Word.

If you could pick one word to repeat over and over again like a Pokémon, what would it be? For those who aren’t millennials, Pokémon are little Japanese characters whose complete vocabularies consist of their own names. I watched the first few episodes of the cartoon before my siblings told me it wasn’t cool. Same with the Power Rangers. Tragedies of the youngest boy in the family.

But imagine if you were asked your name, or the way to the Piggly Wiggly, or the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow. And in response, you could only choose one unchangeable word for the rest of your days. And as you hunch in your cave over your freshly caught salmon and handful of mushrooms, muttering about your misfortune and woe, the only word you could utter to express to your painted volleyball roommate how cold your bare feet are would be…what?

Which word would you choose to be with you until your dying day? It would have to bear the weight of your emotions and thoughts, bending under inflection and bolstered by facial cues that can only communicate so much. And it would need to be a word that covered enough bases so that you could convey the bare minimum to be understood.

So, you probably wouldn’t want to choose something like “aglet.” That would be fairly useless, especially in a beach context or during flip flop season. Almost as pointless would be “eaglet,” unless you were specifically trying to get someone to save a young eagle as it choked on a discarded aglet.

Choosing the word “why” would just get you killed. The ruler of the burnt-out gas station would demand of you, “Bagel!” And you, not knowing what he means by that or why he would pick the silliest of breads as his only word, would reply, “Why?” “Bagel!” he demands, old Monster Energy Drinks dangling from his earlobes. You stare at him with wide eyes and dare to say, “Why?” And with no patience for your philosophical shenanigans, you get strangled with a severed gasoline hose. Why? Bagel.

But these are utilitarian considerations, aren’t they? To be fair, that’s the direction in which I’ve pushed us. Like the aftermath of Babel, how would society hold together if every person only had one word for the rest of their lives? That’s not an unimportant way to think about this. But it’s just not as fun.

I really love how sentences fit. Notice, I didn’t say how sentences work. I almost did, but then I caught myself. Economic English has a beauty all its own. Concise can be lovely. But this thought experiment is not to do with sentences. We’re talking about words. We’re discussing your own one word. Your life-word, if you will. Your “verbo vitae” (Google translate, don’t fail me now). I think that phrase probably refers to Jesus, but I hope you’re following the thread here.

I also love how words sound. That’s why poetry should be read out loud and preferably slower than you want to read it. That’s why “cellar door” works so well on an aesthetic level. But what about just one word? If I must choose my verbo vitae, I don’t want one that would merely keep me alive or get me what I need. If the good of my family is involved, then surely. But that’s not the scenario. It’s just you. It’s just me. What word would I love to be stuck with until my lungs stop pumping air?

Obsidian? Duplicitous? Squalor? Sonorous? Barracuda? Pompadour? Dapple?

Probably. No really. I mean it. Probably. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? And even if you don’t like the sound of it, do you think it would help keep me alive?

Probably.

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Finding Figments

I’m 97% sure that Sasquatch exists.

The elusive North American great ape has yet to be categorized by modern Western science, but countless eyewitness encounters (not to mention the incontrovertible evidence of the Patterson-Gimlin film) suggest that small breeding populations dot the landscape across the States.

It’s easy to believe in a flesh and blood primate. The adorable little olinguito wasn’t discovered until 2013. The little deer-like saola wasn’t confirmed to exist until 2010. My favorite hide and seek champion is the giant panda. Locals were quite familiar with it, but Westerners didn’t encounter evidence for it until 1869 (some 500+ years after Marco Polo’s famous travels to China). Native Americans have told stories about the “large hairy men” for centuries. Bigfoot is no different.

I say that because what follows might sound like wishful thinking. But I really do think the odds are in favor of the modern world discovering Sasquatch. Above is why I do believe. Now, here’s why I want to believe.

America is more enchanted than we realize.

In part, Tolkien wrote his Middle Earth stories because he was frustrated with the lack of English myths. That’s partly why N.D. Wilson wrote his 100 Cupboards series. He wanted homegrown fairy tale this side of the pond. I feel that.

The gaping lack of our American mythos is tantalizing. It draws me. It makes me want to peel back the layers of forest and canyon and mud filled lakes and find delightfully unmanaged secrets growing silently away from our eyes.

Champ. The Beast of Bray Road. Mothman. Skunk apes. Thunderbirds. El chupacabra.

I’d like to see them all. I want them all to be real. America needs a little more enchanted spaces.

And yeah, I’m 97% sure Sasquatch exists.

Life Support and Ligaments

“Which cannot be without thee.”

That’s a beautiful phrase that appears in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Today is the ninth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. When Thomas Cranmer was trying to decide how best to disciple an entire nation in which Roman Catholicism had been formative for almost a millennium, he went over the ancient sacramentaries (service books for how to have church services in the West) and pulled the prayers that shone forth the gospel clearest.

These prayers in the BCP are called collects (emphasis placed on the first syllable). Each collect has roughly the same structure. There’s an address (“Almighty and Everlasting Father”; “Lord from whom all good things do come”, etc.). A lot of times the address or invocation is a direct reference to God and the reason for the prayer. Next is the main body of the prayer- the petition. This is based on the readings for the given Sunday and are always first person plural because we pray as one holy, catholic, apostolic church. And then the prayer is concluded with a type of doxology, usually invoking the Trinity.

Thomas Cranmer composed a few prayers of his own (most notably, the Ash Wednesday collect and those used in Advent), but for today, I’m struck by the absolute dependence on God that Cranmer was trying to get the English church to see. It’s an older prayer (from the Gelasian Sacramentary) (traditionally dated to the 5th century). It goes as follows:

“Grant to us Lord we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, which cannot be without thee, may by thee be able to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This (like perhaps every prayer) is more than a tall order. It’s an impossible task. Grant that we might have the spirit to think and do always that which is rightful? Always? Can’t do it. My selfishness will trip me up. The world will allure me. Satan will buffet.

But it is “by thee” that was ask this. It is by his power that we are able to live according to his will. Sine te esse, “which cannot be (i.e., exist)” without thee. That’s dependence, is it not?

Lord, we cannot be without thee. I cannot be without thee. There’s no me if it weren’t for you. And there’s no obedience and rightfulness without your grace. Grant it to your Church this morning, Lord. Remind us of your grace.

Hobgoblins in Winter

There’s a certain value in tears. Life in the vale is sweet, but so often salty. There are times when the sun is full and the air is warm and even the nights are full of honey and moonlight.

But we cannot always live in those perpetual springtimes. Especially after great tragedies or relentless circumstances, we find ourselves in “the winter of our discontent,” even while our hair is more pepper than salt.

I’ve heard believers in Jesus say that depression is simply an issue or evidence of unrepentant sin in your life. Just read more Psalms and double down in your prayers, and the melancholy will lift. I can’t decide if such an understanding is cruel or only naive.

But going on four years now, I’ve found it’s more like a grey hobgoblin, a mixture of neurochemistry and one sorrow treading upon the heel of the first. Eventually, he slides off your shoulders, but it’s only to slink away to find a cozy shadow. It’s not to beat a panicked retreat to the abyss, never to return again. I have developed multifaceted strategies for prevention, but the best real time treatment, I’ve found, is to not leave the house and just go to bed.

We don’t talk about it in the Church. Evangelicals, in particular, get nervous around it. Depression is one of those sadnesses that Christ will undo someday. But until then, we must learn keep each other warm in the winter.

Turning the Wheel

I am a Protestant through and through. This is why I love church history. To go back into church history is to become more and more Protestant. The Reformers were so helpful in their calling the Church to repent from her wanderings. But as an honest Protestant, I need to admit that there were some overcorrections that happened in the 16th century and we are still feeling their effects.

In a pre-Reformation church, the altar was the central focus and the “pulpit”, such as it was, was off to the side. Protestants flipped the architecture on its head. The pulpit became the magnet to which all eyes were drawn because of the centrality of the Scripture and that preached faithfully. There’s much to commend in rearranging the furniture in that way.

But I fear it may have simply caused an equal and opposite problem. This is why ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the Church must always be reformed). Not that we are constantly changing ourselves out of restlessness or chasing fads, but that we are constantly reforming ourselves to be more like Christ’s Bride.

The sermon is not the focus of a church service. The gospel is.

I say that as someone who, until quite recently, preached for the last six years as a minister of the gospel one to two times a week. I love preaching. I love creating sermons that are helpful and clear. It’s wonderful and humbling to see the Holy Spirit take a sermon and run with it. It’s like watching your little paper boat get blown across the lake at top speed.

But I would invite you to think of the liturgy as a wheel.

(Brief aside: liturgy means “work of the people.” Some traditions call it the order of service. It can be “high church” with incense and bells or “low church” with acoustic guitars and blue jeans. Even if your church service is simply announcements, a few songs, and a sermon, that is a liturgy. That’s how I’m using this word.)

So, think of the liturgy as a wheel. The hub at the center is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out from that central hub are the spokes. Each spoke is a means of grace: prayer, Scripture reading, singing, giving, the Lord’s Supper, the sermon, baptism, confession, etc. That all lead to and draw from the cross of Christ at the center. And the rim around the hub, the tire, is fellowship. It is the communion of saints. The means of grace spin the wheel of fellowship around the hub of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We move forward only when centered around the cross. Otherwise, the wheel doesn’t spin. Otherwise, we’re stuck in neutral, learning perhaps or praying mightily, but not really going anywhere as a church. The liturgy needs to be orbited around the good news of what Jesus has done for sinful people to bring them back to a holy God. And the sermon does that.

But so too does the Eucharist. That’s why I’m an advocate of weekly communion. Richard Barcellos has written a wonderful book from a Reformed Baptist perspective on how the Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace. I recommend it. It’s a conduit to strengthen our faith in the gospel which is of first importance. But regardless of how often it is celebrated, my point is that it matters as a strengthening exercise for our faith in what Christ has done for us.

Confession, also, brings us back to the gospel. As do responsive readings of Scripture. Reciting the Creed strengthens our faith in Christ alone. These are all spokes on the wheel that make fellowship go forward, but only if that’s a centering around the gospel.

This understanding does not devalue the sermon or the word of God. On the contrary, it properly utilized them as channels of sanctifying grace from the Father that push us deeper into the Scriptures to find the truth of his gospel there. Likewise, this does not unequally elevate Communion or prayer above the other means of grace. The spokes on the wheel are the same length and of the same importance in making the wheel turn. The Church needs all the gifts that her Lord has bestowed upon her.

However a church orders its liturgy, whatever percentage of time is allocated to whichever means of grace, my point is this: that the gospel is centralized and focused in everything that happens, that it all be done “in the name of the Lord.” That’s how we ought to live anyway, right? It seems prudent that we ought to worship that way as well.

Beautiful Stories to Tell in the Dark

So, this one time, C.S. Lewis stayed at a haunted house.

But that’s not the part he chooses to emphasize. I would love to read a short mystery novel about Lewis at this haunted inn on a windswept hill in Ireland. But it doesn’t exist yet.

Anyway, the spooks and ghouls didn’t have nearly the effect on the locals as “the good people.” In addition to being allegedly haunted, this building was said to have faeries. And that was why the townsfolk steered clear of it. Now, having said that, I know that someone just rolled their eyes and maybe even just clicked away to a Neil DeGrasse Tyson video to remind themselves that we’ve conquered all mysteries.

But Jack had a medieval mind. Don’t forget, his day job was to teach medieval and Renaissance literature. And he took seriously what they took seriously. But to overcome the modern stereotype of Tinkerbell, he preferred to call them the Longaevi (“the long lived”). And in The Discarded Image, he takes great pleasure in subdividing them into different types with references from Milton and Spenser as his footnotes.

But my point is not to argue whether or not C.S. Lewis believed that faeries were real. His mind was thoroughly pre-modern and so was his imagination. And when he sought to explain the Longaevi (nymphs, fauns, satyrs, dryads, etc.), he sensed the tension they introduce in the medieval system. You had the seven heavens and the earth and the fullness thereof. But then we see this third category that defies tidy organization.

“They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous” (Discarded Image, p.122).

A welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty. The philosopher Charles Taylor gets credit for introducing the term “disenchantment” to describe the secularization of the West. Jamie Smith, in his very helpful guide to reading Taylor’s The Secular Age, explains that the location of meaning has been moved from the world to the mind. Things aren’t soaked through with significance. Our minds, and their ability to perceive meaning internally, are drenched with importance.

The cosmos becomes the universe. Creation becomes nature. The curse of the lightbulb means that all the shadows and uncertainties have been banished from the haunted house. Things are, in Lewis’ words, “a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.” Charles Taylor calls it “the rage of order.” And faeries, sea monsters, ghosts, and goblins are that splinter of wildness wedged in the gears of a well-oiled and easily observed machine.

That’s my point in bringing all of this up. A hint of wildness and uncertainty can be a corrective to the secular mindset, the one that sees the world for what it appears to be. There’s that great scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the children and Caspian are talking with a fallen star named Ramandu and the ever practical Eustace doesn’t quite have a category for what he’s seeing (despite meeting one already). He tried to correct the retired star on his own existence.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace. ‘A star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’”

I remember reading that as a kid and shivering with delight. A welcome hint of wildness. Do you see? That’s why I like watching scary movies. That’s why I enjoy fantasy novels and science fiction. That’s why I’ll binge certain shows that offer up an intrusion of uncertainty into a world with too many lightbulbs and not enough shadowy corners.

We can’t put everything under the microscope, least of all God Almighty. The medievals understood that at first blush. Jack did as well. So, yes, maybe those stars really are what science tells us they are. That’s fine. But I’m holding out hope that I’ll meet Rigel enjoying his retirement on the new earth someday.

Wouldn’t that be wild?

I Have a Confession.

Jack has this awesome essay collected God in the Dock in which he looks at the phrase “miserable offenders” in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a stark pair of words that comes from the general confession portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies.

But Lewis asks, is this morbidly introspective? All this confession and gloomy naming of sins, isn’t it all just the sad pathologies of repressed and guilty people working itself out through religion? Not at all, he insists. It’s actually healthy. The alternative to not looking your own sin in the face is to constantly have your nose in the sins of others. Lewis says it’s like the difference between the pain of having a tooth that needs to be pulled and the pain of the tooth having just been pulled.

He then offers the text of the Ash Wednesday collect at the end of his essay. It’s a beautiful prayer that is worth repeating in full:

“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 That is the prayer that begins the season of Lent. And how can we worthily lament our sins if we mumble over them in a fuzzy, vague sense of not living up to our full potential? We face the full truth that we are, despite our best efforts, “miserable offenders” that need forgiveness. This is not just a Lenten discipline. This is a daily practice. Or at least, it should be.

What’s refreshing to me is that Jack practiced this. While he was careful not to prescribe it in his public writings, he himself went to confession. It might surprise Protestants to know that the Church of England has procedure for confession. But unlike in the Roman Catholic system, the Anglican priest proclaims what God has done and reminds the penitent of what the gospel says.

Lewis used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, went to confession weekly, and took an annual retreat for a few days as part of this worthy lamenting. All this seems fairly dry and rote to a great many evangelicals, I’d bet. Anything “liturgical” must be dead and boring and lifeless.

But one of my favorite passages in Jack’s writings is in his little Letters to Malcolm (a book which horrified his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). Every church service, Lewis argues, has a structure of acts and words. Even if it’s just announcements, three songs, and a sermon, that’s a liturgy. But what about the structured rhythm of day-in, day-out church calendar days playing out over and over again in the same way? Can any confession nestled in such mechanical practices be genuine?

It can be as genuine as learning to dance.

“As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God” (Letters to Malcom, p.12).

Once the movements and the words become part of you, part of your habits and your heart, the Holy Spirit begins to play the melody while you dance the rhythm. God uses those simply practices of confession and prayer and responsive reading and kneeling and singing and who can say what else.

Corporate confession, private confession to a pastor or trusted friend, a prayer whispered or screamed to the Father- these things are far from rote and mechanical. They are as shot through with life as the four seasons painting a forest awake through a whole range of natural, daily, and yearly patterns and systems.

Whatever your spiritual rhythms or your liturgical tradition, confession is like coming up for air. It’s the disciplined joy of coming in from the cold. It’s firelight in the dead of winter. I remember before I became a Christian, I would mumble a quick incantation after I knowingly sinned. I would curse (often only in my head) or say something hurtful and then I would immediately say, “Father, forgive me.” A dead heart, asking his genie for a little relief from his guilt.

But what a different picture we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, where that prodigal son “comes to himself” in the pig sty. He prepares this very moving speech in which he essentially confesses and worthily laments himself to be a miserable offender to his father. But he doesn’t even get to finish his confession before his father showers him with eager affection.

He hates nothing he has created. He is the God of all mercy. And as Henry Newman rightly observed repeatedly through his career, one of our main tasks is to rest in our status as the beloved. We are the beloved of God, lavished with his great love because of the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. While we confess our specific sins specifically, while we are still a long way off, our Father runs towards us.

It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation or repressed guilt or dealing with our woundedness. It’s the turning from darkness and being wrapped up by the hearth. It’s the knowledge that you are loved even those who have miserably offended the one who loves you so relentlessly. It’s the nonsensical nature of grace.