Monday, December 5, 2011

The Bad Rap on Repentance

I would start with this text:

Mark 1: 1-15
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 
6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 
7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 
8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 
10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 
11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 
13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The first few verses of this was the assigned gospel text for the second Sunday in Advent. It's as close as the Gospel of Mark gets to a Christmas story---which is to say the Gospel of Mark doesn't have a Christmas story. But it does have this great opening: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 It also has a call to repentance in this text. This is often heard---and preached---as a pretty harsh call to consider your sins, to work up some tears and wailing, and be a better person.

Sometimes that is appropriate. Some of us might do well with more examination of our sins, to the point of wailing. Some of us might do well to try to be a better person. (That's the first person use of "some of us," by the way.)

But I don't think that's what's in this text, or at the very least, it's not all that's in this text.

The last line gives us some clue, even if it has "repent" in it. The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news."

Jesus seems to think what he's up to is good news. That we have turned good news into a message of wailing and regret seems rather disappointing, to say the least.

The Greek word for "repent" (and I've known this so long, I want to assume it's common knowledge, but I suspect it's not) is metanoia. Meta=Change (think metamorphosis, the changing or transformation of a physical form). Noia=mind (think paranoid, beside or outside the mind). Metanoia, transformation of the mind. Beyond the literal pieces of the root words, there are also cultural connotations of "changing your heart" or, furthest from the root words, "turn around."

And so I think repentance gets a bad rap. People don't want to be reminded to repent because they hear angry preachers yelling "Sinnaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahs repeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeent!" Even at my lowest, even when I know I've screwed up badly and done a lot of harm, I don't find this to be a helpful shout.

Also the coming of the Reign of God has, thanks to the violence-fueled fantasies of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, is often heard as a scary, even bloody coming.

And yet, I believe Jesus when he tells us to "believe the good news." "You're a miserable sinner and God is coming with a kingdom full of power to get you and make you pay" does not strike me as good news.

What is the Reign of God? Is it where sinners meet God and get their just rewards? Or is it where the poor are heirs of God, where the mourning are comforted, where mercy is met with mercy and not derision and violence?

There are, no doubt, those who would argue with me, but I'm betting everything on the latter.

So, here at the end of advent (which at one time was a season of penitence, much like lent, but in my Lutheran tradition has seen the emphasis turn toward a season of hope), I offer this re-imagining of repentance:

Look! The time is now!God is right here at hand and it's a beautiful thing! If you're hungry, come and eat. If you're hurting, come and get healing. If you're mourning, come and get comforted---and if you're none of these things, come and be part of the Reign of God and feed, heal, and comfort! Change your heart, change your mind, change your ways, and believe that you can be a part of this better way! This is good news! The old ways aren't working, and change is possible. Here it again: You can be a part of a better way! Believe it!

Turn with wonder! Turn with awe! Yes, yes, there is fear and trembling at all the ways you think you may not fit into this vision, there are all kinds of ways that it can and will go wrong, but the hope of the whole world depends on this good news that Jesus went about preaching. The Reign of God is right here! Stopping waiting for it! Change your heart and mind and ways---Believe this Good News.

This is the beginning . . .

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hackberries and Advent

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may already suspect what I'm about to confess: I don't really plan out a blog post very thoroughly. My blogging is the unedited me. For better or for worse, this is all fairly raw writing.

So that last entry about having a hackberry faith . . . I had really some vague intention of tying it into the season of Advent, which (for those of you not observant of the liturgical calendar) began this past Sunday.

Advent is a season of hope and vigilance. We read the "keep watch" kind of passages during this season, reflect on the "you know neither the day nor the hour" kind of things. Yes, it's about watching for Christ, both in preparation for the celebration of the Bethlehem event, but also watching for Christ coming again---and all the ways we can mean that.

And finding myself in this familiar place of having lost faith in the church as institution, I think it's a watchful place to be. I need to pay attention, keep vigilant for when and where the Body of Christ might renew my faith, where it might reveal itself in all it's incarnational wonder and glory.

Tonight was one such event to watch. My congregation gathers on Wednesdays evenings during Advent and sing the Holden Evening Prayer service. It's a lovely, singable (and danceable, I daresay) setting of some of the oldest lyrics known to Christian hymnody. And I was reminded, yes, I do believe in this. This being gathering together and singing. Maybe I don't believe every phrase, but I believe in the singing and praying together.

It's a small and significant thing and I won't belabor it.

Just sit back and smile at the places a new shoot comes up from roots still green.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Hackberry Faith

"Then I say the Lord's Prayer, trying not to recite it, and one morning it occurred to me that a prayer, whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith." ("A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus)

Yesterday, something my pastor said in his sermon made me pull out my pocket notepad and write, "Our faith is a hackberry tree."

For readers who are unfamiliar with the hackberry tree, it is often referred to as a "trash tree." It will "weep" on your car if you park under it. It will send out its roots along the top soil and other trees will sprout up like weeds from one tree. They don't really produce anything of use. No fruit, no useable lumber. They're more a nuisance than anything else.

They're also very hard to kill. Chopping down a hackberry tree is to invite a shrub of sprouts from the routes in the next growing season. I did a web search on "how to kill a hackberry tree," and found the most common suggestions were high powered herbicides (some of them controlled by the government) or kerosene poured on the stump---sometimes a combination of the two was suggested. So you have to poison a small patch of ground to kill a hackberry tree. And because the root system will travel, there's no guarantee that you've absolutely killed it. If it's not in an area that is mowed regularly, it's quite likely that the next growing season will find a sapling (or 3 or 12) a few yards away.

And, of course, when I said "our faith" in my notepad, I was using the first person singular "our," the "royal our," if you will. My faith is a hackberry tree. Of questionable use and hard to kill. A "trash faith."

If you've read the spotty entries in this blog over the last year, you might rightly guess that I'm grumpy, mostly with the institution of the church. It's fair to say that I've lost my faith, really, although where I end up is in this ecclesiastical agnosticism. While I remain a theist (as I did the last time I went through this cycle), believing in God, I'm not sure that I believe in the church. And when you lose faith in the church---a large part of that faith being in the teachings of the church---the theism becomes a little vague.

About twelve years ago, the last time this happened, I would tell people, "I believe in God, I just don't know what I believe about God." That's less true this time, as having gone through this ecclesiastical agnosticism before, I feel somewhat secure that I've rebuilt a theology that is a little more solid than what I had before the first loss of faith. Still, I hear things said with such appalling certainty that I end up wondering if I can say I'm a Christian. I can say I have a "Jesus thing going on," I can even say that I want to follow Jesus---I'm just not sure how much I can say I'm a Christian, given all the things I hear being said about what a Christian is.

This is not terribly unsettling to me. I'm not worried about it, honestly. I puzzle over it, especially when I'm sitting in church, filling a role as "assisting minister" and questioning every third line that I lead the congregation in saying. I puzzle over my integrity, over my hypocrisy in doing this. But it's not worrisome.

I suppose it was more unsettling last time, but having gone through it before, I know there is little bad to come from it and some good to be found. I take comfort in the line above, from Andre Dubus' much-anthologized story. An uncertain faith is still expressed as a faith, even when it's not done with full attention and conviction.

And so, barring someone coming along with kerosene and herbicide, I trust my trash faith will sprout again. And I shouldn't be so hard on the hackberry tree. It will provide shade, no small thing in a place like Texas. In fact, I hope this open expression of doubt will offer some comfort. If I have experienced one recurring theme among the unchurched, it's their discomfort with certainty. Well, here's my uncertainty. It's an expression of faith, actually, and by some accounts, it's not a very useful faith. But settle here for a bit. Find some cooling comfort here, especially if you've been burned by certainty. Even if it's a severely pruned faith, it'll bush out again soon enough.

‘For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.

Job 14:7

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Equus / Worship

From Equus by Peter Shaffer, Act II, Scene 25:

HESTER: Worship isn't destructive, Martin. I know that.
DYSART: I don't.

As of this writing, I'm halfway through a two-weekend run of Equus at the University of Houston-Downtown (where I currently work). I play the father of the young man who is central to the story.

The young man in question, Alan, has taken a religious impulse and focused it on horses, building a rather complex theology around his "god-slave," Equus. In the end, the theology results in a violent attempt to destroy the god. Still, the psychiatrist treating Alan, Martin Dysart, recognizes that what's at the center of Alan's religious impulse is a need to worship. Something.

The above exchange smacks me against my head every performance. "Worship isn't destructive, Martin. I know that."

"I don't."

As someone who has had a lifelong impulse toward worship---one that I've embraced and fought at different times in my life.---I'm left to ponder how destructive it may or may not be. In the context of the play, we have Dysart dreaming of being a priest in ancient Greece, sacrificing children. The dream doubles as an expression of question his own profession as a child psychiatrist and as a yearning to have some powerful way to respond to something larger than himself, something that he feels but doesn't allow himself to express.

