Saturday, January 31, 2015

What is the point of it all?

Somewhere in an African jungle, a fruit falls from the branch on which it grew. It took an entire year for it to grow, but it won't be enjoyed by anyone since a rhinoceros stomped on it on his way to a watering hole. At that watering hole, a crocodile strikes and pierces the belly of a zebra, whose viscera pour out of the open wound all at once as it attempts to escape. The crocodile enjoys his meal as on the horizon, a rebel group enters into a village. They kill the adults, rape the women and girls, and take the children off--either to sex slavery or else to live as child soldiers.

The history of the world we live in is composed of seemingly directionless, purposeless -- and worse, tragic -- stories such as this one. There is suffering, pain, moral and natural evil. People are evil to one another and to themselves. What is the point of it all? Is anyone in charge? Is there any resolution to it all? Can there be any hope for a brighter future when in many places the horrific is banal and commonplace?

The apostles and disciples of Jesus of Nazareth offer an answer to this question: it's all about Jesus Christ. We find some elements of their answer to this question in the Christ hymn found at Col 1.15-20, which may have been a part of the liturgy of the early church.

This Christ hymn has two major sections or themes. We might call them "Christ the Creator" and "Christ the Redeemer."

The first point made is that Christ is the creator of the world we live in. Paul writes that Christ is before all things, and that all things were created through him and for him (vv. 17, 16). This man who walked about, got hungry, got thirsty, and suffered in his body is one and the same God who brought the entire universe into existence for his good purpose. He is not a mere man, he is not a mere emanation from the divine, but is the God of Israel, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The world comes from his creative activity, and further, it exists for him. It finds its goal in him. This world, chaotic and purposeless as it seems, is actually the product of an infinite intelligence and has a purpose and goal which is given it by its creator.

This has a few consequences for us who are Christians. In the first place, if all things were created for Christ, then the purpose for our existence is realized when we come together as a body and worship this Christ, bring our prayers and petitions to him, call upon him to have mercy -- in short, when our lives are oriented toward him -- the purpose for our existence is being realized. In this small corner of the world where we are gathered, things are as they should be. Things are as God wants them to be and wanted them to be from eternity.

Beyond that, it has consequences for the way we treat each other. In a world where nothing seems certain and might makes right, it may be extremely tempting to try to take advantage of others for our own profit. We treat them as worth less than we are, because we have to look out for Number One. We treat them as means to be used for our own ends, with no regard for their own dignity and rights. But if everyone has been created for Christ, then we cannot treat them as if they are our own property. They belong to Christ, the king of all, and we will have to answer for the way we treat them!

But how are we supposed to treat others? We have to look to Christ. The Christ hymn calls him the image of the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation (v. 15). What this means is that Christ is the perfected human; he is a human person whose nature has been perfected and completed. He does what humankind was intended to do from the start, when God made them in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). Humans were supposed to be moving, living icons of God on the earth, representing his love and goodness to one another and to the creation. They failed, but God saw fit to restore humanity to its intended state. As Athanasius says, just as a person whose portrait was marred would sit down once more and act as model so it could be restored, the Logos of God -- the model for humanity -- takes on a human nature and recreates his image and likeness within human nature by himself. He treats his human nature as a statue to be sculpted in his own likeness as God.

There is yet another consequence of this truth that all things are created for Christ. Oftentimes at Christmas I would hear the pastor say that Christ is God's Christmas gift to the world. But if all things are created for Christ, then we could say that all things -- including me, including you -- are the Father's gift to the Son. We were created for Christ, we are the Father's gifts to the Son, and the Son is glad to receive us! In Hebrews Christ says: Here am I and the children whom God has given me (Heb 3.8). As our children are a blessing from God, so also we are the blessing and gift which the Father gives the Son. So we ought to think of ourselves accordingly! Think of yourself as eminently worthy, eminently valuable, so valuable that the Son of God, when he saw you erring and wandering, went after you and secured your life through his death on the cross. We are the Father's gift to the Son; let us think of ourselves in this way, and present ourselves to Christ daily as gifts worthy of our recipient.

Now as Athanasius says, it would be beneath God, as good creator, to allow his creation to be destroyed and come undone. It would be unworthy of his goodness. So when he sees that the world has gone to hell, he decides not to leave it there but acts decisively in Jesus Christ to save it.

