These Stories We Tell

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I’m sitting in church and trying to listen to the sermon. It’s raining outside; the water falls against the window like sheets on a bed someone’s making in the morning. Inside the pews are packed. A baby cries; the couple in the next seat over whispers back and forth. There’s a teenage girl in front of us, her dress matches her nail polish; her hair pulled up in a bun with hormonal precision.

And there’s my pastor. A good preacher, really. He’s finishing a series on the story of Esther.

But a spark of movement beneath the pew in front of me catches my eye. It darts around the wooden leg of the pew. Is that a spider? I can’t be sure. But it is something, something tiny; ten of them could fit on the head of a needle. The only reason I know it’s even alive-even something- is because it’s moving so fast; I see blurs and imagine eight little legs rushing like blades on a helicopter.

“While the tale of how we suffer,” James Baldwin writes, “and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” I read this in the memoir of a man who overdosed on heroin, and thought of it on hearing Esther’s story. Baldwin adds: “There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

No one has ever heard silence. No one except God in the beginning. But then he spoke and something happened, existence happened, noise happened, we happened. And all these happeneds, all the stuff of legends, religion, wars, romance and life itself, they all find their way into one word: stories. Heavens and the earth, an apple, snake, and the only permissible naked pictures in Sunday school; Israelites, a temple-tabernacle-whatchamacallit, slaughtered animals, a baby in a manger, a cross and a tomb. And now this sermon, this room, men dressed in suits, teenagers slouching and texting out of sight; a spider dashing between the pew.

What are any of these without words? Consider the following counter to Mr. Baldwin: “a light shines in the darkness.”

Plato once commiserated that when people started writing they began forgetting. A startling observation. Stories have always existed. But our means of conveying them -blogs, pop-up books, foreclosure notices and song lyrics scrawled on diner napkins- the words we use to pin these stories on paper were once just as novel as the microwave or internet. And they were, to Plato, as ridiculous a means of existence as Facebook to my grandparents.

The spidersomething darts back under the pew. Is it a spider? A tiny bug? A delusion? I am learning something just by asking the question. It disappears again, around the time of my pastor’s fourth point (it’s a Presbyterian church).

That’s the remarkable thing about stories, the way they dart to and fro, like tiny somethings beneath a Sunday pew. They never stop but sometimes disappear. They are part of our world and then they are gone, almost as soon as we hear them. And with stories that our minds wander, weaving the the tapestry of time. Until the story leads us from our need for a verdict; “only those who believe obey,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “and only those who obey believe.”

The story of Jesus is not that of a masochistic bloke who just happened to be God. It’s the story of a God who entered the story because he’s fascinated with the narrative and- befuddlingly so- the characters themselves. That takes a kind of desire that words- regardless of how inspired, conveyed, or regarded- cannot capture.

We’ve forgotten how to tell this story; we took the apple, wrote it down; we’re distracted in the pew and forgetful too. These stories we tell are nothing more than reality roped and noosed onto a few stubborn, fallible words. They are not the end of the matter; you do not train a stallion by getting a rope around its neck and hanging on for dear life. We are not God. We’ve no ability to hear them not told.

And so these stories we tell are themselves a confession, a confession to the power of the first word, the light in darkness, the God of the silent whirlwind. These stories we tell in our sermons, emails, love notes, sitcoms and mortgage papers- these stories are something miraculous and mysterious; if only we catch a glimpse as they dart back under the pew.

So we press on, we live on, we search on, and we move on.

And someday maybe we’ll remember; we’ll hear the reality behind the words. We’ll see the spider, confess our belief, and these stories we tell will become quaint recollections of when we didn’t know better.

And oh, the stories we’ll tell.

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On Learning (Trying, Really) To Pray

learning to pray

I close my eyes. I fold my hands. I bend my knees. I breathe, in, out, in, out. I clear my mind: did I schedule the dentist appointment yet? I wonder if I should have salad  or chicken parmesan for dinner. God, it’s so effing humid out. I can’t wait till football season; was it really a good idea taking Peyton again in my fantasy draft? I’m not sure I like these sandals. I breath again. And then I … then I … I …

I pray.

But okay, hold up. Let’s be honest. I don’t really know what prayer is.

Christ taught his inner circle to pray with a formula: “Lord,” said the disciples, “teach us how to pray.” And so he did. He gave a word-by-word guide: you don’t know how to appeal to God? Here take my hand and I’ll show you. Don’t know how to give due reverence to the Father? Let’s start with “hallowed be thy name.”

