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Archive for the ‘Christian Life and Witness’ Category

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

First, let’s just starkly admit the truth: political conservatives (and their conservative Christian allies) long ago lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the young. We bolster ourselves with this or that poll which shows millennials more opposed to abortion on demand than at any other time since its legalization, or with this or that sociological study that similarly promotes a view of our youth as politically more conservative in this or that area of political life, which we most desperately want to be true. And to be sure, there are plenty of youth who are conservative politically or are devout adherents to traditional forms of Christianity. We ought to be heartened by these studies and polls, for they are heartening. But let us not lose sight of the larger reality that our society by and large is sharply opposed, and growing more so each day, to conservative political thought and to traditional Christianity.

Traditional, or conservative, Christians and political conservatives have lost the cultural and political battles. We have lost because we foolishly agreed to fight the battle on the one area that progressives will always win: moralism. Moralism is, fully and completely, the core of our civil religious life. Moralism is, simply put, the external adherence to a particular code of belief and behavior. Moralism is politically a more powerful weapon than reason and argument. It is more powerful because it relies on feeling and connotation, it is evocative. Moralism is entirely binary: this not that, good or evil, love or hate. And it is always a tool of comparison, to be used against an opponent. By comparison, we can free ourselves from condemnation: “I’m a good person, I’ve never murdered anyone.” We can even condemn someone with our faux humility: “Who am I to judge someone else?” Moralism always turns upon the personal, and always uses comparison and judgment as a tool for division and conquest. That is why it is so powerful politically.

So it is, that if a political group can fight on the ground of moralism, the more progressive side will always win the battle and the more conservative side will always lose. Conservatives cannot judge a moral act, because moralism makes such judgment personal–the political is always personal. Thus if we disagree with a particular action, then we condemn not the act but the person. Responses which run along the lines of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” are completely unpersuasive, because in a moralistic framework that is not possible.

There is no way for conservatives and traditional Christians to win on these moralistic battlegrounds. Conservatives and traditional Christians have tried by pitting one group of persons over against another: transgendered persons who want to use a particular bathroom versus young girls who are vulnerable to exploitation and assault, or unborn babies versus the mothers bearing them. And while sometimes these tactics work, temporarily, in the long run they will all ultimately fail because the battle is being fought within a paradigm that guarantees conservatives and traditional Christians will fail.

Part of the reason for this political failure (and the exacerbated acceleration of the fragmentation of the conservative movement in this election cycle) is due to the ceding of ground by conservatives and traditional Christians in the social and cultural life of our nation. Traditional Christians, among whom I list evangelicals (though clearly I am not using the term “traditional” in any technical sense), either simply have retreated from the public square (such are my fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians), or they have separated out into their Christian ghettoes with substandard and bastardized forms of media expression (and such are the evangelicals among whom I once considered myself a member, with their Christian rock bands, their Christian publishing houses, and their bald imitation of pop culture in their services and ministry efforts).

This laziness in engaging our public square and mainstream culture–or if not laziness, cowardice–has become, in part, the downfall of the conservative movement. Conservatives delighted to argue and form think tanks and advocate for this or that policy–if they were able to resist the lure of gilt and power and privilege in the hallowed halls of our bloated government. And while millionaire and billionaire donors were wont to give to this or that super PAC to prevail in this or that political contest, little of that money was invested in cultural and artistic endeavors. There were, of course, a few notable documentaries that were nothing more than the same morality tales that progressives told in their own documentaries. Bowling for Columbine or Hilary’s America? Opposite sides of the same moralistic coin.

And progressivist moralism will always feel better than conservative moralism. Both are the same form of binary legalism. Both have their own forms of damnation; with conservatives it’s Kafkaesque government that swallows up the individual, with progressives it’s being conservative.

But American Christianity (and here I want to exclude the Eastern Orthodox, which I will explain), is itself to blame for this moralism. American Christianity made a false dichotomy between law and grace. It wrongly excluded ascetic endeavor from grace, calling it works righteousness, and thus paved the way for its own expulsion from civic life. Ironically, however, what you did mattered a great deal as to whether you were truly a Christian or not. You could not make yourself one by doing this or that, but you sure could prove you were one if you did do this or that. Thus was born the moralistic framework that progressives used to dominate the cultural and political landscape.

To be sure, the progressivist worldview is an Enlightenment prejudice, the Enlightenment itself being an antithesis to Christianity, and into the vacuum created by the western schism (and the various schisms within Protestantism) the Enlightenment worldview rushed to become the predominant cultural view which then ate away at western Christianity from within. Thus progressivism is in many ways little more than the Enlightenment packaged as a form of civic religion, with Christian vocabulary (though increasingly less of that).

This progressivism infected artistic endeavors, with each successive transition in the arts seen as a progression, a forward evolution from what came before. From realism, to impressionism, to expressionism and onward, each new development somehow “more” than what came before. And while at various periods this or that artist (painter, writer, composer) held to one of the forms of Christian faith, such faith less and less informed that art form. After Bach came Wagner. First Milton, then Whitman.

This is why the ersatz “art” of twentieth century conservative American Christianity became so utterly banal, and is so utterly a failure. It appropriated art forms it did not understand, which had long ago left their Christian moorings, and inserted a moralistic “Gospel” into it without understanding how or even whether such things fit. And while western society moved further and further into the late Enlightenment (or postmodernism), conservatives (political and Christian) remained stuck within earlier forms of the Enlightenment, and progressives merrily sailed along on the currents of social mores. Both still utilized the tools of the Enlightenment, but conservatives used such things to construct, whereas progressives utilized them to deconstruct. And since progressivism won the cultural and political battles, conservatives were left speaking Anglo-Saxon in a land of twenty-first century slang.

So the arguments, art forms and speech of conservatives, political and religious, don’t communicate, aren’t persuasive and therefore are ineffectual. We are shouting at ourselves, but we are not making a dent in the public discourse, let alone transforming our cultural forms.

But the answer is not to become more postmodern than the progressives. We’ve already lost those battles with our Christian glam rock and our Kirk Cameron movies. The answer is not to fight a losing battle. Which means not to fight the battle as determined and as outlined by progressives.

This is where the pro-life movement can be illustrative. Rather than allowing itself to be shoved into the either/or box of moralism, the pro-life movement became the both/and way of life which loved the baby and loved the mother. Advocating for adoption of babies into loving homes so that they would have the resources and support and love they needed, or providing homes for expectant mothers to live in and be cared for while bringing their babies to term. Abortion on demand groups attempted to paint such endeavors within the either/or paradigm of loving or hating the women (and still do). But the quiet way of living exemplified in this way, powerfully affected the younger citizens in our society. And yes, reasoned arguments in the public sphere helped as well. But it was the powerful witness of people like these, including the courageous witness of Mother Teresa as a further example, a witness that did not allow the fight to continue in the either/or battle of moralism, that is prevailing.

Earlier, I excluded the Eastern Orthodox for two reasons: the first of which is that Orthodoxy did not participate in the Enlightenment, which was primarily a western phenomenon, and thus has been able to preserve its categories of thought and terms and practice across various languages and cultures; and the second of which, more negatively, is that Orthodox have been largely ghettoized by the manner in which Orthodoxy came to the United State via immigration. Orthodox comprise at best perhaps just under a million adherents here in the United States, and have not been in a position to have much cultural impact, as a group. Further, the Orthodox manner of enculturation is typically to embrace various aspects of a nation’s culture that are amenable to the Christian Gospel and from those leverage points to then transfigure the culture from within, such that it’s expression of the Orthodox Faith, while the same in substance to all other Orthodox churches, is yet culturally located. Unfortunately, however, the “culture” of the United States is neither monolithic nor really a culture in the traditional sense.

That is to say, at the root of all of this must be a way of living that eschews a binary moralism for a maximal experience. In Christian terms, it must be a way of life in which grace changes what we do and frees us from the bondage of moralistic legalism. It must be a way of life in which ascetic endeavor (caring for expectant mothers and their babies, say) is itself motivated from a previous transfiguring grace. Our artists must be disciplined by their art, and freed by their faith, expressing a view of a fallen world which is yet sustained by grace. Our politicians must have the courage and the will to resist the easy moralism of political discourse, rejecting its terms and making new arguments. This will mean the exploration of new forms of media, and the discipline to understand the media. It will mean hard, hard work to speak to shattered and fragmented audiences. It will mean the rigorous application of humility to engage constituencies hostile to the message. It will mean the discipline of learning how to communicate in new ways beyond binary moralism, and to do so with far less shouting and rancor. It will most assuredly mean the formation of new political parties, as the binary moralism has most definitely benefited specific entrenched groups to the determent of our political process.

In the end, it won’t be reasoned argument that ultimately persuades. Only beauty and goodness can do that. If we can’t make beautiful art, our fellow citizens will not leave their glittering images to hear us. If we can’t speak in beautiful ways, our fellow citizens will not stop shouting long enough to listen. If we fail to manifest the beauty of our way of life, our fellow citizens will not stop moving to behold that which is good. All we have done so far is to join with progressives in a war of coercion, in a contest to see who can exert their political will on another. We must, for the love of God, cease doing this. The will to power is satanic. Whoever lives by the will to power will die by the will to power. This is not the way of Christ. We must first, middle and last, be beautiful creatures of a glorious Creator. Not in the worldly way of beauty. But in the beautiful way of Christ our savior.

Because all politics is penultimate. But beauty is forever.

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To everything there is a season, and the 40 days of daily memorial prayers for my father has come to an end. We will continue to remember Dad in our daily prayers, as we commemorate the departed by name, but the prayers reserved to accompany the departed from this life into the next will now become less frequent. We will pray them again in a little over four and a half months, and then annually. We will commemorate Dad on the memorial Saturdays which occur periodically throughout the year. But this special period of forty days has come to an end.

As much as these prayers are a comfort to the bereaved, it is nonetheless a good thing for us to rest from these labors. And make no mistake, dying, and grieving too I am learning, is labor.

When I got the call from my sisters that Dad had coded, I was preparing to go to a meeting at work. After speaking to them, I went to the brief noon meeting, my mind racing, numb, shocked. Only a few minutes later I was on my way to the hospital, a three hour drive. The entire drive I have very little memory of, aside from an overarching anxiety. I’m sure it was filled with desperate prayers.

I arrived, embraced my sisters, and went with them to see Dad. One of the doctors talked with us before I entered the room. She explained what she could. And then I saw Dad, as he lay there unmoving and unconscious.

And so, we prayed a little that first night. We held Dad’s hands. We embraced him. We assured him of our love, of our pride to be his children, and our respect for the great strength he had shown us all his life. I slept that night on the hard floor of the family’s quiet room, my messenger bag for a pillow. I forget who offered it, but at some point, I was given a blanket.

We awoke the next morning, listened to the doctors, and accepted the reality that Dad was dying. We made our medical decisions as family, and prepared our hearts.

So we began the important work of serving the dying, the ministry to Dad to support and strengthen him during his final hours. This is the ministry we, the living, give to those we love. After his collapse, Dad never regained bodily consciousness. But as Christians we know the soul inhabits, intertwines and transcends the body. There was no physical or bodily evidence that Dad was conscious of our presence, but it is a Christian certainty that his soul was present and aware. And until that moment when the body relinquishes the life it has been given, the soul labors in its own way for the transition to that temporary state when it will be separate from the body, awaiting the reunion with that very same transfigured body in the Resurrection.

I am the firstborn, and Dad’s son. It was clear that I needed to place his arm around my shoulders, as it were, to bear him up through prayer and my love and embraces, to help him as he walked that final path to which God had called him. I held his hand. I hugged him. I told him of my love for him. I prayed. But mostly I sat with him, in silence and prayer. It was for all of us to bear him up as his strength left him. He lay still and motionless, save for his body breathing.

I did not, could not, then know what a labor it is to die, nor the intensity of the labor we, the living offer to the dying. As his family, it is damnably hard work. And necessary. Our heart-deep and final gift to our beloved.

We continued struggling together with Dad, as his final hours, then final minutes, drew to a close. Earlier in the day, the chaplain (an Orthodox layman, and such a wonderful comfort to me) read the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and the Beatitudes, among several other Scriptures. He read from the Orthodox Trisagion prayers, as well as other such prayers. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together over Dad. We each prayed our own prayers in our hearts. Later I prayed the psalter seated next to Dad, my hand on his arm. I could not finish the entire psalter, as I did not have the emotional wherewithal. But I prayed what I could.

And then the end came. I held Dad’s right hand. I brushed my hand against his cheek, and smoothed his hair, as his body continued to struggle to hold on to that life God had given, and now was being returned to God. We all touched him, a hand, a foot, a shoulder. We encouraged Dad, assuring him of our love, stroking his arm, caressing his head. We expressed our love again and again. We gave him our blessings of peace, and prayed for him that final repose from God. Then, his soul was at last separated from his body. And our grief, which had already begun, became sharp and hard and fiery.

For the next forty days, my grief and continued labor for Dad’s departure conjoined. For myself it has meant insomnia, sorrow, and an existence I’d never before contemplated. I was now living life without my father, the man who indelibly marked my identity, who bestowed on me that virile manhood that fathers grant to their sons. I still can’t grasp this. I still can’t face the next couple of months. I still sometimes can’t hear his name in the prayers during Liturgy without that spear point of pain. My priest has told me that the intensity of the grief is often an indication of the depth of love.

How can I say this? I did not realize how much I loved my father. Dad and I were never ones to share our emotions, our inner lives with one another. When I was younger, we would work side by side on the farm, or cutting wood, or loading the moving van. Our phone calls were about the weather, Dad’s latest projects, and occasional plans for travel and seeing one another. I would never have questioned my love for Dad. Every phone call ended with, “I love you, son” and “I love you, too, Dad.” But I just did not realize how deeply those roots had grown, unnoticed. And when they were yanked out by his sudden death, the pain was deep as well.

These forty days of laboring with Dad in his departure are now complete. The prayers continue, of course. But now, we are called to a new way of living. For forty days I have intentionally excluded many things from my life. I’ve delinked from some relationships, even blocked others; still others I have let founder from inattention. Not from anger or pique. I’ve had to. I’ve only just had enough resources to continue my day to day obligations, with very little left over. I’ve had to find ways to grieve without overburdening my daughters, and yet at the same time to receive from them their own ways of comforting me. I am the father, the provider, the protector. I don’t know how many times I’ve apologized to them for my tears, not wanting to upset them. They hug me. In their own child ways they offer comforting words. They grab tissues for me. And they have shed their own tears.

So, too have my sisters, my stepmom, and others of our family, nieces and nephews, grandchildren. Our grief is so private and individual, so awfully lonely. And yet, too, shared in some way. It walls us off from those who are not grieving and even from each other. Yet, somehow it connects us, too, in that love we share with that strong and vital man we have known as father, husband, grandfather, brother, uncle.

This new way of living is a way of living that no longer includes the beloved. It hurts. My heart has been broken. This is uncharted territory for me. There is no map, the path is dark. Others tell me this grief will not end in this life, though it becomes less present than it is now. I don’t know what to make of that. I question my sanity. I stand at the grocery store staring at pork chops and am overcome. The once invigorating post-Liturgy coffee hour chatter I can no longer abide. I’m overcome by an anxiousness in the frozen foods aisle, but can’t stand the solitary hours at home. I somehow make it through each day. But I cannot plan for the coming couple of months. It is overwhelming, everything is altered, transformed by the hole that has come into my life. I pray God in his mercy will make all this transfiguring.

I understand on some level that life will indeed go on. Many things will remain unchanged, although now tinged with this new reality, infused with this new grief. And many things will change, too, because one essential thing has changed. Some of them will change because I have no power to control what happens, and consequence rolls from event and choice. Some of them will change because I see it is necessary that they do. Former dreams and hopes may be cast off, because they too died on that September evening. Or perhaps they have now been solidified, pressed into a crystalline clarity by loss. My future has irrevocably changed. It may require that I alter my own imaginings about that future. May God bless it all.

And may God cause the memory of my father to be eternal.

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Calling

About a month ago, fellow Orthodox blogger and erstwhile podcaster, S-P wrote a post entitled Does God Have a Wonderful Plan for Your Life? wherein he takes on a rather common theme in the Christian milieu here in the U.S. My path is not dissimilar to his in some ways (though I think he’s slightly further along this mortal coil than am I, but not by much). I don’t think I have so much a response as a reaction. We’ll see if I can attain coherency.

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Past the Tipping Point

When we are confronted with a reality grim, horrible, painful, our tendency is to avoid it, to pursue the hopeful, the possible, the therapeutic. Out of compassion, we do well to allow a little of that to those suffering, that the wrenching blow that has been suffered might be better absorbed. I will not decry those who wish to hold on to optimistic dreams. But let’s face it, last night’s election outcome is very bad news. It is hard not to be apocalyptic about it.

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[Note: the following is an unspoken sermon, a sermon written but not preached, for my Grandfather’s funeral. It was Grandpa who gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon, and so it seems fitting that on the occasion of his repose in the Lord, I compose a sermon in his honor.]

Twice in the ministry of Elisha, prophet of Israel, these words are spoken: “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” The first occasion is when Elisha doggedly follows Elijah across the Jordan and sees Elijah translated alive into heaven in the fiery chariot and horses. Elisha is given a double portion of the Spirit of Elijah and begins his ministry. The second time is when the evil king, Jehoash (or Joash) of Israel goes to Elisha when Elisha is dying. Seeing Elisha dying, Joash cries out, “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” Whatever we may say of these two occasions and the meaning of these words, we can at least say that both times they are uttered, the men who utter them are recognizing the end of a ministry, the gathering to his fathers of a man of God.

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A bewildering array of semi-professionalized terminology awaits anyone who simply wants to know how to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples. Formation. Paedagogy. Spiritual direction. Ascetical theology. This doesn’t even touch on methodology. Cell groups. Class rooms. Home studies. But one thing you can be sure that nearly all of these “programs” and “methods” will be chock full of: information. Information is reproducible (I won’t be so cynical as to say marketable, but there you are). One thing you will not find so much of is twelve men shuffling dusty through the Galilean countryside. That’s a problem.

The way we train and educate fellow Christians today says a lot about what we believe about the Incarnation.

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When we think of the Apostle Paul we think of the missionary journeys, the evangelization of the Empire, writing the bulk of the New Testament, his martyric death, his ability to perform miracles. We think of the Damascus Road experience and how God accomplished such mighty works through him. His calling is truly momentous. Apart from his ministry, many of us, descendents of Europeans, may not ever have come to Christ. The effect of God’s grace on one man . . . it boggles the mind.

We forget, however, that his calling was a calling not simply to carry the name of Christ to Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. It was also a calling to suffer many things for the sake of the Name.

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