Saturday, June 7, 2014

My questions about "A Way Forward"

I was going to put a link to "A Way Forward" in case you haven't read it, but actually, if you haven't read it, I'm not sure you care too much about this post. Which I'll sort of circle back to at the end. So, skip to the end...or, instead, go outside, take a walk, and get lost in wonder, love, and praise.

For the authors of the document and those signing, my question is:
Who is the intended audience? What is the purpose of the signatures? To show support, of course--but to whom? What is the goal of the effort put into this?

For those who want to split, my question is:
What will we do differently so that we're not just a smaller version of an irrelevant social club? Do we really believe that by leaving either the conservatives or the liberals behind, we will suddenly be able to fulfill our mission more effectively, or are we just saying that because it sounds better than "we don't like each other"? Would the labyrinth of logistical considerations related to a split be worth the "mission payoff"?

For those who want to stay in communion, my question is:
Is there a better way to do that than a $10 million logistical nightmare, requiring significant effort, time, and travel for thousands of people who palpably dislike each other, and organized around 19th century parliamentary rules that were never meant to be simultaneously translated, resulting largely in decisions that are ignored by most of our congregations, much less people in our mission field? Is anyone, at all, looking at General Conference and saying, "Look at those Christians! See how they love each other!"

For those who want to keep the language in the discipline, my question is:
If doctrinal obedience is so important, why were you not absolutely up in arms about the 302 delegates (around a third of the total) who voted against a statement that "God’s grace is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus," a statement so clearly in line with biblical principles and Wesleyan teaching? Is what the Bible says about same-gender sex really more important than what it says about grace? Isn't grace upon grace upon grace, not sex, the Wesleyan emphasis? Where the doctrinal denunciations of Neo-Calvinism, or Christian Zionism? Or the trials of pastors who refuse to baptize infants or, for that matter, pursue socially responsible investment (a Disciplinary requirement)?

For those who want to change the Discipline, my question is:
What is going to change, in 2016 or 2020 or 2024, to make the hurtful experience of 2012 worth going through again? For those that our awful language most directly impacts, those who have most grievously injured by this whole mess, doesn't it become re-traumatizing at some point? And for those working on legislation, do we see this as (sorry to rip off the phrase) a way forward or is it just habit at this point?

There may be answers to all those questions. Feel free to comment if you have them; I'd certainly appreciate it. But here is my last set, and it's addressed to me most of all:

Is any of what I say, about this particular controversy or about the UMC, actually doing anything to advance the mission of the church; or, more accurately, to respond to and participate in God's gracious mission of healing and transforming and redeeming and reconciling the world?

In other words: is any of this hectic activity relevant to anyone except those of us who are already talking about it?

And if not--what do I need to do differently?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Some things I remember

It is Memorial Day; a day for remembering. And it is good and right to remember.

Here are some things I remember.

I remember my dad, a two tour Vietnam vet, though you wouldn't know that from his license plate or his hat, speaking to a group of people in a university classroom. "Memorial Day is a sad day for me," he said. "It's a day I remember friends I've lost--not just in combat but here at home, from suicide or drugs or alcohol or homelessness." It was the first time I'd heard him say it so directly, in more than two decades.

I remember him, during the lead-up to the first Gulf War. How worried he was. I was young, then, and didn't have these words, but...there was a deep wound, there.

I remember being a kid, and playing war. Thinking it was a glorious thing, the guns and the planes, the heroes and the excitement. Watching war movies with my dad.

I remember the day the planes struck the towers. How clear and blue the sky was, with not a plane in sight. I remember how surreal it was. How I thought, "This is madness." And somehow knowing that this was the beginning of more madness.

I remember marching in DC with tens of thousands of others. I was with my dad and we walked down to the Vietnam War Memorial, and he found a name here and a name there. And I had the sense that this was going to happen, again.

I remember kids in my high school cheering when the principal announced that we were going to invade Iraq, and this deep sense of anger welling up in me that we would cheer death.

I remember going with a friend to a Quaker meeting in college, and feeling like perhaps peace was a possible thing, a palpable thing. Praying for it. Longing for it.

I remember hearing of the death by suicide of a young man from my high school who was in Iraq. A man--a boy--I didn't know well. And hearing that, during many months, the suicide rate among soldiers was higher than combat losses.

