Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: C.S. Lewis

After returning from our initial trip to Austin, I shared one of my favorite "death" poems by John Donne. It is an odd thing to have "favorite" death poems, though it does make sense. Death is notoriously difficult to name or speak in any kind of honest language that actually stands up to the task of neither sentimentalizing it nor offering cheap comfort; death is that thing which all know, or will know, through others and themselves, yet we simply do not know what to say when we encounter it. So it is fitting that we turn to our poets.

C.S. Lewis wrote a number of my "favorite" death poems. The devastating reason he wrote so many, and so many of worth, is that after marrying his beloved Joy in his 50s, she died just three short years later. His account in A Grief Observed is one of the most poignant, heartbreaking, and meaningful things ever written on the experience of losing a loved one. His Poems similarly witness to his deep, ever-present grief from Joy's death. Although the poem below is for his wife, it felt right in thinking about Granji, and even connects to Donne in the first line. In my own poem afterward I attempt to sketch out the kind of rest possible even in times like these.

- - - - - - -

Joys That Sting

By C.S. Lewis

Oh doe not die, says Donne, for I shall hate
All women so. How false the sentence rings.
Women? But in a life made desolate
It is the joys once shared that have the stings.

To take the old walks alone, or not at all,
To order one pint where I ordered two,
To think of, and then not to make, the small
Time-honoured joke (senseless to all but you);

To laugh (oh, one'll laugh), to talk upon
Themes that we talked upon when you were there,
To make some poor pretence of going on,
Be kind to one's old friends, and seem to care,

While no one (O God) through the years will say
The simplest, common word in just your way.

- - - - - - -

Crawl Beneath Covers

When I am coldest and
deeply alone, I turn
off dead machinery
and come back home to bed.

I crawl beneath covers,
baptized again into
the smells and heat that I
alone know—royalty.

Renewal strikes against
the dross of soulless screens
like a coiled snake, and woos
by heat and darkness’ smile.

Your body is light and
heat and I return a
little boy happy to
be in safety’s embrace.

But your fire does not burn
out—or me. My own scars
find salve in your bright flames,
and my eyes, heavy, close.

This rest is a known rest:
your body, redeemed and
given in healing trust,
is daily seventh day.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Memories of The Granj

As I've mentioned in previous posts, my wife Katelin's maternal grandmother, Jinx Lacey, passed away about three weeks ago. It was the result of a tragic, random accident -- walking in a parking lot at night, she tripped, fell, and hit her head, which led to internal bleeding and a coma. Katelin and I were able to be with her and the family the day after it happened, and the next day when they removed life support. Jinx would have turned 70 years old just a month later on March 6, so not only was this unexpected -- we were expecting decades more with her. In lieu of her passing and her funeral last weekend, I wanted to share some memories.

When Katelin was born and Jinx became a grandma at age 47, she wanted to be called "Grand Jinx," which eventually became "Granji," which then evolved into (and became interchangeable with) "The Granj." "(The) Granj(i)" was just her name, even to non-family.

I was one of those "non-family" people who knew and loved Granj for years before I ended up marrying into "the family." Granj was the crisis counselor at McNeil High School in Round Rock, Texas, for almost 20 years -- four of which included my own high school tenure -- and my getting to know her was largely independent from, though coterminous to, my getting to know her beloved eldest grandchild, a fellow classmate and, as it turned out, future wife. Granj was involved with various clubs and organizations at McNeil that I participated in, and we slowly came to know each other through them.

- - - - - - -

Granji's assessment of me had to do, principally, with four things:

1) "Just look at that long, dark, curly hair! If only God had given me curls."
2) "Honey you are just too smart for the old Granj!"
3) "Such a sweet, sweeeet boy!"
4) "I don't know about ol' Paul ... he didn't seem too fond of my kind, women. But he did write my faaavorite passage -- Romans 8. You know, when I discovered that Scripture -- my favorite is The Message translation -- it changed my life. I didn't know that nothing could separate me from Jesus' love. But ol' Paul wrote it: it doesn't matter! He always loves me. And I just love Romans 8. I love it love it love it."

As you can see, I loved Granj because Granj first loved me. For whatever reason, some combination of my hair, my head, my sweetness(?), and my Bible-ness endeared me to her. And even had I not ended up dating and marrying her granddaughter, I would be so happy, so grateful, to have known and been known by the Granj.

But I did marry Katelin! And as Bill Simmons would say, that brought things to a whole new level.

- - - - - - -

One of the most meaningful things Granj ever did for me was react to my dating Katelin with the kind of exuberant, exaggerated, outlandish gusto for which she was so well known. Granj was downright euphoric about our relationship. It is difficult to explain to someone who didn't know Granj or doesn't know Katelin what that means, because to say Granj was Katelin's "grandmother" makes her sound a million miles removed. But, instead of calling her "grandmother," let's call Granji Katelin's oldest best friend. She took her to church, had her over for sleepovers, went out to dinner, stayed up late giggling, wrote passes to get her our of class, talked about boys, and, in general, taught her about life. Granji's oldest daughter is Kim, and Kim's oldest daughter is Katelin. In the most wonderful way, then, Granji lived profoundly as The Matriarch -- in her own glorious, goofy, gaffe-prone way -- to Katelin both as the oldest grandchild and as the youngest in three generations of women. As such Granji gave herself to Katelin: and Katelin received Granji. To know Katelin outside of knowing Granji and Granji's central importance is simply not to know Katelin.

And so, imagine the great burden placed on me, the suitor and husband-to-be: Will the Granj, as Matriarch and oldest best friend, approve? Thus my relieved sigh, my satisfied smile, to know from the beginning that she did. And boy, did she make sure I knew it, too.

- - - - - - -

Granji was a bright shining light in the best and fullest sense of the metaphor. Her presence quite literally illuminated, lit up, the room. You never didn't know Granj was present. She made it quite known, in her own particular ways.

Granj was a light in her language. She was someone who, written or spoken, made abundantly clear just how beloved you were in her eyes. Her language was gratuitous. An email or card or voicemail was a kind of marathon of words, with ellipses and cliches and poetic touches that were wholly doused in Granji's distinct stamp of personality. One of the reasons Granj felt so much like family to me was in part because she shared this trait with my own mother.

Granj was a light in her work. She loved her "dumplings," high school teenagers trudging through the most difficult time of their lives. For all of her verbosity, she was a listener at heart, and the testimonies of dozens of current and former students reveal just how great her impact was.

Granj was a light in her laughter. Nobody had a better sense of humor than her, and largely because Granji knew (with G.K. Chesterton) that "funny" is not the opposite of "serious" -- you can be humorless and serious or humorous and unserious, but humor and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. Granji took life seriously, loved it, and therefore she laughed at it. What else could she do?

Granj was a light in her family. The matriarch of three strong daughters and eight grandchildren (including me), Granji was and is the center of everything -- and rightly so. There are people who seek the spotlight and there are people who by nature are the spotlight: and we all knew to which category Granji belonged. As an old friend shared at her funeral, Granji was an amusement park unto herself; and no more so with her family. A current student came to the hospital to see Granji in her coma and was confused to meet her middle daughter -- as he said, nobody knew she had children, only grandchildren. And if you knew Granj, you knew her grandchildren's names by heart.

Finally, Granj was a light in her faith. She was always picking my brain, telling me about her dad being a preacher and how I could have his old Bible collection, marveling at the very mention of learning Greek or Hebrew like I had just performed a miracle. Granj was "someone you don't worry about"; not that I am personally inclined to worry about others' eternal destinations, but it is an understandable concern, especially for loved ones and especially for the prodigals among us. But we all knew Granji had a kind of direct line with God -- that sort of saintly, prayerful, playful friendship with Jesus that bespoke with utter clarity the connection between a loving Father and a glad daughter. Granj never missed an opportunity to tell me about "the car wash," her (as I might put it) baptism from death to life, or (as she did put it) from codependency to healthfulness, almost 20 years ago. That was due to the work of other counselors on her behalf, and it was also due to the discovery of passages like Romans 8: the full and received and lived knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Granji was living witness to that truth.

- - - - - - -

About six months ago Katelin and I started receiving substantial checks from Granji in the mail. Why, you might ask? We did. And we were promptly informed that Granj had decided to alter her monthly charity contribution from March of Dimes to us. As poor newlyweds in graduate school, she figured we needed the money. And we did. And so we became Granji's monthly charity.

- - - - - - -

Granji was my first main experience with death, especially on such an intimate level. Three of my four grandparents died before I was 10 years old, and the fourth is alive and well (and kicking! That is to say, watching good basketball). A beloved teacher, Ms. Buffalo (a Granj-ish character if there ever was one), died when I was in fourth grade. And two years ago Adam Langford, a missionary from Jinja, Uganda, where I spent two months the prior summer, died in a tragic car accident. In those relatively few examples, however, I was never emotionally present for or physically connected to the suffering or death. I was either too young or geographically removed.

Here, though, we were present for the long, hard, 36 hours of coma, strained breathing, life support, and waiting. It was a rush, and surreal, and inexpressibly dark. Yet I could never have imagined how much life there was even in the midst of so much darkness. God's grace was never far away, his presence always present to us, and we received profound gifts when we least expected them. Granji went to see her youngest daughter after she fell. What if she hadn't? What if we never knew what had happened? The next morning she was found in her bed, in her pajamas, glasses on the side table; her coma came after she fell asleep. Thank you, God.

All her adult life Granji was terrified of slowly slipping into Alzheimer's (like her mother and sister) and living out her days in an utterly anti-Granji existence -- incapacitated, inarticulate, incoherent. She always said, at the first sign, to take her out back and "shoot me with a horse tranquilizer." We would never have wished it to happen this way, but we receive it as a gift that Granji's greatest fear was not realized: for all intents and purposes, she died in her sleep.

So much else to say, but no need to name it all. Suffice it to say that there were equal amounts of laughter mixed with crying in the room as we waited, for how else could we best honor Granji? Everyone dies, as the saying goes, but not everyone lives. Praise God that Jinx Lacey lived, and praise God that we who were blessed to know her felt the gift of that life with every laugh and every hug, every "piffle" and every prayer.

On the drive home at 3:00 in the morning, after she had passed on, I shared with Katelin, through tears grieved yet grateful, that the thing I was saddest about was that our children will never know Granj, but how overwhelmingly thankful and happy I was to have known her. That remains my feeling today, and it will be a lasting memory for me. I lament to God that my children will never know the life that was Granji, but I am so grateful to have spent even one evening with her. And I am happiest in knowing, with Granj, that death is not the final word.

- - - - - - -

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then can condemn? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Signs of Penitence, Space for God: Spiritual Disciplines for Lent

Most people know at least vaguely what "Lent" means -- growing up in central Texas, it usually meant Catholic friends giving up Coke for a while, some serious, some with eyes rolling. I don't mean that negatively, only that when you're in middle school, that's how it's communicated.

For fellow members of "low church" traditions (next post: Why I Hate The Term "Low Church" As Applied To Ecclesiocentric Fellowships), and especially semi-sectarians like churches of Christ, "Lent" wasn't just foreign or Catholic -- it was arbitrary, imposed, legalistic, and/or (horror of horrors!) unbiblical. Maybe it wasn't harmful ... but why participate?

Fortunately, I was given a proper introduction to Lent, and in general to the Lenten season, in my time at ACU. As a campus ministry intern, we taught an entire semester's curriculum on spiritual disciplines, and through that experience and through the work of Richard Foster (among others), I came to fall in love with the practices of spiritual formation. Instead of deathly legalism, rote going-through-the-motions, or life-sapping meaninglessness, I discovered deep and rich and abounding "streams of living water." Rather than "doing" things that either "prove" to God our piety or "make" us better Christians, spiritual disciplines create the space in which we invite God to come, to be, and to work.

Our lives are filled with crap. Auditory crap, visual crap, sensory crap, relational crap, religious crap, entertainment crap, family crap, career crap, mundane crap. Crap, crap, crap. And nearly every second is bursting with endless new crap: a new commercial to laugh at, a new website to check out, a new book to add to the stack, a new album to buy, a new family to host, a new show to watch, a new ministry to lead, a new project to work, a new restaurant to try. Money and time and sound and sight and touch and mind and heart and spirit are all demanded, drained, drowned, and discarded -- until the next new thing, ready for a spin. In such crap-filled lives, there is no room for God. God is on the sidelines; God will wait.

In response, spiritual disciplines literally carve out the crap so that God might step in. Spiritual disciplines recognize that what we need most is not new anything, but the presence of God -- and God's presence demands all of us. So instead of speeding headlong, unstopping, through the highway of gluttony, the spiritual discipline of fasting pulls us over and tells us to wait. In fasting we learn that food is not what sustains us: God is our food. God sustains us. Not for a moment do we live without the gracious provision of God. And so, instead of eating, we pray. Not only do we pray, we remember those around the world and down the street who are hungry, too. We remember that Jesus was hungry, and that his hunger is the world's hunger. We remember to hunger and thirst first and foremost for righteousness, for justice, for peace -- not for steak, or sugar, or salad. We remember that the bridegroom has left and we fast in eager anticipation of his return. We remember that the money in our pockets unspent on food can pay for another's meal. We remember, in other words, whose we are, and whom his mind is on, and how it is we live and move and have our being.

Fasting is only one discipline, but in combination with prayer, it is the seminal discipline, because it is radically forsaking exactly what the world says we need to live, and re-centering on the only true life-giving source and practice of nourishment. There are other kinds of disciplines, to be sure -- as Dallas Willard reminds us, they consist of both "negative" abstinence and "positive" engagement -- but fasting is a kind of exemplar upon which so much else in spiritual formation is built.

So a few years ago I tried "giving up" the internet for Lent. I say "giving up" because, though rightly seeking to address the absurd amount of time I spent online, I allowed for so many exceptions and loopholes that to say I "gave it up" is a stretch. However, despite my lawyerly dodging of real sacrifice, it actually worked! I found myself both with more time and missing knowing every-little-thing that was going on in the world ("the world" meaning "movie news"). To miss knowing Steven Spielberg's rumored next movie is, without question, a triumph of Lent because the simple fact is, I don't need to know that, and if I have fallen into the habit of thinking I need to know that, I need to be reminded of the truth. And so I was.

I'd like to share what I plan to do for this year's Lent, beginning today on Ash Wednesday, because what I found most valuable in my journey of getting to know spiritual disciplines was hearing examples and stories. I hope, therefore, that you are blessed by my plan, blessed by this season of penitence (necessarily marked, as we saw in yesterday's quotation from Rowan Williams, not by interiority but by signs), and blessed by the spiritual disciplines which open you up to the world-creating and life-altering power and presence and love of God.

Basically, I plan to give up one form of filler/addiction/crap every weekday leading up to Easter. Disciplines lose any coherence when applied dogmatically, so when I lay out my regiment, it is merely a loose outline -- there will of course be adjustments here and there. But, in general, this is the plan:

Monday. To fast from all food but water; to spend more time in prayer, especially when hungry; to pray specifically for those who are hungry; and to find creative ways to give away the money I would have spent on food.

Tuesday. To fast from all visual media, namely television and movies; to pray whenever I think or talk about them; to pray for freedom from any feeling that I "need" visual media in my life; and to fill any time usually spent watching something with healthy activities with people or with God.

Wednesday. To fast from all auditory media, namely podcasts and music; to pray when working at the library and shelving books alone and in silence; to pray whenever driving in the car and in silence; to pray for freedom from the need to fill silence with noise.

Thursday. To fast from all activity on the internet (excluding email or homework); to pray whenever the desire arises to get online; to pray for freedom from the need to always be connected and informed (whether of things important or unimportant); to creatively fill time usually spent online reading healthy, handheld books or being with people.

Friday. To fast from all book reading, assigned or voluntary; to pray whenever the desire arises to read from endless stacks of books; to pray for freedom from the need to always be checking off chapters and books in an endless quest for knowledge; to read the Bible with a view to cultivating the character of Christ and a love for Scripture (more than any other derivative work).

God's peace be upon us in this time of penitence, discipline, and prayer. As Mike Cope says, today we remember that one day we will die. Praise God for deliverance from the fear of death.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Preparing for Lent: Words From Rowan Williams on Eucharist, Penitence, Forgiveness, and the Church

From pages 51-52 of the Archbishop's Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel:

We have noted already that the Eucharist is a reminder to the whole church of its liability to desert and betray: the eucharistic Church 'locates' itself in Gethsemane before it finds itself finally in and with the risen Jesus. Thus the memory of the martyrs (all the martyrs) can and should be for the Church a part of its eucharistic life, where it identifies itself as oppressor and traitor, yet also the penitent and restored kin of Christ. When the Church lives 'eucharistically' in this sense, we can once again speak of an eloquent proclaiming of the resurrection gospel to the world. A Church which is not only divided but cements its dividing walls with the blood of the martyrs cannot but be a stumbling-block for the faith of humanity at large: it fails to show forgiven-ness as a style of living. This should make very plain to us the indispensability within the Church not merely of a mentality of self-criticism and penitence, but of signs which continually impress on the Church that it is called to penitence. To say that the Eucharist is fundamental to the Church's life is not to say simply that it is 'very useful', nor to say that it is a quasi-physical fuel for the life of the soul. The extremes of internalization (the Eucharist as illustration of a doctrinal point) and depersonalization (the Eucharist as the confection of a life-giving substance) are equally inadequate. Rather, when the Church performs the eucharistic action it is what it is called to be: the Easter community, guilty and restored, the gathering of those whose identity is defined by their new relation to Jesus crucified and raised, who identify themselves as forgiven. What happens in the Eucharist is, among much else, that the Church assembles simply to make this identification in praise and gratitude, and to show in concrete form its dependence on Christ. It is an action which announces what the community's life means, where the roots of its understanding and its possibilities are; and as such it is a transforming, a recreative act -- a human activity radically open to the creative activity of God in Jesus.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Resurrection Power of Jesus the Messiah: A Sermon on Mark 5:35-43

While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. "Your daughter is dead," they said. "Why bother the teacher anymore?"

Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, "Don't be afraid; just believe."

He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, "Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child's father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "
Talitha koum!" (which means "Little girl, I say to you, get up!"). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

- - - - - - -

In just a few hours I’ll be in the air flying to Austin, Texas. My wife Katelin is already there waiting for me. Katelin and I both grew up in Austin, and her extended family is there as well. The reason we’ll be in Austin this weekend is because tomorrow is the funeral for Katelin’s grandmother, Jinx, whom we call Granj.

Just fifteen days ago we got the call that Granj, who would have been 70 next month, had had a freak accident—and within hours we were in the hospital room, surrounded by weeping family and friends, with a comatose body lying on a gurney in the center of the room, countless tubes and wires and machines keeping her alive. The next day, after Granj was taken off life support, we gathered around and waited 11 long hours until she took her final, labored breath.

For the 30 or so hours between when we got the call and when Granj passed on, and especially when we were physically with her, all we could do was pray. All of us, silently, loudly, through tears, through laughter, together, alone, whatever—all we could do was pray.

But pray for what? A miracle, for one thing. O God, won’t you wake her up? Won’t you wake her up? O God, Lord of all, open her eyes and breathe into her lungs and wake her up. But Granj did not wake up.

The world we live in today is a world devoid of miracles. We simply do not expect them to happen, and our not expecting them to happen reveals our functional unbelief. We don’t expect miracles because we know they don’t really happen.

And why would we? James says the prayer of faith will heal the sick. Well, people in my congregation keep dying. People in families I know keep dying. And faithful prayers don’t seem to be changing much.

But that isn’t all. It’s not just that our world is devoid of miracles, or that we don’t believe they can happen: our world has ruled out any need for miracles. We have become much too efficient, much too knowledgeable, much too evolved, to need anything like a miracle.

A miracle presupposes four things: need; impossibility; lament; and the action of God. But, by the sweat on our brow and the ingenuity of our minds, we have met all needs, solved every problem, forgotten lament, and thus replaced the power and presence and action of God. Keep moving along if it’s needs you’re looking for. We’ve done taken care of that.

As for death? It’s only a matter of time. The experts and the talking heads and Congress and the UN committees and the stimulus bill—they’re all taking care of it. It’ll come. In due time. We need only be patient, and wait it out.

The people of Israel beg to differ
. The people of Israel know better. The people of Israel know that life, and death, and everything in between—all of it is in the hands of the one true God of the universe. In sickness or tragedy or crisis or the very throes of death itself, there is only one to whom Israel turns in lament, in tears, in mourning, in petition. The Lord, the God of Israel.

Hear the opening verses of Psalm 30, “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, you restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

Mark tells us four different times that Jairus was a leader of the synagogue. Jairus was a faithful member of the house of Israel. Undoubtedly Jairus knew Psalm 30 and other Psalms like it. In the grip of death-dealing forces, Israel turns to the only one capable of Exodus deliverance.

So Jairus comes to Jesus. His daughter is sick—and he has prayed the Psalms, offered the sacrifices, met with the elders, gone to synagogue. Nothing has changed. But this Jesus—people are saying he is the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah. The stories have made it to his town, and everyone’s talking. This would-be Messiah is casting out unclean spirits, commanding the waves, teaching with authority, giving sight to the blind and causing the lame to walk. Jesus even just came from healing a Gentile possessed by a legion of demons.

So Jesus’ boat makes it to shore, and Jairus, leader of the synagogue, high standing in the community, faithful Israelite—he falls at the feet of Jesus and begs him to heal his sick daughter…and just like that, Jesus obliges, and they’re off.

But the crowd presses in and it’s hard going. Something happens—Jesus turns—he’s talking to…a woman. A sick woman. A bleeding woman. This sick woman has stopped Jesus. She has no husband, and Jairus hasn’t seen her at synagogue. No children either. What is Jesus saying? What could possibly be so important as to delay healing a sick young daughter of Israel?

Finally they move on, but messengers arrive and deliver the fateful news: It’s too late. She’s gone. Jairus’ daughter is dead. Jesus seems unfazed though; he merely says, “Stop being afraid—only keep believing."

When they come to the house and see the mourners, Jesus does not respond like he does in John 11 when he sees the people mourning Lazarus and weeps with them. Instead, he asks them why they are mourning, saying the child is not dead but sleeping…and of course they laugh at him! What kind of nonsense is this? Jesus goes further, though, and here Mark uses the Greek verb for casting out unclean spirits and exorcising demons—literally, Jesus casts them out, exorcises them from the house, and takes Jairus and his wife upstairs with a few others, including Peter, James, and John.

And now, in the deep darkness of death, in the pit of Sheol, Jairus watches as Jesus the Messiah takes the hand of his little girl, his precious daughter, dead and ready for burial and already being mourned, and Jesus speaks his terse Aramaic command—and immediately, she gets up and walks around. Jairus’ daughter is alive again. Jesus has done it. God has worked a miracle.

Now. We are tempted to read this story through the lens of cheap grace, with the eyes of sentimentality and popular religion, or even with the trusty tools of technical scholarship, so helpful yet so potentially dangerous.

We want to say, perhaps, that what this story tells us is about something that happened “back then.” We know big words like “cessasionist,” and take refuge in the fact that Jesus the wonder-worker did something amazing 2,000 years ago in the holy land. Good for him.

Or we want to say, perhaps, that the girl really was only sleeping, that Jesus was being straight up about it all. We analyze the text scientifically and comb through it for evidence that can stand up to the tests of modern intelligibility. A happy end for a misunderstood situation.

Or we want to say, perhaps, that oh my wasn’t that Jesus something, raising the dead and all. And he can raise the dead attitude inside of me and make me something if only I name it and claim it and trust that he’ll prosper me. A spiritual metaphor.

Or some of us want to say, even, that this text applies 100% to today—word for word, detail for detail, like a family recipe for resurrection, just apply the ingredients to any situation, and voila, you’ll have instant healing.

But this story is not about a random Judean wonder worker. It’s not about demythologizing the pre-scientific elements. It’s not about how God’s going to resurrect my career or my bank account. And it’s certainly not about how to have enough faith so that no one you love ever dies.

This story in the Gospel of Mark is about one thing: The power of God even over death made manifest in Jesus the Messiah of Israel. In Jesus the same God who created the heavens and the earth has power to create new life. In Jesus the same God who breathed the breath of life into the first human being has power to breath back new breath into lifeless lungs. In Jesus the same God who called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has power to call a daughter of Abraham out of the silence of death. And in Jesus the same God who delivered a people out of deathly slavery has power to deliver the departed from bondage to darkness.

This is the mighty hand and the outstretched arm of the God of Israel: in the birth and life and ministry and healing and teaching and suffering and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah—the power to raise the dead and to give new life.

As followers of Jesus, we actually believe this to be true. We actually believe that the God we worship in Jesus Christ raises the dead. We might forget it, we might lean against it, we might shift uncomfortably in our pews…but our faith is, from beginning to end, a resurrection faith. And we are a resurrection people—the resurrection community of the resurrected Lord.

And that has implications. But the first implication is a question.

So what?
So what if all this is true? Say Jesus did do something in that room with Jairus’ daughter, say Jesus was raised from the dead, say that has something to do with being a Christian—so what? People keep getting sick, people keep dying, and flapping our gums about coming back to life isn’t going to do anybody any good. Only more false expectations and superstitious hopes setting unsuspecting people up for failure.

I know these concerns intimately because two weeks ago Granj did not wake up. My belief that God could heal Granj, that she could return to life, did not seem to make a difference. She died.

So I know what it means to question the validity, the relevance, the import of these kinds of claims. I know that place. I know it because right now, it’s my home—and my wife’s home, and my family’s home. I know how vapid empty theology can be. Times like these do not call for Hallmark doctrine.

But the good news of this Gospel story is not that we get what we want when we want it, or that death has once and for all been abolished from the earth, or that Jesus having done it once should give us all the reassurance and comfort we need.

No, the good news is that God’s resurrection power in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is real, is alive, and is a promise that God is going to keep. Resurrection is not merely the cessation of death or a return back to “normal” life—resurrection is eschatological. Resurrection is new life, new creation. Resurrection is forgiveness and restoration and wholeness—shalom, God’s good and final and abiding peace. That resurrection power is a reality, it is alive and present today in the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of God’s people. And it has a face.

It shows its face in the fellowship of the Eucharist. It shows its face in the loving fidelity of marriage. It shows its face in the second and third chances of a homeless ministry like MUST or Genesis. It shows its face when civil rights pioneer John Lewis forgives Elwin Wilson for beating him 50 years ago in a Rock Hill bus station. It shows its face when African Christians beat machine guns and machetes into sculptures of life and works of art.

And it shows its face in the friends and family, tissues and tears, hugging and heaving, dropped off groceries, text messages and emails, prayers and support when a grandmother dies. God did not have to heal Granji or raise her back to life to display his resurrection power. That power was and is clear enough in the community that surrounded and mourned together, and it will be no less present tomorrow when we celebrate her life.

And finally, without cheapness or sentimentality or easy answers, we remember too the “not yet.” Resurrection has come but is still coming. We await the day when all things will be made new, when resurrection will be fullest shalom and there will be no more death. The Aramaic command of Jesus to the girl in Mark 5—talitha koum—is a promise, a small deposit for the day when we hear the talitha koum writ large and bellowed wide and far and to all creation. And on that day we will say with the Psalmist:

“To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: ‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!’

“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Notes for the Professor, #1: Novels/Poetry as Assigned Reading

This is a new series that will be random and ongoing in nature. I am preparing and planning to teach as a university professor one day, and as a current student I constantly try to take note of what to do and what not to do as a professor. The variety and range of quality between professors in terms of actual teaching is startling. Some simply don't teach. Some can't teach. Others try and fail -- others succeed without trying. I am convinced, however, that the single greatest trait a professor can have is an openness, a willingness, an intentionality about exploring new and better ways to teach -- including stopping bad habits.

So I hope to nip bad habits in the bud before they happen, and to form good habits before I start. I have had the great blessing of being taught by phenomenal professors and thus feel like I have an unfair, but fortunate, head start. On the other hand, I don't know how much I have been picking up -- adding things to the arsenal, so to speak -- versus how much I merely receive and enjoy as a student without grabbing, naming, imputing, and incubating the virtues and qualities I hope to emulate.

David Wray, a professor at Abilene Christian University who teaches ministers how to teach, leads students through various "teaching tips" and invites them to keep an ongoing list as a helpful guide in all teaching endeavors. (How many "teaching"'s can we fit in one sentence? I'm sure we can beat that.) Here I want to be more specific: not little things that help in general with teaching any kind of class, but specific, concrete actions that will enhance an actual university (or seminary/graduate) class of students.

Furthermore, because I will be in the university setting for years to come, and many friends and readers are involved somehow in the system as students or professors, this space is ideal to begin the process of learning from others what does, and does not, work and what has, and has not, been tried. I don't want to have idealistic hopes, as if my earnestness will produce invigorating classrooms and perfect, "I'm here and ready to learn!"-proclaiming students. Neither do I want to be cynical and treat students (whose ranks I still belong to!), undergraduate or graduate, as the hopeless, illiterate, apathetic, immature, or lost generation that many deem them to be. My peers may be the last four ... but they are not hopeless!

(Just kidding. Sort of.)

So, I hope you enjoy, and get in on the conversation. I don't plan for these to be epic posts, but then, my inclinations usually overwhelm my intentions. Either way -- let's start class.

Professorial Note #1: Novels/Poetry as Assigned Reading

Teaching theology poses a peculiar problem regarding reading: on the one hand, the temptation to drown oneself (along with one's students) in the terrifying deluge of literature that seemingly has no end; and on the other, to buy into the lie that the only important literature is theology. The former scares students away; the latter walls them in. You can see either student in any school of theology (possibly more so in undergraduate Bible studies programs): the self-professed nerd with a stack of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Hays, et al brushing shoulders past the self-professed contrarian with a stack of Faulkner, Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Bellow, etc. The one has discovered the deep, rich, life-giving well of theological writing, and the other has found (God in) everything else.

Well, the good news is simple here: there is no contradiction between the two! In fact, for either to be divorced from the other is to rob the richness of both. Theology is not some kind of master discipline in the sense that talking explicitly about God somehow elevates it above other forms, especially storytelling and poetry. In the same way, to act as if storytelling and poetry are good, or even that they have something to say about God, but that they belong "out there" in the leisure time of students or in the alien worlds of "other disciplines," arbitrarily severs ways of talking and thinking about God and God's world merely by form. God is not compartmentalized, and the Bible theology purports to be grounded in is itself composed primarily of stories and poetry. (Poetry is one third of the Bible!) How could we possibly be faithful theologically if we limit ourselves to systematic theologies and bare exposition, when God does not so limit himself!

Besides, and equally important, how are we forming theological students' minds and lives by solely assigning them "theological" books? This is the exciting, daring, radical life of discipleship which theology names: 500-page monographs written in German! Woohoo!

Instead, as a professor I want to make it a practice to give non-explicit theology as assigned reading -- specifically novels and poetry. I realize how unlikely it is to get students to read an actual book of poetry, so that is more likely to come out in class -- you better believe my students will know the name "Wendell Berry" -- but novels seem a pregnant possibility. I mentioned David Wray above; he became convinced a number of years ago that, no matter what class he was teaching, he needed to assign at least one book relating to missional ecclesiology, because to teach ministers how to teach or to do administration (or whatever) without exploring the final telos of those means is an exercise in missing the point.

In the same way, I think it could only be a good thing to assign one novel per class. Now, it needn't be Dostoyevsky or Melville: I'd be laughed out of the classroom. But offering a handful of 200-300 page novels from which to choose, and finding creative ways to theologically explore those novels in the classroom, seems to me to have great potential for expanding and forming theological minds, as well as for welcoming those whose reading habits do not accord with Barth or Augustine as easily (or happily) as others.

(A final note: I would want to assign novels written by authors of various religious stances, including atheism, rather than limit myself to the Marilynne Robinsons and Shusaku Endos of the world. "What would it mean to step into and explore the theological world of an atheist?" seems an infinitely worthy question for students of theology to ask!)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Learning Humility in the Blogosphere: Mark Driscoll through Richard Beck's Eyes

I learned a good lesson yesterday.

I have only recently been introduced to the work and ministry of Mark Driscoll. At first I was merely troubled, but then found myself increasingly alarmed to the point of anger and disdain. I found his theology to be ugly, distracting, destructive, disreputable. I wanted to write against him, warn others about him, kick him out of town.

And I was so happy, so relieved, so bristlingly celebratory when I found this critique of Driscoll. I was standing up and cheering, rooting for a theological clothesline of Driscoll. I thought: This is exactly what needed to be said. I was so happy so many people had already seen the post. Driscoll got his due!

So I'm taking a break from homework yesterday and pull up Richard Beck's blog, and what do you know? Another post on Mark Driscoll! I am locked and loaded, ready to go -- ready for some erudite psychological gun-slinging.

Things are going well at first. A YouTube clip edited to make fun of Driscoll. Good so far.

And then Beck does the unexpected: he defends him. Instead of putting up his fists, he actually listens to Driscoll. And all of that psychological knowledge is applied, not to disproving and making a fool out of Driscoll, but to affirming some of the facets of his ministry. Beck raises the genuine question of gender identity in churches, how education marks a kind of cultural fault line for many men, how Driscoll is in his own way addressing a largely unacknowledged and overlooked problem in most churches across America. By the end he does raise questions about gender, power, and misogyny, but in such a way that opens the conversation rather than closes it.

That, to be sure, was not what I was expecting. Neither was it what I was hoping for.

What it is, though, is a lesson in virtue. Polemic is natural to the Christian gospel, and we cannot get away from it, nor should we want to. In my mind, however, before reading Beck's post, the standard for "right polemic" was just that: Is it right? Now, though, I have a new test: Is it virtuous? That is, how I engage a person, idea, event, group, or work ought to be judged by, infused with, and subsumed under the fruit of the Holy Spirit -- not how "right" I am. We can always be right in the wrong way. We can never be virtuous in the wrong way.

Because to be virtuous is to be humble, and to be humble means to listen. If I listen to Mark Driscoll -- as it stands now, through the ears of Richard Beck -- I will hear things I do not like. But I will also recognize many of my friends: fellow men who want to follow Jesus, love their families, serve God, and change the world. If I disagree on theological matters, I may express those disagreements only in the context of our brotherhood in Christ, and on no other grounds whatsoever.

So: thank you to Richard Beck, and thank you to Mark Driscoll. You have put a small end to a great flourishing of self-righteousness. I never would have guessed I would learn humility from the blogosphere, but then, that is just the kind of surprise I should expect from a God who humbles himself in the stranger.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry's poetry is always comforting, always a sharp breath of life lived fully, reflectively, holistically. These two poems represent to me Berry's unquenchable hope and joy (and humor) in the midst of what might be called the "losing fights" of life.

My own poem is starkly different than either of Berry's, but thematically is a similar kind of expression of hope in the midst of what feels like a losing fight.

- - - - - - -

February 2, 1968

By Wendell Berry

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

- - - - - - -

The Mad Farmer's Love Song

By Wendell Berry

O when the world's at peace
and every man is free
then will I go down unto my love.

O and I may go down
several times before that.

- - - - - - -

Beastly Deliverance

My sin is rabid and hungry
and enveloping like a disease,
like a snarling animal already
pounced and containing me within
its jowls. I am swallowed and
chewed and ingested like an
afternoon meal; I bounce as
the beast bounds off to
feast on only more prey,
only more willing and helpless sinners,
only more sinsick, hobbled junkies.

But you are Leviathan—you are
Behemoth—you are the good
monster bigger and stronger and
nastier than even this mammoth
carrying me around in its belly.
You slash and tear and claw me out,
and I am delivered. O frightful
and dangerous God like a prowling
lion, roar in your mighty mandibles,
stalk your prey in your power,
and carry me away, carry me home,
in the safe sabbath of your jaws.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Brief Sermon on John 9

The following is a 5-minute sermon(ette) I wrote and delivered for my preaching class. It was composed, however, as if it would be done in my normal church context on a Sunday morning. Enjoy.

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If you were to ask me, I’d know the answer. I wouldn’t hesitate. And I bet if I were to ask you, you’d know the answer, too. Most people at church right now, in this city—much less the millions of others across the country and the world—wouldn’t hesitate either. They would know the answer, just like you and I know the answer.

“Who is Jesus?”

Those of us who grew up going to church have the answers down pat. We can cite chapter and verse. We remember in glorious detail the flannelgraphs, the memory verses, the Bible studies. We know who Jesus is.

Those of us who are new to the church probably have answers, too. We know what we’ve been taught; we know what about Jesus brought us here; we know what it is about Jesus that’s keeping us here. We know who Jesus is.

The characters in this story, however? They don’t seem to have a clue who Jesus is.

Jesus tells us in the beginning: He is the light of the world. And we see him heal a man born blind. So, a healer, too. What else does the story call Jesus?

When the Pharisees ask the man who Jesus is, the man says Jesus is a prophet. The gospel writer tells us the Pharisees were excommunicating anyone who called Jesus the Messiah. And when they question him a second time, the Pharisees say they know Jesus is a sinner. They are disciples of Moses—which apparently means Jesus is nothing like Moses. But the man born blind responds that no man not sent from God could heal him—so Jesus must be sent from God.

And finally Jesus re-enters the scene, with his own questions for the man born blind: Does he believe in the Son of Man? And the man says, “Lord, I believe.”

The light of the world. Healer. Prophet. Messiah. Sinner. Not Moses. Sent from God. Son of Man. Lord. And as we see in chapter 10, as the story continues, Jesus is both the gate through which the sheep enter the pen and the good shepherd of those sheep.

That’s a lot of options. But as we said before, like good churchgoing folk, like good Christians, we already know who Jesus is. We know the right answer to these questions.

Where in this story, though, are the people who have the answers? The blind man doesn’t know. His parents don’t know. The neighborhood doesn’t know. The only people who know from the outset are who? The Pharisees. But even some of them did believe. The point about them is not that they are Jews, or too legalistic, or whatever. The point is that they are the ones in the know. They can’t believe that what people are saying about Jesus could be true, because it would upset their established, everything-in-its-place world.

This story reminds us, then, that what is important is not having the right answer. Having the right answer is believing we can see on our own, without the healing hands of Jesus. Having the right answer is saying we’re already okay; no need to tell us what we already know.

But Jesus did not come to or for people who already know the answer. He did not come to affirm us in our rightness or in our good vision. Instead, he came as the I AM, as the light of the world, as the one who heals our blindness.

So today we believe and confess anew who Jesus is—not because we have all the answers, not because we’re good churchgoers, not because we can see on our own. We believe and confess anew who Jesus is because we simply cannot answer the question enough. Jesus is Lord—and Messiah, and Son of Man, and healer, and Light, and Good Shepherd, and Word made flesh. He is all that and more, and with the world and with the church, as Jesus comes to us in all his mystery and all his glory, he takes us up into the great drama of asking and answering that singular, life-giving, world-making question: Who is Jesus?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sickness, and a New Look

It is a uniquely powerless place, being sick. Throughout childhood up to adulthood I have rarely had to deal with it. Apart from the onset of the Texas flatland's wonderful allergies, I'm used to good health.

Right now, though, I am just trying to get by. Two weeks ago I missed work and class due to an eye infection. A week ago -- in Austin, dealing with much more important matters -- I was besieged with said allergies. Then returning home to Atlanta I caught the flu, and have been more or less totally incapacitated for three days.

Sickness, and death, and no power to change either. Prayer has been a friend these days. I would also say community, but being displaced distorts community in such times, because sickness entails not seeing people, and our grieving community is thousands of miles away. And my wife is in the air as we speak!

No lessons; just reflecting. God's good grace is never far off. Two nights ago I read Psalm 54 for what felt like the first time in my life, and it was a great comfort to me, for whatever reason. I never know what to do with Psalms that seem easily Christological, but they are always powerful regardless.

On a different note, the look of this blog has been grating on me for some time, and I decided to try something new. My friend Patrick Gosnell (whose website has now officially launched, and who also designed the inaugural poster for our Trio Film Festival movie marathon!) designed the new banner across the top, which replaced the earlier cheap look, but things still weren't sitting well with me.

So I went with a whole new look. Let me know what you think. There just seemed to be too much blue everywhere -- light, dark, middling, all hard on the eyes. So we're trying something a bit sharper, a bit simpler, and hopefully it works. I'll keep tinkering with it until it feels right.

Until next time; God's peace upon you.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Time for Mourning, and Cathartic Reading

This past weekend my wife's maternal grandmother passed away unexpectedly. Since Thursday evening we have been in Austin with family and friends, first surrounding Granji's bedside, then grieving her death. I returned to Atlanta today and Katelin will be back later this week.

Right now we are, and for a while will be, residing in the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Later this week or the next I will share more about the wonderful woman who was Jinx "The Granj" Lacey. For now, you can read her obituary in the Austin American-Statesman; there is also an online guest book; and Su Mohr has started a Facebook group entitled "Jinx Lacey - Queen of the Mavs," which already has more than 1,100 members.

For now, I simply wanted to share what I've been reading over the past few days. At first I was unsure of what to feel about perusing my regular sites online in the midst of realities like coma, life support, suffering, family, and death. I realized, however, that reading -- even on the internet -- was cathartic, life-giving, and normality-returning. In the same way I will try to get back into "normal" blogging this week, at least to the extent that "normal" includes having been forever changed by the last few days' experience.

I hope you find similar catharsis, if even from nothing but the beating of the days.
  • I am finding myself increasingly intrigued by and drawn to the writing of Christopher Hitchens. I read his short book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, on the plane ride home today, and, though my limited scope means little, I find him to be one of the most gifted authors writing today. Even when I profoundly disagree with him -- which is not always -- I find myself unable to stop reading. His position is clear; his argument is sharp; his language is direct; his wit is peerless. More to the point, his endless willingness, even lust, for polemicism is, in my opinion, his greatest gift. We often do not know where we or others stand except by the fences we build, and, if anything, we know the fence line of Christopher Hitchens' thought. (And this is not even to mention his seemingly boundless knowledge of historical, geographical, and political realities, precisely detailed, the world over.) I await his weekly Monday column at Slate with great anticipation, and I rarely conclude disappointed. I learn more from him about writing, history, international politics, and religion than I do from any dozen other authors. And I hope that, in some small way, this would-be Christian theologian and minister reading the rabid atheist Christopher Hitchens would bring a grin -- if not tussled with a grimace -- to his face. (Here are his archives at Slate and Vanity Fair.)
  • Speaking of Hitchens, I appreciated both his and Ben Meyers' remembrances of the novelist John Updike. Just two weeks ago, upon Meyers' recommendation of Updike as having been churning out "Barthian novels" for years before Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, I went out and picked up a used copy of Updike's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit, Run. I plan to read it soon in his honor.
  • I was more than happy to find out that Ain't It Cool News' own Eric "Quint" Vespe is teaming up with an old friend ("Kraken"), Elijah Wood, Richard Taylor, and WETA to start production on a horror film he co-wrote. The movie might not end up being my bag of tea, but I have always appreciated Quint's dependable, friendly voice to provide reports, rumors, and reviews for years now, and the few times we have corresponded he was swift and generous in his replies. And his recently wrapped-up series "A Movie A Day" was a delight. Congratulations, Quint!
  • All Spurs all the time: subsequent to San Antonio's win in Boston on Sunday, Marc Stein has them at #2 and John Hollinger at #5; Hollinger has found it in himself (finally) to allow for the possibility of the Spurs' continued elite status; and Charles Barkley will return to TNT after the All-Star Game, presumably just in time for the Spurs' annual second-half surge and beastly cries of "Ginobili!" And, as always, Graydon Gordian and Tim Varner over at 48 Minutes of Hell are holding down the fort for 24-7 quality news and analysis for all things Silver and Black.
  • Demitri Martin is very funny, and he is getting his own TV show.
  • Halden Doerge finds it in himself to criticize the scholarly canonized (I include myself in that categorization!) Walter Brueggemann; argues for the proper use of polemic in Christian writing; and offers powerful, ought-to-be-required-reading-for-all-seminarians/theologians/ministers/scholars thoughts for theological commentary.
  • Richard Beck continues his outstanding series on Original Sin and the Malthusian World.
  • Davey Henreckson, anticipating an upcoming post of mine (I'll forgive him), writes on the alternative of Localism, echoing Wendell Berry in both form and content.
  • Speaking of Wendell Berry, I wrote to him just a couple weeks ago, and getting the mail today I found a letter waiting for me from Lanes Landing Farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. What do you know -- he wrote back! How's that for an unexpected gift?
To conclude, I'd like to share a famous sonnet by John Donne, one which has always given me great comfort, and which seems especially poignant at this moment in time:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

21 Theological Themes For The New Year: Inaugural Prolegomena, 15-21

This is the third and last installment of 21 theological questions, propositions, themes, practices, and hankerings that have arisen in recent weeks and that I expect will be following me throughout the year. They're like new year's resolutions, only theological and mostly involuntary. I have a feeling they will be making return appearances here on the blog in 2009, so I figured a kind of inaugural blogging prolegomena were in order. (Here are 1-7, here are 8-14.) Without further ado or prefatory note: the final seven.

And no, that is not a Cylon reference.

- - - - - - -

15. So present still are the politics of modernity. Reading postmodern authors, or at least authors engaging the postmodern context, one gathers the sense that we are currently living in a fundamentally new era marked by new thinking and new assumptions ("new" not necessarily equating to "better," just "different"). From that vantage point, Stanley Hauerwas's ongoing polemic against modernity can elicit a negative reaction: Come on! It's not that bad! You're beating a dead horse and fighting a straw man!

Unfortunately, he is not. And this year I am planning to do my best to stop being surprised when good ol' modernity shows up. Because the beast is not dead, or even breathing that heavy. And we ought not to act otherwise.

16. What it means to speak of Yahweh triumphing over enemies if we know in Jesus that Yahweh loves and dies for his enemies. The God of Israel as attested in the Old Testament, Yahweh of hosts, is a radically nonegalitarian character. He does not equalize; he does not equivocate; he is not nice. The proud, the powerful, chiefs, kings, the rich -- Yahweh will bring them down to where they truly belong. The humble, the weak, peasants, citizens, the poor -- Yahweh will raise them up to the heights of heaven, in gracious love abounding to generations. We know this from story after story, prophet after prophet; but nowhere best than in the Song of Hannah. Yahweh the Lord brings down the mighty and lifts up the weak.

The theme does not disappear in the New Testament. The God of Israel is front and center in exactly the same manner in the Hannah-inspired Magnificat, as sung by Mary in Luke's Gospel. Just as Yahweh gave infertile Hannah a baby boy so he gives virgin Mary the same. And just as Yahweh raised up Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus so he raises up Jesus out of the grip of death in the resurrection.

But what does it mean for Yahweh to triumph over his enemies if, in the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah, Yahweh (and Yahweh's character) is perfectly revealed as enemy-loving, enemy-blessing, and one who dies for his enemies? In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Yahweh triumphs nonviolently, that is, by taking upon himself his enemies' violence without retaliating. He submits to the cross willingly, and in his resurrection comes to his murderers in forgiveness. That is the witness of the incarnation of the God of Israel.

So how do we understand the Exodus? Pharaoh the false god is defeated by the one true God, and he and his people are left decimated, reeling, lifeless. Or even the claim that God raises up the weak and brings down the strong. If the strong are brought down, God is the one doing the razing. I want to know what it means for God to defeat (or to have defeated) enemies if God is revealed as the one who loves his enemies unto death.

17. The limits of finitude in the information age. The internet seduces us into thinking we all ought to, or can, be Renaissance Men and Women. That is, knowing every bit of news that happens, watching every movie that is released, listening to every album of note, reading every book that is acclaimed -- able at any moment to pull up Wikipedia and fill that inexplicable hole in our knowledge banks.

I am the chief of such seduced sinners. I want to know everything: to assess every film and every song and every book. I never, ever -- O great sin of our age! -- want to be on the wrong end of not catching a reference.

Yet we are finite creatures. I am mortal, and therefore I will not read every novel, play, poem, or theological work in my lifetime. I will not see every movie or hear every song. I will be forced, from time to time (and more if I'm honest), to say those terrible words, horror of horrors: "I don't know."

But in our time, it is likely one of the greatest opportunities for Christian witness is to have the simple, honest humility to be able to say, I don't know. I would like to be counted among the not-knowing Christians this year.

18. Ethical demands, inside and outside the church. The church has a particular ethical witness regarding myriad issues, including but not limited to war, poverty, marriage, abortion, and bigotry. I have come under the influence of theologians who seek to restrict the scope of the church's ethics to the sphere of the church; that is, when we answer Christ's call to follow him, our discipleship cannot be imposed upon our non-Christian neighbor. It does not mean that Christ does not call them, or that we ought not to be about sharing the call with them; only that they have not answered the call -- and the implication being that we cannot and should not expect them to act according to the rigors and contours of discipleship to Jesus.

However, that view is more than minority: it is nearly nonexistent. I believe it truthfully names the powerless communal witness of the church as envisioned by the New Testament, but it also makes me wonder what Christians can or should say regarding issues of the broader culture -- and, more importantly, how we should say it.

19. Moral seriousness toward real world atrocity and evil. Dennis Prager is an eloquent, direct, and morally serious Jewish conservative author and pundit. (How many more commas does that adjective-rich description demand?) I enjoy reading him as a valuable dialogue partner precisely because we disagree so much. His most recent article, entitled "California College Student: Terror is the New Communism," describes his unpleasant experience talking to a college student from the University of California Santa Barbara, who blames 9/11 on the U.S. government and thinks "terrorism" is simply the new imaginary bogeyman foil for the militant Right like "communism" was a generation ago. Prager deems this thinking a direct result of liberal university inculcation and finds in it a frightening glimpse into the utter dearth of moral seriousness in the political and cultural Left in America.

(It is not that she found blame in U.S. foreign policy or fault in blind militarism against communism/terrorism. Rather, it was her apparent inability to name, or even allow for the reality of, evil actions and ideologies other than America's.)

I assume Prager would find my own positions on such matters similarly discouraging -- though I do not belong to the Left. What I want to be is someone who is able, as a follower of Jesus that takes seriously the mission and call given to the church, to respond articulately to Prager's concerns with equal amounts of thought, care, seriousness, and foresight, not regarding abstract ideas like "communism" or "terrorism" (much less "war" or "politics"), but lived realities on the ground. Even if the Dennis Pragers of the world disagree with me (I want to say "with the church," but I am most certainly not "the church"!), I hope not to respond like an ill-informed, apathetic, comfortably liberal, or compassionately aloof California college student.

(And this Texan smiles for his Californian friends.)

20. Somehow finding a way through, around, or inside nonsensical labels. What does "liberal" mean? Politically liberal -- i.e., Democrat? Theologically liberal -- i.e., Tillich? Classically liberal -- i.e., capitalist? Popularly liberal -- i.e., freethinking hippie? (That last one would may also read: "My wife.")

I am exactly the 3,594, 275th person to note this, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway: labels are unhelpful. They are most unhelpful in theopolitical contexts, because in one paragraph -- one sentence even! -- you might read someone refer to classical liberalism, theological liberalism, and (today's version of) political liberalism and never know the difference, much less authorial intent. We have to find a way through this. (I won't even get started on "conservative." Pejorative, descriptive, political, theological, social, sexual, ethical ... it never ends. Sigh.)

21. The supposed exile of the church in post-Christian America. The myriad claims are as disputated as it is difficult to name them concisely. The question is, essentially, twofold: 1) Is the church in America in exile? 2) If so, is it a good or bad thing?

Regarding the first question, it matters significantly the context from which we ask the question. Culturally? Politically? Ecclesially? Popularly? Undoubtedly we have entered a post-Christian era as a nation, insofar as less than a fifth of Americans attend church (with the numbers declining) and to be "a Christian" has in many places become a negative stigma. It is not "the norm" to be a church-attending, self-labeled "Christian."

At the same time, we are no more than weeks removed from a President whose candidacy, popularity, administration, and policy were determined, influenced, and at times (some claim) even controlled by a certain bloc of American Christians. The current President had to endure months of accusations that he was not a Christian -- an allegation which, if proven, would have most assuredly ended his campaign. Realize the enormity of this claim: Forty years after the civil rights movement, America can elect a black man as President; in no way, shape, or form can we imagine electing someone who is not a Christian.

So is the church in exile? I think we have jumped the gun in our claims. Because so many (myself included!) would like to see the church in exile -- that is, unable or unwilling to "swing our weight around" in idolatrous concession to power politics -- we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that we have been rendered powerless, when the fact is that the Christian voting bloc remains the most coveted and powerful demographic base in the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world.

In other words: let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Now, it is a different thing altogether to argue for the church to take a posture of exile. By all means our teaching, preaching, and writing ought to be calling the church to more faithfully embody the missional vision of the New Testament. But as we think about this year, new yet the same, let us be about living into that reality, not waiting for it, or thinking it's already here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

21 Theological Themes for the New Year: Inaugural Prolegomena, 8-14

Last week I spent time discovering and naming 21 theological questions, propositions, themes, practices, and hankerings that have arisen in recent weeks and that I expect will be following me throughout the year. They're like new year's resolutions, only theological and mostly involuntary. I have a feeling they will be making return appearances here on the blog in 2009, so I figured a kind of inaugural blogging prolegomena were in order. This is the second of three installments. (Here is the first.)

But before we get into the next batch, a prefatory note: I would like to add a humor asterisk to #7 on the previous post. That question explored the relationship between Christian discipleship and violent media/art/entertainment, specifically pertaining to American males. I would like to expand that question to include humor. For example, in the right column of this blog I link to Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy. I devour his work in whatever form for his perspective, his style, his love for sports, and (most especially) his humor. He is one funny guy. And I love it.

But, objectively, I routinely find myself profoundly concerned about the way someone like Simmons forms his readers -- which happen to be millions of men, around the world but mostly in America. His writing is characterized by a religious zeal for sports, chauvinism toward women, dismissiveness toward his wife, casualness toward pornography, an overall lack of awareness about the social setting of the average American family (he routinely brushes aside the notion that he is rich, speaks as if everyone has huge flat screen HD TVs, etc.), and an all-encompassing devotion to what makes life "good" -- namely, sports, money, television, sex, gambling, and movies, in no particular order. It saddens me deeply that his values are both shared by and, more importantly, distinctively inform those of millions of American males.

Now for questions: To what extent are any of these negative features merely part of his comedic self-representation? How much leeway should someone in his position be given to simply make "harmless" jokes? How to judge him as a writer/comedian/entertainer who is not a Christian? How to enjoy or recommend work like his precisely as a Christian?

While there are other examples (movies like Superbad or Pineapple Express, or stand-up comedy like Dane Cook's or Demitri Martin's), Simmons is a good test case because he combines so many strands together: popularity, sports, cultural embededness and influence, idealized masculinity, and the fact that he is a writer (and thus easier to analyze and draw from), not to mention that he seems, deep down, to be a decent, normal guy. We all have friends like Simmons. The question is: How do we relate to his humor?

And now, to continuing the theological themes proper.

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8. Wondering about television. TV saps time. It mushes brains. It sucks away attention. It creates a fantasy world. It is the idol at the center of our places of hosting in our homes. (In Russia they rarely have TVs in their apartment living rooms; how liberating to sit in a circle and face one another rather than a dead screen.)

But it can also exhibit art! (See: Galactica, Battlestar.) And non-24/7 sports events are a wonderful opportunity for cultural participation and neighborly fellowship. I love hosting or attending Super Bowl parties. I love (especially now as a displaced Texan) nationally televised Spurs games. TV can be non-idolatry.

But, of course, it mostly functions as idolatry. In light of that, my wife and I have discussed getting rid of ours (or if not all the way, limiting its available channels to a handful). We would read more, be quiet more, pay attention to each other more, sleep more, be outside more. No TV = more everything else. And "everything else" seems to be categorically better than TV. We have friends at church who have a TV, but no channels; if they use it, it is intentional and together, watching a DVD of a movie or television show.

But they wouldn't get Spurs games. Or news. Or programs like Battlestar or Lost when they actually come on. Hence my hesitation. But we are thinking.

9. A Christian's friends and where they are. You can only have so many friends. Where do they come from? To be a leader in the church, to form true and genuine community, (it seems as though) you have to do your best to form friendships with individuals and couples and families who belong to your church. And this takes serious time.

Yet Christians cannot be sectarian in our friendships; we are a commissioned people! We belong to neighborhoods and communities and workplaces that are not cleanly bifurcated from our church communities. But what does it look like to form real friendships outside of the ekklesia? Where do they happen, how do they work, and what is their telos? I don't want to make it sound like I grew up Mr. Church Friends; in fact many of my friends growing up, by choice and by nature, were nominal or hostile to Christianity. And I liked that. But as a seminary student new to the area and trying to form community in our new church home, I am not bursting over with time or opportunities to befriend non-church folk. And when I think about church members, often feeling like they barely scraping by, holding on for dear life, hoping the marriage will keep or the children won't stray, just trying to make it to the next months' check or even to church on time -- what does a diversity of friendships mean to them? How to articulate it? How to envisage it?

10. How to be biblical without being a biblicist. I wrote about doing theology biblically in the first installment; now I am wondering how to be biblical without being crazy. I see much of my peers' overreaction to "antiquated" or "premodern" portions of the Bible as an outgrowth of this desire: We want to be Christian, but we don't want people to think we're nuts! Or they have seen others "obey the Bible" and thought they were nuts; so "let's not be like them."

My tradition pushes back against this mindset and sometimes naively looks to the Bible for the answer to (life, the universe, and) everything. I know there is balance; I know there is disputation; I know there is tension. But like any other Bible-believing Christian, I am trying to find my way.

11. Ceaseless prayer. Quite simply, I pray little. Apart from seeking time every day to be still and quiet before God, more than anything I am trying (hoping) to practice the discipline of praying at all times and in all places. My wife refers to my mind as ceaselessly running, always far away, imagining a movie scene or working out theology or preaching a sermon. Well, instead of running, I want my mind to be praying; then, to learn to stop "doing" completely and to reside in prayer. So whenever there is silence in my life, in the hiccups of the daily when the noise pauses unexpectedly, you will find me praying -- or at least trying to.

12. Hospitable presence and suffering love. We American Christians naturally compartmentalize our lives so that we are being "this" way (kind, personable, present) with certain people or in certain contexts and "that" way (rude, impersonal, absent) with other people or in other contexts. Examples of the latter might be the grocery store, restaurants, or walking on the street. Recognizing that, I want all of my daily, mundane, itty bitty interactions with other people -- bearers of the image of God, for whom Christ died -- to be characterized by the hospitality and suffering love of Jesus.

13. Ambition, and remembering to forget ourselves on purpose. Brian Mahan wrote a book called Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, the title of which is taken from a quote by Thomas Merton: "The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. ...Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."

My own pride takes its shape -- surprising to me when I realized it last year -- in the form of ambition. I was surprised for a couple reasons: because I don't anticipate making money, and because many people see "ministry" (or "theologizing-as-career") as a type of sacrifice, service-as-job. However, I realized that my ambition was rearing its head, not in the regular cultural forms, but simply in the "why" of what I hope to do and in the "how" of what will mark success.

As it turned out, "why" was to be the best, and "how" was to be well-known.

Thus, instead of following my vocation and fulfilling the gift God has given me in gratitude and service to God, I wanted to be known for just how good I am at talking about God. That, my friends, is the worst kind of ambition; and I hope this year to take up Merton's advice and forget myself, all of my destructive solemnity, and join, without care for the crowd, the dance of life.

14. Enough! with suspicion and bias. The combination of the popularity of postmodern thought along with being in seminary leads one (read: has led me) to intimate acquaintance with words like "bias" and "self-interest." Not only are people never devoid of bias or self-interest, but texts are similarly implicated. And of course, that is right: Israel remembers the conquest of the land in a certain way because they were the conquerors. Presumably, the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivitites, and Jebusites did not remember it in quite the same manner. That is important, in both reading and embodying the biblical text (or any other kind of ethical authority), because it reminds us that we live in a complex world irreducible to "God said it" or "God didn't say it."

But! Neither is the world in its totality Darwinian. Natural selection -- otherwise known as the market -- does not determine all. Good exists insofar as God exists. And Christians believe in a triune God who is love. So we cannot allow ourselves, in our lives, relationships, or reading of texts, to fall into the trap of forcing on the other an inability to act outside of or against bias or self-interest. As Christians we actually believe we can live unsuspicious of one another, because the other is Christ, and our regard for ourselves is determined by the cross and resurrection -- not by self-interest.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Chris Martin

The last song on Coldplay's most recent album, my initial shock at "Death and All His Friends"'s powerful message has worn off, but my respect has not. The proclamation of not wanting to follow after "death and all his friends" is a playfully subversive prophetic stand against all the anti-God forces that threaten shalom, abundant life, in God's good creation. And what an unexpected source for such profound words.

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Death and All His Friends

By Chris Martin (of Coldplay)

All winter, we got carried
Away over on the rooftops
Let's get married

All summer we just hurried
So come over, just be patient, and don’t worry
And don't worry...


. . .

No I don't want to battle from beginning to end
I don't want to cycle or recycle revenge
I don't want to follow death and all of his friends

No I don't want to battle from beginning to end
I don't want to cycle or recycle revenge
I don't want to follow death and all of his friends

. . .

And in the end, we lie awake and we dream of making our escape
And in the end, we lie awake and we dream of making our escape

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Friendship in Gilead

John Ames and Robert Boughton are friends.
Old men and wise, from tireless
youth they have played games and baptized
infants and argued theology
like jealous husbands fighting for
the hand of the beloved. If
these town elders are not men of
God the thing does not exist. In
old and creaking houses echoing
their own rugged bones' decline, they
spring from their pulpits' altars or
solitary studies to sit
in reconciliation, known
otherwise as checkers. These friends
share a history and a future --
even a son. John Ames Boughton,
the gift of the Lord, thorn in the
flesh, Abraham to Hagar, a
son beyond prodigality,
known and loved and blessed by God in
the heart of Boughton, by the hand
of Ames. In the flesh and spirit
of this man these two men meet, as
prayerful servants unto death, like
solemn soldiers marching in rank
unbroken, wilting in the sun.
Will the sovereign commander lead
the way across the Jordan? Will
he prove merciful? Is his word
ever a yes, never a no?
In a dusty town alight with
glory, the Lord is wonderful.