Always Reforming

A Feather Never Sleeps by Josephine R. Unglaub

ALL THINGS NEW
Marilynne Robinson

Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought, art and literature. It was the center of learning in the West for centuries because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and stand pat.

2 Corinthians 5:16–6:10

Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

6 We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For He says:

“In an acceptable time I have heard you,
And in the day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
3 We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. 4 But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, 5 in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; 6 by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, 7 by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, 8 by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.


A preacher friend, describing his personal theology said “I believe the Bible, but I’m not mad about it!”  That’s a bit of an inside joke because religious people often earn a reputation for meanness.  How does that happen?  Well, it’s natural to be defensive when you think you’re being attacked, and the world is assaultive when it comes to Christianity.  The most logical reaction is to put up walls and fire back.

The problem with that of course is that you can’t advance when you are hiding in your fortress.  When we pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we are asking to be part of the process.  It’s messy business.  To be an effective Christ follower, you have to be relevant and that’s impossible without love.  Relevancy is directly related to relationship and relationships require vulnerability.

As Ken Kovacs says in his book Out of the Depths

The Church of Jesus Christ is not a museum. We’re not a historical preservation society. We’re called to reform—reformed by the Spirit who is calling us to a new day. We need to become roomier, building new homes in which the human spirit can thrive. We’re not called to preserve the past or live in the past. Christ is alive. Christ is at work within us, now.

Is religion relevant today?

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Logo

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R


Marilynne Robinson and Renewal

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson

For ages people have drawn inspiration from greatness—from Horatio at the bridge to William Tell to George Washington. But heroism is out of fashion in our time. We don’t even believe in it. Our cynicism is so pervasive that the extent of our disillusionment is taken as the measure of our maturity.

Marilynne Robinson describes this turn of mind in The Death of Adam:

“When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, “I knew it all along,” and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.”

What has happened to us is that we’ve lost our sense of God. And when we lose God, we don’t just lose religion; we lose everything worth living for. But God wants to give it all back. He has a purpose for us yet, even in our brokenness. He says, “I created you for my glory. And I want to fill your life with an inspiring new sense of destiny.”

God intends to renew the whole universe (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). That’s his goal. Do you know where he begins? Right here with us, at two levels. Isaiah shows us the God who reforms people who have lost their purpose (Isaiah 42:18–43:21). Next he’ll show us the God who revives people who have lost their vitality (43:22–44:23). The renovation of the universe begins with us in reformation and revival. Reformation is the recovery of God’s purpose for us. Revival is the recovery of God’s life in us. God loves to renew confused and tired people.

Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. and R. Kent Hughes, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 277–278.

PERCEPTION IS THE POINT

Robinson discovered that one voice influential for those writers was John Calvin, a figure Robinson has been working hard to restore. In her preface to John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant (2006), Robinson bristles at the fact that the Reformer has been hidden under a caricature, known only as “an apostle of gloom dominating a gloomy city,” his legacy one of “repression and persecution.” Robinson instead finds three liberating themes in Calvin’s thought, and in the preface and an earlier collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), she articulates how they impress upon her literary vision.

For Robinson, Calvin’s theology centers on the belief that God has given individuals the ability to commune with and respond to him without the mediation of priests or bishops. “Perception is at the center of Calvin’s theology,” she observes; God willingly floods our senses with his grandeur in such a way that we can take it in and reflect it back, his glory “shining forth” as we participate in it. “It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts.” Think how elevated a vision of the human soul this is, Robinson suggests, and how far it is from how we often view ourselves.

At the same time, our ability to perceive God is deeply compromised. None of us sees clearly; indeed, none of us even desires to. All of us turn away from God’s presence, failing “to acknowledge what ought to be obvious,” Robinson writes, inclined instead “to indolence and selfishness, dishonesty, pride and error, cruelty.” She calls the notion of total depravity the “counterweight to Calvin’s rapturous humanism,” insisting that we can’t understand the one aspect of his thought without the other.

Working together, writes Robinson, these twinned elements of “our strangely mixed nature” mean that the passage of a soul “through the vale of its making, or its destruction” will be marked by halts and recoveries, each attempt to find meaning chastened by a recognition of limits. This almost exactly describes Ruth’s voice in Housekeeping, now traced to one of its sources.

Not everyone, however, carries this realization as a great weight, or senses a chance to find release. The doctrine of election, developed in Scripture but popularly associated with Calvin, is a third element for Robinson, who links it to Calvin’s focus on perception. True perception—“the radical understanding of the presence of God, and of his nature as manifest in Christ”—is something God must grant a person. It is not natural to our fallen state.

And because God grants such ability entirely according to his own mind, we are brought into a chastening—and, to Robinson, exhilarating—encounter with “the freedom and mystery of God.” Far from inducing a dulled passivity, such a doctrine leads to a deepening awareness of the grandeur of God and the fragile beauty of one’s neighbors. To borrow a phrase from Dickinson, it keeps believing nimble.

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Thomas Gardner is professor of English at Virginia Tech.

Keeping Perception Nimble: John Calvin Has Given Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson a Way of Seeing That Imbues Her Novels with the Grandeur of God,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today International, 2010)

Dancing Through The Fire by Malcolm Guite

untitled

Then stir my love in idleness to flame
To find at last the free refining fire
That guards the hidden garden whence I came.