In my own tradition of Christianity, we have remnants of this bent towards destructive worship. Rooted in the Hebrew tradition of slaughtering lambs, goats, or doves in worship of God, we have references to the Lamb of God, Jesus, who we celebrate as having died for our sake. We even have a ritual meal that, no matter how you deconstruct it, has the surface appearance of ritual cannibalism.

Of course, the Eucharist is hardly a wild ceremony, nothing compared to Alan's midnight rides on his horse-god. People do not approach the communion rail with anything like the abandon of Alan howling in the mist, riding naked on the back of Equus.

I don't even know what to say about that. I mostly just lift it up as something to consider. It may be that worship can be destructive and it may be that taming it down to our slow line toward the communion rail is a reasonable maturing of the sacrificial language of ancient religion. Or not.

Again, the context of the play: Alan, the son of a very religious mother and an atheist father, finds no way to please either. He gravitates toward the bloodier aspects of Christianity, and when his father rips a particularly gruesome picture of Christ's approach to Calvary off Alan's bedroom wall, Alan replaces it with a photo of a horse his father brings home from his printing business. And so Alan's religious focus shifts, or rather the shift is completed, a shift that started years earlier with a childhood encounter with a horse. His mother gave him a religious impulse, his father gave him a new focus for it.

I've seen people describe Equus as a play about a boy who falls in love with a horse. Alan falls in love with a horse in the same way Teresa of Avila fell in love with Jesus---which is to say, horses became the medium for Alan's mystical experience. The "love" is sensual only in the sense that ecstatic experience is sensual---which it is and it certainly can feel sexual. Teresa didn't shy away from that and neither does Alan.

So is what Dysart calls "worship" really mystical experience? And is it destructive? Hester knows it isn't. Dysart doesn't.

I don't know that I could clear it up for them.

Later in the same scene, Dysart says, " . . . Without worship you shrink, it's as brutal as that . . . I shrank my own life." This also smacks me against my head. Worship . . . Awe . . . Wonder . . . Fear . . . Reverence . . . These are the words that come to mind, and if I'm reading Shaffer something like right, these are the things that make our lives expansive. One might even say, abundant. I think I can say that when I've tried to stay away from worship, something was missing. I might not have said I shrunk from the absence, but perhaps absence is a kind of shrinking.

I'm devolving into word play.

Devolved as I am, I am left with these words and they worry me like a pebble in my shoe, even as my big toe worries the pebble. What is worship? Is it destructive or expansive? Are those words mutually exclusive?

If we can choose, how do we care for our worship life, nurture it, so that it is a vital and compelling as Alan's wild midnight rides and as expansive and fulfilling as Dysart hopes it is?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

And . . . So What?

The month of October has flown by. I've been meaning to follow up my "ranting" of a month ago with some thoughts and the time has simply not been there. (And the time spent has been very good for me, so the lack of time, in this case, equals very good things.)

Because after a rant, the inevitable question is, "So what? What are you going to do with all that ranting?"

This is just a quick note to say one thing: I know this is not a sustainable place to live in. I've had a rough patch of things. The year 2010 kicked me hard. The year 2011 has been all about finding a new normal, re-prioritizing, maybe setting new goals. All this is pretty bumpy, too. I do not feel settled. Actually, I don't know that I've ever felt settled, but a few years ago I at least felt like I was on a path, a track. Maybe some of us never feel settled. Maybe "settled" isn't the point. Maybe being on track is the point. Moving forward.

So this place that is publicly oblique but personally unsettled and results in deconstructing a well-intentioned (but still, I maintain, failed) "welcome" video . . . All I have to say at the moment is that this is not a place one can live in. I'm not building a house here. I just pitched a tent here for a while.

There's cloud and fire out there, just ahead. It's moving. I have to follow.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part 4)

If you're just now joining this rant, you may want to go back and at least skim the last three entries, to see why the National Back to Church Sunday video made me grumpy. (Actually, I've been grumpy for a couple of months. I'm using this video, which didn't lighten my grumpiness, to illustrate my grumpiness.)


I won't go into the final invitation. It's all very pleasant, as I've said is the whole video. It's great that the congregation in question will welcome you regardless of your past religious affiliation. (I pause to point out that the only non-Christian background welcomed by name is "Jewish," but I suppose we can infer that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and other world religions are welcome, too. Or we can infer that only converts from Judaism are invited. Hard to tell.)

But then, I'm assuming something here: I'm assuming that this is a Christian congregation that is inviting me to their church. How would I know that? Is Jesus or Christ ever mentioned?

In fact, unless I missed something, the only mention of God was in the somewhat presumptuous statement "right were God wants you."

This is a marketing video that is trying to convince a consumer that they're welcome, that they're okay in their not-okay-ness. It's so pleasant and inoffensive that it completely avoids all offensive things like Jesus.

Throughout, I've been complaining about how unrealistic the answers are to the excuses for why people don't go to church. The final invitation hits on the big unrealism: They're selling a utopia for people not only want to not be okay but also be accepted in their not-okay-ness. And, I know we're never going to be completely well, we're always going to be not-okay, but I kind of hope for some progress in the journey.

There's an awful lot of talk about "authenticity" in church circles. What I think this is after is an acknowledgment that everyone comes to church (or anywhere) with their own set of luggage, and we need to exercise some tolerance and grace with one another. To the extent that this video is trying very hard to acknowledge our brokenness, I can go along with it. But the problem is no matter how hard they try to sell the idea of church as a utopia where everyone feels at home . . . well utopias simply don't exist. I'll go so far as to say it's a false idol.

What would be more realistic?

Come to my church. We're all bumbling, broken people, but sometimes we help each other. We come with a variety of needs, wants, and experiences but we return each week to be reminded that the Reign of God is among us. We get angry, we get hurt, but we also have this place where we're reminded that if we turn away from anger, revenge, selfishness, and actively work with God, respond to the words of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, protect the weak and powerless, we we see God among us.

Come to my church, we're trying our best---some days, not all days---but some days, in good weeks, most days we're doing our best to keep up with Jesus, to follow where we hear Jesus leading us. We're going to argue about that. Okay, but we're all going to sacrifice something and lay it at the foot of the cross, and we're going to go away with a blessing.

Come to my church, because during the week, you're going to have some good stuff happen to you and maybe you'll want to come praise God with us. And in the weeks where bad stuff happens, you'll want a place to lament---in community. Yes, we can all be thankful or be sad on our own, but when we're thankful or sad together---well, it's another place where the Reign of God breaks into the world, breaks up the powers of this world. Maybe not every Sunday, but there's an accumulative effect and eventually, you'll have a bad Thursday and a line from the lackluster, boring, emotionless, cold, "I got up for this?" Sunday before will come to you, be with you, sit with you. And you'll remember the life, words, and sacrifice of Jesus and you'll make it through until Friday. And on Sunday, you'll want to praise God in the company of the community.

This is not utopian, and I hope it doesn't sound that way. This is the hard work of faithfulness. All my excuses to not go to church---and I have a few, some in the video, some not---are not going to be answered by one phrase spoken by an appealing actor. I've traveled this road too long to be placated by platitudes. I'm writing this an angry, bruised man (who doesn't air his dirty laundry in public, or at least tries not to). But good things happen and bad things happen. I find meaning in the Good News of Jesus, in the sacraments of the church, and these still outweigh the the ways I feel hurt by the institution of the church (for I do recognize that, for the most part, it is the cold institution of the church---and it's gatekeepers---that I feel have hurt me, not the Church, the Body of Christ).

So, come to my church. Sing hymns and pray with us. We won't promise miracles---we can't control such things. But we will tell you that we live under Grace, that we are loved beyond imagining, and when we gather in praise, lamentation, service, and support---the Reign of God is among us.

That's really all we have to offer.


So, this completes my rant, such as it is. It doesn't really tell you everything, but reveals my mood of the moment. I don't like going to church right now, and this video just pushed some exposed and raw buttons. This writing is an oblique, if not opaque, explanation for why I stopped blogging for a couple of months. Actually, writing through this has give me some catharsis, exposed some over-reaction to myself (if not to you). What does it do for you? I don't know. But Miles wanted something from me and this is what I had to offer for the moment. Blame him if this was more self-indulgent than usual. (Insert smiley face here.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part 3)

If you're just joining this program, already in progress, you may want to start with the two previous posts. The brief catch-up is that, from a rather grumpy disposition, I'm deconstructing a video that you can see by clicking here.


7. "Church is for wimpy girly men."
Thomas says, with Scotty glowering beside him, "You want to say that again?"
tag: . . .

Where to start with this? There's so much that rubs me the wrong way here.

