Saturday, December 24, 2011

The God who takes his time

Piero della Francesca, 1470

The God of Jesus Christ is a God who takes his time.

In the aftermath of Adam and Eve's rebellion, God pronounces judgment upon the serpent:

"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel" (Gen. 3:15).

Then this God takes an incomprehensibly long and to many of us, an upsettingly long, amount time to do something about it.

A bit later he speaks through the prophet Isaiah a promise to his people Israel, which the prophet dutifully writes down.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; 
Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them...
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; 
And the government will rest on His shoulders.

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1460
Then this same God takes 700 years to make this promise see the light of day. If we go backwards seven hundred years, we land at the year 1311, the year that the Italian painter Giotto was in Assisi, painting frescoes in the transept area of the Lower Church, a year in which Dante Alighieri scribbled away at the Divine Comedy, Robert the Bruce roamed the lowlands of Scotland and the technique of knitting was being invented. If we go forwards, we arrive at 2711 AD, a year which only science fiction writers have imagined possible.

Our God takes seven hundred years to make good on his promises, and children innumerable are born to mothers and so many sons "are given" to the tribe that people stop counting because of the tedious quality of the ordinariness of it all.

Then the Messiah arrives, at last. As Gary Thomas describes this episode in God's history:

"This is the way of God: long waiting, intense action, followed by long waiting. Decades may come and go before anything seemingly significant takes place. The Gospels testify to a patient God who sometimes takes centuries to set up his move, and who then thinks nothing of sitting on it for another thirty years until everything is just right."

Our God is a God who takes his time, and if he takes his time with Adam and Eve and Israel and the disciples of Jesus, then, alas, he will do no differently with us, with me.

Our friend Margaret Thielman, with a desire to encourage us during our darkest days this past fall, said this:

"Just remember, the nights are long but the years are short."

Jans tot Sint Geertgen, 1490
I've been repeating that statement out loud to myself over the past weeks. She's right, of course, and Phaedra and I have only begun to feel its meaning with Blythe. At the moment, we have more long days and long nights than short years. But we'll get those short years soon enough, and since we're melancholy people I imagine we'll feel bittersweet about the passing of time and wish we could rewind the tape and do a few things over or cherish moments which we treated perfunctorily.

As we bring another year to a close and anticipate the beginning of 2012, I wanted to share this poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote it at Christmas time, in 1944, from a Nazi prison camp. He was 39 years old, an age I now share with him. The last stanza has a "collect" quality to it and can of course be prayed or recited only in faith.

God did not spare Bonhoeffer death. God did not relieve his beloved Son of death. And he will not spare us death or suffering or travail either, as believers around the globe know firsthand, but he will give us the Holy Spirit without measure, to comfort and to encourage us while we travail, even as we wait for the fuller fulfillment of his promises. He also, thank God, gives us each other to bear our waiting together.

God bless you this Christmastide.

I offer this prayer as a prologue to Bonhoeffer's poem.

God of Adam and Eve, God of Abraham, God of our Lord Jesus Christ, you who sometimes take centuries to set up your move, grant us grace today while we wait for you to answer our prayers which we have prayed this year, this past decade perhaps--or our whole life even--and grace again to remain faithful to your calling upon our life, as difficult or inscrutable as it may feel. 

May we not only know afresh the Christ of both manger and cross but also come to love him more deeply, so that we might offer grace to our neighbor in need, whoever he or she may be. This we pray through Christ the lowly babe and exalted king in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Michael Pacher, The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1503

Faithfully and quietly surrounded by benevolent powers,
wonderfully guarded and consoled,
thus will I live this day with you
and go forth with you into another year.

Still will the past torment our hearts
Still, heavy burdens of bad times depress us,
Ah, Lord give our startled souls
the grace for which we were created.

And if you pass to us the heavy, the bitter
cup of pain, filled to the brim,
we will accept it, without trembling
from your good and beloved hand.

But if you wish us to rejoice once more
in this world and the brilliance of its sun
then the past too we will remember
and so our entire life will belong to you.

With warmth and light let flame today the candles
that you have brought into our darkness.
If it can be, bring us together once again!
We know your light is shining in the night.

When the silence spreads around us deeply,
let us hear that full sound of the world
stretching out invisibly around us;
let us hear the children's praising song.

Warmly protected by benevolent powers,
with confidence we wait for what may come.
God is with us at evening and at morning
and most certainly at each new day.

Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

Monday, December 12, 2011

A hymn, a poem & a bunch of Advent Devotionals

Advent and Triumph of Christ by Hans Memling

I sang the following hymn at a recent Vespers Service at Duke Chapel. As we moved from verse to verse I had two thoughts. One, why hadn't I sung this hymn before and, two, when can I sing it again? It's one of those theologically rich and poetically elegant hymns that deserves a prominent place in the church's worship during the Advent season.

I also wouldn't mind hearing a contemporary songwriter render it in a new musical style (like this [thank you, Bruce] and like this [thank you, Greg]), including pop-rock or symphonic rock or global music.

