Vocation and the Serendipity of Exile

What if being out of the mainstream isn’t cool so much as serendipitous?

Hans Urs von Balthasar was an imaginative twentieth-century Catholic theologian.  Jean-Luc Marion notes that Balthasar:

  • Was ostracized by the Jesuits with whom he trained
  • Never became a university professor
  • Was ‘only’ a student chaplain at Basel
  • Was not invited to Vatican II
Image result for hans urs von balthasar

Icon Painting – Holy Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar 110 by William Hart McNichols

But Marion says that good was brought from evil. Balthasar was freed from the procedural and litigious dimensions of a church council. He was liberated from faculty meetings and committees. He did not have to grade essays. He wasn’t formed by one particular spirituality (the Jesuit way).

The result of his “exile”? Marion says that Balthasar:

  • “Remains without doubt the best Barthian”
  • Was a practitioner of “ecumenism in the highest sense”
  • Was freed to become a great writer
  • Became the only real rival of Karl Rahner
  • “Was anything but dogmatic”
  • Was “truly and deeply spiritual”
  • Exuded a “humble and almost timid authority which earned him any number of students [i.e., people who learned how to do spiritual theology and theological spirituality from him] but no disciples [i.e., people who were copycats of his theology and spirituality]”
  • “Had a learning so sweeping that it gave you goosebumps”
  • Is “the greatest Catholic theologian of modern times”

Sure, you can be a part of an “inner ring.” You can get invited to all the important meetings. Your name could be called whenever NPR or Le Monde or the BBC need a reaction to the day’s news from someone in your field. You could have young people aspiring to be just like you. Some of these things may even be gained without succumbing to soul-suffocating pride and the deadliest variety of ambition. You could certainly be a star. And not all stars are self-promoted idols.

But it could be that you’re not doing anything particularly sexy. You might be in some backwater place doing some low-profile thing for a living. It’s possible that no one will ever invite you onto their podcast or ask you to write a guest post on their blog. The phone might never ring, and you might only get 3 emails per day for the next 20 years.

But imagine what all that time could yield. Twenty years of not being interrupted by other people’s sense of urgency. Twenty years of focus on what you deem important, regardless of whether it happens to be urgent. Twenty years of quietly becoming one of the very best at whatever it is you’ve been called to do.

One indispensable key to maturity, I am learning, is the ability to emotionally adjust to being sidelined from the main event, exiled from the place where “everything” is “happening.” To adjust to the reality that margin and even a certain type of marginalization is not only serendipitous for one’s soul, but  also for one’s vocation.

And don’t the two go hand in hand? My soul is maturing, is growing up into the stature of Christ, insofar as I am emotionally content and volitionally diligent in my calling.


The Expatriations of Bono and TS Eliot

As soon as I became an expat in the summer of 2015, I began feeling a new kinship with those who throughout history have gone to take up residence in a land not their own.

In the past year I’ve been fixated on the so-called “Lost Generation” of expats who lived in Paris after the Great War. First it was a near obsession with Hemingway. Then I got a group of friends together to read this generation. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and now Eliot. In their lives and literatures, they were trying to dial into life after the cataclysm that was World War I.

Eliot’s difficult waistcoat

As I’ve studied The Waste Land, I’ve paid close attention to Eliot’s expatriation. As Yale’s Langdon Hammer humorously notes (in his Open Yale Course), Eliot is the only major British poet from St. Louis. In speaking of Eliot’s forced entry into British culture, Hammer makes a big deal out of the young poet’s waistcoat. (Being a sartorial old soul myself, I was all ears.) Hammer says Eliot’s waistcoat can be read as a symbol of his quest to strip himself of his Americanness, to fully embrace British culture, and to inscribe himself within its literary tradition, however uncomfortable, stuffy, and restrictive that might seem.


Photo: The Telegraph

As Eliot settled into his British tweed, he made it his practice to quote heavily from authoritative literary and religious texts of the past. He was conscious of their power to convey an authority to him by their very citation. But he was also conscious of the fact that everything had changed in the wake of the Great War, and that he would have to do something new with the old he treasured. The result was a sort of bricolage of lines from Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, the Bible, and Buddhist texts. Nick Mount’s fantastic lecture on The Waste Land likens Eliot’s use of texts to a Canadian soldier’s gathering of bits of broken stained glass from across Europe and their assembly into a new window at the University of Toronto. Eliot was old and new.

He was also difficult! In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he insisted that, following the War, poetry had to be difficult.

And so Eliot set out to become a tastemaker in his new home. By quoting authorities, he wanted to tell Britain what its literary and cultural legacy was, and he, the American, wanted to make himself the standard of what it meant to be literary, cultured, and British. Spoiler alert: he basically succeeded.

Bono’s star-spangled jacket

U2’s front man maintains a home in Dublin, and has most definitely not renounced his Irish citizenship or roots. And while in 2000 he had “just got a place in New York,” he was not new to America. The Joshua Tree feels like the wide open spaces of the American west. The video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was filmed under the pulsating lights of Las Vegas. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was addressed to the American industrial military complex and its commanders-in-chief. The Rattle and Hum album and tour was an immersion in American sounds and culturescapes. They re-toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary, convinced that it had something yet to say to the two Americas under Trump.


Image: Getty/GQ

After 9/11, it was U2 who memorialized its dead at the Super Bowl halftime show that winter. The names streamed up the screen like a New York skyscraper as though they were headed to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Bono showed his American flag jacket lining in solidarity with the country reeling from the attack less than six months prior.

All of which is to say that Bono is a lot like Eliot. He has quoted America’s traditions to it, and has made himself himself its modern interpreter and its most enthusiastic champion. Though while Eliot renounced his Americanness to cozy up to the British, Bono has used his outsider status to hold a mirror up to America—to try to convince America of its exceptional history, ideas, status, and burden to serve and lead the world in all things free and brave.

However, Bono hasn’t postured himself as America’s authority. As recently as last night, Bono sang two songs to America on Saturday Night Live. In one of them, he sings:

I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight

Moreover, Bono, unlike Eliot, increasingly doesn’t seem to be convinced (as perhaps he was during the Zooropa/Pop period) that, in order to point America back to its founding documents, his music and lyrics need to be difficult. Where Eliot thought the cataclysm of World War I called for difficulty, Bono seems to think the post-9/11 world needs joy and simplicity “with an acid drop mixed in with the sweetness.”

Bono’s and Eliot’s expat churches

One final consideration of Bono’s and Eliot’s expatraiations.

Everywhere in the world where there are expats, there are congregations for them. Eric Liddell went to the English-speaking presbyterian church in Paris on the Sunday when he skipped his Olympic event. Flushing, New York has Korean congregations that dwarf the rest of my denomination’s churches. I currently pastor an English congregation in Seoul.

Perhaps it was just another of Eliot’s anglophilic waistcoats, but the poet converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. He submitted to the authority of a bishop despite his professed Puritanical temperament. While he moved and shook the literary world, effectively becoming its archbishop, in ecclesial matters he sat in the pew and became, liturgically, an English commoner seeking communion. For all we can tell, he was a quiet orthodox church member until his death. Two years after his death, his name was emblazoned in stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. That seems like a fitting place for one who became both the English language poet of the twentieth century and a humble Anglican.

On the other hand, as one of my fellow expat churchmen has recently pointed out to me, Bono’s relationship with the church has been a different sort of expatriation experience. As Joshua Rothman ably recounts, U2 struggled in its early years with their potential for international stardom and the felt demands of their fringy ascetic ecclesial community. Eventually, they chose rock n roll over church. The Irish context of Protestant-Catholic violence certainly contributed.

The result, as I’ve hinted at above, is that Bono became something of the megachurch worship pastor of America’s sorta-spiritual and maybe-kinda religious stadium rock crowds. He doesn’t fancy himself a papal authority in American music or culture the way Eliot saw himself in the world of British letters. Bono has always taken more of a persuasive posture of influence; he just doesn’t have an ex cathedra temperament. But if one made a bit of a Puritanical analysis of Bono’s dealings with the American soul, one might say he is an unauthorized street preacher; a circuit-riding camp meeting convener; an officiant of strange fire.

In the end, Bono has not expatriated the way Eliot did. Part of me thinks Bono is doing it right. Who instinctively cozies up to Eliot’s renunciation of homeland? Who can bear his stuffy sartorial affectations? Who cannot look on quizzically at his brazen cultural interpolation? And, by contrast, who cannot help but admire Bono’s admiring pep talks in star-spangled jackets?

But the churchman in me, along with the would-be rebel in me, knows that while Bono bends over backwards not to be seen as an American authority, his churchless spirituality ultimately amounts to an unwillingness to sit under authority. He’ll read the Psalms, interpret them, sing them, and make them sexy enough to sing in an arena. He’ll earn his money, and then he’ll decide where it should go and who it should help. And ultimately, he’ll make himself a sort of Unitarian pastor in a “church” where everyone that’s feeling the vibe feels at home, as long as their politics are sufficiently socially conscious and they’re okay periodically holding up their consciences to a certain figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

Bono has expatriated not from Ireland, but from the church. This leaves him homeless, dislocated in a way that Eliot would have remained had he merely gone all-in with the British literary tradition and not settled into the back pew in his local parish church.

It has been 35 years of ecclesial homelessness for Bono. My hope is that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for in churchless spirituality. My hope is that, if he still can’t reconcile church and rock n roll, he will become uncool or irrelevant enough, soon enough, to settle down into some quiet parish outside Dublin and perhaps duck into Redeemer when he’s playing expat at his other home in New York.

To be at home, to repatriate, he’ll need to take some of the advice he’s giving to America on the new album and get out of his own way.

[Update: As I mentioned to my critical fellow U2 enthusiast, sometimes we assume we know the perspective from which Bono speaks and the audience to which his songs are addressed. We don’t, necessarily. It turns out that America may not be the primary audience of “Get Out of Your Own Way”—instead, that honor seems to belong first to his daughter and second, to himself. ]

Don’t call it an “office”

There are a couple things in life that I’m passionate about. Hills upon which I am willing to die. In no particular order:

  • One does not put two spaces between sentences; the computer will space it appropriately for you.
  • One does not grind one’s coffee until it is time to brew said coffee.
  • North Carolina is in no wise “first in flight”; Ohioans commandeered their beach and wind.
  • The bottom button of one’s blazer, suit coat, or sport coat is to remain unbuttoned.

And, more recently, a new rule:

Don’t call my study an “office.” It’s a study

Nomenclature matters, folks. Our words create the worlds we experience and the quality of our experiences therewith. John Culkin famously said that “we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us.” Names of things are human-shaped tools, which thereafter shape us. They shape our expectations and our realities.

I don’t have a classroom of my own. I instead have a tiny room at the end of a hallway. I love this arrangement. I get lots of privacy and in turn I get lots of things done. And, by “things done”, I mean principally “thoughts thought” and “learning learned.”

That’s because my room is my study.

When I tell a student to come see me in my study after school, I am indicating to them that we are going to learn together. Whatever problem they may be having with their grade, the paper they’re writing, their attendance record, their behavior, their language acquisition process, or their mastery of the course content will be approached in a specific way: it will be approached with the conviction that we are, together, learning.

Consider the alternative. I could call my room my “office.” What experience can a student, a colleague, a supervisor, or a parent expect to have in my “office”?

They can expect to have their problem dealt with administratively. They expect their problem to be solved like the unclogging of a procedural bottleneck. They show up to get a grade fixed, a paper corrected, an assignment postponed or a concept explained. People who come to an “office” expect bureaucracy, and they pray that maybe this will be the one time in a hundred when that bureaucracy actually works efficiently, achieving the results desired. They expect, though, to be processed like any other data input that might come into that space, whether through paper and ink, email, telephone, or flesh and blood.