How about: "Real men" obviously are threatening, however good-naturedly or humorously the threat may be delivered. That the threat is the only text to answer the excuse tells us something: we expect men to be violent if their great god, "masculinity," is threatened.

Or maybe I should start with: Does this mean that wimpu, girly men are NOT welcome?

I realize I consort with a minority population. I'm part of that minority population. As a gay man, I cringed at this section. I cringed at the thought of transgendered friends seeing it. It is, quite possibly, the most UNwelcoming piece of the video.

And seriously, what is wrong with straight men that the need this sort of constant reassurance? "Don't worry, going to church won't make you less of a man! See? We have a couple of burly men who could smash you to pulp right here!" Why would I, as a gay man who (I've been told) exhibits a range of gender expression, be enough of a threat to keep straight men away, anyway?

I've tried to imagine a similar section directed at women, but they all come out so offensive that I can't publishe them on my blog. Which would sort of make the point about how offensive I find this particular excuse/response.

By the way, notice how there is no tag line at the end? It's as if the producers of the video couldn't find a polite way to say, "church isn't just for fags!" So we just have a final shot of the manly men with their names. That should say it all, right?

And perhaps what troubles me most---since I'm going on about realistic expectations in these posts---is that this may be the most honest section in the video. The church does lack men, men do tend to see "mother church" as feminizing (as if "feminine" were a bad thing), and men do tend to get threatening if they're accused of being less than "real men." Whatever those are.

What do I want a video like this to say? "All gender expressions are embraced as aspects of the Image of God" would be a lie (never mind creating unrealistic expectations) in the vast majority of churches.

So this section sipmly hits me on all the tender spots. It farily truthfully expresses what most congregations want and makes me realize all over again how far the church is from being a safe place for LGBT folk.

8. "If you knew me and what I've done, you wouldn't want me."
Retired pilot Mike answers: "If you knew me and what I've done, you wouldn't be worried."
tag: Forgiven.

This would be more powerful if didn't immediately assume that what these people had done was maybe had an affair or some other sin not punishable by civil law. As awful as that is, I think that's where churches are with this kind of forgiveness. I think if Mike had told us he'd committed heinous war crimes in Viet Nam or Iraq, we would be relieved that was all that was bothering him when he came to us for for confession and a word of grace.

It would also have been more powerful if we were told that everyone at Mike's church knew that he had molested a child but that their love had turn him from that destructive and life-shattering behavior.

It would have been a lie, but it would have been more powerful.

The sad, likely fact is that Mike may have had a profound, life-changing experience of God's forgiveness, but he probably keeps the particulars from the majority of his fellow church goers. He probably talks to people just like he spoke in this video: "If you knew . . . "

But he's probably not going to let them know, because most of us longtime church members know that it's not safe to tell everything. There may be very close friends who know Mike's past, but not everyone, I can nearly promise you. We're kind of back to the previous bit about how the church is full of hypocrites and preach forgiveness while shunning the forgiven.

I sound very cynical, don't I? Well, here I am. And there's a thin line between being a cynic and just paying attention.


And I'm not done here, yet. I have to stop here for the evening, but I'll try to get the rest done tomorrow. There's at least one more part to this rant. Maybe two. But we're through all the "excuse/response" portions of the video, so we're close to the end of my general grumpiness with this video.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part 2)

Read the previous entry first, if you're just wandering by. The short introduction is I'm ranting for a few days about the video that you can see by clicking here.

Okay, so we're up to this excuse:

3. "All they care about is your money."
Geoff, CFO, replies: "They care about me, not my money."
tag: People are priceless.

You know what? The church cares about your money. Flat out, any congregation is really interested in what you put in the offering plate. In many cases (at least in my denomination), the welcome package comes with a box of envelopes for said offering.

To a certain extent, that's fine. Stewardship is important. Supporting your congregation is important. You want a place to meet, in climate controlled comfort, with a staff to make sure everything gets taken care of, we all have to chip in. Furthermore, speaking again for my denomination, a portion of the money goes to places beyond the congregation. There are local to national to international programs that are supported by our offerings. This is very meet, right, and salutary. The church should not be only looking at the local, at the needs and wants within one congregation's campus, but should, indeed be participating in alleviating the effects of hunger, disease, and disaster everywhere. And so, the offering plate is, in fact, coming to you for your ease of chipping in.

Hopefully, the congregation will care about you, too. Hopefully, the congregation will care about you more than your money. Sometimes, that gets out of balance, though, and at the very least, it sometimes can feel like the church cares more about your money than about you. The church needs to keep aware of this.

I may be splitting hairs here and looking at the subtlties more than any video could address---but that's part of what I'm writing against. This soundbite evangelism too easily creates false expectations.

4. "Is there some kind of dress code?"
Ingrid, a mom, answers: "Yes. The code is: wear some clothes."
tag: Come as you are.

I hope this is mostly true. It's truer than it used to be. The last two congregations I've belonged to saw Sunday morning worshipers in everything from suits to shorts, heels to flip-flops. Some people want to honor the house of God by wearing their very best. Some find the house of God to be the one place where they can relax and dress casually. I think both are legitimate pieties, so long as no one is forcing anything on anyone. I mean, it's just clothes. Wear some and don't worry about what everyone else is wearing.

All of which to say, while individual congregations may vary, I have the feeling that this is most realistic of the video's answers.

5. "Church just makes me nervous."
Mary, a consultant, tells us: "I was nervous at first and then I felt right at home."
tag: Right where God wants you.

I don't have a huge quibble with this, except for the, again, false expectation---or promise---that you're going to fit in and just relax into this new place. Why someone feels nervous by church is more important than any kind of platitude about being "right where God wants you." Cultural, familial, and institutional history for any individual will make this much more complex than the video suggests. And as I suggested in the last post, I've been a church member my entire life and I don't always feel at ease with it. Why would I expect someone to settle in if only they would just give it a go?

6. "I'm not sure I believe everything that you believe."
Donovan, sales manager, says: "But you can still belong."
tag: Doubts welcome.

Wow. I think there exists places where doubts are truly welcome. Maybe. But seriously, who feels safe saying out loud all their doubts in a chruch setting? I've known agnostics who served on church councils, but I'm pretty sure they never expressed it to the whole council.

Doubts welcome? Maybe some places. But, personally, I wouldn't go into a new congregation wearing them on your sleeve.


I'll stop here for tonight. That's enough for a single blog post. These were the less annoying sections of the video, so I may not be sounding like a ranting lunatic as I may feel. Just remember: I'm Lutheran. We have a more subtle ranting style.

And the next section is the one that set me off the most, and if you know me, you can probably already guess why.

But that's for tomorrow.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part I)

If you intend to read all of this, you might want to go get a beverage or maybe something to eat. This might take some time.

As I said in the last post, I'm not a very good mood for talking about churchy matters. The whys are mostly not for public discussion. But Miles has pushed me on this, and it's fair. So I'll start here.

I realized that I was carrying some anger and maybe not fit for blogging on spiritual matters when this fairlyinnocent, pleasant, well-intentioned video set me off. Watch it here and see how pleasant it is.

* * * * *

Okay? Now, what about this pleasant video, a friendly invitation to church, would set me off and make me want to rant for a few pages?

For the most part, I think this video sets up unrealistic expectations for a visitor looking for a church. And . . .

Well, let's just take it piece by piece, excuse/answer by excuse/answer.

1. "I can't come to church until I get my life together."
Lisa, hairdresser, says, "Church is how I got my life together.
tag: A place for new beginnings.

I'll start by saying taht I find this actress really appealing. (I assume it's an actress, not a real hairdresser. I'm willing to be proven wrong.) And I've known people who have the experience of joining a church and it being a very grounding experience for them. Thanks be to God. This is how it's supposed to be.

That's not my experience, exactly. I grew up in the church and it was a great way to grow up. I mean that and stand by it. As an adult, however, I tend to find deeper involvement in the church to be a little . . . I don't have the right word. Stifling? Damaging? Those words sort of work.

I'm reminded of a line from Sting: "Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one." That's more my experience.

But again, I find the actress to be appealing in her quirky, awkward way. She pulls off a sort of redeemed ledge-sitter. I'm happy for her. I just don't believe it's everyone's experience and I'm not sure it's an expectation that many congregations can meet.

2. "Church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites."
Randy the pipefitter says, "And there's always room for one more."
tag: Imperfect people welcome.

I admit, this always sets me off when people say it. I used to work with a supervisor who always said the definition of "religion" was "hypocrisy." Of course, he was also the supervisor who was constantly telling workers to do more work and less talking while he spent hours most days in spirited conversation about college football.

I can't deny the church deserves its accusations of hypocisy, but that's because it's always easier to preach morals than to preach grace. Once you set yourself (plural or singular "you") as a paragon of morality, you're going to screw up and probably in some really big public way. It's just that simple and we all do it, with or without religion. It just seems the church does it in flashign neon.

