“Daddy, Is it our Turn to do the Bread?”

“Daddy, is it our turn to do the bread yet?” my little girls asks, her big brown eyes gazing up at mine awaiting the point in the church service when she gets to “do the bread.”

I am often beside myself at how much truth comes from the mouths of babes, especially my own.

This past Sunday we were running slightly behind on our way to church. As we entered the church, we took our seats in the back to not disturb the service that had just begun. And it’s a good thing to because my little girl was super ready to do the bread that day, so much so that I felt like we were on a long car ride and I kept being repetitively asked, “are we there yet?”

After the opening hymn, “is it our turn yet?”

During the lessons, “is it our turn yet?”

During the passing of the peace, “is it our turn yet?”

Even during the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, “is it our turn yet?” To which I could finally say, “almost, it is almost our turn.”

The most striking part about this engagement is that my little girl knew what was important. Not that the entire service wasn’t important, but she knew there was something special coming to her, her coming to it, and she almost couldn’t wait for her turn. The part with the bread is unique, totally unlike the rest of the service. She knew that at the end of all the details there is a meeting that happens, at this time, in this way, and she was ready for that event.

Lord, grant that we all would be so excited to meet you.

I will resist the urge to discuss liturgy as pedagogy, but I can think of fewer things that teach children more than the rituals of the faith.

She has not been in the Episcopal Church long, but she has learned there is a special time when we get to eat in church, and for her, it’s the most exciting part of the morning.

My little girl is only four years old. Her and I have not had deep conversations about eucharistic theology or the finer nuances of real presence, grace, and holiness that is extended to us in this holy meal. We have not discussed the history of its institution or the drama that it portends each time bread is broken over the altar.  She has not fathomed to the consider the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John.

She does not understand as we adults consider understanding, but she understands in the doing. In the doing grace comes to her beyond her understanding. She doesn’t know what she is receiving, but she knows she is receiving something. And this something is all that matters.

It is a pleasant surprise to be reminded by one’s daughter of the Anselmian dictum, “Fides quaerens intellectum.

We had come to the “Prayers of the People” in the service and she incessantly kept asking if it were her turn. As I knelt, my arm around her and whispering for her to be a little quieter, her petitions reminded me of the Healing of the Paralytic in Luke 5.17-26.

The narrative of Luke 5 is fascinating, it being one of my favorite biblical images of a persistent faith.

The story places Jesus inside a building of some kind and the entrance to the house, presumably, is blocked by crowds. A paralytic, lying on a bed, was being carried to the place to meet Jesus.

As the men carrying the bed surveyed the situation, the crowds, the impossibility of getting through the door, they decide to improvise and lower the man, on his bed, into the house and place him directly in front of Jesus. This story has been creatively imagined by many artists and the text is silent on exactly how this worked, looked, or transpired, but it is the only account in scripture of a men being so persistent that they lower their friend through a roof to see Jesus.

I can see the face of Jesus. If his clairvoyance had kicked in, perhaps a grin comes over his face, knowing what is about to happen. Maybe he is praying over a child, teaching a lesson on scripture, writing on the floor to make his point when suddenly, into the top of his sight, he sees a shadow slowly interrupting the light in the room and a bed making its way into the noise and crowded space of the home. The crowd probably began to murmur louder as they stood astonished that someone would be so rude as to drop a bed in front of Jesus.

Afterall, these folks had skipped the line.

Jesus, one who often embraces such radical expressions of faith, gives the man on the bed his full and undivided attention. Jesus was there. Jesus was event. To have an event happen to the man on the bed the men knew they needed to get to where events take place: the presence of Jesus.

This is a faithful picture of what we often see in the Gospels: Jesus’ presence attracted crowds, large unmanageable crowds, and sometimes these gatherings occurred in the small spaces of ancient society. The presence of Jesus drew people to him. Many who would come to him probably couldn’t have picked Jesus out of a lineup prior to their meeting him. There were no pictures, newspapers, or internet mediums to communicate who he was. They didn’t know what would happen or what he would do. They just knew they needed to get there because of what they had heard. They didn’t understand everything that was going to happen, but they knew they needed a turn.

A turn to “do the bread.” A turn at life.

They didn’t need to know the answers.  They didn’t need to have a full-scale theology of miracles or understand how Jesus would do anything. They just knew they needed to get there.

So, they acted. They went where Jesus was. They experienced what it is to be in the presence of Jesus.

While our situation on Sunday was vastly different, the persistence of these friends to bring someone that needed Jesus into his presence was also embodied in the persistence of my little girl to get to the place she didn’t understand but knew was special.

She was ready to go, to move, to see Jesus, even though she might not be able to talk about it in that way. Her spirit and childlike intuitions were drawing her to this special place, the same place everyone else would be going as well. There are times on Sunday when the entrance seems obstructed, plenty of people going to meet Jesus, but if we wait, we know that our time will come. We will get through the roofs of life, and the busyness of the rail on Sunday, and Jesus will be there with us.

Our turn finally came. We stepped out of the aisle, her hand in mine, and I have the holy honor of walking my daughter to the place where Jesus is present. She is shy, so she bows her head as she makes her way to the altar, to not see anyone looking at her. We arrive at the stairs, slowly step up into the chancel, and are now closer. It’s our turn. I bow, take her to the left, and she kneels with me at the rail. She extends her tiny, wonder filled hands to the priest, and she receives the bread. She holds the hands of Jesus and Jesus holds hers.

The cup makes its way to us, she looks at me as if to get approval, I nod and tell her it is ok to dip her bread, she dips it. For a moment she stares at it, this odd thing we are doing, this bread now wet with a red tint, and she puts it near her mouth. Again, she looks at me and I tell her its ok to eat. She takes a bite, as if to try it first, just to make sure this is good. She looks at me with a piece of the wafer missing, reminiscent of the Psalmist suggestion that we should “taste and see that God is good.” Then, without hesitation, she puts the whole thing in her mouth, chews quickly, and then looks at me with a smile you could stretch across the heavens.

Her turn came. She was finally able to “do the bread.” We walked back to our seats and I couldn’t help but think if this is what it might have been like for all those that came to Jesus in the pages of scripture, coming to an event they didn’t quite understand but smiling after they met him because they knew that something had happened, even if they didn’t quite understand it.

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19.13-15

Lord, that we would be as fervent and undeterred in our desire to meet you where you are and may we persist into the mystery of your presence, believing that in the end the holy smiles upon our faces are reflections of your good work in us. Amen.

Part 3- Becoming an Episcopalian: The Sermon, Crossing Oneself, Smells & Bells

St Lukes Altar

The Altar at St. Luke’s

*This is the final essay of my 3 part reflection series “Becoming an Episcopalian,” reflecting on my transition into the Episcopal Church. Please scroll down to see parts 1 & 2 as your leisure or desire so determines*

6. Sermon in Support Role, Eucharist Central

One of the striking dissimilarities between a formal and “informal” liturgical order is the presence of the sermon. In the Nazarene Church, as for many low church or free church traditions, the sermon is the pinnacle of Christian worship. Everything in the service revolves around, and moves toward, the proclamation of the Word. This is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the elevation of the proclaimed Word/word above all else. As a corrective to abusive Catholic Church power, many Protestant Reformers gave the reading and explication of Scripture primacy in worship. A Renewed emphasis on Scripture, as seen in Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, was a welcome but unexpected historical development. Even though Anglican tradition emerges simultaneously as the Reformation in Europe, it, however, remained in harmony with broader Catholic tradition and the Eucharistic table retained its central importance.

First, let me acknowledge that I love listening to sound biblical preaching. As a vocational minister, I love to preach, and I enjoy the study of homiletical method. I have a passion for wrestling with the biblical text and delivering a well-crafted idea from the pages of scripture. I cherish the unexpected presence of the Holy Spirit that brings clarity of thought, words of power, and emotive delivery to the Word that is Jesus as I proclaim the words of men in the text. However, this foray into Anglican tradition has been a good check on the central importance of preaching and a much-needed relief.

One of the many temptations of making preaching central is the pride of the preacher and the pulpit becoming a personality cult of sorts. We all want to do well, especially pastors, preachers, helpers of any sort really. We want our words to inspire. Preaching is a practice preserved and performed within the institution of the church. Yet, preachers are humans and humans can be subject to the trappings of pride and inflated egos at the expense of the gospel. Of course, this is not merely a “low church” problem but in a tradition where there is so much pressure on the sermon because it is THE THING each Sunday, pride can seep into even the most sanctified of gifted speakers.

Consequently, the sermon being the pinnacle of worship, there is an unspoken amount of pressure many educated pastors place upon themselves to have a “great sermon” or be a “great preacher” all the time. After all, people come to church to worship and to hear a good sermon. They got their families ready, woke up early after a long week of work, and despite proclivities to maybe sleep in and enjoy coffee on the back porch, they came to church. Older folks, for whom attending church is sometimes a physical struggle, made coming to worship a main part of their day; they need a good sermon for their efforts. The preacher must make sure the sermon is worth listening to! Rarely will people remember all the songs of praise, or out of tune pianos, but most certainly the congregation will remember at lunchtime a sermon that lands with a thud (even as it fades quickly from memory).

Anglican tradition is full of great preachers, past and present. However, in Book of Common Prayer and liturgical rubrics, preaching is tangential and supportive of the central act of worship each Sunday: The Communion Table. The main attraction of each Sunday is not the preacher, whether that preacher was John Wesley, John Claypool, John Stott, or even the very alive NT Wright and Fleming Rutledge. Jesus, and him crucified, is the main attraction each Sunday.

The priest climbs into the pulpit, not at the center of the church, but to its right, when the Gospel is preached. The preaching matters; it is a lesson for the church and should be done well. Priests should not shirk behind the liturgical primacy of Eucharist and produce shallow or anecdotal sermons. There is a place in Anglican tradition of powerful proclamations of the Word.

However, the priest knows that no matter how well the sermon is crafted or how much insight they can demonstrate, the role of the sermon is to always move the church toward the paschal mystery of Jesus that takes center stage in worship. Regardless of the voluntaries played, hymns sung, prayers offered, or the homily presented, all of that is wrapped up into the mystery of the table and the sanctification of the body of Christ by eating the flesh of the savior. This is the direction of worship.

