Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

The “Wheat,” The “Tares,” and Church “Purity”

The enemy sows tares in the wheat..."a dash of pride, self-righteousness, and self-glorifying religiosity here and there"

Apparently conservative theologian and proponent of “masculine Christianity” John Piper is at it again. (Whatever happened to “Christian hedonism,” to borrow Piper’s own term, anyway?  This Piper seemed like a guy I could have a beer with.) Today Piper tweeted this quote from Wolfhart Pannenberg: “The church that approves of homosexual relations has by that act ceased to be a true church.”

Piper has a lot of good company.  Not long ago I was in a meeting in which a newly divorced man in church leadership took heated issue with my query about how the church might engage the largely un-churched gay population in my neighborhood with the love of Jesus. This person seemed incensed by my question.

It’s strange that so many of us spend so much time trying to distinguish the “true” church from the “false” church- as if this were our duty or privilege.  Last time I checked, Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares makes no such claim on us as followers of Jesus (Matthew 13:24-30).  This kind of judgment belongs to God.

A lot of talk has been made throughout centuries of church history and today about the “purity” of the church. People have even been executed as “heretics” in the name of protecting such purity- and I find this part of my tradition’s history deeply shameful.  I would ask, to echo Wendy Farley in a recent lecture delivered to her women’s theology class, whether this expression of Christianity is one that we would wish to uphold as authentic Christianity.

It seems to me that the “purity” of the church consists in acknowledging those most basic tenets of our faith necessary to salvation and agreeing not to crucify one another over the more peripheral issues. Nothing could be more impure than lording over others our own interpretations of Scripture to the degree that we then declare our religious nemeses “tares.”

Lest there is question as to whether another’s lifestyle is in keeping with the claims of Christ, Jesus offers a helpful rule of thumb for how to treat them: we are to treat them as “pagans and tax collectors” (Matthew 18:15-18).  (Matthew Kelly, a pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, has some helpful reflections on how to interpret this passage at the blog, “Ministry Matters.”)  By Jesus’ own model, that would mean being in loving relationship with these “pagans and tax collectors”- not for the sake of simply telling them they’re wrong, or shunning them as sinners, but because they can teach us something about the depth of God’s forgiveness.  In fact, Jesus spent most of his time with these kinds of “undesirables,” be they pagans and tax collectors or thieves and prostitutes, and instead reserved his harshest criticism for those of us who call ourselves “religious” or more spiritual.

It seems to me that whenever we identify ourselves as the wheat and point fingers at the tares, we are in most danger of falling into this second category.

 

“The Uncertainty Principle”

The “uncertainty principle” in quantum mechanics is this: “increasing the accuracy of measurement of one observable quantity increases the uncertainty with which another conjugate quantity may be known.”

I suspect we see this principle play out not just at the particle level but all over the place.  Case in point?  The GOP presidential elections.  The closer the media pundits zero in on any one candidate, measuring his mettle (or lack thereof), the more “foggy” and out of focus the other candidates and their records become.

The uncertainty principle refutes the notion that we live in a closed, pre-determined system of inevitable events and hard-wired conclusions.  When we use cliches like, “it was meant to be,” I suppose we deny a fundamental truth about the universe- that our freedom to speak, move and act, and be spoken to, moved and acted upon by others, sets us and even the particles that make us up, in endless motion through a realm of almost endless possibilities.

There is no predetermined outcome.

This uncertainty is simultaneously scary and exhilarating.  It disrupts my complacence even as it has the potential to free me from the bondage of past mistakes or residual expectations about who I should be or how I should act.  Faith does not reject the uncertainty principle- it embraces it.  It is not a looking back and saying “this was meant to be,” but rather a looking forward, all the while trusting God to speak to, move upon and act upon us no matter where we are.  Insofar as we as Christians believe in God’s grace and appropriate it for ourselves, one another and our world, we choose to inhabit this world of endless possibility.

Still, in a world of unlimited options, I suppose the biggest challenge is not just to know what we as individuals are called to do- (from life’s day-to-day encounters to larger, existential questions about vocation)- but then to do it.  This stepping out into action takes a leap of faith.  It calls for something much more demanding than mere intellectual assent.

