Faith, Poetry and Funk

 

boy and his bass

Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father considered one of our finest theologians attempting to speak intelligibly of the Trinity, could only, in the end, turn to poetry in his attempts to say something (something short of heresy but something more than drivel) about this confounding mystery. Church folk and lovers (two words which should be bosom buddies) often make their way to poets and verse whenever the thing we have to say simply cannot be said in the language we’ve been given.

I wrote my wife Miska a poem one Christmas. It wasn’t high art, just tender scribbles on a page. Thank God for free verse, as my iambic pentameter goes every kind of caddywompus. Still, somehow in those simple lines I was free to say things I didn’t know how to say, free to discover truths in the writing that I didn’t yet know I knew. The form insisted that I not worry so much about explaining my love; but to simply love, to let the love seep from my heart onto the page. I don’t know how it happens. I only know it does.

Since music is poetry in motion, all of this fits (I think) with how one of my friends, Eastern Orthodox professor Vigen Guroian, talks about theology. “It has to be sung,” he says. “If you can’t sing it, it can’t be good theology.” There’s more (much more) to faith than airtight theological constructs. Good words about God, ones that catch your breath short or make your knees buckle or turn your heart and your mind to fire, have to be set free – they have to set you free. Faith needs to carry a melody, to set down a groove, to bring a little funk.

St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” Do not take St. Pophyrios too literally. He does not insist everyone must learn poetic craft. He’s reminding us that we must allow our soul to be moved into places deeper than bare fact. We must allow the Spirit to bring us embers, and then wait for the Spirit to blow on the embers until they sizzle and flare.

It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.

Those Sneaky Poems

Being National Poem in Your Pocket Day, today is the moment for letting words rather than the spare coins jingle in your pants or your purse or wherever you stuff things you want to carry with you for the day's adventure. I once thought poems as merely something that rhymed. However, because I've been given the good grace to have a wife and a couple friends who are poets – and because I've been knocked sideways by more than a few metered lines – I now know poetry to be more than repeating words finished with -ing. Poetry teaches us how to see and how to hear, how to observe and how to speak.

Poetry insists we watch for delicate distinctions, fully aware of how meaning can turn on the difference between a finch and a sparrow. Poetry coaxes us to nurture memory, aware that if we've forgotten old Moses terrified when the desert shrub struck flame, we won't encounter this splendid awesomeness when Whyte speaks of "the man throwing away his shoes / as if to enter heaven." Poetry provides us language that's as much about discovery as it is about stacking up facts. Of course, we'd have chaos if our tax forms were arranged in poetic verse, but wouldn't we have coldness and sorrow if our lovers and friends and our walks in the woods didn't play in things poetic?

Yesterday, Wyatt was discussing the Avengers, which led to a conversation about favorite superheroes. Wyatt ran through the list, outloud as he does. Noticing a pattern, he made an observation: "I don't really like girl superheroes. Well, I do like Cat Woman." 

"Why?" we asked. 

"I like Cat Woman," Wyatt concluded, "because of all the sneakiness."

That's one of the big reasons I love poetry: because of the sneakiness. Poems have a tendency to catch me when I'm dozing. They seem so docile there on the page, short and tidy, all mannered and in neat rows. And then that one line or phrase – a single word sometimes (syllable even) – and my head's buried in my hands or my heart's ripped wide. 

It probably seems plain enough why my writing self would love poetry so. However, does it strike you as odd for me to say that poetry affirms something about why I love the work of pastoring and the study of theology as well? To pastor, as I see it, is to be a resident poet, a poet for the parish. A pastor works his poetry amid the subtleties of babes and grandfathers, treacheries and joys, noting all the while that a sparrow is not the same as a finch. With this, studying theology (a curious attentiveness to God's story) is to ask questions and listen for nuance and to be swept away by beatific themes pregnant with possibilities. As Marilynne Robinson says, "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga." If our Christian teaching doesn't play well with poetry, we have most likely identified a problem. 

