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.

 

Sacrament at the Soul of Me

I grew up at a Baptist church receiving Communion seemingly whenever the senior pastor felt like offering it, which probably amounted to once a quarter. Ushers would pass heavy silver trays up and down the pews — a tray of wafers followed by a tray of little, thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice. It seemed like snack time to my seven-year-old sensibilities.

06-2015-laity-lodge-02I don’t know exactly when the sacrament became something more than snack time. But it certainly has.

When I visited and joined an Episcopal church at age 22, I started receiving Communion once a week. It was the focal point of the Sunday service, as opposed to the music or sermon, which I have seen centralized and even quite frankly sensationalized in some settings.

When I interned at and worked at that Episcopal church, I started receiving Communion multiple times a week, because the parish offered the sacrament typically every Monday-Friday in conjunction with morning prayer.

Eventually, I started hungering for it. Just a few months ago, when I was away from home and from my home church one Sunday,  I noticed the hungering for it and semi-jokingly told a friend traveling with me: “I think I’m having Eucharist withdrawal!”

It’s not a physical hunger. Because, let’s be real; that’s best satiated with some Sunday brunch after church.

It’s a spiritual hunger. The hungry searching of a weary swimmer grasping for a buoy. The “hangry” searching of a tired traveler scanning airport corridors for some trustworthy sustenance. Subway and Starbucks are my airport go-tos. Bread and wine are my life’s go-tos.    

The comparison of Eucharist to fast food chains is a pale comparison indeed. But what I mean is this: it’s a source of constancy. I remember the relief of finding a Subway at the Toronto airport during a layover once, tucked away among all the unfamiliarities of poutine and ketchup-flavored potato chips. I remember the warm comfort of sipping Starbucks at the Charlotte airport during many a layover when I used to travel periodically between Texas and Virginia. Travel where I may, these edible anchors would be there, offering much the same menu each time and at each location.

Having recently moved halfway across the country, I find that Communion is an edible anchor too, offering “much the same menu” upon each reception. Maybe a thin, round wafer or a piece of sweet, soft bread. Maybe juice, usually wine. Always “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

When I receive nowadays, I go back to my seat and might recall fondly other times I have received. I might recall a quiet Jesuit retreat center in North Texas or an Anglican mission church in Belize. I might recall that home parish that first taught me to cherish Communion, glance at my watch, and realize that even across time zones they’re eating and drinking of the same body and blood at about this same time.

I might recall the time last summer when my grandma’s 94th birthday was approaching and I arranged to give her Communion for her birthday. As I told my mentor-priest: She really doesn’t need anything else, and I really can’t offer anything else. So, come Sunday, she wheeled her walker into the sanctuary, sat on the edge of a pew, fell asleep twice during the sermon (sorry, preacher), and watched as I served the chalice to countless parishioners more ambulatory than herself. Finally, a priest gestured to me to follow him out to the pew where Grandma sat. He leaned over, handed her “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and stepped back into the aisle. I stepped forward, making eye contact with this white-haired woman of God who has thus far been around all my life but who cannot possibly continue to be around all my life. I held out “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she warily dipped her wafer in, and promptly dropped it. I looked at my priest, who shrugged, and I fished the wine-soaked wafer out of the chalice and placed it in her thin, receptive hands.

Later, we laughed about the awkwardness of that Communion.

Much later, I would cry about the gift of that Communion.

When so many things change, move, age, and even pass away, the Lord does not. For me, Communion attests to this.

Because, a thousand miles away from some of my closest family and friends, the continuity of Communion over time and space tells me that the Lord provides for those family and friends. I have done and will keep doing all that I humanly can to care for them, but ultimately the Lord will provide. And, Communion tells me that the Lord provides for me too. Travel where I may, this edible anchor will be there. Thanks be to God.    

Holy Ground

Last Sunday, I heard a poignant sermon reflecting primarily on the Exodus 3 account of Moses and the burning bush, wherein the LORD tells Moses (among other things): “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

The preacher shared an anecdote about praying with a friend in a mundane conference room at a Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, thereby turning the boring, tacky-carpeted ground into a sort of holy ground. He made the point that encounters with God happen in churches, to be sure, but perhaps more often in hospital rooms, living rooms, hotel conference rooms, and myriad other sorts of rooms.

I came away wondering: “Where have I been on holy ground?”

Conveniently, there’s a song called “We Are Standing on Holy Ground.” And, remarkably, I’ve witnessed it sung in some unusual places.

In 2007, I was on a short-term mission trip in Mexico City, Caitlin'sPicsprimarily serving communities of people living in garbage dumps just outside the city. My group offered basic medical, dental, and optical care, as well as activities for children. As we set up one day, perhaps to get our minds off of the garbage stench surrounding us, a group leader and native Mexican started singing “We Are Standing On Holy Ground.” That day, the garbage dump was a difficult experience for perhaps all five our physical senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and certainly smell — and yet the garbage dump was a beautiful experience for our spiritual sensibilities. It’s hard to describe how that can be. But I know there’s not many places where I’ve felt as alive and focused and full of love as I did that day, singing and serving and sitting alongside precious people who are precious purely because they are people (not because of where or how they live).

