He who sustains the world lay in a manger, a wordless Child, yet the Word of God. Him whom the heavens do not contain the bosom of one woman bore. She ruled our King; she carried Him in whom we exist; she fed our Bread. O manifest weakness and marvelous humility in which all divinity lay hid! By His power He ruled the mother to whom His infancy was subject, and He nourished with truth her whose breasts suckled Him. May He who did not despise our lowly beginnings perfect His work in us, and may He who wished on account of us to become the Son of Man make us the sons of God.
In his book The Jesus Prayer: A Cry for Mercy, a Path of Renewal, John Michael Talbot tells this story:
Bishop Augustine was preaching his series of homilies on the Trinity in the cathedral of Hippo. Between services he would walk to the seashore to meditate and rest his mind. He saw a boy on the shore digging a hole and then filling the hole with a bucket of seawater. He did this repeatedly. Finally Augustine walked over to the boy and asked, “Son, what are you doing?” The boy replied, “I am going to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole.” The wise and fatherly Augustine said kindly to the boy, “My son, the ocean is too big to place in that little hole.” The boy looked up at the bishop and said, “Easier for me to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole than for you to take the big Trinity and put it in your little mind, Bishop Augustine!” At that the boy disappeared. He was an angel sent by God to remind Augustine that sublime as his teaching might be, he could never fully understand or express the divine mysteries of the Trinity (or the incarnation, for that matter).
The words we utter about God should always be spoken with humility, for the reality is far greater than that which the human mind could ever comprehend or behold. And yet, on this night, Christian people proclaim that this God came in the form of a child, in the person of Jesus, and in and through him, delivered salvation to the world.
The Christian Bible is surely the most anti-religious of all the world’s scriptures. This often goes unnoticed because, unlike the critiques made by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the biblical hermeneutics of suspicion is religiously motivated. It is not for that reason any less devastating. In the Old Testament the prophets tell the people that God cannot stand their worship. In the New Testament, Paul wages war against the religion of being good, to which James responds with a sharp critique of those who would abuse the gospel of grace. But the most thoroughly anti-religious texts in the Bible are the Gospel narratives in which the piety of the Pharisees, of the Jerusalem power elite, which was dominated by the Sadducees, and of Jesus’ own disciples is relentlessly exposed as self-righteous and self-centered.
Our concern in this context is not the biblical polemic against the idolatry and immorality of pagan religions. Each of the instances mentioned above involves, rather, a biblical critique of what takes itself to be the biblical religion. The prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself direct their own critique of religion primarily to the covenant people of God. It is for this reason that I accuse the modern atheists of plagiarism, since they tend to repeat in their battle with biblical religion the criticisms already directed to pious Jews and Christians by the Bible. I do not make this accusation in order to silence the atheists but in order to persuade the church to read them with an eye toward repentance and renewal rather than refutation.
– Merold Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, 265 (bold emphasis mine)
“Unfortunately, we have usually looked on the love of God for us as the love of a father for a small child. But that is not thoroughly scriptural. The grandest—and the final—imagery the Bible uses for his love is precisely that of lover and beloved, bridegroom and bride. It is the marriage of Christ and the church which is the last act of the long love affair between God and creation.”
– Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox, 39
This observation is thought provoking for numerous reasons. First, the parent/child metaphor for the God/human relationship is employed with greater frequency, as Capon observes, for a reason. Why? We long for love, acceptance, protection, and security in a world that is often cold, calloused, hostile, and unpredictable. We not only longing for home and family, we yearn for a pervasive peace in all of creation we believe only God can establish and preserve. The parent/child image, however, is not the only one found in the Bible.
Capon is right to remind us of the bride/bridegroom as the grandest and final imagery of Scripture. The church as bride conveys not only radiance and joy, but preparation, maturity, and agency. In the backdrop, however, of this consummating image of Scripture is the return of Christ not only as creation’s ultimate home restoration expert, but judge.
There is much to be added here regarding the already/not yet eschatological dimension of the Christian claim to the present and coming kingdom of God. But for now, we stand in the tension. We are both children and the bride that is the people of God. We are both small and in need of warmth, love, provision, and protection, and radiant, the beloved, beckoned forth for union.
My final question to Keller during our phone interview was his take on the spiritual temperature of the nation. What sorts of yearnings does he see and sense, and how can Christianity, properly understood, speak to those yearnings?
“I think the perplexity I see is that people want to have a foundation for making moral statements, but at the same time, they want to be free, and so they want to talk about the fact that all moral statements are culturally constructed,” he told me. “And so when somebody pushes a little bit on their life, they’d say, ‘All truth and all fact, all facts and all moral statements, are culturally constructed.’”
As Keller pointed out, they’re creating, at least philosophically, a kind of relativism, though of course no one actually lives like a relativist. All except sociopaths believe in certain deep truths about right and wrong, human nature, justice and a good life. “What we need is a non-oppressive moral absolute,” in Keller’s words. “We need moral absolutes that don’t turn the bearers of those moral absolutes into oppressors themselves.”
Keller concluded our conversation with a sentence that summarizes his consequential life: “I actually think the Christian faith has got all the resources you need.”
– Peter Wehner, “The Moral Universe of Timothy Keller“
Master of the Universe, through your son you would have us be your friend. But what could it possibly mean for us to be friends of God? Friendship with other people is hard enough. To be your friend is quite simply unimaginable. Friendship with you is right up there with asking us to be friends with our worst enemy, but then, maybe you are our worst enemy. Maybe I am my worst enemy. So, if you are nearer to us than we are to ourselves, unless we become friends with you we cannot become friends with ourselves or anyone else. This business of friendship must take time, but thank God your patience with us gives us all the time we need. Make us your friends so that when the puzzled world cannot figure out what makes us Christians the same, they will say, “But see how they love one another.”
– Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries
In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” What a profound statement.
Jesus is speaking with his disciples. In John, Jesus is offering his “last words” to his friends before being betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed. One of the last things that he imparts: “I have called you friends.” Why? “Because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father.” Jesus, the Son, withheld nothing. Not even his life.
Hauerwas’ thoughts on friendship mirror my own. “What could it possible mean for us to be friends of God?” He is right to observe our relationships with other people, even our friends, are “hard enough.” Friendship with God is all the more challenging because God, being God, knows us inside and out. God can bring us face to face with that which is most unlovable about us. How? By facing us with the reality of the cross.
In his prayer, Hauerwas leaves enough openings to allow us to make our own connections. In becoming friends with God we discover the love that enables us to truly befriend not only ourselves, but our neighbor. We find both strength and wisdom to love our enemies. We discover the hope that our enemies may even one day be counted as friends, a hope made possible solely by the power of God. God has also tasks us with work: Jesus, by counting us among his friends, commands us to befriend one another, and in being friends, so display love that leads to witness.
Being a friend of God should unsettle us, even frighten us. “You? Friends with me?” After all, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But this same fear should also fill us with reverence and awe, for, despite our expectations, friendship with God is not only possible, but is sure. God has made such friendship available in and through Jesus Christ. For people of faith, this friendship is not contingent, but is established. And God, being eternally patient, has given us all the time we need to become his friends.
Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;
Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee
– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”
“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.
“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.
Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”
God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).
The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.
I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.
But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.
If you are familiar with the work of the Old Tesatment Walter Brueggemann this might be funny to you. In a sense, you could say he’s a bit of a garbageman, taking out the theological trash.
I’m reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again) because of my decade long listenership to Wilco. The book was a Christmas gift. My fascination with the band began with a friend named Clint Newlan, who was a shift manager and fellow barista with me at Starbucks in 2005-2006. I saw a Wilco show with Clint at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on March 21, 2006, saw them again at Crossroads KC with my friend Mike Hibit on October 6, 2009, and then went to see them with Molly at Bass Concert Hall in Austin on October 1, 2017. I’m a fan.
In the book Tweedy comments on the purpose of art, and expands his thought by reflecting on art’s restorative power. He writes:
I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. Creating creates creators. When I was in the hospital going through treatment for addiction and depression, they would have everyone in my group do art therapy. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was watching a catatonic sixty-three-year-old woman who had been hooked on heroin for close to thirty years become human again by holding a pencil and being asked to draw. I’m an agnostic by nature, but seeing that made me believe in staying close to the notion of a creator. The one we identify with most easily by finding it in ourselves.
I think that is about right. Art puts us back together; creating heals, connecting us with something that is elemental to being human. Art is not a self-salvation project, as Tweedy suggests, but it does have restorative potential.
There is a theological dimension to Tweedy’s observation as well, one Christian theology affirms. The Apostle’s Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and when God gets around to creating humankind in Genesis 1:27, we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
While Tweedy is an agnostic, his impressions point him toward a truth that Christians agree with: “Creating creates creators.” Human beings, created in the image of their Maker, make.
The creative impulse is stamped upon us, and creativity takes many forms. When it finds outward expression it is not only revelatory of something within, but also something without–the existence of a Creator who first created, making creatures who then, in turn, create.