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)
      (in record time)
      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.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A prayer for General Conference

For anyone reading this who isn't ensconced in the weird world of United Methodism, this week begins the United Methodist Church's General Conference, taking place this year in Portland, OR. This gathering takes place once every four years, and brings delegates from all over the world to discuss various matters of church doctrine and policy.

I was at the last General Conference, in 2012, and it was a very difficult experience. To be honest, in hindsight it was a questionable decision for me to attend. I was still recovering at the time from a series of hospitalizations for mental health reasons, and the gathering is stressful and discouraging for even those in the best of mental health. Which I was not. So take that into due consideration when I tell you that, for me, being a part of General Conference was an alienating, disconcerting experience, one which I frankly have no desire to ever repeat.

And so as General Conference begins, and as the rate of blogs and articles related to it begin to take up more and more space on my newsfeed, I want to just say briefly that I am praying for everyone attending and everyone affected by the decisions made there, and that you won't be hearing from me about the topic again until it's all over.

My prayer is that the delegates, observers, and those there to witness for justice and inclusion will find moments of hope, of solidarity, and of peace in the midst of all of the rancor, division, and political posturing. My prayer is -- as it always is -- that love will, somehow, prevail.

To be honest, although I have very strong beliefs and opinions about a number of the topics that will be debated, and while I am definitely praying for an end to the hurt that so many have experienced, I am finding it hard to be optimistic about any particular outcome.

In part this is because the experience 4 years ago was so terrible for me, not because of the results of the votes, but because of the hurt and cynicism that seemed to dominate all of the discussions.

In part it is because a quick glance at any of the crosses with which we decorate our churches ought to remind us that the God we proclaim does not really guarantee us results.

What God does promise us, instead, is solidarity. Resurrection. Spirit. Hope.

And so those are the things that I am praying for.

And 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.

Of Christ.
In the form of God.
Not grasping for power.
But emptying himself.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

I preached a sermon at Leigh's church

You can listen to it here.

It's part of a sermon series called "Half-Truths." Each week the congregation -- Crossroads UMC in Ashburn, VA -- is looking at a popular saying that people think is biblical/part of the Christian tradition, but really isn't a good representation of that tradition. My "half-truth" was "God won't give you more than you can handle."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My friend Morgan wrote a book

Hi friends.

At the beginning of last month, I posted on here and said that I was going to be writing more regularly and that you would be seeing the fruits of that writing.

Fun fact: I lied.

Well, "lied" sounds intentional. The actual fact of the matter is that I've been struggling with a mixture of writer's block, existential doubt, and my old friend depression, who seems to haunt around every corner that looks even a little bit like failure.

Also I have cold. Blergh.

One thing that I have been meaning to write, in fact that I promised to write, is a book review. I was supposed to review a book written by my friend, Morgan Guyton. The book is called How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.

It's a good book. I recommend it. You can buy it here.

I told Morgan that I would post something about his book on my blog. I told him I would do so last Tuesday. I didn't. Then I felt really bad about it. So I promised myself I would post it on Wednesday. I didn't. So then I started feeling really awful and ashamed about the fact that I had not posted about it, even though (rationally) I doubt Morgan, who is in the middle of launching a book, really noticed that I had failed to do so. Especially since some rather more high-profile folks than me are talking about his book. But I kept feeling worse and worse about not writing anything about it, and kept trying to come up with something clever or good or helpful to say about it, and not coming up with anything, and so not posting anything, and then feeling bad about it. And, if I'm being completely honest, I was feeling a bit bitter and jealous of my friend Morgan, who was able to write a book, while I'm apparently incapable of even writing something about a book that someone else managed to write.

This is not a particularly flattering thing to share about myself, but c'mon, you know you've thought this kind of thing before.

And then, while complaining to my wife about something completely different, she said to me: "Why don't you try to do one thing at a time and not try to do everything at once?"

Which is wise advice.

So I decided I would post about the book written by my friend Morgan.

Which I still have nothing clever or helpful to say about, other than this:

It is a good book. You should read it, if you are interested in faith or if you have become un-interested in faith because of hurtful things that religious people have done or said.

And also, this:

One of the things that Morgan's book says is that our desperate need to justify ourselves and to perform does a lot more damage than it does good, and the grace our faith proclaims is exactly the opposite of all of that. And that is probably a good thing for me to remember, when I have a bad case of writer's block and am feeling a bit depressed and can't, for the life of me, come up with anything useful to write about a friend's book.

Which you should buy.

By clicking here.

Friday, April 1, 2016

In (brief) praise of foolishness

I don't like April Fool's Day.

