Simple Definition of sacrifice
: the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone
: an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god
a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice
Methodist seminaries train their pastors in critical methodologies for studying the Scripture. Those methodologies teach that the Bible’s inspiration is not undermined by acknowledging the biblical authors’ historical context, the ways in which the biblical text developed, and the process of its canonization. But it does teach us that the Bible is far more complex than the common dictum, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” allows. – Adam Hamilton, “The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC – Part One”, Ministry Matters, April 27, 2016
Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage . . . .
My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points – Ben Witherington III, “A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality”, Patheos, April 28, 2016
[T]he most we can say about Jesus’ position on queer identity is that we simply do not know. To say otherwise is exegetical malpractice, which results in bad ethics by promoting discrimination that isn’t explicitly sanctioned by Jesus. – Morgan Guyton, “Making Jesus Answer Questions He Wasn’t Asked”, United Methodist Insight, May 2, 2016
I’ve said it often the past few years: We have rehashed and rehearsed the same arguments concerning same-gender love so much seeing them, yet again, isn’t so much insightful as it is tiresome. The latest iteration of these arguments began between Rev. Adam Hamilton and Dr. Ben Witherington, with Rev. Morgan Guyton taking Witherington to task for yet another of the same argument. It makes me want to clap may hands over my ears and shout, “Enough!”
Ours is a faith that has at its heart sacrifice. The LORD called Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir – the heir, also, of the promise the LORD made to Abraham to make of his children a great nation. The Law of Moses has sacrifice-as-reconciliation at the heart of its priestly code. When challenging the priests of Baal, Elijah specifically used a sacrificial ritual to discredit both Baal and his priests. When challenging politically and morally corrupt governance in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophets would often declare the sacrifices – the heart of the national cultic practice for repentance, ritual cleanliness and reconciliation – were meaningless because of the lack of justice and pervasiveness of oppression in the nation.
Part of the way we understand Jesus death on the cross is as sacrificial death – what’s often called subsitutionary atonement. While we may have forsaken animal sacrifice, we Christians still call for “sacrifice” for the good of the ministry of the whole Church. Single people are called to a life of chastity (not celibacy; celibacy means they won’t ever get married, thus unmarried people are celibate by definition). We are called to sacrifice a tenth of our earnings to the Church’s work in the world. We are called to sacrifice the good opinion of our peers and the powers that be in order to stand firm in the faith. We are called to sacrifice our preferences and surrender to the Will of God, an odd situation for St. Paul to call “freedom”.
We are to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, if called upon to do so.
As General Conference approaches – yes, this is yet another General Conference post – perhaps we should remember this call to sacrifice. We should be willing to give up the urge, yet again, to say the same things to one another. These ways of dialogue and argument have achieved nothing. I don’t think, really, they’re at fault for the poisoned atmosphere between and among some over the matter of sexuality and sexual difference, precisely because they’ve become meaningless. Like reciting anything by rote, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer of the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning slips away when we mouth words without thinking they might actually be the most important words we may ever say.
When we gather as a denomination in Portland this coming week, perhaps we should give up the urge to start yelling at one another about Biblical interpretation, tossing verses at one another, saying that “liberal” Protestants are “the only ones” who seem to be OK with gay marriage and ordaining sexual minorities (part of Ben Witherington’s argument in the linked piece above; as if, somehow, that means anything at all, that different people in different places and living out different histories would understand the Bible differently). Perhaps, just perhaps, we should sacrifice our own desire to be right, to have not only the best argument but the best way of arguing, to show the gathered delegates just how smart and educated we are. Maybe it might be a good idea to start talking to one another in different ways, better ways, meaningful ways. Ways that build up the Body of Christ instead of seeking to silence, intimidate, and (best of all) defeat those with whom we disagree.
I know I’m quite tired of listening to people who say one way or another of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible to one’s life is either the best way, or perhaps the only way. To be honest, as soon as someone starts down this road, I’m quite convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about. There are as many varieties of Biblical interpretation, as many lenses of Biblical hermeneutics, as there are denominations, individuals, and congregations. Looking back over the complicated and varied history of the Church, it would be absurd to insist that the Church, at any historical moment, had a predominant hermeneutic. It might certainly at this or that time have offered an official statement regarding Biblical interpretation; in practice – and it is always in practice that these words have any meaning – the Church has always been “the churches” when it came to figuring out how to make those words in the text mean anything for our lives here and now.
