Monday, December 27, 2010

With Eliza in Third-World America

A few years ago, en route to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, I drove past an inconspicuous dirt road indicating that atop the hill to my left lay a town called Abiquiu. Noting that I was several hours early, I indulged my adventurous side and drove my Subaru up through the reddened dust and gravel, past a one-room post office, upwards in the direction of the noon day sun. Cresting the slope, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a town square, surrounded on all sides by stucco buildings, a crumbling mission-style church, and a bar sporting a half-burned out neon sign. I remember feeling that God, sitting in the heavenly sandbox of capricious providence, scooped up a 19th-century Mexican pueblo and plopped it here in the midst of 21st century America. The sensation of having traveled back in time was romantic, exhilarating, and awe-inspiring - but it could not mask the profound sense of sadness that hung in the air like the suspended dust that did its best to fill the void left unoccupied by the absent townspeople. The tragic sadness that haunted the town assured me this was no dream, that the top was still spinning, that my curiosity had lured me into an unwanted awareness of the third-world reality that runs like the cracks in the floor of the Chihuahuan desert through the bedrock of the American dream.

That's why I'm so thankful for Eliza Griswold's latest contribution to the, "A Teen's Third-World America." Following 16-year-old E.J. Montoya, a member of the Santa Ana Pueblo, through a day at his cutting edge school, the Native American Community Academy (including his 2-3 hour commute), Griswold writes

We were parked outside his trailer in a rented white SUV. Around us in the darkness: a broken baby carriage, a rattletrap Volvo sedan, an anonymous pile of junk littered on the bare ground. I've seen this kind of chaos in refugee camps in Eastern Congo and gypsy settlements in Rome, but not in America.

I've just finished reading Griswold's stunning The Tenth Parallel, which details her travels through regions of encounter between Christianity and Islam in both African and Southeast Asia, which I hope to review, God-willing, sometime this week. Yet, while that work made me feel at once righteously indignant and also sheepishly ashamed of my ignorance and lack of engagement with the persecuted church across the world, her latest article reminds me that I need not ship off to Malaysia or Sudan to find myself in the midst of the world's injustices. Painful as it is to have to admit again and again, I've walked among them my whole life. They are all around me. Not just atop mystical hills that evoke Gabriel Garcia Marquez and whiskey priests and romanticized campesinos - but, undoubtedly, across the street from my seminary, and also in the midst of my own soul.

Admittedly, I have a bit of a literary crush on Ms. Griswold. Just as I am ensnared in an infatuation with Regina Spektor's singing (my wife is well aware of these, for the record!), I find Griswold's voice possessed of a strange power to move my imagination with evocations that lift me out of mundanity and into the mysterious wonder of the every day. I respect and deeply admire the way that Griswold (the daughter of Frank Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church) uses her considerable journalistic prowess and beautiful prose to enter into the stories of people on the margins to bring to life the drama embedded in the fabric of the world that lives beyond the veils of the reductionism of the ideologically-constructed mass media narratives that permeate so much of our reading and hearing. She peers into the particularities of life, invites us to witness, and so reveals truths deeper than our illusions and hopes larger than our ignorance. Which is really what good journalism, and all good writing, ought to be about.

If you haven't heard of or read the Tenth Parallel yet, please do. In the meantime, read some of Ms. Griswold's other articles here, and find yourself more deeply immeshed in the stories of those upon whose back our world is constructed, and with whom our future lies. May we all be woken up from our American dreams, and discover the waking lives she makes present. Hers is a way of reporting that embodies the best of the possibilities of a journalistic discipleship.

Collecting Manna: Annie Dillard

One of the joys of being home for the holidays is digging around in books of bygone days, rekindling long dormant conversations with old and near-forgotten friends. As I prepare to re-enter regular blogging mode, here's a passage from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that, judging by the excessive underlining and pudgy stars in the margin, I must have read last during my freshman year of college. Its still just as good today:

Thomas Merton wrote, "There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues." There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won't have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagent and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have "not gone up into the gaps." The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit's one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind laces through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock - more than a maple - a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend this afternoon. You can't take it with you. (San Francisco: HarperPerennial, 1998, 274).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Inner Beauty...

I've been reading a lot about St. Augustine's notion of beauty. At one point in his exposition of Psalm 44, the venerable Bishop of Hippo notes that God "who sees you within loves you within; he loves you within, and you must love him within, for he fashions your inner beauty" (Expositions of the Psalms (trans. Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 2000, 306). OK, so Augustine is talking about the renewal of one's conscience and the granting of right intentions to sinners, but really, doesn't it just sound like that cheesy line you heard in a million Disney movies growing up about beauty only being skin deep? Show me the ugly person who felt comforted by this, and I'll cede this blog-space to you. As my hairline continues its long pilgrimage of recession away from my forehead, I can tell you I'm not buying it. I'm more inclined, to ask with Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall: "what if this is as good as it gets?"

Well, anyway, the real reason I am breaking on page 10 of a 15 pager due at 5pm to offer such pearls of wisdom is to attempt to concoct a legitimate reason for posting this AWESOME video from the Patriots-Packers game last night. Thanks to Tommy Grimm for sharing. Who says big men can't gun it? Guess it really does prove the old can't judge a book by its cover...OK, enough...just watch and be amazed...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

We Could Be Heroes...

Greetings from Rochester, NY, home of the never-ending slate-gray sky and towering banks of dirty snow. Dreary as it sounds, its home, and I'm looking forward to enjoying it more as soon as my final paper is completed and turned in...tomorrow!