So in this case, everyone kind of annoys me, the excuse-maker and the promise of welcome tot he imperfect. You're going to get judged at church. Someone's going to shun you at church. And at work, and at the grocery store, everywhere you meet people.

Maybe---and this is only maybe---at church, there's a mutual understanding that repentance from judgment and shunning is desirable, a goal to move toward. And I do believe that's worth something. It's just a far cry from a promise that imperfect people are unconditionally welcome.


Okay, I see that this is going to go on longer than I even realized. I actually have this written in long hand (which is not how I usually blog), and I think it's best if I break this up into individual posts. I'll try to add some everyday. It looks like it might be a 4-part rant. Feel free to tell me how unreasonable I'm being so far. I feel a little unreasonable, which is why I stopped blogging for a while (even before I saw this video). Just don't stop here. I think I'm going to come to a point . . .

Monday, September 12, 2011


It surprises me more than a little, but I've actually been asked about the lack of new posts here.

Kinda makes me feel missed and stuff.

It has been two months since I posted here. There have been similar "quiet periods" in this blog's history, and I've never even attempted to be any kind of regular with the postings (except, maybe, during some liturgical season, perhaps---and then I think I've always failed).

This one has been a little different in that I'm not exactly without things to say, but I am without much nice to say.

Which is to say, my current relationship with church (the institution) is a bit on the rocks lately. And while that doesn't necessarily have much to do with a relationship with God---well, it kind of does, actually. You can't have a relationship with the Head of Christ without the Body of Christ. Well, I guess you can. It's just awkward. If not unnerving.

Anne Lamott has said that if it happens to you, it's yours, and you can write about it. If the people involved don't like it, they should have behaved better. (I'm paraphrasing or else I'd put it in quotes.) I'm not quite there with that sentiment, despite sort of going with it recently with some things I wrote for a dance film I worked on for Frame Dance Productions. I prefer writing fiction for a reason.

So, my silence here is the result of not wanting to write screeds and diatribes. It comes from not desiring an unfair advantage of having a forum where others do not (although this blog is hardly a huge forum---then again, I'm not particularly interested in dueling blogs, either). I do still believe in kindness, grace, mercy, edification, and loving those you really want to smack. Ranting doesn't help much. And, besides, that's what private dinners with close friends are for.

So . . . yeah. For now, a silence. I've come close to breaking it a couple of times recently. Maybe I will sooner than later. I just thought that since I was asked, I might explain.

However opaque and/or oblique that explanation may be.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Adopting Evangelism

Recently, I had an exchange with a longtime friend, the Rev. Cindy Beck (a pastor of the ELCA). In the course of this email exchange, she said:

"How do you become part of a family? Birth, marriage, and adoption. Adoption is when the family seeks YOU out. Nowhere does one become a part of a family by looking around at pretty houses, visiting them during dinner and asking, 'Wow, you are a great family, can I join you?' Nope, doesn't happen that way. If it did, I would be living in a beautiful house with rich people who support me unconditionally."

I've been thinking about this and trying to form a blog post around it. Then this morning, I read this article at Living Lutheran and I realized Cindy's words work all on their own, without any editorializing from me.

For now, anyway.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ecclesiastical What Ifs

When I was in seminary, I had to do a yearlong internship. Interns get handed lots of projects that usually include a lot of recruiting.

Seventeen years later, I don't even remember what I recruiting for in this particular instance, but I do remember this story:

One particular fellow had expressed interest in whatever it was. One night, we had something going on at the church and his wife was there. She came up to me and said apologetically, "He's so sorry, but he's going to have to say no this time. He's so busy right now with Boy Scouts and the Volunteer Fire Department, he really doesn't have the time. He feels really badly about it."

In the moment, I just said okay, and started thinking about who I was going to ask next.

But this stuck with me. Here was a man, an active member of the church, also being active in his community in ways that were really significant. It's not as if he were going home after work and watching TV.

No, it finally dawned on me, he was out in the world, being salt and light, being among people other than Christians, doing good things. Why should he feel bad about that?

It seems that there must be other ways to be the church than simply being busy at the church building.

This is one of those posts where I don't have answers, but a few questions (some answers implied, some not, but all open to discussion).

What if Sunday morning were the center of our Christian life. What if it was the time of the week when we all came together to worship, lament, praise, hope, pray, sing, eat, hear, and speak?

What if rather than spending so much time trying to find ways for people to get involved at the church, we were instead asking about---and encouraging!---ways that people are involved in the world? Where are you salt and light? Where did you add savor to the world? Where did you illuminate a dark corner? Praise God! Thanks be to God! Is there a need over there for more help? Can I help leaven that loaf, make it rise? What if people saw us engaged in the world, in whatever way God calls us, and were amazed at how we moved in the world, not just holed up in the church, maintaining the organization?

It seems like a big, but maybe just a subtle shift in thinking about what a congregation is or does. There are always administrative needs to be taken care of. There are always people needed to count and deposit the offering, to prepare and wash the communion chalice. But it also seems there are always endless needs beyond our church walls. What if rather than a council with many committees that can't find members, we had a council with more support functions, that were less about recruiting people to be involved at the church (although some of that is obviously needed), but were there to help make sure that people were involved in the world?

I don't have a clear picture of what this would look like. I think in the end it would create less work for the administrative staff (including pastors). I think it would open us up more fully to the movement of the Spirit---following gifts and callings rather than proscribed slots on a committee that may not be needed anymore. I think it would turn people toward thinking about a Christian life that is lived 24/7, rather than just when we are in the building with the steeple. I think it would be evangelism in the root meaning of the world---I think it would be Good-News-bearing to the world.

This feels even more incoherent than usual. I'm so close to the current model of how we do church that even as I brainstorm about a new way, I find myself thinking "that'll never work."

But there needs to be another way of doing church, a way that encourages and rewards people like the man in in my opening paragraphs. There needs to be a way of being the church that doesn't make someone involved in ministry feel guilty for not being involved in the church.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost 2011

It's the birthday of the Christian church.

What do I say about it? Today, I think I say something vulnerable and honest and hope we all find some grace along the way.

I have a love/hate relationship with the church. This was not always so. There are people who used to joke about how much Neil loves church. And it was true and on some days it still is. But it's not like it used to be.

Sometimes you start to notice things you wish weren't true, and you wish it so much that you think denying it will keep you from noticing it. But the funny thing about noticing is that once something is noticed, it's terribly hard to un-notice it.

It's hard to un-notice all the ways that the church is often racist, sexist, homophobic, and self-preservationist. (Is the last a real term? Spell check allows it. I hope it communicates.) There are privileged people, for whom the church has never been anything but great. I think I was one of those people until about 10 or 15 years ago.

I should have an actual narrative to go along with this shift. I don't have one. The narrative thread is thin, or else it's presented in anecdotes, disjointed scenes that don't connect so much as stack up. I can say that I tried leaving the church. Gave it a go. I'm a failed ex-Christian, but I have sympathy for the successful ones.

This is not the post about the church I've been thinking about writing. I hope I get to that soon.

But on this Pentecost, I'm really thinking about this: I do love the church and all the great things it accomplishes---disaster relief, building hospitals, things like that. And I hate the church when it becomes a bloodless institution bent on preserving itself while letting bloody people suffer. I love the church and all the ways that it lifts up the lowly and offers possibilities to traditionally trampled people and I'm appalled when I see it tramples those people still.

But what are you going to do? The church can only be made up of the people available in any society. As much as we might have flashes of transcending and unwinding the sinful systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, and self-preservation at the expense of others---we'll be made up of people who are caught of in those systems, people who are, to varying degrees of consciousness and will, racist, sexist, homophobic and out for no one but themselves.

People like me. And, I suspect, like you.

So ultimately, I stay because as a gathered people, there's hope (often thwarted but never defeated) that we might sometimes step outside those sinful systems and be---however briefly---better.

We might hear the call to turn around, change our hearts and minds, and look. The Reign of God is at hand. Sometimes the church still reminds us of this. Sometimes the church is this.

As you might suspect, I'm in a period when I'm not entirely enamored of the church. The temptation is to walk away. I'm not doing that. Instead I'm praying with the ancient Hebrews and the early church, and the generations since:

Come Holy Spirit! Renew the face of the earth!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rapture Thoughts

This whole rapture business has been interesting, especially with the aid of social media. Facebook gave me multiple opportunities to laugh and ponder.

Let's divide this up a bit.

The Laughter, the Silliness, the Scorn

It's hard to not enjoy an event that gives us the phrase "rapture prank."

I enjoyed the idea of putting out empty clothing, laid out to look like the former occupant had evaporated (presumably to meet Jesus in the sky in the altogether). I much further enjoyed the idea of putting dry ice in the clothes so they appeared to be smoking.

