Friday, May 17, 2013

High and Low (Homily 53)

"For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place with him who is of a humble and contrite spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. [...] But the wicked are like the troubled sea when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace...for the wicked." Is. 57:15-21

God is the High and Holy One: His very nature is "other than" ours. He is categorically distinct and separate, sui generis. He dwells in a high and holy place, i.e., a mountain, the traditional symbol for the dwelling of divinity (from Olympus to Zion). God is above; He reached to the tops of the clouds. God is great; His size is sublime, stretching beyond the limits of our comprehension. "Beyond" is the only word for Him, for He surpasses us in ways we have neither scale nor system to measure.

Yet who dwells with Him? Who also stands on His mountaintop? Who also abides in His holy hill? The humble, the contrite, the lowest of the low. Brought lower by their own abasement, yet brought higher by the surprising love of God, for His love too is beyond us, sublime and measureless and strong. This High and Holy Beyonder loves the broken (Ps. 51:17; Is. 66:2) and takes pity on we fragile children of dust (Ps. 103:13-14), raising us up to heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7), setting our feet on the rock, the immovable mountain, that is our God (Ps. 18:31). This too is "beyond" us, exceedingly overflowing what the cup of our mind can hold.

Can you see why there is no peace for the wicked? No peace for those outside of God and His Christ? For what can be more opposite to a mountain than the sea? The one is high, glorious, unmovable, and stable; the other low, treacherous, mutable, and fluid. To the one, storms can only hang about it like a cape or a crown, only adding to its majesty. To the other, storms are their master. Impotent before them, they have no choice but to be whipped and whorled and blown about, unstable in all their ways, broiling and spewing and foaming all of their hidden substance to the surface, bringing to light their true character and quality. The sea has not the strength to be at peace, but the mountain has strength and that to spare. It is the inheritance of the saints of God: you who are established upon the mountain shall never be moved  (Ps. 15:1-5), for the mountain shall never be moved (Rev. 1:8). But for all those who stay outside, I can only give you this: you will lie down in the midst of the sea and have no peace while you drown.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All Things New (Homily 52)

"Do not remember the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing...." Is. 43:18-19

"If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new." II Cor. 5:17

"And He that sat upon the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.'" Rev. 21:5

God is eternally unchanging in His nature and essence, yet it is in His nature and essence to make new things. This is what Chesterton would call "one of the million wild jests of truth." God is in the business of doing things you've never seen before, things like virgins giving birth, ways in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, and the death of death through the death of God. He is a God of surprises, showing us "great and mighty things you've never known" (Jer. 33:3), because He is the Creator and He cannot help but create newer and further splendors, surpassing the old without invalidating them, for the new law is the fulfillment as well as the end of the old (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8-10).

Yet His creations and recreations are all of a single consistency. Nothing is random or arbitrary. Our God's constant life-giving, creative effusions are all new and yet of the same pattern, wrought with the same purpose, "as ancient and as young as spring" (as Lewis put it). It is neither a mindless repetition nor a mindless chaos but a plan, a work of art, thoughtful and creative, ordered and free, true and beautiful. Like a hill full of flowers: different colors, all flowers, growing into a quilt of many-colors on the hillside. So is the creative work of God. He builds newer and newer, greater and greater, edifice upon edifice, line upon line, thread upon thread, all into an infinite tower and tapestry standing as an ever-living, ever-growing monument to His goodness and might. Its fruits and flowers shall never fade, but shall bloom anew and afresh with colors and flavors hitherto unknown, yet always hinted at in the crops that came before. And on every cornice of that holy mountain, shooting up like a technicolor geyser into the infinity of God, the Father will forever delight His children with the same refrain: "Behold, I do a new thing." Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

An Accident of Language (and other follies of the times)

Sundays are a good day for me. Church in the morning, parents' house in the afternoon, and in the evening I head to a friend's house for dinner and lively conversations and debates with whoever else shows up. Those evenings are a mixed bag, mind you. Sometimes we have a lot of people with great discussion, a few people with so-so discussion, and vice versa. Two Sundays ago, we had a great discussion with an average sized crowd. We talked about the Boston Bombings, which  led to a debate on the death penalty. Many interesting arguments were made for and against, but in the end no real conclusion or consensus was reached, though many thought-provoking questions were asked.

The next Sunday, I ran into a friend of mine who had been at that discussion but had left early and thus missed the end (or non-end). He asked me how it went after he left, and I relayed it to the best of my memory, including the part about us walking away with more questions than answers. He smiled at that part: "I like leaving with questions rather than answers. It helps create a sense of wonder about things." I smiled back, hesitated, then replied: "Yes, but I like answers too."

Now, my friend is a very kind and thoughtful young man, so I understood what he was saying. It's something I've dealt with before (multiple times, actually): in a world of too much systematization, where every "t" is crossed and "i" dotted and no angle is left uncovered or stone unturned, things tend to lose all life. It is the dead, predictable boredom of the machine, with everything in order and functioning exactly as it should and exactly as it always has without deviation, now and forever, amen. Life, however, and all good things (i.e., beauty, love, joy, etc.), are not mechanical. They are full of spontaneity and surprises, bursting forth in newer and newer manifestations, like an endless array of fireworks ascending higher and higher with different colors and shapes all along the way. It is exciting. It is enthralling. It is, indeed, wondrous.

However, as sympathetic as I am to such an image, I could not help but protest to my friend. I believe he has committed an error many commit today. They confuse "wonder" with "wonder," which you also probably did just now. It's not really anyone's fault that this happens; it is an accident of language that the two words look, sound, and just feel the same. But they are not the same, and the distinction between them is vitally important to understand and maintain.

Allow me to explain this distinction. "Wonder" has (at least) two primary definitions. The first is a sense of awe caused by coming into contact with something sublime, i.e., something too great and grand for you to fully take in. We have all experienced this type of "wonder": staring at the stars, listening to a piece of music, looking out across a mountain range at dawn, watching the clouds painted by the setting sun, or even those incredible, incalculable moments when we come in contact (however minor or subtle) with the presence of God. Whatever the case or incident, we have all been struck by an overwhelming sense of humility and respect for (and joy in) the grandeur of something truly great and greater than us. In those moments, it does not matter that we cannot fully comprehend it; indeed, its incomprehensibleness is all a part of the pleasure. That is the first definition of "wonder".

The second definition is related to the first, but is also much different. It is a sense of questioning and/or confusion caused by coming into contact with something confusing. We have all experienced this too: an unsolvable puzzle leaves us perplexed, an unanswerable charge leaves us bewildered, and an unfixable problem leaves us frustrated. In those moments, we wonder, wonder how something like this could have happened? what are to do or say now? what does this mean for my loved ones? where was/is God in all this? how could He allow such things? Those moments leave us in pain and in doubt and (above all) desiring answers, and that is the key distinction between this definition of "wonder" and the previous one. In the former, you have no desire for answers, or even for further questions; the beauty of the mystery is its own satisfaction, its own answer. In the latter, however, you only desire answers as you spiral out into further questions; the terror and darkness of the mystery leaves you starving for a solution, for solid ground to land on.

This is where the error comes in: people do not maintain that distinction. They assume that the latter definition of "wonder" (i.e., the posture of confusion and questioning) necessarily leads to the former definition (i.e., the posture of awe and joy). I will admit that questioning can eventually, through many twists and turns and toils and snares, lead to awe, but it is never "necessarily" the case. In fact, questioning can have the exact opposite effect. It can harden into an arrogant skepticism that sees questioning as the only stable thing, the only true thing. That is the danger that I was trying to avert (however poorly) in the mind of my friend. It is a danger I try to avert wherever I can.

We deceive ourselves on a crucial point: we conflate together the two separate, distinct definitions of "wonder" and thereby unconsciously equate them. Thus, we believe questioning "helps create a sense of wonder about things." It is here that awe can (and often does) become a cloak for doubt. To be frank, this is an error that I absolutely hate to see happen, and it happens everywhere. It is fashionable even in many Christian circles to see questioning and the doubts they bring as some sort of unassailable good. From David Dark calling it "sacred" to Rob Bell calling it "central to Christian experience," there is a certain naivete floating about, rooted in the assumption that questioning invariably leads to awe. Such a stance is nonsense, of course. Awe is not a result of questions but rather their answer, the answer that silences all questions, for "wonder" (i.e., awe) is an end of questioning. There is nothing left to say; any and every word would be inadequate to capture or express what you are feeling, thinking, seeing, experiencing.

That is a fact sorely missed by many: it is the answers that create awe, not the questions. That is what the Bible reveals. Does it have questioners? Of course, but that is not where their awe came from; it came from the answers they either remembered or received. Think of the Psalms. Lots of despairing questions crop up, but they are never the end of the matter. There is always an answer, and that answer is always a return to the truth of who God is in spite of our situation. Job was the same way. He piles up questions upon questions that no one (save Elihu) could answer. Then God shows up, and His answer is a revelation of the truth about Himself. It answers none of Job's questions, and yet somehow it answers all of them, and Job's response is silence and awe: "Now my eye sees You." The answer was the truth, and the truth set him free, including from questions.

And that is the key: truth is the only source of awe, of wonder, because truth is a wild and wonderful thing, as wild and wonderful and alive as God. Yes, He is beyond our feeble categorizations, but those who think they can outstrip Him by piling up questions upon questions in the hope of overcoming Him with numbers and bigness will never approach His depth and breadth and height and width. To understand this in your own life is the actual "central Christian experience": not to question, but to let our questions and moments and circumstances and experiences and every aspect of our lives drive us deeper into our deep God, to step further into His presence, to come in more intimate contact and communion with His incomprehensible Being. To be there and continue there is not to question but to cease from questions, to become speechless, to place your hand over your mouth in wonder at the awesome answer that is God.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Into Thy Calm (a fragmentary liturgy)

[folio begins] the Lord while He may be found.
Call upon Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his ways,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts.
Let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him,
And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
And do not return there but water the earth
Making it bring forth and sprout,
Giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth:
It shall not return to me empty-handed,
But it shall accomplish that which I purpose
And shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy
And be lead forth in peace.
The mountains and the hills before you
Shall break forth into singing,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands...

[folio breaks off]

[manuscript begins] if I had one chance to tell you something, then I would tell you that it is all true. Everything. Everything that God has purposed. It is all true, all real, all happening and going to happen. Even the wildest, craziest promise is going to happen. You will go through the dark night and walk into the sun of a far, green country. You will walk into it with joy, led forth with peace, and all the mountains and hills and trees will break forth into singing, and everything sad will be made untrue, and everything wicked will be unmade, and we shall all be remade and are being remade in every moment and every inch of our lives. You who are the children of God: right where you are, wherever you are sitting are standing, you are caught up into the whirlwind of God's will, a wind blowing in one unstoppable direction, towards an end that will be the beginning of all your deepest desires and the resurrection of all good things in a splendor so thick and sweet that your soul will drown in light inaccessible, joy indescribable, and peace passing beyond the smallness of your thoughts and dreams and...

[manuscript breaks off]

[manuscript begins] now the thing must have passed together out of the region of sight as we understand it. For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamored and inter-inanimated circlings was suddenly revealed as the mere superficies of a far vaster pattern in four dimensions, and that figure was the boundary of yet others in other worlds: till suddenly---as the movement grew yet swifter, the interweaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw---even this, at the zenith of complexity, complexity itself was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable, pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such a quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awakening from trance and coming to himself. With a gesture of relaxation, he looked about him...

[manuscript breaks off]

Selah. Amen. Again...

-Jon Vowell, et. al. (c) 2013