A Word for Cowards

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.

Moved to Wonder

whirl-of-a-night

In those chaotic hours on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, two friends (Peter and John) raced, schoolyard-stye, to the tomb. After arriving breathless and after taking in all there was (and wasn’t) to see, they stood dumbfounded, mouth agape, like two boys who’d just seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat or a glamorous assistant disappear inside a small box. And though we’re told that John “believed,” we don’t know exactly what he believed because the Scriptures indicate that the whole brood of disciples were still very much out of sorts, baffled as they’d ever been (which is saying something). Luke tells us that Peter walked home in a stupor, thunderstruck by every remarkable thing he could not understand.

It’s striking, then, how Easter often becomes the day when we haul out our heftiest apologetic guns, overwhelming folks with our rapid-fire arsenal of logical rationale for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. Look, I believe it, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I think Jesus, once a corpse, walked out of that tomb better than new. And I believe Jesus’ resurrection cuts to the heart of everything God intends to do in this world, the very heart of the Good News. I think resurrection matters not only because one man rose from the dead but because of the promise that, through Jesus’ triumph, the whole of creation will one day shake of its grave clothes to shine brilliant and new.

Yet resurrection, with all the hope and possibility it summons, ignites awe and wonder – not a mad dash for sharp pencils and calculators or a whiteboard where we can sketch vast theorems. If we have the fact of the resurrection, but we have none of the bewilderment or the astonishment, none of the unbridled joy at the sheer fantastic lunacy of the whole thing – I wonder if we’ve really got the resurrection at all.

This is not only about the event of resurrection, of course, but about our entire faith. “It is not the task of Christianity,” says Kallistos Ware, “to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” If there is nothing in our faith that drops the jaw, that moves us to inexplicable laughter, that unravels our sense of things…If our vision of God never hurls us to our knees or gooses us in sheer pleasure — we should return to the old stories and hear them again.

Faith, Poetry and Funk

 

boy and his bass

Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father considered one of our finest theologians attempting to speak intelligibly of the Trinity, could only, in the end, turn to poetry in his attempts to say something (something short of heresy but something more than drivel) about this confounding mystery. Church folk and lovers (two words which should be bosom buddies) often make their way to poets and verse whenever the thing we have to say simply cannot be said in the language we’ve been given.

I wrote my wife Miska a poem one Christmas. It wasn’t high art, just tender scribbles on a page. Thank God for free verse, as my iambic pentameter goes every kind of caddywompus. Still, somehow in those simple lines I was free to say things I didn’t know how to say, free to discover truths in the writing that I didn’t yet know I knew. The form insisted that I not worry so much about explaining my love; but to simply love, to let the love seep from my heart onto the page. I don’t know how it happens. I only know it does.

Since music is poetry in motion, all of this fits (I think) with how one of my friends, Eastern Orthodox professor Vigen Guroian, talks about theology. “It has to be sung,” he says. “If you can’t sing it, it can’t be good theology.” There’s more (much more) to faith than airtight theological constructs. Good words about God, ones that catch your breath short or make your knees buckle or turn your heart and your mind to fire, have to be set free – they have to set you free. Faith needs to carry a melody, to set down a groove, to bring a little funk.

St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” Do not take St. Pophyrios too literally. He does not insist everyone must learn poetic craft. He’s reminding us that we must allow our soul to be moved into places deeper than bare fact. We must allow the Spirit to bring us embers, and then wait for the Spirit to blow on the embers until they sizzle and flare.

It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.

The Good, Small Faith

Many insist that Christian maturity means our faith grows larger and larger, but I believe that as we deepen into good life, our faith actually grows smaller and smaller. I do not mean that we come to believe in less or to believe with less fervor (though a wise professor once said, “The older I get, the more I believe in a smaller number of things.”), but rather that our beliefs find themselves decreasingly enamored with abstract theological notions all the while more and more attached to people with names and stories, to places with histories and hopes, to our own sorrows and joys.

In this deepening, narrowing place, our faith finds itself inextricably woven to the neighbor who’s spent 56 years waking to the love of his life but now wakes alone, to the child who carries our love and our blood but also our crushing regret, to the friends and the questions and the work that has made us who we are. Faith is not a set of grand truths preserved in a hermetically sealed silo. Faith is what we come to know, to hope, as we live into our actual life with the God who promises to meet us and make us within these days we’ve been given.

This means, at the least, that when we find ourselves with eyes bright, heart quiet and love attuned, we’ve likely found a place where our faith is growing fabulously smaller. Gratitude and contentment will be your friends here. Do not spend a moment critiquing whether or not this is the brand of faith you have been taught to expect. Simply give yourself to the Spirit’s invitation and whisper “thank you.”

Be loved. Be brave.

This morning around the breakfast table, we opened our box of question cards. Each person receives a card, and each person answers a question. Seth’s card asked him to state our family motto. Because Seth takes such things seriously, he needed time to consider and asked us to return to him. Midway into the next person’s question, Seth’s hands shot up, and he blurted out, “I know it! Be loved. Be brave.”

You wonder if your knucklehead parenting has done anything more than make plain as day your woeful inadequacies, if anything you have said or done has even begun to break through. And then, over sourdough and oatmeal, your son says Be loved. Be brave.

That gets at the soul of it. If the boys know they are loved, and if they hear the call to courage, I believe we’ve covered the bases.

I hope these words for each of us. As far as mottos go, we could do a lot worse.

Be loved. Be still and know that you are loved. Receive love when it’s offered – and watch for it because it will be. I know anger and meanness will swing your way, but I promise you that love will come too. Hear love in the wind. Look for love in the common kindness of a friend. But the most difficult part, as I’ve come to see it, is to let love reach us. It’s a scary thing to live awake and open.

Be brave. The temptation will be to back up or quiet down. To pull in. But we need good, solid people who will live the one life only they can live. And live it in technicolor, with an audacity that makes it impossible for the rest of us not to marvel at the goodness of it all.

Be loved. Be brave.

Not Feeling Faith

ashestoashesSome of us have, for the moment at least, sufficiently made our point. We can not abide a robotic faith where difficult questions or deep anxieties are met with silence, rebuke or prayer-circle interventions. We have been worn to the existential bone with the hypocrisy we believe others demand of us when we are expected to apply our happy face and chirp a few cliches, often set to peppy tunes. We will not play the game. We will be (as we repeatedly remind ourselves and others) authentic.

The difficulty is that, in our move toward being real (whatever that means), we’ve often merely traded one false self for another false self. In our previous world, we felt there was no space for our humanness, our individuality, our emotions and inner life. To whatever degree this was the reality hoisted upon us, we are right to resist. We are whole beings, and our whole self matters. In the new world where we’ve shed these shackles, however, we are often ruled by what we feel, by whether our prayers feel vibrant or our worship feels truthful. We sit immobilized when we hear the Psalmist’s invitation to “praise the Lord all [our] life.” Praise is not an emotion; it is a declaration.

There are many days when I don’t feel the electricity of love for Miska (or she for me), but I announce my love to her, live my love toward her, nonetheless. And I’m not being inauthentic. Quite the opposite, I’m demonstrating that my love runs far deeper than my whims or confusions. I have promised fidelity. This is the ground of truth. When I don’t feel love’s energy, I should pay attention in order to keep a check on the state of my heart toward her, but this poverty doesn’t define what is true. Some days, my feelings are simply going to have to figure out how to keep up.

Our feelings, all the complexities of our story and our interior selves, are affirmed in the Psalms, honored in the prayers of the prophets and apostles, and blessed in the Incarnation where Divinity became fully human. However, our feelings are not God. Only God is God. As Barth said, “Let us set aside our investigation of God. God searches us. Our mind is never right.” To give no heed to what we feel or think or the many ways we struggle and plod along is to dishonor the God who created us. However, to give ultimate authority to these realities is to bow at the feet of another god.

Feelings are important in judging the condition of our heart or how we are engaging God and others. However, they don’t always tell us the truth about ourselves, God or others. Attentiveness to our feelings is essential to tell us where our heart is, but they are not always trustworthy to tell us where God is. Only God can do that.

This is why we pray with the Church. This is why we surrender to the stories of our God’s actions across history and geography. This is why we break bread with friends and laugh and dance under the moon and become peacemakers and feast with the poor. This is why we hope for good and commit ourselves to joy and why we have plenty of space for our tears. We do all this because God has come to us in Jesus Christ, and Jesus has taught us that this life is the life God has for us. Whether we feel it or not.

Firm, Rickety Faith

I asked Miska to marry me (the first time) on a snow swept mountaintop, under the stars. I think she saw the proposal coming, but the mind and the heart do their own thing in moments like this, and Miska’s instinctive response was to ask, repeatedly: Are you sure? Are you sure? She clutched the ring and echoed the question: are you sure? Seven times, if I remember correctly.

She couldn’t have known, as I didn’t even know myself, but those three words sliced into a hidden, wounded place. Those three words put language to one of my deepest fears: that I might be wrong, that I might be foolish, that I’ll miss some of the facts or hold a wrong belief or opinion and will, in the end, be uncovered as a fool.

