Namesake: For Julia, My Little Ocean Child

It would be no grand secret to say that it would have been virtually impossible for my children to not have become Beatles fans.  In fact, I dare say that I would have felt like an abysmal failure as a father if it had not been so.  And I guess you could also say, in terms of handing down things almost instinctively, it makes perfect sense in more ways than one.  For instance, though I have very little memory of my mother who was snatched from us at an early age, and though childhood and even teenage memories are for some reason a dismal blur to me, I have old film archives of my sister Kim, and my brother Mike and I, dancing feverishly in the late 60’s to anything the Beatles were currently playing.  And to be sure, this was none other than the conspiracy of my beloved Aunt Gayle and my dear Mother Agnes, who were undeniably in cahoots for the branding of us into the hysteria known as Beatlemania.

Fast forward till now, and indeed all of my sons have joined the addiction, but none quite as infected as my eldest namesake Mark.  Consequently, I grinned like the Grinch peering down on Whoville, as I watched him pick up musical instruments and play them almost effortlessly as a child, and equally so as some of the first songs he played and reflected upon were from the timeless musical catalog of none other than John, Paul, George and Ringo. And now, many moons later, I would get the news that both he and his lovely wife would name their expected child Julia, as I then shed an irrepressible entourage of tears to hear that her middle name would be the namesake of the Mother I never knew: Agnes.  That most beautiful, amazing and ever mysterious name.

The Mother Wound

And as I reflected more on the thought of this beloved child coming into the world and John’s myriad of meetings for the song, it was almost haunting then to know that at least one of the meanings was indeed a tribute to John’s equal beloved Mother named Julia, who evidently most influenced his decision to abandon all else for the sake of his music.  And what a wise soul she was indeed.  John actually tells of losing her twice, both as a young lad who was then raised by his Auntie, and then who later picked up his relationship with his Mum as a teen, but who later died in a dreadful car crash.  The fate of both of our Mothers was tragic to say the least. The difference was however being a glorious love of his Mother that John then lost, and mine of loving the mere thought of someone I only imagined from old film reels and family stories of her love for me that had vanished abruptly in the fall of 1969.  The gaping Mother wound was significant nonetheless for us both, and one which I believe explains also the restless “Ocean Child” in me, and the equal desire at least to express it in words that are perhaps inspired from the wound itself.  It is then only fitting that my little ocean grandchild Julia will carry on that namesake, and who will possibly also be one who like me, looks to the ocean like a long-lost lover longing for some sweet reunion.

Mutual Love of the Ocean

My Aunt Gayle told me not along ago that she kind of got the sniffles when she heard that I was moving to Surfside Beach.  She then shared with me that my mother Agnes loved it immensely.  This of course made me smile from ear to ear as I contemplated the thought of it.  And it occurred to me that perhaps somehow in a mystical way she left that to me, perhaps to ponder her own equal restless heart and perhaps find it, and somehow to be touched by a shadowy piece of her, and to feel the healing warmth of her love that I missed long, long ago.  It brings me great comfort to think so nonetheless, and I now long to share my love for the ocean with my beloved Julia and the comradery that now the three of us will share.  I will equally look forward to opening up to her of both my love and thoughts on God, what her namesake means, and to watch her grow into her very own individuality and to blossom into an unrivaled beauty as my late Mother clearly was.  And of course, as one who will also grow up with a wonderful Father and Mother, and into an extended family, who if they possess nothing more, are full of love and grace and peace ready to bestow upon her without measure.

