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Archive for the ‘Exhortations’ Category

Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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“Is national grieving still possible?” Russell Moore asked yesterday, for good reason. The Orlando shootings have unmasked a sad reality which, if it continues to spread, doesn’t bode well for the United States going forward: that for many Americans, exploiting the angles of cultural identity politics is more important than expressing common humanity and compassion (e.g., by offered prayers, cries of lament, calls for aid). Not a few words of unqualified, unreserved grief and kindness have been met with something like: “Until you support legislation/programme X, your expressions of grief aren’t worth a single molecule of spit from your vile mouth.”

Also unsettling: several important facts from Orlando — like what the killer’s precise motives and associations were — are only just now being established with something like solid precision. But in many quarters the commentary, spin, and blame cycles ran faster than the investigative and reporting cycles. Instead of digging up and beholding the stubborn facts in all their terror and sordidness — and complexity — the priority of the day was to transform just outrage at a profoundly evil act into hatred against Group X.

Such responses haven’t, thank God, been universal or even predominant. But they have been common. Far too common. Where the expression of human grief and the practical alleviation of human pain are less weighty matters than which Reichstag Fire Narrative wins, there is a disease in the public mind. If you have been smacked down by Bizarro Nation for expressions of grief and sympathy, even for organizing or participating in relief efforts, do not be discouraged. Carry on. You are the sane ones.

That said, since it is imperative that our love “abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment,” none of us ought be obtuse about the following realities:

(1) The fifty persons who have died, and the one-hundred and three who were shot, were shot at a gay nightclub. The killer targeted his victims because they are gay. Therefore, while constructive responses to this act of terrorism must be general and national, not factional, it will not do to blind ourselves to the fact that all persons and communities which identify as LGBT, and friends and family of LGBT persons, are and for some time will be suffering from particularly acute grief for their loved ones and fear for their safety. Note that, respect it, and act accordingly;

(2) The murderer-terrorist in Orlando was a Muslim. Therefore, it will likewise not do to blind ourselves to the fact that Muslims and Muslim communities in the United States are and for some time will be uniquely subject to, and suffering from elevated fear of, backlash. Note that, respect it, and act accordingly;

(3) Whenever terrorists strike, two opposite errors will appear to tempt us: first, “the killer was a totally unique monster, an unhinged lone wolf”; second, “the killer is the true face of Bogeyman Group X which, given half the chance, stands ready to mobilize an army of people to go and do likewise.” Note both errors well, note that they are in fact errors, and avoid them.

May the recently departed rest in peace. Grace and peace to those whose homes and communities have been and will be particularly affected by this evil.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

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Every now and then someone crosses our path and insists we think about an important matter which, on account of sloth or cowardice, we would sooner avoid. Recently Andrew Osenga has been performing that office for me. He doesn’t know he’s been doing that. Last year, though, he released a concept album, Leonard the Lonely Astronaut, that has pressed me to think through a subject — loneliness — I’d usually shy away from thinking about.

Some people steer clear of thinking about loneliness because they’re afraid of loneliness itself. I usually shy away from thinking about it for a different reason: it’s kind of my beat. It’s a pet I’m often quite happy to feed and groom with mindless solicitude, forgetting that, for all its soft fur, it has some damn sharp teeth, and it can bite. Leonard confronts me about this.

leon-535x266

Andrew Osenga as Leonard Belle.

The album goes about confronting me in several ways. Without going into a review proper*, I will note its general musical excellence, and its lyrical cogency and depth, which prevent me from writing it off on style points before I hear what it has to say**.  That is especially important since what Leonard says hits uncomfortably close to home. Osenga sings it in the character of Leonard Belle, a loner who was in the process of divorcing his wife when she suddenly and unexpectedly died. Following that succession of tragedies, he jumped into a space freighter and set off into space all by his lonesome. Like Leonard, I have a pronounced tendency toward introversion, and I am divorced; had a spaceship been available immediately following my divorce, the idea of a solo space mission would have presented a very real temptation. Leonard was released a bit late for it to be cathartic, but it carries a great deal of credibility with me because of its realistic portrayal of divorce’s aftermath. Its verisimilitude extends down to small details. To take one example: there’s a line in “We Never Said Goodbye” where Leonard says, “to look at my bed is such defeat now” — too well do I remember that sense of defeat, which drove me to sleep on the couch for a solid year.

In short, when Leonard insists that I think sharp about loneliness, I listen. What follows is some of the fruit of that thinking.

A moment ago I compared loneliness to an animal with soft fur and sharp teeth. But there are many such animals, and these present us with a broad spectrum, both as to danger and goodness. House cats present little danger (opinions as to their goodness vary). Pet dogs may present a little more real danger, though we generally think of them as “good.”  Tigers and bears appear to us as very real, but amoral, dangers. Wargs are really evil, and really dangerous. And Aslan is simultaneously the most good and least safe being you’d ever meet. As with furry animals with sharp teeth, so with loneliness: there are different kinds, ranging from bad to good, and these kinds present diverse dangers.

I.  Common (bad) loneliness

After the weekend
He was standing at the corner,
With his hands itching for pockets;
He was looking for another just like him.
And the heart of God broke for his creation:
It was not good for man to be alone.

Osenga, “It Was Not Good for Man to be Alone”

I start with common loneliness, which we may also call bad loneliness. The first thing God described as “not good” was the man’s being alone. And so we have to admit that most — probably almost all — loneliness is bad. Some of the simple causes of bad loneliness are listed in Osenga’s “Out of Time”: spite (“fine, tell your father he was right, I wasn’t worth your time”), sloth (“guess I just didn’t try”), cowardice (“I was scared, I don’t know why”), and presumption (“oh, how I loved you, but I never told you . . . always thought there was time”). There isn’t anything for this kind of loneliness but to go after its root causes.

II. Difficult loneliness

When we said “I need you”
It didn’t sound right;
We were hurt and confused,
Fragile as the breath of a candle,
Staring in silence at the Tower of Babel.

Where do we go from here?

Osenga, “Tower of Babel”

There is another kind of loneliness, though.  I call this the “difficult loneliness,” and its causes tend to be more complex than the causes of common, bad loneliness: confusions in cultures and languages, differences of worldviews and characters. Difficult loneliness arises from the fact that everyone is to us an “other,” and from our being an “other” to everyone. There may be very little about any of us that is truly sui generis, but there are lots of wrinkles to all of us that aren’t easily understood. Difficult loneliness is a goad to make us explain these wrinkles, particularly to those we trust and love. In that sense, difficult loneliness is a good thing. It makes us think, grow, communicate; it makes us step out in faith. Difficult loneliness also presents us with the real, profound dangers of frustration or betrayal.

When we shrink in fear from trying to overcome difficult loneliness, or when our efforts to overcome it end in frustration or betrayal, its ultimate effect may be to send us back to bad loneliness.  Or it may point us to a place through which we must press, into a third kind of loneliness.

III. Peculiar loneliness

As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father.

George MacDonald, The New Name, in Unspoken Sermons, First Series (1867).

This third kind of loneliness is, when found, exceedingly good; finding it is also exceedingly rare. This is the loneliness that comes from the thing about us that no other created being will ever understand, though we spend ages trying to explain. George MacDonald described it thus in The New Name:

In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter. I say not it is the innermost chamber — but a chamber into which no brother, nay, no sister can come.

The existence of this loneliness presents us with several dangers. It’s exceedingly difficult to locate this “chamber of peculiar life.” For we never really know if or when a brother or sister might come along to give us the secret handshake; and, if we then refuse our brother or sister entry to the inner chamber, on the ground that we’d already called it “ours,” our miserliness would place us in mortal danger of falling into the most diabolical loneliness of all. On the other hand, if we make no progress in finding out where this inner chamber lies, the frustration arising from its unknown, unacknowledged existence could well consume us.

Here is the loneliness that would embitter us for all eternity — or the secret joy, the inside joke between each of us and God, that would sustain us, even if all hell rained its fury upon our heads.

* If you’re looking for one of those, I suggest checking out Jason Gray’s review here. If you’re interested in another, more elegant Leonard-inspired essay, I suggest Stephen Lamb’s, which you may read here.

** Yes, I am that small.

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So much reads straight in a smile’s crooked lines:
One betrays care, fear of the enemy —
tough, big, or swindler — crouching at the door;
Another knows where the enemy hides,
And, that presently the bastard will be
Knocked out cold upon the doorstep.
If you smile, friend, follow that second line;
The first is to cast your pearls before swine.

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Over the past two years I have devoted a handful of posts to the subject of the Christian year, and, specifically, to how the liturgical calendar can fund and shape our imaginations. In a series at the Lantern Hollow Press blog, I’ve posted on Advent, at Christmas, at Christmas again, at Epiphany, and at Ascensiontide. Here, I’ve posted several times on Lent.  Today, on our national Thanksgiving Day, I have these grateful reflections on the longest season of the Christian year: Trinity.

From Advent through Pentecost, the liturgical calendar tells us to look at the great events in redemptive history, both those past and (especially in Advent) those still to come. Trinity, by contrast, is present-focused. It’s about plodding along in ordinary time. In Trinity we spend about half the year thinking about how to live in a good Creation in light of the Triune God’s reign over it.  This is time well spent. We are, after all, creatures ourselves, set in a world of other creatures God called “very good.”  We need extended time to appreciate the grace that God gives us daily, mediated through His creatures.  And more, we need time to better learn how to steward those things God has entrusted us with: how to inhabit our land, our communities, our bodies.  This work, incidentally, follows quite naturally from observation of the great Feasts of Easter and Pentecost.  The Resurrection was and is a bodily resurrection.  The Spirit, sent in power at the first Pentecost, fills the bodies of the redeemed, knits them together into one body – the Church – and, with the earth, groans in anticipating the last liberation of earth and body from their present futility.

And so in Trinity we work out the rightful and yet dearly-bought lordship of the Triune God over the world and the body, bringing His lordship to bear on every aspect of ordinary life: buying and selling, working and resting, sowing and reaping, making war and making peace, being born and dying, marrying and being given in marriage.  In sum, you could call this working out the lordship of the Author of life over our stories — those we live and those we tell alike.  To the extent we do this well, we may reap in joy.  To the extent we do it unwisely or slothfully, we will have to repent.  But however we do it, we will learn something very important: that under the sun – even in our redeemed-in-principle world – all is vapor, and our work a vain attempt to shepherd the wind.

Now on the one hand, the vaporousness of life under the sun ought to annoy us in a way that stirs in us a healthy longing for Advent and all that season represents. But if we spend Trinity season stewing in that annoyance, we frankly won’t be much good for anything. We will be men and women for no season.  For though the world has been subjected to futility, does it not retain an astounding measure of its original goodness?  And was it not subjected to futility in hope?  Did not the promise of its redemption follow fast on the heels of the Fall?  And, if we don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear these things now, how will we see and hear when every last promise has been fulfilled to the utmost?

Therefore, on this Thanksgiving Day, and in these final days of Trinity — after months of seeing just how much of its original goodness creation retains, and listening to how the echoes of the promise of redemption resound through the world to this day — we should be thankful. We should give thanks for the last harvests, for the leaves that have persevered into the first weeks of November and, in their age, surpassed the brilliance of their youth. These tell us that there is a peculiar excellence to things that have the perseverance and grace to go on to maturity. They call us to be among them.

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I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission, or even that renunciation is good in itself. Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. And along this line, I think the phrase ‘naive purity’ is a contradiction in terms. I don’t think purity is mere innocence; I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naive.

Flannery O’ Connor, To “A,” 1 January 56, in The Habit of Being 126 (Sally Fitzgerald ed., 1979).

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Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 (AV).

Once upon a time I set out to publish a series of biblical meditations on public theology. I hadn’t gotten past that first post. Until today.

Since I’m posting this on the day of a major national election in my home country, I should say two things right at the top of this post. One is a reassurance, and one is an exhortation. First, the reassurance: I have not chosen a national election day to publish a bit of special pleading about why you should vote for a particular candidate, or the candidates of a particular party. If you fear that, read on without fear. Second, the exhortation: If you are registered to vote, and you haven’t yet voted, go vote. Christians are charged always to pray for civil authorities so that, as St Paul says, “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2). Today, in addition to praying thus for those in civil authority, we get to love our neighbors by voting for those candidates who, in our best judgment, would best allow everyone to lead quiet and peaceable lives, in godliness and honesty.

With that as prologue, I move on to the political implications of the passage above. St Paul wrote the words to the church at Philippi some nineteen and a half centuries ago, but they’re every bit as timely today as they were then.

Paul exhorts his readers to humility, to esteem others as more important than themselves, and to mind the needs of their neighbors before their own needs. Paul does this, not by twisting their arms or appealing to their sense of guilt, but by pointing to the Lord Jesus. In so doing, he makes two startling political declarations. Taking these in reverse order:

  • Paul proclaims, in the strongest possible terms, the absolute Lordship of Jesus over every created being (vv. 10-11); and
  • Paul sets forth the means by which the man Jesus of Nazareth attained that Lordship — by emptying Himself of His divine prerogatives at His incarnation, and then by humbling Himself to submit to death on a cross (vv. 6-8).

I. King Jesus, rightful heir of a royal, global theocracy

If you read the Old Testament, you’ll see that Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets repeatedly emphasize a few basic characteristics to mark the God who had covenanted with them as utterly unique and absolutely supreme. Most importantly, He created all things; and, nearly as important, He is sovereign over all things. He may have covenanted with a tribe, but He was never a tribal deity.

So of the lordship of Israel’s God over all the world, the prophet Isaiah records:

I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.

The passage is one of the most triumphal declarations of the kingship of God over the world and all its creatures, and one of the clearest declarations of high monotheism in a very high monotheistic book. So it is remarkable that St Paul chooses this passage to describe the kingship of Jesus. Jesus, says Paul, bears the authority of God; He is the word that goes out of the mouth of God in righteousness; His name is the divine name that every tongue shall confess, and at which every knee will bend. Jesus is not only a King, He is a divine King; and His divinity is of the same order as that of the God who created the world and covenanted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, since there is only one God, Jesus is the human embodiment, the incarnation, of the one God, and holds all the power and authority that that identity implies. The government will be on His shoulder, and of the increase of His theocracy and of peace there shall be no end.

II. The character of the theos in the theocracy

You may have noticed that I just used a word, theocracy, that makes a lot of people nervous. Concentrated authority — especially in a divine being — conjures images of abuses. I use theocracy anyway, to raise an important question: are those worrisome images of abuses justified? The answer to that question depends crucially on the nature and character of the theos in the theocracy.

In the Christian theocracy, the Lord Jesus comes into His kingdom by way of the mystery of His holy Incarnation, His agony and bloody sweat, His Cross and Passion, His precious Death and burial (1). In short, though prior to His Incarnation He existed “in the form of God,” He did not, as He could have done, simply lord it over His people. Rather, He emptied Himself for them, became their servant, and died for them. And St Paul says (v. 9) that it was precisely for that reason that He was made King. The Gentile kings lord it over their subjects, either because they have no god above them, or because their idols do the same. In Jesus, we see that God is not too proud to accept a thorny crown, or the indignity of being exalted by way of a Roman cross.

III. So what?

Having followed St Paul’s hymn to Christ from end to beginning, I now conclude where St Paul started: on the question of application. If it is true (and it is) that in the present age God rules the world by means of delegated authorities — ecclesiastical and civil — how ought those authorities exercise the authority they’re given?

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.

After following Paul’s train of thought to its end and then back to its beginning, we see that this is not mainly an exhortation to servants and subjects to obey masters. It is an exhortation to those in authority — who ought already to have received their authority in this way — now to exercise authority in this way, and not in the usual way.

By now our nation is well on the way to deciding who is going to bear the sundry measures of authority that God delegates, respectively, to our various civil authorities. However those who questions are decided (and this is no denial that those questions have importance), we are to keep calm and carry on in humility, esteeming our neighbors more important than ourselves, looking out for them in love. For a crown of thorns sits at the top of the “keep calm and carry on” banner of King Jesus.

(1) Adapted from the Litany. See the Book of Common Prayer 55 (1928). The Litany here follows Philippians 2:6-8 quite closely.

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