Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Real Talk" with God

For my own personal spiritual growth, I picked up Walter Brueggemann's Praying the Psalms.  It's a fairly short book that talks about ways that we can approach the psalms as lenses which focus our language when we pray.

I found this book to be extremely powerful when I start thinking about how I've approached the psalms in the past, and how we can begin to use the psalms as our own prayers and then allow our prayers to be transformed by the beauty and the power found in the raw language of these texts.

One of Brueggemann's points that I found to be helpful when talking about the psalms is that we should not shy away from the raw and powerful language found in the psalms.  He raises, and I agree, that our culture has gotten focused on political correctness and precise language.  This "correct" way of speaking has robbed our language of it's power to name, shape, and transform our emotions.  We get so hung up on what we are about to say and we want to make sure that it conveys the exact feeling we are trying to get across, that we forget that emotions (and the language associated with them) are messy.  Our emotions are not easily labeled or put away into precise, tidy holes.  No, emotional language is precise, perhaps only because of its imprecision.

So too, the psalms are not neat, tidy poems.  Instead they are often full of raw, concrete images that we feel a need to shy away from because, "You can't say that!"  Instead, we can use this emotionally charged and raw language to give voice to the cries that are on the tip of our tongues.  We can give our thoughts and feelings a name, and in giving them a name, we are able to start turning them over to the One who can bear the weight of our emotional burdens.

This might not seem like new information to some, and might be incredibly liberating for others - to hear again that even within our scriptures there are such songs, such poems, of raw power that allow us to name an experience that transcends our individual experience, while making each line, each feeling deeply powerful and personal - that is truly good news!

I think it also opens up to us new avenues of approaching the music that we listen to today.  There are some songs that touch us in such a way, that even though we do not fully understand why we love them, we continue to listen to them over and over again.  Their words become a part of our emotional vocabulary, even though the lyrics are not about us or our lives.

For example, Mat Kearney's "Nothing Left to Lose."

This is one of my favorite songs by Mat, and I love the imagery that he employs throughout the song.  Even though I've not shared many of the experiences that his images draw upon, such as I'm a kid from Oregon, I still connect with the sentiments behind the song.  It gives me a language to help me connect some emotional experiences with music and language and provides an outlet for someone who doesn't "really do feelings."

These kinds of connections are why I think "mix tapes" (even though they are cds or playlists now) make for excellent gifts, because the music provides language for thoughts and feelings that are deeper than words.

Now, some might shy away from this example, because they are "pop songs" not scripture, but I think there's a great deal of grace and gospel found in Macklemore's popular "Same Love."

These songs remind me of the psalms, because they contain images that evoke emotional responses, which in turn evoke prayerful sighs too deep for words.

The psalms provide us with beautiful (although sometimes terrible) images that allow us to allow our emotional imagination to find voice.  That voice can then be turned to God, who is able to hear our cries, to hear our screams, to hear our voices raised in praise.  And in turning over our cries, our screams, our praises to God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by God in those moments.

We turn over the pain, the fear, the rage, the joy, the beauty, and the terror over to the one who encompasses all of those feelings, who bears the weight of our burdens and shares in our delights. In handing over these things to God, we acknowledge that we are not alone in our joys and in our griefs.  The entire people of God - Jews and Christians alike - have common experiences that transcends our Western ideas of individualism.

Moreover, I think that idea that we have common experiences transcending our individual identities is why popular music gets to be popular.  We like the idea that around the country there are hundreds of thousands of people listening to the same song or, at the very least, are familiar with it.  We like belonging to something larger than ourselves - we have a desire to live in a community.  At our heart, we are social creatures.

The psalms give us something that brings us closer together than Billboard's Hot 100.  They allow us to throw our emotions in with those of people who have come before us, not just our parents and grandparents, but for thousands of years.  We can celebrate with those who have been returned from exile, we grieve with those who have lost everything, we rage with those who long for vengeance, and we repent with those who have fallen from grace.  We invoke the language of the whole people of God and are transformed by that experience.

This is why we need to remember the psalms, not just in our liturgical settings, but in our daily prayer lives.   We need to let the psalms stand for what they are, not what we want them to be.  We need to allow the psalms to be transformative and emotional.  We need to say them, trusting that the emotional responses they awaken within us will prayed by the Paraclete, the Intercessor when "sighs are too deep for words."  We need to allow our language in prayer to be transformed by the language of the psalms and find freedom in the richness of the images there.

Monday, September 23, 2013

'67 Impala

This sermon was delivered on September 22, 2013 for the people of Nativity Lutheran Church. It is from the Genesis 27-28 text about Jacob and Esau - I encourage you to read over those two chapters before listening/reading the sermon.