Soren Kierkegaard, in giving voice to his own grappling, once put it this way: “What I really lack is to be clear in my mind about what I am to do, not what I am to know…The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

Most of us would rather avoid this hard work, wouldn’t we?  How easy it is to go through life as “scheming swindlers.” Kierkegaard employs this term to describe Christians who distance themselves from the claims of God in Jesus Christ through all sorts of intellectual acrobatics. Instead of leaping forward in action emboldened by faith, we stand on the sidelines arguing about the meanings of things in Scripture, often through the most lofty, academic language- when often (not always, but often) the meaning is as plain as day and we would prefer just not to see it, insofar as seeing it means acting on it.

This hesitancy, I think, ultimately stems at least in part from our fear of uncertainty.  I wonder what would happen if we could come to see uncertainty as a gift rather than a burden.  What then?

 

“Ashes to Go”

Jesus died in the open air.  He didn’t die in a temple.

When we remember our own brokenness and death and receive ashes on our foreheads, we should be doing so in the open air, not in the recesses of some church building.

That’s Lauren Winner’s latest wild and crazy idea, and I like it.  (You can read Winner’s full article, “Why Ash Wednesday Belongs Out of the Church and Out on the Streets,” which appeared yesterday, on Sojourners Magazine’s “God’s Politics Blog”).

Winner is actually not the first to come up with this idea.  An Episcopal church in Amesbury, New Hampshire recently began an “Ashes to Go” ministry, with a view to taking ashes out to busy commuters who can’t make it in for a church service.

Which has me thinking again.  (The visual image is one of consternated wrinkles on the forehead.)  Why is the intentionally public statement of ashes on the forehead marking the start of Lent such a one-time occurrence in the church calendar?  Why, for instance, are Lenten disciplines so often restricted to private ascetical practice, like forgoing sweets or alcohol, or taking on a new discipline, like more devotional time? What would happen if Lenten habits, much like ashes on a forehead, became a way of making a very public statement about God’s love in Jesus Christ?  What would this look like for us individually and as church communities?

I’m not sure wearing “What would Jesus do?” bracelets is the answer here.  I’m pretty sure that showing up at gay pride festivals or funerals of fallen soldiers with a fire and brimstone message isn’t, either.  I’m not even sure whether devoting a little extra time at the soup kitchen is the best expression of our neediness before God and God’s saving love for us.

Friend John Spalding quipped on Facebook that this Lent he “gave up giving up things for Lent.” I can sympathize with his sentiments. I’ve often set out with the best intentions of cultivating a Lenten practice, such as practicing patience (which involved wearing a bracelet that read “patience” one year) or giving up sugar, only to find that, in the same vein as New Year’s resolutions, my aspirations sputtered out somewhere in the middle of that long wilderness of forty days.  I guess in the end I’m really not that spiritual.

But what if there were more of an intentionally public dimension to Lent?  What if there were, for that matter, an “open-air” quality to how we as Christians describe human beings’ brokenness and proclaim God’s redemption not just in Lent but throughout the year? Getting outside our church buildings would be a start.

Got ideas? Leave them here.  I want to hear your thoughts!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Only Begotten Son: Jesus Epithets Continued

"Sorry, you have the wrong guy." - Jeremy Lin, a graduate student in linguistics at NYU

“No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared him.” John 1:18

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” John 3:16

Yesterday NPR interviewed Jeremy Lin.  The Harvard graduate crossed paths with the basketball player in school, but this Lin, instead of playing on the courts of New York’s Madison Square Garden, is studying linguistics at New York University.  At 5’2″ Jeremy Lin described the comedy of often being mistaken by name over the Internet for the much taller Knicks super star:  he tries to break it to people politely that he is not their guy.

When John’s Gospel describes Jesus as “the only begotten God,” the Gospel writer is saying that there can be no mistaking who Jesus is, because Jesus is the only one of His kind.  Jesus can’t be duplicated to the degree that Jesus is God Himself in the flesh.  The Jesus who has the power to forgive and straighten out all of the rough and bumpy patches in our lives is God alone.  If nobody else can reproduce the “Linsanity” of a basket in the last minutes of a nail-bitingly suspenseful game, no other god can truly embody the inbreaking of God’s reign of love on earth. Only Jesus- the One whom Scripture tells us we find it easy to crucify and mock for His foolhardy message about a Love that has the power to save and redeem all creation, including ourselves- can reveal in His very Self who God is and pour His life into us.  As Henry Ward Beecher put it, “Take from the Bible the Godship of Christ and it would be but a heap of dust.”