God's benevolence for the world is demonstrated in a number of ways. In the first place, we see that all things hold together in him (v. 17). Apart from Christ's conserving activity, the world would go out of existence -- poof! -- in an instant. If God were weary of us, if he tired of us and all of our sins and evil, he could have been rid of us very long ago. Yet he doesn't do this, but instead preserves us and preserves the regularity and order of this world so that we can continue to live in it. This is a sign, a very important one, that God intends better things for us than the world as we currently experience it.

But more plainly, God has acted in Christ to work peace and reconciliation. Through the blood shed on the cross, the lofty and exalted Christ who created the world now suffers the death and doom to which it had been condemned. He suffers this death in our place, so that it doesn't fall upon us. He allowed that his head be beaten with reeds, reeds which grew because of his sustaining activity; he allowed his hands to be pierced with nails, nails forged because he sustained the laws of physics by which they could be melted and formed. He allowed his world to turn against him and undo him, so that he could take upon himself the death to which it had been condemned.

And more than that, Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He is the first to rise from the dead, and as Calvin says, he represents a kind of guarantee of the new world. The resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the renewal of God's creation. After crucifixion comes resurrection; after destruction comes restoration; after what seemed to be a perpetual night comes the light of a new and lasting day.

These are the two lenses through which we ought to see the world. Where we see pain, suffering, pointless violence, meaningless toil and travail, we are witnessing a recreation of the crucifixion scene; we see God's judgment upon a world gone awry. But we know something that the original witnesses of the crucifixion did not know: we know that after crucifixion comes resurrection. Because of this, we can live in the world in hope and faith in a perfect future. We know that the Christ who made the world cared enough for its well-being that he was willing to die for us, that we might live for him. We can face the future with trust and hope, because as St. Isaac the Syrian has said, the same Christ who bled for us takes care to see that our salvation is perfected. We know the end to the story -- we know where everything is headed.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Birdman's search for the good in life

Today I watched movie Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, et al., directed by the very talented Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. I very much enjoyed it from a number of different perspectives. The aesthetics of the film were very impressive: it is filmed in such a way as to seem filmed in a single take, a feat which was capably accomplished through smooth and at times fascinating transitions. What was best about the film, however, was the philosophical reflection on the meaning and value of life.

The story concerns a washed-up actor named Riggen Thomson. He played in some Birdman movies way back when, but he has since been largely forgotten. He wishes to make a return to fame, to recognition, through a Broadway play. He has written an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the main character of which is a forlorn and depressed man who catches his love sleeping with another man. At the climactic end of the play, the main character, having caught his wife in the act, meditates for a moment on the pain and suffering of his life caused by his yearning simply to be loved by another. Unloved by anyone, he concludes that he is not even real, that he doesn't even exist, and shoots himself. Thus ends the play, and that is the lesson of the story: to be, truly to be, is to be loved.

What's the point of going on in the world, of striving to live in the midst of trouble and travail? The answer the film seems to give is that -- to be loved. The title credits of the film include this quotation from Carver's book:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

This is what Riggen Thomson feels. He wants to make this play work because he wants the recognition of the New York Broadway scene; he wants this recognition, furthermore, because he wants to feel appreciated, to be feel loved. At the same time, he feels disgusted with the shallow and empty way that recognition is won in the contemporary world -- Facebook, Twitter, mindless action movies which never touch upon the human condition or upon issues of philosophical interest. He wants to prove, through this play adaptation of his, that he is an artist. But as another character says at one point during the film, he has confused love and appreciation. Moreover his daughter finds his yearning for acceptance to be misguided and futile. He has no Twitter account, he has no Facebook page, and these are the ways to be somebody in contemporary times. There is no way around being shallow and empty; ultimately, she tells him, he is unimportant and he ought to get on with life in light of that fact. But why go on living, if Riggen Thomson is worth nothing? Why go on living, if I am never affirmed?

Riggen finds moments of meaning and purpose throughout the film, particularly when he finds himself in situations of vulnerability and tenderness with other persons, whether his girlfriend or ex-wife or daughter. These are moments of genuine love. Here he feels loved, here he feels -- the audience feels it, too -- like his hectic and chaotic life might actually have some purpose and redeeming value. The problem is, however, that he and those whom he loves are too depraved and broken to enjoy healthy relationships. This means that true happiness and meaningful living is just out of their reach. They can see it, they can taste it if only a bit, but they cannot enjoy it to the full because they are so broken.

