The Challenge of Spiritual Formation

Christian spiritual formation is about the re-formation of our whole lives around the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a work of identity-formation made complete in the Holy Spirit. But it requires – at some level – our participation, for we are fickle and divided beings.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all disciples of someone or something. The practice of our daily life, with its rituals, personal interactions, acquired knowledge, and embodied expertise coheres according to a particular narrative framework with its own horizon (or hope). This narrative framework is the means by which we receive and construct our identity or our fundamental sense of self and place. That is, we make sense of ourselves and our lives in relationship to a story that both gives meaning to our daily existence and contextualizes it within a horizon or an orientation. The narrative shape of our lives is what helps us to feel like our days in this present time and place are going somewhere. We might call this narrative an “authorizing narrative” in that it is the thread that weaves together the disparate parts of our lives.

The narrative which orients out lives is “authorizing” in that its horizon – its hope or orientation – shapes what we consider good or bad, important or unimportant, constructive or not. If we have integrated this story into our daily lives, then the practice of our life – or rather the practices which make up our life – are shaped by an exemplary character in our story. Our daily life only makes sense if it is a kind of discipleship to this character or ideal.

The unavoidable nature of discipleship is part of being human. Without a narrative-shaped identity, we cannot orient ourselves in social or moral space, nor can we integrate the parts of our lives. Without an authorizing story and a sense of identity, we are dis-oriented and lost. As Charles Taylor says: “to know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand” (Sources of the Self, 27).

However, for many of us, our work life, church life, and family/neighborhood life participates in fundamentally different narratives and are oriented toward different horizons. As a consumer, I am oriented by the horizon of self-interested rationality or perhaps conspicuous consumption – where my identity is fixed within the horizon and goods of the transaction. Or, as a software engineer for a multinational corporation, my identity is formed within the goods and goals of product excellence or shareholder concerns or corporate goals. These two narratives do not need to cancel each other out. In fact, we often make one authoritative in order to reconcile the competing tensions: we ‘become’ through consumption or through climbing the corporate ladder. But most of us remain divided between competing narratives. In fact, this is one of the singular features of our pluralist, post-modern society: the loss of the meta-narrative. Each community and each person must construct meaning and identity as he or she sees fit.

And so the problem is not only that we are all disciples of someone or something, but we are often poor disciples of that thing because we are divided, confused, and fickle followers. We either have a shallow identity or are in the throes of an identity crisis. Seinfeld is the show about nothing; this is perhaps a metaphor for our modern formation. Our lives are a story about nothing. 

What do we make of this? In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a man who spends his whole life in airplanes. He is a consultant for downsizing companies, and so he spends his days traveling all across the United States to help firms lay workers off. Clooney is largely happy with the artificiality of his life. It is a life free from attachments, emotion, and community. His work addresses real people in their real vulnerability, but it does not affect him because he lives largely detached from the concerns of family, community, or even career. After he drops in to deliver devastating news, he quickly disappears back into to recycled air and the perpetual motion of a life in flight. His life is not without orientation, however. He dreams of earning 10 million frequent flyer miles with American Airlines. This life suits Clooney just fine until he is forced to travel with a young manager in the company. With a traveling companion, he must deal with the emotion and inconvenience that comes with relationship and attachment. The artificiality of his life is punctured by the interruption of human contact and – ever-so-slightly – human solidarity. As the story develops, place and relational bonds signify “reality” but also suffering and inconvenience. The audience roots for Clooney to choose a human life; but in the end the suffering of ‘reality’ proves to be too much. He ends up “in the air” as the credits roll. 

If Seinfeld gives us a metaphor for our fragmentary formation, Up in the Air demonstrates the root condition: a frenetic, commuter lifestyle where we can largely choose which relational bonds and communities that we will join. Like Clooney, we live our lives “up in the air,” and on the freeways and between various ‘real’ communities, neighborhoods, church groups, and work places. No single relationship or community claims or defines us.  Thus, our ‘real’ life is found in the artificiality ‘up in the air.’ And so we seek to be the authors of our own narrative, the spiritual master organizing our own formation, our own horizon within which we try to understand ourselves. We are disciples to so many masters that we become disciples to our desires.

