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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Challenge of Sainthood (Being Great in Small Things)

True students of history know how truly small they are. This is difficult to see in today's society, where everything is catered to my whims, provided I have a little money. Everything around me can be customized to my preferences, from the style of the car I drive to the TV package I receive, to my phone's ringtone, to the height and tilt of the chair I'm sitting in (thankfully, in my case I really only have control over the last of these). This grand cultural force conspires to give me the impression that it's all about me.
But it's not. And even those of us who know it's not must strive every day to cut back the weeds of pride. It's hard not to feel slighted when circumstances don't go our way, even in small things. But small things constitute reality.
Several times a week I walk past the Littleton cemetery--at one end are grand new plots with polished stones, engraved with pithy sentimentalities. At the other end stand the tombstones of the early settlers, men and women who died over a century ago. Most just show the person's name and dates, while a few give a relationship ("father" or "wife") or a station in life ("pioneer"). Perhaps someone still remembers their stories, but most will soon pass away into the anonymity of history, remembered only by a tombstone or a few entries in a dusty town archive. And if we take a step further back, another hundred years or so, there would have been very few, if any, American settlers in this region--only its native inhabitants, the tribes that remember by stories and not by lists. But those people are largely gone now, killed or assimilated or driven away, and few remember the names of the men and women who lived and died in the shadow of the mountains. And how many generations have gone by? Hundreds? Thousands? Of all that we know of history, we have retained perhaps a millionth of a percent of all that happened. In the words of Will Durant, "Civilization is always older than we think; and under whatever sod we tread are the bones of men and women who also worked and loved, wrote songs and made beautiful things, but whose names and very being have been lost in the careless flow of time" (The Life of Greece).
As a student of history, it is perhaps natural that I want to leave behind a legacy that will be remembered. I would wish to emulate the heroes of the past that fill the pages of my books, and who still speak in voices of thunder across the ages. And perhaps such a thing may happen for me, but it is not my destiny to claim. There's the subtle poison of pride that waits to creep into every such desire, and I must guard against it with every breath. The truth is, I will probably be forgotten, like so many good men before me. My tombstone will fade away into illegible etchings on a crumbling rock, and my body decay into dust. All the words I ever write may be lost in the whirling, tireless glut of media that my generation produces. In a century or two even my descendents will forget my name, and the life that I lived will fade from the thoughts of men. The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it well: "There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow" (1:11).
But history is a fluid thing, and even if one's memory fades away, his influence may remain, the blessings or curses of a million choices made. A word of kindness that I speak today might serve in bringing a wandering soul home, even without my knowledge; a prayer I pray today might raise to salvation the grandfather of the next great saint who will shake the kingdoms of the earth.
The things we remember about history--wars and kings--may not be the most important things. In God's economy and God's kingdom, it may be that a single act of mercy by a now-forgotten individual was of more historical worth than the whole campaign of Attila, which gave that act of mercy its context. We shall never know on earth how many of those forgotten men and women were saints of mighty power and influence, who through small choices and small prayers changed the course of history. In short, God can use his children to produce a "butterfly effect" for his kingdom, and the prayers we pray and the words we speak today might, next year or a century from now, produce a hurricane of power in the kingdom of God.
This is what I would like to call "the challenge of sainthood." Only God can make a saint, both in terms of saving us and raising us to spiritual maturity, but we have our role too, following his lead in the dance. We remember the great acts of the saints, the ways they stood up to change history. But most of those great acts were occasioned by rare circumstances or were given prominence by the fame that the person already had. The truth is, many of us will never encounter circumstances so dramatic that history will be obliged to remember us. But it is not so great a challenge to respond heroically in times of crisis; all manners of men can be heroes. If a disaster happens around us, it is only the shallow and selfish man who holds back his aid. Much more difficult is the call to be heroic in all the small things that no one will remember. I could easily be a hero when disaster strikes, but it is much harder to be a hero in the daily course of life, to order all my steps according to the law of God and the principles of righteousness. But the latter is a higher heroism, and that is the heroism that God can use, perhaps even more effectively than the dramatic sort, to change the world.
The challenge of sainthood, then, is not what pops into our heads when we think of the great saints. It is not the grand act of defying a pagan tribe by chopping down their sacred tree (Martin and Boniface) or of traveling to Egypt to preach to the Sultan (Francis). Rather, the true mark of sainthood is found in the quietness of the cell, where the Christian labors and rests in prayer. The hardest challenge is not external, but internal. To subdue the flesh every day, to march out against the temptations of pride and lust and sloth and never to surrender an inch--that is true and saintly heroism. To greet our brothers and sisters in love and to work for their good, to labor in prayer for their salvation and holiness--that is the mark of a history-maker. To order all the small things in our lives according to the righteousness of Christ--that is an act worthy of the highest rewards of heaven.
It is no easy journey, as I said before. It would be much easier, and more pleasant here on earth, to spend our time looking for grand things to do, things that will be printed in tomorrow's newspaper. But that is not the rhythm of Christian service. True Christian service, as all the saints would agree, is largely on the level of drudgery, of dry places where we yearn for God's presence, and of taking up the towel to wash our enemies' feet. But if God is truly working in our hearts, then even that drudgery will be transformed for us into peace.
And in the end, all of history will be remembered and redeemed. No act done in secret will be lost in the mists of time. No prayers will be forgotten. Even if the generations to come lose our name, even if all our descendents perish and our influence fades away, God will remember. We are loved by God, and he will not allow his children to perish. In love he is breathing eternal life into our souls, and we will rise again. The dust of the world will be recalled, and men who breathed the air of a younger earth will break forth from forgotten tombs with shouts of joy. And every word and deed that they ever did for good, no matter how small, will be seen in radiance, in crowns to be cast at the feet of One we love.
Nothing is small to us--not because we are important in ourselves, but because God is important, and we are important to him. No Christian can possibly live a meaningless life. We work and pray and live and love for the glory of God, and nothing is small to us.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Song of Love

(This poem was inspired by thoughts from the works of the Cappadocian Fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, and Lancelot Andrewes).

All things are small compared to Thee—

All things small,

Yet great in that You love them.

I, too, am small—

Small in deeds,

Small in virtues,

Small in holiness,

Yet wrapped in the shimmering cloak

Of Your great love for me.

All I have, Lord, is this twisted image—

Oh, restore its likeness unto Thee.

Sin is in my very being;

It gnaws at me…

And through its grip and through its grasp

I have destroyed myself.

But You, Lord, restore.

In the first creation You gave me myself;

But that was not enough,

For I am no good keeper of myself,

And what You created with a word

I despoiled with reckless will.

But then You gave Your Word again—

This time in suffering—

And through Your blood redeemed us all.

Having lost myself, You gave me Yourself,

And restored to me

The self that I had lost.

Oh, how great a salvation!

That we, poor and wretched,

Be inflamed by so measureless a love!

Our sins continue their damnèd course,

But Your redemption, gentle and strong,

Outreaches every one.

More can Thou remit, O Lord,

Than we, beloved rebels,

Can e’er commit.

Even now I see it—

This love that takes even my sins

And turns them into worships.

Someday all this shall pass away,

And we will see anew—

Your final deed, Your final word,

Will break upon the world—

The beautiful secret of all delight.

And You, Lord, will make all things well,

For all things abide in Thee,

And well do You love them all.

Oh, Fill Me

Oh, fill me.

I am full of myself—

Empty, empty,

Empty am I.

The more I have of you,

The more of you I need;

The more I see of you,

The more of you I seek;

The more I taste of you,

The more for you I yearn.

Oh, fill me.

I am so full of petty things

That I remain empty,

Empty—

For nothing can fill me save you.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Near to Me Now

In the wild bliss of your world I run,
Hearing your whispers of love
In the snow that graces sleeping limbs;
Your laughter in the sunshine
That wakes those sleeping limbs
And makes the bright river shout for joy.
O God, be as near to me now
As you are to these, your creations.

Like the Rain

My heart betrays me,
Like the rain
That falls from somber skies--
I run away, breathless,
And find myself here again,
Back where I began.
I cannot run too far away,
Nor be lost to your memory
Or your smile.
Like the rain,
My heart returns,
And all things are made new.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lessons from the Life of St. Antony

These reflections are drawn from one of the classic works of Christian biography and devotion, St. Athanasius' Vita Antoni. This was one of the most influential books of the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, shaping almost every subsequent form of monasticism and setting the pace for all the works of Christian biography produced through the following millennium. It's not a long book, and well worth reading.
St. Antony was the most famous of the Egyptian desert fathers, carrying out his ministry in the late third and early fourth century. As the story goes, his parents died when he was a young man, and he was left caring for his sister. But one day he heard a reading from the Gospels, in which Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Antony, taking this word to heart, put his sister in the care of a local group of Christian women, sold his inheritance, and became a hermit. These are some lessons I gleaned from Athanasius' tale of his life:

Seek out the wisdom of experienced mentors. (When beginning his life as a monk, Antony sought out godly men who had pursued similar courses of life, learning all he could from them).

