N.B.: I’m writing about Palm Sunday because very early tomorrow our family is leaving for an extended Disney vacation (hip-hip-horray!) and won’t be back until after Palm Sunday. I will be back for most of Holy Week, which I know I will need. Here’s hoping you, Dear Reader, will be safe, sane, and won’t forget about little old me while I’m gone. God bless each and all of you! G K-S
The seeds that died
Out of undying love cried
Out of anguish, young and strong , brave in deeds;
The ground shook and swallowed up the seeds.
Served with muscle and blood
Broken and weary ,withstood the flood;
From the hubs, warm hearths of comfort ,
To the cold uncertain rubble of duty
Arise from the ashes , fresh blooms of beauty.
Not forsaken, though fallen, hurt and reeling
Not denying the wounds, need tender healing;
The blood that was shed, covered in Grace
When with the poppies, the Giver, we see face to face. – MudCracker, “Poppies Rise Again”
I don’t remember if I’ve written about this before (I probably have) but last February, my wife and I went to see the rock band Transatlantic in St. Charles. We arrived in town early. We were eating dinner in a pub just a block or so from the theater where the show would be. While we were there, the band came in to have dinner. First, they were seated in another section on the main floor of the pub. Since there were several others in the place who were attending the show; since the band is one of those side projects members of bands do, which means touring isn’t all that common; fans of Transatlantic may not be enormous, but we are HUGE fans. I’m guessing looking around seeing about half the place staring at them like they were in a zoo, the five members of the band asked for and got a private room. The thing is, they walked RIGHT PAST OUR TABLE. As they did so, I was, as my older daughter said, “a fan-girl”. I couldn’t even smile and wave. Instead, I sat there, pointing, my mouth opening and closing like a trout on a stream bank. My wife on the other hand, waved, smiled, and said, “Looking forward to the show.” Neal Morse, the lead singer of the band, smiled and waved at HER and said, “Thank you.” After they were gone, I turned to her and said, in tones that were probably both hysterically funny and pathetic, “Neal spoke to you.”
The thing is, don’t we all want to be recognized? Don’t we all want our lives, our work, our selves, affirmed by those we might admire, or perhaps those who are superior to us at work, our friends? When people have moved us through their music, their artistry, their ability on the sports field, or even in politics notice us, there’s this rush, this moment when all feels right, when the hours of listening or watching or reading have paid off and we are not only in the presence of someone who has touched our lives in a very special way; they have acknowledged that the recognize us as those who appreciate their work. That kind of affirmation is important. It makes our lives a bit more real, a bit more livable, a bit more meaningful.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was greeted by people shouting his praises, God’s praises, waving palm branches and setting them along his path on the road, a gesture acknowledging his kingship. In that moment, while Jesus was having his ministry and work affirmed by the people, of far more importance is the fact that the people were having their prayers, their wishes, their hopes, and their lives affirmed. The Messiah had come! For so many of those along the road, that had to mean all sorts of things: the end of Roman rule; the Temple would be cleansed; the restoration of the true monarchy. Justice, as determined by God’s Law, would reign once again and the people would be free. They would be The People of Israel again, no longer just an annoying minority in one far-flung province of an enormous Empire. Those who had fled Jerusalem, or who had been hauled into exile and whose descendants had stayed in various cities, would all return, Jerusalem would again be the center of the world, and the LORD’s reign from the Temple would call the whole world to give praises to Israel’s God. And they were witnesses to the beginning of this revolution. The presence of Jesus, fulfilling prophecies the people knew by heart, was letting the people know not only who he was. Just by his actions, riding a donkey down a street, he was letting the people know they were alive, they were real, their hopes and prayers had been heard and were now being answered. Their lives now had meaning.
I’ve entered Jerusalem by the same gate, behind him by just a couple hours. The street still bears witness to his passing. The palm branches are still there. People are milling about, their eyes alight, their voices and bodies animated. They are smiling, some are even laughing, because they know all that is about to occur. It has been a part of their collective lives for over a century. There have been pretend Messiahs before, all cut down by Roman forces. This one, though, enters Jerusalem in proper fashion, fulfilling prophecy. And they were witnesses.
I walk through their midst, seeing they only glance at me, a strange traveler carrying an enormous rock, a pack on my back, then return to their revelry. I think most Christians try and imagine themselves in to moments like this; it’s certainly a fun way to entertain the mind, kind of like what I’m doing right now. All the same, I’m far less happy than the people around me, because I know the rest of the story. This might be my first real Lenten Journey, but I’ve heard and read the Scriptures enough to know what the rest of the week has in store. As the pastor from my childhood used to preach on Palm Sunday, the same crowds cheering Jesus’s entrance were chanting “Crucify him!” just a few days later.
I have to be honest. I don’t blame them. This entry meant the coming of the kingdom! The restoration of Israel! It meant salvation! It meant freedom! What did Jesus do? He hung around the Temple and argued with the Priests. He had dinner with drunkards and prostitutes, but also dined with the Sadducee, who no doubt wanted to know who this alleged Messiah was and what, exactly, his plans might be. His opening at the Temple, tossing out the money-changers and others, only made the life of the people worse. How could they meet their Temple obligations if no one would change Roman coins for coins they could properly offer in the Temple? Who would sell them their doves, their goats or rams? For all it seemed that Jesus was The One, he was worse than the other false Messiahs precisely because the people, it seemed, had their hopes and prayers answered, only to have it all dissolve around them, before their eyes. All that affirmation was fake. Jesus had no more affirmed them and their lives than he had rid the Temple and the Palace of the Romans.
I make my way further in to the city, and I hear Jesus’s words from the cross: Forgive them, for they do not know what they do. I will not judge them at all, because Jesus did not judge them. I do not condemn their myopia, because all of us and each of us are just as myopic, wanting Jesus to be who we believe he will be. We want our prayers answered the way not only we have been told they will be answered, but because in doing so, we will know real freedom, real life, and our lives will have real meaning.
