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”

 

 

 

 

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

mcafee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever heard your calling only to be wrong? 

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

Now, that badge would never arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you heard my opinion of a Dmin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touché friendly lay person, touché. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God laughs.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts From World 3

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A fool can offer words, a creator can offer worlds

An academic can show you a world, a dreamer invites you into it

Consumers of knowledge are everywhere, generators of knowledge are the rarity

Anyone can summarize the great thoughts of others, yet not simply anyone can have great thoughts

An English teacher can beat a word into submission, a wordsmith can heal its wounds

A protector of doctrine can outline a concept, a lover of the world asks the concept why

A Truth can be hard/concrete or it can be Truth

The beginning of truth is the end of knowledge

Prose can show you the road, only poetry can create it

History can give you a story, the future must give you a home

You can audition for the world or you can make the world watch your audition

God can be your cage or God can be gateway

If God is love than love is our ultimate concern

The letterbox is the world, what do we drop into it

We can use our imagination or we can die thinking we see

Why be busy learning the story of others when you can write the story yourself

Meaning can be learned…might it be better created

Pain cannot be written, it can only be felt

Silence has a voice heard in its speechlessness

Vision is not what you see it’s what happens when you close your eyes

Love is unspeakable; it is the language of her stare

It is not happiness to write, it is sadness to quiet it

Longfellow turned to words, why must you then turn to Law

Thoreau found himself in the woods, after he was lost

Poe saw beauty yet we confuse it with madness

Freud thought the unthinkable and we remain thoughtless

Lacan dared write the real and we confused it with his words

Jesus is the son of freedom and we have preached a gospel of sadness

Faith is never certain and certainty cannot be faith

If you fear nothing than for what do you live

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Blame Your Vote on the Bible

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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.

It’s What YOU See

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Have you ever ran across one of those quotes, or sayings, that no matter how hard you rack your brain the simplicity of the statement gets lost on you?

Usually, I get lost when reading Hegel, Whitehead, or some other abstractly concrete thinker begging me to silence all the glowing screens and focus on the ENTIRE argument. I take no shame in admitting that on more than one occasion, I not only read, but I re-read, and do so loudly, to follow the argument and make damn sure I have understood every word, every sentence, every nuance that might be hidden beneath and on top of the words.

But sometimes, when I travail against my own inclination to cohort with academic prose and I succumb to the allure of imagination, I read fiction.

Fiction teaches me to see. It teaches me to create.

It’s not an argument; its an invitation to see something that no one else sees yet is seen by everyone. It invites us into a picture shrouded with ideas, worlds and ends that are somehow conjoined together by the illusory fiction that fiction is based on seeing what the words give us, rather than seeing what the words create in us…hence recasting our angle of vision into something not even the author could have foretold.

So I read and I am shaped. I see.

I am shaped by those fictive words and those non-fictive ones, in anticipation of something I know not what but inevitably lead me to seeing as I never have before, or will, thereafter.

The beauty in such seeing is that some passages, particularly ones that don’t require a ton of exegetical context literarily, fly off the pages at us and slap us with their simplicity. They teach us to see when we forget we had forgotten.

We grew up. We put aside child play. We lost our sight.

One such passage that now sits ornamentally on the desk I pretend to write at is by American literary icon and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I have managed to live my life without much Thoreau. This isn’t surprising. I have managed to live without much of a few things that I now find indispensable. I was 33 before I read a single word of him and this to my shame.

I am 33 now.

To the point, Thoreau is deserving of all the accolades that adorn his name, his books, his story. In his journals, he writes of seeing as only a transcendentalist can.

To risk the cliché I mention it here, the simple words that slapped me in the face, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it what YOU see.” [emphasis mine].

Thoreau’s work is full of this idea of sight, of seeing what others miss even though they are staring at the same damn thing. His work is full of a oneness of thought and rugged intellectualism that unities nature and nurture. His writing taps into that human originary desire to peel back the complexity of life and just…you know, be human in the world.

At first blush, a philosophical treatise made more sense to me than this quote. What does it mean? What romantic ideal is he describing and why does it matter?

I am always suspicious of these bleeding heart Utopian dreamers, like Thoreau, that push me to the edge and dare me to jump.

Yet, I need them.

Their logic is impervious to a logic that sees in this sentence what I see in prose, even poetic prose.

When I first read Thoreau, this quote, I think, “Of course it’s not what we look at that matters! It’s what we have been sociologically conditioned to see! We see only what our lenses allow us to see!”

Allow a simple American sports analogy.

It is common parlance for someone to say, as if to commend their sight, “I call it like I see it.” This once simple sports confession by umpires has now become common vernacular for “it is what it is” or “It is what I see” so to speak.

In other words, this trite saying presumes the one seeing is seeing correctly. In reality, who cares “if you call it like you see it,” especially if you’re an idiot and you saw it wrong! The fact that you’re relying on your own weak empirical vantage point doesn’t make your sight impeccable.

So when I, one trained in the humanities, read Thoreau and I see this, I think, “well, duh, of course it’s all about what you see…it’s never been about what you’re looking at.” From Plato’s cave to an Atlanta Braves baseball game, life is never about objectivity, it’s always about perception.

Then, something made its way into my life.

This quote now not only sits in the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, but it sets on my desk, encompassing a circular pewter encased magnifying glass. To remind me, “hey stupid, look here, remember this lesson.”

This small object careened into my life and it yelled at me.

Those words, “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what YOU see,” punched me in the stupid head that is supposedly filled with things that make me smart.

It careened not only into my life but was born during a moment in which it appeared that everything I have been working toward for nearly 15 years was finally coming to fruition. Yes, you did the math correctly. This would be a journey that started when I was 18.

Ubiquitously, this meteor of awakening fell into my lap only recently, a year past what has become a loss, and not a victory. I stared at this object, with these words, Walden rolling around in my brain, and my nihilist self thought, “what the hell does this even mean? What the hell is HDT even talking about?”

You see…I was dense. I admit it. It’s one of only 3 hamartias in my life. Being dense is prob 3rd on the rung.

So, I asked someone wiser than me. I was the Ethiopian Eunuch and I needed a Philip.

I asked, “what does this mean? How does this make sense? How I see obviously got me no where!”

And I have to admit. I am not prone to emotion. But the next few words that hit my ear were equivalent to the Blitzkrieg emotionally, precisely because I am dense, “it never mattered if you got in, what always matters is the way you see things because the way you see things is unlike anyone else.”

Ho.Ly. Shit.

Srs?!

I thought what I achieved mattered! I thought that my great ideas mattered! I thought the prestige of this next journey mattered! Nope. None of it. I was wrong.

None of that ever mattered…and as I stared at where I wanted to be a year ago, I finally learned (though I have hardly incarnated), it’s not what I was looking at that mattered. What mattered is what I saw when I opened my eyes, light flooded my body and I inhaled creativity each day…because no one did that, or does that, quite like me.

What always mattered was just…my seeing. What my sight beheld never mattered; it was always what I saw through my sight that mattered. That was the gift, even though I often berate the smallness of the gift, of my own human potentiality or possibility.

Of course, I have been taught how to see. I see because of many factors, most of which I did not choose. My Apologies to Arminius.

No one has quite had the same experiences I have had. No one has read the bizarre combination of texts and integrated that with the many people that have walked through life with me. No one is the unique mess that is my life. And my life is comprised of a ceiling that covers my world and shapes what I see when I stare at what is through the glass ceiling that hangs above us all.

And this is the lesson: The world is never what we look at…what we look at is only what we see in front of us. The real world is what we see in the world that we look at, and that position, is unique to us all, even when in our darkest moments we feel like the eternal night of the soul will never end.

Quit looking for the gift…the gift was already given and it’s what happens when you see the world and you give the gift of sight to others.