The following article first appeared on Think Christian
G. K Chesterton once wrote, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all... As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.” At first glance, the statement appears to be a bit of paradoxical nonsense- another attempt for the brilliant English philosopher and writer to make us scratch our chins. As a Christian, Chesterton was pointing towards an explicitly eternal vision of hope, a vision that should open our eyes to the deepest realities of the human experience on display before us all, unveiling itself in real world events currently dominating the headlines.
Last week the Prime Minister of Malaysia faced an anxious crowd of reporters and flashing cameras in order to relay the grim news that “flight 370 went down somewhere over the Indian Ocean.” The statement exploded in the ears of family members and friends of the victims who cried, wailed, spewed angry accusations, and even attempted physical harm to security guards on hand. In the end those who lost loved ones asserted that the Malaysian government and military were “the true murderers.”
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in Darrington, WA excessive rains loosened the soil on a steep hillside covered with residential homes. When the mountain could hold it no longer, it unleashed a landslide onto unsuspecting residents below. The potential to find survivors under the 15 feet of debris was unlikely; yet, even into day nine of the cleanup, first responders and teams of volunteers were referring to it as “a search and rescue initiative.”
Both stories have highlighted the centrality of hope to our human experience; why we will hold onto it despite all odds and react with anger towards those who dash it. This is precisely why Chesterton refers to hope as a virtue. And furthermore, why he suggests that true hope does not emerge until things are hopeless. Chesterton argues that for many, hope is a reasonable hope, a hope placed in assumptions that are undergirded by potentially logical certainties. It is not until these possibilities are removed and everyone else has abandoned their belief in a “good ending” that hope finally arises as a legitimate virtue –“it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”
Stripped of a tangible reason to tie their mast to anything remotely realistic, a deeper, more profound, stronger hope emerges. Indeed as Chesterton later argues, “Exactly at the instance when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.”
The power of hope- Chesterton’s brand of hope- is a virtue on par with few others. It is the hope that has kept men and woman breathing through the darkest days of their lives amidst war, holocausts, abuse, natural disasters, famines, civil wars, genocide, apartheid, mental illness, and miscarriages. It is the promise of tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, the promise of the next day.
The power of hope is the eternity written on the souls of humanity that yearns for something more, something better, something that lies just on the other side of this tragedy, that accident, our losses and our longings. It is the deepest promise echoing in the caverns of every chest reminding us constantly “this is not all that there is.” The story goes on. So we hope, we believe and we press into the echo, reminding one another, indeed, the story is not over.
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But there are other, darker incompatibilities that inhabit this world as well; absurdities that do more than make us chuckle, they make us weep. Priests, pastors, teachers, and coaches who abuse children, bankers who are thieves, police who are drug dealers, marriage counselors who have affairs…or architects with broken homes; a reality of which I discovered after taking in Ken Burn’s documentary on the life and legacy of the most famous architect in American history, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Early in Wright’s life, after years of marital conflict, his father walked out the front door of their home and never returned. The abandonment was so profound for Wright that he never spoke to his father again, and even refused later to attend his funeral. It also became, as it does for so many men, the fuel for his unquenchable appetite for greatness and success; without the presence of his father, Wright’s longing for approval and nagging questions about his sufficiency became unanswerable. And instead of healing the wounds of his past, he chose to anesthetize them through endless hours at his draft table.
The story is disheartening enough until you learn that even Wright’s workaholic lifestyle could not fill the emptiness left by his father. And so it was, after fathering six children of his own, that Wright too walked out the front door with another woman and abandoned his family forever.
Like the opening clichés, such stories are all too common and leave us groping for answers. How often have you heard the strange, but somehow un-strange, news in which the abused become abusers, the children of addicts become addicts themselves, or the sons of adulterers become adulterers. Sadly, the pain and wounds we experience in childhood frequently become the pain and wounds we inflict on others later in life.
I have written before about generational sin in an earlier blog. Without simply repeating myself again, I want to highlight the wisdom presented by Heidi Grogan in her recent blog about Lent where she wrote “when we have not yet attended to the trauma we’ve experienced, we walk as if there are nails in our soles.” We are not trapped by our past unless we fail to be aware that being trapped in our past is the default mechanics of our souls. Change only happens when staying the same costs more than we are willing to pay. It is hard work, and even for brilliant, “successful” men like Frank Lloyd Wright, who could spend endless weeks at the office, it was ultimately work that was too difficult to undertake. Wright could make the most exquisite spaces for people to live. Homes for families fashioned to foster intimacy and communion, retreats designed for contemplation, rest and renewal, galleries to display the world’s art and temples for the worship of gods. But no building was grand enough to rebuild the broken home in which he was raised.