If all this is true, then we are desperate for poets, poets of every sort. We need women and men who live attentive to the life about them, their work and their family – which is to say, their art. We need brave and imaginative souls who see and hear and then help us see and hear. "The most regretful people on earth," says Mary Oliver, "are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time." I think she's right. Give it power and give it time. Please, for all of us.

Ridiculous Blessings {a hillside sermon}

Blessed are the poor. {Jesus}

Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on. {Paul Simon}

No matter the continent or century, we agree: the destitute and impoverished among us are the oppressed, not the privileged. The poor are beaten down by the man, undone by their addictions or overwhelmed by unjust systems. However we might describe the downtrodden, they are most certainly not blessed.

Yet Jesus leads off his litany of blessing in his sermon on the hill, the sermon launching revolutions and befuddling readers, with these strange words: blessed are the poor. Is Jesus glossing human sorrow with sentimentality? Has Jesus surrendered to an inner, “spiritualized” idealism, making a clean break from reality, from the poverty staring him in the face? Has Jesus lost his ever-loving mind?

Some have wondered if Jesus’ words minimize the plight of the poor, as if those under the heels of economic strain should stop bitching and thank their lucky stars they have received such an odd mercy. It hurts, but it builds character says the cliche. Of course, few of us want to get in line for this brand of mercy. Odd, isn’t it, how we can twist words so that the one who came (as the old prophet Isaiah said) to “bring good news to the poor” sounds darn close to a callous robber baron.

Jesus has no idyllic vision of poverty. Jesus is not suggesting that the hungry boy trapped in the slums simply surrender to squaller because – doesn’t he know?? — he’s blessed. Rather, Jesus announces the presence and power of God’s Kingdom, that reality that unseats and overturns every other reality, by proclaiming that the very ones gathered round him (the sick, the diseased, the outcast) who were in every way poor were welcomed, were desired and would by God’s grace be blessed, made well. As Glenn Stassen said, “The poor are blessed, not because their virtue is perfect but because God especially does want to rescue the poor.”

Matthew casts a wider net, telling us that all who are “poor in spirit” are blessed. Poverty makes it round to all of us. The poor in spirit includes all of us who are humbled. All of us who think we have nothing, are nothing. All of us who have slammed up against our limitations or another’s ridicule. All of us who feel small and insignificant. All of us who have been crushed by disappointment or shame. All of us who have been ignored or dismissed.

In one way or the other, at some point or another — and if we possess the courage to be honest — each of us will discover ourselves situated firmly in the company of the poor. We will be among those whom no one mistakes for an expert, who have no wide following, who fail to make the list marked elite. We are the silly ones, the bumbling ones. No one would come to us for an endorsement or to raise cash. We have little power. We are a poor fool.

And strangest of truths, Jesus announces to us in our impoverished place, the Kingdom is yours. Welcome. Blessed.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Doubt

Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it. That is why old-fashioned confessors are not far wrong in showing a certain amount of skepticism when dealing with ‘intellectual crises,’ doubtless far more rare than people imagine.

{Diary of a Country Priest}

Wrangling with doubt and questions comes easy for me, too easy perhaps. One of the chapters in my first book opened with this line: “A pastor really ought to believe in God. It works better that way.” (it’s still true, by the way.) And this was no quick two-week rabbit trail for me. My quandary with doubt popped up again in Holy Curiosity. Doubt has been a companion, weaving it’s way in and out of my story for the past 15 years or so. For some, faith comes easy. For others, faith comes through blood, sweat and fears.

Doubt’s a tricky thing, though. The old cliche says that faith’s a crutch; well, doubt’s a crutch too. When doubt keeps me honest, keeps me human, it can be a friend. But when doubt isolates me or encourages my cynical side, whenever doubt diminishes the life I could be busy living, doubt has become my enemy (or “my foe,” as six-year-old Seth called a kindergarten pal who grew mean on the playground).

I cling to doubt because it provides an allure of protection. Left free to roam and pillage, doubt runs right past being honest and on to constructing barricades. Nothing required of me. Nothing to disappoint me. No one to criticize me – because I’ve committed to nothing. We cannibalize ourselves, rushing to dismantle our beliefs before anybody else tries.

Doubt as one voice keeping us honest is a good thing. Doubt as the voice telling us who we are is a horrible thing. Believing in the gospel is a posture of faith. And being a pastor is a life of living toward – and inviting others toward – faith.

If my life is defined by doubt, then I’m not getting on with actually being who I am in this world. I’m not living toward anything. Rather than giving myself to my church and my family and my craft and my friends, I’m simply detracting, deconstructing. I’m withering away. That’s no way to live.

In the wise words of the Avett Brothers, “Decide what to be. And go be it.”

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Empty

‘Be at peace,’ I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it for ever. It will be I that gave it to her. Oh, miracle – thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!

{Diary of a Country Priest}

It’s a mantra to pastors, to anyone for that matter: you can’t give away what you haven’t received. I’ve repeated it. Mostly, I believe it. The truth in these words seems two-fold. First: don’t play games or pretend; smoke what your selling. Second: all we’ve received is grace and all we have to give is grace; don’t get too big for your britches.

But lo and behold, wouldn’t you know that even such good words with such sincere intentions find a way to wiggle back to a place of self-effort and self-importance, a place that forgets (yet again) all about grace and gift and the marvel of God making something of nothing. By God, I hope I can give more than I’ve possessed, more than I’ve taken in and truly received. I certainly hope God can love through me when I’m unlovely and enact mercy through me when I’m in such desperate need for mercy.

Lately, I’ve dropped more than a few balls. If I were a street juggler, there’d be nobody watching – and no coins in the jar. If it’s up to my sermons to save the world, the world’s headed for the fiery place. If it’s up to my powerful faith to create momentum within our church, well, we are in dire straits. Last night, Miska and I were talking about our early years in ministry. “You had quite an ego,” Miska said. She was right. But God was kind and indulgent – and God loved a few people even with my arrogance and faithlessness and erroneous ways. Contrary to Sunday School ditties, apparently God does use dirty pots. Are you familiar with any other kind?

These days, I find myself feeling more empty than full. Some days I don’t know what to pray for – or how to pray for – the people I love. In conversation, I often don’t know the words to share with a struggling soul. My sermons seem vanilla. My organizational skills are struggling to reach their normal level of mediocrity. Old nemesis (doubt, inner-disconnection, spiritual lethargy) have come knocking. All of this leaves me hollowed out.

If my job is to give what I possess, well – you see the trouble. But I believe that when we are empty, there is more space for God to fill, if we’ll be quiet enough to let God fill it. When we have little to say or give or perform, then God can speak and bless and act. And if the gospel means anything, it means this: we need God to speak and to bless and to act.

And from the beginning, God has always made something of nothing, a “sweet miracle of our empty hands” indeed.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Dirty

The mistake she made wasn’t to fight dirt, sure enough, but to try and do away with it altogether. As if that were possible! A parish is bound to be dirty.                                                                                                                                     {Diary of a Country Priest}

If you were to take a quick tour of our home, you’d find an upstairs door with a hole, crushed by a seven-year-old known as “our little hurricane.” You’d discover swaths of blue (or is it green now?) goo permanently melded into our nine-year-old’s bomb shelter (aka “room”). You’d find sketches scribbled across their (previously white) ceilings, just above their loft beds. And their bathroom – please, for the love of all that is holy and true, do not go into their bathroom – brings their mother to tears.

But of course, each of these scuffs and smells marks the presence of a boy we love, a son that has come, in such inexplicable ways, to mark our own life, our own hopes. The one thing worse than having all this chaos would be not having this chaos.

