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.

Novel Excerpt

Novel Excerpt

I am just finishing up edits on my novel, David, and thought it good to post another excerpt.

This chapter has Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s estranged wife, recalling how the prophet-judge Samuel figured into her father’s kingship.

Hope you enjoy.

I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Shalom

Mark

 

 


Tall

(Michal)

 

My first remembrance of my father was of his wondrous tallness. Even after I had become a woman, and he was old and worn by his own accumulation of years and misery, he loomed. He was always thin, even when in later years a little sack of stomach, like a smuggled idol, bulged beneath his tunic. But he was never thin in the way some men are, brittle and gangling, ivied with vein, vulnerable to windgust. My father’s thinness was like a judgment against other men’s excess, their indiscipline. His tallness he bore like a vindication.

I recall looking up from the ground upon his great height. Perhaps I was four. Literally, to me, his head was in clouds, swarmed with sky and thunder, defying heaven. Even then he was distracted, fretting at some shadow, something that only he saw or sensed. I loved him the way daughters love fathers, simple and complicated, full of hope and anger. And once in a while he would turn his full attention to me – I was his momentary obsession – and it terrified and exhilarated me altogether, as if one of the hill country’s legendary giants had deigned to make me its personal doll. He would take me in his lap and move his face so close to mine I felt the rasp of his beard on my cheek and could smell him, muttony and sour, though his hands smelled like he’d been forging metal, smoky and oily and acrid. He spoke in a low soothing voice. It had the thinnest edge of menace. 

“Do you want to know how I became king?”

“Yes, papa.”   

“Which story do you want to hear, the true one or the pretend one?”

“That one, papa.”

“Yes. Good. The land was dark. It was overrun by heathen armies, heathen tribes, cruel and stupid and always hungry. Men consulted witches to try to find some clue to the madness, some path through it. But it only got darker. Israel became like everyone else, senseless, foolish, godless. Priests were wicked. Prophets were solitary, and some no better than madmen. In those days the rains came rarely, and the winds refused to rise, and men plowed the dry hard ground only to watch the seeds die in the sprouting. The temple lay in ruins, like a house after war or famine. Which it was. The shutters were bolted and inside there was no more light than when the great shadow falls over the sun.

“Those were terrible times. But then God did what no one expected. He put his hand on a child. Samuel. He was only about your age, Michal. A little boy. A little boy whose mother Hannah dressed him in a fresh linen ephod each year when she visited him at the temple. The darkness stopped with Samuel. It did not reach him, could not touch him. He grew tall and strong, and he never wavered in obedience, and Eli was like a father to him, and he eased the sadness in Eli’s heart. 

“And then a night came when the Voice came. ‘Samuel,’ the Voice said. Samuel leaped from his bed.” 

And my father would leap up from where he sat, swooping me in a wild arc of motion that made my insides tickle, and I would gasp with both the anticipation and surprise of it. Then standing, he would hold me. The ground seemed far below. 

“‘Yes,’ Samuel said, running to Eli. ‘Here I am.’

“Now Eli was old, Michal. So old. His eyes could only see in strongest daylight, and even then it was like seeing when your head is beneath water. He was menaced by the weight of air. He was a good priest, you must know that, Michal, but he held his authority no tighter than he held his cane, and wobbled on both.

“His sons were desperately wicked. You are too young to hear most of that tale.

“But Samuel was eyes and strength to him. Samuel, though no one knew it then, was that for all Israel. 

“‘Here I am,” Samuel said to Eli. ‘You called me.’

“No old man likes being awakened, Michal. Remember this. So Eli, much as he loved Samuel, was ill-tempered by the intrusion. He sent young Samuel back to bed, and the boy lay there, puzzled.”

With that, my father sat down heavy. He fell silent and brooding. He would even close his eyes, feign sleep.   

“‘Samuel!’” he would shout, and I would leap in his arms, and he would leap from his sitting posture and swoop me again. 

This would go on three times.

“Now the third time Samuel stood in Eli’s presence,” my father said, “and this time he did not wake Eli, for Eli was wide awake, thinking thoughts. Yes, my Michal, thinking thoughts: could this be what I have waited all my life to hear and never heard? I want you to imagine that, Michal. The struggle that such a thought would be for an old man, a man who has done his best, his best, had been faithful. And yet the Voice had not come to him. Only blame. Only rebuke. Only warning. 

“But not the Voice.

