Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Time

Image from http://factoidz.com/britains-most-prestigious-clocks/


This past Sunday I had the privilege (honestly) of helping my friend Jason Mack out by preaching/speaking to his congregation New Leaf Church in College Park, MD. I was nervous, and 15 minutes late (which was a great sermon illustration, as it turns out), but I really loved worshiping with them. They have a really lovely, chill vibe; surprisingly good music for how small they are; and I was really impressed by how engaged people were during the discussion time. It took me over 3 1/2 hours round trip (God bless Metro), but I really do hope to be able to go back.


Anyway, here is what I said, more or less:


I have an incredibly awkward relationship with time. Sometimes I blame my mother for this. My mother was late to EVERY THING… and not just 5 or 10 minutes late. That, to her, was almost like being early. We’re talking 20-30 minutes, consistently… to work, to church, to pick up my brother and me for school. My father, who otherwise could come across as a relatively care-free person, would buzz around the house while my Mom got ready for some event. He would announce the time loudly at irregular intervals, growing increasingly agitated, until the actual intended time of departure, when he would give up, go outside and sit in the car with the radio on, waiting.


I remember finding this attribute of my mother’s pretty annoying, and priding myself --once I got a car of my own-- on getting to places on time. But when I left home and began to make my way in the world I found myself increasingly reluctant to hurry anywhere. What for? Why should I want to live my life constantly thinking of the next thing I needed to get to, never really *being* anywhere? When I was 20 and had just begun a year of study abroad at Oxford, we took a trip to Greenwich to see The Clock, the one that determines Greenwich Mean Time, the time against which all clocks in the world were supposedly set. I remember being disappointed at the large digital display with red numbers, seconds flicking by rapidly. There was no particular grandeur to this clock (other than it being kinda big-ish), and I pondered a long time on how I’d spent so much of my life chasing this clock… letting the notion of hours and minutes ticking away dictate what I did, when I did it, and how much attention I gave to whomever I was with at the time.


I started to question how my approach to time may have hurt me spiritually. I became interested in the stories of the Desert Fathers of Fourth Century Egypt who went away to caves in the desert and lost track of time as they prayed to and praised God and battled Satan in their solitude. I became enamored of St. Francis, St. Therese of Lisieux and Thomas Merton, who each pulled away from the world, practicing solitude, attempting timelessness. I developed my own practices… long, solitary walks in the woods, 24 hour silent retreats, weekend road trips taken by myself, vacation days taken off from work for the express purpose of doing nothing but praying, reading, eating and sleeping, trying to lose a sense of time as best I could in order to come close to the space of eternity, the space where God was.


But after a time, this became too lonely, and I had a stronger and stronger sense that I was meant to be serving others in the world, so I started teaching ESL and then began working in the field of international education. I worked on a masters degree part time, dated, served actively in church. I wasn’t lonely, but there was now no time for reflection, and my prayer life slowly dwindled away.


In truth, most of us are suffering from a sense that there isn’t enough time and there’s nothing we can do about it. We are admonished by Christian literature to “slow down” and “take time for God”… but if we are in any form of community, or if we need to work in order to eat, most of our time is not our own. It is one thing to go up on the mountain to pray as Christ did, it is another to do so when you have kids, are in grad school, work 40 hours a week, and have a two hour commute every day. Even if your life isn’t that full of obligations, we live within a culture where time is measured in terms of how much information is transmitted per second… where a delay in a page loading on the internet means your losing interest (or your temper) and a business losing money.


Despite my own struggle with this, I still believe in taking time to lose a sense of chronological time, chronos, so that I can enter God-Time: a restfulness of mind where I can hear and sense Him. I just know that it’s a lot harder now. I get up early every morning to write 3 pages in my journal no matter how long it takes, which is an unthinkable luxury for most of my friends with kids, but a far cry from my previous practices. Honestly, though, I'm not satisfied by this, either...


When I go to the scriptures for comfort and guidance on this problem, I find two main themes that work for me: One is the reminder to rest, even within circumstances that seem to make that impossible, and the other is the reminder that I will die. Let’s start with the second theme first, since it’s more disturbing and we should get it out of the way. You may be well familiar with Isaiah 40:6b-8:

"All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.

8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever."


It's well-known that we don't handle the idea of death very well in the U.S. Just today, after church, my friends and I saw a hearse. I found myself catching my breath, as we all do in some way when we have this sort of reminder of death, and as the hearse passed, we saw a pair of feet propped in the back window, between the curtains. It took us a minute to realize that this was someone's personal vehicle, and their idea of a joke. We didn't laugh. We didn't know what to say, either.


I remember hearing that St. Dominic urged his followers to spend some time each day contemplating their death and to visit graveyards whenever they could. I suppose that Dominic was sort of an early Goth. I’m not a fan of that sort of practice necessarily, but there is something to be said for remembering on a regular basis that you and I will, without question, die. Death is the great equalizer. It makes me humble. It reminds me of my need for God, who gave me the gift of my life. I need Him to comfort me in dealing with the mysterious horror of death. It reminds me to slow down. It reminds me to take care of my mortal body. It reminds me to value what blessings there are in my life.


The first theme I mentioned, the slightly less disturbing one, was that of rest within trying circumstances. One passage in this vein that I find particularly comforting is Psalm 37:1-11:

1 [a] Do not fret because of evil men
or be envious of those who do wrong;

2 for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

4 Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and he will do this:

6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.

7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.

9 For evil men will be cut off,
but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.

10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.

11 But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy great peace.


This passage is not explicitly about time, but I sense a rhythm --the counting of time-- in the background, like the rocking of a baby… be still, be still. In the now, we are not to fret, we are to trust. We are to dwell in the land, delight in the LORD, trust in the LORD, rest in the LORD. In the future, just around the corner, the wrongdoer withers and fades, cut off and non-existent, while we, the faithful, delight in God’s blessing.


This resting in the now while looking towards the future is a pattern well known to Christians throughout the centuries, those of us who wait –still—for Christ’s coming… who have asked “how long” savage, cruel injustice has to continue in places like Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and even around the corner from us, behind closed doors. It is well known to those of us who ask “how long” we have to live with the knowledge and experience of the sickness and death that befall everyone… that will befall even our children. The Psalmist says “wait… in just a little while, it will be righted”… and for a moment or two, I believe him. I can wait. I can hold myself still in the silence. I can wait for Him to come to me in prayer. I can be still, and know that He is God.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is it really Constantine's fault?

This review is part of a blog tour for Ken Howard's new book Paradoxy. You can see a full list of bloggers on the blog tour here.

Ken Howard’s new book Paradoxy examines the increasingly polarizing divide within global Christianity between “liberal” and “conservative” approaches to theology. Howard’s personal story is a compelling one: the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father; an Episcopal priest in a time of intense internal struggle within that denomination around issues of sexuality; pastor to the second iteration of a congregation whose first incarnation had been torn apart by theological differences and power struggles. Howard stands on many fault lines, and as such, he seems particularly well-positioned to treat this topic with sensitivity and passion.

Howard’s central premise is that while differences in theological distinctives have always existed within Christianity, the volatility of the current theological debates are less about the substance of those debates and more symptomatic of living in times of rapid and continuous change in which a number of paradigms that have defined Christianity for centuries are changing dramatically.

He begins the book by defining the role of paradigms/worldviews in the lives of individuals and collectives, particularly in the collective of the global church. He then defines the three primary paradigms that he believes are at the root of many of the conflicts as they both inform the Christian worldview and are dismantled by current events. The first of these paradigms that he defines is “Christendom”, to which he dedicates Chapter 2 of his book.

He opens the chapter by both defining Christendom as a specific time in history –the period after which Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire and was himself crowned the Holy Roman Emperor—and the idea of a world that is primarily Christian and ruled by Christian leaders. From these two definitions, he constructs two main points:
- “Constantinianism” –the specific alignment of the church with the state, relying upon stability and uniformity in order to maintain stability—has exerted an influence down the centuries so great that we continue to be defined by this dynamic, dividing the world into “us” and “them” in the same manner that members of one state may view an enemy state
- As Christianity decreases in global membership and influence, those who are threatened by losing their idea of Christendom as a global political and social reality react in various ways that put them into strident tension with one another

Obviously I’m oversimplifying, but these are the basic arguments as I understand them. While I agree wholeheartedly with the dynamics that he describes, I have to disagree with drawing a direct causal connection to the Holy Roman Empire. An example from p. 20:

“The effect of the Christendom paradigm is to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This tendency to demonize and dehumanize those with whom we disagree has contributed to some of the worst excesses of the church over the centuries, by whichever branch held legitimate authority. This US/THEM demonization has continued to the present day, practiced by liberals and conservatives alike.”

There is no question that the alignment of church with state –which Howard rightly notes was happening theologically in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, long before Constantine made it a political reality—forever altered Christianity. It allowed for the spread of Christianity as a matter of conquest and cultural conformity, and this was a dynamic played out again and again, most ignominiously through the Crusades and through global colonization by “Christian” nations through the 17th-19th centuries. There is also no question that the rise of global Islam as well as the massive population and economic booms of “non-Christian” China and India have created panic conditions for many Christians who find the idea of a “non-Christian” world extremely threatening.
However, the “us” v. “them” dynamic is a feature of nearly every large conflict, particularly those between identity groups (and most virulently between those identity groups who are close cousins… think of the former Yugoslavia or of India v. Pakistan). When group identity is threatened by outside forces, failure to conform within the ranks of the identity group becomes a kind of treason, and the “us” v. “them” dynamic often takes on the character of a battle to the death. I won’t go on and on, but suffice to say that this is the most prominent feature of identity based conflicts, and it really has nothing whatsoever to do with Constantine.

I also disagree with hearkening back to the Holy Roman Empire as a defining metaphor for current conflicts within Christianity. I have met one person in my whole life for whom the events surrounding the coronation of Constantine at St. Peter’s Basilica were important in his lived faith: a British graduate student at the University of Oxford who is currently in the process of becoming a monk. Most Christians probably would struggle to tell you who Constantine was. However, an American Christian may well know all the words to the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA”. I *do* agree that the colonial impulse –the belief in Christianity as a civilizing cultural influence and indirectly responsible for the technological and cultural progress of mankind—is a strong metaphorical influence for American Christians, and quite possibly for Christians in other parts of the world.

Despite having a quibble with these things, I am glad that Ken is writing this book at this time, both because it needs to be written and because he is so well positioned to write it from where he stands culturally and personally. His writing style makes reading quite effortless and pleasant, and he has that rare gift of making very complex matters understandable quite quickly. I’m also looking forward to reading further in the book as he develops his other themes and makes recommendations for the way forward in Christianity.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Emergent Village Theological Conversation, November 1-3


You should check this out.

I'm just sayin.

It's a conference.

It's in November, in Atlanta, GA.

It features a female theologian from Botswana,

a Native American theologian (Rosebud Lakota/ Sioux),

and a British guy (yes I appreciate the irony of this)

It'll be cool and it's not that expensive and there will be some really interesting ideas discussed there that are also really important.

And you should be there.

That is all.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fragility

It was a week and a half ago. The second orange line train to the platform at Rosslyn was also completely packed and the number 3 bus was leaving in seven minutes, so I decided to give up and go upstairs to the bus stop. I had my iPod playing tracks from the second disc from Radiohead's "In Rainbows" which a friend had recently given me. My attention was swaddled in the music in a way that comfortably isolated me from the crowded platform. In theory, I try not to do this because it makes me ignore everyone around me and ignoring the rest of humanity is just generally a bad idea. However, on this particular day, I was just as happy not to be aware of the frustrated hoards of people sweating from the near 100 degree heat outside, angry at the trains too packed with other sweaty passengers to carry them home.

When she walked off the train and in front of me, I could smell the strong, coppery odor of sweat coming off of her, and my first thought was that the A/C in that train must have been broken, and that she must have just come from a workout on top of that. I noticed her long, dark hair, stringy with sweat at her neck. It's when I noticed her neck that I noticed her shoulders and thought Oh my God, she's anorexic... and badly so.

She walked towards the escalator I was going to take, which was also broken, so she walked up the motionless steps, and I walked behind her, feeling my stomach tighten at the sight of her tiny, fragile ankles and feet bound up in high heeled shoes. Her legs were skeletal, and I could see every blue vein in her calves as she walked up, up, up the escalator. Crossing the upper platform, she took a quick swig of something from a bottle she was carrying and looked back to her left, showing a profile of high cheekbones and gaunt cheeks; huge, dark, anxious eyes; and a sloping nose with a bit of pixie upturn at the end. She would be pretty if she wasn't starving herself. Then she started up the long, long, long escalator between the upper platform and the street level.

She walked the whole thing. I don't know how. Anyone who walks that particular escalator at Rosslyn is winded at the top, and there was simply no way in hell she had eaten anything of substance in some time. Her ankles shook in the absurd high heels as she climbed up, up, up, not pausing once. I followed behind, probably a little too close. I was horrified, and moved, by the skeletal arms, legs, shoulders and neck, by the way her clothing hung on her as though she were a coat hanger. I had tears in my eyes as I forced myself to keep my eyes down, on the fragile ankles... somewhere between praying for her and wanting to grab her and hug her 'til she was rid of whatever demon had a hold of her. I know I was following too close, maybe just two steps behind her, and I probably made her nervous, but honestly I was doing the best I could not to grab her and ask "Why, why, WHY, are you doing this to yourself?"

As we were walking up the escalators, the song "Last Flowers" was playing on my iPod, and the crescendo of the final chorus was pumping in my ears as we walked up the long escalator to the top...

it's too much, too bright, too powerful
too much, too bright, too powerful
too much, too bright, too powerful
too much, too bright, too powerful

...and I was struck with this repetitive mantra on fragility as I followed behind a living testament to fragility's self-ravaging dark side.

It is a very long walk up that escalator.

At the top, she went one way, and I went the other, towards the bus. I wanted to follow her, but what could I have done other than freaked her out?

And on the bus, I got out a tissue to wipe away the tears, and listed to the song again, and tried to understand why I was so upset.

