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.

 

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Nevertheless She Persisted

In January she watched as women’s marches took over downtowns around the world, complete with pink pussy hats and witty posters and various sorts of ideological disagreements.

In February she started hearing the catch phrase, based on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s experience of being silenced mid-speech: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.

She felt sad and slightly sick at the reality of it all. The reeling, repressive, recurrent reality that she — and, yes, so many shes — had also been warned, given an explanation, and pushed into a place of persistence.    

il_340x270-1139220768_r5dpIn March someone sweetly offered her a gray t-shirt with “nevertheless she persisted” emblazoned on it in some cool typography.

She felt sad and slightly silenced at the assumption of it all. The assumption that persistence could be explained with a t-shirt. That the pain of a person — an entire people group in fact — could be summarized with a slogan. Perhaps especially the assumption that it was empowering to quote a past tense catchphrase to someone engaged in present-tense struggle.     

In April her grandmother suddenly passed away a few days before final exams were to take place.

In May she spent some time focused on a funeral and family and friendships, then some more time focused on final exams and papers — while fighting through a couple sicknesses and surprises along the way.

Most mornings it was unusually hard to get out of bed. Most weeks her therapist asked if she still wanted to keep going (as opposed to quitting or taking a leave of absence) on the career path and life path she was on. After a long pause and deep breath, she said “yes” every time.

Because that’s what persistence looks like, friends. It looks like Senator Warren publicly standing her ground. But it also, probably more often, looks like you and me day after day just getting out of bed and taking deep breaths and saying “yes.”

As you may have guessed by now, this is my story I’m telling. The story of my second semester of seminary to be exact.

I don’t share it to complain that things were hard, though sometimes they were. And I don’t share it to boast that I got through it, though it seems I did.

I share my story to say that persistence takes a lot longer than 140 characters. It’s harder than a hashtag, more tenuous than a t-shirt, more complex than a catchphrase. So complex that, when I took a seminar on “nurturing leaders for resilience” last week, we defined resilience as the capacity to rebound from shocks or setbacks, calling upon and/or creating a core of physical, psychological, social, and spiritual resources.

So, psychologically speaking, persistence looks not only like a muscular marathon runner (though I’m sure they’re very persistent indeed) but like a relay race of resources.

It looks like therapists, friends, family, self-care, self-talk, a little chocolate, and a lot of choosing to say “yes.”

It looks sometimes like triumphant endings and more often like a long series of brave beginnings. As St. Benedict has been attributed with saying: Always we begin again.

bba3b09aba78d5b327e5de0239e69c60Call me a monk, but I like those ancient four words (always we begin again) much more than the modern three (nevertheless she persisted).

For months I took quiet offense at the over-simplicity of the “nevertheless she persisted” line. Now I just want to at least amend the phrase, to recognize the duration and difficulty involved in persistence. I want to say “nevertheless she is persisting” or “nevertheless she will persist” or maybe “nevertheless we will persist.”

I will. We will.

Because persistence is never over. And persistence is never a solo sport. It has to be an always. It has to be an all of us.

Always. We. Begin. Again.

In Memoriam: A Reflection on the Life of My Grandma

The reflection I delivered today at my grandmother’s memorial service:

I have been blessed beyond measure to have Ellen Rust as my grandma. From a very young age, I always knew that Grandma loved me and my family with an unwavering, godly kind of love. She would call me her “little angel” and leave lipstick kisses on my cheeks. She would come to grandparent’s days and piano recitals. By the time I was in college, she would offer me clothes straight from her closet – like the outfit that I’m actually wearing today.

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The last time I saw my grandma, January 2017

Now, I’m 26 and completing my first year of seminary at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. And I assure you: Ellen Rust has helped to make that possible.

Last week, when I learned of her passing, a chaplain at the seminary asked me: “Do you think there are ways that you’re similar to your grandmother?”

I thought for a long second and finally said, “You know. She would sometimes tell me that when she was young she wanted to go into the ministry. But she wasn’t sure she could because she was a woman and she didn’t have the money for seminary and probably some other reasons.”

Well, Grandma, I think you did go into the ministry. The ministry of encouragement. Support. Responsibility.

Like last fall when she called me up on the phone just to check on me and the conversation went something like this:

“Are you learning things up there at school?” she asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Are you going to church?”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Little did she know I would be an intern at that church some months later!)

“Are you gonna go vote for the president?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Well, sounds like you’re doing real good.”

Simple as that. In the midst of an often complicated world, she knew her values: Education. Faith. Civic responsibility.

And maybe the value I remember most? Prayer.

When she had a short hospital stay in 2015, I went to visit and found her in good spirits. We talked, I prayed for her, and then from right there in the hospital bed she insisted on praying for me. I’ll never forget that, as I was getting ready to leave, Grandma told me this: “Every night, I lay down and talk to Jesus. Sometimes it’s real short, because I fall asleep and all. And sometimes it’s real long, because I tell him all about my day. And he listens real good and says, honey, you’ve had a pretty good day. And I say thanks, Jesus, I guess I have.”

So, even today, when I think about the life and legacy of Ellen Rust, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is listening real good and saying, “Honey, you’ve had a pretty good life.” And I imagine Ellen in glory laughing, “Thanks, Jesus. I guess I have.” 

Good Grief, Friday

il_340x270-897371198_rvyaYesterday, along with another young woman interning at my church, I carried a seven-foot-tall, thick wooden cross (literally an “old rugged cross”) down the aisle of the sanctuary.

Today, I have a scrape on the palm of my right hand to show for it. I wash my hands, and the scrape stings just a little. I see it standing out from the smoothness of the rest of my hand, and I remember that I’ve carried a cross.

“Take up your cross and follow me” is an awfully painful command, friends.

It’s a painful command in our religiously and politically charged culture, in which a great many people think we’re taking up our crosses and following Jesus — and we all mean something different by it. When crosses hang around our necks as we reject, insult, gossip, curse, betray, threaten, or abuse.

I wonder if many of us who have come in close contact with religion have a scrape or two to show for it. If we, too, try to wash our hands of it, and the scrape still stings just a little — or more than a little.

I wonder these things especially after reading Jen Hatmaker’s vulnerable blog post yesterday, entitled “My Saddest Good Friday In Memory: When Treasured Things Are Dead.” Hatmaker writes:

“Good Friday is about death – even a necessary death – and that makes more sense to me now than maybe ever. It speaks of a dark day and broken hearts, unmet expectations, mob mentality turned brutal. When I consider that day now, in 2017, it all feels insane, blood-thirsty, the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.”

Jesus knows about those dark days and broken hearts. Jesus knows about unmet expectations. Jesus knows about the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.

So, maybe Good Friday is about good grief. Because good grief is exactly what Jesus knows. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:5). Grief over the loss of a loved one, a home, a job, a way of life, a way of thinking. Grief over whatever it is that once brought comfort — and now brings only a cross.

I think of the 5 stages of grief famously identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and as I go through the sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, I hear signs that Jesus understands this grieving process:

DenialJesus might not have denied his fate. But everyone else, notably Peter, sure did (Matthew 26:31-35).

Anger. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Bargaining. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

Depression. “I am deeply grieved, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38) and “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

Acceptance. “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Did Jesus check off each of these stages as he moved through them, neatly and in order? No. Do we? Not at all. The point is that Jesus knows about grief.

Truly, blessedly, Jesus knows about hope too. But, honestly, in the death of Good Friday, in the silence of Holy Saturday, and for some of us lasting onward into the foreseeable future, grief is where we’re at.

Grief that is fully understood by Jesus, fully carried by Jesus all the way to the cross and tomb and through to the impossible dawn of resurrection.

 

Foot Washing for the 21st Century

This Holy Week (specifically Maundy Thursday) reflection was originally posted on the blog of Church of the Incarnation. I don’t think I ever posted it here, so here it is!



It was Holy Week 2014 and I was hungry.

I had decided to fast on Good Friday from the time I woke up until I received the Eucharist (at a midday service, because honestly I’m no good at fasting for long). But, before I could get to the bread and wine, I had agreed to spend the morning delivering Meals On Wheels to homebound elderly individuals in an impoverished Dallas neighborhood.

One by one, I knocked on dilapidated doors and held out a boxed meal. By the third stop, my car smelled like lunch – a meal I wasn’t having that day. By the eighth stop, my stomach grumbled so loudly that the gray-haired man at the door laughed in my face. I was ready to be done.

Final stop. Finally.

“Door’s open,” Ms. Louise called from inside. “Come on back to the kitchen.”

She said she was hungry, so I handed her the lunch.

“No, no,” she said, waving it away, “set that on the counter. I’m hungry for some sugar!”

Ms. Louise held out her arms for a hug and kissed my cheek several times.

“I can’t get my slippers on,” Ms. Louise said, suddenly sad. “Could you help me, sugar?”

So, kneeling on the hard kitchen floor, I picked up one frail, little foot and then the other and eased it into a pair of snug pink slippers. My mind transported back to the Maundy Thursday service just the night before when Bishop Burton had washed the feet of 12 parishioners. He had reminded us visibly that Jesus, on the night before he was betrayed, humbly knelt down and washed the dirty feet of the disciples.

Upon doing this, Jesus said: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

By the time I got to church on that Good Friday, I was hungry and filled – physically hungry, yes, and somehow spiritually filled with the flavor of a Servant King who knelt down to be with us all, serve us, wash our feet, and teach us to go and do likewise.

Rarely do we literally kneel down and wash (or even put snug pink slippers on) someone’s feet. But one of the challenges of Christ’s life and death, which we consider during Holy Week, is Christ’s call to kneel down and follow the example of Christ, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

It looks like kneeling down to play with a child. To pick up a fallen friend. To scrub desks or plant shrubs at North Dallas High School (like many of us did last Saturday during Day of Service). To pray God’s peace be known in a hurting world.

So what about Holy Week this year? Are you hungry? And how could you be filled by following Christ this week?