‘They Fought Like Warrior-Poets’ – What Moves Culture?

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Mankind, by its very nature and manifested across time immemorial, has always lived in the context of ‘the group.’ New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a book boldly entitled The Social Animal – rephrasing Aristotle’s age-old definition of humans as ‘rational animals’ – in which he establishes the central characteristic of humans as their communal nature. Moreover, Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston School of Social Work and lights-out TED speaker has claimed that a summation of her decades of research shows two fundamental traits of human beings: “connection and belonging is why we are here” (pg. 68, Brené Brown, Daring Greatly). That really is a quirky, awe-inspiring reality. We are all individually and completely ourselves, but (avoiding all Jerry McGuire references) as individuals, we aren’t complete in and of ourselves. We need others. Hence, community is in our blood.

Now, arising out of these communities in which humans unavoidably find themselves is something called ‘culture.’ Equally as obvious and confounding as this communal nature of man is this term ‘culture.’ Everyone knows culture exists and that it is important, but we come up short when trying to define it. What is culture, anyway?

It isn’t just something reserved for stuffy museums and archipelagos of highly lauded ‘great works.’ It is not something people participate in only every once in a while when they see an opera, look at a Titian gallery or otherwise seek out some activity when they feel like ‘getting some culture.’ No, culture is far more expansive than that, formed from every corner of a building and every act of a citizen. It is “the way we do things around here” (pg. 174, Brené Brown, ibid.). It is the way of life of a people. It is not just what we do sometimes. Culture is the waters in which we are unavoidably swimming and the juices in which we are stewing. It is the spirit and soul of a communal body of people that exhibits its personality, life and health.

But, notice the root word of ‘culture’ – cultus, which is Latin for worship. Where is the natural spring, the birth canal, the inescapable origin, the ‘root’ for this ‘way of life’ of any people? Ultimately, it germinates from what that people worships. That is to say, culture springs forth from what that people loves and gives its collective heart to.

This is such a crucial point. This is why culture always comes back to how a community of people answers certain questions: What is ultimately significant and meaningful in life? What is true about the world and the cosmos? Who is man? What is his place and role in the world? What is the purpose in living? And, perhaps most poignantly, culture stems from and points to three questions achingly explored in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?

All of these questions show culture to be more foundational than just what kinds of foods we eat and how we dress. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of a people, finding its footing in how they answer Jesus’ perennial question:

“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)

In such a context, it doesn’t take an especially exacting gaze to see that our culture is not such a healthy one. It is one thing for a people to take their best stab at answering the questions above and let the cultural chips fall where they may. But, it something different entirely to do what our society in the West now does: not answer the questions at all.

Look at the above list of questions again… does our society give any whiff of an answer to them at all? How can that be? How is that approach to life an honest response to what are certainly the deepest, most rudimentary questions leaping up from the flames within our chests? How healthy can a culture be (and, more importantly, the people who give birth to such a culture) if it stands blind, deaf, dumb and mute, cutting out its own heart? This is why some have argued that we have no culture left.

What is the remedy? What can give life to what is dead? What can turn darkness into light? One (and only one) thing:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)

Each and every human being (and, by extension, each and every society) needs the ‘newness of life’ that only Jesus can give. It is to Him that we must come with empty hands and to Him that we must give everything. He is the only one who has the power to change societies and their attendant cultures. Life comes from no other source than God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the definition of foolishness (and Einstein concept of insanity) to dig into any other well. Therefore, if we wish to play a part in healing the wounds or solving the problems around us, we must, as St. Therese once said, “hide [ourselves] in the wounds of Christ,” so that, through us He may redeem, transform and give life.

And this is the climatic point of the Christian life: if we are truly pierced and converted by the Gospel, then we will spray out over the battle-contested garden of the world as warrior-poets of the Gospel – firmly girded with trust and hope in our Father and ever ready to die for Him in our combat against evil.

We follow Him on His mission to save people from destruction and death (as we ourselves have been saved.) In this way it is absolutely our mission (albeit, indirectly) to build a healthy culture, because it is our mission to let the light of Christ change the way people see and live in the world – to unleash Christ to transfigure hearts.

This is what it means to be a disciple. Consequently, it is only this kind of sold-out abandonment to the Christ-centered Gospel that suffices for restoring a putrefied and entombed culture like ours. When disciples truly live together in a community of Gospel-oriented mission, then societies flourish and fluoresce with truth, unity, justice, beauty, goodness and peace.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we are called to by Him who stands at the ready to pour out His grace and power into the hearts of all men. How can we not respond?

