Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

My Final Gift to my Father: This Burden

 

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My Dad at our home on 2/11/2017 for my daughters 2nd Birthday Party, Minnie Mouse themed.  16 days before he passed

 

Unsuspecting subjects of the fates is what we become.  Persons wandering the land only to be shackled by a yoke fashioned in the randomness of life.  Living life, free, free of this burden, the world a place of solace and comfort, then suddenly, that world dies.  There is no more freedom, not from sin, not from death, not from your thoughts, not from this burden.

When I was younger, naïve people in church who meant well would often implore us to ask God to burden us with something: those lost to Christ, those children dying of hunger, that ministry God needed you to do.  Lord, give us a burden for you.

What poppycock.  As if a burden sought through voluntary prayer can become something other than voluntary.  As if a burden we choose to receive can change our inner core.  This sort of “burden” was an act of piety to get us to feel something, move, and do something.  It was a faith seeking a burden in order to make that said faith relevant.  Without the burden, the faith seemed empty, not to mention selfish.

Yet, the burden to seek our faith in the first place was not something sought so flippantly, nor voluntarily.

Something about God’s prevenient grace questing after us, unrelentingly, seems to ring more of a bell than a faith so easily chosen.

The most precious things in life are not chosen by us; instead, they enter without our choice demanding our attention, until we can choose no other.

This is what a burden is.  It is not something we choose; it is something hoisted upon us.  It is that which we cannot choose to discard.  It stays with us.  It doesn’t leave even after we ask it to do so.

It is a tortuous refining fire that makes us suffer with it.

It is a real burden.  Those are not simply prayed for, nor are they prayed away.

On 2/27/2017 this year I was given a burden.  It is one that showed up uninvited.

On this day, my father, a 65-year-old man in good health, collapsed, suffering cardiac arrest.  No warning. No signs.  No medical history.  And, of course, no goodbye.  As we stood by his bedside where his dead body lay, saying goodbye to him after the ER had done everything they could, we hugged his warm body until it turned cold.

The burden found me then though I didn’t realize it.  And God, I wish it hadn’t.

What is this burden?  What is it that I now carry with me, the burden I owe to the death of my father?

My father died young, in good health, and he died suddenly.  As we would all wish our loved ones to die when they must, even as we wish death for ourselves someday, my father died that way.  Fast, quick, and painless, with dignity.

He did not have any pain.  He did not suffer.  He never grew old.  He never grew sick.  He never experienced the deterioration of his body that would make his loved ones prefer death for him over life.  My father did not experience dementia or Alzheimer’s and he did not have to fight cancer.

He did not become the waste of a human person that so many of us will become, spirits trapped in flesh that steal our humanity from us.

My dad didn’t have to do that.  He had a good death.  A clean death.  A painless quick death that he most likely didn’t know had happened.  He died as we all hope to die.

Yet, his good death gives me a great burden.

For my father to die as he did, I will necessarily carry the pain of sudden loss, of regrets, of the goodbye never spoken.  Here one minute, gone the next, he was raptured from our life.

I will not have the closure experienced by people who get to say their “I love you’s” and “thank you’s” and “I am sorry’s” before their loved one’s pass.  I did not get the final hug, kiss, or hands held tightly that I would have wanted.

In order for me to have had closure, he would have needed to grow old, grow sick, give me time to expect his death, say our final words, and then say goodbye when the season of goodbye had arrived.

In other words, for me to feel good about his death he would have had to have felt pain, loss, and the realization of his own pending death.  He would have had to experience his own dehumanization for me to experience grief without so many rough edges.  He would have had to suffer greatly so that I could suffer less.  My father would have had to experience what I would never want my father to experience.

My peace would be his hell and then he would die.

Yet, this is not how it happened.  The irony is that my father gave me what he would never want to have given me in order for him to die as I would have wanted him to die.

In the end, the burden that I must suffer his death when he was young, and without a goodbye, is the final gift I can give my father even as I’d rather not give it.  It is the burden I have to give him because he gave me the death I didn’t want to experience even as it was the death I would have wished for him.

This is the trade-off.  This is the gift I can give to my father.  I must carry the burden of his sudden loss so that his death could be the kind of death I would want him to have if he had to have it.

I hate this burden.  I hate that I must carry it.  I hate the pain and shock that accompanies it.  I did not pray for it and I certainly didn’t need God to give it to me.  Yet, it found and forced itself upon me.

I will hate it until I meet my own death.  I hate that he left too soon.  I hate everything about it.

Yet, 8 weeks from my father’s passing I find I love this burden because it is the last gift I can give my father in order for him to die the death I would have hoped for him all along.

For him, no matter how heavy gets, I will carry it through tear stained pain and with a heart of gratitude for the man I am proud to call my father.  I will carry this burden because my dad deserves nothing less.

 

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”

 

 

 

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

A Prayer of Lament &  Forgiveness 


How Lonely sits the city where silence now resides 

The doorways are clean and empty, the water basins full 

Yet, there are no ripples in the water 

No footprints in the walkways 

The corridors are silent- only filled with the tears of lament 

The joy of my heart has ceased, our dancing has been turned to mourning (Lamentations 5.15)

My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled

My heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of my home  (Lamentations 2.11)

Oh Lord, forgive us for taking this place for granted

For abusing our life with nonsense and frivolity 

Forgive us for being so sure of our life 

Forgive us for not loving one another as we should 

Shame us for our stupid arguments and selfish spirits 

For dwelling on problems rather than love 

Forgive us for valuing things over people 

Forgive us of our laziness toward one another and your world 

Forgive us for not loving you by loving to the fullest those whom you have given us 

Forgive us for not seeing our families as grace, as gift 

The gift is now gone; it is no more

You have given, You have loved

Our Father loved us as you loved us, he loved us as you loved the world 

Forgive us for thinking the city would be filled with laughter forever 

My soul has been rejected from peace. I have forgotten happiness

So I say my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord (Lamentations 3.17-18)

He has walled me in so that I cannot go out, He has made my chain heavy (Lamentations 3.7)

O God, we have taken our breath for granted

We have worshipped at the idol of invincibility 

We were asleep – we are awake – to an empty city

Our Father is gone, He is with you 

Remember what has befallen us, Look and see our reproach! (Lamentations 5.1a)

Create in us a new heart and purge us of our filthy presumptions 

Our haughty unloving selves 

Do not hide your ear from my prayer for relief (Lamentations 3.56)

Amen. 

NO! You haven’t been here: The Singularity of Grieving Loss

master-a-grief

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Experiencing the death of a loved one is not fact to be stated, a proposition that is an absolute truth.  That a loved one has died IS a fact; that one has experienced the grief of the death is not a fact; it is a subjective experience unavailable to all people except the one in grief.

It is not an experience that is shared or something with which one can empathize.  It is unique, personal, and subjective because it is larger than the fact of its happening; it taps into the recesses of the human experience that cannot be harnessed by our words or shared.

