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

St Lukes Caricature

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

3. Written Prayers are Powerful Tools of Formation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Memorizing Prayer/Songs/Creeds.

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

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

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

5. Worship Space Matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Confirmation Picture April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Bible is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part 2 to be posted Sunday…

Lent as Re-Membering: Reflections on Luke 4

Temptations_of_Christ_(San_Marco)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.”

 

 

 

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

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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.

Back to the Future and Syria…some lessons we must unlearn

back-to-the-future

I’ll never forget one of the opening scenes in the movie Back to the Future.  Doc and Marty have gathered in a mall parking lot to experiment with Doc’s new time machine.  This is the setting for the first test run of a machine that will travel through time and space.  Einstein will be vindicated.

As Doc and Marty unload the Delorean and back it onto the pavement, Marty is recording the entire episode with one of those old school hand held vhs recorders (can you believe we used to haul those things around to capture a memory???)

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something disturbing.  He notices a white van armed with heavy artillery machine guns careening in his direction…and at once, as the audience is still trying to figure out what’s happening, Doc yells with a squeaky high pitched tone, “The Libyans!”

Marty is lost.  Why should they care about Libyans?  Doc quickly explains that the time machine needs powerful fuel and the only fuel powerful enough for time travel in 1985 is plutonium…and Doc stole the plutonium from the Libyan Terrorists!

The Libyans crash into the scene shooting up Doc’s car and making Marty duck for cover.  Doc himself is caught in the fire and is presumed dead after being riddled with bullets.  Unbeknownst to Marty (and the audience) Doc isn’t really dead.  He had a silver try on his chest because he knew the Libyans would show up.

As the scene is coming to an end, the time machine eventually has a successful flight “back to the future,” Marty is left recording it all and the Libyans crash their van in a wreckage of fiery misplaced glory as they chase after the Delorean.

And that is how a generation of Americans were introduced to Libyans and Middle Easterners of similar ilk:  Terrorists who smuggle arms, money and chemicals on the black market. 

I vividly remember as a child of 7 years old watching Back to the Future the first time and having this very subtle impression lodged in my consciousness.

Some things never change.

Millions of Americans, if not a majority, continue to have a biased opinion against  Middle Eastern Islamic countries.  The images projected upon us in 1985 from Back to the Future have found a similar place in our collective geopolitical consciousness.  This despite the fact that millions of the same Americans have never visited these countries, lived with its people, studied it history or asked hard questions of our governments approach.

The contemporary hatred for Syria is a fine example of this stereotyping. 

Many steretypes exist around Syria and thinking its government to be akin to Nazi Germany or theocratic Iran has been fueled by the Bush Administration’s ability to turn Syria and Assad into a molten pariah and has been continued by Obama’s pathological desire to want regime change in Syria regardless of the geopolitical consequences.

Obama’s stance has been so hardened that it led him to declare what many of us remember as his “red line” if you will.  The Red Line was Obama’s arbitrary designation that prohibited Assad and his military from using chemical weapons in its war with Free Syrian Rebels.  If Assad used chemicals, then Obama would act with a swift military campaign.

In 2013, it was believed by the administration that that had in fact happened.  A series of attacks in March and April of that year were launched in a small village around the city of Aleppo.   Chemical weapons (a type of sarin gas) were deployed and at least 19 civilians, and 1 solider were killed while scores of others  suffered injuries.  The Obama administration was hot and it began to make preparations to neutralize Assad.

The attack was supposed to happen no later than September 2, but on August 31, 2013, Obama gave a press conference at the Rose Garden and announced the attack would be put on hold as he would seek the approval of Congress (even though he did not seek this same approval in Libya).

Long story short, it is now well known that the Al-Nusra front and the Turks both have the ability to make and proliferate the type of Sarin used in the attack at Aleppo.  Assad’s army did not have that type of Sarin at its disposal.  Obama was being punked, set up, in order to fight a proxy war for Turkey and the Rebels.  The Rebels had released the Sarin on civilians in order to induce an American attack.

