Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spiritual Fever

As spring has arrived, so have my seasonal allergies. I've been coughing and sneezing, and my nose has been like a faucet the past few weeks. As if that wasn't enough, however, I recently had to deal with some sort of viral infection that only seemed to make all of this worse. My being prone to illness has increased exponentially the past few years as our kids have attended school and daycare. Last year was one of the most disease-ridden year in our household that I can remember. It was very rare that all four of us were healthy at the same time.

The clear sign that I was dealing with more than allergies was the low-grade fever that slowed me down for most of the day last Wednesday. Almost as soon as I woke up, I knew that something was off: I was cold, felt slightly off balance, and had a general sense of lethargy that I couldn't shake. A flick of the temporal artery thermometer confirmed it, and I relegated myself to doing what work I felt motivated enough to do from home. 

It was sometime that evening when the fever finally broke. Not only did I suddenly become drenched in sweat, but a renewed sense of energy and appetite washed over me. I felt normal again, like I could fully engage the world, and maybe eat a cheeseburger.

It's amazing how much even a slight fever can cause you to not feel like yourself. You interact with the world a little more slowly and with less enthusiasm. You have less interest in the things around you because you have to save up as much energy as you can just to move from one spot to another, to do even the simplest things like pour a cup of water or put on a sweatshirt. The situations around you--the concerns of your spouse or children, regular acts like making dinner or helping with homework--seem far off and harder to engage. You're present for these things, but much less so than if your white blood cells weren't so busy.

We get spiritual fevers, too, for a litany of reasons: doubt, sadness, disease, uncertainty around relationships, loss. These have an effect on our emotions, but they also alter the state of our spirits. Ignatius of Loyola called this spiritual desolation, the effects of which that he lists include passivity, tepidness, and a general sense of disconnect from God and others. We feel off-kilter, like we don't fit in with the world the way we used to or the way we should. We may engage in spiritual practices more slowly, as if we need to muster more energy even to show up, let alone read or pray or sing.

Unfortunately, much like with fevers from viruses, spiritual fevers take a lot of patience, endurance, and self-care. Ignatius advises to stick with what we found meaningful before. Maybe we will hear God in a new way, maybe the fever will slowly dissipate, maybe we'll have a sudden breakthrough that snaps us back with renewed energy. Maybe the fever will change us, like a dark night of the soul, as it burns away what we trusted in before to make way for something deeper. Maybe the fever will take us down a whole new path more completely devoid of what we knew before.

The causes and effects of such a fever are different for everyone. You won't need a doctor, but you might need others, be it clergy, a spiritual director, a mentor, a group of trusted friends willing to journey with you. It will also involve some waiting out as you find your bearings again, however long that may take.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Do You Really Want Church to be Authentic?

For the past few years, as certain authors, speakers, conferences, and church models have become popular, so have certain buzzwords to describe what the church should be in the 21st century. These words have made their way into many such conversations on social media, in print, and in planning meetings. Most of them at least started with good intentions, but as with anything else have fallen in danger of overuse or their definition or application watered down so as to render them meaningless.

I think of words like "relevant," which to me originally was meant to describe a way of being the church that really connects with people's lives. A relevant church will address, or relate to, what is happening in the world around it. This may include attention to justice issues, making use of cultural touchstones to help convey a spiritual message, and generally not shying away from what people experience in their everyday lives when they aren't engaging in church activities.

As I've seen the use of this word and concept evolve, however, there seems to be a greater emphasis on engaging hipsters and being "cool." As this word originated with a movement that has made a lot of its hay in arty urban hotspots, "relevant" seems mostly to be about searching for themes in the latest Mumford & Sons and Sufjan Stevens album and giving life advice borne from familiar evangelical tropes, but dressed up in skinny jeans.

Or there's the word "missional," which I still happen to like. As originally conceived, it was meant to flip around the usual notion with which many churches still operate that "if you build it, they will come." A church that is missional sees the flaws in this thinking--basically that, no, they won't--and thus venture out to where the people are and interact with them there.

This, too, has fallen into some of the same traps as "relevant," as certain groups that use it take it to mean engaging the (young urbanite) culture where it is. As mentioned, however, I still think that this word has some miles left on it as some churches are doing things like setting up ministries to pay for people's laundry. Not all regarding this word is yet lost.