But this is irredeemably shallow. It is no way to live. And it is a path that avoids genuine spiritual formation. For if we are to be formed in and by the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must find our place in an authorizing narrative not our own, and bring the practice of our everyday life within its horizon or orientation. As such, genuine spiritual formation works directly against the dissolution of relationship and the avoidance of place while it works to bring coherence to the multi-faceted practices and commitments of modern life. It is, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the practice of willing “one thing.” Christian spiritual re-formation addresses our condition by giving us the authorizing story of the gospel and particular embodied practices of formation – worship/liturgy, prayer/solitude, sabbath, hospitality – shared with an actual local community. 

Several initial questions emerge from this account: (1) What is the horizon opened up by the gospel story? And how does this horizon include and shape the practice of our everyday life? Dallas Willard calls this the vision necessary for any journey of formation. (2) What is the process by which we are formed? Willard calls this the question of means: what practices do we have to help re-form our mind, heart, body, and community within the story of the gospel? 

The first set of questions invite us into a missiological engagement with the biblical texts. What resources, visions, and pictures of spiritual formation are given in the Scriptures? And how do these resources challenge, shape, and/or deepen the ordinary commitments of our modern life? The second set of questions invite us to consider everything from theological anthropology to pedagogy in relationship to the rich heritage of spiritual practices within the Christian tradition. If we are to participate in the re-formation of our identity around the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must attend carefully to both by the grace of God in the Holy Spirit.

Virgil, Beatrice, and a Good Friday Reflection

“words are cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field…but they’re all we have…” (from Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel) 

Language often fails us in moments of immediacy or truth. We’ve probably all had that experience of beauty that defies description. We are sitting on a beach and suddenly all seems right with the world. We see our child dancing with abandon when she thinks no one is watching. We eat, say, a pear, and drown in the wondrous depths of texture and taste. But these moments pass. We try to hold onto them. We tell our friends and loved ones about the experience in order to keep it contemporary, in order to fix and relive this gift of right-ness. Our description almost always secures the elusive nature of the event, the fact that it comes from outside us and moves on. We can never muster enough adjectives or metaphors to make it live again. Words fail us.

This is also true in moments of profound suffering. When our world shatters, what can we say? What is there to say? Death, oppression, injury sometimes sneak up on us and wrap themselves around us. Like beauty, it comes to us uninvited and it leaves us without breath or language. Like the experience of beauty, suffering comes to us from beyond, from outside. Words fail us.

This morning I read Mark’s account of the crucifixion. I was struck by the role silence plays in the narrative. Jesus cries out in the garden to his Father: “if it is your will, remove this cup…” The Father is silent. Jesus asks his disciples to keep watch for one hour. They remain silent in sleep. Unresolved, Jesus is greeted by Judas and carried off to his trial, where he faces multiple accusations. Jesus remains silent. He does not give an answer to the charges laid against him, but rather makes a claims that God stands with him. Everything that follows seems to secure the exact opposite of Jesus’ claim. Before Pilate, nobody comes to defend him. Peter only speaks to actively distance himself from Jesus. Before the Roman guards, Jesus remains silent as they spit on him and continue to mock, and beat him. Simon of Cyrene, a bystander in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, is forced into service, shoved under the cross by the coercive exercise of Roman power. The only speaking after this comes in the form of insults and accusations. Jesus’ followers fled. Only the women who “followed and cared for his needs” remain at the scene. And they, too, are silent.

In Mark’s account, Jesus’ only words from the cross are the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He dies with a loud cry. The silence of God in the garden carries throughout Jesus’ ordeal. Where are you, God? Why won’t you rise up to defend your servant who lives for the health and well-being of others, who announced and lived like the Kingdom of God was a present and available reality? The irony of God’s silence is not lost on the crowd. “He saved others…but he can’t save himself…” they murmur among themselves with a sardonic chuckle.

We use the word “tragedy” to describe senseless and cruel suffering, oppression, and humiliation on this level. But tragedy strikes me as insufficient. This story is not a mishap or something to which we shake our heads and say “too bad…too bad.” It is a story of God’s absence, God’s silence, in the face of inhuman violence and oppression. It is a story about a community’s inability to stand with the oppressed and against the oppressor. Words fail us. Silence, or rather aphasia, thrusts itself upon us in the cross.

But two characters do speak. A Roman guard carrying out the death-sentence proclaims “surely this man was the Son of God!” And Joseph of Arimathea asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body. In a story of absence we suddenly experience presence – a confession of faith and the honoring of the dead. Beautiful might be too strong a word for the confession of the guard and the intentional care given by Joseph. But in a story of betrayal, silence, and the sludge of untruthful speech one catches a glimpse of truth even in the shadows. Human experience is too diffuse to ever get a handle on it. Words fail us.