One may have in fact lost a father, a husband, a child, a friend, but the proposition “I lost my husband too” is simply that; it is a statement of fact, not a statement of truth because truth lies in experiencing the fact that was stated.  Facts have no value.  They just are.  They do not denote a common experience; they denote an event.  Since facts have no value facts do not denote the meaning of life.  Real life, what we hold dear, what we care about, resides outside the facts.  Ludwig Wittgenstein beautifully portrays this when he writes:

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value — and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.  What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.  It must lie outside the world.” (Tractatus 6.4)

Just because a fact has happened to us does not imply that we then know what that fact means for another.

Take a sunset as an example.  We would agree that we can look at a sunset and see that it is beautiful, yet we would also agree that what makes it so is different for both of us.  My impression of beauty is not imputed upon you or vice versa.  The same could be said for joy or laughter.  We allow that individuals can experience the same emotion while experiencing it differently…yet when it comes to grief we think that because we have experienced grief that you must also experience it as me.

Of all the emotions that refuses similarity, grief refuses it the most yet it is the one we tend to harmonize and try to share.

Grief is the most complex yet we have made it the simplest by the way we relate to those in it.

This is impossible.  The truth of tragedy, beauty, grief or joy is they all transcend our ability to state them as facts and that is what makes them truthful; they are the stuff of real life because they transcend what can be thought, said or expressed.  All of these things refuse thought.  They refuse analogies whereby they can make sense.  They refuse a universal experience even though they are all experienced universally.

Thus, of most human experience it is impossible to speak, to describe, to bring under the submission of our ideas.  Wittgenstein held that a logical language can only deal with what is true, and unfortunately, what is true is precisely what evades language.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

This weekend, a month ago, he was at my little girls birthday party, wearing Minnie Mouse ears and being the world’s greatest grandad.  Now, my father has been dead for 19 days.  For the first time in my life, I experienced a sudden rupture of the world; a reversal of what is normal into an alternative reality in which the tragic has defined the common place.  On Feb 27, around 5:30pm, I told my father “see ya later dad” for the final time as he left our office to go to a Karate Workout.

In the office that day we talked about what had to be done Tuesday if it didn’t rain, what the week would hold, and that I’d be able to help him with some things Wednesday.  We talked about family history briefly, talked about repairs being done, and he asked me if he should go workout given he had a sore rib.  We talked about mundane things.  Regular things.  We talked as if tomorrow was a given.

I was within minutes of leaving the office to do a monthly inventory at a store and someone stepped into my office and said “someone from Paul Huff called, they said your dad is having another episode.”

My father didn’t have “episodes.”  I had no idea what that meant but I needed to find out.

I made one call, then ran out of the office to my car and sped down Peerless Rd to the gym where my father was working out.  There, I encountered my 65 year old, 3rd degree black belt father, tied to a gurney, with a pulse and shallow breathing.  This situation did not feel right; it wasn’t good.  I was optimistic but my gut was beginning to sink knowing that the man I saw, my father, was on the edge of life…hanging on.

I grabbed my father’s bag from his instructor, threw it in my car and raced to the hospital to meet him there.  Along the way, I stopped for gas (I had been on “E” all day in town and didn’t need to run out now).  I called my wife, called my sister, tried calling my mother.  Panic had overtaken my body but I was hopeful…until the paramedic van took much longer to go to the hospital than it should have.  Finally, it appeared.  I followed it to the hospital, called my pastor as I parked, ran to the ER, and was immediately taken to Consultation Room 1.

My pastor arrived within minutes and was with me in the room when the ER Doctor comes into the room and says “Hi my name is (X).  This is not good.  I am not optimistic.  Your father is not responding to anything I am doing.  Can you tell me something about his medical history that may help me?”

Astounded at the breathtaking bluntness, I had nothing.  My dad took a small dose of cholesterol medication.  That was it.  I told him he was healthy, had a good recent physical, no known illnesses or disease.  The Dr. left the room.  I looked at my pastor and said “So, how many times have you gotten news that stark right out the gate?”  He shook his head, “nada.”  This doctor was not giving me any false hope.

About 10 minutes later, around 7:45, the Doc reentered the room, with long face and a low heart, he looked at me and said “I’m sorry, you father is gone.”  At that moment, my entire heart sank to the ground, my heart raged, my mind confused, I screamed and yelled.  I hit the wall, I fell against it and I sank to my knees as I wept for my father with a groaning and weeping I didn’t even know existed.  I hugged my pastor and I cried.  I squeezed him as hard as I could.  My mom had entered the hospital as I heard the news.  She heard me wail…and that is how she knew my dad was gone.

She entered the consultation room broken, weeping, herself in her hands.  We embraced and shook our heads in disbelief.  At 5:30 I talked to my dad.  At 7:45 he was gone.  Rupture.  Disruption.  Darkness.  Confusion.  Disbelief.  Pain.  Fear.  Loss.  Bottomless Sorrow.  What is this new world?

At 9pm we were escorted back to the room where my father lay. There, lying in a hospital bed and covered with his sheet up to his chest, was the man who only hours earlier had been with us.  Entering the room with me was my mother, sister and wife.  My pastor was also there, along with my dad’s brother and his family.

We spent 3 hours with my deceased father, not wanting to leave him.  We touched him, hugged him, we wept, we kissed him, we talked to him.  His body was still warm when we arrived but by midnight he was cold.  I walked around the room shaking my head, looking at the singularly most important man in my life, wondering how I would grieve him, how life would go on, what this new epoch would be.

How is it that MY DAD IS DEAD?!?  Death resisted, and resists, my thinking.

He was at work that morning, this Monday morning.  Everything was normal.  He said goodbye to me for the day.  I am not even sure I looked up to say goodbye, but I did look up to see him close the door behind him.  That was the last time I would see my father upright.

He went for a Karate workout.  He never came back.  That night my father died…and even as I type this I cannot believe I am typing this.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

Grief.  Or as one of my friends described it “the bastard of sadness.”  How I wish I did not understand that definition.

I have been alive for 36 years.  I have lost people close to me, particularly my grandparents.  I was lucky enough to have all 4 of my grandparents well into adulthood.  They passed at the age of 75, 83, 87 and 89 respectively.  All of them were sick, some more than others.  Some we knew they would die, others it wasn’t a surprise but neither was it expected.  For all, I wept.  For all, with the blessing of my family, I eulogized them.  For all, I knew life also meant death and all of them had lived a full, long life.  I didn’t want to let them go, but I knew I had to.

None of their passings prepared me for this.  Not even one.

My father passing suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning and without any family history of cardiac arrest, is not the same for me as losing a grandparent I knew was sick or a father that had cancer whom we knew would die soon.  Here I am, trying to process losing my father a full 24 years before he lost his!  My dad was 63 when he buried his father…he had him his entire life.  I get to have my father half of mine.

I am trying to process going to karate one minute, dead the next.

