SPU, Ferguson, and a New School Year: A Sermon

I was honored to be asked to be the preacher at Seattle Pacific University’s Faculty Retreat this week. In the wake of the shooting on our campus at the close of our academic year last year and the reminders of our violent and chaotic world in Ferguson, Israel/Gaza, the Ukraine, I was especially aware of the weight of this moment for our faculty.

 

Making Words Incarnate: Anticipating a New Year in the Shadow of Violence

Good morning everyone. I would like to thank Jeff Keuss for his kind invitation to share with this you this morning. As I read the email I felt the weight of what this morning means for us as a community entering a new year even as the shadow of the previous three months continues to loom over us.

As I began to reflect and pray about what this morning and this year might mean for us, I continued to return to Mary. This might be an odd choice, but in Mary I found this particular theme resonating again and again: What does anticipation look like in the face of an encounter with something we cannot and do not understand?

This theme, I think, is particularly important for us as a place of “higher learning.” We are a people devoted to questions, to inquiry, to understanding what is not presently understood. But what happens when we experience something that we cannot stretch our questions around? Its circumference is simply too much to take in with one look, and it leaves us shaking in the few glimpses that we manage.

As we anticipate a new year we have been encountered by such a reality. The reality of a world that seemed distant has come far too near. We are a people who now know what it means to cry out and lament and question. Perhaps your first few steps back to campus were ambivalent ones. Certainly our students, many of whom were wary of leaving may now be fearful of returning. We do not simply know about violence in the world. Our community has encountered it in a real way and we are different because of it. How will our questions change, I wonder.

At this point perhaps you are wondering, “This use of Mary seems a bit off-putting, Brian.” Mary’s encounter was news of a miraculous birth and a savior at that!” In the face of such violence how does Mary point us to hope?” Yes, Mary’s encounter with the angel was certainly one of joy and hope. Her song of response begins with a litany of praises and acknowledgements of God’s goodness.

But let us not forget that these confessions are made in the face of a reality that this promise would also ask something of her. It would ask her to enter into a space of risk. She was a young girl whose people were impoverished and subjugated and as a woman was utterly dependent upon a marriage to sustain her. And yet this news declared to her that she would enter into a space of disgrace, at best if Joseph did not break off their covenant. Good news indeed?

In the face of this utter mystery and fearful reality, her question is this, “How can this be for I am a virgin?” How can this be… how can it already have happened, how is this reality already present to me? Mary does not choose this encounter or its consequences and yet her question is one of wonder… of bending herself into the presence of what has happened, to her, her people, and the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy.

Mary’s question is not the question of Zechariah, who, faced with a similarly miraculous announcement sought to find certainty in the utterly mysterious, “How will I know this is so…” but was left silent, unable to contribute to the unfolding drama that was God’s work in them and among them until the very end.

Mary’s question is an opening to the mystery, however fearful and risky it might be, to the transformation this encounter will require of her. She is now pregnant with possibility. What does our encounter mean for us? What has changed for us? What marks us now? What will our questions be?

These transformations are so often difficult to anticipate, but they come upon us in sudden moments of realization. I still remember my first trip to the mall a few days after my first child, Caleb, was born. I was getting some more film for the camera and as I was walking my heart jumped when I heard a baby cry. I had been to the mall hundreds of times before and never once had I noticed the cries or laughter of the babies or noticed the tiredness of their mothers and fathers. But when I heard that child cry on my first trip to the mall as a father, that child was my child. That mother’s tiredness was my tiredness. I could not walk through the mall without hearing new sounds. I experienced my world in a new way now.

Something has happened to us. We have been touched by the reality of the world’s senselessness but in the midst of that we also have been reminded that even chaos cannot resist love and dark cannot overcome the light. There is nothing that cannot be made new. And as we hold on to this promise will our ears hear in new ways? We have been touched with a reality that makes us different, where we do not simply know that school shootings happen, but the news shoots down our spine and makes our knees weak. How will we see differently? What will our presence in the world be now?

