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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 2

As promised I will provide a sketch of another pastoral encounter in a Wendell Berry novel, this time from A Place on Earth, a novel in which land and community in the small Kentucky village of Port William are closely engaged against the backdrop of World War 2, the absence of young men from the
community serving overseas.

This story is more substantial than the interview I discussed previously and provides a more complex and nuanced account of the interactions between the people involved. What it shares with the first story is the fact that the people who are the supposed recipients of pastoral care are active agents in the encounter and challenge the expectations of the minister who expects to be in control. Not only is he not in control but he is a subject who has to respond to the actions of those who he expects to be the subjects of his visit.

The elements of the story that I want to draw attention to comes at the point at which the news gets around the community that Virgil Feltner is missing in action and the minister Brother Preston comes to pay a visit to Matt and Margaret Feltner his parents and his wife Hannah, who is pregnant and living with her in-laws. Matt it should be noted featured in previous incident in part 1 of the blog on this topic. Berry titles this episode involving the pastoral visit "A Comforter". Berry offers three accounts of how this visit was experienced and understood. The first is a direct description in which the progress of the visit is reported from the perspective of its direct impact on the four people directly involved.

Early Wednesday afternoon Brother Preston leaves the parsonage and walks across town to the Feltner house, ... The town is shut against the weather, and quiet except for the sounds everywhere of water dripping and running. He meets no one along the road. There is no sign of life at the Feltners' either.
 ... He draws a small black leather Testament out of his coat pocket , faces the door and knocks. His knock is itself an act of ministerial discretion; the sound is perfectly modulated, both quiet and loud enough.  As he waits he continues to face the door, standing erect , lifting himself slightly forward now and then onto the balls of his feet, patting the little Testament with a sort of casual correctness against the palm of his hand.
The door is opened by Margaret Feltner.
She smiles, greets him, moves aside from the entrance in welcome. The openness of her welcome is a little disconcerting; she is putting him at his ease - which is not why he has come. He senses that she has anticipated him, forseen his coming and his purpose, but greets him now on her terms, not his. (p.95)
The minister sits down while Mat is called back by Margaret from the barn.

Out of the sound of her voice - not speaking to him now, remote from him - and out of the look and atmosphere of the room where he sits, there comes to him the sense of the completeness of this household, the belonging together of Mat and Margaret Feltner, the generosity of these people, in which there is maybe no need form him. He is alone in his mission, which whole in itself surrounds him with its demands and isolates him. Uneasiness coming over him, a swift tremor, he thinks of the burden of his duty. And then, as though under the pressure of his own hand, he knows his old submission to the mastering of this duty and he knows he will do it. (p.96)
 While waiting for Mat the preacher sits talking with the two women about trifles, by unspoken mutual agreement staying clear of their feelings and the shared understanding of the purpose of the visit. The preacher is not unaware of the emotions and the body language of the two women and Berry portrays him as in many ways very aware of the unspoken messages. Watching Margaret ...

He believes that he sees in her face the marks of her grief for her son - but no sign that she expects to be comforted, or asks to be.  ... To Brother Preston, it is as if something in her leans in waiting, not for him to begin the business of his visit but for Mat. (p.97)

When Mat..returns from the barn the conversation remains at the level of pastime which as Berry observes ...  moves by no force of its own but by a determination in all of them against silence.(p.97)  The preacher struggles with hesitation feeling that he is failing in his duty. Finally he moves into a break in the conversation ... "My friends, I've come because I know of your trouble".

But he has begun and he goes on hastened like a man walking before a strong wind, moved no longer by his own intention but by the force of what he is saying.  His eyes have become detached from his hearers; he might be speaking from his pulpit now, looking at all, seeing none. But beneath the building edifice of  his meaning, he is aware of something falling between them. It is as though in the very offering of comfort to them he departs from them. And now he is hastened also by an urgency of haste. He feels the force of his voice is turning back toward himself, that he is fleeing from the safe coherence of his own words, away from those faces shut between him and their pain. He speaks into their silence like a man carrying a map in a strange country in the dark.(p.98)
Mat in his response of listening to the preacher is aware of his need to bear with Margaret and Hannah what he is coming to accept through the fear that he is acknowledging will be the loss of their son Virgil. The  preacher's voice is by this stage riding above mortal and worldly hope, moving toward rest in the hope of Heaven.

