Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed (Balthasar)

Credo (Balthasar).jpg

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’s Creed

San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990

Several years ago the church I worked at went through sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed – the earliest creed summarizing the central tenets of the Christian faith. During this series my job was to write a short reflection on each line. I read two books to help me along during this process. The first was Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline and the other was Balthasar’s Credo. I learned then that I did not like Barth as much as I thought, and I liked Balthasar way more than I thought. In fact this became the best book I had read in a long time. Now I’m preaching through the Apostles’ Creed with my church which gave me an opportunity to revisit this wonderful book.

The Gist

Hans Urs von Balthasar, besides being a strong competitor for most fantastic name of a theologian, was a Catholic theologian and priest. He was a prolific writer, and just looking at the size of some of his theological tomes can be a roadblock to ever reading what he has to say. That is part of what makes this little book remarkable. Balthasar wrote the material for this book late in life. It was not intended as a book, rather the material began as monthly reflections on each line of the Apostles’ Creed for pastoral newspapers of local German dioceses.

There is an important sense in which this small book—at only 105 pages with larger than average print—is a kind of summary of what Balthasar has written at length and in great detail elsewhere. In my personal opinion this book is a near-perfect representation of good theology. It blends technical precision with strong rhetorical expression while bringing these two together in an uncommon simplicity of expression. Anyone can read this book. But above all this book moves seamlessly between theological exposition and spiritual and even mystical communication. Balthasar holds all these vital pieces together, allowing the Apostles’ Creed to frame what Christianity and the Christian life means for him.

What Stuck

Upon reflection what really stands out in this book goes along with what I just said about the spiritual and mystical center of this book. It is one thing to talk intelligently about self-emptying nature of a God who is Trinity in Unity. It is another to move from this theological dogma into the existential realities that arise as a consequence of this reality. Anyone who reads this book will not only understand God’s nature as love, but will find out how this love functions as the basis of a spiritual life embedded in our physical and social world. There is no ‘Theological’ section followed by ‘Practical Application’ section. It is all one as good theology always is.

Representative Quotes

Everything manifold stems from something simple. The many parts of the human body, from the fertilized ovum. The twelve clauses of the Apostles’ Creed, it eh first instance, from the three component questions: Do you believe in God the Father, the Son, the Holy spirit? But these three phrases, too, are an expression—and Jesus Christ provides the proof of this—of the fact that the one God is, in his essence, love and surrender…It is therefore essential, in the first instance, to see the unimaginable power of the Father in the force of his self-surrender, that is, of his love, and not, for example, in his being able to do this or that as he chooses. (29-31)

[In reference to Matthew 25] Where will we stand, left or right? From what we know of ourselves, we can assume: most probably, on both sides. Much in us will appear to us ourselves, and especially to the Judge, as worthy of damnation; it belongs in the fire. That not everything in us was reprehensible, that we have not, our whole life long, from childhood on, said only no to love, is something that we might hope for from the grace of the Judge. Should it be fully in vain that he “died for us”?

Should we designate “the living” as those who will pass the test of judgment, and “the dead” as those in whom nothing worthy of life everlasting is to be found? Such an interpretation is far from the spirit of the biblical texts. Even if it is said to one Christian communion: “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (Rev. 3:1-2), what is thereby expressed is only an extreme warning: The “dead” communion can, if it wants to, “awake.” (71-72)


After I read this book I would rave about it to my friends. Then they would read it and give it back to me with a weird kind of look. This was not necessarily their cup of tea. I get that. Not everyone will love this book like I did. But I think it is a wonderful reflection on the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed; I think it is a great example of what good theology is; and I think it is a wonderful tool to guide devotional time (for at least 16 weeks).

The Freedom of Simplicity (Foster)

Freedom of simplicity

Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity

San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, [1981] 2010

Christians in my world are not known for their poverty. Which is strange because Jesus said crazy things like “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), and a host of other things about renouncing possessions, giving to the poor, etc. and his life was consistent with these teachings. But we live in a different day and age, myself and most everyone I know were born into relative affluence. What do we do about this? Do we find ourselves in the position of the rich young ruler who is told by Jesus to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor?” Perhaps.

The complexity of the feelings we face when we consider a challenge like the one Jesus issued (and continues to give to us), along with the equally as complex set of intellectual and social problems raised by this challenge point to the problem and necessity of simplicity. Richard Foster’s The Freedom of Simplicity remains a timely resource for becoming like Jesus in a modern, affluent society; becoming simple.

The Gist

Richard Foster is an author that every Christian should read as much of as they can. His most famous book, The Celebration of Discipline, is a classic that will be around a very long time. But that is not all he wrote, and there is a lot to gain through this more focused study of simplicity.

The book is divided in two parts. The first part lays the intellectual groundwork and is what I consider to be the most important part. In these chapters Foster presents an overview of a Biblical perspective on money, goods, material possessions, and social concerns—matters that pertain to simplicity—along with a brief chapter that tracks through the way several “saints” lived and wrote about simplicity. These chapters orient the reader to a proper perspective on simplicity.

The second part aims at describing the practice of simplicity in terms of inner, outer, and corporate simplicity. In these chapters the reader gets an idea of how Foster considers simplicity to look like in reality both through reflection on his own and others’ practice of simplicity and speculative suggestions for general application.

What Stuck

The title of the introductory chapter—‘The Complexity of Simplicity’—reflects the genius of the book. Foster does not say that being poor will solve all your problems. He does not say that giving up your stuff will resolve all your anxieties. He does not offer one-size-fits-all solutions. What he does say is that simplicity itself is a grace, an inner disposition, and one that comes by the grace of God. By making an effort at resisting the hold that our possessions have on us we open ourselves up to this grace, and the spirit of simplicity allows us to live joyfully in a simple life that is deeply spiritual and socially equitable.

Representative Quote

Christian simplicity frees us from this modern mania. It brings sanity to our compulsive extravagance, and peace to our frantic spirit. . . . It allows us to see material things for what they are—goods to enhance life, not to oppress life. People once again become more important than possessions. Simplicity enables us to live lives of integrity in the face of the terrible realities of our global village. . . . Christian simplicity lives in harmony with the ordered complexity of life. It repudiates easy, dogmatic answers to tough intricate problems. (3, 5)


An important aspect of this book is Foster’s sustained attention to the social necessities of simplicity. Simplicity is not just a matter of freeing oneself from the prison of materialism, but also of understanding the social ills caused by materialism. Becoming clear and conscientious about our relation to our possessions addresses the root of many of our personal and social problems. Though simplicity addresses these problems not as an easy solution, but as a way of unraveling the webs of entanglement that have create and sustain these problems. At the end of the day, simplicity, like every other Christian discipline, is a matter of long-term, discerning, sustained practice in which Christ is made manifest in our lives in powerful and lasting ways.




