History: A Given, Riven, and Livin’ Thing

Remember the days of old;
consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
your elders, and they will tell you.

Deuteronomy 32: 7

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I Corinthians 11: 23 – 26

[The following is a condensed version of a chapel talk I gave to our School of Rhetoric students and faculty on March 28th, 2022. Each department was asked to speak on the subject they teach and how their faith in Christ interacts with and informs them in the task, and so my focus centered on the study of history. My opening, not included on this post, involved a small gift I presented to fourteen of our seniors. The gift was a letter they had handwritten on May 19th, 2014 to “their future selves.” These letters were part of an assignment I gave them when I was their 4th grade teacher (roughly 100 years ago) most likely to keep them all busy on a Friday afternoon. In any event, these letters lived in my desk and in various places over the last eight years. Despite losing many things (wallets, keys, wedding ring, etc.), somehow I managed to hold on to these letters. It was fun handing them out to each one, now in their senior year, and mere months from graduating.]

……..

In one of my favorite books, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, there is a line concerning time which my Dad always used to quote. (And his love for the book is probably the reason I picked it up in the first place).  The protagonist, a poor Chinese farmer in the 19th century who slowly acquires land until he establishes an agricultural empire, is coming to the end of his life. It is during these years, as he watches his sons sell away his land to developers or choose a profession where they won’t get dirty hands that he concludes: “Now five years is nothing in the life of a man, except when he is very young and very old.”  

Looking at the letters I just gave you, I’ve reconsidered the truth of this statement, reflecting on my own journey from high school.  In my mind’s eye, my senior year of high school was only five years ago.  In reality, my 20th high school reunion is in June of this year. Similarly, I blinked and the eight years since you wrote those letters in our fourth grade classroom are suddenly gone.  And here we are, a handful of months until you graduate and leave this place that has been home to some of you for nearly thirteen years.  Trust me, while eight years may seem like an eternity while here at Regents, you will find that in another blink of the eye, you too, will be facing your 20th high school reunion.  And where will those  years find you?  In twenty years, what will you remember about this place and about these people?

What we remember about people, places and times is the love language of the historian; a language I would argue we are all responsible for speaking.  Just like you cannot say “I’m not a math person,” I would argue that you equally cannot say “I’m not a historian.”  We are all historians at different legs of a journey.  We may just need better equipment to do the job well or better lenses to see the work more clearly.  And so this morning I want to equip you (seniors especially, but all of you) with tools or lenses (you pick the metaphor) for approaching the study of the past by sharing with you some of my own history, and sharing with you some ways in which my faith in Christ helps me to make sense of this history, and how my study of this history helps me to make sense of my faith.  

First, because this is a classical school, we should start by defining our terms.  History is easy to define, but perhaps more difficult to understand. Easy to define because it is simply “everything that comes before us.”  Difficult to understand, because as the internet teaching us regularly: EVERYTHING is OVERWHELMING. 

And so to make sense out of the past, historians do what God did in the first days of creation; they start to separate like and unlike things, and ascribe categories and names to them.  Light from Darkness are provided with names Day and Night.  Land and Water and Heavens are separated into Earth, Sea, and Sky.  Divisions and Categories with clear names, helps to order and make meaning. In the same way, divisions and categories with names helps us make meaning of the EVERYTHING that comes before us.  

Notice how we study Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation History.  Or how we divide American and European histories.  We layer each of these periods in terms of political, economic, military, or social movements.  We develop such categories to make sense of the past as it unfolds, all the while knowing that not everything fits neatly into them. 

This morning I’m not going to talk on any of those categories.  Instead I’d like to simply propose three categories that we don’t often think of when studying history, but are categories that I’ve come to appreciate the older I get, and the more I learn about God’s sovereignty over time, and our responsibility within time.These three categories I’ve made to rhyme, because as you know I’m a former 4th grade teacher, and nothing helps nine year olds remember things like rhyming words.  

So here they are: 

History is a GIVEN thing.  

History is a RIVEN thing.

History is a LIVING thing.  

History: Given. Riven. Livin’.  Easy to remember.  

