Monday, March 31, 2014

Theodicy and not knowing (or, stop being a jerk and just admit that sometimes life sucks and you have no idea why.)

True confessions of a seminarian: I hate theodicy.

If you're not a seminary type, see this brief explanation from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Theodicy comes from the words for "God's justice," and basically just means "if there's a God why do things suck for a lot of people and often for me?"

The problem with hating theodicy is that, as a seminary person, it's supposed to be all, like, THE BIG QUESTION and what not. It's supposed to be the thing that sort of gnaws at all our theological brains. And I hate it, not because it's a hard question to answer, but because I've seen it hurt a lot and I don't think I've ever seen it help.

I've heard a lot of awful things said to suffering people to explain why they're suffering.

And rarely, if ever, have I heard a suffering person say, "Oh, thank goodness you explained to me how my suffering still fits with your view of God! That's a relief!"

Maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway. This has been on my mind this week because we talked about it in Emergent Gathering on Wednesday, and then I heard John 9 preached on Thursday morning, and then we talked about John 9 in my class on Thursday afternoon, and then I heard John 9 preached on Sunday.

You can read the text itself, but at least part of it involves the disciples assuming that some guy is blind either because he's a sinner or his parents are sinners, and Jesus tells them that's not true, but then goes on to say something that sounds suspiciously like "God made him blind so that we could all see how cool God is when he gets healed."

Many people, myself included, would argue that that's not really what the text says, but either way probably not a good one to quote to people who are in pain.

The thing that I find interesting about John's gospel, though, is that these long theological discourses that John's Jesus embarks on, such as in John 9, get scandalously interrupted by Jesus doing human stuff like crying and touching people who are suffering and getting thirsty and what not.

All the theological back and forth in John 9 can't really explain the fact that Jesus heals somebody by spitting in dirt and making it into mud and smearing it in the dude's eyes. There's all sorts of great theological symbolism in there, but what's more important, I think, is that it's physical touch and physical elements--mainly, dirt--that seem to mediate healing. Not just ethereal power, but skin and mud and spit.

Or, in the words of Whitley, "To touch something real / Will make your wounds heal."

So what I get out of that is that showing up and listening and touching and holding and playing in the dirt and saying things like, "That sucks, that really sucks," is probably better than trying to explain things. And I think that holds true even of the best attempts at explanation. Even Moltmann's "crucified God" or Caputo's "weak God" or the idea of the "freedom of all reality" that's sort of emerged out of religious engagement with post-Einstein science seem to me to fall completely flat in the face of real suffering. It might be good for my own theology, it might inform my response to suffering, but I probably shouldn't quote it in the hospital.

In contrast is the comforting power of the "I don't know" that Parker Palmer talks about in a conversation with a woman suffering from depression. She asked him why some people who are depressed kill themselves and some people don't. And Parker Palmer tried to come up with a good explanation and all he could come up with was, "I have no idea." And a few days later the woman sent him a thank you note. All of the people in her Christian circles had tried to explain it, and it had been awful. And Parker Palmer said, "I don't know," and it was a huge relief.

"I don't know. But I'm here if you need me."

Sounds a lot better than:

"Here's why there's suffering."

Sometimes, what's called for is a reverent silence and a steady presence. Because that might not help. But at least it won't increase the hurt.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

justification, self-justification, and blame

Today in my Emergent Gathering class we spent quite a bit of time talking about pluralism, and how Christians relate to folks of other religions/no particular religion.

What struck me about the conversation, given some struggles in my life and this idea of "giving up knowing" for Lent, is how easy it is for me to think about giving up my rightness when it comes to people with different faith backgrounds or religious beliefs...

...and how terribly difficult it is for me to give up being right in other areas of my life...

...and what that says about what I value. About where my treasure is and, therefore, where my heart is.

It's easy for me to shrug off being right about Jesus.

It's hard for me to give up a the feeling of being wounded or treated unfairly.

