“I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires: I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is truly without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.”
“These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.”
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
“The Ethics of Elfland” is my favorite single chapter of any book I’ve read, and I always think I remember it. I do remember much of the first half, but I am always surprised at the words above when I reach the end of the chapter. The great perspective he had was—and is—so uncommon, but I do not feel quite the same way about the universe as Mister Chesterton did. I would place my own outlook on the sum of all things somewhere between his idea and marveling at the wonder of it all. I am inclined to stand in amazement and wax poetic both while regarding the brilliant boundlessness of the firmament and while mulling over the detail in every microcosm within it. I am spellbound when I observe the refulgent splendor of the precious, glittering jewels filling the heavens. I am infatuated with luxurious pine trees, craggy mountains, and the thinner air of higher elevations. Considering the size of the celestial expanse, it is absolutely breathtaking how our Creator orchestrated every nanometer with so much care, even down to the atomic and quantum levels. I have a tendency compare creation to masterful art, but I know artists don’t do that. Either they paint a relatively small subject with great detail, or a grand scene with less. A great landscape will not feature detailed leaves or blades of grass, and yet this creation is intricate and ornate on every observable scale. To me such thorough detailing and adornment seem to convey a sense of gravity and significance regarding even the smallest things, which suggests that they are, despite the extravagance, prized and valued. While the men to whom Chesterton referred did not think much on the cosmos except to call it large, I look upon it as immeasurable and nevertheless wish to describe it with terms of endearment. I am certainly fond of it, this beautiful life and universe, which is always, always moving and expanding and changing. Sometimes deceptively quiet and still, sometimes ferociously loud and nauseating, it is always glorious and precious.
True, some moments (or weeks or months or years) are wearisome. But I would argue that it is not the extravagance of life that exhausts us; it is focusing on a too-small aspect through too great a magnification. Over-attention to featureless details distracts us from the big picture. My days, when viewed through a microscope, often seem monotonous, and as the same author remarked a few pages previously, “grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.” But when focusing outward, we can better see the grandness of the design and, as a result, the variation. Newness catches our attention, and the intricacies mesmerize us. It is often in understanding grander schemes that we can best delight in life and in creation.
I think I can consider our dear little world immeasurable and yet maintain G.K.’s affection because I try to imagine it through the eyes of God. To him it is small. To him, it is diminutive. All of time and space, the history and expanse of the universe, likely do not seem great to one on whom time and space have no bearing. The numbers of people, of species of plants, of stars, of grains of sand; the size of our relatively insignificant galaxy; the space that “space” fills—these immeasurable measurements are surely inconsequential. Being finite, I cannot conceive of it all; I cannot imagine conceiving of it all. But the Creator does, and continues to create. Our universe is continually expanding; new life is always coming into being. And yet to God it is all quite precious, so that he knows every star and every person so intimately as to call them by name. For this reason, I can acknowledge infinity in this vast but singular creation without becoming blasé about it. It is both sublime and endearing.
Years ago, I heard an old small group leader refer to the false dichotomy of the sacred and secular. I spent a lot of time trying to understand it, pondering it, learning how to recognize the fallacy when it manifested itself in my life, and correcting my own thoughts. And though it’s not nearly so prevalent in my thoughts now as it was when the concept was novel to me, it still presents itself to me from time to time, and when it does it’s always good to chew on it for a while.
“False dichotomy of the sacred and secular.” I always hear that as a whole phrase, and it sounds large and somewhat ostentatious, so I’ll parse it before I dive into my purpose. A dichotomy is a contrast between two things, things that are entirely different, mutually exclusive, as if they are two planes that cannot intersect. So there’s the idea that sacred and secular are so polar opposite that they don’t interact with one another. There is private religion on one level, where one is involved in church and Bible study, and interaction with the public, with peers and colleagues at school or work is on another level, and neither overlaps with the other. I’m sure this accurately reflects the lives of some people, but it’s considered by many to be a false dichotomy, because it’s not an honest representation of our lives or our selves. The two aspects of our lives do intersect and ought to intersect. It’s crucial that we learn to bridge that divide.