When pursuing a ministry and a calling from God, expect the attacks of Satan against your efforts--first in trying to dissuade you through reminders of the high cost of your sacrifice (for Antony, this was the memory of his sister and his feelings of obligation to her) and then by offering the temptations of the flesh, comfort and sensuality.

After a victory against temptation, double your guard.

No matter how viciously the Enemy attacks you, never give in. He has no real power to do you harm, save that which God allows.
(Antony was under nearly constant torment by demonic forces, but he never stopped rebuking them with Scripture and the authority of Christ. His disciples would come out to the desert expecting to find him dead from this dramatic spiritual warfare, but instead they would find him singing).

Anchoritic monasticism (the life of hermits) is not a selfish life, nor is it a form of escapism. It is a direct and intentional effort to combat demonic forces through the exercise of a holy life, and therein to break their power.

A concerted life of private devotion is powerfully useful and necessary for the outward work of the Kingdom of God.

Holiness attracts both disciples and inquirers.

Material possessions are insignificant when compared to the possession of virtue.

A life of virtue is simple (at least in some sense), for "it is within us", and all that is required is concerted and conscientious effort.

Christians need not have any fear of demons--"by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails."
(A large portion of the Vita is a sermon by Antony on this very topic--it is one of the central theses of the book).

The working of signs and wonders, or of consistent victory over demonic forces, is not a cause for boasting--it is the Lord's work, not ours.

A life of holiness and asceticism is a life of rich and unfettered joy.

The discipline of physical labor is as much a spiritual discipline as prayer.

Even the person of greatest spiritual maturity will bow his head to the authority of the church.

No matter how poor you may be, you can always live generously and offer what you have in the service of hospitality.

Love solitude. It can be a well of strength for the godly person, especially in contrast to the hectic superficiality of the world.

The Lord will glorify himself even through secret works of devotion.

The life of the body and the life of the spirit are wholly intertwined; and any discipline of spirit will likely fail without discipline of body.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Relishing Antiquity

I like old things. Part of it, I suppose, comes from growing up in a place where old houses (by today's standards) line the roads, clapboard homes from the farming days of my grandparents and great-grandparents. I like the smell of older houses, of hardwood floors that still carry, in every worn shadow and subtle creak, the memory of previous residents. There's an old 1890s house at the Littleton Historical Museum, just a couple miles from the seminary, and it reminds me of the old houses of northern Maine. I like to go there just so I can drink in the smell of it and enjoy its silence. Rachel and I make our current home in a fairly new apartment, complete with more closet space than anyone could possible need (so we turned one into a prayer closet) and a nice carpet that wears holes in my socks. It's a fine little apartment, but I wouldn't want to live there more than a few years. It's too new, too full of me and my generation in a few tiny rooms.

I also like old things because I love stories, and the best stories of all are the ones that really happened. Old things and old places are full of stories--of vanished hopes and possibilities, of the testaments of dreams come true. A few years back, when I was on a tour of Europe with some of my college friends, I savored the old buildings, imagining what they once looked like and who may have lived in them. The ruined buildings of Rome entranced me, spinning my imagination into whirlwinds of a thousand unremembered stories, stories that I will never know until I hear them from the lips of those who walked those vanished streets.

One place in particular caught my fancy, with a breathless wonder that I've never felt since--the little chapel of St. Martin in Canterbury, which sits on a rise above the great cathedral. It was, so the traditions say, one of the first churches in England, converted from an old shrine when Augustine, the missionary ambassador of Pope Gregory the Great, came to preach the gospel to the Angles. It's a tiny place, without any of the grandeur of the nearby cathedral, but the sense of holy history there is heavy and awesome. I wanted to immerse myself in the silence of that place. (My own roots go back to that area--the Burdens, as far as I can tell, trace their descent from Normans who settled in Kent, the county that surrounds Canterbury.) If I could choose one place to return to from all my travels in Europe, it would be to Canterbury, to visit that ancient little chapel again.

I also like old things because Christianity trained me to like them. Ours is a religion of antiquity, a religion of history, and from my earliest days I have understood that some of the richest wells of strength and faith can be found in what is past. (In recent years I've been captivated by the legacy of the Catholic saints of the Middle Ages.) Sadly, a lot of Christians nowadays don't understand the power of tradition, and we have suffered for it. We live in a world that glorifies whatever is new, even if it is intrinsically worse than much of what is old. We have been seduced by the pace of technology, and have forfeited one of our most glorious birthrights--the history of the church. My hope is that we can recapture history in my generation, that we can order our steps once again by the Scriptures, by the examples of the church fathers, by the wisdom of the saints, and by the guidance of the cloud of witnesses who have already run this race.

Old books are one of my greatest delights. The public library here has a never-ending used book sale, and with a little diligent searching one can find copies of the classics for only a dollar or so. Not only are they old in that their authors represent a different age, but the books themselves are old--often a bit worn around the edges, with the rough feel of pages that have been treasured by many readers before myself. I'm stocking enough books to keep myself happily reading for years, and many of these books are so good that I'm longing for seminary to finish, just so I have a chance to read them. I've picked up copies of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, the Venerable Bede, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, John Milton, Homer, and a few anthologies that offer classics from Ancient Greece all the way through the 20th century. The walk to the library leads me along a pathway beside the Littleton cemetery, shaded by a row of crabapple trees, and I can read the names of the old settlers and ponder mortality as I stroll.

All in all, I've come to turn to old books almost exclusively. Unless there's a matter of current thought that I need to research, I seldom touch books that have been printed in the past fifty years--a bit ironic, since I'm a writer of books myself. With new books, it has become a wearying exercise to separate the wheat from the chaff, and many reflect the same tendencies and bents of the age that already affect me. I need to drink from the perspective of another age, to see myself through the ancients' eyes, and in that context I find a much richer store of wisdom, both for the things that all ages have in common, and for the things that our own age is blind to. There are a great many good books being published now (books about history are always a worthwhile read), but the problem is that there are so many books being printed, both good and bad, that it seems better to lean on the old and proven classics than to sort through the endless blitzkrieg of printed folly today. I would give the same advice C. S. Lewis gives: if you are able, read one old book for every new book you read. (See his introduction to St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm)

A great deal of my future posts will touch on the old readings I'm immersed in. What I draw from them will probably be a great deal more profound than anything I could come up with entirely on my own--tradition has the power to make men's thoughts great. At the moment I'm in the midst of an elective seminary course that covers a broad survey of early "spiritual masters"--so far we've covered some of the apostolic fathers, Antony and the desert fathers, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and Cassian and Benedict. Look soon for a post on "Lessons from the Life of Antony."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Peace and the Passion - Year 2

Dear readers: As "The Peace and the Passion" moves into its second year, I anticipate it changing somewhat. For those of you who have faithfully followed my scattered and infrequent blogs, know that the coming year will probably be even more so. I think I'll move away from essay-writing for awhile, and use this blog primarily for poetry, an occasional measure of thought, and a few personal updates. I've also toyed with the idea of putting up a short story or two in serial form, so keep your eyes open for that.
Those of you who know me also know that much of my free time is taken up with writing fiction, and at the moment I'm plugging away at the final novel of a trilogy that has been my foremost project for the past three and a half years. (The first novel, Freedom Cry, I wrote in 2004; the second, The Conqueror's Song, from the fall of '05 through the summer of '06; and over the past year my main project was a complete rewrite of Freedom Cry, finished in May). So I'm focusing on closing the trilogy within the next few months, with a target completion date of the third book sometime early next year. It's a fantasy trilogy, meaning that it's set in the context of a wholly fictional world. There are some hints of traditional fantasy themes, but overall these novels represent a series of historical adventures, without dragons, elves, magic, or the like. Their main goal is to provide an entertaining narrative that connects the reader with characters whose lives are shaped by virtue. There are traces of Christian allegory in the first two novels, which become more pronounced in the final book.
Fantasy is a hard genre to sell on the Christian market, and is viewed warily by the secular market if it contains Christian overtones. Nevertheless, I'm currently trying to market a revised draft of my first novel, and I'll let you know if anything turns up there. For the most part, though, I write these for my own pleasure and growth in skill, as well as for the enjoyment of my friends and family. Some people simply don't take well to fantasy, or fiction at all for that matter, but those who have taken the time to join my adventures have come back with rich encouragement for me. So for those of you who have my email and would be interested in reading the novels, just send me a note and I'd be happy to let you read the electronic files of the current drafts. I'm always open to suggestions for improving the stories. (Both complete books are long, over three hundred pages in Microsoft Word).
In any case, I probably won't be putting much time into producing essays for this blog. At best, I'll post a poem or a short thought every two weeks or so. If any of you miss my essays, though (an unlikely state of affairs), know that I'm always open to tangential mental stimulation, so if you have suggestions for topics you would like me to pursue, feel free to send them my way. It's often refreshing to leave off my school studies for awhile to pursue an unrelated topic, and I'd be happy to open up forums for dialogue in the comment boxes.
That's all for now. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Three Collects for Worship

Father God,

Who watches all our ways,

Guard our steps to holiness

And our thoughts to pure reflection

That we may see and know You,

The Holy God,

Who watches all our ways.

Amen.


Eternal God,

Ineffable Mystery,

Enlighten our understandings

And quicken our hearts toward You,

That we may see You as You are,

And see ourselves in You.

Reveal Yourself,

O Unending Light,

And shine on Your children today.

For the sake of Christ

And in his name,

Amen.


O God our Healer,

Who takes our broken spirits

And lifts them up,

Who takes our wounded bodies

And restores them with shouts of joy:

Meet us here in our brokenness,

See our pain and heal us,

Bind our wounds and restore us,

So that we may be whole in spirit,

Whole in body,

And wholly Yours.

You are the Wonder of our hearts,

The Balm of Gilead,

And in You we place our trust.

Come and meet us here,

For the sake of Your glorious Name,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lessons from the Life of William Wilberforce

Recently I've begun picking up biographies again. Reading biographies has been one of the most formative parts of my spiritual life over the years, but until this summer I hadn't read any for a long while. The great benefit of Christian biographies is that they give the pleasant diversion of immersing oneself in another's story (without the omnipresent vapidity of television stories), and all the while directing the reader's attention toward virtue and truth. There is a powerful inspiration that comes from knowing that the Christian life can be lived well, that heights of faith are not merely for the select few, and that God can do wonders through the smallest of people.
The stories of J. Hudson Taylor, Brother Andrew, George Mueller, and St. Francis of Assisi, among others, have powerfully enriched my life. The most recent story to come to my attention, however, is that of William Wilberforce, the great orator and Member of Parliament who spearheaded the drive to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. (A movie of his life, Amazing Grace, was released earlier this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary vote that halted the British slave trade. To understand current attempts to continue the Wilberforce legacy in fighting the global slave trade in our day, see the most recent issue of Mission Frontiers: http://www.missionfrontiers.org/2007/04/200704.htm).
This particular biography was Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte (a fellow Mainer), and I quite enjoyed it. I kept a list of "lessons" from Wilberforce's story, a habit I plan to continue for future biography-readings. So here's my list, emphasizing a few details that particularly delighted me, such as Wilberforce's love for birds and his exemplification of neomonasticism with his Clapham friends. It's certainly not a fair substitute for an in-depth reading of the life of this spiritual giant, but I hope it's of benefit to you.

Never give up. (WW’s fight to end the slave trade went on for nearly 20 years, and it would be nearly another twenty before slavery itself was abolished).

What is morally right is always worth pursuing, no matter what the cost or the consequences. (WW was bitterly attacked for his stand, both personally and politically; but he persevered, submitting his bills every year, even through bouts of illness that nearly killed him).

True religion fills every part of one’s life.

Religion deserves every power of our rational attention.

There is nothing so life-changing and transformative as the Word of God.

'Moral' ends are only moral when reached by moral means.

Take the duty of your role in life seriously. (WW attended every meeting of Parliament he was able to, even in an age when it was common for MPs to skip sessions in order to attend frivolous social events).

Look for the good in every person’s character, even in your detractors. (One of WW’s great gifts was in bringing his political opponents, like Charles Fox, to join him closely in the fight against slavery. WW always seemed to have something good to say about nearly every one of his colleagues).

The reformation of society by turning people’s hearts toward virtue is an attainable goal, and worthy of every effort we can give it. (The second great goal of WW’s life was ‘the reformation of manners,’ that is, the restoration of a moral center to society. His aim was to make goodness fashionable again, and through a variety of means he did, astonishingly, accomplish this end. He is seen as perhaps the most influential shaper of the moral revolution in England that ushered in the Victorian Age.)

Society will most readily become virtuous if the leading, culture-shaping classes become virtuous.

Consider seriously your present position as the position where Providence as placed you, and use it toward ministry here and now. (Despite thoughts about leaving Parliament for the clergy after his conversion, he stayed where he was and used his seat to fight for righteous ends.)

It is always worth one’s time to read the great thoughts of both ages past and the present day. (WW was astonishingly well-read, especially in the classics (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Horace, etc.) and in writers more contemporary to his own day (Milton, Locke, Newton, etc.)).

Study the criticisms of those who criticize you; they may make you better.

Relationships are utterly important. Spend time developing them, both for the enrichment of your own life and strength, the potential to minister to them, and the hope of accomplishing great things together.

Do not be afraid to confront your friends when they are in the wrong, but never let bitterness uproot the love you have for them. Be quick to reconciliation. (At least twice, WW stood against his dear friend William Pitt on important matters of state. He took his position on moral principle, though it wounded their friendship for a time).

Do everything you can to fight for the cessation of suffering, both of those around you and those at the ends of the earth. (WW was involved not only in fighting slavery in Britain’s domains, but also advocated for its ending in America and continental Europe. He seemed to have a genuine concern for the internal good of Africa. He also gave his time, efforts, and wealth to hundreds of other philanthropic concerns throughout his life).

Use the gifts God has given you to their greatest extent in the path of doing good.

The pursuit of happiness is good, but the pursuit of other people’s happiness as a civic way of life will produce a better society, and, in the end, more happiness for all.

Spend yourself in hospitality; you will be richer for it in the end. (WW’s house was famous for its hospitality; he was seldom without guests).

Do not let your youth hold you back from accomplishing great things. (WW became a Member of Parliament when he was 21. His close friend William Pitt, one of the greatest political leaders Britain has ever known, became Prime Minister at 24.)

Busyness is no excuse not to keep the Sabbath. The busier you are, the more you will have need of a Sabbath, and the more you will be able to manage your busyness by practicing it. (WW, despite being laden with affairs of state, the entertaining of guests, answering personally the letters he received, and his rigorous academic study, took a Sabbatical hour each day and one full day a week).

Cultivate a love of nature. (One of WW’s favorite places was the Lake District in northwest England).

Take long walks.

Learning and appreciating the varieties of birds is a splendid and admirable way to spend one’s time. (WW’s favorite bird, it seems, was the nightingale. He passed on his love of birds (and of animals in general) to his son Samuel, later the Bishop of Oxford and chaplain to Queen Victoria).

Your ministry to the outer world, whatever it may be, ought not to trump your ministry to your own family. (In 1812 he gave up his powerful seat representing Yorkshire country in order to spend more time with his family; he then switched to a much less demanding seat in Parliament).

Cultivate habits of eloquence and substantive thought, even in everyday conversation. (WW was one of the most famous conversationalists of his day. Guests would come to his house primarily to hear him talk).

Do not give in to the pressures of fashion or class. (WW resisted buying or being given a peerage of nobility all his life, though it was common for wealthy MPs to do so).

Gather a community of thoughtful, loving, believing friends around you, and work together toward common ends. (WW lived in the little village of Clapham for fifteen years with a small group of close Christian friends, among whom was Hannah More, the great reformer of education).

Practice daily times of family worship.

Stay informed and be in prayer about the missionary progress of the kingdom of God. (WW was a personal friend of the pioneer missionary and translator Henry Martyn, and every Sunday evening he spent his time reading missionary updates and biographies).

Live generously. (WW gave away the equivalent of millions of dollars over the course of his life. Not only did he fund the education of hundreds of promising young students (including all three Bronte sisters and their father) and create numerous philanthropic initiatives, he also paid off the debts of hundreds of men who came to him with personal pleas for help).


To take for truth what cannot be but true…

And bind the task assign’d thee to thine heart:

Happy the man there seeking and there found,

Happy the nation where such men abound.

- William Cowper

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Silence in Your Soul

Be constant, my son.
The world moves with reckless haste,
But you and I need none of it.
Laugh if you are full of laughter,
But never let the world steal
The silence in your soul.
It matters not if you are slow
Of tongue and dancing speech,
For I see wisdom in your eyes,
And no wit nor words
Can ever measure that.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Greatest Story Ever Told

After my reflections on writing in the post I just put up earlier today, I thought I would share with you a piece I wrote about a year ago. It's a fairly simple exposition of my understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to story-telling. I don't know that it has any particular literary merit (by my own categories in the last post, it has little originality, but at least it's faithful), but it's probably worth reading. It's called, rather un-originally, "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

I love a good story. A good story will turn a mass of jumbled events and characters into a wonderful adventure, a rising drama that cuts a brilliant course toward a single purpose. It will take all of the beautiful, painful chaos of life and give it rhythm and rhyme, a sensible pattern against the cold, vacuous chasm of despair. Stories bring about resolution, a satisfying finality that all things have come full circle at last.
At times they seem artificial, trite and contrived against the apparent meaninglessness of everyday life. And yet there is something within us that yearns for story, something that cries out for a sense of meaning and purpose, an understandable direction to follow. It seems to me that this impulse, apparently common to all human beings, cannot be a mere blip of sentient evolution. Our common passions and urges direct us toward reality. A child feels hungry, and there is such a thing as food to be hungry for. People feel sexual attraction, and there is such a thing as sex. Similarly, we yearn for a coherent story to give meaning to our lives, and I believe that there is such a thing as that story.
The ageless questions assault us in all the silent moments: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where, ultimately, am I going? These are all story questions, issues of character and plot. Some cultures will ask the questions in different ways, but all cultures ask them. Throughout all of recorded time, from every corner of the globe, men and women have sought to make sense of their own existence. And the answer to it all is a story. The name of that story is Christianity.
At its heart, Christianity is a story. Some people will tell you that it is first and foremost a personal relationship with God, and it certainly is that. But to stop there is dangerous. It puts us at the center of the picture: Christianity is about my relationship with God. Aided by our natural pride, it easily degenerates into a self-centered religion. Our relationship with God becomes primarily viewed in terms of our spiritual fulfillment rather than his glory.
It would be better to say that Christianity is all about God’s personal relationship with us. This puts God at the center of the picture again. Who is this God? Why does he seek relationship with us? How does he communicate with us? It is these questions that the Scriptures slowly answer for us by telling us a story—the story of his relationship with ordinary people.
It has been called the greatest story ever told, and rightly so. Here is the tale of an unbelievably magnificent God, fully and completely glorious, who creates and loves and redeems a people in his own image. It is a story of his endless glory and of the unparalleled wonder of his grace—the undeserved love which we find ourselves receiving, delighted and amazed. And at the center of this unrivalled epic is an astonishing figure, a man who turned the world upside-down from beneath the shadow of an empire. Here the God of the universe stepped fully into his own story, turning it into a tragedy and a comedy and a triumph beyond reckoning. Here is the Christ, Jesus the Nazarene, an extraordinary character who truly and completely saved the world.
No story on earth has ever before imagined a character like him, and no other ever will. He is the scandal of untiring uniqueness, the delightful explosion of Truth into a sin-darkened world. No other man has ever done such wonders out of an unending well of love and claimed all the while to be God. No one else has ever been at once so astonishingly meek and yet so completely fixed on winning glory for the Father with whom he was one. No one else could claim to be humble and claim to be God and be convincing in both. Yet this Jesus, this Galilean peasant-preacher, has consistently won admiration and devotion from men and women all over the world, Christians and non-Christians alike. The words that echo from his mouth are absolutely unbelievable, and yet because they are from his mouth they are believed.
And though his words are wild and without equal, it is his deeds that give life and breath to the story. This is the tale of a miracle-worker, a simple man who overturned the world without ever seizing power for himself. This is the story of a healer, pouring himself out in love for the outcasts and the despised. And this is the story of the everlasting Christ, the immortal Son of God who sealed the resolution of history by offering up his own life as a ransom.
But not even death could hold down this hero. The cold night of despair could not restrain the golden dawn, and Jesus rose from the dead. We hear it so often that we begin to forget what it means. We no longer tremble with joy when the Easter-cry rings out over the earth: He is risen indeed! Here is the glory of our wonderful God, the crown of all our hopes. Jesus Christ has defeated death itself.
The indescribable wonder of the Christian life is not merely that we can know about this wildly unique hero, modeling our lives on his example and philosophy. It is that we can know him in person. More than that—it is that his very life, the overflow of his eternal joy, can spill into our hearts and transform us into reflections of him, into everything we were meant to be. We can be heroes in the greatest story ever told, men and women of action and truth who march beneath the banner of the incomparable Christ.
Though we have seen the central act and know already a few tantalizing hints of the ending, this story is still in motion. God is still at work, calling people all over the world into relationship with him. The power of the risen Christ is flooding through the earth, and already uncounted millions have been transformed in the radiance of his glory.
We have before us the unspeakable treasure of this truth: God loves us so much that he not only suffered and died for us; he has also chosen and appointed us as the instruments of his mission. We are the heroes of his story now, you and I. We have a purpose and a meaning that is infinitely beyond anything we have ever dreamed. This story defines and shapes and gives purpose to everything we do. There are no unimportant moments anymore. The glory of God is the golden thread that weaves through the tattered epic of human history, and we are a part of its triumph.
I love a good story.

Christian Writing

My apologies for the recent hiatus in blog posts; we lost our internet access here at the seminary when a lightning strike took down our server. Jumping off some thoughts from my last blog, though, I thought I’d share some of my musings on the definitive priorities of Christian writing. Though you might not get this impression from reading my blog, most of my writing is in the form of creative fiction novels, both historical fiction and fantasy. These reflections, then, were written mostly with storytelling genres in mind. But these are fairly broad theological points, and writing isn’t their only field of application. Any creative endeavor for Christians, whether painting or landscaping or parenting, follows the same rhythm and form.

The Christian perspective on writing (or at least my conception of it) is a bit of a twist when compared to the way society regards the craft. First of all, there’s the issue of weaving exclusive truth claims into writing in the midst of a culture that rejects such claims. It will always seem harsh to some, but I don’t think we’ll win people over by trying to pander to their desires for cheap grace. I believe it’s important for Christian writing to be bold, clear, and uncompromising, and that this can be done with grace and good humor. We will not win the world by weakening ourselves, but we can win it by helping people see the rampant joy that undergirds our unwavering strength.

Secondly, Christian writing aims for a high standard of the craft, just as the secular world does, but in a different way. The pursuit of excellence for a Christian writer is to bring glory and delight to God in honing and using the skills He has given. For a secular writer, I imagine that excellence in writing is seen as something meritorious in and of itself. A Christian writer would never assume that to be true, because it treads dangerously close to the sin of pride and exalts the gift rather than the Giver. But is it wrong to feel a bit of pleasure and satisfaction for our own accomplishments and hard work in developing our writing skills? No, not usually. But we must always keep in mind that this does not reflect any merit back to ourselves as the first cause. We can feel gratified by our accomplishments, but our eyes always look gratefully up to the One who made those accomplishments possible.

For my own part, writing is a delight, largely because I am the unworthy recipient of unmerited gifts in that area. I come from a long line of writers and poets, and in some ways it seems to be in my blood. I’ve also been nurtured in the craft, encouraged and urged ahead by many in my family and a number of my teachers. If my writing is worth anything, I can’t claim its worth as any merit of my own—it is merely the reflection of the grace I’ve received from the hand of the Lord and the fellowship of my family and friends.

I should also note that the Christian perspective significantly decreases the anxiety of writing—there is no rush or pressure to become the best; merely the patient and joyous marvel of using what we have, to the best of our abilities, to delight the Wonder of our souls. That is no less of a motive to aspire toward excellence in one’s writing; on the contrary, it’s a greater motive. We should aim to be the best writers we can be because we bring glory to God by being good stewards of His gifts.

Thirdly, Christian writing doesn’t share all of the secular world’s standards of what makes a literary work good. Some factors will be the same when seen from either side—beauty, flow, the incorporation of great ideas, and so on. Christians may differ from others as to what constitutes a ‘great idea,’ but the underlying precept of judging literature is basically the same on that mark. What is wildly different, however, is the Christian perspective on that one foundational mark which the world uses to judge literature: originality. If a writer comes up with a fresh perspective or mechanism in his work, he is lauded as a ‘creative genius.’

But Christian writers don’t (or shouldn’t) make the attainment of this sort of genius the test of their abilities. Certainly there are some Christian writing geniuses in both style and substance. And that’s a good thing, but not the best thing about their writing. The highest ideal of Christianity is not creation alone (for that is primarily God’s role, and only ours by extension), but imitation of the Creator. New perspectives can have a lot to teach us, but newness itself is not an inherent virtue.

To use an extended quotation from C. S. Lewis' thoughts on the subject: "In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being 'creative', 'original', and 'spontaneous'? 'Originality' in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems to be confined to the Father. The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, like a mirrior....An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom....And always, of every idea and of every method he will ask not 'Is it mine?', but 'Is it good?'" ("Christianity and Literature," Christian Reflections).

