Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Note on American Identity

In one chapter of his most interesting book Radical Discontinuities: American Romanticism and Christian Consciousness (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1983), Harold P. Simonson writes of Per Hansa and Beret, a Norwegian immigrant couple on the northern plains of this country in the later 1800s in Ole Rol­vaag’s novel Giants in the Earth:

"When Per Hansa speaks repeatedly of “my King­dom,” it is not merely the few acres of land, the house, barn, and crops that he envisions but the power to possess and control these things, to claim owner­ship of them, and eventu­ally to see them and all nature as extensions of his being. Freed from time and its impinge­ments, he interprets space as total possibi­lity. By contrast, Beret thinks of herself as an inheritor, and all people as indebted to the past and rooted in it, dependent upon it for their well-being. She looks upon reality not as spatial exten­sion of ego, imagina­tion, and vision but as an already created world in which humans take their place as creatures. Insofar as they create any­thing, they do so within a creation already given and with origins deeper than what the mind imagines.

Simonson, I think, is acute in his as­sessment of these types manifest in the characters, Per Hansa and Beret. Speaking of Per Hansa, Simonson typi­fies what may be called the American perspec­tive in this way: “Freed from time and its im­pinge­ments, he interprets space as total possi­bility.” Then in relation to Beret, Simonson typifies what may be called the Euro­pean per­spective as “in­heri­ indebted to the past and rooted in it, depen­dent upon it for...­well-being.” It seems to me that one could see in these types the peculiar dilemma of the American Chris­tian, the peculiar ambiguity within which the American Christian must work out salvation in fear and trem­bling. Consider the follow­ing.

The Puritans came from England to this continent, where, as if shocked into new and startled aware­ness by diving into the cold waters of the Atlan­tic, they emer­ged on these shores with a consciousness of passage from one place and time to a new place and time. But the newness was itself new, and so the difficulty was in foreseeing the implications of this new place and time for the consciousness of an American self. They stood at the brink of an American self wrestling with identity, but as yet they were not consciously “American.” Certainly, the conditions for ambiguity and ambivalence in identity were incipient: they foresaw the possibilities of new directions and forms open to them in this stran­ge and wondrous land; but they still looked back to their roots in Europe in various ways, and so for long con­sidered themselves part of a trans-Atlan­tic community. Yet, as indicated, the newness was itself new, and in the early colonial decades they were only coming to a sense of being “American.” Besides which, certain controlling religious concepts no doubt gave them a relatively clear and strong identity. For example, with their sense of historical type and anti-type within the provi­dence of God, they were not concerned to jet­tison all time past (history) in favor of space as limit­less possibility. Moreover, a sense of mis­sion or “er­rand” to the New and the Old Worlds may have muted the ambi­valence they might other­wise have felt over the diver­gent pulls of the old (history, tradition, cultural heri­tage, time and space as neces­sity, esta­blished forms) and the new (time and land as space, space as freedom and possibility, open­ness and indeed pressure for change of established for­ms). Still, it must be seen that the conditions for the peculiar dilemma, the peculiar ambiguity, of the American Christian were incipient with the first steps of these European emigrants on the western shores of the cold Atlantic.

But the American romantics – for example, Whitman in his Preface to “Leaves of Grass” (1855) and in “Demo­cratic Vistas” – sought to resolve the ambiguity and ambi­valence of American iden­tity by elimi­nating such. How? By severing the pull of the old. Their imperative: exalt the American self; loose it from its old ties; set it sail­ing on the vast expanse of the new. Declare this self as new and limit­less, as seemed the very land in which the American dwelt. Exhort it to slough off the stuff of the old and revel in the inexpressible glories of its capa­cious new environment.

However, Ameri­can romanticism could do so only insofar as it diverged from traditional Christianity, for this Christi­anity knew and preached that the self and human life had limits, constraints, neces­sities. It taught that exis­tence, more vast than and prior to any individual or aggre­gate self, was not compre­hensible or imaginable by the self, American or otherwise. Indeed, this Christianity admonished the self against the fundamental sin – namely, pride, the attempted usurpation of the divine being and acting. Furthermore, it grounded truth and “authentic” being in history – in the incarnation, cruci­fixion, resurrection, ascension, and parousia of Jesus. It forced the Christian to hold firmly to both poles, past and future.

