Refocusing Lent

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A Lenten Reflection at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, February 18, 2017

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

“Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your word and to know your voice. Amen.”

I’d like to begin with a little story from when I was in second grade. I was having great difficulty with my homework. I’m pretty sure it was word problems in math. Math is one of those subjects I’ve never been good at. Literature, history–fine. But when it came to numbers, to measurements and quantities and the complex abstractions of second-grade arithmetic, I was just hopeless. My brain seized up. My intellect put up barriers. It might as well have been Greek.

My Dad, who had completed his schooling in the U.S. Navy, tried his best to help. There had been a crisis, you see, that made it necessary for my parents to take a more active interest in my learning. Our next-door neighbor had discovered a strange infestation in the boxwoods in front of her house. There were these curious, tightly balled up wads of paper in the inner recesses of the shrubs. When these paper wads were painstakingly unwound, the name “Matt Melton” appeared on them. Somehow my homework, notices of misbehavior and other important documents meant for my parents’ eyes…and signatures…had mysteriously migrated to those shrubs. I still have no clear memory of just how they got there… Anyway, this had prompted one of those rare visits to our home by the teacher, and yes, that sent some serious shockwaves around the house.

So here was Dad, trying really hard to help me with my homework … only it was just not happening. Dad would read a bit, have me read a bit, and then say, “So that means…” and I would sit there, thunderstruck, wide-eyed and mystified, with no clue what the answer might possibly be.

I don’t remember how long Dad sat there with me, but his tone began to grow more and more frustrated. And, of course, that only locked my brain down more. If there had been any hope when we sat down, the slightest ember, it was snuffed out entirely by the certain knowledge that Dad was getting upset.

He asked me for the umpteenth time, “So … what’s the answer?”

I stared at the page. The grey ink started to blend together, making pretty patterns on the page. Not words.

“I don’t know,” I said.

They say we have no memory of pain. In this case, mercifully, that’s true. I do remember very clearly my body rising into the air, like in the rapture, only instead of going to heaven, I found myself bent over Dad’s knee, with three sharp whacks administered to the seat of learning. Then, I was deposited – plop! — back into my seat, and I heard the door slam as Dad stalked out of the room, cursing under his breath. (He was a sailor, after all.)

I was too stunned and breathless to even cry. I think a couple of tears sprouted, but mainly I just sat there, chest heaving, trembling, eyes down on the page. And then a miracle happened. As I stared at what had been ink patterns a moment before, words that meant something … began to emerge. Then phrases. Then whole sentences. Numerical relationships suddenly sang out to me, like characters from a musical. My pencil, which had been paralyzed a moment before, found the page and began to scratch out answers, first tentatively, then confidently. It was as though the gift of tongues had been bestowed upon me. I was first surprised, then excited. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. And then, in a few short minutes, I was staring down at my completed homework. I got up, burst through the door and said, “Dad! Dad! I did it! I got it! I really got it!”

And then I added. “It was that spanking! You’ll have to do that more often.”

I’m not trying to make any recommendations on how to educate our kids. You might wonder why the first Sunday of Lent might lead me to think of this incident. I’ll explain.

In our Gospel reading today, we get one of those broad-stroked sketches we encounter so often in Mark. What we see, swiftly told, is the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John, followed by Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, a time of fasting and prayer … and temptation … that prepared him for his ministry to follow.

For many of us, Lent is all about the self-denial, about giving something up in order to reinforce to ourselves, and maybe to others, that we are performing our Christian duty and participating in Lent. In recent times, we have come up with a lot of creative versions of the Lenten “fast,” surrendering anything from cookies to Coca Cola for forty days. And that really is all to the good.

But if you’re like me, you may get intimidated by the Gospel passages that talk about Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days, fasting the whole time, and wondering if being Christ-like means doing the same thing. Certainly, plenty of Christian traditions over the years have thought so. In fact, some of them have gone Jesus one better and decided they need to live like that all the time. That’s a lot of pressure on the rest of us who try to live in this bright and beautiful world with all its attractive features, not to mention the great food.

Historically, Lent came into being in the early Church to prepare new converts for baptism at Easter. As Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury explains, “It was believed that self-denial, fasting and extra prayer as it were, limbered you up, like doing exercises for some great race; it made your more spiritually mobile and agile…”

Medieval churches got into Lent by toning down their ornamentation, removing decorations, changing out all the cloth hangings for sackcloth, what we know as burlap, as a visual act of contrition. Priestly vestments featured purple, a sober color associated with judgement.

I’ll be the first to chime in here and say that I have a serious problem with anything that smacks of legalism. It rankles me in ways that are hard for me to explain. (I mentioned something along those lines to a former Catholic priest once and he offered to pray for my spirit of rebellion. I said, “No thanks.”)

What’s all this for, we might ask? Do such disciplines work? Do they achieve anything other than the kind of show we read about on Ash Wednesday, the sort of empty public displays that Jesus condemned by saying, “They have their reward”?

IMG_1053I think the answer to that is contained in today’s readings. None of the readings focuses on the self-denial part. The focus in Genesis is on the rainbow of promise after the Flood, in Peter on Christ the Victor over death, in Mark on the new mission and ministry of Christ. Again, what Rowan Williams said along these lines is helpful, “The word Lent comes from the Old English word for Spring. It’s not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it’s not about making yourself miserable for forty days. It’s not even about giving things up for forty days. Lent is Springtime. It’s about preparing for the great climax of Spring, new life bursting through death, and as we prepare ourselves for that, what motivates us, what fills the horizon, is not self-denial as an end in itself, but trying to sweep and clean the room of our minds and hearts so that new life will have room to come in and take over and transform us.”

In other words, the focus isn’t on the three whacks to the backside, it’s on being able to do the math.

For many years in my efforts to be a better Christian, I strove under the impression that knowing God or being closer to God was all about an inner sense of spirituality, the achievement of some sort of personal righteousness. And things like fasts and spiritual disciplines were about reaching for some internal, happy spiritual state free of doubt, free of sin, free of defeat and therefore full of victory and the glorious self-affirmation you hear promised by so many today.

But now I wonder if maybe I had it all wrong. Deacon Art Bass sent me a terrific item that suggested some interesting fasts for Lent—fasts from hurtful words, anger, worry, bitterness and selfishness, among others, so we can embrace kindness, patience, joy and compassion. It seems that Christ himself was no mystic guru who stayed in the desert after his time of fasting. He came out of the desert to minister to people, to proclaim the good news of God, to heal lepers, to give sight to the blind and hope to the hopeless. Might Christ’s example suggest a practical application for us when it comes to refocusing our priorities?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA time of repentance through self-denial is just a whack to the hind quarters of our self-indulgence, something to help us focus our attention away from ourselves, outward, toward God and toward our neighbor. We don’t need to be flagellants to achieve this. A flagellant is someone who whips themselves painfully in order to mortify the desires of the flesh, but in the Middle Ages, some flagellants were infamous for burning down the houses of those who didn’t take things as seriously as they did. Self-denial isn’t meant to make us holier than anyone else. It’s meant to make us aware of the needs around us. It’s meant to give us new understanding of what’s happening around us, and to empower us to speak the right words and to do the right things. And we have never been in more need of such empowered people, have we?

By way of offering a plug for Father Joel’s upcoming series on Michael Mayne, I would like to conclude with a quote from the book, To Trust and to Love, edited by Fr. Joel. “Lent is a time of repentance, for seeing how (in Christ’s eyes) things truly are. So, I shall try to use it as a time to better understand how the Gospel relates to some of the political questions which most profoundly affect us all. And for looking again at some of my most deeply engrained prejudices and assumptions. I hope you will consider doing the same.”




Dante’s Paradiso Canto XIII: “Wait for it.”


For the season of Advent, I’ve been re-reading Dante’s Paradiso. This particular part of the Commedia has never been my favorite, but I encountered this remarkable and timely gem in Canto XIII, as Dante, guided by Beatrice, converses with and receives a stern warning from St. Thomas Aquinas to conclude the Canto. I’ll post first a poetic version, translated by James Finn Cotter, followed by a prose version from Poetry in Translation, and leave them here for the reader without the benefit of further commentary:

“And let my words be lead weights to your feet,                                                                         To slow you, like a weary man, from hastening                                                                         To the yes or no of what you do not see.

“For he is well placed low among the fools                                                                              Who, whether in affirming or denying,                                                                                    Does not distinguish one case from the other.

“For often it occurs that one’s opinion,                                                                                   When quickly formed, leans in the wrong direction,                                                             And vanity then binds the intellect.

“It is far worse than vain to quit the shore                                                                                   To fish for truth and not possess the skill,                                                                               Since one returns worse off than when he left.

“Again, let people not be too secure                                                                                                 In how they judge, like someone who would count                                                                 The ears of corn before the field is ripe.

“For I have seen first, all the winter through,                                                                            The briar show itself barbed and unbending,                                                                          And then upon its stem it bears a rose.

“And I have seen a ship sail swift and straight                                                                         Over the vast sea, through her entire course,                                                                              To sink at last while entering the harbor.

“Let every Jack and Jill not think, if they                                                                                     See someone steal and someone make an offering                                                                 That they observe them with divine omniscience,

“For the thief may rise up, and the donor fall.”

Prose: “And let this always weight your feet down with lead, and make you go slowly, like a tired man, approaching the yes or no you do not grasp, since he is truly down there among the fools, who affirms or denies without distinguishing between cases, so that it often happens that a quick opinion leans to the wrong side, and then Pride entangles the intellect. He leaves the shore less than uselessly, since he does not even return as he went, fishing for truth without the angler’s skill….

Do not let people be too secure in their judgements, like those who count the ears of corn in the field before the crop ripens, since I have seen, all winter long, the thorn display itself, sharp and forbidding, and then on its summit bear the rose; and before now I have seen a ship run straight and sure over the sea for her entire course, and sink in the end, entering the harbour mouth. Do not let Jack and Jill think, that if they see someone steal or another make offering they therefore see them as Divine Wisdom does, since the one may still rise, and the other fall.’

The Day of the Lord

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Homily delivered at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, November 12, 2017

The Lectionary for 23 Pentecost: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 “The Day of the Lord”

I think the year was 1975. My family was renting a mobile home at the back of some acreage owned by a retired farmer, with a field between us and the woods. We lived about a quarter mile from the small church that was the center of our lives and the hub of the isolationist end-times sect to which we belonged. We earnestly believed Jesus might return at any moment, and our ceaseless task was to be ready in case that happened, striving in vain to keep our hearts and minds continuously pure. As a young teen under such stressful conditions, I carried around a lot of extra angst. So, I spent as much time as possible being as alone as possible in that little trailer with two adults and three children crammed into it. A lot of that time was dedicated to the books into which I managed to escape, sometimes for hours at a stretch, shutting out the world as best I could.

One fine day, I was traveling to the center of the earth with Jules Verne when that part of my consciousness that was barely aware of outer reality noticed that our mobile home was unusually quiet. I put down my book and listened for a minute and thought, “It’s quiet. Too quiet.”

I got up and left my room to find that, as I suspected, the place, normally full of noise and life, was completely empty. Dad, Mom, Sister, Brother—even the dog—no one was to be found. Naturally I thought they must be outside, so I peered out the front and back windows, but I didn’t see or hear anyone. I opened the back door and looked out over the field toward the woods. Nothing. I opened the front door and checked the drive. Both cars were there. No one had driven off. But no one was around for as far as the eye could see. Hmmm.

I walked outside and looked into the sky. There were some pretty impressive thunderheads floating by, but were they impressive enough to be Return of the Lord thunderheads? I wasn’t sure. So, I waited.

I waited maybe a half hour, which was time enough to get me good and scared. I looked around again. Nothing. My heart began to race. Had it really happened? Had Jesus raptured my entire family and left me, a miserable sinner, behind with my books? I went back into my room and sat down on the edge of the bed, stunned and amazed, and said aloud, “What now?” I looked over at the Bible sitting on my desk and wondered if I shouldn’t start looking for some kind of loophole in the Rapture Contract.

Then I heard a faint sound.

I jumped over to the back door and looked out and there, emerging from the woods, was my entire family, dog included, with a neighbor who had been showing them something back there. I’m not gonna lie. I was pretty excited to see them.

I’ve heard all kinds of stories, many from my age group, from other people in the evangelical tradition who have their own account of being “Left Behind.” These stories serve to illustrate a lasting fascination with the idea of the “Day of the Lord” as described in today’s lectionary. The paranoia peddlers of the late 60s and early 70s, people like Hal Lindsey of The Late Great Planet Earth, the John T Chick comic tracts about the Rapture that terrified us as kids, the Left Behind series of novels, not to mention all the intricately detailed teachings about the Tribulation, the Millennium, the Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment—basically a whole cottage industry that endured for decades—but elements of these teachings date back to medieval Christianity.


Go to the centuries-old basilicas and cathedrals of Europe and you will find walls and ceilings painted or sculpted with lurid details of what awaits those who aren’t ready for the Day of the Lord, with horned demons and other monstrosities dragging naked people screaming into the abyss. Some of that imagery has made its way into sermons preached in our own time hundreds of years later. And their chief emphasis seems to be that the Day of the Lord is all about Divine punishment, about having the due reward of our sins visited upon us. And the message is always “Repent! The End is Near!”


Our scripture readings for today suggest that maybe our emphasis needs to be flipped. Yes, the Day of the Lord is about Justice. But our sense of Justice may be more tuned to our sense of guilt than it is to what Scripture says. And the real call to action here may have an altogether different focus.

Take the passage in today’s lectionary from Amos, for instance, not the most pleasant reading on a fine Sunday morning in autumn:

Amos 5:18-24 (NIV): The Day of the Lord

  1. Woe to you who long
    for the day of the Lord!
    Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
    That day will be darkness, not light.
  2. It will be as though a man fled from a lion
    only to meet a bear,
    as though he entered his house
    and rested his hand on the wall
    only to have a snake bite him.
  3. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
    pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
  4. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
  5. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
    Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
  6. Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
  7. But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

After all the dark warnings about leaping from the frying pan into the fire, there comes the line, “Let Justice roll down like waters,” words made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. But what is justice here and to what does it refer?

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis discusses the Hebrew idea of justice, which is, of course, the one that appears most often in Scripture. Most of us know C.S. Lewis as a children’s author, but in his real job as an Oxford University professor, he studied a lot of ancient literature, including the Bible in its Greek and Latin versions. He was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with the famous poet T.S. Eliot, to help update the Psalter in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. But in case you’re wondering, the work of Lewis’ committee was never officially adopted, so the Psalter we recite today doesn’t reflect any of his edits.

I’d like to read the following fascinating excerpt from Lewis’ Reflections: “The just judge primarily rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Hebrews are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice; The Hebrews cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. Scholars say that the Book of Judges might almost be rendered ‘champions;’ for though these ‘judges’ do sometimes perform what we call judicial functions many of them are much more concerned about rescuing the oppressed Israelites. They are more like Jack the Giant Killer than like a modern judge. The knights of chivalry who go about rescuing distressed damsels and widows from giants are acting almost as ‘judges’ in the old Hebrew sense. So is the modern attorney who does unpaid work for poor clients to save them from wrong.”

This paragraph from C.S. Lewis had a drastic effect on my reading of Scripture. If Biblical justice is first about delivering the oppressed and helping the neglected and only “oh by the way” about punishing the evildoer in the form of the oppressor and the neglector…well, that has huge implications, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing. If this view of justice is correct, then it is mirrored much more accurately by super heroes than by courtroom dramas. Marvel’s Avengers and DC’s Justice League are better analogies of Divine Justice than TV’s “Boston Legal” or “Law & Order.” Super heroes are our contemporary Knights of the Round Table, today’s version of Jack the Giant Killer. The fact that we are so intent on celebrating these kinds of values within our popular culture indicate that we still share a deep-seated yearning for that kind of justice, the kind that disregards our inadequacies and our weaknesses as it rises up on our behalf to defend us against evil. Scripture seems equally intent on conveying the idea that this is the kind of justice God cares most about. Who among us hasn’t echoed the prayer we read today in Psalm 70? “You are my helper and deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry!” (Psalm 70: 6)

There is no complicated theological point here. It’s pretty straightforward. A couple of weeks ago we heard the reading from Luke 4 in which Christ captured the essence of the Gospel by reading aloud from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

But in Amos 5, we find the context for the dread warnings about the Day of the Lord and the cry for justice in this unflinching judgment found only a few verses earlier: “you despise anyone who speaks honestly. … you make the poor pay taxes on their crops, … You torment the innocent, you take bribes, and you deny justice to the needy at the gate.” (Verses 11 and 12)

You could not find a more direct contrast between the spirit of Christ in Luke and the spirit of the age as described in Amos.

I conclude with this. Back when my family was part of that isolationist sect, it should come as no surprise that the parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25 was a favorite for our leaders, and we were strongly admonished to purify ourselves so we would be ready for the coming of the bridegroom, to be ready, to keep oil in our spiritual lamps. Otherwise, the door would be shut against us, like the door of Noah’s Ark, and no amount of pounding would open it when the time came! All we would hear would be the dreadful words, “I don’t know you!”


An instructive commentary on Christ’s true intent with the parable of the bridesmaids comes only a few verses later in Matthew 25, in which those divided on the left and reserved for eternal punishment hear the list of their sins—not the long catalog of evil one might expect—but that they did not feed Christ when he was hungry, they didn’t clothe him when he was naked, they didn’t invite him in when he was a stranger, they did not look after him when he was sick or in prison. And in answer to their self-righteous protest, he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (V. 45)

Herein lies our call to action, doesn’t it? Christ tells his disciples at the end of the Gospel of John, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21) And by those words we know that we are to be instruments of justice in the world. We are to deliver the oppressed and care for the neglected. We are to share the hope that we have with those who have lost it. We are to see that people meet with justice at the gates.

Ultimately, as the Apostle Paul tells us in Thessalonians, we can look forward to a Day of Reckoning, not with fear, but with the hope, and the certain knowledge that God Himself will ultimately settle all accounts. And justice will truly, and finally, be done.

And Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (4:18)


Hewn from the Rock

Photo Jul 25, 2 46 26 PMHomily, Sunday, August 27, 2017 at St Luke’s Memorial Church, Cleveland, TN

I’d like to thank Fr. Joel for allowing a mere layman such as myself into the pulpit. I know he doesn’t make the decision lightly, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

When I had a chance to sit down to look at the readings for this Sunday, I actually experienced a moment of chills. The passage in Isaiah 51 just happens to be one of my favorites in all of Scripture. Back in the day when it seemed an important thing to have a “life verse,” I frequently mentioned Isaiah 51: 1 and 2, but it’s really the whole chapter I love. In the three translations of the Bible that I keep near me, this chapter is the only passage with a marker in it – and it’s clearly marked in all three Bibles. So, I’m delighted to talk about it today, especially in reference to the other readings.

I’m going to read those first three verses to you again from the King James, not because I think the KJV is a superior translation, but because there is power in poetic language, and, for me anyway, Isaiah in the KJV packs a better punch.

Isaiah 51 King James Version (KJV)

1Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.

Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.

For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.

As Fr. Joel indicated last week, Isaiah 51 is part of that grouping, chapters 40-55, that comprise what OT scholars call 2nd Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah. Early Christian commentators were fond of referring to Isaiah as “the 5th Gospel” because of its many Messianic references and its focus on Divine salvation, but it was and continues to be revered in Jewish worship as well. Expressions from Isaiah have made their way into regular English usage, such as “the lion and the lamb,” “whiter than snow,” “man of sorrows,” and “swords into ploughshares.” Isaiah had a big impact on Georg Handel in the composing of the Messiah, on John Milton in writing Paradise Lost and on the memorable poetry of the English Divine, George Herbert.

But all of that is academic. What does Isaiah 51 mean and why is it so special to me?

If I can get a little personal here, at a period of my life when I was struggling desperately with my faith, it was a very dark time in my soul. Very dark indeed. I hold this particular passage dear because I have a very clear memory of the day I sat on my bed and read it for the first time. It was as if clouds within my heart parted and a powerful ray of sunlight shone through.  The imagery about wastelands turning into gardens resonated with me very strongly, and seemed to point directly to the wasteland of my psyche. But the imagery that struck me most was that of being hewn out of the rock, of returning to the source, to the center of Being itself. For Israel, this meant looking back to God’s covenant with Abraham, and the miraculous birth from Sarah. For me, the image helped solidify what faith is all about, that my answers to life and being resided outside of the prison of the Self, that even the Self has a Source, and that Source is God. For me, this realization was a dramatic turning point. We are all of us hewn out of the rock, we are all of us sculpted from stone. We are all taken from the earth, but here’s the important part about that—as the reading in the Psalms said today, we are all fashioned intentionally for a purpose, as the work of God’s hands, like stones fashioned for a building.

This takes us seamlessly right on over to the Gospel reading, a famous and much talked-over passage in which the Apostle Peter makes the bold declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. To this day, controversy surrounds the passage where Jesus says, “I say to you that you are Rock (Aramaic Kepa, Greek Petros, from which we derive Peter), and on this The Rock (Greek taute te petra), I will build my church (Greek ekklesia) and the gates of Hades (Aramaic Sheol) will not prevail against it.” Whole denominations seem to rise and fall on what the “this” before “the Rock” is referring to. But I’m not going to talk about that.

I really don’t want to get into the fracas over Peter and the Keys of the Kingdom. That’s because there’s an element of this particular reading that is largely overlooked and I’d like to bring it to your attention. It’s in the innocuous part that says, “When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…”

One might assume from the matter-of-fact tone that Jesus and his disciples, known for wandering around Galilee and its environs, just sort of strolled over into Caesarea Philippi, more or less in the natural course of getting from here to there. But the truth is Jesus was as likely to wander into that district as someone from this town in southeast Tennessee would be to just wander into Boston, Mass. It was a two-day trek north of Galilee near the base of Mount Hermon, in some pretty rugged country. And it was far outside any regular Jewish traffic. There was no city there at the time. It was, in Christ’s day, a remote Roman administrative outpost surrounded by a few scattered villages. But it was famous in the region for its Greco-Roman nature shrines dating back to when Alexander the Great came by there. In Jesus’ day, a brand-new temple honoring Caesar had just been completed up there, which is why its name had been changed to Caesarea.

This all begs the question, what were Jesus and his disciples doing there? Why would he even go there? The two Gospels, Matthew and Mark, that mention this story offer no explanation. But there are a few interesting contextual items.

The first item may be nothing more than a curiosity, but it’s worth noting. The main attraction at Caesarea Philippi was a very large, spooky cave, and inside the cave was an abyss that ancient travelers thought was bottomless. All they knew was that there was rushing water down there, some kind of spring. Greek tradition allegedly called the cave the Gates of Hades. The face of the mountain on which the cave opened was called the Rock of the Gods, and at its entrance, the Greeks had erected a shrine to the nature god Pan, a shrine that the Romans had preserved and expanded. Even in Old Testament times, this had been one of the infamous “high places” that were always needing to be swept clean of shrines to idols like Baal. For Jews in Jesus’ time, the history of the area had always been a dark, idolatrous one. But it did have one larger significance for the people living in Palestine—those rushing waters in the depths of the cavern? Those were actually part of the headwaters of the River Jordan. And it was possible, not far from the cavern, to find an overlook from which you could see the Jordan Valley spreading out towards the south—basically the traditional land of Israel.

The connection with the god Pan is curious because it’s during the life of Christ that a mysterious oracle in the Roman Empire loudly declared that Pan had died, something pretty unheard of. Gods in the Greco-Roman pantheon just didn’t just up and die for no particular reason. I don’t want to dwell on it, but the death of Pan in connection with the birth and death of Christ was made much of in Christian circles later, repeated first by the church historian Eusebius in the 4th Century and made even more famous in English literature by Edmund Spenser, John Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in turn. GK Chesterton elaborated on it in some length in his very influential book The Everlasting Man.

But let’s put Pan aside for now. Here’s the larger point. Many commentators assert, I think correctly, that Jesus was careful to arrange his messages in settings that served to amplify his words, often in more than one sense. One can almost see him gesturing around him as he spoke, applying powerful visual reference points for his thoughts.

So, it seems to be the case that, echoing the passage in Isaiah 51, Christ takes his disciples to the source of life for Israel itself, the Jordan, and in so doing he connects his own divine mission to so many images from the history of God’s salvation of his people, from the creation of humanity from clay, to Abraham and Sarah bringing forth life in their old age, to Moses bringing water from the rock in the wilderness, to unlikely miraculous deliverances from captivity in Egypt and Babylon, right on down to Christ’s own unlikely virgin birth. There’s a thread here, and Christ is careful to follow it through. It is precisely in the context of that thread that the pronouncement of Peter—Simon Rock, if you will—not only makes sense but becomes appropriate, as if on that day Peter is standing in for us, the Church, effectively translating the very idea of Divine deliverance from bondage into our own understanding, as today’s church, where we are tasked with spreading a deep and abiding understanding of deliverance from a full spectrum of human bondages, whether they be physical, political, psychological or spiritual.

And that brings us to a practical application in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in Chapter 12, and the conclusion of the matter. I’m a big fan of the Disney/Pixar movie The Incredibles. Toward the beginning of the movie there’s a classic line, with the super hero Mr. Incredible uttering an all-too-understandable complaint. He says, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!”

As fallen human beings, we have a propensity for getting back into jeopardy, into bondage, often through “things done and things left undone,” as we pray. And then there’s those things that happen beyond our control that threaten to take us to the very mouth of Hades. In spite of the powerful work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, we seem to have a habit of losing our way. Daily life has a tendency to batter us, even when conditions are pretty favorable. Life in general may be good, but by the time we’ve digested the daily news, dealt with difficult co-workers, and managed matters both great and small in our households, it’s easy to gain a lot of distance from redemption. We see all that’s around us through our own limited and sometimes troubled lens, a lens we often assume other people are seeing through, but the truth is, they can’t, and we blame them for being selfishly short-sighted enough to look at the world through their own personal lens and not through ours. It’s very disappointing in them, isn’t it?

Our lenses need constant refocusing. Romans 12 reminds us firmly not to be conformed to the spirit of the age, the spirit that lives in bondage to its appetites, its pride, its hatred, its wrath, its selfish preoccupations… but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.  The Greek for “perfect” is “teleion” and means more specifically “perfected,” “completed” or “having achieved wholeness.” It’s a process word, and Paul is enjoining us to find our sense of completion in having our minds renewed, which is another process word “anakainōsei” that Paul may have invented, basically “starting afresh again.”

That concept of starting afresh takes us back to Isaiah 51. Starting afresh in this instance means going back to the source, to that Rock from which we were quarried, to that pit from which we were dug, to the purpose for which we were chiseled out of creation itself by God, each one of us. And Christ and Paul give us the key for how to get there, how to overcome the Gates of Hades, and that is to Be the Church, the Ekklesia, the assembly of believers who bring to one another the gifts we have been given and redeem them in one another’s presence, through worship and repentance.

I don’t know about you, and I am not here to tell anyone what to do. But for me, the Eucharist serves as that refocusing lens, that re-centering on the good and acceptable and perfect, that reordering of the mind along lines of redemption and deliverance and grace. The Eucharist is the key that so many times has unlocked that door for me. But the sense of redemption and deliverance I experience in the Eucharist isn’t meant to be a solely personal thing. It achieves its fullest realization in Ekklesia, in the Church, which is why the Lord’s Supper is the breaking of bread, not in solitude, but in community. The communion is with God … and with God’s people, with you, in other words. It sounds simple, but time and time again, it’s the simple things that are the most beautifully true, as the lovely Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” says,

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come ‘round right


Rethinking the University: Part One, Commencing the Conversation

Note: From a speech given to the College of Arts & Sciences, Lee University, Cleveland, TN, August 12, 2015

When you say “Arts & Sciences” it sounds, word-wise, as it you are actually referring to something, but the truth at our institution is that when you use the term, you are referring more to what the Arts and Sciences are not than what they are. At our university, “Arts & Sciences” means “not Education, not Religion and not Music.” Our 160 full and part-time faculty are divided among a couple dozen disciplines in six departments that are themselves widely cast nets. So, capturing an identity for such a college is difficult to say the least.

Certainly as a loose affiliation of disciplines we do have common cause … in the General Education Core and in the overall mission of the university. But truth be told, the things that bring us together as a distinct entity are not typically any different from those of the rest of the university, so it has always seemed to me that addressing anything specifically to the college would just as easily be addressed to the entire university, and be just as applicable for that scope. That may very well be the case, but as I am dean of this particular college, I feel I have a responsibility to generate some truly meaningful conversations among our people. And that’s what I want to do now.

Cambridge UK
Cambridge, UK

In January of this year I got a chance to get away for the spring semester. I am indebted to President Paul Conn and VPAA Debbie Murray for making my absence possible. I’m also grateful to Dr. Jean Eledge for stepping in on my behalf while I was gone. I spent January to April in Europe with the UK Study Abroad Program. During that time, when I wasn’t teaching or supervising 20 delightful undergrads in Cambridge, I did a lot of free association thinking. I hadn’t had a sabbatical in my 23 years in higher education, so it was a good opportunity for me to take a passive role and benefit from the experience as a whole. I don’t normally have a spontaneous bone in my body, but I grew one in Cambridge, and I soaked in stone, as it were, as I wandered windswept, rainy back alleys steeped in 730 years of educational history.

Upon my return to the States, something struck me pretty clearly. I found a different kind of educational atmosphere greeting me back home. As I read accreditation renewal documents and encountered higher ed news, I came to the sudden realization of something that had been tugging at the base of my brain for some time. Basically, higher education in this country is under threat.

I’m not an alarmist, but for the first time in my career, I found myself facing a certain amount of fear for this thing I do for a living. Part of that fear is that I’m not exactly sure how afraid I should be, but I hear and read all these rumblings that higher education is now a target for wholesale reform. What kind of reform? People in positions of power and influence, people who can seriously affect funding that makes my job possible seem to think that college should be about job training and should be the servant of variable market forces, like the interest rate. College should take about three years and should conclude with job certification. High schools should be able to deliver the first year of college and what the high school offers in this regard should be interchangeably accepted wherever a student chooses to go as if it were part of the meal plan. A college education is referred to as a right, something that should be free. While the sentiment has an undeniable glow to it, everyone of us in higher education knows that somebody somewhere has to pay for all this. “Free” means taxes, not tuition. You can’t pay for college with just lottery dollars. And that speaks to bureaucratic distribution of funds based on systems of merit that reflect narrow interests and priorities.

I am afraid on one hand, but I’m excited and hopeful on the other. I feel strongly that action is called for here, the sort of action that would move us to understand and articulate why what we do is so important. What is it that makes us different as an institution? What is it that makes us the better choice for people who come to college with the hope of creating a foundation for the future? Because college is investment in every sense of the term, right? In its original sense, “investment” meant to put on the vestments, or the robes, of an office. We don’t make undergrads wear robes anymore, except at graduation, but colleges once did (and some still do). The fact is that their new life starts at our doors. Why should they take that bold step here when they have 4725 other schools in this country alone to choose from, many of which are bowing to pressure to make things easier, quicker and more market-responsive?

IonaI think the answer is to be found somewhere in the intersection between hope and fear. On the one hand we have a vision of the University as the descendant of Celtic monasteries where knowledge was saved from the wreckage of civilization and books on vellum parchment were rescued from fire and sword. Perhaps I shouldn’t liken current threats to the Viking pillagers of Iona, but, well, there may be a small parallel between an utterly utilitarian view of education and pitiless raiders interested only in the gilding inside the abbeys they sacked.

Certainly we would be foolish to ignore market pressures entirely. This is America, after all, and the American Dream is alive and well, even though you might have trouble getting two people to agree on what the dream entails. But expanding personal marketability is perceived to be one of the greatest responsibilities of higher education. Do we dare live in denial of these pressures? That would be unwise. But we should at least be informed about how to answer the questions we are already receiving on this issue and to acknowledge that our university is not a pure liberal arts institution. We know we are more of a hybrid, and that’s a good thing.

Given our realities, the answer to our challenge may be boiled down to a single statement, one with big implications that should be teased out much more fully, but here is an attempt to put it succinctly:

The best qualification for work in a complex world is as much about formation of the person as it is about the acquisition of qualifying knowledge and skills.

Carl Gombrich, Dean of Arts & Sciences (BASc) at University College, London, has been writing and speaking about the formation/qualification axis for the past few years. From a recent Gombrich post, “We need to envisage universities as places that are about more than obtaining a paper qualification. Universities are – or should be – principally places of formation. What do we mean by formation? Broadly, it’s what happens when minds are formed, values begin to settle, ideas of purpose in life take root and there is enculturation – the beginning of an integration of students into the culture or environment in which the university is based.”

Training for the next practical step in life and educating for formation need not be mutually exclusive. I quote from Gombrich again: “For the foreseeable future it is extremely hard to imagine any advanced society that will not require managers, leaders, directors, innovators, people who drive corporations, found political movements and charities, act as thought leaders and helmsmen and women of industry and commerce. And if you accept this, turn the argument around and imagine a world run (for it will be largely run) by such people who don’t have a chance of a more complex, intellectually rich formation, a professional class who have not had a chance to explore their own minds, to have exposure to a wide range of thought. A society with no accepted formation for its young people is barely, one might say, a society at all.” I think, unfortunately, that we can already see what Gombrich is warning us about.

Anyone who hears or sees the daily news knows that the world is begging for ethical practitioners in every walk of life, from the foreman of a factory line to the CEO of a financial institution. What it comes down to is what kind of world will greet our graduates.

reddit-logoMost of us in this room are probably unfamiliar with the web-based group of forums known as “reddit,” but most of the students in your classes will have at least heard of it and a few will be regular participants in one or more subforums known as “subreddits.”, which claims to be the front page of the Internet, is the 10th most popular site in the United States outranked only by the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. It ranks higher than Netflix. It is the single most visited English-language source of threaded discussion and interchange on the Internet with almost 10,000 different active forums, 170 million unique visitors every month, generating over 7.5 billion page views. Items of interest that emerge on Reddit are eagerly borrowed and passed on to outlets like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and their online British counterpart the Guardian. Thousands of tidbits float up from Reddit every day, from which hundreds of lists and other items make it into the undiscriminating newsfeeds of these other outlets. Some of those “go viral” and burst onto the national scene when captured by CNN, FOXNews and the other primetime outlets. If you watched a viral video today, more often than not it surfaced on Reddit first. The joke by Reddit users is that if you saw it on Facebook, it’s old news on Reddit. You may have heard of Reddit’s famous—or infamous—AMA’s, or “Ask Me Anything” forums in which major public figures and celebrities subject themselves willingly to a barrage of questions from a live audience that can sometimes number in the millions.

But Reddit is actually a private corporation worth an estimated $500 million with stock owned by a strange mix of people. And it just went through a huge international scandal that ended in the toppling of a controversial CEO. A popular public employee was fired for an undisclosed reason. With cries of foul, the online juggernaut that is reddit voluntarily shut down in protest. Millions of users joined the protest and a staggering 200,000 people signed a petition demanding the resignation of the CEO.

You might be asking at this point what possible connection reddit has with higher education? There is no intention here to promote reddit in any way. Even though the most popular forums relate to science, gaming and movies (and actually have passable levels of accountability), there are forums for groups I dare not mention here from hate speech to plain sicko garbage. Volunteers do all the moderating on the forums, so the interaction is at best a mixed bag. In fact, an attempt to clean up some of the garbage led to First Amendment outrage and contributed to the recent removal of the CEO after the uprising of an online mob.

Here’s the connection: reddit may very well represent the increasingly democratic and libertarian future of the Internet, and therefore, in no small measure, a significant part of the world in which our graduates will be living and working. It’s a world that is frequently unaccountable, given to extreme mob reactions, psychological abuse and character assassination for laughs; anyone can broadcast whatever they want at any time of the day or night with little fear of consequence – other than an up or down vote, a gasp or a coarse laugh. It’s like the world of Judges in the Old Testament where “everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.”

I’m not trying to overstate the case. One could readily say it’s not as bad as all that, and they might be strictly correct. Regardless, reddit displays the unblushing world of tarnished ethics and values into which our students are now graduating. There is in the average experience of our students a level of sheer baseness most of us growing up never had to confront. Grossness, by which I mean submission to baser appetites, was something Baby Boomers were at pains to keep locked away. Grossness has become commonplace. Some young students are more flinty and jaded than the most cynical among their instructors. But none of us is immune to constantly cycling horror–one case in point being the recent “auto-play” video posted online by the Roanoke news crew murderer.

This is not to preach hell fire and damnation on the Internet. It can be a wonderful thing and its good uses are almost limitless. But the wild extremes of the Internet highlight the critical point here. How can we imagine that our primary work as educators in this kind of world is to teach students merely how to sort the right widgets in the right boxes? How dare we limit our instruction to technique when the world’s great need is for people who can act with integrity, civility and charity? Yes, we do need people who can perform their jobs well, but in the environment confronting us today we need people who can do their jobs with the kind of grace, truth and professionalism that comes only from a reliable internal compass.

We need people who do not merely reflect their times. We need people who redeem their times. But redemption is hard, sacrificial, patient work done with meekness of spirit, disciplined strength of will, love for one’s neighbor (loveable or not) and courage born of hope that enables one to be a light in the darkness. In case you didn’t recognize them, these are basic moral and spiritual virtues. And we, as a university, are uniquely positioned to help meet this crucial need by planting and cultivating these virtues among our students. Our Core Values, the Integration of Faith and Vocation through ethical action, redemptive service and responsible citizenship are the outward expressions of the very kinds of virtues we hope to cultivate.

Where do we begin? Here’s the good news: The virtues and values we care so much about are not the province of any single discipline or degree. And, after conversations with similarly placed educators in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve come to believe that one of the best ways we can bring these values home to our students is for us to be willing to treat them as the multifaceted gems that they are.

What would such an approach look like? First of all, no discipline at our institution is devoid or divorced from a sense of value, a hierarchy of what is important in life, an idea of what matters and how we should apply these aspects to life. Numbers can teach us about integrity. Medicine can teach us about charity. Counseling can teach us about empathy. Business can teach us the virtues of trust and fairness. Language and the Arts can teach us the power of symbols in bringing ideas to life and in drawing us toward that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.

In drawing our attention on a possible shortcoming, I don’t want to suggest that we are failing to get the job done. I’m very proud to be dean of a college where I know the faculty and staff give so much of themselves. I am aware of the difficulties a lot of our people face every day, many of which are not directly related to the job; they’re just part of this thing we call life. But we come to our classrooms day after day and face the task of imparting something meaningful to these young people no matter what’s going on elsewhere, and so many times they have little or no idea that there’s a bigger life outside the classroom for the person standing at the front of the room. They don’t know about the child that threw up at 2 am last night. They don’t know when we or someone close to us is in great physical pain. They don’t know about the life circumstances that keep us awake at night. That’s because we cover the scrapes on our elbows and leave the anxieties tucked away and somehow find a way to smile at those sleep-deprived faces. These students think their problems are big—and sometimes they really are. But we believe with them and pray with them and encourage them even when our problems are just as big or bigger. It humbles me to be a part of such a family. And on behalf of the thousands who have shuffled in and out of these classrooms with little knowledge of the underlying personal sacrifice, I offer a heartfelt, “Thank you!”

Even with that, I think there’s a way in which we may be selling ourselves short, maybe hiding our candle under a bushel. We are sitting on an incredible treasure but we satisfy ourselves with a few flecks of gold dust in the daily and weekly grind of teaching and grading.

Allow me to ask a question. How can we realistically expect our students to bring these values and virtues and knowledge and skills and vocation—all this stuff—to a fine point of comprehension if we aren’t doing it ourselves? In other words, how can we get our students to link the pieces of this grand puzzle if we are sitting comfortably in our own limited spheres of endeavor with little or no reference to one another? We are expecting our students to synthesize across disciplines when we ourselves practice avoidance of other disciplines. How can we expect our students to carry ideas from one class to the next, making all the key connections, if our ideological culture places little value on this very kind of exchange?

If we value integrative learning enough to see it become reality, then we need to begin integrating ourselves. As this institution has grown, as faculties have enlarged and disciplines have been added, we’ve become a nice archipelago of relatively isolated entities. Yes, we maintain some wonderful friendships across disciplines, but we’ve only ever just touched the surface of what we could do here. We’ve caught glimpses of it from time to time, and we’ve even begun to do some really great stuff in colloquiums, symposiums and other forums. Those efforts are certainly to be commended and supported.

But what I’m getting at is more fundamental. Before we start implementing a possible series of formal structures, what I would like to encourage and facilitate in the next two semesters is conversation: simple friendly interaction. Let me emphasize that while formal structures are a worthy goal, what we need is talk at a basic level. This can be as simple as people across disciplines breaking bread together. Faculty could visit classes from other disciplines. It can be, and maybe needs to be, as simple as grabbing coffee on campus or in town. The hardest part will consist in making time for conversations. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I really do think it will be worth it.

Later, let’s talk about more formal structures–interdisciplinary teaching, guest lectures, summer faculty workshops, etc. But let’s be sure to look at ideas that emerge from conversations rather than doing it the other way around.

Also, I would like for our college meeting sessions to be more truly deliberative. I sense that a lot of people in our midst have some really valid and valuable things to say from which we might all benefit and I would love to give us the chance to voice those things.

My personal hero Phillip Melanchthon, reformer and scholar of the 16th Century, ended his orations with, “I have spoken.” So that’s how I’ll end now. Let’s start talking to each other now.


Earthen Vessels

[Faculty Chapel – August 15, 2013]

IMG_6672I’m sure you are aware that asking an introspective person to deliver a few minutes of reflection is like asking a shopper at the Mall of America to limit themselves to the Sunglasses Hut….

I will do my best to stick to the hut.

As I was reflecting on this reflection, I pondered the many angles from which I might “self-reveal.” That’s always a thrill for introverted types.

But I decided to forego the narrative approach in favor of something I hope is equally relevant. So I won’t be sculpting images from the marble of my life experience as a Navy kid who grew up in an isolationist, end-times sect in the lowlands of southeastern Virginia. And I’ll leave untouched my time in the wastelands of ministerial endeavor both in the U.S. and abroad—a sojourn that left my wife Leslie and me all but shipwrecked on a nether backwater of the American Dreamscape. If you want those riveting stories, feel free to take me to lunch sometime.

Instead I want to talk about Lee University—Lee College when I came in 1995. The year holds quite a bit of nostalgia for me, and not just because our only begotten son Nicholas was born just after May graduation of that first year. The fact is, I’m still in touch with many of the members of my first class of graduating seniors. They’re all now lawyers, pharmacists, pastors, homemakers, small business owners and teachers, even college professors. A few of them have children that have graduated high school, so, yes, I have passed that milestone, thank you very much.

2 Corinthians 4:7, says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” Forgive the archaic use of the King James. In this case, the old KJV flows off the tongue better than other translations. We are “earthen vessels,” a better term in my view than “jars of clay.” It’s just that the word “jar” makes me think of “jarring,” or “Mason jars” or Jar Jar Binks. The image I get of a jar of clay is of a finished product sitting on a dusty shelf. “Earthen vessel” on the other hand seems to evoke all at once the materials of creation, the creative act itself and a highly useful created product.

I think the earthen vessel image serves as a great metaphor for my nearly two decades of experience at Lee University. While none of us is a finished product, certainly the thousands of young people with whom we come into contact every semester are maybe a little less “finished” and are in the business of molding and reshaping their lives to become better vessels. That much is obvious.

IMG_5275It’s the “earthen” part that I want to dwell on here, or what we might refer to as the “mundane” if we want to Latinize the word. It’s exactly the mundane – those daily activities that rarely rise to the level of other people’s notice – that have made working here at Lee University so very different … and such a rewarding experience.

I’ll never forget in my first year when I was a freshman sponsor of the yearbook. I remember wedging my way into Donna Summerlin’s car on top of a few hundred yearbooks that she and I had laboriously stuffed into mailer envelopes. We hauled them over to the post office and tossed them into the uncomplaining and seemingly insatiable mail slot. And then we ran back to campus and filled the car again—and again.

Then there was the time we moved the yearbook office to 4th Floor Walker–a step ahead of the bulldozers elsewhere on campus–and Joel Kailing and I, with a long chain of happy student volunteers, hauled several dozen heavy boxes full of yearbooks from the box truck in the front circle parking lot, around the back of Walker, all the way up the fire escape, through the corridors and into the offices. And as we finished, somewhat worse for wear, Joel Kailing said to me, “This isn’t the sort of thing that shows up on your PAR.”

Obviously some of these stories are a bit richer in the telling than in the actual experiences, such as the one where, after staying up until 2 am on a Sunday night to get the Collegian finished by deadline, I had to run back to campus at 6 am the next Wednesday to pull all the papers from all the stands on campus and destroy them because somehow a student comment had snuck into the copy declaring that the best thing that could happen to then president Clinton was for him to be assassinated. (We didn’t want a visit from the Secret Service).

Admittedly some of these experiences are a little less mundane than others. I have ridden with students on trains, planes, automobiles, trolleys, trams, buggies, ferries, ships, canoes and jungle rafts to take them to places where they could engage a broad spectrum of cities, cultures, histories, service opportunities, scholarship, conversations … even the occasional drive-in movie.  With them I have run pell-mell through torrential rains at 18,000 feet among the llamas of the Andes and been equally soaked to the skin among the black cabs of Oxford, England. Here on campus and abroad I have heard their hopes, their dreams, their passions, their disappointments, their fears, their glorious discoveries, their hard-won triumphs, and yes, their failures and defeats. I’ve been to their graduations, of course, but also to their birthday parties, weddings and other celebrations. I’ve been to a few funerals….

Earthen vessels, shaped by their time here, with us and among us.

IMG_0614And the truly amazing thing for me is that with each little piece of earth that I have had any part in spackling into their lives, I find that I have been molded as well. And for a person whose relational strengths are, according to Gallup anyway, at the bottom of the scale, I treasure these connections more than I can express.

But this picture would be terribly incomplete without expanding on the contribution of my colleagues, a couple of whom I’ve already mentioned. Whether it’s a conversation about students with Cliff Schimmels in the baseball bleachers or a random chat with Charles Beach in a forgotten upper corner of the Walker Building, I’ve had a chance to connect in a personal way with the genuine heart of Lee University, that element the students always rave about when they take the NSSE survey: a faculty and staff that has always ardently bought into the mission of this place, that cares about the well being of the people with whom they serve and that rarely thinks of what they do here as simply a job.

With these colleagues I’ve had remarkable experiences, experiences of a nature I can’t imagine I could have had any other place. I’ve dodged teargas and trigger-happy cattle farmers in Ecuador alongside José Minay. I’ve engaged filmmakers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution with Xiaoxing Yu in Beijing. I’ve enjoyed the recitations of Lear, Hamlet and Caesar’s ghost in Montgomery, Alabama with Susan Rogers. I’ve swapped family stories with Evaline Echols on a long car ride in Nowhere Special, Tennessee. I’ve done a lap around the Circus Maximus in Rome with Randy Wood and I’ve made peace between screaming guides in Bruges, Belgium alongside John Simmons. I’ve gotten lost in a boggy forest outside of Cambridge, England with Eric Moyen. I’ve searched for catfish po’boys in New Orleans with Jayson Van Hook. I’ve escaped Alcatraz with Ron Gilbert and Jeff Salyer. And at the front desk of a hotel in Mexico City I discovered to my dismay along with Jason Ward that our considerable combined Spanish language vocabularies did not include the words for “clogged toilet.”

These are just the highlights.

I know this all sounds as though I’ve been lying about being an introvert. Maybe I’m just a shy social butterfly after all. But these experiences—even the Mexican stand off—I wouldn’t trade for anything. To you, today, all I can give is the lightest touch of things that carry with them stories that are far richer in detail. Each story has become another piece of me as I’ve been fashioned in this place by … well, by you people. And each piece reflects the extraordinary nature of what it means to be entrusted with the equally extraordinary task we have here.

Now I don’t want to unduly romanticize things. None of us is strictly the amalgamation of the events in our lives. Nor are we exclusively the product of our choices. We have a thing for cause and effect in the construction of our narratives, but life tends to be a little messier. We are each a jumble of convictions and contradictions, which is what makes us more earthen than something more refined, “…that the excellency may be of God and not of us.” In putting this reflection together, I realized with gratitude that I owe my students and my friends here an enormous debt that I can only ever begin to repay.

IMG_2577I’m glad that I came to Lee at a time when conventional boundaries between sectors and populations were a lot less formal and maybe less intimidating. I think that’s part of what has made it possible for me to squeeze so much from my time here. I would encourage everyone this year to dare to leap across some of the formal disciplinary divides between us. See what you can find on the other side. You might be surprised.

You might even be changed.

Earthen vessels. Let’s be careful with these fragile things. But let’s have fun being a part of this amazing creative process.

Thanks and have a great year.

The Problem of Conversion

ChurchToday, April 24, marks the 36th year of my “conversion.” The nomenclature seems grandiose upon reflection. This is not merely because one might regard with suspicion the transforming power of the prayer of a 14-year-old in the dead of night (surely the Divine prefers the oracles of rugged saints, suffering martyrs and innocent children). Add to that the prayer of a boy with no sense of faith, no inkling of the real world and no genuine sense of reality itself. One is  likely to see more mockery than miracle. At the time I was captive to an isolationist, eschatological sect–my life’s circumstances did not tend toward sanity then or even later.

And though my memory preserves the moment as a defining crisis, a brilliant flash in an otherwise dark and terrible decade, I no longer see it as THE moment that evangelical Christian traditions hold aloft as essential to the faith narrative. In fact, candor compels me to regard the episode as only one of many boiling points in an inimitable alchemical process whereby leaden doubt is remade into golden belief not once but many times over.

The latest biography of CS Lewis by Alister McGrath makes reference to a recent tempest in a teapot over the date of Lewis’ conversion. Turns out, in fact, that Lewis got it wrong in his own autobiography. The evidence is pretty solid, and perhaps all it goes to show is that for Jack Lewis the faith journey was far more important than the alleged starting point.

But something did happen for me in the wee hours of April 24, 1977. I recall the sensations very vividly, like Augustine does his open book in the Confessions, and I cherish the exquisitely beautiful moment of gestalt clarity–nothing like Lewis’ romantic, longing Sehnsucht,  much more like that point in The Matrix when Neo sees the program code flowing around him and makes the speeding bullets fall to the ground. (I don’t refer to any sense of the supernaturally heroic there, more to the sense of comprehension of how the world works). It was as if I had punched through the crust of subjectivity and somehow glimpsed quiddity itself. I am aware that to make the claim for such an achievement is beyond outrageous. Obviously that particular impossibility did not happen.

But again, Something did happen. And regardless of whether the experience was entirely self-generated and contained, or the product of a string of illusions (I can argue substantively otherwise, but won’t here), the result was both a revelation and a conversion of sorts.

Conversion to what? That has been the question of the following 36 years. Originally it was resignation to theism, an extra-rational embracing of a Divine presence. By extra-rational I mean that, after a bruising bout with atheism, I had already come to reject it, but had vehemently opposed theism as the alternative, almost purely on personal and emotional grounds. On that particular day in 1977, I took what was both an intellectual and emotional step through an open door I had avoided and accepted that theism was not merely legitimate. It was fact. And I felt strongly (and still do) that I connected with Divinity itself. Today I would say that I became aware of the Divinity that was always there much the way Molière’s bourgeois gentleman discovered he had been speaking prose all his life.

MausoleumBut such a “conversion” is little more than academic. We are wont, in Christian circles, to make much of that first step, and maybe that’s as it should be. But that’s all it is. One step. At most we might say it amounts to landing on a pretty beach from which point one must now navigate a mountain, as in Dante’s Purgatorio. Sadly, some traditions make so much of the beach “landing” that they feel the quest is done. Hymns have been dedicated to it. Countless sermonic laurels  festoon the width and breadth of it. We have constructed a massive ritual structure to celebrating on that beach.

What if this first step is not quite a genuine conversion? Augustine recognized this in that he dates his own true conversion in the Confessions not from the time he came to believe in God and started going to church (he had those bases covered early on) but from the moment he decided to take the Divine claims on his life seriously, claims that radically altered his life choices. Here is an altogether different quality of conversion than the dramatic moment at the foot of the cross in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The teachings of Christ often indicate that there are really only two faiths among us–the Worship of the Self and the Worship of the Other. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself,” and, “For whoever wills to save his life shall lose it, and whoever may lose his life for my sake shall find it,” are just two examples from scores where Christ directs people away from selfistic predilections and toward Other-centered thoughts and behaviors. In some cases, as in Matthew 22, the love for God is closely affiliated with love for neighbor. The Lord’s Prayer is yet another example, “forgive us … as we forgive those who….” In the apostolic epistles following the Gospels this thread of loving others, of focusing beyond one’s self, is closely allied to the more transcendant love of the Divine (see the epistles of James and John especially).

Here’s the snag. The problem of true conversion for the American Christian is that moving beyond the beachhead of belief and on up the mountain towards a truly transcendant faith is rapidly eclipsed by deeply held individualistic cultural claims that have the ring of religious truth. In fact, many of those claims–such as rights to liberty and happiness, entitlements to ownership, delirious promises of wealth and prosperity, the right to fair treatment in private and public, the well-oiled American Dream itself–are regularly preached from well-respected pulpits across the nation as nothing less than sacred trusts. They are preached even more religiously in American film, television, music, advertising and the burgeoning world of independently produced Internet entertainment.

Since ancient times in both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions and then in early Christian traditions, one of the clearest indicators of a life that was neither Divinely nor Others inclined was the inability to control the appetites. Simply put, the tendency to focus on one’s appetites, passions and desires indicates a preoccupation with the self to the detriment of others. In Christian medieval teaching and literature, as well as in the elaborate art of the cathedrals, passion or appetite-driven tendencies found expression as animalistic metaphors–wolves, dogs, swine, bulls, etc. Creatures such as centaurs and minotaurs were seen as expressive of these inclinations among humans and were viewed as unrepentant, fallen and hell-bound.

The American psyche as displayed in popular entertainment of so many varieties is the psyche of  medieval half-human, half-creature hybrids like the Medusa. Yet elevation of this psyche to protected status in so many contemporary church traditions (implicitly if not explicitly) steals away the voice of the Holy Spirit that might lead to a transcendant mountain conversion and replaces it with the siren call of self-fulfillment, fantasy and personal dreams of success across increasingly shorter time frames – “immediate results guaranteed!”

Cato urges Dante forward
Cato urges Dante forward

Perhaps most frightening of all is that some wonderfully ethical people who choose not to follow the Mardi Gras parade through the American Christian Quarter are derided and vilified, painted with epithets that seek to marginalize them, treated basically the same as Christ and his disciples were treated by the religious in their time. (I don’t want to imply that I include myself among the persecuted. I, like Saul, am probably still holding people’s coats while the Stephens are being stoned by the brethren). I’m not going to name any names here because the debate would descend into particulars and I don’t want to go there just yet.

Nevertheless, I know a growing number of people who, in their rejection of American Christianity are actually embracing Christ in his true nature; they just aren’t aware that the loving spirit prompting them is actually Divine and they have nothing to fear from the man from Nazareth. I have a feeling that in time they will come to recognize the silent stranger in their midst for who he is.

In Dante’s Purgatory, Cato (the author’s conception of a pagan  whose heart was so pure God couldn’t but let him occupy the first rung of the ladder outside of hell) has a special task. He is there to get the new arrivals off the beautiful beach at the base of the mountain and on their way up the difficult, labor intensive path to Paradise in which the various sins of the self are purged one by one. I have a great fondness for this particular chapter of the Purgatorio. On this anniversary of my own beachhead, I for one am hoping dearly that I’ve made a little progress up that hill.