Separation and Presence – God in Human Experience

Christian theology begins with separation.

AloneIn Genesis, the separation is told in the story of the Fall.   The Fall is a mythical account of humankind’s separation from God.   It tells how existence is ripped from God’s immediate presence.  Separation from God precipitates into separation from one another.  This is a central aspect of the myth.   Adam and Eve, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the apple, Adam & Eve’s shame, then banishment, and Cain killing Abel – all tell the story of humanity’s end of innocence.  It is a divine drama about the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and the power of agency.  Ultimately, the Fall is about our discovery of a knowledge that does not forgive.  It is the knowledge of good and evil, our separation from one another, suffering and its consequences.

We moderns easily over-interpret and under-interpret the Fall.  Our celebration of science, perspectives, and individual want for control make it easy to miss or avoid its point.  If we forget that the Fall is a story about the human condition, it is easy to miss its message about our essential separation   The point is that human experience eventually reveals a profound and fatal separation at the core of our existence.  It is a separation so deep and irreparable that it can only be explained as separation from God.  More than any individual act of transgression or feeling of personal guilt, our basic separation from one another and God is the heart and soullessness of sin.  The two are entwined, coincident and reconciled together.

Focusing on the personal dimension of sin eclipses the more important claim that it is deeply embedded in our shared memory of human experience.  This is what such a myth does.  They provide a window into our shared human condition.  In a sense, the myth of the Fall is not personal.  Singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, doesn’t get lost in dogmatic doctrines or theological arguments.  Her song, “Woodstock,” conveys the Fall and its effects in simple poetic terms: “We are stardust; we are golden.  We are billion year-old carbon.  And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

The garden is the Garden of Eden.

Getting back to the garden is difficult, if not impossible.  The search for our original innocence, let along our journey back to it, is fraught with insurmountable problems.  Neither philosophy nor theology have been able to build a bridge back to the garden.  In fact, our most popular and sought after solutions to this fundamental problem of separation seem to say more about sin and its effects than its solution.  Here are two examples:

jesus_savesHistorically, evangelical Christians offer a simple formula.  They say we just need to accept Jesus as our personal savior.  Then, the breach of sin & our separation is repaired.  God repairs the human condition.  God offers both grace and judgement, and reaches to us in our helpless situation.   We are lost in sin.  We are separated from God.  But, if we have faith, all will be mended.   This is what it means to be saved.   So long as the saved believe in the bible, and interpret it the way they’re supposed to (which changes over time), the saved can return back to the garden.  The saved are heavenbound.   The way back to the garden is right religion.

One big problem with the salvation formula is that it doesn’t really work.  Sin and separation persist in the human condition even after you’re saved.   On the one hand, saved persons still experience temptation to sin on a personal level.  The formula focuses on sin and salvation in its personal dimension.  It focuses on choice and our individual want for control.  Personal piety is important when dealing with sins, before and after salvation.  The saved need a way to constantly remind themselves that sin is truly overcome and salvation is theirs.  The path back to the garden is right religion and good behavior backed by a program of constant maintenance.  This is where the persistence of sin shines through its solution.

Maintaining belief in your personal salvation means the saved will collectively project the persistence of sin out onto the world.   Sin is projected on “this evil age” and everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do.  The path back to the garden is restricted to those who understand sin and separation rightly, as well as its final solution.  To maintain exclusive rights to the way to heaven, many evangelical Christians relentlessly separate themselves from everyone who doesn’t fit their perspective.  There is always an out-group:  heathens, Catholics, Mormons, feminists, lesbians & gays, and Liberals.  Not everyone gets back to the garden.  Self-righteousness, therefore, becomes another form of our true separation.  In this brand of Christianity, sin and separation manifests in a uniquely religious form.  The evangelical formula reflects and reinforces the human condition more than its opposite.

Other kinds of contemporary spirituality deal with our separation from one another and God in other ways.  Some deny God altogether.  Atheism – professed and practical – is one way to dispose of the Fall as a myth.  Other spiritualities deny our separation from God or that sin exists.  Since I’m more concerned with clarifying faith than discarding it, I’ll focus on the latter.

higher consciousnessMany contemporary spiritualities profess that we are always already in the presence of God.   Separation is an illusion.  Focusing on sin, or the sheer negativity of sin, is the root of the problem.  God is always already here.  God is in us.  God is around us.  God is in our relationships.  God may, in fact, be our very relatedness to each other and all things.   Such spirituality is relentlessly positive.

What characterizes alot of popular spirituality is the way it rejects the wisdom of the Christian tradition.  It stays with the positive while avoiding or being elusive with regard to its negative aspects.  The myth of the Fall is either a relic of irrelevant religion, or sin is rejected because it receives so much emphasis.  Between these two, our experience of deep separation becomes psychological problem, an medical issue, or a matter of perception.  It is not  shared human experience of universal condition.  Such claims are antiquated, or simply not pleasant.

Because evangelical Christianity dominates so many people’s understanding of what Christianity is, I can see why people look for something different.   I, too, have often wondered if the Garden is really here, all around us.  Life is a tremendous gift.  Creation is wondrous and awe-inspiring.  Our relationships have moments of perfection and are life-giving.  Perhaps, the problem of sin boils down to our perceptions and egoism.  Maybe there is just a profound veil over our spiritual eyes.

