Thursday, November 11, 2010

God and Country: The Dangers of American Patriotism in the Church

Our church here in Calais, Maine, has traditionally been a very “patriotic” church. There are a large number of veterans among our members, and the congregation often makes its nationalistic pride felt through such means as our special Memorial Day service and a wall in the fellowship hall honoring our veterans. I’ve blogged here before about some of the hyper-patriotic attitudes that rub me the wrong way, but in this piece I want to focus on some basic pastoral concerns I have about congregations who hold American patriotism and Christian faith a little too tightly bound together.

First, a few clarifications at the outset. This isn’t a critique of our church as such—it’s entirely understandable, even laudable in some sense, to honor veterans and to love our country. If there’s a fault here, it’s not a major fault. It’s rather the simple difficulty that arises from conflating two loves which probably ought to be held separately. This is a matter I haven’t been swift to address, mostly because it’s largely innocuous in comparison to many of the other problems our American churches are dealing with right now. But our church is in the process of thinking through these issues of faith and patriotism at the moment, so for the sake of clarifying my position I thought I’d spell my concerns out here. (I don’t think anyone in my congregation actually reads this blog, but the content isn’t anything different than what I’ve expressed in conversations to various church members over the past few weeks.) The second clarification is simply to note that much of my reflection on this subject has been shaped (but not fully determined) by Anabaptist influences. Truth be told, real Anabaptists would be shocked and dismayed by the patriotism of our church—having Sunday School kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance, considering putting an American flag up outside the church, etc.—and while I am not quite as shocked at the potential syncretism, I do find it troubling.

To put the matter in theological terms, we Christians are the citizens of two very different kingdoms—the Kingdom of God, and our earthly societies. And I believe our allegiance to the Kingdom of God should be held quite free and separate of our political allegiances. Christ instructed us to give both kingdoms their due (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), but I don’t think he had in mind festooning church sanctuaries with Roman banners and emblems. Now, when I say that our allegiances should be held separately, I mostly mean that our political allegiances should not be allowed to invade our Christian faith. Our faith, however, should inform and influence and shape our political allegiances. Why? Because our citizenship in the Kingdom of God is the higher of the two loyalties. My identity as a Christian is eternal; my identity as an American is a passing affair. Some day my Americanism will simply be part of the beautiful diversity of the “melting pot” of heaven. I don’t expect that the USA will exist in the new heavens and the new earth for us to treasure and extol. But the church will persist. Christ’s kingdom will persist. So that’s where my highest loyalty lies. Thus my faith—my deepest identity—invades and determines my political allegiances, not the other way around. Our Christian identity is fundamental; our American identity is secondary.

And because the Kingdom of God is our highest loyalty, I consider it to be inappropriate to pledge allegiance to anything other than God himself in our churches. While the Pledge of Allegiance is fine and proper in other contexts, the church is an assembly of the Kingdom of God, and it is inappropriate for us to pledge allegiance to the US here in our churches. It is just as inappropriate as it would be for the whole US Senate to swear oaths to a Masonic order or their local Rotary clubs from the floor of the Senate chamber. The two things simply ought not to be put together, regardless of how appropriate or meritorious they may be elsewhere. My congregation loves and treasures the Boston Red Sox, but that doesn’t mean we should pin up Red Sox pennants around our sanctuary.

Thus I take my position against the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in church, regardless of the circumstances, and against having an American flag flying outside on church property. (There is an American flag inside the sanctuary, but that’s such an old tradition that I’m not sure it’s worth the bother of dislodging it, and it’s happily tucked away into a corner sufficiently far away from the pulpit and altar.) The honoring of veterans in church is not quite as troubling. From my theological perspective, we must guard against such a practice being an extension of the cult of Americanism into the church, but as a celebration of community members who have made heroic sacrifices for the common good, I find it perfectly acceptable. (Although, to be fair, we ought to be doing the same thing for all those who make heroic sacrifices for the common good—policemen, firemen, teachers, social workers, etc.)

It’s worth remembering that Christ himself absolutely eschewed any taint of politicism or patriotism in his ministry. And his ministry, his example, is the foundation of the church. We should note that Christ could have easily encouraged patriotism in his church—his home country, after all, was Judea, populated by the chosen people of God. And everyone expected the Messiah to be a highly political, patriotic figure. Even one of his disciples was a Zealot, a Judean patriot. But although Jesus certainly focused his ministry on the Jews, there was no trace of patriotic nationalism whatsoever in what he did. In fact, he told Pilate quite plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” If Jesus himself, the Messiah, declined the patriotism that everyone thought would be proper and laudable for the Messiah, shouldn’t we be wary of conflating patriotism with faith in our own lives?

To make my case clearer, allow me to point out a few of the potential dangers of allying our American loyalties too closely with the practice of our faith:

First, and perhaps most troubling to me, it leads to a loss of the deep connection we should have with our brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world. We are more intimately connected (in a spiritual sense) with Christians in Swaziland than with our American neighbors, and our family loyalties should lie more strongly with the global church than with the USA. But in practice, this is seldom seen in American churches. During the Iraq war, all one heard about was the Americanist/political news. How many Christians showed any concern for the effects of the war on the native Iraqi Christian population? (In brief, the war was devastating for them, and several native church groups which stretched back more than a millennium and a half and constituted a decent minority of the Iraqi population a few years ago are now all but gone, forced to emigrate out because the war has raised Muslim/Christian tensions and made their ancient homeland unlivable.)

Second, it forces us to lose some of our prophetic voice against the abuses of the American system. Part of the mission of the church is to stand against injustice, but that can be hard to do if we conflate American patriotism and the faith. We too often shy away from denunciations of the ill effects of our materialism on other countries or from apologies for past American atrocities (against the Native Americans, for example), because such things make us sound “unpatriotic.” And so we mute the voice of the church.

Third, we tend to associate the enemies of America with the enemies of the church, and we lose the ability to love and pray for our enemies. Christ himself commanded us to love our enemies. But how many American Christians do you know who pray for the salvation of Osama bin Laden and the men of Al-Qaeda? According to Jesus, that’s what we should be doing, but our Americanism has blinded us to that calling. Far too many American Christians seem to believe that Muslims are our enemies, rather than the objects of our missional love and compassion.

Fourth, it leads to a tendency to associate American causes (especially wars) with righteous motives, whether or not that is the actual case. Fifth, it perpetuates the conflation of Americanism and Christianity in the eyes of other countries (much to the detriment of Christianity). When I was serving in missions in North Africa, I found it a fairly common assumption that Christianity was characterized by Hollywood, pornography, materialistic greed, and so on, mostly because Muslim countries associate the USA with Christianity, and we Americans (unfortunately) have only reinforced that assumption with our “God and country” syncretism. Sixth, it creates an unwelcoming environment in our churches for non-American Christians in our midst, especially those who might harbor justified resentment against America.

Seventh, it leads us to believe that certain American customs and morals are actually Christian, when in fact they are merely “optional” cultural add-ons to the Gospel or actually run against it (individualism, nuclear family systems, capitalism, “the American dream,” ways of dressing and eating, etc.), thus setting extra barriers in the way of experiencing the full force of the Gospel in our own lives and leading to an attitude of judgmentalism against those who practice the faith in a different cultural context. We are fostering the darkest kind of ethnocentrism—that which is fueled by ignorant religious opinion. And eighth, we run the risk of raising a generation who will be too subservient to American patriotism (the lesser of the two loyalties) when American interests run against the interests of the Kingdom of God.

These are just a few potential dangers, and I think they’re real enough to give us pause when we consider adding blatant shows of American patriotism to our churches.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reflections on an Autumn Walk

Cascades of fire surround me,
Emblazoned on the trees.
As summer turns to winter,
All God’s verdure holds its breath
And then, brilliant as the setting sun,
Cries “Holy is the Lord!”
The emerald bounties of the woods
Turn softly, and turning thus,
Reflect the radiance of his throne.

Our God, our God, our God is a consuming fire,
And the whole earth is full of his glory.

I walk in sunlit fields of grace,
Down paths where peace has showered down,
In golden leaves, from Abba’s treetops.
The gulls splash in quiet shallows,
And on the age-old lumber of the docks
A cormorant dries its wings.
The robins—young and full of life,
Fly down to a string of pearled puddles,
And shake their feathers there.
Along the river the eagle watches,
Full fierce and proud in majesty,
While the cold northern waters
Sluice out through river-stones
And meet the bitter sea.

Our God, our God, our God is a consuming fire,
And the whole earth is full of his glory.

Amid these wild wonders walk I:
I the Image,
I the crown,
I the master of creation.
And I am humbled here.
Humbled to have seen the glory of our God
In tree and bird and stream,
And to know that he loves me.
He paints the world in breathless tones
Of wild and violent beauty,
And in this dance of peace and splendor,
He invites me in.

