When the Familiar Becomes Strange (Part 4): Christ Haunted

After more than two years of living in the South, I have yet to be evangelized. This is oddly troubling to me. I anticipated an increase in religious encounters moving from the pagan sprawl of Chicago to the Bible-belt. I admit this is a “darker” desire of mine – like secretly taking pleasure in witnessing failed parallel-parking attempts. But it’s still odd especially because it’s not for lack of churched people. I estimate that the population in any coffee shop (my “third place”) in central Arkansas, on any given afternoon, is at least twenty-five percent Christian. That is, a quarter of the patrons, based on my observations, are engaging in some type of Christian-y activity or emitting those particular vibes.

I understand now better than I did before I left and came back what Flannery was getting at. Christ-haunted indeed. Unlike her, however, I can’t quite see the narrative seam that penetrates the thickness and reveals the mystery. Most days feel heavy and unfamiliar but in a familiar way. And this heaviness, I think, obscures the ability to discern – to see with the right eyes, from the right angle, the enigma of returning home.Self-Portrait1953+flannery+o'conner

***

Some people leave the South because they want to flee the culture of their youth. They feel the weighty expectation to be certain types of people or are overwhelmed by an ethos that, for whatever reason, they grew to despise. Every enunciation of a vowel – every trite colloquialism – every pickup truck unnecessarily fitted with massive mud tires – every twang on a steel guitar – every subtle racial slur – it all begins to rub against a nerve that sends discomfort to the soul.

If these people grow weary staying put as discontented outliers, they often plot an escape to a foreign land devoid of the particular cultural trappings that unsettle them. Escape is the only option for survival – for holding on to sanity. And so they move to another place, not necessarily because it is good, but especially because it is different.

I did my best growing up to resist full-scale enculturation into the Southern malaise. My immediate family was not prototypically southern. I was raised in a pseudo-metropolitan city (Hot Springs). Classic rock, not contemporary country, played on the radio, and my dad never took me hunting. These things curbed the vortex by affording me a small degree of otherness.

But in Arkansas you are never that far away from things rural. At some point in my early teens I realized that I harbored an ambivalence toward my southern identity, so I coached myself out of my southern draw – as much as that was possible – and progressively compiled a mental list of Southern signifers I intended to despise and avoid.

Despite the cultural resistance I built over the years, however, the decision to move out of the south to Chicago was basically pragmatic. I was already content as a cynical outlier. Truly, my wife and I were not seeking asylum. We did not flee as ex-patriots. We simply took a journey, albeit naively, to a new place that symbolized for us adventure and progress. The excitement of new possibilities that accompanied transition softened for a time the emotional impact of missing home and family, which was inextricably tied to that land below the Mason-Dixon.

We did not anticipate how difficult the transition would be culturally and socially. Our affective shape didn’t quite fit the Midwestern hole, of sorts. The level on which this dissonance registered was deep in our bodies: we felt it more in our bones than we could name it in our heads. It had something to do with intersubjectivity (though that sounds too clinical). Relationships felt forced and were draining. The rules were different, even in churches, and no one warned us, or maybe they did and we didn’t listen. Things weren’t always so bad, of course, but the break-down occurred often enough to overshadow better connections we made.

We entered into a crisis of belonging, and we struggled there with varying intensity for our entire sojourn. The difficulty we felt in relationships was enhanced by and inextricably related to all matters of place, which we forgot to consider as we made our way through the world.

The cold, for instance, was not something we felt only on the skin – it was part of our being-in-the-world and as such was a powerful catalyst for formation. Those icy, lingering, gray winters shaped us and were determinative for how we related to one another. Or consider the geography: the wasteland of parking lots and shopping malls typical of suburban sprawl flattened our soul.

Amidst all those subliminal forces we were irreversibly formed – fashioned in the image of the Midwest. That formation, however, only brought us half way to feeling like we belonged there. The truth is we would never naturally fit there or probably anywhere else again.

Even more surprisingly, and we’ve only come to realize this fully in hindsight, was the extent to which our otherness heightened our awareness of God’s activity around us and in us. Our inability to fit-in, on a certain level, was a daily bucket of cold water in the face of our false self. The sense of otherness heightened our sensitivity to the Spirit-charged world around us. But this awareness was not a guaranteed by-product. Disorientation just as easily triggered for us frantically defaulting back to safe postures. The old self.

044153_44153-R1-01-24Living in the way death is easier than living into new life.

When the familiar becomes strange, we have an opportunity to enter and receive something we cannot manufacture. We are disarmed and exposed – just enough to highlight the truth that we don’t know what we’re doing and don’t have things together. This is a good thing. God’s work begins here.

***

I haven’t struggled with being a jerk in the past five years as much as I have since we moved back to Arkansas. I don’t know what it is – but there’s something about this place that makes me want to show others that I have intellectual fortitude. I find myself, when I have those helicopter moments looking down at my self, returning to postures where I’m defined by what I do and what I know.

This place is highly stratified, and now I find myself stratifying through the world. I am quicker to label others as “them.” Quicker to defend my territory. Quicker to speak.

Although I am irreversibly different than I was before my familiar was disrupted by a strange place, I am afraid that the dark pull of home will somehow cause me to forget how to be different. My sensitivity will be numbed.

I know am standing on the precipice of something new – not knowing quite yet if I can lose control again and take the plunge. I look back over my shoulder – haunted by the sounds of home. I am afraid because I also know, and cannot shake, that those echoes are not far off, but very near.

I know very well the ghostly voice whispering in my shadows. The old man has been around all along.

Practicing Gratitude

[This piece originally appeared in the newsletter for my parish, St. Andrew’s Church. It is part of a series that explores discipleship as communal practices. Although it was crafted for that community, it comes now to you, internet people, for general consumption.]

We live in a world that encourages us to wallow in perpetual dissatisfaction. We are saturated daily with advertisements, which whisper to us ever-so subtly, “everything is not okay – you need more.” This world trains us to be increasingly attuned to what we lack and hyper aware of threats to our preferences.