I’ve been reflecting on Good Friday in light of Yann Martel’s novel Beatrice and Virgil. It is a novel which contains the scattered fragments of a play about a howler monkey and a donkey. It sounds silly, but the reader soon recognizes that both the play and the entire book is about the holocaust, and the challenge of speaking and living after the failure of trust in humanity and God, the loss of innocence about our world and the experience of violence and loss.

The real story of Martel’s novel only comes in fragments. We never learn the order of the acts or the way in which Beatrice and Virgil make sense of “the horrors” they have experienced. Instead what we get are descriptions that echo the unthinkable horror of the holocaust alongside surprising visions of beauty and abundance. In some scenes, Virgil and Beatrice lament the alienation and oppression of one group (animals) by another group (people), the systematic torture and eventual extermination of this group, and the lingering question of how we (i.e. humanity, not just the victims) will speak of the horrors after they are done. The scenes of dereliction are broken up with others, like where they go on for pages describing the peculiar and particular beauty of shape, texture, scent, and taste of a pear or when they are arrested by the beauty of a sunset and the abundance of life in a field even though they themselves are living under a death sentence.

It is as though their experience of life in the midst of death, reflects the symbolic importance of their names: Beatrice is the one who guides Dante through heaven while Virgil guides Dante through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy. And the fragmentary nature of the book echoes the real-time confusion of life in this world – both arrestingly beautiful and painful, marked by God’s apparent absence and presence. This is the tension –  the dialectic maybe? – of human life east of Eden. And it defies explanation – in its beauty and suffering – words fail us.

For me, this Good Friday, I’m caught with how the cross stands in and within this aphasia. It identifies with our complicity in violence as well as our experience of victimhood. It points toward our fear: our experience of god-forsakenness and our fear of death. It is an offense. An innocent man tortured and killed who we claim is the Christ, the Lord, God the Son. A story of God-forsakenness that we place at the center of our faith. And yet, precisely because it is a place of dereliction and absence, it gives hope and opens a future. It is the freedom and self-abandonment made possible by the worst case scenario. It is an event that defies explanation, and yet it strikes us as true – true to our pain and vulnerability, while giving us a way to open ourselves to God in the midst of our uncertainty. Like Virgil and Beatrice – guiding us through hell for the sake of life. Jurgen Moltmann says at the beginning of The Crucified God, “The cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death.” Words sometimes fail. And so in light of the various crises, pain, hopes, and fears we face…we look to the cross as a sign of God’s presence and pain even in the unthinkable and unspeakable.

The Collapse of Our Narrative: What is Christianity, Part II

I was on a hike around a local lake with my daughter last week when she suddenly became philosophical. I can tell you that few things warm this father’s heart more than a burst of philosophical speculation from his children. She took my hand and said something like: “dad, you know, I’ve been thinking that stories are like life. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. You know, for example, the three little pigs has a beginning, middle, and end just like a life does. Or the Bible stories, too, are just like life.” Yes. The three little pigs and, of course, the Bible. But she is right. Life is like a story. In fact – as many others have said before me – humans are story-telling animals. We make sense of our lives in the categories of story. We tell stories in order to make meaning. We tell stories in order to identify who and where we are, to make sense of our past and to give shape to our future.

I wrote in my last post about the shape of Christianity. I suggested that mission history suggests a dynamic picture of Christian identity – that it is less a ‘thing’ defined by static boundaries, and more a movement. I also suggested that the nature and identity of Christianity is troubling in our current ‘post’ Christendom era. This is because we are currently living through the collapse of our dominant narratives for self-understanding. That is, the basic stories that we have learned to tell in order to make sense of the Christian ‘thing’ have become less and less plausible to the extent that we can no longer believe them. Losing a narrative framework is unnerving for any person or movement. But it is also part of our growth in a dynamic and uncertain world. Just ask any adolescent. In the transition, we often grasp for the old narrative, try to tell and retell it so that we can revive the feelings of contentment and power we once felt.