Our God, our God, our God is a consuming fire,
And the whole earth is full of his glory

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Becoming Missional (and, apparently, very worried)

This weekend I attended the annual convention of the American Baptist Churches of Maine (ABCOM). It was my first convention as a pastor within our covenant-community of churches, and it was good to meet some of my fellow-workers in the Lord. There was the usual mix of worship and business and socializing, and the main theme of the weekend centered around encouraging our churches toward becoming more missional. And the thought here is not simply to do more door-to-door evangelism, but to do community development programs that meet our neighbors at their point of need. A wonderful thing to aim for, certainly. It was inspiring and powerful, and a lot of good ideas and resources were offered for the equipping of the churches toward that end.



I give that positive introduction to mitigate what I’m about to say. I’m a “critical thinker” by nature, and I have a few critiques I wanted to address; but overall it was a very good convention. I should also explain at the outset, for those readers who live in other corners of the country or world, that Maine (and New England as a whole), is rapidly abandoning its traditional Christian faith and becoming widely and aggressively secular. Among my own generation (people in their twenties), I would estimate that 95% in the Calais area choose to have nothing to do with church.



So that’s the situation. But let’s get to my critique of the convention’s presentation of the missional church. The main thing that bothered me was the tone of it all. Making our churches more missional is all well and good. The church should indeed be reaching out beyond its own walls. Missions—including home missions—is in my blood. Nothing excites me more than the thought of the expansion of God’s kingdom, of revival and new believers. However, one of the characteristic downfalls of those who urge us on toward missional activity is that they sometimes tend to downplay the normal life of the church. And I heard some of that this weekend. I heard things like, “We need to stop trying to maintain what we have inside our walls, and reach out to those outside our walls.” One got the feeling that a few of the commentators wanted us to define church life in terms of its missionality. I wanted to say, “Hey, hold on here! Mission is important, but it’s not the only thing. Our worship to God is important. Our church meetings are important. The preaching of the Word of God is an act of wonder, a holy mystery. The nurture of the Body is important. The celebration of the sacraments and ordinances is important. What we do inside our church walls, week in and week out, is inherently valuable and worthwhile, no matter how many people are in the pews. Let’s be missional, yes! But let’s not talk trash about the beauties of congregational life and worship in doing it!” The truth is, mission is a vital part of being a church. But being a church is not reducible to mission alone. Churches should not be forced to feel themselves failures if their outreach goes unnoticed and their pews go empty. The worship of God and the mere metaphysical fact of being the church is extraordinary and inherently valuable.



Another characteristic downfall is that, in their attempts to motivate us toward action, missional speakers tend to become preachers of doom-and-gloom spiritual futurescapes. A large chunk of what I heard this weekend revolved around a sense of mourning for the rapidly-degenerating state of American culture and spirituality, especially among our young people. There was a palpable sense of desperation, as if we were the embattled few fighting for the last defense of the world. While it’s true that a lot depends on us and on our efforts, and that our culture is moving in a truly mournful direction of spiritual malaise, the tone of these meetings lacked something of the powerful, optimistic trust in the sovereignty of God that probably should be there.



We serve a God who is infinitely able to accomplish his will. He is in control, and we already know that the end of the story is an end of ultimate triumph and of the global celebration of the kingdom of God. Even if Maine of the 21st century becomes a heathen wasteland, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not the end of God’s church. It’s happened before, in other places; it’s happening right now in Europe and Canada; and for all we know, in three hundred years the pendulum might well swing all the way back to another Great Awakening.



Here’s how I see it: I work and pray for revival, here and now, in Calais and in Maine as a whole. But unless God sovereignly begins to move through our efforts in a new and surprising way, it’s not going to happen. What will happen is this: the old, faithful generations will die off. My generation will continue their slide into churchlessness. Many small churches will have to close their doors. Popular culture will become even more suspicious and hostile to Christianity. (I don’t anticipate actual governmental persecution of Christians on anything close to the scale of the historical persecutions of the faith, partly because I respect the stability and fairness of the American system of government; but I suppose it is a distant possibility). Our culture will become more amoral and hedonistic than it already is, leading to a degeneration of public life. Vices like drugs and pornography will continue to abound; moral relativism will take hold. Public life will be largely ruled by popular media—TV, Internet, etc.



Into this rather bleak vision of New England’s future, the vast breakthrough of the Gospel in Latin America, Africa, China, and, God willing, India and the Middle East, will trickle back into the post-Christian West. The US and Europe will continue to become mission fields for the African and Chinese churches, and their vitality might just prove strong enough to swing the pendulum back in our spiritually-starved society. That’s what I think will happen. Faith may be waning in Maine right now, and it will probably wane further. But it’s waxing brilliant and strong elsewhere. God is still in control.



It’s an old story—it happened in all the areas which are now the Muslim heartlands, and which were previously the greatest bastions of Christian faith—Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor—their Christian communities saw the societies around them torn away from the Gospel and the true faith, and they had to adjust to life as a small, faithful remnant community in the midst of their non-Christian and anti-Christian neighbors. It might have seemed like a desperate situation, as if the survival of the Christian faith itself was in question. But, in an unforeseen development, the Gospel had penetrated and won the barbarian, pagan hinterlands of northern Europe and Russia, and now, after a millennium and a half, the Gospel is finally beginning a powerful return to its old home in the Middle East.



It reminds me of an old quote I’ve always liked. I can’t find the reference, but it draws on the image of a long battle-front wreathed in mist, and goes something like this: “The enemy is all around you, on every side. But do not despair. It may be that you lie entrenched in the last remaining pocket of enemy resistance, and beyond the mist and smoke, your fellows and your friends have already won the field.” And (since we’re in a quote-quoting mode), it comes down to this: “Have plenty of courage. God is stronger than the devil. We are on the winning side” (John Chapman).



It’s the mood of hand-wringing from our churches that gets me. Obviously we need to be working in mission and evangelism. But much of what I heard this weekend feels to me like the reaction of a church that had been triumphant in its culture for a long while, and had grown to assume that that situation was the status quo. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize what an abnormal situation it truly was. And when the regular course of history returned—that is to say, when the church began to become again a despised, marginalized group of spiritual sojourners with little influence on the popular culture—they didn’t know how to deal with it. Spiritually speaking, we’re returning toward the sort of society that Jesus apparently expected us to live in—hostile to spiritual truth, in which the church would be a faithful remnant, a witnessing, prophetic community. God may bring great revivals, but let us not despair if he does not. We are not in an unusual situation if we find that people don’t want to hear about Jesus. Rather, we are in a biblical situation—the very situation that Jesus and the apostles expected. All we can do is be faithful, proclaim the Word, build up our brothers, celebrate the grace of God in the ordinances, live transparently in the love of Christ, and let him do the mysterious, wonderful work of bringing the harvest-fields to the point of readiness again. Christ is victorious; he has already won. Let us be faithful and obedient, trust and rejoice in him, and take what comes.



This seems to me to be the biblical attitude. Paul and the other apostles exemplified a life of outward ministry. But—interestingly enough—virtually nowhere in all their written instructions to the churches (the epistles) do they ever implore us to be active in evangelism. And to a modern evangelical, that ought to seem like a strange omission, given the way we harp on it. But perhaps Paul and the apostles knew that it was really God’s work, far more than it is ours. We, the church, will do what we can do, and we leave the rest to him. He will win the day. But it may not come here and now, in our towns and in our lifetimes. Paul certainly did not live to see Rome and Corinth and Ephesus come to the point of the majority converting to faith in Christ. It did happen, but it was some four or five hundred years later. Paul simply did the work of evangelism, encouraged the church to live lovingly and gracefully, and entrusted the rest to God. And he knew God’s plan would prevail in the end. The truth is, we may actually be living in the days of the greatest harvest of all, given the way Christianity is exploding around the world. We just happen to be in a distant little corner of the world (yes, it’s true, America isn’t actually the center of everything) where our faith is receding at the moment.



It will be interesting to see the adjustments that our churches make in the coming years. I was the youngest pastor at the convention. I might have been the only person younger than thirty there (and it wasn’t just pastors; laypeople had been invited as delegates too). There were only two or three in their thirties; a handful in their forties. I would estimate that 95% of the attendees were over the age of fifty, and the majority sixty and older. As those generations pass over into their blessed rest in the coming decades, smaller churches will probably have to close their buildings and consolidate together. And we will have to adjust to life as a faithful witness rather than the life as a leading voice in the public sphere which we have up till now enjoyed in the US. I hope it doesn’t go that way. I hope our efforts at home missions here and now will be wildly successful, sparking revivals on every side. But I suspect it will continue on its current trend for awhile yet. It’s not a heartening thought, but such is the history of the church. And God is still in control.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Is the USA the best country in the world?

There are usually two responses that come to this question from Americans (most non-Americans would probably add a strong negative as a third possibility): "Of course it is," and, the answer I would like to defend, "What a ridiculously unanswerable question!" To those who, like me, lean toward the latter of these responses, it might seem bizarre to devote a blog-column to the topic. But, strangely enough, there are a lot of Americans--perhaps the majority--who would actually, quite blithely, give the first answer.

I've run into this thought a few times in the past couple weeks. One was in the course of an ordinary conversation with a friend, who asserted, quite out of the blue, that the US was the best country in the world, as if that were an undisputed fact. My second encounter was the more interesting one--a Gospel music singer was performing at our church, and stated how proud he was to live in "the best country on earth," and then proceeded to have us all stand and sing "I'm Proud to Be an American." This is perhaps not all that surprising, considering the all-too-common syncretism between Christianity and American patriotism these days. But the interesting thing is that we, as a church in a border-town, actually attract a fair number of Canadians to our concerts. I would estimate that at least half of the audience that night was Canadian, and I suspect they might not have all agreed quite so quickly that the US was the best country on earth.

Now before we begin looking a little more deeply into this question, I should pause and reaffirm my own patriotism. Having been influenced by Anabaptist theology and practice, I am, perhaps, a bit more cautious than most American Christians about brash displays of patriotic fervor, especially in connection with the church, but that doesn't mean that I don't love my country. I do. The USA is extraordinary--in its history, its system of government, its natural wonders, and its people. I am proud to be an American, proud to be a citizen of what might very well be the noblest political experiment ever carried out on a national level. But that doesn't mean that I can't be honest about my country, that I can't mourn its failings, that I can't, indeed, even be ashamed of it sometimes. Loving my country doesn't mean that I need to somehow convince myself that it is superior to all other nations.

While I am proud of the US for many reasons, there have been seasons of shame in my relationship with my country. I was working in northern Sudan when the news about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. And in the face of confusion and anger from the Arabs around me, I was ashamed of what my countrymen had done. Now, clearly, that was an isolated incident that did not reflect the true character of the majority of our armed forces. But there are other things I'm ashamed of as an American. I'm ashamed of our legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. I'm ashamed of what we did to the Native Americans. I'm sometimes ashamed of the often unreflective and anti-intellectual character of the American public. I'm ashamed of the reckless plunge my generation is taking into blind hedonism. And I'm also ashamed to see too much arrogance in our patriotism. It is one thing to love our country--deeply, passionately, as we should; to applaud her merits and seek to pass on her distinctive virtues. But it is quite another thing to claim in the face of the world that we are the best.

Well, what do people mean when they call this the best country in the world? Some, perhaps, merely throw out the phrase unreflectively, as an expression of their loyalty and personal preference for the US. In most cases, it is merely a statement of personal opinion. But sometimes one gets the sense that the people who say this mean it in a metaphysical sense--that truly, in the grand scheme of things, no other country can measure up to the USA.

It's worth asking what that assertion even means. What qualifications go into determining the best country on earth? There are thousands upon thousands of variables you could take into consideration. Most of the studies which try to answer that question in an unbiased way, usually going off of standard-of-living statistics and polls on personal happiness, end up pointing towards one of the Scandinavian countries as the best (Finland was #1 in the most recent survey I've seen; the US #11). Honestly, though, I suspect that most of the people who make the assertion that the US is the best have never been in more than one or two other countries for any extended period of time. None of them, certainly, have lived for awhile in every single country, which is presumably what you would need to do to make such an assertion fairly. And even so, the list of possible qualifications is endless. Is the US a wealthy nation? Others are wealthier. Is the US a happy and contented nation? Other nations are happier and more contented. Do Americans show moral courage? So do citizens of other countries. Is America founded on noble principles? Yes, but there are other countries out there with constitutions just as lofty as our own.

There are, of course, some areas where Americans have dominated the playing field. We often top the charts in military strength, economics, and charitable giving (though the last of these is possibly offset, in a moral sense, by the overall materialism of our culture--people of other countries don't always give as much money as we do, but they may well be more generous and hospitable than we are; this is particularly true of the citizens of Middle Eastern countries, for whom hospitality is one of the highest rules of life). But we also come close to topping the charts in some rather less-than-noble categories: abortions, teenage pregnancies, suicides, and pornography production are a few examples. All this to say, it would be very challenging to come up with a set of distinctive American qualities that would wipe out all the competition for the "best country on earth" title.

I think, though, that another factor comes into play for people who assert that this is the best country in the world. They often seem to tie the claim to a religious/historical argument--something along the lines of God providentially choosing and shaping our nation. It's often stated by these same folks that America was founded on Christian principles; and the feeling is that the US has always stood up for what is good and right and true and just. (It should be noted at this point that many other countries would certainly dissent and could easily enumerate some of the more ignoble moments in American history.) While there is some truth to these ideas (the Founding Fathers were, certainly, deeply influenced by Christian ideals and moral values, and we have, overall, been a much more religious country than others in the industrial West), it's a hard case to make conclusively. While God is certainly not impassive towards the USA and its legacy, I don't think our somewhat-checkered history bears out the claim that we are a chosen nation, specially blessed, or a "city on a hill." It seems to me from Scripture that God loves all nations (yes, even the "bad" ones) and longs for them all to come into loving relationship with him. And one could rattle off a handful of nations that might just as easily be considered to have a special place in God's heart--Israel and Palestine (yes, both), El Salvador (hard to say no to a country that's named after you), the Vatican, and China (with probably more Christians living there than the entire population of the US), just to name a few. That's a bit tongue-in-cheek of course; but at the heart of the matter I think we would all agree that God is more concerned with the people who make up a nation than with the outward political form of the nation itself.

My main question to those who assert the primacy of the US would be, Why are we even bothering to make this claim? Who cares (except our own fervent patriots)? What does it matter if we live in the best or the second best or the hundredth-best nation? Let's do what we can to make our country even better than it is, regardless of what other countries do or where they sit on the scale of things. We have a fine, wonderful country. We have a lot to be proud of. But it is possible to love our country without putting other countries down. It is possible to love ourselves and love our neighbors, too. God bless the USA; yes, amen! But God bless Canada, too; God bless Russia; God bless China; God bless Iraq; God bless Zimbabwe. We are only the best if we love the best; if we love our neighbors as God loves them. Let's strive to that end.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Here we are, you and I..."

I've begun reading Aelred of Rievaulx's classic work, Spiritual Friendship, written in the Middle Ages as a Christian remix of Cicero's On Friendship (which I read earlier this year). Perhaps the profoundest line I've found so far is the simple beginning of the dialogue, where Aelred says to his interlocutor: "Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst."

It is the nature of Christian friendship that the union of two people should lead them into the presence of God. Reflecting back on my own life, I can say that there has seldom been anything so spiritually formative for me as my seasons of deep, rich Christian friendship. Bible study, prayer, silence and solitude, service--these are all essentials, of course. But nothing has quite made them come alive like the intimate presence of others. When living in close community and friendship with other believers, my prayer, study, and service takes on greater power. Friendship lends a practical impetus to my spiritual formation--I tend to care more about what sort of person I am becoming when I am living in close communion with others--and it also lends a direction and purpose to that formation: the deepening of our fellowship and the active outworking of my faith in practical, relational ways. Christian friendship becomes both a source of fuel for spiritual formation and one of the goals of spiritual formation.

In the past few weeks I've been making more of a concerted effort to spend intentional time with Rachel. Instead of turning on the TV to watch the Red Sox in the evening, we've taken up the habit of reading out loud together. Right now we're reading through a collection of Dorothy Sayers' short stories about her detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. It has been a wonderful time to slow down together after putting Josiah to bed, to share a quiet journey into a world of imagination. It is interactive and creative (far more so than watching TV), and has drawn us significantly into a deeper experience of closeness these past few weeks. The time we spend in good, simple conversation--about life, relationships, God, etc.--has expanded since we started intentionally taking time to be together in the evenings. And, along the way, I've found my desire for God and for a life of holiness has expanded in corresponding measure.

There's something about friendship which, at its best, should draw us ever deeper into the presence of God. Our relationships with others and our relationship with God are inextricably linked. Our relationality is a reflection of the Trinitarian relationality of God, etched into our nature as an image of His fundamental nature. And when we pursue that relationality in godly ways, the promise of Jesus becomes manifest: "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also." We believe that Christ is spiritually present among all gatherings of his people, and I can testify that his presence is almost tangible in the quiet spaces of a deep and abiding friendship.

As a pastor, I interact with all kinds of people. One group that I'm particularly fond of is the sort of people who are "fixers" and "visionaries"--who are constantly seeing the problems with the way the church is now, and how we could be making it better. How can we bring in more people? How can we reach out more effectively to the community? Aren't there more programs we can be running? We need people who ask these questions--they keep us from a slothful acceptance of mediocrity. But we also need people like Aelred, who tell us to slow down and examine the nature of our church fellowship. Aelred points us away from seeing merely the problems and potentials of the church--he tells us that the church is extraordinary, here and now, because it is the union of the children of God and Christ is in its midst. No matter what problems might be present, when Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, that is a momentous and fundamentally important event, and it is endued and saturated with the presence of Christ himself. We must not forget that the mandate of the church points both outward and inward, and that it is a part of our mission to develop rich relationships of fellowship, mentoring, and friendship. For where Christians love each other, there is an active image to the watching world of the love and nature of Christ.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Thoughts from "Acts of Faith"

I recently finished reading Philip Caputo's titanic novel Acts of Faith (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), and it sparked some reflections that are worth setting out here on the blog. The book itself is long--nearly 700 dense pages of intricate, beautiful prose--but it's definitely worth the read. I've been working through it for a couple months. I first picked it up because it deals with one of my areas of deep interest--Sudan, and the ongoing human rights crisis there. Caputo's novel, well-researched and obviously reflecting some personal connections with that corner of the world, is as good an introduction to the local cultures and the overall tone and flavor of northeast Africa as I've ever seen (and to be able to do that in a good novel, rather than, say, an anthropology textbook, is remarkable).

