Epiphany, Liturgical Time, and the Islamic State


We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
                                                                 – T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”


Like those three wise men, it’s possible for one to feel like he lives among “an alien people clutching their gods,” having learned to live in liturgical time.


I can remember early on, as a child of about eleven or twelve, being disappointed with Christmas.  After the gift wrap lay at our feet, after the big Christmas Day lunch at my grandparents’ house, everything felt empty.  I remember hearing about the “post-holiday blues” (though I don’t think I would have called it that or remembered that string of words) and feeling like that resonated with me: people becoming “blue” as the holidays came to an end.  I wanted to keep it going – the anticipation of the event, that is.  The consummation of the thing – the unwrapping of gifts and the feasts and family – would let me down.  And as I got older, this experience recurred every Christmas season.


A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a piece online by Graeme Wood about an American man named John Georgelas, now known as Yahya Abu Hassan, who from all accounts, has become second in command in the Islamic State.  It’s a fascinating and disturbing story about an intelligent young man who never quite found his way and according to his father, was always a follower.  Of course, the paradox now is that he is a leader, one of the top leaders, of the death gang that has ravaged parts of Syria and Iraq and now seem to be trying to make headway in other countries.

What was of special interest to me was where Yahya, as Wood refers to him throughout the piece, grew up.  Just up the road from me is Plano, Texas, the city where my wife grew up and where the parish I attend is located.  This suburb of high achievers is where Yahya spent most of his formative years and where his parents still live. What would cause someone like him to abandon family, faith, and culture in such a drastic way?


Ethiopian Nativity icon

Earlier in this decade, my wife and I moved to Ethiopia to work with orphans and vulnerable children.  One of the things I loved about the culture there was how everything stopped for a major holiday, and the lack of commercialization of a holiday like Christmas in Ethiopia (or Gena) made it feel truly foreign, ancient, and other-worldly.  Even apart from the fact that Ethiopians use a different calendar (the Julian), there were not the usual signs that Christmas was coming – you know, the decorations and products changing hands in all the big box stores around Halloween. Refreshingly, instead of there being commercial signals that a new holiday was coming, you would instead see people walking goats through the streets that they would slaughter for the big feast or women outside crushing chilies into berbere powder – and all this just days before the actual holiday.  There was something organic about it all, something true.


In many ways, I can understand what would lead one to abandon a life in comfortable suburbia for a life roughing it with a jihadist cult.  I don’t know what led Yahya to leave his old life behind and join ISIS, of course, but I think I can imagine what it would be. I can identify with a certain ache for meaning, with the desire to find something for which I can live and die, as Kierkegaard once wrote.  After all, such restlessness is largely responsible for my moving to Ethiopia in the first place.


Without realizing it back then, the “holiday blues” I used to experience were an aching for deeper meaning.  Yes, I’m sure you can psychologize it and say I was just experiencing a let down after all the build up to, and enjoyment of, a long break away from the drudgery of routine, but the problem with this “secular” way of thinking is that it sees routine as an enemy and “vacation” as something that really matters, something that makes one feel alive.  As I’ve gotten older, what has rescued me from the meaninglessness of the North American “Holiday Season” is the church calendar, or liturgical time.  For one, the calendar is built on a kind of holy anticipation, a looking forward to the consummation of all things.  In a beautiful way, the beginning of every Advent looks forward to the end.  We begin the year contemplating last things (especially as it relates to our need for repentance), and doing so is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city.” And that let down I used to feel as a kid on Christmas Day is cut off at the knees by the realization that Christmas is actually a season, not just one morning of tearing open gift-wrapped boxes.

Learning to live in liturgical time also helps provide meaning beyond the daily grind of getting and spending.  Our society is built on an exchange economy and that economy so shapes our hearts and imaginations that we imagine if one puts in the work and the sweat equity, then he should get what he deserves.  Therefore, “free-time” is bestowed on you as a deserved reward for all the hard work: it’s *mine* and  I earned it. The church calendar, on the other hand, structures our time in such a way that we are put in a place to realize all is gift and nothing that is earned is really worth all that much in the end anyway.  What matters is belonging and the community we’re given to be members of, and the sacred time the church calendar situates us in allows us to experience that. The other calendars of our lives are mostly centered around goals, deadlines, and what needs to be achieved and earned, what *I* need to do to perform or succeed.  Liturgical time allows us to exist outside of that exchange economy (“you get what you’ve earned” thinking) and in a time and space driven only by grace and not the bottom line.

