“1.4 million lack power amidst relentless heat,” or so go the headlines these days.
Here in Atlanta over the past weekend, the heat index was upwards of 110 degrees. It was so hot that simply stepping out to get the mail felt like walking through a sauna, and the local pool offered free, unlimited, weekend passes.
Which only partially explains the following church sign on yesterday’s route through the nearby countryside only 30 miles south of Atlanta, a trek I make every other week as an itinerant chaplain to visit a few of my clients: “Hell is hotter,” the sign read.
Hell is hotter than “Hotlanta” in July.
I would reckon that hell can also be here in Atlanta in July, one observation the sign fails to mention- but it still gets high marks for creativity.
So, what do you think? Are “heaven” and “hell” reserved for some distant future, or, as Rob Bell would argue in Love Wins, can we experience them in the here and now?
For more funny church signs, check out Beliefnet’s series.
Two days ago someone I know who I would prefer not to know made me very angry.
I was so angry that when I went grocery shopping, I left all of my purchased bags of groceries in my shopping cart in the parking lot and then drove all the way home to discover they weren’t in my car. At which point I drove all the way back to the grocery store to see if they were still there. They weren’t. I consoled myself by trusting that some person who really needed frozen pizza, coconut popsicles and an array of Greek yogurts, among other things, had made off with my cart. In this way my anger would be at least somewhat redemptive for someone, even if it cost me $30.
I was still pretty angry the next day, despite that whole passage in the Bible about not letting the sun go down on one’s anger. My slightly sticky brain held on to all those thoughts about what I would really tell this person if I had the chance. I visualized taking a swing, maybe yelling that three-word declaration that when made, earns my kids a bar of Dove soap in their mouth: I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. (There were some other uncensored words in the mix as well.) Fortunately, my kids weren’t there to see me hurling a string of mean words at the mirror in a pretend exchange with this truly despicable person.
So yesterday I must have still been dealing with the residual anger from the previous day’s exchange. This is the only explanation I can muster for why at the end of last night’s party I would first misplace my keys somewhere in a friend’s house, then leave a delicate, antique china platter on the top of my car to drive off and hear, one mile later, over the sound of fireworks in downtown Atlanta, a loud shattering.
One look in the side view mirror had confirmed my suspicions. I found myself marveling at how that delicate fragile platter had managed to balance itself precariously on the roof of my RAV-4 Toyota for even that long, and then briefly amused myself by imagining the reaction this morning from the little, old lady who steps out of her house to find pieces of rose-colored, gold-gilded china strewn in the road in front of her yard. “What in God’s good name happened here?,” she wonders.
I’m at a loss to explain.
Thankfully, Jesus got angry, too- albeit in much more altruistic ways. This week I’ll preach on the story of Lazarus. Translations of this story, in describing Jesus’ reaction as one of being “greatly troubled,” tend to miss the original connotation in Greek that Jesus was downright angry. Angry at a world in which people have to die and bad things happen to good people, where there is weeping and suffering and brokenness.
After that antique china platter shattered, I called a good friend while still en route home under a night sky bursting with big, bright displays of color. She listened as I explained all of the reasons for my righteous anger. She laughed as I told her the story of the wandering grocery bags, missing keys and broken china. Then she said, “Kristina, it’s clear that you need a little centering.”
And, of course, she’s right. What is anger, really, but a de-centering of our sense of being in control or calling the shots or having our way? I suspect that our average, garden-variety anger often hinges on the conviction that we really are more righteous than another human being who has wronged us by his or her actions. That we deserve better from others or from God. That we have good cause to be angry.
And often we may. Often anger is a healthy stage in one’s healing. It tells us that we don’t deserve to be treated unjustly. It clues us in to the things we most value and hold dear. Things like honesty or trustworthiness or loyalty in our friends.
Often the church forgets these more constructive dimensions to anger, preferring passive aggressiveness to authentic expressions. I remember listening to a whole sermon about why anger is just downright bad. Such responses to anger, in addition to being pastorally useless, are unbiblical. The Bible is replete with passages that give voice to anger. Being angry is part of being human. The question is more, how are we to manage and deal with our anger?
Healthy expressions of anger, like writing or calling a good friend who will give honest and truthful counsel, maybe in some cases confronting the offending person if it’s safe and the raw emotions have settled a bit, have helped me. Asking how anger, whatever its cause or justification, might be constructive is another.
