Monday, April 14, 2014

Last week, Christianity Today published the last in my five year series of Wrestling With Angels columns. I'll have some exciting announcements soon about what's going to be on my plate next, but in the meantime I'd love to get your thoughts on the power and limitations of words ...

Sometimes, our spiritual experiences can't be put into words.

In the April, 2014 issue of Christianity Today
the-ocean-4I tackled my first English essay in college with enthusiasm, a thesaurus, and a naive disregard for page limits. The paper came back with the following comment: "Carolyn, you've made some fine points, but unfortunately they are lost in a sea of circumlocutious wordiness."
I've always loved words. A well-turned phrase can replace chaos with cosmos. Solomon likened words aptly spoken to apples of gold in frames of silver (Prov. 25:11). When a preacher parses some Greek or Hebrew, I'm astonished at the vistas of meaning that hide within a bit of syntax. Words are teachers, Swiss Army knives, and painters' palettes. Given the right choreographer, they dance.
Yet, for all my love of language, I've been troubled by a growing sense that I need to pay more attention to wordless things. I don't mean simply that "actions speak louder than words"—although they often do, and we should all be required to balance each use of "compassion" with at least ten compassionate acts. Lately I've been wondering: Have I reduced the scope of what I can know to what I can articulate?
Occasionally, something—a strain of music, a friend's touch, a sunset, or simply a sudden sense of Presence—will "speak" to me. When that occurs, I have an overwhelming urge to put whatever's happening into language. Otherwise, it doesn't seem real. This impulse is particularly noticeable in my devotional life. Give me a prayer list or a passage to study, and I'm there. But ask me to sit silently in God's presence, and I get anxious.
Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, distinguishes between meditative and contemplative prayer. In the former, he argues, we are active and verbal. In the latter, we are passively inarticulate. When we try to perceive God, Rolheiser suggests, we're often like a fish who asks his mother, "Where is this water we hear so much about?" First, the mother might set up a projector at the bottom of the ocean to show pictures of the sea. Then, she might say, "Now that you have some idea of what water is, I want you to sit in it and let it flow through you." That difference—between thinking about water and actually attending to it—is like the difference between meditation and contemplation.
Epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) often emphasizes knowledge rendered in propositional statements: I "know" that 2 + 2 = 4. But there is also "acquaintance-knowledge," gained through direct encounter with another person, place, or thing. Many non-English languages have a distinct vocabulary to signify the profound differences between these ways of knowing. For example, the verb for knowing something factually is wissen in German and sapere in Latin, while "acquaintance-knowledge" is designated kennen (German) and cognoscere(Latin). The first kind of knowledge is general, abstract, and easily put into words. The second is individual, particular, and often hard to articulate. You find wissenin textbooks and creeds; kennen comes through relationships and experience.
One of my favorite preachers says that, by Tuesday, he must "break the back" of whatever passage he's going to teach on Sunday. In this mode he's seeking wissen—knowledge of the text that he can codify, control, and explain to his congregation.
Alternatively, one of my favorite contemplatives says that his faith only flourishes when he lets a passage break him. He uses the practice of lectio divina ("sacred reading," or dwelling on a text to listen for the Holy Spirit) in order to pursue a more direct encounter.
I believe both modes are essential. God indeed invites us to "come . . . reason together" (Isa. 1:18, ESV). He also implores us to "be still, and know" that he is God (Ps. 46:10). In the earliest Latin Bible translation, the verb for "know" in this passage appears as cognoscere—acquaintance-knowledge—not sapere.
Perhaps it's fitting that I devote my final Wrestling with Angels column to exploring the power and limits of words. We've exchanged a lot of them over the past five years, and I'm deeply grateful. Rest assured, I'm not giving up on language—you can count on my circumlocutious wordiness in future pieces for ct and, Lord willing, in songs and books to come.
Yet I hope to write without the assum­ption that everything knowable can be named in words. Our God is both the Word who became flesh (John 1) and the Spirit who "himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26, ESV). Let's swim not only in the sea of our own words and ideas about him, but also in his fathomless ocean of love.
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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

When God Wears a Costume (Jan/Feb CT Column)

When God Wears a Costume

Why we need symbols in order to see him.

Carolyn Arends

I was a teenager trying to entertain 2-year-old Laura as she squirmed in her high chair. Thinking myself a clever babysitter, I held up her laminated placemat, which featured a photograph of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
"Is this a picture of Donald and Daisy Duck?" I asked.
"No," she giggled.
"Is it Goofy and Pluto?"
"Nuh-uh!" she squealed.
"Well, who are they?" I asked, gearing up for the inevitable right-answer celebration. But her reply caught me off guard.
"Strangers in costumes."
Laura is grown now, but I've been thinking about the pragmatism she exhibited as a toddler. Her no-nonsense take on the world (at least the world of Disney) is a perfect example of what sociologist Philip Rieff and philosopher Allan Bloom both described as a "low symbolic hedge."
I encountered this idea in The Shattered Lantern, a book by Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser. If many Westerners have trouble perceiving God's presence in daily life, then perhaps, says Rolheiser, the problem is that our culture lacks potent symbols.
The ability to use symbols distinguishes humans from other animals. Consider eating. All animals use food for sustenance and pleasure. But humans can employ candlelight, china, toasts, and blessings to imbue a meal with significance. Through symbols, eating can embody romance, friendship, honor, or celebration.
I must confess: I usually have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with such symbols. When, for instance, I eat on the run, my symbolic hedge is low; food is just fuel, and the day is just a succession of hours to manage or endure.
But Rolheiser warns that a low symbolic hedge drains the meaning out of experience. To illustrate, he imagines a middle-aged man beset by chronic back pain.
What does this pain mean? It can mean that he has arthritis, a medical symbol; or it can mean he is undergoing some midlife crisis, a psychological symbol; or it can mean that he is undergoing the paschal mystery, that this is his cross, a religious symbol. Or it might mean all three. The symbols with which we enter and interpret our experience can be low (suffering arthritis) or high (being part of the paschal mystery!).
God's apparent absence in ordinary experience is intimately connected to the diminished height of our symbolic hedge.
I came to Rolheiser's book because two friends—a Christian and a skeptic—had confessed to longing for a sharper awareness of God's presence. Their failure to "feel" God left both women wounded.
The Shattered Lantern reminded me that sensing God's presence is not the same thing as faith. God is near whether we feel him or not. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed," Jesus declares (John 20:29). Saint John of the Cross famously wrote of the "dark night of the soul," claiming that sometimes God withdraws his presence.
Still, John of the Cross noted that in other cases the problem has more to do with our "blindness." Given that Jesus encourages us to seek in order to find (Luke 11:9), Rolheiser would have us cultivate a contemplative receptivity to God—trusting that, in general, we can sense his presence.
In a culture of narcissism, pleasure-seeking, and restlessness, that receptivity can seem futile. A low symbolic hedge is both a cause and a symptom of our problem. Where earth once seemed, in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "crammed with heaven," it now often appears as flat as a laminated placemat. Where the poet saw "every common bush afire with God," we see only shrubs.
Our low symbolic hedge is, in part, a byproduct of the modern dogma that nature is all there is. But it's also the fruit of our Reformation heritage, with its wariness of superstition. After all, Laura was right: Mickey and Minnie really are just strangers in costumes. It's foolish to pretend otherwise.
CommunionBreadWineBut what about cases when there's truly more than meets the eye? When bread and wine are not just food and drink, but emblems of a body broken? When baptismal waters plunge us into death and resurrection?
The ancient Israelites were not above raising the symbolic hedge when they needed to awaken themselves to God. In 1 Samuel 7, they pour out buckets of water to express repentance, and build "ebenezers" out of rocks to memorialize God's provision and deliverance. Sometimes water is more than water, stone more than stone.
Much has been made of young evangelicals leaving "low" Protestant congregations for more liturgical churches. Maybe part of what they're seeking is a higher symbolic hedge. What would happen if our worship enveloped them with biblically grounded symbolism? Certainly, we should remain wary of counterfeit "strangers in costumes." But we must also help ourselves remember that we've been invited into the drama of a mysterious and wonderful gospel—a truth stranger (in the best possible way) than fiction.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Duct Tape Discipleship (new CT Column)

Duct-Tape Disciples

What really sticks when leading a friend to Christ. 

Carolyn Arends [ posted 10/22/2013 2:21PM ]
Pascale Honore loves watching her sons tackle the Australian surf. A woman not easily intimidated, she would join her boys in the waves were it not for a 1995 car accident that left her paraplegic. Bound to a wheelchair, surfing was not an option—until one of her sons' friends had an idea.

Tyron Swan, 23, is a strong and skillful surfer. "I could duct tape you to my back and surf," he said to Pascale, 50. Pascale didn't see why he couldn't, and, armed with several rolls of tape, they set out to test their plan.

Pascale "can't find the words to explain" what it's like to move through the ocean, to feel like she's "part of the water" after years of immobility. For his part, Tyron notes that surfing with an extra 88 pounds taped to his body is "a pretty good challenge." But his nonchalance can't mask the significance of his gift. "It's changed her life in a way," he admits.

Pascale and Tyron's adventures have been chronicled in a short documentary, Duct Tape Surfing. It's the sort of clip you think would take the Internet by storm, and that's exactly what it has done. How could anyone not be moved by Pascale's courage and Tyron's tangible friendship?

If my fellow Christians are anything like me, I suspect they can't watch the footage without seeing a powerful metaphor for spiritual friendship. Is there any more vivid embodiment of "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2, ESV) than a sturdy Tyron rising up on his surfboard with a grinning Pascale on his back? Is there any richer example of the way trust can make possible things once thought impossible? When we use words like evangelism and discipleship, are we not daring to dream that we who have already experienced the waves of God's mercy might somehow lead a friend or two into the water?

I must resist the urge to reduce Pascale to a sermon illustration. But there is a detail in her story that I can't help relating to the matter of spiritual friendships. It has to do with duct tape.

Wherever the Duct Tape Surfing documentary is posted, there is space for viewers to leave comments. Several folks have asked about having a company make a professional-grade harness, eliminating the need for the reams of silver tape that Tyron cuts off with a fishing knife after every outing.

"Pascale was sent a number of harnesses to try but realized that duct tape is the best as Ty needs her in a certain position," explains Mark Tipple, the film director. "Too low, and he's off balance, or if she's too high, he can't raise his head while paddling and can't see. For now, duct tape is the best!"

Where prefabricated solutions have failed, duct tape lets Pascale and Tyron customize, adapt, and fit themselves together as needed. Here is where my mind makes the leap back to spiritual friendships. There are many evangelism and discipleship programs available, chock-full of great ideas. But I am learning, in my halting attempts at spiritual friendships, that no one believes, disbelieves, questions, or grows in exactly the same manner. There is no one way to share the faith or invite someone deeper into it. While programs give us ideas, successful spiritual friendships are built upon adaptive, responsive, trusting relationships as unique as the people who inhabit them.

As a teenager, I spent several weeks going through a life-changing discipleship program with my youth pastor's wife, Pam Mitchell. Although I'm grateful for the material we worked through, I can't remember anything about the curriculum we used. What I remember, above all, is our friendship—the way I could trust Pam completely with my hurts and hopes. As she lived out the Scriptures we were exploring, I longed to swim where she swam—to follow her as she followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

There is a give and take to discipleship, a discovery of how a would-be mentor's strengths and experiences align with a friend's questions and quandaries. Spiritual friendship should be as much listening as leading, as much discovery as discourse. Forcing that friendship into preconceived patterns will almost certainly sink it.

And so, whether I am the mentor or the mentee (or, often, both), I am trying to embrace something like duct-tape discipleship. It's stickier, and messier, than some of the prefabricated solutions. But it takes an approach as adaptable—and tenacious—as duct tape to be the kind of friend who dives in deep and, like the Proverb says, "sticks closer than a brother" (18:24).