Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Time-Traveler from the Past

Lord, I'm only thirty-three,
And yet increasingly I feel
Like a time-traveler from the past.
I live in a world of rabid haste,
But I--simple, backward I--
Am far more keen to just "Be still"
Than to run after the incessant drone
Of news, of change, of innovation,
Of the technological connectivity
That has voided true connections.
The tempo of this world
Has reached the feverish whine
Of a missile in descent--
It's full of action, excitement,
The momentum of sheer movement;
But it's empty of contentment.
Not all our changes have been poor:
The world strives toward justice,
Peace, health, and goodwill;
But it seems to have forgotten
Where all those hopes and virtues
Were grounded in the first place.
The man who seeks you on the mountain
Finds you there--but not in the wind,
Not in the fire, not in the earthquake:
He finds you in a gentle whisper.
Gracious God, in your mercy,
Restore to us the wisdom of the wise,
And make the polestar of our quest
Not progress, change, or innovation,
But simply, beautifully, Thou.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Photo of the Week

I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.

For what you have done I will always praise you  
        in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name, for your name is good.

                    - Psalm 52:8-9

Monday, August 29, 2016

Quote of the Week

"If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large."

- William Wilberforce, a Christian politician who labored successfully for the abolition of the slave trade within all British dominions

(Painting: "Portrait of William Wilberforce," by Karl Anton Hickel, 1794) 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday Synaxis

(Painting: "The Holy Trinity," by El Greco, 1577) 

We yield thee thanks, we yield thee exceeding thanks, O Lord our God, us touching all things, and for all things, through all things, and in all things; for that thou hast sheltered us, succored us, kept us, and brought us to this hour. If we have at all sinned against thee, in thought or word or deed, do thou, O Lover of men, vouchsafe to overlook it; and forsake not us, O God, who put our trust in thee, nor lead us into temptation; but deliver us from the evil one, and from his works, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
                         - The Coptic Liturgy of St. Mark

Thursday, August 25, 2016

You Can('t) Change the World!


     (Painting: "Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade," from Cassell's History of England, Vol. 1)

I can recall a speaker at my college telling us that we wouldn’t change the world.
To an idealistic twenty-year-old, brimming with hope for a grand future, as yet unjaded by adult life, it sounded sad. It didn’t convince me that I couldn’t change the world; but it did convince me that our speaker was a pessimist of a particularly tragic kind—the kind that gives up too soon. The message ran against the grain of everything I had been taught to believe, both by my Christian faith and my American culture. After all, wasn’t there limitless potential for every one of us? Couldn’t I be anything I wanted to be, if only I dreamed big and worked hard? Wasn’t I a highly-gifted, much-regarded young champion of the Gospel which has already revolutionized history and society many times over?
Well over a decade has gone by since I listened to that speech. In that time, I worked in some of the remotest parts of Africa, studied theology in seminary, wrote novels, pastored a church, and raised a family. And now I can see something of the speaker’s point. The odds are very, very low that I, Matthew Burden, will ever do anything that will so shake the habits and institutions of modern humanity that it would ever be said of me that I had changed the world.
But clearly, it is possible to change the world. Every now and then, some people do change the world in powerful and transformative ways. Hitler changed the world—at least in the sense of making an unforgettable mark on history. Al Qaeda and ISIS are likewise changing the world right now. But I’m guessing that if you're reading this particular blog, you’re likely not looking to make that sort of impact on the world. So let’s name a few examples of people who have changed the world for the better: William Wilberforce, who fought to eradicate the slave trade; Billy Graham, whose preaching transformed the lives of innumerable people all over the world; or Pope John Paul II, who spoke hope to millions and helped inspire the fall of the Iron Curtain. With examples like these before us, we can’t rule out the possibility that one or two of us just might change the world: if others have done it before, we can do it now.
However true that may be, I’m here to lay down a hard dose of reality. If you look at Wilberforce and Graham and JP II and think, “Hey, I could do that!” then you’re probably a bit like the pathetic contestants on musical performance competitions who’ve been told all their lives that they’re great singers, but who have clearly been lied to. The plain fact of the matter is, you’re almost certainly not as gifted as the heroes of faith who went before you; and even if you are, the fact that you’re suffering from the delusion that God is definitely going to use you to shake up the world probably shows that you’re lagging several laps behind those heroes in the category of basic Christian character. It usually requires a humble sort of self-knowledge (perhaps even self-abnegation) to be a Christian fit to be greatly used by God. In many cases, it is the humble who do greater things in God’s Kingdom than the gifted.
God has many, many, many people who are just as gifted as you are (and probably more so). He has many, many, many people who are just as on fire to see his Kingdom come in the world. And even if he didn’t have all those gifted, on-fire people, he still wouldn’t need you. There is absolutely nothing that God cannot accomplish apart from you. He is God; we are not. I suspect we all know that, but I also know myself well enough to realize that I need to be reminded of it on a fairly frequent basis.
Further, beyond the overwhelming statistical reality that it will probably be someone else, and not you, called upon for the truly world-changing assignments, it’s good to realize that most of us don’t live in the necessary times and places to be world-changers. It requires a bit of good fortune to be in the right place at the right time: at a turning point in history, or in the middle of a massive social crisis. If Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived in any other place or time than the places and times they found themselves, history would not remember them at all. The plain fact is, most of us won’t find ourselves there. Most of us will live in ordinary places where nothing earth-shattering ever happens.
All this is not said to be a downer, but simply to tell the truth. Too many people have been handed gold-gilt visions of glorious careers in Christian service only to find that life is really, really hard, that the problems of this world really do seem pretty close to intractable, and that God is not in the business of sending us bounding from mountaintop to mountaintop without having to traverse the valleys in between. Too many young Christians have had their dreams, and sometimes their lives, ruined by the harsh disillusionment of finding out too late that they are not God’s chosen one.
But here’s the good news. Once I realize that I can’t change the world, that my gifts are not great enough and my limitations too great, then I’m in a position to study the other side of the coin. And that other side of the coin tells me that yes, I can change the world.
But there’s an important qualifier to that statement. I can change the world, but that “I” is not the personal, individualistic “I” that we usually mean. It’s not “individual I” that can change the world, it’s “theological I.” I-who-am-one-lowly-member-of-the-Body-of-Christ, I can change the world. I-who-am-one-tiny-stone-in-the-great-edifice-of-the-Kingdom-of-God, I can change the world. I-who-am-united-with-Christ-and-sealed-with-the-Spirit, I can change the world. No one may ever know my name or my role in God’s world-changing revolution, but I can be an instrument of that revolution nonetheless, simply because I stand with him.
There’s an old anecdote told about Robert Morrison, who worked as a missionary in China around the turn of the 19th century. “Now, Mr. Morrison,” a skeptical inquirer asked, “do you really expect that you will make an impression on the idolatry of the Chinese empire?”
“No, sir,” replied Morrison. “But I expect that God will.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Colobos Tree

Here's a new poem about the life of Saint John Colobos (also known as John the Dwarf, John the Short, or alternatively spelled Colobus/Kolobos/Kolobus), one of the great fourth-century desert fathers of Egypt. I hope his example of selfless obedience inspires you.


The Colobos Tree

The man who came to Scete that day,
To Egypt's crucible of faith,
Was dark of skin and small of size,
And bore love's courage in his eyes.
He came in poverty and peace
And laid himself at Pambo's feet--
Old Abba Pambo, bless'd and wise,
Who labored under desert skies
To fast and pray, to triumph in
The holy fight for discipline,
To win the war for Christ the King
Upon the battlefield within.
Old Pambo asked about his guest,
And there the little man confessed,
"I'm John by name, called Colobos,
'The Dwarf,' they say; I make no fuss
About such names--it's true, you see,
And I've no pretence e'er to be
        More than what God made of me."

"What seek you here, my honest son?"
Old Pambo asked the prostrate one.
John Colobos stood up, and then
He reached out for the Abba's hand.
"The words you spoke--you called me son.
That's what I want: to be a monk,
To have a holy father, you,
To train me in the path of truth,
That I might fast and pray and fight
For all that's good and all that's right."
Old Pambo knew what this man asked,
How long the road, how hard the task!
Not one man in a thousand could
Bear up beneath that cross's wood--
To crucify the flesh each day
In this uncompromising way.
Could this man truly give his best
Against the ragings of the flesh?
        Old Pambo opted for a test.

"To be a monk, you must obey
In every aspect, every way,
The words of Scripture and the church--
You must be last, Christ must be first;
You must rebuke the stubborn flesh
Yes, even when its way seems best.
So here I grant you your first task,
But for its purpose, do not ask.
Take thou this stick, it's dead and dry:
Water it till it comes to life.
For dead are we without God's love--
No joy below, no life above.
So now you'll prove your depth of faith,
To show that you can walk this way.
Rebuke the flesh's insurrection
Through your faith in resurrection.
Yes, take this stick, and water it;
Treat this command to tend for it
        As if it came from Holy Writ."

Then John the Dwarf, he took the stick;
He went outside, and planted it.
His hut in Scete was desert-bound,
With water nowhere to be found.
So twice each day he made the trek,
Twelve miles down and twelve miles back,
To a river, and there he found
Water to pour out on dry ground
Back at his hut, where stood the stick
In the lonely place he'd planted it.
Through the desert, with his pail,
He trudged that never-ending trail,
On every day, 'neath blazing sun,
Obeying till the job was done.
For three long years did he obey,
Then a miracle dawned one day:
The stick took root, and leafed, and bloomed,
Amid the lifeless, sandy dunes:
        It bore obedience's fruit.

In this dark world you're often taught
To fill each whim your body's got:
"Indulge in lust, in gluttony,
In any pleasure within reach,
For flesh is all we've got right now,
So feed its fire and live life loud.
Old morals only make you fret;
If it feels good, then just do it."
In such a brave new world as this,
We see a fool in Colobos.
When Christ would bid us tame our flesh,
To fight its fiercest drives to death,
To fast and pray, to live life chaste,
It seems a senseless, pointless waste.
Why fight the drives that make us all
Human, happy, natural?
Why deprive yourself of good,
Of entertainment, sex, and food,
        Just 'cause someone says you should?

Oh, when such thoughts strike you or me,
Let us recall the Colobos tree.
Our flesh is part of what we are,
But not the whole, no, not at all!
The grace of God grants discipline
To grow beyond what we have been,
To rise, surpass mere wants and drives,
To wake to resurrection's life.
And there much greater joy is found
Than when base nature holds us bound.
So walk in calm obedience
The path of Christ's own innocence,
Even if it easier seems
To give yourself to fleshly dreams--
Remember Saint John Colobos,
Think of him, and all of us,
Then turn from darkness into light,
Bow to the God whose way is right,
        And watch the desert spring to life.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Photo of the Week

He stilled the storm to a whisper;
    the waves of the sea were hushed.

They were glad when it grew calm,
    and he guided them to their desired haven.

                          - Psalm 107:29-30

Monday, August 22, 2016

Quote of the Week


"You can never tell to what untold glories a little humble path may lead, if you follow far enough."

- Lilias Trotter, 19th-century English painter, devotional writer, and missionary to North Africa

(Illustration from Trotter's 1890 devotional book, Parables of the Cross) 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday Synaxis

(Painting: "The Crucifixion," by Konrad von Soest)

Accept, O Lord God, our Father, the sacrifices of our thanksgiving; this, of praise, for your great mercies already afforded to us; and this, of prayer, for the continuance and enlargement of them; this, of penitence, for such only recompense as our sinful nature can endeavor; and this, of the love of our hearts, as the only gift you ask or desire, and all these, through the all-holy and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior.
                                    - John Donne

Thursday, August 18, 2016

On Being a Pastor-Writer

The short piece below was written for publication in this year's spring edition of my denomination's conference newsletter, Green Shoots. I was asked to describe what it's like to be a pastor-writer. It speaks to the reasons behind my writing, including the pieces I post on this blog.

(Painting: "Portrait of Christopher Potter," clergyman/scholar, 1636)

On Being a Pastor-Writer

Writing has always come easily to me; pastoring was more of a process. I’ve been writing stories and poems since I first learned how to string words into sentences on a piece of paper. Preaching and counseling and church administration, however, are not things I thought I would be doing with my life. And yet here I am: right now, I have six novels in print (some of which are even passably readable) and six years of pastoring under my belt. Of the two endeavors, the latter is definitely the most important—I have found my vocation in the teaching ministry of the Body of Christ. Writing has always been recreational for me, but in the original sense of the term: it is one of the ways in which I experience and participate in the “re-creation” that God is performing in my life. 

But, as I think about it, I’m not sure that I can separate the two activities of being a writer and being a pastor quite so cleanly. The pastorate is a vocation and not just a job, so “being a pastor” touches every part of my life, including my writing. The writing I’ve done, though often undertaken simply in the sheer joy of creating something winsome and lovely, has a pastoral element to it. I write pieces that will, I hope, prove helpful to my brothers and sisters in Christ. I seek to magnify the great story of the Incarnation by incarnating a bit of truth and joy into the substance of a printed page. 

There are challenges to being a pastor-writer, of course: I don’t have as much time for writing as I used to, and many of the dear folks in my church seem to feel they’re under an obligation to try to like everything I write. But, on the whole, I’m enchanted with the way that God is weaving together my vocation with my recreation—to proclaim the greatest story of all, week in and week out, and to write down words in the in-between times that might, God willing, help my flock to re-imagine that story in a new and compelling way.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Waiting for the Rain

This is an old poem of mine, from my journey to Namibia and Angola at the end of the dry season in 2005. It was published in my college alumni magazine shortly thereafter, so it holds the distinction of being my only officially-published poetical work.

Waiting for the Rain

It is quiet now,
But in the silence I hear a song—
A yearning, a waiting, a thirst for redemption.
The dry earth is weary but alive,
Finding peace in the promise,
      The vibrant hope of resurrection.
This ancient cycle will turn once more
As the long vigil gives way to joy,
An echo of the laughter that fills the world to come.
The rains begin to fall like the fire of heaven,
Hurtling down in joyous abandon
To impart again the fervent fullness of God’s delight.
The ageless mountains burst into song,
The refrain of all the years, but never old—
The all-consuming celebration of life,
      Of witness,
            Of reflecting the Maker’s joy.
The chorus of the rocky crags,
Awash in the golden light of dawn,
Breaks over the slumbering world
And wakes it to the coming of the rain.
The dance of silver droplets surrounds me now,
Turning the dusty trail into a living stage
For this glorious performance of heaven’s grace.
I smile as I listen to the ancient, tireless song,
      The music of redemption
            Returning to the world.