When it comes to Christian identity – our self-understanding – something like this collapse of our dominant narratives has and is taking place in relationship to the category “world.” What I mean by this is that we have plenty of theological categories that might help us to communicate (albeit somewhat abstractly) what the relationship between the Christian and God, or the Church and God might be. We can easily protect biblical propositions about the nature and being of God or descriptions of holiness from the tumult that characterizes the modern world. But it is much more difficult to do this when we try to place our understanding of God – and ourselves as those related to God through Jesus Christ – in relationship to our dynamic and unpredictable world.

In the last couple hundred years, three narratives have helped us to make sense of who and whose we are in the modern world. The first is a narrative of expansion. Here, we understood Christianity as a geographic reality destined by the work of God to expand into the entire world. The second is a narrative of extension. Here, we understood Christianity as a moral resource called by the voice of God to extend its goodwill into all the world. These first two are the narratives of Christendom, which imagine certain ‘Christian’ groups interacting with the ‘world’ out beyond the Christian. In both, Christian identity is one formed in and by action and power. The third narrative is slightly different. It imagines Christianity as the expression of a personal decision. This narrative emerges within the revivalist traditions and imagines Christianity first as an internal and personal reality before it is anything else. In this way, it is less about Christian entities relating to the world and more about Christians themselves in relationship to the world.

Now, these three narratives are interrelated. Often, evangelical groups draw upon all three in making sense of themselves. But they are increasingly implausible for us to maintain for a variety of reasons. In the next post, I will explore the collapse of the expansion and extension narratives before exploring the decisionist narrative and how we might go about re-narrating Christian life and expression in our present context.

What is Christianity? (Part 1)

buddy christIt may appear that I have given up blogging for lent. I did not. But I have been busy with other writing demands that have kept me from writing here. I find that my inspiration for a blog post comes from the margins of my life. My blog has become a place to work out ideas, not present them. Anyway, I find that when I’m running without enough margins, my blog reminds me that I’m not learning, but only producing. I’m back this morning, not because I’ve gained margins in my life, but because I need to.

Last week I started teaching a class at Rochester College in their Masters of Religious Education degree called “Missio Dei: The Christian Story.” The course is completely online. It is one of my favorite courses that I teach. The reading – David Bosch, Andrew Walls, and William Placher – and discussion energize me. I learn much from the students. But I also find that the subject matter pushes me in unexpected ways. You see, for much of my life I imagined Christianity as a ‘thing’ with clear boundaries that were relatively static. One was either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of Christianity based on one or another boundary-crossing event. Growing up Catholic, participation in the Sacraments were the boundary crossing event. When I got swept up in an evangelical youth group, I traded the Sacraments for what David Fitch calls “The Decision.” Since I was prone to asking philosophical questions, I had to confront various problems with ‘The Decision’ – (what do we do about people who make ‘The Decision’ but then show no sign of even caring about Jesus? what do we do about people who live what appear to be good Christian lives – like Catholics – but who have never made ‘The Decision’?). So I began to supplement ‘The Decision’ with various foundationalist epistemological theories, where I thought about commitment to ‘Revealed Truth’ as a kind of boundary-marker.

However, I made a pathetic foundationalist. I almost always became suspicious of my own working foundation, and then had to go in search of another. It was when I began reading folks like Stanley Grenz and some of the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) publications while studying at Regent College that I began to discover a whole new way of thinking about the shape and nature of the Christian faith. Grenz, of course, works with categories he inherits from Wolfhart Pannenberg, and argues that words like ‘truth’ and ‘revelation’ refer to an eschatological manifestation, a ‘whole’ that we do not yet perceive or receive in its entirety. This small distinction upset my sense of stasis in the Christian story. The GOCN books brought missiological concerns and insights from the margins to the mainstream for understanding Christianity in North America. Again, this introduced a dynamic component into my understanding of Christian identity.

I like teaching this course on mission history because the entire course lives within the dynamism of Christianity, and this question about the nature of the faith across diverse times, questions, and practices. There are no easy threads that connect the lives of the faithful across the generations. New cultures, new questions, and new generations take the Christian story to surprising places and gift (and sometimes curse) future generations in surprising ways. The question ‘what is Christianity?’ rests over the entire course in a way that frees the students to risk participating in the missio Dei in their own contexts. Response to the call of God was risky and uncertain then; it still is now.

In this way, learning the dynamic movements of mission history helps us to make sense of the massive identity crisis Christianity currently faces in North America. We are all undergoing a series of ‘Posts’: post-Christendom, post-modern, even post-secular. If I imagine that Christianity is a stable and static ‘whole,’ then my initial response to this rapid social, cultural, and religious change will be both resistance and retrenchment. I will build the walls higher and make the boundaries clearer in order to resist the threat to my identity that such change brings. This is where many Christians find themselves. And it results in things like ‘culture wars’ (which is about as helpful a metaphor as ‘fiscal cliff…’).

