When I have fears that I may cease to beBefore my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,And think that I may never live to traceTheir shadows with the magic hand of chance;And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,That I shall never look upon thee more,Never have relish in the faery powerOf unreflecting love—then on the shoreOf the wide world I stand alone, and thinkTill love and fame to nothingness do sink. – John Keats, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”—–
Lots of folks in my Facebook news feed are asking prayers for Mark Hall, the lead singer of the Contemporary Christian Musical group Casting Crowns. He is having surgery to remove a kidney that is possibly tumorous. Now, obviously, anyone in such a position is in need of prayers. I am certainly not asking we not pray for him. All such persons need to be surrounded by love. This isn’t about whether or not prayers are efficacious or not. Nor is it a particular criticism of the music his band produces. As a matter of fact, they are a pretty typical, bland pop-sounding musical group, with lyrics often rooted in particular Scriptures. Yet, I am also troubled by their lyrics. I know that’s not a cool thing to admit; they are a CCM band that has “crossed over” as they say, attracting all sorts of people to the music who might not otherwise be interested. Their songs are well crafted, with building tension and release, arranged with just the right amount of familiar instruments, at just the right levels. Indeed, I have often wondered how well they do in a concert setting because their studio productions are meticulous, and in some sense flawless.
What troubles me can best be summed up by a consideration of what might otherwise be called their “breakthrough” song – “Voice of Truth”. In the first place, it’s written in the First Person; “I will choose to listen to the Voice of Truth”. In the second place, the narrator of the song pictures himself as various Biblical persons – Peter, David – and wishes he could be as brave or have the faith they exhibited when they, in turn, walked on water and faced Goliath, the Philistine champion. At the end of the day, as moving as the music may be, as much as the well-written lyrics pull the listener in, reminding us that whatever we are called to do comes from “the Voice of Truth”, this is a song about how being a Christian makes an individual strong and brave. It is about Jesus calling us to be heroes, to be that individual who makes a difference. It is, sad to say, as soaked in the individualistic ideas of North American Christianity as so much of our discussions about “religion” are: in many ways, they all come down to whether or not they add meaning to “my” life.
I remember when I realized I faced a drastic existential choice. It was after Lisa had taken her first appointment. I was preparing to go to graduate school at Catholic University of America and study the Philosophy of Science. I had been doing all sorts of reading – Kuhn and Popper, of course; Feyerabend and Lakatos; I even ventured in to reading Rudolf Carnap, a real snoozer, but still necessary – and it occurred to me, at some point, that I was being confronted by a stark choice: I could continue down the path of faith, wherever that might lead; or I could accept that the Universe, far larger, far more complex, far more violent, and most of all far more apathetic to any human concern, existed without meaning or purpose. I could accept that life was a chemical reaction, that consciousness was an emergent characteristic of particular bio-electrical processes in the human brain. Finally, I could accept that when I died, everything just winked out. One second, it’s all there then – POOF! – it’s all gone. There’s not even the consolation of some memory that I might once have been. The only goal in such a Universe is to be, well, me. Any meaning I might assign to my existence, any importance I might give to any action I’ve done was just that – something I’ve assigned, rather than intrinsic to the action itself.
After thinking about this for a bit, I realized that really isn’t that scary a notion. Indeed, I could see great benefit if more people gave up the idea they were part of some cosmic drama, that their lives mattered, that some act they had or were or might well at some future time commit could very well be the difference between a future worth living and some dystopia in which humans scramble about barely able to survive. Life, the world, history, the whole Universe – it just doesn’t work that way, no matter how many stories we tell, no matter how much we wish that our lives make any difference at all, that just the fact of our existence adds meaning to the Universe. Winking out of existence, in particular if one had spent weeks or even months lingering in pain, or perhaps had met some violent end leaving questions about whether or not one’s loved ones were safe, why that had a kind of cold comfort. No more existence, no more worries, love and care are biochemical reactions to particular stimuli we haven’t quite unraveled, and when the machine shuts down, that all shuts down, and we’re food for beetles and bacteria.
The reality, however, was my faith was then and even more so now is rooted not just in a bunch of words I speak on Sundays; it isn’t based upon arguments that someone insists are irrefutable; it isn’t based upon any single thing, but the totality of a series of events, from childhood through early adulthood right up to the present moment. To surrender that faith would be to lie: lie about myself, lie about who I am, lie about things I’ve experienced, things I’ve done, moments during which I’ve experienced what can only be called transcendent.
The other point-of-view, however, had a kind of irresistible pull. I remembered something the late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote (and no, I can’t find it at the moment, even though his works are in my library). Like so much of his writing, it was crisp, clear, and direct: The sentence is so clear: “The world isn’t about anything.” Looking around, it is nearly impossible for me to disagree with that. Oh, we human beings are creatures who, almost desperately, seek to imbue everything from sex to taking a bowel movement with meaning; people see signs and omens everywhere; whole belief systems are predicated upon contradicting the natural reality that there isn’t any there there. Creatures are born, they live, they die. There is tremendous violence in the Universe, with whole galaxies colliding, planets shattering from the gravitational tidal forces, stars going nova and even supernova from it all. Who knows, on some of those planets there might well be creatures, even intelligent creatures, who are aware of what’s happening, and powerless to stop it, just die, even their memory destroyed in a conflagration we can’t even imagine.
Then there are the horrid creatures right here at home: worms that burrow in to our skin, reproduce in our skin, our organs, feeding on us. There are wasps that lay their eggs inside insects; when the eggs hatch, the larvae literally eat their way from the inside out. There are diseases like Ebola, Typhus, Anthrax, Cholera, Dengue Fever, Malaria – killing millions around the world each year while we sit around in our comfortable, First World homes, and worry about non-existent threats from vaccinations against some of these diseases. It all seems . . . well, it certainly doesn’t make much sense, and there are days that the insistence that a single human life is of infinite value just seems a comforting lie we tell ourselves to keep the terror at bay that, in fact, we aren’t even worth the dirt dumped on our corpses.
It took a long while for a particular facet of the Christian faith to penetrate my skull: salvation isn’t about guaranteeing a ride to heaven when we die; going to church isn’t about making sure we earn enough chits to put in the toll booth at the pearly gates. No, the whole thing, from Creation to New Creation – it’s all about God’s Glory. We declare it in our prayers, we insist it lies at the heart of our mission work, we even recall it in the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died: “Not my will, but yours be done.” For all that, however, we continue to pray and give praise as if this was all about us. Not so much whether or not we’re going to heaven or not, so much as that these are things we do that provide meaning in and for our lives.
And sociologists of religion are pretty clear on this: Religion, ritual, the system of spirits and sacrifices are all about constructing meaning and purpose to human social existence, therefore ratifying the life of the individual. By participating in these activities, our lives are now worth something; we have meaning because these actions have meaning; we have purpose because these actions have particular ends that we declare are beneficial to us, individually and socially.
Except, of course, for Christianity. Because, see, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when God calls us, we are called to die. I used to think he was being poetic or metaphoric, just as I used to think Jesus was speaking in metaphor when he said the same thing. It took me many years of living, seeing the world around me, praying, and watching the lives of others to realize this was no mere poetic license. It is what it is: Once we say yes to the God whom Jesus Christ called “Father”, once we set our feet on this road even now I traipse down, the weight of my life bearing down upon me, the end is always the same: our death. Oh, we are so quick to make clear that this isn’t “death” in the way it was before the crucifixion and resurrection. This is a death that ends in joy and triumph.
Except, I fail to see where any of that’s guaranteed. God doesn’t call us to be about the work of setting right what we’ve screwed up so badly so that we can get a pat on the head at the end of the day. God calls us to be about the work of setting right what we’ve screwed up because that’s what we were supposed to do in the first place. And none of it, from our first breath to our last, has anything to do with how healthy, wealthy, happy, fulfilled, self-actualized, or otherwise blessed we might be. On the contrary, as I’ve said many times and shall repeat until my last breath: God loves us, but doesn’t care all that much about us. God loves us enough to save us. God doesn’t save us so that we can hold it over other people’s heads, though. God doesn’t save us to relieve us of the burden of meaninglessness that surrounds us in a Universe so enormous we can’t even imagine. God doesn’t save us because we are good and nice and give money to some poor people and we really aren’t racist, I swear. God saves us so that God’s Glory can be achieved, through the tasks assigned to us. We are the tenders of God’s garden, which is this world we’ve been given. That’s our job. Gardening is hard, dirty, sweaty work. Gardening on this sick, polluted rock, with swaths of the ocean no longer inhabitable because chemicals we’ve dumped have robbed them of oxygen; with the climate changing in ways even the initial climate change modelers couldn’t have predicted, and at rates far faster than even the most outlandish models from five years ago suggested; in the midst of wars and hatred and racism and deaths mass and hidden; all this and so much more make doing our jobs that much harder. You ask God, and I’m gonna guess the response will be silence. Not because God doesn’t love us; but because God doesn’t care that much about how put out, or scared, or inconvenienced we might be. This isn’t about hearing the Voice of Truth and facing those Giants. That kind of faith is for wealthy folks whose only worry is others will think well of them.
