Saint Augustine opens his Confessions by asking whether we pray in order to know God or whether we must know God in order to pray. How could we pray to a God we don’t know? But how could we know God unless we’ve prayed?i
It’s a paradox.
The head and heart are mysteriously united—a hypostatic union that’s unclear where one begins and the other ends. Does your heart shape your thinking? Or, does your thinking shape your heart? Somehow they must work together. For example, I know that this pork sandwich isn’t doing my cholesterol any favors, but I have no heart to change this dirty habit. Neither gets the job done alone. Unfortunately, even if I had the knowledge and the will to change, I’d also need a pork eaters anonymous support group.
There’s a wedding between our heads and our hearts throughout Scripture. “What’s the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “Love God,” Jesus said. That’s not an original thought. Moses said this when he gave the word of God to the people: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.” Jesus quotes this verse to the Pharisees, but adds a fourth component to make sure we don’t constrain love: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In other words, love with your whole person because otherwise love isn't possible.
Lent is notorious as the season where Christians try to redirect our hearts to God by not eating chocolate and drinking booze. The theory is that if you can find a way to fix the heart, then the rest will take care of itself. And most Lenten disciplines get there through the stomach. Sometimes this works. But faith isn’t just practiced; it’s also learned. It sounds obvious, but we meditate on Jesus to become more like Jesus. Turns out that we should also get to the heart by going through the head.
Historically, Lent was a time of catechesis to teach new converts the faith, which included spiritual discipline and theological formation. The early Christians fasted, but they also gathered under the instruction of their bishops and dwelled on the mystery of Christ’s two-natures, divine and human. Finally, these new Christians woke up as the sun rose on Easter morning and took off their clothes (how much more liberated can you get?) and their old lives to be drowned and raised with Christ--a death and resurrection of heads and hearts.
I should mention, by the way, that this is repentance. Repentance is a buzz word during Lent, as it should be, both slightly embarrassing and crucial to our faith. But if we reclaim the Greek ‘metanoia,’ we remember that repentance is a simple and practical word that means to ‘change your mind.’ Repentance means that we’ve been walking in the wrong direction, but then something changed our minds and we’ve decided to walk a new path. I’ve already repented of this essay a number of times—changed the direction, deleted great sentences, and started a new trail by putting one word in front of the other. We're all better for it.
How will you change your mind this Lent?
Today’s church has done a great job shaping hearts during Lent, but we’d do well to set aside time to love God with our minds. Most of us come to faith through words, many of them written down. My hunch is that many Christians are spiritual, but illiterate. Or, if we’re not illiterate, then we’re stuck in the same theologies we learned in Vacation Bible School. This is about as unhealthy as believing that food hasn’t progressed since the birth of McDonalds. We should always question our theological inheritance. I often hear parishioners boast that they’ve not read a book in thirty years and I learn something about our discipleship. In the Land of Oz, we'd be the scarecrows with hearts, but no brains.
Maybe we’re still retreating from the Enlightenment—afraid to ask difficult questions because they might destroy our finely sculpted piety. You mean to tell me that the earth is four and a half billion years old? Then again, maybe we’ve wrongly assumed that Christianity is absorbed via oxygen in our country. Conversely, it’s possible that the administration of good catechesis has declined because of the pitiful number of adult baptisms. There’s an even better chance that we’re just lazy followers of Jesus. And we’re failing to love God with our whole selves.
There’s a case to be made that we're all called to be life-long theologians, because we love God by thinking about God. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll be paid for it, but that’s no excuse not tinker with new ideas (after all, most of us are not dentists and we still brush our teeth). Don't you long to know more about your beloved? I love my wife and kids with all my heart and so I hope to learn something new about them every day—still, the mystery has not been fully plumbed. When Socrates said, ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing,’ he could have been talking about women. Or, children. And also, God.
God is greater than that which can be conceived. Whenever we say ‘God,’ we’ve already misspoken. And so we speak of God with great care, admitting that we’re just children scrambling for words and looking for better ones. It doesn’t matter how great our intelligence or I.Q, because we can love God with our minds and still not graduate from pre-k. After all, we have the hardest curriculum. Class is never dismissed. You have permission to monitor my continuing education allowance—if I’m not buying and reading new books, tell my bishop that I’m not following Jesus.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we’d have a better chance of reaching the end of the universe than arriving at God. God is not like us. Rather, God is a mystery to be savored, not a question that can be answered. Those of us who worship God with the mind rise eternally ‘through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.’ii
That’s beautiful. Wait, now my heart is kicking into gear.