History is a “Given” Thing

To explain what I mean by history as a “Given” thing, let me use a picture. [pictured above] In this picture is a man I never met, but without his existence, I would not be here today. This picture came to me as a gift from a relative in Canada on the day my son was born, June 1, 2017. With the picture, there was a small note: ‘We love the name you picked for your son – Ary David.’

Sidebar: My wife and I didn’t actually intend on naming my son Ary.  His name was going to be Samuel after my wife’s grandfather.  But my identical twin brother, Doug, named his son Samuel a few months earlier and so with weeks winding down to the day of my son’s birth we had to think fast.  I appreciate name meanings. Samuel means, “God has heard,” which we felt to be true about having our first son. But equally true was the meaning behind my name David Ary, which means “Beloved Lion.” Knowing that the Dutch often pass names of the father down to the oldest son in inverse order, we suddenly knew our son was going to be Ary David, our little Lion.  I also knew that Ary (my middle name and one I really hated as a kid) was after my mom’s late dad, my grandfather. 

Back to the picture. What I did not know, and what this picture revealed to me is that my Grandfather Ary was named that by his father, David.  Pictured here is the OG David. He is from the Netherlands, where he is walking to church here on a Sunday morning in his town of Scherpenzeel with his family. 

And you want to know something else I learned? My great grandfather David had a wife named Maria Frances.  And do you know my wife’s name? Maria Francesca! I get goosebumps thinking about that.

So what does this have to do with the “givenness of history?”

Well, just think about your name.  Unless you’ve legally changed your name, it is something that you most likely did not choose.  It was GIVEN to you, by a parent or by parents, who were GIVEN to each of you. And your name is just the first among a long list of things given to you that form who you are and shape the story you live within. This is what I mean by the  givenness of the past: a given-ness that is unique to each of us, and that makes us into who we are. 

Here are some things given to me, over which I had no control.

  1. My Name.
  2. My Parents. 
  3. My Siblings, including an identical twin brother.
  4. My Grandparents and Cousins and Nephews and Nieces.
  5. My Place

The list could go on a lot longer, but you get the point. In our Old Testament passage, the Israelites are told of the GIVENESS of their INHERITANCE, one they, like us, are responsible for remembering.

Remember the days of old;
consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
your elders, and they will tell you.

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind.

If you consider the letters I just handed to each of you seniors, not only is the letter given but so too were many of the elements surrounding you in that year and the years since then. Consider:

  1. Your teachers. You did not have a say in which teachers you had.  They were given to you for your instruction
  2. Your classmates. These too were a gift for you.  Some of them formed friendships with you that you will carry well through your life.  Others were a gift in helping to sanctify you.
  3. Your place. You were all called to be in this place in Austin, Texas, for this season of your life.

Again, you could think of more, but my challenge to you this week is to make a list of all the aspects of your own history that are GIVEN. 

History is a “Riven” Thing

Thinking over these lists, some of you may be thinking: “Well, I wasn’t given a good name.  My parents named me BORON IV.” Or, maybe, more seriously you are thinking: “I wasn’t given good parents. Or Two parents. Or I had two parents but they are going through a divorce right now. Or I lost a parent to cancer and are you trying to tell me that that is a gift?”

No. I’m not. Death is not a good gift.  But it is an indication that History is not just a GIVEN thing. It is also a RIVEN thing. 

Of my three categories for making sense of “history” perhaps this one is not as clear up front, because, well, who even uses the word “riven” anymore.  Riven, like the word “rift” that it sounds like, means “torn apart” or a “tearing apart.”  Essentially, a riven thing is a broken thing.  To study history is to realize that there is a brokenness to the past.  Your story, my story, the story of the world is a story of given things, riven by misery and destruction. By sin. lt is that sensation that comes over us in the aftermath of tragedy whispering in our ear, “Things are not as they ought to be.”

Let’s look again at the picture of my great Grandfather, David.  Some of you may have noticed that the street he is walking on is lined with demolished buildings.  This picture is dated 1942, and if you know the history of 20th century Europe, you know that the Nazis effectively swept over the Netherlands in mere days, forcing a very quick surrender, and demolishing towns across the country. Three of my four grandparents grew up under the shadow of a Nazi takeover of their lands.  The gift of the people and the place they each new knew as children was broken, riven, by foreign invasion and subsequent destruction.  Millions of Ukrainian men, women, and children are living this reality right now as we sit here in chapel.  

