"if we were"

A song to go with my last entry...

by Alanis Morissette

dear dar(lin') your mom (my friend)
left a message on my machine
she was frantic
saying you were talking crazy
that you wanted to do away with yourself
I guess she thought i'd be a perfect resort
because we've had this inexplicable connection since our youth
and yes they're in shock
they are panicked
you and your chronic
them and their drama
you this embarrassment
us in the middle of this delusion

if we were our bodies
if we were our futures
if we were our defenses i'd be joining you
if we were our culture
if we were our leaders
if we were our denials i'd be joining you

I remember vividly a day years ago
we were camping, you knew more than you thought you should know
you said "I don't want ever to be brainwashed"
and you were mindboggling
you were intense
you were uncomfortable in your own skin
you were thirsty
but mostly you were beautiful

if we were our nametags
if we were our rejections
if we were our outcomes i'd be joining you
if we were our indignities
if we were our successes
if we were our emotions i'd be joining you

you and I we're like four year olds
we want to know why and how come about everything
we want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds
and never talk small and be intuitive
and question mightily and find god
my tortured beacon
we need to find like-minded companions

if we were their condemnations
if we were their projections
if we were our paranoias i'd be joining you
if we were our incomes
if we were our obsessions
if we were our afflictions i'd be joining you

we need reflection
we need a really good memory
feel free to call me
a little more often



It may be mid-life, or reviewing my life with friends over the holiday, but I've been contemplating these words of Jesus recently:

For what benefit is it, to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? (Mk 8.36)
I usually think of these words as a challenge for those who are doing well, who "have the world." But the context is Jesus' telling his disciples of his imminent death, and telling them to "take up your cross" and follow. He's not talking to people who are doing well. Jesus is talking to people who are about to experience great loss and go from being celebrities to being outcasts.

We're accustomed to speaking of our "life" as the collection of accomplishments (or failures) and experiences and possessions and relationships that we have gathered so far. But these seem to me to be what Jesus says we may "gain." Maybe not the whole world, but our little piece of it, all we've managed to gain so far. And Jesus seems to be saying that our "life" is something different, something distinct from all we might gain along the way.

Like I said, this is usually seen as a challenge to those who might think they are great because they have gathered great accomplishments or great possessions. But I think it is a more powerful word to those who have not managed to gather much (or who have lost it all). Because just as our life is not made greater by all we might gain, it is also not diminished if our accomplishments and possessions and supporters are few.

This is different from the usual question about what we should devote our life to. Such as career vs. family (with family being the recommended choice). Or profit vs. a good reputation in the community (with reputation the recommended choice). One may certainly be a better choice than the other. But they seem to me to all be the "gain" Jesus speaks of as distinct from our "life." They are different choices of what we may wrap around ourselves. They may affect how others see us, but they do not truly identify us, they are not our life. And eventually they all fall away from us.

I think people get closer when they talk of our life as defined by our relationships. But it's not relationships with friends and family that truly define us, or make us who we are. I think Jesus made it clear that our life depends on one relationship, that the nature of that one relationship is our life.

Thus this on-going, existential relationship should be the focus of our attention. This is our life. Then we could perhaps speak like Paul when he wrote to the Philippians:
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
It's not so easy for those who have gained much to come to see it all as rubbish. But how do those words look if our pathetic gains already look like rubbish?



for veterans day

Every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Isaiah 9.5-6


pitiful salesmen

I've been contemplating that Jacques Ellul quote in the last entry, and I want to add to my thoughts on insignificant ministry from last month. In "ministry," there's a tendency to think that organizational success (people served, money raised, etc) benefits God, or makes God look good, and is therefore the best witness. People admire successful ministries, and give more money to ministries that can demonstrate effectiveness. Which then enables more service to the needy. And doesn't this all serve God's purposes better?

It would seem so. But is God really taking the same approach as all other human organizations and businesses? Success sells? Impress people and they will support and join you? Is God really trying to gather our support?

Maybe that interpretation could be applied to Jesus' early ministry. The gathering the crowds and calling disciples part. But not the later part, the lamb to the slaughter, degrading execution as a criminal part.

Jesus left behind what could be called a successful ministry and went, not to the head of a crowd storming Jerusalem, but to the lonely confusion of Gethsemane and the apparent final failure of Golgatha. We may make it look climactic and heroic with our theology, but the reaction of the disciples show how it looked to them: Like a fiasco. A horrible catastrophe. The end.

The relevance to me right now is that what is considered success in ministry, people served, donations gathered, plans accomplished, supporters impressed, impact made, none of these things look like what Jesus was after. Jesus was certainly trying to be a witness for God, but not by impressing people in the usual ways. If anything, Jesus' witness is that he didn't try to impress people in the usual ways. He wasn't trying to gather their support. It's Jesus' glaring disinterest in this that is impressive. It says that God doesn't need our support. God is offering us something, but does not need us to take it. God doesn't need to impress us. God doesn't need to sell us on it. What God is offering is what we desperately need and what we can get nowhere else.

As I wrote in "insignificant ministry," successful ministries always end up endlessly fundraising and giving media interviews. Maybe that kind of publicity does make God more attractive to some people. But it also makes God look very much like a politician.

I think it's very important not to try to succeed like every other human organization tries to succeed. Focus only on faithfulness, on following Jesus, even when it looks like a fiasco, like certain failure (and it will). Learn to live with confusion and failed plans and frequent rejections. And don't be dismayed by the lack of success, or that your failure is making God look bad. It is not by your plans and hard work that God's cause will be victorious. It is when your plans collapse and your work falls pitifully short and failure is certain, it is then that God will save you. You will not make God look good. God will glorify himself by rescuing you in your utter helplessness. Just like he did with Jesus.

What other human organization wants salesmen like that?


"always a fiasco"

I was reminded today of this passage from Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (my italics):

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.



an answer to a hard question

My friend Jason recently reminded me of a series of entries from eight years ago, and as I was rereading them I found this passage. It seems to me to be the answer to the "hard question" I wrote about a couple weeks ago:

One unique aspect of human life is our complete helplessness for a long time after birth. Other animals quickly become mobile and independent, but human beings need constant care for several years. Our first, most formative experience is one of complete vulnerability and dependence on others. And we usually end life much the way we began it. As we age, we become more and more dependent and vulnerable. I think there is a powerful meaning in this.

If it is true that the purpose of our lives is to impose our own will, then our human dependency and vulnerability can only be seen as an impediment to be overcome. Childhood would then be seen as something to be quickly grown out of, and old age something to be dreaded. And this does seem to be the view of many people.

On the other hand, if it is true that the real purpose of our lives is union with God, and that this comes not through imposing our own will but by surrendering to God’s will in faith, then the natural human experience looks much different. If our aim is complete dependence on God in faith, then childhood is a very good model for human life. As the child is dependent on the parents for care and protection and, though vulnerable and helpless, lives free and happy under the parents’ care, so we are to live under God’s care. Of course childhood is not voluntary. But as we mature and take control of our free will, we then have the choice whether to continue to follow the way of life we were born into, or leave childlike ways of dependence and pursue independence and power to take control of our environment. The choice is ours. And what we choose will shape our experience of life and also how we face the vulnerability of old age (if we don’t face it sooner through disease, injury, loss, etc). But it seems to me that childhood dependence reveals something of the meaning and ideal for our lives, and the similar vulnerability that slowly intensifies as we age calls us back to this and tests what we have learned.

Then our natural human vulnerability and dependence becomes, not a curse or impediment, but a gift. It is not meant to be conquered, but embraced. We are not meant to “outgrow” our childhood, but rather mature and see that our true dependence is meant to be directed towards God rather than other human beings. As children we completely trusted our parents, though this trust was sometimes misplaced. But it symbolized the true desire and goal of human life: To be completely dependent and trusting on God for care and protection and live in the joy and freedom of God’s love. And to help others do so as well.