Archive

musings

The past 12 months or so have seen the most drastic changes in my journey within Christianity, and I find myself engaging with it through two different images. The first way in which I see my relationship with the Christianity of my heritage is me standing along the coast and hurling it at the sea. In a sense, the Christianity I knew and have been shaped by is no longer something tenable in my life. The second image that comes to mind is the dramatic, edge of the cliff rescue scene. Every great action movie has a scene in which the hero is gripping onto the hand of someone dangling off of the edge of a building, a cliff, or something else from which one dangles from in fear. In this scenario, though, I’m not the one pulling anyone or anything up. I dangle. And sometimes the people dangling and holding onto the saving hand decide that it is better for them to let go and yield to the certainty of gravity. In this scenario, I’m not sure whether I get pulled up or let go. Suffice to say, my relationship to the faith that nurtured me is tenuous at best. And for any one reading this who is where I am, or has been there, it can be a weird and uncomfortable, confusing place.

Somewhere in the midst of my seminary education faith became really complicated. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews claims that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is that something by which we participate in the story of God. But this statement from the epistle is an oxymoron. Faith is the assurance? Anything which is assuredly so cannot be faith. By this definition of assurance, I have lost faith. But in its wake I announce hope. I have a hope that aligning myself in the story of Jesus is a life-giving and others-focused way in which I can make sense of life, even change lives, circumstances, moments; a way that challenges and questions the powers, inequality, exclusion, and lives differently. I have a hope that this both reveals God and experiences God.

But all of this crumbles when other people––those whom I claim to live for––need my faith more than I do. When my sister––suffering the side-effects of chemotherapy––asks me for prayer through the painful sores on her tongue, she needs my faith. She needs a faith I’m not sure is in me. When a friend comes face to face with the darkness and comes to me for light, he needs my faith more than I do. When I face that darkness myself…

I’m left to sit in this chair and face the darkness with resilience. I’m left to listen, to grieve, to hurt, to enter into your pain with you, to curse that which steals life from us. And to dance when life comes back, when light comes through. This is how I pray for you. This is what my faith looks like for you.

Though I want to lower you all through the roof and bring you to the feet of Jesus, I don’t have the arms to dig through it.

Advertisements

A little over a year ago ago a buddy of mine told me that I needed to see this documentary called Catfish. I hadn’t heard of it, but he told me it was very awkward and weird it was, so I was completely curious. If you haven’t seen it, here is my Twitter-style synopsis:

Guy meets a cute girl online and the two become friends. Inconsistencies in the girl’s story begin surfacing. Girl is not who guy thinks.

After Catfish was released and gained notoriety, Nev, whom the movie follows, began receiving correspondence from people with Internet friendships that they were becoming suspicious of. Nev began following up with these stories and Catfish the TV show was born. One person shares the details of their mysterious Internet friend with Nev. He then does puts his Internet stalking skills to the test to find out as much as he can about who mysterious internet friend says they are. He contacts them and tries to set up a meeting to bring the two friends together. This roll of the dice is where the magic of the show happens. Who exactly will the person on the other side be?

Like a lot of other Millennials, becoming friends with people over the internet was a significant and important part of my adolescence. I never met these people (except one, actually!), but we developed strong connections through sharing life stories and experiences and beliefs and all of our adolescent, earth-shattering complexities. I never doubted who these people were. They were real. They were who they said they were.

Catfish fascinates me. Sometimes the person on the other side is exactly who the other thinks they catfish_revised_logoare, and their meeting is full of happiness and excitement and joy. Then there are times when the person on the other side is someone completely different than their internet persona. Deception, lies, half-truths, and bewilderment now muddy the connection the two had established through social media, instant messaging, texting, and phone conversations. There was a real person on the other side the entire time, yet there was a different face or body or story or wound that was hidden and is now revealed. The one deceived is put in the position of navigating how to connect to someone they knew but never really knew.

Catfish fascinates me because it narrates my experience of God.

