Pulled this out from my archives:
Most fathers-to-be suppose that their old ego-centered lives will continue more or less unabated after the child arrives. With the exception of a few more obstacles and demands on their time, their involvement with their children is envisioned as being something manageable and marginal. Nothing like a complete transformation”an abrupt end to their former life”really enters men’s minds.
But then the onslaught begins, and a man begins to realize that these people, his wife and children, are literally and perhaps even intentionally killing his old self. All around him everything is changing, without any signs of ever reverting back to the way they used to be. Into the indefinite future, nearly every hour of his days threatens to be filled with activities that, as a single-person or even a childless husband, he never would have chosen. Due to the continual interruptions of sleep, he is always mildly fatigued; due to long-term financial concerns, he is cautious in spending, forsaking old consumer habits and personal indulgences; he finds his wife equally exhausted and preoccupied with the children; connections with former friends start to slip away; traveling with his children is like traveling third class in Bulgaria, to quote H.L. Mencken; and the changes go on and on. In short, he discovers, in a terrifying realization, what Dostoevsky proclaimed long ago: “[A]ctive love is a harsh and fearful reality compared with love in dreams.” Fatherhood is just not what he bargained for.
Yet, through the exhaustion, financial stress, screaming, and general chaos, there enters in at times, mysteriously and unexpectedly, deep contentment and gratitude. It is not the pleasure or amusement of high school or college but rather the honor and nobility of sacrifice and commitment, like that felt by a soldier. What happens to his children now happens to him; his life, though awhirl with the trivial concerns of children, is more serious than it ever was before. Everything he does, from bringing home a paycheck to painting a bedroom, has a new end and, hence, a greater significance. The joys and sorrows of his children are now his joys and sorrows; the stakes of his life have risen. And if he is faithful to his calling, he might come to find that, against nearly all prior expectations, he never wants to return to the way things used to be.
Read the whole thing here.
In light of “The Future of Protestantism” and other discussions surrounding ecumenicism and the visible unity of the church I’d like to ask a few questions and take a stab at a few suggestions (for the sake of conversation):
- Was it Christ’s intent, from the beginning to have one monolithic visible institution we call the ‘Church’?
- If it was his intent, then is his intention not being realized, and if not why not?
- Or if it is being realized, which monolithic visible institution is the “Church” Christ founded?
- Is a visible institutional unity necessary to project Christian unity, i.e. does the some 77,000 denominations necessarily insinuate disunity?
It seems to me that so much of the ecumenical discussions have surrounded the question of differences (doctrinal or practical) and how can those differences be compromised or overcome so that a visible unity can be achieved. It also seems to me that the cat is out of the bag on the whole visible institutional church thing, it is an artifact of history and not something that we can navigate “back” to. We don’t need, necessarily, to figure out which denomination is “right.” I mean, from my understanding of most denominations those within them can’t even figure out which way of being say Presbyterian is the right way to be Presbyterian. It also seems that in twenty-one centuries there has actually been large and substantial agreement on what historic Christian orthodoxy is. [Many on this topic may raise a flag and say that is not an indisputable claim, to which I would say, “what claim is indisputable… cogito ergo sum… and who these days is really into Cartesian certainty anyway?” It is really a question of how many hairs make a beard in regard to historic Christian orthodoxy: I know what a beard is, and I know what a beard isn’t, but there is certainly a place somewhere in between where deciding is tenuous at best. Same with HCO as applied in various denominations, I know what is (Apostle’s Creed for example), and I know what isn’t (Book of Mormon), but somewhere in between it becomes well… fuzzy].
All of this to say, perhaps Christian unity can be best and most fully projected not through institutional re-union, but rather through the ‘Pied Beauty’ of Christ’s kaleidoscopic Church. As Hopkins put it
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
To say it differently, I am suggesting that maybe we don’t need to forge a path toward a past of institutional unity, but that the fullness of Christ’s body can be displayed in its distinctions, even in “all things counter.” Perhaps it is these very distinctions… er denominations which are the very thing that afford us the opportunity to put on display to the world the way the love of God actually works; that is the way we love the denominational “other” who is our neighbor and brother. It is perhaps true that the beauty of God displayed in “whatever is fickle, freckled” in his Church is the vindication of his unifying power, that God in Christ can harmonize 77,000 denominations, not by obliterating their distinctions but by inspiring by His Spirit brotherly affection for that which is different.
