William Blake, both his life and his work, is enough to freak out even the most open-minded Christian. For example, C.S. Lewis titled his book “The Great Divorce” in part to refute Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which was Blake’s brilliant—and almost indecipherable—comment on the church of his day.
Blake is another example of a Christian artist who forged his own path, fusing his unique verse with his own illustrations. He was an artisan as well as a poet, producing detailed engravings to accompany his work and the work of others.
His contemporaries thought him mad. He wondered himself. He had visions and dreams. Over the last two hundred years his reputation has grown. The ground-breaking Blake was willing to suffer the critique of his countrymen in hopes of eternal praise. It was a good trade.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land
Some secrets are safe even when you tell them to others, because some secrets must be lived, rather than known.
I found this secret buried deep in a stack of letters from a man stuck in prison. The kind of prison where you had to provide your own food and clothing, which was a problem because you were in prison. If you were out of friends you were outta luck. The kind of prison where you sat before you went to trial, wondering if you were going to trial. The man in prison had been beaten, healed, scarred, and beaten again. Shipwrecked three times, and far from home. Still, he had a secret, and he shared it with his friends:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4: 11-12)
This man, Paul: a follower of Jesus, was falsely accused and in prison awaiting trial for more than a year. He had discovered the secret of contentment. Can you imagine yourself, in the midst of all those circumstances Paul faced, content?
Contentment is perhaps even more of a secret today because the Western world is locked up in its own striving and appetites, wholly unaware of its blessings. Can we hear Paul’s whisper through the clamour of consumerism today? Consider just a few insights into his secret:
- Contentment does not depend on circumstances: Paul could be content in the midst of plenty or little. In our world plenty is not enough: each of us know first-hand people who cannot be at rest even when they are surrounded by every comfort. Worse: some it’s us.
- Contentment does not mean giving up: Paul still had places to go and things to do. He was not a fatalist who accepted every event in his life as the final word. Yet even when he faced obstacles and frustration he found contentment within.
- Contentment is not the result of positive thinking: There’s an old story about the child given a pile of horse manure for his birthday: he joyfully grabbed a shovel and said “there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere!” Not so. Sometimes there is no pony: life simply covers us with dung. The danger of positive thinking is that it comes from our own strength, and eventually that resource runs dry.
The “secret of being of content” is much deeper. It is born out of relationship to an unchanging person and his unshakable kingdom. This week’s meditation is an invitation to tune our ears and listen to the man in prison. His words are like a treasure map: hearing the secret is not enough, it must be discovered. At the end of the search we will discover ourselves to be the kind of people so in tune with the Kingdom of God that we navigate difficult times, supplied with peace, as well as strength.
I used to think the silence meant God wasn’t speaking. Now in the silence, he’s all I hear.
As a young man I would look to the stars, overwhelmed by the beauty of the night sky. I knew from Psalm 19 that the heavens declared the glory of God. I could see his greatness, but could not hear his voice. Even in their majesty I would wonder why God was so silent. My prayers, especially at night, were filled with requests and concerns. I would list my needs one by one, unaware that my greatest need was stillness. I would fall asleep listing my anxieties to this silent God. When I awoke, I was still with him. But I was unaware either way.
Of the many needs of North American believers, silence is among the greatest. Silence is the page on which God writes his word. Our noisy world scribbles on the page continually, overlaying sound and word on top of word and sound until the page becomes black. We cannot read what God has written unless the page is clean.
The pathway of modern life has been hardened, trampled by words. Back in the day you had to visit Times Square; now Times Square visits you. The sower sows the seed but it falls on the path and is carried away by SportsCenter, YouTube, NPR, and our ubiquitous earbuds. Quiet is an aberration. When Maxwell Smart uses the Cone of Silence, the point is that everyone simply has to shout louder. Drop any comedian into a monastery and he’ll have the monks doing hip-hop before it’s over. Even our Bibles are cluttered with sidebars and graphics, pictures and celebrity interpretations.
But what if God is in the silence? He wasn’t in the whirlwind or earthquake for Elijah. The “still, small voice” is still a whisper. Perhaps the Father has his reasons for not raising is voice. I suspect it’s for our good that we find him in the secret place, well away from Times Square. This week’s meditation is actually quite, well, meditative: why not create a secret place each day and give him just three minutes of blank slate? The Father doesn’t need a podcast to reach our hearts. We will find his presence in the silence, and it will be enough.
Marianne Moore is one of the many 20th century poets who combined their faith and art. She excelled at both: winning a Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Poems, and winning the admiration of T.S. Eliot: “Miss Moore is, I believe, one of those few who have done the language some service in my lifetime.”
Midwestern-born, Bryn Mawr educated, she was known for irony, wit, and deep conviction. She played the role of East-coast literati well, dressing in a flambouyant cape and tricorn hat. She was featured in Life, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. She was the anti-Emily Dickinson.
The Ford Motor Company even hired her to suggest names for their cars, though they did not adopt her suggestions. That’s a shame. Instead, they went with The Edsel.
That Harp You Play So Well
Oh David, if I had
Your power, I should be glad—
In harping, with the sling,
In patient reasoning!
Blake, Homer, Job, and you,
Have made old wineskins new.
Your energies have wrought
Stout continents of thought.
But, David, if the heart
Be brass, what boots the art
Of exorcising wrong,
Of harping to a song?
The scepter and the ring
And every royal thing
Will fail. Grief’s lustiness
Must cure that harp’s distress.
Enough with the rants and the whining: we have taught ourselves the habit of discontent. We are a people gone crazy with complaints. But the good news is habits can be dropped and new ones can be learned. We can update our software. We can see the world with fresh eyes.
Today A Month of Thanksgiving goes live at Amazon.com. It’s my attempt help reset our baseline and see gratitude as the “normal” God intended for each of his children. I wrote it because I believe our greatest need is to return to a “creaturely” relationship with our Creator. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. Did you know that last sentence is a verse of scripture? Visit our stern brother James and you’ll discover one of his foundations.
It’s a short daily devotional—you can read each one in a minute or two. After the devotion you’ll find a question worth asking, an action worth taking, and a quote worth repeating. Here’s a sample from day one. Get on board for the thanksgiving train: it’s underway in just a few days.
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Paul’s words in Thessalonians have something to teach us about the will of God: he wants us to be thankful from the heart. Why torture ourselves over discovering God’s will when the obvious first step is right in front of us?
The Father knows thankfulness is the best thing for us—if it flows from the heart. When our hearts respond with prayers of joy and gratitude to the situations of life, we are responding out of Christlikeness and not simply parroting the company line. One way to "pray continuously" is to develop the habit of giving thanks in all things. Gratitude is a mighty prayer in the Spirit.
Ask Yourself: Do I believe it is possible to give thanks in all situations? How could every circumstance contain the seeds of thanksgiving?
Live Into It: Each day, identify three thanks-worthy things. Use the notes App on your phone, or the white board on your refrigerator, or your bathroom mirror. It doesn’t matter if you repeat yourself some days—some things are worth giving thanks for every single day.
A.W. Tozer ~ “A thankful heart cannot be cynical.”
This devotional is available at Amazon 99 cents as a Kindle book, or just a bit more in paperback. Gather your wits each morning. Become sane again. Select “Restart” and you will find the world God wants you to see.
The thankful heart is awake to God’s goodness. It lives in the constant wonder of his first judgment about the world: “it is good.”