A Beholding that Ascends

When I decided to write a review of Nancy J. Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, the first word that came to mind was “impressionist”.  And indeed, her book on calling and vocation does not so much state her perspective directly as it leaves the reader, through vignettes of her own life and through other illustrations, with a distinct impression of what she is conveying.  So subtle can the distinctions between her stories be, often interweaving two or more in a chapter, that it can be easy to miss the point she is trying to make.  In this sense, her work is distinctly artistic.

But on other, I would have to say that her book is also iconic.  Not only does her book, through the use of personal stories and reflections on art and literature, reflect the way in which the Divine shines through and is mediated by the natural world, as icons do, but she also at one point quotes from Russian Orthodox thinker and priest, Pavel Florensky, when she borrows the phrase, “a beholding that ascends”.  Florensky was specifically describing the religious impact of icons in that phrase.

There is another sense in which her theology of vocation is iconic.  It comes through in the way in which she perceives and writes about one’s calling.  Where it has become popular in certain evangelical circles to cite Frederick Buechner’s “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”, Nancy Nordenson takes a different approach or, at the very least, a different emphasis.  Buechner’s quote is one I have often found inspiring myself, but I have to admit it can be a tad idealistic, being actualized very seldomly in a reality tainted by sin and the effects of the Fall.  Thus, Nordenson takes the tack that much of our calling is lived out in places of necessity and pragmatism.  She writes that “work, even good work for which we are grateful and love, has a shadow side.”  And her own life illustrates this.  Much of the book, especially later on, is taken up with reflections during her time having to work after her husband lost his job.  She had planned to reduce her work schedule while going through graduate school, but found herself adjusting to the reality of what was.

The book itself is presented in three “acts”.  The first act reflects on the limitations of life, “where we encounter ground level and metaphysical realities…idealistic work experts and criteria for ‘good work’; hiddenness and exhaustion; and a longing for meaning and a will to be satisfied.”  The second act is primarily on learning to rest and paying attention to what is unfolding before us in our life and work.  It is in this act that one reads Florensky’s quote and sees how she applies the concept of beholding to one’s vocation.  It is also at the end of this part that she writes the chapter about her husband coming home after losing his job.  Prior to this, her reflections were based on earlier memories of past work experiences, but with the last chapter of Act II, the readers is segued into Act III, “where we encounter love, devotion, and guidance; the sacrament of the present moment and every moment;…patience and transformation; and a blessing of countenance.”

For me, one of the joys of this book was her interaction with other writers and thinkers that I am fond of.  These include quotes from Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing, T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  But as one might guess from the quote above regarding Act III, she quotes from that French mystic, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book The Sacrament of the Present Moment.  And this reinforces the iconographic nature of her writing.  For, in attending to the moments of her life and her work as present realities which mediate God’s grace, she is able to write, “On one level we make our livelihood; on another level we keep our eyes open and find it.”  Nancy Nordenson’s book is a testament to what revelations can result when we open our eyes to what is in front of us and receive it as grace.  Truly, in the reading of this book one is engaging in a beholding that ascends.

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Cubicle as Crucible

After Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church lost its distinctive counter-cultural and missional focus.  Many saw the church as being too accommodating of the surrounding culture, with many converting to the faith in name only.  As a result, “dissatisfied Christians began to flee the church in search of a purer form of Christianity untainted by collusion with empire.” 1  Those who fled into the wilderness went into the deserts surrounding the Roman Empire where they lived in caves, which became places of prayer or “cells”, to practice a more solitary and ascetic form of faith.  This monastic lifestyle grew such that “By the end of the fourth century, thousands of these hermits had settled along the length of the Nile River, and nearly 5,000 had established themselves in the desert on the outskirts of Alexandria.” 2  Eventually, their extreme devotion led others from the Empire to seek out these desert fathers and mothers, at they came to be known, in order to learn how to grow in discipleship.

Margaret Guenther, in her classic book on prayer, The Practice of Prayer, draws on the wisdom of the desert fathers when she quotes Abba (Father) Moses, “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”. 3  Guenther applies the idea of the cell to our everyday lives, whether that be cooking in the kitchen, driving in a car, or working in a cubicle.  Our modern-day “cell” is whatever happens to be our place of encounter with God.  But often, we yearn for a life that seems more “spiritual”, more transcendent, and so our cell is also that which tempts us to boredom or dissatisfaction with the life we have.  Just as the noonday heat and the monotony of the desert created a condition of acedia, or sloth, which the desert fathers sought to fight against while praying, so we also must fight against our own “noonday demons”.  Her insight into our contemporary interior struggles and how it impacts our daily work is worth citing at length:

