24 March 2009

What are your thoughts on God?

For the next little bit, I'll be responding to questions my friend, M. asked me a week or so ago.

Well, M. Jump right to it. What are my thoughts on God? Well. To start, I would say that I have no idea who God is. For all the thinking and writing and researching and reading and praying and experiencing I've done (which is a lot and not all that much at the same time), I would have to say that I have no idea who God is.

But this doesn't mean that I don't have any thoughts on God. I do have some of those. Lot's really. Here are two.

(+) I think God is far beyond anything we can assign God to be. God isn't just not a male nor a female, but has the ability to be both and beyond gender at the same time. The same applies for all other ways that we label and chain God.

(+) I believe in a God of second chances and third chances and 9th chances and 47th chances. And, as Kierkegaard would say, This awakens my deepest sense of wonder and joy and is a great source of relief.

But, for some reason, I can't seem to find the words to express exactly what I think (mainly because that changes fairly regularly). So, here are some quotes that I find particularly meaningful in the way I think about God:

"For thirty years I sought God. But when I looked carefully I found that in reality God was the seeker and I the sought." - Abu-Yazid al-Bistami

"I had a thousand questions to ask God; but when I met him they all fled and didn't seem to matter." -Christopher Morley

"There is a sign of God on every leaf that nobody else sees in the garden." -Thomas Merton

"Sometimes--there's God--so quickly!" -Tennessee Williams

"I am often closer to God doing the dirty dishes than when listening to Bach or Mozart." -Henry Miller

"It is safe to assume that we've created God in our own image when God hates all the people we hate."--Anne Lamott

Of course, none of these are adequate. But, then, who could sum up God beyond all things in a phrase or a sentence? At the end of the day, I know nothing for sure, except that it's by God's grace that I can say that...

19 March 2009

old friends, hard questions

My friend, M., recently emailed me. She and I went to Elon together and, during my sophomore year, we would share a meal fairly regularly. I'd lost touch with her recently. We'd each moved to opposite corners of the States, and started school and, you know, life. But today I got a note from her. She included that she is working on a project for school and had a list of questions she wanted my response to--questions about God, the church, and being gay and Christian.

It's interesting because for as much as we talk about these things at school somehow we never get to the meat. We talk about what other people think. What tradition holds to be the case or which theologians carry a high Christology, but we never seem to get here. To the question asked in genuine curiousity: so, what do you think?

So, for the next days, I'll be answering her questions here with the caveat that I'm really just thinking out loud and reserve the right to change my mind. Jesus did.

16 March 2009

another day, another sermon.

In preaching class, we've been in our small groups preaching to one another on assigned texts. My text focused on a moment when the Jesus we see isn't the Jesus we're used to seeing found in Mark 7 Here is the sermon:

There is no denying it, this is a hard text. If we were reading through Mark, we would have just come off a few chapters of fun miracles--the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, and so on. We've witnessed Jesus' ability to care for people in really pragmatic ways (I mean, he fed people--lots of fish and bread) and his desire to strengthen their faith.

We’re used to this Jesus—the Jesus who helps, heals, cares for. Last week’s sermons told focused on other stories of Jesus’ helping hands. We heard about demons being cast out and bodies being healed and children being brought back to life.. Sometimes, those who were healed didn’t even ask for it. The John 9 text we lived in for the first weeks of the semester saw that to be the case—the blind man was brought to Jesus, and he was healed. With out asking.

But here, in these words, we stumble on another Jesus. One that, if we are honest with the text, is a hard Jesus to deal with. The Jesus we know wouldn't turn people away. But here, in Mark 7, we see Jesus tell this syro-phoenician woman—a gentile--that He won't heal her daughter because she isn't a Jew.

The story has Jesus roaming around the northern coastal plain, near Tyre in what is modern-day Lebanon. Trying not to be noticed, he ducks into a house, yet, it seems, word is already spreading about his arrival. A woman, whose daughter has an unclean spirit falls at his feet.

This is the familiar part, the scenario that we see played out again and again in Mark. Jesus is walking, doesn’t want to be noticed, tries to keep a low profile, but those who need help find Jesus anyway.

But, we find out, this isn’t just any woman.

The text points out that this is a Gentile woman, of the syrophoenician race. This certainly wasn’t a surprise to Jesus. He knew where he was, and what kind of people lived there. Tyre was near the border of the land of Israel. It was no secret that Gentiles lived over its northern border, nor that Jews of that time were living in a Gentile world.

This woman who shouldn’t be even talking to Jesus because she isn’t a Jew, much less asking for anything because she is a woman, approaches Jesus and asks him multiple times to heal her daughter. In the Matthean version of the story, there is a little more interaction here. She pleads with Jesus, and he denies her twice. In the Markan scene, we are told that “she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter.”

In either case, the response Jesus gives is surprising to say the least. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I think it is probably safe to assume we aren't talking about our family pet here. This isn't a compliment. In fact, I'd say its mean.

Imagine--Jesus being mean? Not very Christ-like, eh?

Still, she doesn't give up. She responds: Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's tables.

And with this response, Jesus seems to do an amazing thing—he changes his mind. He tells the woman “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” She goes home, and finds that it is true. Her daughter has been healed.

This one woman’s faith in the crumbs healed her daughter.

What’s interesting about Jesus’ last words to this woman is that they don’t match the model. We’ve heard Jesus time and again through the gospels say ‘your faith has made you well.” But here, he is hardly as explicit.

Instead, he cites her response as the thing that saved her daughter, not her faith explicitly. Yet, it seems to me, it was her faith that inspired her to go after the crumbs.

That is where the gospel is in this story—in the crumbs, crumbs that have the ability to change people’s minds—even Jesus’.

But, here’s the thing about food—people like to hoard it, even the crumbs. Sometimes I hear these hoarders referred to as “half-way Christians”—folks who are so concerned about what THEIR gospel says to THEIR community, that when it’s time to share it with the world beyond, they fall short. Sometimes we call them, seminarians.

You know the people I'm talking about. They claim to believe in Christ, then push people away from Him.

Or they say they care about God's creation: "I recycle!" the say. But recycling only happens when it is convenient. You want to shout that Christianity isn't convenient--you don't get to choose it just when it happens to fit.

Better yet, they are the people who watch the church clock. "What do you mean we have to sing all six verses?," they wonder aloud. "We are supposed to be out of here at noon! We have to beat the Baptists to lunch..." or “I have a blackboard post to finish writing.”

Or those who mourn for the homeless population's reality, but when begged for a dollar, refuse to give it. "They'll just buy drugs or alcohol," the half-way Christian argues.

What about the people who sing of God's love for everyone, but really can't stand that black kid who came to church today wearing a baseball hat and low riding pants?

Or the ones whose words of love begin to go sour as attempts for inclusion merely bring an exclusion of another sort?

Or they squabble about the details--about who God loves more or who sins less or who got it first or who hasn't ever gotten it.

These are the people who hoard the crumbs, who desperately hold on to the way things are instead of looking to the way things might be.

And here’s the worst part is: I'm one of them. And, I suspect, at one point or another, you’ve had a moment of being one too.

But hear the good news of this story: Jesus. Changed. His. Mind. Jesus changed his mind. And we can too.

We can fling our arms wider to those who are desperate for crumbs of hope, peace, belonging, faith, love, all of those identifiers of the Christian faith. We can call people to us, look them in their eyes and see Christ whether or not we are the same color or the same gender or the same sexual orientation. In changing his mind, Jesus threw out the old, rigid traditions that separated people from one another and from God. He changed his mind, and healed her anyway.

Sometimes, however, we aren’t the ones with the minds to change. Sometimes, we are the ones frantic for the crumbs, for little bits of sustenance for the journey. Can you think of times that you were desperate for crumbs? I can.

The cold of Copenhagen was unrelenting. I had been there for 3 months, since January, and was beginning to think that winter would never end. I was an ocean away from home, my birthday was quickly approaching, and I had never felt so alone in my life. My time was consumed with study and reading and sleeping—hardly an adventure.

I was riding my bicycle home from school late one night when I passed the cathedral—the Church of Our Lady. I had been in it before. It’s a huge church, one that glows with white marble and the clean lines of Scandinavian design.

As I rode by, I noticed the church doors were open. So, I stopped, locked my bike and timidly walked in. All around the church were candles and silence. Every ten minutes or so, a prayer or psalm was sung to mark the passing of time. After a long quiet, a priest emerged from the front with bread and wine, and those there moved toward the front.

Danes, like most Europeans, are not very religious. They seem to have gotten it out of there system, but the small gathered community here seemed to pay no attention to the cultural mores of the day. They gathered in a semi-circle around the altar in the front of the church. Desperate for my own crumbs, I joined them.

The liturgy began. In Danish. But amazingly, I knew everything that was happening. These words spoken for millennia united us in Christ that night. The bread began to make its way around. To my right, a woman said offered it to me in Danish. I took it and offered it to the man to my left, in English. The cup was passed in the same way. We fed each other, sustained each other. And, if I’m honest, they gave me the crumbs, literally and figuratively, that I’d been craving all along.

You see, we’re all searching for crumbs from the table and we all hold bread for others. Christ challenges us to change our minds—to open them to those who we’ve shunned away from the table, and for us to acknowledge when we’re desperate to be fed ourselves. Think of how the crumbs sustain us, then imagine how the feast will feed us all. Thanks be to God.