Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. I picked up the phone and dialed one of the most respected ministers I knew: Gilbert Hellwig, the German American pastor of the storied First Baptist Church, Cleveland’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Riverside. Dr. Hellwig listened to my heartbreak, as all good pastors learn to do, then replied wistfully in that ponderous voice of his, “You know? We Christians claim to be people of resurrection and yet we are so afraid to let some things just die. But if we are who we say we are—that is, people of resurrection–we must be willing to let some things die so that new life can spring up, albeit in a very different way.” Continue reading
A chaplain’s life is measured in vigil candles.
I wrote these words when it came time to return to the University of Chicago Divinity School to think more deeply about religion and violence. The year was 2002 and the last time I had pulled the box of candles off the shelf in my office in Memorial Church was the evening of September 11, 2001.
Because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the event that began the Reformation, there have been a lot of articles about Luther, especially as Reformation Day drew near. The best one that I came across was entitled Suche nach der Gnade in einer gnadenlosen Welt by Matthias Drobinski, which appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on October 31. What follows is my translation, posted with the kind permission of the Süddeutsche.
Looking for Grace in a Graceless World
by Matthias Drobinski (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, October 31, 2017; trans. Kyle Rader)
The theologian and poet Christian Lehnert tells how he once preached about the love and nearness of a gracious God in an East German village, and afterward, an old Polish woman intercepted him and asked, “You prayed for God’s nearness? Do you know what you’re asking for?” She then explained how, in 1939, she hid in a ditch in a field and prayed for her life as the German tanks came. Then she felt God’s nearness and lay hidden in the earth’s arms. The tanks rolled on by. But a few days later, everyone who lived in the next farmhouse over was found dead, shot, with their tongues nailed to the kitchen table. The one was saved, the others were murdered.
Is that God’s nearness and grace? Continue reading
I love Halloween. I also love Reformation Day (which I realize puts me at odds with some fellow Episcopalians). Most of all, I love All Saints Day (and I like the aesthetics of All Souls/Día de los Muertos, though I find it theologically problematic). It has always felt right to me that these three celebrations go together, jack-o-lanterns and all. My All Saints post from a few years ago is still one of the better things I’ve written, where I talked about the healing bond holding us together with all those we love, as well as those we can’t imagine loving yet, living or dead. That’s the All Saints aspect of the whole thing.
But I also like the Halloween aspect.
All the “me toos” on Facebook remind me of certain aspects of Judaism I admire and sometimes envy, particularly the willingness to let evil and suffering just be evil and horrible without trying to fit it into a narrative of redemption, or at least not any redemption that one presumes to be able to imagine yet. Because there is nothing good, beautiful, or redemptive about any of this.
It takes a very appealing sort of courage and hope to live with evil that is just evil, and still say baruch atta adonai. I think this is why, for example, there’s never been much enthusiasm for rebuilding the temple, quite apart from the practical difficulties that would attend such a project. Until the Messiah comes, rabbinical Judaism doesn’t presume to know what a redeemed world would look like (and the Messiah could probably rebuild the temple without destroying the dome) [Jewish friends: please feel very welcome to offer correction to this characterization of your religion, should you find it warranted]. Continue reading
What we want isn’t always what we need, is it? The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith. He told them not to worry about it. All they needed was a mustard seed’s worth. He told another parable about a foolish person who built a huge grain silo only to die the very night when it was finished. Continue reading
You know that sort of article that seems a bit off to you, but when you try to put your finger on why, you can’t quite find anything particularly wrong or egregious? I just read one of those a few days ago. It’s by a guy named Carey Nieuwhof and it’s about how going to church no longer makes sense. I agree with every point he makes.
St. Brigid of Kildare, whose feast is today, is the unofficial patron of Brent House, my spiritual home at the University of Chicago and my sponsoring community in the ordination process. Patroness of scholars, brewers, and dairy workers, defender of peasants, ascetic for the sake of joy, and worker of delightfully over-the-top miracles. Like Brent House, a symbol of everything good in the world.
The story is told that she once asked the king for land on which to build a monastery (which would have also been what we would call a community center). The king in question was more concerned with his own revenue than with his communities, so she told him that she only needed as much land as her cloak could cover. After he agreed, she threw her cloak on the ground and it covered the whole county. A reminder of who the land really belongs to, and what it’s for.
Now the United States of America is a bit bigger than Kildare, but that makes no difference to God. Thanks everyone, for all the ways you are reminding our worthless leaders whose this land is, and what it’s for. Don’t forget to take care of yourselves while you’re at it. Drink a beer, if you can do safely, and eat some ice cream or cheese. We also resist what is evil by celebrating and sharing what is joyful.
O God, by whose grace your servant Brigid, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.
(Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Collect for Feast of St. Brigid)
And check out this beautiful icon from the Church of St. Brigid in Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about it and about her.
Donald Trump is trying to take away our humanity. He is doing this by cutting us off from one another. But Jesus came to make us divine by making us fully human, which requires us to share a commitment to a common world and a common conversation with one another, no matter how strange our voices sound to each other. Look what Trump is doing: he is impeding communication, and thus communion. Whether it be by silencing government employees, defunding humanistic research, building his wall, or blocking immigration and denying asylum. He tells his lies about groups of people so that we will not be able to talk to them or listen to them, and he does it expertly–the Lord rebuke him!
But all it takes to resist Trump is what those of us who are committed to the Gospel are going to do anyway: we have to refuse division and create communion. When Trump cuts off channels of communication, we have to open new ones. What this means concretely depends on where you are and who you are. But one thing we can all do is pray, including (especially!) for our enemies.
I am currently working on an article that is partly on Augustine’s On Christian Teaching. I was despairing about its relevance or usefulness to our present struggles when I came across this in one of my secondary sources:
Communication is a necessary condition for community; but direct communication between human minds, a transparency of mutual understanding, is not possible in the fallen human condition. Language arises from the conflict of this impossibility with the natural human need for community…For Augustine semantic activity–understanding and communicating through language–was the index of the human need for transcendence in the most general terms: for union with other minds in the very act of understanding a shared world.
-Robert Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity (Liverpool University Press, 1996), pp. 110-11
But as Augustine explains in De doctrina and elsewhere, to put a short-circuit what other people and other things mean is to defy the very work of the Incarnation. It is a false judgment that loves and regards others as having no value. It cuts us off from them and them from the beauty and goodness of the whole creation. To use Augustine’s words, it is to fail to see them and thus ourselves as signs.
So the good news: Jesus has already undone what Trump is trying to do. Pentecost undid Babel. Just as we can pray for each other even we really don’t like or understand one another, we can also commit to seeing ourselves as part of the same conversation. For anyone to attain the transcendence which Augustine diagnoses as the basic desire behind all of our communication, we need every human being in on the conversation. This does not mean that we all speak the same language or say the same things. When the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, the first Christians did not all start speaking the same language. They started speaking every language.
The fullness of conversation is something that will have to emerge amidst all the tensions, failures, and misunderstandings of our glorious cacophony. But to invoke one more Augustinian conviction, there is another voice speaking behind and through ours, enabling understanding to emerge. It is the “light that enlightens all peoples,” the Word of God.
God’s word is not chained. So don’t despair, and don’t believe the lies. Call your representatives, find a march to attend, invite someone different from you to coffee. And for the love of God, pray! Trump may have invoked God in his inauguration speech, but he has actually declared open warfare on everything God is trying to do. He will fail. He will go the way of Nebuchadnezzar and Nero. He may be saved, but his works will lie in ruin. Sad.
Fetal Heartbeat bills have been making the rounds in conservative states since about 2011. Such bills restrict abortion to the period of time prior to the fetus having a heartbeat. If a heartbeat can be detected, then abortion is illegal. These bills have been proposed in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming. None of these bills have successfully become law, but in the wake of Trump’s election, the Ohio state legislature decided to test the waters: The House and Senate of that state passed the bill and sent it to the governor. He vetoed it–knowing it would not stand up in court as long as Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land. Continue reading