Confessions of a Recovering White Christian Moderate

Esther Bubley (1943)

Hello, my name is Matt, and I am a White Christian moderate.

(This is the part where you reply, “Hello, Matt.”)

In the tradition of the 12-step program (specifically, AA), one identifies one’s self simply as a common member of the group; a group whose commonality is the desire to recover. Thus, these groups become conducive to recovery insofar as each member meets the other free from equivocation or exception on a common ground. Whatever the addiction, the present-tense language of I am is preferred.

The I am language is itself sobering in that it marks recovery as a delicate progression, one which pride and pretense only compromise. As Paul wrote to the deluded church in Corinth, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor 10:12)

After the customary introduction, one commences to share one’s story. In the present case—my case—it is the story of being a White Christian moderate. More than that, it is about confronting the compulsions that animate this way of living (even in the -anon communities, it is understood that addiction itself is never the prime issue) and, to use the language of AA’s steps 4, 5 and 8, make “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” admit “the exact nature of our wrongs,” and reckon with their harmfulness on human lives.

In my experience, the way of the White Christian moderate is wrong and harmful, moreover, it is an addictive way of living—one from which we must recover. It could be argued that “Christian moderate” is also an oxymoron. That is at least with Martin Luther King Jr. thought.

Moderateness elicits little of the moral outrage associated with blatant racism or avowed White supremacy, in fact moderateness assumes a benign, amicable and unrushed disposition. For us moderates, cooler heads must always prevail and hastiness is to be avoided at all costs. We balk at any manifestation of disorder, lost tempers, or disturbance.

But we’re loath to inspect our moderateness too closely, because it exhibits signs of neurosis. As Carl Jung observed, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” M. Scott Peck agrees, describing life as a constant and painful progression of confronting and solving important problems, concluding, “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.” Seen this way, moderateness might be understood as a wasting and addictive opiate.

This is why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the solitary confinement of his “narrow jail cell” in Birmingham his own “honest confession” and “regrettable conclusion” regarding the White moderate, that they were the greatest stumbling block in path of Black strides for freedom, equality and justice; even more than the Klan or other White Supremacist groups!

…the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Later, after admitting his great disappointment with White religious leaders whom he had assumed would be the “strongest allies” of the Civil Rights movement, he lamented how “too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

It is this uniquely Christian anesthetizing security from which we moderates must gain our own liberation if we are to be right-minded and just agents in the world. Paradoxically, King would later articulate how this requires us to be “maladjusted” to much of what is deemed normal in our world.

I must honestly say there are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized.

Martin Luther King Jr. (SMU, March 17, 1966)

But first a bit of context.

King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a reply to an open letter from eight moderate White southern clergy (seven Christian and one Jewish) titled “A Call for Unity” (published during King’s eight-days in solitary confinement) in which they deemed the Birmingham Campaign “unwise and untimely” and expressed dismay that these demonstrations had, in their words, “incited hatred and violence.”

As it so happens, Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2023 falls on the sixty-year anniversary of the first letter this concerned group of moderates published (“An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense”), which was directed to Alabama pro-segregationists, who were preparing to defy federal mandates to desegregate public schools and colleges. “Many sincere people oppose this change and are deeply troubled by it.” they wrote, conceding, “As southerners, we understand this.” Nevertheless, they urged local officials to abide by these federal rulings. They did not.

This was days after Alabama governor George Wallace gave his infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” inaugural address (penned by a member of the KKK), and pledged to “toss the the gauntlet before the feet” of federal “tyranny.” This group of White moderates understood it as their “heavy responsibility” to express concern over such “inflammatory and rebellious statements” that might lead to “violence, discord, confusion, and disgrace for our beloved state.”

One might be tempted to applaud this group’s evenhandedness and irenic aims, yet, as I’m sure you anticipate, it might be best to hold our applause.

Remember, this was nearly a decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1953) essentially overturned the spurious “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in the case of school segregation. However, the 1955 Supreme Court enforcement decree (Brown II) left it to local schools and officials to comply with desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”

Nine years hence, “deliberate speed” had become “deliberate delay.”

In 1957, at King’s behest, President Eisenhower had authorized federal troops to ensure the entrance and safety of Black high school students at Little Rock Central. Here again federal authorities were faced with a decision whether to intervene in Alabama. Kennedy would eventually authorize the National Guard to enforce desegregation at the University of Alabama and, later, Tuskegee High School, but this didn’t take place until June and September 1963 respectively.

Meanwhile Jim Crow laws and segregationists practices had relegated Black people in Alabama to “second class citizens” and denied them equal access to almost everything, while Birmingham had come to be known as “Bombingham” due to the constant dynamite bombings of Black homes, businesses, churches (over 50 bombings in a 15-year period).

In 1963 King and Ralph Abernathy’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined with Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to organize a multi-week series of peaceful demonstrations known as The Birmingham Campaign.

After a week of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts, Birmingham secured a state injunction against the protesters. King and his associates determined to continue their activities, and, on April 10, 1963, King was arrested and confined to a Birmingham jail cell. On that Friday—Good Friday—April 12, the concerned moderate clergy published “A Call for Unity” in the Birmingham News. After reading their open letter, King began scribbling a response in the margins.

It was this moderate appeal, one I’m sure its eight co-signers felt might accomplish some good by promoting a less fraught path to progress via less “extreme measures” and more “restraint,” that King found most demoralizing.

His letter became public in bits-and-pieces, until being published in its final form in late May. By then the restraint of Birmingham public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and his firefighters and police force—whom the moderate clergy had commended in their letter—had given way to brutality, as firehoses and batons and fists were used to disperse young protesters, and police drove demonstrators from the streets on horseback and aided by dogs during what was known as the “Children’s Crusade.”

The world was allowed to behold racial terror on their TV screens and in their local papers and to come to terms with the true, nefarious basis of the social order; something the moderates weren’t able or willing to acknowledge, let alone confront.

Which brings me back to my confession—a glimpse into my own moderate proclivities, and an admission of the nature of their wrongs.

To use an expression my therapist was fond of, we moderates “come by it honestly.” That is to say, being a moderate is what I knew, not some conscious ploy. Nevertheless, those who come by error honestly must honestly come out from error, lest our recalcitrance betray a deeper, darker deviance beneath what might have once appeared to be an honest mistake.

This is the first and foundational confession for us moderates: claims of innocence can only be pressed so far. That is to say, the chorus of “we didn’t know any better” loses credibility at each refrain. The look of shock eventually betrays itself as mere performance. We moderates are prone to “militant ignorance” or what Henry Giroux evocatively called “the violence of collective forgetting.

Confronted with systems of racial inequality or even egregious racism, we moderates take it upon ourselves to question, to verify, to soften and to propose a plurality of nicer explanations: “Are you sure that’s what happened?”; “I’m sure it felt that way to you.”; “You probably did something that elicited that reaction.”

I have come to hate this habit in others, yet must admit it is my reflex also.

John Perkins laments this trait in his book Let Justice Roll Down, insisting, “there are times when the biggest need is for information rather than exhortation.” We moderates want to offer a bevy of interpretations and exhortations, while remaining woefully, intransigently uninformed.

More than that, when faced with disruptive information and narratives (when experiencing “cognitive dissonance”), we search frantically to find data that will leave our current image of the world intact. Whole ecosystems have cropped up around the moderate’s need to remain untroubled in our simplistic, Pollyannaish outlook. Can this be anything but pathological?

Thus, we moderates function as societal gas-lighters. Regardless of how bad things are, how racist was an action, how harmed are our neighbors, we infer that it is all in their heads. Moderates do unto others the exact thing we would never want done unto us. Isn’t the true horror of any horror movie the horror of being disbelieved?

What is behind this? Dr. King addressed this directly. We moderates are more devoted to a self-preserving order than a just order and to a peace that is the absence of tension rather than the presence of justice. Our sense of order is, to use Augustine’s language, disordered.

We moderates are addicted to order and the fantasy of social tranquility, so much so that we refuse to examine whether these social configurations are just. King wrote, “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

We moderates are peacekeepers at the expense of being peacemakers.

In Revelation chapter 21, we are given a glimpse of the New Jerusalem. It is a place there are no tears, no pain, no mourning, no death. Moreover, it is a city into which “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought.” (v. 26) The sublime conditions of this city are described in one pregnant phrase: “the old order of things has passed away.” (v. 4)

We White Christian moderates are made uncomfortable by the thought that the old order (the current order) might mean less tears, less pain, less sickness, less hunger, less imprisonment, less loss, less death for us than for our Black neighbors. Our aversion to this holy discomfort lures us into an unholy comfort. We become “arch supporters of the status quo,” repudiating our citizenship in the New Jerusalem every step of the way.

This eternal and eschatological vision affects little “on earth as in heaven” urgency upon our temporal realm. Though we read, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work,” (1 Jn 3:8) we are content to leave the devil’s work of racial injustice intact.

