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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holy Questionuing: How I Fell in Love with Methodist Doctrine

High school is a confusing yet defining time in a young persons life. I think this is the case because it is the age where we begin to question; we question our parents, our teachers, and even (or especially) our religious traditions. In my own life, asking questions as a teenager led me to explore the doctrines of the United Methodist Church, and in that search I discovered what I consider a beautiful and meaningful expression of the Christian faith.

It all began when I was fourteen and a good friend invited me to attend her Methodist youth group. At the time, I had recently been confirmed into the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, instead of confirmation being a movement towards deeper communion with my fellow Catholics, my confirmation was about checking a box that got me out of mandatory church attendance.

I’m pretty sure I started going to this youth group because they played lazer tag. But once they successfully reined me in with free pizza and cute protestant boys, I met Jesus. I couldn’t believe the things this man said and did; they were so counter-intuitive and yet somehow so in tune with the heartbeat of reality. My conversion was especially powerful because at the time I was surrounded by good friends, who ardently tried to follow this Jesus, surrounded me.

One friend named Ryan also attended my Catholic high school. One day we sat together during a special mass. When it came time for the Lord’s Supper, the priest reminded us that if you are not Catholic you cannot receive Holy Communion, but can be given a blessing instead. To this day I will never forget stepping over Ryan, whom I knew was one of the most truly Christian people I had ever met, to approach a table of grace where he was not welcome.

After that day I had lots of questions. Questions that fell on deaf ears, or answers that did not make sense of the Jesus I was learning about in youth group. I realized that if doctrines were meant to put us in touch with the mysteries they tried to hold in focus, then bad doctrine took me farther away from them. Thus, I began to investigate the belifes of the UMC and the rest (as they say) is history.

I tell this story not to demonize the Catholic Church, but rather because it illustrates why I felt called to join the United Methodist Church and how I came to appreciate Methodist Doctrine —particularly the UM doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

In John Wesley’s sermon The Duty of Constant Communion, he says “it is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord's Supper as often as he can.” In the Wesleyan tradition communion is key to our Christian identity and faith formation. Therefore, the United Methodist Church has an open table policy:

“Any person who answers in faith the invitation "Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another" (UMH; page 7) is worthy through Christ to partake of Holy Communion. Christians come to the Lord's Table in gratitude for Christ's mercy toward sinners. We do not share in Communion because of our worthiness; no one is truly worthy. We come to the Eucharist out of our hunger to receive God's gracious love, to receive forgiveness and healing.”[1]


In my opinion, this doctrine affirms the scandalous grace of the gospel because it announces the good news of belonging, forgiveness, and transformation offered by Jesus Christ to all people — even to Ryans.

            But if God can use other avenues to transform us, why is the Lord’s Supper so central to Christian practice? Well, John Wesley says because it is a primary means of grace; "By 'means of grace' I [Wesley] understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men [and women], preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace"[2] I find this doctrine captures the mysterious yet concrete experience of grace one encounters in the breaking of bread.

            One of my favorite aspects of Methodist doctrine is that it is not afraid to dwell in mystery. We hear this particularly in Charles Wesley’s hymns, which provide poetic expressions of Wesleyan theology. Consider this hymn, which illustrates how the doctrine of the UMC seeks understanding, while still protecting the mystery of our experiential, embodied, faith — in this case our experience of grace in the sacraments:


“O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace!
Who can say how bread and wine God into man conveys?
How the bread His flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits His blood,
Fills His faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!
…Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown;
Only meet us in Thy ways,
And perfect us in one.
Let us taste the heavenly powers;
Lord, we ask for nothing more:
Thine to bless, ‘tis only ours
To wonder and adore.”[3]
 
In essence, the narrator says “I don’t know how this all works, but I’ve encountered Christ in a real way in this bread and wine and it leads me to worship.” It is wonderful in its ambiguity. I believe any meaningful articulation of the sacraments must allow for the counterintuitive nature of a transcendent God becoming incarnate among us.

I ultimately fell in love with the Methodist Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper because it doesn’t leave us at the table:
“The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.”[4]

This is the fullness of what Wesley meant by a means of grace. In the elements we not only experience the Real Presence of Christ, but also the Spirit’s empowerment to do good works, i.e. sanctifying grace.

