Archive for March, 2010

“In both prayer and poetry, one catches speech labouring with its own limits – not because of the impoverishment of language, but precisely because of its inexhaustible resources, its endless playfulness and plasticity in the face of new experiences.” So says Ben Myers in an abstract of his paper on Sarah Coakley’s theological method. I’m not a Coakley fan, but I appreciate Myers’ perceptive remark on speech that labors. That’s a stimulating characterization I won’t soon forget.

A few observations. First, one should note the significant redirection in his statement: while most regard speech’s labor as reflective of its severe limitations, we may instead regard that labor as reflective of its intrinsic inexhaustibility, of its constant reaching for more of what it can be and what it can capture. While I don’t believe Myers would agree, this view of inexhaustible speech arises naturally from a confession of Scripture as itself the revelation of God rather than as mere witness to that revelation, as with so many modern theological constructs including and since Barth. If words, ostensibly mere words, can at the same time be both human words and the revelation of the inexhaustible God, then the confessor of an orthodox doctrine of Scripture can also say that words are boundless in their communicative potential and power.

Secondly, while the Creator-creature distinction clarifies that our words must never be confused with God’s, the Creator-creature relationship also clarifies that our use of words belongs to our covenantal purpose of expressing his ultimately inexpressible glory. Fruitfully laboring speech belongs, then, to the blessings of the Gospel: as grace operates to humble and reorient sinful speech, it nurtures a poetic posture of prayer and theology by cultivating a holy imagination and creativity. In other words, the Spirit bears his fruit of faith, hope, and love in the contexts of verbal (and non-verbal) communication, and this includes our imaginative reaching for God in prayer when we stretch human language to say something glorious of our ever-glorious God.

Lastly, the fruit the Spirit gives are given in the forms that wisdom – which he also gives – requires, according to the shape and contours of our personal life contexts. We should recognize the impact of this view of “laboring speech” on our appreciation of the ethics of communication. If prayer is speech laboring fruitfully in its reach for God’s glory, what is speech laboring fruitfully in its reach for one another? In other words, how does laboring speech in relation to the Shema (love God) inform the Great Command (love your neighbor)? We can say at least this: if we content ourselves with less than this “labored reaching” in our words with one another, if we see no way out of the cul-de-sac of selfish communication and no possibility for speech to serve rather than destroy, arguably our words are bounded chiefly by our own lack of spiritual imagination – and spiritual imagination is simply another way of referring to wisdom in practice. We fail to use our speech-powers to enrich one another either because we intend to tear down through speech or because we live oblivious to the ultimate significance of our need to refine our speech skills in service to one another.

But the Gospel will not permit such a patchwork way of life. The Gospel knows of no true love for God that does not also involve a true love for neighbor, and vice versa. For that reason, there is no speech that labors fruitfully in prayer (vertically) that does not also labor fruitfully in love (horizontally). Jesus Christ, the enfleshed Word of God, is the full reach of the Law-word of God in both directions, loving his Father and loving his neighbor. And those united to him by faith and the Spirit share in who he is as both combined, not as one or the other. There is but one Christ, not a Christ in parts. Thus, where one of these graces is given by God, the other is also. But where one is absent, so is the other. Isn’t this the heart of the matter in 1 Peter 3:7 – Husbands love your wives according to knowledge and honor “so that your prayers may not be hindered?”


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I have been working for a couple of years now on horrendous evils and the atonement. This has involved extensive reading in some of the most horrific realities of human existence, both large-scale historical events and individual, mostly anonymous and private experiences of spellbinding horrors. The more I read about extreme psychotic illness, Holocaust suffering, political torture, unspeakable grief, nightmarish tragedy, and grotesque abuse, the more I see the faces of those whose suffering renders us speechless. And the more I see them, the more I trace their stories from page to page, the more I hear (and fear) Cicero’s perceptive words: “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity.”

One day I’ll write something about how this extensive time of reflecting on horrendous evils has affected me and has shaped my labors as a minister, but I can say at least this much now: The reach of the Fall is wide and painfully deep, and the face of Sin is not one to be smirked at, made light of, dismissed. Appearances notwithstanding, hungry evil does not nibble; it devours and savors every bloody morsel of its conquest. The Gospel, then, must reach as far as that. If the “good news” is a mere peddling of superficial goods – a better name, better sleep, better wife and kids, better anything – then that is good news only to those untouched by horror. If it is not good news to those caught in the jagged teeth of Evil’s extremities, then it is not good news. Yet here is something of the glory of the true Gospel. Only at the extremities of evil do we begin, and yet only begin, to peer into the depths of the love of the One who “descended into Hell.” At the edge of that abyss, that which at first makes us recoil ultimately offers the only true rest from an often nightmarish existence.

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“No one ventured to teach any art unless he has learned it after deep thought. With what rashness, then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts! For who does not realize that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body? Yet, although those who have no knowledge of the powers of drugs shrink from giving themselves out as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart, and though, by divine ordinance, those now in the highest positions are disposed to show a regard for religion, some there are who aspire to glory and esteem by an outward show of authority within the holy Church.”

Gregory the Great, in Pastoral Theology (Thomas Oden’s helpful discussion of parts of Book 3 of Gregory’s treatise is available online here)

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Are you faithless or are you sore? This is a question I pray pastors will ask more often. Let me explain.

The intimate and constant interplay of our material and immaterial aspects, commented on last time with a view to Genesis, is something to which the Church has long been sensitive. Because we don’t merely “have” a body but are living body, we can’t arbitrarily divide life into the physical and the nonphysical. But this is something the Church has always known to some extent. Among the earliest and still one of the finest works of its kind, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Theology explained how pastors were called to understand not only the Word but also human experience. Gregory’s manual is but one example in a long and rich tradition of pastoral theology that presses the point. Pastors are called to cultivate an understanding of the way people are, how they function, and then how to read such ways of life and thought in light of the framework provided by a nuanced understanding of the Gospel. Pastors are to penetrate the different ways people live out, or fail to live out, their beliefs in the concrete spheres of life to which they have been called.

What difference does this make? A great difference, actually, and one that I suspect every believer can appreciate. I can readily think of one way in which a sound grasp of God’s human creation is critical for a sound pastoral theology and practice: pastoral care of a troubled but believing soul. Despite their best intentions, pastors are tempted to oversimplify  matters into faith or faithlessness. Consider a man or woman in one’s congregation who has either suffered a traumatic event years earlier or who has suffered an accumulation of great difficulties over time. In the course of conversation, the pastor learns of the lingering effects of this trauma in the forms of occasional despondency, struggles with depression, moments of great doubt and wavering, or seasons of apparent spiritual barrenness. What does the pastor conclude? Many pastors, I’ve discovered, rush to conclude that the believer is not strong enough in faith.

At the same time, that same pastor wouldn’t expect the saint to recover similarly from a severe car accident. The pastor knows that a man may have his leg in traction, capable physicians in the hospital attending him, and everything else in place for a full recovery, but that the recovery will be slow, gradual, and may possibly leave lingering effects. Even with everything in place, even with the solution found and order restored, recovery will take time and it will involve pain.

But if we expect our physical healing to look like this, why do we expect something so radically different when we withstand emotional, spiritual, psychological blows? Why do we expect ourselves or others to “bounce right back” and show no lingering effects weeks, months, or years later?

The truth is, sometimes a believer is not faithless; he’s just sore. And being sore is okay. In fact, as I know from experience (and I expect the reader does as well), we ought to expect to feel sore from deep wounds we suffer long after we suffer them, and the more significant the blow the more gradual is the path of healing. The loss of a loved one. The pain of a great disappointment. The weariness of a seemingly futile yet necessary duty or process. Yet God will indeed wipe every tear from our eyes. He does heal wounds both emotional and physical, but he does so in his own ways and in his own time, and those ways and times reflect the general truth that he has called his people to a pilgrimage, not a sprint.

In short, if a believer is struggling mightily, a pastor might conclude it’s because of insufficient faith, or some such thing. It’s always possible, of course, that faithlessness is the problem, or at least part of it. Yet a sound theology of human personhood, situated in a sound grasp of what the Bible has to say about the dynamics of faith, can sensitize a pastor to this other real possibility, and so keep that shepherd from unwittingly and unintentionally – though really – crushing one of Christ’s sheep.

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