Advent, Week One: Hope

Happy Advent, Reader!  This is a balm for me this year, to return to this time of waiting and being present in the hope of Christ’s birth.  It is important to me to observe it not only in my offline life but also here with you.  However, I bend to the reality of being in seminary; so, instead of my usual habit of observing Advent on this blog through the lens of various Christmas carols, I’m using this space to share a project assigned to me in my Women and Religion class—a challenge to engage the question of women’s religion and to create something that represents the fruits of that engagement.  I’ve written an Advent devotional corresponding to the four weeks and then Christmas Day (which is on a Sunday this year, which makes me terrifically happy) and I will be posting that through this season.  It is, I admit, a departure from my usual style because I am writing it for a specific course; I welcome, as ever, your commentary on it.  Please know that I mean this for both men and women, so don’t feel as though I’m leaving you out, Reader.  No matter your gender, you will encounter women and religion—and the Spirit will be with you in each encounter, delighting in the diversity of Her creation.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand.  So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  
(Romans 13:11-14, ESV)

It is the first week of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year and a time of waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth into the world.

Women know something about waiting.

Women through history have waited for recognition, have waited for equality, have waited for respect, have waited for a sense of safety, have waited for not only culture but the Church to see the gifts and talents they have to offer.  In this season of Advent where new political realities have already come to the United States and all over the world, many women feel their waiting for all of this has been prolonged yet again.  They feel that the slouch toward Bethlehem suddenly got longer—or was halted in the middle of the road entirely.  This first week of Advent brings the word “hope,” lighting the first candle to show us that the darkness is never complete.  But what hope does God’s Church offer to women, the often voiceless participants at the very heart of the institution?  What hope does God offer when it seems that we are waiting for liberation that will never come?

Hope comes in that single candle flame.  Hope comes in knowing that the fight is not over, that this is a new year and a new beginning, that neither we nor God are done with the vision of a world that recognizes, respects, and encourages both men and women.  Hope comes as Church leaders like Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne call for the traditional guard of evangelicalism to step aside and create space for women, for people of color, for the new generations, for all who are not currently being heard.  Their recent editorial in the New York Times, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead, asserts that “we are not willing to let our faith be the collateral damage of evangelicalism” by excluding the voices God has called to speak.

Hope comes in devotionals like Fuck This Shit that refuse to be quiet or “lady-like” about the outrageous grace of God permeating a world that seems darker than ever before.  Hope comes in the ongoing conversation of gender and racial justice sparked by #StayWokeAdvent, a tag originally created in 2014 as a response to the outrage after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Hope comes in the call to everyday action through this season to change the world one person at a time, laid out in calendars like this:

Perhaps, for the women of the Church battered by the destructive force of a patriarchal system built into our religion and now reinforced in our representatives, hope comes from disengaging.  Hope comes from finding the people who respond to you as the purposeful creation you are.  Hope comes from privileging time with them over those who do not honor your value.  Hope comes from refusing to continue walking in the fear created by those who see only flesh and object; hope comes from waking into the fervent belief that God outlasts all governments.  In this season of Advent we wait, but it is not passive.  We wait in the active belief that God has come and the grounded hope that God will return.  Our year hinges on a spectacular birth made possible by a woman and her willingness to bear the impossible to birth the incredible.  We wait fully awakened, shaking the sleep from our eyes and the lethargy from our limbs to stand and say we have hope in the God Who made us, in the promise that righteousness will reign.

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, wrote into the tension of waiting in just such a time as this:

Friends in Christ, this is not an invitation to naiveté. People’s lives, livelihoods, security and well-being are at stake….We must stand against the meanness and hatred that is upon us. We must stand for what is best in us as People of God….We must stand against bigotry, hate and discrimination in all forms and settings. We must proclaim from our pulpits the Good News that overcomes hatred and fear. We must be quick to confess our own sin and places of complicity and vigilant against all that diminishes the worth of any individual….So, I urge all who follow the Christ to remember who we are in this time. We are the People of God called to proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are the People of God called to create the Beloved Community of Christ. We are People of God commanded to love as Jesus loved. We are People of God created to be the kingdom of God envisioned in the Advent prophecy and fulfilled by Jesus. This is our vision, our hope, our prayer, our opportunity, our commitment.

May our hope layer itself as the armor of the light as we step into this expectation, this waiting, this Advent.

