Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A place of wild quiet

My latest post on the Common Table Lenten blog can be found here.

I've stolen the picture to the left from Pete B., who joined us briefly in the outdoor chapel where we worshipped after the service at New Hope this Sunday. If memory serves, Erik was talking about how he'd come to clear out this space in the woods and create this beautiful worship area.

I don't talk much about my love of the outdoors... it normally seems like a part of some distant past... and I guess I forget how being out in the uncultivated wild stills my frantic mind the way nothing else ever has. We used to go hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains most weekends when I was young if the weather was nice, and when I went away to college on Lookout Mountain, GA, I used to head out into the woods by myself at least once a week to get away from things and re-gain my peace.

Something about worshipping God among the things He's made is so pure and so unequalled and so cleansing... I miss it, and I feel sorry for folks who never walk around in the woods, feeling their hearts fill up with His praise.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I'm not sure how to write about this, but I'm going to take a stab at it. This might be an uncharacteristically short post. :^)

My family just endured a loss... a loss of life. This is common. It happens every day, and the death of someone close happens to all of us multiple times throughout life... but all that really means is that most of us have this kind of wound. Not that it's not painful and horrible. Not that we should just "get over it". I think most of the people I count as friends would agree with that, and would try their level best to be loving and supportive --as much as they could-- to anyone they knew who had experienced such a loss. I know some incredibly kind and gentle-hearted people. I'm fortunate that way.

But what I'm most struck by now is how aware I suddenly am of the deep need I have of some vehicle for this... some need for a ritual to mourn not only this loss, but all the horrible things that have happened over the course of my short life, all the little deaths, all the breaches of trust. When a person dies, you have a funeral, and even that is not really enough. But what about all the other junk that happens? What about the times you gave everything you had and just got trashed by someone? Or cheated on? Or just forgotten?

We don't have a way to deal with grief corporately, really. I want to blame evangelical feel-good Christianity, or consumer culture, or the internet... but I actually just think it's plain old selfishness. We don't want to be brought down by someone else's pain. We don't know what to say. We don't want to be a burden. This is all perfectly understandable, but we need something. Something to publicly acknowledge that we hoped for better. Something to publicly acknowledge that we are really, really hurt and are probably going to act out of that. Something to remind us of the awful power we have over one another... the power to hurt and to heal. Something to hold us all accountable, to make us stop and think about how fragile we all are, and how delicately we really should treat folks... as much as possible. We need a placemarker that warns us to be gentle with ourselves as we recover, and that reminds others to be gentle, too.

I also think there's some stuff that just never heals. but that's probably a different blog post.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The older women seated at my table DEFINITELY didn't like me.

That was my first, strong impression of the CAC Emerging Church Conference in Albuquerque, NM. It was Friday afternoon, and I had been up since 5:30am ET and in transit since shortly before 7am ET. I had not slept well, and I had a kicking headache, but I gathered up all the energy I had so that I could engage with the folks at my table. There was one couple --Episcopalians who were also lay Benedictines-- who were immediately friendly and welcoming, if somewhat reserved. I sat with my new friends Kate and Kim and their friend Tim on my right. We didn't know each other terribly well, so there was that getting-to-know-you discomfort, but they're all pastors and basically friendly folks. They were also all about my age. Kate's Mom was to my left, and was also friendly, open, warm.

But after that was a row of four women, appearing to be in their 40s and 50s, who greeted every word out of my mouth with something like a barely repressed eye-roll. In every attempt I made to engage with them outside the table, they were curt, somewhat irritable. When I invited one of them to sit next to me in a worship service, she refused. Given how fragile I already felt about this conference, and how open I was trying to be, it was kind of like being socked in the gut every time I tried.

Thankfully, each morning of the conference began with 20 minutes of contemplative prayer... a room full of people seated in total silence, meditating on a word that came to them in response to prayer. As I tried to pick My Special Meditatin' Word on Saturday morning, my mind was quivering from the Claritin and Excedrin Migraine I'd taken to ease the headache, and I was agitated by my thoughts on how to thaw the icy cold coming from this little knot of women. I went through word after word after word in my mind, trying to think of one that felt ok in my gut. If I was going to be focusing on this word for 20 minutes, it would have to be a really good one... otherwise, my thoughts were going to continue churning on this little relational problem I was having. I finally settled on "surrender"... every time I thought of that word, it felt right. Something in me relaxed.

So, on Saturday morning, and on Sunday morning, and again on Sunday afternoon, I meditated for 20 minutes on the word "surrender". And it really, really helped. The women never became friendly... in fact they became less and less friendly as Saturday wore on... but when I felt the anger and embarrassment in my gut as they failed to respond to my attempts to communicate and connect, the word "surrender" came to me without me trying to bring it up. Their issues were their issues. They didn't know me from Adam, and if they were stonewalling me, that had more to do with their discomfort with themselves than with me. I tried to pray for them some, too, for their peace, for the ability to do whatever they needed to do to open up.

As it turned out, those women were the only part of the conference that didn't kinda fill me with crackling electricity or laughter or peace or wonder. I mention them because they, to me, represent all the people I have let get in my way in past church experiences... the ones I felt I desperately needed to like me because they so clearly needed a friend, and because in their stiff silence they seemed to hold some sort of moral and religious superiority... the ones whose rejection of me hurt and hurt deep.

Once I committed to surrender my concern with these women, stuff started happening quick. Laying in the grass outside the conference space after the group table discussions were mercifully disbanded, I ran into Jonathan Brink and Jeromy Johnson, whom I recognized from Facebook. I nearly got whiplash from sitting up so fast, and I think I dropped the phone I was talking into. We sat on the grass in the warm sunlight beneath one of those perfect blue skies that looks like someone painted it, having a free-wheeling conversation about our "heretical" theological beliefs and past church hurts. Something in me started to glow. A friend of theirs came up and joined us, bringing his wife and daughter with him. The conversation broadened into their similar stories. Then Heather --a young woman from Louisiana whom I'd met when I started some earlier conversations-whilst-laying-in-the-grass-- joined us, clutching a large margarita which she promptly spilled on her shoe, and laughed out loud at herself.

This was definitely more like it.

That opened up into some stimulating dinner conversations (at a table composed mostly of men, come to think of it), then to a time of praise and worship, and then out with Kate, Kim and Kate's brother Kevin for a time of drinking and laughing so loud that we all had tears streaming down our cheeks and the bartender avoided us entirely.

Sunday, I walked into the conference and made immediate eye contact with Karen Sloan (a friend whom I love in a kind of gut way because she understands the beauty of a Presby-Catholic faith) introduced me to a woman who is both a PCUSA minister and a Benedictine sister... our conversation gave me chills (the good kind) and I was amazed and humbled at how this Pastor/Sister is clearly, publicly, faithfully living the ecumenism I'm so deeply committed to, but which I very infrequently publicly defend. I was also touched by how well she listened, even as an older woman who could have dismissed me as being excessively passionate, idealistic, etc.... a healing and marked contrast to the older women of the day before.

There was a panel discussion where the presenters responded to questions, and then they opened it up to folks from the audience to talk about how they were practicing emergence in their communities. Everyone that got up appeared above 50. I looked around at the hands that were raised. No young people. Ok, then... I raised my hand and stood up, shaking, imagining a crowd of people eyeing me cynically, thinking me young and silly and pathetic. I gave the story of Common Table and of my own journey, getting a good hearty laugh from the crowd when I introduced myself as a Presby-Catholi-Episcopa-Mennonite... which is, of course, what I am. People seemed to be listening... they laughed when I was trying to be funny and didn't laugh when I wasn't. Several folks came up to me over the next day to tell me they'd really appreciated what I'd said. Overall, I had a sense of acceptance, of healing, and of surrender to the possibility that some in the crowd find my theological mash-up offensive. That's their issue, not mine. I've gotta go with the light I've been given and trust that there's a reason I've been through what I've been through and am the way I am.

The worship service that followed was nothing short of gorgeous. It followed the Catholic liturgy, but it departed from it in all the right ways. The singing from the crowd was big and gorgeous, and the readings and worship and the homily were all so reverent and simple and beautifully done. Communion was laid out on long tables, and folks formed lines on either side and served Communion to one another. It was fantastic.

There's not enough space to tell it all... worship led to lunch with J and J and K and K and K, which led to going to FINALLY see Slumdog Millionaire with J and J (it ABSOLUTELY deserved all the acclaim, and all the Oscars, it received), and then an evening of Extremely Controlled Facilitated dialogue with some conference participants, which led to 20 some of us going to a restaurant across the street and more conversations with more people and more friends...

but the best thing was Monday. Monday at around 11:45am or so, to be exact. We'd been in a session all morning, in small groups having discussions about particular issues that had arisen in the session the night before. The conversation I was in was going really, really well... myself and 4 guys who ranged from a bit older to me to a LOT older than me, mostly Catholics. The Facilitator was revving up for more Extremely Controlled Facilitated dialogue with the bigger group, and I just couldn't take any more of that control. Something was stirring inside of me and inside of our group, and I couldn't handle having that reined in. I went outside and sat in the lobby. I saw a young woman, Bernadette, whom I'd met briefly the day before, come out of the room at almost a run. I called out to her and she said "I can't take it either, let's go outside!!"

We found a small group outside, mostly young folks, with my new friend Heather among them. It was clear that something was going on between Gerald, an older Irish guy, and this younger guy with whom I'd had some good conversations and whose name I'd pay 20 bucks to be able to remember. I'll call him Tim, cuz I think that's close. Anyway, it was intense. The conversation meandered and moved about from person to person but it always came back to Gerald, who had a really strange, metaphorical way of expressing himself. It made you pay attention, and it was clearly irritating Tim, because Gerald was, for all his indirectness, obviously trying to get Tim to realize that he was carrying around a heavy spiritual and emotional burden and he needed to dump it.

I realized suddenly that he was a prophet. Now, I'm kind of a dramatic person, but I don't necessarily call every person with a cool accent and an interesting turn of phrase a prophet... but that certainty came on me like when you're staring at one of those Magic Eye things and you suddenly realize what the picture is supposed to be. So, me being me, I said it out loud. I said that he wasn't going to let up on Tim because he was a prophet and he had a responsibility to that.

I don't know if things shifted in the group then (they did for me, obviously), but 20 minutes later, Bernadette and Tim had both completely broken down, one after the other. The whole group laid hands on them and prayed, just like we all knew exactly what to do, and what to say. Some of us did speak during that time. I did, even though I felt very awkward doing so, but again it was like stuff just was there in my head, clear and plain and straight, and it was there for me to say. When it was all over and B and T had released what they needed to release and we were all done hugging each other, I sat back in my rocking chair, looking up at the sky, shaking. What had just happened?

I found out later that at the same time things broke in our group, they broke inside with the big group as well. A woman got up and walked across the room to a Franciscan and asked his forgiveness for the hatred she'd held toward him in her heart for what he represented. Jonathan told me that after that the room just broke, with people all over going up to each other and asking for forgiveness, men and women alike crying, Catholics and Protestants apologizing for their anger and hatred directed at each other due to denomination, their gender, their age. Inside and outside, God had us where He needed us when the Spirit fell... which it did, minutes before the end of the conference, just in the nick of time.

Inside, I still feel kind of like I did sitting in that rocking chair. I'm still shaken, and I still don't know how to interpret what happened. I also have no idea what's going to happen next, and I don't want to harbor the thought that nothing could happen next. I guess all I can do is pray with all my heart that it doesn't stop here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Making peace with the past?

It's 10:15pm and my alarm is going to go off at 5:30am so that I can make an 8am flight to Dallas and on to Albuquerque. And I'm really scared. I'm going to this conference at the Center for Action and Contemplation which is supposed to facilitate dialogue between Catholics and Emergent Church folks. I originally signed up for this thinking it would be interesting, but now I just can't get myself to settle down. I've been like a cat in a lightning storm all day.

It's not just "interesting" to me. It's me facing stuff that happened 10-12 years ago and really questioning it... trying to sort through the decisions I made at that time and how they changed me, for good and for bad. And there was bad in how that time period changed me. I know that. I hold a core of bitterness inside of me for how I was disappointed by the Catholic Church and by my Catholic ex-fiance and ex-friends. I've prayed about it, begged for that core to melt away, but it's held... for a decade. I have anger at the betrayals of that time that never fades... my own personal, raging Eternal Flame. and I guess I'm desperately hoping this somehow facilitates closure... flips some switch inside that starts the chain reaction that leads to finally, finally forgiving Phil, and all of those pushy, preachy people, so convinced that they alone held The Truth... and, of course, myself.

Because I'm really quite tired of being SUCH an angry person on the inside.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The thin line between us...

Another morning at New Hope, another blog post at the Common Table Lenten blog. In case anyone's wondering, I did get permission from my Dad to share my parents' stories of near-homelessness and financial struggles.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Analyze this!

Ok, so I found about the Gender Analyzer website through Julie Clawson at the Emerging Women blog, and I had to give a few of my fav blogs a whirl to see how folks fared. First off, Gender Analyzer is 65% sure that my blog is written by a woman... in other words, Gender Analyzer is 65% sure that I am a woman. Some days I am far less sure, so that's cool.

It's also 63% sure that the Mike Stavlund (aka The Best Writer I Actually Hang Out With) is a man (correct), 71% sure that P3T3RK3Y5 is a man (correct), and 59% certain that Rabbi Marc Gopin is male (although his blog is "quite gender neutral"). I guess Rabbi Gopin is not obviously "male" because he is a graceful and passionate writer with strong emotions (which he communicates in his writing without shame) and he works tirelessly for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Dunno.

However, it is 53% certain that Mike Croghan is a woman (although his blog is also "quite gender neutral") and 51% certain that Nadia Bolz-Weber is a man.

The greatest certainty that Gender Analyzer had with my little sample was the rock-solid 87% certainty that Peter Rollins is a man. Amen to that.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


During Lent, Common Table is worshipping with New Hope Fellowship, a church in Chantilly, VA that ministers to the homeless in Northern Virginia. We met for the first time today, and it was quite different from what I was expecting. We have a common blog about the experience, and you can read what I just posted about it here.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

At the risk of being obnoxious...

I'm relentlessly promoting my friend Daniel's (aka DiEL) music today... twitter, facebook, blog, Google chat status... any online platform I have is going to him today. You should, immediately (no really, right NOW) go to this link and listen to the first song. Really. If you want to hang out and listen to the other 3 songs, so much the better.

The reason for my sudden relentlessness is that DiEL's new CD is coming out next week (you can find out more about that here) and he's doing CD release parties in several east coast cities. I spent a week with him recently, going to open mics around DC, and it was frustrating... I mean, every SINGLE open mic we went to, people literally had their mouths hanging open watching him play, and folks came up to him after every single performance acting like he was some kind of Guitar God. He's a phenomenally gifted musician and it's maddening to see somebody with that much talent and think of all the other dorks that AREN'T that talented but ARE famous.

So check him out. Please. and if you're so inclined, buy one (or more) of his CDs here. You'll be putting money towards a seriously gifted artist, not towards a corporate machine.

(steps down from soapbox)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Transforming Theology Reponse Part #2 - Wherein I struggle painfully with process theology

Photo: As one of God's simpler creatures, Linden is also deeply suspicious of process theology

Ok, so I finished the book, typed up 10 pages of quotes from the book to harvest from when I wrote about the rest of the book, and then decided to look up "process theology" based on a teeny little aside on page 74 where Dr. Suchocki mentions that she is a process theologian. I swear my intention was only to find out what that was... but reading about it has pretty much derailed me from further commentary on the book for now. Gotta dig into this problem first.

I know everybody and their dog probably already knew what process theology was, but I didn't. Really. Still not sure I do, to be honest, but I'm a lot better informed after a couple of hours of google searching and pawing through my bookshelves trying to figure this out. I realized I'd read about Alfred North Whitehead in one of my undergrad philosophy courses, broke out my beloved (if largely incomprehensible) W.T. Jones A History of Western Philosophy:The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre, and doggedly slogged through the pages on Whitehead. One quote from Whitehead stands out both for its beauty as well as how thoroughly it misunderstands most people's lived experience of religion:

"...religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present fact; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest."

Yeahhhh. Dude... have you ever been inside an actual church??

Ok, I'm being a grouch... it's a lovely passage, if completely detached from reality. But in my defense, I'm reading this book on prayer, and when I get back to actually talking about the book, you'll see that I continue to be wooed by the beauty of the language, particularly the language on repentance, and by Dr. Suchocki's concept of how God is in relationship with us in prayer. I dig these ideas... but they're hanging on a conceptual foundation that I am having real issues with.

I've read/skimmed several articles on process theology (I particularly recommend D.W. Diehl's detailed yet very readable explanation here [mostly because I think it's among the most balanced articles I've grabbed off the net today], as well as John B. Cobb's article here, which is not particularly neutral but does a really good job of explaining the view of God in process theology), but for the purposes of this blog, I'm gonna stick with good ol' Wikipedia to list the main points with which I am struggling. Wikipedia lists some of the main characteristics of process theology as the following:
  • God is not omnipotent in the sense of being coercive. The divine has a power of persuasion rather than coercion. Process theologians interpret the classical doctrine of omnipotence as involving force, and suggest instead a forbearance in divine power. "Persuasion" in the causal sense means that God does not exert unilateral control

  • The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God cannot totally control any series of events or any individual, but God influences the creaturely exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities. To say it another way, God has a will in everything, but not everything that occurs is God's will.