In the preacher's words the Heavenly city has risen up, surmounting their lives,  ... the final hope in which all the riddles and ends of the world are gathered, illuminated and bound. This is the preacher's hope, and  he is moved to it alone, outside the claims of time and sorrow, by the motion of desire which he calls faith. In it having invoked it and raised it up, he is free of the world.
Mat in Berry's account is not free to engage with this hope as announced by the preacher. Berry here is moving it seems to me by the impulse towards tracing out tine implications of the incarnation as opposed to the dangers of the unintentional but nevertheless real evangelical gnosticism of the preacher.
He (Mat) is doomed to hope in this world, in the bonds of his own love. ... His hope of Heaven, must be the hope of a man bound to the world that his life is not ultimately futile, or ultimately meaningless, a hope more burdening than despair.
It is from this possibility of meaninglessness that the preacher has retreated. So that the earth will not be plunged into darkness, he has lifted up the Heavenly City and hastened to refuge in its gates. and Mat in the act of leaning toward that restfulness, turns away from it to take back his pain. (p.99)
The preacher as the interview comes to a close feels that he is the subject of the generosity of Margaret and Hannah ... that they are offering to him, out of some kind of hospitality, the safe abstraction of his belief. (p.99)

The second perspective on the visit comes later when Brother Preston returns to the church and reflects on the visit.

He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not as he hoped it would be, a conversation, It was a sermon. this is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh.  ... He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh. (P.101)

The third perspective comes in a letter from Burley Coulter in a letter to his nephew Nathan Coulter serving overseas and reflects Burley's presumption as to how the interview went based on his experience with the minister following the death of his older nephew Tom.

Wednesday after the news had pretty well got around, I seen Brother Piston going in up there at Mat's. And I says to Jayber "I know the speech he's going to make". And so would all of us. He came and said all that to me after we knew Tom was dead. and none of it quite fit.  ... Here in away he came to say the last words over Tom. And what claim did he have to do it? He never done a day's work with us in his life, nor could have. He never did stand up in his ache and sweat and go down the row with us. He never tasted any of our sweat in the water jug. And I was thinking, Preacher, who are you to speak of Tom to me, who him and knew the very smell of him?
And he sat there in your granddaddy's chair, with his consolations and his old speech,. Just putting our names in the blanks. and I thought, Preacher, he's dead, he's not here, and you'll never know what it is that's gone. (p.104)
Berry leaves us with a rich account of the complexity of what is going on in these pastoral conversations. There is no doubt that he places a strong emphasis on the limits of what the minister has to contribute. What he leave us with is an emphasis on the active role of those who are suffering grief and loss. That there is a mutuality in the encounter cannot be doubted and that underlying this is a strong ecclesiology - not of the institutional church but of membership of a community of people committed to a common place, a common purpose and the good work of sharing a life, work, food, joy and grief and  an accountability for the care of the land that they are part of.

But that brings me to some broader theological issues in the work of Wendell Berry and that will have to wait  as i anticipated for part 3 of this blog.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 1

Doing some reading recently through some of Wendell Berry's novels I was struck by his account of a number of incidents of death and dying and attempts at pastoral visitation. I thought that these rich accounts of the interaction between the minister and the families might prove a rich source for reflection by those involved in such visitation. Certainly there is a substantial cultural difference between early 20th century Kentucky the situation a century later in Australia. Nevertheless, I reckon there is still something to be learnt particularly for engagement in pastoral care with people who are members of the Christian community. Stories such as this are a great source of material for reflection as they are interesting to read and rich in substance and nuance in a way that formal case studies can never be.

The first incident comes in The Memory of Old Jack as Matt Feltner the long time friend of "Old Jack" (Jack Beechum), takes up the responsibility for organising his funeral to prevent the funeral falling into the hands of Jack's daughter and son-in-law from whom he was deeply estranged, in both sympathy, and understanding as to what was important in life. Jack remained committed to his farm and community while they had moved to the city and lived life devoted to the pursuit of money and its comforts.

