Monday, September 16, 2013

Worship con Queso (new CT column)

How sensual delights prepare us for the eternal feast
(In the September issue of Christianity Today)

There is a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston I have visited on three occasions. Each meal has begun with chile con queso. The cheese at this particular restaurant is the most delicious food I have ever tasted.
With every bite, I have been overcome with gratitude to God for creating taste buds, cows, and human ingenuity. And that gratitude has led to praise.
Some folks understand this. Some think I'm kidding. And others are skeptical that such a carnal thing as a Tex-Mex appetizer could provoke genuine worship.
We Christians have a long history of mixed and sometimes openly hostile attitudes toward sensual pleasure. Saint Augustine is the fourth-century poster boy for our dilemma, struggling in Book X of hisConfessions to rein in each of his five senses. He attempts, for example, to "take food at mealtimes as though it were medicine" and to "fight against the pleasure in order not to be captivated by it."
Augustine is ever-vigilant that pleasure in created things never replace our desire for the Creator. His caution is well taken. But lately I've been discovering an emphatically propleasure voice in the writings of another Christian guide.
C. S. Lewis is known, of course, as a literary scholar, novelist, and apologist. He is also, consistently, a curator of pleasure. Where there is beauty to be received, music to be heard, laughter to be welcomed, and (especially) food to be eaten, Lewis attends, celebrates, scrutinizes, describes, and partakes.
In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis argues that the pleasures derived from forest moss and sunlight, bird song, morning air, and the comfort of soft slippers are "shafts of [God's] glory as it strikes our sensibility." Our task is not to guard against sensual enjoyment, but to allow our minds to run "back up the sunbeam to the sun"—to see every pleasure as a "channel of adoration."
Lewis even argues that there is no such thing as a "bad" pleasure—only pleasures "snatched by unlawful acts." But he is not blind to the "concupiscence" (lustfulness) that so haunts Augustine. When our response to pleasure is greed instead of adoration—when we seek to grasp and possess rather than receive—our healthy cry of "This also is Thou" distorts into "the fatal word: Encore."
In his introduction to The Four Loves, Lewis distinguishes between "Need-pleasures" and "Pleasures of Appreciation." The enjoyment we feel upon receiving a Need-pleasure—water to quench thirst, for example, or the scratching of an itch—is intense but short-lived. But with Appreciation-pleasures—nonessential things that awaken us to delight, like delicious smells and tastes and scenes of beauty—the sensation intensifies over time. Greed—the repeated cry of "Encore!" to, say, rich black coffee or extra-creamy queso—may transform a Pleasure of Appreciation into a Pleasure of Need, draining out of it all the lasting enjoyment.
The answer, Lewis contends, is not to avoid pleasure but to "have" and "read" it properly: to receive it, openhanded, as both a gift and a message. "We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany"—the small sign of God's presence—"is itself to adore."
In many respects, Augustine and Lewis are arguing two sides of the same coin. But there is a major point of divergence at the heart of their opposite orientations to pleasure. Where Augustine sees our sensuality as a liability to be managed until God "consign[s] both food and belly to destruction," Lewis views every earthly pleasure as an apprenticeship in adoration for the sort of thing that will go on forever in heaven.
Biblical writers seem irresistibly drawn to an image—part metaphor, part promise—of "the sacred meal with God." From the table prepared for the psalmist (Ps. 23:5), to Jesus' story of a great banquet (Luke 14:15–24), to the Revelation 19 vision of a wedding supper, the Scriptures are filled with the anticipation of feasting together—in the presence of God—forever. The prophet Isaiah (25:6–8) takes particular pleasure in this vision:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
For Lewis, earthly meals are chances to practice the gratitude and adoration that will accompany our everlasting feast with God. Just as trials train us in patience, pleasure trains us in worship. Every sensual enjoyment (properly received) is a "tiny theophany"—a chance to "taste and see" that God is good, and a reminder that there is a whole lot more where that came from.
I rest my queso.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

New CT Column: What Rich Mullins Taught Me About Discernment

You Probably Won't Be Sent to Egypt…

But one way or another, God will point you to the place where your gifts can serve his people.
Carolyn Arends
Rich&CarolynYears ago, I toured as an opening act for Rich Mullins. There was something about Rich's music that stirred up people's deepest longings. I loved overhearing conversations at the autograph table; they often turned serious and urgent.
More than once, a fan asked Rich how to discern the will of God. Rich would listen, and then offer an unexpected perspective.

"I don't think finding God's plan for you has to be complicated," he'd begin. "God's will is that you love him with all your heart and soul and mind, and also that you love your neighbor as yourself. Get busy with that, and then, if God wants you to do something unusual, he'll take care of it. Say, for example, he wants you to go to Egypt." Rich would pause for a moment before flashing his trademark grin. "If that's the case, he'll provide 11 jealous brothers, and they'll sell you into slavery."

I'm not sure whether this satisfied Rich's fans, but I suspect his advice has stayed with them in the way it's haunted me. When I find myself wrestling with life decisions, I think of Rich's Egypt Principle. It makes me laugh, and then it asks me to get down to the serious business of determining which of my options allow me to best love God and other people. Such an approach usually rules out certain possibilities, while affirming (and even creating) several others.

Sometimes, once I've narrowed down my alternatives in light of the Great Commandment, the determinative "jealous brothers" do show up. A scholarship comes through at one school and not another. A job offer is escalated or rescinded. Other times, however, I'm left standing at the junction of several seemingly reasonable pathways, miserable with uncertainty. If only Rich were around to dispatch further wisdom!

Recently, in a college music department faculty meeting, the topic of discerning God's will came up. We were discussing the decisions our students face, which often include whether to pursue a music career or enter church ministry. One teacher mentioned that he asks students to attend to their experiences of consolation and desolation. They should give special consideration to the directions that most consistently produce consolation, he said, while the avenues that create desolation should be approached cautiously.

I was skeptical. If some of our students are led into music careers, desolation (rejection, obstacles, long drives in decrepit vans) will be normative. (I imagine the desolation level in church ministry is similar.) Often, the most worthwhile undertakings are the most difficult. Christians, as people of the Cross, should understand this best. Wouldn't a paradigm of consolation and desolation lead to avoiding anything challenging or unpleasant?

While I teach at one college, I'm a graduate student at another. There, only a few weeks later, I re-encountered the consolation/desolation paradigm in some coursework on Ignatian spirituality. I began to realize that I had misunderstood these terms. Consolation is understood not as happy feelings (although they can be its byproduct), but rather as that which opens us up to God and others—and quickens our pulse for the things of the kingdom. Even difficult circumstances can lead to consolation if we sense God in them. Desolation, too, is more nuanced than I imagined. It has to do with that which distracts us from our awareness of God's presence and turns us in on ourselves (whether our immediate experience of the diversion is positive or negative).

Ignatian spiritual direction reminds us that diligent attention to the movements of consolation and desolation in our own souls can help clarify which options lie within God's will. In moments of crisis, we can base our decisions both upon how we have sensed him moving, and also upon the God-given inclinations we've discovered within ourselves.

I'm not certain whether Rich Mullins was familiar with Ignatian spirituality. But I know he paid attention to the things that opened him up to God—and the things God seemed to have wired him to love—and ran headlong toward them. That's how he ended up traveling with a ragamuffin band of friends, singing songs that made people hungry to find God's will. It's also how he wound up, toward the end of his short but ferociously lived life, on a Navajo reservation, teaching music to kids.

Maybe that's why Rich could claim that loving God and others takes care of most of our discernment questions. After all, the psalmist assures us that if we delight ourselves in the Lord, he will give us the desires of our heart (Ps. 37:4). God can be trusted to teach our hearts what to desire, and to lead us—by jealous brothers, burning bushes, or quiet inclinations—to the places where our own unique giftings meet the movements of his kingdom. There we find consolation … and joy.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Trouble With Cussing (CT April, 2013)

My April Christianity Today column has gone online. I'm tempted to introduce it with dozens of caveats, clarifications and "other-hands," but I best just let it speak for itself, at least to begin. I'd love to have a conversation about it, though. Let me know what you think.

The Trouble with Cussing Christians

Do Christians have a unique call to avoid strong language?
Carolyn Arends [ posted 4/15/2013 ]
The Trouble with Cussing Christians
Recently, rushing late to my son's orthodontic appointment, I missed a critical left turn. Much to my surprise, I exhaled a "bad" word by our family's standards. (Please understand, dental receptionists don't suffer tardiness lightly, and my punctuality track record isn't strong.)

"Mom!" exclaimed my children.

"What?" I stammered, feigning innocence, and adding the sin of deception to strong language.

Apparently my mother was right all along. One sin leads to another. And we shouldn't use bad words.

Except … it's cool these days to be a Christian who swears. It gives the curser an "I'm into Jesus, but I'm not legalistic" badge. A recent tweet about a behavioral study that linked swearing and honesty went viral among my church friends (although no one could produce a link to the actual study). Many of these friends point to the arbitrariness of the cuss-word system.

"What if table was a swear word?" asked my daughter. "Or elbow?"

She has a point. There is something absurd about the designation of particular words as profane. And yet, neither table nor elbow is in the curse category, and the majority of swear words have earned their designation according to a certain logic. Other than words associated with deity, most profanity involves associations with biological function in the areas of sexuality and waste elimination. The God-related curses are right off the table, if one takes the third commandment seriously at all. But what is a Christian to do with the remaining "strong language"?

All language is a kind of social contract. We agree—as heirs of centuries of etymological development—to call the pointy thing in our arm an elbow, just like we agree to label things we find despicable with words we identify as profane. The words themselves hold only the power we give them. But curse words tend to be powerful indeed, because to linguistically reduce something or someone to the level of biological functions (and their resultant products) is almost always an act of contempt. And contempt is toxic.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of psychologist John Gottman. In Gottman's lab, spouses were asked to discuss something mildly contentious while sensors recorded their physiological responses. After years of studying the nuances of these exchanges, Gottman became startlingly successful at predicting which couples would divorce. The most telling indicators, he claims, are expressions of contempt. An eye roll or a mildly disdainful put-down was more worrisome than outright conflict. In fact, the presence of contempt in a marriage affects not only the survival of the relationship, but even the immune systems of the parties involved; spouses who live with chronic contempt get more colds than those who don't.

Contempt is a mixture of anger and disgust, expressed from a position of superiority. It denigrates, devalues, and dismisses. It's not hard to understand why even subtle levels of contempt are damaging—not only in marriages but in all human interaction.

If profane language has a privileged place in the lexicon of contempt, then Christians have a unique mandate to avoid profanity. It's not that abstaining from pejorative language outfits us with some holier-than-thou halo. It's that we are called to live with a servant's heart, affirming the dignity of every human and the sacredness of existence.

Theologian John Stackhouse points out that our primary vocation as Christ followers is not to "stay pure," but rather to cultivate shalom. From Isaiah's picture of a wolf living peacefully with a lamb (11:6), to Paul's description of a new reality that obliterates racial, socioeconomic, and gender-based power structures (Gal. 3:28), the biblical vision of shalom dissolves any notion of hierarchy. All of creation joyfully submits to the beautiful rule of its Creator. There's no room for one creature to hold another creature (or creation itself) in contempt; God alone occupies a superior plane.

Of course, it's possible to religiously avoid disdainful language while being seized with contemptuous thoughts. But, as the Book of James reminds us, our tongues are like rudders to the ships of our thought lives. Taming our language, in other words, is a good place to start.

And so I am trying to avoid language that expresses contempt towards people, situations, and yes, even traffic lights that dare to defy my will. Such an endeavor goes beyond comedian George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"—even the most innocuous words, if uttered from a contemptuous heart, can mutate into curses. Conversely, certain evils can indeed be worthy of contempt and there are times when "adult language" is appropriate. But in every case, our words should reflect our calling to participate in hallowing, rather than profaning, the world. If it's truly strong language that we're after—language with power and impact—what could be stronger than the language we use to cultivate shalom?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

So Who Hallows God's Name/

So, Who Hallows God's Name?

We usually think it's our job. Think twice.

Carolyn Arends
[ January/February Issue- posted online at CT on 2/20/2013 8:08AM ]
steinwayOn a recent trip, I had a conversation with a man who learned I was from Vancouver. He had lived there years earlier, and after asking if a particular music shop was still in the city, he told me a story.

His wife was a piano major at the University of British Columbia. When they went piano shopping as newlyweds, the saleswoman led them straight to the entry-level models. "She had us pegged exactly right," the man told me. "We didn't have two nickels to rub together. We were going to have to borrow the money to get the cheapest instrument there."

Everything changed, however, when the name of the prospective buyer's mentor—a world-renowned master teaching at the university—came up in conversation. The saleswoman was panic-stricken. "Not these pianos!" she exclaimed, herding the couple away from the economy section and into a private showroom of gleaming Steinways. "I'm so sorry," she kept repeating, horrified at the thought of the teacher finding out she'd shown one of his students an inferior instrument. Try as they might, they couldn't persuade her to take them back to the pianos they could afford. Once the master's name came up, only the best would do.

"Hallowed be thy name," I said this morning, mumbling my way through the Lord's Prayer. I've prayed that phrase countless times. But today, I find myself thinking about the reverence a flustered piano saleswoman had for a teacher's name, and the prayer begins to change shape.

What does it mean to "hallow" God's name? I was raised to flinch whenever someone uses it as a mindless exclamation or, worse, a curse. I've heard about the extreme care taken in branches of Judaism: Pages containing the name of YHWH are never thoughtlessly discarded but rather buried or ritually burned. When I've prayed the Lord's Prayer, I've tried to cultivate that kind of personal reverence for his name—even while living in a world prone to profane it, and a church apt to make puns with it on T-shirts.

I'm glad I was taught to avoid blasphemy. But I'm beginning to suspect that my understanding of what it means to hallow God's name has barely scratched the surface.

Names are a big deal in the Bible. From Abraham ("Father of Many") to Jacob ("Heel-grasper") to Peter ("Rock"), monikers don't merely identify, they reveal. Moses understood this. So he asked God (whom he knew by the generic deity designation Elohim) for his personal name. "Yahweh," God told him, offering Moses the kind of intimacy that only comes on a first-name basis—and revealing his covenant with his people in the process.

Every name we have for God is a revelation of his character. So making his name holy must have something to do with revealing him here on earth. But a review of the human track record tells us this isn't our specialty.

There is a scene in the 1999 CBS miniseries Jesus that haunts me. Jesus is in agony in Gethsemane, and Satan comes to tempt him one last time. In a devastating move, he shows the Lord a preview of the evils that will be done in his name, and asks if his sacrifice will be worth it.

The scene is not from Scripture, but the scenario it proposes is powerful. In the shadow of the Cross, did Jesus observe all the wrongs—catastrophic and petty—we'd credit to him? Did he see inquisitions and gas chambers, defenses of slavery and "God hates fags" placards? Did he anticipate the way we'd use his name as a political trump card, or speak for him and pronounce his judgments in the wake of tragedies? Did he hear us mutter, when confronted with need, "God helps those who help themselves"? Did he want to shout that he'd said no such thing?

We can only guess at all he endured in the garden, but we know for certain that when one of his friends sliced off a soldier's ear, Jesus put it back on. "You can't hallow my name," the gesture seems to say, "if you're associating it with something I would never do." Thanks be to God, many of his disciples have altered the course of human history with the good done in his name. And yet, 2,000 years later, we still have a propensity to wield our swords—rhetorical and otherwise—on his behalf.

In light of all this, the Lord's Prayer takes on new urgency. None of the six petitions Jesus taught—for God's name, kingdom, will, bread, forgiveness, and deliverance—are things we can obtain on our own. In fact, all the verbs are passive. This means that the first request is not really, "Let us hallow your name." It's more, "Father, do what we can't—make your name holy in all the earth."

Only God can reveal himself to the world. But if we pray as he taught us, our reverence and care for his name will grow. That's when we'll begin to exchange our cheap instruments of self-interest and power for the costly cross of Christ—the only instrument worthy of our Master's name.