Get Up and Eat: A Sermon on Depression

As Mental Health Month draws to an end…here’s a sermon on depression that I offered toward the end of my preaching class Fall 2017. I don’t suppose it’s perfect, but I do believe it reflects something of God, God’s Word, and God’s activity in my life.

***

A reading from 1 King 19:1-8.

“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

The Word of God for the people of God.

***

It sounds strange even to me, but when I was a teenager, this passage from 1 Kings 19 was one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Honestly, I think I opened a concordance one day out of curiosity, looked up the word “depression,” and there it was. That’s the only way I can imagine coming across this story, because I don’t remember hearing it preached on or taught anywhere in particular. I certainly don’t remember it being in my colorful children’s Bible. Talking about what amounts to suicidal thoughts isn’t exactly something we’re likely to do in our churches, in our pulpits, in our lives.

But it’s in the Bible. And, I thank God for that.

See, when I was a teenager, I was slowly starting to figure out how to live with chronic clinical depression. Showing symptoms by the time I was 14, diagnosed at 18, and managing bouts of different durations and difficulties off and on ever since. Journeying periodically into the wilderness like Elijah and laying down under a broom tree – or, more likely, under my bedcovers – and sometimes, just sometimes, wanting to die.

Church seemed to have nothing to say to this experience – or at least nothing helpful, nothing sustainable. Church, to me, seemed to be about singing joyful songs and hearing about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and so on. When I wasn’t experiencing those things? I was ashamed to say so…so I just wouldn’t.

The Bible, though, when we really look into it, gets incredibly honest and allows us to do the same. The Bible, in this story from the life of the prophet Elijah, spoke of my depression – even when no one else would – and gave me a holy permission to experience my depression, talk to God about it, and try to seek God in it.

***

Let’s take a closer look at how Elijah does this – how he encounters the Lord in his despair.

First things first, Elijah tells God about the despair. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”

This is a very serious thing for a person to say, and I want to acknowledge that. I want to acknowledge that some of you, your loved ones, or your parishioners or CPE patients may have said, are saying, or will say something like Elijah has said. I want to acknowledge, in fact, that someone in your life may have died by suicide.

That someone who has passed away is not to be condemned but is loved by God, now and forever. They are not terrible; rather, at some point in life they felt terrible. It’s important to remember that, according to recent psychological literature, suicidal thoughts and actions tend to come to a person not so much because death sounds good but because life, at least for the time being, feels very, very bad. In a very real way, the person’s brain perceives that they’ve had enoughtoo much – to carry in life and the brain can’t conceive of carrying any more.

And so the prayer of Elijah comes: I’ve had enough, Lord. Take it all away.

How does the Lord respond?

I notice God responding to Elijah in this story with persistence and provision.

An angel of the Lord – a mysterious but palpable, present being – comes to visit Elijah. Maybe not unlike a pastoral visit to an isolated parishioner.

What’s more, the angel comes twice with food.

With the angel’s help, Elijah’s healing process consists of two surprisingly simple things: eat and sleep. Sounds nice, right? Sounds like what we students are going to do a lot of once finals are over.

But, really, these instructions are deeply significant. The Bible is full of images of eating and sleeping – especially eating. These are two of life’s most fundamental day-to-day needs. And two of depression’s most common difficulties, whether in the form of eating or sleeping too much or too little.

Most health professionals will say that changes in sleeping and eating are two of the key symptoms of depression. And, honestly, I’ll tell you that this couldn’t be truer. During a bout of depression one Saturday some years ago, I spent hours struggling to get out of bed – only to spend almost an hour in my kitchen cutting an apple and finding some peanut butter so that I’d have something to eat. If only an angel had placed that apple and peanut butter by my head!

It’s hard, but I’ve heard it said before: When you’re not sure what to do next, just do the next right thing.

Sleep. Eat. The next right thing. And the next and the next. Little by little. With God’s persistence. With God’s provision.      

***

The Reverend Kathryn Greene-McCreight has illustrated this well. Rev. Kathryn is an Episcopal priest, chaplain at Yale University, and writer who has documented her personal experiences with Christian faith and mental illness. In her 2015 memoir Darkness Is My Only Companion, Rev. Kathryn describes being hospitalized and instructed, while on the ward, to set one simple goal for herself every day. She writes:

“My goal was always to say the Daily Office, something that took at most only twenty-five minutes twice a day in the ‘real world.’ In the hospital and in my ill brain it took most of the day. This lent new meaning to the phrase ‘Daily Office.’ Reading the Psalms, collects, Scripture, and prayers was nearly impossible. Concentration was no longer a faculty I possessed. Each word seemed to swim in front of my eyes. But I was determined…”

As hard it was, Rev. Kathryn was determined, like Elijah, to tell God of her despair. To receive God’s provision of a simple thing like Daily Office prayer and to receive God’s persistence of a repeated thing like Daily Office prayer.

Such a simple and repeated practice, like the regularity with which we eat meals or perhaps in our churches eat the Great Meal of Communion, has the capacity to meet a weary soul right where we are and nourish us body, mind, and soul.

***

IMG_5390 “Get up and eat,” says the angel to Elijah.

“Get up and eat,” say our pastors and priests Sunday after Sunday. Eat and drink of Christ’s body and blood.

The Eucharist is salvation writ small, placed into our hands, brought into our bodies. The Eucharist is chief among the spiritual practices that sustain us when we cannot possibly sustain ourselves. That offer us bite-size portions of life when we think – and even wish – that life should be no more.

Meals of all kinds – small and big – can do that. The Thanksgiving meal that many of us experienced last week. The meals that we might bring over to someone’s house when they’re recovering, grieving, or otherwise struggling. Even the snacks that we share in this preaching class. They keep us going.

To be clear, though, I’m not saying here that food – including spiritual food like Communion or like prayer in general – cures depression. Not at all. What I am saying is that God uses surprising, simple, and tangible things to meet us right where we are. To meet Elijah in the wilderness. To meet me in the pages of 1 Kings 19. Giving us physical and spiritual food.

“Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Get up and eat, friends, whether you are joyous, stressed, depressed, or somewhere in between. Get up and eat physically and spiritually. Receive the food of God’s angels in your own life … and likewise offer sustenance to others as God’s angels in their lives.

“Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”     

Amen.

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Imagination: A Sermon

A sermon offered in preaching class…


“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

“Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” ~ John 6:1-14

***

Let us hear these song lyrics by singer-songwriter Bethany Dillon as a prayer today:

“I need to be reminded of who I was
When I took my first steps out the door
All I said now follows me around
I’m reminded I’m not like that anymore

I uprooted and miles behind me
Are the faces and the home I love
You’ve brought to my attention
I’m slowly changing and becoming
What I wanted to stop

Isn’t that just like a finite mind
Setting out with such righteous indignation
But now I’m at your feet
Could you look at me with some imagination”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

***

If you’re a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, you’ve likely done a fair bit of reflecting recently. Last week, we submitted our middler reviews. Some of us had a required Field Ed reflection on Friday afternoon.

As for me, I wound up reflecting at one point all the way back to when I visited Duke as a prospective student two years ago. To who I was “when I took my first steps out the door,” as we prayed a moment ago. I already had a couple friends who were current students here, so the night before my actual campus visit I met up with these friends for dinner. They spoke so naturally about their assignments and something they called precepts and used terminology that I’m still not always sure how to pronounce much less use. Before I went to bed that night, I googled the term “impostor syndrome,” read about it, and nodded. “Persistent fear of being ‘not good enough’ or being exposed as a fraud.”

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

Yes, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, our God is a God of imagination. Taking something and seeing something more. A God of “breadth and length and height and depth” exceeding what even my best Vacation Bible School-style hand movements could express. You know, “deep and wide, deep and wide,” a river flowing deep and wide.

In Paul’s language, our God is a God of love “that surpasses knowledge.” A God of power “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” A God of bread and wine that is impossibly the body and blood of Christ. And, in our gospel lesson today, a God of plain old loaves and fish that is a feast for all.

***

Imagine this story for a minute through the eyes of the disciples. It’s the end of the work day. You’re tired. You’re trying to sit by the sea, put your feet up with your co-workers, and take a break.

But your whole community and then some is showing up with questions and curiosities for your boss, Jesus. He says to serve them, to feed them. All of them.

You want to do what your supervisor says of course, but at the same time you’re thinking, well…a) I’m off the clock, Jesus. C’mon, really? b) That’s not possible, Jesus. Really?

It would be much too expensive to care for them all. Six months’ income would still barely do anything, one of the disciples says.

A kid here has five loaves of bread and two fish, another disciple says, just stating the facts, but what difference does that make?

Six months’ income. Five loaves. Two fish. Five thousand people. You’d make a pretty good finance committee, disciples, and there’s a time and place for that for sure. But what can you do with that budget? Moreover, what can Jesus do for the people?

Jesus takes that bread and fish, the most ordinary thing of the earth and most ordinary thing of the sea, and he tells the whole clamoring crowd to sit down. He gives thanks. Thanks for the real substances in his hands, the really large crowd gathered around, and maybe even the realism of the disciples. And it’s as though he too says,

But now I’m at your feet

Would you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

When Paul looked at Jesus with some imagination, his writing style seriously showed it. Good writing teachers usually warn against using too many superlatives. A preceptor might dock points from Paul’s last sentence in our passage today: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”

Abundantly. Far. More.

This is excessive wordiness, the editor in me wants to say.

This is impossible hopefulness, the skeptic in me wants to say.

And at the same time…this is an abundant Jesus, the Spirit in me has to admit.

Because Jesus not only provided for the five thousand – as if that wasn’t miracle enough – but satisfied the five thousand. Such that the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. In this way, Jesus saw what little there was to work with at the outset, saw that it could be enough, and indeed saw that it could be more than enough.

Abundantly far more than enough to work even within, among, and through us today. In our imaginations and, for us as students, our educations and vocations. Seeing realistically what is and seeing hopefully what could be.

See, as I reflected last week, amidst the flurry of portfolios and Field Ed reflections, I remembered myself as a prospective student, yes, but I also imagined myself as prospective…pastor? I could sort of picture it because on a recent Sunday, serving at my Field Ed church, I had wound up serving the Communion bread – a responsibility in my Episcopal tradition that’s revered and reserved quite strictly for the ordained clergy or if absolutely necessary laypeople serving with specific clerical permission. This particular Sunday, my church had fewer clergy there than usual, so at the very last minute a priest with a panicked look on her face handed me a piece of bread and told me, “you’re it.” Like a holy game of tag.

I don’t want to be it, I thought, as I shuffled down the chancel steps toward the congregation, white robes billowing at my sides. I’m not prepared to be ‘it.’ I’m just an intern. Just a student. Just uhh…What do I say now? I thought, as a line of parishioners approached. The bread of…the body…the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Just a kid with five loaves and two fish.

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

God, could you look at this classroom as a room of preachers? Could you look at this school as a bustling kitchen preparing loaves and fish, even if they sometimes look like papers and projects? Could you take what very little gifts we have to offer, give thanks, and distribute them to others so that people could say as the gospel writer did that “this [this Jesus Christ] is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

God can. And has. Will you?

Some Words on Wordlessness: A Sermon

A sermon offered in Preaching class last week…


“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” ~ Romans 8:25-27

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

***

It was sophomore year of college and my friend Alex had just sent me this text message: “I need to talk to someone. Can we meet up? Soon please.”

I knew he had been having a hard time. Several weeks prior, a classmate of ours had passed away from suicide, and Alex had been thrown into an ocean of grief, guilt, and even questions about death and the afterlife.

But that evening when I met Alex on campus he couldn’t articulate any of that. He had wanted to talk to someone…but couldn’t get the words out. We sat there for ten minutes in almost total silence.

Until eventually I said quietly, “Use your words, Alex. Just one word. Or a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

He said just a little. And I remember a lot. Not a lot of words. But a lot of Holy Spirit hovering somewhere around our lack of words.

***

When I think of this passage from Romans 8 that we’re looking at today, there’s a number of images that come to my mind.

For instance, I joked with a friend once that maybe these “sighs,” also sometimes translated as “groanings,” too deep for words are like the character Dory in the movie Finding Nemo trying to speak “whale” language. In several scenes, Dory intones her voice in all kinds of exaggerated ways. All the while, she harbors this seemingly naïve faith that the whales will understand her…and lo and behold, they do. The metaphor kind of works.

On a more serious note, I’ve heard it said on occasion that these sighs or groans represent praying in tongues or “praying in the Spirit,” understood differently by different people.

But, when I really think about this text, I see much more than “whale” language, more even than a prayer language, and more about what happens when we don’t have the language for what we’re experiencing.

Have you ever been there? Maybe sitting on your couch watching a tragedy unfold on the news – like even what’s happened in Las Vegas today – or sitting with a grieving person during your Field Ed or CPE or in your own personal life. I can’t believe it, you say, there are no words, ironically using words to describe your feeling of wordlessness because that’s simply the best that our human limitations can muster.

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

I wonder, psychologically, what kinds of conditions can render us speechless in this way? What life circumstances have the power to take away our words and reduce usually articulate, even verbose people like the apostle Paul into sighs and groans?

I see at least three ways to consider the experience of speechlessness.

We can be stunned speechless, standing in awe of God or God’s creation, of sunsets or oceans or acts of kindness. We smile and let out a sigh too deep for words.

We can also be depressed into speechlessness; after all, decreased social connectivity – including communication with friends, family, and I would say God – is among the chief symptoms of clinical depression. We hide away and maybe cry and let out a sigh too deep for words.

Finally, and related to being depressed, people can be oppressed into speechlessness. Deeply, daily, this is one big sigh too deep for words.

It’s this last condition – oppression – that I’d like to focus on the most today.

***

Dr. Christie Cozad Neuger, a scholar of pastoral care and counseling, spends a great deal of time in her book Counseling Women describing the cultural phenomenon of “women’s loss of voice” and emphasizing the role of pastors, counselors, and hopefully all of us in “helping women come to voice.” To be sure, the struggle of voicelessness and the process of coming to voice is experienced not only by women but by all manner of minority persons whether ethnic, racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or otherwise. Neuger describes the frequency with which minorities have no voice for making narrative, cohesive sense of some of their experiences as well as the frequency with which minorities are not heard even when they do speak up and not believed even when they are heard.

In the example of a sexual assault survivor, for instance, she would statistically be very likely to experience a sense of shock, shame, or intimidation that locks her into silence during and after the initial impact – a silence around this topic lasting for hours, days, months, or even years. Difficulty identifying someone willing and able to listen. Difficulty being believed by friends, family, media, and the legal system who say that she’s exaggerating, seeking attention, or “was asking for it.”

There’s a reason that trauma studies have often used the language of “saying the unsayable” or “bearing the unbearable.”

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.        

***

This, my friends, is precisely where the Holy Spirit comes in.

The Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. In our sighs and groans. In the speechlessness of sublime joy, of deep depression, or of systemic oppression. And, yes, also in the wordless writer’s block of the divinity student writing theology midterms.

How exactly does the Holy Spirit help us in these times?

Well, twice just in these few verses from Romans 8, Paul repeats that the Spirit intercedes.

And what does that mean? According to Merriam Webster, to intercede means to go between, coming straight from the Latin roots “inter” meaning between and “cede” meaning go. The Holy Spirit goes between us and God. This means that the Spirit understands us and, with that understanding, speaks to God or you might even say advocates to God on our behalf. The Spirit connects me to God, you to God, us to God. The Spirit runs through our veins like a telephone wire telling God who we are, what we feel, what we think, what we need – even or perhaps especially when we can’t quite find the words to understand it or say it ourselves.

What does this mean for the oppressed? For the trauma survivor that I spoke of earlier? This means that God, through the Holy Spirit, understands her story, her personhood, her cries and sighs.

This means that God longs for us who are survivors to come to voice – not just on our own in our wordless weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

This means, too, that God longs for us who are not ourselves oppressed to come to voice on behalf of the oppressed – again not just in our wordless, shrugging, “what can I do?” kind of weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

***

I think of my friend Alex back in college and what I told him at the time: “Use your words. Just a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

For me and Alex, with our human limitations, that was true. We need language – at least in some form and to some extent – to understand one another.

But God?

God is not limited to language in the way that we are. God’s ways are “higher than our ways.”

So, with Romans 8 in mind, I imagine God saying to Alex – and to us: “Don’t worry about your words – or lack thereof. I welcome your silence. When you’re ready, I’ll welcome your words. Wherever you’re at, I welcome you. By the Holy Spirit, I know you and know how to help you.”

***

I used to think this passage in Romans was an excuse to stop trying when praying is kinda hard. As though it says with a shrug, “Don’t know how to pray? That’s OK. Just take it easy. Sigh. Groan. Whatever.”

But now, even in preparing for today’s sermon, I’ve realized this passage is an invitation not to stop trying but to stop trying so hard on my own, leaning on my own strength, when praying is kinda hard.

On our own? Sometimes there’s no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

But with the Spirit? Those sighs can start to shift from voices being depressed or oppressed in this world toward voices being expressed in the Spirit. May we take up this invitation and join in this liberation.

Amen.

Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac

1200px-sacrifice_of_isaac-caravaggio_28uffizi29“Deceived, tied up, and held at knife-point — all by his own father? Because God said so? Talk about traumatic!” an older lady exclaimed.

I was sitting in a lectionary Bible study this morning, discussing the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) as many lectionary users may have done today. And let’s just say the conversation wasn’t easy. The bunch of us, perhaps especially those who are parents, appeared aghast at a God who would lead Abraham to the point of so nearly killing his son Isaac.

What stood out to me was the group’s conception of the event as traumatic.

This summer, I’ve been doing some particularly focused reading on the topic of religious trauma, starting with the work of trauma therapist and contemplative activist Teresa Pasquale and moving next into the pastoral perspective of PCUSA minister and writer Carol Howard Merritt.

According to Pasquale, “trauma in a religious context can be seen as any painful experience perpetrated by family, friends, community members, or institutions inside of a religion” (Sacred Wounds, 22). Some of the more difficult yet all-too-real case examples that Pasquale cites include sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders and ostracism of LGBTQ persons initiated by religious leaders. She goes into great detail regarding types of trauma, types of trauma responses, symptoms and treatment of PTSD, and more.

In my seminary studies this past year, I learned that one of the lenses through which I might conduct Bible study (and through which, it turns out, I enjoy conducting Bible study!) is through the lens of trauma theory. This simply means reading biblical narratives with an awareness of the psychological experiences occurring within and among the characters.

What psychological experiences might be occurring within Abraham, for example? Fear. Dread. An anxious hope that indeed, as promised, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” thus sparing Isaac from death (Gen. 22:8).

And Isaac? Shock. Anger. Betrayal. An anxious, adrenaline-filled relief that, in the very last second, indeed “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13).

Two truths are evident:

  1. The binding of Isaac qualifies as a traumatic event — an instance of religious trauma to be exact. I can imagine Isaac triggered for years to come, sweating or hyperventilating or experiencing other panic symptoms at the sight of normally neutral or even good things such as firewood, knives, an altar, or his own father. I can imagine Isaac as a teenager reminding his father of the event during times of familial conflict. (“You almost killed me that one time! What kind of loving father does that?”)
  2. God provides. The keyword “provide” occurs at least three times in the story, in verses 8 and 14. What’s more, in two of those occurrences (verse 14), Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Naming of people and places was a significant act in the ancient world, which suggests God’s provision as a significant theme of this story.

Importantly, Truth #2 does not negate Truth #1 — lest we try to become entirely saccharine about what’s happening here. God’s provision in the end does not give us permission to ignore a person’s painful process leading up to the end. A story that only looks at the end is no good story at all.

And, on the flip side, Truth #1 does not negate Truth #2 — lest we try to become entirely cynical about what’s happening here. A painful process does not give us permission to ignore God’s provision in the end. A story that neglects to look at the end is no good story at all.

What does this have to say to survivors of religious trauma?

First, religious trauma is real. As Pasquale wrote:

“I want to validate your hurt. If you have been negatively impacted by others’ actions or the experiences you have had inside a religious or spiritual context, I am so sorry. I am terribly sorry the places, spaces, and faces who were supposed to show you the ultimate expression of love showed you something negating” (Sacred Wounds, 21).

Isaac, I want to validate your hurt. I am so sorry.

Second, survivors of religious trauma can have hope. God provides in the end. Or if you prefer to think of it this way: life provides. Life keeps going and life can provide family, friends, helping professionals, and/or communities (whether religious or not) that have some goodness in them if we’re willing to see and receive it. Life provides breath and body and beauty, exemplified in the “healing exercises” Pasquale offers centered around breathing, grounding, and forms of art therapy. In short, life provides.

Isaac, I want to share in your hope. I am so thankful.

It’s hard for the hurt and the hope to coexist. But I think that’s what the story of the binding of Isaac, and the story of any religious trauma, has to tell. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a good one.

Life and Death Theology

18891899_10158913660800531_6923670952198184857_oEarlier this summer, I had the privilege of helping with Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute for Reconciliation, a week-long conference that brought together about 100 leaders working at intersections of faith and social justice around the U.S. and around the world.

One morning, we heard remarks from a joyful gentleman named R. Simangaliso Kumato, president of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in South Africa.

At first, Kumato sounded like any of the administrators at my own seminary in the U.S., clicking through a series of PowerPoint slides describing his institution and its strategic goals. One slide displayed the question “How do we form transforming leaders for the Church and the nation?” The answer, in short, was a predictable combination of academics, spirituality, and community.

But, then, he elaborated:

“We do not have the privilege of doing academics just for the fun of it. We have to seek the issues that are at the heart of our society. Our studies must lead to personal change and policy change. Our theologies are life and death for us.”

As soon as Kumato started into this impassioned plea, I was riveted. In my divinity-school world — as students in any area of academia might experience — we sometimes think we have the privilege of doing academics just for the fun of it. We wouldn’t always call it “fun,” especially not during finals. But we’re doing academics often for primarily or even purely personal reasons, for grades or success, for the expectations of parents or grandparents, for the next hoop to jump through on the way to ordination or a doctorate or whatever it is we aspire to. We take electives, sometimes in obscure thinkers and theories, based on a “whatever floats your boat” or “whatever fits your schedule” mindset. And that’s all valid.

Actually, it’s a bit more than valid. I’m convinced that being enthralled by a pursuit — even an obscure academic pursuit — is beautiful and useful to the world. As Howard Thurman has said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

So who’s right — Kumato or Thurman? Do we ask what the world needs or not?

Yes and yes.

What the world needs is people who have come alive. I need to come alive and my neighbor needs to come alive. As Kumato put it, my studies must lead to personal change and policy change — change at a me and my neighbor kind of level.

But people aren’t coming alive. To be quite frank, people are dying.

From his South African context, the president of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary knew this full well. He told us some about post-apartheid South Africa, about tensions over race, gender, and sexuality, about violent attacks and “corrective rapes” in which men (Christian men, to be exact) aim to change the orientation of lesbian women by raping them.

“Our theologies are life and death for us.”

You might think, “Well, that’s South Africa. Circumstances aren’t that bad everywhere.”

But, no. It looks different in different environments, but it’s still true. Tensions over race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S.? Check, check, and check. Black men in their cars are killed. Young women on college campuses are raped. LGBTQ teens are bullied by peers and excommunicated by families. Pretty sure I saw each of those stories in the news in the last 24 hours.

“Our theologies are life and death for us.”

What’s theology got to do with it? Plenty.

Our theologies tell us, at a minimum:

  • who God is (full of love, full of wrath, or somehow some of both?)
  • who God’s people are (inherently good, inherently sinful, or somehow some of both?)
  • how to treat those people (with kindness, with correction, or somehow some of both?)

Side note: I think the answer to each of the above is “somehow some of both.” But that’s a blog post (or a book because, good Lord, those are big questions!) for another day.

Theologically, if I think God is angry at me, that’s a recipe for shame and depression. If I think a person or people group is not as holy as me, that’s a recipe for oppression and violence.

So, we do not have the privilege of doing academics (certainly theological academics, but other academics too) just for the fun of it.

To say this lesson has been “humbling” or “convicting” feels like an understatement.

This is a reminder to do academics for a reason. For lives to be spared from sources of literal or figurative death and secured into sources of literal and figurative life. For life and death theology.