The story displays Matt's efforts to be faithful to the friendship in death, a claim that for him overrides the formal claims of family. Matt,
... put on his glasses and looked up the number and dialed the undertaker in Hargrave. It was a strange and stubborn mood he was in. He was standing guard over Old Jack and over his death. He would not have the outline of that absence blurred or its dimension narrowed. The voice of the gentleman at the other end of the wire was full of solicitude, prepared for death no matter whose, and Matt propped himself against it. The voice assumed that Matt would be down later to select a coffin and to make the necessary arrangements. Matt thought not. The gentleman would be informed of the arrangements when they were made; as for a coffin the dead would be well satisfied with whatever was cheapest. Ans so it went on. Each exchange followed by a silence in which the gentleman on the other end was perhaps taking notes. The dead, Matt allowed were noted for their frugality. (p.149)
Matt then moves on to deal with the preacher, Brother Wingfare, a seminary student recently arrived in the community to arrange the actual funeral service. The seminarian was,
... a pale, slightly plump, impeccable young man, very new to his profession, eager to please both God and man, a difficulty of which he had not yet encountered either extreme. He began of course by saying that though he had not had the privilege of knowing- uh- Mr Beechum, he was very sorry to learn that he was dead. "But' he said " the Lord knows of our affliction, and is our refuge in the hour of trouble. ... Matt sat down in the easy chair facing the preacher."Well" he said "I don't know that you should be sorry. After all you didn't know him particularly. And it is not a tragedy when a man dies at the end of his life." (p.150)

The interview of Matt's with the preacher continues where it has begun, on Matt's terms, with each of the assumptions of that the preacher makes is undercut by Matt's directions as to what needs to be done and how the service will be conducted. The entire exchange reverses our presumptions as to how such a conversation should be conducted and who is in charge and who is the specialist in such a time and on such an occasion. After announcing that what is required is a simple graveside service, Matt goes on to explain to the preacher why he is making this request.

"My friend" he said "I want you to understand this". He considered a moment and went on. "He was not a churchly man. He was a man of unconfining righteousness. He stuck with us to the end. He never liked a great deal of fussing and formality, and we don't want to impose it on him now. That would be kicking him while he's down, if you know what I mean.

Brother Wingfare either did, or did not know what was meant. He did not say. But he was paying attention. He heard something in Matt's voice that did not permit his mind to wander. There was a strange authority in this old man with his white hair, with the dirt of the filed on his clothes, who spoke as the younger kinsman of a dead man much older. Nothing in his training at seminary had prepared him for this. He was supposed to be the spiritual authority. But he knew he was receiving orders. And he was afraid he was taking orders.(p.151)

Matt presents him with a list of Psalms that he wants read, that will comprise the service. There is then an exchange with the preacher who asks if he wants a few remarks, or a prayer at the end of the service, a request which is answered with a clear and definite no. As it happens when it comes to the service, the preacher ignores this final instruction. and after reading the Psalms well, as Matt acknowledges, then launches into a long prayer, which Berry reports with an acute ear for the genre, ... and having thus notified the Almighty of so much, the truth or error of which, He presumably already knew, Brother Wingfare concludes by imploring special blessings upon the bereaved mourners in their hour of sorrow. (p.160)

The question of authority in this context, who has it, and on what basis is it exercised is central to this moment in the novel. Matt is exercising his authority out of his place in the membership of the community of Port William and his relationship over time, and in that place, to the other members of that community. Granting of specialist religious authority by a distant institution does not cut the mustard in Berry's telling of the story. It is Matt, not Brother Wingfare who has faithfully exercised his authority in the conduct of the burial.

In Part Two of the blog on this theme, I will look at another incident, this time in A Place on Earth, involving a pastoral conversation with a family dealing with the news that one of its members has gone missing in action during World War 2.  I suspect that there will be a Part Three looking more broadly at what Wendell Berry has to offer on the practice of ministry, drawing on a discussion by Kyle Childress that forms a chapter in Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life.

Blogging through Advent Ist Sunday

 1Advent appeals to me in one way but is an uncomfortable time as well. It is part of the church year that makes sense to me, in the way that it provides an approach to Christmas, in a way that Lent, quite frankly does not.In other words I "get" the liturgical logic of Advent. Lent as a time of discipline and learning to be disciples, of disciplining our desires, fits much more appropriately, in my view, into the long haul of "ordinary time". The approach to Easter is a time of engagement with the world of the principalities and powers, the time of public witness and confrontation as God's kingdom confronts the powers that be and the injustice and exploitation of Empire.

Anyway this year I thought I would try blogging on the Scripture readings for each Sunday in Advent, noting some thoughts and questions, using the readings in Sojourners - noting that the lectionary they use may differ somewhat from those in use in mainstream churches in Australia. Before moving to that I want to draw attention to a great collection of readings: Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas put together by the folks at Plough Publishing, still in print I believe. Some of them are brief, suitable for meditative reading. while others are longer. there is a hard challenging edge to the readings, particularly for Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5 reminds us that the coming of God's kingdom is not some detached spiritual affair, unconnected to our politics and economics. Laurel A Dykstra in comments on this in Sojourners preaching the Word Commentary points out that:

The transformation of weapons into tools used for planting and harvesting crops shows that war and hunger are intimately connected, that finite resources cannot feed both the hungry and conquest. As Dwight Eisenhower said of modern weapons in a 1953 speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” 

The Isaiah reading also points out the deliberate and studied nature of war: Nations learn and teach it. It is neither natural nor accidental when farmers are trained as soldiers and tools of life become tools of death.
Romans 13:11-14 offers us a challenge to our frenetic consumerism - anticipating the demands of Lent where they are separated from the themes of waiting and anticipation that Advent offers. Walter Brueggeman, the distinguished old Testament scholar makes this connection explicit in Light the First Candle in his discussion of the passages for this day:
These readings ponder both preparation and expectation

The preparation is delineated in Romans 13. Paul urges the avoidance of “reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy” (verse 13). The mad rush of “Christmas preparation” drives us to self-indulgence and enough fatigue to make us edgy and quarrelsome. The alternative for Paul is to be unlike the world and not consumed by our “desires.”

The Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 24: 36-44 writes the message of waiting and expectation in large letters, underlining the theme. Matthew hits bold and underlines his theme to make sure we don't miss it.

Bonnie Greene in her meditation on this passage comments that:
Jesus' story of the people working in the field, one of whom was taken and the other left, has often been a touchstone of traditional spiritualities, particularly of the "that's incredible" variety. Most are otherworldly and focused on a Jesus who appears to bear the passkey to an otherworldly kingdom of God.

But there is afoot another spirituality that also draws life from this passage, one that is firmly rooted in human life and is responsive to the needs of our times. People who practice it tend to stress the real, historical Jesus and his behavioral as well as verbal announcement of the kingdom. For these people, Jesus' call to be alert and watchful for the coming of the Son of Man is a call to a way of life sensitive to God's active work of deliverance for the people of this world. Such a spirituality requires them to scan the horizon incessantly, watching for signs of renewal, for evidence that the suffering are rising up to new life.

In some parts of the world it's hard to miss the signs of God's work among people. But for us in the industrialized countries of the North, the distinction is often blurred by too close association with life-as-it-is-now; we haven't developed the skill to discern the spirits of our time. If the Son of God were to appear among us, some would scarcely recognize him; others would be utterly surprised and unprepared. (God in Mcdonald's)

The time of waiting in Matthew draws upon the somewhat discordant idea of God as a burglar.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann in Barbed wire and beyond: a theology of trespass unpacks this disturbing theme in a reflection on the activist tradition of Christian witness.
The preface to John's Gospel identifies the light with Christ Jesus. He is the one shining in the darkness and not overcome. It is abundantly clear that the light is not at all welcome in the world. He is not recognized or received, but hated and rejected. From the standpoint of the world and its claims, the incarnation is an intrusion, a divine incursion.

It is, I suppose, a kind of cosmic trespass. I am led to think of the way the New Testament speaks of the Lord's coming as a "thief in the night." The metaphor has always been troublesome to me. It evokes a little cringe. Our Lord the cat burglar. The point, of course, is the unexpected timing of things, but I suspect a further implication. Perhaps this glorified "breaking and entering" implies the breaking of our false securities. Our lives are penetrated and vulnerable. We are broken into. Here again, we find the truth sneaking in our back door.
Advent then is about dealing with a disturbance of our certainties and a breaking open of our comfortable life of business as usual. Perhaps our conversion starts from here.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Feast of Christ the King - subverting our ideas about Kingship

Simon Barrow in his column The subversive feast of Christ the King comments that:

After days of wall-to-wall media coverage about royalty, churches across Britain have today celebrated Jesus Christ as the true king. This is a truly subversive claim.

A carpenter's son executed as a political troublemaker by an oppressive regime does not conform to our understandings of monarchy; even less so when he teaches that the first will be last and the last first. The man who announced his engagement last week appears to be a far more suitable candidate for the position. 

The claim that Christ is king not only subverts common expectations about the nature of power. It is also a reminder that no-one can serve two kings. If Christ is king, then no other person or institution can demand our total loyalty – whether William Windsor, the British state, the free market or even the Church. 

Many early Christians attracted extra persecution by refusing to declare that “Caesar is Lord”. If Christ is Lord, they reasoned, then Caesar cannot be. After the coming of Christendom – when the Church became allied with the forces of power and wealth – this claim was softened. In order to get round the problem, earthly monarchs were presented as representatives of Christ. 

But if we no longer accept the notion that monarchs are anointed by God, why are we prepared to acknowledge anyone other than Christ as our king? It may well be argued that the British monarch has no real power. This claim is an exaggeration, but there is a lot of truth in it. However, the very use of words such as “king”, “queen” and “lord” reinforces the values of hierarchy and privilege whose emptiness is exposed by Jesus' radical message of the Kingdom of God.
Curiously enough there is support for the subversion of commonly accepted cultural ideas of kingship extends back beyond the New Testament accounts of Jesus that go back deep into the history of Israel. One of the more unexpected of these surfaces in the Old Testament reading for the Feast of Christ the King, in of all places the book of Deuteronomy. The account of kingship offered in Deuteronomy 17 attaches some requirements that qualify the support for the people of Israel having a king so drastically as to redefine the nature of kingship.

The king is not to:
  • have "too many horses" particularly from Egypt - limiting his military power severely
  • have too many wives - limiting the options for building alliances 
  • try to get huge amounts of silver and gold - again limiting the basis for dynastic power
  • not think of himself as better than anyone else - that is he is not to consider himself superior to his fellow Israelites - like them he is under God
The king must: 
  •  write out a copy of God's laws under the supervision of the priests
  • must read and obey these laws
  • learn to worship the Lord with fear and trembling
Given that the kings of the ancient near east saw themselves as having unquestioned and unlimited power and authority the limits placed on kingship in Deuteronomy fundamentally redefine the role of kingship. The authors of Deuteronomy are contributing to an ongoing argument in Israel about the desirability of kingship and its character and provide an account which cuts against the grain of their time and place.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Radical Christianity - Anabaptists & anarchy

The connections between radical Christianity in its Anabaptist form and a christian anarchy have not received a lot of attention but really come to focus in the life and writings of the southern Baptist activist and theologian Will Campbell. Christians uneasy with institutional church structures might find themselves both encouraged and disturbed by him. I'll try and use this blog as a work in progress.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

What is a good death?

Wendell Berry is a joy to read whether it be his essays, poetry or his novels. I have been rereading this week That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (Counterpoint, 2004) that being together all his stories about the small town of Port William in Kentucky.

This is a wonderful collection of stories that span nearly a century and encompass a variety of themes and emotions. Helpfully the contents pages gives a date for the story and locates it chronologically in relation to the other novels about Port William. 

One story in particular moved me to tears and set me thinking about the question: what is a good death? The issue is not academic as I am currently watching a family close to me try and accompany some one close to them trough the end of his life.

In "Fidelity" Berry explores what faithfulness means as we accompany someone in their dying. Burley Coulter is seriously ill and his family and friends who want to do something to express their car and concern take him to the Doctor who has him rushed off to hospital in the nearest city. There he is hooked up to all the machines and drips, the technology that expresses the predominant way we express our care for those who are dying. His family and friends quickly come to the conclusion that they have made a mistake.

When they had returned on yet another visit and found the old body still as it had been, a mere passive addition to the complicated machines that kept it minimally alive, they saw finally that in their attempt to help they had not helped but only complicated his disease beyond their power to help. And they thought with regret of the time when the thing that was wrong with him had been simply unknown and there had been only it and him and them in the place they had known together. Loving him, wanting to help him they had given him over to "the best of modern medical care" - which meant as they now saw they had abandoned him. (p.376)
 Berry is asking here, are there other ways of expressing faithfulness to the dying beyond that of the technology of medicine.

Berry as he unfolds the story is clearly not convinced that dependence on technology is the only possibility for a good death. But how is Burley to escape from the clutches of the hospital and the medical profession?

Burley's son Danny determines that faithfulness to his father requires that he be removed from the hospital which he proceeds to do that night without seeking the permission of the medical staff.

Danny's presence with Burley during the final hours of his life, his care for him and his burial in the woods where Burley has been most at home throughout his life is told with a restraint that is all the more powerful for its disciplined description of that presence and care. Berry's description of Burley's death is intertwined with the story of his community's support for Danny and approval of what they assume he has done and is doing against the forces of law and order's attempt to track down Burley.

