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Hi folks -- thanks for checking out my blog! I really appreciate you taking the time to read my writing. If you like what I share on here, and want to support my blogging and other creative endeavors, then check out my new page on Patreon. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A personal update

(This is a long-ish personal update. TL;DR version: check out my new Patreon page and help support my creative projects!)

Hello readers! Thanks for being here.

I kept waiting for a more appropriate time to post a (somewhat self-indulgent) personal update, but the world keeps spinning, and bad news is abundant. I decided a long time ago not to force myself to blog about every thing that happens in a news cycle. There are plenty of insightful political, social, theological, and economic commentaries about current events, and I don't always have something better to say.

So, I'll go ahead and share this:

As many of you know, at the end of February I finished up my time in ministry at American University. I loved my work there, and am so grateful for all I learned from the AU students. There were so many God sightings during my time there.

Leigh and I are chaplains-in-residence at Georgetown, which means our neighbors are 100 or so college freshman. That's a fun gig, and gives us housing (plus we get to have a puppy!) -- but it's part time, and doesn't come with a paycheck.

So since February, I've been looking for other work, and coming up dry. I've had some part-time contract work here and there, but nothing long-term or even really part-time. Other than that, it's been rejection letter after rejection letter, and it's been wearing me down.

The odd thing about this is that I actually have all sorts of projects and opportunities I'm really excited about right now. To share a few examples:
  • I'm working on a book manuscript about my experiences with mental illness and faith, tentatively titled Christ on the Psych Ward.
  • Leigh and I went to Wild Goose again this year, and although I didn't think I'd get a chance to speak this year, at the last minute my friend Sarah put together a panel and asked me to be a part of it, which was great. 
  • I recently took on the role of board chair for Friends of Sabeel (the U.S. partner of the organization I worked for in Jerusalem), and am feeling energized and excited about their work amplifying the voice of Palestinian Christians for justice and peace. 
  • I've decided to start messing around with a podcast idea, which I'm going to call "Fooling with Scripture" -- I'll be posting those on this blog. Leigh and I are also talking about working on an audio project together, which could be really cool. 
  • I'm messing around with some new music and am hoping to record a few new songs in the next year.
  • And I'm going to be collaborating with some folks at the Convergence project to resource progressive campus ministries on campuses with little or no support network for that kind of thing.
So, lots of exciting, creative, cool things going on.

It's just...none of them help me eat. Or help Penny eat.

And just look at her. She needs food:















So I've decided to try an experiment. I've created a page over at Patreon, which is a website that lets people become patrons for artists, musicians, authors, and other creative-types.

Basically, if you enjoy reading my blog, and would like to see me post on here more often; if you want to hear more about the book and even get some sneak peaks as I'm writing; or if you just like my smiling face and want to share some love; then you can check out the page and become one of my first patrons!

There's different reward levels listed on the Patreon site, but even if you just have a buck or two to donate in a month, I will thank you sincerely and profusely (and give you a shout-out on the podcast when I start posting it)!

And if you can't or don't want to donate at Patreon, don't worry -- my posts on the blog are free, and always will be. Just the fact that people read my stuff is awesome, and I'm grateful that you're here!

Thank you for reading, and be kind out there.

Thanks and peace,
David

P.S. -- Also if you have any job leads, hit me up! Looking in the areas of church ministry, campus ministry, and higher ed/student affairs

P.P.S. -- Since I mentioned the Convergence folks, here's a cool summary of what they're about, featuring the face of yours truly with some super cool friends:


P.P.P.S. -- aaaaaand here's a puppy picture for good measure:



Friday, July 15, 2016

We know how.

"I don't know how."

Searching. Searching for words. I've been searching for words for weeks.

(What a privilege, to spend time searching for words, when people are falling, when words are being wrenched out of their mouths, when breath is being wrenched out of their lungs)

Searching for words, and the words that keep echoing in my head all start the same:

"I don't know how..."

But that is a lie. I know how. We know how.

--

I left Jerusalem in the night. Loaded into the taxi with one last sip of Taybeh still on my tongue. And sat, clenched fists, sweating, the whole way to the airport.

Clawed my way out of Tel Aviv, escaping. Some can't. Most don't want to. Not forever.

A tightly wound ball of anger and hurt, lurching left and right through life until --
   -- five years ago now, can you imagine --
I crashed.

I had seen, had witnessed, the constancy.

The patient widows.

The prayers of feet and hands.

And I did not know if I could do that.

And I turned the anger inward onto myself.

