Rivers in the Desert—A Homily

Given at the New College Communion Service, Thursday, March 14th

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.


As Lent drags on into its fifth week, many of us may feel a bit like we have wandered off into a desert, and are straining our eyes toward Easter, shimmering in the distance like a mirage.  We went out here into this desert trying to be like Jesus, determined to use these forty days of Lent to fast and grow closer to God, to fight against the temptations of our flesh and hopefully grow just a bit more holy or at least self-disciplined, to take more time for God, for prayer and reading his Word.  But here we find ourselves instead, wandering aimlessly, wondering what became of the last four weeks, of our lofty aims.  If we’re still keeping our fast, perhaps it feels more out of drudgery than devotion, and how many of us can say we’ve carved out the extra time for God that we meant to; how many of us can say we feel much further at all on the path toward holiness?  Perhaps this is the reason why Lent is forty days long: it gives us plenty of time to fail.  I’ve heard people object to Lent on account of its length—fasting is all well and good, but forty days of it?  Is that really necessary?  Forty days, though, gives us long enough to realize how bad we are at fasting, how bad we are at devotion and self-denial.  By the end of it, or perhaps well before the end of it, we’re out there in the desert, gasping for living water, yearning for the new life of Easter to be poured out on us, to give us the spiritual strength we so clearly lack.

You don’t have to observe Lent to be familiar with this feeling.  How often in our lives do we find ourselves in that place—we’ve set out with our heads held high, ready to do Christian discipleship right this time, ready to follow Jesus on the hard wilderness path, but suddenly we find that we’re there on our knees, crawling instead of walking, seemingly alone, and parched with spiritual thirst, waiting on God to send rain so we can resume the journey.


Perhaps you’ve seen some of these amazing BBC nature documentaries, where they show these dry riverbeds of southern Africa, choked, parched ground beside which both plants and animals wait and wither; suddenly, water that fell as rain on mountains hundreds of miles away arrives in a torrent, turning the dust first into mud, then into a rich marsh in which all kinds of life thrive.  Perhaps it is something like this that the Psalmist and the Prophet have in mind—”rivers in the desert,” “the watercourses of the Negev.”  Parts of the Negev, after all, had seasonal rainfalls that would suddenly fill the watercourses and make the desert a place of life.  The Christian, too, on pilgrimage through the wilderness, can rely on such seasonal outpourings of God’s grace and faithfulness, particularly when we are parched by drought and feel we can go no further.  The song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” which we have just sung expresses the Christian hope that we will never lack God’s presence for long; he will always pour out a fresh effusion of grace to give us “strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”

In the liturgical year, Easter can play the role of these seasonal rains for us, bringing us rivers in the desert through which we have wandered during the weeks of Lent.  We trade our mourning for joy, our fasting for feasting, we worry less about crucifying the sin within us than rejoicing in the new life we have in Christ.  And yet Easter too will pass, after its six weeks, and after the warm summer months, another autumn and winter will come, and no doubt, somewhere in there, another spiritual dry season.  Is the repeating annual cycle of Easters, then, the only “water in the wilderness” for which we hope?

As you journey further south into the Negev, you quickly come to desert that almost never sees rain—just 3 cm a year.  The Israelites were well-acquainted with this permanent desert, this dead land, since they had wandered through it on their way out of Egypt.  It was thus no mere seasonal rainfall that the Prophet and Psalmist looked forward to, for Behold! God was going to do a new thing.  Much as they relied on God for the sustenance of mercies new every morning, they looked beyond this for the hope of the day when the deserts would be transformed, flooded with springs of living water, when the cycle of drought and rain, of need and grace, of death and life, would end, and life would triumph through all the world.

That shimmering in the distance, then, is not a mirage, nor a brief flow of water to give us just “strength for today,” but the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” and alongside it, “the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Stating the Obvious

Once one begins to spend a good deal of time in academia, one begins to notice something depressing about most of the writing in one’s field: more often than not, it consists of an inflated, self-important declaration of an indisputable truism under the guise of making some remarkable discovery.  Indeed, this discovery, we are told, promises to be the basis for shedding new light on hitherto thorny problems.  Thus do academics justify their existence by presenting to the world as products of arduous research observations that in fact should have taken only a moment’s reflection.  Here’s a nice example that I came across in A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, citing an article by Brian Vickers:

“Vickers observes that in the Lawes Hooker is, in effect, writing for three distinct ‘audiences’: the first Vickers identifies as the reformers, Hooker’s principal opponents, whose minds he hopes to change, and against whom he has no hesitation in using rhetoric for polemical purposes; the second is the general public, for whom he aims to set out the opposing cases in a ‘judicial’ fashion, inviting the reader to judge between them; the third is himself: when moved to express his own feelings about a major aspect of Christian belief, he has no hesitation in doing so in hyperbolic terms. . . . This ‘threefold audience’ is one factor that helps to explain why it is that the task of interpreting Hooker has proved so complex.” (63-64)

So Hooker writes for his own satisfaction (first person), to convince his opponent (second person), and to convince a broader audience that is judging both his opponent and him (third person)?  Really?  Fascinating.  But I’m afraid I must ask, “Of what polemical writer is this not the case?”  Indeed, almost any piece of persuasive writing will have these “three audiences,” although sometimes one or another will predominate.  Sometimes an author will be much more interested in thinking through things for himself, regardless of whether others find interesting what he has to say, and the first-person objective will predominate.  But for most who go into print, the second and third persons are in view as well.  Sometimes the second person will predominate, in a piece of controversial writing that really hopes to persuade a particular opponent or group of opponents; but if the third person were not in view, why not write a private letter?  So the third person, the undecided general audience, that is to be persuaded that one’s opponent is wrong, is always in view as well.  

Now, admittedly, it is not quite a truism that all polemical writing will have all three audiences, because it will sometimes be the case that a writer is so convinced that his opponent(s) are incorrigible that he has no interest in fact in persuading them, but only in addressing himself to the third-person audience that is attending to the controversy.  Or sometimes the writer will make little attempt to differentiate his strategy for persuading the opponent and persuading the undecided.  It is, in my view, an important point about Hooker’s work that this is *not* the case for him; there is a genuine and distinct effort to persuade the opponent.  So this point might be worthy of some emphasis, and perhaps this is what Vickers is up to, although his article proves unnecessarily ponderous in making the point.  But to act, as Joyce does, as if Hooker’s “threefold audience” makes him a uniquely sophisticated and difficult to interpret writer, thus providing scholars with an excuse for their interpretive difficulties, is just silly.  

Blessed are the Dead Who Die in the Lord

A eulogy for Margaret Poole Littlejohn, 1928-2013

Almost a year ago, my wife and I had the privilege of attending a performance of Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem, a breathtaking piece of choral music based on texts Brahms selected from Luther’s German Bible.  While waiting for the performance to begin, we were disappointed and puzzled to read in the program, “Brahms said that it could just as easily have been called a ‘Human Requiem’.  It deals primarily with the human suffering caused by death and the grief of those left behind, and although some of the texts deal with the hope of resurrection, there are no overt references to Christian dogma.”  How, we wondered, could the resurrection not count as Christian dogma?  Our puzzlement turned to outrage as the music began and offered not a meditation on the suffering caused by death, but a triumphant declaration of Christian joy in the face of the mortality that Christ has conquered.  Beginning with Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, the music took us to such passages as:

The redeemed of the Lord will come again, and come to Zion with a song, everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart;

The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there no torment shall touch them;   

Then shall be fulfilled the word that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.  O Death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory? 

before concluding in tones of peace and bliss, as the chorus sings:

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.  Yes, saith the Spirit, that they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them.  

When I heard the news of Grandmama’s passing last Thursday night, my heart was filled with peace and even joy as my thoughts travelled immediately back to that closing line: “Blessed are they that die in the Lord from henceforth.”  As I’ve reflected back on that piece of music, and asked, “How could the program-writer get it so wrong?” I’ve realized how much today we are prone to take the hope of resurrection for granted.  For the writer of that program, the old Catholic requiem, with its fearful warnings of “the great day of wrath”—that sounded like Christian dogma.  Judgment, fear, hell.  Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?  That’s how many people today think of Christian teaching.  Hope for life after death, though, faith in some kind of vague “resurrection,” that we just take for granted—that’s natural, right?  But this just shows how much Christianity has succeeded in flipping the world upside down.  2,000 years ago, if there was anything everyone could take for granted, it was the reality of judgment after death, the need to placate angry gods.  Even the more righteous among us still had any number of sins to atone for.  All the religions seemed to agree about that.  And if you were a skeptic, it just meant that you faced death with a different kind of fear, the fear of the unknown—”of that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  The Christian hope of the resurrection was a revolution, and we should not let long familiarity with it breed contempt.  

Confronted with the sadness of separation from a loved one, we try to brighten the gloom of a funeral by making into “a celebration of a life well-lived.”  And certainly, there is so much to celebrate in Grandmama’s life, from the hundreds or thousands of lives she touched through her friendship and philanthropy to the endless trays of cookies or endless renditions of Yertle the Turtle she bestowed on us fortunate grandchildren.  My sister Hope has already told you some of the things that made Grandmama’s life so special.  But thanks to Christ, we are not left merely to comfort ourselves in the face of the darkness of death with the consolation that “she lived well, she died well.”  Rather, we can truly rejoice in the face of her death with the thought that “she will live well.” 

This funeral is not merely the celebration of a life well-lived, but of a life to be lived, a life in the hand of God, where no torment shall touch her.  For I have never had to doubt that when Grandmama died, she would die in the Lord, even as she lived in the Lord for all eighty-four years of her life.  Her faith was a quiet one, the kind of faith that expresses itself in devoted service to those immediately around her, in faithful attendance at worship week in and week out, whatever her health, in dedicated ministry to her church and community.  It was never loud or ostentatious, but a slow, steadily-burning flame that sustained her through her whole life, and impressed itself upon her children and grandchildren.  Some of my fondest memories of Grandmama are sitting by her side on the piano bench as she played and sung through her favorite hymns, or learning to say my bedtime prayers with her on my many overnight stays.  One prayer in particular stuck with me, mainly because it seemed so superfluously morbid for a five-year-old to pray: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Morbid, maybe, but perhaps not superfluously so.  Even at age five, we need to be reminded of our mortality.  As another text in Brahms’s Requiem puts it, “Lord, teach me that I must have an end, and my life has a purpose, and I must go hence.  Behold, my days are as a handbreadth before me.”  God gave to Grandmama a full count of days, just over 31,000 in fact, in which to bear his image and share his love in the world.  But at last the day came when she laid down to sleep, and did die before she waked.  And we can give thanks, with everlasting joy, that even as he kept her soul in life, so the Lord has taken her soul now to rest in peace and rise in glory.

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.  Yes, saith the Spirit, that they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them.

Evils Must Be Cured by Their Contraries?

We theologians (yes, that includes me) are often tempted to justify a one-sided indulgence of our pet theological themes or rhetorical outbursts directed against one particular set of bogeymen by insisting that one cannot afford to be “balanced” when trying to correct an existing imbalance—one must lean hard in the opposite direction.  If you think your tradition is too word-centered, you go all-out sacramental and ignore the Word.  If it’s too sacerdotalist, you go all-out on preaching and faith and ignore the sacraments.  If it’s too antinomian, you talk up the Epistle of James and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  If it’s too legalistic, you only ever talk about free grace.  

While this might make sense as a temporary pastoral strategy for an individual minister seeking to rectify the imbalances of his particular congregation, it works less well as an overall theological policy, since it is more likely simply to engender even more radical one-sidedness, as Richard Hooker points out in a perceptive passage.  Addressing the Puritan claim that “evils must be cured by their contraries,” that an imbalanced repudiation of all traditional ritual is the best way to cure the temptation to popery, he declares,

“We are contrariwise of opinion, that he which will recover a sick and restore a diseased body unto health, must not endeavour so much to bring it to a state of simple contrariety, unto those evils which are to be cured.  He that will take away extreme heat by setting the body in extremity of cold, shall undoubtedly remove the disease, but together with it the diseased too.  The first thing therefore in skilful cures is the knowledge of the part affected; the next is of the evil which doth affect it; the last is not only of the kind but also of the measure of contrary things whereby to remove it. . . . 

“They reply, that to draw men from great excess, it is not amiss though we use them unto somewhat less than is competent; and that a crooked stick is not straightened unless it be bent as far on the clean contrary side, that so it may settle itself at the length in a middle estate of evenness between both.  But how can these comparisons stand them in any stead?  When they urge us to extreme opposition against the church of Rome, do they mean we should be drawn unto it only for a time, and afterwards return to a mediocrity? or was it the purpose of those reformed churches, which utterly abolished all popish ceremonies, to come in the end back again to the middle point of evenness and moderation.  Then have we conceived amiss of their meaning.  For we have always thought their opinion to be, that utter inconformity with the church of Rome was not an extremity whereunto we should be drawn for a time, but the very mediocrity itself wherein they meant we should ever continue.  Now by these comparisons it seemeth clean contrary, that howsoever they have bent themselves at first to an extreme contrariety against the Romish church, yet therein they will continue no longer than only till such time as some more moderate course for establishment of the Church may be concluded.  

“. . . They have seen that experience of the former policy, which may cause the authors of it to hang down their heads.  When Germany had stricken off that which appeared corrupt in the doctrine of the church of Rome, but seemed nevertheless in discipline still to retain therewith very great uniformity; France by that rule of policy which hath been before-mentioned, took away the popish orders which Germany did retain.  But process of time hath brought more light into the world; whereby men perceiving that they of the religion in France have also retained some orders which were before in the church of Rome, and are not commanded in the word of God, there hath arisen a sect in England, which following still the very selfsame rule of policy, seeketh to reform even the French reformation, and purge out from thence also dregs of popery.  These have not taken as yet such root that they are able to establish any thing.  But if they had, what would spring out of their stock, and how far the unquiet wit of man might be carried with rules of such policy, God doth know.”

The Art of Disagreement

The recent debates on the appropriate response to the women’s ordination controversy threw into sharper relief a set of issues that have regularly cropped up on this blog and others with which I find myself in conversation, and particularly so during the hullaballoo about the US election: how are we to disagree?  How can we resolutely oppose error where we are convinced it is error, while making charitable allowances for others who hold these errors in good faith?  How are we to resort to the forceful polemic that defense of the truth often requires without indulging in mere verbal brawling and power-plays?  In my historical research, I have become convinced that our inability to satisfactorily reconcile the needs of polemics and irenics in contemporary discourse undermines our ability to intelligently read and interpret the controversies of earlier ages, in which interlocutors rarely shared our commitments to “fair play” and objective detachment.  

Accordingly, although the recent discussions highlighted the importance of a more systematic inquiry into the women’s ordination question, from the standpoint of historic Protestantism, I have postponed my promised provision of such for a spell (though in the meantime, one can find some helpful hints, along with, obviously, some points I would disagree with, here), to first address more carefully the question of how to disagree—how to be simultaneously polemical irenicists and irenical polemicists.  As this is a question that has cropped up quite frequently in posts and comments here, this might be the obvious place to post it.  But Matthew Anderson has suggested that, as a natural follow-up to my earlier post at Mere Orthodoxy, and an elaboration of his notion of “intellectual empathy,” its proper home is there.  So, with little attempt at modesty, I invite you to go check it out.  Or, for those of you indisposed to wade through the great sea of words there disgorged, here’s a quick precís:

We must not conceive our task as one of determining when polemics (understood as resort to rhetorical violence) are necessary, versus when irenics (understood as commitment to peaceful dialogue) is necessary, but must recognize that our task, as one of justice oriented toward both truth and effectiveness, is one in which the end is always irenic, and the means will usually involve some degree of polemic.

As a potential child of God, we must perceive every opponent as someone not to be triumphed over, but to be won over; to be persuaded, not subjugated.  The end of all our discourse should be reconciliation and peace.  The Christian, accordingly, must reject any idea of polemics that is self-justifying, that has been unmoored from the objective of seeking peace.  Equally, however, the Christian must reject any irenicism that has been unmoored from the objective of truth, for any reconciliation that terminates in anything but truth will be illusory and destructive.”

In discerning what will be effective in winning over the opponent, the principles of charity, as described in 1 Cor. 13, are always relevant, and none more so than patience, which is where “intellectual empathy” comes in.  This empathy does not necessarily mean sympathy, but rather an imaginative act of seeing the world through the opponent’s eyes.  The result may be sympathy, or may be greater awareness of the nature of his error, and better insight into how to detach him from it.  

If committed to irenically-oriented polemics, and a disciplined practice of intellectual empathy, what rules may guide us in the appropriate way to respond to particular errors.  Rather than providing rules, I suggest a list of questions we might ask ourselves, questions that will include: How serious is the error in question?  What is at stake?  How much harm will this error do to my opponent, and to others whom she is persuading or influencing?  Does this argument deserve respectful consideration?  Does the person I am critiquing deserve respect?  Where is this person coming from?  Why is this argument being advanced? and How will my critique be perceived/received?

Of course, the answers to any of these questions may be far from clear; this does not mean we should be afraid to even attempt the task of irenical polemics, but that we must recognize that our attempts to do so must always be subject to judgment at the bar of truth as well as love.