In balance against the grief of Burley's death the other strand of the story has moments of humour and drama as the detective who supposed to be asking the questions finds himself under question as the community of Burley's friends gather to in a strange way give witness to Burley's life and why his disappearance is in keeping with the way he lived his life. In the course of that discussion Berry has the opportunity to ask some questions about whose interests are in fact being served by the specialisation of medicine particularly in the time of dying. The exchanges between Wheeler Catlett the community solicitor and the somewhat confused detective left me at times jolting between grief and an almost spluttering guffaw.

Berry too is no mean theologian. Wheeler Catlett takes his cue from Augustine in his discussion with the detective regarding the proper use of the law.

"Well anyway " Detective Bode said, "all I know is that the law has been broken, and that I am hereto serve the law".

"But my boy, you don't eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it, or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve."

"Serve what?"
"Why, all the things that are above it. Love."(p.418)
Brian Volck a medical practitioner who is himself no mean theologian, in his discussion of this story, comments that:
"Wheeler Catlett know something that his interlocutor, Detective Bode could not: that things are never as discrete and separable as we wish, that autonomy and specialisation, for all their productive power, cause apart from an embodied regard of a contextual whole. ... Wheeler - who chides Bode after the detective angrily accuses Danny Branch of burying Burley Coulter "somewhere in these end-of-nowhere godforsaken hill and hollows" - also knows something about finding grace and holiness even in the end-of-nowhere places of the created world. As Berry notes elsewhere:
There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places

Like a broken clock Detective Bode could not help but be right on occasion. Danny did in fact bury Burley in the hills the old man loved. Danny, who understands the landscape as anything but "godforsaken" returns after the burial to a Port William membership with "the aspect and the brightness of one who had borne the dead to the grave, and filled the grave to the brim, and received the dead back to life." ("Mr Berry Goes to Medical School" p. 46 in Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life edited by Joel James Shuman & Roger Owens University Press of Kentucky, 2009)
To return to the issue of dying well. For Berry this is not something that we can do alone, it is not a project arising from our autonomy as an individual charting our own life. Dying well requires that we be part of a community who can sustain us in our vulnerability and carry us with their presence when we can no longer walk by ourselves or even articulate clearly our intentions. We need a community who can remember who we were and who we have become so that they can express that appropriately in our dying.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Theology, politics an spirituality

I have been reading Barry Harvey's dense but significant book Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics and Social Theory (Brazos, 2008).

A few notes on ideas and passages that struck me particularly in the second part of the book relating to the issue of spirituality.
 The fear of God entails accepting our very existence as gift, and to accept this is to come face to face with our contingency, our vulnerability as creatures, And from  this fact, says Nicholas Lash, nothing follows. Here we are. This is how things are. That's it. No safety belts, no metacosmic maps or guidebooks, no mental cradles for our 'ultimate' security. (pp252-3)
The spirituality promoted by state and market, by contrast, seeks constantly to capitalise on our fear of death, so that they might manipulate our creaturely vulnerability and anxiety to consolidate their hold upon our loyalty. Popular piety corrupts the insatiable human longing for wholeness and integrity with the lure of security, safety, stability and predictability through the eradication of tragedy. ... In some ... the lust for mastery runs roughshod over our created solidarity with one another and with all the world, as we are alternatively encouraged, enticed and threatened to seek safety and stability by taking ownership of the people and things around us.  For others ... the quest for security serves to drive them further and further away from the pain and disappointment of day-to-day contact with others, in a vain attempt to carve out an inner world of safety and tranquility within themselves. They flee to the inner garden of the soul to be alone with Jesus. (pp.256-7)
The discipline of unselfing divests us of the illusion that "I" exist apart from creation, apart from history, apart from a community, apart from a tradition, apart from the habits and relations that comprise my dealings with others. It is a discipline of demythologizing the working assumptions of contemporary existence, foremost among which is the idea that each of us is free to make up our own story, that our lives belong to ourselves instead of being a gift. (p.260)
 On Remembrance Day the following passage seems highly relevant:
 ...our own speech betrays us, for while the making of offerings to blood-thirsty gods is not generally a part of the working vocabulary of most nations, the language of martyrdom and sacrifice ... most certainly is. Time and again those in the military who have died for their country are extolled as having made "the supreme sacrifice." The question immediately arises: (Note: or it should but mostly doesn't) To whom do we offer this sacrifice, if not to the gods? If we respond to the God of Abraham ... then it would seem we are tacitly admitting that Christ's sacrifice was not sufficient ... If we say instead that we offer it to the nation-state of which we are a part, we are granting to a part of the created order what belongs entirely to God ... (pp268-9)