"Savior of the Nations, Come"

The words are by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (339-397 AD), translated into the German by Martin Luther in 1523, and then from Ger­man to En­glish by Will­iam M. Rey­nolds in 1851. The music comes from Jo­hann Wal­ther (Wit­ten­berg, Ger­ma­ny, 1524), while the har­mo­ny was scored by Jo­hann S. Bach.

Savior of the nations, come;
Virgin’s Son, here make Thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

Not by human flesh and blood;
By the Spirit of our God
Was the Word of God made flesh,
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
Still to be in heaven enthroned.

From the Father forth He came
And returneth to the same,
Captive leading death and hell
High the song of triumph swell!

Thou, the Father’s only Son,
Hast over sin the victory won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
When shall we its glories see?

Brightly doth Thy manger shine,
Glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o’ercloud this light;
Ever be our faith thus bright.

Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.

The following is a poem by Malcolm Guite. He's taken it upon himself to write seven sonnets corresponding to the seven "Oh Great" antiphons or prayers that the church has traditionally prayed during Advent. Here is his explanation for the project. I think it's quite wonderful. I encourage you to read--or even better, listen to--all his sonnets.

O Adonai 

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,

Unseeable, you gave yourself away,

The Adonai, the Tetragramaton

Grew by a wayside in the light of day.

O you who dared to be a tribal God,

To own a language, people and a place,

Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,

If so you might be met with face to face,

Come to us here, who would not find you there,

Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,

Who heard no more than thunder in the air,

Who marked the mere events and not the myth.

Touch the bare branches of our unbelief

And blaze again like fire in every leaf.


Bliss Lemmon, woodcut
I have become a big fan of the congregational practice of an Advent Devotional. By no means do I think it's an easy undertaking, as you can see from the note I wrote to our church. Nor do I think there is only way to produce a solid Devotional. As my dad would say when I was a kid, De todo hay en la viña del Señor. Roughly translated: there's a little bit of everything in the Body of Christ. But when it comes to a practice that promotes a richly active way for members of a congregation to participate in the season of Advent, I can't think of a better one than a congregationally produced Devotional.

Here is a sample of Devotionals produced by congregations around the country (and in Canada too). If your church did one, or if you know of a church that did, please mention it in the comments.

1. All Saints Church (Anglican) Durham, NC.

2. Christ the King Presbyterian, Raleigh, NC.

3. Eastbrook Church High School Ministry, Milwaukee, MN.

4. Regent Colleget Advent Reader (while not congregational, still offers a helpful model for how it can be done well).

5. Grace Church, Bellingham, WA.

6. The Village Church, Dallas, TX.

7, All Souls Church, Charlottesville, VA.

8. Providence Church, Austin, TX.

9. Second Baptist Church, Liberty, MO.

10. The Gathering Church, Durham, NC.

11. Liberti Fairmont Church, Philadelphia, PA.

12. Christ Church Anglican, Austin, TX

13. Park Slope Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, NY.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Memoriam: Orlando DeAcutis (October 1921 - November 2011)

(This past Thursday we buried my grandfather, my last remaining grandparent, in Dallas, Texas. As far as Christian funerals go, it was a good one. We wept for things that deserved a good cry and we laughed in remembrance of things that warranted a happy response. This is the eulogy I gave during the funeral service. It was wonderful to share this experience with my family. It was also very stirring to witness the Marine Corps guard fire its three volleys in his honor at the interment. I have a feeling it will take me several months to properly process his loss, but I'm grateful for a family that will share this process with me and give me permission to do it well.)

December 8, 2011
Dallas, Texas
A Eulogy

When I was four or five years old, I remember sitting on the toilet lid in my granddad's bathroom watching him shave. For the occasion he almost always wore a white t-shirt.  I remember how his skin glistened with an olive oil tint and how his Roman nose took command of his face in the way that any good Italian took command of anything--with a self-assured confidence, like a Joe DiMaggio at the baseball plate or a Frank Sinatra on the silver screen. The bathroom, to my mind, was impossibly narrow, overrun by my grandmother's pink and cream cosmetic accessories, and my grandfather assumed an impossibly large place in it.

Lathering his face with a thick froth of shaving cream, he would cut across his cheeks and chin with a thick metal razor. He cut carefully but not fussily. The cuts were always clean and efficient, and I'm guessing that the engineer in him wouldn't want it any other way.

My grandfather did not allow me to interrupt him. I could watch but I was not to interfere with a man's duty. This was man's work.

Dallas, Texas, autumn 1974
Part of me was afraid of my granddad. He had been a colonel in the Marines.  His arms were muscly, and at 6'3" he seemed to always tower forbiddingly over me. He drank beer. He trimmed his lawn just so. He managed his finances punctiliously. He bluntly announced his opinions. And even as a kid I always felt that he kept at bay, perhaps just beneath the surface, a reserve of powerful emotions, some of them terrifying. He was my granddad, yes. He was my mom's dad. How much more intimate and normal could that be? Yet as I watched him shave, with nothing less than the kind of unqualified awe that a little boy could have for his granddad, he was more mythic figure than homey grandfather.

Yet there was also this. Behind the statuesque figure that was my Italian grandfather was a very tender man who loved his grandchildren with a commitment to invest in their lifelong wellbeing.

Granddad paid for Christine, Stephanie and me to get swim lessons in Guatemala.

Granddad gave money for us to take music classes in Bannockburn, Illinois.

He bought Christine a computer when she returned from England after her first year of college.

He made it possible for Stephanie to take ballet lessons in middle school.

He taught me to love the Dallas Cowboys, beginning in 1979.

During my senior year of college I passed the Foreign Service exam and had driven up to Dallas on my own in order to participate in a full day of interviews with officers who worked with the State Department. I knew my granddad was proud of me; I wanted him to be proud of me. I woke up early on a Wednesday morning in my grandparent’s house. As I got dressed I could smell the smoky fragrance of sausage patties floating in from the kitchen. They were my favorite breakfast food. They still are.

When I walked into the kitchen I saw something I'd never seen before and never saw again. My granddad was preparing a lunch for me. With meticulous care, he placed a sandwich, an apple, some chips and a candy bar in a paper sack. He wanted to make sure I ate well that day. He wanted me to do well. The gesture represented a small but significant form of love for my granddad.

This past September, right around the time our daughter was born, granddad sent a generous sum of money to Phaedra and me. With the frequent challenges that we have faced since Blythe was born, I don't know what we would have done without his gift. Not a week has gone by this fall when we haven't thanked God for granddad.

Christmas 1973
In years to come we will be telling Blythe all about her great-granddad, who, when he met her over Skype in late October, his one and only time to see her, he immediately launched into the Bing Crosby song, You must have been a beautiful baby, you must have been a wonderful child. He sang those two lines over and over, and with the dementia that had recently taken over his memory, he looped back to the song throughout the entire course of our conversation. Phaedra and I received it as his final blessing to Blythe.

While it was clear to me as a little boy that I was not to interrupt granddad's morning shave, this didn't mean I was left un-involved. Even then granddad invested in my education. While I watched, granddad would narrate what he was doing--shaving cream here, the razor just so, a clean face washed down with cold water, not hot, and a splash of musky after-shave to make grandmother happy.

Granddaddy, thank you. Thank you for investing in all of us grandkids and great-grandkids. Thank you for being so very Christ-like in this manner. As someone who carries your name, this is a part of your character that I wish to emulate, with my own kids and grandkids. It is a part that makes me very proud of you, granddaddy, and that I think would make you proud too.

Granddad and grandmother with my mom and uncle

Uncle John, myself and granddad

PS: There is a strong stirring in me today to see my granddad on the other side of the veil. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Psalms and the Re-ordering of our Emotions

I'm posting here a summary of sorts of my second talk at Tyndale College. If you go here, you'll see a video of the event, "Faith Talk Lectures in Christian Spirituality," plus links to the audio recordings.

Seven resources I would recommend in light of the topic are:

1. Jeremy Begbie, "Faithful Feelings: Music and Emotions in Worship," in Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology.

2. Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.

3. Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church.

4. Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible.

6. John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction & Guide to Resources.

7. John Calvin’s “Foreword [or Preface] to the Psalter,” translated by Charles Garside, in John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety, ed. Elsie Anne McKee, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2001).

(By the way, the entire All Saints Church Advent Devotional can be found here.)

Here, then, the precis of my talk, and in the helter-skelter of this season, may you find the psalms to be a constant companion to guide, comfort, order and perhaps even correct all that you will feel, alone or with others, over the next few weeks.

The Psalms and the reordering of our emotions
… Theologian Jeremy Begbie writes: “our emotional lives are messy… [they’re] tangled, they come and go, they jump out at us at odd times,” and we find ourselves alternately governed by them or petrified by them. Boys are taught to shut down their feelings, while girls are affirmed for their expression of the affections yet, according to recent studies, tend to experience more embarrassment, guilt, shame, sadness and distress than boys.

Each of you of course has your own story. Some of you may feel grateful for your family; others of you may feel embarrassed about them. Some of you may feel confident in your faith, while others of you may be doubting it. Some of you may be worried about your future or feel particularly alive at the moment or wrestling with depression. The fact that few of us have ever heard a sermon on the theological importance of our emotions probably doesn’t help matters. The fact that our society sends a steady stream of confused signals about the emotions only exacerbates our search for well-being.

How then should we as Christians think about the emotions? What place should we give them in our lives? Is there a positive role for them to play in our lives—a formative role rather than a passive or pejorative one? And what kind of help might the arts offer us?

What I’d like to suggest to you today is this: It is not when we let our emotions do whatever “they will do” that we are free. When we do that, in fact, we get into trouble. We lash out, we sulk, we envy, we covet, we resent--often in frightfully automatic ways.

Instead it is when we allow Christ to order our emotions by his Spirit that we are free. And God has given us the poetry of the psalms to aid us in this work. In the singing of the psalms, in fact, we get a taste of what it means to have our emotions ordered to the kind of true humanity that characterizes Christ’s life.

Let me explain what I mean... (listen here for the rest).