Again, Charles Wesley captures our experience of sanctifying grace and pursuit towards holiness in his many hymns. Take these verses from O the Depth of Divine Love and Let Earth and Heave Combine:

“Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.”[5]

and…

“Let us plead for faith alone, 

faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies, 

only faith the grace applies.
Active faith that lives within,
conquers hell and death and sin,
hallows whom it first made whole,
forms the Savior in the soul.”[6]

John Wesley expands on the topic of sanctifying/perfecting grace (conformity to Christ) and our commitment to holiness, in his sermon on Spiritual Worship:

“As our knowledge and our love of him increase, by the same degrees, and in the same proportion, the kingdom of an inward heaven must necessarily increase also; while we ‘grow up in all things into Him who is our Head.’ And when we are en autv peplhrvmenoi, complete in him, as our translators render it; but more properly when we are filled with him; when ‘Christ in us, the hope of glory,’ is our God and our All; when he has taken the full possession of our heart; when he reigns therein without a rival, the Lord of every motion there; when we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us, we are one with Christ, and Christ with us; then we are completely happy; then we live ‘all the life that is hid with Christ in God;’ then, and not till then, we properly experience what that word meaneth, ‘God is love; and whosoever dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.’”[7]

The Wesleyan connection between justifying grace (i.e. redeeming love) and sanctifying grace gives us a holistic vision for the workings of grace in our lives. Grace, mediated through the sacraments, inspires us not only to be “lost in wonder, love, and praise” but also to pursue acts of justice and mercy.

Finally, I continue worship within the UMC without worrying that I have to agree with every single theological presupposition, because Methodist Doctrine allows for a generous orthodoxy. John Wesley did not claim to have the patent on Truth, divine revelation, or anything else for that matter. He certainly thought he was on to something; nevertheless, he saw great wisdom in nearly every branch of the Christian family tree. In his sermon, The Catholic Spirit, he reminds us:


“Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, "Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart" [8]

As a proponent of the holiness tradition, Wesley was less interested in being right and more interested in cultivating faith. After all, he was inspires by the Moravians and perfectly content to practice his “methods” within the Anglican Church for as long as they’d have him. Unfortunately, Wesley’s tactics alienated him from the institutional church, forcing him create a whole new church body. I feel Wesley’s reluctance to leave the Anglican tradition, his emphasis on authenticity and devotion, and his great love for the church consistently led him to embrace an ecumenical vision.

In the doctrines of the UMC I see great hope for the individual human heart, the local faith community, the church universal, and the broken places of the world in which the divine dwells. As you feast on the rich doctrine of this denomination, I pray you would catch a glimpse the incoming kingdom of love where all are welcome to the heavenly banquet table — even Ryan.

References:
[1] This Holy Mystery, “The Issue of Unworthiness,” Principle
[2] John Wesley, The Means of Grace, II.1
[3] O the Depth of Love Divine, UMH 627
[4] John Wesley, The Duty of Constant Communion, I.3
[5] Let Earth and Heaven Combine, UMH
[6] Let Us Plead For Faith Alone, UMH 385
[7] John Wesley, Spiritual Worship, II. 6
[8] John Wesley, Catholic Spirit, I.10

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Friends, I don't want to frighten you, but there is a dangerous epidemic currently targeting the millennial generation — I know what you're thinking but it's not ironic facial hair.

No, there is another name for this anomaly. Some have dubbed it "wedding fever." Over the past few months I have come to affectionately refer to it as "open bar season." Call it what you will, but for me it has meant having to attend an extra-ordinary amount of weddings this year.

In just under eight months I have attended five weddings — all in different states and one on a different continent. Just a year ago I hadn't been to more than two weddings in my entire life. Now I'm supporting half the wedding industry. What's the deal people? Did Tiffany & Co. contaminate our drinking water? 

I don't mean to be snarky, but watching all these couples take "the big step" has been more than a little overwhelming; because the thing about weddings is, like funerals, you're less likely to think about the persons whose day it is as you are to think about yourself.

Sitting at the reception table tonight, I realized that since my Dad passed away last summer I have had to endure five fathers walking their daughters down the aisle; five father-daughter dances; and five proud-father toasts to a happy wedded life. It's really enough already; remembering hurts.

I may be wrong, but I think this is how some of us feel about Ash Wednesday: Why do I have to be reminded that I am going to die? It's uncomfortable and depressing.

In The Mystery of Death, Dorothee Sollee says remembering our finitude feels akin to sojourning into a strange and unfamiliar land. During Lent we are nomads, wandering in the desert of our mortality, continually in search of a safe place to call home. What we want is a land where the memory of death grows dim, but Ash Wednesday demands that we stop and feel our way around the wilderness of death for a while. 

Lest we forget, the bible tells us that Abraham does not return to the land of his ancestors, Moses never enters the land of Canaan, and as soon as the ancient Israelites feel secure in the possession of their land they loose it to the Babylonians and end up in exile.If we are honest, the human experience is one of never feeling like we are quite at home. 

Sollee goes on to say that reflecting on our mortality is an essential part of what it means to be human. Remembering is essential because it saves us from the numbing of denial and frees us from passively leading a static and unexamined life.

For me, being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return in the lead up to Easter, feels a bit like the unwelcome reminder of death at a wedding. It's unsettling and out of place. In fact, it hurts like hell. But as a friend said shortly after my dad's death: 
Hang in there and remember that in the darkest moments our God is the light who leads us through. Even in the hardest times when the light seems to flicker & waver, it is never extinguished, even if we struggle to see it. That light heals the broken hearted, but not in an instant, as it honours the love which caused the brokenness.
So, I decide to receive the ashes and to wear them in fearful humility. And I try to remember how the darkness honors the love that's been lost. 

I remember because it's better than forgetting. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Mystery of Death

 In the Lenten spirit of self-reflection and repentance I confess to you that I hate blogging.

No, I really hate blogging.

I hate it for a number of reasons. First, I don’t think I am very good at it. I’m not an especially skillful or articulate writer. I tend to ramble on and only sometimes get to the point. Second, I don’t have the same desire to be heard that most bloggers seem to posses. Lastly, I am a journaler, which means that most of what I write is deeply personal and excessively flowery. Writing for a public audience puts me in the awkward position of walking the thin line between the private and personal, which frankly are subjective categories anyway.

I see the irony of confessing all of this to you in a blog post. However, I've done so because I’ve decided to take up blogging during the season of Lent. As many of you know, Lent is a liturgical season in the Christian year where believers prepare themselves for Holy Week, the week that recalls Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. To stand in solidarity with our suffering God, who —on the cross— stood in solidarity with us, we simplify our lives during this season by committing to fast from certain luxuries. By fasting we remember the frailty and finitude of our human flesh. During Lent we realize anew our fundamental need for a transcendent and eternal God.

The season begins on Ash Wednesday, a day when the church places ashes on our foreheads as a solemn reminder of human mortality. Throughout the 40 days of Lent, but especially on Ash Wednesday, we are forced to confront the reality of death so that come Easter we can fully embrace the victory of Christ’s triumph over death in all of her manifestations. 

Last summer, my Dad passed away unexpectedly after a long period of hospitalization. Beginning when I was a teenager, my Dad would regularly tell me that he was going to die. I think he told me this in part because of depression, but also because he was trying to overcome the fear of death, the paralyzing terror of the unknown that can stop you from living life to its fullest.

Even though he spoke of it regularly, I think both of us were unprepared for his death. We were unprepared because he also had a voracious appetite for life. He fought to live so that he could go on loving me.

As I’ve struggled this year to cope with his absence, a mentor and friend recommended a book called, “The Mystery ofDeath” by noted German theologian Dorothee Sollee. Finished only days before her own death, Sollee probes the meaning of death in history, literature and religious tradition. Clever, yet intensely personal, she revolts against our cultures denial of death as she herself comes to terms with it. 


So, as an act of solidarity with my Dad, with Dorothy, and with the “great majority” who are no longer with us, I've decided to spend the seven weeks of Lent publicly reflecting on the mystery of death. 

I want to explore the questions I never asked my Dad while he was sick. I want to honor the experience of death in stillness, silence, and prayer.  And I want to contemplate my own mortality in the defiant hope that life can still be born in death.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Eulogy.

Today is my Dad's 69th birthday. 

What follows is the eulogy I wrote for his memorial service, delivered to my home church by Pastor Fawn Mikel. 


Pastor Fawn,

You asked me what is one thing I want people to remember about my dad. I told you it was his self-sacrifice, and it’s true, but this splinters off in so many ways.

One is how charming he was with everyone. When I visited him in the hospital/rehab center the staff loved him. You have to understand, most of their patients are ill tempered because of pain, losing their minds, or unable to communicate at all. But he had such a report with the nurses. 

One of the nurses called him Tom Tom. She said she would come in the door, say hello, and he would say, "is that my Jackie?!" When I was there they acted so clinical with everyone else, but they would come in and start catching him up on all their personal lives. Everywhere he went he made friends and made people feel at home in their own skin — which I think is a rare and beautiful gift. 

Another dimension of his self-sacrifice that I want to re-emphasize, is how important it was in my formation to watch him talk to people who would come up out of nowhere to tell him their life stories. His obvious outward signs of suffering bred solidarity among other people struggling to survive. And he was so kind; we'd be on our way to run errands or catch a movie and these people would just talk and talk and talk, and he would just listen forever... 

And he would listen forever to me. He was my best friend. We talked about everything. There wasn't one experience he didn't help me verbally unpack, and that's why now it’s so painful. Because I want to sit down with him and discuss how hard this has been, how sorry I am for not having come down sooner, how much I miss him already, how perfect his love was and how grateful I am for it. 

You asked me about dad's faith, and I can tell you that he lived with an expectant hope and honest trust in God. I have a number of letters he sent me and in every one he says things like: pray for us, I hope God hears me, and “I trust in God's love to get me through this or that.” I also know this because we talked about it a lot. He believed in the power of prayer and in the love of God. He was so very grateful for Christ Church because of how it fostered my relationship with God. In one of the letters he says: “My life is so hard, I sometimes feel as if I am cursed; But then I think of you and that all goes away. I realize how much God must love me because he gave me you." 

On Monday, I told him how honored I am to be his daughter. How I love him more then life itself and I will love and miss him until my very last day. I told him that heaven is a reality I participate in now, and therefore we would be able to participate in together. That love would keep us together and that he should not be afraid of anything that could happen because love drives out fear.

His whole life he gave and gave and gave and gave to me. He would call me up randomly just to tell me how much he loves me and send me cards that said,
"I love you, guess that about sums it up." 

His love was the greatest gift I have ever been given, because he allowed the love of God to flow purely and abundantly through him. I will miss every moment we spent together; how in those moments I knew how much he loved me and was so grateful for it.

On Tuesday I had a major break down because I knew my dad fought through more pain then he could handle to wait for me to say goodbye. I asked David, "How does someone fight off death? How is that even possible?" And he said: "Love." 

My dad loved me so much he gave me life and then fought off death. His love was THAT powerful. It shook my world and made me happier than I ever deserved to be. 

There are only so many people in this world who love with the love of Christ — and he was one of them. We cannot afford to lose these people, or miss out on experiencing their incredible light. His love surely outshines mine, but I love, I love, I love him...

Truth be told, my faith is being tested in this time... But the other day I was thinking about what people might bring to the memorial service — things like food and cards, simple gestures of condolence. Then I thought about what Christ would bring, and I realized he would bring a cross. He would drag the cross down the aisle and place it beneath his picture and say a prayer. He would talk about how he was there with him the whole time, when everyone else was caught up in his or her own worlds. How he suffered with him and for him, and how unfair it was that he had to suffer at all. He would shed tears and show us his scars, but then he would have to leave as quickly as he came. He would leave our world to find my Dad in another one and he would hold him close to his chest, tell him about the service, and how much we all miss and love him. And they would smile and talk of old times. And in that moment I hope with everything that is in me that he would understand how deeply I love him and how his love meant the world to me. I will never forget it, because it has carried me. 

I love him crazy. The world was a better place with him in it. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Grief.

This is how i feel today. 

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W. H. Auden

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A New Birth Day.

Two days ago one of my best friends gave birth for the first time to a beautiful little girl named Ellie. 

In Italian “to give birth”— “Dare alla Luce”— is literally translated: “to give to the light”

If we think about birth this way, it makes sense why Jesus named what we typically call conversion, "the new birth." 

Peter Rollins says conversion is like birth because you don't experience your birth, rather, being born allows you to experience everything else. 

Conversion, then, is a transformative journey; one where God is continually bringing us into the light.

Each moment carries the opportunity to be transformed by the light of life, a new birth day. 

Will we allow ourselves to be given to it? 



Welcome to the light Ellie. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Midrash

On Wednesday, my Emergent Gathering professor led us in an exercise called "Midrash." Midrash is the Hebrew term for a unique style of storytelling used by Jewish Rabbinic Sages to explain passages from the bible. 

Midrash is a creative way to fill in plot gaps, add detail to whats been left vague, and explore biblical personalities. Midrash is not exegesis, which seeks to extract meaning. Instead, midrash is a form of eisegesis, wherein meaning is given. The beauty of doing a group midrash is you get to hear a variety of voices all give their take on a single passage. 

In my very first month at Wesley I was accused of being a midrash-fangirl. While this statement is somewhat of a hyperbole, I do enjoy a good midrash. So, I thought I would post mine in the hope that something I've said will resonate with you, or perhaps cause a rupture that leads you to deeper truth. 

Given 15 minutes, we were asked to listen and then reflect on John 10:22-30.
The Sheep.
A sheep, on his way to the slaughter, overheard the words of Jesus as he walked through the temple. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” the teachers of the law asked him. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” The sheep, intrigued, lifted up his head to hear Jesus’ reply; even as it bumped and scraped across the cold floor of the temple through which he was being dragged.

The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” 
Hearing this, the sheep bellowed; hoping Jesus would recognize his voice and save him from the altar. Again and again he bleated, “Oh Lord, I am your sheep! Save me! Look how they have snatched me from your Father’s hand!”

But Jesus carried on teaching and admonishing; all the while unable to recognize the voice of the very sheep he brought to sacrifice.

As the sword traveled along its short path of destruction towards the sheep’s throat, he thought he heard the voice of Jesus — muffled by the crowds— proclaim: “The Father and I are one.”

By then it was finished.
Jesus’ sacrifice had been made. 

Reflection: 

In the John 10 passage, Jesus is walking through the temple in Jerusalem on the Feast of Dedication — known today as Hanukkah (v.22). As he walks, some folks gather around to ask about his messiahship. Jesus (like he does) gives them a vague and nuanced answer. But according to Jesus, his identity is clearly identified by those who believe. This group cannot believe because they do not belong to his sheep (26), but Jesus' sheep can hear his voice, he knows them, and they follow him (v.27). From this point on, he makes all sorts of claims about keeping them in eternal life and saving them from being "snatched" out of his Fathers hand (v.28-29). Jesus' monologue ends with: "I and the Father are one."  

In the past, I've heard sermons based on this passage focus on the intimate relationship between Jesus and his sheep. There is something almost romantic about the sheep being able to recognize the shepherd's voice. Earlier in chapter 10 Jesus calls himself the "good shepherd." But sitting in class after Monday's Boston Marathon bombing, I wasn't ready to see this passage through rose colored glasses. At this point, I'm not sure I'm ready to call Jesus good again. 

My parable of "The Sheep" is a reflection on the mutuality of our relationship with Jesus. We can recognize the voice of the good shepherd, but can he recognize ours? Because surely if he did our prayers and laments from this past week would not go unheard, or unanswered. Yet when I put myself in the shoes of the victims families, I imagine screaming into a dark abyss for the God who can make meaning out of meaningless, only to hear the echo of my own voice. Hollow, abandoned, deserted... 

The saddest part of this story (in my opinion) is when you realize the sheep going to slaughter was offered by Jesus himself. Jesus, whose presence is supposed to mean a year of Jubilee —a release for the captives— is still contributing to the burnt offering. The literal sheep of the story embodies the metaphorical sheep of Jesus' teaching. If we are the sheep in this passage, then in my parable Jesus is giving us up to be sacrificed. So while we like to think Christ's sacrifice has paid for the heavy wages of sin, that death has lost its 'sting,' sometimes it still feels as if we are the ones left to pay. Death still stings. 

There are all sort of other allusions I think this parable is making, but I will finish my thought process here. I pray for the victims and their families, and for consolation in the midst of unwarranted suffering. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Crescendo

As part of my Spiritual Formation class, I'm required to visit a local non-profit with a small group of peers. This past week I visited the Father McKenna Center (a Jesuit run day shelter for homeless men) for a final time before the end of the semester. I chose the Father McKenna Center for a number of reasons, not least of which is the feeling of genuine concern for these men I get from the staff and volunteers.

Perhaps one of the more unique features of the center, is their midday "check in" group. During this time, the men (numbering in the 40s and 50s) share their feelings, anxieties, joys, and dreams with the group. A moderator oversees the meeting, answering technical questions about affordable housing or job training, and sometimes delivers a motivational message. In general, I tend to be suspect of self-help style pep talks. In my opinion, they have a propensity to communicate the destructive myth that your value comes from what you produce. However, I rather liked the message this last moderator had to deliver.

Speaking of his time on the street, he told the guys about his desire to reach a daily crescendo. Crescendo, of course, is a term used to describe the dramatic build up (usually in music) that leads to a final resolution. The speaker went on to say that over time drug abuse and random acts of violence desensitized him to a "normal" pattern of life. He was addicted to having an adrenaline rush, so for this reason he sought out highly dangerous and emotionally-charged situations. He found it difficult to let a day go by without incident.

After beginning a recovery program and landing a job with a steady income, he struggled with the uneventful nature of normality. One day, he says his brother sat him down and said: "You wake up in the morning and go to work. You come home, eat dinner, watch some TV, and go to sleep. If you're lucky on the weekends you can set work aside and catch a movie or something. This is normal life."

Compared to a daily crescendo of gun violence and other illegal activity, a little dinner and some TV sounds like a good alternative to most of us. But he confessed normalcy was actually a loss he had to grieve.

The more I think about this bizarre idea of "crescendo," the less I see it operating outside of what I expect from my own life. There's something about the nature of life that causes us to feel as if it is building up to something important. I suppose for some of us singles that "thing" is marriage; or if you're married, having kids. For others it might be a successful career, or even attaining a certain physical appearance. Essentially, we think of life "in the meantime" as a drumroll for what will ultimately give our existence meaning.

But I think the truth is that life, is just life. There is no intensifying movement towards an ultimate "resolution," at least not one that is capable of satisfying us in an eternal sense. Operating under an "if-then" paradigm (e.g. IF I get this job, THEN I will be happy) will always disappoint us because it promises what it cant deliver.

I think there's something to be said for the mundane details of our everyday lives.

I see the value of this sentiment most clearly when I reflect on my Dad's current health situation. Fully aware he will never have the physical capacity to achieve one of these "crescendo" moments we wait so fruitlessly for, he is holding onto life for the moments we so often take for granted: trips to the grocery store, making coffee, getting up early to go to work, staying up late to tell stories... All of these innocuous moments are precious because this is the stuff of life. On the surface they seem of little value, but in the finite reality of our humanity they should resonate as invaluable.

Every time I act as if my days are a "crescendo" and then they don't live up to what they've promised, I feel myself losing sensitivity to the present. When we can accept that life isn't actually building towards anything, we set ourselves free from the lie that what we have today is less than what we could have some day. 

Perhaps Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best, when he said: "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."

God rid me of my lofty expectations for the consolation of a simple life humming with reverence.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Resurrection

What does the resurrection have to do with my life now, today?

This question has been hounding me for the past week. 

On Easter, we tend to use vague religious vocabulary to explain the cosmic implications of the resurrection — aka. how God is putting the  world back together. 

But how is God putting me back together?

Truthfully, I don't know how Christ's resurrection works in my life. But on days like today, I like to think it has something to do with eating large quantities of jelly beans in rehab. 


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Gospel According to William Shakespeare: Loving God on Valentine’s Day


One Valentine’s Day while I was living in England, I gave out little cards and gifts to people at my work. I thought my peers would appreciate the gesture, but instead of gratitude what I got in return were looks of awkward confusion. As it turns out, in England Valentines Day is exclusively celebrated among couples. Translation: I had inadvertently hit on every one of my coworkers.

It seems to me Valentines Day has become a rather divisive holiday. A day once meant to spread the message of universal love, is now increasingly limited to people in romantic relationships. This has not gone over well with militant singles that annually come out in protest of V-day — wearing all black, and replacing romcom movie nights with stomach turning horror flicks.
            While I feel boycotting Valentine’s Day (or Single’s Awareness Day, if you like) is an over-reaction, I do think something must be said about our cultures affinity to elevate romantic love above every other kind of affection. 
A number of years ago, I heard a fascinating talk called “Your story and the Gospel of Jesus,” wherein author Donald Miller argues: “If we take Christian theology out of the context of love story, they die.” Further, he says our love stories don’t even make sense without first understanding God’s love towards us —or as scripture puts it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 14:19, nrsv). It is impossible, the bible says, to experience love outside of its very source: God. Therefore shouldn’t love for God be included in our February 14th celebration?
One of the greatest love stories in English literature is the Shakespearian play Romeo and Juliet. In the aforementioned talk, Miller compares R&J to the Christian gospel.        His theory is that the classic balcony scene is actually Shakespeare’s illustration of Christian conversion: meaning, being “born again” is as much like falling in love as it is making a conscious decision.
            The tension of R&J centers on a bitter conflict between two warring aristocratic families, the Montague’s and the Capulet’s, in Verona, Italy.  Romeo, a Montague, sneaks into the Capulet’s party and falls in love at first sight with the youngest girl, Juliet. She likewise falls in love with Romeo, but the star-crossed lovers know they can never be together unless they cut themselves off from their families. In Act II Scene II, Juliet walks out onto her balcony and says:

O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

Juliet acknowledges if it were not for Romeo’s connection to his family (his name) they could be united. She understands the enmity between their families is too great. The only way to be together is the total rejection of their identities. Therefore she promises to reject her family if he will do likewise:

Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Unaware Romeo is hidden below the balcony listening, he quietly responds, saying:

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

 In the Bible, names are often synonymous with a person’s nature. When a character experiences a fundamental shift in identity they are given a new name to mark the transformation (eg. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc…). The character has to give up their old nature to fully embrace a new one. Thus, what does it mean when Romeo says he’ll be new baptized? Essentially Romeo is experiencing conversion. He is laying down his identity in order to be unified with the one he loves. In that process he will become someone new. Jesus essentially asks the same thing when he commands:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26, nrsv).

When we consider R&J denying their families to be with one another we think ‘what a beautiful example of true love!’ However, when we hear Jesus demand this of his disciple’s we think, “Isn’t Jesus asking a little much here?” Yet it is essentially the same command. This is what happens when we read the bible outside the lens of a love story.
            Jesus explains that to be united to him we have to deny every other allegiance, this is what the apostle Paul means when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20a). When you become a Christian it’s a transformation that utterly rejects identification with sin. Through baptism we’re united to Christ, who becomes our sole identity.

Later in the play, Juliet asks Romeo who he is, to which he responds:

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am:
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee;
Had I it written, I would tear the word.

Shakespeare uses Romeo to show the need for repentance. To become one with our bridegroom Jesus, we have to totally renounce sin, because sin is what separates us from God. Jesus is a jealous lover who desires fidelity. Similarly, Romeo cannot even stand to think about his old family name because it separated him from Juliet.

Unlike most of our contemporary love stories, Shakespeare’s does not end with the lovers vow of commitment to one another. Because of their circumstances, R&J can only truly be together in death —and so they commit suicide. We see a reflection of this in Romans 6,

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
True love between God and us requires our death: thankfully, this time it is metaphorical. When we reject our sinful nature it is a sort of death of self. The good news is God promises our death will lead to a resurrection.
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God… And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

Just as R&J commit an act of mutual destruction for love’s sake, Jesus gives his life for us and invites us to do the same.

The bible describes what it looks like to radically love God in this manner, when Jesus commands us to love the least of these. How can you love God this Valentines Day? Well, it can also be said this way: how can you love the homeless folks in your city? Or the children in title 1 schools? Or the person whose been rejected because of their sexual orientation? Author/Pastor Rob Bell says, “How you love God is how you love others.”

May you remember your first love this Valentine’s Day, realizing every relationship is a picture of this grander reality. May this recognition lead you to serve the least of these. And may you be but sworn by love.