1. This week, writer Tara Isabella Burton (a guest speaker at our upcoming conference!) contributed a beautifully confident piece to America Magazine: How I Learned to Love My Christianity. She begins humorously. “There was a joke I used to make back before I was Christian: I am the most liberal person in a room full of Oxford theologians—and the most conservative at the goth club…I was, invariably, a stranger in a strange land.” Inherent in this distance, of course, is a sense of alienation and uncertainty. Her conclusion will be at once familiar and relieving, to anyone who has experienced how ambivalence can become more restricting than freeing.

Throughout my childhood, I kept an altar that was a fusion of Roman saints’ icons and Wiccan candles I purchased on the internet. I was a little bit Catholic, a little bit Episcopalian, a little bit Jewish, a little bit pagan. Then, in my late 20s, I discovered I was a Christian.

I do not mean that I realized I believed in God. Nor do I mean that I decided to become a Christian, which would imply more agency on my part than I experienced. I mean only that somewhere, between all the running and the raging, the trans-Atlantic crossings and the reconfiguring of names, I had something to hold fast to. I had something I had to hold fast to. For the first time, there was a part of me I could not run away from.

Christians are meant, of course, to be in this world but not of it. Alienation—that feeling of not quite belonging—is integral to Christian identity.

2. A powerful piece showed up in The Washington Post about a prominent DC-area pastor who announced that…he is tired. The Rev. Howard-John Wesley admitted that after preaching over 5,000 sermons (!!!!) he would be taking a sabbatical. Many were relieved on his behalf — but some eyebrows went up as well.

“I feel so distant from God,” he said in the sermon. “One of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think that because you work for God, you’re close to God.” […]

Wesley noted how when he tells people he’s going on sabbatical, they want to know what he’s going to do.

“I believe in boundaries, and some of my personal life is none of your business,” he said to shouts of “Amen.” […]

He said he has some spiritual goals while he is away. “I want to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation without trying to write a sermon,” he said. “I want to travel and go sit in the back of somebody’s church and hear the word of God and not be worried about what time we got to get out for the next crowd.”

All this seems inevitable — and necessary — for ministers of all stripes, but also for anyone whose spirituality has been joined with obligation, i.e., the law, should/must/have to. As a child, I once asked my mother, when is our summer vacation from church? She said, there are no vacations from church! I was very sad to hear that. I didn’t want to go to church every Sunday for infinity.

“When I started, I was working seven days a week. A member of the church at the time — an older lady — said, ‘Why do you work every day?’ ” [Wesley] recalled.

“I said, ‘The devil doesn’t take a day off.’ She said, ‘Why is the devil your role model?’ Jesus models that we need to rest.”

Better, Jesus not only models rest — napping, retreating from crowds — but he also turns water into wine, tells parables of wonderful feasts. He was called a drunkard and a glutton. He was, essentially, human. Moreover, he died so that we might live; became the fattened calf we would feast on, sustenance that was not only nutritious but tasty too.

“There is a real addiction of the approval that comes from being a pastor,” [pastor Alex Johnson] said. “I don’t think one person is capable of fulfilling all these roles people have in their heads for them.”

3. But rest is a complicated thing. It’s something we’re disinclined to give ourselves freely, and how-to’s only seem to push it further away. My cell phone, for example, lights up every evening with a bedtime reminder/rebuke. Once a week, it even presents stats of how poorly I am doing (and I am too tired to figure out how to change these settings).

Science writer Sara Harrison recently probed this conflict, contributing to Wired: Stop Obsessing Over Sleep—Your Brain Will Thank You. The incisive subtitle explains, “Worrying about sleep is perhaps the most counterproductive thing you can do, no matter how many gadgets try to tell you otherwise.”

Suddenly sleep became a tonic: an Alzheimer’s wonder drug available, for free, every evening. For [neuroscientist Maiken] Nedergaard, the results made her anxious about her own bedtime priorities. Now, she says, “I take sleep very seriously.” […]

Sleep, once no more glamorous than taking a shower, is now perched at the pinnacle of the well-being-as-a-lifestyle trend. The irony is that by agonizing over sleep, it’s also turning into a source of anxiety—the kind of thing that keeps people up at night. Fears over bad sleep are getting the TED treatment and topping best-seller lists. […]

All this measuring, rating, tracking, and comparing now amounts to a new sleep disorder that some scientists are calling orthosomnia. A coinage of Greek origin that merges “straight” or “correct” with “sleep,” orthosomnia is a condition where anxiety over proper sleep metrics actually induces insomnia. […]

Sleep has become one more thing to feel guilty about, even when the data we’re consulting is often flawed or incomplete. It’s one more number we didn’t hit, one more goal we didn’t achieve. Pangs of guilt follow every new study reminding us of this magical panacea, if we would just turn off Netflix, forget our social lives, emails, and all the dishes in the sink, and just climb into bed.

4. All of which brings us, at last, to this amazing edition of The Wall Street Journal’s “Soapbox,” where various “luminaries” comment on a designated topic; this month’s is our all-time favorite, grace. The best comes from Anderson Cooper who even takes “Amazing Grace” as his guide:

As a reporter, my greatest desire is to be a decent and good human being, to be fair and to have the questions I ask be truthful. We live in an age when people puff themselves up and want to have the most followers on Instagram and to show themselves having this glamorous, fun, exciting life. That seems to me sort of the opposite of grace. There’s something about the quiet fortitude of the people I most like to do stories about, whether it’s in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina or Haiti after the earthquake. For my dad, who grew up in a poor family in Mississippi, the song ‘Amazing Grace’ was always incredibly important, and he used to cry every time he heard it. ‘’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.’ I don’t think that many people embrace that idea—that they want their heart to fear yet then, through grace, have their fears relieved.

5. My favorite humor from this week was The Book of Job, as Told By Wile E. Coyote.

(“Thus, Wile E. galloped straight off a cliff, and yet, continued on still, running over mere air.”)

6. On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Mike Schur and moral philosopher Pamela Hieronymi — the brains behind The Good Place — discuss what it takes to be a good person. The sitcom gets into the weeds, hilariously illuminating why this simple ideal is much harder than it sounds. (Listen to the whole episode here.)

They identify 2 main difficulties: first, if you adhere too strictly to a moral code, you end up alienating yourself from others and being miserable/self-righteous/self-justifying. (Only one ever did so perfectly, Christians would say, and got himself killed.) Add to that, so much is out of our control, thus simply willing ourselves to be good doesn’t always work. Hieronymi says:

…it seems to me that our attitudes and emotions — which are not subject to our immediate voluntary control — and our principles of what people deserve and how to treat sentient creatures don’t march in step. And the fact that they don’t march in step leaves us in the state where that we find ourselves — where our ordinary lives are maybe aspiring to push towards our ideals but can’t get there right away.

7. Finally, Mark R. Schwehn penned an excellent essay in The Cresset. He sets out to define the terms of forgiveness, addressing along the way the myriad difficulties/objections/confusions. Is forgiveness necessary? Who is it for? Is it, as many Christians say, primarily for the offended, to help him or herself move on from the event? Or is it for the guilty, for their exoneration?

Pointedly, Schwehn writes that “Sunday services do not begin with an announcement of God’s forgiveness of all of our sins in order for God to feel good about Himself and to liberate Him from enslavement to the anger and resentment he feels toward us.” He continues:

…if forgiveness is done simply for the sake of the one doing the forgiving, as [Desmond] Tutu sometimes argues and as most Christians think, it should be much easier to persuade Christians to forgive others than it would be if forgiveness were primarily for the sake of others, for those who have offended. […]

In other words, Christians should wonder about whether their primary motive to forgive should be improvement of their own cardiac health. What about the offender and the burden of guilt he or she carries? Should concern about this and for the offender’s overall wellbeing have no place in a Christian’s motive to forgive? […]

Of course, for Christians, it is the Lord who finally enables us to forgive. And though we may not be able to be certain of many things involving forgiveness, of one thing we can be sure. The Lord did not forgive us for His sake, but for ours.

Whoa! Another couple of things I appreciated here include: the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation; also, what to think when forgiveness, by the offended, seems, or is, impossible; these he tackles respectively. You won’t be forgiven for skimming!

Christians might, for example, distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. As Tutu notes, forgiveness may lead to reconciliation or renewal of relationship, but it need not do so. So we might say that though forgiveness is unilateral and unconditional, reconciliation is mutual and conditional. […]

Forgiveness, at least for Christians, comes first, unconditionally, and may lead to the offender’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing, remorse for it, resolution to refrain from such wrong actions in the future, and empathy for the victim’s suffering. And these actions may in turn lead to reconciliation with the injured party who has forgiven the wrongdoer. Though the idea of reconciliation as distinct from forgiveness may help to resolve some of the difficulties about forgiveness, it does presume that the victim must declare forgiveness to the offender if there is to be any chance of reconciliation.

…recall another famous scene in Scripture, the moment when Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Notice that Jesus does not forgive those who crucified him directly; he prays that the Father should do so. So we might say, remembering that only God finally has the power to forgive sins directly or indirectly through those acting in God’s stead, that we should ask God to unilaterally and unconditionally forgive those who have injured us even though we may well require that some conditions be met before we forgive them. Thus, we can find a way to be unconditional and conditional at the same time: unconditional in our prayer, conditional in our forgiving relation with those who have offended us.

Strays:

  • From The Babylon Bee: “Wise Man Who Brought Myrrh Thought They All Agreed On A Spending Limit.”
  • In The Atlantic, Emma Green details The Christian Withdrawal experiment: in the lineage of the Benedict option, St. Marys in Kansas is a refuge for the practice/preservation of a very traditional Catholicism. Referring to similar isolated groups of likeminded people, Green writes, interestingly: “In some ways, these groups are merely practicing an extreme form of the insularity many Americans have already embraced. Deep-blue enclaves such as Berkeley and brownstone Brooklyn are similarly homogenous, sought out by people with a certain set of values and hopes for their children.” (Strokes chin thoughtfully.)
  • If you haven’t already found that perfect gift in the Mockingbird gift guide, first of all, I don’t believe you; second of all, continue on to gift ideas from The Living Church, featuring a suggestion from one Paul FM Zahl.
  • In The Guardian, Kathryn Bromwich selects Nick Cave’s Ghosteen as among the best of the year: “The slow, meditative sound echoes the album’s themes of acceptance… There are moments when Cave appears to be slowly coming to terms with what has happened: ‘Sometimes a little bit of faith can go a long, long way,’ he sings.” Also if you haven’t checked out Robbie Sapunarich’s Advent-themed reflection on the album, ya missing out.
  • Also noteworthy: an excerpt from this review of Stormzy’s new album: “…the picture Stormzy paints of stardom is a pretty bleak one; an unremitting parade of jealous friends, unwarranted criticism, ever-increasing numbers of enemies and damage to his mental and physical health, in which the only consolation, luxury Swiss watches aside, comes from a combination of regularly skinning up and religious faith. ‘Holy blood of Christ,’ he says on the wracked Do Better, ‘you never let me down.’”