Monthly Archives: September 2012

come kingdom…

Experience shews us that every beast doth act in oppression and cruelty, towards such creatures, as he can master at advantage. And thus doth the flesh of man, which is the King of beasts: For when the wisdome and power of the flesh raigns, which in deed is Adam, that man that appeared first to rule the earth, man-kinde, and by his un-righteousnesse makes it a land of barrennesse: For this first Adam is such a selfish power, that he seeks to compasse all the creatures of the earth into his own coveteous hands, to make himself a Lord, and all other his slaves.

~ Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness (1649)

Christians look forward to the return of Jesus, the Christ, who will establish his kingdom where lion and lamb will live in harmony, swords will be refashioned into plowshares, and “barrennesse” will be replaced with abundance  We Christians want that kingdom to come in fullness sooner than later. We desire for Christ to be Lord and not man. We know it is the final and truest answer to the suffering in this world. But we also know that kingdom has already come in a profound, challenging, and very real sense. We are called to follow Christ. That is our claim if we call ourselves Christians. To do so is to live in and live out the truth of that kingdom here and now. The alternative is to remain slaves of each other and ourselves.

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something standing above him in the distance

This is one of my favorite opening paragraphs:

The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire form Nottinghamshire. Two miles away, a church-tower stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it. Whenever one of the Brangwens in the fields lifted his head from his work, he saw the church-tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky. So that as he turned again to the horizontal land, he was aware of something standing above him in the distance.

The opening paragraph from The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence

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John Paul II on Parents Educating their Children

The following is from FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO:

The Right and Duty of Parents Regarding Education

36. The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a fully human life. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, “since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children. Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs.”(99)

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.

In addition to these characteristics, it cannot be forgotten that the most basic element, so basic that it qualifies the educational role of parents, is parental love, which finds fulfillment in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service of life: as well as being a source, the parents’ love is also the animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruit of love.

This gets to the heart of why we have chosen to homeschool our children.

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Teach like Jesus

[This is a reworking of an earlier post, which was then published on the Classical Conversations blog.]

I sometimes cringe when I hear Jesus called a great teacher. All too often those words are used to label Jesus as “merely” a great teacher, and he is so much more. But he was a great teacher. And like Jesus, the best teachers lead by example. Think about the best teachers you have had. You might remember the subjects they taught, but you probably remember more the way they taught, their mastery, their skill, and most importantly, their character. Maybe some were a bit disorganized, some a bit quirky, but they loved seeking the truth, were passionate in helping you to grow in knowledge, and they had humility. They were people who you wanted to imitate. I am convinced that to become a great teacher one must believe and embody the twin ideas that teaching with love is greater than teaching with mastery, but teaching with true mastery is, inherently, to teach with love. Let’s look at how Jesus taught.

Consider the following scene. Jesus and the disciples are in the upper room for the passover. Jesus knows he is going to his crucifixion and that his disciples are clueless, but he loves them dearly. In the Gospel of John 13:3-17 (NIV1984) we read:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

This famous passage is full of profound ideas to ponder, but I want to zero in on something specific: the way Jesus taught the lesson. Notice the key idea Jesus wants them to understand: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” One could say this is the logos of the lesson. It is simple, straightforward, and profound, and from the context of the upper room discourse this is a message Jesus really wants them to get. But now look how he got to that idea. Jesus lays aside his outer garments and begins washing their feet. This is not only outside the expected behavior of a teacher, but it also produces a striking image for them. And not only that, it produces a tension that must somehow be reconciled in their minds. Peter’s response most likely is just the verbal expression of what they were all thinking. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus creates a dilemma his disciples need resolved. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” That is exactly what they are wondering. This tension creates the proper context for his message: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” He then lets them in on his teaching process: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” But Jesus also knows they still will not truly understand until later: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Think how powerful that image of Jesus washing their feet must have been in their minds, especially when later they began to link it with the crucifixion. When the Holy Spirit opened their eyes and helped them to remember all that Jesus said and did, this scene must have stuck out. Whenever they thought of their Lord they would remember that he was the one who washed their feet, who then told them to do the same for each other, and to know that this upending of the normal order of things is at the core of the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” That is a powerful lesson.

How then did Jesus teach them? He showed rather than only told. In other words, he taught them mimetically. There are five basic parts to a great mimetic lesson and Jesus used all five.

We observe that Jesus:

  1. connected his lesson to prior knowledge. That is, when he took off his outer garments and began washing their feet he relied on their cultural understanding of servants and masters. They saw what he was doing even if they thought it strikingly odd. And they felt the tension, so they needed a resolution.
  2. gave them an example or type. That is, he created an image of a master serving his servants. Imagine the scene, they had to sit there and watch him wash their feet. Individually they each had to physically experience their feet being washed by their teacher. This must have been a profoundly visceral example.
  3. compared this type to other types. That is, he called attention to how this new type contrasted with what they knew to be the normal order of things. They could feel the tension, but he made sure they got it by connecting his example to what they thought they knew was right. The comparison must have been startling. By calling it out, Jesus made sure they understood that seeing the distinction was critical.
  4. expressed the idea. That is, he told them directly and simply the point of the lesson. He gave them words they could not forget: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
  5. applied the idea. That is, he told them to do as he had done, to be servants of each other. Later he would give them the greatest image of application they could ever hope or fear: his death on the cross.

Imagine Peter, years later, facing into his own crucifixion for the sake of the gospel. Imagine him looking back on his experiences as an apostle, all that he had gone through up to that point, all that he had preached and all that he had suffered, and then he remembers that evening sitting in a warm upper room when his beloved lord stripped himself of his outer garments and washed the disciples’ feet; how his master and teacher got down on his hands and knees and became their lowly servant. Peter must have remembered how Jesus looked, the color of his eyes, his voice, his expression, and his simple and elegant message. And he must have remembered his own confusion, his emotional response, and then his wonder at what it meant. Facing death, just as in life, Peter would have confronted the question, “What type of man will I be?” Fortunately in his mind and soul Peter would always have the indelible image of Jesus the master as servant; an image given as a gift━a gift he was able to receive, in part, because Jesus had connected that critical lesson to prior knowledge, then gave Peter an example or type, then compared that type to other types, then expressed the idea clearly once Peter was ready, and finally told him to apply the idea in his life.

Jesus was a great teacher. He taught with love and he taught with mastery. And he demonstrated both his love and his mastery by laying down his life for the sake of the world. That we would all become that kind of teacher. I am convinced some of us already embody a great deal of that type. My wife does so more than I. Regardless, all of us can do no better than to imitate Christ.

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Institutionally Pharisaical?

The following parable challenges me. I know which man I am most of the time. God have mercy. I also worry what this parable might mean for me, having been raised a Protestant.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Let’s assume that any individual, whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Atheist, etc. can have the spiritual condition of the Pharisee in the parable above. It is probably the default orientation of the human heart. We are all more like the Pharisee most of the time than the tax collector. Only by the grace of God go any of us. Only by the grace of God can our hearts soften enough to pray: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ But let’s step back and ask if this picture can also be applied more broadly. Can we say that certain organizations or movements tend to embody the Pharisaical orientation? Certainly some organizations or social groups or ideological groups have a built-in penchant for pride more than others. Any group that defines itself, at least in part, as better than the other groups it critiques is probably culpable—which is most groups at some level. For example, the new atheists tend to be more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. The new atheism has a strong “I thank *myself* that I am not like those other (religious) people.” And we also see this attitude common to many niche activist groups.

It is very common for Christian groups to thank God they are not like those non-Christian, worldly types given over to the lusts of the world, etc., etc.

So I wonder if the two types of persons, Pharisee and tax collector, can be institutionalized, or viewed as corporate types regardless of individual culpability. Perhaps this is a stretch, but can it be that, even with my conscience being “clear,” I could actively be part of an organization that is built upon the Pharisaical position?

For the individual, a spiritual condition or stance may or may not have predictable emotions tied to it; a person who looks humble on the outside may be full of pride; a person sincere in their faith may prefer falsehoods over truth; a person who revels in pageantry may, under it all, and even as a necessary foundation, have an authentic and humble faith. We also know that a local church may be different on the inside than it is on the outside. A church that proclaims verbally and loudly that Jesus is Lord might, in fact, have something else as lord. A church can be prideful, self-absorbed, and disordered. With this in mind—and with no intention of judging any individual—might it be that the Protestant position, at the historical/institutional level, and as it stands against the historical Church, tends more towards the Pharisee than the tax collector?

“Thank you God we are not like those deceived Catholics; those pagan Catholics; those reprobate Catholics; those damned Catholics.”

Consider: It is the Pharisee who must separate himself from the “other men,” from any who would bring impurity to his purity. It is the typical Protestant church (particularly Fundamentalist, Baptist, and a few others) that must separate itself from other churches, from any other group of Christians that might bring impurity to its “purity”. For example, the Baptist church in which I grew up feared ecumenism like the plague. The quasi-reformed non-denominational church that I attended after also fears ecumenism in subtle yet pervasive ways. Both would probably deny that charge, but consistent behaviors over time indicate the charge is valid. Traditional Protestantism is propelled forward by the need to separate from other Christians and, here’s the issue, to thank God they have the true Gospel and are not like those others who claim they are Christians but clearly are not.

The question: If what we call the Reformation became a rebellion, no longer intent on either true reformation or unity, and willing to tolerate the proliferation of innumerable ecclesial divorces, and willing to relegate love to the least important of “faith, hope, and love” for the sake of doctrinal purity (faith), then should we not assume that the historical reformational stance is one of pride such that inherent in its very DNA is the necessary prayer:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”? Certainly the individual, living within the confines of a particular Protestant denomination, may have a true heart of repentance, and so might a particular group of believers, but could it be that at the more-or-less institutional/historical level the soul of the Reformation, the heart of Protestantism on the whole, is the heart and soul of the Pharisee? Is that possible?

I raise this question from my own experience and troubled thoughts. I worry that I inherited a stance (20th century, Baptist, American, Protestant) that seemed so right and clear and self-evident, and yet may have been essentially, inherently, structurally Pharisaical. What I have experienced in general, but with many exceptions certainly, is a tendency for Protestants to have a great deal of pride, much like that Pharisee, when it comes to criticizing the Catholic Church (in my experience that criticism extended to most other Protestant denominations as well). Not only is there a kind of relish in promoting ad hominem attacks on the Catholic Church (I see this blatantly evident in the comments sections of blogs), but the Reformation itself seems like a Pharisaical move—and that’s my real concern. I know the individual is responsible for his own heart, and that we each stand before God on our own in some critical sense, but the sheer amount of evidence points to a kind of Protestant hegemony and necessary sociological structures that bolster the Pharisaical position—which assumes self-righteousness, and thus a comforting blindness. And I have lived into that position most of my life.

I imagine the Pharisee in the parable had a laundry list of arguments and scriptural references to show the rightness of his position; but I wonder if, in the same way and for the same reasons, the overall Protestant stance is wrong. Keep in mind, my questions are not about individuals, rather about the Protestant “project”. And I am not considering the possible wrongness of Catholicism or individual Catholics—I just want to point the finger at my heritage, at myself, at the religious world that formed me.

Fear: How long have I exalted myself because I stood in the glow of Protestantism? How long have I thanked God I am not like those other Christians? Has my pride in “doctrinal truth” made me assume a humility that is false?

You see, one of the key conditions of the Pharisee is blindness in the midst of clarity. The clarity is, in a sense, of scripture, of truth, of God—which has, at least, the appearance of a rock-solid foundation. The Pharisees knew the scriptures inside and out, and yet Christ called them on it, for they did not truly know them. The blindness is of pride and self-righteousness. And pride blurs the assumed clarity of understanding. Therefore it becomes a kind of total blindness. The protestant project is focused on doctrine, on argument, on truth, and on a personal relationship with Jesus. These are good things. But if pride gets in the way then all is for naught, all is lost. Many Protestants love God and live lives of humility. For whatever reason God has them where He wants them to be. But that does not solve the overall question of whether or not the Protestant position has, at some critical level, become Pharisaical. At the individual level we must follow our conscience. Perhaps my conscience is seeing more clearly than it once did. Perhaps I am more blind. Only by the grace of God go I or any of us.

I believe the Protestant who is, at heart, a true Christian (a follower of Christ, a “little Christ”), and thus one who loves God, seeks the pearl of great price, desires the unity of all believers (the Church), will do what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus more than a disciple of doctrine (a tricky distinction for sure) and thus will cease (must cease eventually, inevitably) to be Protestant. For me, in my existential inner self, the Protestant position, though used by God in many ways (for He can use anything for good), is no longer tenable. And I wonder if it ever really was. I wonder if, institutionally, Protestantism is a form of Pharisaism. And I wonder if we just can’t see it.

Why is this important? I have come to realize that Christian faith is not merely personal, but is corporate as well. God will work in us and with us where ever He has placed us. Protestantism has brought many people into a personal (read: emotional)  relationship with Jesus Christ, including many Catholics. The influence of the evangelical spirit that animates much of Protestantism has, from what I can tell, had a positive affect on the Catholic Church—and maybe this is, finally, the true Reformation. But I have to ask myself everyday, if I am  to be a Protestant: Why truly am I a Protestant? I know standard responses, I understand the difficulties, but I can know longer find an answer that satisfies.

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