As I drove home last night reflecting on the meaning of “centering,” I came again to Jesus standing before Lazarus’ tomb, greatly angered in spirit. Jesus’ anger in that moment was totally in alignment with God’s heart for the world: if it succeeded in in any way “de-centering” Jesus, it was also a recalibration of sorts. Jesus’ anger became further impetus to carry out God the Father’s mission of healing and redemption; and, it became the prelude to new, resurrected life.
There is no reason to doubt that our anger, like everything else profane in this world that God can make holy, can be sanctified like this, too.
Hope you’re having a fun Fourth!
I’m struck by how holidays like these, during which we celebrate some aspect of what it means to belong to a particular nation, can be much like religious rituals, insofar as they give a certain shape or story line to our often inchoate, often fragmented experiences.
The words of a poet whose name I can’t recall- (a virtual shout-out to whomever can name him), and whom Barbara Brown Taylor quoted the other night, comes to mind: “For what is story if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive, from the dread of the meaningless?”
What is story if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive and the dread of the meaningless?
And what is religion and its rituals if not first and foremost story?
I suspect this is the main reason why religion will never lose its power. It’s also the reason why the Christian tradition that gives shape to my own sometimes seemingly inconclusive, seemingly meaningless experiences contains such persuasive appeal. Its symbols are abundantly rich, not only descriptively and metaphorically but transformatively: in reminding me of who I am and where I’m headed, despite all the twists and turns and detours of my road, they help me to welcome rather than run from the inevitability of change, with a certain level of trust that in the end the plot lines of my story will all make sense.
Last night I was reading an excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, The Prime of Life, in which she describes in almost ecstatic tones the wonder of working and living on her own as a writer and philosopher. She was free to do as she pleased- to come and go and eat and sleep and write and abscond for long walks with her main man (Jean Sartre) with really only one person to worry about (herself). She was celebrating her independence, even if that independence seemed a bit artificial.
This afternoon when I drove my husband and children to the Atlanta airport, I could appreciate the sentiment. I quickly begun to bask in my new-found freedom of one precious week sans family with nothing other than what can be described as sheer bliss. It was bliss to return to a quiet house, throw a haphazard meal together, and dial up a girlfriend rather than troubleshoot tired children at their hour of expiration. Tonight it will be unlimited satisfaction to sink into bed with the covers all mine, curling up as I always do with a good book, only this time with no need for even the slightest resignation of a wife and mother who knows her occupation is largely one of being interrupted. By snoring. Or bed wetting. Or a bad dream.
Other mothers of young children will understand here that it’s not just that I need to get out more.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. They give me joy. Often.
They also drive me crazy!
I don’t know if Jesus has any of this in mind when he says that a person must “hate” his or her family in order to be one of Jesus’ disciples (Luke 14:26). Maybe we just catch him in a bad moment here: maybe he just had a spat with his parents; maybe Mom wants Jesus to go into the wine business (John 2) and settle down with a nice girl from Judea or Palestine rather than run all around the country with his pals; maybe Dad agrees. (Who knows? So stay tuned for another installment in my once-complete- but-now-incomplete “Weird Jesus Sayings” series.) Whatever the case, it is reassuring in those frequent moments when this restless soul is feeling more like the gal in the old Calgon commercials (“Calgon, take me away!”) than a paragon of domesticated motherhood, to have the excuse that I’m just keeping my eligibility for Christian discipleship intact.
But, humor aside, as pleasant as my current illusion of independence may seem, “no man is an island,” to quote Ernest Hemingway. Chances are that one week of “being on my own,” or at least pretending to be, will have refreshed me in time to greet my immediate family with the enthusiasm of a wife and mother who genuinely missed her brood. Still, I can’t help relishing the thought that this week’s inspiration (devoted to more writing than usual, I hope) won’t have to come within the crowded margins of days spent cleaning sticky hands or bottoms, reconciling feuding parties, and trudging through daily morning piano practice with a son who when asked to play his “Twinkles” reacts as if I’ve just sent him off to the gulag.
Yes, independence, even if it has its limits, hasn’t tasted so sweet in a very, long time.
I’ve recently begun a three month experiment in co-leading a small group of self-described cynics, skeptics and religious misfits engaging our questions at the intersection of life and God. Tonight we’ll be revisiting what it means that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).
This implicitly exclusivist claim makes me squirm. It only takes a brief survey of my own very messy, imperfect life to warrant deep discomfort with the idea that simply because I’m following Jesus, I’ve got more of a monopoly on truth and life- and God, for that matter- than my Buddhist or agnostic neighbor.
Just the other day I ran into an old acquaintance at the pool. One of the things I love about this friend, “Q,” is that she breaks all the molds: she’s Muslim and likes to wear string bikinis when she works out, looks a bit like a female version of Bob Marley with her long dreadlocks, and will be retiring from a career in corporate America to write children’s books. She and I were jokingly commiserating about how our life circumstances have made us a bit jaded, so that it can often feel like we’re walking around in a bit of a low-grade depression- hence our frequent trips to the pool to swim. “But you’ve got Jesus!,” Q exclaimed in jest at my own admission. “I keep asking the prophet Muhammad to help me out!,” We both had a good laugh.
Maybe the point that Jesus is “the Way” isn’t so much that those of us who would call ourselves followers of Christ have “arrived.” Or, similarly, that if Jesus is “the Truth” we Christians have some static possession of absolute truth. Or, that if Jesus is “the Life,” we will always be running around with perma-glued smiles, radiant, bubbly and high on life, contrary to what Joel Osteen might imply. (I still would like to know where he got his smile, though.)
I would venture to guess that the “direction” here is as important as the “destination.” We’re spiritually en route to God and Truth and Life like everybody else- only the particular way we have chosen is the Way who is Jesus, and this Jesus is uniquely the very “temple of God.” Like no other person who has walked this sad, old earth, Jesus is the living, breathing meeting place between heaven and earth.
And walking Jesus’ way is hard-going. The nineteenth century theologian, Sören Kierkegaard, in his own meditations on John 14:6, emphasizes that the thing that distinguishes Jesus’ Way from others, making Jesus’ way more “narrow” than other ways that also involve poverty, suffering and misunderstanding, is the element of free will. “Christ chose humiliation,” Kierkegaard writes. Those who follow Christ must choose humiliation also, and this path of humiliation is inseparable from the glory of the destination to which Christ gestures.
Kierkegaard goes on to write that like a mother teaching her child to walk, Jesus goes before us: “Jesus does not go by his disciples’ side, but is himself the goal, and turns himself toward the believer. He stretches out his arms just as a mother does, if perchance she stands so far away that she cannot get near the child, then she stretches out her arms and moves them as if she were all the time grasping the child, although there is too great a distance between them for this. So solicitous is the mother- more solicitous she could not be, because otherwise the child would not learn to walk.”
Maybe Kierkegaard is right- that when it comes to knowing our direction and destination (ultimately God) we are all like kids learning how to take our first steps. While some of us may pretend to go it alone, we all in actuality use handrails of one sort or another. All of us will stub our toes, or skin our knees, or take a nose dive. But chances are we all, if we’re honest with ourselves, could use a loving and vigilant parent to help us learn to walk. And it would seem by extension that if Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He is the most reliable parent on offer.
Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at First Baptist Decatur yesterday six years following the publication of her memoir, Leaving Church. She is one of my role models for her authenticity (an over-used word, I know, but for lack of a better term), groundedness and commitment to telling the truth as a preacher turned writer.
Taylor began her talk with a helpful distinction. Pastors spend much of their time being concerned with “rightness” and “wrongness.” Taylor had spent years in the pastorate doing just this, because “being right” had been part of her implicit job description. But when she sat down to write Leaving Church, Taylor set out to tell a story that most fundamentally was simply “true”- true to her own experience, which may or may not be true for her readers, but was indeed true for her.
I like the distinction. It helps to explain the gap between our smiling faces in church that show only “shards” (Taylor’s term) of ourselves on Sunday mornings and the rest of our lives- why it is that we so often retreat from church when life throws us a curve ball in the form of a divorce, or depression or some other kind of devastating new story line.
In times like these, we’re not looking for rightness or wrongness. We’re looking for Truth. We’re looking, whether or not we know it, for Jesus.
And, the good news here is that we don’t have to look far for the Truth. The Truth just “happens” to us. All we need to decide is whether to tell the truth.
Many of us don’t.
I’m learning more about the nature of grief as I make my way through Hilary Spurling’s fascinating biography of Pearl Buck. Pearl’s only child, Carol, was born with a rare, degenerative condition that left her mentally disabled for the rest of her life, and Pearl found herself trying to raise her daughter in a day and age when disability was treated as a shameful secret to be hidden away and not discussed. (I would submit that while we have come a long way here on behalf of people with disabilities and their families, we have a long way to go.) Pearl soon learned in this context that the only way she could really bear her deep grief as a mother was silently and alone.
“Endurance is only the beginning,” Pearl wrote years later. She went on to write, as paraphrased by Spurling, that “learning to bear grief that cannot at first be borne has to be done alone.”
