Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Silence in Life and Death

Yesterday, I began a class called "Grief, Loss, Death, and Dying" with David Augsburger. I can already tell it's going to be very beneficial. One of the things Dr. Augsburger did was read an excerpt from Thomas Merton's work No Man is an Island. It was one of the most profound things I've read in a while. I hope you'll take three minutes to slowly read through it and consider its implications.
Silence does not exist in our lives merely for its own sake. Silence is the mother of speech. A lifetime of silence is ordered to an ultimate declaration, which can be put into words, a declaration of all we have lived for.

Life is not to be regarded as an uninterrupted flow of words which is finally silenced by death. Its rhythm develops in silence, surfaces in moments of expression, returns to deeper silence, culminates in a final declaration, then ascends quietly into the silence of Heaven.

Those who do not know that there is another life after this one, resist the fruitful silence of their own being by continual noise. Even when their own tongues are still, their minds chatter without end and without meaning. Or they plunge themselves into the protective noise of machines, traffic or radios. When their own noise is momentarily exhausted, they rest in the noise of others.

How tragic it is that those who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy. The reason for their talk is: Death is the enemy who seems to confront them at every moment in the deep darkness and silence of their own being. So they keep shouting at death. They confound their lives with noise. They stun their won ears with meaningless words, never discovering that their hearts are rooted in a silence that is not death but life. They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.

Our whole life should be a meditation of our last and most important decision: the choice between life and death.

We must all die. But the dispositions with which we face death make of our death a choice either of death or life.

If, during our life we have chosen life, then in death we will pass from death to life. Life is a spiritual thing and spiritual things are silent. If the spirit that kept the flame of physical life burning in our bodies took care to nourish itself with the oil that is found only in the silence of God's charity, then when the body dies, the spirit itself goes on burning the same oil, with its own flame. But if the spirit has burned all along with the base oils of passion or egoism or pride, then when death comes, the flame of the spirit goes out with the light of the body because there is no more oil in the lamp.

We must learn during our lifetime to trim our lamps and fill them with charity in silence, sometimes speaking and confessing the glory of God in order to increase our charity by increasing the charity of others, and teaching them also the ways of peace and of silence.

If, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which He has bought for us by His own death. Those who love true life, therefore, frequently think about their death. Their life is full of a silence that is an anticipated victory over death. Silence, indeed, makes death our servant and even our friend. Thoughts and prayers that grow up out of the silent thought of death are like trees growing where there is no water. Thy are strong thoughts, that overcome passion and desire. They turn the face of our soul, in constant desire, toward the face of Christ.

If I say that a whole lifetime of silence is ordered to a final utterance, I do not mean that we must all contrive to die with pious speeches on our lips. It is not necessary that our last words should have some special or dramatic significance worthy of being written down. Every good death, every death that hands us over from the uncertainties of this world to the unfailing peace and silence of the love of Christ is itself an utterance and a conclusion.

A silent death may speak with more eloquent peace that a death punctuated by vivid expressions. For the eloquence of death is the eloquence of human poverty coming face to face with the riches of divine mercy. The more we are aware that our poverty is supremely great, the greater will be the meaning of death."

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (1955), pgs. 260-264

Thursday, March 08, 2012

What does being filled with the Spirit mean?

Tim Keller offers his thoughts:
The first place in the New Testament that discusses the work of the spirit at length is in the gospel of John. Jesus considered the teaching so important that he devoted much time to it on the night before he died. When we hear of ‘spiritual filledness,’ we think of inner peace and power, and that may indeed be a result. Jesus, however, spoke of the Holy Spirit primarily as the ‘Spirit of Truth’ who will ‘remind you of everything I have said to you’ (John 14:17,26). The Holy Spirit ‘will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you’ (John 16:14). What does this mean?

‘Make known’ translates a Greek word meaning a momentous announcement that rivets attention. The Holy Spirit’s task, then, is to unfold the meaning of Jesus’s person and work to believers in such a way that the glory of it – its infinite importance and beauty – is brought home to the mind and heart. This is why earlier in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul can pray that ‘the eyes of your heart be enlightened’ (1:18), that they might ‘have power…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…’ (3:17-18). The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to take truths about Jesus and make them clear to our minds and real to our hearts – so real that they console and empower and change us at our very center.

To be ‘filled with the Spirit,’ then, is to live a life of joy, sometimes quiet, sometimes towering. Truths about God’s glory and Jesus’s saving work are not just believed with the mind but create inner music (Ephesians 5:19) and an inner relish in the soul. ‘Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ (verses 19-20). And because the object of this song is not favorable life circumstances (which can change) but rather the truth and grace of Jesus (which cannot), this heart song does not weaken in times of difficulty.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Being Broken Yet Striving For Holiness

As someone who firmly believes in the depravity of all people, I am glad that there seems to be a move towards more honest sharing in the church today. Imperfection and brokenness are being embraced as people share more of their junk, in an effort to be real and to communicate that Jesus is their only hope for salvation.

While I am glad this is all happening, I believe a balance is needed. We shouldn't be overly comfortable with our brokenness. I thought Brett McCracken has some really helpful things to say about this issue. Here is his recent blog post:
There’s no getting around the fact that we’re all broken. Every last one of us. Hurting, insecure, awkward, prideful. Ruined by illness, ravaged by divorce, raging against the self and the system. It’s true: we are fallen. We are screw-ups, messy and wayward. To know thyself–or to know anyone–is to see that this is true. No one is righteous; no not one.

Christians have sometimes tried to hide from this fact–putting on fronts of perfection, perpetuating false images of churches as polished, squeaky-clean country clubs for classy, happy saints… rather than hospitals for the damaged, ailing, addicted, recovering.

Which of course, is not good. The church, and the Gospel upon which it is founded, is not about perfection, but redemption; it’s about grace for those who don’t deserve it, hope for every single screw-up among us.

And yet I’ve wondered recently if the church–in reactionary efforts to purge itself of a “perfect/polished” veneer–might be turning “brokenness” into a bit of a fetish: focusing on it ad nauseam, touting it in the name of “grit,” “reality,” and “authenticity” to the point that the state of being broken is becoming its own sort of works righteousness.

It seems to me that in many churches today and among many evangelicals (particularly edgier Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, emergents and others who’ve been around the church for along time and are kind of sick of it), “being screwed up” has become something of a badge of honor. “Authenticity” (that is: being upfront about one’s messiness) is becoming a higher value than, say, “holiness.”

And this kind of saddens me. It saddens me when those who are “messier” are de facto the more “authentic,” somehow more believable or relatable than Deacon Joe Straightshooter, who has a solid marriage, is a good family man and doesn’t curse in casual conversation (how legalistic!). Why is it that the “I’m not churchy; I’m real!” folks with tattoos and flasks get more airtime these days than the churchy, pleated-khaki wearing, rule-keeping nerds?

It’s not that Eddie Edgy and Betty Broken shouldn’t be leaders or role models in the church. By all means, they can and should be. But for young people, new Christians–all of us really–I think we also need models of virtue and examples of holiness. We need to be able to see “authenticity” in Straightlaced Stanley and Angelic Angie. We need to be able to see the nice guys and the sweet old church ladies as role models. We need to recognize that goodness is as “real” as brokenness.

We’re all broken, yes. But that doesn’t mean we should pat ourselves on the back about it and languish together in stagnant waters of self-satisfied imperfection. No, we must always be striving for better… moving toward righteousness, in a positive direction from broken to more whole, from screwed-up to less screwed-up, by the grace of God. To be a Christian is to follow Christ, to aspire to be like him (i.e. holy). For it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16).

Brokenness and sin may seem the natural or more “real” state for us, but it’s not the ideal. We were made for more, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice allows us to become more human. That is, less broken and more healed. More together; not less. In Christ, more complete.