Monday, November 4, 2013

Flexibly Faithful: A Dispatch from Divinity School

“Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape.” With those words, the host preacher opened our Saturday “Next Church” conference. I will spend the day doing church instead of doing homework for divinity school. A flexible faith seems like a prerequisite for theological education in the 21st century.

Last week in one of my seminars, I learned that most did not consider Vanderbilt a seminary at all because the distinction for a divinity school comes with its secular location and its scholarly credentials. I never got that memo and had been telling all my Facebook friends & Twitter followers that I was a seminarian. One of my fellow students delicately explained that seminaries were denominationally and doctrinally affiliated and required confessional faith from their students. When I replied that our school’s “Living The Commitments” document had a kind of confessional aspect to it, I am not sure that folks understood what I meant.

When I got my first exam handed back in the history of Christianity class that occupies more of my time than any other course this semester and for which I am composing this blog, I was emotionally distraught, disappointed, and on-the-spot decided that evaluative, numerical grades were proof of the persistent atheism inherent in studying the divine in any kind of systematic fashion. How could we measure comprehension of the incomprehensible!?!?

When we read about the orthodox roots of our faith, I worried I could never be orthodox enough. When we read about the heretics, I was sure I might possibly be one. When we read about the martyrs, I first confessed my lack of faith and fear that I could never be one. Then I confessed that the martyrs creeped-me-out anyways and were evidence of a selfish deathwish among early followers. Why would anyone today want to die for their faith when we are still learning how to live our faith in a profoundly disorienting postmodern period?

I remember posting on Facebook about some of my frustrations with the orthodoxy versus heresy discussion and getting rhetorically blindsided by a conservative Catholic friend. I’m grateful that my professors, two wildly intelligent and compassionate chaps who are both historically grounded yet faithfully flexible in their own regard, seem to appreciate some pushback against the ancient texts—even though my pushback is usually too speculative and contemporary and editorial and not nearly historically grounded enough.

It seems each ancient text we’ve read presents me with new challenges. Despite my best efforts to gently wear the historical lens suggested by my teachers, I always ended up in the rose-tinted goggles of a deep and desiring interpretation, as if these early Christian texts were being presented to me as is for immediate immersion, investigation, and evaluation. Which brings us to my encounter with Basil of Caesarea, a fourth century church father. From reading our required text Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Lifeand Doctrine by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, I gleaned several key nuggets that confirm Basil as a liturgical, theological, and monastic badass.

Radde-Gallwitz’s introduction begins with Basil standing up to power to defend his understanding of the Trinity. According to the author, “Basil was calling the emperor’s religion a sham maintained by force rather than genuine faith.” Radde-Gallwitz goes on to frame Basil as a people’s theologian, wrestling with doctrine in a dynamic, communal, and practical context. Foreshadowing today’s “sermon series” shtick with a string of homilies to shame the rich, Basil’s faith fought famine. Basil wasn’t above using slick deception to prompt a meeting with his close colleague Gregory, a sign to me that piety sometimes takes the form of trickery. But the best of what Basil brings can be found in a brief statement by Radde-Gallwitz regarding Basil’s “stance of theological humility” suggesting “we not claim to know more about God than we can.” This admission of knowing what we don’t know about God as well as what we do know about God can be profoundly liberating regardless of the era in which we believe. This sense of humility serves us well when we arrive at the creeds.

Over the summer, I attended the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. We had the joy of hearing the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weberwhen she was interviewed by Krista Tippet from the NPR program On Being. In the course of the conversation, they addressed the creeds. Bolz-Weber shares this insight concerning parishioners who might resist reciting creeds. She explains how it might go: “I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I'm like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people, for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right? So it’s not — this is Western individualism run amok in religion. It’s not your creed. It’s the church’s creed . . .”

When I reconverted to Christianity after a spiritual awakening in 2009, I spoke the creeds in church as though my life depended on it, because to me in a very real sense, it did. I’ve never tested or tried to prove each line of the creed in an abstract or rational manner, for the meaning seems written in a different language, composed in the contrast of salvation and sin, in the light and dark places of the human spirit. But at the same time, the intellectual skepticism and doubt of an academic approach to theology suggests that we might simultaneously inhabit more than one space. 

If I’ve learned anything about the spiritual stance one should claim to maintain sanity while pursuing theological education, for me it’s that we need a simultaneously high Christology and low Christology, a firm yet flexible faith. Nothing less than such a dramatic dance in both extremes allows me to enjoy the academic adventure of advanced theological education without engaging in an endless inner duel to destroy all duality and do all doubt.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

There Will Be Blood: A Recovering Alcoholic’s Theory of the Atonement

Theological and spiritual ideas about the ultimate philosophical meaning of the cross—usually called atonement theory—never reached the level of denominational dogma or doctrine, and recent discussions in my Sunday school class and in an online forum of emergent Christians showed me why. The cross as Christ’s preemptive payment or atonement for our personal sins remains the most common conception of the crucifixion—yet seems to be unpopular among liberal and progressive followers of Jesus, especially in the notion known as “penal substitution,” that is, the idea God punished Jesus as a substitute for punishing the rest of us.

