A Summer in the Psalms
It was Stephen Covey in his bestselling book of the 1990’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People who introduced many of us to the idea of a “paradigm shift.” A “paradigm” is a “a pattern or model; the generally accepted perspective.” A “paradigm shift” is a change in perspectives that holds the potential for opening us up to an entirely different, and perhaps, an even a better way of understanding how things are. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Steven Covey told the now familiar story of a paradigm shift that he personally witnessed one day on a subway ride in New York City –
I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing. It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?” The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.” Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.
A rather momentous spiritual “paradigm shift” occurred in me back in 1981 when, as a young, newly-minted minister (I was ordained in 1979), I first started reading the works of A.W. Tozer, the Christian Missionary and Alliance pastor from the first half of the 20th century who has since become my virtual “spiritual director” through his writings. One of his essays asked the question: “The World: Playground or Battlefield?” After lamenting the difference between the “paradigm” of the Scriptures and the “paradigm” of the contemporary church (he didn’t actually use the word “paradigm” but rather he talked about “our attitude toward things” and our “view of things”), Tozer observed –
Allowing for the figures and metaphors with which the Scriptures abound, it is still a solid Bible doctrine that tremendous spiritual forces are present in the world, and man, because of his spiritual nature, is caught in the middle. Evil powers are bent upon destroying him, while Christ is present to save him through the power of the Gospel. To obtain deliverance he must come out on God’s side in faith and obedience. That in brief is what our fathers thought; and that, we believe, is what the Bible teaches. How different today: the fact remains the same but the interpretation has changed completely. Men think of the world, not as a battlefield but as a playground. We are not here to fight, we are here to frolic. (God Tells the Man Who Cares)
This perspective was then powerfully reinforced in my thinking when at just about the same time that I discovered A.W. Tozer I read Gustaf Aulen’s systematic theology The Faith of the Christian Church (1923). In the more measured language of the academic theologian, Aulen was no less insistent than Tozer had been about what6 is the correct paradigm for understanding Scripture –
Christian Faith looks upon existence as a “dramatic struggle” and sees the inner meaning of existence emerging out of this struggle where the divine will stands in conflict with hostile forces. (170)
The conflict motif has a central place within primitive Christianity. Every attempt to understand primitive Christianity without giving sufficient attention to this fact is doomed to failure… For the Gospels it is fundamental that there is a struggle between the divine will and the power of evil. (176)
The accuracy of Tozer’s and Aulen’s assessment of things can be measured by just how alien their arguments sound to us! It’s my sense that the “playground” paradigm has become so pervasive in our day that even the suggestion that the spiritual life is going to be a “battlefield” strikes us as being somehow false, perhaps even anti-Christian, contrary to Scripture! We want everybody to be happy and to have a good time. In the words of a very popular (and very successful) contemporary worship guru: “End each service with something upbeat that’s designed to put people in a good mood when they leave the service.” And that’s the goal of so much of the Christianity that I see and hear around me these days. It’s all about good times and good moods. You’d think that the Great Commission tells Christians to: “Go into all the world and smile!”
Now, I’m not suggesting here that the Christian faith is meant to be a joyless, lifeless thing, some heavy burden that has to be stoically borne, the equivalent of a spiritual wet blanket that must be thrown over any stirrings of passion, or a cold shower for the soul that’s intended to immediately dampen any enthusiasm that might be brewing. H.L. Mencken‘s slanderous accusation leveled at the Puritans that they were people who suffered from “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” is neither an accurate description of Biblical Christians nor a fair evaluation of the effect that Biblical Christianity has on people. Biblical Christianity is so much more realistic than that. I prefer F.R. Malby’s observation that Christ promised His disciples three things: that they would be “absurdly happy, completely fearless and in constant trouble.” Now, I don’t know if the late Calvin Miller had ever heard this description of Christians, but I sure hear an echo of it in something that Calvin wrote at the beginning of his wonderful little book The Taste of Joy (IVP 1983) –
Three things I do every morning so I will be happy all day long. The first is to affirm the reality of Jesus Christ and to thank Him for His lordship. The second is to call to mind the reality of Satan, who will seek throughout the day to make me a miserable contradiction of evident joy. Third, I call to mind the gifts that are mine in Christ. (17)
The picture I see in my head whenever I read things like this are the St. Anthony panels of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece – one of the paintings on my art bucket list: things I plan on seeing before I die. It was commissioned by a community of monks in Alsace in the early decades of the 16th century who belonged to the Order of St. Anthony (the Egyptian Father of Monasticism) and who spent their days performing works of mercy, taking care of the sick, especially lepers, victims of the plague and those who suffered from the horrific symptoms of a kind of fatal poisoning that came from eating a fungi-contaminated bread. The panels of the altarpiece were positioned over the altar in the chapel of this community where both the monks and their wards could find comfort and meaning by viewing and meditating on the images.
The St. Anthony panels show two episodes from his life as told by the Church Father St. Athanasius: a visit with a fellow Desert Father, St Paul of Thebes, in an Oasis (on the left), and the tormenting and testing of St. Anthony by the demons (on the right).
The panel on the left – the visit of St. Anthony with St. Paul – is a pleasant picture. It is almost “Eden-like,” a picture of the web of blessings that is God’s intended “shalom.” A crystal clear fountain bubbles up at St. Paul’s side, a mighty stag grazes in the middle of the rock arch behind them, a little fawn rests at their feet and a bird in the tree above them is delivering lunch – a morsel of bread. What is not so apparent to us is the fact that all of the plants that Grunewald painted into the garden where these two men of God sit were thought to be medicinal in the medieval world. In fact, many of them would have been used to prepare the elixirs and balms that the monks used to actually take care of the sick that were in their charge. This is unmistakably a picture of the blessings that God so abundantly and freely bestows upon His people.
The panel on the right – the demonic assault of St. Anthony – is a striking contrast to the panel on the left. Here, peace and harmony have been replaced by chaos and confusion. With almost comic book vividness, Grunewald surrounded St. Anthony with all manner of creepy creatures – an outward expression of our inward opponents and adversaries – crawling, clawing, clubbing, biting, punching and abusing. St Anthony is down and almost out – one of the creatures is dragging him away by the hair, another one is nibbling at his hand and others of them are reaching out to grab hold of him. And down in the lower left-hand corner of the panel there is an audience of one watching this nightmarish drama unfold – a man who gives every appearance of suffering from the sorts of diseases that the monks of the hospice for whom this painting was originally commissioned took care of day in and day out. There is no doubt that Grunewald wanted the patients and their caregivers to see themselves in these images. So, what did they see? What message did these St. Anthony panels communicate to them?
Last Sunday in church our Psalm was Psalm 93, a “Royal Psalm.” Just five verses long, Psalm 93 makes two points. It consists of two “great big hairy truths” – Verse 1 – “The Lord Reigns” – the image of blessing in the left St. Anthony panel; and – Verse 3 – “The floods have lifted up” – the image of torment in the right St. Anthony panel. It’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.” It’s not “the Lord reigns,” and so there are no floods. And it’s not that there are floods, and so the Lord does not reign. Sitting in front of the two St. Anthony panels of the Isenheim altarpiece, people were not ordering options for their lives from a cosmic menu – “I think I’ll have the paradise; I really don’t have much of an appetite for demonic testing.” No, seeing these two images side-by-side would have made it absolutely clear that they are both episodes from the same life (notice that St. Anthony is wearing the very same clothes in both pictures!). They are both part of the same drama, and they are both going to be experiences that we will have as Christians because they are the two poles between which “the normal Christian life” gets lived.
If we would be happy we had better take trouble for granted and accept life as essentially difficult and tragic. Many people make impossible the constructive handling of adversity because they start by thinking that an untroubled life is the ideal, so that all their disasters become intruders to be resented. Beginning thus with a picture of life embowered in pleasure and quite weedless, they soon discover they cannot get on well with it. For hardship outwits them, adversity climbs their stoutest walls, and their ideals of an untroubled life go to pieces in disillusionment. They started wrong. Let us, then, begin with the alternative proposition that life is essentially difficult and tragic. It begins in painful birth and ends in painful death, and its fabric in between has dark threads running through… Life is essentially difficult. Concerning this proposal many will feel at once that it presents a gloomy view of life. No, my friends, not gloomy, but the only basis for happiness. If we start by thinking that the ideal is an untroubled life, then adversity seems like a wretched intruder to be resented, a miserable trespasser that has no business here. But if we start by accepting life as difficult and tragic, then our blessings, the joy, beauty, and love that enrich us, will appear so marvelous that it will seems a miracle to have them.
Back to the St. Anthony panels in the Isenheim altarpiece, the right one to be exact. Above St. Anthony’s struggles with the demonic, in a glowing bubble that is slowly descending, there is the Risen Glorious Christ coming to help. This is the intrusion of the comforting truth of the left panel into the harsh reality of the right panel. It is based on what St. Athanasius, one of the Doctors of the Church, actually wrote about this episode in his biography of St. Anthony –
Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where were thou? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; wherefore since you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you, and will make your name known everywhere.’
And here is the payoff of the “battlefield” paradigm. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. was once asked to talk to the children of the congregation on “what the Bible teaches about life.” And what he came up with “was astonishingly simple and concrete.” He told the kids two things: (1) The Bible pictures life as getting better and better as it goes along; and (2) The Bible pictures life as getting harder and harder as it goes along. As John Claypool asked, “What are we to make of this paradoxical combination of images as a way of describing our journey through history? Does life get better and better and harder and harder as it goes along?” And the answer that the “battlefield” paradigm offers is an unambiguous “yes!” It’s what we see in the St. Anthony panels of the Isenheim altarpiece. It’s because life is hard that life is good. It is because we are tested that we become strong. It is because we are under attack that we experience grace. It’s because of our weakness that God’s sufficiency becomes clear. It is because life gets harder and harder that life gets better and better.
I think I’ll let Dr. Fosdick preach for the decision –
Indeed, does happiness really lie in an untroubled life? Of course it doesn’t. Some of the most tingling happiness we know is victory over opposition. Give us a hard task, a towering difficulty, and strength to win the day – there is the secret of our realest happiness. Happiness is not mostly pleasure, it is mostly victory. So said the Greeks – “The best things are the most difficult.” Does a good sailor always want a calm sea? Rather, give him a gale that he may try his powers against the adverse elements until he feels his heart sing in the storm. To be sure, there is a quieter happiness, as when lovely sunsets come and we sit and look, but no man worth his salt can be content with such passive pleasure only. Great happiness takes off like an able aviator against a head wind… Great happiness often has difficulty for its setting and adventure for its strength. Even when heavy griefs come, there is a radiance in those who transcend and transmute them and find “some sort of goodness in things evil” that all the pleasure-seekers on earth cannot achieve… If we would be happy we had best accept life as essentially difficult and tragic.