I was at Leigh's church the other day and we were doing a lectio divina, where the text is read meditatively instead of intellectually and we focus on words or images that seem to stick or stand out. A few of us shared, and then someone shared that she just "takes the text literally and just reads what the Word says."

This stands against everything I believe about scripture. Frankly that kind of statement annoys me. And still, I shrugged it off pretty easily. She's entitled to her beliefs.

But once I start feeling hurt or devalued? Once I get upset about something? It's very hard for me to turn off the hunt for rightness.

And that hunt is almost always dissatisfying. Brene Brown says that's because looking for blame is actually the opposite of accountability, because it allows us to focus on the feeling of being wronged rather than on clearly communicating our feelings of hurt or confusion.

It is always a hard thing to come face to face with the worst in ourselves, with the petty and the small, the self-centered and even the violent, that lurks in us. That's happened to me more than a few times over the past few months. And it's made me realize (again) that my addiction isn't theological rightness; it's being "right" in a much more superficial or petty sense. I don't know quite what to make of that, but there it is.

Sunday I preached at AU and I said something like, "We're not called to be right, we're called to be faithful."

And that means giving up self-justification and embracing justification, that old, old idea that it's a loving God that makes things right, not my conviction that I am right.

I suppose it's as hard, and as easy, as it always has been.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A sermon: "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow"

I preached last night at American University, on John 3:1-17. Our Lent & Easter series at AU is riffing on Game of Thrones. So the sermon was called "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow." The text is available here. The audio is, I think, available here, but if it doesn't work and you want to listen you can find me on facebook.

The sermon is about the faithfulness of unknowing.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

little easters

They say that every Sunday is a little Easter,
    and so during Lent, there's no fasting on Sundays.

We break our fasts, we eat our chocolates or have our coffee.

So, what does that mean if you're fasting from knowing?
Is Sunday a day of certainty, of surefootedness?

I don't think it works like that, with this fast
    Sunday is just as much a day for stumbling along our stumbling way
            As Friday ever will be.

And maybe more so.

And maybe more so.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What do you do when it's not Ash Wednesday anymore?

I mean, what do you do the other 364 days of the year?
When being human seems like the most complicated option,
And you really need ashes,
And the reminder of dust,
And limits,
And that desperate searching for some good news
                             in the middle of all of this.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On Ash Wednesday and not knowing

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Christian year that marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season of repentance and fasting. It lasts 40 days, not including Sundays, which are always considered celebrations of resurrection. Because of the traditional association of Lent with fasting, people often "give something up" for Lent. Last year I wrote about things I wasn't giving up on.

A number of things have come together this year. In my Emergent Gathering class, we've been talking about epistemology--theories about how we know what we know or how we understand truth. We've compared foundationalism--an understanding of truth in which we look for a firm, unchangeable foundation to base everything we know on--and non-foundationalism--in which truth is understood more as a web with multiple anchor points, so that changing or removing one doesn't bring the whole structure down.

We've talked a bit about apophatic theology--the sense that we can't say what God is, just what God is not. We read Pete Rollins, who talks about how the hidden-ness of God is actually the hyper-presence of God. Not a new idea, as he would freely admit. A hymn from the mid 1800s, "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," sings that God is "in light inaccessible hid from our eyes" and that "'tis only the splendor of light hideth thee." That God is too bright to look at directly. That, like light itself, God more allows us to see the world than is seen in and of itself.

We've talked a bit about epistemic humility--humility about what we can know. About strong beliefs, held loosely. Held gently.

And I went to the State House today, and got called an anti-Semite and a Nazi, and stuttered through a testimony, and left feeling an acute sense of my own limits.

And then there's this sermon I'm working on for the AU students, based loosely on the Game of Thrones series, about John 3 and knowing nothing. Stay tuned for that, or come hear it on March 16 in Kay Chapel if you want.