It’s an odd place to be, but I find myself to be more to the ultraleft politically (or more peacenik radical, tree-hugging, dirt-loving, gay-ally fringe) than many of my liberal-progressive Christian peers, at the same time I’m theologically or spiritually more conservative than the same friends. I actually take great comfort in numerous Pauline passages in Romans and First Corinthians that speak to the power of the cross and invoke the construct of atonement, such as Romans 5:8 that sums up so much for me: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Not only did Jesus die in such a horrifying way, he did it with love and purpose. Not only did Jesus die for sinners in general, he died for me, for my stupid selfish sins in particular.

To be blunt about my need for the cross and the empty tomb, about my hunger and thirst for the communion meal, about why I am not a Taoist or a Buddhist or an agnostic or new ager: I am a recovering alcoholic. As a sober drunk, the language of sin and salvation or the story of crucifixion and resurrection so integral to the Christian communal narrative, these speak directly to the core of my being, to a rooted sense of truth and knowing so beyond mere intellectual comprehension or so-called belief. Practicing drunks face their own near-death experiences, and sober drunks overcome these through surrender, through giving up before getting up, as if resurrected.

On a Saturday in April 2007, I left a conference in Knoxville around mid-day. I had big plans to see one of my favorite bands in Nashville that night. My (now ex) spouse wouldn’t be attending because of a birthday party for a close friend that would take up the afternoon and evening, and I had to push through the guilt of putting my music fandom before my friend’s birthday. I knew I would stop at my house in the hills on the way: to drop off some things, grab some other things, shower, and change clothes.

That day, I decided to start drinking when I departed east Tennessee. I drank while I drove home. I drank while I got ready for the concert. I drank all the way to the show. I ingested other strong special-occasion substances to give me that oh-so-familiar bump before the show. I drank during the show. I drank after the show. Even though I hung out with friends at the show, I was still solo for the night and entirely selfish, and I had plans afterwards to hit up another bar that also had wireless internet, in order to buy some tickets for a festival that went on sale that night at midnight.

Because of my buzzing state, I forgot to account for the time adjustment between the Eastern and Central time zones, because the coveted event would be EST. Inevitably, we didn’t get tickets for the fest, and I fought off more guilt (since my spouse was looking so forward to that event) by spiraling into a self-righteous drunken rage. I was stupidly angry at the snobby event-promoters for not saving me a ticket. I proceeded to get in the car drunk and start driving the 70 miles home in the pouring rain. Then, I picked up my cell phone, called a friend, and preached at him about how the festival had lost touch with its DIY ethic (and other assorted notions of intoxicated nonsense) by not allowing me to get tickets.   

After my friend, probably a mixture of humored and annoyed if not disturbed, had let me go, I drove home in my manic state of high and drunk and angry, far above the speed limit, in a Tennessee springtime downpour.

It’s a miracle I didn’t die on Interstate 40 and take out some other probably sober drivers with me. Only on the backroads near my former home, going about 30 or 40 miles-per-hour instead of 80 or 90, did I finally flip and total the car into a ditch. Thanks be to God, only me and the car were victims. No witnesses. My former spouse miraculously answered the phone in the wee hours and came to retrieve my bruised pathetic self. Early the next morning, a Sunday, I called a local mechanic who agreed to tow the carcass of my car to his shop. Later in the week, he offered me a couple hundred dollars for the remains.

That Sunday afternoon I had a revelation. I would quit. I obviously had a problem with driving too much. I would quit driving. I would get an apartment closer to my job and not plan on replacing the totaled car. I could carpool, bum rides, take taxis. I relished the reactions I got from friends when I told them with some drama the big news about my decision—to quit driving which I hated and keep drinking which I loved. It would be two more years before I finally surrendered and embraced sobriety from alcohol.

The basic chronology of this part of the story illustrates the depth of denial present in my incarnation of the disease of alcoholism and addiction. Drink had become my religion. In those days, I even went so far as researching the gods of wine Dionysus and Bacchus (or Boxus, the god of box wine) and fashioned myself to be a kind of pagan evangelist who would perform a hedonist’s communion for any who asked. I even had a trinitarian rap—the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Meeting the resurrected Christ in the rock bottom of early sobriety changed everything, and for some reason, I needed the full throttle version of religion even as I would once gulp the full bottle of rebellion. Due to the progression of my recovery going in tandem with falling back in love with Jesus, I’ve formed new habits of spiritual discipline where Christianity is a not just a faith journey for me, it’s a survival strategy.

In my first course in seminary, I learned about some alternative but less known approaches to the cross, or as theologians say, theories of the atonement. These include aspects of God’s solidarity with all human suffering, sacrificial surrender, and the penultimate divine gesture of loving reconciliation and liberation. Most impressive, we find the work of 20th century thinkers who place the cross in our context without recoiling from human realities of violence or turning God into the punisher. A former Nazi German soldier and POW who once read Nietzche but then converted to Christ as a captive, theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann writes in his book The Crucified God:

“If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.”

Not unlike Moltmann, the black liberation theology of James Cone places atonement theory right in the center of humanity’s collective sin, in this case the sin of racism and white supremacy. Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

“I accept Delores Williams’s rejection of theories of atonement as found in the Western theological tradition and in the uncritical proclamation of the cross in many black churches. I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself. The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”

Many mild and modern minds tend to recoil at any cultic notion of a blood sacrifice—or worse yet the image of an omnipotent wrath-master who brutally abandons and punishes his own son to please his own lust for punitive justice purveyed as violence. There’s a section in the novel Life of Pi that shows how sadistic and absurdist this so-called penal substitution theory really is.

In Yann Martel’s novel, we find this: “Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, 'Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate a camel. The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed them you.' ... 'Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up'. What a downright weird story. What a peculiar psychology.” 
While we should cringe at the horror of the execution, it’s Christ’s profound capacity for nonviolence that we confront at the cross, and it’s the perpetrators of violence that present a vision not of God but of unchecked political power and organized brutality.

Denying the cross for me would be like denying my drunken debaucherous past. Denying the cross for us as a society and world would be like denying all the human horrors of barbarity that litter our past and present. Accepting the cross as a political but not spiritual fact and then denying the resurrection—that for me sounds hopeless, like utter defeat. As magical as a literal cross and resurrection with theological justification for both may appear to many modern minds, for a Christian, I find faith and comfort there, and I find the downgraded theories I encounter in the likes of Borg and Spong as somehow fake.

At once too sensational and too sanitized, too supernatural and too sedated, like processed meat at the supermarket that we’ll never know came from an animal that bled and an animal that died. It’s not wrong to wonder how God allowed or required Jesus to die, nor wrong to suggest that the political motives underpinning the parlay between imperial power and inspired powerlessness influenced the mode of execution or example made of this unlikely messiah.

It’s not wrong to probe this profound story both philosophically and historically or to confront it with the fullness of our God-given doubt and skepticism. But at the end, I prefer to embrace the full robust drama and complete cosmic audacity of Christianity, and some aspects of the liberal alternatives strike me as a watered-down unwelcome detour. Sure, I am sober from alcohol today, but I am not about to start drinking decaf coffee or embrace a decaf Christianity, a bloodless cross without its bloody core.

To suggest that blood is unnecessary or imply that death is optional—why? How squeamish we are about an embodied savior, a bodily God, a human light & logos because as man his death is not so much required or accidental but inevitable, as all death is, even as compost, even as food, death as one of those most essential ingredients to life.

Those liquor stores don’t sell “Wine and Spirits” by accident. The noted psychologist Carl Jung wrote the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson a letter in 1961 that contained the following premise, “You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”

Perhaps all this helps explain why my theology is surprisingly ‘conservative’ when it comes to sin and the atonement. As a practicing alcoholic, I sought deeper doses of depravity as though drugged-out decadence for its own sake was delight and not dirt. As a practicing alcoholic, sins could not be sinful enough, bottoms could not be low enough, and many bottoms had trap doors.

As a recovering alcoholic, I need a most powerful elixir to transform my reality. I have found the blood of Jesus—on the cross and as grape juice in a communion chalice—to be just that potion required. And I have also experienced recovery—not just my own sobriety but the fellowship with others in recovery—as resurrection. I feel truly born again. And for that, I give thanks and credit not to an abstract concept of an ethereal out-there God, but to a God with a body down-here, a body that hung on a cross and rose from the dead as a radical testimony of hope, hope for everyone, for victims of war and racism and addiction and more. Hope for a world without end. Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Will the real ‘God’ please stand up?

On the eve of today’s Sunday school class, my Mom called me with a story. A little girl was dancing joyfully, perhaps one could even say ecstatically. A man approached. ‘Who are you dancing with?’ he asked. ‘With God,’ she replied. ‘I’d give you a nickel,’ he retorted, ‘if you could show me where God is.’ ‘I’d give you a dollar,’ she shot back, ‘if you could show me where God is not.’

In today’s reading from Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg addresses the concept of—and our problems with the concept of—God. As he does with much more depth and deftness in his treatise on panentheism called The God We Never Knew, Borg debunks and deconstructs all variety of anthropomorphic god-ideas in favor of a suffusing and saturating sacred presence, not unlike Paul Tillich’s “ground of all being.”

A scripture Borg leans on to illuminate this notion is the expansive and eloquent Psalm 139, interestingly a favorite of the ‘right to life’ movement. We also encounter this always-already-in-everything God in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 77: “It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.”

We like this God, because our everyday experience, regardless of dogma, often affirms it, if we’d only tune into it. Liberals like what Borg says God is because of who Borg says God is not; He’s not exclusively anthropomorphic, authoritarian, and androcentric. In Trinitarian sensibility, I gather that this sacred energy constitutes the creative crux and core of God and is discernible at least theologically and metaphysically from the Son and Holy Spirit.