But, what I keep coming back to is that this veil of separation has real and material human consequences.  They, too, are all around us.  Perception and human action continue to create injustice and reproduce gross inequalities.  Such things are systemic.  Evidence of sin and separation are everywhere.  Controlling our awareness of others’ suffering or exposure to  inhumane conditions reflects our basic separation more than remedies sin as a human condition.  This spirituality, too, is counterfeit.

Not to mention, no matter how sharp our God-consciouness is, our awareness of God’s presence is easily undermined or distracted.  Life ensures it.  The feeling of union with God or communion with all things doesn’t last.  The rhythm of life, and the demands of those sacred relationships we seek and treasure knock us off kilter.  There is too much need and want both within and around us.  There is too much busyness.  We have uncooperative feelings.  We still have deep moments to isolation, separation (there it is again!), even feelings of being abandoned, out on our own.  Insurmountable ethical dilemmas remain.  Why is there suffering?  Why am I suffering?  Isn’t there an end to this conflict?  Why can’t the human family share and just get along?  Is the path back to the garden avoiding these conflicts or go through them?

We manage these issues on a personal level most days.  They, by nature, are spiritual.

We can address all these problems by focusing ourselves on God and in God.  But, it takes relentless effort.  The problems of personal, interpersonal, and collective life defy simple solutions.  We can retreat into spiritual practices, self-help, positive psychology, meditation, and higher consciousness.  Of course, none of this is wrongheaded.   We should not give them  up.   But, sin-as-separation persists and remains essential to our collective life.  Our relentless need to overcome it, or even deny it spiritually, are evidence of it.  The presence of God is often elusive in life.  At least, our individualism makes separation a belief system.  Sin – or whatever you want to call it – lurks, exists.

We want to get ourselves back to the garden.  But, can we?

I don’t believe we can get back to the garden.  If we do, we do so individually or in isolation from others, which only demonstrates how enduring the problem of sin and separation is in the human condition.  We can’t get back to the Garden of Eden because there is no path back.  The knowledge of human suffering, our basic separation from one another, and suffering its consequences do not forgive.  They endure, passed on through the actions of human beings and structures of society .  Society is the living memory of our shared past, the collective memory of past generations.  Escaping into our selves is not a solution, but evidence of the separation the Fall reveals to us.

There is no path back to the Garden of Eden because it is a place of moral and experiential innocence.  It is mythical. It is utopian.  It doesn’t exist.  The garden, like the myth of the Fall intends, is an imagined place.

The value of this myth is not that it conveys how bad, we, human beings essentially are.  I don’t believe that’s the point of the Fall.  Nor is it intended to scare us into believing for the sake of salvation.   The myth of the Fall preserves a profound and ancient human memory.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivanavasilj/8469984203/

“Together Alone” by Ivana Vasilj

On the one hand, the myth of the Garden preserves a memory of our essential relatedness.  Remembering the garden brings us back to an imagined place – beyond history and out of time – where humanity’s essential communion with one another and creation once existed.  Such communion is basic to our existence, so basic that it is best imagined in mythical proportions – pristine, pure, and created by a common creator.

On the other hand, the Fall remembers the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and power of our agency.  It preserves an understanding about our knowledge about good and evil.  It is a knowledge that does not forgive.   Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting human suffering, but remembering it.  It also means remembering what is possible by recalling what is was like before the need to forgive.

As Joni Mitchell recognized, getting back to the garden is important for framing one of humanity’s basic longings.  It is longing for a human condition other than suffering and separation.  It is a longing for redemption and restoration midst the human condition.  It is hoping for a place for peace and harmony between human beings midst creation.

Getting back to the garden can be a metaphor for creating a better world.   It doesn’t mean returning to a place that never existed, but preserving the memory of our essential union with God, with creation, and one another in both Jewish and Christian tradition.

The Garden of Eden may not be real.  But, as a metaphor, it points to something very real.  The Garden points to the presence of God in human experience, even midst our separation.  It is a presence so profound, it is more than an experience.  It is place within our historical common memory.

God’s presence may be fleeting, unwieldy, even wild and irrational in human experience.  But, it is also as essential to being human as separation and suffering.    The presence of God is often more difficult to define or describe than sin and separation.  Experiencing God has been described as terrifying (Rudolf Otto), ecstatic (the mystics), indescribable (negative theology) and beyond our ability to directly communicate (Kierkegaard).  That is why this experience belongs to spirituality, and its memory is preserved in its myths.  God’s presence is an experience that is dynamic and open to interpretation.  God’s absence attests to our separation as much as experiencing God in suffering and separation attest to God in human experience.

If Christian theology begins with separation, theology continues as a testament to God’s presence midst this condition.  If sin points to separation in human experience, experiencing God is equally a part of human existence.  Faith cannot overcome separation anymore than spirituality can immunize us from its consequences.  But, if both embrace all life’s experience, both affirm God’s presence and work within it.

…and, if this true, sin has already begun to die its own death.