If you’re a Christian because you’re afraid if you weren’t the whole Universe would cease to have any meaning, and without meaning we’re little different than dogs humping in the park, I suggest you head over to the park. If you’re a Christian because it adds structure and meaning to your life, but beyond that doesn’t impact you all that much, I think you need to head back to the Bible and check out the violence, the sex, the death – the whole thing. Not so much structure and meaning there, unless you think it meaningful that God uses murderers, rapists, and bigots as instruments of the Divine Will. If you are a Christian because it brings with it compassion and love for those in our world who are trodden upon by the powerful, whose lives are less than the cost of simple drugs that can heal, I suggest you join Medicin Sans Frontiers. Being a Christian, taking this Journey to Jerusalem, means stripping oneself of any and all pretense that any of it has anything to do with us. It doesn’t. We have work to do, sure. Tending the Created Garden includes tending all those creatures within it, including other humans. Not out of compassion or sorrow or pity; we are to do it because that is what God calls us to do, we who bear the mark of the crucified upon our hearts and in our lives. That is the only reason that matters. Everything else, the compassion, etc., that’s a by-product of becoming the human being God created you to be. It is no more the source of the work than is boredom or fun or a sense of satisfaction.
All around me, I see things that have, in the past, given meaning and structure to my life. When I try to gather them up, they are as ethereal as dreams, as real as unicorns. I now know that, along with this stone and all the rest of this burden I carry, I have to set before the Cross any notion that what I have done, who I have been, has any meaning or purpose, or any eternal significance. That compassion, that desire to help those in need, the rage for justice in a world filled with violence and death; all these, too, I must set on the ground and accept as not my own, and certainly not anything around which a person should build a life. All there should be is that figure on the cross, broken, bleeding, not so much calling to me over the waves or the screams of the soldiers, a Voice of Truth to embolden me in my journey. No, rather I have to accept that these are what make up the nails that are pounded in to his feet; they helped forged the spear plunged in to his side. The only meaning and structure there is, in the end, is just this – a man hanging on a cross so that I don’t have to care about myself anymore, but can be about God’s work and not worry what any of it has to do with me or my life at all.
While we made significant improvements in 1988, there is still much work to do in terms of United Methodist doctrine. We not only need to continue to clarify the role of our doctrinal standards and the four resources that we identify with the “Quadrilateral,” but we also need to integrate our doctrine into the common life of the church. Unlike, say, Free Methodists or Wesleyans, many United Methodists are reticent to talk about our core beliefs. On the whole, we are much more comfortable talking about what we do as Christians than what webelieve as Christians. I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two. Doing good is clearly important. It is, in fact, the second of Wesley’s General Rules. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. – Dr. David F. Watson, “Unstable Origins In #UMC Doctrine And A New Series Of Posts,” Musings And Whatnot, February 10, 2015
I would argue that, despite the affirmations of our Articles of Religion and doctrinal standards, we United Methodists no more “have a clear sense” of our faith than any other group of Christians in our history. Indeed, that is why we have, immediately following our Doctrinal Standards, a theological task, boiled down to making the words of our Articles of Religion and Doctrinal Standards make some kind of sense in our 21st century world that is so different than the world in which the words contained in those previous parts of our Discipline were written (not to mention languages; cultural milieu; social structure; political structure). While never denying we must needs affirm our faith, and make clear those affirmations have meaning for us, we should always remember Hegel’s dictum that the finite cannot ever contain the infinite. Our words no more sum up who God is and what God has done, than our actions reflect what God would have us do. Because our language is mortal and contingent; because we are mortal and contingent; because our words and our lives are, in a famous phrase, between the times, they are caught up in the reality of being both sinful and justified, trusting in God’s grace to cover the multitude of sins they contain. – Me, “Our Problem Isn’t Doctrine Or Theology, Either,” No I Has Heard, June 17, 2014
I have taken aim at Dr. David F. Watson, Professor of New Testament and Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH on more than a few occasions. It seemed more than a bit beside the point, after posting a link to the post above on Facebook and chastising him a bit, to write yet another blog post. As I got thinking about the matter, however, it occurred to me that, while I would be repeating myself in order to make clear Watson’s error, it is also important to make clear – again, repeating myself – that this obsession with doctrinal clarity in the United Methodist Church is not for its own sake. It never has been. It is about power, pure and simple. Specifically, the power to use doctrine as a weapon against those with whom one disagrees. The thing is, the article is so clumsy, telegraphing precisely what he wants, while the whole time pulling a bait and switch that is awkward as well as making much of the piece irrelevant, I have to wonder if he thought he was being clever or if, in the process of trying to be nonchalant while tripping over his own feet he didn’t notice how much he gave the game away.