  • God contains the universe but is not identical with it (panentheism, not pantheism or pandeism). Some also call this "theocosmocentrism" to emphasize that God has always been related to some world or another.

  • Because God interacts with the changing universe, God is changeable (that is to say, God is affected by the actions that take place in the universe) over the course of time. However, the abstract elements of God (goodness, wisdom, etc.) remain eternally solid.

  • Dipolar theism, is the idea that God has both a changing aspect (God's existence as a Living God) and an unchanging aspect (God's eternal essence).

So what I'm struggling with is that my received idea of God as unchanging is really, really deep within me and within my understanding of my faith. As I mentioned yesterday, it's always struck me as incredibly awkward that I believe God is immutable and omnipotent but I also pray to Him AND I possess free will and am accountable for my sins. It's one of those tensions I just live with, though... one of those good ol' paradoxes of the Christian faith that you just don't kvetch about too much... the sort of thing that I file under "Mystery" and that keeps my faith faith rather than science or math.

In terms of my lived faith, though, I often do live and act as though God could change at any time, or at the very least as though God is constantly present to me and with me. One tenet of process theology is that our actions affect God... that He actually feels all the events in the world and everything that is done in the world is done to Him, since the world is part of Him. I tend to extrapolate from the verse that mentions the Spirit "interceding with groanings too deep for words" to my lived belief that God does feel what I feel, but through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, who is God's presence living within me.

Some of the articles I read state that process theology is non-Trinitarian... it denies the divinity of Christ, and in some of its expressions chucks out the Holy Spirit, too. How is this Biblical??? I haven't dug into that too much to see which process folks would argue that they DO in fact defend the Trinity, but the thought is greatly disturbing to me.

In trying to sort through my visceral reaction to this, I grabbed the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechism of the Catholic Church off my bookshelf. These two books form the bedrock of my formal theological training (what there is of it), and so my first instinct when I bump up against some theological idea that "just ain't right" is to look it up in these books. I know that these two documents are supposed to be diametrically opposed, but I swear that in my experience they have so very much in common on the basics. When I was in the process of considering Catholicism, one of the real selling points to me was the remarkable amount that Catholicism and the Reformed tradition had in common (admittedly my expectations on this point were low). This is true on the topic of God's immutability. The Westminster Confession of Faith states at the beginning of Chapter II, #1

"There is but one only iving and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable,(emphasis mine) immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free,(emphasis mine) most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will,(emphasis mine) for his own glory."

and in #2

"God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made...(emphasis mine)"

In Part One, Section Two, Chapter One, Article I of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catechism quotes the Fourth Lateran Council:

"We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal, infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, (emphasis mine) incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple."

Ok, maybe this is boring... my point is that this idea of God as changeable may have echoes in how I practice my faith, but it doesn't work for me as a concept. The assumption that God Himself is unchangeable is just too deeply embedded in my ideas of God and how God works in the world. He is however, infinite, and so the things I may see as God's "attributes" are really my attempt to make God seem like me, like something I can understand. The fact that He behaves differently than I expected doesn't mean He changed, it means I was wrong to think I could understand Him as I understand another human being or myself. And I can live with that. I can live with the fact that "He works in mysterious ways" because He is Mystery... far far far greater than my ability to conceive of Him, and yet relating to me intimately second by second through the Holy Spirit.

Phoooo. Is anyone reading this? Am I making any sense?? Anybody wanna tell me that I'm totally wrong about process theology and it's really the Coolest Thing Ever?

I promise I'll get back to the book (hopefully tomorrow night), despite the struggle I'm having with its premise.

A quick commercial break...

and now for some flagrant self-promotion...

I've participated for the second time in the SPARK project, the brainchild of one Amy Souza, a ridiculously well-connected woman whom I met when facilitating the Artist's Way group at Convergence last summer. The basic idea is that Amy has a jillion artist friends, so she matches up her writer friends with her friends who work in the visual arts. The writers provide their visual artist partner with a piece of writing, and the visual artists provide their writer partner with a picture of a piece of art, and both parties create an artistic response to what they've been given.

It sounds cool, but holy moley is it an awesome thing to have someone respond to your work in this way... and to be able to respond to what someone else has created!! The way she's set it up, you're working with someone who does something you either can't do (in my case) or isn't working in your primary mode of creation. So you're all in awe of what they've done, and they are generally also all impressed with you. Then you get to show what they've stirred up in you by creating for them. Gives me chills just thinking about it.

My first participation in the project was so moving that I actually rode the train for an hour to meet Dawn Doran, my visual artist partner, and take her response piece home with me. Dawn's response to the poem I'd written about one of my more memorable heartbreaks brought me to tears, but I'd never met her, and didn't know what to expect. When I got off the train at New Carrollton, I was stuffing down all sorts of anxieties and juggling all kinds of emotions. New Carrollton was the station I used to go to almost every week when I was in probably the worst relationship of my life. There was a lot of old junk kind of spinning around in my head... but when I saw Dawn, all I felt was this sudden total warmth and acceptance. She was a maternal fairy-like creature, dressed all in soft materials the color of new grass, with wild tendrils of golden hair that she'd carelessly put up and that was falling all around her face and neck like vines. In other words, she was gorgeous. She gave me a big, warm hug, and we stared at each other for a minute, each thinking "she doesn't look at all like I thought she would," and then we had our clumsy transaction where I took her beautiful response home in a black trash bag and gave her a pathetic little check and we said goodbye and I really wished we'd planned it totally differently. I really hope that I do get to see her again.

This time, I won't likely meet Michelle Wallace, since she lives in Texas, but her work was gorgeous and moving, and I really feel like my poetry pales in comparison... you can judge for yourself here.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Transforming Theology Reponse Part #1 - In God's Presence, Chapters 1 and 2

I am currently reading In God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki as part of the Transforming Theology Theo-blogger Consortium... basically a bunch of theologians and non-theologians (yours truly being one of the latter) who have volunteered to read and respond to a number of books written by theologians who are currently contributing to the field.

In reading --and in writing about-- this book, I'm reminded of the fantastic Annie Dillard quote from Teaching a Stone to Talk:

"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?... It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." p. 40-41

Suchocki's book is housed in the blandest possible cover... tasteful earth tones, soothing blue and brown fonts and pictures of rocks and blue skies create a sort of bland, burlap-couch-in-a-doctor's-office effect. As a result, it took me two weeks to pick up the book, as I anticipated Great Boredom awaiting me between the overly-soothing covers. Sitting on the shuttle bus at Vienna metro, I finally opened the book and fire shot out. Not literally, of course, but I found myself shaking my head at how these contents had been presented in their bland, earth-toned packaging.

Prayer is a delicate subject. No one really gets it, right? We just do it, never as often as we suspect we should, and never quite "right". We vacillate between feeling we're too formal, or not formal enough. We forget to pray for people we said we'd pray for, and we pray haltingly for our own needs, suspecting perhaps that we really shouldn't spend so much time on them and maybe spend more time praying for the poor. Those of us who pray the most can sometimes feel as though we're banging our heads against the wall, that our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. No matter how much we pray, all of us have our stories of prayers answered, and of prayers seemingly ignored. Our emotions are deeply involved in these answered and unanswered prayers. With so much confusion around how prayer works and whether or not God hears our prayers, anyone who takes on a discussion of the topic must do so with some caution.

Suchocki begins her treatment of the topic with a series of questions around what prayer actually is. At this point in history, we know that our lives are set against the backdrop of millennia of lived human experience. We have an awareness of our planet as one small blue hunk of rock hung in a universe huger than our ability to conceive of it. Christians who locate themselves and/or their traditions within so-called Western Christianity have varying degrees of respect for the prayer of other faiths or of syncretic forms of Christianity, but our knowledge of other cultures and faith systems means that we cannot deny that people of all faiths all over the world pray. How does prayer "work"? Does God really care about us and our small prayers? Does He place some sort of primacy on the prayers of some folks over others?

She then goes on to question our conception of the God to which we pray. Why does God require us to pray? Is this simply the nature of the world, that God, despite being all-powerful, requires our prayers for some satisfaction of the Divine Ego? Is He a benevolent King, who requires the submission and allegiance of His subjects before He can or will grant their requests? What if, instead, God were like water, permeating everything in the world, inhabiting it, changing it slowly through the power of its movement?

Furthermore, how do we know what we know about God? On page 6 she states, "...our contemporary understanding of knowledge takes us away from the simpler world of natural and supernatural knowledge. In doing so, it tends to uproot us from that simpler interpretation of the God to whom we pray. Now we know that what we know is determined as much by our human psychic and sensory structures as it is by what we say we know.”

In the midst of her questions about the nature of prayer, and of God to whom we pray, and even about our own ability to "know" anything in an objective way, she inserts her thesis on page 19, a thesis which appears over and over again throughout the book as a refrain:

"This brings us to the basic supposition of a relational theology of prayer: God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation. To develop this thesis, imagine that God is not totally independent from the world… our texts portray a God deeply involved with the world and its events, with God wooing the world to deeper modes of community and caring, wooing us toward deeper relation with one another and with God’s own self. So imagine, as the Scriptures suggest, that God is not independent of the world, but interdependent with the world…"

I was already feeling stirred and stimulated by the book, humming with the beauty of the language about God as water, and thrilled and surprised by her frank and unapologetic acceptance of the nature of knowledge as being greatly influenced by the knower; however, this is the point where flames leapt out of the book. In one paragraph, she took out God's omnipotence. Bam. Just like that. I closed the book and looked at the world past my cinged eyelashes, waiting for lightning to come out of the sky and strike me just for reading those words.

Of course, she knew that some of her readers --raised with a healthy fear of God and the unwavering commitment to the idea that God is all-powerful (although it really is hard to live with that and the concept that we have free will and are held accountable for our sins)-- were sitting there considering whether or not they should continue to read this book. So she explains herself. All life exerts some element of power, simply by existing. In the same way that we have the ability to either assist a flower in its growing or destroy the flower, God has power over us. But we cannot be the flower, and we cannot grow for the flower, and in the same way, God does not deny us that amount of agency over ourselves. By definition, there can NOT be a God who is the sole possessor of all power, because all life has, and exerts, power simply by living.

She fleshes this out the implications of this further on pages 24-25:

"...God relates not so some ideal world, but to the reality of this world. If such is the case, then God’s touch to the world in every instant is contextualized not only by the divine character, but also by the conditions in the world that affect the way each element in the world can be. The world is always in the middle of its many stories, so that the reality of God’s touch is in fact the conditioned nature of that touch. As the Quakers put it, God meets our condition."

So God is interdependent with the world and restricted to the circumstances within the world. God requires my prayer in order to enter the world to transform the world, but He does this not as the Great King or Magician wielding His magic wand, but within the circumstances that the world presents Him.

As is often the case, I can feel my multiple theological streams pulling at me. The Reformed Presbyterian balks very loudly at chucking out God's omnipotence. So does the Roman Catholic, only not quite as loudly, since her ability to move God through her acts is indicative of some interdependence. The Episcopalian is feeling fairly neutral about the whole thing and the Mennonite isn't sure why this whole argument is a problem, but she doesn't pray all that much so it's kind of a moot point.. The Pentacostal, however, is raising hell about the whole thing... God restricted by the world as it is?? This is the God who works miracles!!! Who raised the dead and healed the sick and fed the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes!!!

I'm really stuck on this. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. We pray because God needs our prayers to work in the world. That's just how He's set it up. I also jive with the idea of a God who is interdependent with the world, who moves through the world like water, rather than the idea of a King. The whole King metaphor just doesn't seem to work when we are speaking of Mystery, of The One Who Dwells in Unapproachable Light, who is beyond definitions.

However, I think my ideas of the way God works are very much tied to my concept of the Trinity. God moving through the world like water is the Holy Spirit. The God to whom I pray is God the Father, who is seated on the throne above, and whom I have access to by the work of Christ on the cross, who has bridged the gap between myself and God the Father. The Holy Spirit translates my awkward prayers for the Father with groanings too deep for words. Dr. Suchocki is appealing to scripture for the picture of a God who is deeply intertwined with the world, but I get my ideas of God as a King to whom petitions must be made from Scripture, too.

So I begin my response to this book with an admission that my wheels are spinning a bit. I'm not sure I totally buy the foundational assertion of this book, and having read a few chapters ahead of this, I know the rest of the book depends on this primary argument. Hopefully we'll have a snow day tomorrow so I can return for Response Part #2 inmediamente.