Everything in Christian writing points back to the beautiful, powerful tradition in which we stand. As Christian writers, even if we are on the crest of the wave, we know that we do not stand alone. We may spin new ways of looking at the message, but it is still the same incomparable message that generations before us have faithfully delivered. The ultimate goal is not to portray life or humanity or anything else in a new way; the goal is to portray the great gospel message, whether in hinting themes or forthright exposition, in a faithful way.

I should add that this idea of writing as imitation is neither sterile nor closed. We are speaking of the imitation of God, and God has no boundaries. God has created galaxies that we are only now beginning to see, and we are imitators of that kind of creation. There are an infinite number of stories and angles and forms and means, stretching to boundless horizons that our few millennia of art have barely even begun to imagine. My point is not that originality of style is bad, but that it should not be our goal. Our first goal should always be faithfulness to the shape of the reality we know, based in the character and story of God, and if that faithfulness can be portrayed through insightfully original means, so much the better. But originality itself is not of unlimited artistic worth. Better a well-written story, faithful to the Christian worldview, that makes no attempt at shaping a new movement in literature, than a work in a brilliantly original style that denies or obfuscates our relationship with the Truth.

(I should also make clear that I’m not advocating preachy, “altar call” stories as the only kind of acceptable Christian writing. Those have their place, but I’ve found that the most powerful Christian fiction, at least in terms of its impact on non-believers, is that which faithfully turns the reader’s attention, little by little, to just a few truths or themes of the Christian worldview. Not only is this method faithful to the gospel, but it is gentle and gracious as well.)

Fourthly, Christians will always differ with the secular world as to the worth of a piece of writing. That is, Christians will always take a lighter view of writing—it is something that is certainly important (our faith, after all, is a literary-based faith)—but the worth of any piece of writing is insubstantial in comparison to the value of even one human being. Writing can be an incredible vehicle for powerful truths, a tool of enormous potential, but its greatest purpose does not lie within itself. The greatest end of any human creation is to bring glory to God. A complementary end is the salvation of souls. Whereas the secular world sees a great piece of writing as a beautiful thing in and of itself, Christians can see deeper and know it to be beautiful because it reflects the beauty of the Giver, the Muse. I believe that many of the truly beautiful things which men and women have made will last beyond this earthly age, but they will never be comparable to the people who created them, nor to the people who read them. All the wonders and beauties of civilization are nothing compared to the wonders and beauties of God and of His plan of salvation.

It’s worth noting that God Himself chose to carry out His plan and to reveal Himself not only in lists of precepts and systematic theologies (though these are certainly useful forms of the whole revelation). He showed Himself to us in story form, in the gradual awakenings and intimacies of a personal relationship with real people. Story is at the heart of the Christian worldview, because we are players in the most magnificent story ever composed. So even in this, Christian writers are imitators—we stand in a great tradition of employing storytelling in the conveyance of life-changing truth.

There’s a great deal more that can be said about writing or any Christian art form, but these things must be the foundation—the centrality of Truth and the glory of God.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Religious Thoughts on "Blue Like Jazz"

The cover article of a recent issue of Christianity Today was on Donald Miller, the author of the bestseller Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Having never read the book, I decided to give it a whirl. I had heard some good things about it; or, more precisely, I had heard that some people liked it, and I knew that it had become fairly popular in certain segments of the American Christian population. I picked up my library’s copy of the book and raced through it in less than 24 hours, driven largely by a sense of curious bewilderment and the pleasure of forming rational critiques. I have a sneaking suspicion that I don’t quite understand what postmodern literature is really trying to say….So if any of you, my faithful readers, have insights into this peculiar genre, I’d love to hear your responses, since my own thoughts are no doubt over-generalized, probably somewhat unfair, and incomplete.
Blue Like Jazz has a lot of good things to say. It’s written by a man who loves Jesus, and who encourages us to reconsider and fall in love with Jesus too. That’s glorifying to God, and I’m sure there have been very many people whose walks with Christ were either begun or deepened through reading this book. The book also takes social responsibility very seriously and drives home the second greatest commandment “Love your neighbor,” with powerfully incarnational stories (his story about confession is worth reading).
In essence, the book has one major premise: that the Christian life, like jazz music, is a free and wandering thing, a mystery and a feeling (p.239). It is a journey without an apparent destination, much like the book itself. Under that large thesis are two main theological points (though there are others): God loves us just as we are, and we ought to love one another.
Donald Miller is actually a very good writer, though it took me awhile to realize that because of the reductionistic style he uses. It’s the fluid speak of current, watered-down dialogue, but he uses it with clever flourish and winsome metaphors. Though he never declares himself to be a postmodern, it’s fairly easy to sense that he’s speaking to us from that edge of the larger culture. I’m not a postmodern (though I’m probably affected by it in some ways), and most of my critiques of Blue Like Jazz are actually critiques of postmodernism. To its credit, Blue Like Jazz has the potential to reach and affect postmoderns more than modernistic-style books would. It would be a very good book for someone who has lived his entire life with a stereotype of Christianity that paints everyone as stupid fundamentalists, but I’m not so sure it’s a good book for anyone else.
The main reason for this is that the book is theologically impoverished. It passes itself off as “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” but the subtitle is misleading. Not only are the thoughts indeed religious (Christianity is a religion, after all, and Miller writes as a Christian), but there are only a handful of substantial ideas in the book. A better subtitle would be, “Nontraditional Feelings about Christian Spirituality.” The form of the book, ‘new realism’ (autobiographical anecdotes and observations written in a style that nears stream-of-consciousness), seems largely to generate a feeling of honest, artsy loneliness. I’ve seen this in a great deal of postmodern literature, and especially in contemporary poetry. There seems to be an implicit assumption in literary circles that this sense of artistic desolation and brokenness is somehow meritorious in its own right. True, one of the great goals of literature is to evoke feelings in the reader, but brokenness is far from the only Christian feeling.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’ve already made too many generalizations. There are some genuine thoughts in Blue Like Jazz, but for a mature (or maturing) Christian audience (which seems to form a significant part of the book’s market), it offers almost nothing we haven’t heard elsewhere. But the book isn’t about ideas, really, because Miller doesn’t put much confidence in ideas. Rather, the focus of Christian spirituality is the heart. In one passage he goes so far as to say that, since there are so many people who disagree about what the truth is, we’ll never figure it out and we might as well stop trying (103). Coming to faith has nothing to do with thinking, apparently—rather Miller describes the process as a mysterious internal force that inexplicably pulls him toward God (57).
Postmodernism has some good reactions against modernism, but this denial of intellectually knowable truth is the worst of its bizarre vagaries. As Christians we must, practically by definition, believe in objective truth. There is such a thing as reality, and God gave us intellects for a reason. It is dangerous in the extreme to throw away the intellectual side of the faith. Miller isn’t wrong to say that Christianity is about the heart, but he is wrong to say that it’s not about the mind. It’s about both.
This is the danger in Miller’s work. Most of what he says is true, but it’s only one dimension of the much more robust truth of Christian orthodoxy. Christianity is about mind and emotion, thoughts and feelings. Jesus is not just a nice guy who loves us and listens to our stories, he’s also the incarnation of God who was tortured and died for our sins—not just for our vague sense of guilt, but for our sins. (Miller doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on either the character of Jesus or on sin, but he says enough that one can come away with a fairly incomplete picture of Jesus).
Miller not only makes this mistake about what extent knowledge plays in our faith, but also about how we know it. His entire book rests on one source of knowledge: his own personal experience. By way of contrast, the great evangelist John Wesley helpfully illuminated four such means: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (and for evangelical Christians, Scripture takes preeminence). But Miller only has experience, and this impoverishes his thoughts about God. We should be wary of accepting with open arms the spiritual meditations of a man who (by his own admission) shows little interest in reading the Bible, is largely ignorant of theological tradition (he thinks going to Greek Orthodox churches is ‘cool’ simply because it’s out of the ordinary), and denies outright the value of reason.
There are other critiques that can be made about the book, but this will suffice. Other reviewers have done a better job at it. My main reason for bringing it up is my concern at seeing such a theologically one-sided book gain such a mainstream following. Surely there are good Christian writers out there who can present the shape of the faith with winsomeness, candor (which Miller has), and theological substance (which, in large part, he doesn’t have).
Some might object that I’ve tried to turn Blue Like Jazz into a book with a point (for you can only critique a claim rationally if a claim is being made). And maybe Blue Like Jazz wasn’t written to have any point at all. That seems like something postmodern literature might try to do. Maybe it’s more of a deconstructionist word-picture about Christian life. Maybe the only point is to walk through Don Miller’s life with him as with a friend, to see the world through his eyes and to make no judgments. The only problem with that is that Miller is consistently painting a picture about Christianity, and Christianity is a real thing, and real things can be misrepresented.
My other concern is with the genre and style of the book itself. Writers have to take seriously the fact that the medium will color the message. Writing is a beautiful medium—one of primary mediums through which God chose to communicate to mankind—but we must be discerning about how we write. We must think seriously about issues of style and genre in terms of the message we are presenting.
Miller’s genre is tough to nail down, but it’s important to take a look at it, because a whole new literature is bursting onto the Christian market. Some of these writers have good things to say; others don’t have very much to say at all. But they all write in a certain form, and I think it’s worth asking what that form does to their message and to us as readers. Miller is one exemplar of this new form of gritty, authentic, free-flowing thoughts taken from autobiographical anecdotes. Another would be Anne Lamott. Lauren Winner and Kathleen Norris might also fall into this category, but I haven’t read much from either of them. In some cases the pieces are contemplative; in others they are almost poetry reconfigured as prose. In all the cases I’ve read, they’re well-written. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve to be read.
This genre wouldn’t be as troubling in the general market. There are some good insights to be gained from one person’s journey. But in the Christian market, it has the potential to be troubling. If, as in the case of Miller, personal experience is made the sole epistemological framework for the author’s reflections on Christianity, we should be wary. If, however, the riches of Scripture, tradition, and reason are also made use of, then the works might well be worth reading. In either case, we should learn to think critically about such works. A book can sell well and be beloved for its good writing and depth of feeling, but at the same time portray a skewed view of Christian life. Theology is the rhythm of our lives, and it is possible to pick up erroneous ideas if we don’t critically examine the thoughts that we allow into our minds.
The danger with this genre is that good writing seems to be the only prerequisite for publication, and, unlike much fiction, it consciously passes itself off as something worth thinking about. The authors need no theological depth. As long as their ideas make people feel contemplative, the book will sell, even if there isn’t much worth contemplating there. (And this is a very broad warning; Blue Like Jazz certainly does have a few things worth thinking about).
This genre doesn’t fall in the tradition of spiritual theology or devotional works, which rely primarily on Scripture and tradition, with personal anecdote only as a backup source of illustration. Neither does it fall into the rich genre of Christian biography or autobiography, which is designed to show a life well lived by the power of God. By contrast, the stories from the ‘new realism’ genre have little virtue to commend themselves save their honesty. This produces a feeling of empathy on the part of the reader—the author’s struggles are very much like our own, or perhaps worse—but it leaves us there, only attempting to show us a few pointers (if any) toward a better way of living.
My point, of course, is that the genre itself has an inherent danger—using one person’s individual experience as a guide for Christian spirituality. This danger can be avoided, but the writers who choose to use this genre must be cognizant of it. (And, of course, I’m not accusing any of the authors in particular, having only read one such book in full). The flip side is that, if used well, the individualistic locus can also be a powerful force for good—by employing rich theology and an honest story of God-glorifying salvation such that the feeling of empathy engendered in the reader is transformed into a desire to live more faithfully.
Here are some questions to be asked:
- Has this material either edified my understanding or encouraged me to live more consistently? Or has it merely induced a passing emotion in me?
- Does the individualistic locus of the work color the message? (I find it rather ironic that Miller, though he commends the theme of community in the Christian life, chooses a style of writing that is rabidly individualistic).
- Does the author’s cleverness and fluency with words merely mask his or her inability to deal forthrightly with sin?
- Is the individualistic honesty of the anecdotes an example of humility or of pride?
- Does the author show enough understanding of orthodox theology to be taken seriously as a guiding voice for Christian spirituality?
Other questions can be asked, I’m sure, but these are a good starting point. Even if we go to books like Blue Like Jazz without expecting to find substantial contemplative truth, we must still be wary. We cannot assume that there is such a thing as ‘recreational reading’ in the sense that the reading doesn’t affect us. We always take something away from any interaction with almost any media (this is what makes television a subtle danger, and also what makes Scripture a transformative joy), and it is worth considering what these media are doing to the way we think. For, in the end, the way we think determines much of the way we live.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Ancient Way

This is what the Lord says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths; ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." - Jeremiah 6:16


I stood upon a sunlit hill,
And watched the sea grow wildly still.
The waves themselves refused to play
Against the languor of the day.
The question cried upon my brain,
And nothing could my shout restrain.
I asked the world what they had found,
Chasing love in endless round,
I asked the world what they had found,
But everyone just looked away.
Lost in noise, they looked away.

I walked the busy city streets;
The passersby I did entreat,
To see if fifty men remained
Who walked along the ancient way.
Or if not fifty, forty-five,
Or forty who remained alive.
Or thirty, then, if I could find,
Thirty men of noble mind;
Perhaps just twenty hold the line;
Ten who boldly face the day.
But no one walks the ancient way.

These lands I love are slipping fast
Within the dusk to darkness’ grasp.
I weep for words our fathers say,
For mem’ries of the passing day.
Our wealth and comfort bind us tight,
They blind us to the waning light.
Hail Novelty, our fairest god;
Or bow to Entertainment’s rod;
But both these effervescent gods
Their homage to the Self must pay—
This is our trinity today.

Now I raise my head up high,
Against the black’ning of the sky;
And I remember darkly, yea,
The greatness of a former day
When virtue caused men’s faith to rise,
When val’rous hearts embraced the skies.
But virtue is a quaint idea—
Old, and out of style here.
We’ve moved beyond it, have no fear;
We’ve summoned now another day,
With virtue’s greatness cast away.

Return again, O bright and fair!
Return yourselves to virtue’s care!
Our comforts have become our grave,
Till we can neither see nor say
What trouble vexes heart and mind,
Or what has made us deaf and blind.
Desire has become our king,
And, stupefied to everything,
We have lost the will to sing,
To think again on brighter days,
To flee back to the ancient way.

Justice rises with the dawn;
Embrace it, friend, and be reborn;
Prudence now her song will raise
Within the breaking of the day;
And temperance now, with fiercer shout,
Returns to fight its final bout
Against the vagaries of lust,
Against the excesses we trust;
And now, with all our strength we must
Call on fortitude, “Allay!
The bleakness of our darkening day.”

Faith is deeper, wider still,
Its rushing depths can cleanse our will.
And hope will rise upon the day
And push the darkest clouds away.
Hope for glory, hope for light,
Hope for God’s unending right.
But now the greatest of them all
Will rise against the fading pall
And raise the dead with one clear call—
Charity will save the day,
For this love is the ancient way.

Greatness is not found in wealth,
Nor in pleasure, nor in health,
But only in a heart made brave
With virtues of another age.
We were made for noble souls,
So follow God, and be made whole.
There is no other way, my friend,
To grasp your awesome, awestruck end,
To find the peace of life’s ascent.
I have but one last word to say:
Believe, and walk the ancient way.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Follow Me" - The Call to Adventurous Living

The Christian life is an adventurous life. It is this belief, this discovery, which has been the driving force behind the shape of my journey. The Christian worldview is an all-encompassing perspective on reality, but within it lies a vast richness of models and metaphors for our daily life. And for this post I thought I’d share the metaphor that speaks most deeply to me—that of adventure, and of a missional and rather militant type. I’ve been thinking about it lately, since I’m in a place right now of waiting and preparation, and this missional focus reminds me that I have something to do right here and right now, something that will help to shake the world for Christ.

In Matthew 4:19 (and Mark 1:17), we have the call of Jesus to his first disciples. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” The thing that strikes me about this call is its immediate connection to mission. Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me, and I will save you from your sins,” or “Follow me, and you’ll go to heaven when you die.” Rather, he gives his disciples something to do here and now, a brilliant focus for their earthly lives. This is the missional perspective on the Christian life—wherever we are, whatever we may be doing, we always have a mission to fulfill. We are all chosen and placed by God to be agents of his coming Kingdom in a hostile land.

C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, compares Christianity to an underground resistance in a time of war. Satan has taken over the world, and we now live in occupied territory. We know that God will be launching his invasion soon—D-Day is coming. But for now we are the resistance, working in every moment and circumstance to prepare the way for the Lord.

I am, by nature, generally laid-back and gentle in public. But there is a side of me that few rarely see, a fire and intensity that marches out for times of spiritual war. And this missional understanding of the Christian life is what makes me come alive. Interacting with strangers frightens me, but some of the most exhilarating moments of my life have come when I chose to speak of the beauty of faith to people who had never heard it before.