Moreover, throughout the past year, I’ve been struck by a couple of other dichotomies, and it’s become evident to me that there is relationship between the three of them. One of my key words is wonder. I am wide-eyed. Regardless of how many autumns I experience in my life, I will never not see the splendor of a row of crimson and gold trees as some of their leaves are carried off by the wind, or of a flock of flying geese silhouetted by the sunset. I will always love the glitter of stars, and the softness of moonlight will always stir something inside my soul. There is beauty in this world, there is art, and I know the Artist, and every painting, every moving picture that catches my eye will leave me awed and feeling as if it were a gift and a grace especially for me. And I’m fortunate to live in a city that does have trees, and to work at a location that’s a little bit away from the hustle and bustle, where there’s a little pond out back to the west that’s filled with geese and ducks and looks gorgeous at sunset. But I do still live in a city. A cloudscape or a sunset will catch my eye while I’m sitting at a traffic light, or I’ll see a cardinal, but then it lands on a lamppost. And sometimes I’m disappointed that the glory of the picture is sullied by something so seemingly ugly and manmade. The urban-metal-concrete-plastic material of civilization sometimes seems to ruin the beauty that God has put on display. It’s so prosaic. Which leads me to another key word, poetic. I have always appreciated stories, poems, and imagery. I am right-brained, and I’m more head-in-the-clouds than down-to-earth. No one has ever described me as pragmatic (not that there’s anything wrong with pragmatism, it’s just not where I am). I’ve always had an intuition that there’s a distinction between poetry and prose, and the understanding that those apply not only to words, but also to life and situations. Anything that possesses a romantic, or lyrical, or imaginative, or otherwise generally creative and inspiring aspect is poetic. Then there are Mondays and mundane aspects such as chores and work, and those are boringly prosaic. It’s true that some people only look at things through prose, and perhaps they won’t really relate to this post, but for my part I think there are dreamier, sweeter aspects to real life, and those are the ones that breathe poetry into a moment. And there’s something so disappointing about having to move from the poetic mountains to the prosaic valleys.
Do you see the polarity? Sacred and secular. Natural and manmade. Poetry and prose. They all seem to coincide and run parallel to one another. But if the first is a false dichotomy, and I believe that it is, then it’s likely all are false. The sacred, poetic, natural creation is juxtaposed with the secular, prosaic, and manmade. And I’m starting to see that there are layers upon layers of both planes, overlapping and intersecting with one another, bleeding through. Sometimes the greyest days bring out the most vivid color. Myth and poesy and story show up in the everyday pragmatism of reality. Maybe the beauty and the poem of sacred Creation and the prosy, urban world aren’t as mutually exclusive as I’d previously thought. Not to say that buildings and exhaust fumes are equal to a sunrise and a poem, of course, but I want to learn to appreciate the juxtaposition of a moon and a lamppost, of a forest and a city block, as well as I can learn to bridge sacred and secular. And if I can apply these ideas, to be meditative in the midst of “real life,” maybe I can learn, for one thing, what it really means to pray without ceasing.
When I saw Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in theaters a couple months ago, I could not turn off my thoughts, so I wanted to get them down. Hope you don’t mind me sharing, even though this post is several weeks late.
The Great Gatsby was a dazzling, glittering, shimmering, over-the-top, luxurious movie. The result of all Gatsby’s parties, the end result of all New York’s glamourous noise, was cacophony. I’d like to think this was intentional. The loud, raucous parties served to get you so drunk on alcohol and excitement and experience, and to keep you that way so that you could make it through the week, thinking that the whole point of whatever you were doing 9-5 was to make it to the weekend. It’s still a common theme. But Gatsby raises a question. What is it all for? For the title character, it was all an attempt to make an attractive life to the woman he loved, who married someone else in his absence abroad.
Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway said that Gatsby was a man defined by hope. Gatsby lived in hope and died in hope, and Nick saw that as a great virtue. But Gatsby’s hope was unsatisfied. It’s been eight years since I read the book, though I plan to read through it again this summer, so fans of the book will have to forgive me here. I don’t recall what details were in the book and what weren’t. What I saw in the movie, however, was Gatsby reaching out toward that green light. As he stood at the end of his dock, arm outstretched toward the blinking green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, there was still a bay between them. The narrator Carraway called it Gatsby’s incorruptible dream. But what is a dream if it goes unrealized? For Gatsby, he continued to hope until the end. But for Nick, who saw that his hope was in vain, what becomes of him? What becomes of the audience?
