If you read yesterday’s post, “Narcissistic Evangelism,” then this morning’s reflection from the gem of a devotional book, Celtic Daily Prayer, may seem poignantly relevant. Member of the Northumbria Community Aidan Clarke writes: “What I believe about Jesus could not be contained in a thousand books. I believe in Jesus more than I believe in the pen with which I am writing these words. I cannot, however, expect you to believe my beliefs. Imagine you meet me in a cafe and I introduce you to a friend. I say, ‘This is Jesus.’ I do not then give you a list of things you must believe about His family and a thick book to memorize before I let you speak to Him. I don’t ask you to believe in Him- because you can see Him for yourself. I ask you only to trust Him and to get to know Him.”
Clarke speaks to the crux of what I am calling “narcissistic evangelism.” It’s no wonder that the Dan Savages of this world are turned off by Christianity when they’re implicitly told that knowing Jesus equates with simply adhering to a prescribed set of moral codes or applying every part of the Bible literally, devoid of its historical context. When we introduce Jesus to people by asking them to accept at the outset a list of beliefs about Jesus or His ethical expectations for us, we are, I think, as lost as the people we claim to be evangelizing.
I guess I’m inclined to think that our “lostness” and our “foundness” depend in any given moment on where we are standing in relation to Jesus. What do you think? Leave your reflections below.
Next, some reflections on nature and grace from this “pessimistic optimist” (to borrow Reinhold Niebuhr’s expression).
Last week someone inquired about the book I’m writing.
“It’s a book for all those who would describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious,'” I had replied. (The “spiritual but not religious” are all the folks who check “none” next to “religious affiliation” on questionnaires.) “My book is an effort to introduce them to God’s grace through memoir and Christian theology in the form of bumper stickers.”
“Isn’t it a bit narcissistic to assume that just because someone hasn’t been found they’re lost?,” my interlocutor had asked.
I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. Maybe that’s because intuitively I can’t help but think that at least in one way he is right. If evangelism is really about making others into our own image- if it’s merely assuming that I, as the “evangelist,” am “found,” and you as the “evangelized” are lost, or that my job as an evangelist is to “find” you- then we do run the risk of being narcissistic.
The truth is that Scripture has a profound ability to call into question our own ability to find anything. To the degree that we once were lost and now are found, as that good old hymn “Amazing Grace” reminds us, it is because God has first found us. Human beings are all just a bunch of dumb sheep when it comes to figuring out this thing called “life” on our own.
Evangelism is, I think, simply being truthful about this fact that God first found us and keeps on finding us. Being truthful does not require assuming anything about the “lostness” or “foundness” of those with whom we share this truth. It only asks us to bear witness to Jesus as the Good Shepherd in life’s messiness.
The other day controversial gay spokesperson Dan Savage spoke at the National High School Journalist conference in Seattle, and reportedly angered some students who walked out in protest when he called into question biblical authority around issues of morality. If the Bible got slavery wrong, Savage declared, referencing the book of Philemon as an example, why would we not then assume that the Bible could fall short of the mark on more complex issues of human sexuality?
In times like these when we feel like our sacred texts are being mocked, I wonder if at least one big reason we Christians react defensively has to do with our own deep-seated fear of being lost. There is something scary about the prospect that the thing we thought was our guidebook could in fact be erroneous or outdated in some way. A less-than-perfect map means we’re less in control of our destination. Sometimes the easiest thing to do in times like these is to assume that someone like Savage is himself lost.
But I suspect that evangelism is less about “being right” and defending one’s sacred texts than it is about suspending our preconceptions and assumptions about where others are in relation to The Way, The Truth and The Life who is Jesus. When we learn to do this, I suspect that the Dan Savages of this world will end up being more “found” than we first assumed them to be. And, I suspect, so will we. God, afterall, doesn’t need us to defend God. God only asks us to love because God first loved us, and the beginning of love is the end of our narcissism.
