An excerpt from John Henry Newman

God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art. {125} He “calls thee by thy name.” He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee. He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strength and thy weakness. He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow. He sympathises in thy hopes and thy temptations. He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the risings and fallings of thy spirit. He has numbered the very hairs of thy head and the cubits of thy stature. He compasses thee round and bears thee in his arms; He takes thee up and sets thee down. He notes thy very countenance, whether smiling or in tears, whether healthful or sickly. He looks tenderly upon thy hands and thy feet; He hears thy voice, the beating of thy heart, and thy very breathing. Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee. Thou canst not shrink from pain more than He dislikes thy bearing it; and if He puts it on thee, it is as thou would put it on thyself, if thou art wise, for a greater good afterwards. Thou art not only His creature (though for the very sparrows He has a care, and pitied the “much cattle” of Nineveh), thou art man redeemed and sanctified, His adopted son, favoured with a portion of that glory and blessedness which flows from Him everlastingly unto the Only-begotten. Thou art chosen to be His, even above thy fellows who dwell in the East and South. Thou wast one of those for whom Christ offered up His last prayer, and sealed it with His precious blood. What a thought is this, a thought almost too great for our faith! Scarce can we refrain from acting Sarah’s {126} part, when we bring it before us, so as to “laugh” from amazement and perplexity. What is man, what are we, what am I, that the Son of God should be so mindful of me? What am I, that He should have raised me from almost a devil’s nature to that of an Angel’s? that He should have changed my soul’s original constitution, new-made me, who from my youth up have been a transgressor, and should Himself dwell personally in this very heart of mine, making me His temple? What am I, that God the Holy Ghost should enter into me, and draw up my thoughts heavenward “with plaints unutterable?”

John Henry Newman in volume 3, sermon 9 as found here: https://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume3/sermon9.html

Augustine on Receiving Criticism and Being a Good Critic

Discourse right now is a mess. It’s not hard to spot critics driven by spite or those criticized driven by a certain woundedness. St. Augustine wrote in one of his most acclaimed works, de Trinitate, about his desire for certain types of readers and critics, and we’d do well to consider his words as we read those with whom we disagree or as we engage with those who sharply disagree with us. What Augustine is of course more concerned with is a clarity of truth that comes as a result of charitable criticism and response rather than one’s own ‘rightness.’

“[I will not] be diffident about expressing my sentiments, since my eagerness to have them scrutinized by the fairminded outweighs my fear of their being chewed to pieces by the spiteful. The keen eyes of the dove are most acceptable to Charity’s modest beauty, while the teeth of the snarling dog are neither dodged by Humility’s caution or broken on the solid hardness of Truth.” Augustine, de Trinitate II.i

St. Augustine, de Trinitate II.i

What I desire for all my works, of course, is not merely a kind reader but also a frank critic. This is peculiarly my desire for this work, treating as it does of so tremendous a subject, in which one wishes as many discoverers of truth could be found as it certainly has contradictors. But the last thing I want is a reader who is my doting partisan, or a critic who is his own. The reader will not, I trust, be fonder of me than of Catholic faith, nor the critic of himself than of Catholic truth. To the first I say: “Do not show my works the same deference as the canonical scriptures. Whatever you find in scripture that you used not to believe, why, believe it instantly. But whatever you find in my works that you did not hitherto regard as certain, then unless I have really convinced you that it is certain, continue to have your doubts about it.” To the second I say: “Do not criticize what I write by the standard of your own prejudices or contrariness, but by the divine text or incontrovertible reason. If you find any truth in it, then it does not belong to me just by being there, but rather to both of us by being understood and loved by both of us. If you catch me out in anything that is not true, then I must own it for making the mistake; but from now on by being more careful, we can both repudiate its ownership.”

Ibid., III.i.

Let us embrace the fact that we are all fallible, and let us be charitable and honest in the giving and receiving of criticism for the sake of truth.

A Quick Review: Dan Doriani’s “Work That Makes a Difference”

Dan Doriani, Professor of Biblical Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, has proven himself to be a worthy contributor, yet again, to the world of faith-and-work writing with his latest book, Work That Makes a Difference. This short book invites a wide audience to engage (ideally as a cohort) their own experiences as workers through a broader biblical theology of work. Dan has managed to provide an accessible book—fit for a variety of different readers of practically any station—that takes seriously the difficulties of work in a fallen world while attending to the inherent dignity of work in creation.

In so doing, he has managed to avoid one of the common pitfalls of faith-and-work writing which often quickly paves over the everyday futility of menial labor. This book is not simply for those who find themselves with different sorts of options and trajectories of new work but for those who find themselves stuck in ordinary, trivial work. Whatever the situation, Dan provides a helpful framework for discerning what one might consider next and how to do honest work faithfully.

This attentiveness to a wide-scope of jobs and callings (and the frequent dissonance between the two!) demonstrates a clear familiarity with the lives of many in a plethora of different working contexts. Though Dan is an academic, this book models a certain on-the-ground level of dialogue and experience which I expect has much to do with his robust pastoral background and managing of The Center for Faith and Work in St. Louis. I heartily recommend this book to the worker frustrated, content, or confused in his or her work as this book is sure to provide encouragement, wisdom, and direction for those deliberating upon what God has for them in their current work or ministry.

An Augustinian Prayer for the Overthinking

This prayer comes at the end of Augustine’s famous de Trinitate (XV.51). As someone whose thoughts don’t ever seem to quit, I hope this encourages you as it did me:

“Deliver me, my God, from much speaking which I suffer inwardly in my soul, which is so wretched in your sight and flies to your mercy for refuge. My thoughts are not silent even when my voice is. And of course, if I thought nothing but what is pleasing to you, I would not ask you to deliver me from this much speaking. But many of my thoughts are of the kind of which you know the thoughts of men that they are vain (Ps 94:11). Grant me not to consent to them, and if ever they delight me grant that I may reject them and not linger over them in a kind of doze. Let them not so prevail over me that any action of mine proceeds from them, but let my judgement at least be preserved from them, and my conscience, with you to preserve me. A wise man was speaking of you in his book which is now called Sirach as its proper name, and he said, We say many things and do not attain, and the sum of our words is, he is all things (Sir 43:27). So when we do attain to you, there will be an end to these many things which we say and do not attain, and you will remain one, yet all in all, and we shall say one thing praising you in unison, even ourselves being also made one in you.

Oh Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatsoever I have said in these books is of you, may those that are yours acknowledge, whatsoever of myself alone, do you and yours forgive.

Amen.”

A Quiet Strength in A Quiet Place

It was nice to be back in a theater again getting to see a movie which I was planning to see on my birthday back in March of 2020 before everything decided to hit the fan. There was something special getting to see it with friends who have helped, in their own particular ways, keep each other sane during this past year. Things seem to be slowly coming back to normal, and as they do, I find myself increasingly thankful for the people who demonstrate that even the most abnormal seasons are worthwhile.

———

It did not take John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” long to find good reception among an assortment of different audiences. While it markets itself as a horror film, many have found that it does not quite check that box. It is an apocalyptic family film which somehow manages to be both wholesome and frightening in equal parts. And while the modern, apocalyptic genre often reeks of nihilism, A Quiet Place concerns itself with an unsuspecting and upside-down virtue of quiet self-sacrificial strength.

Regan, the family’s daughter played by Millicent Simmonds, is deaf in a world where making any noise may result in almost instant death by quadrupedal creatures who hunt with their super-sensitive hearing. Her father, Lee (John Krasinski), is driven to helping her regain her sense of hearing but who ultimately fails to do so—but not without helping provide the tool necessary to expose the ultimate weakness of the predators who have sent them into a life of quiet terror.

One might suspect in a world falling apart that the way to survive is the way of brute force, yet what we find in this movie’s moral fabric is that one’s weaknesses may in fact be a conduit for strength and that survival for survival’s sake is ultimately a dead-end. Like in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, the question is posed: what is the point of surviving if there are not still some of us who “carry the fire”? Apocalypse may mean, in a classical sense, an unveiling, but in this film what is unveiled is the surprising moral fortitude of each member of the Abbott family.

Some have commented about the strikingly “pro-living” message of the film in that a baby is joyfully conceived in a world in which having a loud, screaming baby might very well be a death-sentence. It costs each member of this family something to care for this child, but it is a task each one takes up hopefully and in earnest. To have a child in a world seemingly falling apart requires its own quiet strength. And to lay down one’s life in the ordinary routine of life often suggests that one may just be willing to lay down one’s own life even unto death.

A Quiet Place Part 2—while I will try to keep this as spoiler free as possible—takes up exactly where the first film leaves off. The family attempts to survive with one less member but who are still as animated by the virtues of love and self-sacrifice that their father sought to embody. Each bears an even greater load with the loss, and a new character, Emmett (Cilian Murphy), is introduced. Emmett is broken by his own set of losses and has given in to the sort of cynicism and despair one might naturally conclude is only sensible in such a world as theirs. Interestingly, it is Regan and Emmett who make the sequel as emotionally resonant as the first film.

The silent strength of the family (but particularly Regan) has an almost infectious effect on Emmett who in his own isolation of self-survival is reminded that there are indeed people still worth saving even at tremendous risk to himself. The virtue of self-sacrifice is not exclusive to family, but perhaps is demonstrated even more profoundly in a bond without such innately expected loyalty.

The quiet strength of this family is slowly but surely cultivated, and in the film’s fitting conclusion, the hope of this virtue, the fruit of this faithful family, is shown to be boldly carried forth. I hope I don’t give away too much when I say that Lee would certainly be proud.

A Quiet Place Part 2 proves itself to be a worthy sequel. It does what any good sequel should do: it complements and helps reach conclusions of the first film without betraying the moral, logical, or emotional consistency of the original. While I am not entirely convinced there is room for a Part 3, I would be lying if I told you I wouldn’t still be excited for it.

On Loving Rightly

Invariably in friendships are imbalances of give-and-take. Perhaps a practical outworking of “laying your life down for your friends” is not allowing this calculus to dictate how we love our friends but to give out of charity, to love as we have been loved. In other words, to love rightly is to love in reference to something greater than ourselves or our own finite lovers.

St. Augustine in his On Christian Teaching differentiates between loving for the sake of enjoyment and for the sake of use. What he means is that our loves towards things are either towards their own ends or for the sake of a greater end, respectively. We should not think of “use” here as a negative thing unless we so “use” ourselves or others for something less than the ultimate enjoyment and ultimate Good.

The proper end of our love is the Triune God who is unchangeable and eternal, and directing our loves towards this ultimate end should be the reference point of all our loves—whether that be the love of ourselves or the love of our friends or spouses. When we make ourselves or another finite thing the final end of our loves, we settle for something ‘changeable’ instead of the ‘unchangeable good.’ Our loves need something more than a temporary end, and perhaps this is no greater misery than committing one’s life to an improper end of love—however right that may feel in the moment. This is not to say we are to see others or ourselves as less than good but rather that in delighting in ourselves and others we must keep sight of the Good behind that good. Or as Augustine says: “any other object of love that enters the mind should be swept towards the same destination as that to which the whole flood of our love is directed.”

To love ourselves and our friends rightly is in one respect to love them in light of God. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment in the law is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and the second greatest is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). He also told us that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Each love has its own place, but to love rightly is to keep our loves in order: neither should we place our love of friends over God or place our love of self over our friends. There is a new calculus to gospel love, and Jesus demonstrates this by calling us his friends, laying his life down for us, all so that we might enjoy the Triune God forever. And he invites us into this new pattern of love.

A Good Friday Homily by John Webster

I wrote a little bit about a lovely collection of homilies by John Webster here over at Mbird. This sobering little homily comes from another collection of homilies entitled The Grace of Truth:

We end these thoughts on Holy Week where we began: with the central truth that what has taken place in the week that has passed, and what has taken place supremely at the event of the crucifixion is the outworking of the will of God. To the participants and bystanders, no doubt, everything seemed very far from that, just another muddle in a place inflamed with strife. And to the followers of Jesus, the little rag-tag caravan of men and women who found themselves attached to him, it was nothing short of disaster. Yet Isaiah speaks of the putting to death of the Lord’s servant as God’s will – as the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, as no accident but rather the placed where we are to learn to see God’s resolve, undeflected, undefeated, utterly effective. How can this be so? What is this divine resolve which is set before us here, in the affliction and grief of the servant of God?

It is the eternal resolve to be our reconciler. What is enacted in this miserable little drama is God’s plan and purpose to live in fellowship with us – God’s will that he will be our God, and that we will be his people. Fellowship with God is what human beings are for. That is, we flourish as human beings if we live in free and joyful and humble relation to God. To be human is to be in relation to God; and that relation to God is not a sort of added extra, something to supplement our lives: it is the core of being human; it is the way in which we are properly alive. We are alive and truly human as we live in and from that fellowship.

For this fellowship God makes us. But at the core of Scripture’s presentation of this fellowship is the devastating fact that it has broken down: the life-giving bond between God and his human creatures has been smashed to pieces; we have chosen to try and live outside fellowship, and so estranged ourselves from God. Fellowship is replaced by alienation, God’s friendship with God’s wrath. Isaiah puts it thus: “we have turned – every one – to his own way” (53:6). That is, there has been a great turning in human life, not a turning towards God but a contrary turn, a swerve away from God and towards ourselves, a veering away from fellowship and towards a way of living which is of our own making. We chose what Isaiah calls “our own way.” […]

All this is what we make of ourselves – it is our iniquity, our transgression. And it is our misery: we get what we want – we want life without fellowship with God, and that is what we get, only instead of giving us life and freedom, it turns out to lead to our destruction. We make ourselves; and precisely in making ourselves we destroy ourselves. Now the passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lord’s servant, is the way in which God says no to this whole chaos which we have unleashed on ourselves. At the cross of Jesus Christ, God arrests the whole course of our sin; God sets aside finally, once for all, the entire mad project in which we try to be our own masters; God overthrows sin. God does not leave us to our devices; God refuses our refusal of him; above all, God maintains and re-establishes with us that fellowship in which alone we can live and flourish. God alone can do this. We cannot help ourselves. But God can, and does, come to our assistance….God takes flesh, our fallen, sinful, accursed existence as sinners, and takes our lot upon himself. […]

How does this change the course of human life? In this way: by becoming one of us, by absorbing into himself the full extent of our sin, God destroys sin. God sets aside a whole world, the world we have made for ourselves, and God puts in its place a new world, the world of the new creation. In that world, we are set free from sin, and set free to live in fellowship with God. Good Friday, and its final outworking on Easter Day, is the new creation, the re-creation of the world. It’s the point at which the world and all humankind are made new. We can’t do this; we can’t undo the knot we have tied. But God can: God has power and authority to make new, and in the passion of his Son performs this ultimate act of mercy, bearing our iniquities and so setting us free. And for us, this means that we become righteous. That is, we are put back in relation to God. Fellowship, friendship with God, is restored – not by us, but by God himself. We no longer turn to our own way; God himself turns us back to himself.

Good Friday is thus the triumph of grace, the triumph of reconciliation over enmity, the victory of life. On this day, in the hand of Jesus the Son and servant of God, the will of the Lord prospers.

We may not, however, leave matters there. For these things of which we read and speak and not the business of other people only: they are our business. These matters concern us. The Lord has laid on him not just others sins, but sins of us all, and therefore our sins. What took place there and then is comprehensively true; its claim and its effectiveness are universal; none of us is free to think that we are passed over in this affair. The gospel addresses each of us: “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:21-22a). If that’s true – if it really is true that in the passion of Christ God has reconciled us to himself – then the most basic act of human life is simply to acknowledge that this is so. We are not at enmity with God; we are not trapped by wickedness; we are not under condemnation; we are reconciled to God.

Part of us, of course, refuses to acknowledge that, because we don’t want to be reconciled to God. We prefer, still, to turn to our own ways. However absurd and lifeless and hurtful it may be for us, we prefer to pretend that we are not reconciled to God. Another part of us dare not acknowledge that we are all people are reconciled to God – we cannot conceive that the gospel can be so good that it will deal with our sins, too. But the unbelief or guilt or fear that hold us back, count for nothing. God has taken from us the power to live apart from him. We will not stop him prospering. The Lord’s Servant will see his offspring. And of all that – that unbelievably gracious promise – Easter Day is the promise and security. Jesus Christ, God’s servant, reigns – at his cross, and on the day of his resurrection, and now as he is preeminent in all things. And that is why we call this Good Friday.

“The Triumph of Divine Resolve” [a homily on Isaiah 53:6, 10] in The Grace of Truth

Kingdom Eunuchs & The Surprise of Kingdom Singleness

[This is a manuscript for a sermon I gave recently. I have not updated this blog in a while, and I figured this may be a good place for it. I hope it’s of encouragement to you!]

Matthew 19:10-12:

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

I wonder how many of you remember what happened to the planet Pluto in 2006? According to NASA in 2006, Pluto was declared “no longer a planet” given that it only meets two out of the three criteria for being a planet. These criteria are as follows:

  1. It is in orbit around the Sun
  2. It has sufficient mass to assume a nearly round shape
  3. It has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit.

Pluto meets all the criteria except the last one which basically just means that because there are so many other little entities like Pluto which share the neighborhood of their orbit around the sun.

So Pluto as of 2006 was declared a “dwarf-planet” for this reason—along with all these other smaller celestial bodies in the Kuiper Belt on the outskirts of our solar system.

I bring this to mind for you all as we talk about singleness, because it can often feel like a single person both in culture and within the Church, that we are somewhat like “dwarf-planets”. We still orbit the same sun, but we don’t fit all the criteria for being a “real” planet. And we sort of just exist on the outskirts of the solar system.

As silly as an illustration as this may be, the reality for many of us, is that Church and culture at large generally don’t know what to do with single people. We often just wait for them to get married rather than attempt to be proactive about their lives as they currently are.

Jesus just before this passage has been confronted by the Pharisees about the ethics of no-fault divorce- whether it should ever be allowed or not. Jesus tells them that frivolous divorce is adultery. He affirms a very high standard for marital ethics, and Jesus’ disciples who were with him are the ones who respond to Jesus in exacerbation when they say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry!”

It was no small thing in this culture to remain unmarried. It was almost unanimous across Jewish thought that marriage was a blessing and to be single and without progeny was a curse. These words have much more weight than they might to us, and there would be tremendous material and financial cost to not marrying but also an existential cost to not have one’s name carried on.

Interestingly, Jesus paints singleness in a very good light despite singleness having a very dark backdrop. 

So there are two things this passage does with regard to singleness which we are going to look at:

  1. Implicitly, it does not minimize the sadness of the single life and 2) explicitly, it shows us the surprising specialty of the single life.

THE SADNESS OF THE SINGLE LIFE

As I mentioned, the disciples are aware that singleness is likely a scorned category in that Jewish culture. To give up marriage would be to put yourself at significant risk, and to not marry would be to give up your future. It was often viewed as a misfortune, a curse, or a tremendous tragedy.

We see some rare examples of unmarried individuals in the Old Testament such as Jeremiah and perhaps Daniel, but it’s clear that Jeremiah’s singleness should be viewed almost as a curse where Daniel himself (many contest) was likely a court eunuch. In the Old Testament singleness was painted as an exception… and not a good one at that.

Jesus’s response to the disciples would’ve been heard as highly unusual for a variety of reasons (as we will see), but one of those reasons is that he actually agrees to what the disciples have said. He does not give them cheap solutions to the difficulty of marriage. He maintains a high standard. But not only that he agrees that perhaps it is better to not marry and he uses a despised and marginalized cultural figure into the conversation. He begins talking about the eunuch and three types of eunuchs. Before I jump into these categories though, I want to take a long pause and decorate the background of what Jesus is about to say.

The eunuch was a despised figure. We can even see this in the Bible, like in Deut 23:1. The eunuch was someone who was not allowed to enter into the assembly of the LORD. He was excluded from the full rights and privileges of citizenship. And the eunuch was bereft of much or any independence. They were almost entirely dependent upon their master or king. And for someone to have been made a eunuch would’ve implied a loss of humanity. They were likely those who were made that way through slavery or conquest. The eunuch indeed was a tragic figure.

I watched a very strange film recently starring Collin Farrell called “The Lobster”. It’s a biting and heavy-handed dark political commentary about a world where all of those in society who are not “paired up” for any reason are sent to a compound for 30 days to find a suitable mate. However, after these 30 days are up, and if one has not found a potential mate, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild.

It’s all intentionally absurd, but the film does help demonstrate that the world does not really know what to do with people who are not paired up. There’s a lot of people in the hotel. There are widows, socially awkward people, physically handicapped people, you name it. As they stay in the hotel they must eat alone, they must play only single player games like golf, and they must live alone. But once they match up they are given new privileges. They get to eat with one another, play together, they get to sleep together, and they get to finally move back into civilization.

In other words, these dwarf-planets get to become real planets but only once they are married.

Like the eunuch figure who remained outside of the Assembly, who was a mocked and scorned figure, unmarried, without offspring or hope for their future, the modern single person often feels some of this anguish today.

We live in an obviously hyper-sexualized and post-Freudian culture which has made it next to impossible to conceive of a happy life without sexual fulfillment. We also assume to be sexually chaste is to be miserably alone. And our churches have often bought into this very idea. It’s easy for us to pity single women in our congregations for not being married. And it’s just as easy to shame or be suspicious of men who are single in our congregations.

There is a deep frustration to being single in our culture, especially in this individualistic age. Many wonder if they will be taken care of in their old age. They wonder if they will be missed after they are dead. They wonder if they will be able to get a ride to the airport. What might it look like for us as a church to come around single people? To help console this sadness without automatically trying to get them in a relationship? 

Perhaps this might mean inviting single people over for holidays. Maybe it’s letting them sit with your family at church. Maybe it is inviting them into your Covid-pod.

There is a great sadness to prolonged or permanent singleness. We do not have to downplay the reality of it. We can step into it. We have a Savior who knows what it was like to be on the margins. He knows what it is like to be treated as sub-human. He knows what it is like to be alone. The great fears that many of us have about life and the end of it, Jesus himself experienced. Jesus died alone. He died without physical offspring. He died as a man cursed. And he did it so that all might be brought into the family. As the musician Sufjan Steven’s once wrote:

“You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
You went up on a tree.”

I love the tension here. Jesus is alone with us, and he does not necessarily take our loneliness away from us. So take heart, friends.

Interestingly, Jesus does not simply provide commiseration for those on the outside. But there is something quite surprising perhaps even subversive about what Jesus says to his disciples about the nature of singleness.

I put you on hold a while back, and wanted to give some background behind what Jesus was about to say next. So let’s move into this because there is not just a sadness to the single life, but there is a surprising significance found in the single life that Jesus now explains.


THE SURPRISING SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SINGLE LIFE

Jesus gives three categories of eunuchs. First there is the eunuch from birth (often called a congenital eunuch). Then there is the man-made eunuchs- the kinds you might find as slaves or in a King’s court. Both of these two categories would’ve been widely known and understood in antiquity. Jesus is using two literal examples of types of eunuchs, but he moves into a third category which would have utterly confounded those hearing his words for the first time.

Jesus’s third category is of those who deliberately and intentionally make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Given all we know now about eunuchs, Jesus is saying two rather remarkable things. First, he is saying that the eunuch and the unmarried are worthy of dignity. They are living viable lives. One must not be married to be legitimate. And second, he is saying that one might even consider becoming a eunuch for the sake of his kingdom.

What does he mean by this?

Likely Jesus is saying that there have been and will be those who willfully choose to make themselves wholeheartedly committed to the Kingdom in which Jesus inaugurated. He is not saying that one should literally make himself or herself a eunuch… Jesus is speaking metaphorically about all of those who decide to remain unmarried for his sake.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that kings often would often include eunuchs in their courts and entrust them with quite a lot was because they could trust that there would be no attempt to usurp them or any attempt to sleep with his concubine. Eunuchs had no livelihood or security outside of the one they served. So Jesus is likely saying here that there are some who willfully have decided to be as such for his Kingdom’s sake.

Stanley Hauerwas notes the extreme implication of Jesus’ words in much better terms than I ever could. He says, “And we must remember that the ‘sacrifice’ made by the single is not that of ‘giving up sex,’ but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Joan of Arc. Joan was born during France and England’s Hundred Years’ War in the early 15th century. She was born in a small town in France, a daughter of poor farmers. ­Joan was a pious girl, deeply committed to the catholic faith. After a devastating blow to the French throne from the English, French supporters saw a chance for Charles VII to return the crown to a French monarch. It was during this time that Joan of Arc began having mystical visions of St. Michael and St. Catherine who encouraged her to save France and to ask Charles’ permission to expel the English and install him as the true king.

Joan responded to this call. And as part of this call, she took a vow of chastity, denying her father’s attempt for her marriage and a different trajectory for her life, and ultimately found favor from Charles. After Joan had led several French assaults and achieving almost miraculous victory, her reputation grew all across French forces. And she eventually helped Charles take the throne.

However, Joan was eventually captured by the English and was put on trial for heresy. King Charles distanced himself from Joan and allowed her to stand trial alone. On May 29, 1431, at the age of 19, Joan of Arc was announced guilty of heresy, and was burned at the stake.

King Charles ordered an investigation which ultimately found Joan of Arc to be innocent of those charges and she was deemed innocent and designated a martyr. And as of the last century she was canonized as a saint in the catholic church.

Joan of Arc, demonstrates this sort of Kingdom loyalty and zeal. She demonstrated something of Jesus’s words by her very life. She laid down a future marriage, and a future life for something far greater than herself – giving herself unto this fundamental loyalty. Even being let down by her country and being slandered and killed for the sake of her calling.

The early twentieth century writer, who you may know, GK Chesterton wrote a decent bit about Joan of Arc. But there is one sentence of his that has always stuck with me which seems to really catch to what Jesus is saying here in these verses about sexual ethics and chastity, he wrote: “Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is vivid and separate thing…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”

He’s saying that, we often view chastity as the absence of bad rather than something positively good. And Jesus is saying the same! (Which again would’ve been completely shocking for his disciples.) The willing eunuch is not simply one who is incapable of marriage (and thus divorce), but he is one who is capable of tremendous good insofar as his or her loyalty is wrapped up in the kingdom. And this goes for the single person as well. Singleness and chastity are positively good things insofar as they are connected to service of the Church and Kingdom of Jesus.

However, we need to distinguish between the singleness Jesus has in mind versus the singleness our culture often implies.

The word “singleness” is not in this text. So we must be careful even in attempting to read our understanding of singleness back into this text. This willingness to remain unmarried is not for the sake of autonomy or sexual fulfillment. It is not a form of singleness for the sake of not feeling tied down. Rather, this is singleness that finds its meaning and telos in the work of the Kingdom and the King himself.

This passage implies that there are many of us who are single for a variety of reasons. Some are single because of variables outside of our control (sexual orientation, no option to marry, etc.). Some are single because of things done to us (cultural influences, abuse, or trauma perhaps). And finally some of us are single because we simply feel called to be single. And sometimes these overlap. Frankly, there are those of us who will never marry because of physical or mental limitations, trauma, orientation, or simply because we do not feel called to. Thankfully, Jesus has cast a wide net here. He’s not content with letting the least of us fall through the cracks.

We often live as though sex and romance is a divine right, but it is not. And we have bought into the Freudian trap of thinking that a life without sex is a pathetic life. But it is not. We are not promised sex and romance in this life or even a good marriage. And that is okay. There is something better. Your singleness whether begrudgingly or willingly can be found to be a wonderful and blessed and special thing for the sake of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

What might it look like for us in this room who are married begin to enable this call for others? To support them and celebrate them in this? What might it look like to center our marriages and singleness all around the singular aim of Kingdom advantage? Rather than self-preservation or self-fulfillment?

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul informs that each of us have gifts. Both marriage and singleness are gifts because both are very difficult but very beautiful things when used properly for the sake of the Kingdom. Both of these are only truly and properly “gifts” when we keep the Kingdom in focus. Singleness is empty without a proper end in mind. And marriage can easily become self-obsessed without that end.

My friend Wesley Hill said it well when he noted that both singleness and marriage are both for the sake of training in holiness and preparation for the life to come. Both, used properly are for the sake of discipleship. Jesus does not deny that Christian marriage (as HE intends it) is very difficult, and he does not deny that, Christian singleness, the alternative, will be any less difficult. Wes says that singleness  “is one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness [and not just marriage] is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.”

Singleness and marriage are both about sanctification and service. But we often make them about self-expression or fulfillment. We are called to die to ourselves in both callings. Maybe that looks like opening up the busyness of our lives for each other. Opening up our homes to one another and attempting to live closer to each other. Maybe it looks like not moving away for the sake of career or progress, but sticking close to community.

I spent three years living with a very special family in Connecticut before I moved here to St. Louis, and their gifts of hospitality were truly remarkable. As a single person, I felt cared for and loved as I ate with them every night and shared holidays with them. But one of the most beautiful things about this time was that I did not ever feel like a charity-case. They consistently treated me with respect knowing that I had much to offer them as well. There was a tremendous dignity in that communication to me, and then perhaps more than any other have I tasted what it was like for the callings of singleness and marriage to be in wonderful cooperation.

With all this said, I want to conclude with some words from the Prophet Isaiah who prophecies here about Zion’s future restoration. And the hope for the faithful eunuch of the Lord:

Hear these words from Chapter 56:

“let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”

This passage is remarkable and one of my favorite in all of Scripture. It’s a word of consolation to the eunuch. The eunuch knew he was not welcome in the Assembly, and this prophecy of Isaiah about Zion’s restoration would have had one thinking “surely, I will not have a place in that future to come.”

But Isaiah shocks, just as Jesus shocks, he tells them that for those eunuchs who are faithful for those who hold fast to his covenant, they will be brought into the Lord’s house. And not just that. They will be given a name better than sons and daughters. They will be given a name that is everlasting. One that will not end.

This is a hope that was looked forward to. And it’s one we see fully realized in the inauguration of Jesus’ eternal kingdom. It’s in Jesus that we see the foreigner and the marginalized brought in and given tremendous dignity and respect. But it’s in Jesus we see one who was cut off so that we may be brought into this eternal kingdom. Jesus died an outcast. He died without physical heirs so that we all might be brought into this eternal kingdom and be a sort of spiritual progeny. Jesus died so that we would have hope. That we would not be turned away from this home and future in his kingdom.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, your singleness is tremendously valuable. And your LORD is with you in all the sadness and dignity of this high calling.

There is a name better than “sons and daughters” and it is in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.  

Not Wholly Alone

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I don’t think anyone is a stranger to loneliness, especially in times such as these. Loneliness has plagued my life. And that is probably evident now by much of what I’ve written on this blog. It has always been there scratching away at the inner recesses of my heart, and throughout the years I have found it to be an uncanny companion. The words of Soren Kierkegaard seem to do it justice:

“Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. One keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there, nevertheless, and one hardly dares think of how he would feel if all this were taken away.”[1]

In times such as these, the loneliness of life is a difficult thing to keep at bay. For some of us, we are locked at home alone, for those more fortunate we may have friends or immediate family to keep us company, but the reality of our situation is that we have been stripped away from many of our “kin and friends.” Most of us long to be back at work, to be back with friends and teachers, to embrace and be embraced by those in our community, and to be taking the Lord’s Supper together again. Our lives and routines have been violently disrupted. Our coping mechanisms have been altered. And this time for many of us, I imagine, has awoken an old and frightening loneliness.

I was reminded recently in a friend’s newsletter of the distinction between solitude and loneliness,[2] the former being a good thing that we can cultivate out of the rough soil of loneliness. Similarly, Henri Nouwen in his journal confronting the most despairing year of his life wrote that there are two temptations in the spiritual task of addressing loneliness that “you are inclined either to run away from your loneliness or to dwell in it.” And that “when you run away from it, your loneliness does not really diminish, [but] when you start dwelling in it, your feelings only become stronger, and you slip into depression.” To avoid despair in these feelings while avoiding escapism is no easy task, but we will all in some shape or form be forced to reckon with them eventually.

The cultivation of solitude is a task that we all must learn quickly. Hannah Arendt wrote that “solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. [While] Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.”[3] Now more than ever, we must learn how to cultivate our loneliness especially for those of us who find ourselves without company right now. Doing the hard work of this cultivation may help us retain our sanity now while it may also help us find a newfound equilibrium on the other side of this quarantine—one we did not know before.

Nouwen likened the wound of loneliness to “the Grand Canyon—a deep incision in the surface of our existence…” All of us know that in some capacity, we are not as known as we would like to be nor as loved as we would like to be. If loneliness is simply the desire for intimacy, all of us should be familiar with this wound. We feel an emptiness that we would like fulfilled entirely. We want the incision filled, and there is something deeply right about that longing.

We have all been created for companionship. We were intended to live life alongside others in friendship and family and community. And it is in companionship that some of us may feel the most alone. That which was given to us to be a salve for our loneliness can often be the very thing which provokes it the most. Sometimes we feel this most profoundly when we lose someone, whether temporarily or permanently. Sometimes we feel this most insidiously in a bad marriage or toxic friendship. We have an idea of what the fulfillment of intimacy may look like, and to see it not achieved is the realization of loneliness. Neither single people nor married people are immune to the sting of loneliness—though we both may feel it differently. And right now is a time for many of us in which we feel this sting profoundly.

For Thomas Merton, there is a companionship that should precede natural companionship. Rather than Arendt’s summation that solitude is a companionship with the self, for Merton the goal of solitude is different for it is only the man or woman “who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God.”[4] The Christian life does not eliminate loneliness. Rather, as Christians, we may be those most fitted to endure it honestly and begin the painful work of cultivating it into something promising.

One of my favorite passages in Scripture is Jesus’s promising of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. He tells them “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 16,18). I am reminded in this passage that even as those who wait for our Savior’s return, we are not left wholly alone. We have for ourselves an invisible companionship through the presence of the Spirit, and sometimes it is only when we are alone (whether by choice or consequence) that we are reminded of it.

Rather than ridding ourselves of loneliness, the path to solitude at very least must begin with addressing our loneliness. And for many of us who have spent a good deal of our lives doing as much as we could do avoid it, this may be the hardest step. This is a scary thing because it often requires us to come to terms with much of what we have stowed away within ourselves and to deal with the thoughts we would rather not think about. Frankly, I don’t want to be alone with myself like Arendt imagines, I do not make a good conversation partner with myself. But I do know I need to be alone at times. I need to confront my own thoughts and feelings and to bring my sad and sometimes scary thoughts to the one who knows them and can console me before I can utter them. And I want to be honest.

There is a loneliness that can destroy us, but there is a loneliness that can be cultivated and made into something of worth. This cultivated solitude may bring about greater creativity in our lives, it may help us be less insecure in our relationships, and it may help us to grow more intimately aware of the Spirit’s intimate workings within us. I don’t want to pretend that for some of us now this will be an easy task, it may take baby-steps for some while for others we may be thrust into it without any say in the matter. During these strange and scary times, I want to remind myself and you all, wherever you are at, that you are not wholly alone in this world no matter how isolated you may feel now. And I pray that we would all come to know and be reminded, especially on this Good Friday, that we have one who knows our loneliness and will not leave us alone in it.

Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon puts it better than I ever could:

Up on a mountain our Lord is alone
Without a family friends or a home
He cries
Will you stay with me?
He cries oh oh oh
Will you wait with me?

Up on a mountain our Lord is afraid
Carrying all the mistakes we have made
And he knew
It’s a long way down
Do you know?
It’s a long way down

Up in the heavens our Lord prays for you
He sent his spirit to carry us through
So it’s true
That you’re not alone
Do you know?
He came all the way down

Be well friends,

Jeb


 

[1] Journals VII 1A 363

[2] https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/the-convivial-society-vol-1-no-6?r=3ezfo&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=copy

[3] Taken from https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.

“Who am I?” A Poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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In times like these, I’ve been drawn to the letters of folks like Samuel Rutherford and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who both wrote a good deal in isolation and imprisonment. This poem by Bonhoeffer is one that was crafted in a letter during his time in prison not long before his execution, and it is one with a good deal of relevance for us in isolation:

Who am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Letters & Papers from Prison”

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Like an apple carved down to the core, isolation has a way of shaving us down to our most fundamental longings. When we are stripped of everything, perhaps the most fundamental question is not “What can I do?” or “Where can I go?” but “Whose am I?”

Lord, remind us always, but especially in times like these, that we are yours and yours alone.