No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

Memories of Synod

I’m attending the first few days of the synod meeting of the CRC this year, but not as a CRC delegate.  I’m here as an ecumenical delegate, representing ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  This is one of those moments when my dual ordination is a little confusing.

The last time I was at a CRC synod meeting was back in 1987.  I had just graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary, but as a woman I had been barred from the regular candidating process.  I had wanted to appeal the decision of the seminary board to deny me access to that process; I argued that synod was free to make an exception to its own rules and that the board was pre-judging synod’s decision.  However, at that time there was no provision in the CRC church order for an individual person to appeal an action of a board.  So there was no legislative way for me to appeal this decision.  Instead I filed charges against the board under the CRC’s judicial code, which was a cumbersome process that took a long time and didn’t get resolved until well after I’d left the CRC.

While I was still a student at CTS, however, my polity professor approached me and said that my inability to appeal the decision of a board had uncovered a hole in the denomination’s polity.  He told me that polity could only be amended in response to specific cases and asked me to write up my case for the committee that oversaw such things.  He told me it wouldn’t help me, but it might lead to a rule change that would help someone else in the future.  I was happy to oblige and wrote a letter, explaining the problem with the existing process.

And so it was that I found myself addressing synod the following June, not on the question of women’s ordination but rather on a very technical point in the church order.  Before I was brought forward to testify, I was strictly instructed to confine my remarks to matters of polity.  Up to that point, synod had made lots of decisions about women in ministry, but no woman who wanted to be a minister had ever been allowed to address synod and ask for ordination directly.  They had no intention of allowing me to ask either.

I remember that the atmosphere in the room was quite tense as we got started, but everyone relaxed when it became clear that I was really and truly there to talk about a very boring point in the church order.  I had spent a lot of time during my last year of seminary wading through appeal processes, so I had quite a bit to say.  It was pretty dull, which the delegates seemed to find reassuring.  But then Mel Hugen, my wonderful professor of pastoral care, slipped me a note.  “You must give testimony to your call,” it said.

I know this isn’t how other people see me, but the truth is that I’m typically a pretty obedient person.  I had been told not to talk about the question of women’s ordination, so I hadn’t planned to do so.  Now Mel told me that I must talk about my own calling to ordination, so I did.  The next question posed to me was about some technical church order issue, but I began my answer talking about my grandparents, who had been missionaries for the CRC, and my upbringing as a daughter of the CRC, and my childhood desire to be a pastor.  I talked about my awareness that I had not chosen God, but He chose me.  And I talked about working through the Scriptures as I tried to discern whether this call to the ministry was really from God or not.  I explained that I had wanted the right to appeal directly to synod because I believed that synod had the authority to make an exception to its own rules and to ordain me.  I asked them to do that.

At least, that’s how I remember what I said.  It was a spontaneous speech, so I have no notes for it.  I have no transcript and no recording.  But it was clear that the delegates heard what I had to say as a request for ordination.  I remember one delegate responding to my testimony by saying that he really appreciated what I had said, but that he was still going to vote against any motion to ordain me.  I remember another delegate joking that someday I would come back to the CRC as a professor of church polity.  What I most remember is that I felt heard.  And when my time of giving testimony was over and I stepped down, the delegates gave me a standing ovation as I left.

It was an odd day.  But mostly it was a good day.  I was already planning to become a Presbyterian, and that day at synod allowed me to leave the denomination of my childhood without either guilt or anger.  I think that’s why, unlike many of the other women I knew who were leaving the CRC at that same time, I’ve been able to come back to the CRC, while also honoring the Presbyterian tradition that received and nurtured me.  But I never had any desire to attend another synod meeting.

Actually it’s not quite true that I left without anger: over the next few years I realized that I was still angry with one group of people.  I’ve never been angry with the conservatives who believe that the Bible speaks against the ordination of women and who submit to that teaching with an obedient spirit.  There’s a lot of Biblical material about the relationships of women and men, and even though I’m confident in my exegesis of that material as requiring women’s ordination I understand why serious Christians might reach different conclusions.  No, the people I’ve had a hard time forgiving are my classmates who told me privately that they supported my call to ministry, but who then accepted ordination in the CRC even though I’d been denied it.  My own childhood pastor was this way.  He told me that he believed in women’s ordination because he thought that Paul was wrong, but that he could never preach such a message because it would undermine the faith of the congregation, and besides (and he really did say this to me) he would never be president of synod again.  Yeah.  It’s the progressive wing of the CRC that I still often find so annoying and hard to forgive.

