Welcome to Lent: Remember to Die

desert

In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war would be paraded through streets in a chariot to inhabit the praise of the people in celebration. But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably come to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori. 

“Remember to die.” 

It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself. But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.[1]


Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food tomorrow. And eventually, even the moths will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). Where, after all, are the limits of our desire? When, after all, has anyone ever found enough? When has the satisfaction of desire not given birth to yet another, even if the it is simply the desire to remain satisfied, the desire not to die.

So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on a Babylonian towers on an infinite trajectory, aimed squarely at nothing less than exactly ‘more’—in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The human soul is a bottomless pit, grounding our appetites in  a boundless, formless void. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire burning up the world. So with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, farther from the heart.

“To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God“: that is Paul’s implicit diagnosis in the form of prescription. But the God-sized love we were created to be filled with has been has been infected with our love of so many lesser things. As the deer panteth for the water so my soul panteth after you, O God, and also after you, O sex, and you, O power, and you, O approval, O praise, O just about anything to distract me from the eternity God has stubbornly placed in my heart, in order that I won’t find anything this side of eternity more than temporary satisfaction (Eccles. 3:11)—in order that I might eventually become dissatisfied with temporary satisfactions. Until then, our pursuits will continue to tear us in two opposite directions, driven by two geometrically opposed loves. We love to be loved by God, but we also love to love our sin.

Every particular sin has the same genealogy. Every sin is begotten of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. The Bible calls such desires temptations and attributes deception to the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but, ultimately, to pride. Pride always feels like freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power: the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever finding rest in the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the soul’s appetite for enough, for fullness, for God. 

This becomes more practically obvious as life in the body ages with the body. Eventually embodied life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high our Infinite desire truly is, and thus how low human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful. To remember to die in the light of eternity begins by letting our desires die in the light of today.  

Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. If you are the Son of God, pursue pleasure! (cf. Lk. 4:3) Pursue power! (Lk. 4:6-7) Pursue praise! (Lk. 4:9-11). It is the temptation of Son of God, because the Son of God became Son of Man. And this is the temptation of every man, woman, and child: the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (delight to the eyes), the pride of life (desired to make one wise), indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—not to die (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Gen. 3:1-7).


And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the forked shape of that tempter’s deceptions. We desire God, yes, but we confess too our other desires, splintering forth from the divisions in our soul. We do have a passion for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we confess there are other gasoline passions. We desire God’s will, but we confess we never desire “not my will.” We never desire to let ‘my will’ die, and so live into the eternal will of the Father. 

And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unexamined actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42), leaving us in the end like a cicada shell clinging to that forbidden tree. 

By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by pleasure alone, power alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. We must remember to die, lest we succeed needing no life other than our own. Only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless I live!

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

~ Son of God, Son of Man


Footnote

  1. Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.
Advertisements

Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior (12/26/13)


“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child will be laid down for the fall and the resurrection of many, and for a sign that is opposed, (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). 


The baby was born. They called him James.

There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.

But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.

I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?

But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.


I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.

Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. And middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.

When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.

When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.


The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.

The doctor handed him to me to carry as I was paced at an uncomfortable pace en route to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, a mere gesture, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye. 

There are no words here that will do.

I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as humanly impossible, or as inhumanly possible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…

I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35). 


Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart and the spear that pierced her Son’s were felt first in the love that was laid at the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). God is love in a very nounish sense, like the nounish sense of the word creation or the Word Incarnation. Mary couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.


His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.

Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, en route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.

We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that through our feeble hands he will continue to be held in that Love. God, help us.

Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.


Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” 

~ Psalm 36:7

Advent Reflection: Fear Not, Let Go of Your Blankie

An excerpt from The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise

“And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50).

My five year-old and three year-old call it their “blankie.” My two-year old calls it “bankie!” Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus called it his “security and happiness blanket” (Good Grief, More Peanuts, 1956). Child psychologists refer to it as a “comfort object” or “transitional object,” often referring to a (literal) security “blanket” but sometimes to a stuffed animal or other such item. These are objects that are typically used in early childhood as children begin to develop self-awareness and a sense of relative independence. Newborns see the world as an extension of themselves, but soon the illusion of an undifferentiated connection with the whole is reduced to just the mother, who “brings the world” to the infant. The baby’s inarticulate desire is translated to screaming in the middle of the night; screaming in the middle of the night is met with the faithful mother who comes to satisfy the desire; the mother is the child’s “security blanket” from the world full of hunger pains. 

