How to Have a Beautiful Soul (or Avoid an Ugly One)

eyeI was rereading parts of Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground this past week. Dostoevsky – a 19th Century Russian writer – is among the pantheon of Great Authors whose works, though rooted deeply in time and place, transcend them. His massive sprawling novel The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the uncontested masterpieces of world literature. It is in my top five favorite novels.

Notes from Underground is something else entirely. It’s the jumbled confession of a jaded twisted man, immersed in his own torment and misery. It amounts to one of the bleakest portraits ever rendered of man alone, man without friend, without God, without hope. “I am a sick man,” the confession begins. “I am a spiteful man.” Thus launches a misanthropic tirade of burning resentment, choking self-pity, and vicious self-loathing.

The book proved prophetic. Increasingly, the nameless anti-hero of the Notes resembles us, or we him: a people longing for the admiration of others without the burden of them, wanting applause without having to earn it, bearing grudges for the slightest slights. A people who throw off God, thinking it’s liberation, and who only end up impoverished and enslaved, captive to our own dark selves.

Dostoevsky was a Christ-follower – a troubled one, to be sure, but with a deep grasp of God’s extravagant grace. His later works – The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, The Brothers K – are breath-taking testaments to the transforming and liberating power of the Christ who meets even the least of us in the most unlikely places.

The relationship in The Brothers K between the simple saintly Alyosha and the brilliant embittered – and rabidly atheistic – Ivan is alone worth the price of that book and the effort of reading it. Ivan’s logic is hard to refute, but Alyosha’s life is hard to resist. We find the atheist semi convincing, but the saint entirely compelling. Alyosha’s soul draws us with its beauty. Ivan’s soul repels us with its ugliness.

It strikes me, leafing through the Notes, that Dostoevsky was sketching all this out, and with it issuing a warning: that among the many horrors of rejecting Christ, not least is a soul that grows ugly.

Thus I begin my confession: I am a forgiven man. I am a thankful man.

My First Time Base Jumping!

I wrote this in my book Spiritual Rhythm a few years ago:base jump

The fastest growing sport in Norway is wingsuit jumping. It’s the pastime of lunatics, or it’s what warrior-knights do in an age without dragons. It requires steel nerves, a cool-head, a touch of madness. You must be able to look fast-approaching catastrophe in the face, and whoop.

I go onto to describe the equipment: a kind of giant flying squirrel bodysuit that turns the jumper, splayed wide open, into a human kite, sans string. The sport, also called base jumping, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

I did it last weekend.

Not literally. I’m neither brave nor crazy enough for that. I did it figuratively, except with all the same sensations I imagine base-jumpers experience – utmost dread, giddy anticipation, sheer terror, pure exhilaration, an urgent visceral sense that if I live through this it will be one of the most daring things I’ve ever attempted, and if I don’t live I will at least die with a certain flair.

Last weekend I resigned.

I have been in pastoral ministry nearly 24 years, and in my current post over 17. I’ve loved every day of it, except the days I haven’t (usually Mondays, when I nurse a post-sermon hangover and writhe in existential angst about, well, everything). The role has shaped me beyond measure. Being a pastor has done more in me than I have ever done being a pastor. I entered the role soon after my 29th birthday. I will step out of the role just past my 53rd. Between those two milestones lies a universe. I am not the same man. And yet, I am more myself than ever. The pastorate has been trial by ordeal and foretaste of heaven, often on the same day. I have failed miserably and succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I am loved, and I am despised. I have been a prophet, and a fool. I have poured myself out like a drink offering, and sometimes squandered myself like a cheap piñata. It has been awesome, and burdensome, glorious, and tedious, and altogether beautiful.

And last Sunday, I quit.

Well, not exactly. I announced to my congregation that I would be stepping down as their pastor on June 16. They were justly slightly more shocked than I was. I truly thought I’d be here until roll call.

I do have a landing spot (we’re back to the base jumping metaphor): Ambrose College in Calgary, Alberta – my birth town, now grown vast and rich, but no warmer come winter. I have been appointed Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary. I start August 1.

Maybe the letter I read my congregation last Sunday best explains all that. Please click this link to see that. Letter

I covet your prayers for me and my family, and also for New Life Church.

Pray we all land, if not softly, at least intact.