Although I delved into the world of the book mostly because it brought my memories and affections back to Africa, I ended up playing witness to an epic tale. It takes awhile for the plot to really get moving--not until halfway through the book--but the ending of the story is a rich tragedy filled with characters of Shakespearean proportions. It aligns most closely with Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness--the escalating and horrific madness of someone who ought to be a true hero, and the unspeakable magnitude of pain wrought by human evil and stupidity.

But what I really want to do for this blog post is deal with a couple quotes that come near the end of the book, in a series of reflections on the tragic flaws of two leading characters. While I don't know if Caputo is a Christian (I suspect he isn't), I tend to agree with his overall assessment. Take this quote from p.648: "He had broken faith with the best that was in him and with the humanity he professed to serve. A malevolent voice had whispered a summons; he'd answered. Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it."

We as Christians, and particularly as American Christians, I think, tend to turn a blind eye sometimes to the truths of our theology--and, in this case, to what is known as "the depravity of man." We still have a difficult time showing anything other than a facade of happiness and peace when we come to church. (And, of course, some of us may be genuinely happy and peaceful most weeks, but the point is that in many churches, we have difficulty showing our pain when our own sin is gutting the joy from our lives.) We are surprised, even shocked, when religious leaders are discovered in the midst of terrible sins. But the truth of the matter is that if we're honest with ourselves, we know that the roots of evil plunge deep into our own hearts. We aren't all tempted toward the same sins, but we all have areas of rebellion and selfish sin in our hearts. The two main tragic characters in Acts of Faith are brought down by errors in judgment that begin as very small things--in one's case, it began with lying and a passion for personal success in his business; in another's, it began with a lack of contentment for the normal course of her life and a deeply selfish need for recognition by others. In both cases, these small failings led to bigger things--murder, embezzlement, conspiracy, illegal gun-running, and willful participation in the slave trade. We would be wise not to assume that we are out of reach of certain temptations. I know that I am capable of deep, shocking evil in certain areas of my life, and so I keep up a constant guard against them. And while I am disappointed at times in the failings of those around me, I am seldom shocked. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. And Christianity is the only religion that really adequately explains this paradox of human nature--how deeply we yearn for justice and righteous living, and how we never seem to live up to that ideal.

A second quote comes from p.663: "The bulb glows undimmed by the cloak of insects--the katydids have fled the dawn. Like belief, Fitzhugh thinks. Conviction will blind you if it is not shaded by doubt." This one is a bit trickier for Christians, but I think there's wisdom here. I'm not going to start advocating that we begin on a mental foundation of skepticism that calls us to continually question everything we believe in. However, we would do well to abolish the stigma that doubt holds in many Christian circles. Different people are wired in different ways, and for some people, doubt can be a tremendously valuable tool in testing, reworking, and exploring the depths of their faith. Further, I don't think that the popularly-held dichotomoy between faith and doubt is accurate. True faith will wrestle with doubt now and again; mine certainly has; and that doesn't make our faith any less faithful. (The other unfortunate aspect of that popularly-held dichotomy between faith and doubt is that it leads people to assume that faith must be some sort of "blind leap," unsupported by evidence or thoughtful analysis.) In the famous story of "doubting Thomas," where the disciple decides to doubt the truth of the Resurrection until he can see Jesus for himself, we often end up looking down at Thomas for his lack of faith. He has become for us the weakest character in the Resurrection narrative, displaying his failings for all to see. However, it strikes me that in that story, although Jesus does seem to reprimand Thomas a little bit for his doubt, he also meets Thomas in the midst of his doubt and offers the proof he seeks. Thomas isn't cast away; rather, his faith is affirmed by bringing his doubts to the Lord. And sometimes that's what we need--to be honest with ourselves, and to let God meet us where we are.

In Acts of Faith, however, it's not the conviction that the characters have towards their religion that brings them to their downfall. It's their fervent conviction in their own actions, their own ideas. They, like so many of us, assume that their assessment of the situation is the true one, that the course of action they've decided on is necessary and right. One of the first steps on the road to wisdom is precisely this--not to let your convictions about your own opinions blind you to the possibility that the truth actually lies elsewhere. In a word, remember that you are finite. There are too many people nowadays who are willing to argue aggressively for their own opinions, as if their opinions actually accomplished something or mattered to anyone besides themselves. (That sounds a little harsh, I know, but we've all met people like that--in fact, most of us have been people like that at points in our lives.) This is why I don't often find myself arguing politics with people. Politics, like anything else involving humans, is incredibly complex and unpredictable, and "the right answers" are always elusive. But those who like to argue politics often seem to believe like they've figured it all out. By contrast, I know I haven't figured it all out. I keep my convictions shaded in doubt. I have my opinions and leanings when it comes to political issues, to be sure--I even have things that I passionately believe in. But I also know that on some points I might be wrong, and that even if my leanings are right, I probably don't know the right way to go about pursuing them. So I don't usually make a good sparring partner for political debate. But the point is that we would be wise in many areas of our lives to keep ourselves shaded with doubt. Obviously, though, it's not a good idea to let doubt immobilize you. But when you take those steps that will shape your life, at least entertain the possibility that you may actually be ignorant of the best course of action; that in itself will inject a little bit of grace into everything you do, and hopefully make you a little more diligent in seeking wisdom and understanding from sources outside yourself.

As the old saying goes, "Suffer fools gladly--they may be right." In short, learn humility. I don't know everything. I will never know everything. So I've learned to lean on others. My first instinct is always to look elsewhere for wisdom--to Scripture, to the church fathers, to the proven classics of human art and thought. I know that opinions shaped in ignorance aren't worth much, so I draw from the deep wells of old wisdom before I try to help others on their journey towards living rightly.

This novel reinforced a wonderful (albeit humbling) message, one that we would all do well to think about: Don't underestimate your capacity for evil or for ignorance.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Beauty of Nature

Over the past couple weeks, during which time we took a little vacation down to Lake Mokoma, PA, I've been enjoying the restive beauty of the natural world. The beginning of summer is such a delightful time of year, especially in the eastern woodlands. Everything is green and rich with life, and merely being in the middle of it lends a feeling of vibrancy to the soul. One of the things I love about living in Maine is the woods. I've always loved them--the deep, silent beauty of trees and trails that stand apart from the works of man, giving us vast retreats into God's creation. Here in Calais, we're blessed to have not only the forests near at hand, but also the coast--the cold northern Atlantic, and the rugged majesty of Maine's headlands. The quote for this week is from a work by an Eastern Orthodox monk/hermit, "On the Mountains of the Caucasus" (I don't think it has been translated into English in its entirety--the excerpt below was quoted in Bishop Alfeyev's The Mystery of Faith). This passage follows after a story about the author looking out over a mountain vista, and it describes the feeling of encountering the ineffable when we look at nature's beauty, and being shaped by that experience for the life to come:

"So it was that we sat in silence, looking in amazement and in holy rapture sustaining our hearts, experiencing those exalted moments of the inner life when one feels the closeness of the invisible world, enters into sweet communion with it and listens to the terrible presence of the Godhead. It is at such moments, replete with sacred feelings, that one forgets all earthly things. The heart is warmed like wax before the fire and becomes receptive to impressions of the celestial world. It burns with the purest of love for God, and one tastes the bliss of inner enrichment; one hears an inner voice whispering that it is not for earthly vanities but for participation in eternity that the short days of our earthly existence are given."

There's a fair philosophical argument to be made that our capacity to see and appreciate beauty is a pointer to our special creation as humans; and that our delight in the beauty of nature leads us into a deeper delight in the beauty of God. And we believe that all this beauty around us, created by the hand of God, will not ultimatly be lost to us, but will be restored and transformed into what it was always meant to be--ever more beautiful, suffused by the radiance of God himself when he dwells in the new heavens and the new earth. In the words of the great Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nazianzus:

"Why am I faint-hearted in my hopes? Why do I behave like a mere creature of the day? I await the voice of the archangel, the last trumpet, the transformation of the heavens, the transfiguration of the earth, the liberation of the elements, the renovation of the universe."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Quote of the Week

"If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?...A book must be like an ice axe to break the frozen sea within us." - Franz Kafka

Here we have a poignant exhortation to read good books. I might not go quite as far as Kafka in discounting the worth of a good "pleasure read," but his point is well taken--books have the potential to change our lives (far more potential than most other media, like TV or the Internet), so choose your books well. Read something that is time-tested and full of wisdom. (And, of course, the best choice of all is the Bible itself, the one book that has changed more lives than any other. It is the book that always wakes us, that always shatters our frozen seas, because it is God himself doing the hammering.) Here are just a few authors who have been "ice axes" for me (in no particular order): C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Francois Fenelon, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Oswald Chambers, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, just to name a few. There are others, too. My own passions and interests tend towards devotional spirituality and ethics (moral philosophy), which is where most of these authors fall. And while I enjoy studying theology and history and culture and ministry technique, these areas don't seize my attention and captivate my imagination in quite the same way as devotional spirituality and ethics. But whatever your passions are, there are good "ice axe" books out there for you. Seek them out, and start hammering away.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Thoughts on Aging (and the Quote of the Week)

This week I’ve been thinking about aging. Not that I’m feeling particularly old—at 27, I’m far younger than most of my parishioners, not to mention my fellow pastors in the Calais area. But it’s been on my mind, partly because of our Bible study in 1 Peter, that touched on the subject in 1:23-24, and partly because of a conversation I had with some fellow ministers this week. I was introducing our local Catholic priest to one of the other Baptist ministers, and in the course of mentioning that he and I had gone to the same high school, I added: “At different times, of course.” The Baptist pastor laughed and told me I was “throwing the priest under the bus,” as if pointing out our age difference was a way of shaming him. I hadn’t meant it that way at all, but it got me to thinking about the strange cult of youth in our American culture.

