I’ve opted to post twice this week, figuring maybe one would bless you. Reading can be such a chore. 😉

Throughout Gulliver, we as readers face the task of deciding whose shoes we are to wear in the moment. Gulliver provides the primary perspective. As literary historian Pat Rogers noted in an essay, it is curious that the one item Gulliver would not give up to the Lilliputians was his pair of spectacles. He is prepared to give up “his money, his watch, his guns, his razor, his handkerchief, his knife and even his ‘Journal Book.’ Rogers contrasts this to Robinson Crusoe, who saw no value in those things which helped him maintain perspective. To Gulliver, sight is critical, so it is easy enough to read the story and become Gulliver.

However, as Swift’s task seemed to be drawing out the absurdities of others through observation, it is helpful to assume the role of the Lilliputians, even if we are slightly taller than six inches. It is in the notion of the little people that we often find curiosity and conviction. Rather than reading with a finger pointed, it is sometimes helpful to read with a mirror.

 

On Control

The contract between Gulliver and the Lilliputians struck me, particularly from the vantage point of the smaller folk. As I considered the terms of the agreement, I found myself asking, If I knew someone HUGE, what would I require of them in order to keep them in my life? What would be the boundaries? 

Gulliver’s terms, in very brief:

  1. The Man-Mountain cannot leave without permission.
  2. The Man-Mountain cannot come too close without permission.
  3. The Man-Mountain cannot interfere with infrastructure.
  4. The Man-Mountain must not trample.
  5. The Man-Mountain must serve as a delivery system.
  6. The Man-Mountain must fight for the Lilliputians.
  7. The Man-Mountain must provide labor.
  8. The Man-Mountain must pursue and share knowledge.
  9. If he complies, we will provide for the Man-Mountain.

By virtue of Gulliver’s size he is “dangerous.” Apart from his exhaustion following the shipwreck and/or the Lilliputian’s deception involving a questionable drink, he cannot be controlled. He submits to their requests in his benevolence. But even in gentleness, there are still aspects of his person that they cannot comprehend or handle.

Perhaps these terms make sense when their knowledge of such a being is limited. The Lilliputians had received glimpses of Gulliver’s kindness, but they had not the time nor the evidence to completely trust him. Their time had been consumed cleaning up, restoring self-determined order to a world invaded by such a presence. In their ignorance, their primary interest was control. They saw the potential of having such a Man-Mountain on their side, but they could not surrender sovereignty. Instead, they chose to deliver terms of surrender to a being whom they so precisely calculated would contain 1724 of their own.

In a moment, I am prone to look at the Lilliputians demands and think them silly. Did you laugh there as well? Walk through the terms of the contract, though, replacing Man-Mountain with God, and the mirror falls firmly into place. I’m not so foolish as to see deep parallels between Captain Gulliver and the Creator, but rather in this instance I choose to put on the shoes of a Lilliputian and ask myself a few questions. I ask myself when I’ve treated the Sovereign King in similar fashion. Granted, we aren’t as likely to do so through a written contract, but through our behavior, we often make similar requests.

Don’t leave me, but don’t get too close.
Help me, but only when I ask.
Serve me, and I will serve you.

Sometimes it feels as though we have to clean up the mess of having God around – explaining his actions, questioning his motives in the events of the past and the minutiae of everyday living. In our ignorance, we choose to live under the illusion of control. We extend the contract in foolishness, expecting the Sovereign of the universe to surrender to our terms.

The trouble is, if God is God, that means we are not. His terms, not ours. His sovereignty, not ours. His glory, not ours.

In the gospel, though, God has given us a lens through which to view all of his actions, a filter through which we understand all of his words. What might seem a mess without the cross becomes quite clear in light of such amazing love. He has given us the ultimate act of sacrifice as the linchpin to our own existence. He gave his only Son to die in our place, suffering a fate our sin deserves, offering the life he earned in perfect obedience, so that we could find redemption in him. And with that redemption comes surrender, mediated by the Son of God – Jesus. We tear up the feeble contract we might contrive and live to know God on his terms – through the person and work of his Son as revealed in the Bible. The “terms” are found in the story of Scripture. We leave our ignorance in the past and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Love demands as much.

 

 

Tune in next week! Until then, press on and enjoy!

 

 

The Man-Mountain: Gulliver #2

If you are following along in the Summer Read, this post was born of Chapters I-III of Gulliver’s Travels. If you happen to be reading the kiddos’ version, it would help if you’ve read through pg. 27. 

On Reading

Monday we sat down to read to the end of Chapter III. More accurately, I sat down to read aloud while my wife was painting the walls. It happens. We found ourselves laughing aloud for a few portions, offering a simple “Hmmm…” for others. Gulliver keeps you on your toes, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of reading Swift’s extensive vocabulary out loud! The book is indeed challenging in that way. Swift demonstrates the unique gift of being able to place 18th century potty humor (Gulliver is not shy about his bathroom exploits) right next to stabbing, yet engaging, human commentary.

The nerd version features a number of footnotes that hint at the possible historical persons who show up in the various characters. Gulliver was a work of offense to Swift’s original audience, but I’ve quickly come to realize that the footnotes add nothing to the enjoyment of the story unless you are interested in finding out what they have to say. Is it helpful to know that Flimnap is “usually taken to represent Sir Robert Walpole, chancellor of the Exchequer and head of the Whig government from 1715-1717?” Maybe. But let’s be honest, if you don’t know, you’re not missing much. It’s a fun story.

On Time

I found the inventory of Gulliver’s pockets to be enjoyable. It is probably a comment on my own typical reading habits, but trying to decipher the contents of his clothing from the perspective of a man six inches tall, combined with the period in which the book was written proved to be a fun game! I found myself going back, after reading about the gunpowder demonstration, to realize that the pieces in his pockets were in fact pistols.

Most fascinating to me, though, was the pocket watch.

As I sat down to write this post, my son was watching intently over my shoulders – not because he cared to read dear ‘ol Dad’s words. He was watching the clock on my laptop. You see, 3:30 is snack time. He returned to my back three times in the ten minutes between 3:20 and 3:30. At 3:28, he was content to wait for the digital readout to change. Is it snack time yet? I’m sure by having a snack time at all, I am guilty of promoting this pattern, but it speaks to the Lilliputians viewpoint of time.

“And we conjecture it is either some unknown Animal, or the God that he worships: But we are more inclined to the latter Opinion, because he assured us… that he seldom did any thing without consulting it. He called it his Oracle, and said it pointed out the Time for every Action of his Life.”

The nearest reference (as I remember) to specific time in Lilliputian terms is the “fourth Day of the eighty ninth Moon of your Majesty’s auspicious reign.” They had apparently taken the time to record the length of their good fortune, but the notion of hourly tracking was unusual.

I’ve often heard it said that the obsession with linear time is an American trait. (For a rather lengthy article discussing the proposition, check this link. You will be redirected to Business Insider. Whether fact or no, the article addresses the idea.) From a biblical perspective, this is certainly true as well. For example, what day of the week was 9/11? Easy enough. What day of the week was the Last Supper? Scholarly folks are still arguing about that one. Today, we obsess over tracking every single minute of every single day – studying the trees. Other cultures, perhaps, pay more attention to the forest… or at least different trees!

As I’ve studied biblical Hebrew, one of the most fascinating differences is the treatment of linear time. Verbs in Hebrew do not retain, in and of themselves, a past/present/future voice. Rather they exist as perfect/imperfect with regard to completion. Linear timing is determined largely by context. If that notion confuses you, that’s OK. It confused me as well, at first. I’ve tried to learn from a non-linear expression of time the significance and spatial relationship of the event, rather than simply a timeline.