Converting schools into stables for Nazi horses. Leaving home after putting children to bed to help Jews find safe passage out of Europe. Packing up everything to set out for a new start in America or Canada. These were not an abstract facts they needed to know for a history test.  This was their lived reality: War in Europe.  A riveness to the life they knew.

We don’t need to have lived through a war to know that life is broken.  We know because the brokenness of life is not just something that happens to us, but it is equally something that exists within us; with hearts broken and capable of dropping bombs on our enemies, cutting friends out of our lives, or tearing them down with words and actions.  It probably wouldn’t take more than one  minute to make a list of all the rifts in your life both inflicted ON you or inflicted BY you on others. 

Looking at the image of my great grandfather in war torn Europe, it occurred to me that the rifts in his life led his children to North America, and I wouldn’t be born where I was born without the brokenness of the past re-directing the lives of my ancestors. And that means that some of the broken moments of my past that shaped me in the present, will equally form the story of my son and his children in ways that I will never know. What are the RIVEN moments of your past? Here is just one riven moments from mine I’d share.

One of the biggest rifts is probably the one that kept me in Texas when I was about ready to finish at Baylor and move back to Canada. I was actually engaged to be married to a girl in Canada who called off the wedding months before our wedding day. It was the right decision for a number of reasons, but that realization only is clear in hindsight. In the moment, and the moments that followed, I experienced some of the darkest days, weeks, and months in my life. Some of you need to know this because my story isn’t just all American Ninja Warrior glory.

Seniors, the letters you just received might also remind you of various “rifts” you’ve experienced during your time at Regents:

  1. Friends who moved away from Austin or worse, who betrayed you since Grammar School days.
  2. Older family members that moved on to college and the family dynamic just isn’t the same anymore.
  3. Trips cancelled and school upended due to an unforeseen global pandemic.

And I wish we could say that is all the brokeness you will face, but your stories will continue to include some rifts that will not be expected. You will come face to face with some of your lowest lows. You will be reminded you that we live in a fallen world, and things are not as they ought to be.  

Take comfort from our New Testament reading this morning. Jesus was no stranger to this brokenness. In fact, we read, “on the night when Jesus was betrayed HE took bread…. Jesus’ life includes brokeness at every turn:

  1. Betrayed by friends
  2. Left alone in his last hours
  3. His body broken
  4. Left to die.
  5. His own Father turned his back on Him. 

As we brace for the storms ahead, is there any rift in your story that Christ did not experience in his life?  No he experienced it all and worse. And yet he lives.  And in this LIVIN’ we find our hope.  

History is a “Living” Thing

History has a bad rap of being a subject of dead people and the memorization of dry and dusty dates.  While many of the people we study are long dead, and while too many tests are simply a regurgitation of dusty dates, the truth is that our study of the past is no different than the little nine year old voices coming off the pages of of your letters: that is, it is very much alive. 

Seniors, the words you are reading when you open these letters are a living fragment of the life lived by you in that  particular time and place.  Similarly, why I love history is because when I open Edumnd Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (written in 1790), or Augustine’s “City of God” (written in 426 AD), or Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” of 52 BC.  or the Psalm 23 of King David in what scholars estimate to be around 1000 BC, the living voices of these authors long dead, are echoing across time and space into my ears, speaking to me about a time and place long gone, but also instructing me about my own life lived now, in my particular time and place.  

To use yet another metaphor, and a rather cliched one for the study of history, consider the leaf at the top of an oak tree when you consider history. This leaf is alive, but it is only alive because of the vast network of life (branches, trunk, roots) it depends on.  That image of my grandfather, is an image of one branch up on which my existence depends.  And to carry that metaphor further, you see the most from the top of the tree only because you are held up by the life that precedes you.  You may be tempted to liberate yourself from the past but be mindful of what happens to the leaf once it falls from a tree. Instead, we must take care to understand our story in connection to the life (lives) that precede us.

Wendell Berry, in “Standing by Words” says it this way:

“Our past is not merely something to depart from; it is to commune with, to speak with… Remove this sense of continuity, and we are left with the thoughtless present tense of machines. If we fail to see that we live in the same world that Homer lived in, then we not only misunderstand Homer; we misunderstand ourselves. The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.

So Seniors, the time from when you wrote those letters until today may have seemed like an eternity.  But five years is nothing in the life of a man, except when he is very young and very old. I promise each five year window of time will only seem faster and faster from here on out.  The scaffolding of Regents is starting to fall away like the platforms that hold up Elon Musk’s Space X rockets and each of you is about to be launched from here, moving away in both time and space.

It is quite common to hear “Live a Great Story” everywhere you go in Austin.  What is harder, but I would argue more life-giving, is to “Steward a Great Story.” You can do this in three ways, each one fundamental to the ask of the historian.

ASK

Did you know that the word history actually comes from the Greek word “Historia” which means “Inquiry” or simply, asking questions. Good historians don’t know all the answers. Good historians ask better questions. Before it is too late, ask your parents, your grandparents, and your elders questions about their lives to better understand your own. And don’t limit yourself to family. Read accounts of the past as far back as possible and you will find our ancestors capable of answering present questions.

REMEMBER

By remembering, I don’t mean mere “recalling” events, but to borrow (steal?) an idea from my twin, RE-MEMBER the past with the individuals who precede you.  Understand yourself and, in time, your children, as belonging to a long and broad membership of individuals. The New Testament passage is call to such a re-membering of our time here, where Christ calls us to see ourselves as grafted into larger  membership, a communion, with Christ as our father. 

RESTORE

Finally, when we partake in the process of asking and remembering, we not only partake in a process of realizing what we’ve been given, and in lamenting what has been broken, but we ultimately partake in a living restoration, by which I mean (to borrow yet another idea from my twin) a Re-Story-ing of ourselves.  What I love about the picture of my great grandfather we’ve looked at this morning is that in the midst of war he is holding his family around him, and walking to church to worship. It is a picture of faith and hope and love. It is also a reminder, that my life is part of a larger story, one that possesses meaning only in communion with, and grafted into, Christ: Given and Broken for each of us in order that we might have life.  

You Do You

Against a Mob Mentality | Breaking In The Habit

You do you.
Seek your truth.
Free your self
From all others. 

You do you.
Speak your truth.
Be your self
For no others.

You do you.
See your Truth
In your self
And no others.

You do you
Free your Truth
From your self
To all others.

You do you.
Seek.
Speak.
See.
Be Free.
Simply, be. 

But

If your true self
Steps out of line
With the truth as
We seek it, as
We speak it, as
We see it – 

Well then,
We will 
Do you
In.

Advice for New Dads

http://kathrynkrueger.com/

Photo: Kathryn Krueger Photography

Maria surprised me for Father’s Day this year by creating a book with advice from my Dad, brothers, and brothers-in-law.  Each of them wrote down their “Top 5” tips or words of wisdom for new Dads and I’m sharing it because they may bless other new dads like myself, or long-time Dads, or those hoping to be dads some day.

Matt’s Advice:

  1. Some would argue that it is more exhausting taking care of kids than going to work everyday.  Remember that when you get home.
  2. Leave diapers to the ladies because they are quicker and more thorough – a perfect excuse.
  3. Don’t let work/tech/screentime consume you when you are at home.  You’ll miss the little moments you can’t get back.
  4. Be the parent to come home with treats like Dunkin’ Donuts.  (You like Starbucks, I know…but kids don’t so Dunkin is a better bet).  That way you’ll have that edge over Maria.
  5. But seriously, being a Dad and parenting alongside your wife is one of the best callings in life.  Take the task seriously and be faithful in teaching your children God’s Word like my good friend Steve Green once sang, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Mike’s Advice: 

  1. Kids are always listening and always watching.  Having a strong relationship with God and with your wife becomes even more important as your kids will see and imitate that example.
  2. Stay humble.  Don’t pretend to your kids that you don’t make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to apologize to them.  Also, don’t be surprised by your kids’ sin – expect it.  Pray with them and for them, and show them that there is forgiveness in Christ.
  3. Be consistent.  Kids understand very quickly what is right and what is wrong with consistency.  They also very quickly get confused and act out when it is lacking.  At the same time, be flexible enough to know that every kid is different and what works with one, might not work with another.
  4. Don’t let the way your day is going affect how you treat your kids.  When you are tired, hungry, grumpy, it is easy to lash out over the proverbial “spilled milk” (which is actually quite difficult when you are wiping milk off the floor for the 7th time that day…)
  5. Spend time with your kids.  Some of my favorite memories are rough housing or playing on the court in our backyard.  I think Dad did a great job spending time with us, and I want to do the same.

James’s Advice:

  1. Yelling rarely accomplishes what you hope it will, and often leaves you a great opportunity to ask for forgiveness.
  2. Once you have toddlers, 75% of fatherhood is trying not to get biffed in the jimmies.
  3. Cliches are true – time goes fast and kids grow up too quick.  Your time alone to yourself generally is better spent making memories with your kids.
  4. Argue with your wife in front of your kids.  It will show your kids how to manage conflict, and how to forgive, if you argue in a caring way with the other
  5. No matter how you parent or how lodged in a pickle you can be, your kids will always think you are amazing and want to spend time with you.

Doug’s Advice:

  1. Your kids are forming you as much as you are forming them.  Let them.  Even at their worst – and trust me that’ll come – they are asking you to become more loving, more patient, and more kind than you are or think you can be.  If marriage is a chisel that starts to chip away at the crust of our selfishness, kids are the wrecking ball.
  2. Ary will treat Maria the way you do.  Be on the same team, and model that love.  Respect is “caught” not “taught.”
  3. You own Dad’s strengths (and weaknesses) start making a lot of sense.  You realize he was young and doing his best.  Call him for advice and let him know what you are grateful for.
  4. Get to know your kids one on one.  Take them out for Dad dates and make it about them.  Kind of cheesy, but I love getting Jackson or Avery or Eli out for breakfast on a Saturday morning.  It’s important.
  5. Rest in the fact that you won’t do any of this perfectly, and kids will highlight your weaknesses as much as they help you overcome them (See #1).  Point them to our Father in whatever broken way you can and, while doing  your best to show them what unconditional love can look like, you also need to show them how broken people ask for forgiveness.
  6. (Bonus) As cliche as all those “the time goes too fast” comments are…it is way too true.  Our twins are already 5 this year.  You blink and they will be out of your house.  There are so many things in life we can try to recover – time is not one of them.  Enjoy every day.

(Read to the end for more from Doug)

Aaron’s Advice: 

  1. Don’t worry about being the world’s best dad.  Your criteria and  your child’s are not the same.  You’ll never meet up to your own expectations, but rest assured as far as your child is concerned you are and always will be the world’s best Dad.  Show him love and support and listen to him and that will be enough.
  2. No kid ever died of hard work!  A good work ethic never goes away.  It is useful for all life’s experiences.  Children love to help dad work, and it is also our responsibility as Christians to do all things well and to the fullest.
  3. Press the gospel in deep!  Man’s chief delight is to praise God.  To do so, we must understand all God has to say.  Teach your child all God had to say, and do so often and always.  Let it be always on your tongue.  Make sure they see it in your life and they will imitate you.  They may not always understand it, but give them the foundation and when they grow up they will not depart from it.
  4. Laugh!  Let your children laugh at you (as mine do constantly) and laugh at and with them.  Make sure they are never too self-conscious to be the butt of a good joke and have a good sense of humor.  The world is too stiff so make sure they can loosen up once in a while.
  5. Talk!  Face to face communication is a lost art.  The ability to have a discussion or debate is slowly being lost.  No child needs to spend hours on a phone or in front of a TV.  Always be able and ready to talk to them.  Perhaps no wireless devices before a certain age would be appropriate.
  6. (bonus) Always be there, always show love, and always respect their mother.

Dad’s Advice: 

  1. Love
  2. Lead
  3. Laugh
  4. Learn
  5. Live to the Glory of God.

fathers day 2A Final Word from Doug

  1. Modern fatherhood is equal parts Instagram and liquid poop explosions.  Don’t mix those two.
  2. Spanking should always be done with an open hand.  Much more effective.
  3. Wrestle with Ary until he is stronger than you.  You have about two more years.
  4. You can’t spell FATHER without FAT.  Think about it.
  5. Make a list of your TOP 10 favorite things to do in the morning and evening.  Then burn that list.  You won’t do them again for like 20 years.

American Ninja Warrior

Sikke Ninjas
So my American Ninja Warrior debut did not get any air time last night.  I guess I could say that only a true ninja would not reveal himself on such a public stage, but truthfully I was a little bummed to have promoted the show, knowing that NBC makes no promise that my run would be televised.
.

It’s probably because I spend too much time on social media, or have been too long immersed in a world with TV, that I’ve become convinced that real meaning or value only exists when something I do is made public.  We all crave celebrity or fame at some level right?  But this craving is typically centred on myself and blinds me to others.  It also tends to undermine the value of the reality in experiences like being on Ninja Warrior.

Now even a process of reflection like this, displayed publicly on a blog, tends to circle back in on the “self.” Before this becomes a black hole of introspection, I want to just list real things that I am thankful for out of this Ninja Warrior experience.

I am thankful for:

  1. Students who pushed me to try something new.
  2. Teachers and administrators who encouraged me throughout the process.
  3. A rockstar team who kept the 4th grade rolling while I was out of town.
  4. The relationships that developed between the families in my class and myself over this shared experience.
  5. A renewed sense of camaraderie between teachers at the end of a school year when many of us are feeling tired!
  6. My Canadian (pictured above) and Texan family and friends (Randy Mulder especially) who wore their shirts in solidarity last night because they were not able to make the OKC to watch.
  7. The health to compete.
  8. The opportunity to meet and cheer on 100 different ninjas and be impacted by their incredible stories.
  9. A supportive and loving wife who took time off work to come up and cheer me on, and who the editors of the show made to look like she was cheering for some guy with legendary abs.  At least she tells me that was the editors fault….

For those of you who were not able to and who did not see what happened on TV, thank you for all of your support.  (Oh, and I’ll let you know that I fell on the third rolling log). For those of you who were able to come and experience Ninja Warrior in person, thank you.

What an incredible year.

 

 

Church Planting with the Brothers Karamazov

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov

the_brothers_karamazov_by_spoonybards

A Gospel Formed Family?

The church plant Maria and I are attending is seeking to be a “gospel-formed family for the city” of Austin.

In a sermon series on Ephesians entitled “God’s Workmanship,” our pastors explained how the church must understand itself as a family – an institution where members are united despite their diversity.  Such unity in diversity is a mystery of God’s workmanship.  We see this mystery in a singular beam of refracted light which reveals every imaginable color. We feel this mystery in our beating heart, reminded that our own life is dependent on different organs all working in unison to make us walk, or breathe, or think about these things.  This organizing principle of life reflects God.  It is mysterious.  And it is beautiful.

While it may not be hard to convince people that such beauty exists in nature, it is more difficult to convince them that this beauty characterizes the family.  Perhaps this is because beauty, as described by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, is both mysterious and terrible.  It is terrible because, “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”  This fight mars the created order and when it is waged in the family, the aftermath is divorce, separation, abuse, and neglect.  Each is an ugly reality that shapes far too many people’s experiences of this institution. This is not a 21st-century phenomenon.  The first account of brotherhood in the Bible is also the first account of murder. For many the family is a place of pain and bitterness.  It may be diverse, but it is certainly not unified.

If this is how many people experience family, is the church using the right metaphor to describe its role in the city of Austin?

Dostoevsky: Recovering the Beauty of Brotherhood

This summer I picked up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  It is my first attempt at reading the Russian giant and I make no claim to be a literary critic.  But what strikes me about this story is how it uncovers the obstacles that prevent brotherhood and in doing so recovers the beauty of brotherhood as a force for making the world over anew.

The brotherhood between Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov is, like any brotherhood, characterized by differences in personality and temperament.  Dimitri is a passionate sensualist who blows unearned money on entertainment, women, and booze.   Ivan, on the other hand, is a stoic rationalist who believes in the existence of God but because of the suffering he sees in the world, decides to renounce God as a deity worthy of his worship.  The youngest brother, Alyosha, is the most spiritual of the three, living his life in the seclusion of a Russian Orthodox Monastery as a novice.

