The Taser's Edge



The Gospel of the Absurd

Why Evil? Why Sin? Why the Fall? Why Suffering? Why Death? Evil is absurd, Sin is absurd, the Fall is absurd, Suffering is absurd, and Death is absurd. But the message that God became human, suffered, and then died is the out-Absurding of all these things.

1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

What’s the difference between foolishness and absurdity? Perhaps there is none, but perhaps there’s something to be learned from existentialism. And certainly there’s something to be learned from those who suffer: So my suffering is unending and God’s response is not to end it but to also suffer?!

Paul may call the Gospel ‘foolish,’ whether you believe it or not you may call it ‘stupid,’ but ‘absurd’ captures it even better for me.



OWS, Bank Transfer Day, and Christian Discipleship

Today, as you may already be aware, is Bank Transfer Day, a day to organize people to move their money from the mega-banks to local banks and especially to credit unions, with the hope that it spurs financial reforms in those big banks. The actual “day” parallels the Occupy Wall Street movement, but there are plenty of people fed up with American banking-as-usual who have no sympathy for OWS protesters.

For me, having moved from Bank of America to Central Illinois Credit Union here in Champaigna couple months ago, I am glad it’s happening. I indeed hope that there is enough momentum away from the big five banks to force some self-regulation, as the government continues to show little interest in enforcing existing regulations or in crafting smarter regulations. At the same time, statistically speaking (in terms of both numbers of accounts and especially in terms of the amount of capital shifting) there is no reason that an unbelievably popular Bank Transfer Day will have any effect, unless it makes the big banks feel “guilty,” and by “guilty” I mean “scrutinized” or at least “in the spotlight.”

Bank Transfer Day was designed to be a populist event where even people who would never march with a sign might finally follow through on doing something about their annoyance with talking to telephone-answering-robots about little-published fees on their bank statements. However, it will have no long-term impact on the economic systems which caused the current global recession.

That is, it will have no impact in itself. It must be part of a larger reformation, and, as yet, there is no evidence that there is a reformation to come.

For Christians, there is a larger context for understanding Bank Transfer Day and larger economic reforms: the life of God in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom which Christ proclaimed. The Christian God has Justice as a quality of character. Justice, therefore, is not and cannot be an abstraction for Christians to talk about in philosophy classes or election seasons or populist movements or angry Facebook back-and-forths alone. This is because the question, “What is justice?” is one way of asking, “Who is God?”

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On Being Wounded and “Getting Over It”

Lately I’ve been thinking deeply not just on suffering but on woundedness, the delineation being that suffering is a present experience and set of sensations while woundedness is about the changes that suffering causes in us, sometimes forever. At the encouragement of a friend, I finally got a copy of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

For those who aren’t familiar, the book is the very raw journal of Lewis’ mourning the death of his wife. It actually seems so raw, literally written within months of her death, that it’s difficult for me to reconcile the buttoned-down conservative C.S. Lewis with the author of this book which lets so many questions just hang in the air.

Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am trying to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.

Keep in mind that those words were written by a man who was a patient in the combat hospitals of World War I, and you’ll receive them more deeply.

In the quote itself, it all sounds so final, but one theme of the book as a whole is that grief is the revelation that nothing is final, that nothing we know now is permanent, that everything is passing away. Not that you one day grow a leg back, but that one day you lose that now-one-legged body altogether, and then that state passes away too. Ecclesiastes, anyone?

One thing Lewis doesn’t stress which I want to, however: there is nothing wrong with having one leg, and there is no less value, belovedness, or blazing image of God in the amputee than in the person who, after all, only seemed to be whole in the first place.

I hope that you know that.



In Which I Present Lots of Random Quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in a Ploy to Get You to Read It

This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes–old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. What of me will I still have? Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and it’s lying down in the path. (p. 67)

The article is called “God and the American People,” and it says 95 percent of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do. (p. 142)

Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is more than sufficient for my purposes.” So he’s just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two. (p. 147)

No sleep this night. My heart is greatly disquieted. It is a strange thing to feel illness and grief in the same organ. There is not telling one from the other. My custom has always been to ponder grief; that is, to follow it through ventricle and aorta to find out its lurking places. That old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself–that same good weight worries me these days.

But the fact is, I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright. I do hope to die with a quiet heart. I know that may not be realistic. (p. 179)

Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. (p. 209)

And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant. That is a thing I would love to see. (p. 238)

There are a thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)



The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen

In a conversation with a dear friend of mine today, while talking about what I’ve been reading recently, I was reminded that I hadn’t said a word on this blog about Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, which I finished reading last week.

Inner Voice was drawn from some of Nouwen’s most intimate personal journals (written first for his personal use and only later published by his choice), and it’s presented in bite-size chapters (easy snacking for those on their own journeys from anguish toward freedom).

So here’s one complete chapterette, “Go Into the Place of Your Pain”:

You have to live through your pain gradually and thus deprive it of its power over you. Yes, you must go into the place of your pain, but only when you have gained some new ground. When you enter your pain simply to experience it in its rawness, it can pull you away from where you want to go.

What is your pain? It is the experience of not receiving what you most need. It is a place of emptiness where you feel sharply the absence of the love you most desire. To go back to that place is hard, because you are confronted there with your wounds as well as with your powerlessness to heal yourself. You are so afraid of that place that you think of it as a place of death. Your instinct for survival makes you run away and go looking for something else that can give you a sense of at-homeness, even though you know full well that it can’t be found out in the world.

You have to begin to trust that your experience of emptiness is not the final experience, that beyond it is a place where you are being held in love. As long as you do not trust that place beyond your emptiness, you cannot safely reenter the place of pain.

So you have to go into the place of your pain with the knowledge in your heart that you have already found the new place. You have already tasted some of its fruits. The more roots you have in the new place, the more capable you are of mourning the loss of the old place and letting go of the pain that lies there. You cannot mourn something that has not died. Still, the old pains, attachments, and desires that once meant so much to you need to be buried.

You have to weep over your lost pains so that they can gradually leave you and you can become free to live fully in the new place without melancholy or homesickness.

I don’t know exactly what it is about Nouwen that makes him able to be so balm-like. But I would highly recommend this book to most people. Even if you’re not going through a specific major trial right now, it’s just as much about the hurts that all human beings (or at least those who are paying attention) feel.



Now That’s Thinking With Your Bowels

In the midst of this still-ongoing most stressful time of my life, I preemptively set up some self-rules. When reading the Bible, I’m only reading the Gospels and the Psalms. The Gospels because Jesus is there and it’s easy to forget what he’s like even if you just saw him last week, and the Psalms because suffering and faith and perseverance and grace are there (and Jesus is there and it’s easy to forget what he’s like even if you just saw him in the Gospels). Beyond the Bible, I’m not reading anything challenging to my soul.

Don’t worry. By “challenging,” in this case, I don’t mean “stretching” or “growing,” but I’ll take the long way around to tell you what I do mean…

It took me a long time to realize that despite what other people used to tell me, I am not primarily an intellectual person. Intellect is great, and it’s gotten me some successes, but what I’m really about is getting into things with my guts. I think viscerally (and I mean for you to think of that visually).

To think is not to sit somewhere safe and away from where real things are happening (whether in ivory tower or pastor’s study). It is to head into the boxing ring with your whole self, but to fight with your face. Yes, that’s a violent image, but it’s about offering up my vulnerability to the blows of the text in order to experience it fully. You get bloodied up that way, but it’s worth it.

Except sometimes (now), what is more important than having your face rearranged by the blows from the text, is to take care of yourself. There’ll be plenty of fights for your face later if you’re into that sort of thing, and in the mean-time, there are plenty of face-friendly learning adventures to try.



My questioning was my attentive spirit

from St. Augustine’s Confessions (X.6, 9), translated by Maria Boulding, OSB

And what is this?
I put my question to the earth, and it replied, “I am not he”;
I questioned everything it held, and they confessed the same.
I questioned the sea and the great deep,
and the teeming live creatures that crawl,
and they replied,
“We are not God; seek higher.”
I questioned the gusty winds,
and every breeze with all its flying creatures told me,
“Anaximenes was wrong: I am not God.”
To the sky I put my question, to sun, moon, stars,
but they denied me: “We are not the God you seek.”
And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said,
“Tell me of my God.
You are not he, but tell me something of him.”
Then they lifted up their mighty voices and cried,
“He made us.”
My questioning was my attentive spirit,
and their reply, their beauty.



The Fear of Freedom

How hard it is to be forgiven, how hard to be healed, how hard to be free. I’m not talking about being the provider of those things (which people often talk about). I’m talking about being the one in need of them.

Imagine an animal which has grown up in captivity and then is released into the wild. In the best case, it is harder than we can imagine. And sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the journey from captivity to freedom is just impossible. Death comes first.

Now imagine those folks healed in Jesus’ ministry. The man lowered through a ceiling with the help of his friends. The blind folks reduced to begging because there was no other place for them in their society. Zacchaeus who had to leave his old way of life behind after his Jesus encounter. The woman who had had five husbands, was forgiven, and then told to go and sin no more. Lazarus, raised from the dead. Not to mention every single disciple.

Is it really possible to re-enter life after that? Or, rather, what life is it possible to enter? And why doesn’t Jesus say anything about it? Why doesn’t he mention at all how hard life will continue to be for the man whose life has given him no apparent skills but the ability to find a good spot from which to beg for others’ charity?

Now think of a loved one or an acquaintance who has a chronic health issue, the person who suffers from cystic fibrosis or kidney failure and needs an organ transplant in order to survive. Even if the operation goes smoothly, and the recovery progresses beyond all expectations, that organ recipient will need to be on a constant pharmaceutical therapy for the rest of her life. And beyond that, what does it mean for someone to have been shut out of life as they wanted to live it for years or even longer, then suddenly to be given the gift of reentry to “normalcy?”

What do you do if you’ve been disabled for as long as you can remember and then one day you are fully able to get a job, support yourself, re-enter the life that you had longed for, make choices unbounded by so many chains that have suddenly (or not-so-suddenly) been shattered? It’s not only muscles that atrophy and waste away. Hopes and dreams do too.

All this is to say, no one ever mentions that healing sometimes makes life harder. Remove all the hurts and fears and impediments which have so long blocked living into the fullness and freedom of the abundant life God has for us and…prepare to be terrified.

The exhilaration of forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and freedom is directly tied to the possibility of falling and being hurt again. It’s the difference between the excitement of jumping and the excitement of flight.



Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Pope Benedict XVI’s homily from today reflects on his ordination on this feast day sixty years ago, meditating on what it means that Christ has called us “friends.” It’s definitely worth reading to hear the personal faith of a pope.