But witness, whether spoken or lived out in daily relationships, isn’t the only way of entering the battle. We also have prayer. No matter where I am, no matter what circumstances have beset me, I always have prayer. I don’t know how or why God chooses to work through the prayers of his people, but if we take Scripture seriously, then we must acknowledge that there is incredible power in prayer, power that can shake the nations and magnify the glory of God on earth. Some things in my life tend to drain my spiritual vigor—allowing lust or gluttony to have their way in my heart, or frittering away my time on petty entertainment. But prayer fills me up with a life so full and so vibrant that it feels like I’m busting at the seams. I explode with smiles when I am faithful in my intercession. Then I am who I’ve been called to be—a warrior, fighting in this beautiful rebellion against the works of Satan. And the wonderful thing about this kind of prayer is that anyone can do it. Every Christian has the honor and the opportunity to enter into the presence of God, to take up the mantle of the prayer-warrior, and to be the face of courage for an embattled church.

And there are other ways to be warriors and missionaries here. Every choice we make is a message to our culture about what Christianity really is. Obedience—walking in the spirit and ways of Christ—is a weapon of unspeakable power in this fight. And it should be a constant warning to us that this battle is not merely external. None of us is untouched by the darkness. We can, and must be, warriors for our own souls. We must grieve for our losses to sin, for the times we choose to disobey, but we must not rest in our grieving. We must rise again, and with courage press on to win a victory for holiness in our hearts. We must learn to obey, and we should celebrate every successful step gained in this fight. Every act of obedience is a blow against the Enemy’s dominion. And we do not fight alone. God stands ready to support us. In the words of Thomas à Kempis’ classic devotional work, The Imitation of Christ: “If we, like valiant men, labored to stand firm in the fray, certainly we would experience the Lord’s heavenly protecting help. He stands ready to aid those who fight and who place their trust in His grace—it is He who provides us with these conflicts and He wants us to be the victors.”

This metaphor isn’t the only one for the Christian life, but it’s an important one, a biblical one. The New Testament portrays Jesus as the one who conquered the powers of darkness, and Revelation over and over bids us to be conquerors in this life (‘overcomers’ in many translations). It should be noted, however, that this metaphor extends only to the spiritual realm, and that it is not in any way an excuse for physical violence. Rather, it is a means of bringing proper courage and valor and strength back into a Christianity that has been all too often domesticated.

So join me in this adventure, friends—maybe the language of battle isn’t as compelling for you as it is for me, but we all need to understand it. We all need to recognize that, at least in some measure, our spiritual lives are a battle, and we have a mission to carry out for our King. Open your arms to embrace this wild, exultant living, and you will find that God will breathe new dreams into your heart. You will be able to see and taste beauty and joy in every corner of your life. You will learn to laugh as you have never laughed before. You will tremble with joy at the thought of the church expanding around the world, and you will be struck down with weeping at the sufferings of the nations. God will break your heart for the things that break His heart, and you will be driven to prayer, to enter the battle for your own soul, for the people and the cities around you, and for the work of God in the world. There is no life like this life, my friends. Come, and follow the Master, and he will make you fishers of men.


Come and ride the restless wave with me;
Leave behind the petty worries of the day.
Open your eyes to a world wild and alive,
And ancient realm forever young,
Possessed of the breathtaking fervor
Of endless possibility.
Come and dance upon the mountains,
Drink the wild and reckless tide of life—
There is wonder in the radiance of small things,
The music of an ever-circling round
That overflows all boundaries of reason and belief
In its race to reach delight.
Traces of Eden surround us still,
In the bright sun that casts a million sparkling diamonds
Onto the endless wave;
In the vibrant green of springtime,
Responding to gentle rains of grace;
In the radiant smile of a little child
As he raises his wondering eyes for one glimpse of the heavens.
Come with me, and meet the Maker here.
Come with me, and taste the life He gives.
This world shouts His praise,
And it shouts for you to hear.
Oh, kindred friend,
Join your heart in the laughter of the dawn,
The exultant chorus of the boundless sea.
Drink deep from the fountain of heaven’s joy—
It flows for you,
Oh, come and see.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Update

Well, the spring semester ended for me about a month ago, and the intervening time of freedom has been welcome indeed. I’m still working at my part-time job in the seminary library, but most of my free time toward the end of May was consumed in finishing a revised draft of my first fantasy novel, Freedom Cry. It was a story I began writing while I was in North Africa in 2004 (where I was devoid of any resources with which to write historical fiction, my genre of choice), and it was mostly written for pleasure. But it turned out better than I expected, so the past few years have been spent in fine-tuning it, writing a prequel, and developing a plot for the third installment of the trilogy (which I’m now beginning). I’ll try to get it printed by a good publisher, but the market isn’t great for Christian fantasy (unless your name is C.S. Lewis). It’s understandable, though—for the greater part of the Christian reading audience, fantasy doesn’t have much appeal. Chances are high that reputable publishers won’t even bother to glance at my manuscript, so I’ll probably be publishing it with a print-on-demand house sometime in 2009. (But if any of you who know me are interested in reading an ‘advance copy’, I’d be happy to email the files your way; just ask me for them).

Two of my dear friends from Houghton College (and now, happily, my relatives!), Jason and Naomi, came out to visit us and we spent all of last week together, including an adventuresome trip to cold, windy Rocky Mountain National Park. You never would have known that it was June. If felt more like January, but I think we all enjoyed it.

Rachel is in the middle of the first leg of a summer school program for autistic teens, and so far it’s been going well. She’s also gearing up to start taking classes toward a master’s degree in education, which is exciting. Her classes start at the beginning of July, just about the time when I dive back into a seminary course.

It should be a good course, but I know I’ll begrudge it the loss of all my glorious free time. Denver Seminary is a great institution, but my background in most of the areas we study is already fairly deep. I’ve tested out of a few classes and hope to test out of a few more, but some of the introductory courses these past two semesters have seemed inordinately dull. Part of the reason, I suppose, is that I do have a solid background in the Bible and theology, and the amount of time spent in class and reading doesn’t compare favorably with the amount of new material I’m learning. I feel like I could have learned far more on my own program of study within the same period of time.

The benefit of the coursework, though, is that it focuses my attention more fully on areas that I probably wouldn’t engage directly if I was given free rein. I do learn more on my own, but it’s a scattered affair that focuses mainly on history. During my month off, for example, when I wasn’t finishing my book, I was studying the early history of Mormonism, the history and culture of New England’s Native Americans, and the history and sociology of ‘ecstatic religion’, both within Christianity and outside of it. I’ve also taken time to brush up on my French, started learning some classic chess openings, and read most of a collection of the early Apostolic Fathers. Further, I feel like I have more time and freedom to pray when on my own schedule (and it should be noted that all of this is while working nearly full-time at the library, but the job does afford significant reading-time). So while I do learn a fair deal of new things in seminary, it’s not in the volume I’d like, nor in the areas that most interest me. They are, however, areas helpful to the teaching of the Word, so, as a prospective pastor, I just have to give up my complaints and study hard. There certainly are times, though, when I wonder (hopefully) if God might be calling me to study history, or for us to enter foreign missions, instead of pursuing pastoral work. But preaching is my great love, and it remains the strongest reason that I continue on this course. There is nowhere that I feel more alive and more used of God than behind a pulpit. And I truly love the church, and believe that it is the shape of Christ to the world. I would gladly study hard on an arduous track in order to bind myself to the ministry of God’s church. So, it would seem that seminary is my lot for now, and hopefully, now that the introductory classes are largely behind me, I’ll begin to appreciate it more. My discontent probably reflects more poorly on me than on the process of seminary education.

In any case, I’m really enjoying life at the moment, and my hope and prayer is that I can direct some of my current learning-energy into my formal studies. You can certainly be praying for me in this area, friends. I find it’s a lot easier to feel hungry for solid biblical study when I’m actively involved in a teaching or preaching ministry (I felt almost insatiable in my personal study of theology in Angola), but unfortunately I have no such regular ministry here. I do get to preach every now and then at our home church, though, and I always appreciate the experience. You can pray, too, for Rachel, as she begins her studies—it’s an exciting time for us, but we’ll probably be even busier this coming year. On the bright side, it’ll give me someone with whom to commiserate about classwork.

Well, I’ve stolen too much of your time writing about myself. This was just a quick update; next time I’ll have something substantial for us to think about. But for now, thank you for your prayers, friends, and for your interest and support.

Blessings in Christ.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Echoes of a Weary Discontent

Be gentle with me,

For I am weary beyond breath.

I, who have held in my hands

And in my mind

The stuff of empires,

Am lost within the silence

Of a disquieted heart.

Time pulls at me like a lion’s claws,

The foul and twisted offspring

Of a bleak world that has now forgotten

The beautiful secret of rest.

O rampant shadow,

Which chases me by night

And dances in the corners of my mind!

Why do you toy with me?

Neither lost nor found, I wander discontent

And know not what could make me smile

Save you.

Soft! Does he hear my lonesome cry?

Will now he come and slay the beast

That lurks within my heart?

Oh, I yearn for it.

Come quickly, Lord.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Hero's Crown

This is another attempt at a rhyming poem, focusing on the virtue of humility--it's not particularly profound, but you might enjoy it.

It came betwixt the clock and day,
When time turned men’s designs away
And round about the ancient light
There gathered heroes to recite.

All the charm and zest we laud
Were found within these self-styled gods,
The ones we follow and adore,
The ones we love and yet abhor.

They took their seats and filled the sky
With cries of valor so sublime
That e’en the stars seemed moved to shine
Their glory on these gods of time.

They gathered there for one great quest,
One vaunted goal to crown the best,
To find the truest hero there
And ne’er again that glory share.

The first who spoke was garbed in white,
Reflecting back the vibrant light,
And giving voice his noble song,
He held at bay the jealous throng.

“I was he who shook the earth
With shouts for every human’s worth;
I purged the world of hate and fraud
And thus myself became a god.”

“A god indeed!” cried one beside,
“But not so godly as am I!
They followed you to justice, true,
But they loved me and did not you.”

All eyes turned to this young man,
Who smiled and then began to stand.
“Twas I who captured all their praise;
I was their god for countless days.”

“They looked on me and they were mine,
And shall be mine throughout all time,
For charms like mine will never fade,
Nor can they ever be re-made.”

“Your beauty pales against my own,”
Replied a woman to her foe.
“You they wished they could be like,
But I was their worship and delight.”

“A thousand men lust after me,
And mortals make eternity.
I am the goddess and the rain,
I am Venus, returned again.”

Now another stood to speak,
And smiled condescendingly
At the woman, and he sighed:
“Lust is not virtue, but a vice.”

“I, however, am virtuous;
The pinnacle of cleverness.
I mocked the masses and their dreams,
And set them bowing at my feet.”

“Mockery is no virtue, friend,”
And the final hero bowed his head.
“If you seek virtue, look at me,
I doubt a humbler man could be.”

“I am selfless, unlike you—
I’ve risked my life to save a few.
My sacrifice is boundless, friends,
As is my constant kindliness.”

He fell silent, but there was still
Another, who had yet to tell
His tale to the gathered band,
The greatest heroes of the land.

He was a boy in simple garb,
And round he looked with eyes afar,
The wonder of that timeless place
Shining joyous from his face.

“I am not wise,” he said, and grinned,
“But I love to hear your wisdom, friends.
You are beautiful and strong indeed,
And it is the hero’s life you lead.”

The heroes smiled scornfully,
And the boy beamed back in raptured glee,
Then stood and took his leave of them,
Into the night from which he came.

And as he walked that lonely way
The heroes shouted out in rage,
For the ancient fires had died down
And the bright young hero bore the crown.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Rise of Virtue

I've been thinking a lot lately about virtue and its relationship to current American society. While it would seem that many if not most Americans are what we might call 'good people,' it is also increasingly evident that the culture as a whole is doing little to promote any classical virtues. The contrast is stark when I think of the difference between my grandparents' generation, which grew up knowing the power of virtue and a good work ethic, and my own, which exults in materialism and being entertained. That's not to say that there aren't good people among my generation, but that a shift has taken place in which common vices which would have been looked down upon a hundred years ago are now lauded. Where once modesty and meekness were actually good things, now they're often perceived as weaknesses. Pride and self-absorption seem to be the ethos of the day, with teenagers proudly wearing shirts with slogans like "It's all about me."
Sex has become an object of pleasure and obsession rather than of honor and holiness. For many, it has become about satisfying personal desires rather than a self-giving expression of faithful, committed love. It comes as no surprise that many men and women in my generation suffer from an inability to relate on the level of meaningful and perseverant relationships.
The pervasive influences of television have changed the focus and measure of our ability to think, and have created a culture of entitlement. We expect to be entertained. In fact, most people have this as their life's goal. They may work hard at their jobs during the week, but it's often toward the end of being able to spend their leisure time on vacations and weekends as they would like. Retirement, too, can tend toward this goal--rather than using those years as a time to find a new and rich form of work for the Kingdom of God (or simply for our fellow men), we spend it taking cruises and playing golf and watching TV. There's nothing wrong with leisure, but there is something wrong with making it our life's goal. There's something wrong with an entire generation that grows up watching television and playing video games and doing little else.
These observations aren't new to anyone, but they bear repeating. And, of course, they're generalizations with many exceptions. There are hints of redemptive virtue all throughout our culture, but unfortunately they don't seem to make a great impact in forming the pattern of our day-to-day lives. The trend seems to be leaning toward disregarding traditional virtues like moderation and humility, and embracing the vices of self-centeredness.
Historically speaking, this is nothing new. It's troubling, but not a cause for obsession. The Roman-Hellenistic world of the first century, bathed in the legacy of the noble virtues of Greek philosophy, was, in some of its facets, at least as twisted and self-indulgent as we Americans are today, and perhaps more so. Britain, in the years preceding the Methodist revivals, was likewise in a cultural slump toward vice. In those instances, the emergence or re-emergence of Christianity effected a profound change.
But this trend toward embracing vice is a bit worrisome because it's one of the reasons why so many other people groups despise us. Frankly, we're becoming morally odious to the traditional paradigm of virtue which many cultures still treasure. In as much as we are becoming the 'Hollywood nation,' we are becoming an offense to people all around the world.
So the great question for American Christians concerns how we address this issue. Some lead by the power of example, engaging in social action toward justice and the relief of poverty, and that's good. Others enter the political fray, seeking to elect virtuous people and to pass legislation that protects the moral capital of our nation. That too is good, but it's a road that must be treaded carefully, or else Christians will be seen as a dangerous and power-hungry sect. The basic problem of this tactic, though, is that in a representative democracy, a push toward virtue will only work if the people truly want it.
So how do we go about turning our nation back toward a love of virtue? The most basic way is through friendship evangelism, turning men and women and children, one by one, back to the way of the Cross. Christianity, as the truth of God, is the ultimate fountainhead of virtue. It has a spotted legacy from mistakes made by those who wear its name, but that does not rule out or tarnish its metaphysical truth and power. The second way is through a genuine revival, a work of God. This is not something we can bring upon ourselves, but it is something for which we can prepare the way through repentance and prayer. Many of us Christians are deeply impacted by the self-centered temper of contemporary culture, and only by repenting of that and having God turn our hearts back toward him will we be able to show the power of virtue to a culture that is increasingly disinterested.
The third way, and the central suggestion I want to make in this post, is fairly practical and not necessarily connected with Christian involvement. In his scathing critique of the influence of television on American culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman suggests that the way to counteract TV's degradation of our epistemology is through the means of public education. I would make the same suggestion here. While I believe that Christianity, because it is 'true' in the deepest sense of the word, conveys the highest form of virtue, at present Christianity has very little voice in touching Americans who aren't churchgoers. So, how do we reach young people, to show them a better way of living than total self-absorption? Through the schools. Christianity may not be allowed into schools, but virtue might. Why not build in a class or set of classes that focuses on teaching classical virtues, for the betterment of our society? Even those who are rabidly opposed to Christian involvement in schools would probably agree that our kids need a fair dose of virtue, something that they're not getting from their TVs and apparently aren't getting much of at home, either. Virtue has been an important part of philosophy and culture, from the time of Plato and Aristotle to today. Native American culture is saturated with wisdom on living the virtuous life. Virtue is something that is wholly noble and honorable, and because it stems from the spirit of Christ, which we were made to be in communion with, most people will always have some attraction to it when they see it as it is. Even with our fallen sinfulness, there is an inherent goodness to people, and even though we can't consistently live virtuous lives on our own power, there is something in us that desires virtue. The virtuous life is the heroic life, and most of us know that and want it.
My generation needs to taste the power of virtue again, and public schools are the only place that I can think of where they might get that taste. Even if special classes can't be arranged for teaching virtue in the context of social studies, virtue could be a core quality that comes out of the teaching of history. History should be more than just facts, it should be formative for how we live our lives today. The teaching and learning of history should be, at least in some of its aspects, radically counter-cultural. And there is enough of the golden thread of virtue in history to make it available and attractive to today's youth.
The same burden falls not only on the public schools, but also on the churches. We have many young people who, whether Christian or not, don't understand the power of a virtuous, God-honoring life. We need to develop ways to show them the power and beauty of virtue. We need to bring ourselves back to the place where merely hearing the word itself opens for us bold and imaginative horizons, heroic dreams, and vistas of unparalleled beauty. That is what virtue is to me, and it is that hopeful vision that I want Americans to see.