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Urban Meyer and Augustine

By September 16, 2016 No Comments
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Our holiness begins with our acceptance of restlessness, not as a good in itself, and not as a frustrated shifting and turning and wishing for something better, simply the steady acceptance of incompletion and the radical nature of our desire for God’s endlessness.     Rowan Williams, On Augustine

In “I’m Not the Lone Wolf” Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer describes his struggle with anxiety. At first it’s what drove him to excel, it gave him a competitive edge. Until it got out of control. Imagine winning two national championships within a few years, and not being able to enjoy the moment. He experienced crippling pain in the middle of the night, pain that made him think he was dying of a heart attack, only to discover it was induced by anxiety and stress. The article is powerful because it’s honest. Most men associated with football aren’t willing to accept weakness; they’re not willing to be vulnerable to the point of recognizing they need help. Let’s face it, most people, period, aren’t willing to embrace that type of vulnerability. Now Meyer is back coaching and winning championships, but only after his family made him sign a contract they wrote up. No more endless hours at the office, there has to be time spent working out, time spent getting one’s mental state straightened out, and time spent with family. He’s surrounded himself with people who help him stay right, maintain a proper perspective on life, and accept his limitations, weakness, and imperfections. By letting go just a bit, Meyer was free to be a head football coach again.

Yesterday I finished leading a group of college students through Augustine’s Confessions. We talked about how Augustine is sometimes dismissed by Protestant Christians as a Neo-Platonic dualist, someone who tainted Christianity and led us down a path we’re still trying to recover from. Only, when I read the Confessions I don’t see it. Of course I recognize the Neo-Platonic language and philosophical categories, but I also see how Augustine’s conversion brings a different emphasis.

On high, higher than the heights of what you made, your Word, the eternal truth, lifts those humbled toward him to himself. But here below he built himself a lowly casement of our clay, so he could detach from themselves those to be humbled and draw them over to him, reducing their swollen state and coaxing love from them. He brings down reliance on themselves, makes them weak as they look directly at the divine weakness, wearing the same ‘leather skin’ we do. They collapse helpless into the weak arms where power now surges to lift them on high.

In On Augustine, Rowan Williams provides an interpretation of his thought that emphasizes the goodness of temporal human life as it is lived in frailty and vulnerability. It’s the recognition that we do not know ourselves, that we deceive ourselves and constantly construct false identities; yet, when we quiet our hearts, and search our innermost being, we discover the presence of God calling to us, patiently waiting for a response. This is what I tried to leave with my students—God’s call upon our lives that is God’s endless search for a response. For Augustine, the incarnation is an affirmation of our embodied, finite, existence precisely because there’s no other way to encounter God. We need the Holy Spirit to untangle us from our disordered loves and misdirected desires, not to take us out of this world, but to free us to finally live in this world. This is the good news that my college students—that all of us— need to hear: In Christ are lives are meant to be lived as a grateful response to the call of a gracious and loving God.  So here’s to Urban Meyer and Augustine as they help us embrace imperfection and vulnerability on the path to a wonderfully, playful, life.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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