Friday, February 26, 2010

Lenten Journey (4/4): Adult Education Program of Healing and Hope

Note: Post 4 of 4 in the Lenten series on healing the trauma of the crucifixion. Click the numbers to read parts 1, 2, and 3.

The unresolved grief and trauma caused by the crucifixion needs healing in real and practical ways. There are many ways to work through this "stuff" in the theologies, traditions, and rituals of the Church. We'd like to focus on one way forward. Our idea is an adult education program that seeks to explore how our understandings and practices of Christianity may change as a result of understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as an unexpected, unplanned, un-ordained trauma in the memory of the Church. The hope is that the class will be able to name the trauma as a trauma; understand the perspectives of the traumatized and bereaved disciples; work through the trauma and grief caused by Jesus’ unjust execution; celebrate the stories and memories of resistance and resilience; and then allow the grief to shrink in size as other stories are incorporated. Another goal is that this class can begin to develop understandings and practices of Christianity that replace the embedded violence and continued unresolved trauma in the distorted expressions of the early disciples, with more healthy expressions that more closely represent the mission and ministry of the God that has been re-presented to us through Jesus. For example, instead of understanding Communion as forgiveness of sins through the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus (i.e. “repetition compulsion”), it can be understood as the extension of the table fellowship of Jesus whereby people experienced – and continue to experience – the gracious presence and love of God as well as the Kin-dom come near. Ultimately, the goal is to help the adult education class explore understandings and practices of faith that help them more effectively be the resurrection community that continues the life and ministry of Jesus, with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

This project is designed to be an adult education program. It would be optimal if the class has had a positive history of exploring deep theological questions in the past through Bible study, watching programs such as "Living The Questions," and/or reading books like "Transforming Christian Theology." In any case, it's important to provide a safe environment where generative conversation can occur. Attention will now turn to the content of the project.

The project will be an adult education program that will occur over the time span of several months and include multiple mediums. Each block of sessions will focus on one major theme.

In the first set of sessions, Brian McLaren’s book The Secret Message of Jesus will be used to explore the content and meaning of Jesus’ message. In this book McLaren seeks to highlight and un-domesticate the radical, revolutionary, and life-changing message of Jesus. He argues that Jesus came to inaugurate a spiritual, religious, social, political, economic, and vocational revolution that that would help humanity to bring to fruition God’s vision of love, peace, and justice in the world. According to this perspective, Jesus came to teach about, and invite people into, an alternative reality - the Empire of God. The purpose of that reality
“…is to see, seek, receive, and enter a new political and social and spiritual reality [Jesus] is calling the kingdom (or empire) of God…This kingdom throws down a direct challenge to the supremacy of the empire of Caesar centered in Rome, for in the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator. And you find your identity – your citizenship – not in Rome but in the presence of God” (17).
Instead of an Empire of exclusion, patronage, and brutality, the Empire of God is about mutual care, radical inclusively, and God’s loving presence. And this alternative empire is not just a pie-in-the-sky vision, instead, “the kingdom of God – with its peace, healing, sanity, empowerment, and freedom – is available to all, here and now” (59). This message and ministry helped to reconcile some people with themselves, others, God, and God’s Creation. But to the Roman Empire, Jesus was a troublemaker – and was killed by state execution for his seditious and rebellious acts against the values upholding the Roman Empire (68). Exploring the material and theology in this book are important in order to more deeply understand the revolutionary message of Jesus – and the Empire that chose to attempt to quiet him and his alternative Empire through state-sponsored terrorism – the cross. After exploring the implications of this book over several weeks of reading and conversation, the next session will focus on the crucifixion directly.

In the second series of sessions, Marcus Borg and John Crossan’s book, The Last Week, will be used to explore what led up to, and contributed to the execution of Jesus. The authors discuss, through the lens of the Gospel of Mark, what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life. They begin on Palm Sunday with Jesus entering Jerusalem from the east in his “peasant procession” with his message of the importance of the Empire of God, over and against the “imperial procession” entering Jerusalem from the west with their message of the importance of Empire of Rome (2). Clearly, Borg and Crossan, along with McLaren, make the argument that there are dueling Empires at work during the life of Jesus. They also make the argument that Jesus’ ministry is about the Empire of God, which has political and religious implications. For example, Borg and Crossan write explicitly about the meal ministry of Jesus and how the meals were enactments of the Empire of God, a place where all were welcome to share in the presence, justice, and love of God to be found in community (cf. 114ff). The authors not only talk about Jesus’ run-ins with the imperial powers, but also with the temple authorities that colluded with them (cf. 58ff). This book makes it clear that it was the Roman Empire's intolerance and domination that killed Jesus; not the will of God or self-sacrifice of Jesus. To that end, the authors point out that “Jesus prays for deliverance” and “it is never the will of God that the righteous suffer” (123). Also helpful for this discussion is that fact that Borg and Crossan talk about how “the followers in the years and decades after his death sought to find meaning in the horrific execution of their beloved master” and “they retrospectively see providential purpose in it” (141). The first hope is that this book can help the class understand Jesus’ crucifixion as a trauma for the disciples and his later followers. This trauma had not been healed and, in fact, came to expression in distorted ways such as suggesting that Jesus broke his body and shed his blood for the forgiveness of sin, as in the “words of institution.” The argument proposed is that this is not history remembered, but instead, a trauma that has been passed on and a theology of providence interpreted into Scripture by a traumatized communality seeking to make sense of the death of their leader and friend. The second hope is that this book can help the class name the execution of Jesus as a trauma for the early Church as well as for themselves; and then attempt to heal that memory as a community of faith.

In the third block of sessions, the class will watch the movie Pay It Forward as a way to tie together the major themes of both of the books through a video, narrative medium. In the film, a boy named Trevor comes up with the idea of “paying it forward.” It’s the simple concept of helping people with a task and then asking them to pay it forward to someone else instead of paying it back to the helper. Like the message and ministry of Jesus, this concept had a powerful and resilient impact on the lives of others. In the end, Trevor’s message helped and inspired many people – but not all people. Like the death of Jesus, Trevor too, was unjustly killed by an act of brutal violence. While Trevor was trying to help a classmate, he was stabbed by one of the school bullies. This story serves as an analogy for the life and death of Jesus. Trevor, like Jesus, did not want to die or mean to die. He did not sacrifice his life for others. He simply did the “right thing” for people and his life was unjustly taken from him. Both deaths were ambiguous losses with no easy answers. The goal in watching this movie is to help the class explore and grieve the injustice of Jesus’ murder on the cross. This movie is also an excellent place to begin to explore where “the light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5) – to attend to the stories of survival and resilience in the movie as well as in Bible. At the end of the movie, while the mother is grieving her son's murder, there are many people who show up outside of her house with candles. These are people who have been impacted by Trever's message. They are the lights in the darkness who will continue the “pay it forward” movement. This particular part in the movie may help the class to name and claim the stories of survival and resistance they see in Scripture and in their own lives. The hope in this session is that people would be able to see and share stories of the persistence and resilience of God, Jesus, the early disciples, and their own community of faith.

In the final block of sessions the class would explore possible understandings and practices of Communion based on all the material and conversations from the previous sessions. Things like the Eucharist might look different after working through the trauma of the crucifixion. In fact, maybe Communion should look more like a party than a memorial. The party could celebrate things like the persistence, resilience, and survival of the Church and Jesus' vision of love, justice, and mutuality. That will be an emphesis in these sessions. In the first class there would be a worship service that will include celebrating Communion, understood as a continuation of the meal ministry of Jesus and taste of the Kin-dom of God (click here for an example). Afterward, there would be a discussion to explore the reactions, feelings, and experiences of the class to the Communion liturgy. Then, in the next class, the leader would facilitate a discussion about how Communion may look if it's understood as a part of Jesus' meal ministry and part of the overall message of the Empire of God among us. After this discussion, the class would be invited to collaboratively write a Communion liturgy that is authentic to their own context and understanding as a group. Finally, in the very last session, the group would come together for a culminating worship service to celebrate Communion with the liturgy that they have collaboratively developed as a group. The goal with these last classes is to help the congregation integrate the collective grief over the crucifixion of Jesus into the greater stories of the Church's persistence and resilience, so the trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion may shrink and the hope in the resurrection power of God may grow. Hopefully this will help us all “move on” from the trauma of the crucifixion, knowing that we are the resurrection community of Jesus. We are the ones who continue his life and ministry, despite real violence and injustice in the world. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we help to make the Empire of God a reality on earth. The Church itself is a story of survival, persistence, and resilience. And we are all a part of that story - of God's story.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lenten Journey (3/4): Grieving the Crucifixion To Heal The Church

Note: Post 3 of 4 in the Lenten series on healing the trauma of the crucifixion. Click the numbers to read parts 1 and 2.

Now it's time to look at how we could heal the memory of the crucifixion. Christopher Grundy, drawing from Judith Herman's book Trauma and Recovery, suggests working through this unresolved grief and trauma by following four steps: (1) naming and remembering the loss, (2) mourning the loss, (3) honoring the Church's resistance and survival; and then (4) integrating and expanding the story (159-177, unpublished).

In the first stage, the execution of Jesus should be named and remembered as an injustice to lament and a loss to grieve. One could say that instead of dying for our sins, Jesus died because of sin. More specifically, Jesus was killed because he preached about, and welcomed people into, an alternative Empire, God's Empire - and undermined the Roman Empire. He was killed for standing up for and embodying different values than the Roman Empire's system of domination. He was a threat to Rome's rule. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for standing up for a better America, Jesus was killed for standing up for a better Empire. The death of Jesus was not God’s will or an act of self-sacrifice by Jesus. Instead, Jesus lived to welcome people into the Empire of God – the dream and vision of God – a place of mutual care, radical inclusively, and broad justice. In the end, the leaders of the Roman Empire decided that the leader of this alternative Empire had to be killed for his seditious acts. This would have been deeply traumatic for the people who served with Jesus - and cared about him. The distraught disciples attempted to cope with their trauma by trying to find someone to blame that could make Jesus' crucifixion seem more tolerable. They assigned blame to God, Jesus, “the Jews,” our sins, etc. in order to make meaning out of it. But that doesn't mean that modern Christians need to repeat their coping mechanisms and the resulting theologies and traditions they developed out of their traumatic experience. For us, it's important for to name and remember Jesus’ unplanned, unjust, and unexpected murder on the cross as a trauma (cf. Grundy, 163-166).

After the trauma and loss is named and remembered, the second stage is mourning that loss. As modern Christians, we must allow ourselves to feel this loss in all of its pain. We must mourn the loss of the person who stood up for justice in the face of oppression, had fellowship with people who the culture declared untouchable, and re-presented God’s abiding presence and vision of shalom to many people. Jesus was killed in a deeply disturbing way. That is sad. That isn’t okay. That isn’t fair. That has to be mourned and grieved.

In the third stage, we must name and honor the acts of persistence and survival that occurred despite the traumatic crucifixion of Jesus. The first thing that can be mentioned is the fact that Jesus and his message were resilient in the face of the difficulties he faced. “As he begins to encounter opposition and real danger, it is his (non-violent) persistence in enacting the kin-dom of God…that witnesses to God’s activity with and through him” (Grundy, 170). Jesus persisted despite the threats. Second, the disciples were resilient both before and after the crucifixion. The life and ministry of Jesus were carried on – and continue to be carried on – by the community of resurrection called the Church. Third, God was resilient. “Rather than being primarily a sign or a message, the resurrection is God’s practical, cooperative activity within the communities of Jesus’ followers so that their work (and Jesus’) for the sake of the kin-dom can continue” (Grundy, 172). Death is not the end. Good memories can be found. Bad memories can be transformed. The “key to transforming memories is finding instances of resistance and agency and incorporating them into the testimony and witness. Being able to name and claim what people did to survive…is vitally important to their own process of healing and transformation” (Keshgegian, 121-122).

The last stage is integrating the memories of the grief/trauma and the stories of resistance so that the greater, ongoing narrative of resilient activity can be expanded – and the grief can shrink. According to Grundy, “If we are able to narrate and practice Jesus’ death as trauma, mourning his loss and celebrating the resistance and persistence of God, Jesus, and the saints for the sake of abundant life, then it becomes possible to allow the crucifixion to recede to its proper [smaller] place” (174). While we cannot ignore the fact of Jesus’ death, we can heal the memory of and grief from Jesus’ crucifixion.

We can move on. We can move on, knowing that we are the resurrection community of Jesus that continues his life ministry despite violence and injustice. We can move on, knowing that God continually brings forth hope for transformation. We can move on, knowing that the Empire of God has come near (Mark 1:15). The list of hopeful signs go on and on. While the grief and trauma will continue to be a part of our collective memory, we no longer have to allow it to dominate our theologies, traditions, and rituals.

Click here to read part 4 in the series.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lenten Journey (2/4): Crucifixion of Jesus as Unresolved Grief and Trauma

Note: Post 2 of 4 in the Lenten series on healing the trauma of the crucifixion. Click here to read part 1.

The crucifixion of Jesus likely caused a great amount of grief and trauma for the disciples - especially the ones who knew Jesus personally. According to Keshgegian: “The cross was a crisis for Jesus’ followers and those who came after…the crucifixion of Jesus was a traumatic event” (166). It must have been a tremendous loss when the person who had helped the disciples experience God, communal solidarity, radical inclusiveness, mutual care, etc., was killed by a brutal empire in an atrocious way – the cross. Keshgegian goes on to say:
“The biblical narratives make it clear that the crucifixion was experienced as a major crisis for the Jesus movement that caused Jesus’ followers to flee and go into hiding. They even disrupted their community life and the mission they shared. It challenged their fundamental experience of safety. Jesus’ followers were afraid for their lives. The crucifixion, even though it was not directed at them, threatened them. It also disturbed their sense of meaning. Jesus was the one whom they had followed as their leader. They were expecting a new reign of God. What they seemed to get was defeat. Their leader was killed, ignobly killed. What hope or promise could there be in this? The crucifixion terrified and confused them. It left them bereft and even seemingly abandoned. They did not know how to respond to this loss and trauma” (qtd. Grundy, 155, unpublished).
The loss and accompanying grief must have been exceedingly intense. This would likely have been an “ambiguous grief” filled with uncertainties, questions, and conflicting emotions. How could the “Son of God” die? Did he actually die? Is there any hope? Is this somehow a source of hope? Was the Empire of God defeated? Can it continue in some way? Why didn’t God stop this from happening? Could God stop it? The list of such questions would have been endless. As Boss says, “the greater the ambiguity surrounding one’s loss, the more difficult it is to master it and the greater one’s depression, anxiety, and [interpersonal] conflict” (7). Boss goes on to point out the following aspects of ambiguous loss: (1) “because the loss is confusing, people are baffled and immobilized,” (2) “the uncertainty prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationship…so that the [interpersonal] relationship freezes in place,” (3) “people are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss,” (4) “the absurdity of ambiguous loss reminds people that life is not always rational and just,” (5) “because ambiguous loss goes on and on…they become emotionally exhausted from the relentless uncertainty” (7-8). All of these aspects could have been part of the experience of those early disciples – and those who came after. They were close to the murderous execution of the person they knew as rabbi, liberator, friend, son, brother, “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Immanuel,” etc. As Boss notes: “Ambiguous loss is the most stressful loss people can face…They hunger for clarity” (20). It would have been very difficult for the disciples to live in the immobilizing bog of endless questions, which in turn probably had endless possible answers. They had to find and create meaning out of this event in order to come to some level of emotional, psychological, and spiritual resolution. Humans are meaning-making creatures. In fact, Greenspan suggests that “making meaning of out suffering is the basis of the human capacity to survive evil and transcend it” (45). The disciples needed to find some meaning out of this situation because “existing without meaning…is like existing without air” (Greenspan, 132). How did some of them make meaning out of it?

Some of the disciples attempted to make meaning out of the trauma and grief caused by Jesus’ unjust death but without fully working through the difficult emotions. As Grundy notes:
“Rather than being able to live with that event as traumatic…those around Jesus and those who came after looked for ways to justify what happened, to make it a good thing as well as a bad thing, to make it necessary, beneficial, even ordained. Because this traumatic injury was never faced as trauma…‘the crucifixion remains an unexamined trauma at the core of Christian faith and theology’” (156).
Because, as Keshgegian argues, trauma “results in a lack of safety and triggers an internal need to try to reestablish some kind of control,” if that trauma is not addressed as such, this need can be “expressed in distorted ways” (qtd. Grundy, 156). For example, Grundy argues that the practice of breaking a symbolic body and pouring its blood in Communion is a form of “repetition compulsion” (Grundy, 154), whereby “the repetitive reliving of the traumatic experience must represent a spontaneous, unsuccessful attempt at healing” and “is an attempt to integrate the traumatic event” (Herman, 41). Therefore, instead of Communion being an extension of the meal ministry of Jesus, it became a “repetition compulsion” where the disciples reenacted the unjust violence done to Jesus by the Roman Empire as an attempt to deal with their grief and trauma. The prevalence of the cross in Christian piety and architecture is another example of their unresolved grief and trauma. Keshgegian explains this further: “The fixation of the Christian tradition on the cross provides centuries of evidence of what happens when one tries to make something good and meaningful out of what is not good…The memory of the cross must be preserved precisely as tragic. It is a death and loss that needs to be mourned” (174). Therefore, instead of the cross being a symbol of state-sponsored terrorism, it has become a symbol of the saving work God has done for us. As Keshgegian argues, “Trauma that is not remembered and dealt with appropriately finds expression in distorted relationally and arrested living. So too with the cross” (173). In order to deal with the grief and trauma of Jesus’ execution effectively, perhaps we could re-define the meaning of Communion and the cross so that we do not pass on these distorted expressions and unresolved grief on to future generations. This is not to suggest that the disciples were bad people who passed on a bad tradition. Instead, it is to suggest that the disciples were dealing with a natural part of life – grief. And their grief was likely intensified by the fact that they were mourning the crucifixion and subsequent loss of a transformative, highly meaningful religious figure in their lives. Thus, they passed this grief on through their stories, traditions, and testimonies. As Grundy argues, “we must consider the possibility that at least some of early Christian story and memory, if not a good deal of it, are being structured by traumatic violence that is contemporaneous with the production of the texts, as well as the crucifixion itself” (157-158). Therefore, until the modern Church addresses the unresolved grief and trauma caused by Jesus’ crucifixion, we will continue to pass on the disciples’ unresolved “stuff” (Grundy, 159; Keshgegian, 196-197). Perhaps we need to mindfully heal this pain in the memory and tradition of the Church.

Click here to read part 3 in the series.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lenten Journey (1/4): Did the Crucifixion cause Grief and Trauma?

Note: Post 1 of 4 in the Lenten series on healing the trauma of the crucifixion.

Grief and loss are both part of being alive. While grief and loss are parts of a natural life, they are often portrayed as something aberrant or strange. The message is that humans are supposed to be stoic and have control over their emotions – even to the point of transcending them. This is not a new concept. For example, there was a movement called Stoicism began around 300 BCE under the influence of Zeno of Citium, which argued for control over and indifference to emotions. Later, Aristotle argued “that reason’s control over emotion is what distinguishes men from women and children” (Greenspan, 66). This sexist assumption argues that men are better than women and children because they are able to control their emotions. This assumption continues today in a culture where men are to be the “strong oak” showing little emotion – especially grief. At the same time women can show emotions as long as they don’t show too many emotions and appear overly emotional or "hysterical." These negative assumptions about emotions truncate the healthy grieving process of both men and women. As Greenspan writes, “our emotional illiteracy as a species has less to do with our inability to subdue negative emotions than it does with our inability to authentically and mindfully feel them” (Greenspan, xii). Healing can only occur as we walk through grief. The simple yet profound truth is: “We need time and space to grieve" (Volkan & Zintl, 51). But what happens when grief remains unresolved? What would it mean for Christianity if the crucifixion of Jesus caused a grief and trauma in the memory of the Church that remains unresolved? That is the question that we will explore during Lent. Perhaps the crucifixion of Jesus led to an unresolved grief and trauma for the early disciples. And perhaps they passed that unresolved grief and trauma on to us. While we walk through Lent, we'll be walking through the emotional "stuff" surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus.

Click here to read part 2 in the series.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gospel According to William Elliott Whitmore

Jesus went into the wilderness, faced some "hard times" for forty days, and was tempted by some "old devils." That is the story of Luke 4:1-12. Add the music of William Elliott Whitmore as the soundtrack to the story. Suddenly an interesting movie scene develops. The wilderness experience might have been a time of growth. The "hard times" might have been formative to the development of the personhood and mission of Jesus. The temptations and challenges posed by "old devils" might have been concrete obstacles Jesus had to overcome. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit filled and guided Jesus through this experience. God led Jesus through and out of the wilderness. And that is what God does in our lives when we go through wilderness experiences. When we're in a hospital waiting room, God is there. When we lose a job, God is there. When we have to make a difficult decision, God is there. God sticks with us through the "hard times." God also helps us resist temptations from the "old devils" such as pessimism, perfectionism, and busyness. In place of those things, God encourages us to embody sacred elements such as hope, realism, and balance. Those are the things that God gives us to get through the wilderness moments of our lives. Jesus modeled it. We live it. And Whitmore sings about it. Err...he at least sings about the "hard times" and "old devils." And what a voice!

"Hard Times" William Elliott Whitmore


"Old Devils" by William Elliott Whitmore

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Honoring Our Sacred Ashiness on Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday we remember that we have come from ashes and we will return to ashes (Genesis 3:19). Seems kind of somber. But it can also be a time to honor our connection to the sacredness of ashes; sacredness of dirt; sacredness of earth. It's an occasion to remind ourselves of the connection we have with God's "very good" Creation (Genesis 1:31). And this world is not just "very good," but it's also made sacred because it's filled with the presence of God (Psalm 139:7-10). The early Celtic Christian forefather, Pelagius, writes powerfully about the sacredness of earth:
"Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent...When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly."
God makes the earth good, sacred, and beautiful. And as people who come from and live on the earth, we are reminded of our sacredness as part of God's sacred world. In fact, God's primal affirmation of humanity is that we are "made in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). Our earliest and deepest identity is rooted in the original sacredness and goodness of our nature. So, Ash Wednesday invites us to remember our sacred nature and then repent, or turn, toward that true nature. That is the good news of Ash Wednesday. John Philip Newell describes the good news of this message well:
"I do not believe that the gospel, which literally means 'good news,' is given to tell us that we have failed or been false. That is not news, and it is not good. We already know much of that about ourselves. We know we have been false, even to those whom we most love in our lives and would most want to be true to. We know we have failed people and whole nations throughout the world today, who are suffering or who are subjected to terrible injustices that we could do more to prevent. So the gospel is not given to tell us what we already know. Rather, the gospel is given to tell us what we do not know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals and as nations and as an entire earth community."
Ash Wednesday affirms some important things. First, humanity's true nature is good because we are made in the image of God. Second, the earth is sacred because of God's presence within all of it. Finally, humanity comes from and is part of God's sacred earth. That is what we are reminded of on this day of ashes. We are ashy and earthy! And sacred. Our life is originated from and progressing toward the goodness, sacredness, and beauty of God's earth.

Carl McMolman emphasizes this understanding by saying: "Remember you are ashes, destined for Divinity."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Theology After Google on the Radio

Doug Pagitt hosted Philip Clayton and Tony Jones on DougPagittRadio to discuss the upcoming conference, Theology after Google. The good news is that this isn't just a promo for the conference. It's a good discussion about the hope they see for the postmodern, internet-age of the Church.



Monday, February 15, 2010

Christian Fight Club: A Reflection by Sarah Bloesch

A reflection on the NY Times article, "Flock Is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries."

“Blessed are the peacemakers…for they will put on the armor of God to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Matt 5:9; Eph 6:11). “Blessed are the meek…for they have the power to decide whether they wash before they eat with no repercussions” (Matt 5:5; Matt 15:20). “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…for they get to decide women should not speak, teach, or have authority in the church” (Matt 5:6; 1 Tim 2:11-12).

Let’s face it. As Christians, we know that our holy scripture is full of contradictions and reading it at face value generally takes us in circles until we end up where we began: believing in the position we sought to justify in the first place.

Should we be pacifists or adhere to just war theory because both seem to be aspects of peacemaking? Is there only one right way to contend with the evils of this world? Likewise, how do we deal with questions regarding how the church and the larger society interact? Do we stand against dominant norms such as the purity laws of Jesus’ day, or do we adopt aspects of culture such as the hierarchical household codes in the early centuries of the church where women were supposed to be silent?

No wonder when it comes to applying scripture to our lives and churches we either throw up our hands in despair or resort to picking and choosing at our convenience.

The question, then, isn’t whether mixed martial arts (MMA) should or should not be accepted into the context of the church – that’s a question of church and culture (which, granted, is big unto itself, but not the main question I’m interested in). The question, really, is two-fold: 1) Who are we today as people of God? and 2) How is MMA is used within churches based upon both our scriptural tradition and who we are today as people of God?

Who we are today, who the church is today, the NY Times article bemoans, are a bunch of women, children, gays, lesbians, transgenders, and men who respect their families and friends. These are many of the people who find a home and empowerment from the gospel in many of our churches today. And we ask ourselves: is that a problem?

As Reagan Doyle Saoirse points out in her article, MMA in and of itself isn’t that controversial in our cultural context of violent competition. In fact, MMA actually promotes qualities we find laudable – self-awareness, discipline, authenticity. However, organizers and leaders of this new form of church are marrying MMA with the message that the church by definition is a male-oriented institution.

The implied fear stoked as hands are taped and hot dogs are sold is that as the numbers of (straight) men in the church decline, we are in trouble of losing God’s very presence here on earth. The fact that religious leaders are using MMA as their draw is accidental to their message. MMA isn’t using them; they are using MMA.

Is it a serious problem that many men no longer find church to be a place of nourishment and connection with the divine?

Without question.

Should we be tirelessly using our creative God-given bodies, minds, and souls to discern how most faithfully to live the gospel in our time and place so that all may find a home and a voice?

Without doubt.

Does the existence of the church hinge on one particular heterosexual, male interpretation of a hopelessly complex combination of narrative, wisdom, and correspondence that is our sacred scripture?

Thanks be to God, no.

To fight or not to fight has been the question for over two thousand years. In fact, in the earliest churches, soldiers were barred from church membership. But in this instance MMA itself is not what should concern us. The real difficulty here lies in whether we truly believe the church is strong enough to thrive in the diversity of those gathered in the name of the One we call Father, Life Giver, Eternal Womb, Erotic Passion, and Hope for the Hopeless.

Sarah Bloesch is a member of the United Church of Christ and in her first year of doctoral studies at Southern Methodist University. In the precious moments when she's not reading, she loves dancing and romping outside with the puppy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Such Love" - Francis of Assisi

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get
home.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Christian Fight Club: A Reflection by Regan Doyle Saoirse

A reflection on the NY Times article, "Flock Is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries."

I am a woman, an ordained Christian minister, and a black belt in Okinawan Kenpo. Ministry and martial arts are two of my greatest passions. When Brian brought to my attention the NY Times article on MMA teams sponsored and run by Christian churches, I can’t say I was really surprised. I’ve been around long enough in both the Christian circles and martial arts circles to know that someone somewhere would eventually recognize the potential, as in potential to make money and grow power and influence.

There is a lot about this combination that offends the progressive Christian in me as well as the martial artist in me. However, let me share my reasons by sharing some of my story with you.

Martial arts changed my life. Several years before I discerned my call to ministry, I attended a 6 week self defense class at a junior college. I was 19, shy and passive. Many people, who didn’t know me then, laugh at this. But it’s true. The class was taught by 5 women with black belts in Shotokan, a Japanese style. The budding feminist I was, I knew that I did not want to fear authority, but I had years of indoctrination inside me. Learning self-defense and then learning karate empowered me. Yes, there were many other influences leading to the transformation of Regan into an assertive leader, but martial arts centered and focused me.

Most of my insecurity and awkwardness came from despising my physical body. Christianity does not have a very good track record in empowering women (or men) to love their bodies. And while Asian traditions did not fare much better historically in this area, the 5 women who taught my class with authority and dignity impressed me. Being around them gave me hope that I too could have the confidence and comfort in my own body that they had.

Something else that Christianity does poorly is address the existence of anger, especially in women. As I progressed and learned the art of karate, I found a much needed outlet for the decades of pent up aggression and rage that good girls are supposed to suppress and pretend isn’t there. Before, anger would immobilize me and create layers of guilt, fear and self-loathing. Anger used to terrify me, be it mine or someone else’s. Now, I understand it as just one of many emotions of which I have many options for response/reaction. It isn’t just about a physical outlet for the aggression I didn’t even know I had, it is about the power of choice and control… over emotions and physical actions.

Christianity also struggles with how to respond to anger and aggression in men. How to empower men to be assertive, not passive or aggressive is a difficult challenge. There is a lot of pent up rage inside a lot of men without outlets or with outlets that are dangerous and/or abusive. I can see where Christian churches or groups may feel they fufill that need by sponsoring MMA teams.

Christian churches and groups endorse plenty of sports (many also endorse plenty of violence in this world). In fact, Christianity has been influencing American martial arts for a long time. It is not uncommon for groups to have integrated morals and ethics of Christian principles into the Asian philosophy behind martial arts. I imagine that much of this attempt to “westernize” or “Christianize” the philosophy is because of the standard xenophobia of most evangelical Christian traditions. Ideas from other traditions about morals, ethics, meaning and purpose are not encouraged in many Christian circles, even if it is from a philosophy of an art and not a religion.

However, fighting does not a martial art make. I truly meant it when I said that the practice of martial arts provides morals, ethics, meaning and purpose. It also provides a sense of empowerment that I feel from the ability to recognize the choices I can make, not the amount of harm I can induce. Violence is a choice and option in every situation we encounter. Karate has taught me how to respond to conflict with both violence and non-violence. However, my tradition teaches me to take responsibility for my choices, to respect others and value non-violence. This coincides with my Christian faith and belief that seeking peace, practicing forgiveness and empowering others is important.

Having an outlet for all the pent up rage and hostility in our society is important. I fully endorse the use of martial arts, boxing, or any form of discipline, training and physical exercise that helps people with that.

However, mixed martial arts fighting is about making money. There is training and discipline, I’m sure. But when it is all said and done, is it not just another form of prostituting violence? I must admit that I’m a fan of martial arts movies and I know that many of the plots have gratuitous violence that in real life would not only kill me or others but also leave me permanently traumatized. I also know that it is fiction. It is choreographed and planned out to show off certain moves (some of which are impossible without wires and padding). And it is not claiming to be inspired by the words and actions of a messiah figure. Well, okay, Matrix kinda did. But I pray to Jesus, not Neo. And, despite the quotes in the article, Jesus was not a man of violent extreme sports. And I’m just wondering what Jesus would have thought about the millions of dollars people make using his name to endorse t-shirt brands, hot dogs, skateboards, and MMA fights. Yeah, he’d be really proud.

I’m not even sure what to say about the comment that men somehow can learn to be better “heads of household” by doing MMA. Some people just seem to need to live in a hierarchy to feel they are safe or have power. I might agree to this statement if it said something about learning to be better partners. Honestly, my spiritual practice combined with my Kenpo practice makes me a better partner to my husband, better friend to my loved ones, better chaplain to the dying, and a better teacher to white belts. I know that what I do makes a difference. I’m not so sure MMA fighting does.

Rev. Sensei Regan Doyle Saoirse is an ordained minister of the UCC and a shodan black belt of the USKK. She works as a hospice chaplain in the K.C. area. For fun she reads a little esoteric philosophy and paranormal horror, but really enjoys teaching little kids how to scream at strangers, kick them in the shins and run (from strangers, not kids).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Brian McLaren on the Overarching Storyline in the Bible

Last night I took part in a conference call with Brian McLaren through the Viral Bloggers Network of The Ooze. It was a nice Q&A-style conversation about McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity.

The first chapter of the book is entitled, "The Narrative Question: What is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?" I must admit that the idea of an overarching storyline in the Bible makes me nervous. There are many stories, genres, and theologies in the Bible. To attempt to discern a single, overarching storyline seems impossible. Well, unless someone wants to try to say that their own theo-political agenda is, somehow, the Bible's main overall storyline. But I know McLaren wouldn't do that. He is very sensitive to postmodernity, postcolonialism, and ecumenism. Yet there is the rub. This needed clarification. I wanted to hear his perspective on the idea of an overarching theme in Scripture. So I asked him about it. I said something like this: "My question is about the overall storyline in the Bible. To me there seems to be a lot of diversity in the Bible. What is your hope or purpose of collapsing the diversity into a cohesive whole?"

In his reply, McLaren went right to the heart of my concern. He said that he is not advocating a big story (or metanarrative) that tries to exclude or assimilate others. We went on to say that metanarratives are often used to colonize others. Manifest Destiny is one example of the dangers of this kind of thinking. So, McLaren makes it clear that he doesn't want to impose a colonizing metanarrative.

McLaren then went on to talk about how the Bible is made up of many different small stories. His focus, however, is whether we can put those small stories together in some way. For McLaren, these stories come together in a "story space" instead of a "story line." The distinction is that a "story space" leaves room for a diversity of perspectives, whereas a singular "story line" limits range of how the stories can be understood. For him, it's important to value multiple perspectives. So, he appreciates hearing how African Americans, Native Americans, LGBT folks, etc. understand the Biblical stories. He said that exposing ourselves to a diversity of perspectives liberates us to new understandings of the stories. In his opinion, the idea of a "story space" makes room for a diversity of understandings of the Biblical stories without erring on the side of relativism on one end, or exclusivism on the other end.

Maybe it's just semantics, but McLaren's distinction did seem important. It relieved my anxiety about reading his first chapter. So, now all I need to be anxious about is getting out on these snowy roads in order to get to a bookstore. A New Kind of Christianity will have to be the next book I get!

Props to Mike Morrell and Spencer Burke for organizing the conference call. Keep up the good work y'all are doing at The Ooze! And speaking of The Ooze, be sure to check out The Brian McLaren Channel over the next ten weeks. There will be a new video with McLaren each week to celebrate the release of the new book. Should be good stuff!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity: The Book

Brian McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity, hits the shelves today. And it's a good one! It explores some interesting new territory. Over the past few years, McLaren has had many conversations about faith with people all over the world. During those conversations, he has noticed that they often focus on exploring ten big questions. Those questions are:

(1) The Narrative Question: What is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?
(2) The Authority Question: How Should the Bible Be Understood?
(3) The God Question: Is God Violent?
(4) The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
(5) The Gospel Question: What is the Gospel?
(6) The Church Question: What Do We Do About the Church?
(7) The Sex Question: Can We Find a Way to Address Sexuality Without Fighting About It?
(8) The Future Question: Can We Find a Better Way tp View the Future?
(9) The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
(10) The What Do We Do Now Question: How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action?
Instead of avoiding questions about faith, McLaren embraces them. In fact, he believes that a new kind of Christianity is emerging from people asking these important questions. It's the questions that open the proverbial "box" and lets fresh air inside. And that fresh air is giving life to exciting new expressions of Christianity. So, if you're interested in exploring the big questions about faith and joining the conversation about a new kind of Christianity, check out his new book.

Tomorrow we'll write about the phone call we had with McLaren about this new book. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Black History Month Videos

There are many great movies that could be used to commemorate Black History Month. But many of them are rated R. And for good reason. Rated R stuff happened - and continues to happen - in real life. But when you work with youth or churches, ya gotta tailor things a bit for that context. So, here is a list of videos we thought would be helpful resources for a wider audience: The Rosa Parks Story, Secret Life of Bees, Ruby Bridges, Selma Lord Selma, The Great Debaters, Remember the Titans, Ray, Pride, Malcolm X, Uncle Tom's Cabin, A Raisin in the Sun, Mississippi Burning, Amistad, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, and Yes We Can: The Barack Obama Story. There are also some good online resources at the History and Biography websites.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Susan Werner: Progressive Gospel Music

What happens when an agnostic from Iowa writes a Gospel album? Well, you get some pretty cool music. Susan Werner has written an album, The Gospel Truth, that features progressive Christian lyrics set to old time Gospel music. It's got slide guitar, upbeat choirs, foot stomping, and everything else you'd expect out of tent-revival-meets-healthcare-reform-rally music.

(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small
features slide guitar and a sultry voice as the lyrics explore the problems of judgmentalism. One of the powerful phrases says: "Well I know you'd damn me if you could / but my friend, that's simply not your call / If God is great and God is good / Why is your heaven so small." It seems like human nature to confuse our perspective with God's perspective. The people that don't think like us are wrong and are going to hell. The people that think like us are right and get to go to heaven. This kind of thinking makes God sound just like oneself. To this theological offense, author Anne Lamott says, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." So, Lamont and Werner seem to be trying to remind us that maybe the Heaven of God of the Universe isn't as small as the "heaven" of the "god" we make in our image. To drive this idea home, part of Werner's last verse reads: "But my friend, imagine this if you would / a love much mightier than us all."

Help Somebody is hand-clappin', continually building explosion of Gospel music. Ya just gotta stand up and dance by the end. Lyrically it's an ode to missional, social justice minded Christianity. It's about realizing we have enough stuff in life and then deciding to share those resources with others. One line reads: "I got supper on the table / What do I do / I go out and help somebody / Get supper on the table too." This song is about doing the work of the Church. Therefore the lyrics are in line with popular quote from St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” It'd be a great song for congregations to use during stewardship or fund-raising drives.

Forgiveness is one of the few slow songs on the album. And it's also one of the heaviest songs lyrically. It's about exploring the perennial question of how we can love and forgive people who hurt us. It's hard to summarize the power of this song in a brief review. It's one that has to be heard and felt. So let me just quote one of the verses and let it stand on its own: "How do you love those / Who never will love you / I think only God knows / And He is not taking sides / I hope one day He shows us / How we can love those / Who never will love us / But who still we must love."

Did Trouble Me offers a mid-tempo reflection on times when God challenges us to move, grow, and act. Werner opens the song with: "When I close my eyes so I would not see / My Lord did trouble me / When I let things stand that should not be / My Lord did trouble me." It's refreshing to hear a song about God encouraging us to see the things we'd rather not see, and address the things that need to be addressed. For example, global poverty kills 30,000 children every single day. That should trouble us. And when God troubles us with these kinds of things, God also calls us to act. We're invited to join in on God's mission of changing the world for the better. Perhaps the first step is to be troubled. Then to be empowered to act.

Sunday Morning is Werner's own autobiographical story about being former-church-goer-turned-agnostic who, in some ways, still longs to go to church on Sunday mornings. But, for her, church is not a place that was or is a safe place for her questions. In the last line she sings: "And I went back the other day / closed my eyes and tried to pray / but a voice spoke loud and clear / 'You ask too many questions, dear' / And I said, 'You ask too few' / that's why I still don't know quite what to do on Sunday mornings." Too few churches welcome real questions and authentic wrestling with theological ideas. But, as Ann Lamott reminds us, "The opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty." It's okay to have questions and doubts. But it's absurd to think we have all the "right" answers. As Apostle Paul reminds us, "We see through a glass dimly" and "know only in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Mystery is part of faith.

Our Father (The New, Revised Edition) sounds like something off the Old Time Gospel Hour. In a good way. Especially since the lyrics are so fun-yet-prophetic. Here is a great example: "Lord send us forth to bring compassion / to every corner of the world. / And please allow for women in the Catholic priesthood / And remind the pope that he could have been a girl." Ya gotta love the serious lyrics about bringing compassion mixed together with the edgy reminder of just how inconsequential gender is to the ability to do ministry.

Lost My Religion is another autobiographical song about being a convert to agnosticism. The lyrics lament about the things that push someone out of their faith in organized religion. In the second verse Werner laments: "Lost my religion / in the holy Church / Preacher told me girls like you / Are more trouble than they're worth / Lost my religion / I guess it had to be / Lost my religion / or my religion lost me." Many people will be able to relate to the story of outgrowing a part of organized religion. It's tough to be part of organized religion when you study things like evolution, slavery, the Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish Inquisition, Women's Studies, etc. Religion can be a powerful force for justifying war, oppression, and other evils. Hopefully we can lose bad religion and replace it with something better.

Don't Explain It Away is an ode to the beauty of mystery. While it's interesting to read how science and religion attempt to label, classify, and explain everything, Werner reminds us of the importance of enjoying the deeper truths that can't and shouldn't be explained. For example , a doctor can describe the process of childbirth in scientific terms, but nobody can explain the beauty of such miraculous moment. It has to be felt. In the last verse Werner sings: "If you find yourself at the water's edge / And you're listening as the waves break on the shore / While a sea of stars rolls above your head / And you realize you're part of so much more / And you're struck dumb with wonder / Can't find the words to say / Don't break the spell you're under / Don't explain it away." Some things in life are just too special to be explained.

I Will Have My Portion is a song about the belief that everybody deserves good things to happen in life. Despite setbacks, we're meant to have joys also. The first verse talks about the naysayers: "And some would say / That time has passed me by / And some would say / That the wells have all run dry." But the rest of the song talks about the resilient faith in good fortune coming despite the naysayers' doom and gloom. in the last verse, Werner sings about the vision of hope she sees for herself: "Somewhere there's a blessing and it bears my name / And soon or late, it's coming to me just the same / Can't wait to see / What's set aside for me / With every new sunrise / I'm gonna keep my eyes wide open." We all need a vision of hope to get us through life. And for those who are Christian, Jesus gave us a vision for our lives that includes "complete joy" (John 15:11) and "abundant life" (John 10:10). We all deserve our share of joy.

Probably Not is a piano infused Gospel rocker. And it's funny. It's not meant to be taken too seriously. The lyrics are about an agnostic who does think there is a God but also doesn't think she'd turn down eternal life with God if it was offered. Okay, that idea may not sound humorous, but the way Werner writes the plot of the song is quite witty. The best line of the song has got to be this: "Saint Tom was the grooviest apostle of all." Sung like a true agnostic! Yet the song ends with an affirmation of God. Ya just gotta hear the song to appreciate its wit.

Together closes out the album. And she saves a good one for last. The lyrics are about our need to come together as a human family. In the first verse, Werner sings, "If there is a God / With a human face / I'm sure He'd want us all to come together/ And get beyond these bolted doors / Get beyond these awful bloody wars." We don't all need to think the same and vote the same. But we need to appreciate the dignity of our differences. And find a way to be united. As the old maxim goes: "We need unity, not uniformity." After all, the God with a human face prayed, through Jesus: "That they all be one" (John 17:21). This song is a beautiful prayer for that oneness.

To hear more about Werner's album or her spiritual journey, click here.