Ernte_in_der_Provénce.jpeg-medium“Be grateful,” Scripture says. But how do we practice gratefulness in a world like this? Many of us desire to be more grateful, but if we’re honest, we often lack the fortitude and imagination for it. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we might admit that we are better at grumbling than giving thanks – complaining than expressing gratefulness.

Gratitude, in our world of entitlement, often seems so foreign to us. For this reason, being grateful often feels forced. “Just do it – start being grateful because that’s what you’re supposed to do!” Perhaps we also have this obligatory, forced feeling when we read Paul’s letter to the Colossians. That’s what he says, after all, right? “[Grit your teeth and] Be grateful” (Col. 3:15). “I don’t feel grateful,” you might think to yourself, “but the Bible says to be grateful, so I better make it happen.” What option do we have except to press on and try harder?

Most of us are familiar with a version of the common adage, “Stop worrying about the stuff you don’t have, count your many blessings, and be thankful for all the good stuff you do have.” This is Hallmark channel gratitude. At the end of the movie everyone inevitably learns all the grievances that evoked griping are actually pointless because they have a roof over their heads and love for each other.

This brand of gratitude may make us feel warm inside, but it has no relationship with the kind Paul writes about to the church in Colossae. The source for Hallmark gratitude is the self, which means that gratitude is sustainable and achievable inasmuch as we have the ability to convince the self that everything is okay. Some call this the power of positive thinking. It is an illusion because it ultimately lacks substance.

Gratitude, for Paul, is not rooted in our ability to muster gratefulness. It is not something we do to be a good Christian. Rather, gratitude is the fruit that flows from a heart ruled by – completely surrendered to – the peace of Christ. This is all possible, not by trying harder, but rather because God raised us with Christ as participants in his resurrection life (Col. 3:1).

Gratitude emerges from God’s prior self-giving generosity in Christ. It exposes the lie that our well-being depends on having more and guarding our preferences.

Practicing gratitude begins with embracing God’s work for us in Christ. It begins with opening our hearts wide to the reality we celebrate every Sunday in the Eucharist (which comes from the Greek word we translate as “thanksgiving”): God has done in Christ what we could not do for ourselves.

The implication is that Christians are, at their core, grateful people because their identity depends on a gift. In other words, gratitude is not merely an attitude; it is the DNA of those who have received God’s grace in Christ.

The practice of gratitude, therefore, comes as we learn to surrender to God’s provision for us in Christ – as we die to the lie that “everything is not okay – you need more,” and learn trust Jesus daily to satisfy our deepest fears, longings, and needs.Yorck_A_106-medium

Practicing gratitude looks like seeing all things through the lens of God’s grace. So over time our response to the stuff of life is not motivated by a sense of lack, but by the abundant life available in Christ. This means that gratitude sees difficult people and situations, not as problems that disrupt our preferences, but as gifts from God. We can realistically enter into tension with gratefulness because we know God is fully present with us there, and those situations are opportunities to deepen our dependence on his grace. And that is a good thing!

Gratitude is also the lifeblood of community. In a real sense, the church is meant to be a community of gratitude, and this posture is vital to sustaining community. Grumbling, on the other hand, is toxic to community. Grumbling is the posture that emerges from an inability to trust that God will lead us into fullness of life.

If community is gift and grace all the way through, then we cannot enter as demanders whose antennas are tuned to the violation of our preference. Not only will this posture prove toxic to community, it will also always leave us disappointed, frustrated, and miserable.

We do not need to fret when community does not meet our expectations because we are participants in God’s gift, not managers of it. We can submit our ideal pictures of community to God – let those expectations die at the foot of the cross – and begin to embrace, in trust, that God provides for us exactly what we need. Nurturing gratitude for the community that exists frees us to participate in the unpredictable, Spirit-led journey deeper into the grace of God with one another.

Where is God inviting you to trust him this season that, in Christ, he daily provides everything you need for fullness of life?

Participation and Incarnation: A Review of Prodigal Christianity’s Third Signpost

This post is the third stop on a blog tour reviewing Prodigal Christianity, by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can (and should) read the first two reviews here and here.

The piece not to be missed in the third signpost of Prodigal Christianity (PC), Incarnation, is the subtitle: “On the Ground: The Journey into Everyday Life.” That qualifying description is vital to what Fitch and Holsclaw desire to accomplish in Prodigal Christianity not primarily because of its conceptual value but rather because it is in that sphere – everyday life and on the ground – that this entire work is made intelligible.

prodigal-christianityOnly by living these things while traversing the ecclesial landscape through the fog of post-Christendom do these signposts have teeth. Read as just another description or discussion on what church should be like, PC is just more noise. But read as field-guide – unearthed as a desperate traveler in need of fresh imagination – PC can offer a way through the fog. [Most of the quibbles erupting over this work (this one most recently), as far as I can tell, result from judgments that fail to recognize the on-the-ground quality of PC.] We must remember, as signpost three (albeit implicitly) reminds us, that “everyday life” is the space where the transformation enacted by the prodigal God occurs.

Incarnation, for Fitch and Holsclaw, “unrelentingly points us in the direction of joining the Son’s journey into the far country of our everyday lives” (33). It gives us the framework for understanding what our participation in God’s prodigal mission looks like. In short, our sent-ness into the world is an extension of God’s with-ness.

The chapter begins in typical fashion by charting a way beyond approaches that are not sufficiently prodigal, which is to say that these approaches lack the substance for faithful participation in God’s mission. Many critics are particularly agitated by this initial move the authors make with each signpost. While the characterization of the Neo-Reformed on one end or the Emergent on the other is often unhelpfully reductionistic and for this reason can be distracting, most responses fail to address the issue of substance.