It’s no secret that we Americans worship youth. We fight wrinkles and other signs of aging with every new technique and technology we can think of—creams, poisons, surgeries, and so on—until rather than looking like a natural 60-year-old, some of our celebrity 60-year-olds look like freakish, pseudo-human 40-year-olds. We pine away for the lost days of our youth. We watch movies about idealized young people and their adventuresome way of life. We sequester our elders away in nursing homes and care facilities that, while taking good care of them, also serve the purpose of removing them from the daily rotation of our communal lives. Our culture is driven ever more powerfully by the market interests of teenagers (and, increasingly, pre-teens). We glorify those attributes associated with youth—hyperactive sexuality and athleticism—while paying no attention to the classical attributes of old age—wisdom, virtue, and respect. We seldom think of death; and when we do, we claim that we’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than in a long, downhill slide into senility and weakness. We consider it an offense against our dignity that we are obligated to lose our physical and mental prowess before we die. Our culture has a deep-seated dread of aging. We Americans agree with the words of one current popular song, “I want to be forever young.”

Contrast this attitude with the perspective of Seneca (our quote of the week): “Moving to one’s end through nature’s own gentle process of dissolution—is there a better way of leaving life than that?” (Letter XXVI) This is a rhetorical question, and the answer Seneca is shooting for is “No.” The slow, gentle dissolution involved in the natural process of aging is, according to Seneca, the best way to die.

In the vast majority of traditional cultures around the world (including the cultures of the Biblical world), old age is not something to be feared, but something to be venerated. Elders (rather than teenagers) are at center-stage of the culture. They are sources of wisdom and guidance, leaders of family groups, worthy of constant respect. Aging and death are viewed as natural parts of the human life-cycle.

The slow process of aging is helpful both for us and those around us. For us, it teaches us humility—that strength, beauty, and sharpness of mind were gifts of God to us, not permanent possessions worthy of our preening pride. It teaches us dependence on God, rather than the willful independence of those who can do everything for themselves. It teaches us the futility of the hurried pace of modern life, forcing us to live slowly and gently on the earth. And it reminds us that we are not our own; that we belong in community and need other people to help us through life. We come into this life unable to care for ourselves, recipients of tremendous love; and we leave in much the same way. This says to me that that is the natural condition of mankind—to be leaning on each other, to grow in the strength of family and friendship, and not to be ashamed of the fact that we need each other.

The process of aging is also helpful for those around us. It teaches those same lessons to the younger members of our society, if they are open to hearing them. It gives them the opportunity to extend love and care and respect, to be forced beyond a selfish way of living. And the slow process of aging is really a merciful transition for the family we leave behind—rather than having their beloved friend ripped away at the height of his powers, they are able to prepare themselves for the coming of death by walking with him down the long road of age and weakness.

And, of course, we Christians know that this is not the end. While God has ordered death, even in the midst of our fallen state, to be a blessing to us in these many ways, it is still a tragedy. We know, deep down, that it ought not to be this way. It ought not to be the case that the people we know and love are gone forever. And this deep, instinctual feeling that something is inherently wrong with death is one of the pointers towards the truth of eternal life. As C.S. Lewis argued, the fact that we are hungry for food indicates that something to meet that need actually exists (and food does exist). The fact that we desire sexual intimacy points to the existence of such a thing as sex. And the fact that we long for immortality points us toward believing that there is such a thing as immortality. As good and as healthy as the natural aging, dying process can be, it is not the end of the story. And the lessons we learn in age, here and now, will lend an even richer beauty to the immortal, imperishable life that we will one day receive.

It seems to me that the church is one of the few remaining sanctuaries in our society for this cultural practice of honoring the elderly. I’m blessed to be living in a small, rural-area town, where older folks still hold tremendous cultural influence. And I’m blessed to be in a church that honors its older members and harnesses their gifts and passions for the ministry of the church (in fact, in the case of our church, we’d be in really tough shape without the active ministry-contributions of the elderly!). I was blessed to grow up in extended families and churches which incorporated all age groups, and I learned to love and honor my elders, to respect their tremendous power and potential in the Kingdom of God.

With that rich experience of blessing in my background, I intend to grow old gracefully, to abstain from idle complaints about my failing health, to add to my wrinkles by smiling often on sunny days, and to be a burden of blessing to those who will have to care for me in my debility. I will aim for constant personal and spiritual improvement, so that I am looking forward to my best days and my most effective ministry in the latter days of my life. I will cultivate the incomparable treasure of wisdom, so that the strength of my character in my final years will be so rich and powerful that I would never think of trading it for the mere physical prowess of my younger years. I will embrace the “gentle process of dissolution,” and not bow to the lie that youth must be the best and highest time of life.

Aging is not the enemy. The way we sinfully covet a different phase of life—that is the real enemy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quotes of the Week

Here are a few more gems from Seneca:

"As it is with a play, so it is with life: what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is." (Letter LXXVII)

"For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui--the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure." (Letter LXXVIII)

"In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes." (Posidonius, qtd. in Letter LXXVIII)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quote of the Week: The Dark Side of Church History

This week's quote comes from Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity. I include it here not so much as an inspiration or an uplifting thought, but rather as a challenge to certain over-idealized ways of thinking about Christian history that so often abound today:

"Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. A dominant orthodox Church, with a recognizable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually and represented a process of natural selection--a spiritual survival of the fittest. And, as with such struggles, it was not particularly edifying."

When one reads histories of Christianity, they usually fall into two camps: either those by non-Christian historians which often make the impression that the author has an ax to grind against the church, or those by Christian historians who sometimes tend to oversimplify and gloss over the more unsightly details of the story in favor of their own particular versions of Christianity. Paul Johnson's work is different--he writes as a faithful Christian, but is unafraid to show the seamier side of our history. As such, it's one of the most challenging and insightful histories of the church I've read. I don't always agree with all of his conclusions (such as his inference that Paul's group was actually in direct opposition with James and the Jerusalem church community; or that Galatians and Acts 15 record very different perspectives on the same struggle and events), but his overview of history is worth considering nonetheless.

I feel that his rather unappealing view of Christian history is of immense usefulness, because our history (especially the history of the early and patristic church) is often subject to misuse by any Christian movement that seeks an added dose of credibility. (Interesting, isn't it, that even we evangelical Protestants, who pride ourselves on "sola Scriptura," still make heavy use of the support of early church traditions in favor of our own particular ways of doing church). Not long ago I picked up a recent book by two well-known proponents of the "house church"/"organic church" movement, and it was particularly egregious in this regard--twisting early church history to fit their arguments, ignoring some of the most prominent church fathers whose writings directly contradict their arguments, and relying on some of the most specious scholarship I've seen, all to make their point--that we ought to meet in home-churches, because that's what the early church did. Or take the example of the Anabaptist tradition (of which I'm overwhelmingly fond, and, as a Baptist, have some roots there myself), which often marks the Constantinian revolution as the downfall of the church, and in so doing, unfortunately, puts a pressure of holiness, peace, and brotherhood on the first three centuries of the faith which the actual historical record cannot measure up to. Even the renewed "ancient faith" interest that's sprouting up all over evangelical Christianity (to my great delight) sometimes wanders into this error. It tends to idealize the heroes and the statements of faith produced by the early and patristic churches, without doing the hard historical research of wrestling with the fact that many of our early heroes were not necessarily the best of men, and that the great creeds were both products of and producers of immense schisms, controversies, and even downright hatred and abuse among early Christians. And these are all just within the evangelical camp. The idealistic lens through which many Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians view their early history often has nothing at all to do with actual history, but much more to do with the centuries-later traditions of those earliest memories. Not only are the "saints" of the early church sometimes a bit more morally specious than they're presented to us, but there was apparently a massive disconnect between the high standard set in the writings of the Fathers (most of whom were bishops or other high church officers) and the behavior of the laity and lower clergy. This is a point well made in Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians--bizarre spiritualities, sexual promiscuity, greediness, and violence were everywhere evident in the early church. I suppose, after reading 1 Corinthians, that that shouldn't come as a surprise. But because we like to idealize our history, it does. (And for those who prefer to idealize the Reformation-period and its heroes rather than the early church, the same principles apply, and, I'm sure, some of the same surprises will be waiting for us if we dig below the surface in our historical research.)

