[to be honest]

trying to write something true

the good news for seminarians

In the weeks before finals, when you are wrung out, too often the litany of bad news reigns. But it seems today is my day to have faith for all of us; so let me shout for you the good news.

Isn’t it easy to believe, here in the springtime, that the world is shot through with miracle? Count your miracles, friends, as if your life depended on it, for surely it does – depends on earth, wind, water, depends on food become effort become muscle, depends, God knows, on coffee and midnight slaphappy laughter. Count the cheap microwave life that you’ll miss in fifteen years and find yourself crying, why me? How did I earn such riches?

I hope it is easy, here in the springtime, to know the world itself is good news, this most extravagant festival of beauty. That even if God were always and only a child, fashioning bright baubles in space and dropping them behind – never to return – it would be right to give God thanks and praise.

And yet we have found God with us, with all of us, murdering brothers and exiled slave women, idolaters, grumbling nomad-people and mourners of a defeated nation. Always God remains one more day, weaving the threads of ruined lives into something that looks like hope. Even if these were only marvelous stories from a far-away people in a time of magic, do they not speak beauty and mystery enough to keep us secretly searching for signs of this God? Are they not just strange and startling enough – transcending their own culture in all the oddest places – to convince us non-believers? Somewhere in our ancient child-hearts, we still know wonder.

But you will say I have meandered into glibness. What if, you will say, the great God dies? What if your country, your people, the land from which you were formed, become occupied by God’s own enemies? What if 400 years pass without a prophet?

I don’t know. For the suddenly light-drenched, here in the springtime, it is too easy to tell the still winter-laden to wait. I suppose I would say to get up again tomorrow, make your little breakfast, and say the prayers anyhow. Tell the old stories over and try, only try, to wait, for I AM will be with you. God will be with you. God loves you too much to stay out of it. God is too big not to care for all the little things; and at Christmas, God joined the project for once and for all.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus wept? If he knew he had come to fix this Lazarus-dying business, why stop and cry? Yet he arrived at Bethany, he collided with the grief of Mary and Martha, and suddenly the ice-cold truth washed over him: Lazarus is dead.

What if Jesus found himself doubting, there at Bethany? What if everything he said to Mary and Martha about faith, he was really saying to himself? I wonder if he did not discover finitude in that moment, in the really true death of the one he loved – shut up behind a rock together with his spirit, his laugh, the way he whistled in the mornings and spoke his sentences slow, brow furrowed, when he was thinking. All gone, just stolen by disease, no sense to it; I wonder if Jesus, encountering the magnitude of this thing, was not stricken with a sick fear: I am a lunatic after all.

He was perturbed. “Take me to him,” he said; and he wanted to stride confidently ahead of his disciples, but he found himself stumbling through his tears, desperate to make his way to his best friend. “Take away the stone,” he said, only because he had thought this was why he’d come so late.
“But Jesus…” Martha spoke gently, in her sensible way -
“Take away the stone!” Jesus said, driven on by Spirit’s mission and the mad fire, fighting helplessness, in his eyes. He prayed as they struggled against the rock: “Father, I know that you hear me. I know that you hear me. Hear me.”

They finished with the stone. Did the stench she had spoken of roll out over them all? Did Jesus look into that black cave, trembling, staring down the darkness that had swallowed Lazarus with such indifference? Fists clenched, desperately, Father, hear me, then, “Lazarus! Come out!” – his lurching, strangled cry of grief silenced the murmuring crowd.

And Jesus waited. He had done what Spirit had brought him to do, and now the command was out of him. He stood before the blackness; he began to feel foolish and another rising sickness battled the fast-waning hope inside him.

Until, by the grace of God, Lazarus came out.

Before the crowd could be confused, could be frightened or appalled at this prank, Jesus’ dying hope heard the footsteps first. “Unbind him!” Jesus shouted. “He is free”, Jesus wept.

I think Lazarus was freed by Jesus’ compassion. We are all freed by Jesus’ tears; there is no pain God has not felt. Creation is God’s wound – she weeps for the abused, for the sick, the hopeless, the tired. She weeps for mountains leveled by greed for coal, for people hollowed out by lust for money, for those who have lost their best friends. And dare I say that God has felt the pain of the small – that God can weep, too, for lost teddy bears, college rejection letters, homes we loved – all the things we think we should be bigger than? I think this is grace, that God has been small with us.

Seminarians, you are not so big. And that is OK. The voices that tell you you are not big enough, not good enough, not politically correct enough, not suspicious enough, not worried enough, not smart enough, not busy enough – they are not humble. They are not grace. Grace does not shame. Grace gives gifts.

It is true that God wants holiness. It is also true that God gives holiness. Holiness is grace; it is freedom – freedom from the patterns of this world. Yes, it takes courage, effort, discernment, and time. But God has lots of these, and you have only a little. Will you keep trying to muster them, or will you simply ask for them? Will you let yourself be small? Will you let others carry these burdens with you? If you cannot let yourself be small, you will never excuse others their smallness.

We hear much bad news in seminary. And it is sometimes important to know. But only God can absorb all the world’s bad news. And only God can transform it into good. For creation is God’s million wounds, and yet it is, ten times over, her delight. She holds it; she sings over it; she sings over you with joy in all that you are, for you are hers, and she is with you. Even before we finally see life rising out of the darkness and death, God is with our shrinking doubting band of faith-in-resurrection people.

The good news – the reason you are here, I hope – is that I AM made the universe, and God loves it, and God loves you. I AM is with us, healing us, and God will make all the small things new.

Yes, I know this little blog has been nothing more than a sometimes trampoline the past few months, bouncing you somewhere else every once in a while. I’m really grateful for those assignments, forcing me to write something - sit down, decorate a balloon and let it go into the wind.

I know that I haven’t said too much about grad school in the nine months I’ve spent here; a bit about the experience, but maybe less than I’d hoped about what I’ve learned. I’ve been turning over why that is, and when I’m optimistic I’ll say there’s a humility in a first-year’s silence, a listening, learning, letting the questions be. When I’m cynical, I’ll say there’s nothing like the liberal arts academy to badger you out of any opinion at all, picking and policing til you wrap up everything authentic in a kerchief, hide it in your cedar chest, and batten down the lid with obscure, obscuring vocabulary spoken in a cadence of clever disillusionment.

There may be more about that later; all I’ve got now is I’m ready, so ready, to get out for a bit. It’s a sort of boot camp, a sort of monastic vow, that I really don’t resent. It’s just how this works. But I might just have found my limit for reading, writing, and overthinking things. I’m tired of the incessant demand for an immediate response. I’m craving plants and dirt, baking, people who’ve never read Foucault, people with real problems, Psalms, and the seeking after God that is just being. Going about. Waiting on wordless revelation to appear in the drugstore or the park.

One more month – finals – to lean farther into the things I’m completely tired of. This is its own discipline, one I still believe I’ve been called into. And the white-knuckled wait for spring is finally over; we’re remembering how to stroll, faces up toward the sun.

But some days and weeks and mercifully-warm months, you have to let yourself be tired even as you tell yourself to keep going, keep going, keep going.

the world outside seminary

Hey look! I’m at On Pop Theology again! Right here!

It is a post in which I remember that there is a world outside seminary. Yes, the actual world that is not a cave of books, where you live and do stuff – I touched it.

This is that story.

a presumptuous kneeling

i carry a cross this day,
pious death-reminder,
and the novel sensational empty stomach
of one who has never not had a choice.
This year, forty days meat-free,
But I fear the old, old ways and excuse myself
from an oil-free, wine-free, butter-free cleansing-time
this year, again, i cling to these to soothe the daily hurts
this year, again,
like always.

Why, then, should i take up a cross
why play at sacrifice
why join to myself a sign of penitence,
i who have not released my grip
on anger, fear, flippancy, pride
or the corroding grotesque apathy of self-indulgence?

It is not my cross.

Not mine but
his who was for us the ash of Palm Sunday
plowed back under the dust by
anger, fear, flippancy, pride
It is him, not i, who has won the contest
in losing all I still retain.

And now, as our Savior has taught us, we are bold to say:
We are weak dust ash
and there is nothing to be done for it
Lordamercy
Christ have mercy

Christ have mercy

Christ have mercy.

grace in winter stillness

Some God-given words for something I’ve been thinking over and praying about for a long time now:

grace is waiting.

The post is at On Pop Theology today. You should go there; I’ll be here, buried in pre-spring-break projects.

We’ll meet up again soon.

On winter and choices of major

Y’all? February is really hard.

There’s lots of work to do and not much sunlight and I just want to sleep all the time instead.

February is a one-day-at-a-time, lots-of-cups-of-tea kind of project. And some days [today], there’s a real live snow day when you can eat a big late breakfast and do work in your PJs. If you haven’t had a snow day… I sure hope you can schedule one.

And I hope that some funny will do you some good too? I’m at On Pop Theology today with A List of Things Real People Have Literally Said To Me Upon Learning That I Study Theology.

Stay warm, friends! And be patient with yourself. February is a feat.

Philippians: redefining “gift”

As my final project for a class on Philippians, I’m working through a series of posts on Paul’s new vision of reality, and all the ways he redefines the word we thought we knew. You can read the introduction to the series here, and a bit of a “part 1″ for this post here.

Philippians 4:14 – Yet it was good of you to share (sygkoinono) in my troubles… even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account… And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 

Suddenly Paul is speaking in language we can understand. Credits and accounts – these are the kinds of relationships we’re familiar with. The extent to which everything in our society is commodified would have shocked even city-dwellers in the ancient world. We buy all of our food, we buy stories, we buy childcare, we buy houses with lots of privacy far from our families, and we buy plane tickets to go see them twice a year. It’s a pretty strange way to live life.

But Paul is not talking about literal credits in literal accounts. In fact, he’s talking about gifts here. I think to really understand the deal with gifts, we have to keep talking about koinonia.

A recap from the last koinonia post – Koinonia: partnership, sharing fellowship; in Philippians, a partnership, sharing, or fellowship for the sake of the gospel – both spreading it and living it out. It means that everyone is acting as one.

Possibly the most important way that Paul illustrates this is by calling the members of his churches “brothers and sisters” (using the word “brothers”, which also stood for “siblings”). To refer to one another as family was to accept a huge level of commitment and obligation to one another – to look after each other and to share together. It was such a strange thing to say at that time, the Christians would later be misunderstood and charged with incest.

Paul also asks the Philippians constantly to be of “one mind,” “one spirit”, to “stand together”, to “agree”. He doesn’t just want them to share their casseroles or a general sense of love for humanity or for Jesus; he literally wants them to share their basic way of thinking about the world in its entirety. It is a common sentiment in Roman literature that true friendship entails “likemindedness”, and Paul does not want the Philippians to be divided in any way. In chapter two, he repeats this nearly to the point of absurdity before telling them exactly what this way of thinking about the world should entail: make my joy complete by thinking in the same way, having the same love, of one spirit, thinking of the same aspirations… Have this way of thinking that was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…

This is all because they are to share in something greater than themselves. Near the end of the letter, Paul asks Euodia and Syntyche to “have the same mind in the Lord”, and reminds the church that the two “have contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel”. This gospel is what brought them together in the first place, and it should be their source of unity and agreement.

So. Koinonia. Sharing. Gifts.

In the United States, we have this big issue with receiving gifts. My friend came to town and bought me a beer the other day, and I tried not to feel all embarrassed and put out when she grabbed the check. But I did – forcing her to rationalize the whole deal: “you’re putting me up for the night, blah blah blah.” We almost never allow gifts to be gifts, and not transactions.

Maybe this is because we want things to be clear and well-defined, totally unambiguous. I contrast, people in Roman society gave gifts all the time; however, this was amidst a complex social system that expected some kind of reciprocity, but took so many factors into account that “reciprocity” meant something different in every single relationship.

I think there’s a temptation to say, in light of the stuff about Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2, that we should all be really “unselfish” all the time, and give each other tons of gifts with no strings attached, and then to turn that into a limpid sort of metaphor because taking it literally is impossible. In real life, I can’t just give you stuff all the time or I would go bankrupt. It’s the same if a relationship has no reciprocity – I can keep giving and giving, fueled by a sort of pride at my unselfishness, for a while. But it will ultimately drain me. And I don’t think it’s what Paul is getting at when he talks about self-giving or encourages the Philippians for supporting him. Gift-giving in the context of koinonia does have a level of reciprocity to it; just not in a score-keeping, account-balancing, transactional way. It’s based on trust that my gift – my money, my favor, my time – will be used well and eventually returned in some way, because of how much we share. When we are one family, with one mind, sharing in the gospel and trusting in God to “meet all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus”, gift-giving is obvious and easy, because we already hold so much in common.

Do Americans understand this? No. Plenty of people who are married hold separate bank accounts and pay separate bills; we are all into his and hers and the baby’s and the dog’s – not into sharing. But I’m not sure learning to share again just means giving a gift. I think, for a lot of us, it means receiving a gift. Letting yourself be in debt for a while. Being thankful someone else trusted you enough to share.

my heart says I love him

Listen, dear heart: it’s pep talk time. Not because I know everything about all this, not because you can’t do without my opinions, but because you inspired it yourself. Because you’re too humble to see you sometimes. And because we both somewhat secretly enjoy dramatic things like pep talks.

And because my phone died and I can’t respond to your last text -

my heart says I love him too. But it also says this is scary and huge and bad things can happen to people in love and scary. It’s a very vulnerable feeling.

But you must know how brave you are just to say such a thing, even to me. Of course it’s scary; you knew it would be scary. And I’m watching you test the ice, but I know you’re not turning around. You’re determined to run headlong across that river; and yes, you should be scared – there’s a swift and brutal current running inches beneath your feet.

The last thing I’m here to do is promise you that happily ever after is an easy guarantee. Yours might be a happily-for-several-months. Some people even live sadly-ever-afters. And I know you know all this, but I have to say it for me, because all I want is to be able to promise you – to promise us – no regrets. I want to be able to list all the reasons we’ve made good bets, like insurance adjusters or roller-coaster-designers who build in double and triple redundancies.

But there are no redundancies in love. Just our hearts propelling us forward before our feet know how to argue, forward across that thin sheet of ice.

If you were here, the first thing I’d do is take your shoulders and tell you this: I am here on the banks, with a blanket and hot coffee and that creamer you like, waiting for you. If the ice will break, I can’t change that. Sometimes the temperature just rises around you and there was never anything to be done about it. But even if you fall through, even if you slip under into the cold and dark, the river keeps running and you’ll climb back out down the line. Even if you come up gasping, undone, with barely a clue of where you are or how you got there – I will be there the second your foot slips. I will be there. I will point you home.

But I’m not going to project any more catastrophes onto your life, either; you’re not a silly girl. You’re one of the wisest women I know, and you’re not throwing yourself at already-splintering ice, hoping for a miracle. You may very well never need my blanket and my pointing; you may very well be headed already toward a new home. Isn’t that what we mean with every step closer in a relationship? Perhaps, someday, we might be home for one another. And that, in itself, is truly scary, moving away from somewhere else – but anyway it’s just a perhaps. A fluttering, hopeful, wide-eyed perhaps; a brief, bright time you won’t forget.

So I am happy, so happy to hear that your heart says you love him, too. We both remember a time we couldn’t hear our hearts over the howling wind of doubts, logical arguments, and self-neglect for others’ sake. That your heart has the space to shout such marvelous, terrifying things – that in itself gives me joy, and challenges me to hear what my own heart has to insist.

And the fact that you’re scared, love? That makes me more thrilled and proud and hopeful than just about anything. That’s the very thing that gives your love a fighting chance. Do you see it, too? Let me tell you what that says to me – it tells me that you are no half-assed lover. That this has nothing to do with boredom or pressure to conform, that your love will not be a tame or shallow thing. You’re not about to throw the word “love” around like you’re passing out extra party favors. Your love is strong and fierce and not easily undone, a force that won’t just quit because someone else happened to. You love almost from somewhere outside yourself – when you don’t know where God is? Everyone else knows. Whether you feel it or not, we can see it.

You don’t say “love” by accident, because you know that real, worth-saying love will pummel you near to pieces just as quick as it can shine you up into the brightest beauty you’ve ever been. But you’re an honest woman, and I know you’re not going to bury this secret - my heart says I love him too - and miss the beauty just to avoid the black eye. And if you come out with a goose egg? I can already see you, all creativity and brute strength, healing up and finding the new beauty shining through the scar.

The minutes are precious. If you know that you can trust him – if you’re sure he knows what a gift you are – share the thing you already feel. We spend enough of our lives dithering on shorelines. Go – meet him in the middle, where he ran out to stand alone, scared, vulnerable, for you.

on staying home (with a pen and paper)

Hey y’all. I’m writing again.

The end of the semester leached out every bit of writing energy I had, and I needed to not think for a bit. But, a year and a half after becoming a blogger, I’m at the point where I can’t not write. If I don’t write for a while, the words build up until they start oozing out of embarrassing places. So now I actually have a few posts queued up, between the Philippians series and some other new stuff, which has definitely never happened to me before.

The first is over at On Pop Theology. I wrote the whole thing in a notebook with a pen, as a bit of an experiment. You can check it out here.

Happy New Year!

war, as I saw it yesterday

The plane taxied in to the salute of a line of firefighters, police officers, and military personnel. Six uniformed soldiers bore the casket from the cargo hold. The ceremony seemed like a thing that should be witnessed, but then the clean, orderly presence of the non-civilians only made the family look that much smaller, more bewildered, unprepared. They were tagged onto this line of even-spaced salutes in a hunched-over heap. They leaned on each other and looked around, children on an unfamiliar stage, floundering against a wind. When the parents came; when they touched the casket; when they stayed, kept touching, trying to see their son beneath the flag; I turned away, praying flailing prayers, and tried to face my easy life.

He came home, first off my plane
to the ceremony of fellow servicemen and the welcome of family
in a flag-draped box
It is old men who send young men to war
Rich men who send poor men to war
Who send dress blues for one who died in fatigues
Who surround him with family, in reward for last moments alone
Alone a globe away
He finally got out.

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