If you’ve been wondering why FSS has been a bit catatonic in the last couple of days, it’s because I’ve been writing a final paper for my women’s theology class- about how to preach to those whose lives have been touched by trauma and who therefore dwell in a “middle space” of “life in death” and “death in life.” Shelly Rambo’s work, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, which argues for a retrieval of the meaning and importance of Holy Saturday along with a so-called “Middle Spirit” who ministers during Christ’s absence (in hell) in this place in between death and resurrection, lays the central theological groundwork for a homiletical infrastructure of sorts. Rambo applies the insights of trauma theory to her enterprise, asking how “trauma” (which by definition means no one-time event, but rather the ongoing living out of the initial trauma) problematizes and enriches our understanding of redemption. I have taken Rambo’s theological framework and asked how it might perform in the pulpit.
Since the brainy nerds or insomniacs in our midst might enjoy taking a look, here is my paper: https://mail-attachment.googleusercontent.com/attachment/?ui=2&ik=6e7ae48b02&view=att&th=13702f33e65e87bb&attid=0.1.0&disp=inline&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P8QBljIAU6Dd8xEb6IkRY2l&sadet=1335784405779&sads=Y-ZPSYTEjjz8joul5qxqgmIltro&sadssc=1
Rev. Dr. Amy Richter, who was the inspiration of my post two days ago, writes the following in response:
Dear Kristina! Thank you so much! I am so honored–and inspired–on your beautiful riff on building the body of the church. Fantastic! Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I can’t wait to read more of your work!
In the interest of full disclosure, the contest took place 8 years ago. The experience and the subject of embodiment continues to intrigue, delight, and perplex me, so I wrote about it recently. I chose to write the piece so that it would feel more timeless, and therefore, I hoped, more accessible to readers, rather than being a piece of history. The trophy still makes me smile, and I still work out and love that I can lift really heavy weights. I compete in at least one athletic event a year (lately it’s triathlons), because that, too, brings me delight, although what I experience most often is a sense of camaraderie amongst the women who are all giving it our best.
Thank you again for your ministry!
Amy, thank you for reading- and most of all, thank you for your work!
Every week I receive a little report from the editors of Beliefnet summarizing the hot content of the week- all that stuff you guys are inclined to read out there. It seems inquiring minds these days often want to know how to pray for strength or healing, find advice on how to recover from an affair, or get the latest on politicians and celebrities. And I get that.
Beliefnet readers also seem to like heart-warming stories about animals. (If you haven’t read my post, “Space Dog: The Animal of Regret,” it’s a tip of the hat to all dog lovers out there.) So I get that, too.
But, I must confess to being more perplexed when popular key words include things like “songs about rain” or “Polish salt mine.” For you readers, I fear I have little to offer- although I do vaguely remember Milli Vanilli once blaming love troubles on the rain sometime in the 80’s, and before that, Barry Manilow crooning about how he “made it through the rain,” with a wicked seventies do to show for it. I was also mildly intrigued to learn, via Wickipedia, that the Wieliczka Salt Mine, in addition to being one of the world’s oldest natural salt mines dating back to the thirteenth century, is actually a pretty big tourist attraction (if Poland is where you plan to spend your next vacation).
Hot vacation spots notwithstanding, all of this is to say that Beliefnet readers are a bit, well, “eclectic” in their choice of reading. And if you readers are weird this way, we bloggers are even more so. Up until now, you fellow saints and sinners have been subjected to my own often random and rambling tirades about God and life and everything in between.
Which is why I invite your feedback: you wouldn’t know it right now, but we’ve actually been indulging in an ongoing series titled “Jesus Epithets” (all the names given to Jesus throughout Scripture); and, in God’s perfect timing, which I suspect will be in the days and weeks to come, we’ll also feature an interview with Stanford neurologist and fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries about how discoveries in neuroscience enrich and problematize Christian theology; but, what would you like to see more of on FSS? If we are living into what it means to be a “virtual church for real people asking real questions about God and life,” or, to put it another way, an open, online community of religious misfits with questions at the intersection of life and God, be we converted, unconverted or under conversion, what does this look like for you? What kinds of questions, concerns, gripes and celebrations would you like me to entertain for the benefit of the Fellowship? What contributions might you make? I value your input! Leave your comments below, or shoot me an e-mail at email@example.com.
What few of her parishioners know, or are only now beginning to discover, is that on one Sunday morning eight years ago Rev. Dr. Amy Richter of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland took second in the Wisconsin State Fair’s physique competition. This was no small feat. In addition to training for the event, Richter had to wear a rather skimpy, red, rhinestone-studded bikini that was sent to her in the mail, and to parade across a stage while flexing her shiny muscles for the crowds.
Her introduction? “Next we have Amy Richter, from Milwaukee. She is 37 years old, and she works as…a priest! Well, hallelujah!”
Her prize? A three-foot-high trophy that Richter cupped proudly as she walked through the fairgrounds.
Last month in an article for The New York Times, Richter, who is an Episcopal priest, shared her experience of being a female body builder with the title “Rev. Dr” in front of her name. She, like I, has had her share of expressed discomfort with her gender in church leadership, all of which has led her to conclude that, “somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman.” “It has to do with a woman’s body,” Richter concludes.
Maybe it is precisely this recognition that was at least in part Richter’s motivation for parading her near-naked body across a stage to the tune of a Macy Gray song. Because if a woman’s body, simply by being seen for what it is, destabilizes and calls into question traditional notions of male-centric church leadership and power- a de-centering that I would argue must happen in the 21st century, and should have happened long ago- then maybe we women in leadership can learn to embrace healthy, constructive ways to showcase our bodies and what they can do. Maybe strutting across a stage in a red bikini, metaphorically speaking, is the very thing that more of us can and should be doing.
Richter describes how she responded to the inquiries of children who saw her flashy trophy and stopped her to ask how she won it. “I wanted to say I won it for being the strongest priest in the state, for being a woman who is a priest with a really strong and healthy body,” she writes. “I wanted to tell them I won it for being brave, but that wasn’t really true, because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell the people it would be the biggest risk to tell. ‘I got it for being myself,’ I said.”
I suspect you don’t have to go to Richter’s great lengths to be a female body builder in the church. I suspect that there are a host of ways that women leaders can express who we are and be ourselves despite what those in the pews (male or female, and often they are female) would tell us. And when we do this, we do so for the building up of the body of Christ. What Richter stops short of saying is that “being ourselves” is not just about feminist self-expression or self-empowerment for the sake of it. It is about living into the Christ-centered reality of a kingdom that does not operate according to the powers of darkness that govern our world. A kingdom at the center of which is Christ and in which there is “no male or female, Greek or Jew.”
A bit of a paradox resides in the notion that, to shine a light on this gender-blind kingdom in which God’s Love rules, we women and our manliest of male brothers will need to do a better job of getting comfortable with women’s bodies. But, whether they’re strutting across a stage in a bikini to win an award for being strong and healthy, or administering the Word and Sacraments to God’s people- whether they’re the first to witness to the empty tomb and the resurrection of their Lord- women’s bodies are important building blocks in God’s story of redemption- of restoration of the world as it was intended to be. Let’s treasure them. Let’s inhabit them with ease without needing to be self-conscious about them. And for God’s sake- seriously- let’s celebrate them!
On most any afternoon a small ecumenical council of women convenes on the school playground: we include a converted Jew, backsliding Catholic, conservative evangelical, “spiritual but not religious” seeker and yours truly (who, if resorting to labels, would describe herself as a “feminist evangelical”). We solve the world’s problems while mending skinned knees and changing diapers.
The other day we were wondering which of our represented faith traditions has the biggest monopoly on guilt. Catholics, evangelicals and Jews were all in a dead heat for first place, with the one difference being the way we talk about sex. Jews, we agreed, at least have fewer hang-ups about the issue- and they are more apt to talk openly about their problems with guilt. (Which probably means that in the end Catholics and evangelicals win the prize for biggest guilt trips.)
But, assuming there is a difference between “hang-ups” and “high bars” for morality, where does one begin and the other end? Sometimes I wonder if the space between these two poles is a very small one. I’m not sure how to negotiate it exactly. Maybe you’ll have some ideas, and I hope you leave them here.
A recent video put out by the National Association of Evangelicals claims that eighty percent of evangelicals are having premarital sex. Yesterday’s article in The Huffington Post would suggest that statistics like these are signaling a change in how evangelicals talk about sex and the abortion. The article cites, for example, the results of a survey at this month’s Q conference in Washington: when participants were asked in a session addressing how to reduce abortion whether churches should support the use of contraception among their single 20-somethings, 64 percent said “yes” while 36 percent said “no.”
If genuine, these movements in the direction of a more honest conversation that speaks to the reality of how we evangelicals are living outside the pew are welcome. I hope they keep developing. I hope that, as the parent of two children who not long from now in the scheme of things will be teenagers, I will have the courage to talk about this reality rather than just offer rose-colored prescriptions.
My own introduction to this otherwise forbidden and mysterious realm consisted of a (literal) “birds-and-the-bees” book in fourth grade, followed in high school by some fear-inducing casette tapes by James Dobson. Later in college, I remember the leader in my InterVarsity chapter standing up publicly to admit to a small sexual indiscretion (with the exception that it happened to be with someone of the same sex). He asked for forgiveness only to be relieved of his responsibilities. It was a bit like a scene in the movie, Saved, except that it really happened, and it wasn’t really funny. It was downright humiliating.
Experiences like these contributed in those years to my own guilt-laden, “fumbling through” in this arena of sex and sexuality. To be sure, the inculcation of sex’ covenantal sacredness, on the one hand, protected me from a lot of potentially unsafe and self-destructive behavior. For that I am grateful to this day. I instead lived vicariously through the stories of fellow swimmers and sorority sisters who would often shamelessly regale me with the details of their one-night stands. (Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder if the jaw-dropping popularity of Lauren Winner’s book some years back had to do at least in part with the voyeuristic thrill it offered evangelicals- a chance to be titillated by Winner’s intimate revelations? But, I digress.)
On the other hand, this somewhat obsessive focus on bodily sexual purity at the expense of other dimensions of the Christian life also reduced the beauty and adventure of a relationship with Christ to little more than “sin management,” and my own failure to live up to the ideal in my relationship with my future husband left residues of shame and guilt around this expression of intimacy that impacted our early years of marriage.
So the question thus becomes, how do we straddle this tension of, on the one hand, lifting up sex as a beautiful, powerful, potentially soul-enlarging expression of our humanity, and letting it become a guilt-ridden hang-up that actually impedes our Christian witness? Not long ago I featured Jefferson Bethke- (another one of those now-controversial Mars Hill people, thanks to Mark Driscoll and his book on sex and marriage)-rapping about how Jesus came to abolish religion. Here is Bethke again, this time on the subject of sexual healing. And I must admit that overall I like what he has to say:
Assuming there is a difference between “hang-ups” and “high bars” for sexual morality, where does one begin and the other end? How do we inhabit that space with integrity? Leave your comments below!
He said she’d not make a good poker player.
She only played once, now one’s for the taking.
The white chips— for the lowest wager—
and she’s still gambling on a turnaround.
No more conceit. No more lies.
“Double or nothing?” Sure…
when your life is at stake.
She’s in the circle blinking back the tears.
Now they’re all clapping, and she has it in her hand,
Rough edges, smooth center, the imprint of its maker,
Kind of like the shape of a soul trying to heal.
You carry it with you anywhere but can forget it is there,
Until all bets are off and you’re under the table.
Some cheap tokens earn more than their weight in grace.
We were driving home from school during Holy Week last year when I put the question before my then four-year-old son. “Do you know what happens this weekend?,” I had asked him- and I’d be lying to say I had no expectation about how he would respond. Surely, I had figured, all those bedtime Bible stories, weeks of Sunday school as a “Lion” in “Noah’s Ark” and a mommy who worked as a pastor would have rubbed off in an answer that betrayed at least a primitive understanding of the event called “Easter” on the church’s calendar. That, after all, was the day that Christians around the world entered into a whole season of celebration around the resurrection of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
My son’s answer had therefore elicited surprise: not “Easter,” not even “the Easter bunny”- at the time his response had seemed more heretical than even this. “Earth Day,” he had said almost matter-of-factly. He was referring of course to the day that now annually draws global attention to environmental issues like global warming. What first began as a national teaching moment on the environment, having been founded by the U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson some forty years ago has now been officially designated April 22 by the United Nations as “International Mother Earth Day” and belongs to a full week of related activities. My son had spent the whole morning with classmates planting seeds in take-home biodegradable pots as a way to mark the occasion.
Earth Day? This environmentally sympathetic but dolefully uneducated mommy was admittedly taken back. Sure, we regularly recycled, and our sympathy had extended to buying energy efficient light bulbs and free range meat at the grocery store. In addition to occasional contributions to The Sierra Club and some new energy-efficient windows, we had even tried a compost pile in our backyard until a local possum made it his noisy perch in the middle of the night to the frustration of neighbors. But if truth be told, I was still chafing a bit at the strict enforcement of the ban on plastic sandwich bags and paper napkins at my son’s school, and “Earth Day” in my ignorance had seemed a bit more like the pagan alternative to Easter for anyone seeking a more “loosey goosey,” pantheistic spirituality than what the Bible offered.
Earth Day. “Say, what?,” I had said at the time, laughing a bit at the scandal of it and then proceeding with the explanation that the most important event taking place this weekend was in fact Easter, when we celebrate that Jesus rose from the dead after dying on a cross. In a few days, I had insisted, we would be celebrating Easter.
But what I failed to appreciate at the time was the undeniable and inextricable connection between Easter and Earth Day. When we as Christians celebrate these (traditionally) forty days of Easter, we marvel at the way that Jesus, having embraced the whole world and all creation, His arms extended on a cross, gives Himself away in death only to be resurrected and to invite us to participate in that new, unending life. No greater affirmation of our humanity and the earth we have been charged to care for can be found than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this one great marvelous act of God, God says “yes” to the broken, frail, limited stuff of our earthly existence; God weds God’s Self to us and to the earth God loved into existence, with the result being that the inevitable decay of our own bodies, the disruption of fragile ecosystems and all of the ways that “the whole creation groans and travails…waiting for redemption,” (as the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans observes), find purpose, transformation and meaning in the hope of this new life. “See, I am making all things new,” the resurrected Jesus says (Revelation 21). All things. New.
That, I suspect, is the message of the Bible in a nutshell. Since the very beginning, when God instructed the man and the woman to tend the garden and take care of the animals, human beings and the earth have been locked in a fateful embrace of sorts. Adam and Eve’s first sin was to pick fruit from a forbidden tree; they then used fig leaves to hide from their Creator. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, Abel’s blood “cried out” from the ground- maybe not unlike the stones that will themselves later cry out that Jesus is the Son of God in the face of human beings’ silence. God’s judgment of Pharaoh manifests itself in droughts and plagues and God’s provision for the people of Israel in food that falls from the sky and rocks that overflow with water. Sin and the possibility of forgiveness are therefore interwoven into the very fabric of creation. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land,” the God of the Old Testament promises (2 Chronicles 7:14).
And is not Earth Day, which we will again celebrate in two days’ time, in essence, this very thing? Humility in the face of the grandeur, beauty and mystery of the earth. A turning from the ways in which we deface and pillage our fragile ecosystems. An act of contrition and a seeking of forgiveness- if not explicitly from God, then at least from one another- for our failure to remember the delicate interconnectedness of all created things and our necessary unity in “creatureliness.” A prayer for the healing of our world? In a way, yes. So it seems fitting this second week of Easter to wish you a very, very happy Earth Day.
For some tips on being green, watch this video compliments of “The Psychotic Earth Day Spokesman”:
It was a warm summer day in Vermont when friend and fellow saint and sinner Molly Collins introduced me to Frederick Buechner at his longtime home. That was some seven years ago. I remember at the time being struck by this well-known writer and thinker’s openness and honesty with an otherwise complete stranger. He shared his hospitality with us that day in the form of a bowl of soup, a tour of his home and his favorite authors. (I was glad to know that we even shared the same favorite book in the form of The Brothers’ Karamazov.)
But what struck me most was Buechner’s ability to speak about some of the pain in his life with a gentle and honest matter-of-factness, not pretending that the pain wasn’t there, not presenting a slick image, and certainly not indulging in self-pity, either. Buechner’s recent thoughts on pain spoke to me this morning. They come compliments of Abbie at Unsteady Saint: http://unsteadysaint.com/frederick-buechner-on-the-stewardship-of-pain/
Buechner’s reflections beg the question: what does it mean to be a good steward of our pain? Can pain ever be a gift? If so, how do we “steward” it well? Send your thoughts along and I’ll republish them for the benefit of the Fellowship.