I think part of it was mixed up with the story I've been following about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman in Iran who has received international attention due to the efforts of her children to draw attention to her situation. Sakineh is facing stoning for the "crime" of adultery, a crime she and her children say she didn't even commit, and for which she has already received 99 lashes with a whip. My thoughts over and over again as I've read about this woman --and again read articles about women in South and Southeast Asia who have had acid thrown in their faces by vengeful suitors, husbands, and exes, horribly and permanently disfiguring them-- is how unbelievably fortunate I am to not ever have to face anything like this... and how my freedom does obligate me to speak out for those women who are *not* free around the world.

I know that my freedom is not solely a function of my living in the U.S. There are plenty of women here trapped in relationships and situations that limit them severely. But I thank God from the bottom of my heart and soul that I have yet to hear of a stoning for adultery or an acid attack in this country. God forbid it happen here. God help it not to happen anywhere.

In this context, a self-abuse like anorexia seems to be a moral outrage. Really? In the most prosperous country on earth? In one of the most prosperous areas of that country? When you have freedom and access to privileges beyond the dreams of women in most countries? No one forcing you to get married or bear children before you're ready. No one denying you access to education, to jobs, to health care simply because you're a woman. What in the hell could be so wrong with you that you would starve yourself to death in the midst of such freedoms?

I *don't* understand anorexia, and I don't want to. I understand anxiety, but self-starvation and overexercise? No. But the thing that struck me is that my emotions towards that girl were not contemptuous. I felt horror, and then I felt grief. In a situation like Sakineh's, I can point at the offenders. I can identify the injustice. There is little that I can do to help, maybe, but I can at least identify what is wrong. With this girl, my helplessness was bottomless. Not only could I not help, I could not identify the offender, the perpetrator of this wrong... unless I point at Satan, and pray. That's all I can do.

And although I don't understand anorexia, I understand that this girl and I both suffer, despite being affluent and privileged. And that is a source of such confusion for me. I understand that this world is fallen, but why am I not generally happy anyway? I have Christ. I have love. I have a job and am educated. I have a really wonderful church and amazing, inspiring friends. But until a couple of months ago, I couldn't walk up that escalator at Rosslyn because to even think of it would send me into a panic attack. My mind *also* tends towards self-obsession, towards anxiety, down labyrinthine pathways of anger, selfishness, greed and judgement. All of us fight these things, really.

Oh God, we are SO frail and weak and stumbling. Even the strong among us are blindly, blithely hurting others. Oh God, we are so in need of Your Grace. This world is so broken... there is beauty, but the injustices in cases like Sakineh's and the needless misery in cases like this girl's cry out for You to intervene. We cannot save this world ourselves. Please help us, LORD. We are so fragile. Please help us, guide us, comfort us and set us free.

Come, LORD Jesus.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Expectations and Definitions

So life continues to roll along and I continue to have a little more to do than I can actually reasonably keep up with. This is actually a good and pleasing state of affairs, just mildly frustrating from time to time when I find I've failed to measure up to someone else's expectations... particularly if those expectations were never articulated to me. And I think that's what I want to talk about: expectations and definitions.

The first article I had to read as part of my Master's program in Conflict Analysis and Resolution was an excerpt of a book by Ted Gurr called Why Men Rebel. The article introduced me to the idea of relative deprivation, and more specifically of aspirational deprivation. Relative deprivation occurs when you perceive a discrepancy between where you're at (your "value capabilities") and where you feel you should be (your "value expectations"). Aspirational deprivation occurs when your value expectations rise and your value capabilities don't.

The excerpt went into a lot more detail, but I remember being really struck by these concepts. I got the idea of relative deprivation right away: I lived it every day. Aspirational deprivation made total sense, as well... an almost inevitable by-product of a consumer society, and on a personal level, a by-product of being surrounded by people who really did seem to have things a lot easier than I did, at least financially.

Over time, I came to see relative deprivation as being broadly applicable to pretty much any interpersonal situation involving anger. There was almost always a way that I could frame what had happened between two people in conflict as being essentially about one or both persons failing to behave according to the expectations of the other. These expectations were almost always unstated, often because one or both parties assumed that these expectations should be obvious to any sane person. I could even often track myself doing this, although being aware of it really didn't change my behavior when I was really pissed off. Even when I knew I was being unreasonable and unfair, I could feel that there was absolutely no budge within myself on certain expectations. The other person should simply accept that *my* way was the *right* way.

In truth, I don't think it's reasonable or healthy to always question one's sense of right and wrong in situations like these. We have to have core beliefs, cognitive anchors that root us and shape our sense of the world around us. Right or wrong, I don't think we can function cognitively over the long term without *some* instinctual beliefs that we don't --and won't-- question. This applies to our expectations of the behavior of others. If we believe that it is inappropriate to punch a random person standing at the bus stop in the face, then an unstated assumption that this behavior is wrong --and outrage when witnessing (or experiencing) such behavior-- is completely appropriate and healthy. If we had to go around questioning assumptions as basic as these on a daily basis... well, we probably just wouldn't go outside for fear of what others might do.

But I think we do often go too far... and that many of our most virulent fights over theology are because we lack a sense of perspective and humility about our expectations of the beliefs and behavior of others. Right now, after a long hiatus, I feel like I'm witnessing a return to some conflicts around doctrine that are violating one of my core assumptions. I thought that I'd moved into circles with Christians who understood that *all* theology --liberal, conservative, postmodern, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, emergent-- is basically like using a pickaxe to carve a 6 inch ivory statue. Our theological words, concepts, and spiritual and liturgical practices are the tools we have at our disposal to approach God, but they're clumsy, blunt, and poorly suited to the task. We are limited by being on this side of the veil, and we only really get to Him at all because the "Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (Romans 8:26 NASB)

I thought that the theological/church world I was in now was a world where no one would take aim at another's beliefs, or their lack of faith. At our best, we are all struggling with the weight of our humanity. At our best, we are all struggling to push past the internal chatter of our day-to-day existence and to the quiet place where God can speak to our heart. And at our best, we are still often failing to get to Him, failing to pray, failing to trust.

Why don't we extend the same grace to one another that we extend to ourselves? None of us truly understand how faith works. We are all doing the best we can to follow in Christ's way and to live out the Will of God. Why don't we listen to one another with patience, and throw away the expectation that we will agree on matters of theology? Why don't we pray together, and throw away the expectation that we will pray in ways that make each other feel comfortable and safe?

I'm not suggesting that there is no truth, but I don't expect we'll all see or talk about this truth the same way. I believe there is a God. I believe that Christ is the Son of God and that when He died on the cross He bridged the gap between God and man. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world and that He inhabits people and situations in ways I don't really understand. I content myself --sort of-- with T.S. Eliot's section of The Wasteland where he describes the Road to Emmaus:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you?

This is generally how I see God --the Holy Spirit-- working in my life and in the lives of others... out of the corner of my eye. But that's enough. I know He's there and working.

I do expect that it won't be enough for others. I know darn well that when I state my beliefs like I do here that they sound ridiculously over-simplistic to some people or barely Christian to others. But I try not to take that personally. I am doing my best and you are doing your best to describe the Indescribable. I don't hold the expectation that my language or doctrine will be the same as anyone else's, and I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find people who *do* appreciate the way I talk about God.

I don't understand why it should be any other way.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Demolition

The day after I learned of my cousin's suicide, I took this picture of the demolition site for what was previously First Baptist Church of Clarendon. This was maybe two days since I'd been forcibly yanked out of my usual morning numbness by the powerful smell coming from the demolition site: the smell of old church buildings... a combination of water-damaged wood, old paper, candle smoke and prayer.

As it happened, that was also the last morning my cousin saw on this earth.

The sense of smell can be so incredibly powerful, and that scent literally stopped me on my way to the train station. I felt momentarily possessed: my immediate visual image was that I'd just inhaled Spirit with that scent, as the prayers and tears and memories of all who had worshipped in that space were released when the bricks and mortar and wood and drywall were ripped apart by the demolitioner's wrecking ball. Did the demolition crew feel it? Could they hear the voices of the choirs that had sung and the cries of the babies that had been baptized and the laughter of the couples who were wed? Could they hear the tears of the bereaved at the funerals? Could they sense that empty feeling in the guts of those who could not believe, but who attended week after week, pretending that they did?

Because I could. All of that pushed right over me like one of those waves that smacks you in the back when you are turned away, looking for a loved one who was sitting on the sand a minute ago, straining your eyes in another direction and expecting calm seas behind you...

Which, incidentally, is what the news of my cousin's suicide was like... but the difference is that the scent of all those church memories was like a playful wave that just comes up to your shoulders and the water is warm and feels soft on your skin and it picks you up and carries you very gently for a few inches and then sets you down again...

but hearing that Nat took his life? That was like one of those waves that breaks and smashes into the back of your head with an audible *slap*, cold and cruel and uncaring, momentarily filling your eyes and nose so that you can't breathe and you can't see, and you're suddenly aware that the sea is full of dead things and your mind is full of drowning.

I did stop breathing for a few seconds when I read my Mother's text, telling me what had happened, asking me to pray for my Aunt and Uncle. I remembered Nat's dark eyes from when we were kids, and the baby face he never outgrew. I remembered how he used to be calm and a bit gentle with his brother's wild kids. I remember that I never felt like I knew him, but I wished that I did. I haven't seen him in years, and I won't see him again. Not here, on this earth, in a way I can understand.

He was only 30.

Why?

The thing about this, Nat, is that now your Mom will suffer for the rest of her life in a way she has never suffered before. I imagine you thought you'd somehow alleviate her suffering by exiting the stage, but you don't get to do that, hon.

Nobody can erase themselves from their Mother's memory.

Nobody.

And the truth is, nobody can simply vanish and leave the world untouched. No matter how insignificant you feel, somebody remembers you, and so you altered that person's life, even if just for a second. And everyone has a spirit, so even if your spirit is weak and conflicted, you still had a place here. You still had the possibility of becoming whole, of helping others, of playing your part, of finding some measure of peace...

...like the prayers, weddings, baptisms, and funerals that have taken place at Clarendon Baptist. I don't know any of those worshipper's names. But I remember them... everytime I pass that crumbling ruin where their Church used to be. I know they were there. I can *feel* that they were there.


I don't know why you did it, Nat.


I wish I'd known you better, but there's nothing to be done about that now.

All I can do is pray:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
dona nobis pacem.
Agnusi Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
dona eis requiem.

Rest in peace, Nat. I'm so sorry that I didn't know you were hurting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

God's Crazy Love

Image:Ken Tennyson (edited in IrfanView)

Love makes you do crazy things. You spend money --LOTS of money-- buying bus and train tickets to see your beloved in another city. Then you spend more money --again, quite a lot of it-- to switch those tickets by 2 hours here and 4 hours there, forsaking sleep --which you love dearly, by the way-- just to spend a few more precious moments with your beloved.

Yes, I'm talking about myself. Anyway...

Love makes you do crazy things. You give up all of your freedom to a tiny, feral human being who is totally dependent on you and not the slightest bit grateful for what you've given up on their behalf. In fact, they don't even recognize that you're a separate person for months and months after their birth. Unavoidably parasitic, they take away time, money, and sleep. They strain your relationship with your spouse, and your relationship with yourself as you adjust to the reality of being simply a giant milk dispenser... bather and cleaner of poop for this tiny being, who may or may not grow up to blame all of their personal failings on you.

Love makes us do crazy things. We stay up late, listening to the same friend tell the same tale of woe, crying again and again over this pattern in their life, yet continuing to blithely ignore our reasoned, caring advice about how to avoid repeating their mistakes. We let them ruin evenings and days, and yet we are still there for them, willing and ready to listen, to comfort... again.

Love IS crazy. Clinically so. The chemical cocktail that is released in our brains when we fall in love is roughly equal to a cocaine high. Similar chemical processes occur in the sexual act, in breast feeding, and, of course, in that mother lode of chemical roller coaster rides, pregnancy, where women are subjected to the humiliation of having their normal emotional responses to life events distorted as the whole world becomes a funhouse mirror.

God is love.
God is love.
God is love.

Is God crazy?

I know that question doesn't make literal sense, but there is no denying that Christians worship a God who is crazy in love... in love to the point that He subjected Himself to the constraints of a body, with all of the chemical/biological wackiness that this entails. God went through puberty. God cried. God stubbed His toe and was made fun of and was hungry and thirsty and really tired sometimes.

And why? Because He had to get as close as He could to us in order to save us. And He did. He wanted to do that, to get as close as skin, as flesh, to His Beloved Ones, to show them how to live and how to love one another. And then He let us murder Him.

That, folks, is CRAZY. It makes no sense. Why didn't He just start over? Send another flood? Ctrl+alt+delete? Why go to such lengths to save us ungrateful sods?

I don't know, but I'm SO grateful.

There are a lot of explanations for why we baptize. I grew up in a tradition that said baptism was a sign of the Covenant between God and man that superceded the rite of circumcision. And, while no one's feelings should be hurt by no longer needing to circumcise your male children to show one's commitment to God, I believe this explanation takes away from the fact that baptism is, at its source, an act of gratitude.

We are saying, in effect, that we accept Your love... Your crazy, unconditional, no-holds-barred love that led You to take on flesh and die. We accept the gift of community that You directed us to, that You modeled in Your life on earth. We accept all of this, and we commit our children to this protecting, immense, boundless, crazy love, too. We pour water on them... water which cleanses, water which gives life, water which leaves no pore or crack untouched, but settles in and surrounds whatever it touches... because water symbolizes those aspects of Your love.

We also commit to try to be Your kind of crazy to our children... to love them as well and as totally as we can, given the limits our human capacity to love.

Love made, and makes, God do crazy things. Praise God from whom this love, and our baptism, and ALL our blessings flow.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A theology of humility

This is my contribution to the "What Is Emerging?" synchroblog facilitated by Julie Clawson.

I don't consider myself a theologian, but I've always liked hanging around them. Growing up, whenever my parents would take my brother and I to church parties, I would inevitably end up hanging around the room where the adult men would be talking theology. I absolutely loved reading and books and language, and listening to the language and ideas of these men was endlessly fascinating to me... as was the fact that I was the only kid, and the only girl, that wanted to stay in the room. With the guiltless narcissism of a small child, I figured that this made me a little better and a little smarter than the other kids, and possibly than the women, too.

Somewhere along the way, though, I began to realize that understanding and being interested in theology was not only *not* something that made a person popular with other kids, but that there was something about the exercise of doing theology in this way that wasn't right. This became a big struggle for me internally in my teens as I navigated through family troubles and clinical depression. This talk of God that was so fascinating to me didn't really seem related to the God that I cried out to in the depths of the depression and confusion of adolescence. *That* God saw me in my darkness, and that God comforted me. That God seemed particularly close when I was particularly fragmented, confused, and especially when I just gave up and admitted that I was pretty much permanently broken and sinful and that this wasn't going to change.

On the other hand, the God of the Room Where the Men Sat was an extremely tidy God of Perfectly Logical Answers. He was an Ordering God, who put things in their right place and made sure the lines stayed straight and everything was at the correct angle. He was the sort of God that didn't allow dust to settle on the bookshelves and who straightened pictures on walls.

I lived like this for a while, with two completely different Gods, not wanting to reject either. I couldn't reject the first God... He'd literally kept me from killing myself... but I couldn't reject the second God, either, because my entire theological (and quite a lot of my epistemological) framework was built upon the premise of this God. It was not a happy place to be. I'd have times of spiritual ecstasy in prayer, followed by days of feeling rejected by God due to my inability to live up to His demands. Part of the emotions behind this were due to my age and to the ups and downs of depression, but the philosophical problem was real. I had two differing concepts of God, and those two concepts functionally cancelled each other out.

It wasn't until I began to worship in the Catholic church (following several months of being in an especially dark place over this problem) that I was made to focus on the Crucifixion, and there the problem asserted itself with a particular clarity. If the humiliation of the Crucifixion is our central metaphor --God's extreme humility in taking on flesh and in dying a gruesome death among criminals-- then why the hell were so many people I knew so proud and arrogant in their theology? If the paradox of Crucifixion is our central metaphor --the paradox of God doing the exact opposite of what had been prophesied and not only *not* winning a military victory for the Jewish people over the Romans, but preaching a message of turning the other cheek and rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's-- then why would ANYONE expect theology to be neat, tidy, and linear?

It wasn't long before I found the same logic at work within Catholicism, though, and again in other churches. Again and again and again, I found the same effort at theologies that Explained It All, and that gave a map for how to live. I could understand this as a basic human need... we can't handle complete chaos... we need cognitive structures for how to interpret reality and we need maps for how to make decisions. But I couldn't understand how anyone could believe that this was actual, absolute truth. At the best, systematic theology seemed to be a really good, responsible guess... a running jump at the highest monkey bar possible... brushing it with fingertips and missing it still, but not through lack of effort.

And then I found the Emergent church... by which I mean I found people who willingly admitted that their theologies were only attempts to live with and in the mystery of faith, but NOT The Truth. That doesn't mean giving up theological effort, and it DEFINITELY doesn't mean giving up faith. It means submitting oneself to the paradox and humility of the Cross... internalizing this and living it out. We CAN'T *know* God in the sense that we know our names, our families and that the sky is blue. To talk of God and of Christ and of salvation and heaven and hell with that kind of certainty is to make tiny ideological idols. It is to worship our theology instead of the Mystery that moves through us and brings the Miraculous into our tiny, broken lives. I believe in prayer and I talk to God in my plain and sometimes not very pretty language and I believe He hears me. I have no idea how that works. And it is enough.

To me, the Emergent conversation is all about the "it is enough". It's about stopping the habit of expecting God to do what we think He should do, and instead watching for what He is doing and praying that He moves us where He wants us to be. It is about creating spaces for discussion where everybody brings their experience of God, and absolutely refusing to put ourselves in the place of judge of that person's experience. It is about creating communities of faith that have a sense of humility (and hopefully a sense of humor) about their purpose and about their ways of doing things. It is about profound, profound gratitude for a God who trumps all of our assumptions about Him, and who simply is the I AM... greater than any definition or explanation we may have for Him or His work in the world.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The value of mourning

This year, my church decided to celebrate Easter by running away to the woods in West Virginia together, and while in the woods, reflecting on the death of our dreams. The question we put to ourselves and to one another was "what do you do when your dreams die? How do you bring resurrection into that?"

On Friday night, the Best Writer That I Personally Know led us through the Stations of the Cross, and then sent us outside into the dark, dark, way-up-in-the-mountains-and-nobody-around dark night to take a walk in the woods and reflect on the dreams we've had that have died. After what seemed like a really long time, he called us back in to the cabin and we spent some minutes in silence, writing down these dreams on squares of rough-grained paper that we laid in a box and covered with a black cloth... buried. Our task on Saturday was to spend some time reflecting on these dead dreams, and then on Saturday night, we sat shiva for these dreams, all of us in one room, letting the conversation go wherever it wanted to go.

It wasn't a totally mournful weekend, of course. We have about as many kids as adults in our church, the weather was gorgeous, and we were in a mountain paradise. We went on hikes and splashed in streams. I had an absolute blast playing with all the little kids and carrying various babies and toddlers around on my shoulders. I also had a blast kicking a soccer ball around and singing with Darryl, a mentally challenged fellow who started showing up at our church a few months ago. As it happens, Darryl not only can kick the crap out of a soccer ball, but he throws a football like a quarterback (right AND left handed), and he and I sang such a rousing duet of "That's Amore" that we scared off several of the older kids. It was a really great weekend.

But we mourned, too. I mourned. On Friday night, laying on the grass beneath a jillion stars that you can't see in the city, I mourned... even when I saw a falling star. On Saturday afternoon, walking away from the hiking group along a ridge top, I mourned. Late on Saturday afternoon, sitting alone beside a stream with my feet in the water, I mourned. I cried, and I wrote, and I remembered, and I let it all hurt me... and I didn't try to make any of it funny or turn it into some sort of Divine object lesson... not to anyone else, and not, most importantly, to myself.

I grieved. I grieved what I've lost. And it. felt. AWESOME.

It is so hard to be real so much of the time. There is so much to be done, and we want people to trust us. Nobody wants to be the Depressing One. Everyone (well almost everyone) wants to be liked. I, in particular, don't want to be seen as a burden on anyone, and I desperately want to move past the things in my life that have wounded me.

But the truth is that no one really is the same after bad things happen, and that grief really works itself out over your whole lifetime. Years and years and years after you thought you were well past something, grief will pop up at a random time... in some restaurant somewhere or getting a haircut or sitting at your desk, someone will say something or laugh in a certain way or you'll smell someone's perfume and all of the sudden you feel a stab in your gut and you're right back there in the middle of what you've lost, suddenly feeling totally exposed, shaken and alone.

I've ignored these things when they happen. I've ignored my own grief countless times, pushed it aside, swallowed it down, squished it, buried it, shouted over top of it... because I thought that's what I was supposed to do... because I wanted people to trust me, I wanted to be strong, and I was afraid that people wouldn't believe in me if I seemed sad. Honestly, I am both strong and trustworthy, but that doesn't mean I'm not also a bit busted up, a bit scarred. So spending time this weekend grieving, crying, telling God I didn't know how to not see Him as terribly cruel sometimes felt WONDERFUL. It felt like telling the truth. It felt like forgiving myself.

I think that if you fail to mourn, then Christ's suffering, death and resurrection lose most of their meaning. If you don't mourn, how do you understand the depth of Christ's sadness? If you don't mourn, how do you understand what a great gift God's grace is, and what a release there is in the hope that Christ's resurrection gives? If you don't mourn, what was there for you to be saved from? Why bother with faith, if there aren't real, substantive challenges to faith?

I'm not saying anyone should fake depression or turn small disappointments into grand tragedies... but to fail to mourn our losses is to miss the power of Grace, and to do so because we think God doesn't want us to mourn is to worship a sadist. To mourn, in a sense, is to confess our need for Christ. In that sense, it is prayer, and it can be praise, in the end.

The takeaway for me is that mourning corporately is a powerful thing. Being able to sit together in shared sadness is a truly great intimacy. It's been a while since I've experienced anything quite like that, and this couple of days have given me far more peace than the traditional Easter service ever does. I'm truly grateful.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Thy Kingdom Connected

So, this post is a much belated review of Dwight Friesen's Thy Kingdom Connected.

But first, a story.

I found out about the earthquake in Haiti via Facebook. Within a very few hours after the quake hit, my Facebook home page was filled with news accounts of the severity of the quake, and pretty soon thereafter, my Twitter feed was full, as well. Folks started re-tweeting other folks who were actually on the ground in Haiti, and I started following @lightxxx, @shaunking, and @firesideint on the off chance that maybe I could do something to help them. Then, a friend in Texas posted a story on Facebook about Crisis Camp, a loose network of IT folks who had banded together to do whatever they could to help Haiti, including working on online maps and setting up communications networks. I reposted the story. Then a few days later someone from my church posted to our church listserv about a Crisis Camp gathering in DC. I reposted that on Facebook, and a couple of my former students challenged me –again, on Facebook—to go to this Crisis Camp gathering myself. I considered myself appropriately chastened and went.


During the introductory session, a fellow from World Bank stood up and talked about a project they were doing to map the locations of schools that had been destroyed. This reminded me of a string of tweets from @firesideint (Luke Renner), where he had been collecting coordinates of destroyed schools. I had been watching YouTube videos that he’d uploaded of destroyed schools not 2-3 days before this. So I emailed the Crisis Camp listserv after the event, and was very quickly directed to two other listservs, where I also posted. A man in France volunteered to post Luke’s coordinates to the OpenStreetMaps, so I Direct Messaged (DMed) Luke, told him about this, and he got back to me with a file which the French guy uploaded. In the flurry of emails that went back and forth, the head of the World Bank project called me on the phone and we talked about Luke’s information.


Here’s my point with this story: the use of social media –particularly Twitter—in generating solutions for Haiti has been *unbelievable*. From Shaun King mobilizing the collection and shipping of hundreds of tents to Haiti to Luke Renner’s current push on Twitter to bring in shipping containers as a more permanent housing solution to tents, Twitter has been used to mobilize people and resources –and to connect people WITHIN Haiti—more than I think anyone would have ever predicted. My own experience as a very, very small connector within this much larger process was almost entirely due to communications over the internet. My access through online media to folks in NGOs and even the World Bank in this situation busted apart both my notions of the power of the ordinary person and the limitations of technology within a third world context. For a little while, anyway, the world really *did* seem flat.


Now, a word from Dwight Friesen:


“And what we’re discovering and beginning to understand more fully today than at any other time in recorded history is that who you are, how you live, and what you do impacts every other living being and living system on the earth.” Thy Kingdom Connected P. 66


In Thy Kingdom Connected, Friesen explores in some depth the interrelated phenomena of the boom in social networking and the way that social organization and relationships are changing. His assertion is that the profoundly interconnected nature and flat organizational structure of the internet and social networking is changing the very nature of social interaction, and therefore should translate to a change in how churches structure themselves and in how they approach leadership.


In my experience and in reading I’ve done, most folks who have grown up “churched” have grown up with a model where there are clear lines of authority and clear boundaries around group identity. My parents were basically hippies with an attachment to Reformed theology (yes, those two things *can* go together) who helped found a church with a bunch of their high school friends, but even they had a model of church with a clear (male) leader, a Presbyterian form of government, and adherence to creeds. Without some form of ecclesial structure, and without adherence to creeds/statements of faith/theological systems, how could you have church?


But what *is* a church, really? Is it the system of government, creeds and confessions that define a church? Does that model of church make any sense at all to folks who are in constant contact with people all over the world via social networking, exchanging ideas and being influenced *perpetually* by those whose ideas, background, and social standing may be very different from their own? Is it possible that, for someone steeped in the culture of social networking, a “church” in the conventional model may seem a social contrivance at best and outright hostility to culture at worst?


“What might it look like for your faith community to begin thinking of itself as a resource center whose primary goal is to develop relationships with those people you’re connected with? What might it look like to reorient your energies around connecting them with the very best resources at your disposal in order to help them thrive in their area(s) of passion?” p. 101


In other words, what if your church were more like Facebook?

And have you considered that you might be having *church* on Facebook already?


We’re all familiar with folks lamenting how social networking is addictive; how it distances us from one another, shortens our attention spans and makes us terminally shallow. I know that there’s a part of me that feels like a big ol’ loser every time I lose hours to Facebook… or even worse, to Facebook-Twitter-Gmail-Facebook-Yahoo Mail-Facebook-Twitter-Facebook. Self-deprecation aside, though, most of the folks I’m in regular contact with online are Christians, and we are often talking theology, directly and indirectly. I’m praying for folks in my Twitter stream almost every day, and when I recently had an urgent prayer request, where did I go? Twitter. And folks prayed. Immediately.


While I wouldn’t want my entire interaction with Christians to be online, I am changed by the amount of time I relate to people online, as is practically everyone I know. We have different ideas than we would have otherwise. We see possibilities where we wouldn’t have seen them before, and we have resources that we never would have had without our online contacts. If the rest of our lives consist of this rapid-fire connecting and networking with others, it would a) be artificial to ask folks to act like this isn’t changing how they relate to people socially and b) foolish for the church to not use the networks and resources opened up by social media to their benefit.


Friesen proposes a model for church organization, based on network theory, that he calls “Christ-clusters”: “a relational grouping of people who are responsible for discrete, Holy Spirit-guided and cluster-determined cellular functions,” “a dynamic, communal expression of God’s good news that finds tangible expression in service, justice, and love” (p. 121), where “God is the center and participating shaper of these social constructs.” (p. 124) The focus in these “clusters” is on more flat, consensus-based leadership structures that spend considerable time in the discernment of God’s Will for this body and less time ensuring adherence to the implementation of the “vision” of church leaders and/or the maintenance of existing liturgical practices.


He’s not suggesting utter chaos, though. On the contrary, he asserts that “the church is people, but it is our shared language, practices, and narratives that actually knit the people together” (p. 151) and that “wise pastors and ministry leaders will help form a close, differentiated community that is unique from other communities (lest it cease to be a community at all).” (p. 152) The key is not that there be *no* doctrine or practice… you really do lose church when you don’t even know what you believe… but that there be more openness to God’s will for the group, to connections that exist outside the group, and to dissension within the group. Friesen sees the effective church leader as fostering a balance between chaos and stasis… in other words, the ideal conditions for the growth of any organism.