So in signpost three the authors describe two approaches to incarnation that lack the substance to lead us into God’s mission into the far country. The first approach reduces incarnation to “a divine act in history that happened a long time ago.” Incarnation as primarily a past event that has only to do with procuring our salvation for the future tends to create in us a posture of defensiveness, the authors claim, against anyone who might challenge the proposition that God was made man in the Son. An overemphasis on the unique act of Jesus in the past actually sequesters Jesus from our present, daily living. The second approach to incarnation primarily emphasizes Jesus’ life as a preeminent example of obedience to God. It is profoundly sensitive to present imitation and daily following Jesus’ example, but in its overemphasis on Jesus’ humanity “it fails to take hold of the way in which Jesus himself has promised to be present in his authority and reign wherever we go and engage in the kingdom” (35).

But in the incarnation we see that God is continually with us – Jesus’ authority and power extends into our everyday lives in a way that demands not primarily intellectual assent and defense, but surrender and trust. Moreover, the humble journey of the Son is much more than a model we follow. In fact, inasmuch as the way of Jesus is only a model for imitation evacuated of the reality of God’s victory in Christ over sin and death, our participation in God’s kingdom will lead to burnout (or serve as a tool for guilt management) because that approach implies that the everyday, on-the-ground stuff is up to us.

But it is not up to us, the authors say. Using the Gospel of Mark as their grounding text, the authors describe that in the incarnation we see God’s power and presence set loose in the world, overcoming evil. We see that the incarnation is particularly a revelation of humility in Jesus’ journey to the cross. In the “tearing” of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism to the “tearing” of the temple curtain at his crucifixion, “God is getting out. Divine presence is no longer safely up in heaven. Neither is it securely in the temple. Instead, in Jesus’s death, God is set loose in the world for mission, fully as God and man” (38).

As we submit to the Spirit, we become instruments that extend Jesus’ authoritative presence into the world – witnessing to God’s reign. Our participation in God’s mission is an extension of the incarnation – more than merely following Jesus’ model. Jesus is truly with us when we engage in kingdom activities, the kingdom of God breaks loose among us. We do not go out among “the least of these,” for instance, like magicians conjuring flashes of the kingdom with spiritual slight of hand we learned from Jesus, nor is God a divine encourager rooting for us from heaven (or angrily peering over his spectacles waiting for us to get it right) as we try really hard to do the things he asks us to do.

Can we sit with the reality that the kingdom is not something that we merely think about or simply go out and accomplish? As we humbly submit to God’s reign in the on-the-ground realities of our life, his kingdom breaks loose because he is already with us and at work among us.  The implication is that, in Christ by the Spirit, God is really with us, for instance, in the argument we had with our spouse before work, and his authority and power can break loose in our marriage (and maybe spill into the rest of our lives) as we practice reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of that tension.

There is substance for daily life in the reality that “Christ’s presence is extended into the world by his disciples participating in his in-breaking authority” (45), but I wonder, is this articulation of incarnation prodigal enough? Is there more going on in the incarnation that might invite us more fully into God’s mission? For all that is substantive in this exploration of incarnation, this signpost is strangely absent of the implications of incarnation on our humanity – on the extent to which, in the incarnation, Christ participates first in us, so that we can participate in him.

If emphasizing how the incarnation involves cosmic lordship refocuses the theological emphasis, what then refills the impetus for participatory response to the lordship? This language still feels out there – outside of what God is doing in us, in humanity. In the logic of their argument, the authors jump straight to exaltation (Jesus reigning as cosmic Lord) and completely bypass the significance of the embodiment of the Son as part of his journey into the far country, which means that while we may know that we can follow God’s kingdom breaking in through Jesus into the far country, we are still left without the means to make that journey.

Our participation in God’s drama of salvation is predicated on, made possible by, Christ’s prior participation in us. Because of the incarnation – Christ participating in humanity – and the public, earthiness of that participation – our participatory obedience takes place in this realm in these bodies. Is it not true that outside of this reality, the language of “extending the incarnation” fails to deal with how that extension is fully possible in us?

Super Bowl Commercials and Desire: A Response

In the current pace of the news-media cycle, it is strange how far removed we might feel from an event as culturally significant as the Super Bowl (it aired just 10 days previous to this post). Many bloggers work to keep this pace in an effort to maintain interested readers. I confess, however, that I neither have the intellectual energy nor do I believe it is always helpful to stay ahead of the curve.

While I understand and embrace the reality that interest in the vehicle for the subject, Super Bowl XLVII, has already waned, I still believe it could be a valuable heuristic device for exploring the complex relationship between the church, culture, and desire. This discussion is especially pertinent for my context (the South) where the peculiarity of Christian formation is often muddled amid the generic religious-cultural powers that be.Image

Owen Strachan, a friend and former colleague, is right to suggest that commercials, especially those aired during the Super Bowl, reveal the forces at work in our social imagination (Here is his full post: A Tale of Two Americas). He observes that the commercials that night reveal two different Americas: “there is one that celebrates sex, hedonism, and self. There is another that celebrates family, sacrifice, and country. One is ultra-modern; the other is traditional. These polar Americas are competing strenuously for the hearts of citizens.” According to Strachan, the “Ram America” revealed in the Dodge commercial (featuring Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer”) is worth celebrating. It is “greater and grander” than the “Calvin Klein America” and other commercials that displayed “unbridled sexuality.” In fact, for Strachan this “Ram America” (and the positive reaction to it on the interwebs), is a sign of “hope for the old ways.”

These commercials certainly are competing for our hearts, but what these commercials reveal to me is not a cultural divide, but the extent to which advertisers know how to use stories to access our desires and loves. I contend, more specifically, that behind both Calvin Klein and Dodge Ram is a narrative of the “good life” inviting us to participate in the same “Commodified America.” Processed through the wider grid of how commercials themselves function in a Super Bowl culture, these commercials are two different sides of the same coin.

In contradistinction from Strachan’s suggestion, I suggest that both commercials celebrate the American way of consumption, and both commercials are powerful tools for forming observers into this way. Both commercials play on the imagination, and both commercials implicitly suggest that their product is the means to participating in the good life. To invoke the French critic, as Strachan does, de Toqueville might notice, upon his viewing, that the commercials are actually playing the same game and reveal, at base, the same America – where everything, sex and family values, is a product to be consumed.