Churches are too enamored with cleaning up the chaos. Pastors, myself included, are too bent on getting the family (and this is what a church is, of course – a family) polished and scrubbed clean. A parish is bound to be dirty, at least if it’s going to have any life happening within it. Living always kicks up the dust.

The work of the church — the life of the church, that’s better — is to be a place where all the things we hide, all the things that undo us, all the things that frighten us have space to come out into the open. The church is the community where people discover what it means to live well, to love well – to be loved well. But this takes time. Rarely does it happen with a 40 Days Toward Cleanliness campaign. If my pastoral aims point at getting our church to have the right image, then I’ve abandoned my call – and I guarantee I’ve also run roughshod over people in making it happen. I’ve missed their stories. I’ve manipulated friendship. I may have managed a crusade, but I haven’t been a pastor.

Shame gets results. Brute force gets results. So does a cattle-prod. But grace and prayers and true questions (ones that say I want to know you, not I want to work you) offer the possibility of more than a sparkling clean image. Grace transforms us; but it’s a messy thing getting there.

May 21st: Is it Judgement Day?

A friend asked me about my thoughts on the predication of God’s return on Saturday. Here’s his email and my reply:

Winn –

I don’t know if it’s big down where you are, but this whole May 21 “Judgment Day” thing (www.familyradio.com) is getting a fair amount of coverage. It’s interesting that this specific iteration of the end times is so media heavy and coordinated. Maybe it’s just something else to talk about besides Arnold and IMF and all that garbage.

The standard Mt.24:36 retort should be enough here…and their mathematical methodologies seem to stretch things a bit…but I can’t help admitting a bit of uneasiness at this whole thing. Maybe I am just uneasy in my own walk…but still…Any reactions to this whole hullabaloo? Any good chatter in the pastorsphere about this?

with only the slightest amount of trepidation and guilt,

(name withheld)

Hey, _______,

I think it’s everywhere. We’re not the thriving metropolis of Chicago; but on Tuesdays and Fridays we get the news.

No matter how outlandish these predictions (promises, excuse me) seem and no matter how disjointed they are from what the Bible actually says, I understand the unease. I feel it a bit myself. I’ve had flashes of competing temptations: paint my chest with John 3:16 and go running through the streets – or to liquidate our retirement funds and rush the family off to Greece tomorrow, our last chance (ever) to see the Parthenon.

It’s no surprise that we are apprehensive, though – these shrill calls aim precisely at our fears. Our fears of ruin and catastrophic tumult. Most often, however, when Scripture writers spoke of the end of days, it was offered as comfort to those awaiting the redemption of things. The Peter passage (which the May 21st folks refer to regularly) is not a fearful tome but rather Peter’s encouraging word to the Church, to know that God has “not forgotten his promise.”

While God speaks straight words and (at times) firm words we’d rather not hear, God does not incite fear. God prods love. And, as I John tells us, “perfect love drives out fear.” So, if what you feel is fear, that’s not Love. That’s not God.

More importantly, God’s return is fundamentally about hope, not ruin. The “destruction” Peter refers to is not the end of things but the beginning of things, the arrival of the “new heavens and new earth.” (II Peter 3:11-13) Knowing that God is the good and just judge who will, one day, bring all things to their rightful conclusion should encourage us to think circumspectly about our life – and to live with hope, diligence and watchfulness. As Peter says, “Everything in the world is about to be wrapped up, so take nothing for granted. Stay wide-awake in prayer.” (I Peter 4:7)

This wide-awake life does not cower in fear. We walk wide-open into love and friendship. We tell the story of Good News in Jesus Christ. We make music and write poetry and build buildings and raise our children, all the things that God has always asked his image-bearers to be and do. When Martin Luther was asked what he would do today if he knew God was coming tomorrow, he answered, “I’d go plant a tree.”