One reason that I’m so passionately committed to ECO is that my male colleagues in ECO were all unwilling to join any denomination that would not recognize women’s ordination; they were all unwilling to leave without me and without the many other women officers in their congregations.  In the CRC, the  recognition of women is bartered away every day by people who want me to be grateful for their limited support.  Another reason that I love ECO so much is that affirming the ordination of women and affirming the teaching of the confessions are seen as compatible affirmations.  In the CRC, the ordination of women is used over and over as an excuse to jettison the confessions or embrace whatever is trendy and progressive. (See this discussion for an example: )

So tonight I was a little bit nervous walking into opening worship.  But it was a lovely service.  We’ll see what the next few days bring.

 

Re-Launch

For the last several years I’ve had a website that I couldn’t maintain.  Large portions of the site were not under my control, and even the parts I was supposed to be able to control required accessing a special program that I never really mastered.  As a result, the site perpetuated dated and inaccurate information about me, which has often shown up in church bulletins when I’ve been preaching somewhere.  Many apologies to everyone who’s been confused by that out-of-date website.  I should have trashed it long ago.

Today I’m excited to relaunch laurasmit.com in a new format that I should be able to manage myself.  Adding to the user-friendliness of the new website is that it’s now been merged with my blog, so I only have one site to maintain.  Which is really all I can handle.

In addition to this blog, the site now includes a section on books (those I’ve written or contributed to, but also those I love and recommend), a calendar that includes all future preaching assignments and other speaking engagements, a section of miscellaneous resources (such as conference papers, study guides, and interviews), and a collection of sermons and lectures (mostly sound files, but also a few videos).  These sections will all be growing in the months to come.

I’m on sabbatical for the 2014-2015 academic year.  Yes, for the whole year!  I’ll be in Oxford for the fall and a fellow at Biola’s Center for Christian Thought in the spring, while spending both summers at my house near Lake Michigan.  I know: it’s perfect!  I have many goals for my sabbatical, but chief among them is retrieving the habit of daily writing.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll post here every day.  Not everything that I write belongs in the public eye.  But I do plan to post much more often than I have in this last year.

Many thanks to recent Calvin grad Tommy Graves for helping me with this transition.

“Where God’s Glory Flashes”

In the back of The Oxford Book of Carols, there are a few carols for seasons other than Christmas.  My favorite of these is called “White Lent.”  It is six stanzas long, set to the familiar Christmas tune ANGEVIN, known to most of us as “O Leave Your Sheep.”  The third stanza goes like this: 

To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
 
Or rend the soul,
 
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
 
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
 
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
 
To fly where truth and light do lie.

I first came upon this carol more than 20 years ago, and I am still pondering the connection between the discipline of Lent and arriving “where God’s glory flashes” so that I can come near to His beauty. 

The promise of being led to this place could be understood in two ways.  Perhaps the carol means that, even as we practice the disciplines of renunciation, we encounter God’s glory.  Or perhaps the carol means that Lent prepares us to see God’s glory when we come upon it at Easter, that Easter is the goal of Lent.  I wish that I could believe the first – that even in the midst of the most ascetic practices, I should expect encounters with glory – but that hasn’t been my experience of life.  Surrender and pain are not always or even usually accompanied immediately by visions of truth and light.  The second way of reading this text makes better sense to me: there are seasons of glory that we pass through in this life, but we can easily miss the glory if we haven’t been training to see it.  Without training, we won’t be able to “come nigh” the glory because it will be too bright for us to bear.  So I take it that the carol is saying Lent offers such training, that it increases our capacity for experiencing God’s glory.

The season of Lent is framed by the memory of two events that reveal the flashing beauty of Jesus: the transfiguration (celebrated on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) and the resurrection.  All of the confession and self-denial of Lent is set between these two events, and it is only the glorious, shining, beautiful revelation of Jesus in His fullness that makes any sense of our little sacrifices.  We certainly know that we do not give up chocolate or television in order to earn God’s favor.  Rather, if we choose to surrender things during Lent, it should be in order to make more space for an experience of the truth, the light, and the beauty of Jesus during the season of Easter.