“What should a man do, Michal? How can man serve a God who does not even like him, will not even speak to him except sideways, through minions? But Eli was a good priest. Faithful. He said to Samuel,” – and here my father softened his voice to mimic Eli’s, the sadness and weariness and defeat and jealousy of it – “My son, go back and lie down, and if he calls again, simply say, ‘Speak, for your servant listens.’”

My father fell silent here, always, and I would wait. Sometimes he would end the story here, abrupt and irritable, saying he would tell me the rest later. I knew not to prod him.

He never made good on his promise.

But other times he would burst back into the telling with almost a demon vigor, his voice mounting with urgency and vehemence, as if he had to press the telling of the tale into a mere sliver of the time it demanded, as if he was telling me as we fled an attack, instructing me on what I must do to survive. Samuel heard the Voice again, answered as Eli said he should, and the Voice told Samuel terrible things about Eli’s doom, and then the next morning Eli, who never fell back to sleep, forced young Samuel to tell him the whole awful truth.

And he did.

****

The point of all that was to conjure Samuel, a man I saw in actuality only ever from a distance, and whom I feared. It was to make Samuel huge and vibrant before me, bigger than he was, for this same Samuel, now a man who never smiled, figured into my father’s kingship. And here there were two tellings, so tied together I did not know which to believe. Old as I am now, forgetting and remembering so much, I think maybe each telling was just one, both true. My father was variously a coward and a hero, ambitious and modest, vengeful and merciful. He lusted for the crown. He shunned it. He longed for men’s approval. He disdained it. He was Samuel’s covenantal friend. He was his oathed enemy. 

Either way, Samuel one day poured oil on my father’s once black and curled locks, so much oil it flowed down and damped and slicked his beard, so much it flowed down and drenched the collar of his robe so that even now dark stains are visible there, undeniable proof. And pouring, Samuel spoke the words that no man could revoke: King.

 

 

David: A Novel (Excerpt)

David: A Novel (Excerpt)

 

 

I have under 2 weeks left here in Wales, and then a last week in England before I return to Canada. My main project here has been to write a novel on the life and times of King David. It is nearing completion, and will likely weigh in at around 400 pages or more.

 

Here's a sample, the two opening chapters. Throughout the book, I've woven together four narrative voices – two third-person accounts, one telling David's story, one telling Saul's, and two first-person accounts, Michal (David's first wife to whom he becomes estranged) telling her side of the story, and Joab (David's nephew who becomes his military commander) telling his. The juxtaposition of these four voices creates much of the dramatic tension in the novel.

 

The novel opens with Michal as an old woman. The second chapter shifts to a portrait of David as shepherd boy.

 

I hope you enjoy.

 

Alone

(Michal)

 

If he called me, even now, I would come. I see him most days. He looks young enough from a distance, but not near up. Within striking distance he is withered and ashen, and when you are close enough to whisper, or to kiss – though I only imagine this – he is a ruin of wizened flesh, of crumbling bone.

His voice is still strong.

But he never speaks to me, hasn’t in years, though that terrible hateful silence that stood between us so long has worn to almost nothing. But not a word in my direction. Sometimes he seems to smile at me without looking at me. Some days the shadow that passes between us is almost an affection. But I will tell you this: everyday I bear my emptiness. That has not gone away in all this time – maybe it has grown – and now I must carry it to the grave. And lay it down there, I pray.

            Even now, too late to cure this emptiness, if he called I would come. I would put my withered body beside his withered body and remember when we were other than this, completely other. He was sleek and swift like a deer, handsome and quick to laugh, and I too was not hard to look at, to be with. His muscles were not like some men’s, fists roiling in a sack of leather: more like open hands moving beneath silk sheets. I have not forgotten what I felt then and think one touch from his hand, dry and papery as it is, could wake it.

            I have been bitter. I am bitter. I do not hide it. I live in memories. I dwell in another time. And honestly, I cannot tell you whether memory is refuge from bitterness, or its breeding ground.

Maybe both.

Sometimes there is dark consolation in bitterness. It has a sour pleasantness. It is like the taste of your own blood.

            But I will have to take you back there to make you understand.

 

 

Evensong

 

He loves this time of day. The sun is down, but darkness still crouches beneath the horizon. The sky brims with color. Wind sweeps the fields and drives out the day's wilting heat. And everything wakes up. Birds burst with one last chorus, one last flourish of flight. Insects in grass and sky whirr and click. Creatures that move on the ground scuttle and slither. The sheep rouse with fresh hunger.

And he rouses, too. The langor of mid-day falls off him in a rush. He is quick and light again, keenly watchful. 

            Which is good. Which is needed. Because the lions rouse, too. 

