For months now, when I would think about my blog, the only feeling I experienced was shame. And when I finally visited the site this morning and realized that my last post was almost a year ago–a year!–I am reminded why.
Now, in my experience shame is never a useful emotion. Guilt can be–it can remind us we have done wrong and need to make restitution, or that we need to change in some way–but shame just sits across our shoulders or in our gut like a 50-pound sack of gravel, weighing us down and blighting the pleasure we might otherwise feel in life.
So here is an attempt to shift the shame into an opportunity to learn something. Just what did happen to me so that I lost my voice, lost my ability to write, found myself blocked from communicating in this medium? Well, for starters . . . 2020 and 2021. That’s probably enough right there, and not something I could control. Just about a year ago, I started a new job as associate rector at a small Episcopal church. In the middle of COVID. With the entire congregation still on lockdown. I had no way to meet the people in my parish face-to-face, no easy, intuitive way to get to know them or to provide pastoral care. That was hard. It took a lot of creative and emotional energy to find ways around the 2020 blockage into relationships. Then I was ordained to the priesthood at Trinity Cathedral just before Christmas. And because of the COVID surge, I was not able to have even one family member or close friend there with me–not one!–much less the hoards of joyful well-wishers that usually show up to celebrate such an occasion. The empty cathedral echoed with loneliness and unspoken grief, even in a life-giving and sacred moment. I am more grateful than I can say for the two women ordained with me who will forever remain dear friends. Without them, I don’t know if I would have been able to cope even as well as I did.
And the new job. Let me tell you, being a parish priest is all-encompassing and exhausting, even while it is deeply meaningful and fulfilling. As an introvert, it consumed all of my energy and then some to stay with my people with a whole heart. And it turns out that writing sermons uses the same part of my brain that writing blog posts or books or articles does. By the time I reached the preaching moment on Sunday, took Sunday afternoon off, and began to plan the next sermon on Monday, I had no writing energy left to me.
My year as full-time clergy at All Saints will remain as one of the great learning and growing experiences of my life. I am very grateful I was able to live into the first year of my priestly vocation in a church, and in such a wonderful, welcoming, mature, faithful, non-evangelical church.
And I am likewise grateful that I have been able to move to a new call, one that is a better fit for my gifts and my energy. I’m now the chaplain at the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal ministry to U.C. Davis. Once again I’m confronted with post-lockdown empty rooms and the need for creative energy, but I’m in a milieu I know and understand, and am excited by the possibilities. I will be writing much more about this in upcoming weeks.
So, readers, if you are still with me after all this time–I am grateful for you, even if I don’t know you. I will try to be present in this space in some new ways as I explore what it is to be a recovering evangelical in non-traditional ministry, what it is to bring my whole self into a space that welcomes the whole selves of others.
It so happened that I preached last weekend at my church, All Saints Episcopal in Sacramento. I don’t typically re-use sermon ideas as blog posts (You’re welcome! There are plenty of sermonish things already accessible on the internet.), but something about the week’s lectionary readings struck a chord that I would like to share here.
The Old Testament reading for the week featured a story of Moses. He is (sort of) leading the Israelites through the desert after they escaped from slavery but before they found their new home, and it is by all accounts a pretty miserable time for all. In the previous week’s reading, the people don’t have enough food, so they (quite understandably) complain that they are starving. Moses is upset that they complain, but asks God who provides manna. In last Sunday’s reading, the people and animals are dying of thirst, and again complain to Moses, who again becomes angry that they are complaining. There is something of a pattern here.
In my Evangelical past, I was taught to Judge The People. They just needed to Be Obedient and Stop Complaining!
Now I wonder how I could ever have thought that. If my children and grandchild and beloved dog were all dying of hunger or thirst, you had better believe I would be screaming for help from anyone. And I wouldn’t see it as an act of disobedience, either, but rather as an act of faithfulness to the family entrusted to me. I can see why the people have grave doubts about Moses’s leadership when he seems to have led them to a setting where they repeatedly almost die.
This reading is paired with a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, where the religious leaders of the day challenge Jesus by asking him “By whose authority are you doing these things?” Instead of answering, Jesus does what he often does, and returns a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”
And in my preparation for preaching, that final bit kept racketing around inside my head and heart. What is from heaven, and what is from human origin?
This question is one way to frame what the Israelites are asking of Moses: Is this journey we are taking from heaven, or of human origin? Are we out here in the middle of the wilderness because God called us, or have you, Moses, brought us out of Egypt to “kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
And if the answer is that their situation is only from Moses, is of human origin, they are in DEEP SHIT. But at the same time, if the situation IS straight from heaven, why is it causing so much suffering?
The reason this question got its hooks into me is because I find myself regularly asking a version of it: Is this situation I am in, whatever it is, from heaven, or is it of human origin? Have I, or some other person, or lots of people, made such catastrophic mistakes that I/we are now caught in this time that feels like death? Or is this all from heaven, and thus is God somehow responsible?