There was a man whose name was Isaac.  Isaac's one great passion was his 1967 Chevy Impala.  This black beauty was the fourth love of Isaac's life, after his wife Becky, and his two sons Esau, and Jake.  And there were certainly times when the car was in first or second place, even before his family.  Isaac had saved and saved for almost ten years to buy this car, and he was finally able to sign the deed when his two sons were born.  Now, even though Esau and Jake were twins, they were as different as the black paint and the chrome finish of Isaac's Impala.  
Esau, who went by E, was down to earth, not terribly bright, but could fix anything when he put his mind to it.  E just had an intuitive feel for how machines worked, and so naturally E and Isaac were extremely close.  They spent hours and hours working on the Impala, making adjustments, keeping her running - they lived to hear the purr of her engine.  
Jake was the complete opposite.  He was definitely his mother's favorite, because he was extremely bright, had a passion for puzzles and games, and could work magic with his pen and pencil in school.  Becky knew that Jake was going to do great things, if only he could afford college - see, with Isaac pouring all of their spare money into keeping up his Impala, college was not on the horizon for either of his sons.  This wasn't a problem for E, because he was going to follow into his father's footsteps and work at the garage, but Becky wanted more than that for Jake.  
Now, as Jake and E were about to graduate from high school, Isaac had a stroke.  It caused him to go blind, and left him mostly paralyzed.  E immediately dropped out of high school to take charge of the shop - the position he was groomed for since he was six years old.  But Becky knew that Jake was never going to be able to work there, and she worked to find a way to get Jake the money for college.  
After his stroke, Isaac's health kept getting worse and worse.  He knew that he didn't have a whole lot of time left, so he went to his wife Becky and said, "Becky, I know that I'm not going to live much longer.  I want to write up a Will so that the boys know what's theirs after I'm gone."  And when he said that to her, Becky saw her chance to give Jake a shot at a future.  Becky and Isaac sat down and started to write up a Will, Isaac spoke and Becky wrote it down.  Things went well enough until they got to the Impala. Becky knew that Isaac's pride and joy was worth thousands of dollars - certainly enough to get Jake through college.  She saw her opportunity and she took it.  Instead of writing down E's name, she put in Jake's - knowing Isaac wouldn't be able to notice that she had written the wrong name down.  After they had finished, she and Isaac got his will notarized - Becky's plan hadn't been noticed.
Not long after Isaac's will was signed and sealed, he died.  Becky knew that E was not going to be happy that Jake got the car, so she snatched the car keys and gave them to Jake saying, "Take this, I made sure you got the Impala after your father died.  Take it and sell it so that you can go to college and have a better life than your father and I did."  Jake was understandable confused, but realized that E would be furious when he found out that Jake had gotten the Impala.  He hopped in the car and drove off, as far away as he could go - leaving all of his other possessions behind.  All Jake knew was that he was going anywhere-but-here, thoughts of college were gone he was so afraid of his life.
After a few days though, Jake realized what his mother meant.  He realized that he could sell his father's Impala, and pay for college.  He realized that he could sell this artifact of his father's time, and make his own legacy for himself.  He realized that if he was going to do this, he better do it quickly.  So Jake started to drive to a used car lot, but something happened to him when he was on the road.  He suddenly got a whiff of his father's cologne, Old Spice, wafting up from within the leather seats.  He was transported back to his childhood, about when he was six or seven and his father took the whole family on long drives on Sunday afternoons.  He saw his father, his mother, and his brother all sitting together in the car as the radio played something by Kansas, he thought it was "Dust in the Wind," and Jake realized something else.  He realized that if he sold this car, he wasn't just selling an artifact from his father's time, but was selling the love and devotion that his father had put in, not just to this well worn Impala, but also his family.  The last thing Jake heard before his flashback faded was his father saying, "I love you, I will take care of you, cause you are my family."  Jake snapped back to the steering wheel, and he thought to himself, "I can't sell this car.  I can find another way to pay for college and make my own way that still honors everything my father has done for me."
Now I know all the older siblings in the room are going to be with me, when I say, "This story really ticks me off!"  Both of these stories, the one we heard in Genesis and the one I just told.  I sit there and go, "that's not fair!"  I instinctively take up the roll of Esau and say I'm the good son.  I'm the one who did everything my father asked of me, and what do I get?  I get the short end of the stick...again.  It seems to be the curse of the oldest, our parents try so hard to not make any mistakes, to make sure we turn out perfectly.  They try to shelter us as a way of showing us that they love us.  And they do a good job.  We turn out ok, we think that's the best way of parenting, because they are our parents and they love us.  At least until kid number 2 comes along.  And then they're the baby, they get the special treatment, or worse, they get a little more freedom than we got when we were their age.
The biggest thing I remember about this was the first time my brother got to see a PG-13 movie.  I couldn't tell you what the movie even was, but I remember being sooo mad.  See, I had only been 13 for a few months, and it was a big deal for me that I got to see this movie.  And along comes my 8 year old brother to the movies with us.  I thought, "This isn't fair.  I had to wait and wait.  Why doesn't he have to wait?"  And of course, the answer was, "Well this movie isn't as bad as we thought it was going to be."  Like that made sense to my 13 year old mind.
Now, I know that's not as big of a deal as the birthright, or inheriting a '67 Impala from your dad, but it's just another instance where the bigger brother gets the short end of the stick.  And you know what really rubs me about Jacob and Esau?  Its that God still goes to the younger brother, the cheater, and promises to make a great nation out of him.
I think, really God?  Really?  You're going to pick him?  He failed the test.  He cheated his brother, he lied to his father, and then he ran away because his actions had consequences.  You're going to pick him?  Look at Esau, he's the mighty hunter, he's the strong man, he's the one who's faithful to his family.  All he did was what his father told him to do.  Why couldn't you have gone to him after all this and said, "Don't worry that your brother took everything, I'm going to give it back to you a hundred times over."  That'd be a much better story, right older siblings out there?
And then after I've cooled down a little bit after this story.  I start thinking about why it makes me so angry.  And it's not just because my brother got, at least from my perspective, "special treatment."  No, I think what makes me the maddest about this text is what it says about me and my relationship with God that I get mad about Jacob's special visitation by God.
I want God to have the back of the older brother.  I want God to smite Jacob for lying to his father.  I want God to uplift Esau and give him the blessing anyways.  I want God to play by the rules.  I don't want God to go to Jacob.  So what does God do?  He goes to Jacob.
How often does this happen to us, though?  We see people lie, steal, and cheat to the top.  And we want them to get their just deserts.  We want to see them fail.  We want to see them fall.  We want God to lift us up.  We want God to give us what we think we deserve.  We don't want to see God offer those who have wronged us forgiveness.  So what does God do when the Word becomes flesh?  He goes to those whom we do not want him to go.
Jesus goes to the tax collectors, the embezzlers, and tells them of God's forgiveness and God's presence and God's grace.  Not exactly the smiting we think they deserve.  God does the same for the beggars, the lepers, the prostitutes, those who are "outside" of God's promises and reminds them that even in their sin, God is there, forever and ever.  
And even this makes us mad.  We want justice.  We want those who break the law to be punished by the law.  We want embezzlers, prostitutes, thieves, murderers to go to jail.  We don't want to forgive them.  And so what does God ask of us?  To grant God's justice, rooted in mercy.  To forgive. To reform the social order that turns people into embezzlers, prostitutes, thieves, murderers.  To help those who struggle with addictions, to show people a better way.  To stop the vicious cycle that they are in, to show them that God loves them even in the midst of their sin.  To remind them that God's Word became flesh to bridge the gap between God's kingdom and our fallen world.  To let them know that no matter their crime, no matter their sin, the cross changes everything.  

