Advertisement

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Lessons from the Colorado Tragedy

Tom Sullivan, center, embraces family members outside Gateway High School where he has been searching franticly for his son Alex Sullivan who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” movie where a gunman opened fire Friday, July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

The massacre at a movie cinema late Thursday night was a tragedy.

Advertisement

It can be a lesson, too.  The question is, a lesson about what exactly?  As usual, the devil is in the details.

In the days following a deranged gunman’s diabolical dress-up as the Joker, accompanied by a show-and-tell routine of live ammunition at a late night premiering of the Batman movie, we’ve seen various leaders and politicians come out with public statements about what we might learn from the events in question.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney suspended their campaigns with statements urging prayer and reflection on what matters most in life.  Then there were Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert’s remarks that the incident was the result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs” in this country- with the implication that less “persecuted” Christians in this country would have meant more gun-toting Christians at the cinema.  (It was not the first connection to come to mind for me, but maybe that’s why I’m not a politician…in Texas.)

Advertisement

Now I read this morning that the evangelical leader, Jerry Newcombe, of Truth In Action, is throwing in his two cents. In a segment on the American Family Association, Newcombe reportedly said this: “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place…on the other hand, if a person doesn’t know Jesus Christ… if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then, basically, they are going to a terrible place.”

In other words, the non-Christians who did not make it out alive from Thursday’s massacre are burning in hell, and the families of the victims who were Christians should really be celebrating right now.

Advertisement

Some “Truth In Action” that is.  What really is “truth in action” anyway? A big, fiery, ball of hell coming at you at the speed of light, maybe.  A bit like when another believer approaches with the words,  “I’m telling you the truth in love,” only to throw a verbal hand grenade.  (A good rule of thumb here by the way, I find, is to duck.)

What lessons do I take away from this tragedy?

That lax gun laws that make it possible for a deluded young man to purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition over the Internet urgently need reform.

That an entertainment industry that makes its revenues marketing violence is reaping the fruit of its labor and has blood on its hands.

Advertisement

That evil is not some made-up “construct” that we see at work only in the Majority world, or in places where science has yet to fill in the gaps by way of some empirically tested explanation, but is in fact a prowling lion seeking to devour its prey (1 Peter 5:8).

That a troubled young man who could have used some help fell through the cracks with devastating results.

That our living and our dying are not up to us or in our own control, and in fact never have been despite the illusion.

That what matters most in life and death is something to give ourselves to now.  Today.  This moment.

That we err and do harm when we stand in the place of God, by making statements about why bad things happen to certain people in certain places.

Advertisement

That “truth” (if it is even that) unhinged from love sounds about as pleasant as a clanging cymbal or nails on a chalkboard.

These are some of my takeaways.  Maybe you have more.

But I would also like to believe that every human being sitting in that movie cinema, including the gunman, is in the hands of a just and loving God, and that they and their families, including the gunman’s church-going parents, are, in their time of mourning, those whom Jesus blesses (Matthew 5:4).  May it be so, I pray.  Amen.

 

 

 

Advertisement

Prayers in Wake of Colorado Tragedy

I’m struck this morning by the prescience of yesterday’s poem, coming as it did (without my knowledge at the time of posting it) in the wake of the tragedy that struck  late Thursday night at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado: “Life the hound, Equivocal, Comes at a bound, Either to rend me, Or to befriend me.”

Life…comes at a bound…either to rend me, or to befriend me.

For the lives now rent asunder by this senseless evil, O God, have mercy.  And, for the many lives around the world for whom random acts of violence not so unlike this one have become routine, we also pray.  Remake these broken shards of the fragile glass that is the stuff of all of our lives into something lastingly beautiful, O God with Us.  In your name we pray, Amen.

Advertisement

The Poetics of Faith

Fellow saint and sinner Molly Nicholson has shared this wonderful, little piece by the poet Robert Francis, which comes untitled:

Life the hound
Equivocal
Comes at a bound
Either to rend me
Or to befriend me.

I cannot tell
The hound’s intent
Till he has sprung
At my bare hand
… With teeth or tongue.
Meanwhile I stand
And wait the event.

Advertisement

The Meaning of Tradition and Why Church Families Do Such Weird Stuff

An aerial view of where I should be right now (Shelter Island, New York). If you look closely you may be able to make out a couple of Sunfish braving ferry wakes, shifting wind patterns and their competing crews’ trash talk.

This week some of my now very large, sprawling extended family took part in its annual “Robb Regatta” off of Shelter Island, an island off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.  I regrettably couldn’t make it, but got to see some pictures.  And, it’s quite a show really.