I remember people cheering for soldiers in the airport. How some seemed so appreciative, while others had faces that were hard to read. I remember my dad saying, "When people thank me for my service, I tell them to call up a favorite teacher and thank them instead."

I remember being in Bethlehem, with the fighter planes thundering overhead, and a young Palestinian man saying, "They are practicing for something big." And they were. And Gaza burned.

I remember being at a funeral, and watching two young soldiers fold a flag with shaking hands, and how I had the deep sense that it was right for them to do so, that this was not about any policy or any critique but about honoring a man who had served.

I remember people who have died fighting their own private wars, with depression or isolation or the weight of life.

And I remember writing all of this before. Sharing all of this before.

And I suppose that I will keep doing that, as long as we insist on adding names to the list of people we need to remember on this day.

We remember that on the night before Jesus threw himself into the face of violence, he shared bread and wine with friends. And we make a claim in the face of all evidence to the contrary that love wins. That breaking bread and sharing wine somehow has some power in the face of death's steady march. That we will feast together at a heavenly banquet.

So, yes. Today, I will remember. I will honor. I will pray for God's loving and gracious arms to hold the dead, to hold the widows and the orphans of war, to hold the veterans and the victims of war.

I will remember. And also. I will not consent to add names to the list. I will not--and I will keep saying this until I'm out of breath to do it--I will not dance to the drums of war.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A few thoughts on Aldersgate Day and sharing stories

So, today is Aldersgate Day, that wonderful day each year when I get to see which of my Facebook friends are really, truly Methodist nerds.

For those of you who aren't in the know (or who have, you know, lives and stuff), Aldersgate Day is like a Methodist mini-holy day, also known as "Heart Strangely Warmed" Day. Here's Methodist founder John Wesley's journal entry from May 24, 1738:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a [Moravian] society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Huzzah! Heart strangely warmed! Conversion experience! Revival! Methodism begins!

Here is what I love about Aldersgate Day.

While the experience at Aldersgate Street more than 275 years ago is often referred to as a conversion experience for Wesley, at the time he was not only already a Christian, but already an ordained Anglican priest. He had already gone on mission to the colonies, had truly mucked things up, and had returned feeling despondent and doubtful. What happened at Aldersgate wasn't a conversion to a different religion, it was a re-conversion (a re-"turning"). A realization that all of the things that he had read and learned and preached about might actually apply to him. That God really, actually, loved him and wanted to get up to something rather revolutionary in his messy life of faith and doubt.

I love that. It's a bit of a counter-narrative. It's not a checked box. It's not a repudiation of everything that came before, nor does it turn everything after into just telling that one story over and over and trying to get other people to have exactly the same experience. It's just a moment in time when the whole story came into focus. John Wesley would not have appreciated the sort of obsessive focus on a singular, personal salvation experience that has become so emphasized in much of USAmerican Christianity. This is, after all, the man who wrote against the concept of "holy solitaries," saying: "The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness."

I guess what I'm saying is, I like Aldersgate Day not because of that one day, but because of what it says about every other day. Every other part of the story. And not just my story. But my part in the whole grand story of God's love. And of all the ways that we totally don't get it. And then those times when, suddenly, it comes into focus. And we realize that God is up to some amazing things. Bridging separation. Healing brokenness. Challenging alienation and shame. Getting all up in the face of oppressive power. Inspiring. Resurrecting.

And we're invited along for the ride.

So: next time some wandering proselytizer asks you, "Have you been saved?" Or, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" Maybe you should say:

"Got an hour or two? I've got a story to tell you."

I'd love to hear yours.

Whether today is an Aldersgate Day sort of day for you, or whether it's one of those "lost in the fog" sort of days, or whether it's one of those "I suck at talking to women [or whoever] and then I deny them communion which is sort of a no-no and then I leave the colonies in disgrace and almost die in a storm" sort of days, it's part of your story. And whether you realize it today or not, God loves you. Even you.

Even me.

Even us.
Painted wall in the common area of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Hawaii.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

First thoughts on Hawaii

So. I'm in Honolulu. What to say, what to say?

It is humid here but nothing like the soul-crushing weight of humidity in DC.