But why, then, when I attended the Festival of Homiletics—an annual kind of preacher’s Woodstock for liberal, mainline pastors from the likes of Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions—did it seem like Marcus Borg was the butt of all our jokes? Two of my top talks from the week included incisive slights and sarcastic slags at Borg and the Jesus Seminar and what I presume mainline preachers think is a low—just a man and a mere prophet—Christology. It seems a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus is the hinge on which the rest of our faith swings.

I am convinced one can have what we could call a consistently and simultaneously high and low Christology. There’s no need to show the historicists the door nor for us to sneer at the arm-waving spirit-folk and turn ourselves into anti-mystical bores. I also think it’s perfectly acceptable for Christians to admit that we do not “know” in any bulletproof, scientific, historical, or factual sense what we know in matters of mysterious reality, faith journey, and spiritual encounter.   

We are Christians because we preach a crucified and resurrected Christ. We are not not Christians if we also teach the historical Jesus. I interpret Borg’s project as illuminating and not emasculating of Christ and Jesus, though I know how and why some people find his overtures off-putting. Without the historical Jesus, we too easily lose the revolutionary kernel of his prophetic message; without the resurrected Christ, we certainly lose the rest, the mystical and metaphysical, and many would argue, the truth.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Wizard We Need

Like the masses, we flocked this past weekend to the megaplex for the opening of another would-be blockbuster, pleased to discover that the much-heralded and sometimes-maligned Oz prequel is even more good and wonderful than it is great and powerful.

Acting, plot, intrigue, color, mystery, and special effects: all these measure-up under the fantastic mastery of director Sam Raimi. But beyond the eye-candy, sensitive audience members might be as mesmerized by the movie’s deeper myth and redemptive meaning as by its cinematic technique.

Of course, if we remember the original movie and its myth, the wizard has issues, for there’s a man behind the curtain who is much more about a confession of subdued humility than a profession of supernatural agility. The prequel takes us back before the main myth—to see the man inside the man behind the myth.

Somewhere in the magical middle of this movie, the not-yet-wizard Oscar Diggs (James Franco) makes his confession: “I'm not the wizard you were expecting, but I may be the wizard you need.” We can apply this maxim everywhere. This truth uncovers the human simplicity of the Oz legend and its relevance to all our longings in realms related to power and spirit.

The wizard we wanted fulfills a prophecy. The wizard wanted would be a warrior and a king. The wizard wanted would be a real superhuman shaman, but we get stuck with a Kansas carnie showman. What really great leaders come out of Kansas?

In our early glimpse of the black-and-white Oscar Diggs, he’s truly a second-rate trickster, a lusty lecher, and fumbling fraud. By the time the Technicolor would-be-wizard admits his powerlessness, he slowly finds his power. At first, he learns his better nature out of a devious desperation to survive, but then before our eyes, he thrives. Through courage and love, he transforms into the fullness of his revelation and thus Oz’s (and our) liberation.

The wizard wanted relieves us of our responsibility and complicity in matters of theology and ideology. The wizard wanted removes our role in realizing our own freedom, to instead, conquer our enemies and quench our desires.

But we don’t get the wizard we wanted. We get the wizard we need.

The wizard we need becomes our leader by being first our friend, ally, and brother. The wizard we need finds power only through admitting powerlessness.

The wizard we need offers transcendence not through tricks but via a thick, messy, human love and uncommon courage. The wizard we need finds faith in himself to finish the mission not by an isolated hubris but by the more pure hope, solidarity, and trust that others offer him.

I recall learning about other times and places when the wizard we wanted didn’t show up to shun all inner contradiction or shut down external forces of unfreedom.

We wanted fullness. We needed emptiness.

We wanted to take what was ours. We needed to give it all to You instead.

We wanted lust. We needed love.

We wanted bling. We needed nothing.

We wanted a conquering king riding a chariot. We needed a peasant king riding a donkey.

Not every piece of intellectual pop-culture candy needs such a dissection to find the rich religious and political allegory buried in its center, but I could not resist this one. Sadly, I still see so many religious-types zealously promoting the wizard they wanted and killing the wizard we need.

After my recent journey to Oz, I am reminded that it’s the time of year on the religious calendar when we prepare to meet the one that we need, whose message about God’s power is ultimately revealed as total emptiness and abandon, true love as solidarity with human powerlessness. We still don’t want to admit that truth, which is why we need it still evermore.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sin To The Wild

Just now over at Tennessee Tech in the Tree House Village, we’re studying Jon Krakauer’s book Into The Wild in American Literature class. The story tells of the short hot life and tragic death of Chris McCandless, who would have turned 45, same age as me shy a few months, just last week. But Chris, also known as Alexander Supertramp, starved to death in Alaska in 1992.