I am a time-tracker. I’ve not always been surrounded by time-trackers, though. This means I’ve spent unfortunate portions of my life waiting. Only in the current stage of living have I taken considerable time to pay less attention to the clock, or rather to be less controlled by it. Obviously, if I fail to show up to work or class on time, there are consequences. But while this may be true, it is all-too-easy to allow the clock to have a say in my mood or my view of others, or perhaps to dictate the actions of my day, including how I spend my time waiting.

I have been challenged over the past few years on how to strike a balance between honoring the time of others (particularly those who obsess over the clock more than I!), while also resisting the urge to watch the clock to the exclusion of the person or event in front of me. I’ve tried to “calculate” my day based on both time and the importance of the action. It’s not easy. A creature of habit, I am.

At the outset of this year, I spent considerable time (ironic?) considering how I would govern my time. I’ve never been able to maintain an accurate calendar for long, and I am no good with tech calendars. I prefer paper. I can’t help it. I came across a number of interesting resources, including one from Donald Miller called The StorylineWhile I did not adopt the planner as my day-to-day scheduling process, I found the premise to be fascinating, and I have visited the concepts from time to time. His aim is to combine time and significance to achieve productivity (and a hint of peace along the way). If nothing else, it’s an exercise in thinking differently about your time.

 

How much is the clock an Oracle for your life?

How do you react when the hours fail to follow the schedule?

How do you spend time waiting?

And what would the Lilliputians find in YOUR pockets?

 

There is another post coming today!

 

 

Fruitful (Part 3)

(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio)

For the beginning of this brief series, check out Part 1 and Part 2. The previous post in this series considered the “cleansing” of the temple during Jesus’ final week leading to the cross.

Read Mark 11:27-12:12

The authority of Jesus included not only the ability to do something, but the freedom and the right to act. Divine authority – when Jesus acts, the kingdom of God is revealed. The leaders of the day would not be happy about this authority. From their perspective, if Jesus was not given authority by the Sanhedrin, the ruling body made up of the Pharisees, elders and scribes, then he had no authority at all. The only greater authority he could possibly claim was that of God himself… which is probably why they asked.

Two chapters back, after the transfiguration, if you recall, Jesus used the nature of John the Baptizer’s ministry to teach a lesson about his own ministry… in essence he asked, if the spirt of Elijah, the ministry of John the Baptizer, is more than people anticipated, isnt’ it possible that the ministry of the Messiah runs deeper than imagined? Here he takes the same approach to answering the questions of the leaders. At a glance, you might think Jesus asked a random question in order to confuse the leaders and dodge the issue. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that he actually answered the question in a way that silenced his opposition. Jesus had a gift for proclaiming reality without opening the door for dispute. The leaders had no choice but to chew on the truth.

John had no authority from the Sanhedrin to offer a baptism of repentance. The only way his baptism had ANY meaning is if it was commissioned by God himself. John’s authority was handed down by the Creator of the universe. No human formality set him in the Jordan river to prepare the nation. Just as he did with the disciples after the transfiguration, Jesus is highlighting John’s ministry to explain his own. If you misunderstood John’s authority to baptize, then you will certainly misunderstand my authority as well. After all, John said After me comes he who is mightier, (JESUS) the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

Jesus, with perfect subtlety, was claiming divine authority.

His answer revealed the state of the leaders’ hearts. They were most concerned with preservation and politics, not the matters of the kingdom of God. Had they been looking for the kingdom, they would have repented under John’s ministry. Had they been looking for the kingdom, they would be bowing before Jesus rather than questioning him. Their eyes were fixed on the brick and mortar, the system over which they believed they had control. They missed the blessing.

Jesus then taught them in a parable. Remember, our job with parable is not to read but to listen, to boil down, to gather the sense and take hold of the big contrast rather than obsess over the details. (Obviously, in a written format, this is difficult!?! But it is immensely helpful if you have help, or if you are in the context of a worship service!)

