Jesus Won’t Make You Not Lonely

Jesus won’t make you not lonely. He never offered to. That’s a false promise from your youth pastor or a kitschy blog post you read.

And yet He does promise to make you complete. Which, apparently, still means lonely. Because if the gospels are any indication, Jesus was plenty lonely. 

There was a time when He wasn’t. “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” (Jn. 17:5)

Jesus was and is God, even though He’s not the Father, or the Spirit, and in eternity past, they were complete together, and they weren’t lonely. 

And creating people such as ourselves had everything to do with multiplying their own mutual satisfaction into creatures that were not them. So there will be a day when we are like them in that we won’t be lonely. Every thing will be as satisfying as it ought to be. 

We won’t be God, but we’ll he like Him in all the right ways even as we’re unlike Him in almost every way, because we’ll be investing in each other without emotional deficits to fill.

Everything we’ll stand to gain from friendship will change because we’ll carry on with one another out of an over-abundance of satisfaction. We will not strip-mine one another for satisfaction.

But today we’re lonely. We wake up and the dread’s there, quiet or clamoring. This is what Jesus felt, too. And it wasn’t because He was single, which He probably was.

Say He’d married Mary Magdalene. After picking her up off the ground and dusting her off, He wraps His robe around her and walks to the courthouse asking for a Baptist preacher. James and John are witnesses to their union. Their mom, too, for good measure.

They have a courthouse wedding and build a life together. He’s a bottomless pit of patience and He helps out around the house. She cooks a mean fish and she knows things the other wives don’t know about, on account of her life of sin before she met Him. Pretty soon she’s teaching every wife in the neighborhood things they couldn’t have known and the husbands are grateful. Jesus is just happy He gets to be the guy who comes home to her every day.

It’s not an end to His loneliness, though. The dread’s still there. Maybe it was clamoring and now it’s quiet. But dread is dread and if it’s there it’s there. Any way we slice it, we’ve got a lonely God-man and that means our loneliness is as holy as His ever was because it’s part of the human experience, and the human experience is holy because the Triune God breathed life into it for His glory – even if the humans that experience  it are damnable. 

What isn’t so holy is what we do with our loneliness. One of the things that sets us apart is the desperation with which we endeavor to eat up the dread that haunts us. We won’t be subjected to it, and anything done in the name of shielding ourselves from its oppression is pardonable, or even praiseworthy, we say in our hearts. Remarkably, this does not appear to have been Jesus’s posture.

There’s always a multitude of angles to everything, and there’s plenty to be said about the how and why of Jesus’s sinlessness, but one angle is certainly this: sin is noise as much as it is anything else. Noise to drown out the cacaphony of dread. It doesn’t shrink our loneliness, but it does compete for our attention. It’s racket that muffles despair. Our career in sin is a humanitarian endeavor directed at ourselves. We’re nursing wounds.

Jesus, lonely and wounded like everyone else who’s ever lived, turned His dread into occaision for worship. He neither revolted against His loneliness nor resigned Himself to it. He sacrilized it. 

Amongst other things, being like Jesus means going and doing likewise – recognizing the sanctity of loneliness and protecting ourselves from the temptation to flee from it. The tyranny of trying to complete ourselves in other people is staggering, and the novelty of romance and sex and even platonic friendship turns on us when we heave the weight of our “wholeness” on it. To quote Derek Webb, “Jesus died a broke, thirty-three year old virgin for the sake of those of us with misplaced values.” Like Jesus, let the existential dread that accompanies being a human being on planet earth carry us to the altar to worship.

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A.W. Tozer’s Unsatisfying Take on Loneliness and, Hopefully, a Better Diagnosis

vittore_carpaccio_visione_di_santagostino_01

St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502

“The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share his inner experiences he is forced to walk alone.

“The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.

“The man who has passed on into the divine Presence in actual inner experience will not find many who understand him. He finds few who care to talk about that which is the supreme object of his interest, so he is often silent and preoccupied in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk. For this he earns the reputation of being dull and over-serious, so he is avoided and the gulf between him and society widens.

“He searches for friends upon whose garments he can detect the smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces, and finding few or none he, like Mary of old, keeps these things in his heart.

“It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. His inability to find human companionship drives him to seek in God what he can find nowhere else.”

That’s A.W. Tozer, from the book Man: The Dwelling Place of God. (For the curious, this passage is on page 39). It was shared in a group setting by a man who divulged that he’d felt lonely, sometimes unbearably so, his whole life. Upon trying to explain it with friends and family, he was met with quizzical looks, and prescribed a slew of solutions, each more vapid than the last. He’d come across this passage and wondered aloud whether, perhaps, this was the root of his discontent. There’s certainly something to what Tozer is saying. But I don’t think that’s the root of loneliness.

As I’ve written elsewhere, loneliness is inherent. It’s going nowhere. We don’t become lonely out of our deficit in godly relationships, or even out of the inability of others to fill us up. It’s part and parcel of our humanity. Our loneliness is woven into the fabric of our being. This is by design.

It turns us into seekers or it crushes us under its weight. Kierkegaard was right. Dread’s our friend because it stirs the religious impulse in us, and our enemy because it’s dreadful. There’s no solution. There shouldn’t be. It’s a rock-drawn pathway toward the only true Wellspring of joy. So Tozer was right about something.