Thus, we moderates become expert can-kickers: deftly kicking the can of racial justice down the road until our days elapse. This is what King decried as “the myth of time,” and he clearly understood this myth to be a tactic—a diversion—and a grievous one at that.

Though we’re fond justifying our gradualism by citing King’s notion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” yet we neglect to remember that this is meant to be a call to action!

Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality. We, in the final analysis, can gain consolation from the fact that at least we’ve made strides in our struggle for peace and in our struggle for justice. We still have a long, long way to go, but at least we’ve made a creative beginning.

Martin Luther King Jr. (Oberlin College Commencement, June 1965)

King had little regard for “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” understanding it to be a shorthand for “wait.”

“This ‘wait,'” King wrote from jail, “has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration,” adding, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

King hit the nail on the head, observing, “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.'” The following paragraph of King’s letter should bring us to tears of sorrow and anger; should sting us with the dart of conviction toward action. (You can read the whole letter here.) Now you may read King’s words and think, Things are different now. Conditions have improved. Shouldn’t we celebrate our progress? but I would remind us of two things.

First, this progress took place despite the cravenness of White moderates, not because of them. Behind this moderate reaction is an appeal for credit. Sadly, in American racial history, moderateness has never been creditworthy.

Second, are we measuring progress against its nadir or zenith? Put differently, do we still read the words of Micah 6:8 as our mandate?

  And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

To walk humbly is to part ways with our demands for credit and to pave the way for acts of justice flowing from a love for mercy. How abhorrent that a moderate like myself “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” This is not humility nor justice nor mercy.

A while back, during a discussion on Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise, I proposed that our group discuss the “more subtle” forms of racism like paternalism. One of my co-facilitators, a Black man, immediately replied, “Yeah, there’s nothing subtle about paternalism.”

I’ve come to see this paternalism in myself and other White moderates as the lingering assumption of racial superiority, which it absolutely is!

This paternalism centers and elevates the concerns of White society. It effectively relegates the concerns and conditions of racialized minorities to the periphery. We moderates harbor a hidden commitment to maintaining our place of privilege. (Wendell Berry calls this our “hidden wound.”) It is a spirit of White supremacy, and it reveals itself in its insistence on dictating all terms.

I’m saying it is uglier and more pervasive in my heart than I am readily willing to admit. In dealing with this facet of moderateness, King wrote, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” It’s true.

I could say so much more, but I’ll add only one final thing. I know Martin Luther King Jr. would be grieved by the way modern White Christian moderates appropriate his inspiring phrases while excising his extremism.

King was assaulted and insulted, stoned and imprisoned, mocked and stalked, stabbed and bombed, and eventually shot and killed for his activities. The moderates of Alabama criticized the “extreme measures” in Birmingham. Initially, King took exception at being labeled an extremist, however, upon further thought he declared, “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?”

After listing a number of Christian extremists from history, King put the question to us moderates:

So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

This is the set of question we White Christian moderates must return to continually, lest we be lulled back into complacency and conformity the unjust “pattern of this world.”

As mentioned earlier, The Birmingham Campaign preceded federal actions of desegregating Alabama schools in June and September of 1963 (and set in motion what would eventually become The Civil Rights Act legislation of 1964). These protests were staged out of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in the heart of historic Birmingham.

On September 10, 1963, National Guard troops were deployed to Tuskegee High School near Montgomery to protect Black students. (All 275 White students eventually transferred, many to the newly-formed Christian school Macon Academy.) Five days later, on September 15, 1963 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by the KKK, killing four young women and injuring many others. It was the extremism of hate on brutal display.

This event thrust one Birmingham White Christian moderate named Charles Morgan Jr. into his own recovery. The next day, Morgan delivered a speech to Birmingham’s all-white Young Men’s Business Club and addressed the question of responsibility for the bombing (the investigation had just gotten underway). He asserted the following: “Every one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We did it.” (This is recounted in Tisby’s The Color of Compromise.)

He continued: “It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence.” Morgan mentioned the lack of solidarity, lack of support, and the refusal among White Christians to defy the systems of racial segregation. Unsurprisingly, Morgan and his family were eventually driven from Birmingham due to persistent, menacing threats.

There is an undeniable uptick in racial violence and a reinvigoration of overt White Supremacy in the U.S. in our day. As I write, we are not yet to the tragic anniversary of the Buffalo shooting (May 14, 2022) perpetrated by a White Supremacist who drove over 200 miles to the Black population center of Buffalo. Ten beautiful souls, elders, were lost.

This young man had expressed admiration online for another White Supremacist, who, in June of 2015, killed 9 church-goers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. This is not isolated and this is not in the past.

Moreover, a fierce cultural warfare of suspicion is currently being waged. Being labeled as ‘woke’ or any number of related epithets can trigger all manner of threats and discomforts for the White moderate of today. Believe me, I’ve suffered a number of painful losses to this blow-back. Believe me, I’ve found myself on more than a few occasions craving the tranquilizing effects of moderateness. I am a recovering White Christian moderate and always will be.

During a trip last summer to Niagara Falls with my son, we stopped by the Tops Grocery store in Buffalo where the May shooting had taken place. We saw the pictures of the victims, the makeshift memorials, the grief-stricken community. I’ll admit, I was afraid to go there. I didn’t know what I’d experience. I thought it might be easier to just take my son to Niagara Falls for our fun getaway together. It would have been. But I knew something sacred was drawing me.

Standing there with my son, feeling my eyes fill with tears, giving hugs to strangers, I’ll tell you we were standing on holy ground.

King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I am slowly learning to accept this. As a recovering White Christian moderate, I’m coming to terms with how this “injustice anywhere” is often most pronounced in my own heart; the absence of justice in my own heart is a threat to justice everywhere.

As a White man, the tantalizing and anesthetizing escape of moderateness lies always available to me. As a Christian man, I know this is not the “narrow path” of fidelity to Jesus; the narrow path that leads to life, not only for me but for all.

My name is Matt and, as I said, I am a White Christian moderate. I understand this to be a life-long road to recovery, because it is a road of suffering and self-denial. Not only that, but it is a road of cosmic overhaul! When Dr. King was asked whether he would ever be satisfied, he said:

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. . . .

King’s dream was eschatological in nature: not only realized when some things change, nor even when I myself change, but when absolutely everything changes. This is not a moderate dream, it is a Christian dream.

Let us be satisfied with nothing less.

What Child is This? Coming to Terms with an Avoidant Advent

Let’s see if I can do this.

As we near the end of Advent, I find myself enmeshed in what has become a perennial bout; a fierce grappling between a primal force inside me and the wondrous onslaught of the season. Something must give.

I took our dog for a late afternoon walk last week, venturing into the already-dark Chicago chill. As we made our way onto the nearby campus, we passed through a dim corridor between the theater and art museum. My dog bounded back and forth straining against her leash, sniffing and scanning frantically for the rabbits she knows frequent these lawns and hedges, while I was enacting my own thrashing struggle, albeit an invisible one.

My soul was a gurgling cauldron of complaints: that overwhelming project, that unforeseen ordeal, that irreconcilable strife, my impenetrable mental fog, and the intolerable sense of being unknown and misunderstood in it all. Flapping in the wind.

They were mini tantrums, really: “It’s not fair!” And I was suddenly conscious of their juvenile quality. I walked further, through the nearly vacant quadrangles, and my meditations converged momentarily with Advent. I heard myself whisper, “What child is this?”

This surprised – no, intrigued me. It had the hallmarks of a divine encounter demanding my attention.

This phrase is, of course, a lyric from the William Chatterton Dix poem we have come to cherish in its eponymous carol form. For Dix, the child in question is none other than “Christ the King,” and it is our loving privilege to greet and guard, laud and lavish, own and enthrone. Or else, with Mary, gather this child to our laps, where he may rest and slumber. The child is holy and the child is lovely, and it is imperative to prepare him room. The child in question during my wintery ruminations was none other than me. Could an akin loving privilege be thus in order?

Advent startles us with the riddle “What child is this?” and, as I trekked through the windswept and solitary darkness, I was startled at the thought that Advent might have yet another child in view.

Pop psychology of the ’70s and ’80s introduced the idea of the “inner child” into our lexicon. Though the phrase was swept predictably into the disparagement reserved for such self-help terminology, it also contributed to development of trauma, reparenting, and internal family systems therapies. There was no denying this childlike figure, only how to rightly attend it.

It was Carl Jung who first proposed this child “lurking in every adult,” calling it “the eternal child” or even “the divine child”; an irrepressible child demanding “unceasing care, attention, and education.” Paul Simon referred to “the obvious child” and pled that we not deny it.

It is in desolate moments that this child becomes most obvious; it’s blaring squall no longer drown out.

The child, according to Jung, can be quite disruptive – incorrigible even! Paradoxically the child is both powerful and powerless (as most parents well know). The child holds the keys to our vitality, imagination, and wonder. The child is importunate and more than a little mischievous to the point of provoking this hallowed question in us all: “What child is this?” This question always has in tow an implicit concern, “What can this child need?”

