The Varmint

I had a routine check-up and I had my rollerboard with me. Afterwards I walked to the room where I was staying and then realized that my Garmin was not on my wrist. I had taken it off at the check-up, placed it on my suitcase, and then rolled the thing away. The receptionist, when I called, looked in the room and down the hallway—no Garmin.

My nickname for it was “my Varmint,” that little ring-animal wrapped around my wrist. Nothing had been on my wrist for years, not since I gave up my wristwatch in favor, first, of a pocket watch, and then later, a cellphone. But that little Varmint, which had the time, would buzz if I hadn’t moved lately, and it put a number on my heart rate and the flights of stairs I had walked and the miles I had (a) run, (b) walked, or (c) swum. I never knew how it might know I was swimming. Could it feel water?

It also wiggled when a text message or phone call came in.

Now the Varmint was gone. And I felt contradictory things. I missed it; like Professor Henry Higgins, I’d grown accustomed to its face. At the same time there was a real sense of liberation. Really did I need to know how many flights of stairs I had ascended? Maybe it was better to go for a walk just because I wanted to go for a walk, forget the numbers.

Inducements help us change behavior and develop good character. Putting numbers on things, counting, measuring, graphing, noting “progress” and getting encouragement—all these can help us do what we really want to do. But as our behavior changes for the better, that is to say as our character grows, then we need these things less and less. And finally, the goal is for us just to do what we want to do simply because it is good, for no other reason at all.

When a person is new to Christian faith, the encouragements are everywhere—as they should be, for a new Christian is peculiarly vulnerable, as C. S. Lewis so penetratingly shows in The Screwtape Letters. But as one grows in the faith, encouragements recede. The great saints write about “the dark night of the soul,” a period of time when the comforts of faith are taken away. It seems that Teresa of Calcutta, for decades a public figure of self-sacrificial Christian love, had very little encouragement in her private prayers.

Once again, it seems, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Nonetheless, blessed be the name of the Lord. God, it seems to me, is highly desirable, regardless of my feelings about how well things are going.

Perhaps someday there will be a spiritual Varmint that can give us read-outs on how we’re doing. Good job with those prayers, it might say. Ten percent more this week than last. And look at all the time you’re spending with the Bible. Also, fantastic work with that mentoring program! Keep it up!

But then one day, we’ll lose that spiritual Varmint, and we’ll be back where we are right now. Do I want to pray for the sake of spiritual improvement, or do I want to pray just because prayer is good?

Out & about. This weekend I will be visiting All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. Besides preaching, Sat. at 5:30 p.m., Sun. at 8, 9:15, and 11 a.m., I will teach weekday classes on “Who Was David?” (M-W at 11 a.m.) and “The Political Theology of Oliver O’Donovan” (M-W at 6 p.m.).

My sermon on Acts 10—“The Education of Peter,” we might call it—is here.  

The lecture, “What Good Is Authority?” was recorded and can be listened to here.

Every Stone Shall Cry

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Every Stone Shall Cry

News of the recent death of poet Richard Wilbur brings to mind a beautiful and theologically profound hymn, new to The Hymnal 1982, whose words were penned by Wilbur: “A stable lamp is lighted.” The tune by David Hurd is hauntingly simple with a flowing accompaniment that continues between stanzas, tying the whole hymn into one ongoing musical piece whose final resolution is held off until some three measures after the last word is sung. The text is worth it.

Wilbur’s poem is constructed of eight-line stanzas. In each stanza, the fourth and fifth lines repeat, “And every stone shall cry.” We begin at the Christmas stable, where “The stars shall bend their voices, / And every stone shall cry. / And every stone shall cry, / And straw like gold shall shine, / A barn shall harbor heaven, / A stall become a shrine.”

The second stanza jumps to the end, the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. “The palm shall strew its branches, / And every stone shall cry.” As in the first stanza, here “cry” means something like “cry out” or “praise”: even the stones praise the birth of Christ, and years later they also praise his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. 

One of Father Andrew Mead’s punchy lines was “No Easter, no Christmas.” Christmas is a holiday for us only because of the great events of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection; if they had not occurred, we would not care about his birth. Wilbur’s poem gets it. The third stanza is Jesus’ death, “forsaken,” “yielded up to die.” Every stone cries —here “cry” means “weep” — “For stony hearts of men.” In addition, the poet gets the full truth of the Incarnation, when he goes on to say that it is “God’s blood upon the spearhead / God’s love refused again.”

Then, on the very edge of Easter, the poet cycles back to Christmas, to “now,” to a place in the church year where we’re looking forward to what is to come. “But now, as at the ending, / The low is lifted high.” And every stone now cries in praise “of the Child” by whose Incarnation salvation is won: “By whose descent among us / The worlds are reconciled.”

Richard Wilbur, 1921–2017. May he rest in peace.
Out & About. This Sunday, October 22, I am preaching at the traditional services (7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.) at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas. Then at 6 p.m., also at Incarnation, I will give the Fall Theology Lecture: “What Good Is Authority?” The lecture will be in the church itself, with time for questions; a reception will follow.

October 28 through November 1, I will be visiting All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. Besides preaching at their Saturday and Sunday services, I will teach weekday classes on “Who Was David?” (M-W at 11 a.m.) and “The Political Theology of Oliver O’Donovan” (M-W at 6 p.m.).

Some links: I preached on Isaiah 5 a couple of weeks ago, which is not only a parable of a vineyard but a love song! It seems important to remember that the story has a frame that evokes other important parts of the Old Testament:

Losing Susan has just been reviewed in the Church Times, the weekly newspaper connected with the Church of England: 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."