Chris fled alone to Alaska on a one-man trip, a self-imposed initiation rite of passage and vision quest, to face the terror and beauty and solitude that raw reality had for him. Sadly unprepared in terms of provisions and supplies (a stash of granola bars or trail mix, better weapons or compass anyone?), Chris’s demise was probably unintentional and accidental according to Krakauer, perhaps he had every plan to get out of the outback and return to life a better man for it.

A college graduate and middle-class American, McCandless donated almost 25,000 dollars to charity and abandoned most of his possessions before beginning his journey. Chris created a ritualized way of becoming a man in a culture that has removed many of these rituals from the mainstream of our life, though some are attained in activities like boot camps and mission trips and Outward Bound-type experiences.

Many people diagnosed a Chris a selfish kook who was too self-absorbed to keep in touch with his family, too stupid to pack a backpack properly, and too crazy to not have a better escape plan. But I know another kook who tells us abandon our material possessions, reject our families of birth for a tribe of fellow followers, and who himself was led by the Spirit “into the wild.” That crazy indigenous middle-eastern hippy shaman is of course our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Now I am not telling us (nor did I instruct the students over at Tech) to pull a McCandless and drop out and run away, but I hope that at this Lenten time we can pause and remember that Jesus did in fact fast in the wilderness for 40 days, that Jesus was tested by the devil, that Jesus did turn down Satan’s seductive offers to attain the worldly power that He was surely entitled to and capable of.

Moreover, whatever approach we take to Lent, I hope that we will take it seriously and sincerely, understand that as disciples of Jesus we are called to seek Him and follow Him and worship Him but also to imitate him.

This last week among my Christian friends online and in my reading and research, I have witnessed a lot of discussion and debate about the true meaning of Lent.
Some people ignore the annual observation and liturgical practice as too Catholic, even going so far as to demonize Lent as pagan. Others take on some small discipline or daily act of modest ascetic denial, but wish to do this so quietly and unassumingly so that nobody notices.

By now this year, we’ve all heard the jokes about the Pope giving up his job for Lent. Or the smart-aleck types giving up their New Year’s resolutions for Lent or just simply giving up Lent for Lent. Quite seriously though, provocative philosophers like Peter Rollins and others challenge us to give up God or religion for Lent, implying that we’ve made such cartoonish idolatrous caricatures of our God and religion that the main thing keeping us from God and religion are, well, you guessed it, God and religion.
Then there are the people who warn us not to give up anything for Lent lest we be perceived as turning God into our self-help life coach who will help us quit smoking and lose 20 pounds. The real hard-core compassionate Mother Theresas among us implore that we take something on for Lent like serving the poor or ending all war or abolishing the prison industrial complex.

Just as we don’t be like the Christmas and Easter Christians who worship politely just twice a year, we certainly wouldn’t want to be only Advent and Lent followers either, just adding several weeks at the top of either season.

All said, the seasons of the church year are incredibly important at the same time they are likely just as “pagan” as the critics of the liturgical year claim. All said, we probably don’t need an excuse to live a better life, yet in all honesty, we need every excuse and all the help we can muster to do just that. Let us seek each and every opportunity to love God with all our devotion and love God’s family with all our desire.

For me personally, I prefer a vision quest. Granted, with the phase I went through in my 20s and 30s, I took an awfully long time to grow up, but the flashes of white light I saw along the way ultimately turned me away from many false prophets and pretend messiahs and turned my heart on the true Light of Jesus. For me, any change of pace is welcome; the intensification of experience is part of what life is all about; I once sought that through varieties of abundance; today, to seek that in disciplines of abstinence seems just right. If I am honest, I want to follow Jesus into the wild. I want to see God in nature and take the tests that life has set out for me. I want the vision, but I don’t always want to pay the ticket price to see the light.

Frankly, we’re repentant for our sins but often not repentant enough. Moreover, we’re grateful for God’s love and grace but often not grateful enough. If Lent will make us more repentant and grateful, how is this not a good thing? In fact, we do a lot to serve the poor, create peace, and restore creation, but to look around the world, we know we’re not doing enough. If Lent inspires us to do more, how is this not a good thing? This is not to say that we can “lent our way” into God’s mercy and grace any more than we can earn our way; this is no Lenten Olympics reality-show to see who can engage in more and better self-denial. The love is already here in God. Lent is only one more opportunity to live like we accept it & to extend that love like we mean it. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch

Manuscript for sermon delivered at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Southfield, MI
29 July 2012

Scriptures: John 6:1-21; Proverbs 30:5-9

There’s this song I grew up with at summer camp & in church, you may recall the words.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our lunch, by our lunch,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our lunch.

Now, we know that the song which I learned in the 1970s says that they will know we are Christians by our love. But in this feeding-of-five-thousand Sunday-School-staple-of-a-scripture, Jesus and his disciples show their love by giving the people lunch.

In her book Jesus Freak, Sara Miles breaks down the miracle this way by writing: “Jesus consistently chose unconventional table fellowship as the sign of God’s kingdom. And so faced with a crowd of five thousand, he drives home the message he’s been preaching…by inviting everyone to share a meal on the spot. Do this, says Jesus, and you’ll taste what life in the kingdom of God is like.”