The above picture was taken in 1979. It was the Christmas of my earliest recollection. I still recall the privilege of placing the star atop our tree, aided by the landing of our split-level Colorado home. The snow piled deep that Christmas, and I received the coveted Mattel “Shogun Warrior” Godzilla toy and a plush Snoopy to boot, both of which I still possess (in the case of Godzilla, only his projectile claw). I was 4 years-old and all was sublime wonder.

Less than one month later, my parents divorced.

Long before Jung, Jesus taught perplexing things about children. Once, amidst the self-important jockeying of his disciples, he “called a little child to him, and placed the child among them” and said,

Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So whoever will humble himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me. (Mt. 18:3-5)

We must become like children, humble ourselves as children, and learn to gladly entertain all children in order to inhabit the kingdom.

Later, when his disciples barred children from his presence, Jesus became indignant, rebuking them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mk. 10:14, Mt. 19:14, Lk. 18:16) As rendered in the King James, “Suffer the little children come unto me, and forbid them not.”

Many have sought definitive answers to Jesus’ meanings, ascribing all manner of virtue or essence to the young. These pronouncements usually ring hollow and conjectural to me. All I know for sure is that much takes place between what we call childhood and adulthood that makes us ever more closed off to this heavenly kingdom – dishonor, neglect, exclusion, or far worse. We are born helpless into a world swirling with curses. None go unscathed.

Singer-songwriter Michael David Rosenberg (known by his stage name Passenger) achingly captured this in his song “All the Little Lights”:

We’re born with millions
Of little lights shining in the dark
And they show us the way
One lights up, every time you feel love in your heart
One dies when it moves away

The song traces this wistful theme elegiacally,

Till we’re old and we’re cold
And we’re lying in the dark
‘Cause they’ll all burn out one day

While this is surely and sorely borne out in many a heart, Advent insists this needn’t be so! Advent places a divine child among us all that we might learn what to make of him, for the kingdom belongs to children; more so than it does to adults. Jesus says so plainly! We must refuse at all costs to drive children away, and nowhere is this more emphatic than in Bethlehem’s rustic manger.

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

But aren’t we appalled at our childishness; loath to admit immaturity, brattiness, neediness, or gullibility? My therapist had a habit of asking me a question, “Does that part of you feel young?” It would always make me bristle. He was on to something.

We learn to disregard all childish commotion, preoccupying ourselves with much adulting, anesthetizing through many diversions, displaying the No Vacancy shingle prominently. But the child will always return, and Advent bids us honor this child; connects honoring this child with receiving the Christ child and his kingdom. By avoiding our own “divine child” we avoid the Divine Child in the manger. What are we to do?

To begin, we must “change and become like little children.” Whatever this may involve, it certainly entails reckoning with those events that became curses in us. After all, “He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” Our mini tantrums are distress signals; transmissions from still-cursed regions of our souls. We must go inhabit these discordant regions, faithfully publishing words of blessing and peace!

Many a curse is stealthily invoked against us throughout our childhood. Do we remember Herod’s chilling request? “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Mt. 2:8) Do we recall the Apocalypse of John, and how “the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born”? (Rev. 12:4) Having been thwarted, this relentless and cunning predator stalks the earth making war on all her children – even you and even me.

Every child constitutes a threat to dark regimes and, for this reason, every child pays a price. Advent will never deny this, but reminds us that our God is more relentless and cunning still!

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born. (Is. 9:2, 6a)

If you are reading this, the child remains alive, and the story is far from over. The curse can still be lifted. As Martin Luther attests in reflecting on Isaiah’s words:

For this purpose Christ willed to be born, that through him we might be born anew… To you is born and given this child… see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you. This will be the case if you believe, then you will repose in the lap of the virgin Mary and be her dear child.

If this requires belief then it also requires much humility. “Whoever will humble himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What can this mean? For my part, it means owning this child and refusing to deny or be embarrassed by juvenile me. There is nothing wrong with being a baby; never has been and never will be. Nor a toddler, nor a child, nor an adolescent, nor a “harassed and helpless” human adult.

Does not Advent meet us at our most uncouth – immature and bratty and needy and naive, bawling for help in countless registers? This – this! – is Advent’s discordant wail. We are not ok, not by a long shot. What child is this? The Savior child whose birth was announced to the shepherds on those dark Judean slopes. What child is this? The truest part of you and me crying incessantly for a Savior.

Could it be that the inward expanse of the kingdom is proportional to the tenderness we afford this precious child, and that our aggrandizements are mere clutter in the space that might contain eternal furnishings? Could it be that the repose of a dearly beloved child is nothing short of a miracle? It is certainly an act of resistance!

Paul appealed on behalf of the Ephesian saints that God, “out of his glorious riches, may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” (Eph. 3:16) For what purpose did we need such supernatural internal strength?

…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19, emphasis added)

It’s hard to imagine anything more tantalizing and yet more terrifying than being flooded with such unalloyed love; our parched and shriveled inner beings cry for it with holy trepidation. We require an otherworldly strength and power to be on the receiving end of such love.

Attachment science suggests that all people develop attachment styles: neurologically-grooved reflexes for intimacy and connection. These can be secure, anxious, avoidant, or disordered. These styles determine our relationship to our neediness – the cries of our inner child – and constitute an educated wager as to how others might handle us in our needs. These styles are hedges against loss.

Of late, I’ve described me relationship to God as avoidant. If anything, Advent exacerbates this; all the pressure to feel it and get it right can be stifling. It has been, actually. This piece has been very hard to write. But I’ve been avoiding two Advent children all this time, the one in the manger and the one for whom the one in the manger came. Advent cannot acknowledge one with out the other; no child left behind. “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me.” I’m learning to accept that this “one such child” is oftentimes myself.

As mentioned earlier, Jung suggested our inner child required “unceasing care, attention, and education.” These three interplay in concert, I think, but Advent must always be a season of re-education. There is much to learn and unlearn!

What child is this? Of course Advent would have us exult, “This! This is Christ the King!” But Advent comes for the child in us also. Did not the child in Mary’s womb cause the child in Elizabeth’s womb to leap? Let us inhabit our childishness with Advent abandon, humble ourselves, and receive the heavenly kingdom by welcoming this child in Jesus’ name.

This is at least what I am attempting at present, if for no other reason than to honor the delight of that 4-year-old risking life and limb to place the Christmas star in it’s rightful place. He couldn’t know what all was coming, but I believe Advent came for him after all.

Advent means “to come,” does it not? May the child in you – no matter his or her manners – be permitted to come and be united with the Christ child; suffer them come together and never forbid them.


Notes on a Resurrection: Motif

Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. (Ps. 94:17)

For you will not abandon my soul in the grave. (Ps. 16:10)

This is a story of life after death; one that is still being written. It is my story and, in fact, I suspect in the writing I may grope my way further out of the tomb – a lurching obedience to the voice of One standing in the daylight calling my name. A written renunciation of death, if you will. That is my hope. And I hope others may join this holy egress.

In 2016 I took a six-month sabbatical. I had been through what I considered at the time to be the most difficult period of my life. What I couldn’t have known then was that I was actually entering the most difficult period of my life. More to come on that.

In the lead-up to my sabbatical, I found myself mumbling under my breath, “I want to die.” It was a startling thing to hear myself say, and I’ll answer what I assume may be your pressing question as a reader. No, I wasn’t suicidal. These were the utterances of a soul in defeat. Needling prophecies, these inner complaints are for me. No, I wasn’t suicidal, but my soul was letting me know it was dying – it felt dead, and was saying so!

Eventually, I started to listen. Why, I wondered, is this the murmur of my soul?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer describes this as a state of burnout and attributes it to the “violation of one’s nature” even (especially) in noble pursuits. He explains,

Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

To find one’s self attempting to give what one does not possess suggests true possessions – true riches! – which one may in fact be withholding. While we offer the world a false self, our true self goes missing in action. To use Palmer’s words, I wasn’t “letting my life speak”; wasn’t listening until my self became adamant, “I want to die.”

My thoughts and meditations began eddying around the textured resurrection account of Lazarus from John 11 and 12. I intend to reflect extensively on this resurrection story in this series of posts, so I’ll simply mention that I understood myself to be in a tomb of sorts, and that Jesus Himself was beckoning me – me, the true me! – out to live and move freely in the world.

I emerged from sabbatical determined to figure this out; to live this out! However, my world, as our worlds are want to do, had contrary designs. Should we be surprised; inhabiting all of us this realm in bondage to decay? So here I am, some six years later, clawing my way toward the light and toward that authoritative voice that bids, “Come out!”

Here I must resist the urge to dump out the junk drawer. Trauma, I’ve learned, can be described as rupture, and this term is descriptive in many ways. For instance, a rupturing grocery bag keeps wanting to expel its contents out onto the ground and must be carried just so in order to avoid such messy incidents.

In a sense, this is how I am required to carry my own story presently – just so. Precious, fragile, holy cargo wanting to spill out, needing to spill out, yet also needing not to be damaged nor despised; not strewn over the asphalt. Our stories are holy collections, no matter their disarray, and deserve to be unpacked with care and arrayed with honor. And of course our stories are never exclusively our stories, so we must hear the words of Hippocrates: primum non nocere – “do no harm.”

What I want to put down are some notes about coming into the open – into full view – in the hopes of bringing about something new and living. I want to try to “write my way out” of entombment.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this is much more easily said than done. Point of fact, it isn’t even easily said; that is conveyed through language. Many aspects of what goes on within us obstinately refuse the convention of words. “Words,” Augustine wrote, “have gained an altogether dominant role among humans in signifying the ideas conceived by the mind that a person wants to reveal.” What happens when, as the adage goes, words fail?

It so happens that trauma does just that: causes words to fail. Trauma researcher Bessel Van der Kolk explains the way neuroimaging reveals trauma’s deactivation of the “Broca’s area” of the brain; a region of the brain that translates image into speech, such that “you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words.” Words fail.

In her book Unpeakable, Sarah Travis writes, “Trauma changes one’s relationship to language.” Travis’s succinct statement is nearly axiomatic within trauma theory. Psychologist Annie Rogers goes so far as to say “trauma has its own language – the language of the ‘unsayable.’” Both Van der Kolk and Sheila Wise Rowe recount stories of those who have encountered horrors exclaiming, “I have no words.”

Theologian Shelly Rambo puts this quite starkly: “Trauma is described as an encounter with death… a radical event or events that shatter all that one knows about the world.” (emphasis mine) Certainly, in my own experience and the accounts I’ve heard, trauma shatters our capacity to interpret what we know; to form cohesive meaning. It is truly “the silence of death.”

Overwhelming distress is a brush with death, and one way to understand the aftermath (often termed PTSD or C-PTSD) is that important parts of us become buried in the rubble. “The cords of death entangled me,”the psalmist writes, “the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow.” (Ps. 116:3)

Such encounters with death require an encounter with the Resurrection.

Resurrection is a motif so common in Scripture that it could escape our notice. Indeed, it is a leitmotif. Again and again we find the idea in the Psalms, (“You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.” 30:3) So too, the prophets draw upon this image. Who can forget Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones? (chp. 37)

“Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (v. 3)

Both Elijah and Elisha raised young men to life (1 Kings 17:17-22 and 2 Kings 4:18-37 respectively). A man even sprung back to life when his corpse was thrown onto Elisha’s dead body in the grave! (2 Kings 13:20, 21)

Jesus is recorded as raising three people, including Lazarus. And Matthew mentions an astounding occurrence that took place after Jesus’ death: “the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Mt. 27:52) These unnamed saints walked around Jerusalem and appeared to many! The tombs broke open!

Of course the disciples also raised the dead to life. Peter raised the young girl Tabitha, (Acts 9:36-42) and Paul raised a man named Eutychus, who fell out of a window and died after dozing off during Paul’s long-winded sermon! Paul proceeded to finish his sermon after the resurrection took place. (Acts 20:7-12)

Paul actually presents resurrection as the reality of the Christian life in his letter to the Ephesians, praying that “the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened” and they would grasp God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…” (1:19, 20) His power for us who believe is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, yet somehow we must become ever more aware of it lest it fail to be fully appropriated.

Chapter 2 of Ephesians contains Paul’s well known death-to-life exposition, whereby we are met in our spiritual death then, dramatically and on account of God’s great love, “made alive with Christ” (v. 4) – reanimated in Christ for a life of good purposes! (v. 10)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul states emphatically, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (8:11) If God’s Spirit dwells in you, get ready for resurrection!

And we must call to mind Jesus’ marvelous declaration to his grief-stricken friend Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jn. 11:25) Resurrection is knit to the very identity of Jesus, for he is the Author of life! (Acts 3:15)

I’m merely wanting to make a case for you and me that this image of resurrection is neither fanciful nor forced. My theological scruples simply won’t allow me to traipse off some rabbit trail of wish-fulfillment. Scripture is quite plain on the matter of resurrection as a hallmark of the Christian faith; not only a heavenly resurrection but a here-and-now actuality – raised to new life! It is a motif in which we are meant take up residence.

Again, Paul:

For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. (Col. 2:12)

NT Wright stated this clearly and well,

Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world … That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.

Leave the tomb. Leave behind all the brokenness and incompleteness of the age. Follow Jesus into the new world he was thrown open before us! Who knew something so sweet upon the ears could prove so bitter an ordeal in the outworking? This is why Scripture must drum this home, for its pages were meant to drum us all home.

One must ponder how and in what ways the cords of death maintain their stranglehold on our souls, and how and in what ways the emergence of life might take place. That is the nature of these meditations I intend to set forth, should God grant me the strength and courage to do so.

I would be glad to have some witness-companions, for there are bound to be scoffers and worse. Would that we might revel together in our Savior’s most glorious gloat,

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
(1 Cor 15:55)


The Cost of Loving Enemies

Martin Luther King Jr. – Marquette Park, Chicago: August 1966

In January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. and his family moved to Chicago.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had both been passed after effective direct nonviolent campaigns in Selma and Birmingham. Dr. King’s April 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail and August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech had vaulted him to soaring heights in American society, with a moral vision that had been clarion and captivating.

But he knew his work was far from done.

King had turned his attention to the hidden systems of segregation and inequality in the nation, moving the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) into a new phase, “one that addressed entrenched racial discrimination in urban cities which kept blacks locked in ghettos, overcrowded schools, and low-paying jobs.” 1

By 1966 he was exhausted, depressed, and increasingly unpopular. It was during this time, at the invitation of the Chicago Freedom Movement, that King moved his wife and young family into a “slum-dwelling” in the west side Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale, with a broken front door, dirt floors, and the “overpowering” stench of urine. They were bringing their movement to “the heart of the ghetto” in one of America’s most segregated cities.

By most accounts, the Chicago Freedom Movement was a failure.

In June of 1966, King spoke to a crowd of 40,000 in Soldier Field and famously decried, “We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north.” He then led a march to city hall, where a list of demands was attached to the door. The powerful Richard J. Daley was mayor at the time.

Several weeks later, King led a march through the Marquette Park neighborhood, where discriminatory real estate practices were known to exclude Black buyers. While on the march, King and his companions were swarmed by a mob of 700 white Chicagoans, who hurled bricks, stones and bottles at them. King was struck in the head by a rock and fell to one knee before rising to continue the march.

King told reporters, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” When confronted, the more hidden dynamics of northern racism and segregation turned out to be animated by an evil and racist animosity exceeding the more overt racism in the South.

By the end of August, Daley was eager to be rid of his city’s new resident. He signed a “Summit Agreement” on the condition that King move out of Chicago – which King did. This agreement initially seemed promising, but in March of 1967 King pronounced it to be “a sham and a batch of false promises.”

Less than one month later, King would be assassinated.

King had spent his adult life loving his enemies – “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” – and it cost him everything.

Turning back the clock one decade, we find find the nucleus of this life in the teachings of Jesus.

It was November 1957, and King was on a speaking tour. He had risen to prominence through his role in the successful 1956-57 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. His home had recently been bombed by white supremacists. In the coming months, he would be stabbed in Harlem. But he was pursuing the theme of Love for Enemies during this speaking tour. Feeling under the weather, and against his doctors counsel, we find King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery taking up the text of Matthew 5:43-45 (KJV):

Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.

King told his audience at the onset, “I try to make it something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop along the way, out of new experiences as I give these messages.” Here we can observe the way King tumbled this truth over and over again in his hermeneutical drum: Scripture to experience, experience to Scripture, year after year.

Love for enemies is such an “extremely difficult command,” observed King,

Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth.

Though at the end of Matthew, Jesus made it clear that his disciples were to learn to obey everything He commanded, King knew the Christian proclivity to circumnavigate those commands we find impractical or distasteful.

King exhorted them,

Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies… He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point.

Love for enemies is hard – painfully hard; pressingly hard – but will we learn to obey it or go looking for loopholes. The former is quite costly. The latter, less so. But King understood this was subject to no exceptions.

So let us listen to the insights King, here only in his late 20s, gained from the painful, pressing beginnings of what would become a singular life lived into Jesus’ enemy love paradox.

Firstly, King asserts, “In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.” Is this not the first and hardest step? To have an enemy is to be threatened, and all manner of self-protective measure activates – often involuntarily – under these conditions. To have an enemy is to have someone bent on your defeat and the defeat of what is right and just.

The last thing we want to do is scrutinize ourselves.

I want to pause briefly here to note that in instances of abuse or other forms of personal and corporate violation, this step of self-analysis – especially regarding guilt or blame – should be unequivocal. Abuse and acts of violation are always wrong. We should never ask, “Did I deserve that?” or “Did I have that coming?” King’s focus is within the ambiguities of animosity between persons and groups.

To love one’s enemy, we must defy that most ancient and self-protective reflex of blame, which means we must make ourselves vulnerable before threat.

King’s second admonition is equally difficult: “A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy.” We must learn to see God’s image in our enemy and honor it. He goes on,

We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. 

To love an enemy – individuals or groups – is to understand the great clash of darkness and light raging with them and, at every turn, support the light.

Finally, King advises, “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.” Though we may have chance to hasten the demise of our enemies, this is not the way of love.

Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Drawing upon the three Greek words for love, King asserts that enemy love should be understood as agape love,

It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.

I will admit that as I wrote these three pieces of advice down – reflecting as I went – my soul writhed and argued and balked. But isn’t that the point? King would have us understand these convulsions as the throes of seeing the demon of hatred cast out. “The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil,” King contended. Echoing John’s words that “perfect love drives out fear,” he said people must “inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”

This is nothing short of a miracle!

King offered a few remarks as to why one would set out to love one’s enemies – reasons originating from “the center of Jesus’ thinking” – and they include the following:

The principle that “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” Additionally, although we tend to see hate as representing a risk to the one hated, King reminds us, “hate distorts the personality of the hater.”

[Hatred] is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate.

For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. 

Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

This is not hard to see in the broader world and, if we’re paying honest attention, it is impossible to deny in ourselves. Hate deforms us.

The final reason King offers for enemy love is that love is the truest way to overcome them: “Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

Love is inherently creative, while hate is inherently destructive. “There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. ‘Love your enemies.'”

The love of one’s enemies is ultimately a matter of how we will use what power we have: for good or violence. Thus enemy love is the beating heart of nonviolence. “Violence,” King assured, “isn’t the way.”

Of course King knew where to direct our attention for such a costly and otherworldly love,

There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way… that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.

Though King would admit toward the end of his life that some of his “old optimism” had been “a little superficial,” saying it must be tempered with “a solid realism” that “we still have a long, long ways to go.” Nevertheless, this was no departure from enemy love whatsoever, only the insights of one who had tumbled this difficult truth for over a decade of costly work.

King was far from perfect and certainly not universally appreciated in his time. The MLK who emerges each MLK Day is often air-brushed; not the complicated, controversial, fiery, and flawed individual so instrumental in the Civil Rights movement and the broader cause of racial equality in our nation. He has been recast in far less threatening forms since his assassination, such that it is hard for us to imagine King as a figure who would have his home firebombed, receive beatings in police custody, be stabbed, or have rocks and bricks heaved at his head by mobs of northern whites. It is hard for us to imagine this man being viewed unfavorably by nearly two-thirds of Americans by the end of his life.

But, as with Jesus, this is the paradox of enemy love: not only that it destroys the enemy category but that it is more likely to get you killed than loved in return. Of all forms of light, enemy love may be the one that poses the greatest threat to the darkness.

Yet King was so gripped by the mutuality of it all, “that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”2 Therefore, love for enemy is inseparable from love for all: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It could absolutely be argued that King’s vision for enemy love, rooted in the Gospel and his unshakable concept of human mutuality, is the incandescence we still find so riveting. This may be the trait of King’s legacy most wanting retrieval in our day. Not a sentimental, superficial love, but a creative and costly love that fights even for the souls of those who would curse, hate, or use us.

It might do us good to adopt King’s custom of tumbling Jesus’ words in our minds and lives, that we would shape and be shaped through their painful press. Certainly, we should part ways with our hermeneutical loopholes and technicalities.

There is, after all, a great battle between light and dark, love and hate, good and violence raging not only out in the world but within us as well. Would we drive fear and hate from our our 0wn souls through these redoubled movements; self-examination, battling for love, honoring the image of God, looking with King to the One on that little tree on that little hill changing everything by the power of love for his enemies?

Then, with King, we might also “move out into the actual practice of this glorious command.”

The Life of the Beloved

Photo by John McMahon on Unsplash

I’ve recently added a liturgical calendar to my phone; even turning on notifications. Even though I grew up Presbyterian and have been influenced deeply by many writers from liturgical traditions, I’ve never fully appreciated liturgy or the liturgical calendar.

Not until I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary that the liturgical calendar was how the church kept time did I ever pause to think about if and how my time was ordered. How did I know what time it was? If the Solomon tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecc. 3:1) was there a way to not only know the time but the rightful activity?

As I have written elsewhere, these past few years have been very turbulent for me. The distress and disappointments of this season of my life has created for me a crisis of order; a crisis of understanding how my previous season has disordered me and what a season of reordering might involve. This has set me to learning all types of things about how the mind and body interact (or refuse to), attachments styles, and somatic approaches to healing from trauma (EMDR, yoga, swimming). It has also heightened my sense of the importance of time and routine; the way we know our beats and rhythms in this dance of life.

This is why I’ve downloaded this calendar to my phone. I am probably the least routinized person I know; spontaneity and authenticity are some of my highest values! But my need for order feels more urgent than ever. Within the lingering internal aftereffects of a season of scary chaos, my threshold for external disorder has plummeted. Ordered rhythms without enable me to maintain something ordered within. And I suck at this!

All that to say, now I know today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and I know where my thoughts must go.

It’s interesting that this liturgical day marks the beginning of Ordinary Time – the periods between major liturgical events, with this one ending at Lent – because there is something of the baptism of Jesus that answers the fundamental question of how his every moment might be spent: the life of the Beloved.

I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from a Henri Nouwen book. It could actually probably be the title of every Henri Nouwen book. The book in question pursues the theme of being beloved over and against the dark power of self-rejection. Nouwen writes, “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” (31) The use of the word trap is key, for it is in our self-rejection that our susceptibility is most pronounced. And nowhere is this clearer than in the baptism of Jesus.

Matthew records this in punchy succession. At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, he goes to his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan. We read that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened. John saw – saw! – “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (3:16) And then a voice from heaven made the following declaration:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!” (3:17)

I’ve often thought about how Jesus lived the most important life and did the most important work in the history of the world and what might have been the most obvious questions in play during these inaugurating moments: “Where to begin?” or “What are my objectives?” or “What’s the plan?”

Instead, we are met with the issue of who — of identity. “This is who you are!”

And if we accept Nouwen’s conclusions regarding the trap of self-rejection, we appreciate the importance of this. The nature of Jesus’ ordinary days was to be paramount! Would he be in the world with generosity or neediness; love or insecurity; with nothing or everything to prove?

“This is my beloved Son,” announced the voice of the Father, “with whom I am well pleased!” In a world of gaping insecurity – a world in which “all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” (Ecc. 4:4) – Jesus was to live from this declaration: beloved and the object of true pleasure.

The life of the Beloved.

Jesus was then “led by the Spirit into wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1) And what there transpired? Only an all out assault upon the certainty and significance of this pronouncement, “If you are the Son of God,” hissed the devil, “prove it.” It was a snare!

If there had been even a hint of self-rejection in Jesus – the smallest diminution of the Father’s grand pronouncement – the devil might have had his quarry. But, in transcendent departure from the entire human family, Jesus did not take the bait.

Jesus essentially responded, “I have nothing to prove.” The pronouncement had been made and unreservedly received. More than that, Jesus demonstrated the surpassing value of this pronouncement, for even “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8) could in no way be compared to the bounty of being the Beloved.

Having endured this assault, Jesus began his ministry of love – costly love! – entering the world with nothing to prove and everything to give. Luke tells us that Jesus returned from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit.” (4:14) The Spirit of belovedness had triumphed over all other rivals. It is impossible to miss the spiritual power of Jesus’ life. Our world tells all time by it!

But what is more profound still is that the life of the beloved is ours to live also!

I’m resisting the urge to sermonizing, except to mention that this is utterly biblical! This is the Good News!

In Christ we are adopted and sealed with the selfsame Spirit, “By whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:13) The selfsame Spirit was poured as God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children! (Rom. 8:15-16) Jesus is the firstborn of many siblings! (Rom. 8:29)

There is a reason beloved is most common pronoun for believers in the New Testament. Ours is to be the corporate life of the beloved.

Let us accept the phrasing John – “the beloved disciple” – offers as the defining feature of the believer: we are those who “have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (1 Jn. 4:16)

In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen portrays the entire Christian life as a faltering journey home from distant and loveless lands to the belovedness of the Father. “[L]eaving the foreign country is only the beginning. The way home is long and arduous.” (51) The return is “full of ambiguities.” We may be “traveling in the right directions, but what confusion.” (52) It is a hemming and hawing odyssey; at times we are found coming to our senses, other times we are found losing our minds!

When we lose living contact with the Father’s love – and our identity as the beloved – Nouwen warns, we “embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of [our] Father.” (107)

In such seasons, Noewen notes, “The world around me becomes dark. My heart grows heavy. My body is filled with sorrows. My life loses meaning. I have become a lost soul.” (47) I can relate. Maybe you can too?

So on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as we prepare to exit Advent and embark upon Ordinary Time, let us feast the way our Savior did, upon the love and pleasure of the Father. May it nourish us through the wilderness and beyond. May it multiply in us, that we might part ways with our scarcity, our stinginess, and our greed, going forth generously.