O do not kill, but quicken my desire,
Better to spur me on than leave me cold.
Not maimed I come to you, I come entire,

Lit by the loves that warm, the lusts that scald,
That you may prove the one, reprove the other,
Though both have been the strength by which I scaled

The steps so far to come where poets gather
And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.
I thank God for the ones who brought me hither

And taught me by example how to bring
The slow growth of a poem to fruition
And let it be itself, a living thing,

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition
And still to try the tautness of each line,
Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

And trace in dust the face of the divine,
Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian,
That drawing water turns it into wine.

Now I am drawn through their imagination
To dare to dance with them into the fire,
Harder than any grand renunciation,

To bring to Christ the heart of my desire
Just as it is in every imperfection,
Surrendered to his bright refiner’s fire

That love might have its death and resurrection.

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem


It is somehow easier for us to understand Jesus as the Son of God than the Son of Man.  When Christ spoke of Himself this way, the gospel of John says the crowds were astonished and asked “Who is this Son of Man?”  His reply was instructive.  He said “A little while longer the light is with you.  Walk while you have the light lest the darkness overtake you…”  We tend to suppress our humanity as somehow bereft of the imago Dei, yet here we find Jesus with both promise and warning.

Desire which fuels our passion is not to be extinguished but rather elevated from corrupt and poor substitutions by the light of Christ.  We are grateful to poets who strengthen and inspire us to lift our heads as children of God.  As Malcolm Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness:

Through them I learned that the right response to Eros is not to ask for less desire, but for more, to deepen my desires until nothing but Heaven can satisfy them. I also take occasion here to think about the art of poetry itself. There is a parallel, I think between our love-life and the making of poetry. In both there is an initial gift and inspiration, a subtle and all-transforming intuition of beauty. But in both this might easily be frittered away or corrupted. The first glimpse, the intuition, which as it did for Yeats’s Wandering Aengus, should lead to a life-times quest, can be lost or dissipated in the pursuit of one will’o’the wisp after another. Or we can be faithful to it: that first intuition, that graceful gift of love can be attended to, and shaped.

How does passion reveal the image of God?

John 12:34–36

The people answered Him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” Then Jesus said to them, “A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” These things Jesus spoke, and departed, and was hidden from them.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.

 
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 453.

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

 

Art: London Street Art: Golden Lady by Josephine R. Unglaub

Josephine R. Unglaub
Josephine R. Unglaub

Unglaub is a German-based artist and photographer with a passion for surrealism. Her work can be found here: https://lemanshots.wordpress.com

 

 

Batter My Heart by John Donne

untitledBatter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem


Spiritual truth is difficult for the rational mind to grasp.  The Bible says the Holy Spirit will guide us to all truth and indeed, absent God’s intrusion, our modern minds gravitate to only that which is reasonable – and reason is a hobbled teacher.  We understand this most directly in matters of love, for as Pascal reminds us “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”

In today’s poem by John Donne, we see this on full display.  To fulfill the greatest commandment, our love for God must be one of unmitigated passion, and the poet acknowledges his wavering heart. In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite says this:

Now it’s personal. If the call to God to stop tinkering seemed too mechanistic, and the siege warfare too grandiose and impersonal, now we come to the heart of things and the true intimacy. Now the quest to be re-united and ‘right’ with God becomes, paradoxically the yearning away from the mere institution to the call of true love. In an age of arranged marriages, Donne who himself had incurred the wrath of his patron and a term in prison for marrying for love, knew what it was to have a true love frustrated and constrained by external forces. It is a daring and helpful image to think of God as the secret lover to whom we yearn in spite of all the current institutional commercial and consumer forces, our forced marriage to secularism, that try to keep us from him!

Was there a time when you loved someone beyond reason?

How does that inform your understanding of the greatest commandment?

Matthew 22:36–40

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”  Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

 

D I G  D E E P E R


John Donne

John Donne
John Donne

(1571/2–1631), Metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s. He was a member of a RC family, his mother being the sister of the Jesuit missionary priest Jasper Heywood, and a granddaughter of a sister of Sir Thomas More. He entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and possibly studied after this at Cambridge, or perhaps abroad. He entered Thavies Inn in 1591 and transferred to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. During this period he was much exercised over the problem of his religious allegiance and for a time, according to I. *Walton, ‘betrothed himself to no Religion that might give him any other denomination than a Christian’. By 1598 he had certainly conformed to the Church of England. In 1596 he accompanied Essex and Raleigh to Cadiz and in 1597 to the Azores; and in 1598 became private secretary to the Lord Keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, a post from which he was dismissed four years later owing to his secret marriage to Ann More, his master’s wife’s niece, in 1601. During the next years he and his growing family lived in poverty and dependence on the charity of friends. Around this period he composed but did not publish Biathanatos, a casuistic discussion and defence of suicide. He found employment in controversial writing and in 1610 wrote the Pseudo-Martyr to persuade Catholics that they might take the Oath of Allegiance. In the next year he wrote a witty satire on the Jesuits, Ignatius his Conclave. After repeated failures to find secular employment he at last complied with the wish of the King and was ordained in 1615. The reason he himself gave for delay was scruple at accepting orders as a means of making a living. In 1621 he became Dean of St Paul’s, where he preached on all great festivals. He was also a regular preacher at court and a favourite with both James and Charles. During a serious illness in 1623 he wrote his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), and the famous ‘Hymn to God the Father’. He died in 1631 and was buried in St Paul’s. His monument, showing him standing in his shroud, survived the Great Fire.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 503–504.

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.
Josephine R. Unglaub

Art: Conversation, designed and created by Josephine R. Unglaub

Unglaub is a German-based artist and photographer with a passion for surrealism. Her work can be found here: https://lemanshots.wordpress.com