What Does Satisfy? Part 1: Spirit 


In honor of Easter, this Sunday, I’ll talk about God, religion, and spirit first.

No, religion does not magically make everything in life perfect and sunshiney. 

With all the suffering the world,  the only way to be perfectly sunshiney is to either be entirely ignorant and sheltered or to have such an “us vs. them” mentality that you lose all empathy for people who aren’t like you. 

Granted, there are ways to be happier,  to do all you can and trust God and other people to do the rest. I’m working on both sides of that:  really doing my best,  and really putting aside unhelpful worrying. 

Religion isn’t a magic feel good tonic (or it shouldn’t be), but connecting with a church that more closely matches my values  (and doesn’t promote things I actively think are wrong) really has helped. 

I even sang a solo in the worship service this past (Palm) Sunday, and I honestly didn’t know how much I’d missed that (The song is “Christmas had its Cradle, Easter has its Cross,” one of my all time favorites).

And spending quiet time disconnected from phones, tv and internet, focusing on and connecting with God, is also wonderful, when I keep my focus enough to actually do it. Whether this takes the form of self composed prayer, praying existing prayers (the Jesus prayer is my favorite), or simple wordless meditation,  it is always good. 

So, in a nutshell, 

Coherence and integrity between my spiritual values and my spiritual community

Reconnecting with and sharing spiritual songs that mean a lot to me (making a joyful noise unto the Lord)

Spending time away from the fragmenting distractions of the daily material world, focusing on God

Have all helped a lot. 

Happy Passover and Happy Easter. 

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It Felt Like a Feast (Wrestling with Joy, Pleasure, and the Distractions of Modern Life)

people doing kettlebells exercises

I tried my first kettlebell swing workout tonight. My body gently aches from the back of my neck, across my shoulders and arms, down to my thighs and calves. Not two hours after I did the set, I found myself standing straighter, taller.

Maybe I really am 6’7”, and I’ve just been slouching.

But how did it feel? When I think back on my first, unimpressively weak (20 pound weight), slightly awkward experience with the kettlebell, what washes over me?

It felt like a feast.

Not just a buffet, or a coincidentally large meal. A feast, full of foods I really wanted, foods I only taste a few times a year. It felt like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Exercise has hardly ever felt like this before. Usually it’s drudgery in progress and pain and soreness following. But this felt like a feast. I’m beginning to understand people who love exercise.

Even putting aside sex totally, our bodies are meant to feel pleasure. Our bodies are meant to desire it.

But it seems like in my sedentary postmodern life, that sense is somewhat lost. Too much is buried in the screens: the gray of the office computer, the distracting static of the television, the infinite insignificance of the web, all exacerbated by long commutes and short nights.

The very technology and modernity that allows so many of us to live so comfortably, when in the past we might have died in the cradle, stands between us and the experience of joy.

We develop a disconnect with our bodies. We no longer stop and feel the rain, as we did in our youth. We no longer run for the joy of running, as we did as children. We no longer stop to let the wind rush over us.

Our pleasures are limited to our sex lives, the manufactured adrenaline of our media, and our food. And too often, that gets us into trouble. Because just as the media we consume is manipulated and processed to provide the fastest bang, the most addictive return on investment, so is our food.

And sometimes, this artificial intensity even spills over into our sex lives, in various forms of objectification. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Our bodies are meant to desire pleasure. Not manufactured, processed, white-sugar-buzz pleasure, with its dizzy intensity, inevitable crash, and empty hunger for more.

We are meant for spontaneous, genuine delight, like a child chasing leaves in an autumn wind. Like a young man running to meet the train that brings his beloved back to him. Like the sheer joy of feeling your body push its limits just far enough that it doesn’t verge into pain and damage.

It’s strange that a simple kettlebell swing reminded me of this. And stranger still that I went to a computer screen to share it. But such is the age we live in.

Time doesn’t run backward. Turning back the clock just breaks your hands. But who we are hasn’t changed, and the genuine joy we need is still available. Just look beyond the static.

Imposters of God – An Introduction

1932 U.S. Gold Coin, showing an eagle

So first off, why am I doing a blog series on a thin little book from the mid-sixties, written by a man I’d never heard of before this month?

Well, William Stringfellow comes highly recommended. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called Stringfellow “Probably the most creative and disturbing Anglican theologian” of the 20th century … a century that includes C.S. Lewis.  That got my attention. Who is this guy, and why haven’t I heard of him before?

It turns out Stringfellow was a lay theologian, a lawyer by trade. He lived in New York and spent a lot of time practicing law for the benefit of the poor and otherwise unrepresented. He “walked the walk,” as it’s said. So this “most creative and disturbing theologian” wasn’t even seminary-trained? Now you really have my attention.

But where do I start? Dr. Richard Beck (of Abilene Christian University’s Psychology department and the Experimental Theology blog) called Imposters of God the best single-volume survey of William Stringfellow’s theology.  And it’s about modern-day Western idolatry, one of my favorite topics (if by “favorite topics” you mean infuriating things I’m slightly obsessed with).

So obviously I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Imposters of God is only 66 pages long in its current printing. But if the first chapter is any indication, it has more real meat than most 400-page tomes.

In his foreword, Stringfellow gets to the heart of the matter: the jarring disconnect between sanctuary and society, especially in a nominally Christian society.

Six days a week, Christians seem identical to everyone else. One day a week, we enter into various worship ceremonies ranging from the ornate to the causal to the concert-ish.

What does this mean? Is our worship more than a sentimental or superstitious practice?

Is it more than a social club or opportunity to network?

Is it more than a prerequisite for respectability in the Bible Belt?

Why is the most religious of the industrialized nations also the most violent, most calculating, most ambitious, most status-seeking?

Stringfellow proposes an answer: we have been led astray into idolatry. And idolatry is, at its heart, the worship of death.

We’ll explore what this means over the next few weeks. I believe that as Stringfellow pulls back the curtain on our treasured Western Christian American culture, we’re all going to bleed a little.

But that’s a good thing. Sometimes the only way to heal is to cut out the infection. And sometimes the only way to serve God is to tear down your father’s idols, as Gideon learned.

Next time, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry.

The Storm (February 10, 2013)

Tornado

I didn’t see the storm. But I heard it and felt it. Katherine did – three houses wide and stretching to the heavens, rushing toward us. And it rattled her.

he slammed the front door and shouted “get in the hall! Get in the hall!” I did what she said. When I felt it coming, I got her into the inner bathroom bathtub.

As the storm passed over us, I stroked her hair and whispered, “It will be all right. It will be all right.” That was nothing more than speculation, and I knew it at the time. But it seemed the right thing to say. In truth, it was more of a prayer than a statement of fact.

After the most harrowing minutes of my life, I felt my ears pop, and everything went silent.  “There. The storm’s passed.”

We walked to our front door and stepped outside. The destruction was unmistakable. Roofs with trees through them. Thick pine branches strewn across yards and streets like tinker toys discarded by a frustrated child. Huge trees, four feet in diameter, blocked the road on both sides.

Lines and cables lay coiled like vipers. Any one of them could have been live and deadly.

Neighbors poured from their houses, alive and shell-shocked.

We felt lucky, blessed, and thankful, not only that we were alive, but that we’d sustained so little damage.  Then we looked out the back door.

Two massive pines bisected our yard. Our carport lay in shambles, crushed. Our cars (my beautiful, beautiful car, the first I’d ever bought because it was beautiful) lay buried, smashed, totaled, buried underneath no fewer than five big trees.

The dog yard fence was twisted and crushed like tin foil. I thought, dimly, that I could probably handle never seeing Molly, Charlie, and Gigi again, but I couldn’t handle finding their bodies.

Katherine started feeling contractions.

As dusk fell, rescue workers came, evacuating those who could not stay. The way was slow, on foot, through yards, around downed lines and fallen trees, making their painstaking way to where the ambulances waited.

Paramedics told us the hospitals were full, that even if we went in, we would only be triaged. They told Katherine to lie on her side and try to keep calm, to time her contractions, and to call 911 if she needed to.

Our phones rang mercilessly, until I turned mine off to conserve power. How do we call 911 if we run our phones dry answering questions?

When true dark fell, the rescue workers slipped away. No streetlights, no headlights, no moon. No cars. No escape. A pistol on each bed stand, a high-intensity flashlight beside it. Loaded. Chambered. No safety.

No safety.

Rain kept the looters away. It fell like sheets. Sporadically, thunder rumbled, lighting lit the whole night sky bright as day, and Katherine shuddered. I shuddered, too.

We got precious little sleep that night.

But morning came, and with it, the first good news.

Gigi, our traumatized stray, had not perished in the storm. The noises we heard in the night were her wedging her 90-pound body between the patio couch and the corner of the deck. She’s my favorite of our dogs, but I’ve never been happier to see her.

City workers cleared the street. Although we still didn’t have working vehicles, at least we could get out if we needed to. Our parents came to help clean up, to bring supplies, and see if we needed a place to stay. Progressive came through, and we had rental cars by sunset.

It wasn’t over, and it wouldn’t be for quite a while. It wasn’t okay, and it wouldn’t be for quite a while. But it was close enough. And it was going to be okay.

God had preserved us through yet another storm. I don’t know why he has protected us so closely for so long, and I’m certain we are no more valuable or important than anyone else, but I am grateful.

I am grateful.

Dies Irae (Compassion and the Wrath of God)

I’ve always had a problem conceptualizing God’s anger. I always sort of saw it as in conflict with His love and compassion. The “Dies Irae” and “Kyrie Eleison” never seemed to match that well.

Similarly, I always had trouble with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement. It always seemed like an artificial differentiation between Jesus and God the Father, with Jesus saving us from God.

But this morning in church, some things I’d been reading and something the preacher said sort of clicked.

I’d been picturing God’s wrath all wrong, because I’d been thinking of it like mortal anger. Let me explain.

Humans get mean, careless, and stupid when we get angry. We break things, we hurt people (physically or emotionally), we say things we can’t take back. We lash out.

But God isn’t mortal. He isn’t fallen, flawed, or stupid. He isn’t a slave to his upbringing, His adrenaline, His sin.

His wrath isn’t like our anger. When we get angry, we lash out. But what happened when sin kindled God’s wrath and created a separation between us and God? What was God’s plan? What was God’s reaction?

He came to earth, to walk among us, to suffer and die for us.

What is the outcome of God’s wrath?

Compassion.

Incarnation.

Salvation.

Christmas.

Suddenly, “Kyrie Eleison” seems like a perfectly companion for “Dies Irae.”

When sin kindled God’s wrath and created a separation between Him and His beloved creations, He found a way back. He made a way back for us.

Even though it cost Him pain, sadness, death, and – worst of all – even though He had to experience our sin first hand. Of all the tortures Jesus suffered, enduring the flood of evil done by humanity throughout history must have been the worst.

Even with all that, God made a way.

That’s love, and compassion, and wrath, all working to bring His loved ones home.

That’s God.

Merry Christmas.

Powers and Principalities

Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by William Blake

Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by William Blake

I’ve been reading Tony Campolo and Brian McLauren’s Adventures in Missing the Point, and a line from Campolo’s part of chapter one really got my attention:

“The Bible makes it clear that he [Satan] is a seductive beast that raises havok in our personal lives as well as being incarnated in the principalities and powers (i.e., the political and economic systems, the educational and familial systems, and the media), with which we must wrestle every day.” (Emphasis added).

Campolo is referencing Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (NASB)

And that hit me like a rocket. You see, I’ve been forcibly denying the degree of unhealth and corruption inherent in our systems for a long time. Mostly because I didn’t want to give in to cynicism and despair.

But the problem is, these systems are far too big for any one person to change … even the President of the United States. These systems, however well-meant they were in the beginning, have become instruments for the powerful to consolidate, protect, and expand their power and privilege.

Government “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” (thanks, President Lincoln) can bail out the banks and corporations that created this mess, sure. But bail out a family that lost their jobs, and is in danger of losing their home? We don’t have enough money for that.

Education can provide six-figure salaries (in Mississippi, that’s a lot of money) for superintendents and consultants, but the kids and the teachers? Expendable. We’ve got test scores to game.

Soldiers struggle to support their families, but big defense contractors get $154 million per jet fighter, plus tens of billions for research.  Taxi cab drivers in New York work long hours, but can’t afford a half-million dollar license to go into business for themselves. Why is the license so expensive? It benefits the powerful.

I could go on, but I’d only get angry. You see, it’s not the people that are the problem, per se. It’s the systems. The labyrinths of written and unwritten rules that govern their interactions. It’s invisible, and bigger than any one of us.

But this passage, and Campolo’s response to it, got me thinking. There are plenty of pieces of the puzzle that are small enough for one person, or one congregation, to affect.

Financially, I can make a difference, especially in the lives of people in lesser developed nations, where even $25 goes a long way.

Physically, I can volunteer. I can get my hands dirty in my local community.

Socially, I can talk to people and try to find ways to help.

Authorially, I can write here, journaling my own efforts and drawing attention to other worthy causes.

Spiritually, I can pray, I can study, and I can step out bravely in faith. And given my default level of social anxiety, there’s going to have to be a lot of stepping out in faith if I’m going to do anything at all.

The greater structures, the systems, the powers and principalities are beyond our reach, true. But there is a lot within our reach, a lot that can be done to create a more just and merciful world.

We just have to have the guts to do it.

What I Am Sure Of

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about questions, writing about the push and pull of mysteries of the faith, things so many people take for granted.  It may be frustrating to some of you that I don’t always come to a conclusion.  To borrow a phrase from Donald Miller, I don’t “resolve.”  But please bear with me.  There are some things I do believe…

The charge has been leveled that evangelical Christians, and conservative ones in general, can’t stomach ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  And surely bumper-sticker catchphrases like “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” only add to that image.

But the truth is, people aren’t great with ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  That’s why, once we choose a political party, we ignore almost any horrible deed by our side, because it’s “better than the other guys,” whether it’s torture – I mean, “enhanced interrogation” – or drone strikes on Pakistani civilians and U.S. citizens abroad.

Similarly, when we settle on a religious framework, we tend to stick to it, minimizing or exceptionalizing its problems, from ‘crack that limp wrist’ to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself.  None of us is immune to confirmation bias.  The problem comes when we don’t fight it, but instead sanctify it.

It’s true that we go through times of transition, mostly as young people, when we examine our parents’ beliefs to see which ones are really ours.  The children of conservatives may become socialists, the sons of hippies, Young Republicans, the daughters of butchers, vegetarians.

Of course, times of change and transition aren’t only for adolescents. Sometimes having children sparks a new period of wrestling, brought on by sleepless nights and the awesome wonder of new life.  Sometimes age and approaching retirement, with its distant rumblings of mortality, sparks yet another time of change.

But beyond this?   Most people don’t have a stomach for uncertainty.  As human beings, it’s our nature to prefer flawed, even wrong, answers to rightful questions.

It’s far too easy to stop wrestling, struggling, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  We get comfortable, and soon we find we’re no longer following Jesus across dusty Judean roads, over craggy mountains, and into the land of the half-breed heretic Samaritans.

Instead, we’ve set up our comfortable seats at the temple (always the same pew, every Sunday).  And the sad part is, we don’t even really expect Him to come to us.  We think He has come to us, and we’re good.  We’ve got it.  We got our inoculation, we’re right with God.  We’re all right.  “I’m not a sinner.  I never sin.  I’ve got a friend in Jesus…

And that certainty makes us hard.  It calcifies and ossifies, grinding our compassion and empathy to a halt.  Outsiders become, not the ones we seek out (like the woman at the well), but enemies of the faith.  Our approach is not genuine interest and sacrificial compassion, but alarm and hostility.  We cry “persecution!” from our well-cushioned pews in our air-conditioned churches every time something in the outer world slaps us in the face.  But persecution isn’t a slap in the face; it’s a bullet in the head.

There’s a reason we call it wrestling with a topic.  Wrestling is hard.  It’s sweaty.  It’s physical.  It’s exhausting.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling requires a lot of energy.  More than that, it requires pain.  Fear and trembling.  This is going to hurt.

Wrestling with God is going to hurt.  And it should.  The Marines have a saying: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  If you can’t stomach the pain of questioning, you’ll have to accept the weakness.  But please, don’t claim that weakness to be a stronger or truer faith.  Shouting heretic and TYPING IN ALL CAPS doesn’t make you right.  It didn’t make me right when I did it, either.

This is what I believe.  I believe that Jacob didn’t wrestle an angel.  He wrestled God Himself, a pre-incarnate Jesus.  And though he wrestled all night until his arms ripped and his lungs raged like fire, though he almost lost his leg, Jacob wrestled.  He held on, and in the end God blessed him.

And I believe God still waits to wrestle with us all.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be easy.  It won’t be painless.  But it will be worth it.

Amen.