Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Good Shepherd

In the book of John, Jesus has a habit of using very ordinary things to get at some pretty lofty ideas. He healed a blind man with some mud he made from his own spit, he announced the coming of heaven to earth by changing some dirty water into new wine, he often used very common and everyday ideas to convey deep spiritual truths. And people didn't really get him all the time. When he told a man named Nicodemus that he needed to be "born from above" (John 3) in order to enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus thought he meant that he actually had to be "born again"... literally. When he told a woman that he would give her "living water," she pointed out that he didn't have a bucket for the well. What others took to be simple, mundane, and ordinary; Jesus took to have profound spiritual meaning.

Once, when he was at a party and the wine was running low his mother asked him to get some more wine - no big deal, right? - but Jesus, perhaps with a flair for the dramatic, responded, "O Woman... My hour has not yet come." I can imagine Mary saying, "uh... ok..." and turning to the servants saying, "not sure what that's about, but just do what he says." And of course the water turns to wine, a symbol of the restoration and ultimately of the coming of heaven to earth. The ordinary proved to be quite out of the ordinary.

In similar fashion, John's Jesus uses ordinary language to make profound claims about his own identity. He says that he's the bread of life. What's so special about bread? Bread is a daily thing (we at least pray that it is). And yet, for Jesus it is a symbol of God's salvation... an allusion to the manna God gave to the people when the people were wandering in the wilderness. He says that he's the "light of the world."

He also says that he's the "gate" - I love this one.

A gate? Really?

When Jesus uses a "gate" to describe himself, it says that the disciples "...did not understand what he was saying to them." Well why would they? Here is their Messiah, their coming king who is to save them from their oppression and bring them to prosperity. He should be comparing himself to warriors and lightning and stuff... but here he's calling himself a gate... and a gate for sheep enter? Not even like a pretty golden gate or anything?

And then we get to the shepherd... Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Again... not "great king" or "mighty savior" but "good shepherd." How perplexing this must have been for the disciples. How is a shepherd going to save them? You see, the fact is, shepherds were not what you'd consider to be of the "upper echelon" of society. If these disciples saw themselves as poor, oppressed, and in need of salvation (which is what they were), then a shepherd was in the same situation they were in. A shepherd would have been in just as poor a situation as they were.

Remember the Christmas story... do you remember that the angels came to shepherds in fields to announce that a savior was born to them? Shepherds needed a savior! ...especially Jewish ones.

The Jews were among the conquered nations of Rome and when Rome conquered a nation (under the banner of the Pax Romana) they were treated like conquered people. It took time before the conquered people were really considered Roman... in fact there was quite a process to becoming Roman. In the meantime, they were ruled pretty harshly, especially those in the lower classes of the people. As such they were taxed very harshly. Rome demanded large percentages of profits to be given in support of the Pax Romana--for Rome's cause of conquering more nations. After all, world domination wasn't cheap. Shepherds were on the under side of the imperial dominion, so they were among those taxed most harshly. They were left with little to feed their families and they were enslaved to the Roman system. And, because they were Jewish, once Rome took their share Herod, the so-called king of the Jews, would take his. Just to be nice, Rome allowed the Jewish authorities (whom the Romans controlled) to tax their own people for the maintenance of what had become a corrupt temple system. To maintain the temple and uphold the temple laws, the Jewish leaders (who were also being taxed by the Romans), needed their own tax system. So everyday people--like shepherds--were double-taxed. They were taxed harshly by the Romans and harshly by the Jewish leaders. So when angels came to shepherd to announce the coming of the Messiah, the new king to liberate them from their slavery to the empire and to their own leaders, you can see why they thought it might be worth checking it out.

But why would Jesus, the one who's supposed to save the world, compare himself to a shepherd. Why would there be any hope in someone who's stuck in the same mess they're already in?

Well, while the immediate circumstances certainly didn't lend themselves to such a comparison, there's a part of their tradition that put a lot of stock in good shepherds. The leaders of the people of Israel--particularly their religious leaders--were often called the shepherds of Israel. Because of the troubled ciurcumstances of shepherds during Jesus' day, and because of the precarious situation in which the Jews found themselves under Roman rule, they may not have appealed to this tradition much. But the leaders of Israel were supposed to lead the people and care for them, not rule over them. And apparently the religious leaders of Jesus' day weren't doing a very good job. When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he is making alluding to the possibility that there are bad shepherds, and thus he is alluding to Ezekiel 34.
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
Jesus, by referring to himself as a good shepherd, is subtly indicting the religious leaders of his day as "false shepherds" who, instead of caring for the sheep, only care for themselves. Of course they didn't see it that way. They needed enough money to feed themselves, right? They needed enough to maintain their temple, right? They needed to survive, right? So instead of leading the sheep, caring for them and giving themselves up for their sheep, they used their sheep for their own profits. "Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?"

And we cannot miss that this is also an indictment against Rome! In verse 8 (in Ez. 34) God says, "my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd..." The shepherds have abandoned the sheep to the "wild animals." Who are the wild animals? It's the Romans! The Romans are devouring God's people. Now the Romans would have taken offense to that. Romans saw themselves as saviors to their conquered people, bringing culture and order to the savages. Of course they weren't the wild animals. They were the saviors, bringing peace, the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana! But, quite subtly, Jesus calls them wild animals.

But it doesn't just end with judgment of the bad shepherds. Jesus is still saying that he is the good shepherd... Ezekiel continues:
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (Ez 34:11-14)
The hope, the promise, is that God will be the good shepherd. God will become the shepherd of the people! And how will God be a shepherd? Not by ruling over the people, not by using them or ruling over them, but by caring for them feeding them "lie down in good grazing land."Is this not reminiscent of Psalm 23... it should be...
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul."
Counterintuitively - by comparing himself to something as mundane and common as a shepherd - Jesus is claiming for himself a role that only God can fill. Instead of claiming lordship - which can too easily be confused with the type demonstrated by Caesar and by Herod - Jesus promises that he will "lay down [his] life for the sheep" instead of exploiting power over them. He is demonstrating the power of God in the humility and simplicity of a shepherd, of someone who is not above them but shares in the mess they're in and goes before them... leads them.

And he refuses to let this promise only be for an elite few! He says "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also." Jesus reveals God to us not as a tyrant king but as a loving shepherd who restores our soul. He reveals to us a God of grace... a God who refuses to restrict grace from anyone for God's own benefit. This is a God who will die before allowing a sheep to become prey. This is a God who joins us in our struggle and leads us to green pastures.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Bible is Not a Sword

I've been to more than one church or youth group that referred to the bible as a sword. I visited one church where, as part of its liturgy (though I am sure this church would scarcely identify itself with the word "liturgy"), the Pastor would hold up a bible and say "sword up!" (pronouncing sword like "word" with an "s") and the congregation would pull out their bibles and says "ready to defend!" 

Let's be clear. The bible is not a "sword"... 

...nor should it be wielded as one. When we use that metaphor, if we decide to continue down this path, we need to be clear about the sheer irony of doing so. If the bible is the Word of God, as the Christian faith has confessed in various ways, which witnesses to the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the crucified body of Jesus Christ which was raised by God to life from death, then the Word of God is not a sword wielded against the world but a word wielded against death itself and against the wielding of swords - swords which pierce the ears of slaves and penetrate the flesh of the condemned. If the bible is a sword, it is an un-sword - a sword beaten into a plowshare. If the bible is compared to a sword it is only in critical irony to criticize the use of all other swords. 

"Sword drills" (and I wish more of you had to look that one up) might be an exercise in the rhetorical dismantling of critical irony.

Some of the worst theologies in the world are the product of missed irony.

Calling Jesus the "lion of Judah," we miss that in Revelation when the author is instructed to "behold the lion of the tribe of Judah..." he is confronted not by a lion but by a lamb " though it had been slain..."

Calling Jesus a king, we miss that his crown is made of thorns. Calling God the "almighty God," we miss that God's "might" is displayed in the broken body of Jesus, "broken for you" (Luke 22:19), for "only love is almighty" (Eberhard Jüngel). Calling Jesus our "Lord" we miss that he was the servant who washed his disciples feet. 

If we miss the irony of these confessions, what we get is a ferocious, privileged, domineering, and tyrannical master who demands obedience from his slaves... instead of the lamb, the humble Jesus, who spoke courageously and prophetically against the privileged and the powerful, called his disciples his "friends," and went to a cross instead of a throne. 

If we call the bible a sword without seeing that it is utterly not a sword - without recognizing the critical irony of identifying a weapon used for killing with a collection of stories and poems and songs and letters about a God who creates, empowers, and gives life even in death and suffering - then I'm afraid we might be better off without it. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Imagining The Normative Task of Practical Theology

What is "the normative"?

In practical theology, as it is broadly described (especially by Richard Osmer), there are four tasks which relate to one another in something like a hermeneutical circle. The four tasks can be approached differently at different times in different orders by different theologians, but what basically constitute the work of the practical theologian are the tasks of

1) Description - "what is the situation?"
2) Interpretation - "why is the situation happening?"
3) Normative - "in light of God's action and God's ministry, what ought to be happening?"
4) Pragmatic - "what do we do now?"

This is really basic, but this is at least a skeleton of what we call practical theology.

Significant time needs to be committed to each of these tasks... not only in engaging in them, but in explaining them. What does it really mean to "describe" a situation and to "interpret" it? What are our sources for constructing normative claims? Can or should you presume to "describe" without "interpreting" or presupposing various norms and strategies? Can we separate these tasks from each other at all?

I highly recommend Richard Osmer's Practical Theology: An Introduction if you wanna put some more thought into these things.

But, if you're still tracking with this post, I wanna think out loud a little about the normative task of practical theology. It's particularly this task, I think, that presents the greatest challenge... not so much even in its execution but in its conception. In terms of understanding just what it is we are doing, I think the normative task is the most illusive.

We're supposed to be asking "what ought to be happening?" with a special eye (since we're theologians, after all) toward God's presence or absence in the situation. I like that Andrew Root
adds a caveat:
“…it may be better to see Osmer’s normative question, what ought to be happening? not solely in an ethical frame, but also in a revelatory one, that is, asking, what ought to be happening (what ways should we perceive of reality, ourselves, the church, our practice, and conceptions of God) now that God has encountered us?” (Andrew Root, Christopraxis, 26)
We're not just asking about an "ideal" or about some objective truth (indeed, Root's critical realist framework doesn't allow for such simplistic categories... see Christopraxis for more on critical realism). But we are asking "ontological" questions. We're asking questions not only of the circumstances and contributing factors regarding experience (i.e. descriptive and interpretive questions) but we're trying to get at the object of experience. If practical theology centers on human experience, in my view, it does so in order to center on God's action. We're not just talking about human experience, we're talking about human experience of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That's what makes us theologians and not sociologists of religion. And we're talking about the ways in which humanity encounters God in "practical" lived experience. We're not just talking about what ought to happen under the rubric of moral norms. That's what makes us practical theologians and not theological ethicists.

We get in real trouble when the normative task takes a moralistic or programmatic/pragmatic vantage point (rather than a theological one). When our "ought" questions have their eye turned fundamentally toward "what we should do" and not foremost toward how God is acting, then we tend to leave things out and construct ideals, even hegemonic ideals. The normative becomes a prescription for what humans should do "in a perfect world." Things, then, get left out and and left behind. People's experiences of God get obscured - the collateral damage of the normative.

Take, for example, the sort of influence-driven "relational" ministry that Andrew Root took up arms against in his Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. It was said, and still continues to be said, that youth ministry was fundamentally about influence--getting young people from point A to point B by whatever means were necessary, even "relationship." This was normative, so youth ministry was inarticulable in situation wherein influence was not happening. Is it still ministry if I'm not influencing kids? Not if influence is normative and ministry itself is articulated accordingly.

So Root reoriented youth ministry away from the pragmatic and back toward the theological - seeing that, even in those situations where influence was impossible or not happening, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who meets us, enters relationship with us, and shares our place. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, not the influence of the church on its young subjects, is what is normative... so the minister expects to discover God at work in relationship, even when that relationship doesn't have an external "end" or outcome.

When we talk about what's normative, we're not just talking about what youth ministry should look like "most of the time" even if there are certain outliers. It's not a rule to which there are exceptions.

Since God's love and the ministry of God in the life of the world is universal (and I don't use that word lightly but with all the red-flags of postmodernity waving even as I say it), we should not except a normative task which obscures the experiences of some and privileges the experience of others.  We cannot, for example, make the clear articulation of ones faith (as in a confession of faith or apologetic evangelization) normative, for it obscures the work that God is doing in the life of someone who will never be able to "articulate" their faith in rational arguments. I'm thinking of people with developmental disabilities. What's normative is that God is doing something - and the normative task will work to say something specific and guiding about that - and what will follow might look like "articulating the faith" for some but it might look like dancing for others (responsive human action is expected). The normative will speak of God's action and the pragmatic will speak of human actions which correspond to the action of God that is indigenous to their concrete and lived experience.

What we must endeavor to mean by "normative" is that theoretical and theological framework which does not accept "outliers" as collateral damage. We can't offer a true "ought" to a situation if it cannot speak to everyone who recognizes themself in the situation. We cannot offer something as normative if it only includes a privileged few. The God revealed in Jesus Christ - the God who shares God's very identity with the "least of these" (see Matthew 25) - refuses to afford us such exclusivity. As ministers seeking to participate in the ministry of God in the lives of others, we should never presume to be explaining the normative for all times and situations but we must move toward some guiding hermeneutic or even "rule" which can include every person to whom God ministers (read: everyone).

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Useless: spirituality at the monastery

During Palm Sunday weekend I went on a retreat with my colleagues from our class on "Practicing the Presence of God" to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. There, we spent a lot of time in prayer, praying the hours with the monks, and in silence away from devices and even conversations. It was a pretty formative time for me, I think. Over the weekend I read through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and reflected on God's action in my life. It was interesting, perhaps even ironic, to read Life Together by myself... usually during the silent hours at the monastery.

Life Together is an exploration of the communal experience of Christian spirituality. The last time I read Life Together I think I was a sophomore in college (at Azusa Pacific University), in about 2005. Reading about 10 years later was a much different experience, especially in the context of Holy Cross Monastery. Bonhoeffer’s reflections are profound. For Bonhoeffer, the spiritual life is not a life in isolation. It is a life of community, a life which opens us to the other. In this, he holds a similar dialectic to that of Henri Houwen (see Way of the Heart, 23-32) wherein even solitude is to make us more compassionate ministers. “The time of meditation does not let us down into the abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word. And in so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand…” (LT, 81). We do not associate with one another in Christian community out of a compulsive and dependent need of the other, in themselves, but out of a need for Jesus Christ. “Within the spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any ‘immediate’ relationship of one to another…” (LT, 32). This, again, points to Nouwen’s understanding of solitude—a “furnace of transformation” wherein we are liberated from our “immediate” and compulsive need for others, their metrics and their expectations. We cannot be for others in any healthy way if we cannot be “alone with the Word.”

I am so very prone to compare myself to others and, perhaps especially, to measure myself according to what I perceive others to expect of me. And not only what others expect of me, but what I expect of myself. My daily life is consumed by deadlines and rubrics, so much that my spiritual life gets shrink-wrapped and molded in the same cast. My spiritual life has become a new “work” with outcomes external to itself. As work, its value is measured according to what it produces—a deep spiritual thought, a profound spiritual experience that I can “use.” It cannot be a good in itself. “Prayer should not be hindered by work…” (LT, 69). In a sense, prayer does not belong to the world of work. It determines work, it shapes it and orients it—“The prayer of the morning will determine the day” (LT, 71)—but it does not belong to it. In this, Jurgen Moltmann has been helpful. Moltmann frames the Christian life and its liberating qualities in terms of “play.” He writes, “liberation from the bonds of the present system of living takes place by playing games” (Theology of Play, 13). Rather than be enslaved to the need for “purposes” and outcomes and metrics of value, we are invited into the freedom of “uselessness” and joy.
[Humankind] shall give glory to the true God and rejoice in God's and [their] own existence, for this by itself is meaningful enough. Joy is the meaning of human life, joy in thanksgiving and thanksgiving as joy. In a way, this answer abolishes the intent of such questions as: For what purpose has [humanity] been created? For what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such... the answer does not lie in demonstrable purposes establishing my usefulness but in the acceptance of my existence as such and in what Dutch biologist and philosopher Buytendijk has called the 'demonstrative value of being.' Recognizing this, we escape the dreadful questions of existence: For what purpose am I here? Am I useful? Can I make myself useful? (Theology of Play, 19).
The value of the spiritual life is not in its ability to live up to expectation or to produce something useful in us. It is delight in God, it is play, and therefore it is—by the standards of work—a waste of time. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in discussing prayer, ‘The world says, ‘If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless.’ Jesus says: ‘come spend some useless time with me.’ If we think about prayer in terns of its usefulness… God cannot easily speak to us” (Spiritual Formation, 19).

Bonhoeffer has a similar outlook, I think. The spiritual life is not a utility of community. Community is a utility of the spiritual life (if we are to think of utility at all). We are not expected to come away with a profound spiritual insight. He writes, “It is not necessary, therefore , that we should be concerned in our meditation to express our thought and prayer in words…. It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation…. Above all, it is not necessary that we should have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation. This can happen, but if it does not, it is not a sign that the mediation period has been useless [as in without intrinsic value, frivolous]” (LT, 83).

The weekend was, in many ways, an experience of solitude in the midst of Christian community. It was a weekend of giving myself permission to be useless and to let my prayer and my silence be useless to me. By this, I do not mean “meaningless.” But something does not need to be necessary or productive according to standards of work to be meaningful. In this sense, though my prayer was deeply meaningful, I gave myself permission for it to be without “purpose." When we prayed, when we received silence, and even when I read Bonhoeffer, I tried to give myself permission not to “learn” anything, but to simply enjoy what I was doing. “Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification” (LT, 30). So I tried to refrain from the frenetic anxiety of making sure I was doing it right and progressing in the right direction. “…The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature” (LT, 30).

 So I remember specifically, when we were doing Ignatian imaginative prayer together and we were invited to imagine a scene in scripture. I found myself unable to enter it. I found myself unable to imagine much at all. And where I would normally have felt anxious and might have tried to force myself to be imaginative, instead I just sat and listened and said to myself, “it’s ok.” And it was a wonderfully meaningful time for me. I didn’t imagine myself having conversations—though that would certainly have been a welcome experience—I just listened and was blessed by the Word of God. This, in the end, is appropriate for, in the spirit of Bonhoeffer, the real “purpose” of Christian life is communion with the Word.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Maundy Thursday 2015

[Last night I got to lead a Maundy Thursday service at Hopewell Presbyterian Church. The service was done in five "movements"; composed of lots of scripture, lots of hymns, some prayer, some silence, and two short homilies. Below are the two homilies... the first of which is called "ALL" and the second, "NOT A FAN?"]

Zech 9:9-13
Psalm 118:21-29

Matthew 11:28-30

Cornel West once said, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.”

We are part of a long tradition of hope…. but it is not an uncomplicated hope. It is a hope in the midst of great suffering, in the midst of exile and confusion. Those words of hope from Zechariah and from the Psalms are words written out of close familiarity with pain and suffering. Hopelessness is certainly not alien to the ones who wrote these words. In the same Psalter we find the psalms of lament, psalms that say things like “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).