And God comes to us, and he shows us time and time again that we shouldn't be mad when God goes to the liar, the cheater, or the thief.  God goes to them, not because he loves us any less, but because God desires us to love them as much as God loves them.  God reminds us that our call to love neighbor extends to those who have wronged us.  And God reminds us that if Jesus can forgive those who killed him while he was on the cross, we can offer forgiveness to our younger siblings that have wronged us in some way.  God reminds us that we are all his family, that we have all done things to upset God.  God reminds us that even in those sins, those mistakes, the offenses, God's going to come to us too.  We are reminded that this is God's good news above everything else.  Amen.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Icons or Idols?

This is part three of my discussion on Peter Rollins How (Not) to Speak of God.  Click here for parts one and two.

A/theology, this tension between what we know about God and that we can't possibly know objectively anything about God, provides us some great opportunities as participants in the emerging conversation.  We must embrace this opportunity to recognize that our old models for evangelism are wrong and, perhaps more importantly, use this a/theology as a worship aid that creates space for God to work in our lives as the Holy Spirit wants, not as we want.

First, our old models for evangelism.  

As more and more people "freak out" by the lack of people in the pews, there is increasing talk of what it means to be a "missional" leader: to create spaces, worship services, etc. that invite the "no religious preferences" to come to our church or, perhaps more accurately, so that they offer their money to our projects.  And this tends towards a heaven/hell scare tactic, especially around more evangelical traditions or a "rational discourse" on God, especially with the more mainline Protestant traditions.  Rollins points out that these two options tend to "create thousands of converts with no heart." (38)  

Rather, we should be inviting people to encounter God in their own way. Like the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies invite us to taste and see that they are delicious, so too should our methods of "evangelism" invite those to whom we are speaking to taste and see that The Lord is good.  

We are past an age where we can and should tell people what to believe anymore.  We have hundreds of thousands of people who claim to be Christian that don't really understand what that means outside of going to church on Sunday morning.  So why should they continue to go to church when they could be part of a club or team that is a more meaningful aspect their identity?  Christianity is, at its worst, a "feel good religion" that doesn't offer meaningfulness in our world.  The language we (as Christians) have been speaking is stale and archaic at times, and only by speaking the language of the culture can we truly show just how counter-cultural the Gospel really is.

The benefit of a/theology in the midst of this conversation is that we are reminded again and again that we do not need to keep speaking an archaic language to convey the good news of God's work in the world.  The parable of the dishonest steward doesn't mean anything for your congregation?  Translate it into the language that your people would understand.  Use a farmer or a CPA instead.  A/theology invites us to subjectively come to experience God in our lives, instead of just the lives of those who lived 50 years, 500 years, or 2000 years ago.  Again, subjectively here doesn't mean relativism, but intimacy.  God is a subject that we desire to experience again and again as we grow and learn, not an immutable object that becomes idolatrous.  

Second, a/theology creates worshipful space within ourselves.

When we recognize that God is not just who we say He (or She) is, but rather the great "I AM WHO I AM" itself a name that challenges our need to put labels on everything. We can stop demanding that God work in one particular way in one particular place.  God cannot be limited to working through the pulpit in a twenty minute didactic sermon.  God cannot be limited to Eucharist or Baptism (although as a good Lutheran, I fully expect God to show up there).  Instead we must open ourselves up to the "extraordinary means of grace."  

These are the means where the Reformers realized that God was at work, but not in the traditional ways we expect.  This is when God shows up because two or three are gathered, and the Spirit shows up to stir a love of God and neighbor in someone who was neither "religious nor spiritual."  This is when God reveals Godself in people like Mahatma Gandhi who, although not a Christian by any standard definition, embodied the radical nonviolence of Jesus in way not seen since. 

We can use a/theology as an icon, a worship aid, because God reveals God in the midst of a/theistic tension.  This only works if we recognize the difference between an icon and an idol.

An icon is a prayerful tool that provides a glimpse of God and God's work.  It's an invitation to see how God's work may take different forms throughout the ages, but the work is still God's.  It's a stained glass window into the divine which allows us to see God's light, without going blind.  

Photo Credit: Tim Crummitt

An idol, is when this beautiful image that we use to help us glimpse God become as God in our minds.  It's almost too easy for this to happen to us.  C.S. Lewis talks about how a man looks at a particular corner every night as he prays and he eventually starts to see that corner as where God dwells instead of as a tool to help him focus his thoughts and feelings into prayer. (The Screwtape Letters)  We desire to make sense out of what confuses and astounds us.  We want objective and concrete facts especially when all there is to found is subjective knowledge.  We want answers even when the questions escape us.

A/theology, as icon, helps us steer clear from these idolatrous tendencies by reminding us to live in the tension and encounter God on God's terms, not our own.  We have to be careful with our a/theology so that we do not turn this a/theistic approach into an idol that replaces God instead of allowing us to encounter the living God. 

After spending two days at the North Carolina Synod's Fall Convocation, where the keynote presentations were on preaching, I really want to start thinking about how to incorporate this invitation to engage God on God's terms in my sermons.  How do I preach sermons that are iconic, not idolatrous?  How do I craft my words in such a way to remind people that they are staring at an impressionist painting, where they are encouraged to allow the painting to affect them?  How do I proclaim the good news as if I were baking cookies, inviting people to come closer and taste for themselves? 

The hard truth of the matter is, I'm not sure this is a question that I can objectively answer.  (There's that a/theology slipping in again...)  I think it's a skill that has to be developed contextually as each congregation needs different kinds of invitations.  Each member has their own experience and encounter with God that I am blessed to experience with them as we point out God's work in our lives to each other.  I cannot and should not see God for them, but I can model what it looks like to experience God in a variety of ways.  I can encourage them to look for where God is in their midst.  Shouldn't that be enough? Why not let the Holy Spirit do all the heavy lifting? 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

God is (W)Here?

All men naturally desire knowledge; but what good is knowledge without the fear of God? Surely a humble peasent who fears God is better than a proud philosopher who, neglecting his own soul, occupies himself in studying the course of the stars. - Thomas á Kempis

This passage is from one of the morning prayer offices found in The Little Book of Hours.  It came up (thank you Spirit) as I was pondering what to write about the next chapter in Peter Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God. For part one on this book click here.  

Rollins second chapter addresses a postmodern approach to thinking about theology and what theology can tell us about God.  

*Spoiler Alert* it's not much. *End Spoiler Alert*

The problem with our understanding of God, who God is, and what God is up to in our lives stems from a previous post on if we can objectively know anything about the world.  Again, click here if you missed it.  This is where Thomas à Kempis comes in above.  He so kindly reminds us that we can try and know things, but if we don't have a fear (perhaps reverance is a better word) towards God all our knowledge will come to naught.  

Rollins reminds us (me in particular) that we can search and should search for God, but if we don't hold our beliefs in some kind of a/theistic suspension we can get ourselves in trouble with the idolatry of ideology.

Let me take a second to explain what I mean when I say "a/theistic suspension."  By this, I'm not advocating that we all take up the belief that God doesn't exist.  Rather, that seems more in line with an "anti-theism" which Rollins describes in this chapter.  Instead, I think that we should be more willing to re-examine our belief system that we hold about God, and disbelieve the particulars within that system - our atonement theories, for example.  The main point is that when we continually re-examine and deconstruct our theology, we are able to keep looking at what is helpful for coming to an understanding of God and then let go of what might be harmful for looking about God.