Grandpa’s Hermitage

The truth is, though I speak of namesake here, and talk of the beauty of family, I am not an expert of feeling its effects outside of the grateful creation of my own, with the real hero of that being my beloved Paula, of whom I now share my “ocean child” life with. In fact, I can remember as if it were yesterday as a child, often being in a crowded room of people, and yet somehow feeling as if I was always the “odd man out”.  And though I have now grown into an old man by the sea, the reclusive nature of a soul somehow disconnected from relational intimacy outside of my own little family is now fully grown and more observable, and that which compels me to spill it out with musings on paper for perhaps nothing more than my own catharsis, or in flickering hopes of an epiphany of sorts into the mystery that is now Grandpa Prince.  I know my little Julia’s life will be markedly different than mine was, and I praise the Father above for that, and thus do not wish my unpredictable perplexity on her for a moment.  However, I do hope and pray that she shares the love of the ocean with her Grandpa, and the desire to know the unique nature of what her namesake means to those of us who will be unable to look at her without starry-eyed reminiscence of some transcendent essence of Agnes that she will possess.  But most importantly, I pray that she will always rest her beautiful head and all of her hopes and dreams into the loving arms of Jesus, who will never leave her nor forsake her, and who will always hold her near and dear to His most blessed and sacred heart.

BFF’s

Now to be sure, Julia will enter a world in a familial sense that will be drastically different than my own experience, and of that for which I am eternally grateful as I mentioned. For she will be a child armed with love and in knowing the unconditionality of that love.  A love that has absolutely nothing to do with what she becomes, or for that matter, for any namesake that she indeed carries; but one that is hers simply because of whose she is, and for who she is.  And whether or not she will look just like me, be a “chip off the ole block” as they say, have my sense of never-ending sarcasm, or share my obvious bibliophile tendencies; I cannot yet know.  However, my sweet Julia, from one ocean child to another, Grandpa will look forward to seeing you at the beach!

Selah

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly Among the Facebook Aristocracy

It will of course be no surprise to many of you that we have become a nation of experts on just about everything under the sun it would seem, especially amidst our favorite social media and information highway platforms. Many in fact spout off about things they know; things they think they know; things they don’t really know; and things that are perhaps better off left unsaid altogether. Of particular interest to me is the fact that most of these would be prophets have their particular freak flag that they fly, and that once you look behind the veneer of, always seem to gravitate towards their particular identity politic; victimhood; geography; ethnicity; or particular bandwagon that the cultural elite have been branding to these gullible masses. And in this milieu of a smorgasbord of so-called answers “blowing in the wind”, the quest for some real truth to sink one’s teeth into has been about like trying to nail Jell-O to a freakin wall! This is particularly the case for those who are truly seeking after it, yet which also makes those attempting to speak into the cultural wind with some sort of truthful acumen tantamount to begging for a fistfight of expletives in your social media face in seconds flat.

This new phenomenon seems to be the case among the average Joe who gets his daily diet of information in mere sound bites and video vignettes from their favorite news channel; or even worse, their favorite TV show.   But I’ve found even among those who may have a specialization in a certain area, or having read the latest book on a topic at hand (a real rare phenomenon); and even those who claim allegiance to a particular brand of Christianity or clerical robe, often times speak out of that frame of reference, as opposed to speaking from the overarching motif of grace and that of expressed wisdom sifted through a self-admitted opaque glass. To be sure, I believe there are things we can truly know, and know matter-of-factly, both in the seen and unseen realm, even though the latter regards a metaphysical truth of which modern man has now discounted as mere codswallop. However, that modicum of knowledge that we can come down on, is most often found at the apex of one stalwart platform of certainty: The fact that Jesus took our place. In the words of Bono, it is indeed the “thought that changed the world”.

I say all this to say that it is through the lens of a beneficiary with absolutely nothing to give in return, and also found with no bargaining chips on the table with which to broker a deal with the divine that we then view the world; and that we then humbly attempt to speak into with the unassuming invitation, “Be reconciled to God”. And in spite of what should be obvious to those of us who have walked with a limp on the narrow path for any length of time, I have noticed that the aforementioned groups of people sound off more out of their particular brand of “high-horse” or “groupthink” rather than through both an objective and subjective stance (since the truth we uphold comprises both). Of particular interest and bewilderment for me are those who claim to be harbingers of the ancient path of truth, yet ostensibly do so driven from cultural dictates of current chicness like everyone else, or from a particular “family tradition”, rather than as one speaking from the posture of a prayerful and biblical watchman and discerner of both the truth, as well as the distant mysteries held in equal tension this side of heaven.

In fact, I have found that the quest for truth requires a “both/and” and not an “either/or” approach to arrive at a truth that is substantial enough to both weather the storms of life over the long term, and that also is capable of navigating through both plausible and implausible truth claims vying for attention and allegiance. All in all, we have an awful lot of so-called knowledge that we are sure is “the gospel according to us”, but very little wisdom tempering the claim to such from those who both “know” Him, and equally recognize His ways are past finding out. Though that might sound like the voice of a relativist, it is actually more the story of a weak man’s walk with Christ with his ears and eyes wide open in the midst of both the temporal and the eternal; the secret and also revealed; and equally as part of the kingdom that is both here and still not yet. And it is my personal belief as a wayward traveler on the narrow path, that perhaps once we attempt to get beyond “Jesus took my place”, most of us are found a “day late and a dollar short” of the truth we proclaim, and with big mouths that are better off being shut to a world trying to find it’s way to our path still sadly less traveled.

I must say that it has taken me many years of dangers, toils and snares to come to this very delicate dichotomy between that which I know and that which I am still seeking, and thus I now refrain from too many “soapbox” temptations. I used to preach to my parishioners (unknowingly at the time) from a vantage point of one who had the truth they should listen to, yet quickly conceded amidst my own daily mirror check hoping to see the reflection of a victor of the Christian life, and found instead a mere beggar searching for crumbs staring back at me. From that point onward, I came down from the “holy man chairs” and sat on the pews with the rest of the sinners, and only approached the sacred desk with fear and trembling before speaking “thus saith the Lord” to those in my humble care. It was then that I realized that my theologies and dogmata were of interest to me perhaps, yet not so much to those who were simply trying to get through another night without pulling the trigger, and who desperately needed to see the gospel come in shoe leather of real tangible hope, rather than homilies filled with moral prescriptions no one can keep past Monday morning. Instead, I became a mutual traveler on the narrow path, albeit as one appointed to guide others to where the water truly flowed, and to the one who promised that those who drank deeply of His reservoir would never thirst again. In essence, I also stopped inviting people to church by putting the cart before the horse, and instead directed them to the one who alone had the power to calm and likewise walk through the storms of their lives, footprints and all.

And yet what seems self-evident to those of us who hobble along on the narrow path, is in fact a forest by and large missed by a conglomeration of deviational or comfortable trees by a myriad of other voices in the market square, as well as by so-called friends and family members alike who are praying for our salvation to their way of thinking, and who are “praying for us ” that we finally get it right. They are those who are surer than the word of God itself it seems, and who are relentless in their adamancy that if we’d just fall in line, we could once and for all be just like them, and the(ir) world would then be a happier place.

Though to be sure the “seeing through a glass darkly” Christian life can be a lonely trek on the narrow path, and can be equally comprised of a much shorter “friends” list. And yet at this very acute cost, the opposite tendency of joining in with dogmatic assertion and argumentation while holding too many theological lines drawn in the sand, rather than a more cautious dark glass theology, is much more costly still I’m afraid. And in the aftermath, the former is ripe with casualties that thwart the very mission to bring the “good news” to those who actually want to hear it. Yet to be sure, many take the “glass-darkly” side as synonymous to entrance into the slippery slope of compromise and unorthodoxy, yet walking in the center of biblical tension is a tightrope worth the vulnerability it inevitably brings for those who in the end find the Master there with his outstretched hand guiding us to our final destination.

All in all, as found in the greatest words perhaps ever penned on the topic of love, and words of which are far too easily scurried through on countless wedding days, the apostle Paul himself (the self-recognized “chief of sinners”) reminds us that in this life, “we see through a glass darkly”, and only in the Lord’s eschaton will we “fully know”, and thus will be “fully known” by the only one who truly has the keys to the kingdom. His conclusion holds out before us three things that when all is said and done we can hold on to with a firm and constant surety: it is that of faith, hope and love. The very things we cannot see, but when experienced, are felt far beyond any sermon or moral admonition we could ever remember; and that of which the greatest of those is LOVE. And thus as those of us of whom it is incumbent upon to speak of that which we do know, it must always be through the bestowal of a more loving mirror theology if it is ever to reach the hearts of those that desperately need to hear less from a f—ing know it all, and more from a mutual beggar who has found crumbs to share.

