Monday, December 15, 2014

The virtue that renews the cosmos

A quiet hour with some writings of G.K. Chesterton in one hand, and a glass of ale in the other, is one of life's exquisite pleasures. Add to that some cheddar as sharp as the great man's wit and you have the makings of a memorable evening. If there were a dictionary entry on the expression "reading for pleasure" it ought to have a picture of Chesterton next to it. Aphorisms burst from his pen like Fourth of July fireworks. He's the Babe Ruth of polemicists. He wins you over to his point of view not by logic, but by magic and romance. Yet, once he's won you over, you see that the logic was hiding there all along.

The other night I read the article "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson" which is the twelfth in a collection of essays published as Heretics. It's part of Chesterton's enduring relevance that it matters not a whit whether one knows Lowes Dickinson from Emily Dickinson. 

Chesterton's argument here is two-fold: that the modern conception of Paganism is incorrect ("Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable") and that Christianity is the one thing that can still be said to be of pagan origin ("If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas"). Christianity adopted the pagan "rational" virtues such as justice and temperance, but to them added the "three mystical virtues" -- faith, hope and charity. The former are the "sad" and "rationalistic" virtues the latter are the "gay and exuberant" virtues. The pagan virtues are the "reasonable virtues" but the Christian virtues are "in their essence as unreasonable as they can be." In other words, each involves a paradox.

Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.


Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of charity which any weak spirit wants, or which any generous spirit feels, is the charity which forgives the sins that are like scarlet. Whatever may be the meaning of faith, it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.

Chesterton continues to scale the rhetorical heights by bringing in that other cardinal Christian virtue, the one that trumps all others -- humility. It was humility that transformed reasonable pagans into exuberant Christians. Humility gave birth to joy. The pagan set out on an admirable quest to enjoy himself, but in the end made the surprising discovery "that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." He had thought that "the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by extending our ego to infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero." Civilization had to discover humility, or die. For humility is the virtue that's "for ever renewing the earth and the stars."

The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, "the light of common day." We are inclined to increase our claims. We are inclined to demand six suns, to demand a blue sun, to demand a green sun. Humility is perpetually putting us back in the primal darkness. There all light is lightning, startling and instantaneous. Until we understand that original dark, in which we have neither sight nor expectation, we can give no hearty and childlike praise to the splendid sensationalism of things. The terms "pessimism" and "optimism," like most modern terms, are unmeaning. But if they can be used in any vague sense as meaning something, we may say that in this great fact pessimism is the very basis of optimism. The man who destroys himself creates the universe. To the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sun is really a sun; to the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sea is really a sea. When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead.

Behind this splendid prose one begins to see the outline of a figure that embodied the perfect principle of humility so sought after by the ancients. A man. Indeed, one who called himself the Son of Man. The Apostle tells us this God-man emptied himself -- made himself nothing -- so that he could identify with the oppressed race of Adam. Furthermore, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. By this humble act a new humanity was created, and by it one day the cosmos will be renewed. Incredible, isn't it?

Elsewhere Chesterton exclaimed:

When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us. And when the whole universe looks like a man we fall on our faces.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Life's parade at your fingertips."

Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) is a film admired by many of the greats of contemporary cinema. For example Martin Scorsese features it in his fascinating Journey Through American Movies -- a series I recommend to anyone looking to increase your knowledge of American movies. Here and in several other films (see especially Magnificent Obsession) German émigré Sirk created a unique emotional vocabulary through a rigorous stylistic approach to color and framing. He knew how to get the most out of actors too. Jane Wyman's performance in All That Heaven Allows is one for the ages.

In a time where everything (it seems) is permissible the thematic elements of this picture may seem clichéd or just plain incomprehensible to modern viewers. That would be a shame. This movie must have exploded like a bomb in the consciousness of a generation of middle-class housewives, and if you allow it to transcend it's particular time and place it remains a devastatingly effective viewing experience. Except for the "Hollywood ending" it's perfect. A more appropriate final scene would have been the one below, which concludes with a shot of such emotional power it made my jaw drop as I watched it last night.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Are we playing baseball or soccer?

After the gut-wrenching 2-2 World Cup match between the USA and Portugal a couple weeks back a friend posted on Facebook: "Soccer is too much like life; I need more fantasy in my sports." As any soccer aficionado knows all too well the game has a unique ability to deliver suffering and heartbreak. Are there other ways soccer is more like real life than other sports?

David Brooks explores this question in his most recent column "Baseball or Soccer?". After positing that baseball, while a team sport, is a game made up of hundreds of individual actions, he explains how soccer is all about the collective activity of controlling space. In this way, Brooks argues (and I agree), soccer is more like real life than the American pastime. He writes:

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize. . . . Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.

Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany.
Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life.
Recently I had the opportunity to take the Clifton StrengthsFinders test. To my surprise my top strength was "Connectedness" with "Harmony" and "Adaptability" close behind. According to Clifton an individual with the strength of Connectedness isn't necessarily someone with a lot of personal connections. Instead, Connectedness enables a person to see connections between people and events that others miss. "People with the strength of Connectedness believe that everything happens for a reason. They have the unique ability to ‘connect the dots’ between what is happening in the here and now with deep personal meaning."
When I was a young libertarian I thought people's lives were defined primarily by the individual choices they made. And I loved baseball (now I only watch it when the World Series comes around). I thought I was playing baseball, but now I realize that I was playing soccer all along.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Looking for grace at the World Cup

In spite of the hype, the corruption, and the sometimes malevolent behavior of its fans, soccer remains the beautiful game and the World Cup its ultimate stage. Now I'll be the first to admit it -- looked at from one perspective -- soccer is boring. So why can't I keep my eyes off of it? What am I and the millions of others who live and breathe football waiting for as we suffer through long stretches when nothing seems to be happening?

Here's a fine answer from Simon Critchley writing in the New Republic.

Connoisseurs like to argue that football is an art form, and it’s true that the enjoyment it generates is fiercely aesthetic. As I’ve written elsewhere, for me, a product of the Irish-Anglo minestrone of Liverpool, football is working-class ballet. There is a great beauty in a deft move or sequence of plays. Sometimes this is the tiki-taka of Barcelona at its peak, the Barca players harrying the opposition into losing possession, then moving the ball relentlessly, then effortlessly tapping it home. Sometimes it’s the physical power and attacking speed of Bayern Munich as they demolished Barcelona 4-0 (then 3-0 for good measure) in the Champions League semifinal last year. As in art, one movement gives way to another. Part of the anticipation for this World Cup is which school will emerge ascendant.
But more essentially, the truly great players possess grace: an effortless containment in their bearing and elegance of movement, long periods of idling interrupted by sudden accelerations and pivots, bursts of controlled power. When a player does this alone, the effect is stirring; when four or five do this in concertas with Brazil in 1970 and 1982, and Spain in 2010it is breathtaking.
There’s another component to grace, however. It is the cultivation of a certain disposition, some call it faith, in the belief that grace in its physical form will be dispensed at the crucial moment. Found in the players who have to believe that their bodies will perform at the precise instant when they are called upon, it is what we call composure. Yet it also exists in fans, who may find it hard to be composed, who may in fact be red-faced and screaming their heads off, but who are nonetheless bound up in something larger by their belief that something graceful, magical, is about to happen on the pitch. One hears from skeptics that football is boring, but it is the inaction that allows for the sudden, sometimes absurd, ultimately vitalizing escalations of tempo and drama. You have to pay close and constant attention or you miss those moments, and that lends intensity to the viewing experience; the avid fan, I have noted, is merely seeking to maximize the intensities of existence, as Spinoza taught. He or she gives himself over to football in an almost tantric way. It is a form of a fandom that requires, one might even argue, a philosophical attitude. I would say thatI’m paid to teach philosophybut it also happens to be right.
Then every four years comes the World Cup, when, especially during the group stages of the first two weeks, one can justifiably maximize his or her intensities for an entire day, getting up only to eat something and stretch the legs. One match ends andjoy of joysanother one begins in an hour. Now, the fan knows that there are very few teams that are actually likely to win it all. Compared with the big American team sportscollege basketball, NFL football, the NBA, which there really are Cinderella stories, or at least unexpected champions, World Cup football really does tend to follow a script once the knockout stages begin. Since its inception in 1930, only eight nations have won the tournament, and a final without Brazil (five championships), Italy (four), or Germany (three) counts as a twist. The location of this World Cup makes its outcome even more predictable. On each of the seven occasions the World Cup has been held in the Americas (not forgetting the final in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in 1994 and twice in Mexico City in 1970 and 1986), South American teams have won. Chile looks very useful and Uruguay plays like a resilient, coherent club team, but as much fun as it is to think about either winning, it’s really going to be either Brazil, if it can endure the pressure, or (my pick) Argentina. Along the way there will be a lot of rolling around on the grass, time-wasting, cynical tactics, and Mourinhian defensive displays. There will be triumph for a very few and righteous injustice and pain of defeat for the rest of us. But there will be this, too: Something unexpected, wonderful, and possibly even magical might happen. There will be grace.