So, have hope. Receive God’s love. Walk in faith. And go plant your tree.

peace, friend,
Winn

Evil and Religion

First, this is post #250. If someone would please blow-up a balloon or send out a little woot! woot! right there in front of your screen, I’d appreciate it. I’m curious if any of you have been reading along from the beginning. If so, (1) May God grant you mercy for the words you’ve endured, and (2) A very sincere thanks. A writer has a rough time if there’s no place for his words to land. I’m glad, every now and then, some of them land here.

Second, I have a piece over at CSLewis.com on Lent, Dickens, Temptation and, of course, Lewis.

Last week, I was privileged to enjoy my second year as an author at the Virginia Festival of the Book (which, by the way, provides three days of absolute joy for any book lover – you’ll have to visit). This year’s event, Speaking of God, cast five authors writing from various vantage points. Reading the bios and book blurbs ahead of time, I knew the conversation would be spicy. I had no idea…

At one end of the table sat two smart and highly credentialed authors proposing that their work surveyed the most recent research in neuroscience, proving (in 144 pages, which I thought quite a feat) that God is merely a construct of the human mind and suggesting that the world would be a far better place if religion simply evaporated. Seated next to them, in the worst possible position if we wanted any chance at an evening of peace and harmony, was a philosopher whose spanking new Oxford Press book argues that a theistic worldview best explains the moral truths most of us say we believe. Meanwhile the two authors remaining (myself and another fellow) sat on the far end, which turned out to be a good vantage, out of the line of fire but close enough to watch the steam blow.

Needless to say, at some point the conversation ceased to be about the books.

I was struck, however, by the dogmatic, unequivocal claim that the world would be a kindler, gentler place if we simply abandoned our naive religious commitments and recognized science for the Almighty that it is. By this view, the evil in our world is fueled by religion, and science is the savior.

I’m hearing this claim as I’m immersed in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, penned before the SS hung him by a thin wire in the grey courtyard of a Nazi concentration camp. Hitler did not heat up the smoke stacks because he was compelled by religious fervor. Hitler, madman that he was, was driven by a worldview he found compatible with the social science of his day. I’m not suggesting it was good science (it was bad science. Good science and good religion are friends not foes – neither have anything to fear if what we’re aiming for is the truth). I’m not suggesting that science gave us Hitler. I’m simply noting that if you were forced to choose between religion and science to find blame for the Third Reich, it would be science, hands down.

Six million Jews herded to the gas chambers had religious faith. Bonhoeffer had religious faith. Hitler had another kind of faith altogether.

I’m quick to admit, sadly and with horror, that much evil has been done in the name of Christianity (and other faiths too). This is to our great shame. However, in such moments, we stand judged – and rightly so – by the claims of our faith. It is precisely the view of God as a God of justice that allows someone to (rightly) name our actions evil. If God is simply something we dream up, then religion’s vision of evil is also something we conjure. And I’ve yet to hear a compelling, coherent response as to how, yanking that foundation, we reconstruct any meaningful case for the evils most of us instinctively acknowledge.

When someone names these evil moments evil (at least evil in any ontological sense), they affirm the fact that some reality in the universe has named certain actions just and certain actions diabolical. You can’t insist religion a farce while using religions’ criteria for what is right and what is wrong. Good science wouldn’t allow that double standard.

Bonhoeffer: Against Abstraction

[Jesus Christ’s] word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}

I’m taking a course at the University of Virginia on “Peace and Resistance: Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.” So, of course, I’ve been reading a good bit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately.

As you know, Dietrich was a German pastor and theologian instrumental in the German Resistance during World War II. Dietrich was imprisoned for subversive activity, and (though complicated by the fact that he was a principled pacifist) later charges were added for his association with the infamous July 20 Plot to assassinate the Führer (the oft popularized story of the plot was the center-piece of Tom Cruise’s 2008 film Valkyrie).

As the SS grew more suspicious of Bonhoeffer’s entrenchment in the Resistance, they passed Bonhoeffer from prison to prison until he finally landed at Flossenburg concentration camp. This was his final stop. He was hung (asphyxiated actually) by a thin steel wire on April 9th, 1945 – only 14 days before the camp was liberated. Bonhoeffer was 39.

