My Visit to an Emergency Room
Quiet, but not idle.
I’ve been away from my blogging practice and newsletter for a couple of weeks now. On the one hand, that is a result of an accelerated pace and fuller life, and on the other an injury and setback that has not only stolen time, but energy. I’m mortal after all. Again.
Two weeks ago early Friday morning I broke the middle finger on my left hand. My reward for closing down a gap and offering help defense was to catch my finger in a tangle of basketball, motion, and bodies, then retrieving my hand to find one of my fingers at a very odd angle. I grabbed my finger, reset the bone, and kept playing. This was the first game of the morning. Adrenaline does wonders. My pain tolerance is high. I think. Especially if my choice is to sit or play basketball. I want to be on the court.
While waiting to play, I told one of my friends that I thought I had broken my finger. He said, “You seem pretty calm for someone who may have just broken their finger.” I played for the full two hours. But in the immediate aftermath and still today, swelling, stiffness, and the need to recover have me sidelined for a few weeks. The bone, and the joint, need to mend.
Wednesday evening of last week I spent time in the yard. I mowed the grass, cleaned the pool, and climbed up on my roof. I was not there for parkour. Days before, one of my young neighbors lost control of something they were playing with and it landed on my roof. Rather than seeking assistance from an adult, he opted to toss rocks from my garden below on to my roof above in order to unsettle, dislodge, recover, and repossess said item. The result: I had to clear rocks from my roof.
Later that evening my elbow began to swell, redden, and throb. I could not connect this to an event, blow, or trauma. All I knew was that my elbow was not right.
I managed to fall asleep even though I experienced mild pain. I woke just before midnight. The tolerable had become intolerable. I stared at the ceiling wondering what an emergency room visit would cost, or if I could make it through the night, not sleeping, but doing other things, until a clinic opened at 8 a.m. I considered watching Cowboy Bebop. I also thought about how I would hand off responsibilities for my class on Thursday morning.
Molly encouraged me to go to the emergency room, so I did. After a tetanus shot, an antibiotic, and a painkiller, I was sent home. I fell asleep; that’s the power of pharmaceuticals. I ended up teaching, but I did not accomplish much else that day. After seven days of antibiotics the swelling has mostly subsided and there is even still a little pain. I’m doing much better, though. I’m thankful for this.
Reminders of mortality are good for me. I have limits. My body has limits. I’ve scaled back. I’ve focused on activities that are mine to do, I’ve reminded myself that my constraints need reckoning with, and I’ve prioritized the essential. I’ve coached my soccer team, helped care for Molly and the kids, gotten D to baseball practice, been present at work, maintained my appointments, and kept on top of the most important tasks before me each day. But I’ve been tired, and emotionally drained.
When you are wounded, getting well takes energy. For your body, for your soul to recover, it is true that turning the dial up in one area requires you to turn a dial down somewhere else.
You have to want to be well and choose to be well. Being well necessitates a letting go, at least for a time. Sometimes the letting go and scaling back takes a few days. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes, it requires a lifetime, and healing will only fully take hold in eternity. There’s a truth there for the life of discipleship. We look ahead to the day all manner of things will be well, living now in the tension between the already and the not yet.
For now, and as a result of these recent mishaps, my public writing has been quiet, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve continued to read my books and write in the margins, to keep my journal and capture ideas on my task board. I’ve stayed on top of other things. I’ve traveled with J for her soccer team and coached D’s team (the squad is off to a 2-0 start). I’ve worked with Molly to manage rides for kids’ activities. I haven’t done the dishes as often as I would’ve liked, or walked the dogs (small ways I can be “of use” around the house). I’ve prayed about all these things. I have asked for healing and help. I’ve contemplated pain and suffering, not only my own, but in a way that has led me to have compassion for others. My limits are more clearly felt. That’s a good thing.
For friends who may wonder, my work at Truett is off to an exceptional beginning this fall term, I think. I am encouraged by our students, their thoughtfulness and their passion for God. There are varying degrees of interest and engagement in my spiritual formation classes, but on average, I sense that my students have a hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are earnestly seeking God, and that they want to offer their lives in service to Christ and the kingdom. Good signs. Salt. Light. Leaven. Seed. All small things. But during a difficult moment in history (more and more I’m coming to the conviction that all of human history is one long difficult moment, and yet…), it is helpful to remember that the kingdom comes quietly and grows we know not how, always producing a yield through people like the students I have the privilege to teach, and through people like you, the reader.
Since my last newsletter, I began and finished a couple of new releases from IVP Academic. One of these books was okay. The other I would not recommend.
Mark Teasdale’s Participating in Abundant Life [this link, and all book links that follow, are affiliate links] is an effort to expand on a term found in John 10:10. The King James Version:
“The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
But in his exposition and explanation of “abundant life,” he makes this term do more work than it does or can or should. His aim is laudable. But exegetically, his moves are scattershot, and soteriologically, this book is underdeveloped and lacks coherence. Practically, there is much a ministry leader could use. There is encouragement and inspiration and exhortation to do good things. It’s the argument that I question.
Teasdale is a professor of evangelism and wants to encourage Christians to be more open and expansive in sharing the good news of and about Jesus Christ to the whole world. He defines “abundant life” as inclusive of a message about eternal life, but widens its application. He points to Jesus, noting that in and through and around him people saw their standard of living and quality of life increase. Therefore, any and all signs of the same in our world are in alignment with Jesus and God’s gracious action in the world. Christians should be engaged in the same kinds of work Jesus took up. I agree with that. But I’m not so sure ministries of mercy are the same thing Jesus spoke of when he said he came to bring “life abundantly.” There could be overlap, but I don’t think it is total.
Teasdale applauds Christian and non-Christian efforts to bring about improvements in people’s standard of living and quality of life, too. He sees any effort in the world to improve standard of living or to make life more satisfying and full, and fruitfulness in those efforts, as evidence of God’s grace. He wants to encourage Christians to start their own initiatives that work toward these ends, and/or to partner freely with those who already do such work as a means of participation in “abundant life” as it is manifested there.
He does write that the message of eternal life, then, must be brought by Christians into these spaces, and does contend that salvation in an ultimate sense comes through Jesus Christ. But in my opinion, Teasdale works from the fruits of righteousness back to the message of the gospel of hope and freedom and salvation found in and through Jesus, rather than the other way around. While the aim is noble—encouraging Christians and church leaders to spur their congregants on to love and good deeds as a means of evidencing the availability of God’s abundant life—I think the ordo salutis is wacky, or at least out of whack.
In churches where the what to do is emphasized over what is through God in Christ, I’ve met a lot of nice people who do good things (and I’m thankful for this) who are unclear and sometimes even uncertain with regard to their own salvation and standing before God (this is more complicated, as it reflects the possibility of a failure in pastoral leadership or perhaps other, more hidden spiritual hindrances in need of grace). They are often working in hopes that they will prove themselves worthy of eternal life, rather than resting in the hope and freedom that is ours on the basis of what God has done and letting their lives be an expression of that hope through acts of love and other good deeds.
In other churches this can run the other way around. The congregation is very clear on what is through God and Christ. But they don’t know what to do, or have yet to make connections and applications between what is and what to do. While I think it is better to work from theology to ethics, it is possible to trace those lines the other way. The key is to maintain the logic, the connections. Right action accompanied by right thought and right motivation generates an experience of deeper meaning, of coherence, of truth.
When I perceive a lack of understanding in Christian people, I am burdened, I pray, and I do my best to encourage, teach, and help. After all, part of the life of faith is coming to a knowledge of salvation. It is more than mere belief. This is part of what I see as the task of a Christian educator, ordering and making connections between sound doctrine and a faithful life. This is what I’m thinking Teasdale is trying to do, and for some, his book may be exactly what they need. But I think our account of salvation, and how salvation is “worked out” can be reasoned out more clearly by taking a different route. It seems Teasdale wants good works to accompany good news, and yes, the two go together. How they go together is where I differ. We don’t do good works and sprinkle in some good news. We start from good news, we see what it means and how it transforms us, and we live out the consequences of being in relationship to God on the basis of God’s action in Christ Jesus.
A second book I read was by Susan Maros, Calling in Context. Her basic thesis is that call stories and call experiences can be shaped by our social location and factors accompanying certain identity markers, whether they be racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and/or stemming from sex and/or gender. In so far as that claim goes, I agree, and Maros includes examples of various call stories that demonstrate ways in which certain identity markers shape the construction of call narratives or frame aspects of the call experience.
But I thought this book failed because of the wholesale, uncritical adoption of the operating assumptions of certain ideas prevalent in the social sciences, such as in critical theory or gender theory. Christians can engage the academy without bowing the knee to certain ideologies and idols present within the academy.
I think there is room for internal critique of the Christian tradition with regard to how we receive persons within evangelicalism who express a calling to some form of ministry or service that come from different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or sex than the person hearing the story. But I think the way to go about this is through our own language and history, at least as our primary lens. I think we remain answerable to the Scriptures, to our tradition, and to our Lord first.
Calling in Context was written for IVP’s Academic Press, and while I do think this book does a service by bringing ideas from the social sciences into conversation with Christian understandings of call, it fails to critique those ideas and reframe them (or reject them) in light of the Bible, Christian tradition, and a well developed theology. It is true that Christians need to be humble, compassionate, and learn to see the world through the eyes of the other. But the way is first through the help of own resources, and in response to the witness of those within the family of faith who are seeking God and God’s best for the church.
I completed Dallas Willard’s Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks. It is a long collection. I enjoyed it very much. The interviews, in particular, were revelatory. Willard continues to be one of my heroes.
Still reading Chernow’s Washington. Still.
I continue reading David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic novel Infinite Jest, usually in the evenings before lights out. Yeesh.
I’m reading a galley of Richard Foster’s forthcoming book Lessons in Humility and am working my way through Jacques Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word. I’m also reading Andrew Root’s Faith Formation in a Secular Age.
Sights and Sounds
I watched Hard Eight (1996) and Grown Ups (2010). The former is a Paul Thomas Anderson crime film, while the latter is a comedy starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, and Rob Schneider. Hard Eight was visually interesting and the characters were compelling. But the story itself was more episodic than it was a fulfilling tale—though it did resolve. Grown Ups, on the other hand, was exactly what you’d expect from a movie starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, and Rob Schneider, except that it wasn’t all that funny.
I also watched The Sweeney (2012), which is hardly worth remarking upon. It is a fast-paced, hard hitting action film featuring a special police unit in London, coming complete with car chase scenes, plenty of shooting, hints at corruption, and sundry other forms of violence. Its basic message is like that of Shane (1953), suggesting that sometimes you need a skilled fighter to push the boundaries and break the rules in order to deal with an unbridled, violent threat, but when peacetime returns, the gunslinger is pushed out or rejected, deemed uncouth for civilized people.
On the blog: I reacted to a new Os Guinness book about the dire straights of American life and shared a story about a breeze that moved into Central Texas.
Before I go, standard copy.
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Be well this week. Bless others.
P.S. - I was only a few feet from this shelf, but I could feel it radiating existential despair.