And now I am sitting here, typing this, with ashes on my forehead and the smell of burnt palm fronds in the air, having been reminded of humility, of repentance, of fragile and perishable humanity.

"From dust we are, and to dust we are to return." And that is good news, because if I am an angel than I am a failure of an angel, but if I am dust than maybe, maybe I am ok. Maybe I can try to be human, after all.

So, this Lent I'm going to try to give up knowing. I'm going to try to give up certainty. I'm going to try on, at least for a few weeks, the faithfulness of unknowing.

I don't know exactly how that will play out. I was thinking about blogging every day about something I am certain of, and then questioning it and interrogating it. Deconstructing it, you might say. But that felt a bit contrived for something so nebulous, so intentionally fragile.

So I will try it, and I'll see where it takes me, and I'll write about it when I can.

And I'll pray the prayer of those great poets and prophets, mewithoutYou:

"We hunger, and though all that we eat brings us no relief we don't know quite what else to do.
We have all our beliefs, but we don't want our beliefs.
O God of peace, we want You."

Monday, March 3, 2014

A sermon (that allowed me to squeeze the last bit of juice out of the 30 Day Challenge)

Yeah, I preached a sermon about the K-LOVE 30 Day Challenge, because after 30 days I better be able to squeeze at least a little more material out of the thing. Scripture was Psalm 119:33-40.