I realize some people never had a father or some may have had a father for lesser years than me.  I am thankful I had him till he was 65 but I mourn he was taken too soon…and knowing I had him 36 years doesn’t change what happened or make my situation easier to compute or accept.

Now, overnight, I’m grieving my father while sitting in his desk, going to his church, running the business he started.  I am using his pens, reading his writing daily, using the folders and notebooks he organized…using his checkbooks with his last entries directly above mine!  I do not get to evacuate his presence and go back to my life because OUR LIVES ARE CONNECTED!  I don’t get to bury my dad in his town and then go back to mine.  I have to walk the same sidewalks he walked, talk to people he spoke to, tell people who call for him that he is dead, and use his emails to conduct business!

Most people don’t have to bury a father and then do what I do every day.

No, you may have lost a father but you don’t have to wake up and wear his shoes.

This is too much!

My father dying isn’t the same for me as attending my old father’s funeral, whom I knew was sick and would die, and with whom I had time to say my last peace, tell him I love him, tell him I’m sorry for ever being anything but grateful.  This is shock.  It is rupture.  It is confusion.  It is senseless.  It is morose.

Likewise, my mother was married to him for 38 years; She was 19.  Now, suddenly, she is without him.  Overnight, her house is silent in the morning and it is silent before bed.  The garbage doesn’t fill as fast.  The dishes are only hers and the laundry doesn’t have any of his clothes.  My mom did not lose a sick, aged man, who had been dying and whom she knew she would lose.  She experienced something totally different.

She lost her world in a single day and now she lives in another one without any warning.

When I think about what happened I cannot help but feel a sense of injustice, injustice that my dad took care of his body, was wary about what he put into it, had regular physicals and blood work, had Lifeway screenings, exercised and refrained from all dietary vices…yet still died without warning while people older, sicker, and in far worse shape avoid the Grim Reaper for some unknown reason.

It rains on the just and the unjust…and this isn’t just.

I don’t really know what people’s expectation of me or my family is.  When does the world expect me to be “fine?” When should I be happy again?  When is my mind free of my father’s constant memory?

I am not sure I know the answer, but if you expect me to be fine after just 3 weeks…I won’t be.  I am not fine.  This situation is not fine.  I will look fine and I will function, moment by moment, but inside I am thinking about my father…and missing him.  Seeing my 65-year-old father in that casket 10-15 years too soon is not fine!  I will tolerate it but I am not fine.

It will be a while before “I” and “fine” are one again…and spiritual platitudes do not make it easier.

I am not an expert at grief or loss.  If I am lucky, this will be the hardest loss I suffer.  I will die before my wife and kids, and my own mother will grow old and I will say goodbye to her in our time, with time and with notice.

I am no expert but I have observed something I feel compelled to share.

It is simple: you do not understand my loss.  You cannot relate and it is not the same as yours.  Likewise, I am also removed from your loss…for good or ill, bigger or smaller…you don’t understand mine and I don’t understand yours.  If yours was easier to deal with, great.  I am glad you had that blessing.  If mine is easier, than you are in my prayers…because this pit is its own special hell and I would hate to see where you are but I’ll acknowledge you’ve been to a place I haven’t.

This is blunt: you do not understand my loss.

Losing an old, sick father, is not the same as me losing a healthy father suddenly.  The slow rupture and loss you felt as you released emotional connection to a man you knew would die is not the same as my father being jerked out of my life, out of this world, and into another.

Just because you lost a dad, doesn’t mean you have any idea how the loss of mine feels.  Please don’t compare it…and please don’t tell me you understand…because you don’t.

Likewise, you don’t understand what my mother feels.  You may have lost a husband, and you may be a widow, but you didn’t talk to him at 5:30, hear him tell you he’ll see you at 7:30, and the next time you saw him was 9pm, in an ER bed, dead.  You losing your old husband isn’t the same.

For those of you who have experienced sudden, rupturing loss, you have an idea…and you know the depth of how bad it sucks…but even then, none of us can experience the grief of another nor should any of us impute our experience of grief onto another person.  I will not grieve as you, nor you as I, so please let’s save the nicety and be honest: we don’t understand how one another feels.

All we can do is be present…and stop with the impossible empathy and reminders that God has a plan because if killing humans is part of God’s plan and “timing,” then perhaps we should revisit whether a capricious God like that is worth our attention.  I digress.

Likewise, I do not understand what it is to lose my father when he was 40, after he dropped me off at school, only to find that later in the day he will commit suicide.  I do not get that pain.  I don’t understand that…but one of my friends does.  I lost a father, you lost a father, but none of us lost a father like that!  We don’t understand her loss even though we lost the same “person.”

You may understand what it means to lose a father, but you don’t understand what it means to lose one that left this world by his own actions.

My uncle lost a son at 20.  He said goodnight to him, hugged him, told him he loved him at 9pm.  6-7 hours later police knock on his door and tell him his son is dead.  He was killed in a car accident, ejected from the back of the rear window, thrown 200 feet, and DOA.  You may have lost a son…but did you lose him like that?

I pray I never lose a child like that…I don’t understand that kind of loss…and I never want to.  Many people have lost sons, and fathers, and wives and daughters…but each loss is unique.  Yet we seem to think that because we have lost that same “person” we understand what the grieving person is feeling.

Well, we don’t.  I never understood that quite like I understand it now so I am sorry if I ever told you “I understand” when I really had no idea.

We need to stop saying it because all it does it either belittle our own loss or it belittles the loss of the other; It does nothing to comfort the hurting person.  We can never feel the grief of the other.  We are always outside someone else’s experience.

I am not writing this to negate your loss or say my loss is greater than yours…but I do believe, and psychological research reinforces this, that certain types of loss are harder to adjust to and process than others.  Loss and grief is not universally experienced.  Your loss may be greater, or easier to process, but our losses are not the same.

Your experience is unavailable to me and mine is unavailable to you.

As for my loss, I do not expect anyone to understand even though people have told me they do because they “lost a father too.”  I don’t expect empathy because my individual experience is just that: individual.

I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers and texts, but the experience of grief via the death of a loved one is not universal.  It is singular and it is experienced singularly via the relationship we had to the departed.  You losing a father isn’t like me losing a father, or vice versa…and you losing a father or husband in old age isn’t like my mother losing a spouse.

I’m sorry we can’t feel for one another but the nature of feeling refuses its synonymy.

Honestly, I feel cheated and robbed by what happened.  My father’s death not only ended his life, but it will change and shape the direction of my life, my mom, my sister, and my kid’s life…all in a way that if it had happened in a decade from now wouldn’t have been the case.  Most of all, his untimely death doesn’t allow me to be a better son, speak power into his life, encourage him when I knew he needed it but was too busy to take the time.  While I will move past those regrets, I will get to live with them.

My grief is mine.  It is not ours.  The sooner we understand this the better humans we can be toward one another when we experience loss, and at some point, we will experience it for ourselves or we will share it with others.

Not all people will go through sudden loss.

Some of us will be lucky.  We will grow old, our parents will grow old, our children will grow old…and we will bury one another in appropriate seasons.  I pray that is what happens for you.  I pray you never feel what it means for a loved one to be instantly removed without warning.  I pray you wake up each day to a familiar world with familiar people.  I pray you get to let them go gently.  I pray you are that fortunate…and I pray I am that fortunate moving forward.

Some Deserts may be traveled with others but they are experienced alone.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

 

 

 

 

We Are What We Do

There is an adage oft repeated by professors of history, theology and bible: form and content, form and content…are two sides of the same coin.

To a fledgling student of these disciplines this statement sounds strange, even awkward.  As people in cultures, we have preconceived ideas of the meaning of history, what we believe about God and the world, and whether we even care about the bible.  We are good on the content side; we have content.

But what about form?  How is content affected by form?

Many of us know what we believe but many of us fail to consider how what we believe is demonstrated in our lives, the latter being an expression of the former prior to any sort of verbal acknowledgment.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek would like to remind us, we are not what we say…we are what we do.

There are many ways to answer that question but I want to answer it from a theological and ecclesiastical position, a classical confession that is nearly as old as the church.  Its dictum can be found in the Latin phrase “Lex Orandi (the way we worship), Lex Credendi (what we believe), Lex Vivendi (how we live).”

Translation? The way worship is reflective of our faith and so in turn is reflective of how we live.

Regarding religious communities this dictum is typically accurate.

For example, a church that has a strong theological conviction (lex credendi) to work for social justice will embody that conviction in their worship (lex orandi).  It will be a church that prays for social justice, that preaches sermons challenging its people to be inclusive in their ministry, and urges people to confront oppressive cultural structures that alienate others.  It will have an open table for all who wish to dine with Christ, a table that will not discriminate based on baptism, sexuality, gender, race, etc.  It will most likely be a diverse church, one that is urban centered where racial, ethnic and cultural differences are spanned by a common urban experience.  It will value community more than individuality.  Its confession and worship being intimately, and intentionally, linked.

Thus, its faith (credendi) is exhibited in its worship (orandi), which in theory should extend to the way its members participate in the world ethically, politically, economically, etc.

Another example might be the relationship of form and content in regard to the average Americans opinion, or convictions, regarding religion.  

Many Americans acknowledge a strong commitment to ideas such as God, even considering themselves religious.  When they are polled we see a fantastically religious group of people in the United States.  However, when we observe actual practices and probe further, we find that the form of their lives does not connect with the content of their confessions.

Recent studies show us that about ¼ of Americans attend a religious service once a month.  Dogma is on the decline, knowledge of sacred texts and traditions is waning, and acts of service seem to stem from humanitarian desires rather than theological conviction.  People are praying but their prayers do not seem to indicate a dependence on a transcendent personality given the prevalence of practical atheism, even among those within a religious community.

Admitting that the above is a general and broad description, it is clear that the form of many American lives is not connected to the content of their confession.  The form (orandi)  is disclosing the real content regardless of what they confess (credenda).

This is a troublesome reality for many Christians who have for so long believed that their confessions “save” them.

Catholics, for example, have believed that the liturgical act of Eucharist can supersede who they are because who they are is lost in an Augustinian abyss.  Imputed grace is the word of the day.  Yet, if the content of the kenotic Christ does not take root in the person than the form (orandi) is anemic, never fully connected to a confession (credendi). 

 To further complicate the issue for Catholics, it is as if there is an artificial separation between publics, one holy and one secular.  In the holy public of the church building confession and worship go hand in hand, yet in the secular public outside its walls lies a huge disconnect between confession and act.
Protestants have it no better.  

Protestants have placed such a heavy emphasis on confession that we have entire traditions of Christians who believe their words, or silent thoughts in their minds at an altar, carry eternal consequence.  With Luther as their theological grandparent, action is eschewed for confession, form becoming separated from content as the Letter of James was from Luther’s theological confession.  

We sincerely hope we can tell ourselves who we are without actually being that person…and all thanks to the generous theological idea of grace.

This should make us all wary.  

It doesn’t mean that our theological traditions, be they Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are poor traditions, mistaken metanarratives of no use to us.  Rather, it is the opposite: these theological worlds exist in the delicate balance between form and content, their very survival and efficaciousness dependent on people able to live them out instead of betray them.

Jesus knew of this delicate balance and of participants in religious systems that seem to have forgotten the necessary relationship between form and content.  He said as much when he said

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? (Matthew 7. 15-16)

The philosophical issues that surround the relationship between form and content are literally endless.  Entire treatises and lectures have been written on the subject.  

Nuances aside, there is one thing that remains and it is a terrible thing to consider: Say what we will and think what we may, our lives may not be what we say and we may not be who we think.

I leave you with a poem.

The Human Abstract by William Blake

Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor;

And Mercy no more could be.

 

If all were as happy as we;

 

And mutual fear brings peace;

Till the selfish loves increase.

 

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.

 

He sits down with holy fears.

 

And waters the ground with tears:

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.

 

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the Caterpillar and Fly

Feed on the Mystery.

 

And it bears the fruit of Deceit.

 

Ruddy and sweet to eat:

And the Raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.

 

The Gods of the earth and sea,

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain

 

 

My Confession: God Made Me Do It! Or why I am in a DMin Program

mcafee

It takes very little for many of us to become enamored with intellectualism and knowledge.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  Knowledge is power and when suddenly one acquires knowledge that seems to give you leverage over others…well, not only do you acquire said knowledge but one begins to sense the power associated therewith.  It feels good to know things.  It feels good to be able to articulate ideas, think through dilemmas and forge pathways toward answers.  Knowledge “unsticks” a person and it feels good to get unstuck, even if one is not terribly sure what this new unstuck place is.

Unstuck is awesome because suddenly the world is larger, your mind is open, things are bigger, meanings are deeper and the things you were raised with don’t seem as constricting.  Very literally, knowledge opens the world in a way that was previously closed. It’s remarkable and its impact inestimable on the psyche.

For many of us, this epiphany and shiny new knowledge happens in college.

This is that college kid swagger that T.I. refers to when he raps and the pretentiousness that is often associated with kids who go off to school as student.  Somewhere during the process of learning the student becomes a self-promoting expert (usually before graduation).  It is amazing how naïve we can be as people who think we know more than we do at the ripe old age of 20, our opinions presumably forged in the dark night of our infantile experiences.

I’ll never forget sitting in one of my professor’s office as a junior in college.  I had just been home for the holidays and I was complaining to him about how “closed minded my parents were,” how they “didn’t get it” and how if they were only as smart as me then they’d see the light on a certain issue.

