Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cross-Bloggination: Thomas Pynchon, Balloonists, and Radical Discipleship at Steampunk Theology

What if 19th-century radical Christians possessed Hauerwasian theology, disillusionment with nation-bound institutional religion, and a ready supply of airships and hot-air balloons?  Wonder with me at Steampunk Theology!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cross-Bloggination: Fridtjof Nansen at Steampunk Theology

Supreme geekdom continues to reign at Steampunk Theology, to which I contribute under the character of "the Alpinist," along with my colleagues and fellow adventurers, the Magus of the North and the Ecclesiast.  Recently, we've uncovered a communique from a radical youth group meeting in Oslo, Norway from just before the turn-of-the-century, recording a visit to the group by legendary arctic explorer and national hero, Fridtjof Nansen.  See what his life has to say about the mission of the church...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sermon: "Hurting Thomas"

"Hurting Thomas"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Second Sunday of Easter
15 April 2012

Texts: Acts 4.32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1.1-2.2
John 20.19-31

(Rough audio recording of sermon can be found at the end of the text below)

-It’s Eastertide, and I’m kind of depressed that I’m here.  I’ve never really been an Easter kind of Christian.  Maybe it’s the fact that I just can’t stand lillies - or, for that matter, any other pollen-producing agent of the worldwide conspiracy to incite an allergy uprising in my sinuses.  Maybe it’s because I’m still just not quite sure what to do with all of this resurrection business.  Sin, death, and darkness, I can deal with. Resurrection, new life, and sunshine?  I prefer the Lenten minor-key hymns of the crucified Christ to the major-key celebration of the empty cross.  I believe in the resurrection – I’m just not sure how to believe it.

-Maybe that’s why I love today’s Gospel story about Thomas so much.  Because Thomas plays hooky on the first Easter Sunday.  He’s just simply not there with the other eleven when Jesus shows up - walking through walls, breathing out strange Spirits, and, you know, being alive.  And Thomas misses it – simply didn’t go to church on Easter.

-Which makes me wonder: why wasn’t Thomas around?  We are told the others were gathered behind locked doors out of fear of the Jews.  Maybe Thomas was the only one who wasn’t scared.  After all, six chapters back, when Jesus started talking about having to die, it was Thomas who exclaimed, “let us go too, that we might die with him!”  Maybe Thomas was the only one with the stones to go buy groceries, or make a beer run, for his terrified friends.  Or maybe he simply refused to follow the way of Peter’s denial - refused to be ashamed of his love for his crucified master.

-Or maybe Thomas’ love took a different form.  I’ve always wondered if, perhaps, Thomas loved Jesus so much that he was off doing what any good Jew would have done for a loved one: grieving - what they called “sitting Shiva,” Hebrew for the seven days you sat in mourning.  I wonder if, while the others were cowering, he was grieving the death of the one he was willing to die for.  While the others locked up their love behind fear, he chose loyalty, sitting Shiva at the foot of the cross.  Even on Easter Sunday.

-Which helps me make sense of why Thomas seems so angry with his eleven friends when they come in hoot-and-hollerin’ about resurrection.  If I’m in the midst of suffering pain, loss, and grief, I’m thinking I would have said the same thing as Thomas.  “You cowards.  I’m grieving - like you should be - and you come in here, trample on my grief, acting like nothing happened. telling me about your amazing worship experience, and expect me to believe your crazy story - respect my grief. Or else, get lost.”  

-See, I don’t think Thomas deserves his infamous title, “Doubting Thomas.” I don’t think anyone doubts just for doubting sake. And certainly, no one doubts in a vacuum.  I think every doubt has a story behind it.  I wonder if there were some dashed hopes, shattered dreams, unfulfilled promises behind Thomas‘ bitter refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead., Maybe there was some anger and betrayal and unheard cries for companionship and community behind Thomas’ reaction.

-So “Doubting Thomas” just doesn’t seem fair.  Maybe “Hurting Thomas” is a better appellation.  Or “Grieving Thomas.”  Or just plain “Human Thomas.”  Or, do away with labels completely.  Just Thomas.  Regardless, I suspect he’s been each of us at some point in our journey of doubt and faith.  

-But see, the story doesn’t end with Thomas’ anger.  Somehow, the following Sunday, Thomas returns to the community - back at worship again.  And once more, I wonder: why?

-I wonder if the other disciples, those faltering Jesus followers have something to do with it.  Because I wonder if, perhaps, one or two of Thomas’ friends...listened to him.  Heard his grief and his pain.  Maybe they even sat down with their friend.  Not in denial of their own amazing experience of the Risen Jesus.  But rather, perhaps, because of it,.  Maybe because of their experience of resurrection they were willing to be with Thomas in the midst of his so-called doubt.  Offering not answers and arguments, but companionship and community.

-St. Vincent de Paul once wrote that, “it is only because of your love that the poor will forgive you the gift of your bread.”  I wonder if Thomas forgave the disciples the gift of their disturbing, disruptive resurrection testimony because they shared with Thomas the gift of their loving, patient presence.  I wonder if they were also able to forgive Thomas the hurt caused by his doubt, because of their willingness to enter into the doubt caused by his hurt.

-Perhaps the disciples’ testimony about the resurrected Jesus was made believable, not because they understood it any better than Thomas, but because the Spirit breathed from the Risen Christ had begun to transform them into people unafraid of doubt, of despair, of grief, or of suffering.  Had begun to shape them into a people capable of fulfilling Jesus’ first resurrection commandment.  His first commandment to us after he was raised from the dead was not to believe, or, “teach doctrines,” but to be at peace, to forgive, and to be reconciled to one another.  Perhaps the Spirit had already begun resurrection in their lives.  But a resurrection that always-already marked by the scars of the cross.  

-And I have to hope that the disciples also learned something from Thomas.  For when Thomas looked through the holes in Jesus’ hands and sides, he saw a glimpse of a new reality far beyond anything he had possibly dreamed.  He confesses, more boldly, more confidently, than any person ever before him, “my Lord and my God!”  Thomas glimpsed a God who reigns from heaven, not as a supernatural spiritual supermodel, but with scars on God’s glorious body.  Thomas looked through those holes, like an adventurer peering through a spyglass, glimpsing a vast, undiscovered dimension of reality in which it is not only permitted to doubt your doubts, but also, to believe your beliefs.  Where the last word is not despair, death, or suffering, but rather, reconciliation, restoration, and new creation.

-I wonder if that’s how it works for us as well.  I’m still not exactly sure how to believe in resurrection. But I have the funny feeling that I’ve already been living in it.  Not because of any belief or doubt on my end.  But because the arms of the wounded Christ have been holding me all along, through this community of wounded healers called church.  Where, whether we are a believer, a doubter, or somewhere in the vast in-between, we breathe with the same Spirit of the Resurrected Jesus.  Where, being willing to share and look through the wounds we all bear, we catch glimpses of a mysterious reality:  that, even when we cannot get ourselves to the resurrection, Christ is in the business of getting the resurrection to us.  Whether we believe it or not.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Take Me to the Mountain:" Singing Andrew Peterson at the Easter Vigil

Moab Cairn - Nickoloff, 2012
The Easter Vigil at House for All Sinners and Saints epitomizes our motto of "anti-excellence, pro-participation" - with a lot of celebration added to the mix.  This manifests itself especially during the Vigil readings, the time when the community tells stories from the Old Testament of the saving ways of God with God's people Israel.  At HFASS, various folks volunteer to recast the story in unique, creative, and often hilarious ways.

This year, I took on the not-so-hilarious tale of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac (see Genesis 22).  This story took on particular poignancy for me now that I have children of my own, and especially because of the gift of a son of my own, our six-month-old, Matthias.  We're also preparing for the end of internship, which means leaving HFASS, Casa Karibu, our family and friends, and much we hold dear here in Denver.  Letting go, it seems, has always been a rather unfortunate part of the whole faith-trust-grace deal.  

Thankfully, songwriter Andrew Peterson has already penned what I consider one of the most powerful "Christian" songs of all time, and it happens to be about Abraham and Isaac.  Rather than try to match it, I covered it with a few slight adaptations.  I managed to record a take when I was practicing earlier in the day, which I include below, along with Peterson's lyrics.  Hope it ministers to anyone else in the midst of death, change and trial, as it continues to minister to me.    

"Holy is the Lord" by Andrew Peterson

Wake up little Isaac
And rub your tired eyes
Go and kiss your mama
Well be gone a little while
Come and walk beside me
Come and hold your papas hand
I go to make an altar
And to offer up my lamb

I waited on the Lord
And in a waking dream He came
Riding on a wind across the sand
He spoke my name
Here I am, I whispered
And I waited in the dark
The answer was a sword
That came down hard upon my heart

Matthias and me at the Great Southern Window
Moab, 2012
Holy is the Lord
Holy is the Lord
And the Lord I will obey
Lord, help me I don't know the way

So take me to the mountain
I will follow where You lead
There I'll lay the body
Of the boy You gave to me
And even though You take him
Still I ever will obey
But Maker of this mountain, please
Make another way

Holy is the Lord
Holy is the Lord

And the Lord I will obey
Help me for I do not know the way

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cross-Bloggination: Steampunk Theology and Oscar Wilde

See my report on the alleged literary source of this morning's post on Christ's Last Words at Steampunk Theology!

"I Thirst," or, A Picture of Dorian Humanity: Holy Week Meditations on Christ's Last Words

"Refill? Yeah, sure, why not."

Anyone who’s shared a meal with me knows that I am a sucker for fountain soda.  Like a horse let loose in the feed room, I’ll keep downing the stuff until I explode - though, luckily, unlike a horse, my bladder generally warns off my stomach before it’s too late.  
Soda is basically legalized euthanasia.  There will never be a prohibition against it, even though perhaps there should be.  Because aside from gradually rotting out teeth and our bodies from within while bestowing the wonderful gift of type 2 diabetes in return for our dollar, the logos of the soda companies splashed across bar windows, billboards, and painted on the sides of shanties across the developing world, testifies to the sheer commercial and political power of a company capable of assassinating labor leaders in Columbia with impunity, while poisoning the rest of us.  
But the veracity of such accusations is not a sidestepping of the sinister fact that, repeatedly, I both choose to indulge my addictive craving, and also, frequently, feel that this addictive craving, this thirst is choosing me.  Even having vowed to shake my soda habit this side of age 30, the thirst has not left me - whether I am being faithful to this commitment or failing at it.  

I thirst.  

There is no AA for soda drinkers.  And I’m honestly not sure if there is an AA for gluttons, or for the desire for instant gratification of our thirsts in general.  Because for most of us, lacking the strength of the focused few, the craving, the sheer thirst of our deranged desires, is not a source of joy.  It is, rather, the interface, the demonically topsy-turvy table at which we receive the eucharistic elements of a consumeristic world - freely, frequently, yet never, without cost.  This craving thirst is not an addiction, after all.  It’s simply faithfully supporting the economy.  While being told we are partaking of "the real thing."   
Earlier in St. John’s Gospel, a thirsty Jesus reveals to a thirsty woman by a well that he is living water come down from heaven.  By the end of the Gospel, this living water is thirsty once more.  I’ve always read this ostensibly, as a moment of dire weakness, a pathetic plea scratched from the parched leather of the Savior’s tortured throat.  This is most certainly true, and it fits the bill of Johannine irony.
But I wonder if another way to view these last words of Jesus from the cross - completely within the trajectory of John’s irony - is to hear Jesus speaking our craving.  Jesus, on the cross, bearing the weight of humanity’s disdain for God, drinking to the dregs the cup he so desperately desires for the Father to take from him, a drink he is unable to refuse, powerless to stop imbibing.  Perhaps Jesus’ cry of thirst can and should be heard by us not only erupting from the void of a lack.  Perhaps it can also be heard as the greedy, gluttonous, unbridled announcement of the overflowing craving borne of our overflowing abundance.  
And I don’t mean this as if Jesus simply died because I can’t stop drinking soda.  The depth and power of the grace of Atonement in its multifarious glory is far too mysterious to be contained in any theory, or bounded by any pathetic sin of my own.  And yet, on the cross, the Crucified One is not merely a reflection of, but the very embodiment of the Truth and Reality of humanity’s sinfulness.  When we look upon the cross, we see what happens when we serve golden calves rather than divine splendor, what results when we willingly sit at the tables of poisoners - tables we help to set - and feast on the bread and wine that we take for ourselves, rather than receiving the bread from heaven that we are freely given.  The mere fact that the early writers so often refer to the cross as an  “atonement” is less to limit God’s activity, and more, to unveil the unlimited capacity of twisted human activity, both to require the mercy and grace of God, and also, to destroy it when it comes.
The cross is like Dorian Gray’s portrait.  Oscar Wilde’s famous anti-hero makes a Faustian deal with the devil.  He remains eternally young and beautiful, while his portrait ages.  So too, as we imagine ourselves drinking draughts of immortality and experience the thrill of exercising the power of our prosperity and our privilege - even as these powers exercise us - the portrait of the reality of human nature ages, withers, bleeds, screams, and dies upon the cross.  And this portrait, the Incarnate glory of all that divinized humanity could hope and is promised to become, scratches out the words of our cravings.
“I thirst.”
If Dorian Gray ever looked at his portrait, the horror would overwhelm him, and he would die.  At the novel’s end, having murdered the portrait’s painter, Dorian experiences a brief moment of clarity, and plunges a knife into his image’s heart.  He is discovered later, stabbed through his own.  
The Crucified One crying out his thirst is the portrait of humanity’s perfection in the divine image gone wrong because of our diabolical dealings.  Even as we realize we are the drivers of the nails, all we can do in such moments of clarity is to keep driving.  We drive the Living Water to the point of dryness by drowning Him in our thirsts.  And when our portrait dies, so do we.  
The hope for me is that it is in fact we who are the perverse portrait, and that, in declaring his thirst, it is Christ who plunges the dagger of grace into the very heart of broken humanity.  It is God who, passively and non-violently, destroys the world we have wrapped around ourselves.  It is God who, in thirst, drowns our cravings, and promises a different beverage, a better feast. 
“I thirst.”
These words are plea, reflection, judgment, and consequence.  Jesus is subjected to the full force of our addictions and our cravings.  He becomes them.  He joins us in drowning in their deluge.  And they are also confession, and so, grace, mercy, reality and truth.  And one way or another, Jesus promises, we shall know the truth, and the truth shall set us free.  

"Refill?"  Of the "Real Thing?" Yes. Please.  

I thirst.      

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Eloi eloi lama sabachthani...": Holy Week Meditations on Christ's Last Words

Eloi eloi lama sabachthani... 

The first “last words” Christ is recorded as saying are not even in English...or Greek, as the case would have been for St. Mark the Evangelist.  To a non-Jewish reader unversed in Hebrew or Aramaic, they’d be incomprehensible without the accompanying translation Mark provides.  And I wonder if that’s the point.  Because even in translation, coming from the God-Man, the Savior of the world, they are incomprehensible - horrific if we let them be: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” 
A few years back, when I was serving as the Worship Coordinator for the Duke Youth Academy, I wanted to put together a live stations of the cross to bring our day of focus on crucifixion and Good Friday to a close.  That day, the high school students had also gone on a pilgrimage of pain and hope through Durham, North Carolina, where they visited, among other things, slave quarters from an old plantation, an old civil rights activist, and several neighborhoods bearing and still receiving the scars of segregation and racially-motivated violence.  I didn’t want to let them off the hook, didn’t want to allow the sheer reality of the situation to become two-dimensional souvenirs on 4x6 inch celluloid.  

I did not want to mitigate the horror.
I wanted our stations to gather into itself the context in which the students were immersed. We invited the students to each select a station, and to write a prayer to accompany the readings.  The prayer would tie the specific station to an experience of the cross from the day’s pilgrimage, or related to racism somewhere in the world.  A handful of students volunteered to dramatically portray the stations.  When he heard about what we were up to, the only Black male staff member came to me and solemnly requested to play Jesus.  I was both thrilled and mortified.  Because the students playing the soldiers, who would accompany Jesus around the sanctuary from station to station, whips and nails in hand, were both white. 
I also enlisted the aide of my good friend, Duke classmate and Delta-bluesman, Toby Bonar.  I asked Toby to create a solemn litany, a kind of Blues-Taize chant, for the worshipping community to sing during the time it took the crucifixion party to move from place to place.  I wanted its words to be Christ‘s earliest last words: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  I’d never heard them sung in a focused manner in worship before, only as incidental verses in the traditional reading of Psalm 22 on Good Friday.  And inevitably, we were taken too quickly from the actual verse Christ chose to scream from the cross, rushing to the promise of hopefulness and the words of trust at the psalm’s end.  Another recoil from the horror I told Toby we couldn’t allow, as we invited the students to take up the pain of their pilgrimage in the sacred space of worship of the Crucified God.
That evening’s worship still scars by memory, like the shadow of a fire burned into a cave wall.  I shudder when I think of Rodney, carrying a life-sized cross, around the sanitized stone and sculpture of Goodson Chapel in the fading light of a Carolina sunset, whipped with cords of choir robe cinctures born by white student soldiers whose determined grimaces could not mask the pain they felt at inhabiting the role of their race’s implication in the continuation of the cross.  
I shiver when I sing again the simple, haunting, almost whispered crone that Toby created, floating like the ghost of so many souls lingering at a crossroads in the Southern countryside, waiting for the train of justice and redemption to collect them from their purgatory on the rails of a finger-picked slide guitar and a wavering bluesman’s voice conjuring Robert Johnson as he sang, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  
I cringe and I weep when, at the climax of the service, the sanctuary gone utterly dark, Jesus, bound (standing) to a cross of tree branches, wearing a crown of thorns he insisted must be real, broke the silence of our meditation with those same words, but this time, at a scream, eyes displaced by their whites in his sockets, as if possessed by the spirit of a moment two centuries past, channeled and conjured into reality before us.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me???”
And then, utter darkness.  

And a chapel full of teenagers sat riveted together, in the darkness, and wept, and prayed.  Speechless at words not our own.  And the horror, I pray, was not mitigated.   
My New Testament professor Joel Marcus believed that, in Mark’s Gospel, the cry of dereliction is purposefully described in the same language as the cries of the demons as they are cast out by Jesus.  He invited us to ponder whether or not, in the end, even Jesus had been consumed by the ever-widening shadow, whether or not, like Aslan, shorn and bound upon the stone table, God had actually lost to the forces of sin and evil, and been utterly consumed.  That this was not just an existential cry of despair and doubt, but the very real, very final, death rattle of the conquered God, the shriek of triumph of the dark as it took possession of the body of Jesus, and so, of the universe.  
Utter darkness.  Horror.  Unimaginable.  Incomprehensible.  This is what, I think, Mark is after in trying to tell the story of the death of Jesus.  I think that is why these are the only words Jesus speaks from the cross in his Gospel.  Anything else footnotes that moment of utter heartbreak, softens it, makes God less dead than God is on that cross, at the hands of Sin, Death, the Devil, and of humanity.  
And the accompanying horror, that still haunts, outrages, and decimates us today.  That in the face of the cross, God does absolutely nothing.  God abandons.  God forsakes.  God is utterly passive.  The final judgement and confrontation with the culmination of the collaboration of the powers of human and supernatural evil is, simply, to do nothing.  To die.  And in Mark, at least, in the original, there is no resurrection.  Only an empty tomb.  And a group of very scared people.  No wonder the other Gospel writers scramble to fill in more details.  
It would be tempting hear to offer a mitigation.  To remind us that, just as with those students’ encounter with God’s seeming abandonment of black people upon the cross of American racism, so too, our Lenten pilgrimage is one of both pain and hope.  To read the whole of Psalm 22, and point to the promised dawn that follows the darkness.  Even, as has become so popular in today’s alt-Christian literature, to sanctify despair and proclaim, “to doubt is divine.”    
But all of these too, are mitigations of the horror.  Even well-intentioned participational worship services ultimately contribute to the reduction of the horror to a spectacle.  Of the entire history of humanity, few have dared to look into the Void of that moment, to stand in the force of the black hole created on Golgotha that sucks the light of the world and crushes hope beneath its force.  I sense no one would, if not forced into it, and sadly, we have participated in too many systems and societies that are built on the foundations of cries of dereliction we have helped elicit - or else, avoided by domestication and sentimentality. 
But Jesus’ cry is not in our language.  It is not comprehensible to us.  It’s not something we can merely understand, capture, consume, and then move on from.  It defies us. That’s the point, I think.  It just happened.  Happened like slavery, both in our country and in our hearts.  Happened like the collapse of a star.  Happened like the end of the world.  And we cannot remain spectators, though we try with all our might.  We are a drawn into it’s happening.  If there’s any hope in it at all (and thank God, there is), it begins here - with horror.  

And maybe, with singing horrified words that our not our own.  And sitting in the darkness together.