So for the love of God please stop arguing about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, what Jesus did or didn’t say, about anything. My New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Sharon Ringe, said that starting down this road will always land you in trouble because, maybe just maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. It might be a good idea to give up our desire to be correct, to be right, to defeat and embrace our ability to be wrong, to be unsure, and to accept difference as just that rather than some ultimate divide that shall always separate “us” and “them”.
One of my favorite professors at Wesley Seminary was Roy Morrison. Roy was smart. Roy had volumes memorized that most people didn’t even read. His interests ranged from model trains to the philosophy of Heidegger, the theology of Tillich, and the literature of African-American protest. No one would have called Roy a Christian, by any means. He was the professor of philosophy of religion, and his skepticism – and occasional animus – toward religion was a healthy antidote to the sometimes overpowering earnestness both of students and faculty.
One thing Roy didn’t like about Christianity was the series of inherent contradictions embedded within our most important doctrines. The Trinity, read through different lenses, is nothing more than a crazy puzzle, a circle of nonsense with neither beginning or end. One God, but Three Persons, but One Substance, but Three Distinct Objectifications, always within One Subject who is three persons . . . It’s a nightmare, really. Another of Roy’s favorite targets was the resurrection: It is impossible for a person to be both dead and alive at the same time. To say that Jesus was dead is to make an ultimate statement about Jesus’s condition. There are no stages of dead; despite The Princess Bride, no one is ever “only mostly dead”. Once a person is dead, well, dead is dead. To claim this same dead person is, after having been declared dead, now alive, is both a logical and biological impossibility. To continue to declare it true precisely because it defied both logic and our understanding of how death works borders on insanity.
There are some folks, good and faithful Christians, who would consider Roy’s objections blasphemous. There are even more who, while not going that far, would certainly insist someone who thinks this way has no place in a Seminary, where people are being trained for ministry. And, of course, there are those who would go to great pains not only to demonstrate Roy’s errors, but offer such demonstrations as general argumentative principles for dealing with “objections” like Roy’s. These last, self-proclaimed “apologists”, are kind of like Calvin Trillin’s fruitcakes. You never see more than one in the same place; apologists pop up using the same words and phrases and sentences; no one really likes apologists but we always smile indulgently when one is pointed out to us.
There are another set of reactions to Roy. None of these involve either showing Roy how wrong he is, showing the world how right we are, or otherwise demonstrating that this game of intellectual point and counterpoint is a zero-sum game. This set of reactions involves two moves. The first is hearing what Roy is saying, acknowledging the objections as legitimate and worthy of consideration. In so doing, these objections force us to make even more clear what it is we believe and why we so believe. Rather than reject the questions, perhaps embracing them as showing the inherent mystery at the heart of our faith is one tack that can be and has been taken. The acknowledgment of mystery is supposed to be bad right now; because we have “doctrine”, because ours is a “faith seeking understanding” (as if St. Anselm only ever said those three word), even nodding toward the mystery that is the Gospel message of grace, redemption, and holiness is somehow either anti-intellectual or . . . I don’t know . . . too much “all the feels” as kids say these days and not enough . . . what? . . . “thinks”? Anyway, mysticism, spirituality, the declaration that the heart of the story of Infinite Divine Love is this dark hole that no amount of thought can penetrate, people who do this right now, particularly in Protestant circles, are allegedly doing something bad.
Yet ours is a faith that exists precisely upon the simplest contradiction I, for one, can imagine: Why does God give a shit about me? That’s the question Deists, for example, decided to answer with a vigorous, “Actually, God doesn’t.” Thus it is they figured God wound the Universe, and is currently in the Divine Recliner binge-watching House of Cards, and waiting for the spring to unwind all the way. Fundamentalists, in many ways the opposite of Deists, insist that all Creation – black holes, exploding galaxies, viruses that can wipe out whole populations, worms that live at the mouth of superheated vents on the ocean’s bottom, and anoles all exist so that you and I can have a personal relationship with Jesus. God not only gives a shit; God made all this stuff so that each individual can have an individual, personal – please read private when I type personal – relationship that will culminate in each person with such a relationship going to heaven when he or she dies. That’s it, and that’s all. The “fundamentals” all move with a logical force Aristotle and Occam would have envied toward that one ineluctable conclusion.