The Pastor Theologian (Hiestand and Wilson)

Pastor as Theologian

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision.

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.

I came across one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works today and the marketing tagline on the back referred to him as “the legendary German pastor.” Bonhoeffer is undoubtedly among the best theologians of the 20th century, not only for his remarkable life, but also for the quality of his writing. And yet Bonhoeffer was as much a minister as an academic, if not more.

In today’s climate the idea of a minister producing works of theological genius is laughable. At best a minister’s job is to be a “broker” or middle-man between good theology and the church. Perhaps this is because many ministers have traded theological integrity for a spot on the best sellers list. Or perhaps it is because the power-hungry convention that is the academy scorns anything with less than 500 footnotes as pedestrian.

It has not always been this way. In fact, the vast majority of Christian “classics” are written by intelligent, highly-educated men and women at work outside the university, and usually in a clerical vocation. Thus Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson’s recent book The Pastor Theologian is subtitled: “resurrecting an ancient vision.”

The Gist

Hiestand and Wilson want to revive this ancient vision of the pastor theologian by advocating what they call “ecclesial theology.” Ecclesial theology is not a theological method akin to dialectical theology or feminist theology, but rather theology done from a specific place: the pastorate. While recognizing that not all ministers will be great theologians, and that not all academics need (or should) be full-time ministers, the authors resist the reduction of the minister to a broker of good theology and call pastors to contribute to the theological discourse at large.

The heart of the book involves two complimentary claims: the church is theologically anemic, and the academy is ecclesially anemic. On the one hand, it is not hard to notice that American Christianity in general suffers from an anti-intellectual hangover. Not only are churches more biblically and theologically illiterate than ever, even the education that trained ministers have is called into question by a congregation who perceives the university as a place where sound doctrine is twisted and perverted by secular philosophies. Yet this resistance to doctrinal maturation has not helped the church improve ethically or spiritually.

On the other hand, academic theology tends, understandably, to be geared toward its own innate concerns, and in neglect of ecclesial and otherwise everyday matters. Hiestand and Wilson are careful to say that this is not a fault of academic theology per se. At the same time it seems an implicit critique against academic theologian’s resistance to addressing anything that might be perceived as popular or mundane.

The rest of the book is devoted to working out in skeletal fashion the idea of an ecclesial theologian, including a helpful chapter (chapter 9) with practical wisdom on the idea of being an ecclesial theologian in the local church. Two chapters at the front end also provide a helpful historical analysis of clerical vs. non-clerical theology.

What Stuck

The phrase “division of labor” pops up regularly. The point being that in the current scheme of things it seems like the academics do the theology and the ministers make that theology accessible to the people. This latter task is undoubtedly vital in today’s church, and perhaps a neglected duty itself. But Hiestand and Wilson reject that absolute division of labor. Not every minister must, but the ones that can should read and research and write good theology.

The other thing that stuck with me was the enlivening effect this paradigm of “ecclesial theology” might have on the church. Without a doubt, one of the central problems with the church is its theological illiteracy. Those of us who are academically educated (myself included) tend to be frustrated with the Bible-thumping layperson. We wonder why so many people think Donald Trump is an example of Christian values, but we have no room to complain because we refuse to actually challenge the church to think in different terms—finding it easier to think the things we want to think and write the things we want to write in an academy that fosters that kind of thing rather than a church in which such a habit would be resisted.

The academy is actually a wonderful place. It is necessary, important, and not as Ivory-tower-esque as one might suppose. Most professors I know are at the very least active in their congregations, if not elders or deacons or teachers or part-time preachers. There needs to be some people who work as professors in universities. But there needs to be a lot more intelligent, educated, trained ministers who do theology as ministers and pastors in the local church. The deterioration of the church is at least partially at the feet of would-be theologians (like me) who don’t want to get down and dirty with good-hearted people who don’t think like us.

Memorable Quotes

By and large, pastors aren’t viewed as theologians, but as practitioners. As such, pastors who desire to do robust theological work for the good of the church find they’re often misunderstood by both the academy and their congregations. And the result? Frustration and, not infrequently, isolation. (10)

We no longer view the pastorate as an intellectual calling. . . . Intellectually speaking, we expect pastors to function, at best, as intellectual middle management, passive conveyers of insights from theologians to laity. A little quote from Augustine here, a brief allusion to Bonhoeffer there. That’s all. (11)

To be sure, academic theology has many clear strengths; our comments are not intended to be dismissive either of it or of the academy. But we insist that since the dawning of the Enlightenment and the vacating of theologians from pastorates, theology has become increasingly professionalized and thus “academic” in ways not always relevant to the church. (14)

The theological anemia of the church, and its corresponding ethical anemia rests squarely on the shoulders of a theologically anemic pastoral community. Not every pastor need be a theologian, of course; many are gifted in other vital ways. But collectively, the pastoral community is responsible for deftly sheepherding the people of God to embrace the truths of the gospel. (58)

Having thus been reduced to second-tier status, the pastors no longer view theological education as a vital aspect of their training. Sustained theological engagement after seminary—even middle-management-level engagement—is not always easy to find within the pastoral community. None of this is surprising, given the fact that we have told pastors to content themselves with occupying the passive role with respect to theological scholarship.

But despite the bifurcation between pastoral ministry and theology, the pastoral vocation remains vested with the theological leadership of the church. The pastoral community may conceive of itself as middle management, but this does not change the fact that pastors are the theological chief executive officers of the church. What God has joined together is not so easily separated. (63)

Many graduate and postgraduate students feel pulled mutually toward a career as a theologian and a career in the church. Finding the road forked, they are constrained to choose between the two. Generally, such individuals move into the academy, thinking that it is easier to be a pastorally active theologian than it is to be a theologically active pastor.

And who can blame such logic? The church has ceased to provide a vocational context for clergy to function as productive theologians. As such, we have, for the past one hundred and fifty years, siphoned the best and the brightest minds away from the pastorate into the academy. (77)

An ecclesial theologian is a theologian who bears shepherding responsibility for a congregation and who is thus situated it he native social location that theology is chiefly called o serve; and the ecclesial theologian is a pastor who writes theological scholarship in conversation with other theologians, with an eye to the needs of ecclesial community. (85)


It seems like in today’s world there is a “division of labor” between the academic and the minister in terms of the work of theology. The academic does the theology and the minister is the stalwart copyist, doing their diligent translation work at their desk to make the theology available for the masses.

