Honoring the Gift of Creation


“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.

In our religious world, it’s difficult for us to grasp what it means to set our minds on things of the spirit. Paul speaks against living according to “flesh”; it’s all too easy to imagine that Paul might have meant for us to become detached from our material, bodily existence. It’s a short leap for us to assume he meant a sort of ethereal disregard for the physical, that he intends us to live with contempt for the created order and our place in it. And yet, when Paul turns to describing what life in the spirit actually looks like, it includes things like showing hospitality to strangers, befriending the lowly, feeding your enemies, celebrating with those who have cause to be happy, shedding tears with the sad, and paying your taxes (Romans 12-13). These are physical matters, matters of skin and bone that take place in the created world. For Paul, living by the spirit is not a denial of life, but a certain way of living it. It wasn’t a pining for the afterlife, but a claiming of the present one for the God who created it.

The flesh for Paul is a way living that is enslaved by appetites beyond our control. It is a distortion of physical life that craves and is never satisfies, that seeks after strength only to be confronted by death and decay. It is a force that hollows physicality, leading to a way of being in the world separated from the creator’s will. It is existence totally turned in on itself, in which relationships to the creator and other creatures are sacrificed to the appetite and fear of the individual.

For Paul, life by the spirit of God represents a different way of living in the world, a way filled by God’s own life. “Spirit” is one way of talking about God’s own person, but it can also be alternative orienting force. By attending to the spirit, we allow God to turn back our lives to a trajectory that includes attending to God’s will and presence. God’s own being defends against the pullings and pushings of our own appetites and other fallen powers which, left to themselves, corrupt life and dislodge it from its divine direction. “Setting our minds on the spirit” means orienting ourselves to that way of life which was the creator’s gift to us in the beginning, a way of living that allows us to experience communion with God and each other, and to live in peace with the rest of creation. It is a way of living not in spite of creation, but fully honoring the gift or creation and our place in it.

God desperately wants to give us this life.

The creation itself longs to share it with us.

The question that remains is: do we desire this sort of life? Is it the sort of life that we are ready to accept, or have we become so accustomed to the way of the flesh that we are unwilling to be pried from it? Can we be persuaded that the way of the flesh is a sham, a poisoned apple drugging us and dragging us to the grave?

Can we be persuaded that there is a life that is truly life, and a peace that is truly peace?

May God’s own spirit make it so!

Remembering Restraint

BEWARE It’s not the prettiest of the spiritual disciplines, and at this point in history, it’s not the most fashionable. Of course, restraint has had its heyday—there was once a time when becoming a saint meant taking on all kinds of ascetic practices, moving out into the desert, living as a hermit on a few crumbs a day.

But those days are gone. Now the pendulum has swung in another direction, and that’s brought important facets of faith back into play—we’re more inclined to think about the world as full of God’s presence, and to perceive the created world as important to God—as we should. We tend to think of the things we receive as blessings from God, and if we think about our appetites at all, we generally just try to regard the things we use to satisfy them with gratitude. Only in their most extreme distortions do we regard the appetites as dangerous.

John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, has been relentlessly reminding me off the cost of allowing our appetites to run free. At Randy Harris’s suggestion, I’ve been digesting John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel a few pages at time, and I didn’t have to wade very far into it before it got challenging. John considers one of the first steps in the spiritual journey to be the mortification of the sensual appetites (think broadly about what these are, by the way). He allows no quarter for prisoners on this matter:

“As the tilling of soil is necessary for its fruitfulness—untilled soil produces only weeds—mortification of the appetites is necessary for one’s spiritual fruitfulness. I venture to say that without this mortification all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground. Accordingly , darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished. The appetites are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision.” (1.8.4)

and later on he pushes even further:

“Manifestly, then, the appetites do not bring any good to person, Rather they rob one of what one already has. And if one does not mortify them, they will not cease until they accomplish what the offspring of vipers are said to do within the mother: While growing within her that eat away at her entrails and finally kill her, remaining alive at her expense. So the unmortified appetites result in killing the soul in its relationship with God, and thus, because it did not put them to death first, they alone live in it.” (1.10.3)

John doesn’t mince words here: in his view the appetites serve no good in person’s spiritual journey, and to progress we simply have to be done with them. That may sound harsh, and it probably serves a good bit of nuancing, but I’m not so sure that it isn’t closer to the truth than our naive way of approaching our appetites. Don’t you share the same suspicion that I do; that our progress in the spiritual life stalls out at precisely that point where drive for satisfaction overtakes our desire to pursue the Lord?

I’m not sure that John’s way should be taken as absolute…but I am absolutely convinced that he points us in the right direction, because it’s a way that resonates with the story of Jesus. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or scorn creation, and neither was he a man without appetites…but in the end, he mastered them. Jesus enjoyed creation and community, but never worshipped any object of his appetites. In the end, Jesus was a man of full self-control, a man full of the dignity of restraint, even in the shame of the cross.

Perhaps it’s time that we follow him by remembering restraint, and learning again the discipline of dissatisfaction.

Vulnerability: Newtown and Nouwen

Last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut hurts. It hurts badly,  troubling us at multiple locations of doubt, hope, fear, and love. Survey the landscape and see what has been scorched: the innocence of children, the space of the schoolhouse, our duty (and capacity) to protect children, our general sense of security in the midst of community, a myriad of assumed rights and responsibilities, ideals of parenthood and the resiliency of children, our blind spot toward mental illness, perhaps even our tacit acceptance of public risk.

In the destructive wake of the violence, many voices have rushed in to offer solutions–a not unhealthy impulse, even though many of the solutions are misguided, I think. Many of them reflect views that are not new judgments, but old commitments given new urgency, and these have been immediately met by other old commitments fueled by the urgency of any defense played at critical junctures. Political pundits, theologians, pastors, social scientists and community leaders are all having their say, and I suppose that some of those discussions may well bear fruit, if they are pursued with honesty, courage, and wisdom. In the end, now that the idea of this type of violence has been seeded in our communities, it may not ever be eradicated from the consciousness of those deeply broken people who might consider it a live option. Becoming more intentional about addressing that deep brokenness, addressing the systemic devaluation of human life in our society, limiting how well-armed such individuals might come to be, and making sensible decisions about security and emergency procedures may well combine to save lives—I would hope many—but eliminating the seed itself may be beyond our grasp. (This is not to say that such pragmatic conversations should not be pressed forward! Even if we can spare but a few families this sort of deep horror, I hope we will courageously engage the questions.)

Beyond the immediately pragmatic, the deaths in Newtown have again exposed a conversation that we are scarcely willing to pursue, namely our extremely fragile ability to experience community with other humans. When we join in others for any public endeavor or experience of community, we always experience danger, whether that be in the market or workplaces, in the schools or mass entertainment venues. Such events raise our awareness of the willingness of others to abuse our trust and do us harm in exceptional ways, although we most commonly encounter such abuse and harm in mundane, petty things. Whether they do so out of rage, greed, or some other vice, our experience of such danger threatens our willingness to be full participants in community, and in exceptional moments of violence, even at the hands of madmen, we can be pushed further into retreat mode.

I say “retreat”, but as I mean that, the impulse to ratchet up security and devise better schemes for protection, and to make ourselves stronger is also a “retreat” from community, in its own way. Those impulses are a way of insulating us from the sense of vulnerability that we have in encountering “strangers”, people who are really our neighbors, but who have become “estranged” from us. Whether they have become strangers to us through their own failings or ours, through the broader directions of culture, or through some innate human “fallenness” is one of the central questions of theology, as is the cure. Put simply, these questions ask, “How did we become this broken?” and “How can we be fixed?” And so, moments like this can be deeply theological moments, because we experience in an acute way the condition of humanity, They strip away the illusions that we hold of ourselves, whether those illusions reflect to false invulnerability, a cavalier sense of immortality, or the pretenses of faux community.

All of this has called my mind back to Henri Nouwen, one of the most formative influences on my own life. I think Nouwen has a lot to say to our world in this time, particular in his great theological insight that honestly owning and living in our vulnerabilities is a more fruitful way to live with God, other people, and ourselves than our endless maintenance of the illusions of security and strength. Nouwen writes about the roots of our loneliness, a symptom of our estrangement from each other, when he writes, “The roots of our loneliness are very deep, and cannot be touched by optimistic advertisement, substitute love images, or social togetherness. They find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.”

For Nouwen, the way to deal with that suspicion was to avoid the natural impulse of adding layers of security around it, and to confront it head on through radical hospitality—creating space in our lives for others despite the real danger that they would somehow harm us. Creating free spaces inside our perimeters of supposed invulnerability allows us to discover community with each other because it allows us to be honest and free, despite being “threatened”. Dealing with our sense of vulnerability also helps unmask the illusions of immortality and invulnerability which, being idols, stand between us and any relationship with a free and loving God. For Nouwen, God’s own actions in the story of Jesus represent just this sort of radical hospitality, and thus create space for us within the story of God within which it is possible for us to inflict harm upon God, but also to freely know and be blessed by God.

As a framework for policy, radical hospitality sounds like a recipe for disaster. As a framework for really building community between broken people, it may be the only way forward.

John of the Cross and the Importance of Appetite

I read this passage from The Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross this morning:

The ignorance of some is extremely lamentable; they burden themselves with extraordinary penances and many other exercises, thinking these are sufficient to attain union with divine Wisdom. But such practices are insufficient if these souls do not diligently strive to deny their appetites. If they would attempt to devote only half of that energy to the renunciation of their desires, they would profit more in a month than in years with all these other exercises. As the tilling of soil is necessary for its fruitfulness—untilled soil produces only weeds—,prettification of the appetites is necessary for one’s spiritual fruitfulness. I venture to say that without this mortification all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself is no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground. Accordingly, darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished. The appetites are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision. (I.8.4)

It almost struck me as ironic: after all, reading John is for me now, a spiritual exercise! But he himself calls me to think about the things within me that actually need changing, particularly the restrain of my physical appetites. My devotional life should be connected to the rest of my life; my prayer should grow from and flow back into the actual living of my life,  in the awareness of how the Lord is changing me, growing and purifying my heart, words, thoughts, and actions.  Prayer cannot be only an isolated spiritual exercise, but must be accompanied by a willingness to be thoroughly changed by the Lord.

Weariness and the Pursuit of Stuff

In my reading this morning from John of the Cross, I can’t help but be taken aback by his strict denunciation of all human appetites. For John, the appetites necessarily detract from our pursuit of God, and so God works within us to pure us of such to prepare us for union with God’s own spirit.

I can’t help reading his argument without saying, “Yeah, but…” in almost every sentence. And surely some of those “yeah, buts” need to be pursued, BUT I also think they come out of my own resistance to a word of truth about my own distorted appetites, and the way they tend to resist the Lord’s calling for my life. John writing of the different ways the appetites impair our spiritual lives, write this in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1.6.6):

It is plain that the appetites are wearisome and tiring. They resemble little children, restless and hard to please, always whining to their mother for this thing or that, and never satisfied. Just as anyone who digs covetously for a treasure grows tired and exhausted, so does anyone who strives to satisfy the appetites’ demands become wearied and fatigued. And even if a soul does finally fill them, it is still always weary because it is never satisfied. For, after all, one digs leaking cisterns that cannot contain the water that slakes thirst. As Isaiah says: He is faint with thirst and his soul is empty [Is 29:8]

Reflecting on this, I have to put away my resistance. I am convicted.