In Acts 2, Peter preaches the very first Christian sermon.  He takes as his text Psalm 16, which he then applies to Jesus’ death, descent, and resurrection.  This path of dying, descending, and then rising is, according to Peter, what the Psalmist means by “the path of life,” a path that ends in “fullness of joy” and “pleasure forevermore.”  The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to walk the first part of that path, or – better – to participate in Jesus’ walking of the path, just as in our baptism we participate in his dying.  But our baptism is also a sharing in his rising, and the longest part of the path of life is not spent in dying; it is spent rising into joy and pleasure.  Easter is the point of Lent, the goal of Lent, which is why the season of Easter is intentionally longer than the season of Lent.  This signifies that our time of sacrifice is a “slight momentary affliction … preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Not all churches make it obvious that Easter is longer than Lent.  We don’t tend to celebrate Easter for its full 50 days.  Whereas the observance of Lent is increasingly popular with Protestant congregations, an intense observance of Easter is not so common.  But this is an odd situation.  When Lent is more interesting to us than Easter, when it requires more of our attention and more of our energy, when there are more special events planned during Lent than during Easter, when we reduce Easter to one day while we recognize the whole Lenten season – something is backwards.

Is it possible to make the celebration of Easter more extensive, more comprehensive, and more intimately present than the observance of Lent?  Perhaps we should start a practice of observing the Great Fifty Days of Easter by promising to experience something beautiful every day, or by resolving to spend at least a few minutes every day experiencing God’s joy.  Perhaps we should read three psalms every day during Eastertide, and thereby experience the whole journey of the psalter, culminating in those great psalms of exaltation and praise.  Perhaps we should promise to spend some time outdoors every day during Eastertide, enjoying the beauty of the creation and looking for signs of God’s glory.        

Here’s the last stanza of the carol “White Lent.”

Then shall your light

Break forth as doth the morning;

Your health shall spring,

The friends you make shall bring

God’s glory bright,

Your way through life adorning

And love shall be the prize.

Arise, arise,

Arise! and make a paradise!

That’s a destination we cannot reach on our own, but it is the destination Jesus secures for us in his resurrection.  He has gone before us and invites us to follow on the path of life. 

 

Christian Liberal Arts Education

In his poem “Praise”, George Herbert speaks of God’s design for human beings.

Of all the creatures both in sea and land

Only to man Thou hast made known Thy ways,

And put the pen alone into his hand,

And made him secretary of Thy praise.

According to Herbert, this secretarial work is priestly, because the praise is offered on behalf of the rest of the creation, which is mute and so incapable of praising without help.

Man is the world’s high priest: he doth present

The sacrifice for all; while they below

Unto the service mutter an assent,

Such as springs use that fall, and winds that blow.

Therefore, Herbert says, when we “refrain” from praising God, we not only withhold the praises that we owe to Him, but we also rob the creation of its ability to praise its Creator, making us guilty of “a world of sin” in one act of reticence. 

Herbert didn’t invent the idea that human beings are made to be priests for the world.  It is an idea found in the first chapters of Genesis, where we learn about the creation of human beings.  Adam and Eve are made to fill a mediatorial function in the world.  They are the ones who stand between, being made both of the dust of the earth and also of God’s own breath.  They are created to represent God’s helping presence to one another and to the world, which they can do both because they have God’s breath within them and also because, unlike God, they are consubstantial with the world, being bone and flesh.  They are also created to lift up the praise of the creation to God.  That side of the priestly equation requires acts of attention: noticing, knowing, and naming.  It requires seeing and loving the creation for its own sake, not as something to be dominated or transformed, but something to be nurtured, stewarded, and loved.  It requires bringing each fellow creature into the light of loving attention, so that its praise of God can be recognized and so that God can be praised for it. 

A liberal arts education is about that sort of seeing and loving; it is about paying attention, noticing, knowing, and naming.  Whereas professional programs train students to produce and to work, the liberal arts train students in living as full human beings, in freedom and leisure, worshipping, glorifying and enjoying God.  A liberal arts education is precisely about knowing things just because they are worth knowing, understanding the world just because it is worth understanding.  A liberal arts education helps us become the sort of people who can be priests to the world.    

A liberal arts education is naturally grounded in language: in reading, writing, and speaking, traditionally cultivated through the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Already in Eden, Adam’s first priestly act was to name the world around him.  Language was the first mark differentiating those made in God’s image from those who were not.  For us, as fallen creatures, our only hope of fulfilling our priestly calling is through participation in the life and mind of Jesus, who is the Word made flesh and our great High Priest.  It is not an accident that Jesus has both those titles: He is our High Priest because He is the Word by whom we were created.  He is the one who will give to each of us our true name, the one who calls us by that name and summons us to our true identity.  He is the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and understanding, so that when the Spirit leads us into all truth we are led to union with Jesus.  The heart of priestly work is not pain, blood, and sacrifice – though as a result of the fall it required that shape for a time.  The heart of priestly work is twofold: bringing God’s blessing to the world, which Jesus does as Immanuel, the revelation of God’s glory, and offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and praise, which Jesus does as bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, the one like us in every way but sin.  Augustine was one of the great rhetoricians of his day, but when he was converted to Christianity he discovered that his ability to manipulate language was a hollow game unless he submitted that ability to the lordship of the One who is the source of language, the Word Himself.  Within Christian tradition, the study of language culminates in the study of theology grounded in Scripture, the normative written Word.  It is in the written Word that we encounter the Word made flesh, so as to be transformed into His likeness, from one degree of glory to another.

The liberal arts also include disciplines that extend knowledge beyond language.  Traditionally this is the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  In our world of ever-expanding knowledge, other disciplines may be added to the list.  The mark of a liberal arts education is not so much a particular set of disciplines to be mastered as it is the attitude brought to their study.  A liberal approach to education sees learning as autotelic.  Learning is a good in itself.  It is in itself an act of love and praise that needs no further justification or product.  This doesn’t mean that productive learning is bad.  It’s a good thing to make the world safer, healthier, more just, and more ordered.  But those approaches must be secondary, things we do in order to make space for the quintessentially human action of knowing in order to know. 

Our society teaches us that the order should be the other way around.  That leisure must serve work.  That the liberal arts must serve utilitarian knowledge.  That rest must serve labor.  As if the reason for our life is production.  As if our value as human beings is measured by how much we can make or do.  As if times of rest and leisure and freedom are only valuable if they make us better workers.  But this way of understanding human life is a lie, and Christian higher education must offer an alternative vision.  The purpose of our life is to rest in God, to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever.  The work we do must be in service of that rest.  The production in which we engage must be in service of times of leisure, which make possible acts of priestly knowing, the offering of praise and prayer, and the celebration of worship. 

A Christian liberal arts education is necessarily connected with virtue.  It is not enough to learn arithmetic, or rhetoric, or music.  These things must be learned in a way that fosters truth and virtue.  The knowledge that we acquire is not to be external only, but rather something that we internalize and that then transforms us into virtuous people living in harmony with God’s design for humanity.  Traditionally the virtue that is shaped by this sort of knowing is magnanimity, about which I wrote last month.  This is the virtue that C. S. Lewis identifies as central to education in his book The Abolition of Man.  Magnanimity is the integrating virtue that unites intellect and appetite.  It is the virtue of disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire.  A liberal arts education is intended to result in the development of this faculty of trained emotion, disciplined desire.  Our desires are trained by means of the imagination, which Lewis calls “the organ of meaning.”  Our intellect is the organ of truth, but truth needs to be imaginatively appropriated in order to control our appetites and actions.  A liberal arts education that lacks this emphasis on virtue will produce only clever people who are good at manipulating words, who appreciate the finer things of life, and are uninterested in being productive.  A Christian liberal arts education must focus on the transformation of students into magnanimous people via the imaginative appropriation of truth.

Stalky and Company

When I got home from work this evening, I had a long to-do list.  This semester doesn’t include a lot of free time, and even though most days begin early and are very full of work, I’ve been needing to get more work done in the evening.  That was the plan for today as well, but I made the mistake of picking up a book.  Not just any book, but an old favorite: Stalky and Company by Kipling.  I expect I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to put a story down once I’ve started.  So I spent the entire evening reading this great Kipling story, getting no work done at all, but finishing the book.  It was lovely.

Why would this story about boys at school training to be soldiers be one of my favorite books?  When I first read it, which must have been 9th or 10th grade, I just thought it was hilarious.  The chapter about the dead cat was one of the funniest things I’d ever read.  I still think it’s funny, but it’s also touching in a way that I didn’t understand when I was young.  Perhaps I felt it, though I couldn’t talk about it.

The last time I read Stalky was after I had just re-read the Harry Potter books and found that they kept reminding me of this earlier school story.  Both Stalky and Harry are training for war, and both learn their most powerful lessons by rebelling against their teachers, rather than by submitting to them.  One way that the two stories differ is that Stalky is heavily autobiographical, without disguise.  There are three heroes – Beetle (who is based on Kipling himself as a young man) and his friends Stalky and M’Turk, both of whom are based on real people who wrote books in their turn, reflecting on their schooldays.  All three characters are very bright, though in different ways.  Stalky is good at math and at tactics; he generally takes the lead in the trio’s adventures, and at the end of the book we hear about his military career as continuing to follow this pattern.  M’Turk is the aesthetician who reads Ruskin for fun, who is responsible for decorating the boys’ study, and who is capable of talking to local landowners as a peer.  Beetle reads Browning and writes humorous poetry, edits the school newspaper and aspires to a career as a writer.  These are not students who rebel because they’re stupid.  They’re students who rebel because they’re smart.

So is that truthful?  Is rebellion a mark of intelligence?  Does rebellion lead to maturation and learning?  As a teacher, I don’t want to believe that my students learn their best lessons by rebelling against me, though when they do rebel I tend not to worry too much.  I know that rebellion is often not about me at all and that it can sometimes lead to knowledge.  But if that’s the only path to knowledge, then my job is sort of a joke.  My own experience of learning gives me examples of learning via submission as well as learning via rebellion.

There are only two teachers in Stalky who really teach: the Chaplain and the Head.  Those two teachers display wisdom, restraint, and trust in their students, and they’re rewarded by receiving trust in return.  The other teachers find their students mysterious and are focused on enforcing rules, on catching misbehavior; they are wonderful examples of what not to do and what not to be.  Yet Kipling prefaces the book with his poem in praise of teachers: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”  In the context of the book, it is a remarkably gentle poem, recognizing the worth of these men who have given their lives to teaching, even if that teaching didn’t always lead to the intended outcomes, recognizing that we learn more than we know from our teachers and can only evaluate how much we’ve been taught from the distance of years.

Thinking about the Liberal Arts

I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations lately about the value of the liberal arts, which is why I paid attention when I saw this scene from The Big Bang Theory in a recent re-run. Sheldon’s attitude is alive and well where I live. And despite the humor of this scene, in real life it’s not terribly funny.

The liberal arts are by definition non-productive. These are things we study simply because they are worth knowing, because knowing things like these is our calling as human beings. There are many other worthwhile approaches to study. It is a good thing to study in order to make the world a better place, to cure disease, to alleviate poverty, or to govern justly. But those are all secondary tasks that must be done in order to make space for our primary tasks as human beings: knowing, naming, offering, praising, worshipping…. These are acts that are done freely, liberally, for their own sake

HPPC’s Vote Today on Joining ECO

The following is now posted under “News” on the website of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Dallas (hppc.org).
Welcome to ECO, friends.

HPPC Votes to Change to New Presbyterian Denomination
October 27, 2013
Thank you to everyone who attended today’s Congregational and Corporate Meeting today at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Today our church voted to end the HPPC’s voluntary relationship with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by a vote of 89 percent in favor. The congregation also voted by 89 percent to join a new Presbyterian denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. This has been an historic day in the life of Highland Park Presbyterian Church.

The other two major motions were also adopted decisively.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” said Rev. Joe Rightmyer, Interim Senior Pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

“We are thankful that thousands in our congregation have attended informational meetings, church-family gatherings, round table discussions and prayer times,” said Monty Montgomery, elder and co-moderator of the Session-Appointed Discernment Coordinating Committee. “We’ve been impressed with the way the people have engaged and they’ve asked questions — good questions that help make genuine discernment possible.”

“Regardless of how you voted today, we look forward to moving together in Christ,” said Rev. Rightmyer.

Go to the church site for voting results.

Jesus is like Tiger Woods

I really love this old Nike commercial. So lovely. It makes me feel like flying. I’ve been using it as an illustration in class for a long time.

So here’s how I think about it. At the time when this commercial was made, Tiger Woods was universally recognized as the greatest golfer in the world, the perfect image (or embodiment, or instantiation) of the golf swing. When the other golfers in the line move in unison with him, they participate in that instantiation. They become participants in the essence of golf. The whole line of golfers is united in a great dance of golf.

Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” in whom all things have been created, so He is the perfect expression or speaking of all things. He unites the whole cosmos in a perfect dance. Because He is the one who speaks our true name, we find our real identity by moving in unison with Him. And He never steps out of the dance, never leave us to fall apart on our own. “In Him all things hold together.”