Luckily, at the behest of the joint chiefs, the attack never occurred and Obama eventually wised up.  Though his neurotic Syrian policy remains the administration’s stance and few Americans know the truth about chemicals used in Syria…even fewer care to discover the truth as it is much easier to hate Syria than not fall victim to cultural group think.

As Americans, we should ask ourselves, “Should we allow images of Back to the Future and our government’s policy against Syria to be projected onto us?”  Should we embrace it?  Or might it be better to ask a few questions of the government many of us already distrust?

There are actually several reasons to not hate Syria and I would like to propose a few here.  The situation is complex and fraught with the danger of painting too broadly or not considering the many facets of discussion.   Nonetheless, a corrective step in our thinking about Syria is in order.

No doubt, the Assad family rose to power as the result of government take over.  Those are rarely pretty and they are rarely done without exacting causalities.  Bashir Assads father, Hafez, was a shrewd politician and came to power via the Corrective Revolution of 1970 as he took his Ba’ ath Party to power.    He arrested and imprisoned much of his opposition and appointed men of similar religious and political persuasion to positions of power in the new government.

What would result would be a police state and the president (a president by force if you will) was established as a national icon and allegiance to him (or at least not against him) was expected.  This is similar to many other Middle Eastern countries by the way.

There are several occasions of brutality and political maneuvering during Haffez’s presidency that would appall Americans.  Attempts to overthrow the government were the harshest offenses.  Those are well documented and you can search for them yourself.  Despite those attempts, the Assad’s have held onto Syria for nearly 50 years.  Hafez groomed his son Bashar to become president and Bashar has now been president since 2000 (the year his father died).

What I want to point out is not how we got here, but now that we are here how we might think more clearly about Syria and an Assad “regime.”

Is our current opinion and policy warranted?  Should we desire Assad’s ouster because of its historical trajectory or might the world be better off to support his presidency as Westerners even though we may wince at the political culture itself?

First, we should support Assad because he espouses religious toleration.  Anyone that replaces him, such as the folks that now run Iraq, Libya or Egypt, will not espouse religious toleration.

Assad is a member of a unique religious minority that is a mixture of Christian mysticism and Islamic practice.  He is an Alawite, a minority in Syria (less than 5% of the population) that has been persecuted and targeted by the larger Sunni presences for the majority of Syrian history.  As a religious minority and from a family that had experienced religious intoleration, Assad provided (and would provide) a safe space of Muslims, Christians and other minorities to practice their religion.  Syria is one the historical birth places of Christianity and the early church had a strong presence there.  There are convents in Syria that can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and these Christians, though a minority, have been free to live and practice their religion in Syria without persecution.

Likewise, Alawites, Druze, and Ismallis also experienced religious toleration.  To be sure, such was not the case at the beginning of the Corrective Revolution when suspicions were high of any religious expression that could usurp the new Alawite controlled government, but today toleration was the modus operandi.

If Assad is removed such will no longer be the case and we could see the eradication of minority religious sects, including Christianity, from Syria.

Second, Assad provides stability.

The largest point of contention during Bush’s administration was the proliferation of weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, in attacks upon Israel.  The previous administration felt as if Assad was not doing enough to control their borders and stop the trafficking of weaponry.

How times have changed.  With Isis active in the region, the issue is now just to get rid of Assad for the hell of it.  This administration has made no good argument to oust Assad except the false chemical narrative and to continue the narrative of Bush’s axis of evil.  With multiple examples of what attempting to inaugurate “democracy” in the Middle East has actually done, how is this argument still a good one?

Otherwise, why do we want him to leave when it is now clear that the rebellions in other Middle Eastern states have NOT produced the kind of democracy we had hoped?  Is anyone in the government so foolish as to think this is a rebellion of civilians against their government in search of a more democratic way?  In fact, the opposite has shown itself to be the case.  If Assad is deposed, mass instability will ensue into every facet of Syrian life, and the Syrian refugee crisis will disclose itself as the tip of the iceberg.

As Seymour Hersh states, “the so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey…The assessment was bleak: there was no viable moderate opposition to Assad and the US was arming extremists.”

We may not like a Syrian version of democracy, but is the alternative really that much better?

Third, Assad has cooperated militarily with our government even though the public is unaware.

The US and its allies have the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world.  Sryia does not.  However, in unauthorized protocol and communication, there is strong evidence to suggest that Sryia has cooperated with distributing military intelligence about the locations of Isis and Al-Nusra within Syria to the West and its ally in the east, Russia.  Further, Syria provided information about its capabilities and intentions through various military channels with the understanding that it would reach the US.  In exchange, the US military has also put out actionable information that it knew would reach Syria.

In addition, and despite our national amnesia, Syria has cooperated with the US under the Bush administration as well.  After 9/11, Assad was “extremely helpful” according to a former consultant in the intelligence community.  Seymour Hersh notes the extent of cooperation with the US after 9/11.

“In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.  Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant.  In violation of the agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.  Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like the Americans allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere- tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus Prison” (104-105)

Like Washington, Syria believes Isis must be stopped.  Yet we remain churlish toward their historical overtures.

Fourthly, countries we know that support extremism want him gone.

Some of these countries are our allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, these countries have been conspiring with our own government to traffic weapons into Syria in order to exact regime change.  Why would we, as Americans, support the same regime change of a country with no evidence to ever suggest it  (Syria) is an existential threat to America when we have documented mountains of evidence that the few nations mentioned above support, fund and have provided haven to people who are hostile to America, the west and any other religion but their own?

There are existential threats but the Syrian government is hardly one of those.

Why would we be motivated to partner with the devil in order to get closer to the Anti-Christ?  Seems to me there’s much more at stake (money, ideology, silent promissory notes, etc.) that is driving this decision.

Why is the US not directing its attention toward these countries?  Why have we not stood on our moral high horse, our Reaganite “city on  a hill” and demanded more from our NATO pals?

It’s not that the US is not cozy with regimes.  We are very cozy with dictatorships that provide stability so long as we have a piece of the pie.  Due to our frigid rhetorical flourishes toward Syria we have not been allowed to share in any of the pie they distribute.

We are the quintessential bully of the world’s militaries:  We create fantastic narratives about how our violence is justified in order to hide from the reality of our misuse of power.  We pick on countries we know we can defeat while we sleep with countries that have our babies…even though they are cheating on us every second they get.

And like one of my seminary colleagues who served in the armed forces was apt to say: We have to have conflict.  If we don’t have conflict we cannot try out our weaponry, we do not know our full capability and the military cannot promote officers.  Conflict and American Militarism go hand in hand.

Lastly, I have experienced Syrian hospitality first hand.  In 2007 I was able to visit the belly of the beast, Damascus, and spend 4 days within the country’s borders. I visited sites that have been held by Isis such as Palmyra and I have seen the beauty of its people and its geography.  I walked in downtown Damascus and I honestly felt safer there than when I was in Israel, where it seems guns are everywhere in public.  The Syrian people were kind, informative, hospitable, and proud of their country.  I shared Q & A sessions with Christian Syrian doctors, was given a tour of the country by someone that is now a Syrian refugee who has endured hardships and relocated his family to Scandinavia, shared meals with Syrians proud of their heritage and enjoyed the stability of the Assad government when I was there learning as a student and Christian pastor.

I loved Syria when I was there.  I loved its people.  It has a special place in my heart and I wish I could share that experience with each American I come into contact with everyday because I know if we could have passed the peace with Syrians together there would be less hatred toward the country, more empathy for those lost in its war time tragedy and more understanding for a government that might not be our favorite but may be doing the best it can.

Thus, with this overture I ask you to reconsider your opinions on Syria, its government and to caste an opinion that is informed.  Study the situation.  Read some investigative journalism.  And by all means, think for yourself. Do not let your opinion be persuaded by Obama or Fox News…let it be persuaded by the sometimes ugly, and hard choice, that comes when we make decisions based on fact rather than feeling.

I know what we all learned from Back to the Future, but maybe it’s time to rethink that impression.

*The extended Hersh quote and other small quotes are taken from essays in his recently released, Seymour Hersh. The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2016.