In the meantime, I couldn't resist a little break from St. Augustine to comment on a fascinating story from in which reporter Winston Ross goes to Seattle to interview...ready...REAL SUPERHEROES!!! OK, so they're basically just a bunch of average joe's in homemade costumes banded together to wander the streets of the Rainy City in search of alleyway drug deals, corrupt crack houses, and other haunts of hideous hooligans. One caped crusader in particular, "Phoenix Jones," has "faced down skinheads wearing brass knuckles, disarmed people wielding screwdrivers as weapons, chased down a man firing a gun in the air, and stopped one homeless man from stabbing another." Appropriately, they're calling themselves the Rainy City Superhero Movement. Mark Driscoll, your wildest dreams have come true...

The plot thickens: there is actually an international league of individuals engaged in the pursuit of justice called the Real Life Superhero Movement (RLSH), and they are none too pleased with the emergence of the rogue Seattle contingent and their media-courting vigilante showmanship. Yet

Jones is mostly polite with the RLSH members who criticize him, but he makes no apologies for his approach. The real-life superheroes mostly hand out food to homeless people, he reports scornfully. Superheroes are supposed to take down criminals. "They can keep feeding homeless people with sandwiches," Jones says. "Leave the crime to me."

Ross narrates his journey through the dark (and fairly uneventful) streets of Seattle in the Superheroes' dirty Kia, complete with requests for escort by drunken sorority girls and a near-fatal run-in with intoxicated kids who think the reporter is trying to steal his car, one of whom challenges Ross:

"You messing with my van, homie?" one of them says to me, his hand on what he's clearly trying to communicate is a weapon in his waistband.

I assure him I'm not, and realize I'm relieved that Phoenix Jones doesn't run into any real crime on our patrol. There's a reason, I've learned, that most real-life superheroes hand out sandwiches: fighting crime can get you killed.

Its a fascinating and fun read, and it begs the question: if comic book afficiandos and would-be martial artist are willing to so seriously identify their own stories of salvation and redemption with the narratives of the comic books that have indelibly shaped their imaginations, what kind of challenge does their embodiment of their beliefs, issuing forth in their zany yet life-risking pursuit of justice, pose to those of us whose own story claims to transform us into the equivalent of the "real superheroes league," which includes the menial, unmasked, every day work of not only handing out sandwiches, but also becoming ourselves broken bread and poured out wine for the sake of those who groan under the weight of systematic injustice and slavery to the life-defying powers of the world? On the cross, Christ re-wrote the script of what it means to live as a hero - yet, what could we learn from the willingness of Phoenix Jones to place his life on the line for the sake of strangers he may never meet?

Regardless, it certainly gives new meaning to St. Paul's invitation to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ..." In the meantime, we'll keep doing the work the violent neglect: being with, for, and changed by, those to whom sandwiches are given, and from whom salvation is received. We may discover that, far from donning masks ourselves, it is actually Christ who, clothed in the disturbing disguise of the least of these, has come to save the day for us.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Collecting Manna: Andrew Louth

Andrew Louth is a Russian Orthodox priest and Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at the University of Durham (his full bio can be found here). I've been reading his beautiful book, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 1999), in which he argues against the dissociation of modern theology from aesthetic sensibility in favor of their reunion in a way of theology that "should hinder and resist the natural craving of the human spirit for a clear, transparent and definite system" - what Wittgenstein bids us to when challenges us to leave aside the quest for "crystalline purity" of understanding in favor of a return to the "rough ground" - from which the following passages are taken:

At the same time, theologia for the Fathers is broader than our term, for it means not just the doctrine of the Trinity, but contemplation of the Trinity. Theologia, for Evagrius, a friend and disciple of the Cappadocians, is precisely contemplation, theoria of God, as opposed to contemplation of the cosmos. A theologian for him is one who has attained this state of pure prayer: "if you are a theologian, you pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian." There is here no division between theology and spirituality, no dissociation between the mind which knows God and the heart which loves Him. It is not just that theology and spirituality, though different, are held together; rather theologia is the apprehension of God by a man restored to the image and likeness of God...St. Basil's Liturgy is prayer, his book On the Holy Spirit is theology, though the latter is ot without passages of prayerful ecstasy, and in the former the mind is concerned to express something with exactness and clarity...

But whatever the case with the Fathers, for us there is an almost unconscious division between theology and spirituality; even if we feel they belong together, we have to relate them to each other, and not all theologians want to relate them too closely. The commitment that prayer implies seems to some to compromise the 'objectivity' of theology as rational study. The centre does not hold: the object of theology retreats and is displaced. Theologians become more concerned with one another, and less with the God who is the traditional object of their study. Kierkegaard's impression of the state of theology remains appropriate: 'to me the theological world is like the road along the coast on a Sunday afternoon during the races -they storm past one another, shouting and yelling, and when at last they arrive, covered with dust and out of breath - they look at each other and go home...'

...Theology is not simply a matter of learning, though we risk losing much of the wealth of theological tradition if we despise learning: rather, theology is the apprehension of the believing mind combined with the right state of the heart, to use Newman's terms. It is tested and manifest in a life that lives close to the mystery of God in Christ, that preserves for all men a testimony to that mystery which is the object of our faith, and, so far as it is discerned, awakens in the heart a sense of wondering awe which is the light in which we see light. (Louth p3-4, 147)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Collecting Manna: St. Augustine on John 6

The miracles which Our Lord Jesus Christ performed are indeed divine works, and, from visible things and events, they encourage the human mind to come to some understanding of God. God, after all, is not the kind of substance that can be seen with the eyes, and his miracles, by which he governs the whole world and administers every creature, have grown cheap in our estimation through their regularity, so that almost no one bothers to pay attention to the wonderful and stupendous action of God in every grain of seed. So with his usual kindheartedness he kept back some things for himself, to perform them at a suitable time apart from the usual course and order of nature, so that wonders that were not greater than the daily ones, but just more out of the ordinary, would amaze people who had ceased to value those that occur every day.