––––––––––––––––––––––––

How do I know that God is the God who I’ve been talking to all along? Why won’t God ever meet me? What does it mean to love and feel connected to this God whom I do not see or touch? Is this even real?

I came to know God through a particular set of stories and epithets and texts that I read, heard, and was fed. I eventually had doubts about who that God was and doubts about who I was. I needed to meet that God and find out who he was. I needed to know whether or not I was really as terrible as I thought, and whether the people who didn’t love God really were terrible. I had questions about the nature of love and about goodness and pain. I had questions about questions. I did meet that God.

She was nothing that I expected and everything I hoped She would be, wanted her so badly to be. And I saw Him in the trees before they became paper and before there were words printed on them that told me who He was.

And He loves. Really loves. Is love. She is that which takes my breath away in the moments when I am so struck by peace, and He is that which fills my lungs up with air when I am dumb. And He invites me to love. She gives me a voice that is her voice. He gives me ears to hear and eyes to see. I’m called into another way. The way of prefigurative grace, where everyone is welcome and everyone is loved, and where power is set aside and I’m just your brother, your servant, never your master.

I met that God and He was not what I expected. But I’m still here. I still want to know Him. I still want to walk in Her light, if ever I can find it and its warmth and share that warmth with others. Will you show it to me and invite me inside it?

As increasing amounts of white male followers of Jesus awaken to the reality of our privilege––and thus power––within both the church and society at large, we are confronted with the questions of how we faithfully dislodge ourselves from power for the sake of others and what it means to live in such a space. This awakening, to the extent that it challenges patriarchal structures and well-established systems of power, will alienate you. That is, when you begin challenging traditionally held beliefs about equality, gender and sexual orientation within an Evangelical realm, you find yourself hard pressed to find a church community that is willing to entertain your questions and walk that journey with you. But I am not the victim. What is solidarity for me is another’s alienation and exclusion for simply being who they are.

Following this path through the Christian narrative has opened my eyes to the ways that fears of the unknown threaten control and power, and instigate a recoil effect that justifies and perpetuates inequality. My experiences within Evangelical circles has revealed an immense fear of being wrong. I admit that I too used to fear being wrong about particular beliefs or nuances in my theology. I thought that to get something wrong would throw my entire faith out of balance. It would pop the chain on my bicycle. It’s my assumption that this fear of getting things wrong dictates how Christians treat women and people who identify as queer with regards to acceptance, value and participation within church communities. It is far easier to operate within the bounds of safety and comfort at the risk of excluding others than it is to risk our power and certitude by and affirming the voices and experiences of those who challenge our beliefs. This fear lures us into believing that God will be displeased with us if we get this part wrong, do this thing incorrectly, or allow this other thing. This fear creates structures in which any deviation is tantamount to capsizing.

Jesus changes the story for me. And for you. I’m constantly disarmed by the Apostle Paul’s words about Jesus in Philippians 2.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death––even death on a cross.

The more I absorb these words into my being, I cannot help but to understand that having the same mind in me that was in Jesus means that I work to recognize my privilege and make attempts to dislodge myself from the ways that it silences others. My whiteness is not something to be exploited. My sex and gender are not things to be exploited. It means that I humble myself to the point of willingness to diminish my power and my voice so that others are lifted up. But this isn’t about straight white men throwing up our hands and saying, “Here! You take the reins!” This is about shared power, which is far more difficult, but far more beautiful. And necessary. Shared power demands that we play well with others. It demands that we not privilege particular voices and experiences over others. It demands that we relinquish our control over how things should be for us to remain comfortable, and instead ask, “What makes you comfortable?” and then honor that. In order to experience shared power there needs to be an environment in which all people are regarded as valuable, important and equal. But furthermore, it requires an environment where we value, trust, and allow ourselves and our theology to be shaped by the varied experiences and stories of others.

Sallie McFague talks about the Christian gospel as a “destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision of fulfillment for all of creation.” That is the gospel of mutuality. Me fulfilling you and you fulfilling me.

I have by no means arrived anywhere beyond the privilege I benefit from as a straight, Christian, white male. I find myself at the intersection of no longer willing to tolerate Christianity’s devaluation of women and persons identifying as queer, and my own complicity in the systems and cycles that perpetuate this inequality in the name of Christianity. I recognize the irony of me arguing for these values out of my privilege and the increased weight that my words hold over the words of another saying the same things. Maybe Christianity can play a role in changing that reality.

Until then, I will do my best to honor you and your stories.

_____________________________________________

READ: Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is

Over the past five years as I have begun critically facing the history, beliefs, traditions, and consequences of my Christian tradition, the convictions I once held regarding many aspects of Christian theology have shifted, melted and evolved, and become something completely different than they had once been.

From my late teenage years into my early twenties, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to consume Christian doctrine in an effort to “get my theology straight.” My Christianity became a bare white wall in an old house, and “getting my theology straight” meant carefully and neatly hanging framed portraits of God, salvation, sin, humanity, Jesus, the atonement, the Spirit, and other smaller pictures surrounding those things. However, I lacked any kind of theological level which I could hold up to my wall and have a little bubble assure me that my theology was indeed “straight.” I was never a fan of systematic theologies and I didn’t quite yet grasp the ways that early creedal statements influenced and shaped Christianity. Before you say, “Well the Bible is your level,” think for a second about how many people come to differing beliefs based upon their readings of the same words. While the Bible certainly is a valuable guide, it is not the final arbiter in how we relate to God or how God reveals Godself to us.

My wife and I recently mounted some artwork on the walls of our apartment and I am keenly familiar with how difficult it is to determine if something is lined up properly and hanging straightly when your face is 10 inches away from it and you’re focusing on keeping your arms steady while pressing the frame to the dry wall. This is where it is helpful to have someone behind you. Thankfully my wife was able to take a few steps back and determine whether each piece was lined up how we wanted and hanging level on the wall. Having someone to stand behind you and measure whether or not your picture is hanging straight and looks good on the wall is really helpful. When it comes to carving out our beliefs and the ways that we attempt to make sense of Christianity, having others standing behind you to shape, critique, and challenge those beliefs is crucial because what we believe about God and the ways in which those beliefs manifest themselves outwardly through our lives are deeply connected.

Where this gets tricky is in determining who we allow to stand behind us and influence us, and also our willingness to be influenced. Our beliefs about almost anything, no matter how personal, never remain personal. They crawl out of the frames we put them in and invade other areas of our lives. They will bring us either to love others and seek their best or lead us to judge others and seek what we think is their best. Jesus calls us to the former. This operates in our relationships with the poor, those who find spiritual truth elsewhere than Christianity, the earth and the natural world, people who identify as queer and hosts of others who are not benefitted by their identity, race, class, or anatomy. Thus, when our theology is not shaped by relationships and by the real lives and experiences of real people standing behind us (or in books, newspapers, on blogs, or wherever we connect with the embodied experience), what one ends up with is . . . a wall that is really pleasing to our eyes, but that’s about it. It satisfies our compulsion to sustain certainty and to have things figured out so that we can produce answers and be comforted by them.

Jesus speaks often about how difficult life will be for people who choose to follow him. This does not simply mean that things will be difficult for us or that people who choose to follow Jesus will be ridiculed our considered irrational and idiotic. It means that attempting to imitate Jesus will threaten our sensibilities, disrupt our comfort levels and challenge us to put others before ourselves in love for our neighbors. That seriously interferes with our egos and our theology is not immune from this.

Here are some conclusions that I have come to: I’m not interested in a nice looking wall, nor is Christianity about having everything in order. In fact, I’m becoming more and more acutely aware that following Jesus makes things really complicated, difficult and disordered. I’m also acutely aware that there are no boundaries between our theological beliefs and our lives. Participating in God through Christianity is participating in an amorphous love that includes and draws all things into itself. That is a really disorienting and upside down way to live.

It’s been a while since I have been concerned about my theology getting ironed out and figuring out exactly what I believe about any particular area of doctrine. I’m more interested in how my search for God pushes me outside of myself and makes me kinder, more gracious, more inclusive, less certain about things I cannot know for sure, more willing to entertain different perspectives, and increasingly able to see God in the places and people I touch every day. I feel like I have had to unlearn more than I have learned; I’ve had to tear out and crumple up pieces of paper to throw them away and start again. What this has left me with is an increased sense of uncertainty, a tangled mess of beliefs, and a deep desire to meet God over again for the first time every day.

Evangelicals, Ecumenism and Truth

How we handle theological and social or political differences within the context of Christian community says a lot about us. Something of a personal conversation that has arisen in my own context is discerning how to navigate convictions versus beliefs, whether the two are even different, and what that means in terms of participating in a community.

A conversation that took place in a class this afternoon addressed the great difficulty that Evangelicals have in maintaining unity in the face of differences of opinion, belief and practice. Denominations splinter and churches believe others are not doing “church” right, not preaching the Gospel, or are unbiblical. Those are strong words. The underlying sentiments in these critiques is a great fear of worshiping incorrectly; false theology leads to false worship. For many Evangelical churches, this same fear is the hindrance to gender equality and women in leadership, welcoming and affirming queer persons, or administering the Eucharist openly.

I think the reason behind all of this fear is that we worship truth (I think worshiping truth is appropriate language, but feel free to push back if you think it’s too strong). We equate truth (and are quite fast to affirm objective Truth) with God and godliness, or holiness. It is only natural, then, that prize correctness and theological rightness over anything else. We equate truth with God and aspire to draw nearer to God through our rightness. This justifies our separation and rejection of people who believe differently than we do. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the quest for truth and correctness is more important than joining in with the greater body of God outside of doctrinal and theological constructs.

That question presents a problem for both progressives and conservatives, though. Most progressive Christians will want to push particular issues forward to wrestle with as a community, those who are more conservative among that community may not be ready, or just unwilling, to have those conversations. This is the difficulty of community, and the presence of so many denominations proves how difficult this tension is. Do progressive Christians compromise by pulling back on particularly pressing issues to preserve unity, or do those who would consider themselves more conservative open themselves to discussion and compromise in order to preserve unity?

Rather than following God via the quest for truth, I think that the story of God invites us to find God in risk. Following God means heading into risk. Love and risk always go hand in hand. Through the incarnation, God risked the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the revelation––the blending of human and divine––in order to achieve greater relationship and intimacy with creation. Risking our propriety on truth opens us up to greater intimacy with God, each other, and the rest of creation.

Lament, Resistance and Prayer

Last week I took on Jesus’ teaching on worry and anxiety in Matthew 6. One of the reasons behind why I think we need to be suspect about this teaching is that it is in tension with the tradition of lament in the First Testament. The psalter contains some phenomenal examples of lament. For reference, look at Psalms 22, 39, 42, 43 and 139 (there are plenty more). The lament psalms create friction with Jesus’ command to not worry or be anxious. Ultimately, the thrust of what Jesus teaches is that God is in control, therefore, one need not be concerned about daily matters and the stuff of life. Sit back. Relax. Take a deep breath. If God clothes the lilies and feeds the ravens, you will be more than taken care of. The problem, though, which I tried to highlight in my post last week, is that there are many many people who are not taken care of. When people are not fed or clothed, or are without a home, do we simply throw up our hands and trust that God is in control while accepting the reality that many will remain hungry and poor? Is that part of God’s plan? We must say no. The lament tradition helps us to relate to God in the face of poverty, hunger, oppression, suffering or darkness. These things are not part of God’s plan. It is not right to claim that the suffering and pain and hurt that mark the human experience is the will of God (or caused by God) and we must resist theological statements that resign to accepting the status quo and the darkness of life as ordained by God, which makes them good, and which insists that God must be praised. Lament calls on God to change the trajectory of history.

The lament tradition insists that:

1. Things are not right in the present arrangement.

2. They need not stay this way but can be changed.

3. The speaker will not accept them in this way, for it is intolerable.

4. It is God’s obligation to change things.[1]

Commenting on Psalm 39, Walter Brueggemann states: 

This Psalm characteristically brings to speech the cry of a troubled earth (v. 12). Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history is not initiated. And then the end is hopelessness. Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance. The new resolve in heaven and the new possibility on earth depend on the initiation of protest. [2]

This changes the face of prayer. How we view God’s interaction and involvement in the world seriously affects the reasons why we pray as well as how we pray.

The following link is to Walter Brueggemann’s article, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” from which the above quotations were taken. Read it. It’s phenomenal.

http://www.friendschurchsw.org/uploads/mod5_brueggemann_on_loss_of_lament.pdf

 __________________________
1. Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament vol. 36 (1986), 62.
2. Ibid., 66.

Toward a theology of freedom

This afternoon I led an hour of a church history and theology class and I directed our attention toward the concept of freedom. Some of the content I’ve generated here on the blog in the past month has come out of my readings and research on this subject. I’ll share a little more of that in this space because I think it is worthwhile. I don’t really have any answers or firm ideas, so this is just me trying to process through these things with the help of some old white dudes. Help me do this.

In my context of white and middle-class America, my understanding of freedom is going to be completely different than that of, say, my Latino neighbors. Freedom is one of the (if not THE) dominant narratives of American culture, but I think the way it’s been appropriated is twisted. Freedom is understood as both freedom from and freedom to. Generally, freedom-talk is dominated by our autonomy and liberty to do whatever we want. What smart-ass kid has not retorted, “It’s a free country!” to another when told, “You can’t do that”? I think Luther is instructive on a fuller understanding of how our freedom is used.

Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us. And this service ought to be done freely, having regard for nothing except the approval of God.”[1]

Drawing his concept of freedom from Philippians 2, this kenotic understanding of freedom challenges our traditional understanding freedom to and directs our freedom toward the love and service of neighbor. For Luther, the purpose of freedom is so that we can invite others into freedom. Jacques Ellul says this along similar lines:

The Gospels clearly show that Christ is the only free man. Free, he chose to keep the law. Free, he chose to live out the will of God. Free, he chose incarnation. Free, he chose to die. Note the emphasis on choice. Choice is the most tangible expression of freedom.[2]

The problem though is becoming free ourselves. Peter C. Hodgson writes in New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation:

Freedom is one of those root words of human experiences––like ‘being,’ ‘truth,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘goodness’––for which a finally and satisfying and universally accepted definition can never be found.[3]

So how is it that I come to define freedom? What does freedom mean for me? How does my freedom differ from my neighbor’s freedom, and how do I invite others into something so nebulous and subjective as a freedom which I may not understand? Our starting point is the neighbor, and learning to understand what freedom is for those around us. Jurgen Moltmann writes:

I become free when I open my life for others and appreciate them in their differentness and am gladly together with them. Human freedom is realized by
means of mutual appreciation and acceptance, that is, in personal communion. Then the other person is no longer a limit to my freedom. The other enlarges my limited life.[4]

Freedom involves both risk and responsibility. Currently, my participation in Christ does not lead me into risk and responsibility. I do not feel as if I am living in freedom. I still feel deeply bound to myself, to possessions, to security and to comfort. Hopefully I find the courage to enter into the risk and responsibility of freedom and the interdependence that comes along with it.

What insights, thoughts or experiences do you have on this journey?

____________________

1. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

2. Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1976, 51.

3. Peter C. Hodgson, New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, 43.

4. Jurgen Moltmann in On Freedom, edited by Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press), 1989, 44.