But the one buzzword with which I have the biggest gripe nowadays is "authentic." A lot of ink, pixels, and speaking energy has been used to encourage the church to seek greater authenticity. The church shouldn't strive to be flashy or cool; it shouldn't plasticize or whitewash itself for the sake of people's comfort. This kind of church isn't real, it's inauthentic. It doesn't really engage people where they are or for who they are.

So, what is an authentic church? It's the type of church that recognizes how flawed we all are and accepts it. It lets people ask hard questions and express doubts about faith issues. It leaves flash behind and strives instead for substance, both in message and relationship. It welcomes all, regardless of differences, because we're all here together for something we need.

That actually sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Who wouldn't want a church like that? Who wouldn't want a church where all are welcome and where people will engage your spiritual needs by taking them seriously?

I would. I'm sure most of us would. So what's my problem?

I guess it's less of a problem, and more of a question: how authentic do you really want the church to be?

I'm not against the concept of authenticity. I want to be clear about that. But I want to make sure that people really understand what they want when they say they want the church to be more authentic. Once you start traveling down this road, you have to have a sense of where you might end up.

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to engage the really hard questions? Questions like, "Where is God when I am so far down a hole during an episode of depression that I can't sense God at all?" Questions like, "Does Jesus saying 'take up your cross' mean I should just endure my husband hitting me?" Arguing over theories of the atonement and creationism are child's play compared to this.

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to welcome anybody? Like, seriously, anybody? How about the registered sex offender looking for personal and communal restoration? How about the recovering alcoholic currently going through a good period but who admits to occasional relapses? How about the overly needy personality who constantly seems to be dealing with drama of their own creation? Can you hold these people closer than arm's length while still setting up healthy and loving boundaries when needed?

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to be called out of your comfort zone; to have attention called to your own blind spots? Are you willing to hear hard truths about the corners of your life that you're neglecting or ignoring? Are you willing to receive pushback on the ways you may be rationalizing bad behavior? Will you be open to having your worldview expanded as you hear about others' experiences that are vastly different from your own, and to consider how you may be more committed to justice and peace as a result? Will you be able to remember that these words will be shared with you because someone else knows you well enough to know you're capable of so much better? Will you be able to hear these words lovingly; in the same spirit in which they were shared?

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to really journey with people? Do you think you can really stand up and advocate for your sister in Christ who is seeking support in reporting abuse? Are you really going to be able to sit with a fellow disciple and listen to their latest account of self-harm? Are you truly prepared to step beyond the laid-back "question everything" pub theology groups, the expressions of honesty over social media, the high holy Sunday liturgy you've rediscovered, and really engage with the complete mess of another person's life once you get past the pleasantries? The success stories, processed and edited and shined up to be consumed by the masses, sound great. But once you get up close this stuff is a lot less romantic than it sounds.

How authentic do you really want the church to be? Because if this is really what you have in mind, you had better be certain.

Friday, April 24, 2015

April 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for April...

1. I recently read Blessed Are the Crazy by Sarah Griffith Lund, a short memoir about her family's experience with mental illness. Sarah interweaves stories of both her father's and brother's struggles with bipolar disorder with some of her own faith development particularly during her college years, as well as some of her experiences as a pastor. Her upbringing, made particularly difficult by her father's outbursts, leaves an unavoidable mark on her faith, yet she is still able to take solace in a Christian community and a loving God as she seeks comfort and answers to lingering questions. Sarah's book is intensely personal, and she sets it forth as encouragement for others to tell their own stories of mental illness in order to help remove the stigma and get the support that is so sorely needed for those who suffer from it and their loved ones alike.

2. Like many others, we binge-watched our way through the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt this month. Produced by Tina Fey, this show features the title character after she and three other women are freed from an underground bunker, having been held there by a cult leader for 15 years. After an appearance on the Today Show to talk about her ordeal, Kimmy makes the decision to stay in New York and try to build a new life. Along the way, she has to adjust to what society is like after so many years removed from it, as well as selectively share her past with others. Her naiveté sets her back more than once, but she makes it a point to keep moving forward, building off survival tactics she learned in the bunker. The show is quick-witted and had me laughing out loud more than once. The humor is similar to shows like Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development, so I became a fan almost immediately.

