Category Archives: devotional

The aggregate of thoughts, feelings, and years

I can stand up for hope, faith, love
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady  — U2

With this blog during the past five years, I’ve tried to make the case that Protestant evangelicalism and its close cousins are intellectually problematic exercises in futility.

The available Reformed and fundamentalist views of God, humans, and the Bible never really work out, intellectually or experientially, without constant guess work and endless, tiny adjustments in the particulars of belief.

Unfortunately for me, this line of argument has been just as futile as evangelicalism.

Even when others have understood specific, concrete stories from my own life, they could not understand what brought me to the point of exasperation.

What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours in conversations with friends, ministers, and psychologists.

What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours of observations and, later, evaluation of those observations, the mulling over and over of words spoken and actions observed.

In other words, I don’t have arguments for or against evangelicalism. I have a life that offers deep and broad reasons why evangelicalism as a way of life does not work and couldn’t possibly.

When I found a church with candles and liturgy, I thought at least I could continue to believe in God and worship what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” which I took to be the Incarnation. That was the best I could do.

These days I see people going back in the same direction I came from, tempting the darker forces of religion to control congregations. But there is no way to bottle or package my experiences and my perspectives and present them concretely as a cautionary tale. Others are trying to bottle and package their experiences and their perspectives, and they carry more certainty than I do, maybe with fewer years, but with more zeal.

For them, “there’s one size for everyone.”

For me, “this particular size works for no one.”

Which is the more limited point of view?

G.K. Chesterton once contrasted the pagan circle with the Christian cross. The circle is closed, he said, with no expansion possible. The cross, however, extends infinitely in four directions, essentially in all directions.

I am sure my opposites would consider my point of view to be the circle, and their point of view to be the cross. Of course, I see it the other way around. The only thing I can say in response is that the liturgy and the candles — and, certainly, the bread and wine — enabled me to imagine the cross extending infinitely into past and future, while its crux remains firmly at “the still point of the turning world.”

The strange thing about the way sovereignty is assumed among Reformed, fundamentalist, and evangelical circles is this: there’s nothing to imagine. Only precision of abstract doctrine, none of the genuine mystery of the Baptized God and His universe as sensed and intuited by poets, novelists, and artists. Perhaps there’s nothing to imagine because the ministers feel certain they have grasped the mind of God.

The imaginations that drove Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien and Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor were Roman Catholic. The imagination that drove T.S. Eliot was Anglo-Catholic. The imagination that drove Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was Russian Orthodox. The biggest imagination that was close to evangelicalism was C.S. Lewis, who was Anglican. Are there any evangelical,  fundamentalist, or Reformed authors or poets of their caliber in the last 100 years? Perhaps in parts of Europe, but certainly not in the United States or the United Kingdom. I doubt the Reformed, evangelical, or fundamental crowds would claim John Updike or Garrison Keillor — they’re too liberal.

Elsewhere, others have said that our wills fail because the images in our subconscious minds undercut us. The imagination, as most deeply engrained in our minds, as most symbolically woven together with our beliefs, runs on stores of images. Those images must have a basic goodness to them if our wills are to accomplish what our rational minds say we want to achieve.

The Christian imagination ought to be broad and deep and it should buoy our wills toward good ends. The mindset that focuses on doctrinal precision and steps and methods and curricula and numerical growth in congregations only engages the rational mind. This is a failing mindset. As Chesterton said, “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

‘You and me and Mel Gibson and our worst enemy, even when that last proves to be ourselves’

Cover of "The Passion of the Christ (Defi...

Cover via Amazon

Tony Woodlief offers an outstanding devotional at Image’s blog this morning.

An excerpt:

For all the garish bloodshed there is, therefore, a truthfulness at the heart of films as disparate as Mad Max and The Passion of the Christ and Edge of Darkness that makes them far less offensive to the spirit than a wide swath of romantic comedies peddling the lie that love bears no suffering.

I don’t know if Mel Gibson is evil or insane or just has the bad luck to be caught on record at his worst moments. I know if a camera caught me at my worst, I’d qualify for both evil and insane, and maybe this means that deep down I really am both, or too nearly there to merit parsing words to the contrary….

And this is the thing that keeps you sane, if you believe the story of Golgotha: that no matter what you are or what you will be, you are good enough, and you are loved.

Be sure to read the entire post.

Grace is for the norm

Grace is for the norm. Everything that is normal is sinful. Some of us become saintly, some of us become perverted, but most of us are just as sinful as we are normal. Grace is for the norm.

The Cross and the mirror

We’re just about done moving, while working and attending conferences and taking little daughters to the Y for basketball.

Last night, I brought home a small, wood-framed mirror from our previous residence.

I thought about hanging it right inside the front door on a nail that holds an artist’s handy work: a cross of green glass with sheet-metal trim. I could just move the cross to another place.

Then it struck me: Replace the cross with a reflection of myself?

I don’t believe that moving wall hangings has to have a spiritual meaning, but taking down a cross to hang a mirror seemed too symbolic of a bad internal disposition.

I found another place for the mirror.

Trinity’s study of Philippians: ‘He who began a good work’

In yesterday’s sermon at Trinity, Rob said we won’t talk about Philippians again for a while. That’s because we’re heading into the Advent season. I think most of us would agree that Rob and Iain, along with those parishioners who contributed to the devotionals, have done a great job walking us through Philippians.

As a closing thought (from a layman), I want to alter Philippians 1:6 just for a minute: …he who began a good work in that other person will complete it.

It’s easy to remember, “He who began a good work in you [that’s me!] will complete it.” I would rather apply that to me than to you, but the truth is, God is working in you — and in others who have kept the faith, no matter how peculiar, strange, or difficult they might be.

It’s not easy to remember we have different starting lines for the races of life and faith that we run before the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). When I forget those different starting lines, I tend to think things like, “Why can’t that guy get with the program!” But the very existence of grace presupposes that our individual messes are deeper than we can manage individually. Some messes are easy to survive socially — some messes are even funny — but others aren’t so easy to pass-off socially. Some of us can look nearly perfect, even saintly, while some of us will never get close to good. Too many factors out of my control, and out of the control of the person I might be judging, are involved in any given circumstance. Few of us are completely happy with who we are, with the way we were born. When I think about it all, I ought to be asking, “Why can’t I get with the program?”

For whatever reason, the central works of our separate lives are done by our heavenly Father through our faith in the sacrifice of Christ. He promised to complete the work in the ancient Philippian people, and by extension through Scripture, he promises to complete it in us, too. What is that work? My guess is that it is something along these lines: To “keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude 24). That’s true for the end of all things, no matter how much change we accomplish — or fail to accomplish — in our time on earth. It’s not that our human efforts mean nothing — do we dare challenge the Parable of the Talents, or the wisdom of the Proverbs? — but we’ve been given hope as a gift, so our successes don’t have to fill us and our failures don’t have to kill us. Something even greater than the greatest success is waiting for us.

Circumstances color wounds as well as blame

How do people assign blame, and how do they characterize wounds?

Let’s say I was walking on a suburban sidewalk late one afternoon when a car swerved off the road and hit me. I was stuck with a limp for the rest of my life.

The driver’s circumstances would color how I told the story of my limp.

I could say, with a tone of hot disgust, I was HIT by a DRUNK DRIVER. Some people just ignore all common sense!

I could say, with a heavy heart, I was hit by a car when a middle-aged man had a heart attack and died behind the wheel. I feel horrible for his wife and children. I am lucky to be alive.

I could say, with sense of resignation, I was hit by a sweet, little old lady with an oversize hat who has yet to stop apologizing, and she keeps baking me chocolate chip cookies, like twice a week! Oh well, what can ya do?

I wish I had that type of clarity about the accidents of my life, but most of the time, I can hardly tell what the actual outcomes have been.


A stranger’s prayer at the altar rail

I spent Saturday afternoon agonizing about something that I’ll call an unseen idol. It was something I valued, but something unhealthy that I knew I needed to get out of my heart and mind. I prayed about it and thought about it and tried to write down the core of the matter.

On Sunday morning, my church was completing a three day event that led up to a renewal of baptismal vows. The event involved a team of fellow Episcopalians from outside the parish. We were invited to come to the front for prayer, and ministers from our church and the team, in groups of two or three, prayed for everyone in the long line.

When I came up, two strangers from the team, apparently a husband and wife, prayed for me, and every word the man said was directly related to my thoughts, prayers, and writings from the previous day. Nothing in the prayers left me feeling chastised. I felt an assurance that God heard my prayers and was helping me. I was encouraged. I told the man who had prayed for me that his words had come from some of my own prayers.

I trust that God expects us, as fallen beings, to fail and to have failings. It has taken me some time to realize that the only real trick is asking Him for help, and to expect great things not from ourselves, but from Him.

-Colin Foote Burch