And my mind collapsed.

"I don't know how."

--

2003. Millions of us in the streets, shouting, saying:

"Bombs lead to more bombs. Bombs lead to more bombs. Bombs lead to more bombs. We've got to find another way. "

Do you believe us, now? Do you believe us?

And polite, nice, lovely people saying:

"We don't know how."

"We don't know how."

We know how.

Enough. Disarm your hearts. Unclench your fists from around the weapons that became invisible to us long ago -- we only see theirs, we only see theirs.

We know how.

--

I have seen them:

the widows

the sorrowful mothers

going back to the unjust judge time and time and time again:

"Grant us justice. Grant us justice. Grant us justice."

I know how.

We've seen how.

I've heard the steady whisper,

felt the light touch of the steadying hand,

met that voice down under everything.

I know how.

Silence. Enough. Peace. Be still. Know that God is God.

We know how.

It's just that it's hard.


And guns always seem easier
    than the type of prayer we need
          revealed to us by the presence
               of persistently patient widows.

Monday, July 11, 2016

After These Things

"After these things, God tested Abraham." -- Genesis 22:1

"But race is the child of racism, not the father." -- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

---

"After these things"
    -- that's what the book says --

that it was "after these things"
    that Abraham
    thinking he heard a voice from God
    determined to kill his son.

And they went on,
    the two of them,
        together.

Together,
    inextricably bound,
    violently bound,

Bound together.

After these things.

And each time
    after these things happen

I think the same tired thoughts
    of grief
    and power
    and powerlessness
    and the end of useful words.

But words matter
    (or I do not)

Names matter:
    Philando Castile
    Alton Sterling

Naming matters:
    Black lives matter.

After these things
    after Orlando
    after Dallas
    when it is too late to matter 
    for the bodies sacrificed 
    to gods of hate and shame and fear

after these things
    I wonder
    if --
        without some sort of miraculous intervention
    Abraham can ever learn

to put down the knife.

To put down the gun.

And I imagine Abraham
    on his death bed
    lonely
    no conversation with his son for years
    (bound, bound, inextricably and violently bound)
    lonely

Praying one last time

For one last miracle

That future generations --
     inextricably bound
     rival offspring

would not wait for

    after these things. 


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Istanbul

I flew to Istanbul to renew my visa -- the simple reason.
     The more complex --
         to try to escape from the image
         playing over and over in my head.

The Palestinian boy, 12 years old
(I would later learn)
concealed, mainly, by the clouds of tear gas
where, I remember thinking --
    absurdly ---
the taxis were supposed to be
in Al-Khalil, Hebron, where Abram rests.

Yes, yes, the boy --
     arm uplifted, for a second --
     then, so strange the way he fell.

The Israeli soldiers,
forcing open doors,
setting up on rooftops.

And firing down into the crowd, the gunshots --
    not like in a movie, not dramatic,
    a sound I can't quite capture in words.

"The taxis are up the street," an onlooker said.
Just giving directions.
Just another day in the city where Sarai,
     finally
     laid her head down.

It's not his face I remember --
     I couldn't see him well, not so far up the street, not clouded as he was.

But the scene
     the feel of it
     my face stinging with
     the tightness of it
     as if reality was barely held together
     about to shatter.

And so I went to Istanbul.
     And marveled at the Hagia Sophia
         and the Blue Mosque
              and took a bus to swim in hot springs
                    and to see the ruins of Ephesus
                         and danced and drank and kissed.

And tried to forget.
And tried to escape.

But maybe there is no escaping the contagion
    that stalks through the streets of Al-Khalil
        that howls for blood inside the Istanbul airport
              or terrorizes inside of a night club in Orlando
                   or a school in Connecticut
                         or a street corner in Baltimore.

Different places, yes, I know.
Different things.
Different complicating factors.

But maybe the contagion isn't in a place.
Maybe it's in our hearts.
Our beating hearts.
Our human hearts.

I went to Istanbul to escape,
    and maybe there isn't an escape,
         not like that,
              not like that.

"Thoughts and prayers aren't enough."
"We have to do something."

But you see, I was doing something --
     or thought I was --
          and found myself staring,
          frozen,
          how-dare-I-say-helpless,

"Where are the taxis?" I asked, woodenly.

"Thoughts and prayers aren't enough."
"We have to do something."

And if you think those two statements are so far from each other

That prayer and doing are so far removed

Then you haven't taken a good, hard look at these hearts

These human hearts

These broken hearts

These hurting hearts

These hearts that pump the blood

That flowed out from a 12-year old boy

Into the streets of Hebron

The streets of "God's Friend"

The day before I flew

To Istanbul.

Friday, June 3, 2016

I've seen it done, or, some not-so-final thoughts on unity

Over the past few weeks, I've been doing some reflection on the concept of Christian unity, following the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (and now a troubling Balt-Wash Annual Conference as well). You can read the first of those reflections here, as well as a second and third.

Just to summarize, I looked at three different ways of understanding unity, based on three (well, four, but two of them together) different texts:

The Pentecost story, in contrast to the story of Babel, reminds us that true Christian unity is not monolithic or institutional, but rather charismatic and multilingual. It is based not on structure or top-down enforcement but rather on the Spirit-gifted ability to hear each other in all of our differences.

The Christ hymn from Paul's letter to the church in Philippi shows us that unity is based in the self-emptying love of Jesus, which reveals rather than conceals what true divinity looks like. This passage cautions against trying to achieve unity with power politics and instead challenges us to step out of centers of power and into places of suffering and hurt.

And Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17 reminds us that Christian unity is a mystical unity with God through Jesus and the Spirit, rather than a worldly program of organizational merging or institutional togetherness.

Which all sounds very nice. But the thing is that I'm not just making stuff up here. I've seen it done.

Or rather, I've seen it happen, a gift of the Spirit, the presence of the self-emptying Christ, the mystic union that God bring about.

I've seen communities, churches, small groups, big groups, gathered together in ways that transcend differences while affirming the amazing diversity needful for the health of the body.

I've seen it, I've witnessed it, in a converted apartment in the mountains of Morocco, in a converted house in the city of Jerusalem, in living rooms and small university chapels and big auditoriums.

And yes, I've seen it happen in many United Methodist congregations, where my gifts and my calling have been nurtured, encouraged, strengthened, and affirmed.

It is a beautiful, beautiful thing. A true gift.

There are a few common characteristics that I've noticed about these sorts of communities. I think I'll save that for another reflection, though, because I don't want this to be too utilitarian -- I just want to say, yes, this is possible; yes, there is beauty and wonder to be found in this weird tradition we are a part of; yes, God does call us to unity.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Leigh's church let me preach again

I preached at Leigh's church a month ago.

They invited me back.

That was nice of them.

You can watch/listen to it on their website; the sermon itself starts around 26:00.

It was Memorial Day weekend, and so I talked about memory. Thanks to my dad for giving me permission to share some of his thoughts about Memorial Day and Veteran's Day at the beginning of it.

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 3 -- "I pray they will be one"

This is the third in a series on unity in the church. What do we mean when we use language of "unity," "being united," versus "being divided"? If you missed them, you can go back and read the first part here and the second part here

If you've spent any time with the four gospels, you know that John's gospel is...different. I won't go into all the many differences here, but I'll mention one briefly. Unlike the first three gospels, John's gospel has a long "farewell discourse" in which Jesus offers final thoughts and reflections to his disciples before he is arrested and executed. At the end of this farewell speech, just before his arrest, Jesus prays a long prayer for his disciples, which includes these lines [I've added a few notes since it's out of context]:
"I’m not praying only for them [that  is, the disciples who are standing right there] but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they [that is, all those others who will believe because of the witness of the disciples] will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me."
This is, in a sense, a prayer for Christian unity par excellence. Here Jesus prays, not only for the disciples who he has known during his time on earth, who -- in John's gospel -- he has called friends, but for all those who will come to believe because of their witness. And what does he pray? That they will be united. That they will be one, inextricably part of each other just as John's gospel portrays Jesus/Word and Father*/Source and Spirit/Breath as inextricably part of each other.

Now, this prayer only appears in John's gospel. Maybe Jesus prayed it, maybe not. Maybe this is a prayer that emerged from the experience of a particular community, perhaps an early Jewish Christian community in the diaspora, feeling isolated, it's identity threatened from all sides.

But you know what it's definitely not?

It is definitely not a prayer about denominations staying together.

Or about denominations joining together into bigger denominations.

You know how I know?

Because denominations weren't a thing yet.

This is "yeah, duh, we know," stuff, but it bears saying, because it's so easy for language of "that they will be one" to be co-opted into our denominational conflicts or dialogues.

But that's not what this prayer is about at all. Here, Jesus prays, not for institutional unity, but for a mystical one-ness, the same kind of mystical one-ness that Jesus enjoys with the Father.* What's more, this one-ness has a purpose, an end: "Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me."

