My Own Desert Places

One of the biggest challenges to Protestantism is the awkward suggestion by Jesus himself that we should judge a tree by its fruit.  For people who claim to worship one Christ, with one Church as his body, united by one Holy Spirit, it’s problematic that Protestantism, from its very beginning, has been characterized by division.  It isn’t less problematic that Protestants have also readily, almost eagerly, embraced a truly staggering number of heresies.

We are a fickle lot, and God help us.

Granted, there are other sides to this discussion.  Too many for me to bring in here.  One of the most crippling and obvious is this:  any authority to rebuke us is undermined by its use, or rather its lack of use.  By which I mean current and historic use.

When the two other branches of the Church, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions, both argue that they are the single correct branch, and both have compelling reasons for so arguing, and those arguments become mutually exclusive…  They cancel.  The choice becomes one of either stubborn faith, which must necessarily be arbitrary, or personal preference and conviction, which both groups would dismiss as heretical (i.e. Immanentism, in case you’re curious).

They are like petty brothers, each arguing for superiority, and each waiting for the other to apologize, and each ignoring the desperate cries of their younger brother that they stop fighting.

For this they will be held accountable, that they have not labored, though it take centuries, to reconcile, or that they have labored half-heartedly.  That they have allowed to continue what must be an abomination to the Lord and a stumbling block to their younger brothers.

It seems that one of the following must be true.  Perhaps they don’t believe it is possible to convince each other on each other’s own grounds–which is simply polite rhetoric–in which case they are de facto declaring that the only evidence for them must be accepted before its effective, that belief in either is a matter of arbitrary faith.  This ignores the fact that they both make the same claim, and that both claim the Holy Spirit guides people to faith in one over the other.  It is simply impossible to test the spirits in this case.  They undermine their own ability to reach anyone.  They have rendered Christ futile.

Or they believe it’s possible to convince each other on each other’s grounds, and they have refused to put forth the effort to do so.  And shame on them if this is the case, because they have humiliated Christ in their arrogance.

Now it seems to me that if there are two authorities, each claiming a unique authority, each providing reasons for that claim, and each denying the authority of the other, by so doing they render it possible (and perhaps likely) that neither is the authority it believes.

And in that gap, in the tension which they have themselves created, we find the Protestants, clinging (fitfully and weakly) to something else, since neither of them will let us cling to them.  Trying, as younger brothers, to do what the older brothers have forsaken.  It is perhaps a task for which we are unfit, and our unfitness is daily manifest, but I suspect none of us would say that we chose it.

Of course, in emulation of our elders, Protestants triumphantly declared ourselves the only authority, and entered into the same sick cycle of refusing to solve the problem we perpetuate.

We are a sick people, and a sad people.  And I suppose by this post I have made myself anathema to all three groups.  I am happily willing, I am in fact eager, to recant and embrace that Church which emerges unified from whatever council heals the schisms of the last two thousand years.  Or at least from the first to pursue that vision with anything like the humble zeal demanded by the situation.

Until then I’ll live in silent terror as three brothers, larger and stronger than I, fight around me.  I will hope in Christ to save me in spite of that fighting, and in spite of my own ignorance and inability, and in spite of the constant reminders from each brother that I must choose it alone or risk rejection from Christ.

May the grace of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–be with me, now and forever.  What else can I say?

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For The Record I’m Not Fishing For Compliments (Although It May Seem Like It, Even Because Of This Denial)

There’s a certain spiritual discipline which I’ll call “comfort with ignorance.”  It has other names obviously, but that’s the one I’ll use for now.

I’ve talked about how Christianity is a rational belief system.  It isn’t something that we believe without evidence.  It isn’t something we believe in spite of evidence.  It’s something that we believe and think about and wrestle with, and which happens also to be true and compelling.

But there are parts of it which we submit to by faith, not because they’re irrational, but because they’re simply mysterious.  (“Simply Mysterious.”  I just said that?)  So it isn’t that we believe triangles are also squares even though that doesn’t make any sense.  It’s more like believing that triangles can never change shape, even if we can’t understand how that’s possible.

(You can try this for yourself; take three straight things, like sticks or straws, and make a triangle out of them.  Now try to make any other shape out of them, without of course fetching more sticks or straws.  You can’t.  You’ll always get that first triangle.  I know this.  I can prove it.  It still amazes me.  This is why they put triangles in buildings:  other shapes can collapse or skew, like a square into a diamond or an octogon into a plus sign; triangles can’t.)

How about I dive into the specific example I’m thinking about, rather than trying to explain something in the abstract.

I have no idea how someone like me, with the gifts I have and the weaknesses I have, is supposed to serve God.  I’ve read enough to feel quite insignificant, and mostly silly.  I hear the way people talk about me when I’m around; I can’t imagine that they save the nice stuff until after I leave.  I am, in a phrase I coined accidentally by slurring other meaningful things, a “waistless lump of goo.”

In a way that might be telling–one can never quite tell how the Spirit will work–I mistyped that “wasteless lump of good.”

(Shrug.)

I don’t see it.  And therein lies the discipline:  I will believe it though I can’t understand it.

In one of his essays, C. S. Lewis talked about how it isn’t necessarily given us to understand the use or importance of our tasks.  They may be for someone long after us, whom we will neither see nor know.  Or, to be all Biblical about it, we might die before seeing the fulfillment of the promise.

Because our creation is a promise.  Or, to make it personal again, my creation is a promise.  God does not waste time.  If he made me, he made me because he judged that a person like me would be a good idea.  A person like me would be a good.  Now, it isn’t necessarily the case that a person like me will understand the good I am, any more than I can always understand the good of anything else.  But I can trust God about this.

And that’s the comfort with ignorance.  I strive to be comfortable with ignorance about how someone like me could be a good idea, how any of my fumbling and failing could serve God.  It may not be given to me to know.  But if I am trying to serve God, am trying to be obedient to God, am trying to be the person he created me to be, then I can trust that the good is true regardless of whether I see it.  The same God who knew me and designed me, knows how to use me.

As a pressing example, I’m ignorant of how this rambling mess could ever be helpful to anyone.  But I’m supposed to post it.  (Right now actually, since I’m out of time.)

Maybe Not a Stone

My television now includes an explicitly pagan channel.  I suppose that’s fair, I’ve had a few explicitly Christian channels for a while.  I’m only startled that I see advertisements for it everywhere.  Again, not because it shouldn’t advertise, but because it seems to have gone from no presence to ubiquitous presence in about a week.

Maybe I just didn’t notice it before.  I am not the most observant of people.  Or at least, I can only be relied upon to observe a certain class of things.

In any event, if you want to be pagan, there’s now a channel for you in my area.  It will probably be encouraging and attractive.  It will likely lure people into pagan practices that they don’t realize are pagan practices.  None of this is surprising.

I feel this way about heresy, too.  All heresies are attractive in some way–although sometimes that attraction is baffling for those aware of the truth–and they lure people into heretical belief and practice that they may not realize is heretical.  None of this is surprising either.

Nor is it surprising that they’re numerous.  Nor that they’re successful.  Nor that everywhere Christians seem to abandon the Truth in favor of them.

It’s not surprising because it’s been happening since the beginning.  The surprising thing is that in spite of the constant assault, the constant temptation, the constant misunderstandings, the Church has managed to survive for two thousand years and has pretty much believed the same thing for that entire time.

In one of his books, Chesterton talks about how every generation or two it seems like the Church is dying.  It seems like the dreams of our opponents are going to be realized, and that this ponderous and objectionable thing might finally fade from the earth.  But it never does; it is sustained from without.

That last is the sort of thing I’m inclined to forget.  I get passionate about few things more than the refutation of error.  I’m not particularly good at it, but I’m passionate about it.  Mostly though I’m passionate because I’m afraid.  I’m afraid that people will be led away from the Truth and that the Truth will pass away.

Now, there’s an obvious verse to quote here, so I’ll avoid it because it’s obvious.  Instead let me quote another:  “But Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out'” (Luke 19:40).

If it were to happen that the entire Church were to embrace error, or to abandon Christ in favor of some other lesser (and imagined) god, “the stones [would] cry out,” and possibly begin by scolding us.  Christ will have his Church.

Now as it happens, he has graciously decided to include us in it, rather than stones.  And it seems that he is able to sustain us in spite of every challenge, so that passing away becomes less likely with each passing century rather than more likely.

It is of course therefore not my responsibility to guarantee that the good news of Christ is faithfully delivered to the future.  It might be my responsibility to deliver it to one area.  It might be my responsibility to say whether the news delivered to that area is in fact the Good News.  But the guarantor of the whole (and the future) is Christ; I am at best his clumsy servant.

Or, to put it another and likely less misleading way, it isn’t my job to worry about the war, only to fight to the best of my abilities in the battle I’m given.  It is not my job to guard the entire building, merely to watch the door which is my station.  It does no good for me to worry about the rest anyway, but more importantly I should remember that the rest has been faithfully handled for thousands of years, and that the state of the rest depends (thankfully) on someone better than me.

Maybe in fact I should be surprised that the better someone has entrusted me even with a door or a single battle.  I can’t say it speaks highly of his judgment, but maybe his judgment about me is better than mine, in the similar way that his judgment about everything else is.  Or of course he has chosen the fool and the weak, and all the better for him.

In any event, I’m out of time again.  Here I will take a small liberty.  You have read my writing, and my writing is in me.  As such you have come into my house, which it is in my authority to govern.  I use that authority in this way:

The LORD bless you and keep you.
The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Comfort and Joy

The song, “We Need a Little Christmas,” is about clinging to a happy Christmas attitude “before [one’s] spirit falls again,” and its tone is generally one of forced merriment.  There’s one section that’s particularly stark though:

“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
Need a little Christmas now.”

The rest of the lyrics talk about setting up decorations, singing songs, and going through the proper motions in hopes of engendering holiday joy.  I suspect, for those of us who want to be happy around the holidays at all–a lot of us don’t bother anymore–this experience is recognizable.

When we were kids, Christmas was magical.  Where I’m from at least, it included three things, each of which independently is sufficient to inspire happiness in children, but it included the three in combination:  sweets, presents, and time off school.  The whole business was saturated with endorphins, sugar and play; what was not to like?

As an adult the story changes a bit.  We’re the ones who have to do all the shopping, wrapping, baking, preparing, cleaning, decorating, and traveling.  Most of us don’t even get much time off work, so we do those things while also doing our jobs too.  As adults Christmas is saturated with stress, logistics, and exhaustion.  In fact, if I had the time to play, I’d probably take a nap instead.

It gets worse too.  As a kid Christmas was all-encompassing.  My life had been short enough and sheltered enough that a marvelous, magical, midwinter feast could capture my entire attention.  (It didn’t hurt that I had very little attention to capture, I suppose.)  I didn’t worry about the future, whatever strange thing might happen after Christmas was over.  I didn’t know about the present, whatever hardships and dangers affected even my own family.  I didn’t care about the past; whatever struggles and embarrassments that I had faced, they vanished in a haze of expectation.

As an adult Christmas seems smaller.  It’s easy to lose it amidst all those things I didn’t notice when I was younger.  The future is looming and full of uncertainties.  The trials and terrors of the present don’t pause for holidays.  The past has blossomed into fodder that my brain uses to lower any expectations I might have.  And my life is pretty good.  I look around me and see people who are homeless, starving, threatened, lost, confused, hopeless…..  I could go on.

We do in fact “need a little Christmas now,” but not what the song suggests.

In my culture there’s a pervasive sort of myth about “having Christmas spirit,” although people tend to be vague about what they mean when they say it.  In large part this is because it seems like the sort of thing that vanishes if you try to pin it down.  It involves being happy and generous though, being patient with strangers and affectionate with family and friends.  Most importantly, a la Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, if you try hard enough to do the right things, it can transform your entire life into something joyful.

That’s where the trouble starts.  We know that Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and peace, but the harder we work at it, the less joyful and peaceful it seems.  Then we escalate: we put up a bigger display of Christmas lights, buy bigger presents (and go further into debt), go to more parties.  We sing louder, laugh heartier, and tell ourselves that one of these years it might work.  One of these years, the thousand crazy pieces of our lives will align, we’ll have everything in the right place at the right time, and we’ll be happy again because everything will be perfect.

God help us.

Well, actually he did.  That’s the point.

There’s another song from Christmas, one that’s very different from the anthem of forced merriment which I mentioned above:  “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.”  It’s almost confusing in its mellowness; it doesn’t sound like the sort of song I would sing if I were trying to force myself to be happy.  Its lyrics don’t even sound happy, at first blush.

(Actually, for most of us they sound like gibberish.  What does “God Rest You Merry” mean?  In fact I suspect a lot of people hear it as “God rest you, Merry Gentlemen.”  It isn’t a song about happy people getting restful naps, though.  In modern English “God rest you merry” might be translated “God secure you in happiness,” although that would butcher the meter of the song and sound less poetic.)

God rest you merry, Gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
…From Satan’s power
when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!

It’s a strange holiday song indeed that, in a verse enjoining joy, mentions both the power of Satan and our own complicity with him.  In fact, encouraging us not to be dismayed by our circumstances just reminds us that our circumstances are frequently of the sort to which dismay seems like an appropriate response.  None of this seems like “tidings of comfort and joy;” none of this makes me want to sing “fa la la la la” while decorating anything.

I’ve left out something important, of course.

God rest you merry, Gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day
to save us all from Satan’s power
when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!

This is what it means to keep Christ in Christmas.  It isn’t a complaint about people abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas;” Christians have been abbreviating things since the beginning and doing it stylishly too.  It isn’t a complaint about people wishing us “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas;” since people who believe in Christmas understand that it is in fact a happy holiday.

It’s a reminder that Christmas is happy because of Christ.  Christmas spirit without Christ is just self-delusion, and unhappy ineffective self-delusion at that.

Christians are joyful at Christmas–we give generously, practice patience, embrace our families, and decorate everything–because Christ came to save us, both from our enemy, Satan, and from the deaths that our own choices had merited.  Christ came to give our futures back to us.  He came to show us that any bad things about the present were fleeting, but every good thing was eternal in him.  He came to redeem the world’s history, so that whatever evil we could remember was joined by something unequivocally good.

Christmas is when we start remembering that good.  Whatever else happens, we remember that Christ was born to save us, and no power of hell nor evil of earth can stand against him.  O tidings of comfort and joy!