Across the Valley

Last week, when I first walked out on the lanai of our daughter’s house in Hawai’i, I was startled by what was on the ridge across from me. I saw the flag, and as I began to get my bearings, I realized that the flag was that of Camp Smith, which sits atop the Aiea Ridge. The house that she has with her new husband, two children (with one due any day now), and their dog, is directly opposite that first ridge.

The weight of what I was seeing settled in on me. You see, the place she called home with our first son-in-law was on the Aiea Ridge on a street adjacent to Camp Smith. While there is much that the flag at Camp Smith symbolizes, for us, it is the symbol of our first real encounter with Oahu and military life here. It was the place where they fell in love with the island, and it was the place where they were growing their family.

Until … until the darkness set in that September day in 2016. That was the day the one they called Bull died. It was there that we were embraced … shrouded, really … by grief. It was the day our world radically changed. It was the day where the paths of great love and great suffering collided.

And now I see it from across the valley, and I am drawn to a truth that is greater than my own sense of fairness.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The psalm keeps rising to the surface. The valley between us, as beautiful and full of life as it is, is, for me, the valley of the shadow of death. When we were last on that ridge, there was a baby that was going to be born without a dad. When we were last on that ridge, the world seemed hopeless. All that lay in front of us was the valley of the shadow of death.

Fast forward five years, and I am sitting on the ridge opposite that first one. We have a new son-in-law, two grandchildren who talk about a dad in heaven and a dad here with them, and a new grandchild on the way.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

There is something about seeing life from the other side of the valley. Having walked through the valley, I can most assuredly testify to the power of presence … of a God who walks with us in our darkest hours and who offers us pathways of wisdom that can only be found at the convergence of great love and great suffering. The truth that is greater than my own sense of fairness … my own experience of darkness … is the truth of abiding presence.

So as I prepare to sit down to a thanksgiving meal with our Hawaiian family, I will remember and give thanks for the gift of presence and the many memories, both beautiful and tragic, we share. My prayer is that we might all experience that presence when we have walked (or are walking) through the many valleys that contain shadows of death. My prayer is that we might pause to take a look back across the valley through which we have trod and see where we have experienced the comforting presence of this one who walks with us.

It is then that we will sit down at a feast and experience a cup that is overflowing. We will be invited again to the place of great love knowing now what the Apostle Paul knew … that great suffering cannot separate us from the great love of God in Christ Jesus. In the midst of our thanksgiving, may we experience the power of presence.

So finally, I am led to another truth that is greater than my sense of fairness: Christ is on both sides of the valley yet fully present with us in the valley … always offering pathways of hope, joy, love, and peace no matter what we are facing. For this presence, I give thanks.

The Path of Grief

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

As I have continued reading and writing around the topic of integration and flow that are essential to wisdom traditions, I see more clearly what others have already seen. The journey to wisdom takes us from vulnerability to suffering to grief and finally to wholeness. I have written more extensively about this in previous blogposts and preached it in many a sermon; however, the emerging clarity of this pathway is important for my current learning.

Those who know me will know how easily distractible I am and how easily I can go down rabbit trails. Fortunately for me, this proved somewhat productive in my study in the past week. As I have read more of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Richard Rohr, and Elia Delio, along with books, podcasts, and lectures on both the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics, it occurred to me that much of what I was learning reflected on a key book in the Hebrew Bible: Job. So I followed the rabbit trail all the way back through Job for at least the fourth time in my ministry.

While I will save a further reflection on Job for perhaps a study or blog series, the key I discovered is that, on the journey to wisdom, there is a barrier that exists between suffering and grief. It is easy to say that we don’t live in a culture that allows us to grieve, and we quickly critique our institutionalized resistance to grief. I think, however, it is something much deeper. It seems, to me, to be something that is part of the human condition.

In reading Job, the challenge for Job, Job’s wife, and his three friends is that collectively, they get stuck with the flow through grief that finally connects them to God. Job’s wife is just ready to be done with it, and counsels Job to curse God and die. That is pretty quickly dismissed. Job’s friends are defenders of a religious perspective based on transactional dualism (which I have unpacked and will continue to unpack more in the future). This is harder to dismiss because it speaks to so much of religious life even today.

Interestingly, I have always been a defender of Job’s right to complain and speak of the injustice of suffering since we are told at the beginning of the epic poem in the heavenly courtroom scene that Job is righteous and has done nothing wrong. The problem Job faces, however, is that his own righteousness becomes a badge of honor … to the point that it ends up becoming “self-righteousness.” This is pointed out near the end of the book by the young Elihu and then finally by God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind.

While Job’s anger and complaints are justified and very much part of grief, he gets stuck there. He is not finally able to grieve fully, which prevents his capacity to see the emerging truth that our suffering has no meaning unless it connects us with God and one another. This is the very definition of compassion.

As we face senseless violence in our world that is both individually and collectively systemic, the temptation on our part (well, at least on my part) is to continue to unleash further violence into the world through rhetoric and derision of those who perpetuate the harm … especially those who refuse to revise policy at the state and national levels. While calling on elected officials to enact change that can help with such senseless violence, I realize that, if I do not grieve, I can get stuck in the place of self-righteousness, which itself creates more harm.

And it is so easy to get stuck as Job does. It comes, in part, from thinking of the world hierarchically. For those who know (or are learning about) Spiral Dynamics, this means we lack the capacity to see up or down the spiral, which is a first tier phenomenon. Only those who are capable to moving upward to the second tier in the development of consciousness are capable to seeing according to what Richard Rohr calls “third eye seeing.”

I have discovered some truths about myself when I conceive of reality hierarchically. When I am functioning in a hierarchical framework …

  • I am unable to make the leap from suffering to the fullest expression of grief.
  • I cannot easily give up my position of righteousness that places me in the right against my accusers and my enemies.
  • I cannot see value in anyone who does not share my same worldview.
  • I am incapable of seeing the fear (both theirs and mine) that defines our present dilemma.
  • I cannot finally move beyond suffering.
  • I am incapable of greater expressions of compassion and empathy.

As long as we see the world hierarchically, we will miss the opportunity to fully transform ourselves or our world.

So the journey toward wholeness leads us necessarily through grief … both individually and collectively. This is the nature of lament. It is the acknowledgement that our hope finally is only in God.

As we face the fear and terror that grips our human community, may this be a call to us to see the world in non-dualistic ways … as a 3D world. Perhaps then God may be able to use us as willing instruments to transform the world. And the path of grief seems essential to this transformation.

The Path of Vulnerability

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Helplessness. Vulnerability. Fear. Grief. Those describe the feelings that have cropped up for me in the wake of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Then there is the continued news about war in Ukraine and desperate situations of poverty all around the globe. It exposes me again to feelings I have had related to many other tragic events in my life. We do not know what to with these feelings … the vulnerability sometimes seems to be too much for us.

Perhaps you have felt the same thing. We feel helpless, and then we rail against the politicians and gun lobby. We rail against leaders, both foreign and domestic, who seem to be either actively causing harm or at the very least complicit or powerless to stop the harm. We point fingers and cast blame in all directions. It seems to help, for a time, this righteous indignation.

At the most basic level, what is driving us right now is the fight against vulnerability. None of us want to experience what others have experienced. Few of us can fathom the terrorization or the killing of innocents. It is hard to get our heads around the devastation that has befallen so many people at our borders as their hopes for a better life are shattered by closed borders, arrests, separation of families, and deportation that, for some, means certain death. Most of us can’t begin to comprehend the perpetual stench of death that exists in many of the poorest countries in our world.

And this doesn’t even begin to take in account the more than 1,000,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA alone, with millions more deaths globally. I read a fascinating PBS featured article about the challenges of getting our minds around that many deaths and emotional numbness. Ultimately, such numbness is the ego’s attempt to limit vulnerability.

As people who live (for the most part) lives of privilege, we often make the assumption that our primary task is to limit our vulnerabilities … to keep the fear at bay and to provide for greater security. When we have lived long enough, however, what we discover is that security is finally an illusion. The utterly secure world we seek simply does not exist.

How then are we to escape the vulnerabilities we fear so much? The answer is simple. We can’t. There is nothing in all of God’s creation that is not vulnerable … including God. (Yes, I’m aware it is heard as blasphemy to some.)

Fr. Richard Rohr, in his book The Wisdom Pattern: Order-Disorder-Reorder, says that Jesus did not do a great job founding a religion that most people would want to create. “Christians indeed have a strange image of God: a naked, bleeding man dying on a cross. Let’s be honest. If we were going to create a religion, would we ever have thought up this image of God?” (p.38)

Rohr then helps unpack something that I have long taught. Penal substitutionary atonement (our notion that Jesus died to wipe the slate clean and secure a place in some future heaven) is simply wrong. The purpose of the cross is not about Jesus taking our sin and suffering so we don’t have to; rather, it has everything to do with vulnerability.

It is on the cross that we are taught how to hold all our fears and our suffering without discharging that fear and suffering to others. It is about offering all of our fear and suffering to a God who is capable of both holding and then teaching us to hold our fear and suffering together. The death of Jesus is what finally lets us take suffering and death and use those as tools (not weapons) to connect us with the whole of suffering and dying humanity.

I say this carefully as I speak from a place of comfort and privilege, but I think it is true nonetheless: the only way forward is to walk the path of vulnerability. This doesn’t mean that we don’t work for reform to our gun laws or decline to speak truth to power about our unhealthy fascination with weaponry in our country. What it does mean, however, is that we take those crucial steps only by giving up the illusion of invulnerability.

What I have discovered is that when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I can have greater capacity for empathy and compassion for those who did not get to “choose” vulnerability. I can use my own sense of vulnerability to keep the conversation focused where it needs to be, which is beyond my own sense of comfort and control and on those who continue to be most at risk. It is through my vulnerability that I can connect with the ones whom Jesus called “the least of these” his siblings. It is through vulnerability that I can name my own egoic, sinful patterns (which sometimes comes cleverly disguised as that “righteous indignation” mentioned above) and offer them up to the God who chooses to be vulnerable with us.

Finally, I am discovering that the key to going deeper into wisdom isn’t by just knowing more and being more educated. The key to deeper wisdom is vulnerability, which implicitly is an education of the heart. My prayer is that, on this path of vulnerability, we might authentically meet each other and, if we keep our eyes open, we might just meet God on that same path.

The Crucified God

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme. Additionally, this post was being written when the world learned of another tragic school shooting … this one in Uvalde, Texas. This, along with recent unfolding violence around the globe, has added new hues and texture to this blog post.]

Fr. Richard Rohr, when he established the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987, had spent a great deal of his ministry and teaching focused, at various times, on both reflection and contemplation and then on transformative social action. As he tells the story, he put a great deal of thought into the name because he believed that contemplation and action were both part of one larger, integrated whole. I have heard him share on more than one occasion that the reason he lists “action” first is that he believes that action precedes contemplation, which, in turn, fosters greater action.

When I was doing my doctoral work around themes of brokenness among the clergy, I had been fully exposed to a theology that came from Central America known as Liberation Theology. It had been closely tied to human rights abuses in that part of the world. It was a theology that insisted that God was not a passive God living above the clouds; rather, the God of Jesus is a God who is actively living among us … upsetting institutions (including governments and churches) that are hierarchical in nature … and reminding us that the God of Jesus is a God first of the poor and powerless. Needless to say, this theology was rejected quickly by theologians and clergy whose job was defending the institutions they served.

What I discovered, however, was that key to Liberation Theology was the same truth that I would discover in the Center for Action and Contemplation. There is a direct link and cyclical nature between action and reflection/contemplation, and it rings hollow to think of theology or spiritual practice that is not fully connected with justice and mercy.

Today I heard with the rest of the world of the devastating school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and 2 adults lost their lives to an 18-year-old gunman, who also died. As I began to reflect on where this blog post was going (even considering simply abandoning this for the time being), I realized that perhaps this is exactly where I need to maintain focus.

Many people quote Micah 6:8 as it relates to the need to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” but I think we miss the mark if we do not read its larger context. I think it helps to expand the text to Micah 6:6-8, which reads:

“With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
    and to walk humbly with your God?

When we speak of thoughts and prayers for those who suffer unspeakable, yet very preventable tragedy, yet we take no action, our faith is hollow and meaningless. Like Micah, I think it is high time to name our problem, which is the use of the name Christian to provide a cloak around those who refuse to enact legislation or otherwise take a stand that will help protect our most vulnerable. It is time to call out clergy and others who are afraid to speak out on the matters around gun control for fear that we will have people oppose us in our churches or communities and perhaps not keep our jobs or get the next largest church. It is time to talk about what it means to worship a God who demands acts of justice and mercy from us.

Friends, it is time to see our God not as a mighty warrior king, but as a crucified God. This is to see the crucifixion as an act of ultimate solidarity with the poor and not as a sacrifice that simply wipes the slate clean so we can go on with our systems of injustice as though it never happened. When we fail to see the power of a corrupt theology, we will continually sacrifice our children and the most vulnerable among us on the altar of the for-profit gun lobby and big business.

As so many have pointed out, the word atonement is best broken down into three parts: “at-one-ment.” The truest image of incarnation is a God who is born into human likeness, who suffers along with the least of these, and who dies along with the poor and powerless … including the children and teachers in one of the poorer parts of our state.

Like so many churches, the people of Wellspring will gather for a prayer vigil within hours after this blog post is published. It will be a time to lift up the victims of the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School. It will be a time to share our grief and acknowledge the fear that atrocities like this stir up in us. While I am absent from my congregation, I will be in prayer with them and for them.

My greatest prayer is that we will take the narratives that continue to unfold before us and reflect more deeply on where God is in the midst of the suffering. My further prayer will then be that we take that deeper understanding of God into acts of justice and mercy as we seek to bring God’s kingdom here “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Journey From Ascent to Descent

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Wisdom is often conceived as something to which we ascend. It makes sense to me as one who lives in this world as a Seven on the Enneagram. I am always looking upward to the expanse above me, seeking greater freedom with fewer limitations. So it makes sense that I would want to ascend to these greater heights.

As a matter of fact, it is easy for me to function in a world that is built on the notion of ascent. We want to ascend up the corporate ladder … we are perpetually looking for the next self-help, self-development tool for our career … we are looking for pathways to being better citizens, better partners, better spouses, better lovers, better parents, and (my favorite) better grandparents. If we are being truthful, we are looking for the pathway beyond being better … we want to be the best!

And that is the pitfall in seeking a deeper spirituality … in seeking a deeper wisdom. The pathway we most desire does not lead us where we think it does. Likely, it is the pathway we most fear that becomes the pathway that leads us to the deepest connection with God, with other people, and with all of God’s creation.

You see, the greatest spiritual wisdom is not something we attain by ascending; rather, it comes to us from descent. My deeper understanding of the life of Jesus is that he understood the path of descent as the path toward wisdom and the deepest possible connection with a God whose name is love and who seems deeply preoccupied with the divine task of provision.

What that means for me is that my desire to “ascend to God” is not the truest pathway to God.

This lesson, for me, is something that begins early in my education and ministry. While in college, I was assigned to write a thesis paper for a Hebrew Bible course, and the specific text I was assigned was Genesis 11:1-9 … the story known as the Tower of Babel. This story is the conclusion of the primeval story, which comprises the first 11 chapters of Genesis. In the story of Israel, the first historical figures mentioned are Abraham and Sarah, a story which begins in chapter 12. Because I believe God is always trying to show me something more, that study has continued throughout my ministry with a fascination for how this one story defines so much of what is happening in the world today.

So the story of the Tower of Babel is, at first glance, a story about how we got our multiple languages, but it is so much more than that. The story, you see, is the people who have one language and who are seeking to build the tallest tower with its top in the heavens. Their fear was being weakened and scattered abroad. They wanted access to all knowledge and all secrets at all costs. In verse 4, we are told: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'” 

Building the city or the tower is not the issue for God in this story. The issue here is that they are seeking to reach the heavens in order “to make a name” for themselves. They are operating from the egoic center that is focused on ascension. Whether it is construed as individual or collective ego, it is egocentric, nonetheless.

Using the model of the Enneagram, the ego is what keeps us focused on our fears and our limitations. It is what reacts adversely to stress, and it is what moves us onto the path of “dis-integration” as opposed to the path of “integration” [these are key words for my current research and writing, by the way]. What this means is that the ego is seeking to ascend to a safe place, yet it is doing little more than just entrenching itself into lower levels of consciousness.

What then is the best pathway forward?

So in my study of the Tower of Babel, I was soon drawn to another parallel, which even the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary have utilized. It is the connection between the story found in Genesis 11 with the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost found in Acts 2.

Luke (who writes both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles), shares a very clear image of the apostles who have remained in Jerusalem. I know that other gospels take at least some of the apostles back to Galilee, but this is not the case with Luke where we hear the story of Jesus’s ascension and hear Jesus say, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49).

Luke’s image of the apostles is one of what I would call “hopeful vulnerability.” They are told to stay in a place where they are extremely vulnerable … few followers of Jesus would feel safe in Jerusalem following his execution. But they have experienced this risen Christ, and they staying huddled together … we are told “in a house” … when the day of Pentecost arrives. Think of an open-air house with passersby all around.

Luke tells us that Jewish people from all over the various lands had returned for this festival of Shavuot, which is both a festival of the first of the wheat harvest and later the celebration of the giving of the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is directly linked to Passover, and it occurs on the fiftieth day after Passover. The Greek word for 50 is πενήντα (penānta), and the festival is Πεντηκοστή (Pentācostā).

As this day arrives, the apostles are gathered together, and we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on them. They then are moved to begin speaking and testifying to what they know about Jesus, and as they begin to speak, this incredible thing happens. No matter from whence the people had come or what language they spoke, they could hear the apostles (all of them) speaking in their own language. The language barriers were broken down, and there was again only one language … the language of Christ … the language of the divine.

But it began, not with the disciples seeking to make a name for themselves. It began with them huddled and vulnerable. It was not ascent in any form … if anything, it was descent. The complete giving up of themselves into whatever this thing was that the Holy Spirit was doing in them … risking torture and execution in the very act of opening themselves up to the power of this new common language.

By my thinking, it is the language of descent … of going down into the depths of God much as a seed falls into the earth and dies with the hope that it will bear much fruit (see John 12:24-25). In a world focused on ascending up ladders and using “power over” kind of language, these passages and this message make little sense. But in the language of descent, we soon find ourselves on a journey that leads to the greatest spiritual depth.

So I invite you to go with me … downward … to the place where we give ourselves up entirely for God. When we choose to give up the struggle to “make a name” for ourselves, we will find ourselves standing alongside Jesus, and we will discover the capacity to see … to function from higher levels of consciousness. If we then look closely, perhaps we will see … become conscious of … a new reality. It is the reality that our name is already made … perhaps even written … in the Book of Life!

A Tapestry of Love

My grandmother was a knitter, and she taught me as a child first how to crochet and then, when she decided I was ready for a real challenge, how to knit. For a time, I actually got pretty good at it, but it is a skill I would have to relearn (since I haven’t picked up a knitting needle in years and can scarcely remember the distinction between knitting and purling). But I remember the wonderful hand-knitted scarves and sweaters my grandmother used to make for my sister and me. I would wrap up in her work surrounded, not just by the cotton or wool yarn she used, but by the very love that was sewn in each stitch.

Then today, I read a devotional by historian, Diana Butler Bass, that really struck home. In it, she talked about the reality that creation is not hierarchical, as the church has often taught, but that it is a dance or a circle or a woven tapestry. Then she had this quote from Colossians 2 found in the paraphrase of the bible known as The Message:

I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries, or “the Secret.”

Colossians 2:2-3, The Message (a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson)

Since reading that passage from Colossians, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. You see, much of Christian theology has focused on distinction and hierarchy. Much of it is based on dualistic notions of otherness (think “us vs them”). This means that we know what it means to be this and not that. We know that we belong here and not there. Even heaven and earth cannot stay together in a dualistic theology … though Jesus seems to think they belong together.

Further, we have divided ourselves as people who are on either of two sides. We almost can’t help dividing ourselves into who is good and who is evil … who is in and who is out … who is right and who is wrong … who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. We use fear, worry, and anxiety to perpetuate these dualistic notions that are, in no way, connected with who God intends us to be.

The perpetual “othering” within human society rips at the very fabric of God’s creation, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Then there is the fear of death. I woke up one day several years ago to realize that I had more years behind me than in front of me, which is even more true today. It was then that I awoke to the fear of the unknown … of what happens to us when we die. We keep trying to craft images that are comforting and that help us overcome our fears … no pain or suffering or death … streets paved with gold. I proclaim everlasting life, but when pressed as to what that means or what that looks like, I tend to defer to mystery that leans more heavily on a faith that is more about unknowing than it is about knowing.

Here is the profound insight I have gained from reflecting on this text: whether we consider ourselves good or bad or in or out or dead or alive, we all belong to the same tapestry … what The Message calls a “tapestry of love.”

This is perhaps the greatest image of the communion of saints. It is what Paul means when he writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8) It is what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of God is among or within us! (see Luke 17:20-21).

It is this incredible notion that everything belongs … nothing and no one is left out … there is no “othering” in this tapestry of love. There is only us! In our harsh political climate from the local to the global level, we find ourselves cut off from one another. In our own United Methodist Church, we are experiencing a tearing of the fabric of a spirituality that is dear to my heart.

Those who insist on dualistic notions of spirituality or creation or human community tear away at that tapestry and end up being those who themselves are torn away … disconnected from its life-giving “wovenness” (yes, I know I just made up a word).

In times like these, it feels as if we are coming unraveled. Colossians tells us that the answer isn’t “out there” on some wild goose chase … it is “in here” … already woven into the tapestry made for the whole of creation. In here, everything is woven together. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our lives. Our enemies and our friends. Wholeness and brokenness. Life, suffering, death, and resurrection. All sewn together into something mysteriously more beautiful than we can imagine.

As I was learning to knit, I had been working on a scarf and had made good headway. When my grandmother sat down to inspect my work, she noticed that I had dropped a stitch several rows down. The dropped stitch was already beginning to unravel and would have led to the complete unraveling of the scarf. I thought I completely messed up and would have to start over. She calmly reached over and took the knitting from my hand.

With a technique that still baffles me to this day, she took two other knitting needles and dug into the mess I had created. In a matter of minutes, she had picked up the dropped stitch and made it look as if it had been done right the first time.

That’s what it means to live only in the shadow of grace. It is the grace of this woven tapestry of love that invites us to this all-inclusive creation where we are invited to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8) It is the place where all are truly welcome and where everything belongs. Even when our behaviors or choices harm others and ourselves … even when we violently tear at the fabric of God’s creation … even when we are coming unraveled, God’s grace tends to pick up the dropped stitches in our lives and restore the divine tapestry.

So as we face the harsh realities of life in our world … as we attempt to speak truth to power (sometimes with great risk) … as we attempt to give voice to those who suffer most in our world, may our work be that of knitting and being knitted in the tapestry of love that we might intimately be “in touch with everything there is to know of God.”

The Third Perspective

In 1992, when I was in the middle of my doctoral degree, I was privileged to hear Dr. Stanley Hauerwas deliver the Slater-Wilson Lectures, which was an endowed lecture series at Saint Paul School of Theology. The two lectures he gave were titled Interpreting the Scripture as Political Act. In the lecture subtitled Why Sola Scriptura is Heresy, he completely tore apart my theology.

It was in that lecture that he made the case that the Lutheran doctrine of “sola scriptura,” which is Latin for “scripture alone,” is inherently flawed. He further made the case that both fundamentalism and classical liberalism could not adequately prepare us to handle the sacred text to which we had been entrusted. In his lecture, he pointed out that both fundamentalism and classical liberalism posit that scripture makes sense all by itself. The fundamentalist notion is that we just need to open the bible, and it will simply make sense. The classical liberal approach was that the bible makes sense IF we have the right tools with which to read the text.

The latter was what had been foundational to my theological and biblical training. I had been versed in various forms of critical method; literary critical method and historical critical method chief among them. I had learned how to study the text for clues that might lead us deeper into meaning, and to this day, it still informs my preaching and my teaching.

I would often find myself arguing against friends whom I had known yet who were essentially fundamentalist. They believed that my mind was poisoned by the academy and that the mere use of the word “criticism” about the bible was blasphemy.

Then here comes Stan Hauerwas tearing down the entire house. He argued that these two ways of thinking were but two sides of the same coin, and that neither of them got at the heart of the sacred scripture of Jesus or the early church. He advocated for a third point of view that found its footing in sacred community.

And it was right around that time that I was also introduced to the work of Dr. Walter Wink. His 1998 work titled The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium contained a chapter called “Jesus’ Third Way.” I have quoted that extensively as I have talked about the teachings of Jesus as relates to turning the other cheek, giving ones coat when the cloak was demanded, and going the second mile. In that work, Wink highlights for us that Jesus is neither practicing violence nor pure pacifism. A close look tells us that Jesus is practicing non-violent resistance. (You can read Walter Wink’s work HERE, and yes, in the spirit of inclusiveness, I am sending you to a Baptist website).

It was here that I realized two things. First, an academic approach to spirituality and biblical studies was, in and of itself, insufficient. There was a deepening, sometimes elusive, wisdom that was continually being teased out in every sermon I preached and every single time I opened the scripture in search of something new. Second, the key to this deepening wisdom and spirituality is entirely imbedded in relationship.

While Hauerwas intended his argument to make a case for the church in the language of what is known as a “neo-orthodoxy,” I have found it in a deeper “creation spirituality.” It has been born out most recently by my discovery of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest who was also a geologist and paleontologist, in his book, The Phenomenon of Man. It was further born out by Ilia Delio, the Franciscan theologian, in her book, The Emergent Christ.

Their work is about the interconnectedness of all creation, which is then born out further by Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ.

In all of this, I have come to see that the third perspective that has been finding a deeper place in my life is most fully born out in the relationships implied in the two greatest commandments … love of God and love of neighbor. These relationships are what encompass all of creation, and they are the only way forward as we seek to overcome a world fractured by rampant individualism, selfish ambition, greed, and corruption. These relationships confound our dualistic mindset that is based in notions of black and white, good and bad, heaven and hell. These relationships are themselves avenues to a third perspective.

These are relationships that are about the fullest outpouring of self … God’s self-giving love in creation and redemption, and the self-giving love to which we are called as we seek reconciliation and restoration.

The complex nature of all this is then made simple in the creed we so often recite at Wellspring:

We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

So the answer to our dualistic world is finally this messy, loving, hard-to-follow, relational God of ours. Following this God and this Christ isn’t easy, but I am convinced it the journey that leads to life.

The Gift of Suffering

When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

(Matthew 24:3-8)

This past Sunday, I pointed out that the word “passion” comes from the Latin root “pati” and literally means “to suffer” or “to endure.” Then, in my devotional reading for today from the Henri Nouwen Society, Fr. Nouwen reflected on the fact that the word “patience” likewise shares the same root. “Patior” is what it means to suffer waiting much like the process of giving birth … the painful experience of waiting that mothers experience in brining new life into the world.

It is more than the hyper-anxious waiting we see in children awaiting Christmas … or a birthday … or a family vacation with their favorite cousins. It is a painful waiting that is as full of uncertainty as it is promise. It is the waiting that we wish we did not have to endure. It is something, as wisdom would teach us, that leads to a greater unfolding reality yet which lead us through the cycle of greater integration.

Order, disorder, reorder. Life, death, resurrection.

It is the chaos … the disorder … the death that is so hard. In our world, we are experiencing the death of so much right now. As Russia invades Ukraine, we are witnessing the death, not only of innocent civilians, but the death of our hopes for a global peace. While we have often ignored it, we have an ever-growing humanitarian crisis with refugees at our own southern border. Women continue to face discrimination and abuse in the workplace and at home. People who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) continue to struggle with discrimination that results in increasing death and incarceration rates.

And we who are United Methodist are experiencing our own death experience as we witness the crisis of another delayed General Conference and now the launch of a conservative denomination that threatens to pull away those who would splinter our beloved church.

It seems as if we face just one crisis after another.

The Catholic Franciscan theologian, Ilia Delio, in her book, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe, describes a crisis as “a rapidly deteriorating situation that if left untended will lead to a disaster in the near future.” She then goes on to talk about the various crises that we are facing in our politics, our religious life, and our world.

She offers a distinction for how crises tend to work in closed and open systems. She says that a crisis can bringing devastation, but it can also bring new growth and change. She writes: “In closed systems, a crisis functions like a sharp pain; it indicates something wrong in the system or that the system has been disrupted. In open systems, a crisis functions like a strange attractor.”

She further notes that the idea of an attractor like this comes to us from chaos theory and that such an attractor can “pull the systems into new patterns of behavior over time.”

Then she shares the following:

Since evolution operates primarily as an open system, I suggest that the crises we are experiencing, especially in the church, underscore a seismic strange attractor in our midst. Something new is arising within and disrupting the present system, pulling it into new patterns of behavior despite resistance. I identify this strange attractor as a breakthrough in consciousness.” (The Emergent Christ, p. 118)

As I consider the crises that result in power struggles … over land … over money … over global control … over churches … over the freedom to be who God created us to be … I want to see this like Delio describes it. It doesn’t always feel like higher consciousness, but I am convinced that the pattern holds true.

Maybe Jesus was right. Something new is being born even in the midst of that something that we love and cherish that is dying. It is here that I finally see that the evolutionary progression brings a hopeful truth. What lives must finally die, yet an unfolding resurrection is always just at the horizon.

Let that be our Lenten hope!

Turning Toward the Dirt

We celebrated Ash Wednesday yesterday. It was a day of reflection and fasting for me. We celebrated at Wellspring with a daytime outdoor service, and then we gathered with other Methodists in Georgetown both online and in person.

There are two primary themes that emerged for me as I reflected on the day. Repentance and dirt.

Lent is a time for repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia), and it literally means “turn around.” This is based on the notion that we have natural human failings based often on fear and shame. Many wisdom traditions (including the Enneagram) understand that we all have vices. As an Enneagram 7, my vice is gluttony, and it is based on my fear of not having enough.

What then does it mean for me to turn around? It is about facing that fear of not having enough and the shame that overwhelms me when I react with gluttonous behaviors. It means turning back to my true self … the self that trusts God to provide for my needs. It means overcoming the anxiety that can erupt within me as I face the truth about myself.

To repent … to turn back … is to draw the circle wider as I see myself as part of a web of belonging. It is to work for the provision for those who truly do not have enough. It is to own and use my own vices and fears and hurts and guilt to lead me to a greater connection that is truly compassionate.

It is to move outward by going back to the most basic part of human existence …

The Dirt

The hardest part of Ash Wednesday was when I was imposing ashes on the heads of people in one particular part of our sanctuary. I ended up with several young teens coming to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their heads. The hard part was that I was compelled by our liturgy to say the words associated with this sacred rite: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!

These were children whose entire lives were in front of them, and here I was reminding them that they were going to die. We come from the dirt, and we are going back to the dirt. It’s true, but it is not a truth that we want to hear.

But there’s more.

And we often spend time moving away from the dirt. There are those who think that repentance means turning away from the “dirty” parts of our lives … moving to a higher, more spiritual plane than the plane that we consider ordinary … vulgar or common … of the dirt.

This type of spirituality, however, is not the spirituality of Jesus … it is the spirituality of Plato and Aristotle. Platonic thought sees the dirt (an all material things) as our enemy … the place of death … but the ultimate reality is something that is in no way connected to anything we experience on this earth. It doesn’t take long to see how much Plato influenced Christian thought and moved us away from the spirituality of Jesus.

The spirituality of Jesus (and of his Jewish faith), you see, is of the dirt. The second creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis is the most telling for us in this season of Lent. It is there that God plants a garden and then, as if bringing consciousness to all of creation, stoops into the humus to create the first human. The linguistic connection makes it clear that we belong to the dirt … to the earth … to creation.

So Lent is best understood, not as turning away from the dirt, but as turning TOWARD the dirt. It is to hear Jesus say in John 12, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will remain just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

As I have said recently, this isn’t about death. This is about us turning back toward the earth. It is what leads us to practice a new form of ecology and a new economy where we see the earth, not as an expendable resource, but as the essence of our being. It is to see ourselves as one with the trees and plants of that first creation story that bear fruit for all of creation … plants and animals (including the animals known as human) … to grow and thrive.

Turning toward the dirt is about seeing ourselves as seeds that are not here just for our own well-being, but for the well-being of everyone. Brené Brown, in her latest book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, shares the story of Paola Sánchez Valdez. Paola is part of her research team and was asked to share her story in the book.

Paola is Ecuadorian by birth, and she grew up as an undocumented resident of the US who was finally granted status as a permanent resident under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. She finally came out of the darkness to be able to pursue her dreams. She shares how she finally connected with other undocumented students while in college and discovered that her sense of being without a home was a shared experience that created a new sense of belonging in a different kind of community.

She cited a saying from many Latin American countries that goes “ni de aquí, ni de allá” … not from here, not from there. But she said that she discovered a new sense of belonging to herself and with others who shared her same story. She and her new friend then launched an effort to advocate for those experiencing what she calls “structural inequities” by creating avenues for vital change for immigrants and those who struggle to be seen without being harmed.

She then cited a saying that speaks right into the heart of what I think Lent is about. She said her favorite quote is: “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían qu éramos semillas” … “they wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” That, you see, is the essence of John 12.

So may this season of Lent be a time of turning toward the dirt. May it be a time of reflecting on our relationship with the earth and all who dwell therein. May it be a time of being at one with all creation and others as we seek justice and hope for a world that seems to have lost its way.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!” Be seeds, my friends, and God will fruitfully bless you!

A Call to Fasting and Prayer

To My Friends and Loved Ones,

As war continues to rage in the Ukraine with threats being made that are much more global, we find ourselves in worry and fear … as we continue to see the effects of prejudice in so many violent forms in our own country … as we experience the harm brought to immigrants and refugees in the name of law and order … as we experience the effects of poverty brought on by collective and individual greed, I ask you to join me in prayer and fasting this Ash Wednesday as we begin this Lenten journey together.

Fasting is hard for me. I’m more of a Shrove Tuesday kind of guy who tends to be afraid of the emptiness. Fasting during times of stress is not easy for a guy whose go-to response is stress-eating. And yet … and yet … there is a time to fast and let myself feel the emptiness that is emblematic of the suffering of so many in our world.

Two things about fasting:

First is how we experience the hunger and the grumbling stomach that nags at us and beckons us toward nourishment. This becomes for us an opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who have the same beckoning, yet for whom there is no table set for them. There is no table full of food. There is no table fellowship. There is only hunger and loneliness.

As we witness the violence in Ukraine, we see how quickly people who had jobs and routines surrounding their daily lives became refugees and found themselves longing to be filled with nourishment and safety … to find their way to a table of hope. Be in prayer for the Ukrainians who are suffering so much right now. Further, pray for the Russian soldiers who are conscripted to serve in a war that they know is unjust and who are struggling or surrendering or facing punishment and death on either side of the line … for the Russian citizen who is looking for a way to demonstrate in a country where demonstrations are not tolerated.

Pray for the many around the world who are part of wars that are largely silent to our ears. These are wars that involve genocide where entire communities are wiped out simply for who they are. These are wars that involve human trafficking as women and children are used and abused in a global pandemic of sexual violence. There are wars on our own shores that unfold in our homes and on our streets.

There are wars of words where people are systemically marginalized and harmed daily by words that sometimes find their way into unjust laws.

Fasting is a way of practicing empathy with those who suffer.

The second key thing about fasting. When I let myself experience emptiness, it becomes a way for God to fill me up. When I am full of food … of wealth and security … of myself … there is less room for God. When I am empty, I come to the realization that God is the source of all provision and I learn to make room for this God who seeks to fill me up.

So as we journey into Lent, will you join me in a day of fasting and prayer as we stand in solidarity with all the suffering of the world and lean into the God of hope and deliverance? My prayer is that you will.