“Genuine hope,” writes Jurgen Moltmann, “is not blind optimism. It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering and yet believes in the future.”

It was into this kind of hope, in the midst of hopelessness, that Jesus entered the scene. It was to a people who lived under oppression and with the threat of violence, yet a people who hoped for a Messiah, a people gripped by a hope that their savior would come… It was to these people and it was of these people that Jesus, the light of the world, came into the world.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he…

And we are, all of us, invited to “come” to this Jesus. We are, all of us who are weary (not just the strong among us, but the weak), invited to come to Jesus, to follow Jesus, to receive this salvation, to enter into this victory. We are all invited, even in our hopelessness, to receive this hope by which we are confronted in Jesus of Nazareth.

And yet who is this Jesus? 
 “Who is this king of glory?” (Psalm 24) “…humble and riding on a donkey…”?

I invite you tonight to watch closely, to listen closely for the answer. Look to see who this Jesus is, how his power is displayed. Listen for what this king will decree.

Luke 9:23-27
John 13:1-20

So what is the nature of this hope? Who is this king of glory?

Where we might have expected a call to take up arms to join in the great battle for the victory of God, Jesus invites us to take up the cross. The cross was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a symbol of victory (not for the one who would be killed on it). The cross was a symbol of death, the most profound image of shame and degradation. The victorious king—the Messiah—Jesus calls us to follow him onto failure and death.

Where we might have expected a great feast in celebration of coming triumph, instead we have a modest dinner wherein Jesus takes the role of a slave and washes the dirt covered feet of his disciples. And he gives us this example as his decree, his new commandment. He says (later, in verse 34)

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The theologian Eberhard Jüngel wrote, “...godly power and godly love are related to one another neither through subordination nor dialectically. Rather, God's mightiness is understood as the power of his love. Only love is almighty.”

Jesus’ power, his victory and his great authority, is displayed in his act of love. His mightiness is to become a servant.

During the Lenten season we, as a congregations, have been going through the book Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman. In this book he makes a distinction between a “fan” of Jesus—someone who likes what he’s about but doesn't really respond to the call to discipleship—and a “follower” A follower is someone who changes their life for Jesus. A follower is someone who will take up their cross and go with Jesus to death. This is not a call to comfort and prosperity. It is not about “upward mobility” as his original disciples may have originally expected. It is a journey to the ground. To the knee, to the feet of the other to wash them… even the feet of those who might betray us. The invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to love the way Jesus loved.

And Idleman has, throughout his book, “not a fan” stories… stories of people who did sell all they had to follow Jesus, stories of followers who did radical things.

But there’s irony here…

If we look closely to the scriptures, when we look to the New Testament, we begin to notice that it is not, at its core, a story of “followers”. If we look especially to the gospels, we find no neat examples of people who did it right. When Jesus bends down to wash the disciples’ feet, though they’ve been with him learning from him for years, they don’t even understand what he is doing. Indeed, when Jesus gets to the cross which he invited his disciples to take up, he is alone. In the final hour, there are no followers… there’s only Jesus.

If there is really a “not a fan story” at all, it is the story of Jesus.

And that is what confronts us in the New Testament—not the story of human success, but the story of God’s love and God’s grace displayed in the only one who truly gave it all in pursuit… It is not the story of humans following after God… it is the story of the God who chases after us…

Wholly Othered: A Good Friday Reflection

"...God reveals his strength in the weak, his honor in lowliness, and his splendor in the cross of Christ. His glory is not the splendor of otherworldly superior power but the beauty of love... The glory of the crucified God leads of necessity to a transformation of all values and takes away the glory from those who have proclaimed themselves divine." -Jürgen Moltmann (Theology of Play, 41-42). 
"Wholly Other": this is the term we often use in theology to describe God's relationship to everything else in the world, particularly us. An "other" is simply someone who is different, someone who is not you. An "other" is a neighbor, a stranger, even an enemy. To be Wholly Other, is to be in every way distinct, to have no share in you, to be completely dependent and distinct in identity from the start. It is a term that has been helpful to theologians who are concerned not to univocally confuse anything in creation with its creator. But on its own it is a dangerously misleading term. We must think a little further about what kind of "other" God really is.

"Other" is not the only term we must understand. We must also understand "other-ing" and "other-ed." Othering is marginalizing those who are different. The Othered are those subject to marginalization, those on the underside of whatever hegemonic experience is to be privileged.
Othering is violent and the othered suffers violence.

In the misguided theology of glory, "Wholly Other" is used to describe a god who lords over us. Confronted by the vast difference of God we are distanced from God. This God is nothing like us, high above us, and is so wholly other that the very thought of being in communion with us is a threat and so we must be abolished, replaced but this God. So those whose sins are still with them must be sent to hell and banished from the sight of God. In this sense the Wholly Other is wholly othering.

Now, as John Wall puts it,
" is possible, indeed necessary, to recognize otherness without (as some have claimed) abandoning the notion of a hermeneutical circle. “Otherness” does not mean “othering”: the marginalization of those who are different. Rather, it refers to the sense in which each singular human being is ultimately irreducible to any understanding, narration, or construction of them whatsoever."* 
 Marc Chagall's "Crucifixion in Yellow"
(This painting hung above Moltmann's
desk as he wrote The Crucified God)
We can talk about God as Wholly Other without assuming that God must be an othering other. God can be different, distinct, and yet also our neighbor and our friend with a sort of friendly responsibility toward us. We cannot subject God to one story or try to reduce God to any part of God. But God is not distant in God's distinctness. This is, indeed, key to understanding the incarnation. In Jesus of Nazareth, God who is different decided not to be distant. God who is Wholly Other chose not to be othering--"I have called you friends..." (John 15:15). And a subtle theology might stop there. But the theology of the cross, the theology by which we are confronted on Good Friday, is unable to stop there.

On Good Friday God is revealed to us as the Wholly Othered.

It is not just that God is not an oppressor (which is nice), but that the Wholly Other has been revealed as the oppressed. God is made subject to the arbitrary use of power. God, in Jesus' broken body, is violently marginalized under the hegemony of those who have declared themselves divine.

It is the case that God has done more than come close to us. God, the Wholly Other, has shared our place in becoming the Wholly Othered. God's otherness is revealed in God's suffering at our hands, God's being marginalized by us, God's pain in hearing God's beloved cry out, "crucify him!!"

And in being othered, God reveals God's closeness to those who are othered. We must look to the hungry and to the poor and expect to discover God. It is in this sense that, as Jon Sobrino has suggested, there is no salvation outside the poor. And We are invited to look to our poorest selves, our selves which are hidden in the darkness of a tomb. God reveals God's solidarity with us--even us!--when we are othered by others and by ourselves. The Wholly Other is one of us, even in the depths, even in violence, even in death. God is with us in hell and, in God's otherness, promises to bring us back to life. 

*"Childhood Studies, Hermeneutics, and Theological Ethics" in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 86, No. 4 (October 2006), pp. 523-548

Thursday, April 02, 2015

My (short) Review of Theology of Play

[Here's the little review I wrote on Goodreads for Moltmann's Theology of Play. Sign the petition to get it back in print!]

 Theology of PlayTheology of Play by Jürgen Moltmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of Moltmann's greatest works, I believe, and yet it remains among the most difficult to acquire (since it is, as of now, out of print). In following with the spirit of its subject this book is written with a playful and experimental (even curious) posture.It may, therefore, frustrate the extremely careful and scientific dogmatic theologians among us, but it exemplifies Moltmann's more doxological approach to theology--"We study theology properly because we are curious and find pleasure in the subject" (66). Thus, Theology of Play is as perplexing as it is profound and mysterious as it is illuminating.

Moltmann wants to see a paradigm shift--from work to play, from necessity and outcome to freedom and spontaneity, from adult notions of purpose and goal to childlike enjoyment of God for its own sake, from law to gospel. For Moltmann, the whole of the Christian life is at stake. For as the Christian life itself is awareness of God in Jesus Christ, and ultimately, delight in God " confuse the enjoyment of God and our existence with goals and purposes" (19) sacrifices the freedom of liberation that is the good news of Jesus Christ. "Life as rejoicing in liberation, as solidarity with those in bondage, as play with reconciled existence, and as pain at unreconciled existence demonstrates the Easter event in the world" (31). We are to learn from children and learn to play, to play without any "purpose" as such. Indeed the very question of purpose is the "question of the adult in the child who does't want to play anymore but needs goals in order to make something respectable of himself" (18). The Christian life, according to Moltmann, is not to be envisioned as a 'purpose driven life' but, perhaps, as a game of delight in the God who creates and redeems the world for nothing.

Find this book and read it!

View all my reviews

The Unthinking Atheist

I have great sympathy for my atheist friends. (Indeed my own "theism" is somewhat complicated... as complicated as Christian theism must be by the confession that the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, is revelation of God.) Though it'd be a waste of time to pretend that I am not a theist, I have great respect for the convictions many atheists hold. Often, at the heart of their conviction is lament over the historically destructive presence of religion in the world. Though the strictly philosophical and scientific arguments against the "existence" of "a deity" rarely resonate with me (perhaps because, ironically, they are so abstract that they obscure the concrete and lived experience of people who speak of encountering God), I can empathize with the rage against oppressive religious hegemony and "theistic" contributions to dehumanization and marginalization.

I get it.

And I definitely get the frustration with obnoxious "Christian" proselytization and plain-old-bad-theology. I understand the  allergy to "hell" narratives wherein Christians take it as acceptable (palatable, even!)  to believe God would torture someone for all eternity because they refused to bow down and say a prayer.  I get that!

But an obnoxious atheist is about as frustrating as an obnoxious Christian.

I have a friend on Facebook who used to be a Christian. I started following her blog years ago before she "converted" (is that the right word?) to atheism. I liked her because she was critical of the caricatured Christianity of the religious right and the neo-Calvinists (you know... people who are so ridiculous that they make it hard for Christians to be Christians... people like John Piper...). Then when she decided that it was silly for her to continue calling herself a Christian, when she realized that she didn't "need" God to be a good person (why was that ever the claim in the first place?), she decided that she was an atheist.

Fine. Again, I get that.

But then what was before a criticism of bad theology became a representative for all theology. All she really did was expand the caricature of Christianity to include all Christianity.

If you read her posts and look at her Facebook, it will be apparent that she thinks Christianity is backward and false. But what is defined as "Christianity" or "religion" for her is not the Christianity of most of the world. It's the Christianity of that crazy corner of the United States that still believes that God is a tyrant and that global warming is "liberal propaganda." You'd think, from most of what she says, that Christianity is a religion of conservative, homophobic, gun-toting, white men who think God sends people to hell if they're not religious enough. But that's not descriptive of Christianity, not real Christianity (I realize that there are some who actually fit the description of the caricature... and I don't mean to say that they're "fake" but they are not "real"--they don't get to represent all of us). By attacking the caricature and saying that she's attacking the real thing, she comes off as obnoxious as the people she's criticizing. It has become difficult to continue following her on Facebook.

In attacking only an unthinking Christianity, some atheists reveal themselves as unthinking atheists... and the two are equally bothersome... especially when they are constantly proselytizing. An unthinking atheist is just as annoying as an unthinking Christian.

Atheists have a right to revolt against Christianity. The atheist perspective has certainly been marginalized in this country as a certain kind of "Christian" experience has been privileged (this is a problem for all of us). So I am not accusing anyone of reverse-discrimination. But I do want to politely ask my atheist friends to stop beating the straw-man. Stop allowing unthinking Christianity to speak for all Christianity. It makes you look as foolish as your adversaries.    

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Action of Inactivity: On Spiritual Practice and Divine Action

[Another version of this post was originally published in October, 2014 on The Institute For Youth Ministry blog]

Spiritual practices (like prayer, sabbath, silence, and solitude) have fundamental significance for the practice of ministry. But perhaps not in the way we're accustomed to thinking about it. It seems we primarily imagine spiritual practices as ways in which we can experience God. They are primarily a tool we employ to foster an encounter with God. And while we may indeed have significant experiences with God in and through spiritual practices, I think we may be putting the cart before the horse.

Spiritual practice can become just another thing we do, another compulsion of life and  of the felt need to do something spiritual. I remember when I was in high school. The thing good Christians were supposed to do was to have "devotional time"—time (usually in the morning) that was dedicated to the reading of scripture with the expectation of meeting and hearing from God. Either out of some spark of spiritual maturity or out of some form of frustration (not sure which one), I decided to give up my devotional times for a while. I decided that it would actually be better for my relationship with God if I just quit pressuring myself to be more spiritual. I was quitting devotionals for Jesus.  I remember telling my youth pastor and getting a strange look. "You're giving up your devotional time!? ...for Jesus!?!?"

That devotional time, that spiritual practice, had become such an obligation and an expectation, I was trying so hard to create an encounter with God and I was apparently failing at it. I was rarely feeling like God was there or speaking to me in those pages. The real problem was that I was missing the point of spiritual practice. I thought that the terms for spiritual practice were set by my own action, my own ability to create an experience of God. What I missed is that the importance of spiritual practices is not in what humans do, not in the practices themselves, but in the action of God. God is the primary agent and spiritual practices are supposed to focus us, direct us, orient us toward God's action. 

With my devotional time in high school, I was placing God's action and the divine encounter on the wrong side of spiritual practice. I thought that the role of spiritual practice was to create a divine encounter, that divine action (if God had any agency at all) really was on the other side of my endeavor to be spiritual.
Human action is only secondary. God's action is primary, and God’s action is saving action. The fact is, none of us can be our own savior. All human beings are subject to death. What we do, then, will never resolve death, it will never be able to produce an encounter with the living God who has taken death into God's very self and turned it toward life. In Douglas John Hall’s words, “[death’s] resolution is only God’s possibility” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 214). Incarnation, resurrection—these are God's activities. Crucifixion is what human action looks like. It is only by God's grace that we are met by God. It is only God's action that sets the terms for human participation. We can never earn or create an encounter with God, all we can do is respond to it. So spiritual practices actually belong on the other side of the divine encounter. God always makes the first move and determines the shape and quality of our response.

But it doesn't stop there. If we've determined that spiritual practices come out of the divine encounter, as a response to divine action and a receiving of God's grace, we've yet to say where these spiritual practices lead us. Andrew Root writes “Our response…is not to harvest spiritual experiences like a religious consumer, but rather to be led by the Spirit to participate in Jesus’ own praxis…” (Root, Cristopraxis, 93) The Spiritual practices ultimately lead to ministry. They are not meant to produce anything (again, when spiritual practices are oriented toward productivity, they become just another human work and compulsion), but they are meant to allow God's action to set the terms for our participation in ministry and thus the impulse of this spiritual response to the divine encounter will be ministry itself. As Henri Nouwen writes, “When we have found rest in God we can do nothing other than minister” (Nouwen, The Way of The Heart, 90).

The Spiritual practices become, in essence, the actions of inactivity. In this way, we might even be able to name my action of refraining from devotionals for a season as a spiritual practice in and of itself, a practice which served to remind me that my relationship with God does not hinge on what I can and cannot do but on what God does. Spiritual practices are ways in which God’s action is placed in the drivers’ seat. When, through spiritual practices, we embrace the impossibility of our action to produce something, to produce an encounter with God, and when we allow God’s action to set the terms for our participation in ministry, we may find the rest that Jesus was talking about when he said, “…you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:29).

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Giving Voice... and Really Listening

“The first duty of love is to listen.” -Paul Tillich
There's some buzz in youth ministry about "giving voice" to young people, offering space for them to speak up and be a part of the larger church (think "intergenerational" and "integration"). But giving voice is only half the battle and, in its own way, it's fraught with problems. The other indispensable half of the battle is how we actually listen to that voice. The presupposition behind "giving voice" is that "voice" is ours to give. In some ways this is true. While young people are not without agency, they live in an adult-centered "gerontocentric" society where the experience of the adult is privileged over that of the young person. Children's voices are not trusted, even if we permit them to be heard. Even Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist to whom practical theologians are deeply indebted, has suggested that "accounts of childhood can only be given by people who are no longer children" (as quoted by Bonnie Miller-McLemore). Thus children's experience, as children, is obscured. Adolescents are in no less ambiguous a situation. The adolescent experience is obscured by the same distrust but it is even more pronounced by the attribution of "transition," "immaturity," and "selfishness" that is so readily employed in description of adolescent experience. For an example of this, just read the first couple of chapters of Thomas Bergler's latest book, From Here to Maturity. You'll find that he is deeply suspicious of adolescence, using it as sort of a catch-all adjective for anything that doesn't measure up to his definition of spiritual maturity (thus introducing the even greater danger of conflating spiritual maturity with developmental maturity).

Think also of all the "teen brain" articles that get passed around the internet, studying teenagers as though they're of a different species. While neurological differences are sure to be found, it is presumptuous for us centralize these differences as though they are causal and determinative. The ulterior motive of such studies is usually to confirm our gerontocentric biases--namely, that rationalism and adulthood are objectively desirable and that young people's strangeness to us can simply be chalked up to their neurological deficiencies. (I wonder if the pharisees would have appreciated such an explanation for Jesus' impulsive and irrational activity in the Temple. Maybe he just wasn't accessing his "white matter," or else he'd have acted more like them).

As Chris Jenks has said, "given the dominance of particular models of child development... children [and adolescents] are rarely seen as competent advocates of their own experiences." Even if there have been great strides in sociology toward seeing young people as "social actors" and not just potential adults, Wuthnow's bias toward the adult experience is representative the world in which our young people live--the world they must share with us and we with them.

So what happens, then, when we "give voice" to young people? What happens when you, the Youth Pastor (use your imagination if you have to)--having just read and swallowed an NPR article about how undeveloped teenagers are or having just read a chapter by Erik Erikson about the transitory adolescent "stage of development"--ask a young person about their experience? What really happens when you put them on the "leadership team" of the youth group and ask them say what they think you should do? When you give them a voice but presume to have the normative perspective, are you actually able to hear them? When we listen to those voices, we'll be paralyzed from actually hearing what they're saying. The voice we'll hear will be what fits into the cast of our own experience (either positively or negatively). It will be a slightly underdeveloped version of our own voice.

When we "give voice" to adolescents, we need to complete the task by translating (and we're always translating) that experience in a way that honors their lived experience and listens not just for what corresponds to our experience. We cannot do that if our hermeneutic is suspicion and power. As Clifford Geertz has put it, “‘Translation’… is not a simple recasting of others’ ways of putting things in terms of our own ways of putting them (that is the kind in which things get lost), but displaying the logic of their ways of putting them in the locutions of ours; a conception which gain brings us closer to what a critic does to illumine a poem than what an astronomer does to account for a star" (Geertz, Local Knowledge, 10). When we listen, we cannot listen as though they are just not-as-well-put-together versions of ourselves. If our experience is so obscuring of their own, if such preference is given to adulthood, then we'll never hear young people as young people. But neither can we listen as though they are some different species. They are neither potential humans nor savages, they are humans being human in a different way than we are being human.  We need to find a way to listen and really listen. It is only when we can make this hermeneutical shift that neurological, biological, and psychological descriptors will be helpful to us, and it is only once we've made this shift that we can actually listen to the voices of young people once we've amplified them. As Geertz has said so eloquently,"we are surrounded (and we are surrounded) neither by Martians nor by less well got-up versions of ourselves; a proposition that holds no matter what 'we'... we start from" (16).