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.