I also suggest that the Dodge commercial can be more dangerous to the Christian imagination than the CK commercial because of the way it subtly exploits the signifiers of a particular brand of religiosity for the sake of consumerism. Good Christians know to scoff at the gratuitous display of sexuality in the CK commercial (although they might still purchase the underwear), but Christians are often unaware that they same type of desire for things of ultimate concern are cultivated in absorbing the American-professional sports-advertisement event as a whole. Christians often do not have a mechanism to ask questions like, “How is this entire viewing experience forming me? What is implied in the combination of these things? What larger forces are at work here? What does the American-sports franchise teach me about what it means to be truly human?” In this way, Christians run the risk of missing what commercials are actually training them to love because the commercial trades in familiar language and images.

Strachan identifies this phenomenon when he writes, “There was sweet irony here. The visual medium, with its ability to unveil what should be veiled, should technically be able to excite our passions more for lust and sex than, well, farmers and tractors. But that wasn’t true.” He is exactly right – sexuality is not the only visual medium that excites our passions. The Dodge commercial was equally (at least, perhaps more) visually formative because it also invited the viewer into a particular vision of the good life – a vision that, I believe, is not necessarily coextensive with God’s kingdom in Christ.

Even so, if those who support this “traditional America” had eyes to see it, I think they would notice that they are being used. The Dodge commercial commodifies and therefore cheapens the “way of the farmer” and the values embedded in that way. In other words, the median of the commercial betrays the message of the way of the farmer. The Dodge commercial may actually reveal that this way of simplicity, family, and hard work is being subverted by the way of materialism. How can we avoid the reality that the Dodge brand, not traditional values (whatever that is, really), is the primary beneficiary here?

Dodge is not making a move based on principle – they are making a move to sell more trucks. They have identified their target consumers and brilliantly branded themselves to serve that end. This is what smart companies do. Am I off base here?

Unlike Strachan, I do not believe that the Dodge commercial is a symbol of hope not only because it reveals how complicit “traditional values” are with the consumerism and materialism pervasive in our culture, but also because it reveals the extent to which Christians invest their social imagination in a system (i.e. the media) that potentially evacuates the space for concrete, public practices in Christ. In other words, the virtual high-fiving evoked by seeing a commercial for “our team” also reveals what we (evangelicals) believe is important about our identity and being-in-the-world.

What kind of political formation is it that leads Christians to be warmed by watching traditional values in a truck commercial? Is it not the kind of formation that settles for generic claims over the particularity of the Gospel? The Christian story is public through witness – witness to the reality of Jesus’ Lordship in a broken world. And the Dodge commercial smacks more of propaganda than witness.

My quibble is not that Christians might find the Harvey sound bite compelling (I think it is), but that they might fail to recognize that Harvey’s message was muted of its proclamatory force by being disembodied from its social context and then exploited for the same purpose that sex was exploited in many other commercials. May we do a better job of (1) identifying and resisting those subtle (and not-so subtle) cultural narratives not aimed at God’s Kingdom in Christ and (2) inhabiting the peculiar posture of the church on mission by witnessing to the truth of the Gospel in a way that reveals the world for what it truly is.

The Walker: An Essay in Honor of my Father, Part 2 of 2

Although I can’t say I’m particularly fast, I can fairly claim that I am a runner. It is part of who I am because it’s a habit, of sorts – one I’ve kept for many years. It became ingrained as a habit because my dad is a runner. That is, he used to be a runner. Almost twenty years ago I competed in my first official 5k with him. I subsequently accompanied him to these races on a semi-monthly basis into my early teens before school sports and other extracurriculars took my time and attention. He competed for the state title awarded by the local runners club – earning points each time he placed.

We would wake up before dawn, and I would eat toast with honey (cereal is not an appropriate pre-race fuel – the milk will ruin you). Then we would load into Dad’s red, ‘95 Dodge truck and journey into the early morning fog. We were silent together like paratroopers before a jump. Most races began at eight in the morning, but we always arrived at least an hour early – plenty of time to unload extra weight, get our bearings, and go through stretching rituals.

Time was in slow-motion in the minutes before the gun. Our senses were heightened by the imminence. Standing behind the starting line anticipation swelled in our muscles. We would shake out our limbs like noodles in order to cope. Then with a pop all the tension exploded back into real time and we switched to pure, adrenaline-fulled instinct for three point two miles. Not much thinking – just moving.

I was initiated into the competitive running world, however, long before I ran my first 5k in the big leagues. The local running club in Hot Springs held an annual one-miler called the Spa Squirt. Dad ran it with me the first time – I was three years old. I competed every year I was eligible (12 and under) and earned second place overall in my final race.

Even when I failed to place in our races, I still had a special sense of pride because Dad usually won. And he walked the entire way. He racewalked, that is. He had been a decent runner in the ‘70s and 80’s, but continual beating on the pavement caused Achilles tendon trouble and forced a complete overhaul in his means of movement. His athletically-induced existential crisis led him to the local racewalking guru – a silver-haired man in his seventies who trained him in The Way. Dad was transformed from a lackluster runner into one of the fastest racewalkers in the state. This late-blooming talent also led him to the [senior] Olympics several times where he earned a few metals.

Racewalking is an overlooked and misunderstood sport. The old ladies in white sneakers chugging through the mall are not racewalking – for the record. It is far more difficult than the lay person might assume. It takes more concentration, focus, and control than mere running. Most runners, I contend, don’t have the patience to racewalk.

If runners run like the wind, then walkers walk like the river. Racewalkers work with the track – unlike runners who push against it. Smooth is the operative term. At any given point in the act of racewalking one foot must be planted on the ground and that leg must be extended, not bent, at the knee during contact (failure to observe these rules will lead to disqualification). Energy is generated from the hips, which sway fiercely-but-fluidly back and forth with the cadence of the feet, and from the arms, which swirl subtly at the side of a tightened torso. Eyes are fixed firmly forward with head erect. The feet must be quick because the stride is naturally shortened. It produces a hushed patter – a quiet tapping. The sound is like the act: almost imperceptible – easily missed.

Once Dad attempted to impart the gift of racewalking to me. The training didn’t last long. I made it one lap around the track and quit. I was probably too immature to put in the hard work of mastering such an unglamorous skill. It held no value in the currency that most middle schoolers trade in. I’m sure he was disappointed, but the racewalking was mostly his own, not necessarily a commodified thing passed on to future generations through which he could live vicariously after he reached his prime.

What Dad successfully imparted to me, implicitly I think, was the gift of his presence in the midst of this embodied, physical activity. He walked with me running. Cutting straight through my history is his narrow frame gliding across the road – his face dripping with sweat and concentration. Sometimes he would pass me during a race. As I lumbered along, straining with every pound of foot to pavement, he would suddenly appear at my side. The words he spoke to me in those moments are lost now. But his with-ness continues to linger.

When I don’t know what else to do, I run. I do this in spite of the fact that I don’t actually enjoy running and never have. Running hurts. I can’t help but to enter into the cathartic ritual. It comes out of me like a reflex – an expression of something at my core. As I run I participate in what I was discipled into. I am living out of the immanence.

The Lawn-Man: An Essay in Honor of my Father, Part 1 of 2

I will always remember my father as a lawn-man. He was not so by profession or even by hobby as much as by worry. A healthy, well-manicured patch of Bermuda sod brought satisfaction to him, which was, as far as I knew, a product of the sense of placement he achieved by tending his land.

I learned to respect his dominion over our grass not by the hours of physical labor – the mowing and plucking of weeds – but in his vigilant attention to its status, which was manifested in his furrowed brow and undecipherable mumbles over its perpetual need for work. This was transferred to me indirectly over the years as I observed him. Never was it necessary for him to sit me down and explain the seriousness of his task. Like most things I learned by what was spoken instinctively, through tones and groans, and in what went unspoken. In these unspecified habits his perspective slowly grew into me so that I thought about a lawn like he did. I learned that ours was never perfect but always respectable – middle class just like us (it never matched the impeccable Zoysia of the landscaped elites, but neither was it overrun with crab grass or un-mowed for long). I learned that the status of a man’s yard was somehow reflective of his character. I learned that the weed-eater was an unreliable and unfriendly beast, but necessary for landscaping. I learned that damage to our yard was not a light offense. And I learned  the material goodness of the yard as I enjoyed the fruit of my father’s labors playing in the grass, feeling the cool blades on my skin.

Like any artist, his work was guarded from outside tinkering. Only on rare occasions was I invited to participate in yard maintenance, and on these occasions my inefficiency did not justify much future responsibility. But this was more than art for my father – it was a solitary, meditative act. In its performance there was a quiet piety and seriousness requiring certain liturgical rhythms that should not be disturbed. The crank of the mower started a Gregorian hum that initiated and blanketed the ritual. Back and forth the priest would with deliberative movement carve parallel lanes into the green earth. His vestments were tattered from years of service and stained from the debris that is strewn by administering the elements. After the proper attention had been given to the sheering, the lifeless blades were offered to the compost heap in the vacant lot across the street, and the aroma of the pungent sacrifice spread for at least two squares miles in a good summer heat.

It was never wise to interrupt the ceremony although I did that very thing at least a dozen times (although I learned that the urgency of my request could often off-set the seriousness of the violation). Occasionally a rogue toy or clump of dog feces would also bring the mower to a groaning halt. In either case the focus was broken in the same way a drunk spectator might interrupt a sporting-event by streaking buck-naked across the field, or like a loud noise might jolt someone back to reality from a daydream.

This image of my father is so centered in my memory because he doesn’t often tell stories about himself. Some men are known for their stories – usually cycling through a dozen well-worn tales with several variations. Whenever you are in their company, you can expect another rendition: their eyes become sharp and mannerisms more grandiose as they recall some time and place. This is how they intend themselves in the world.

But not my father. Rather, he works diligently at what is before him. He does this in order to create, I think. His working is his story: the tireless tending to the land is one piece of a larger effort to write his story into being. From my perspective, he keeps his narrative out “in front,” chronologically speaking, as if to be defined by what he can cultivate in the present instead of reaching back into history in order to recapitulate a lost epoch. These days are the ones he works from and for.

The stories he told me, then, were those I witnessed unfold in our not-pristine-but-well-cared-for yard. These stories have texture and smell. They are vivid and planted. They help me understand my father and myself. The practice of lawn maintenance was space for my father to take an inward journey, which shouldn’t be surprising since horticulture has for many centuries been a natural friend to the interior life, but it was also publicly performed. He led me indirectly to the land, and now in my experience of the land I experience him.

Whenever I walk through a nice patch of grass, I still can’t help but imagine my father standing out in front of our porch on a late-summer afternoon quietly directing the water hose back and forth over the thirsty ground wearing frayed jean shorts, no shirt, and flip flops. He is in the thicket of thought, and so I join him there.

When the Familiar Becomes Strange, Part 3: Work

Last week in the early evening I scrubbed at the hood of my car with one of those squeegees on a plastic stick – unsuccessfully purging dozens of dirty white deposits of bird feces that exploded on the black paint. The fecal bombs dropped from the leafy tree that looms above our parking space. My rhythm was feverish, frustrated. I gritted my teeth with every swoosh of the spongy tip.

I stopped at the gas station after leaving the basketball gym I baby-sit three nights a week – where the pastoral responsibility of preventing cussing, dunking, and sagging is growing increasingly complex. My emotional fatigue was both transferred and intensified by the resilience of that bird crap. Underneath the fluorescent glow of the Exxon lights, I struggled, as I have with more frequency recently, to understand what I’m doing.

I spend two other days of the week teaching college freshman how to interpret Scripture. Parables, parts of speech, historical context, literary genres, observations, blank stares. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching at this level, in this way, is akin to an explicit affair. Both parties show up as arranged, do the deed, and then head their separate directions. Only what has taken place, regardless of the awareness of either party, is the vulnerable sharing of oneself with the other. And as in many casual encounters of this kind, the self-giving is unequally distributed. One party inevitably is more give, and the other more take. I often walk away from class feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied.

Certainty has not accompanied any decision I (we) have made over the past four years – although I’ve pretended to have it or fretted over lacking it. I do not know what I’m doing or where I’m going. I am joining a generation that is systemically under-tooled for following God in thickness of life. We have been led along like hungry consumers – devouring our way from one experience to another – trained to avoid the tension that emerges when our appetites are no longer fed by the next big thing. Our confusion leads to frantic searching for something else – hyperventilation of the soul, which manifests itself in hurried, destructive habits. But God is not over there. Our attempts to recapitulate the allusion of certainty or safety miss God here.

So I have a choice to live out of my frustration, confusion, and fear through desperate attempts at control, or to trust in the midst of my frustration, confusion, and fear through surrender. Some days I do the former, and other days, by God’s grace, I trust.

As I navigate my way through this fog, I am reminded how many devices I have for short-circuiting God’s work in my life.  There is a habit of searching for the escape hatch when the pressure increases – rather than watching, waiting, hoping. Like the bewildered disciples post-resurrection, in the midst of my confusion I find myself climbing back in the boat and pushing out to sea – retreating to safe habits. But there are no fish this day. Although my actions are familiar, my striving is frustratingly fruitless. Empty nets. Yet, almost unrecognizable, Jesus waits for me at the shore – a fire, a meal. Communion.

I recently realized that even though the disciples pulled in a bountiful load at Jesus’ direction, Jesus already had fish there to eat. Enough.

Out of my emptiness I abide.

“Do you love me? Follow me.”

Calling grows from abiding.

Trust.

The Gospel of Thomas and Gritty Theology

It is significant that the canonical Gospels are not the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. Traditional scholarship has for generations been defensively reestablishing (over against, for instance, the claims of the Jesus Seminar) that the story of Jesus in New Testament is a faithful preservation of the earliest apostolic testimony. In recent years the debate has descended into the consuming masses via Discovery Channel specials and TIME articles – adding to pop-culture’s love affair with the idea that Jesus really wasn’t who their Sunday school teacher said he was. This debacle has been sufficiently rehearsed in other places, and I do not wish to reiterate it here.

I do suggest, however, that the greatest threat to the distinctiveness of the canonical Gospels today is not that they will be displaced by apocryphal accounts leading to widespread cognitive disaffection among those in the pews. Rather, the greatest threat is the tendency to read and practice the Gospels as if they are the Gospel of Thomas – a tendency cultivated, I think, unintentionally. More than getting right answers and facts for apologetics, I fear that in our attempted-obedience to Jesus we do not acknowledge (and live) this important distinction. The result is discipleship that hinges on the distribution of information and a church evacuated of mission.

The Gospel of Thomas (GOT) is, among other things, a collection of pithy sayings of Jesus to his disciples (around 115) strung together without narratival or historical logic. Although there is some thematic grouping, the work reads more like a random collage of Jesus fortune cookies than a story about a person. (Take some time and read it for yourself here). The GOT is easily memorized, distributed, and used for pedagogical purposes. It could easily be appropriated for one of those “daily inspiration” calendars or into 38 different 3-point sermons. I fear that much attempted disciple-making and preaching follows as if we read the Gospel of Thomas as Scripture.

In the Gospels, however, we do not have abstracted sayings but embodied proclamations and manifestations of God’s truth on the ground. The story of Jesus in the NT shows us that Truth is embedded in place to real people. Theological systemization and ethical application are not two separate moves Jesus makes (and, for what it’s worth, I think the indicative/imperative distinction in Paul is misused to this end). No, the Gospel is what happens when the Father reveals himself particularly in the Son by the Spirit. This is not to say that truth is situational or contingent, but that we don’t really get Truth apart from how it is being revealed in our midst. In other words, we cannot get behind the spacey-ness of God’s revelation to us in history to a free-floating set of theological principles or abstracted sayings.

The drama of Scripture is necessarily concerned with emplacement and embodiment – every bit of it bears the communal marks that shaped it and for which it was shaped (read Vanhoozer here, not Ricoeur, for the record). Again, it is important for us to recognize that we have not received an outlined, ordered collection of Jesus’ theology and instructions for our life. What we have is Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, who grew up and started a ministry among his people in Galilee, who taught those who followed him by calling them out of vicious cycles in 1st century Palestinian culture and religiosity and into a full participation in what God began with their ancestors. Jesus healed, walked, ate, suffered, died, and rose in a place. The truth of Jesus is how it unfolded before Mary and Joseph, Peter and John, Lazarus and the bleeding woman, the demoniac and Pontius Pilate – on the Mount of Olives, on the Sea of Galilee, in the Jordan, in the wilderness, in Samaria, at the Temple, and at a party. The lack of this type of embodied-ness is what first signals that the GOT is “less true” than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even before Jesus’ sayings are tested for orthodoxy or “authenticity,” before we see gnosticizing tendencies, its disconnectedness betrays the lack of connection to God’s revealed character.

I’m convinced that recognizing and participating in the embodied, space-y, implaced Gospel makes a difference (my friend Matt Tebbe explores over at his blog – you should read it). The difference is that obedience looks less like wrapping our minds and hands around the principles Jesus teaches and more like surrendering to a person who made possible and illustrated a way of life. “Understanding” is thus a dynamic event that follows from the mutually enforcing poles of reflecting and doing that results in practices of obedience. In other words, discipleship is what happens as we live into – participate in – the reality of God’s kingdom come to earth. We come to know as we do.

For me this means that reconciliation is what happens in my apartment, the image of God is what I search for in the people at Wal-Mart, sanctification is what happens as I choose small acts of obedience, the sufficiency of the cross is what confronts me as I try to earn acceptance, and resurrection is what I practice as I admit death in the midst of ways of control and receive life there. All these things are grounded, initiated, and energized by God’s prior and continued action in this place.

We see that (at least part of) the significance that the Gospels are not the GOT is that theology is meant to be performed. It is gritty. I can taste it and stare it in the face. To recognize the lived quality of theology is to see it for what it is, and the story of Jesus in the NT is prime real estate for how this life unfolds.

When the Familiar Becomes Strange: Part 2 – The Academy and the Church

“I want to bridge the gap between the academy and the church.” If you would have asked me why I wanted to pursue more school a year or so before we left for Chicago, I would have confidently repeated those words. That phrase was scribbled on my mental sticky-note reminding me why I study. It was my raison d’être … of sorts.

The anti-intellectualism I encountered in various places growing up impassioned my motto. In the church and among some of my peers at OBU, I perceived not just a lack of deep theological reflection, but an outright distaste for it. As a former professor used to say, “Just because the tomb is empty doesn’t mean our minds need to be empty too.” My goal was to bring a biblical and theological richness to bear on all aspects of life – to help those both in the pews and behind the pulpit see the essential theological character of everything they do. No more checking minds at the door of the sanctuary – no more self-help bible studies and sermons – orthopraxy emerges rightly from orthodoxy, I preached.

The purity of academic rigor funded my mission. Immersion in the intensity of academia was meant to equip me with tools to build the bridge over the dark chasm that separates the church from the academy. The bridge-building was mostly unidirectional for me: what I meant when I announced my mission was that the church needs more academy in it. But my experience in the academy yielded a different perspective. By the time I was writing the last sentences of my thesis, I found myself looking from the other side of the chasm – realizing how desperately the academy needs the church.

Somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness I knew that the bridging was a reciprocal affair, but I didn’t really get it deeper down in my body. I had to learn it the way I learned not to squeeze the front-wheel brake on my bicycle while traveling rapidly downhill. After tumbling over the handlebars several times, I looked at my arms and legs decorated with blood, dirt, and rocks and realized that something wasn’t working. It took less than a year in the academy to get the sense beat into me, or better, to get the spirit beat out of me.

My awakening was prompted by what I lived and witnessed. In a meeting with the same professor who asked me about being Reformed (see Part 1), we discussed my plans and goals for a career in the academy. This time he asked about my undergraduate GPA. After proudly sharing my accomplishment, he stared back at me without expression and muttered, “We’ll see what your GPA is after this semester,” as if he already knew the outcome. I quickly learned what was required of a graduate student in New Testament who wanted a PhD. He must stand out. Standing out took every ounce of intellect and energy I could muster because the playing field was packed with other competitors who had more intellect, energy, focus, and time, and we were all vying for the same attention. Standing out also meant sacrifice. Most assignments had no real end – there was an indefinite amount of time one could give to preparing for class or completing tasks. Moreover, most syllabi had two levels of reading: the “required reading” level for the common seminary folk, and the “suggested reading” level for those aspiring for academic greatness. Throw in a part-time job and a family – something had to give. I wasn’t graded on those times I chose not to stay another three hours in the library in order to spend time with my wife whom I had not seen all day. But that did often mean a lower grade on the quiz the next morning.

I woke up to the nature of academics as a stumbled through this cut-throat world (I mean that with no exaggeration). I woke up to the reality that the system training people to be experts in Scripture and theology is often spiritually de-formative. It can easily push people out of rhythms of grace and into cycles of earning. And, frankly, it will make an ass out of you. It was becoming clear to me that the academy needs an ecclesial detox. But I realized this slowly.

In the third year of my program, the semester I was both studying for comprehensive exams and beginning my thesis, I journeyed to the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting. This event was a compact form – an intense, non-diluted version – of what I experienced only in bits and pieces the previous two years of my graduate career. It was total immersion in the system. If the character of the academy is most revealed in a particular place, it was here at this meeting. During this trip I finally peeked behind the curtain for an uncensored view of theological academia.

For the uninitiated, SBL is a gathering of the sharpest minds in biblical studies from around the world. Scholars make their yearly pilgrimage in order to listen to one another present their research in various theological disciplines. Two of the largest hotels in downtown Atlanta hosted the event that year. Attendees picked from dozens of presentations or panel discussions occurring in conference rooms simultaneously every hour, all morning and afternoon. In addition, there were two banquet halls packed with books – half priced books – and representatives from publishing companies present to discuss new contracts. After hours everyone gathered with their constituents at restaurants and receptions for more informal, but no less significant, schmoozing.

The previous two years prepared my eyes for that week at SBL. Had the ground not already been tilled in my heart, I might have missed it. What I saw, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s haunted visit from Marley’s ghost, were images of my death – a harbinger of the miserable future ahead if I continued unchanged. From my perspective, SBL was thick with the empty posturing and vain striving that characterizes theological academia when it exists for its own sake. Beneath the intellectual flurry was a malicious mechanism of success. In this world you make it by proving yourself, and participating in a conference like SBL has a legitimizing function in that system. Any aspiring scholar knows that a curriculum vitae without the proper signifiers (e.g. a paper presented at SBL) is debilitating for a career in academics. The problem is not necessarily what is required but the types of attitudes and postures formed by what is required. I could see it in the eyes, hear it in the tone, and sense it the body language of those formed by decades of making their way in this world: resigned desperation.

The realization that I wanted no part fell on me as I sat in a presentation from a scholar who is a veteran in my field of research at that time (the apocryphal NT). His countless hours of research and personal sacrifice (which I’m sure included time away from his family) culminated that day in a presentation before a total of eight people, one of which was there because she accidentally stumbled into the wrong room. I was struck by the realization that the kind of beating I received the past two years was standard fare for continued participation in academics. All of that for this?

I realize that the academy isn’t equally vicious for all who enter, but it is especially for those with a certain personality: one that has learned to find meaning in achievement and performance. The mixture of these variables without the proper vigilance or mechanism for critical, communal introspection produces a potent compound. For me the ratio was especially volatile, so the reaction was particularly violent and immediate. I realize now that God was gracious to me in this way. Not everyone is so fortunate to have his or her dreams quickly implode. If I had actually succeeded in this academic system, that would have been truly troubling. The system could have easily spit me out the other end feeling affirmed at the heart of my idolatry – set up to perpetuate that very evil in the name of theology. Although I would be climbing the ladder in all the appropriate ways that someone like myself does – all the ways of climbing promoted by the system – I would have become, like Jesus said, twice the son of hell I was before I started.

But the church saved me. I found (am finding) healing because the church subverted my attempts to earn acceptance there through the means I used in the academy by persistently opening avenues unto submission to Jesus’ Lordship. I was thus re-trained in the Eucharist, in the proclamation of the word, in the difficulty of practicing community, in the corporate confession, and in the working-out of reconciliation. The church was brought to bear on the academy in my life.

Occupy Bethlehem

This is an advent story: a familiar tale told from an unfamiliar angle. Listen and remember…

Just over 2000 years ago in the region of Judea – in the town of Bethlehem – a movement was birthed. It all took place during the reign of Herod the Great, king of Judea, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. By this time Herod had been in power for over 30 years – appointed by the Roman Senate in the midst of political turmoil. Never fully embraced by the Jewish people, he was always considered an outsider, and his expensive building projects and lavish lifestyle caused financial strain. He was a client-king – operating primarily under the interests of Rome – not the true King.

Also in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree through the Senate that everyone living in the Empire must be registered for tax purposes, including the Jews. Since general Pompey secured control over Judea 60 years earlier, the Jews were subjects of Rome. This census was yet another reminder that they lived in exile – captives in their own land. Although Judea had experienced a brief period of independence after the Maccabean revolt, the often-corrupt Hasmonean priesthood was characterized more by vying for power through political means than returning to God with true sacrifice and praise. These times were a pale reflection of generations past, before the Assyrians and Babylonians conquered the people and desecrated the Temple, like the Golden years under the great King David. They were living in the land again – the Temple rebuilt – but life was not the same. Exile was, after all, the inevitable consequence of the nation’s obstinacy. Jewish oppression under Roman rule was linked, ironically, to the oppression that the Jews first perpetrated.

Things were business-as-usual in those days some might have said, at least up in Jerusalem at the Temple. Sacrifices, festivals, Sabbath, circumcision, Torah-keeping, dietary restrictions – all the right markers of Jewish identity were in place. But everyone also knew that things were not as they should be.

In the midst of their exile the Jews were actually quite expectant for an occupy movement. Beginning with the first exile, the prophets spoke in veiled images of a time when God would return to occupy His people in His land in order to make things right. Justice would flow like a river and God’s law would be written not in stone, but on hearts. This hope grew over the years and assumed different forms. It was said that God’s occupation would be realized under the leadership of the Anointed One. By the first century the image that predominated was one of a military ruler who would come wielding a sword to gather his people together and overthrow Rome outright.

The time was pregnant with revolution. Nothing would be the same after the movement took root, and everything that came before would be seen differently. And so, in the midst of socio-economic, political, and religious crisis, it began: Joseph returning to his hometown, Bethlehem, to register, and Mary with child.

Occupy Bethlehem was birthed. Quietly.

The thing about Occupy Bethlehem is that it did not begin as Occupy Jerusalem, or Occupy Rome, as some might have expected. There was no grand entrance heralded by the horns of war. No march on the steps of the Temple Mount. Rather, the movement was inaugurated with an announcement to shepherds in a field. Other occupy attempts previously emerged in different regions around Judea – like the occupy movement led by one called Judas. He raided the palace at Sephoris and seized the armory. That movement burned out bright and fast. But none like Occupy Bethlehem. It was a real threat to the powers-that-be, however. Its Anointed leader, Jesus, threatened the essence of Caesar’s lordship – the heart of Herod’s kingly reign – the uniqueness of the high priest’s sacrifice.

Occupy Bethlehem was in every way characterized by the margins: a marginal birth on the outskirts of the city, a recruitment that drew from the margins of society, a message received by those on the margins of power, and an execution reserved for the most marginal dissidents. This occupation on the margins was about redeeming those who were in captivity and inviting in those who were not in by rights. Jesus said it himself when he quoted those who spoke long before in hope of this movement, “The Spirit…has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.” This was the Jubilee.

This movement Jesus led was no empty politic. It was the occupation of one kingdom by another – the invasion of the faux by the Real. It was not legislated, but inaugurated. It was not an uprising, but a descent. Not a massive footprint, but a mustard seed. The Pax Romana met the Via Crucis. The occupation of the Roman state signaled a reversal in its modus operandi: prevailing systems were no longer self-apparent because there was a new Benefactor, thus a new way of being human.  The implication of Occupy Bethlehem was that those who were poor, sorrowful, hungry, and persecuted were really blessed. Those who were first were really last, and the last first.

It must be remembered that the telos of this movement was comprehensive in scope – no realm un-occupied. Its leader, the Son of God, came to occupy all of creation. Because, as his followers would later affirm, that which is not “occupied” cannot be redeemed. So he became every bit of us. He invaded all of our space by setting up his tent here. His protest – his mission – was one of reconciliation, not through force but by willing submission to the worst of our mess. Death. And so his occupation was our liberation out of death and into life because he triumphed over the powers that held creation in captivity. The Son’s successful occupation, in fact, was a victory march – a procession with the defeated foes in tow. They were disgraced by the occupation’s counterintuitive means: the cross. Indeed, the Son’s great Demonstration was his humiliation there. It was only through his emptying that there was vindication as he was raised the true Lord over creation.

Soon Occupy Bethlehem went viral. Throughout the Roman Empire other movements took hold: Occupy Judea, Occupy Samaria, Occupy Ephesus, Occupy Corinth, Occupy Rome, and beyond. The Good News of the movement grew by the force of its inherent power and the witness of its followers.

Now we join in Occupy Bethlehem by participating in the self-emptying demonstration – becoming occupied ourselves. All of our allegiances are thus redirected and redefined, and we submit to being transformed by the same Spirit that always energized Occupy Bethlehem with the Son and Father. Outward now we move into the public and private spaces of occupation – to the 99 and the 1% – witnessing to the character and power of Occupy Bethlehem.