Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Life Less Intelligible

I have a lot of reading to do.  In addition to the books I've been waiting to get at during my sabbatical, I keep picking up new ones.  Last week I picked up Stanley Hauerwas’ new autobiography, "Hannah's Child."  Hauerwas is an interested character.  I remember first reading his book “Resident Aliens” (co-written with Will Willimon) and fuming at their descriptions of the tepid state of the church in America and their prescriptions for what to do to live faithfully to the gospel.  I fumed because what they call for seems, well, really hard.  They believe it's not only possible, but it’s our calling to be Christians – "little Christs."  Which is really hard.  And like Christ, will likely get us in trouble.  Or marginalized.  Or ignored.  Or maybe even killed.  They call for Christians to stop worshipping at the alter of relevancy, and to realize that the Gospel – while being the best news the world will ever know – will always seem foolish to those who do not believe.
On the second page of his memoir, Hauerwas makes a statement so profound that upon reading it I could go no further: I had to put the book down and have been chewing on it for several days now.  How does this hit you:
“I have tried to live a life I hope is unintelligible if the God we Christians worship does not exist.”
Do you get what he’s saying?  To an outsider, the way a Christian lives should be perplexing.  The way we spend our time, who we choose to live among and to give ourselves to.  The kind of work we put our hands to.  The way we do that work.  The way we hold (or don’t) the things of this world.
I’d like to think this is true of me.  I'd like to think I'm a radical.  Whether because I have given my life to the increasingly demeaned vocation of pastoral ministry.  Or because of the neighborhood I live in.  Or because of the car I drive.  I’d like folks to say, “Wow, that guy’s either really crazy or he’s on to something.”
I’d like to think my life is a challengingly prophetic witness to people in and out of the church.  But I know better.  I want success and comfort and accolades just as much as (if not more than) my friends and peers who’ve given their lives to pursuing money and status and the finer things.  I can just cloak my self-centered pursuits in ministerial garb.
This morning I write from beautiful St. Meinrad’s Archabbey and retreat center in Southern Indiana.  I began my day by attending mass in the airy and surprisingly bright cathedral where Eucharist has been celebrated daily for 150 years.  When I entered the room there were maybe 25 other folks sitting, kneeling, bowing and fidgeting, waiting for worship.  After 10 minutes of wondering when the thing would start, I heard from the far corner of the room a single voice: “They gave up everything that they might have God’s love in them.” (“That’s a beautiful thought,” I said to myself)  And then I heard a chorus of men’s voices, singing together, ringing out through the high arched ceilings of the cathedral, “They gave up everything…”
And in strode dozens of men, two by two, all in monastic habit, singing over and over those words.  “They gave up everything…”  There were ancient men, dragging their unwilling legs forward.  There were young men, scarcely old enough to vote.  There were some who were tall and dignified, others hunched over and hobbling forward.  Some were fit and athletic, others paunchy and well-fed.
And then we, the on-lookers, joined them in song: “They gave up everything,” we all sang.  Today is the feast of Sts. James the Less and Philip, so we were technically singing about those two first followers of our Lord.  But in that moment, I knew who I was singing about.  I was singing about these men who were now standing among us.  Men who had truly given up everything – wives, status, worldly goods, notoriety, their very names – that they might dedicate themselves to God, to prayer, to work for Him and His people.  Their lives are truly unintelligible if the Christian God does not exist.  But if this God exists, then maybe they have something to teach me.  To teach all of us.  Not that we all need to abandon the world and stay cloistered in a monastery.  These guys would be the first to say they have a specific call; the monastic life is not for everyone.  But what does it mean for ME to give up everything that's been given to me, that I might know nothing but Christ and Him crucified?  For me to truly hold loosely to the things of this world – my identity as a pastor, others' opinion of me, my personal comforts and desires? 
Reformer of the Reformed churches, Nicolaus Zinzendorf is known for his life’s mission statement: “Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.”  That’s my call.  And it makes no sense if the God I proclaim didn’t really love the world and send His only Son.  It makes no sense if those who believe in Him won’t really have everlasting life.  It makes no sense if He didn't speak the world into existence and won't make all things new on the last day.  But if He did and if He will, unintelligible as it may seem, this is the most obvious way to live my life.  God help me to do so.  And God help my unbelief.

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