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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Poverty vs. Privilege

"On a Plate" (Copyright: Toby Morris)

An excerpt of “On a Plate” (Copyright: Toby Morris). For full version, which is well-worth the read, visit the link in my post.

Lately, I’ve been learning about poverty and getting to know those in its grip, thanks to the”Open Door” community here in Atlanta. Open Door is a residential community in the spirit of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, whose mission is to care for the poor and for prisoners. And my education is really only just beginning, I’m learning, as I listen to the stories of those who show up each Wednesday night to Open Door’s free foot clinic and regale me, with their feet in a bucket of warm, herb-infused water, with their stories of life on the streets or in jail.

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Which may be why this brilliant comic by Toby Morris, “On a Plate,” which is a meditation on the systemic nature of both poverty and privilege, hits so close to home. The headline introducing the comic reads “This Comic Will Forever Change the Way You Look at Privilege”—and it did. In a mainstream American culture that still largely celebrates the rugged, bootstrap pursuit of “the American dream,” Morris’ comic is a reminder of the obliviousness with which one can live in debt to little more than sheer privilege (the fact of being born into a white, well-educated, middle-class or affluent family), as opposed to the stand-alone merit of one’s achievements.

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The take-home message for me? That privilege should elicit great humility and greater responsibility; (didn’t Jesus say that from those who have been given much, much will be demanded?) And that another human being’s poverty deserves compassion and an attentiveness to poverty’s deeply systemic nature, rather than quick, easy judgements about the character defects of the poor person in front of me.

 

 

 

 

 

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David Brooks and “The Big Me”—A Critique

David Brooks' latest book is the subject of an edifying interview in the June 2015 issue of Christianity Today.

David Brooks’ latest book is the subject of an edifying interview in the June 2015 issue of Christianity Today.

In the midst of preparing for this major house renovation, for which mental health breaks have come in the form of way too many back-to-back episodes of the T.V. series “Breaking Bad,” and regrettably less writing at this intersection, the latest issue of Christianity Today (June 2015) arrived yesterday. It features an interesting interview with The New York Times columnist David Brooks upon the release of his latest book The Road to Character (Random House).

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We Are More Narcissistic Today, Says Brooks

In that interview, Brooks critiques what he terms today’s “Big Me” culture, a culture that, as he sees it, is increasingly narcissistic, self-absorbed and self-promoting. In evidence of this claim, Brooks invokes results from a 2005 Gallup survey that asked graduating high-school seniors the question, “Are you a very important person?” 80 percent answered “yes,” in contrast to only 12 percent in 1950, when the same question was put before graduating seniors then. Additionally, Brooks points to a 30 percent rise in the median narcissism score as further support for his claim.

For Brooks, recent developments in social media technology have only encouraged individual expressions of self-importance (a case in point, the “Like” feature on Facebook and a growing trend in self-branding). I tend to agree with Brooks here, but I also wonder if his larger blanket critique of contemporary American culture is a bit unfair.

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“We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves,” he says, linking this broad sociocultural shift to changing intellectual currents in the 1940’s. That is when, Brooks claims, “there were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.”

Talking More About Sin in America—A Cure for “The Big Me”?

The anecdote to this development then? A return to the common denominator that we are sinful human beings, it would seem, and more talk in the public sphere about sin and righteousness. I beg to differ for a number of reasons. One unanswered question here is how we might make that return. And here, while I wholeheartedly embrace this common denominator as true—human beings are clearly a sinful mess and in need of God’s saving grace—I wonder whether we encounter in Brooks a bit of unrealistic nostalgia for a time that will never again be, a time when the institution of the church, for example, exercised far greater moral influence, to the degree that the Christian doctrine of sin was more of a given and the church was widely looked to by greater America as a compass for moral formation. The likelihood of returning to that comfortable era of Christendom is next to none.

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Moreover, recent public rhetoric by evangelical Christians in response to issues like gay marriage has already been laced plenty enough with talk of sin and, implicitly, self-righteousness. Brooks steers clear of this reality, at least in this interview. I want to ask him, “How do you think such muscular pronouncements about human sin (embodied, for example, in evangelicals’ rhetoric around Indiana’s religious freedom law and in response to gay marriage) are already working to serve the public good and promote virtue?” I would argue that such declarations about human sin do little to encourage moral character in society at large, and, if anything, serve only to disempower evangelicals of real, authoritative moral influence. (Whether or not such pronouncements are building the character of those who make them is a matter of personal discernment and the working out of faith with “fear and trembling” as the writer of Hebrews calls it.)

