the gnats of life

One of my realizations over the years is that it’s not always the big problems that can get a person down. Sure, major disasters and frustrations can certainly get in the way, but there’s often an accompanying sense of purpose to get moving past them. When my car is broken down on the side of the road, I have to put off doing whatever else I had planned, get it towed, get it fixed, pray for financial resources.  When there’s a fire across the street, hose down the roof, pack up the car, pray for safety.

The little problems are those minor irritations that just keep irritating. If there’s a big spider in my kitchen, I’ll kill it. But if it’s a little fly? I’ll just mostly let it be, even if it occasionally buzzes by my ear while I’m trying to watch tv.  Irritant, but not emergency.  Enough of that irritant, though, and it disturbs the peace, upsets the serenity of a given moment, takes away from my reserves of patience.

Those are important reserves when I have young kids!

Enough irritations and life itself takes a negative turn. I start seeing frustration in every direction, try to pin it on people who are frustrating me, or plans that get out of sorts, or news that intends to rile me up about frustrations in places I’ve never even been to.  Even as, on the surface, life is objectively good, the irritants rob the peace and invoke the chaos.

I call those little nagging frustrations “gnats”. They buzz around simply to be irritating.

I’ve sometimes let the gnats take over my moods, causing shadows and leading me away from what I should be doing.  That doesn’t help. The gnats keep buzzing, they certainly don’t care about me or my moods.

That’s why I’m increasingly convinced there’s a theology of smallness: the small problems that distort our hopes, the small sins that lead us down wrong roads, the small discouragements that disorient our sense of purpose.  I see that theology of smallness in the Gospels. There’s a big narrative, that’s for sure, but there’s also these particular stories and commands. Jesus didn’t really talk big politics, after all, he doesn’t address Rome, for instance, except to avoid the pointed questions.

He tends to turn the questions around to the asker, saying what they should do, or how they should prepare. Help your neighbor in the ways they need help right now.

Don’t murder, sure. But also don’t even get angry.

That’s a theology of smallness, because how can that fix all the problems in our world? But it’s the smallness that is important.

If every Christian in history actually did that, actually followed that command? Wow.

If every Christian was attentive to those small temptations and initial distortions? Wow.

If I did either of these things over the entire course of my life? Wow.

The quick response is to fall back into a discussion of grace, that I’m forgiven. Yada-yada-yada. But the gnats keep buzzing and the frustrations and self-judgments keep building.

A theology of smallness sees grace as an impetus to change, not a way of excusing the past.  The past is past, but what can I do now?

I did two small things this week. One for my own sense of purpose and one for helping others.  Neither are particularly important, and I likely won’t send announcements about them in my alumni newsletter.

I replaced the headliner in my 97 Honda Civic. It’s an old car, and I honestly don’t like it very much. It’s not fun to drive. I got it quite used in 2008, and it’s been well-used much more since. I see all the nice cars around, compare myself with people who are much younger who have much better. It gets me down. But, we have no car payments, and I don’t have a long commute. It makes sense.  There’s that, but then there’s the gnats of how the interior fabric is falling apart and starting to rub against my head when I drive and drop dust whenever I swipe it away.  Irritating!

I’ve gotten more and more negative about my car, tempting me to feel bad about finances, about job security, about decisions I’ve made, about… well that goes down a long road of gnattiness.  Bzzz. Bzzzz.  I got bored with that irritation, so I bought some fabric, watched a youtube video, and now the roof in my car looks fairly new.

civic headliner

Small, but it is a little bit of delight both in the aesthetic and in the feeling of accomplishing something that had a start, moments of things not going quite right, then finishing.  That put me on a better trajectory. I’m not a headliner for a major academic conference or church event, but I got the old headliner out, and a new one in. Now I’m not as irritated with the car that God has given me and I know is right for us now and is a wiser use of our resources.

Small, but it affects how I think about a lot of things. The brain is weird, but it’s the only brain I have.

Second, I finally got to learning some video editing. That’s entirely unimpressive. But for a long time, I’ve recorded audio/video for my online courses, and they’ve sometimes turned out less than good. Add to this the need to make changes with older videos, to fix sound problems, etc. and so on. I’ve neglected posting videos of myself because I didn’t want to deal with the software, etc. and so on. Posted videos I knew had issues, because I didn’t have time to do anything different and neglected posting regular update videos because I didn’t have time.

Then felt irritated at them, got frustrated at myself when students rightfully complained, got to feeling like I could do more, then that I never can do enough, and why did God call me to this, and I don’t know what I’m even doing.  Bzzzz. Bzzz.

So, fix some audio, edit some videos, easy tasks that I’m finally learning how to do, all so my students can have as quality an experiences as possible. Add to this helping my dad with his resurging literacy teaching in a group home, and my feeling of contributions grows, and then I see good things that God is doing, and how I’m somehow helping others in their work and ministry.

Being proactive with the small things, things I can do right now, things that are within my scope, invites a new song in my life for this day.

Swat the gnats, and it’s interesting how possibilities start awakening again.

Like writing a blog post again after far too long.

Posted in around the house, personal, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Faith

There’s a tendency to assume faith and facts are somehow opposites.  That facts are based on proof and faith rejects such mundane realities.  A quick google search turns up this definition: “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”

Based on spiritual apprehension?  I’m not even sure what that means.

Proof is a loaded word, of course.  It’s not a binary, all there or all not there.  Maybe in a strictly mathematical sense, but very few of us live our lives in a strictly mathematical sense.  We assess and predict, using our experiences and reason to gauge the world around us. When I come to a stoplight and the light is green, I keep going fast because I know the laws and I have experience in how these laws are followed.  I don’t have proof everyone will follow the laws, but it’s a good bet.  Though, not absolute.

We go by incomplete proof all the time, it’s how we make our way through life.  In Hebrews we have this definition of faith: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

There’s nothing about a lack of proof here, as if our confidence just erupts wholesale from our hearts.

Faith isn’t the absence of proof, not at all, that’s defining it in a way that doesn’t match either Biblical testimony or religious experience. People base their faith on something after all. Whether that proof is enough to convince everyone is a different matter, but that doesn’t negate the fact there’s a driving proof for a particular person to live in a particular way.

Faith isn’t believe in absence of facts or proof. Faith is a trajectory, an orientation in life based on a variety of proofs, towards a not-yet-experienced future. Understanding faith as a trajectory rather than a kind of wish is central to Scripture, where God, we say, works in a variety of ways and then expects the people to continue to believe that he will work in ways not yet seen.What's on the other side?

Maybe this is why I wrestle with the idea of doubt. It’s become trendy to emphasize doubt, to celebrate doubt.  But doubt isn’t really conducive with faith.  But just writing that sounds so… religious and old-fashioned.  But when I think of faith as trajectory, it’s an important statement to make.  Because if I’m always doubting, I’m not moving forward towards the goal, I’m not pressing onward, stopping and pausing and checking the map every moment, getting sidetracked.

But, here’s the problem. People assume faith means absolute understanding or at least wholehearted confidence. It doesn’t mean that either. Faith may be the opposite of doubt but it welcomes questions and concerns. It invites query.  We want to understand, even if we don’t. Doubt suggests there’s maybe no point to asking.  Faith assumes there’s an answer ahead, even if we can’t know what it is or even if we’re asking the right questions.

That’s probably why I liked this quote from Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy:

“There is no power nor virtue in this travesty of faith, which makes it mean the taking of all things on trust, the folding of the hands and the bowing of the head, the spiritless submission to the lie that whatever is is right. Faith does not mean that we cease from asking questions; it means that we ask and keep on asking until the answer comes; that we seek and keep on seeking until the truth is found; that we knock and keep on knocking until the door is opened and we enter into the place of God’s truth.”

God calls us to this trajectory of faith, where we persevere in an uncertain and sometimes discouraging present based on what we know of God’s work in the past. We hold onto this work, in faith, because this is the only way to fullness.  It’s a risk, to be sure.  How do we truly know?  We don’t.  That’s the very challenge. What do we do with what we have experienced? What we’ve heard from others? What we’ve read in Scripture?  Faith is build on such proofs and calls us into a trajectory where our lives reflect taking a risk on these truths.

It’s the uncertainty in the midst of conflicting possibilities where faith comes alive, grounded in proofs that we risk are true so that we can see the truth blossom in full in the future.  It is being willing to move forward past the seemingly crushing denials because of the proofs that sustain our hopes in God’s future. Christ may die.  But he does not stay dead.  Christ may leave, but we are not left alone.

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The most durable power

Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Good words for all of us in our various struggles. A few paragraphs after this he writes:

“I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”

From a sermon preached in 1956. One more:

“He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”

Posted in quotes, society | 1 Comment

Official Patrick

My website has had some problems lately, causing a lot of problems on the server. An errant wordpress plugin even caused my host to shut it down for a while at the end of March, until I got some time to figure out the problem (the aforementioned plugin). The other day, I had another temporary shutdown because of another problem.  Needless to say, I’ve not been paying attention to my website health for far, far too long.  I have thoughts of making a big update at some point, but not at this point, because I just have too much other stuff to do. But in fixing stuff, I came across an old folder that had pages from long ago, like 2004. I’ve been going through the writings and pictures and such, a scrapbook of my post-seminary self.

Anyhow, I found this page noting my “official choices” on various topics. I thought it funny, so I’m sharing it here. Even though this is now over 13 years old, it’s pretty much still fitting. There are some changes, but not many. For instance, I have now seen Office Space and I’m thinking my official Channel Island is now Santa Rosa, though Anacapa is making a strong run again as I’ve become obsessed with its live came.

Now onto the list:

Oden’s Official things:

-Official Choices-

States have all sorts of official items.  They have songs, and flowers, and birds, and desserts, and sports (the official state sport of Maryland, by the way, is jousting), and just about anything else one can think of.  So, why shouldn’t I?  Am I not a state unto myself?  No, I am not in fact, not in any way.  But I still can have an ever expanding official list of random things.

Official Movie Litmus Test:  Joe Versus the Volcano

Official ‘White’ Noise:  a Fan

Official Church Father:  Tertullian

Official First Aid Product:  Neosporin

Official Play I Was Part of in High School:  Harvey

Official Sport I’ve Tried to Like for Ten Years and Now Have Given Up:  Hockey

Official Bottled Water:  Arrowhead

Official Constellation:  Orion

Official Natural Fiber:  Wool (the only material which insulates better when wet)

Official Men at Work Song:  Overkill

Official Deadly Sin:  Acedia (yeah, you were hoping for something a bit more spicy, weren’t ya’?)

Official scented candle scent:  sea breeze; sandalwood (tied)

Official movie I been told over and over is great but still have yet to see:
Office Space

Official rock:  schist

Official word I catch myself saying more than I want to
and want to quit saying at all:
  
actually

Official Bad Word:  ****  (this site has been edited for all audiences)

Official Precipitation:  a light, fluffy snow around sundown.

Official Sailing Role Preference:  The jib; the foredeck

Official Weight Loss Strategy:   Poverty

 Official Moon Phase:    Three-Quarters, past Full

Official Vitamin Supplement:    B vitamins (all of ’em in one giant pill)

Official Movie I really Liked when I was A High School Junior But Don’t as Much now:  

Nothing But Trouble (Starring Chevy Chase and Demi Moore)

Official Sport I’ve Never Played but think is really Cool:    Lacrosse

OFficial Sport I Watched to make Fun of and ended up really getting into:  Sumo Wrestling

Official Obscure Important Year:  390

Official Sleeping Posture:  On my side

Official Guy I’d Like To sock in the Nose for Some unknown Reason:  John Hagee

Official Biblical Character People Don’t Know:   Bezalel; Oholiab (tied)

Official Phobia I do not Have:  Fear of Heights

Official Music People May Be Surprised I Love:  70s Funk

Official Regularity for Mowing Grass should I ever Have to Again:
Every 2 weeks, or so.

Official Grammatical Mistake I Still Do Not Understand:
When to use ‘that’ or ‘which’

Official Painter of previous centuries:  Caspar David Friedrich 

Official Christian Cross style:  Celtic

Official bird:  the Raven (of course)

Official Comedy team of the Early years of Hollywood: 
The Marx Brothers

Official Tree:  Coast Live Oak

Official Least favorite State:  Nevada (sorry, Nevadans)

Official Most Favorite State besides California:  South Dakota

Official Favorite InterState Highway: 
the 90 (or I90 for the rest of the country)

Official Least favorite Interstate Highway: 
the 10 (or I10 for the misinformed)

Official Ocean:  The Pacific

Official Heresy:  Semi-Pelagianism

Official Terrain:  Mountainous 

Official activity I would like to do more of:  Sailing

Official Monty Python Sketch: 
The Spanish Inquisition (didn’t expect that, I bet?)

Official Dialing Sound:  Tone

Official Bible Character:  Joseph (the one in Genesis)

Official Weather:  62 degrees, sunny with scattered clouds, wind from the west at 12 knots, cooling off to the mid-to-low 30s at night.

Official Channel Island:  Santa Barbara Island

Official color:  Crimson

Official Pirate Movie:  The Sea Hawk

Official lighting preference:  Natural

Official Invertebrate:  The Octopus; the Cuttlefish (tied)

Official means of communicating before electricity: 
Yelling Really Loud

Posted in personal, silliness | 1 Comment

Of course I am still an Evangelical

Over the last few months, there’s been a flurry of folks stating they are no longer Evangelicals, leaving behind that label for supposedly better appellative pastures.

Almost all that I’ve heard doing this are responding to the recent election in which a very high percentage of Evangelicals aligned with Trump.

That sentence is fraught with commentary potential, so much so that the very point of my post has already been sidetracked three and a half times. Erased sentences, one passionate rant now entirely subdued, and a google search history notwithstanding, I’m going to press on to my purpose.

Hi, I’m Patrick and I’m an Evangelical.

No, I’m not going to add any “yes, buts” or “howevers” and there will be nary a “post-” prefix to be found.  I’m owning the label, come what may.

Why so bold?  That’s who I am. I’m an Evangelical, and there’s just no getting around the fact without having to deny some significant aspects of my reality that I have no inclination to deny.

And if the label fits…

Before I get to why it fits so perfectly, I will add that I refuse to let others define the label for me, especially those whose motives are not in keeping with either the definition or the history of Evangelicals.

There are those who claim the label Evangelical that are nothing of the sort, and there are those who want to recast the label so as to undermine its history and contributions. I refuse to be cowed by either species and so enter the lists in defense of the title and myself.

I’m an Evangelical.

Three reasons:

  1. I’m an Evangelical because of Confession.
  2. I’m an Evangelical because of Tradition.
  3. I’m an Evangelical because of Obligation.

All of these are important and together they lead me to an inescapable conclusion.

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Posted in church, everyday theology, personal, politics, religion, theology | 3 Comments

A Remembering

Theology has fallen into a trap of competition, when it should be about awakening.

I suspect this happened fairly early on, when theology turned more towards heresy hunting. It emphasize more and more why others were wrong. Yes, along the way it continued to expand and illuminate our understanding, but as it sought to defend it also became restrictive and restricting, allowing less creativity and reverie in the mix. It became separated from the living faith of so many who wanted to see and experience the bounty of God.