Maybe this is an especially fitting reminder on a day like today.  Today is Ash Wednesday, after all.  It is a day when Christians all over the world will remind themselves that it is “from dust” that they have come and “to dust” shall go.  Because for as much as we every day can go about pretending to be kings and queens of our own little fiefdoms, convincing ourselves that we are in control, have all the answers, and have it together, and living in self-absorption as if we have no end, the sobering truth of the matter is that we will all die, and the “stuff” of our lives will pass away with us.  We won’t save the world, nor can we.  We aren’t God.  The reality is that when we die, even our best and brightest expressions of God’s work in us will be like “straw,” to quote Thomas Aquinas in his twilight years, when he surveyed his own prodigious body of theological work in the scheme of God’s eternity and couldn’t help but come up short.

Marguerite Porete (in Paris, France, sometime before 1310) defends her book against accusations of heresy by the Inquisitor.

These days Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of the Simple Soul has become a staple of my bedtime reading, and Porete a newfound spiritual heroine.  Porete was executed in 1310 for scandalously daring to believe that God really was Love and that God’s Love didn’t have to be mediated by a corrupt church hierarchy wedded to money and power.  Porete’s book, as an effort to impart this Love to spiritually hungry souls, is striking in a number of ways.  Maybe most striking is Porete’s treatment of the human will.  For Porete, only when we totally annihilate our will to be god and choose to view ourselves as nothing-a process that takes place within the crucible of the Holy Spirit’s work in us- can we truly experience the freedom of living, moving and breathing in the love of God.

In other words, our “nothingness” (our “dust”) is the pathway to God’s Somethingness- which is the very thing in which we have our being in the first place.  What does this mean for us?   It means that we only experience God’s unmediated love for us to the degree that we lay aside our claims on reality, be they in the form of what our mind, will and emotions would tell us “reality” is, or even what our finest dogmas and theological doctrines would say (because these, too, are like “straw” in the light of God’s very Self).  If Jesus is “the only begotten Son,” it means that Jesus is the Ultimate Reality.  All other realities must pass away.

 

 

 

One Lousy Prayer’s Thoughts on Prayer as Spiritual Formation

"God, I want a Barbie doll for Christmas. Can you add that to your list?"

It is hard to be honest as a minister about the fact that I am not very good at praying.

Sure, I do it.  Most mornings these days I sidle up next to Jesus with a cup of coffee and a passage from Scripture.  Some days there is a long laundry list of intercessions: “Please bless Kay and Dan and their upcoming marriage;” “please help the family with the child who has leukemia;” “please help Cam listen to his teacher today;” “please help me figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

Other days, the inclination to sit in the silence of a centering prayer soon devolves into a long, painfully protracted reminder of my mind’s ability to focus on anything but Jesus.  There is the laundry waiting to be folded, the next chapter of the book to be written, and the parent-teacher meeting to attend, after all.  Jesus is somewhere in the midst of it all, albeit hard to find.

So I’m not a very good prayer.  Contrary to frequent misconceptions of pastors by parishioners, I am not a “professional” prayer, either. But these days I have been thinking about the nature of prayer as spiritual formation.

My daughter, Sam, was diagnosed last year with something called “low muscle tone,”  which our family soon discovered is a “catch-all” term for a condition that doctors don’t really understand.  Sam underwent a number of tests with the referral of a pediatric neurologist. The neurologist told me that if the tests came back “negative,” meaning no other underlying condition was present, she would diagnose Sam with “cerebral palsy.”

The tests came back negative.

If you’re still processing the “cerebral palsy” part, then you can imagine a bit of this mother’s reaction when she first heard the words, “cerebral palsy.”  The jaw dropped.  The eyes widened then blinked.  Time seemed to stand still for a few minutes before I responded.

The doctor then assured me that “cerebral palsy” can be as minor as a scar on the brain that heals over time with lots of therapeutic intervention at an early age.  That helped a bit.

On my darker days, when Sam’s condition causes me to wonder where she’ll be not one year but five or ten years from now, I am reminded of the story of the blind man in John’s Gospel (John 9).  “Who sinned, this man or his parents?,” the disciples ask Jesus.  Jesus answers that the man was born blind, “so that God might be glorified.”  (If truth be told, I sometimes secretly wish that God wouldn’t have to “glorify” God’s Self so much.)

But “low muscle tone,” in addition to giving God the glory, has meant frequent and regular trips to the physical therapist and now the speech therapist.

Which brings me back to the whole idea of prayer as spiritual formation.  Because these days helping Sam to speak involves refusing to speak for her and letting her do the hard work of pronouncing the words. This is challenging to do as a mother.  Often Sam becomes impatient.  She wants me to understand her without having to do the tough work of asking.  If she is having trouble forming the syllables, or pronouncing them in a way that is remotely comprehensible, Sam is quick to cry.

In some cases, I really do know exactly what Sam wants, but I have to keep encouraging her to say it for herself.  Because ultimately Sam needs to learn how to voice what she wants if she is going to grow into the person she was meant to become.  Depending on me to do it for her before she asks it of me will only keep her stuck in the same rut.

The dialogue might look like the following:

“I want!”

“You want what?”

“I want that!”

“You want that?”  What’s that?”  (“That” is the chocolate milk on the counter.)

“I want that!” (Sam is now getting impatient with herself and me and begins to cry.)

“Do you want the milk?” Can you say, ‘milk’ please?”

“I want the milk, please.”

I wonder if prayer is similar.  Sure, our requests might be a bit more complex than simply, “I want chocolate milk.”  But they are there all the same, and they are often uniquely ours and nobody else’s. “I want your peace, God.” “I need your courage, Jesus.”

And prayer can often seem like a struggle to articulate these needs and desires that our uniquely our own.  Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words for what we most fear or long for.  Our words can seem empty or fall flat or we may find ourselves speechless.  Yet the Spirit helps us in our weakness, Romans 8:26 instructs: “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

C.S. Lewis said this of prayer:  “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

Prayer changes us.  Something happens when we choose to voice our deepest needs and desires to God for ourselves and let God shape and transform our words and thoughts.  God does some of God’s best work on us, making us into people formed and made for Love.

What does this process of spiritual formation require of us?  Patience, courage and a little self-discipline, I suspect.  Maybe, too, the recognition that we are all like little children with speech impediments.

 

 

 

“Serenity Now!”: Managing Anxiety

FRANK: Like an animal. Because of her, I have to sit here like an animal! Serenity now! Serenity now! GEORGE: What is that? FRANK: Doctor gave me a relaxation cassette. When my blood pressure gets too high, the man on the tape tells me to say, 'Serenity now!' GEORGE: Are you supposed to yell it? FRANK: The man on the tape wasn't specific.

My two-year-old has discovered how to crawl through the ladder rungs of the bunk bed she shares with her brother.  She likes to demonstrate her new-found talent after a drawn-out bedtime routine of bath, books, prayers and hugs.  Until recently we would leave the door to the kids’ room ajar, in the case of nightmares, wet beds and any other manner of nocturnal drama.

But lately Sam climbs down from bed, slinks out her bedroom door and then pushes open her mommy and daddy’s bedroom door.  And then, with a proud, mischievous grin she just stands there looking up at me from my comfortable perch reading in bed, as if to say, “Aren’t you impressed?,” or, by way of a challenge, “Just try putting me to bed!”  And meanwhile, at the end of a long day of mothering, I’m thinking, to quote the title of a must-have book for all first-time parents, “Go the f*#k to sleep!”

Needless to say, this new “normal” has proven inconvenient- so much so that the other night, after four consecutive repetitions of this same drill over the course of an hour, I decided to do the unthinkable and shut Sam’s door.

Sam wasn’t happy.  She must have screamed at a high decibel level for almost an hour before finally surrendering to the sandman.

Anxiety can be a bit like the kid you’ve tried to put to sleep but who keeps getting out of bed to torment you.  You can do your best to coax her to sleep, but some days she just won’t have any of it.  She is wide awake and wants to come out and play, often at the most inconvenient times.  When you try to shut the door on her, she can keep banging away loudly, screaming at the top of her lungs.  In such instances, it can be hard to know whether to open the door and let her come out, or keep the door shut and listen to her banging, yelling and throwing a temper tantrum.

My own anxiety tends to come in waves, usually in the form of little blips. Twice in my life, the anxiety was more like a tidal wave.  Life can be going along smoothly for long, uninterrupted periods of relative quiet until something abruptly life changing happens and the storm hits.  Then the “what if’s?” and “what then’s?” can start to slip out of their room where they have been quietly at rest.  Soon without my having even heard them creep up, they’re there, looking at me with a big grin as if to say, “I’m back!”

Ten years ago the first of the two tsunamis hit.  When the anxiety had become paralyzing, I went to a shrink.  I thought she might know what to do when the recurring “what if’s” kept coming back every few minutes to knock on my door.  She told me to wear a rubber band on my wrist and flick it every time I had an anxious thought.

That experiment- and that shrink- didn’t last very long.  My red wrist and the conviction that I was certifiably going crazy were the biggest indicators that this shrink and I would have a short shelf life.  With the help of a little rest and some doctor- prescribed Celexa for a time, I was soon back on track.

Since that time, life and ministry, including Tsunami #2,  have taught me the value of a shrink- a good shrink, that is.  Gone are the rubber hands.  When we get together, my therapist and I mainly just talk.  About my issues. About other people’s issues.  About what I need to own as my “stuff” and what I really don’t need to own.  I have learned that in a profession ranked at highest risk for suicide- next to pschiatry and dentistry (go figure?)- this kind of self-care is critical.

And in the mix I am learning to face my fears when every so often they threaten to party all night long.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that God throughout Scripture often says things like “Do not fear,” or “Do not worry.”  Anxiety is part and parcel of the human condition- and thankfully, “do not worry” did not get enshrined in the “Big Ten” as a commandment next to “don’t steal” and “don’t commit adultery.”

Still I have met many Christians over the years who have volunteered that they feel guilty that they have anxiety and/or have to medicate it.   (Apparently one in three women in this country now takes an antidepressant, for example.)  They find it hard not to view their anxieties as a sign of weak faith.  It doesn’t really help that the one passage in Scripture in which we see Jesus’ disciples getting really anxious- in a boat in the middle of a storm- Jesus rebukes them for having “little faith.”

Does this mean that those of us who have been helped by an antidepressant and/or a shrink need to beat ourselves up for somehow being less “faithful” or less of a believer? I would hope not.  Life is hard enough.  We don’t need to compound the pain with more neurotic, guilt-induced self-flagellation.  Christ’s sacrifice on a cross was enough- once for all, Scripture tells us.

And the consolation of the Good News is this: that when we are weak, God is strong.  We don’t have to prop up God’s strength by trying to be strong ourselves.  That is not how this grace thing works.  God doesn’t need us to help God that way.

So in the spirit of John Lennon, who once crooned, “whatever gets you through the night…is alright” don’t be embarrassed to take medication or see a shrink.  And most especially don’t be afraid to breathe just a bit easier in the knowledge that God loves you just the way you are, with or without your active basal ganglia.

For more tips on how to manage your anxieties, check out Therese Borchard’s blog, “Beyond Blue,” here at Beliefnet.  Here she shares 12 practical ways to manage your anxiety: http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/Emotional-Health/2009/11/Ways-to-Manage-Anxiety.aspx.  Or, check out these prayers for strength, compliments of interfaith minister Rev. Victor Fuhrman: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Prayer/2010/03/Prayers-for-Strength.aspx

 

“Exorcise Wall Street”

Shane Claiborne is a founding member of The Simple Way.

Author and activist Shane Claiborne has recently proposed an “exorcism” of Wall Street (as opposed to an occupation).  Claiborne takes the story of Jesus’ exorcism of the demon-possessed man, “Legion,” as biblical precedent for the idea.  What do you think- “exorcism” or “occupation”?  I have republished Claiborne’s post, which was first posted on the blog, “Red Letter Christians,” in full below:

There was an occasion in the 60’s where a bunch of hippies surrounded the Pentagon and tried to exorcise the demons. It didn’t work. Despite their valiant effort, not much happened that day.

Nevertheless, I am one of those Christians who believes in angels and demons. But I think the traditional Christian understanding of these things needs a major makeover. Seems to me the Tempter comes in many forms, and is just as likely to dote a three-piece-suit and wingtips as he is to have horns and a pitchfork. And perhaps the angels look more like the bums in the alley than the feathered white babies on Hallmark cards.

One of my favorite demon stories from the Bible is about a guy named “Legion”. As the story goes, Jesus is walking through an area near the sea of Galilee and meets a dude who is in chains, violently possessed by demons. When asked his name the fellow says, “My name is Legion, for we are many”. Jesus drives the demons from the man into a bunch of nearby pigs that charge into the water and die. And the man is free.

But here’s why I like the story. As with most good stories, there’s a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. For starters, the word “Legion” was a familiar word, used for a division of Roman soldiers (much like a platoon), and there would have been many legions in the area. The Decapolis where Jesus meets the guy was a group of ten cities (hence the name) under Roman occupation, and a hub of the Roman military. The man in the story is said to be “occupied” by a demon, a word loaded with meaning both then and now, especially among people whose land was under foreign occupation. The demon occupation was leading the man to hurt himself, bound up in chains, living in the cemetery among the dead. Death was in the air, in a land infected with violence and militarism. Nearby is a band of pigs, a quintessential “unholy” animal for first century Mediterraneans, and the demons ask to be sent among the pigs.

Read: Shane apologizes for misquoting U.S. Gov’t War Spending Statistics

So Jesus grants the request and casts them into the pigs, which immediately “charge” into the sea and drown. No one could have missed the subversive symbolism of the pigs “charging” into the sea, as they remembered their own liberation story which climaxes with Pharaoh’s legion of troops “charged” into the sea where they drowned, hundreds of years earlier.

It is also noteworthy that the word “cast out” used in the exorcism is the same phrase used when Jesus drives the money-changers from the temple because they had turned it into a market. No wonder the story ends with folks telling Jesus to leave their town.

I started wondering what that story might look like today. Maybe it would go something like this.

Jesus was walking down Wall Street in the Empire State. He met a man occupied by evil spirits that had caused the man to gorge himself on food and cover himself in gold chains. He lived in the shopping malls and banks. When Jesus asked the man his name, the man replied, “NASDAQ”. Meanwhile, about a mile away a train loaded with cows was passing by, on the way to the market. Jesus cast the demons out of the man and into the bulls, which charged down Wall Street and into the Hudson River where they drowned. The man was set free. The crowd told Jesus to get out of town.

Here’s what I love about the story. The man gets set free. Sure the pigs drown and the owner was undoubtedly ticked, but the oppressed man is delivered from the self-destructive patterns of his occupation. He is free.

This story can still be true today. We’re all recovering from our own demons… whether we are occupied by violence or the market, or racism or hatred. We can all be set free.

And the good news is no one is beyond redemption – not even the 1%, the CEOs, the bankers, the terrorists. The revolution is big enough to set both the occupied and the occupiers free.

Perhaps what we need today is not an occupation of Wall Street… but an exorcism. And after Wall Street gets cleansed, maybe we’ll move on to the Pentagon and give that another shot.

God May Still Use the Church for God’s Mission. Maybe.

Yesterday’s exchange with a stranger on Facebook who saw Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize winning picture and my accompanying prayer and proceeded to explain why my prayer, with its inappropriate, “Mother-Spirit” language, would not be heard and why I, an “unsaved sinner” would not be answered, sparked some thinking and praying yesterday.  By “thinking” I mean that I spent much of my morning absent-mindedly going through the motions of grocery shopping and children chauffeuring with this stranger’s commentary as a kind of recurring subtext in my mind, like subtitles in a movie flick.  There I was unloading groceries on the table and it was “This is why that prayer did not reach God’s ear,” or I was changing Sam’s diapers to the tune of “God is not a spirit-mother.”  By “praying” I mean that I spent the first half of the day complaining to God about self-righteous, “religious” people who take it upon themselves to pronounce me doomed because of my doubts.

So there I was obsessing, complaining and patting myself on the back for my bravado in being honest about questions of suffering and so on, when it hit me: that there is something deeply wrong and even diabolical at play under the surface of these kinds of petty spats between us “religious types” over how we pray and worship.  Mark Labberton, in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, touches on it when he describes how contemporary worship wars obscure the necessary connection between worship and God’s justice.  The tragedy? That so often we Christians find it easier to attack one another rather than the deep injustices in the world that break God’s heart and should break ours, too.

