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.