It’s not easy to sustain momentum in the face of beauty. We’re not good at analyzing the good. As so much art reveals, we’re not very good at imagining the creativity of beauty. We dance in difficulty and are aroused by conflict. It’s human nature. Why war has a historically appealing quality, even as the nature of war is so obviously appalling. We are drawn to the fight, especially if the fight is justified. Fixing what is wrong, pushing back against bullies, setting things straight.

We gain a sense of our self in the struggle against others. Not always a violent struggle, it’s often a collegial one, though still a struggle and a competition. Better phrasing, better reviews, better sales. And if we’re not able to compete we find our meaning in those who do, treating theology as if it were a sports league. My theologian is better than yours. Look how many pennants my team has won.

We gauge worth by citations rather than transformation, the best theologian is the most adept at navigating the academic jungle, without regard to their life behind the curtain. Not only without regard for their ‘personal’ side, often even offended about such an inquiry and by those who expose more of themselves than seems fitting.

Yet, I am drawn to theology in the midst of a path of awakening. I remember this was why I entered into it. Not for the competition but for the reverie. I want to listen better, see more thoroughly, feel more deeply. These can easily become overwhelming if not careful, driving us into despair or distraction. Mere acquisition of input isn’t sufficient, it’s not a living stream, because we don’t know what to do with it all. If we’re not able to process in light of the Spirit’s work then we catalogue it according to the world’s patterns. It may keep coherence but then lack integrity with God or with real people.

I don’t want to be lost in incoherence. I don’t want to drift away from integrity. I seek stillness in the expanse, welcoming and inviting others in discovering the bounty of the goodness of creation, the goodness of God, not only proclaiming a love but letting this love be the refrain that shapes all my interests and pursuits.

I am weary of the trap to compare my god with yours, my system with yours. If this is the measure of theology, of Christian theology, it’s a never-ending war, a battle of wits and suppositions. It’s a fight within the systems, letting the ways of this world determine the rules and the worth.

Meanwhile, the very cross we speak about negated such constriction. It did not resist systematization, not at all, but it confronted the patterns of this world which said this is how things are done and how things should be.

The world says, with all its force, that Jesus lost. Crushed on the wheel of history in the quest for meaning.

Who can argue with that? He died a most painful death. He did not win in the way the world wins. The counter in theology is to say he did win. How? He did not stay dead. His argument wasn’t in clever repartee or through the sheer weight of compiled footnotes. He lived. That’s his argument. The best argument.

And it is also our best argument. Or at least it should be.

It doesn’t negate the clever or the learning or the systematizing. Indeed it invites it. The world is a very different place, not just in facts but in the very nature of reality.

What the cross does is relatives the rest, puts it into a context. Invites a radical letting go of competition and performance for the sake of identity.

It makes space, a sabbath rest, preparing for rapturous beauty and wondrous engagement with the world that now is.

Theology, above all, should speak of this wonder, this way, this hope, this life, embracing the beauty and possibilities. Caught in competition it is always distracted, pulled away from itself. A musician trying to perform a symphony but constantly interrupted by a guy selling magazines at the door.

In a world that does not know how to imagine beauty, without devolving into kitsch or chaos, theology offers a vision, a language, of life expansive.

I want to “commune with the spirit of the universe, to be intoxicated even with the fumes, call it, of that divine nectar, to bear my head through atmospheres and over heights unknown to my feet.” I want to find this renewed vision, orientating purpose, in my vocation. To dream, to hope, to delight, to sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.

For this, do I climb the unending stair, a weary walk if I lose sight of my calling to truly live. A joyful journey as I remember myself and what God is doing, has done, in my life.

This isn’t a competition, this task of theology, it’s a celebration, a great feast full of bounty and diverse delights.

So why squabble about the place settings?

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Lent

Let me admit something that isn’t very popular in my theological circles. I struggle with Lent. I get Lent. I respect it. But I struggle with it. A big reason why is for most of my life I’ve had to give things up for the rest of the year. Giving things up isn’t new. It’s just October or any given Tuesday or the third week of any month, or any other random season of my life.

That’s not me being unthankful, as I am truly and entirely thankful for the many blessings God has given me. Rather, it’s being honest about the regular experiences of loss and letting go embedded in much of my experience of life so far. Lent is a great discipline, but I wonder if it is appropriate for those who live in such uncertainty and loss. As Ignatius of Antioch put it, “Every wound is not healed with the same remedy.” Yet so often we generalize an experience and a remedy as appropriate for everyone.

Loss and letting go define my experience of Christianity. I’ve learned to trust and hope along the way, so I don’t see these as absolute negatives, just a sense that my liturgical journey with Christ never quite matches the Christian calendar.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Maybe that’s why low-church traditions don’t emphasize Lent, because they are often arising from communities of struggle and loss. I’m not saying anything conclusive here, just wondering out loud.

This isn’t a new struggle for me. Every year I find myself wrestling with the same thoughts. In 2007, I made a curious choice to give up giving up things for Lent. The previous five years had involved me giving up almost everything that made for a normal life in our day and age, so I decided to give up giving up things. And that, oddly enough, was the year that the light switch came on and the bounty of God began a radical rebuilding process in my life, a wave I am in many ways still riding. Not without struggles and certainly not without a radical call to live in faith all the while. Life is still quite tenuous. But there was a fundamental change that happened that went counter to the previous 25 years. I didn’t give up on God in 2007, I gave up assuming that God demanded a life of loss for me. That I had to give up at every turn. He sparked new life into my journey, giving me a testimony that I share in a lot of my classes.

I’m indeed honestly wondering about the role of Lent, even as I read very heartfelt essays on the importance and value of Lent. I believe those who write them. Maybe I’m wrong about it all. Maybe it’s just my low-church tradition revealing itself behind my attempts at sophisticated theological posturing.

This year, I got to wondering about Lent as is my wont, and wondered if the idea of “Lend” might be more liturgically appropriate. Not giving up things to give up things, but instead to give of my time, my energy, my efforts to help those around me. It’s a proactive orientation rather than a self-reflective task. That’s more a discipline I need in my life, as I easily become jealous and hoarding of my now sparse time. It seems that an exocentric reflection fits the pattern of Christ’s gift for us on the cross, not taking or demanding of us but offering himself for us and our salvation. We have been given life itself. And even in times of uncertainly and feeling overwhelmed I can trust in this more than I can ever trust in what I have or don’t have or can’t have.

I yearn for fullness of life, not yet more frustration and discouragement and loss. That’s my liturgical place these days and for as long as I can remember. But life is there and life given so that I can participate in and with the life of others around me. That’s a calling.

Anyhow, as I was thinking about my struggle on this topic I remembered I wrote something on this about six years ago. It’s nice when I find someone putting my vague angst into helpful words. Even if it’s me. Here’s what I had to say then and still affirm today:
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Posted in holidays, holiness, liberation, personal, theology | Leave a comment

Loving Neighbors in an Era of Internment

On this day in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed  an order which authorized the internment of Americans who had Japanese ancestry.  Families were rounded up, taken away from their homes, put in camps for the duration of the war with Japan.

Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor the previous December.  Outrage was high and so was fear.  Submarines had been spotted off the coast of California. People were afraid and suspicious.  Sure, they thought, many have been here for generations, but some were newer immigrants. How can we know who to trust?

Panic set in and those in charge responded to the panic by making a sweeping gesture.

Panic does that, after all.  We lose the ability to rationally respond to particulars. We make sweeping gestures.  We make excuses for our sweeping gestures based on the possibility of something bad happening.  Other people are made to bear the weight for our sense of peace.

In the midst of hearing about injustice and trauma in so many directions it is easy to become overwhelmed.  We aren’t made to absorb a world’s worth of news, after all, and it is human nature to break complexities down into general categories.

It’s not personal, we say.  Only of course it is.  It’s always personal. Because our responses affect real people.

So the US put people into camps, pulling them away from their homes and livelihoods, for the sake of an assumption of security.

A lot more can and should be said about this, which is why it’s worth spending time listening to the experiences of those who were forced to live in these camps.

I’m thankful for the voices we can listen to now about what happened, that they weren’t silenced.  I wonder who fought for their voice in 1942.

I wonder because I think about the responsibility of the church in such times of crises, to help people avoid navigating by panic and help orient them in light of their responsibilities to loving God and loving neighbor.

The problem is that in a time when everyone had problems, it’s hard to think about helping others with problems, to fight for their benefit, to give them voice, to bear the weight for them.  I think that’s the way of Christ. We don’t make other bear the weight for our peace but instead are willing to bear the weight so they can experience peace.

I don’t know what most of America did in response, or what the general response was when everyone heard news of this Presidential order.  It seemed most either supported this or ignored it.  Not everyone did, though.

I do know the response of a couple men, and, on this day, I want to make mention of their part.

Merle McBride
Merle McBride

My dad’s grandfather came to California when he was a young man, riding the rails from Texas, starting a new life out on the West coast, working as a laborer and then a farmer in southern California. My mom’s dad came to southern California when he was young, a family of farmers from Oklahoma (but not Okies, as the later depression era immigrants from that state were called) . He became a farmer himself.

They were friendly with their neighbors, most of whom were also farmers.  As was common, many were of Japanese descent, families who had come east rather than west, sometimes generations earlier, finding a shared celebration of the bounty of California soil.

These families were arrested and put in camps.  Some people took advantage of the situation, foreclosing on loans, buying out property for significantly less than what it was worth.  Some people see other people’s problems as an opportunity for gain. Some people see other people’s problems as their own problems, and work to alleviate some of the pain.

My great-grandfather Willis Oden and my grandpa Merle McBride were of this latter sort, I’m proud to say.  They took on the burden of their neighbors farms, working them as if they were their own.  They didn’t take them over, they took care of their neighbors property. They kept the farms going, paying debts and maintaining profit.

Their neighbors lost years and lost freedom in interment camps, but they did not lose their farms or livelihood.  When they came back home, everything was as they had left it, and they were able to settle back into to their lives on their land.

Willis T. Oden and Etta Oden

I’m not proud of that Presidential order but I’m proud of my great-grandpa and grandpa, how they responded. I come from families that were willing to shoulder the burden of their neighbors in a time of crisis, even when they had family members who were fighting, and sometimes dying, in the fight against Japan.

They weren’t alone, and I imagine there are many stories like this. Americans sharing each other’s burdens no matter what their national origin.

It’s far too easy to generalize the idea of loving one’s neighbors, but sometimes the best way to show love to neighbor is really to help one’s actual neighbors.

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. Imagine if everyone did that, each reaching out within their own circle to bear the real burdens of others. That would resonate deeply and broadly indeed, maybe even transform our neighborhoods and our society in ways that reflect the Kingdom of God.

We have a choice each day. Do we depersonalize and take advantage of our supposed enemies, who are categorized based on general categories? Or do we put in the work to help those around us, recognizing each other as persons and responding in helpful love?

On a day in which there’s sadness and shame, it’s worth noting that there can be a better way.  It gives me hope and it gives me an example of the kind of person I want to be.

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Talk to the Rock

A while back, I wanted to learn what the Bible said about the various types of spiritual expressions we commonly call gifts. And, I didn’t want to use the usual lists of various gifts that Paul talks about. Rather, I wanted to see how gifts were expressed in the Bible. What does it mean to be a prophet? Well, I looked at the prophets. What does it mean to be someone who has discernment? Well, I looked at the men and women who were commended for seeing truth even when there were shadows and mists. What does it mean to be a leader? I looked at the leaders in the Bible.

This latter study was more than a little bit disconcerting. There are a lot of leaders in the Bible, be it kings or priests or judges or generals.

Leaders of all kinds abound in the stories. The trouble is that the percentage of leaders leading the people to God is pretty small. Most of the leaders in the Bible did not serve God. The other trouble is that their negative example does not mean they were bad leaders.

For instance, we have someone like King Omri of Israel. First Kings 16:25 has this to say about him: “Omri did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him.” On the other hand, archaeologists and others who study the history say that as a leader, he was pretty good! He orchestrated a lot of building projects and otherwise secured enough wealth and support to pass the kingdom on to his son, Ahab.

How about an example from the New Testament? Paul had to confront Peter when he learned that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11ff). Peter influenced Barnabas and others, and had to be corrected, because they, as Paul puts it, “were not following the truth of the Good News” (Gal. 2:14). The practice of Peter was not reflecting the call of God in or for the church.

With this in mind, I now turn to the topic of worship. It’s not uncommon for me to be singing along during a service and realize I’ve just sung something I didn’t, or shouldn’t, believe. This isn’t limited to singing, either. For the most part, many of the approaches, use of space, wording, and other aspects of our gathering together are more like Peter’s faults than Paul’s goal. They might be engaging, or they might be traditional, or they might be functional, or whatever reason under the sun, but they are not when examined more closely, “following the truth of the Good News.”

Now more formally, this “truth of the Good News” could be gathered together under the theme of theology. That’s what I think theology is and should be about, at least. It is the reflection on the actions of God and his declarations that point to a more cohesive expression of God’s work and being. It can be expressed using four syllable words or it can be expressed in a dance, or in a liturgy, story, or song. But, in being expressed in some ways it is saying that it is reflecting the God who is. Theology, then, should be a pretty important issue in discussions of worship.

God does not, we learn from Scripture, like to be misrepresented in word or deed.

This is probably most clearly expressed in the story of Moses. In Numbers 20 we read a very disturbing story. The people were complaining, again, about having no water (the nerve of them!). They rebelled, Moses prayed at the Tabernacle, and God told him what to do.

Moses gathered the people, stood before them, shouted at them for their rebellious ways, and then hit the rock twice. Water gushed out.

But God was not happy. “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel,” he said to Moses, “you will not lead them into the land I am giving them.”

Moses, you see, was supposed to command the rock to bring forth water. He wasn’t supposed to hit it. God was not just interested in the result. His holiness is about the method, the act, the approach, the whole context. God’s revelation is holistic and he calls those who would lead his people to reflect this holiness in ways that match how he has chosen to reveal himself.

We can’t just hit the rock and say that’s God’s work, even if water comes out. Because the method is as much part of the message as the result. He’s telling a different story in the midst of this world and that means leading people to live in particular ways, ways that might not immediately make sense. But it makes a difference in the long run. Just as the method of the cross makes a difference not only in salvation but also in how we respond to the systems of this world.

We have to listen to God, reflect on his ways, and then we have to talk to the rock.

Posted in everyday theology, liberation, politics, Scripture, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Imaging Theology (part 2)

When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.

For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives.  I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about.  When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:

 

I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.

This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean.  It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.

With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.

So, this image  has been with me for the last four years or so.  It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.

It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology.  I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.

Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015.  I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding.  I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.

Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration.  It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.

Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.

Which isn’t an easy realization for me.  Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths.  I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.

I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity.  I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.

Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed.  But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated.  My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty.  But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it.  Somehow.

I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme.  It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.

I hate that nagging.  The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity.  I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.

Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.

It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however.  So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.

I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year.  I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.

I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger.  It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth.  I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.

But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean.  I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day.  She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.

The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin.  I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.

“Bring on the fun!”

Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery.  Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons.  Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.

This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.

Posted in academia, adventures, everyday theology, seminary, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment