Rutherford in Paris

I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop. This morning’s flavor of music here is not my jam, so I’m glad I brought my headphones. I’m listening to jazz from Paris, dutifully caring for myself. Cliché, but here it is: when Louis Armstrong starts singing about chestnuts in blossom I smile. And I’m sitting beside the window on purpose so I can see the sky. I thought about not getting a latte, but this morning it was a wise choice.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Samuel Rutherford’s ebullient reflections on the loveliness of Christ and browsing essays by Marilynne Robinson, a decidedly Calvinist Christian, a dauntingly brilliant thinker, and a major literary figure of this generation. Rutherford says “Rest, with Christ, will say more than heart can think or tongue can utter,” and if that isn’t the truest thing I don’t know what is.

Lately when I get time to myself I spend it on maximum-strength rest. I need space in my head and my heart. Sometimes I can’t find it, and most of the time I can’t even look for it. I start to feel like I’m drowning. “Rest, with Christ” is oxygen. Yesterday I met my pastor at this same coffee shop and he reminded me of another Calvinist writer, John Newton, who wrote of the cordials Christ bestows on an infant heart hungering for the gospel. That’s why Rutherford went into my bag this morning.

On a morning when I wake up fighting my darkest sorts of feelings, which is it? Is it April in Paris, or is it the Loveliness of Christ? I’ve learned to listen to a lot of secular voices in my adulthood after a thoroughly Calvinist and Puritan childhood. I use these two descriptors rather unfairly, as anyone who lives within them will insist, but I use them in their stereotype-meanings. The poster I made in Sunday school, which my mom probably still has on her bedroom wall, reads “If heaven is our homeland, what else is this earth but our place of exile? –John Calvin.”

After I finish typing this I’ll drive across town to the behavioral health offices at the hospital in an ongoing, uphill attempt to be whole and happy. Christ, unmediated by common grace, simply could not effect this important aspect of wholeness no matter how much I were to devote myself to him. There, I said it: the Bible is not all you need.

But reading Rutherford reminds me that there are less secular methods of self care, and I know them too well to forget or reject them, even if they (like everything else) have potential pitfalls. Couldn’t I care for myself in no other way than “Christ’s cordials”? Rutherford’s sentences make me nod and wince in alternation. A poetic rejection of the world for the sake of love’s expression is good and even true. A life that doesn’t avail itself of April in Paris in this “place of exile” is foolish.

When I criticize myself via internal childhood voices for running to sources besides Christ for wholeness, joy, and rest, what I’m remembering this morning is that all those sources can be oriented within a Gerard Manley Hopkins-esque theology of creation that is as ebullient as are Rutherford’s love letters. Oriented this way, every little thing is valuable to my soul on a morning like this, from orange leather shoes and orange Italian latte cups to Newton, Rutherford, and Marilynne Robinson. It just isn’t either/or.

Ultimately, I can attest to the all-surpassing loveliness of Christ right along with Rutherford, because there is a place my heart goes that nothing else can cure, and Christ can cure it, oh! yes, he can. The best Christian spirituality is learning what it means to belong to him, and this is a school I try to attend, however distractable I may be.

The reality for Rutherford’s original audience was very different from my own. He was writing to friends in deep affliction and even persecution, sometimes writing from prison. Perhaps this is where his modern disciples risk mistranslating him: by reading him out of context. I could have all that I need if I had nothing but Christ, unmediated through Sacrament or sacrament, but that is not my context.

I, for one, will not entertain my own doubts about my faithfulness to Christ when I answer my hunger for creature comforts. This world is his and it is not evil or even unlovely. Everything is beautiful.

 

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