This is the third of these brief character sketch poems that I’ve posted here on my blog. I’ve long loved the Tillbury Town sketches of Edward Arlington Robinson, poems that are simple without being simplistic. There are usually reflections of the profound in the commonplace and ordinary, and writing and reading about the simplistic usually helps me understand what is complex. This particular poem is about fear. Children running around a hundred peaceful acres in the throes of all childhood has to offer and adults navigating the complicated contours of life both experience fear. Though the adult faces situations far more fear-producing than the child, both experience the same emotions. The simple world of Little Willie Harper helps me see my fears for what they are, groundless under the sovereign and loving care of my Heavenly Father.
Little Willie Harper
Little Willie Harper knew
The terrors of the farm
The cocky bantam rooster
Could do him plenty harm
Easy would his skull give way
To any bovine hoof
If he climbed upon the shed
He might fall off the roof
And when he helped his father
While deep within the snows
He could become as Max McClain
Have frostbite claim his nose
As his feet fell in the grass
While running in the yard
The yellow jacket sentries
Might chase him fast and hard
Little Willie Harper could
Stay paralyzed by fear
Or he could become a man
Give fright no quarter here
Theology was made for man, not man for theology. Jesus said something along those lines at one point, taking aim at a group of conceited religious leaders whose gaze had drifted from the bright light of divine revelation to the dim and smoldering wicks of human thought. They thought that they were safeguarding the Law of God. In reality, they were keeping people from knowing the God of the Law through their doctrines of men.
We are conditioned to think of the Pharisees as bad guys. So when we hear that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees we hear something along the lines of “Your righteousness must exceed that of Mao.” The Pharisees after all, killed Jesus. Mao did the same to Christians. Or maybe “Your righteousness must exceed that of Eminem.” After all, the Pharisees were blasphemers of the worst kind. Eminem probably gives them a run for their money.
But the Pharisees were not bad guys to the people of the day. They were us. They were the conservatives of their day, abominating the spiritual liberalism of the Sadducees who denied the resurrection from the dead and dismissed every Scripture after Moses as being uninspired. They hated the Herodians who loved favor and pomp above worshipping Yahweh, allying themselves with the perverted Herods for the sake of temporal gain. And they weren’t the Essenes, who responded to corruption with complete withdrawal from society in an attempt to create a pure society free of doctrinal corruption at the expense of any kind of care for the world.
So when Jesus speaks to the crowds “I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20), they gasp in horror, for they know that righteousness above that of the scribes and Pharisees was impossible. If the entrance exam for heaven required such precision that men who spent their entire lives copying, reading, and interpreting the Torah could not pass it, then all were to be damned.
But all was not well for the Pharisees. Under their care, the people of Israel were as sheep without a shepherd. Not that they were without men who claimed to be shepherds, but that the Pharisees were nothing more than the tattered clothes of a scarecrow flapping in the wind. Under their care, the people constantly heard their phrase uttered with great gravity and pomp: The burden of Torah is weighty. Under their care, the people were made doubly sons of hell, for they imagined themselves to be pleasing the Lord through enslaving ritual.
“I am the good Shepherd.”
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Few instances highlight the oppressive dogma of the Pharisees and the joy-filled liberation that Jesus brings than a showdown over the Sabbath. After hearing them condemning the disciples for their picking grain heads to ease their hunger on the Sabbath, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and poses a question to them. Did David sin when he ate the bread that only the priests were supposed to eat?
And then the line “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Pharisees did not understand that the ritualistic provisions of Torah were made for their own good and betterment. They were incensed when on the Sabbath Jesus restores the shriveled arm of a man long crippled. Because it was work. And good Jews don’t work on the Sabbath.
I don’t think the Pharisees and Jesus would have disagreed over which commandments could lay claim to being the greatest and second greatest. After all, it is a scribe who declares that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and that the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. But I do think that Jesus and the Pharisees would have disagreed about the definition of love. Jesus seems to define it by compassion, and the Pharisees seem to define it as minute theological precision.
For Jesus, to love God means to love God. For the Pharisees, to love God means to be as nuanced as possible in your theology about him. For Jesus, to love neighbor means to love neighbor. For the Pharisees, to love neighbor means to condemn them for failing to live up to the Pharisees’ own doctrinal systems. If man didn’t match up with their theology, then man was not to be loved.
And this is what I mean by “Theology was made for man, not man for theology.” The revelation of God as found in the Scriptures is so that we might know and love God. This is its purpose. Jesus Christ, the Word himself, came to reveal to us the Father through his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Our theological systems exist as gasoline on the fire of love and devotion, not as the fire itself. They are the points on the scoreboard that make up the victory, but they are not the trophy hoisted amidst the shower of champaign. God does not bring us to himself to give us information, he gives us information to bring us to himself. That’s the nature of revelation–How will they believe (greater end) in him whom they have never heard (lesser end).
Our pursuit of doctrinal purity and precision is a good thing. The higher the octane, the hotter the fire. But doctrinal purity is not the goal. We were saved to do something, and that was to love. As hesitant as we are about the word, love is the only verb in both the first and second greatest commandment. Man was not made for theology, but rather it was made for us, that we might experience the joy that is loving God and those whom he has made.
A couple of weeks ago this blog turned five years old. It began the afternoon of October 1st, 2006 as I sat on our tired war-horse of a couch in Oak Manor, Dorm #5. Blogging was in full swing, and twitter was a word used to describe the kinds of conversations that junior high girls had over lunch. My world consisted of attending class, driving the Oak Manor shuttle bus, and getting involved in something called the Student Life Department. I wanted to be a lawyer, classes like Constitutional Law stoking my desire to work for IJM in rescuing the oppressed from the sex-trafficking industry, slavery, and other forms of illegal intimidation around the world.
I now am sitting on another couch, this one a rather new espresso colored faux leather model. This room is Carver 416, nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” by the RAs, as students who enter might never return so the joke goes. I now am the junior member of the senior staff for a different Student Life department, but surrounded by old friends and new friends who share the same passion and direction. My world still revolves around taking classes, not for law but for vocational ministry, the one occupation I said I would never pursue.
I can see by comparing my own freshly published posts to those posted five years ago a radical transformation of who I am. The Lord has taken passion and directed it, taken outspokenness and polished it. By grace, he will continue to do so. In the last five years I’ve gained a life direction, and have been amazed at the paths the Lord has brought me on to get me here.
One thing I’ve never done on this blog is explain the name. Indeed, finding a good name for this blog proved to be much harder than I thought it would be. Like a tattoo, you’d better be good and sure that the name will reflect who you are in five years, ten years, twenty years, as it does when you first apply it. “Innocence Restored” is half of a line from Keith and Krysten Getty’s song, Every Promise Of Your Word. They write,
When I stumble and I sin, condemnation pressing in,
I will stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word.
You are faithful to forgive that in freedom I might live,
So I stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word.
Guilt to innocence restored,
You remember sins no more—
So I’ll stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word.
I do not know how long I’ll write here at this site. I have no intention of giving it up anytime soon, though the frequency always seems to ebb and flow as the Lord brings different ministries and responsibilities into my life. But one thing I know will be as true of me when I am old and grey as when I first began writing at this site. I have gone from guilt to innocence. And this is a statement that makes absolutely no sense. The guilty cannot become innocent yet again, for innocent is not a quality that can be measured by overwhelming generalities like being generous or truthful. A man may be truthful and have lied in the past. But no one could ever be innocent having been guilty in the past.
Except for the appearing of Jesus Christ, God become man to purchase back sinners to himself. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.
They Synod of Whitby (664) has long been held to be a watershed moment in the life of the Celtic church. Long the object of Roman evangelistic effort, Ireland finally fell sway to the call of the gospel through St. Patrick, a Briton enslaved amongst the Irish for years. Before the Synod of Whitby, two traditions existed side-by-side within Ireland. Though the same gospel and doctrine was preached, the rituals and monastic practices varied between those in the Roman tradition and the Celtic traditions of worship.
The spark that led to the Synod of Whitby does not seem to be a matter of grave importance to the modern Christian, especially if he is a Protestant. However, it was of chief concern to a country who was at odds with the rest of the world in matters of Christian practice. As such, there was a great deal of national pride and identity interwoven with doctrine, as the Celtic Fathers had a tradition at variance with that of Rome. To renounce the Celtic ways was, seemingly, a judgment upon the piety of their saints.
The two cornerstone issues debated at the Synod of Whitby were that of tonsures and the date of the celebration of Easter. The Celtic tonsure consisted of a straight line shaved between the ears, with all of the hair forward of the line shaved and the hair grown free to the back. The Roman tonsure was that of the traditional “monk” haircut, a pattern imitating a crown of thorns, thought to be derived from the traditional practice of Peter. As for easter, the Celtic church originally celebrated the day on the fourteenth of Nissan. This practice changed to being celebrated on the Sunday between the thirteenth and the twentieth of the same month. The Romans celebrated it on the Sunday that fell between the fourteenth and the twenty-first. This was a matter of importance to the church because the thirteenth was before the feast of the passover, and therefore seen as being outside of the boundaries of when the church ought to celebrate the resurrection.
The Synod of Whitby was called by King Oswy to settle the affair. Oswy’s wife Eanfled held to the tradition of the Romans, while the king himself followed the Celtic traditions. This was a cause of embarrassment to the royal family, for the household would find the Queen feasting while the King was still fasting for the sake of their overlapping calendars.
Leading the case for the Celtic Christians was Colman, the well-respected Irish bishop of Lindisfarne. Opposite him stood Agilbert, a Frankish bishop of some renown. The presiding King Oswy offered Colman the opportunity to speak first. Colman appealed to the tradition of the Irish fathers, which descended from John to Polycarp and later inscribed in a work known as the Liber Anatolii. How could, Colman argued, the apostle who was loved of Jesus and lay on his breast during the Passover have been mistaken in celebrating Easter on the fourteenth?
The floor was given to Agilbert, who shrewdly requested to have his protege Wilford present the case. Wilford, unlike Agilbert, spoke the language of the court and was not only a brilliant and ambitious theologian but a man with a flair for statesmanship. Like Colman, Wilford also appealed to the patterns and traditions set down by the Apostles, including John. In Wilford’s mind his opponents, though sincere, misunderstood the teaching of John.
Continuing to speak, Wilford delivered a devastating line of questioning accusing the Celtic church to be opposing the doctrine of the Apostolic See, upbraiding them for believing that the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch and Alexandria and Rome all erred in their celebration of Easter while the truth was maintained by a small ethnic group tucked away in the furthest reaches of the Empire. Though Columba, a revered saint amongst the Celtic church, taught a different Easter than the Roman church, it was not Columba who was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When Peter and a local hero differ, it is Peter who ought to be given primacy.
King Oswy understood this line of reasoning clearly. Those who refused to submit themselves to the teachings of Peter might find themselves cast out of the kingdom of God for their intransigence. While Columba and the other revered Celtic fathers had observed Easter on the improper date, theirs was a sin of ignorance. For the listeners at Whitby, that ignorance had been lifted and could not be overlooked. Oswy issued his ruling with the words, “[Peter] is the door-keeper, who I will not contradict, and will as far as I know and am able, in all things to obey his decree, lest when I come to the gates of heaven, there should be none to open them, he being my adversary who is proved to have the keys.”
Oswy’s decision did not all at once shift the entirety of Ireland over to the Roman cause, though it broke the power of the autonomous Celtic tradition. Underlying the issue of tonsures and the date of Easter was the far greater clash of power between the Roman monolith and an independent Christian tradition. Even at this early date, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession was wielded with heavy hands, with the threat of being found opposing Peter being a terrifying proposition for King Oswy.
It was nothing new for the church to find itself in a discussion about the proper date of Easter. Polycarp found himself at odds with the bishop of Rome, with neither of them able to convince each other of the rightness of his own tradition. Though there was disagreement, the date of Easter was understood to be a tertiary issue of minor importance to the Christian faith. Polycarp and the bishop maintained a friendly relationship full of fellowship despite their differences. This example was not followed at the Synod of Whitby by Wilfred, who used intimidation and threat of Apostolic disfavor to convince those in authority of the rightness of his cause.
The wisdom of Oswy’s decision at the Synod of Whitby has been much debated by historians. Some see it as a necessary and good decision, unifying a fractured people under a common tradition. Others see it as a disastrous capitulation to the power of Rome, erasing any hope for an independent tradition outside the orbit of Roman authority. What cannot be argued is the damage done to the state of Celtic Christianity in its aftermath.
Colman understood his King’s decision guaranteed the ultimate death of an independent Celtic tradition. While many of his compatriots began to celebrate in the Roman manner, Colman assembled his monks and moved to the far western coast of Ireland. There he lived in simple seclusion, building a pair of monasteries for his English and Irish followers. The exodus of these spiritual leaders coupled with the onset of a plague which killed the majority of the remaining monks and bishops decapitated the spiritual leadership of the Celtic church and led to the decline of the Irish missionary movement.
Wilfred, though victorious, lost the affection of the public. He was ordained an Irish bishop, but returned to his native France for five years. Upon sailing back to Ireland to take up his post, he discovered another man had been ordained in his absence. Wilfred became an irritant to Oswy’s successors, and spent the majority of his time in exile or prison under the lead of King Egfried.
Arrogance is one of the most difficult diseases of soul to diagnose, as the very arrogance which exists will explain itself away as self-assurance that convinces you of your station as an honorable conquistador of the faith.