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And I wonder if, in a society that since its first origins has been about rugged individualism, it is not at least a bit unfair to (at least implicitly) single out my generation and those following it as the embodiment of “The Big Me.” Yes, the defining mark of younger generations, social media, has become a venue for over-indulgent, narcissistic self-expression, so that this blog, it could be argued, encapsulates this very thing; but social media has also brought people together around important causes and solutions and, when used responsibly, has enormous potential for good. Studies of the Millennial generation, moreover, confirm their interest in issues related to social and environmental justice.

We Are All Bigger Me’s in the Kingdom of God

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So yes, my brokenness and sinfulness are necessary to apprehending the Good News of God’s immeasurable love for me. But neither would that Good News be complete without the recognition that every person has infinite value in the kingdom of God—indeed, the “least of these,” among whom, on my good days, I count myself. Brooks combs history for examples of humility and self-sacrifice (counterexamples to today’s “Big Me’s”), citing Augustine and Dorothy Day among them. Their contributions changed the world, maybe precisely because they believed in a big God.

But the grace of that faith, paradoxically, was also the thing that made Augustine and Dorothy Day “big people,” enlarging their capacity to love their neighbor in ways that shaped the arc of history. What Augustine and Day apprehended was not just their own deep need for God’s grace, then, but the reality that they and their lives were of inestimable, infinite value to this God. In the context of this great, big God, their lives were bigger than they could ever have dreamed for themselves and to be treated as such. Maybe in a similar vein, Kierkegaard could write in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript that the category of the individual “remains the weight which turns the scale.” Augustine and Dorothy Day turned the scale of history. So can the “Big Me’s” of today, thanks to a great God who remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

 

 

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In the Clear: Meditations on Cleaning House

The last few weeks have comprised a massive de-cluttering initiative in preparation for a home renovation, as we clear out junk from our basement, attic and just about anywhere useless stuff has managed to accrue.

What Do We Throw Away?

The basement was our project one Sunday afternoon. And it is funny to see what you turn up after the years have gone by. Time can rob you of explanations for hanging on to some things (grief, old attachments and resentments included). Like the old chest of drawers I had found hanging out on the curb in a gritty west Atlanta neighborhood. I had managed to convince myself (and a kind neighbor with a truck who knew I was crazy but obliged me, anyway) that the piece would be fun to resurrect as a kitchen island in a brand-spanking new, remodeled kitchen dreamed for the following year.

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That bureau belonged to an entire lawn of disgorged contents from a foreclosed house now overseen by a guy with an amputated arm. The items, he insisted, had once belonged to him—although it was clear he was without a home and had nowhere to go and nothing to do. But the care and motivation with which he helped me carry that bureau to the car, arm or no arm, as he told me a bit of his story—about how he lost his arm as a child in a gun accident, and about how he really lived (gesturing ambiguously) a few blocks away but could use a ride to the Walmart—seemed deserving of $20 for the dresser and for his help, even if he would still have to walk to the Walmart. The dresser would not fit in my car, so I had called my friend with the truck who had driven over to marvel at the stretch of ‘hood we had landed in and at my craziness.

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That ugly, faux-painted dresser missing one drawer is now awaiting dumpster day. Does something similar await the seemingly senseless furniture of our lives—the mistakes, wrong turns and broken parts for which we have no explanation or use? “Chaff that the wind blows away,” the psalmist says of “evildoers.” What of the things in our lives that may not be so much evil as lamentable, tragic or merely useless? Are these mere food for the dumpster, or do they, too, have their belonging somewhere, and if so, where? If my soul’s new-found sense of freedom and spaciousness in the aftermath of a basement clear is any indication, I would like to think such things are tinder for a great big, mischievous bonfire.

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My house cleaning had been merciless with other things, too. College books now mildewed from years of storage in a dank basement. Baby clothes from our children’s first year of life. Old files and papers from seminary. (If at the end of his life a great theologian like Thomas Aquinas could call his life’s work “straw” for the fire, then I could let go of notebooks filled to the brim with my scribbles on seemingly useless theological squabbles about God.)  All of these things had been taking up precious space for far too long and would now be carted off to our local thrift store or become fodder for a line of garbage bags.