It could be that folks like myself and the aforementioned gentleman are outliers. We may really just be a lonely minority amongst an otherwise satisfied populace. I doubt it, though. After some probing people tend to agree that they’re lonely, almost regardless of circumstance. That they’re inexplicably discontented. That they’re happily married and haunted by a cavernous dread.

Westerners live noisy lives. Existential crises are a cash cow, and the capitalist machine, God bless, owes much of its sustainability to the holy terror, equal parts imperceptible and persuasive, of what might happen if we’re forced to be alone with our thoughts. Dread’s a low hum that underpins everything, and sin and entertainment, especially, are racket that go a long way toward drowning it out. A lot of folk, godly and not, are perpetually entertained, so the dread’s only perceptible when it’s interrupted by grief or tragedy or abandonment, or worse. But it is there.

Which is actually good news, as long as you’re not the sort of fellow that skips straight to the end of Ecclesiastes because you need everything to have an uplifting twist. Everyone’s haunted by the vanity of vanities and there’s no help coming till you’re a framed 5″ x 8″ on somebody’s fireplace. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

And it’s good news because it means that torturous quest for fulfillment-through-relationships, whether platonic or sensual or whatever, is as fruitless as the desert prophets who ate locust and honey and probably sand have always suspected they were, however colorfully adorned. Finally catching up with the Augustines and Henri Nouwens of the world, we can embrace the mercy of low-expectations, in which no one has to complete us, we can love in the absence of redamancy, we can enjoy in the absence of contentment. If we’re lovers, our hearts needn’t beat for one another, because they’ll never beat for anyone forever, really, and, granting inadequacy in both parties, it’s good to be inadequate together rather than inadequate alone.*

We can understand, at last, why Father Such-and-Such rolls his eyes when we demand an account for why he’s perfectly happy being “married to the Church” when there’s a swarm of pious young women who’d be delighted to walk the aisle with a reasonably handsome fellow who understands the word ‘infralapsarianism,’and all he’d ever have to do to sink his teeth into that ever present buffet is turn-coat and become Episcopalian. Granting inadequacy both ways, it’s plenty good to be inadequate alone rather inadequate together.

It’s not a coincidence that, by all evidences, Jesus wasn’t active in the Nazarene dating scene, and his friendships, of which he had many, were equal parts subordinate and indispensable as a component of his joy. Indispensable because we’re born to enjoy God through people and things and enjoy people and things through the mercy of God. Subordinate because we’re more than just a set of instinctive drives to be satiated or repressed, and the satiation of our drives doesn’t actually make us happy and their repression doesn’t actually ruin our lives. Human loneliness is an incurable phenomenon, as I suggested above, and Jesus wasn’t going to slay his loneliness or ours by finding a suitable partner or keeping busy with the guys. Instead, Jesus turned the clamoring dread into occasion for worship. Loneliness is a rock-drawn path to the true Wellspring of joy because it moves us to place the whole stock of our “wholeness” onto Christ. And that’s a different breed of happiness.

I imagine a song that accompanies everything. One of those soaring melodies that makes you contemplate the vastness of everything. I imagine it plays over the mundane goings-on of our life. It breaks in inappropriately as we put down our books and shut our newspapers, sip our coffee, and drive through the crowded city districts.

There are no words in it, because we’re always talking anyway, and even if there were lyrics, they wouldn’t make sense. What could sum up everything, all the time? Anything other than “Christ is all and in all” would be chatter. The worst kind, too.

But then the song would be crowded. The melody I have in mind is good, as is. It already says “Christ is all and in all,” because it’s beautiful and big and it wakes something up in us. It’s awe, which feels like worship, but isn’t quite worship, but transports the folks who know Christ to the altar and folks who don’t straight to the inner corridors of their own temple to introspect and come up short. It’s not quite a sermon, but it’s something.

Of course, next to nobody hears it. If there is a song of sorts underwriting everything, it’s at a frequency we’re deadened to, so that going on about it usually amounts to very little. But it sounds like joy, and it feels like joy, and it’s contagious, and beautiful, infinitely more beautiful than the low-hum of dread is ugly, – beautiful enough to make us love the dreadful hum because it drank us dry, and drove us mad, and opened our ears to the beauty of the song – so it’s worth it, because felix-freaking-culpa.

It isn’t beholden to the threadbare hope that everything will go as necessary to fulfill the proper conditions under which I can be adequately satisfied. It’s a happiness and a peace that emerges from the Godness of God. We were created for Him, and torn away from Him by sin and the unflinching resolve with which we clung to it against everything, and purchased again by Him, to be reconciled to Him. We’re hard-wired to be satisfied by His Himness. That’s what satisfies us. That’s our happiness and peace. Everything else is runoff from that. It’s a different breed of happiness.

So, like Augustine and probably Qoheleth, I’ve learned to love that there are days I wake up and wish I hadn’t, where the nausea of everything is crushing, and the hope at the end of the story doesn’t offer much solace here in the harrowing middle. The hum draws me back to the song, and, therefore, the Conductor. Big and bright and beautiful, the song makes me quietly joyful, because it’s deeper than the dread. The over-shared Augustine quote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” is true despite the kitschy den decorations on which it’s often found.