The prof sat there, hands folded across his lap, leaned back, listening.  He grinned, nodded and there were not a few “uh huhs.”  After I was done, he leaned over and said, “well, did you communicate your concerns as a loving son who has a passion for the church and wants to see them grow spiritually or did you communicate as a smart ass?”

Whelp.  He pegged me.  The Holy Spirit used my prof to get real.  After I got over the fact that my prof had just pulled some Pauline vulgarity on me, I realized he was right.  It didn’t quite settle in at that point, but he was right.

The hubris I exhibited in those early years, and in smaller measures through seminary as I began to relax a bit more, set me on a path I was sure ordained by God.  My original intent was to take this knowledge, my unstuckness, and be a preacher, but at this point I knew my life would take on an academic trajectory; I wanted to be a religion professor. All the signs seemed to be pointing in that direction.

I had done well in college and seminary.  I had earned awards for my work.  I had been published during seminary and post-seminary.  I had presented papers, contributed to journals and taught some classes.  I enjoyed reading and writing; I enjoyed teaching, presenting and challenging others to think deeply about God, world and one another.  That is what I wanted to do and more than a few people told me I was right.

To save everyone the details, events had happened in my life that made it clear to me the Spirit had opened these doors and it was my job to walk through them.  I could not have written the script of the actors, institutions and friendships that had been pivotal for my academic journey.

My journey as an academic, however, came to a screeching halt February 2014.  From 2008-2014 material realities that were seemingly carrying me to the land of academic promise (which doesn’t quite seem to be promised land anymore) ended in a cul de sac.

For a while, I mourned the PhD.  I mourned that I did not have the liberty to pursue it at any cost.  It was a distant homeland I would never enter.  It made sense for me.  It made sense for how I thought, the world I liked to engage, and what animated me as a person.  In a very strong sense, it felt like a calling.

Have you ever heard your calling only to be wrong? 

The PhD would have been one the most arduous journeys I could submit myself to, and in the end, prove to myself who I really was.  In my mind, (beginning from the time of my early twenties to just a few years ago) it was the pinnacle of intellectual rigor and I wanted that badge.

Now, that badge would never arrive.

However, I knew what I would never do; I would never take the easy route and get a doctorate as a Doctor of Ministry.  I would rather have nothing than have THAT degree.

Early in my college years I began to look with disdain on Doctor of Ministry degrees…thinking that most holders of the degree were complete jokes.

Dmin’s were practical degrees and I hated my practical classes, except preaching class…I always loved that one.

In fact, many of us undergraduates would make fun of the classes we had in praxis, how shallow they were, how useless, how much they wasted our time.  The reading was boring, obvious and not challenging in the slightest.  We were stuck thinking about Christian education and global missions when we could have been pondering things that really mattered like Barth’s Theology, a proper exegesis of sanctification within a canonical context or the distinctions of Pauline theology between Luther and Calvin.

Why would I want a degree dependent on praxis when there were real degrees worth earning?

Practical classes sucked and seemed too subjective and “touchy feely” for my taste.  I even rid myself of most of my library that was praxis driven as if to purge myself of such useless material and make room for things that really mattered like Lacan and Raymond Brown.

The Dmin was something any village idiot could get online via Liberty University.  Even places like Vanderbilt quit offering them because the degree had been watered down.  One need only pay your money and write a ludicrous thesis to attain such lowly doctoral status.  I had heard folks with DMins speak and preach.  I was unimpressed.  I wanted to create as much distance between myself and them as possible.

These were degrees pursued by pastors not smart enough to do a PhD, so they took the easy way out to get a Doctorate to get the infamous DR. in front of their names.

If I was going to pursue a doctorate it would be the granddaddy of them all, the PhD, or it would be nothing at all.  My MDiv would do just fine.

This was my opinion regarding the Doctorate of Ministry Degree for quite a while. Even while in seminary, many of the DMin. thesis written for graduation hadn’t done much to change my opinion.

But life has a funny way of happening.  Since the life of King David God has been one who often employs irony.

Who am I if I am not going to be a teacher?  What should I do if I cannot do a PhD?  Is this my calling or is my calling different?  How can I be so good at something yet not have opportunity to pursue it?  Am I to be a pastor with an academic tilt or an academic that does church ministry frequently?

These questions animated my thoughts.  The thing is though, I was neither going to be a pastor now, or a teacher, both of those occupations never coming to fruition.  It seemed my life had become totally disconnected from my calling.  Sure, I had done some part time ministry and wore the label “pastor” but I never felt like that was it.  Even after 5-6 years of such I never felt like that was “my place.”  I had been working toward something and now I’d never get there.

“Here I am, Send me”…and yet all that was happening was me standing still…a simple “here I am.”

The few times I needed a church to want me, they didn’t…and when I needed the Academy to take me, it wouldn’t.  Seems I had missed this “calling” thing all along…either as an external voice crying out to Moses or as Parker Palmer would encourage one to “listen within.”  I was tone deaf both directions.

About a year and a half after my PhD dreams had been dashed against the rocky ledges of life and the Church I wanted to serve found service from another, a series of texts messages put me back on the path.  For about 16 months I had been stalled, sitting on the side of the road, making pizza.  It’s ok, it’s a first world problem and I happen to like making pizza.

Into the silence of going nowhere, I hear a voice, “Hey, I am involved with the DMin program here at Mercer.  You should apply…we can do some really cool things in ethnography, wedding together theory and praxis.”

It’s wasn’t God text messaging me but it might as well have been.

Have you heard my opinion of a Dmin?

Asking me if I wanted to apply for a DMin was like asking Moses to lead the people out of Egypt: there’s a million reasons why I shouldn’t.  For starters, how do I reconcile considering this degree with my opinion of it and will I “fit” with the group of folks pursuing its ends?  Is this a “cop out”  to earn a doctorate or is this another moving of the Spirit…moving in others and now toward me?  I’m not even doing traditional ministry…why would a DMin program want something as unconventional as I have to offer?

As I investigated the program and what type of work I’d be capable of doing within it, I knew within 2 weeks it was something I needed to do.  Like all programs this degree would be what I made of it.  If I wanted to take the easy road, go lightweight, and just earn a piece of paper by paying for it, then I could of course do that.  But that’s not me.

This degree opened a window of opportunity to wed theory and praxis in a way I had never done.  It could make me the complete scholar and minister I had never been.

My undergraduate and masters work was all theory.  Yeah, I did ministry, but the work never took strong consideration of developing praxis from within, and out of, a rigorous theoretical apparatus.

Anyone can read a Missions book and follow the Roman Road, or preach a deductive salvation sermon that takes 15 minutes and a lot of shallow opinion to write.  These are not the questions that inspired me…and if they don’t inspire me I’m sure God must be bored with them.

The questions this degree set my mind upon were deep and wide, like how might the work of anthropology inform our theology and help us traverse culture in order to communicate Christ in meaningful ways?  What might Peter Berger have to do with Bible and what might Charles Taylor’s God have to do with the pagans Paul encounters on Mars Hill?  Might there be a connection between missiology and Pierre Bourdieu…and how might fieldwork inform our theology?  How does the incarnation as contextual theology inform the development of our own contextual missiology…and what potentials have yet to be explored?

These are the sorts of questions I am after and the sorts of questions this degree has invited me to ask.  We are not content with letting theology and bible be singular topics that only inform only one another.  If we can say that God is sovereign in any capacity then we must also say it is our duty to engage our work within the full realm of theoretical and practical contributions, and across the full spectrum of theological and secular voices.

This pursuit, the engagement of gospel and culture, is where the Spirit has me at this moment.  Being here at this moment then precludes me being elsewhere and may explain why I am here and not there.  I have wondered many times, and even heard people ask me in church, “surely God hasn’t given you all that knowledge to just sit here.”

Touché friendly lay person, touché. 

Since I graduated seminary some interesting things have happened inside of me.

First, I no longer care if people think I am smart.  I have nothing to prove to anyone.

Second, I have grown to disdain idle debate, metaphysical queries to which no one can possibly know the answer and in which we are simply theological naval gazers.  I simply do not care if God can make a rock that even God cannot pick up.  Don’t ask me if God knows the future because I don’t care.  I commend Augustine for thinking the Greeks were cray cray with all this perichoresis business.

Third, doctrine has lost most of its importance to me.  It is often idle and does nothing to enhance a relationship with God in Christ.  It is simply a dividing line that demarcates who is in and out…something the Gospel seems antithetical towards.  I am interested in real life, real life with God and real life with others.  I will not die on any doctrinal hill.

Fourth, my gift isn’t one that requires me to be stuck in an ivory tower.  Why do I know what I know?  Why have I learned what I have learned?  I believe it is so I can engage the changing demographics of our country, most noticeably having the ability to engage with those who have a strong antipathy toward anything having to do with faith, religion or God.

Fifth, I see a strong need for thoughtful people of faith to be bridges to culture.  There are many negative opinions about the church and it is often because many people never meet a thoughtful follower of Jesus.

Sixth, the role of pastor is not singular.  I am the only bivocational minister with a secular job, that I know of, pursuing advanced ministerial studies in the DMin program I attend.  There is room for a myriad of characters when it comes to living in the new creation.  In a real way, I am living out Wesley’s proclamation, “the world is my parish.”  That is my case…as I have no parish.

Seventh, I want to be involved in an authentic ministry that, to use the words of Miroslav Volf, is characterized by “inclusion and embrace.”  If following Jesus means anything to me nowadays, it means creating a community out of a people who are not supposed to have any place of belonging…or out of people who have been excluded.

Eighth, faith and belief are to be grounded in common human experience and are not things we can ascend to in our understanding.  One cannot attain God by an act of the mind, but rather only through the movement of the heart.

Ninth, I am open to creating a community of faith for those who have no home anywhere but would like a home somewhere.  There can still be church even when one cannot bring themselves to go to church.

Tenth, I believe that God is at work in the secular, present and at work in people even though God is never a conscious reality to any of them.  The vestiges of transcendence are to be disclosed not foreclosed.

Eleventh, for missions to mean anything moving forward, it will mean recreating, reforming and reshaping the institutional church to look less like itself and more like Jesus.

Since finishing seminary my work in the church, academic pursuits and secular job have all persuaded me of these realities.  My heart and mind have changed.  I am no longer drunk on my own intellectual abilities nor am I fascinated by the ability of others.  Life is about more than looking smart and beating into submission all the supposed “ignorant” people around us.  When this is our approach we become nothing but asses even as we think we are being prophets.  Balaam comes to mind.  If my participation in ministry is not more than being right, and more than being knowledgeable, than my ministry is nothing more than nothing.

I once thought large portions of my intellect and ability would be poured into creating a new doctrine of God or creating newer postmodern hermeneutics used to interpret biblical texts.  I now believe large portions of my time will be used in a theo-anthropological endeavor as one that seeks to discover the divine that never left instead of convince others of a divine they have never seen.  I hope to map the stories of others in the hope that I’ll be mapping nothing less than the incarnation.

Thus, in an ultimate twist of irony I now find myself doing a degree I had once foresworn and thinking about practical things, like missiology, that had at one time been the subject of my scorn.

And God laughs.

I never imagined I could bridge faith, praxis and theory in a way that would deepen myself while also deepening the church and serving others.  I never considered I’d be investing into the potential of bridging Gospel and culture.  I had never thought I would feel compelled to be a part of the monumental shift that is taking place regarding faith and religion in the West.  It is scary but it is full of excitement and opportunity.  No one knows what will happen as we continue to lift the veil off Constantinian Christianity but I am exhilarated by the possibilities that lie ahead for followers of Jesus.  I am thankful for the possibilities faith and belief can have in a world where these ideas do not represent power or big churches, but rather embody love and salvation for us all.

I had imagined I would stand on the boundary between church and university, but in a world in which both of those institutions are being questioned (and more irrelevant) it seems the boundary I am called toward is the one between faith and culture, institutions and post-institutionalism, ethics and eros.  This the boundary for which my education has, and is, preparing me, and its one in which I am comfortable finding myself even as those on either side may continue to wonder why.

Thus, I do this Dmin, a degree I once hated, thinking topics I once loathed, and discovering in it all why God has me here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Blame Your Vote on the Bible

votethebible

A curious thing has happened this election cycle, the likes of which I have never witnessed in my 35 years of life: Christians are voting for a man that is completely morally bankrupt.

It’s an unusual place for people of faith to find themselves in. Usually, at least where I grew up, the sinner is the democrat, the evil fiend that supports partial birth abortion (which sickens me as much as many of you), cradle to grave financial assistance and condones anything, anyone, wants to do with their body.  The choice, at least in the minds of many, has always been clear.

I literally did not meet my first Democrat Christian until I went to college but that’s because I didn’t know any Democrats in my Republican evangelical bubble.  Until the ripe age of 18 I had no idea a Christian Democrat was even possible…and many still hold this opinion.

Republicans are Christian (family values) and Democrat’s support things that ain’t; It’s as simple as that.

This is what people usually mean when they say “I vote with a biblical worldview” and it usually results in social policy that reflects the Republican Party (since fiscally both parties are the same).

I know, I know, but don’t tune me out yet. I’m not trying to make you mad…I’m trying to make you think.

I am not saying that anyone has the moral high ground this election. I’m not saying that you should vote for Clinton (I’m not) but saying that morality is now relative or that one’s morality is at least better than the others (even though both Trump and Clinton have proven absent) is not an argument for anything.

It’s an argument to justify a decision.

I am stating that for many years now, at least since President Reagan, a large segment of voters have voted based on “Christian” values, and now, faced with voting for someone that doesn’t share those Christian values, but does sit atop the GOP ticket, Christians are scrambling to either jettison the importance of values or make Trump align with values he’s never embraced.

One of the many attempts to do so, and the object of this essay, is to suggest that since God used sinful people in the Old Testament that clearly means God can use sinful people to accomplish his goals and not merely use, but that God chose to implement this strategy.

Just find a random religious thread on Facebook or Twitter, a thread that uses the Bible to justify voting Trump, and you will find this argument.

I literally read in a thread (and since I have heard it countless times in various forms) that “since God used the midwives of Pharaoh, Samson, and the Assyrians to accomplish his will it is possible that God can use Trump as well…and he’s better than Clinton.”

So let me get this straight.

The reason we should vote for Trump is because he shares commonality with Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and Old Testament Heroes that were narcissistic? That’s the argument we are working with here?

We are not in Kansas anymore.

God “used” these “evil” or “sinful” realities to administer world history, therefore, we should vote for someone of the same character for God to continue to do so? A character the likes of which God’s prophets continually warned against using?
If this was the case, and Christians for so long have not voted democrat for EXACTLY that reason (evil, sinful, depraved policies) then why haven’t Christians been voting Democrat all along?

Maybe we could have expedited this whole American Exile thing that many people believe we have entered.

If there is any thread that runs throughout the scriptures it is not one of obedience, but one of a called, chosen people, disobeying God, repetitively being disciplined, corrected, and then redeemed.

Israel never “gets it” so to speak. God has to use that which is not sanctified because sanctified Israel is hardly of use. But it’s not like the Bible tells us that was pleasing to God.

But since the Bible says God used those things that weren’t holy to do his will we are now ready to embrace those unholy things because the unholy is the only choice we have…

The only issue I have here is that we don’t want to admit that. We want to justify it with our faith in order to sleep at night, but the result of doing so is damage to that very faith construct.  The damage of which will be felt long after any election.

Personally, I do not care about the morality of my president (no I am not voting Trump). There was a time when people of government and official administration were mannered, polite and self-deferential for the common good. That time has long passed.

Recent American presidential history (at least from JFK to the present) gives us a cast of characters that set the bar very low when it comes to morality.

I wrote here during the primary season that it’s absurd to vote on values any longer. I argued we should vote on political principles and philosophy instead. This is how a Christian, like myself, can embrace the political philosophy of one Thomas Jefferson (an agnostic I would argue but some say atheist). We share different faith lenses but that doesn’t keep me from being persuaded of his political philosophy.

The very last thing we should do, however, is justify a flawed character because we believe the bible justified flawed characters.

This is both the problem, solution and brilliance of scripture.

Scripture has no recourse but to use flawed characters because that is literally all that it has. And that should make us all feel a little better about ourselves.
There is no biblical character, no hero of the bible, that is perfect. None of them are holy and contrite in every intention. The great heroes: Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon…they are all messed up people.

So the point is, yes, God uses flawed people because we are all flawed people.

But there is also an irony when you compare those flawed people with the cast of characters known as Assyria, Persia, and the rest: Those characters are NEVER used in the bible as exemplars of the kinds of people or nations God WANTS to use. 

This is the large message of all of these Books in the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. In these books, the people of God FAIL to live as Deuteronomy instructs them. The bible heroes in these stories are tragic displays of unfaithfulness that God continues to work around, so in an ironic twist, we see them behave like Donald Trump, disobey commands, get themselves in precarious situations. 

They are not exemplars of how to be faithful to God. God wants to use THESE people but because they are so dense he outsources to the nations and to characters who are not part of God’s people (in the narrative).

The message is: Don’t be like these people…it will not go well if you do. Samson committed suicide, Moses never entered the Promised Land, David never ruled a united Kingdom and Israel eventually went into Exile. All Bad stuff.

The fact that God has to use these other characters (Assyria, Persia, Pharaohs midwives, just pick your villain or non-Israelite cast member) is not a justification of them; it is an indictment against Israel. It is tongue in cheek.  

It is not a “go and do likewise” commandment of Jesus.

Through them scripture teaches us this lesson: so you won’t fulfill the calling I have for you? Fine. Moving right along and this way may take a bit longer.

It’s never God’s preference to use Assyria, or the Philistines, or whomever. This is what ends up happening because God’s people are of no use.

This is why we find many stories in the Old Testament in which the least suspected characters are servants of God: God didn’t set out for Israel to be misguided but misguided it has been so God has to use other actors in history, not as a first resort, not as a vote FROM his people, but because there is a mission to accomplish.

At least this is what we find in the biblical narrative, the narrative that gives us theological justification for why history happened as it did.

The Bible records events years after the events themselves. Its authors have spent copious hours trying to understand, justify and make sense of the movement of history.  What we find in scripture is the result of that process.

God using evil as a first choice, however, is never condoned. God’s people selecting kings that were blatantly antithetical to their principles as a people never happened intentionally (though one could argue that their initial intentions were flawed and such happened regularly such as King Saul or some of Solomon’s sons).

It makes little sense to use the Bible in this way, to suggest that because an event happened in the Bible and God used it, that that is God’s preferred way of doing things.

It makes even less sense to suggest that we should be implicated in wrong doing because God can use it anyhow.

Something about Jesus saying “it is written you shall not test the Lord your God” comes to mind here…

Sometimes the Bible is not a prescription for how we are to act. Sometimes it is a warning against how not to act. It teaches us what to prevent through its witness and what to avoid embracing…which is why all the Christian justification of Trump is so puzzling.

You want to vote for Trump, that’s cool, but don’t blame it on God or the Bible.  Own it yourself.

Same goes if you want to vote Hillary.  She’s not the benevolent government administrator one finds in Jacob.

I feel like we have fully become biblical Israel in this election because we have forgotten who we are and justified a vote for depravity with our faith. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sounds a lot like another story I know, a story that finds God’s people doing what they thought was right even as a golden calf was being fashioned right before their eyes.
And we know what they did for the next 40 years after that vote was cast.

What is “White Privilege?”

privilege

There is a video going viral of a 14 year old boy making an apology tour for “white privilege.”  The video shows a young middle school aged kid reciting a poem at school in which he derides white privilege (thus bringing attention to it) while also refusing to abscond his privilege.

Yes it’s a problem, but no, he’s not voluntarily giving it up. Rather he hopes for the day when no privilege exists.

The video is weird to watch because the kid is 14.  What 14 year old could possibly have been walking around in his own skin self-reflexive enough to understand that his interaction in society is markedly different than people of color?  How has he lived long enough to explore the experiences he recites in his poem?  The parents say they have not “coached” him but it is really hard to imagine all of that came out of his head.

It’s almost like watching a Republican try to speak on behalf of a refugee; it’s just odd and conceptually anachronistic.

After a few minutes of internet trolling this kids poem, it became clear there is a huge disagreement about the topic of the poem: privilege.  Besides all the negative comments about the kid, his parents, and the puppetry that seems to be taking place, privilege is a central issue of disagreement.

Everyone is using the same word but many people are using it differently.

I do not wish to debate the merits of the young man’s poem.  I do, however,  want to look briefly at the concept of privilege because when white people and people of color use this term it is clear we are not sharing in the same Wittgensteinian language game.

First, when people say “white privilege exists” they do not mean that life isn’t hard for white people.  I have heard radio hosts and read many comments wherein this is the interpretation.  This is what has been outraging white people, that the black community, minority communities or the media, seem to be implying that “white privilege” is synonymous with “white ease of life.”

This is simply not the case.

I know many many white people who have hard lives.  I have friends with college degrees who work their butts off and make personal sacrifices to make ends meet for their families and themselves.  I have white friends who are veterans and whom do not have a place of their own to sleep at night. I have family that lives in the Tennessee Appalachia and I see that clearly white privilege doesn’t mean all white people have an easy life, get everything handed to them or that they do not experience discomfort because they are white.

No one is arguing that white people do  life do not suffer.

Life is hard.  It is complex and it can be a tribulation regardless of your skin color.  The term “white privilege” doesn’t negate that your life may be very hard, even if you are white.   All people can have a hard or difficult life; it seems to be an innate part of creation post Adam and Eve.   No one is saying you have an easy life because you are white; you can keep your scars.  No one is taking them from you.

Arriving at that acknowledgment, however, does not now render term “white privilege” meaningless.

Second, the term “white privilege” does not mean you are given first dibs on all the good stuff.  It does not mean that you can skip all societal loops of accomplishment.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get the best pay, the best job, the best spouse or the best neighborhood.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get promotions or that you by default are given good grades.

If you have worked hard and accomplished a lot in life…that is great!  You most likely sacrificed time with family/friends for those accomplishments.  I too, am white, and I have spent many hours in study or at work doing what others wouldn’t in order to achieve what others won’t.  I get it.

No one is trying to say you didn’t work hard when they use the term “white privilege.”

President Obama’s comments  “you didn’t build that” made me bristle as much as it did you.   I know what it is like to have employees that want the reward without the work, that want the status without the effort and the notoriety without the sacrifice.  It’s just the country we live in now.  I understand why people of any race react when someone says they have a privileged status yet they have worked hard for everything they have.

I grant you that.  Privilege has not meant you have never had a hard life or that you haven’t worked hard to climb from that life.

These concessions aside, the term “white privilege” is still not meaningless.  It just doesn’t mean what white people think its means.

By “white privilege” one usually means that a person who is white is under less suspicion and given the benefit of doubt in many circumstances.  That’s it. 

It means that you have never felt disadvantaged or been looked at with circumspection in routine daily activities because you are white.  Your whiteness, and mine, have given us different life experiences because we have been looked at differently due to the color of our skin.  The worst is never assumed because I am white and driving at midnight; such is most likely not the case for the typical black male.

Simply put, it means there are no societal obstacles to understanding who I am as a white male.  Society allows me the privilege to show who I am by how I act, what I do and the character with which I live my life.  Nothing about me is assumed because I am white. 

I’d be willing to bet that even the poor Appalachian white person would also be given the benefit of the doubt when they are in public.  They may not feel privileged but in that regard they are.  They are poor, but they are white, and in our society that is usually better than being poor and black.  It’s the difference between assuming the white person may have a WIC voucher in their pocket to buy milk while the black person may be watched for theft.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean that black people can’t find work, get equal pay, apply for the same opportunities or even have the same success.   Black people can do everything white people can do in our society and they often do.   It simply means that because of the color of our skin, consciously or unconsciously, the worst is not usually assumed just by looking at us.

“White privilege” also means not having the pressure of being representative of my entire race.   Black men especially don’t have this luxury.

As a white male, if I commit a crime, am rude in public or commit domestic abuse that act stays with me, and me alone.  I bear the responsibility.  My neighbors, fellow church folk and colleagues at work won’t cast my behavior over all white men everywhere.

This simply won’t be said, “Well, Nathan acted like a complete jerk in public and the cops came out to his house to settle a domestic issue…see, just another example of what’s wrong with white people.”

Most people will understand that my actions do not speak for the majority of white males.  Any white male friends of mine will go to work and the grocery store the next day and most likely not experience any suspicion or staring faces because of what I have done. 

 I’m the crazy white dude, not them.

Black men don’t have this luxury.

How many of you have been in class with lots of white people and maybe two black people?  Has there not been a time when the teacher, or a classmate, looks at one of the black people and asks for “the black perspective?”  This happens all the time in campuses across this country.  We all listen intently, many of us gleaning insight into the feelings of someone with a different perspective.  It is an enriching experience, one from which I have benefited.

The problem with this, however, is that it is assumed that the opinion given by one black person is constitutive of ALL black people.  We have a multiplicity of white views but ONE black view.   This is the working assumption.  White people understand that lots of white people think differently, but far too many white people assume all black people (or LGBTQ people for that matter) think the same.  When one black person speaks it is the absolute on the “black experience.”

How can any person be responsible for something so weighty?  I have no idea what it is like to be a black male and know that when I open my mouth people assume I am speaking for, and representing, an entire race of people.  For black men that do this well, kudos, because I cannot imagine how difficult this is socially.

This is what is meant by “white privilege”: it is the privilege to be seen as you are without any assumptions simply based on the color of your skin.  This is it, nothing more, nothing less.

The trouble is white people don’t see this as “white privilege” because they are not aware it is happening (for a fuller expose on whiteness see my other post here).  We just assume all people are looked at the same, treated the same and experience things like us…we don’t know we are privileged in these ways…and honestly, it is hard for white people to even get outside themselves enough to concede this.  Ironically, this is exactly what it means to be privileged.

This does not mean that “white privilege” exists everywhere, all times and with equal proportion but it does mean that as a culture we have presumed ideas that enter our minds when we encounter certain people.  It means that there are nascent assumptions at work in all of us, the production of literally hundreds of years, that silently creep upon us whether we will it or not.

The terminology isn’t about taking anything away from the hard work of white people or their hardships.   Obversely, it doesn’t take away from the fact that just because you are not “privileged” doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and be successful.  Many can and do.

It simply means that when you walk out the door to enter the world, the world will judge you totally and fully by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.  No assumptions.  No stereotypes.  No universals.  You are free to impact the world through your action and the world will only respond to you in kind.

It’s really not a question of whether or not it exists; it’s a question of whether when you sense in yourself this hint at privileging some over others (without any reason or purpose), that you pause and make a choice to change how you will act toward people of difference.  This is the only way the world will change, when people who can act, know to act and then act differently.

It would  be fantastic to limit the labels black, white, etc., to cultural discussions, but until our rhetoric matches our action (and thoughts) we are only deceiving ourselves.  It easy to say you believe “x” until something other than “x” pops in your mind when that different person enters your space, walks near your car, or is seen in your church/neighborhood.

As a Wise man once said, “Do unto others as you would them do to you” (Luke 6.31)