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Grow Up: Become a Child

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“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” (Micah 5:2)

How often does the wisdom of God prove to be radically different from the wisdom of mankind?

A good illustration of this is in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. At first, Jesus’ disciples approach him because they are hungry. And, seeing their hunger, Jesus deliberately intensifies it by speaking of the “the true bread from heaven… which comes down and gives life to world.” This bread is better than the manna that fed their ancestors for years in the desert. This is the only bread one ever needs to eat. Naturally, His disciples are sold and salivating – resolutely declaring, “Lord, give us this bread always!”

And, after rising to a crescendo, with the next few lines Jesus loses more disciples than any other time of his earthly life. He says, “I am the bread of life… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.”

What the disciples expected to get was not what Jesus was prepared to give. He was prepared to give something much greater. Likewise, throughout the whole Bible, what God tells His people to do often baffles them just as much as it baffles us nowadays. What our natural gut-instinct tells us will be effective is often the opposite of the solution the Lord gives. And doesn’t this shock us every time?

Just look at the very life of Jesus. Mother Teresa has great words that are pertinent here:

“You know, [we] don’t understand. Jesus came into the world with the most important message [and task] of all time and he had only thirty-three short years to communicate [and accomplish] it. And he spent thirty years doing nothing!” (I Loved Jesus in The Night, pg. 72)

Combine that thought with the fact that the climax of this “redemption” – this “Good News” – was to come through the brutal death of the protagonist and we throw up our hands in puzzlement. This plan for saving the world from all of its problems and redeeming creation itself is just simply not how we, as human beings, would go about things. We would come in with power, wealth, talent and a huge conglomerate wad of “the best the world has to offer.” God (in this world at least) reveals His glory in more magnificent ways.

Lloyd Greenhaw, a confident, jovial, shoot-from-the-hip, Texas rancher-type who leads international missions for Renewal Ministries all over the world, puts it like this: “We live in an upside-down world.” If you want to save your life, lose it. If you want life, you must die. If you want to be rich, become poor. If you want to be filled, be emptied. The list goes on. Just one look at the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) reveals how God’s idea of blessedness is a 180-degree spin from ours.

So, now the question: what does this mean for us as disciples?

Surely, we want to be great disciples. We want to produce fruit. We have (or we should have) a fountain of magnanimous aspirations boiling over within our hearts. Pope John Paul II recognized this when, in addressing young adults throughout the world, he said,

“It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives… the refusal to allow yourself to be grounded down by mediocrity.” (Prayer Vigil at World Youth Day 2000)

We want to be great and we should want to be great. But, how do we achieve greatness?

Jesus answered this for us. “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). And our hearts are pierced with bewilderment and wonder once again. How can this be possible? Because the ways of God are not the ways of man.

The disciple is not one who has just given some measly intellectual assent to a set of ideas, but one who has received the “spirit of sonship” so that now…

“When we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom. 8:15-17)

Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God. Through God we are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters and, therefore, heirs to everything He has to give us (Gal. 4:6). This means two things.

First, once again, that we are born to be great. We should hunger for greatness, for glory and for producing magnificent fruit. Notice that when the disciples asked Jesus about how to achieve greatness (Matt. 18:1), He didn’t rebuke them – He answered their question. To not long for glory and for greatness is to not recognize the reality of who we are: namely, children of God.

Secondly, if we want to be great (and if we want to be great disciples), we must come, as children with empty hands, to our loving Father, being nourished by Him and Him alone. We must be made humble. We must become small. We must realize that the only way to have a “big impact” is to be totally present to the little and insignificant things we have to do at each moment. That in the very smallest things (like this moment right now), we meet the very greatest (the infinity of God’s presence).

In this way, we live as children – constantly and forever living in the presence of our Father, allowing His will to guide every inch of our lives. It is an eternal paradox of that “upside-down world” that if we want to be great, we must be small. It is in our smallness that we can rest more firmly in the embrace and power of our Father who loves us. How else could a woman that looks like this change so many hearts?

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This is our privilege and our call – that you and I are each a child of God.

Brothers and sisters, let us live in that truth. Let us abandon ourselves totally to Him, allowing Him to purify us, in His Love, into the pure gold we are created to be. Let us trust our Father. Let us hope in Him. Let us love Him by a complete gift of ourselves. There is no other path for the disciple to take.

Scriptural postscript: pray with Sirach 3:17-24; Psalm 50:15-17; Micah 2-4; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10