I sort of dared someone to run a car into a lamppost and leave it running, empty. Found no takers.

I hadn't really read up on the predictions and I asked innocently what time zone were we supposed to be watching for the passing of 6:00 p.m. I was told that it was supposed to happen as each time zone turned 6:00 p.m. The brought to mind an image of Jesus standing stationary somewhere in the sky with a big Hoover, sucking people up as the world turned below him.

Obviously, it was hard for many of us to take this rapture business seriously.

Of course, some people got ugly about it, and maybe I crossed that line a time or two. It's easy to mock, to heap scorn on a belief that we don't share. That it's a grossly misguided belief is beside the point. Some people pointed to the prophets who sometimes made some disparaging remarks towards people who weren't quite clear on the concept of God's expectations. It might be said even Jesus wasn't too verbally gentle with the Pharisees. To me there's a qualitative difference between putting out empty suits of clothes and calling another human being rather mean-spirited names, but then maybe that's because I find one funny and the other less so. Perhaps to the person who held the belief in a rapture, we all look the same.

Which brings me to another reflection.

Sometimes, We Expect the Wrong Thing

Everyone who has had any faith in God has been disappointed. Maybe that's too broad a blanket statement, but I think it's pretty close to the truth.

I'm including here the childish faith I had when, as a kid, I really really wanted to fly. Well, I wanted to be a superhero, but I really wanted to fly. I wanted to believe that if I asked with a sincere heart and truly believed, with no hint of doubting, that God would let me fly. I would go out into our pasture (out of sight from the house) and I would run, expecting that the ground would fall away from my feet. I knew God could make me fly, I promised I would use the ability for good, and and and . . . and I'm really glad I didn't believe enough to go try jumping off the barn.

But I also have to include all the prayers for healing that end in funerals, all the prayers for conception that end in miscarriage or stillbirth, all the trust that God will provide even as you're losing your house because you can't find a job.

Somewhere in this range fall the people who really believed they'd figured out the Second Coming. They really believed. They quit jobs, they sold off possessions and used the money to warn unbelievers. They believed with a belief that I've never really had. They jumped off the barn while I just ran around the pasture.

And there's a part of me that aches for them in their disappointment. There's part of me that even understands the people who are saying "we miscalculated" or who say "no, the rapture happened and now the world is going to shatter in October and we've been left behind to suffer these last days." I doubt I'd have much patience in their presence, but at a distance, I can ache for their disappointment.

Because we've all believed things, wished for things that were simply the wrong thing to wish for. Some people lose faith, stop believing altogether. Some of us would like to except for the pieces of the miraculous that remain, bearing witness in the face of the disappointment. It's a hard thing to let go of something we believed in with our whole heart.

I contend that God is good and, sometimes, in letting go, our hands open up to receive something better. Not always, but sometimes.

Crazy Stories

John Dornheim, a pastor friend, posted on Facebook yesterday (in response to a thread I started about Harold Camping) the following response:

"Stepping outside of the story, I am wondering about the fact that I routinely stand in front of a purportedly like minded people and remind them of an incredible story, one of which they are well familiar, and expect them to respond in a particular manner which includes the financial support of the organization as well as spending significant portions of their time "telling" others. Why do people really respond to a really crazy person like Harold and a moderately crazy person like myself gets a 'are you effing nuts-you want me to do what?' stare?

I mean, is the story I tell more or less credible than his?"

(Another pastor friend immediately "liked" this.)

This struck me as not only true, but a bit of a poignant cry from the mainstream of Christianity.

The thing is, the story of Jesus is an amazing story, or even more precisely, the stories Jesus told are amazing stories. Sure, he had a moment or two of apocalyptic speech, but for the most part, he told these really unbelievable stories about the poor being blessed, the peacemakers being children of God, the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed. He insisted that the Reign of God was right here, at hand.

Think about the context of this insisting. A brutal Empire ruled with an iron fist (however covered in velvet is might be at times). There were all kinds of ways that the world was scary---how many of us would not be terrified in a world lit only with fire? How many of us wouldn't cry out for God's help in a world where a sound in the darkness might be a wild beast or a thief? In a world where people routinely made deals with God in the face of natural disaster and meteorological phenomenon (our responses to flooding rivers and endless tornadoes are tempered some, it seems to me, by a better understanding of the science behind them), Jesus---and the prophets before him---had the temerity to speak of God in terms of loving kindness, of gentleness, in terms of a father's or a mother's care.

And some people believed him, as I imagine some people believe John (and the pastor who "liked" his post).

But too many people are fascinated by wrath. Too many people are ready to see God in the storm than in the stillness.

And there you have the rapture folk. They can't quite believe the more incredible story of being blessed by mourning, by being naked, by making peace, by being hungry for righteousness. There's too much evidence for them that God is wrathful and they miss the truly prophetic notion that, in the words of another friend, we are awesome and we are loved---loved by a God of mercy, grace, kindness. All of us, not just select few who are going to get Hoovered into the sky.

(I don't know if I really need to, but I pause to point out that this whole rapture business is a rather late addition to Christian thought and, to be blunt, comes from a group of barely literate, superstitious folk in the 19th century. Superstitious folk like the wrath, it seems. And since then, lots of people have made a lot of money off this notion. I also pause to admit---going back to the second section above---that I was a teenaged Hal Lindsey fan.)

Love is a hard sell. It doesn't make for great special effects in the movie adaptation.

And it is apparently much harder to believe in than wrath.

But people---my friend John isn't effing nuts.

Turn around. The Reign of God is at hand. Believe the Good News.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chance Operations and Improvisation

The way Merce Cunningham and John Cage worked together would have, once upon a time, terrified me. Cunningham would make his movement, Cage would make his sound, and then put it together for the first time on opening night, before a live, paying audience. Cage and Cunningham said dance and music were two separate things that happened to be occurring at the same time.

I had to do this recently with a few young people at my congregation. For Easter Vigil, for the assigned Isaiah reading, I turned the reading into something of a choral reading for three willing kids, ages 13 and under. I asked a high school student who is studying dance to choreograph something to go with the reading. They four were in the same room at the same time only briefly. I worked with the readers, I worked with the dancer to help her set her choreography. They never had so much as a run through together before the Vigil.

It's not how I prefer to work and maybe the kids were a little nervous about it, too. Somehow, it worked, and it worked amazingly well. I could not have predicted how well it would have worked. It was beautiful in ways I never expected.

Cunningham and Cage spoke of "chance operations" (which really means something much bigger and broader than what I describe here, but I'll leave it here for now). I prefer to rehearse all elements of something, rehearse it all together, make sure it's all together where I want it to be, leaving very little to chance. But I can't deny that Cunningham and Cage's way of working works.

+ + +

This morning (Sunday), during the offering, I noticed some slight misstep in rhythm. I guess we were short an usher or something and I think one usher enlisted his granddaughter, who was an acolyte, to help him with the offering. It's not how it's supposed to go, but as I watched it, the grandfather smiling and making a quick step to get someone who was missed, I thought, "It works. It's improvised and not according to guidelines, but it works and there are smiles and we remain church even when an acolyte plays usher."

In grad school, one of my classmates, Kelly, had been in an improvisation performance group. She gave our cohort a workshop in improvisation. As a theater major, I had always been terrified of improvisations and just accepted that I was bad at it. Well, I'm still not great at it, but for the first time, Kelly gave me a framework for at least understanding how improvisation works. The one big piece she gave me that I'd never heard before was that improvisation wasn't about being clever and especially quick on your feet (although that no doubt helps), but it was about approaching your cast mate with the attitude of "yes, and." Instead of derailing each other with new and weirder pieces, a good improvisation practitioner goes along with each other, never contradicts, never says "no" to the direction they're heading, but always says, "yes, and." (It can get plenty weird with that.)

I think that happened this morning. The acolyte said, "yes, and" to her grandfather and if it wasn't what was planned, we remained the church.

+ + +

Sometimes, things that hit me as a big lesson look dumb on the screen. Yes, of course, the church goes on and won't be brought down because an acolyte plays usher one Sunday. What I'm getting at, is that these little thing remind me of larger things. It reminded me of Kelly and it reminded me of "yes, and."

Life is full of unexpected . . . things. Loss of jobs, loss of health, loss of loved ones. New jobs, healing, new loved ones also come unexpected. Each, in their own way, can traumatize, paralyze, make you shift gears because you can't take this curve at that speed.

But, as I like to say, we can't control everything. Or much of anything, really.

So we work on our movement and have to hope someone else's sound will work with it. We can make our plans (and to be clear---sometimes a well-placed "no" is needed before the "yes, and" but that's another blog post), but in the moment we sometimes have to grab some help or make a quick step or two.

