As I am

“The Good Samaritan” by Aimé Morot (1880).

The church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. — Pope Francis

G.K. Chesterton once said that his umbrella helped reveal to him why he knew the Catholic Church was for him. He said that whenever he went to the non-Catholic churches, he would customarily leave his umbrella by the back door during the worship service. In these churches, his umbrella would always be there waiting for him when he went back out. But the first time went into a Catholic church to hear Mass, his umbrella disappeared from the back of the church. Someone had stolen it.

His conclusion? If the Catholic church offered such a generous and open doorway to the rabble, being a home for both sinners and saints, then he had indeed found a home where he could also fumble along into the Kingdom. He also added, “Every one on this earth should believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given.”

A gentleman I knew in Florida, a cantankerous old salt, said to me once,

You know, it takes all the strength I can muster to hold back one biting remark. I used to get discouraged, but a priest once told me in Confession, “You know, Jesus looks on your one effort to refrain from an unkind remark as having far more value in His eyes than the thousand kind words spoken by someone who is naturally kind. God just wants small heroisms from you that no one will ever notice.” That made my life much more bearable.

In moral theology, the “law of gradualism” allows us to see that God takes human beings as they are, meeting them in their real-world circumstances with all their present strengths and weaknesses, and leads them along the way to take the next best step. The heights of holiness for one will look very different than the holy heights of another. In the realm of holiness, appearances are indeed deceiving. If we simply take the abstract demands of the moral law, or some single pristine image of mystical sanctity, and lay these on people without respect to who they are, with their real limits and varied life circumstances, we set them up for despair; or for cycles of guilt and shame; or for an unsustainable and delusional pursuit of perfectionism.

While we never bend the moral law to accommodate human weakness, we do confess faith in a God who bends down (descéndit de cælis) to meet the fallen sinner on the ground in order to love her into life, to heal her and raise her up. We have no need for God to canonize or condemn us, but only to have compassion on us so we can carry on each day with hope.

I need this God.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).

Pope Francis has given us this Jubilee year to remind us of this marvelous place between lax indulgence and priggish perfectionism called mercy. Mercy is the most human aspect of our faith. It embraces our broken human condition and empowers us to rise from the ashes. Mercy permits us to become more human, after the image of Christ who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Michael Coren’s description of Pope Francis’ shepherding style seems an apt description of God’s economy of mercy, which “sees the human within the theological, the person within the religious, the living, breathing, confused, confusing man or woman within the moral law.”


Give me wonder, O Lord

Re-post from 2014

The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that existence is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is overflowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences. — Joseph Pieper

Someone asked me recently, “What’s most important to you as a theologian? What’s your non-negotiable?” My spontaneous response was, “Wonder!” They replied, “What does that mean?” I proposed an answer of sorts, but here’s what I jotted down later on my journal:


For me, theological wonder is permitting faith to get the mind stuck in amazement, surprise, marvel and openness to the unexpected answers found in a life shot through with the divine. Answers that set the mind off-balance, i.e. re-calibrating answers.

In wonder there’s also an astonished gratitude over the sheer gratuitousness, the undeserved gifted-ness of everything. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, I experience myself as “being thrown” into existence. I was not, I never asked to be, but then found myself suddenly here. I am. I always find my “first person” vantage completely mind-blowing: what does it mean that I am me and not another? I used to think of this beginning at the age of 7 or 8 — it was my first taste of this mystery’s conundrum that leaves your “why am I me?” faced with no better answer than, “Gift.”

My favorite philosophical question is closely related, “Why there is something rather than nothing at all?” None of this world had to be, but here it is. Wow.

Existence is a ceaseless wellspring of fresh insight. Every day is as freshly new into existence as the light that followed the words, “Let there be…”

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird

Wonder allows you to return to this “first” moment, which is not “back then” but now. If you allow yourself to receive existence as a new gift in every moment, it will regularly re-set the limits of your constricted horizons. I need a poem here to help me. Per Letters to the Exiles, Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of your Longing”:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Wonder is giving over your hand to God.

Theological wonder also requires and gives birth to humility. The first stance of everything is not grasping and dominating and doing, but absolute receptivity. I am in every moment receiving from God the act of being. And, by humility, I know how much I don’t know. I know that I never, in any final sense, will arrive at the end of knowledge. There’s always more, a surplus of meaning to be sought after. This gives rise in me not to shame or despair or frustration, but to hunger and thirst. Desire. Love.

Knowledge without love is data, knowledge with love is wisdom. By wisdom I see how love coheres all that I know. By wisdom we can see that everything is a gift of love given for the good of all. The universal destination of goods. “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). All I am and have is meant for the good of all. I contemplate in order to share the fruits of contemplation. I am bright so I might enlighten. I learn in order to teach and give all I’ve learned away. Wonder makes the teacher’s greatest joy not being called wise but making wise.

I want to remain restless, unfinished. Though I wish to be grounded firmly on the rock of truth, I never want to ossify. I desire certitude, not hubris. While certitude confidently raises up its wide-rimmed chalice to be overfilled, hubris builds up roundabout itself an impenetrable fortress to remain safe.

I long to remain open to learning from anything and anyone, without prejudice. I aspire to listen closely, to look closely, carefully, with discernment. I hope to greet in each new day the feast of Epiphany; to live in a perpetual wow, imprisoned there, permitting faith to inflict serial shock on my mind. Leading me up a Mountain that admits of no zenith, Christ.

Faith-drenched minds seek what keeps all our liturgical orations so hesitant to “wrap it all up” — their codas are fearful of ending: in saecula saeculorum, “unto the ages of ages.” St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the verb epektasis as a refusal to punctuate the quest into mystery. Epektasis means something like “upward striving.” Mountain climbing with Moses. St. Paul uses a form of this verb in Philippians:

Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark (3:13).

How thrilling.

Theology boils up from within the open Heart of the God-Man, gushing out into all faith-disposed minds. Boiling faith inhabits understanding, stretching its present borderlands.

Faith stays in me the surge of sardonic cynicism that can so easily overtake Church-insiders (like me) who are well aware just how terribly awful baptized humanity (like me) can be. A theologian is preserved from cynicism only in the childlike mind of Christ. Guileless. His wonder poured from the cursèd Cross and filled the bowels of Hell, where He descended. He could not but preach God’s ebulliant [from the Latin ebullire “to boil over”] Gospel of joy and hope to Hell’s prisoners (Lk. 4:18; 1 Pet. 3:19).

So we get Christ-minded saints like Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in hell, and do not despair.” And we get Popes like Benedict XVI:

Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

Theologians are called to offer their living witness of hope in the midst of the Church. Their life should shout:

The farther you sink into the mind of Christ, the better, more joyful, more loving and hope-filled human being you become.

May it be so for me and all of us called to be theologians. Amen.

O New Miriam

“Miriam: The Joy of the Lord is My Strength” by Kathleen Izzo.

The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister,
took up a tambourine,
and all the women followed her with tambourines,
while Miriam took up from them the refrain:
“Sing to Yahweh,
for he has covered himself in glory,
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
Yah is my strength and my song,
to him I owe my deliverance.
He is my God and I shall praise him,
my father’s God and I shall extol him.” — Ex. 15:20-21, 2

Last December 8th I prayed over the book of Exodus, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s namesake, Miriam. I was especially struck by the resonances in chapter 15 between Miriam’s tambourine-thumping song and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The theme of a “reversal of fortunes,” with the mighty falling and the slaves rising, structures both songs. In fact, in the Magnificat Mary refers to herself as a doulēs (Lk. 1:48). At a biblical conference in Vermont I attended back in 1989, Fr. Raymond Brown said that we usually see Luke 1:48’s doulēs translated as “handmaiden” or “lowly servant.” But the Greek, he said, is far more intense and is better translated “female slave” — so it might read more accurately, “because he has looked upon the humiliation [tapeinōsin] of his female slave.”

The echoing of the slave-rescue in Exodus by Mary in her Magnificat is clear, as it is in so many other parts of the four Gospels. For the Jews, the Exodus is the defining event of salvation history that reveals the essence of God’s identity as Go’el, the liberator of slaves. The Exodus also serves as our core-paradigm for understanding the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, which transpires on during the great Exodus feast of Passover. Just think of Luke’s description of the exchange between Moses, Elijah and Jesus in the Transfiguration (9:31):

And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus (exodon) that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

This “Mary as the New Miriam” insight is certainly not new. Back in the 8th century, for example, Benedictine Abbot Autpert Ambrose alludes to it:

Mary may now play on her instruments,
the Mother strike the cymbals with swift fingers.
The joyful choruses may sound out
and songs alternate with sweet harmonies.
Hear, then, how she sings,
she who leads our chorus.
For she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

During my prayerful reading of Exodus on December 8th, I also made new (for me) connections between the Red Sea rescue and the Immaculate Conception — especially the fact that Miriam’s song is sung on the “far side” of rescue, on the east bank of the Sea after the slave-drivers of Egypt have been destroyed and Miriam is now free to lead the Redeemed in a joyful song of worship. In the language of typology, it was there, I thought, where Mary was conceived, on the east bank of the Sea parted by the breath of the Spirit.

God is indeed her Savior from the womb, which is a marvelous emblem of the sheer gratuity of God’s merciful gift of salvation that both she and the fleeing Israelite slaves received. From the very foundations of her rescue, like the Israelites on the east bank of the Sea, the soul-spirit (psychē-pneuma) of “Full-of-Grace” proclaims and rejoices in her song of victory. The Church’s teaching is that God radically saved Mary in the first moment of her existence as a sign of hope for all humanity. In Christ, the New Moses, all of humanity is called to be unchained, freed, liberated from the oppression of sin and death so that we might worship (Ex. 5:1) and, having been made God’s covenanted people, live the heart-inscribed Law of charity in our sojourn to the land of promise. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium #68 expresses this eloquently:

In the interim just as the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, as a sign of sure hope and solace to the people of God during its sojourn on earth.

So I wrote a poem. In it I tried to capture a tiny bit of this typology.

I also include below the poem my favorite contemporary setting to the Magnificat, by Leon Roberts.

So, for what it’s worth…

O new Miriam, God-smile
conceived far east of river Nile
on the lee side of a slave’s rescue,
wholly soaked in morning Dew.

You, our sister, are a hymn of praise
magnifying the warrior God, we raise
a new song of joy, lifted on High
to the Glory filling both earth and sky;
to Yah, from whom all waters flood,
all-mingled with His crimson Blood;
all-splattered on dead-hammered Bark
— ah! that most unlikely Ark —
making all bitter waters sweet
like honey sprung from finest Wheat.

O new Miriam, our Orient of Hope,
sing for us your victory trope
of a God robed in human Flesh;
a Son, omnipotent in the crèche;
Walk us, we pray, thru Passover night
toward the blazing Dawn of unconquered
and conquering Light.
Amen. Alleluia!

Threatening Mass

Re-post 2014

This amazement should always fill the Church assembled for the celebration of the Eucharist. But in a special way it should fill the minister of the Eucharist. For it is he who, by the authority given him in the sacrament of priestly ordination, effects the consecration. It is he who says with the power coming to him from Christ in the Upper Room: “This is my body which will be given up for you This is the cup of my blood, poured out for you…”. The priest says these words, or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in his priesthood. — St. John Paul II

I recently taught a course on the liturgy to seminarians. The course explores the theological and spiritual depths of the liturgy to better enable these future celebrants to personally enter more fully into each celebration in a life-transforming way. The hope is that a fuller personal engagement with the mystery of the liturgy will make them more effective mystagogues, i.e. ready to lead the faithful into those same deep mysteries.

One day I invited a priest to come and speak about his own experience of celebrating the Mass. I asked him to give them advice, based on his personal experience, on how to deal with the distractions and obstacles that can prevent them from experiencing a fruitful celebration. Not being a priest, I needed the view of an insider. As I listened to him, I thought of the immense privilege I have to be such a trusted part of this work of forming priests. Mind blowing!

