The end of your pen

St-Bede

After switching majors several times during undergraduate school, I finally decided on an English composition degree. As a young man in my early twenties, this category of study coincided nicely with my pursuit of an identity grounded in creativity, art, and self-expression. ‘I’ll be a creative writer,’ I thought, ‘maybe eventually teach writing as a college professor.’ My desire to be perceived as eccentric and free stretched as far as my shaggy, shoulder-length hair. I had set a trajectory for my life, a trajectory in which I would be noticed for my attractive strangeness and eloquent writing voice. My desire to write well was tragically wrapped up in egotistical pursuits, the confusion of creativity with self-centeredness.

All of this did not go away with my conversion to Christ. (Has it yet completely disappeared?) But that conversion did leave me progressively more desirous of truth, as I had encountered the One who is Truth. Initially, I became intrigued…obsessed with Christian apologetics. The rational, historical, and philosophical arguments for the truth of Christianity enamored me, filling my mind with concepts like the law of non-contradiction, teleology, C.S. Lewis’s argument from reason, to name just a few. Like many other young, ambitious converts, I spent too many hours filling in my share of Facebook threads, getting into cyber fist fights with atheists and agnostics. No one on the opposing side (that I know of) changed their mind. Even so, I became increasingly aware of the importance of articulating truth, of carrying out the work of an evangelist, so that others could know the Jesus I knew. Yet, at some level, I was still more concerned with grandiloquence (‘I’m a writer!’) than with clear, reasonable, and concise evangelism.

The challenge for writers—and especially Christian writers—is to articulate truth for the sake of truth, rather than write to express one’s own literary finesse. The importance of this concept never struck me so deeply as it did when I recently finished Jean Lecelercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, a beautiful and illuminating work about monastic culture in the later Medieval period. In the very last section of the very last chapter (entitled Detachment), I read some of the most potent and challenging words a writer could encounter. Leclercq opens the section with these words:

The criterion of the true mystic, the proof that, even though he is a literary man, he is inspired, is his detachment. If he is detached from himself, he can have no complacency for what he writes. But if one gathers that the desire to write is of prime importance to him, if an artist’s stylistic preoccupation can be discerned in his writing, then he is nothing more than a man of letters…If anyone listens to himself talk, if he pays less attention to what he is saying than to how he says it, we are annoyed by the intrusion of his ego which he erects as a barrier between us and Truth. An author of this type does not possess simplicity.

This made me reflect on how often I’ve abstained from acting on an idea and writing a piece because I felt I couldn’t articulate it as eloquently as I’d like. ‘What will people think of me as a writer if I just put this down in simple words?’ Apprehension of this kind, I now realize, is more about pride than it is the (in)ability to articulate a worthwhile idea. And it goes hand-in-hand with the turgidity I often fell prey to in social media arguments. Finding a reason to use the word ontological was sometimes more important to me than making known a simple truth. Leclercq’s rebuke is poignant—such concerns reveal intentions that lack spiritual simplicity. What, then, does it look like to write with simplicity?

The sign of an exclusively spiritual piece of writing is simplicity: a simplicity of soul which is reflected in a certain simplicity of artistry…When a man is impressed by a truth or by an experience, his major concern is to express it, not the form the ideas take. If the experience is truly spiritual even the first draft will be lofty, beautiful, and naturally artistic.

My mind naturally recalls pieces of writing I’ve come across that speak volumes about the profundity of the human condition, yet exhibited no remarkable literary genius. What stuck out about these pieces was their honesty, their truth. “When a man is impressed by a truth or by an experience, his major concern is to express it, not the form the ideas take.” Indeed. I think of my sister who has been at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis for the last eight months, helping her sixteen-month-old son fight a rare form of cancer that formed in his bladder. Needless to say, she has been to hell and back, but her social media posts reflect a strong, faithful soul who knows how to say what she needs to say with honest simplicity. After a long post about hospital delays and the difficulties of trying to entertain a young child in waiting rooms all day long, she closes with these words:

Despite the fact that I am exhausted and feel like crying my eyes out, I am thankful. I am thankful for my child’s health and for the wonderful opportunity we have in receiving the best care possible for him. I am thankful for a place to rest my head every night and food on my table. I am so blessed and have so much to be thankful for despite the circumstances we are in.

