A String of Words

      Saint Peter’s second epistle opens with some fantastic claims about the Christian faith. We have been given “exceeding great and precious promises” by God in Christ, namely, that we can “be partakers of the divine nature”! We, human beings, are promised by God that we can share in God’s own nature. This is what all grace must be about. Grace, in any form that it might ever come to us, is a gift whereby God lifts us “up” to his own level, that is to say, makes us in some way on a par with him, so that (for instance) we can talk to each other, have communion with each other, even love each other.
    Do not forget it: the promise is not just that God will preserve us from evil, or that he has delivered us from sin and death. It is those things, of course, but it is infinitely more. God wants us to share in his own being.
    Having established that, Peter goes on to list a series of things that we should diligently seek. He exhorts us to “add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” This is a list of terms that form a chain, each new term being added onto the one previous to it.
    It’s a beautiful list. It’s also an opportunity to slow down in our reading and see if we can make sense of it.
    The epistle suggest that there is a line that begins with faith and ends in love (“charity,” which is the love of God). How do we get from faith to love?
    The sequence offered is this: from faith to virtue (or excellence), to knowledge, to temperance (self-control), to patience (steadfastness), to godliness, to brotherly kindness, to love. Some of these steps make sense to me.
    The move from faith to virtue I take as the desire, which faith gives to me, that I be a good human being, that I have human virtues, that I practice human excellences. I do indeed want faith to make a difference to who I am and how I live.
    But I can’t be better at living unless I have self-knowledge. I need to know what I need to be better at.
    To have self-knowledge requires self-control. If my passions are running amok, I can’t have a clear picture of who I am, and I certainly can’t grow in virtue. Self-control is the first step in self-knowledge, which is the precondition for human excellence.
    And I have to stick with it. It is so easy to be discouraged when one starts to see how one fails in life! So, right after self-control, we have patience (steadfastness). We need to be patient with ourselves and also be steadfast in our desire to be good.
    None of this would be possible without God, who planted faith within us in the beginning. So these “human” virtues are actually discovered to be “godly” virtues, the “godliness” that is a foretaste of sharing in God’s being.
    And the goal, the end of our faith, is to be able to live in friendship. This occurs in two forms. First is “brotherly affection,” friendship that we have with other people. And the end of it all is love, “charity,” which is friendship with God.
    I am amazed at how wisely Saint Peter laid out these terms! May we all grow in our faith so that we become partakers of the divine nature, true friends of men and of God.
    Out & About. I am teaching this Sunday on “the future of God,” which is the ultimate thing for which we are waiting. The class is at 10:20 a.m. in the Memorial Chapel of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. My previous classes can be found  here. 
    Looking ahead. Yours truly is to teach the Christian ethics course at the Stanton Center this spring. The course meets on the third Saturday of each month from January through May, from 1 to 4 p.m., at the Stanton Center at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Dallas.
    In the course we will cover some basic alternatives in Christian ethics before turning to an in-depth study of virtue ethics (also called the ethics of human excellence or flourishing). Special attention will be given to Christian anthropology, particularly as it stands in contrast to common secular assumptions of freedom, happiness, and the like. The course also is aimed to be helpful pastorally, both by the inclusion of fiction and children’s stories (Muriel Spark, Arnold Lobel) and by consideration of the topics of friendship and disability.
    It would be great to see some of you in the course—for one thing, it will be a chance to develop a topic at greater length than is possible for the occasional Sunday class. And it will also be a chance for more extended conversation. The Stanton Center’s website, with registration information, is here.


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Flying to an academic conference in a window seat, I peered out to where the land met the ocean—the stretch of sand, the white on the water. Closer in, I could make out a few landmarks and guess at others. Then it hit me: the last time I had flown here was a full decade ago. I often would visit Boston by train or, even better, by bus, but on that singular occasion by plane we had come here together.
    Suddenly she was beside me, still alive. That day and the next we would get to see our daughter who, to our delighted surprise, would take us to the bronze ducklings on the Commons and the band shell on the river where the voiceless swan played his trumpet. (How well our daughter had been reared by her mother on Robert McCloskey and E. B. White!) My wife would walk slowly with her cane, often sitting, often smiling. Those two days with rich memories were, O so briefly, not in my past, but in my present.
    Then the plane landed, and it was only me.
    Augustine writes of the death of a close friend when he was around 20. The whole world became strange. Passageways which formerly would tell of his presence now said only, “He is not here.” His friend was nowhere in the world and as a result all of the world was strange to him. He was not at home and he found no place of rest.
    That is the shocking disorientation of death’s initial separation. It is salved by time. It is also caught up, as Augustine came to know later in life, in the larger realities of God, his promises and his presence. But once the wrenching reality of death has been healed, there remains a strange vulnerability. You can go for months at a time with no sense of loss. There are memories but they are untinged by sorrow. But then, unexpectedly, it can be all over you all of a sudden.
    The approaching end of the year and, layered upon it, the season of Advent, brings thoughts of how time is at work mysteriously. (Augustine goes on in his Confessions, famously if difficultly, to explore the meaning of time. It’s a natural move.) Sometimes the past is right with you: it becomes present again, and mixes itself with the present, and you don’t quite know if you are 25 years old or 50 or 75. Maybe, in a sense, you are all of them at once.
    The scriptures teach us that God is past, present, and future. He created the world (but he also creates it, that is to say, gives it its being, at every instant). He is with us in our present, available at the slightest movement of prayer. And he is in the future, summoning us to live with hope, promising us that in the end history will be something that can be read (the Lamb is able to open the seals on the scroll of history!). The future of God is our salvation from “sound and fury, signifying nothing”: our lives, and the whole story of the universe, will be something meaningful.
    I don’t have much personal experience of it, yet it seems to me that some people have not only those nostalgia-laden moments when the past erupts into our present life, but they also experience God’s future as a gift. It is a moment of confidence that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, as T. S. Eliot put it (quoting, of course, Dame Julian).
    As we proceed though this season of deepening darkness, aware of how much has been lost and perhaps (some of it) irretrievably so, the future of God can beckon to us. We may not be able to glimpse what is on the other side of the darkness, yet still he is there, holding the outcome of all things in his hands.
    Out & About. The next two Sundays I am teaching a Sunday class, “Who’s Coming?” at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The class is at 10:20 a.m. in the Memorial Chapel. On Dec. 3 the topic is “A Baby,” and on Dec. 10, “The Future of God.”
    On Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dallas, I am to preach at the ordination of the Rev. Matthew Burdette to the priesthood. With commendable instinct, Matthew is taking this to be the eve of the feast of St. Ambrose.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."