Tozer knew this by experience, despite radically misdiagnosing it on paper. Thank God. One day we’ll laugh about it together: Aiden Tozer and I, and Augustine, and Henri and everyone the cacophonous dread wounds mercifully and chases into the concert hall of Yahweh to listen and enjoy, and be filled. To be filled like all those thieves and beggars, Jean Valjean types, had hoped to be. And the bastard conquistadors, plundering their angst away, into the pockets of their indigenous prey, had hoped to be filled by it. And the Cassanova types, tangled up in the mire of sexual capitalism, trapping partners between their jaws and legs, to pick the meat off their bones, only to be hungry again, had hoped, each time, to be filled. And the fat priests and papists, who checkered the history of the Church with death and debauchery, Molochites who cooked and ate their children to appease the divines, Crusaders and Jihadists, and the architects of Pax Romana, who kept quiet the simmering countrysides of Rome only by stifling dissent with swords hammered from ploughshares, and Tsars who held their office in tightly clenched fists, nursing a threadbare security with the threat of Gulag and nothing else, had hoped – vainly, verily, desperately – that they would be filled. We’ll laugh, and embrace, and say to each other what needn’t be said – that all of it, the tears and the nausea, the ache of existence, was worth it, not because some ethereal paradise awaited, but because the song was there, and the Conductor with it. Because felix culpa.

 

 

 

*Wendell Barry said something similar, which I’ve borrowed here and modified:

“It is better,
granting imperfection in both ways,
to be imperfect and together
than to be imperfect and alone.”

Aphorisms; The Importance Of A Good Philosophy

Adapted from Private Conversation:

A good philosophy is like a well-built house. There are many different ways it can be built, but there are certain basic needs (or even very particular needs) which it needs to meet in order to be a good house. In the same way that a house needs to keep people warm, some philosophies can leave people out in the cold if they don’t answer certain questions well. Modern science is a primary example of this because it was developed in a specific way that it didn’t need to be and now it has a habitual way of seeing the world which subtracts meaning from it (see Lewis’ The Empty Universe, or Barfield’s The Rediscovery of Meaning, or Charles Taylor on Buffered and Porous Selves). So, again, a world primarily informed by modern science is often lucky if it isn’t left significantly empty by that science. This is why Lewis wrote the essay called the Empty Universe. The way of seeing which science pushes is a big deal, and part of how it got there was often the result of certain decisions in philosophy or spirituality that have had a big impact along the way.

Then again a good philosophy is like a computer program – I learned this because around the time I was getting into Philosophy I also was taught some programming classes by my dad – these gave me much more knowledge of structural issues than of computer languages, which I hardly know now. But a computer program is made to call up certain code under certain conditions. If it goes to certain code and the code doesn’t actually remedy the situation satisfactorily, then the program defaults and an error occurs, sometimes crashing the system. The same thing happens in people’s lives. People run into real life issues when the (implicit or explicit) philosophy they have been taught requires certain “code” and calls it up and they discover that the code is lacking. This can create great despair and years of searching.

Now this doesn’t mean that philosophy is supposed to be taught completely authoritatively. In fact it only works by dialogue and dogma (in the traditional, European sense of doctrine and tradition), which is why it is so significant that Socrates and Jesus and the best Philosophers have written by showing little talks. If something is not convincing, we discuss why. If it is finally found lacking, it is acknowledged and that is that if nothing else is proposed. The history of philosophy is thus a long conversation. Someone who has studied it well can dwell in it like a house. Either it works or it does not. It works like a code in that it will run into errors sooner or later, bigger or smaller. The smaller they are, the more it will be like a dialogue. The bigger they are the more it will require both creativity and even revelation

I am saying all of this to illustrate how I believe philosophy has very real consequences and how it is important.

[It occurs to me that that some people will think this is meant to be exhaustive, or that this means I am purely constructivist about philosophy. I believe there is a “single truth” in life, but exactly how one gets there, or in what sense or degree anyone does get there, is a very complex matter. In short, Truth is not constructed; Philosophies are.]

The concrete and excellent impact which “books” have had on my life…

If you think that reading books just closes you off from the world, making you impractical and impersonal, you should consider what effect interactive, thoroughly involved and participatory reading has had in my life.

1- it introduced me to Spiritual inwardness and much wisdom

2- it helped guide me through no small depression and into action and purposeful life

3- in particular, it led me to volunteer several times and later work two summers at a Summer Camp for people with Special Needs, Camp Barnabas. This was no small feat for a shy, sheltered young man who knew at the time nothing about caring for others or about people with special needs. This in turn led me to be a team leader / staff supervisor at a small Summed Camp in New Mexico (which I thoroughly surprised myself by making not a terrible job of). And these experiences have certainly taught me a variety of excellent skills both practical and people-based (and self-based, like fear-management, which started in many ways with C. S. Lewis and led to volunteering at Barnabas, then working on their team that was in charge of the Rockwall, zipline, and ropes course, and so on — this was supplemented by Kierkegaard, Donald Miller, Dostoyevsky, Pascal…). Come to think of it, the inward life that books taught me, or that I embraced and learned through books, perhaps I ought to say, also provided me with the courage to pursue the possibility of the great, outrageous, living beauty who is my wife now. (Much of this also involved a long-time conversation with God, but the role of “books” generally is undeniable in all my major life decisions, which I value very much and do not believe have been foolish, at least in God’s eyes.)