A possible criticism of this book is that it will seem dated quickly. Social networking can seem like a fad, and anyone takes a risk when they try to describe history while sitting in the middle of it. That being said, Friesen’s book is a challenge to the church to do a better job of just that… discerning the times and not making the mistake of assuming that God *isn’t* behind current trends or can’t be glorified through them. It may be time for church leaders to stop trying to design “programs” to “attract the younger generation” or to dismiss phenomena such as the emergent church as a fad that is waning. There is a true sea change afoot in the way social systems organize, and it is high time to seriously consider the implications of this for ecclesial structures.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Solo

So the past couple of weeks have been far and away the loneliest time for me in recent memory. Three months of waiting at home for a security clearance... times not one, but TWO back to back blizzards that have covered the DC area with 3 feet of snow... times February, which contains Valentine's Day, that irritating annual reminder to (most of) us that our love lives are woefully inadequate... at least by whatever internal standard we're torturing ourselves with (Hallmark, Hollywood, your college roommate's marriage, your ex's new romance, etc.).

Of course, loneliness is a matter of perception, right? It's not like I never see anyone, and my virtual life has been hopping... meetings on Toxbox, conference calls, plenty of friends on Facebook and Twitter, plenty of plans for the rest of the year. I'm not ACTUALLY alone --not by a long shot-- but when I *feel* alone, it doesn't really matter.

I have entertained the thought that for someone of my age and health, living where I do, to be truly lonely involves some level of narcissism. You basically have to ignore your friends and the people around you every day, ignore the impact they're having in your life, ignore their care and their generosity towards you... ignore the smiles of every stranger, downplay the importance of every casual and not-so-casual conversation. In other words, you have to be a bit of a navel-gazing jacka**. No offense to any such folks who may be reading this post, but I'm willing to admit it about myself.

So. Tonight I more or less ran out of my house, headed to a church function, desperate to be around PEOPLE, and was foiled by a broken-down train on the orange line (God bless Metro... this snow is too much for any of the DC infrastructure, so I'm not surprised they're having trouble). So I bought a 12 pack of toilet paper at CVS and strode somewhat dejectedly home past couples and groups going out and about, tired of their own cabin fever... the lonely thirty-something female, single, pathetic, and indirectly declaring to all of Clarendon that she was regular enough to require 12 rolls of toilet paper. I suppose I should count my blessings in that regard.

The walk to the metro is a mixed bag right now... as with every snowfall, I'm truly grateful for everyone who has shoveled their sidewalks, but the usual suspects have not, so there are quite a few portions where pedestrians have to walk on the road, mere feet from the cars, most of which slow down but not all of which do. It's not fun, and definitely not fun in the dark. At the end of the walk, I decided to take my chances on the sidewalk rather than clamber back out into the road right at a busy intersection, and found that the last block or so hadn't been shoveled at ALL. The picture at the top of this post is after I'd made it through that last block, hoisting my precious 12 pack, stepping carefully into deep boot prints left in the 3 feet of snow by who knows how many people before me, the "walk" sign glowing beside that path, mildly ironic but also optimistic, in a way.

That's when it hit me. None of us is EVER alone. We have all of history behind us. We have our own families (whether or not we wish to carry on their legacy is irrelevant), we have the people who live around us, we have stories transmitted by an abundance of media sources. Community carries us along with it, even if we live alone, even if we ignore it as a gift and consider it an annoyance. Even if we lacked these obvious physical manifestations of community, there are precious few places on earth that have not been touched by humans, and none that lack the Hand of God. Everywhere, all the time, there is some Presence other than us.

I'm walking, living, breathing, existing, in the wake of the history that has come before me. Maybe that's not rocket science, but tonight I found it comforting... a reminder that my isolation --whether a mental state or a true relational one-- is as temporary a state as there is. I'm walking in the big, deep boot steps of those who have gone before me, and in the awareness of the Presence of God. I'll be ok.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Belief

It's been weeks since I've posted, mostly because I've been under multiple deadlines for multiple things I've committed to so I always feel a touch guilty when I think about writing a post to my own blog. However, I'm also honestly getting sick of being victim to the Tyranny of the Urgent, so here I am again. Nice to be back.

So a friend posted a prophecy to my Facebook wall yesterday. Not something that happens everyday. My friend (who has been my friend for 15+ years, and is a very humble and Godly woman not necessarily prone to prophesying on Facebook) told me that God had laid me on her heart, and that she needed to tell me, basically, to batten down the hatches, cling to God, and be very sure what I'm about doctrinally. Obviously, I'm paraphrasing, but her message was clear: storm's a brewin' on the spiritual front, Moff. Get ready.

I love guidance from the Divine. I believe in continuing prophecy and revelation and I get very excited about it when I hear of prophets whose messages come true. I also pay very close attention because I'm not someone who knows a heck of a lot of people who say "the LORD told me to tell you X" (I'm glad for that, by the way. There really shouldn't be all that many people saying such things, IMHO, at least as I understand scripture's take on the matter... and the experience of people close to me).

I don't like warnings, though, for the obvious mundane reasons. The specific words she closed her prophecy with were "something is stirring..." which is awesome because it means God is on the move, but is also scary because for every move of God there is an equal and opposite move of That Which Opposes God... at least in the spiritual world as I was raised to see it.

So I prayed a lot of "ehhh so what do You want me to do, exactly?" prayers yesterday and wandered around doing this and that errand and task feeling fairly detached and like it was all a bit pointless when what I really wanted to do was go plunk myself down in a Blessed Sacrament chapel and pray like Hannah on the temple steps. I don't mean that I wanted to appear drunk, although getting drunk may have helped... but that I didn't feel prepared for someone to Drop Prophecy on me, and I felt like I could use a mental break from everything I have going. Inmediamente.

What I came up with, in lieu of a full mental break, was a small challenge to myself to try to explain my spiritual journey in a way that gives God His full due for what has been good about that and also acknowledges where I've f**ked up. I dunno that it all will, or should, go up on this blog, but I think that this might serve the purpose of clarifying what God has taught me to believe and to clear up what I definitely don't believe and why. Of course, it's not the first time I've done something like this. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called "This I Believe" (in response to my friend Andres' challenge that I write an essay for the NPR series of that name) where I wrote about the deep importance of forgiveness. A year later, I wrote a post called "A Chastened Epistemology" that consisted almost entirely of a post written by Liz Dyer summing up the value of humility in knowledge and how the emergent conversation has really exemplified that value for her.

So I guess I'll start with my Label. I tell people that I'm a Presby-Cathlo-Episcopa-Mennonite and sometimes they giggle. Sometimes they look bored... oh look, another Overly-Educated-Young-White-Woman-Who-Thinks-She's-Clever-YAWN. Of course, no one really takes me seriously when I say that. I'm not stating it in a serious manner... but I am actually being serious. What I'm trying to express is that *I* see a unity in those things and in the spiritual path God has led me on even if *YOU* don't. The events and decisions that were behind each switch of denomination are complex and largely mundane --it's not like I saw a vision telling me to leave the PCA and become Roman Catholic-- but they weren't wholly pragmatic and earthy, either. God has been behind my weird patchwork quilt of experiences.

Looking back over it, I used to tell people I kept looking for Jesus and kept finding people with a bunch of rules they used to beat each other. That sounds lofty and like I Alone Sought Christ, which is not what I intended to say. Truth is, I was a nerdy, lonely kid who prayed and read the Bible a lot, and I was looking for adults like me who were coming out of that sort of early desert-y experience of imperfectly (and somewhat narcissistic-ly) knowing and loving God as Father. Showing up on Sunday, dutifully sitting through a service and then talking about football and work afterwards just seemed utterly beside the point and a waste of time.

I should mention that as I've gotten older and remained Perpetually Single, I've come to see the value of social institutions like "church" for providing a network of friends and resources for folk. I continue to believe that this expression of "church" does not equal "Church" because it relies on a set of social norms and visible leader/archetypes to persist, and doesn't necessarily require spirituality as a discipline from most of the participants. In other words, it's like virtually any other social grouping, very useful and perhaps necessary for the maintenance of social order and the happiness of many individuals, but it's not necessarily the Body of Christ.

That was one layer that led me to ping around from place to place. Another layer was the very certain interior knowledge that I needed mentors in humility... and that frankly, I didn't trust any leader who I didn't believe in my gut had been really humbled by God. I've had various church-y leaders (almost all male) question my salvation and give me the stink-eye for years over things I've believed and blathered on about, and I know that underneath their criticism is the rock-solid conviction that I have a Problem With Authority. My conscience is clear on this point. What I have a problem with is idolatry. I will not submit to the authority of some guy in the pulpit simply because he is some guy in a pulpit (SGIAP). If Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us, then dagnabit, I'm listening to the Holy Spirit as well as I'm able. To listen to SGIAP as my stand-in for my own relationship with God and thereby fail to listen to the Spirit's witness is idolatry. I have enough problems with placing stuff and people in the way of my relationship with God, dude. Not even tempted to place you in that position.

But I'm drawn to humble leaders. The Best Writer I Personally Know won't like me saying this (and I've probably said it before on this very blog), but I stayed at Common Table initially because I believed in him (and in his wife, whom I don't talk about a lot but whom I internally refer to as The Warrior) because he kept refusing to be The Leader, and because he had suffered intensely in his personal life. That's a guy I'll follow, a guy who has learned through suffering, and who doesn't parade about all martyr-like but who tells you straight up that suffering SUCKS. Because it does, and because he's not trying to impress anyone with how virtuous (or frighteningly detached) he is.

I don't mean to be mean. I know a lot of people who follow Guys Who Freak Me Out with their, errrr, "leaderliness"? That's not the right word (it's not even a word), but I guess you know what I mean. Leaders who seem very comfortable and confident in the pulpit, who bound forth from personal affliction with a Battle Cry for the Cross. It may just be a matter of personal preference that I'm more drawn to the image of Martin Luther trembling, terrified to offer the Eucharist because of his realization of what it actually MEANT to be touching the Body of Christ, than I am of the image of him nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door. It may be an unimportant detail that I find the trend towards Hyper-Masculine Shock Pastors preaching against "wimpiness" to be nothing short of blasphemy, trampling on the reality of Christ's humbling Himself on the cross, beaten beyond recognition and bleeding to death.

Clearly, I don't think it is unimportant, and I refuse to get behind ecclesiastical structures that support the Ascendancy of the Naturally Dominant. I think the tendency to follow the "alpha male", the Guy Who's Got It All Figured Out, is basic to human nature, and it's gross. It's also the opposite of the Gospel. The Jews fully expected a leader who would lead them to military victory, not die on a cross. This is not an original thought nor is it rocket science, but I want a humble leader because I want a Christ-like leader... because I honestly don't need anyone else to teach me how to Think I'm the Shit. I'm human, so I've pretty much got that one down.

Anyway, so there's installment #1 of What I Believe 2010. I'll keep thinking and praying on this... because the storm's a brewin' and I guess I need to get ready.

Friday, January 1, 2010

do not go gentle...

I've had a couple of months of what I've been calling "blog exhaustion". Tired of sitting in front of a computer all day, yet required to do so by virtue of the work that I'm doing (both paid and volunteer), I simply couldn't be bothered to follow up on the network of blogs I normally read up on something like a monthly basis.
Image from Dead Air Space
I regret that now. On December 18, Thom Yorke did a day of posts on Dead Air Space (Radiohead's official blog) from the United Nations Global Climate Change Summit, where he'd gone with a good friend of his who used to head up an NGO called Friends of the Earth. He walked around throughout the day, and posted about the mood of the crowds, the rumors that were floating around about what was happening, and eventually about the pathetic bulls**t agreement that was the result of all that talking. He then did another post on December 24 that consists largely of the words of Ben Stewart from Greenpeace, but also some of his own reflection, which is actually about as positive as you could hope given what transpired at the Summit.

I know an awful lot of people who think that Global Climate Change is fiction, that the science behind it is rigged, and that all this talk about it is a waste of time and money. Every single one of those people is an American. I cannot think of one SINGLE person from another nation (and I know quite a few folks from all over the world due to the work I used to do) who has ever expressed the sentiment that they believe climate change to be anything other than fact. I know that the issue is complicated, and I'm sure there are some that do dispute it, but when you read about how the representatives of many of the Latin American countries walked out of the climate talks due in part to their perception of the incalcitrance of the U.S., it does give a bit of perspective.

I remember the weirdness of living in the UK and having the sense that the news had been flipped. By that I mean that the perspective given in the U.S. media bears almost no resemblance to European media... or even to Latin American and South Asian media that I've read online since the time I lived in the UK. I'm not saying that there's no bias in media outside the U.S., but I was struck by how very, very much about what goes on in the world doesn't hit major U.S. media but does hit media throughout the world. It is as though we are in a room that has been soundproofed. The only sounds we hear are ones from inside the room, and even they are significantly muffled by the layers and layers of padding that line the walls.

Thom Yorke is the kind of guy who will rip the padding off the walls. He also might express a desire to stuff it down your throat, but prophetic types are often a bit rough around the edges. I wish I'd been reading what he was saying during Copenhagen while he was saying it, because his words have the ring of truth about them. He wrote about what he thought and saw, without being restricted by political concerns because he honestly doesn't seem to give a crap what politicians think of him. I respect his utter intolerance for BS deeply, despite the fact that I understand it must cost him somewhat.

The title of this post is from "Do not go gentle into that good night", a villanelle written by Dylan Thomas and one of my favorite poems from high school. It's addressed to his dying father, but right now I'm thinking of it as being addressed to those who even now believe they are looking into the future and seeing the extinction of humanity due to pollution of the atmosphere through carbon emissions (I'm talking about activists, by the way, NOT about heads of state who use the climate change discussion as a way to rail against the U.S. while deflecting attention from their gross human rights abuses). Whether they are 100% right in their predictions is, to me, completely insignificant. They're defending good stewardship of the earth, and that is a Godly goal. Those who are their biggest opponents are those who will lose a great deal of money if environmentalists have their way. It just doesn't seem like rocket science to me which side is the better when one group is defending right stewardship of the earth and the other is defending their profit margins.

So. Here's Dylan Thomas' poem, dedicated to Thom Yorke and to the many, many people who are fighting for the care of God's earth. They are, whether they are intending to or not, obeying God's first command to Adam. I pray that they continue to rage against the dying of the light.

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."