A Comfort's Food for Thought

Re-reading an American Classic


SLEvery other year I set myself the task of re-reading The Scarlet Letter. Why do I choose to read again this “tale of human frailty and sorrow”? This 150-page novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne is part of the American literature curriculum that I am teaching, but I could easily substitute another equally important book. Instead, I continue to teach The Scarlet Letter because I admire Hawthorne’s genius in producing this great American novel and I appreciate his insights into the souls of his fellow men.

The story concerns Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman in 17th century Boston, who commits adultery and gives birth to a child. The authorities, acting as both church and state, punish her by ordering her to wear a scarlet letter A. For the rest of her life she is isolated from the community because people no longer see her as a person, but as a symbol of her disgraceful sin.

Hester’s offense, however, is not the only wrongdoing Hawthorne explores. Her partner in sin, the Reverend Dimmesdale, agonizes over his guilt, but is unable to admit to his congregation that he is the father of baby Pearl. His sin of hypocrisy torments him both physically and emotionally, and eventually leads to his premature death.

Perhaps the worst sin, at least in Hawthorne’s eyes, is committed by Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, who vows to discover Hester’s partner in sin and get vengeance. When he is quite certain that Dimmesdale is the man, he finds diabolical ways to torment him, using his knowledge of alchemy. After Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth shrivels up “like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun” because there is “no more devil’s work on earth for him to do.”

The Scarlet Letter is not primarily a book about adultery; instead, it is a timeless story about sin, guilt, hypocrisy, and vengeance. Hawthorne accurately depicts the universal condition of fallen man, but without the redemption offered by God in Jesus Christ.

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Decently and in Order


January 9, 2015

I have spent the last 16 months trying to get organized. I am constantly losing my keys, my cell phone, important papers . . . my car (in the Walmart parking lot). Ted was a man of routine. He kept me on track. Now I’m on my own, and my inadequacy is quite evident.

Is order a virtue—in the sense that lack of it is a sin?

This may seem a strange question. Am I suggesting it is a sin to lose my keys? Not really; however, there is a lot more to an orderly life than where you put your stuff. What about being orderly about carrying out your responsibilities and duties? What about consistency in prayer, Bible reading, exercise, sleep, or a healthful diet?

Is an orderly life—a life of habit and ritual—necessary to live a God-pleasing life? It seems to me that in these areas, order is not only a virtue, but a necessity.

There are many influences in our lives promoting a life free from ritual and predictability. It is easy to be distracted from duty by the immediate pleasures of TV, social media, and minor but seemingly urgent activities. The philosophy of the present world urges us to shun an orderly life. Emerson, the forerunner of today’s New Age advocates and relativist thinkers, states that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Advertisements tell us we deserve a life free of drudgery and the commonplace—which spiritual disciplines can often seem like—and instead should seek a life filled with leisure and luxury.

Even in the church we are sometimes criticized for too much discipline in spiritual matters. Some churches think themselves more spiritual than others because they do not follow a specified order of service, but instead are “led by the spirit.” Too many pastors prefer to preach random topical sermons rather than use a systematic expository approach. Protestants are leery of liturgy and catechisms for fear of falling into “vain repetition.” Christians who are known for encouraging believers to be in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and for mid-week prayer meeting may be met with the unfair charge of “legalism” because they expect regular church attendance. I wonder if those who follow these practices of planned disorder are pleasing God or merely justifying their own selfish desires.

Is it possible for repetition of liturgies, catechisms, forms of service, and regular church attendance to be UN-vain, to be meaningful? Is it possible that God really does expect you to be in church every Sunday, even when you don’t feel like it and you know you will “get” nothing from the service? Does God expect you to live an orderly life?

When I looked up “order” in a Bible concordance, I found only one relevant Bible verse: “Do all things decently and in order.” The context limits the command to order in the church service, mostly with respect to the use of tongues. Then I looked up “remember,” because a big part of my problem is remembering where I put things, remembering to do what I should. I was impressed by how many commands to “remember” were accompanied by a ritual or physical reminder. The Old Testament is replete with memorial feasts, public recitations of history, and the singing of psalms. The rainbow was placed in the sky and appears to this day to remind us of God’s covenant to never again destroy the world with a flood. The law was written on stone tablets intended as a permanent reminder of moral guidelines we are to follow. The miraculous crossing of the Jordan was marked with twelve stones of remembrance. Jews were to wear God’s Word on their foreheads and expound it to their children. In the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper was established in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial death for us. How could we ever forget the most important event in history, the most important event ever to affect our own personal eternal destiny? God knows our frame—we are dust. We can and will forget without physical reminders and rituals. Thus Christian churches regularly hold communion services.

Today when the alarm went off, I rolled out of bed and to my knees—a ritual I have been trying to establish since last September. I reached over to my nightstand to find my church prayer calendar where I carefully try to remember to put it and began to pray—for my pastor, and for the deacon, church family, and missionary of the day. I included some requests of my own for my school and the day’s agenda. Then I read the Scripture verse of the week and the section of the catechism. Interestingly, the question was “What is required in the fourth commandment?” The answer: “The fourth commandment requires the keeping holy to God such set times as he has appointed in his Word; expressly one whole day in seven to be a holy Sabbath to himself.”

To me it sounds pretty much that God wants me to lead an orderly life. I’ll keep working on it.

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I am a Christian, a mother and grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a widow, a friend. . .  My life is first of all defined by relationships–to God, to my family, to my students, to my friends. Of course, I am many other things: a reader, an e-mail writer, a piano player, and a somewhat reluctant traveler, for example.  And now I am a blogger.  I’m not sure why, except it seems to be a logical next step for someone addicted to e-mail.