The noonday devil is gray and shabby, nothing like Milton’s splendid Lucifer.  He is thoroughly at home in the ordinary and quite expert in the unspectacular, tacky sins of the everyday…The noonday devil can tempt us to little acts of meanness and impatience.  He can encourage our ugly little spurts of envy and persuade us that only the uptight pay much attention to the sins of gluttony and lust.  Perhaps most insidious of all, the noonday devil can insinuate himself into our thoughts, suggesting that God is not very interested in us and that consequently what we do is not important. 4

I don’t know about you, but I struggle from time to time with feelings of being appreciated and acknowledged.  It’s not so much that I need others to praise me, since I tend to be the sort of personality a little suspicious of too much praise, as it is that by not being appreciated I worry that what I do is not that important or that it’s not making much of a difference.  Even worse, I might begin to fear that my efforts are perceived as hindrances or that I’m not pulling my own weight.  This can lead me to a place of discontentment and dissatisfaction, where my motivations become based on the praise of others rather than the desire to serve God alone.  In fact, so great has been this struggle for me recently, that I decided to journal about it on a retreat.  The organizer of the retreat had brought a book, and as I was journaling, I decided to “take and read”. 5

It’s a children’s book called The Right House for Rabbit.  The story begins with a rabbit who has grown tired of the view from his house of a brown hill and a crooked tree.  So he goes to Mr. Fox, something of a real estate agent, in search of a new home.  Mr. Fox sends him to Mrs. Robin’s house, but that house, while having a great view, is a nest in a tree and has no roof and no walls.  Then Fox sends Rabbit to Mr. Beaver’s house, but while his house has walls and a roof, the only way in is to go underwater.  Finally, Mr. Fox takes Rabbit to a third house which is, unbeknownst to Rabbit, Mr. Fox’s own home.  Mr. Fox tries to capture Rabbit to make stew, but Rabbit slips out the window and races all the way back to his own home.  Once in his own home, Rabbit realizes that with a little shift in position and perspective, he has a different view from his house and learns to be content with where he is. 6

After reading that story, I bean to realize how small my perspective had become.  Interestingly enough, I had also opened to Scripture while journaling to one of the Old Testament prophetic books.  The prophet Isaiah records the following scene:

A voice was saying, “Cry out!”  Another said, “What should I cry out?”  “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word our God remains forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8

At the time, I could not understand how that passage connected with my motivations and my struggle for why I do what I do.  But as I have since reflected, it is clear that we should strive for and ground our sense of worth on what is lasting, which is God and His Word, not on worrying about what is here one moment and gone the next.  All that I do, and even my own self, will not last.  Even though I believe I will continue to exist beyond death, my life and accomplishments on this earth is but a blink in the eye of eternity.

Rather, I believe God’s priority is about forming His children into a community that lives joyfully and contentedly, rather than anxiously worrying about the opinion of others.  In a conversation that is reminiscent of the passage above from Isaiah, Jesus tells his disciples, “Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these!  If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you – you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).  Jesus then proceeds to exhort his disciples to seek first God and His kingdom.  All that we need comes from God, including affirmation and acceptance.

At the end of all my journal writing and reflections, I penned the following prayer:

Dear Lord,

Teach me to be content and to not be distracted by the noonday demon.  Enable me to go to my cell, my workplace crucible, with a gladness and joyfulness of heart, knowing that through it You are forming me into the person You are calling me to be.  May the sacrifices of my time and effort be pleasing and acceptable to You.  And may my presence, like that of incense which is here one moment and gone the next, be a fragrant offering that brings You glory and honor.

Lord Jesus, In Your Name, Amen.

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1 Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2010), 12, ebook.

2 Ibid., 13.

3 Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998), 108.

4 Ibid., 110.

5 The great Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, was converted to the Christian faith after hearing a child in a garden in Milan speak those words.  The child was speaking the Latin words, “tolle lege”, which translates to “take and read”.  He picked up Scripture, which he had with him.  He had been struggling with his inability to live a Christian life, and the words from Scripture which were from the apostle Paul on living a licentious lifestyle, convicted him of the truth of God’s Word.  For those who worry about not hearing from God when reading Scripture, all I can say is that learning to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit through Scripture is a practice that takes time, effort and discipline.  I won’t guarantee that you will always sense God’s presence when reading the Word of God.  In fact, I don’t always sense God’s presence.  But one thing I know: you surely never will if you don’t “take and read” for yourself.  We all have to begin somewhere.

6 Susan Saunders, illustrations by Jody Lee, The Right House for Rabbit (New York, NY:  Merrigold Press, 1986).

The Wisdom of the Owl

About a month ago I was meditating on a passage of Scripture that God brought me to a couple nights in a row.  It is from the Book of Acts, and in chapter 2 the apostle Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel: “I will display wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below: blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.  The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood” (Acts 2: 19-20).  That was an interesting passage for me to simply open Scripture to given that we had recently had a solar eclipse (“the sun will be turned to darkness”) and that the fires out west were creating on those nights a red moon (“the moon to blood”).  It seemed rather providential.  Not only could I see a blood-red moon, but as I had my window cracked open I could hear the cries of an owl once again.