4- it has helped make dull moments and dull jobs more meaningful or at any rate less dull; by 1st helping me to understand how mundane things tie into the big picture of the universe, humanity, and God in a way that is meaningful to me. Work and the very fabric of this world, however mundane, are holy and good and your conscious perspective about them affects your ability to be bored or exultant. Or 2nd by giving me plenty to think about, poetry and philosophy to learn and recite and dwell on, even while, or perhaps especially while, at work.

5- it has helped me connect with people who have similar thoughts and feelings, even though they may never have seemed to in the first place or never had the same way of thinking about it; it has helped me connect with people who are different from me.

I could go on. “Books” will not close you off to the world anymore than anything else, and, if you let them, if you work with them, they can help you make your life into something practical, beautiful, thoughtful, helpful, and Godly.

(My father and others also helped immensely with all of this, but this post is specifically about the influence of “books,” read with thorough involvement, like I said. If you don’t believe me, it’s your loss.)

“We Have Done a Lot of Worthwhile Things”


(Some aphorisms, some assaying of 3 ways to enter the bleakness)

This post is dedicated to my wife – “Come live with me, and be my love”

 

0. “We have lived a long time.”
“What?”
“We have lived a long time.”
“Yes,… and I plan to live some more.”
“Yes, and I might, too.”
Pause.
“We did a lot of things.”
“What?”
“We did a lot of things, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. I circled the globe.”
“And I spent three years in the far east.”
“You served well.” (He had been in the military.)
Pause.
“We have done a lot of worthwhile things.”

1. She asked me how old she was, to do the math. (89 years, I figured from 1927 to 2016 so far.)

2. They keep telling each other that they’re going to get through this, this is just a bump in the road, and that sort of thing – genuine encouragements. They’ve been doing this a lot.

3. He asked her if they still had a two bedroom apartment, she didn’t understand the question and he didn’t know how to clarify (along with being exhausted of trying to explain). I don’t know the answer, don’t know them, and nobody has come by today who would know if they still have a two bedroom apartment. (After writing this post I learn that they have “no next of kin.” Does anybody come to visit them? I don’t count, I am an intrusion.)

4. She is very hard-of-hearing and apologized sincerely to him about it, and he just said, “It comes with the territory.”

This is heart-breaking.

5. Once or twice I heard the gentleman made negative comments to the effect that someone is holding them here. The woman has asked who sent me here, who I work for, under whose orders I am – not asking in a challenging way, but in a probing way, not as though she expected anything, exactly – but the very nature of being accompanied suddenly by someone you don’t know in the least, and not knowing why they are there … it is horrifying to think about. The man at one point asked, I believe in exasperated exaggeration, if there was some sort of experiment going on.

6. I also overheard him observe to his wife that the people in the dinning room, other elderly ladies and gentlemen, looked depressed, and that he saw some of them crying. (Today, I am observing an elderly couple discover some of the realities which elderly people face in America. Some of their experiences they seem to be having for the first time, some they are used to, some, I wonder if they would be more used to if they had better memories – but I don’t know.)

7. He doesn’t understand why, for now, he has to wear certain medical apparatus (those words are perfect for the awkwardness of what they describe). They both have complained about the service – not, I think, because the service is bad – on the contrary, this must be one of the nicest senior living centers in Colorado. The real reason is that communication, understanding, empathy, are so difficult to achieve even by those really trying and really skilled at it. It is terrifyingly, depressingly unavoidable. And much of the medical skill required to take care of these people can’t easily be explained to them. In other words, increasingly, these men and women live in a world which they can’t understand, and which doesn’t understand them. They live in a world where they have things done to them which, even if they are just, seem to be injustices, and must feel to them to mean they are voiceless and sometimes even without basic rights.

8. And in fact, I know very little. Either about them or about their health or about any conspiracy about an experiment. I certainly believe that great good has come from modern medicine, and yet it seems quite undeniable to me that it is an industry, not to say many people don’t mean well by it. – I do suspect that a government which rules by absolute law could not do better than an industry in the sense that an industry can adapt, more or less, while changing unjust or overextensive laws once they have been made can be extremely difficult. But I am concerned. Above all, when I am asked why I am here, I can only say my company sent me (basically), as almost nothing of the science or their human situation has been explained to me.
9. If I was here as some part of a conspiracy, I wouldn’t know and couldn’t tell them. I don’t believe I am, but my point is that they really are becoming more and more passive agents in a world where things are done to them, just or not, and there is little to nothing that I can do, since we don’t know each other, to change that. My point is that only personal, long-lasting acquaintances, probably family, could really adequately respect them and give them the whole world, or anything like the world, which they are used to. But that would require an entirely different social structure, one that would allow even relatively skilled medical help to become commonplace (and probably commonplace in the home). And then there is the fact that most people struggle with respecting and loving those closest to them in the first place. You cannot stop this situation from being horrifying. You can ignore it, but it will creep up on you. I am not talking about “old people.” I am talking about people – because unless you “die young,” this is each and every one of us. The existential certainty of death is far too ignored. When did you last contemplate just how many years you might spend alone, or not alone but alienated, not understanding everyone around you? And even with those who “die young,” or who don’t make it to old age “whole:” –