“Freely you have received!” Jesus declared, “Freely give!” (Mt. 10:8)

Can you – will you – hear the Father’s warm and booming voice? “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased!” Is this not the most fitting celebration of our Savior’s baptism?

“This is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.”

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn. 3:1)


A small Advent reflection

Photo by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash

It’s Advent; a season of marvel and awe. A time of rekindled devotion to Jesus, this Child conceived of the Holy Spirit, born to young and faithful Mary, swaddled in a Bethlehem manger, the light of the world.

Advent has a habit of rousing and lifting me, like Ezekiel, to glimpses of unspeakable beauty; of quickening my pace through the darkness.

But not this year.

Two years ago saw the anti-climax of a period of utter darkness and sorrow for me, a terrifying and depleting escape out of a crushing period of my life. I was shattered and afraid and fighting desperately for my own viability and that of my vulnerable family. If this were the footprints vignette, there would have been but one set of prints in the sand. I wrote nothing for Advent. That was 2019.

I began 2020 with a daunting task of healing, beginning a new work, picking up pieces and reinventing myself. I was 44, venturing off with my own fragile family and my own fragile soul.

Then the pandemic.

I was sitting at lunch with a friend in March 2020 and I was reeling. “If the world shuts down,” I told her, “I will take it as an invitation from God to prioritize my healing.” Days later, the world shut down.

I found solace in yoga, longer periods of morning reflection, spiritual direction, helping my kids with e-learning, and dodging the spotlight. It was no small comfort to have the whole world cast back on its heels during a time when I was in such disarray.

I was in such disarray.

Our world was falling into such disarray, or maybe the disarray was merely announcing itself – “the world, in sin and error pining.” Wasn’t 2020 so brutal?

However, as Advent 2020 approached, I began experiencing a renewed wonder. I had been reading Dorothy Sayers’ BBC play The Man Born to Be King, and knew – months ahead – that my Advent reflections were to gather around the magi and their gifts. My spirit began to stir. I began to gather my thoughts. As the Advent season approached, I was writing! Maybe with a bit of additional labor, but I was back – like some movie character feared dead, now coughing to consciousness.

But in rolled the darkness once more.

Each successive Advent reflection became more difficult; the inspirations and logics and structures all breaking apart. (Though, as I go back and read them, they are not so bad.) The effort of holding these elements together was a faltering function of holding my own self together.

I was working with a communications coach in those days. I had asked her to help me develop my communication strength, especially writing, and she encouraged me to utilize this strength in order to deliver bolstering messages back to myself that might be liberating and clarifying. As I sat down to work these out, the darkness became absorbent – “a darkness that could be felt.” It was, as I discovered, my own subconscious shame and self-loathing that were fracturing these efforts. To address myself – to see myself – was to recoil. Any and all “physician heal thyself” attempts were detonating in my face.

It was like having a spiritual autoimmune disease. I felt powerless. It was trauma work.

I’ll not dive into the trauma piece here, except to say that when you’ve had persistent voices in your life that portray you negatively, indict your motives, question your ability to discern reality, and resort to scorn and spite, it gets coded in – important pieces of our source-code get corrupted. More than that, as I’ve learned, the actual logic-board (“the hardware”) can be damaged through trauma as well. It can be repaired, but it does take work – and time. Triggers are real, C-PTSD is real, the mental disordering is real – disrupting the self in ways words cannot fully reach.

I have spent the better part of 2021 doing “trauma work.” It’s not as fun as it sounds!

Nevertheless, as Advent 2021 approached, I was experiencing that familiar flicker. An Advent series came into view: reflections on the four angelic announcements, each containing a version of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” I began gathering my thoughts around these four episodes – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, respectively – even creating cool header images. And I began to write!

But – wouldn’t you know it? – the fear overtook me!

Fear of what, exactly? I wish I knew. In fact, I’d hoped writing these reflections might dislodge some of that fear. Instead, these pieces will be shelved for now. And I’m still waiting – “how long, O Lord?” – with dozens of writing projects weathering behind my home like a salvage yard. Does it make me sad? Yes. Does it exacerbate the shame and self-loathing. It does.

The story does not end here.

I promised a small Advent reflection, and here it is. In the rubble days of rebuilding Jerusalem, the consoling prophet Zechariah urged, “Do not despise the day of small things.” (4:10) The word small could be translated insignificant, and of course we are tempted to show contempt for such things, especially when we’ve invested such vigorous effort with so little to show. “These feeble Jews!” the onlookers gawked, “If even a fox stepped up on that wall, it would fall over!”

They ridiculed, “Will they restore things? Will they worship? Will they bring these scorched stones back to life?”


This is Advent.

By the time of our Savior’s birth, Palestine had devolved into sectarian intrigue. The day of small things had become decades; then centuries of smallness. Now an occupying force debased this tertiary territory. Rome! Rome was significant! People had taken to calling it “The Eternal City.” Wasn’t that supposed to be Zion? What a joke!

So there was intrigue in those days. Herod (“The Great”) was busy making a name for himself. Sadducees affixed themselves to power, Pharisees postured as the true caretakers of faithfulness, Essenes withdrew into mystic asceticism, Zealots pined for the next insurgency. Most folks were trying to scratch out a living, scarcely disturbed by the elongated murmur of insignificance.

And a little baby – one of a multitude – was born in an insignificant structure of an insignificant town. A little baby conceived under a pall of embarrassment.

It was a day of small things; the Day. More despised than opposed. Who would bother about such insignificance, let alone marvel?

Well, some. They were the stubborn ones or, if you prefer, hopeful.

There was Simeon, who’d been awaiting the consolation of Israel. The octogenarian widow Anna, who never missed a day at the Temple. There were the mysterious magi, caravanning westward with their evocative gifts. These had been waiting – at the ready!

In the scuttling buzz surrounding his birth, the hopeful flames of others leapt to life. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. One must imagine little Bethlehem, whom Micah named saying, “though you are insignificant, from you shall come forth a ruler,” (5:2) caught up in the small commotion.

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Eventually, it became enough to disturb Herod and all Jerusalem too. And John describes to us the spiritual realm where a fearsome dragon lurked hungrily at the site of this birthing event. Yet the beast would depart unfulfilled. No earthly nor heavenly power could consume this small thing. And though we’re told this dragon has gone to make war on fragile ones such as we are, the darkness of his gaping mouth has never yet overcome the light.

In our elongated days of restless intrigue, what is being conceived? Who knows? But may we be found among the stubborn, or, if you prefer, hopeful. It is an exceedingly rare company and a peculiar one at that. But this entails setting aside the intrigues, both grand and petty, in order to attend small things without contempt. They may seem insignificant but are they holy? They are.

Aren’t we all transporting so much fragile cargo over this uneven terrain? I certainly am. Space can scarcely contain the manifest. It is, all of it, holy, and Advent implores that we despise none of it.

Above all, it means attending to this fragile and holy Life, knowing he arrives for all things fragile. This is Advent.

I am learning as much, while I attentively wait. As I write from the rubble, fending off the voice of contempt. As I imperfectly honor small things. As I prepare to press publish on this piece; the delicate and hoarse whisper, “I believe.”

For unto us a Child was born! Amen.

Patrick, the Saint We Need Most

We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.

Saint Patrick’s day is upon us and, with it, the usual barrage: green clothes and beers and rivers, shamrocks and Guinness and leprechauns, corned-beef and cabbage, kiss mes and pinches. That is to say, the consumerist gaud festooning most holidays, making them ever less holy days.

Yet there is a holy treasure for those who dig deeper; a pot of gold, so to speak, at the end of the rainbow.

Pinches and kisses have been known to awaken, and I would suggest we awaken to the person of Saint Patrick, for he is a most needed saint for our day.

Did you know Patrick was not Irish? It’s true. He was Welsh-Briton.1 The circumstances surrounding his arrival in fifth-century Ireland are harrowing, to say the least. The circumstances surrounding his return and patron sainthood of that rugged island, awe inspiring.

In his Confession, Patrick recalls his kidnapping at the hands of Irish raiders. Abducted at the age of sixteen from the his mild Christian home, he was trafficked across what is now called the Irish Sea to a harsh and brutal land where his “littleness” was to be “placed among strangers.” Though reared in a devout family, yet his own faith had not yet taken root; he admitted,”I did not know the true God.”2

However, shortly after his Irish enslavement began, Patrick spoke of being “converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection.” His faith became real!

The Ireland of that era was savage; an ever-shifting violent and pagan collection of warring tuatha — kinship clans, which, according to historian Richard Fletcher, “were constantly on the move, splitting, fusing, splitting again”3 with little sense of enduring order.