The rest of us, however, still wonder. No matter how long we’ve professed and confessed our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, we’re still left with this weird notion that each of us matters in some final, eternal, ultimate sense. That all of us together, once we are grasped by the love that teaches us this lesson, well, we have a job to do. We have to tell the world this story in a way that people will understand. And they’ll have all sorts of questions, some of them the questions Roy asks while others will be different questions, all of which boil down to “Why does God love me?” We have the resources of Christian doctrine to move toward understanding. Understanding, however, isn’t the same thing as as answer. An answer is a final, satisfying, loose-end-tying conclusion; it’s the mathematical equivalent of that single equation that contains, defines, and explains both the source and end of all other equations. The problem, both for mathematics and Christianity is such things just don’t – indeed cannot – exist. At least not as the Universe we inhabit is currently constituted. We are always in the midst both of creation and destruction, of beginnings and endings, and at some point, no matter how hard we push, the only answer we arrive at is . . . “Just because.”
Ours is a world filled with contradictions and conflicts. Resolving them in one way or another has been the goal of the modernist project, and the ruins of that project are all about us as we begin the first tentative steps forwards with a whole different set of questions, ends, and problems. One thing that should not be and certainly isn’t (at least for some) a problem is the reality of contradiction, both logical and existential, in our world. That includes in our faith. No, it makes no sense that the God who created more worlds than we can know has chosen this tiny sphere orbiting a nothing star on the edge of one spiral arm of your Average Joe galaxy to be the realm of Divine Revelation. It makes no sense that a tiny strip of land that otherwise is relatively insignificant is the center of a story that involves the recreation of all that is without the taint of sin. It makes no sense that a carpenter was the physical embodiment of Divine Love and Grace, who lived, died, and – Yes! – was raised from the dead so that the first stirrings of the coming Kingdom could be seen and heard and felt and tasted all around us. None of it makes sense and wouldn’t it be better if just got rid of all those pesky questions and contradictions? Isn’t our time better served by telling other people how right we are and how wrong they are? Isn’t demonstrating our prowess at answering objections, at showing just how wrong others are, much more important than loving people to the point there are no longer any “others”? Especially those “others” who are ever so much like us, but write different sentences and say different words when they tell the same basic story we do?
I think it’s easy to see the scales, once tipped so far to one side the other seemed not to exist, is now righting itself ever so slowly. The growing acceptance of difference, of mystery, of the limits of human knowledge – particularly about the Divine Life, including the Gospel story – points toward a healthy understanding that some questions just don’t have an answer, that some contradictions can’t be resolved, and our efforts are far better put toward telling our story by loving one another, working to make things a bit more bearable in these times before God’s final consummation of all the promises made to us.
This is what’s called “holding things in tension” and it’s the one phrase that Roy once told me he hated most of all about Christianity. That’s OK. It’s OK that some folks just don’t get it and don’t like the answers they get when they ask questions for which the only answer is a smile and the repeated affirmation of love. That, too, is a contradiction – questions with no answers; answers to questions not asked – that is part of our story.
All that scattering is for the sake of the Mission of God, a mission that has nothing to do with uniformity, but rather asks for unity among those who would undertake it. It may not be comfortable or neat or easy, but as the church it is our mission. – Andy Bryan, “Unity and The Sin Of Babel”, United Methodist Insight, October 2, 2015
I’m going to share a story out of school as it were. Lisa and I are in the midst of a disagreement centering on my appearance. I have to admit part of it is rooted in what is probably a mid-life crisis of one kind or another. At the same time, it has to do with expressing who I am. For several years I’ve worn my hair very closely cropped – almost a buzz cut. I’ve been letting my hair grow out for several months and it’s past that awkward stage and beginning to wave and curl. I haven’t decided for sure if I’m going to just allow it to continue growing or get dreadlocks. It has to be a minimum of three inches long for that. I’m also growing out my goatee while keeping the rest of my beard short so that, when it gets long enough, that can be braided.