This idea is reinforced by the myth that academics possess the ideal environment for good theological work. But the professors I know and admire hardly have much more time than ministers to think and write, though perhaps the culture of the university cultivates the life of the mind to a higher degree.

Yet why should the Church not be the best and most ideal environment for good theology?  Yes, ministry is a busy life. Between pastoral visits, emergencies, funerals, weddings, prep for sermons and classes,  handling some administrative duties, and the inevitable arrival of unexpected visitors it seems like one has little time left to sit down at the desk and read, study, research, and write. And yet all of these tasks are the fertile grounds on which good theology is done. They are the lifeblood of the Church in which the Spirit moves invisibly and sometimes visibly. The question is not whether good theology can come from the Church. It is why hasn’t more come out of the church!


Engagements: Being Ecumenical

Seven Storey Mountain

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Converts are always the most zealous of any religion, or organization for that matter. Perhaps it’s because they consciously chose their position, whereas someone brought up in the faith needs to do little more than acknowledge their faith—making eye-contact with it, so to speak—before they continue living their lives as they always have done. Or maybe there’s a sincerity and a willingness to call their beliefs into question in the spirit of the convert. They are zealous because they care. Either way, converts are always so zealous; so utterly convinced of the truth of their conversion and the falsehood of their former ways.

Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is the story of his conversion, written just a few years afterward. Unsurprisingly we hear the voice of the zealous convert for whom the grass on the other side is still green, though perhaps showing subtle signs of wilting. One of the reasons it took me so long to read this book was because I had heard that Merton disavowed it later in life. So why, I thought, would I bother reading a book that the author himself dismissed? As I read the book, and having read some of Merton’s mature thought, it became quickly clear why this book made him anxious: The Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain likes Trappists and is often dismissive of non-Trappist monks; he likes Catholics, but barely manages to say a complimentary word for non-Catholics. Indeed, non-Christians come off as more worthy of praise if only because at least they’re potential Catholics!

Reading Merton’s (first) autobiography as a Protestant (of sorts…) can be a bit jarring. On the one hand, in light of the extreme and often violent anti-Catholicism in the history of American Christianity, I can hardly fault him. I’ve read far worse caricatures of the Catholic tradition from a Protestant perspective. On the other hand, Merton’s caricatures of Protestant churches seem to be a feat of the will rather than the intellect. Early on he reflects upon his experience with the Quakers, and I thought to myself: “Oh good, if he’s going to like anything it’s going to be the Quakers!” But even then the best he could do is classify them as lesser contemplatives; not quite Christian but maybe on the right track. He writes,

I think that one could find much earnest and pure and humble worship of God and much sincere charity among the Quakers. Indeed, you are bound to find a little of this in every religion. But I have never seen any evidence of its rising above the natural order. They are full of natural virtues and some of them are contemplatives in a natural sense of the word. . . . Yet I cannot see that they will ever be anything more than what they claim to be—a “Society of Friends.”

Later in life Merton would repent from this attitude and embrace a radically ecumenical perspective. It is for this reason that he would later disassociate himself from his early autobiography, describing it as “the work of a man I have never even heard of.” There are lots of reasons and developments in Merton and in Catholicism for this change of heart. Other people could do a better job at tracing all that out. Merton’s own struggle with the ecumenical question—from skepticism to embrace—makes me want to engage with my own. And so here goes.

My path to becoming ecumenical

Protestants are aptly named as we love to protest our own. When Merton harangued the various churches he visited as a child, I cheered him on. What a strange, neurotic attitude. Can we call it spiritual masochism? It makes us feel better to immerse ourselves in criticism, especially self-criticism. I don’t think this is peculiar to Protestants, but we certainly do embrace it. It’s almost an inescapable second nature: I’m doing it just now!

One way this self-critical ethos manifests in my experience is with a profound sense that the grass is greener on the other side. Or else in a staunch and fundamentalist attitude that our particular articulation of faith is the absolute truth. Mine manifested in the former, not the latter. I fell in love with “high-church” traditions, thinking at times as a younger person how I might fit in with the Lutherans or Episcopals.

I was drawn the most to the Orthodox Church. I befriended a local priest, attended Vespers on a semi-regular basis, and even visited a few monasteries for various reasons. Some of my struggles with the idea of converting were assuaged by a rediscovery of the roots of my own tradition. More on that in a bit. The rest were settled by a conversation with a different priest than my original friend. This new priest was himself a convert. (I believe he used to be Lutheran, but what does it matter?)

We sat in the reading room of his church and started talking about the differences between Orthodoxy and the rest of Christianity. As we talked it became clear that the overarching theme of all our topics was that Orthodoxy was the real faith, and that all other iterations of Christianity will never find the fullness of Christ; if they were even saved at all (which at least was left as a question and not a denouncement). Typical convert.

I left the conversation a little depressed. I saw such life and vitality in Orthodoxy, but I have heard the song this priest sang before and it is not the song of life, it is the song of insecurity and jealousy and envy; the song of death.

The truth is I had heard this song sung in my own church tradition. We may not have been the first ones to sing it, but we sung it loudest and best (and we didn’t even use instruments in our version)! I ended up deciding that the grass was not greener on the other side. If I was looking for people who thought they had it all figured out and that everyone else was lesser, more foolish, mislead, or even damned, I did not have to convert, there were plenty in my own tribe.

To that priests credit he did say one thing, albeit with a sense of disbelief, that I took to heart. He said, “You should just try to be the best Christian that your church commends. If you’re church of Christ, then just be the best embodiment of your tradition you can be” (with the caveat that this will inevitably lead back to Orthodoxy…). And that leads me back to my earlier remark about a rediscovery of my own tradition.

My church has its roots in 19th century American Christianity, though they are deeper really. It’s been over 200 years since Thomas Campbell penned the Declaration and Address, a founding document of sorts. Things have changed a bit since then. Common themes of my church—the restoration of New Testament Christianity and a rejection of the divisions and “denominations” of the Christian faith—have morphed and developed over time. These ideas that today are seen as naïve, fundamentalist, and self-righteous were not always so. I discovered that there are other, truer ways of getting to the very rich heart of Churches of Christ, ways that were always latent in my church’s teaching, but so often covered up in the mess of ego and misanthropy. And so I discovered myself in my own church.

