Monday, August 27, 2012

Pain, Privilege, and the Call of the Comfortable

Last Wednesday at Johns Creek UMC marked the first session of a four-week class on Howard Thurman's seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited. I am facilitating the class.

Let me say at the outset that while I love this book, I do not accept every word of Thurman's as Gospel truth. I have some quibbles with his Christology, for one thing. But as the class has begun reading together, I have been very pleased to learn that there are at least several people who have found the book as eye-opening as I have.

I must admit that not only am I pleased that people are finding the book life-giving, but I am also surprised anyone signed up for the class in the first place! My surprise just speaks to my own prejudices, of course, but it is legitimate surprise, for at the heart of Thurman's argument is the notion that God is on the side of those who are disinherited. As a white American who comes from relative wealth, this means, of course, that God may not be on my side.

Now, before I dive into just what it means that God may not be on my side, let me acknowledge that this idea smarts a little. There is something of American Christianity so programmed into me that I have always lived with the assumption that the God who lives in my heart is inherently on my side: God wants what I want and roots for me every step of the way. It is as God is my own personal Dr. Phil.

But I am reminded of the great line in the movie I Heart Huckabees, in which a child says to Mark Wahlberg, "Jesus is never mad at us if we live with him in our hearts," to which Wahlberg says, "I hate to break it to you, but he is. He definitely is."

This is not to deny the Christ-within-me, nor is it some self-defeating impulse that makes me want God to be mad at me. It is simply an acknowledgement that while God does love me, having the image of God within me is not the same thing as driving all of God's actions and preferences. God can deeply love me and disagree with me at the same time. I trust you have at least one personal relationship in which this kind of disagreeing love is made manifest.

Still, it hurts. The idea that there are situations in which God is not on my side hurts. I've given my life to this work, after all. I take it seriously. I hope you do, too.

But pain is only an indication of inflammation, the first sign that something is wrong. There is nothing wrong with pain itself, but pain points to something which needs adjusting. If God is not cruel (and I believe, deeply, that God is love), then I think there is a message in that pain.

You could ignore the pain, I suppose: you can pretend it is not there. That is a coping strategy, and it is a popular one. Many Christians--especially those of us in the United States--suppress the pain that comes from the incongruity between the things God calls for and the ways in which we live our lives. That pain is also made manifest in humanity, in our broken relationships.

But we ignore that pain at our own peril. Think of the two kinds of pain we wrestle with daily: psychological and physical. The inability to deal with psychological pain is called suppression, and the problem with most suppression is that it does not work. Until you (forgive my lay language here) deal with your stuff, your life's balance will remain out of whack. Your pain will present itself in different ways.

Or think of physical pain. You ignore that pain in your chest at your own peril, for it is often a sign of deeper damage going on. It is best, in each case, to deal with the pain, to admit to its presence, to explore the reasons behind it.

So why are we so unwilling to deal with religious pain, that pain that comes when what we want for ourselves and what God hopes for humanity are not the same thing?

And so we arrive back at the problem, which is that if I take the Gospel message seriously, I must acknowledge that there are situations in which God is not on my side. There are structures in which I participate that are inherently unjust. There are times in which my own well-being stands in opposition to those whom Jesus calls "the least of these, my brothers [and sisters]." I am pained by this admission, and yet, the pain points to the answer, which is to work such that the gap between who I am and those who are on God's side is shortened. The shorter the gap between me and the disinherited, the less pain I feel at being left out.

The solution is simple, and yet it is monumentally difficult. If we take the Gospel seriously, if we care to deal with the stuff of the Gospel, if we want to reflect God's great hope for humanity (which, I am convinced, includes the erasure of the cause of that great pain), we must shorten the gap. I do not mean to suggest that we ought to form some Marxist society. I am not even sure it requires that you follow Jesus's advice to the young man that he ought to sell everything he owned.

How about just starting with wrestling with your pain, doing what you can to find its root, diagnose the issue, and work to correct it? How about just building relationships with people outside of your own community? How about just beginning to think through what it means to be on God's side, and rather than complaining that this is all so very difficult, do (as Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said) worry less about whether God is on our side and figure out how to be on God's side?

Let me share how I am dealing with all of this. Stacey and I spent the week before last as New Clergy Fellows at the Chautauqua Institution, a religious/cultural/educational center on the banks of Lake Chautauqua, NY. During our week, we spent time with several new clergy colleagues from across the country. We talked about our ministries, worshiped together, learned from one another. We also had the opportunity to spend time in conversation with several religious leaders.

The chaplain for the week was the Very Rev. Tracy Lind, the dean of Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) in Cleveland. During one of her sermons, she asked us to think about the "question of your life." Later, in small group conversation, she asked us to share that question. I have forgotten the exact what in which I phrased this, but I said something like this:

I am trying to figure out the intersection of comfortable and uncomfortable. I want to be comfortable enough that I do not find myself split down the middle and rendered useless to myself or anybody. I want to be uncomfortable enough that I am attuned to cries of pain from those who have found themselves met with the business end of power's nightstick. I want to find that intersection of comfortable enough and uncomfortable enough.

Tracy's response to me was this: "I see that you are a straight white guy. That is a particularly important question with which you are wrestling, for the structures which have given you privilege stand in opposition to those who are not so fortunate."

Wrestling is painful. It is a difficult thing to acknowledge that the structures which have helped me succeed are, in many ways, unjust.

I would much rather suppress the pain, go along with my life and my personal, individualized faith and worry about myself. I would much rather pray only for things that will make me happy. I would much rather be my own God. But each time I come to Thurman, each time I come to the Gospels and hear Christ's call, each time I take Paul seriously when he calls the church the Body of Christ, I am reminded that there is a world beyond myself. I am reminded that God is relying upon all of us to accept God's kindom call.

This is, of course, too much to do alone. It is even too much for the church to do on its own. But for all that God expects of us, nowhere in scripture is it even implied that we must go alone. God goes with us.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Stacey and I have just returned from the Chautauqua Institution, a religious, educational, and arts center on Lake Chautauqua outside of Buffalo, New York. We were both fellows of the New Clergy program at Chautauqua, so we spent all week engaging speakers (and fellow new clergy) and thinking through issues of what it means to be the church, at this time, in the places in which we serve. I will have more to say about our time at Chautauqua as I am still processing the experience, but I do want to say something about the theme of the week's speakers: Radicalism.

Though Chautauqua is intentionally interdenominational and interfaith, much of the talk of the week centered around the notion that Jesus was, in fact, a radical. In particular, the three rabbis with whom we had the chance to meet spoke of the radical ways in which Jesus preached things that ultimately had him executed. I should note that I am frequently skeptical of those who describe Jesus in such a way that supports one political view or another (as Anne Lamott has said, you can be sure you have made God in your image when God starts to hate all the same people you do).

But if the ethics of Christ are more expansive and nuanced than any prevailing political sentiment, I do have to admit that I am having trouble finding any evidence that Christ was not actually a radical. The execution argument is pretty solid, as you don't publicly crucify someone unless they threaten the prevailing political culture (or at least, threaten to cause trouble for those doing the crucifying). Jesus very clearly stood up for those on the outside of polite society (he called them the "least," to be precise). I don't mean to suggest that he was some sort of violent extremist, of course--that is something else entirely.

I must also say that we in the United States have done a particularly good job of turning this radical Jesus into a much more palatable figure, such that in some corners, following Christ has become about either having a large group of people verbally assent to something they don't understatnd (as is the case in many misunderstandings of the Great Commission) or about filling pews in order to keep the doors open. While at Chautauqua, we heard hymn writer Brian Wren's plea that God "stir us, amid compulsive needs/ of counting heads and filling forms/ to focus faith on Christ, who leads/ through sunny days and sudden storms." This is an important reminder. Numbers are important, but so is true faith in the radical Christ.

Being a radical is difficult. You will not always have the support of your community. In fact, if you go after the injustices that infect society, you'll be definition have segments of society poised to actively work against you. But if we are going to profess that Christ is Lord, we're going to have to wrestle with the fact that taking Jesus seriously is part of the deal.

So be a radical. Stand against those structures of injustice. Stand up for those who need love the most. Share the love of Christ with everyone you meet. Repent, and believe the Gospel.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

On prayer

The more I think about my faith, the more I see the way in which once-distinct categories are blurred as they are set at the feet of God. Take "grace" for instance. I used to think of grace as only that which stands in the gap between my efforts and God's call. The more I think about grace, however, I realize that it is one of the biggest words I know, and a simple definition does not suffice. In many ways, grace is God's very presence, and I don't know how can pick from among twenty-six letters to describe that sort of thing.

Or take "prayer." I used to know exactly what prayer was. Prayer, as I understood it, was an oratory, private or public, that took the things I wanted and translated them into language God could understand. If you don't pray for it, you won't get it. If this reminds you of a child's conception of Santa Claus, well, I think you've got where I'm coming from.

This kind of laundry list of demands requests is prayer, I suppose, but it is also a misconstrual of creation and my place within it. When I simply tell God what I want God to do, when my only intention is to have God align God's heart to my own desires, I am only taking into account my needs, which while important, are apparently not the only needs around.

There is a connection to tend to, of course. My life is lived in connection with others and in connection with God, and I do not mean to hop up on some mystical, high-brow soapbox. I mean to suggest that rather than being a part of some wonderful, mystical, secret world-consciousness, I am literally in connection (relationship, community) with all that is, all that was, and all that will be. In Christian circles, we call this the great cloud of witnesses. I am affected by these connections, whether I want to admit them or not, and I ignore them at my own peril. If it is true that the church is the body of Christ, and if it is true that all people are God's children (I believe these things very deeply), then God is in these connections, drawing me closer to others, calling me to community. This drawing together is part of prayer, too, for it is an aligning of my heart with the heart of God, which sounds an awful lot like what I want to happen when I pray.

So I am learning to listen, to be in relationship, to see this connection as prayer. It is a scary thing, to be called out of yourself and towards God and others. For one, it means "I am praying for you" is probably a much more powerful statement than we could possibly realize. And though it is difficult, this business of following God, it is my prayer nonetheless.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When evil surfaces from the deep

It is a strange thing when one person with a gun can so quickly kill so many people, terrorizing millions in the process. Violence is nothing new, but it is not as if a single person can eliminate a room full of people in thirty seconds with a sword.

We live in strange times, as they say, and you almost want a new revelation, a new scriptural text that will tell you exactly what to do in the face of this kind of violence, this truly senseless business of taking a gun and slaughtering faithful people as they gather for worship. The only word I know that comes close to capturing my horror and sadness is "evil."

I resonate with the nephew of one of those killed in the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. When he heard of the shooting and the deaths, he told reporters, "It was like the heart just sat down."

I have written before of how to respond to tragedy.  Sometimes, it feels like the heart just sat down.

And yet, the feeling is not enough for those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, for as Paul says, there is a more excellent way. It is not enough to simply talk of these things, to simply feel heartbroken. When I hear of tragedy, I am tempted to retreat to inside myself. The world outside my body can seem so broken and complicated that I often feel as if I ought to just find the God that lives within me and worship that God. I feel as if I ought to sit in the comfortable reading chair in my study, reading books about how the God within me is mystically connected to the God within you, as if the reading is enough, as if in the reading I am honoring all God has for the world and for me.

I want, as always, to simply be in the presence of God without the distractions of the world, without the violence and heartbreak and unfinished business.

It is a funny thing, this inward turn. When all I do is try to honor the God within me without going beyond the reading and thinking and inward prayer, I find that I am not so much honoring God as honoring myself, for though I am certain that God lives within me, I am not as good at distinguishing God from my own desires as I would like. It is not long before I find myself worshiping a God who looks exactly like I do. While I quite like this God (I am fond of myself, after all), I am also quite certain that I am confusing my own desires for God's and there is perhaps no more dangerous instinct in all of creation.

I do not mean to disparage this inward turn. It is vital. But it is not enough, for while I can root out evil in myself, evil is greater than that which lies within me. There is evil in the world--there are shootings, and there is slavery, there is violence and poverty--and if all I do is sit in my comfortable red chair and read about such things, I am nothing but a roadblock to God's work for justice in the world. It is as if I acknowledge the presence of evil in the world and yet believe that there is nothing I can do but read about it. This kind of response does not do justice to God's goodness, nor God's pronouncement that creation is good.

The inward turn is vital, but it must be paired with an outward focus, for while I am gazing at my own navel, creation continues to hum, and God continues to call me outside of myself. When I face the world, I am forced to realize that perhaps my own biases are not God's biases and that I do not have a handle on Truth. When I am in community, I see that my own issues are reflected in others, such that I am not alone. I begin to see that there are problems greater than myself, there are places of deep need, there is a God who needs--needs!--me to get out of my chair and act.

We are called to be in relationship to others, to the world, to God, and not just in some ethereal sense. We are called to be in relationship in visceral way, in a way that has blood and dirt and disease, in a way that costs hard-earned money, in a way that hungers and thirsts for physical nourishment in addition to the bread of Heaven. We are called to defeat evil, not just despair over its presence.

So get to it. Go do the work of God. Share love. Work for justice. Go to the broken places. Send your money, but do not just send your money. Go and be there. Meet people who look different, who believe differently, who question your motives. Show so much love--real, tangible, heart-wrenching love--that your very face is transformed into that of Christ.

If this sounds difficult, well, it is, but when evil surfaces, we are called to do no less. To do otherwise is to admit that we are powerless in the face of evil--or worse, that God is--and this is a sure recipe for evil's triumph.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Hold up. We need to go back to basics.

If there is one thing I feel about the Chick Fil-A controversy, it is grief. I'm grieved at those who have been hurt, I'm grieved at the ways in which we are dealing with unpopular opinions, I'm grieved at those who can't seem to discuss the issue without demonizing everybody and their chicken sandwich.

Most of all, I am grieved at what seems like a total lack of understanding of what the church is and who Jesus calls us to be.

The church is not the group of people that support one restaurant or another. The church is not a special interest group, a group of people who vote one particular way. The church is not a place where people who think and look alike gather.

The church is the body of Christ, the place where God is worshipped, the group of people who gather and work and argue and push and pull and support one another when it seems like everything is falling apart. The church is the place where ideas are tested, where God's will is revealed in community, where justice for all people is prayed for and worked for, where children are taught the wonder of creation that God called good, where even the oldest generations are inspired to dream dreams about what better things are to come.

The church is the very body of Christ, and you cheapen it when you pretend that a bus full of youth traveling to a fast food resaurant counts as a mission trip (I am not making this up). You cheapen the church when you allow this kind of thing to become synonymous with what it means to follow God, but of course this is what happens when you are only interested with filling your worship space, with pushing your agenda, with increasing your power.

Yes, we need people. Yes, the church needs to reach out to a hurting world, and there are a multitude of ways in which we can share the love of God with others. But there is more to "being church" than butts in seats. There is more to being the body of Christ than supporting one cause or another. The church is a far more difficult, mystical being. Let's reach out in love, but let's also have integrity about what we believe. Let's make sure the faith we share has depth to it, has flesh on its bones. Let's make sure that the faith we share isn't just some retooled version of our own biases and values. Let's acknowledge the difficult, maddening, frustrating, fulfilling, world-changing love of Jesus.

So today, I'm celebrating Jesus Apprecation Day. I'm going to be about the work of feeding the hungry, giving (clean) water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, being present with the prisoner, seeing that the sick are treated with adequate care--and with dignity, sheltering the homeless, reminding the world (and the church!) that each person has within him or her the image of God, and doing everything I can to ensure that everybody knows that Jesus loves them, deeply, and that they ought to love that way, too. And if Jesus wants me to keep going, I may not even stop once tomorrow rolls around.