The purpose of the unity Jesus prays for is for the world to know and understand God's love, as manifested in Jesus, the Word who becomes flesh and dwells among us. So on the one hand it's a mystical one-ness, rather than an organizational or institutional unity. And on the other hand, it's made real, fleshy, physical, by virtue of its indwelling-ness in the world.

Now, as I've suggested in the past two posts, institutional and organizational work can be good and important. It's very possible to argue that bringing two previously separate organizations together into one united organization is a faithful way to live out the one-ness that Jesus prays for in John 17. But that kind of work isn't the be-all and end-all of Christian unity. Christian unity is only Christian unity if it is (a) a participation in the mystical unity of Christ with God by the power of the Spirit** and (b) directed/sent to the world to spread the knowledge of God's love.

"The Church" at the time John's gospel was written was not a single, united institution. It would have been nearly impossible for the community out of which this writing emerged to have imagined such a thing. What they could imagine, and what they were willing to stake their faith and their lives on, was a deeper unity, which would serve as an expression of God's love in the world.

It seems to me that before we even have any sort of conversation about how to "stay united" or "split up" a denomination or a church, we ought to take a good hard look at what we're doing and ask:

Are we sharing together in spiritual union with God?
Are we helping the world to know God's love?

Ask those questions first.

Ask them. Pray about them. Reflect on them.

And then maybe -- but only maybe -- we can start talking about the structures or institutions that such questions might imply.


----
*I've kept the masculine language as it is in John's gospel, but the language is metaphorical, not literal. The language is meant to emphasize relationship, not gender. One could substitute "Mother," or "Caregiver," or use alternative language, but keep the same essential emphasis. For a wonderful take on all of that, check out Sharon Ringe's book Wisdom's Friends.
** Traditionally, this has been expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity. We can argue until we're blue in the face about the doctrine (and we certainly have), but at base it's about mystical unity, about the indwelling community and hospitality modeled for us by God.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 2 -- "Be of the same mind"

This is the second in a series on unity in the church. What do we mean when we use language of "unity," "being united," versus "being divided"? If you want to know where this is coming from, you can read the first part here
"I am praying that the Church -- as a whole, as a body, not those individuals who already feel they have been emptied, broken, beaten -- but the Church as a whole will remember an ancient, ancient hymn."   
That's how I ended my post two weeks ago, with a prayer for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The ancient hymn I'm talking about is quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to one of the very earliest churches in the city of Philippi. You can read it here.

Paul quotes the hymn, but first he introduces it. He's quoting it for a purpose, and you could sum up his purpose by saying that he wants to urge the church in Philippi towards unity:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Notice that he uses the phrase "same mind" or "one mind" three times in this short passage, as well as"same love." The phrase in the original Greek is phronein to auto -- be of one mind, have the same mind. But the phrase used here by Paul, like similar phrases elsewhere in his letters, doesn't mean "agree on everything." That becomes clear when we read on to hear Paul speak of having the same mind as Christ -- not the same intellectual beliefs, but the same willingness to divest ourselves of power and privilege in order to be united in love.*

Unity, here, is unity in Christ. Specifically, it's unity in the self-emptying Christ.

Now, for some people who have been abused, or deprived of power or a sense of self, an ethical imperative to empty one's self can be problematic. But Paul's "you" is always a plural, written to a community -- in this case, to a community in Philippi, a city deeply entrenched in the power and imperial might of the Roman Empire. And with Paul's interpretive gloss about having one mind and one love, this passage speaks to me of the need for our unity to be based, not in politics or power over one another, but rather in mutuality and solidarity, particularly with those experiencing suffering and marginalization. Those suffering death, even death on a cross.

One last note on the text. Many English translations say something like this:

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself..."

I added the emphasis there.

Because "though" isn't in the original Greek at all.

"Though" was added by English translators to make some sense out of a rather complex Greek sentence. But "though" sets up a contrast -- even though he was in the form of God, Jesus Christ emptied himself. Which apparently is a very un-God-like thing to do.

But the text says something more like, "Christ Jesus who in the form of God was emptying himself."

Which makes it sound like self-emptying is, in fact, a very God-like thing to do.

I owe this insight to a talk given by Brian McLaren, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The self-emptying of Jesus isn't in contrast to an otherwise mighty, distant, apathetic god; the self-emptying of Jesus is what God looks like in action. And it's the sort of action we're called to -- one in which we empty ourselves of power, not because it removes our divinity, but because it reveals it.

That's the important point that I want to make here. A truly self-emptying unity ought to reveal the divinity in all of us, not obscure it or harm it. "To be of one mind" is to be of this mind -- this self-emptying mind, this mind of divine love.

And I'm just not sure there's a way you can institutionalize this kind of thing. As I said in my last post, this doesn't mean institutions are necessarily bad. And there are certainly actions they can take and structures they can form that tend to inhibit or obstruct such kenotic unity. There also might very well be actions that institutions can take to facilitate -- the root of the word means 'easy,' as in, 'to make something easier' -- this sort of shared identity-in-love.

But "Be of the same mind" and "have the same love" is not the same as "be of one logo" or "have a single mission statement" or "share a global structure." That's not to say those things are bad. They're just not really the point.

This passage can't -- no ancient passage can -- reveal to us all the answers of how to make such a thing possible, how to shape it or structure it. But it can, I think, give us some good questions to ask. Questions like, "Are we creating a space in which people are safe to express a self-emptying love? Or are we too anxious, too conflictual, for people to do anything but keep their guards up? Are we divesting ourselves of power-over in order to unite with those who are being harmed by the powers of the world? Are we (and here I'm speaking to myself and everyone else in the ordination process, or already ordained) more concerned with questions of status than with questions of love?"

These are challenging questions, which defy easy answer. They aren't the only questions raised by this passage. But they're the kind of questions -- rather than questions about votes, or who's-in-charge-here, or institutional authority -- that we ought to be asking if we want to talk about Christ-like unity.

Stay tuned for the third part of this little series, where I'll share some thoughts about Jesus' prayer for the unity of the Church. 

---
* Edit: I realize I should provide some sources for this claim. Check out the chapter on Philippians by my professor, Carla Swafford Works, in the 3rd edition of the Women's Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012); as well as Sze-Kar Wan's entry on "Mind" in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4 (Abingdon, 2009).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 1: Pentecost or Babel?

I said two weeks ago that you wouldn't be hearing from me about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church until it was over, and I stuck to that promise.

Now the Conference is over, with unfortunately predictable results. Some people are saying that unity is worth it all; others are agitating for splitting up. Which is pretty much what I remember happening 4 years ago.

And I'm still not going to say much about it. I wasn't there, and there are other places you can go if you want analysis of General Conference itself. Better places. More informed places. Let me suggest Jeremy Smith's blog, which includes guest voices; or this helpful article from Dr. Darryl Stephens; or this one from Rev. Mary Sellon Huycke.

What I have been thinking quite a bit about, and what I would like to spend some time writing about, is the idea of unity and being united. What does it mean to work for, pray for, seek unity in the Church? What would it mean to be "united"? Or to be "divided"?

I've been thinking about that a lot over the past week, and I started sketching out a blog, and before I knew it had gotten way too long. So I'm actually going to write a few posts on this topic, and post them here.

First, I'm going to talk a little bit about two stories that, in many churches, are read together 50 days after Easter.

Then, I'm going to talk a little bit about a very old song.

Then, I'm going to talk about a prayer that Jesus prayed, at least according to one storyteller.

And finally, I might get around to saying a thing or two about the United Methodist Church.

So with all of that said, here's part 1:


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sometimes Pentecost is cold

Sometimes Pentecost is cold
   which is fitting
      because the flames can't burn hot
           all the time.

That would be the stuff of
   motivational speeches
   self-help pep talks
   bluster and chest-pounding.

Sometimes we need
   a flickering
   a dampening
   a dimming

So we can remember:

We spend most of our time
   not in upper rooms
      but in places called Babel.
   

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What happens when I pray

What happens when I pray
               ---

Whenever I try to pray
   I find myself
     (or at least, I fail to lose myself)
   distracted
      (in record time)
   by
      10,000 things

By failures and grudges
   and time tables and pay scales
   by the good and the bad and --
      well, mainly, by the ugliness that simmers behind my smiles.

And if, by chance or by grace,
   I catch myself
   as I churn through the sludge of old, tired thoughts

And if, by chance or by grace,
   I don't turn the catching into more sludge
   fodder for the curving in

then --
   sometimes --
      some precious times --
         I can have a quiet, inward chuckle at myself.

And if, by chance or by grace,
   I do
Then the churn quiets down enough
   that I can hear --
      just barely
      out of the corner of my soul's eye
God chuckling softly with me.

You see,
   prayer is a serious thing.

But God knows 
   not to take it too seriously.