This is a very diverse place. Different languages, different ethnicities, different backgrounds. I've met a few of the students I'll be working with. One is from Ithaca, NY. One is from Maui. One is from Beijing. One is from Atlanta. One is from Korea, by way of American Samoa.

Everyone has been very nice to me. The students have been giving me good tips on things I should check out.

The place where I am living is cool, but the bugs don't mess around (pictures pending--those suckers move fast).

Unlike DC, people drive pretty slow and also do not seem to be out to murder each other.

Also, when I walk my normal pace here, I feel like I'm sprinting.

Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959 after struggling to defend its sovereignty against...guess who:

 

So it's been a state for 55 years, and is the most recent U.S. state. DC, it's time.

According to one sign at the Waikiki beaches, surfing almost disappeared from Hawaii by 1900 because missionaries tried to ban it:


















Way to go, us. Nothing makes Jesus look good like trying to eradicate fun.

I am not sure that I will learn how to surf:


















But I definitely want to learn how to play the uke:















Spot and I can't wait for Leigh to get here so that we can check out some of these excursions (book courtesy of UMW Book Sale at Metropolitan):


And, finally, I am one lucky, lucky dude. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

A couple more songs

I was messing around this morning with recording music on my iPhone, so I thought I'd post two songs that I recorded using the generic voice memo app. I was sort of amazed at the quality of the recordings--certainly not studio quality but not terrible either. Any suggestions for more sophisticated apps?






---

Here's the lyrics:

"When We Breathe"

In you we live, in you we move, and have our very being.
And when we don't know how to pray your Spirit cries within us.
So when we breathe you're there.
When we breathe you're there.
Closer than the air is your love!
When we breathe you're there.

In you all things came to exist.
You bear along here with us.
The stars sing out, you know their names.
Creation groans for justice.
And when we breathe you're there.
When we breathe you're there.
Closer than the air is your love!
When we breathe you're there.

When we breathe in to sing your praise our lungs are already filled with your grace.

---

"Sparrows"

The first time I saw death was a tree in my backyard.
I remember I watched it fall.
And ever since that day I've been waiting for my skin to fall away.
I didn't know it then, but that's the price of being alive.

I am talking to my father now, about his father and about the war.
And he is telling me stories that my sister wants to record.
We're making sense of craziness and making light of pain.

God's eye is on the sparrow but the sparrow still falls, and so will I.

A couple of months before my mother's mother died, I drew a picture of gray birds.
They were flying away to some unknown destination, and with a child's intuition I dedicated them to her.

God's eye is on the sparrow but the sparrow still falls, and so will I.

She says that she's still hurting.
Well, so am I.
She says it's like he's still falling.
Well, aren't we all?

God's eye is on the sparrow but the sparrow still falls, and so will I.


Friday, April 25, 2014

An Easter Season Sermon -- "Playing a Different Game"

This is a sermon I preached last night in Kay Chapel at American University. It's about how it's hard to talk about resurrection when we're experiencing grief or death. It's based on 1 Corinthians 15.

The raccoon sighting is bonus material.