In this encounter we now participate, hear the reality of this world in a new way – and as we do, I wonder if we are not on the precipice of a new possibility. Perhaps this possibility is not too distant for us. Even as we gather together again it is not only our community that has been touched. This fall students and faculty will return to campus with a profound reminder of how little black bodies are regarded as Michael Brown lay dead in a street for four hours, as the cries for justice were choked by tear gas and beat back by rubber bullets, and those throughout the country who felt the pain of this community were met with steely silence or pseudo-rationalized appeals to “wait for the facts.”

Some of us return to this community still sensing the dual atmospheres of those who feel our pain and rage only to enter a new room where life roars back in as we raise our head out of the waters of suffering…

Will our bodies respond to the news of a community’s rage over an equally senseless death of its young men and women? Perhaps most communities would not know what to do with the questions connected to such senseless violence. Most communities would not know what to do with the anger that lies beneath the surface with the realization that we are not as safe as we thought.

But that community is not us anymore. Perhaps you do not know what it means to be black in America, but you know what it means to have your community marked by the intrusion of violence. You may not know what it means to be a community perpetually criminalized and marginalized, but you know what it means to try to convey with a family member the fear or sadness you feel and have them look at you with eyes that do not see you and so they never ask you anymore questions, journey with you any farther than what is comfortable for them.

You, we, are different now. We are burdened with hearing cries and joys and laments. In this encounter our community can now conceive new people.

Will we sing with Mary in the face of uncertainty and our neighbors uncertainty, “How can this be?” with a confession that God is already present. Will we allow our words conceive lives of righteousness that expose the prideful, bring down the powerful from their thrones, feed the hungry with good things?

And perhaps this is what Christian higher education might begin to mean – that we fall into mystery unafraid to become something new, something foolish. That we are unafraid of the question that makes us uncomfortable. That we are not afraid to bind ourselves to children, to questions, to causes where assessment is insufficient.

Perhaps Christian higher education begins to look more like the work of an artist where our vocation is a prophetic creativity.

I spend much of my time in the university art department just looking at the student’s work. I am in awe of the technical proficiency, but even more, I just allow the images to soak into me. But after awhile I will peak back in the classrooms and studios where the students are learning and working. And I marvel at how a few pigments became and image that could well up within me deep despair or joy. How a few scraps of wood and rubber hose set out as waste can become a structure of hope and redemption. But even more, I marvel at the artists who mingle their own pain and joy and questions, skill and technique with these seemingly insignificant materials to create something that resonates with me. Every piece of art is nothing short of a miracle. Art is incarnation.

And perhaps this is the point of Christian higher education. Perhaps this is our calling this year. In our encounter with the heinous, will we mingle our words and work and lives with the questions that seem so foreign to us? In asking “How can this be?” each day we open ourselves to the growing reality of God’s presence in our midst. We are blessed by the burden of its weight, of its discomfort, its pressure. But most of all we are blessed to participate in the reality of God’s kingdom, both already and not yet. Mary’s witness is an icon of our daily work… that the possibility of justice and love lay in the ordinary and unexpected places and even in the midst of our unknowing.

May God’s peace be with you all this year.

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Reflecting on Ferguson with Frederick Douglass

“The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,- sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.” (Frederick Douglass)

In the many arguments for slavery there was an insidious and persistent rhetoric that attempted to portray slaves (and all black bodies) as lazy, violent, sexually promiscuous, and unconcerned with hard-work, family life or the cultivation of their bodily, intellectual and spiritual personhood. This rhetoric served to legitimize slavery but even more served to create an image of black bodies in the white mind. This image would serve to mediate the interactions between whites and blacks throughout the history of the United States, but even more perniciously, frame any conversation about equality, rights, violence, marriage, or any other issue that effected black America.

We see the perniciousness of this visual rhetoric on full display as America must confront yet another killing of a black man by white authorities. But even more visibly, we are seeing just effective and malleable the rhetoric, this time of black criminality, is when buttressed by the illusion of authority and militarized power. But even more disconcerting is the utter silence of so many who are watching as civil rights are being routinely ignored and a city comes under quasi-military rule, not for the protection of its citizens, but for the protection of those with power. 

But I keep coming back to this quote by Frederick Douglass. Douglass reminds us that the “so-called” problems of black bodies was not a matter of their “natural” predilections, but rather directly tied to the sinful practices of white people and their institutions. And yet, the power of whiteness is such that the response to the institutional reality (a molotov cocktail tossed against an armored vehicle, for instance) becomes an indictment of a whole people or town and thus the justification for even more violence, repression, or inequitable policies. 

Douglass’ implication of the church should be a warning to the contemporary church. While we may not teach racism in our Sunday school classes, our silence serves as a tacit suggestion that black criminality is the norm and the response of law enforcement is justified. Our silence confirms the lies of the Ferguson police who have engaged in a systematic campaign to criminalize a young black boy and repress a community. 

Perhaps our churches are not filled with women-whippers and baby-stealers, but God forbid we be the people who stand by and watch as others do the dirty work, secretly thinking to ourselves, “Well, this is what they deserve.”

The story is longer and deeper and darker than we could ever imagine. And we cannot be Christ’s body until we confess to its centrality to this story. Douglass reminds us that the attempts to silence critiques of black bodies can never be isolated from the white violences that brought black bodies to this land and perpetually worked against their flourishing throughout America’s history. 

The events in Ferguson put on display how these violences continue in America and are irrevocably bound to the images and rhetoric of what the black body is and what is justifiable. If we are Christian, how will we refuse this rhetoric? How will we disrupt the narratives that serve to diffuse the justified rage we must feel in the face of such senseless violence against black bodies in the United States?

Being Baptized with Goggles On

This morning I watched with wet eyes as my youngest son Joseph was baptized by my wife, Pastor Gail Song Bantum. It was emotional on a number of levels. He is our youngest and last to be baptized. His baptism reminds me of the baptisms of his older brothers and how much has changed since their bodies were submerged into waters of death and life. I have been blessed to see all of my children grow into a knowledge of Jesus and a desire to walk with him in their lives. None of us are perfect, but we are all seeking to live into his image day by day.

Joseph’s baptism was just as special but also somewhat different because of the sheer excitement he had for this day. Having watched his older brothers and others be baptized, he has been literally counting down the days, confirming the details of where he would stand and what he would say. His exuberance for this moment has been a joy and a blessing to my own walk.

And as it is with every child, Joseph entered into those waters with his own story. In fact, his baptism was perhaps different than most because he was baptized with goggles on. And not just your little “Michel Phelps-speedo-olympic-racing-goggles” but the “snorkling-looking-for-exotic-fish-goggles.”

302904_10152809004920052_1501291130_nIn talking with him in the last year about baptism and about his readiness for this part of his walk with God, he was always excited, but scared. He didn’t want to get his face wet and he was especially scared of getting water in his eyes and his nose. “Maybe we should just wait” my wife and I thought, “until he can do it without the goggles…”

But that day did not seem to be coming and it was becoming increasingly clear that he was ready for this step in his life. So we said, “You wanna wear goggles for baptism? You can wear goggles for your baptism!”

He appeared to the church to the amusement of all with giggles and cheers. But in some ways I was deeply struck by the symbolism of my goggle-wearing son on his baptism day.

So many of us are waiting for the perfect set of circumstances before we give ourselves up to the death and life Christ makes possible for us. Sometimes we want complete the work ourselves on the front end to die to our fears and die to our transgressions or just die to the embarrassment of being the center of attention.

But here was my son, submerging his fears along with his faith. He was still afraid of the water, not sure of what was going to come but in his nasally proclamation of faith beneath his full-faced goggles he was also professing that a life of following is not the presentation of a perfectly disciplined life put on display for all to see. Rather, our life of following is a profession of the fears we struggle with and willfully submerge into the waters of Christ’s life and death for us.

My prayer for Joseph is that someday he will not be afraid of getting his face wet. And I am sure he will soon enough. I am sure that his life will slowly conform to the image of Christ whom he loves and adores. But I also hope that he continues to faithfully confess his weaknesses and submit them to Jesus. In doing so today, he preached to me and reminded me that it is not the perfections of my life that God desires, but the continual truthfulness of my confession. God will do the rest.

Is There a “New Black Theology?” Yes and No.

Last week I had the distinct privilege of sitting on a panel with Willie James Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and Edward Philip Antonio with Joanne Terrell responding. The panel was convened by the Black Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meetings in Chicago, IL from November 16-20.

The title of the panel was “Towards a New Black Theology?: Going Back in Order to Move Forward!” and centered upon the work of Jennings (The Christian Imagination), Carter (Race: A Theological Account), and myself (Redeeming Mulatto) and how we intersect with and diverge from Black Theology. As a panel we did not directly address the nomenclature “New Black Theology” which is not a terribly apt term for the work that we do, but it would also be a mistake to suggest that we are not indebted to Black Theological reflection either. The question of the name is less important than our hope that people might begin to enter into the problems and possibilities that animate our theological work. In the presentations we each, in our own way, sought to highlight both our connections to traditions and sensibilities of Black Christian thought as well as highlight how we are imagining a way forward.

9780300152111It was truly a gift to share this time with my dear friends and those who took time to participate in the conversation. Sadly, a recording of our presentations is not available (to my knowledge) and would convey more fully the spirit with which we do our work. But in lieu of that I would like to share my presentation from the panel discussion and would welcome any thoughts.

What follows is the text of my presentation, “Theology From and To: What is Mulatto Theology?”

I still recall my first encounter with James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power as an undergraduate student. In this book I discovered that a text could catch you in an unequivocal stare. It was a holy, furious, and prophetic stare, one that seemed to require you to account for yourself, to decide. Looking back upon this moment I am reminded that this is theology at its best – that a text is never a mere collection of words, but when one wields them skillfully and with passion and insight they cut us to the quick, require us to examine ourselves, our commitments, our hopes. What does it mean to stand within this tradition? But as well, what is the relationship of this tradition to other expressions of Christian existence? This morning I will take a few minutes to consider the relationship between Black Theology and my own work, which I characterize as a “mulatto/a theology.”

To begin to think through this question today I want to highlight three points and the way in which I have been informed by the Black theological tradition.

  1. (sources) – what informs the work
  2. (particularity) – who does the work
  3. (telos) – what is the aim of the work

I. Sources

From its very inception, Black Theology has been both an attempt to liberate the black body from the oppressive vestiges of Western economic, social, and theological hegemony. At the heart of this project has been a re-appropriation and re-evaluation of what sources are determinative in casting a theological vision of black experience in the West and particularly in the United States.

Victor Anderson has brilliantly pointed out in his work Beyond Ontological Blackness, that the retrieval project of the black Christian tradition (namely the slave spirituals and narratives) aimed to buttress the lineage of Black Theology’s primary concerns within a broader African American Christian narrative. As well, Anderson points to the difficulty in locating a coherent narrative from within these various disparate sources especially regarding their often-contentious relationship to the white-dominated abolitionist movement. Anderson’s critique is representative of an inherent difficulty in Black Theology’s seemingly perpetual tension regarding which sources are faithful and expressive of the African diasporic reality and which sources represent colonial modulations that gave rise to that diasporic reality.

To think through this tension it is helpful to turn briefly to James Cone’s navigation of this challenge. While Black Theology certainly cannot be distilled to James Cone, his negotiation of this challenge highlights one of the fundamental marks of Black Theological reflection. In Cone’s work the question of sources became an incredibly elegant and prophetic display of swords turned to plowshares (or perhaps plowshares turned into swords) as the theological conceptions of Jesus’ humanity and divinity resisted becoming parroted repetitions of a Western “orthodoxy.” Instead Cone ventured into this “Christo-logic” so deeply that he broke open new ways of imagining the “classical.” Cone’s conception of deifying the black body through the logic of the communicatio idiomatum and thereby articulating the presence of all oppressed dark bodies in Jesus’ body Cone re-imagined a doctrinal loci. This re-imagination of theological claims continued the theological tradition of Black Christian thought and life in its creative appropriation of oppressive ideologies and turning them into modulations of Christian resistance and liberation.

He turned the “Sound of Music” into jazz, if you will, he Coltrane-ified the Christological formulations of “creedal” theological ideas.

While questions of sources have been central to Black Theological reflection and informed from whom I take my theological cues and points of intersection, Black Theology can be seen not only as a question of sources, “Is Christian theology sufficient or inherently oppressive, etc?” Rather, Cone displays a fundamental rhythm of Black Theology as a praxis of creative re-appropriation, re-interpretation, and re-deployment. In this way Black Theology, as an improvisational performativity, seeks to both articulate God’s work in the world and for the world. But even more, Black Theology has done so out of a deep commitment to the embodied moment from which our speech concerning God must arise. This leads me to a second consideration of Black Theology’s contribution to my own work, theology and particularity.

II. Particularity

I first read James Cone’s Black Theology, Black Power in the context of a church history course as an undergraduate. But while reading Cone’s work I had still, ringing in my ears, the prophetic jeremiads of David Walker and Henry Highland Garnett who took up the burgeoning American narrations of freedom and possibility, of Christian brotherhood and love and re-fashioned them into defiant refusals to accommodate the oppressive Christian distortions American national imagination and society.

One of Black Theology’s enduring contributions to theology is the insistence on enacting theology from within the situation of the black body. In the midst of this contribution, black Christian intellectuals also demonstrate how the black church was an exercise of the bodily commitment and presence of Jesus in the world. This commitment can be seen in the subsequent movements from Black Theology and the important contributions of womanist scholars. It is in relationship to this deep commitment to the body that my own work is both connected to Black Theological reflection as well as seeks to re-imagine the particularity of the body in our contemporary moment.

            Redeeming Mulatto takes up the situatedness of the black body in the American context but aims to complicate both the creation of the black body and its concomitant relation to the white body. RM does this through a theological examination of the mulatto or interracial body as a lens through which to explore how race works as a theological construct, but also how we might begin to theologically articulate difference (be it racial, ethnic, cultural) in more fluid and nuanced ways. This exploration culminates in re-envisaging of Christ through a mulattic personhood where difference is not an either/or (either black or white), but a new possibility of wholeness made possible through the incarnation and the life and practices of the church.

In this way the methodological center of RM is working out of the re-articulation of themes, plunging deeper into a particular Christian logic with an deep commitment to the bodily spaces that these theological claims occupy. But it is this commitment to bodily space that also creates a reconfiguration of this bodily space and hence a “mulatto theology.”

A mulatto theology articulates the significance of the body in relationship to the particularity of the multiple or the “in-between.” One particularity within this space is the reality of race and ethnicity, the constitutive reality that our bodies are marked by race. By race I mean a matrix of interpretation wherein the meaning of my body is both given to me – flowing towards me through various cultural, institutional, and interpersonal realities – and within which I attempt to live and be. Race is a reciprocal performativity that I am at once performing out of and which is performing upon me.

Understood as a process, mulatto theology articulates identity within the multiplicity, seeking to improvise and reconfigure in the midst of various realities that constitute one’s life and body. Among these include race, ethnicity, and gender. But as a theological exercise mulatto theology also articulates the fact of createdness, of Jesus’ particular body and life and identity as a reality that constitutes and performs upon individuals and humanity as a whole.

III. Telos

Black Theology as a praxis of improvisation with a commitment to the particularity of the body have contributed to and informed how I inhabit my own work and my calling as a theologian. But of course we must also ask the question, “to what end?” Black Theology is marked by the unequivocal commitment to the liberation of the poor and oppressed, to those marginalized by the economic, social, and theological regimes of power in such a way that those who are disempowered might faithfully envisage God’s work for and among the disinherited.

In the midst of this aim mulatto theology navigates a complicated space of multiplicity, seeking to make sense of how people can be entangled in attachments to both the regimes of power and the marginalized. Here the language of mulatto is intentional and guides an overarching methodological conviction. “Mulatto” – as a term inherited from a colonial system of classification which raped dark women and then deployed both the women and their children within the domestic economy – points to bodies that were both the product of exploitation, but who also inhabited these spaces in complicated and conflicted ways.

On the one hand these bodies were unequivocally “colored,” not-white and suffered the perpetual terror and humiliation of their fellow black brothers and sisters. But in the midst of this there also emerged societies and implicit (or explicit) biases regarding light and dark. The mulatto was certainly a victim, but they also embodied and deployed a certain power within a racialized society white light and dark were a type of currency.

What “mulatto” in a mulattic theological framework suggests is not the valorization of the mixed race body, nor the marginalization of the mixed race body. Rather, “mulatto” gestures towards the situatedness of bodies in a racial world where a person and a people occupy multiple spaces at once. The life of discipleship is navigating these various realities, discovering patterns of unfaithfulness as well as the continual possibilities that stand before us. “Mulatto” theology suggests that we stand in a space that is both transgressive and transgressed, that we cannot separate ourselves from the realities of our tragic beginnings, but that these realities do not exonerate us or protect us from perpetuating old terrors in new ways. We are children of mothers and fathers with complicated and tragic stories, but we cannot excise ourselves from them. A mulattic theology seeks to exist between these realities and discern patterns of faithfulness in their midst. Out of this reality a mulatto theology does not work to establish a cultural space or retrieve a tradition.

In a way, mulatto theology seeks to work against itself. Liberation is the creation of space where particularities become intermingled where sources and tradition become bound to aliens and strangers. Its aim is to make possible a vibrant and vital space where humanity’s possibilities become re-imagined in the various encounters of races and cultures, but above all in the ongoing encounters between God and humanity. In these encounters humanity becomes new again and again, being added to, molded, shaped, cut and knit-together. But because it speaks out of the inter-spaces, in the midst of a whole made from the many, mulatto theology is a modulation of possibility whose outlines are re-inscribed as we encounter others whose stories and realities find resonances in our stories.

And thus mulatto theology is irrevocably tied to slave spirituals and Walker’s jeremiads, and Cone’s confession of a Jesus who ontologically identifies with black experience. But it is also tied to the liminal reality of the migrant worker, and the perpetual foreignness of the Asian American. Mulatto theology stands bound to the courage and insights and wisdom of Black Theological tradition. But in relationship to this tradition mulatto theology also embraces the neither/nor and the ways in which these interstitial realities make space for new improvisations, new songs.

God and Marriage?

“I Believe:” A Confessional Response To NC Amendment 1

In the wake of the North Carolina Amendment formally defining marriage as between a man and a woman, I find myself wondering how we as Christians continue to find it difficult to imagine how God might transform and make things new, be revealed in surprising (even scandalous ways). I wonder if the answer to these questions is always such a radical either or. I wonder if we might begin to pray to a God who, in revelation, points us to new possibilities, but also picks up the pieces of what we were. In the midst of this all I can imagine saying is a confession, some words not about who we are or what marriage is, but who God is. What follows is a confessional response that I hope might be a different starting point.

We Believe

We believe in a God whose very Word turned darkness into light.

We believe in a God who made clay breathe and speak and move.

We believe in a God whose name could not even be voiced, and then allowed himself to be named and nursed and taught by a teenage girl.

We believe in a God whose back burned the face of Moses, but became a face, a body that ate and wept and laughed and cried and died.

We believe in a God who made fisherman into linguists.

We believe in a God who made the lost found.

We believe in a God who makes death into life.

We believe in God who brought eternity into time.

We believe that three can be one and that one can be three.

And yet…

And yet?

Religion and Jesus

imagesReading the various debates about the recent spoken word about Jesus and religion has been a surreal experience because I am in the midst of teaching a class on Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian who coined a rather famous (or infamous) line regarding religion, “religion is unbelief” he would eventually say in his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics. But re-reading his Commentary on Romans, I am not sure Barth’s quip is so easily applied to the present resistance to “religion” (re: institutions and doctrine) in favor of Jesus. Barth writes, “Religion is neither a thing to be enjoyed nor a thing to be celebrated…” (258) Barth wrote this in the midst of an extended reflection on religion as a refusal of God and of our creatureliness. Some might take (and have taken) Barth to mean that instead of religion we need Jesus rather than these man-made edifices of institutional power. And yet, Barth’s continuation of this thought is revealing and perhaps instructive for all of us who carry such deep suspicions of religion and its seemingly nefarious institutional baggage. The full quote reads, “Religion is neither a thing to be enjoyed nor a thing to be celebrated: it must be borne as a yoke which cannot be removed.”

Barth does not suggest that the death of religion takes place when we our recognize the frailty and lack of perception contained in institutional power or assertion. Rather, religion constitutes a fundamental part of what it means to be a creature who is trying to figure out a way, any way, to determine our selves. Religion does not need to be an institution. Religion can just as easily be Jesus, soccer, democracy, marxism, capitalism, sex, chauvinism, or “purity.” Religion is always with us, because we are fallen human beings. One cannot simply choose to not follow religion.

Perhaps before we begin to exhort one another to lose religion and look to Jesus, we might begin by asking ourselves why we are so sure we are the ones who can see him. To face this question we might have to face the reality that we do, in fact, need others to discern who that peculiar, wonderful, frightening person was. Some of these are people on the margins, some are people in institutions, some are even people who began on the margins and found themselves at the heart of the church, while others began at the heart of the church and ended up at the margins. None of this is to dismiss the sentiment described by the poet or any of us who want more from our spiritual lives, who want to serve God with greater passion and clarity of purpose. The question is can we do this by   simply forgetting “religion,” whatever that might mean to you?

The point is, when we are by ourselves, discerning the identity of a man who is not with physically with us, it is easy to take deluded solace in the possibility that he looks like us, cares for what we care for, and will call us his “bff” when we see him again. But it is only when we begin to take seriously the many voices (whether in scripture, in the church, or outside of the church) of those who have reflected upon his life and reflected upon the lives of those who reflected upon his life, that we get both clearer about who he is, and in so doing become more awe-struck and silenced. May we, each day, confess our compulsion towards religion and even our attempts to draw Jesus into control.

Waiting: Reflection on Good Friday

On this Good Friday morning I woke with a weight. It was a heaviness in my words, my thoughts, my movements. I would like to say it came from my intense reflection upon the last day of Jesus, the depth of the sacrifice he would make.

But truthfully, this morning I am brought back to the mornings of my parent’s deaths from cancer, nine years apart. On each day we were visited by the hospice volunteers and told that it was “going to be soon.” What do you say in those moments, what do you do in the meantime? Has everything been said? Has everything been done before I find myself without this person who has been my beginning, my nurturer, my friend?

168052252_eedee29bb2_bSo the remainder of the day is spent waiting, sitting, stirring with movements that seem so full of meaning that you can’t move without something spilling out. So we walk and talk and laugh tepidly, trying to keep all the words, history and questions of what will life look like after she’s gone, keep these words and thoughts contained within glasses we are so scared to empty.

What do we do as we wait for death? As we wait for the end of a time with our loves, our joys? Waking up this morning the death of Christ is too close. Reading of Christ begging for another cup is too close to seeing my mother’s mourning what she will not see in us as we grow. Reading of Christ’s last breath is too close to sitting with my mother as she wheezed and struggled for breath and all we could do is offer her insignificant drops of water to ease her last moments in this life. Pondering Christ’s body lowered from the cross is too close to seeing her body slowly carried down the stairs and disappearing into darkness.

Sometimes it is just too much.

But of course Christ knew this. Of course Christ knew the pain of my mother, of my father, knew the mourning they would endure not only in their last moments but throughout the course of their life and Jesus would submerge himself into it, into the the waters of our suffering.

So as this weight follows me through this day, my prayer is that this proximity of Jesus and my parents, of Jesus with their pain and our family’s loss might persist. I pray that it might persist in the questions of Saturday, but even more, that the absence of Friday might be enveloped with presence on Sunday. I pray that my parents’ closeness to Christ in their last days became an intimate union of life with the Father, Son and Spirit where there is no gap between questions and answers, longing and fulfillment, brokenness and healing, where these cups of our lives are ever pouring out and being filled within the fountain of God’s life.

And I pray that they are waiting, hoping for me and all those who remain in time with questions that are so difficult to answer.