Lent, this season of preparation and reflection is an especially appropriate time to take a glance behind us to see where we have come from, lest we too, endlessly tread the same worn path we first learned to walk on so many years ago.
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Much has been made recently of Steven Furtick and his resource for “spontaneous baptism.” The manual (found here) developed by Furtick and his Elevation Church leadership team was highlighted by NBC in late February, drawing national attention to the glaring reality that, by definition, a baptism service that requires a manual is anything but spontaneous. Many shake their heads at the obvious paradox. Many more find the news anything but shocking, stemming from a religious leader who has already sparked more than his fair share of criticism. But most concerning of all, is the large segment of the public who may consider the issue at hand to be nothing more than a hipster church behaving badly, arguing that whether there is a manual or not, this is an issue of practice not theology.
In reality, while the development of a spontaneous baptism manual exposes the dangers of a celebrity driven church, and reflects an undeniable desire to build a human kingdom, the more pressing issue at hand may actually be more well hidden, and far more important to address. Like a page out of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters I can imagine the minions of Hell giggling over all the bad press Elevation’s baptism manual is getting, while the topic of baptism itself is ignored.
“As long as we have them arguing over the method, they will never stop and think about the meaning,” their mocking voices shriek.
In his book Beginning Well Gordon Smith invites us to consider the notion that the way we are invited into a life of faith sets the path for the type of transformation we will experience. He writes,
“Our whole life is in one sense the working out of the full meaning of our conversion” (10).
The essence of what Smith argues is that the how (praxis) of our conversion is also the introduction to our theology (doxy), and the theology that emerges from that experience will serve as the foundation for our practice. To put it another way, our introduction to the community of faith sets our expectations for the ongoing life in that community.
For example, when conversion is introduced as a single event (i.e. raising a hand, saying a prayer, walking an aisle, etc.) the expectation of ongoing transformation is crippled. If a person becomes, instantaneously and completely, “saved” in a moment, what is the Christian life look like moving forward? What does it mean to “work out your faith with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) or to put your life on the burning altar daily as “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1)?
The same principles apply in our approach to baptism. As an “outward sign of an inward reality” baptism was instituted by Christ as sacrament through which his children would be “set apart,” marked by an act that identified with them with the Savior who was crucified and resurrected. It is a rite that demonstrates new allegiance to a King and a Kingdom at odds with the Kingdom of this world. It is the declaration that He must increase while my agendas must die a thousand deaths.
Can all of these truths be organically transferred through a public spectacle initiated by a scripted message, selective music, matching t-shirts and a media crew dedicated to creating a highlight reel for marketing? And if Gordon Smith is correct, what does this kind of introduction into the faith teach followers about the transformation which follows?
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As I gathered in my living room last night, I marked the foreheads of my wife and children with ashes in the symbol of a cross to the light of flickering candles. As my hand passed across their brow I whispered the words "from dust you have come and to dust you will return." It was intentionally somber and the ritual marks the start of a 40 day journey for us in which we will surrender and fast and do without in order to realign our hearts with our first love. We will pray and we will wait with eyes focused on Easter.
In stark contrast was the parades of Mardi Gras earlier in the week which served as a clear illustration of our penchant for celebration as prelude instead of response. In anticipation of a season of surrender and sacrifice Fat Tuesday is the opportunity to fill up on vice before the great fast of Lent leads us to virtue. In Lent we are reminded once again that the story of the Cross is Mardi Gras in reverse. Parades and parties, singing and spirits, beads and beer mark the glorious end, not the beginning of the journey. As we center our gaze in the coming weeks on the the life, death and resurrection of the Suffering Servant our hope is that we will realize once again that the call to discipleship is a call to willingly embrace burdensome paradoxes of death before life, sacrifice before reward, pain before relief and loss before victory. Remember that even the Son of man was lead by the Spirit into wilderness before he was lead down the hillside of Jerusalem to shouts of his triumphal entry.
Most importantly we learn trough the pages of Scripture the glorious truth that crucifixion is not an end, but the very road to resurrection. This is truly what we miss when Mardi Gras becomes the preferred celebration compared to Easter. It is the classic illness of the American church that wants good news without suffering; a gospel that promises your "best life now" instead of sacrifice. The journey of Lent holds out the guarantee that our surrender to God is never in vain, that a true and lasting salvation awaits those who are willing to embrace the mystery which tells us that when we lose our lives, we will actually find it, and when we die, will finally live. The dangerous lie of Mardi Gras is that the best is behind us and Lent is nothing more than our penance for Fat Tuesday.