The absurdity of the situation is evident, and so it is no surprise that Riggen considers suicide at numerous points throughout the film. What way is there out of this horrific situation except to die? Interestingly, there is a very subtle and understated religious presence in the film, but it is evident that the world in which the film is set (our world in America) is post-religious, post-Christian. The building in which Riggen works is called "St. James," but no one ever considers who this saint is, or even what it is to be a saint. No one mentions God or talks about religion. During one scene, Riggen is about to throw himself from a building, and he stands at the edge of a building with a New York church in the background. The message is subtle but I think present: turning his back on the religious worldview of previous (and some contemporary) generations, turning his back on God, the modern person has no way of making sense of the absurdity of his existence. The way out is to kill yourself.

There is much here with which the Christian theologian agrees. The Christian agrees that truly meaningful lives must be lived in healthy and moral relationships with other persons. This is why the second greatest commandment, after "Love the LORD thy God," is "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Here the ancient Greek philosophical principle that the happy life is also the virtuous life becomes evident; if true fulfillment is found in being loved, well, you can't be loved and be a menace to everyone, including to yourself.

Likewise the Christian theologian teaches that we have been taught a way to have meaningful relationships with one another, that is the way of Christ, the way of love. Paul writes in Romans that the whole law of God is summed up in love your neighbor: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13.10). We learn to love one another from Christ, who shows us what it is to love -- to be willing to sacrifice oneself even for one's enemies (cf. Rom 5.8).

But suppose your relationships are not that great, and suppose things are going badly for you. Suppose someone near you has died, or has effectively ruined themselves through poor choices. Suppose all your efforts to accomplish something with your life have failed, and you feel yourself not to be worth anything. Suppose you don't get any recognition from the people around you, and they seem not to care to know anything about you. Does the Christian theologian have anything to say to a person in such a situation?

Christianity teaches that even such a person can have a full life, and can feel the above mentioned joy of being loved, because God loves everyone. The God who created everything, who in his providence guides everything, who in Jesus Christ has saved the whole world, and who through Christ's resurrection proves that even death cannot be an obstacle to his good purposes for everyone -- this God loves me, and loves you, and loves everyone. At the bottom of everything, behind all appearances, is the ultimate rock-bottom of reality: the love of God which cannot be denied, cannot be defeated.

This is the secret to living a meaningful and purposeful life: to know that one is loved by God, and to live in the world confidently, gladly, gratefully, confident of this fact.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Faithfulness beyond the spectacular

Sometimes you will hear people say that they would be more faithful to God, or perhaps they would believe in God in the first place, if only it were more obvious that he existed. Why shouldn't he give us a good number of signs, so as to make his existence perfectly clear and we would all happily go along with his plan? Wouldn't it be much easier this way?

Yet personal experience and the Bible suggest that this is not actually true. My professors have told us that they know of incidents, for instance, where a person will have something unambiguously miraculous occur in her life. This event, despite its fantastic character, still does not seem to change their life any; they do not suddenly become more faithful, or at least not in any lasting way, even though God has demonstrated his presence in and concern for their life in this obvious way.

The Biblical examples are suggestive as well. Consider the infamous case of Solomon, the third king of Israel:

For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. . . . Then the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this matter, that he should not follow other gods; but he did not observe what the LORD commanded (1 Kings 11.4, 9-10).

Here we have a wonderful example that the miraculous and direct contact with God does not entail faithfulness or glad obedience. The LORD had appeared to Solomon twice, and yet Solomon disobeys the LORD's commandment not to worship other gods.

The truth of the matter is that the human heart is fickle and readily disregards the straightforward demonstrations of God's goodwill for us. In Solomon's case, though God had appeared to him twice, he disregards that because his many wives worship other gods, and so he has to worship their gods and make altars for them as well. In our case, it may be a number of things: we love making money too much to obey Jesus' commands about the use of our wealth; we prefer the sexually loose life we live which allows us to obey the impulses of the body as they arise, rather than disciplining ourselves and limiting ourselves as God demands; we may prefer to insist on our right to be angry and hold a grudge, rather than forgiving and loving the persons who are inimical to us.

We may not actually be as willing to be faithful as we take ourselves. We might not have the goodwill we suppose. Let no one deceive himself on this issue: God demands faithfulness, even granting the evidence and the clarity of things as he has established them. For some persons, he provides a more spectacular and miraculous sign, and some are faithful (e.g., the apostles, including Paul) while others are not so much faithful (e.g., the Hebrews leaving Egypt, Solomon). In any case, the imperative remains: be faithful, exactly as things stand. God demands a faithfulness which goes beyond a dependence on the spectacular. And on this matter, God does not budge: either you are faithful, or else you are judged.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Entertaining objections from the Pharisees

In Mark 7, we find a familiar story: Jesus sits down to eat with some of his disciples, and the Pharisees complain because they have not washed their hands in keeping with the tradition of the elders. "Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?" is the question they pose.

Jesus will have none of it, of course, and he rips into them rather hard:

Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

'This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines' (7.6-7).

Christ gives the specific example of Corban. A person could give a significant amount of money normally due to his parents as Corban, which means the parents would have no access to it, since it would be an offering to God. Jesus insists that this compromises the filial duty imposed by the Torah that children honor their parents and care for them.

More importantly than the specifics of this story, however, is the moral attitude that Jesus takes towards the Pharisees, and the way in which he addresses them. He doesn't give their objection to his disciples any attention until after he has had his time to polemicize. The lesson to learn: a moral objection from a hypocrite, especially an objection about a speck in the eye of another coming from a person with a log in his own eye, deserves little if no attention.

This is exactly the lesson many Christians ought to learn. I know some persons who have no problem objecting left and right to the mistakes of those around them. They don't even seem to realize that this hypercritical attitude is a worse failing than the ones they are busy blaming!

This is a lesson we can all agree on. Most people are quick to answer, "You're one to talk!" when an objection or criticism comes from a less than impressive source. In light of the reality of human sin, however, it is very likely that often we offer just such morally unimpressive objections and criticisms ourselves. Other people have no obligation whatsoever to listen to us or pay us any attention, if we cannot present ourselves as worthy sources of moral knowledge and input.

Better to keep quiet, do what is right, and offer advice on rarer occasions, when you have demonstrated your worthiness to the satisfaction of the recipients.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The love and steadfastness which lead to love and steadfastness

Paul writes: May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ (2 Thess 3.5).

It is obvious that these genitive phrases are ambiguous and can be interpreted in a couple different ways. Is he speaking about the love that God has for us, or about our love for God? And does he mean that the Lord should direct our heart's to Christ's own steadfastness, or to a steadfastness of our own that is like Christ's?

In a way I think both readings of either phrase are important, because one leads to the other.

We certainly need to have love for God, but this is accomplished when we realize God's love for us. It is not easy simply to will oneself into love for another person. I am sure that we can all relate to this in our own experiences: there may have been persons who did us wrong, for whom love simply was not forthcoming. But love can be born in our hearts when we perceive the love the other person has for us. Imagine how you feel when a person is unexpectedly kind and warm towards you -- the way your heart opens up to him, and is willing to accept him, and suddenly he becomes a concern for you.

But if that is how things stand for ordinary persons and ordinary, mundane acts of kindness, how much more love ought to be born in our hearts when we realize God's love for us! God's love is not like the love of human persons; it has no limits, there is nothing which goes 'too far' for this love. It is a love that is willing to accept death in place of the beloved, so that that beloved will live. As Paul writes elsewhere, God's love for us is demonstrated in the fact that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5.8).

And we certainly need to have the steadfastness of Christ, but this is something that is hard to will ex nihilo into our lives. Steadfastness in the life of a Christian means putting up with much that the ordinary person on the street would not bother resisting: temptations to various sorts of activity; the taunts and mockery of those who hate the faith; and so on. How can a person simply put up with all these things, and keep steadfast to the faith and directives given by Christ? It seems to me there is no other way except by looking at Christ, and what his steadfastness meant for us.

Heb 12.3 says: Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. It was no easier for Christ than it is for us; in the case of many, their sufferings do not compare to Christ's at all. Yet Christ happily endured them for the sake of our salvation, so that we might one day see an end to our suffering. If we look at his example and see the depth of his suffering for us, how can we not gladly suffer our own tiny bit, if this is what the Lord should will? What can a few words of mockery do to me, when Christ's hands were pierced with nails and his head beaten with reeds?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Blessed to bear fruit

Here is a fantastic passage from a sermon printed in Justo Gonzalez and Pablo Jimenez, Pulpito: An Introduction to Hispanic Preaching, speaking of the parable of the fruitless fig tree (Luke 13.6ff.):

What does this parable mean, in this context? It clearly means that those of us who survive, those Galileans who were not killed by Herod or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those whose airplane has not crashed, are living only by the grace of God, and that our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit.

It also means that even our apparent blessing and abundance is not necessarily something of which we should boast. The tree that has produced no fruit receives special attention and added fertilizer, not because it is so good, but rather because it is so poor.

In order to understand the poignancy of the parable, one has to remember what a vineyard looks like at the time when one would normally have come looking for figs on a tree. The vineyard would have already yielded its grapes, and would already have been pruned. It would all have been cut down, and one would see nothing but dry and gnarled stumps. And, in the midst of this scene of apparent desolation, stands a verdant fig tree. It has never been pruned. It has been allowed to grow tall and green. Now, it will receive even further special treatment. The vinedresser will dig around it, and give it an exceptional dose of fertilizer. To a casual observer, the tree would appear to be specially blessed, and the vines cursed and forgotten, and one would think that the fig tree must be especially valuable if it is treated with such care. But the truth is exactly the opposite. The fig tree is receiving special care because it has yet to give the fruit it is meant to bear.

I said at the beginning that I do not particularly like this parable. And this is the final and true reason why I do not like it. I would like to think that the reason why I have a comfortable house, when so many are homeless, and a substantial income, when so many are poor, and all kinds of food to eat, when so many are hungry, and a relatively healthy body, when so many are ill, is that I have somehow been particularly faithful. I would like to think that the reason why I have already lived longer than the average person on this globe is because my life has been so productive.

This text, however, leads me to think otherwise. Could it be, could it just be, that the reason why I have been given all these advantages is that otherwise I would have great difficulty bearing fruit? Could it be that all these things of which I so pride myself are really just so muhc manure piled on me because otherwise I'd be such a lousy fruit tree? (pp. 99-100)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The danger of rejecting conscience

Paul writes to Timothy: By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith (1 Tim 1.19).

God was very wise when he created the world and human persons. He gave humanity the faculty of conscience, so that we could have direction and guidance within our very selves as to how we ought to act. Our conscience tells us when something we are considering (or perhaps have already done) is bad; on the other hand, it also prompts us to do things which are good, which nevertheless may be difficult in some way or another. In any case, it is essential to a healthy human life lived according to the design plan of God that human beings follow conscience.

What a danger, then, when a person ignores conscience! It is worse still if a person should turn off their conscience, shutting its voice for good. At that point, the final power for good that God has put in a person is gone, and there is no more restraining the expression of the evil within. You may listen to other persons' advice and moral remonstrances, but only if you have a conscience yourself. If you lose your conscience, and in this way lose any connection or understanding with those who would advise you to act differently, you will have no reason to follow them. There will be no more impulse for good working within you, but only the impulse for evil.

If you manage to do this, you are certain to destroy your faith. A person cannot go on believing in God if he lives as if there are no reasonable and authoritative boundaries on his behavior. Plotinus once said that without virtue, God is merely a word. That is exactly right, and Paul shares the same sentiment here when he writes to Timothy. Those who ignore their conscience -- which is God's voice within them, telling them that they ought to live differently -- have cut themselves off from God and from his truth. What faith is left for them? What can they believe in, who reject God's voice and his commands?

On the other hand, it is the testimony of not a few persons that, during the process of becoming Christians, they experienced a reactivation of their consciences. Once more, for the first time in a long while if not ever, they felt that the lives they had been living were wrong. They heard the voice within them telling them that what they do is not right, that they are guilty of sin.

In these ways, we can see that conscience is a tool of which God makes use to bring human beings to salvation. It is vitally important to hear its voice, to heed its directions and guidance.

We can go about this a different way, too. For myself, I find it preferable to live a life with as few troubles and worries as possible. That is simply the way I enjoy to go through my days -- not worrying so much. Why should I pile on to all the other troubles which life inevitably brings, this particular trouble of my own making -- that of disobeying my conscience and incurring the sentiments of shame and guilt which follow thereupon? Why shouldn't I save myself from a trouble that depends entirely on me and no one else?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Train yourself in godliness

I took a course on spiritual disciplines recently, and the professor was named Timothy. He loved to cite 1 Tim 4.7: Train yourself in godliness. He told us that this verse was his own life motto, or something along those lines: train yourself to be godly.

I am realizing, at a rate surpassing the rate of correspondence of my actions, that the athletic metaphor is uniquely apt for describing Christian life. You have to train yourself to be a Christian; it is something that requires the kind of intense, dedicated commitment and discipline a professional athlete would put forth in order to perform. You cannot take it easy, living life in auto-pilot, and be an athlete. It takes hard work and intentional effort. The same is true in the Christian life.

This means making room in our daily schedules for the spiritual disciplines. A football player might make room in his schedule for weight-lifting, film study, running and general aerobic exercises, etc. So also we have to make time for prayer, for Scripture readings and meditation, for fasting, for solitude, for confession of sins, and so on. You can't play sports without lifting weights, and you will only get as big as you lift. Likewise, we can only get as godly as we train ourselves to be. Christian experience is seemingly uniform on this matter: you will never be zapped with holiness.

There is another matter to consider here. I am a Seahawks fan. If you listen to their best players talk during interviews, like Russell Wilson or Earl Thomas III, you will hear them say things like: I believe in myself, in the talents God has given me, and with hard work and determination, I can accomplish anything. That "can do anything" attitude, that utter determination to be the best, is what empowers them to do wonderful, impressive things on the field. Why should it be any different with us as Christians?

2 Pet 1.3-4 tells us that God has provided everything we need to become participants in the divine nature. Everything needed for undergoing theosis is readily available to us, by God's grace and mercy. What remains is only that we make use of them. Why shouldn't we? And why shouldn't we give ourselves entirely to this end, fully convinced that with determination and God's gifts, we can make real progress? After all, we are no longer under sin but under God's grace (cf. Rom 6.11ff.).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A new year, a new beginning

Jeremiah's Lamentations say that the mercies of the LORD are new every morning (Lam 3.23). This is one of the wonderful regularities of God's wisely designed universe: we are given new starts, we given a sense of distance from the past (including past mistakes and failures) which empowers us psychologically to begin living in a different and better way. We go to bed at night after a hard day perhaps quite upset by the way it went, but when we wake up in the morning, we find ourselves greeted by light of the sun once more; we feel that the events of yesterday might as well have occurred twenty years ago, because we have a new day at our disposal to use for a better end.

The same is true for the New Year. A year has passed, and it wasn't ideal in every respect. I made many mistakes which I regret, and I have passed through deep valleys as much as, if not more than, I have enjoyed the view from the mountaintops. But now I can distance myself from all that, because the calendar is changing; the number of the year is going up by one; it is a new start, and that means I can work in some measure with a blank slate.

In God's universe, there is a certain fortunate impermanence of evil. Evil has no being of its own; it is not an independently subsisting hypostasis in competition with the Good. Evil can be undone and destroyed, and indeed one day it will be no more. One way in which we destroy evil is with the new start. We can erase the past, so that even God forgets our sins, if we repent and he forgives us. We can erase the vices which have built up over the years if now, with a brand new year in front us, we take ourselves more seriously and begin to live in a more intentionally virtuous way.

It is easy to say all this now, when the celebration of the New Year is just beginning and I feel the zeal and fervor of the new start. A few months from now, when the year will be well under way and its own difficulties will have surfaced, it may be quite difficult to keep up this same enthusiasm. But what else is there to do? We must try and do our best, and never be satisfied with the way things are.

I'm a Seahawks fan. If you listen to the better players on the team, such as Earl Thomas or Russell Wilson, you hear them talk like this all the time: constantly working, constantly perfecting, never satisfied, never content with the way things are. These are professional athletes who understand that this mentality yields results. There is no reason why we should not take our lives lived before God and before other men any less seriously.

These players are confident that they have the power and the talent to succeed, if only they apply themselves and make use of what God has given them. Well, God too has given all of us all that is necessary for a life of godliness and virtue in participation in the divine nature (1 Peter 1.3-4). There is no good reason not to make every use of them, training ourselves with discipline like athletes! Like Graham Greene writes in The Power and the Glory, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is being a saint. That is within the reach of any of us, if only we would apply ourselves and make use of God's graces as he gives us them.