Advertisement

The patriarch of our family, my granddad, whom we’ve affectionately dubbed “Admiral John,” began the annual tradition some twenty years ago now.  Small teams of two or three Robbs race out in Sunfish sailboats to a point somewhere in the Long Island Sound.  The bells and whistles involve (or have involved in previous years) an official weigh-in, to the great horror of the female members of our family- this, in an effort to achieve an exactingly fair distribution of weights in the various boats.  (The ritual almost single-handedly dissuaded a few of us aspiring female sailors from taking part when it first began.)  This process was in turn followed by some vying by teams for the female participants, whose lower weights promised a competitive advantage to the lucky boat that got them- with the result that this hardened sailor has spent many a regatta serving as a ballast while clinging to the bow, bailing out water and “preparing to come about” every ten minutes.

Advertisement

Then there are the hats and the T-shirts, inscribed with our names and “Kemah Yacht Club.” “Kemah” is a Native American word meaning “face into the wind.”  It is also the name of the historic sea captain’s house that my great grandfather bought in the 1930’s, which by now has seen many a Robb family reunion.

Following the race, there used to be an admiralty court at which competing interpretations of who won and who should be disqualified were argued before a presiding judge.  (An inevitability, I suppose, when there are so many lawyers in the family- or lawyers, period.)

Winners of the race usually would find their names and the year of the “Robb Regatta” inscribed on a dust-covered plaque on a mantle in the living room sometime before the next summer’s regatta, and before the letter of summons appeared in our mailbox, sent out by Admiral John with the dates of the next race and the highlights from the year before.

Advertisement

I remember my husband’s first initiation into this rather intimidating process when he and I were first dating.  He bravely endured the secret family vetting process. And the ribbing.  And the competitive bravado surrounding this admittedly “WASP” (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant) recreation of sailing.  (I would guess that Sunfish qualify as the “redneck” version of yachting, however.)  Somehow Paul survived, despite being conscripted rather reluctantly to serve as the dead-weight handicap for the team with the biggest competitive edge.

All in good fun, of course.

Remembering these moments this morning has me thinking about the importance of tradition- about why we as families of faith do certain things over and over again through the years.  It is not just because we are creatures of habit, although I suppose we very much need habits, too, to form us.  It is more fundamentally, I think, a matter of identity and belonging.  We remind ourselves about where we come from and who we are- in my case, that “competition” is a bit in the bones of what it means to be a Robb.  (And my husband will be the first to tell you I have an often irrepressible competitive streak.)

Advertisement

Baptism and Communion are ways to tell a story about ourselves that we can learn by heart.  In the waters of baptism and in the wine and the bread we are made new creations in Christ and nourished by Christ’s freely given love offering for us and for the whole world.  In these acts we remind ourselves and one another who we really are (as divinely loved and broken people) and that we belong to God and to God’s love affair with the world.  In this sense, to the degree that these traditions identify us and help us find belonging in an often intimidating and cruel world, I suppose we’re not unlike a family of amateur sailors pointing their little boats into the sea, their faces into the wind.

Got a family tradition that you’d like to share? Leave it below and I’ll republish it!

Advertisement

“Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Is the Wrong Question

Episcopal priests will be allowed to conduct services blessing same-sex relationships under a policy approved last Tuesday at the church’s national convention in Indianapolis.

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, titled “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” Ross Douthat makes the observation that last week, as the Episcopal Church was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere.  “They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase,” he writes.  Douthat goes on to make the case that such grim statistics spell doom for “liberal Christianity” in its present incarnation, if progressive, mainline churches do not find ways to reinvent themselves.

Advertisement

And, it is hard to argue with him.  When the Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church rationalizes her church’s declining numbers with loopy non-sequiturs like this one- “that her communion’s members value the ‘stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves” (was she joking?!) – it is easy to see why the Episcopal Church is expiring.

Douthat is commendably quick to point out some of the weaknesses that beset conservative Christianity in this country, too, with the implication that the problem of church decline and cultural irrelevance is not just a “liberal” one.  But he stops short of connecting the dots in tracing this wider trend and how it could more hopefully in-form the church, as evidenced by the title of his article. “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” is the wrong question, really.  Because I suspect that my and younger generations are largely not thinking in terms of such labels.  Most of us have come to view “conservative” and “liberal” as just code words for a host of implicit political beliefs that have functioned as add-ons to the Gospel– jaded remnants of religiously framed culture wars.  If we’re leaving church in droves or finding church irrelevant, it is because these labels have failed us.  We’ve seen through them and they have come up short.