Hence, the peculiar dilemma, the peculiar ambiguity, of the American Chris­tian. To cut loose from the past electrifies with the promise of the pos­sible, of the new. The spaciousness of the land is indeed inbred. There it pos­sesses and shapes the very form of the soul. To cut loose; to dive into the cold waters and emerge with spanking new awareness in the land of promise; to shake off the old and find the light bright and swept free of motes of dust: these possibilities vivify the very core of the American self. Yet the Chris­tian in America cannot unam­big­uously or unambiva­lently be this American self, for the Chris­tian knows the significance of the past – Cal­vary catches up and tran­scends the Rocky Mountains. The Christian knows that the new offers peril as well as promise. The Chris­tian knows the penultimate and the ulti­mate pangs and losses in the jettisoning of the past. The Christian knows the ambiguity of time and space: together and separately, they offer promise and threat­; they signify gain and loss, inextricably mixed. Time and space are both blessing and curse. To move on is to leave behind. To stay behind is never to move. Time and space invigorate and pull with the promise of possi­bility. Just as surely, they weaken structure and deliver longing and loneli­ness. The Ameri­can Christian can do no other than grasp – as one would grasp a plow, or a cross – the ambiguity, the peculiar dilemma, the hard glory.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Prie-Dieu: At This Desk, Late at Night

Within this small circle of light do I seek light
to hold at bay the dark — pressing from without,
welling up within — through book after book
and word upon word; reading, sighing, pleading,
do I seek light within this small circle; I am
bone-tired, heart-weary, and stiff at this desk,
where long! I long to rest, so late at night…

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Community of Service


A prayer attributed to Saint Francis

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be console as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

There is great need in the world. Yet it appears that much of the need in the world is ignored or inadequately addressed. So much of the attention and resources of people, communities, organizations, companies, societies, and countries is focused and directed in other directions.

We find a contrast in the nature of God and the pattern of God’s activity in the world, from creation through redemption. We find that God has a passionate and active concern for those in need, for those on the margins of life, for the neglected and the lost. We find that God goes to extraordinary lengths to love and to serve people.

Where do we stand in all of this? Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[1]

There is great need in the world

There are so many needs requiring so many resources and so many people in response. Whether through personal experience, through family or friends, or through awareness of contemporary conditions in this country and other countries, we all are acquainted with many of these needs.

However, the world seems to ignore these needs to a large degree, or to address them inadequately. There may be many reasons why this is the case, but an appraisal of various realities makes it hard to conclude otherwise. Consider where we put our money and other resources, how we spend our time, where we put people in need, how we raise our children, and many other indicators of how we organize and direct our “time, talent, and treasure.”

In view of all of this, the world needs a revolution. For a great many people in the world, the current system is not working.

In fact, the world has had such a revolution. It was a revolution like no other in human history, and the central figure of that revolution wants his followers to live out the revolution. The central figure was Jesus of Nazareth, and his revolution consists of salvation through suffering love. He is molding his followers – the Church – to be the vanguard of his revolution. He wants the Church to be characterized fundamentally and comprehensively by suffering or sacrificial love.

A consideration of God’s nature and his presence in the world up to and including Jesus shows us the revolution that God seeks in the world.

The nature of God and the pattern of God’s activity

Central themes in creation are God’s love and the goodness of creation. The goodness of creation roots in and stems from God’s love and God’s goodness.

However, as we noted, the world is in great need. Creation is fractured, marred, twisted, rebellious. It ought not to be this way – for God did not create people and the world to sin and to suffer – yet it surely is.

In response to the world’s need, the pattern of God’s activity is deep, recurring love for his creatures. This pattern of God’s love and activity constitutes “good news.” It is not sentimental, simplistic good news. The good news of God comes through suffering love. We see it epitomized in the Old Testament in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, and in the New Testament we see it incarnated in Jesus.

While there are many, many threads of God’s good news (which consists of suffering, sacrificial love, and which is incarnated in Jesus) throughout the Old and New Testaments, here is a list of some key texts. Individually and collectively, they make a profoundly spiritual study for us.

  • Exodus 22:21-22 (God’s care for the alien, the widow, and the orphan)
  • Isaiah 25 (God as a refuge for the poor and needy; and the messianic banquet)
  • Isaiah 35 (people made whole in an eschatological vision)
  • Isaiah 53 (the Suffering Servant who heals by his sufferings)
  • Isaiah 58:6-14 (a holy fast is to overcome injustice, to assist the needy, to keep the Sabbath)
  • Isaiah 61:1-4 (to proclaim good news to the oppressed) – see Jesus in Luke 4:16-21
  • Matthew 25:31-46 (serving Jesus in “the least of these”)
  • Luke 10:25-37 (the good Samaritan)
  • Luke 16:19-31 (the rich man and Lazarus)
  • Luke 22:14-27 (the Last Supper and the dispute about who would be greatest)
  • John 13:1-17 (the Last Supper, footwashing, servanthood)
  • Philippians 2:1-11 (encouragement to love and serve because Jesus took the form of a slave)
Do not be conformed…be transformed

As Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, we are not to be conformed to the world. We are to be transformed, from the inside out.

We are to be transformed by the Holy Spirit and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

We are to be transformed into the image of Jesus – imitatio Christi. Our transformation is to be modeled on the example or pattern of Jesus.

We are to be transformed into faithful servants. See John 13:1-17. To paraphrase 1 John 4:19, “We serve because he first served us.”

This is not the status the world seeks or offers, nor is it the transformation intended by the myriad of self-help and self-potential programs that are popular today. Yet faithful servanthood embodies the character and role intended and incarnated for us by Jesus.

Becoming transformed

The question then for us is this: How can we become more like Jesus today than we were yesterday?

There are at least a few fundamental ways whereby we can grow as a community of service, more and more into the image of Jesus.

Growing in servanthood begins and ends in worship and prayer: worship of our loving and life-transforming God; prayer for others; and prayer for ourselves (e.g., for our ability to serve in love, and for our strength to serve faithfully).

In the power of the Spirit, through our prayer and obedience, we can reconceive and reinvent – transform – our regular perspectives and activities into instruments and opportunities of service. Everything we do can be done in service.

We can train our children to be people of service, to be servants. We can provide homes and a church with the servant values of Jesus. We can provide examples of service through our lives, and we can provide opportunities of service through volunteer efforts. We can encourage them to seek relationships, families, and careers built on loving service rather than self-centered competition and self-aggrandizement.

Another way – a possible way – represents more of a strategic option for a local church. This could involve focusing on certain service needs as a congregation or community. As individuals, we would still practice the two fundamental and general or comprehensive ways of service mentioned previously. But a local church could have a strategic focus for congregational service through a particular program or programs.


We have been trying to “paint a picture” of the Church, of what the Church looks like, or should look like. We have been trying to paint this picture because we must ask what kind of people God is creating, what kind of community God is forging. And we must ask so that we can grow more and more into that kind of community.

We know that the Church fundamentally lives in two directions. In one direction we live from God and for God. In another direction we live from other people and for other people. When we are living in God’s Spirit, these two directions are characterized by service. Hence, the Church in the Spirit is a community of service in a truly fundamental and essential sense. It is a servant community.

Consider these statements and petitions from the Litany of Penitence in the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.

"We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves."

"We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit."

"Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty…."

"Accomplish in us the work of your salvation;
That we may show forth your glory in the world."

What would it look like for a church to be known – to God, to the people around it, and to its own people – as a community of service? How would that please God, and how would it bear witness to those who do not know God of the sublime worthiness of God and the inestimable love that he shows us in Jesus and pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit?

Let us pray for this to occur in our Christian communities. The prayer attributed to Saint Francis marks a good beginning for us.

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

[1] Romans 12:1, 2. (All citations from Scripture refer to the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

God's Holiness and Forgiveness

Radical Condemnation and Radical Affirmation

If you, Lord, should keep account of sins,
who could hold his ground?
But with you is forgiveness,
so that you may be revered.

[Reading in Psalm 130, Revised English Bible]

These verses point toward two fundamentals of God’s dealings with us in this existence: radical condemnation; and radical affirmation.

