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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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 …”

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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

JL MARION

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)

Corduroy Day

On November the eleventh Koreans

present one another with tall, skinny snacks

made of things that will not make you short

but very well may make you fat, as if to say

“To be like these snacks, leave these snacks be.”

 

By contrast, a small number of Americans

give and wear corduroy items on 11.11. You shouldn’t

eat corduroy either, but you don’t have to try very

hard not to. Instead, you wear it proudly,

like a king: Cord-du-roy. Kings can be as fat

as they please, and often have the power to

make being fat cool.

Fire Extinguisher

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By the time you are through saying

‘Grab the fire extinguisher!’ you have pretty

much extinguished your chances of extinguishing the fire.

 

Who can count the number of neatly stored

birth certificates, family heirlooms, and beloved cats

that might have been saved over the years,

 

Had someone named the fire extinguisher a ‘clorp’ or a ‘dorb’,

or any number of under-utilized monosyllabic grunts.

Things could have been quite different.

5 Theses on Tim Tebow’s Foray into Pro Baseball

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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.

Left Sonnet-less

“Death, be not proud,” said John Donne of old.
But whether or not it reckons
squarely with its own certain demise,
for the time being–proudly or humbly,
it matters little–

it snatches away what is not its own,
and leaves us bereft of sons and lovers.
And who among us would not prefer
a thousand haughty benefactors
to one perfectly humble, mortal thief?