Nouwen on incarnation

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of love and humanity in his wonderful little book Adam, which is about the man he cared for at L’Arche.

Adam’s humanity was not diminished by his disabilities. Adam’s humanity was a full humanity, in which the fullness of love became visible for me, and for others who grew to know him. Yes, I began to love Adam with a love that transcended most of the feelings, emotions, and passions that I had associated with love among people. Adam couldn’t say, “I love you,” he couldn’t embrace spontaneously or express gratitude in words. Still I dare to say we loved each other with a love that was as enfleshed as any love, and was at the same time truly spiritual. We were friends, brothers, bonded in our hearts. …

This experience cannot be understood by logical explanation, but rather in and through the spiritual bonding of two very different people who discovered each other as completely equal in the heart of God. From my heart I could offer him some care that he really needed, and from his heart he blessed me with a pure and lasting gift of himself.

Every time I read Nouwen carefully, I am reminded of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

Like Nouwen, I am prone to think of humanity in terms of intellect and feeling. Our humanity, my gut tells me, is based somehow in the more evolved parts of our cerebral cortex. But such ideas suffer from the great fault of making the hallmark of humanity the things that I most value about myself.

Isn’t this a form of spiritual pride?

Adam with all his profound disabilities was fully human. For all the wonderful things I can do with my brain and my brain can do for me, he may be closer to God than I am.

The biggest difference between Adam and me is that Adam wore his disabilities on the outside where everyone could see them. Some of mine are obvious right away, but most of my more pronounced disabilities take time to discover. I am more skilled at hiding and denying my brokenness than Adam was.

When a friend came to visit Nouwen at L’Arche one day, he asked why the great writer and teacher was wasting his time by caring for Adam. Nouwen noted that his friend could not see Adam as the incarnated face of God. He could only see the disabilities, not the man.

For Nouwen, Adam was a teacher.

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.

Elsa or Anna?

A year ago, the movie Frozen hit theaters and this song became the spiritual anthem of millions of people.

It is an unbelievably catchy song, and I think it speaks in an powerful way to a longing that girls and women feel. I don’t say men and boys don’t have the same longing, but the way I see females sing this song is different. It’s coming from a deep place that I’m sure I don’t fully understand.

I always hear the song with a bit of irony, though. In the movie, Queen Elsa sings this song as she locks herself away in an ice castle alone — just as alone as she was in the stone castle of her parents — and she sends the land all around her into a frozen and cold wasteland. The song is triumphant, but the world it creates in the movie is barren and cold and isolated. It is even nearly fatal to her sister, Anna, whose heart is frozen by Elsa’s power.

In the end, it is not Elsa’s self-assertion but Anna’s self-sacrifice that breaks the power of winter over the kingdom. It is love and connection, not icy independence, that give Elsa the power to control what she most fears about herself.

That, it seems to me, is the point of the movie.

Who has damaged marriage

My bishop recently wrote these words about the way straight people have messed up marriage:

[T]he institution of marriage has been damaged in recent decades by the misconduct, misuse, and immorality of heterosexuals. We have allowed marriage to be violated, ignored, abused, and reduced to mere convenience. It is the heterosexual community which needs to confess and repent for our destruction of the institution of marriage.

I find his claim here compelling. Our society has reduced the concept of marriage to a legal contract entered into for the acquisition of certain rights and privileges. As a contract, it is an arrangement that either party can break if willing to suffer the penalties that come with that. It is also an excuse to spend obscene amounts of money.

I don’t know how the church can reclaim the meaning of marriage as a lifelong and holy covenant entered into before God and only secondarily endorsed by the state. Even pondering the question makes me realize how far we have drifted from a Christian concept of marriage.

I expect some readers are wondering about the topic of divorce.

The fact that we can’t even begin to talk about a Christian concept of marriage without thinking of exceptions and difficult cases underscores the tenuous grasp Christian marriage has on our imaginations. The very idea of Christian marriage is at odds with everything of society takes for granted when it comes to the topic.

Stanley Hauerwas captures some of my confusion in his book After Christendom:

[T]he Christian tradition’s presumption that we can only begin to think about [sexual ethics] in terms of practices such as singleness and marriage cannot help being subversive to the politics of liberalism and the correlative state powers. Indeed, in a world in which we are taught that all human relations are contractual, what could be more offensive than a people who believe in life-long commitments?

Of course, it is not clear that such a people exist.

Love through faith by grace

In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.

Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.

The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.

This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.

But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.

This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”

Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?

Some questions from Wesley

Near the end of his sermon “The Almost Christian,” John Wesley invites the congregation to examine its own heart:

I beseech you, brethren, as in the presence of that God before whom “hell and destruction are without a covering–how much more the hearts of the children of men?” –that each of you would ask his own heart, “Am I of that number? Do I so far practise justice, mercy, and truth, as even the rules of heathen honesty require? If so, have I the very outside of a Christian? the form of godliness? Do I abstain from evil, –from whatsoever is forbidden in the written Word of God? Do I, whatever good my hand findeth to do, do it with my might? Do I seriously use all the ordinances of God at all opportunities? And is all this done with a sincere design and desire to please God in all things?” 

These, it should be noted, are the preliminaries. Someone who could give a good answer on all these counts would still be in Wesley’s estimation an “almost Christian.” To be an altogether Christian requires more, something deeper. It requires a new heart.

To gauge the state of our hearts, Wesley presses even more questions upon us:

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? And is this commandment written in your heart, “That he who loveth God love his brother also”? Do you then love your neighbour as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? as Christ loved you? Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee? Hast thou faith in his blood? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross? Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins? And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God? 

What are your answers? They are all simple questions to answer. Yes or no will do. We want to quibble, as many have. This sounds like it all has to do with feelings. That has been a stumbling block for me, too. A pastor pointed out to me once, though, that you can love someone even when your feelings are not all gushing up like the first swoon of romance. This is not about “feelings” any more than the love of our family is merely about feelings.

Look at the verbs. He is asking us about who we love, what we desire, what we believe, and what we know by the witness of the Spirit.

So the answers are simple: Yes or no?

If the answer is “no,” Wesley has this exhortation for us.

Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

Lord you know all things. You know that I love you.

Can we say that? Or are we still only almost there?

Thoughts on Christian marriage

I want to write a post about Christian marriage. The point will be this: Christian marriage is a counter-cultural act.

It is to intentionally promise something that you cannot possibly understand — to live a life with another person come what may — and to stand by that promise because doing so shapes who you are and teaches what it means to love.

Marriage is cruciform. It is dying to self. It is learning to love as perfectly as Jesus Christ loves us.

You see, we get love all wrong. Hollywood has trained us poorly. Or perhaps it has trained us all too well.

Love is not about raging glands and sweaty hormones. It is not the final scene of You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finally embrace in the park while the golden retriever cavorts at their feet.

That is all a beginning. But it is not love fully realized.

Love is long-term. It works slowly because the human heart is a stone that resists change. Like water, love works patiently.

And so marriage is the binding together of a man and a woman to give love time to do its work on them and between them and with them.

Marriage, therefore, is often hard. Often it is so hard you don’t think you can do it any more. And in our culture the message more often than not is to give up trying, search for greener pastures, take care of you first.

I’m not trying to romanticize anything here. There are marriages that are a perversion and abomination. People abuse the one they are supposed to love or neglect them or bleed them dry. If marriage is a school for love, some of us fail horribly at the test. Some marriages are a mockery of the name marriage and should be broken. The church should help those battered by such false marriages in every way it can.

But every marriage has its hard and terrible places where two sinners, two broken and incomplete people, crash against each other like wild animals caught in a cage. It can be terrifying at times.

This is why we need the church around us to love us and remind us who we are and whose we are. This is why we need gray-headed veterans of marriage to remind us that this is for life and that it does last and does give life.

An old navy veteran turned turkey farmer and I were talking one day about his wife who was dying of cancer. I said it must be difficult to have the one he’d spent a life with in such pain and to see her slipping away. He looked at me with both a gleam and a tear in his eye, and said, “When we got married, I signed a life-time contract.” I took him to mean, this is what love does.

I was not a Christian when I got married. I did not understand any of this at the time. And I’m sure I understand it incompletely even now. Don’t read this post as a dogmatic pronouncement.

But my belief is that God calls men and women into marriage to teach us how to love each other. We are often very bad students, and so require time. We are often very bad students, and so must learn how to forgive each other. We are often very bad students, and so our children are hurt by the living with those who still are figuring out how to love.

I think God wants us to keep sex inside of marriage because sex without love is a dangerous and destructive thing. It damages our soul and crushes our spirits. Even among the married — as we often do not really know how to love each other that well — sex can be destructive. Sex can be a flame that invigorates and warms a bond of love, or it can be a consuming fire that destroys.

I don’t think the thought and opinion shapers in our culture would disagree with most of this. But they do not really believe it, as best as I can tell. The idea that “I just gotta do what’s best for me” always hovers beneath the surface.

Christian marriage says that we do not know what is best for me outside of a life defined by love. Of course, not everyone marries. Some souls learn to love outside the bonds of marriage. Singleness is a holy vocation to learn to love as Jesus did. St. Francis lived among us. His disciples remain, although we often fail to appreciate their witness.

Those of us not called to singleness, however, find we need to learn to love in growing circles. We learn to love one other. We learn to love the children that God brings into our lives. And, if we are good students, we learn to love our neighbors and enemies. We learn to love as Jesus Christ loves us.

My seminary professors like to remind me from time to time that blogging and serious theological writing are different things. So I have no illusions that this post is complete or systematically sound. But it is my understanding of what we mean when we speak of Christian marriage.

I don’t think what I describe here is what our federal courts mean by “marriage.” I certainly don’t think it is what Kim Kardashian or other popular culture icons mean by the word.

I do think it is at least close to what the church means by marriage, which I hope and trust is close to what God desires and designs for us.