But eventually, the child must be disillusioned if he or she is going to make it in the world. As it’s been said, the parent’s job is “to teach the child how to live with God and without you.” The child must learn not only that mom isn’t going to be around forever to “bring the world to us” but also that the world that will be brought to us is sometimes not the world we had hoped for. Sometimes the real world it is precisely the world we feared it might be.

This is where blankies and passies and teddies come in handy. It’s about having something familiar to hold onto in a world that often forces the unfamiliar upon us. Ambulances are stuffed full of “emergency blankets” to give to victims of trauma, not because trauma victims are necessarily cold, but because there are times we all need a “blankie.”  In fact, after polling over 6,000 people trying to track down the owners of about 75,000 stuffed animals in 452 hotels, the hotel chain Travelodge discovered that 35 percent of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear.

Life is scary, especially for adults.


That’s why we prefer the illusion. It’s also why we refer to retirement funds as “security blankets,” which is just another way of talking about the “blankie” we take to our death bed. We hold on to the illusion because between recessions, ISIS, corrupt leaders, teenagers texting and driving, old people texting and driving, not to mention the inevitability of death, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing, unless you are a follower of Jesus. In that case, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing but the claim of Christmas: that the God who is sovereign over life and death has sent his Son to be our security in life and in death, and that Christ is coming back to “bring the world” to us (Rev. 21). 

But I must confess that this promise isn’t all that comforting, at least not like a blankie is comforting. This, after all, is the same one of whom Mary said, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” Nobody fears their blankie; they use it to hide from their fears, to hide “under the covers” from hellish monsters. So it’s a terrifying prospect to walk through life empty-handed, armed only with the assurance that the One we fear most is the Same who is coming for us, like the little boy who daily dreads his father coming home from work, sometimes late from the bar. No wonder it’s hard to let go of the illusion. 

But that’s not the kind of fear we have because that’s not the kind of Father we have.

As my good friend, Joe, recently pointed out in an Advent devotional he is writing, fearing the Lord is not the same as being afraid of the Lord. Being afraid is about feeling out of control but also about not trusting the one you think is in control. It’s the little boy who is afraid of his father, the little boy hiding under the covers from him and all the other monsters in the world. This is what the Bible calls the fear of man: 

“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that man gets justice” (Prov. 29:25-26).

But the Bible does not speak of the fear of the Lord in this way. In fact, Precisely the opposite, in fact: 

“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Prov. 14:26-27).

This is the boy who thinks his father is the strongest man on earth and runs to the door each day to leap headlong into his father’s unrelenting arms, never even considering the prospect of his father dropping him. He is the strongest of all men not only because of the immensity of his strength but, more importantly, because he is in perfect control over his strength. That is why he is not a monster. His temper doesn’t demon-possess him; never comes home late and takes it out on the boy. He uses his strength to hold, not to harm, to embrace, not to abuse. The boy’s reverent fear takes the form of confidence. The only thing he has to fear is turning from his father and jumping into the arms of someone whose strength cannot be trusted, either because his strength is too weak to catch him or because his will is too weak not to harm him. 

Such gods and fathers and leaders and others may be stronger than the boy, but they are not worth the boy’s fear, because they do not compare to the strength of his true God and the good-will of his true Father. Fear the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who can catch you when you fall, the only one whose will is to work all things together for your good, even when you are bad. 

This is the way Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord. We are called to fear the only One we don’t have to be afraid of, the One who is indeed coming for us, to bring the world to us, as we jump headlong into his arms.


So it’s no surprise that when the angels were sent to announce his coming, the first words of their announcement were, “Fear not!” In fact, Mary herself was one of the first to hear it (1:30), second only to Zechariah (Lk. 1:13), and then the shepherds (Lk. 2:10). And Jesus himself would say it five more times just in the Gospel of Luke. Fear not, for the One you fear most is coming for you, and he is the One who loves you most fiercely. Indeed, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), but it’s not the end of wisdom:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 Jn. 4:18).

Perhaps, then, we could all learn a little lesson from Linus. Linus was known for being the kid who refused to let go of his blankie. But who can blame him when the alternative is to resort to a life of exchanging one illusion for another, graduating from one fear to the next, but never ultimately finding freedom from fear?

But, in fact, Linus did let go of his blankie, he did find freedom from fear. He just waited till the appropriate time. He waited till he found something worth holding onto: the One who came to catch him when falls, the One who is bringing the world to him, indeed, to us all. 

Just notice the exact moment he drops his blankie.

Now go and do likewise.

Advent Reflection: Unplanned Parenthood

rembr

Joseph’s Dream at the Stable in Bethlehem  ~ Rembrandt

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled…And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus…And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:26-34).


“I’ll take that baby!”

It wasn’t heroic so much as it was impulsive. It just seemed like the only appropriate response to the moment’s need. For weeks, Keldy and I had been talking through a situation with a young gal we were mentoring who was walking through a situation with her friend. Her friend was expecting, it was unexpected—an unplanned pregnancy. The alleged father was not answering the phone. Time was ticking.

She was terrified to get an abortion but more terrified not to. Besides the fact that her secret life would soon swell up and announce itself to the world, she would eventually be kicked out of the Christian University she attended. And when she finally decided to confide in her mother, entertaining the notion of proceeding with the pregnancy despite the costs of doing so, her mother told her she would be left on her own, unsupported, if she got kicked out of school—because that was the most pressing issue.

Our mentee told us that day her friend believed, ironically enough, she was left with “no choice” and so scheduled an appointment at the abortion clinic for the following week. In her mind, it wasn’t a pro-choice decision; it was a no-choice situation. Having no one else she could trust, she had asked her most loyal friend if she would go with her, if she would support her through it all, because “I cannot do this by myself.” It was just a wrenching mess. Now her friend, our mentee, was confiding in us. And my half-hearted, half-brained offer missed the point altogether. It was based on the assumption that this girl didn’t want her baby. She did want her baby. The problem was that no one else wanted her baby—not the father, not her mother, not her Christian academic overlords—and neither did they want an unmarried-and-with-child version of her.

What struck me as I mulled over the situation that day and many days since is that the reason a little baby would end up being aborted by the person it depended on for life is that the baby’s mother was under the threat of being aborted by the people she depended on for life. It indeed takes a village to raise a child, perhaps to abort one too.


And so God forms a village to raise Mary’s Child, God’s Son, while Herod sent an army to abort Him (Mt. 3:16). It was an unplanned pregnancy, at least as regards the young couple’s plans. They had been planning for a wedding but would now have to plan for parenthood. Their only conceivable plan for parenthood up to this point was to become a father and mother after becoming husband and wife, and only after that. But now we have something like a pregnant nun situation. And just as pregnant nuns become ex-nuns, pregnant virgins become ex-virgins, which is grounds for Mary becoming Joseph’s ex-fiancé.

Culturally, Joseph should expose her shame and leave her at the disposal of the community and her unborn child’s father. But she, along with the entire human family from Adam, was already at the disposal of her unborn Child’s Father. And He was going to make sure that she could proceed with the pregnancy without becoming an ex-anything. She need not not fear, for she had “found favor with God” (Lk. 1:30). The young virgin would give birth to the Eternal Son.

“Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to shame her” (Mt. 1:17), but he still wanted to leave her. So God sent an angel to explain the situation and to make sure he took care of her. And Joseph did so until (presumably) he died. She would then, a widow, have to depend on her Son. But He would die young too. Under ordinary circumstances, this would render her among the most vulnerable of society, second perhaps only to the unborn. But the day she stood at her Son’s high hanging feet, his final provision before saving the entire human race was to ensure his mother would be taken care of:

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27).