Governing the whole cosmos, after all, is a greater marvel than satisfying five thousand men on five loaves of bread, and yet nobody marvels at it; people marvel at the latter because it is uncommon. Who, after all, even now feeds the whole world but the one who creates the crops from a few grains? So, on this occasion, the Lord acted as God...

Something therefore was brought to the attention of the senses whereby the mind would be alerted, something displayed before the eyes whereby the understanding could be exercised, so that we might marvel at the invisible God through his visible works; and so, being thus raised up to faith and purified through faith, we might even long to see in an invisible manner the one we recognized through things visible and invisible. (Homilies on the Gospel of John. Trans. Edmund Hill. Hyde Park: New City Press, 2009, 423-4)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Against Impunity

While living in Denver, my wife and I became active in SOAWatch, an organization that protested strongly against the training of Latin American "military advisors" (read: torturers and murderers) at various domestic United States military institutions. The outrageous facts and horrifying realities of these matters are well-documented, as is US complicity (and in many ways, direct responsibility for) in the gross injustices and violations of human persons south of our borders. Among the many evils of the situation is the continued arrogance of those in power, who continue to take impunity for granted, and too often, find these expectations confirmed in reality.

This blog is not intended primarily as a "political" or "activist" endeavor. However, two recent articles from the Daily have raised the issue of impunity in situations regarding situations that hit close to home, and thus I feel deserve attention.

The first, "Operation Ivy League," reports about the shock felt by the Columbia University community in the aftermath of a major drug bust involving five students and three off-campus dealers. Anyone who went to college knows that undergrads are particularly adept at random acts of stupidity, as well as more maniacal schemes to satiate the rabid appetites stirred by campus independence. One of my own roommates, when rushing a prestigious frat in order to gain access to Princeton's (in)famous palace of elite-dom, the eating club known as Ivy, agreed to get higher than Mitch Hedberg, to be blindfolded and dropped at a train station in inner-city Trenton, and to have to make his way back - with a dead fish duck-taped to his chest (which remained there for the good part of seven days afterward, by the way). That Ivy-leaguers in particular are prone to push the limits of good sense and ethical acceptability for the sake of power and prestige is a given. This roommate of mine ended up working for Goldman Sachs, along with the vast majority of my classmates - and we all know the end of that story. What is particularly poignant about Joshua Robinson's and Lloyd Grove's Beast article is the following observation:

But, in fact, the prestigious institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has long been “ripe” for drug trafficking, a knowledgeable 2009 Columbia graduate told The Daily Beast. “I think the permissive environment of Public Safety”—as Columbia’s campus police force is known—“makes it a no-brainer proposition,” said this former student, who described himself as a recreational drug user who dabbled in selling. “I always felt safe.”

Another recent grad and former residential adviser confirmed these observations. “It is permissive,” the former student adviser told The Daily Beast. “I got the sense that it wasn’t a priority…When you suspected illegal drug use—which means pot, because it’s the only one you’d be able to tell from the hall—you’d have to call Public Safety. Of course, there was the understanding that Public Safety would take so long to respond that there would be no evidence still apparent. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but after 45 minutes or an hour, you’d have to be a moron to get caught. You’d have to be still holding a joint.”

Perhaps there's no direct link between campus administrations and their police forces at elite institutions who look the other way while the future leaders of America are habituated into an amoral world where reading Nietzsche (poorly, I might add) becomes an excuse to see detachment from responsibility or the consequences of one's actions as a privilege earned with one's degree. Maybe its just a coincidence that Donald Rumsfeld, known for his authorization of torture as legitimate means of interrogation of terrorists, and a member of my collegiate grandfather class - he is class of 1954, I, 2004 - and the fact that the Columbia undergrads recently busted were involved with individuals prepared to hire an undercover cop to kidnap and torture a rival dealer. Or maybe, just maybe, impunity is something engineered into the moral DNA of the powerful by the negligence of those whose own continued prosperity rests upon neglecting to acknowledge in others what would also bring condemnation on themselves and the system of domination to which they wittingly or unwittingly lend legitimacy.

The second article, "Sex Slave Outrage," deals in even more serious matters. Michelle Goldberg reports on the efforts by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, the same group that successfully ended Craigslist's "erotic services" section due to its implicit promotion of sex trafficking and sexual abuse of women, to hold another such venue,, similarly accountable. The Rebecca Project is using non-violent, persuasive means via a series of advertisements picturing a mug shot of a man holding a sign that reads "I paid to rape a 14-year old I found on Backpage," and urges the service, an outlet of Village Voice Media, to "close your 'Adult' section until you can guarantee no girl is sold for sex on your website." The response?

Much as Craigslist did, Village Voice Media, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, argues that it can’t be responsible for what people post on its site, and that it helps law enforcement prosecute those involved in sex trafficking. A post on the company’s corporate blog says that in the McFarland case, “Without our knowledge, the predator violated our terms of use. has stringent safeguards in place to ensure that only adults use the site. We provided the FBI with the perpetrator's IP address and credit-card information.”

While sounds a bit more engaged than Columbia University Public Safety, once more the evasion of responsibility, rather than the acknowledgment of tragedy (see Stanley Cavell for more on this) is again a common theme.

