Ships, Castles, and Sojouring Thus Far

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I was about halfway between the grey port from which I had embarked and the warm, crackling tongues of my fireside. The ship I had booked passage on paused at a desolate port, stopping only to dry the sails and offload some simple folk, no doubt shuffling off to wherever they called home. I stepped down to visit with them and stretch my legs, which I felt had become stiff and unsure on the old wooden vessel I was on. It was a sturdy boat, but it appeared as if it was thousands of years old; cracked paint streaked across the hull like so many scars on a soldier’s face, and the sails—strong as they were—always seemed about to tear.

I stood on the dock and shared a pipe with a fellow passenger; I was puzzled, for he had one of those faces that I was sure I knew, but could not place.  We had both had set out from the same port, intent on making our destination as quickly as possible, but he mentioned now that he fancied stopping off for a while. I told him that I didn’t know when the ship was coming back. He smiled through the smoke twisting around his eyes and said in a deep German accent, “Friend, I’m not sure whether or not I wanted to go where it was taking me. The men defer to the captain’s guidance too much, and I do not trust him.”

“Where will you go?” I replied.

“I think I’ll go for a walk. If I like what I see, maybe I’ll stay. If not, I’ll wait for the ship to come back.”

“What if it never comes back?”

“It will. I’m told it always does.”

At first, I thought I would let him go on his way, and I would continue on mine. I started to jog back up the gangplank, but seeing the German disappearing amongst the trees, I stopped halfway up and turned around, almost knocking a heavy, mustached man into the water as he walked up behind me. If I hadn’t been in a hurry, I would have thought it curious that he smelled of pine and had streaks of earth on his clothes. As it was, I apologized, and he acknowledged me by removing his hat with such a ridiculous solemnity that I almost thought to follow him up the ramp instead of the German, who was by now almost swallowed up in the crossing arms of the trees. But the wind made the ramp rock, and dreading another bout at sea, I hurried down the decline, my momentum carrying me after the receding figure.

I caught up with him after a moment, short of breath, cold air nipping at my throat and eyes as I sucked it in through my mouth and nostrils. I asked where we were going; I received no answer—my guide merely glanced around as if everything around him was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He looked as if he was seeing things he had never seen before. All I could see were dark trees and thin mist.

“German, where are we going?” I finally asked, tapping him on the shoulder.

“I’m not sure, but I feel it is somewhere worth being.”

“How do you know?” I asked incredulously.

He paused, as if he was tasting the air. “Because of the air—the way the wind moves amongst the trees and through my hair. That is how I know.”

I stared at him, beginning to think I had followed a lunatic.

We walked on for a while, amidst the deep wood. My guide seemed to be moving with a sense of purpose, following the tickle of the wind. Soon enough, the trees began to thin. Looming stone caught my eye over the reaching tips of the wooden towers, and we emerged into a relative clear field, upon which a large stone fortress had been erected. Golden stalks of wheat buttressed the castle on every said, and these waved and tossed their heads to and fro. The German walked towards the building without hesitation, hands running over the ends of the stems.

I followed behind him tentatively, curiously.

“German,” I called out from a pace or two behind, “Why are we going towards that castle? We don’t know what type of men are inside.”

“They are decent men.” He replied with the same conviction. “The wind blows here as it once did on the decks of the ship.”

I became more and more convinced to the man’s mental health.

However, after a moment, I noticed what he had said; the air had grown stale during moments on the ship, and also during certain places amongst the wood. Now, it flowed with the same surety as it had amidst the waves and out over the deep. The same wind that filled the sails of the ship swirled around the fortresses walls and seemed to hold them up.

We approached the gate through a path worn into the grass from countless feet. The wooden gate looked strong and weathered—not as weathered as the timbers of the ship, but old nonetheless. My guide walked up to the gates with that same curious certainty he had displayed since we had disembarked. He laid his hand on the heavy wood, and it swung upon to the soft touch, as if on perfectly balanced hinges.

He took two steps in, and looked around as a knowing smile played across his face.

