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.



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?
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!”

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, 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, 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.


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."


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.


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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Not Knowing with Andy , pt. I

Wouldn't the title of this post make a great ongoing podcast?

My friend Andy and I used to get into these long theological conversations/debates/duels, which I miss. He wrote a post the other night that I thought was really interesting, based on a Neil Gaiman poem that ends:
"I really don’t know what I love you means 
I think it means don’t leave me here alone"
You should check out Andy's whole post here. He ended it with these questions:

"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 told Andy I'd write a post in response to his question, but he had to write a blog in response to the question, "What if God really is that which gives us meaning or allows us to feel like we belong? What do we do then?"

He's done his part. Now it's my turn.

Andy did something wise, which was to break his response into 3 shorter posts rather than one long post. So I'm going to follow that same format.

So, part one is: "What if God isn't that which gives us meaning?"


In Andy's question I hear echoes of the critiques brought against religion by the so-called "Masters of Suspicion"--Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. For Freud, God was just a projection of the desires of humans. Marx is well known for calling religion the "opiate of the masses," but the image he uses that I think is more illustrative of his position is of religion as the beautiful flowers hiding the chains of oppression. And Nietzsche (if I understand him correctly, which I probably don't) felt that the Christian religion was just a way to try to deny the creeping nihilism that he felt was infecting European society.

Christianity's response to these critiques has generally been to shout them down, to try to drown them out with the beating of bibles and the ever-louder singing of praise songs (don't get me wrong. I love me some ever-louder singing). But I think that if we're not willing to actually engage with these criticisms that it probably says more about us and our doubts than it does about some German (Austrian?) guys. And indeed a growing number of Christian scholars are doing just that, engaging with the Masters of Suspicion with an attitude of curiosity and self-reflection rather than defensiveness. (It's worth noting that Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, during which time chattel slavery, supported by many Christians, was the law of the land in the USAmerican South. I'd imagine Jesus was a wee bit more pissed off at the latter than the former).

What does that have to do with meaning?

First off, let me say that I very much agree with something Andy says in his post on meaning:
"For starters, I believe that there are acts that are devoid of meaning. I think that we can try our best to theologize everything, but acts like genocide, rape, murder, and the like are inherently meaningless. This doesn’t mean that we cannot grow or recover from such acts, just that the acts in and of themselves are meaningless."
I'm preaching at a funeral this week for a young man (who I did not know) who died in a car accident. There's no inherent meaning in it. It's a tragedy, period. It is not part of a plan. It will not make more sense by and by.

And so I think what I hear in Andy's first question--"What if God isn't that which gives meaning?"--is an echo of the question that I think folks like Freud and Marx and Nietzsche first raised: "What if we've just created God because we need to feel like everything is ok?"

And the thing is that I just don't think that everything is ok. The God that I believe in thinks some stuff isn't ok. Stuff like what Andy mentioned--mass murder, sexual assault. Things like economic oppression and racism.

The prophet Jeremiah reports God saying: "Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." There are some things that cannot simply be ok, some things that cannot be redeemed in-and-of themselves, some events after which there is no immediate comfort.

What God does, I'd argue, is stand in solidarity with us in the midst of meaninglessness, and give us the grace and the strength to figure out how to continue our stories. How to integrate meaninglessness into a broader story of meaning. And the thing is that God doesn't show up and "poof" do it for us, but rather walks with us and stands with us.

In Acts, there's this great story of Peter and Cornelius. At one point Peter sees a vision of unclean food and a voice telling him to eat (it's worth noting that he has this vision as he's praying on the roof instead of eating. I've had this happen as well. PrayPrayPray...mmmmbacon....PrayPrayPray). Then folks from Cornelius' house--not just a Gentile but a Roman centurion, so definitely not the "good guy" for Peter--show up and say that Peter should come with them. And he does, and by the time he's gotten to Cornelius' house he's decided that his vision means that he shouldn't call any person unclean.

Check Acts 10 out for yourself if you want, but at no point does the author say that God says to Peter: "You shouldn't think Gentiles are unclean." Peter has come to that conclusion based on a dream about bacon (well, ok, actually lizards or something) and a conversation with some Gentile servants. And yet exactly there is God acting to bring about meaning. Not by magically creating it out of nothing, but by participating in the meaning-making, story-crafting efforts of humans, who are in turn made in the image of a storytelling God.

God's grace allows us to read our stories as part of a bigger story. In Donald Miller's words, "I am a tree in a story about a forest."

But that's different than turning to God for meaning; different than saying "God has a plan"; different than saying "We'll understand it better by and by."

God empowers us to confront meaningless, not deny it.

Which, oddly enough, is sort of what Nietzsche--the great detractor of religion, the declarant of the death of God--wanted to do, too.

Monday, April 7, 2014

In this post I will throw aside epistemic humility and will tell you exactly what the United Methodist Church will look like in 1,000 years.

In class on Wednesday, we were talking about the work of Phyllis Tickle, who is sort of the kindly godmother of emergence Christianity. (She just turned 80, although my professor refuses to believe it).

Tickle has this idea that USAmerican Christianity could historically have been grouped into 4 broad categories--High Liturgy, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Charismatic. But that there is starting to be crossover conversations, with an emerging center, which is in turn leading some people in each of those categories to double down and draw back into their respective corners. this:

Anyway. At the very end of class, one of my classmates raised what I thought was a really interesting point. He said that he felt like Tickle, and many of the other folks we're reading, seem a bit too sure of their theories about where the church is going over the next century. What I thought was really perceptive about his comment was that it wasn't a critique so much as a self-realization: sort of a, "Look, I really want to believe that right now we are deciding the future of Christianity, cuz that seems pretty cool, but what if that's not really what happens at all? What if we're actually sort of a mediocre generation?"