Up ahead is an Inn. I think I’ll stay there this week. The upper floor is taken, but a small corner room is open. There’s a bed, more blankets on the floor with wool and straw beneath them. There’s a chamber pot. I know I’ll have to do my own cleaning, because the locals need to remain clean, especially now, what with The Messiah in the city and all. There’s no place to set my loads. Sighing, I stretch out on the pallet on the floor, the pack still on my bed, the rock cradled in my arms. It’s going to be a long week.
The beliefs that the church has handed on to us, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the power of sin, the atoning work of Christ, and the resurrection of the body, are simply sensitive instruments and effective prescriptions in God’s medical kit, just as the Eucharist, baptism and the Bible are. When we engage one another with these canonical means of grace, we are acting as the nurses in God’s hospital, going about the work of our divine physician. – David F. Watson and William J. Abraham, “Creedal Faith”, Ministrymatters.com, November 30, 2014
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood. – Tom Waits, “Come On Up To The House”
I saw the above-quoted article earlier today on Facebook, and seeing who one of the authors was, I knew I had to go read it. I cannot speak to what is in his heart, but the constant beating of the drum around Doctrine in the United Methodist Church smacks just a bit too much both of trying to steer the conversation away from where it needs to be as well as on what he thinks is safer ground but is in fact where he slips and falls far too often. For instance, that two United Methodist clergy-scholars, one in New Testament studies the other in Evangelism and Theology, could publish just the above-cited bit and consider it theologically sound makes me wonder just how seriously I should consider their work. To place Doctrine of any sort on the same plane as the means of grace; to suppose that an individual’s salvation is determined by getting particular words and phrases just so, rather than Doctrine being the collective expression of the faith of the gathered people of God; to offer the ridiculous “analogy” with which the authors begin this article and pretend is has anything to do with anything the church does . . . I don’t know. I just . . .
Let’s start with that “analogy”, shall we? I mean, like all straw arguments, it seems impressive, until some big bad wolf comes along and blows the house down:
Imagine you went to the doctor and the doctor walked into your room and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad
news.”“Okay,” you respond. “Let’s have the bad news.”
“The bad news is that you have an illness that will eventually kill you if left untreated.”
“Wow . . .” you respond. “That is bad news. What’s the good news?”
“The good news is there’s a cure.”
“Great! Let’s have it.”
The shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk.”
“Doc!” you shout. “I’m dying!”
“Indeed you are,” says the. “But I do have this large stack of medical books that I’ll loan you. The cure to your illness is somewhere in these volumes. You are going to have to read carefully, synthesize ideas, and learn information that I could give to you much more quickly, but if you do find the cure before you die, you’ll be a better person for it.”
Now, we would never accept this kind of answer from a doctor, but too often this is exactly the kind of “medicine” that we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.
I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin with the more-than-a-tad-snarky bit - No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk – because this reads like a parody of some conservative’s understanding of “liberal” approaches to ministry, doctrine, and the Christian life. I say “reads like a parody” because there is no way any of this bears any resemblance to any church of which I’ve been a part; any teaching of any pastor, teacher, or church leader; certainly not the United Methodist Church and its approach to doctrine, our theological task, and our expression of faith as the people called Methodist. The authors say “this is exactly the kind of ‘medicine’ we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.” I would ask: One example, please. Just cite a denominational statement, a theological work, a statement from any mainline Protestant body that says anything like this.
Of course, they won’t because they can’t. Let me back up just a moment and say that much of the problem I have with this piece is that it’s unspoken assumption – that any individual’s adherence to any particular doctrine is determinant and necessary both for their salvation as well as their being considered a part of the church – is blatantly, laughably, ahistorically false. Doctrine is teaching, the understanding of the church’s encounter through Christ in the Spirit with the Father. Both the body we call doctrine and our understanding of it are a wholly human creation; unlike the Sacraments, which we declare in faith were instituted by Jesus Christ to be means of grace for the uplifting of believers, their salvation, and their connection together in the Body of Christ, Doctrine is an ever-evolving understanding of our understanding of who God is, what God is doing, and what we, in the Church, are to be about. Unlike the Scriptures, which we profess in our teaching to be wholly sufficient guides for faith and action, doctrine is not inspired. It is, alas, as broken and liable to error any other solely human creation (like individual attempts at living the Christian faith apart from the Body of Christ, say). That’s why we Protestants no longer have a Doctrine of Purgatory. We do not have a Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Up through the 17th Century, many bodies, Catholic and Protestant, had a Doctrine of Death. None do now, at least of which I’m aware.
Doctrine is our collective profession of faith. When people say, “What do United Methodists believe?”, we point to our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and our Theological Task. That is why they exist. Individuals can and do vary in their understanding, adherence, and acceptance of various teachings; that’s a given in a Church body of 9 million adherents across the world, in a variety of countries, languages, socio-economic contexts, political and legal contexts, and other factors that create human diversity and difference. What any particular individual expresses about doctrine is neither interesting nor important, certainly not for their salvation. That is wholly the act of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit; it is the supreme expression of the Divine Life, freedom in love expressed in gratuitous acts of mercy. When we understand ourselves grasped by this Love that never gives up on us, that is always behind, around, and before us, we begin the real journey of the Christian Life – moving on to perfection in love in this lifetime. This Doctrine, uniquely that of the followers of John Wesley, is an expression of our collective experience of the efficacy and workings of grace in our life as the Body of Christ. Some move along this path; some do not. Some move further along than other. Some get stuck, while others dedicate their lives to this life of entire sanctification. This is an experience; the Doctrine merely puts in words – contingent, time-and-history bound lines on a page or computer screen that represent sounds we make, sounds that change over time – our understanding of the experience, which is primary.
There are at least two ways of looking at Christian orthodoxy. On the one hand, orthodoxy could involve a set of claims that can be used as a litmus test to see who is in and who is out. Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. A much healthier way of thinking about the orthodox claims of the church is as life-giving resources. These claims are critical not because we need some minimal set of admission requirements, and not simply because these claims delineate our tribe from other tribes, but because knowing the truth about God can lead us more fully into the life of God, and it is within the life of God that true life is to be found.
So much of the game is given up in this paragraph, I have to wonder why they bothered writing anything else. Consider the whole bit here: Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. Is it a secondary use or a misuse of doctrine to use it in such a way? A secondary use would imply it is still legitimate. To then add, “if not a misuse” seems more than little disingenuous. The truth of the matter is the authors do believe it to be a legitimate use, doctrine as definer of who’s in and who’s out. This is so because the rest of the paragraph, for all intents and purposes, accepts this as a given. Indeed, the notion that Doctrine is “the truth about God” – which I cannot find in Scripture, which actually insists that Jesus Christ is the Truth of God – is contradicted by Biblical teaching itself. Ours is not a faith in human words, or human understanding of our experience. Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All doctrine does is make clear the Church’s collective understanding of this living faith. Whether or not we get the words right or wrong, well, that’s a project that keeps the Church going, because how would it be possible to have the Truth about God, whose Eternal Life is the fullness of gratuitous love and interpenetrating mutuality that is most fully expressed in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus? While it is true enough that life within God is our true life, we do not find this through adherence to Doctrine. We find this through our collective life of confession and profession and living out our Living Faith in our Living God. It is never that we know the Truth of God. Rather, it is that the Truth of God known and takes hold of us and never lets us go.
Wesley knew what so many of us have forgotten today: The set of claims that we make about God will shape the ways in which we view the world around us and will come to bear significantly upon the way we live. We all have a way of looking at the world, but not all ways of looking at the world are equally virtuous or healthy. Not all ways of looking at the world are equally true. The witness of the church through the centuries is that the most virtuous and truest way of looking at the world is through the lens of our creedal faith.
The final sentence is missing a key feature of the the church’s witness: That these claims of virtue and truth are claims of faith, to be considered even while confessed, to know how they hold us rather than being held by us, and are at best an expression of what the Church could be if it lived wholly in the Spirit of the Risen Christ to the glory of the Father. All the same, they are part of our profession of faith – profession being distinct from confession – which is precisely that: a profession of faith, not a witness to any human Truth. It can only be understood, even dimly, when we grasp that we are in the hand of our loving God. As for the rest of the paragraph, I’m not even sure who has forgotten that our claims about God shape how we live. After all, even atheists insist their denial of God shapes their lives. Those who profess other religious faiths certainly understand their lives shaped by their beliefs about God, Allah, the pantheon, or the dream that is life from which we need to awaken. It’s silly to pretend that folks have “forgotten” this; it’s even sillier to insist that such forgetting is, or could be, relevant to a discussion of Doctrine, in particular a discussion of Doctrine that somehow insists it is no less a means of grace than Baptism of the Lord’s Supper. If Doctrine really were a means of grace, such a forgetting on the part of the Church would be impossible; as it is, no one of whom I’m aware has “forgotten” such a thing, i.e., that our beliefs shape how we live.
For United Methodists, these are given in the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and the Confessions of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Holy Trinity brought all things into being, created humankind, mourned our rebellion, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, taught us how to live, bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose bodily from the dead and will come again in glory. That narrative—if you internalize it—will shape the way you view everything. And so, as we say at the very beginning of “Key United Methodist Beliefs,” “Belief matters.” It matters a great deal.
Let’s consider “The Holy Trinity brought all things into being,” etc. This “shorthand” is as unorthodox as the too-often-heard claim, “Jesus is God”. An understanding of the Trinity includes understanding that the Three work as One, and the One works as Three. Thus, for example, Creation is the work of the Father with the Son through the Spirit. “The Trinity” didn’t bring all things into being; Creation, which is an ongoing, love-and-grace-filled act of God, is a specific action of the Persons in specific ways. The Trinity did not “become incarnate” in Jesus of Nazareth. The fullness of God in the Person of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Father, was Jesus of Nazareth. To say that “Belief matters”, without recognizing the errors of doctrine expressed in their defense of doctrine; without admitting their adherence to an individualistic understanding of the role of Doctrine rather than its existence as the historical expression of the teaching of the Church about its encounter with the Living God, in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father; well, to do these things is to demonstrate precisely why any individual’s understanding of “belief”, while certainly a matter of importance, is neither here nor there.
Finally, I just have to wonder who in the United Methodist Church would deny the importance of Creedal Faith as an expression of our collective faith. Considering the number of creeds in our United Methodist Hymnal, their similarities and differences, their differences in emphases, and how they are used in various ways by congregations, the collective profession of our confession of faith is certainly important in the life of the Church. What this has to do with doctors denying treatment, or Doctrine erroneously treated as a means of grace, or whatever the point of this article was, I don’t know. Which leaves me, as always, wondering how it is possible pastor-scholars could write this and present it to readers.
Unless the matter isn’t doctrine at all, of course. Which has been my contention all along. This is yet another part of the sideshow, the attempt to drag the Church away from our conversation about living the Gospel with integrity by insisting that other things are both more primary and more important. Naming what the game is all about, especially when theologically educated professionals write such doctrinally suspect things as this apologia for doctrine, is important.
And living your life through vice has left you slow and with out stride.
For everything you once were is now a memory seen through a sloths eye. – Allawy Mian, “Where No Virtue Lies”, ending
“At some point, you have to get up and do something.” Perhaps. Perhaps not, though. If there is a way to avoid doing anything unpleasant, or even anything at all, I might well be the champion of finding that way. Avoidance is more an art than science, is a skill rather than a talent, and it takes a whole lot of work to be a successfully lazy person. All the same, it is far preferable to the alternative: doing that which I would rather not. Even when doing whatever it might be is necessary. I sometimes think the world would be so much better if more people preferred to do less, find ways to just sit and enjoy some songs, the play of light through windows, reading a good book, a third cup of coffee, and take in the experience of living. Of this marvelous gift of existence. Of the way the times and days and seasons move along, and yet this eternal return is never the same, and each moment is filled with wonder.
That’s what I tell myself. That I am appreciating the simplicity of all that is, without distractions, with a soundtrack I have chosen. Except, really, what I’m doing is an active passivity. I’m trying desperately not to do . . . well, whatever might need or wanted to be done.
When I worked at WalMart, it was nearly impossible to remain either idle or find shortcuts around necessary things. Funny thing, at least to me, was how much I enjoyed the work and the people. It was camaraderie, it was hard, physical labor – I was well-known for how I sweated out shirts, especially when I worked stocking the juice aisle – and for a man entering middle age, I found myself in surprisingly good shape. Yet, if only I had the opportunity to steer clear of all that, I would have taken it. Let someone else lift all those heavy cartons of juice, pull those pallets filled with those heavy cartons, move fast because there was more than 8 hours work to do, and there was so much extra to take up time, from discarding cardboard to setting up endcaps to making the aisle look pretty and stocked. Despite the benefits I found, when I finally left I wasn’t heartbroken. I wasn’t as young as I used to be, I said. All that lifting and toting and pulling and moving faster than anyone had a right to expect of me was too much. I was tired of it.
Except, what I really was, was looking for an end to something that took me away from my preference for doing nothing. I had moved away; the trip was expensive; the work environment had not remained friendly; I had more excuses than a centipede has legs. Excuses, however, is all they were.
It wasn’t just WalMart, however. Laziness is not just an art form or habit. It is a way of life. Of course, I also know it isn’t living at all. It’s barely existing. The comforting lies the slothful tell ourselves are just that. I may believe I’m appreciating life more, but how is that possible when I’m not really living? Taking the easy road always takes longer, and there’s no sense of having achieved anything once you reach the end. All the same, it’s what I do. Whether it’s that disagreeable housework that needs to get done, spending hours away from home with strangers doing something to make money, or making the yard pretty, clean, and presentable – this is part of living. No one said it all had to be enjoyable. Like the old line says, they wouldn’t call it work if it were fun.
And, with not a little bit of irony, I’m imagining a long walk, filled with challenges, and danger, and horror, and sadness. Along this road I’ve picked up more than a few things that slow my trip, but are necessary to bring along. To be rid of them would certainly be far better. To not have to make this journey at all would be even better. Just to sit at the side of the road, feel the breeze, my arms and back resting from the labor demanded from them; oh, God, how wonderful that would be.
Sloth is a deadly sin not least because it creates conditions in which we human beings can avoid answering the call from God to live out the calling to work in the world for the world. It is a deadly sin because those who are its best adherents and practitioners are not, in fact, that much alive at all. We are, sad to say, little better than the rarely-walking dead. This journey I’ve set myself upon, it is taxing not least because it requires I actually do stuff. Disagreeable stuff. Not just sit and imagine things. I have actually to engage with my life, the awful things that make up so much of it, and not just own them all, but pick them up and carry them. No carton has been so heavy, no manager’s demands so onerous, no job so difficult and unwanted as this. It is one thing to wrestle with the angel, as Jacob did, all night long; it is another to wrestle with oneself, one’s life, one’s heart and find so much that it would be preferable never to see. Then, once I’ve come to something akin to terms, I have to claim all this crap. I have to say to God and the world – this is the real me. Then, because there’s a next step that’s necessary, having claimed it I have to pick it up, no matter how heavy, how horrible, how much I would prefer to leave it all behind, and bring it along with me. I cannot set it down until I have climbed that final place, the Hill of the Skull, and stand before the bloody, beaten, tortured body of Jesus of Nazareth. Only then, seeing what all this has cost the Father of this Son who is dying before my eyes, will I be allowed to set it all down. Only then will it be taken up in to that death, my one hope being that, Sunday morning, it will be fully redeemed through something new, something predicted yet still unexpected, something that makes that dawning more than just another morning.
I know that if I look around, I will see multitudes gathered around me, carrying their own loads, setting them on the ground. This is the Church – we who gather around the cross, who understand this moment to be both end and beginning, who hope that with this death the real Love and Light will shine in the midst of so much darkness, mourning, and death. This journey is necessary not least because, as St. Paul reminds us, we are to be imitators of Christ, who emptied himself, becoming a servant to the point of death on a cross. This journey is necessary, bringing this horrid load along – until I’m ready to empty myself of it, which requires first that I confess it is my own, and through this confession own it, how is it possible to have that mind which was and is and will be in Christ? Until and unless I’m willing to call myself the least of those who follow Christ, as St. Paul did; unless I’m willing to do that and mean it because I understand just how miserable a sinner I truly am, my declarations of faith and hope and love are just so much noise.
Yes, it would be far better not to do any of this. Just sit back and watch the world and think I am actually doing something is so much better. Comforting myself with lies of my own virtue, my own faith, my own holiness; that would be easier, and far more enjoyable. We are called, however, to new life and that only comes when we first die. And dying, well, that may well be the hardest thing in the world. Few people just give up their lives without fighting like hell to keep breathing, keep that heart beating, so the brain will continue functioning. Too many people consider this a metaphor, this dying. It isn’t. It’s death.
So, while all of us have a choice – and Lord knows I would so much prefer to be compelled – here I am, on this road, all this awful crap that is me and so much of my life bearing down upon me, and I just wish each step were my last, that someone else would take it all away so I could just sit and close my eyes and be. No such luck. I want to call myself a believer, a follower, all this has to be done.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and
Heaven ring – James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice And Sing”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ – Luke 19:39-40
There is a creek the runs by the house in which I grew up. I can’t count the hours I played down there, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. One of the great things about this little creek was that it was filled with fossils. I don’t mean to say there were dinosaur bones in my little creek. There were, however, an abundance of sandstone and shale bits, sometimes filled to overlapping, with the tiny imprint of all sorts of little creatures. If I found one of these, I might go back up to the house and sit on the back porch, turning the stone over in my hand, looking at each and all of the little impressions, thinking about time. Even now, as a middle aged man, I don’t really have any idea of the time it took to go from various kinds of mud covering the remains of these small animals, their remains eventually drying out and crumbling even as they left their impressions in the stone. The stones were buried – who knows how long? tens of thousands of years? millions? – then, at some point, uncovered. Then, perhaps during a heavy rain, perhaps something else, they wound up sitting in the bed of the creek behind my house.
Now, I have some rules – believe it or not – about things on this blog. They’re kind of carry-overs from my years of blogging on my previous site. Among those rules is I do not “debate” creationists. That my children attend a private Christian school where creationism is taught doesn’t mean I’m silent on the issue. It just means, here in this space, I refuse to discuss creationism, or debate the matter with those who adhere to creationism. Which, obviously, doesn’t mean I don’t hold to or celebrate an understanding of Creation as an act of Divine grace and love; on the contrary, among the many testimonies to the greatness, the love, and the freedom of God is our ongoing adventure of Creation, discovering how it works, that it is massive beyond our ability to comprehend, that it is violent and beautiful beyond our imaginings, and that each second of it, each moment in which it exists is both a and the moment of Creation.
One of my professors in Seminary, the late Dr. James Logan, said that Karl Barth was the great theologian of grace of the 20th century. As much as I admired Jim Logan, I would disagree. Barth was actually the great theologian of freedom of the 20th century. I believe Barth’s understanding of grace was a subset of his understanding of Divine Freedom. Barth’s initial and final (and succinct!) definition of God’s identity is: God is the God who loves in freedom.
Part of the evidence for this, worked out in meticulous detail in the four parts of Volume III of his Church Dogmatics, is Creation. Studying Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, we were told the basic philosophical question is: Why is there something rather than nothing? Barth’s answer to this question is: freedom. Specifically, Divine Freedom. There is no necessity about any of what we see. It is, in its minutest detail and its grand magnificence, sheer, gratuitous freedom, an expression of Divine Love. Each moment of time is both the sum total of all that has gone before, and the unique opportunity for something new to be. That is part of the doctrine of Creation about which we rarely think. As beloved children of God, freedom is part and parcel of what it means to be, to live in the love that holds it all together.
I look around the rolling hills not far from Jerusalem, and amid the grass and trees I see all sorts of stones. Large ones, pebbles, some with marks that show their age, others with marks that show they’ve been overturned by farmers tilling the land in the neverending cycle of life. Each of these stones makes me think of time, of the immensity of God’s creation, of the freedom that is ours because this is God’s creation. Most of all, it reminds me that even that part of creation we call inanimate understands its place. There are so many places, particularly in the Psalms, in which we are reminded that all creation does now or soon will offer God glory. We are surrounded by mute testimony to the greatness of Divine love, a love expressed in and through and as freedom.
I pick up a pebble, and drop it in my pocket. It is there to remind me of a couple things. First, it reminds me that I am not needed. None of us are. No matter how “necessary” we believe we are, whether it’s to the continuation of the church and its mission, to the spreading of the Gospel, or making disciples, that pebble reminds me that, in the end, there isn’t a particle of my existence, or a moment of my life, that has any necessity to it. Especially before God. That pebble will cry out praise to God were none of us here to do so; indeed, it might well be possible to hear that praise, if we have the ears to hear it.
The other thing that pebble reminds me is that I don’t really understand Creation. Oh, I understand how science explains various processes and what-not. I understand that the Universe is both far larger and far older than I can comprehend. In and of itself, this brings about praise: That something as insignificant as I am loved, upheld, and continue to be in the midst of all this immensity is certainly worthy of praise. I am not needed, which is why just being at all is such a wonder. That pebble, it tries to shout through my pocket, and I shut out all the other sounds and hear the praise of all Creation in that tiny voice and know it does so because of all the times I have failed to do so. This pebble, it does what I in my sin of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness, of hubris, and ignorance, it sings out louder than I have throughout so much of my life. When I get to that place called The Skull, I’m going to have to turn out my pockets, and let that pebble drop to the ground so that, at that moment, it can weep for the one dying on that cross.
And I so look forward to hearing it on Easter morning.
Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting – William Shakespeare
Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. – Edmund Burke
It must be a slow news week. I mean, it isn’t enough that the Governor of Florida has banned any mention of global warming or climate change; 47 Republican Senators have tried to undermine the foreign policy of the United States; the House of Representative has shown itself far more interested in Israel and its security than the United States and its security; ISIS has, I’m sure, killed more innocents. All these and more seem to pale in comparison to the mere existence of Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian. The entire tone of the video posted above (and you can see more here) would lead one to believe that West, a talented musician, entrepreneur, and master manipulator of the media (which makes him a perfect match for his current wife), is somehow on the level of evil with Dick Cheney, al Qaeda, and the leader of some Mexican drug cartel.
I submit there are several parts of the video with which I agree: that West (and Kardashian, too) are as much being manipulated, and being handsomely rewarded for being so, as they are manipulating others; that seeing and hearing the same names in the media grows more than a little tiresome; that the entire media-entertainment complex distracts us not only with sex, but celebrities known only for being known as celebrities, who then become famous because they are famous for being famous, and the folks who own the conglomerates rake in the dough while much of the public bitches and moans without ever once thinking it possible to change the channel or just turn everything off and read a book.
Having said that, I cannot help but feel that much of the ire in the video, directed both at West and Kardashian, has more than a dash of racism about it. Years ago, when David Lee Roth mugged for the camera behind Beck at a similar award show, the only ones to complain were Eddie and Alex Van Halen. At the very least, West insisted that another artist, Beyonce, had released an album worthy of as much artistic and peer recognition as had Beck’s most current release. That is an arguable point; Beyonce’s surprise album release last year received at least as much positive reviews as did Beck’s, and her refusal to deny her debt and ties to feminism demonstrated a kind of political courage rarely visible among any kind of artist these days.
As for Kardashian, she seems to be taking heat more for being a white woman marrying a black man than anything else. After all, of course she’s going to make money off displaying her body. It is, perhaps, her one and only real asset, and even at its most blatant, her nude photographs are hardly pornographic. Does Anonymous go after other models who have been equally willing to strip for the camera? As soon as I see them chastising everyone from Kate Winslet to Marlene Dietrich for showing up topless in movies, I’ll take their moral posturing a tad more seriously. Yet, because Kardahsian is married to a black man, obviously she is being exploited in some way; that, at least, seems to be much of the ire directed to West for using his wife’s assets, material and otherwise, to help his career.
Finally, the whole Renaissance Man thing . . . really, Anonymous? That is more than a bit over the top. In order to achieve what Kanye West has achieved, as an African-American artist, he has had to be three times as good as peers of his race, and ten times better than any white folk who try to do what he does. It takes more than luck and ambition and talent: it takes a refusal to allow others to define who and what one is, to stand upon one’s own two feet and declare one’s abilities to the world, if a black man is going to achieve anything in this world, especially America. And no “Renaissance men”, as the term is accurately used, were killed for being intelligent, thoughtful, challenging, or otherwise talented at multiple things. The folks who ended up on the wrong end of a noose or chopping block were usually religious dissenters, like Charles Cramner and Jacob Arminius. Artists’s political views were of little concern, even when the artist poked fun of their political patron in an ordered canvass. The declaration that West, who may or may not have a sense of humor about himself but who has certainly worked hard to achieve all he has and continues to work hard, has no place in “the coming age” is more than a little frightening, considering it comes from a person wearing a white mask directed at a man who has black skin.
I usually like you folks, Anonymous. This time, though, unless your tongue is planted firmly in your cheek, I do believe you have gone too far.
we drank in the remains
of ruined buildings
and we sat in a cave or
wrecked houses on farms given back to the bank
listening to men who’d been raised
in ways that were lost
and we strained to make out
the use of their news
they were crazy or passed out
speed notched with a cross
they drank from the flask and the mouth
they came in and shook off the rain
inflamed and dismayed
calm and arcane
the least one seethed chanting whitman for hours
then wept at the dregs of the fire
foam formed at the edge of their lips
we drank and waited for something to drop
you and I looking and sifting
for signs written in wax
we were young we knew how to die
but not how to last
a small man who claimed he was blake raged
all night and probably he was
he had god in his sights
white crosses shone in our eyes or acid mandalic
in the ruins the men talked:
seraphic and broken
glowing with gnosis and rubbish
we sorted their mad sacred words
these dog-headed guides to the life after
and the life after that – Mark Conway, “In The Ruins”
In case you were curious, I am just really fascinated with the “discovery” of Gobleki Tepi in Turkey. I put “discovery” in quotes because the local sheep and goat herders knew about the stone outcroppings, figured they were old buildings, but since they had sheep and goats to take care of, didn’t pay all that much attention to them. When western archaeologists arrived and started digging, however, they discovered something much more than just “old buildings”. Whatever purpose the megaliths served, they pushed back by almost 5,000 years evidence of human settled habitation. Which, of course, begs the question of what happened in the intervening five millennia, when we start seeing cities popping up in Mesopotamia and China. Which begged question makes me all excited. I know we’ll never really know the answer to the question, unless we find other ruins of a similar nature, perhaps with writing that we can decypher.
In any event – yeah, this pretty much doubles the time-range of known human habitation building. Until Gobleki Tepi was unearthed, human settlement was pegged at between 3,000 and 4,000 BC, when hunter-gatherers discovered it was possible to plant their own seeds and grow their own food, making the constant traipsing after sustenance no longer necessary. Now, all that is out the window, not least because we have no idea what Gobleki Tepi was. It certainly wasn’t a village or town; there don’t seem to be habitable structures. The best guess is that it served some kind or religious or ritual function, between the actual shape of the whole structure – somewhat labyrinthine – and the presence of multiple, and distinct, stylized animals on the sides of the larger stone pillars.
For it’s time, I would venture that this may well have been among the more magnificent structures in the known world. Those who came here on pilgrimage, or for whatever other reasons, would probably have been in more than a bit of awe. Those who tended it, who kept its fires burning and the area around it clean, were more than likely held in high regard. No one is quite sure how long it sat there, serving whatever purpose it served. All anyone knows for sure is that it wasn’t buried by the sands of time. Someone deliberately buried it, as in shoveling dirt over and around the entire structure so that it disappeared completely. Whatever grandeur it might once have had now sat beneath the dirt, and would remain there for thousands of years.
The top photograph is the ruins of another religious structure. There are those on the Internet who would insist that responsibility for this ruin of a church lies at the feet of various “Others”: liberal Christians; poor African-Americans; politicians who abandoned our inner cities; steel mills that fled to places where labor was cheaper; the vice and crime of our inner cities; the list, as most say, is endless. Except, of course, that’s all nonsense. City UMC in Gary, IN is little different from Gobleki Tepi. It served its purpose, it lived out the natural course of its collective life, and like all things – it died. The building, a skeletal monument to what certainly seems to have been a thriving faith community, is filled with dust and rats and birds, and probably homeless who come inside its long-gone doors in the evenings, looking for a place out of the worst of the elements. Children have probably been conceived, and even born, among the destroyed pews and torn-up hymnals. No doubt a few folks have died there, the broken stained-glass images silent witnesses to their passing.
The middle photograph, Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs, is the epitome of “success”. This is a church that has several worship services over the weekends; there are several ATMs throughout its multi-building campus so people can give using their credit cards or bank cards. There is little in the way of traditional Christian paraphernalia on what appears more like a theater stage than a church chancel. That’s OK, though, because the folks at Willow Creek insist all that Christian stuff – those crosses, those banners declaring the season of the church year, the candles and their significance – turns people off. When you enter Willow Creek, you are practically mobbed by people wanting your name, your address, your email address, how many kids you might have, what their ages might be. There’s a food court so right after worship you don’t have to go far for Sunday brunch. It is, in its gaudy, excessive ugliness, what far too many Christian Americans believe a successful church should be.
Except, of course, a generation or so ago, a successful church looked an awful lot like City UMC in Gary. A large building, the walls filled with stained glass depictions of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descending, stories from the Bible – all sorts of things. I bet that building rang with hymns of Glory every single Sunday. Something tells me that, at its height, not a single person standing within that church building would have imagined it would become what it is now – a ruin, not that different from Gobleki Tepi, except perhaps in age.
As I pass down this road to Jerusalem on my Lenten pilgrimage, the land around the road suddenly becomes flat – stretching past the horizon. What I see on all that land are churches, large and small, urban and rural, European, African, Indian, Chinese, American – and each and every one of them are a ruin. From Chartres Cathedral in France to the little country United Methodist Churches that dot the landscape between Rockford and the Mississippi River, they are husks, collapsing or collapsed, burned out or dredged out. I strain my ears, and all I hear is the scuttling of small animals, the occasional flap of wings of some birds. I’m saddened by this, and I wonder why I’m seeing what I’m seeing; what does any of this have to do with me carrying all my sins to the cross?
We United Methodists are a bunch of scardy-cats right now (I know, I know, I’m repeating myself, but it bears repeating). We are terrified that the vision I had above is about to come to pass; that a once great and large and even socially and politically powerful part of the Body of Christ will slip to oblivion. Some blame lack of focus on doctrine. Others blame liberals. Some blame conservatives. There are always the gays, of course, and the poor, who have to be propped up by the wealthy, and for what? Who gets anything out of that set-up? We are terrified that our giving is going down; we are terrified of our arguing amongst ourselves; we are terrified, indeed, that we are terrified. There seems to be every indication that City UMC in Gary is the icon of our not-too-distant future as a denomination.
I have to admit that, (a), I’m not that scared we’re going anywhere anytime soon; (b) our current troubles are nothing compared to what we’ve faced in the past over slavery and Civil Rights for African-Americans; (c) the message and method of John Wesley still has much to teach all of us, which will continue to feed the river of Methodist and Methodist-related churches for generations to come. Yet, there is no shortage of fear-mongering out there, and I must admit I have gone from anger to frustration to amusement to resignation about it. So many voices clamoring to be heard: Listen to me, do what I say, read my book, read this book I recommend, remember how important prayer/doctrine/justice/love/the sacraments/preaching/Scriptural holiness are and we shall be saved. It can be both overwhelming and bewildering. And, let’s be honest – here I am, yet another voice, adding not so much harmony as more noise to the din. To whom is a faithful but confused United Methodist Christian to turn in these times of trouble?
The silence of the ruins around me, hundreds of buildings with not a lick of praise or prayer or confession or doctrine or teaching, and I feel not fear, but peace. If I wandered those ruins, I wouldn’t feel fear. If there are such things as ghosts, I believe those I would encounter would be friendly if saddened by what has become of their once-beautiful space for those filled with the Holy Spirit to come and sing and pray and hear the word and declare their faith. I continue down the road, the walls of Jerusalem gleaming in the distance, and I know that these ruins do not represent failure at all.
They are monuments to the success of the work of people called Methodist. Do we really want to be so tied to space or place, to time and tide and cultural/historical moment that we allow ourselves to become blind to the need to change? These buildings are collapsed, empty, decrepit, even dangerous; that, however, does not mean the United Methodist Church is. Those who once worshiped in these wrecks have moved on with the times. Perhaps they’ve joined another United Methodist congregation elsewhere; perhaps they’ve moved to a different denomination. Perhaps, as the times have changed so drastically, they have left behind the faith of their mothers and grandfathers, seeing and hearing in the words and actions of the Church nothing but babble, squabbling, and nothing worth their time and effort. If this last is the case, they are no less loved by God, no less of infinite importance, no less in need of hearing the simple message that God loves them. Which is why, as I wrote above, I don’t see the United Methodist Church going anywhere anytime soon. We have work to do. The many social and cultural and religious changes all around us don’t fill me with despair. They remind me not only that we have work to do; they remind me that even if the worst fears of some among us come true and the United Methodist Church becomes like Gobleki Tepi, that, too, is OK.
Gobleki Tepi served an important function, whatever it might have been, for who knows how long. Decades? Centuries? Maybe just a matter of a few years? In any case, at some point, those who once thought it a necessary part of the social and cultural life of upper Mesopotamia found it to be useless, or even dangerous, and destroyed it, perhaps long after it had been abandoned even by those who kept its fires burning. Should humanity survive our various and multiple self-inflicted threats to our existence, and in seven or eight thousand years archaeologists discover a bunch of old structures in what was once the middle of nowhere, and wonder what the hell they meant; if the reason for this is that whatever religious paths humanity takes, for whatever historical reasons Christianity has faded from the world, and perhaps even human memory, that will make God’s love no less real. It will make Jesus’s sacrifice no less efficacious. It will make the Holy Spirit no less that which keeps humanity alive, loving, working to bring life to our world so bent on self-destruction. Should we not survive, God will still exist, and all of God’s acts will still have the meaning and significance they always have had.
So, I guess I carry two things from this section of my Lenten Journey. First, don’t read me because I have any answers, or solutions, or plans, for the future of the United Methodist Church. I don’t, and those who insist they do are mostly annoying when I pay any attention to them at all. Second, I’m carrying the fears of my fellow United Methodists to the cross because that is what we do: we bring the pain and fear and anger of our fellow-Christians before God in Christ, so they can be taken up in to the Divine Life, blessed, and made Holy by being raised from the many dead spaces through which I continue to travel. Don’t be afraid of pictures of empty, ruined churches. That’s just time and tide doing what it does. Remember, ours is not a faith in buildings or people or plans or even the Bible or Doctrine. Ours is a faith in the living God, revealed to us as the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit, an ever-loving Trinity that always was, is now, and always shall be. The way to that faith, though, goes down this road filled with reminders that everything dies; it lies down this road, on which I carry the load of my own many dark sins. It lies down this road on which I carry the fears of my fellow Christians.
This road goes to the foot of a cross-tree, upon which hangs a broken, bleeding, dying man, in front of whom I will lay all this down and hope beyond hope that it, along with all the other sins and brokenness around us will die with him, dragged to the place of the dead, then raised to new life three days later. That is all I can do. It is all any of us can do.
Why am I shoveling ****
Every day of my life?
Other people’s ****
Is this what my life
Has been reduced to?
…Cleaning up after others
…In this hell pit?
Builds within me
…A huge pile of crap
I **** the endless
Sits in my lap
When is the time?
Where is the way out
of this hellhole?
How will the drudgery
What is the healing
Of my heart and soul? – Karen Eisenlord, “Bandini Mountain”
Ever get that sinking feeling that life is just one damn thing after another. I’m not talking about gut-wrenching heartache here. Just, you know – and endless series of events that make you say, “Ugh!” pretty much constantly? The car breaks down just when you run out of extra money in the bank. That stomach virus that’s been going around school? Yeah, it hits the weekend you run out of toilet paper and your water system in your house breaks down. Oh, and while you were running to the bathroom to throw up you stepped on some kids toy, a Leggo, and it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch, which not only made you call out, but end up barfing on the floor, which you had to clean up, because basically everyone else is sick so you’re stuck with it.
And it isn’t just isolated moments. For some folks, this is how they understand their lives. It’s just one damn thing after another, nothing life-destroying, just crossing the line from being pissed off to pissed on, much as in the photo above. Everyone has periods of their life when it seems nothing goes right, you just want to scream, “What the hell did I do to deserve this?!?” even though you know you’re going to get silence in response. Except, of course, there folks for whom this is not a one-time thing. Some people just live their lives knowing that sooner or later not only will the next shoe drop. A whole shoe store is headed their way, and it’s either going to rain shoes, or the building itself might land them.
Around me, I see all those moments in my life when I felt like nothing was going my way. “Woe is me!” is etched in every line of my face. I look lost. What I want more than anything is for someone – anyone! – to feel sorry for me, give me a hand up, then perhaps a hand out. The summer before my last year in Seminary, I ran in to an acquaintance of mine from high school. He had just completed Seminary, and was telling me about how an anonymous donor had paid off his student loans. I will confess here and now it is the one time in my life I have felt true envy, and with it an attendant anger. What had this person done that I had not to receive such a gift? I told him how happy I was for his fortune, while inside I churned, knowing full well I faced a possible lifetime of repayments. Talk about woe is me!
Except, to be honest, I’ve never really had much of anything to pull the whole “Woe is me!” shtick. On the contrary, as I see images around me of me looking desperate, looking alone, looking for someone to notice my plight, I don’t feel a bit sorry. On the contrary, I want to walk up to those younger versions of me and smack some sense in to him. Life isn’t supposed to be filled with ease, or an endless series of happy-happy-joy-joy moments. It’s a mixture of good things and not so good things. There are occasional moments of bliss. There are also occasional moments of horror and sadness. And it isn’t a zero-sum game, in which the bad somehow cancels out the good. It’s all just cumulative, events and experiences from which we hope we might learn; or, if we’re like most people we don’t learn, continuing as we always have, forgetting to toss that shovel out of the whole we’ve been digging for ourselves.
It might seem inconsequential, these instances of human foibles and follies that bring on self-pity. Except, of course, these are the times in which we are blind to the wonder and blessings around us. If we’re so locked inside ourselves we can’t see that each moment is the moment of Creation, that even now God is at work bringing forth life, that we are being fruitful and multiplying, and that through the Spirit, in the name of the Risen Son, for the Glory of the Father there are those who are hard at work trying to heal all the wounds of our broken creation, then we aren’t really living. We might not even be existing. We might well just be trudging through our days, little more than ghosts, not really alive but not really dead.
Ridding myself not only of these past moments, but the hope that by doing so I can no longer become trapped in a living death that prevents me from seeing all that God continues to do in this marvelous Creation. As we learn of the massive violence and sublime beauty that are sometimes one and the same moment, we come to understand that Creation is not a one-time event in the distant past, but God’s ever-present work, called Good even as we do our damndest to break it all down. This, too, then, goes in to the pack on my back, all this nonsensical self-pity that takes the normal slings and arrows of life and makes of them horrendous weights, complete with blinders that prevent me from seeing God’s glory. All of it, every bit – it all gets laid at the foot of the cross. There I will see what my selfishness, my sense of entitlement, my petty whining had wrought – pain and torture, rivers of blood, and death. All because I didn’t have the sense to pull my head from my backside, take a look around, and realize just how beautiful, how amazing, how miraculous, every moment is. It is precious, because it is God’s ongoing work of Creation, which is always Good.