Months ago my kid put together a craft at church, a brown paper bag with a nice drawing of Earth. I wondered what it could be. Was his class collecting food for the needy? My thoughts immediately turned toward some kind of care giving. The world is a big place with a lot of people, and a lot of needs.
I asked him what the bag was for. He explained, “If there is something that distracts us from God, from praying or reading the Bible or something like that, we can put that thing inside.”
I needed examples. He mentioned the Nintendo Switch.
Ah, the things of this world.
I asked, “If I were reading the Bible in the morning, and if you were being too loud or goofy, could I cram you into the bag?”
These are the kinds of dad jokes that are as annoying as they are endearing, serving to bind us together with the dual adhesive of distaste and love.
I, who live by words, am wordless when I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns To hold its peace, to listen with the heart To silence that is joy, is adoration. The self is shattered, all words torn apart In this strange patterned time of contemplation That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me, And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended. I leave, returned to language, for I see Through words, even when all words are ended. I, who live by words, am wordless when I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.
– Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart
Prayer can lead us through words to silence, beyond words to contemplation, and through contemplation to the Word of God. If you find yourself in silence when you pray, you have options. Stay awhile. Or keep going. God is working in the silence, and the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans (Romans 8:26-27).
I liked this little poem by L’Engle. I know what it is like to fall silent. I know what it is like to feel the insufficiency of words. I also know what it is like to be surprised by what I find in the deep quiet, a sense of being awestruck, an infilling of joy, and an experience of being delightfully “healed and mended.” I “try my words in prayer.” More importantly, though, I have been taught to find in words the capacity to “turn me to the Word.” That’s an evidence of grace, for which I am thankful.
F&L: How should Christian leaders think about formation and desire?
JS: I think people who have leadership responsibilities should first of all shift their self-understanding so that leadership doesn’t just mean that they are the articulators-in-chief. They’re not just the ones responsible for the message, so to speak.
In some ways, leadership is really about being an architect of the ethos of a community, which means that some of the most significant influence that leaders exercise is their ability to shape the rhythms, rituals, routines and practices of a community or an institution.
As the curators of the repertoire of practices of a community, leaders need to do a sort of liturgical audit of our institutions and ask ourselves not just, “What does our mission statement say we believe?” but, “What story about being human and human flourishing is being rehearsed in the rhythms and practices of our institution?” That informs how we think about how reform and renewal have to happen as well.
The “JS” is James K. A. Smith. The “F&L” is Faith & Leadership (Duke Divinity). Professor Smith was interviewed by Faith & Leadership about his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, which I have read. I found the book to be very good. And I found this snippet from the interview to be very interesting.
Too many Christian leaders assume their primary task is to provide people with the right information. They talk, talk, talk, teach, teach, teach, and tell, tell, tell. That is very important. But the most significant leadership task facing Christian leaders is addressing “what lies beneath.” Moderns might call it “culture-making.” The ancients called it “the cure of souls.” And you can’t just preach your way there. There is a great deal of prayer involved. There is also discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus, which, as Dallas Willard observed, will address any and all human problems, and to great effect.
I guess I’d say culture, as it is understood today, is the reflected sum of the overall spiritual health in a place. Culture always has a spiritual dimension, even when it is “secular.” In Christian contexts, culture includes “right belief,” or proper information about God, reality, etc. But it goes deeper, to the level of desire, want, and love. There is a difference between loving right information about God and loving God. There is a difference between adhering to right religious practices and living a life that is lived in accordance with mercy, not sacrifice. In a church, something unique takes place when law and love merge together to constitute a language, a unique expression of God’s activity, grammar, and gospel (that’s a nod to Herbert McCabe). A culture is established where people discover the life that is really life: knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one who was sent (John 17:3).
Look at how people live. That will tell much of what you need to know about what people really believe. Then, get creative. How do you romance people away from error, and instead turn their gaze toward the greater beauty that has been revealed in Jesus Christ? It won’t just be a matter of what you say. It will have to be woven in to how you live.
Show, then tell. Tell, then show. Show while you tell. Tell while you show. Trust yourself, and your people, to God, the master craftsman. Trust formation to the divine hand. Offer yourself as an instrument. And a vessel.
“People may think that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people,” Laurie wrote after Wilson’s death. “We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”
There is similar introspection among clergy of many faiths across the United States as the age-old challenges of their ministries are deepened by many newly evolving stresses. Rabbis worry about protecting their congregations from anti-Semitic violence. Islamic chaplains counsel college students unnerved by anti-Muslim sentiments. A shortage of Catholic priests creates burdens for those who remain, even as their church’s sex-abuse crisis lowers morale. Worries for Protestant pastors range from crime and drug addiction in their communities to financial insecurity for their own families to social media invective that targets them personally.
Adam Hertzman, who works for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, witnessed the emotional toll on local rabbis after the October 2018 massacre that killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.
“Somehow in the U.S. we expect our clergy to be superhuman when it comes to these things,” he said. “They’re human beings who are going to feel the same kind of fear and numbness and depression that other people do.”
Eugene Peterson wrote, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”
Pastoring is hard work. It is challenging work. It is human work, and it is divine work. I’m not sure if being a pastor is any more challenging now than it has been in any other age. Regardless, two reminders are worth noting. First, be kind to your pastors. Second, offer them your help.
Father John Misty’s “Total Entertainment Forever” is prophetic.
Imagine a world where people prefer virtual reality over embodied, physical experience. Having trouble? Just revisit the major plot line of Ready Player One, or Tron, where virtual and physical realities intersect, merge, and somehow overlap.
I don’t care much for the “Total Entertainment Forever” video. The lyrics are the juice. Father John Misty describes the world emerging before us today, a place where we date the celebrity of our choice in a virtual environment, where we are “free” to live however we want (in prisons of virtual illusion), where rich and poor are equally “entertained,” distracted by fantasy. The “nightmare” we’re invited to awaken from is our lives, preferring instead our dreams being beamed straight into our eyeballs in marvelous hi-def.
No gods to rule us
No drugs to soothe us
No myths to prove stuff
No love to confuse us
Not bad for a race of demented monkeys
From a cave to a city to a permanent party
The song closes with a proper scene. Father John Misty imagines a future society unearthing the evidence remaining from our own period, human beings “plugged into our hubs,” smiling but wasted away. We’re left to ponder whether the final line–“This must have been a wonderful place”–is uttered by our posterity in marvel or disdain.
This is a word for our times. The prevailing narrative is that any and all technology will only make human life better. There is truth in that claim, but it is not true. I’d still rather experience life in the body over being a brain in a vat.
I share this video largely to put down a marker for myself, to allow myself to stumble upon this again at some point in the future. I’ve read Roger Scruton and admire his work. He is a philosopher. In this video presentation, Scruton argues for beauty while critiquing modern art and architecture which, according to Scruton, represents a cult of ugliness. Scruton believes that we have lost touch with the meaning of beauty and have abandoned our quest to create it, much to our impoverishment. He seeks to persuade us to recapture something we have lost, to establish anew the importance of beauty, to inspire courage for those that might name ugliness in art as ugliness, and to encourage the creation of something beautiful.
Beauty can again capture our imagination. Art is no less art if it is ugly, random, purely provocative, and cynical. But if it is ugly, it should be named as such, and in its place beauty should be elevated and celebrated, lifted up as a model, and held forth as an example worth emulating.