Pre-Inauguration Jitters: A Tense Outlook, A Faithful Outlook

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. …it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.” (Brueggemann, “Prophetic Imagination”)

One aspect of Christianity that I both love and hate is what I think of as the call to live life in tension.

The same faith that tells us to “mourn with those who mourn” is the same faith that admonishes all to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The same faith that caused Teresa of Avila to proclaim:

“Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices”

is the same faith of who Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The same faith that produced the fearsome non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. produced the gruesome righteousness of Nat Turner. I’ve heard Christianity derided as too timid, too extreme, too pliable, too puritanical, too forgiving, too angry, too abstaining, too engaging, too strict and too loose.

Of course, man interprets religion himself, for his own ends. But, there’s also something to be said for a faith that places tension at the very center of its narrative: the tension of a God who chooses to be killed by his own creation. For most of us in modern America, we have no sense of how repulsive such an idea must have seemed to those hearing it for the first time. (Blasphemy! How can God be killed?) The site of this greatest injustice is yet the site of the greatest mercy on earth. From death comes life. Divinity made low that man may be lifted high.

Chesterton captures this central paradox of Christianity symbolically through the image of the cross: “The cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing.” (Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”).

The substance of why this topic interests me involves how Christians interact with pain. Christianity is a faith that invites us to lament, but not despair. This is problematic for me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that I struggle to separate these two ideas in my mind. Because I in large part interpret my faith through an intellectual lens, the fact that I cannot adequately understand the distinction tempts me to ignore it altogether.

What I have come to realize, though, is that while I remain intellectually unconvinced of the specific way a Christian should navigate between these two conditions, my heart feels the distinction in my own emotional reactions. I cannot adequately define what it means to lament without despairing, but I can recognize in myself when I have slipped from one condition to the other. This leads me to remind myself of two facts: 1) Faith cannot only be filtered through an intellectual perspective (my brain is not big enough to understand all that faith entails) and 2) I have to be careful when deciphering the reactions of others through my own intellectual lens. If I am not capable of fully understanding my own emotions, nor of understanding how to tread the line between lament and despair, then I am certainly not capable of fully grasping the nuances of someone else’s emotional responses to pain. Crucially, I am also not capable of fully appreciating the calculations that lead to joy directed toward the object of another’s despair.

In the aftermath of the presidential election I read many articles (and had conversations with many people) evaluating others’ emotional responses to the election. I primarily experienced these articles and conversations in Christian circles. On the one hand, I heard a crowd of people berating negative responses to election results, because “God is in control.” On the other hand, I also heard a crowd of people berating the detached response of “churchy” people as “insensitive” and “condescending.” I myself had my own opinion in these debates, and happily criticized the side that I disliked.

However, with some time and reflection I have had to admit that scripture and tradition speak in the affirmative of both responses, the lament and the constancy. The first part of this blog post points to the fact that Christianity contains both strands of thought, and in fact there are too many such examples to mention. Just as I struggle to reconcile a proper understanding of faith, pain and hope with my own emotional conformity to the ideal, so too I have to give space to others who also fall short of the ideal.

This, then, is another tension in Christianity. We do not want to hastily declare that all responses are good or equal; yet, we also do not want to paint the picture of a faith that is inhuman in its inability to cope with the spectrum of human emotions. Detaching oneself from hardship and suffering does not make a person more Christian; it does make one less human. It’s one thing to use Jesus as a pair of glasses to see the world more clearly, and another to use him like a drug to numb oneself to the world. We all, regardless of how we view the election, must reaffirm these tensions if we truly wish to see the world as Christ does, rather than deaden ourselves to those things we don’t wish to see.

This blog post does not really add to the post-election and pre-inauguration conversation, except to say that all who call ourselves Christian could stand to be more cognizant of the Christian call to embrace both lament and hope, and the call to humility when evaluating the reactions of others. How we strike that balance is an open question, but it will never be answered if we dismiss the tension itself.

John Donne and Putting Away Childish Things

Funny how we can initially read something with minimal impact on our lives, only to recall the words with great power later. Such was John Donne for me, that Anglican priest whose sensual and spiritual writings mark him chief of the metaphysical poets. During my freshman year of high school we read many of his later religious works. They did not make a huge impression on me at the time; and yet, they were not totally without affect, for something particularly in Holy Sonnet X and Meditation XVII caught my attention enough to burn a few choice phrases in my memory. As a fourteen year old reading his poetry I did not grasp the depth or truth of his words beyond a superficial level, but, out of every great work of classic poetry and literature that we read that year, Donne’s were the only words that I clearly remember now (I know, I know, sad).

What made me think of Donne? I haven’t thought of him since that year of high school English, until recently that is. Something made me recall his words with a potency that was almost breathtaking. Lines from poetry read ten years ago came to mind, and I felt an urge to reread his sonnets. So, I did. And what I found shocked me.

I found truth, a clarity of vision about the Body of Christ, death as merely a stepping stone, and other theological concepts that I had not expected to find. I found so much that I cannot imagine how I missed this gold mine as a teenager: how could I not hear the might of the words and ignore the ominous warning of, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee” as a Christian teenager? How could I take as a platitude, “No man is an island, entire of itself?” And how could I not hear the echoes of St. Paul in these words: “Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.” Come to think of it, John Donne’s poetry should have shaken the security out of me, if I had been half as serious or knowledgeable about my faith as I imagined myself to be.

Much of adulthood for me has been discovering and rediscovering wisdom discovered by millions and billions of others before me. History might say to me “Been there, done that, already forgotten lessons you haven’t even learned yet.” And I would have to respond in the affirmative, that yes, I am merely rediscovering what should have been evident to me a long time ago, knowledge that while new to me is old to the world.

Putting away childish things, I seek truth now in the words I read.

Courage

“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.” – Albus Dumbledore (aka J.K. Rowling)

If you haven’t read Harry Potter, perhaps the idea of an adult quoting one of its characters seems juvenile. But in fact, this reminder from the wizard Dumbledore that life’s choices often don’t come down to right or wrong, but right or easy, is both true and important.

I’ve been thinking about the virtue of courage a bit lately. It wasn’t an over stressed virtue in my upbringing, which I now think was unfortunate. I heard the negative “don’t be afraid” much more often than the positive (and significantly more powerful) corollary “be courageous” or “be brave.” Love, faith, patience, honesty, happiness, even confidence were verbally extolled, but courage much less so.

I have often been taught confidence as an antidote to fear. Confidence is not courage, cannot take the place of courage, and is not equal to courage as a moral. Confidence is an assurance that one will perform well; courage is the quality that compels us to perform even when we have no assurance that we will succeed, or even if we are assured that there will be negative consequences. It has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with acceptance of what we cannot know, perhaps even of suffering. When confidence is no longer sufficient, courage pushes for action.

It is no secret that our society suffers from virtues gone wild (read G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” if you’re skeptical). We pick and choose and under and over emphasize certain virtues to fit our present causes, which is an abuse of both morality and mankind (C. A. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” has a good discussion on this). Our horrible exercise of separating and dismissing virtues, rather than accepting and harmonizing them, renders even the virtues we retain useless. For what use is tolerance if I’m too afraid of the social consequences to oppose bigotry? What is generosity if I’m too protective of my safety to help the homeless man on the street? Virtues need each other, and courage is needed no less than any other.

If love is the virtue that provides the reason for all others, then courage is the virtue that moves love into action; love compels while courage propels.

Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best when she said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

Reflection on “He Wants It All” by foreverJONES

One of my proudest accomplishments this semester, and of my Swarthmore career, has been collaborating with other students for the publication of Swarthmore College’s first journal of Christian thought and discourse, Peripateo. Originally the dream of a friend of mine, with the help of many students it became a reality this past week. Last Wednesday we released a couple hundred print copies, as well as an online version of our journal.

Below is my article which was published in the first edition. If you are interested in seeing the online version of the whole journal (and you should because all of the pieces are great!!) click on this link. If you are interested in seeing other journals from the Augustine Collective, the collective of undergraduate Christian journals that we are a part of, click here.

Note: Because this piece was written for a college journal, it is a bit longer than a normal blog post.

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More than Words: A Reflection on “He Wants It All” by foreverJONES

You can listen to the song here.

This is not an aspect of Christianity that Christians like to talk about. We mask it in more savory phrases like “giving your life to Christ.” We sing about it, read Bible verses about it, and even listen to sermons about it. But we are slow to talk about it, slower to give thought to its implications. I’m talking about, of course, the idea of human submission to God.

If I had paid more attention to the songs I sang growing up I might have realized sooner the depth and complexity of the concept of submission. Surrendering to God is more than a song, but for many years I did not allow the message to penetrate deeper than the words I sang. It was not until I was in college that I began to feel the full impact of these lyrics.

Music itself plays an important role in the way the Christian tradition promotes these ideas, and within the black church gospel music has developed its own unique style. I love gospel’s style; its riffs, runs, and big voices shaped so much of my childhood. For me, my faith and gospel music are so intertwined and connected that I cannot imagine what my faith would be like without the experience of the richness of gospel music. Still, for too long I allowed myself to enjoy the experience of gospel music without being captured by the truth of its words. Enthralled by the music, I did not learn to appreciate the message until much later.

By reflecting on the lyrics to one of my favorite gospel songs, “He Wants It All” by Forever Jones, I hope to pay homage to the music that played an important role in my spiritual formation and development. This is a song that I’ve consistently turned to since first hearing it some years ago. Its lyrics continue to have meaning for me, and are a constant reminder of how much God desires of me: He does not want a part of me, but rather all of who I am.

The song opens with a depiction of a God walking along the earth, crying out, searching for children who will love him completely—a striking image that echoes Jesus’ words in Luke 19:10¹  and those of the Apostle John in John 1:10-13.² What is particularly poignant about this image is that God is not remote, distant, or emotionless, but actively searching for those who would love Him. This is a God that chose to step into the world, to seek, and to do what it took to save those he created. Furthermore, God wants it all. All means all: our lives, thoughts, words, emotions, choices, dreams, education, relationships—everything. The Bible exhorts us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”³ and to “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.”⁴ Our lives are to be presented to God as living sacrifices, meant to be continual abandonment of self to His will. With these words, God has laid claim to all we are.

The song gives no reason or basis for why God asks for so much, and assumes the ultimate goodness of God’s desire. But the truth and goodness of God’s request for everything, even for a Christian, is not obvious. In fact, I spent most of my life believing that God wanted little more of me than that I be happy. I’d sat in church my whole life singing lyrics such as “I surrender all,” and “I owe it all to You” countless times without giving further thought to the implications of those words. The message of surrender, submission even, had never truly, deeply penetrated my mind: I had completely missed one of the most central and key aspects of Christianity. It is a chilling thought: you can sing words about relinquishing your whole life to Christ, and even feel that you believe them, but when you examine your life you see that you really aren’t surrendering much at all.

For me, this process of examination really began after I entered Swarthmore. I first heard “He Wants It All” the summer after my freshman year of college, riding in the car with my parents listening to our favorite gospel station. The song’s lyrics did not immediately strike me; rather, it was the beauty of the music itself that first grabbed my attention. But as I heard the song a few more times over the summer I began to pay more attention to its words. That summer in general was instrumental in my spiritual development, as I began to ask myself what it meant to be a Christian and to develop a relationship with God independently of my parents’ faith. I questioned what it meant to call myself a Christian, and what it meant to say that I had “given” myself to Christ. In effect, I was beginning to take seriously the words of the song, that God in fact wanted more of me than I had previously been willing to give.

Though the theme of submission to God runs throughout scripture, in some sense these concepts seem so remote to life at Swarthmore, and certainly in the U.S. at large. We value independence, self-determination, and self-sufficiency. We are told and we tell others that when something wants all of us it’s a scam, cult, or just dangerous. When friends give too much of themselves in a relationship we worry about the toll it takes on their emotional health and social lives. All of these things make it hard for us to conceive of how a god could justly require all of a person’s life. And anyone who claims to be completely led by a god must surely be “naive” or “insane” not to recognize that “God wanting it all” is simply a proxy for your church or religion wanting it all from you.

But the beauty of God is that life with him is meant to be a reciprocal, loving relationship. He wants everything because He has first given everything, in creation, in sacrifice, in dedication. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”⁵ The action of love was first taken by God; we are not meant to make the first step in the relationship, because God has eternally taken those steps for us. The appropriate response to love is love, and as we give love, love is given back to us again. The proof? After telling us to seek first the Kingdom of God, the Bible promises that “all these things will be given to you as well.” ⁶ The reciprocity of the relationship is more than merely edifying for me; it is fulfilling in the most wonderful way, because it gives purpose to everything I do. Submitting to God’s will is not about giving up things in life; it is about allowing Him to take over and infuse life with purpose, and yes, to realign priorities.

It is with this understanding, then, that I began to let go of my “idols.” The word “idol” might bring celebrities to mind, the idols our culture reveres and emulates. But this song illuminates so much more than our misguided choice to idolize celebrities. My idols were those things that kept me from giving all of who I was to God, those things that I continue to look to over and above God in determining how I make decisions. Idols can take the form of the things in life that we love the most and mold our lives according to. They are the things that get in the way of us acknowledging God fully. Again, it goes back to our values. As an American I have been taught implicit and explicit lessons my whole life on what to order my life around, from family, to education, wealth, acceptance, etc. And while all of these things are good things, they all miss the point. God is, or should be, the point of what I aim for, while the rest are just points along the journey. When they become my main focus, then they become idols. And for most of my life my main focus was anything but God.

Whether religious or not, it is a useful exercise to examine our lives and to contemplate what exactly our actions point toward. Why do we do the things we do? What do our choices say about what we value? I think we all live more for our personal enjoyment than we choose to admit. Personally, for a long time I claimed to keep Christ “first” in my life, but in reality I had not learned that true submission does not place my personal enjoyment above all else. My personal enjoyment of life is fine, but should not be my main aim in living. Instead, submission to God should be a realigning of my life in such a way that my priorities become second to His. I have come to the conclusion that if the words I sing point towards God and surrendering to his will then surely other areas of my life should equally point in that direction as well. Of course, this is an ongoing process; I’m still growing and learning and falling short of my ideal.

From there, our next question should be, what should we be living for? What are those ideals outside of ourselves that are worth submitting to? For me, I found my answer in the words of this song, to love God with my whole heart and to serve him with my life. It was almost a relief: after giving so much of my time, emotional and mental energy, and money towards everything else in life, I finally figured out that is so much better to direct these things towards a relationship that gave purpose and fulfillment in return. I found that as I submitted to God I did not lose, but instead gained so much more.

End Notes:

1 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10 (NIV)
2 “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:10-13 (NIV)
3 Matthew 6:33 (NIV)
4 Romans 12:1 (NIV)
5 Jeremiah 31:3 (NIV)
6 Matthew 6:33 (NIV)