This is something that is evidenced throughout the scriptures - Old and New Testaments.   God as depicted in the Old Testament seems completely different from God as depicted in the New.  Many Old Testament depictions of God can be seen as vindictive or in need of sacrifice, while the New Testament God depicts a God that is of peace and love.  While simplistic, this contrast points out how as each author of each text comes to encounter God (from exodus, to exile, to the return, to the person of Jesus) they record one more glimpse of the character of God.  Their writings witness to the continual questioning done by the Hebrew people and then the early Christian church as they took what they knew about God and compared/contrasted it with their new experience of God - an a/theistic suspension of sorts.

So, keeping this a/theistic suspension in mind, our knowledge of God was never intended to be an objective fact, but rather a subjective and intimate knowledge that is evidenced by our relationships with close friends and family.  In fact, the very thought that our primary knowledge of God is subjective and intimate (subjective here not being relative, but rather a way of saying that we see God as something beyond height, weight, gender, etc.) is a gift for our minds could not handle an objective knowledge of God.  

This is what I hope Thomas á Kempis meant when he describes the "fear of God."  This intimate and subjective knowledge that is an expression of love for and from the almight Creator of the Universe.  A fear that comes out of respect for power and majesty, that also creates the space for a communal relationship with the Trinity.  

So then, what of (our attempts at) theology?  Have the past 2000+ years of Judeo-Christian theology been for naught?

I think it is safe to answer this question with a resounding "No!"

Our denominational theology and traditions are done as prayerful responses to God.  From the apostolic fathers to the mystics, to the medieval scholars to the reformers, and through our own experiences today, we all have some experience of God that we try to understand.  Theology then, becomes a way of processing through that experience of God and filtering it through the lenses of what we know and don't know.

I personally find this to be extremely liberating and freeing in one sense.  It means that I do not have to tie myself down to ideas and thoughts about God that aren't helpful or useful anymore.

Penal substitution is one such idea, that from which I feel freed.  This idea was incredibly popular for much of the Middle Ages as a way of understanding Jesus' death and resurrection on the cross.  To be fair, when Anselm was describing the penal satisfaction model for atonement, it was helpful  The Medieval scholars would have understood his writing through the lenses of the feudal system that permeated the context of Western Europe at the time.  However, this particular aspect of theology doesn't quite lend itself to the currently Western thought of individual justice and individual action.  Therefore, we have tried to make sense of the medieval atonement theory in our modern context instead of working through Jesus' incarnation, life, death, and resurrection for ourselves based on the accounts that we have in scripture (which are in and of themselves theological interpretations on the person of Jesus Christ, based on the culture that springs up after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE)

At this point, a lot of people give up because this is hard work.  It's near impossible to come up with an objective explanation of how God works in the person of Jesus Christ, when we aren't looking at a candid photograph of Jesus, but rather an impressionist painting done based on oral traditions of who Jesus was.  Which is kind of the point, I think.  It's not about having an objective grip on God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.  It's about coming to an intimate understanding of how God grasps us and holds us in faith, so that we might be joined to the Kingdom of God, now and not yet.

All of this is an awful lot of groundwork to get to what I found to be one of the most exciting ideas presented in this chapter - the hypernymity of God.

Hypernymity is the opposite of anonymity.  Instead of having little to no information about God - which might be seen to be the base assumption based on what I've written above, we have far too much information about God.  We are trying to process hundreds of thousands of experiences of God - big, little, and everything in between.  There is so much information about God, that each and every person who encounters God might walk away from their encounter thinking they've experienced an entirely different God from their neighbor (which brings us back to the comfort of a/theology in that we are always re-evaluating our own experiences of God in light of the community's experiences of God).  At times we are frustrated because we feel we haven't gotten to know anything about God, at all.

However, this is not the case.  Instead of thinking that we have not learned anything of God, we must learn to live within the tension created by multiple experiences of God.

The idea of hypernymity is witnessed to in some of the "conflict" in the differences within scripture between the immanence and transcendence of God. The idea of hypernymity is such that God is so immanent, so intimately involved with every single created thing, that God is transcendent that we can no longer process God's presence and so God has become immanent.  God's very existence permeates everything and God is so fully revealed that our human brains are incapable of processing just how present God is and how open God is.  We revert to our sensory experiences even though our very souls cry out to be united with the God that is right there, so in front of us, that we cannot see it.

Jay Gamelin at Pilgrim Lutheran Church preached about something similar at his Easter sunrise service in 2013.  The illustration he used that I find helpful when thinking about this type of idea was that of Mount McKinley as seen from Anchorage Alaska.  When you are on the ground in Anchorage, you are able to see Mt. McKinley However, it permeates the landscape so much that it is almost hard to see the shape of the mountain because it takes up all of our vision.

Now imagine standing on the ground looking up at this.