As I have implied elsewhere, participation of any form in an industry that operates on the basis of the commodification of other human bodies - in this case, and far too often, the bodies of women and children - even casual engagement with materials that underwrite such industries, represents a sacrifice not only of personal righteousness, but also of justice. The two are reciprocal and inexorably intertwined. This is particularly striking in light of the article's reporting that

The campaign has a particular urgency as the Super Bowl approaches, because the game is a magnet for prostitution. During last year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, the Florida Department of Children & Families took custody of 24 minors who’d been brought to the area for prostitution in the days leading up to the game. This year in Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott said recently, “There is an organized effort to bring in children and women for the purpose of human trafficking and for the purpose of the sale of sex.”

“There’s no question that Backpage will play a critical role in facilitating the purchase of girls” in Dallas, says Saada Saar. At least, not unless the site makes changes soon.

In a strange and abominable collusion between bohemian libertarian values and the obvious connection between consumerism, violence, and male exploitation of women, entertainment and self-satisfaction become occasions for the event of abuse, injustice, and impunity. One wonders if participation in the Super Bowl, even by watching any of its numerous ads attempting to shape initializing and bruti-fying self-understandings of masculinity (often vis-a-vis objectifying and commodifying potrayals of women), is something we can do with a clear conscience, knowing what is taking place on the ground in lonely motel rooms and lofty luxury suites in Tampa before the broadcast. We all seek impunity in our own ways.

Mature believers are called to their own discernment in these seemingly complex, yet harrowingly simple decisions. If we cannot discuss prostitution in scripture without sniggering at the word "pimp" (as happened in our New Testament Theology class the other day), partly because of the glorification of such figures in popular culture, and if we attempt to justify such laughter, we act with impunity. If we remain unconcerned with the ways we are malformed by culture, education, politics, and bad theology, we act with impunity. If we believe that responsibility, consequence, and conversion are inconveniences to be put off until a later more manageable time, we act with impunity. If others continue to act with impunity, it is because the Church has given such impunity to them as a gift which in its very form mocks the Eucharistic offering that most intimately and urgently implicates us in God's death in the lives of God's children, as well as the justice and righteousness God calls us to pursue as those who have been first held accountable, and only then been given God's justice of forgiveness.

None of us ought to be surprised by the world's reveling in impunity, from the heights of power to the depths of the underworld, seeking to gather into its shadow all of us who dwell in the midst of such things. But at some point, the Church is called to come out of its union with the easiness of an impunity enjoyed at the expense of the unseen suffering of others, and to acknowledge and embrace the responsibility Christ has given us, not merely for ourselves, but also for the least, and the greatest, of these. In discerning and renouncing our participation in the ugliness of impunity, the Church will discover new depths of her beauty, embraced in the arms of solidarity.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Prosperity: A Redeeming Reconsideration

"Prosperity can be a real problem," writes renowned scholar of global Christianity Phillip Jenkins to open his column, "Notes from the Global Church," in the most recent issue of the Christian Century. He's writing this in reference to post-liberal and progressive seminarians' favorite punching bags, purveyors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel like the much-maligned Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, especially as their megachurch model of "health, wealth and prosperity as the essential promises of the Christian faith" is being exported and embraced by emerging church movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America who "draw as much on American ideas of positive thinking and perky self-help manuals as on any familiar Christian theology." If you're part of a mainline denomination or have attended one of their schools, you have undoubtedly made yourself feel better about yourself by exercising your strong sense of indignation and outrage at such obvious manipulation both of the Gospel and of the desperate hopes of the marginalized. Jenkins does so much more prophetically:

In its most alarming manifestations—and the superstar ministries are by no means the worst offenders—prosperity teachings so exalt success as to pour scorn on the poor as stubborn infidels who have evidently refused to seek God's aid. In this version of the gospel, faith leads to tithing, and tithing ignites prosperity. A gratified Almighty will respond by opening the windows of heaven, pouring out blessings so rich that believers will not have room to store them all. You have to pay to play—and to win. And if the church's pastor follows a dazzlingly sumptuous lifestyle, that is just his way of exhibiting God's munificence to the world. These days, Elmer Gantry is a very familiar spiritual type around the world.

Of course, were we to substitute "enlightened education in Barthian church-world dualism and safe criticism of so-called primitive ideologies from the safety of a first-class educational seat of privilege and economic supremacy on the way towards high-paying job at a thriving suburban ministry or perpetual abeyance in pursuit of further theological education and sense of superiority over 'those lay people we just need to whip into shape,'" then the grammar of such prosperity thinking may not seem so objectifiably distant. Knowledge is power, as is prejudice, and both represent the potential poverty of our own hoards of prosperity.

Thankfully, Jenkins is not content to snipe at the hopes of popular piety from his ivory tower, but instead, offers a charitable reconsideration of the more fruitful manifestations of prosperity thinking, particularly as they have taken root and been cultivated in more prophetic directions by churches abroad. Pointing to the diversity of voices in the global church, particularly as prosperity thinking is filtered through the presence of the theology of indigenous manifestations of mainline churches, Jenkins notes that the practical applications of this alarming trend tell a different story:

Matthew Ash­imolowo, for instance, heads a potent transnational ministry headquartered in London, with a strong health-and-wealth com­ponent. His church teaches that poverty and unemployment are manifestations of sin, against which Christians must struggle. In practice, this means that the faithful should help other members of the congregation by giving them jobs and that the church sternly teaches habits of thrift and sobriety.