Surely, another response is needed to such change. But the lingering fear of those caught in the ‘static’ conception of the faith is that response to cultural or societal change that seeks to build bridges rather than walls runs the risk of giving our distinct identity away. The fear is that we will lose our Christianity by listening and responding to cultural shifts. In short, the fear is that we will trade the Jesus of our history with the ‘Buddy Christ’ of Dogma. Dogma, if you remember, features a Catholic renewal movement that trades the cross of Christ for a bobble-head Jesus doll in order to ‘update’ the faith. But fear of the ‘Buddy Christ’ creates a false dichotomy. Just because Christianity is a mobile or dynamic religion does not mean that it can become anything. This tension, it seems to me, is one of the big questions in our time: what does Christian faithfulness look like in this time of dynamic and unpredictable change? But I’m afraid that this question sounds a bit like I’m reducing Christianity back to a ‘thing.’ So let me put it this way: what does it mean for us to live plausibly within the Christian story?

I want to spend the next few posts exploring this question. The first couple will articulate the modern crisis of Christian identity by exploring the collapse of three different narratives by which Christians have understood themselves. After exploring the collapse, I will argue for a renewed understanding of Christianity according to categories of story, translation, and eschatology.

Becoming Human during Lent

When I was a kid, I loved Ash Wednesday. I went to a Catholic school, which meant a special Mass to mark ourselves and the onset of Lent. All the students had to go forward at the end of Mass to receive a cross of ash on the forehead. When my turn came, the priest marked me with ash and said, “from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” Others in my family found the practice morbid. They told me that it was a wholly depressing service. They preferred to talk about eternal life in Jesus. But I loved it. It reminded me of the creation story I learned (Genesis 2), where God creates with his hands and breathes life into humanity. Thinking about dust and death brought its own strange comfort.

In fact, during that time I found eternal life more fearsome than death. The first recurring nightmare I can remember had to do with living forever. When I was seven or eight, talk about Jesus and eternal life haunted me in a dream where I saw time with no end coming at me like the streaks of light as a starship jumped into hyperspace in the Star Wars movies. For some reason, this dream scared me. I remember being surprised that nobody else was frightened by thoughts of time with no end. I still, for more or less the same reason, find comfort in the reminder of Ash Wednesday: from dust I have come; to dust I will return. 

Lent is a season where we remember our limitations. We do not just remember our limitations as mortal beings (to dust we will return), but we remember our daily vulnerability as creatures when we make Lenten commitments. Often during Lent, our intentions run far ahead of our capacity for fulfilling them. We vow to fast, or to pray, or to be a better neighbour; we fail. But acknowledging this does not make us morbid. It helps to make us more human. 

When we acknowledge our mortality, our frailty, and our vulnerability we become aware of faith as a fundamental structure of human life, that we must learn how to become human. And in order to learn, we must trust others and (to some extent) the world. We have no human culture apart from language, but we only learn language in trusting relationship with others. As children, we learned how to speak, relate, and live because we trusted and entrusted ourselves to our parents, grandparents, and teachers. This continues into adulthood, as we only learn new things by trusting new channels of information, co-workers, and friends. And if we decide that one person, practice, or perspective is untrustworthy, we do so because we have come to trust in another! Trust, or faith is what makes our world go ‘round. We become human in and within trusting relationships. To be human is to have faith.

(I realize that this paragraph stands in direct opposition to enlightenment epistemology, which begins with universal doubt. But that is another blog post for another time.)

We all live by faith. Lent helps us to remember that. But it also challenges us to renew our faith in the One worthy of such trust, the one who created us from dust in the first place. Yes, we learn from our parents, our friends, from experts, or co-workers. But they are also frail and flawed. In the end, they will return to dust as well; they also have a cross of ash on their foreheads. As it makes us aware of our mortality and compulsive faith, Lent also points toward one who lives with us, lives like us, but who has not seen decay; one who has not, and will not return to dust but who instead rose from the dead. Lent stares squarely at a cross (which is also on our foreheads) but ends with an empty tomb. This is not to say that faith in Jesus helps us to escape our frail humanity. Rather – and this is why I think 8-year-old me found comfort in Ash Wednesday – it helps us to embrace our frail creatureliness as the site for our redemption and hope.

In Romans 5:12ff, Paul compares Jesus and Adam. Just as Adam’s faithlessness led to sin and death for all creation (and, we might add, the sin of our forefathers and foremothers, as well as ours…),  so now Jesus’ faithfulness (or, in other places, his “obedience”) leads to righteousness and life “for all humanity” (5:18). It is not just that Jesus shows us who God is or even that Jesus rescues us, but that Jesus does these things precisely as a man, a creature, one in solidarity with our frailty and sin. Precisely because of his solidarity with sinful humanity, Jesus then shows us who we are as human beings. For this reason, Jesus is called the “image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15 (remember, human beings are created in God’s image in Genesis). He is the righteous human being before God. Jesus’ life and work demonstrates that his righteousness does not separate him from us, but rather causes him to make our curse his; thus transforming the human condition from the inside out. Galatians 3:13 says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” and 2 Corinthians 5:21 says “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The righteous and resurrected one, Jesus Christ, also wears an ashen cross on his forehead.

There is some controversy among New Testament scholars whether the phrase “faith in Christ” (pistis Christou) in the NT should instead be translated “faith of Christ.” The difference, of course, is significant. If, for instance, Paul says we have new life because of the “faith of Christ” in Galatians 2:15, he is saying that the trustworthy faith that Jesus’ life displayed is the good news. The emphasis is on what Jesus’ life accomplished. But if we receive new life through faith in Christ, then he is placing the emphasis on our response to Jesus’ life. Personally, I am convinced by scholars who have argued for some combination of the two: that if we place our faith in Christ, we are entrusting ourselves to the one who lived a faithful and trustworthy life before God. 

The faithfulness of Christ demonstrates the shape and destiny of human partnership with God. There is one who wears ashes on his forehead who has completely “entrusted himself to him who judges justly” and thus pointed toward renewal, life, and gospel. We become human by acknowledging our limitation, and then by embracing that posture of trust. From dust we have come, to dust we will return; but the resurrected one demonstrates that even in the dust we are never beyond the reach and care of the one whose very breath is life.

The Gift and Death (Can A Gift Be Given, Part 2)

…but true love is the burden /that will carry me back home/carry me with the memories of the beauty I have known…(From “Ulysses” by Josh Garrells)

In the movie Broken Flowers Bill Murray plays an aging bachelor, a modern Don Juan fresh off a new break-up and bored with life. He receives a pink envelope that informs him he has a son from a former girlfriend. He should not be alarmed if the young man – now over 18 – comes to find him. Other than the time-frame, the letter offers no clues as to the identity or location of the mother. Murray’s gregarious family-man next door catches wind of the note and convinces Murray to hit the road in search of the woman and, in a way, himself. The rest of the film follows Murray as he visits former lovers and looks for clues – without asking directly – regarding the author of the mysterious note. The scenes with each woman are marked by an overriding sense of wonder and regret. Murray’s journey reminds him of pieces of his past that he has lost. These broken relationships remain like a jumble of charged wires: severed and dormant yet potent with energy, and dangerous.

I think there is something universal in Murray’s experience. Not the Don Juan part…but the way in which we live disconnected in significant ways from formerly important and significant relationships. People and events in our past almost always have more significance than we allot to them as we try to make sense of our story. And so each of us leaves behind a jumble of crossed and charged wires: high school friends, disgraced family members, friends who moved away, old colleagues, and, of course, those who have preceded us in death. Though these relationships are severed, they still carry some charge and these memories can still surprise – and jolt – us when we happen to brush against the wire, a song reminds us of a former self or the smell of a particular food brings us back to the kitchen of grandma. Like Murray, this jolt from our past brings with it its own kind of melancholy. An era has passed, we can no longer be present to it; certain wrongs we have committed cannot be made right; a piece of ourselves has been lost which cannot return.

