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Literature

Preaching and Needing Grace, Again and Again

Preaching and Needing Grace, Again and Again

After I became a Christian during my junior year of college, I found myself attending a church where I heard the gospel of grace at Church every Sunday morning, at small group gatherings every Sunday night, and while sitting around kitchen tables and coffee tables with my new Christian friends as our conversations about Jesus lingered into the late hours of many nights. I soaked up the solid teaching and theology that was handed to me every time I turned around. At first I wondered why everyone kept talking about the gospel and how we all needed to “remind each…

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The Struggle of Dying

The Struggle of Dying

This meditation on Lent and healing prayer comes to us from our friend Laurel Marr. 

In his book, The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young soldier who enlists in the army in hopes of fulfilling his dream for glory. But, a long time goes by before his regiment is called forward to battle and the fear of dying begins to set in his mind. Henry wonders if he is really brave enough for battle. Then, upon seeing the enemy for the first time, Henry’s courage fails and he flees the battlefield.

Thank you, Stephen Crane…

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The Ultimate Apocalypse

The Ultimate Apocalypse

Just in time for spring, this one comes to us from our fellow survivor, Zack Verham.

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” – The First History Man (Mad Max: Fury Road)

“And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” – 1 John 5:11 (NRSV)

My all-time favorite book is Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s a complete four-course science fiction buffet for nerds across the land, and it’s fundamentally post-apocalyptic. The world-building Herbert undertakes is extravagantly meticulous, and the universe as it stands when the…

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A Rabbi and a Psychiatrist Walk into a…

A Rabbi and a Psychiatrist Walk into a…

My love language is books. If you know me for any length of time and I like you, there will probably be books arriving. I might even send you books if I don’t like you. Two that will be among the first to arrive are The Prophets and The Sabbath, both written by the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. There is much to be said of Heschel, but for my money, all you need to know about the author is communicated by the tears running down this brother’s face:

Today I was thinking, rather randomly, about something Rabbi Heschel said in…

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Defending The Shack (Sort Of)

Defending The Shack (Sort Of)

A look at the controversial film adaptation, this one comes to us from Bill Walker.

It will perhaps be no surprise to many readers here to learn that, overall, The Shack is simply not a high quality film. It has already received scathing reviews by critics, and for very understandable reasons, even if the popular viewership has been moderately receptive.

A movie like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, for example, is arguably superior to The Shack, and it’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that more people will likely see the latter than the former. But unlike Silence, and this isn’t unimportant, The Shack is a film that…

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The Zacchaeus Option

The Zacchaeus Option

I guess there comes a point in every couple’s life where watching TV and not showering is a more alluring prospect than long hygenic rituals followed by being social. My wife and I are binge-watching a new show called Imposters. I thought the show’s premise was implausible, almost silly at first. But now we’re hooked.

Imposters begins with a newlywed couple so immersed in their own love and happiness, it’s almost nauseating. After some intimate moments (this show is on Bravo) we cut to the husband, Ezra Bloom (played by up-and-coming actor Rob Heaps), talking about his nuptial bliss with co-workers at the…

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The Only Black Box I Have Access To

The Only Black Box I Have Access To

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (Jn 9:39)

There’s been a lot of talk about “empathy.” It has been a beloved moniker for what the nation most needs today and, like most cultural buzzwords, ’twas only a matter of time before it became the next concept in a graveyard of truisms. Empathy is one more expression of love that ran dry—it’s insufficient, it’s coercive, it’s biased.

But empathy is a good thing! It’s something every good counselor hopes to extend, something every preacher every Sunday…

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James Joyce, circa 1922

Big Little Deaths

In a memorable section of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Daedalus comes upon a relatively large sum of money and squanders it, prodigal son style. Daedalus shifts several times in the novel from extreme penitence and self-denial to full-on pursuit of his sinful desires. This tension between reverence for accepted teachings and the rebellious grandiosity of youth is fertile ground in literature, and well-traveled mental territory for an angsty young man. But groping after a higher plateau, an intimation of immortality, comes at a price. Whether it’s listening to upbeat music in a packed concert…

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Perfection, Perfection – Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB

From the acclaimed poet/monk’s 2003 collection Swift, Lord, You Are Not, published when he was 82.

(“I will walk the way of perfection.” Psalm 101:2)

I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.
Gone.

As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you
in.

It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green
joy.

Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its
birth.

Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can’t be won, concedes the
war.

I’ve handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I
quit.

Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo’s radiant David
squints,

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.

“You Impute Me”: Thoughts on Rude Patients and Kind Teachers

“You Impute Me”: Thoughts on Rude Patients and Kind Teachers

I’m still reflecting on Sarah Condon’s excellent talk at Mockingbird Tyler last week, particularly her discussion of imputation. Once you see imputation in action, it is hard not to notice its presence and absence all over the place.

Take my newsfeed this week. The New York Times ran an article called, “What Happens When Parents are Rude in the Hospital.” A researcher at Tel Aviv University investigated simulated crisis scenarios in a neonatal ICU. Actors, posing as parents of tiny patients, gave a variety of feedback to the medical staff. For example, one rude “mother” in the study emoted…

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Empathy in Sorrow, Freedom in Truth: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Empathy in Sorrow, Freedom in Truth: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Here’s a look at George Saunders’ new and acclaimed book, Lincoln in the Bardo (appropriately released just in time for these days of Lenten journey). This review was written by Ethan Richardson & CJ Green.

…As in the land of darkness, yet in light,
To live a life half dead, a living death,
And buried; but, O yet more miserable!
Myself my sepulchre, a moving grave.

— Milton, Samson Agonistes

The first two pages of Lincoln in the Bardo detail a charming, Beauty-and-the-Beast kind of love story, albeit in a very George Saunders style: an older, overweight, lame-legged, toothless printer, a beautiful and young woman, their arranged marriage. The…

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More from Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote

In an excellent chapter from The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman (who will be speaking at the 10th anniversary conference in April!) analyzes our obsession with setting goals. “Goal Crazy” zeroes in on the 1996 disaster at the summit of Mount Everest, documented most memorably in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Burkeman’s insight that the goals we set often become assimilated into our identities has strong resonances of Law. We are so uncomfortable with the undeserved gift of grace that we create goals for ourselves and then lament our inadequacies when we fail to meet them. Aided by the work of “stockbroker turned expert on organisational behavior,” Chris Kayes, Burkeman writes,

The Everest climbers, Kayes suspected, had been ‘lured into destruction by their passion for goals.’ His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint – a successful summiting of the mountain – the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their sense of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs … ‘The more uncertain climbers felt about their possible success in reaching the summit,’ as Kayes puts it, ‘the more likely they were to invest in their particular strategy.’ A bizarre self-reinforcing loop took hold (Notes of Mental Health Issue here): team members would actively seek out negative information about their goal – looking for evidence of weather patterns, for example, that might render the West Ridge approach even more risky than usual – which would increase their feelings of uncertainty. But then, in an effort to extinguish their uncertainty, the climbers would increase their emotional investment in their decision. The goal, it seemed, had become a part of their identity, and so their uncertainty about the goal no longer merely threatened the plan; it threatened them as individuals. They were so eager to eliminate these feelings of uncertainty that they clung ever harder to a clear, firm and specific plan that provided them with a sense of certainty about the future – even though that plan was looking increasingly reckless.

Burkeman continues the chapter with a discussion of how uncomfortable we are with uncertainty. His prescribed antidote, embracing our fragility, sounds a lot like belief, and Christ’s parables of the Kingdom:

“Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting. ‘To be a good human,’ concludes the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, applying this perspective to her own field of ethics, ‘is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.'”