Alyosha is under the spiritual mentorship of the Elder Zosima.  Early on in the story, it is Zosima who understands that the passions of the oldest brother, Dimitri, and the brothers’ father, Fyodor, threaten to unravel the unity of the family.  Before he dies, he releases Alyosha from his isolated monastic life and sends him into the broken world of his older brothers charging him to make this world “over anew.”  He is to accomplish this task through brotherhood.

Zosima:

In order to make the world over anew, people themselves must turn onto a different path psychically.  Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood.  No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense.  Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another.

It is this self-interest and envy that defines Dimitris’ relationship with his father.  Zosima warns Alyosha that both of these force destroy brotherhood, and it does so by creating a culture of isolation.  It is this isolation which Zosima tells Alyosha is the primary obstacle to brotherhood, and which must be overcome if he is to make the world over anew.

Zosima:

[Brotherood] will come true, but first the period of human isolation must conclude.

“What isolation?” I asked him.

That which is now reigning everywhere, especially in our age, but it is not all concluded yet, its term has not come.  For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation.  For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he is, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself.  He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now, and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence.  For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish. …. But there must needs come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will all at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves one from another.  Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light.” [emphasis mine]

Russia in the mid-19th century sounds a lot like America in early twenty-first. This “unnatural separation” of isolation which people embrace under the mis-guided belief that the fullness of life can be experienced within oneself defines our culture of competitive self-reliance.  It manifests itself in the accumulation of wealth in solitude and results in nothing more than seclusion and withdrawal from community. It is this isolation “which is now reigning everywhere,” in 2015.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, offers some statistics on this front.  Considering the decline in intimacy, he writes:

  Decades ago, people typically told pollsters that they had four or five close friends, people to whom they could tell everything.  Now the common answer is two or three, and the number of people with no confidants has doubled.  Thirty-five percent of older adults report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent a decade ago.

Envy, self-interest, and the isolation they produce, destroys brotherhood.  It would be easy to say that unity can be attained when we go out into this world and tell others to take responsibility for their actions, to stop envying, and to form communities.  It would be easy to tell others about all the things we have figured out because of our Christian faith.  Yet, Zosima offers a way forward that is a little more challenging.

Zosima offers Alyosha a radical conception of love that begins, not by telling others to take responsibility for their sins, but by taking the responsibility for their sins on yourself.  Alyosha is not sent into the world to tell his brothers how awful they are in their brokeness.  Rather, his time in monastic isolation uncovered his own brokeness so that when he sees the passions of Dimitri that lead him to run to women, or the cold-rationalism of Ivan that lead him to run away from God, he understands the same battle is waging in his own heart.

When he admits guilt of the same battle within, he realizes he is not better than his brothers. He is not even equal to his brothers. Now he sees himself as “worse than all those in the world…guilty of everything, before everyone.”

The result of this radical shift in thinking, says Zosima, is the capacity for radical love that brings unity:

But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.

Taking responsibility for your sins AND the sins of others is the way to recover the beauty of brotherhood and bring unity to diversity.  When we are able to see our sins in the sins of others, we see the depth of brokenness in the world, and the need for a Saviour.  If we are unable to see our sins in the sins of others, we end up seeing ourselves as their Saviour, which never goes well. Or, as Zosima says, we end up “shifting our own laziness and powerlessness onto others [thereby] sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”

Back to Austin

Radical love that brings unity is difficult.  When thinking about how to begin seeing the people in Austin outside of my church-community as my family, I considered how Dostoevsky’s brothers each possessed character traits that are evident in the father, the “buffoon” Fyodor Karamazov.

It seems obvious to say it, but the brothers share a father.  This father’s image is, like a singular beam of light, refracted into a diversity of Karamazov personalities.  This is an image that is broken, and as a result, the brothers inherit that brokenness.  Maybe Alyosha can see that he is guilty of everything before everyone because he, like everyone, is the image-bearer of a broken father.

Once we realize this ugly reality, the only hope we have in forming a brotherhood with all, a family in Austin, is that a Father exists who is not broken, and that somehow we are His image-bearers.  This would be a beautiful mystery.