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But if the salt of the earth becomes insipid – if a disciple of Jesus forgets that only losing wins, and a fortiori, if the apostolic church forgets gets it – where in the wide world of winners drowning in the syrup of their own success will either the disciple or the church be able to recapture the saltiness of victory out of loss? The answer is nowhere. And the sad fact is that the church, both now and at far too many times in its history, has found it easier to act as if it were selling the sugar of moral and spiritual achievement rather than the salt of Jesus’ passion and death. It will preach salvation for the successfully well-behaved, redemption for the triumphantly correct in doctrine, and pie in the sky for all the winners who think they can walk into the final judgment and flash their passing report cards at Jesus. But every last bit of that is now and ever shall be pure baloney because: (a) nobody will ever have that kind of sugar to sweeten the last deal with, and (b) Jesus is going to present us all to the Father in the power of his resurrection and not at all in the power of our own totally inadequate records, either good or bad.

But does the church preach that salty message? Not as I hear it, it doesn’t. It preaches the nutra-sweet religion of test-passing, which is the only thing the world is ready to buy and which isn’t even real sugar let alone salt. In spite of all our fakery, though, Jesus’ program remains firm. He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead. And he rejoices more over the last, the least, and the little than over all the winners in the world. That alone is what this losing race of ours needs to hear, even though it can’t stand the thought of it. That alone is the salt that can take our perishing insipidity and give it life and flavor forever.

— Robert Farrar Capon. The Parables of Grace

After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

What are we looking for in our ambition? What do we hope to find at the end of our aspirations? In Augustine’s experience—like our own—the answer is complicated. There is a bundle of hopes and hungers bound up with our ambitions, but so often they boil down to the twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention—to win the crown and be seen doing it.

Augustine’s map of this particular terrain of the hungry heart is as useful as ever because so little has changed. When Augustine reflects on ambition, he’s really delving into the dynamics of fame. Could anything be more contemporary? We live in an age where everybody’s famous. We’ve traded the hope of immortality for a shot at going viral. What is Instagram if not a platform for attention? Arcade Fire’s song “Creature Comfort” is a chilling assessment of the extent to which the quest for attention has almost become synonymous with the conatus essendi, our reason to be. And if we can’t have it, we’d rather not be. We

Stand in the mirror
and wait for the feedback
Saying God, make me famous
If you can’t, just make it painless.

But naming the symptoms is easy. The challenge is diagnosing the disease. The question is: What do we want when we want attention? What are we hoping for when we aspire to win this game of being noticed?

For Augustine, the only way to get to the root of this desire is to understand it as a spiritual craving. That’s why we can only truly understand disordered ambition if we read it as a kind of idolatry. If our ambition becomes a roadblock to peace, an inhibitor that robs us of the rest and joy we’re looking for, it’s because we’ve substituted something in place of the end for which we were made.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

A strength which is not his

The true man trusts in a strength which is not his, and which he does not feel, does not even always desire.

— George MacDonald (quoted by C.S. Lewis)

The Messiah whom Jesus’ contemporaries expected – and likewise any and all of the messiahs the world has looked to ever since (even, alas, the church’s all-too-often graceless, punishing version of Jesus’ own messiahship) – are like nothing so much as religious versions of “Santa Claus is coming to town.” The words of that dreadful Christmas mas song sum up perfectly the only kind of messianic behavior the human man race, in its self-destructive folly, is prepared to accept: “He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out who’s naughty, or nice” – and so on into the dark night of all the tests this naughty world can never pass. For my money, what Jesus senses clearly and for the first time in the coin in the fish’s mouth is that he is not, thank God, Santa Claus. He will come to the world’s sins with no lists to check, no tests to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle. He will wipe away the handwriting that was against us and nail it to his cross (Col. 2:14). He will save, not some minuscule coterie of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, broke, deadbeat, overextended children of this world whom he, as the Son of man – the holy Child of God, the Ultimate Big Kid, if you please – will set free in the liberation of his death.

And when he senses that … well, it is simply to laugh. He tacks a “Gone Fishing” sign over the sweatshop of religion, and for all the debts of all sinners who ever lived, he provides exact change for free. How nice it would be if the church could only remember to keep itself in on the joke.

— Robert Farrar Capon. The Parables of Grace

As everybody knows by now, gospel means “good news.” Ironically, it is some of the gospel’s most ardent fans who try to turn it into bad news. For instance:

“It all boils down to the Golden Rule. Just love thy neighbor, and that’s all you have to worry about.” What makes this bad news is that loving our neighbor is exactly what none of us is very good at. Most of the time, we have a hard time loving even our family and friends very effectively.

“Jesus was a great teacher and the best example we have of how we ought to live.” As a teacher, Jesus is at least matched by, for instance, Siddhartha Gautama. As an example, we can only look at Jesus and despair.

“The resurrection is a poetic way of saying that the spirit of Jesus lives on as a constant inspiration to us all.” If all the resurrection means is that Jesus’ spirit lives on like Abraham Lincoln’s or Adolf Hitler’s but that otherwise he is just as dead as anybody else who cashed in two thousand years ago, then, as Saint Paul puts it, “our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Corinthians 15:14). If the enemies of Jesus succeeded for all practical purposes in killing him permanently around A.D. 30, then like Socrates, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on, he is simply another saintly victim of the wickedness and folly of humankind, and the cross is a symbol of ultimate defeat.

What is both good and new about the good news is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love God too, but that if we will allow it to happen, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.

What is both good and new about the good news is the mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments, but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

The telos of ambition

Ambition is a many-splendored, much-maligned thing. Your take depends on what demons you’re trying to exorcise. If you’re surrounded by prideful, power-hungry egomaniacs bent on making a name for themselves through Babelian endeavors, ambition looks ugly, monstrous, and domineering. But if you’re surrounded by placid, passive, go-with-the-flow, aw-shucks folk who are leaving unused gifts on the table and failing to respond to their calling, then ambition looks like faithfulness. Sometimes ambition is ugly; sometimes the critique of ambition is uglier, as when powerful white men worry that others (brown women, say) are getting “uppity.”

Ambition isn’t any single thing; it can’t be simply celebrated or demonized. …

If you keep walking around the phenomenon of ambition, you’ll start to note a couple of features. First, the opposite of ambition is not humility; it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency. We sometimes like to comfort ourselves by imagining that the ambitious are prideful and arrogant so that those of us who never risk, never aspire, never launch out into the deep get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility. But this imagining is often just thin cover for a lack of courage, even laziness. Playing it safe isn’t humble. Second, it is the telos of ambition that distinguishes good from bad, separating faithful aspiration from self-serving aggrandizement. Augustine never stopped being ambitious. What changed was the target, the goal, the how of his striving. What do I love when I long for achievement? That is the Augustinian question.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine