Christ is killed every day by the injuries we cannot bear

These are the opening words of Rowan Williams’ new book, Holy Living, and they are meant to unveil our regular, entirely reasonable (so it seems) un-involvement in the pains around us. We say, rightly, “Christ alone can carry our sufferings.” Yes indeed, surely this is right. Christ alone, Rowan_Williams_2007according to his grace, can carry our sufferings. We are thus realists about our limited capacities. Indeed we’re theologically astute realists, as least as it concerns the sufficiency of grace. But though we grasp the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for us we fail to follow the trajectory of grace into the pain around us.

As realists we easily and painlessly stand at a distance from pain. However, Williams reminds, the pain of another person “does not stop being ours when it becomes his.” In fact, the nature of God’s peculiar way of redeeming me compels me to be a particular kind of un-realist: “The complete involvement of Jesus in human torment draws us after, draws us to imitation, stirs us to be Christ for our neighbor, to expose ourselves as he did” (9, 11).

There is more I want to say about this in a later post. There is perspective here on my vocation as a Christian professor in a Christian institution of higher education, though I’m still mulling over quite how I want to put it. For now I want to post a slightly longer section of this chapter around which my attention keeps coming back. You might ask yourself, “In whatever kind of community I find myself, how does this challenge me?”

Well, we are all realists to a greater or lesser degree, and there is therefore no avoiding the fact of our complicity in the death of Jesus. Like the apostles we evade and refuse and deny and escape when the cross becomes a serious possibility.

Ouch! And he doesn’t let up:

Terror of involvement, fear of failure—of hurting as well as being hurt—the dread of having of powerlessness nakedly spelled out for us: all of this is the common coin of most of our lives. For beneath the humility of the person who believes he or she knows their limitations is the fear of those who have never found or felt their limitations. Only when we have traveled to those stony places of the spirit where we are forced to confront our helplessness and our failure can we be said to know our limitations, and then the knowledge is too late to be useful. We do not know what we can or cannot bear until we have risked the impossible and intolerable in our own lives. Christ bears what is unbearable, but we must first find it and know it to be unbearable. And it does not stop being ours when it becomes his. Only thus can we translate our complicity in the death of Christ into a communion in the death of Christ, a baptism in the death of Christ: by not refusing, by not escaping, by forgetting our realism and our reasonableness, by letting the heart speak freely, by exposing ourselves, by making ourselves vulnerable (9).

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On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.