“We are all beggars, this is true”.

the dying words of Martin Luther

 

Selah

 

 

 

Why Some Of Us Find Community Almost Everywhere but Church

A Caveat

 

I know at the outset, the words in the title above before good and noble churchmen and practitioners teeter-totter on the precipice of sacrilege. In fact, if you have spent more than a day exposed to your version of Christendom, a sort of immediate gag reflex kicks in based either on what we’ve heard in those circles; what we’ve been taught; or even more subtly, what we have come to fervently believe and teach ourselves. But what of experience of the “some of us” in my title we might ask? What of the pew jumpers, church hoppers and those who choose to do some form of church almost anywhere but the building on main or church street in your given town or city square? Does that count for something to get at a broader picture of the truth? Or, is their experience totally suspect here, and more akin to some sort of blasphemy worthy of contemptible discounting, or perhaps just shy of inquisition-like reactions?

 

Now before I attempt to explain briefly what I mean by my subject this morning, let me also blurt out an agreed upon qualification to those well-meaning keepers of the magisterium who stoically and eternally disagree, or who would claim to have the opposite experience, and of course a church or two to in their experience toolbox to prove it. And to that I would say, “I understand”. I also appreciate the disclaimer and the modicum of truth that it has to add to this discussion. There is no argument here, except to say that perhaps our disagreement, belief, or experience is well known only to us: the faithful; the paid players; or those who tend to have learned to sort of…fall in line with it. However, equally plausibly perchance to everyone else outside the fold, is that it is not that cut and dry, and also to an increasing amount of church ragamuffins like me who would wish they were found holding different cards.

 

In fact, there has not a day gone by in the last 20 years of my life that I have not wished to become permanently apart of a communal sheep fold that I could bring my Socratic inquiries and still graze in, only to have been increasingly set out like a goat on my own often lonely path–just left of the right side of the Lord to many I’m sure. And though I’ve longed to bring my honest questions and concerns to the Eucharistic table, and to the potluck or small group meeting, I’ve mostly been met with those who would simply wish that I would finally get the memo, kiss the ring, and drop my 10% premium in the offering plate and shuffle along. Well perhaps more later. For now, let me share just a couple of reasons why goats like me with sheep-like dreams never find that sheep-connection that they long for, but who are still very much trying.

 

Some Reasons Why

 

            The Church with a Big C Instead of a Little c

The first reason that I have observed, is not only why I and countless others find it hard to uncover real community in the church, but also relates to why it is no surprise that I also hold to a much looser view as to the scope of the church’s authority in my life–which has to do with the church’s continual bargaining to the broader culture for it’s importance as a Big C instead of a little one. Again, I can feel the knee-jerk reaction to that statement; and to many, they would surmise it is due to my left over 60’s rebellion, or the spirit of the narcissistic cultural age of which we are all immersed in. But please hear me out, and for a moment, I’ll let someone like Paul F.M. Zahl with church “street creds” add to my introductory commentary, and to what many other beleaguered Christian nomads along the church path have felt for sometime now where he writes:

 

 

“Ecclesiology (the study of the church) is an actual ill! By definition it places the church in some kind of special zone—somehow distinct from real life—that appears to be worthy of study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise. The facts of history run counter to ecclesiology. They reveal a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived. The gospel of grace, based on relational love that is entirely one-way, is at odds with ecclesiology…Because we believe in the depth of sin and in the impossibility until death, of any “original sin-free zone” in the world, we are skeptical of any church idea that ascribes to church a distinctive authority that it must be obeyed. A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to the church, irreducibly Protestant. The Protestantism of grace’s church idea, which is church by negation and church from suspicion, is important for all Christians to come up against, because it delivers them from the skepticism and finally the voluntary abandonment to which all church fealty finally leads when the lights go on…I can write this in my own blood. Disenchantment with my own branch of the institution has not affected my conviction that Christ is the light of the world and that God’s grace is the way of human freedom. Had the ecclesiology of grace been higher than the anthropology of original sin and totally depravity permitted it to be, the result of the loss would have been a loss of a hope in God. The negation of Ecclesiology from grace permits the survival of faith in Christ as the Wound of the World to heal the wounds of the world”[1].