Christ is risen! Hallelujah!
            And Happy Easter! While it’s easy to think of Easter as a single day, in church tradition Easter Sunday is just the first day of the Easter season. It’s called the Great Fifty Days of Easter, marking the time between now and Pentecost. So while resurrection is always central to the Christian faith, in the grand story of the church, we are just beginning a whole season focused on the proclamation of the resurrection. Fifty days of joy. Which I think is pretty cool.
            But it’s also a challenge. Because sometimes, it’s awfully hard to proclaim the resurrection. It’s awfully hard to figure out how to talk about life and hope and newness when we are inevitably faced with death and despair and fear. I’m not just talking about in a general sense. I’m talking about the very real ways that each one of us is touched by death and by hurt in our lives. People we are deeply connected to who are sick, who are dying, who have already died. What do we say? How do we proclaim the resurrection, when we are holding the hand of a loved one in the hospital or hearing the bad news on the phone, and words of hope seem false on our lips?
            Last year, just before Easter, my best friend’s dad died after being sick with cancer for a very long time. During middle school and high school, I practically lived at their house. Mr. Summerville could sometimes be sort of a grumpy, cynical guy, but I knew I was always welcome to hang out, play video games, have dinner, and be a general nuisance. I went to visit while he was in home hospice care. He was having trouble talking but he smiled when I got there and told me he thought I’d make a great minister, which meant so much to me. He was someone I cared about deeply, and his son Dan, my best friend, is one of the most important people in my life. And Dan called to tell me that his dad had died, even though it was expected, even though I’ve gone to church my whole life, even though I’ve worshipped on almost 30 Easter Sundays, even though I’ve been in seminary since 2010, you know what was the best response I could come up with?
            I said, “This sucks. I am so sorry. This sucks. Cancer can go straight to hell.”
            The part about cancer going to hell was at least vaguely theological. But no words of resurrection came from my lips that day. I was sad, and angry, and I didn’t want resurrection on some distant day. I wanted Rick Summerville alive.
            Now, my best friend Dan and his dad are not the most churchy of folks, so maybe I get a break for not throwing religious language at them. But I don’t know that my response is much different when it comes to committed Christians. I’m not sure it feels much more helpful to talk theology when death strikes. My professor Mike Stavlund works for a church in Northern Virginia. A few years ago, his four-month old son, Will, died. And Mike found himself doing what no parent ever wants to do: attending the funeral of his child. Last year I heard him give a talk about grief. I asked him, after that talk, whether belief in the resurrection helped at all after Will’s death. And he said something like: “No. No, it really didn’t. It’s not that I don’t believe in it. It’s that I could have really used some resurrection in that hospital room at 3am.” He didn’t want resurrection on some distant day. He wanted Will alive.
            In the face of death, real, actual, painful death, suddenly the promises of the Great Fifty Days of Easter feel strangely hollow. Here we are, at the very center of Christian faith, and all we can think of to say is, “I’m so sorry,” and maybe that’s the best thing we can say, if we say anything at all. We hear the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. We hear him quote from the prophet Hosea, and say: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And then someone dies. And dammit, it sure does feel like a loss. It sure does seem to sting.
So what does that mean for the proclamation of resurrection? What does that mean for this, the core claim of our faith? As Paul says in tonight’s typically intense passage: “If there’s no resurrection from the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless.” We’re Easter people. We can’t just turn away from this point.
But I don’t think we need to turn away from it. Because Paul, I think, is grappling with the same sorts of questions about resurrection. Tonight’s passage is part of a whole long chapter about resurrection. Unlike Paul’s other letters, we know that this one is written in response to a letter sent to Paul by the church in Corinth. They apparently have some pretty major doubts about this resurrection business, and Paul is trying to respond to them. Now, I need you to imagine something with me. It’s almost certain, based on passages in Paul’s letters and what we know of communication in the 1st century Roman world, that Paul didn’t write his letters by hand; rather, he dictated to a scribe. So I want you to imagine Paul dictating this letter. And he’s trying to answer questions about the resurrection, and about whether there is a resurrection of the dead for all people or whether that was just something Jesus did, or what. And I want you to imagine Paul pacing back and forth, talking out loud, half to his scribe and half to himself, trying to figure out just what the heck to say. And he tries one explanation, and then he doesn’t quite like that, and he tries another, and doesn’t quite like that and so he tries a third. He tries to compare the resurrection to planets or to birds or to fruit or to seeds that are sown. He goes on for 58 verses, and by the end of it I wonder if he’s as confused as the Corinthians. You get to the beginning of chapter 16 and Paul’s like, “Ok...uh...anyway, let’s talk about the collection money.”
Oh, Paul.
So I keep coming back to this passage, because in the questions of the Corinthian believers and in Paul’s struggle to respond, I see my own questions and my own struggle. What the heck are we talking about when we talk about resurrection? What do we say when death does have its day? I keep coming back to this passage. About everything changing. About bodies that don’t decay. About death, no longer having a sting or a victory. No longer winning.
Victory. Winning. It’s hard to hear this language without thinking of competition. Of sports. Of games.
Ok. I know that we’ve finished our Game of Thrones Lent and Easter series, so I won’t hang on this for too long. But it occurs to me that the phrase “game of thrones” can stand in for all the games of power and violence and alienation and death on display in our world. Early on in the series, Cersei Lannister tells Ned Stark: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." And if you have even a vague knowledge of the series, you know that “die” is the more popular of the two outcomes. Play the game with power, play the game with violence, play the game with death, and death, it seems, wins.
And yet Paul insists that, in light of the resurrection, death has no victory, no sting. Which makes me think that Paul isn’t talking about victory in the game of thrones, the game of power, the game of death. It makes me think that Paul is talking about a different game.
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus signifies the beginning of a new age, an entirely different world order than the pre-resurrection one. But it’s just a beginning. Using harvest language, Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the “firstfruits” of this new world. But the full harvest is yet to come. The new world is both already here, and not yet fully here. The sun has dawned but the shadows of night still linger in the valleys where death makes its home.
So while death, for Paul, has lost its grip on the world, it’s not all the way out yet. Death is itself in its death throes, but is thrashing around and causing all sorts of damage in the meantime. Oppression and injustice and violence, and also all the stuff that doesn’t make national news but still comes crashing into our lives, cancers and car wrecks and suicides and overdoses, are all still wounding, still killing. But Christ is risen. Alleluia! And something has changed. Death is still winning the old game. But something has changed, something deep. There’s a new game being played.
Now it can be pretty tough to actually see the new game. Sometimes we get these glimpses. Like, if the game is police dogs versus civil rights protestors, police dogs will always win. But if the game is about a deep change going on in the power system of this country…well, that’s a different game. If the game is arguing with Westboro Baptist Church, I’m not sure there’s much hope for victory. But if the game is actually about responding with poetry and music and free hot chocolate…well then, that’s a different game…one which, by the way, AU won. If the game is an armed KKK member versus unarmed people in a Jewish Community Center, including two members of the largest United Methodist Church in the country, we know who wins. But if the game is about the continuing growth of interfaith friendships in communities like that one in Kansas and like this one at AU, then KKK—you’re gonna lose this game so hard. Where’s your victory, death? Where’s your victory, hate? Where’s your victory, violence?
But.
I’m not so sure that I would say that to the family of those Methodists who were killed in Kansas; at least not on the day they found out that their loved ones had been shot. It would be too soon; too easy; too abstractly theological. My mind leaps back again to holding the phone as Dan tells me his dad has died. Listening to my friend Mike as he talks about all of the saccharine stuff that good Christian friends said when his son died. Sitting with the 4 sisters of a 35 year old man whose funeral I conducted last week, and listening to their stories, and thinking: “Nothing will ever make this make sense.” And death seems to win, again. And death definitely stings.
And here’s the thing. It will sting. It will sting every single time when we can no longer hug the people we love, when we can’t call them on the phone, when we can’t hear their laugh and see their smile and wipe away their tears anymore. And you know what? It should sting. It should sting because the people we love help us see God, and so when we lose them it feels like losing a piece of our divine image. It should sting because at some fundamental level we feel the scandal of death. We experience it as injustice.
Here’s how Paul says it: “Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.” It’s a bit of a packed statement, but here’s how I’d paraphrase it. Death stings because it’s a part of the deep alienation that we feel, from each other and from God and from the world. It’s a tangible manifestation of the separation that we experience in our lives. And the Law, the code of justice and right conduct laid out for us in scripture, just makes us even more aware that the world is not as it should be, that there is a deep wound bleeding and that it’s killing us. Every time we try to establish justice, every time we try to make things work, we find ourselves coming up short, and we are reminded of that wound. And until the kingdom comes in all of its fullness, and we feast together at the heavenly banquet, that’s going to keep happening.
            So the resurrection isn’t a trick to try to make people feel better about the death of someone they love. No. There are times when, to paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, we refuse to be comforted. We are allowed to mourn. We are allowed to cry. We are allowed to yell at God. In fact, I can show you the psalms that do just that, and if those run out then we’ll write some of our own. No, we proclaim the resurrection to remind ourselves that something has changed, and that the alienation we feel has, deep down, been overcome by the kind of love that’ll go through the grave to get to us.
Even when we don’t feel that love, it’s at work in us. Working in us for wholeness. Working in us for healing. Working in us for life. That same love is sending us to the side of the people dying and the people mourning, to hold hands and to listen and to cry, so that the overcoming of alienation and separation isn’t a theological abstraction but an incarnational witness to the good news of God’s love. It’s not just, “God loves you,” though that’s of course true. It’s, “we love you, and we are here.” We are here, listening and maybe not saying anything, not because we don’t believe in the resurrection, but because we do believe in it. And it’s sent us here to look death in the eye.
            And that work, the work of showing up and sitting in solidarity and listening well, that work is, as Paul says, not in vain. Even more than that, the work of our loved ones, the way that each has played their part in the great cosmic game of life, is not in vain. Death doesn’t get the last word. Because while death is very, very good at the game that it knows how to play, the game has changed.
            So remember. Remember, when death strikes, that anger and grief and pain are natural and appropriate responses, not to be hidden away or suppressed with theology. But also remember that Christ is risen, the first sign that something very deep has changed. Remember that we are an Easter people, a people of resurrection hope. Remember, remember, remember – no matter what victories death seems to have, we are playing a different game.
            Christ is risen. And as Paul says, “Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
             Alleluia. 
             Amen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday: On belonging, not knowing, and "What do we do then?"

So, I meant to post something awhile ago, since I was in the middle with this blog-alog with Andy. But then Holy Week and Easter...and also getting engaged!! So I've been a bit preoccupied. So here it is, my final response to the questions that Andy asked in this post: "What if God isn’t just that which gives us meaning or allows us to feel like we belong? What do we do then?" I thought that trying to answer the last two questions (since I took a shot at the meaning part in my last post) would be a good way to finish out a sort-of-series about not knowing. It's impossibly long and you probably won't read it all, but...here it is anyway.

So, Andy asks:

What if God isn't just that which allows us to feel like we belong?

Two thoughts on belonging.

One: as Andy said in his post, belonging is a very powerful thing. It's a wonderful word but often has dangerous consequences. Here's Andy's take on it:
"We fight wars (literal as well as theological) in order to figure out who belongs and who does not. We witness the attraction and comfort that is created by a sense of belonging, and yet we also see the trail of wreckage left behind when that same belonging is kept just out of arms reach. We can’t figure out where that desire for belonging comes from or what will finally rid us of the grip that it holds on out lives, but we know that we are terrified of what life looks like when we are alone."
Part of what Andy is getting at here, I think, is the way that we find belonging by creating an in-group, which of course requires an out-group. We figure out how we belong by excluding others. And this exclusion is often violent--emotionally, spiritually, and all too often physically. Religion is pretty adept at this, and certainly Christianity is no exception.

Interestingly, however, right at the center of Christian faith is, I would argue, a powerful rebuke of this tendency to create belonging by "othering," scapegoating, and excluding. This has been very much on my mind over this past (Holy) week.

The Catholic theologian James Allison, inspired by Rene Girard, points to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as a refusal to go along with the exclusion mechanisms of humanity. Take John's gospel, for example. Perhaps no other biblical text has been so often used to exclude and create Christian "in-groups." One of my students shared with me recently that she had been spit on by a Christian who was holding a John 3:16 sign. And John 14:6 is always quoted with the emphasis on the to make it as exclusionary as possible: "I am the way and the truth and the life."

But John also has some insight into the insider-outsider scapegoat mechanism. In 11:50, Caiaphas the High Priest says: "You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for people than to have the whole nation destroyed." A similar story in Luke's gospel has Herod and Pilate, natural enemies, becoming friends because of Jesus' death. Jesus death becomes a uniting factor, a way to bring people together. A way to create belonging.

And then (spoiler alert) comes the resurrection. And Jesus is alive. The scapegoating mechanism falls apart. And yet, instead of taking revenge, Jesus breathes peace. Offers life. Shares forgiveness. Jesus, in other words, doesn't just reinscribe the mechanism by creating a new in-group. Jesus challenges the type of belonging that is created by exclusion. The violence of exclusion is defeated and a new type of inclusion, one that is nonviolent and open and inviting, is created. In the words of Jesus, again from John, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold."

So followers of Jesus, then, should always be looking to the outsider, the excluded, and saying: how do we go there? Because that's where Jesus is, living and dying and being raised. In other words, God doesn't make us feel like we belong. God challenges the basis of our sense of belonging. God disturbs our belonging. God sends us out to give and receive love in places outside the comfort of belonging. And as soon as the out-group becomes the in-group, God troubles the waters of belonging and sends us out yet again from the comfort of our cliques.