After all the uproar of the movie, the movie ended silently, and I have never been in a quieter auditorium. The audience seemed to be holding their breath, or else it had been taken from them. The story ends on what seems to be a truth, of hope and longing, of a dream that will keep you going. But to me the ending was more of a wide, gaping question, because longing, or Sehnsucht, is a feeling I’m familiar with. It’s not an answer. It’s closely related to joy, which I’ve written on before. And it’s not the end. Joy is fleeting. Wistfulness, nostalgia, longing, and that happy longing that is joy, these emotions remind us that we’re not satisfied. These are what we feel when what we want so badly is on the other side of a gaping bay or chasm.
There was no resolution to the story. Gatsby’s hope was not a sure hope; he never grasped it. I hope it led the audience to examine their lives and their desperate hopes. I hope they left wanting to be different than Gatsby. I hope they left wanting a hope that’s not in vain.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is not law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought judtification. For if, because of one man’s trespass death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 5:12-21
That’s Romans 5:12-21. I got home last night from Bible study and had to write up my notes and make notes on my notes to capture it all. I knew once I slept I’d have lost most of it, so I stayed up working for two and a half hours just regurgitating the passage we’d just discussed. This isn’t all of our discussion, but in writing, the rest seemed like rabbit trails we didn’t take the time to flesh out and find Scripture. I think there were other thoughts that were good, but I didn’t want to throw out some idea without having scriptural references. Here you go!
v12 Sin came in through one man. Death came to that one man through sin. Death spreads to all men through the sin of one man. How? Paul says “all sinned.” That’s the aorist tense in the Greek. It’s a past tense we don’t distinguish in English, but it’s usually explained as denoting a once-for-all past event, a single undivided event. That’s what Paul’s saying. The aorist tense with the use of “all” is unusual. Paul suggests that Adam’s trespass was a single undivided event in which “all sinned.” Not only Adam, but all men and women. And so we have an equal share with Adam in the sin and death that came into the world through him.
13-14 Sin was in the world before the law was given… Since Adam’s trespass, men have been in bondage to sin. We see it in Cain, in the time of Noah, at the tower of Babylon, in Jacob’s deception to receive the birthright, all the way up to Moses.
Death reigned from Adam to Moses… They all died, and death came through sin, so it is clear that sin was in the world.
13 …but sin is not counted where there is no law. Without specific commandments, there is nothing to explicitly disobey. As Paul wrote in 3:20, through the law comes knowledge of sin. However, even without the law, men and women are prideful, rebellious, and idolatrous. That is the nature of sin. The law serves as a mirror to show us our sin and as a shadow of the one to come who would fulfill it. It is convincing and convicting evidence that we cannot uphold the standard.
The Free Gift
This is no competition. Watch how Jesus clobbers sin and death.
5:15 if many died… much more have the grace of God and the free gift… abounded for many
In spite of the death that has spread to all men, the grace of God and the free gift of righteousness have overflowed much greater than the death that tries to claim souls. The free gift is righteousness, salvation, eternal life, God himself. Death is beaten. Death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54).
16 Judgment following one trespass brought condemnation; the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.
One trespass, Adam’s original sinful, disobedient grasp for self-exaltation, was followed by judgment, which brought condemnation on the whole race. We are all in Adam, and so all in sin. And in the judgment was God’s justice. It was merited. Justice is about equality—the right and equal response to our sin. And then there must have been, are, and will be very, very many trespasses, from the time of Adam to the time of Christ and beyond. So in light of all trespasses—all sinful words, thoughts, deeds, in light of all idolatry and rebellion that reside in every human heart since Adam, following all of that came the free gift through the act of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which brought justification. Completely unmerited. What an abundance of grace!
17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man…
Because of Adam’s choice, death reigns as a tyrant. Unforgiving. Unmerciful. We all die. All have sinned (there’s that aorist again!) and fall short of the glory of God (and that’s continuing up to present). We are in bondage to sin, and the wages of sin is death. We are slaves.
But! If through Adam, death reigns, what can we anticipate from Christ’s righteousness? The inverse seems to be that life reigns through Christ. But watch how cool this is.
…much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Note the difference in the subject of that sentence. With Jesus as our representative, we will reign. The implication of that is overwhelming. Sin’s kingship makes us slaves. Christ’s kingship makes us kings. We no longer share in Adam’s death and condemnation. We will share in Christ’s inheritance and reign in eternal life. What a huge contrast!
See how great our God is! Every ounce of sin ever has been overcome by one act of righteousness (18), by one man’s obedience (19). That act of righteousness and obedience was Jesus’ death on the cross (Phil 2:8). Yes, the wages of sin is death. However, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:23). Jesus took our wages to redeem us and buy us back to life. He is that rich in mercy.