Unlike Merton I am a failed convert. I was attracted to other traditions, but never found myself there. Rather I converted to my own faith tradition. And it is out of this odd re-conversion that I found the basis for my own ecumenical attitude. To conclude an already lengthy reflection my own ecumenical attitude has its basis in an attitude I believe is at the heart of my ecclesial tradition in particular, and the Christian faith in general:

Stability in grace. 1 John 1:8-9 says,

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Churches of Christ call people back to a bible that is saturated with the insistence that we recognize our own personal and corporate insufficiencies, with the assumption that life is not found through perfection per se, but through an acknowledgement of our faults and deficiencies in view of God’s grace. This applies ecclesially. I am confident my church tradition is limited, and fails in many ways. But I am confident that it also forms people into the image and likeness of God by the grace of Jesus and the work of the Spirit. So long as we maintain an attitude of absolute ecclesial perfection there is no grace, and consequently a divisive and self-righteous attitude emerges. In odd ways the insistence on our possession of absolute truth is the very reason we have become so sectarian!

We have not always thought so. There were certainly traces of this kind of sectarian thinking in our earliest figures, but nothing of the sort surfaced in the last century. In an important sense it was the anti-intellectual attitudes of our earliest leaders that undermined this sectarian attitude. Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were anti-intellectuals not in the sense that they devalued education, but in the sense that they wanted to wrest control of biblical interpretation and literacy out of the hegemonic control of academic professionals. Even the educated did not know everything, they insisted, and the average person has the need to study for themselves and bring something to the table. Ironically it was the anti-intellectual criticisms Stone and Campbell surfaced that laid the foundation for an ecumenical and deeply educated early movement. We find little trace of the sectarian attitude in Stone and Campbell precisely because they acknowledged that they did not have it all figured out, and were pleading with others to admit this too.

I think its appropriate to describe this ecumenical attitude as a stability in grace. I can affirm the ecclesial traditions of others without feeling the need to convert myself or otherwise correct them precisely because I know I don’t have it all figured out, and because I know that God is bigger than all of our church’s doctrine and is guiding each of us in our own toward unity in him.

And so we return to Merton. My suspicion is that his own ecumenism developed along similar lines. The answer to our spiritual hunger is ultimately not found in some other church or religion or any zero-sum, idealistic solution. It is found in an acknowledgement of our moral and intellectual limits, in an ecclesially broken and contrite heart that God will not despise. This does not mean that conversion is out of the question, but to simply say that it is not the answer itself, and will never be the answer until we come to terms with our own personal and ecclesial finitude. It is out of this cruciform humility that the ecumenical outlook emerges, confident that God transcends our facile earthly divisions and is guiding us all back into unity in the Kingdom.

Engagements: What It Takes to Be a Saint

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Seven Storey Mountain

One of the most famous parts of Merton’s autobiography comes as a conversation between Merton and his close friend Robert “Bob” Lax around the question of sainthood and whether and how to become one.

Lax: What do you want to be, anyway?

Merton: I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.

Lax: What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?

[The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all. Lax did not accept it.]

Lax: What you should say…is that you want to be a saint.

[A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird.]

Merton: How do you expect me to become a saint?

Lax: By wanting to.

Merton: I can’t be a saint…I can’t be a saint…

Lax: No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.

The first time I came across this passage was through a speech someone was giving at a conference. I recall it striking me much as Lax’s words struck Merton: with a sense of incredulity and naïve wonder. I had never much thought of being a saint. I would settle with being remembered at all.

The second time I came across it was as I read the autobiography itself. By this time I was familiar enough with the passage for the enchantment to have worn down. This time it struck me surprisingly as part of the ideology of Merton’s generation in general. If you work hard enough and want it hard enough, so the thought goes, it will come to you. I am unsure if sainthood has ever really been a part of the American dream, but apparently the logic applies to canonization just as much as it applies to homes, spouses, cars, and an appropriate amount of children.

Either way, I confess I still did not know what to make of this idea. It carried the simplicity that wisdom so often does. And yet this ideology that may have held true in Merton’s time is the very ideology that has disenchanted so many, myself included, today. Not only did I not know what to do with this revered section of The Seven Storey Mountain, I began to dislike it a bit.

It occurred to me, though, that sainthood has very little in common with the American Dream. And the thing that led me to realize this was, of course, the movie Aladdin 2: the Return of Jafar.

Return of Jafar

The second installment of the Aladdin series focuses on the life Jafar now leads as a genie. Jafar’s genie differs from Robin Williams’ genie insofar as Jafar’s genie is true to the historical idea of a genie (djinni) and Williams’ genie is a product of the Disney corporation. That is, Jafar does what genies have been known to do for a long time: fulfill wishes in ways unintended and unanticipated by the wisher, and often in the most inconvenient of ways. When Jafar’s first ‘master’ wishes for treasure from a sunken ship Jafar transports his master to this ship itself—underwater—forcing his master to waste his second wish to be rescued.

Now, God is not a genie who grants wishes, and is not malicious like one either. But I think that among the purposes and potentialities we were created to possess God is willing to grant our requests. God will probably not make us rich if we ask him. But if we ask God for the things of God, sainthood among them, then I think he is ready to make those desires a reality.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

There is a catch, however. If we desire to be saints God will grant that request, along with all the affiliated responsibilities, trials, temptations, and difficulties. Like the classical djinni, God will give us the things we didn’t know we were asking for, but which are all part of the deal.

Celebrity is the currency of our age. My guess is that people would rather be well-known than wealthy. I am not immune. To fall into obscurity and to have done nothing worth remembering except by those family members obliged to do so seems a fate worse than death.

Now there are different kinds of fame, or different social worlds in which we can become famous in a sort of way. I had the privilege of meeting the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in person and words cannot describe the exhilaration and anxiety this encounter generated. And yet there are plenty of people—most probably—who could care less about this guy.

I want to be renowned like that. I want the people who value the things I value to think of me as legitimate and respectable at least, if not among the higher echelons. What’s more, I want to be among the greatest in the kingdom of God. And I think God is happy to let me be as great as I want to be, provided I “drink the cup” he drank: provided I am willing to endure the shame and humiliations he endured.

That is the catch. I truly believe each one of us could become as holy as any hero of faith has ever been. It is simply up to us to tell God when we’ve had enough—at what point we can endure no further self-emptying, no further humiliations, when we can carry the cross no further. This is the paradoxical logic of Christ: if we want to be a celebrity in the kingdom of God we have stop caring about being a celebrity. Greatness in the Kingdom is defined by the denial of our egos, the bearing of the cross, and the emulation of Christ who suffered and died, but who was raised to the right hand of the Father.

So I think Merton’s friend was right. If I want to be a saint all I have to do is want to be one. God is ready to grant this kind of request. Ask and you shall receive; seek and you will find; knock on the door of sanctification and God will open it to you. I could become united to Christ, illuminated by the light of heaven, become wholly as fire, as long as I’m willing to become nothing in this world. This is a fearful reality.