“I’ve been here before.” he said. “If I did not know any better, I would say I was born here.”

I wanted to ask him how he knew, but a man in a flowing scholar’s robe strode up to the two of us; my guide—the German—in front of me, and I lingering a pace or two behind.

“Welcome,” the academic spoke from behind a long beard that reached down to his collar, and with deep eyes that showed a lifetime of listening and learning “Will you be staying long?”

“I believe I will be, but I cannot speak for my companion,” my guide responded.

“It is as well either way,” the bearded man said, “That sturdy old boat is as good a refuge as this fort. We just had a gentleman leave us for a life at sea; it is all the same in the end. Each must follow where the wind leads him.”

I noticed then that our host had a depiction of a large ship—the very ship I had departed—stitched into the fabric of his cloth; it seemed to twist and toss amongst the flowing fabrics at the slightest movement. Around me, things began to show that the fort had been built from pieces of the ship I had left. The crank to the gate was an old ship’s wheel; iron-banded barrels, caulked with pitch and salty brine, lay stacked off in one corner. A couple paces off, a man and a woman were laughing together—one wore water-tight boots; the other leaned on a staff fashioned from an old oar.

“In some way or another, we all came from that ancient ship,” my guide continued, “And we have no qualms if they should return, although some may have grown overly found of our home.”

“That’s quite alright,” the German responded, grinning, “Some have grown overly fond of the ship.”

I stared at the man with gaping eyes and slack jaw. I now knew him—not from my journeys or my old life, but from my reading—the German was none other than Martin Luther. I marveled at him, bewildered at what sort of providence had crossed our paths.

Just then, a man walked up and was warmly greeted by our host.

“John Calvin, it is good to see you!” he remarked warmly, “You have done wonders with the place.”

Calvin grinned and extended his hand in greeting, which was firmly grasped and shook, causing the ship on his cloak to pitch and toss. He looked around at the high stone walls, a nostalgic sweep of those contemplative eyes. I noticed then that the stones seemed to have been chosen, not for their homogeny, but for their impurity and color, which created a kaleidoscope of mineral color and spark.

“Ah, Jonathan, I did not build it, as you well know. Yes, when I arrived, there were not as many residents, but this castle was standing long before I ever arrived, and it will stand after I am forgotten.”

“Well, me and Wesley simply love it here. We weren’t raised to sailors.” I picked up on the name Calvin had used—this man speaking could be none other than Jonathan Edwards.

“Ay, but we must never forget that some are,” said Calvin, “And we must never forget that the old boat is what delivered us here, even those among us who have never seen it.”

I looked around me in wonder. I wondered to myself, “Just how old is this place?”

I must have spoken aloud, for the man called Calvin turned to me and said, “As old as time itself.” He smiled, “As old as the ship we rode in on.”

“Who could make such strongholds as these?” I managed to choke out, finding everything around me so new, and yet so familiar, as if I was recalling a distant memory or a forgotten dream.

John Calvin leaned forward, as if he was sharing some mystery with me, “The craftsman is one and the same. He entrusted the ship to a captain—I believe the current one is an Argentinian man named Francis. The fort is led by many men, though the wind holds it together, just as the wind drives the ship.” When he had said this, he smiled knowingly and winked at me.

The wind stirred the air around us. It filled the ship’s sails, and it held fast the walls of the fort; it danced and twisted across the wild sea and through the dark wood. I suddenly felt compelled to leave my companions, and strode out of the gate, pausing to marvel at the strong walls and shimmering rock. The wind pushed at my back and played with my hair and I strode back through the forest, following the still, small breeze.

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The Cafeteria Prophet

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The pink heart stared at me across my greasy potatoes and hard scrambled eggs. I had just said the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a specific thanks hastily murmured for the food in front of me. After the “amen,” my eyes opened, looked for my fork, picked it up, and then drifted up to meet the bold pink heart glaring back at me.

