Excerpt: the masonry of faith

Excerpt: the masonry of faith

Here’s an excerpt (that actually made it in the final edit) from a recent essay for Christ and Pop Culture. You can read the rest here if you’re a member (which is pretty affordable). It’ll pop out from behind the paywall in a couple of months, otherwise. I’m sure I’ll post again when that happens. Unless I forget. Either way, thanks for stopping by.

The other stone that a skillful mason needs is the capstone. The capstone makes possible the vaunted arches that fill our Gothic cathedrals with so much air and light that a person could walk in and feel in their tingling spine that the presence of God could indeed fill such a place. Whereas the cornerstone is square, the capstone is carefully tapered so that its weight can push not just down but also out through the curvature of the arch. This tension holds the pieces in place so that stone can defy gravity and reach to heaven.

And so we now circle back to the life of Christian faith, which begins with the fear of the Lord. Its cornerstone is Jesus Christ himself who, by the way, brings divine blessing and stability to the foundation with his own blood sacrifice, perfecting the ritual all that weird shadow-crushing imitated. On this firm foundation, the Spirit builds the arches of Christian virtue—sacrifice and service, contentment and joy, generosity and self-forgetfulness—otherworldly as they reach to heaven and defy the gravity of our Fall. It’s this cathedralic shape that makes the life of faith so distinctive and compelling, unsettling even. And it needs a capstone. Only a certain fearlessness in the face of death can rightly complement the fear of the Lord. It’s a weighty call, but our assurance of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven should settle into place and keep the entire life of faith and virtue from falling apart, even in those risky times when death gnashes its teeth (or smiles a placid smile while teasing and calculating our end with its barbed-wire bat).

Dead Darlings: the Lamb of God

Culling more stuff from another piece and, since I was writing about my beloved Jacques Ellul, I couldn’t just let it die in unfamy. So, here it is. And don’t worry, I had a second Ellul quote that got to stay in (at least so far). 

In its call to courage, our capstone [back-to-a-wall fearlessness in front of hardship, suffering, and even death] presses us into the cornerstone, the Lamb of God in whose flesh and blood we partake precisely because he was made the cornerstone through sacrifice. Our call to bear this image in the world should shape us in the most fundamental ways. Jacques Ellul, a Frenchman who never shied from calling Christians to an otherworldly fullness of faith, drew out the implications with characteristic clarity:

“It is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world. But every Christian is treated like his Master, and every Christian receives from Jesus Christ a share in his work…[the Christian] is the living and real ‘sign’, constantly renewed in the midst of the world, of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God…Christians should be very careful not to be wolves in the spiritual sense—that is, people who try to dominate others. Christians must accept the domination of other people, and offer the daily sacrifice of their lives, which is united to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” (The Presence of the Kingdom, p. 4)

This is a bold claim. Ellul leaves the word sacrifice completely unbounded and, more alarmingly, weds it to the sacrifice of Jesus which, remember, persisted through humiliation and pain and finished in death. Blessedly, God often spares us full imitation here—especially if by extraordinary luck we were born American—but neither does God rule it out. If the crowning achievement of faith is Christ-likeness, well, behold the likeness. How can we endure such a hazardous calling?

We look to Jesus, who looked to the joy set before him to carry out his pioneering work, enduring the cross. See, Jesus saw the world in totem. The material world which tyrannizes our own perception, but also the hidden things. The spiritual things which we only see as shadows and copies and sometimes not at all, but which are inseparable, pervasive, and essential to a full accounting of the world and our lives in it. Such a vision told Jesus there were more fearsome hordes than our inevitable last breaths and, better still, that there’s a Kingdom of life beyond this walking death. This hope flows straight from the attentive awe of the Lord. Our assurance of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven should settle into place and keep the entire life of faith and virtue from falling apart, even in those risky times when death gnashes its teeth (or smiles a placid smile while teasing and calculating our end with its barbed-wire bat).

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You can look for the whole piece soon at Christ and Pop Culture (if you’re not a subscriber there, it’ll pop up from behind the paywall eventually, but less soon).

Dispatches from the job market: sales

If a field of work (sales) is so notoriously unattractive to applicants (for reasons like cutthroat compensation packages plus the fact that you’d be, you know, the one person people go to great lengths to avoid [you and the door-to-door religion folks]) that you need euphemisms (business development/lead generation) to re-brand your industry in hopes of attracting applicants, then maybe it’s time to dig deep into what really turns people off at the outset. Surely it’s not the five-letter word. Surely it’s the work itself. Can you re-brand that?

Might Titans

Hand over the keys to the machine
To men vain, pious, and lusting
See what they won’t demonize
Love and grave and you and I
Pave in sorrow their easy ride
Smooth up to the door knocker of hell
Thought a garden, and just as well.

Go on, then, courting
Up to that reddening brink.
Run after your smiling groom.

Not but injustice–grace–
Could turn aside what just reward
Waits in the bed they’ve made.
Might titans hear a quiet word?

I guess, but
I confess
I often root against it

Scraps: Awkward Pauses

I had to cut this from something I’m working on, but it’s a darling so rather than kill it outright, I’ll just let it live here. It came from a paragraph about reviving the art of conversation in a world drenched with communication.

You have to navigate awkward pauses (which, the awkwardness might actually be just the realization that someone needs to venture some vulnerability to keep the conversation moving and, to your mutual embarrassment, neither one of you is brave enough. Hence that feeling you both try to disown by calling it “awkward” rather than “mutual and embarrassing cowardice”).

Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

This continues a short series on re-thinking how the church might consider its relationship to politics. More here. What do I mean when I say ‘the church‘? Rather have it all summed up in a song?

In America, we like to boast that our government represents the will of the people. At least, that’s what the winners love to say. More cynical observers suspect that our governing powers—and, more broadly, our cultural powers—actually have an agenda of their own which they dupe, swindle, and strongarm people into abetting. It’s an interesting idea and makes for great storytelling, but I don’t believe even such a power could really lure people somewhere they didn’t already want to go. In the end, I would argue that the law of our land does indeed reflect the will of the people. And, for the church, this is highly useful.

Mightier than the sword
Yesterday, we considered the image of the government bearing a sword. Of course, this is a true image, but I remain convinced that it is tricky territory to imagine the church as playing a part in wielding that sword through its vote. So, I’m going to propose a new imagery to help us understand our American political moment. Instead of bearing the sword, let’s imagine our government bearing a pen.

If our representative government does indeed reflect the will of the people, then that would make the work of our government—making and enforcing laws—something like that of a cartographer, drawing a map of the cultural landscape. If the law of the land shows a vast plain of sexual ethics, looming mountains of identity politics, or a remote badlands reserved for Biblical morality, that tells us that those things already exist.[1] They originated in the desires of the people and the government merely drew the map to get people where they wanted to go.[2]

If you can believe that this is true, then it would be lunacy to try and ‘use’ the powers of government to change the culture. It would be as sane as re-drawing a map of the United States with the Rockies over on the east and expecting that the mountains themselves would pick up and shuffle across the continent. The government may set boundaries that effectively guide some people, but by and large, people tend to go where they want to go and the government eventually catches up. Look at the trend of marijuana legality for a good example. People want to get high, lower incarceration rates, and raise some tax revenue, so they did the work of making a marijuana-friendly culture. The government is now following along, making it law. It’s not always perfectly clear, but the basic pattern of demand leading to supply is fairly reliable in our country, even in politics.

So, instead of fighting tooth and nail in an ugly war to draw a lunatic map of wishful thinking, what if the church admitted that the government is only sketching out what already exists in the wishes of our neighbors? That campaigns and polls are things to be read and studied, but not fought for as if our lives depended on them? When all of the dust of every nasty campaign settles[3], we may not have the elected officials we would choose, but we do have one thing: a crystal-clear map of our mission field. What can we make of our votes in light of this?

An orientating experiment
Well, we can make our votes something of an experiment. No longer seeking control, which all-too-often involves awful compromises on integrity masked as tactical decisions, we could submit our vote into the maelstrom as a little beacon of what we value. toy-boatThen, we see where our values end up on the map and we watch where other values land, too. Alongside this, we listen. Politics, after all, involves a good deal of talking. Listen to how people talk about their values, how people talk about what threatens their values, and how people talk about what means are acceptable for enshrining their values in Law. This should give us a pretty clear picture of where we stand, where we might like to carry our good news, and some paths we might take to get there. Then it’s just a matter setting out on our journey. And this is one place where over-investment in politics can actually hinder. If we are too wrapped up in winning, too fearful of losing, we might just lose our courage[4] to bear any sort of good news in the world at all. That would be a grave error.

My desire here is to offer the church a way to think about campaigns and elections that leaves space for us not to succumb to the hysteria around us. We have better hope than politics, so we can definitely cool our jets. Sabers will be rattled, doom will be prophesied, mocking degradations of complex human character will be passed off as righteous condemnation. It’s all brief and momentary noise.

The subversive art of resistance
What makes this kind of political engagement so challenging is that, one, it asks of us a quietness in the face of a lot of spittle-lipped and purplish rancor[5] and, two, it asks of us a good deal of patience. It’s perfectly understandable to feel threatened in our political climate. People seem awfully volatile, and it’s easy to read in rumbling signs and wonders of a renewed faith in totalitarianism. When we feel threatened, we want to shout back in the face of each accuser, to reach for something strong to defend ourselves. In fear and unease, we face our most critical time for discernment. We must not panic. We may have to bite our tongue and endure scoffing or even abuse, but wasn’t this the very way of the Jesus we claim to follow? If no ‘winning’ power is worthy of the church’s support, it remains a worthy choice to align with no power and work in exile. After all, even seemingly helpful powers should be kept at a wise distance because power is fleeting and fickle. Christianity is not a faith of direct power, anyway. There are two ways to crack a heavy stone. There is the noisy expedience of the hammer and there is the quiet patience of the tree root, and our faith is a likened to a seed.

In the end, I’m not advocating for political withdrawal. I am absolutely advocating for a renewed political restraint. We must take serious note of how Jesus related to the powers of his day. To say they were odd bedfellows would radically overstate the relationship; they were nowhere near the same bed. If Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations to earthly power in the desert and later stayed on the cross, and if Paul and Silas stayed in jail after the earthquake, if Stephen saw fit to be stoned to death, and if all the other etceteras are true and yet Christianity survived, surely we can see that there is something of the power of this world that Christianity does not need and in fact refutes.

Living in a country with a fairly representative democracy does afford the church with opportunity, but it’s an opportunity to understand, not to control. The church must seriously engage the work of unclenching the fist of political control and embracing its real mission of loving neighbors and proclaiming relief from the troubles of this world. What might this look like?

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[1] To say nothing of the high and steep cliffs off which our technological wonders can blindly, blithely drive us.

[2] This, of course, puts us as a citizenry in the rarely enviable position of getting what we wish for.

[3] As much as it can settle now in our crazy days of infinite campaigning.

[4] Or our compassion

[5] Or in the face of smug dismissal.

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

As a great artist does, Gillian Welch has expressed most of what I’d say about politics in a three-verse song, and with far more poetry. I’ve listened to it often in the past weeks. ‘Hard Times’ is the perfect song for when apocalyptic prophets climb up on the politician’s stump. When you’re working hard because of the hope hard work gives you; when you’re sheltered from the worry of the world by some kind of pleasure; when hardship has truly overtaken you; the refrain above it all should be, ‘Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.’ The skill and repetition of the plow preaches the same gospel that Jesus gave to our worry. Each row has enough worry of its own. Just get to the end before you turn around and start back the other direction and you’ll be all right.

Have a listen and enjoy.