I am thankful that my words will fail before that mystery and that I have discovered, and learned, the efficacy of the Word does not rely on my clever rhetorical packaging.  I rest in this new tradition knowing that while I do matter, I don’t matter near as much as I would like to think, and the table can always accomplish infinitely more than I can with words that will eventually always be forgotten.

7. Crossing Oneself.

For those outside of catholic practice this is an odd thing to see and an even odder thing to begin doing. We often associate this practice with Roman Catholicism but church members in the Anglican Communion do it as well. This is one of those practices that can give the impression to some of the “dead traditionalism” noted by Jaroslav Pelikan. I have been in conversations with evangelical/lower church folk who have commented that it is a routine done by Catholic’s that doesn’t mean anything; it is a “going through the motions” without intent.

Of course, I cannot speak for the motivations of others regarding crossing oneself, or the automations humans develop over time, but I can share my own.

First, the act of crossing oneself is an act of consecrating yourself to God; it is my way of claiming my body for Christ. It reminds me of who’s I am and from where I have come. Whatever I am, I am foremost identified as one that identifies with the crucified Jesus. There are moments when I cross myself that I sense the Holy Spirit testifying to my physical affirmation through this simple act. This is a physical way of identifying with Christ, nothing flashy or presumptive

Scripture notes several ways people “mark” themselves, identifying with God or against God. Of infamy, the Book of Revelation notes the “mark of the beast.” The other mark noted is noted in the Old Testament at various places refers to carrying God’s law on our foreheads.

Marking ourselves (identifying) on the head or body is a common thing done in scripture for both ill and good, for both men and women. The “mark” in Revelation is juxtaposed by this Old Testament mark of the people of God. Crossing oneself is a means of not being marked with the mark of the beast, not succumbing to the powers of darkness that seek to inebriate us with false power and sin. It reminds me of all the promises that lie beneath the cross that has just marked my body.

Secondly, as crossing oneself is often done at moments when the trinity is named, after prayers or repentance, prior/after receiving consecrated elements, etc., it is a reminder of God’s otherness and my submission to the mystery of God. When I mark myself, it is my physical confession of acceptance of this Christ and affirmation of participating in this great mystery.

What I have discovered is that marking oneself is not something done out of a false sense of piety, as if this is a Timothean (2 Tim. 3.5) version of having a form of religion without the power thereof. It is a physical gesture of an aphysical reality that centers and reorients the one who crosses themselves with intent.

Lastly, as part of the liturgical renewal movement of several decades ago, fonts were placed where the nave and chancel meet. Fonts are also traditionally at the entrance of churches, prior to the sanctuary space. I sometimes mark myself with holy water (crossing myself) when exiting the chancel post-communion or when entering a church. I have seen fonts at both places (entrance of church/exit of altar area) and have used the water from both. This is a simple act of dipping one’s fingers in water (that has been consecrated) for the purpose of sanctifying the one that uses it and reminding us of the sanctifying power of our baptism. There is surely some grand baptismal theology do be done here, but my personal experience as an act of piety is that it takes me back to my baptism, reminds me of that birth in Christ, and extends grace to me through the watery chaos of death overcome in Jesus. For these reasons, with a thankful heart I dip my fingers and mark my head or body with the waters redeemed in Christ and presided over by the Holy Spirit.

8. Smells and Bells

As one who had never been in a service wherein liturgical time/events were marked with bells, nor the divine presence of God noted with incense, I too had the common “eye roll” over these sorts of activities. It was easy to sit on the outside and wonder “why” and then equate these sorts of things with traditionalism. I would argue at this point that I was wrong in these leanings and offer these remarks to those who wonder at the smells and bells we do in church. Key word of this section (as well as Eucharistic theology) is anamesis.

First, it should be noted that every context is different. I have been to churches in Cleveland, TN (where I attend), Chattanooga, TN, Orlando, FL, Philadelphia, PA and Glenmoore, PA. Each church has a tradition within the tradition and within their context have all been faithfully Anglican. Some churches chant more than others. Some use bells, some do not. Some use incense, some do not. Some have a full slate of Holy Week Services that culminate in the Great Vigil, some do not. Etc, etc. As in the Nazarene tradition, there is more latitude across region and context in the Episcopal church than many outsiders know.

Secondly, the smells and bells are not a dead traditionalism. They perform key functions in worship through sensory means. The smell of incense reminds (anamnesis/re-member) one that we are in a holy space, the presence of God, and takes us back to the same sorts of experiences that would have been shared by ancient Israelites. The smell permeates the space in much the same way the holy spirit can be sensed, but not necessarily seen. The incense is a cue that we are “somewhere” with this unique air and invites participants to ask, “what is that smell? What’s happening?” That, my friends, is the point. The smell is a trigger to look for what is happening, to seek out the reasons for the smell. The incense means we are in a different place, a place where this smell resides and that means there is something special about this place. Pay attention.

Likewise, the bells are a notation of action. The bells are typically used during the Great Thanksgiving to denote the sacrificial action of God in Christ. When the bell is rung, the intent is to look for the place from which the ring comes, to look for what it announces. When literacy was not as prevalent as today the bells were used to communicate various parts of the liturgy. This is the simple role of bells: they are an alarm, stop what you are doing and take caution, etc.

In the liturgy, the bells draw our attention to the table when the Christ has given us his body and blood. Jesus is lifted via the elements, and to make sure we do not miss this divine act, the bell brings our attention to the drama unfolding at the table. There may not be anything biblical about ringing a bell in worship but that does not mean that worship cannot incorporate means of drawing one’s attention to the central drama of worship.

*I trust that these brief reflections have been as edifying to read as they were for me to consider. I have not written all that can be said (or debated) on these issues  and I invite you to explore and reflect your own experience as a part of our deeply rich Christian tradition. May the peace of God dwell in your hearts and shape your lives continually*

Part 2: Becoming an Episcopalian: Using Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture, & Worship Space

St Lukes Caricature

*This post is part 2 of the previous post/reflections on my foray into Episcopalian piety. Please read part 1 for the theological context from which I come prior to being an Episcopalian. I below note three areas of piety that have been quite formative for me (two were noted in the previous post). I offer these reflections as one with a theological education yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. These reflections are submitted for the edification of the church and in thanksgiving for the work God is doing at St. Lukes and in my family.*

3. Written Prayers are Powerful Tools of Formation.

A common misconception about saying written prayers is that they are not sincere or authentic, that saying written prayers or rehearsing the same words over and over can result in a mundane routine that stagnates the soul. Many folks in the lower church tradition prize spontaneity and instantaneous reactions to God as more authentic than carefully considered words of prayer. The former is considered real and the latter considered fake or “going through the motions” having a form of spirituality but denying the power thereof (2 Timothy 3.5). I have discovered this to be a shallow criticism.

There is great power in using written prayers. First, it should be noted that the Prayer Book itself is mostly composed of scripture. Many of the prayers recited, and words rehearsed, come directly from scripture. Other words and prayers come from Christian tradition, some prayers themselves literally going back to the Augustinian Era. When we pray the prayers offered in the Book of Common Prayer we are literally praying with the Apostles, with the early church, and with the most recent historical tradents. Thus, in using prescribed prayers we are embodying (hiding) scripture in our hearts and continuing in the teaching of the Apostles. What better way to internalize text than to pray it?

Second, using written prayers removes me from my own spiritual formation. The prayer book forces me to pray away from myself, they very act of praying being formative. Too often in Nazarene life I was lost at prayer, unsure what to say, how much I needed to say it, how often I needed to say it, and what words I needed to use. I would often confuse lengthy impromptu prayers with “good praying” or when leading congregational prayer as a pastor feel the pressure of using powerful words so that our prayer time wasn’t wasted by the rambling of my mind. As I got older, my prayers became shorter and less verbose (as I realized the waste of too many words and the powerful simplicity of a few meaningful words). Again, I may have totally missed Nazarene piety, but I felt lost on a sea of emotions and needs when I would consider how to pray.

My prayer was rarely focused on anything except what was top of mind to me. I was the all-important deciding factor on what I prayed and what/whom I remembered in my prayers. I was the all-important deciding factor when deciding what scripture to read in personal devotions or even what to preach (though I did follow church seasons). The Prayer Book solves that problem through Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as the Daily Offices. I am no longer responsible for my own spiritual formation by deciding the content of my prayers. There are times in the prayers where I can make my own petitions or thanksgivings, but the prayers now are the church’s way of shaping me, not my way of shaping myself. In other words, the Prayer Book showed me to my own spiritual humanism in my Nazarene days. This is not a blanket criticism of my former tradition; it is a personal awareness via reflection.

Further, the Prayer Book is concise. It is not the literary version of standing on the street corner so that we can be seen and heard with our long prayers. Too often in my former tradition (and other low church embodiments) prayer becomes a sermonette, a lengthy demonstration that is mostly mini-sermon in prayer form, telling the congregation in the prayer what was also (or in addition to) hoped to be understood in the sermon.

To the contrary, prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are short, concise, and easily memorized. We say what we need to say and then silence our mouths before the one Whose presence ought to have our undivided attention. I no longer feel guilty about what I did or did not say in a prayer. I pray with the saints of the church and then I stop, believing that I have joined my voice with saints past and present, and believing that as these very words shape me as they fall on the ears of God in ways that the words themselves even fail to express. With Paul, God hears my groaning through the prayers given to us by the history of the Church. It cannot get any more real or authentic than deliberately raising my voice with these voices. In sum, my daily prayer routines went from something I prescribed to something prescribed for me by the church, shaping me according the body of Christ.

4. Memorizing Prayer/Songs/Creeds.

I have memorized more prayers, songs, creeds and texts in these 7 months than I have in several years. Memorizing words can have one of two impacts. First, it can either become of such a secondary nature that it eventually is done without thinking and therefore meaningless, or secondly, it can become something that continually inhabits your spirit through its repetition. For me, the second has happened. I would argue that even in the case of the first scenario, the tradition is kept so close to your heart that even though you take it for granted the Spirit still uses it to remind you of who you are in God (see Proverbs 22.6)…but I digress. I am beyond thankful that I have hidden so much prayer, psalm, and text in my heart in the last 7 months.

I have memorized multiple forms of prayer in the morning and evening prayers, the Nicene Creed (yes, the long Creed), all the songs in the Prayer Books’ Rite II order of worship, most of Rite I, the proper responses therein, and also the post communion prayers. A friend of mine also gifted me with St Augustine’s Prayer Book and I have memorized several prayers therein. I have also begun memorizing smaller prayers that can be used with prayer beads.

Memorization is not the end all and be all of piety. Long ago I quit thinking that my spiritual health was contingent what bible verses I memorized, exact verse memorization not being equivalent to hiding the word in my heart. However, it is a tacit way of making prayer/scripture an integral part of one’s constitution, able to be rehearsed or remembered when necessary. We are what we eat and if we consume Christian spiritual things our body will begin to look like that which we place into it: we will begin to look like Christ. And there is nothing wrong with using the same material over and over until we become what we say. The Bible itself is a great repetition meant to sanctify its recipients through the repetition of its content.

5. Worship Space Matters.

This has been a contentious issue for hundreds of years. Let me simply communicate my experience.

I worship in a historic church built in the 1870’s. It is a beautiful brick building, with a stone slate roof (with a cross pattern spread on top), and all the furnishings in the inside are original. It is located on a downtown courtyard gifted to the Episcopal Church by the founding family. Inside the sanctuary is beautiful hand carved word work everywhere you look, old wooden floors, hand carved pews, and stained glass that takes one into the corridors of heaven. One’s attention is drawn to the front of the church where beautiful ornate stained-glass windows portray Christ and two disciples flanking his right and left. It is a Emmaus Road like scene over the communion table (see Luke 24). The church now houses a restored organ built in the 1950’s that fills its space with the work of matchless composers. Its intonations place you at the stairway of heaven on any given Sunday. The transition from nave to chancel is under a hand carved arch that resembles the curvature of an old maritime vessel, Noah’s ark even, marking this space as a transition into that which houses the arc/k of salvation. I have the privilege of using this space each Sunday.

I firmly believe, and partially agree, with many critics of such places that money can be better spent than in making ornate buildings to God. In fact, Jesus and Paul make clear that God does not reside in the temples of men, but that the temple and body of Christ are those who gather as leftovers of the resurrection of Jesus. We are the church. One does not need a certain space to do church, to be church, to have church. I have personally promoted in my previous pastoral assignment a contemporary approach free from the trappings of expensive worship spaces. I believe Jesus when he says he is present where two or more are gathered together and I hear the prophets when they remind us that God desires a heart rent in repentance rather than a people lost in their legality or forms.

Yet, when I enter this church each Sunday I am instantly reminded of Isaiah 6 and space makes deep spiritual sense, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple…” In other words, this space communicates to me the majesty and otherness of God, the train of God’s robe brushing against my spirit as I gather here to pray.

The door to the church is a line of demarcation; it is a transition from one reality and into another, another Holy reality that seeks to impress its holiness upon me when I exit this “holy” space later in procession.

I enter and am reminded I am to be reverent because I am in the presence of the maker of the world.

I enter in silence because I am a human that stands before God, my words failing to contain God.

I sit with attention to my surroundings because through these symbols God visits me.

I sit in the shadow of the arc/k, knowing that the table at the front is an extension of divine hospitality to me as a sinner and in need of grace. I frequently consider Noah and the early church allegorical interpretations of this story.

I hear the organ and piano because I know it’s a representation of the eternal heavenly throng that circle the throne of God filling infinity with the sound of beauty and adoration.

In this space, I kneel on benches where hundreds before me have knelt and petitioned God. My prayers join theirs.

At the rail before the table, I kneel and extend my hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus…hanging on the same rail as parents that untimely lost their daughter (the remembrance of whom dedicated this church) and countless sinners seeking a grace they did not understand but gazing a savior above them that made himself known in the breaking of the bread.

I dip my hands in the holy water of the font and remind myself of the baptism with which I was born. This space matters because it is a physical incarnation of the majesty of God and the connection of myself with the people of God throughout history, the space itself taking architectural inspiration from the Old Testament Temples.

Do we need this space to be Christian? No. But in a world where so much is casual and narcissistic, where nothing is sacred, spaces like this provide a visual reminder that God seeks to adorn us, and the world, with the same life and beauty that is exhibited in this carefully crafted place. Whenever I am tempted to believe my life is all about my own desires, this space reminds me I am invited to participate into something much greater than the fleeting nature of my aspirations.

*Part 3, the conclusion of my brief reflections, will be posted later this week…

 

Becoming an Episcopalian: Observations on Spiritual Practice In The Episcopal Church- Part 1

Confirmation Picture April 7, 2019

Confirmation Picture: St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland, TN, April 7, 2019.

*This is Part 1 of a 3 part post. This series will offer observations on the following 8 subjects, the first 2 covered in this post: Praying the Psalter, The Role of Scripture, Praying Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture/Songs/Creeds, Worship Space, Role of the Sermon, Crossing Oneself, & affectionately Smells and Bells.*

In January I embarked on a Spirit led journey into Anglican tradition via the Episcopal Church. My place of departure was the Church of the Nazarene, a specific branch of the Methodist tradition that is a precarious balance of 18th century Wesleyan Theology and 19th century American Holiness theology.

At the local level, the Nazarene church has been greatly influenced by both Baptist and Pentecostal forms of spirituality, at least within the South and within my context in East Tennessee. For many, the University is the first exposure we ever had to a deep sense of what it means to be not only Nazarene but also part of the Wesleyan tradition. It should be noted that Wesleyanism has its roots in Anglicanism.

To be sure, there are aspects of Wesley that are alive and well in Nazarene Church, the extent of which typically depends on congregational context and the education of the local pastor. For the most part, however, theology and doctrine have taken precedence over spiritual practices as major influences in Nazarene Tradition (which I should also note is a young Church, founded in 1908 as a result of the Holiness movements of the 19th century).

As far as Nazarene life goes, the parts of Wesley most dismissed, or simply not even known, have been his spiritual practices and any form of spiritual routine that reflects a history in the Book of Common Prayer or even historical vestiges of Methodist societies. When it comes to personal piety, however, it is often subjective, up to the individual on what they say or do. Further, when congregants are admonished to memorize and learn scripture, there are few opportunities built into worship or communal life that would help anyone memorize anything beyond the routine order of service or hymns/music, good and noble to be sure but not scripture, prayer, or creedal. Of course, this varies on context.

This is a brief sketch of the place from which I came as I encountered Anglican spirituality, not merely as an academic, but as a participant. Through the years my course of study exposed me to catholic tradition. It is one thing to know some facts about a tradition; it is quite another to know a tradition by living within it and allowing it to shape you. For most of my life I have been shaped by the American Holiness tradition as embodied in Nazarene life. For another large portion, University professors and teachers shaped me and offered me Wesleyan roots that lay dormant underneath the American Holiness influences. And now, as one who has left my homeland, I have begun to be shaped by another rich tapestry of Christian tradition: Anglicanism & The Book of Common Prayer.

This month marks the 7th month I have been in the Episcopal Church and the 4th month since my confirmation. My family was baptized into the church on Refreshment Sunday (3/31/19), an odd day traditionally for a baptism, but one that makes sense theologically. I offer these remarks as one who had heretofore only observed from the outside, while now on the inside and doing them daily. I further offer them as one with a theological education (and now pursing doctoral studies) yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. Thus, my sentiments may be true to intent, or slightly off, but these are my impressions of the piety I have thus far encountered and experienced without any Anglican academic credentials.

1. I never knew the power of praying the Psalter until this year.

Prior to Anglican spirituality, the Psalter was Israel’s prayer and song book; it was also a book I never used for those purposes. Maybe I was a bad Nazarene. I’m not sure, but the Psalter wasn’t a central part of any piety or practice offered to me and I was raised, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. The Psalter is one of the ways the Holy Spirit confirmed to me that I was in the right place.

I had never chanted the Psalms until my first Sunday at St Lukes. I didn’t even know how to chant them. As we came to the Psalm after the first lesson, suddenly the Holy Spirit came over me in an unanticipated way. The Holy Spirit is an old friend, one that I know is present when it comes around, and in this strange new place my old friend, the comforter, came alongside of me and confirmed in my spirit I was in the right place.

The beauty of the Psalms words, the collective chanting of these ancient signs with the contemporary people of God, and the way God spoke to me through this means of worship, was palpable. Tears gently filled my eyes as the chant filled my mouth and my eyes focused on the Christ making himself available through his visible presence in the stained glass at the head of the chancel. The psalm had brought me into the sanctuary, and I caught a glimpse of majesty I had never seen, nor did I expect to encounter.

This sort of experience does not happen every Sunday, in fact, it hasn’t happened since, but the chanting has become something I look forward to each Sunday and praying the Psalms are something I regularly do in my morning/evening prayer. They are a powerful source of divine communication, constantly reminding me that my own words are unnecessary, and I can lean into the words of the Psalmist to say what I often feel but cannot describe. It is has been described as the prayer book of ancient Israel and now it has also become my own.

2. The Bible is Everywhere.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan made a notable statement when he remarked, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

It is often noted by those in more “spirit filled” (experientially spontaneous) religious traditions, that more formal churches are cemented to their tradition and shackled to their structure, not having the freedom to respond to God in worship. Authentic worship is measured by a person’s ability to respond at will, at any moment, to the moving of the Holy Spirit in the service.

Further, it is believed by many that these formal traditions are not “biblical” and are more faithful to their traditions and liturgy than to scripture. In other words, it is believed that many in Anglican and Catholic churches are living out traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and calling it faith.

While I could compose a treatise in response to these non-reflexive prejudices, I will simply note my experience. As a confirmed Episcopalian I engage more scripture in church each Sunday than I ever did as a Nazarene. Scripture is literally everywhere in the Episcopal church. We pray it. We read it. We sing it. We responsively say it. I find myself rehearsing it at work because of my frequent recitation of it.

Most of the prayer book is composed of scripture. Scripture and prayer are central; in fact, it is this commonality of practice and commitment that unites the church over any doctrine or theology. Many that find their way to the Episcopal Church, after being in lower church settings that claim a high view of scripture, are surprised to discover the centrality of scripture in the Anglican Tradition. The bible is not dead here. It is alive and well.

Further, liturgical structure does not imply a dead spirit. Quite the contrary; it is in the very structure of worship that I have had the Holy Spirit commune with my spirit in unexpected ways, God not needing my “freedom” to respond in a charismatic fashion. Tradition, like scripture, provides time tested avenues through which God can commune with the us.

The freedom so touted by experiential expressivist spiritualities is not found in the anarchy of spirit but in the order of creation and ordered response, a case that can be made theologically and biblically. There is, therefore, freedom to be obtained within the structure. As in any institution, freedom happens inside of limits. I quote Augustine loosely at this point, “Love God and do what you please.” The love of God being the structure within which our freedom is expressed.

I do not get the sense of cold traditionalism in the church I attend nor in any I have attended (which at this point is 5 different Episcopal churches). I get the sense of a deep commitment to the tradition handed down, a deep commitment to preserve it as a means of communication used by the Holy Spirit, and a deep sense of holy awe inspired within in the liturgical offerings. Of course, this may rely upon the participant and I do not deny that things can become routine and dry or that some churches are “cold.” But no tradition holds that tendency hostage. One can even become numb to Pentecostal ecstasy when those modes of worship become too familiar or normative, no longer having the power to allow the Word to be made Strange and, therefore, no longer alluring.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to be posted Sunday…

Wasting Tragedy

It’s a sinful thing to waste a tragedy.

Tragedy is so defined because of its sudden displacing capabilities, an event with the power to change a world, to shake a person to their core. If you must ask if something is tragic, then it’s not tragic. Tragedy is something you feel or observe to the point of feeling, empathizing. It doesn’t need explanation. It is destructive and distressing. It is something that SHOULD change a person or group of people.

To live after its reverberations, to internalize the beating it throttles into your bones, and then somehow go back to life as normal, is breathtakingly sinful. It misses the mark. Our forgetfulness becomes our sin. Our narcissism become us once more.

We experience things that unwelcomingly and demandingly change us. We sit under the avalanche of shock, horror, uprootedness, collapse of worldview, feeling emotions we never knew existed when the tragic, the truly and unutterably tragic, happens to us. We shake, we convulse. Our bodies remind us that something is not right. Our minds keep us awake at night, revisiting the details, seeing the dead, watching them die, being casual bystanders as the world changes. Helpless. Yet, we resolve, when we can once again resolve, to be different. To live different. To love different. To live the values we often verbalize.

We are such good hypocrites, even those who claim to be holy.

Then, we forget. Our forgetfulness begets our sin and we revert to life before the tragic. Nothing has changed. We act the same. We value the same things. We personally recast the golden calf that was broken by the tragic. The event becomes a justification for our own pursuits, our own sense of “seizing the day,” unbeknownst that we are all just a day away from another tragic event.

The reality is this: humans are selfish fallible creatures. We can live through hell, and feel its refining fire, but unless we intentionally and prayerfully allow that refining fire to sit with us long enough until we are shaped into something otherwise, we easily fall back into our own sense of immortality and narcissism. Yet fire is harsh and we do not care to sit with it too long.

We can sit under the tree and weep with Jeremiah, weep over the casket, weep over the accident on the side of the road, bemoan over a pain we can never describe. We can do all that and talk about how “it’s changed us” and still not change.

The tragic is horrific but it is also a necessary part of life. We do not invite it, but once it arrives, we should do the best we can to survive and then allow it to do the work in us that it is supposed to do: change us. Give us perspective. Make us into someone that can inhabit the new world it has created. We are not supposed to be the same person on the other side of the tragic. It has cut us open, bled us dry, and created the deepest of scars. In order to resume life, we have to submit to painful stitches and walking with a limp.

We cannot wrestle with Tragedy and carry the same name afterward…else, did we ever experience anything?

I sincerely weep that so many are not changed, permanently, by tragedy. It has the power to shock us, but in so doing, has the power to allow us to live and embrace life on the other side of it. The world does not need our crocodile tears and a fake outrage. It needs those of us who have lived through tragedy to incarnate newness to our immediate world and to come alongside those among whom tragedy is wielding its sickle.

It is a horrible thing to waste a tragedy. I often wonder, must it happen once more?

With Meister Eckhart, I pray God to rid me of God. Rid me of my self in whom my God lives. Forgive me for my forgetfulness. Do not let the tragic of my life, and the world, be lost to me. Amen.

In Memoriam: The Epoch of Richard Harper

One of the great tragedies of life is that we can be living in the middle of an epochal moment and take it for granted, pretending the moment somehow will live forever or that the people with whom we share life will continue in their station unabated. We are prisoners of the present, even for those of us who are conscientious about the past. Yet at that moment when the past enters the present, through another epochal reminder, the tragedy of our forgetfulness comes pouring into our senses and we see clearly that we had the privilege of living through, and with, an epochal shift in life.

This week, I was reminded of an epochal shift, one marked not by a large impersonal universal event, but one marked by the impact of a life that had been shared with me for a few brief years.

You see, an epoch is a period that denotes change, and when I heard that Richard Harper had passed away, I quickly realized he had been an epochal moment in my life, a moment of subtle shaping, as a river shapes rock after years of continual flowing.

This is the beautiful tragedy of an epoch: even as we are witness to it, living through it, we are only aware of the change it has pressed into us when it is over.

When Richard came to Cleveland I had not long been out of seminary, graduating Mercer in 2008. As one trained to be a pastor, and Richard being a pastor, we had much in common. It was not hard for my 30-year-old self to befriend 70-year-old Richard and I could tell he was eager to take on another pupil. In a world lacking mentors, Richard embraced that role and felt it was his calling to stand alongside of young pastors.

Rather than reinforcing a cultural wall of separation between seniors and young people, the decades and generational differences seemed to be the magnetic ingredient that brought us together, connecting two pastors born 5 decades apart (He in 1938, myself in 1981) yet intimately interested in becoming all that God had created us to be. At the time, I was ignorant of this Epoch, but over the next several years I found myself as a part of a sort of ministerial dream team, surrounded by men of wisdom, meekness, understanding ministry, and an uncompromising commitment to Scripture.

Richard had a saying, and of course it was a literal Proverbial one, “Iron sharpens Iron, “hearkening back to old Hebrew Wisdom found in Proverbs 27.17.
He had a calling to not only shape others, to change others for the sake of the Gospel and with the Gospel, but also to be shaped by the Gospel and by others. He firmly believed that through one another God is making us into the people he was calling us to be.

With this conviction, we had a season of several years in which Richard led a team of pastors in the area through morning meetings. Sometimes the gatherings would consist of the team at our local Cleveland Nazarene Church, sometimes it would include us and Nazarene Ministers from the Chattanooga area, but always it was meant to be an occasion of iron sharpening iron, our hearts and thoughts tempering one another within the warm grinding of our words.

As we met, Richard would usually start us off with a topic or he would ask if anyone had anything that we wanted to discuss, and from there the fireworks would be organic. I can see Richard now, as he leans over the table, grinning ear to ear, talking about the ministry and putting a finer edge to a point he had perhaps never seen before. He was an animated speaker, an active listener, and a constant encourager. He wanted to include as many as possible in these groups in which we would discuss culture, salvation, sanctification, preaching, etc. You name it and we probably covered it in those meetings. Those meetings were gifts and they were started by Richard. He was the spirit of the meetings, and when he and Roberta moved to Jackson they ceased, but the indelible impression left on those of us who participated in them cannot be understated.

One of the things that made Richard a powerful role model and attractive to many, a person worth listening to, was his humble spirit and desire to grow spiritually. He was in love with God and he was in love with scripture. He was desirous that all would find themselves so in love and his life pointed you in that direction.

Contrary to the image of the older Christian curmudgeon who is set in their ways, only wants to fight culture wars, and has crystallized their own sense of doctrine and knows the meaning of every single Bible verse, his life was a deconstruction of this very image. In my early 30’s I had never met an older Nazarene pastor that was as humble in his spirit and as open about his quest to know more, and learn more, than Richard Harper. How much more wisdom and insight could he gain after nearly 50 years of walking with Jesus and being in ministry? Yet, he had not arrived. His singular focus was to know God more deeply and he encouraged everyone around him to dive deeper into that well of living water.

I have sat at the feet of Richard as he provided keen insights and heard him preach many sermons, but there is one lesson that stands out amongst them all: salvation and holiness is not a fixed moment in time; it is a daily deeper walk with Jesus. This is a lesson that is easy to comprehend, but it is quite another to see it lived. I believe Richard would like to think I remembered a thing or two he taught me, but I believe he would be most pleased that his life was the best example of all.

I am still lost in wonder that a man born in 1938 was not stuck in the era in which he grew up. He was conditioned by his life experiences, but he did not let vestiges of bygone theological and ministerial eras stagnate his spirit. Coming from an era in which many of his peers would have understood walking with God in a momentary and transactional way, even quite legalistically, Richard embodied what it means to be holy. For him, holiness did not mean he had arrived at the pinnacle of Christian experience; it very literally meant his heart was now receptive to hearing God speak more softly. Holiness was the fine tuning of the spirit, not its final formation. Richard understood sanctity as a constant quest, a constant submission to God, and he was transparent about the obstacles posed by his own humanity.

He had an active faith and as such was a walking saint, even though at the time I only knew him as Richard.

One of my fondest memories of Richard was when he was present on a morning I would be preaching. I would often stare into the congregational sea of faces, and there, on the left side of the church, would be Richard and Roberta sitting beside one another. He was often in deep thought considering my words, smiling in agreement, or maybe even considering how crazy I was. If it was the latter, he never let on. Afterward, he was the first one to meet me and I can hear his voice even now.

He would approach me with his perfectly manicured silver hair, Elvis-like in orientation, often wearing a tie, and holding in his holster a firm handshake, and he would extend his hand to mine and say “Wow. Wow. Wow. If we could only grasp the implications of that scripture! That was the truth! Great Job!”

The entire time Richard would be smiling, putting his hands on my shoulder, and affirming the Word I had been given. I was not deceived into believing that I was the second coming of Billy Graham, after all I still have a day job, but what these moments did for me was confirm my calling and my intuitions.

As a young minister with much to learn, Richard was there to offer words of encouragement and to grow along with me. I had many supporters in my ministerial team in Cleveland, but chief among them was Richard Harper. He undoubtedly thought better of me than he should have. He was a father figure, placed in Cleveland by God, iron placed to sharpen iron.

Earlier this week, I received an email from Richard’s account. I looked down in puzzlement wondering if Richard had set up a posthumous message in the event of his passing. He was one of the most thoughtful persons I had ever met, so this would have surprised me little. It was his son Scott, whom I think I have only met once, sending us a final email from Richard, bringing closure to an electronic correspondence that Richard would send his fellow pastors and friends from time to time.

In much the same way that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit in his absence, so Richard would send us what he called “one pagers,” in his absence. Though he had gone to Middle Tennessee to be with family, he would be present with us left behind in his “one pagers.” In these documents, Richard would extrapolate in detail the things he was learning, new “light” being shown to him by God, scripture he was considering and its implications. At the close of a “one pager” was always an encouragement to go further into faith, to step into a deeper part of Gods pool of refreshment. I did not respond to many of them, but I read them and often let Richards devotional time become mine.

As I read this final “one pager” written by Scott, I thought to myself, “This could have come directly from Richard…” It sounded just like him. What a powerful final thought given to us, by Richard, through his son.

So to Scott specifically, I want to say especially on this day…I mourn with you, but be encouraged, the apple does not fall far from the tree. You are his son. You carry him with you forever. Thank you for sharing him with all of us and thank you for these very fitting final words. I pray God’s peace be extended to you and your family in these coming days and years.

The Gospel of John notes there many more things that could have been written about Jesus if only there had been enough pages to contain them. Similarly, I am certain it would take many books to fill the pages with Richards 81 years of life. My words are but hints toward the fullness of the epochal change that has been left in the world because Richard live in it.

Today, the church and his family will bury some of the grace given to us known as Richard Harper. To use an image given to me by Scott, today the road will meet the heavens.

To Richard I say, “Thank you for being a friend, mentor, encourager, an example of Christ, and a model of what the Christian life should be. May God embrace you with his spirit, may his love consume you as you enter his rest and may that which you so vigorously pursued now burst in your sight!”

I was witness to the epoch Richard Harper. Richard was witness to the Epoch of Jesus. May we all live from this day forward as people who have encountered them both.

Roots

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As a young boy, my grandmother would often tell me, with her full blown mid-western Michigan accent “pick up your feet.” I would often turn around, look at her, my face becoming flush with embarrassment that I did not in fact “pick up my feet.” It was such stupid advice, common sense. A person cannot walk unless they pick up their feet. I am not sure if I was a lazy walker, wore shoes too big, or as many children was just prone to not watching where I was going, but my grandmother was correct on more than one occasion. I had stumbled many times, in her presence or otherwise, and the stupid, easy, solution to avoid it in the future was “picking up my feet.”

There is nothing like the wisdom of grandparents, and nothing like their passing, and our aging, to make us appreciate their words. Now, at 38 years old, I hear her words echo in my heart, “Nathan, pick up your feet.”
Back then, she was concerned about my physical well-being; today, her words dig a little deeper.

This week, I found myself as many of you have at least once in your life, on a narrow walking trail. It was one of those windy, bumpy, spider web riddled trails that tempt you to question why you made the walk in the first place. I have been on many of these trails, no more than 1-2 feet across, weeds infringing on the path, trees toppled over as their large root systems leave a gaping hole where the path once was. I used to walk them with my grandfather and father. I have walked them with friends. This one, I was walking alone.

This was a new path (here’s an analogy we can all sermonize over), one traveled by many but never by me. I decided to follow this trail because I needed to listen. I am not sure what I was listening for, but I needed to listen.
The path is on the property of a retreat center, a place where intentional space is crafted and fostered in order to provide the silence one needs to hear God. One of the mottos here is: Here God is in the Silence; Hear God in the Silence. The retreat space is replete with holy reminders of an All-Other that seeks to speak to us if we can be still and silent enough to listen. I had suspected earlier in the day that my soul was ready to listen, but I did not expect all I would hear.

I made my way upon the entrance to the path, and followed a steep trail down worn out wooden steps, over rotting supports that provided steps in the dirt, and through bridges slowly deteriorating. The dirt on the path was smooth and soft beneath my feet once I made it to the bottom. It was a rich, dark, top soil, that had been pressed down as smooth as pavement, and giving off a wet, earthy, mossy smell. At one point, I stopped to notice an earthworm that was crawling across the moist earth.

As the trail progressed, I came to a flat bottom just a few feet from the river. The sun was piercing the canopy of the trees, a butterfly had flown across my path, and I could hear birds sing their choruses in the swaying branches. I was almost entranced by the natural beauty of the forest, allowing myself to be lost in its system of life, until my foot hit a familiar obstacle: a root. I noticed that on this part of the trail the path was riddled with roots. With each intentional step, it seemed I had to play hopscotch with the forest root system. Some were large, some small, and some multiple, but none of them were going to move on account of me.

Suddenly I heard my grandmother say, “Nathan, pick up your feet.” A smile came over my countenance. There, in the woods, I stopped. I began to listen.

I heard a still small voice say, “In life, we can be so attentive to the good things of the world, of creation, the good things we are doing, that we can still stumble, even on a path clearly worn and already traveled…a path left for us to follow.”

Roots may be a fact of forest trail exploring but sometimes we wish we could curse them the way Jesus does the fig tree that refused him lunch. The last thing we need is harmless forest foliage to deter our progress.

I was on this trail being intentional about taking in EVERYTHING around me, not wanting to miss the voice of God, but I still had to watch where I was walking! Stumbling along the path of life can happen even as we engage in good things. The lesson was this: never take your eyes off the path, even when you have your eyes rightly on other tasks. There is a destination calling to all of us, but even as we are doing our best to get there, we can still stumble along the journey and prolong our final arrival. There could be a pesky root, sticking up in a well-worn path, waiting to break your toe even as you think you are making a full stride.

The smoothest of trails and most beautiful scenery can still be filled with silent treachery.

After having my moment, my theophany of the root, and I began to press on, thankful that I had allowed myself to be attentive. The path eventually began to wind back up the hill and along-side a small waterfall. I had made my way through the flat surface and its occasional roots without scuffing my shoes or tripping over myself. Now, as I made my way up a small ravine, the roots were larger and more damaging to the path ahead. Some of the path was clearly not a path at all. It was more a less a used to be, washed out path, that was now a hazard for elementary age school children.

I pressed on through the lost trail and noticed something different about the roots.

In the first half of the trail, the roots were hazardous. The roots were rises in the smooth path that led down a steep ravine and through a flat forest bottom. Those roots could have caused me to stumble, fall, and perhaps ruin my best pair of jeans (or worse). But then as I began to walk back up an opposite side of the hill, I noticed I was using the roots as steps. The roots here were still roots; they were still hard objects, jutting out from beneath the soil, but their incidental function was different. These roots were not hazards; these roots were helpers. The path, being severely washed out in places, didn’t have formerly man-made steps, but it did have roots that would become steps. There very things that could have once caused me harm, were now helping me get to my destination. Hegel would call these roots dialectical; I’ll just call them paradoxical grace.

Roots became helpers, coming along side me on the path, acting as stepping stones. These roots allowed me to move forward along the path.

Just two weeks ago, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was an unanticipated transition for me even a few short months ago, but in January, at the very strong leading of the Holy Spirit, I felt compelled to enter this new path. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, and therefore come from a low church evangelical background. I was dedicated, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. My roots run deep.

At the pre-confirmation meeting, the Bishop of East Tennessee met with all future confirmands and blessed our presence in this new congregation. He noted that many of us, including himself, come from other rooms in the house of faith. He equally noted, however, that something had brought us all together and was about to make us a part of a deep Anglican tradition: another strong root system. But before we would join, he said, we need to acknowledge and bless your roots wherever and whatever they are. The roots from which you came matter because they had provided grounding heretofore in our lives and they would further function as the foundation upon which this new Anglican tradition would be grafted.

In other words: roots can become obstacles, but they can also provide support for the journey ahead.

At times we may want to curse our roots, or a root system, that would just assume have us fall as have us arrive. At other times, though, we would be stuck in the bottom of some of life’s deepest ravines without the steps provided by our roots.

Roots are powerful extensions of beauty that simultaneously have the power to give life and the power to make a once well-worn path a travel hazard. Where there are deep, muscular roots, prying open a sidewalk or pressing through a forest trail, one is acutely aware that these roots are what they are because they have survived and thrived. By extension, so too has the tree connected with them.

This week, I was walking along a forest trail, uncertain of what I would find or what I would hear. I was trusting that God was here in the silence and that I would hear God in silence. I discovered that the path upon which I stood didn’t just lead me beneath a beautiful forest canopy and through the playground of cardinals and squirrels, but it was indicative of the path upon which I now travel, a path that I will only be able to walk because of my roots.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent as Re-Membering: Reflections on Luke 4

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Luke 4 is the traditional text that comes to mind when we consider the beginning of Lent: the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (Sunday celebration days withstanding) in which we reflect upon the journey of Christ into the wilderness and the temptations he encounters while there. During the season of Lent, we Christians embody some form of practice that allows us, however weakly, to walk with Jesus into the wilderness. This takes the shape of denying ourselves of something significant in order to participate in the self-denial of Jesus during this wilderness period. We, as Jesus, must rely on God to sustain us, just as we must rely upon God to save us. Lent becomes the acting out of our finitude within the context of God’s infinite redemption revealed in Easter. Thus, this is a season in which we focus on Christ’s movement toward the events of Easter and we rely upon God to carry us through the parched arid land of the wilderness, to the pinnacle of Golgotha, and toward the tenebrosity of the grave.

The wilderness period of Luke 4 functions on many levels textually and canonically but two things should be immediately noted: it connects the ministry of Jesus with the wilderness wandering of the people of God for 40 years and, consequently, connects the ministry of Jesus as the one who exits the wilderness in order to redeem the world, bringing the world safely to harbor in the kingdom of God. This is the episode upon which the Gospel of Luke moves the readers from Jesus, the one born of God, called, baptized, and properly vetted in the wilderness, into the full-blown son of God, prophet, and harbinger of the Kingdom of God. Jesus exits the river and, after a brief genealogical postlude, heads straightway into the wilderness. The wilderness, in a sense, prepares him (and us) for the ministry ahead. Ultimately, it prepares us for the Paschal events.

The biblical account of the actual time in the wilderness is short, however. The text does not tell us what happened or of the trials encountered by Christ. We learn he was tempted, but we do not know what that means or by what means. Perhaps we are to imagine similar temptations encountered by Christ as were encountered by Israel as they wandered about a lifeless, foodless, waterless landscape in the Book of Exodus . Indeed, for such a significant moment in the life of Jesus, (which is also embodied in the liturgical time keeping of the church) precious little is made of the 40 days; it gets 2 verses in Luke. The text is abrupt,

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he was baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to him…”

The most salient feature of this text is the contention between Jesus and the devil. Luke himself gives this aspect of the story the most attention. In the process, however, readers often conflate these 3 final temptations with the sorts of temptations, or the very temptations, Jesus was encountering in the wilderness. The wilderness period itself is overlooked by Luke, either unavailable to him or simply unimportant for his story.

Clearly, Jesus experiences something in the wilderness that is unavailable to us, and he survives with flying colors this period of personal wandering, emulating the wandering of the ones to whom he has been given by God. At the end of the wilderness period, after he has survived this Spirit led sojourn into the jaws of the devil, the devil arrives one final time to take advantage of the vulnerability of Jesus’ humanity.
The devil comes to Jesus and tempts him to forget the perils he has been through in the wilderness, as if to attempt one last-ditch effort to derail the ministry of Jesus. Will Jesus be like the people of God, the ones who came to be delivered through the Reed Sea yet on the other side make a golden calf to worship? Will he buckle under the weight of wilderness exasperation?

Unlike a host of prior biblical characters (many of whom are in the genealogy of Jesus listed in 3.23-38), Jesus passes this test of the devil, quoting scripture in response to temptation and remaining resolute despite his human longings for food. Jesus does not fail this test. He lives into the reality of his baptism and is apparently strengthened by this tribulatory episode. He is now ready to pursue his calling and he doesn’t waste any time causing a stir in the synagogue on the sabbath further in Luke 4.

Whoever this one is who has come out of the wilderness victorious, he is something totally other than any character to yet emerge from the annals of Israel’s history. Of course, Luke wastes no time in identifying Jesus, if not as Christ, someone like Elijah that had been prophesied from the Isaiah Scroll. Jesus emerges from the unforgiving wilderness, surviving the devil, only to be threatened with death by his neighbors. If the devil can’t single-handedly take down Jesus, it seems the characters in the story are eager to pick up where the devil left off. See Luke 4.14-30.

The exegetical issues in this text are many. There is a myriad of ways in which the scholar can move around in the text in order to capture the full scope of what is being communicated in this strange wilderness text, with very few details, and the odd verbatim discussion between diametrically opposed forces: Jesus and the devil.

Admittedly, I read this text and often come away with as many questions as I do answers, yet I always leave this text feeling more comforted. When a season of life tempts me away from who I am, or who I was baptized to be, I read this story and I am reminded of what the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15). Luke 4 demands much of readers, and our imaginations, but it remains a classic example of overcoming temptation in the face of insurmountable need and desperate relief. Despite its brevity, it remains the classic Lenten text of initiation.

But what of these final 3 temptations, the ones that we often consider as happening in the wilderness to Jesus, when in fact these happen after Jesus has exited the wilderness? As if often the case, it seems we survive times of tribulation, and then once the pressure begins to subside, we let our guards down and are defeated by things that have no business defeating us. Why do we do that? We are people that can run 25 miles of the marathon, yet the last mile finds us failing, even with the ribbon in sight. To say it biblically, we can travel the wilderness for years, and remain faithful, and then as we near the promised land we find ourselves getting mad like Moses, succumbing to temptation, and being kept from the Promised Land indefinitely. One of the many morals of Luke 4 is: be like Jesus, not like Moses.

While there is much to be said about the contents of Luke 4,  I want to focus on the progression of these final words of the devil to Jesus. Temptation is rarely linear, or to say it in Lenten perspective, self-reliance is rarely linear, but it can progressively move to higher stakes. First, the temptations Jesus experiences happen because he has already rejected temptation. He already defeated what was trying to drag him down in the wilderness…yet it still hangs around, talking to him after the wilderness period! Would that the wilderness critters stay in the trees rather than follow us home! Jesus is hungry. The text says that “when they had ended…he became hungry…” “They” refer to the days in the wilderness. The wilderness is over, Jesus is emerging, done. Temptation is still near, that stray dog following close behind, brushing up against the heals of Jesus.

The first thing to notice, then, is that these 3 famous temptations come to Jesus only after he has proven himself. He has nothing left to demonstrate, yet it seems something larger was not yet decided in the wilderness. Secondly, we should note that the temptations have a progressive nature to them. Jesus exits the wilderness period hungry, because he had been fasting for 40 days. The devil comes to Jesus at this point of departure first, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus has already gone without food for 40 days, what’s one more afternoon? Jesus replies with the same wisdom he surely used in the wilderness fasting and he quotes Deuteronomy 8.3, a reflection upon the 40 years wandering in the wilderness by Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus being undaunted, having come through much worse, deflects the devil’s stupid suggestion and holds fast to being sustained by God.

Next, the devil raises the stakes. If Jesus cannot be tempted with a primal need, perhaps he can be tempted with a primal urge: power. The devil led Jesus “up” (perhaps suspending him in order to view. The text does not clarify the “up” from which the two looked together) and showed him the kingdoms of the world (political power) and offered him dominion of those powers if Jesus would worship him. Here, Jesus is tempted with power, admiration, and possessions, all things that most humans work their entire lives for! But one who would be led by the Spirit into a vast wilderness and was baptized by one who also lives in the wilderness, has little need for such things. If a hungry Jesus won’t even turn a stone into food (recall that Moses made water come out of one) there is little chance he’ll be enticed with power. The opportunity to worship the devil falls flat in the face of Jesus’ commitment to God, the Lord of Israel.

Finally, in an act of desperation, the devil decides to move away from primal urges and focuses on the last thing Jesus has left: his identity. If Jesus cannot be tempted to feed himself or with power, perhaps he can be tempted to prove he is as good as he thinks he is, perhaps he can be tempted to prove his identity! If the devil cannot tempt Jesus away from his ministry, perhaps he can immobilize Jesus by calling his being into question. Ironically, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (the very symbol of God’s presence with the people) and gets right to it, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The devil knew he needed to use scripture against Jesus because Jesus would use it against him, and surprise, Jesus returns the scriptural favor with Deuteronomy 6, “it is said, ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Wilderness period of no avail, final temptations handily dismissed, the text says the devil then leaves Jesus until an opportune time. Jesus has withstood a personal assault by the devil and is now ready to boldly perform his ministry. The result of surviving satanic onslaught is a Jesus of whom the text says returns to “Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The powerful thing about the wilderness is this: if we can survive…we come out stronger. Jesus survived. The same spirit that descended upon him in baptism was the catalytic power that would animate his ministry.

This wilderness episode is intriguing. It is cataloged in all 3 synoptic Gospels, with Matthew and Luke sharing the most similarity and Mark simply mentioning the event with 1 verse. Under the category of multiple attestation, it would seem that this is an event so thoroughly connected with the historical Jesus that it is highly likely Jesus did in fact receive baptism by John, and then, as if to make pilgrimage with the historical people of God, purposefully went into the wilderness to experience that same journey. The event must have been so well known among the early followers of Jesus that to omit from accounts of his life would have been likely impossible, and it must have been so formative for Jesus, that each Gospel author except John found it impossible to tell their story of Jesus without including it. Such universal inclusion and divine parallelism must indicate that this is an episode in the life of Jesus that should not only be read, but pondered, deliberated, and prayed over regardless of the brevity or absence of wilderness detail. For reasons we can deduct from the text, and also reasons lost in history, the wilderness retreat of Jesus prior to his ministry must have happened and was of necessity.

Let me suggest, however, that this pre-ministerial event in the life of Jesus, and our inaugural Lenten text, gets part of its primary importance because of its ability to re-member the story of God with the world, with his people, with us. One of Luke 4’s theological tasks is to re-member two realities in the life of Jesus, and so to the life of us. First, it puts back together the historical memory of Gods people; it recalls God’s initial saving activity from Egypt. Jesus is a part of that story, a continuation of it, that will find its denouement in Easter. Secondly, it puts back together the memory God has of us, collectively and individually. The temptations themselves are curious and major parts of the story, but it is the re-membering that happens in the wilderness that is of primary importance. Before Jesus can remake history, it must be re-membered by him, in him and through him.

Consequently, this is what Lent does: it re-members for us parts of the story that have been torn asunder, parts of the story that connect God to world, God to people, God to us, our story to Gods, creation’s story to it’s Creator. Our world has forgotten its stories; they are strained and fraying from connections barely visible yet still present. In lent, we re-member them; they come back together in order to remind us who we really are, who God is in Christ, and who we can be when we put those stories back together.
It is this re-membering that Jesus does in the wilderness. The temptations matter because, ultimately, the temptations of the devil are about dis-memberment; the temptations are the devils means of having us forget our story.

First, Jesus literally remembers the Exodus with his body. He experiences the first season of Lent, so to speak. What he did those 40 days is lost, but he did it, rehearsed it, and relived the arid landscape of those who he came to serve. Unlike Moses, he will go into the wilderness AND come out of it, entering the Promised Land of new creation. Thus, Jesus lives into a biblical liturgical calendar in order to place his ministry within the context of God’s call from the land of slavery, death, and futility.

Secondly, and less conspicuously, Jesus re-members his identity in the wilderness. The wilderness was a time of introspection, recollection, rehearsal and through those things a time of re-membering what led him to the river, what happened to him in the river, and where he was being called once emerging from the baptismal waters. This stop in the wilderness was the place Jesus surely found is identity in God, solidified it, and his mission became central. Through fasting in the wilderness, he learned to rely upon God for sustenance and learned to subdue his body. With each passing day, Jesus learned his body was Gods and surely wrestled with all his inner demons that tried to make him doubt his identity and mission. The temptations of the devil at his emergence from the wilderness is the icing on the cake of an already intense time of personal spiritual questing.

The final temptation Jesus faces in Luke, after having already survived parched soil, is the temptation to forget. The devil, not able to move Jesus with primal temptations, tries to get Jesus to forget who he is, even though who he is is precisely what he would have learned in the wilderness for 40 days! Jesus did not become who he wasn’t in the wilderness. The wilderness did not make Jesus Jesus; Jesus was “made” via his sending from above and called out in his baptism. The wilderness was the time of reminding, re-membering his identity in God and identification with God’s people. One could protest that Jesus needed no re-membering at this point in his ministry, that he needed nothing to re-purpose him.

True as that may be, there is nothing that will challenge a person’s faith as fasting from food, true removal from society in order to come face to face with one’s inner demons. When Jesus decided to experience what the people of God experienced, he agreed not only to do what they did, paralleling a Sinai experience, he also agreed to be subject to the same temptations that would have been distant thoughts emerging victoriously through the Reed Sea.

It is easy to be faithful to the God that is destroying our enemies; this God is easily worshiped as Egyptian chariots sink in freshly made mud. It is quite another thing to wander the wilderness for an indefinite period, apparently led there by God, placed there because of God’s victory, but given nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and no map for directions. A faithful people can become forgetful quite easily as a simple stroll through the Old Testament will easily attest.

Likewise, we are naive to assume that Jesus, emerging from the waters of redemption like his for-bearers, would not also be tempted in the wilderness on the other side of the water. Jesus did not become someone new in this experience; he became what he already was, God re-membering in Jesus what the human Jesus may have been tempted to forget…but a temptation he needed to experience before serving the children of those recalcitrant people. We hear silent foreshadowing echoed in the words of the Devil, “If you are…the son of God…”

It is in re-membering that we find the temptations of the devil most significant because it is precisely forced forgetting that is the goal of the devil. If you don’t like “devil” language, we can appropriate the Gospel of Matthew and call it “the tempter.” The wilderness is the place we are most likely to be tempted to forget who we are and who we are called to be (has anyone read Numbers lately??!). Ironically these temptations only come to us as people who have already experienced God’s living water of forgiveness/redemption. We cannot be tempted to leave something we have never had in our possession. We cannot be tempted to forget something we have never experienced or never been.

Enter Lent. If there is a time when we will lose our way, it is in the nothingness of nothing while relying on a God we cannot see for sustenance we never knew would be enough.

In other words, if we are going to forget who we are, it is during Lent; ironically, if we are going to find ourselves, it is also in Lent. Lent does not make us something we are not; it re-members what God always holds together in his own memory about us. Re-membering is the process of putting back together what God already knows about us, for us, and calls us to live into. Lent is the process whereby we allow the spirit to re-member in us God’s predestined naming of us.

In the wilderness Jesus re-membered; In Lent, we are called to re-member. The Devil tempts us to forget our names, our identity, our mission as those baptized, forgiven, called. In Lent, God helps us remember our identity in Christ; in Lent we discover our true selves even as we are tempted to forget.

Lent is a time of preparation because if we participate in it to the extent that Israel wandered in the Sinai, and Jesus wandered in the land beyond the Jordan, then we are doing the heavy soul searching that is necessary to come out of the desert alive. Not just anyone can survive the wilderness. The biblical narrative is full of persons, examples, that entered the wilderness never to return. If, however, we place our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves in the hands of the creator, we will discover not only our true self during Lent, but that our true self is never divorced from the identity God gives to us. “Let us make mankind in our image” writes the author of Genesis. God knows and re-members that image; Our identity is grounded in God. In Lent, we are invited to re-member our names.

 

God Can’t: A Review

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“We don’t need the bible to know evil sucks,” writes Tom Oord, who has now taken off the gloves in his forthcoming work, God Can’t. In what might be his most transparently honest work to date, Tom goes after the Golden Calf of Christian theology: the idea that God Can do anything. Hang on tight because this is a ride you do not want to miss.

For people of faith, there is little more polarizing than the statement “God Can’t.” In fact, those words do not make much sense. Isn’t part of what makes God God that God can do anything? If there is something God cannot do wouldn’t God be barely more than us mere mortals? Many people of faith hold to their faith precisely because the God they believe in can do whatever he needs to, when he needs to, to make their life better or save them from peril. This idea is the great security blanket of believers, for even though God may never do the many things ascribed to “him” it is comforting to know that he could. We may never meet a divine superman, but its good to know he’s in the building just in case.

But what do we do when we run head up against the inexplicable evil of life and superman doesn’t show up? When we pray, hope, trust in God, yet nothing changes, or  worse, further bad things happen?

Does God become nothing more than the ultimate fudge factor by which we give reason for our suffering? Rather than God becoming a deliverer from our suffering, God becomes the cause and excuse of it, the way we rationalize it (“everything happens for a reason” or “God’s ways are higher than our ways” they say).

Yet, how does one make sense of God’s love, or the idea of God as a loving God, while also contending that God restrains his power to allow evil to happen to us for some “higher” purpose?

What higher purpose could come from the family whose child suffocates in their car from heat exhaustion, or drowns in the pool because the family lost track of 2-3 minutes, or allowed someone to be sold into sex trafficking and abused for a decade? Are these genuinely evil things really a part of God’s plan? Are these things that a loving God would allow if God had the power to change yet for some reason higher than human reason does not intervene?

Tom Oord’s recent book, God Can’t, tackles these tough questions with an emphatic answer: Genuine evil happens to us and there is absolutely nothing God can do about it by himself. It’s not that God chooses to not intervene or has limited his power in some way; it’s that God is metaphysically incapable of physically intervening in the world to prevent these random acts of evil. It’s not God’s choice to refrain from acting, God is limited by his nature and essential characteristics. To use Tom’s language, God is the God of Uncontrollling Love. God loves us but that love is never demonstrated in coercive ways, either for good or ill. Tom’s not letting God off the hook for bad things, he’s simply saying God was never on the hook to begin with.

In other words, there are some things God simply can’t do, but don’t lose heart because the acknowledgment that “God Can’t” do some things opens a whole host of things God can, and does, do to work in creation, it just looks different than the Godly superman we have all learned to adore.

Foremost, if one has become an atheist or left the church because of inexplicable suffering or evil that was glossed/excused by their pastor or by those who tell us “everything happens for a reason,” the goodnews that Tom presents is that you can still believe in God and love despite your suffering. You can still believe in God because God is not the source of all your suffering. You don’t have to abandon belief or faith. In fact, God suffers with you in your suffering and wishes the evil that happened to you had never occurred.

Tom’s starting point theologically, is Wesleyan, and as such his assumptions about God do not begin with the traditional categories of omnipotence, omniscience or Thomistic Simplicity. Unlike many theologians, Tom’s presupposition about God could be best labeled omni-altruistic: God is at all times, and all places, acting in love. And this is how we know where God is acting: God is present where love is found and incarnated, where creation flourishes anywhere in the universe love is found. Further, as creatures we can know what love is and need not be mystified or chalk up to mystery trying to understand evil that happens to us as God’s means of loving us.

While this may sound radical, it is a radicality grounded in experience, reason, scripture, and yes, even tradition. This radical rethinking of traditional ideas of God is staged in the Introduction as Tom illustrates for us the tensions found between believing in God while simultaneously witnessing the horrific suffering of hundreds via the recent Las Vegas shooting tragedy in which 58 people were killed and 851 others injured. Tom frames the problem like this

“Many people think God had the power to prevent the Las Vegas shooting, its deaths, injuries, and resulting trauma. They think God could have warned officials, temporarily paralyzed the gunman, jammed the rifles, or redirected every bullet flying 400 yards. They assume God has the ability to do just about anything…After the shooting, some “explained” why God failed to stop the tragedy. “There’s a higher purpose in this,” they said. Others appealed to mystery: “We just can’t understand God’s ways”

This, of course, begs the obvious question: If God is loving, and if God stands against violence and evil, and God also has the power to stop it, why doesn’t God stop it? It is little wonder many have become atheists over these questions.

What is at stake is nothing more than the morality of God.

Tom divides his argument into 5 ideas. They are necessarily disclosed in chapters but what’s really happening is the argument that God Can’t is presented in 5 clear ideas, each building on the other, until the reader has a coherent view of the Tom’s picture.

Idea 1: God cannot Prevent Evil. Tom illustrates why God can’t, rather than won’t, prevent evil and demonstrates the advantages to understanding God as one not responsible for evil as opposed to being a co-conspirator with evil.

Idea 2: God does not cause our suffering for a higher purpose or reason; God suffers with us. God does not create our suffering and God wishes it had never occurred.

Idea 3: God is working to heal us. So what of divine intervention if God Can’t? Miracles are the result of the right conditions for healing and God is always working at even the smallest cellular level to heal us and the world, but God does not singlehandedly change our biology because God’s love is Uncontrolling. You need to read this chapter.

Idea 4: God squeezes good from bad. God does not cause bad things to happen in order to bring good things about, but God can squeeze some good out of a bad situation. Many stories illustrate this.

Idea 5: God needs our cooperation. If God were all powerful in physical ways, we human creatures would be afterthoughts, hamsters on a wheel simply living out a foreordained divine play. However, since God’s love is Uncontrolling, God needs us to use our bodies to help him work in the world. The apostle Paul famously says something similar when he calls the Church the “the body of Christ.” In other words, we matter.

Of course, this thesis requires some heavy theological/intellectual lifting. God Can’t is not a heavy academic piece. It is the culmination of 20 years of theoretical work that has now taken practical shape. God Can’t is written to be widely read and is practical in its approach to the problem of suffering and evil.  Therefore, Tom’s argument in this book will not please everyone because the theoretical space from which this argument is made is enclosed in the corpus of Tom’s work for the last 20 years.

From his earliest writings nearly 20 years ago, Tom has been working on the problem of evil because it too was the problem that for a short time turned him into an atheist. Thankfully, Tom continued in his theological journey and concluded that belief in God is more probable than not. This is how he describes it,

“I realized that if a loving God did not exist, I could not make sense of my deep intuitions about love. Without God as the ultimate love standard, I could not explain what love means and why I — or anyone else — ought to express it. These and related issues led me eventually to think it more plausible than not that God exists. But I did not and do not know this with certainty.” (198)

My first encounter with Tom’s work began in his essay “A Wesleyan Process Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God” in the book he co-edited with Bryan Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. In this essay, we see early on that Tom was wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil, and beginning to re-conceptualize how God works in the world if one holds that a.) God is love and almighty yet b.) suffering and evil still occurs. This begs the questions: In what way is God Love and how is it expressed? How is God almighty if not in coercive power?

In that essay, Tom began to develop what has taken practical form in God Can’t but he had not quite come to his thesis of an uncontrolling love. At this point, he had set out the idea of essential free will theism in which creatures are essentially free (free in their essence) and God does not work in the world via coercive power, but via the bodies of others and through persuasion.

The academic theories behind these sentiments were the process theologies of David Ray Griffin and Charles Hartsthorne, the open theology of Clark Pinnock and the historical theology of John Wesley. Tom went on to express this same thesis in a book he edited for Nazarene Publishing House, Philosophy of Religion, in the essay “Divine Theodicy.” From here, the essays and books continued to take shape and be produced. Of key importance to his thesis in God Can’t is his more academic work, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific and Theological Engagement, in which he provides theoretical grounding for his larger thesis that God is a God of uncontrolling love, and therefore Can’t do some things. Of course, all of this work was brought together in his 2015 publication, The Uncontrolling Love of God. In addition, Tom has done exceptional work in the Wesleyan Theological Journal since the early 2000’s and his assorted essays here are must reads before one can engage his thesis in God Can’t with any modicum of credibility.

While there will be no shortage of critics looking to read the title of his recent release and discredit it for lack of theoretical justifications within its pages, they only do so as armchair theologians who have not engaged the entirety of Tom’s work. Their knee jerk attack will demonstrate their own amateur efforts.

Thus, what we have in God Can’t is not a knee jerk publication, a theological shock jock looking to be radical, but the practical import of years of theoretical work. Tom has produced here what all good academic work should eventually become: an honest attempt to make sense of the world around us and then offer that academic work to the every day person. Tom is not writing for the academic; he is writing, in his own words, for all of us:

“I wrote this book for victims of evil, survivors, and those who endure senseless suffering. I wrote it for the wounded and broken who have trouble believing in God, are confused, or have given up faith altogether. I’m writing to those who, like me, are damaged in body, mind, or soul.”

Upon release, this book deserves to be widely read, both for its clarity of presentation and for the ideas that could literally give someone back the God that bad theology has taken from them. It is a scary premise that maybe God Can’t, but it is also a premise, that if entertained seriously, may allow someone to believe in the God that never intended their suffering and has been weeping with them all along. I am certain there is no shortage of people who need to hear this goodnews.

Thinking Death, Suicide, Life

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Imaging myself climbing into the casket and being buried with it was the last thing I had ever conceived. But there it was, the casket, my lifeless father, and suddenly an intimate closeness with death. After all, my father had just experienced death, how hard could it be? How bad could it be? Is it easier to die than to live? What did it feel like? What was his final thought? Did it hurt? Where was he now? Have you ever felt so much pain that you can’t scream loud enough, wail long enough, or shed enough tears to give purpose and sense to the rage of sudden loss? I never knew sudden loss before but I now know I hate it. I hate what it is, what it does, and its unshakable results!

The canopy of the sky caved in and the earth swallowed me whole. Surely anything must be better than feeling as if the entire world had just imploded; the once sturdy structure of certainty interrupted by the true fragility of human existence. Sitting in a room while people come and gaze at the corpse of your father, paying respects but confirming hell, makes one question their existence. Nothing has made me want to throw my strength to the wind quite like death and death has literally stolen most of my strength.

All my striving, all my love, all my work, all my energy, will one day find itself in the same situation: lifeless, cold, alone, and buried.

God that’s a depressing thought but its also the human condition.

Three days earlier I could not even pick out the casket, and today, I can imagine getting in it myself and having loved ones stand 4 feet above me on the earth that covers me. When I go to the cemetery to visit my father I no longer simply pay respects, but I also speak to the ground near him, the ground that will one day hold my lifeless body, and I wonder what sort of earth this is that will only be moved when I move my last, staring at the space in which I will lie much longer than I have lived.

Speaking of death, I had always wondered how a person could commit suicide, how depressed, lost, lonely or mentally jaded one must be to perform the ultimate act. I have often thought to myself that I could never kill myself no matter how bad life got, yet life is full of seasons and seasons bring forth change in people that what was once unimaginable becomes imagined.

Many suicides are done in the dark days of melancholy or in moments of utter despair. As a society we have accepted that depression leads to suicide and many secular thinkers even argue for the virtue of self-annihilation (I am not begrudging anyone who has been tempted with suicide for a myriad of reasons, from bullying, to sexuality, to mental disease). I begrudge no suicidal for doing the deed, but I can’t help but believe some people, for whatever reason, have become comfortable with death and have thought through what killing themselves would mean.

History is full of melancholic or depressive suicides, but it is also full of suicides that happen by fully cognizant folks. Comfort with death doesn’t happen in a moment, but it happens. There are moments of lucidity wherein someone decided this act, this final act, was friendlier to their being than being a person could be any longer. Surely not every single suicide that happens is the act of malady, madness or despair (though surely one that decides to finally kill themselves is steeped in despair). There must be someone out there for which suicide was a logical alternative to living. It may not make sense to many, but it made sense to that person, at that moment.

When my father died I think I slowly saw behind the curtain of suicide, what makes it possible.

Suicide becomes imaginable when staying is more difficult than dying, when the idea of death becomes more comforting than the idea of living, and death has the allure of a comfort life refuses us. What had once been a distant association was now close and personal, inviting and strangely warm. If one can imagine their own dying, their own nullification and non-existence, then one is 1 step closer to the reality. All that is left is the act. People who Stay alive do so because they can imagine no other, but those that peer into the darkness of life can sometimes find in death a friend that will never leave; it will hold them forever. If we can imagine it we are that much closer to doing it.

Not that my father’s death tempted me with suicide, BUT it did make suicide imaginable and imagination is the first step to actualization. I had never imagined it as a possibility, not even remotely, but there is nothing that makes death seem friendlier than having someone you love so deeply enter its corridor and not return. There is nothing that makes death seem closer than one’s invitation into its foyer, peering around its house without entering any of the rooms…all of which are only a few feet (or heartbeats) away.

I had never imagined dying or what it must be like to die. I never had to. I had never met death in any significant way. I had lost grandparents, cousins, people I loved, but I had never had death impolitely intrude into my life, not asking permission, just shoving its way in the door and turning me into an instantaneous nihilist. Sometimes imagination happens without our approval…

And this, THIS, is the problem with death: it is itself. It ends. It forces a new reality onto us.

This has been the biggest challenge in grief: finding meaning after coming face to face with that which crushes all meaning, and eventually crushes all of us and our attempts at meaning. Death is so stark, so deep, so dark. It is so intrusive when it isn’t welcome that it has the power to place meaning in its hand and crumble it like a Ritz cracker: what constituted the whole becomes bits and pieces of something now unrecognizable.

It is just pure shock: that one moment you can love someone so deeply and the next moment they can be gone without a goodbye, not only leaving you behind, but everything they loved and enjoyed remains, remnants of their life. I stared at me, at the stuff he left behind, at my dead father.

It reminded me of what Jesus says in Luke 12, “You fool! This very night your soul will be required of you and now who will own what you have prepared?”

Nothing matters if all that matters quits mattering. In an instant, your loves and your hobbies become pointless distractions of our ultimate end: death. Work becomes something to do till you die. Eating becomes something you do to stay alive, the opposite of death, but its meaning is found in its juxtaposition.

Death becomes animative and omnipresent, a day not going by without considering your own demise. How tiring to constantly be aware that you will die, to think this thought tens of times through the day, and to hate that this thought is not only a thought but a future reality.

To live, then, is to contemplate death. To face it, be aware of it, live with it. One is not truly living if their life is one not comprehending death. To live absent the comprehension of death is to be caught up in frivolities and to be angered by the waitress that brings you a Coke, when you wanted Sprite! What foolish things upset us and portend to be our ultimate concern.

Much of life melts away at the face of death and certainly most of what people bitch about pale in comparison to the unimagined tragedy of the death of their spouse, their parent, their child, themselves. These are things that cannot be imagined; they can only happen. I pity the fool whose last act on earth was getting pissed off at a cashier, acting a fool and throwing their cheeseburger over the counter, only to storm out of the restaurant and be killed in a car accident.

Who wants to be that guy? How foolish!

Surely this has happened to someone and their final act on earth was bitching about the first world problems of no mayo, add mustard.

Thinking death makes you rethink everything else because everything else is now done in the context of when you will die…and honestly, that kinda sucks.

Imagine being aware, constantly, that every breath your take, every heartbeat you experience, brings you closer to your last. Imagine how omnipresent those feelings are and imagine the life you would live if you really believed this was the case.

Before I lived through death I too had participated in stupid conversations and complaints about life. Facebook rants, complaints about others, complaints about the weather, complaints of homework, complaints of work, complaints ad infinitum. Now, when I hear someone complain or bitch about something, I often think “seriously, does this person not know life is fleeting? We are complaining, essentially, about being alive…” I can no longer take much human dialogue seriously because too many humans do not consider the fact that they are alive seriously.

Sure, lets complain how hot it is, in the summer, in July.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and not feeling the heat?

Sure, lets complain about our spouse or our kids or our job.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and having none of these worries? Can you not be thankful that you are alive and able to experience life?!? As Camus says, there is no replacement for 20 years of life!

Sure, lets complain about Donald Trump or Socialists.

Would you rather be dead and have no concern of either? Do you want your final act in life to be a Facebook post, politically ranting, only to find your car wrapped around a tree? Was it worth the rage?

Can we not be thankful we are alive and find meaning in living rather than locating meaning in what we are against or dislike??

A question that often animates my actions now is “if this were the last act of my life would I act in this way?” or “if this were the last post I made on social media would I post this?” or “If these are the last words I spoke, last time I saw this person, would I say/be this way”

It is living toward death because whether we like it or not we are.

Death is a nearby attendant, one that shuffles its feet behind us as we stroll about through life oblivious to its caring arms waiting to catch us when we fall out of life. Yet the irony is that unless we can hear the shuffling of its feet and feel the breeze of its cloak brush up against our beings, we are doomed to be stuck in the eternal now and living like it is an eternal present… a condition that is much worse than death or suicide because it is a condition that could not ponder either because it is not even aware of its own life.

This is the magic of death: it can make everything you think matters cease to matter instantaneously. I cannot describe it. I cannot help you see it. This can only be experienced…but it is real.

There is at least one thing the resurrection stories of Jesus teach us: one cannot find life if one has not found their death.