Tag Archives: Jesus

liberated to love

Recently, I delivered my second sermon ever to the 5pm community of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. This community practices a shared homily, so I gave a few minutes of my own reflections and then invited the responses of the community.

Here’s the gospel text I preached on from the lectionary that Sunday, Matthew 5:21-37.

And click here for the audio of my portion of the sermon.

Let me know what you think!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

remember death

Recently, a friend sent me this piece in which Russell Banks discusses his inspiration for writing: a gravestone inscription of Remember Death that sits near his desk.

I’m reminded (as I read Banks’s words now, and often when I write) of Andrew Marvell’s line, “at my back I always hear Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” For some reason it gives me the feeling of a hand lightly touching the small of my back; a feminine image, a tuxedoed man ushering me inside while holding open the door. I don’t need to look over my shoulder to know that it is no mortal, but Death’s skeletal hand, resting on the curve of my spine.

Yet death is such an abstraction, so hard to keep near. I’ve more than once tried to be decisive about killing myself, tried to pick a date, so that I could write a suicide letter about the way I experience the world. Undoubtedly, the letter would turn into an essay and then a book and maybe something worthwhile would come of it. But I can’t convince myself quite enough that I’ll actually follow through with the suicide, at least never for long enough to actually write something worthwhile. Or, the times I begin to draft such an essay in my head, I’m already so far in despair that I know—with supposed certainty—that nothing worthwhile would ever come of it, or of any work at all. Everything is meaningless, I mumble to myself, everything is vapor.
Sometimes I worry that because I don’t remember death and because I don’t write—the causation is important—I’ll be diagnosed, someday soon, with an exotic, fast-moving, incurable disease and have to scribble down just one of the dozen books I have inside me before the spirit expires.
So here I am. Anxious, unproductive. Paralyzed.
Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring  forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you. It feels true. And I don’t now how to get it out.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

review of “our mother st paul”

In Our Mother Saint Paul, Beverly Roberts Gaventa explores the metaphors of Paul’s oft-neglected maternal imagery and examines his letters within an apocalyptic context. In Part 1, maternal imagery is examined to show that Paul is “an authority who does not conform to standard norms of authority.” Part 2 explores the Pauline letters with questions of apocalyptic theology at the forefront.

Gaventa recognizes that maternal images are complex metaphorical movements that are too often dismissed. Paternal imagery is of one-time begetting and is not the same category as maternal imagery, which reflects an on-going nurturing relationship. As such, it describes the vocation of the apostolic office and is associated with apocalyptic contexts. As aids in explaining the maternal imagery, Gaventa utilizes the history of traditions; the sociocultural context in which the letters were written, especially gender construction within the Greco-Roman world; and ‘metaphor theory’, which Gaventa explains as the use of metaphor as “an invitation to intimacy” and to change our minds.

Specifically, Gaventa is interested in the cohesion of Paul’s use of familial and kinship metaphors, noting that “metaphors having to do with nurture are almost exclusively associated with mothers” and generative metaphors that “may structure large aspects of thought.” The imagery has implications for Paul’s understanding of both leadership and women’s roles.

The first four chapters address specific maternal images employed in Paul’s letters, beginning with that of apostles as infants and nurses (1 Thessalonians 2:7), a mixed metaphor Gaventa explains through the social context. With this image, Paul is struggling to identify two aspects of the apostolic role: childlike in that he does not seek benefit, and nurse-like in that he is responsible in tending his charges with care and affection. Such metaphors of family life establish believers as a family, which restructures society and reconceptualizes conventional roles. The apostolic task is not ordinary, and “one must employ categories that seem outrageous.”

Next, Gaventa addresses the image of Paul in labor with the Galatians in his womb and the object of labor being Christ (Galatians 4:19). The metaphor may seem confused, but Gaventa shows it to be intentional. Through examining the Greek, Gaventa understands the verse to be about the apostolic vocation’s association with the anguish of the coming apocalyptic era, and the goal of anguish is that Christ be formed within communities. Paul’s work as an apostle occurs within apocalyptic framework that looks toward the incorporation of the entire cosmos into Christ. This is not about the action of Paul to another individual, but the action of God toward humanity.

The third image examined is Paul as nurse supplying milk to ‘infant’ believers not ready for solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). The metaphor here reinforces familial language within the community of believers while also undermining culturally approved masculine roles. Whereas other commentators focus on paternal imagery later in the passage and even try to link this image with it, a nursing mother cannot be replaced with a father. She examines the Greco-Roman cultural understanding of sexuality—in which women were understood to be inverted males, femininity was a threat to masculinity, and strict norms for ‘real men’ were followed—to conclude that Paul “effectively concedes the culturally predisposed battle for his masculinity” and moves to the margins of acceptability. Gaventa compares Paul’s loss of status to his later images as a planter of someone else’s field, a servant of someone else’s builder, and also to “the crucified Jesus, who is no more a ‘real man’ by the world’s standards than is a nursing Paul.”