--

Ok. Second thought:

The other way that I think religion often is used to create belonging is by assuring people that they are not alone in the universe. This is, I think, a good thing. It's part of the fundamentals of what I believe.

But the way this idea is constructed can sometimes be a bit of a problem. What I mean is that I often hear this idea posed in a very individualistic way that seems to set it up in opposition to human relationship. The idea, for example, that fickle friends will abandon you but God never will. Or that when we're lonely we can just turn to God and we won't be lonely anymore. My girlfr...er, holy cow, my fiance!!!!....Leigh once went to a church that changed U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" into "I finally found what I'm looking for." And she cringed, and I cringe, not only because you probably shouldn't mess with U2 lyrics, but also because the changed lyrics don't match our experience. Finding Jesus or building a relationship with God or becoming Christian didn't magically satisfy our desires or make us never lonely or sad again. In fact, there's something dissatisfying about following Jesus. A sense of always being sent somewhere uncomfortable, of being dissatisfied with the world-as-is because we've been given a sense of the possibility of a world-as-it-could-be, a realm of justice and peace and truth and love. Of abundant life for all.

So I also think that God isn't something that gives us belonging over and against the real human need for community. There are very lonely people out there and they don't just need to hear about Jesus and then everything will be fine. They need us, sitting with them and listening to them and holding open holy space for silence and loneliness. To paraphrase the letter of James, "If a brother or sister is lonely or excluded, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; know that God loves you and that you are not alone,' and yet you do not supply them with companionship and love, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

There are people who feel Godforsaken and they don't just need to hear, "You're wrong, God's still here." They need to hear, "I've felt like that too, and so have so many of the saints and holy people throughout history." Even, as we were reminded on Good Friday, Jesus. Or maybe they don't need to hear that so much as they need to feel it by having us sit next to them and not judge them for their experiences.

We need friends. Jesus, if John 15 is to be believed, needed friends. Which, in a boring old orthodox Christian understanding, means that God needs friends. Which means that we need to be friends, to each other and to the friendless.

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So there it is. God doesn't give us belonging. God challenges our belonging, and sends us to be with people who feel excluded or lost or lonely, and not just to offer them trite theologizing of their plight but to actually be with them and be their friends.

Which helps to answer Andy's last question. If God doesn't just give us meaning or belonging, then what do we do then? Well, we stand with those who are face-to-face with experiences of meaningless and exclusion. We stand with them, not with easy assurances of meaning (God has a plan) or belonging (God loves you but I don't have much time for you), but rather with our presence, with our friendship, with our lives. And that's really, really hard, and will take a whole lot of work over a whole lifetime, and we'll probably mess it up all the time, and, to paraphrase Rumi, we'll need more grace than we thought. But, to quote that old beast John again: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

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But here is one more thing, one more answer to the question of "What do we do then?" As I said in my last post, in Andy's initial questions I hear the echo of concerns that belief in God is just a human projection. Author Rachel Held Evans, in one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, writes about doubt on Easter Sunday and poses the question this way: "What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?"

You'll have to read her post to see how she answers the question. It's far more articulate than mine.

But her question reminds me of another favorite piece, from a wonderful book called the Sparrow. In it, an agnostic character asks a Jesuit priest, "What if you made all of this up? What if it's just a story?"

And the priest thinks for a second, and smiles, and says, "Then what a story."

If God isn't just that which gives meaning or belonging, what do we do then?

Why, what we always do. We tell our stories. We share our stories with each other. And that, ultimately, is how we find true meaning and belonging and love. In the telling, in the listening, and the sharing.

So:

Whatever you believe, share your story.

I would love to hear it.

And if you care to listen to my story as well, I will tell you that my story is just a little story in a very, very big story about a love that is so deep and so big and so old that it overcomes death to be with us. That my story is, somehow, inextricably caught up in the story of a homeless Palestinian Jew who stumbles up to Jerusalem, knowing it will cost everything. Who, after a miracle of miracles, is scrubby enough that a woman who loves him confuses him with a groundskeeper. Who teaches that the greatest commandment, the greatest law, is love, and then shows us how that is true.

I will tell you that, in the big story that my little story is a part of, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, life wins. Love wins.

And if what I think I know is all wrong? And if it's all just a story?

Well...what a story.

What a story.

A happy Easter season to all of you. Whatever your story, you are loved.