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Archive for December, 2017

Wendell Berry introduces us to a young man I understand to be a mainstay of his fiction, Nathan Coulter, with the word ‘dark’:

Dark. The light went out the door when she pulled it to. And then everything came in close around me, the way it was in the daylight, only all close. Because in the dark, I could remember and not see. The sun was first, going over the hill behind our barn. Then the river was covered with the shadows of the hills. Then the hills went behind their shadows, and just the house and the barn and the other buildings were left, standing black against the sky where it was still white in the west.

I hedge my description with the words ‘(as) I understand’, because Nathan Coulter: A Novel is my own rather carefully chosen introduction to Wendell Berry the writer, Wendell Berry the novelist, and Coulter and his kin. That first paragraph sets some of Berry’s major literary artifacts in their place, what with its mention of darkness and light, house and barn, sun, hills, river, and shadows. Always shadows.

41MBsJd4dfLAs I’d been warned, the pace of Berry’s fiction-writing pen is a slow one, perhaps as befits the pace of the rural Kentucky life he describes. Yet slow never need mean shallow, in fact just the opposite.

Already, a newbie to Berry and Berrian fiction, this reader can see that things in Berry’s world—in Nathan Coulter’s world—are rarely as they appear to be, seldom as an outsider might presume them to be on first evidence. The holy are not necessarily so, the profane more insightful and even merciful than expected, the shadows sometimes full of light as well as darkness.

I can hardly wait for whatever happens next.

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51IhkcLbNKLGary Bray does the men and women who served in Vietnam a sizable favor by telling calmly the complicated story of their service, their war, their ‘this is what we did’. The ingredients of this story could make a lesser man scream, throw dirt in the air, or weep quietly in the corner.

But then we who were too young or too far away from the riverine humidity of that war would flinch and not hear.

As Bray’s title indicates, he served the same platoon that shortly prior to his arrival had been caught up in what we abbreviate—again, from our distance—as the My Lai Massacre. That horror is not a centerpiece of Bray’s narrative, but the tales he tells about a new and different kind of war provide at least a context for consciences dulled and warriors run amok.

There were many Lieutenants and uncountable tours of duty during this country’s ‘Viet Nam years’. Few have the way with words that Gary Bray brings to his craft, and so his story must register not only his own experience but must stand in for theirs as well.

Bray’s tone does not ask for our pity. It tells of a great human drama without the kinds of ‘drama’ that appeal to emotions long past the moment when they would have done anyone any good. Yet, on behalf of fellow warriors caught up in a poorly conceived conflict, he anticipates our understanding and our respect. He more than earns both.

Bray cannot rightly say why America’s young men and women died in Vietnam. But the way he brings this elegantly written work to a close shines a light on at least how one American soldier died. Here, too, the story told becomes proxy for thousands untold.

As the father of two officers (Infantry and Combat Engineering, respectively), this reader reveled in Bray’s narrative of infantry tactics, a bonus not all readers will require.

In these pages, professionalism and humility manage to speak quietly and well.

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Perhaps we read bare privilege a little too easily into Jesus words. Perhaps, in our quest for honor, we lose the breadth of his presence.

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:26 ESV)

The context John gives to this word is a somber one.

Indeed the words just previous speak of that death which is necessary in the Father’s strange design.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24–25 ESV)

No blithe guarantees there.

Similarly the words that follow. Jesus finds his own next steps profoundly unsettling, even worthy of causing a total rethink.

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. (John 12:27 ESV)

How then should we understand Jesus’ claim in verse 26 that ‘where I am, there will my servant be also’.

Abstracted from its context, it reads like a facile promise that the follower of Jesus will not become separated from his leader. There is, almost certainly, something of that in the statement.

But the follower of Jesus is not here addressed so much as an apprentice as he is engaged as a servant. In fact, the would-be servant of Jesus is rather warned of an obligation: he must go where Jesus goes. When we take the measure of the context, we catch more than a whiff of hard duty here. Indeed, Jesus next steps will take him precisely into the teeth of awful suffering, one from which he comes close to shrinking as he contemplates the horror of it.

It seems that Jesus’ word to his would-be servant here is at least principally a declaration of solidarity in unjust suffering as it is a prediction of Jesus’ own ubiquity in the life of the believer.

Yet the paradox of redemptive logic would have us choose not to reject the one in the recognition of the other.

For better or worse, we might conclude, we will be with Jesus and he with us.

Precisely here lies our plight, our predicament, our death, our glory.

 

 

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418wR785imLPaul House’s passionately written exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s practice and aspirations for the training of pastors under the gathering cloud of Nazi terror makes for refreshing reading in this era of technology-will-solve-all-our-(seminary)-problems pablum.

House finds in the German martyr’s writings and his experience—the latter as reported by Bonhoeffer’s colleagues and students—a model for the same kind of intensive, life-on-life training of Christian pastors today. Without doubt, Bonhoeffer modeled all this and more. House has done us the service of explaining just how.

I come to this book as a lifelong seminarian who has known from within various roles the joy, enrichment, and occasional terror that the seminary is wont to offer up: as student, professor, dean, and president. So  I cannot but thrill to the promise that resides in such life together, all of which House is committed to teasing out of Bonhoeffer’s experience and laying before us.

Nevertheless, it appears to this appreciative reader that the author has chosen not to address a fundamental question about access.