Here, there is no trace of literary self-awareness, just the simple truth. When you read it, you can feel the strength of her soul, and the struggle of the reality she faces every day. Hers is a life of prayer and perseverance, and she is not searching for sympathy (she has developed a sensitive radar for bullshit, pat answers, and unhelpful, though well-intentioned, advice). She merely wants to keep family and friends updated so they can continue to pray in specific ways. In facing the pain of watching her firstborn go through cancer treatment, she has become a mystic—one who knows the encompassing presence of God, even when it feels like absence. She is laying down her life for her son. Leclercq says that “experience transforms literature.” I know this is true when I read my sister’s posts describing what she has gone through on any given day. Expressing both wounds and joyful gratitude, her words take on a literary simplicity, while remaining pregnant with a true, saintly spirituality most successful authors will never know.

Writing is a spiritual practice because it is how truth is expressed, and truth is always spiritual, because all truth points to its Source. The written word—if it is to be true—cannot be tied to ambition. Sertillanges said, “Ambition offends eternal truth by subordinating it to itself.” If my concern lies more with literary eloquence than with making Reality known, I have become a slave of ambition rather than a servant of Truth. Saint Paul responded to the church at Corinth concerning its factions, based on worldly ambition: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). One might interpret this: “The experience of grace and truth always far outweighs positions of power and recognition.” The notion is crucicentric. The cross upends everything humanity thinks she knows about truth, power, ambition, success.

So, what does that mean for the writer who is also a disciple of Jesus?

To neglect writing to live a truly “spiritual” life instead would present a false dichotomy, for grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. In fact, the disciple of Jesus is ipso facto called to a life of articulating the truth. Our experience of grace entails inviting others into that experience: “Go therefore and make disciples…” For those in Holy Orders, the onus is even greater. Leclercq again: “Should the mystic be a shepherd of souls, a doctor and a writer of the Church, he has the duty to communicate to others what he knows of God.” The written word is not an impediment to the direction of souls, but a necessary means to it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, in responding to the “naive objectivism” of the Enlightenment’s search for a trans-traditional rationality, emphasized human language as a horizon upon which we discover truth. He taught that our linguisticality is not a prison, but a constitutive part of the method of learning, of understanding, of expression. One can see that writing ought to be a holy endeavor, a landscape for the disclosure of truth and beauty.

While words are important, and the ability to write a gift to be used instrumentally by God, it is ultimately the experience of grace that will enable Christian writers to articulate the truth. When one experiences the life of grace, there will just simply be things that must be said, that must be made known, things that will call others to be followers of the One who is Truth. But for those of us who take up the pen, it is of utmost importance to remember that we are broken vessels whose efficacy depends upon the One who takes what is broken, redeems it, and uses it for his glory. Bernard of Clairvaux, in his final sermon on the Song of Songs, said, “Oh you who are anxious to learn what it is to enjoy the Word, prepare not your ear but your soul; for it is grace that teaches it and not language.” It is out of love for the Word-made-flesh that we must write, and our writing must always be a response to his own life, the life that is our salvation:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.             

(1 Corinthians 5:14-15)

 

Sources

  1. Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press), 1982.
  2. A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press of America), 1987.
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Metanarratives and the illusion of choice

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Stroll into your local cellular service provider store and take note of the dozens of options with which you are presented. Chances are, there are at least forty different devices you can choose from for calling, texting, web-browsing, and a couple dozen other “applications.” When you are greeted by a sales rep, she will be quick to draw your attention to the variety of devices, each with its own unique interface and hardware, some offering more technological bells and whistles than others. Your conversation will quickly move to the topic of personalization — this selective process is about you. “What works for you? What do you need out of a device? Which model fits your personality aesthetically? Which features will you need, considering your job, family life, and personal preferences? How much would you like to spend?” The options appear to be endless, many of them competing for your attention as if they were designed specifically with you in mind. You ruminate: “This one would be great for ______ , but that one does have the ________ . But then again, color is important…” One popular company advertises its new line of multi-color phones with such an appeal: “Color makes a statement and reveals your personality.” Decisions, decisions.

In the global economy, cell phones are simply one example of what appears to be a diverse offering of options, each suited to individual taste. One can visit any large chain supermarket and see a thousand different products offered in a hundred different varieties. Would you prefer grape jelly? Raspberry? Strawberry? Blackberry preserves? Orange marmalade? All-natural? Would you prefer it to be sugar free? Would you like it pre-packaged with peanut butter? Do you like seedless? We are encouraged to perceive “variety,” and rejoice in our freedom to choose between so many options. But is what we are experiencing truly diversity?

William Cavanaugh, using the example of orange juice varieties, reminds us that “it is easy to forget that all that variety tends to fade into the one overriding imperative to consume” (68). And so it is with jelly, cell phones, and any other line of products offered us in shopping centers and grocery stores. We are incentivized to buy through the illusion of difference — an illusion that appears to offer us a good, something that will satisfy our desires as diverse individuals who need different things. My neighbor Bruce prefers vanilla soy milk, but I prefer unsweetened almond milk. Thankfully, the supermarket down the road offers both (and many more options). To us, consumer goods offered in a variety of options seems a mere celebration of human diversity. There’s a product to satisfy each individual’s unique personal needs. The story at work here says you have true freedom the more choices you have. But again, we must ask, does the plethora of multifarious products we see on display truly offer variety? Is this really about difference?

Cavanaugh writes, “[D]ifference in globalization is largely a surface difference. The sheer abundance of difference, the very variety and speed with which differences are produced, mandates that no difference be sufficiently different to constitute a true departure from the same. Any difference is on the surface and is ultimately dispensable. This applies not only to products but to traditions, cultures, religions, and self-identities of all kinds” (67, emphasis mine).

In other words, the ideology that underlies the global market, and especially free market capitalism, is also seen in other cultural phenomena such as religious relativism, multiculturalism, and postmodern philosophy. The relevance of this to Christians who hold Jesus to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” the exclusive revelation of God to humankind, is to be seriously considered. By nature, the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to God does not sit well in a culture that operates on a fundamental moral and religious relativism. “Who are you to claim that your religion is the right one? What about all the faithful Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians out there?” These kinds of questions are the typical ones posed in response to Christian truth claims, and they are questions any follower of Jesus should engage with charity and humility. But to engage these questions will require us to think about the philosophy that underlies them.

———

Back to the idea of choice. Our Western culture exalts choice as a basic human right and a perfect expression of individualism that is rightfully ours. This “freedom of choice” ideology is not limited to cell phones or coffee beans, but finds expression in the world of religious philosophy. The argument goes something like this: “There is a great number of different religions, cultural beliefs, and traditions, and as a free individual I should be able to choose whichever ones suit me best. I accept that all have something good to offer, but no one should be allowed to say that theirs is the only true one.” Or, to put it in a more definitively religious way: “There are many different religious paths, but in the end, they will all lead to the same God. This God has revealed himself/herself/itself through all sorts of religions so as to give every culture and every religious believer a fair shot at connecting to him/her/it. We just have to make the choice that is best for us.” At first glance, there seems to be a kind of pleasant freedom in this decision process. There is no pressure to find the “right one,” and one’s individuality is upheld as it is expressed in one’s choice of religion or culture. But is this freedom? This “freedom of choice” mentality — the ideology of religious relativism or multiculturalism — seeks to be free from any overriding metanarratives or exclusive truth claims about the nature of reality. Initially, it may appear that it has escaped such commitments, and instead offers a picture of the world in which everyone can be right as they enjoy the personal freedoms of autonomy (I define my truth; You define yours). And this is the best way to respect the differences among the various cultures and religions of the world, right?

But consider. Is there truly no overarching narrative at work here? What appears to be freedom of choice is, in fact, an ideological hegemony. Cavanaugh puts it like this: “Beyond simple and laudable attempts to include those who are different in our institutions, multiculturalism as an ideology is in fact postcultural or anticultural: it subjects every culture to the withering hegemony of cultural relativism and individual choice” (68). In other words, there actually is a metanarrative at work here, and it is exclusive in its claims and demands. Individuals must choose a relativistic view of culture and religion, and that is the way we must engage our reality. All of the traditions, religions, and cultures of the world become a smorgasbord of choices — none more “true” than the others, because truth is in the eye of the beholder. But what inevitably results in this situation is that, in the very act of exalting difference, we become more similar in that we are consumed by a metanarrative of individualism and personal freedom. To put it another way, this ideology says, ‘There really is only one true religion — the religion of the Self, the religion of choice, the religion of relativism.’ In its very denial of exclusive truth claims, this hegemonic philosophy undercuts itself by making an exclusive truth claim, and all while sacrificing culture and tradition on the altar of individualism. Cavanaugh reminds us, “To make a tradition the subject of choice…is to kill it as a tradition. Any claim a particular cultural or religious tradition might make on the individual is threatened by the overriding imperative of choice” (68).

The problem with religious relativism or multiculturalism does not lie in their aims to celebrate the beauty of diversity, but in their failure to provide a metanarrative in which true diversity can be upheld. Ostensibly, what is offered is personal freedom and diversity, but this is only a guise concealing a claim about the nature of reality — that truth goes no further than the Self. Nothing outside of the individual’s subjective mind is really true, and that is exclusively and objectively true! The contradictory nature of such an ideology is obvious.