In the abstract, in the theoretical, this question is never answered, by Jesus or by Moses or by the priests and elders—or by God.
And yet, in other ways, the question IS answered. Jesus gives us a parable about two sons, one who says “no” to his father’s request and then changes his mind and does what his father wants, and one who says “yes” but then sits around and does nothing. This is one sort of answer to the question. And Moses offers a specific, physical, and embodied answer—he does what God tells him to and goes to a certain rock to strike it with his staff, and the water flows to save the lives of the people and animals.
The obedient son’s response is of human origin—he says “no,” AND of heaven—he DOES what his father asks. Moses’s response is of the earth—he uses the elements around him to satisfy the physical needs of the people—AND of heaven—he miraculously brings water where there was no water.
So maybe the question, “Is this of heaven or of human origin” is sometimes a nonsense question. Maybe the real question, the question we should be asking, is something different.
Maybe a better question is: Where does earth meet heaven? Where is the site where heaven reaches down and touches the earth? And what is happening in that space?
And: can I somehow be a part of this?
I know that sometimes in my own life, especially when things aren’t going so well, I am inclined to ask the original question: is this situation, or this event, from heaven, or is it of human origin? Has God somehow caused this, whatever it is, to happen? Or am I or some other human being at fault? But maybe those are nonsense questions, too. Maybe trying to ask a yes/no, either/or question in those times—in THESE times—is the wrong question. Maybe what I really want to know is: Where does earth meet heaven in this time, this circumstance?
One of the themes I return to again and again might be called Radical Hope. What does it mean to find hope even in desperately difficult and tragic times? Where can we look, what can we do, not just to remember but to participate in hope even when things around us look dark? The pursuit of the place where heaven touches earth is also a pursuit of radical hope.
In my own life experience, I have, again and again, had to find ways of living into radical hope, of learning to settle into the place where heaven and earth meet.
I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, but became a Christian convert when I was in my teens. Like many young people, I thought I was very mature and responsible and ready to make adult decisions, so I got married when I was far too young, and sadly chose the wrong person. I remained married for many years, trying to work on the marriage to make it better, but it was abusive, and so finally I realized the best choice for me and my children was to get divorced, which left me in my late 30’s as a single mom with three boys. Those were hard years.
And NOW, I have three adult children who are all thriving in their lives, my oldest with a wife and child of his own. I was able to continue in my education, getting a Ph.D. and, very recently, an M.Div. I had a successful career as a college professor, and now am beginning to live into a second career as clergy. If I had to go through the bad things again to get to where we all are now, I would do it without question.
So was my bad marriage from heaven, or of human origin? Again, the question doesn’t really make sense. The marriage was painful and difficult and didn’t end well, and my children and I all bear emotional scars, and yet such wonderful things have come of it. So a better question is—where did earth meet heaven in that marriage? Where did I have to learn to live into radical hope in order to move through the dark times and into the light?
And back to that example of my thirty-year career as a college professor. Twenty-five of those years I was a member of the faculty and an administrator at a small Christian university. About ten years ago, the place took on new leadership, and it soon became clear to me that the school was heading down a path I was unwilling to follow.
The next few years were miserable for me. I was on the outs with the leadership, often saying the things they didn’t want to hear, and refusing to step into line as a yes-person. That sort of behavior is not usually rewarded, and my case was no different. I looked for other jobs, but academic positions are few, far between, and very competitive. I finally faced the hard truth that I was going to have to leave the world of higher education, and find a different setting.
Those were hard years. And yet, after a dark time, I was gifted with the delightful surprise of discovering that my calling was toward ordination and work in the Episcopal Church. I am at the very beginning of learning how to live into this new life, this new site of radical hope.
So was the trouble in my work life from heaven, or of human origin? Wrong question. Instead—where did heaven meet earth in that situation? Where did I have to live into radical hope to come through into a new and wonderful life?
We all go through times when it seems like earth and heaven CAN’T meet, when no matter how thin we stretch there just isn’t enough material to allow them to come together. The gap is too large. And in those times, sometimes the best choice we can make is to wait, and not lose heart.
And then, when the moment comes that earth and heaven meet, and all is well, we experience all of the good things—joy and peace and grace. In those moments, hope becomes a lived reality. This is the moment when Moses’s staff touches the rock, and the water gushes forth to save the lives of the people, the moment when the son’s heart is transformed and he goes forth to do what his father wants.
I think the times we are in are indeed life-threatening—pandemic and political unrest and wildfires and smoke. It feels as though we are wandering in the wilderness, dying of thirst. At best, this is a time of waiting. Is this from heaven, or is it of human origin? Neither; both. The question doesn’t really apply.
Instead: Even in this difficult time, where is heaven reaching down through the clouds to touch earth? What do I need to do to find that place? And how can I help others to find that place as well?
I’m finding my own way to answer these questions. I hope that you all are too.
Trigger Warning: Hard Things AND Theological Concepts (yikes!)
What does “peace” even mean in this world where there is so much suffering?