As for me and my study, we shall serve the learner. The learner inside me, and the learner inside student, teacher, administrator, and parent. I want people to come into my study–myself included!–with the expectation that both solitary and collaborative learning takes place in this sacred space. The sofa and armchair, the bookcases, the coffee station and the aroma that regularly makes it into the adjoining hallway, the round table (as opposed to a desk, aka bureau, hello!), and the natural light coming through the windows–all of these things help indicate what this space is for.

But especially the name of the space. Don’t call it an office.

Grace and Effort

I don’t do anything halfway. So when I was a Lutheran (sometimes ecclesially, sometimes theologically, sometimes both) as a young man, I was really Lutheran. Probably more Lutheran than Luther. So, probably not really Lutheran, actually.

What that means, of course, is that I didn’t like good works. Or trying hard. Or any sort of effort at all. It was an attractive spirituality, because I’ve never been attracted to workaholism. The Protestant Ethic missed me.

By the time I encountered Dallas Willard in my early thirties, I had changed enough to be ready to hear what is, in my estimation, the best line in all his writings:

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

I both hated and loved this. I hated it because it meant that I couldn’t be the champion of spiritual sloth in order to elevate grace. I loved it because I finally sensed the liberty to try.

Not to try to impress God, but to “make it my aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Not to try to impress others, but to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).

The notion that keeping a list and checking tasks off of it is a form of works righteousness? Yeah, I couldn’t fail people any longer under the cover of grace.

The notion that the meaning of life was to receive grace and live a passive existence rather than trying to glorifying God through the exercise a certain amount of holy ambition? I couldn’t fool myself in that respect any longer either.

Jean-Luc Marion, in reflecting on a long career as a Christian and a philosopher, articulates what a lifelong application of Willard’s dictum looks like. Tolle, lege:

At several points, indisputably, I had the impression of being taken from the herd and put where I did not even know one could go. In those moments, I did not realize projects or ambitions coming from myself, but I received what happened to me. Often, my life as a whole seems to me like some of the years when I trained as a runner:

During long and exhausting training sessions, one suffers enough to know oneself to be the one who makes the effort, but, once one is in form, on the day of competition, in the sun of spring or the overhead light of an autumn evening, when suddenly a state of grace causes one to accomplish the impossible (a victory, a personal record), one wonders who has done all that, or, rather, I wonder whether I have done it or even whether this has happened to me.

From there stems this strange feeling that has never left me, of living with someone bearing (in all the senses of the word) my name, who does things without warning me and whom I had to accompany. At times I would almost have preferred that he leave me alone, but I have always lived with someone who is stronger than me and whom I follow. Yes, and I cannot do otherwise. I hope so, all the way to the end.

As someone who is pushing toward a 500-mile running goal for the year, with one month left to go, I resonate deeply. I have no idea how my joints are holding up under my heavy frame, how the Pop Tarts I had for breakfast are converted into energy for my run after work (or even if it works that way), and I don’t know how I haven’t tripped and broken half the bones in my body by now.


But I definitely feel as though it has been me running those 445 miles. I’ve had to decide on 128 different occasions in 2017 to get off my couch and go for a run. I’ve exerted more sheer will power in the past 11 months than at any time in my life.

It kind of feels like a cliché when you hear someone say “by God’s grace I was able to _______ [win the gold metal; finish an ultra-marathon; win the spelling bee; publish 20 books].” But it’s no cliché. We put ourselves to a task, and open ourselves to the ‘haunting’ of God’s gracious presence. And often, good things happen. Things we can celebrate—whether feats of strength or increases of moral fortitude.

It was hard work. And it’s all of grace.

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

The Capacity to Admire

If there has been one intellectual and spiritual preoccupation of mine for the past 7 or 8 years, it has been a preoccupation with love. I believe it all started in a slogan of Augustine’s which I must have first encountered as a newlywed sometime in 2003. Credo ut intelligam, as Anselm later codified it. “I believe in order to understand.”


Anselm of Canterbury | 19th-Century Stained Glass | Image: Wikipedia

For Augustine, this faith that seeks understanding, this belief unto learning, is an act of the passions, of the will, of the decision-making faculty that resides at the core of who we are as human beings.

All of this is another way of saying that love has priority over knowledge, and is the pathway of knowledge. Knowledge grows as love grows, not the other way around. One must admire someone before one can learn about them and from them.

I was stunned recently by Jean-Luc Marion’s reflections on admiration. In a recently-published book of conversations (translated by Crina Gschwandtner, my secondary doctoral supervisor!), Marion recounts the ways in which, as a young thinker and Christian, he both succeeded and failed to admire well.

‘You’re doing it wrong’: How (not) to admire badly

Sometimes the young Marion would come close to foolishly hitching his wagon to a pseudo-Master, someone who was making a lot of noise, gathering a lot of disciples, and, as we might say now, “building a platform.”

Other times, Marion would miss a real master right in front of his eyes. He recounts when he and his classmates were bored and passively rebellious in the midst of the tedium of basic lectures on German. Only later did they realize that the man who was teaching them declensions and conjugations was the great Paul Celan. You’ve got to have your eyes, or, better, your heart open in order to recognize the possibilities for a life-transforming mentor-protégé relationship right in front of you. 41+5NJrfRhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Still other times, Marion noticed the temptation to appropriate a master at the expense of receiving their contribution. To get to true understanding, one cannot strip-mine the masters for their material. You can’t go beyond your masters without truly going through them.

True admiration is the key. Marion sums this up poignantly:

“Those who do not have the capacity to admire cannot receive what is there. They want to imitate or confiscate the inheritance instead of receiving it as one should, namely as a task that is too great yet cannot be avoided.”

Admiration of the Image-bearer

Augustine and Anselm’s motto has to do with the human quest to love and know God. But Marion shows that this same love-first openness to God’s self-revelation must be recapitulated in one’s human relationships. As we reckon with the incomprehensibility of God, we discover knowledge of God opening only insofar as we are, first and last, poised with loving anticipation for what God might reveal.

Humanity, in God’s image, is likewise fundamentally incomprehensible, a reality we do not often fully appreciate. As we abandon attempts to understand people apart from a loving openness to them, a true admiration grows. This admiration opens the space for a love-borne understanding. In turn, such a quality of understanding brings us to the place where our “use” of those we admire sheds its posture of appropriation. Instead, we move through and beyond those we admire by engaging them in winsome, charitable conversation. Our conclusions, even insofar as they diverge from our masters, are nevertheless indebted to them. And this indebtedness honors them. 

When I take the posture of admiration at the outset, I honor the incomprehensibility of my human interlocutor. As I do so, I am able potentially to come to a quality understanding that would never be possible had I attempted to know first before admiring.

Love, for humans as well as for God, unlocks the potentialities of understanding and refuses the impulse to reduce another to brute facts or usable truths. Fatih seeking understanding ‘works’ among humans, too.

Every one of us has people whom we admire for one reason or another. The only question is: will we admire well, or poorly?

Sloth and Our Lazy Loving

I am in the midst of teaching through a course on The Seven Deadly Sins for the 5th time. This repetition has occasioned something of a seasonal self-audit of my own spirituality. Each time through, the study of each vice (aided mostly by Rebecca DeYoung’s great book on the subject) diagnoses things in me that make me uncomfortable and, hopefully more often than not, repentant.

DeYoung’s fantastic definition of sloth continues to haunt me. Sloth is not laziness, but laziness in loving. Sloth is “resistance to the demands of love.”

We are about as slow and as tardy to love as this sloth is lazy and late in Win, Lose, or Draw:

As I’ve studied the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, my mind has been blown by two dynamics in this respect:

  1. The reality of our creaturely, finite, temporal natures means that we are constitutionally “late” to love–not in the tardy sense, but in the responsive sense. God loves first and best. We love, but any love we give that is worthy of the name is always already a citation, a response to a call that precedes us. This is not bad. It’s good. We are imitative beings through and through.
  2. We are fallen creatures. We are late in another sense. We are lazy in love. We resist love’s demands. We hear and see the speech and action of our Creator-Lover, and we kick against the goads. We instinctively know that if we are to truly receive such love, we will be compelled to give it again. And we know and can name the people in our lives we regard as unworthy of our love. And so we push away the love of the first and best Lover, thinking this releases us from our status as imitative beings. We reject love, so we won’t be compelled to love the unlovely.

I’ve read in several places recently that one major malaise of our current culture is its boredom. Marion suggests (in his own way) that boredom is the result of our systematic resistance to the demands of love. What is left when the receiving and giving of love is eschewed as our ultimate vocation? Boredom. The residue of an always-unsatisfying saturation with entertainment, diversion, distraction.

Our relationships feel like work and so we check out from them—often with entertainment.

But often with work. Busyness is the other side of the Boredom coin.

Or we view our work as something other than a response of love and a reiteration and imitation of that love in the direction of our neighbor, and so we avoid it.

A resolution or two:

  1. Some productivity guru once said that you should swallow a frog first thing every morning. If you do, you can be sure that you’ve done the hardest, most unpleasant thing you’ll do all day, and now it’s done and out of the way. If I know a demand of love faces me, and its demand is less than fully pleasant, I need to swallow that frog. Have the hard conversation. Put down the phone and look the person in the eye. Give myself in full attentiveness.
  2. I need to stop myself before every new vocational task. I need to remind myself that I am doing that task out of love for my neighbor, my colleague, my student, my friend, my children, my wife. I need to imagine the face of the beloved for whom I work, sitting there in the room with me as I work, asking for my love through my work.

All said, to love well, I need to resist my resistance to the demands of love.

10 Things to Love About Luther

Luther Slide.001He wasn’t perfect. He said nasty things to a lot of people. And while he at first held great hope that European Jewry would be swept up into the evangelical movement of the Reformation, he later uttered a lot of bigoted things against Jews.

I still love Luther. And here are my Top 10 Reasons to Love Martin Luther on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation:

10. Luther believed that God didn’t need him to reform the church.

I believe Luther, despite his bull-in-a-china-shop temperament, honestly didn’t want to split the church. And I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says:

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

9. In fact, Luther believed that God didn’t need him at all.

I am in a phase in which I am beginning to greatly appreciate the monastic traditions, especially those of the first few centuries. Luther was a monk, too. But by the time he was leading the Reformation, he didn’t have a lot of great things to say about monasticism. He felt that cloistered monks and nuns made two mistakes: thinking too much of their service to God, and thinking almost nothing of their neighbor. So Luther said:

“Who needs my good works? God doesn’t need my good works. But my neighbor does.”

When we realize that God doesn’t need us, it takes off all kinds of unnecessary pressure to be awesome for God, and releases us to let God be awesome by the Spirit at work through us. We are chosen and privileged to get to have God attract glory through our loving service to our neighbor.

8. Luther was a monk, and married a nun.


Sorry, but that’s just awesome.

Better, she was 16 years younger than him! He married when he was 40 and Katarina Von Bora was 24.

Luther wrote that some people are called to a life of celibacy in singleness, and most to marriage–but that both were holy callings. The Medieval church had ranked celibacy over marriage and said that monks and nuns were the real servants of God, while everyone else was mired in the world and couldn’t really serve God fully. 

Luther was like, um … no.

He said, reflecting on his own potential to remain celibate: “I am neither wood nor stone.”

Thankfully, once he deconstructed the medieval notion that God needed monks and nuns at all, and that they certainly weren’t more holy than married people, his honesty about not being a block of wood or a stone, sexually-speaking, made some monks and nuns wonder about their own vocations.

The rule had been that once you made a vow of celibacy, you could never go back. You had to be celibate for life. Luther recognized that there could be seasons of life. God might call you to celibacy in one season, and then to marriage. And perhaps again–after a spouse’s death–to celibacy once again.

Nowadays the world values singleness (sans celibacy) as the “best”. Meanwhile, the church seems to value marriage and disparage singleness, as though singles were lacking something.

Luther’s teaching–and his bold action!–are instructive for us. There are seasons when God calls us to chastity, and in which we may be given God-glorifying and (especially) neighbor-serving work to do and the freedom from spousal constraints to do that work. And there are seasons when God calls us to serve a spouse and maybe some kids as our “first neighbors.”

Luther helps us think clearly about singleness and marriage. And he certainly catches our attention when he marries a nun!

7. Luther was a jerk, but at least he knew it.

It’s at this point that we’re going to need to visit the Luther “insult generator.” I’ll wait. 


Look, there are plenty of times that Luther’s jerkiness was uncalled for, when it harmed the neighbors he was meant to serve. Plenty of times when his proneness to ad hominem attacks showed that he had an insecurity that wasn’t in concord with the gospel itself.

At the same time, Luther was no fan of himself. Listen to his advice:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

Being honest about how disappointed we are in ourselves is not in itself humility. It won’t in itself turn us from those who curse to those who bless. But it’s the essential first step.

6. Even though I’m nicer than Luther, Luther’s prayer life dwarfs mine.

Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”

What a jerk.

Time wasn’t the ruler of Luther. He had lots to do, but he was not busy like we’re busy. And that allowed him to say something annoying like the above.

But Luther also thought of prayer like breathing. He wanted to pray without ceasing in that way: for the need for God to flow out of him at every moment, so that he was in a constant spirit of prayer. And to me, this is even more convicting. After all, I can think of the last time that I sat down and prayed. But I can’t think of the last time that I moved through a day with prayer breathing out of me all the day long.

5. Luther’s message was not complex, or easy. It was–like most true things–simple and hard.

Legend has it that a member of Luther’s church came up to him and asked, “Why do you preach the gospel to us week after week?” Luther reportedly responded, “because week after week you forget it.”

This message is simple, though it’s hard. 

Luther’s message was basically: “You cannot do nothing at all to make God love you, to earn his favor, to merit your salvation. You do not justify yourself. God justifies you by applying to your record the perfect life of Jesus. You can’t suffer enough to atone for your sins. God atones for your sins by applying to you the suffering of Jesus—the very proof that God loves you.”

At first we feel liberated by this news and say “Amen.” But then we proceed to think, act, and feel as though we must impress God with our good deeds rather than allow our service to our neighbor to be energized by God’s love for us. And so we have to hear it again.

The gospel that Luther recovered is not complex or easy. It’s simple and hard. 

4. Luther talked about farts. A Lot.


Even with the Headmaster gone, the only quote I found that I could share with my colleagues in staff devotions on this topic was this one:

“Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When argument doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

It’s good to know that a world-changing theologian not only talked about farts around his kids and his congregation, but frequently talked about farts in his voluminous published theological writings.

3. Luther was a practical theologian.

I grew up on Luther’s Small Catechism. Answers in the catechism about a point of doctrine are followed up with another question: What does this mean? And every answer to that follow-up question started with “We should fear, love, and trust God so that we …”


In other words, Luther recognized that the gospel finds its home in our hearts, in our affections, in our emotions, in our countenances, in our dispositions: not just in our brains, but in the most human and touchy-feely parts of who we are as people.

This or that biblical truth is true, and it means that we should fear God, love God, trust God. In other words, every truth from the Bible calls for an “amen” not just in our thoughts, not just in our words, but in our feels.

Any truth that’s worth believing belongs in your gut, Luther catechizes us: you must let it shape your fears, loves, and trust in ways that make you more human and thus more like Jesus at the core of your being.

2. Luther suffered physically, mentally, and spiritually, but savored and treasured the simple, good gifts of God.

One of the reasons Luther talked about farts and in general had such a potty mouth is because he spent so much time on the potty. He suffered his whole life from constipation. How bad was his case? Well, in 2004, German archeologists discovered the toilet on which Luther wrote the 95 theses. 95. Great find!

But he also suffered spiritual slumps and depression both before and after his discovery of the gospel. Knowing the gospel, and even believing it, doesn’t necessarily cure spiritual slumps. Neither does it automatically cure depression. We can grow in our fear, love, and trust of God even while we are in a dark night of the soul.

But despite all these ailments, Luther was known as a jolly fellow who loved simple things: a good pair of shoes sold at a fair price; a good stein of beer with a few buddies; a good carafe of Corsican wine; a good laugh; a good meal.

Luther was a model receiver of God’s good and simple gifts. He knew that they were from his loving Heavenly Father, who loves to give good gifts—both simple and profound—to his children. And he was thankful for the gifts and for the neighbors that worked hard and skillfully to bring them into being.

1. Luther shows us that, when all is said and done, it’s all about Jesus.

Let’s end with this prayer of Luther’s, meditating on how astounding it is to be called a brother of Jesus.

O gracious God, I am fully aware that I am unworthy. I deserve to be a brother of Satan and not of Christ. But Christ, your dear Son died and rose for me. I am his brother. He earnestly desires that I should believe in him, without doubt and fear.I need no longer regard myself as unworthy and full of sin. For this I love and thank him from my heart. Praise be to the faithful Savior, for he is so gracious and merciful as are you and the Holy Spirit in eternity. Amen.

Mastered by Divinity


I’ve long thought that is what the M.Div. degree ought to signify. Listen to Jean-Luc Marion describe what theological work does to us:

Theology always writes starting from another than itself. It diverts the author from himself; it causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.

Theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that permits and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself. … One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology. In all senses.

(God Without Being, 1991)

5 Theses on Tim Tebow’s Foray into Pro Baseball


Photo: nfl.com

1. This dude is freaking huge. Those bulging muscles. Dang. Kudos to him for working hard. The day I quit playing football was the day I quit lifting, running, and eating right.
2. People who rip on him should get lives. Everyone is allowed to have a personal brand. His includes being a famous athlete. If his personal brand gains him a place on the Mets Instructional League roster, GOOD FOR HIM.
3. It’s called an instructional league for a reason. Hitting a professionally-pitched baseball is one of the hardest things humans could attempt to do. But there is a beloved Cleveland Indian (Yan Gomes) who gets a hit approximately 1/10 of the time he’s at the plate. Whether you think it’s realistic for Tebow to play in the Bigs is irrelevant: he’s in the Minors. WAY down in the minors. Being instructed.
4. “Oh, but it’s just a big publicity stunt.” So what? Business is business. Is this any more bizarre than Michael Jordan endorsing tighty whities, or than Michael Jordan’s own foray into pro baseball? Hardly. If the Mets and Tebow think they can make some money, GOOD FOR THEM. This is a business, and it’s entertainment.
5. In the end, Tebow is to be commended, because he knows he’ll face all this criticism, and he’s still going for it. He is an *athlete* and as such he’ll fail in some respects and succeed in others. You can’t tell me he doesn’t actually want to play—that it’s *only* a publicity thing, or a money thing. The dude is an athlete, and athletes gonna athlete.
Appendix: It’s too bad all this happened just as the Browns lost their starting and backup QBs. Is it too early for Tebow to do a Bo Jackson and sign with the Browns as well as the Mets? He’d be the anti-Manziel.

When Will We Finally be Done Following Jesus?

When we talk about following Jesus, I wonder if we assume that this following is done
with when our earthly days are done; that our following will be over and our chillaxing will commence once we’re over Jordan.  

It’s like we think that spiritual and vocational effort (and aren’t these ultimately the same thing?) are a consequence of the fall, and that one day, in the sweet by and by, we won’t have to work to know Jesus and follow him faithfully.

We are allergic to effort, we champions of grace. But as Dallas Willard has told us, grace is not opposed to effort, but only to earning. In the New Creation, we’ll labor–but not just in our “work.” We’ll work to know and follow hard after Jesus in, through, and after any honest day’s labor. 

We won’t struggle against the world, the sinful flesh, and the devil as we try to know and follow Jesus in the age to come. But exhaustive theological knowledge and unabridged discipleship blueprints will not simply be downloaded into our heads when the trump resounds. Jesus is too mind-blowingly infinite and loving, and his (new) world is too full of places to venture further up and further in, for us to expect our following days to be done when the roll is called up yonder. 

And that means we’re practicing now.