This ferocious organ was clinging to the back of a sweater of a young woman seating facing away from me, engrossed in a novel at the table ahead of me. Her breakfast lay finished and pushed away. Across her hoodie, emblazoned in vibrant, billboard letters, read: JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, NOT MY RELIGION—the pink heart made up the “U” in “Jesus.”

I sat staring at this message, so boldly proclaimed and confident. It unsettled me, although it may have been mere intimidation in the presence of the confidence and assertion of the sweater—or it may have merely been the food I was eating. Either way, I pondered on the bold theology of this cafeteria prophet’s clothing, and was uncomfortable with the statement.

“Jesus is my savior, not my religion” is a fairly common, fairly abstract statement, offered mainly by young-ish Protestants in reaction to the ills perpetrated on the church and individuals by excessively strict religious institutions. The message itself manifests in other forms, such as “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” and “I don’t like the word ‘Christian,’ I’m a follower of Christ.” It’s a decent message, keeping in line with an American distrust of authority and establishment, as well as a desire for individuality in the midst of imposed leadership and values.

Despite the validity of such a statement, it truly neglects a necessary aspect of the Christian faith—the very faith that Jesus Christ established—and turns it into a loosely defined relationship with a person that most Christians (or “followers of Christ”) don’t have a normal, face-to-face relationship with. Jesus is risen, but, he doesn’t personally interact with most of us—at least not in the way that we interact with our neighbors, roommates, pastors and priests. Yes, we are given Scripture and the Holy Spirit, but if there is anything that can be known about Scripture, it’s that people can interpret it differently; just ask a room full of Christians if they’re Calvinist or Arminiast—be sure to specify you want verses to back up their claim. As for the Holy Spirit, it is by definition the Person of the Trinity that “blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)

There is a danger here in denouncing religion for the sake of Jesus; he never made this distinction, nor has Church history. Christ came as the fulfillment of thousands of years of tradition and religion; right before the Ascension, he affirmed Peter as the “rock on which I will build My Church.” Even Christ saw the need for a Church—and Church leadership—in order to shepherd his flock. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ our Savior, but that is facilitated, strengthened, and protected through the Christian faith—through healthy religion.

Jesus is my savior; Christianity is my religion. My relationship with Jesus is built on the faith of the Jews; my walk with him is aided by 2,000 years of Church tradition—2,000 years of religion. I was uncomfortable with the cafeteria prophet’s message, not because Jesus isn’t my Savior, but because he is also the cornerstone of my religion. The statement “Jesus is my Savior, not my religion” seems to neglect that for every individual for whom Jesus Christ is their Savior, he is also their pastor. This neglect is troubling in that it acknowledges Christ, the Head of the church, while marginalizing the Body—leaving one alone with a disembodied head.

Jesus is my friend, Jesus is my Savior; Jesus is also my high priest. You don’t need a high priest if you don’t have a religion—nor do you need church authority, theologians, Christian education, or most of Holy Scripture. The desire to emphasize the fact that Christians have a personal relationship with Christ is admirable; to do so at the expense of the Church is fatal.

The Pastor

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They all waited in quiet patience: the pastor was coming forward. His old age prevented his moving with any sort of urgency—indeed, he seemed to shuffle everywhere he went, with eyes glassed over with the grey sea of time. His hair was more or less gone—partly from necessity and partly from age. He had cut it short when he had been roaming about, planting churches throughout the Roman empire. The hair that had not fallen to shears eventually fell from time and toil.

Now, there was but few earthly toils that remained to him. Joints riddled with arthritis, skin stretched tight from scar tissue, back bent as if he was carrying a large burden, the ancient priest had only one final road awaiting him, and it would be a brief one. His body was wasting away more and more every day—some in the congregation marveled that he could make it to the service at all. It seemed that if death was much longer in coming, he wouldn’t have a chance to die—he would just cease to be. All one had to do was blink, and he would wink out of existence.