A poor black woman hears her son has been shot, she has a stroke, goes to the hospital, is unable to see her son before he dies; her own mother won’t tell her that her son has died, sells her house, and she will spend the rest of her life half-paralysed in a wheelchair (this is a true story, I know this resilient but mistreated woman); my own uncle, Kerry Chadwick, entering his fifties, not really that old, not nearly old enough, died last year in a zipline accident. He was just beginning to live a dream of his, he had earned a Doctorate in Ministry (his dissertation was on Mentoring), and he had just completed a whole year (a whole year, so long, so small, – not enough time, it makes me want to cuss and I’m crying writing this) a whole year, only a year, but an important one, as a Camp Director at Inlow Baptist Camp and Conference Center in New Mexico, a camp of his childhood. He is survived by a wife, a son, a daughter. He was a loved and respected pastor for about a decade. He had experience as a chaplain, I believe both for the military and for the police force. He had worked as a bus mechanic and as a bus-tour guide in Alaska (many of these vocations he had fulfilled simultaneously). He was an incredible man, a phenomenal man. I had just been getting to know him when I worked for him almost two years ago, the summer before he died. No man is an island; my family, myself, are all lesser because of his death. The world is missing something, and I am crying again.

And this is so very, very depressing. To try to speak adequately about these things is to know you will fumble, but decide to fumble anyways. Here I turn from more aphoristic wonderings to my attempt to “assay” the difficulty. Being more directed, I expect it is easier to fail; I only hope I can “fail, fail again, and fail better,” as George Steiner says, that my weakness in not knowing what to say might be as a strength, that if my own words fall to the ground like seeds, they abideth not alone, as the saying goes.

Most of the time we all just want to ignore this sort of thing – certainly myself included. I often turn away from articles and blog posts, other peoples’ despair, saying, “I don’t even want to entertain that or let it in. If I were to take it seriously I would be wrecked.” I understand. Contemplating all of this makes me want to go home and just hold my beautiful wife. **(Note 1, scroll to bottom)

The fact is, though, even if science could progress (I heard someone say recently that progress isn’t finite), if death by old age could be done away with (“old age is the failure of stem cells”), that slow cold melting of your self, the fact is that we live in a precarious universe. If you put hope in ignorance, or in manipulative knowledge (called “science,” where “knowledge is power,” which more appropriately means that knowledge is primarily power and if it is not power then it is not really knowledge) – either way, you are only putting off the problem. Unless you deal with the existential crisis awaiting you in any and every situation, in the end, then it will become that much worse in the meantime. Putting off facing the problem extends its consequences further into the present.

But there is a way to deal with it – this crisis of old age, young death, or just death – sort of. There is a necessity that we go through the problem, through death, rather than around it, or than backing away from it. While my Uncle was no fool, and he did not take death lightly or get on that zipline without taking it seriously, – and I have talked with him about death (I only wish I could remember more than the gist of what he said) – he also new that “solving the problem” is something of a different nature than ignoring it or trying to power your way out of it. In fact, it is also different from even “solving” a “problem” – which is a mathematical and chemical phrasing – tied to the project and the hopes of modern science. (See Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, specifically her chapter titled, “Problem Picture.”) Death, and coming to terms with it, is a matter of character, of quality, of subjectivity, not in the sense of relativism but in an objectively human sense, a moral, relational, even religious and sacred sense. Coming to terms with death means coming to terms with the crux of the despair in your own self, which stops you in the here and now from becoming a person, the person whom you ought to be, your true self. (For the Christian, this is the self as God sees you.)

Christians often talk as though death had been overcome in such power that they can remain ignorant of it. But this is precisely not the death which Christ had, this is not carrying your cross daily, and this is not fear and trembling. In other words, Christians often say that because Christ died, we don’t have to, and this exhibits a loss of faith on their part. (Or a failure to truly appropriate faith – in which failure their “faith” is in-appropriate, a band-aid “solution” to a problem which must be met as a person with character and humilty, not by ignorance of the reality of death or by fake “power” which is the ignorance of arrogance – I mean scientific manipulation.)

But Christians do have the “answer” to death – and this is appropriate phrasing in as much as life is an ongoing dialogue, and in as much as the love and pursuit of wisdom is a philosophical midwifery, which means that it is a discussion which helps you bring yourself to maturity, to birth and then to rebirth. The answer is the Living Word (the Divine Other who Speaks into us, enters into dialogue with us), the presence of Justice, which is not a single, finite “solution” in a scientific sense or a sense which simply ignores the problem and the reality of death in spiritual procrastination. Instead, this presence is the quality and vitality of humanity when it is preserved, respected, creative, loving, familial and redeemed. So far as I can tell, Christianity generally is the only religion, the only “worldview,” which does not offer “band-aid” “solutions” which you apply yourself. It offers a spoken Word – spoken to you and me, a Word which speaks into the dark and makes it light. This light is the quality we try to preserve, the character and humility with which we are okay with neither ignorance of death and despair nor arrogance about them. Only this light can really carry you on in the face of death, into death, through it, past it. As George MacDonald says, “the Son of God suffered not that we might not suffer, but that our suffering might be like his.”

And indeed, once Christ had gone through the suffering of death, he came back to those who followed him and waited for him, he encouraged them, he gave them a direction to go in and he gave them a helper (the Holy Spirit) – all of these are what Christians regularly use to go through death and go on in a life full of bleak futures. (True evangelism is a life of spreading the Word, actively living with hope in the face of death, the threat of despair.) After Christ’s death, for those who lived in him, even those who were daily beaten and thrown in jail for not bowing to the ignorance and arrogance of the world – for them, death was a reality, but one with no sting. My own grandfather, or my own uncle, because they have been given the power to face and go through death (which power is the vitality and basic quality of their life-style; this is the calling of Christians) are able to face death and old age with confidence and hope, in spite of its bleakness, though not negating it. The “sting” of death is negated by entering the bleakness with the character of Christ.

This is why I have worked as a caregiver for the elderly in the first place, why I ever went to Camp Barnabas to serve and to love God and people with special needs, this is why I have embraced doubt and doubters, tried to be there when a void opened up inside of them (as it had inside of me, during my own existential crisis). This is why I want to be a professor, exploring the languages which we make in imitation of our maker, extensions of the Word. This is why I want to be a church planter (not in any boring sense); this is the application of the Gospel, the declaration of the salvation of my Lord.

(There is this idea, it is either the presence of the in-deconstructible, or it is deconstructive justice itself, that dialogue, “argument,” conversation, or community, call it what you like, “goes on forever,” as Aquinas said. I could talk on these themes forever, but here looks like a good stopping spot. Communion with the community of the Trinity goes on after my hand stops writing.)

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat should fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
John 12:24

 

**(Note 1: Two brief thoughts: 1. I mean here not to objectify my wife but to illustrate the very desire to reach out to the Other, I mean respectful desire, a desire for oneness, intimacy, over against exploitation. 2. It occurs to me here that there is a balance in the traditional vow, “to have and to hold;” marriage, when it is successful, is not a matter of mere “possession” without respect (mere “having”), but neither is it a matter of respect without commitment (mere “holding”). My wife posseses me not as one possesses a thing, but as one possesses oneself and commits to oneself; and the same goes for me “possessing” her. With God’s grace and help, we are hoping to become one. I am reminded of the couple here, of him getting up in the night, laboriously donning his robe and taking his walker down the hall to make sure that his wife is still in her room, that she will meet him for breakfast tomorrow – “there are a number of places she could be,” he tells me with concern. Their love in their old age is evidence of their efforts to be one in their life together. In at least one sense, their old age reveals a reality in which the “corn of wheat should fall” and thereby not “abideth alone.”

Unworthy Ministers of a Liberating Gospel

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Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Days come when I wake up in the morning and cannot talk myself into feeling worthy to lead any ministry in any capacity. Weeks of fighting hard against your own sinful habits and tendencies mean next to nothing to you in the hours and the days following a massive, messy collapse. Those are the moments in which you will want to give up – to throw your hands in the air and say, “I’ve always known I wasn’t cut out for this, and here is the proof.”

So you’ll probably do something incredibly unhealthy. If you’re like me, you’ll employ the fake-it-till-you-make-it method of dealing with your own unworthiness. Rather than allowing yourself to feel the weight of your sin and then allowing yourself to be healed by the grace of God, you will suppress both the pangs of crushing guilt and the peace of experiencing God’s ongoing forgiveness. Rather than offering yourself freshly to Jesus, you’ll ‘give God a few days to cool down’. And if you’re in any sort of leadership position in the Church, you’ll put on your best “I’m doing fine” face and carry on doing the work of God without the Spirit’s guidance.

I remember just how messed up I am every time I speak condescendingly to my girlfriend and watch the sense of security with me disappear from her eyes. It is crushing to realize that you are the kind of person that makes others feel unsafe. I remember just how not-holier-than-anybody I am every time I make the conscious decision to take the easy rather than the ethical course of action when nobody is watching. And if the conversations I’ve had with other believers are an accurate representation of the norm, everyone is like me.

Not everybody’s sins are the same, but everybody’s sins are equally crippling. Whether you’re a porn addict or an emotional terrorist or just kind of a jerk, your sins are crippling. And if, like me, you’re tasked with leading others in ministry on a regular basis, the crippling effects of your constant moral failure can eat you alive.

The lie that we believe, that dominates our lives, is that we are uniquely jacked up. Because we can only know other people to a certain degree, it’s an easy lie for the enemy to sell. While I can’t plumb the depths of anyone else’s depravity, I know my own far too well to trust myself with anything. And so it goes with everyone.

But the gospel poses an uncompromising challenge to the pervasive lie. Namely, that everyone, everywhere, is supremely, nauseatingly jacked up. If the Biblical narrative is true, then I can assume with confidence upon meeting anyone that somewhere beneath the human face they put on, a terrifying darkness is present. We just domesticate our actual-jacked-up-ness well. At our best, we are all one push away from collapsing back into utter debauchery.

Let me put it another way. Nobody is that well adjusted. Time and intimacy reveal the cracks in the asphalt of everyone, and all it takes is to look closely at someone for a moment to see how remarkably fragile they are. We have a threadbare righteousness.