Let me shape my concern as a somewhat cumbersome question: If I am fulfilling my vocation as a seminary educator and mentor to emerging pastors in, say, Mexico City, I am likely to have the privilege of nourishing a small number of lives into what one hopes will be greater rather than diminished capacity as servant leaders, even as shepherds of Christ’s people. For the sake of the argument, but also because I have yet to be convinced otherwise, I will agree with House that the very best preparation of pastoral leaders occurs in this kind of intensive, daily, full-contact, and dynamic environment.

Yet spread across this city of some 25 million souls are thousands of pastors, largely without the kinds of training to which I can lean my shoulder in my fictitious seminary context. These are bivocational pastors, holding down day jobs, tending their God-given sheep, most with some level of internet access and some limited margin in their saturated lives for occasional study-centered gatherings.

Farther afield in the Mexican state to which the capital and metropolis belong lie many thousands more, most of them faithful servants with limited or nonexistent coaching and no opportunity to reflect in the company of peers and a mentor upon Scripture, theology, their own context, and the Great Tradition of Christian presence and practice.

One wonders whether Bonhoeffer, were he availed of the tools we have today, would have insisted that only life-on-life training is valid because other forms of pastoral preparation do not fully measure up to what can be offered in such an intensive context. That is, does the existence of a ‘gold standard’ eliminate the urgency of thinking about ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ options merely because they do not sparkle like gold? Must we leave unserved those who cannot have what we consider best?

We cannot know whether the adventurous Bonhoeffer would have chosen not to serve a wider constituency of the kind I am imagining in these lines. House, it seems to me, comes perilously close to doing so.

Yet this admittedly dubious stance I have sketched for myself does not eliminate my sincere appreciation for the counter-cultural defense of a seminary that is shaped by something other than the fickle, if hurricane-strength, winds that blow against the seminary today. She makes—this venerable, limping institution of ours—a decidedly soft target. I, for one, welcome all credible defenders.

Paul House has (re-)captured in words some of the magic that happens within her walls—I use the description advisedly and in deference to House’s preferred residential model—when a learning community like Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde, House’s Beeson Divinity School, or any one of a thousand lean-and-mean seminaries across the globe gets it right. House finds Bonhoeffer worthy of study, in part because even in the least promising conditions he ‘believed the German church’s future rested in the quality and commitments of its pastors’. House abbreviates Bonhoeffer’s vision for the seminary as ‘a community of faith’ that ‘live(s) for Christ and for one another’, ‘offer(s) encouragement to former students who have entered the sometimes-harsh world of church ministry’, and calls without apology upon the courage of ‘teacher-pastors in seminary education’ to engage their task with ‘sacrificial’ service, ‘given the inherently personal, incarnational, and visible nature of ministerial preparation’.

To this vision—Bonhoeffer’s and House’s—this reader can only offer his ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hear, hear!’, even as he hopes that the eminent blessing that adheres in our most privileged forms does not dull our energy for widening the tent pegs to shelter others who will for reasons missional and mundane never tarry for long in the holy city itself.

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One of the many paradoxes that the book called Isaiah places before us lies almost hidden in the binary choice that the prophet declares in the book’s eight chapter.

And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isaiah 8:19–20 ESV)

It might seem, even to a reader who is committed to the view of things that the biblical text advances, that the choice here is that of living, breathing, even activist religion over against a reliable deposit. That is, between a religiosity that is brewing with live mischief although patently opposed to YHWH’s way over against an orthodox faith that is solid, if a little inert.

It might seem to others, perhaps less inclined to look with favor on ‘what the Bible teaches’, that the most advantageous choice is not exactly an easy one to discern.

Yet the prophet’s language here, upon slow reading and closer inspection, shows that the field of play is not quite so ambiguous. The choice, when things are seen as they are, is not a difficult one to decide.

Here is paradox, indeed, but not much ambiguity.

In fact, the prophet fills the left column of his legal pad with all things deathly, the right with all things alive.

The chirping and muttering of the necromancers, the presumed rumination of the mediums, are for all their apparent vocal dexterity nothing more than death dressed up in the ‘got-your-attention-didn’t-I’ robes of death itself. Isaiah considers the consultation of them a sit-down visit with darkness and decay. People who engage in such doomed conversation ‘have no dawn’.

On the other side of the page, the ‘life’ column fills up with ‘God’, with ‘the living’ themselves, and then—this is where we might stray off course when tracking the prophet’s logic—with ‘the law and the testimony’ and with ‘this word’.

Let’s suppose for the moment that ‘the law and the testimony’ and ‘this word’ roughly abbreviate the accumulated declarations of the prophet in YHWH’s name. More than this is likely insinuated, but we can do without that complication for now.

The prophet aligns these written-down words not with stultifying tradition or a ‘dead letter’, but rather with a God who is very much alive and—the detail is critical—aligned with and active among ‘the living’ who surround the prophet and who are in this terrifying moment scared a little witless.

In the prophet’s view, YHWH has spoken—through him and others—an accumulated deposit of reality that can be declared in street or temple but in awful moments of imminent doom like this one can be written down, consulted, whispered aloud, and treasured.

Far from being inert, we are to understand this ‘law (better, ‘instruction’) and testimony’ as life-containing and life-giving. If other sources of supposed counsel require the dead and lead only to death, this ‘instruction and testimony’ hints at new growth, at fresh eruptions of life, at possibilities still unknown. Though quiet and even silent in this moment, this little reservoir of truth holds the promise of shouting, of dance, of song when the night has faltered and the dawn has come.

If this is how things really are, then why should a people consult the dead on behalf of the living?

Just so.

 

 

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