Now, I think that what Tickle and others are trying to do is articulate what a Christianity might look like that can speak into--and be spoken into--by very real cultural shifts that are taking place. But there is a level of confidence to it all that I think should raise some healthy challenge. I happened to glance at the back cover of another book we read for this class, by Pete Rollins. Tickle wrote a blurb for the book (it's a fantastic book, by the way, and worth reading: How (Not) to Speak of God) that reads in part: "Here, in pregnant bud, is third-millennium Christianity."

So, ok. I love Tickle and I love Rollins, so here's hoping she's right. But it's 2014. We're only in the second decade of the third millennium, and Rollins' book was written in 2006. So...isn't there sort of a pretty huge chance she's way wrong?

That third-millennium Christianity will look like something totally completely and utterly unrelated to Rollins or her or me or you?

I mean, 1,000 years is a long time. A little humility about our claims is probably called for. That's actually a really important reminder for me, because I've been spending a lot of time and words recently debating the politics of United Methodism/ordination/church schism/denominationalism/so-on-and-so-forth. I won't rehash all of that conversation here; go check out my friend Jeremy at Hacking Christianity for some good details and links. Jeremy's very anti-schism in the UMC; I'm not sure where I stand but have been feeling sort of pessimistic about it all. One of my classmates noted on Wednesday that he knows a lot of people who seem to be doubling down on denominationalism at the same time as other people are declaring denominations to be dinosaurs, beasts of the past who once ruled but are now destined for extinction.

And maybe we all need a big bucket of ice cold "who the hell knows" water dumped on our heads. Not in the sense of a dismissive shrug and a "who cares," but rather in the sense of: "If we suspect that the Spirit might be up to something, let's all try to be faithful to that, knowing that we know little, knowing that it will look different for all of us, and so trying to be a little bit gentler with the rest of the know-nothings."

Which maybe is a bit dissatisfying but, in the words of a major prophet: "So it goes."

There's a translation of Psalm 16 that I've been mulling over for a class this week that sticks with me.

The psalmist addresses God and says:

"Beautiful things are always in your right hand."

I don't have a clue what the future of the church looks like, to be honest. But that's ok. Beautiful things might just be at hand, anyway.

Some music

So a while ago I made some recordings that I said would be a CD, and the CD itself never really materialized.

I don't really love the recordings, and I more than don't love my voice. But people still ask me about it even though it's been 3 years. Which is really flattering, I mean it.'s some songs. Enjoy:

And, as a bonus, here's a live recording from a worship service in Oxnam Chapel at Wesley Seminary, with my friends Rachel and Drew singing and playing musics:

Doubting doubt, or the double-edged sword of epistemic humility

So on Monday I wrote about how I hate theodicy (i.e. if God is good why does awful stuff happen) and how that's sort of a problem 'cuz it's kind of a big deal in seminary.

As I hoped he would, my friend and former roommate Andy responded on facebook. Andy's a bit of a theodicy buff so I was glad he took time to comment. I'm just going to quote him here (since it's on facebook and public anyway):
"So you've got me on the fence. Part of me absolutely agrees that there is a time and a place for talking about theodicy and that that time and place usually isn't in the midst of suffering. On the other hand, wrestling with how my conception of God fits in with my experiences (individual and communal) of suffering in the world is what brought me back from the ledge and has kept me going on a number of occasions. Either way, I agree 100% that having epistemic humility and being willing to say "I don't know" has to be part of the equation."
Since I know Andy, and know a bit of his story, I know he's on to something here: his own wrestling with the "Why, God?" has been a huge part of his journey. So it was perhaps a bit arrogant of me to declare, in my last post, that theodicy is unhelpful in the face of real suffering.

Although come to think of it, Theodicy is Dead would be kind of a great name for a book.

The phrase "epistemic humility" that Andy mentions just means being humble about what we can claim to know. And what his response got me thinking about is how that sort of humility is a two-edged sword. I can declare that theodicy is irrelevant because it claims certainty in the face of deeply uncertain events; but can I acknowledge a genuine claim for its relevance?

And that question, in turn, got me thinking about my own journey. About how, in high school, when my mentor and coach killed himself and everything felt fragile and awful, I got so angry at the church because I felt like there were no answers there. And while my little church did the best thing, which was just to love me and keep telling me they loved me, I could also have used a few folks with some theodicy chops to yell at. Because as it was, it was just me--in one vivid memory--yelling at the ocean. Asking why, and how God could let someone be in so much pain, and whether someone who kills themselves goes to hell and if so what kind of God would do that and if not then why don't we all just do it? And honestly it was awfully lonely.

That's raw stuff when you're 15. It doesn't get too much less raw 15 years later.

So my own "I don't know" is a hard-fought one, and that's important to remember. Because while "I don't know" is often the best response, sometimes there is healing in the wrestling. Or, to be a bit more biblical with the imagery, maybe the wrestling is going to hurt but it's going to make us into a new person.

I guess what I'm left with is this: the "I don't know" of my response to suffering needs to inform what I believe about the world. And my belief about the world needs to inform my response to suffering. It's a conversation requiring a steady return to humility, on all sides. There's not one singular starting place with a solid path to the right answer.

But that's true even if I claim that the right answer is, "I don't know."