Worshipping in the Paradox

Of note: last month, when it seemed that Twitter was about to go under, I started a Substack account. I think the place has potential, especially with new chat features, etc., but as yet, I’m not…um, finding a lot of readers there. So this and the next few posts will be re-shares from Substack, most of which were first re-frames of old Tweet threads. So it goes. Reflecting and refining is writing. Not everything I post there will come over here, so feel free to follow there, too.

In the afterword to Fundamentalism in American Culture (1980), historian George Marsden challenged readers to observe the way the church moves through the world (past and present) with both eyes open:

We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history…. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces for good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.1

He elaborated that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.

It seems to me that for most of us out here in the wide world trying to follow Jesus, the task of both theologian and historian are set before us each day. Every choice, every conversation, every worship service, every news article, every election, presents a challenge of evaluating our next right move in light of both Scripture and culture. Every moment is a little dance of deconstruction and reconstruction in real time.

Of course, we are not left to our own wits in this dance—the Lord is with us, directing our steps, teaching us to walk humbly in His path—but the paradox does hit us between the eyes with astonishing regularity.

As my friend Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt put it:

“There is a lie that says our delight must be unadulterated in order to be real, that we are only truly happy when we are only happy. But I am convinced that joy and grief are less like pigments that mix together and more like the warp and woof of a textile. They are threads that weave together into a profoundly human experience.”

In the dance of real-time church history, we can be filled with sorrow & anger at the shortcomings of God’s people and the wickedness the church perpetrates in God’s name, and yet long for its restoration from a deep place of love given by the Spirit.

Multiple things can be true at once.

  • The visible church can be a hive of consumerism, apathy, abuse, callousness, nationalism, and pride and yet still administer the means of grace each week to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for God’s sake.
  • The church as an institution can be entangled down to its bones with corruption, the cancer of pharisaism metastasizing through its leaders and members and yet bear within it a remnant of faithfulness, even in denominations or associations that reek of sin and self-righteousness.
  • A local congregation may take no public action and make no public statements on the brokenness and violence and sorrows in the world and yet be full of members who are, in Jesus’ name, weeping and praying and serving those who are ground up by a hard and cruel world.
  • A Christian can experience Sundays when it is hard (or even impossible) to muster the courage to go to church, and yet long to be in the fellowship of believers, to praise the Lord, to taste the bread and wine. 
  • A Christian can hate what the church becomes when it worships power and cultural norms rather than Christ, and yet love the church enough to cry out to God in lament that He would cleanse and reclaim and restore it as His own.

We long from our deepest guts for these contradictions to cease, and for the church to fully do justice and love mercy always in every place, but the place of contradiction is the place of work and of prayer.

And so we cry out at every gathering: 

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

And so, we who know the pain and the joy of the church at the same time pray fervently that God would:

Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, 
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

We are those who know all too well our own hearts. We know, as Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and so we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
A sinner. 

We can long for these things, pray these things, and yet be moved to righteous fury by those who try to hold the word of God and the people of God hostage to systems that devour the weak and prop up their power. Zeal for the Lord of Hosts does not make contradiction between fierce love, fierce lament, and fierce anger necessary. For our God is with us in our concern for His house, with greater zeal than we will ever muster.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:22-23). 

And yet the promise that God makes from His holy zeal is not the abandonment of his people, but our complete repentance and rebirth in the midst of recognition of our deep brokenness.

In the rest of Ezekiel 36, God promises:

  • To gather us in (v. 24)
  • To cleanse us from impurities and idols (v. 25)
  • To give us a new heart and a new spirit (v. 26)
  • To put *His* Spirit in us to enable us to do His will (v. 27).
  • That we will be His people and He will be our God (v. 28)
  • That he will save us from all our uncleanness and provide for our needs (v. 29). 
  • To bless us abundantly and remove our disgrace (v. 30)
  • To cause us remember our evil ways and grieve over them in repentance (v. 31).
  • To allow us to experience the shame of our wickedness for His sake. (v.32) 
  • To rebuild our ruins, to re-cultivate our desolate places, that life may again be found among us (vv. 33-36)
  • To hear our pleas so that all will know that He is the LORD (vv.37-38).

Again, all these things God does for His own sake. We pray with lament and anger and sorrow at our own failures knowing that God will not ultimately allow His name to be profaned by those who call themselves His people. We know that He delights in justice and mercy, and that He is still working out His glory in us.

At one level, this restoration is a gift freely given in spite of our wickedness, but never without rooting out and despising our wickedness. God will restore and judge. God sees the evil, and He knows our love and longing. He has woven it through His word, and given us cries of anguish to deliver back to Him in prayer.3

Cole Arthur Riley sums this up better than I can:

Those who refuse or neglect to tap into the sorrows of the world may find joy elusive. There is so much that is worthy of lament, of rage. Joy doesn’t preclude these emotional habits—it invites them. Joy situates every emotion within itself. It grounds them so one isn’t overindulged while the others lie starving…joy says, Hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.4

As we take our daily steps in that dance, may you be strengthened to hold on to the tension and see that joy and sorrow don’t have to fight each other to be true. May you pray like prayer matters, with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.

Notes

  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-60.
  2. Ibid., 260.
  3. “Whenever I dig into the Psalms I have this thought: how could I give up on Christianity? I have barely even tried Christianity.” — Andy Stager
  4. Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 165-65.

Image: Slot Canyon, Washington County, Utah. October 2016.

Pulling the Weeds: “Kindly Use” in Our Shared Relationships

Here in the Southeastern U.S., plants are the backdrop of everything. Kudzu is only the half of it—plenty of native species are just as eager to engulf any unsuspecting open space. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a region as warm and humid as this one, green growing things rise with astonishing speed to the challenge.

Tending a piece of land is mostly a never-ending battle between the things you intended to grow and those you didn’t. Old-field succession is almost an olympic sport here, with poison ivy, various tree saplings, and the ghosts of escaped groundcovers from a nearby bed jockeying for position in a fresh-cut lawn almost before the mower has cooled off.

This, of course, presents a metaphor.

Relationships require tending. Our natural and forged connections with neighbors, friends, family, church, city, county, state, nation, and world are just as apt to be swamped by the vines of division, suspicion, ingratitude, and pride as an empty farm is to be swallowed by the forest. It is difficult not to sense that we are in a great period of “re-wilding” in all our allegiances. The careful work of sowing, watering, and weeding our mutual loves has not kept pace with an entropy juiced with the artificial fertilizer of the Internet.

Nowhere is this more true than in politics, or, more precisely the subsuming of all things into politics. It used to be a truism that all politics is local, but now even local politics is global. Every idea, every passion, every preference has been agglomerated into one of two opposing commercial-entertainment-culture-habit-values models that demand every human interaction conform to themselves. They function like religions, and actual church life and theological study have trouble competing.

Bonds of kinship, proximity, shared experience, and responsibility wither as these new growths take root. Like some invasive species that secrete chemicals to inhibit the growth of competing plants, these complexes then work to ensure that nothing else that grows but their own clones. These replacements’ bonds are sterile, only capable of using up the good created by the rich ecosystem they supplanted and never producing fruit.

This new field is depleted of trust. Acquaintances size each other up to decide whether this new person is a confidant or threat. Instead of cherishing their closeness and dwelling fondly on what they share, old friends quickly dive into political questioning to suss out whether the connection is still viable on that basis alone. Parents and children would rather fight about matters far removed from their actual concerns than continue the project of learning how to give and share life.

Performing Self-Assurance

This is not to say that there is no merit in social and political ideas of either the “right” or the “left”. Rather, these ideas cease to have value when uprooted from the soil of interconnectedness that makes any real political life possible. Epithets like “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling” spring up when there is a pervasive sense that reality is under assault by those on the “other side” of a given issue (as though there were always only two). When everyone you disagree with is assumed to be insincere and on the make, calculating what they say to conform to a standard language deck passed out by their dark overlords, is it any wonder we can’t have a conversation?