Advertisement

Douthat is right to link a high view of Scripture and Christ with hope for the rebirth of the church.  But perhaps where we can move now, in surveying a war-torn landscape riddled by our churches’ political wars, is into a new territory of thinking beyond old identifiers like denomination or political affiliation.  Which is not to say that the Gospel is apolitical- only that former politically identifying marks, such as “conservative” and “liberal” need to fall by the wayside.  To borrow a biblical allusion, they are like chaff that the wind blows away.  There is no new life here.  If “liberal” or “conservative” Christianity was once “redeemable,” it does not redeem lives.  Only Christ does.

Maybe the question to ask, then, is not whether liberal Christianity can be saved, but rather, whether we in twenty-first century America can let God’s Living Word in its baffling, difficult, uncomfortable and perplexing breadth and depth and ongoing power, stand on its own, apart from our hang-ups, biases, prejudices, and allegiances.

Advertisement

Family unValues: Weird Jesus Sayings

“If any of you come to me…and don’t hate your father and your mother, your wife and your children, your brothers and your sisters- yes, and even your own life!- you can’t be my disciple.” – Luke 14:26

So much for “family values.”  Maybe that’s because Jesus, as N.T. Wright reminds us in his commentary on Luke, taken from Wright’s wonderful series, The New Testament for Everyone, isn’t running for office here.  Jesus, Wright explains, is more like “the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villages cut off from the rest of the world.”  Jesus is preparing those who think they want to follow Him for the Spartan-like vow of allegiance that will be required of them.  No competing value- not even those that come most naturally to us, like marriage and family, like life itself- can hold pride of place next to “Jesus is Lord.”

Advertisement

I must admit to some consternation here.  How do we traverse those gray spaces between courageous obedience to Christ and sheer irresponsibility in our familial relationships?  Isn’t it easy to excuse all kinds of morally problematic decision making with the claim that we’re on an important mission?  Great oversights can often be excused in God’s name.

I remember once being introduced in a church service in Kenya with high praise for the fact that I had left my family at home in the States to come all the way to Kenya to be with the church there.  Was it really a compliment? Maybe.  Maybe not.  I was getting a free trip to an exotic place and a break from my familial duties, afterall!

Advertisement

There are countless examples of missionaries who have more permanently left their families to answer the call of the Gospel in far-flung corners of the earth.  They have given away their lives in often incredibly heroic ways.  Just the other day my husband showed the movie, “The Mission,” to his class, the soundtrack for which almost always brings me to tears.  It tells the true story of a group of Jesuit missionaries who ultimately sacrifice themselves for and along with the aboriginal Guarani people in South America, when Portuguese soldiers massacre their community.

Jesus seems to be saying that even the most praiseworthy things that give us meaning and a sense of groundedness in this life pale in comparison to God’s mission.  That we have to be willing to give up any claim to their possession if we really want to follow Jesus.  Where our allegiance is genuinely in line with a call from God, and where it is a rationale for escape from existing vocations as wives, husbands, partners, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, is left for us to discern, I suppose, as a matter of conscience, with a level of fear and trembling.

Advertisement

Chicken Living Versus Freedom?

Ginger and her hen friends are tired of their fears and all the fences in their heads.

This weekend our family’s Friday movie night featured Chicken Run, an animated comedy directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park which tells the story of one group of cooped-up chickens and their relentless thirst for freedom from their soulless, money-grubbing overlords, the Tweedys.  The chickens’ ringleader is Ginger, an independent, no-nonsense hen constantly hatching (pun intended) often ludicrous plans for escape.

Advertisement

At one point in the movie, after numerous foiled attempts at freedom from the barbed wire boredom and merciless tedium of an existence devoted to nothing but the sheer production of eggs and more eggs, the hens begin to give up hope of ever escaping.  The following scene shows Ginger trying to rouse her friends from their despair.

Ginger: Think, everyone, think. What haven’t we tried yet?

Hen 1: We haven’t tried not trying to escape.

Hen 2: Hmm. That might work.

Ginger: What about Edwina?  [Edwina was axed after failing to produce eggs.] How many more empty nests will it take?

Hen 3: It wouldn’t be empty if she’d spent more time laying,

Advertisement

Hen 4: And less time escaping.

Ginger: So, laying eggs all your life, then getting plucked and roasted is good enough for you?

Hen: It’s a living.

