The Fear of God, the Grace of the Moment

the things we do, the scripture we read, and how they shape the world

Wasting time with Rex Tillerson

The president may be right that former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s negotiations with North Korean leaders are a waste of time. Even if he is wrong, which of course he is, he has the power to make himself right, in a manner of speaking, effectively making a waste of others’ time. But if death will come, can you measure the worth of siding with life?

Tillerson is no friend of the church, the earth, or most people living on it, but if the reported negotiations are any sort of real thing, we can affirm they are worth doing. Even if they have been and will again be undermined and undone, even if they are an utter and complete failure according to their outcome, they are worth doing. You don’t need to be a Christian to understand that war is a thing to be avoided at great cost.

Christians, though, have deeper insight than most into the value of wasted time. We believe the center of all existence is the illegal execution of an innocent man in the prime of his life. What a loss! And then he just lay there lifeless for a whole weekend before anything else really happened. What a waste! Yet we fools remember him and participate with him by, of all things, sharing a bit of bread and a sip of drink, and maybe singing a little bit. Have you ever stood in a line of people waiting to receive communion? Or at a potluck dinner afterward? What a waste of time! Yet we cling to this like our life depends on it.

And, we actually believe it does. People who worship like this can be OK with a certain kind of inefficiency. They can give themselves to tasks with little to no visible results. They can pray, again and again and again and again and again, for things that never seem to happen. They can care lovingly and generously for those who cannot return the favor–for the very sick and very elderly, for those at risk of ebola, for those on the streets who can’t ever seem to get things turned around. They can spend hours in scripture in order to proclaim it for 15 minutes to 15 people in a drafty old church with an out of tune piano. They can give up the pursuit of wealth and power though at least a part of them thinks they could leverage those so well for good once they had them. They can live their lives by wasting them.

Christians pray for peace. If that does not seem like a waste of time, I don’t know what does. But who could have predicted the survival of a church that did just that in the midst of the Roman empire? Who could have predicted Saul being blinded on the road to Damascus? Who now predicts nuclear disarmament? Tillerson acted for years as CEO of one of the largest and most destructive corporations on earth. Efficiency and profit have been his god. But if, somehow, he can genuinely commit to the pursuit of peace, may the Prince of Peace meet him as he does (just don’t expect him to last long in his job thereafter). May he and we be changed.

Lord, have mercy.

Rushing from Gratitude

Here are some quick thoughts from Scotland on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Gratitude, and Commerce. Happy Thanksgiving to those in the States!

Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning. – Karl Barth

The whole of creation draws us into gratitude, for all of creation comes to us as a work of grace. We humans, those fluffy clouds, those resplendent birds, those soft winds, those terrific waves, those distant galaxies, those curious squirrels; none exist but for the movement of grace that gives material its form. And so as I sit here in Scotland, far away from Thanksgiving festivities back in the States but looking out my window onto a gorgeous day, I am grateful. Joyful for the chance to live in this world, and grateful for the grace of God that surrounded me before my first breath.

Now, I get it, not all of creation greets us so nicely. Clouds bring the rain, birds give us the flu, winds aren’t always so soft, waves can be devastating, and squirrels drop things on our heads until we call them evil. I don’t really know what distant galaxies do to us, but I’ve watched enough sci-fi to know that there are some potential issues there. Grief is not the enemy of gratitude I am thinking about today though. (It ultimately lacks the power to exclude gratitude or edge joy out of frame. While I believe the lamb that was slain says this best, humans of many confessions have asserted this deep truth in many ways for many centuries. An entertainer and a politician even expressed this in the  Colbert/Biden interview a couple months back.)

The enemy of gratitude that weighs on my mind today is that great American god of consumption. Not the excess of eating and drinking known as gluttony (though certainly this remains on the table–get it?–for American consideration), but the excessive purchasing and obtaining of goods known as greed. Read the rest of this entry »

Artists: Please Paint Better Academic Portraits

Can we please take a moment to acknowledge that academic portraiture is a profoundly uninteresting sub-genre of art?

I am an admitted neophyte in the portraiture world,** but it seems to me that academic portraits rarely do any of the things well done portraits can do: they don’t often reveal details about the subject’s life, relations, character, or passions; they certainly don’t lead their viewers to question their own lives or values, or to understand their own selves more fully by engaging in another’s exploration of self. They just show a bunch of nerds and various degrees of sternness; the grumpiest and the most bored-looking are the most interesting because they’re the funniest. (Have no fear, university boards of directors, those commissioning fees are getting some good laughs!)

Photo 26-06-2015 11 20 35

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Jean Vanier and L’Arche: Theology Done Right

If you are unfamiliar with the international network of communities known as L’Arche, this is a good week for a wonderful new discovery. L’Arche self-identifies as, “an International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs and support networks where people who have intellectual disabilities and people without intellectual disabilities live mutual relationships and share the daily life, building community together. There are currently 147 communities in 35 countries.”

USA-Heartland-DavidBysel-GeorgeUtter-AaronPhelps-1-e1410271130866This is a great week to get to know L’Arche because yesterday evening Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, received the Templeton Prize, an award which has been described as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in religion. Read the rest of this entry »

10 Downing Street and Lord Stanley’s Cup

On waking yesterday morning, I checked the results in the UK general election and the NHL playoffs. They are radically different events, one would think, but the experience of reading their results was remarkably similar. Wins and losses, sweeps and statistics, the exhaustion of “crushing defeat” and talk of “changing the captain.” With all this before my first coffee, it was easy to get lost in a world of analysis after the fact.

So I have a new game: Hockey player or politician? See how you fare (answers after the break).
1. “We’ve competed hard, we’ve done a lot of things well, but we just didn’t finish.”
2. “It’s tough times. We have to stick together.”

3. “We have come back before and will come back again.”

4. “It took every fibre of my being not to put the nut on them all”

Is this a language thing? Has professional sports taken on the language of a more significant realm? Has politics been reduced to level of a game? Are we basing the governing of nations on empty quotes to fill newspapers and twitter feeds? And, more to my immediate concern, what are Christians to make of it all?
Whatever specific political decisions Christian communities or individuals may make–whether to vote at all, and if so, for whom to cast their vote–faithfulness to Christ calls forth a very different political action than that which usually bears the name. You don’t have to be pessimistic to notice the brokenness of the political world; we should stand out from it a heck of a lot more than we do.

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No Fake-Smile Sundays

There was a curmudgeonly sort of opinion piece in the New York Times yesterday (1 of my 10 free articles through the app this month!) titled, The Tyranny of the Forced Smile Not altogether curmudgeonly, but enough to counter the pretend happiness to which it responds.


With the apt tagline, “Though many employers expect workers to profess true love for their jobs, being thrilled about one’s occupation isn’t a universal standard,” the article reflects on the common expectation today that potential and current employees will express little but unalloyed enthusiasm for and happiness within the work. The author writes, “Our Protestant work ethic has blended with contemporary notions of self-actualization to create a situation in which we are all expected to whistle like Disney dwarfs.”

Even for those who truly love their work, whether taking care of children and a home or managing a professional office, this Disneyfication is an absurd standard to which to hold persons daily accountable. While the grumpy crowding out of joy is certainly nothing to be praised, neither is the happy crowding out of sorrow. To work fruitfully and live healthily, humans need room for honesty.

This is one of the great gifts of the Sabbath to humankind. Read the rest of this entry »

Dawn on Our Darkness; Lend Us Thine Aid!

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning!

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;

Star in the east, the horizon adorning,

Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

“The next life” is a bit of a mystery, if you haven’t noticed. Every time death in this life comes close, we humans have a way of recalling this mystery yet again. We wonder about our own lives and the lives of those we love. We wonder what is next, and what meaning our lives have now. When the door opens between this life and the next, the meaning of the future for the present becomes an active, burning question.

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid

It is a short list of things that Christians proclaim with certainty about the next life. We are not permitted to say who goes where, or to know many details of what we will do. We look forward to life characterized by love: with God, in a Re-Created Universe, abounding in food and song.

I love food and I love music, so it is easy for these details to encourage my individualistic assumption that the next life is going to be filled with all of my favorite things: pie and banjos and curling and really good poops and Buffalo Sabres hockey and the ability to read ultra fast with perfect comprehension. Alas! The New Creation is not built around me, and scripture makes no mention of hockey. The New Creation is built around Jesus, and scripture talks about music and meals. Among all the potential activities that God could have told us about, we hear of these. It is worth asking why.

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Creation! Wonderful, Mysterious, New

The Lord is risen!

In the resurrection of Jesus is life abundant and eternal, in all of its fullness. Our Risen Lord is the fullness of life, and we with the rest of creation are being drawn into his fresh abundance. All things are made new in Jesus’ resurrection–impossibly new. This day of days, resurrection Sunday, is the 8th day of a 7 day creation.

The Lord is risen indeed!

Serving on the staff of a large Anglican church, I’ve spent a lot of time around in church buildings and at church events this weekend, which is a great blessing. The exuberance of baptism, confirmation, and communion during the Easter Vigil last night were fantastic! Whether in the fist pumping confirmand in the front of the room, or the high-fiving worshipers after communion in the back, the joy of new life could not be confined to quiet words of praise.

But rather than confining his work to the formal structures of planned services, it seems God has been using those to create awareness in me, to enable glimpses of his presence and new life everywhere. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been reading Wendell Berry poems lately, I don’t know, but my eyes have seen wonderful things!

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time fit to be eternal

The forfeit Garden that recalls
Itself here, where both we and it
Belong; no act or thought rebels
In this brief Sabbath now, time fit

To be eternal. Such a bliss
Of bloom’s no ornament, but root
And light, a saving loveliness,
Starred firmament here underfoot.

the closing stanzas of Wendell Berry’s 2nd Sabbath poem of 1982, from his collection, A Timbered Choir

There is a gorgeous other-reality contained within Sabbath. Moments of time are perceived rightly as eternal, as beauty holds supremacy over function. Those moments in which “no act or thought rebels” are precious. They are transformative, but future transformation is not their greatest value. Their utmost preciousness is realized when even thoughts of the future fade away in appreciation of the present. Eternity, from a Sabbath perspective, is known not as endless sequence, but as infinite presence. We take root in beauty.

We as a people need to allow ourselves to be touched by Sabbath, because Wendell Berry is right. Loveliness is salvific.

Dusty Bibles Aren’t Bibles at All

 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD. [Gen 6:5–8]

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie comes out tomorrow, with all the hype and hyperbole that surrounds movies that deal with religion without fitting within a religious bubble. (You know the bubble, the one with Son of God and Fireproof inside of it. They may be good or they may be bad, but almost nobody outside of already religious audience is ever going to see them.) Some people hate it. Some people love it. Some people think it will destroy your soul and your children’s souls if you see it. Everyone says these opinions online.

Into the turmoil speaks Glenn Beck.

“This movie, if it becomes successful – if we take our churches and we all go and everything else – our children will look at that as being the Noah story, and no matter what you say, they will believe this version over the version that mommy and daddy are telling them or that old, dusty Bible is telling them, because this one will come alive in their imaginations. It is dangerous disinformation,” Beck said.

Oh Glenn Beck, how you say things. How you place that extra accent on that word “Bible” as if that makes your allegiance to it more clear. Apparently the Bible to which allegiance is professed is lightly used, however, to get so dusty. The dusty Bible sits untouched on a shelf, a symbol of old tradition but a part of nothing new.

At which point it is no longer the Bible at all. Read the rest of this entry »