That means you don’t have to feel like damaged goods when your actual-jacked-up-ness shows its ugly face. And if you’re someone tasked with leading others as a minister of the gospel, it should remind you that you’re leading a flock of jacked-up redeemed people as one after their own heart. You’re going to sin, and then you’re going to be numb for a while, and then you’re going to be hit like a train with the fact that you’re completely unqualified for the job of “spiritual guru”. In that moment, cling to that conviction. Because it’s true. Your real-life depravity completely disqualifies you from wearing the “spiritual guru” hat. But understand that it’s a joyous disqualification, because ‘spiritual gurus’ have nothing to offer people who are ‘crooked deep down’.

Instead, be a ‘wounded shepherd’, selling a story of good news for criminals like yourself.

Servantlike Images of a Self-Exalting God

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Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

“And they came to Capernaum. And when they were in the house, Jesus said, “What were you talking about on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. And He sat down and called the twelve. And He said to them, “Anyone who would be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And He took took a child and put Him in the midst of them. And taking him in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:33-37)

“If anyone would be first, he must be servant of all.” The question we have to ask ourselves when we want to be godly bosses, godly parents, godly pastors and godly professors is, “How can I be a servant to those over whom I have ‘authority’?” Jesus came as a servant, and He never met a person He didn’t serve. Even the religious leaders who met harsh reprimand from Him were served in the process. No one else was willing to call them to repentance, save for the recklessly self-marginalizing Essene cult, whose reprimand resonated only with fringe wilderness dwellers. There is nothing inherently unloving about issuing rebuke. It is only selfish rebuke, served out of unholy fire, with little concern for the propriety of the context in which it is issued, that is unservantlike.

Even if we are not leaders in any capacity, if we are faces in a crowd, we are called to the joy of being everyone’s servant. We aren’t called to be doormats. Jesus was everyone’s servant and nobody’s doormat. There’s a difference. A servant is constantly posing the question: “What is the most loving thing that I can do for this person in this situation, given these circumstances?” Becoming someone’s doormat is never loving because in doing so you are only helping them to become more of a monster. Being a servant in the way that Jesus was a servant means being bold and assertive, although never overbearing or coercive. It means loving yourself so you have a reference point on how to love your neighbor as yourself. It means respecting yourself so that you have a frame of reference from which you can understand what kind of respect to give other people.

Being a servant like Jesus means resisting the temptation toward laziness or idleness because there is always someone to serve.  As a husband it means taking every opportunity to give your wife a chance to rest from the rush of the day. It means doing the dishes so that she can watch television, or take a nap, or read a book (or whatever). As a father it means playing with your kids when you’re exhausted from the day, and trying to create opportunities for them to build a good life for themselves in the future. It means doing what you need to do to prevent burnout. If that means waking up early to spend time alone to recharge, do that. If it’s something else, do that. It means stirring your affections for your wife by reflecting on her best qualities and choosing to dwell on them.

If you’re aggressively introverted–like myself–it means sacrificing solitude to be with your friends and family. It also means protecting your time alone so that you’re in a position to treat people well and engage in friendship with them.

We are citizens of a kingdom where everyone serves everyone. At one level, our lifestyle of servanthood is a walking apologetic for the truth of Christ to a world ruled by self-interest. We are called to this life style in order to display the selfless love of the self-exalting God. How does that work? The gospel begins with a Trinitarian God, fully satisfied in the bounds of His own intrinsically communal existence, creating a world of creatures to be servants, lovers, friends–communitarians. He created a people with the end in mind of shaping them to become like Him. That doesn’t mean that we are meant to become gods, but that we are meant to become a community of mutual servanthood.

That God is passionate about being glorified is a given because He is intrinsically glorious, and the intrinsic glory that He embodies demands redamancy from all creatures who encounter it. But with that reality in mind, it is necessary to situate our theology in the simultaneous reality that the intrinsically glorious God whose glory demands worship is also intrinsically satisfied. He has no needs that are unmet within Himself. It is not simply because He “owns the cattle on 1000 hills”, but that any and all conceivable needs that a person might have are satisfied fully by the perfect community that He experiences between the persons of Himself.

That means that when He created people, animals, greenery–everything–He did so with no designs of seeing a personal emotional deficit filled. He did not create us to be loved but to give love. He did not create us so that we might satisfy His emotional needs, but in order to multiply His own satisfaction to a whole world of creatures. The self-exalting God is selfless because His glory is self-authenticating. He can put real weight behind His claims to love people because He has nothing to gain from dying for them. He is self-exalting because He bloody well ought to be.

Jesus modeled this servant lifestyle to us and called us to do likewise because we have been newly created by the gospel to be servants after God’s own heart and Jesus’s own example. The servant lifestyle to which we are called is not only an apologetic to a lost world; it is written into the DNA of our identity in Christ.

Stop Looking For A ‘Better Offer’

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Burning Bush by Sébastien Bourdon

“Y’know, the internet has kind of jacked us up.” said the sage-like 30-something year old whom I overheard at Starbucks, “People won’t commit to anything anymore. It’s like they think they’ll get a ‘better offer’ at the last minute. You’ll say, ‘Do you wanna meet at McDonald’s sometime and catch up?’ and they’ll be like, ‘That sounds great. So, maybe.'”

Those words hit me like a welcome punch in the mouth. They’re so relevant – for me, at least.

Humans are inclined to be noncommittal with personal relationships. In  my experience, it’s because (among other reasons) we believe that there must be something better to be had elsewhere, with someone else, and perhaps for some people, as someone else. As though we’re hanging on for dear life to the idea that our life might be better if only we were connected to a different community, had a different set of obligations, etc.

But it’s a cover. It’s a sneaky sort of blame-shifting technique. And it’s convenient. It gives us a tail to chase that can occupy us for life and get us off the hook from admitting to the fact that our reluctance to grow close to people, to commit to a certain life course, to really live our lives is rooted in the fear that we’re gonna get life wrong.

A lot of people are terrified of real relationships and struggle to make basic life choices. They have trouble committing to any path in particular because they have no idea who they are or what they are doing. They feel as though they have been thrust into adulthood with no real preparation, like somebody signed them up to be a grown up but never bothered to teach them quite what that meant. Most of us have felt the pangs of this, but have struggled to find the words to describe it.

Although I generally try to forget my Junior High years, I have at least one vivid memory from my days as an awkward, pimpled-faced teenager:

The year was 2008, and I was sitting in a certain teacher’s classroom (whose name will be changed to protect the innocent). We were doing a practice TAKS test. Now, or those of you who didn’t grow up in the Republic of Texas, the TAKS test was an end-of-year test that that a lot of kids could take with their eyes closed (I wasn’t one of them) which measured the student body’s comprehension of the core materials for the year. And since state funding for each school was partially tied to their TAKS scores, my school made sure to put us through a couple of grueling practice tests throughout the year before the real thing came around each April.

So I was relaxing at my desk in a classroom filled with students whose last names began with letters that show up early in the alphabet: Ellington…Delgado…Gately…etc. A little timer on Mrs. Cruella Deville’s desk went off, and she told the class to put our bubble sheets into our test booklets and pass them up to take a 5 minute bathroom break. I did not hear this, because I was spaced out, thinking about frisbees or something, and I tucked my bubble sheet and booklet into the small cubby under my desk.

After the break was over, Mrs. Cruella Deville picked up the booklets and began passing them back out to each student. When she had passed out the last booklet, she noticed that my name had not been called.

“Did you not pass your booklet up?” She asked.

“Oh…uh, no.” I replied, a little embarrassed.

She paused for a moment, as though unsure of what to say. She was a sarcastic woman, and generally had a clever quip for each situation. At this moment, however, her wit failed. As she turned around and walked back toward her desk, she said to the whole class, “Have you noticed that when we have to do something as a class, Ryan is always the one doing it wrong?”

The class laughed. I joined, half because I’ll laugh at almost any joke ever (that’s still true today) and half because I figured that I’d rather laugh with them at my own expense than be laughed at. But beneath my happy-go-lucky disposition, her words stuck. Not because I especially valued her input, but because it was something I was used to hearing. All throughout the earlier years of my life, I was told by teachers and other grown-ups that I couldn’t do anything right. Eventually, I started believing it.

And so a pattern sprouted up: nearly every time something I was involved with really began to require me to commit, to lock-in, I would bail. I would keep everything – friends, commitments, goals – at arms length, because I was convinced that if I ever got deep into anything that I would mess it up. I fundamentally believed that I was a screw up.

Now, I’m not recounting this story to have some kind of pity party. The point is this: for the longest time, I was horrified to commit to anything, or anyone, and I thought that I was the only one who lived this way. As far as I could tell, everyone else had their lives together, and that I was the odd one out. But as the years went on I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who had let my insecurities run my life – not by a long shot.

I’m an introvert, but I’m your friendly neighborhood introvert, so I have a lot of one-off conversations with people that I meet in coffee shops and bookstores. One thing I try to gather in each of these chance encounters is how does this person see the world? What I’ve found is that although every person that I meet is unique and vibrant, many share one thing in common: terror. Most of the people that I meet seem terrified to be alive. Just the other day, I asked a guy what time it was and you’d think I was interrogating him at gunpoint.

I don’t blame them.

A lot of people, like the guy I quoted at the beginning of this post, blame the internet for my generation’s anti-social, anti-commitment bent. I don’t. I’m not convinced that having all of this technology and information at our fingertips has made us more anti-social and noncommittal; I think it’s given us an outlet to retreat into a “safe” place. A place that isn’t real. A place where nobody judges us, and we can’t mess up our lives. The Facebook versions of us are stable, funny, and safe. Even when the Facebook me ‘can’t even’, he’s doing just fine. Not so for real life.

And it’s in this fear of marching on into the future, this uncertainty of whether we can handle the weight of being present in our own lives as adults, in the messiness of community with other, equally uncertain people, that most folks collapse, and choose to retreat into themselves rather than muster up the courage to be. 

Stop looking for a better offer. Take hold of the life that you have, the family you have, the you that you are. Stop looking for an escape route. Commit yourself to be an active participant in the life that is happening around you. Don’t retreat into yourself, or your smart phone, or your books. This is all there is. Reject the urge to sleepwalk through everything. Be present in your own life. “Do not be afraid.”