Ginger: The problem is the fences aren’t just round the farm, they’re up here in your heads.  There is a better place out there.  Somewhere beyond that hill.  It has wide-open spaces and lots of trees. And grass. Can you imagine that?  Cool, green grass.

Hens: Who feeds us?

Ginger: We feed ourselves.

Hens: Where’s the farm?

Ginger: There is no farm.

Hens: Where does the farmer live?

Ginger: There is no farmer.

Advertisement

Hens: Is he on holiday?

Ginger: He isn’t anywhere. Don’t you get it?  There’s no egg count, no farmers, no dogs and coops and keys, and no fences!…Freedo-o-o-om!

If an unquenchable thirst for freedom is part of what it means to be human, we’re also very much chickens about it.  It’s easy to settle for just making a living, “working 9 to 5″ (as the old Dolly Parton song goes) and becoming personality-less cogs in a great, big, capitalist wheel.  In a world in which production, efficiency and materialism run the show much like the Tweedys, we can quickly lose our imaginations.  We can stop believing that the world beyond our coop is anything better or different or more life-giving.  We can become afraid to dream of a world in which God is all in all.  In which there are green pastures and still waters and a Good Shepherd whose rod leads us into perfect freedom.

Advertisement

Ginger’s diagnosis holds true for us, too: the problem is the fences aren’t just round the farm, they’re up here in your heads.  We’ve lost our imaginations.  We’ve lost our capacity to believe that there is a better place out there, somewhere beyond that hill, with wide-open spaces and lots of trees and grass.

Truman Capote once wrote that “love, having no geography, knows no bounds.”

Maybe the beginning of true freedom really is little more than learning to be loved by our Maker.

 

 

Advertisement

“Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?”

Pearl Buck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938.

“Is There A Case for Foreign Missions?”  That was the title of a speech delivered by the writer, Pearl Buck, for a packed gathering organized by the Presbyterian Church in November 1932.  Buck, in summarizing four decades of experience as a missionary kid, wife and teacher in China, was grappling with the deeply problematic inheritance she had received- namely, the notion that Christian missionaries were righteous purveyors of civilization, charged with enlightening a backwards Chinese people.

Advertisement

Pearl bore witness to what she had seen: “I have seen the missionary narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant.  I have seen missionaries…so lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving, so scornful of any civilization but their own, so harsh in their judgments upon one another, so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people, that my heart has fairly bled with shame.  I can never have done with my apologies to the Chinese people that in the name of a gentle Christ we have sent such people to them.”

Years earlier, when Pearl had been asked to give a talk to missionary trainees in Nanjing, China, she had given advice that remains deeply relevant for the missional church in our time: “‘Don’t mistake a psychological complex for religious emotion or divine leadership…Don’t mistake a wish of your own for the will of God, nor hurt vanity…for a call of duty to persist in your own way.'”

Advertisement

Instead, Pearl advised her students, in the words of biographer Hilary Spurling, “to cultivate a sense of humor and proportion; to recognize the notion of a single, fixed, unalterable truth as superstitious absurdity; and never to be deluded into operating on anything less than an absolute equality: ‘We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority…We are no better than anyone else, any of us.'”

We are no better than anyone else, any of us.

Pearl’s cautionary words here are a helpful antidote to the most subtle displays of religious chauvinism, whatever the “mission field” (be it a faraway land or right here at home). The whole “proud-to-be-a-Christian” mantra that can accompany more aggressive displays of evangelicalism in my own country is deeply suspicious.  One need not be ashamed of one’s faith in order to recognize the slippery slope here.

Advertisement

In an article four years later, titled “Is There a Place for the Foreign Missionary?,” Pearl concluded that missionaries’ often summary dismissal of Chinese philosophy and culture made their position “untenable” (Spurling’s term): “More insidious in its pessimism is…the question of whether anyone has the right to impress upon another the forms of his own civilization, whether these forms are religious or not.”

Wise and prescient words from someone qualified to deliver them.

Advertisement

“The Man Who Gave the World His Number”

My hubby and fellow saint and sinner Paul Dover ran across this article from the BBC which brought tears to my eyes.  It’s about a guy named Jeff Ragsdale who, finding himself alone in the aftermath of a devastating break-up, put up fliers around New York City with his number and a simple message: If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me.  -Jeff, The Lonely Guy.

And, people called.  From New York city and all around the world.  Even from prison, with words of consolation and encouragement.

Soon, the influx of calls and texts had gone viral.

Strikingly, the one, unifying message in all these communications, Jeff recalls, was overwhelmingly one of forgiveness.

Advertisement

Jeff was so moved by the influx of support that he ended up writing a book about the experience, transcribing those many messages so that others might read them in their own forsaken times.

If Jeff’s story only reinforces the irrelevance of the church in speaking to people’s deepest needs for connection and belonging, it is also testimony to the way God works, connecting people in all sorts of mysteriously wonderful ways to bring about meaning and redemption in the senseless parts of our lives.

What might the church learn from Jeff’s story?  I suspect a lot of things.  That in a world in which people are more virtually connected than at any time in human history, people are deeply lonely and are aching for real connections.  That a posture of humility, vulnerability and listening is the beginning of that connection.   That the more invisible “church scattered” is more effective in serving God’s purposes today than the more visible “church gathered.”  That God works for God’s purposes in the world whether or not God’s people join God in that mission.

Advertisement

That in Jesus, God gives the world God’s number.

These are a few of my takeaways.  Maybe you’ll have more…

[My apologies for the placement of the wrong video earlier today because of some technical weirdness, which is also making it impossible to embed the Youtube version of the clip.  If you go to the above hyperlink, you should be able to watch the video, however!]

 

 

Advertisement

Awkward Church Moments

When Dad puts on his sling and greases up his torso for the family photo, it’s bound to be awkward.

I was practically lizzing yesterday (to borrow Elizabeth Lemon’s term in “30 Rockefeller”) when I heard this story from someone I ran into the other day.  Apparently he had not set foot in a church for years when he visited one on a recent Sunday morning, with the hope that returning to church would help him recover from a bad smoking habit and depression over a broken leg- and maybe even help him find a mate.

Advertisement

That morning he had a fresh cast on and was sitting in the front row when, during the service, a little, old lady hollered to the preacher that she was sensing in the Spirit that the visitor in the front row with the cast on needed healing.  The preacher, in the presence of some 60 or 70 worshipping onlookers, came over and firmly laid his hand on my friend’s forehead and said “You have been healed!  Get up!”

My friend, who was a bit surprised and embarrassed by this treatment of first-time visitors, in addition to sporting a clumsy mold on his leg that would make it difficult to jump up as evidence of this miraculous healing, demurred.  (Can anyone say “awkward”?)  At which point, the preacher kept his sweaty hand on my sitting friend’s head over the course of the next twenty minutes as he thanked God in loud tones for my friend’s healing.

Advertisement

Some three weeks later, my friend got his cast off as the doctors had promised.

It was a miracle.

It was such a miracle that my friend has decided not to show himself in church ever since.

On other fronts…fellow saint and sinner Jarrett Roux Jackson has sent along these wonderful reflections from Tim Keller on why “compatibility” in marriage is a bit of a misnomer.  Check them out: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/relationship/features/27749-you-never-marry-the-right-person

And, I’m still waiting to hear back from Emerging Evangelists about a conversation around women evangelists and their lack thereof, at least as evidenced by their woeful absence on Emerging Evangelists’ Facebook page.

In a couple days we’ll feature one final weird Jesus saying- the whole notion that to follow Jesus means “hating” one’s family.  Weird? I’d say so.

Hope you’re enjoying your week!

 

 

My friend

 

Previous Posts

Being There: A Eulogy to Our Dog Carter
Today our canine companion of 15 years—his life with us about as long as the time we have been married—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. Velvet-ea

posted 10:42:39pm Mar. 27, 2015 | read full post »

Author Marilynne Robinson Live: On Soul Vs. Mind and Why It Matters
My favorite contemporary author Marilynne Robinson was in town this week speaking at an event hosted by Emory's University's Carlos Museum. She was speaki

posted 10:26:54pm Mar. 19, 2015 | read full post »

Dying Stanford Neurosurgeon—On Heidegger, Graham Greene and Time
I'm finally emerging from hibernation on my latest book project, this one now definitively titled The Recovery

posted 1:27:02pm Mar. 13, 2015 | read full post »

Writing Sabbatical—and "The Departure of the Prodigal Son"
I'm sorry: my absenteeism at this intersection can be attributed to a number of things lately, the most pressing of which is my forthcoming book with author and Christian addiction specialist Jonathan Benz. The book (Prodigal Church or a version of it) is now officially under deadline and by April 1

posted 10:55:10am Jan. 26, 2015 | read full post »

Restless Soul Hall of Fame: Sister Corita Kent
Since NPR's recent segment, Sister Corita Kent has come to mind a few times this week as someone who d

posted 10:23:30am Jan. 16, 2015 | read full post »

Advertisement


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.