Faith & Politics

donkeyelephantcrossChurches everywhere need help with faith and politics these days.  On the one hand, partisan perspectives seep into our faith communities without us looking.  There’s really nothing we can do about it.  The animosity between “liberals” and “conservatives” is part of our culture.  (I put them in quotation marks to remind us that these are labels, not people.)   It’s impossible for “independents” and “centrists” to even state their politics without them.  The opposition inherent in partisanship defines how people speak, think, and interpret any political statement or issue.  It’s nearly impossible to navigate faith and politics without it.

Pastors and leaders can try to mitigate the tensions by reminding members to leave politics out of the pews and pulpit.  They can try to keep church a safe place, reminding parishioners that the Gospel is neutral or knows no single party.   And, to some degree, this is partially right.

The Gospel doesn’t align with any one party or political ideology exclusively.  One way to interpret the history of Israel in the bible is to see it through this lens.  Proper worship and faithfulness to God’s covenant can’t be reduced to one form of rule or ruler.  Likewise, to allow God’s Word or will to be reduced to any one party, candidate, or ideology is equally objectionable.  It would amount to idolatry.

The second commandment is clear that we’re allowed no images or representations for God…as if they were God.   The effect of this commandment is far reaching.  For people of faith, there no place the prohibition of images makes more sense than in the realm of politics.   It holds theological truth and wisdom.  No idea, image, or representation of God can replace the mystery of God and humility before faith in a living God.  Reducing proper worship of God to belief in a political party, candidate, or ideology ultimately betray God and the heart of faith.

faithpoliticsscreenshotOn the other hand, no disciple of Jesus can cooperate with the belief that the Gospel is not political.   This is simply wrong scripturally, theologically, and historically.   The Gospel is political and always was.  Christianity has much to repent for in its politics.  But, simply erasing its political dimensions and calling is not acceptable or desirable.  The deep mystery of Christian spirituality and truth of faith in Christ only make sense when understood in political terms.  Faith and politics are something every Christian must wrestle with like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).  Jacob emerged from this wrestling as Israel, the name given to the people of God.  (He was also in a bit of pain.)   Faith cannot escape its relationship with politics, and it shouldn’t try.

There is great temptation in Western Christianity to “spiritualize” faith, which essentially has meant to erase its concrete political, economic, and social meaning.  But, this is nearly impossible.  Terms like “Lord,” “Kingdom of God,” “Prince of Peace,” even “Christ” make little to any sense without understanding them in their historical political context, and understanding them explicitly as political terms.

The term politics is related to polis, which is the ancient Greek term for the city-state.  This is where the term get its meaning for belonging to a people and land, and living under a rule or form of governance.  Western politics is deeply influenced by political concepts that permeate biblical scripture such as the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom.

The question is not whether Christian faith is political.  Rather, the question is how is it political.  What kind of politics does God require?  What kind of politics does the Gospel make possible?  holy_week How do we interpret the Gospel’s invitation to live under the Lordship of Jesus as our true ruler and King?  How do we interpret scripture regarding the purpose and fulfillment of creation – including all human relationships?  What does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as Christ reveal to us regarding the way Christ’s community worships, lives, witnesses, and engages the world around it?   These questions go to the heart of the Gospel and its politics.

Ultimately, answers to these questions are not finally answerable.  What I mean is that these are not abstract questions with answers that are frozen – once and for all – in time.  Rather, these faith questions are essential for any disciple.  Asking them and answering them is a faith-task that is ongoing.

Any church that proclaims Jesus Christ or his community on earth must ask and answer these questions as a simple matter of discipleship.  In addition, Christians must ask them and answer them in the context in which they live their faith.  Political issues surround us, which call for the church’s witness.  The church must live out its own unique politics where it is.  This is the call of the Gospel and Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s community in the world and witness to what God has made possible in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the end, faith is not separate from politics.  Quite the contrary, they two are intimately related to one another.

Christ’s community is called to cultivate its own politics.  The church’s politics will be unique and related to, but ultimately different from, the world around it.  Why?  The church’s politics are founded on its best understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel, simply put, is the God’s revelation of love and grace for the world  (this world).  This is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  In him, all can be reborn to see the truth of themselves, what new is life possible, the fulfillment 0f creation and reconciliation of human relationships.   This is the Kingdom of God’s love and justice which the world has yet to fully know.

In addition, the church’s witness of faith draws it into the world of politics.  In other words, God’s love for the world draws Christ’s body today into the world’s political issues.  This includes its partisanship with all its tensions.  Here, the church’s call is to the witness of Christ’s peace and justice in the work for a new humanity.  This means the transformation of human relations and communion with the earth.  In Christ, ethnic and racial differences, differences in station or class, even gender and sexual differences are no longer (Galatians 3:23-29) decisive.  Likewise, partisan differences aren’t either.

What is decisive is the world God has made possible.  For the prophets, just like for Christians, that has everything to do with politics.  If Christian faith means anything today, it will find its expression in human politics.  That’s the call and witness of the Good News.

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The Sadness Beneath

mattsadSadness is so easily pathologized.  When it pops up unexpectedly or has no obvious reason, it can be quickly explained away as lurking depression or rejected as misplaced emotion.  Sadness, however, may also be spiritual.  Sadness is a regular, even healthy, part of life and companion of grief.  Grief can be all around us in hurt relationships, lost values, declining communities, stress, elusive success, or deep-seated heartache from the past, which haunts our everyday life.

For me, the hard part of deep sadness is not the idea of embracing or exploring it.  It’s finding the right environment – meaning the right relationships – to let the grief or sadness unfold with dignity.  There’s also the simple challenge of the time it takes.

Sadness and grief are not efficient.  They demand their own way and their own time.  The path grief takes is not always predictable.   Therefore, it often seems easier to repress sadness and push it away.  It’s certainly more efficient and rational in the short term.  In the long run, however, suppressed sadness can haunt one’s sleep, daily interactions, and consume one’s creativity.  This is when the spiritual aspect of sadness and grief makes itself known.  Sadness, when it lives inside of us, has a nagging, even irruptive, quality; it seeks not only its way and expression, but the connection it needs to see light of day.  Sadness and grief integrate us, and make us human.  They remind us of our essential relationality, and seeks the blessings of community.   It’s a reminder of our inescapable humanity, and humility.

Lamentations is a book of the Hebrew bible that we usually spend little time with.  It’s a five chapter poem of grieving before God over the fate of Israel.  Interestingly, in Lamentations, the prophet makes clear that both God and Israel are to blame.

What’s also remarkable about the text is that its writer – attributed as Jeremiah – doesn’t give up on Israel or God in the face of absolute ruin.  Rather, God remains his  interlocuter, i.e. his audience, in his grief.  It is a long song of sadness, laced with dark visions of death and desolation, that instigate complaining and pleading over the absolute loss.  Following the covenantal theme of Israel as bride and God as bridegroom, Lamentations laments the broken relationship of God and Israel – and its effects – in personal terms.  Here are the last four verses:

19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Lamentations doesn’t end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”  Because of that, I find solace and company in the prophet’s words.  Sadness is its own spiritual place.  It exists to have its way…and show the way.

While we modern folk look for a way out of grief and ways to mitigate the trouble and heartache of sadness, I find comfort in knowing that profound sadness and grief lie at the heart our relationship with God.  Sadness and grief reveal our humility and helplessness, and this ultimately is what makes us human.  Moreover, they draw us into a spiritual journey of surrender that is best lived in relationship to others.  This restores a sense of our common humanity.  For the prophets, it was precisely out of such sadness and grief that hope sprang forth for the Kingdom of God.  It was out of ruin that they imagined God’s return to human affairs.

a moment’s meditation: yearning for more

deep to deepSince finishing my formal studies in 2010, I’ve been on a journey.   First, I moved from Chicago to Graceland University, Lamoni, IA, to be the Director of Religious Life and campus minister in 2011.  I’ve spent the last three years settling into this position: learning Graceland’s current institutional culture, getting to know the students who come to GU, developing the courses I’m teaching, and finding my alchemical vision for Christ’s mission and Community of Christ’s mission on campus.   These responsibilities, and other denominational activities, have thoroughly absorbed the last three years of my life.

Beginning my fourth year, I can’t say “I’ve arrived.” I’m still navigating these areas and learning things.   But, I’ve come to a place where I have my bearings and some sense of direction.  I’ve identified areas that I think need long-term attention and collaboration.  I better know my circle of influence verses my circle of control.  I find meaning in daily life among students and colleagues at Graceland.  I also have more opportunities to be present with Margo and my two daughters at home.  Katy, my oldest, is a teenager this year.  She’ll be a freshmen in high school a year from now.  Kenzlee, my younger daughter, began middle-school this year.  Both are in sports and playing two instruments.  My best friend and wife, Margo, loves her faculty position in the Gleazer School of Education at Graceland, and has been working on an Ed.D. year-round for three years from Drake University.   Currently, she is writing her dissertation.  Journeying to this point has been exhausting, but meaningful.   As I consider the future and try to navigate work and family, I still have a dull nagging feeling within me.  It’s like the murmuring of a still small voice trying to speak, or the distracting feeling of drips of water landing on the back of my neck.

I believe that living a whole spiritual life means responding to the s/Spirit within us that yearns to give birth to something.   I call it “s/Spirit” because this fountain of life-giving and life-bearing energy is God’s Life and Creativity entwined indistinguishably with our own.  It is a summons to live a life of freedom and creativity.  That s/Spirit within us is the creative energy or vision, impulse of inspiration, and quietude of potential that haunts our working mind and resting moments.  Paying attention to that s/Spirit at work within us leads us to what our spirituality is about.

I don’t point to that s/Spirit, however, to be prescriptive.  This isn’t about giving advice.  You and I have heard enough from the spiritual marketplace and its self-help culture.  We know how much it tells us that we need to express ourselves freely.  We must connect with our inner-child, play and live creatively.  We’re too busy, paying attention to the wrong things.  The voices go on:  blah, blah, blah…..

OK. Fine.  Maybe.

But, spirituality is not just another thing to do. <sigh>

When I stop and pay attention to that “dull nagging” desire in me, I don’t miss the obvious.  I don’t miss the fact that my family and daughters are, quite literally, part of this “birthing” in my life.  They are part of my life’s work.  They call forth my disciplined and creative energies.   Miraculously, Katy and Kenzlee are forming into generous, crazy, obstinate, and surprising young persons right before me every day.

I also don’t overlook that my work at Graceland is creative.  It, too, takes creative energies and inspiration.  It, too, gives life.  But, apparently, there is something more or missing.

The dull nagging or spiritual drip that’s thudding on my neck as I hunch over focused on “today’s tasks” keeps coming.  It doesn’t frustrate me or give me angst.  drop-of-waterI think I just need

to try to listen to that small voice, or pay attention to that refreshing drip pooling on me.   The distraction could be life-giving.  To disregard this nagging in the name of busyness, or to appease some insatiable need for productivity, only keeps my life locked in a cycle of deadlines and want for mindless entertainment.   So draining.  Still, “deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls,” Psalm 42: 7 says, “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”  Maybe that’s what I’m yearning for.

wrestle until you’re blessed

From Genesis 32:24-30

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face…”

This is one of the most memorable stories in Genesis.   It’s also one of the most interpreted.

Who is the man Jacob wrestling with?  Is it God?  An angel?  His own conscience?  A thief?  A demon?  And, what is the

struggle over?   Is it preparation for reunion with his brother Esau?  Is Jacob wrestling for his life?  For a blessing?

The passage is also about naming.   When spoken, Jacob’s name resembles the Hebrew word “to wrestle.”   The man asks Jacob his name, but he renames him Israel, which means “God strives” or “‘the one who strives with God.”   Jacob also asks the man his name.  But, no name is given.  We are only told that Jacob is blessed.   Then, Jacob names the place he wrestled a name that means “the face of God.”

When I was at a week of church meetings a couple of weeks ago, I was struggling.   The meetings I was a part of were very institutional.  They dealt with administration, policies, funds and fund raising.   The meetings were important from an institutional perspective.  But, the meetings also went 8-10 hours a day for three days.  They were so large that there wasn’t an opportunity to disagree, question, or participate in the decisions being made.  Though, an invitation for feedback was made.    I was around friends I loved and respected, but I felt very alone.  A depressing question kept haunting me, “Is this life with Jesus?”   Despite all the opportunities afforded me through church, I wondered again if there was really a place for me?   This seems to be an ongoing spiritual struggle.  At a low point, I remembered the  story of Jacob wrestling.  It was as if the Holy Spirit befriended me and slipped me a note.  “Wrestle until you’re blessed,” were the words I heard.  These words came to me in a way that I knew they should define my entire relationship with church.  “Wrestle until your blessed.”  Do it at every service, every meeting, each week, each day.

I’ve had similar struggles when I am in local congregations.   On the one hand, I’m lucky.  I enjoy many different kinds of worship.  I enjoyed mass for four years in Catholic school and fell in love with the tradition.  I spent years going to church with my Dutch grandparents at a traditional Reformed service.   I spent four years attending high Methodist liturgy in seminary, another 6 years at lively congregationalist services at another.   I’m comfortable around people whoopin’ or being slain in the Spirit.

But, I also am in an age group  that really never claimed church or recreated it in its own image.   The examples are sparse.  Compared to generations before me, most of my peers abandoned church or at least denominational committment and congregational life.  By in large, they have not stayed around to create churches that reflect GenX skepticism, spirituality, or sense of relationships.  I’m very much in touch with that part of myself, too.   This explains why I’m never fully at home even in congregational life and worship services.  Like everyone else, I’m looking for my place.

Most of us have a complicated relationship with church, if we have a relationship with it at all.   As a professional minister, theological-type, and aspiring disciple of Jesus, I even do.  As I struggle to feel at home or find space for myself in denominational life or congregational settings, this ancient story of Jacob wrestling brings meaning to it all for me.

Wrestle until you’re blessed.  Even if you get kicked in the groin (see Gen 32:25 above), stay with the struggle.  Expect to be blessed.

Learning to Write a Book

Matt2 bwToday is a self-reflection.

I’ve been writing my dissertation since March.  It’s quite a process, difficult to describe.  Professors and peers who’ve been through the PhD comment to me that this is something no one really understands unless they’ve been through it.  I can appreciate that; I feel the same way about several things.

A PhD, like the dissertation, takes a measure of obsessiveness.  The amount of concentration and tunnel-vision (the next level of focus) it takes is difficult.   It is work, at the level that begins to define a rite of passage.  The idea that you are making an original contribution to the field strikes me as a little difficult to believe.  But, I’ve come to see how a little shift in perspective makes a big difference.  And though ideas get regurgitated, it is these ideas in concert with yours that give your thought meaning and paint the difference.

The writing process, alone, is unique to each person.  This has been the most interesting part for me.  I’m learning how I write.  A dissertation is not a term paper.  I’ve written 40 and 60 page term papers.  But, nothing is like this process.  While it is difficult, I also enjoy it.  However, the writing comes in its own time.  I’ve explained it this way to many people.  Writing my dissertation is nothing like other things I do, like raking.  Raking can be hurried through.  Elbow grease and a dose of work ethic can speed up the process.   You can even do it quick and well.  But, writing is not like that for me.  Working harder, yes.  But, hurrying?  No.  Focus is less a matter of quantity than intensity.   A few interruptions can actually help the process.  Otherwise, its easy to get myopic.

Learning the right level and balance of focus has been the challenge for me.  I have needed to get away, to write a few days at a time.  But, then, I need a break.  Once I break and come back, the distance I’ve gained from my work helps the editing process.  Sometimes, I don’t even follow my own thoughts.

The reason is that writing is hard for me.  It is a discipline.  I try to explain it this way: maybe it was the time and period I was raised.  But, the writing process is way too slow.  It’s linear.  Unlike a picture or image that can be studied from a number of different perspectives, with several entry points, writing follows left to right.  It is more like a journey.  My mind is learning, struggling, to work that way.

My brain doesn’t naturally think that way.  Maybe it was television.  Maybe it was video games.  Maybe it’s because I’m naturally an extrovery who like managing alot of different conversations at the same time.  Either way, the discipline of writing is forcing me to do something different.   And as I tried to say in this post, there is something spiritual about it.

Until scriptures are definitively transferred to a new format (.mp3 or BlueRay?), their form as a text will shape our spirituality.   The fact that scriptures are either scrolls or codex (i.e. book) will shape our thinking about God.  God will always be a wonder.  Jesus will always live in narrative.  The Spirit will continue to come to us in moments of communication, inspiration, and despair.  All these are moments of human life.  They are also the qualities of a book.

Hieroglyphs, symbols, ink, text…literally, sentenced to life, on a page.