The final piece of maternal imagery addressed is of creation itself in labor (Romans 8:22). Gaventa argues that “all creation” includes humanity, even non-Jew and non-Christian. The labor of creation births nothing, but rather waits for God’s action. Meanwhile, creation continues to be sold into slavery, although the resurrection means that the powers, ultimately, will not prevail. What Paul affirms is the future redemption of creation despite the fact that “anti-God powers” of Sin and Death continue to separate humanity from God.

Chapter Five transitions from specific metaphors into the overall theology of Paul. Questions of permission and prohibition are not Paul’s priority of vocation. Gaventa focuses on Galatians in order to see what might be gleaned from a letter that is decidedly male in its issues, characters, and decision-making. When the question is no longer primarily about Paul’s understanding of women, the letter is liberated to speak to theological concerns that affect all humanity. The reader is free to hear the ways in which the gospel’s arrival obliterates law, systems that measure achievements, and identity constructions that separate rather than connect, such as culture, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender.

In Part Two, Gaventa places the maternal metaphors into the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s theology. Through examining, primarily, Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, she reveals Paul’s theology to emphasize (a) the presence of the ongoing apocalypse that invades all realms of life and (b) the gospel that God revealed victory in the ongoing struggle between good and evil through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Galatians 1 through 4, Paul focuses on the singularity of the gospel and on the relationship of believers to the gospel. He sees Galatians as seeking to please outsiders in the same way he had done previously, and instructs that they must not submit to the elements of the world. What rules the text is the conviction “there is only one gospel and that it puts an end to all prior commitments, conventions, and value systems. [Tradition, law, social barriers, and feast days] are alike insofar as they threaten to undermine the exclusive claim of the gospel.” Paul uses his own experience as an example of the gospel’s work and power, using his life to point to something beyond himself. Although the presenting problem of circumcision in Galatians 3 and 4 is a question concerning the law, Gaventa looks past the symptom to the central theological issue of the identity and accomplishments of Jesus Christ. “What the Galatians seek in the law is the certainty that they have a firm place in the church of God and that they know what God requires of them. It is precisely this certainty, and every other form of certainty, that Paul rejects with his claim about the exclusivity and singularity of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s Christology puts the crucifixion at the focus, through which humanity is freed not only from legal practices but from all identifications, whether within law or outside it. The new creation brought about by the crucifixion allows for no augmentation by the law nor any other power or loyalty.

The final chapters of Our Mother Saint Paul investigate Paul’s letter to the Romans to understand the cosmic battle between God and the anti-God powers as well as the community of believers. Gaventa examines the phrase “God handed them over” with the understanding that God surrendered humanity to the anti-God powers, specifically to uncleanness/impurity, dishonorable passions, and deformed mind. In Paul’s understanding, these are not human characteristics but powers; humans always live in the grasp of some power. Having already handed over humanity, the crucifixion is the point at which God hands over his own Son, which is not the victory of the powers but their unmasking and sure defeat.

Paul’s letter to the Romans emphasizes that the battle against evil is not simply a list of transgressions to condemn or avoid, it is God’s own enemy. Sin is not confined to behavior but is a power that entered the world, became an enslaving force, unleashed its partner Death, and corrupts even God’s law. As God once handed humanity over to Sin, he has handed over Jesus for its defeat. Baptism means the individual is dead to Sin, although capable of transgression (lowercase sin). On a cosmic level Sin is no longer the enslaving power; grace holds dominion. Ultimately, God will destroy evil on behalf of humanity.

Gaventa also considers Romans to see what it might suggest about community. She observes that Paul invokes a common memory of what has happened in the gospel with the hope that a shared interpretation will shape the future and unity of the community. The community’s behavior is characterized by an upbuilding of others within the community and reaching out to the outsider. Community boundaries are wide and yet distinguish a “line between those who are living and those who remain in the power of Death.” However, Paul does not stigmatize outsiders; he is caringly concerned for them.

Gaventa shows Romans to be a display of Paul’s theologizing. His theology is not a starting point but an end product that is fluid in light of changing events. God, for Paul, is ‘on the loose’ and uncontainable. The demands of such an all-encompassing God affect every area of human life and creation itself. Paul maintains that God is faithful, but faithfulness does not imply predictability. What may look like rejection to Israel is not unfaithfulness but is faithfulness to all creation, as God works to transform all. Paul’s fluid understanding allows room for a God who unexpectedly surpasses his promises.

