The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

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Finding history with a metal detector

Let’s suppose that you got a metal detector for Christmas. You are waiting for the first nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon to take it out and explore with it. You know of a place nearby—maybe a place where a Civil War skirmish was fought—and you are eager to see if you can find some bullets or brass buttons or belt buckles.

Wait! Stop! Don’t do it until you know how to do it right. If you think you can find some stuff and bring it home and show it to people and impress them, you’re probably wrong. In a worst case scenario, you are actually guilty of vandalism and of destroying history.

Step one of the proper way to conduct historical research with a metal detector is to get permission of the owner of the property to search for items there. If the property belongs to a state park or a national park, forget about it—only professional archaeologists will be allowed to search there. On private property or maybe a city park, you may have luck getting permission. If you own the property yourself, you are free to do what you want, but you should still go about things the right way.

Having permission to search, you want to bring more than a metal detector and a shovel. Bring a camera, a pad of paper and a pencil or pen, and a set of small brightly-colored flags (orange is good) numbered from one to whatever.

When you arrive, chose a parcel of ground to search, and photograph it from several angles before you start searching. The “before” pictures are very important to researchers.

Sweep the area with your metal detector, and plant a flag on every spot where you detect an item. Don’t dig yet. When you have finished searching, take more pictures from several directions. Also draw a rough map of the parcel, showing the approximate location of every flag with its number. Your map does not need to be precise—the photographs will help with that—but it should show the relative position of the flags.

Next, one by one, dig up the objects that you found with the metal detector. Try not to move them as you unearth them. As each one becomes visible, take a picture of it where it lies. Try to include the flag in the picture with the number visible. Strive to make it clear exactly how the item is oriented within the parcel—maybe take every picture from the north, or in every picture make sure the flag is to the north of the item. Once you have photographed it in its place, you may remove it, clean it, wrap it, and bring it home.

Now, when a historian or archaeologist studies your items, he or she will be able to create a more complete account of the story they reveal. Knowing where they were in the parcel and how they were lying, the researcher will develop far more information than was possible just looking at the item without any context.

By the same token, let’s suppose that you decide to develop that weed patch or empty bit of lawn behind your house. When you start digging, you find some ancient stone tools, the kind that many people call arrowheads. (Most of them are too big to have been used on arrows. They were probably attached to throwing spears.) You might be tempted to scoop them up, throw them in a box, and show your collection to others later. But once you have moved them, they have lost nearly their entire value, unless you first document exactly how they were situated when they were discovered.

Once again, take some “before” pictures with your camera. Then flag each artifact and take more pictures. Photograph each item as it lies, and then you may carefully remove it. As you continue your project, keep track in the same way of every item you find. Only in this way can you preserve the story of what happened on your land long before you ever bought it and moved onto it.

Of course it would be even better if you invited some professional archaeologists to handle these items for you and for the sake of future researchers. Probably you are unwilling to delay your project for several months until they can work you into their schedule. Working with the discovered items the same way professionals would work with them is your best procedure. History belongs to all of us. Taking the trouble to preserve as much of it as possible is a task which also belongs to all of us. J.

Amen

“Amen.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? This means that I should be certain that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven, and are heard by Him: for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us. Amen, amen means, ‘yes, yes, it shall be so.’”

When we pray the prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray, we are certain that God hears our prayers and answers yes to them all. In private prayer, we expand upon these petitions, considering the names of God, the significance of his kingdom, and what we know of God’s will for our lives and for the world in which we live. We list our daily needs, confess the sins we remember, seek help to forgive people who have sinned against us, describe the temptations we are striving to overcome, and name the evils that threaten our lives and our faith. As we pray these things, we have full confidence that God hears our prayer and has already decided to say yes to everything we ask of him.

Therefore, we close our prayers with the Hebrew word “Amen,” which can mean, “Let it be so,” or, “It shall be so.” The word Amen has no magic value. If a Christian should fall asleep before completing a prayer and saying Amen, the prayer would not fail to be heard and answered. (What can be more beautiful than to fall asleep while resting in the arms of our heavenly Father?” The custom of saying Amen reminds each of us that we pray with confidence, knowing that God hears what we ask and will provide what we want and need, unless he chooses instead to provide something even better.