And this is why any talk about an economy of gift seems naive and troubling. Last week I argued that there is something about the very shape of our existence that speaks of gift, of surplus, of abundance. Each of us lives within an economy or an ecology of gift; our well-being has been pursued by others – parents, friends, strangers – that we will not be able to repay or properly thank. I reflected on the way in which this economy itself creates in each of us the problem of response, the gift invites us to receive it and live within the economy of gift. In simplistic terms, we receive the gift of life by ‘paying it forward.’ But Murray’s life in Broken Flowers and my (presumably real) life demonstrates the naivete of such an idea. My life is more broken than it is whole. Even if I do my best to ‘pay’ grace forward, to live within an economy of abundant gift, I inevitably leave behind a trail of broken (or faded) relationships, forgotten promises, missed opportunities. And, in the end, I will die. I cannot make good on the promise of my life, I cannot be counted on to fulfill whatever promises I make. In short, I am not trustworthy nor powerful enough to sustain an economy of gift. My participation in grace is a flimsy and fragile affair.

This is why resurrection faith is so crucial for any Christian understanding of gift or grace. I’m reading Pannenberg’s Jesus: God and Man right now, and struck again how the resurrection of the Crucified One is the gospel. Before the resurrection, Jesus’ life bore the same fragile and flimsy quality of mine and yours. Yes, he taught with authority. Yes, he lived in a provocative way that included the outcast, heretic, and (even) the religious. Yes, his demonstration of the Kingdom of God directly challenged the authorities in such a way that he ended up on trial and then on an object of torture. He lived, unwaveringly, in the economy of grace. But in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus confronts the fear that each of us faces when we realize the cost of such grace: loss of control and death. To live from a place of abundance and generosity is to participate in death because – lets face it – my life is not abundant and neither is yours. We will die, as the broken pieces of our past attest to countless mini-deaths already. It is the resurrection (Pannenberg calls it “Jesus’ fate”) that flashes instant light on Jesus’ work and life. Suddenly, the meaning, purpose, and scope of Jesus’ life – and the fate of all creation – becomes clarified like a flash of lightning in a thunderstorm. This one is the one that God identifies with; this life is the life that is God’s own Son: the life of abundant grace and love. In Gethsemane, on the Cross, and even while at the dinner table with outcasts, Jesus entrusts himself, and his fate, to God. There is no participation in grace, or love, without a similar trust. Because I will die, I cannot live from a place of abundance unless I entrust myself to some future. As a Christian, this means that I cannot do so apart from a fundamental trust in the God who raised the Crucified One from the dead. This is the way of grace in a ‘broken flowers’ kind of body.

Can a Gift be Given?

A few weeks ago Maribeth and I received a remarkable gift from some friends. A couple in our church offered to take our kids for a night, and to arrange an overnight outing for us. When they set it up, we thought they were only taking our kids. We were thrilled. But as the date grew closer, we realized that they planned the entire night, complete with a ‘Mission-Impossible’-like set of instructions. We received an envelope on the skytrain downtown that informed us of hotel and restaurant reservations. We had a great time celebrating our anniversary in beautiful downtown Vancouver; we were amazed, humbled, and truly honored by the gesture. We had been given a precious gift. Our kids had a good time too. Apparently. When we arrived home, our youngest burst into tears because we had come home – she was not ready for the party to end.

But a show of generosity always leads to the problem of response or gratitude. When a friend gives me something beautiful, what response is appropriate given the nature of the gift? We all know intuitively that we cannot offer to do the same thing for the gift-giving couple. For if we responded to such a show of generosity by insisting that Maribeth and I take their kids and plan a surprise weekend, what once was a gift will become an exchange. What began as unprovoked generosity will suddenly be recontextualized as only one moment in a transaction or an exchange of services. If a gift is simply returned or ‘paid back,’ it is no longer a gift. It becomes a transaction. And yet, a beautiful, unprovoked act of generosity requires  a response. So what do we do?

The problem is magnified by the nature of the gift. A few weeks ago, I was cross-country skiing with some family members at the Olympic Park near Whistler, BC. This was where the cross-country ski competition took place during the 2010 Winter Olympics. It was snowing heavily that day. At one point, I found myself deep in a valley. My brother had skied on ahead and I was resting. The snow wrapped around the towering cedar and fir trees of the mountain, bending their branches gently like a forest in a Dr. Seuss book. The air still; quarter-sized flakes pouring from an unseen expanse above. For a second, I felt joy. And then deep gratitude. This moment came as an unprovoked act of generosity. But then the problem of response sets in. Where do I direct my gratitude? What response could possibly be appropriate or adequate given this moment of beauty, joy, and peace? I’m sure we can all think of those moments. A quiet moment while reading a story with one of my kids, a particularly inspiring sunset, a good cup of coffee, a sudden burst of joy while sitting down to a day of work – these are all moments that inspire gratitude at some level. But where do we direct it? What response is appropriate given the unprovoked and even ambiguous nature of the gift?

The easy (or maybe obvious) response is to thank God for these moments. When the gift is so grand and majestic – snow falling on fir trees or the joy of being alive – we have no recourse but to thank ‘the universe’ or ‘God’ or some ‘higher power.’ It is natural, almost instinctual. But there is something utterly inadequate about this. We have all received those form-letter ‘thank you’ notes when we have given to an organization. I doubt any of us gives a second thought to them. They are a formality, and not an adequate counter-gift. The same is true when we receive the hastily-scrawled thank you after giving a wedding gift. It simply acknowledges that a gift was received, and that is fine. No one would consider the rote ‘thank you’ card as ‘on par’ with the original gift. I think any expression of thanks or gratitude to God in the moment of joy or peace described above is like sending a ‘thank you’ card out after a wedding gift. We are acknowledging the gift, but not necessarily responding ‘in kind’ to the gift. Something feels so utterly inadequate to saying ‘thank you God’ in such moments. Like the gift given to Maribeth and I, such generosity calls for something else, something more.

This is a problem that has plagued philosophy for decades. I won’t get into the details, but say that I have begun to wonder about whether a concept like ‘economy’ or maybe ‘ecology’ is helpful in thinking about the nature of gifts and our response to them. When we receive unprovoked generosity, we are suddenly included in an economy or ecology of gift. In such an economy, the usual laws of transaction and cause-and-effect are suspended, for we have received something for which we did not work and that which we cannot pay back in kind without demeaning or changing the original meaning of the gift itself. An economy of gift begins with assumptions of abundance – in the surplus of life, of ‘stuff’, of joy – and subverts any talk of ‘earning’ or ‘achievement’ with an enduring posture of generosity. When we legitimately receive a gift, we enter such an economy. A ‘thank you’ or a ‘counter-gift’ strikes us as inadequate because we know at a deep level that the only appropriate response to unprovoked generosity is to live ourselves in a world characterized by unprovoked generosity. But because the gift comes unprovoked, we can experience the economy of gift as an unwelcome surprise or interruption. We don’t always want to live without the safety and brutality of a transactional world, for if we receive and respond to the giftedness of our lives – we live in a completely new world.

In the New Testament, the life and teaching of Jesus regularly creates such a surprise and provocation. When he opens up the scroll of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4) and reads from Isaiah 61 (“the spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor…”), his initially receptive audience almost throws him off a cliff. Why? Because to receive God’s generosity as unprovoked or as grace, means that the transactional nature of religious instruction and observance comes under judgment. Jesus announces that God’s saving presence – God’s care or redemption – comes not as the outcome of a religious transaction, but as a sudden and surprising gift. If this is true, then even ‘sinners’ and ‘outsiders’ might be included. Like the life of Jesus, it might even mean that such a gift opens me up to such outsiders and sinners, to live generously with and for them as a natural response of gratitude for the giftedness of my experience. To receive such a gift is to live in a wholly new world: an ecology or economy of gift, surplus, grace.

A picture of this came home to me when watching Les Miserables in the theatre over Christmas. Indeed, the entire story weaves a web of ‘gift’ or ‘grace’ or ‘love.’ From the original gift of the priest to Jean Valjean, to the way Valjean risks and sacrifices for Fantine’s daughter (Cosette), to the way that Eponine risks for Marius, and Valjean for Marius and Cosette. Each character depends in fundamental ways upon the generosity of another for his or her well-being. It is an ecology of gift, where the only response to unprovoked grace is to live within that grace. It is to live in a risky new world. And, as the closing song emphasizes (“to love another is to see the face of God”), to live in such an economy is to participate in the life of God. But when we are confronted with the gift, we are left with a choice. When Valjean does not kill his nemesis (Javert), Javert himself faces the problem of the response. He chooses suicide, for (in his words) such a world – characterized by gift – cannot stand.

But – and this is the point of the resurrection – such a world does and will stand. In fact, it is the only world that gives life. There is a kind of abundance and surplus to life that can never be documented on a spreadsheet. We all owe a thousand debts to the unprovoked gifts of strangers, family members, even civil society institutions or trustworthy organizations. Such gifts provoke us and make us aware of the gift, the grace which draws us into the self-giving love at the center of the universe, to which we can only respond ‘Amen.’