I hate pranks. Joke news articles that get posted online never rise to the humor level of actual satire, and often involve making light of things that aren't really that funny.

But I did name this blog with a nod to the foolishness of faith, so I thought I'd take a brief moment on this first day of April to celebrate foolishness.

Writing to a church wracked with conflict, scandal, and political machinations, the apostle Paul wrote this sometime in the 1st century:
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence.
Not many wise, not many powerful, not many form the upper class -- but God chooses what is nothing to reduce all the "something-ness" that we strive for to naught.


An even playing field.


Compassion winning out over hatred.


Love being the strongest force, the thing that holds the universe together.

Foolishness, foolishness, foolishness.

I hate pranks. But here's to foolishness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What if *he's* not the problem?

I hesitate to post this, having recently shifted most of my social media presence away from political commentary and into the much more satisfying realm of puppy pics. So, in the style of John Oliver: if you get through this with me, I'll post a pic of Penny Lane at the end. Deal?

Alright, so -- you've probably heard, there's a certain casino-owner-turned-reality-TV-"star"-turned-presidential candidate who has been getting a lot of attention and a lot of votes. This person, whose name I have steadfastly refused to write on the internet in order to avoid any further inflation of his already bloated ego, has been inciting violence and making statements that are blatantly racist, sexist, xenophobic, and just about every other type of -ist and -phobic there is. All of this, it seems, to the thunderous applause and laughter of a rather large group of fellow citizens.

This has drawn a lot of comparisons to 1930s Germany and the meteoric ascendance of another monstrously masterful conductor of the xenophobic orchestra, whose name has now become so synonymous with evil that we can hurl it at people as a political ad hominem, with or without any understanding of the context in which he rose to power.

And it seems to be the widely held opinion, from just about everyone I'm friends with in material or Facebook reality, that stopping this particular orange-haired fellow and his fascist band of followers is The Thing that must happen in order to save America from impending doom and destruction.

And I'm super suspicious of that sort of language for basically the same reason I'm suspicious of Mr. "We'll make Mexico pay for the wall."

I'm suspicious -- or at least I am if I'm thinking clearly enough and being mindful enough to reflect for a second -- anytime anybody proposes that the problem, the thing that must be fixed, is that guy over there, those people over there. I've heard this person's supporters called ignorant, idiotic, dangerous, even vermin. That's language dangerously close to the type of language we decry when it is coming from their lips. That's language that says, "We'd all be better off if those people didn't exist anymore....not that I'm saying we should do anything about it, mind you, just saying...."

Remember that the eugenics folks were all about eliminating imbeciles and improving the intellect of the country. Just notice that for a second.

A brief story. Leigh and I were talking the other day, and she wondered out loud about who the people are who are voting for this fellow -- since she doesn't know anyone, personally, who is voting for the guy. Same for me, I said. And that strikes me as indicative of a problem -- the same problem, I suspect, that makes a failed businessman and reality TV star such a popular figure to begin with.

There are such huge divides, huge chasms in this country. And they are often marked, yes, by race, by class, by sexuality, by gender identity, by educational attainment. All these things are true. These things lead to the type of political clustering -- aided by the social media echo chamber -- that make it possible for me to not know a single person voting for the leading candidate of a major political party.

But deep down under that lurks something else -- something, I suspect, that is not so easy to blame on them over there.

I think we've got a shame problem and an empathy problem.

And by "we," I mean, "a group of people that includes me, myself, I, this guy right here, writing this blog post."

I think we -- I think I -- have a really hard time putting myself into the place of people I disagree with, or of people who are different than me, and I think when you start to probe around as to why that might be, other than just sort of a general human-condition-we-are-mysteries-unto-each-other thing, the reason is shame.

To put myself in someone else's place is to risk exposing my own uncertainty, or my own weakness, or my own vulnerability -- or, say, my own racism, my own sexism, my own xenophobia -- and that is really quite terrifying, so better to yell or to laugh scornfully.

And so the divisions grow deeper, and our reactions to each other grow more extreme, and it's all quite horrendously predictable and sad.

Now, I want to back up and be really clear about some things that I'm not saying. I'm not, not even for a second, condemning the protesters at the rally in Chicago and elsewhere. I'm not admonishing those who are truly fearful for the violence and oppression that might be directed at them or their families. I'm not suggesting that people should not organize, or should not be about the work of proposing political alternatives that are not based in narratives of fear, anger, or hate.

Yes to protest. Yes to organizing. Yes to a politics of hope.

But let's be careful, yes? Let's be careful not to become the thing that we fear so much.

And let's remember that the xenophobia and racism and sexism and all the other -isms and -phobias this election have brought to the surface did not suddenly appear over night.

Let's remember that they have been here, dwelling with us -- our national shadow, so to speak.

Let's remember that the Wall we're freaking out has already been built in places -- I've seen it, touched it, compared it to the one in Palestine, which I've also seen and touched, which we helped build with our tax dollars.

Let's remember that the carpet bombing threats that we're so offended by, the war crimes being proposed that we are quick to condemn -- these things have already happened, are happening still, and on our dime, and without such a widespread reaction. You know. To the real thing. Because, really, please, tell me the difference, with a straight face, between "You've got to kill the terrorists' families" and drone strikes in Pakistan.

But more than all of that, more than any particular issue that I could name, what I'm suggesting is that all of this might be dwelling much closer than we might care to admit -- hidden, under layers of shame, in our own hearts.

And that if we can uncover that, if we can gently tear open those layers of shame, we might just find those terrifying forces disarmed. We might just rediscover our capacity for empathy and for solidarity and for care.

It's what Christian theologians might refer to as "standing under the cross." Realizing our own complicity, our own involvement in violence, our own need for forgiveness. And then finding ourselves, somewhat miraculously, forgiven. Free from shame. Free to love.

And that, I suspect, will go much further towards healing this hurting country and this hurting world than shutting up those terrifying people over there.

And that's about as far as I'll go with this, for today.

Now, for your promised Penny pic:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Transitions, Lenten Journeys, and New Life for the Ol' Blog

Hi friends -- it's been too long since I've posted regularly on here. If you're still reading, thanks for sticking with me!

You might already know, but this has been a time of massive transition for me. Leigh and I graduated in May and got married in September; by October we'd moved to Georgetown University to begin a new position together as Chaplains-in-Residence in the New South freshman residence hall. During that same time period, I served for a semester as the interim United Methodist Chaplain at American University, since our full-time chaplain was on sabbatical for the semester. I also came on as a board member for Friends of Sabeel North America. Leigh started another new job during that semester. And we were both TAing classes at Wesley Seminary. It was a full and rich semester. It was also tremendously busy, and more than a little overwhelming.

As the new year began, I started to realize that I needed to take a deep breath and step back from a few things. I've learned before that I need to take some care with myself, to not get in over my head emotionally and mentally. It's a health issue for me, and it's also a soul issue. When I'm overwhelmed, I don't function well, and I don't love well, either.

Because of that, and because of some other discernment that I've been doing, I made a tough decision. I've stepped down from my position as an Associate Chaplain at AU.* February 28th was my last Sunday there. I'm sad, and will miss a community that I've been part of for a long time -- four years in an official capacity, but really more like 7 years, since I first came to DC. I also feel a sense of peace about the decision, and am excited to see how that ministry is going to continue to grow in love, service, and welcome.

This was definitely a big decision for me, but it's just one part of a deeper and wider sense I've had that I'm in a time of transition and need to, for lack of a more eloquent word, do this transition. Getting married, moving together with Leigh to start a shared position, and most recently getting a dog** -- these are big, big shifts from where I was a few years ago. I think I need some time to honor that. Some time to learn how to be a husband (and a puppy dad) and to take some breaths before plunging into whatever the next adventure is going to be.

And I suppose that's the Lenten practice that I've taken up, to be in this, to be mindful of this journey I'm on. William Bridges suggests two questions for people who are in transition, particularly work transition: "What is it time to let go of in my life right now?" and "What is standing backstage, in the wings of my life, waiting to make its entrance?"***

So during Lent I'm pondering those questions. And taking some time to pray and to reflect and to write and to think.

And to play with a puppy, which sure helps.

Ministry at Georgetown continues (you can read updates from Leigh and I about that here), as does TAing at Wesley. I'm also going to be working on a few writing projects -- some of the fruit of which I may be posting on here. And I'm going to try to update this blog at least once a week, now that I'll have a bit more down time, so you'll be seeing more from me on here.

So stay tuned for more writing and thoughts here -- and if you want the puppy picture hookup, friend me on Facebook!

I am grateful for all of you, and overflowing with gratitude for all of the amazing opportunities and gifts in my life.

Grace and peace,

* Many of you donated so generously to the Next Generation Campaign at AU.  Thank you, thank you, thank you! I benefited directly from that support, and now the campaign continues to grow. The vision remains to support a new staff position at AU in the coming year. I don't know exactly what that will look like, but I bet it will be cool, and I'm sure they'll be updating the Next Generation website when they have more details.

** Specifically, this adorable puppy:

*** That's from Bridges' book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes (DeCapo, 2004), pg. 87.