Reviewers have much to praise in Gaventa’s work. McNeel writes that Gaventa shows maternal images to be “an essential part of Paul’s theologizing, both about apostolic ministry and about the cosmic battle going on between God and the anti-God forces of the universe.” The common critique is the fragmented argument of the work as a whole, especially between the two parts. Ascough relates that in early chapters the reader is left “wondering how the term ‘apocalyptic’ is being used.” The chapters on apocalyptic theology, McNeel notes, apparently “were not composed with maternal imagery in mind.”

While I agree that the book reads as two distinct works, her war-faring language is more problematic for me. Gaventa employs war imagery to describe conflict between powers. She states that “God wages war”, and that believers are God’s weapons. However, she also describes a God who “delivered up humanity”; the weapons (humanity) have been handed over. I protest: This God does not battle, he surrenders and dies on a cross. This God does not crush opponents, but becomes vulnerable to them. Feminists recognize the way language shapes cultural structures, and war-faring language is no exception. By employing primarily war imagery in theology and depicting a battle-ready God, Gaventa perpetuates philosophies of righteous war and systems of violence.

This review written for Feminist Hermeneutics with Jo-Ann Badley; all students were asked to write a review of this text.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

god/body map

SELF

I was raised to be a good soul trapped in an inconsequential body.

The soul was what mattered. It lived on forever, it was judged by a white guy up in the sky, it journeyed to some far-away paradise after death.

The body was merely an imprisonment. “This life is only to determine where you’ll spend eternity,” my father was fond of stating with certainty. After the decision was made, all that’s left is to wait for the body’s expiration date, and perhaps help move that date closer. Breakfast in my house was a giant class of diet Coke and a chocolate-iced doughnut.

“If it tastes good, it’s bad for you,” another favorite phrase from my parents. I remember the first time I bit into a fresh pear, handed to me by a friend’s mother. I was overwhelmed with the sweetness, surprised by the juice and the contrast of soft flesh within tough skin. A few years later, when I tried to lose weight, I ate toast, thinking the bland taste meant it was good for me. All the things my body and taste buds craved—crisp broccoli, fresh berries, raw almonds—had been deemed ‘bad for me’ by my parents’ rule.

It was difficult to reach down to tie my shoes.

In college, my violin instructor banned dairy from my diet and demanded protein (a foreign word I had to research) at each meal. Post-college I began a weekly yoga practiced and, for what felt like the first time, felt my body.

As my body taught me about my self,

As my body changed and my self along with it,

As I changed and the body reflected the difference,

I had to rethink the way I understood my self.

Obviously, everything was so much more interconnected than I had been taught. When I began eating food designed by the Creator rather than the corporation, my relationship with the environment around me changed. As I began to taste food in its particularity instead of as a means to fullness, I also found each person to hold a particularity that had previously gone unnoticed. As my soul moved into my body, I stopped barricading myself so strongly within my intellect. I allowed myself to feel, even when feeling hurt. I stopped being a soul and a body. I became one person.

Which is not to deny my complexity. I don’t think of myself as nothing more than an accumulation of cells. I am a body, but when I slice open my arm there is no confusion that it’s my intelligence seeping out. When I confer within myself, there’s no confusion at hearing multiple voices. I am in relationship with myself. Understanding myself as an integrated unity opened up more freedom within me to be in such a relationship. There are no clearly-defined borders of mind, body, soul; there is only relationships, on-going, ever-building in complexity, differentiating, integrating, including, transcending.

Don’t be misled by my frame. I am a big self.

——————————————————-

THE DIVINE. DIV(I)N(THRE)E.

I’m wary of using the word ‘God’. No one means the same thing by it. It’s often used (and capitalized) as though it’s a name, proper noun. It’s not. It’s a description, just as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Divine,’ or ‘Be-ing’, is. That said, I will use the word, but please, just as I do not want you to put your preconceived stereotypes about ‘white’, ‘women’, or ‘Michigander’ onto me, I do not want you to think you know the essence of this God Being.

Everything is included in God. Everything is transcended, surpassed, gone beyond by God. There is nothing that is not God. Just as your body includes organs such as your lungs, heart, and brain, you are more than the accumulation of your organs. You include all of them, but you also transcend all of them. God includes everything, but also transcends, and from that beyond-place, God calls creation to be more than it is, calls humanity to be more than we are. Why do we cringe to think of the way scripture was used to justify slavery but continue to use it to justify domestic violence, gender inequality, ethnocentrism and exceptionalism?