In the first two lines of these verses we see radical condemnation. Because of our sinfulness, we cannot possibly stand before the holy Lord. We stand utterly guilty before God in his holiness, and we have no hope. At root we are condemned.

In the second two lines of these verses we see radical affirmation. With God is forgiveness. Amid our sinfulness, we experience God’s inestimable grace, embracing and enlivening us. At root we are affirmed.

There is a great mystery in the conjunction of these verses. It is the compound mystery at the core of the Gospel—the mystery of the divine amalgam of holy judgment and loving forgiveness. In the heart of the Gospel, neither holiness nor love is minimized or lost. They are met and held together not abstractly, not theoretically, but concretely, personally, in the being and acting of God. For, at once and in completeness, God encompasses and employs both holiness and love.

Thus, in the heart of the Gospel, we come to the cross. For in our sinful world, the divine amalgam of holiness and love leads to the cross. The cross unveils the God who exists and acts in holiness and love conjoined. This is the God who, in Jesus, exacts the cross in judgment and suffers the cross in love. The cross roots in and stems from the divine amalgamation of holiness and love, for it transacts the judgment of God’s holiness through the suffering of God’s son, thereby tendering forgiveness.

Were holiness and love not amalgamated in the divine being and acting, there would be no cross. Without holiness, there is no condemnation of sin. Hence, there is no cross. Without love, there is only condemnation, and hence, no cross.

Were there no cross, with its conjunction of holiness and love, we would have no good news. If God should act solely in holiness, it would necessitate absolute and terrible rejection of us, leaving us only utter despair and annihilation. If God should act only in love, it would require his self-denying self-deception, glossing over the ruptured and rupturing realities of our lives and our world with a cruelly unrealistic sentimentalism.

Yet there was a cross, and it shows us that God is absolutely holy and mercifully forgiving at once and in completeness. God is a sheer holiness that brooks no evil and terrifies us to oblivion. At the same time, with God is a tender, merciful forgiveness that rends the divine heart even as it touches and heals our own hearts. Jointed in the heart of God then are absolute judgment and inestimable forgiveness, for God is utterly holy, utterly realistic, and utterly merciful—at one and the same time, each in fullness. Hence, the crux of God’s presence in our sinful world consists in and reveals itself in this conjunction of holiness and love.

We must therefore let the cross inform—in the strongest and deepest sense of that verb—the core of our lives and our theology. Apart from the cross, we might think that sometimes God acts in holiness and sometimes in love. We might even conclude that holiness and love are disjunct. Thus we are tempted to think and act in the cross-denying distortions of either self-righteous jeremiads or soft-headed sentimentalism. The cross however, truly understood and submitted to, frames and holds us in the conjunction of God’s holiness and love in our sinful world. We must not sunder this conjunction in our religious experience or in our theological construction.

We must, in other words, truly and deeply live in and proclaim the mystery of the cross, the amalgam of God’s holiness and love. We must not live in or proclaim only holiness and judgment, or only mercy and forgiveness. We must know that, in God’s presence, we live under radical condemnation and radical affirmation at one and the same time. For this is the God who both condemns and forgives us, at each and every moment of our lives, in the mysterious, re-creating intersection of condemnation and acquittal, which was Jesus on the cross.

One critical implication of these verses and the mystery of the cross for our lives and for our proclamation is this. Namely, we must realize that moral achievement and integrity do not constitute the chief foundation, mode, standard, or goal of our relationship with God, or of God’s relationship with us.

This point is not meant to subvert our utmost striving to act rightly. Nor is it meant to ease our conscience and excuse us when we do not act rightly. Clearly God calls us to an absolute standard, to perfection. We should seek it wholeheartedly. Still, we fail and sin; and clearly God laments, abhors, and condemns our moral failure, our sinful transgression.

Yet, just as clearly, God forgives. We must note this truth well. What God does with us in our failure and transgression is forgive us. He does not instantly refashion us in this existence so that we do not, indeed cannot, sin from that moment on. Painfully, sorrowfully, we find that we who know new life and follow the way of Jesus continue to sin.

Precisely here—in the call to perfection, in the striving for perfection, and in the inevitable failure to live it consistently—we must find and live in the mystery of the cross, where God both judges and forgives. In and through the cross, God acts to re-create us, to make us new people, no longer bound to sin. Yet, as we will certainly sin again before we physically die, we also find in and through the cross that God’s re-creating movement toward us and our life in God subsist in and through, not our moral attainment and integrity, but his forgiveness, always and everywhere.

Again, let it be clear that this forgiveness of the cross is no ignoring or forgetting of sin, by God or by us. It is no excuse for sin. This cruciform forgiveness confronts and judges sin directly and realistically for exactly what sin is. God’s severe forgiveness fully accounts for, reckons with, and overcomes sin, because God forges forgiveness in the crucible of Jesus’ condemnation and death.

Thus, by his forgiveness and not by our moral achievement, does God always and everywhere re-create and sustain us in new existence. In other words, it is God’s forgiveness that re-creates and holds us in life, life that begins and ends in cross-stamped grace, or we have no life at all. God’s forgiveness baptizes us into death and resurrection; and that forgiveness alone is life for us, from the point we receive it through all moments and conditions of this life, until we wake in the age to come.

Hence, in God’s forgiveness we find it utterly true that our life begins, continues, and ends—not in ourselves nor in any pretense of our holiness or our moral achievement and integrity—but completely and finally in the gracious power of God—in God’s holiness, in God’s love, in God’s crucible of condemnation and affirmation, which is Jesus, our savior and lord.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Renewing Our Repentance

Reading in the Ash Wednesday service in the Book of Common Prayer, I am taken by these words: “…and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

The admonition to renew our repentance continually is striking. We could construe this to mean a series of acts of repentance, occasioned by acts of sin. This understanding is of course true as, however regretfully, we will certainly sin against God and neighbor from time to time. In this sense at a minimum the admonition is true and compelling.

At the same time, I believe we can understand the admonition more deeply, strikingly, and compellingly if we go further to locate repentance not solely or even chiefly in the act but in the posture of being, the posture of spirit. Understood and lived most profoundly and essentially then, continual renewal of repentance consists of the core disposition or quality of our being, our person.

This corresponds intimately and inextricably with the nature of faith and the continual renewal of faith. For surely faith, while including and motivating acts, signifies most deeply the basic disposition or posture of our self in relation to God.

Repentance then is not merely something we do occasionally. Repentance is something we essentially are in this world. Hence, it is something we are continually.

What then does it mean to live in a posture of repentance? Much could be said here, but let me point to a few principles which should characterize living in a posture of repentance.
  • Whenever we identify sin in another, we must in the same moment acknowledge and regret our own implication in sin. In general we stand implicated in sin, and in particular we often stand implicated in the specific sin we have identified, at least in potential and sometimes in fact.
  • Indeed, we are far more ready to see our own sin first, before we ever see sin in others.
  • We do not presume our own immunity from sin, whether sin in general or sins in particular. The language of confidence in our own purity is strange and alien to us.
  • We do not presume mastery over our own sin, whether sin in general or sins in particular.
  • Because of our frailty and perversity in relation to sin, both potentially and actually, we live continuously in sheer dependence on the gracious mercy of God. We do not presume to stand in God’s presence with confidence in our own rightness.
These are but a few spiritual and moral principles which will mark our lives to the extent we take to heart the admonition of the need we have to renew our repentance continually. Yet if we can live them in the very posture of our being, in Lent and all seasons, they will take us far along the path that leads from the garden closed behind us to the city of the Lamb awaiting us.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Sweet Lord, forbear all bitterness – I have
Forbear and forgive. Suffer yourself to be
Between sharp teeth – so bitterness to sweetness

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Prayer for Reading

Creator God, by your eloquent Word you made all things that are. You articulated and suffused them with truth, beauty, and goodness. Then when we, in unutterable perversity, had stopped our hearts and minds to your light and love – that we no longer knew, no longer cared for you, for the world, nor even ourselves – by your passionate Word you erased our sin and authored new life for us and for all creation. Therefore inscribe me, savior God, lost and wayward as I am, into your graceful story, your Word incarnate; and thus in all the pages of this life, let me learn to read well that I may love well. This I pray, in Jesus’ name.