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July 13, 2010

Place, Personhood, and the Weight of Glory

woodengrvng.dore.pardiso.jpg I recently blogged about Stanley Hauerwas' new book, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir. At the time, I wrote that I was reading it in "an episodic and leisurely manner." That lasted until about...the end of that blog post. Over the following couple of days, I consumed what remained - which was the majority of the book. I suppose that among the many things I enjoyed, what I appreciated most about Hauerwas' telling of his story was my sense that I'd encountered a real person, that there was actually a there there. What do I mean?

I am describing the same phenomenon discussed in the short video-blog interaction between myself and Travis Reed posted a couple of weeks back. In that second conversation, Travis asks me to reflect on what I believe are the most important aspects of leadership. I suggest that the most important aspects of leadership are presence, engagement, and the creativity that flows from the interaction of those things.

Being present is one of the most challenging tasks any human being faces. The temptation is always to be somewhere else - which is another way of saying somewhere other than here. We live regretfully in unchangeable pasts. We live projecting ourselves anxiously into unknown futures. We live mesmerized by that which is mediated to us on screens. We live anesthetized by what we consume. We are always seeking somewhere, somewhen, someone, somehow, or something else. We struggle to be present to ourselves, each other, or God. Here. Now.

This phenomenon exists not only on a personal level, as I am describing it, but also on communal levels, too. We live in communities that are rarely present to the world in which they exist. If you look around, you will find groups of every size and kind - churches, denominations, businesses, governments - seeking somewhere, somewhen, someone, somehow, or something else. That kind of forward movement is not necessarily bad, by the way. In fact, I believe it is a good sign that we are part of a story that is going (or leading) somewhere. The irony is that when our desire for outcomes (teleology) eclipses our practice of being (ontology), such an orientation precludes the possibility of ever actually realizing such desires. Paradoxically, I believe that the only way to move forward is to let go of the desire to do so and to live with conscious attention to the present. Easier said than done. But it is done, at least by a few.

Have you ever been around a person who feels substantial? I don't necessarily mean charismatic - though they might be that, too. I mean that when you are with them, you sense that there is a weight to their being. Their souls are heavy. Such people draw others to themselves like magnets draw metal shavings. Why? I think the answer is, in part, because they are there, alive in their place and time. There is weight to their presence that attracts the way gravity pulls objects to the ground. Gravitas. I think such people have cultivated their souls by their practice of presence. They are becoming human beings. The result of this is that they gained ontological weight. This can be especially, though not exclusively, true of people who have encountered, and continue to encounter, God as revealed in Christ - the incarnate One.

Perhaps a surprising way to describe such a person is glorious. What comes to mind when you read that word - glory? Rays of shining light, perhaps? The Hebrew word for glory is kabod. The literal meaning of the word kabod is "weightiness," or "heaviness." To talk about God's glory is to describe his weighty or heavy presence. When the Bible tells stories of human beings who find themselves in God's presence, invariably each account portrays people falling down on their faces. It's almost as if God's glory, or weight, presses down on them. God is Substantial. Present. Real. Here. Now. God's Person and Presence invites our person and presence into an encounter that transforms our being. We become more real, more human when we live our lives in relation to God, his people, and his ways. People who spend their lives cultivating their souls add weight to their being by borrowing some of God's weight. Another way of saying this is that they reflect God's presence and glory the way Moses did when he came down from the mountain, God's glory shining on his face...

What does all this have to do with the Hauerwas memoir?

In Hauerwas' story, and thought, you get a sense of a soul that has wrestled deeply with God, people, and place. You encounter a human being who has suffered and has caused suffering, who has forgiven and been forgiven. Most significantly, you witness a life gradually shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ (the only way it ever happens). I believe it is because we are so averse to suffering that we constantly jettison ourselves out of the present reality and into an alternate and ideal reality fabricated from our fantasies. In so doing, we reject the cross - and the possibility of resurrection! What a tragedy. There is nothing more glorious, or weighty, than a cruciform life lived passionately in the hope of resurrection.

Alas, such lives are only forged in the crucible of specific relationships with people whom we generally take for granted. And such potentially glorious relationships? They, too, are available only in the specific places and times we too often long to escape. When we look beyond our place and our time, we miss that which God would use to shape us into the glorious likeness of his Son. And we become less substantial...weighty...glorious. The Son's glory comes by virtue of his willingness to suffer in humility for the sake of those whom he loves. Our "glory" usually comes as a result of our significance and success.

Can such upside-down, kingdom realities ever be adequately described? I doubt it. We must witness such things first-hand. As John writes: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1John 1:1). If this is the case, then perhaps a memoir is not a bad place to start. But it would be a poor place to end. Why? Because Hauerwas' memoir is not just about theology, but about the relationships that have made him the man he has become. After reading Hauerwas' theology for years, seeing it worked out in the story of his life is a gift that instructs me in the living of my own life. More than that, his story models the relational reality that I am trying to describe.

If we are ever to become what God has made us to be, we must live deeply in relationship to one another. We must pay attention to one another and live attentively, looking for people whose lives show us what it means to know and follow Christ in these times and places. If Hauerwas' memoir were nothing else, it would at least be a testament to the power of friendship to shape a life. That it is virtually impossible to make it through a page without Hauerwas naming a person and describing the influence of that person on his life and/or thought is the most significant thing I will take away from this "book." Which brings me to the following quote. In it, Hauerwas relates his experience having joined the faculty of the religion department at Notre Dame. There he finds people who show him something of the God he seeks in his theological work.

"There is no substitute for learning to be a Christian by being in the presence of significant lives made significant by being Christian...'Significance' can, of course, be a misleading description of the lives that got my attention. Significance suggests importance. It suggests lives that make a difference and that demand acknowledgement. But the lives of significance that I began to notice were not significant in any of those ways. Rather, they were lives of quiet serenity, capable of attending with love to the everyday without the need to be recognized as 'making a difference.'"

To what are we paying attention? To whom are we present? If we never learn to be here, now, then we will miss the many small, "insignificant" gifts that God gives to lead us into the present and unfolding reality of his kingdom - to show us...no, to make us his glory.

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you wrote "They are becoming human beings." what a beautiful thing to say. and it's b/c of what i first learned through you @ jw years ago that i can see the beauty of that line, the honour that God extends in His creation of us as 'mere' human beings. and now through what you wrote here, i see the layered beauty of _beings_. oh! to _be_here_now_.


also, i of course was reminded of lewis' essay on "the weight of glory" chock-full of brilliant quotes. this one struck me today...

"the promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. to please God...to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness...to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son -- it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. but so it is."

and your last quote of hauerwas also reminds me of lewis and his chapters on "the new men" at the end of "mere christianity":

"a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God...every now and then one meets them. their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. they begin where most of us leave off...they do not draw attention to themselves. you tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. they love you more than other men do, but they need you less...they will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from."

Tim Keel

Yes, Beth, there are so many...

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners - no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden."

Tim Keel

And, of course, this one:

"It may be possible for each of us to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden, of my neighbour's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you may talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet if at all only in a nightmare."

So good.


and here's rilke "weighing in" on the topic:

how surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

each thing--
each stone, blossom, child--
is held in place.
only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

if we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

so, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left Him.

this is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

Tim Keel

That is really rich, Beth. Thanks.

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