3. I've been reading The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila the past few weeks, a spiritual classic in which Teresa proposes that there are a series of mansions within us. As we journey through each one, we get closer to the center of our being, in which we know ourselves and God within us more intimately. Teresa observes that not many really take the time to do this internal work and miss out on truly knowing themselves, electing instead to chase fleeting desires rather than spiritual health. I've really been enjoying it.

4. Delta Rae's new album After It All released this month. The band is still churning out its folk-rock-country blend, although many of these feature a fuller sound than their previous LP. "Outlaws," "Chasing Twisters," "Bethlehem Steel," "Cold Day in Heaven," and "I Will Never Die" are all hard-driving tunes. Others such as the title track are more anthemic. It's a rich combination of instrumentation that makes for another wonderful outing. Here's Delta Rae performing "Cold Day In Heaven:"



5. I've also been listening to an enjoying Alabama Shakes' new album Sound & Color this week. They continue their unique combination of soul, R&B, and rock, but the guitar is a little more crunchy this time around. They give off a latter-day Black Keys vibe more than once. Here's one of their latest tracks, "Don't Wanna Fight:"


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

You Should Read There's a Woman In The Pulpit

Not too long after I began blogging, I stumbled across a blog ring known as the RevGalBlogPals, a network of blogs written by clergywomen spanning multiple denominations and ministry vocations. The "Pals" in their name allowed for male supporters like me to join in on the fellowship and mutual encouragement. Over the years, I've been glad to call them colleagues both online and in person.

The RevGals have blossomed into a full-fledged non-profit, complete with a national director. They organize continuing education events, host book discussions, and provide support and encouragement for one another in a variety of ways.

Even after so much progress, there remains a "stained glass ceiling" in many places against women serving as clergy. Many female colleagues and friends of mine still encounter attitudes, opinions, and biases in the church that I as a male have never had to deal with. These range from comments on their appearance to questions about balancing motherhood with pastoral work to the ongoing debate surrounding various Biblical passages. These are incredibly talented women whose gifts are obvious and whose calls are genuine, but for whom implicit and unspoken prejudices have made their vocational path needlessly more difficult.

The RevGals have just produced There's a Woman In The Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, a collection of essays from their members about these struggles, as well as many other adventures in ministry. If you'd like a glimpse of the inner workings of clergy life, particularly from those who at times need to work extra hard to show that they are indeed called to this work, give this book a read. I know many of the contributors to be fantastic writers and even more fantastic pastors. Consider checking it out.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Embracing Who We Are - A Prayer for Easter 3

Based on 1 John 3:1-7

Faithful God, we give ourselves to so many things. We give our time to work projects, deadlines, and daily task lists. We give our energy to loved ones in celebration, sympathy, and support. We give our identity to careers or family or a desire leave a legacy. We give our treasure and resources to what we value the most. We give out of our abundance or scarcity, out of our need or desire, out of joy or anxiety. At times we give so much that we wonder whether there is really any of ourselves left.

We long for a reminder of what you have first given to us. You give us the gift of breath in our lungs and blood in our veins. You give us the rhythm of life in our chests and the spirit of life in our bones. You give us forgiveness that transforms us, grace that reassures us, and vocation that moves us to serve. Most of all, you give us love that touches our deepest nature: we are your children. By this we have been called, and by this we are meant to live.

May this same love be with those whom we lift up to you now… (prayers of the people)

O God, sometimes it seems like we belong to so many things that demand our attention and resources. Reveal to us who we can be by embracing who we are and whose we are now. Amen.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vintage CC: "You always have the poor with you"

This post from March 2010 came to mind the other day after I read a commentary pointing out that a pizza place had nearly a million dollars raised for them by those who support their denying service to LGBT people while homeless shelters and soup kitchens struggle for funding. The Bible passage discussed here is a common answer for Christians wishing to justify this view. So here I go analyzing what Jesus really meant.

At our Communal Word discussion group last night, we talked a lot about John 12:1-8, which is this Sunday's Gospel text according to the Revised Common Lectionary. For several reasons, I anticipated that the group would spend some time with this passage over the other two, and I was not disappointed.

First off, here's the passage in full:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
A few literary and contextual notes first.

Some version of this story appears in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark, they're pretty similar: Jesus dines at Simon the leper's house, and an unnamed woman comes in with the ointment and anoints his head. Somebody (not Judas) makes the point about the expense and the poor, and Jesus gives an explanation similar to what's in John.

Luke is vastly different. Jesus dines at a Pharisee's house instead, although the Pharisee's name is still Simon. A woman identified only as "a sinner" comes in and anoints Jesus' feet with ointment, but the complaint is that Jesus is letting an unclean sinner touch him, leading to a conversation about forgiveness, gratitude, and hospitality.

In John, this passage comes right after the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. Jesus hasn't wandered far; he is now sharing a meal at Lazarus' house, with Mary and Martha attending. This is the only instance where the woman who anoints Jesus is given a name: it's Mary the sister of Lazarus. Given the story's placement, Mary may be doing this out of gratitude for Jesus raising her brother, but of course Jesus gives a different explanation.

As a sidenote, I think that many condense elements of Luke and John's description of the woman, suggest that the Mary here is Mary Magdalene, and the result is the theory that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, the suggestion of which doesn't actually appear anywhere in the New Testament.

Anyway, during the course of this episode in Matthew, Mark, and John, somebody raises a stink (pardon the pun) about the ointment being used in this way, and Jesus responds, "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It's kind of an unsettling statement, especially if you consider all of Jesus' admonitions and allusions to helping the poor or being among the poor. It was certainly unsettling for my discussion group. They wondered why Jesus would say such a thing given all the things that he says and does that suggest that the poor are very important to Jesus and to God's kingdom. Is Jesus really dismissing the poor here?

No. He's not.

I've been hearing and reading this verse tossed out a lot since Glenn Beck made his comments about social justice churches. Christians who support Beck's statements or who otherwise want to downplay the importance of helping the poor have used this statement by Jesus as justification for such a view. The argument as I understand it is that faith in Jesus is the more important thing; nurturing that faith and an awareness of that presence is what Christians should be about. There will always be poor people, helping them is an endless task & thus shouldn't be taken too seriously, belief in Christ is the more important thing, and Jesus says as much here.

That's not what Jesus is really getting at here, though.

First off, Jesus was surely familiar with the instruction of the Torah. He was a faithful Jew, after all. Among other things, he would have been familiar with Deuteronomy 15:11:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have known this verse. Not only that, but he basically quotes it in the story in question. The command in this verse is not to give in and give up due to how vast the task of helping the poor is. Instead, the command is to keep helping; to always be openhanded toward them.

Second, one needs to consider the context in which Jesus' statement appears. Mary has anointed Jesus' feet with a very expensive ointment, somebody complains about selling it and giving it to the poor, and Jesus gives his statement. In Matthew, Mark, and John, this episode occurs shortly before the passion story begins. In these three versions, Jesus talks about being prepared for his burial, and thus admonishes people to leave the woman alone.

In other words, Jesus' statement is made in anticipation of the events that follow: his journey to Jerusalem, and his final days leading to his death. He's basically saying, "My earthly time with you is running out. I'm only with you for a little while longer, and this anointing is a foreshadowing of things to come. So pay attention to this for now." The poor are no less important, and are not a side project in the grand scheme of things. It's just that at the time of this incident in the three Gospels where Jesus makes this statement, some big and tragic things are about to happen and Jesus' disciples need to be ready for it.

In conclusion, it's a mistake to lift Jesus' statement out of its context to justify ignoring or downplaying the need to help the poor. That's not what Jesus means, and Christians would do well to let that common misinterpretation go.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My Failure Reflected

As some readers may be aware, I'm part of a blogging network that reviews books. I receive a number of emails every year offering the latest selections available, and I can pick and choose which ones intrigue me enough to read for review. Some of these books fade from my memory as soon as I'm finished with them. They end up being an obligation to fulfill. Others, however, linger in my thoughts and make their way into sermons and other writings. These have much more of an impact and expand my view of the world. It's always my hope that every book I select would do this, but unfortunately not all do.

Last month I read and reviewed a book called Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe. I knew nothing about mimetic theory before picking it up, and changing that was certainly a big reason for requesting a copy. There were even parts that caused me to think it might end up more in the obligation pile than the impact pile, but in the weeks following the completion of my review, I find myself returning to the basic concepts introduced therein.

Essentially, mimetic theory proposes the idea that our desires are the product of what we see and learn from others. We learn our earliest desires from those who raise us: if we see a parent investing a lot of attention and energy in something, we learn to do the same. A simple example might be the way Coffeedaughter always seems to covet the food she sees Coffeewife and I eating: the desire wasn't there before she observed what we have on our plates that we appear to be enjoying, and she wants to enjoy it as well.

Mimetic, or mimesis, has the same root word as mimic. We mimic what we see in others. We are not self-made, independent, standalone figures, but rather products and reflections of what we see in others. Desires change over time, of course, but this is how we organize ourselves into groups with shared values and how we process new relationships.

Such reflections can also be the source of conflict. Rabe invites the reader to picture two people putting their hand on the last cookie at the same time. They both desire the same thing; they reflect the desire in the other, and that reflection is now the cause of a conflict between them. 

This reflection can also cause anxiety within a person or group that they subconsciously decide they need to relieve. Sometimes we see certain traits we possess reflected back to us that we don't like or don't want to face, and so we project that trait onto something or someone in order to make ourselves feel better. This is how groups choose a scapegoat: the anxiety of the community gets projected onto an individual or minority in order to avoid dealing with the root issue; it simply becomes that person's or those people's fault. This, too, can be the source of conflict between individuals, as the surface issue may seem to be one thing, but underneath the real issue is that each sees something of themselves in the other that they're ashamed of.

I am pretty much as far removed as I can be from a group of authors that have come under fire in recent months for seeming to rally around one of their own. The person at the center is facing serious allegations, and many including me have been disappointed and disheartened by how the others in this little tribe have responded. Some have issued statements of support, others have fallen over themselves to promote the accused's latest book, and still others have fallen silent in the face of new evidence supporting the accuser's claim.

The internet is a strange place when it comes to this stuff, because here we deal in personas and narratives more than 3D people in all their nuances, hangups, motivations, and hesitancies. There has been enough offered that I am inclined to side with the accuser, but I have to remind myself that there is so much more to the story that I will never be privileged to know. But I am content to bid farewell to the accused, because I had a mixed relationship at best with this person's work and am fine with never reading or supporting what he does ever again.

Several of the supporting players, however, have caused me to be much more reflective, because I really don't want to give up what they offer to the church. Their writing has impacted me over the years and I know many who greatly value their voices. It is easy to dismiss their reactions to this as protecting their own brand, but I think about these imperfect humans who perhaps have wrestled and are still wrestling with this situation, who maybe have handled this in ways more personal than public, who perhaps are still weighing decisions alongside a bevy of emotions swirling within them. 

Of course, I don't really know much of anything about that either. But what I do know much more about is my own reaction to it all, and I can consider how I may be projecting my own desires and fears onto these public figures. I can wonder how I would handle this if in their shoes, and reflect on how disappointment with what I think I see in them is really disappointment in what I see in myself. Whatever I think I know about others protecting their place of power and privilege, or about others not wanting to give up their book deals or speaking gigs, or about others being hypocritical or cowardly regarding standing up for the voiceless, I am challenged to look back at myself and see the ways I might be tempted to do those same things.

I think about these decisions that I hope I wouldn't make, and I can even pinpoint the reasons why I would make them. I have a family to support and a mortgage to maintain. I would want to hold on to a friendship, unhealthy as it might be to try, while knowing I have a constituency to whom I answer. I would rather deal with such things privately and only acknowledge certain aspects in the public eye, resigning myself to the fact that I'd lose someone regardless. I would certainly be prone to hasty decisions made to ease my own anxiety or insecurity, or to appease those around me whether it was the right thing to do or not. These are tendencies that I know I have, and to which I've succumbed more than I want to admit, and that I'm sure I'll exhibit again.

I look at these figures I admire, and I see my reflection perhaps moreso than I truly see them. I hoped they'd be able to live up to an ideal that at its core I really want to attain for myself. This disappointment, this realization that they're human and fallible just like me, is a reminder that I'm no better. And that reminder is, in its way, the most painful thing.

(Image is Full Failure All American Hero by Derek Hess)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Small Sips Made Too Short of a List

Yes. Gordon Atkinson reflects on the importance of an open heart:
A friend recently told me that he had good evidence to suggest that perhaps 25% of Muslims worldwide support acts of terror as a means to achieve what they perceive to be righteous goals. I don’t know where he got his numbers. I don’t have the energy or knowledge to dispute them. But what do these numbers mean to me?  
Tomorrow I will pick up my daughter and her friend Zohal and drive them home from school. Zohal and Lilly have been friends since elementary school. She and her parents are kind and good people. And she is brave to wear her Hijab in this climate of anger and fear.  
For the sake of Zohal and her parents, shouldn’t I keep my heart open? For the sake of the one, shouldn’t I remain hopeful that not all is lost?
It's easy to stereotype an entire group, but what about the actual flesh and blood people who are harder to treat as inhuman? Of course, if one simply avoids ever meeting someone outside one's own demographic, I suppose it's not that hard. That's unfortunate not just for the people you're judging/condemning, but for your own soul too.

Speaking of which. John Pavlovitz reflects on a tactic commonly used against him when debating Christians about LGBT issues:
Apparently to some Christians, the only logical explanation for a person of faith speaking on behalf of the “homosexual” community, is that they themselves must also be so: a sort of, covert queer self-preservation.  
It never occurs to those people that we don’t need totally commonality to align ourselves with other human beings; in order to champion their humanity and uphold their dignity.  
I feel incredibly sorry for followers of Jesus like Ralph, who are so filled with hate and bigotry, that they would even feel the need to ask such a question of another human being. It shows that their hearts have become so hardened, their need to discriminate so great, that they cannot fathom any other option, than some alternative narrative to justify that person supporting LGBT people; as if total affinity is ever a prerequisite for loving someone unconditionally.
Here's the thing about how empathy works. You see someone who may or may not be part of your same demographic group who is being demonized, discriminated against, getting a raw deal or suffering from unprovoked violence simply because of their identity, you imagine what it must be like for that person, and you take action to help stop it. It doesn't make you one of them (THE HORROR), it just makes you loving. Jesus said some stuff about being loving.

Remember those times when people called Jesus out for who he hung out with, as if he was guilty by association? Same thing.

Brilliant. Jeremy Smith reflects on how libraries have adapted to the internet era, and then wonders how the church can do the same:
Faith happens anyway. Discipleship is inviting people into a process where they learn or experience things that they won’t learn on their own. If churches are serious about reaching the Creatives and Innovators in our midst, it takes offering them something different than they would get on their own as holy solitaries.  
Libraries like Oxford have figured out some unique ways to be in the world that benefit creative engagement–will the Church follow suit and create a culture of organic difference in contrast to the mechanistic world around them? Or will the pews gather the same dust as the narrow stacks down below where only the dedicated wander?
He lists five ways libraries have adapted, and finds five parallels with the church. The whole thing is great.

You mean...it's worthwhile? Jamie reflects on her prayer life:
I've seriously struggled with this question for like ever. Why pray? If I don't see God as a cosmic wish granter whose magical genie powers can be conjured by the fervent prayers of men, then why should I bother to pray at all?  
But, as much as I've managed to cheapen it over the years, I've never been able to fully shed prayer as a core value. For a while, it's just been sort of lingering in the background of my Faith, hoping to be picked up, longing to be embraced once again. More recently, though, I've dusted off the practice of prayer by actively, intentionally entering into conversations with God – and not as a sleep aid. I still can't say I understand it, I still have no idea how it works, but I think I can honestly say I've returned to prayer.  
Over the past few months, I've had good reasons to pray - not for myself, but for others – through grief and heartache, through loss and through gain, and through celebration, through ups and downs and a bunch of WTF's, through gratitude and grace, through life and through death... I prayed for them. No, actually? I prayed with them...  
And that's when I remembered why we pray.
The post includes her old approach to prayer, which is probably pretty common: paying lip service to praying for others without actually doing so; an easy way to express support with no follow-through.

Some suggest that we just stop praying; that it doesn't do anything and that it keeps us from actually acting on the needs of others. But Jamie suggests that it helps connect us to one another, when we take it seriously. Even moreso, a regular prayer practice helps transform our outlook on the world and the way we interact with it. Or at least, that's what it can do if we get rid of the old notion that prayer is just asking God for stuff without any expectation that we ourselves need to take time to listen or change in any way.

Trapped, indeed. A double dose of Gordon Atkinson, as he reflects on an issue facing many pastors that isn't discussed very often:
There are thousands of ministers out there who no longer wish to be ministers. They no longer want to work in churches. They don’t want to do it anymore. But they don’t know how to leave. They don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t know what to do.  
Yes, I said thousands. I thought about it. Hundreds is too low a number. It’s thousands. Thousands of ministers working in churches and wishing they could leave.  
It’s very common. I know this because I used to be a minister. And I reached the place where I wanted to leave. And I wasn’t alone.
From there, he reflects on why many don't think they can leave, particularly a belief that their skills don't translate well to a non-ministry setting. I don't completely buy that. If it came to it, I'd share that I have extensive experience in public speaking, facilitating meetings, giving presentations, leading workshops, planning publicity, leading teams in developing visions and action plans, and interpersonal skills, among others.

But the larger point is that many pastors feel trapped and don't know how to leave ministry. I do get it. I'm sure it's frightening, and comes with a great deal of stigma for many from others. So one question is how can these people find greater support?

Only 15? Dave Jacobs shares 15 myths that pastors understand. The keyword is "myth:"
1. The back door can be closed.  
2. Teaching on stewardship results in increased giving.  
3. If you work really hard you can grow your church.  
4. Great preaching and great music will bring great growth.  
5. People with a background in business are the best people to have on your church board.
 The whole list is good. I bet we could come up with 50 more.

Speaking of which, part 2. Jan Edmiston reflects on some of the ideas she shares with congregations as a judicatory staff person, and what usually happens:
You want to know how to reorganize your governing board? I have several ideas. Want to grow your congregational spiritually? I have suggestions. What to shift your congregation’s culture? I can prompt you. Want to learn how to connect with the neighborhood? Not a problem.  
But the professional minister who decides to adopt one of my Big Ideas is the one who pitches the shift to an often skeptical audience, sweats the details, takes the heat, risks her job, places a target on his back. Failure is almost guaranteed.  
One of life’s realities is the belief that positive change will come without the excruciating work it takes to make those changes happen.
Ideas are easy. I have a ton of them myself. Sometimes I actually try to implement them, and when that happens I think I have a 50% success rate, but that's probably being generous. The difference between the awesome earth-shaking, life-changing idea in my head and actually trying said idea is that people need to be convinced, logistics need to be laid out, sometimes anxiety needs to be tempered, and even after all that nobody might be interested.

And yet here's the thing: a church that says it wants to change for the sake of the future actually needs to change. And it's the actually needs to change part that gets people nervous. But we can talk about changing all day with no problem, because talking doesn't cost us anything.

Silence and power. David Hayward shares a cartoon on how to silence a dog or person, particularly when the latter raises questions about church abuse:


I've read, heard about, or experienced all of these. David has a way of holding up a mirror to church culture through his art.

Misc. PeaceBang on unconstructed jackets. I now desire several. Admit it: your favorite celebrity is problematic. Momastery on that time she cancelled her birthday. Did I mention that I finally added Momastery to the blogroll?

Monday, April 06, 2015

No, the Risen Jesus Isn't a Zombie

In the past few years (probably longer), it's become a common joke to refer to Easter as Zombie Jesus Day or something to that effect. It might actually have been around longer than that, but to me it's been more noticeable lately. The pic to the left was one such mention of it that I saw on Facebook yesterday.

See, he rose from the dead, just like a zombie. Get it?

Sometimes the line between humor and criticism is blurry, and whether this is meant as one or the other varies from instance to instance. Nevertheless, the claim that Easter features a zombie Jesus is misrepresentative of Christian theology and the zombie genre. As it happens, I'm a big fan of both, so I feel some measure of responsibility to delve into the differences between Christian belief about the resurrection, and zombie mythology.

Let's begin with how zombies are conceptualized. At its most basic, a zombie is a corpse that has been reanimated. While not every story features an explanation of how this happens, a fair amount identifies its origins as viral. According to Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, this virus overtakes the brain, alters it, and ultimately destroys its normal functioning. In addition, it stops the heart, rendering the subject dead. Through its alteration of the brain, it reanimates the body, although this newly revived corpse bears little resemblance to what it did before both in terms of mechanism and appearance. The virally-corrupted brain asserts enough control over the body's capacity to walk and, at times, grab, but it essentially drags the body along. All other organs no longer work, and the zombie doesn't have the same use of its motor skills as it did before.

Furthermore, the reanimated corpse is still a corpse. This means it will continue to decay. It no longer discerns relationships; no longer differentiates between loved one and enemy. It doesn't remember who it is or its place in the world as a person. It only knows what the virus causes it to know: a hunger for other living flesh. In other words, the body is no longer what or who it was physically or mentally. It was dead, and now it is, in its revived form, undead. Animated, but still dead.

Let's contrast these characteristics with claims about what Jesus is like after the resurrection. First, in two separate Gospel accounts, Jesus is said to be unrecognizable to people when they encounter him: Mary Magdalene in John 20, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. It is not until he does something familiar that they finally do recognize him. In Mary's case, he says her name, and in the disciples' case, he breaks bread with them. This suggests some altered, new physical form, or at least some inability to recognize him on the part of the observer. Furthermore, Jesus remembers past relationships and continues to interact through normal means.

The Apostle Paul expounds on his own theory of altered physical form after resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:39-49:
Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is* from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
The term "spiritual body" is an oxymoron. How can a spiritual thing also have a physical body? The essence of what Paul is saying here is that one's resurrected form is something new, imperishable, glorious, powerful. This may be what the Gospel writers had in mind when Jesus was not immediately recognizable to some who encountered him. Contrast this with a zombie, which remains in its old, worn out, degenerating flesh.

We next move to John 20:19-31, which is commonly known as the "doubting Thomas" story. Jesus twice appears to the disciples in a shut room, again indicating that he has taken on a new imperishable form. At the same time, however, he shows Thomas his crucifixion wounds. Some may argue that Jesus here is still in his old body, and yet he has appeared in closed quarters. He is recognizable to Thomas, which may suggest that the presence of those wounds suggests that the former body has somehow been redeemed in the process of its transformation. He is still who he was, yet also something new. Once again, note that Jesus takes up familiar relationships and interactions. To save us some time here, note that he does this in every post-resurrection account in the New Testament.

One final story worth discussing is the end of Luke 24, where Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples. He shows them his wounds as in John, but they think they're seeing a ghost. To prove he's more than a ghost, he eats a piece of fish in their presence. Not only does he elect to eat fish rather than take a bite out of Peter's arm, but he is also shown once again to have taken on a new form that confounds an easy dualistic spiritual/physical explanation.

All of these show that Easter is not the celebration of a reanimated, still-decaying corpse that cannot discern relationship. A zombie is still very much subject to the power of death, just in a different, even more horrific way. We do not proclaim, "Jesus is undead!" We proclaim "Jesus is risen!" And what Christians mean by "risen" is newly alive in an incorruptible, imperishable form that is somehow both physical and spiritual, no longer subject to the power of death in any way.

Furthermore, when Christians claim that Christ is risen, we also mean that in a transcendent sense. At communion, we not only remember who Jesus was and what happened in his death and resurrection, but we proclaim his continuing presence with us, beyond the limitations of a single physical form. We proclaim that he is still watching, guiding, presiding, and loving. A zombie is not even its former self, incapable of interaction with us as it could in life.

We dress up like zombies for Halloween. We celebrate Jesus' transcending death at Easter. These are the differences between the two.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Sunday: Life

I can feel the sun on my skin. The warmth of my face is a relief after such cold days. My pores open; I am being cleansed.

The frost is disappearing, the birds join in song at morning's arrival.

I no longer fear the light the way that I did. I thought that I was safer in the shadows, but out here I am free to move.

I wanted this all along. I didn't know it until now.

The day is new, and so am I.

It is time to live.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Holy Saturday: Silence

I can't hear.

I can't hear words of hope. I can't hear encouragement to pull myself together.

I can only hear emptiness.

Tell me why this has happened. Tell me anything to make the silence go away.

If someone doesn't say something soon, I'm afraid I might hear something I don't like.

False relief is still relief. If I keep saying it, at least it won't be quiet any more.

I don't know what happens now.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday: Darkness

In the darkness, the only discernible colors are muted grays and blues. The bright vibrancy of the day makes way for night.

The dark reveals fears I didn't know I had, and the unknown is even more threatening. My accusers are relentless; my shame is on display. The loudest voice screams from within.

I can't see hope. I can't see anyone. I can't see anything.

I'm surrounded, but it's just me now.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Maundy Thursday: Denial

It will soon be evening. During the day, the expectations of others determines everything. The crowds press in, demanding my best at all times.

So long as my true self remains hidden, insulated from trial and testing, all should be well.

Maybe a meal with friends will make gentle my appetites and anxieties. Or maybe being with others bring greater odds for all my flaws to become the meal's centerpiece.

But really, it's just dinner. What could go wrong?