So too, is our experience of God.  God is so present that we are unable to put clear definitions around who God is and how God is working in our world.  The best we can do is make out fuzzy areas where we are able to identify God's work in some way, shape, or form whether it is as Creator, Redeemer, or Spirit.  But we also recognize that those identifications of God are, at best, like impressionist paintings.  They capture one person's experience without putting clear boundaries on what that experience is.

I find this idea that God is so present in the world, that my fallen nature has to filter through God's activity in the world just in order to survive to be comforting.  For me, this is a way of dealing with doubts, questions, and concerns about how God is acting in the world and that God is, in fact, present in all of my struggles.

God is there in all things.  God is in the grief of the mother who has lost a child, because God has also lost a child and understands the grief that is present.  God is in the anger, the sadness, the loneliness - in all of this, God is present.

God is so present, in fact, our own emotions are intensified because God participates in them with us.  Yet, because we cannot process our emotions plus God's presence in our emotions, plus the emotions of everyone who has gone through a similar experience, we filter them out.  At best we are able to handle our own emotional state as well as being able to sympathize with others who have experienced something similar.  In order to protect our sense of "self" we block out our perception of God's intimate presence.

The comfort I find in the midst of this is that even though my sense of "self" blocks God's immediate presence as an act of self-preservation, God is still present.  God is still there in my grief, in my anger, and in my joys even though I might not always be able to sense God.

And this is good news indeed!

When I experience doubt or wonder about God's presence, it's not because God has abandoned me, rather it's the sinner within me that is trying to close it's eyes and protect itself from the overwhelming light of of God.  And the fact that my soul feels the need to protect itself from God's light is a sort of proof that God is still there.  In all things God is fully present in my life and the life of all creation.  We do not need to grasp all aspects of God for this to still be true because faith in God "is born amidst the feeling that God grasps us." (Rollins, 31) 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Shapes of Leadership

One of the books my supervisors recommended that I read as I prepare to work as a church leader and also to prepare to identify other church leaders was Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram.

Their book is set up around 8 different shapes that are important for church leaders to keep in mind as they work in congregations to empower others to lead.  These shapes are circle, semicircle, triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, and octagon.  Each shape corresponds to some aspect of ministry - spiritual, educational, missional, etc.  And each shape is easy enough to remember that they are able to be taught quickly and efficiently in small groups.

As I was reading, there were a couple of shapes that really caught my attention as being useful for thinking about parish ministry: the semicircle, triangle, and square.  The others seemed redundant because I've had two years of seminary, but I see the value in working with lay leaders in these areas to round out spiritual wellness.

Before delving into the shapes, I want to stop at a point Breen and Cockram make at the beginning of the book.  They spend a chapter talking about the importance of working with small groups of people at a time and letting them get to know the real you as pastor/spiritual leader.  They argue that because Jesus walked with 12 and then 3 closely and intimately that we as spiritual leaders should not be afraid of letting others in to our lives and/or giving an appearance of playing favorites.  

I'm not sure that I completely agree with this idea.  I think there is value in letting people understand how you as a spiritual leader deal with disappointment, anger, etc.  However, I do think that we need to set some boundaries for our own mental health and wellness.  We have to recognize that we must create spaces that allow for healthy relationships between ourselves and those whom we are leading - spaces that require healthy boundaries to set up and maintain.

So that's something I'll continue to wrestle with and have conversations with over the next year or two (or the rest of my life...)

Moving on to some fun shapes!

The semicircle is perhaps the most important and yet most underused practice for pastors and workers in the church ever.  Breen and Cockram use the semicircle to represent the pendulum between rest and work.  

This pendulum is important because without rest, work becomes exhausting and meaningless and without work, rest becomes slothful and boring. (Although how often does this actually happen?)  Yet, how often are we "on" constantly - rarely spending time to just be still in the presence of God and of one another?  There is always something to do, soccer practice, one more meeting, gotta update the blog, laundry, cleaning, cooking, football, choir practice.  Our lives are constantly on the move - we are judged harshly for being "unproductive."  

Part of our job as spiritual leaders then, is to live our lives in such a way that people see the importance of taking time to rest.  Even God rested (Genesis 2:2).  We model the pattern for rest and work so that both of them are used to live healthier lives physically, mentally, and spiritually. 

The next shape that I found helpful was the triangle.  Breen and Cockram use the triangle to point out the three relationships that we have - our relationship with God (Up), our relationship with others (Out), and our relationship with ourselves (In).

They helpfully point out that we have a tendency to focus on two out of three of these relationships exclusively.  We either focus on our relationships between ourselves and God, ourselves and others, or others and God - which doesn't allow all three of these relationships to impact, inform, and build up the others.

I was drawn to this shape because they drew upon Micah 6:8 to help flesh out this idea.  "...but what does The Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (NRSV) Breen and Cockram argued that this passage fleshes out the three dimensions to our relationships - "do justice" as Out, "love kindness" as In, and "walk humbly with God" as Up.  Now I take this direct correlation with a grain of salt, but appreciate the fact that both of these ideas remind us that our call as Children of God is multi-faceted, but is at it's core a simple calling.