Most prosperity churches not only condemn poverty but teach invaluable ways of avoiding it, like actually saving up in order to buy material goods. Debt is a demon to be defeated. Few communities in the world could fail to benefit from such a lesson, but it is vital for people moving suddenly from a rural setting into an overwhelming metropolis, with all the consumerist blandishments of­fered to the poor. In such a setting, being a member of a church offers life-saving access to social networks of mutual aid and support, which teach essential survival skills. Meanwhile, peer pressure helps believers avoid the snares of substance abuse.

According to Jenkins, not only material prospects, but also our faith in God's promises, are at stake:

Whatever their undoubted problems, prosperity churches do not represent a negation of Christian faith. Con­troversies over their teachings also raise one perennial question for Christians of all persuasions: how seriously do we believe that prayer can actually affect conditions in the material world?

Whatever comfortable objections we might raise against undeniably questionable teachings, perhaps those of us steeped in spiritual poverty could stand to indulge in the prosperity of God's promises that have been offered back to us in the witness of our brothers and sisters who comprise not only the majority of the world's believers, but also its most faithful. Perhaps if prayer, and not riches or pithy irony, filled the treasure stores of our faith, then there would be no need for other gospels, prosperity or otherwise. The poverty of our own prosperity might be alleviated, if we allow those to become our teachers whose alms we cannot afford to refuse.

Common Prayer - Even If You're NOT an Ordinary Radical

I wanted to give a quick shout out in recommendation of my former neighbor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's latest effort (in collaboration with Shane Claiborne and Enuma Okoro), Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I ordered a copy as a St. Nicholas Day present for our family, as we are always looking for simple yet serious resources for daily devotions, and we've found this prayer book to exceed both criteria. Drawing on a wide variety of Christian traditions, from the monastic hours to African American spirituals and holding up exemplary yet unheralded saints of the church whose lives witness to God's pursuit of justice and holiness throughout the centuries, these New Monastic co-conspirators have managed to weave such diverse threads into an incredibly accessible daily prayer liturgy of morning, mid-day, and evening prayer (practices emerging out of the rhythm of their radical communal life). If you are new to more structured prayer, or are looking for a simple version of traditional prayer forms that fill up the lacunae of Western Anglo liturgies, Common Prayer may be just the thing to unveil new dimensions in your daily devotional life and spiritual growth. Certainly, to pray with great witnesses like Jonathan and Shane, and with the cloud of witnesses of all ages, is not only pragmatic - its also a delight, even if you yourself, like me, are still negotiating what it means to live radically the universal call to discipleship.

This wonderful gift to the church is also a free gift: you can access the daily prayers at Common Prayer's online web-resource! Much like the equally helpful Jesuit resource, Sacred Space, this makes incorporating prayer into your day more convenient (add it to your morning blog-roll or surfing-schedule, or, please, go there before reading this blog! I've placed a link at the top of my "Places of Provision" to make it easy for all of us!). However, in the spirit of supporting the hard work of the compilers, I would also heartily recommend purchasing your own copy, as the embodied edition also contains a helpful introduction that unfolds the understanding of time and worship underlying daily prayer and the Christian year, and also offers frequent sidebars unpacking the significance of various prayer practices, often linking the contemplative with its grounding in action and witness. It also includes a songbook and occasional prayers (though these are also graciously available on the web).

Join with this blogger's family, communities of the New Monasticism, and the cloud of witnesses in all ages, in gathering in whatever form your tradition or liturgy takes, to ground our lives in the kind of attention of God which is itself a delight, and so to grow the ministries and actions of our lives from the Spirit's rich soil of contemplation of the Beauty of the Lord, in all its surprising diversity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I'm on a Block (Awesome...(God)...)

As part of Abby's first (sentient) Advent, we asked her family and friends to make her a little card or symbol relating to the meaning of the season to be opened each day leading up to Christmas. The items are stuffed inside little numbered bags that Leah hand-made, and are hung from nails on a branch (my contribution to the endeavor). Tonight's bag contained a very thoughtful note from Abby's godmother (my sister), along with the suggestion to dance to the youtube video of Hillsong Kids' "I Am Not Forgotten," which was actually pretty dope. Well, we decided to keep parousing the various samplings of childrens' worship music on the market, and came across this. The visuals speak for themselves:

Cool track, but its missing something...mmm - T-Pain!

Somehow, I'm thinking this is not what Rich Mullins had envisioned when he wrote the song - unless he had accidentally mistaken peyote for a conventional supplement to his evening cooking...still, Abby seemed to deeply cherish this, so she thought I should share it. Enjoy what might have been had Rastafarianism, and not Nicene Christianity, prevailed as Christian orthodoxy.

(In the Spirit of offering alternatives, I propose putting the dude from the video on the ark with T-Pain and Noah (played by Andy Sandberg) and calling it "I'm on a Boat (Awesome God Remix)"...).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Take These Gifts...Make Them Holy..." - A Meditation on Thoeotic Ministry

As I labour in the vineyards of academia, I thought it would be nice to share the fruits of my toils, here in the form of a final reflection/meditation paper I composed for David Yeago as part of our seminar on "Theologies of Salvation." We were asked to speak to the pastoral implications of the various accounts of soteriology we encountered; the following draws primarily on The Life in Christ by 14th-century Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas, St. Bernard's treatise "On Loving God," and the Sacred Meditations of 17th-century Lutheran great Johann Gerhard. This is definitely more of an article than a post, but I pray it offers as much delight in the reading as it did in the writing.


