Reflections on finitude, powerlessness, and becoming a father.

App called WeCroak that reminds you you’re going to die. Dust we are indeed.

My daughter was born May 10th, 2019. She was premature at 4 lb 4 oz and 16.5″ long. My wife and I never anticipated being preemie parents, and we didn’t anticipate her coming this early since she was due in June. The reason she came early is that on my wife’s routine pregnancy visit the doctor found that she was preeclamptic (had high blood pressure which is dangerous for baby). So the doctor admitted her, I rushed home after class to pack our unpacked hospital bag, and induction began the night before she was born. I still had final exams to do, my wife still had one day of work left before her maternity leave started, and we both did not expect my wife’s blood pressure to stay high after birth causing her to need magnesium treatment and multiple ER visits. Though mom and baby are doing fine now, I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way by certain truths that modern life encourages us to forget.

When I held my daughter for the first time, I could feel her wriggly boney body through her soft skin. Her ribs were visible and her leg bones were thinner than my thumb (I’m not a big guy, either). I was careful putting pressure on her because all I could think was how she felt as light and brittle as styrofoam. The next thing that happened was one of the most paradoxical and seemingly contradictory things I’ve experienced (next to feeling the absurdity of life and the call of Jesus to follow Him and rest) in my life thus far: great joy and awe at the beauty of God’s creation, and great dread and fear at the frailty of it all, including myself. It reminded me of a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father is reflecting on the decrepit and dissolving post-apocalyptic world: “The frailty of everything revealed at last.”

Staring at my daughter while she slept in the hospital made me see that life is incredibly fragile and finite; I am incredibly fragile. Modern America encourages us to live as though we’ll never die, to self-create and thereby transcend our finitude, to believe we are our own. I am guilty of this. I spend my time thinking I can do everything, fix everything, accomplish everything, that I am in control. My daughter’s tiny body reminded me that every breath I take, every breath she takes, every bird that lands and eats, every minute instance of existence itself is totally and completely dependent upon God’s grace. To be really philosophical about it, God ontologically sustains all that is, gives it being and beauty and dignity, and has the power and the prerogative to take it away. That, combined with the theological truth that God so loved His creation that He sent His Son, that He promises to restore all things and invites us to become a part of His people (Church) through whom He primarily is revealing that restoration and reconciliation, has shown me more of what it really means to fear the Lord. In fear and anxiety and awe and joy and overflowing peace, I thank God for my daughter, and the grace of being at all. My daughter is an embodied and tangible reminder that, as David Bentley Hart says, “we exist only because there is One who has called us from nothingness.”

Another thing I realized, related to the previous point, is how powerless my daughter is. She cannot do anything for herself except poop. She is totally and utterly dependent upon my wife and me. Power is something everyone is striving for. Empowerment, giving power to the powerless, power to self-create or make up one’s own mind, power to live your best life, etc. These are the things we as Americans spend our time playing political triage with: who has power? who needs power? is it wrong for these people to have this much power? what is power? Staring at my daughter’s tiny dependent being made me uncomfortable in one sense because it reminded me of how, ultimately, I am powerless and dependent. Modern American life wants us all to believe that we are independent and autonomous and self-creating. Theologically, this is a mistake. Our beings and breath and everything are dependent upon God’s grace, His gift. We are not self-sufficient.

My daughter reminded me of the truth of the gospel that Jesus told His disciples. When asked if they could sit at Jesus’ left and right in His glory (i.e.: they wanted places of power and prestige when the Kingdom came) Jesus responded by inverting the world’s notion of power, thereby revealing the sharp distinction between the World and the Kingdom:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be the first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:42b-44)

Power, for Christians and the life of the Church, is self-giving service and weakness. It is sacrifice, just as our Lord sacrificed, even to the point of death if need be. Life is not about asserting your power to do what you will, but to give that up to Jesus and take up a life of servitude as a slave to Him. Of course, this is the most counter-intuitive thing imaginable: I want to exercise my power and do what I will! Nobody is gonna stop me, not even God! I do this; it’s sin in me (Rom. 7). We followers of Jesus will never be rid of our old selves until He returns, but in the Church now, the time between times, we have the Spirit to give us that power. May we be reminded by the powerless, the children and elderly and cognitively impaired, that Jesus alone is truly powerful because He became weak. I thank God for my daughter and what He is already teaching me through her. I hope the Church (esp. in America) can learn to follow the Crucified and Risen One, the powerless One, the Almighty Lord, in faithfulness and steadfastness.