Kevin Carter’s picture stirred in me at once both a great sense of despair and a desperate need to pray for God’s goodness to shine in these dark places and to use me in the smallest of ways to channel that goodness and in turn be transformed.  Whether or not I used the right words to pray is of secondary importance, ultimately. Whether or not I was “sinful” or “saved” was, too, actually.  That the child in that picture and the plight of the many like her today was relegated to the background because of a religious dispute is the ultimate tragedy- insofar as this kind of thing has been happening for years and over and over again in various pockets of religion.  As friend and missional church thinker and practitioner Lance Ford puts it, in quoting a preacher he once heard, “a religious spirit cannot bear a compassionate heart.” How can we expect to bear even a piece of God’s heart in the smallest of ways when we wrangle over the pettiest of issues?

This, I suspect, is the biggest issue facing today’s church: more and more people are recognizing that God is choosing to carry out God’s mission without the help of the local church.  Which should not be that surprising, maybe, because we have seen this once before, after all.  The Bible I read tells a story about how God chooses a people for God’s Self and calls them to a mission of feeding the hungry, healing the sick and freeing the captives, all as a way of pointing to the dawning of God’s kingdom, which we Christians pray for every Sunday when we say, “Thy kingdom come…one earth as it is in heaven;” but then God’s people fail; in fact, they fail over and over again, becoming insulated in their wrangling over all sorts of religious issues- so much so that God chooses to act without their help.  Enter Jesus.  He comes to fulfill God’s mission because God’s people could not do it themselves, and when He does, He does so apart from the help of the temple, without the prescribed methods of the religious types of His time.

Yes, God may still use the church for God’s mission.  Just maybe.  And at times God does.  But when God chooses to use those outside the church to fulfill God’s mission, I am not in the least bit surprised.

 

 

Another Reason Why I Am On Occasion An “Agnostic Christian”…A Response to My Last Post

By way of an update, I received the following comment in response to my last post, and have decided to keep the identity of the person who wrote this private (although their response was shared publicly).  Apparently my gendered language for the Three-in-One God and my doubt on occasion in the face of such suffering, as depicted in pictures such as Kevin Carter’s photo of a starving child (see last post), mean that I am “unsaved” and “still in sin;” they also mean that I can expect my prayer not to be answered.

This person’s response to me was the following:

“My heart aches for this child, but this is why that prayer did not reach God’s ear. “Lead me, Mother-Spirit”. God is not a “spirit mother”. And [HE] does not listen to the prayers of the unsaved. 1 Peter 3:12 “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and [HIS] ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” The prayers of those who are still in their sins (unsaved) are not heard by God.”

I would like to believe that God’s Love is big enough to contain my doubt and complex enough to contain my gender, too; and if to doubt is to sin, then God is not very big. I choose to believe that we serve a great, big God.

An Agnostic Christian’s Valentine’s Day Prayer

A starving child in the Sudan famine of 1991 crawls to a U.N. food camp located 1 km away. No one knows what happened to the child. The Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide three months later. (Special thanks to friend Lance Ford for introducing me to the photo.)

Forgive me, Father God, for seeking shelter in the statistics, so that I might never have been obliged to know that somewhere in the middle of the Sudan, an abandoned child bowed down to You in starvation, waiting to become a vulture’s next meal. Help my unbelief, Friend and Brother Jesus Christ, when I doubt that you out of Love really descended into hell, which is here, in this picture- far away from what you would wish for this dearly loved child, or for me, in my indifference to the cries of this, your loved one. Lead me, Mother Spirit, from the parched land of despair in these dark places around the world and in my own life, to your banquet table of hope, where I might even now feed this child with my feeble prayers and the smallest of deeds on behalf of the “least of these” who cry out to you.  As you fill my stomach, make me hunger and thirst for Your righteousness.  In the strong, merciful name of Jesus, Amen.
 

“got hope?” This very personal meditation on suffering and the nature of Christian hope will be the concluding chapter of my forthcoming spiritual memoir, “Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls.”

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