So if we want to wear a crown in the Kingdom we have to learn to lay down all the other desires in our hearts that run contrary to this goal: the desire for honor, the desire for wealth, the desire for respect, the desire for celebrity, the desire for power, prestige, and everything else that gratifies our false selves. And God will help us to do so as far as we’re willing. May God help us a little more than we’re willing as well!




Engagements: Why Do I Write?

Seven Storey Mountain


What’s a Protestant like me reading the autobiography of a Catholic monk for? To be fair, I’ve benefited from Merton’s writings ever since a professor recommended one of his books to me in seminary. And given Merton’s ecumenical inclusivity, my suspicion is that this is the kind of cross-examining question raised more by my fellow Protestants than the Catholics who claim Merton. Nevertheless, this is a question I’m not much interested in answering. There is simply something about Merton I find edifying, uplifting, and inspiring—some of which I want to explore here in this engagement with his autobiography.

It may come as a surprise to some who know me that I’ve never actually read this book. It’s one of the hallmarks of spiritual writings in the 20th century, and any dignified person of spiritual and literary depth must surely have it listed among their Facebook page’s “favorite books” list. But, as I mentioned, I didn’t become familiar with Merton until grad school, at which point I learned that he somewhat disavowed this book later in his life. So at 462 pages in small print I was happy to bypass it for more expedient access to Merton’s thought.

Recently I’ve had the chance to engage Merton for other projects and thought his might be a good time to actually read this book. So I’ve done it. God bless me, I read all 462 pages; cover to cover. Cross this one off the old bucket-list.

I certainly came to realize why he disavowed the book later in life. The Merton of Seven Storey Mountain is a still-recent convert to Catholicism and even more recent initiate into the Trappist Order for whom the grass is still fairly green on the other side he just entered. That is to say, you’ll find a lot of condescension toward anything that isn’t Catholic and even a hint of derogation toward other monastic Orders. There’s also a marked difference in spiritual thought between this early work of his and more mature works like New Seeds of Contemplation. I think it would be interesting to explore how Merton changed over time, and perhaps ways in which he did not so much change as deepen and mature in some of these areas. I think it would be helpful because I, myself, have once or twice thought and written things that were less than ideal—not anymore, of course! But I would like to think I can somehow do penance and make good on past leaps in logical and spiritual depth.

There are a lot of things to appreciate and engage about Merton’s autobiography. I read this book slowly, letting myself relax and enjoy it rather than speed through it to meet some deadline. In this way I was able to savor it—and I’d recommend this strategy to anyone else looking for a book to lose oneself in and relax for a little while. The thing I’d like to focus on here is one of his many critical reflections on his past life that seemed particularly relevant to my own. I’ll cite the majority of the relevant text here:

Where was my will? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” ‘and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses. .. . . Of course, as far as my ambitions went, their objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet—at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruits, when it brings for fruit at all.

In a sense, all of Seven Storey Mountain is Merton’s quest to find his vocation. A vocation is not just a matter of finding an occupation, it is finding one’s place in the will of God, which is a matter of saturating one’s work and play and rest—one’s whole life—in the love of God.

A major part of my vocation is communication: written, oral, and pastoral. As I read these words quoted above it made me realize that most of my aspirations for writing and speaking were unreflectively self-centered. Or perhaps a combination of self-centered egotism and the natural graces God gave me as gifts intended to glorify him.

Some of this is tied to future plans and goals; further education, different kinds of jobs, dreams of being well-known, or known at all. I think in some ways God knows we will idolize ourselves, and gives us grace as we combine the gifts and talents that make us who we are with less-than-honorable motivations. But as we grow to recognize and distinguish these kinds of things, the time comes to figure out how to transfigure our gifts and desires into things that displace our own love of a false self and replace this with our true self at rest in God.

So the question before me is this: how do I do the things I love to do–and am gifted to do–in a way that is not just self-aggrandizement? How do I love God in my reading and writing and talking? How does this goal change the direction of my life? Do I need the PhD, do I need to climb some kind of occupational ladder? Perhaps these questions are still missing the point, centering as they do on my own person.

But how, then, again do I do what I feel I am meant to do in a way that appreciates any kind of personal developments in the service of God rather than the gratification of my ego? These are the questions I’m left with, acknowledging Merton to be correct; just not knowing what to do with it.

Book Recommendations for Lent

Lent starts this Wednesday, so its that time of the year where either you’ll google “What is lent?” or you’ll try to come up with something decent to tell people you’re giving up. Giving up things can be beneficial, but the wise people I talk to like to focus on adding something beneficial during these next forty days. Some people like to read something alongside Scripture during Lent that will help them draw closer to God, and sometimes those people will ask people like me what books they might recommend, and sometimes people like me will think of several that might be good and make that recommendation. So that’s what this is.

Please note that this list is entirely subjective and there are plenty of other great books to read during Lent. Feel free to recommend to me below.


PetersonEugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

This is a book that recognizes that to become anything requires “a long obedience in the same direction”–a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche of all people. Eugene Peterson, the author of the Message Bible translation, uses the psalms of ascent to walk through what it means and takes to really grow in faith. Lent is one of those times that asks us to stop thinking about immediate results, and just do something, the same thing, in the same way, for a long time. That’s why I think this book is good reading for Lent.


WestphalMerold Westphal, Faith and Suspicion: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism

Merold Westphal is a top-notch Christian philosopher and theologian. In this book he asks us to try atheism for lent. He does this because he thinks that there’s some value and truth to what the great atheists of the last two centuries have said–even though he doesn’t agree on their ultimate conclusions. Grasping the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that people like Nietzsche (he keeps popping up, doesn’t he…), Freud, or Marx exhibit may not invalidate our belief in God, but it will help us to identify and discard harmful ways of thinking and behaving that tend to happen in religion. So, I don’t know, try atheism for Lent. Why not?

Problem of PainC. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

The idea of Lent comes from Jesus’ own wandering in the wilderness for 40 days prior to his baptism and ministry. Part of the point of the desert is that it is painful–physically, yes, but it also grinds against all the comforts that keep us complacent. It is painful. In this book, classic Christian author C. S. Lewis thinks about the problem of evil as a problem of pain. That is, there is something about suffering that is transformative, a kind of grace itself. We’re talking about universal kinds of suffering, the kinds of suffering everybody endures through the course of a normal human life; not gross injustices or irredeemable violence, so that’s helpful. Lent asks us to do some voluntary suffering, so why not get a little perspective?

McGuckinJohn Anthony McGuckin, The Book of Mystical Chapters

The ascetic tradition of early Christianity (4th-7th century) is one of the richest yet untapped caches of Christian theology and practice. Part of the reason it remains on the fringes of Christian theology is because its hard as hell to understand. But, then again, part of the reason its hard to understand is because its written for people who are living it, and so practice becomes the foundation for grasping and appropriating this wisdom. McGuckin’s book is the best entryway into the wisdom of Christian asceticism. It organizes bits and pieces of writers throughout these centuries into three categories: praktikos (practice…); theoretikos (theory…); and gnostikos (something that’s more than knowledge, less than the mind of God). But again, its hard to really grasp this stuff without living it one way or the other, so what better time than Lent to read a book like this? …there is no better time, is the answer.

Bread and wineBread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter

Plough publishing produced this compilation of texts from Christians all across the spectrum. It’s intentionally designed as Lenten and Easter devotional reading, so how could I not include it. Actually its the book I’m reading through during Lent, so there’s that too. The book takes a few pages from a list of Who’s Who of Christian authors, giving you a little to chew on each day.



ClimacusJohn Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent

I mentioned the ascetic tradition of early Christianity earlier. In many ways Climacus and his work Ladder of Divine Ascent is a summary and culmination of this tradition. That means little to the everyday person who tries to pick this book up, but I wrote my thesis on this guy so I beg you to put up with this kind of thing. In the past I have read through this book over Lent. It will challenge you, it will make you feel like you don’t love God as much as you thought you loved God, but it will also comfort you, sympathize with you, show you true humility, and maybe even provide some illumination. If you’re up for a challenge, this is a good one.

So that’s my list of recommendations. What books would you recommend for Lent?


The Moral Teaching of Paul (Furnish)

Moral Teahcing of Paul (Furnish)

Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues; 3rd Edition 
Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.

“How could they believe that about _____!? Haven’t they read X-Passage in the Bible? What about X-Passage do they not understand?” Fill in the blanks with any given controversial subject and supporting scriptures and you’ve thought this before. Don’t lie. God is watching.

I was taught to read scripture, to make sure all my beliefs and practices were grounded and consistent with scripture, but I was never really taught how to read scripture until much later in life. So I tended to think those aforementioned kind of things all the time. I had no notion that, indeed no way of knowing how, other people could read the same texts with the same sincerity and intellectual ability and still come to different conclusions until I learned how to read scripture.

If you’ve ever wondered how there’s even a debate about certain issues, like gender roles or homosexuality, Victor Paul Furnish’s now-classic text will help you to understand the real difficulties of reading texts.

The Gist

The book focuses on four controversial issues—(1) sex, marriage, and divorce (2) homosexuality (3) women in the church, and (4) the church in the world. In all these issues Furnish provides the basic historical and exegetical data that helps us put these issues in perspective. What emerges is a fresh perspective on all these issues.

Furnish’s goal in each is outlined in his introductory chapter “The Sacred Cow and the White Elephant.” In this chapter Furnish addresses two attitudes about interpretation that are false. The first, the sacred cow, sometimes referred to as “blunt readings” or literalist readings assumes that the Bible is too sacred to be taken otherwise than literally. All nuance, contextualization, and comparison to other texts is disregarded as mere “human” interpretation. The second polar extreme, the white elephant, refers to those readings that trivialize Biblical texts as outdated, obsolete, or even plain wrong. Furnish urges his readers to reject both views. They are not polar extremes with some middle ground. “Rather, they are both wrong” Furnish says, because good biblical reading does not afford a moderate amount of either ‘sacred cowing’ or ‘white elephanting’. The alternative cannot be expressed in terms of some middle ground, but by a rejection of both attitudes and an embrace of the Bible as God’s Word that we must use all our faculties and abilities to understand. We both respect the whole of the Biblical text as containing some essential wisdom, without at the same time disallowing our God-given rational mind from trying to make sense of texts that come out of a world that is very different from our own.

A final note about the book itself is that it is written for both scholars and lay audiences. Some things are written just for scholars and are filled with technical language and enormous detail necessary for scholarly standards. Some things are written with the average person in mind and aims for readability, sometimes sacrificing a good chunk of the substance of the argument for the sake of broader accessibility. This book is for both scholars and lay audiences, and it achieves this by sacrificing a good deal of technical jargon and citations, but not substance or discernment.

There is a certain proverb that goes like this: if you can’t express yourself without complex and technical language then you don’t really know what you’re talking about. This book shows a seasoned scholar who has struggled with these issues over a long period of time, and proves he knows what he’s talking about by offering his perspective in plain language without diminishing its intellectual depth.

What Stuck

I think this book achieves three interrelated things.

  1. It provides rich historical and biblical context to these four issues. On any of these issues Furnish not only provides a fair representative sample of the cultural and philosophical world surrounding Paul’s writings, but also puts the main texts of any given issue in dialogue with other biblical texts relevant to the issue. Moreover he offers an example of charitable, careful, and sensitive readings of these texts.
  1. It demonstrates the strangeness of the biblical world. This is something we don’t often realize. The first century world is strange compared to our own. It’s not easy to say which of our worlds is the stranger, but it is essential to understand that Paul’s world accepted a whole host of values and norms that we are likely to be uncomfortable with. Furnish doesn’t shy away from showing just how strange Paul’s world can be.
  1. It leaves the reader with the task of figuring out how all this fits into our own world. The perceptive reader will be able to make a good guess as to Furnish’s own opinions (he tends to challenge traditional or conservative readings of these texts), but he never states his opinions outright, and this seems important to the book. Furnish wants to provide an often-missing context on these issues without, at the same time, saying that this solves all the issues. He allows that a reasonable, intelligent, godly person will come to a different conclusion, though perhaps, or hopefully, slightly less radical in their particular school of thought.

Memorable Quotes

Because this book tends to focus on very particular issues it’s hard to find quotes that make sense out of context or even won’t find their meaning utterly butchered out of context. As such, just a few quotes will have to suffice.

Whenever we treat Paul’s moral teaching as if it were a sacred cow, we run the risk of turning it into a white elephant. That is, if we regard the particulars of Paul’s moral instructions as automatically applicable and binding in our times and circumstances, we will almost certainly end up with a good many requirements that are either irrelevant or, what is worse, clearly inappropriate. (25)

To some degree, every one of these issues has a different character today. An immense gulf exists between the particular circumstances and conditions that gave rise to these issues in ancient society, and formed the context in which they had to be addressed, and the circumstances and conditions that obtain for us. For the same reason, we will find nothing in Paul’s letters, or anywhere in the Bible, about certain moral issues that the modern world dare ignore. (26)

Our task, therefore, is not to search the Pauline letters for ready-made answers to the moral questions that confront us. It is, rather, to consider whether, and if so, how Paul’s approach to the moral issues specific to his day may inform and guide us in thinking through the moral issues that are specific to our times and places. (26)


Victor Paul Furnish is a celebrated New Testament scholar who has written several books, including this one, that have achieved classic status amongst scholars, and he has arguably written the best commentary on 2 Corinthians to date. The upshot here is that he is a guy who the smartest people in the room listen to, even if they don’t agree with him. And this wide appeal accords with what Furnish demonstrates in this book, something he does that not many interpreters of texts (scholarly or lay) do: namely, reading texts in terms of their own strange-to-us world and acknowledging the difficulties involved in bringing the wisdom of this world into our own. Many people can do one or the other, not many do both biblical exegesis and interpretation with as much intellectual generosity and sensitivity as Furnish.

In a time when biblical literacy itself is on the decline, much less historical knowledge or understanding of interpretation (hermeneutics), we need people like Furnish to help us get up to date on all three levels. So to return to the statement at the beginning: if you want to understand why there’s a debate on a set of controversial issues that seem pretty cut and dry to you, I highly recommend you spend some time with Furnish’s book. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with him on any given issue its worth it to see that there are smart, godly people who read texts differently and they have plenty of good reasons to do so.

Three Prayers (Clément)

Three Prayers (Clement)

Olivier Clément, Three Prayers: The Lord’s Prayer, O Heavenly King, Prayer of St. Ephrem, translated by Michael Breck (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000).

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.

Your Kingdom come, Your will be done

            On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

O heavenly king, O comforter,

the Spirit of Truth who is everywhere and fills all things

Treasure of blessings, giver of life, come and abide in us.

Cleanse us of all impurity,

And of Thy goodness save our souls,

O Thou who are good and loves humanity.


O Lord and master of my life,

Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair,

lust of power, and idle talk;

Grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility,

patience, and love to Thy servant

Yea, O Lord and king,

Grant me to see my own transgressions

And not to judge my brother,

For blessed are Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.

The more I pray the more difficult I find it to pray. I was taught to pray spontaneously, as if this were the only kind of prayer that was authentic. Written and rote prayers were almost automatically condemned as mere ritual without heartfelt meaning. I admire the concern for authenticity, but I must admit that I lack the imagination, the vocabulary, often the enthusiasm and desire to conjure up new words for God every time I want to pray or am called to pray.

There is a place for spontaneity in prayer, to be sure, but even then I find myself repeating words and phrases in the familiar organization of my prayers. This ritualistic, formulaic aspect is nigh unavoidable. And the more I pray the more useful I find it. So I tend to gravitate toward richly-worded prayers that can supply me with words, just as the psalms do, that help me express myself to God. This book contains three such prayers, and reflections on them that deepen their significance as I pray them.

The Gist

In this book Olivier Clément reflects on three very old, but very rich prayers. The first prayer, the “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father (pater noster) is familiar and common to all Christians. Clément spends half of this small book (~40 of ~80 pages) on this prayer. The second is most well-known among Orthodox Christians as the beginning part of the daily prayers.

The third prayer is also well-known among Orthodox Christians and is used formally during Lent. Although Clément, being an Orthodox Christian himself, pulls these latter two prayers from his own tradition, he never writes as someone who ‘claims’ them for that tradition in particular, and one will be hard-pressed to deny the universality of all three prayers.

Clément writes this book as a commentary of sorts. He goes line-by-line, reflecting on each prayer. This is not a historical or exegetical commentary, but a spiritual one. Clément seeks to unearth some of the more or less hidden or implicit spiritual aspects of these prayers. This amounts to an amazing devotional book as Clément takes already profound prayers and through his reflection provides even deeper meditations on the life we are given and called to in Christ.

What Stuck

What I continued to marvel at as I read the book was Clément’s depth of insight. He is able to explain concepts and phrases without pretense or making the reader feel like he’s making all this up. Many of us pray the Lord’s Prayer weekly, perhaps daily. It is therefore quite a feat to provide new insight that does not feel wholly artificial, self-important, or idiosyncratic.

The best part of this book, as can be seen in the quotes below, is the appreciation for life Clément communicates that is, at the same time, clear-eyed and realistic. Positive psychology tells us that if we just decide to be positive about things, we’ll end up being happier. But this ends up being an artificial happiness that is torn down as easily as it is built up. Clément’s joy comes from a realistic perception of himself, others, and the world around him that is caught up in the death and resurrection of Christ. And so he is able to appreciate the entanglements and tragedies of this life as wounds out of which life springs in Christ.

Memorable Quotes

What we must sense most strongly, each day—and I say this especially to those who are young—is that it is good to live. To live is grace. To live is glory. All life is a blessing. (7)

The will of God is not a judicial imperative, it is an influx of life; it bestows existence and renews it when it goes astray. The will of God is, first of all, creation itself, the universe itself entirely borne up by the will-ideas, by the logoi, the sustaining words of the poet-God. (23-24)

Today is it behooves the Church to break away from nostalgia and from the desire for power in order to become—or become once again—the secret soil from which the forests of the future will rise up. (25-26)

The great apostasy is not necessarily atheism. Rebellion and even blasphemy have their own way of seeking God. Considering the pain of this world, there is also an atheism of compassion, which is undoubtedly what is being expressed in the Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani spoken on Golgotha. The great apostasy is rather the sense of having “gotten over” God, of having, “gotten over” the whole question, to be removed from the mystery, devoid of any anguish or bewilderment. (36-37)

Every living thing is moved by the divine Breath. And so it is with this invisible framework that is in constant motion and causes the universal tendency toward dissolution, chaos, and entropy to be turned back into a reintegration, a more and more refined complexity, in such a way that life is continually born out of death. (53)

Man is created from nothingness; if he allows himself to be overwhelmed by fear or by a desperate, climactic flight from this fear, he proceeds toward illusion, toward his dreams, or to an unresolvable insight into an offended love. Christ descends into hell and into death, into the nocturnal abyss where being is overcome, in order to tear from its grasp each of us and all of mankind. By making our wounds his own, Christ turns every wound within us into a source of light—the “light of life,” the light of the Holy Spirit. (60)

Sloth means forgetfulness, to which the ascetics refer as “the greatest of all sins.” Forgetfulness means the inability to be amazed, to marvel or even to see. . . . All this amounts to a spiritual neurosis that has to do not with sexuality—which may become the means of forgetting—but with suppressing the “light of life” which gives meaning to others, to the smallest spec of dust as well as to myself. (73)

Humility is a virtue we may perceive in others but which we cannot see in ourselves. Anyone who says: “I am humble” is woefully vain. One becomes humble without seeking to be so, through obedience, detachment, and respect for the unconditional gift of this mystery; in a word, through openness to grace. (78)

According to Symeon the New Theologian, a man who sanctifies himself becomes “a poor man filled with brotherly love.” He is poor because he strips himself of his roles, of his social (or ecclesiastical) importance and of his neurotic characteristics, because he opens himself up to God and to others, without separating prayer form service. He is then able to discern a person within others, beneath all the masks and ugliness and sin, the way Jesus did in the Gospels. He is able to ring peace to those who hate themselves and who destroy the world. (80-81)

“To see one’s own sin” does not consist in tallying up one’s transgressions, it means feeling asphyxiated and lost, drowning, in vain thrashing about in this lost state and betraying love, scorning and laughing all the while, so great is our self-hatred. It means suffocating in the waters of death, that they might instead become baptismal waters. It is to die, but henceforth to die in Christ in order to be reborn in his breath and to regain a foothold in the Father’s house. (82)

One who sees his own sin and does not judge his brother becomes capable of truly loving him. I have been disappointed in myself often enough that I can no longer be disappointed by anyone. (83)


Kierkegaard describes prayer as something that goes from words to silence. We exhaust our hearts and minds by speaking to God in a discursive kind of way, and when we eventually run out of words we can finally sit in peace and stillness before God. Our words, as they often are in ordinary conversation with others, can be more of a barrier than a medium to God. And so when we finally have no more words to say we can bring our true selves before God and rest in his presence.

This book is a wonderful work of Christian spirituality in its own right. But it also helps us to see the significance of these prayers, and therefore to pray them better. And then to let them go and allow them to lead us to God instead of taking his place.

Engagements: Erring on the Side of Love

Lover's Quarrel

Erring on the Side of Love

A Lover’s Quarrel, by Leroy Garrett

I can’t pinpoint when, but at some point I realized that my ecclesial tradition (Churches of Christ) was not the norm in Christianity—not even close. We sing without instruments as a rule, and we lack any governing structure beyond the local church. We tend to think like Anabaptists, behave like Calvinists, and adopt the exclusivism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We like to think that we have “restored the ancient order of the New Testament,” though much of our laity don’t necessarily think in those terms, and many of our theologically educated members view this sentiment as a well-meaning but ultimately doomed aspiration.

Some of our churches have services that look like period pieces from American frontier revivalism, others are textbook examples of modern-day evangelicalism (such as Max Lucado’s Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, TX). Many are somewhere in between.

I grew up in this church. I learned about Christianity in classes and by watching parents, mentors, and elders in this church. Christ met me through the discursive and symbolic world of this tradition. But I did not realize we were on the margins of Christendom until my early 20’s.

It was at this point, however, that I was able to understand my church and the broader Christian world we nevertheless exist in. It was at this point that I could understand myself and the debts—for better or worse—that I owe my church. It was at this point, also, that I was able to take a side.

There is a classic preacher-story-joke that perhaps all Christians can resonate with, but which I think exemplifies no church better than Churches of Christ.

Explorers discovered a man who had been trapped on an island for many years. When they came to the island they found that this man had built an entire village. There were homes, stores, workshops, and a church. The man gave the explorers a tour of his village, pointing out the significance of each building and so forth. As they neared the end of the tour one of the explorers noted a dilapidated building at the edge of the village. He asked the man what this building was. The man replied “Oh that? That’s where I used to go to church.”

The trait that captures the essence of Churches of Christ most, for so long is the exclusivist or sectarian spirit. In short, we have thought we were the only ones who got Christianity right, and that if you didn’t agree with us, then you were not only mistaken, you were condemned. Yet this is only one side of the debate in our church, albeit the dominant one for many years.

Leroy Garrett grew up on this side of the debate for many years, yet his voice became one of the loudest, most clever, and perhaps the most cantankerous and obnoxious at times, against the sectarian spirit of Churches of Christ. He faced plenty of opposition, but in his mind he never had an enemy. He insisted that doctrinally “conversative” and “liberal” churches both have a seat at the table, when neither side really wanted to share the space. And he did so when this kind of thing was costly.

I and many in our churches owe an incredible debt to Leroy. He was not a perfect man. As I reread through his autobiography there were parts that frustrated me. He loved his family, but I’m not convinced he was the best or most present father. He held opinions and ideals that I cannot defend. In particular, he did not believe it was acceptable for churches to hire full-time paid ministers. I’d be out of work if he got his way.

But a meditation on his flaws, far from undermining the value of his life and work, serves primarily as a defense of the greater ideals he fought for. Which of us is the best parent, child, brother, and so on? Which of us has conceived of Christianity in the most perfect way? Even the most orthodox among us could be criticized for being too orthodox! The point here, as Garrett exemplified, is that we are all full of flaws and failures. There is no prayer capable of giving us the mind of God, no oblation capable of erasing the many mistakes we carry with us before God, no ablution capable of sanitizing the hands we use to serve others. We come before God and do the work of God carrying the baggage of imperfect doctrine, incomplete theology, and mixed motives. There is no other way. What unites us to one another is what unites us to God: the faith that relies on God to accept the spirit we offer to him in prayer and the work we offer to others in service. “I believe!” we say, and we are quick to add: “help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We give God what we can, and hope that we will increasingly be able to give more.

There is no other way. But if we are going to err, we had better err on the side of love.

When we begin with these kinds of assumptions we find a freedom to hold to what our conscience directs without, at the same time, insisting that our conscience is the measure of another’s, or the blue print of God’s own heart. Leroy would have phrased it in a different way, with a different grammar, I am sure. But I would not have been able to even think in these terms if not for the work of Leroy Garrett and a host of other high-profile and nameless Christians in my church who worked hard and endured their share of sufferings to release the gospel from the captivity of our ecclesial ghettos.

Leroy passed away a month or two ago. It affected me more than I thought it would. I am grateful for him. I am grateful for the ways in which he made it possible for me to grow up in Churches of Christ and find God there. I am grateful for the ways in which he showed me how to love people who disagree with me. What better way to commemorate his memory than to borrow a phrase from another part of the body: “memory eternal!”

Churches of Christ are by no means the only tradition to adopt exclusive and sectarian attitudes. It may be one of the few things that all denominations and traditions share in common at one point or another! Whether you come from Churches of Christ, have some familiarity with our tradition, or find many of these themes repeated in your own religious (or even non-religious) background, I hope you learn something about Leroy Garrett and benefit from his life. If you have a chance, reading his autobiography, A Lover’s Quarrel, may not be the worst way to spend your time!



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