Saturday, February 27, 2016

Theology with Legs

Crucifixion of Jesus by Salvador Dali

A couple months ago, I wrote about how hard it can be to understand the nitty-gritty details of theology – what people mean by “soteriology” or, in my case, “theology of the cross.” I shared some historical stuff that started people thinking about theology of the cross. But, thought I didn’t say it then, none of that resonated with me. Today, I share a bit more of my journey to finding my own theology.

Do you have a lot of books? I do, especially theology books. At my first appointment, I bought the retiring pastor’s library and suddenly had hundreds. In seminary I got dozens more. I weed through them regularly. Sometimes, I open a book only to close it moments later and walk it to the donations box (a fixture in our house). Sometimes, I read a bit, then don’t get back to it for years. Only rarely do I read a text cover-to-cover.

A book that helped me in my quest was of the second type. It appealed to my passions in ministry – justice and discipleship. When I brought it out again last fall, on a whim I flipped to the third – and final – section of the book. I liked it; it definitely resonated. So, pencil in hand, I started again at the beginning. Imagine my surprise when somewhere around page 30 I started finding penciled underlinings (yes, mine).

I’ll be reading more of that book eventually. Today, I offer "My Theology of the Cross and of Atonement as it's lived out"

The first thing I have to talk about is sin because, for some people, atonement is all about sin. Many people see sin as “the things we’ve done” which offend God, but really, Sin is a rejection of God. It’s a willfulness that leads us to live apart from the wholeness that comes from God. We want to lead our lives our own way.

We need God and the at-one-ment (get that?) God offers us. But what does this mean? Does God require blood sacrifice? Is atonement about God’s “punitive justice” on the person of Jesus? If your belief includes one of these, I respect that. But for me, the idea that God would demand blood to satisfy a divine sense of justice is contrary to God’s nature. I believe God’s goal is close connection with us, relationship. While God stresses our need to forgive; it’s us who worry about God’s forgiveness, maybe to deal with our shame after we accept God’s grace.

Still, I‘ve conceded that Jesus, as example of radical justice, love and compassion isn’t enough. I’m humbled that God would try so much to reach us perverse human creatures and I’d like to find that my theology didn’t require the cross. Yet, it’s on the cross, and before that, in Golgotha, that Jesus is finally and most completely God-with-us. It’s in accepting, then facing, Rome’s execution that he affirms his absolute humanity. Our God goes this far.

Astounding, humbling…

One’s theology of the cross, before anything else, speaks about God. The characteristic I keep returning to is God’s caring. This compassion leads God to find creation not only “very good,” but worth doing absolutely anything for, so that it (and we) might achieve wholeness, fulfillment, and redemption. God loves all of creation and is committed to saving not just a part but all of it, in all its interrelatedness.

Once we accept God’s grace, we’re called to discipleship. Some people ignore this call, but faith demands discipleship – a discipleship that leads us to connect and engage with the world in ways we wouldn’t think of doing on our own. We’re called to this – individually and as faith communities – for the purpose of growing in solidarity with the creation God wants to redeem. We’re called to offer an alternative reality to the one society presents.

Our obedience to this second call is the mark (or not) of our faith. We live this out as we practice love-in-action – toward God’s human children and all the earth … as we engage in situations we’d just as soon avoid or ignore … and, as we stop assuming that God shares our narrow view of who and what matter, and start living as if God loves and seeks to redeem, literally, everything.

So, there's a piece of my theology. What's yours?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rocking the Boat

He Qi.

Sit down, sit down, sit down
Sit down, sit down, you're rockin'
Sit down, you're rockin' the boat. 
                                                From Guys And Dolls, Frank Loesser

Kay and I were both part of a local production of Guys And Dolls a couple years ago. I was one of the prim mission band ladies (and briefly, a streetwalker). This song was fun to rehearse and perform – a lively, confusing, seated-dance number. Kay reminded me of it when I mentioned the theme for today’s post. A funny thing is that while the song is about being discouraged from rocking the boat, I want to encourage us to do it.

It all started at seminary. I was eating dinner before an evening class when I overheard parts of a conversation from the next table. An instructor I respected (brilliant!) was talking with a couple students about the upcoming trial of a gay clergyman. One of them brought up the need, sometimes, to shake the tree. 

Immediately I remembered shaking the plum tree in my yard, so the curculio larvae-inhabited fruit would fall off the branches into the waiting sheet laid below. 

Shaking the tree is a useful metaphor for loosing old or bad fruit – in life, organizations, or systems. I could see that. Still, it wasn’t quite right for where my mind had gone. Another word picture, rocking the boat, reflected the difference I was seeking. 

It's all in where you stand.

You don’t have to be in the tree to shake it. I’m not even sure it’s possible. However, you do have to be in the boat to rock the boat. In that moment, I realized why I was doing what I was doing. Why I was investing so much time and energy (and money) in this seminary education. Why I was finding my place as a pastoral minister. Why I was seeking ordination.

I love Christ’s church; particularly, I love The United Methodist Church. I was baptized, and grew up, in that branch of Christianity. I love the smell of old hymnals, and the lemon oil that’s sometimes used to clean the pews. I love pipe organs and UMs who sing “lustily” (per John Wesley’s directions found on page vii in our Hymnal). I love that we have a long history of doing something about justice issues. (Okay, not as long as the Franciscans, but pretty long for a 2nd generation Protestant denomination.)

It’s that last one – about our justice record – that calls me to boat-rocking. Maybe you’re not keen on Jesus’ call to eat with the dregs of society and to heal what ails us, as individuals and as a people, but I am, and officially, so is The United Methodist Church. Some of the people of our churches, though – both pew-potatoes and leaders – not so much.

God’s been after me for decades about this rocking the boat business. It just took me a long while to understand the message fully, and to find my voice.

What’s God after you to do? Are you a boat-rocker? Or a tree-shaker? (I suspect they both have their uses.) Are you a comforter? Do you build up good things or tear down bad ones?

Since you’re still breathing, God still has something for you to be doing. If you haven’t paid attention lately, now might be a good year to do so. Pray about God’s plan for you. Notice what activities feed you and give you joy. Be open to surprise – the answer might not be what it once was. Then, practice living into it.

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Shadow work

In my sermon this weekend, I make a passing reference to confronting our demons, as one of the things we’re invited to do during this season of Lent. By demons, I’m speaking figuratively about the shadow work we all need to do if we’re to embrace the fullness of what we can be.

By shadow work, I mean those parts of our make-up that we still haven’t figured out what to do with, or that are so much a part of us that we’ll never lose them, but we still haven’t made peace with yet.

August Wilson, Pulitzer-winning playwright, offered this encouragement: "Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength."

I like this, although don’t quite agree with the second phrase, particularly for my purpose today. Rather, I’d say “work to make peace with them with welcome and forgiveness.” After all, what we’re talking here about are the parts of who God made us be that we’ve resisted, or been discouraged from, integrating into “who we are”.

Lent is a time for self-examination, for reflecting on the ways we aren’t yet what God longs for us to be. It’s a chance to face whatever we allow to get between us and God, and between us and everyone else. And, it’s a chance to grow a little close to that wholeness God wants for us.

I don’t know what this shadow work would mean for you. It’s different for each of us. As an illustration, I offer a bit of my own work from last summer – something I wrote while away for a workshop. As a preface, shadow work is by its nature a very personal thing. So what follows, about a facet of my life I wrestle with regularly, is also personal.
“… I’d been standing in the parking lot following the afternoon’s Q & A session, wanting to be with other people, but, not having talked with anyone about their plans, not knowing where they’d be. This got me thinking about how often I’ve let others – usually without their knowing – influence my state of mind.
“Years ago, I’d occasionally go to a bar with friends, there to put up with loud music and not hearing the conversation, and generally, be bored silly. Why would I do this? It is an unfortunate part of my nature that although I’m most definitely an introvert, I long for companionship.
“… Being unwilling to engage in small talk (an introvert thing), and so, not learning how to connect with people until well into adulthood, I’ve been alone a lot. To a point, that’s okay. Alone works for introverts. But like the rest of humankind, I’m made to be in community. I crave it even as I shy from it. This is my dilemma. 
“In the past I’ve made some bad choices trying to escape my self-made box. But one of the promises I’ve made since my divorce is that I will be honest with myself. Whatever I do or don’t do, there will be no more pretending that my reasons are nobler than they are. No prevaricating.
“It isn’t pretty. I’m still sitting alone. But I can face myself and I can face God.”

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Messy Life God Bids Us Live

Could this be God's path? Nah, too easy.
Congaree National Park.

The flood continued for forty days on the earth; and the waters increased… The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth… The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains… Genesis 7:17-20

I love stories of redemption. One of my favorites is The Lord of the Rings. In a movie, there’s one scene where the companions are trudging through a marsh in the rain, swatting at insects. One of them cries, “What do they eat when they can’t get hobbit?” I don’t remember if this line is in the book, but I smile each time I watch the segment.

It’s easy in this life to feel lost sometimes, like you’re wandering in circles or mired in a swamp. In relationships, when navigating healthcare or end-of-life choices, in church or at work. Pretty much anytime. In some instances, these feelings are short-lived; in others, they can go on and on.

This isn’t a difficulty only in our time. Such stories populate ancient texts, scripture and otherwise, as well as writings since then. Maybe we don’t always notice. We see the person who knows what s/he wants and goes toward it, never veering from that path. And maybe some people are that way. But I believe even for them, there are times when, in order to get ahead, they have to take a detour.

Last November, I went for a walk in a park near Philadelphia with six members of my family. When we got to the end of the trail, the three parents opted to return to our starting point by different ways, with youth and children joining the one whose path suited them.

Kay, Egg* and I returned the way we had come ‘round the bend, until we met the path Kay remembered having seen. We turned onto and soon came upon a stone foundation – all that remained from a house. After exploring a few minutes, we continued up a steep hill, following what now seemed to be a deer trail, until it too disappeared in a tangle of fallen trees and branches.

Our goal was down the other side of this hill so we wove our way through the maze, then when brambles continued to block our way north, we headed west, then north, then east. We had a good adventure, saw something surprising, got a little exercise, and we still weren’t the last ones back.

Life is messy. Sometimes, it seems the hills will never end. Or the rain. But just as God put that rainbow in the sky as a promise for all creation, God promises to be with us – no matter what! Trusting in that promise, we can face the storms. We can risk trying BIGger things. We can believe that we’ll endure, and even thrive, when life goes off course.

Ron Buford writes, “Pushy pastors, leaders, teachers, members AND resisting pastors, leaders, and members struggling with this messy "God thing" move both the church and the world forward, wrestling with often ambiguous hunches toward faint whiffs of a hidden God of unseen, hope-filled silences.”

Pretty profound. And, affirming, for when we’re the ones in that quagmire, or when we want to show solidarity or compassion for someone else who’s there. God may be hidden, but God is still – and always – most certainly with us.

* Egg = What E’s mother uses on her own blog to refer to her daughter (my niece).