What Do We Keep?

There were also the serendipitous and sometimes inexplicable discoveries of things that still meant something to me, as evidenced by their capacity to elicit a smile or chuckle. Like the box of quirky, humorous postcards my husband had written me during our dating years. I had chucked the old casette tapes of music he had made for me in that period of young love—they were now too defunct to be worth salvaging—but those postcards were another story. And there were the VHS videos from our wedding, and other sentimental paraphernalia, like the graduation Barbie doll I had received from not one but two family members on the occasion of completing college. I had kept only one, but somehow Barbie #2 went on to survive even the second cull.

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There was even the old uniform I once wore as a child in primary school growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That ruffled, green-and-white checkered dress had seemed too much like an innocent bystander bearing witness to the ruthless pruning at hand, so I kept it. Funny what we choose to hold onto and why, despite the transience of a life that will one day depart by wrenching everything we claim to possess from our clutches.

Letting Go and Embracing Reality

By strange coincidence and as if in tribute to our recent house clearing measures, Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping has accompanied me during this process of unloading junk. The book’s narrator is Ruthie, a girl whose story of family tragedy and loss, relayed in surrealist tones, unfolds against the backdrop of a remote Idaho town, “Fingerbone.” There, Ruthie, her sister Lucille, and their only living relative, Sylvie, the girls’ flighty and rootless guardian, struggle to “keep house” with the clutter they have inherited; and the stuff of their home environment, in the form of old cans, newspapers and detergent boxes (the last of these are recycled as makeshift dinner plates), is richly metaphorical—a metaphor for human baggage, maybe, like unresolved grief, broken relationships, and the impermanence of human love. Ultimately, that house of clutter will go up in flames, its demise releasing Ruthie and Sylvie—Lucille chooses to stay behind—to roam freely in the world beyond Fingerbone, and it is as if the conflagration of “home” sets these two free to live in reality rather than from among the ruins of a dream.

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I am not sure that our recent sort and clear can achieve anything quite so ambitious. Has my remarkable capacity to collect useless things at yard sales and on random street curbs finally been put to rest? Probably not, despite my best efforts. But home now feels less cluttered—and, with the freeing recognition (however fleeting it, too may be) of the impermanence of all possessions, my soul feels not just lighter and more spacious but alive to a desire for what matters more. And the desire itself, as Robinson’s novel seems to suggest, is worth holding onto.

 

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For All Restless Souls—The Love-Hate Memoir of One Churchgoing Gal

Rachel Held-Evans is a popular Christian blogger and author who in "Searching for Sunday" shares how she fell in love with the church all over again.

Rachel Held-Evans is a popular Christian blogger and author who in “Searching for Sunday” shares how she fell in love with the church all over again.

My review of Rachel Held-Evans’ latest book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church went live yesterday at the Episcopal Digital Network’s Sermons That Work. You can read it here.

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Upcoming Review of Rachel Held-Evans’ Latest Book

indexYesterday I submitted a final, much-revised manuscript for The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addictions (InterVarsity Press, 2015)—which hopefully means I can be back at this intersection between God and life at least a bit more often.

In the meantime, Rachel Held-Evans’ latest book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church has been a welcome read for this restless soul. That review, which will appear in The Episcopal Digital Network’s online publication Sermons That Work, (which is managed by friend and fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell), uncovers just a few of the book’s many insightful contributions for those of us who find ourselves on the outskirts of church, struggling to understand our ambivalent feelings towards this more than 2,000-year-old institution. Stay tuned!

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“The Power of Introductions,” Via Bruce Strom and Gospel Justice

handshakeI’ve featured the work of my friend and inspiration Bruce Strom, a lawyer who directs the organization Gospel Justice Initiative, at this intersection before. Bruce once had a cushy job as the senior partner at a corporate law firm, but he gave that away when he heard God’s call to defend those in this country who far too often find themselves without a voice or legal representation: “the poor.” Gospel Justice Initiative is all about the work of connecting churches with God’s mission to serve “the least of these,” through the establishment of legal aid clinics and church-based justice centers across this country. The goal (which was also my late granddad’s) is to see at least 1,000 such justice centers spring up nationwide with the help of mobilized churches. And slowly, gradually, this goal is coming to fruition. Bruce’s recent post at the blog “Do Likewise” was an inspiration this morning and I share it with you in hopes that every so often you’ll check out what is happening in the realm of Gospel Justice.

Because the older I get, the more I’m convinced that God’s kingdom—not our own little fiefdoms—is where true meaning, adventure and identity itself lie.

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5 Spiritual Lessons from Editing The Recovery-Minded Church

(Credit: Savage Chickens)

(Credit: Doug Savage)

The edits to The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Additions (IVP) have been substantial and time-consuming, thanks to a talented editor (a shout-out to Helen Lee) performing her job well. The editing process has also kept me away from this intersection for far too long (and I hope to be back soon); but in the meantime, the process of writing, re-writing and editing this manuscript are teaching me a thing or two about the nature of my relationship with God—who in some significant ways operates much like a really fine editor. Here are five lessons from writing, re-writing and editing a book about how God is at work in my life, in hopes that they might encourage you, too, wherever you are (converted, unconverted or under conversion):

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1. I need a divine editor—someone to tell me when my story line is going astray and who inspires me to do better, or calls me to the real story I need to write with my life. In the world of writing, I need someone to tell me where my stories can be improved or tweaked, where my writing needs to show rather than just tell, where I can do better reaching my intended audience. I need someone who will trek bravely through a first draft of my work and then tell me honestly (and hopefully graciously) where the book really needs help—or, for that matter, needs to be drastically re-organized. That kind of editor will make me a better writer and will help me write a better book. And similarly, I need the Holy Spirit to whisper the edits, do-overs and revisions into the autobiography I often so clumsily find myself trying to live with a modicum of faith, hope and love.

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2. God needs our incompleteness and our brokenness in order to be God. Those of us with straight A’s in theology can let their jaws drop, but I stand by this statement—at least this side of heaven. The Great Physician says He has come not to those who are well but to those who are sick. The flawed manuscripts, not the perfect ones, are those that God can edit. Even the best writers, like an Anne Lamott, for example, will tell you that good books are usually the products of many sometimes painful revisions. So are some of the best lives, I’m starting to think. Redemption doesn’t happen to perfect people who are convinced their first draft on life is too good to be worth being made better. Grace doesn’t let us stay where we are, and neither does a good editor. Redemption happens to those who realize they need a chance at a second draft or at least a re-write of that section on marriage or parenting or…you can fill in the blank.

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3. Failures truly are my best teachers—and the means by which God is shaping my life story in the crucible of God’s grace. In this life I have experienced at least a couple big, humiliating, fall-on-my-face failures—and these do not even include the smaller, daily screw-ups where I miss my mark. Maybe you have, too. But when I fail, God is just around the corner explaining once again (in case I have forgotten) that God, not I, ultimately gets to edit my story. The editing process can be painful, most especially because it means that my version of the story is not the best or only one to be told (and may not ever get to be told for that matter), much like the chaff that the wind blows away. And the editing process means giving up my claims to control on my first draft: if I want a better end product, I have to trust my editor knows better. And I have to be ready to accept my failures as the means by which God is telling a better story with my life in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.

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4. I am not alone—when I have a question, my editor has said she is only a phone call away; and I’m learning that God really is like that, too. Do you ever find yourself asking God where God is? Do you ever feel just utterly alone? On the days when I feel that way, some times I manage to ask God for help and to dial my divine editor—to “reach out and touch someone,” in the words of the old AT&T slogan (though that someone in this case is capitalized). And I confess I have yet to put my divine editor on speed dial or to favorite him in my contact list. But I am discovering that that Someone is the best person to call in the rough patches where my language is choppy and I am stuck in the doldrums asking how these dry bones might ever come alive again. Writing is like life that way: I cannot do this life without the companionship of a divine editor who will breathe new life into my flat, sloppy paragraphs and hold my hand when I get scared or wonder, in fits of existential angst, whether my life manuscript is just kindling for the fire or toilet paper for the next camping trip. The presence of my divine editor assures me I am not alone and that the autobiography He is helping me live has eternal meaning.

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5. The editing process asks for my participation, and so does God’s. No, ultimately God does not really need me to edit my manuscript in just the way God wants. If I wimp out or throw in the towel, God will keep on editing the book and the book will eventually come to fruition regardless of my participation; but God wants me to participate. God wants me to be part of the work that God is doing—not just in my life but in a larger, cosmic “divine editing” process, so that in the process I, too, can become a better writer (a better communicator of the story God wants to tell not just about me but about those around me).

Increasingly, I am convinced–and you will see a whole chapter in The Recovery-Minded Church devoted to this subject–that when it comes to divine editing, God is most concerned with the ministry of healing. Healing me. Healing you. Healing those who need a physician and know it. Jesus’ ministry was at heart a ministry of healing. Yesterday I visited the International House of Prayer (IHOP) for the very first time—and no, my medicine did not include pancakes slathered in whipped butter and syrup, although that is sounding awfully delicious this morning. My medicine came in the form of three kind strangers, all women, who sat around me in a small, intimate circle and enclosed me with their prayers for healing—bold, tongue-fired prayers that came in the form of gentle, soft-spoken declarations, with hands on my head as I cried like a baby. And those ladies did this for a whole line of people that trailed out the door of the little white trailer where we, the sick, all hovered together looking for God’s healing touch.

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God’s mission is to heal this world that has been groaning in labor pangs waiting for redemption. The world and we (those of us who know it) are waiting for the stroke of a divine pen to write “Be well” across page 1 or 10 or wherever we discover in the journey that we are sick and need God’s healing touch. I thank God for those three women and for all those who have hitched their wagons to God’s divine editing process.

And the Book of Life that God is editing will one day be revealed and we with unveiled faces will behold it in all its glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Good Friday Is Like Hot Yoga…

Hot yoga may be too cool for me. (Photo credit: mmpentertainmentblog.com)

Hot yoga may be too cool for me. (Photo credit: mmpentertainmentblog.com)

Good Friday is like last night’s mindful hot yoga class.

It was my first, so I had gone with some trepidation.

I hadn’t known what to wear, for one thing, so I put on my only pair of light Spandex, which happen to be a shiny, bright, royal blue. A Christmas gift from hubby several years back that I now rarely wear.

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And the hygiene of stretching and sweating profusely in 100-plus-degree temperatures on borrowed mats circulated and re-circulated among strangers had convinced me I needed my own mat, thankfully only $7.99 at Ross.

Then I had endured the looks of tattooed hipsters and bar goers at $5 margarita happy hour as I walked—now briskly—down the main drag of East Atlanta, until I came to the window of “Sacred Sweat Yoga.”

A small sign on the door told me to go around back and knock, which I did to no avail.

When I returned to the front door, I peeked inside to see two neat, long rows of stretching bodies calmly ensconced in their work-out, the first of those bodies maybe two feet from the front window where I stood.

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I was ten minutes late.

So I knocked and rang the door bell and tried to open the front door. To no avail.

The outside happy hour crowd next door saw my plight and tried to help. One went and banged louder on the front door. No luck. She returned to her margarita with sympathetic expressions, and we all enjoyed a good laugh as the rain began to fall and the heavens broke loose in peals of thunder. A margarita was starting to look more enjoyable than a hot yoga work-out, anyway.

The truth is, those ladies in hot yoga weren’t being intentionally rude. They just really hadn’t noticed me knocking on the door and peeking in under the hanging blinds. They were so mindful of their hot yoga moves that they hadn’t eyes to see anything else.

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Good Friday is a bit like that: it slips imperceptibly by for many of us, despite the big hint that something remarkable has happened. Maybe the most poignant thing about Good Friday is that when God dies, not many really notice. Do they care? Maybe they would if they noticed.

In this sense, I am guessing most of us are not unlike those in Jesus’ time. Sure, for the disciples and maybe for a few who stand watching at the foot of the cross, like the centurion, Jesus’ death means something profound and life-changing has just taken place. Their world will never be the same again, precisely because Jesus’ death means a coming undone of hope itself. But a large proportion of people in Jesus’ time probably would not have noticed. They would have gone on living without noticing that in Jesus and in his death God had been knocking on their door and peeking under the blinds.

Today is Good Friday, which means God went to a cross and died. I try to wrap my mind around that and fail. But today it is enough of a distraction to make me want to live like I’m worth dying for.

You are, too.

 

 

 

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A Glorious Dark: A Review

Author of Messy A.J. Swoboda's newly released book The Glorious Dark is well-worth a read. You can find A.J. blogging at www.ajswoboda.com.

Author of “Messy” A.J. Swoboda’s newly released book, “A Glorious Dark,” is well worth the read. You can find A.J. blogging at www.ajswoboda.com.

Three years ago, when pastor, seminary professor and author A.J. Swoboda’s first book Messy made its debut, I said I hoped the book would not be his last; so when a review copy of Swoboda’s second book, A Glorious Dark, arrived in the mail last week, I was like a kid on Christmas morning unwrapping a gift.

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I was not disappointed.

The same knack for funny and conversational theological gab that made Messy an enjoyable and engaging read is once again on display in these reflections on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter—and just in time for the events of this Holy Week. The premise of the book is both simple and profound: that Christians need the whole Gospel, as in “pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday.” Swoboda critiques an all-too-prevalent, pick-and-choose buffet approach within contemporary American Christianity: whereas some Christians choose a Good Friday spirituality of “defeat, death and loss,” for example, other Christians spend their time in the dessert line, skipping the meat and potatoes of pain and death entirely and preferring instead variations on the health and wealth gospel.

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Then there are those of us who have decided we are somewhere in the middle, on Holy Saturday, choosing “in-betweeness, a liminality, an uncertainty, a doubt.” (Here— maybe because I am sympathetic to Holy Saturday-ers and find myself among them often—I’m not sure I completely agree with Swoboda that we are “cynics and deconstructionists” who think “that everyone should sit in our graves with us.”) But the overall tenor Swoboda strikes, one of calling the church to embrace a whole Gospel rather than piecemeal parts of it, is well-taken, and I applaud him for what he has done in another great book—namely, giving his readers a winning and provocative presentation of the Christian faith.

Here, as in Messy, the witty, one-liners wake me up and draw me in:

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Faith will either be like a Polaroid picture or an Etch-a-Sketch.

The Trinity is the world’s Chewbacca.

Everyone’s addicted to something. Even God.

The last of these I want to quibble with: the notion that God is an addict addicted to dispensing grace clashes with my Barthian and Reformed sensibilities; a perfectly free and sovereign God cannot be an addict, even for the sake of a pithy illustration. Doesn’t God precede grace afterall? A small quibble.

This instance is one of a few in the book where I want to press Swoboda to explain a bit more what he means. He is on the move at a breakneck speed throughout this book, a bit like a very gifted and engaging theological tour guide with a small (and endearing) hint of ADHD. There is methodological brilliance in this approach: theology eludes systematizing; and there is so much terrain to cover between Good Friday and Easter, why not catch the most important highlights? But there are a few times when I think I’m being driven towards the theological equivalent of one of the Seven Wonders (like the problem of human evil and depravity, for example) and am then distracted by roadkill.

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By way of illustration, some illuminating reflections on human evil veer into a somewhat terse and dismissive critique of evolution: “In fact, my biggest beef with evolution isn’t what evolution says about the past. My problem with evolution is what it says of the future. It ultimately suggests, ‘Hey, give humanity a few more years and we’ll get everything cleaned up. We’ll be better.”

The digression into a critique of evolution in turn causes this reader to lose sight of the more compelling point Swoboda is making here about the problem of human evil. Instead, I become a bit distracted wondering whether contemporary models of evolution really do make the teleological assumption that with evolution human beings will become better and less evil. (I am pretty sure they don’t; besides, I had thought the primary beef that many evangelicals have with evolution is precisely what they deem as evolution’s inherent randomness and lack of a teleology.)

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But these points are minor in a book that will enrich and challenge your Christian faith or lack thereof. Swoboda’s pastoral concerns are evident. He reserves some of his best one-liners and metaphors for talking about the church and why we still need the church. But I don’t want to spoil these for prospective readers, who will have to pick up the book and discover its depth and charm for themselves.

They won’t be disappointed.

 

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Being There: A Eulogy to Our Dog Carter

(Photo credit: Amateur photographer and family friend Mark Singletary)

(Photo credit: Amateur photographer and family friend Mark Singletary)

Today our canine companion of 15 years—about the length of our marriage—died. He passed away peacefully at the age of 17 with his closest family around him, stroking him wistfully between sobs and thanking him for the life and love he  shared with us.

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Velvet-eared, sweet and gentle Carter was a rescue dog, just a garden-variety lab mix with a personality that made you want to love him for the rest of his life. He was dropped off on our porch during our first year of marriage, a time when we were still acclimating to newlywed life. Carter had been found as a puppy roaming a construction site in rural Tennessee, and—as we soon discovered was typical of Carter—charmed his way into the hearts of the men who worked there. They soon were feeding him scraps and one day, one of the men, an acquaintance from church, dropped Carter off on our porch in hopes a new dog might lift our spirits after the loss of our last dog Truman.

15 Years of Being There…

There are so many things by which to remember our dog. His boundless energy on long hikes or accompanying us on jogs. The way he seemed to intuit when we were having a bad day, and would tenderly put his muzzle in our lap, letting us stroke his head and tell him about it. And, before children came along, Carter’s warm body cuddled up next to us in bed at the end of a day. He just wanted to be with us no matter what. Even when my husband and I couldn’t be around one another, and there have been those moments, Carter was always there— and we could always be around Carter.

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Carter’s unfailingly sweet disposition to all belied his capacity as a hunter in the wild. (Carter had come to us after spending at least a year, maybe two, surviving on his own in the woods, after all.) There was the time when a neighbor kid issued a 10-year-old boy’s taunt one day as we were standing in front of our apartment in Princeton, New Jersey: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Carter could catch that squirrel?!,” he exclaimed, as we watched Carter zero in on a squirrel 10 feet away, his body gearing up for a chase.

Carter caught that squirrel, and pretty soon had it in his jaws, flinging that squirrel by the neck in a death grip—all to the neighbor kid’s enthusiastic shouts of “Yeah, Carter!,” and to the kid’s parents’ horror at an unfolding scene that, because of its grisliness, probably would not be shown on your average PBS nature program.

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Then there was the time that 40-pound Carter took down a fully grown adult deer on the Princeton golf course. Early in the mornings we would let Carter run free on that open field of meticulously clipped, rolling green carpet. One morning, however, during a snow storm in early spring, my husband came back from a walk to report that Carter had caught and killed a deer, one of the many in the woods around the seminary apartment complex we inhabited. After the unstoppable carnage, the deer’s carcass had been too big to lug or haul anywhere, so we had been obliged to leave the unlucky deer there, and to imagine what it would be like for some pharmaceutical executive in his perfectly white golfing knickers to discover venison near the tenth hole. We still feel a bit sorry about that incident.

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When our first child came along, there was an adjustment period, and we wondered, especially I in my jittery, anxious first days of motherhood, whether Carter would treat my newborn child like just another squirrel or deer. But Carter was smart, and he soon caught on that he had taken a new position in the family food chain. After that, he became a loyal protector of our kids, always enduring even the rough shoves and pulls of toddlers with nothing but an abiding patience—even in his twilight years. He accepted his lot with grace, contenting himself just to be there, even if it meant being an afterthought next to dirty diapers, skinned knees and swim lessons and soccer practices.

In recent years, Carter had been there, too. A stable, faithful presence. When in old age he no longer could go on hikes with us, he still would greet us with his tail wildly wagging, as if we were the best thing that had happened to him; and when any of us would leave the house, he would whimper. He was our canine cheerleader of sorts, and he was always there, even when we took him for granted.

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During the last months of his life, Carter could no longer climb our home’s steep stairs to join us in the TV room on family movie nights or to lie at my feet as I worked. That was hard for him.  Some days he would cry and whimper at the foot of the stairs, because all he really wanted was to be there next to us. But his hips had started to give way and cause him pain.

And When Being There Was Hurting Him Too Much…

There were other issues, too, that in recent days came to a head and led to the awareness that Carter did not deserve to be kept around for our sake anymore. His quality of life had so greatly diminished.

Carter rallied again for us this afternoon, just before the vet came to inject him with sodium pentobarbital. He wanted to join us for one last romp around the yard on a bright day in early spring—and, somewhat begrudgingly, for some family photos.

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Then, surrounded by teary-eyed family telling him how much they loved him and how much he had been a gift to us, Carter climbed onto his comfy bed for one last time; and, with his tired, now white-haired muzzle enclosed by a cup of Dairy Queen soft serve ice cream, Carter drifted off into a long and peaceful sleep.

The vet said we were sending Carter to heaven. I hope so. Because if he’s not there, I’m not sure what hope there is for the rest of us.

God speed, boy. I’ll miss you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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