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The Cross, or Why We Need It

ImageOne of the most awkward silences in liberal Christianity is its relative silence on the cross.   Far too many of us avoid discussing the cross, the meaning of the cross, and how sin shapes our lives.

What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice.   It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.

Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s.  It is dated July 16, 1944.

Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)

One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula.  It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.

The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images.  It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation.  The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation:  “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death.  Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”

Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world.   It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity.   The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news:  In sin, there’s no way out.  The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional.  Then, the invitation to salvation follows.

ImageWe must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation.  But, the whole transaction is in the abstract.  The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin.  Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama.  There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God.  God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice.  So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself.   Somehow, that’s grace.  If we personally believe this  backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted.  The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.

I have a problem with this transaction.  But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand.  Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems.  Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation.   But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients.  There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.

Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good.    Individually, this may be true.  However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice.   The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.

Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous.   But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears.   The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world.   In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.

As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world.  The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being.  Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this.  Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations.  The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history.  The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway.  Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.

Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.

Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life.  The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire.  Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence.  They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access.  Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable.  Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice.  Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive.  Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order.  The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.

In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world.  In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin.  The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story.  The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power.  But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives.   My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges.  It is not that I don’t “deserve” them.  Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them.  Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges.  In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals.   Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism.     Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.

The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours:   “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?”  Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance.  What is my responsibility?  Should others share in my life’s abundance?

Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus.  Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important.  It bears critical insights.  Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now.  Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst.  (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels.  We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship means believing upon him.

ImageBut, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world.  The cross is God’s death.   The cross is not an indictment against the Jews.   It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians.  Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus.  Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire.  It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death.   The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign.   The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death.  The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives:  Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me.  The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now.  Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture.  It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.

The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption.  It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will.  The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience.   On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh.   His death is the death of every person.   (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)

Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross.   Some come as victims.  Some come as casual observers.  Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence.  Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire.   We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death.    Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19)  Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.

God, or belief

Lately, I’ve felt the need to clarify some things.  Parker Palmer helps me understand this feeling in terms of my soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).  I believe my soul yearns to speak.  Writing is a way I can listen, and listen deeply.

My search for faith is central to my life.  It is a search that continues even as I write.  My search continues to lead me into some kind of testimony.  Some who read this might think that I’m talking about personal religious convictions.  But, that risks misinterpreting me.  It misses the depth of my search, its personal costs, and its impact on all that is.   Faith does not occupy some corner of my life.  Faith is not limited to religious identity, abstract doctrines, and metaphysical questions.  Life is experienced.  It is concrete, relational, sensuous, and palpable.  Faith embraces all these things.  In my soul, I want to express my life in terms of faith.   My heart quietly aches to express how I understand life  – who I am, who I am in this world, and who I am in relationship with others.  God is the one thing that makes any sense out of all these things.  So, that’s where I’ll begin.

I believe in God.  But, as important as my belief might be, it does not answer the right question.

American culture approaches religion in a particular way.  Historically, it obsesses on questions of belief.  When I was a child, believing in God was important.  I was asked about it alot.  I grew up in a Christian community.  It was dominated by a particular Christian denomination.  The church I was born into didn’t quite fit in.  My father was a committed Community of Christ member.  My mother was also a member of Community of Christ, but she grew up in the dominant church in our community.  It was a costly change of membership for her.  I was often asked about my belief in God from family, friends, and other church-goers.   A lot seemed to hang on this question.  My answer conveyed the state of my eternal life or immortal soul.  It also revealed what team I was on.  If I said I believed in God, I was at least in the right game.  I may not be a true believer, but at least I was not a lost soul needing salvation or, at worst, the enemy (atheist, humanist, pagan, even Mormon or Catholic).  A true believer meant that I believed in God, and I was a Christian like them.

No one ever said it to me as a child.  But, I learned early on that Christians often ask others about their belief in God not for theological dialogue.  Rather, it tell believers where others stand – where they stand with God, stand with religion, and which religion.  Belief in God is an important faith question.  But, when it’s asked primarily to determine someone’s identity, it betrays the question.  At some point, questions about faith and God went deeper than religious identity for me.  As I struggled with deeper questions, the distinction between faith and religion became clearer.   The longer I labored, the distinction between religious questions and questions of faith grew.  My questions changed and the answers changed.

When I was a child, religious questions and faith questions were more or less the same.  But, faith led me beyond religion, itself.  My search for faith took me beyond the religious questions that were once defined for me.  Life led to religious crises and other crises.  The need for faith moved beyond religious answers.  Life posed problems that made the need for faith more urgent, more encompassing, and distinct from strictly religious answers that limited God to religious problems, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.

I am at a point in my life when I feel the more important question is not whether I believe in God.  The more urgent question is whether God believes in me.  Does God love the world?  Is God in everyday life and its vast imperceptible web of relationship?  What relationship do I want with God (the incredible possibility of God!)?  Do I seek God in daily life?  What is God’s Spirit doing?  Will I allow faith to affect me – how I look at myself, interact with others, and act in the world that shapes me?  Is God at the center of my relationships?  How much of all that is in my control?  How much is totally out of my control?  How much of the world is God and how much is the world bearing down on me?  After I answer these questions, what do the answers really mean?  Does the faith I was born into and its resources shape some answers or who I yearn and strive to be?