Fruits are not outcomes

Classic trolley problem: the greater good seems to be killing less people and saving many, so you should kill the one.

We’re all utilitarians; every last one of us. Whether it’s in individual decisions/actions (Jeremy Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism, individual acts that bring pleasure or limit pain for the individual) or rules that govern a mass of people (John Stuart Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number), we default to this everyday in various decisions. We also run a country with utilitarian principles. And that may be simply because it’s pragmatic to do so; it gets stuff done. Example: What should America do about healthcare? Poor people are a huge number that are in need of good healthcare. Giving that large mass of people free healthcare would be a great good, though it would be at the expense of the others, but the good for the many outweighs the downside for the smaller group. Therefore, the greatest good (healthcare) for the greatest number (poor/not-rich) is universal healthcare. Simple calculus. Weigh the consequence and its impact on the greatest number, do the action. And this is not bad per se; it’s helpful and is a tool for navigating life. I use consequentialist/utilitarian calculus when I go to Panera (the best action is the one that makes me feel good, so I order the Napa Valley chicken salad sandwich).

However, for Christians, Scripture speaks of fruit, not outcome/consequences (I struggled to make this distinction until I read this and it clicked). It seems that for Christians in America, the greatest good for the greatest number obviously is played out in American political life. The point of ethical living is good outcomes for the greatest number; therefore vote for these things that are in-line with “Christian principles” (what are those? I didn’t know Jesus came to give us principles) because those principles bring good outcomes. This may be true to some extent (how to define a good outcome, though. If by living peacefully/nonviolently someone else dies, it that a good outcome?).

Jesus specifically tells His disciples to look for the fruit that is produced to know what kind of tree we’re looking at. In the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew (Matt. 7:15-20), Jesus tells us how to spot false prophets: “thus you will know them by their fruits” (NRSV). Given Christian thinking in America, we connect that with utilitarianism and think, “Aha! Jesus means people who make good outcomes are good trees, and people who make bad outcomes are bad trees.” But is that what He’s saying? I think it’s even more straightforward than our utilitarian calculus of greatest good for the greatest number. The Christian life is not primarily about making good effects, producing good outcomes or consequences (though much of the Church’s life will do that). Rather, in the Christian life we seek fruit: simply following Jesus and allowing your life to be conformed to His. Fruit, remember, is dependent upon the vine or source. Jesus tells us that He is the vine and we (His disciples) are the branches taking sustenance from the vine and producing the proper kind of fruit (John 15). If fruit is born by abiding in the vine that gives it sustenance, then what kind of fruit is it? Well, what kind of plant are we talking? Answer: Jesus; His life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus shows us what fruit is by being fruit. Not only that, He is the vine that sustains and directs the development of that fruit. The fruit knows what kind of fruit to be by knowing the kind of plant it is a part of. So the question for Christians in America should not be: which action produces the greatest good for the greatest number on a federal or state level? Rather, the question we Christians should reflect on is: do I know what fruit is? I would argue a fruit that is born in the Christian life is a life of peace or non-violence. This is fruit, specifically, good fruit because it comes from Jesus’ life; it is imitating Him and, through prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to make us like Him. Paul even notes that the Corinthians should “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), and the author of Hebrews speaks of the Christian life as one of remembering “your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). That outcome of their life is being like Jesus; living in obedience to Him.

This is radically different than a simple calculus that looks for what we think the greatest good is (we’re usually bad at predicting what we think will bring us pleasure or happiness or the like). In utilitarianism, fallen humans are set up as judges of what is a good outcome and a bad outcome. But Christians don’t look to themselves for that, but rather the vision of fruit that comes to us from outside ourselves: the revelation of God in Christ. Therefore, fruit in the Christian life is obeying Jesus, maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures, ordering our lives after the pattern of Jesus’ life and within the Story God is telling in Scripture. To bear fruit is to live faithfully to the pattern or story given to us rather than the one determined by us. Of course, this will severely challenge our current ways of thinking. For example, is supporting pro-choice/pro-life the end goal? Each claim to bring the greatest good for the greatest number, each focus on making America function a certain way, both completely miss the fruit that the Body of Christ is to produce: fidelity to Jesus within that community first that then goes out.

Utilitarianism is alluring because it “works.” Utilitarianism gets stuff done. But the Church is not called solely to be a sociological group that produces good effects. The Church is called to faithfulness, to bearing good fruit by God’s grace. And that good fruit is imitating Jesus, obeying Scripture, and self-denial, even if that may lead to “bad” outcomes.

The Christ-rule as the way of life for the church

We all know the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you (or some variant of that). Of course the problem with the contemporary use of this rule is that it is separated from the context and narrative in which it makes sense. By so plucking it out of the pages of the Bible, it then becomes raw material to do with it whatever we want. I’ve seen in the philosophical literature many interpretations of the rule, all revealing how the rule is used to serve whatever human purposes/interests are at play. The use of this rule apart from the Story of our Lord is, in my mind, illegitimate and cannot be endorsed apart from life lived in the church following the crucified Jesus.

Rather than argue about the use of this rule in modern American politics and how “universal” the rule is, I think another passage of Scripture helps us see what Jesus means in how we (the church, His followers) are to be/act. This morning I was reading one of the lectionary readings for Maundy Thursday, John 13. This is the famous feet-washing episode during the Passover meal with His disciples. After washing their feet, Jesus states this is the example they are to follow: self-sacrifice and service to each other in church, as well as others (though the text focuses primarily on inter-disciple love). I love the detail John notes (v. 3-5 NIV):

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

Jesus knows Who He is, the power given to Him, the glory of having come from the Father and being Lord over all creation. And yet this isn’t an exploitative or coercive power: it is power redefined as weakness, service, and sacrifice. It is true power, because this is what power looks like in the Kingdom, the Rule of God, and our King is showing us this.

But even more than this, Jesus states that He has set the disciples an example. Verse 15 really stuck out to me as what I will call the Christ-Rule:

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Rather than think what I, the individual self, would want others to do to me (this is a misunderstanding of the Golden Rule) Jesus calls His disciples to act as He has acted, to do as He has done. That is the rule Christians are to follow: the self has been transformed, died and raised with Jesus, and this self is ordered toward doing what Jesus did and wanting what Jesus wants. This is the Rule Christians ought to focus on, rather than the myriad of isolated interpretations of secular accounts/bad accounts of the Golden Rule (obviously we should renew our understanding of this as well).

Jesus is our example, or King to whom we, the church, pledge our allegiance and whose life we follow. Because we proclaim in faith that the new creation has come in the One who washes grimy Middle-Eastern feet before dying in humiliation, showing Himself to be the Way into God’s Kingdom. Lord give us grace through the Holy Spirit to have the power to be weak and Christ-like.

Deconstructing harmful things

I didn’t grow up in a denomination that hurt me. I didn’t know people in church who manipulated me or hurt those close to me. I have only thought some pastors said dumb things that, while doctrinally or theologically problematic, were albeit harmless to my emotional or psychological state. I have hardly ever found myself incredibly angry or resentful towards a certain group of Christians (Southern, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, etc.) except when I read about them doing things contrary to the way of life the worldwide church is called to in following our Lord. I don’t understand what those experiences are like: possessing a deep distrust and harboring still-raw wounds from church leaders or Christian groups. I don’t really get socially uncomfortable being associated with “those Christians” if it means I am being faithful to what Jesus teaches, or Scripture teaches (I’m thinking of sexual ethics or care for poor people/immigrants, things like that). Maybe I get uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s usually because I want to know that the person I’m talking with is really engaging with the message and not just putting me in a camp and thereby allowing themselves to sidestep having to face something challenging (i.e. who Jesus is and what He wants from us).

However, I have met people that have been hurt; that still are hurt. I have met people that live their lives (I think outsiders may see it clearer than they themselves) in complete opposition to “those Christians” they grew up with, defining themselves in opposition to that denomination. “Oh that Christian conviction makes me like those Christians I grew up with? I’ll do the opposite.” Obviously it’s more complicated than that, as they think certain convictions are better than others (e.g. personal autonomy is waaaaaaaaaay better than institutional authority or any kind of authority external to the individual). I’ve met brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with that past, as well as struggle with how to go on and live now. It seems especially excruciating when they sense they can’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” on certain Christian convictions, all the while wrestling to disentangle those convictions from the horrible people who held them in their past.

I struggle to engage with people like this. First, because I simply don’t know what it’s like. My initial (bad) reaction is to say: “move on, get over it, go to counseling (which they should!) why are you so hung up on that?” I’ve been learning to listen a lot to these brothers and sisters the past few years, and it’s exposed a second thing in me that I always struggled to articulate, but that I recently learned to do with my counselor: I desire to dominate the other. I want to force people into what I think is right, rather than present in word and deed, in love and truth, and allow them to respond. Maybe that’s some sort of conservative genetic thing, or a personality type, or a crazy complex combination of things, but I realized that’s what I do. And I realized I do it because I’m insecure. I don’t want to be out of control. But as Stanley Hauerwas says, Christians (especially in America) are a people who must learn to live “out of control.”

So I guess I’m becoming more sympathetic with those who want to “deconstruct” their previous Christian experiences (yes this is not the technical meaning of the term, but it’s how it’s deployed in common usage). The problem is that I don’t want those brothers and sisters to deconstruct themselves to spiritual death: you can’t lose what is life giving, what is true, even if that takes years and therapy and disabusing yourself of the association of that conviction with horrible Christians. I don’t know how that exactly works; certainly the Spirit changes us all in our common life together and through the Scriptures. But I’ve been learning to listen to those who have had a very different Christian experience from myself, as well as to better speak truth and love to them. Which means embodying a life like Jesus’ and always being a part of that tattered community called Church, the Body of our Lord. That may result in hard conversations and conflict. But I suppose conflict out of love and truth, oriented towards redemption and healing, is better than no conflict and a continuing of spiritual ruin or malformation. I’m still learning how to best go about this, but I know I need my brothers and sisters to help me, and especially the Scriptures, because that’s the only vision that is true and I need someone other than myself to help me aim at the truth. We all do.

(This article and podcast inspired this post:

Mockingcast episode 125:

Not admirers, but cruciform people.

The Roman Catholic Church across from our apartment faces the sunset, so the cross is illuminated on clear evenings.

I take it as a given that all my own understandings, my assumptions, my thoughts of right and wrong, just and unjust, everything, are all necessarily dependent upon God’s grace. That would mean, then, that being made more like Christ means becoming less “me,” and that’s a good thing. It’s good because that “me” is caught up in sin, death, self-deception, pride, arrogance, and in need of new creation, new life, a new self. Therefore, my starting assumptions and my understanding of the world and myself must never be universalized and taken for granted, but open to being destroyed; and God’s grace, His Word through His Holy Spirit, creates something new, something true. I’d take God’s constructs (by faith, of course) over my own or someone else’s any day.

This is scary because it’s a death; but it’s good because that new creation, being truly human in Christlikeness, is what we are made for. That’s what Lent orients us toward: dying to self, picking up the cross, following Jesus. As Len nears, I’m reflecting on how I’m in continual need of illumination by the Spirit, that my intuitions and thoughts may not always be the best things to lean on (I have OCD, so when people tell me to “follow my heart” or just to “trust your gut” I think, “you don’t know how f*cked up it is. I can’t trust it”). The death that we follow Jesus to, then, is a gift. It is a call to die and to be made new by God’s action. The Scriptures attest to this newness of life, this new creation brought about by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise to come again.

I was reading a Stanley Hauerwas essay over this past weekend. He was arguing that Scripture is difficult for us to recognize and see without trained eyes, because seeing the resurrected Jesus is not easy either: both require God’s help, and both are more radical than we think because both call us to die to ourselves and be reshaped (I think this is why a lot of disagreements happen in the church: we simply don’t want to accept the new creation, the God-given vision of various things like care for poor people, immigrants, human sexuality, etc.).

He recalls a story of a man who started one of the earliest integrationist/interracial communities in Georgia, called the Koinonia Farm. Clarence Jordan, the founder of the community, ran into an issue getting liquid propane delivered to the farm in winter (against the law not to deliver it). He called his brother, Robert, a lawyer and later senator and justice in Georgia’s Supreme Court, for help. The exchange is revealing and, I found, convicting:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything too, Bob.”

“It’s different for you.”

“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church on the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be–the cross?”

“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.”

“Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?'”

The Hauerwas Reader p. 258, quoted from James McClendon Jr. Biography as Theology p. 127-28

It’s easy to think we’d be the people who resisted the temptation to simply be an admirer of Jesus. But we’re not. I’m not. We always have to ask Christ to fashion us into his people, his church, his disciples. Even if that looks irresponsible in some ways, such as risking there even being a church at all. I pray this Lent that we remember, on our own strength, we are nothing but admirers. But, with God’s help, we become new; we partake in Jesus’ resurrection life. But that begins with the uncomfortable, inconvenient, offensive cross.

Idolatry is bipartisan and doesn’t care who you are

I preached Epiphany Sunday about the nature of the Church and her (because the church is a her and not an it) political witness being one with her spiritual witness. Our life together, both towards each other as believers and in our service to anyone outside the church community, is a witness to and proclamation of another kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

There is a danger always latent in life in a fallen world of idolatry of all kinds. For one, we can worship that which is not the true God. For another, we can worship God in the wrong ways which leads to a misunderstanding of who God is. This is especially true in America where the temptation to idolize American politics cuts across all parties. Conservative Christians can make an idol out of America, the military, and making America a Christian nation through worldly political power. Liberal Christians can make an idol out of social activism, individual experience, and making the world a better place. Both, and all in between, can make and have made idols out of human choice, freedom, the free market, democracy, etc. And while Christian life in the Church will sometimes look “liberal” from this angle, or “conservative” from that angle, we are something entirely different, an altogether other worldly, yet in-this-world social order: the Kingdom of God. Indeed, Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world (John 19).

The Kingdom of God has begun in Jesus’ coming, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise to come again. He has given us, His people, the task of living this out. He asked the Father, and the Father has given us the Spirit to be empowered to live as a foretaste to the new creation. The Kingdom first starts, not with getting the right policies into whatever government we Christians happen to be under, nor with focusing purely on an inward grasp of some theological propositions about God and Jesus. Our primary job is not to fix the world; it is to be the church (as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon put it in Resident Aliens). Will the world be better because of us being the church? Yep. But this cannot be our primary concern, as we first must come into the community and be transformed by God’s Spirit, and receive the gift of faith and grace, and learn what life together in the Kingdom looks like. The Church’s primary witness to the world is the Church’s life together (John 13). Intimately related and necessary to that is the Church’s going out and serving others, imitating the example of our Savior. I’m reminded of James’ exhortation to have faith and deeds together (James 2).

But we Christians seriously have to rethink and patiently pray about how Scripture calls us to be in this world as it is passing away while the Kingdom is coming. As Christians in America we have become too zealous for this country, whether to the political right or left. It irritates and saddens me when people are more energized by voting than by their life as a Christ follower with other Christ followers. I think it reveals that forces are shaping us for other kingdoms besides God’s Kingdom. Does that mean we shouldn’t vote? Not necessarily. But can we participate in American life in such a way that it doesn’t swamp us? Have we already been swamped by it? Has it taken over our imagination, leaving no room for the vision of life Jesus calls us to as His followers, the future hope that will come? If it has, let’s just admit it and repent and begin worshiping, as God’s chosen people, the true God who calls us to proclaim and embody His Kingdom coming by the power of the Spirit. Sometimes, that may look irresponsible to the world. That may look weird. That may mean you do less as an American citizen. But then know that what you are doing is being the Church, which is exactly what Christ has called us to be. And that is doing immensely more than you may think.


The weary world rejoices

I just finished reading David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s an extended theological and philosophical reflection on evil, suffering, and theodicy. It was beautiful and substantial and encouraging. However, it is not a theodicy proper, as he offers no “explanation” to justify God’s ways to us. Hart brilliantly draws Christians away from banal and asinine responses to evil and death; we are people of hope, who live in the midst of two Kingdoms. One is passing away and is ruled by the “powers and principalities,” as well as satan. The other has broken in in Christ’s coming, living, dying, rising, ascending, and will fully come upon His return.

We Christians can therefore hate evil “with a perfect hatred,” and eschew insipid responses to evil and destruction. There is no “inevitable progress of history,” but rather the expectation through faith that God will make all things new. Some history, Hart notes, is simply “false and damnable.” Further, evil is not “a part of God’s plan”: it is alien, intrusive, and has been judged in Christ’s coming. The Christian vision of future hope is “not some rational deduction from empirical experience, but is a moral and spiritual aptitude — or, rather, a moral and spiritual labor.” We must be taught to see this hope via God’s Holy Spirit, labor after it as God’s people, and conform ourselves to it. I could go on and on about this book. There’s some technical philosophical theology in it, but it comes together beautifully to spur us onward towards the hope we Christians have as God’s people in Christ.

I was incredibly grateful to have read this on the tail end of Advent and be reminded that Jesus’ coming is not soft and meek; it is an invasion into the broken world to make all things new. We all experience weariness and waining hope. Now One comes, the “one of peace” (Micah 5:5), who begins God’s redemptive plan to create a people to live in this new Kingdom in the midst of the old, living towards the hope to come. “When the incarnate God appears…it is to rescue the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature, but it is also an act of judgment and conquest.” My weary heart rejoices, the weary creation rejoices, our Hope has come.