Monthly Archives: January 2013

first published piece

For anyone who hasn’t seen me tweeting about this like crazy: The Other Journal recently published a piece of mine called The Sun and the Salutation. It’s on yoga as a prayer practice, and on my struggle to regain the practice during a season of darkness. It’s my first officially published piece, so I’m super excited about it. You can find it here!

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blessed to bless

I keep a booklet I found when I worked at a public library. On the cover in bold words is “THE CHOICE”. It’s a comic of a conversation in which one man is trying to logically convince the other to say a prayer in order to avoid eternal damnation. In the past, when acquaintances have noticed it, there’s often a moment of discomfort, and rightly so: evangelists don’t have the best track record of kindness toward those outside the church. At best, non-Christians are viewed as ignorant or ‘lost’. Other times, there’s language of evil and temptation: those outside the community might lead believers astray to worshipping other gods (Harry Potter) or to moral failures such as sexual promiscuity (Lady Gaga).

'The Choice', image from chick tracts.

‘The Choice’, image from chick tracts.

Even with the distance of geography, time, and culture, this reality is not that far from the one in the Book of Ruth. Ruth, a Moabite, would be suspect by those within the community of Israel. She has worshipped other gods, she is a woman from women with a reputation for sexual promiscuity. The inclusion of Ruth’s story among sacred texts challenges Israel to include and bless the same people they had been so certain were outside of God’s desire to bless. There is criticism that the Book of Ruth encourages assimilation: it is only the Moabite who converts—the one who abandons her land, people, and customs—that is accepted into Israel. This is the story of Ruth; Orpah is forgotten. However, such an individual must change the way her nation is viewed. If one can be “worthy” of God’s blessing, then how many others might be as well, but not included into the community of Israel? Ruth had to prove herself, the necessity of which exposes the hardness of Israel’s hearts even more than it does Ruth’s exceptionalism. Perhaps, following Ruth, others can be accepted without such strict adoption to Israel’s culture and customs. God has, since Abraham, been expanding his nation; perhaps Ruth was to show that the outsider can be blessed by Israel, in order that Israel does bless others, even without their abandoning their own people. To use a modern example: not every African American needs to become President in order for the presidency of Obama to begin to to alter the way African Americans are treated in this country. “Maybe,” some Israelites whisper to themselves, “those Moabites aren’t quite as bad as we thought.”

Ruth’s story challenges the Church just as it challenged Israel. We may have abandoned the language of tribalism, but the sentiment is alive and well. If we do the translation work, who would be our Moabites today? Who are the people we can’t imagine God blessing? Do we need to wait for a Ruth figure to come forward before we start extending blessings on behalf of our God, or can we learn from her story? Our culture is also one highly focused on achievement. Who are our neighbors we believe to be undeserving of God’s blessings, those who don’t prove themselves to us the way Ruth worked to? The meth heads, the alcoholics, the welfare moms. Will we remain hard-hearted until they prove themselves to us, or can we bless them into a place of flourishing?

In that evangelical booklet, a couple pages outline the ways in which Satan leads people away from Jesus, including education (with a comic parodying evolutionism), peer pressure (the picture of rough-looking punk men), “the cares of this world” (showing a man chasing after money), and sports (showing a tattooed man cheering). I hope for a Church that blesses those with whom they disagree, the girls with mohawks and men with tattoos, and the man chasing after money—regardless of whether his chase is to put food on the table or to buy a sixth cottage. God’s people are not called to judge, to argue, nor to condemn; we were called to bless.

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music: wailing worship

The modernist worldview of forward human progress asserted the belief that every problem not only can be solved but eventually will be. Along with much of the Western world, the church bought into the paradigm, seeking to resolve theological tensions. The result is services centered around certainty and sentimentality. Christians have become known to outsiders as those who wear rose-tinted glasses, offering the simple answer of “hope in Jesus Christ” as an answer to problems to everything from addiction to finding a parking space.

The area in which the sentimental nature of the church has become most clear is in worship. The sentimentalist, writes Jeremy Begbie, is one who “misrepresents reality through evading or trivializing evil, is emotionally self-indulgent, and avoids appropriate costly action.” Such works abound in contemporary Christian music; a song that comes to mind is “Blessed Be Your Name,” a happy melody with lyrics that encourage worship rather than painfully confronting God and reality about evil. It is self-indulgent in that the congregants can feel good about the decision to choose praise even when they could feel despair. The primary intent of such a song is the “satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion.” This piece avoids action by refusing to draw attention to any problems: through the complete evasion of recognizing evil for what it is, any situation that would require action remains unnamed. Such compulsory praise is “disturbingly out of touch” and is often “deployed as a narcotic” against the horrors of the world.

In contrast are pieces that confront the breadth and depth of both the human experience and of the triduum: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day. Begbie writes that countersentimentality depends on an “appropriate construal of the relation between cross and resurrection.” The story is told and heard both as a story in which the resurrection is known from the beginning, and as a story whose ending is discovered as it happens. Hope and despair are held together. Such pieces acknowledge the reality of suffering as experienced on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, while also offering glimpses of the hope that is known to be in store for Easter Day. The challenge is to hold both tellings simultaneously.

Although Begbie calls for songs that include the hope of Easter Day, I find it enough to express the despair and mourning of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In a society where the church has reduced itself to a center that encourages certainty, introducing works that meet people in places of questioning or anguish would feel paradoxically hopeful. One example is “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse, in which the narrator names God an “Indian giver” (racial issues aside for now) and questions “who would wanna be such a control freak?” The singer’s question speaks to doubt within myself, confronting a boxed-in view of God. His honest wrestling against God requires more contact than a bow of praise does. Another piece, entitled “Maranatha,” professes a God who is in, rather than only the cause of, all circumstances, and thus worthy of praise. Pádraig Ó Tuama sings, “I’ve fucked it up so many times / Alleluia.” The juxtaposition highlights that God is not to be worshipped merely because He is the cause of joy, goodness, beauty, and happiness, but rather, God is to be worshipped because He is God.

“I’ve fucked it up so many times / Alleluia.”

More is at stake than the experience and expression of human emotions and experiences. Without lament, humans are forfeiting both genuine relationship to their Creator and the power to appeal to Her for justice. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “a theological monopoly is re-enforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in terms of social practice is to re-enforce and consolidate the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.” Which is exactly what we see happening in sentimental worship: complacency abounds. The problem, as Brueggemann illustrates, is that it is not only a complacency of humans, but such silence permits God to remain inactive. When humans lament, “the cry initiates history” by calling God to action in the face of circumstances that are not tolerable. It is a task specific to humans to engage with the Creator in such a way, negotiating with Her for the good of all. In Psalm 39, the speaker’s verbal “restraint only contributed to the trouble;” may we learn from the mistake of his silence. God is on our side and willing to work on our behalf, but we must cry from a place of genuine suffering in order to engage Her.

Lament in worship is also a crucial aspect of community formation. Much of what makes singing together so powerful is the seemingly simple act of breathing together. The congregation aligns the in-and-out of breath, submitting to a work that is beyond ourselves and greater than the sum of individuals’ voices. Guthrie writes that “in music, we encounter identity which preserves particularity.” Through worship, the community demonstrates what can be achieved by coordinating our very pneuma, our breath and spirit, with one another. At the same time, the individual can hold on to his or her self in the piece. To use such a living metaphor exclusively for acts of praise is to diminish it. By incorporating lament, we validate and encourage the members of our community who aren’t experiencing God’s goodness by coming alongside them in the physical acting out of despair. Israel knew this, often using the psalms to share the burden of pain.

The church’s definition of worship must expand beyond praise, must be redefined to include mourning, suffering, doubt, and lament. To do so will honestly engage the living God through the Spirit, call humans to action in restoring our world, and reach out in accepting community to those who are in places in life in which God’s goodness is anything but obvious.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on music and singing.

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a prayer for difficult transitions

I often forget to pray. Especially the last few days, I have been struggling through both physical pain and emotional hurt. The most prayer I’ve offered in the last week is tears, and although these, too, are acceptable to God as prayer, I know more is desired. The best way to move through such difficulties is to begin to find language to specifically name what is happening. I’ve written only a couple Celtic-style prayers, both prompted by classes. Although I struggled with the assignments, I find that a part of myself is released as the words are formed and repetition enacted. So I decided to write a quick one with the hope that reading and rereading it will release some of the emotional hurt. Here’s a short prayer for difficult transitions.

As it was,

Is not.

As it is,

Will not always be.

O eternal outpouring of grace!

O eternal offering of peace!

O eternal triune of love!

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the year of the pen

Last time the year rolled over, I decided to give up my obsession over goals and achievements in favor of focusing on one thing. An ancient Greek poet wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  I was driving myself crazy trying to be a fox and never achieving enough to meet my standards, so I decided to try being a hedgehog.

I’m naming 2013 the Year of the Pen, the year in which I commit myself to writing. I chose a specific topic and am making notes on it every day. I enrolled in fewer classes so that I have more time to dedicate to my own projects. For Christmas, my husband bought me a beautiful leather notebook that safekeeps my thoughts, observations, ranting internal monologues.

I’m nervous. This feels like a big risk, and an unstable career path. For someone who was so goal-oriented and achievement-driven, stepping back from academia feels like a failure in itself. To leave a sturdy career path with regular paychecks in order to write feels irresponsible. But I’m doing this. By the end of the year, I’ll have at least one substantive work to start sending to publishers.

photo

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looking back

For me, 2012 was the Year of the Nest. It was my first year of marriage, and I had wanted to integrate Keller’s and my belongings, get rid of towers of boxes, and create an inviting space for guests—in short, I wanted to make a home. Our first place was on the eighteenth floor of a downtown Seattle apartment building. We called it the Nest, a reference both to our newlywed nesting status and to its place among the treetops. Although I did manage unpack all our belongings, it never stopped feeling like an apartment. When we finally moved last August, we joked that it was as if we had lived in a hotel for a year and were just coming home.

In that first week at the new apartment, we painted, unpacked, and organized everything. The second week brought our first house guest, my sister (technically sister-in-law, but we call each other ‘sister’) all the way from Jordan. It was so nice to be able to put her in a room that could be hers for the stay, whereas previous guests had set up camp in the living room. A few days later, we had our first party, inviting friends to grill out and relax around a bonfire in the backyard. Since then we have hosted meals for friends, gatherings for school groups, even Thanksgiving for a dozen. Our home is known as Fort Davis, a restful sanctuary set aside from the battles of the world. A couple friends helped us decorate our tree while being warmed by hot cider and a small fire, and as we together began to anticipate Christmas, my friend said to his wife, “This just feels like home, doesn’t it?” Perhaps the best compliment an intentional homemaker could overhear; the warmth of the fireplace could not compete with the warmth in my heart.

home

The other part of my desire to nest well was to be mindful in keeping a clean home and establishing routines. Since mindfulness is a habit rather than an achievement, it doesn’t fit the easy parameters of success or failure. Some days I am attentive and aware. Folding laundry is meditative, most weeks. But there are other times when it falls apart. The paper-writing season at the end of last term meant that laundry didn’t even get done for a couple weeks, and stayed in baskets cluttering the bedroom floor for a couple more. Cultivating the memory to be mindful is a work that will continue to be in progress.

2013 is deemed the Year of the Pen, but more on that in my next post!

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