This brings me back, once again, to religion in search of new answers with different questions.

The subtle shift from focusing on my belief in God to God’s belief in me and the world is profound.  The change in orientation is a turnaround.  It requires a different way of thinking.   Me, my identity, the religion I come from or now belong to is no longer the chief starting point.   Instead, the scope is broader.  Life dictates where I start, then I must consider what faith asks of me.  Where is God, the possibility of God, and the meaning of God in the world?  I find myself less concerned with religious questions – if that means topics that limit God to religion, isolated communities, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.  I am more concerned with what faith means in life.  There are so many questions.   I must consider the struggles over the fundamental relationships that define me and my life.  Faith reaches beneath the world’s definitions, its definition of religion, and religious appearances.  Religion eventually turns into faith questions.

My life’s journey has been a path of conversion.  I was born Community of Christ.  I was born a Christian.  I am now a convert to the search for meaning in God.  Born a Christian, I later discovered Christ.  I made the religion of my birth my own by transcending it, then returning to it.  I have a new relationship with Christianity and the world from which it comes.  Instead of having faith in my religion, I seek its source of faith.  This means going beyond our world’s way of knowing and its categories – including that of religion.  Neither I nor the world can limit God to religious spheres and mere personal perspective.  All this betrays the call to faith before it’s begun.   While the word “wrong” my scare some, I’m not interested winning a war of words.  Rather, I fight to defend the true meaning of faith.  We cannot simply constrain faith or God to narrow religious definitions or isolate them to personal opinions.  To do so is a distortion.

Do you believe in God?  As important as it seems, this may not be the primary or final question.  Does God believe in us?  Does God believe in the world?  Does God persist in the world despite our efforts to control and deploy its resources in our own way and for our own purposes and advantages?  To even consider “yes” as an answer requires the seed of faith, whose growth will bring you well beyond narrow definitions of religion.   That’s where conversion and reconversion begins.

God’s Cathedral of Prayer

A version of this testimony was first printed in the Lamoni Chronicle, December 8, 2011 edition, in the section”Everyday Blessings.”

satellite view of southern Lake Michigan (taken from nasa.gov)

In 2007, my family and I left home for Thanksgiving.  We were living in Chicago.  We were traveling to Michigan to have the holiday with my family.  Margo, my wife, was a Chicago public school teacher and having a stressful year.  She wasn’t feeling well that day, but we hoped that some rest would be good and help her feel better.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Katy and Kenzlee (my daughters) piled in the car with Margo and I, and we left for a three-hour drive along Lake Michigan’s coast to grandma’s in Grand Rapids.

We arrived safely at my mother’s home.  The day of Thanksgiving, Margo still wasn’t feeling well.  She slept through most of Thanksgiving.  Friday evening, her headache and stomach pain worsened.  On the way to the bathroom that evening, she collapsed to the floor.  A friend and I immediately took Margo to the closest emergency room.

Within an hour, our family’s life changed.   We learned that Margo had a dangerous and rare blood disorder.  She was admitted to the hospital.  I didn’t know it, but I began thirty of the most grueling days of my life that day away from home and in an out-of-state hospital.

Unfortunately, Margo didn’t respond to standard treatment for her disease and she ended up being unconscious for over two weeks.  During those weeks, I lived on a 36-hour cycle of staying up with her at the hospital for twenty-four hours and going to my mother’s to sleep for twelve.  The entire time, no one knew the outcome of our hospital stay.  I was learning through chatting with survivors of her rare disease on the internet that the disease was unpredictable.  Both survivors and Margo’s specialists assured me things would be OK, but day after day her blood work did not improve.  The feeling of the doctors and nurses went from serious to somber.

With two daughters and my wife’s prognosis unsure, I turned more and more to others for support and prayer.  Physically and emotionally, I felt indescribable stress.  I was without any control, helpless to do anything except watch the doctors hook her up to machines and wait for her blood work each day.  I talked to Margo and prayed with her, even though she was unresponsive.  I tried to calm her to keep her from seizures, which seemed to help.  I cried with her and prayed for her.

Before she went to ICU for the second time, one morning at 5:00am, I turned my face to Michigan’s gray sky and began to pray.   I felt as if I was going to break.  I turned to God in prayer desperate for direction and help.  During my prayer, something happened that I can only describe as a vision.  It forever changed the way I think about prayer and Christ’s church.

Eyes closed and deep in prayer, I wearily watch the sky open to behold a cathedral.  The inside of the cathedral was tall and immense.  I stood in the cathedral and saw the faces of people, some I knew and some I didn’t know, pass through the sanctuary’s open space.  I saw each one in their various settings.  I saw a woman praying for our family over her morning coffee.  I saw a man offering prayer as he was driving to work.  I saw a woman in a congregation standing in prayer, and a parent pushing a stroller silently holding a loved one before God in her thoughts.

The scenes of people praying and their faces continued to pass through the sanctuary several at once.  Somehow, I knew these images passing through the sanctuary were coming from all over the world.  It filled the space with the feeling of worship.  Somehow, I also knew that God was being glorified in each prayer, and what I was witnessing was God’s church in its invisible spiritual reality.

