“Only the body saves the soul. It sounds rather shocking put like that, but the point is that the soul left to itself, the inner life or whatever you want to call it, is not capable of transforming itself. It needs the gifts that only the external life can deliver: the actual events of God’s action in history, heard by physical ears; the actual material fact of the meeting of believers where bread and wine are shared; the actual wonderful, disagreeable, impossible, unpredictable human beings we encounter daily, in and out of the church. Only in this setting do we become holy, and holy in a way unique to each one of us.”
A book that did not make it onto my “influential books” list was “Living the Martial Way” by Forrest Morgan. It should have. It is primarily a text on how martial arts training ought to be a path to personal development. The most important part of the book, for my money, is his discussion of the foundations of honor.
Morgan puts forth that honor has three essential tenets – or if you prefer – three cardinal virtues:
Obligation means knowing to whom you owe debts. He is not speaking of financial debt, but rather of social and moral debt. For instance, we are indebted to our parents, if for nothing else then for the gift of life. We exist in a web of indebtedness, for other people are constantly giving to us, and we are constantly receiving from them. The honorable man knows to whom he owes, what he owes and he lives his life in such a manner as to discharge his indebtedness. There are some debts that can never be repaid, but yet must be honored.
The honorable man also understands what debts are owed to him. Being owed a debt often creates its’ own form of obligation, and so the web grows.
Justice means knowing right from wrong, and of course acting in accordance with that understanding.
Courage is the willingness to act on one’s obligations, and on the requirements of justice, regardless of personal comfort or safety.
Honor, rightly understood then, prevents the warrior from using his power wrongly, but guides him to channel his power to the good of all mankind. In this way, the warrior becomes benefactor of peace and justice, rather than a tyrant or murderer. I have found this a useful paradigm, for although I am not a warrior by profession, I believe the way of a warrior is a good way because a warrior must hold himself to a higher standard. War is not my trade, but the Way of the warrior is my philosophy.
Recently I have been challenged, because I am in a place where I must accept the help of many people to do things that I feel I ought to able to do myself. My wife is suffering from an illness that requires a medication so expensive that there is no way to pay for it. We simply do not have the funds. Putting aside questions of the illness itself (which in and of themselves are very serious) this financially problem is overwhelming. Put simply, I believe that I should be in a very different position financially. I ought to be able to pay for this. Yet in such times, the words should and ought have very little meaning, for they merely become signals that one is engaging in wishful thinking rather than useful action. Yet my action has not been sufficient to turn the tide. It is a battle I have been losing, and now we have come to a place where circumstances have all come against me in such a way that my best striving cannot prevail.
So, we are seeking help. I must look outside myself, and outside my family to find a way to meet this new challenge to the health and safety of my family. We are seeking help first from our church. Some of this help may be financial, but the most valuable will probably be help in terms of advice, guidance, connections and prayer. We are seeking help also from various governmental bodies, social service institutions, private foundations, and businesses. It is too early to tell what shape this help will take.
This moment has been coming for some time, but we had hoped it would not come to this. A few weeks ago we faced a smaller crisis. I was offered help, but did not take it because I believed it was something that, although difficult, we could handle. I was accused of being too proud to take the help offered. Yet, I think that is a misunderstanding of my intent. I do not think it is pride to be reluctant to let someone else do what you truly believe you ought to do yourself, if at all possible. I think it is a matter of honor – accepting one’s obligations and acting justly to fulfill them even in the face of difficulty.
Now I find myself in a place where it is clearly NOT possible for me to meet this obligation by myself. To be clear, an additional $1000 per month is so far beyond our current capacity that it would bankrupt us. We could lose our house and perhaps more. Therefore honor demands that I submit my pride, perhaps even lose face (a different matter than honor) and allow others to help because a higher matter is at stake. If not treated, my wife could lose her sight or worse. I will do my part, but right now at this moment, I have nothing within my reach that would accomplish her safety. I must reach out. I am of two minds on this. Part of me is reluctant because there is the smell of failure about it. I cannot do what I set out to do. On the other hand, I recognize that I must deal with the situation that is, and that I serve One who is more than capable of redeeming any situation. The LORD God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth is in control, and his good purposes will be fulfilled.
Over a decade ago now, we spent seven months living with my father-in-law while he was dying from brain cancer. We cared for him until the end. He was a proud man, as many men are, and had lived an amazingly productive life in spite of large odds against him. As you might imagine, there were days when he rebelled against the disease as it robbed him of his ability to do even simple things for himself. I remember one particular exchange between us. I was trying to explain to him why we were glad to help him when these words came to me.
It is true, we are giving you a gift by caring for you. What you have to realize, is that by allowing us to care for you, you are offering us a great gift also. If you do not let us care for you, you deprive us of a wonderful give. Let us care for you now. Do not take that gift away from us.
So now, it is time for us to let others care for us. This is not dishonorable. There is a higher principle at stake. Already it has been a wonder to watch the spirit of Christ, incarnated in his people, act in love to care for our needs. The Spirit seems to be at work here on so many levels – individually in us, and the people, at the level of our family, and the families of the church, and in and among the gathered congregation as a living breathing community of Christ. There is a give and take as we see the Spirit flowing in and out of us, filling us and enlivening us.
We did not expect to be the needy ones, yet it is humbling in a very uplifting way. In dancing one leads and one follows. In this case it seems that Christ has given us the part to follow. We look forward to seeing how He will bring glory to Himself through our weakness.
In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul wrote:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.Part of using a gift is that it is accepted. To let someone serve is also to be served. To let someone contribute is to accept their contribution.
In conversation last night, my wife asked me if I thought it could be God’s will for us to lose our house and everything we owned. I replied that I did not know for sure what God’s will regarding our finances. It may well be that He does indeed want us to go through that. I think that his concern is not so much for the size of our bank account, as it is for our sanctification. If He chooses to bring us closer to him by means of financial disaster, then I wouldn’t put it past him. He is not really that much concerned with our comfort. He is much more interested in our goodness. He is concerned with making us holy, as He is.
Which brings me back to the quote at the top of this post. I think there are many things Rowan Williams has said or written that I might take issue with, but this quote struck me because I am this day seeing the truth of it working itself out. The theology of the Incarnation does not suggest itself to us only in pictures of the babe in the manger. It surrounds is in the shape of our brothers and sisters in Christ – the Church. It is all those exasperating, delightful, funny looking, aggravating people that surround us on a Sunday, as we lift our cracked parched voices to heaven together. Somehow, in all those people, a greater honor, a greater debt, a greater justice and a greater courage is on display. It surrounds me, it fills me, it instructs me and shapes me and raises me from the dead. It surrounds me in the simple and mundane forms like bread, wine, water, hands, and voices of the redeemed, who like me, struggle to obey, and are being shaped by their own stilted obedience, and mine.
It is a deep mystery. I am watching it unfold. It is quite something to see.