In some way, a first-century Jewish man embodied everything it was to be human while also embodying everything it is to be God. I do not pretend to understand this. What I do know is that this man prayed, and God responded. Which can be confusing. God responding to God’s own self?

Oh, whispers a warm internal voice, you know what that’s like.

That’s different, another I responds. We aren’t God. 

Well then what do you do with imago Dei? Chimes in that snobby theological intellectual that won’t go away, no matter how much the rest of us shun him.

On some level, I’m aware I might be making God into my own image, but I’m not without tradition in doing so, and the company isn’t terrible.

Or maybe it really is the other way around, and my inner relationality reflects something of God’s inner workings. Not that it helps; I still can’t claim any solid understanding of God nor of the way my inner self works.

So I put words to it as best I can with a giant shrug. We could be wrong, the voices agree.

——————————————————-

SELF AND DIVINITY

The best image I have to begin describing any of this is not an image at all. It was something that was barely understood to exist until just a few centuries ago: air.

We tell ourselves that air is all around us, it’s the thing in which we live. What we forget is that there are times the air believes humans to be the thing around it, that we are the thing in which it exists. Which is to say: we inhale.

I had a pastor who once explained that the reason the tetragrammaton—the four-letter Hebrew name for God that we lamely translate as Lord—is unsayable is that it’s actually unpronounceable. “They’re breathing sounds,” he says. He talks about pneuma meaning both breath and spirit. Another friend, also a pastor, likes to say that the answer to the question “Where is God?” is only an inhale and exhale away.

Inside me, that affirming voice resonates warmly. Breath and spirit are connected. God is in all people, even when they aren’t aware of it. Each inhale, the spirit is being lent to us, and with each exhale we return it to the creation. With breath, God is in everyone. And the animals, they breathe. Plants, too, in their way. All the green plants, all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it—holds a piece of God.

At times, God feels far away; I try to get close. I recite from prayer books, I force myself out of bed to church, I taste the bread dipped in the cup. This is all a chasing after the wind, only to eventually discover the wind is held in my own lungs.

I must take care of the spirit that is lent to me with each inhale. To do otherwise, to waste this fragile life breath by breath, is to take the LORD’s name in vain 28,000 times a day.

I have questions about how breathing works. Is my diaphragm pulling air in, or does the air enter thus move my diaphragm? Put theologically, it’s a question of who is initiating: am I inviting God in, or is God entering into me? The answer, as it often seems to be in God matters, might be: Yes.

But I could be wrong.

——————————————————-

SELF AND EVERYTHING ELSE

If God is in others, I must be kind to them. I must see them in their particularity. They carry a piece of God, and I can only have eyes to see if I forget God and any other notions I have of what lies behind the face in front of me.

Animals are included in God, too. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I do have the sense that we are are to take care of them. Genesis agrees with me: ruling over the creatures is God’s first commandment to humanity. I also have the sense that raising them on food they weren’t meant to eat, in group sizes they don’t naturally live in, for the purpose of slaughter and consumption, all does not fall under the category of ‘taking care’.

The rest of the environment, as well. God includes and transcends all. Nothing is an accident; everything is beloved. I share air, breath, and therefore spirit with the tree that blocks my view of the harbor. The tree is inside me: I have no more health to despise it than I do to despise my own breath.

Which brings us back to where we started, as seems to happen when discussing relationships that inter-connect in the dizzying trail of a celtic knot. It’s hard to remember, but my lungs, too, contain breath, hold spirit. I have a hard time remembering this, but I must remember, I must remember: I carry images of the divine.

In ragged breaths,

In tearful sobs,

In shallow panting,

the name of God.

Intentional inhales,

lungs are broad,

Mindful exhales,

the name of God.

This was written for Theology I in Fall 2012. Students were asked to consider the way they understand themselves in relationship to God and others.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“repent of thinking evil of evil”

Those words were one line in the closing blessing of tonight’s liturgy. In the wake of the Zimmerman trial, of what feels like a massive injustice, a failure of our system, a brokenness of humanity, they rang through my soul. I’ve been thinking of Zimmerman as an evil man with a cold heart and hard intentions, and while that might be true for the moment in which he chose to pursue with suspicion rather than step away and trust in the workings of the universe, decided to kill rather than lose a fight against a teenager, that is not the sum total of who he is as a person.

I recently got into an argument about whether or not it’s acceptable to say “the cross” with reference to the entire life and death of Jesus. I’m convinced that it is not: invoking the cross does not also invoke the resurrection, much less the many years and teachings of the incarnate divinity before that moment. By saying “the cross” to mean “the life,” by invoking the metonym of a part to represent the whole, we are choosing to remember him only for the worst thing that ever happened to him. But he wasn’t simply a victim of the state; he was a helpless infant, and a wise child, and an unconventional rabbi, a man who loved, who had compassion, who wept. How dare we reduce him to a symbol from just one day in a rich life?

And yet that’s exactly what I had wanted to do to George. (It feels more human to be on a first-name basis with a man with whom I have wrestled internally so much.) I had wanted to define him by the worst thing he had ever done, to name him simply ‘murderer’ and not have to deal with the complexity of his life in all its love and pain and joy and fear and shame. Which isn’t to say that justice is irrelevant; it’s not, and I would love to see him repent, to see him confront his prejudices and hatred, to be in community with those he fears, to heal and become more whole. Which might happen, who knows. I do know that his life and actions are beyond my control; I must step away and trust in the workings of the universe. I must repent of thinking evil of evil.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

trinitarian personhood

The Trinity is recognized as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their differentiated forms, and yet also as a single entity. The paradoxical three-in-one-ness of the trinity can be a foundation to an individual’s understanding of self as plurality within an integrated unity.

In the western world today, we are accustomed to thinking of our selves as segmented into clear-cut definitions of mind, body, and soul. When a concept of divided self is accepted, the selves compete with one another for dominance. For decades, the mind and soul have held supreme importance over the body. Logic and faith held in the mind have been believed to be the way to salvation. The soul is given special ranking as it is the piece of an individual that is granted eternal life. Such an intellectualizing of the gospel contributes to loss of the body, which the incarnation of Jesus combats: it was important for God to become enfleshed, and so it must be important for us to recognize our bodily selves as well. Even before the embodiment of the divine person, God in Her infinite wisdom created us to be embodied creatures; I trust She had good reasons.

The trinitarian nature of God can be explained as correlating to our construction of identity: Christ is analogous to the body, Father to the mind, and the Spirit to an individual’s soul. Such constructs forget the essential aspect of unity: God still recognizes Herself as one integrated being. Jesus cites the Shema as the most important commandment; God in flesh tells us that the most important thing to know is that God is one.

Spiritual formation should point the Christian to a relational understanding within his/herself, correcting the cultural norm of competition. When we stop viewing unique identities as in competition with one another, they are allowed to relate and grow through one another. Jeremy Begbie provides the idea of notes sounding: although a single note “fills the entirety of my aural space,”  two notes interpenetrate to occupy the same space while retaining their individual sound. The interpenetration allows each note to be more fully itself. When an individual can understand his selves as sounding through one another to be more themselves, true growth and acceptance is possible. The body becomes connected to the soul, the mind develops through bodily experiences; the interplay is part of the beauty. This work might be called introversive atonement, an at-one-ment that brings unity to a fractured self, or a-tone-ment that heals the mind and soul through toning work of the body.

This piece was originally part of the final exam for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write 3 essays in 2 hours.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

on advent, anticipation, and active hope

This year, the first Christmas party to which I was invited will be taking place on December 1st. I informed my husband, enraged. “There was a time when Christian meant anticipation! What happened to living in the already and the not-yet? What happened to the patience of hope?”

He thought I was being unfair. “It’s the culture, love,” he said in his best soothing voice. But I will not be soothed. I go off on how it used to be that Christmas day began the twelve days of festivities, that no parties occurred before Christmas because it was a season of anticipation. Now, if I want to anticipate, I need to begin around Halloween. No wonder the stores put out their stockings when Fall has barely begun.

He attempts to use reason, “It’s not a good reason to want to go back to a tradition just because it’s what we used to do.” Which is true, of course, but not my argument at all. “I’m going to decline on theological grounds.”

Israel knew how to wait. They waited, expectantly, for the New Jerusalem. Even with the knowledge that they may not live to see its coming, they lived in hopeful anticipation.

In advent, I remember that Mary knew about anticipation. I would think every mother does. From the realization of the first missed menstruation until the child is in arms, a mother lives in anticipation of that tiny breath. It’s not a passive waiting, she actively works towards it, feels her body change, increases her food intake. She prepares not only in her body, but also her home, child-proofing and readying. She prepares psychologically. At the birth of her child, she will become a mother, and spend the rest of her life learning to be what she already is, a mother.

So what does it mean to anticipate the birth of a boy who became the man who taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come”? I would suggest it means living in anticipation, active and excited anticipation, working towards new life and new creation with a patient hope. Perhaps advent teaches us to be patient for 30 days, so that we may be patient for another 30 days, 30 years, 30 generations as we actively work to bring the Kingdom into existence.

Or we could have a Christmas party to start off December. That sounds just as good, right?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

blessed are the arrogant: a viewing of magnolia

In evaluating which character in Magnolia represents the “poor in spirit”, we must first find a satisfactory understanding of the phrase.

Humility is one interpretation. Chrysostom believed the blessing to be for those who were intentionally “humble and contrite in mind.” Robert Schuller writes we are to “humble our attitude … ask for help.” By this definition, I don’t think any characters in Magnolia can be viewed as poor in spirit.. The closest would be Phil, the nurse, humble enough to order Hustler and spend hours begging with strangers on the phone in order to help his dying patient make amends with his son. However, not much personal humility is required in order to ask on the behalf of another; it costs more to receive than to give.

Let’s try again. Brown proposes that the phrase means “those who are oppressed by the rich and powerful.” In which case, I turn to the Exodus allegory of Magnolia, set up most obviously by the falling frogs, the most prominent of the many references to Exodus 8:2, “I will smite thy borders with frogs.” Throughout the film it is thethe children, both young and grown (Claudia, Frank, Dixon, Donnie, and Stanley), who are enslaved and exploited for the benefit of their fathers, who represent the Egyptians. The children are “poor in spirit”, used and exploited for sexual gratification or financial gain, and ignored by those in a position to help. This is satisfying as a reenacting of the oppression in Exodus, and yet as I watch the film I cannot help but be empathetic toward the pain of the adults. Earl abandoned his son, yes, but I feel for him in his remorse. Jimmy might have molested his daughter, and yet he’s not an entirely unlikable character, no matter how much I want him to be. Why would PT Anderson construct these characters in such a way if they are meant to be hated?

There is yet another definition of what it means to be poor in spirit. In this understanding, “poor in spirit” is not a virtue to attain nor a socioeconomic circumstance. It is a negative term, depicting the losers, the outsiders, the people who don’t deserve to be blessed. Dallas Willard re-writes the verse, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’,” theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. When “poor in spirit” stops being one more requirement for entry, it is freed to truly be a blessing upon those have no reason to be blessed. This is an understanding to which every character in Magnolia can say: well, that’s good news.

The Kingdom of Heaven is for the divorcees, the uncared for children, the lonely, the child molesters, promiscuous seducers, adulterers, greedy exploiters, thieves, and coke addicts.

Who is poor in spirit in this film? I ask back: who isn’t?

This piece was written as an assignment for Reading Practices with Jo-Ann Badley, responding to the question “Who, if anyone, represents the poor in spirit in the film Magnolia?”

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

parts in a whole: differentiation and integration in god and humanity

Humans are created in the image of a relational, trinitarian God characterized by plurality within unity. Relationships with other people inform an understanding of God; relationship with God informs understanding of others; and so the spiral continues to inform and build upon itself. The internal selves of both God and people, God’s stance with humanity, and interactions among humans are all defined by relationship comprised of both differentiation and unity. To live in the tension between the two is to fully step into one’s human condition, as the balance of differentiation and unity are essential to God, to individuals, and to relationships.

The essential nature of God is to be relational in his own self. He exists in a plurality that is also an integrated unity. In Genesis 1, God participates in a self-directed dialogue in which he resolves within himself to create mankind “in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Jurgen Moltmann writes that the conversation “presupposes that the author of the self-exhortation has a relation to himself. And a relationship to one’s own self in turn presupposes a self-differentiation and the possibility of self-identification. The subject is then singular in the plural, or a plural in a singular.” God’s use of the pronoun ‘our’ tells us that he is differentiated within himself and can address himself.

At the same time, God maintains singularity. It is a foundational tenet of Judaism that there is only one God, and Christian faith adheres to the same truth. When Jesus was asked the most important commandment, he asserts the Shema, which begins: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29). Jesus, who is a part of the relational Trinity, views the most important, essential, vital commandment to be that God is a unified being. God himself reminds us that, above all, God is one.

It is a sign of health to recognize the plurality within one’s being, to be able to internally address oneself, to recognize that the voices in my head are a part of who I am. A vital trait for proactive work is self-differentiation: it’s how we weigh pros and cons, form a plan of action, and resolve within ourselves to do, act, and create. Erwin Singer writes that “personal attentiveness” is necessary for engagement with others and the world. One’s attention must be capable of being “attuned to the subtleties of one’s own personal reactions, capable of aiding the listener in his quest to grasp the full nature of what is communicated”; indeed, attention is only possible with a sensitivity within the listener to one’s own self. Here again, we might discuss the Shema: the people are first called to “hear,” as many Hebrew prayers begin. It is a call, as Singer writes, to profound listening “with one’s viscera, with one’s full being: an attending to one’s inner voices.” It is a reminder that we must be attuned to the plurality within our unified being.

Of course, without being balanced by an understanding of unity within ourselves, such thinking can de-center an individual. It’s common to speak of life as a segmented pie: there are pieces labeled ‘work life,’ ‘sex life,’ ‘spiritual life,’ and so on. One example of segmentation is western notions of femininity and masculinity, which are greatly ingrained within USAmerican culture. There exists a strict barrier between the two, and any transgression can emasculate a man or defeminize a woman. However, scripture shows us that masculinity and femininity don’t need to be strictly defined; there is a healthier way to relate within ourselves. Janet Soskice writes that each member of the Trinity can be portrayed in procreative imagery of human feminine and human masculine. Similarly, both feminine and masculine traits co-exist within an individual: a man who loves to nurture children can still be predominantly masculine; a man who is split-gendered is still a singular man. The understanding of one’s self as whole is essential.

The divide between soul and body has been solidly argued. Soskice writes  that “Augustine calls us up into the mind,” and he greatly influenced Christian theology by emphasizing the interior life, or the soul, over the physical. As a result, a popular belief is that bearing the image of God is something humans carry only in their souls. Soskice notes that such an intellectual understanding of imago Dei contributes to “loss of the body.” The incarnation in Jesus is evidence against this intellectual understanding: God became bodily, and so it is important to recognize that we are bodily as well. Creation itself is also evidence in favor of bodyliness: God in his infinite wisdom created humans to be embodied creatures; we must recognize some level of importance in his design.

Just as God is relational within herself, the nature of a human is to be relational in his or her own self. One oft-repeated quotation from a work of Walter Miller states “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body, temporarily” (my italics), which denies the importance of physicality by labeling the body as something we own rather than something we are. Although we humans do tend to differentiate between physical and emotional or intellectual selves, it is vital to one’s well-being to maintain a sense of unity and integrity. Such self-unity can lead to God, and it is here that the bodily spiritual disciplines make sense. Soskice discusses Julian of Norwich’s atonement theology, or the idea of “at-one-ing.” At-one-ment occurs through Christ, who makes all his kin. Even more physically, atonement can be read as a-tone-ment. Thich Nhat Hanh states “in Buddhist meditation, body and mind become one.” Yoga tones the body in order to prepare the body for sitting meditation as well as to attune the mind/body connection. Yoga emphasizes mindfulness, in which “we make peace with our body,” and with God, who becomes present within the encounter with our unified self.

The trinitarian nature of God is sometimes explained as correlating to the way we construct our personal identities: Christ is analogous to the body, God to the mind, and the Spirit to our soul or, metaphorically, heart. What is often forgotten in this explanation is the aspect of unity: God still recognizes himself as one unified and integrated being, and each human, being a bearer of his image, is to remember his or her own integrity as well. It is essential that individuals recognize their own selves as one: body connected to soul, mind developed because of bodily experiences; the interplay between the three is infinite. Karl Barth plays with the interconnections between the mental and physical when he writes that God establishes man “as soul and body, constituting the unity and order of his being.” One’s soul must not be elevated as something more essential than the body, for a man “is bodily soul, as he is also besouled body. … Soul would not be soul, if it were not bodily, and body would not be body, if it were not besouled.” Each individual must maintain the tension of what it is to be human: both body and soul, the balancing act, as Rob Bell writes, between “angels and animals. … Animals have a physical body but no spirit. … An angel is a being with a spirit but without a body.” To live the tension that holds both plurality and unity is a part of what it means to be created imago Dei.

The essential nature between God and humans is relation. Humans relate to God even when unaware they are relating, and even as they deny doing so. Because we are differentiated from God, we are able to respond to her as one outside our own self. God is loving, and the nature of love is that it cannot be coerced, so she gives us the freedom to respond in any manner we wish. We would be unable to truly love God if we weren’t given the choice to not love God. However, while there is freedom to respond in any way, Alistair McFadyen notes that “there is no freedom not to respond. … We can refuse to enter into dialogue: we cannot, however, avoid being in relation with God.” Simply put, when two beings exist, there is always a relationship between the two, even if the relationship is backs turned to one another. Arguably, those who greatly struggle against religion have more contact with God than those who submit to it; a push requires more contact than a bow.

At the same time as this differentiation takes place, a unity between God and humanity exists. Bell argues that God is as close as our own breath, the holy tetragrammaton unpronounceable because the letters “were essentially breathing sounds.” Therefore, the divine breath lives in every person; the Spirit is our breath. With such an integrated understanding, being a bearer of God’s image is as inescapable as relation with her. God’s presence with the world as a whole is reflected in ecological doctrine of creation, which Moltmann claims recognizes “the presence of God in the world and the presence of the world in God.” The picture is hard to imagine — is God smaller than the world and thus in it, or larger than the world and thus the world is in her? The language defies differentiation. Ken Wilber explains that Spirit includes and transcends all that exists: “It’s the highest rung in the ladder, but it’s also the wood out of which the entire ladder is made.” This is the mysterious unity: we are part of the ladder, and yet the ladder is part of us. God is in humanity, and humanity is in God.

If human breath is Spirit and the world is God, the question remains of where Christ is represented in unity with humanity. Ronald Rolheiser answers that he is visible in his followers: “In the incarnation God has chosen, marvelously, to let his power flow through us, to let our flesh give reality to his power.” More blatantly: “Your touch is Christ’s touch.” The church is a reminder to the world that Jesus did not only live, die, and live again; he lived, died, and continues to live through the Christian community. Encountering imago Christi is less about looking within one’s self as it is about looking around at one’s community. When Christ was resurrected, the disciples repeatedly failed to recognize him. It would demystify the miracle of Christ’s resurrection to state that the disciples simply began to see the incarnation in their fellow humans; I do believe that it really was the person of Jesus who returned to the disciples. However, after a few encounters without immediate recognition, the disciples must have developed an awareness that Jesus could show up at any time, must have been on the lookout for him in everyone… and finding him in everyone. They suddenly had eyes to see, and found Christ in the legions.

The nature of humankind is to be in relation with one another as God is in relation with herself. McFadyen writes that “the three divine Persons are united by sharing uniquely in a common nature”, and similarly, humans are to recognize themselves as a unity that shares the commonality of the human condition. It is not enough to recognize that I am an image-bearer of God; I must also see the spark of the divine in my sister, my neighbor, and my enemy. The oft-repeated cliché that we all bleed is true, and yet few people live as though it is. Although we all have the same essential needs—air, food, clean water—we continue to pollute the skies and seas and competitively hoarde resources. Re-ordering the world in such a way that love is communicated brings the presence of the divine into existence. As Peter Rollins writes, God is not an object worthy of love, rather “God is found in the very act of love itself”. For example, as Advent Conspiracy (2011) notes, Americans spend 450 billion dollars a year on Christmas, and yet the global clean water crisis could be solved with a comparatively minuscule 20 billion dollars a year. A humanity that exists as a unity would not allow such injustice. Recognizing individuals across the globe as brothers and sisters, as continuations of our own existence and as bearers of the divine image, would radically alter the way we spend, consume, eat, live. It is in such a recognition of unity that a relationship between people points to God and glimpses of his Kingdom become reality.

At the same time, the differentiation of humanity need not be destructive, but can be a reflection of God. One of the most visible aspects is sexual differentiation, designed by God in the creation accounts of both Genesis 1 and 2. Moltmann states that the “human plural is supposed to correspond to the divine singular”; it is difference that sparks relation between male and female that reflects God’s image. The trinitarian God is three in one, and we are “singular in the plural,” one humanity divided into two beings. What is significant about the sexual plurality is that it was an intended image for both distinction and relation. In McFadyen’s view, the sexes were created “in encounter rather than simple opposition.” God’s plan was for us to complete one another through encounter and dialogue.

Humans are also differentiated from one another on an individual level. In order to have genuine encounter, one person cannot absorb the identity of another. Each must retain his or her own self. This is necessary for true relationship as defined by Martin Buber’s in I and Thou. As McFadyen explains, “distinct identity is impossible except through relation, and relation possible only through the distance which separates the partners.” There must be two independent selves in order for healthy interdependence and freedom to take place. It is through the uniqueness of each individual in interaction with others that defines “their orientation on one another.” In terms Buber would use, there must be an ‘I’ against which ‘You’ can stand—I have no identity unless it is differentiated from the identity of those I encounter. There must be boundaries of individuation in order to have something to push against and to embrace.

God’s plurality within unity leads us to understand the same aspects of ourselves as individuals, as a community, and in our relations to others. Similarly, the differentiation within human relationships points us back to a God whom our image reflects, informing us of his nature. The question who am I? is always followed by the question who is God? The answer can begin to be found, as McFadyen states, in “structures of divine and human being [which] both contain a dialogical encounter between separate but intrinsically related beings.” Individually, relationally, and divinely, we are both differentiated and unified; how we handle the tension between the two drastically alters the world in which we live.

This piece was originally written as an assignment for Interpersonal Foundations with Roy Barsness. Students were asked to write the basis of their belief system including imago Dei, imago Christi, theological anthropology, and interpersonal relationships.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,