The Gospel begins with Mary receiving an unplanned Son and Joseph receiving an already-pregnant fiancé and it ends with the Beloved Disciple receiving another Man’s mother. The family of God would forever hence be defined at the foot of the cross. 


The Church of Jesus Christ, I believe, must be pro-life, but I believe we must be pro-life in the way Joseph was pro-life at Jesus’ conception and the way the Beloved Disciple was pro-life at Jesus’ death. We must embrace the life of the unborn precisely by embracing the life of the mother. Churches throughout America have exactly the same amount of opportunities to abort young women (not to mention young men and young couples together) in need of our support as young women have to abort babies in need of their support. We cannot directly prevent the nation’s abortions, but we can directly prevent our own. And we have every reason to believe that when a community of love and support makes the sincere and sustained effort to gather around young women and couples in a way that demonstrates they are wanted and valued, in a way that assures them they won’t have to try to raise their children all alone, live life all alone, we will prevent far more abortions than we ever could by making a commensurate effort to surround ourselves with other people who agree that abortion is wrong, no matter how loud we shout it.

If we truly want young women to be no less than Mary for every unplanned pregnancy, we can be no less than Joseph for every fatherless child, no less than the the Beloved Disciple for every unsupported mother. But this costs more than the occasional protest. It costs us being inconvenienced by others in the way Mary and Joseph and the Beloved Disciples were inconvenienced by others, perhaps even in the way the unplanned Other in question was inconvenienced by all of us.

If Christ shares the burden of human death, surely he can expect us to share the burden of human life, whether that means adopting babies or adopting mothers—for we all are adoptees (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5). And while this may or may not require a formal adoption process, it will require an effort to make room for others in our lives in very tangible ways. It will require welcoming young women and men into our homes and to our tables, into conversations, into mentoring relationships, friendships, and into our gatherings, and doing so before they find themselves in such desperate situations. But it also means welcoming young women and men in precisely the same way after they find themselves in such desperate situations. It means being committed to making room for others’ lives so that they can commit to making room for life when it comes, planned or unplanned, because this is always God’s plan for human life.

Indeed, God’s ‘planned parenthood’ for the whole human race began with a little Galilean village that committed to raising a Child as though he were their own, only to later discover that through this Child God would raise them, indeed would raise us all, as though we were children of His own. Because in Jesus Christ “that is what we are” (1 Jn. 3:1; Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:12-17).

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).

Without Homemakers the World is Without Homes

“The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only–and that is to support the ultimate career.”

~ C.S. Lewis [Actually, this is misattributed to Lewis, but I’m certain he would have agreed.]

If the journey of human life, the journey of transformation, is most fully realized by the grace of God through the power of the Spirit in redeeming us to become who we were created to be, the Image of God, then what could possibly surpass the life that has found its deepest joy, peace, and fulfillment as a homemaker? What is the Bible if not a small library of books about the God who from the very beginning is a Homemaker, about the creatures who shortly after the beginning ran away from home, and finally about the God-become-Creature who came to rescue us from the pig sty of the distant country so he could bring us all Home, where there is a Homecoming celebration ongoing without end.

[If you read what follows as a statement for or against any any of the typical arguments regarding gender roles, you will miss the point.]

It is sad to me that in the late history of Western civilization “homemaker” became the “role” relegated to women, which complemented the “role” of “provider” relegated to men. [Prior to the Industrial Revolution, husbands and wives worked together as homemakers, though the word did not yet exist because the division of roles did not yet exist in the way it does today.] Sadder still, as these roles took root in our cultural idiom and eventually became mores, social values, that organized society, such that men had no clear purpose within the home and women had no clear purpose outside the home, the value of a man was reduced to utility–his value is commensurate with what he can provide, produce, possess–and the value of a woman was reduced to subservience to her “provider”–“your desire shall for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3–God’s description of a fallen world, which always finds its truest expression in the home, which is why redemption always finds its truest expression in the home). Sadder still, men in our culture grew to love being less than men, making a virtue of their slavish pursuit of value, “providing” for their family at the cost of being present to their family. They were exiled from the home they lived to construct for the women who grew to hate being there.

Of course they did. They were never intended to fill the house with the spirit of home by themselves, worse, with men who had lost their spirit of home. Sadder still is it that when this subject is argued in that feminist or masculinist tone (sometimes called feminism and masculinism, other times progressive and conservative, sometimes democrat and republican, sometimes mainline and evangelical–all of which are meaningless if such descriptors find their meaning in aiding accuracy), such that women are fighting for liberation from the home and its warden and men are fighting to keep the women conjugally imprisoned, the argument invariably fails to take into consideration the possibility they’re both wrong. The reason it’s so sad is because they are both wrong. And the more they resist the truth, the more miserable they will be in their respective pursuits that aim the world toward homelessness.

We’re all created to be homemakers, which is both a practical job description of marriage and family but is also a way of life. It only takes walking into a house that has no spirit of home to know why this is so important. Home is a place where people are free to go and love to return. Even the most exotic trips find their culmination in the return home, where the memories can be gathered up and put in the family picture album, to be revisited along with the other explorations of the people who love to share the adventure of life together. But without the love of a place to return and a people to return with or to, the exploration of life is simply a quest for home. There is no ad-venture in life because there is nothing from which to venture forth. There is only wandering in a world without place, the lostness of Neverland, which is not a world of runaway children but a world of runaway parents.[1]

There are far more homeless children in this world than can be quantified by counting houses and kids. [Besides, “homeless children” refers to people of all ages.] We should indeed fight to keep food in bellies and shelters over heads, but I believe that if one were to adopt the principle life goal that is most pleasing in the eyes of his Maker, it would first be to become a homemaker, and second to become a host. Because that is what our Maker is: an impossibly hospitable Father and an amazingly gracious Host.

Hospitality is a topic increasingly making its way into contemporary Christian idiom, but it is misguided if the quality of the host or the house is not prioritized above hospitality itself—the quality of the host/home determines the value of being welcomed in. Nobody likes the hospitality of a person whose house, whose life, does not feel like a home. Nobody wants Hitler to assume the role of host again.

So become a homemaker so you can become a host with something worth hosting. You don’t have to be married. You don’t have to have children. You don’t even necessarily have to have a house—neither did Jesus. But you do have to love the idea of home—Jesus did (cf. Gen. 1-2; Rev. 21-22; Jn. 1-21). If you don’t love home, then you don’t yet understand who God is. You have not entered into his presence if you have not felt at home in his presence. For many, there could be no greater disappointment than to feel “at home” in God’s presence, if home always felt like hell or prison or an interrogation room or a cockfight. But neither God nor Home will be found in our memory of home from childhood. What we will find in our memory of home is a certain kind of heartache. It’s not associated with anything in particular in or about our childhood home—it’s the residue on all the furniture. And the unique thing about it is it feels like a longing both for the home we grew up in and the home we never had. God uses our broken memories to point our desires toward and unbreakable hope, like he did with his temple a long time ago. But Hope aches, and sometimes we despair of it and give it up. It aches so deeply for many, no matter the particulars, some will refuse to ever revisit the memory of it—living a life running away from it. We, each of us, are indeed orphaned into adulthood.

But if there is any latent longing that could possibly direct our steps toward God–and perhaps that is a big ‘if’–it will be found in that ache. It is homesickness, and it has driven the world mad in restless runaway pursuits.

But Jesus has come to the distant country to bring us ‘to our senses’ (Lk. 15) and show us the way home, the way to the Father. Follow him.

#imahomemaker

*Footnote

  • 1. This was the real point of the Peter Pan story and was actually captured quite well through Robin Williams character in ‘Hook’–the father who cared more for his job than his family, whose children were captured by a gaggle of childless men who live together on a drifting vessel fighting a perpetual war against fatherless children, the pirates (a society of male identity construed without reference to home or family). Peter wins the war not by returning to his boyhood and fighting to preserve the Lost Boys (which would be to preserve homelessness) but by returning to his fatherhood and fighting to bring his own boy home. It was a war against Neverland as such. Thus the battle could only be won by Peter killing the pirate he had become, which is obviously what every Lost Boy grows up to be, as Peter’s son Jack was becoming before his father came to rescue him, that is, before his father returned home. Homelessness begets homelessness.

Kindergarteners, Heroin Addicts, & The Gods

irony.jpg

This morning I sent off my son to his first day of kindergarten and headed off to work. Upon arrival, I met Eric retrieving a needle from the roof to add to the cookie jar of despair. The bus is filled with hope and futures, the jar with hopelessness, futures buried alive.
 
I left this morning watching my son’s mother offering up to God the kind of tears that somehow prove the goodness of the world and the meaningfulness of life. But I wonder about the mother’s tears that are falling to the ground today from a heart that needle has pierced. I wonder, with dread, what it is like to see a child bury his future alive, what it is like to anticipate burying a child dead. How does a mother hang on to hope as she watches her son let it go, when her hope is so bound up in the future of her children?
 
Maybe she couldn’t hold on. Maybe she just couldn’t produce enough tears to fight back the famine claiming her family’s future. Maybe she was fighting alone, no father’s tears wetting her son’s heart, no husband guarding hers. Perhaps her heart, chapped and exposed, over time cracked open with so many sorrows that her soul has fractured into sand. The tears she so faithfully offered up for so many years, alone, never yielded a future in the life on whose behalf she offered them, only more God-damned thorns, only more of that entangling thicket slowly wrapping around her son’s neck, crowning its victory over his future, her future. Her tears never found their way to a Garden. The all-consuming ground is dried up of any goodness, fertility, newness. It’s all just burial ground.
 
Who among the gods will come to such a world? Let him come.
 
Who among the gods will come to such a mother? Let him come.
 
Who among the gods will come to such a son—as a man caught up in the thickets, to wear his crown, to be damned into the desert floor? Who among the gods will come to this world, to be chapped, broken, buried?
 
For there can be no other world for this mother and her son, so there can be no other God for this world.
 
“The wilderness and dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like wildflowers. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…And they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God” (Isa. 35).
 
Yes–but only if that glory rains down in a veil of tears, only if that majesty is crowned with a curse, buried with all futures lost. If a new song of rejoicing is ever to arise from the parched ground of this disheartened world it will have to enter at first in tune with a symphony of sorrows.
 
Who among the gods is so willing? Who among the gods is there with a heart like that for a world like this, a God of sorrows, Man of sorrows?
 
Then let Him come. Jesus, come.

The Covenant on The Mount: One Sermon to Damn Us All

I’m becoming convinced that one of the most common (and perhaps willful) fallacies with regard to the Gospel is manifest in two exactly opposite ways, which together hold in tension the opposition between liberal Christians and conservative Christians, speaking here of the hyper- sort. Both groups need to protect the fallacy as a means of self-preservation, because neither group could exist as such without the ‘other’ group to exist against. But, unfortunately for both groups, the Gospel provides no basis to support their opposition as such and therefore neither for their strange and codependent relationship and therefore neither for their group identities as such. The Gospel strips its adherents of any rhetoric that requires a sustained grammar of opposition against a “them” in order to define, and preserve, an “us.”

The Gospel came to all, Jews and Gentiles alike, conservatives and liberals alike, from the Other side of enemy lines. It is only in hearing it declare us its enemies that we can hear it declare us its allies–only the accused can hear their Advocate–because those apparently opposite categories of identity are held together in the Gospel’s one Word of declaration in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday survives only to the degree that it remains staked to the Friday before. The Gospel thus indeed preserves the language of opposition but transforms it within its unique grammar of reconciliation (established in principle in the hypostatic union from which pours forth a new and holy grammar on all flesh, cf. Acts 2:17). 

But Conservative Christians tend to sanctify the language of opposition simply by sanctifying themselves, that is, by moving “us” onto “God’s” side and thereby dramatically demonizing the “them.” It is Easter Sunday untethered from Friday’s cross and staked only to an eschatological “us.” And therefore Sunday is no longer Easter and Friday is no longer Good.

And Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to, with inexplicable immediacy, stand on the grammar of reconciliation without any word of definition, topsoil for an entirely new language, categorically refusing grounds for any accusation whatever by moving “God” onto the side of “us” thereby erasing the possibility of “them” and gently annihilating the “other.” So the liberal speaks of “acceptance,” not “forgiveness,” of “inclusiveness, not “repentance,” an ever-widening and -accepting circle of “us.” It is a fusion, not a union. But, ironically, an opposition must be maintained, namely against any word of accusation. As such, none are excluded except the excluders, none are judged except the judgmental, none are rejected by God except those whose God rejects anyone. And, it turns, each group ends up balancing out, equally exclusive, and–as a group–equally antichrist.  

The underlying fallacy of this circus has to do with a misunderstanding and/or misappropriation of the grace of God under the New Covenant, namely that either:

(a) the grace of God under the New Covenant lowers God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the sloppy liberal confession that is willing to say “we’re all sinners” in general, according to God’s Word, but unwilling to allow God’s Word to define any sin in particular);

or (b) the grace of God under the New Covenant is an entirely separate category from God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the militant (but equally as sloppy) insistence that grace means “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except though [‘us’, ahem, we mean ‘Him’]”, on the one hand, and, on the other, that his righteous standard is still based on a Law he established with Israel that the rest of the world should be obligated to apply in principle (or at least a carefully (re: conveniently) selected adumbration of laws), regardless of whether or not they recognize the Law-Giver, which of course suggests that the world needs godliness but doesn’t really need God).

If I may, to both groups, recommend a sermon once preached that addresses this fallacy and both its manifestations found in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 5-7. Actually, it is not a sermon. We only call it a sermon, even giving it the formal designation “Sermon on the Mount,” because of a refusal to acknowledge that under the New Covenant God has, in fact, descended to the Mount Himself as the Law, to issue the commands in Person, and thereby reveals an infinitely higher standard of righteousness. As long as we can codify the words uttered on the Mount as mere sermon principles, we can avoid the terrible prospect of hearing them as the codification of a New and binding Commandment. They are nothing less and, indeed, much more.

God’s standard of righteousness, this side of the New Covenant of grace, is no longer defined and established by the Old Covenant of Law—God’s commands to a nation. God’s standard of righteousness is now defined and established in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ—God’s love for the world—who fulfilled the righteousness intended to create a just society and exceeded it with a righteousness intended to create a gracious society. That excessive righteousness is the only way to the Father, which is precisely why Jesus, not Christian fundamentalism, is the the only way to the Father. Only the Grace that comes from the Father can take us back to Him and make us gracious like Him.

So the New Covenant of grace does not effect a decrease in the righteousness God requires but an infinite increase. That is why Jesus said, in effect, the righteousness required to enter his kingdom exceeds the righteousness of the Law-keepers (Mt. 5:17-20); why not-love of another, whether enemy or neighbor or neighbor’s wife, is tantamount to murder; why under His standard all of us are “liable to the hell of fire”; why in the burning light of His love all of us should become one-eyed and dismembered (Mt. 5:21-30); why the self-righteous polarizing rhetoric that identifies one’s own group as sheep by wiping its bloody hands on the forehead of some homogeneously identified other group as goats (whether “liberal” or “conservative” or “fundamentalist” or “skeptic” or “Muslim” or “Christian” or perhaps even, quite ironically, Christ Himself) is tantamount to the kind of scapegoating that can demand holy justice in the world only by permitting the one small exception of its own injustice, the kind of scapegoating the Law revealed was provisionally necessary because it simultaneously revealed that all fall short of its righteous standard, the kind of scapegoating that can be embraced only if the Gospel is rejected.

Christ is either the Lamb slain for a world of goats, or we will simply have to convince God that “we” are of a kind of sheep more spotless than the Slaughtered Lamb and “they” are a kind of goat more stained than Pilate’s hand, the centurion’s hand, the hand not reaching out, the hand clinching tightly to control, to greed, to revenge, to unforgiveness, the hand clicking on the mouse, the hand that is ice cold to the spouse and children that so need its living and loving warmth. We will have to convince God to be more satisfied with a judgment of guilt that exiles the ‘other’ than the judgment of guilt that reconciles the world (cf. Romans 5 and the rest of the Bible).

“Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1).

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).