 

In essence, Zahl reminds us that to not have an ecclesiology is actually to have one, but it’s not what we expect, or perhaps want to hear. Yet our new ecclesiology puts first things first.  In other words,

 

“It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church”[2].

 

These are words of fresh air for both weary church neophytes and aficionados alike who are constantly on probation in their mind, and perhaps in the minds of other good church goers pertaining to the fact that the church struggle is real–particularly evidenced by a theologian and churchmen of high rank who has also experienced the struggle acutely on the inside. It is at least one of the reasons, that though we know we are to be with the people of God regularly somewhere, we hold up a Great Wall to block us from conceding to a popular view of church (Protestant or Catholic) that shuns or disregards our voice and questions as valid to the church conversation and participation, without it being a mere apostate affront to the institution itself.

 

            A Lack of Grace That is Palpable, Yet Also Underground

 

The second reason most find community almost everywhere but church is because grace, the thought that changed the world (Bono), is oftentimes the missing ingredient in a church service setting, the potluck or the small group—and it doesn’t really matter which. For instance, as soon as a question is asked; a taboo broken; a snotty nose kid goes unattended; or a pregnant teen emerges, all bets are off! We drop what we were doing to answer; to repair; to wipe; and instead are more prone to pass judgment before offering graceful love. I can’t explain it in others and much less myself, but it is further proof that though the church is comprised of good that we all need to be apart of, it also; when it begins to see itself beyond the humble and broken stewards and faithful sowers of it’s gospel truth, to instead titles of spiritual fathers who know best–it oftentimes throws the possibility of real community amongst the broken and spiritual misfits out the door. This is especially so for those who not only do not know what a good Father is, or a family; but who come from a lineage and a past or present for whom life may have dealt very different cards—or for whom there are no simplistic answers for the realties that are their constant companion. The church often cannot make room for unsuccessful Christians for whom the victorious Christian life constantly escapes them, even though they follow silently, yet unwaveringly—and often even more so than the ones with standing white-picket fences.

 

I can remember years ago the theme song from the hit TV show Cheers, whose line added, “everyone wants to go where everyone knows your name”. I thought it ironic then that the bar behaved much like a family–a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. Fast-forward many years later, I too more often found solace in a bottle or possibly a friend (Indigo Girls) at the local saloon than anywhere else. The truth is, community is difficult in an age when individualism runs amuck, and “me, my and I” have taken precedence over the others found in community, and to be sure I can be part of the problem. But it should also then be no surprise that we reproduce that spirit in the church when it engulfs the broader culture of which we are also many times brazenly apart of as well. For just as the church affects culture, it is also affected by it; much as we would like to think we are exempt from the disease our culture oozes in flickering pixels across our screens of various shapes and sizes.

 

The truth is that we cannot have real community until grace takes precedence over spiritual, political or social correctness that seems to be endemic among us all. For unless we are led by a starkly different kingdom value-set, we are prone to wander, and the non-going church culture feels it! In fact, we can tell a lot about who we have true community with by who we can’t wait to hang around with on the weekend, rather than who we sit behind every brisk Sunday morning. The bottom line is: We love being around people who love us back, just the way we are (Billy Joel).  And to those who expect or exact nothing from us other than our company, our being, and our mutual offertory cleansing of shared successes and failures walking along the narrow path–albeit with a distinct and communal limp. This kind of community is perhaps better shared with the real life of bread and wine, or beer and hamburgers on the grill, rather than the manufactured world of quick Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts, with three worship songs, an offering plate and an altar call–with an ensemble conclusion of “yall come back real soon ya hear”. And though I am not necessarily advocating we replace the coffee pots with cabernet or Stella on Sunday morning, what I am advocating is the necessity for church to go beyond the common call for meeting in small groups, to a more human call to living real life together in and out of the context of Bible study and prayer, yet also not to their exclusion. This will take risqué thinking that will no doubt be met by good churchmen, yet who may also look at us with frog-eyes and begin looking for new lily pads down the road. Nonetheless, it is a journey worth taking; especially as the “rise of the nones[3]” are increasingly comprised of the “Christian dones[4]”.  They are those who would rather stay at home alone rather than subject themselves to the same graceless, monotonous, and artificial activity; and yet that still expects different results from parishioners who have long shown signs of Rigor Mortis.

 

At least some of this decay in our parishioners is due to being constantly oppressed by the preaching of a law or spiritual prescriptions no one can ever keep or fill, but who get it handed to them sanctimoniously on any given Sunday. Dr. Zahl again adds keen insight here where he writes,

 

“Preachers require a history of grace in relation to their own personal sin and sorrows. Unless preachers have individual knowledge of their own form of original sin and total depravity, they have nothing to offer to which anyone else can relate. Grace has to be the core of a preacher’s own story in order for their sermons to carry any impact. If this is not so, they will preach the law and exhort. Then they will become angry at their dispirited and paralyzed listeners. Ministers who start to despise their own congregations—and many do—do so because ‘their’ people are not doing what the minister is telling them to do. The minister assumes they have ‘free will’ because he thinks he does. Therefore, when they exercise their ‘freedom’ in not doing what he preaches he starts to dislike them”[5].

 

I learned this the hard way from my own experience as a former preacher who held the law up every Sunday, although I would have prided myself as a graceful person in most other aspects of my life. I never understood why, that though people liked my sermons because of their bible saturation, three logical points and eloquent delivery; yet they also seemed to be shaking my hand every Sunday, ever so quietly whispering in my ear “Great sermon Mark, but I’m going back to sin now”. And they were, and so was I. Not always consciously, yet sometimes very much so–simply because we really can’t help ourselves without daily divine intervention.

 

I finally realized grace was the answer to all of life’s problems years ago when by happenstance I picked up the book What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, and then overdosed on a follow up called The Ragamuffin Gospel, by the late Brennan Manning. Through those pages, I finally realized most find community everywhere but church and determined to change my tune and course. At that time, I never realized the cost of Zahl’s advice for a spiritual misfit like me: that of being transparent and preaching grace to religious people. Jesus results should have been a case in point! What I found out the hard way was that the Bible belt likes pastors as church mascots more than someone with a holy calling, yet who also sits on the sidelines with the rest of the sinners and shuns sitting in the “Holy man” chairs. Good churchmen also prefer being told what to do sometimes even more than being freely given the scandalous license that grace appears to provide: for others to simply be who they are–sinners, saved by the matchless grace of Jesus, and those who rest and walk in that awareness each and every day. No instead, I found that we like our preachers on pedestals rather than like the most prolific writer of the New Testament; the Apostle Paul, who said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”.  For me, this proved to be rather risky behavior for the frozen chosen, but I discovered that the broken and bruised couldn’t get enough.

 

A Humble but Familiar Reminder

 

I realize that my brief musings have opened up some “cans of worms” and left some questions unanswered. And to that I would say, “This is a blog, and I don’t want to keep you too long, and I’ll be back”. And perhaps I would also say, “it’s also a lot like life, and also unavoidable in meditations about the deity”. Nonetheless, I believe these two things I have outlined this morning should be a clarion call to church leaders and good churchmen alike to take a look around and pause for reflection and introspection. It’s not because I have said it to be sure, and it’s certainly not because they are new admonitions. But rather its because it’s actually being said and has been said all around them, much like leftover landmines from a previous war that they seem to strategically still avoid. Landmines that have now erupted, resulting in an exodus from church–whose results are still mostly brushed off as a cultural problem (the world), rather than an actual subcultural one (the church). All the while, the flames and broken bodies are all around with their own fate still off in the smoky distance.

 

And yet meanwhile…the broken and spiritual misfits are still dying to get in.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[2] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] White, J. E. (2014). The rise of the Nones: Understanding and reaching the religiously unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

 

[4] Packard, J., & Hope, A. (2015). Church refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are done with the church but not their faith. Loveland, CO: Group.

 

[5] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.