Why the big change? To express who I am. I’ve never fit in to any particular group. When I was in Seminary, one of the faculty I respected a great deal, Mark Burrows, said to me, “One of the things I really admire about you is you get along with everyone.” Now, I honestly don’t know if that’s true. I think I tried to get along with everyone; more to the point, however, my effort to get along with different types of people comes from the fact that I just don’t fit in with any single group. Furthermore, I’ve never tried to fit in to one group. Where’s the fun in that? I’ve always figured it’s better to have all sorts of different kinds of people in one’s life. How else do you learn and grow? How else do you share all sorts of experiences with others if the folks you call acquaintances and friends are all like you? That’s boring.
One of the most important theological lessons I learned in Seminary was that God wants us to be us. We were each of us created to be who and as we are. Our life, all the things that go to make up who we are, they are our most precious possessions. God uses that uniqueness in specific ways to achieve the ultimate divine end – the Kingdom in which the New Creation exists to give our God the glory. The salvation offered in the crucified and risen Jesus comes to each of us as we are, calling us to be who we were created to be for the glory of God. The freedom we enjoy is the freedom to surrender care for ourselves to serve others. It is also the freedom to do so with the unique gifts only each of us has. For me, part of the uniqueness is appearing as one who does not fit in anywhere because this world, in the end, is not my home.
Ours is a world with so many enforced conformities. Labels get attached so easily, and short-hand summaries of others are far too easy to come by. It is part of that sin of Babel Andy Bryan points out: The urge toward uniformity less God scatter us. Uniformity and conformity flow from an unfaithful fear of God’s wrath. As the early chapters of Genesis make clear, ours are lives spent going out in to the world; in the Great Commission makes clear, this “going forth” is part of our identity as Christians. It is that to which calls us. Going out to the world, being scattered for the sake of the Kingdom should offer us the kind of freedom to show the world, “This is who I am as one beloved child of God!”
When I was in Seminary, I attended Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church because it was just across the street from American University. The pastor at the time, Rev. William Holmes, sent us forth with the best benediction ever: “Now go! And be the scattered Body of Christ at work in the world!” Part of being that “scattered body”, of not becoming ensnared in the Babel trap, of following the command to spread across the Earth, to preach the Good News from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, is allowing ourselves to be the person God created us to be. Be willing to express that so the person God created can be a sign of what is possible through God’s saving and perfecting grace.
I still haven’t decided on the whole dreadlocks thing. On the other hand I do know that being part of the scattered Body of Christ means that I’m just one small yet unique part of a massive whole aiming toward bringing about the Kingdom of Peace for the Glory of God. How I look isn’t important at all compared to getting out there and being and doing the call I hear each day in new ways.
The guy would come to the bookstore every once in a while. Elegantly dressed, he was Senior Pastor at a large Baptist Church in the DC area. I was always intrigued by the fact that in a Seminary bookstore, he would talk down a Seminary education, even calling Seminary “Cemetery”, as if a place to educate and nurture future church leaders was really a place faith came to die. Doing this all the while buying books . . . it made my head hurt.
I sat in on a couple class meetings of a Seminar led by our then-Academic Dean, Dr. M. Douglas Meeks. The class was reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part 1 and during the very first meeting, a student asked the relevance of something as dense as Barth’s theology in the local church. Doug turned to me and offered me a chance to answer, as I had, by this time, spent time as a clergy spouse in a local church. My answer was simple and clear: Because this is what people in our churches hunger for. They may not have the technical vocabulary, but folks in the local church demonstrate a need for ways to think through and speak their faith. They look to clergy to help guide them. To be able to do that, a minimal understanding of the vocabulary and movement of Christian God-talk is necessary. That’s why there are classes on Systematic Theology, advanced classes on Biblical theology and Seminars on particular theologians. Not only is clarity of exposition necessary; knowing why our particular theology as heirs of John Wesley is distinct from Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and other theologies helps congregations understand who they are.