An old Vincentian priest who used to preside at our weekly Thursday evening Eucharists at the Denver Catholic Worker was fond of attributing to Karl Rahner the belief that “each human being is the unique and unrepeatable expression of the creative love of God.” When he presided at table, during the Great Thanksgiving, he would often pause over the words “take these gifts; make them holy; may they become for us the body and blood of Our Savior Jesus Christ,” taking care to enunciate the words “these gifts…make them holy…may they become for us…” and as he did so, his eyes and hands would drift from contemplation of the uplifted host to gaze upon the small rag-tag assembly of old nuns, young upstarts, mentally ill residents, drug addicts playing clean for a meal, and all the other jagged edge of the mosaic of the Body of Christ. His intent was clear: what we were about to eat was sacred, but not more nor less sacred than what we would become in the partaking of it.

Father Tom was a liberal Catholic in every sense of the word. Yet, I think in this subtle but profound gesture from Christ’s sacramental to His ecclesial body, he ingrained in me spiritually and in my desire what our present seminar has given me words to express in my intellect and tongue. My transgression of Roman Catholic Eucharistic policy not withstanding, Father Tom moved from second order claims like Rahners or Augustine’s famous “become what you are,” and in worship drew us into a participation of the highest theological order, enfleshing Nicolas Cabasilas’ claim that “there is nothing so sacred as a human being to whom God has imparted His nature,” for, as the Thessalonican pondered, “what then could be more sacred then this body to which Chirst adheres more closely than by any physical union? Accordingly, we shall hold its high estate in veneration and preserve it when, conscious of so wondrous a splendour, we at all times hold it before the eyes of the soul.” What Father Tom’s gentle dramatics made transparent was nothing less than “the dignity of our nature, and also a clear perception of the loving-kindness of God.” Such a ministry, I should like to suggest, lies at the heart of a pastor’s vocation to proclaim the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

Lutheran pastors in general, and this future one in particular, have long fallen prey to the tendency towards an over-emphasis on humanity’s helplessness and perpetual struggle with their sinful condition. They do so, I believe, in order to safe-guard that most important of Lutheran emphases, the beauty, power, and passion of grace to love the unloveable, redeem the unredeemable, and resurrect the dead. Too often, we allow Bonhoeffer’s stern critique of cheap grace to move us to lay an emphasis on humanity’s need for the costly grace of the cross, even if such moves serve only to back us into the Forde-ian crater of a life-long passivity masquerading as dependence in the face of sanctification. While scathing meditations on one’s wormhood, so much the staple of the spiritual ruminations of a Johann Gerhard, no longer leap from the pulpit to scare the hell into us, we do have the strange phenomenon of 20th-century Lutheranism’s obsession with the simul, in which we cannot quite stand to let go of our corruption, lest, we fear, we lose the grace we need to cover over those practices that keep us feeling alive and relevant.

What is lost, of course, is that just as true sin is often watered down in the lukewarm tea of pseudo-paradox, so too, a true understanding of the dignity of a Christian is ultimately surrendered. By refusing to bend too low, we also reveal our fear of ascending too high; we fear true worth, lest with it, we incur worthy responsibilities. We speak much of God’s unconditional love for us; thereby, we forfeit the opportunity to participate in the exceedingly delightful pleasure of getting to love God in return. And, as Gerhard reminds us, “no one can have hope of loving God perfectly in the age to come, who does not begin to love God in this present age…Love for God is the chariot of Elijah ascending into heaven. Love for God is the delight of the mind, the paradise of the soul; it shuts out the world, conquers the devil, closes up hell, and opens heaven. Love for God is the seal with which God seals the chosen and the faithful.” As the current state of affairs in the ELCA self-evidently attests, not only has the church failed to shut out the world – she has also, in so doing, neglected to open up the heavens.

Just as Father Tom tantalizingly pulled back the corner of the veil of the Bridegroom’s chamber, so too must we pastors see our entire ministry as one of unfolding for our congregation, and before the watching world, the naked beauty of the human being’s true beauty in the eyes of God. For, as Cabasilas notes, “the thirst of human souls needs, as it were an infinite water,” pointing to the fact that human beings, made in God’s image, contain more desires and mysteries than merely their capacity for atrocity. We are finite creatures who have been ordained to infinite ends, and our the groanings and longings of our bodies and our hearts strain towards the One who has made us for Himself. Yet, such infinite means exceed our finite human capacities. St. Bernard of Clairvaux makes clear that such desires cannot achieve their end, that is, a mind “drunk with divine love,” in that time when God “will cause everything to conform to its Maker and be in harmony with Him,” for, in addition to our sin and the persistent presence of the needs of others, “it is impossible to draw together all that is in you and turn towards the face of God” unless the Lord Himself makes such turning possible. Ministers hear every day the thirsty yearnings of their people, longing to slake the parched throats of their souls with the liquid of the eternal Meribah. But we are poor stewards of this mystery, for we are not given merely to reflect thirst back to the thirsty, but also to offer them the water to drink in which they have already bathed. Too often, we believe ourselves to be beggars, and this is most certainly true. But we are also beggars into whose hands have been pressed alms of infinite value, and the Giver would not have us squander such charity on more rags.

Rather, we pastors can take a cue from Gerhard when he urges us: “let Christ be the target at which your life aims; follow him on the journey, so that you may arrive with him in the heavenly homeland. In all things, let your greatest concern be deep humility and burning love. Let love lift your heart to God so that you may cling to him; let humility hold down your heart lest you grow proud.” We are beggars, but the Bridegroom’s servants have been sent out to invite such as us to the feast, and has given us the means with which to purchase our wedding garment! Or, in plain terms, Christians are not called to remain in the gutter of their sins, for in the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in the sending of His Spirit, God has made a new creation, and won for God’s children a share in Christ’s very nature! It is the privilege and mandate of pastors to act as stewards of the feast in extending as full and as warm an invitation to those who have been invited, not merely restating sinfulness, but also enticing, enthralling, and enchanting those whose imaginations have been so weighed down with the truth of what Christ has done – united Himself with them, and thus, conferred on them a life that grows from stasis to pilgrimage, desires that blossom from selfishness into service, and a beauty that is a sharing in the Beauty of Christ Himself!