Jesus sometimes underlined his key teachings by saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you….” The King James translation of the Bible remained fairly literal with that phrase, rendering it, “Verily, verily, I say unto you….” Some recent translations have chosen the more insipid, “I tell you the truth….” Or “Truly I say to you….” A double Amen from the mouth of Jesus assures us of the truth and importance of what he is saying. We also may pray a double Amen when we speak to God the words that Jesus suggested that we pray: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.” J.

 

Doxology

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”

These words are not included in the earliest copies of Matthew’s Gospel, nor does Luther comment upon them. Many Christians pray them, though, as a hymn of praise—a doxology—which matches the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask that God’s name be hallowed.

The kingdom is God’s. He rules over everything that he created; he is Lord of all that exists. The Church in particular is his kingdom, and his will is to increase that kingdom so more people will dwell in his new creation. That new creation is also his kingdom, which he will rule eternally.

The power is God’s. He is almighty; he can do whatever he chooses. God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, what he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven. He says, “Your sins are gone,” and they are gone, removed as far from us as the east is from the west. He says, “You are my child, and you will live with me forever in a new and perfect creation,” and we know that all these things are true.

The glory is God’s. In the presence of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—Jesus once shone with light while visiting with Moses and Elijah. Yet to Jesus, his true glory is not that he can shine with light or be counted with the heroes of God’s people. His glory far transcends those accomplishments. For Jesus, his true glory is expressed in love, making himself vulnerable on behalf of his people, offering himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.

The kingdom and the power and the glory are his forever—or, as some Christians pray, “forever and ever.” The original Greek expression translates literally as “from the ages into the ages.” God’s kingdom and power and glory never end. They endure into the new creation, and we will experience them fully at the resurrection of the body, when we inherit the fullness of what we already have now: the life everlasting. J.

 

But deliver us from evil

Jesus said, “When you pray, say ‘…But deliver us from evil….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.”

Salvageable adds: When we are given daily bread, unconditional forgiveness, and guidance for our lives, we should be safe from all evil. Therefore, Luther describes this petition as a summary of the Lord’s Prayer. God’s fatherly nature is determined to keep us safe from evil. His name is kept holy, his kingdom is preserved, and his will is done when we are protected from evil. Even when God chooses to permit evil—as he did with Job’s afflictions, with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and with the execution of his own Son—God permits that evil so that a greater good can prevail. When a Christian suffers, that suffering reminds the Christian of Christ’s suffering on the cross and of His victory over all evil. When a Christian dies, the body is buried and the spirit travels to Paradise to wait with Jesus and all the saints for the Day of the Lord and the new creation.

The devil and sinners in the world use the existence of evil as an argument against the existence of God or against his goodness. Sometimes the sinful nature still within a Christian is inclined to agree with the devil and sinners. God permits us to see and experience evil, not because he is too weak to prevent it or not good enough to stop it, but because he wants all people to know the difference between good and evil. When we face evil, we begin to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and then God can satisfy us. He satisfies us with the perfect goodness of his Son, which he credits to us even though we have been allies of evil and have taken sides against God by breaking his commands. He satisfies us with the suffering and death of his Son, a battle against evil in which the good side won. Being forgiven, we share in Christ’s victory over evil, knowing that God has chosen us for his team so we can be on the winning side.

Every day God delivers his people from evil. On the Last Day the fullness of his victory will finally be seen in the resurrection of his saints and the dawn of the new creation. From that Day on we will not have to pray for daily bread, daily forgiveness, daily help to forgive others, daily guidance, and daily deliverance from evil. From that Day on we will hallow God’s name, live in his kingdom, and do his will without distraction or interruption. From that Day on we will experience our relationship with God as his children, knowing the love of our heavenly Father and having no reason to doubt his goodness and his power. J.

 

Kathy

Last night being the first of several at my sister’s house for a late Christmas celebration, I slept lightly, and I remembered all of my dreams in the morning. Most of them included the theme of bringing order out of chaos, needing to clean up a large area filled with trash. Sometimes the mess was at work, sometimes at home. Invariably I was aware that a few valuable items were scattered within the trash, and I feared that they would be lost. Most of the other workers in the various dreams seemed content, though, to stand around and converse aimlessly with one another rather than getting involved in the work.