Among many practical points, he shared with the men a struggle I’d never considered before, He called it “teetering between ecstasy and dullness.” There is, he said, as with all things in life that are sacred, the danger of a routine of daily repetition which can lull you into a dull comfort zone. “But,” he continued, “there are these occasional lightning bolt moments that leave you a bit startled. That knock you off balance. While routine can breed contempt, the bolts threaten you with getting lost in the Rite.” They are never predictable, he said, and are mostly about some new awareness of Christ is acting in you. “There are these moments that come along when you are totally overwhelmed by this very real sense that you’ve become Christ’s ‘I’, acting in the first person with Him. Christ and I are one ‘I’ in the Consecration, that totally blows my mind. It’s almost too much to bear. And then there’s other times, when I’m asking the Father to send the Spirit down on the gifts of bread and wine, that I become really aware that I am calling Him down by Christ’s authority. He comes. That’s terrifying.”

The key, he told the seminarians, is not allow these two to become polar opposite experiences, but to allow one to influence the other. Let the dull moments get burnished by the startling ones, and let the startling stay anchored in reality by the dull. “This is the flux of life, brothers, so get used to it. But don’t get used to it. It’s a fulcrum full of tugs and pulls that makes for greatness.”

That’s great advice for the spiritual life of any Christian.

He then shared with us a poem called Harvest and Consecration by Elizabeth Jennings. I’d never read it before. He focused on the last line of the poem, saying it best captured his sense of these tensions. I wrote in my notebook at the end of his lecture,

It’s a rare person who loves finding himself caught in uncomfortable spots, who appreciates that the discomforts of being torn between alternating extremes. These, for me, are what make you feel fully human, and so open to the fully divine. Caught between between binaries, or dyads. Here’s where I love to get caught — between evident and hidden, mysterious and mundane, infinite and finite, visible and invisible, power and weakness, transcendent and imminent, routine stability and mystical detonations. It’s easier to remain exuberant there, I guess. Maybe that’s what’s really needed to carry out St. Paul’s impossible command to “Rejoice always” (Phil 4:4).

So let me share with you the Jennings poem. Incidentally, she wrote it for a priest after they’d spoken together at length about the Mass, to help him augment his sense of how its earthy signs and symbols so wonderfully conveyed divine mystery.

May our hearts never be protected against the unpredictable inroads of God.

After the heaped piles and the cornsheaves waiting
to be collected, gathered into barns,
after all fruits have burst their skins, the sating
season cools and turns,
and then I think of something that you said
of when you held the chalice and the bread.

I spoke of Mass and thought of it as close
to how a season feels which stirs and brings
fire to the hearth, food to the hungry house
and strange, uncovered things —
God in a garden then in sheaves of corn
and the white bread a way to be reborn.

I thought of priest as midwife and as mother
feeling the pain, feeling the pleasure too,
all opposites together,
until you said no one could feel such passion
and still preserve the power of consecration.

And it is true. How cool the gold sheaves lie,
rich without need to ask for more
richness. The seed, the simple thing must die
if only to restore
our faith in fruitful, hidden things. I see
the wine and bread protect our ecstasy.

Significant sex

Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. – Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia

I’d like to share today a song by the group, Penny and Sparrow. The song, Duet, is sung by lead singer Andy Baxter and his wife, Hannah. Our friend, Austin Ashcraft, played it for Patti and me last winter and we both loved it.

The song brings into close proximity the tender thrills of sexual intimacy in marriage, and the hard labor of day in and day out commitments to spouse and family. You can feel as they sing how these two seemingly contrasting aspects of marriage actually intensify one another. I’ll share below what I wrote later that night after he shared the song with us.


I’ve found it to be the case that among the most creative tensions within marriage are those that pulse between the self-oriented dynamism of erotic-possessive love (I want you) and other-oriented dynamism of self-sacrificing love (I am for you). Marriage is a fiery dance between desire and choice, possession and freedom, drinking in and outpouring, cleaving and surrendering, eros and agape. All at once, I am caught up in a burning passion for my wife, just as I am called out to a death-to-self Passion for her. Both flames mingle in our nuptial fire. When these two coexist in marriage, and eros serves agape, they forge a profound unity between us that cannot adequately be expressed in analytical prose, but requires intuitive poetry and song. Like Duet.

It’s really pure ‘theology of the body.’ Only when erotic sex is joined to sacrificial, total and lifelong fidelity (aka marriage) does it consecrate the one-flesh union, making of each sexual act a ratification of the unbreakable bond that “God has joined.” When these are not joined, when eros is dissociated from agape, sex becomes a fleeting act of use, the exploitation of another for self-pleasuring — until the thrill wears off. Once her usefulness wanes, I can move on.

Every sexual act bears the inscription of a marital act, a sign and pledge of everything-forever, which is why every sexual act apart from marriage is a lie, an act of theft. Only after I sold all I had — renounced every other option among women and pledged ny whole heart, soul, mind and strength — was I permitted to claim as my own this treasure buried by God in the field of my wife, Patricia, daughter of the Most High King.

Drilling down a little deeper. I can see a bit more now, after 20 years, that only after long togetherness can you experience the profound significance of sexual union as a sacrament of the Sacrament — a tangible sign of trust, surrender, gift, unity, mutual indwelling, an exchange of hearts, and everything else marriage is God-designed to be. When minds and wills have achieved an intimacy born of battles, struggles, tears and countless reconciliations, then each sexually unitive act comes to embody a real love story. Then sex becomes a truly intimate act, signifying and expressing the insanely personal knowledge you have of each other; a knowledge that makes you finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s needs, forgive each other’s failures even before they happen. My wife knows me more than any other human being. That is terrifying and thrilling all at once! That’s why radical honesty and trust in marriage are so essential. Without them the mystery of interpersonal intimacy, in this full sense, is absolutely impossible.

Again, the true beauty and power and ecstasy (which means “going outside of oneself toward”) of sex after years of marriage is that it enfleshes an actual story of two who are ever-more becoming one. “Adam knew Eve” (Gen. 4:1) is such an apt euphemism for the sexual act, as God intended it to be.

Our culture worships sex in a cult of pleasure, which renders sex susceptible to addiction. Such an addiction, devoid of authentic freedom, is an idolatry trivializing the true beauty and power of sex. Christian culture worships with sex in a cult of self-gift, making of each sexual act a free bodily offering (Rom. 12:1) of faithful and fruitful love, offered with my spouse to the God-Man whose Incarnation has forged in “one flesh” His everything-forever covenant love for the human race.

Entering that mystery in marriage is real ecstasy.

Here’s Duet:

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen ’em carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you


My last T.O.P. for a while…

…but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again? (Gal 4:9)

I just came across another remarkable Twenty One Pilots song, called Goner.

It’s a very gentle and plaintive song, and, as with so many of their songs, it is an exploration of the inner conflicts that characterize human life.

The story Tyler tells sounds so much like the internal struggle St. Paul describes so vividly in Romans chapter 7. For example, vs. 15,

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

We are all in some very fundamental sense thus riven within, two-faced, unable to consistently be the person we want and know we should be. This inner schism, with its relentless tensions, can create terrible anxiety and hopelessness, as St. Paul evidences in vs. 24,

Miserable man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

The resolution for Paul is clear. Only the gift of God in Jesus Christ poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit can free me from this inner war. Only by welcoming within the Spirit of Jesus, who makes His own our agonized groaning and makes them redemptive (Rom. 8:26-27) can we know inner peace.

I want to be known by a God who knows well humanity’s griefs and has entered into them (Ex. 3:7; Is. 53:4; Jn. 11:33-35). I want Him to know my griefs and pains and anxieties, closely and intimately.