Here’s the point: loving with our minds is not a means to an end. Nor, is it an academic pursuit or about getting the right definition of God. Rather, it’s about being pulled into God’s arms. Dwelling on what’s beautiful. Loving words because they deliver us to the feet of the eternal Word and then, unite us with God. Many days I learn something new and I don’t even have the opportunity to use it! That's ok. Loving with the mind is an end in itself—worship.
One last thing: the word Lent is partly derived from the Anglo Saxon word Lenten, which means ‘Spring,” but also forms the root for our word ‘lengthen.’ Lent begins when the days begin to lengthen and the darkness wanes. Coincidentally, Christians lengthen their spiritual lives by stretching their brains and stomachs. The sun casts light on a people who dwell in night—the darkness of the heart and mind.
I wonder how you will lengthen your mind. How would you describe the Apostle’s Creed? What makes a Methodist different than a Baptist (other than the amount of water used)? Here’s a list of great Lenten disciplines: read Scripture and tradition, listen to someone who believes differently, have lunch with a Muslim. These practices will challenge and deepen your own convictions. It will help to shape your heart—dreams, goals, purposes, and being. And in turn, you will have worshiped.
This Lent, I made a commitment to study Scripture and challenge myself with new thinkers. It’s an alternate means of repentance—an acknowledgement that I don’t have all the truth. I'm not God. By the end of the season, I hope I’ll have changed my mind. Walked a new path. I still won’t understand resurrection on Easter morning, but I’ll relish in the mystery with my head and heart.
Even better, I’ll have spent forty days loving God.
i. Augustine Confessions Book I.I
ii.Gregory of Nyssa Sermon 8; On the Song of Songs
If you've ever wondered how little you know about God, then you should talk about God to a group of ten-year old boys. Describe the infinitely complex God with an acronym. Explain salvation with a word search. Give them free reign to ask questions. Children are great sparring partners. You don't know as much as you think, I promise.
Over the last four weeks, I sat around a table with a group of cub scouts who have put aside their pinewood derby to hear something about God. Here's what I've been reminded: Christians aren't born; they're made. Christianity is as strange as it is comfortable. It's irrational and commonsensical. It describes, prescribes, and upends. God lies just beneath the surface of everything and everyone, but we don't realize it until we've been given eyes to see.
I've also learned that children are terrible theologians, contrary to popular belief. To be fair, they'd also make terrible surgeons and lawyers. We’re mistaken when we assume that knowledge of God comes completely naturally. Theological wisdom is earned alongside wrinkles from restless nights of wrestling with God and community. Now, that's not to say that kids don't occasional surprise us with tidbits of profundity and delight us with even greater cuteness. Take this for instance: we were reading the Lord's Prayer when one of the boys lifted his head from the Bible to exclaim that he 'hallowed' out a pumpkin on Halloween. Not exactly. Though, it's a great pun. I told him that he made the pumpkin 'hole-y,' not ‘holy.’
Language is a terrible, confusing method for communication. It informs as much as it misinforms. But it's the best we've got.
Now, how do I explain holiness to a boy who hasn't learned fractions or read about the Israelites exodus from Egypt?
Some theologians have suggested that becoming Christian is like learning to speak a new language. Christianity shouldn't come naturally and it's unintelligible unless you've learned the lingo. Part of what it means to be holy, after all, is to be set apart. Do we know the language? I’d estimate that most Christians are semi-fluent at best and often illiterate. The problem is that many Christians have forgotten the language of faith. Worse, we’ve traded the language of Christianity for a distorted language that's shaped by culture and country instead of Scripture and tradition.
Christians cavalierly toss around a whole host of churchy words that sound familiar, but are as foreign as Greek (because they kind of are). Here's a working list: salvation, reconciliation, sin, justice, righteousness, born-again. All of these words sound like the kind of thing Christians should say, and often say, despite having any idea what these words actually mean.
We're saved without knowing what we’re saved from (or for). Or, suppose the congregation is lowering a body into the ground and someone hugs you and says, "peace" (and not 'God's got another angel in his choir'). That word is meaningless unless you’ve been trained to know that Christ has created peace between everything on heaven and on earth. Or, imagine someone says to you, "I don't believe in God." Who is God? It's significant to understand which God you believe in and which one they don't. It’s likely that you don’t believe in their god, either.
Words have the power to create, to bring the dead to life, but are meaningless if they're not used and understood within a community. How can we speak and understand without a shared vocabulary? We can't. And if you can't explain your vocabulary to a ten-year old, then you don't know the language.
I spent one of the sessions with my scouting disciples learning how to pray (which is Christian-speak for 'talking to God') through the Lord’s Prayer. One of the boys asked me about the word 'kingdom.' I told him to think about Lord of the Rings. What were the kingdoms like in that story? Now, consider this kind of kingdom: a boy tells his father he hates him, runs away from home, and takes everything his father owns. He wastes it all on riches (or a Nintendo Switch) and good food (or pizza). He's broke and homeless when he finally wanders back to his father. His father runs out to meet him on the road and embraces him with a hug and a kiss.
God's kingdom is like that.
Though, I still catch myself thinking that the kingdom of God will be inaugurated by William Wallace riding in on a white stallion. God's kingdom is only sensible in relation to a particular story, a larger narrative, and a rich tradition. We need to spend a lot of time reading Scripture, worshiping, and conversing with more fluent Christians for our language to become second-nature.
Does this make the church a members only club, excluding others with their esoteric language? Not necessarily. It's a statement about the way that language actually functions. When I was in high school everyone told me, 'Sniders talk the same.' We have the same cadence, mannerisms, and sarcastic flair. Here's what's even stranger: words have nuance and a variance in their meanings. The word 'maybe' actually means 'no.' ‘Good job’ can also mean ‘I love you.’ And the word 'sure' is closer to 'I'd love to!' I was never surprised by our linguistic similarities. After all, we lived together. If you spend enough time with the Sniders, you might start talking like one, too.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever master the language, anyway. And this why we should become like children. Part of what it means to be a child is to admit that we don't know how to talk. Luckily, children pick up new languages pretty quickly. They are imaginative, willing to be wrong, and gracious enough to laugh at their folly. In other words, they're usually teachable, which is not often true of adults.
Here’s the point: language helps construct a reality. Our entire lives will change when we learn to speak like Christians. There's a grammar to the faith that's been developed throughout years of study and proclamation, misspeak and correction. In the Christian syntax God is always the subject and we are but a letter in a word. Grace can be an adverb that modifies every movement in the sentence. And there are plenty of commas for us to pause in silence before another phrase is written. If we are lucky to be a part of a phrase, it will placed in the company of millions of others all over the world.
One last thing:
"Open your Bibles to the very center," I told the group of smiling boys.
"To the book of 'Plasma'?" one kid asked.
It's actually called the book of Psalms. Be careful with those poems. If you read them enough, your life might become one of them.
One of the greatest plot twists in life is waking up and realizing that friendship is hard. It’s incongruous. Nothing heretofore has suggested that I might find myself sitting on the couch alone with no time or energy to go out for a drink, even as an introvert.
Childhood was the golden age of friendships. They were easy and plentiful--full of afternoons in the woods, swing sets, and gangs of bicycles patrolling the streets. My adolescent years were invested around cars in the high school parking lot, in church vans, or on open fields with soccer balls and frisbees. All of this escalated until I went to college and lived among another person’s dirty laundry, but oddly organized DVD collection. Friendships are arguably the most efficient curriculum for the self-discovery that leads to maturity. Find someone to pose difficult questions over burnt coffee and greasy hash browns, and then who will walk with you until you discover the answers (which are usually more difficult questions).
Friendships were not a part of my life, but life itself.
Then, you enter your thirties.
I still have great friends and I hardly ever wish for new ones. I only wish that I would tend to the ones I have. The problem is that friendship requires space for another take up residence in your life, and that space has already been filled with other competing goods—usually kids and sleep. Or, sleep because of kids. My priorities have changed. For instance, playgrounds have become cool again. The workforce is also a culprit. Friendships are terribly inefficient because they require time around kitchen tables, and time is in short supply. Life is complicated and busy enough without another person’s issues.
Acquaintances, on the other hand, are perfect because they’re undemanding. You know, the coworkers who are fun around the office, but will thankfully disappear when you take a new job. There’s the person who will meet you at the playground (remember, they're cool again) to complain about children. Others might even share an interest in hoppy beer or esoteric theology written by dead white men. If you're lucky, they'll like both. These people are great to have around, if only as a form of capital—a service for utility and pleasure, or what Aristotle calls imperfect friendships. But few of them will come to love our peculiarities or care to learn what keeps us up at night. (Spoiler: their names are Pax and Eden).
And yet, we also need people to share more than parenting hacks, our lament over politics, and an affinity for Duke basketball. What about the friends who are comfortable enough to share (mostly) everything, including being together in silence? The people who are, as Augustine says, sweet beyond the sweetness of life?
I’ve discovered that we’ve got our priorities all backward, or that we’ve forgotten what we learned so early on in life—there is no growth apart from another human being. Friendship is more than an escape from life; it’s the very substance of living well. Aristotle also wrote that “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods” (EN 8.1). And that’s why the most meaningful parts of my life happen around a table, when my kids are sitting in another person’s lap, and the rest of us open ourselves to see and be seen. It takes work. But it’s good work because the American Dream’s promise of success and self-sufficiency is accompanied with twin vices: loneliness and emptiness.
Aristotle also believed that friendship was a virtue, or at the least, requires virtues to be sustained. I think he’s right—friendships don’t spontaneously mature without proper care. It takes forgiveness to see past another’s posturing, masquerading, and inability to return text messages. Or, how about the patience it takes to send another text message, anyway? There’s the benevolence to drop off a care packages of soup when one can’t get off the couch. Endurance will reignite a lapsed relationship after years of dormancy. Hospitality can open the doors of your heart for a stranger to step inside regardless of risk and mistrust. Most of all, how about the sacrifice to see another person’s well-being as your most important priority? That can't be natural.
Turns out that friendship is the best pattern for becoming a Christian—to love and be loved by God and one another. The reverse must also be true, that Christianity bestows the kinds of virtues necessary to sustain a friendship. After all, what is Christianity except becoming a friend of the world?
Scripture could be read as the story of God’s befriending of the world. It’s the grafting of our stories into God’s eternal love story with the world. God’s heart is for friendship, and not because it’s compulsory or beneficial, but because it’s true and beautiful. I think this is why Jesus called his disciples friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). It was a surprising move. God could have left us aloof as servants, or even as subordinate children, but has instead invited us into all the love and pain that resides in God’s own heart.
God had all the time in the world to eat with sinners, to take bread and fish and feed a multitude, to set a table for those who wished to linger in his presence. It was a terrible deal. These poor and marginalized peasants could never reciprocate the gesture. The cost to benefit ratio was lousy. It resulted in death. And yet, Jesus reminded us that, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:15). Here, Jesus shows us the kind of sacrifice that threatens the purely economic character of our relationships which sees people only for their usefulness or future benefit.
Friends are worth dying for.
Friendship may be a virtue particularly necessary for a culture that’s ripe with depression, partisanship, and busyness. Aristotle thought that friendship should be the primary human institution, and that the overall health of a society could measured by its conditions to sustain friendships. When considering our society’s addiction to fast food, to technology, and long work hours—we may be on life-support. Though, there is hope, if only because God became friends with us.
The church exists to form a people who would have no reason to be near each other, unless there was a God who calls us friend. That’s Christ’s body. And part of the church's mission is to remind us that our lives can’t be lived alone. To be clear, church doesn’t always appear to work. Many churches are cold, individualistic, and as exclusive as country clubs. But I haven’t given up on the hope that we might allow ourselves to be a people that rejoices when a stranger rejoices and suffers when a stranger suffers. It won’t always make our lives easier, but it might fill them with friends.
I end up around a table with friends most weeks, and it’s not usually by accident-at the church, a house, a restaurant. Oftentimes, I want to be there, but it’s equally often a chore. I’d rather get the kids to bed on time, put on pajamas, and fire up Netflix. I’ve learned, though, that friendships don’t spontaneously organize. If friendships are a habit that might make us into better human beings, then they must be written in a little box on a calendar and practiced (even when your general hygiene is put on the back burner). Now, that may sound a little depressing, but it's also true.
I guess what I’ve learned is that friendship is a spiritual discipline, or a means to abide in God by abiding in another. If this is true, then there’s always reason to gather with another and lay down your lives. After all, it might end up saving it.
Three years old is a bit premature for a first existential crisis. My family was visiting Yaya and Grandpa, my wife’s parents, when my daughter spotted a picture of my wife from middle school. There was Danielle, sandwiched in between her two brothers, all of whom looked noticeably younger. They were really only children.
“Where was I?” said Eden.
This wasn’t going to end well. Jean Piaget wrote that children in this ‘preoperational stage’ of life are so egocentric that they have a difficult time perceiving a world that doesn’t contain them. Seems to me that some of us never quite make it out of that stage. I knew this and I still smiled as I walked right into the trap.
Well, you weren’t born yet,” one of us responded. I’m not sure whether it was my wife or me. It doesn’t matter. I do remember the way Eden’s head so slightly dropped and how the little wrinkles formed around her eyes as she squinted in confusion. Someone once asked Augustine the same question about God: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for people who pry into mysteries.” That’s as good an answer as any, but unfortunately it’s inappropriate for my three-year old daughter.
My wife, who was grasping at straws, said, “Well, you were with the stars.”
Look, it’s instinctive to try and protect kids from the harsher realities of life for as long as possible. We know it’s not right, but it’s not terribly wrong. Aren’t we all just star dust, anyway? Not really. It’s cliche and sentimental, but she’s a three-year old who can’t read. It didn't work. Unfortunately, this vague answer about being with the stars didn’t appease her. Why do three year olds insist on better answers than so many adults?
She said, “I was in the dark. Alone? I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark!”
So much for the soothing lull of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Here’s what’s worse: a couple weeks later I caught her drawing pictures of herself in the stars. I asked her how it felt to be with the stars. She said two words: “It’s sad.” This is a terrible and heart wrenching thing for a parent to observe. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of hell—an existence that’s only dark. A life that’s only isolation.
What should we have said?
Most Christians have no doctrine of pre-existence. There’s no rebirth, cyclic existence, or reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) gave us the most prominent Christian idea of pre-mortality. He taught that God created a limited number of rational beings (logikoi) outside of time, but they fell from their divine contemplation and took on flesh. Thus, here we are. It explains these troublesome bodies of ours. But the church named it a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
If there is any pre-existence, it’s only very relative. Augustine makes a compelling case that the past returns to existence in the present through our memories and the future, through our expectations (Confessions XI.20). We can conjure up events and relationships in our memories, so that they return to existence—albeit imperfectly. In our expectations, we create that-which-is-not-yet in the present moment. And so our expectations create existence, not in a proleptic sense, but as anticipation and hope.
I like that thought—Eden and Pax have always been with me, maybe even existing before me. Eden was settled in the hearts of my parents who must have dreamed of children and grandchildren who were birthed out of their own particular memories and expectations. Until she then became an expectation in my own heart. I thought about these kids most of my life. Sure, I never dreamed of a precocious, blonde hair, and blue eyed live-wire. But I did hope for God to call someone into existence for me—boy or girl, brown eyed or blue eyed, biologically-mine or adopted-mine.
It’s not the same, is it, as true being?
There’s a better answer than this vague sense of existence, though Eden’s too young to grasp it. It’s this: you were created. We are given a beginning, just as there was an initial beginning to all things. It’s a miracle that there is something rather than not-something, even more miraculous that there is conscious life, and an even greater miracle that there is someone like Eden. Or maybe it’s not. God is self-determined and resolved to be Creator. Not out of compulsion, necessity, divine struggle, or a boundless will set to dominate. It’s only love—from the bottom to the top. God’s love couldn't be contained. Nor, could it be locked away in a warehouse. It spilled over into galaxies with stars and planets because God is God. And it keeps overflowing because no one's quite figured out how to make it stop.
It took four and a half billion years, but it finally spilled into you.
Creation is the word we use to name the world and our existence. And it's important. The first thing we can say about each other is that God has created us. We are, each of us, God’s love enfleshed and put in motion. It teaches us how to be human and gives shape to our lives. It instructs us how to be in relationship with every facet of the created order—whether the oceans or mountains, beluga whales or grasshoppers, the neighbor or the enemy. You are gift. And so are they. Never treat anyone, or be treated, as less.
After Eden drew the pictures of the stars I told her that she wasn’t actually with them. I told her something like this: ‘God was making you, but it takes a long time to make babies. Meemaw and Poppa had to love me and raise me. I had to grow up and go to school to meet mommy. Then, we could have you. But that whole time we were thinking about you. You were in our dreams. And in our prayers. We thought about what you would look like, the ways you would talk, and how you would grow. Now, you’re finally with us. God finally made you. God made you at the perfect time (kairos).’
And she replied, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. And yet, that’s what makes her grace—a completely undeserved and beautiful gift.