Maybe it won't always work, but sometimes something amazingly beautiful happens and we move forward into Eucharist despite it all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When in Doubt

One of the things that I love about being a liturgical Christian is that the liturgical year never lets you pretend it's all glory and angels and sparkly shiny goodness. (This may, indeed, be why some people choose NOT to be a liturgical Christian!) Right after Christmas, we have the feasts of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the slaughter of the children we remember as the Holy Innocents.

Easter is a little easier on us, but every year, the second Sunday of Easter gives us John 20:19-31 as the Gospel text. Without you having to surf over to, I'll tell you: this is the text of Thomas not accepting anyone's word for the resurrection. Thomas has to see, in fact touch for himself.

We're reminded this following Jesus thing is a little hard to accept, even for those who walked all over Palestine with him. No wonder this generation is having some trouble with believing.

But I'm not really interested in Thomas tonight. I'm just reminded of him and his place in our liturgical year because the last few days have had dear friends and complete strangers express doubt, or maybe just unbelief. I've heard a an anguished confession of finding no comfort in the faith that once comforted. I've seen faith disregarded as "belief in an invisible overlord."

I suppose Flannery O'Connor was on to something when she remarked in a letter, "
It is much harder to believe than not to believe." But when I've heard this quoted as a sort of bravado, a sort of "look at me, I'm doing more difficult thing!" brag, I've always felt it was a shallow thing to say in the face of someone expressing unbelief. (Flannery didn't mean it in that way, I don't think. Click the link to see her slightly larger context.)

So what do I have to say about doubt and unbelief? Maybe more than I do about faith, actually. More than could possibly fit in a blog post.

But here's a couple of things I'll acknowledge tonight.

I doubt many things. Even as I find myself wrapped up in a life of faith, I question much of it. (And I do not believe my questions are "of the devil" as one questioning friend has been told by her church circles.)

In fact, there was an incident in 2000, an incident that I've tried writing about and still haven't found the right way to talk about it, that caused the bottom of all my beliefs and theologies to fall away. I tried to walk away from the church for a bit (and failed miserably). In the years since, I've found myself rebuilding a faith, a theology even, that is far from systematic and more than a little messy, but it is real and full of surprises. It is a faith that is comfortable enough with lost faith for a friend to actually tell me she has lost her faith. It is a faith that lets us sit with that without having to convince anyone that one or the other is right or wrong or going to hell or going to heaven. It is a faith that loves in the face of faithlessness. It is a faith that has found a love that loves through the faithlessness.

Here's the thing I know for sure, for absolutely certain, that I don't believe. I don't believe in the magical faith, the superstitious faith. This is the faith of the "if you just believe and pray the right way" folks. Listen, "praying the right way" is just another way of saying you have to know the incantation. I don't believe that living a moral life and making precise statements of faith will protect you from harm. I don't believe faith is about protection. I overheard a woman on her cell phone one day telling someone "you got to read your Bible day and night so God will give you a house." I'd sooner expect to win the lottery without buying a ticket. If my friend has lost this kind of faith, good riddance. It's the faith in an "invisible overlord" and it'll just make you crazy. (See much religious programming on tv.)

I guess I've been at this faith thing so long that I've come to expect the questions, the doubts, the periodic bouts of unbelief. I'm not alarmed by them. I think it was Frederick Buechner (and someone correct me if I remember wrong) that said "Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but a component of it." Yes. Absolutely. My faith has little meaning outside the context of my doubts. I embrace this. I don't know what comfort this is for someone going through a crisis of faith. Maybe it's not meant to comfort.

But who knows . . . maybe Thomas knew this, too. Maybe Thomas had lived with Jesus and his miracles enough to know that he was safe questioning and doubting. Perhaps it is more blessed to believe without seeing or touching, but to see and touch is still a blessing.

One thing more: My seeing and touching may be more metaphorical than what is recorded in the Gospel of John, but I have seen and I have touched and, perhaps when I least believe, maybe I will again.

Being metaphorical will not lessen the impact. Without a doubt, the response will still be an awestruck, "My Lord and my God!"

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Slippery (call it an impressionist response)

Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was just another fellow traveler.

And I thought . . .

I don't know what to think.

What have you done with my lord? Don't you know what has been happening in Jerusalem?

Resurrection is a little slippery. You think you know death and then life surprises you. The very one you mourn is standing right there, calling your name or handing you a piece of bread.

He calls us out of our grief and distress, feeds us.

But he won't be held.

(Can I at least touch?)

It's baffling. And true. Love is not contained by a grave or by our grasp.

But we recognize Love when Love calls our names, when Love let's us have a taste of bread.

It's tempting to say, "and then he's gone again."

But that's not true. We just can't hold him.

Thomas has to touch the wounds. Blessed are you if you don't and still believe.

Stay with us, for it is evening.

Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener.

I thought . . .




Friday, April 22, 2011

Nothing Left

What do you say about death, however noble, however ignoble? The end is the same. Dead.

The heart stops and will melt away. The brain stops and will melt away. Everything on our bones stops and melts away.

It's ugly. It's no prettier for kings and billionaires than it is for the pauper and beggar.

After a time, there is nothing left. No beauty to claim recognition, no sinew to claim strength.

Nothing is left but the bones, just calcium deposits of a certain shape.

Nothing left but bones.

Unless you count that last rattling breath that left the lungs.

Maybe the breath is left, too.

"Mortal, can these bones live?"

I answered, "O Lord God, you know."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Brief Thought on Sin

Holy week creates such a great opportunity to beat up on ourselves. Maybe I've been doing it this week here. "We're rotten, stinking, excuses of animated carbon and look what we did to the Lord of All Creation."

Well, I suppose there is that.

But that's not exactly what I'm after in these posts.

If you have not begun to think of sin as something larger than your personal transgressions . . . well, consider this a Holy Week invitation to start.

We are born into sin. This means more than we are born into a sinful state, a congenital disorder that keeps us from doing good (although there is that). We are born into systems that coddle us in that disorder, that even rewards our inability to do good.

For a personal, easy target, there's no way that I can deny that I've been the recipient of some good things due to white privilege. At the very least, I've never had the experiences I've seen some black friends and coworkers endure (like the time a woman told a black cashier she'd prefer to wait for the next [white] cashier). Or male privilege. There are all sorts of ways I move in the world because I'm not female. For example, no one has ever felt the need to escort me to the church parking lot after a night meeting, although we do it for women all the time. I have a freedom of movement in our society simply because of the chromosomes in my cells.

These, among other things, are simply sinful systems and I'm rewarded repeatedly for being born into on the fortunate side of a dividing line. (Of course, there are other lines where I fell on the unfortunate side, but that's not the point today.)

I can work with the system or against it. That's really what a lot of our choices come down to, when we're conscious of it. Unfortunately, I'm not nearly conscious enough all the time---my privileges are simply the way my world works (and where I lack privilege---same thing, only I tend to be more grumpy about it).

Power is its own system and I'm despair of it ever having a sinless component. Power demands the system stay in place, stay in power, be self-regenerating.

And when someone bucks the system, it usually does not go well for them. The 20th Century alone gave us several such system-bucking martyrs. The ones that come to mind just this moment are Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mohandas Gandhi. They woke up enough to realize that they were part of a system and they had the courage to say they wanted out of it. No, more than that, they said the system had to change.

I think that's where Jesus ended up. He lacked the good sense to make allies. He made enemies of the Romans, he made enemies of his own people, who were oppressed by the Romans. What alliances he made were with people who couldn't stand up to either power.

So he was knocked down. Or nailed up, if you prefer.

Yes, Jesus died for our sins, especially if you read "for" as "because of." Jesus died as a scapegoat to a powerful world that didn't do well with dissent. Jesus died because too many of us are unwilling to die with him, to buck the system with him.

We can ponder our individual sins---this is good to do---but even more this Holy Week, I invite you to ponder the power systems in which you participate, in which you benefit, the sinful networks that actually reward you for not bucking the system.

This is not to beat ourselves up over our failures---this is to find where we can change the world.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Let's Kill Him

Triumphant, victorious,
our One True King comes to us
Humble riding on a donkey
Shout aloud, loving cups
Behold! A king comes to us
...Humble, riding on a donkey
The Savior, scattering the money
Coming, the pushing and the shoving
Let's kill Him
When I first heard this lyric sung by Sarah Masen on her 2007 ep, A History of Light and Shadow, I laughed out loud. If you don't know this singer/songwriter (and you should), you may not know she sometimes sings a thin, almost girlish voice, airy and innocent. The voice helped add to my laughter. It was a laugh of surprise as much of humor. This sweet voice recounting the Messiah's triumphant entry into Jerusualm and then simply deciding, "let's kill him."

Of course, it's a sad thing, too. Someone comes preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, and we shout out "Hosanna!" because we want our bit of salvation, too. Then, we see who he means. He means not only (or necessarily!) us, but also those people over there. You know the ones. Those people.