Later, I learned that prayer requests for Margo had spread through our church to Asia and Australia.  Friends and members were praying from far reaches of the globe.  One of our Jewish neighbors in Chicago also had her synagogue praying for our family down the street from our home.   Some of our non-religious neighbors were praying for us from the living rooms.

In that moment, I knew God was near me and that God was hearing not only my prayers, but the prayers of others.   The vision did not give me answers to my questions about the outcome of Margo’s hospital stay.  My terrible fear of the unknown and the incredible stress of our situation did not come to an end.  But, at some level, I received an indescribable peace knowing that God was present with me in my darkness and unknowing.  Somehow, I knew I was in God’s hands, buoyed up by the prayers of others.

I learned in the moments of that vision that God’s church exists far beyond our perception.  I learned that the church is spiritually gathered whenever and wherever we come to God and pray.

The persons and faces continued to pass through the sanctuary of that cathedral.  The earnest prayers of all who passed through its space made it holy.  As the vision closed and my prayer came to an end, I had the feeling of just being in worship.

Margo, my girls, and I went home near the end of December.  Margo was released to outpatient services in Chicago.  We fought the disease at home for another few months.   Today, Margo is living with her blood disorder and is doing well.  She experienced another episode in May of this year.  This time, she was not unconscious.  We came through it, again, together after a few months.

Life is uncertain, yet I remain changed by the vision I received that day in prayer in the hospital.  I know God hears our prayers and the prayers of others.  I know prayers are answered, not by receiving whatever we ask for, but by sustaining in God’s presence and promise.  I also know Christ’s church is gathered whenever and wherever, across the world, people turn to God and pray.  The spiritual reality of God’s church goes far beyond its physical presence and our worship goes beyond ourselves and the assurances of our five senses.  There is a spiritual reality in which God draws near to us whenever we draw near to God, who gives life-sustaining peace.

a powerful positive witness…without exclusions

At what point did sharing a personal testimony get caught up in sticky traps of “who’s right and who’s wrong?” Why can’t I share my search for God or love of church without fear that I sound like some close-minded religious fanatic? When did sharing my discovery of the Gospel become so complicated…complicated by those who would spin my story into some lecture about my religion or my church or my God at the exclusion others? And…what about those who don’t care, who share their faith and testimonies without grace and reinforce religious stereotypes? Today, the atmosphere around sharing a personal testimony or religious conviction has become a barrier for the church, corporately and for individuals. When did talking about faith became such a minefield?

If we look deep into the fabric of our world, we could go back to the Enlightenment for an answer. That was the period centuries ago in which the measure of truth in our Western world became fundamentally different. The Enlightenment was a turning point in the scientific revolution.  It marked a seismic shift in the authority of religious truth. Today’s politics of truth are shaped by this shift, especially the politics between religion and science. The Enlightenment opened the door to the idea that each mind, equipped with the power of observation and reason, could question and apprehend the truth and reality.  Truth, in this way, became distinct from its foundation in the church, revelation, theologians, and traditional authorities. The politics of truth between religion and science shape how religion and religious people are perceived today. It shapes our stereotypes about religious fanatics and their fanaticism. But, this doesn’t provide the whole answer.

The tension we feel about sharing our personal testimonies of God and religious convictions today are also shaped by the culture of the previous generation.   The 21st century is deeply shaped by end of the 20th.  While the Enlightenment raised the ongoing problem of “What is the truth?” and “How do we know it?”    The tension today around sharing our faith with others is less about how we know the truth and more about the question, “Who’s truth?”   It’s a question of religion and individualism. A generation of Babyboomers, born after WWII, struggled against nearly all external forms of authority – the authority of their parents, society, its institutions, even the past.   We live in the wake of that culture struggle. It shapes our world’s strong sense of individualism.  Today, the individual holds sway over all matters of religion, spirituality, morality, and society.  Individualism is a conviction that shapes both the Right and Left politically, our views of government, as well as most popular churches and forms of spirituality.

This is the reach of individualism.  After the Babyboom, personal testimonies, if they are more than personal stories, are subject to politics, i.e. the politics of religion and individual authority.   Individualism assumes religious testimonies and convictions belong to personal experience.  The truth of our faith and testimonies raise the question of “who’s truth?”   The politics of individualism are inherently defensive. Religious passion and conviction elicit this cultural clash between religious authority and personal experience or opinion. To guard ourselves against outside authority – whether other individuals, society, religion, traditions, institutions, or government – individualism tells us that personal experience and perspective shape reality. The politics of individualism puts tension between us and others because others are external authorities.  They are part of the world outside. Such individualism and its defensive politics muck up almost all possibility for any open exchange or trusting environment for people to talk about their life-changing experiences, faith, love of church, even God.   Being positive is good; too much religion is bad.

The problem is that personal testimonies cannot be more than personal under the sway of individualism, no matter how transforming, how convincing, how important, how deeply felt or how certain. If we push our faith or spiritual experiences off on others, it causes problems. If we share a personal testimony about God, church, or the Gospel, and generalize the certainty or power of our experience onto others, we simply do what many people – inside and outside the church – expect.  Religious people tend to be fanatical, self-righteous, and  judgmental.  Religion leads to close-mindedness and unilateral politics and truth-claims.  It’s inherently antagonistic to dialog and mutuality.  There is no room for differences.  Organized religion, especially, lacks integrity and limits individuality.

The challenge, of course, is that sharing our testimony is the heart of evangelism!   On the one hand, many of us who have experienced God, rapturous love, formerly evasive self-acceptance, or saving grace overflow ourselves.  The desire to reach out can bubble up.  On the other hand, we are also called to invite others into life with God’s hope and affection.   But, the difficulties individualism, defensiveness, and our politics of truth live in our skin.   Also, many of these barriers are our own making as Christians. How do we start all over? How do we take our testimonies beyond the church and its internal dialog? How do our message, mission, and identity reach beyond our community of the like-minded? Why has sharing our faith or witness with others become so offensive?

Theologians often intervene here, too.  They reshape the problem of individualism in a different way.  Theologians remind us that the authority of religious tradition, scripture, and church leaders endure.  We are often unaware of their deep roots and history, and are important.   Scripture, tradition, and the church’s collective life put our individual convictions and personal experiences in perspective. Individuals, by themselves, don’t speak for the church or all faith. But, this often ends up being a theologian’s argument. In our everyday world, we are called to share our testimony and invite others to Christ in a culture where the individual reigns and is held in utmost importance.  Even those of us in the church reflect this cultural conviction. Backed in a corner or disagreement, most of us aren’t afraid to assert our own authority. Most of us defend our personal convictions and spiritual experiences as individuals. We react strongly to anyone that seems to limit us – whether it’s church leaders, liberal or conservative Christians, atheists, or anybody else. In this way, even the church is shaped by individualism and its politics. The politics of truth are inside and out.

Individualism keeps us all safe from religion and outside authority by keeping faith personal.   Church leaders, as well as individuals in the pew, aren’t afraid to argue that personal testimonies and convictions don’t escape our experience and opinion. These are the very dynamics that make it difficult to share our personal testimonies, whether in the church or without.  If I share my testimony with too much passion or too much certainty, with too much conviction and push it off on others, it creates problems.   It gets in the way of anyone actually hearing my testimony. Defensiveness against authority colors everything.  Moreover, bold and forceful Christians reinforce the stereotypes. They are ambassadors of the truth – a truth that is self-righteous and exclusive.  Those who don’t want to be this kind of Christian let others define evangelism. We stay in our communities with like-minded people talking about outreach, but struggling to practice what we preach. We share our faith amongst ourselves. What about sharing it with others?

It’s been months since I’ve last posted. Life’s been full of busyness, changes in large and small proportion. But, the challenge to increase my witness has been brewing in me for some time.   It’s occupied my soul and mind as I’ve spent time alone with God, gone to meetings with church leaders, preached at services, and listened to the Spirit stirring beneath the surface. I’m in a period of transition in my life and I feel the challenge to focus my life and respond more fully with a greater sense of witness. There isn’t a better time than Easter morning to share the simple invitation again:

Share a positive witness of God’s boundless Love in Christ.  Share it honestly and vulnerable, in love and without exclusions.  Hazard your testimony.  Venture your witness.  Learn to tell your story in act and word – in public, with a friend, an acquaintance, online, at work, or in a moment when the Spirit leads you. Pray for that moment.

The way we share our testimony says as much as what we say. We can shape a new politics of love in Christianity, one that shatters the culture of individualism and old politics of truth. Let the church let go of forced choices – who’s right and who’s wrong, us versus them, my truth versus yours.  This is not God’s power struggle.   God is a God of new beginnings, spontaneous interactions, uncommon relationships, vulnerable opportunities, and new expressions.   Christ is our example of this vulnerability, risk, love and its mission. Welcome others’ reactions, their objections, different experiences and perspective. If others object or suspect us of forcing ourselves on others or begging a debate, share honestly. Deny the false choice. Our testimony just is, in all its vulnerably.  It bears no burden of proof other than its effect on us, so we don’t need to become defensive. There is nothing to defend.

Resurrection, itself, is a symbol of powerful positive witness…shared honestly and vulnerably in Christ, with love and without exclusions. Individualism and its politics of truth present us with a problem, but a new politics of love in the church doesn’t have to.  It can overcome.

dark moments and ways forward

It has been a hard 36 hours.   Margo and I learned something a couple of days ago that potentially halts important plans that have been months in the making.    The news was not a bump in the road; it was a deal-breaker.   It could halt everything and potentially change the direction of our next few years.

The bad news involved circumstances and realities that are completely out of our control.   Hearing the news made us all of the sudden feel very vulnerable, victims of an impersonal world and other people’s bad decisions.  I wish I could share more details, but they are both complicated and personal.  Suffice it to say, what’s important here is that our very sense of security and self-determination was completely undermined.  It created a feeling of insecurity and dread that I feel still. The outcome is unsure and the feeling lingers.

I know others have been here.

We experienced this kind of loss of control over our lives before when Margo was first diagnosed with TTP in 2007.  We spent 30 days fighting for her life in an out-of-state hospital, racking up a bill we didn’t know would get paid.  This time, the circumstances were different.  But, the feeling of helplessness and insecurity were the same.  Emotionally and mentally, it was debilitating.   Everything was up in the air.  We felt trapped.  This was one of those moments when the flow of life, itself, was disrupted and you can question everything.

Everyone, I think, experiences these situations from time to time.  It can be from a death, unforeseen bad news, an innocent but bad decision, loss of work, break-up of relationship, loss of control.   Some live with the dark feelings of these situations chronically.  We live in a world where more and more of us are seemingly less and less in control.   Economic crisis, unemployment, divisive religious issues, shrinking churches, strained friendships, loss of security, increased isolation, hostile politics – no wonder we live in a culture that seems to perpetuate and profit from depression and escapism.   No wonder the airways are full of angry talk about security and freedom.   Along with trust and sanity, both seem to be so scarce these days.

Dark moments can hit from out of the blue or haunt us seemingly incessantly.  Few things can shake the foundations of faith like a loss of control in your life and an inability to see a way forward.  I’ve experienced that myself lately.  When this happens, many people either try to lose themselves in the busyness of immediate demands or others’ needs: going to work, hitting deadlines, focusing on getting kids to practice, keeping schedule, and making lunches.  Others lose themselves in other things: eBay, day trading, internet outlets like facebook, gaming, and online communities.  Not all are bad or destructive.   Connecting with others and healthy outlets can be a salve for getting through difficult feelings.  The ways to escape and channel the energy of dark times and their feelings of anxiety or insecurity are as many as the people who feel them.  Sometimes the darkness and feelings pass.  Circumstances change or we make our own adjustments.  Sometimes, the darkness lingers and is difficult to escape.  In either case, withstanding the difficult loss of control, helplessness, and insecurity is a passage of its own.  Faith, I think, plays an important role in keeping both our mental sanity and emotional flexibility, as well as strength and sense of peace.

One way people use their faith in dark times is to use faith, itself, as an escape.  This isn’t all bad.  It’s easy to suppress or counter dark feelings and chaotic circumstances by telling us God is in control or God will make a way.  This can be incredibly important.  But, it can also be a short cut and follow an incomplete understanding of God and faith in our lives.

In my view, the problem with turning to faith for escape is that it does not provide a new way forward.  It becomes an alternative – rather than a reason to face – reality.  The dark moments and feelings are real.  The situation that causes them are often real.  But, God and faith offer more than merely surviving dark moments by waiting out the situation in a bubble.  Again, this path forward isn’t always bad and sometimes necessary.  The difference is a matter of spirituality.  A simple way to make the distinction between an escaping kind of spirituality and using faith to move us forward into reality may be the difference between faith as belief versus faith as how we choose to live.

Of course, the distinction is real, but it represents a false choice.   Spirituality can mean separating beliefs from actions.  But actions usually aren’t separated from beliefs, conscious or unconscious.  Nevertheless, the distinction is helpful.  If faith is simply a matter of what we choose to believe, then believing God will turn things in our favor, restore our sense of control, or take care of us becomes one way you use faith.  We believe something despite our feelings and circumstances.  But, this kind of spiritual approach is very different than one that uses faith to face immediate reality, take it in, accept dark moments of insecurity and our shaken sense of things.  Faith can be power in and into these moments of helplessness, not just go around them or survive them.

When the bad news came to Margo and I, at first I was extremely frustrated, even angry.  Because of my feelings, my thoughts raced.  Without thinking, I began to rant and blame.  I also immediately felt helpless.  “What are we going to do, now!?!?”  This question haunted me.  As long as it haunted me, a feeling of despair and helplessness set in.  In all reality, there wasn’t alot I could do except be patient and come to peace with alternatives I could not control, but I could face.

As I faced what might be, my difficult feelings compelled me to pray.  They were so real.  The loss of power and choices made me feel abandoned.  The situation reminded me of how much our sense of wellbeing and security in this world is based on our ability to make decisions, control the outcomes, follow our desires and seek (what we think is) our best interest.  When these are taken from us, the darkness of the loss is total and can feel equally unjust and debilitating.

Instead, however, I faced my feelings and my options.  I didn’t do it with cool confidence or grace.  I just refused to believe what my feelings wanted to say.  I was not abandoned; God does not abandon us.  I also knew faith wasn’t about being in control.  With all the tragedy and injustice in our world, God also may not be in full exacting control.  But, God’s power is also not a power we understand.  I know and trust God’s presence in all things – even darkness and tragedy.  Looking and expecting God in these concentrated moments of loss and seeming darkness is difficult, but also transforming.  It brought a peace the ways of the world couldn’t give me.

Prayer was a passage into humility, something my modern sense of power and control could not provide nor fully understand.  Nor, could it help me escape.  Accepting and taking in the humility, even humiliation, of my situation all was a profound feeling that helped me embrace what was happening.  All was not lost.   Salvation, whether here and now or in the hereafter, is not based on my own power to control my life & circumstances.   The substance of God was in present reality, not escape from it.  That’s where I found both myself and myself with God.   Together, I was able to find both peace and possibilities if things didn’t go our way.  The experience was transforming for me, and the future I was dreading.

I want to be clear about this.  This wasn’t a moment of “let go and let God.”  It was a moment of embrace, not letting go.  It was based on a spirituality and faith that God is in and amidst reality – not in flight from it.  The humility of it all was deeply grounding.  I emerged from the bad news and negative possibilities somehow more grounded, capable, alive and complete.  It’s something that is difficult to put into words.  It wasn’t just resignation or a change of mind.  But, it was also an experience that was incomplete without bearing my experience in testimony.

I’ve always been led to believe, by the Spirit I trust, that God’s passage in Jesus Christ is a passage of God from heaven in, to, and through our reality – not around it.  Jesus, on the cross, did not commit the great escape.  The only way we can believe he was the messiah, that we die with him and in him (like Paul), and that all creation is changed because of him is if we also believe that, somehow, Jesus came into the world and into its darkness.  All human reality came to a head and a turning point in his death on the cross and its humiliation.   In this passage, God, in Jesus, teaches us how to die and live.

I can only conclude that when Jesus says, “Bear your cross” and “Follow me,” Jesus does not point the way out of or around this world.   Discipleship and the cross are not a path or way around reality or escape from its dark moments, but a path to go through them – not alone.

In scripture, that’s where we find Jesus, Immanuel.   The only way to tell God’s passage from heaven to earth – for our sake – was to tell of God in sufficiently human terms.  Jesus was that human, who’s ministry and death bear all the marks of a real human life – birth, parents, temptation, struggle, calling, moments of embrace as well as betrayal, eventual humiliation and tragedy.  The point of the story is that God triumphs.  Jesus did not overcome to escape, but embrace and change reality.

gospel = good news…for whom?

I was moved this week by an encounter I had at a grocery store.   I posted it on facebook.  An interesting discussion of Christians, ministers, and non-church-goers ensued.

I was at the store helping a church member and friend.   A disease was changing his life and his family’s.  He had not been able to work for three weeks due to this disease.  It made him chronically sick.  He was just starting to think about applying for disability.  His wife and four kids had run out of food.  The lack of income was beginning to cave in on them.  We were out at the grocery store getting food for the next week before some other aid kicked in.  The difficulty of the whole situation was really heavy on he and his family.  We talked about what was harder:  the emotional stress of the family’s financial crisis and no longer being able to work, or just suffering through the disease that was making it all happen.

Shopping at the store, I overheard another young woman near crying to a store associate.  She was a young mother.  All I heard of the conversation was this as I passed by filling our cart:  “…and the churches kept saying that they would only help out their own members.  I have three kids.   What am I supposed to do?…”  I immediately felt convicted by her words.  I am a full-time minister.  I was helping friends that were members of my church.  Even though they had not attended for a while, the situation they were in was not – and is never – the time to talk about how often they had been attending.   I had a relationship with them.   I care for them.  It had been years since we saw each other, but we shared a heartfelt connection.   But, what about this women at the store?    I thought about the verse in Luke:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”  (Luke 6:32-33)

This was the same passage in which Jesus teaches to give without expectation of return and to love our enemies.   This is the heart of Jesus’ gospel.

The women I overheard was now down the aisle.  I opened my wallet.  All I had was $20 in cash.  The $20 was neither guilt money or anything to get puffed-up about.  It was simply a matter conviction, a matter of principle.

I chased her down.  I gave her the $20 and said, “I’m a Christian.  I don’t believe churches should just look after their own.  It isn’t much, but please take this.”  I put it in her hand.   She received it.   No angels sang.  No crisis averted.  It was no great act of generosity.   It was simply a moment of awkwardness between strangers, but also a moment of graciousness.   Maybe not all churches and church-folk were the same.  Or, that’s what I hoped.  I walked away with a feeling I still can’t explain.

I get the arguments.  I’ve been a church administrator.  Church’s could not help anyone if they practiced no discretion in offering financial help.  But, can we justify restricting generosity to our own membership?  What do church’s say about Christ, Christ’s message, and God’s mission when they only support their own?   I think this is the deepest betrayal of the gospel, and I think Luke’s gospel supports that way of thinking.

On the facebook discussion about the experience of this young mother, there were several insights.  They came from good friends and ministers in the UCC as well as some ministers and volunteer pastors in Community of Christ.  One was from my friend Derek Sanders, who said that he is more interested in relationship than membership.  I believe Christ’s example is precisely that relationships are the fabric of the gospel and his ministry.  To that, I say, “Amen.”   Nan, another pastor of a Community of Christ congregation, talked about her struggle with how many people were reaching out to her small congregation for aid.  She said her congregation was going to have this conversation about building relationships soon.  Others talked about how congregations they knew cooperated with local agencies to pool resources and centralize ways to help.   These are things that, I think, churches can and should do – not proselytize to those in financial crisis or only help their own.

In the end, for churches, the question of helping others in material ways comes down to a simple matter of Christian identity and mission.  What are churches, really?  Why do Christians comes together in “churches”?  For themselves? What is their gospel and who is the good news of the gospel really for?    Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ judgment of the nations in chapter 25 should not be read as a scriptural scare-tactic for church folk, as much as a humble moment of clarity.   When churches reach out to those in need, the good news of the gospel come to both.

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory…34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25: 31,34-40)