As I noted in a previous post, owls were harbingers in many ancient societies of death and destruction, but today in our modern Western society owls are synonymous with wisdom.  Although the two concepts seem far apart, I find that in Scripture the two come together in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul draws directly from the prophet Isaiah in his letter to the Corinthian church when he writes, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts” (1 Cor. 1:19).  Paul goes on to explain that

For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.  For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:21-25).

Jesus, as the embodiment of God in human flesh, is the fullness of God’s wisdom.  The Greeks and Romans, or the Gentiles as all non-Jews were called, sought to find God through the use of reason.  And to be sure, certain Greek philosophers had vague notions of an “unmoved Mover”.  Their understanding of God as Logos, as Word and Wisdom, was a concept that the writer of the Gospel of John borrows in his bold proclamation, when referring to Jesus Christ, that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).   And in an encounter with Jews who demanded of Jesus that he show them a sign so that they might know He is the Messiah, he responds with “This generation is an evil generation.  It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Ninevah, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation” (Luke 11:29).  This explains the Jews’ request for signs and the Greeks seeking after wisdom, but what is the sign of Jonah, and what about the “foolishness of the message preached”, that which reveals “God’s foolishness” to be “wiser than human wisdom”?

The sign of Jonah no doubt refers to the fact that the reluctant Old Testament prophet spent three days in the belly of a whale before preaching the message of God to the Ninevite people, who subsequently repented.  Jonah foreshadows what Christ would do as the “Son of Man”.  Specifically, Christ would die on a cross and “descend into hell” as the Creeds state.  But, like Jonah who was brought out of the primordial deep of the waters, on the third day, he, Jesus, rose again from the dead.  But I don’t get this just from the Creeds of the Church.  Rather, in Scripture we return to the book of Acts where King David, author of many of the Psalms, wrote “concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not left in Hades, and His flesh did not experience decay” (Acts 2:31).

This, then, is the foolishness of God: that God would take on and assume His very own creation, be born, live a human life, die on a cross, and rise again.  If it’s difficult to understand how foolish this sounded back then, keep in mind that it wasn’t just the Jews who had purity rituals.  Their ancient Near Eastern neighbors similarly believed in rituals before approaching their gods.  Both Jews and Gentiles couldn’t fathom a God who associated with the impure, who took on flesh.  This wasn’t wisdom for those who believe in an “unmoved Mover”, whose eternal immutability caused Him to sit apart from creation in His eternal perfection.  Further, who would have thought that God would willingly take on flesh in order to die and pay the ultimate Sacrifice?  Surely, the Jews would not as they were expecting a Messiah to come and overthrow Roman rule.  That’s why they wanted a sign.  They wanted assurance of Jesus’s earthly rule, his right to kingship.

I’ve also mentioned in my last post that there were ancient cultures that believed in gods that would become incarnated and die sacrificial deaths.  And I believe that Christ is the fulfillment of those myths.  Those myths were ones that took place far in some mythological past.  But most historians acknowledge the person of Jesus Christ and his uniqueness, even if some doubt His death and resurrection.  And rise he must, for why, in the events of the Book of Acts, would the church be growing, why would the apostles be prophesying and speaking in tongues if they knew Christ hadn’t risen?  The apostle Luke, writer of Acts, captures Peter’s words: “God has resurrected this Jesus.  We are all witnesses of this.  Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

This takes us full circle.  For the passage about sun and moon, fires, blood, and cloud of smoke is really about what is taking place that day: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days.  Far from being a gloomy text about the apocalypse, Peter interprets Joel in light of Christ and what was happening in the early Christian community.  “And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity…before the great and remarkable day of the Lord comes; then whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:17, 20-21).

Aside from a solar eclipse and blood-red moons caused by fires, we live in some rather uncertain times.  North Korea is causing tensions in the Pacific.  The Middle East and Southwest Asia is still engulfed in conflict.  Mexico has suffered from earthquakes.  Venezuela is in shambles.  The Gulf Coast and the Caribbean have had the worst hurricane season in years, with Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico being slammed.  Las Vegas is still reeling from a mass shooting.  Sometimes the world situation can feel apocalyptic, with the freedom of democratic and capitalist societies, and the fruits of all our cultural labors, being threatened by despots and anarchists.

But according to the Book of Acts, God is at work in the world and continuing to pour out His Spirit. Just as Jesus is the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah, so also Jesus is the fulfillment of all those societies that looked to owls as symbols of death and wisdom.  The One who bore the death of all those who call on his name is also a harbor of wisdom, the wisdom and blessing and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  So, as those who receive wisdom from above, let us call on the name of our true Lord and strive to boldly engage this lost and uncertain world for Jesus Christ.