And then, during my recent 2016 trip to San Ignacio, Belize…it happened again. (Holy ground just won’t leave me alone!) While visiting a classroom at Santa Elena Baptist School, the students and their teacher offered to sing for us. We stood back, listened, and let the goosebumps come.

“We are standing on holy ground
And I know that there are angels all around
Let us praise Jesus now
For we are standing in His presence on holy ground

What makes a classroom holy? What makes a garbage dump holy? (Wouldn’t the holy thing, I wonder, be to move the dump’s residents out of the dump? There’s truth in that, I’m sure.)

Let’s let Moses provide the answer. Based on Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, it looks like God’s presence — and man’s prayerful pause to notice God’s presence — makes a place holy. God repeatedly promises his presence, saying “I am” (vv. 6, 14) and “I will be with you” (v. 12).

To us, too, God promises His presence, saying “I am” and “I will be with you.” With you and me, with people in San Ignacio and Mexico City, in classrooms and conference rooms, in coffee shops and cubicles. Turning our very ground into holy ground.

Ready Or Not, Here We Go

As a kid, I was terrified of getting shots. (Who isn’t, right?) But, one year, when I was 10 or so, the phobia started to fade. I gripped Mom’s hand, scared as ever, and the nurse told me to pick something happy and focus on it. I started to run through a mental rolodex of happiness: puppy, ice cream, Disney World

“Ready?” the nurse said.

A little prick pinched my upper arm. I don’t think I noticed.

Christmas, cartoons, cookies…

“All done!” the nurse said, smoothing down a happy Mickey Mouse Band-Aid.

“I didn’t say I was ready!” I replied, laughing. I hadn’t even selected my happy thing to focus on.

I didn’t think I was ready. But, thanks to the initiative and gentleness of the nurse, it turned out I was already doing the very thing for which I thought myself so unprepared.

In life, I’ve realized, I never think I’m ready. Maybe you do this too.

I don’t have enough training or experience for that job, we think. I don’t have enough money for that opportunity. Not old enough. Not confident enough. Someday maybe. But not yet. I’m not ready.   

This year, I’m doing an internship program (the Beecherl-Corrigan Fellows Program) that I introduced here. Fellows Programs like mine focus a great deal on preparing young adults to be ready for the “real world” so to speak, specifically stating online: “A Fellows Program is an intensely practical nine-month experience designed to prepare recent college grads to live seamless lives of faith.”

Before this program, I didn’t feel ready to start actually acting on the goals that I’ve sensed God calling me to; I didn’t feel ready for seminary, for ministry, for the possibility of a big move to an unfamiliar city.

Two months in to this Fellows Program, do I feel ready? No. Absolutely not. And yet…yes.

Like when I got the flu shot as a kid, I don’t feel ready. But, thanks to the initiative and gentleness of God, it’s turning out that I’m already doing some of the very things for which I thought myself so unprepared! Fellows are taking a seminary class, working, navigating unfamiliar places, meeting new people — and it doesn’t even require a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid.

The fact is we’re not prepared for everything. But we can’t let that make us paralyzed from doing anything. 

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul describes how to effectively live this balancing act of being unprepared on the one hand and pressing forward on the other hand:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

It’s like God says to us: You’re right; you’re not ready. But I am. And I’m with you. Ready or not, here we go. 

How to Tell Sad Stories: With Holiness

How can we tell sad stories? Whether in conversation, in therapy, in writing, or otherwise, this can be a terrifying task.

I think the characteristics of Christ described in Hebrews 12 have something to say about this. Here, the apostle Paul advises “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

God is Author. God is the Author of the Universe. He got the Story of life started, making it very “good” (Genesis 1). But his protagonists, Adam and Eve, faced the conflict of being deceived, tempted, disobedient, and ultimately separated from God.

It’s important to note that God isn’t the cause of the conflict any more than J.K. Rowling was the murderer of Harry Potter’s parents (she wasn’t; Voldemort was). Rather, God is the author of our stories, meaning they’re holy stories. Happy? No, not always. But holy? Yes. 

God is Finisher. I might even take a little poetic license and say that God is Editor. He doesn’t just throw words on a page (like I sometimes do). He doesn’t just give us life and then leave us alone to live it. Rather, He works on stories to make them sanctified, redeemed, used for good in time. As Joseph put it, talking to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Christ was unashamed. Even on the cross, having been betrayed, mocked, whipped, and crucified, he “despised” (alternatively translated as disregarded, ignored, or scorned) the shame. Perhaps followers of Christ, following in his example and filled with his strength, should despise shame too.

God is  alive. Because Christ rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” he is still alive (Hebrews 12:2, Nicene Creed). What’s more, he sent the Holy Spirit to be Helper/Advocate/Counselor, dwelling with us and in us (John 14).

When we have to tell sad stories, we can remember:

  1. Our stories are holy.
  2. Our stories are useful.
  3. We don’t need to be ashamed.
  4. God is with us and in us.

 

If none of those things seem true, we can look — look for holiness, for ways to make our stories useful, for reasons to be unashamed or for confidantes with whom we can be unashamed, and for God’s abiding presence.

I’ll be looking. I hope you will too.