Category: Suffering

There, But for the Grace of God…

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people, close to home and from afar, comment that they’ve appreciated my reflections and stories that emerge out of Monday mornings spent at the jail. I’ve obviously appreciated the affirmation, even as I sometimes privately wonder if I’m dancing a little too close to the line of voyeuristically exploiting the pain of hard stories to make a bit of theological hay. In my more optimistic moments, I believe these stories need to be told to bring a bit of humanity into a place where stereotypes and casual dismissiveness abound, to shine a light on the glimmers of hope, to bear witness to the sadness, etc.; at other times, I wonder if I’m doing little more than wordily rubbernecking as I pass the scene of a car wreck.
I’ve been thinking about one particular question I was recently asked about these posts from the jail. It was a simple one: “Why? Why do you naturally gravitate toward these stories? Why do they seem to bring something different out of you than other kinds of writing?” I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’m not sure I have a great answer yet. But a first stab at it would go something like this.
I think the stories, the people, and the general stark realities of the jail are a kind of extreme microcosm of the human condition. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in jail is that the lines that we like to draw between “criminals” and “law-abiding citizens” is not nearly as clean as we like to imagine. The people I encounter each week at the jail are not some unique category of humanity that needs to be hidden from contact with “normal” people (except in extreme circumstances). They are people. People who have done bad things, certainly. Sometimes very bad things. But people all the same.
Every human being who makes their way in the world exists at the intersection of personal responsibility and an external world that impinges upon us in countless ways. We are in control and we are out of control. We choose and there are choices made for us. We act and we are acted upon. But of course, not all of our actions are constrained to the same degree or by the same factors.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in jail struggles with addictions of some sort. And what is addiction but a way of coping with pain? The pain of absent or abusive parents, dysfunctional social structures, the pain of failure and despair, the pain of ignorance, of not knowing how to make better choices, of never having anyone model what a well-lived life might look like. Most of us are better at hiding the ways in which we self-medicate to dull the pain of existence than those in jail are. We often have access to social and relational safety nets that they don’t. Our addictions come in more socially approved forms. But we all have our ways of escaping from difficulties that seem like more than we can bear.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in jail struggles with impulse control and anger, at least on some level. They have burned bridges that they desperately wish they could cross back over. They want to do better, but they keep lashing out. Those of us on the outside have perhaps learned better skills for keeping our impulses and urges and volatile emotions under wraps or expressing them in less obviously destructive ways, but we do not inhabit some separate category of human experience where these things are foreign to us.
Many people I’ve met in jail have experienced debilitating racism for their entire lives. They have grown up in communities where indigenous people have been ridiculed, misunderstood, mistreated, and neglected. They have inherited the pain of a long history of colonialism that has spun out into all kinds of chaos and addiction in family structures and misguided coping mechanisms. I think that this is something that is impossible to fully understand from the outside looking in.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in jail has wandered down dangerous and destructive paths at least in part as a response to a hunger for love, belonging, and acceptance. I am regularly struck by how the men and women in jail so frequently go back to some childhood trauma. Those who were supposed to protect them, didn’t. Those who were supposed to teach and guide them, neglected the task (or didn’t know how to do it). Those who were supposed to give love, belittled and mistreated. Those who were supposed to provide a bedrock of safety and security provided an environment that was precarious and unreliable at best. Those who were supposed to be cherished were treated as inconvenient impediments. So many of the people I meet in jail found themselves in the wrong beds, with the wrong friends on the wrong streets, making the wrong choices, at least on some level, because they were so desperate to find somewhere where they belonged and where someone at least gave the illusion of caring about them.
The above comments aren’t true across the board, of course. There are exceptions. There are those who say, “I had a good story, good parents, etc., I just f***ed up.” I am painting with broad strokes here. But the overall trends are real, and they are both necessary and painful to bear witness to.
I guess, in short, I am drawn to the jail because it’s where the human condition is laid most starkly bare. It’s a place where the illusions and pretense that most of us hide our darker selves behind is stripped away and where the conversations get pretty real, pretty honest, and pretty unfiltered very quickly.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I” is a phrase that I tend to avoid (it just seems like a different way of saying, “There, by the grace of God, goes that poor sucker!”), but I sometimes leave the jail feeling something like this. I’m not so different from these people. I’ve received a few breaks that they haven’t. I’ve had a few more good people in my corner. I’ve had positive choices reinforced more than negative ones. But I’m regularly struck, when sitting around the circle in the jail, by how we’re a lot more similar than dissimilar. There we sit, sinners every one of us, hungry for love, for forgiveness, for grace, for mercy and longing to live lives that reflect these things better than we’ve managed so far.

Syndicated from Rumblings

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When the Water is Troubled

By the pool of Beth-za’tha and its remedial waters is where Jesus came across the invalids. Many of them, apparently. The blind, the lame, the paralyzed. The broken and discarded pieces of humanity that were and are easy to walk by. But not Jesus, of course. Jesus summons such people to life. Jesus says things like, Stand up. Take your mat. Walk.

There’s no pool at the dementia ward. Just doors with security codes and heavy iron bars. Hand sanitizer stations and signs with rules and regulations for visitors. That kind of thing. I walk to my friend’s room to say hello. I know he won’t recognize me—he hasn’t for some time—but I’m in the neighbourhood. And it is, after all, nice to say hello.

I open the door and cast a glance to the bed, the chair. Both empty. The bathroom light is on but nobody there either. Old country music is blaring from the TV, but no sign of my friend. I’m about to leave when I see him there, splayed out on the floor, right in front of me, just behind his walker, pants around his ankles, legs tangled up in a telephone cord, moaning softly. My heart sinks and I want to weep at the sight. It is heartbreaking and undignified as scenes get.

A nurse enters at that moment and shrieks. I can’t tell if it’s horror? Compassion? Guilt? Maybe all of the above. More attendants are summoned, I am asked to wait outside. With some difficulty, they get him off the floor, clean him up. He’s not injured, but he’s irritated, swinging, refusing, muttering angrily. We’re just trying to help! they desperately plead. But he doesn’t want them, and he doesn’t want their kind of help.

Eventually, I’m allowed in. He’s in bed, under the covers, eyes darting wildly around. I say hello, ask him if he remembers me, ask him if he’s ok. A thin smile appears, then recedes. A few disconnected words trickle out of his mouth, but nothing that penetrates the dense fog. You look… “Familiar?” I opine, hopefully. No, you look… He smiles and turns his head toward the window.

I sit there for a few moments. I think about Jesus by the pool, Jesus with the broken pieces, Jesus who calls into being things that are not, Jesus who picks people up off the floor and sends them on their way rejoicing. I think about the question he asks. Do you want to be made well? Well of course, Jesus. Kind of an insensitive question, don’t you think? Who wouldn’t? Whether you’re splayed out in on the floor of the dementia ward or in the portico by the pool, nobody wants to stay there. Everyone wants to get up, surely.

I look around. I wish for a healing pool and for an angel to trouble the waters.

I look back at my friend. “Do you want me to read for you?” I ask. He looks vacantly past me. I walk over to his bookshelf and pick up a dusty copy of the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version. I show him the book. “Do you know which book this is?” I ask. He smiles and shakes his head. I think back to his earlier days, to theological discussions, to lively debate, to speculative interpretations. I sigh.

I turn to the fifth chapter of John’s gospel and begin reading. I read about the invalids, the broken pieces lying on the floor. I read Jesus’ famous question and the man’s response. No one’s there to put me into the pool when the water is troubled… I think about my friend lying, moaning on the floor, with no one there to help… I read the stirring conclusion: Stand up, take your mat and walk!! I read that part with a bit of extra gusto. Maybe even a bit of helpless rage.

I look over at my friend when I read that last line. He’s grinning.

He looks over at me when I close the bible. He leans over and whispers, “Was that… you?” I ponder this question for a minute. Is he asking me if I’m the man who was healed in the story? If I was the one doing the healing? If I was the one reading from the fifth chapter of John’s gospel from the Revised Standard Version? If I was the one who helped him off the floor earlier? If I was the one who cleaned him up? Is this just another random assortment of words connected to nothing in particular? Who can say?

“Yeah,” I say on a whim. “It was me.”  

He smiles more broadly and says, “You’re lucky.”

Syndicated from Rumblings

Unstuck

There are questions that I encounter as a pastor that haunt me. I’m not necessarily thinking about the “usual suspects” here. Questions about the existence of God or why we suffer or the challenge of pluralism or the historicity of this or that biblical story or the conundrums of interpreting this or that passage or doctrine. These all represent familiar enough terrain and present their own challenges to faith. But the questions I’m thinking about today are much more personal in nature.
I’m thinking of questions like, “I’m afraid to die—does this mean my faith is weak?” or “What do I do with my crushing loneliness?” or “Why are people so mean to me? Is something wrong with me?” These are the kinds of questions to which the first (and sometimes last) response is often just a sad shared silence. This is life and faith beyond abstraction, beyond “belief system,” beyond words like “ritual” and “shared practices” and “wisdom.” These questions emerge out of a wound not an idle curiosity or even an existential hunger. I am, it probably goes without saying, more comfortable with abstraction. I suspect many of us are.
The latest haunting question came recently at the jail. A young indigenous woman leaned forward with tears in her eyes and interrupted more prosaic streams of conversation with this: “Can I ask a question? I don’t know how to say it, but… I really wanna know. How do I get unstuck? I’m so tired of making the same mistakes, going back to the same people and problems. I don’t want to, but… So, I don’t know… I guess I just wanna know how to get unstuck.” Her words dripped with urgency, longing, dread, and pain.
The “experts” in the room—the chaplain, the volunteer, the pastor—stumbled and bumbled toward a response. We acknowledged how hard it is. We talked of incremental change and the importance of community. We talked about how God is “present in the journey” (and possibly shuddered while saying it). But sometimes even true things can sound hollow in certain contexts. It’s one thing to feel like you’re in a rut at work; it’s quite another to feel stuck in patterns of addiction and abuse and relational chaos and poverty and incarceration. Some patterns seem more daunting than others. We are not all equally stuck.
And yet, I suspect that even as I grieved for the specific ways in which this young woman was stuck, I was also recognizing myself and many of my peers in her words. I suspect we all get to a certain point in life where the word “stuck” can easily creep into our vocabulary.  Passion for the job seems more elusive, the sizzle of a marriage wanes, faith seems remote and inacessible. In whatever domain of life, we settle into familiar and predictable rhythms. We realize that there are things about our lives, our communities, our world that are rather hard to change.
I was talking with my wife about this recently. Statistically, I suppose we’re at about the halfway mark of life. Of course, we could have far less than this but, you know, statistically… What do we want to accomplish? What should we be devoting these next decades (God willing) to? Is “accomplishment” even the right word to be using in pondering the road ahead? We spend so much time educating, accumulating, working, and thinking ourselves into some conception of the “good life” (house, kids, money in the bank, securing the right social standing, etc.). It’s easy, as David Brooks says in his latest book The Two Mountains, to “become strangers to [our] own desires.” Getting stuck is the easiest thing in the world to do.
I thought of all these things as I drove home from the jail on Monday. I thought about how it’s not just individuals that get stuck, but relationships, businesses, churches, institutions, even cultures. And I prayed. For all who feel stuck and for all the ways in which we need to get unstuck to live the lives we were created for. For all who are spinning their wheels and yearning to find that place in the world where they can contribute in meaningful and life-giving ways, where they can love and be loved well.
But mostly, I prayed for this dear young woman who so desperately wants to walk down better paths. The words felt useless as they fell off my lips. My prayer for her felt more like an inarticulate ache for the fullness of life that she so obviously longed for, and against which so many factors in her life conspired. It’s not vocational satisfaction or personal fulfillment on the line for her. It’s almost literally life and death.
Prayer can feels like a feeble offering indeed in the face of human pain, but as hard as it can be to pray, I often find it harder not to. I simply held her tear-stained face in my mind and pleaded on her behalf to the One who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst…” I said, “Well, God, you say “blessed are…” so can I please call in a blessing for one of your dear children? And not a pious abstraction, if you please. Not a hypothetical future happiness but something for a pretty screwed up present. And if you need someone to tag along as you bless, I’d be happy to help.”
——
Image source. 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Genesis

I left the jail this morning feeling a heaviness that I have not felt in some time. I don’t go there each Monday with some big agenda—I’m not there to reform or convert or instruct, but to listen, to pray, to encourage. But most days, I get a glimpse of goodness through a conversation, a smile, a new insight into the human heart and the human predicament. Today was not one of those days.
Travis* was the only one who came to the meeting today. There were rumours of others who might join, but he came alone, looking slightly apprehensive, a sly grin poking around the edges of his mouth. He was tall, lean, young, and strong. Twenty years old, jet black hair perfectly manicured in the fashion of the day, tattoos and scars peeking below the rolled-up sleeves of his coveralls. He offered his story in bits and pieces over the next hour or so. He grown up on a reserve north of Edmonton, one of sixteen kids in a patchwork family thrown together by the various configurations his parents had found themselves in over the years. Dad abused mom, mom abused him as an outlet for her pain, he abused right back, swearing, stealing, leaving, coming back. Kicked out of the house at fourteen and then bounced around the city with siblings.
“I got behaviour issues,” he says. “I yell when I get excited, only when I get excited. I say what I don’t want to say, and I can’t say what I want to say.” He leans back on his chair, eyes restlessly darting around the room. He hasn’t seen his mom for two years, has no idea about his dad, doesn’t really care. He’s got two kids of his own, he says. I look at him and smile. He reminds me of my son—big, kind, unpredictable hard to read sometimes. He told me he played football and basketball and volleyball when he was younger. “I liked sports, he said, “I was good at them.” His voice trailed off. My heart ached for this big kid, impossibly already a father.
“What are your kids’ names?” I ask. “My daughter’s name is Genesis,” he replies. “My son… um, I don’t know. His mom won’t talk to me… I think he’s mine, I don’t know.” He looks down as an awkward silence descends. “Genesis,” I say, “that’s a cool name. Do you know what it means?” He smiles, “Yeah, it means like new beginning or something, right?” I smile. “Yeah, that’s right, Travis…”
He goes on to tell us that he has Tourette’s. He’s never been formally diagnosed, he’s never even told anyone, but he’s pretty sure that’s why he finds everything so hard, why he’s always getting into trouble, why he can’t fit in and just behave himself. I think of a boy growing up on a reserve, impossible family situation, with a condition that nobody knows about, constantly getting into trouble, nobody knowing how to help, how to make anything better, how to try something different.
I think about what might happen when he gets out in a few months. I think about the religious words I traffic in—words like “hope” and “love” and “change” and “freedom” and “redemption.” I look over at Travis, head down, eyes on the floor, all alone in a circle of churchy do-gooders trying to “make a difference.” The words don’t seem to fit. I think of the cycles of violence and addiction and dysfunction that he has been raised in, of the structures and systems that relentlessly discriminate against his people, of the innumerable things that are working against him. It’s too much, I think. Who can climb out from under all that?
During yesterday’s sermon I reflected on what Jesus might have been experiencing as he sat outside the gates of Jerusalem, taking his first steps toward his inevitable death. I focused on the human emotions and experiences that might have been roiling around in his head. I reflected on these things through the lens of Psalm 31 and landed on the hopeful truth that God knows what it’s like to be human.
I preached these words:

Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be deeply and persistently misunderstood.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be betrayed by people that you love, people you had poured the best part of yourself into, people you expected better from, people from whom you had hoped for more.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be afraid, to have that sinking feeling of dread in your stomach, to have your mouth go dry and your strength fail.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to feel helpless and angry at the inevitability of how things tend to go.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to feel like the bad guys always win.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to feel used—to be loved and adored only when you’re giving people what they want, when you’re putting on a show.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be abandoned and to feel utterly alone.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be mocked, ridiculed, dismissed.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be seen as a failure.
Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to suffer and to die.
These are some of the hardest things we experience as human beings. And because of Jesus, God not only knows what they feel like, but enters right into them with us.
God knows what it’s like to be human from the inside.
Because of Jesus.

I said these words yesterday morning to a room full of mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly Christians. And they felt hopeful and good and true. They still do. Mostly.
But would these words be of any use to Travis? I desperately want to believe that they would, and I hope to get the chance to tell him. But they felt hollow as I walked out of the jail this morning. I felt like weeping for all the Travis’ of the world who seem to barely have a chance.
I thought about Travis’s daughter, the one he hoped to meet one day.
Genesis.
That’s the only religious word that seemed to fit today.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Bigger Barns

Another Monday morning, another trip to the jail. Again, only two guys show up. There was a third who just about made it, but he transgressed on the walk to the chapel (he said hi to someone in an adjacent classroom, which is not permitted, and which led to a voice over the loudspeaker just as he was entering the chapel: “Back to the unit…”). So, only a few plastic chairs occupied in the circle this morning.
Today’s passage seemed an odd fit, given the particular souls in attendance. It was the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12:16-21. A man doesn’t have enough barns to store his agricultural bounty, so he decides that a building project is in order. Once he has somewhere for all of his surplus grain, he can kick back and settle into the good life he has created for himself. The punch line comes when God says, “You fool, this very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” As far as warnings against greed go, it’s an effective story.
But the story seems somehow stranger when it’s read by a young Blackfoot man in blue coveralls and orange plastic shoes. Jeremy* had a toothy smile that enveloped his whole face and seemed really excited to be at the group today. “I just spent six days in the hole,” he said, “so I’m happy to have someone to talk to… Six days all by yourself… You know the walls don’t really talk back. So I’m just glad to be here, man! I done a lot of thinking down there, man… I’m ready to turn things around.”
During introductions we had heard the broad outlines of Jeremy’s story. He had spent the last 3-5 years addicted on the streets. He couldn’t remember exactly how long—there was a stretch of time that was just a fog of drugs and pain. He figured it started when his dad and two of his younger brothers died, but he couldn’t remember exactly when that happened either. He fathered two kids while a teenager, but his mom (who had him at fifteen, too, thus becoming a grandma at thirty) takes care of them now and he hasn’t seen them much lately. “I grew up with a drunk for a dad,” he said, “and I hated to see my dad that way… I don’t want my kids to see my when I’m high.” He talked of having nowhere to sleep and owning nothing but the clothes on his back. He talked of stealing and lying to feed his addictions. He talked about burning so many bridges. “I hurt a lotta people, man.”
It was hard to imagine that the problem of what to do with his material excess was a pressing problem for Jeremy. I doubt he had spent much time thinking about building bigger barns. His life sounded like a desperate lurching from needle to needle, trying to mask the pain of a life of trauma. But he dutifully tried to answer the questions from the outdated devotional material. No, we shouldn’t be self-important. Yes, pride is a big obstacle to making things right with God and neighbour. No, we shouldn’t hoard our possessions… Yes, we need to learn how to trust… Sometimes I find myself wishing we could just put the curriculum away and sit with each other’s’ stories more.
Part way through our time together this morning, Jeremy had a story of his own to tell. “You know, I remember this one story that Jesus told… There was this rich guy who invited Jesus over to supper. And so he’s getting everything ready, right, because Jesus is an important guy to have over for supper… And then this young woman shows up at the rich guy’s house and she asks for something to eat. And the rich guy says, ‘Not now, I’m having Jesus over for supper soon.’ And then an old man shows up and he’s thirsty. The rich guy says the same thing, ‘No, Jesus is showing up for supper.’ So he waits and waits… But Jesus never shows up. The next day he meets Jesus on the street and says, ‘Why didn’t you come over to my house for supper last night?’ And Jesus says, ‘I did. I came twice, once as a young woman and once as an old man, but you didn’t let me in.’”
Jeremy smiled when he finished his story. “I always smile,” he says. “People say that my smile is contagious.” “It is,” I say. “It really is…”
I found myself thinking about Jeremy’s story more than Jesus’ story from Luke 12 as I drove home from the jail today. I wonder how often Jesus shows up at the door and we don’t let him in because we’re waiting for more esteemed looking guests. We might be off building bigger barns, or we might just be lazily recycling religious platitudes. There are all kinds of ways to store up imagined security for ourselves while avoiding the invitation to seek first the kingdom of God.
I don’t know how or where Jeremy heard the story he shared, but I have little doubt that it was Jesus who told it to him.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Egypt for Your Ransom

Only two guys showed up for the support group at the jail today. There had been some kind of a disturbance in the unit, apparently, and so it was twenty-five minutes past start time when the pair of them trudged in. One was an older guy who seemed reserved and didn’t say much. The other was a young Cree man who talked a mile a minute and seemed delighted to be anywhere other than his cell. Brandon* introduced himself to me three times, a vigorous handshake accompanying each introduction, before we settled in to the circle.
Today’s lesson was on what God thinks of us. We began by reading through a collection of bible verses and sharing around the circle what these verses said about our value and worth as God’s children. Brandon was eager for the opportunity to read out loud and to demonstrate that he knew his way around a bible (he waved away my attempts to help him find one passage—“Nah, man, I know what I’m doing. I was raised Catholic!”). After each passage, we were invited to say what, if anything, stood out to us in what we’d heard, and what it said to us about our value.
One of the first passages was Isaiah 43:1-5. It’s written not to individuals looking for a bit of spiritual inspiration but to the nation of Israel. It was a word delivered to a specific people called to a specific task in a specific time and place. We were no doubt committing all manner of exegetical sins in lining this passage up with a bunch of other context-free verses to build a case for the individual specialness of each human being. I could easily imagine my former hermeneutics professors shaking their heads at how we were using the bible. But no matter. We read our verses and then we opened it up for discussion. What stood out?
Brandon needed little encouragement to get us started. “I like that part, um, where is it… yeah, here, this part! I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. I like that. That’s true, that.” He looked around our little circle triumphantly. I smiled at the irony. That was precisely the part of the passage that I was cringing inwardly at. God evidently prefers Israelites to Egyptians and folks from Cush and Seba?! Or so Isaiah seems pleased to think, at any rate. Could there be a less welcome message in our hyper-sensitive times? The idea that some lives matter more than others? The idea that Israelite lives are more important to God than those of their neighbours? I wondered how a Palestinian Christian might read a passage such as this.
But then I looked back at Brandon and thought about the story he had shared a few minutes earlier. Born on “a rez in Saskatchewan,” a mother who beat the hell out of him before she died when he was seven, a dad who was never involved, drifted to Lethbridge as a teenager, lived on various couches for a few years, on the street for another, had a girlfriend but she died a year ago… Brandon didn’t say what he had done to land him in jail, but he didn’t really need to. That his life had been a hard one was not hard to tell. The scars on his face, the gap-toothed grin, the frantic behaviour… it all told a familiar and tragic story.
And in light of such a story, how welcome might the message be that someone loves you so much that they would even give Egypt for your ransom? How desperate might you be to hear words like, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you…?” Historical and literary context be damned! Who can muster a care about Cush and Seba when you’ve been on the wrong end of the score as long as Brandon has? Fussing about how poorly a bible passage lines up with more educated concerns is a luxury Brandon doesn’t really have. He’s been told his whole life, explicitly and implicitly, precisely where he fits in the grand scheme of things, which is to say, the bottom. And he’s lived into what he’s been told.
As our time drew to a close, Brandon asked each of us around the circle if we’d be back next week. It seemed really important to him that we committed to this. I said I would and asked him if he’d be back. He grinned widely and said, “Yeah, man” before bouncing out of the room, his mouth still running a mile a minute. I offered a silent prayer for myself and for him. For myself, I asked for forgiveness for reducing the bible to the smallness of my own history and preferred abstractions. And for Brandon, I prayed that he would make it until next week—that he would find refuge under the shadow of the wings of a God who would give even Egypt for his ransom.
——
* Not his real name. 

Syndicated from Rumblings

On Payback

On Friday night, I attended a vigil outside our local Islamic Centre that was held in response to the March 15 massacre of Muslim worshipers at Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an eclectic mixture of Muslims and Christians and conservatives and liberals and believers and unbelievers that gathered in a parking lot on a warmish early spring evening, and it was good to come together, to… well, to do what, exactly?
Vigils, historically, have been about devotional watching or observance throughout the night. They are often shared spaces for mourning and can include prayers, liturgies, Scriptures, etc. It almost goes without saying that such things are more complicated in pluralistic contexts like twenty-first century Canada. In the absence of theological or ideological unanimity, our vigils become spaces for speeches, signs, expressions of sympathy and solidarity, condemnations (white supremacy, Islamophobia, “hate,” etc.), and politicking. I appreciated many of the words offered on Friday night; others left me feeling hollow. The words probably aren’t really the thing at these events, anyway; smiles and hugs and handshakes and presence—these things say, “We are your neighbours and we are with you” than mere words.
But, back to the words. Surprisingly, among those I found myself pondering long after I left were those offered by a young Muslim woman. Her remarks had traversed the familiar terrain mentioned above, but then her words grew angrier. Contra the increasingly popular approach of refusing to name those who commit such acts of terror and thus depriving them of the notoriety they so crave, she repeatedely and unapologetically named the person who live-streamed his massacre of Muslims at prayer: Brendon Tarrant. She called him a monster. She prayed that Allah would pay him back for the evil he had done. Hers were the sort of words that tolerant, compassionate, Jesus-y folks who measure and guard their words carefully (like me) and who have Jesus-y words like “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” lodged inside of us at the neural level would be very hesitant to utter out loud.
And yet. I wonder how many of us who were there on Friday night would have been nursing precisely such thoughts in our hearts and minds in the aftermath of Christchurch (or any act of terror and violence that destabilizes and horrifies us). I hope that sonofabitch gets what he deserves! I hope he feels even a small measure of the pain that he has caused! If there is a God above or a devil below, I hope his evil is repaid in full! I hope he suffers for his ignorance, his malice, his sadistic impulses, his ugly racial tribalism, his naked craving of attention and fame. We don’t say such things aloud. We rehearse platitudes like “Love is stronger than hate.” We condemn “obias” and “isms” and “hate” and congratulate ourselves that such dark impulses don’t reside in our hearts. But we certainly hate the haters, along with the systems and ideologies that feed and are inflamed by them. I do, at any rate.
A few weeks ago, I was in a pastors’ gathering where we were trying to simply dwell with Scripture. Even the hard parts Not explain or interpret, not get busy applying. Just sit with a text and let it tell your story. At one point, our facilitator asked for an example of a passage that someone really struggled with to use as an example. “Psalm 137” came tumbling out of someone’s mouth almost immediately. Specifically, the last two verses:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

It is, to be sure, a cringe-worthy passage, particularly the last verse. The thought of someone taking pleasure in the murder of babies is horrible beyond description. Many of us would gladly expunge these verses from our Scriptures. They sound nothing like Jesus—indeed, they serve as about as helpful an object lesson of what Jesus condemned as anything you might hope to find. But we were asked to just sit with Psalm 137 for a few minutes. Not rush to explain it away. Not try to outdo one another in expressing our revulsion for it. Not frantically distance ourselves from its ugliness. Just sit with it.
And so I did. And for the first time, I was able to hear the awful ending of this psalm in the context of its beginning:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

For the first time, I thought of a weeping mother or father in exile who had, perhaps, lost her own child to the armies of Babylon. For the first time, I thought of what it might have been like to be ridiculed and tormented by captors who had taken everything from you. I tasted the hunger for vengeance in the psalmist’s voice. There is nothing more natural in the world than to long for those who inflict pain to experience it, whether in ancient Babylon or modern-day New Zealand or Mali or Nigeria or Gaza or ­________. The wounds are deep, and the rage and pain cannot but bubble to the surface. The young woman at the vigil on Friday night said what many of us are too polite to say out loud. Psalm 137 says what many of us are too pious to acknowledge. We long for vengeance. This is who we are.
At our best, we unpack these ugly impulses before God and leave them there. We say that vengeance belongs to God and not to us because we know we can’t be trusted with it. Human history is, in many ways, a story of vengeance writ large. We know, even as we acknowledge the darkness within, that a longing for vengeance cannot, must not be the last word. We know that the cycle of revenge has no end—that you simply cannot repay evil with enough evil to make it stop. We know that the righteousness of the violence always depends on which side of the it you’re on.
We know that “love your enemies” is a deeper, truer more hopeful word than “happy shall they be who pay you back.” Or at least we might be persuaded that it ought to be.

Syndicated from Rumblings

6 Things the Church Fathers Can Teach Us about Spiritual Warfare

Image by Christina Saint Marche via Flickr Unlike our thinking today about the source of good and evil in the world, the early church fathers, including Irenaus, Athenagorus, Origen, and others before Augustine, possessed a warfare worldview. Here are 6 ideas that are common in their writings: The Reality of the ...
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Syndicated from Greg Boyd – ReKnew

My Name is Lazarus

I’ve spent part of this morning sifting through a week’s worth of difficult conversations. Several dealt with the trials and tribulations of parenting adult children. What do you do when the kids you have poured years of yourself into seem determined to walk down destructive roads, when they have little interest in your values or hopes for them? What do when you see nothing but trouble on the horizon but feel powerless to do anything about it? How do you sustain hope when it feels like you are failing or have failed at one of life’s most important tasks?
Other conversations traversed the murky terrain of marriage—the many ways that we fail one another and fall so far short of what real love (as opposed to the saccharine fantasies served up by popular media) actually requires. We are so desperate for love, intimacy, connection, but often so utterly useless at doing the things required to secure these things for ourselves and to extend them outward. We can know, rationally, what has to happen, the steps that need to be taken for our relationships to improve, but we are wildly irrational creatures. We are driven by emotion and lust and pain and primal fear. We are terrified of being rejected and alone and we thwart ourselves at every turn.
Still others explored whether or not change is even possible for human beings. You get to a certain stage of life and you have a certain body of work to reflect back upon. You start to notice a fairly unimpressive record of meaningful change. Can we actually adjust course and do things differently? Or are we just a bunch of slaves to biological urges and impulses, stumbling through life trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain? Are we forever destined to return to the path of least resistance, no matter how many fitful successes we have along the way?
Each of these conversations felt, well, hard. There are no easy answers, no magic wand to wave struggles away. Life throws difficult stuff our way. We do not easily become the people we want to be, the people that others need us to be. Pastors are supposed to have the right answer, the right bible verse, the penetrating question at just the right moment. But in each of these conversations, I found myself mostly just thinking, “Yeah, this is really hard.” We want so much for ourselves and those we love—more, it seems, than we are capable of attaining.
This morning, I came across a marvelous sermon by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, preached two Sundays ago at Washington’s National Cathedral. The sermon is drawing a lot of attention because of Gerson’s vulnerability in sharing about his very recent depressive episode, and rightly so. But even beyond the courage that it took to share so personally and with such vulnerability, the sermon is a marvelous piece of writing and a powerful exposition of the Christian hope in the face of hard stuff.
The whole sermon is worth reading or watching, but particularly the second half where Gerson pivots from the specifics of his own experience to the human condition more generally. At one point, Gerson quotes G.K. Chesterton’s poem, “The Convert,“—a poem that beautifully holds out the hope that change is possible, that we can become, by the grace of God, what we were created to be, whether in a flash of divine light or in fits and starts along the way:

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Quite a line, that last one.
Evoking Chesterton’s poem, Gerson’s sermon ends, powerfully, thus:

I suspect that there are people here today—and I include myself—who are stalked by sadness, or stalked by cancer, or stalked by anger. We are afraid of the mortality that is knit into our bones. We experience unearned suffering, or give unreturned love, or cry useless tears. And many of us eventually grow weary of ourselves – tired of our own sour company.
At some point, willed cheerfulness fails. Or we skim along the surface of our lives, afraid of what lies in the depths below. It is a way to cope, but no way to live.
I’d urge anyone with undiagnosed depression to seek out professional help. There is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than to will yourself out of tuberculosis.
There are, however, other forms of comfort. Those who hold to the wild hope of a living God can say certain things:
In our right minds—as our most sane and solid selves—we know that the appearance of a universe ruled by cruel chaos is a lie and that the cold void is actually a sheltering sky.
In our right minds, we know that life is not a farce but a pilgrimage—or maybe a farce and a pilgrimage, depending on the day.
In our right minds, we know that hope can grow within us—like a seed, like a child.
In our right minds, we know that transcendence sparks and crackles around us—in a blinding light, and a child’s voice, and fire, and tears, and a warmed heart, and a sculpture just down the hill—if we open ourselves to seeing it.
Fate may do what it wants. But this much is settled. In our right minds, we know that love is at the heart of all things.
Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.
So how do we know this? How can anyone be so confident?
Because we are Lazarus, and we live.

——
The image above is Rembrandt’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” painted between 1630-32.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Perhaps We Will Have to Suffer

A few days ago, I was invited with a handful of other “clergypersons” to lunch at a local seniors home. I accepted the invitation—I thought it would be a chance to meet a few seniors, perhaps hear a few interesting stories, make a few connections, etc. Turns out, we were not invited to eat with the seniors at all. We were sequestered off in a private room for a kind sales pitch for the home. I was, I confess, a little disappointed by this. I don’t particularly need more semi-awkward social situations with middle-aged-ish, white-ish, Protestant-ish pastor-ish types.

There was one point where we were politely munching on our salads and listening to our host talk about lawn bowling and cribbage, where I could almost feel my soul shriveling. This is what it’s come to? I despaired. This is why I devoted all those years to the study of theology? To sit with a bunch of polite, well-groomed clergypersons pretending to be interested in bingo night for a free lunch? The experience was right up there with seeing Richard Marx’s Greatest Hits in Apple Music’s “Suggested For You” section when I opened iTunes this morning (I pondered what prior musical sins I could possibly have committed, what perverse algorithm could possibly have produced such a suggestion?!). This is what existential entropy must feel like, I melodramatically grumbled as I gazed longingly at the bottle of wine on the table that I knew none of us would dare touch.
Between the main course and dessert, the conversation turned, predictably, to the decline of the church. There were half-hearted diagnoses of the problem and the odd limp solution offered. There was talk of the good old days when churches were full and the culture was Christian and people dressed up on Sundays. There was a recognition that the structures we’ve inherited aren’t working anymore. People aren’t buying what the church is selling, alas. There was longing and lament, however guardedly it was expressed. Who wants to ruin a nice lunch, after all?
I wasn’t entirely telling the truth about the room being full of middle-aged white Protestants. There was an older Buddhist priest there, too, and I made sure to sit beside him. My wife is Japanese and so I’ve had the opportunity to get to know him at various family and church events over the years. He even showed up at the Bible study I lead a few times a few years ago (he calls me his “Bible teacher”; I call him sensei). He’s a delightful guy and I was glad to have him close by to break the awkward silences. I had observed him listening politely to all of this nostalgic memorializing of our “Christian” past, all this talk of how even though we came from different denominations we all worshiped the “same God,” all this thin sociological analysis of the state of the church in the post-Christian West. I knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t going to make much of a fuss about having his religion referred to as a “denomination” (you know, the Lutherans, the Mennonites, the Baptists, and the Buddhists). I sighed and imagined that he was having very tranquil and centred thoughts while I was sliding into angst-ridden entropy.
Near the end of our lunch, sensei leaned over to me and asked me why I thought that the Christian church was having such trouble in this culture. I gestured toward the usual suspects—postmodernism, consumerism, individualism, pluralism, etc. But then I had the good sense to stop talking and ask him what he thought. “What about you? Do you see similar trends in your context?” He smiled in a very tranquil way. “Oh yes,” he said. “Not many people come on Sundays. We have people who attend cultural events at the temple [my wife would be in this category—she started Japanese dancing this year] and who are interested in Japanese celebrations and rituals. But not many are interested in the Buddhist teachings. Mostly the older people… ” His concerns were identical to what I hear in church circles. What will happen when the carriers of this tradition and culture die? Who will pick up the baton? Will anything survive beyond cultural curiosity and highly selective practice? 
We sat together with this for a bit. I looked out into the dining area where the seniors were finishing their lunch. I thought about what some of them had seen over their many decades, what many of them had suffered. Some had seen war, some had known poverty, some had endured backbreaking labour that I struggle to imagine. I turned to sensei and said, “Perhaps we will have to suffer for our communities to grow and thrive again.” He smiled. “I think so,” he said. “The Japanese community was strongest here when we first arrived during the war. We needed each other to survive. We were a community with a shared purpose.” I nodded along as I thought about the history of my own Mennonite community and about the church around the world. There certainly does seem to be a correlation between suffering and the strength of the church. And, of course, between comfort and weakness.
Nobody wants to suffer, of course. I certainly don’t. But there is an existential urgency that suffering often produces that easily withers and dies in contexts of comfort. Religion that was once understood as a response to the gaping wound at the heart of existence degenerates into a smattering of spiritual accoutrements to pretty up our private narratives. What was once a lifeline now becomes a product to consume. What once bound us to our neighbour in shared narratives of meaning and hope now becomes a status update. Ours is a context of comfort, certainly, but also a context quite conducive to the shriveling of souls. God help us. Literally.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Where is Human Free Will in the Bible?

The Bible is emphatic on its teaching that humans possess free will and are capable of originating evil. Notice, for example, that in the very first chapter of the Bible God commands humans to be fruitful and exercise dominion over the animal kingdom and the earth (Gen. 1:26). The fact ...
The post Where is Human Free Will in the Bible? appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

Syndicated from Greg Boyd – ReKnew

It’s All Your Fault!

There are at least two reasons to like the Nashville Predators hockey team. First, the yellow uniforms. Obviously. You have to admire a team that cares so little about the intimidation factor that they’re willing to skate out in mustard yellow. Second, the Preds fans have (had?) this delightful tradition that follows each of the home team’s goals. They begin by serenading the opponent’s goaltender, chanting his last name in a kind of whiny, mocking voice, and punctuating the ridicule by screaming, “It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault!!” It’s great fun—at least if you’re on the right end of the score. I watched a bit of a Predators game last night before heading out to my own beer league hockey game where, as it happens, half of the goals our team gave up were, well, all my fault. Luckily there aren’t many fans at beer league hockey games and the few who do show up can’t be bothered to summon the requisite energy for mockery.
The season of Advent offers up an annual set of stark contradictions, at least in the West, and at least for those who go to church. On the one hand, we are surrounded by all kinds of Christmas-y kitsch and market-driven feel-good-ishness. There are lights and shopping and specialty coffees and all manner of other things designed to get us into the spirit of the season (and to loosen our grips on our wallets). On the other hand, for those who darken the door of a church during the first few Sundays of Advent, there are scripture readings that bring us face to face with wild prophets and ominous scenes of judgment and woe. There is talk of refining fires and an axe ready to fell an unfruitful tree and people shaking with foreboding for what will come on the earth when Son of Man comes in glory. There are also messages of comfort and hope, to be sure. But the season Advent thrusts us headlong into a narrative of judgment which isn’t always pleasant and certainly isn’t marketable.
The prophets are kind of a frustrating bunch. On the one hand, they offer some of Scripture’s most beautiful words of hope. They speak of the Righteous Branch who will usher in justice and righteousness. They promise a restoration of fortunes and point to the One who will gather up his people and rejoice over them with gladness. The herald a coming day when human beings will draw water from the wells of salvation with joy. They proclaim the Advent of the Prince of Peace who comes to meet the hopes and fears of all the years. They very often speak these words to people who are suffering in exile, far from home, seemingly abandoned by God, and without hope. And yet on the other hand, the prophets speak harsh language of condemnation and blame. They rant and they rave, wild-eyed, to anyone who will listen, screaming, in a sense, It’s all your fault! Your sins have caused or will cause your suffering. God is punishing you! You should know better! It’s all your fault!
There could scarcely be a less welcome message in our cultural context. This is surely victim-blaming of the very highest and most reprehensible order. This is kicking people while they are down. This is piling guilt and shame upon suffering. This is crushing the vulnerable and the weak with the intolerable burden of divine punishment as the “explanation” for their plight.  Who can tolerate such a message? Can you imagine the psychological and sociological damage that such a narrative would inflict upon a people? This is surely nothing less than unnecessarily traumatizing an already traumatized community.
It wasn’t an appealing approach for its first hearers either. The prophets were not a particularly esteemed lot. They were ridiculed and ignored, at best. At worst, they were nailed to a cross. Nobody much likes being told that it’s all their fault and we will go to great lengths to silence voices that tell us it is. And yet, the people of Israel (and, later, the church) have insisted upon preserving these words in their Scriptures. They have, retroactively at the very least, insisted upon interpreting their suffering theologically. There are socio-political explanations for why people find themselves in exile (literal or metaphorical), of course. The people of Israel knew this and we know it, too. It’s far easier to explain the Assyrians and Babylonians as the temporary fillers of a political power vacuum than as God’s chosen instrument of moral reproach for his people. But Israel and the church have scandalously insisted upon the latter approach. The judgment of God has been deemed preferable to the absence of God. It’s all your fault! has been deemed preferable to There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this.
As it happens, I’m not particularly into blaming and shaming as a pedagogical strategy.  I don’t like the image of God it implies. The prophets make me uncomfortable with all of their annoying bleating about sin and judgment and injustice and idolatry and God knows what else. I much prefer their words of hope and consolation to the rest of it. The prophets offend me, at times. And this is probably as it should be. I need the prophets. We all do, whether we realize it or not. We, who will blame almost anyone but ourselves for our trials need to be forced to entertain the possibility that some things might actually be our fault. We for whom judgment is deemed offensive—perhaps the last remaining sin—need to hear voices of a coming reckoning and refining.
The prophets hold before us a God and a coming that isn’t what we would prefer but is absolutely what we need. A God of mind- and faith-stretching paradoxes. A God who speaks both judgment and hope. A God who inflicts both a wound and a healing. A God who binds in order to set free. A God who says, “Who will comfort you at the wrath and rebuke of your God?” and “See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering.” A God who both lays the blame and takes the blame.
——
The image above was created by Patrick Foster and taken from this year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It is a wild-eyed prophet named John the Baptist who saw something beautiful and ominious coming and offended plenty of people in preparing the way. 

 

Syndicated from Rumblings

All Peoples Will Mourn Because of Him

For churches whose preaching is lectionary based, one of the texts for this Sunday is Revelation 1:4-8. It’s a marvelous passage that describes Jesus in some of the most exalted language in all of the New Testament. The “faithful witness,” the “the firstborn of the dead,” the ruler of the kings of the earth,” the one who is and who was and who is to come,” the “Alpha and the Omega.” It’s breathtaking stuff. The risen Christ is described as the source and goal of all creation.
There’s another section of this passage that we are perhaps not so readily drawn to:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
    and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
    and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.

We squirm a bit at the “coming with the clouds” language. Maybe it conjures up some of the awful eschatologies we’ve spent years dislodging from our theological framework, with images Jesus as a conquering hero rampaging down from a celestial throne to settle the score. Perhaps we cringe at this image of vast swaths of humanity weeping and wailing because they didn’t recognize their king at the time of his first coming and now there will be hell to pay. There’s certainly plenty of language in Revelation, at least on a surface reading, to justify these sorts of misgivings.
But what if the mourning proceeds from a different source? What if the tears are not those of terror but of a kind of desolate relief? What if the weeping is the result of finally seeing who the ruler of the kings of the earth truly is and how he will judge? What if the wailing is due not to the dread of punishment from a king who is no different than the tired procession of power-hungry and violent kings who preceded him, but because the sad truth will come crashing down upon us: we are the ones who pierced the source of our healing and salvation; we are the ones who turned our backs on the very one who offered (and offers still) forgiveness and wholeness.
And what if—impossibly—these are also tears of trembling joy? It’s not the most obvious interpretation, I grant, but whatever else might be said about it, it is anchored squarely and solely in the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
There’s a great passage in Dale C. Allison Jr.’s Night Comes that asks us to consider the final judgment at Christ’s second coming alongside the climactic scenes of his first:

[Although] the fact is often missed, in order to [forgive Peter], he has to negate his own somber warning: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mat. 10:33). Peter denies Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny Peter. He rather says to him and his miserable fellows, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). In the resurrection appearances, the unqualified admonition about denial is set aside, and mercy triumphs over judgment…
What follows? If the Gospels identify Jesus with the judge of the last day, and if they construe his passion and resurrection as a mini-apocalypse, then Christian readers might well ask, Haven’t we seen how the judge once acted when the end came, and why shouldn’t we expect more of the same in the future? If Jesus has rehearsed the end, don’t his followers have some idea of what’s coming? Will the one who repudiated violence and vengeance think better of it down the road and adopt a different policy? Will the one who forgave his enemies once refuse to do so again? Will he finally call a halt to forgiving seventy times seven?
Large parts of the Christian tradition, including a few paragraphs in the New Testament, have imagined that things will indeed be different next time. When the judge appears, forgiving enemies will belong to the past. He will have had enough of the Sermon on the Mount and of turning the other cheek. It’ll be time to revert to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The sun will no longer shine on the just and unjust, but only on the just. Evil will be requited with evil.
All this, however, requires that Jesus’ behavior in the passion narrative is a temporary strategy as opposed to a demonstration of God’s deepest character. On this view, how Jesus behaved on one occasion says little or nothing about how he will behave on another, or is even altogether misleading. Yet how then will a Christian plausibly insist that the cross discloses the divine identity, or that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Is it credible that the figure in the passion narratives is a passing anomaly, that Jesus acted the part of a lamb led to slaughter only as some sort of provisional strategy which will, in the end, be abandoned for some radically different tactic? Does the risen Christ bear his scars as justification for revenge or as a sign of his everlasting character?

I don’t spend a great deal of time agonizing over the logistics of the final judgement, truth be told. I am content to interpret Revelation not as an eschatological blueprint but as a powerful set of symbols that are, at best, approximations of what we can only ever understand in part. I can imagine weeping at the sight of the judge’s coming, but only because the judge and Jesus are one and the same. Tears for the recognition that all of my petty, retributive, scorekeeping views of what God is like have been miserably inadequate. Tears for the way that I have reproduced these views in my own life. And tears for the beauty of hearing—against all odds!—words like, “Peace be with you.”
So it is to be. Amen.
——
The image above is taken from next year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It’s by Tim Steward and is called “Enveloped in Gold.” 

Syndicated from Rumblings

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