I spent my summer doing pastoral care training and clinical hours with the Night Ministry of San Francisco. Five nights a week I worked on their Care Line–a phone line that handles not just crisis calls, but also calls from people who simply want a friendly voice in the middle of a dark night. I spoke with people who were suicidal, practicing self-harm, hearing voices, wondering why God was absent in their pain; people with issues in their mental and physical health, family, finances, and living situations. On a rare occasion I could offer a referral or some advice that might bring material support. But most of the time there was nothing I could do to make all things well for the callers.
I finished my internship one Friday, and on the next Saturday much of Northern California suffered massive lightening storms that have, once more, ignited fires that threaten countless acres of land, including homes, businesses, the lives of animals both domestic and wild. And the lives of people.
People that I know have been forced to evacuate, to go–where? The air all over the West Coast is hazardous to breathe. We shelter in place at home, or try to find safe spaces elsewhere. But what does safety even look like in a global pandemic?
And speaking of the global pandemic–we don’t need reminding of those–so many!–who have lost the lives of loved ones and/or their own health as a result of the coronavirus.
Everywhere we look there is pain and suffering that we cannot deny. And while it can provide some seeming comfort to blame someone–people who made bad choices, government failures, etc.–pointing the finger offers only false comfort.
Although it is hard for us to accept, nothing that we can possibly do will assure our safety from the dangers that wait all around us. The disasters we see all around us happen without regard to the merit of those afflicted.
Now that I’ve offered a very depressing litany of pain and suffering, it’s probably past time to return to our original question:
What does “peace” even mean?
We might want peace to mean being in peaceful, comfortable, safe circumstances. But as we’ve already established, while that type of peace might be wonderful, it is at best a temporary state.
So the question remains–is there a peace that transcends our circumstances? A peace that allows us to say, along with Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well”?
Yes. There is.
True, deep peace is grounded in something much bigger than our circumstances, or even than the circumstances of the entire world.
This is where the dreaded Theological Concepts are going to come in to play. (Remember, you were warned!)
Sociologists and theologians speak of “immanence” and “transcendence.” Immanence is the concept that the divine is held and manifested in the material world, including human reason, culture, and nature. Transcendence, in contrast, claims that the divine, or maybe the Divine, is not limited to the material world, but has a reality that transcends time and space.
Atheists, agnostics, and the followers of many belief systems all can experience the divine as immanent. Love, and beauty, and meaning, and all sorts of sacred things, are accessible to us in the immanent frame.
But with all due respect to atheists and agnostics, I find myself at a loss when I try to find peace in the midst of suffering in the immanent frame. Certainly love and joy and hope for better things are possible in the material world. But peace? Not just denial, but true peace? I would not speak for others, but for me, peace is impossible in the merely immanent frame.
Stoicism and/or denial both allow me to deal with my own suffering, and in that I might find a type of peace. But when I encounter the suffering of others–So. Many. Others.–it feels selfish, even narcissistic, to speak of being at “peace.”
If I locate and center my deepest self in the transcendent instead of the immanent, then maybe, just maybe, I can find a tiny seed of peace even in the midst of chaos and tragedy. Maybe, just maybe, I can understand peace as separate from any circumstances, even the most dire.
The transcendent is where earth touches heaven. Where there is a tangible reality to hope as imagined joy. Where I remain aware of, connected to, and empathetic for the very hard things around me, but where the central part of my soul remains at peace.
Perhaps in that space I can truly say, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” And know that it is true.
I am not a fan of seeing secular/sacred as a binary, wherein something is either “sacred” or “secular.” Instead, I conceptualize them as a dyad, a construction that leaves a lot of room for the both/and instead of the either/or. In other words, while there may be some things that are purely sacred and others that are purely secular, there are many, many things that can be conceptualized as both at the same time. The notion that things are either “of God” and thus sacred, or “of ‘man'” and thus secular, has contributed to the ways in which we harm one another and the environment around us. Instead, realizing that the sacred is all around us as well as inside us can transform the way we walk with one another in this world.
Even so, I recently read a definition of “secular” as that-which-is-not-eschatological, rather than that-which-is-not-religious, that has opened up some new ways for me to see the sacred. Even though it means playing the binary game for a moment, if the secular is that-which-is-not-eschatological, then is the sacred that-which-IS-eschatological?
Back in my days as an Evangelical, eschatology was defined in a very narrow way–the Left-Behind-style apocalyptic end-times scenarios of Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and David Jeremiah. I never bought into these scenarios–although I am certainly not a Biblical scholar, I am an astute enough reader to realize that the stories required taking much of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible out of context. So my response was to ignore the whole thing.
It wasn’t until I took theology classes at a liberal seminary that I realized that the Evangelical way of interpreting eschatology is only a small subset of a small subset of what has historically been pondered by theologians. In fact, the entire apocalyptic end-times scenarios so beloved of very conservative Evangelicals tends to be dismissed as such bad theology that it is hardly worth discussing. Instead, eschatology, properly understood, does involve the four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, but not in a dystopian fantasy kind of way. Instead, the point of eschatology is that we view our lived lives in the light of the end. Thus, is not about controlling others through fear, but instead offers us the question, how then should we live? If we accept that life is finite, and that all things will someday draw to a close, how should this change our lived lives?
One way that this is commonly worded is that eschatology opens up the question of what it means to live in the “already” as though it were the “not-yet.” If there will be a point when a new heaven and new earth will come into being, this has implications for what we do today. How can we live so that the already–the world we live in today–can be made to look as much like the not-yet–the new heaven and new earth–as possible?
At its best, these questions can help us to transcend the daily trials and pains, and the daily temptations to be less than our best, that are some of the difficulties of the already. We can see much farther than tomorrow, or ten years down the road, or even our own lifespan–we can see into eternity. And this can give us the strength and encouragement not just to endure today, but to transform it. We get to have a part in making this world look just a little bit more like the City of God.
So if the secular is that-which-is-not-eschatological, then the secular is everything that is bound only in the day-to-day and has nothing that glimpses eternity. The sacred, then, has a vast field of possibilities opening before it–it contains everything that has any connection to the Great Beyond, to something more than the merely eternal. Thus, every human life is sacred. And the lives of all that live are sacred. All the abstract and intangible parts of our existence are sacred–love and joy and hope and peace, and sorrow and grief and pain. All relationships are sacred. Planting a garden, playing with a child, holding the hand of an elder, singing, making art, bringing beauty into the world . . . laughing and weeping and sharing food and living life with others. All of these are eschatological. All of them help to bring the not-yet into being in the already.
As we are living through this time of global pandemic, questions of death and judgment and heaven and hell can tend to take on an urgency they have not had for generations. But knowing that the sacred is all around us can offer hope and strength that enable us to live eschatologically, to remember that we are all channels for God’s peace and grace to be known in the already.
Who AM I when I DO nothing? I don’t know whether most people ask themselves that question regularly. I do, but then I’m quirky. But I do suspect that in this time of COVID-19 quarantine, more people than ever before are being confronted by that question whether they like it or not.
In our culture, at least in The Before, most of us were so busy that it took a conscious effort to find a quiet time and space to sort out the Who Am I? question. We would answer the social query “How are you?” with “Busy” or “Kinda crazy right now.” Upon meeting someone, a common introductory gambit was “So what do you do?” We tended to fill our leisure time with Going Places and Doing Things–shopping, travel, dining, entertainment.
But now, for the first time in my lifetime, all of that Getting and Spending has hit a wall. Hit it abruptly. And hit it hard.
In this time, those of us who are working are faced with the Who Am I? question in a new way. Working from home, and having no distinct end to the day or beginning of the weekend, tends to force people toward the sad realization that life needs to be more than work and leisure. That I need to BE something that adds up to more than what I DO.
And if those questions are beginning to nag at people who are still busily employed, just think of the many, many people, who now no longer have much of anything to DO with their hours. Consider how profound the question becomes when it’s not just Who Am I? but Who Am I When I Don’t DO Anything?
All of a sudden, vast swaths of humanity are being confronted with this existential dilemma at exactly the same time. When I am stripped of all the things that make up my life–my job, contact with friends and family, social and religious outlets, hobbies and leisure activities, and, in some even worse cases, of my health, what is left?
Is there a self in there someplace? Or am I only the layers of an onion, peeled away one by one until there is nothing left?
In recent weeks, various Evangelical leaders have been in the news for refusing to stop holding services at their churches in defiance of government shut-down orders. Many have speculated on the reasons for this. Do they just want the money? Is it because they don’t believe in science?
I think the reason is simpler, and perhaps sadder than that. I suspect it is because many Evangelical leaders have never really answered the Who Am I? question in any deep way for themselves. They might claim to have answered it–A Born-Again Christian! A Child of God! Someone with a Purpose-Driven Life!
But even with these “right” answers, I suspect that, deep down, they still conflate who they ARE with what they DO. If their church is silent, if they are not “sharing the gospel” in front of people, they might have to face the fact that when they can’t DO anything for God, they know that there is nothing left.
They don’t know how to just BE. They only know how to DO. They have become human DOINGS, and not human BEINGS.
Full disclosure: I actually am very judgmental about religious leaders that make the choice to put their followers, and anyone who comes in contact with their followers, in mortal danger. Yet even so, I have to admit that I have struggled with some of the same issues that I suspect are propelling bad behavior in those leaders.
When I sit at home alone in my apartment for days, Who Am I? When I spend my time playing Sudoku or computer solitaire or working on a jigsaw puzzle instead of being “productive,” Who Am I? When there are howling unmet needs all around me, and I stay at home and do nothing about them, Who Am I?
Is just BEING enough?
I am told that it is enough for God. But is it enough for me?
Our current pace of change is dizzying, disorienting. Almost three weeks ago, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California allowed as how it might be a good idea to refrain from shaking hands and intincting (dipping by hand) the bread into the wine at Communion. A few days later, as of the second Sunday of Lent, he required churches to serve only bread and not serve the wine at all. By the third Sunday in Lent, six days ago, all churches in the diocese are locked, and no one is allowed to gather for worship. Within 24 hours of that, the entire Bay Area was put under “Shelter in Place” orders, and none of us are to leave our homes for anything other than absolute necessities. The entire state of California followed a few days later.
As it happened, I had long been scheduled to preach on Lent 2. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but that service was the last time my, or any other congregation in the Diocese, would be able to gather to hear a sermon in person for some time to come. I’m glad I didn’t know it, because who can possibly preach under that amount of pressure? Who can possibly find words that will bring comfort and hope in such times?
I’m not one to wait until the last minute, so I had written my sermon previously, before the COVID-19 news became the only thing people were thinking about. But events in the day or so before that Sunday made it clear that I was going to need to rewrite the sermon to address the current situation directly in some way. People I talked to were full of fear and anxiety, and spoke openly of their mortality.
What does it mean to live an abundant life in the face of death? And how does that change when death seems as though it might be coming soon, either for us or for loved ones?
I began the sermon by describing the comic, now a meme, at the top of this post–the “This is fine” dog, who (if you look at the rest of the complete comic strip) soon melts in the fire he wants to deny.
Nearly all of us have the tendency to want to operate as though everything is fine. We probably need to–otherwise, how would we avoid paralysis? But every one of us will have times in our lives when we can’t help admitting that everything IS NOT fine, that things are on fire around us. This can happen individually, in times of pain or sorrow, or regionally, when there is a natural disaster. But perhaps only once in a lifetime does something come along that compels us to face mortality, suffering, and loss on a global scale.
A few among us still have memories of WWII. Many more of us lived through 9-11 (which wasn’t truly global, but was universal in the U.S.). And now all of us are in the time of COVID-19. A global pandemic, poised to take many, many lives in the near future.
This story contains the famous concept of being “born again” as a way to see the Kingdom of God, as well as the oft-quoted John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And of course both of those have been used by some Evangelical Christians to browbeat others.
“Are you ready to be ‘born again’?”
“Do you ‘believe’?”
“Do you want to perish, or have everlasting life?”
“Pray this one specific prayer, follow these four spiritual laws, and you’ll be on the right side of all things for all eternity.”
I have religious-abuse PTSD just thinking about it.
As I have written before, the Evangelical expression of the Christian faith often actually privileges certainty. Many who follow in that path are SURE that they KNOW so many things. But faith not only doesn’t require certainty; faith is the opposite of certainty. If I am certain, I don’t actually need any faith at all.
But in a time like the one we are living through, it is tough–impossible?–to be certain of very much. If we are “certain” of anything, it is that those we know and maybe even those we love are likely to suffer, perhaps die, in a pandemic. The economy “certainly” seems to be collapsing. Many of us are “certainly” required to stay inside our homes.
So putting the very limiting “certain” Evangelical interpretations of the Nicodemus story aside, what DOES it actually have to say to us in a time of fear and mortality?
Perhaps more than we might expect.
Nicodemus doesn’t have anything that looks like certainty in the story. He wants something from Jesus, perhaps to understand how the world works, or what might be real about God, or what is the meaning of life. But he was so frightened about what others would think of him that he waited until it was night, and under cover of darkness he slunk in to visit Jesus.
Fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty.
“You must be from God,” Nicodemus says, “or you couldn’t do the things you do.”
Jesus’s reply proves less than helpful. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Poor Nicodemus probes a bit, but only grows more confused.
“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit,” Jesus tells him. And “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Nicodemus is not impressed. He complains that what Jesus is saying is impossible. And then . . . except for one brief mention a few chapters later, he disappears from the gospel account until after Jesus is dead. Nicodemus was not able to take advantage of the opportunity Jesus offered him to understand the kingdom of God.
Now I would like to think that in Nicodemus’s place I would have done differently. I would like to think that if I had the chance to ask Jesus about the meaning of life, I would have clung to his words. I would have nodded sagely and said, “Ah. Yes. Born of the Spirit. The wind. Of course.” And then I would have acted in such a way that I had a place in the story, perhaps becoming a disciple and going off to share what I had learned with others.
But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have even been as brave as Nicodemus was in visiting Jesus in the middle of the night. And I probably would have been just as confused by and hesitant to accept the answer to my question. Because if there is one thing that I AM certain about, it is that life can be hard. The world we live in is sometimes frightening. People are messy. And I am just as messy as everyone else. I don’t always know what is “faithful,” what is right.
I have been Nicodemus.
I have had times when I have given in to fear and became paralyzed. And I have had other times when I have gone into denial, and said “This is fine,” and then tried go back to regular life. Neither of these responses ever served me well in the end.
As far as we can tell, Nicodemus also gave in to fear for a time. Perhaps he also took on a “this is fine” attitude. But it also seems that at some point such responses stopped working for him, and he changed. Because he DOES return to the story much later in the Gospel of John. It is after Jesus has been crucified—the most dangerous moment of all for any follower. And THIS is when, seemingly out of nowhere, Nicodemus publically appears, bringing 100 pounds of spices to wrap the body. He is no longer paralyzed by fear or denial. He engages in a public act of great courage and faith.
Somehow he found a way to see the kingdom of God.
The Greek word metanoia offers a description of what seems to have happened for Nicodemus. This word is often translated “repentance,” which shares a root with one of the words from the opening prayer from Lent 2: “penitence.” While we often think of repentance as somehow involving shame and guilt and self-punishment, another way to translate metanoia is “change in habits of mind,” or “change in meaning-making perspective.” This is what seems to have happened for Nicodemus. He changed from seeing things from the perspective of everyday life, where paralyzing fear or complete denial are logical choices. Instead, he began to see things from the perspective of faith, from the perspective of the kingdom of God.
I also have had occasions of metanoia in my life, moments when, just maybe, I have been able to glimpse the kingdom of God. In these times, it isn’t that the difficult things in life go away, or that problems are solved. Instead, what happens is that I become able to put fear, or sorrow, or other hard things, into a new context. My meaning-making perspective shifts. And I realize why Jesus had to say things like “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Because that moment of clarity is very hard to put into words.
If you have ever experienced one of those moments, you will also know–words fail.
My experience of this state isn’t that I find a reason or an explanation for trouble or pain. Instead, it is that I have an encounter with something—some One—outside myself.
In seeing the kingdom of God, I remember that Jesus was fully human, and experienced fear and sorrow and pain of his own—and joy, and love—just as all humans do. Jesus must have experienced sickness. He certainly experienced grief.
He even experienced death.
Yet even knowing that this would be a consequence of the choice to become human, God loved all of creation so much that God became human and accepted all of the troubles of a human life.
This means that even if I don’t know why things are the way they are, I do know that Jesus walks through the hard things right with me, and that he knows what it is to experience and to feel all the parts of being human. Even though I can’t explain why sickness and suffering and death are part of the human condition, I can somehow hold faith that God is holding us, and walks through these paths of sorrow and pain right along side us.
In the 14th century, a young woman in England became so ill that everyone expected she would die. When she miraculously recovered, she told others of what she called her “showings,” things that God had revealed to her in her sickness. That young woman–Julian of Norwich–later wrote:
And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.
This mystery sits at the center of Christian faith. God made all that is, God loves all that is, and God keeps all that is. Even when it doesn’t look that way.
Julian wrote from personal experiences of great suffering, and in a time when the bubonic plague was a global pandemic. And even so, after her revelation of God and God’s love, she was able, with all confidence, to write her most famous words:
“All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
Julian had this faith in the midst of fear, confusion, and anxiety. Nicodemus seems to have come to rest in the same faith.
Last week, this phrase was said repeatedly to me and to others by the instructor of a class called Gospel of the Masses. She was speaking on behalf of the people of color who have been the targets, perhaps the victims, of various evangelical initiatives.
Our class spent a week meeting in a community center in East Oakland, a place that serves to gather, connect, and educate amongst the many communities that coexist in that neighborhood. We heard from a Native American healer, undocumented migrant workers trying to solve their status problems, an organizer helping develop and pass legislation to resist the racialized justice system, and more. Over and over—and over—again, we heard the ways in which the Christian church had been complicit in, and often even led, systems that contributed to oppression and genocide.
The California missions enslaved and eradicated native peoples. The Boarding School system took Native American children from their families to “reeducate” them. The “law and order” movement unfairly targets African Americans. Anti-immigrant movements have always targeted people of color.
Our current humanitarian crisis where we have stripped children from their families and put them in cages at the border? I want to see this as an aberration in basic American goodness, something we will get over when the world feels safer. But in actuality, this country has always put one group or another in cages. Our current crisis is just the latest in a long line of ways in which the nation has captured and enslaved (Africans) or attracted and then rejected (Chinese and Hispanic) workers, and has locked up and abused many other people groups (Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese Americans . . . ).
And while some in the church have protested and resisted and fought for the freedoms of all, far too many denominations and church movements have perpetuated, and often even led, movements which were genocidal in their effect.
When our instructor repeated, “We are still recovering from being ‘saved,’” she was reflecting on this. In the guise of bringing “salvation” to various people groups, the church was instead bringing cultural destruction and human devastation.
I realize that writing about this makes me seem like a radical of some sort. And maybe that’s so. But from my point of view it doesn’t feel like anti-American sentiment. I am grateful for the ways in which I have benefitted from my heritage. However, I realize that the heritage this country has left to others is not so benign. This feels like one of those times when, once you have seen something, you can’t un-see it, even if you might want to. It makes me understand that I need to repent not just of the sins that I am conscious of, but also to repent of the ways I benefit from unjust systems. I have clean water, good schools, and a police force committed to protecting people who look like me. Far too many others lack even these basic necessities, and I am the beneficiary of the systems that oppress them.
When I was an Evangelical, part of the message I took in was that it was all-important to “save the soul” of the other, even if their life might be made worse as a result. It is this thinking that contributes to programs and plans that insist on “salvation” that results in the destruction of families, cultures, and even the lives of numerous people groups.
“We are still recovering from being ‘saved.’”
God, grant that I might never help perpetuate a “salvation” that damns the lives of others.
My body seemed to know that I needed to follow the pattern of the liturgical year long before my mind did.
For those who might not know, the liturgical year is the annual seasonal pattern of the Christian year. It begins around the first of December with Advent, celebrates Christmas and Epiphany, moves into the quiet time of Lent in the weeks prior to Easter, climaxes Easter through Pentecost, and then settles into “ordinary time” until it’s time for Advent again.
I had always been aware of Advent, of course. But for most of my life, it meant a calendar with little doors for my children to open and consume chocolate before breakfast for the days of December. And there surely were some memorable Advent incidents—the year the dog got ahold of one calendar and consumed the chocolate (which fortunately did not make her sick but did mean that my sons had to alternate days instead of getting a chocolate apiece each day. I’m pretty sure they’ve never gotten over it.); or the year I was busy and forgot to go to Trader Joe’s before the calendars sold out and had to improvise a much more chocolate-intensive and expensive Advent experience. But the possibilities of deeper meaning were limited to cheesy, cheery talk-about-Jesus-and-read-a-bible-verse-a-day sorts of things.
My body, however, was listening to an older, deeper, much more meaningful story. As the days grew shorter, I found that I wanted to settle in, be quiet, reflect, and deepen, in dramatic contrast to the cultural adrenaline rush of the party/shopping/event orientation of the season. Evangelical Advent often felt like one more chance to fail at being super-mom. “Make sure your children understand the Reason for the Season!” “Keep Christ in Christmas!” “Volunteer!” “Donate!” “Shop!”
And all I really wanted to do was light a candle, curl up in a chair with a blanket, and . . . just be.
Liturgical Advent, in contrast to Evangelical Advent, is explicitly a time of quiet, of deepening, of self-reflection. It is time to practice waiting, expecting the coming of Christ in the incarnation, and expecting the coming-again of Christ in the time when all will be made perfect. Instead of a time when we attempt to make everything perfect, or at least pretend that it’s possible to make everything perfect, it is a time when we acknowledge that this world is not and can never be a perfect place in human time.
We . . . must . . . wait.
In this period of quiet and of waiting, there is time for self-reflection, for us to understand who we are and where we fit into the ways of God in the world. It is a time for us to learn and practice incarnation in our own hearts and bodies and minds. What does it mean to live out the most authentic version of who God made me to be? What does it mean to have the peace and love of Christ flow through me to others?
This is very, very different from insisting on saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” from cramming in extra holiday events (even “Christian” ones), or from moving an elf from shelf to shelf to keep the “magic” in Christmas.
I am learning to live Advent in my body and heart and spirit, instead of just in my mind. I celebrate the Word embodied and dwelling among us.
I am a fifty-eight year old, white, middle-class Protestant American woman.
My entire life has pushed me toward disembodiment, toward the separation of my mind and heart from my body. And even more, toward the separation of my thoughts from my feelings.
Culture, education, family background have all made it clear that intellect is the highest value. Thus, I have been pushed in the direction of being disembodied, to a state where “success” looks like being a walking brain, where rationality instead of emotion is in control, and where my body is merely the “flesh” that I need to control.
Tragically, my experience of the Evangelical branch of the Christian faith, which should have undone some of this damage, has instead tended to intensify it. I was taught that my brain needed to control my heart, that my heart couldn’t be trusted, and that my body was a walking source of potential evil—the site of “lusts of the flesh.”
By the time I was in my 30’s, I had lost the ability to know some basic things about my body, such as whether I was cold or warm, or hungry or full, or even whether I was in pain. If I ever did somehow sense discomfort of any sort, I would drown it out by eating or working harder or thinking instead of feeling.
And as for my emotions—I had also lost the ability to know whether I was sad or angry, or happy or excited. By refusing to acknowledge “unpleasant” emotions, I had also reduced my capacity to experience “pleasant” emotions. (I put these terms in quotation marks, because “pleasant” or “unpleasant” places a value judgement on emotions, when in fact emotions just . . . are. I might not enjoy being angry or sad, but if my situation calls for anger or sadness, there is something very wrong about my not being able to fully experience that state.)
It is no wonder that I have spent much of my later adult life in deconstruction and reconstruction of self in response to a culture and a theology that instead wanted to separate all my parts from one another.
God made us creatures not just of mind, but of body and of spirit. Our culture and some of our faith practices have tended to pervert this, until we have reduced a human being to rational intellect, trained to believe certain things and for whom faith is largely a cognitive enterprise.
The deep irony of this is that embodiment is an absolutely central part of the Christian faith. Remember Jesus? He was the embodiment of the Christ. God made flesh.
And what did Jesus ask us to do to remember him? Eat. And drink. His flesh. And his blood.
Can’t get more embodied than that!
Jesus cared deeply for the bodies of people. He healed them, he fed them. He touched them, and washed their dirty feet.
I am still learning that my body is not just an inconvenient appendage I have to haul around as a space to hold my mind, and that my emotions are not just an interruption from the important things of life.
ALL of me is fearfully and wonderfully made and needs to be connected, collected, and embodied.
Apparently there are now four new seasons in California:
Hotter Than It Should Be
Wind, Fire and Smoke
As I am writing this, we are the midst of Wind and Fire season, and for the third year in a row it seems that much of the state is on fire. My power has been out for days; I have friends who have been evacuated; the man in the apartment above me is sheltering a dog and two cats from the evacuation zone.
And much of the rest of my Facebook feed is not any more cheerful. I have a friend who recently posted updates from a family with a terminally ill little girl. Her memorial service was last weekend. I have a friend whose beloved dog had to be put to sleep. I have friends remembering their husband and father who died three months ago.
As James Baldwin says in my favorite short story “Sonny’s Blues”: “It seems that trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped.”
Besides trouble, there is something else these stories all have in common: Those involved prayed and asked others to pray for safety and healing.
My evacuated friend asked us to pray that God would bring a miraculous rain storm to stop the fires.
My friend now mourning the death of his friends’ daughter asked us to pray that she would be miraculously healed of her disease.
My friend who lost her dog asked us to pray that he would recover from his illness.
God did not answer those prayers as intended by those who prayed them.
So what happens to faith?
Those on the Evangelical and charismatic side of the church often link faith to answered prayer. They quote verses like: “My God will heal all your diseases.” “The effective prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much.“’ “Have faith like a mustard seed.”
The message they often mean to relay is that if the person or people who pray have enough faith and are righteous enough, God will answer their prayer in the way they want it answered.
The unspoken dark side to this is the assumption that if God doesn’t answer their prayer, they must not have had been righteous enough, or had enough faith.
I can hardly imagine a doctrine more damaging to a human heart.
And yet some version of it is preached, even subtly, in Evangelical churches every Sunday.
The explanations I have heard for unanswered prayers of this sort are not really any more encouraging. “God has a plan. We just don’t see what it is.” Or “God works everything together for good. You’ll see.” This is NOT comfort. In fact, it rubs salt in the wounds of those who are mourning the loss of a loved one, or the loss of everything they own or their livelihood or their family heritage in a fire.
The situation is not that we don’t have enough faith, or that God is somehow doing something really interesting behind our backs. The situation is the human condition—every life ends in death. Every one. Even the life of Jesus. And on top of this, there are consequences for years of human degradation of the climate that means that fires will burn longer, hotter, and more destructively.
What, then, does it mean to have faith in the face of THIS reality?
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the difference between faith and certainty. That is one aspect of this situation. The Evangelical movement seems to conflate “Faith” and certainty, until what they see as a strong faith actually means being certain about things. But as soon as you are certain, you no longer need to have faith. Faith lasts when certainty is gone. Faith is deeply centered in the Great Mystery that is God and God’s interaction with human experience.
In her book Looking for Sunday,Rachel Held Evans wote of the difference between “healing” and “cure.” She says that when we think we are praying for healing, we are often actually praying for cure. Cure is absolute and binary—you are cured of a disease, or you are not. You are safe from a fire, or you are not.
Sometimes God is in the business of curing people.
And sometimes God is not.
Jesus notably cured many individuals during his time on earth. But there are many more people, even in Jesus’s day, that he did NOT cure. Every minute of every day someone around him was sickening, in pain, or suffering loss. Every minute of every day someone around us is sickening, in pain, or suffering loss.
It is very likely that God is not going to cure any of this. God did not bring rain to put out the fires, and according to the weather forecast, isn’t likely to do so for weeks. God did not preserve the life of the terminally ill little girl, or the beloved pet, or my friend. God did not curethese situations.
But is it possible that God ishealingin the midst of tragedies?
Of course my answer is yes. That is what it means to be a person of faith, to believe that in ways I don’t see or can’t understand, God is still working, that there is mystery at the heart of the connection between God and God’s creation.
No amount of faith will save even one of us from death. And while faith might ease us through pain and suffering, no amount of faith will eliminate or prevent all of our troubles.
Faith can and does allow healing.
Those who have died have been healed from their suffering.
Those who have lost loved ones can heal so that their sorrow allows them to love with generosity and abundance.
Those who have lost possessions can heal so that they develop an entirely new relationship with material things.
The earth will never again be what it was before humans interfered, but it will heal in its own way and life will go on, even if that looks very different from what we have come to see as “progress.”
For all of us, it requires faith in something we don’t and can’t see in order to believe. And even then, healing takes a very long time, much longer than “cure” would. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus means that I don’t believe that life ends in death. That faith may never cure anything, but it can heal everything.