He begins his piece writing about how the 1972 Book of Discipline described Doctrine within the denomination. Indeed, he spends a great deal of time scolding the authors that when he later notes that the entire section on Doctrine was revamped in 1988, is still in force, and has become a source of a flourishing both in the study of our Wesleyan heritage, and in theological expansion, bringing marginalized voices more and more in to the conversation, he hardly notes the vast changes that have occurred because of the changes made in 1988. Noting that the 1972 statement on Doctrine, our Articles of Religion, and Theological Task lacked the kind of force that Watson might have preferred, he only hints that the strength of the change in 1988. Why is this the case? Let’s read Watson in his own words:
There are a few things to notice here. First, the doctrinal standards are “not to be construed literally and juridically.” This might cause one to wonder in what sense they function as standards. Despite the fact that they are protected by the first Restrictive Rule, they have no real force. One has to be impressed with the ingenuity involved in this undermining of the very standards the first Restrictive Rule was trying to protect, even while leaving the rule itself intact.
Second, rather than allowing for literal and juridical doctrinal standards, we are to engage in” free inquiry within the boundaries defined by” scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet these “boundaries” cannot be “defined unambiguously” and should be interpreted with appropriate “flexibility.” By this point, we might ask why we would wish to use the term “boundaries” at all.
Third, there is no sense here that the material content of our doctrinal standards is very important. What is important, by contrast, is the process of “theologizing.” It seems that the set of claims we make about God is less important than the resources we use in developing those claims. This is akin to saying that the food I eat for dinner is less important than the ingredients that I use in cooking. If this seems to be an inversion of our common priorities when we cook, it is no less an inversion of priorities for Christian theology.(Emphases added)
This is a discussion not about our current Doctrinal Standards And Theological Task, but about our now-superceded “Doctrinal Guidelines”. The game, however, is given away in the emboldened phrase in the first paragraph. His complaint is not really about a lack of clarity, or the insistence that our theologizing allow for flexibility. To insist that Doctrine carry “literal and juridical force” is to demand Doctrinal purity. To claim that lacking such force undermines them is ridiculous on its face, because it isn’t “undermining” them that concerns Watson. It is, rather, that neither our Doctrinal Guidelines nor our current Doctrinal Standards can be used to enforce doctrinal purity or rigidity.
Watson continues further down.
While we made significant improvements in 1988, there is still much work to do in terms of United Methodist doctrine. We not only need to continue to clarify the role of our doctrinal standards and the four resources that we identify with the “Quadrilateral,” but we also need to integrate our doctrine into the common life of the church. Unlike, say, Free Methodists or Wesleyans, many United Methodists are reticent to talk about our core beliefs. On the whole, we are much more comfortable talking about what we do as Christians than what webelieve as Christians. I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two. Doing good is clearly important. It is, in fact, the second of Wesley’s General Rules. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
This is the marvelous bait and switch. He spends much of the time writing about our 1972 Doctrinal Guidelines and spends almost no time on our 1988 Doctrinal Standards, which are still in force. The reason he doesn’t discuss them is they are not only radically different, far more stringent, but are both the result of and have spawned much theological fruit for the denomination. He doesn’t mention this, particularly the Renaissance in Wesleyan studies and the greater incorporation of Wesleyan ideas both in our teaching and practice of ministry because that would undermine his insistence that we United Methodists have “much work” to do on Doctrine. Except, alas, we don’t. Our Articles of Religion and our Doctrinal Standards are clear enough; that the emphasis continues to be directed toward our theological task is his real complaint, because that has expanded our understanding of how we as a people called Methodist understand those words like “Trinity,” “Atonement,” “Incarnation,” and whatnot.
And, of course, our Doctrinal Standards continue to lack “literal and juridical force”, so that means we can’t excommunicate people who argue, say, that sexual minorities should enjoy the full fruits of life in the Church. This is his real complaint, as it was back in September when I said that doctrine wasn’t our problem; this is the real complaint of a group called “United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy”, the so-called “Confessing Movement”, Good News, the United Methodist project of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and other groups that use weasel words to disguise for the casual reader that they all exist for one purpose: To prevent any change in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that would allow for full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life of the church.
This clumsy article, allegedly written to draw attention to a new series of posts at another website, stumbles over itself as it ends up flat on its face at the end, equating Doctrine with belief. For one who is so insistent on Doctrinal Standards being more rigid, and who belongs to a group insisting on orthodoxy, I cannot imagine a more unorthodox, simple-minded, and erroneous view presented as part of an argument for doctrinal rigidity and reform. Yet again, we have Watson attempting to distract United Methodists, whether scholars or not, clergy or lay, from the fact that the agenda he and others like him are pushing has nothing to do with our Doctrinal Standards, which are just fine, or our theological task, which continues to bear so much fruit. It is, rather, an attempt to create a view of United Methodist Doctrine that is a weapon, a tool for the powerful to silence and exile the powerless, the marginalized, and most of all anyone wanting to use Christian teaching to show how the United Methodist Church should be more open to sexual minorities. Again, all we should do is say, “No,” and be about the business of being the Church, doing our theology and thinking about our Doctrine as we go, which has always been the Christian way.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. – Romans 8:22-27
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That’s why we have to talk about the meaning behind what we do in corporate worship. That’s why we must ditch the false egalitarian notion that how we worship isn’t important. We can respect differences in belief, but we can’t deny that’s what’s at stake here aren’t just issues of taste or preference, but issues of meaning.
However we worship, whatever we call ourselves – traditional, contemporary, or anything else – we’re not just saying what kind of Jesusy entertainment we prefer.
No, we’re giving away much more about ourselves.
We’re giving away what we believe about something very important.
How we worship has meaning.
How we worship has consequences.
Maybe it’s time we were honest about it. Quickly. Before the meaning is lost. – Jonathan Aigner, “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference,” United Methodist Insight, January 21, 2015
I remember so well the words of one of my favorite Seminary professors, Dr. Larry Stookey. He taught Corporate Worship, the very first class I attended at Wesley Theological Seminary. After going through a section on designing and setting up an order of worship, he said, “Once that Prelude begins, toss all the planning out the window. Anything can happen, and so go with it. Don’t let mistakes, things forgotten, distractions, bother you. It’s all part of the worship service.” I remember that so well after nearly a quarter century because it summarizes so much of what I’m not hearing or reading. Regardless of which “side” one takes – High Church versus Low Church; “traditional” versus “contemporary” worship – there is no room left to speak about the place God’s grace has in our corporate worship.
St. Paul, however, understood that we didn’t even know how to pray. No matter how “Christian” we think we are, no matter how in tune with our congregations, with our traditions, with the latest fad, with how we raise our hands or don’t, whether we take the eucharist by intinction or some other method – we are getting it wrong, because we are creatures who, qua Christians, who have no idea, not really, what we’re supposed to do, or how we’re supposed to do it. Our greatest corporate liturgy, our most soaring choral and instrumental hymns are little more than grunts and groans, in need of the Spirit to make them meaningful for and to God. To argue that some things are better suited to corporate worship than others is correct to an extent; those distinctions, however, should always be approached with humility, the faithful understanding that it will never be good enough. That is why the grace present in our corporate body in the Person of the Spirit takes our best and our worst, our unspoken thoughts and confessions, our loudly proclaimed words of praise and our whispered “Hallelujah”‘s and makes them meaningful – not for us, but for God, who already knows our needs, if not necessarily our desires that sometimes overwhelm our prayer life, individually and collectively.
When I wrote, back on January 22, that preference is an expression of meaning, it was directed at only part of Aigner’s post. Here, I would like to go beneath the text to the subtext – the very idea that our worship has to be “a certain way” in order to be true worship. In the first place, I would repeat – preference is an expression of meaning, which undermines much of Aigner’s larger point. That it is built upon a straw argument certainly doesn’t help. All the same, our discussions about worship – traditional versus contemporary; what music suits our corporate worship “best” – if it does not include any words about the Spirit, about our own inability to bring to God our deepest desires and needs, our ignorance in the face of the call to prayer, and the grace that is the Living Spirit blowing across the face of the waters of chaos that are our gathered corporate bodies, then, I would suggest a need to return to Scripture first, to consider the possibility that our corporate worship is as steeped in both sin and grace as the rest of our lives.
Which, obviously, does not mean anything goes. What it does mean is that we can expand our sense of what is proper, liturgically and musically, without necessarily causing offense to God. The goal of all corporate worship – of the entire Christian life – is the glory of God. When offered with both faith and hope, in the understanding that the Spirit will take our meaningless Babel and make of it a glorious new song to God, I believe we can move beyond the sterility of so much of our current “debates” and have actual constructive conversations on what is possible. Currently, we are trapped in a cycle of denouncing what is not proper, or acceptable, or even possible, because we have neglected the presence of the Holy Spirit in our corporate worship life. It would be far better, far more profitable for all if we began our discussions with what is possible, given two thousand years of corporate worship, and the sheer variety of worship styles, from the Orthodox, High Church Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran through the meetings of the Societies of Friends to our current, trendy “non-liturgical liturgy” we call “contemporary worship”, with its music using contemporary instrumentation, songs written by professional song writers that sometimes offer profound insights while sometimes offer facile, individualistic nonsense. That much of our historic hymnody is no less compromised seems not to occur to so many in these discussions; that the organ, no less than the electric guitar, is still a controversial instrument (the Church of Christ, for example, has no instruments save the human voice), should humble at least a few voices who insist it is the only “fit” instrument for worship, when that whole question might well need to be considered again as to whether it is even the right question.
I included the song “Parabola” from Tool above on purpose. While there is a lot of Gnosticism in Tool’s lyrics, and the musical style, known as post-rock, can be off-putting to many, the song itself is one of my favorites from the band because of its equivocal nature. When I first heard it, I thought it was a beautiful song about sexual love. Then I read it was actually about suicide. I went back and listened again, and realized the song itself could be about both things, or neither. In either case, it expresses one thing that we in our churches do not express well, if at all: the holiness of being with another person, whether in love or comforting us in our extremity of pain. Surely this gives glory to God. While the Gnosticism of “this body holding me; this pain is an illusion” is troubling, it is no less so than the Gnosticism of our older hymnody. It also has the virtue of expressing something – a thankfulness for those others, with whom we share moments too intimate for words – with which we in our churches are uncomfortable, yet needs to be said. And it does so in a contemporary idiom that can resonate with people who will recognize the song, yet also be surprised at the possibility that even Tool can offer a Word from God, on the graceful nature of life, of life with another, and the contingent nature of the pain with which we live. To sing, “Choosing to be here, right now, hold on, stay inside this holy life, this holy experience” – this is praise to God for the holiness that is life, love, sexuality, and the sharing of life with another.
Perhaps it isn’t for everyone, or every congregation. And that’s OK. That’s part of the point. Far too much of our discussion over liturgy and music insists upon a “one size fits all” theological and practical approach that ignores the diversity of worship styles, of congregations, of the needs of the people, and the ways we can and do express the glory of God, always with St. Paul’s words ringing in our ears, that it is the Spirit who intercedes for us, taking our unintelligible groaning and lifting them to God. Without this, so much of our discussion of worship is Shakespeare’s description of life – a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.* Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. – Romans 12:9-12
Like the word “suicide,” “suffering” is another word that is used — and valued — very differently. By dying at age 29, Maynard signaled that carrying on while she no longer knew herself was pointless and would only prolong the agony of those who loved her.
She saw no value in suffering.
That may be one reason the right-to-die movement, led by advocacy groups such as Compassion & Choices and others, is so worrisome to many of its opponents. If suffering is optional, then it might also be spiritually meaningless.
That’s a very different perspective than what is taught by many of the world’s religions and philosophies. – Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Brittany Maynard’s Death: Does Suffering Have Spiritual Meaning?”, United Methodist Reporter, Nov. 4, 2014
That the Christian discourse on suffering is both long and detailed; that from Biblical texts through political and liberation theologies of the late 20th century “suffering” was a category that took on a new urgency and focus; that believers have been urged to endure pain and suffering in the name of the faith for nearly two millennia; none of this is beyond dispute. What is now disputable is whether or not “suffering” is a univocal category at all. Is asking the question about the “spiritual meaning” of suffering in a case such as Ms. Maynard’s even appropriate, perhaps offensive?
Particularly in the Gospel texts, where Jesus meets people suffering pain and illness and debility, he has compassion upon them and heals them. In the context of the times, such healing offered these people the opportunity to return to live in community with others. Sickness was primarily a spiritual condition for Galilean and Judean Jews of the first century. Those who were ill were not whole, therefore not holy, therefore it was impossible for them to be ritually clean. Shunned, forced away from any human contact, there was no sense of social compassion whatsoever, until Jesus entered and, as in all things, changed everything.
On the other hand, the suffering to which St. Paul and the Epistle writers, including St. John of Patmos, refer is social rejection, religious persecution, legal incarceration which often included torture. This was not the pain of a physical ailment that forced one outside the communion of saints. It was, rather, very real social, cultural, and religious disapprobation for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. When St. Paul asks the Roman Christians to “be patient in suffering”, he is both encouraging them in the faith and reminding them what he said in what we call chapter 8 of the same epistle: that the “suffering” we endure in this life is more than worth the reward to come with the immanent return of Jesus Christ and the final establishment of the Divine Kingdom on earth.
To write an entire column about whether or not Ms. Maynard’s decision to end her life rather than suffer, and put her family through the pain of watching her suffer, confuses the meaning of suffering, places demands upon others that is offensive to say the least, and robs Ms. Maynard (as well as others who have made similar decisions) of the dignity she took with her as she died. Few things are more offensive to me than people insisting that other people endure pain, put their families through pain, and all for the sake of some religious ideal they have misconstrued. Human suffering is not something to celebrate; it is something to alleviate, in faith and using the best tools at our disposal to do so.
Ms. Maynard did not die in the face of threats to her faith. She was not being tortured because she refused to recant her confession of faith in the risen Jesus. She was not attacked and beaten to death because she was a Christian. She was a young woman whose life would be shortened painfully, including the loss of her sense of her own identity, while her family and loved ones looked on helplessly, enduring their own pain for no purpose and to no end but the end Ms. Maynard chose for herself in a way that brought far less pain, and certainly far less suffering, than months or even years of agony for so many.
Just because religions around the world insist people have to endure pain doesn’t mean it’s right. Certainly, in this case, Ms. Maynard’s decision was not one rooted in any Christian ideal. She did not avoid the suffering that comes from living the faith; she avoided the suffering that comes from an illness for which there was no treatment, no cure, no hope of anything. In many ways, her choice of death, going out before her tumor began to rob her of her ability to enjoy life, was a kind of healing act. She remains within the community of those who live life, rather than slowly, agonizingly shunned, shunted first to a hospital, then perhaps a nursing home, then finally to hospice care as her body and mind withered away. While sad, and I’m quite sure her family and friends mourn her death, there is also something of the healing hand of Jesus in the midst of this death. Neither Ms. Maynard nor her family are socially ostracized because of her illness. No one loses the most vital connection – human contact and community – because Ms. Maynard has chosen to die rather than live in pain.
To claim that Ms. Maynard’s decision to take her own life ahead of the illness that would be a bit more slow and far less merciful about it in some way robs spiritual meaning from suffering is not only offensive. It betrays a willingness to sacrifice the good lives of others so that one’s own sense of the meaning of suffering can continue. It also betrays a refusal to consider changing circumstances, changing understandings and definitions, and distinctions and equivocations in the word “suffering”. Finally, it takes no thought to assemble quotes from different religions; it takes real faith, real risk, and real thought to move through the event in question and consider the possibility of arriving at a wholly different conclusion, one that does not insult Ms. Maynard, belittle her decision, or insist that others live with pain and die alone so that traditions that have endured for so long continue to be observed.