The quick story is that she said yes, but her question unnerved me. I freaked out. Three days later, she gave me back the ring. A month after that, I got my crap together, and Miska was kind enough to roll the dice on me one more time. However, the themes in that story have grown to be annoyingly familiar.

I have friends who seem to have never known a doubt, never second-guessed a conviction or belief. I have no idea what that would be like.

For folks like me, however, it’s a mistake to think that because our mind wavers and absolute certainty remains eternally illusive, this means we must forever waffle, never stand firm. We may have to endure a perpetual, nagging “what if?” playing in the background, but this only means our beliefs require more courage. The ground on which we stand may be harder won and our ground will most likely be a smaller territory than others triumphantly claim – and surely, we’ll move our flag from time to time (a virtue, if you ask me). But if we’ll learn to trust the things we know even if we don’t know we know them (we might need to chew on that for a moment) and if we’ll allow ourselves to live more playfully and more whimsical, we will find our steady ground. And we’ll discover than being foolish ain’t all that bad.

As St. O’Conner said in the Second Gospel of Wise Blood: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

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As a gesture to my Fénelon book being Kindle-available (and on sale for $2.99 for a few more days), I leave you with a pertinent line from one of the letters in Let God: “True faith never delivers the sort of human certainty we constantly look for. True faith won’t let us grab hold to safety or latch on to dry formulas…God is God, you know.”

Faith, Science…and Poets too

Though Chris Uhlman landed his essay a bit haywire (too wimpish, I suspect, no matter where one falls on these conversations), he offers some interesting wrestlings with the role of faith in the public square. 

Here’s a teaser:

The older I get the less certain I become and the more bewildered I am by the unshakable convictions of both strident believers and atheists.

However, I am certain that I have little time for those who hold believers in contempt. And I have begun to suspect that, in the West, science is assuming the altar once carved out for God.

We have steadily replaced the absolute moral certainty of theocrats with technocratic absolutism…That is not a criticism of science because real science admits uncertainty. It is taking issue with those who suffer only one kind of knowing and deride all else as cant.

And you might know me well enough to know that I loved this line:

The place where technocrats fall silent is precisely the place where poets, artists and priests take up the story. 

What can we know? And how can we know it? And who gets to decide what the ground rules are for such things? 

If you want to go further, you may want to peek at Dallas Willard’s new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge. Here, Dallas makes the case that knowledge grounded in faith (and defining this loosy, sometimes-sentimentalized word “faith” is crucial to his work) is a valid way of knowing.

Because We Started the Conversation…

Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained. {Stanley Fish}

Today, Stanely Fish posted a follow-up article in the Times to his piece last week, “God-Talk.” I found this week’s installment intriguing, but also – it’s just rude to walk out on someone mid-conversation.

I think Fish could have left out the little self-congratulating plug at the bottom, but then again, if someone were taking potshots at me, I’d be tempted to rub it in their face as well. Still, though, the editorial Fish refers to by Paul Campos, even if a bit of defensive hubris, makes a point, several actually. Campos summed up Fish’s repeated mantra nicely: “No believer will find his faith shaken by evidence that is evidence only in the light of assumptions he does not share and considers flatly wrong.”

If, however, you’d like to read a more imaginative (and I’d say humble) response to all this, check out John Blase’s thoughts.

All You Need to Know

My old nemesis doubt has snarled at me yet again in recent days. I’m not surprised; we’re naturally floundering a bit as we make our way in this new place, feeling the geographic disconnection from the deep friendships that have sustained us over the past years. There’s more reasons, I know (tiredness, the necessary process of wrestling with new questions and contexts, etc. etc.). The bottom line, though, is that I have just felt that numbing, vague hollowing of my soul.

My first response in seasons of doubt is to rev the intellectual engines. Find an answer. Scratch around for more proofs. Connect with a philosophical voice that calms my anxious heart. There’s a place for bending the mind, absolutely. Ignorance is not our friend. However, I’ve peddled around those circles enough to know that they just keep going round and round and round. For me, hope is not found in a rational repose but in an inflamed heart. Eleven years ago, when I foolishly freaked out about whether or not I should marry Miska, my doubt and fear was not, at its core, a matter of proofs and logic. It was a matter of desire. What did I want? What did my heart beat for? It’s the same here. As a friend recently told me, “All you need to know is what you love.”

My doubts (in this season at least) aren’t signals that I need to better wrestle with my questions. Rather, my doubts make their way from a heart that has not surrendered to love. I find hope in Mother Theresa’s words (who said if she would ever be declared a saint, it would have to be as a “saint of darkness”): “My key to heaven is that I loved Jesus in the night.”

In the night, I loved. Not just in the day. Not just amid the answer. But I loved Jesus, in the night. That is my hope, my prayer.