Is there not a better way to exalt the beauty of our cultural differences? A way which allows for diversity but within a metanarrative that doesn’t contradict itself? Isn’t there more to reality than a metaphysic which begins and ends with personal choice and consumption?

Enter Jesus Christ. The Christian Gospel claims that the God of all creation (the God who is found through all manner of religious paths, according to relativism’s claims), the Infinite Source of Being, Wisdom, Life, Joy, and Love, who created and sustains all things, has chosen to take on human flesh and make himself known to the world. We call this the Incarnation. In an act of utter humility and self-emptying, he not only becomes man, but a servant of all humankind, giving up his very earthly life that he may draw all people to himself — that is, to God. Think about that for a moment. God, who is infinite in power, chooses to make himself a vulnerable human being, so that he may identify with and save the world. That is an absurd claim, yes? There is a reason the apostle Paul calls the gospel message “foolishness” in the eyes of the world. It makes no sense because it is a victory that is founded not on violence, force, prestige, and worldly power, but on humility and self-denial. But by the act of identifying himself with humanity, he is able to take all of humanity into himself. However, he does not do this by force. He opens his arms to all and says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” but he does not say, “You must choose me.” What he does speak to the whole world is a question he once asked one of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

What does the Incarnation mean in the context of our discussion of choice, freedom, and diversity? In Christ, the Universal becomes the One. And in doing so, he does not absorb everything into himself, into a polymorphous sea of meaningless difference. Rather, he invites all — all religions, all truth, all beauty, all people — to find their consummation in him. In him, all that is good and beautiful in the diversity of the world’s cultures, traditions, and religions will find its true glory. That which is not true and good and beautiful will be washed away. Jesus is God’s definitive answer to all of the questions the world has ever and will ever ask: What is truth? What is Good? How do we achieve true peace? What is the path to enlightenment and salvation? How can we all be united in our diversity? The answer to these questions — questions arising from all cultures, all times, everywhere — is in the person of Jesus.

The elder John, whose apocalyptic visions are recorded in the book of Revelation, saw images of an eschatological reality in which all of this beauty and diversity are perfectly held together:

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Jesus), robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’…Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'” (Revelation 7:9-10;13-17)

Could any other image be so beautiful in its representation of unity in diversity? Peoples from all nations, tribes, and tongues, are gathered around the One in whom they find their fulfillment, their safety and peace, their eternal joy, their salvation. Drawing on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, William Cavanaugh explains it beautifully:

“As the absolutely unique, Christ is the center to which all the relative uniqueness of all the other forms and images of the world are related. Christ is the infinitely integrating one who makes room in himself for everything truly human. Other forms are not simply false and thus excluded; their fragmentary truth is illuminated by the comprehensive truth of Christ, and in Christ they are brought fully to themselves. Their differences are not simply obliterated; in them the whole Christ is revealed.” (78-9)

In a society whose overarching narrative is driven by the idea of personal freedom — whether in choosing a cell phone or a religion — we have no choice (!) but to see our unpredictable desires as an end in themselves. The Christian Gospel offers an alternative to this ideology. There, God calls us to our true end, our telos, which is eternal joy and peace in him. Only when we embrace that offer — by giving ourselves to the embrace of his Son — will our desires be taken up into the Divine life and reordered toward the end for which they were made. This is an offer that transforms us from being mere consumers into those who are consumed — consumed by a God of love who forgives all wrongdoing and invites all peoples to himself. This is also the answer to questions like, “What about all of the faithful adherents of other religions out there?” Rather than affirming every worldview as true (which is actually to say that none are true), we uphold Christ as the One who beckons all worldviews into himself. Rather than absorbing them (like relativism does) into an ideology of personal choice and consumption, he consummates them, affirming what is true in their ways of seeing the world, and asks them to renounce that which he reveals to be untrue. In doing so, all find their true identity in him and diversity shines through brightly.

The Gospel will always be a challenge to our worldviews, but only when we explore and question the philosophies underlying those worldviews will be able to see the glorious beauty of what Jesus Christ offers the world.

*quotes taken from Being Consumed: Economics and Christan Desire by William T. Cavanaugh

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Christmas in Fairyland

paperfan Lately our news feeds are bustling with tragic stories. Almost every week another story hits headlines where someone’s life is unnecessarily taken — a child is struck by a drunk driver, hostages are taken, young men are killed before their arrest is completed, police officers on patrol are unexpectedly shot at point blank range. Immediately our news sites and social media threads becomes the locus of unending cries of anger, sadness, hatred, and anxiety. Emotions run high, and appropriately so. The human heart is living out her natural reaction to injustice. We hate that innocent people die, and we hate that the wicked successfully pull off heinous crimes. Our crushed hearts undergo confusing and anxious emotions in response to what we naturally know to be the palpable pain of a disordered world.