Last month, while driving through Western Maryland, I was flipping through radio stations, trying to find something that wouldn’t disappear as soon as I turned the next mountain bend. I happened to stumble across the local broadcast of a nationally syndicated Christian radio station.[i] And I happened to land on this station just as they were offering me something called “The 30 Day Challenge.” Listen to nothing but Christian music for 30 days straight, and they promised that my life would be changed.
            Also I might win an iPad mini.      
For Jesus.
            “Nothing but Christian music for 30 days!” I thought to myself. “That sounds terrible!”
            So I did it. From January 20th through February 20th, with a few necessary exceptions so that my friends wouldn’t kill me, I listened to nothing but Contemporary Christian Music.
            I know what you’re asking. And no, I didn’t win the iPad.
            Now, if you like Contemporary Christian Music, I don’t mean any of this to sound judgmental. After the sermon you can feel free to make fun of my pretentious love of NPR. But I just don’t like it. It all sounds the same to me, like all the guitar players have the same effects pedals and all the vocalists learned to sing from one of two of the same overly sincere white men. I don’t like it, I don’t like the sound of it, I don’t like a lot of the theology of it. I don’t like how so many of the songs could be easily confused with pop love songs, because if our theology can’t be distinguished from Taylor Swift than our devotion probably isn’t very reliable. And to be honest I have trouble believing the sincerity of a lot of it.
            But after 30 days of listening to Christian music, I’m wondering if there’s something else going in my reactions to the genre. I’m actually wondering—and this is confessional time—I’m actually wondering if I feel a bit…jealous of it all.
            I mean, it’s not that I’m going to switch all of my radio pre-sets to Christian music. But I’m wondering if I am just a bit jealous of the sort of devotion, the sort of emotion, that CCM artists and listeners seem to have. I’m wondering if my suspicion of their sincerity is actually a suspicion of my own sincerity. I’m wondering if part of me, maybe a big part of me, wishes I felt like that.
            See, when I came to seminary, I figured that it would be a sort of spiritual mountaintop experience, a kind of pilgrimage to theology geek Mecca where my spiritual practices would flourish and where I would be upheld and inspired by a deeply devoted Christian community. And then I got here, and I ended up feeling...well, a bit dry. Maybe more than a bit cynical. In the frenzy of paper writing and sermon preparation and living situation stress and classmate conflict and mental health challenges, I sometimes found myself asking: do I feel God anymore? Or even more simply: do I even remember how to pray? And I know, from many conversations with fellow seminarians past and present, that I am not alone in this experience. Maybe we’re all just doing seminary wrong. I don’t know. But it makes me, and I know it’s made others, wonder: how can I lead people to a place that I’ve forgotten how to get to?
            I bring all this up because I think if the poet of Psalm 119 was alive today, they would listen to Contemporary Christian Music. I mean, this Psalm is not just a love song to God. That would be one thing. This Psalm is a love song to the Torah. An impassioned ode about just how great the Bible is. Talk about overly sincere devotion—this thing drips with it. One of the songs that plays over and over again on the local Christian music station (“WGTS, 91.9!!”) is MercyMe’s chorus, “Word of God speak/Would you pour down like rain,” and Psalm 119 makes that song of devotion to the Bible seem restrained by comparison.[ii]
            Psalm 119 is 176 verses long. I’ve never written a 176 verse poem in my life. Wait. There’s more. It’s an acrostic poem, which means that each of the 22 stanzas begins with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Wait. There’s more. Within every single one of the 22 stanzas, each line begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet that the first line of the stanza started with. So in stanza 1, every line begins with the Hebrew letter aleph, and in stanza 2 every line begins with the Hebrew letter bet, and so on. Wait. There’s more. The psalm uses 8 different words to refer to God’s word, words like Torah and commandments and ordinances, and with the exception of 3 verses in the whole psalm, every single line of the poem contains one of those 8 words.[iii]
            I get exhausted just thinking about writing something like that. I thought about writing this whole sermon as an acrostic poem but I figured I couldn’t pull it off.
            It takes a whole lotta love to write a poem like that. And the psalmist loves scripture. I mean, is really in love with it. This is a poet, a singer, who claims to “delight” in God’s commandments. Delight. I mean, I do love the Bible, but I don’t exactly get giddy about it.
            Eminent Hebrew Bible scholars Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson try to come to the psalm’s rescue, writing that “The sheer existence of this extraordinary meditation on God’s Torah is a telling reminder that Israel’s Law was no heavy burden laid upon a people, constricting its life and energies. Rather, God’s law is presented as the best of gifts of a good God.”[iv]
Fair enough.
But I tend to feel a bit more like Russell Rathbun, founder of the House of Mercy church in St. Paul, MN, who says of this psalm: “Unless it is a euphemism for something else, it’s difficult for me to see how longing and ordinances ever make it into the same sentence. An ordinance is something issued by the parks department to keep people from dumping their garbage in the woods. It is not an object of desire.”[v]          
In verse 55, the poet sings that they “remember your name in the night, O Lord, and keep your instruction.” Not that there’s anything wrong with lying in bed and thinking about scripture, exactly. It’s just not really what tends to keep me up at night. Is there something wrong with me? Can a poor, dried up, cynical seminarian like me get anything out of this psalm other than the vague feeling that maybe seminary has burned me out instead of building me up?