When it comes to policing these filters (shibboleths?), our attitudes are by turns “evangelical”—suffused with the feeling of having figured out the real story and eagerness to have others believe—and “fundamentalist”—ensuring that our perceived opponents understand that they are wrong, I am right, and that this makes me superior to them. Imperative in both these attitudes is urgency. Time spent caring for one another, listening to one another, and reflecting on what we learn from each other is a threat to the system, and so must be avoided at all costs. Far better to fling slander from a safe distance.

Perhaps, though, the adherence to views and language we demand of others is only the projected manifestation of the fear we feel. We wonder what it would be like to lose our precarious place in the world, to disappoint the circle that holds us and feeds us only so long as we stay in line, so every opportunity to take down someone else (who, notably, isn’t us) is a little hit of the fentanyl of self-assurance. One less opportunity for it to be me who falls. The ethics of the cool kids’ table have expanded to the world entire. But in direct proportion to how performative a virtue becomes, it ceases to be formative. Good things are often more in need of cultivation than defense.

Learning to Be “Kind”

Novelist, poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America about the value of “kindly use” of land—that is, intimate knowledge of a place and its particulars that protects it from abuse and fits it to flourish in producing what it is designed to produce. Kindly use is knowing not to plow in ways that will cause erosion, recognizing that some slopes need to be forever forested, or recognizing that a low spot will always be a wetland instead of a crop field. This is in contrast to “general use” that seeks to apply an outside set of land management practices based on abstract principles without benefit of local knowledge. Such use is often abuse—doing more harm than good.

What’s good for land is good for people. Kindly use of relationships calls for deep knowledge of one another. Good manners and professional habits are good insofar as they provide a baseline for courtesy, but are ill-suited to expressing real love for specific people—there is no kindness without intimacy. Even less so making shared politics a prerequisite for friendship. Assumptions that have no room for correction or curiosity toward others offer no basis for lasting kinship. Restoring community among our splintered selves calls for a faithful pursuit of “re-localization,” rooting our understanding of people, places, and viewpoints in the things themselves instead of filtering all local knowledge through political blinders.

In such a re-localization of our loves, we have to re-learn how to repent and forgive. None of us can live up to what we are striving toward, even if we are all striving toward the same thing. The most vicious patterns I see now are the accusation of double standards between the two all-encompassing “teams”. The right response to such, isn’t indifference to the standards, though. Perpetrating the same excesses you’re upset about just to “own the libs” or “trigger the snowflakes” just salts the earth for everyone. The process of cultivating virtue always starts with giving and receiving grace. The good works come after. There is no other path to hope and wholeness.

Again, Berry is instructive. Though he has made a life of argument for very definite stances on conservation and a host of political and economic concerns, his art has been to winsomely persuade and hold out hope that anyone is capable, at some point, of choosing a different path. Theologian Russell Moore, writing in praise of Berry’s 87th birthday recently, shared a story:

“I am not sure I’ve ever felt more sheepish than when, sitting at his dinner table in Kentucky, my iPhone started ringing in my pocket, right there with one who is, um, not a fan of such devices. When I cringed and said, ‘sorry,’ he said ‘Well, we’re all sinners, aren’t we?'”

We are all sinners. Expecting perfection is unbiblical and unholy. Rather, in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate.”

In a world well practiced at casting down the unrighteous and taking no delight in the serious business of repentance, daring to say “we’re all sinners, aren’t we” is act of utmost courage. In it, we stand up to the dictator within. Every act of grace is cultivating the hope that others might see, take up the call, and follow. The life you save may be your own.

It’s a dangerous world out there. Be “kind.”

Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

A version of this piece was published in Fathom Magazine, September 2021.

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.