Disorder.

Meaning: Out-of-order. Meaning: Messed-up. Meaning: Gone-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket. Meaning: Absolutely-not-what-it-should-be.

We respond this way because we long for order, for justice, for peace, harmony, and good will among men. We know there is a way that things should be, and for some reason, things are not that way. That is why we can’t stand it when the innocent die. That is why we want injustice to be extinguished. Because so much of this is nonsense. Meaningless nonsense. It doesn’t need to happen, but it does. And it goes on and on and on. We are left with so many questions because we feel there must be some way of making sense of all of this, and the fact that we cannot make sense of it leaves us frustrated and sick to our stomachs.

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In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Sins of Prince Saradine, priest-turned-sleuth Father Brown and his criminal-turned-detective partner Flambeau, in response to a mysterious invitation from an Italian prince, find themselves on an island of Norfolk visiting Prince Saradine’s home. Prince Saradine is infamous for his adulterous misappropriation of a man’s wife which results in the betrayed man’s apparent suicide. Flambeau, a former thief, is intrigued by the invitation and, taking along Father Brown, sails to the notorious prince’s home. Later, we find out that “Prince Saradine” is now, in fact, the Prince’s brother (Stephen) who has blackmailed his way to a new identity, having discovered that the real Prince murdered his lover’s husband. The real Prince Saradine (Paul) disguises himself as a butler in the home and allows his pesky brother to continue his role as the Prince. As fate would have it, the betrayed (and deceased) man’s son, seeking revenge for his dead father, shows up, challenges “Prince Saradine” to a duel, and quickly kills him (Stephen) with a rapier. The real Prince Saradine derives a devilish satisfaction from his brother’s fate. Betrayal and injustice run deep in the Saradine family.

Earlier in the story, before the faux prince is killed, the spiritually intuitive Father Brown is left in the room with him, and the “prince” engages the priest in a dialogue.

“Do you believe in doom?” asked the restless Prince Saradine suddenly.

 “No,” answered his guest. “I believe in Doomsday.”

 The prince turned from the window and stared at him in a singular manner, his face in shadow against the sunset. “What do you mean?” he asked.

 “I mean that we here are on the wrong side of the tapestry,” answered Father Brown. “The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else. Somewhere else retribution will come on the real offender. Here it often seems to fall on the wrong person.”

What does Father Brown mean by “the wrong side of the tapestry”? Near the beginning of the story, when Father Brown and Flambeau approach the island of Prince Saradine’s house, Flambeau, aroused by the beauty of the landscape beneath a bright moon, exclaims, “By Jove!…it’s like being in fairyland.” Father Brown sits up startled and retorts, “The people who wrote the medieval ballads…knew more about fairies than you do. It isn’t only nice things that happen in fairyland.” Flambeau, still intrigued by the landscape insists on moving forward. Father Brown concedes: “All right…I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous.” His words prove ominous as the detective duo land themselves amidst a situation of moral chaos and fratricide.

Father Brown is sensitive to the moral reality of fairyland. And that’s what makes fairyland dangerous – the unchanging normativity of eternal laws that can be broken by willful decisions. Consequently, an adventure in fairyland comes at a cost – the cost of human responsibility, of personal liability. (For Chesterton, fairyland is reality vis-à-vis a reductionist world that is simply governed by natural law.) Father Brown’s awareness of this reality makes him a sort of Sherlock Holmes figure who illuminates for less perceptive Watson-like characters (Flambeau) the nature of mysterious moral mishaps and the twisted tendencies of the human heart. He is also tuned in to the reality that seemingly meaningless and cruel misfortunes will one day be illuminated in the light of justice.

“The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else…”

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Tomorrow is Christmas. We celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the moment on the Church’s calendar in which we rejoice at the inbreaking of God’s Eternal Light in human form. This is the one of whom Ezekiel foretells will seek out the lost, bind up their wounds, and heal their injuries. Not only will this shepherd nourish and strengthen the weak and oppressed sheep with compassion, he will “feed with justice” the fat and strong who have been the oppressor (see Ezekiel 34). As the prophet Amos puts it, he will “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Is this not the one for whom the human heart cries loudly in devastating news headlines and angry social media posts?

As we near the end of not only the Advent season, but a year of innumerable, seemingly pointless tragedies, I cannot help but see that all of humanity is groaning with the desire for order, for things to be set right, for a world that has in many ways become a living hell to be engulfed in Heaven’s Light. Like the Israelites of the 1st century, we are living in our own kind of “silent years,” awaiting for the restoration of our world. Because we are on the “wrong side of the tapestry” we can’t make sense of the injustice we experience. We want to know that the tragic events surrounding us “mean something somewhere else” and that a trustworthy Shepherd and King will come to sort them out and make them right.

For now, we must imitate Father Brown. We must point out that injustice is rebellion against an eternal changeless order of righteousness. And we must echo his prophetic message that justice will one day arrive on the scene of fairyland.

Let us remember that the Christmas narrative is the story from which we must speak comfort and hope to the pain and frustration of our fellow human beings. It is the only story that makes sense of the ubiquitous disorder of our world and promises to blanket every corner of the cosmos in everlasting peace: Ferguson,  Brooklyn, Staten Island, Sydney, Israel, Syria, North Korea, and every other square inch of Creation that suffers from injustice and mayhem. Nothing will be untouched by fire of God’s restoring hand.

That is Good News. That is a message worth taking to the ends of the earth. It is the reality we are called to embody in our everyday lives because it is the reality to which God himself gives birth.

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (Isa. 9:6-7)

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St. Stephen’s Courage

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The past few days of Daily Office readings took us through St. Stephen’s lengthy diatribe to several groups of Jews in Jerusalem synagogues. The speech did not fall on receptive ears, and Stephen lost his life because of his stinging words. As I read through it, I noticed a few things I think we can learn from Stephen’s approach to proclaiming the Gospel:

1) Narrative is important: I know there is a lot of trendy talk about “narrative theology” these days, but when we look at the sermons in Acts, they are almost always driven by story, and I think that is important for us to heed. Peter, Paul, and the others don’t show up uninvited to parties and start asking people, “Are you saved, brother?” or, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Instead, they tell the story — their shared history with the fellow Jews to whom they speak. Then, they connect that story to their personal experiences with the Risen Lord and call others to enter God’s Kingdom. Stephen follows the same pattern. “Full of grace and power,” he launches into Israel’s story, then explains to his audience how they are missing some important things about God’s nature and action as a result of their desire to cage God inside of religion and buildings. Stephen patiently explains the story, but he does not hesitate to let them know they are guilty for rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit. Before he does that, he is thorough in telling the story. He does not just show up to their events, holding signs that say, “God Hates Jesus-Rejectors.” He is thorough-going in giving context to why his audience is in need of repentance. The Narrative precedes any challenge. While in our context we would probably not use the harsh language Stephen does, the lesson for us is that the Story needs to be patiently shared before we ask people to encounter what God is doing in the world. Without the narrative context, asking someone to follow Jesus is going to make us sound like an infomercial for a “life-changing” product. A more “biblical” approach would be to take time to explain the story of God’s redemptive work and our own personal testimony of how that work has challenged, transformed, and shaped us.

2) Courage requires us to say the “hard stuff” too: Again, while we would probably choose different wording than Stephen (“You stiff-necked people…”), there does come a time to ask a person to face the reality of their rebellion and sinfulness. This, of course, must be done with heavy doses of patience, wisdom, and compassion, but the Gospel is not simply therapy for self-improvement; the Gospel calls men and women to recognize their separation from God and to open their hearts to his forgiveness and reconciling embrace. Jesus doesn’t just force his way into lives. Repentance (Gk: metanoia) means “turning away from one thing  and turning toward another.” That decision needs to be freely made by the individual. How will that turning ever happen if the person does not know they are in need of reorientation? Or, as St. Paul says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).

3) Receive rejection and persecution with grace and forgiveness: Like Jesus, Stephen is murdered, but dies pleading forgiveness for his oppressors. His stinging words are accompanied by self-sacrificial love. In the U.S. we are probably not going to be murdered for sharing the Gospel with someone, but the message will often be scornfully rejected. Stephen is a model for us in how to receive that rejection: Pray God’s mercy to fall upon those who are unwilling to receive the truth of Christ. If they reject you, love them and serve them anyhow. Ultimately, it is not up to us to change hearts, anyhow. God must do that work. But it is our job to always show mercy, forgive relentlessly, and pray for and bless enemies. Notice that Stephen (like Jesus on the cross) doesn’t say, “Fine. Have it your way. Burn in hell for all of eternity.” He believes that God’s mercy will still pursue those who reject him, so he throws gracious prayers as they throw stones. So it must be with us.

 

Stephen embraces his role as deacon-servant and courageously narrates the Story of Christ crucified while retaining a posture of mercy. Lord, help us to follow in his footsteps and speak with courage and compassion to those who do not yet know You.

 

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Get Broken

In Kenneth Leech’s book Spirituality and Pastoral Care, he moves from several chapters on ministerial theory and theology to a survey of 4 different leaders he experienced in his life who modeled genuine Christ-like leadership. One of the ministers he discusses is Colin Winter, an Anglican priest and bishop who, for many years of his life, fought the evils of apartheid in Namibia and established there an International Peace Center. Winter felt deeply about the Christian’s call to walk in solidarity with the poor and weak, and to speak prophetically against the Church’s abandonment of the priorities of the Gospel. Winter authored a “disturbing book” entitled The Breaking Process, a title which refers to the need of every Christian to “be broken down before we can know the healing and transforming power of Christ.” Leech quotes Winter’s book and I hope you find the words as “disturbing” as I did:

The thing about Jesus was you either loved him or hated him; you followed him or plotted to kill him. Jesus really did tear apart his own society by his words, by his actions, by those with whom he associated, including harlots and some extremely unsavoury characters. Everything about him invited confrontation… There was nothing of the appeaser about Jesus. He did not practise the art of religious diplomacy. His language too showed no restraint; though it shone with gentleness and compassion for the sick, the broken, the rejected and unwanted, it carried all the sting of the viper when it was exposing the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisee…

Society’s values were being exposed to the fierce gaze of the prophet, were broken in pieces to be replaced by the demands for total, self-giving love. No one reading the gospel honestly could come away with a different conclusion: Jesus challenged the society of his day, exposed its meanness and sought to replace it. He was killed for so doing. Moreover he never sought to apologise for this confrontation: he saw it as an inevitable consequence of faithfulness to the gospel.”

Those words sting a bit, don’t they? Winter’s voice is prophetic, especially in our own time when the Church has, in many ways, compromised the Gospel and exchanged it for a vacuous self-help therapy that champions a comfortable and undisturbed life.

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Friends, we cannot live undisturbed. Jesus did bring us a peace that surpasses understanding, but he also brought a sword, and if that sword is not slicing through the chains of our comfort and complacency, then something is wrong. Something needs to change. We need to get broken.

As I look out at the horizon of evils plaguing our world, I feel more and more the urgency of this need for the Church to get broken, to get disturbed. There are countless injustices happening around the world right now, at this very moment, and I wonder how many of us are the least bit disturbed by these things. And I don’t just mean in theory. I mean, truly moved with the splagchnizomai compassion of our Lord (Matthew 14:14), the compassion that moved him to heal the sick and feed the hungry even when he was trying to escape the crowds for a few moments of solitude. That kind of compassion is not just butterflies-in- your-stomach sentimentality; it is a compassion that moves, that does.

The glaringly obvious evil that something currently needs to be done about is the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Iraq. If the photos of decapitated children’s bodies don’t move you to do something, then you haven’t been broken yet. I understand the feeling of helplessness since we can’t just fly right over there and provide goods and services, but there are things we can do. This past Sunday’s lectionary gospel passage of the feeding of the 5,000 addresses this very thing. The disciples feel helpless concerning the hungry multitude’s needs, but Jesus insists, “You give them something to eat.” And they see God’s power and compassion as he multiplies their small and inadequate resources so the people can receive the nourishment they need.

We too can start small and bring the little we have to the Lord, trusting that he will use it. We can start by hitting our knees and crying out to God to put an end to these atrocities. And, let’s be honest: Would it kill us to send a small check or Paypal donation to an organization that is hitting the ground running with supplies and services to all of the refugees? Here’s one of many websites where you can do that: http://www.iraqichristianrelief.org/

As American Christians, we are blessed with freedom, peace, and abundant resources. But we must not let ourselves sit around in the comfort of our homes, unmoved by what is going on around us. Recall Colin Winter’s words about the effect of Jesus’ message: “Society’s values were being exposed to the fierce gaze of the prophet, were broken in pieces to be replaced by the demands for total, self-giving love.

Christian, are your values, your comfort, your life, broken in pieces by the demand for total, self-giving love? The fierce gaze of our compassionate Lord is looking at you and saying, “You give them something to eat.”

May we ask the Lord for his heart of compassion, for Him to break us and empower us to do the work to which we are commissioned.

 

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“Do not take me for some conjurer of cheap tricks!”

The Scriptures often speak of the crucial importance of walking in the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is not a cowering feeling of terror, but an awe-filled and reverent posture toward God-in-Christ. This posture recognizes God to be the only way to the joyous and meaningful eternal existence for which we are created.

To live in the fear of the Lord is to surrender to his transforming love, to live as if what I do here matters in the light of eternity. This love calls us to an ongoing change of heart — a turning from all the little distracting idols of this life and toward our Ultimate Good as glory-filled partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Finding this path that moves toward glory begins with the fear of the Lord, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). Without that wisdom and insight, we have to carve out our own paths and quickly become lost. We seek solace in idols that give us no ultimate purpose, but drain us of life.

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To fear God is not to run from him, afraid of his power, but to run to him and recognize that he knows what is best for us. There’s a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo and Gandalf discuss the seductive power of the ring — a distracting, soul-consuming idol in Bilbo’s life — and Gandalf suggests that Bilbo leaves the ring behind. Bilbo is then overcome by the ring’s allure and refuses to obey Gandalf’s instruction. Bilbo’s irrational state of mind leads him to accuse Gandalf of desiring the ring for his own selfish purposes. With heartfelt concern for Bilbo’s well-being, Gandalf, in a stern, thundering voice, shouts, “Bilbo Baggins, do not take me for some conjurer of cheap tricks! I am not trying to rob you. I’m trying to help you.” Frightened and sorrowful, his lower lip quivering, Bilbo walks into Gandalf’s loving embrace.

Tolkien has given us a poignant portrayal of how the fear of the Lord — the One who cares for our well-being and knows what is best for us — should drive us into his arms in full surrender. Bilbo’s attention is grabbed by simultaneously recognizing Gandalf’s power (an image of reverent fear) and acknowledging the wizard’s wisdom and love. Bilbo’s identity was becoming wrapped up in the ring and only Gandalf’s powerful call could draw the hobbit back to reality.

We are much like Bilbo — distracted by life-consuming idols. To us, these idols seem innocuous, but slowly and progressively our identity becomes engulfed by them. They gain power in our lives and subtly change who we are. The only antidote is a healthy fear of the Lord, for through this fear the insidious power of the “rings” in our lives is revealed. Our eyes are open to the Lord’s deep love for us and we are able to let go of our idols and run into his embrace.

How do we know when we’ve discovered the fear of the Lord? When our lives are ordered by his instruction, his unburdensome commandments. When we let go of idols and broken compasses that lead us away from life-giving paths and instead take refuge in his sweet presence. For the Lord is not a conjurer of cheap tricks, trying to rob us of the good. He is a personal, caring God who calls us to obedience because that is the only way we find perfect freedom. “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:17-18).

 

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Preaching Provocatively

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The preacher’s task is not to make things clear. So often I’ve heard pastors and priests desperately attempting to explain biblical concepts through exegetical acrobatics and linguistic prowess. They have a point to make and they will use lots of Scripture passages, Greek words, and theological propositions to prove this absolute truth. Such expository preaching can easily fall prey to point-proving or problem-solving.

People come to church to be provoked into the mystery of God-in-Christ, not cajoled into accepting propositional truths. This makes the preacher’s role one of mystery-evoker rather than dialectical don. Preaching is meant to foster and nurture a relationship between creature and Creator; simple platitudes and propositions fail to draw creatures into the living and divine life their Creator desires them to enjoy.

Preaching no doubt ought to engage the truth of Scripture, but it should engage Scripture relationally as the real narrative in which we are invited to live. If preaching merely expounds bullet-point truths in a list fashion, people will walk away having perhaps paid attention, but failed to become absorbed in the Christ-life Scripture seeks to portray. An alternative example to lists or points would be to use metaphor to not only describe, but invite the mind into a colorful story in which the hearer is provoked to respond with life transformation. “What [this] does is force the mind into action to find meaning at another level, ‘engaging the imagination in a cognitive and affective exploration of the subject in and through relationships that seem strange but in fact, are more illuminating than literal predication'” (Eugene Peterson, The Unnecessary Pastor, p.71). That other level of meaning comes to us through symbol and story, metaphor and metonymy.

The preaching-hearing relationship should be a joy for both priest and parishioner, for it is the articulation of God’s Word to us, the Words of Life. In preaching, a beautiful transfer of great magnitude takes place. But the preacher must be careful to not reduce the Living Word into simplistic propositions or self-help truisms. For the Word of God is not a doctrinal diatribe contained in black ink on paper, but is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

 

 

 

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