Psalm 80 says the LORD brought a vine out of Egypt and planted it. Vineyard imagery is commonly used to represent Israel. Notice the judgment of this parable is not upon the nation, but upon her leaders… so-called caretakers who would kill to secure their autonomy. As Jesus cast judgment on the temple the day before, the leaders were anxious to destroy him. But it is they who will be destroyed. The vineyard will be given to others. The New Testament is clear that Israel’s vine would be trimmed, natural branches cut back so that others could be grafted in – the Gentiles. That includes me. Yes, the natural branches would eventually be grafted back in as well – but for now things would appear to be different – a fulfillment of God’s promise to save from every nation, tribe, and tongue.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? Israel believed this prophecy to be about her. But here Jesus takes this promise upon himself as well. He is the cornerstone. The rejected cornerstone. He is unwelcome among the caretakers. Cast down & murdered.

This is another quote from Psalm 118 –the very same song of the people as Jesus arrived on a donkey’s colt in Part 1. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Even the rejection… is the Lord’s doing. The rejection… is marvelous. Necessary. The psalm goes on to say, this is the day the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad. Hosanna! Save us! Glad because of what the rejection would accomplish, setting sinners free.

The leaders were dumbfounded and silent because they knew Jesus was casting judgment – first on the temple, now on them. Only the cornerstone remains.

 

 

 

 

The Background: Gulliver #1

Though it may not appear so here in Western PA, Summer reading is upon us! I have been eagerly awaiting this week, the launch for Gulliver’s Travels. Let this post serve as an additional invitation to check out the Summer Reading page and join an adventure or two! I hope to provide thoughts throughout the summer, fodder for conversation and maybe a question or two to spark the kiddos to use their thinker! I started reading Gulliver to my wife last night. Reading together is something of a summer luxury! We’ll be sharing the book with our kiddos as well, once they finish the audio book of Mr. Popper’s Penguins. 

The Norton Critical Edition of Gulliver (heretofore affectionately referred to as the nerd version) contains a number of extras spanning the 290 years since Swift’s novel was first published. Though I had read the book before, I had no idea that the history of the book itself is just as interesting as the story contained within. Swift penned the work over a period of years, largely in secret. He sought publication under the pseudonym Richard Sympson, who “spoke on behalf of” his friend and cousin, Lemuel Gulliver. Swift would write correspondence as Sympson and even, on occasion, as Gulliver himself. As a result, he left behind a number of interesting notes and letters.

On one occasion, after receiving a letter from a Mrs. Howard which was heavily steeped in Gulliver references, Swift replied as though he had never seen the book:

“When I received your letter I thought it the most unaccountable one I ever saw in my life, and was not able to comprehend three words of it together… I continued four days at a loss for your meaning, till a Bookseller sent me the Travells of on Cap Gulliver, who proved a very good Explainer, although at the same time I thought it hard to be forced to read a Book of seven hundred Pages in order to understand a Letter of fifty lines;”

He carried on this manner with friends and acquaintances for some time, never explicitly admitting that he had written the heavily admired publication.

About the Publication

Gulliver was perceived as an instant classic. Alexander Pope, the great poet and friend of Swift, deemed in a letter the work to be “in the future the admiration of all men.” Pope was not far off! Correspondence indicates that the work was an immediate success, enjoyed by every age and stratum of society. Gulliver sparked conversation and, for some, controversy.

The publication itself was soaking in controversy from Swift, who held adamantly that the original publisher, Benjamin Motte, had taken far too many liberties in editing the work through both addition and subtraction. At one point, Swift wrote that his copy was “basely mangled, and abused, and added to, and blotted out by the printer.” Motte was concerned over some of the more biting human commentary offered by Swift and he tried to soften the work. In a letter from Captain Gulliver to Richard Sympson (interesting, right?!), he complained that aspects of the work were changed to such an extent that the Captain hardly recognized his own work!

“When I formerly hinted to you something of this in a letter, you were pleased to answer, that you were afraid of giving Offense; that People in Power were very watchful over the Press; and apt not only to interpret, but to punish everything which looked like an Inuendo (as I think you called it.)…” 

This controversy has kept literary scholars busy, attempting to piece together the original wording and intention of Gulliver. Obviously the broader stories are in tact, though paragraphs have certainly been changed, added, and omitted here and there. Every modern text is some variation of the original. How interesting to see such dispute over a work of fiction – even if it is overflowing with satire and commentary on human nature.

About Human Nature

Obviously, written centuries ago, Gulliver has a context. And a vocabulary (my goodness, the vocabulary – consider briefly that this story was read to children in the 18th century… and here we as adults struggle to get through a paragraph without having to retrace our steps! How glorious!). As such, it is expected – and quite honestly, it is OK – that some aspects and references of the book will seem foreign to us today. This is another reason I chose to read the nerd version… the footnotes alone are worth the extra dollars when the story takes a complicated turn. Do not be discouraged by the foreign references! I promise, you will see something of human nature in work, even if you don’t understand the historical context in which the story was first told.

In order to provide some hopefully helpful insights as you begin, I thought I would share a number of quotes from Swift’s correspondence that might shine a broader light on the book:

 

“… the Truth immediately strikes every Reader with Conviction.”  (Swift responding to critics of his satire)

 

“… You should think and deal with every Man as a Villain, without calling him so, or flying from him, or valuing him less. This is an old true Lesson.”  (to his friend, the Anglican Rev. Thomas Sheridan)

 

“… the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.”  (to the poet Alexander Pope)

 

“… I tell you after all that I do not hate Mankind, it is vous autres who hate them because you would have them reasonable Animals, and are Angry for being disappointed.”  (also to Pope)

 

“… The Duchess Dowager of Marlborough is in raptures at (Gulliver); she says she can dream of nothing else since she read it; she declares… that if she knew Gulliver, tho’ he had been the worst enemy she ever had, she would give up all her present acquaintance for his friendship.”  (from the poet John Gay)

 

As I jump back into Gulliver, I am sparked by words like these. Swift had an eye to challenge the world by holding up a rather large mirror. He does not shy away from critical words regarding people, but it would appear that he does so with a certain love for the person. He speaks of despising tribes even as he loves the members of the tribe.

I am excited to be challenged this summer by the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver. I am walking into this somewhat blind, having a love for the story and little knowledge of the man, the circumstances, the voice that spoke the story so many years ago. But that’s the point of a good summer read: to enjoy, to be challenged, to grow. I hope I am able to share some fruitful thoughts along the way!

Above all, I hope you enjoy a good book!

 

 

Visit the Summer Reading page for more on the adventure!

Fruitful (Part 2)

(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio) 

In my previous post, I offered a few thoughts on the Royal Procession of Jesus towards Jerusalem. Though the next day begins with the cursing of the fig tree, I chose to save that for the end of the message.

Read Mark 11:15-19 

As Linda Richman might say, the cleansing of the temple was neither a cleansing, nor a temple… discuss… There are passages where the bold headings are helpful… Mark 11 is not one of them. I’d like to challenge the notion that Jesus was cleansing the temple as we examine these details. He entered the court of the Gentiles, an area approximately 500yds x 325yds. That amounts to roughly 35-acres. The central courts that held the temple measured more than a football field alone. Why do I bring this up? Because Jesus, one man, granted the God-man, but one man, raised a scene. Was it sufficient to bring 35-acres of activity to a halt? Was it enough, in a moment, to cleanse a broken system? The assumption would be that, following a cleansing, the temple would be… clean. 

He drove out the sellers. But did you notice he also drove out the buyers?! We think of Jesus sending away the corrupt traders and money changers, but why the buyers? Why the worshipers?

Animals bought and sold as commodities were a part of temple life. Pilgrims weren’t often able to bring the necessary sacrifices. Temple giving required a particular unit of currency, the temple shekel, which required money changers. And this was the week of Passover, the most grand and busy festival of the year. Because God’s worship was very specific, these merchants found use in the temple system. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been in the court. Perhaps they were corrupt. But it was a desire to adhere to the law that gave rise to their trade.

The last verse of the prophet Zechariah says that one day, there would be no more traders. And on that day… Something would shift. The shift would draw the worshipers nearer to the LORD who saves them.

Notice Jesus wouldn’t let anyone carry anything through, as if Jesus, rather than seeking to purify the totality of what was happening, was actually trying to disrupt totally, on a small scale, everything and everyone, as if planting a seed or setting to motion a ripple effect approaching something larger… all so he could teach from Isaiah 56… a chapter about the salvation of the Gentiles. A house for the nations. Everyone who holds fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Isaiah goes on to call Israel’s leaders idolatrous blind watchmen, and to preach the humility that pleases God.

Jesus was ready to bring Jews and Gentiles together, to tear down the dividing wall of hostility, as Paul called it in Ephesians 2:14. Because of sin, ethnic distinction was necessary for a season of God’s plan. It was ethnic distinction that set apart the family line that would welcome Jesus. God chose, save, protected, and preserved a particular nation as part of the plan to choose, save, protect, and preserve people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Now in Christ, all of the resentment could be restored and healed. Sinners united at the foot of the cross.

There were, at the time, signs posted in the temple distinguishing the various courts. The courts were a progression towards the presence of God. The outermost court was for the Gentiles. Next came the court of the women, then the court of the Israelites, and the court of the priests. Inside the temple, of course, was the distinction of the holy place – visited only by priest – and the most holy place – visited only by the high priest, and only once each year. Each distinction communicated a message of the realities of God’s redemption, but the messages had descended into hostile division. History reports that signs posted in the Gentile court threatened death for any who was found ascending beyond his or her position. Divisions designed to create longing instead created enmity. 

The time had come, not only to preach a message of unity, but to provide – through the cross – a means of unity.

Jesus then mentions robbers, and we think again of those pesky merchants. But think about this… what is the robber’s den for? They don’t rob the den. They leave the den for crime. They come home to hide. The den is a reference to Jeremiah 7, where God warns the worshipers, Do not trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD. It is foolish to trust the building. Don’t hide in the building.

Jeremiah blasts Israel’s oppression of foreigners, orphans, widows. They live in sin, and are then all-too-confident to return to stand before the LORD expecting deliverance. They treated the temple like a den. A hideout to bury a life of treachery Jeremiah warns the people of coming judgment in the hands of the LORD. Now Jesus takes these verses and applies them to the temple mount, the den.

Instead of reaching out, they were cowering inside. God’s good system was defiled by sin. Sure, it was impressive to look at… but there was no fruit inside. The temple mount was a pretty picture, but a hollow practice.

It wasn’t just the sellers who needed redemption.

I can’t see Jesus going to any great effort to reform or clean temple worship when, in three days, he would open the door to God’s presence for all mankind. Tabernacle and temple worship were a season of preparation in which the nation of Israel was to stand as a beacon of light, shining the truth of the one true God. Her worship should have foreshadowed true worship, sacrifice, prayer, relationship, and obedience that would come with the Messiah. And now, in the fullness of time, at the climax of human history, the temple had exhausted its ability to produce Godly fruit.

In the middle of this exhaustion stands Jesus… the Savior. The time had come to forge a better way to the Father. Not to erase the temple, but to fulfill its purpose.

The scribes and chief priests heard about the ruckus, understanding enough about the Lord’s actions that they sought to destroy him. The incident itself, the “cleansing” was small-ish. The area of catastrophe was likely clean and in operation again by morning if not sooner. But the message of judgment was big. This was no cleansing. It was a declaration that change was coming. The people didn’t realize the depth of change, that the loving redemption of worship was only days away.

Jesus went to Bethany for the night.

 

 

 

Fruitful (Part 1)

(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio) 

In the early 90s, there was a skit on SNL called Coffee Talk with Linda Richman. She talked coffee, NY, daughters, dogs, you know, no big whoop… just coffee talk. Mike Meyers played Linda Richman.

Every so often Linda would get a little verklempt… Talk amongst yourselves… here, I’ll give you a topic… Rhode Island is neither a road, nor an island… discuss… The New Deal was neither new, nor was it a deal… discuss…

Linda Richman could have fun with the bold heading in my Bible for this particular chapter.
The Triumphal Entry was neither triumphal, nor an entry… discuss…

Check out Mark 11:1-11 (Link to BibleGateway)

The royal procession is recorded in all four gospels. It’s important to notice that Jesus staged this event. He didn’t lay the branches or the clothing in the roads, but he sent his disciples ahead to prepare his ride. Sometimes, it seemed as though Scriptural fulfillment just happened to Jesus. (i.e. his birth) Other times, he was very intentional in ministry. In this case, he was making a very thinly veiled statement of his identity that perfectly fulfilled Scripture.

He started from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. The prophets had foretold that this mountain was the place the Messiah, the king of the earth, would set his feet before conquering. But this is no victorious ride… at least, not from any earthly vantage point. There is a particular rabbinical teaching that if the LORD found his people to be faithful, even for a day, that the Messiah would arrive on a white horse to reign. If not, he would arrive humbly, on a donkey. The people had need of redemption, need of forgiveness. Only the colt would do!

The colt, also, was significant for the Jews. The prophet Zechariah (9:9) had said, behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Colts were primarily used for transportation, so Jesus essentially sent his friends to borrow a guy’s ride. But he gave them a solid explanation if anyone started asking questions… Where ya going with that? Uh… the Lord needs it. We’ll… uh… bring it back when we’re done.  Oh! Ok. Very well. Even if Jesus assured them it would be all right, they had to feel suspicious…

The disciples laid their cloaks – more literally their clothes – on the colt while the crowd laid their clothing and branches on the road. This was a sign of political alignment. (2Kings 9) They were placing their trust in this KING. They were crying out from Psalm 118, Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

In consecutive stories now, Jesus is referred to as the son of David. Bartimaeus, if you remember, cried, Son of David, have mercy on me! Ten centuries earlier, God had made an eternal covenant with David unto a kingdom (2Samuel 7) that would span eternity. Israel was waiting – begging – for the realization of this kingdom. To call Jesus the Son of David is to recognize him as the king. The awaited Messiah.

Now the people cry Hosanna! which simply means, save us!

Side note: So often, in an effort to emphasize the contrast of responses among the people, and to attempt to highlight the fickle human heart, folks link this particular crowd to the crowd crying for the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday morning. I do not believe these are the same people. We’ll see by the end of our chapter today which group would insist upon his death. I don’t see them as the bloodthirsty mob of Friday morning. This crowd, much like the disciples, would fail to stand up for Jesus, but I believe we should stop there when the Scriptures are silent.

This royal procession gathered outside the gates and led him to the city. His humble arrival spoke a loud message – Jesus was laying claim to the throne of David.

He entered Jerusalem. Jesus had been here before, but in Mark’s gospel this is the first recorded visit. Mark has been funneling his gospel to this point. It’s as if he avoided talking about Jerusalem earlier in the life of Christ so as to turn this week into a bold-faced highlight. This is the week, the visit to the city and the temple, that we’ve been sprinting towards.

Christ entered the temple.

This is no small moment. God with us ascended the temple mount. The radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature set foot again on the hallowed ground. He looked around. He left for the night. His pattern for the week would be to spend days in the temple, and nights in Bethany.

I have to wonder if he considered at that point what would happen in the morning.

For now, the people cried for their God and King to save them.

 

References:

There are some GREAT commentaries on Mark. A few favorites:

The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC) by R.T. France
The Gospel According to Mark (Pillar) by James R. Edwards
Mark (NIV Application) by David E. Garland
Jesus the King by Tim Keller
Mark: St. Andrews Expository by R.C. Sproul