In this song, Tyler seems to have lost hope (“I’m a goner”), weighted under the burden of his struggle for authenticity. He gasps for breath, hyperventilating, constricted by the inner storm of anxiety. He deeply regrets his two-faces. “Face” is a meaningful metaphor. In Scripture it serves as a “sacramental” outward sign of our truest inward self, i.e. the image of God. The face is an epiphany, and when our face is true it reveals that image of God that is stamped into each of us. Tyler’s “blurry face” represents the distortions masking his true inner self. He’s controlled by others’ opinions and judgments, is not confident in the truth of who he is, in his gifts or in his life-mission. He longs for clarity, to be set free from his inauthentic blurry face.

No doubt being thrust into fame, and into the machinations of the entertainment industry, has presented Tyler with innumerable challenges. “Who will I be in my emerging public persona?” (persona, incidentally, is Latin word for “face”) This is the challenge that we all face when we leave our safe environments, where authenticity seems natural, and enter into new contexts where what we believe and how we act is put into question. Being true to yourself everywhere you find yourself is a learned art, a long labor of virtue that requires passage through purgative fires.

Tyler sees all of this swirling about him and turns to his music as a means of prayer. He desperately wants to be known by the God of authenticity and peace, whose (Holy) Ghost is so close to him. The same Ghost who breathed into him the breath of life in the beginning (Gen. 2:7) can now help him catch his breath, free him from anxiety and duplicity. Though Tyler is twisted “inside-out” by all of this turmoil, God is there with him, beneath him, to catch him.

It’s a profoundly consoling image that Tyler paints. It reminds me very much of the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

The sound of this song that he “slips away into” is the sound of prayer. His voice and the music remains very gentle throughout most of the song, but suddenly — so much their style — it explodes out into a desperate and heart-wrenching cry to God: “Don’t let me be!…”

Like a little child, utterly terrified of being abandoned, left alone.

It’s very moving, especially if you have tasted hopelessness in life and known this cry.

Here is the video with lyrics:


Ode to Twenty One Pilots

Yes, the obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young, yet possesses a remarkable depth and authenticity. He is plagued by the anxieties and insecurities of our age, which makes him a powerful voice for the inhabitants of this age.

I was particularly interested when the interviewer asked him what the mission and purpose of Twenty One Pilots was; what explains the origin of their lyrics, their musical style? He struggled to answer, wading through the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans — and admitted these tempts him. But, he said, what really drives him is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. He said if their music lifted just one person up, making his or her life better and more full of joy, then that was the mission of Twenty One Pilots. “I don’t just want to entertain people,” he said, “I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

There’s no doubt the Christian worldview inhabits the lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to speak with overtly religious language. He is very aware of the constraints of reaching a broad audience in a radically pluralistic world. His circumspect approach seems quite intentional. After listening to the interview, I wrote in my journal:

It’s like their music is composed and performed — “offered up” — on “the altar to an unknown God” St. Paul identified in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:23). It’s a natural space to plant faith in the midst of our increasingly pagan culture, without being preachy. It’s a place where faith can encounter, give voice to and respond to the great questions and anxieties of our day. Their (lay) genius, to me, is that they are out there in the midst of that culture, singing with abandon of and to an unknown, hidden and humble God.

I also wrote a poem in my journal after hearing the interview. It’s my summary take on what I see to be their artistic mission. If I could send them a message, which I have concluded I cannot, it would be this poem.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Voice of angst, prophets of zeitgeist
in authenticity, integrity unsacrificed
inscribing, singing a silent Christ
by twining faith in life, deftly spliced.

Rappers of deepest dark reality
facing who we are, we long to be
discovered by Truth who sets free
we, a restless, twisted humanity.

Not thru preaching, but evoking;
not thru imposing, but provoking
us to think thoughtfully; soaking
greying despair in colorful cloaking

by words that cut, yes make us bleed
though then only to heal and feed
souls yearning for an immortal creed
that won’t break the most fragile reed.

Your call and mission seem clear:
daring us hope in a world of fear;
outing a hidden God, so silently near
who whispers, “I am with you, here
wiping, drying, shedding every tear.”