            Well, maybe.
            The Bible nerd in me was fascinated to find out that the stanza I read earlier is the Hey stanza, with each line in Hebrew beginning with an “H” sound. And in Hebrew, words beginning with the letter Hey are often imperative verbs.[vi] If it’s been awhile since grammar lessons, just listen to the first word of each line in English:
            Teach me.
            Give me.
            Lead me.
            Turn me.
            Confirm to me.
            Each of these lines is directed toward God. It’s asking God for something. Or, more accurately, it’s telling God to do something.
            This is important, I think, because Psalm 119 is often classified as a wisdom psalm, a psalm in which good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. I don’t like wisdom psalms. They’re too neat, too black and white. Give me a good lament psalm any day. Yet this stanza, at least, seems to me to be an inversion of the usual wisdom formula. It’s God that’s good here, not the psalmist. It’s God that needs to act. In fact, the psalmist admits to being stuck in addiction to selfish gain and vanities. You know, the stuff it’s easy to get stuck on: Money. Fame. Success. The sort of things that I get stuck on: wanting the affirmation and admiration of elders and peers. Wanting to be cool and relevant. Wanting you to like this sermon.
The poet struggles with these same things, and they know they need God in order to be transformed. Verse 38 reads, “confirm to your servant your promise.” In other words, “God, you promised! God, you’ve made some promises here. Keep them!” And there’s that powerful last line of the stanza: “In your righteousness, give me life.” That word “righteousness” could also be translated “justice.” God, if you are a just God, if you are a faithful God, if you are who you say you are—give me life!
            I wonder if the poet of Psalm 119 actually felt kind of like I do when I listen to Christian rock. I wonder if they were looking around at a whole temple full of seemingly devout, pious, impassioned worshipers, and saying to God, “God, why don’t I feel like that? God, why do I feel distracted by money and jealousy and insecurity? God, why do I feel so…well, dry? You promised, God! You promised.”
            This time, I think Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson are right when they claim that “One who pleads for God’s help with such earnestness and who asserts that it is time, indeed, for God to act, is by no means satisfied with the existing state of affairs.”[vii] If that’s the case, then this psalm is less of a CCM ode to the Bible as it is a U2 song, a bit easier for me to sing along to: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”[viii] Because God doesn’t really satisfy our desires.
God changes how we desire.
Knowing God leaves us with a feeling of dissatisfaction about the world, because the world isn’t yet the Kingdom. Knowing God leaves us looking at the world and imagining that a different world, a redeemed world, is possible. In the words of theologian Peter Rollins, “Desire is not satisfied in God. Desire is born in God.”[ix] In other words, God isn’t the object of devotion, another topic for a Taylor Swift song. God is the subject that acts to transform us and to transform the world.
            The poet of Psalm 119 is longing to know God, and that gives them a real, deep longing for a transformed life. In fact, the Hebrew word that is translated as “give me life” or “preserve my life”—what the old King James Version translated as “quicken me”—appears 10 times in this Psalm. I don’t think they’re asking for a “I listened to Christian music for 30 days” transformed life, though if that works for you then that’s awesome. Not a life without worries and problems. Not a 100% satisfying life with all desires fulfilled. But maybe a life that is abundant and real and full. Messy, in-flux life. Life with its traumas and turmoil, but also life with its celebrations and successes.
Life in which I’m learning to stumble through prayers again. Life in which I can stumble up to the table of grace, to the bread and the wine I need to sustain me on the rest of my stumbling way. Life in which I might just stumble into signs of God’s kingdom, God’s new, abundant community.
And that is something I can wake up in the morning and really, sincerely ask for. Even on the dry days. That’s something that I can pray when my feet, by some miracle, hit the floor in the morning. “God, give me life today. Don’t give me numbness or distraction today, God. Don’t give me riches or affirmations of my vanities. Give me life today, God. Give me life today.”
And that’s something, I think, that we all need to be asking for, whatever we are feeling or not feeling, believing or doubting. Because, in one form or another, we are all in ministry. And ministry, in the words of that great excommunicated Southern Baptist preacher, Clarence Jordan, isn’t a job. It’s a commitment. Of life. To life. For life.
I think, as present and future ministers of the gospel, we can do worse than starting each morning by praying this prayer:
God, if you are a just God. If you are a faithful God. If You are who You say You are, a God who keeps promises: then give me life. So that I can commit my life. To life. For life. Amen.

[i] “Positive, Encouraging” K-LOVE, to be exact:
[ii] MercyMe, “Word of God Speak,” Spoken For (Columbia Records, 2005).
[iii] See Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40, Working Preacher, available online at
[iv] Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson, “The Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 864.
[v] Russell Rathbun, “It’s a Long Way to the Punch Line,” THQ: The Hardest Question, available online:
[vi] Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40, Working Preacher.
[vii] Craven and Harrelson, “The Psalms,” New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 864.
[viii] U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Joshua Tree Remastered (Universal-Island Records Ltd., 2007).
[ix] Peter Rollins, “200 Dollar Conversions,” The Work of the People, available online: