Elisabeth Elliot: What Our Pets Can Teach Us About Trust

ElliotIn her excellent book Discipline: The Glad Surrender (Revelll, 1982), the great, late Elisabeth Elliot (wife of Jim Elliot, a missionary who was killed by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador, and author and speaker) offers a terrific, and sweet, example of the kind of worry-free trust in God and his provision that should mark us:

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“Things are given by God. We can trust Him to give to us. My little dog, MacDuff, taught me many lessons. How simple life was for him! He trusted me. He lived his life one day at a time, wearing his one ragged black coat, provided by a heavenly Father, appropriate to all occasions, all year round. Supper was there in the dish – Ken L. Ration, Gainesburgers, table scraps, whatever. No decision about the menu troubled him. He owned a house and a tremendous yard and quite a few squirrels and rabbits that he felt responsible to chase and bark at, but he had no taxes or mortgage payments. Everything was taken care of. What he did naturally is a hard lesson we human beings have to work at” (116).

Thomas Jefferson and His Books

JeffersonReading

“I cannot live without books.”

This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.

I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.

Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.

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“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)

“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)

“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)

“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)

“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)

“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)

“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)

His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)

“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)

To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:

– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law

– Eight to 12 pm: Law

– 12-1 pm: Politics

– Afternoon: History

– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory

And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:

bookstand

The Father Who Loves

trinityHow would you answer these questions:

  • What do you believe is the most important thing about God?
  • What kind of father did you have?

Do you realize that every time your father loved you – such as by putting thought and energy into making sure you were protected, or embracing you and forgiving you after you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or giving you that toy or dress you’ve wanted, and delighting in watching you receive it with joy –  he was reflecting God? And even those, like me, whose fathers were absent, or worse, abusive, have seen this phenomenon of the created being reflecting a perfect Creator because we have seen fathers act like this – that is, as they were meant to act. (I have been especially blessed by the care, counsel, and example of many fatherly figures who at different times were to me the father I didn’t have.)

But compelling as they are, these images are mere shadows of God, who “before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” From Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2012):

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“… The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father. Again and again, the Scriptures equate the terms God and Father: in Exodus, the Lord calls Israel ‘my firstborn son’…he carries his people ‘as a father carries his son, disciplines them as a man disciplines his son’…

“… Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father.” (21-23)

Christianity: Progressive Religion?

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Today many see Christianity as a detrimental social force that is opposed to progress, at least as defined by issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Others point to the historical sins of the church – the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials are favorite examples – to paint Christianity as a regressive, intolerant, and dangerous religion from which little good has come. In response, many Christian (and non-Christian) observers rightly note how the worst atrocities of the last century were committed not by religious forces but in the name of ideologies that explicitly rejected the Christian notion of God: Think Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot. Then if we look at at history more fairly, we see that hospital and universities were developed by the church (universities came about in the Middle Ages, so see, they weren’t so dark after all!), we see Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians at the forefront of efforts to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself, as well as leading the American Civil Rights movement. And around the world today, we see some of the most effective, and riskiest, work helping the poor and the sick being done by Christians (many of them evangelical, as Nick Kristof wrote about recently).

Beyond these examples, however, we find more evidence of Christianity as a truly morally progressive religion in Francis Fukyama’s (of End of History fame) highly readable and ambitious The Origins of Political Order (FSG, 2011):

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“If one wanted an example of a religion that, a la Marx, justified the dominance of a single, small elite over the rest of society, one would choose not Christianity or Islam, with their underlying messages of universal equality, but rather the Brahmanic religion that appeared in India in the last two millennia B.C.” (163)

“As Friedrich Nietzsche was to later observe, the introduction of Christianity was to have profound implications for morality after it was introduced among the Germanic tribes. Christian heroes were peaceful saints and martyrs, not warriors or vengeful conquerors, and the religion preached a doctrine of universal equality that ran counter to the hierarchy of an honor-based tribal society. Not only did new Christian rules on marriage and inheritance disrupt tribal solidarity, they also created the notion of universal community based on common faith rather than kin loyalties.” (255-256)

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The above should not surprise those who know the Bible, because in it we find an equality that was radical for those of Jesus’s day. As the apostle Paul wrote,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

What Makes Meaningful Relationships Difficult: The Other’s Freedom

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In rereading Bonhoeffer’s masterful Life Together (1954), my favorite book, I was again blown away by the passage quoted below, where, in discussing how Christians must “bear each other’s burdens,” he says that the reason that such bearing (or forbearing, or sustaining) is difficult is because of the other’s freedom, meaning that in all their particularities and needs and quirks and sins, that person – something completely real, outside of ourselves – makes demands on us and challenges our own freedom and preferences and selfishness. I think this is a basic but profound reality that sheds light on what makes all meaningful relationships – whether in friendship or brotherhood or marriage – so difficult at times. This same reality, however, is what can make them so worth it, because in testing our limits, as such relationships will often do, they broaden those limits to make us more loving, more patient, more humble, and stronger – in short, more large-hearted. This reminded me of another passage (below) that stopped me in my tracks: What C.S. Lewis said about marriage, based on his brief experience as husband to Joy Davidman, an American poet and writer whose romance with Lewis began over a series of intellectually- and literary-minded letters to the Oxford Don.

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C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed (1961), his devastatingly honest account of his spiritual and emotional agony following the death of his wife Joy:

“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” (19)

And from Bonhoeffer:

“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian. The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy, yet he must recognize it. He could get rid of this burden by refusing the other person his freedom, by constraining him and thus doing violence to his personality, by stamping his own image upon him. But if he lets God created His image in him, he by this token gives him his freedom and himself bears the burden of this freedom of another creature of God. The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (101)

Lessons from a Professor: Philosophy is for Living, and Dying, Well

Thinking ManIn The Life of the Mind (Baker, 2002), philosophy professor Clifford Williams reflects on the power of thinking and learning in leading us to greater knowledge, allowing us to make our beliefs more coherent, and giving us intellectual pleasure. In the excerpt below he describes how he went from teaching philosophy as a mere academic matter, the kind of thing that may remain within the four walls of a classroom and not have hands and feet, so to speak, to realizing that in philosophy he could teach students to live well, that is, with virtue, and even to “prepare to die,” as so many philosophers before have remarked about their vocation. This is the sort of vision that I believe motivated one of my college professors, who taught a philosophy course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, to state at the beginning of the semester that, “We read Dante for joy.”

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“For more than two decades of college teaching, I listed three objectives in the syllabi for the philosophy courses I taught: to become acquainted with core philosophical issues, to interact with these issues, and to assess them from a Christian perspective… It did not occur to me that the courses could have more aims. And I never asked myself what else I wanted students to gain from a course. Courses were academic enterprises, I presumed, and should not be tainted with extraneous intentions.

“…Then I changed… I began reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Some of their probing inquisitiveness into human motivation rubbed off. I read some of the master analysts of the human condition – Augustine, Blaise Pascal, Ernest Becker, Søren Kierkegaard. I began listening to students in my office, at lunch, in the hallway, on the telephone. I discovered that they had deep feelings and dreams for the future. Then I turned forty and realized I would die someday. I asked students, ‘What do you like most about living?’ I gradually became less of an emotional hermit and ceased regarding myself largely as an academic machine.

“One afternoon during my twenty-eighth year of teaching, a question hit me: What do I really want students to get out of my courses? I promptly got out a piece of paper and started writing. The list of objectives grew to thirteen. I wanted students to become more imaginative, more adventuresome, and more courageous. I wanted them to develop a passion for learning while maintaining habits of self-discipline. I wanted them to think for themselves and make the Christian faith their own. I also wanted them to become more prepared to die.” (44)

The Radical Generosity of John Wesley

WesleyIn a day when what it means to follow Christ can be so grossly distorted by a pastor saying he “needs” a $65 million-dollar jet to carry out his ministry, we need all the more the examples of self-sacrificial men and women eager to give away their earthly possessions to advance true gospel-centered ministry. One of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791), was such a man. His example is commended to us by pastor and author Thabiti Anyabwile in his excellent Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012), to illustrate the view of money and possessions that should characterize church elders, those who “shepherd” and watch over the flock.

After you read Wesley’s example below, ask yourself: Could you do something similar (it doesn’t have to be as radical) with your earnings? If not, what keeps you from doing so? And what does this say about what you really value in life – that is, what your heart treasures? These are questions I want to continually ask myself through the years, so as to not let money and possessions (stuff!) control my decisions and make me a less generous, small-hearted person.

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“Wesley preached that Christians should not merely tithe, but give away all the extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, the Christians’ standard of giving should increase, not his standard of living. He began this practice at Oxford and he continued it throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds, he lived simply and quickly gave his surplus money away. One year his income was slightly over £1,400; he gave away all save £30. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had as much as £100 at one time… When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the miscellaneous coins to be found in his pockets and dresser drawers. Most of the £30,000 he had earned in his lifetime he had given away.” (89)

To put it in perspective for us, Thabiti points out that “Wesley’s income in today’s dollars would be $160,000 annually. Yet he lived on only $20,000 of it.”