Praise Him whose beauty is past change.
Death is not something we like to think about. Because of this death isn’t something we think about, whether it be because of a willful denial (more conscious), or because of habituated denial (more unconscious). Ironically though, like the proverbial pink elephant that we are not supposed to think about, death is the one thing we can’t help but think about. This may not be altogether obvious to us, but given hopefully a few deft maneuvers on my part, we will begin to see that it is the very thing we can almost not stop thinking about.
Death, if I can put it simply, is the bad thing. It is the bad thing that happens to us. It is this fate that we are all inexorably drawn to like ants to a picnic. It is this final climactic (or anti-climactic, depending on your view) event in our lives when everything we have lived, worked, hoped, loved, dreamed, struggled for goes out from us “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” All human striving, ingenuity, intelligence, creativity, tragedy, wickedness, folly, wisdom, wonder, and spectacle slides like a greased wheel into this black hole. Even a heroic death is only heroic to the living, the dead don’t enjoy it. We, for all we know, don’t get to participate in our funerals. Despite our protestations and creative measures and the false prophets of singularity, death is not something we can avoid. It is wildly, laughably beyond our control; it is an equal opportunist in this way because it swallows the best and brightest along with the idiots and fools.
Despite this end, this bad thing that happens, we tend to think of it as exactly that “the bad thing that happens.” It is something there, at the end, and we can at least with moderate success pretend that its finality can at least be deferred. This is where an insight from Scripture is profoundly troubling, and perhaps helpful (but not yet); it is found in the 23rd Psalm, perhaps one of the two or three most known passages in the Bible. This David Psalm tells us that there is this thing called the “valley of the shadow of death.” Meaning, there is death (i.e. the bad thing that happens), and then there is death’s shadow, which for our purposes we can simply say is the bad thing that is happening. Though not death itself, death’s shadow is its prefiguring, its haunting presence in the ‘land of the living’ to use another phrase from David.
So there is the bad thing that happens, but there is also the bad thing that is happening, death’s dark shadow. Though not as horrible or terrifying as death, this shadow haunts. The bad thing that is happening is simply all of the unavoidable bad things that show up in our lives, these little agonies are beyond our control because they are like death itself, the monolithic event that his beyond the scope of human will or fortitude. It is the minor disappointments that your latte was made incorrectly, to the driver in front of you who clearly is not from around here, to the fact that you someone in your house only left a dribble of orange juice in the refrigerator instead of polishing it off and throwing away the carton. It is also the more major catastrophes that barge into our lives unannounced like an unwelcomed guest; a tornado rips through town taking our daughters and sons, cancer is the diagnosis, the business that failed, the husband who has now deserted you, the child who never calls.
These happenings are scattered throughout our lives and they are precisely the things which we spend so much of our energy avoiding, attempting to gain some sort of leverage against. Our “life” simply becomes and endless hamster wheel of unsuccess in avoidance. The ‘anti-aging’ cosmetics? Really? It is amazing that we believe that b.s., but since we are so inclined to avoid death, we will swallow the lies of hucksters because we want them to lie to us. We want to be told that we can avoid ‘aging’ which is simply a euphemism for avoiding death. You may remove wrinkles with Botox or Oil-of-Olay but you will simply have taught skin that is torched or fodder for the worms. We shuffle the old into homes, away and out of sight, we look away from the homeless, we talk a big game when it comes to the poor but never deliver the goods… Why? Because they are harbingers of death, reminding us that death doesn’t deal in wares or wealth. We purchase “retirement packages” which are a version of secular heaven, where you get to the point in your life where you can do whatever you want, this sort of blissful final resting place. But the retirement packages, even the ones that actually work, are a sort of colossal final resistance to the fate which awaits the old. This retirement isn’t something that you can actually enjoy, or at least not that long. Death swallows the happy retirement too. When you watch retirement commercials they show a couple that is still spry enough to be active, yet aged enough to qualify. What they don’t show about this phase of life is the increasing regularity with which death’s shadow interjects. Whether it’s prostate cancer, or early onset alzheimers, whether it’s simple frailty or a lifetime of bad habits that have caused relational estrangements. Whatever it may be, they never factor into the advertising executives portrayal of this stage, and yet for most this is precisely what ‘retirement’ looks like. Additionally we throw money by the boatload, at least in the modern West, toward healthcare. Healthcare, ironically, is one of our most reliable avoidance mechanisms because it projects success. Cancers go into remission, bones are mended, heart disease is prevented, medicines cure. Healthcare works. But it doesn’t, it simply prolongs the inevitable.
Our lives from beginning to end are lived in the shadow of death, the unceasing presence of the bad thing that is happening. From our earliest experiences of separation anxiety and to the first lost balloon, from the first joke at your expense to the first heart-break, from the first failed class to the first lost job, the bad thing is always happening. All these things which despite our best efforts have remained out of our control, which seem to interrupt what might have been a delightful existence, are simply reminders that in terms of the big things in life, we are not our own masters.
For your Monday morning reminder that “nothing you confess can make me love you less…”
As a a pastor I regularly interact with people in desperate situations, even now I agonize over a homeless family with two small children who have no where to go. They come with their stories of impossibility, tragedy, and poverty and on a shoe-string of hope ask for help. Sometimes we can help, sometimes there is something obvious and compelling that can be done to set their ship sailing. But, like today, sometimes there isn’t anything that can be done. Nothing.
It is this nothingness which is so excruciating. Excruciating… yes that’s the word. “From the cross” I believe is the sense. Immediately my attention is drawn to the hung flesh of a dead God. There limp and lifeless is the nothingness of which I speak. For all his wonder-working power, for a man who literally could have done anything, his empty corpse hangs in ironic force. The man who could have done something did nothing, just sighed then died. From the cross… he invites.
For all the something we can do, that I can do as a pastor, the crucified Jesus reminds me – all that something leads to nothing. Leads to emptiness. Leads to death. It leads this way because this is the way all things go. I have sat with fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters all in excruciating pain because “nothing can be done” about the cancer, or the anger, or the alcoholism, or the homelessness, or the loneliness, or the adultery, or the pornography addiction.
The first step in AA is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” This is better just the first step in life, the admission of powerlessness. Nothing can be done, and even when something can be done, all those somethings still culminate in death. Look at Jesus. All that power “wasted” in death. Jesus, powerless to save with power, “emptied himself” and became “obedient unto death.” So it seems, it is in the nothingness of death, in the emptiness of human ingenuity and solution, that we are invited to enter.
“I want to know Christ… and the fellowship of the sharing in his sufferings”
“If anyone comes after me he must take up his cross and follow me”
“If anyone would be my disciple he must… hate even his own life”
Jesus invites us into his death, into the excruciating void of nothingness which we avoid with our clever “somethings” we use as strategies for “life.” The invitation is that you and I must simply accept that we are dead, that we can literally do nothing. It is there in Christ’s nothingness, in his “corpse’s core/the stone fist of his heart began to bang/on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled/back into that battered shape.” That is, it is only in death that the power of resurrection is displayed.
So to close with the rest of Mary Karr’s poem from above, “Now it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water/shatters at birth, rivering every way.”
I am by no means an expert on New York City, but here are some passing reflections on our recent trip there:
Transportation: Regularly using public transportation, particularly the subway is absolutely exhilarating. I felt like I got a flavor of Manhattan life simply by being on the subway. The lonely, the happy, the chatty, the coldness and distance, the surprising moments of warmth and kindness, the crowd, moving at a pace others have determined for you (this is important and palpable, given that in Southern California I go everywhere in a car, whenever I want, however I want, and exactly where I want). It struck me while on the subway one day how different the new heavens and earth will be; now you enter a crowded train and feel very powerfully, if unconsciously, a stranger and all its attendant anxieties, but then you will be in an environment filled with people you have never met and you will not feel like a stranger, rather you will feel and really be loved deeply and truly by those whom you have never met. Not to over-spiritualize the subway, but even so… come Lord Jesus!
Food: I had both my favorite and most disappointing experiences in restaurants. Ippudo. Ramen. Awe. I never knew what ramen actually was, a whole new culinary horizon was opened to me by Tonkotsu ramen. They also made incredible Hirata buns, we got the pork, go and do likewise. Also, chicken, no matter how well cooked is always just chicken. I should have known, but its never worth spending money on chicken as the main star in an entree. This is a reference to the famous Balthazar restaurant. It was a delightful bit of Ratatouille meets the hot chocolate scene in Polar Express. But $72 for roast chicken was a bad decision. I mean it was amazing chicken, don’t get me wrong. But it was still just chicken. I was deeply disappointed in all our Italian, from famous Sardi’s in Times Square to a recommend we took for a Bronx offering. Simply put, and I mean this in all sincerity. I can make better Italian than this “real” Italian food. Bleecker Street Pizza, really great pizza, Food Network rated it the best in NYC, but honestly it wasn’t categorically better than anything you can get out here. It was a great experience, a hole in the wall pizza place with tasty pizza, the crust was superb. But That Pizza Place in Carlsbad is a close second in my opinion. Crif Dog, super tasty cheap hot dogs in the East Village, loved the vibe too. Again a hot dog is a hot dog, meaning its hard to screw up, but also really hard to elevate. Crif Dog was just a tasty riff on an American classic.
Additionally I picked up a book by Father Capon called Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating. For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Farrar Capon, he is a recently deceased Episcopal priest who wrote about theology and cooking, both of which would often occur in the same book. Food for Thought is more meditations on cooking seasoned with theological reflection, but is worth its weight in gold. It is out of print, but I was able to get it at the famous Strand Bookstore, an original pristine copy, luck of the draw I guess! I am about halfway through and here are a couple highlights, “Cooking is the expansion, by reason and skill, of flavor into art.” And in regards to the blue crab and hospitality, “socially, man is very much like the crab. His relationships are like exoskeletons and, like the crab’s shell, they harden. If man is to continue to grow, he must continually break out of relational shells, discard them, and let new ones form.” If you hate to cook, or love to cook, if you are bad at cooking or great at it, this book is for you. Better yet, if you eat, this book is for you, i.e. it’s for everyone.
Arts & Entertainment: New York is pretentiously artsy fartsy, and of any city I have ever been to, it certainly has the credentials to be so pompous. The Met blew my mind, I will write more on that later, but there is no shortage of artistic ingenuity in NYC. We also saw Newsies, the Broadway musical. So good. I was never into musicals before I married Anjuli, but in many ways they far exceed movies in their entertainment value. There is something about a live performance involving dancing, singing, acting, orchestration, stage-craft, etc… which is far superior to anything CGI can cook up. It also struck me while there, that one of the most productive ways of processing our pain is to tell our story. Newsies processes the pain of the poor by telling its story, there is something healing about it (which more could be written on but I won’t for the sake of your boredom, go on about it now). Central Park I include here because it reminds a godless city that the greatest works of art weren’t made by human hands, and a city so intent on suppressing His presence, is never-the-less captive to its need for his handiwork right in its midst. The Chelsea high-line park is a must, a rare glimpse into what creation could have been under man’s tutelage… too bad we bailed on our birthright. We only get glimpses in this life of what could have been, and the high-line is one of those artistic elevations of what creation could’ve been under man’s watchful care.
Church: We attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church, of Timothy Keller (TKNY as Dr. Hart calls him) fame, in their new worship space of W 83rd St. The sanctuary is beautiful, a comforting modern subdued take on a worship space. The music and singing were, in my mind, a perfect combination, and by that I mean the music was in service to the voice. In too many worship services the instrumentation overwhelms the human voice, and I daresay that God is far more interested in our voices and words than he is in our instrumentation. Redeemer was a tasteful use of music to lead the congregation in worship. TKNY is preaching a series on Wisdom, I take it a rehash of his older series on Proverbs, but not disappointing in the least. If I had one series to take with me on a desert island, that would be it. It was the third service of the day, to be followed by a fourth, and I was disappointed that TKNY didn’t stay in the worship space to greet and talk with the congregation. Perhaps I missed something, but it felt impersonal, and if NYC needs anything, it needs personal. Last thought on this: Redeemer is sort of the darling of the resurgent conservative evangelicalism as represented by The Gospel Coalition, but I couldn’t help but notice how seemingly irrelevant it was to the city it was in. I mean the Gospel Co-Allies and its supporters are sort of in awe of Keller and Redeemer, but walking the streets of the city to the church I couldn’t help but notice how small a church of 5,000 members feels in a borough of over 3 million. I am grateful for Keller and Redeemer as a faithful presence, but it was a reality check, as the church, it seems to me, isn’t having the sort of impact that the evangelical world seems to think it is having. In other words, we are making a bigger deal of the church than the city is, and that should give us pause.
I think at this point I am over 1250 words in, and you have probably lost attention. Here’s one last passing thought on Shopping, then I should let you go if you haven’t already given up. We went to a shop called What Goes Around Comes Around in SoHo, it is a vintage (read thrift) store specializing in higher quality clothing. It was an insult to my intelligence. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the clothes, but you have to be a fool to pay $250 for a pair of noticeably worn wing-tips, or $125 for a well-worn flannel, or $300 for something you could find at AmVets for $15. How they get away with this stuff is incredible to me, seriously I walked out thinking to myself, “how stupid do they think I am?” All of this perfectly sums up New York, I loved it, but geez you have to be kidding me, its not as cool as it is costing me!
I have always been a fan of “origins” stories, and recently there has been a glut of superhero origin stories (here, here, and here). Whether or not the movies are good, we are fascinated by the origins of our favorite characters (also by apocalyptic storylines, but that’s for another post). There is something in understanding beginnings which helps immensely in coping with the present, origins sort of infuse the present with meaning and significance, and also help orient us toward the future. My last post mused on the significance of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” for the apostle Paul, here I’d like to explore this further by looking at the origins of Paul’s theology of participation as well as begin to trace it into the troublesome present marked by suffering.
Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, to my eyes, is the acorn of Paul’s theology. Jesus’ rebuke of Paul is instructive “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus’ use of the personal pronoun marks the concrete shift in Paul’s understanding of himself, God, and the Scriptures which he knew so well. What Jesus was saying was that his persecutions and trials were ongoing, and that Saul was an instrument of these ongoing persecutions. Or in other words, Jesus afflictions did not “end” at the cross and Saul was sharing in the continued persecution of Christ.
Only here Saul was not, in any visible way, persecuting Jesus.
How could Saul’s intent to arrest and transport “followers of the Way” be understood as persecuting the person of Jesus of Nazareth? In what ways was Jesus present in and with those who followed his Way? What is the meaning of suffering, trials, tribulations, persecutions of Christians in light of Jesus’ personal union with his followers? How should Scripture be read (and written) in light of Jesus’ union with his people? How can the sufferings of Christ be seen to historically extend from the cross, both backwards and forwards, and how are these sufferings recognized and shared in by his followers?
This encounter would continue to shape Paul both in his vocation and in his theology as he had to come to terms with what Jesus said to him on that road. Paul would work out his theology of participation (er… participationist theology) in concrete situations among the churches and pastors to which he would write. These occasional letters are anchored in Paul’s Damascus vision, but have developed into a full grown oak of theological maturity. Paul, as we will come to see, continually is orienting the recipients of his letters toward this participationist theme, allowing it to lend them strength, correct their thinking, and provide a constructive pastoral and congregational way forward.
Lord willing, more to come on this…