Carrying the Old, Making the New

In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”

Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.

The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.

Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”

Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”

Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.

In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.

My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.

For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.

We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”

Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.

It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.

An Ethos of Commitment

I recently heard David Brooks, author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, say “we need to move from an ethos of individualism to an ethos of commitment making.” He then said that the four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community, have been minimized by our overwhelming focus on the self. He suggested a correction to this trend would be a tremendous boon to our public life.

A shift from individualism to commitment making would, I think, also result in a necessary and corresponding movement toward an other-centered ethic over and against a self-centered ethic (Tim Keller makes this distinction here). Individualism is not altogether evil; its virtues should be remembered and certainly not abandoned. For a person to have a sense of uniqueness, to form convictions, to assert independence, to value freedom, to champion liberty, and to become self reliant are good things.

However, an understanding of self largely framed by the pursuit of self-determination and self-gratification can lead to narcissism. An ethos of commitment making, conversely, continues to hold fast to the value of the individual, but the higher  commitment is defined by service to others. An ethos of commitment making retains individuality but leads to a healthy form of self-renunciation, not self-abnegation. This is a form of collectivism, not sheer tribalism.

To start a family, to pursue a vocation (which differs from a career or job), to live deeply into a philosophical or religious tradition, and to participate in a community for the sake of the public good requires sacrifice. It requires putting aside the self and thinking first of those around us. The self remains. But it is the commitment to others, to something outside of ourselves, that guides us.

There must also be the creation and cultivation of liminal or transitional spaces, times and places when one passes through a defined middle stage, a moment of leaving behind one way of experiencing life and moving on to another, newfound state of being. What would that look like? What does it look like now?

Between spouses, there is often the middle stage of engagement, a preparation for the commitment of marriage. For prospective parents, there is the waiting involved in pregnancy. Vocation is more challenging. It is most definitely not the moment one declares a college major. It is also not always the case that one’s job or career is identical with one’s calling. But the moment one sees their role as an educator, businessperson, bricklayer, or architect, this not only has value for the self, but for the community. Vocation, in whatever field, has implications for more than just the person who has determined their calling.

A commitment to a philosophy or faith is clarified when it is distinguished by a public profession or identification with the particular convictions or beliefs of a system. A person may also choose to blend together a unique confluence of ideas. Whatever the  commitment, there is then the next step, which is the challenging work of further developing and working out ideas in both theory and practice. Many of these kinds of decisions occurred, for me, during my college and graduate school programs, places where I was exposed to different ideas and became cognizant of distinctions between traditions. I made choices, at times with intention, while at other times I was drawn.

Grounding oneself in a broader tradition is a lifelong work that involves the embodiment of the best of that tradition, as well as using the internal resources of that tradition to critique, improve, and refine the contribution said tradition makes, broadly speaking, to humanity as a whole. It involves thinking, feeling, and action. It also involves failure and growth.

And as for a commitment to a community, there is a need for stability, active neighboring, and time. Communities are built on shared resources, trust, and history. Communities depend on a “we.” They are not just a collection of individuals.

I resonate with Brooks because I have received, by virtue of my heritage, an ethic that is other-centered. I have been formed and raised as a Christian. While the gospel message preached in the United States, particularly in revivalist traditions like I experienced in Baptist life, has been highly focused on personal, individual decisions to place faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, that is not all there is to the Christian gospel.

A historically well-rounded and theologically robust account of the Christian faith easily leads to both self-renunciation and service to the world, a way of life that is not only about me and God, but me, God, and my life. This is the calling of the disciple. Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, lose their life in order to find it, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The Christian tradition, as time has passed, has become my own. First, it came to me by way of a profession of faith, a public declaration that I did have faith in Christ, testified to publicly through the act of baptism. I was converted. Once I was not a Christian, then, by faith, I was. From that one commitment, others have followed. I became a Christian, but then I continued the process of becoming more like Christ. That commitment has influenced and shaped every other commitment. My commitment to Jesus, and my broader commitment to Christianity, has informed and enriched my commitment to my spouse, family, and community, and has been a source of strength and direction for my vocation as a Christian educator, pastor, and writer.

Consider again the four areas of commitment named by Brooks: marriage and family, vocation, philosophy or faith, and community. In which of these areas have you set down firm anchor points, ties that bind you to others? What are your commitments? In what ways do these commitments require you to put your self aside and sacrifice for those around you? What resources are you drawing upon to ensure that you remain faithful to your commitments?

How, in other words, are you being spiritually formed?

Remaining true to our commitments is contingent, in part, on how the narratives, practices, and communities we participate in contribute to the formation of our character. Make commitments. Then, situate your life within an environment that will feed, fuel, and foster those commitments not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of the world and to the glory of God.

Prayer is Reciprocal Exchange

Praying together and praying for one another is in Paul’s mind one of the most important ways Christians utilize the spiritual connections they have with one another in Christ. The language he uses to describe the activity of praying with and for suggests that in his mind it is a strenuous and vigorous effort. The synagonizo compound combines syn with agon, a Greek word that comprises a larger “agon motif” in Paul’s epistles. It is a motif or cluster of synonyms all built around the athletic imagery of ancient Greece and Rome. All of the terms that comprise the motif in Paul’s letters “suggest the thought of exertion and maximum endeavor.” Prayer for Paul was not a passive folding of the hands in a serene posture of worship but an active exertion of maximum effort in collaboration with other Christians. He viewed it as a legitimate engagement with him in ministry and often requested that his coworkers in ministry pray specifically for him as he prayed for them (2 Cor 13:9; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:4; Col 1:3, 9; 1 Thess 1:2; 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2). Paul’s prayer relationship with his churches and coworkers was a reciprocal exchange of ministry effort that produced mutual spiritual benefit for all involved. Paul prayed for his churches and coworkers and he asked them to pray for him.

– Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth Through Online Education, 158. Emphasis mine.

One of the ways I have encouraged fellow Christians to support their ministers as well as their fellow congregants is to pray for them, and I have often asked friends in ministry to pray for me. The most meaningful gift I have received from those I have served with and alongside has been their prayers, for in the knowledge I am being prayed for I have found encouragement, a sense of shared commitment to God’s calling, and a deepening love. When someone tells me they are praying for me and then follows through, I experience incredible joy.

Lowe and Lowe write that prayer is an effort of “reciprocal exchange” that builds up all parties involved. It not only results in God strengthening and guiding the minister, but the strengthening and guiding of the whole body of Christ. Prayer unites the thoughts and actions of the body of Christ, heightens sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and deepens commitment to Jesus, his calling, and his way.

Pray for those in your fellowship. Pray for your pastors and leaders. Invite others to pray for you. Through prayer, God builds you up and strengthens those around you. This is so not only for your benefit, but for the world’s sake, and, ultimately, for the glory of God.

The Chiming of the Hour

When my family lived on Wabash Avenue in Fort Worth, right across the street from University Baptist Church, the hours were sounded by the nearby carillones of Carr Chapel and University Christian Church. When walking to and fro across the TCU campus or while jogging in the surrounding neighborhood the bells made me cognizant of the time. All I had to do was listen.

I was also occasionally made aware of death. When the UCC congregation gathered to mourn together, declare their hope, and to offer words of comfort, the bells informed the neighborhood. Funerals began with a slow, clear, and steady bell, tolling for us all.

There was one particular afternoon when I was home alone, standing in my  small, cold bedroom, being warmed mostly by sunshine passing through the window panes, when the carillon of UCC rang out a series of hymns, songs I recalled having sung in my younger years. Words flooded my mind, songs of praise, some long forgotten and now freshly remembered, and my heart was warmed. I was glad. Some may have considered the bells an intrusion, an unwelcome clamor. But I found them to be a comfort, a welcome call to prayer, a moment of joy and celebration.

I no longer remember which hymns were sounded. But I remember the moment. And I think of it often, anytime I hear the sound of bells.

The Midlife Satisfaction Slump

I’m reading Jonathan Rauch’s latest work The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

Rauch writes about the dip of midlife, known popularly as a kind of “crisis,” but more often experienced as a sense of deep satisfaction, a feeling that life hasn’t measured up to what was expected. In youth, we expect to achieve, and most work hard, earn status, maybe start a family. We hit some rocks, experience some disappointments, change jobs or jump careers. And then suddenly we find that we have the stuff, we have friends, we have status, and we think, “Is this it?”

If you’ve thought that, that’s normal. And if you haven’t thought that, you will. The midlife slump, or the feelings of dissatisfaction, are natural. They are part of life.

Rauch writes:

To an extent, the evidence confirms what we all know: the middle years of adult life are often the most restless, stressed, and unhappy. Of course, midlife stress can come from the burdens of demanding jobs and jammed schedules and teenaged kids and aging parents. But here is where the evidence and the conventional wisdom part ways: the midlife dip in happiness shows up even after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and down of life. In fact, it shows up especially after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and downs of life.

It turns out these feelings are part of a natural transition, a movement from the drive to achieve to the desire to connect. Rauch writes that “the post-midlife upturn is no mere transient change in mood: it is a change in our values and sources of satisfaction, a change in who we are.”

How do we change? We see that life is fleeting and our stuff isn’t forever. That even if we’ve achieved great things, we’ve also been tossed against rocky shoals and survived. Many of us learn, and learn well, that our social ties are what count the most, our families and friends and communities. And we’ve gained enough wisdom and perspective to offer guidance and help to those who are younger, who are still on the way.

As a Christian, I know that life is a gift and old age is a blessing. This is a countercultural message, especially considering that I live in the modern West, where the goal of many is to get out of life alive. Rauch may be right in that the social science demonstrates conclusively that we do change as we age, and that the midlife slump and successive uptick is a natural transition. If this is true, this knowledge can help us to navigate this period more successfully. Complemented by Christian virtue and formation, this knowledge can also help young adults within congregations transition well as they age in terms of their role within communities of faith, offering social support and hard won wisdom to those of emerging generations.

At a previous ministry stop I had a friend named Bob Wright. He was in his eighties. He befriended me. He didn’t have to. But he did. He took me to lunch, and made sure I had cookies to take home to my kids. He was an old cattleman. And even though we didn’t see eye to eye on everything, we were brothers in Christ. He offered wisdom and historical perspective, and he said that I helped him to see the church, and our times, from a different point of view. Every moment I spent with Bob was a gift.

Churches are beginning to recognize that age-group affinity groups have their shortcomings. They’ve responded by trying to connect generations, by setting up mentoring relationships between young and old. Usually, the impetus is placed on the older generations. But in healthy communities, this kind of seeking should go both ways. These kinds of relationships are vessels for wisdom, available to both older and younger congregants. Older members have gifts to offer to younger generations, and vice-versa, accessible through the ties of friendship.

I don’t know if I will find life better after 50. In twelve years, I guess I’ll see. But it is preferable to think there is more to look forward to, riches that only come with the accrual of age, and the opportunity to assess those riches, to make connections, and to serve.