Jesus laid the foundations, the stepping stones with which we, mere humans, could converse with the Almighty. And then-most importantly- he paved this pathway with his death on the cross. “To pray in Jesus’ name,” Timothy Keller writes, ” [is] to reground our relationship with God in the saving work of Jesus over and over again.”

Which is fantastic, remarkable, unfathomable. But this still doesn’t answer the question at hand: what is prayer? Is a brute recitation of the Lord’s Prayer the only means by which we can talk to God?

The answer- thankfully, gratefully, wonderfully- is no. Prayer, though it should never be less, invites us to expand on the conversation with God which Christ began on our account. And across Church history we see the personality of the saints painting the portrait of prayer in a myriad of colors:

John Donne prayed through writing poems, tediously selecting words, phrases, rhymes and meter to compose something beautiful unto God. Martin Luther was in the habit of finding a quiet corner and reading to himself, word-for-word, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed and finally some selections from to gospels or the psalter. Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner turned missionary, infamously spoke of how he felt God’s pleasure while running- the the other side of this conversation we call “prayer.”

The problem with such examples of prayer (if “problem” is really the right word) is that they focus on the personal aspect of a relationship with Christ. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has been steadily but surely pushing back on the once-held notion that the clergy (pastors, priests, etc) exist as mediators for the laity, the common people, you and me. The reformers (with due credit allotted to the timely invention of the printing press) insisted that all believers can -and should- encounter God through the Scriptures, receive him in the sacraments and approach him in prayer. Faith- and with it prayer- became personal.

Which is good, wonderful, necessary, and Biblical.

But, as with all things, needs a dose of moderation.

Because when prayer becomes just a personal endeavor, when prayer is removed from the context of communal faith, we also lose our framework for how to actually pray.

For prayer brings the believer into the community of the saints. The words “Dear Lord,” “Our Father”, “Precious Jesus kind and good (…)”; these words unite us to the confessing Church, like a college’s fight song unites its alumni. Prayer is not a matter of enhancing a personal relationship with Christ, boxing out everyone and anything and focusing entirely on his relationship with you. Rather, prayer is the act of taking the hands of believers before and around you, of approaching God’s throne as a member of his bride, the Church. The words I mutter at church, the thoughts I think (intentionally, aimed towards God who- best as I can imagine- is somewhere in the sky) at night, the Psalms I read, the times I yell in anger, shout with joy, laugh, dance, run- the flutters of goodness, hope, gratitude and praise that lift from my inner being…these do not isolate me as a believer in a personal relationship but identify me as a member of the universal Church.

In other words: prayer is personal, but it is also something so much more than just the expression of a single bond between myself and Christ. Every member of the choir matters; but it’s the joining of their voices in harmony and unison that the bridegroom has come to hear.

And this is of great comfort to me as I’m learning (trying, really) to pray.

Because suddenly my conversation with Christ does not rely on me. When prayer is seen as something much greater than my own direct line to Christ, when prayer is understood as a joining of voices, my shouts of “hurrah!” rising with the thousands, then prayer does not end when I open my eyes, think about dinner, speed-read the Psalms or forget to mutter my grocery lists of requests and praises prior to going to bed. When prayer moves outside of something that I control and into something in which I participate, then the act of trying to pray is itself caught up grace.

Prayer is not a pre-paid phone line between myself and Christ; the conversation goes on even when I hang up, or perhaps cannot bring myself to call.

Which is why prayer is not a test. The Tabernacle, Levitical law, Old Testament sacrificial system… if anything was, these were the test between God and his people, a test no one can pass. Except Christ. And when he aced the test, when he died on the cross, he opened up a channel of accessibility between God and his people. Prayer- this conversation with God- is a reflection of our relationship to God; and so it hinges on his work, not ours.

Prayer, ultimately, is not something we do, but something we accept, and partake.

We accept God’s desire for a relationship with his bride, the Church. We accept our role in said Church, the community of saints, the gathering of sinners now redeemed. We accept the conversation occurring between the Creator and created of which we are a part. We accept and the acceptance, the acknowledgement, the bowed head, still moments, whispered Psalms, and shouts of “hallelujah!”, these actions are not our own but are Christ’s. They are Christ’s who works in grace and through the believer in very act of prayer itself.

And so I do want to pray. And I’m always learning different ways: reading the Psalms aloud, five every day, the entire Psalter each month; repeating liturgical phrases (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”; “the Lord bless you and keep you”; “the word of the Lord, thanks be to God!”) every spare moment of every day; sitting in silence and awe of his creation: a park bench, a food court in the mall, a scenic overlook, a sandy beach; closing my eyes and thinking thoughts directed to a God who wants to be known but- at the same time- one could never comprehend.

I pray. I try.

And with every breath I’m all the more thankful that the prayer does not depend on my technique, effort, desire, or even purity of heart.

Instead it depends on Christ. And therefore it is heard.

Thanks be to God.

 

Why I’m A Pacifist But I Still Celebrate Memorial Day

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I’m a Christian pacifist. In light of Christ’s death and resurrection, I do not believe that Christians should execute criminals, wage wars or even posses weapons for the purpose of self-defense. While I hold these views loosely- meaning I try to be humble in my assertions and in my own ability to ‘walk the talk’- I also hold them with great conviction.

That said, today I am celebrating a holiday of remembrance for all those men and women who have sacrificed their lives in service to the American nation. Today, I am celebrating Memorial Day.

There are a couple things about me that make my adherence to pacifism somewhat unique-the first being how many people I truly love and respect who have served in the military. My grandfather was a pilot in World War II. He flew 35 combat missions over Germany, carrying a Bible in his pocket on each flight. Likewise my father- probably the person I admire the most in life- was an Air Force fighter pilot. And I have many close friends who’ve been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and some theaters the average American isn’t even aware we’re in.

Secondly- and this is the real kicker- I myself am a member of the military. I currently serve as an officer in the Army Reserves Medical Corps. I joined the military because I wanted to be an Army Ranger. But a change of heart toward pacifist convictions led me to serve my commitment in a non-combative role.

All of this goes to say that Memorial Day raises some interesting questions for me: should I celebrate those who not only gave their lives but also took the lives of others in service to this country? Can I- in good conscience- partake in the celebration of military veterans and members? Is such honoring also honoring to Christ?

The answer to these questions came from an unexpected source: a fairy tale. The Last Battle is the final book in CS Lewis’ famed Chronicles of Narnia series. It’s about the final feud between forces of good and evil and presents one of Lewis’ more vivid depictions of heaven.

It’s near the end of the book that the good servants of Aslan arrive in paradise where they encounter an unexpected character. His name is Emeth and he was a warrior and a foe in the previous life, a loyal servant of the god Tash, a god erected in opposition by enemies of Aslan.

The servants of Aslan are befuddled, and understandably so. All their lives they’d known servants of Tash to be the wicked counterparts to their service to Aslan; how could he have been accepted into paradise? Emeth understands their confusion, and tells them he himself was confused and terrified upon arriving to find that Aslan was the true God, and his life of loyalty had been horribly misplaced. He fell before Aslan, sure of his fate. But instead of smiting him, Aslan kissed him on the forehead and said:

“Son, thou art welcome… all of the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me…Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites…For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

 The Last Battle (pg. 204-205)

I am a pacifist. But I do not believe soldiers who fight and die for America are evil. I believe that- on the whole- they are sincere, brave, dedicated and remarkably loyal individuals. I can only aspire to be so true.

I don’t believe that service to Christ can entail violence under the banner of the American flag, killing for the sake of a nation-state. All that said: the loyalty of soldiers to this country, misplaced though I may believe it to be, is still much greater than any cost I’ve had to pay for my allegiance to Christ.

There will always be discrepancies in the ways we show our dedication to Christ. No one lives a life in perfect service to Jesus and I am certainly not the exception. Shall I then judge those whose service to their country they sincerely believed to also be service to Christ?

Because ultimately it is not historians, politicians or even the clergy and religious leaders who decide which side of the spectrum a person falls; Nazi soldiers were not all evil and American soldiers are not all pure in heart. It is not the stories as we tell that decide the value of one’s service; such deeds are God’s to judge. And no one else’s.

Today, I remember and honor those who gave everything they had: their futures, hopes, homes with picket fences, the sound of their children’s laughter on Christmas morning, the touch of their spouse’s hand upon their skin; today, I remember the men and women who gave their lives in service to this country. I may not believe in the country they served but I do believe in a God who’s grace covers all our best and worst intentions. And I believe that- through the blood of the lamb- God turns all dedicated service into beautiful and willing sacrifice unto Christ himself.

And such a God is one worth celebrating.

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