To live by this kind of sacred time is inherently subversive as it restructures our lives (our time) around givenness, something that, to our society, is not all that meaningful when often what’s most important is what *I’ve* achieved. We are given our very lives to be lived in holy community.  We are reminded every week at Eucharist that we’re all beggars and, with palms raised upward to receive the Host, we symbolize our need and position as receivers not acquirers.  And while we have to live according to more acquisitive ways of organizing our day-to-day lives to put food on the table, if we let liturgical time shape our hearts and imaginations, we will inevitably run counter to the trends and fads of our culture and desire something different too.


Today marks the end of the Christmas season as Epiphany begins and I’m still thinking about what would lead a man like John Georgelas to become a jihadist named Yahya Abu Hassan.  I don’t know the answer since the human heart is too complex and each person’s story so full of variables and nuance.  I am grateful, though, for having discovered that the church, though it may not always act like it, is its own alternative culture to the culture of death and materialism all around us.  We don’t have to go far to look for radical ways to think about money, politics, social issues, or how we think about time.  They’re there in the ancient ways of the Church and always have been. And it’s possible that, once you’ve learned to live according to them, your old life, organized as it was by other priorities and calendars, will feel alien, as part of a “dispensation” that has faded away. Just like it did for Eliot’s Magi.




What We Talk About When We Talk About Language: Cultivating Faithful Speech with Faulkner, Taylor, Hauerwas, and Wiman

Caravaggio’s “St. Jerome Writing” (from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a long while since wrote anything here on this blog.  I took a hiatus, which I will probably write about at some point.  But for now, I would like to get back into this by quoting four passages that have stuck out to me lately (well, some I’ve known about for quite a while), all having to do with language–its necessity and its limitations–especially when it comes talking about God and our experience of him.

This is of interest to me because, ever since I was young, I have struggled with language, especially language used in church–language about God, faith, justification, salvation, etc. This struggle was never primarily an intellectual problem for me–more of an existential one, if I can make that distinction.  Existential because the language that was used to describe one’s, say, experience of God, never really seemed to do justice to the complexity of my experience. Words or phrases used over and over again, a kind of code, created much angst for me because I couldn’t find my own voice that would match what I encountered.  Much of the language of my church community was worn slick with overuse and I needed to find my own.  That wouldn’t happen until much later and still continues to this day.

So because it’s been a while since I last wrote, I want to include here some quotations regarding language and faith that mean something to me–help me delve deeper into the mystery of life with God and his Son, Jesus.  I like to think that all of these voices here are in conversation with one another.  Put all together–at least to me–they help me make some sense of something so fundamental to our lives, and therefore common, that we often don’t stop to consider its (i.e. language and communication’s) influence on how we understand reality and what’s true.  Faithful speech is difficult in a world of complex realities–especially when those realities bump into the ways we talk about God and our faith (see Hauerwas below)–but it is a task that Christians, foremost of all people, are called to embrace as we seek to cultivate a community of faithful followers of the Word made flesh.          


“His voice was not unkind.  It was not human, personal, at all.  It was just cold, implacable, like written or printed words.”

                                                                                 ~ William Faulkner, Light in August, p. 130

“I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other.  If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe.  I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I not anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.  For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.”

                                                                   ~ Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 107 

Recognition of truthful speech begins when readers identify the words they encounter as an honest expression of life’s complexities.  The theological trick is to show that speaking honestly of the complexities of life requires words that speak of God.  Theologians betray their calling when they fear using such words and begin to think that they are not necessary.  Often the result is desperate shouting…as John Howard Yoder would have it…the task of theology is ‘working with words in the light of faith’…one can draw from his description the conclusion that words do not constitute the ‘light of faith.’  In fact, faith is nothing more than the words we use to speak about God.  And yet the God to whom and about whom we speak defies the words we use.  Such defiance seems odd, because the God about whom we speak is, we believe, found decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God.  Still, it seems the nearer God draws to us, the more we discover that know not what we say when we say ‘God’…How theology can at once be about God and about the complexities of human life is never easily rendered.  Some theologians in modernity have tried to split the difference between speech about God and the complexities of human life, with the result that their theology is more about ‘us’ than about God.  When that happens, it is not clear that you need the word ‘God’ at all.  If my work has seemed to be ‘in your face,’ I think it has been so because I have tried to show that ‘God’ is a necessary word.”

                                                                    ~ Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, pp. 235-236   

“The purpose of theology–the purpose of any thinking about God–is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning–by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings–more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful.  This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.”

                                                                                ~ Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p.130




When it Comes to Dealing With Sexual Abuse, Will Evangelicals Take the Path of the Hero or the Saint?

St. Francis preaching to the birds. What a fool! What a waste!

Since my last post inspired by Brian Zahnd’s blog, I’ll admit I’ve been revisiting his site quite a bit.  His post from earlier this past week  brought to mind something in regards to the whole Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal (if you’re not familiar with it, then you can catch up on it here.  If you’re an Evangelical, you need to know about it).  First, let me quote something I found in Zahnd’s most recent post and then I’ll link it to the SGM scandal.

Zahnd quotes Francis Ambrosio, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown, regarding the difference between heroes and saints:

“For the hero the meaning of life is honor. For the saint the meaning of life is love. For the hero the goal of living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life does not so much have a goal, as a purpose, for which each human being is responsible, and that purpose is love, and the bonds of concern and care that responsibility for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. These two paradigms, the hero and the saint, and the way of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally distinct and genuinely different visions of human society as a whole, and even of what it means to be a human being. They are two distinct and different ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.”

My wife and I both have been reading about the sexual abuse lawsuit that has been filed against a number of former and current leaders at SGM. I think Ambrosio’s words might just strike at the heart of the question as to why C.J. Mahaney’s friends have chosen, until recently, to remain silent about Mahaney’s alleged involvement in the conspiracy: is it possible that Evangelicalism as a culture is overly concerned with producing leaders who are “heroes” rather than “saints”? As Zahnd points out…

In the Western world we are deeply conditioned to choose the heroic over the saintly. We love our heroes best of all. Heroes are goal-oriented people of great capabilities who know how to make things happen. We admire their ability to get things done and shape the world according to their will. Saints on the other hand — especially to the American mind — seem quaint and marginal, occupying religious spheres on the periphery of the action.

Together for the Gospel (L to R): Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever

Could it be that as Evangelicals, in our desire to reach the masses–to be, well, evangelical–we have unwittingly embraced practices that actually work against the Gospel and work against the central mission of the church, which is love–especially love for the vulnerable?

In ancient Greek literature, heroes pursued glory, fame, and honor, and even with the influence of Christianity on Western culture, in our collective psyche, that image of the hero is still with us: the one who accomplishes great feats of strength and racks up acknowledgements and awards.  We still honor, as Ambrosio says, the hero who seeks “self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it” (and with good reason: there’s nothing wrong with honoring someone for excelling at, let’s say, a sport, or more significantly, for achieving some discovery that yields life-saving results). But as Zahnd points out, Jesus comes along and carves out another way: the way of the saint, who doesn’t live by our goal-setting and goal-achieving ways, but instead reveals that love is the highest good in life–that responsibility to others, especially to the vulnerable (Matt. 25), is more important than reaching goals or achieving fame.  I like the language Ambrosio uses: the saint is called not to a goal but to a purpose.  The saint’s life is not centered around statistics or numbers–the number of conversions or the number of members on the roll, the number of people you reach via satellite or the internet–but the hero’s life is.  The hero’s life, according to Ambrosio’s two paradigms, is centered on product, accomplishment, and recognition.  The saint’s?  The saint’s life is focused on the opposite–the quiet, little way of acts of compassion, self-giving, and self-forgetfulness.  Why?  Because the saint is focused on the one, not the many.  The saint’s “accomplishments,” in fact, may seem rather useless and ineffectual in the end, according to his critics (see the late Christopher Hitchens’ criticism of Mother Teresa, if you’re not familiar with it).