Covenant family, Reverend Quincy, Mom and Dad, thank you for inviting me to share this pulpit. Covenant family, do you know what the Kingdom tastes like? Some people have said that heaven is like a church service that never ends. But I say heaven is more like the potluck after church. Did you taste the strawberries & shortcake Jeff prepared two Sundays ago? Now that’s what heaven tastes like if you ask me. All that & whipped cream on top, too.

In today’s world, this Jesus of the Gospels, don’t you know, is, for better or worse, a pop culture guru of a God—and he is also a culinary genius. This Bible is a story book, a rule book, a poetry book, a prophetic book, a teaching book, but it can also be a cookbook. Mary Fairchild has compiled a list of over sixty foods found in scripture. We could make a lot of meals with that, with foods like venison & lamb, leeks & lentils, apples & almonds, pistachios & pomegranates, made tasty with spices such as cumin & coriander.

Jesus & his practice of open table fellowship reflect a man that we know not only as carpenter but also as a caterer, a savior but also a server, a shaman but also a chef. Jesus doesn’t just multiply manna for others, He also likes to get his own grub on, so much that they called him a glutton who sometimes forgot to wash up before meals. Or as one my seminary professors loves to say: He is always eating—or being eaten. Yes indeed, they’ll know we are Christians by our lunch.

Because the feeding miracle is so foundational to our faith, its familiarity might breed forgetfulness or our failing to fully grasp its generous gravity & moral audacity. At the core of this story comes primary human hunger, the singularity of an appetite for God & the salvation aspects of a simple meal, epitomized & symbolized not just at the Lord’s Supper but present every time we break bread. Watch what Jesus does: He doesn’t just take less & convert it to more; he doesn’t just satisfy a craving with just enough but returns with far too much, infinite lunch to fill cosmic doggy bags, leftovers forever and ever amen.

This epic dinner party is economic as well as gastronomic. Generous Jesus surpasses our scenarios of surplus & scarcity, of saturation & starvation. This isn’t charity; it’s far beyond measure or logic like infinite sunshine, like the wind, the water, & the air. As much as some of our peers would like to politicize Jesus as a proponent of corporate capitalism on the one hand or state socialism on the other, He won’t fit in those boxes. This isn’t Keynesian economics but the Jesusian gift economy where his supply always exceeds our demands.

As much as we may like, we cannot retroactively impose our practicality on His prodigality. This bounty & excess do not compute. Today, Jesus would probably make an atrocious financial advisor, but in his ledger He always makes divine profits from our deficits. We don’t need Jesus to fix our imperfect system, rather we need to promote & participate in his perfect kingdom. Where every Sunday is potluck Sunday. And they’ll know we are Christians by our lunch.

While it’s clear that this no austerity gospel, let’s not confuse it with the ever-popular prosperity gospel. Here, the Proverbs passage is instructive. While our God provides in excess, the believer needs less. The believer needs just enough & has been known to fast or abstain when appropriate. Today’s Old Testament scripture teaches us that too much comfort breeds complacency breeds a contented contempt. By the same token, too little creates a covetous lack that leads to theft.

The world presents an either/or dichotomy to which our God answers both/and. When the world gives us two choices & says pick one, God shows a third, uncharted way. But whatever God gives, always give thanks. Or as St. Teresa of Avila said: If God gives me partridge, I eat partridge; if God gives me porridge, I eat porridge. When we eat with gratitude, God is the one that we will meet. But it’s not a news flash that in our world not everyone eats. Not everyone gets invited to the feast. Too many in our world still worship greed, and as a collective humanity, we fail to meet every need.

World hunger remains reality. Drought & debt & agribusiness complicate an already devastating situation made worse by the increasing population of an already crowded planet. According to faith-based advocates Bread for the World, “925 million people are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes.” “15 percent of people in the United States live in poverty. More than one in five children live in households that struggle to put food on the table.”

In his book of provocative parables called The Orthodox Heretic, postmodern theologian Peter Rollins inverts our miracle story as dark a 21st century dystopia. The disciples and Jesus have a feast for themselves, excluding everyone else. Rollins pens horrible parody:

Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people. But what was
truly amazing, what was miraculous about this meal, was that when they had finished the massive banquet there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a starving person’s hand.

Of course Rollins isn’t really talking about Jesus—but about us. He is not criticizing our missions or tithes, our charity or our service, but our lifestyle of mindless plenty in a world forgetful of its own poverty, and in that, he is more prophet than heretic. Even if we downsize our desires to a proportional global portion, we can still live within God’s good abundance, just not at the expense of the rest of God’s children.

According to renowned food & justice author Francis Moore Lappe: “Hunger is a people-made phenomenon, so the central issue is power.” In the case of global food justice, power that starves rather than saves is sin. We can call it economics, plaster over it with political platitudes, but it’s our collective social sin, plain as day.

Jesus calls us to repent & teaches us another way to be, a new way to love, a better way to eat. Imagine the smells coming from a kitchen when you come home hungry to a healthy meal. Imagine the world healed from the sins of greed & power that make hunger possible. Imagine the satisfaction of growing & preparing food for the people you love. Imagine the taste of heaven. 

Small & large real life food miracles occur. Take the urban gardening movement that seeds hope amid the sometimes hopeless despair we see in Detroit. Not far from where I lived while attending Wayne State University in the early 1990s, a flourishing community garden now fills an abandoned lot that was once frequented by the desperate, the addicted, & the lonely. People of God plant gardens to grow food where junkies used to shoot smack & smoke crack because we follow a God who always has our back. We can be the miracle that we wish to see in our neighborhoods & in our world. We are called to bring the bread of heaven in future miracles, feeding the 7 billion, one meal at a time.

If they are to know us by our love, then surely they’ll also know we are Christians by our lunch. May it be so. Amen. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

A personal cross responds to its progressive critique

Biting and unbelieving comedian Bill Hicks challenged Christians about wearing crosses around our necks. He chided us that when Jesus comes back, the last thing he would want to see is another cross. Not unlike Hicks, liberal theologians get squeamish about the saving power of the cross and distance themselves from it with critiques that attack academic euphemisms like blood atonement.

My friend, colleague, and our “religion and culture” book-discussion leader assigned our Sunday school class homework this week: Consider and contemplate our understanding of and relationship with the cross. And do this in the context of a compelling and challenging chapter called “The Cross as Futility, Not Forgiveness” in an excellent and provocative book we’re reading by Robin Meyers called Saving Jesus From The Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. This blog serves as part of my response to that homework.

Crosses as powerful symbols predate Christianity and are not the singular insignia of our faith. Some Christians prefer the fish to the cross as an identity marker for Jesus followers. I confess I simultaneously love the empty cross and accept brutality of the bloody crucifix. As contradictory and ubiquitous its grip on our consciousness, we cling to it in comfort. As theologically problematic as we might render its salvific power, we sing of “the rugged cross” and need “nothing but the blood.” 

From my enormous sympathies for Meyer’s intentions and investigations, I’m ultimately left lingering with discontent at his conclusions. I easily devoured Saving Jesus, and alongside my mixed reactions to the text, our class discussions have helped me to wrestle with not just my responses to the book in particular but to clarify my faith and theology more generally.

As an activist-poet-professor who’s taken up residence in the emerging church as a lay preacher-theologian-seminarian, I feel the most solidarity with Christians concerned about issues of inclusion and creation care and peace and civil rights. Raised by my movement veteran parents in a household that’s had a Sojourners subscription for three decades, my faith journey is inseparable from a commitment to radical social action. In this regard, I presume Reverend Myers and I are fellow-travelers. So it’s with some trepidation that I tread back towards what feels like a more conservative position theologically than his, away from what I perceive as his partisan progressive Jesus-ism, admittedly purported in his book as an overdue antidote for the out-of-control errors of an overtly-Americanized fundamentalist Christianity.

In the chapter on the cross, Meyers bypasses blood atonement, replacing Jesus dying for our sins with Jesus dying because of our sins. He rejects the worst aspects of an atoning theology this way: “Instead of a verdict on the ultimate futility of violence, it actually commends it and sends a chilling message to the human species: violence saves.” Many of us can agree with Meyers that we need to be careful in understanding where the theology of substitutionary blood atonement can take us and preach against the religious justification for the prevalence of gratuitous violence—real and imagined—in politics, foreign policy, police work, and popular culture.

But what about the cross—not just in our theology but in our liturgy, not just in our politics but in our personal lives—has this symbol exhausted its purpose or its iconic pull? Does it still maintain a saving and prophetic role?

Crosses in the cosmic sense compel us to contemplate the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God, the unavoidable intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes of life, the incarnate mystery of God’s distance and closeness, a God who is both our companion and our creator. Add the circle to the Celtic cross, and we have a symbol with interspiritual implications, a Christianity engaged and embedded with an essential lunar or solar or terrestrial unity linked to a perennial naturalism and its pagan predecessors.

But crosses in their contextual and corporal sense cause extreme discomfort. That one as beautiful as Christ requires a cross so curdles our consciousness, so confronts us with the violence embedded in our confession of a gentle and loving God who was tortured and murdered by the state that we’ve made it curt and cute with sentimentality and signification. Some prefer the cross as souvenir and sign because to embrace the full potency of its symbolism could make the entire prospect of our religion unpalatable and disgusting.

That’s what my atheist sister sees and my fundamentalist brother still promotes as a reading of this narrative: a violent vengeful domineering God who requires the murder of his beloved son to save the rest of us wretched cretins from an even greater wrath. It’s no wonder liberal theologians seek an alternative narrative to this. At its worst, even this Jesus is a rebel son whose teachings are irrelevant and who doesn’t reveal the nature of his father God but rather flees Him in the garden and ultimately submits to be tortured alive by Him. But erasing atonement might not be the only alternative to this.

But doesn’t Christ’s sacrifice end all sacrifice, redeem all sin? Of course we claim “it is accomplished,” but we don’t act like it. In the years since Jesus, we never really acted like it. Sin and evil are still loose in the world. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we sell these symbols in a manner that would prompt Meyers to bemoan the “perfumed rack” where a “symbol of evil is now worn as personal adornment” from “belly-button rings” to “expensive bling.” In the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve seen crosses and crucifixions proliferate in bomb and bullet, looting and lynching, disease and destruction.

But finally my faith forces me back to Golgotha and its harrowing holy horror. For the Christian to deny cross and crucifixion would be for the soldier to deny artillery and enemies, for the addict to deny drug and drink, for the lover to deny longing and loneliness. Brennan Manning boldly charges, “The day we cease proclaiming Jesus Christ nailed to the cross is the day we effectively part company with the gospel.” 

There’s no comfortable workaround for the narrative sting: our nonviolent Godman died a violent death at the hands of an empire. Question as we might at the cold missteps of Nietzsche or anyone who speculates about the death of God, admittedly our worship and wonder must pass first through the death of God.

The holy meal that precedes this sacrifice to end all sacrifices seems no less sickening at the surface, and yet we relive it daily or weekly or monthly or cyclically. As disciples, we’re consumed and consuming in what makes outsiders uncomfortable, a meal made of our savior, a strange love feast it or rude cannibalistic rite the Eucharist still appears to be.

The cross as symbol fulfills an ultimate faith but at its face value forces us into the chamber of its antithesis, the annihilation of the great commandment of love and loyalty in a spectacle that sure looks like hatred and domination. The obvious futility of the cross cannot crush its overarching reality, its truth, its pain, plain and profane. We meet the soul force of Christ’s love on the cross in contrast to the chasm it crosses. The nonviolent way of the peacemaker savior breathes light into the shadows where violence still lurks.

All the shame and blame of centuries of accumulated violence—that’s certainly Jesus dying because of our sins. But if Jesus didn’t die for our sins as well, it’s not because we were not collectively aching for such a cosmic rescue mission. Some folks who have lived genuinely decent lives generally free of serious sin question whether our human nature is as fundamentally flawed as Christian doctrine suggests. For those people, it might be more helpful to reframe sin as a general state of estrangement and distance from our essential unity with God. For others who have consciously participated in evil, who have felt the demonic grip and wholeheartedly denied God’s love through selfish acts whether individual or collective, we have become sin and have begged in foxhole prayers in desperation for the one who would become sin for us. We have crosses to bear and thorns to wear. We have felt the nails, tasted the blood.

That Christ chose and even accepted crucifixion shows the paradoxical power of powerlessness as an alternative to the powerful structures of a world that worships power. But the wisdom of grace and nonviolent solidarity succeed in sacred terms because they also fail in a world that at times is anything but filled with grace and nonviolent solidarity. The “pre-Easter Jesus” (to borrow Marcus Borg’s phrase) may or may not have been fully cognizant of his saving task for all time, but centuries of Christians have been convicted and converted by it. We accept a Jesus who accepted the world’s rejected ones and rejected values the world finds all too acceptable. We know Jesus’s nonviolence in the context of violence. We know grace in the context of sin—not just collective, social, and institutional sin, but individual, personal, and secret sin. 

Ought we revise the core of Christianity to please the morality of a modern liberal sensibility? Or undo orthodoxy to appease those Americans revolted by burning crosses or the cross compared to the lynching tree? Or offended by contemporary crucifixions wrought with a bullet in Memphis or an airplane crashing into New York City? The politically grotesque passion narrative possesses an undeniable drama and a personal magnetism that’s even more tragic, and the tragedy touches us at our inner core. Granted, we’ve all encountered a preacher in whose hands this story has been a tool of fear and foreboding, terror and control. But how many more of us have had to meet Him in all our naked vulnerable humanity, when embracing Christ’s suffering has been a window to understanding and ultimately being freed from our own?  

I know a conservative theology exists that takes up cross but not teaching, ignoring the humble practices that could inhabit all preaching. But a progressive critique of that twisted and authoritarian cross need not rob us of the salve that stains the palms of our paschal savior, our marvelous mediator and living liberator. At the feet of the cross we revel in the mystery and martyrdom, savoring His sacrifice without over-romanticizing the banality and brutality of its context or ours.

After Paul, we preach and teach Christ crucified. We follow Christ resurrected. Are we not a revolutionary Easter band still willing to walk the solidarity stations of a Good Friday plan? Such lonely soul sickness our savior saves us from with limitless love. Such restoration promised to the beauty of creation spoiled by the arrogance of civilization. Such liberation offered from the blindness of ism and schism, derision and delusion.

Shocking still, the scandal of that hill. A folly full, but we follow its will. A place exists past categories conservative or liberal, past distinctions of ideology or theology, past wars and rivalries, let’s meet our risen Lord there, touch those hands like Thomas, a meal there we will share.