Monday, June 27, 2011

Where Have You Been?

God is not concerned with where you have been. He loves you here and now.

This is a paraphrase of so much of what we, the Church, are preaching, at least in the West. The God we serve is not concerned with our past, with our sins of yesterday, with our baggage and our mess. Our manifesto is that of an animal: exclusively concerned with the present. An animal does not know much about Then, but only Now. This can be helpful in a number of ways, I would bet, given the Pharisaical stigma attached to the church. People anticipate being labeled and misunderstood at church. That’s the expectation we’ve earned. It’s been there so long the jokes have grown old. Go to some other church in another city, or turn on the AM preaching station for several hours, and you’re liable to hear the same comedic bombshells plunk across the airwaves.
“I know I’ve got to finish or the Methodists will get to Don Pablo’s first.”
“There’s room at the cross, but not on the back pew with the deacons.”
“The young folks are doing interpretive movement; we don’t dance here, I know.”
The lines have grown stale and musty, and well they should. Our pitifully backward concern with getting scoured and scrubbed up, “prayed up,” dressed up, and regimented up enough to come to the table of the Lord forgets the pointed story of the wedding guests. This one had some pressing business, this one a car to buy, this one was leaving town. “I’m sorry, I must…” ran the flippant backward glance, the parting shot that they all tossed over their shoulders like so much salt for good luck. I cannot come, instead I must do elsewise. So the master sends for anyone and everyone. The servants round up a couple necking in the park, a man riding the bus just to have something to do, an iron and square-framed business woman who just got demoted, a teacher, a midshipman, the miller’s scrawny lad, a mother and her daughter swept from the market with bread and celery in hand, the town drunk, and a man who can’t help but talk in rhymes. They tote them all out to the mansion, gathering the surprised and the curious along the way.

We, in our expectation of cleanliness, forget this. We forget that cleanliness is only next to godliness in one drastically limited sense. Any parent who has wiped smeared cake from the face of a gleeful birthday boy has glimpsed the limits of the virtue of cleanliness. For he who wraps himself in zeal and lightning as a garment also bore the tongue-in-cheek purple of a mocking robe soon to be snatched and gambled away while he was beaten. The man himself died for all so that we might not be afraid to come to him. “How I have long to gather you,” he said, looking out over the city, the bitter turn of the bread of sorrow already on his tongue.

How then, can we say that Christ has no concern over our past? To say this is to render moot the bloodshed of the Rood, the parched throat and labored breathing, the betrayal in the garden, the silent refusal to defend himself, and the forgiveness he gave despite it all. Jesus came to die because of my past, my present, and my time to come. Necessitated by the very Love that hovered over void and formless water, then went jubilating the world into being, he sees at once all the time which I occupy. My past has not slipped his mind. Neither my tomorrow.

This device of acceptance – God not being concerned with your past – is not acceptance at all. To accept me without my faults is to accept me in part, to look at me as perfect by my own half-merit, without the blood of Jesus washing me clean. Love is not that easy, though. Simple, but not easy. If family life teaches us anything, it teaches us that love is rarely earned and never convenient. It is not because God is absentminded and needs an extra dose of Ginkgo Biloba that he accepts me, it is because He Loves me. In the course of time, he will bring me to face boldly the horrors of that very past that I trawl behind me like the polluted train of a wedding gown.

We are so concerned with everyone feeling accepted that we obfuscate the rules of acceptance, but the human heart will drag its dirty laundry with it everywhere until it is washed and put in order. Everyone comes with a hobble around his neck, and to say that when you come to church that you have left that behind you is an insult to the indefatigable memory of the subconscious and the unfathomed knowledge of God. I’ve been in worship services and been encouraged to leave my cares at the door. I believe that little could be further from the desires of the Almighty. A Hebrew towing an obstinate goat – indeed, a scapegoat – through the gates of the temple would certainly understand taking his sins and cares to church, and I think that was the intention. The Architect of that institution desired that we should understand the picture painted before us. Yes, we are come that He may deal with us, but He will deal with us in Love. It is not love in some vapid iteration of, “All is forgiven,” but Love which asks again, and then again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Yes, bring your past. He fears nothing, for none is His equal. Do not be afraid.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


This is some of the most beautiful, mournful work I've ever heard. It is by a young, masterful composer named Eric Whitacre. Carve out a few minutes. Get out your good headphones or good speakers, go into a quiet room, and immerse yourself in this sound. Then go back, and immerse yourself in it again. Every nuance and cherished note has poetry and truth to offer and to reveal.

Sleep by ericwhitacre

Monday, June 06, 2011

Language: An Ancient Tree

"Which ones are right?" Donna asks me.

I glance over the slides on the computer screen.

"This one needs to change, and this one," I tell her. "Oh, and this one. I can't stand the ________ Hymnal."

"Don't they use the same hymns?"

"Well, they change them, to make them more understandable to a modern audience."

A familiar sight nowadays for those who read antiquated writing is the editorial process, eradicating commas and superfluous dashes like the little man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to him. I am the Great Oz. Yet, if we are not careful, we will be lulled into the loss of a language that is our heritage and runs in our blood. This is not, of course, popular. Modern folks don't like to admit that there are any strings attached to them, old, new, or yet to come. We like our so-called individuality, erroneous though it may be. "It takes a village to raise a child," goes the saying, but adults are not done being raised. We have an attachment to others, past and present, and we need it.

The reason editors, especially of hymnals and prayer books, do their well-meaning level best to disrupt this, is to provide us with sacred and venerated literature that is easy to understand. That's certainly helpful to those of us who are not scholars of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Old High German, Middle English, Elizabethan English, Victorian syntax, and a host of other near-impregnable tongues and dialects that give shape to our history. Recently, I read my way through a theological work by George MacDonald (1824-1905), excellently edited by Michael Phillips. Syntactically, it was thick enough to read as it stood. I cannot imagine the difficulty without Phillips' help, though he gives some examples for reference.

However, with documents for corporate worship, and, I might summon the gumption to imagine, with the Scriptures (though that is certainly far above my head), the 'dumbing-down' of the language, by degrees and over time, dumbs down the congregation. Consider a quote by Madeleine L'Engle:

When I asked why, in the Prayer Book General Thanksgiving, God's inestimable love had been changed to immeasurable love, I was told that the laity found inestimable difficult. That's pretty condescending, in the nastiest sense of the word. Immeasurable is not simpler than inestimable, and in the context of that glorious prayer of Thanksgiving it is a weaker word. When I asked a multi-PhD-ed clergyman why the quick and the dead had been changed to the living and the dead, I was told that young people did not know the word, quick. I asked, "How are they going to know if you take it away from them?"

                                              -Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols

What a great question. How will we ever learn the formal weight of "Thee" and "Thou" if they are replaced by "You" and "You," which not only use the same over-saturated word to express different parts of speech, but a word that we use to refer to ourselves in the informal? The differences are subtle, but over time they regraft our thinking like a grapevine to a trellis. No, L'Engle goes on to say, language should not be stunted. It is alive and should grow, but "the manipulation of language by the academic elite because they underestimate the ordinary, faithful churchgoer" is an objectionable thing. I would go on to say that a tree, growing larger in its bole year after year, does not leave the inner bark behind. Take a tree apart, and you will find that the inner bark had long ago become the scaffold by which the entire structure stood erect through gust and gale. So it is with language. To abandon the linguistic bastions of old, because some publisher thinks less of the intellect of the general public, is to speak a hollow tongue without meaning or poetry.

To recall the weight of He suffereth long over He is patient is to give credence to the truth that patience is a form of suffering, something that it makes us cringe to think. See the longing, however, of autistic kids' parents for a day without strife and stress, and see the longing of the children for a day of un-frustrated communication, and you will see that there is suffering in patience, and in love. This is only one of the ways that antiseptic language shift misdirects our thought, but the examples are manifold.

How amazing of children, though, to learn one word as quickly as another, even at a late age. Teach a teenager that "to know," in King James' parlance, means "to have sex with," and you have opened the door to a realm of understanding about intimate love that all the abstinence curriculum in the world never could. Yet as adults, with our underestimation of children's ability to learn, we often assume that our ability is not even so fresh and ready as theirs, though it is both ready and armed with greater experience.

Let not ship of thy attention run afoul on the slothful rocks.