And when you get right down to it, isn't he kind of sickening? Putting on this show of humility, riding a donkey, acting all lowly? C'mon, you're our King. This is amusing and we'll praise you for it, but now, let's get down to business. When are you going to overthrow our oppressors? When do we get to see them get theirs?

What? We don't? You're not gonna? This royally pisses me off.

Let's kill him.

It's funny because it's true. That's how we are.

It's sad for the same reason.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Crying Out

Hosanna! Save us!

We so need saving.

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday and remember Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Pharisees didn't like all the shouting. Jesus told them that if the people were quiet, the stones would have to shout.

So it is good to cry out "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (It is unsettling when the stones start shouting.) It is even better to mean it, to trust in the salvation we call for, even if the salvation that comes looks nothing like what we expected or wanted.

Better still is being able to continue the cry all the way to the cross. So many of us will not. So many of us will fall away, afraid, disappointed, disillusioned, wanting something other than a king on a cross.

Still, for today, we cry out, we praise, we wave the branches, we proclaim the triumph of the Messiah.

This is good to do.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Eugene O'Neill

I'm re-reading a play by Eugene O'Neill, which I first read over a decade ago. It's called Lazarus Laughed. I remembered thinking it was a strange play and it is. This post is not about that play. (There is a high likelihood of one at a later date.)

This blog post is about the introduction to the book wherein I found the play. The book is Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill. I picked it up in a used bookstore somewhere (in Nebraska, I think), and appears to have been published around 1932, so well before O'Neill died (in 1953), well before he wrote the posthumously produced (and perhaps most personal and successful of his plays) Long Day's Journey Into Night. So this is O'Neill mid-career-ish.

The introduction is by Joseph Wood Krutch, whose name I did not recognize. He was apparently in personal contact with O'Neill and this piece caught my eye:

" . . . I find my mind going constantly back to a remark which he once let fall in conversation. 'Most modern plays,' he said, 'are concerned with the relation between man and man, but that does not interest me at all. I am interested only in the relationship between man and God.'"

Krutch then goes on to make a case for why this was true of O'Neill's body of work to that point. Which is also not the subject of this blog post.

The idea that a body of creative work---in this case, dramatic literature---is about the relationship between humanity and God has me thinking. In my own creative work (which, of course, will never been mentioned anywhere else with the same breath as Eugene O'Neill anywhere else but here), I've acknowledged that "God stuff" was at it's center, almost always, pretty explicitly so. And I've been wondering if that work---and the work I'm most attracted too---is also about the relationship between humanity and God.

And I'm not sure I can say that. I mean, I'm absolutely drawn to work that is explicitly full of God-stuff. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead comes immediately to mind. But I'm not sure it's the relationship between humanity and God that is what attracts me in that case. Or in my work.

If I had to state what my interest in God stuff is, I would say---once you're in relationship with God, what are you gonna do? Which, I guess, can get to be about relationships between people, with God stuff layered onto those interpersonal relationships.

I have a draft of a novella. I'm going through it, making corrections, adjustments---your basic edits. I've been saying that it's about different ways we try to be faithful---not just to God but to each other. There are judgments and promises made between people because they have a relationship with God. I'm interested in how we treat each other, often in the name of remaining faithful to God.

Eugene O'Neill is going to be looking over my shoulder as I continue to work on this novella, or at least the mid-career O'Neill is. Krutch goes on to quote a letter by O'Neill to another person:

"The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it---the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one . . . to comfort its fears of death with. . . . It seems to me that anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject behind all the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlor entertainer."

I'll just let that sit there. I have nothing more to say. Tonight.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cactus of Encouragment, Addendum

I thought I should show the beauty that came. I include the photo with my hand to give scale of how small the pot is. That's a lot of flowers for a little pot. At least, I think so. I've never seen more than two blooms in a season on these cacti.

No deeper theological reflection than such beauty and the part it plays in this abundant life.

(Or, to quote Image Journal: Beauty Will Save the World.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Disaster and Connection

I am not one to stay connected at all times. I have a cell phone but I seldom use it. I don't have text. I've often watched people walking around looking at a gadget in their hands or talking to someone we can't see via a gadget in their ear, and I think, never have we had so many ways to stay in touch and yet remain so disconnected to our immediate surroundings.

But I do love the internet. I love Facebook and the way it has created connections for me, both with people I used to know and with people I have never met. In the '90s, I loved listservs and developed a number of friendships via them. To this day (and often on Facebook!), I remain in touch with people I "met" via listservs devoted to Joni Mitchell fans, to Mark Heard fans, and to the joys and struggles of being gay and Christian.

One such person is Darren. We "met" first, I believe, on a gay Christian listserv. Then I noticed his name pop up on a listserv devoted to singer/songwriter Sam Phillips. I emailed him off-list to point out the connection. We developed a correspondence off-list. When I moved to Chicago in 2001, he and his partner, Atsushi, visited me for a few days.

Eventually, our correspondence lessened and we drifted. It happens. I never had anything but kind and warm thoughts of Darren and Atsushi and was happy to reconnect via Facebook some months ago.

Darren and Atsushi live in Tokyo. Despite being badly shaken and everything in his apartment "strewn all over the place," Darren has been able to post to Facebook that he is okay, that they've been in touch with Atsushi's mother (who had been out and stranded for hours before making her way home), and are doing well for living so near an enormous earthquake.

Thanks to the internet, the Japan earthquake is more personal than other such disasters. I have a face and a name to place in the middle of the rubble.

I almost always respond to these sorts of natural disasters through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Disaster Response, which has a great reputation for getting relief to where it's needed.

This time, more than Haiti, even more than New Orleans, I feel something more personal at stake. Darren is in Tokyo. Someone in the disaster has a name I can call, and it belongs to someone I've met, hugged hello and goodbye.

Of course, Christian love demands that I care for the people I don't know in Haiti as much as I do for Darren. We know this and we respond as we can to this demand. I don't mean to say that this tsunami and earthquake are in any way worse than Hurricane Katrina.

I'm merely reflecting on how some email listserv postings from over a decade ago are affecting me today. The ripples in this web of connection.

I don't have anything much more profound to say about it. Except that I will pray for Japan and I will pray for Darren and Atsushi, for those I do not know and for those I have called friend.

I suppose that's how it always is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Taking Up a Cross

Tonight, I was at a meeting with an opening devotion that included the question of taking up our own cross and following Jesus. (Some variation of the saying is in all three of the synoptic gospels and I admit I don't recall which one was used for the devotion.)

As is often the case with this text, the conversation circled around what "taking up the cross" isn't more than what it is. A bad day on the job is not "taking up the cross." Having to care for a sick relative is not "taking up the cross." Living next door to bad neighbors is not "taking up the cross."

But we're not ever really sure what "taking up the cross" is. I sat silent in the conversation, listening, hoping for once I'd get some insight to what it is. The closest we ever come is that it has something to do with dying to ourselves and discipleship.

Whatever those are.

I recently found a place in my journal from 1985 where I boldly wrote that I had "heard the call of Jesus." I was a terribly pious 22 year old and I cringed at the language I used to write about this calling. At the same time, I read it and realized, "dang, that's what's still nudging at me."

The whys of having heretofore not fulfilled that call are many. After a while it looked frivolous. It was even a little embarrassing to say out loud (and I'm not typing it tonight!). And then I realized I was gay and I couldn't see how a gay man could fulfill this sort of calling in a world (and I'll say it---a church) that doesn't very much want gay men. And, really, I don't know that I ever really got much more than a pat on my head if I dared talk about it. No one is really asking for this vocation to be filled and people are often really quick to offer alternative routes.

And I'm a pleaser. Well, there are people who might argue that point, but I am more often than not willing to say yes to things that I know I won't like doing, won't do well, and will resent doing later simply because in the moment I want someone to like me.

So I've started a little lenten exercise (which is sort of a discipline, I guess) wherein I'm spending just a few minutes brainstorming in a notebook about how this calling might take shape.

I need to get over my embarrassment about it, get over pleasing all the people who would have me do any number of other things, and get on with this thing that has popped up over the last 25+ years and I keep avoiding.

Is this dying to myself? Is this taking up a cross and following Jesus? How will I know if it is? Or isn't? (I'm dubious about "success" or "failure" as being a measurement of vocational fulfillment.)

Really, needing those answers are also a part of "self" that needs to die. Maybe.

Maybe the point of carrying your own cross to your own execution isn't about success, failure, pleasing, or fulfilling a need.

The point is to follow.

It's a little scary. But baby steps are being made toward Golgotha. Jesus has gotten a little ahead of me. I'm hoping he'll slow down a bit and let me catch up.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash and Fast

Isaiah 58.6:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Today, people around the world are giving up things for forty days (not counting Sundays, of course). It's the lenten fast, when I've heard people promising to give up everything from chocolate to porn.

It's not a tradition I grew up with. In my rural, Texas upbringing, Roman Catholics did things like receive ash and give up things for lent. We were Lutheran.

I picked up the habit in college, I guess, or came to understand it was a tradition with broader observance than I had been lead to believe. And for a time I took on things, according to a fashion of the moment. I took on extra reading, or extra writing, or other such tasks that might serve me spiritually.

Centuries of all this giving up and taking on . . . and here we are in a time with such gaps between the super-wealthy and the crushed-by-poverty. The words of Isaiah haunt us as we live in this disparity.

Poor people are in prison on nothing more than hearsay and rumors, mostly for lack of adequate counsel.

Megalomaniacal antics of "stars" occupy us more than the dying hungry.

Political uprising is applauded or decried depending upon the profits to be made.

It's all so overwhelming. How do we fast from such a culture?

Yet, this, I believe, is what Isaiah is calling us to. A fast from the culture of prisons for those too poor to defend themselves adequately. A fast from a culture that turns its collective head toward every outrageous comment and flashy explosion, literal and metaphorical. A fast from a culture that follows the flow of money, right down to the polluted waters of political abuse and bloody profit.

How do we fast from the way we move in the world? How do we give up our worldview and understanding of our place in it?

I honestly haven't a clue.


Let us choose this fast. A fast from the bonds of injustice. A fast from oppression. A fast from a yoke too heavy to bear.

As we learn to do without injustice and oppression, perhaps we will learn what it is to be in the world but not of it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Cactus of Encouragement

I took the above photo a little over a week ago. It is a small cactus I have on my balcony. My palm can cover the entire group of prickly orbs. On them you can see several buds. None of them have bloomed, yet, but I think a couple more have appeared since I took this picture. Today, I counted 16 in all. I have had this cactus for about 5 years now. I've never seen more than 3 buds on it in a season.

I suspect that the reason this little pot of cacti is so full of buds is that I left it outside for a portion of the cold weather we had here in Houston. I brought it in when the temps got into the 20s, but before that, the cacti experienced some low 30s, maybe even a little nip of freezing temps. I've noticed all around Houston that other plants are starting to put on buds and it looks like it might be a more colorful than usual spring around here.

The stress of the cold weather makes the plants bloom a little extra.

I've mentioned here more than once that 2010 was a hard year for me. Now in the third month of 2011, I'm still a bit stressed. At present, I have only part-time, temporary work, which will run out at the end of May. So I'm not feeling so secure these days. Luckily, I've never counted security to be a god worth trusting anyway, so it could be worse. Still there is real stress.

So I check this cactus everyday, to see if it's blooming. It's not, but the buds continue to swell. It will bloom.

I find this encouraging.

So I give thanks to the God of prickly, blooming things, that I have them as a sign and a reminder: Something beautiful is coming.

(This is always true, but doggone it if I don't need the reminder!)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Gratitude is . . .

. . . a life lived aware of the gifts.

. . . receiving the gifts with "thank you."

. . . taking time to ponder the gifts and the grace it implies.

. . . taking time to use the gifts with an eye toward good stewardship.

. . . not wasting the time the gifts afford.

. . . hard to express.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Bullying

[note: this is something I wrote a few months ago, when all this was in the news. It was intended for a specific audience and, for whatever reason, was never used. I ran across it and I decided that it was still worth sharing somewhere.]

I imagine many of you have seen recent news stories on teenagers committing suicide after having been bullied by schoolmates, one in nearby Spring. This has been weighing on my mind quite a lot. The current focus of the stories have been teens who are gay or are perceived to be gay (which makes it especially personal for me), but everyone knows there are a number of reasons bullies choose their targets. Weight, academic achievement, religion, economic status, fashion choices . . . these are just the ones that come to mind at the moment.

As a nerdy, fat, goody-two-shoes, sissy boy growing up rural Texas, you might assume I was a target of some bullying. The potential was certainly there, but when I read of what some kids are enduring (or not) these days, I cannot say I was seriously bullied. What I endured might be better categorized as being "picked on" now and then, but I was never the victim of physical violence and the verbal abuse was comparatively mild. No one ever told me I should go hang myself.

When I think back on why getting picked on never escalated to anything more serious, I can come up with only one answer: the adults in my life. The teachers at school, the adults at church, my parents and extended family—they didn't put up with the meanness that lies behind bullying. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I do not recall anyone really being bullied in my schools as I grew up. There were popular kids and unpopular kids, but not blatant abuse. It was a wonderfully safe place to grow up.

What breaks my heart most of all about the recent suicides is that these teenagers felt as if there were absolutely no adults they could turn to for protection. This is inconceivable to me. Had things gotten out of hand for me, there were any number of adults around I could have turned to for help. How do these teens not feel the same?

I have no children and only limited interaction with children. Since these recent news stories, however, I find myself paying more attention to the few kids around me, whether at church or in the store where I work or on the bus. I find myself listening to their language, how they treat one another as well as how they're treated. Kids should feel like there are adults around them who care and will protect them. If I ever hear something that is outright threatening, I pray that I have the courage to say something and the wisdom to say the right thing.

I ask that you, too, pay attention to the children and teens around you and step in if things are getting out of hand.

There is a YouTube video series from adults who were bullied as kids, telling kids that "It Gets Better." These are messages of hope and I applaud them. I also believe that kids shouldn't have to wait for it to get better. My encouragement for all adults is that we make it better. If a nerdy, fat, goody-two-shoes, sissy boy growing up in rural Texas can have a safe childhood thanks to the adults around him, surely every child can have one, too. The key to that sentence, however, is "the adults around." Let's be the adults around.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


This world.

Culture. Language. Stories.

We create it, and it in turn creates us.

Someone took the time to record the story of the man under the Bodhi tree.

Another man retreated to a cave near Mecca to await revelation, and the story ended up in a book.

Despite countless men dying cruelly on the Roman cross, the story of one such death is recorded in four well-distributed accounts.

And these stories have shaped cultures, changed lives, influenced decisions, created peoples.

A few weeks ago, I asked if it weren't time to start telling new stories. I believe it is, even as we continue to reckon with these old stories.

Because the stories we receive and the stories we tell shape the world around us, shape us. I grew up hearing stories of Jesus and it has shaped me, for good and ill, out of obedience and rebellion, and I do not know who I would be if I had grown up hearing stories of Muhammad or Siddhartha. The way the stories of Jesus were told to me, the language in which they were told, the context within which I heard them---all of these have unique impact on me. Hearing Lutheran Sunday school lessons in central Texas via the English language is undoubtedly different from hear the stories in Coptic, in an Egyptian desert. In either place, the community around me would have also been shaped by the stories as well, shaped by the storytelling style (colorful leaflets or oral tradtion?), language, human history.

These things are on my mind, cross my mind regularly. American Christianity lives in a tension of trying to engage the larger, commercial, capitalist culture and trying to set itself apart from it. Immersion or separation. Sometimes it's both. We immerse ourselves in the capitalist culture by setting up Christian shops and we separate ourselves from the mass media culture by setting up Christian shops. It's all a bit of a mess, and it's hard to tell where we really are in this world.

St. Paul would have us know that we are in the world but not of it. We are bound by, bound in the culture within which we find ourselves. It's as simple as trying to have a conversation with a teenager without knowing who Justin Bieber is or missing a reference because you don't recognize the name of a Super Bowl quarterback. To engage the world(s) that knows these things, we have to know something of them, too. We are in the world, a world we create with these cultural touchstones, and to engage that culture we need a passing knowledge of them.

But we need more imagination. I recently read this blog post and generally agree with what its author is saying, but I think there is one more step to it. The way the author writes about our failure of imagination is still a reaction to the culture. It's not leading the culture.

How do we lead the culture with our stories? How do we engage the world we're in without becoming of it?

I write stories and those stories are very much shaped by having grown up hearing stories about Jesus. Still, I acknowledge I'm writing in a tradition that is very much a part of the cultural tradition I've received---the literary short story. Is working within that tradition capitulating to the culture being of that world instead of merely in it? If I write a play (and that's distinct possibility), how do I exercise an imagination that it not of this world, but can still engage it?

Are these even important questions?

Stories explain the world and shape it at the same time. I think what I'm circling in on here is that I believe art-making can be a means for engaging the world, the larger culture, but if we are too quick to co-opt the world (as in, say, sales goals), will we be recognizable as being anything else but part of that culture?

I'm not sure I'm quite getting at what I'm trying to say.

So I'll close, echoing how I started.

We create culture, art, stories. The culture, art, and stories in turn create us.

Is it possible to get ahead of that cycle so that what we create creates a new creation?