If you're interested in reading more commentary like this then bookmark the New Republic's World Cup blog.  It will be essential reading for the next four weeks.


Monday, May 12, 2014

The gift of a happy childhood

This morning as I backed out of the driveway to go to work I caught sight of my almost-Kindergartener Samuel with his face pressed against the window waving goodbye. I was instantly struck by a bout of "mono no aware" and transported back to my own pre-adolescent childhood and memories tinged with sadness and regret. Mono no what? This recycled post from January 2011 explains it. . .

Becoming a parent has produced a sudden awareness of my mortality. I'm also beginning to realize that I have less control than I thought I had -- or like to think I have -- over Samuel and Benjamin's future. So much is out of my hands! But there is something. A happy childhood is no guarantee of a happy life (and as a Christian I have higher aspirations for my children than mere happiness) but giving them a happy childhood is something I do have a great deal of control over right now.

I was moved by these lines from author Alison Gopnik (The Philosophical Baby):

Parents often feel a kind of existential anxiety as they watch their children grow up—as we say, it goes by so fast. We watch that infinitely flexible, contingent, malleable future swiftly harden into the irretrievable, unchangeable past. Japanese poets have a phrase, mono no aware, for the bittersweetness inherent in ephemeral beauty—a falling blossom or a leaf in the wind. Children are a great source of mono no aware.

But there is another side to the ephemerality of childhood. There is a kind of immunity about a happy childhood, not an immunity from the disasters and catastrophes that may, that almost certainly do, lie ahead, but an intrinsic immunity. Change and transience are at the heart of the human condition. But as parents we can at least give our children a happy childhood, a gift that is as certain, as unchanging, as rock solid, as any human good. 

Gopnik writes from a naturalistic worldview, so, naturally, there were things I disagreed with in her book, but overall I found it to be an illuminating glimpse into the minds of baby humans. I enjoyed the movie references sprinkled throughout (the author must be a film buff). At one point she suggests that the unself-conscious consciousness of infants is like that of an adult watching an absorbing Hitchcock film. "For a baby, watching a Mickey Mouse mobile may be like being utterly, blissfully, selflessly captivated by a good movie."

Sounds like a great life!

Quotes from p. 121 & 202:  The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (Picador, 2009)

Photo of our two sons taken 1/12/11

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who's out of touch?

The leadership of my church spends a lot of time strategizing about how to reach Millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 2000). That's a good thing. If we don't have success attracting this demographic then our congregation will die a slow death. Many books and articles have been written on the subject. Here's a good one.

But might there be subtle dangers in putting so much emphasis on catering to the tastes of a particular subset of our culture? Here's a thought-provoking quote from millennial author Andrew Byers.

Disappointment in the cultural irrelevance of the church is justifiable.  But much of the disappointment may stem as much from a culturally conditioned arrogance as from a sincere commitment to missional, crosscultural living.  When we younger adults rail against the Christian subculture of primarily older generations for their narrow-minded cultural illiteracy, we often fail to notice that we are ourselves part of a subculture with its own narrowness and cultural ignorance.  We seem to suppose that anyone who can’t quote lines from ‘The Office’ or lyrics from Wilco is out of touch.
But maybe Aunt Gertrude [i.e. older Christians] is not so out of touch.  To be out of touch with that particular slice of society to whom Michael Scott’s awkward antics on ‘The Office’ have such appeal is not to be out of touch with everyone.  There are other slices of American culture made up of folks who have never heard Arcade Fire playing on a coffee bar’s satellite radio station while sipping a latte.
It is important for those of us in the younger generations to step far enough back from our own cultural milieu to observe that the marketing power directed our way is staggering and quite disproportionate to the size of our subculture. …Is it possible that all this attention from Hollywood, Apple, the music industry and online networking companies has spoiled us to the point that we have now become rather high maintenance, demanding lavish catering from the wider church?  (If I can download multiple apps to my smartphone, then why can’t the local church give me what I want?)
Christians must become more adept at reaching the younger generations, but are those of us in those younger generations willing and able to reciprocate and bridge the cultural lines of our elders?  Are we striving to understand the struggles of those in their mid-forties rearing teenagers?  Are we making strides to relate to the loneliness of empty-nest divorcees?  Are we able to express genuine interest in the news programs and game shows that feature in the living rooms of our grandparents?  Are we willing to venture out into the cultural realm of retirees or learn from that diminishing number of WWII veterans?
It is noted at times that younger Christians are more in tune with culture and more familiar with society’s technological innovations.  But maybe culture-savvy twenty-seven-year-olds are really only savvy about their own particular subset of society.  Or maybe they are only so culture-savvy because they have more time to watch TV and surf the Internet than a forty-seven-year old with teenagers and aging parents.

The above comes from Byers' book Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. I think one of the takeaways is that churches need to be careful that their outreach to millennials doesn't contribute to the innate narcissism bred by things like Facebook and the "there's an app for that" mentality. Instead, it should be for the end of making lifelong disciples of the One who calls us to escape the prison of self, to lose our life in order to find abundant life.

via The Reformed Reader

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Finding freedom in our work

I just finished reading Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work (Dutton, 2012) by Tim Keller and co-author Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the director of Redeemer's Center for Faith & Work. This book is a good introduction to the excellent work of that ministry. It's helped me approach my "day job" with a healthier attitude and shown me that I can serve God (and my neighbor) at work, even though I'm ambivalent about the mission of the company I work for.

In the last chapter the authors talk about the concept of "the work under the work." This is what truly motivates us to work. It could be merely the paycheck, or it could be achieving  a sense of success and self-worth by being more productive than our peers. It could even be something as noble-sounding as making the world a better place. Every Good Endeavor argues -- effectively in my opinion -- that if the "work under the work" isn't grounded on the promises of the Christian gospel then our work will ultimately be a futile attempt to find redemption apart from the only one who can provide that -- namely Jesus of Nazareth.

Keller and Alsdorf also unpack the symbiotic relationship of rest to work as seen in the Old and New Testament's teaching on Sabbath rest, most notably in the Fourth Commandment. In Deuteronomy 5:15 the observance of the Sabbath is tied to God's rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt -- the Sabbath is portrayed as a "reenactment of emancipation from slavery." (p. 235) How might observing a rhythm of work and Sabbath rest apply to us? We're not slaves are we? Well, maybe. Here's a good quote.

Anyone who cannot obey God's command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don't have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom.  It means you are not a slave—not to your culture's expectations, your family's hopes, your medical school's demands, not even your own insecurities. It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph—otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug. (p. 236)

The Bible's depiction of healthy work and healthy rest is great news for a culture in which busyness, restlessness and anxiety are constant companions -- and this book quite brilliantly unpacks it much more than I can do in a short post. Bottom line: read this book! You can have my long as you pass it on when you're done.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A conversation full of light, mercy and grace

A while back I posted some thoughts on one of the most compelling books I've ever read: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

This week's White Horse Inn podcast is a conversation between the author and Michael Horton. I hope you check it out.

An Interview with Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Monday, February 24, 2014

What evolution can't explain (Chesterton)

It is not contended here that these primitive men did wear clothes any more than they did weave rushes; but merely that we have not enough evidence to know whether they did or not. But it may be worthwhile to look back for a moment at some of the very few things that we do know and that they did do. . . . we do know that they did have pictures; and the pictures have remained. And there remains with them, as already suggested, the testimony to something that is absolute and unique; that belongs to man and to nothing else except man; that is a difference of kind and not a difference of degree. A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.

Quote from the chapter called "Professors and Prehistoric Men" in The Everlasting Man

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

When I heard the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death on Sunday afternoon it hit me harder than I would have expected. The melancholy has lingered and I couldn't have said exactly why until reading Ross Douthat's tribute, where he captures why Hoffman meant so much to those of us of roughly the same generation of film buffs.

So his greatness was not the kind of greatness that we’re used to from our actors, and its full measure seems fully apparent only in hindsight, now that he’s been taken from us. Or at least that’s how it seems to me, and maybe this is mostly just a highly personal reaction … because Hoffman began to deliver great performances around the time I began to really appreciate the movies — during my late teenage years, so that “The Big Lebowski” and “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (“Tommy — how’s the peeping?”) are all clustered together in my memory, and he stands out as one of the first contemporary actors whose work I really, truly noticed. But in noticing it, I also came to take it for granted, as something that would always be there, something to be counted on, something as essential to the moviegoing experience as previews and popcorn, blockbusters in the summer and Oscar bait in the fall.

That's it. The last few days I've been recalling memorable Hoffman performances and it's funny how many of them came in films that were revelatory experiences during the time when I was morphing from casual moviegoer to devoted lover of motion pictures. The first Hoffman role I thought of when I saw the Breaking News headline on CNN was the hospice nurse Phil Parma in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (I can remember exactly where I was sitting, stunned, in the movie theater as the closing credits rolled on that one). Happily someone has uploaded one of Phil/Philip's scenes to YouTube. I post it here as tribute.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Eight lies, or maybe ten (depending on how you count)

"President Obama issued a statement today to mark the forty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. A mere paragraph long, it contains enough euphemism, evasion, and outright falsehood to serve simultaneously as a model of dissimulation and concision." (Matthew Schmitz @ First Thoughts)


Thursday, January 16, 2014

An average day

Here's a sampling of the headlines from my local newspaper this morning.




FATHER OF TEENS KILLED BY WIFE ASKS PUBLIC TO DONATE MONEY TO DREYFOOS SCHOOL OF THE ARTS (the wife shot the teens to death before shooting herself)

I wish these stories were unusual, but in reality they're the new normal in a gun-crazy society where even modest attempts at regulation are met with howls of outrage (see the story I posted on Tuesday). Future generations will look back on us and ask "what were they thinking?!" in the same way we look back at previous eras and wonder how they could blithely accept social evils that seems so obviously wrong in the light of history.

In the meantime here's the body count from yesterday.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Love is a losing game

Monday night while the rest of America was watching a thrilling BCS championship game I was up til the wee hours of the morning suffering through another kind of football match that took place earlier in the day in Rome. Thanks to the magic of DVR it was like watching live. On this night my beloved Inter Milan lost to rivals Lazio in the worst possible fashion on an 82nd minute goal from a German goal-scoring machine named Miroslav Klose. As I trudged off to bed in the foulest possible mood I had to ask myself: "Why do you put yourself through this?"

This was the second unhappy chapter in a depressing footballing weekend which began on Saturday with my other love, Tottenham (polygamy is allowed in football), losing to their north London rivals the "vile legion of scum" otherwise known as Arsenal. It's been a roller-coaster ride of emotions for Spurs supporters and we're only halfway through the season. Three days before we'd been on top of the world after a stirring New Year's Day win over Manchester United at their once-invincible fortress called Old Trafford.

So why do I invest so much emotional energy into supporting not one, but two clubs that play across the ocean, in time zones that make watching their games a logistical challenge? Again, thank God for DVR! Well, once I have the answer I'll write about it, but for now here's the beginning of a terrific piece by another American football fan, Aaron Wolfe of Brooklyn, reflecting on another day of ignominy involving the hated Arsenal, which paradoxically turned him into a "til I die" Spurs supporter.

This past Christmas and New Years I traveled with my family and a large group of friends to a cabin in Upstate New York. We drank, we ate, we were merry, there was hiking, singing, laughing, games, and good fun all around.

But there was one thing that was a steady topic of conversation: the bewilderment that all of them felt by my need to wake up at 8AM to watch the Football on TV.

Over and over again I was asked “why football?” and “why Tottenham.” It’s a nearly impossible question to answer when you are an American being asked by other Americans that, like you, have all been raised on Baseball and the ‘other’ Football. Never mind the ‘Tottenham Question’ which for me has to include a treatise on what it means to be a ‘Jewish Team’ and how I don’t care about that, but how there is this bar that used to be around the corner from my house which was the official New York Spurs supporters bar, and how I was dragged there against my will, and something about marauding style, and Modric, Bale, Adebayor, Redknapp, etc, etc...

Usually their eyes glaze over around the eighth minute of explanation and I get to go back to punching the couch in disgust as we give the ball away, or yet another attack fizzles out.

But in truth, there is a much simpler reason why I’m Tottenham: that horrible game at the Emirates a few years ago. You know the one: 2-2 at the half, and then 3-2, and then 4, and then 5-2 as the whistle blew.

At the half I had stumbled, shell-shocked, into the street to stand with the smokers (I’d long quit but I still feel some sort of solidarity with the rest of my lung-destroying comrades). Next door to the Spurs Bar is an Arsenal Pub, as though it was the perfect scale recreation of North London in sleepy Brooklyn.

A single lone gooner stood outside smoking, while dozens poured out of the Spurs bar. He grinned an evil grin, then mumbled something about “there’s only one team in London” and then nervously went back inside the minute he saw the hate and fury on our faces. I thought then, as I do now, about the passion we felt, all 300 of us, packed into that bar craning our necks to see the game on screens that were way too small and way too old to handle the number of us. I thought then, as I do now, how the Arsenal bar was practically empty despite the shiny new HD screens that lined the wall behind the booze. I pictured then, as I do now, that that is how it is in North London — a place I’ve never been but a place I spend my weekends dwelling in, living as though on GMT despite being so many miles away.

As I watched our team turn glory into pain at the end of that game, the crowd began to sing. An arm was thrown around my shoulder “I’m Tottenham til I die, I’m Tottenham til I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am...”

I’ll admit, now, that my eyes teared up. And when the song changed to “Tottenham when I’m dead...” I knew it was true. I had no choice in the matter, the baptism by fire had been performed and there was no turning back.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hope for the New Year

Are you optimistic or pessimistic going into 2014? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Earlier today I posed this question to the lady that cuts my hair. She didn't give a clear answer, but she did offer that "this country is going down the drain" (she's no fan of Obama) and that "all you can do is take care of your family." Her attitude tracks with a new poll that indicates most American are pessimistic about the ability of our leaders to solve the big problems facing America, but at the same time feel pretty good about how their own lives are going.

That's about where I am too. I see lots of reasons for gloom in Washington and the world at large, but I'm optimistic that the year ahead will be mostly positive for me and my family. I'm also optimistic that 2014 will see further growth and flourishing in my church family. Which brings me to my main question. How should followers of Jesus approach the New Year?

I once heard someone say (it might have been Tim Keller) that Christians are short-term pessimists and long-term optimists. From Abraham to the Apostle Paul the witness of Scripture shows us that the life of faith usually means things get worse before they get better, and the Bible is clear that following God as he's revealed to us in Christ means we will suffer. It's part of the deal. In fact -- as Pastor Dan reminded us last Sunday in a sermon on 2 Timothy 1 -- if we're not willing to suffer for the gospel we're in danger of abandoning the gospel.

While the "suffering piece" might be hard for the American church to accept, it's not hard for the persecuted church in Egypt or Syria or Iraq. Indeed, as the atheist-turned-believer A.N. Wilson wrote on Christmas Day: "the Arab Spring was the Christian winter." For our brothers and sisters whose churches are being bombed it's impossible to be anything but pessimistic about the near future, but if the gospel is true then their persecution "is preparing for us [believers in the gospel] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

Is the Christmas story true, or is it just a lot of sentimental claptrap? Is Christianity the stuff of a bygone age or does it still have the power to transform lives and bring genuine reason for hope and optimism? How one answers those questions changes everything (though one must admit that here in the West it's possible to conceive of a low-cost low-risk faith that goes about as far as the Jesus fish on the back of my SUV).

Here are the final paragraphs of Wilson's brilliant piece "It's the Gospel truth - so take it or leave it".

Huge numbers of people clapping in a square – even if they are clapping the Pope – do not tell you anything about whether Christianity is actually true. Nor does the dwindling congregation at the 8 o’clock Communion at Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh undermine the truth of the Word Made Flesh – if it is true.

The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory.

Yes, the hype and sentimentality surrounding the funeral of Nelson Mandela’s funeral were embarrassing, but at the core of it all was the central idea, embodied by a figure such as Archbishop Tutu, that it is possible to ignore the poison of hatred bubbling in your heart and forgive your enemies. The ANC, for long – yes – a terrorist organisation, changed its mind, and behaved, not like Jihadists, but like Christians. South Africa, riven as it is with every kind of human problem, got that thing right largely because Mandela in his prison years decided to risk all on what was a fundamentally Christian idea.

Yes, the Arab Spring is the Christian Winter because there is no truth or reconciliation apparently at work in Israel-Palestine, nor in Iraq, nor in Syria… But the Christian writings, beginning as they do with a refugee mother and baby surrounded by invading armies, and ending with world conflict, the utter destruction of Jerusalem, and the coming of apocalyptic death and plague, are not comfortable.

The paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.