Wednesday, April 22, 2015

head, heart, and yummy snacks

Image from
Last week I was in Media, Pennsylvania at the annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference. Besides beautiful, sunny, warm days and the meeting of friends new and old, what impressed me most about this unique gathering was the co-mingling of academic rigour, encouragement, critique, worship, prayer, beautiful art, pastoral care, prophetic warning, repentance, and great snacks. I have never been to anything quite like it before, but it left me wanting more.

The academy tends to do some things better than the church, in my opinion, and some of these are the ability to listen and speak with humility, to embrace different voices and learn from them, and to welcome critique instead of bristling defensively against it. At the conference in Media, I had the opportunity both to present a paper and to offer a critical response to a panel of three presenters. It is good to be at both ends of this dynamic. It is good to be in the vulnerable position of a presenter who is offering their ideas for consideration by a learned community. I always get a bit nervous before I give a paper because I know I am exposing part of myself to people who may disagree with me, who may find my ideas simple or faulty, or who may deem my words mostly irrelevant. On the other hand, I find it equally difficult to be the responder, the critical voice asking tough questions, pointing out inconsistencies, or suggesting that ideas need to be reworked and reconsidered. It feels a bit awkward, to be honest, but in the true spirit of learning, most people at these events graciously accept critique, especially when the words are spoken out of kindness and humility. Academics generally realise that critique is necessary to make one's work better.

One of the highlights of the conference was a talk given by Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University), one of the USA's most influential contemporary theologians. His critique of the systems we find ourselves working and living within was sobering. He constantly drew our attention to the distinction between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of our current culture (including church culture) and urged us, with strong language, not to confuse the two. Our Western society is addicted to using violence, aggression, and wealth as ways of changing the world, and yet, these were not Jesus' methods. In other ways, Hauerwas suggested, we have become adherents of tolerance, producing people who say: "I believe Jesus is Lord, but that's just my personal opinion." Above all, he urged us to tell the truth: to each other and to ourselves. This means unearthing the deceit and duplicity present in our narratives and beliefs which underlie everything from our political views to our private prayers. Tough to do, but necessary work if we are to be people who humbly follow Jesus with integrity.

Other thought-provoking nuggets from Hauerwas:
- (On the religious right): They have no joy. And if there's no joy to it, it won't last.
- (On how we can engage with other faiths): Are we interesting enough that people of other faiths want to talk to us?
- (On the question: Are we responsible for decisions we make when we don't know what we are doing?) If we are not responsible, this makes marriage and having children unintelligible. Who of us knew what we were doing when we said our marriage vows or when we had a child? When you have children, you never get the ones you want. It takes grace to accept the situations that God gives us.
- Only God exists. We do not. The question is not does God exist but do we?
- We tend to believe that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. This is supposedly freedom. But our story starts in God, not in ourselves (paraphrase).

And that's a taste of what it was like to be at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference this year. I wish you could also have sampled the tiny pretzels and the homemade salted caramels, but maybe next time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Horray! It's the weekend!

Resurrection Morning by JRC Martin
Many of us are used to thinking of the weekend as a respite from work and the daily grind, a few days to relax, unwind, and have a bit of time for ourselves and our loved ones. During this Easter season, I was reminded of quite a different kind of weekend, a holy weekend. It began when I read something by N.T. Wright a few weeks ago.

Wright draws attention to the parallels between the creation story in Genesis and the story of Jesus found in the gospel of John. For instance, both start off with "In the beginning." Of particular interest are the last few days of Jesus' life in light of the creation story. On the sixth day, God created humankind. On the sixth day (Friday), Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd and declared, "Here is the man!" Also on the sixth day, God finished creation. On the sixth day, Jesus cried out, "It is finished!" On the seventh day, the Creator rested from his work. On the seventh day (Saturday), God incarnate, Jesus, rested in the tomb, his redemptive work complete. The first day of the week in Genesis was the first day of God's creation. The first day of the week after Jesus's death (Sunday) was the first day of God's new creation. [1]

Here we see the deliberate and precise structure of two stories which reveal something about how God creates, sustains, and redeems life. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the Holy Weekend of Jesus.

Friday is a day of betrayal (Judas), doubt (for both Jesus and the disciples), violence (Peter attacks a soldier, Jesus is tortured), denial (Peter denies Jesus, the disciples scatter), things going horribly wrong (from the perspective of the disciples), injustice (an innocent man is punished while a guilty man goes free), and finally, death. Jesus prays, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want but what you want." (Matt. 26:39). Later, as he is dying on the cross, he calls out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"(Matt. 27:46). After Jesus is arrested, the disciples begin to question what Jesus said. Was Jesus really the Anointed One, the one sent by God? Perhaps they got it all wrong. Everything is falling apart around them and they think about walking away from it all. While the disciples are understandably disillusioned and distraught, Jesus gives himself to the very last breath.

Saturday is silent. It is the sabbath and nothing stirs. God seems to be silent. The disciples are disoriented, in a state of shock and confusion. What do they do now? Do they go back to their old lives? If not, how do they move forward? They seem stuck, caught in a liminal place between what was and what is to come, unsure of the future, not sure who they are, what they believe, or what action to take. Bishop Campbell says: "In these last hours of the great silence of Holy Saturday, when the Eternal Word reaches into the hidden recesses of death, let all flesh keep silent and in this silence, let us be attentive and listen."

Sunday dawns like any other day, but something seems to have changed. Some women report that Jesus has disappeared from the tomb. Mary says she saw Jesus alive. A few of the disciples go to the tomb to verify that it is empty, but this latest development leaves the disciples even more confused and disoriented. They are not sure what to make of the women's news, since women can be emotional and unreliable in times like this. They are fearful because the events of Friday and Saturday have shaken them to the core and they know they are in danger because of their association with Jesus whom the religious leaders and the Romans saw as a troublemaker. So they huddle together in a room and lock the door. And this is where Jesus finds them on Sunday night.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:19-22).

The resurrection of Jesus is not just a happy ending to a story, it is the beginning of a new creation. When the resurrected Jesus appears, walls, locked doors, and other obstacles become irrelevant. The scarred Jesus reassures the disciples that he is not a ghost, but their trusted friend who bears the marks of love. The resurrected Jesus brings peace and joy to chase away their fear and disappointment. Jesus breathes on his disciples (reminiscent of Genesis 2) his Holy Spirit breath. And Jesus lets them know that they can't huddle in a locked room forever. In the same way that God the Father sent Jesus to not only bring the good news of hope and forgiveness and wholeness but to embody it, Jesus sends the disciples to do the same.

Wright says: "How [can we] show to the world the signs of love, how can we reach out our hands in love, wounded though they will be if the love has been true, how [can we] invite those whose hearts have grown shrunken and shriveled with sorrow and disbelief to come and see what love has done, what love is doing, in our communities, our neighborhoods?" [2]

The question I have is, which day of the Holy Weekend do we find ourselves in? Are we experiencing the death and despair of Friday? Are we confused by being stuck in the silence of Saturday? Or are we caught up in the disorienting whirlwind of change as Holy Sunday unfolds? Is hope crushed, dormant, or fully alive? Are we surrounded by doubt or beginning to doubt our doubts? Is fear beginning to subside because Jesus is near and the hot breath of the Holy Spirit is on our faces? I think it is important to remember that Holy Sunday didn't happen in one instant for the disciples; the events unfolded throughout the day and the ongoing weeks and years as Jesus revealed himself to people and they slowly began to realize the implications of new creation.

One day is not more holy than the next, Jesus is present in times of death, silence, and renewed hope because he has lived through them all. If we are in a Friday stage, let us not despair. Perhaps it would behoove us to ask someone who is experiencing Sunday to pray for us and walk us through this dark place. If we are in a Saturday silence, let us be patient and attentive, listening well and avoiding making any quick decisions. And if we are living in Sunday mode, let us rejoice! The scars we carry from Friday and Saturday can be signs of hope and love to those around us. Let us receive the words of peace from Jesus and let go of the fear that paralyzed us. And let us embody the good news of new creation by reaching out hands of love to those in despair, confusion, and sorrow.

[1] N. T. Wright, "Becoming People of Hope," in Surprised by Scripture (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 207-217.
[2] Wright, 213.