Make perfect thy will

An item linked by my Chief Indianapolis Correspondent (this one) caught my attention last night, and gave me something to pray on. The essay, by a wise Evangelical, is on the lust for respectability. I know it so well. Embraced, this lust consumes us; rejected it returns again and again, and I would play the Pharisee if I denied its attraction.

The storms seemed worse in my youth, though perhaps only because I still stood a chance of becoming a respectable person. I think back to a time when all I wanted was a lot of income, a pretty girl, and people to take me seriously. It was fortunate for me that the little angel, who has ever ridden on my right shoulder, and sometimes speaks into my right ear, is a mischievous little thing. Not from my own will, but the angel’s, have I been saved from various grave temptations, from time to time. (And sometimes not.) The angel puts an idea in my head, for something clever to say or do, and the consequence is, that I don’t get the prize. (Who knew that God employs mischievous spirits?)

Allen Guelzo’s article reviews the capture of Evangelical Christianity in those USA, by the forces of politically correct respectability, in the course of the last generation. It explains why they are no longer “an embarrassment,” having learnt how to remain silent when called to the service of Our Lord. For contrast he recalls, from his own youth, a certain retired Professor of Apologetics, into whose motives he had inquired. Why had he recklessly devoted his whole life to philosophy, and Christian teaching?

“Why, to protect Christ’s little ones,” the old man replied.

The young Guelzo was gobsmacked, and remains so still; and I, too, am impressed by the profound simplicity of the answer. Here was that rarest imaginable thing: a man teaching in a university, disposed to truth and light. What a scandal! … But of course, it happened a long time ago.

And of course, such a man was hardly respectable, even then. Today, like Saint Paul, he’d likely as not be run out of town. There is no secular university on this continent that would dream of giving such a man a job, let alone tenure. He could learn to shut up, or he could seek another trade. (Fireman, for instance: Christians seem welcome wherever there is a fire.) And how I know the envy of the “tenured,” and of the prizes that could be won, if only I wasn’t so ashamed, in the presence of my Maker.

How often one is offered a reward, if one will just shut up about Jesus. It is the price of admission, even into the rightwing media. I was asked if I would pay it, just the other day. But by now I prefer braying at the Moon.

“In every example where the courts, the celebrities, or the culture-makers, have trampled heedlessly on biblical norms, there are some initially robust outbursts of resistance, then a nervous glancing around to see whether anyone has joined the resistance.” O Lord, have I noticed this phenomenon myself: the case of the disappearing allies.

Governor Winthrop is cited, addressing the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. After much rhetoric on Truth, and suchlike, he concludes: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

As Guelzo puts it: “Winthrop and his fellow exiles gave themselves over hostage to applause.”

Christ Himself was leery of large audiences, and did not seek any of the forms of respectability then available in Roman provincial society, including that of the Pharisee preacher. He ended not with laurels, but tacked to a Cross, wearing the crown of thorns that is the ultimate award for moral and spiritual perfection. And his final homily was from that Cross, and in those startling words echoed from a Psalm through His torment: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” …

Before, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (At which Jesus died; but the Psalmist continues: “Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord.”)

Words not addressed to the crowd; and not at all in fashionable garments. Christ our exemplar has turned His attention entirely to the Father, as he leaves our world, having done nothing but the Father’s will through the length of his sojourn. We saw him “respectable” in society, only in a moment riding on an ass, the palm fronds thrown before him: entering Jerusalem by the humble eastern gate. (Well, this wasn’t very respectable, either.)

There is the, usually droll, question, “What would Jesus do?” Right question, perhaps, but in the wrong tone. Better would be, “What would Christ have me do?” For his Life was not a catalogue of situations and responses, and God did not create us to do what has already been done. He did not make us for statistical purposes. Instead He made each to be a new Saint, providing each with the light to show his steps forward, like the lantern on a miner’s hat — not towards, but away from the light of this world, by which we are dazzled.

But of course, this is a “counsel of perfection,” as I notice all of Christ’s counsels were. No one, among us sinners, can be completely free of the desire to avoid the embarrassment that comes from standing alone; only the saints and martyrs overcome it.

Even in death, we want to make a show, so that even if we failed to make tenure, we might still be respectable in the eye of Fame. Guelzo here cites Thomas of Canterbury, in T.S. Eliot’s play, who is surprised by his final temptation — which is to Martyrdom itself. We want a crowd when they carry us away; we want to know our last words will be recorded; so people may finally learn that we were right all along. We hardly want to go through all this, and not get credit. Not with our reputation at stake.

What a comedown, to have spent one’s life preparing for this final act, and no one there to see it. To find that the audience has all gone away. It is the last and most terrible temptation, to do other than God’s will.

Which is to throw that bag of swag away; to discard the lust that fondles it, and the fear of life without it at one’s side.