The gospel tells us a dramatically opposite tale that the best is yet to come, that fasting comes before feasting, and the celebration being cleaned up today in the French Quarter is but a very small glimpse of the ceremony which awaits those who endure to the end. Mardi Gras can only offer escape from our hopelessness, while Lent continually points us towards the greatest hope the world has ever known. The true and certain promise of resurrection. This is the story told in the season of Lent.
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My recent post on the subject of spiritual intimacy was the most widely read article I have written on Thursday Circle. You can read Part I here. It generated some incredibly healthy and important discussions online, in my office, in the classroom, and in the living rooms of many of you who read the piece. And it raised some weighty questions. So here is part two of the discussion. Let the conversation continue.
Of all the questions I received throughout the past week, most boiled down to some version of “how far is too far?” Along these lines people were asking whether or not any and every form of communal prayer is a breech of spiritual intimacy. Others wondered how we walk the tightrope of appropriately guarding our hearts without extinguishing authenticity, transparency and the kind of intimacy necessary for a healthy community.
The analogy I most frequently gave, albeit crass, relates to way we think about our physical boundaries in the forms of handshakes, side-hugs, long embraces, and make-out sessions.
When someone stops me in the foyer of the church while we are grabbing coffee and shares with me that they just found out that they lost their job, I offer to pray for them. Handshake
When someone shares his or her story with me in my office and we close our counseling session with prayer. Side-Hug
When someone from my inner circle of relationships (more on this in a minute) shares something that requires confidentiality and I commit to praying for the next few days, or months. Long embrace
My spiritual life becomes intertwined with the spiritual life of another. When I move from my personal spiritual life, to our spiritual life. When you are no longer able to distinguish your own journey from the journey you are on “together” with someone else, you have entered into a spiritual Make-out session.
Again, I readily admit that there may be better analogies out there, but these physical ones seem to be so clear that they make good starting points when speaking about other types of boundaries. Rarely do we find that we just “somehow” moved from shaking hands to kissing. The boundaries are incredibly clear for most of us.
As I mentioned earlier, another aspect of spiritual intimacy relates to how we conceive of community. In this regard many readers have wondered how we might achieve God’s intention for authentic “life together” (to borrow Bonhoeffer’s term) while simultaneously placing boundaries around our spiritual lives? One answer is to reorient the very way we think about community. All too often our Christian response to developing community is “the more intimacy, the better.” Not only is this incredibly unrealistic, it isn’t even remotely healthy.
In the book Search to Belong Joseph R. Myers outlines four types, or spaces, of community: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate. The general thesis of Myer’s work is that these spaces are not only real ways that we experience community, but that we desperately need to ensure that we experience each regularly.
With genuinely good intentions we (especially those within the church) strive to move every relationship we have into the intimate sphere. We wear name-tags, we gather in small groups, and we are encouraged to build our lives around activities intended to move all of our relationships from public to intimate ones. One of the ways we frequently do this involves increased levels of spiritual intimacy. With Myers categories in view let me give some practical boundaries for healthy spiritual intimacy.
Public: The kind of spiritual intimacy you experience in corporate worship. This community is comprised of strangers and acquaintances, friends and family members. Your spiritual connections are broad.
Social: This group is generally smaller. It is co-workers, or fellow members of the same athletic team, clubs or classes. Here you know some people better than others and prayer centers on general requests for health, the stress of assignments, or for a wrecked car in the shop.
Personal: This group is your “inner circle.” It is Jesus pulling aside James, Peter and John. It is your accountability group, your closest friends, or your immediate family. They know your struggles, you are free to be yourself and be open and honest about your fears, your doubts and your disappointments.
Intimate: As you might imagine, this is the relationship you have with only one person. It is the relationship in which you stand completely naked and vulnerable before one another. Nothing is hidden. It is only coupled with the physical counterpart of consummation. One flesh.
Again, Myers argues that these categories are not only just present realities, but necessary and essential aspects of living as healthy beings, ensuring that we are experiencing each of these spaces of connection with others. And before the question is asked, “If I am not married yet, how do I experience intimate spiritual connections?” My response, you may have guessed, is no different than if someone were asking me about physical intimacy before marriage; celibacy until covenant.
I hope this helps a bit. Talk among yourselves.
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