The old pastor took tiny, scraping steps to the front of the congregation, the tapping of his sandals mixed with the shaking of his hands. A young deacon stood at his side, hand hovering above the bowed back as if he was afraid this frail, ancient man would step into some crack in the church floor and be swallowed up. The pastors fingers were knotted twigs—the result of years working in the mines on some god-forsaken island. Everything about the man exuded age; some of the elders in the congregation could remember a man filled with passion and pious recklessness, but now that sun was setting. Night had all but swallowed up the once flaming spark in the pastor’s eyes.

But for now, the setting sun took small, deliberate steps, until he stood in front of his congregation. Those who knew no better waited with hushed expectation for what was to be said: would he speak of the emperor Trajan; or perhaps of his journeys? Maybe they would even hear a story about Jesus—after all it was only a couple decades prior that the two had walked along together. The tension was evident; the pastor was oblivious to all of it. He stood at the head of the congregation and looked out at the church he had founded. From cracked lips came a single sentence:

“Little children, love one another!”

The words were spoken with much more conviction than it seemed the man should have been able to muster. Those who had never been to the church before looked at each other anxiously, eagerly—now the preaching of the Apostle was to come: visions of Judgment, stories of Jesus, convicting words and bold ideas—the excitement was palpable.

But no more was said.

Not another syllable.

The pastor began his long shuffle to his seat in the back; the young deacon returned to his side, hands at the ready—he would not be the one who would let the Apostle that Jesus Loved fall and break a brittle bone—no matter how irritating and confusing it was to hear the same line, week after monotoned week.

For years, since he had gathered two or three people together on the location the church now stood, the pastor had repeated the same phrase and nothing else. He had no sermons, he had no fresh insights, he had no variation. Just the same, single-line message: Little children, love one another. Some suspected that the time he had spent in persecution had broken a once-thriving mind; others said that he was merely waiting to die and felt no need to prepare new sermons. Still others debated on the significance of his delivery: perhaps he was using his succinct rhetoric to make a bigger point or highlight a culturally issue.

As for the pastor, he merely allowed himself to be helped to his seat in the back of the church and closed his eyes as the church began their worship. The songs were deep, slow songs that reverberated around the stone building and leaked out windows hewn from rock. No music was played, and none was needed. Some people exchanged curious glances; others looked slightly exasperated, but all sang nonetheless. As their praise hummed in dull, flowing streams, the young deacon leaned over to the old pastor and remarked quietly,

“Father, why do you say the same thing over and over again? It begins to become monotonous to some of the brethren.”

The pastor’s eyes remained shut, but a tightening around his mouth seemed to indicate a smile or sadness. He thought about how so many people had missed the brutally simple message; how they were so willing to argue doctrine and so unwilling to love. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet whisper that could barely be heard—even by the young deacon, whose head was almost resting on the pastor’s chest as he waited for a reply.

“My dear Polycarp, it was our Lord’s command.”

“But father,” the deacon responded, “Did he not command other things also?”

Now a faint smile could clearly be seen playing on the corners of the pastor’s mouth, as if he was recalling every incident where Jesus had loved—that woman dragged into the temple, that short little tax collector up in the tree, Mary Magdalene and all the others. He remembered his Lord dying for love.

“My son,” the Apostle John replied, “If this alone be done, it is enough.”

Around them, the music surged; in spite of the monotony, in spite of the confusion, in spite of the irritation, the praise continued unabated. The young deacon settled back into his seat and thought about what had been said. The old pastor remained seated with his eyes closed, dwelling in the love of Christ and passing the time until he was united with his old Friend.

Let Us Discuss

Hey folks,

Sorry it’s been so long since I put anything up; there are a number of articles in the hopper, I just need to clean them up. Most of my focused writing has been going towards The Evangelical Outpost, the publication I am currently writing for. I will have a couple things up in the next week–Scout’s Honor.

On a related note, I just found out that a good friend of mine is taking over the editor-in-chief position for Dartmouth’s ApologiaNot only is this significant because it’s Dartmouth, (one of those schools covered in ivy) but it’s also a great inter-denomination publication geared at promoting dialogue between the different sects of Christianity professing the name of Jesus Christ. It is a very intelligent, thoughtful magazine aimed at strengthening the Body of Christ through discourse, and everybody should go give it a glance. They also have a blog that’s much more consistent than mine.

All that said, I’ll be back posting soon. In the meantime, take a minute to pray for all those affected by the tragedies in Waco and Boston. God is so good, but our world can be so incredibly awful sometimes. And thank you to everyone who reads what I have to say–all 13 of you.

I love you guys.

In Christ,

Ron

Broke or Breaking

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Everybody needs to be broken in some way or another. It comes in various ways—some harsher than others. Some are mercifully simple—you lose a job or a friend. Some are brutal and vicious—a bad divorce or a decade of alcoholism. None of these things are easy; if they were merely trivial, it wouldn’t be called “broken.” We rarely remember the light tap on the shoulder; we always remember the feel of pavement after getting knocked down in a parking lot.

Sometimes, the asphalt can be our kindest mentor, for it saves us from the cliff.

I’ve never been one to take things on faith; I need to know for myself. I am the product of our scientific and cynical era—an era that has stepped past doubting faith and now doubts everything. Our fathers warn us, “Don’t drive that road, the bridge has been broken for years and the river is deep.” And we nod and smile and don’t listen to a word of it. Inevitably, we end up struggling frantically out of car windows as water pours in around us. The bridge is out. Now we know.

The danger in this is that there may come an accident and we won’t be able to get out of the car. We will sink to the bottom of the river, and we will never come up, and the only thing that will be left is the faint sound of bubbles breaking the surface. Then, that too will disappear, and the river will run along as always, disrupted only by the sound of screeching tires and splashes as more cars plunge in after us.

In my relatively short time on earth, I’ve gone through enough cars that I should know to listen to advice and heed the road signs. Perhaps it’s a function of maturity; after all, the older people get the slower they tend to drive. Some still hurtle down the highway and through back roads and over washed-out bridges, but many learn to slow down, to listen, to not trust themselves so much. I still drive faster than I should. I’m sure I’m still heading down some roads that will end in rivers.

I will either learn, or I will drown. There isn’t a middle ground. Time is a wonderful equalizer. Karma may be a cheap illusion, but common grace sure looks a lot like it. People who drive fast get in more accidents. People who don’t listen have to figure things out for themselves—sometimes in mid-air, with the sky above and the water below and gravity pulling the whole thing down frighteningly quick. Sometimes getting carjacked is a blessing. Sometimes being conscious enough to crawl out of a broken window is a blessing too.

And when we sit on the bank of the river and watch what is left of our car sink away, when we lay on our backs in a parking lot and the world is ringing and the lights above are spinning and crossing like a kaleidoscope—here is where we are blessed with the opportunity of choice, the chance of redemption. A wise man will fail for a moment; a foolish man will fail for a lifetime. Maybe the wise man fails again and again, but each time he redirects his course—he drives one road and asks for directions, he drives slow enough to stop before going over the cliff. A foolish man just drives—carpe diem.

When Jacob was wrestling with God, and his hip was dislocated, he realized he was overmatched and dealing with someone he could not best. He stopped fighting and held on for a blessing. Yet how often do we continue to wrestle, doing our best to ignore the pain in our hip?

Hopefully, we will break before this happen. If we are lucky or have a speck of wisdom, like Balaam’s ass, our bodies and minds will surrender and lay down before we meet the Angel of the Lord in the middle of the road. We will be remained of asphalt tattoos and broken bones, and we won’t careen down roads with no good end.

Even if we get on the right path, it’s still winding and narrow; we still need to ask for directions and read road signs. But there are guard rails, and there are others—creeping along, doing their best not to look down as they traverse this winding mountain road. They keep their eyes up, the light from a far-off city playing on bruised faces and scarred hands. As they roll the window down at rest stops, they all consult the same cracked, weathered guide book and the same wise, old men, and ask with saving humility, “Is this right? Is this the way I should be going?”