The last shape that I found to be particularly helpful for thinking about working as a spiritual leader was their square.  The square is designed to model a way for us to teach others to lead.  Each side of the square is one stage in the "teaching to lead" journey.

To put it more simply, D1 and L1 in the step above could easily be said as "I do, you watch."  D2 and L2 is "I do, you help."  D3 and L3 is "You do, I help." and finally D4, L4 is "You do, I watch."

Each of these stages is really about getting those who are learning how to lead others involved in the leadership process in such a way that they are able to grow in confidence about their active role in leadership and then allows you as their teacher to slowly back off and reduce their dependency on you as a safety net.  

I think there is great value in this training process because it allows your "disciples" to see your methods for ministry, but then creates space for them to explore and develop their own style of leadership - one that works with their unique ministerial gifts.  

I think this book had some insightful things to say about church leadership, and I plan on continuing to wrestle with some of the models that they present as I start to take a more active role in developing lay leaders for my internship progress.  

Building a Discipling Culture might be an interest book to work through with a church council (or perhaps the actual small group curriculum developed for such a purpose) because of its insights into empowering others to lead and embrace their spiritual gifts.  I think it is important to work through it as a group however, because some of their ideas and concepts need to be critiqued and examined carefully.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is God a Duck or a Rabbit?

This is the first in a series of posts that will engage Peter Rollins How (Not) to Speak of God.  I'm working on this book one chapter at a time as part of my supervisory sessions and have found that there is too much information to cover in the forty-five minutes or so that are dedicated to the discussion of the book.  Even more than that, I feel that Rollins is presenting some incredibly helpful ideas for our postmodern culture, so I want to be able to take the time to seriously engage the information he is presenting.  Because I am working through this on a chapter per week basis, it means that I will be breaking up these posts with some of the other books that I am working through as well.  

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8 NRSV)
So goes the passage from Hebrews that was found in the Revised Common Lectionary for last Sunday (Sept. 1).

That's an excellent place to start my conversation with Peter Rollins How (Not) to Speak of God, an excellent text that brings much insight into the "emerging conversation" regarding the future of Christianity in a postmodern culture.

Rollins uses the phrase "emerging conversation" in place of Phyllis Tickle's "emerging church" because he feels that what is happening on the emerging frontier of Christianity right now is too flexible and fluid to define as a church - instead it's more of a conversation that is being held through the Internet as well as print books and journal articles (but mostly through blog posts and the power of Twitter!)

I found "emerging conversation" to be a more helpful description of what's going on because it reminds us that part of our call as Christians is to be in dialogue with one another and with other traditions.  It also serves as a gentle reminder that what is happening now is not something that has been set in stone, but rather is open to a variety of interpretations and should be examined thoughtfully and carefully before we make a response to it - just as Christians should listen in love before speaking in love.

Rollins sets up the first chapter by looking at how Christians have traditionally thought of God, as part of the emerging conversation involves rethinking how our definitions of God work in our contexts - not necessarily to discard and come up with new ones, but to help us see how these definitions actually define our contexts more than they define God.  In fact, Rollins goes so far as to say that Christians- especially those among us who are transitioning from modernity and postmodernity - have a history of committing what he calls (and I love) the "idolatry of ideology."  Simply enough this is just the sin of focusing so much on one particular image or idea of God that we disregard the plethora of descriptions of God found in scripture as well as our theological traditions.  

Now this isn't breaking news. .  Theologians have been trying to shake up our mental images of God for years.  For example black theology comes up with an idea that "God is black" to help shake up the Anglo-Saxon identity of God that many in the Western Church picture (although few of us would readily admit it).  Feminist theology works to break us out of a traditional image of God as masculine - "Father" is one of many images that help us understand our relationship with God, and there are plenty of feminine references to the Creator.    Rollins is not giving us new information, rather he's just giving us a language to name what's going on.

Enter the Hebrews text.  "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."  Yet, what exactly does that mean?  The Gospels themselves give us four very different portrayals of Jesus.  

Let's look at the Passion narratives, for example. There are some key differences between Mark and John.  Mark's Jesus is angry and upset at God for what happens on the cross, while John's Jesus accepts it.  Did Jesus change?  Or is the solution somewhat simpler, in that each author had to convey a different theological message about Jesus' work on earth and our role in the events leading up to his death and resurrection?

Is Jesus like this (famous) image of the duck/rabbit?
The image itself doesn't change, but our perception of the image does.  Sometimes we look at it and see a duck, and sometimes we see a rabbit.  Yet, both are present simultaneously.  

Rollins uses this duck/rabbit image to talk about how humans describe about our objective knowledge of the world.  He argues, I believe correctly, that "we can say that we never see the world as it really is (as symbolized by the lines) but always place meaning onto it (symbolized by the duck or rabbit). (Rollins, 9)  The fancy word for this concept is the critique of ideology - the belief that we can never actually say something objective about the world because our subjective experiences place meaning onto the objective nature of things.  The critique of ideology has often been used to argue against objective truth in favor of objective truth. 

This brings us back to our discussion of Jesus remaining the same yesterday and today and forever.  Jesus, in the image above, would be symbolized by the lines (or pixels if you prefer) of the image.  We can call John's depiction of Jesus the rabbit and Mark's depiction of Jesus the duck.  Both are present in the person of Jesus Christ, yet their depictions are more telling of the author's subjective world than the objective Christ. And yet, both of them help draw our attention to the lines of the image - the objective Christ, the member of the Trinity that is unchanging.  

Our experience as fallen creatures however, keeps bringing us back to one image or the other.  We want to focus exclusively on the rabbit or the duck.  Whenever I see the duck/rabbit image, I'm reminded of an episode of How I Met Your Mother where the five characters in the show almost get into a fist fight over whether the image above is a rabbit or a duck. (Season 5, Episode 15)

Likewise, it is easy for us to get so very focused on one particular image of God, that anything that contradicts or challenges that image is reacted against, usually violently.  And in doing so, Rollins pushes us to think (and I affirm) that when this happens we have committed idolatry.  Our image of God is no longer the living vibrant God of Judeo-Christian tradition(s), but rather it has become a faded snapshot that might have reflected God once, but certainly doesn't continue to do so.  

Fortunately for us, we have been provided an entire scrapbook of these snapshots that allow us to piece together a more comprehensive (if not downright confusing) idea of who the living God is.  Rollins writes: "The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices." (12-13)  We need only open the scriptures to come face to face with several images that point us to who God is and how God acts in the world.  There are rabbits and ducks aplenty, but we must keep in mind that they are still only images created out of their author's contexts and experiences.  We cannot pick one and decide that is exclusively who God is.  

This "cacophony of voices" can be confusing at times, yet we need not be afraid by the plurality of images for God.  Instead it is good news for the Christian!

It reminds us that we are able to know something of God - that God loves us and embraces us, and in our relationship with God, we are transformed by God's unending love.  It does not matter if we get a correct interpretation of God, because by trying to interpret God's word we are transformed by the love that is found there.

The plurality of images for God gives us reason to keep coming back to the text, again and again - the way we might return to a painting that we love, or read a book that we love, or watch a movie over and over again (guess which ones I'm guilty of).  Each time we return to the text, we encounter a new depiction of God - something resonates within us that wasn't there the last time.  This new encounter happens, not because God has changed, because as Hebrews reminds us, "[God] is the same yesterday and today and forever," but we constantly change.  Our new experiences allow us to shift slightly and see a duck where once we saw the rabbit. 

And so, perhaps the healthiest thing that we could do each time we come to the text is pray the prayer that Meister Eckhart prayed, for "God to rid me of God." (Found in Rollins, 19) We want each encounter with the text to be something new so that we see all of the different images of God without retaining one - for God rest in the lines where the images change, not in the images themselves.  When we begin to look for God in the midst of these images, then we can start experiencing the living God.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Emerging Church

I recently read Phyllis Tickle's The Emerging Church.  The book is an interesting, if sociological, look at the major shifts that have happened in Christianity over the past 500 years, and why those shifts happen.

Tickle detailed some of the historical events that lead up to the Great Reformation (Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.) which was helpful to start thinking about why Protestants have clung to some things over the past 500 years, as well as the importance of reason and logic in Western Christianity up until the past sixty years or so.  

The last third of the book or so is dedicated to tracking the trends in current events leading up to the transformations Christianity has gone through over the past thirty years, and is going through right now.  The term that she employs (and has come to be employed by many participants involved in this movement) is "Emerging Church."  This church is one that transcends denomination in hopes of returning to a more ecumenical group that is gathered around love of God and love of neighbor.

Tickle's book was helpful because it gave me some sociological reasons behind trends that I have noticed in some of the other books that I've read.  Seeing how World War II impacted the rise in feminism in the workplace, which then influenced women's roles in worship was a perspective that I held vaguely, but without any real understanding of how they were all connected.

Tickle was an excellent way to kick of my internship reading, because it opens to doors to a variety of authors within the "Emerging Church" community that I have been wanting to ready such as Brian McLaren, Bryan Berghoef, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Peter Rollins, among others.   Her sociological style is an excellent foundation for understanding where the other authors are coming from when they put forth their theological ideas.

My only complaint with Tickle's book was that, at points, I got bogged down in the historical events leading up to the transformations she described.  It felt like I was working through a historical book rather than the theological.  To be fair, though, I started the book expecting a theological work and then received a historical-sociological on.

I think that people who are interested in seeing where the church has come from and what it is going through right now would benefit from reading this book.  Her easy to read style of writing made it accessible to everyone, even if they were not familiar with some of the theological or religious language that is often thrown around.