Monthly Archives: May 2011

stepped off the boat

Back in the beginning of 2003, I had finished my M.Div, was still working at a church, though a church that didn’t want me (you don’t have a future here, an elder said). I had a good ministry, I thought, and I was doing some creative explorations that came out of a burgeoning theology. But I could find no acceptance by those who had the power to bring more security. I could not find an audience or substantive support. I was burning out and fast. I was living in an apartment in Pasadena, a nice apartment, but one that was constantly noisy because the owner was remodeling other units to then raise the rent on all the units.

I was lost. I had no words of hope of my own. I did not know where to turn or who to turn to. But I still tried to pray, to hear from God what I was supposed to do.

On January 15, 2003 I was sitting on the small back porch of this apartment, and I wrote the following in my journal. It came to mind again today, so I’m posting it here:

We walk in a world not our own, possessing yet holding loosely, letting go all that binds, all that hinders the goal. We are the redeemers of time – what is fateful becomes fruitful, what is a fear and foe becomes a tool, a force, a power to be walked on like water.

Yet like water we sink into time, letting our faithlessness cover our heart. We sink, worried, fretful, possessive, greedy, grasping because time is drowning us in its overwhelming force. We must walk on time, above and outside, yet touching it, letting its waves be that which we place our feet upon. It is only through and by faith we become Time-Walkers – eternal beings who transcend yet are connected with this elusive dimension.

I am Peter stepped out of the boat, “Lord, Save me! Time is swallowing me!”

“Have Faith,” is the given response, “Walk forward neither looking to the right or left but at me, in my eyes. That which is lost is gained. That which is behind is yet ahead. That which is despaired is still a hope. Walk. Stand. Move. If you do not have faith, you will not stand.

“Time flows, but I am the one both in and out of time. Do not look to those trapped for assistance but to the one who has a stable hand. I am the one who brings order to disorder, disorder to order, upsetting and twisting around all things so that all things are directed towards me.”

“Lord, I am weary – I have not faith.”

“It is what you do when weary that marks a person of faith. Have faith, even though you have none. Sing and dance. Marvel at the beauty even in the smallest thing. Delight in the senses, taking in all in a fivefold way the encompassing bounty found even in this present sin-stained world. If this is stained, imagine what is possible when it is all cleansed.”

“Lord, I do not know where to walk or what to do.”

“Then stand, and keep standing, like a soldier waiting for orders. Stand and wait. Do what is before you and wait for counsel and guidance.”

“How long must I wait?”

“As long as you must.”

Life got worse. Much worse, really. I got more confused, more lost, more depressed. Then I stepped off the boat.

I’m still waiting, I think, as there’s an immense amount of questions still unanswered. Much of my life is in flux, and I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing this time next year. I don’t know the answers to so many of the standard questions of a normal life.

But, because I stepped off the boat, on this day, here in Germany, I’m walking on water. And I see Jesus.

That’s something. That’s definitely something.

Posted in contemplation, ministry, missional, personal, spirituality, theology, time, writing | 3 Comments

Have Courage

“Have courage,” he wrote near the end of the letter he sent me when I was beginning my PhD studies. That is a curious thing to say, I thought when I first read it, but again and again that comment has come to mind at points in which I was confronted with the challenge to conform, to do what everyone else was doing, to try to fit into what I thought was expected.

“Have courage,” Moltmann wrote to me. And I’ve tried to listen to his words, words he has certainly lived by in his own career in the field of theology.

In many small and a few big ways over the last few years I’ve made a shift in what I was doing, or what I dared to say or write, to follow this pattern.

And now, this week, I’m in Tubingen, having some afternoon chats with him. After spending a week in France.

When did I become this person who does these sorts of things? Indeed, I’m not sure I am that person. I’m the guy who left Pasadena, stopped making sense in pursuing a job for wage’s sake, moved back in with my parents. I’m the guy who only left the country twice in his whole life, while all of my friends traveled the world on this excursion or that adventure. I’m the guy who had trouble keeping a car that worked, or finding a job, or… any of the other things that gave a person an identity in this present world.

But, while a lot of that path didn’t make sense to others, or to me at times, there was this drive, this pursuit, this burn to answer the unanswered questions that lay in the depths of my soul. I couldn’t turn from them, I was chased by them, by the shadows and the void and the questions of faith which didn’t find resolution in any books I had read or sermons I had heard. There was more to this life, to this quest, to this way. So I stopped running from them. I turned around and said, “Have at me.”

And so I wandered away from what made sense, not because I had given up, but because I knew there was something more. I stepped in the the darkness and it enveloped me for a while.

But while there I heard whispers and songs and voices of hope crying out from the wilderness. I listened to men who spent their lives in the desert and women who found their voice in secluded convents. I found a burgeoning peace and a developing stillness, and a hope in the Spirit who calls especially in the wilderness, because it is in the wilderness where we are finally free to become the sorts of people Christ has called us to be. Where else will we go, Lord?

Now I’m here. Not because I’m of some great worth. Not because I’m the brightest or the best. I’m still a bit of an outsider. But, I had courage along the way to go the way that I knew the Spirit was pointing. Now I’m not lost, but I’m here in Europe with my beautiful wife, traveling around, enjoying the sights, and the food, and the conversations with good people in France and now in Germany.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures and I’m recording the conversations I’m having with Moltmann. Partly because I’m not sure I entirely believe any of this is real and I want to make sure, later on,it’s not just my overactive imagination.

The reality, though, I guess is that I did have hope. And I acted on this hope to pursue the life Christ was calling me towards, to take those unanswered questions of faith and life and identity and approach finding increasingly less opaque answers. To pursue the depths of our understanding of God’s work and the church by being willing to ask entirely hard and occasionally inappropriate questions. In my hope, I tried to add courage. Indeed, all throughout the Bible we find that it is courage that is the great gift of God for his people. Joshua, David, Elijah, Jesus, Paul, they all exhibited courage in the face of great trials, and it was through their courage they were willing to walk long enough and far enough to finally be at the place where they discovered the fullness of their hope realized in renewed life and victory. The resurrected life comes along the path of hope-filled courage, a courage to wait, a courage to act, a courage to be the person who, in each moment, walks in tune with the Spirit of Life.

All because it is the resurrected life that begins to make sense of the suffering and the terror and the doubt. All that has poured into the new this, shaping and guiding thoughts and questions. It is a place of redemption and renewal.

It is a place, today, of delight and encouragement. Thanks be to God.

Posted in God We Wouldn't Expect, Moltmann, personal, spirituality, theology | 7 Comments

A Break

For the next three weeks, I’m going to be very busy, very active, and very gone from regular blogging. I know… just when I started to get momentum, I’m taking another break. But I’ll be back to the regularly scheduled posts in June, with maybe the occasional, if so inspired, post every so often this month.

Posted in adventures | 4 Comments

A Death

The news, and Facebook, chatter is filled with references to the death of Osama bin Laden. Not surprising. He, if anyone, personified the enemy of America, of Western Civilization, of who we are as a people. He was an enemy because he despised our power, and he was an enemy because he despised us and what we stand for. That’s not to enter into a moment of patriotic fervor (though I’m not opposed to that on occasion). Rather, it is, in this case literally true. What we stand for is not always caught up in the right and the good and the noble, rather it is who we are in the good and the bad. And he hated the good and he hated the bad, because we had power. He sought power and in seeking this power he sought death, death to us, death to those who stand with us, death even to those who stood with him, pawns in his great search for his own authority and his own control. So often we adopt figures who oppose what we oppose as being on our side, taking up our causes as the reason for their causes. Some try to explain bin Laden by explaining America’s poor choices in use of power, or its arrogance, or its imperial tendencies to abuse other peoples for the sake of adding more wealth to the already wealthy. They denounce his methods but justify his rage.

Only his rage was never their rage. His cause to shame America was not one in the pursuit of peace, but one in the pursuit of chaos. He sought death, and he used death to expand his reach, to terrorize both those in power and those who suffer. He sought his own power in order to subjugate others under his whims and his desires. He sought to stamp his identity upon everyone else, so that in bowing to him, they would be reshaped into resonating his image in this world. He was a messiah to his cause, a voice crying out in the wilderness calling men and women, but he did not care about the men or the women. They were tools and pawns. Their deaths gave him power. He fed on their loss and exulted in those who died with them.

The issue is not whether he was a good man, for he was not. The issue, bandied about through indirect conversations on Facebook and on Twitter and elsewhere, is the emotions we should have with his death. And, honestly, I have some conflicted emotions. Because I am glad Osama is dead. If left to my own instincts I am much closer to those who are celebrating his death than those who are attempting to correct those who celebrate. In this way I’m closer to the Evangelicals, who celebrate, than I am to the Progressive Christians, who make sure everyone knows they’re not ones to celebrate a death.

The natural reaction, I think, is to cheer and celebrate. The ending of an evil presence gives that much more hope for real peace and progress. Right? Well, not according to many I’ve been reading. The widespread bursts of celebration have been slowly followed by an increasing trickle of moral corrections. Who said moral pedantry is limited to fundamentalists? It abounds from all directions.

I read verses like Proverbs 24:17 says “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” Which is, like all of the Proverbs, good advice. Only, like much of the Proverbs, it seems other parts of the Bible don’t entirely agree. “Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.” Miriam danced and sang when the Israelites were saved from the armies of Egypt. David exulted in his victory over Goliath. “So David triumphed over the Philistine,” we read in 1 Samuel. Then the people celebrated. “Saul has slain his thousands,” the people sang, “and David his tens of thousands.” This made Saul mad. But curiously we find that the Spirit of the Lord was with David, and an evil spirit from God comes upon Saul. David’s violence wasn’t considered his moral crime, rather his moral problems came as result of his sexuality.

Then, of course, there’s the unabashed celebrations in the apocalyptic books. Triumph over the enemy is at the heart of Christian eschatology. Which causes some problems for people, so they dismiss a lot of eschatology as being triumphalist. Which of course it is, and oftentimes not in theologically correct ways. But, at the core of God’s testimony of the future there is this triumph, and we celebrate the victory over evil. David was made king because of his courage to kill, not making killing itself a good, rather saying that there is a way of God which involves the ultimate stopping of those who would oppose God’s work. And the people of God, in the OT, celebrated when this occurred. That is complicated, to be sure, in our assumptions of moral advancement. We, people of peace, people of the New Testament, don’t particularly like that, and many of us don’t particularly like that God. Some in the early church even suggested that God is not our God, the Demiurge they called that God. We have Jesus. Who preached nonviolence. For the most part. Yet, David is never condemned and is featured as a continuing symbol of God’s work and faithfulness. David, the man of war, is a friend of God. That’s complicated, to be sure. More complicated than can be dealt with in this post.

So where does that put us on this day, with this death? The first thought that came to my mind, in my own initial burst of moral pretentiousness, is what I’ve absorbed from my reading of Moltmann and Volf. I may not like bin Laden, but Jesus died even for him. If my theology of the cross does not include the sins of Osama, then my theology of Christ’s work is deficient. Jesus died so that Osama might live. Jesus extended the offer of forgiveness even to the architect of September 11. Absurd? Yes, of course. But so too is the great persecutor of early Christians becoming the great missionary of early Christianity. If God forgives even a great debt, who am I to complain? The moment I complain my own debts become due, according to the words of Jesus. I’m not suggesting, here, that everyone is saved by God no matter what they do, or that Osama has found salvation in Christ. a victim of 9/11I personally think that the doctrine of hell makes sense, if it ever makes sense, in the context of men like Osama or Hitler or Stalin. But, at the same time, I am not, you’ll be happy to learn, God. I am a witness to the sacrifice and the resurrection of Jesus. I am not the judge, even if I have my opinions. But my not being the judge puts me into an attitude of humility. Moreover, even and especially if Osama is judged, should I celebrate the eternal misery of another?

Should I not weep for the death of even one who caused so many deaths, not because he was good, but because he never will taste of the good? If I weep for the crimes, I also, maybe, should weep for the ravages of those crimes on the souls of the ones who commit them? The death of the soul preceded, it seems, the death of the man, and in the face of that death of what God created, maybe the right response is always to mourn. In this mourning I mourn still with the victims, because I mourn the terror they experience by mourning the corruption of the one who terrorizes. I do not wish for Osama bin Laden to continue to live, I wish for Osama the man to have never become Osama bin Laden, the terrorizer of the world. I mourn for the loss of his soul that preceded his death, that initiated his kinetic hate, and thus mourn for the death that can, it seems, never find redemption. But that too is a matter for God.

Yet, I’m not entirely convinced. I still feel it is a matter to celebrate because I do not celebrate the death or the loss of this man as much as I celebrate the ending of a particular instance of evil. Osama was an evangelist of hate and a preacher of death. He did not seek to gather people in order to help them find more life, he gathered people to spread destruction. Through death, he lived his life. He was a crucifier, using means of death as a way of spreading terror and subjugation. He fomented hate, and it is this end of influence that I celebrate. He drew others into his web. He turned their frustrations into rage, and turned their rage into violence. He was a charismatic man who led people into destruction.

There was no peace with Osama, and he would never allow others to take up the mantle of peace. He was an enemy of peace. He was not going to be convinced because his very being, his power and his identity, were caught up in terror and violence and death. Not only in killing, but in controlling, in managing, in attempts to subjugate and put into place laws that treated others with derision. His vision of the world was one in which other faiths were crimes, in which women were not to be seen or heard — objects for man’s use, where freedom meant only freedom to him and those who aligned with his every whim.

I’m also reading Bonhoeffer these days. Bonhoeffer wrote that sometimes the death of one who spreads only death is a necessary good. This wasn’t just something he wrote. His death came from the involvement in putting this into practice, as he joined with those who sought to kill Hitler. Many who value Bonhoeffer’s vision of the church call him martyr by many who value his vision of the church, his renewal of theology, his courage in returning to a Germany he knew would persecute him. But, he was not a martyr because he testified for life. He was a martyr, curiously, in his testimony of death. If he was a martyr, the only way we can call him a martyr, is if we see his death in the assassination plot of Hitler as being part of his calling as a Christian. Bonhoeffer did not see death as a good thing, but as a necessary thing. He saw his calling as a Christian leader to be a calling that led him to aid in the killing of another, the killing of man whose life spread only death. There was a responsibility to take the life of Hitler for the sake of those suffering under Hitler’s influence — which included not only those being killed, but those who were becoming killers.

I celebrate the end of this vision of the world, I celebrate the end of its chief evangelists. I celebrate the loss that those who would seek this vision now experience. I celebrate when evil, even a small and particular instance of it, is no longer able to exercise influence. In stopping evil, in ending its reign, new roots can begin to grow. Just as the stopping of Hitler, stopped the expression of evil by the people of Germany. In death, there really was the possibility of new life. Only in death, it seems, was this new life able to come into being. Because there’s death no matter what. And if you stand with Gandhi in suggesting that the death of Jews is allowable so that Hitler might continue to live, that may lead to a form of peace. But I don’t think it is God’s peace. Only with the death of Hitler was real peace able to come to Europe. The theology of Moltmann arises from the peace and freedom found in a Germany that no longer suffered under the necrophilic influences of Hitler.

I mourn for the loss of men who became monsters, not in spite of their being monsters but because they no longer were men. I mourn for death, for what is is and for what causes it, because all that is death gathers together the brokenness of this fallen world, its loss, its frustrations, its terrors. Death is the ultimate enemy. I mourn death, even those who deserve it. But, I celebrate those who stop purveyors of death. I celebrate when evangelists of death are told, “no more.” Because when such influences are stopped, when they are silenced, there is a renewed hope for those who can begin to hear other voices, voices of life, voices of peace, who offer a hand of reconciliation.

Death is evil, and I despise it. Yet, I still, I think, stand with Bonhoeffer, because in this broken world, where death exists, we come to the reality where some are so caught up in the spreading of death that only their death can open the door to new life. Just like with Germany. The death of Hitler was the only way his people could find life, and while his message of hate spread through the early decades of the 20th century, there was an increase of death. It was only with his death that people began to hear new songs of hope, were able to find friendship with former enemies, were able to share with those they once stole from. I celebrate this renewal of life. I celebrate the possibilities of hope that bring new vision and new experiences and new camaraderie.

This is what I celebrate when I celebrate the end of evil. And that’s why I celebrate today. I don’t celebrate death. I mourn death and I mourn the need of death that stops evil from persisting. I celebrate the overcoming of sin in my own life, because in doing that I find new freedom. This too I celebrate when the overcoming is not my inner temptations but pernicious global influences that leads many others into sins. I celebrate because of the lives that can and will be lived because a lover of death can no longer rob or steal or corrupt. I celebrate the ending of bad influences and I celebrate the awakening of new possibilities.

And I’m bold enough to think that when I celebrate this, I celebrate with God.

I’m humble enough, however, to know others might think differently. May the Lord instruct us all.

Posted in 500, society, spirituality, theology | 5 Comments

How Long? Character: Debbie

Debbie Langlo shows up throughout It’s a Dance, but only in scattered and quick moments. In How Long? she becomes a much more featured character. My goal in the book was to show how many people, from many different backgrounds, encounter sometimes great difficulties, and find a way to hold onto and deepen faith in the midst of these. I didn’t want to just make up characters and find a way to really irritate their lives, so that the wise narrator could come in and patch up all the faith problems. Instead, I wanted the characters to speak in their own voices. Some who have been through tragedies in years past, like Debbie, become voices of hope for those encountering tragedy in the present. Different voices add to the chorus of the saints. I wanted to be faithful to that. This is how I introduce Debbie in the second chapter of the book:

“Thanks for picking me up,” Nate says as he opens Debbie’s car door. He notices her red and puffy eyes, which, along with her dark hair, make her skin look almost sickly pale. Her hair is wet and only quickly combed. Debbie Langlo is usually put together and stylish, sometimes more so than her job as a waitress at the Columba Pub requires. Not this morning. She hasn’t put on any makeup and she’s wearing what she calls her “hanging-out” shorts, baggy and beige, with a white, oversized T-shirt. She was just getting out of the shower when she got the call and didn’t have any thought about spending more time getting ready—a sure sign of the seriousness of the moment.

Here’s part of a conversation she has with Melissa:

“So you thought maybe there was some hope?”

“Yeah, and I read and read, kind of skimming over the stories in the Bible, starting from the beginning. The flood made so much sense to me, and I didn’t really believe God when he said he wouldn’t do that again. I felt like he had flooded me, because I was so wicked. I wasn’t saved. I was outside the ark. But I kept reading and reading. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. All of them. Then something stuck out so sharp. I started reading more closely.”

“What was it?”

“The story of Joseph. God called him. Then everything in his life went downhill. He lost everything. All of who he was and wanted. That’s how I felt too.” “I liked Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Melissa says. She leans up a little and begins to sing, “I closed my eyes, drew back the curtain….” Debbie joins in and they finish the verse together, “To see for certain what I thought I knew, Far far away, someone was weeping, But the world was sleeping, Any dream will do.”

They stop as Melissa begins to cough. She winces in pain, and tries to drink some water. Debbie holds the cup for her, until she’s had a long drink.

“…A crash of drums,” Debbie continues to sing, standing and walking to the window as she continues. “A flash of light, My golden coat flew out of sight, The colors faded into dark23 ness, I was left alone.”
After staring out the window a moment she repeats without singing, “I was left alone.”

“You weren’t really alone, Deb,” Melissa says. “I know; I know you were all around,” she replies, looking back at Melissa. “But with Courtney gone and God so gone, too, I felt deeply alone. More alone than ever. Spiritually alone. But that’s maybe what I saw in Joseph.” Debbie walks back around to the other side of the bed and sits in the barely cushioned chair. “I got to wondering how Joseph felt in the middle of the story. When he was sitting in prison even though he didn’t have sex with Potiphar’s slut wife. That’s what really got me. And it got me thinking. Thinking a lot. When I sort of figured it out, it didn’t give me back Courtney or take away the pain, but it kind of made sense.”

“What?”

“My feelings of loss and pain. I always thought pain was a sign God was gone. Only that’s not true. Where was he when Joseph was in prison, Liss?” “I don’t know.” “Know what I think?” “What?” “I think he was with him. I think God was in the prison with him.”

“What do you mean?”

Find out what Debbie means on page 22 of How Long? The Trek Through the Wilderness.

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