I recently got all technical with Rev. John Meunier over the matter of “truth”. Just yesterday, he published a piece about “saving souls” being the primary business of the church. Again, I am not picking on Rev. Meunier (I’m really not!!!). Still, I think it is necessary to highlight why theological education is necessary, particularly when it comes to such technical matters as questions of theological truth, the matter of “souls”, what salvation means, etc. I am going to assume, for the moment, that Meunier has, at the very least, the basic theological education, including Systematics. Continuing one’s education beyond this most basic class – really a historical and doctrinal survey class more than anything else – becomes important, particular when it comes to discussing matters of import about ministry, mission, and the nature of the Church’s proclamation. Clarity is impossible without understanding that the words we use are hardly simple or have one clear definition. One need not be involved in contemporary technical philosophical or theological discussions but still should understand that writing, say, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?”, begs far more questions than it would seek to settle. To insist that “saving souls” is the business of the Church without being clear about what “salvation” means, about what the author means by “soul”, leads both to confusion and further questions.
The United Methodist malaise is due in no small part to our inability as a connection to have a coherent theological discussion in which all parties accept the terms of debate, from “doctrine” right up to “evangelical” (a word hijacked by particular factions in a denomination whose very identity is evangelical; thus so much of our “discussion” becomes a debate over who can call themselves such when all United Methodist, clergy and lay, are in the business of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ). At the very least, we need to accept that the particular vocabulary of theology might well use everyday words whose commonsense understanding just doesn’t work within the context of serious God-talk.
So, to all those clergy and laity out there who think all that theological and philosophical mumbo-jumbo has nothing to do with being Church, remember: If you can’t articulate not only what you believe, but why you believe it, in ways that do justice to the specificity of the Revelation of the Trinity in Jesus Christ, then, perhaps, you need to reevaluate why you’re in ministry in the first place.
The unfolding of the fight for freedom leads to cries of horror from the Egyptians, and it is a difficult challenge to say how a God who hears the cries of the suffering responded to those cries, especially when those cries were of Egypt’s own innocent children slain on the historic night of the Passover, . . . . I canno resolve the crisis of meeting God as both compassionate and violent in this story. At the very least it requires nothing that the Israelites’ escape – a tale of their cries of terror turned to shouts of joy – comes at an incredible cost. Egypt’s loss inspires a “lament such as has never been and never will be again” (Exod. 11:6). Here we come face-to-face with the complexity of Yahweh, something I will return to below with the lens Jesus gives us to see God as both hearer of cries and present in the midst of the suffering itself, crying out. – Christian Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters To Those Seeking God, p.86
[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Being the good white liberal young man I was, I had all sorts of untested and unexamined assumptions in my head. Among those were that social change through non-violence was both (a) the only really acceptable Christian approach; and (b) advocates of violence only continued a cycle of violence that would leave more and more people dead. There is an insistent logic to this position that is so attractive. It is the balm in Gilead that soothes the sin-sick soul.
When I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary, among the first things I read that challenged all the things I thought I knew were true was the black liberation theology of James Cone. In his powerful, prophetic denunciations of the religion of white supremacy, he offered a vision of Christianity that denounced every comfortable middle-class platitude I believed to be true.
Later, reading Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, I was intrigued by its final chapter, “Exodus Church”, in which Moltmann offered the Exodus story as a paradigm for the church’s existence and ministry. Part of that paradigm includes the affirmation that ours is a God who chooses sides, whose loving action is directed at particular persons, particular groups, and toward particular ends. While never taking a stand on any particular social practice, it was clear that these particular theologies, protest and political, demonstrated a particular Biblical reality that white liberals like me would prefer to skate past as quickly as possible.
To say that political and social non-violence are articles of faith – dare I call them idols? – among mainstream white Christians is not going too far. We elevate the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. to some kind of Gospel, as noted by a commenter above during a discussion on this very issue. Apparently, even after decades during which the equivocal nature of King’s “victories” have been analyzed, criticized and then re-evaluated again, it remains a capital “T” Truth that, by refusing to respond with violence to the violence of white supremacy, King showed the world change through non-violence is possible. Few things get white liberals all tingly like quoting verses from The Sermon On The Mount to proof-text their stance. The warmth of moral superiority is the best blanket.
Yet, how do we understand the Exodus story? The killing of Egypt’s first-born wasn’t the first time violence had been visited upon them. Flies – that bite and sting, preventing work; frogs – that can kill and eat fowl, eggs; locusts – to devour crops; boils – to leave people ill, unable to work, to exile themselves from the rest of society; turning the river to blood – no potable, usable water in a desert land means death. God’s actions against the Egyptians – including hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to allow the people to leave, despite the cries of his people to do so – try any comforting vision of the white liberal God. This founding story of the Israelites demands we stare in the face the reality not only that God chooses sides, but is ruthless with those who oppose God’s divine plan. Even when that opposition is prompted by God’s action (“the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .”).
I’m not suggesting something like the old and heretical notion that the God of the two Testaments is somehow two distinct entities, or that who God is undergoes a fundamental change at some point between the Testaments. On the contrary, using a reading of Scripture that is both old and new, ancient and post-modern – placing the Christ-event at the heart of the Biblical testimony, stretching back to creation and ahead to the final consummation – we see, again, that God chooses sides. The issue isn’t whether God has somehow changed; the issue, rather, is the odd western insistence on the universality of the Biblical testimony. That temptation to universality, yet another idol best dispensed with, creates a blindness to something I learned from one of my theology professors, Dr. John Godsey: The Scriptural testimony does not move from the general to the specific; rather, it moves from the specific – the Incarnation is nothing if not the Glory of God present in a single person, at a particular place and time – to the potentially universal (“go preach the Gospel to all nations, starting in Judea and Samaria”). I say “potential” because while the promise of world-wide witness is offered, it is a task that continues to this day.
The Passion narrative, like the Passover narrative, is one no less filled with violence and death, betrayal and heartbreak, with that final Easter shout of joy only possible because we have all traveled the via dolorosa with Christ. The way of salvation is not around the horrors and pain of this life. Redemption, Divine acceptance, only comes through blood. That the pain and blood is brought about by God’s actions we too often set to one side, so quick are we to get to the end of the story. We who read the Exodus story, identifying with the Hebrew people and their suffering all the while living as the Egyptians, our national wealth extracted through the toil stolen from slaves and share-croppers, have an obligation first and foremost to remember this story is not our story. When we are confronted by the Passion narrative, living as we do in a great imperial nation, we should remember that death is on our hands. Wanting to identify with the bleeding dying Jesus, or the oppressed and worn-down Hebrews, forgetful of our complicity with ongoing injustice, death-dealing, and oppression does violence to the text; we cannot hear the condemnation of our arrogance, the rejection of our comfort with violence as a tool of national and international policy, and our smug satisfaction that a commitment to non-violence somehow wipes away centuries of genocidal policies toward our Native peoples, African slaves, and others. Unless we recognize that the heart both of the Passion and Exodus stories – related from beginning to end – is a story of God living out preferential treatment. Part of that preferential treatment is the active rejection of those who would thwart God’s designs.
The most potent counter-argument are the words of Jesus from the Cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Doesn’t that, it is argued, offer redemption to those who kill Jesus? By extension, doesn’t that offer redemption to all of us? Doesn’t the whole notion of God’s preference ignore the reality that salvation is offered to all? The only answer to this valid point is that no redemption, no salvation, no conversion is possible without acknowledging, in the words of Bishop Cranmer, our manifold sins and wickedness. We can only do that if we allow the Divine violence of the Passion/Exodus stories to convict us of our complicity in injustice and violence against those whose cries God hears.
The real truth is so simple: White liberals love non-violence because we are terrified that all the violence visited upon God’s enemies will be directed at us. God chooses sides. We need to remember whose side we’re really on.
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.
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet Heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’
So should my papers yellow’d with their age,
Be scorn’d like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,– in it and in my rhyme. – William Shakespeare, Sonnet 17
So far on this Lenten Journey, I’ve spent my time pretty much doing what’s expected. I’ve talked about my dalliances with the Cardinal Sins, and how they’ve woven their way through my life. I’ve described sins of betrayal, of dehumanization, of selfishness expressed as pride, and humility, and lust. I have talked about the need to carry the shame that my sin has created, like an enormous rock, along this long trek down this dirt road to the events of Holy Week. None of this is, or should be, surprising. Isn’t this what we do when we confess? Don’t we discuss our sins, errors, crimes?
For all I’ve exposed parts of myself and my life I would rather no one ever see, this next part of the journey is far more difficult. Not because there are worse things lurking in the closets of my life. No, now we get down to admitting how even those parts of my life I consider the best parts are no less tainted by sin, run through with pride and selfishness, and are no less in need of being set before the Cross for redemption than that which we normally consider our worst parts. If we’re willing to confess to our sins, can we be strong enough to confess our virtues as well?
I see autumn around me. Not deep autumn. At least, not yet. No, it’s just that time when summer’s worst heat is ending, the morning air has a crispness to it; even in the afternoon, as the air warms, there’s an undercurrent of cool that keeps the worst of the heat from being unbearable. The leaves aren’t so much starting to turn as they are hinting that turning might be coming soon. After months of humidity, that damp smell is gone and everything smells crisp, clean, ready to get ready for the sleep of winter.
I smile as I stroll, stone of shame or no, because this is one my favorite moments of the passing year. Summer has always been a time when the world takes a break from routine; it is just now, at this point when the world announces that summer is over, that routine returns, that long, warm rest of summer is over, and we have work to do. What I see, surprisingly, is the old Cokesbury Bookstore at Wesley Theological Seminary. I feel younger. Despite other things just prior to this moment in my life, I’m smiling because the new students have arrived, and that’s always a time to see who comes in with a chip on their shoulder; who comes in ready to learn; who comes in unsure of why they’re in this strange place (that, by the way, was me). I see myself, sitting at the receiver’s desk, boxes piled around me. The line of new students buying their textbooks stretches around the store; we only have one cash register, so everyone has to be patient. I don’t notice a pair of eyes on me, busy as I am putting price labels with bar codes on the backs of all the new books that have come in.
I look to my right, and I’m inside the house of the President of the Seminary. This isn’t as big a deal as it might sound. The President’s house used to sit just at the bottom of the hill below the dormitory, and former President Doug Lewis always hosted a reception that invited both returning students and returning students. I’m talking with a couple friends who’ve returned to campus after their long summer away. I’m sipping some punch and glance across the room. Standing, leaning against the opposite wall, I see someone looking at me, her eyes never flinching or moving from mine.
I won’t lie. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. That she was looking at me, and with such intensity, without fear, was a bit unsettling. Someone said something to me, and the moment passed as I turned to ask for a repeat of the question.
It didn’t take me long to put a name to the face – Lisa Kruse. She had come from Richmond, although that was about all anyone seemed to know.
A couple weeks later, I was working on the catering crew for a wedding reception to be held in the Dining Hall. I was busy doing prep work when who should I see coming down the back steps outside but Lisa. I thought I was working with someone else, but Lisa told me that person wasn’t feeling well, and she was filling in. She confessed later that she actually had kind of wormed her way in to working that day because I was working, too. Talk about flattering . . .
I don’t remember much about that first time we worked together at a reception. Except for one thing. It was hot, and the dress shirt I was required to wear was causing me not only to sweat but to itch. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but I scratched my chest. Lisa said to me, “Fleas?” thinking she was clever. I looked her in the eye and said, “No. I’m allergic to weddings.” And then I went, washed my hands, and went back to work.
Within a couple more week, we went on our first date. The next night we went on our second date. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Wedding. A year still at Wesley getting adjusted to this whole “marriage” thing, then suddenly we’re in this little town down south, Lisa’s a preacher, then it’s all – BAM!BAM!BAM! – house, pets, kids . . . At least, looking back on it, it feels it was like that. After all these years, the time in-between, the days and weeks and months and even years, are all a bit of a blur. With one constant, however: Lisa and me, together.
Twenty-two years later, we’re both much older. Our older child is going to be heading off to college in a few months. We’re a thousand miles from where we started. If someone had told me where we’d be, what we’d be doing, the only thing that wouldn’t surprise me is Lisa being a District Superintendent. Beyond that, I probably would have laughed.
I can hear the questions. It’s like rusty wheels turning. What the hell do I have to confess about any of this? I met a beautiful woman, we fell in love, we started a family, a career, a life together. If the photo above is nothing else, it’s a portrait of the American dream realized. Nothing seems out of place, amiss, awry, or otherwise worth confessing as sinful about our life together, right? I mean, shoot, we have a St. Bernard, for crying out loud!
Except, as I look around at all the images from our life together, I know there’s so much more beneath those surface images. Moments of anger. Spans of time when each of us were unhappy. Persistent doubts each of us had about the love and commitment to the other. The struggles of early parenthood. The struggles of living together, when each of us were, even at that young age, set in ways from years of being alone and single. Former lovers who kept intruding in one way or another.
d Yet it is more than these mundane realities all married couples have and either get through or don’t; no, our love and our life together, for all it has survived the various changes in weather and time, is no less steeped in sin – selfishness and lust (the bad kind); anger and sloth; a lack of concern for the feelings of the other, crossing in to ignoring the other, sometimes for days or weeks at a time – than any other part of our life. And by “sin” I am being quite serious here. Sin as in death are the wages of. Sin as in brokenness that lies at the heart of our human relationship with God, as well as our relationships with one another. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we work at it, no matter the professions of love and dedication to one another – ours is a relationship no less broken, no less battered by our weaknesses, our insecurities, and our outright horrid inner natures than any other. That we have managed to stay together, stay committed to one another, to raise two happy, basically well-adjusted children; share a home and a bed and pets and laughter; these things aren’t because there’s something special, or unique, or blessed about our life together. I know plenty of married folks who are little different from us in all these regards.
We are together, and are who we are together, because we both know just how broken each of us is. Perhaps not all the ways we’re broken, but that we’re broken, and that this mutual brokenness creates barriers to a full life together, that is something we not only know, but acknowledge. We work on these parts together, knowing full well they will never disappear. Anger. Self-doubt. The fact that we just don’t believe the other loves us in the way the other says. All these things could tear us apart before we’re even aware it’s happened. We’ve had our close calls; I won’t lie.
All of this swirls around me, and that smile with which I began is gone. I start to cry. No, I start to weep. None of it makes sense. Love is supposed to be one of the few truly good things in human existence; in particular, that love between a man and a woman that brings children in to the world, does the hard work of raising them, and all that work of staying together. This is good, right?
Actually, it is good. At one time, all creation was called good, and human beings were called very good. In an instant, however, all that vanished. Even this, with its all-American goodness, is something I need to bring before God; it is something I need confess is sinful, a failure, something in which I take inordinate pride, a thing that lives despite the two of us rather than because of the two of us. To do otherwise would be to lie. We are always praising one another on how hard we work at being married, on how good things between us are, even after decades together when other couples are getting tired of one another. We congratulate each other and ourselves on our parenting, on our ability to carry on a conversation, on how much better we relate to one another, because we’ve just worked so hard at it.
Except, to be blunt – that’s all bullshit. When we praise one another, and that thing that is greater than each of us alone that is us married, we are no less idolatrous than if we entered a pagan temple and set fruit basket in front of some statue. Until and unless we’re willing, individually and together, to carry all our self-serving lies and mutual back-patting for just how wonderful we are together, lay it at the foot of the cross, and declare, individually and together, how much we’ve fooled ourselves, how much we’ve lied to ourselves, to one another, and to God.
All those scenes from our life together, they fade. What I see now are two people, sullen, distant, casting angry, hurt glances at one another, unable and unwilling to speak to one another, even to look one another in the eye. This, rather than the Hallmark scenes and all the sweet words and photographs, is who and what we are. All the rest are sweet, consoling lies I tell myself, and we tell each and one another so that we don’t have to see the anger and hurt and lack of any sense of self-worth that lies not that far below the surface of so much of our life together.
This isn’t added to that stone of shame I carry. No, instead that ring I wear on left hand, it tightens to the point of pain. I can’t move that finger. For all it symbolizes the bond of love that cannot be broken, it now carries the weight of years of lies – lies to ourselves, lies to each other, lies to the world. Until and unless we are willing to confess this, and admit that all the smiles, the laughter, the happiness and love and lovemaking has nothing to do with any virtues we have, but comes from God and God alone, that ring will continue to shrink, the pain increase, until it becomes unbearable. It is one more thing I know I have to set at the foot of the cross: For all its seeming success, for all the “love” we share together, for all the smiles and laughter, if we don’t recognize our individual and mutual brokenness, if we’re not able to look at it and name it for what it is, if we’re not able to lay even this, what is supposed to be our best before the cross and confess that it, too, is sinful – if we can’t do that, I’m not even sure why I’m going down this road.
Confessing to evil stuff is easy. Confessing the broken, sinful nature of human love – that’s hard. But that pinched finger reminds me that if I don’t, none of the rest matters.