We wake eternally

April 6, 2012

Atop a mountain in Ukraine, 2010

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—”

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

I cannot imagine the pain of crucifixion, public humiliation, or deep betrayal. I cannot imagine watching my friend being arrested, or my son dying in front of me at the hands of the government.

I can imagine, I think, the despair and the confusion  some of the disciples may have felt as they heard that Jesus—the man who had promised them new life—was dead.

Surely they were heart-broken, but I wonder if any of them were angry too. Not just at the Roman soldiers, but at Jesus, for not being who they thought He was. And maybe at themselves, for being foolish enough to believe Him.

Today, His is the death that makes us able to hope, but the disciples didn’t know that yet. For three days, Jesus was just dead. On Easter, I think we see a glimpse of the front of the world, but Good Friday reminds me that most of the time, we, like the disciples, only see the back.


Death, be not proud, John Donne

 Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Smells and bells

May 22, 2011

Upon the invitation of a few new friends, Christian and I just recently started attending an Anglican church called St. Matthew’s. Neither of us know much about the Anglican tradition, so we’ve been talking a little to those around us that do (Christian’s brother is actually in grad school right now training to be an Anglican priest, and one of my Torrey professors, also an Anglican priest, gave a really informative lecture on the history of Anglicanism last week).

Recently one of the priests from St. Matthew’s, Father Mark, spoke at a listening party for a radio show our friend Barak produced (Barak also happens to be the one who invited us to St. Matthew’s). The show’s theme was “I (don’t) Want to Change the World: Interviews with Top Media Leaders.” Barak asked a few Biola professors and Father Mark to comment after the show was over.

Father Mark talked about how often American churches aim to please by making their services—the worship, the sermon length and content, the overall atmosphere—fit the preferences of their congregants.  And, often Americans choose their church based on taste and personal preference. Of course, this isn’t a new problem, and I have heard a lot of speakers talk about why it’s not okay—because it’s selfish, it’s shallow, it’s arrogant. But Father Mark’s point was that it’s also really harmful, because sometimes we want the wrong thing. He talked about the dangers of letting our preferences (instead of ultimate reality) dictate how we view God—the eternal and unchanging God. What a nightmare for the whole world to simply be a mirror of our preferences, just the way we like it… that  only works in a universe where we like all the right things. In reality, our preferences are part of the problem.

Of course, the ever-increasing trend of customization (perhaps the best example of which is customized wedding vows, a relatively new phenomenon) makes sense in a postmodern context: if there is no ultimate reality, no absolute truth, then who better to define how things should be than us? But Christians do profess an ultimate reality, so it doesn’t make sense that we expect our churches to be just like nearly everything else in our culture: made to please. At St. Matthews, I do not like the smell of incense, my legs get tired from kneeling, and I have a really hard time singing some of the hymns. But I am so happy that this church will not break its centuries-old traditions to please me. I am so happy I am not getting everything I want, because then maybe I can begin to figure out if I am even wanting the right things.  (Of course, before I could get to that realization, I have to understand where these traditions came from and why they are important. And  a lot of that mostly has come  from my two semesters reading and discussing and writing about the early Church Fathers…but I still have so much to learn).

A lot of this reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s brilliant little book Franny and Zooey. The last half of the book is basically all a conversation between Zooey and his sister Franny, where he confronts her about her misusing the name of Jesus:

“Worse than that, though, I can’t see—I swear to God I can’t—how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand…If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him and he was and not as you’d like him to have been… The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back.”

Just like I’ve often decided how a church service could be better in my head, I have also made Jesus who I want him to be. I will never stop needing to be reminded that this is not okay. Not just because customizing Jesus is delusional and self-centered, but because if Jesus is only who I want him to be, if he fits into my reasoning about what love is, He is not enough to save me.

A Bad Prince

February 9, 2011

“One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours…Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. For love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.” – Machiavelli, The Prince

We just finished discussing The Prince in my Great Books program last week. I thought the book was fascinating. It’s a sort of political how-to manual with clever (and often harsh) solutions for the inevitable problems that accompany ruling a people. And Machiavelli is convincing. He isn’t some evil dictator wanting to take over the world, but a man desperately wanting to see his city, Florence, ruled well. He is also realistic: he recognizes that people are inherently self-serving, and will be loyal only as long as they are getting what they want.

I found myself wondering about the decisions Jesus made. Was the King of Kings a good prince by Machiavelli’s standards? Of course, Jesus never aimed to be the political reformer the Jews were expecting from the Messiah. But He had followers, and He spoke of a kingdom.

Jesus’ disciple John records his words:

Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (John 14:21).

And after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, John writes about love again:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. ” (I John 4:18).

How interesting that Christ chooses to be loved instead of feared. If he had made Himself feared, would he have been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter? Would he have been killed? Maybe not—maybe that’s where Machiavelli would say Jesus screwed up. But surely Jesus knew even better than Machiavelli that men are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, [who] shun danger and are greedy for profit.” Jesus could see past people’s words; he knew about the woman at the well’s five husbands (John 4:17-22), he knew Simon’s unspoken condemnation of the prostitute (Luke 7: 36-39), he knew that Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him. But still, he demands love, not fear.

As a follower of Jesus, I usually find it easier to act out of fear than out of love. Do I obey because I am afraid of the consequences of disobedience, or because I love the one I am obeying?

And then I remember Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century French monk who took the command to “pray without ceasing” literally. He knew God and he loved God, so much so that every small act he did was motivated by this love. The only thing that irked Brother Lawrence was the fact that one day he would be rewarded for all the good he had done:

“At times he had wished he could hide from God that which he did for the love of Him, so that, receiving no reward, he might have the joy of doing something for love of God and love of God alone.” – The Practice of the Presence of God

Perhaps one of the reasons why Jesus requires that his followers love him instead of fear him is because joy is only possible through love. I don’t understand joy very much, but Brother Lawrence gives me a glimpse, and I pray to have even an ounce of the love that he had.