Patrick would spend the next six years in slave labor on the island, praying in desperation “many times times a day” — hundreds of prayers each day and hundreds more each night. Often sleeping outdoors in woods and on mountain slopes, working in dangerous and frigid conditions, yet, as he prayed, “the love of God and His fear” came to Patrick more and more. This was his daily existence, until the events of his dramatic escape. (Confession, 16)

One night Patrick had a vision; a voice saying, “Soon you will go to your own country. See your ship is ready.” Patrick stole to the nearest port town, some two-hundred miles away, found a ship in harbor and asked to be taken aboard. After initially being rebuffed he was afforded a spot in their crew for what would become a treacherous and death-defying odyssey over sea and land.

After a brief sojourn in Gaul, he made his return to his family in Britain — safe at last!

Meanwhile, in North Africa, Augustine of Hippo was laboring on his masterwork The City of God, for this same era witnessed the crumbling of the Roman Empire. Alaric had crossed the frozen Rhine and sacked the Eternal City — Augustine and many others were attempting to make sense of this unwelcome new order.

The Christian historian Paulus Orosius was recording his own account of the cataclysms taking place, and in his History Against the Pagans, he would openly grieve the loss of “ubiquitous Christianity.” Four centuries later, a scribe in Britain would attempt to translate this phrase and the reality Orosius had eulogized into the English language.

This anonymous scribe would coin the term, “Christendom.”4

Patrick, having powerfully encountered the love, protection, consolation, and eventual deliverance of God during his horrific ordeal in Ireland, now sought to consecrate himself to priestly service. Yet his divine visions and dreams persisted. An unthinkable development was in the works.

One night Patrick had a vision of a man coming to him from Ireland bearing “countless letters.” The visitor, named Victoricus, handed him the first letter titled, “The Voice of the Irish.” As Patrick began to read, a chorus of voices from the region where he had once been held captive cried out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us!”

“I was broken-hearted,” Patrick would recount, “and could not read on.” He woke up. (23)

A few nights later a mysterious voice came to him in a dream saying, “He that has laid down His life for you, it is He that speaketh in you!” Patrick awoke filled with joy. Yes, joy! He knew God was calling him back to Ireland. (24) When he announced his intent to the elders, he was met with derision and scorn — even having the sins of his personal history dredged up and slung at him. But he would not be deterred. (26)

Patrick’s Confession was in fact a defense of his actions; a recounting of what would transpire over the next thirty years and a vindication of the call of God.

Fletcher presents Patrick’s decision quite starkly,

Patrick’s originality was that no one within western Christendom had thought such thoughts as these before, had ever previously been possessed by such convictions. As far as our evidence goes, he was the first person in Christian history to take up the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.6

Even Augustine had no such vision but wished the barbarians repelled by sword. This was not the way of Patrick.

And to think, this was a man recovering from great distress and great trauma — a survivor of human trafficking — returning in joy to the place, and the people, and, as it would turn out, the perpetrator of his cruel captivity. Moreover, in the midst of a declining empire, Patrick had little interest in the waning ecclesial trappings and perks available to him. In the face of much resistance by recalcitrant church folk, Patrick did the unthinkable: he returned to Ireland.

“Now, it would be tedious to give a detailed account of all my labors or even part of them,” Patrick would write. “Let me tell you briefly.” (35) Yet even a brief telling is breathtaking.

Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord? (41)

Legend has it that Patrick went immediately back to his former master, Milchu, not only to share the message of Christ but also to pay the price due for his own ransom from slavery. A son of Milchu would eventually become an Irish bishop.

What is known with greater certainty is that Patrick began seeing converts among Irish women; noble princesses and destitute widows alike joining him in the mission. He even worked among sex-slaves — “those enduring terror and threats” — and, despite persecution, they began to “follow Christ bravely.” (43)

Patrick was an unpopular and vexing figure. People would say of him, “Why does. this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?” (46) Reflecting upon the grace he experienced in such peculiar efforts, he would admonish, “Would that you, too, would strive for greater things and do better! This will be my glory, for a wise son is the glory of his father.” (47) His folly was proven magnificent wisdom from God.

Through tireless and ranging efforts, Patrick would come to baptize thousands across Ireland — searching out secluded, dangerous districts “where nobody had ever come to baptize.” He was constantly threatened, often put in chains, and experienced more than a few miraculous escapes.

“With the grace of the Lord,” Patrick testified, “I did everything lovingly and gladly for your salvation.” (51)

Patrick would go on to establish church stations in every corner of the island. Although there were no civitates (city centers) in those times, and thus no civic life or structures into which he could integrate his churches, nevertheless Patrick did situate his outposts near centers of clan authority. But he did so for the purpose of mission and humane influence; both of which were realized. Historian Thomas Cahill writes,”He succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.”7

Cahill says later of Patrick, he was “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.” It would be thirteen centuries more before abolitionism would emerge in earnest.

In his later years, Britain’s own civilization began to collapse, and Patrick found himself vying vigorously against the self-same practice of slave raiding now being inflicted upon Ireland by British marauders! Christians in Britain were loath to support him because they not only deemed the Irish substandard Christians but, in a form of proto-racialism, also not fully human; having never been citizens of Rome. The superior undertones which had caused Patrick such turmoil in his initial designs to reach the Irish were now expressing themselves in full-blown cruelty.

Britain, along with the rest of Europe, was succumbing to the Dark Ages: a five-hundred year period of social and cultural deterioration and chaos.

Patrick’s Ireland, on the other hand, was being utterly transfigured, inhabited by what he would come to call his “warrior children” — “seizing everlasting kingdoms” rather than the pillaging seizures of yesteryear. Patrick’s redemptive imagination knew no bounds! The terrifying, ravenous pagan gods were driven out like the snakes of legend; new, benign acts associated with pleasing God were henceforth “absorbed completely into the New Imagination.” No longer “a shifting world of darkness,” Ireland was quick becoming a “solid world of light.”9

But the story didn’t stop there. Not remotely. As Cahill carefully argues, the Irish, in fact, “saved civilization.”10

He summarizes in dramatic fashion,11

As the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature—everything they could lay their hands on.

These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed …

Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization… the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one.

“I am,” confessed Patrick, “countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future.” Indeed, he could never have anticipated the future importance of his labor of love. Patrick’s legacy was not only the saving of an island but the saving of a civilization.

He was self-conscious about his lack of learning — the ripe years of his formal education lost to bondage and servitude. Historians and translators can confirm that his Latin is rough and limited. For this reason, he will likely never hold the prominence of an Augustine or Aquinas in the eyes of Western Christians. Yet it could be argued that his significance rivals any figure in Christian history.

I suggest, as much as any other saint, Patrick is most needed for our times.

Patrick said of himself, “I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God.”12 Fletcher notes, “The exile was quite literally dis-integrated from the protective and emotional fabric in which he had been cocooned and turned into a defenceless individual.”13

Self-deprived, “on account of the love of God,” of familial, tribal, and even imperial possessions, Patrick could fearlessly cross cultural and geographical boundaries for the sake of a global and everlasting kingdom.

Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped. (61)

Fletcher wrote of Patrick, “A church which looked to Patrick as its founder would come to set a high value upon foreign missionary enterprise.”14 And I would end by having us, too, “look to Patrick” as a model for our times.

Four features of his life stand out.

1. Patrick was neither constrained by his traumatic past nor his imperial privilege

The trauma of being kidnapped and enslaved as a young boy cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that Patrick’s life in Ireland was a succession of hardships from which he ached to escape. Yet he somehow allowed God to write surpassingly beautiful second and third acts.16 Patrick was not dominated or held captive by his trauma, but he most certainly drew from its wells. His glimpse of Irish horrors and human plight awakened in him a fathomless compassion and determination to unseat the reign of darkness. He did not become embittered but rather empowered, and that to an unrivaled degree.

Even more, Patrick forsook the trappings of what would come to be called Christendom; voluntarily and in great joy. When he did so, he was derided and slandered. Can we not see the the beauty of Patrick’s life in contrast to the deformities of what Fletcher described as “the moral tradition which had corralled Christianity safely inside the city wall of the empire”? 17

How we must look to this saint who could walk in such liberation from those crippling forces of terror and control which dominate and darken our own world!

2. Patrick had a conciliatory spirit

As we recall, when Patrick heard the voice of the Irish, his heart was broken. When he perceived Christ’s call to return, his heart was overjoyed. I have written elsewhere about this, but the scope of what forgiveness and conciliation introduce into to our world is incalculable. When they are broadly withheld, we can sense their gangrene. When extended, they are exponentially regenerative. Forgiveness and conciliation hold cosmic power.

It is impossible to imagine Patrick having never worked out his forgiveness for the Irish in general and particular ways. His experience did not devolve, as one might expect, into racial hostility nor even calloused indifference. He saw, as we all must see, beyond the barbarism and violence to the “harassed and helpless” condition of the Irish people. Where we might have expected malice, instead emerged a munificent love — the love of Christ in him.