If we are lovers of history (as I am), and if we believe that the Holy Spirit has continually worked through his church in all eras, then we should do ourselves the credit of making our historical assessments wisely, neither throwing it all out the window as irrelevant (which many Baptists, sad to say, are prone to do), or embracing it in glowing, naive idealism as in the examples I listed above. There is, of course, a lot to be proud of in Christian history. There is a tremendous wealth of wisdom and experience from which to draw. But let's be wise about how we do it--the early Christians were just human beings, as we are. Some of our dearest heroes from those days may disappoint us. But I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that their lives don't quite measure up with their writings. That's how it is with all of us--we know what we ought to do, but we have a hard time doing it. The best of Christians has a hard time practicing what he preaches.

But this should give us some consolation. We like to terrify ourselves by convincing each other that we're at a stage in church history where "the church is in crisis!" But truth be told, the church has always been in crisis. It has never lived up to its ideals. And we're all, as one community throughout history, wrestling against our sinfulness as we try to follow Jesus faithfully. Let's be wise about how we assess ourselves and about how we assess our fellow Christians, wherever they may fall on the timeline of our history. And let's strive to give ourselves a little grace even while we continue to press on toward our ideals.


Friday, May 07, 2010

Quote of the Week

Here's another bit of wisdom from the Stoic philosopher Seneca:

"Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we've long been grudging about doing." (Epistulae Morales, Letter LV)

This is an important point to remember, especially in such an age of "soft living" as we in present-day America now enjoy. It implies a secondary point, nearly as important: that there are things in our lives which we ought to be doing, but which are diffucult for us to do. There are things which do not immediately spark an affinity with our natures and habits, but which are, in spite of that, essential. What are these things? Practices like prayer, moderation, study, exercise, and so on--anything that requires self-discipline. And this speaks directly to who we are. Our human natures do not naturally encourage us to self-discipline. Rather, we slouch towards mediocrity and whatever is comfortable. But Seneca recognizes that this is in fact a disease of human nature--the tendency against self-discipline is part of who we are, but it is not part of who we ought to be. So that's the hidden point of this quote. To be truly human, in the best possible sense, requires a life of challenging ourselves to continuous moral and personal growth. That life will not come easily, but it is necessary. But the main point, the evident point, is that if we don't practice the activities of self-discipline, if we don't intentionally push ourselves towards good deeds and temperance, then we will slowly lose the capability to do those things. They take practice, and if we don't practice them, they become harder and harder to do. We fall into ruts of mediocre living. And then we can't get back out. My generation, sadly, has fallen into the debilities of soft living--of making entertainment and pleasure the center of their lives, brought to them by TV and video games and online attractions. And unfortunately, one needs only to look at the moral stagnation and lack of development in so many young people (but, of course, it's not limited to young people) to see the cost of this debility. It's a danger to me, too--a danger I feel all too powerfully. Soft living is attractive,and easy to fall into. Recently I instituted a plan of action for myself, so that I intentionally make time each day for some good activity. I call them "Day-Challenges"--I have a list of about fifty different activities that I want to make a regular part of my life, activities which take discipline and intentionality (simple things, like taking the time to go on a nature walk or writing letters to my grandparents). If I tried to make myself do them all each day, they would never get done. And if I just left it up to my whims to take them up, they would never get done. So each day, I pick one day-challenge to do that day. Without this intentional self-discipline, practiced in a prudent and sustainable manner, I would be living a much more debilitated life, dictated mainly by the comforts waiting for me at home whenever I come back from the office. Seneca has challenged me on this mark, and I hope he may challenge you too. So take this warning from an ancient wise man, and push yourself to live the best possible life you can, with God's help, before you lose the capacity for practicing the disciplines that will lead to a rich spiritual, moral, and social life.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Quote of the Week

(One of the new programs I'll be launching for this blog is to put up a "quote of the week." Sometimes it is the well-put aphorism, the nugget of truth, that abides with us far longer than the ten-page essay does, so I think it's worthwhile to highlight important thoughts in this way. Now, it would be easy enough to collect quotes haphazardly through a Google search, but the quotes I put up on this blog will all be selected from my own readings. In most cases, these will all be quotes which have stuck with me or impacted my thinking during the week. I'll also try to give a little context for each quote.)

Seneca, in his Letters from a Stoic (or, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium), puts great stress on the good life as that which continually strives for moral improvement. He does not let us sit content with the current status of our souls. Although Seneca wasn't a Christian, his advice is a good challenge for us in our journey of sanctification. We are to be the sort of people who examine our own lives, seek out our faults, and constantly amend our way of life to better accord with holiness and virtue:

"Of this one thing make sure against your dying day--that your faults die before you do."


Poems

I've been going through a poetry-drought for nearly a year now. The muse seems to be silent. But today I worked at it a little bit. Although I depend mostly on inspiration and mystical bursts of literary beauty to write my poetry, truly good poetry takes hard work--work that I, too often, don't have the discipline to give it. But today I worked at it through the simple form of haiku. Of course, haiku being a Japanese form, some of the rules change or are lost when using it as an English device. I appreciated working with the form, though, because the tightness of the structure gives the poems the poignancy of a "literary snapshot," encapsulating no more than a feeling, an image, or a single thought. Anyway, here are a few miscellaneous haiku I wrote today, in an effort to get back to writing poetry:


In the rain, again
I stand amid falling hopes
And pray for refuge

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O Thou tragic Christ--
Descending, crimson in death
Rent by wood and nails

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She smiles like sunshine
Through a dim, plate-glass window
On a dreary day

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God made grackles, too
I remind myself of that
When they mob my tree

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Pause yourself, silent...
Listen, listen achingly
To the still, small voice



Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book Review: Cicero's "On Friendship"

Since so much of my time and thought revolves around the books I’m reading, I’ve decided to make it a regular practice to offer “book reviews” from time to time here on my blog. Normally, book reviews offer the service of analyzing books that are relatively new and giving opinions on them. However, I read very few new books. And it seems to me that readers nowadays need more of a push toward reading old books than reading new ones. So the service I’m offering is this: as I read through the books in my collection—classic fiction, poetry, history, philosophy, theology, and so on—I’ll highlight, here in my blog, the ones I find most worth reading. So rather than reading book reviews to interact with new ideas and to choose which new books to read, you can come here and read book reviews to interact with old ideas and, hopefully, be inspired to pick up a few old books yourself. Of course, there are undoubtedly many reviewers who are more distinguished and qualified to discuss the works I’ll present. But my main hope is not to explain in full depth and precision an author’s system of thought, but rather to offer encouragement for those who might be looking for a thought-stimulating “pleasure read,” as well as to describe how these works have been influential in my own life. This will be a good discipline for me, giving me opportunity to ponder and interact with an author’s ideas for awhile instead of just closing the book and moving on to another one as soon as I finish reading. As such, I’ll be focusing mostly on works that I’ve recently read myself. But, every once in a while, I may turn back to highlight one of the deeply formative all-time favorites on my reading list (The Imitation of Christ, Julian's Revelations of Divine Love, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are just a few that come immediately to mind).




For this review, we’ll look at Cicero’s treatise On Friendship (or Laelius). It’s a short read—you can cruise through it in a single evening. And it’s a fine introduction to the thought of Cicero, one of the great orators of Western civilization. In this treatise, Cicero gives us his thoughts on friendship as if from the mouth of Gaius Laelius, reflecting on a long companionship with the late Publius Scipio. Friendship is a theme that I've written about before in this blog (3/20/2009), and I think our culture is in particular need of a reminder about its true nature. Cicero gives us that reminder--not just appealing to the lowest common denominator of the slight mutual affections that all people can relate to, but pointing us toward a kind of friendship that is exceedingly rare and unbelievably precious.





He begins with what might seem at first glance like an indefensible statement: "Friendship can only exist between good men" (I:5). Well, we all know bad men who appear to have friends. But that's not the kind of friendship he's talking about. In the post I wrote a year ago on friendship, I outlined three basic levels of friendship, and the highest, what I called "soul friendship" or "true friendship," is the sole aim of Cicero's treatise. Lower levels of friendship--mere common affection or acquaintances, which unfortunately compose the sum of most of our culture's friendships--only earn a few mentions in this treatise.





For Cicero, friendship can only exist between good people because friendship is intimately tied to virtue. It's only in people who have learned to tame their natural, self-interested impulses that true friendship can thrive. So many of what we normally think of as friendships are either tainted by self-interest (i.e., what we can get out of it, or how the relationship makes us feel) or by a lack of love for the other person. But we should not be content with that. There is a higher level of friendship that we can aspire to, and if we reach it, then we have tasted that thing of which "the immortal gods have given us nothing better or more delightful" (II:13). It is only in virtuous people, unbound by selfishness and thus independent from the need of flattery or consolations from others, that this level of friendship can flourish. It is virtue itself that draws two like-minded friends together, "on our finding some one person with whose character and nature we are in full sympathy, because we think that we perceive in him what I may call the beacon-light of virtue. For nothing inspires love, nothing conciliates affection, like virtue" (II:8).