Pearl dissected her grief into stages, beginning with devastation and disintegration. “Despair so profound and absorbing poisons the whole system and destroys thought and energy.”
How often, I wonder, do we apply Bandaid faith solutions to people’s grief? The assurance, “God is with you”- regardless of its inherent veracity- seems empty, disingenuous and even cruel in these times.
I’ll never forget walking with a family whose only daughter, in her twenties, was fighting for her life against a rare blood disorder. Gidgett had put on a brave face for a long time with this lifelong illness, spending days and even weeks at a time in the hospital for transfusions and other interventions.
The turning point came when she was told both legs would have to be amputated.
It was then that she succumbed. Her will to live had itself expired. She survived the operation only to die several weeks later.
I remember getting the call in the middle of the night. Her father stood outside her room and yelled angrily at God through his tears. His only daughter had been taken from him, and the very last person he wanted to see right now was the on-call chaplain.
Grief like this must be borne alone. Even the compassion that friends, family and a community of faith may offer can only go so far in expressing solidarity with the one who has been undone by loss. When the apostle Paul writing to the Galatians instructs them to bear one another’s burdens, I imagine he does so as someone who is very much alone within the bars of his prison cell. And maybe the sacred “burden” we bear for one another is the sheer loneliness of another’s unknowable, often inexpressible grief. We must acknowledge it, I think, lest we do violence to the other. We must be willing to be taught and to use our imaginations in order to construct something of the inner landscape of the one who grieves. This is the closest we can get to “being with” the one who endures deep loss.
Apparently Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is doing a whole series on dating and relationships: “You Make Me Crazy” offers “survival skills for relationships.” I guess “Christian dating” is just one of those perennially hot topics.
When I was dating, the burning question was whether to engage in the questionable practice of so-called “missionary dating”- this, thanks to that oft-quoted, Pauline proof text, “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
It seemed, however, that all or at least most of the cool guys in those golden college years were the ones who were not spending their Friday nights strumming guitars and singing praise music at an InterVarsity worship service.
I solved the dilemma at the time by keeping my faith and dating life pretty much separate. Paul, my husband to be, was a worldly, slightly older Ph.D. student whose sense of humor and charm gradually broke my hardened resolve to “play the field.” We met- how’s this for nerdy?- at the underground library where I worked. The dim, fluorescent lighting, hushed whispers and sterilized cubbyholes (a.k.a. make-out rooms) of “Cross Campus Library,” as it was called, became a kind of petri dish in which this nascent love between an evangelical Christian and an agnostic could develop.
Paul’s parents were (and remain) somewhere on a spectrum between agnostic and atheist. Mine were (and remain) more old-school evangelicals and former missionaries. (You might imagine what their first meeting was like following my future husband’s marriage proposal. Dare I say, “awkward”? Thank goodness for wine!)
Paul’s lack of faith proved difficult in those first couple years of our relationship. By the time things had progressed to “serious,” (meaning I had decided to date Paul exclusively), Paul had begun attending both a weekly graduate men’s Bible study and Sunday worship services; and he had discovered to his great surprise that you can be a Christian and still have fun and be smart. These would be important milestones on a gradual journey that at some point along the way involved a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.
But the external pressure to break up, often coming from the Christian circles in which I found myself at the time, was often hard to resist.
When I tried out for the only Christian singing group on campus, a rather dour, sour-faced couple who were leaders in the group- they came right out of central casting as seventeenth century Puritans, but without the costumes- sat me down to say that I would be rejected because I was dating an unbeliever. That episode sparked a rather dramatic, emotional break-up with Paul, made all the more difficult by the fact that he and I were still attending the same worship service on Sunday mornings.
On one Sunday during that tearfully laden period of separation, we happened to run into one another on our walk back to campus. It began to rain. Paul had the umbrella, which he happily shared, and moments later we were passionately smooching one another in a thunderstorm just outside my dorm- at which point, the seventeenth century Puritans just happened to walk by. It was like the college version of the movie, “Saved,” and we were back together, this time having vowed not to let Christian peer pressure keep us apart.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth telling them not to be “unequally yoked” to unbelievers, he is well aware of the context: the church in Corinth is navigating boundaries in a culture known for its wild, promiscuous lifestyle; it is a culture in which even religious acts of worship have become loud, sexual orgies. So Paul, in this context, is not giving free, pre-marital advice here; instead he is offering some basic guidelines that will help the Corinthian church live into their relationship with God and one another.
Still, experience has much to teach on the promise and peril of “missionary dating.” Maybe both the promise and the peril could best be summed up in one word: “transformation,” either for better or worse, and for us I’d like to think that change was mostly for the better. There is no doubt that both Paul and I changed in the process of getting to know one another and falling in love. There is no doubt that seventeen years later (five years of dating plus twelve years of marriage) we are both very different people than when we began this whole journey together. And there is also no doubt that just as God was at work in my life before I met Paul, God was at work in Paul’s life before he met me- and has been ever since.
Did this reality require that Paul be a Christian in the first place? Of course not. Thankfully God doesn’t abide by our often useless categories. In fact, I would venture to guess that God derives great belly laughs from connecting all sorts of different people and watching their “conversion” in the process. Because life, afterall, as the preacher reminded me on Sunday, really is all about learning how to love better.
So, what do you think about “missionary dating,” based on your own experience and reading of Scripture? Is it a misnomer to begin with? Is it more perilous than promising or more promising than perilous? Leave your thoughts below!
I’ve just made the virtual acquaintance of Sister Jeanine Gramick, thanks to yesterday’s installment of Andrew Sullivan’s series, “Ask Sister Gramick Anything.” Sr. Gramick may be best known for her work at the helm of an organization that she started back in 1977: “New Ways Ministry” advocates for the inclusion of gay and lesbian Catholics and their rights within the church. As someone who belongs to a church that is “reformed, always being reformed,” I’m primarily interested in what Gramick has to say here around how the Catholic church most critically needs to change- from a more “totalitarian” (Gramick’s term) expression of government, based on outdated notions of “papal infallibility,” to more fluid, democratic incarnations of church.
I suspect that Gramick is also giving voice to a trend that we are seeing trans-denominationally, as churches everywhere adapt to new contexts for mission and ministry. It is also a trend that, I believe, contains all sorts of life-giving potential for creative, ecumenical, cross-pollinating partnerships in the service of the church and more importantly the world. Maybe it goes without saying that I hope the trend continues.
You can hear Sister Gramick’s answer here.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. – Ephesians 6:12 (King James Version)
This week the man at the center of the Penn State scandal, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years. (See “The Little Ones: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued.”) Coincidentally, Sandusky’s guilty verdict came on the very same day that Monsignor William J. Lynn was found guilty of endangering children, becoming the first senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision. Also coincidentally, these almost co-occurring guilty verdicts came in the same state, sending (in the state of Pennsylvania at least) a strong message to sexual predators and the institutions that protect them. Hopefully other states are taking note.
If Martin Luther King, Jr. was right- that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice”- then the arc in these cases has bent just a bit more, even if it has a long way to go. The next harder and more elusive but equally important task will be to bring to justice the many others guilty by association- those in power who, by keeping silent or covering up these evils, colluded with Sandusky and his clerical counterparts.
Because I have to imagine that when the apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, reminding them that their struggle is not with “flesh and blood,” but with the powers and principalities that rule this world, institutionalized evil would have been at least one of the things Paul had in mind here. Some translations render the last words of verse 12 as “heavens,” but I prefer the King James translation: the “high places” are where the powerful sit, clinging tightly to their vested interests in the forms of image, reputation, money and, of course, power. And, I can think of few “higher places” than a prestigious academic institution with its reputation, endowment and loyal fan base to protect- or a 1.5 million-member archdiocese charged with the shepherding of souls and the coffers to show for it.
If the question that remains in the immediate wake of these guilty sentences, then, is why– why, when predatory behaviors were not just suspected but witnessed and documented, were such evils allowed to continue?- the answer, I suspect, lies in this often hidden, spiritual realm to which the apostle Paul alludes. The “spiritual wickedness in high places” to which Paul refers is a realm in which I would venture to guess there are many co-collaborators like Lynn, whose consciences may or may not condemn them, but who, regardless, must be held to account for their devastating sins of omission and commission.
ESPN columnist Howard Bryant puts it well: “The mythology of the coach and the hagiography of the institution, the immediate reflex to protect the institution and the fear of crossing it, far more than Sandusky himself, allowed this tragedy to mushroom. Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat, whether it occurs in the church, the university or the Boy Scouts.”
Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat.
A struggle? I would say so. But a worthy one, too. Because as Bryant concludes, if the overriding lesson of these scandals is that power corrupts and blinds, it is also true that there is hope in the aftermath of great tragedy: “the failed culture of the past doesn’t have to be part of the future.”
I am hoping along with him.