Because of Christ’s grace, we can proclaim with Cabasilas that “it is clear that joy in every way corresponds to the abundance of love,” that it is “apparent, then, that human souls have a great and wondrous capacity for love and joy, and that it is perfectly employed only when He is present who is truly loveable as well as beloved.” As both he and Father Tom make clear, it is not only when pastors proclaim the fullness of the theotic dimension of the Gospel, but also enact it by enabling participation in its sacramental-renewing manifestation that this capacity of the human is made a possibility. As Cabasilas notes, “the table, however, is set forth for those who already have been united…it enables us to use the power and the weapons which have been given us and to pursue goodness, no longer as though we were being carried or dragged along, but spontaneously bestirring ourselves and moving as already skilled runners.” Christ does not gift us merely so we can enjoy the pleasures of loving and being loved in God, but also so that such love by use might grow, and thus overflow into invitations to others to come and join the feast. By orienting their preaching, pastoring and presiding towards this positive dimension of the Gospel, ministers and leaders will not only inspire the imaginations and ignite the desires of their people; they also equip and empower them with the means to live more abundant Christian lives, to experience salvation as ever present, and thus to heighten their eschatological anticipation, creating a feedback mechanism of reciprocal grace whereby desire and service mutually amplify one another until, like a hurricane, the entire world is gathered into the rushing winds of the Spirit, which demolishes the flesh, and clears the space upon which God builds the kingdom, in individual hearts, in the community of the church, and upon the face of the creation.

Meditation upon the wonders of the Gospel in its fullness could and ought to consume never-ending pages of delight and exclamation; sadly, these short pages afford me means to have pondered this small slice of the banquet. But in nuce, what I am suggesting is that in reclaiming the positive orientation of the Gospel towards the dignifying deification of human beings who in being joined to Christ are able to transcend narcissistic obsession with God’s love for them in order to join with God in the pleasure of becoming loving agents, pastors are given not only food to sustain their own grace-fired imaginations and scriptural meditations, but also a deeper sense of their call and a greater vocabulary with which to proclaim the Gospel, making their chief aim not merely the care and maintenance of broken sinners, but more radically, the nurturing, encouraging, and empowering of redeemed saints and lovers of God. Contemplation will beget action, and such action will flower forth in new contemplations in the hearts and minds of those who hear the beauty they have been promised incarnated on the tongues and in the hands of the one preaching and presiding at their table. Then worship will begin not only to anticipate, but also to participate, in the feast that is to come.

Lest this all seem to prematurely lift off into the ether of speculation, I recall in closing the point from which we set off in this reflection. Let us go back to that cramped room in a Catholic Worker house, to a withered old Rahnerian priest, reminding the scraps of the world that they are in fact the feast of the Bridegroom, while pleading in his priestly role that God would “take these gifts...make them holy…may they become for us the Body and Blood…” Such gestures, such promises of God, do not merely lead to monastic navel-gazing; they are the words spoken over chaos which transforms it into new creation. To those true beggars whose dignity has never been known, these are truly words that bring new life. The liturgy of the Worker house forms a people who, in Dorothy Day’s words, strive to create “a society in which it is easier to do good.” Believing the Gospel of God’s gift of Godself to the unlovable, believing in the infinite ends to which all strive, the Workers offer hospitality and aide, material gifts meant to help foster the growth of the seed of beauty they know God has planted in the hearts of all God’s children from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1.4-5). Pastors who practice what they preach seek to live out in and for the body that which they proclaim of and in the Spirit. Even if one is not a Catholic Worker, one can do the same for one’s people, blazing paths of discipleship such that the desires of the heart can become the movements of the body, and the Body can become the movement of the Spirit through the world.

Let us as pastors continue to act as loyal stewards of the mysteries, inviting beggars to be clothed in the wedding garments of the Lamb, supplying them with the wealth of the Bridegroom, and being willing to walk with them as together, we return to the hall of feasting, where eternal desires are given eternal food, in anticipation of the fulfillment of all desire in the world to come. Lord, take us...make us holy...may we become the Body and Blood of Christ. Amen.

(Sources: Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works. Trans. G.R.Evans. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.; Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ. trans. Carmino deCastanzaro. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974.; Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations. Trans. David Yeago (unpublished), 2000.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Collecting Manna: Soren Kierkegaard

"Christ is the way. These are his own words; so it certainly must be true. And this way is narrow. These are his own words; so it certainly must be the truth. Indeed, even if he had not said it, it still would be the truth. Here you have an example of what it is, in the highest sense, "to preach." Even if Christ had never said, "strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life," look at him and you see immediately: the way is narrow. But the fact that his life every single day, every hour, every moment expresses "the way is narrow" is indeed a totally different continual and penetrating proclamation that the way is narrow than if his life had not expressed it and he had proclaimed a few times: the way is narrow. Furthermore, you see here that proclaiming of Christianity for a period of a half hour, by a man whose life every day, every hour of the day, every moment, expresses the opposite, is at greatest possible distance from the true proclamation of Christianity. Such a proclamation transforms Christianity into its very opposite...

There is only one way, the one that the proclaimer is walking, proclaiming "the way" is narrow. There are not two ways, one smooth and easy, along which the proclaimer walks proclaiming that "the way" is narrow - that is, the true way, the one he is not walking - thus his proclamation invites people to follow Christ on the narrow way, while his life, and it of course carries a much greater authority, invites them to follow the proclaimer along the smooth and easy path. Is this Christianity? No, from the Christian point of view, life and proclamation must express the same thing, this same teaching: "the way" is narrow.

And this way, which is Christ, this narrow way - it is narrow in its beginning. He is born in poverty and wretchedness. One is almost tempted to believe that it is not a human being who is born here - he is born in a stable, wrapped in rags, laid in a manger - yet, strangely enough, already as an infant he is persecuted by the rulers in power so that the poor parents must flee with him. That in truth is a singularly narrow be born in a stable and wrapped in rags - that is destitution and poverty that can be straits dire enough...but just as he does not seem to be destined for the heights by his birth, so it also remains just about as it was at the beginning: he lives in poverty and lowliness and has no place to lay his head...(from For Self-Examination, trans. Howard V. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 56-7).

I Love My Library

Phase One of paper writing is complete. I've effectively defended Rudolf Bultmann against his Barthian detractors, interpreted the liturgy's Gloria as the foundations of an ecclesiological ontology of peace, reviewed Tuomo Mannermaa's Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther's Religious World, and shown how Augustine can claim that the mountains in Psalm 36 are an allegory of the apostolic witness of Church tradition and those shaped by it without being merely arbitrary or insane - as well as outlining my STM proposal and preaching a sermon last Sunday in which I contrasted the Church as spoken of in Psalm 122 as a pilgrim peace march of participation and praise whose purpose is that none be left behind, with the world's tendency towards a trail-of-tears death marching conquest, which destroys, consumes and ravages everything in its concupiscent path - think MLK/Gandhi vs General Sherman, who I'm very much starting to resemble facial-hair-wise given the obligatory abstinence from shaving inherent to all paper-writing periods - the Southerners loved it! Which is all to say: I really have been busy. Sorry for the lack of postings, and thanks to those of you who extend your Advent patience and prayers in my direction. Five papers down, five to go...

In the meantime, I wanted to continue a During the World tradition of praising LTSS' fantastic Lineberger Memorial Library, whose fantastic collection has provided much fuel for this blog's inspiration. This past weekend, Lineberger held its semi-annual book sale, selling off overflows from their collection and from pastoral libraries at the profound pricing of $.50 for paperbacks and $1 for hardbacks. For a mere $20, I snagged a mini-condition hardcover set of Wolfhart Pannenberg's three-volume Systematic Theology, half a dozen hardcover editions of Kierkegaard's works, several paperback copies of Barth's Dogmatics in Outline (to be distributed to unwitting Lutherans for their conversion, er, edification) Yoder's Barth and the Problem of War and The Politics of Jesus, two volumes of Eberhard Jungel's Theological Questions, five different essential works of Karl Rahner, a handful of selections from the Classics of Western Spirituality series, the Early Church Fathers and Christology of the Late Fathers volumes of the Westminster Christian Classics series on Pietism, Gregory of Nyssa and Luther, Bultmann's Hermeneia commentary on the Johannine Epistles and Kasemann's Jesus Means Freedom, a complete set of John Chrysostom's homilies on the Gospel of John, several Hauerwas classics including A Community of Character and The Peaceable Kingdom (again, for evangelistic purposes), several works on 20th-century Lutheranism for my seminar with Michael Root in the Spring (even one by Forde!), Obermann's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, and yes, I even picked up a few books on Methodism by Duke's Randy Maddox, Richard Heitzenreiter, and Thomas Langford...ah, Responsible Grace! All this on the SECOND day of the sale (I missed the first due to aforementioned paper-writing responsibilities). All this really just reveals me as a complete and total nerd, but there's is something of a foretaste of the feast to come in scoring such a range of works from such a broad spectrum across the history of the Church and still having a couple bucks left over to pay for our CSA crops. Not that I'll have time to read them any time soon, of course, but ah, the bliss...thanks Lineberger Memorial Library, for continuing to make Columbia, SC a better place. If there are in fact indulgences for Lutherans that the Pope is holding in reserve as a surprise on the Day of Judgment, well, surely you shall be first among many to receive them. Thank God you were up the hill so Sherman couldn't level you with all the rest of the city's churches that he kept mistaking for being the site of the initiation of secession. Thank God.

I bid you good evening, completely cognoscente of the obvious fact that this was an almost completely self-obsessed, self-promoting post that will hold absolutely no interest to anyone not equally obsessed with either theology or my attempts to earn a second Masters of its sacred iteration. Even so, thanks for reading, and for keeping me in prayer during this crazy time. Advent Blessings, and grace and peace.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"I also like St. Ath-a-nas-i-us..."

The papers are starting to drop like dominos, but respite time is being strictly rationed for supportive wife and sick-with-a-cough daughter, so alas, poor blog, you continue to remain un-prioritized and un-updated. Here's a treat for your patience, which Herr McNutt has so graciously brought to my attention (that's a real person, btw, not another imaginary cartoon squirrel-like creature I've concocted as part of a weird sleep-deprived hallucination that finds me conversing with empty blog space...). A fairly accurate depiction of the kinds of things one can hear in the hallowed halls of Duke Div - which, to quote the aforementioned pseudo-cartoon squirrel, is "supposed to be funny. but it depresses me." Even so, its an excuse to talk to my precious...ok, seriously, just pray for me as the paper trail of tears continues - I evidently need it, blog - and enjoy: