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Saturday, February 25, 2017

An Open Table



As I was driving to meet a friend for breakfast and coffee, earlier this week, I was going over some thoughts for a podcast recording about the Eucharist, in which I was about to participate (the recording is linked at the end of this post).  This passage kept rolling through my mind:

Proverbs 3:27-28, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.  Do not say to your neighbor,Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’—when you already have it with you” (NIV).

Ironically, when I sat down at the coffee shop a little early, breakfast sandwich and mocha in hand, these very verses were part of the daily office.  You can’t make this stuff up.

This has me thinking about grace, and specifically about the grace God imparts when we join together, in community, to celebrate the Eucharist, remembering what Christ did for us and becoming the body and blood, ourselves—becoming the people of God—as we consume…  well, God…

My friend, Erin (actually, she’s who I was meeting, so the story grows in hyperbole and irony), who is a super great practicing Catholic who puts up with my sacramental Protestantism on a regular basis, describes the Eucharist in terms of the very real presence of Christ entering into our bodies (I love that!).  She was about to tell me how different my view was from that of Catholicism, recently, when I thought of the only real defense I had.

“My six year old daughter eats the bread and says, 'This tastes like God!’”

Please… oh please… oh please…  May we be Catholic enough to share this meal?

Erin laughed, rolled her eyes just a little bit, and said, “Well, OK…”

It’s funny, because as I was speaking about the Eucharist, during this interview, it was Miah who came to mind again.  She calls it “Community,” because she can’t quite get her mouth to cooperate with the term “Communion” (it might be all the missing teeth).  At any rate, there was a brief moment during which I wanted to correct her, but the truth is, she has it exactly right.  Sometimes kids are smarter than the rest of us. 

The Eucharist is Community.

It is the invitation to be and become a part of the people of God… to be and become a part of the Body of Christ…

And this invitation is for everyone.  How great is that?

Oh, wait.  It’s actually not so great if our tables are small and our pride comes from being a part of an exclusive club.  You know that part when, “Everyone is welcome here…” except the people who don’t do everything in the same ways we do… or think the same thoughts we think… or look like us?  Actually… if you want to be like Jesus… you have to get over that stuff…

Communion might be the best place.

Where else can you share such an intimate relationship with a diverse community of people?

We all eat the same bread and drink from the same cup.  We all become the same body and the same blood, which is really saying something if you think about the ways in which this concept eradicates discrimination.

We have this grace.  It is within our power to act… to share… to serve… 

L.

Listen to the Podcast at This Link

Monday, February 20, 2017

Wait… Why Am I Doing This?



Romans 12:9-21, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.  On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (NIV).

I feel as if every word of this passage struck deep chords in my heart, today, but the phrase that stood out most prominently was the first one,

“Love must be sincere…”

As a rule, I am adamant about being real and authentic, to the degree that sometimes things come out of my mouth that I probably would have been better off swallowing.  But I’m not going to lie—I’ve had some “Fake it ‘til You Make It,” moments here lately.

I’ve been frustrated.  If I’m honest, I am scared to death that the completion of my M.Div. and subsequent rejection letter from the only doctoral fellowship to which I applied for this fall, are going to cause me to go invisible in the academic world.  Don’t misunderstand this as my usual hyperbole.  I am terrified.

There have been a few moments when I have had to say to myself… out loud…  “It’s not a competition!”  

I am forcing myself to live by those wise words and fuzzy feelings that include everybody making it, because I am so afraid that I’m not going to ‘make it’…  It’s really awful…

Because…  Let’s just say I don’t. 

Let’s just say that after years of education and planning and hard work and preparation, I find myself in a place where I’m kind of impoverished (as only Americans can understand it) and my degrees get dusty and I sing and dance with babies and feed hungry people and masquerade as sort of Catholic, while I administer sacraments, incognito, to prostitutes and drug addicts and homosexuals and kids who haven’t been baptized yet, because I just remembered that I don’t technically have all the right papers hanging on my wall to wear the collared shirt I just ordered, last night, and no one remembers my name (which actually might serve me well, since I don’t go by my name, but everybody wants to use it anyway).

Let’s just say that happens…  Then what?

The answer was not what I wanted to ‘hear,’ but here it comes…

“You better mean it.”

And, of course, by “you,” I mean, “I,” because these are my people…

I better mean it…

“Love must be sincere…”

It’s incredibly easy to talk about love.  Doing love is harder.  Being love… well, it will crush you.  But the great news about that is, once you’re shattered into so many pieces you could never even hope to put them all back together, there is nothing to do but allow yourself to spill out all over the place, and all of that bleeding and oozing tends to find its way down into the cracks… you know the ones… where so many precious people have fallen.  I’ve never been convinced that ‘broken’ is a dirty word.

To be continued…

L.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

On God and Love and Dependence



Disclaimer: I wrote this paper almost two years ago.  There are a few points on which I would argue with myself, now, because I have shifted a little further toward open theism than I was when I wrote this.  I considered making significant edits, but then I thought to myself, “Maybe I should let this one stand as it is and write another piece interacting with it, in the near future.”  So that’s what I’m doing…

So…  On God and Love and Dependence 

***

Our theology shapes and informs our actions.  "Theology can perpetuate the illness or it can capacitate the cure" (Keller, 2003, 7).  One of the most predominant views of God, in the western worldview of religion as a whole, is that of the omni-God, a God whose very nature is that of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.  Belief in a God like this, if there is nothing else, leaves room for many disturbing questions ranging from the problem of evil, to pain, to prayers that seem to be left unanswered.  The voluble but shallow response to such questions seems to be that the God we have is a God who knows what is best and works in the world for our good and for the good of others, even when we cannot see it.  The answer to the gut wrenching question, "why," is almost always that we must just have faith, or adequate faith, or more faith.  This is lacking in the face of suffering, particularly when faithful people continue to experience devastation.  Perhaps the omni-attributes that we have ascribed to God come from our own human struggle for power and do not begin to touch on the heart of who God is.  If this is the case, God must be someone different than we originally expected.  This is not such a stretch, since throughout history this theory holds as true, but it is difficult to deconstruct our own assumptions, starting over with very little understanding of who God is.  If, as Kearney suggests, "We will find the solution to the wrong interpretation of religion through the right interpretation" (Kearney, Lecture Week 7), then, "Discernment is crucial, some things we can embrace but other things we must eschew" (Pinnock, 2001, 116).  Is it possible that God's love has limited God in such a way that God has chosen to sometimes be dependent on people?  This paper will explore the dependency of God, particularly in regard to God's nature of love and God's choice to empower us with free will. 

God is love.  But, what is love?  There are not enough words in the English language to define such a term.  In Greek, we can talk of eros, philia, agape, storge.  Which is God?  The clear cut, Sunday School answer is always, "agape".  God is unconditional love.  God is a love of well wishing and benevolence and even a love that remains constant when unrequited.  Yes, God is agape.  But perhaps we do not give God enough credit for being love in all its various forms.

Open theism allows God to also be philia, entering into friendship with human beings, with creation.  "As individuals we are significant in God's eyes... the things we do and say, the decisions and choices we make, and our prayers all help shape the future.  Open theology affirms that life and our life-decisions really do matter" (Oord, 2010, 91).  There are examples in Scripture that seem to confirm this as truth.  In Exodus, God declares that God will destroy the Israelites when they craft the golden calf, but Moses begs God for mercy, and God relents.  In II Kings, God sends Isaiah to tell Hezekiah that he should get his house in order, because he is going to die, definitively and soon, but when Hezekiah cries out in prayer, weeping bitterly, God heals him and extends his life for fifteen more years.  Perhaps the most disquieting moment, though, in light of an omnipotent God comes when, "The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled" (Genesis 6:6, NIV, 2011).  At this point, God was prepared to destroy all of humanity, but even then there was one, Noah, who found favor, and God began again, through him.  Clearly, God can change God's mind, and I am left to ponder whether this occurs with greater frequency than we might imagine.

Two important questions surface from these biblical accounts.  First, how can an all-knowing God change his mind?  And second, how important is human participation in the future that is to be?  Open theology affirms that God knows every possibility but cannot know which future will come to pass.  This makes sense in some regard and may even explain how God could come to regret a decision, knowing that a regrettable possibility existed but, perhaps, hoping for something better.  Put very powerfully, "A cloud of missed possibilities envelops every beginning: it is always this beginning, this universe, and not some other.  Decision lacks innocence.  Around its narrations gather histories of grievance: what possibilities were excluded?" (Keller, 2003, 160).  It is overwhelming to consider that God risks so much when God allows us to have free choice.  Traditionally, God's act of imbuing this power of choice is considered a necessary part of fulfilling God's nature of love.  While I am in agreement with this premise, it also seems as if the act of allowing for free will is one of humility on God's part.  Described in one work, the virtue of humility is equated with permission, "the great one should consult with, request permission from, the small one" (Keller, 2003, 174).  Additionally, "God makes himself dependent on the prayers of his people... God loves to move in response to our prayers.  Our failure to pray impacts the world negatively" (Pinnock, 2001, 135).  Clearly, this is the case in the aforementioned passages of Scripture.  People pray.  God responds.  Jesus teaches us to pray, so prayer is an expected part of Christian spiritual formation, and it only makes sense that this is so if prayer actually matters.  "Why pray if prayer changes nothing?" (Pinnock, 2001, 137).  Taking it a step further, though, I have often wondered, why do anything if nothing can be changed, if the future is already set?

Do our human actions, reactions, and interactions actually make a difference in the world and the coming kingdom?  Are we just casual friends of God, or is there something much deeper?  Controversial theologians sometimes allow for eros, at least in regard to creation.  Does this God of love actually work in intimate partnership with us, not merely engaging in a dance of responses, but actually creating in tandem?  What do we really mean when we speak of an omnipresent God?  Perhaps this term moves beyond a God who is looking on, somewhere above time and space, and instead describes a pervasive God, one who, "cannot be absent from any molecule, membrane or mucus of the creation" (Keller, 2003, 23).  Even "John Wesley preached that 'God is in all things,' indeed 'pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the Soul of the Universe" (Keller, 2003, 23).  And yet it is not a possessive kind of love.  "Nothing is further from Eros than possession" (Kearney, 2001, 66).  This is the God who depends on us for the incarnation and the God who allows us to enter into covenant.  "God does not choose to be alone.  He wills the creature to co-exist with him and to stand alongside him as the beloved covenant partner.  This is our core identity - to be loved by God" (Pinnock, 2001, 125).  This is fascinating.  God's core identity is love, and ours is to be loved.  God "values freedom, not so much as an end in itself, but as an instrument to make possible what he really longs for, love" (Pinnock, 2001, 126).

Could it be that if we refuse to cooperate with God the timing of things may be different than originally planned, but eventually someone will partner with God in such a way that God's promises will be fulfilled?  Or perhaps it is as simple as this: "There are some things that must happen and many things that may happen.  And there are many things that just happen... But, when they happen, (God's) sovereignty is such that he can take them into his overall purpose for the world" (Pinnock, 2001, 186).  It is possible that we may become distracted by our human expectations for the world, but God's purpose is clear.  God's purpose, God's very essence, is love, and God displays that love, in its purest form, through redemption.

Which leads us to yet another kind of love, and even open theism does not seem to allow it.  What can be said of storge.  If God is love, is God not all love?  This includes the protective love of a parent, the love that says, "no," and even sometimes the love that says "yes" to things that are impossible.  Storge is the love that puts up with humanity because we are family, and the love that may even create new things, perhaps from nothing at all.  Some argue that, "The ex nihilo doctrine constructed as orthodoxy itself the pure dualism of originating Logos and prevenient Nothing" (Keller, 2003, 10).  Except, even when there is nothing, there is still God, the God of impossibilities, the God of miracles and resurrection.  There is surely still the God of prevenient grace.  I have struggled deeply with the question, "Is there never a situation in which God 'pulls rank' and acts on God's own?"  Perhaps the best answer to this question is that God is un-ranked, to begin with.  It is tempting to try to understand God on human terms, but life and faith are more than just a game with power players.

While it would be irresponsible to ignore the question of theology, making God synonymous with myth and chance and inconsistent with all measures of reason and logic, it seems acceptable to allow for some degree of mystery.  What if we delete the theos from theology?  Is it possible that we can fall too far on the side of the equation that insists that God work in cooperation with creation, at all times?  "Transcendence can... become too transcendent.  If removed entirely from historical being, God can become so unknowable and invisible as to escape all identification whatsoever" (Kearney, 2001, 31).  If this is the case, is there any need for God, at all?  "If we delete the theos from theology, what does it leave?  A logos alone, a regimen of secular monologoi, from which mystery, prophecy, and the love that is stronger than death have evaporated?  An elite post-theism, which shuns all theologies of social and symbolic struggle?" (Keller, 2003, 172).  

The struggle is real, but there is something we must not forget about God.  "God remains faithful to the creation project and has committed himself to redeem it" (Pinnock, 2001, 138).  God always keeps the covenant.  We see it in Abraham.  We see it in Jesus.  Even the greatest evil, death, cannot break the promises that God has made.  It has no sting, because God is the God of the miraculous, the God of love so great it encompasses resurrection.  Maybe God's omnipotence does not uniquely qualify God to act without us, but God offers a gift that no one else can.  "The promise is granted unconditionally, as pure gift.  But God is reminding his people that they are free to accept or refuse this gift.  A gift cannot be imposed; it can only be offered" (Kearney, 2001, 29).  God's gift is enormously compelling.  

"Through self-sacrifice, the intensity of God's love is expressed and provides for the reconciliation of the world.  God does not relish suffering but he does enjoy the restored relationships made possible by it" (Pinnock, 2001, 138).  God's love is raw and unnerving, impossible even.  It is the love of a servant who wants nothing but the very best for others, for us, even though this costs everything.  It is an unselfish love that is willing to move with us, in us, and even around us, if that is what is necessary for redemption to take place.

So, to answer the question, "Is God ever dependent," I would have to say yes, but to answer the question, "Is God always dependent," I would venture to say no.  I think these are questions that require discernment and grace.  Because of God's very nature of love, there are some things that God cannot do and still remain who God is.  Freedom is necessary in love, and freedom "entails risk in the event that love is not reciprocated" (Pinnock, 2001, 132).  But our freedom will never negate God's promise and plan for redemption for anyone who can and will be redeemed.  "God will overcome wickedness through his wisdom, power, and resourcefulness.  He allows the creature to wreak havoc on the world for a time but not forever.  The gift of freedom was not unlimited in scope or duration and therefore the power to do evil is finite" (Pinnock, 2001, 139).  God does not force humanity to do much, but there is one thing.  "The only thing God forces us to do is to become" (Luce Irigaray in Keller, 2003, 225).  The future is wide open for us to become everything we were intended to be as we seek to join God in God's redemptive work.

Works Cited 

Holy Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
Kearney, Richard.  Interview with David Cayley.  Recording.  Toronto, April 20, 2010.
Kearney, Richard. The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.
Keller, Catherine. Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Oord, Thomas Jay. The Nature of Love: A Theology. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2010. Print.
Pinnock, Clark H. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster, 2001. Print.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Dichotomic Life of a Rule Following Boundary Pusher



Lately, it seems I hear a lot of voices proclaiming, “It’s so hard to do the right thing!”

And they’re right.  It is hard—doing the right thing can feel impossibly hard.

Well, let’s be real, it’s always exciting for this Protestant girl (who masquerades as Catholic more and more) when the Lectionary turns to an apocryphal reading.  Seriously.  It’s like finding a magical treasure trove (Webster would define that as a valuable discovery, resource, or collection) full of new Scripture!

Sirach 15:15-17, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.  He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.  Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (NIV).

Beautiful words…

Yet, sometimes I struggle to determine whether I want fire or water…

To be fair, Scripture indicates that both are beneficial (and, perhaps, that both carry with them some risks).  If we want to go down the road of folk religion and tradition, the choice is cut and dried.  Choose water.  Fire is Hell.  But friends…  I don’t walk that road…

Fire is also a sign of covenant.[i]  It is a sign of God’s very presence, a light to follow in darkness.[ii] It’s certainly essential in the offering of sacrifices.  The Israelites are told to keep it burning.[iii]  Fire makes things (and people) holy.[iv] It atones.  It warms us.[v]

Because I have no desire to pick and choose Scripture I like, avoiding the remaining content (and context); I’ll level with you: fire also consumes and devours and destroys.  Look it up.  It’s all there.

But for the purpose of today, the word of the Lord is like fire (you can decide whether that’s Scripture or Jesus we’re talking about here).[vi]  Fire refines.[vii] It baptizes,[viii]  reveals, and saves.[ix]   God is as fire.[x]  And let us not forget that fire is the very sign of the Holy Spirit, God with us again…[xi]

Mark 9 always blows me away just a little bit, because at first glance it seems that it may be the lynchpin passage for a theology of Hell, with its unquenchable fire and destruction.  It parallels the account of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew, in some ways (more on that in a moment), but it’s almost as if we just lop off the last two verses, because we can’t make them fit our own unquenchable desire for justice and vengeance: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”[xii]

Everyone will be salted with fire

And… it’s… good…

Ouch!

You know, Scripture actually marries water and fire quite often. 

“Everything that can withstand fire shall be passed through fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless it shall also be purified with the water for purification; and whatever cannot withstand fire, shall be passed through the water.”[xiii]

“We went through fire and through water.”[xiv]

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”[xv]

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[xvi]

We can’t live without water, but I’m not sure we can live without fire, either… at least not well…

And then, here comes Sirach again:

“The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing. All these are good for the godly, but for sinners they turn into evils.”[xvii]

Look at that.  We need them both.  How about if we just don’t screw it up!

So, I choose fire and water.

I choose the fire that guides and refines and even the fire that consumes, because I need to be consumed.

I choose the water that cleanses and the water that drowns, because I need both.

But if I’m honest, I began this post with the intention of sharing a story that I’ve been holding onto for awhile now.  So let me return to the idea that doing the right thing is difficult.  Cue Sermon on the Mount…

I’ve always thought it would be great to just stand up and recite Matthew 5-7 sometime, without any commentary or interpretation, and let me tell you that’s a huge leap for someone who is not a biblical literalist.

Jesus is so clear here, though.  It’s like he’s saying to us all, “Don’t push the boundaries as far as you possibly can.  Just… don’t.”

But oh, I am a boundary pusher…

Sometimes (maybe even most times), this is OK… even good.  This boundary pushing fire inside of me is what makes me a good advocate for social change, it’s what makes me tough as nails and inspires persistence, hard work, determination, and a little bit of sass.

But there is a huge difference between choosing water and fire and choosing a smokescreen, somewhere in the middle.

So the story…

Some time back, I was confronted by a friend who exclaimed, “My life is so boring.  I wonder how far I could take something scandalous without taking it too far.”

My immediate response was, “It’s not worth it.  Rumors and gossip and accusations are not all they’re cracked up to be.  They’re certainly not a good way to make your life more exciting (light a fire, whatever).”

And the response to this was, “Oh, not rumors…  I’m talking about actually doing something.”

I took a huge step back.  I mean, I literally stepped back… with my feet…

If we’re going to play with fire, let’s play with fire that is worth getting burned for.

I have zero interest in the kind of fire that requires the cutting off or limbs or the gouging out of eyes for restitution.  I want to play with the kind of fire that feeds and clothes hungry people and teeters on the edge of risk to self for the sake of others.  If I’m going to brandish welts or scars, I’d like to think they’re worth more than a fleeting moment of disobedience.  If I’m going to rebel, I’d like to push back against oppression, not the boundaries that actually make sense.  Good grief, who has time for that? 

If our lives are boring, perhaps we could do something real that matters!

And so, let’s come full circle, today:        

Deuteronomy 30:15, 19-20, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction… This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (NIV)

Last week I took several flights with Southwest.  During every flight, as the plane approaches the gate, a message rings out that goes something like this: “We know you have a lot of options, and so we thank you for flying with us.”

In life, we have nearly unlimited options about who we’re going to ‘fly with,’ how we’re going to ‘fly,’ or if we’re going to ‘fly,’ at all. 

During my travels, I had an ironic moment of sorts, when I ordered coffee on the plane, specifically because I wanted a heart shaped coffee stirrer (sometimes my reasoning for decisions can be a little random).  During this moment, I thought to myself, how appropriate is it to choose the things that stir our hearts… to action… to compassion… to something in this life, because we really could choose anything.  So choose water… or fire… or both.  Choose the thing(s) that you can’t live without and maybe the people who can’t live without you.  Do something real, but perhaps not something scandalous.  Choose life.  It’s out there, maybe right in front of you.

L.


[i] Gen. 15 (NRSVCE).
[ii] Exod. 3, 13, 24
[iii] Lev. 6
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Isa. 44
[vi] Jer. 23
[vii] Mal. 3
[viii] Matt. 3
[ix] I Cor. 3
[x] Heb. 12
[xi] Acts 2
[xii] Mark 9:49-50
[xiii] Num. 31:23
[xiv] Psa. 66:12
[xv] Isa. 43:2
[xvi] Matt. 3:11
[xvii] Sir. 39:26-27