That's not to say that lower forms of friendship aren't valuable. Few of us (if any) have attained such heights of virtue yet as to have no trace of self-interest in our friendships. But Cicero gives us a wonderful goal to shoot for--a relationship that is "the most valuable and beautiful furniture of life" (II:15), in which there is "no satiety--the older the sweeter, as in wines that keep well" (III:19). Or in my own words, taken from my earlier blog-post: "Soul-friendships are immeasurably rich and transformative--havens of peace and loyalty, strength and honor, adventure and joy."





But how do we get there? That's the crucial question. It's not that people in our culture don't want those rich, deeply satisfying relationships--it's that they don't know how to find them, or if they're even possible at all. And here Cicero hits the nail on the head: "Most people unreasonably want such a friend as they are unable to be themselves, and expect from their friends what they do not themselves give. The fair course is first to be good yourself, and then to look out for another of like character" (III:22). If Americans could get this one truth worked into their relationships, we would see a much less broken society around us. To find a virtuous friend, first be a virtuous person. To find a loyal and loving spouse, first become a loyal and loving person. Then we would understand better who we are ourselves, and not ask our friends and spouses to be something that not even we can measure up to.





But virtue isn't merely the prerequisite of friendship--once established, friendship is also the rich soil that can carry your character into regions of virtue hitherto unattainable. It is in communion with others, not alone, that we become good. "Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, to the end that virtue, being powerless when isolated to reach the highest objects, might succeed in doing so in union and partnership with another" (III:22). This is why mentoring relationships and accountability partnerships and close friendships are so important to Christian discipleship--it's in those dynamics that virtue grows best.





I was drawn to read Cicero's thoughts on friendship, partly because I've had richly rewarding relationships on the past that had potential to grow into covenants of virtue and affection, and partly because I find myself in a new place now, without any old friends around me. (Rachel and I, of course, are good friends, but the truth is that a man will find his life impoverished without a male friend, and a woman will find her life impoverished without a female friend--the marriage relationship, as wonderful as it is, was never meant to be independent and all-sufficient.) Having tasted just a hint of what such a friendship can be like, I'm finding myself on the lookout now for just such a friend. And by God's grace, I'm sure I'll find one.





I've sketched out the main points of Cicero's treatise that hit home to me; but there are many other chords he strikes along the way--if you've read this far in my post, you probably owe it to Cicero to read his thoughts for yourself. I leave you with this quote, from his conclusion, which bears echoes of Paul's famous line from 1 Cor. 13: "Make up your minds to this: Virtue (without which Friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship" (III:27).


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thoughts on Sports, Part 3

And now for the final installment of my much-acclaimed, prize-winning series "Thoughts on Sports." The case being made, against certain critics of pro sports within American Christianity on the one hand, and against pro-sports fanatics on the other, is that sports have an important cultural role to play in our society, but that we always need to be aware of the inherent cultural-influence dangers associated with them. In this article, we'll look at addressing some of the common objections that are made against the practice of pro sports.

Objection #1: Sports heroes get idolized in inappropriate ways
All too true. While it's natural for sports heroes to get idolized because they fill the cultural niche of mythology/legend for us, it is still inappropriate. Why should I devote so much of my attention and affection to someone whose one great skill is an ability to throw a ball accurately? It's impressive, but hardly laudable. We are constantly reminded, over and over again by the events on our news channels, that great athletes are not always great people. Every once in a while, you run into an athlete who also has a laudable character. And good for them. But the fact remains--I have a ton of people with laudable characters in my church and in my town, so why do those few athletes merit extra-special attention for their good deeds? I would even argue that in the case of those few "good" athletes, it's still better not to set too much admiration on them, because the milieu they live in is so full of temptations that they are probably more likely to disappoint us than any other group of people (except maybe politicians). And here's the main point I want to get across: why on earth do we celebrate and idolize physical prowess, and pay almost no attention to spiritual prowess? Why is it that men who obsessively devote their lives to building freakish amounts of muscle gain more acclaim than those who devote their lives to constant, passionate prayer? Why is it that physical fanaticism is applauded, and spiritual fanaticism is seen as revolting and absurd? The true heroes are the ones no one knows about, the old ladies who are prayer warriors all day long, the missionaries giving their lives to gain one inch of ground in a hard-hearted land, the monks who study God's word until it becomes their every thought. There was once a day when it was the other way around--when people from all over would flock out to the desert to see the "spiritual athletes" who had given their lives to the service of God in prayer. But no more. Now, churches and Christian conferences drool over the prospect of finding an athlete who is also a Christian to speak in their services. Athletes may at times be good people, but let's give the honor where it's really due--let's pin up full-size posters of Benedict and Francis on our walls instead of LeBron James and Peyton Manning. And maybe--here's a radical idea--it might even be worth trying to take spiritual discipline and exercise as seriously as we take physical exercise in our own lives. You don't need to play ball to be a hero--just learn how to pray.

Objection #2: Players' salaries are so gaudy as to be a repulsive mockery of cultural values
This is true, to a degree. It is downright ridiculous how much you can earn for being good at playing a ball game. Although sports fill an important cultural niche, is it so important that our athletes ought to be paid far more than the president of our country? Probably not. Regardless of what we think of the president, I think we could all agree that our country would get along better without an athlete or two than without a president.
However, there are a few points that need to be made here. Usually when this objection is brought up, it's in a sense of revulsion for the players themselves. But we need to remember that it's not the players' fault (though they can be inordinately greedy at times)--it's really our fault and our neighbors' fault. Athletes earn so much money because we pay them so much money. Because sports are marketed as entertainment, the athletes earn their share of what the audience will pay to see them play--and that turns out to be a lot. I bet that if I was a statistician, I could give throw out some hefty numbers at this point to prove that the money we pay to professional sports could easily solve world hunger. Thankfully, some sanity is beginning to come back into the sports world thanks to the recent financial crunch, and several of the professional leagues are arming up for some number-crunching battles between athletes and owners. Apparently some Americans aren't as comfortable as they used to be in paying thousands of dollars for gameday seats. All that to say--it's not the players' fault, and if we want their salaries to come down, then we need something akin to a full cultural revolution on the level of the American individual's personal priorities. Until that time, the best we can do is to applaud those athletes (and there are lots of them) who use their money to do tremendous good for their communities and the world.

Objection #3: Don't sports promote violence?
Yes and no. Some sports (football, hockey, boxing, etc.) do promote a certain level of violence. But in most cases, it's not a violence of hatred or aggression so much as a tactical sort of violence. It's no more than the sort of violence that boys naturally engage in. But it can run to unhealthy extremes--for example, when football shows run montages of brutal hits and tackles just for shock value. Some sports--like professional wrestling or MMA or UFC--also seem to me to cross the line. Early Christian tradition had a long history of avoiding "the games" because the violence being practiced in the arena was degrading to the great truth that human beings are made in the image of God. This takes careful discernment--there are natural thrills to be had in viewing and practicing violence, even in a "harmless" game format--but we need to be asking ourselves whether such things honor the body as the temple of God.

Objection #4: What about the Sabbath?
Unfortunately, very few people in our society practice the Sabbath at all. Most professional athletes, because of their schedule, can't use Sunday as a Sabbath-day. They have to wait for a "day off," whenever that may come. If I were pastoring a professional athlete, though, I would recommend that the principle behind the Sabbath-commandment be followed. It need not be on Sunday (my Sabbath isn't, either), but the important thing is to set aside time to rest, to reflect, and to be in the presence of God. And for all of us Christian sports-watchers out there, I would speak a word of caution: it's far too easy for us to spend our Sabbath-time watching non-stop sports. There are so many sporting events offered up for our entertainment that a whole Saturday or Sunday can go by in front of a TV screen. And that's a waste. It's fine to watch some sports as a way to relax and unwind, but if you're not using your Sabbath as a time to re-charge spiritually, then you're missing one of the greatest blessings God has given us. Take some time to pray, to read, to go on a reflective walk in the woods. If we took the Sabbath seriously, I think we would be people who are much more spiritually "in tune" to what God is doing and saying, to us and to our world.

Objection #5: Don't sports distract us from real life?
Yes, they can. And that's why we need to be careful. They have their place, as I argued in my earlier posts. But we need to be discerning. Following our favorite sports teams can consume our lives. We need to set boundaries, particularly in regard to how we spend our time. Sports are fine as entertainment, but we rarely get anything edifying out of them. And if all we do is watch sports and read about sports, then we could be missing out on learning and reading about stuff that matters, stuff that could change our lives. If we just put some boundaries in place so that our sports-affection doesn't run over into idolatry, and if we take some time to focus on things that can build up our souls, then we will be better people in the end for it.

So in short--love your sports-teams with passionate loyalty, but be wise about who they really are and what they really mean. Let sports be a signpost that turns your attention toward the things that really matter. Appreciate sports for what they are, but don't let them steal your heart from its deeper loves.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thoughts on Sports, Part 2

I've already spoken about sports as a form of regional/family patriotism. But sports also fill a few further cultural niches. One of its more fundamental roles is as a communal art form. Sports are communal in the sense that they bring a group of people together for one purpose (in this case, the athletes are brought together to play a game). And sports are also an art form in the sense that each game is the creation of something new, the possibility of working together to make something (a certain play or the storyline of a particular game) that has never existed before. In our individualized, de-contextualized society, those are both very good things. It's worth asking, then, whether by professionalizing sports and becoming viewers rather than participants, we're actually losing the most valuable part of sport. Sports were invented to be played, and only secondarily to be watched. It would probably do the adults of this country good if more of us joined rec leagues and started learning all the lessons that we tell our kids they're learning on their school teams. I begin with this point because it's worth remembering that the professionalization of sports is something of an aberration of its true nature, and if we're really to judge the value of sports fairly, we need to play them.


For better or worse, however, most sports have become professionalized, and, thanks to TV, an object for mass consumerism. So the next niche that sports fill is that of entertainment. Professional sports are a show, put on for our pleasure (and our money). So while we might care deeply about the teams participating in a certain game, it's always worthwhile to remember that at a certain level, it is just that--a game--and it doesn't really affect any of the deepest levels of our lives. I enjoy watching sports a great deal--it's a fun way to unwind, to be caught up in the narrative of a competition--but, truth be told, when I was doing my mission work in Africa, without any TV, I didn't miss watching sports at all. In fact, that was the season of my life when I enjoyed sports the most--not watching it or tracking stats online, but playing soccer with the village kids.


Another niche, and a somewhat subtler one, is the cultural niche of heroic legend. We Americans have a patriotic set of heroic legends (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett, and so on), but none of those actually hold much sway over our daily lives. But sports provides a whole mythology for us, easily accessible and ongoing, something that we can believe in, feel a part of, and recount to our children. A mythology is really a cultural necessity--it develops on its own, because humans need something to believe in--and in our ahistorical society, which cares little about forefathers or saints, professional athletes and sports franchises have stepped in to fill that void. What do I mean by a mythology? I mean a set of legends, of heroes, of the great tales of years gone by, that are shared and relished and incorporated into our daily lives. And professional sports, for all its competitive flair and the relative permanency of its teams, fits the bill exactly. I'm able to cheer for the same teams that gave my father and my grandfather great stories and memories in their day. The tremendous victory of the 2004 Red Sox, coming back against their old rivals the Yankees in an unrivaled and near-impossible way, and then going on to win the World Series for the first time in 80-plus years--that is the stuff of legends. Though I hadn't personally experienced much of Red Sox history, I knew the legends: Babe Ruth's trade to the Yankees that ushered in a century of dominance for our foes, the great Red Sox players of years past who set records but never stood as champions, the near misses and heartbreaking losses (Bill Buckner...). None of those things did I actually witness. But they were part of me, part of the legend I had bought into, and so they made the victory of my 2004 Red Sox all the more astounding. We are beings who desperately want to believe in one great story, and our attachment to sports is a reflection of that. For some people, unfortunately, the great sports-stories actually usurp the place that the truly great story of history should hold--the mission of God in the world--but for most Christians, adherence to the legends of sport is simply a reflection of that same God-given hunger for one great story. It drives us to believe in the possibility of redemption, to hope that, despite all the woes and heartache along the way, our story will one day end in unbelievable triumph. Sport as a mythology is a reflection of our natural, human yearning for the God of salvation-history.


This brings us to the final niche I want to explore: sport as an incarnation of cultural values. This is seen in a number of ways. First and foremost is the fact that almost everyone knows that there is an unspoken moral code associated with sports. It doesn't win games or earn points, but everyone honors it--"good sportsmanship." Despite the fact that we know that professional athletes are often self-centered, greedy showoffs, we still expect them to be respectful to each other and to the officials, to be relatively honest (i.e., no outright cheating), and to be ambassadors for the moral virtues of our culture. Professional leagues go out of their way to present their athletes as goodwill ambassadors for all kinds of charitable programs. And it's interesting to note the reactions from fans when sports heroes break this moral code: though it has no effect on the outcome of the game whatsoever, players are called to task for not shaking hands with opponents after a loss, for being angry during press conferences, or for having moral failings in their own private lives. But why? If sport is simply entertainment, we really shouldn't care about any of those things. But we do care, because we still believe that morality and courtesy are important, and we expect sports, as an icon of our culture, to reflect that belief. The truth is that every game reflects something about the culture that produces and plays it. Sometimes it reflects good things, sometimes bad. While "good sportsmanship" is a positive reflection on our culture, the cult of sports also reveals our unnatural and distorted cultural obsession with the body, with health, and with youth.


Consider three iconic sports, two that stand as major American games, and one that is the world's game--American football, baseball, and soccer. Football is overwhelmingly popular here in the US, but its appeal has never spread much beyond our borders. One of the reasons, I think, is that it is a game cultivated in America, and so it is a reflection of certain cultural values that the rest of the world doesn't share. For instance, it reflects the American devotion to careful planning--holding "business meetings" before each play, as it were--followed by quick, active strikes. It also reflects an attraction to physical power (and maybe violence) that other cultures might not share. It borrows heavily from the imagery of war: blitzes, sacks, and so on, as well as the whole process of playing the game as a conquest of winning territory from your opponent. Football also plays into our exaltation of the cult of the leader, since it highlights certain roles (quarterback, coach, runningback) as particularly important. We are a culture that focuses inordinately on leaders (and, even in the culture of the American church, "leadership" has somehow become an idea of enormous consequence and study despite the fact that Scripture and church history would have us study and focus on "followership" over and above leadership any day). Football, along with basketball and a few other sports, also reflects our culture's slavery to the clock. We are a time-drenched society (a far cry from the more relaxed tradtional cultures of Africa, where time is not metered off into tiny portions in which to be productive, but rather enjoyed in long, patient pauses with friends), and the tyranny of the clock in football reflects this. A great deal of the strategy of the game comes down to "clock management," which is both interesting and unusual. Other sports, like soccer, also use clocks, but in a looser way, and not with the sort of neurotic control that we football-fans employ.


Now to baseball. A very different game from football, but it also tells us something about American culture. More than any other sport, baseball feeds our love of numbers. It reduces so nicely to statistics--any kind of statistic you can possibly imagine. Players are rated almost entirely on their performance statistics, and only once in a while do you hear other values (like camaraderie, leadership, or a personal gift for encouragement) mentioned, and then only as "intangibles." But performance is measurable, and so we measure it all. We have statistics for how well right-handed pitchers throw against left-handed batters, for which corners of the strike zone a batter hits best in, for how many feet and inches a home run travels. In fact, if you've watched baseball games on TV, you've no doubt noticed that commentators will even bring in completely irrelevant statistical data, just to have some numbers to talk about (one of the most common occurrences of this type is when commentators note statistical performance streaks that run back years in a particular team's history--the only problem being that the players on the team when that statistic began were completely different from the team's current players, so the performance of the "team" over that period is relatively meaningless). We worship numbers, and baseball is our pantheon. Second, it also reinforces our individualism. While other sports must be played as teams, baseball is highly individualistic. You still need a team, but it's always really one man versus one man--pitcher vs. batter. The catcher and the defense also come into it, obviously, but it's mostly about the individual performances of those two. And when the ball is hit out into the field, it only affects the player that it rolls to and the player defending the base that the hitter runs to. The poor left fielder might have nothing to do for an entire inning, because it's all based on individual performances. (Contrast that to soccer or basketball, which are far more fluid and team-oriented in the sense that everyone needs to be doing their job at each particular moment).


And now soccer--the game that the world is fanatical about, but which Americans don't particularly care for. I would suggest that there are some cultural values at play here. But, considering that Americans are again the ones singled out by this sport (this time on the unappreciative end), I think it says something about us. Soccer requires a certain patience, waiting for the long buildup to a few rare and glorious moments (goals). It may be that we don't enjoy watching soccer (though many of us enjoy playing it) because of a lack of patience. There's also that disappointing business of the possibility of ending in a tie. We Americans like clear results--a winner, a loser--but having two competitors end a contest on equal terms just doesn't sit well with us. We've never been a people comfortable with ambiguities (even in circumstances when ambiguities are better reflections of reality). A third example of cultural values might reflect more happily on Americans: watching international soccer hasn't really caught on in the US, partly, I think, because the sport sometimes ends up encouraging the practice of bending ethics in order to gain an advantage. Professional soccer players often take dramatic dives and dish out hard fouls (and sometimes commit handball fouls) and then feign a great show of innocence, which comes across (at least to this American--further, an American who enjoys soccer) as a little distasteful and against our hallowed value of "good sportsmanship."

There are more connections that could be explored for all these sports, to be sure. I point these out just to elucidate the fact that sports paint a pretty vivid picture of the things we value in our culture. And, given the popularity and near-ubiquity of sports in American culture, it's worth being aware of those tendencies, so that we can guard ourselves against their excesses.

After looking at the "cultural niches" that sports fill, I think it's safe to say that, from a position of moral judgment over professional sports, we can admit that it's a mixed bag. Sports fill some very important functions in our society, and they have the potential to reflect and reinforce some of our best tendencies as well as some of our weaknesses. In my next section, to be posted in a few days, we'll look at answering some of the common objections from moralistic critics of professional sports.