 

The Unstoppable Eucharist

Here’s the good news:  I’ve signed up for classes for next semester and my schedule will be slightly less ridiculous, which means I can settle into a regular posting schedule again.  The bad news is that I’ll continue to be spotty for this semester.  I’m sorry about that.

Halloween is Monday, which is crazy to me.  I have no idea how it’s Halloween already, and the weather here at the Wicket Gate hasn’t been at all cooperating in helping me believe that we’re this far into the fall.  Global warming is crap for polar bears like me.

Halloween is in the running for my least favorite holiday because I’m pretty much a coward and hate frightening things.  An entire holiday designed to scare you is just about the worst (also, waaaay too many spiders), but Halloween is also an interesting time of year for people of the Christian faith.  There’s definitely the segment of folks who can’t abide Halloween because of its supposed connections with Satan and his ilk (y’know, witches and all that).  But I read an article about how All Hallows’ Eve is actually pretty amazing for Christians considering it’s another way for us to celebrate Christ’s victory over death—and I like that spin.

So in that spirit, and in the recognition that I’ve had several God-moments around this particular sacrament lately, let me talk about the Eucharist, that memorial meal of the Resurrection itself.

At my div school, there’s a Eucharist service on Fridays that is a handful of students and the occasional professor gathering purely for communion.  There’s no sermon, no announcements, just some hymns, prayer, and the sacrament itself.  It’s become one of the most important points of my rhythm here, partly because I’ve always been deeply connected to this particular ritual but also because it is an outrageously human part of my week.

Here’s the thing:  because it is almost entirely students, there are so many things that go wrong.  We don’t have a sound system, but one week the person supposed to bring the bread and grape juice (hey, it’s run by Methodists) and so we legit used a bagel from Coffee Hour and some juice the presiding chaplain happened to have in her office.  Twice now I’ve been asked to step up and read the Scripture of the day because they didn’t have anyone and I was, well, there.  This past week no one had remembered to print off the bulletins that provide the liturgy, so part of it we read from the UMC hymnal and part of it we just listened to while the people leading said it all by themselves.

And here’s the thing—God still shows up.  This service is so important to me for a number of reasons, but one big one is that I’m in a program training people to be able to handle holy ritual and sacred relationship and we are still so incredibly not God.  Even when I graduate I still won’t be God (I think knowing that in my first semester will help tremendously in this degree) and I will screw things up a bunch when I work in a church.  But that doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t come to those services; thankfully, He doesn’t wait for our perfection to manifest Himself among his people.  Where two or more are gathered, right?  Right.

In the third and fourth centuries, there was a huge upheaval in the Christian community about the grace of the sacraments.  One of the things people were trying to hash out was the role of the priest; if the priest was a heretic or a traditore (since Christianity wasn’t legal until the mid-4th century, there were a handful of persecutions in which some priests decided martyrdom wasn’t their thing and so “handed over” Christian documents and renounced their faith; this is where we get the English term “traitor”), was their whole flock damned with them?  Or was God’s work God’s work no matter whose hands delivered it?

Thankfully, most people fell on the side of God’s grace being stronger than any individual priest’s faith/correctness, but there was much ink spent on the idea; if you listen to the way people talk about preachers and the relationship they have with their pastors and, through them, with God, I’d argue we’re still having that fight.  But this weekly Eucharist service is amazing to me because it’s super true; God’s grace is unstoppable.  This sacrament in which Christ is present and remembered can’t be shut out by our ineptitude or even by using a bagel.  And it never will be.  There is nothing I can do as a worship leader that will stop God from coming to God’s people, and that is the most incredibly heartening news.

And just as Jesus isn’t restrained by my saying the perfect words, He isn’t contained in that worship space.  Since there aren’t that many of us who attend, there’s always bread leftover.  In the UMC (and most Christian traditions that I know of) you can’t just throw out consecrated bread; it’s a respect thing.  Either you have to return it to nature (i.e. feed to squirrels or somesuch) or you have to eat it yourself.  I have class right after this service, so I often end up taking the leftover bread along with me and offering bits of Jesus to my classmates.  It’s a pretty amazing ritual in and of itself, that we divinity students take handfuls or just tiny pieces of the challah or the naan or the sourdough or whatever bread we had that week and munch contentedly on this tasty tasty Jesus, and it’s not at all sacrilegious.  Far from it—we are sharing in community, hashing out the history of the early Church even as we are filled with this element so laden with grace and hope and possibility even as it’s just really delicious bread.

And in that, too, is Eucharist.  In people gathering to discuss this Christ with Whom we disagree, Whom we keep learning we don’t really know, Who yet comes and shares this meal with us just as He shared with 5,000 and with 11, we are honoring the sacrament and remembering.

Until He comes again.

 

 

 Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”  (Isaiah 6:2-3, NKJV)

 

 

 

People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

Spiritually Tongue-Tied

My dear Reader, thank you for hanging in with me while I figure out my new schedule.  I’ve now had every class at least once and have started both of my jobs; it will take another week or so for things to truly settle into a rhythm, but we’re getting there.  For now, look for an update every other week (sorry, I can’t yet guarantee which day.  Consider it a surprise…coming from a person who hates surprises.  Can’t have everything, I guess).

I can tell that I’m finding at least some footing because I’ve reverted to my practice of calling wherever I sleep “home”—I no longer say “I’m going back to the house” but “I’m headed home after work.”  This is a lot weirder to me considering I very strongly understand “home” to be back in the Land of Pilgrims—but one identity crisis at a time.

My schedule is a huge part of the reason I’ve been posting erratically and it’s a very easy thing to blame, but a smaller and very important part is that I haven’t really had anything to say.  I bounce from thing to thing here, barely registering what part of the week I’m in.  This is one of the reasons I’m so fiercely adamant about maintaining this blog when it might be easier to let it slide into internet oblivion:  especially when I’m crazy busy, I need to stop and make space for the Spirit—or recognize the many places the Spirit isn’t waiting for my invitation.  You’d think that being in divinity school I’d just be awash in Spirit interactions, but it isn’t like that.

I take that back; there are definitely parts that are like that.  I’m still wrapping my head around one class that opened in prayer (my academic mind just freaked out at the mixing of education and religion there, even though I know perfectly well that’s the whole damn point of the endeavor; oh, the ways we are trained).  It’s super weird to me that I shift from class to chapel on Wednesdays and that’s a thing we do and everyone understands it (no, chapel isn’t mandatory, but a lot of first years come because it’s part of building the community here).  I got into a conversation with a housemate of mine the other day about the ways the Church creates sacred space but then makes that space so sacred it eclipses God and must be preserved even at the cost of ministry.  It may seem odd to you that all this seems odd to me, Reader, considering I’ve been keeping a blog on where various aspects of the spiritual pop up in my life for years, but this kind of concentration is brand new.  Coming to this from a secular job is a little bit of cultural whiplash.

So I do have a million things to say about spiritual implications in my life, and perhaps that’s the problem.  There’s too much about God and not a whole lot of God going on in my world at the moment.  I had an unforeseen spare hour on Thursday and I took it to go exploring—I’ve made a point of taking any free time I have to just wander around the campus and the city and try to understand where I am and where other things are.  (There are some amazing restaurants here, y’all.)  I ended up in a chapel that belongs to the Episcopalians.  It’s a beautiful A-frame church made of ceder, so when you walk in you feel like you’re breathing inside a hope chest.  (Okay, maybe that only works for me; my mother had a ceder hope chest when I was kid in which she kept blankets and that smell is very specific in my memory.)  There were strings of origami cranes criss-crossing the back window and thick, knitted, deep purple cushions on the oak-plank pews.  It was surprisingly rustic for this urban space—and I curled up on a back pew and just breathed for a while.

So much of my relationship with God is so volatile (as you have seen, Reader).  It has been some time since I just sat in God’s presence and was, not having to carry on a conversation with Him or yell about what He had done most lately that had made my life harder or offer endless apologies for having fucked up yet again.  God didn’t want to hear from me and He didn’t want to talk to me; He just wanted to breathe in that ceder space with me.

And we did.

And that was enough.

I eventually pulled out one of my textbooks to continue my assigned reading about the Roman perception of early Christians because, to my chagrin, I’ve gotten myself to a space where I can’t spend a full hour simply being without freaking out about what I’m not doing.  (This despite having totally wasted most of an evening this week doing things that are decidedly neither helpful nor productive; this is a conversation I think we’ve all had and are perhaps still having with ourselves, about what productivity looks like and when you feel you must have it.)  But sitting in that sanctuary (especially given my predilection for sanctuaries) with this book and the air conditioning unit thunking on and off was such an unexpectedly centering moment.  It was with God rather than thinking circles around Him.

How about you, Reader?  Where are the places where you need to be a little tongue-tied so you can clear all the words that are crowding your space?  What spaces do you have—real or metaphorical—that allow you to just breathe in the ceder-scented Spirit for a while?  Can you get there?

Your continued prayers are most welcome and desired, Reader, if you think to offer them.  It’s loud in all manner of ways here, and I need to remember the peace of not needing to constantly add to it.

 

 

But Jesus was in the back of the boat, asleep on a cushion. So they woke him up and asked him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to die?”  Then he got up, rebuked the wind, and told the sea, “Calm down! Be still!”  Then the wind stopped blowing, and there was a great calm.  (Mark 4:38-39, ISV)

Greetings from the Wicket Gate

In case you’re wondering where that is, here’s a short explanation.  As Magister so rightly pointed out, everywhere I go is the Land of Pilgrims, but I’m definitely in a different geographical spot than I was a week ago.  And you still don’t need to know exactly where that is; as ever with this blog, I want what I’m doing to be more important than who I am or where I’m living.  I also want you, Reader, to be able to map your own pilgrimage onto parts of mine, not because we’re doing the same thing but because any similarities our paths have may help us understand each other and this God Who sees the whole of it that much better.

So I’m here, and I realize that the metaphorical name for it doesn’t quite fit; as with any borrowing of metaphors, it’s not perfect.  I’m at seminary (at long last, you might be saying) and to say that it is the only narrow way to the King’s Highway would be a terrible miscarriage of what seminary is and what the King is expecting of His people.  But for me, Reader, this is a start to the journey even as it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing and what God has been doing through me.

For now, I wanted to check in and let you know I’d safely arrived; thank you for your prayers and hopes for me in the transition, as it was quite a whirlwind.  I’m now mostly unpacked (no one needs this many towels, where did they all come from?) and convinced that I’m never allowed to have a full-sized house since I accrue stuff at an alarming rate if I have space for it.

And if I don’t.

It’s funny how one of my primary desires is to find home here—and, equally, to accept that I won’t.  My heart was left behind in the Land of Pilgrims and I don’t see that changing any time soon; I lost it in church this morning as I drowned under the first wave of homesickness for my family, my congregation, my rhythms and rites.  Yet even in that moment of missing people and place so much it hurt to breathe, the service reminded me that God goes where I go—rather, I go where God goes because He was there way ahead of me, waiting.  Communion here still involves bread and grape juice and the challenge of community just as it has in so many churches not only in this country but in others.  Music here—some of it the same that we sang at camp, which I think was God being rather heavy-handed in underlining the continuity—still has so much variety and breadth and is still calling me to pay attention to God’s presence in this sacred space.  The Bible here is still God’s word, and Jesus goes by the same name here.  Yes, it’s a whole different world and my home church doesn’t have a jazz trumpet in the praise band, but God is God is God is God no matter where I am, geographically or spiritually.

What an incredible gift.

And in the midst of all this change, I’m still connected to that family, that home; technology, that hated love of mine, has ensured that Interpreter, Prudence, and several others have been at my very fingertips while I navigate orientation and moving in and unpacking and job interviews and all manner of things that are oh-so-daunting.  The relationships will change, for sure, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled about that, but change does not have to equal challenge.  In fact, having them come along for this adventure can make the relationships that much more multi-dimensional.

And you, Reader, come with me.  No matter where you are, we remain in this corner of the internet together—and I can’t tell you what a gift it is to know that you are still here exploring with me, cheering me on, sharing parts of yourself and accepting these offered parts of myself.  Thank you for being my travelling companion, Reader.

And hang on.  This gate is going to be pretty intense.

 

 

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it.”  (Matthew 7:13, AMP)

Always, Always Learning

I am super educated.

I have a master’s degree in an esoteric field that most people equate with renaissance festivals.  I’m about to go get another master’s degree because, like potato chips, you can never have just one.  On one side of my family, mine is the first generation in three to have people who stopped going to school after their bachelor’s degrees.  With this kind of education comes a horrendous bias that I fight far less often than I should.

This past Sunday I went to the graduation party of a former student of mine.  She befriended me on Facebook after her semester in my class and still maintains mine was her favorite of the whole degree and that I was her favorite teacher.  We’ve kept in a distant sort of touch as she finished her schoolwork and I was surprised but delighted at her invitation to this celebration.  I bickered with myself until I got in my car on whether or not I was going to attend, but go I did—if nothing else, I wanted the connection to my old life of academia after a long weekend of church politics and procedures.  I also remembered how much it had meant to me when some of my teachers had attended my high school graduation party and wanted to be able to be that for this student, if possible.

She lives, I discovered as I wound my way through various country roads, in what is not affectionately called trailer country, a series of broken-down double-wides huddling amidst yards full of goggle-eyed chickens and rusted-out cars and gathered detritus.  This was the type of living, more than any other, that I was taught to fear growing up.  Get educated, I was told; make something of yourself so you don’t wind up stuck here with the trailer trash.

My heart breaks, Reader, to even admit these things to myself, let alone you.  I have since known dear friends who wound up in trailers for whatever reason; I have had family who made their way in their double-wides.  But the initial prejudice remains, and I as searched my way down the row of mailboxes looking for my student’s house, I hated the running judgment in the back of my mind.

At the party—just past the tarp-covered car on cinder blocks and the knot of people in faded t-shirts chain-smoking e-cigs—I met my student, a vibrant and hilarious young woman in a bright dress who hugged me fiercely and offered me sweet tea.  She introduced me to her father as a kindred spirit of geekery and we talked for some time.  Her father is, indeed, a delightful man and we swapped favorite post-apocalyptic books and talked about the film Kingdom of Heaven and how well-choreographed the battle scenes in Troy were.  He shared his amazement at the rise of acceptance of nerd culture in the last decade and I spoke of being able to connect with my students by knowing their references.  My student introduced me to her boyfriend and we talked about Star Wars and the university where I work and being incredibly socially awkward at these sorts of blind gatherings.  My student told me of what she plans to do and how she’s waiting a year before applying to master’s degree programs and I stood in their double-wide trailer with its clean and spare decor and this bright woman figuring out her way in the world and I felt so utterly humbled.

It is so easy for me, with my alphabet soup of degrees and my history of being The Smart Kid, to assign a lack of intelligence or drive or humanity to people in the trailer country.  We as a society don’t help because we continually portray people in those situations as trailer trash, as rednecks, as all manner of insults we save for those we deem uncultured and poor in various ways.  But this—this assumption is my sin, is my moment of standing with a cup of sweet tea and hearing God ever-so-gently tell me to get off my high horse because these, too, are God’s people.

I’ve had various people speculate as to what kind of church the bishop will assign me when I finish seminary, but several have said that it had better not be rural because I would be bored out of my mind.  I need the intellectual stimulation, I am told, and that may be right.  But far be it from me to tell God that I cannot serve in trailer country because they aren’t as smart as I am, because they won’t understand my sermons, because I am in some sense too good for that kind of a congregation.  What arrogance!  What foolishness!  Did my student’s father need to have read the Iliad (in English or its original Greek) to discuss film battle scenes with me?  Did he need to understand the liberties taken with the historical accounts of the crusades to speak of the power of his favorite movie?  Of course not.

I will never say that knowing these things is bad or that education is too much; it both angers and saddens me that we in the church almost fear education sometimes in the way that we talk about our faith and its history.  I delight in having read the Iliad, delight in learning Greek, delight in telling the stories of the crusades because we should never shy away from the richness of all that has come before, both good and bad.  But my knowing these things should never, ever give me license to forget that those who don’t know—and even, though it pains me to say it, those who don’t care—are still children of God.  God loves each of us, even those in trailer country, even those with several degrees, even those with a yard full of chickens and trash.

God is for all.  God is with all.  God loves all.  And I have no right to say that I am more loved or valuable than another.  Ever.

Thank you for teaching me, student, however unintentionally.

 

 

Were you born the first Adam,
    brought forth before the hills?
Did you listen in God’s council;
    is wisdom limited to you?
What do you know that we don’t know;
    what do you understand that isn’t among us?  (Job 15:7-9, CEB)

People of the Books: Simple Church by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger

I read this as part of a year-long look at how we do church and I must admit, it wasn’t my favorite of the nine or so books I had to read.  The concept of this book—take a good hard look at your church in the light of Clarity, Movement, Alignment (to mission), and Focus—is solid. This would have been a really great blog post or even a short series. It would make a wonderful diagram to hang in places of meeting, colorful yet stark. The message of getting rid of things that clutter your organization is useful for things that aren’t church; this encourages you to really be aware of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re using the resources you have to do that thing.

Here, let me help you understand this book:

…the healthiest churches in America tended to have a simple process for making disciples.  They had clarity about the process.  They moved Christians intentionally through the process.  They were focused on the elements of the process.  And they aligned their entire congregations to this process.  (ix)

There.  Ignore that this completely focuses on the American church and doesn’t give any thought process to the global Church.  Ta-dah!  You literally now know the entire book; the rest of it is just data and stories to flesh out these four ideas.


But then it tries to be more than that diagram and kind of shoots itself in the foot. For starters, it’s hilarious that a book about being simple is 276 pages long (although part of that is because the font is hella big; seriously, it’s not even the large print version and yet has to be 16 point, which is just unnecessary). What’s worse is that this is trying to be an almost scientific study; much of the text length is taken up with bar graphs of their research to come up with this model. Bully for them for doing a survey and tabulating the results, but once you look at their data versus their conclusions, it’s not all that scientific. Take, for example, their graph for respondents’ level of agreement with the idea that their church limits special events (p. 217). Ignore for a second the fact that they bias their data immediately by comparing “vibrant” and “comparison” churches, which is one step short of “good” and “crap” churches and those are absolutely qualified terms with inherent connotations. Then look at the accompanying textual breakdown where they laud the “vibrant” churches for their 25% agreeing strongly compared to 6% of the “comparison.”

I’m not terribly much a scientist, but in terms of social constructs 1/4 isn’t usually overwhelming support. Also, the very next step down (“agree”) is equal between the two respondent types. What? Okay, that’s a way to say that yes, the “vibrant” churches lean more toward saying yes to this concept, but it’s not overwhelming and it’s not undeniable evidence.  This presents results with way more strength than they actually have and discusses this theory as though it’s obvious and entirely correct. It’s a model for how to consider the structure of one’s church (even though it says on page 3 that “[t]his book is not about another church model”), and I’m a little too much of an academic to accept their celebration over mostly average data (especially when they present it with simplified explanations to support their theory rather than acknowledging the complexity of their own responses).

It also gets really repetitive, as in “okay, now that you understand movement, here’s alignment.  Alignment comes after movement.  Movement was this, and alignment continues that with…” and on and on.  I promise, guys, I can keep themes and ideas in my head for several chapters at a time.  Although perhaps their target audience couldn’t—I was never entirely sure who their target audience, was, actually, since they were talking about being vibrant and aware and using very savvy churches as the good examples but then using completely outdated technological references.  (In two separate places [pp. 11, 173] Rainer and Geiger explain that a blog is a web log or online journal; this book was published in 2011, so hopefully someone bothering to read a how-to-be-relevant church book is at least aware of blogs and also by that time blogs were so much more than the diaries of the MySpace days anyway.)  And there were some bizarrely sexist moments that popped up, like this disclaimer about what Mary and Martha must have been like:  “At least, that is what our wives tell us.  We don’t claim to know about Martha firsthand.”  (p. 12)  And your wives do?  Do all women have an ESP link that I’ve missed?

There was a jarring mix of self-righteousness and apology from the authors; they laud themselves for this hilarious prank they pulled (during the freaking recession, mind you, when folks would have done an awful lot for a job) posting a fake church job that asked for people to hold conflicting theological styles of leadership.  The authors mock the people who applied for it, saying that they were obviously not committed to being true leaders for Christ.  What?  A) That’s a dick move, which I realize is scandalously strong language but I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate pranks and there were certainly better ways these guys could have proved their point without lambasting unsuspecting people.  B)  Turning around and putting that in their book, making money off of the idea that they somehow have a better understanding of what it is to be a focused Christian, is just annoying.  You don’t get the Jesus prize for holding to your ideological tenets, sorry.

But up against that is an almost constant apology for being academic in the way they do their research.  Christians aren’t stupid, guys, and if you’re going to make sweeping assumptions about what church should look like, then I want all the data you can give me.  Own your work.  I’ll skim what I need to.

I appreciate the examination of a lot of business models to stress the efficacy of simplicity (Apple, Gap, and Google are all mentioned) but that’s a double-edged sword—the Church isn’t actually a business, and if you’re saying it should be then we have an entirely different conversation we need to have.  And even in the comparisons there was a lot of vagueness (who is “we?” what is “growth” for you?  How do you understand that particular anecdote in relation to your main point? When you talk about “this word translates,” from which language do you mean?).

Good to skim.  Definitely good to take with a large grain of salt.  Stick with the opening infographic.

 

Rating:  2.5/5 stars