I wonder if this is what’s really at the heart of C.J. Mahaney’s friends’ muted response to the SGM lawsuit. Is this the reason Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Ligon Duncan–with whom Mahaney started Together for the Gospel–initially broke their silence about the sexual abuse lawsuit against SGM and Mahaney with a defensive open letter to the public–one that remained un-nuanced in its defense of Mahaney (the revised version is not much different)?

Defensive and lacking nuance: two unfortunate qualities that Evangelicals have possessed in their history when faced with criticism.  Could it be that this defensive posture has been the the go-to mode for Evangelicals because, despite their calling to be self-emptying servants in the City of Man, they have been actually more concerned with position and accomplishment in the eyes of “secular” society–that their desires have been more shaped by “secular” images of the good life–than they are willing to admit?

Ultimately, I know this defensiveness has nothing to do with being Evangelical.  We all know similar sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups have occurred in the Catholic Church and at non-religious institutions like Penn State.  Both of those institutions have exhibited their own defensiveness and committed the sin of silence out of the desire to maintain position or reputation.  Though it should be different with religious institutions, it’s in our nature–regardless of whether you’re a mega-church pastor or Catholic priest (or a Division 1 college football coach, for that matter)–to cling to power, position, and prestige.  And since Evangelicals have had skin in the culture wars for some time, it’s understandable if they feel they must remain vigilant–must remain in combat mode–against the “enemy.”

But Evangelicals are called to “downward mobility” (as described by Henri Nouwen in my previous post), and I think Evangelicals can learn to see the beauty of this other way, the way of the saint–indeed, the way of Jesus–if they can catch a vision of the paradoxical beauty of victory in defeat.  I think they can catch this vision and learn to value those things considered foolish by society–such as exposing darkness even when that darkness is in their own midst–even if exposing that darkness will provide the “enemy” with more arms in their arsenal to attack them in the ongoing culture war.  I think they can learn to see that this embracing of defeat is actually the path of victory (we do follow a “failed” Messiah, after all, whose kingdom was not of this world).

Despite being in combat mode for so long, I think Evangelicals can learn the way of the saint–can learn do something as “useless” and “foolish” as St. Francis once did when, as it’s told, when he preached to the birds.  What did such preaching produce for Francis?  What could Francis show for his preaching to these unproductive members of creation?  Nothing.  But it was an act of beauty, an act of praise (which is, by nature, a “useless” act, as in it serves no utilitarian purpose).  Can Evangelicals do something just as “wasteful” and “useless”–just as non-product oriented–as Francis once did by preaching to the birds?  Under the current circumstances, could they do something, which in the end, may appear self-defeating (talk about unproductive!)–may appear foolish if viewed from the vantage point of the culture warrior–something like siding with the vulnerable, siding with those who for so long have had no voice–even if it makes them “look bad”?  Can they “lose” in the eyes of their “enemies” and let their own glory dim so that the glory of Jesus’ humble way may shine more brightly?  Can they shed the desire for accomplishments and goals for the calling to a purpose, a calling to love?  I think so if they embrace the downward path of Jesus, of the saint, and forsake the hero’s desire for power and position.

Just this week, my denomination (and Ligon Duncan’s), the Presbyterian Church in America, pared down a resolution on child sexual abuse to exclude a part, among other things, that would require churches in the PCA to notify law enforcement about allegations of sexual abuse in their congregations (you can read the original draft here and the revised here to see the difference between the two).  The good news that came out of the revision process was that the PCA, instead of adopting the revised (and watered down, according to some) draft of the resolution, has decided take the next year to investigate the matter more thoroughly and work with survivors and experts so that they can come up with a more informed resolution.

If the PCA’s example is any indication that Evangelicals are willing to take a stand against the darkness–even when that darkness may exist within their own borders–then they’re on the right path toward being a witness to the power of the downward way–indeed, the power of the saint.