“If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me.” (13)

3. Patrick loved barbarians

The word barbarian was a pejorative term for “the other.” Imagine a group of people sitting around ridiculing another group and making crude caricatures of their idiotic ways of speaking, and thinking, and acting. This is the idea behind barbarianism. No one thinks of themselves as a barbarian, yet this “bar-bar-bar!” form of caustic portrayal is how we barbarianize others. Most Roman Christians had come to have their moral lens warped by this inhumane othering.

But Patrick loved them. God Almighty, he loved them! While Roman Christians recoiled against the hordes of Visigoths stampeding across the frozen waters of the Rhine to trample their precious civilization, Patrick was boarding a vessel to cross over to them. In fact, Cahill suspects it was his fearless love that conquered the hearts of the fearsome Irish.

“We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage — his refusal to be afraid of them.” And we remember the words of John, “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18)

It is easy to see the attractiveness of this love in the mission of Patrick, but we must also see the grotesqueness in the attitudes of those who hated barbarians. When Patrick decided to return to Ireland, the resistance was stiff. We might chalk this up to run-of-the-mill concern or the lull of “the comfort zone.” But, within Patrick’s lifetime, when savage British chieftains began filling the vacuum left by the departed Roman legions and took to raiding, pillaging, and terrorizing the Irish coastline, the cruelty of these Romanized Christians was thrown into troubling relief. Their resistance to Patrick’s Irish endeavors were only an expression of their pervasive and Christ-dishonoring disregard for the Irish.

Our inability to love barbarians is merely an expression of our own barbarism.

4. Patrick creatively transformed chaos into order

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that Patrick’s tireless efforts brought about great order. This is part of loving barbarians: you see and call forth the imago Dei concealed within barbaric behaviors. This is a plain Biblical anthropology.

Space cannot permit, but Patrick was also a master of cultural synthesis.

Patrick made an “amazing connection… between the Gospel story and Irish life.” Among all the Irish, both low and high, he “raised their status and dignity as human beings.” This cultural synthesis is seen in Patrick’s famous Breastplate poem, in which Patrick arrises each day in great strength through his confidence in “the Creator of creation.”17

This heritage can be seen in the words of Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett18:

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree

Cahill puts it thus,

[T]here were aspects of Irish culture that Patrick had taken to heart and on which he chose to build his new Christianity. These aspects would have included Irish courage, which he admired greatly, but even more would he have been impressed by the natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them the world was holy — all the world, not just parts of it. It was on this sturdy insight that Patrick choreographed the sacred dance of Irish sacramental life, a sacramentality not limited to the symbolic actions of the church’s liturgy but open to the whole created universe.

This is Cahill’s description of “how the Irish became Christian,” yet I would suggest Patrick offers us a pattern for how we might all become Christian — and civilization savers in kind.

We must be liberated from both the afflictions and infatuations of empire, we must be driven by a conciliatory spirit, we must love barbarians, and, through creative and holy forms of embrace, visit renewal upon the culture.

Hear Saint Patrick’s attestation,

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet He inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end. (13)


  1. Patrick’s birth name was Maewyn Succat.
  2. “Patrick Confession” from John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History I, 16th ed., vol. 1, 2 vols. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004) 221. Parenthesis indicate chapter henceforth.
  3. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, N.Y.: Henry Hold and Company, Inc., 1997), 89.
  4. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 305.
  5. The Barbarian Conversion, 86.
  6. Ibid. In Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, this point is affirmed: “What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but that in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there are no missionaries.” (107)
  7. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 110.
  8. Ibid, 112.
  9. Ibid, 143-144.
  10. It is worth mentioning that Cahill certainly means “Western Civilization,” specifically the European traditions informed by Classical Greek thought, Roman civil order, and a Christian moral imagination. As Lesslie Newbigin observed in his book Proper Confidence, “It was this [Christian] story that shaped those barbarian tribes into the cultural and spiritual entity that made Europe something other than simply a peninsula of Asia.”
  11. How the Irish Saved Civilization, 3-4.
  12. From “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.
  13. The Barbarian Conversion, 93.
  14. Ibid, 86.
  15. Ibid, 33.
  16. Patrick was 15 or 16 when he was kidnapped, in his early 20s when he arrived back in Britain after his escape, and in his early 40s when he returned to Ireland. Patrick died in his early 70s in Ireland, where he was buried. (See this timeline.)
  17. Quoted in How the Irish Saved Civilization, 116-119.
  18. “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” quoted in How the Irish Saved Civilization, 132-133.

The Maladjustment of MLK

During a 1967 NBC interview hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. confessed, “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

It was a mere 11 months before his assassination in Memphis.

King was alluding, of course, to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the National Mall in August of 1963. This is the King of our memory: hope-filled, electric, inspirational, proclaiming,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

By 1966, King’s popularity had plummeted to a point where 2/3 of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him. As he sought to address the roots of American racism and to redress the more concealed causes and effects of Black inequality in the North, he found himself battling elusive forces and less obvious villains.

King also found himself battling his own internal demons of anger and depression. His friends and aides urged him, unsuccessfully, to enter therapy.

In the NBC interview, King explained the persistence of Black inequality by way of the ‘thing-ification’ of the Negro.

You can’t ‘thing-ify’ something without de-personalizing that something. If you use something as a means to an end, at that moment you make it a thing and you de-personalize it…

In fact, King and his allies were battling for the restoration of humanity to Black people in America; something existential and beyond the mere enactment of laws and policies.

Asked whether Black men and women in America were ready to embrace full humanity and equal participation in American society (“Does the Negro in America know what he wants to be?”), King began to respond in the affirmative before lingering within the pathologies associated with the Black condition in America,

I’m convinced that almost every negro in this country, other than those who have been so scarred by the system and have become pathological in the process—and we all have to battle with pathology, and nobody knows what it means to be a negro unless one can really experience it.

And I know we all have to battle with this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-ness.’

Here we catch a glimpse of King’s own inner conflict, “this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-nes.'” It was the pathology with which he waged constant battle.

We recall King’s words from the previous year to a group of students at Southern Methodist University in which he reflected upon the psychological idea of being “well-adjusted.”

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word maladjusted. It is the ring and cry of modern child psychology and certainly we all want to avoid the maladjusted life.

We all want to live a well-adjusted life… But I must honestly say there are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized.

King inherently understood that to live and labor in a world of sickness often meant to be psychologically maladjusted.

He continued,

And so we need maladjusted men and women where these problems are concerned. It may well be that our whole world is need of the formation of a new organization, the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.

King cited the maladjustment of the prophet Amos, of Abraham Lincoln, and of Jesus Christ. And we remember the words of the prophet Isaiah describing Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (53:3)

These have been incredibly hard days. Many of us who care about justice, equality, and human dignity in our culture have found ourselves quite disheartened.

In days like these, we also find ourselves battling pathologies, finding ourselves maladjusted, and acquainted with grief. We must interpret these things rightly. They are unpleasant emotions—oftentimes crippling—yet they are part and parcel of living in the legacy of those who love the things of God. They are the “inward groanings” of God’s people (Rom 8:22-23) who, because of their heavenly citizenship, remain maladjusted to this world.

Unpleasant though these inner battles be, they signal an eternal inheritance. This comes with the territory of being children of God: “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16, 17)

During the NBC interview, King was wistful. “I must confess that that period was a great period of hope for me,” King said, reflecting on the 1963 March on Washington. “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

King continued,

Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the past few years and, I would say, over the past few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul searching and agonizing moments and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead. And some of the old optimism was a little superficial. Now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is we still have a long, long ways to go.

Fifty years later, we see the truth of King’s words. Through our own soul searchings and moments of agony, we are reluctantly embracing our own solid realism. When paired with a love for the things of God, this solid realism makes us, more or less, permanently maladjusted people. Depression, anxiety, anger and all manner of other unpleasant emotions become for us symptoms not only of our own mental distress but also of the distress of our world; not exactly things to be fought but rather kindly attended to.

King would tell his student audience at SMU,

And through such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

That was in March of 1966. One can sense much of King’s irrepressible hopefulness, maybe even optimism. He was calling another generation into the fight. Those students are now in their 70s and 80s. They did not see this daybreak realized.

And we won’t either. Not entirely. But it is ours to be creatively maladjusted to our world: to be part of that invisible international society for the advancement of maladjustment, even as we welcome the “bright and glittering daybreak” from afar.

Thus, on April 3 of 1968, one day before his death, King would tell an auditorium of people in Memphis,

Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!

Good Humor

A Christmas poem.

It was all a bad joke;
A bad dream.
A bad
Life: not without
Its blessings;
Its cursings.
Oh, the cursings!
Curse words, curse ways
Cursive world – winding.
(Sounds like torturous.)
(Sounds like torture us.)
(Sounds like torture.)
Each and every.
Not funny.
Bad humor.
A nightmare – horror flick.
A slasher.
“Don’t go in the room.”
Don’t take.
Don’t eat.
Don’t die.
Like gods?
Like God; what have we become?
“The calls are coming
From inside the house.”
Like God.
Good Humor: white garments, something sweet,
On the move.
The calls are coming;
They’re coming!
From inside the house.