            But he loves this as well. The alertness in himself. The air ecstatic with presentiment, like angels about to sing. He feels in himself prayer and sinew join, God’s wild presence and his own sheer aliveness fit together tight and supple as laced fingers. It steadies him, readies him for come what may.

            He rubs the pocket of his slingshot warm, and cradles in it one of the stones he’d plucked from the stream that morning.  It’s so round and smooth and green, it will be a shame to lose it. Never mind that. An instinct, sharp and urgent, tells him he’ll need it, soon.

 

*****

Jesse is angry again. Angry at him. At some task poorly performed. Some chore neglected. Something, always something. His anger is never explosive. More a low steady seething, a frustration that shows itself in the tightness of his voice, the abruptness of his gestures. A hissing of words spoken through clenched jaw. He puts things down, words and wood and mattocks and adzes, with sharp hardness. That’s his way of yelling.

            Jesse’s squatness is a mystery: that from his loins sprung seven tall men. Though that look, the strong angular bones embossing all seven faces, the tumble of dark hair falling in wild curls, is evident enough in the father. When he was younger, before his wife grew sick, he must have been dashingly handsome. But the burden that befell him on her illness – all those boys, and a farm to tend – has worn him stumpish and churlish. Worry has plowed his face like oxen, in deep furrows, but without the neatness of rows.   

            “David!”

            “Father?”

            “What is this, boy?”

            Jesse stands over a sheep that looks perfectly normal. 

            “Father?”

            “This.” And with that, Jesse presses his stubby hands, spread wide, into the back of the sheep’s woollen coat, just above one shoulder, and parts the wool so the skin shows. A muddy sore emblazons the pink skin. It is browny red and creamy yellow, and bugs spot it like currants. The sheep flinches beneath Jesse’s roughness. 

            “I didn’t see that.”

            “That’s what I mean. You didn’t see it. You were sitting in your shady oasis composing your little poems, singing your little love songs to the sky, and you didn’t see it. David, listen: to see you have to look. Huh? This is basic. No looking, no seeing. You get that? Look, David, look. Your head is so far up in the clouds you can’t see what is straight in front of you. Ah!”

            Jesse tosses up his hands and walks away. “Take care of it, boy,” he says.

            David sits on a rock and gathers the sheep to him. It trembles, and so for several minutes he just holds it to calm it, whispering in its ear. Then he takes his bag of wine and oil, and cleans and treats the wound. 

            He’d wanted to tell Jesse about the lion. 

 

****

The sun-starched land has turned blue with shadow and David rises to gather his sheep. As he steps down from his perch, he sees a deeper shadow move swift and furtive between rocks. A lone sheep is just beyond the fastness of those rocks. The sheep’s neck is bent to a lush tussock of grass. It is oblivious to danger. David runs down the steep incline, zigzagging like a loom shuttle, and when he reaches the valley floor he sprints straight. The lion is still crouching, he guesses, behind the rock. The sheep is still grazing. When David is a hundred paces, the lion bursts from its cover, quick as thought. David knows he can not catch it. He begins the rapid switching motion in his wrist that makes his sling loop faster and faster, its motion a transparent whorl of air. He moves the sling from his side to above his head, and then slightly behind it. The lion is so locked in its bloodlust it doesn’t hear him coming. The sheep has raised its head, petrified, suddenly aware of death thundering down.

            David can see the lion slowing slightly, coiling up on its haunches for its lunge. He picks a spot where he reckons the lion will be in a few seconds, stretches his left hand to steady his aim, and looses the stone. It streaks across the gloaming like a dark star shooting. The lion is nearly crouched back on its hinds, ready to take air, when the stone finds its mark: the back of its skull, just behind the ear. It staggers sideways with the blow. The sheep, snapped from its stupor of terror, bolts. The lion turns to see David, still running toward it. It stands wavering, confused. It takes a few massive leaps toward the sheep’s retreat, then wheels and starts coming at David. 

            He tucks his sling into his pouch and, still running, unsheaths his knife. The lion has regained its strength. It is running full-out but in a rearing up motion, ready to sail at him. This is what David is counting on, this preciseness of the beast’s reflexes. He runs harder. When he and the lion are almost on each other, the lion does what he’s hoped: leaps, its body eclipsing sky, consuming David in its shadow. He dives under it, spins on his back, and plunges his knife in its stomach to the hilt. He holds on, feels the massive body shudder through his blade. The lion’s belly opens like tent flaps. The insides rush out hot.

            The lion hits the ground on its shoulders, and rolls. It tries to get up, but can’t.  David walks behind it, sprawled in its own lake of blood. He is ready to finish the job.  The lion turns its head and bares its teeth but no sound comes out. Its yellow eyes grow dim. It flops its great head to earth, panting, chest heaving. It closes its eyes and stops breathing. David places his hand on the warm flank of its body. A sign of honor. A sign of affection.

            He walks over to where he first hit the lion. On the ground, as though waiting, is his green stone. He picks it up, rolls it in blood-warm hands, and then washes both in the stream. 

            He gathers his sheep and heads home.

Happy to have his stone back.

 

****

That night he writes a song, his longest yet. And the next morning, as sun leaps up from behind rocks and throws its arms wide across the earth, he sings it aloud to his sheep, who graze unperturbed.

 

Praise the Lord, O my soul.

O Lord my God, you are very great;
   you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
   he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
   and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
   flames of fire his servants.

 He set the earth on its foundations;
   it can never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
   the waters stood above the mountains.
But at your rebuke the waters fled,
   at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
they flowed over the mountains,
   they went down into the valleys,
   to the place you assigned for them.
You set a boundary they cannot cross;
   never again will they cover the earth.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
   it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
   the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
   they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
   the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
   and plants for man to cultivate—
   bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
   oil to make his face shine,
   and bread that sustains his heart.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
   the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
   the stork has its home in the pine trees.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
   the crags are a refuge for the coneys.

 The moon marks off the seasons,
   and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
   and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
   and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
   they return and lie down in their dens.
Then man goes out to his work,
   to his labor until evening.

How many are your works, O Lord!
   In wisdom you made them all;
   the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
   teeming with creatures beyond number—
   living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
   and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

 These all look to you
   to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
   they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
   they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
   they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
   they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
   they are created,
   and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
   may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
   who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord all my life;
   I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
   as I rejoice in the Lord.
But may sinners vanish from the earth
   and the wicked be no more.

   Praise the Lord, O my soul.

   Praise the Lord.

 

A ewe and a lamb look up. The lamb bleats pleadingly, as if for him to sing again. So he does.

Rediscovering the Depths

 

 
 
A book I read recently confirmed for me a growing hunch: that all the information the internet puts instantly at our disposal is making us stupider. All those arcane things it once took a sleuth or a scholar or an archaeologists to scare up – the whereabouts of some long-faded starlet, the distance from one edge of the Andromeda galaxy to the other, the ancient alchemist's potion for transmuting base metal to gold, or whatever – is just a key-stroke away. Google is the new Oracle of Delphi, at none of the cost. Wikipedia is our generation's guru on the mountaintop, only you can get there and back in the time it takes to sip your coffee. 
 
The internet makes us all know-it-alls. Instant experts. It is an ocean of knowledge distilled at the tap of a mouse. No longer does one need to invest the slow labor of painstaking study. No longer must one accumulate a body of knowledge from books and lectures, from travels and long meandering conversations: you can conjure it all up as fast as you can think it up. Imagine a question, any question, and your search engine starts offering answers before you've even typed the whole thing in. 
 
But there's a downside. An obvious one is that we now know many things but none of them well. All the deep and intricate connective tissue between bits of knowledge is missing. Our heads become as dishevelled as the drawer you have in your kitchen, cluttered with everything from cake candles to glue sticks to keys for cars you no longer own, to that pair of 3-D glasses you forgot to throw in the bin as you exited the theatre. There's no organizing principle to any of it, no coherence. It's random. 
 
But it's worse than that. The internet is playing havoc with our brains. It is altering the way we think. 
 
It's messing with our heads.
 
Oh, the book – I almost forgot. It's called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Carr documents at great length recent studies in neurology – the science of how the brain works – that show conclusively that prolonged exposure to the internet erodes our capacity for what he calls deep thinking. In a word, we lose the point. We distract easily. We have little patience or ability to follow an argument much past its first turn. The internet is making us more alert but less attentive. We're becoming like skittish hares or does, quick to pick up on every last little thing, every noise and motion, but slow to stare long and hard at any one thing. And we forget information as fast we gather it.
 
Reading Carr's books, his descriptions of our jittery addiction to the cyberworld and our diminishing capacity to actually read and talk, was like looking in the mirror. That's me, I kept thinking. 
 
And then I'd check my email.
 
I read the book a month ago, when I first landed here in Wales. When I read it, I was a case in point: it was hard for me to stick with Carr's complex argument, to wade through his long chapters, to sift through his reams of data. But after a month in a secluded valley, and reading more than a dozen books in that time, and with a testy and pokey internet connection that has seriously curbed my appetite for being online, there is growing room inside my head, and growing order. 
 
One of the distinctions Carr makes repeatedly is between attentiveness and alertness. Alertness is a heightened state of distraction: everything pulls us. Attentiveness is a deepened state of focus: one thing holds us. 
 
God gave us the capacity for both, and both have their uses. But worship and the pursuit of holiness calls for the latter. These things require sustained attentiveness. They demand a long obedience in the same direction.
 
That's worth turning the internet off for.
 

Going to Mordor

 

Hi, everyone.

My new book, Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down, is ready to launch.

Here’s a sample chapter.

Enjoy!

Mark

 

Chapter 5
Going to Mordor

Historian Daniel Boorstin documents a momentous shift that occurred in North America in the 19th Century: we stopped calling people who went on trips travelers and started calling them tourists.

Traveler literally means one who travails. He labors, suffers, endures. A traveler – a travailer – gets impregnated with a new and strange reality, grows huge and awkward trying to carry it, and finally, in agony, births something new and beautiful. To get there, he immerses himself in a culture, learns the language and customs, lives with the locals, imitates the dress, eats what’s set before him. He takes risks, some enormous, and makes sacrifices, some extravagant. He has tight scrapes and narrow escapes. He is gone a long time. If ever he returns, he returns forever altered.

In a sense, he never goes back.

A tourist, not so. A tourist means, literally, one who goes in circles. He’s just taking an exotic detour home. He’s only passing through, sampling wares, acquiring souvenirs. He tastes more than eats what’s put before him. He retreats each night to what’s safe and familiar. He picks up a word here, a phrase there, but the language, and the world it’s embedded in, remains opaque and cryptic, and vaguely menacing. He spectates and consumes. He returns to where he’s come from with an album of photos, a few mementoes, a cheap hat. He’s happy to be back. He declares there’s no place like home.

We’ve made a similar shift in the church. At some point we stopped calling Christians disciples and started calling them believers. A disciple is one who follows and imitates Jesus. She loses her life in order to find it. She steeps in the language and culture of Christ until his word and his world reshapes hers, redefines her, changes inside-out how she sees and thinks and dreams and, finally, lives. Whatever values she brought into his realm are reordered, oft-times laid waste, and Kingdom values take their place. Friends who knew her before scarcely recognize her now.

A believer, not so. She holds certain beliefs, but how deep down these go depends on the weather or her mood. She can get defensive, sometimes bristlingly so, about her beliefs, but in her honest moments she wonders why they’ve made such scant difference. She still feels alone, afraid, sad, self-protective, dissatisfied. She still wants what she always wanted, and fears what she’s always feared, sometimes more so. Friends who knew her before find her pretty much the same, just angrier.

You can’t be a disciple without being a believer. But – here’s the rub – you can be a believer and not a disciple. You can say all the right things, think all the right things, believe all the right things, do all the right things, and still not follow and imitate Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is made up of travailers, but our churches are largely populated with tourists. The Kingdom is full of disciples, but our churches are filled with believers. It’s no wonder we often feel like we’re just going in circles.

******

I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was 15. That was 1975, more than 25 years before Peter Jackson’s vivid screen adaptation of the trilogy. For me, the books were vivid enough. They wracked and tumbled me like some elemental thing, a wind storm, a landslide, a flash flood. Every night for several hours, I inhabited Middle Earth tangibly. I stood in its grassy meadows and rocky heights, under its canopy of stars. I bathed in its rain and basked in its sun. I lolled in the idyllic peace of Hobbiton, but fretted over the shadow moving toward it. I traveled – travailed – with Sam and Frodo on their way to Bree, pursued by dark riders. Together, we wended through the treacherous forest of Mirkwood, enjoyed the Falstaffian hospitality of Tom Bombadil, traversed the haunted barrenness of the Barrow Downs. We picked up Merry and Pippin and Aragorn along the way, then travailed on to Rivendell, arriving in the nick of time and barely breathing.

Rivendell was such a relief. Rivendell, the Elfin kingdom high in the craggy folds of the Misty Mountains, is a paradise. A place safe and serene, immune, it felt, from the shadow stretching over all Middle Earth. I wanted to stay there for good, with Frodo and Sam and all the rest. To sleep in warm beds and wake in light-soaked rooms. To eat delicious, plentiful, nourishing meals. To wander through ordered gardens, and pass over stone bridges under which rushed waterfalls as they sluiced from great heights to great depths. I wanted the story to end there, the drama to resolve there. Rivendell was a place of unbroken tranquility, and I wanted to dwell there for good.

It was not to be. Soon after arriving, the Fellowship of the Ring is formed – a rickety alliance of nine mismatched pilgrims, a dwarf and an elf, two men, four hobbits, and a grizzled and elusive wizard – who venture into wonders and dangers, battles and betrayals, wrong turns and detours, all with a singular mission, though no real sense how to accomplish it: they must get to Mordor and destroy the ring. The ring is a thing of hypnotic seduction and despotic power. If it falls into the hands of its maker, Sauron, his power will become boundless and his evil all-consuming. The shadow will become all there is. The ring can only be unmade in the place it was made, melted in the fire it was forged: the bowels of Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor.

Mordor is as close to hell as any place short of hell gets.

It’s a dangerous mission. It’s a hopeless mission, but their only hope. It’s a mission that cannot be accomplished by armies, treaties, even strategies, but only by a total and vulnerable incarnation: the smallest, weakest creatures, Frodo and his ever-loyal but none-too-bright companion, Sam, most don the disguise of evil and walk into the very heart of darkness, climb its Golgotha, and face its evil head-on. They must face it personally. Only then can that evil be broken and defeated, for them and for everyone. They are willing to lose their lives for the life of the world.

Which sounds like another mission we’re well acquainted with.

The point here: no one accomplishes such a mission, or joins it, or heralds it, as a mere tourist. Only a travailer can. Only a fellowship of travailers can.

But there is a subplot here. That fellowship is a fellowship in name only when it is formed back in Rivendell. In the place where life is easy, where good things abound, where no threat encroaches, it’s impossible to get a dwarf and an Elf to trust each other – even to be civil with one another – if their lives depended on it, precisely because in a place like that their lives will never depend on it. They can live forever there in their prideful independence. They need rely on no one. They need not trust anyone. They can simply become more entrenched in their belief that they are superior, all else are fools.

But you have to give up those illusions when you go on a dangerous mission together. There, each needs what the other brings. Each must learn to trust and rely on everyone else. Each must be humbled, and stretched, and burdened. Each must be willing to sacrifice the things that they cling to – their stuff, their status, their comfort, their dreams. And out of that willingness, deep cries to deep. Iron sharpens iron. Enemies, sworn enemies with personal and historic resentments, become friends, willing to lay down their life for the other. There is no request too great, or need too perilous, that each won’t turn heaven and earth for the sake of the other.

Tourists make poor companions. Those who dwell in Rivendell form frail and shallow community. Only travailers – only those who venture out together on a dangerous mission – form community, community with sinews and sturdy bone. Travailers discover how hard, and needed, and beautiful, and life giving community like that is. Together, they risk much, and give much, and suffer much, and love much.

Meanwhile, back in Rivendell, every one’s doing just fine on their own.

I love that the church of late has discovered the power of life together. Or, at least, we talk about it a lot. It’s deeply right that we seek to nurture that life together over lingering meals, rambling conversations, leisurely walks, dropping in on one another unannounced.

But if we’re not careful, we’ll have a perfect life in Rivendell and forget about Mordor. We’ll prefer fellowship to mission. We won’t ride up to the gates of hell and demand they give way. We won’t invade the heart of darkness and overthrow it. And, in the end, the depth of our life together will show it: we’ll be acquaintances but not soul mates, buddies and girlfriends but not brothers and sisters, willing to help each other out in a pinch with a meal or two, a little housework, the loan of a car for a few days, but not “sharing all things in common,” not “considering others better than ourselves.”

Any church too safe became that way because somewhere, somehow, they started wanting to dwell in Rivendell more than travel to Mordor. They started caring about fellowship more than mission, and in the end lost both.

I often hear talk that pits fellowship and mission against one another, treats them as competing imperatives. “Why are we caring for all those people when we’re not caring for our own?” The logic here is that pursuing mission means neglecting fellowship. But the opposite is true: to neglect mission is to destroy fellowship. Mission enhances fellowship, and fellowship strengthens mission. This isn’t to say that our fellowship becomes easier when we take seriously our mission. In significant ways, it becomes more difficult. It just becomes necessary. It changes from a middle-class luxury to a working-class necessity. We stop being picky and get desperate. We probably argue with one another even more when we’re on a dangerous mission together – after all, the stakes are so high – but we usually argue about things that matter. We laugh harder, cry more often, fight more fiercely, and endure greater hardship. We risk much, and give much, and suffer much, and love much.

Has your church lost its mission? I can guarantee that, if it has, it’s also lost, or soon will, any meaningful fellowship. It might look like Rivendell around the place, but each will keep increasingly to his own. No one really needs anyone else, and if they did, they’d never say. After losing your mission, it’s only a matter of time before your fellowship become that in name only.

*****

There’s a fairly easy way to measure whether your church has a dangerous mission: do you desperately need God and one another to accomplish it? I don’t simply mean praying before you work and needing a sufficient handful of volunteers to run your programs. I mean that, aside from God showing up and showing the way, and aside from people laying down their life with you (or for you), what you’re trying to do won’t get done. I cannot do it without you, and we cannot do it together without God. True mission requires leadership, volunteers, resources, and strategies. It calls for brainstorming and trouble-shooting sessions. But above all, it requires a fellowship where God works mysteriously, continuously, providentially to do more than we ask or imagine. To the extent that we can look at anything we’re accomplishing and account for it on purely empirical grounds – anyone with the same team and resources could pull this off – it may be a good thing, but it’s not a true mission. A true mission is eleven men, terrified, bickering, huddling in a hidey hole, who turn the world on its head within a generation. A true mission is a solitary man, gathering with other men and women, and spending his life and health to abolish slavery in England. 

Or less historically monumental, but just as significant: it’s a church that decides the best protest they could mount against abortion is for its members to open the spare rooms in their homes to pregnant teens, or the church who chooses to do the same to end the plight of the homeless in their community. Anyone who’s attempted even a little bit of this finds out soon enough that, except we’re in this together and God be our helper, it is not just hard: it’s impossible.

******

I love the scene near the end of The Return of the King, the third instalment in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. The fellowship is now physically scattered but forever bound together. Frodo and Sam are somewhere in Mordor – alive, but for how long? The city of Gondor, the last bastion withholding Mordor’s forces from overrunning all Middle Earth, has won a costly victory: they’ve temporarily driven the enemy back, but much of it fortifications lie in ruins, and its armies are decimated.

A war council is drawn. They are reduced to a desperate measure: the last remaining fighters could storm the gates of Mordor. It’s a crazy, suicide tactic, bound to fail. The only good it will do is distract the eye of Sauron momentarily, and so buy Sam and Frodo, wherever they are, some time to accomplish the mission. The argument on one side is to not attempt it. For it likely won’t succeed, and everyone will die trying.

Gimli, the dwarf, speaks, and sums up the council so far. “Harrumph. Vastly outnumbered. Zero chance of success. Certainty of death.”

Then he pauses. He bunches up his bristly eyebrows, and skewers everyone with his fierce unflinching gaze. And then he delivers the resolve: “Well,” he demands, “what are we waiting for?”

Jesus said that he himself builds his church on the foundation of our total allegiance. That church, his church, the gates of cannot stand against. We will storm those gates, crash them, trample them, and raid the kingdom of darkness inside.

Vastly outnumbered? No, greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. 

Zero chance of success? No, through him we are more than conquerors.

Certainty of death? No, though we die, yet shall we live.

Well, what are we waiting for?

*****

To order copies:

www.amazon.ca

www.amazon.com

www.christianbooks.com

www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

I Want to Say…..

I begin on February 1 a 5.5 month sabbatical, much of it to be spent in Wales. My posting this week is the letter I wrote to my church on January 29 as a farewell, an exhortation, and a thank you. Here it is:

I’m writing this at a flood tide of emotion. I am stunned almost to disbelief that, after this coming Sunday, I won’t see you until July, or even later, since my return falls smack-dab in the middle of holiday season. I have a sense my absence will be harder for me than for you. I am already feeling the symptoms of withdrawal.

Happy as I am, I’m also sad.

I have so much I want to say to you. I plead your patience and indulgence – this will be the longest of my letters to you so far.

First, before I wax poetic and become all mushy, a few house-keeping matters:

• I will go off-grid during my sabbatical: I will become as distant and as   silent as the stars, but unlike the stars, invisible.

• I will not write to you during my sabbatical. My From the Desk of Pastor Mark will morph into a weekly e-letter by Pastor Shane, Pastor Rob, or Barry Lockwood, and perhaps others.

• I will post regular BLOGS during my sabbatical.

• You will be well-led during my absence. We have always had a team approach to leadership at New Life. Though I am Lead Pastor, in practice we approach decisions in a collaborative fashion. This won’t change in my absence, and the team that already leads well remains intact, minus me. We’ve compensated for that by adding Barry Lockwood as Director of Staff, to oversee the staff team during my sabbatical as well as other duties.

• You will be well-fed during my absence. We have a superb teaching team in Pastor Shane and Pastor Rob (plus some great guest speakers in the coming months), and you won’t be wanting for good preaching (thought it’s still up to you to apply it, and to dig into the word for yourself).

• I have a new book coming out in February called Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down. As with all my books, copies will be available through the church to New Lifer’s at a special discount price, and all proceeds will go to missions.

• Who pays for this? New Life’s Sabbatical Policy (available upon request) allows for a 3-6 month sabbatical leave for each full-time pastor every 7 years. The first 3 months are at full pay; any remaining months are at half pay. Annual vacation time on the year of the sabbatical can be combined with the sabbatical leave (as long as the time away does not exceed 6 months). Here’s how that applies to me: I am taking 3 months sabbatical leave at full pay, one month at half pay, and 6-weeks holiday time at full pay.

• What will I do? Cheryl, Nicola and I will be spending 4 months of the sabbatical in south Wales, near the city of Cardigan (well, 40 minutes from Cardigan, but it’s the closest centre). We are doing a house exchange with Stephen and Sulwen Evans. I will preach 4 times in Stephen’s church in Cardigan, Mount Zion Baptist. And Stephen will preach 3 times at New Life. My main activity during my sabbatical (besides a lot of walking) will be finishing my novel and beginning another book, likely based on the Against the gods series. I also plan to conduct an in-depth study of the history of the Welsh Revival and another study of the Old Testament Prophets. Cheryl will be working toward finishing her Masters Degree in Spiritual Formation through Carey Theological College. Nicola will finish her grade 11 year at Kelsey on-line. And we plan to travel a bit – around Wales, England, Scotland, perhaps Ireland, and, once our daughter Sarah joins us in early May, southern Europe.

Now this is what I really want to say:

~ I want to say I am thankful and humbled. Your gift to me and my family of this sabbatical is extraordinarily generous. I am grateful beyond words (but will manage a few anyhow). Your generosity allows me to step out of my daily and weekly routines and responsibilities for nearly 6 months in order to be renewed and recharged. Such a gift is as rare as it is valuable. All I can say, with all of my heart, is thank you.

~ I want to say how excited I am for you. I believe this will be a season of remarkable growth, numerically and spiritually, for New Life – and for you personally. I have felt over this past month a deep pang of regret that I will miss some of our church’s best days. I can’t wait to see the fruit and hear the stories when I’m back.

~ I want to wish you God’s best. I think I have consistently taught during my 16 years at New Life that to know Christ and serve his Kingdom in his power for his glory is the highest calling on earth. I pray you fall more in love with Christ, grow more into his likeness, and press deeper into his kingdom during these coming months. Please don’t miss that.

~ I want to affirm my total confidence in our leadership. God has raised up at New Life a remarkably committed, gifted and prayerful team of servant leaders. I believe that they will, not only lead with excellence and effectiveness, but will take New Life further than it’s ever gone before. I happily pass my mantle to them.

~ I want to say it’s your church. The health and growth of New Life is up to you. The Bible says that, though Christ is the head of the church and the source of its life, any church thrives only when each and all of its members choose to serve her with the same love and passion Jesus shows. Jesus is the head, but we are the body. You get to choose the body’s level of fitness. Please choose a high level.

~ I want to say I hope to finish my days with you. I believe a church needs a new pastor about every 7 years. The pastor gets tired, and tiring. The expensive way to get a new pastor, for both the pastor and congregation, is for the current one to leave and a new one to be sought, courted, called, and settled. The wise and much more affordable way is to provide for the current pastor to be renewed. That’s what you’ve chosen (again, thank you). I intend to come back rip-roaring and guns blazing, so you better get a little rest yourself.

~ I want to say I love you. I feel toward you what Paul felt toward the Philippian church:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and…; all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:3-8).
I can’t say it any better, and so I echo this with all sincerity.

~ I want to say I will pray for you. Again, Paul’s prayer for the Philippians says it better than I can:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1:9-11).

~ I want to say, please pray for me and my family. We cherish the thought of you holding us up in prayer. We feel vulnerable stepping away for almost 6 months. The thought that you, along with hundreds of others, will weekly if not daily lift us in prayer is a consolation and encouragement of the highest rank and deepest order. I am awed by it. Thank you.

~ I want to say I will miss you. Enough said. See you in July.

Shalom,

Pastor Mark