Oddly enough, Kathy appeared in two of those dreams. Kathy and I attended the same elementary school and junior high school, in which we were in the same homeroom. We also attended the same high school, but followed different paths which rarely crossed. She was one of the popular girls—cheerleader, athlete, pep club, and student government. I was involved in the band and orchestra, the school newspaper, and the spring musicals. Kathy was one of the truly attractive girls in junior high and senior high school. She was lovely in appearance, but not vain, gentle in manner, kind without being condescending. She was one of a trio of girls who always sat together at the beginning of the school year, when the teacher organized the desks in alphabetic order. Later in the school year, when the teacher allowed us to choose our own desks, the three friends remained together. Only if the teacher tried to rearrange the seating to split apart friends (for better order in the classroom, or so they said) did those three become scattered; and of course many opportunities arose during the course of the day for them to reconnect—to eat lunch together, or exercise together in Physical Education, or visit in the hallways between classes.

In one of last night’s dreams, Kathy was sitting at a table when I walked past. She stood, hugged me, kissed me on the mouth, smiled and said something friendly that I can no longer remember, and then sat again. I can assure you that in all our years of school together, she never did such a thing to me—not even once.

In the later dream, she and I both knew that it was Tuesday and that the lunch that was to be served on Tuesday was particularly repulsive. I knew of a couple of good restaurants across the street from where we were cleaning, and I wanted to invite her to join me for lunch. To the end of the dream, though, I failed to work up the courage to approach her with my invitation.

This morning, with Kathy still at the edges of my memory, I typed into Google® her name and our hometown. I learned that she had graduated college, gotten married, worked as a nurse, and had two sons. She was respected and well-liked by her coworkers and the patients she served. However, Kathy died almost one year ago. The comments that followed her obituary glowed with praise for her life of service and her kind and helpful personality.

I cannot guess what brought Kathy’s image into my dreams last night. Of all my classmates from those early days of school, she is scarcely the most memorable. We never became friends, as we truly had few common interests. Of all the dreams in all the unfamiliar bedrooms in all my travels over the years, why did she have to come into mine last night? J.

 

And lead us not into temptation

Jesus said, “When you pray, say ‘…And lead us not into temptation….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.”

Salvageable adds: Last month during an interview Pope Francis remarked that he would like to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer to remove the suggestion that God tempts people to sin. Martin Luther did not need the pope to tell him that “God tempts no one.” We pray that God would protect us from temptation and would guide us on paths that are safe for us and pleasing to him.

God leads us, even when we do not pray for his leadership. By his commands he tells us how to love him properly and how to love our neighbors properly. God tells us what to do and what not to do, not as a dictator who likes to bully others, but as a Creator who knows why he made us and what our purpose is in this world. When you wonder why you were born, turn to the Bible and read the commands of God. They will tell you why God put you here and what he expects you to do.

Like sheep, we go astray. We enjoy temptation. We enjoy walking along the edge of temptation, promising ourselves that we will not fall into sin. Jesus warns us that we are safer removing a hand or foot or eye rather than allowing them to drag us into sin. Of course our hands and feet and eyes only do what we tell them to do; they do not cause us to sin. Sin comes from deep within us, from within our hearts. The devil tempts us to sin, and he is called a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour—but he is a caged lion, restrained by the Word of God, with only the power of his lies available for him to harm us. The sinful world around us tempts us to sin, to sink to its level of evil, but again God’s Word directs us away from sin and keeps us safe from the perils of the world. When we prefer the sinful world to God’s Word, that choice comes from a sinful heart. Rather than removing hands and feet and eyes, we need a new heart. So we join with David, praying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

God answers that prayer. Jesus is the heart donor who has given us a clean heart and a right spirit. Far more important than the heart we give to him is the heart he gives to us—a pure heart that keeps us alive and leads us away from temptation on paths that the Lord has chosen for us. God tempts no one. He leads us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, and he will lead us across the valley of the shadow of death to dwell in his house forever. J.

 

Forgive us our trespasses

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”

Salvageable adds: Repentance is not something a Christian does once in a lifetime and then never has to do again. Even the best of us sins every day. Therefore, we repent every day, and we remember how God forgives us through the work of Christ every day. The Lord’s Prayer gives us an opportunity to confess our sins, listing those we remember and also asking forgiveness for those sins we have forgotten and those we never noticed.

Along with this prayer of repentance, we make a promise in the Lord’s Prayer: we promise to forgive those who have sinned against us. As we make this promise, we remember that God goes first. Jesus purchases forgiveness for all people on the cross. Having received that forgiveness ourselves, we now share that forgiveness with other people, especially with those who have sinned against us. We do not begin the process of forgiveness, nor does God limit his forgiveness of our sins to the level of our forgiveness for other sinners. The ransom Christ paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of every person who ever lived or will live, including our sins. When we fail to share forgiveness with another sinner, we cast doubt on the extent of Christ’s ransom and God’s forgiveness. Therefore, Jesus teaches us to pray daily that we will forgive the sins that were committed against us.

Two versions of the Lord’s Prayer contain different pictures of sins. One speaks of trespasses—people going where they are not supposed to go. The other speaks of debts—something that is owed to another person. Our sins are trespasses, for we have gone where God told us not to go. Our sins are debts, and we owe God a penalty of debt we can never pay. Jesus went where he should not have gone—to a Roman cross meant for criminals, and to hell itself, where his Father abandoned him for a time. Jesus went there so we do not have to go there. Jesus paid our debt by his ransom, so we are no longer in debt to God.

Jesus went there for us and for all people. Therefore, when people trespass into our lives and fall into debt to us by their sins, we forgive them. We forgive, not from the goodness of our hearts, but from the wealth of God’s goodness. No act is more Christlike than to forgive someone who has hurt you. No witness of Christ is more dramatic than to forgive as Christ has forgiven. We forgive by the power of God’s forgiveness that has already been given to us. J.

Give us this day our daily bread

Jesus says, “When you pray, say, ‘…Give us this day our daily bread….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving. What is meant by daily bread? Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

Salvageable adds: Daily bread brings to mind the manna that God sent to his people in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Six days a week (but never on the Sabbath) miraculous bread appeared around their camp. It met their daily needs but could not be saved for the future.

So we pray for bread, but not for desserts. We pray for daily bread, confident that if God will supply our needs today, we can ask tomorrow for what we need—we take one day at a time. We pray for our daily bread, remembering that we have fellow Christians around the world, some of whose needs are more desperate than our own.

As Luther reminds us, daily bread encompasses every need that we have in this life—things we pray about often, and things we neglect to mention in our prayers most days. And, as Luther reminds us, God supplies all these things whether we bother to ask for them or not. Even evil people receive daily bread, for God has provided enough food in the world to meet the needs of everyone living. It is not distributed evenly; God expects those who have more than enough to share with those who have less than enough. When we pray for our daily bread, we might also consider how our prayer is being answered as God gives us enough for ourselves and enough to share with others, who may or may not be praying the same prayer.

God can do whatever he pleases, but God chooses to work through creation and through the people he has placed into creation. We pray for daily bread, and we thank God for the food we eat. Yet God has provided us with bread through the labor of farmers and millers and bakers. He has given each of us abilities so we can work to earn money and spend that money at the store on bread and other things we need. The farmer prays for daily bread but continues to plant and harvest. In the same spirit, we pray for the good things we want and need—for ourselves and for our neighbors—but we also cooperate with God by doing what we are able to do for our own benefit and for the good of others. And when we can do nothing else, we continue to pray, and even in that way we cooperate with God as he accomplishes his will in this world.

The word “daily” applies to all four of the concluding petitions of this prayer. We sin daily, so we seek forgiveness daily. We need not continue to repent for yesterday’s sins—we repented yesterday and they were forgiven yesterday. We do not seek forgiveness for tomorrow’s sins—that would mock God’s grace, for us to plan future sins. We pray only about today’s sins. And we forgive others daily, neither remembering yesterday’s sins nor dreading tomorrow’s sins against us. We ask God to lead us and deliver us every day, trusting that he hears our prayers today and answers them today. Trusting God, we live one day at a time, confident that we are safe in the Lord’s hands today. J.