Bonhoeffer opposed not only the Nazi regime but the religious movement that swept through Germany, the “German Christian” movement. Attempting to re-frame Christian witness so it could harmonize with the Third Reich, the “German Christian” movement ultimately viewed their first allegiance to the State and their second allegiance to God. One bishop fielded a question: “What is one first — a Christian or a national socialist?” The bishop replied, “A National Socialist.” In public worship, they would go so far as to sing hymns to Hitler.

Against this moment, Bonhoeffer wrote his most challenging and enduring work, The Cost of Discpleship. His plain assertion was this: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to say that God rules over everything. As such, you can not be a disciple of Jesus if you are unwilling to obey Jesus above every other person, claim or passion. You can imagine how that landed in 1944 Germany.

Dietrich believed that the proclamation of Jesus as Lord was always enfleshed in (and evidenced by) the lived realities of our life, the choices we make, the allegiances we declare, the principles and ideas that we obey (or disobey). Christianity is concrete, not abstract.

To be a Christian was not merely to affirm religious facts but to be gripped by the reality that Jesus Christ has come to resurrect us to an entirely new kind of life – a lived life. Equating Christian faith with any particular political movement is idolatry (and this is a lesson we best learn). However, being Christian will always have political (public, lived) implications. Obeying the way of Jesus means saying yes to some things and saying no to others.

The work of the Christian is not to redress faith so that it can be squeezed within another ideology but rather to live Christianly amid, within, over or against every other competing claim. If Jesus is Lord, then this assertion defines reality. Everything else must fix itself to that bare truth.

First Stories First

The Bible is about God.

Perhaps it seems frivolous to clarify this, but I believe it’s a truth we’re on the verge of losing. These days, everyone caters to us because everyone wants something from us. The game is to find out what we want – and then beat the other guy in promising how fast they can get it to us. It matters little the trade, most everyone’s in on the racket — our corporations schmucking for brand loyalty, our politicians grabbing for votes, our pastors and priests (and of course, I wrestle with these demons) clamoring for affirmation and dollars. It’s easy to see why we might get the idea that everything really is about me. But this me that everything seems to be about isn’t the true me. None of these shucksters really know me, nor do they care to.

When the Bible enters this milieu, we assume that Scripture (or God) does the same. The Bible dashes after our questions. God rushes, like a zealous car salesman, to push a model than meets our every whim. But though we may drive off the lot with all the bells and whistles, are we any better for the transaction? Are we any more joyful? Any more alive? Any more human?

We may finagle a god who makes us comfortable or endorses the life we are set toward (with minimal adjustments as a nod to the Almighty). We may sigh contentedly if we locate a god who delivers quick pithy lines to our struggles, the immediate relief we demand. But if we settle for this god we think we want, we will never engage the true God who rules over the Earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Mary and Peter and Paul, the God who raised Jesus from the dead. If we are committed to the God we think we want, we will never know that the questions we are asking aren’t the right questions at all.

God is God, and we are not God. And the Bible is the book that tells us both of these things.

If I you will allow me to indulge in a moment of ridiculous oversimplification: some of our most vitriolic theological battles of the last two centuries seem to pivot on this question: Is theology fundamentally humanity’s story or God’s story. I have no desire whatsoever to enter the slugfest, but between these two choices, I opt for the latter.

But – it’s no better to go the other extreme and say that God (and God’s book) is so otherly, so divine, that we ought not expect it to engage the complexities and harsh realities and the wild joys of being human. By this way of thinking, you go to the Bible to discover whether or not it is okay to kill, but you have to go to a shrink to talk about why your heart feels like it may break in two. In other words, you go to the Bible to hear God’s story, but you have to go everywhere else to learn your own story.

The Scriptures – and our wisest voices over the centuries – have refused this dichotomy. They have taught us that the Bible is about God, first – but that it is about us second. And it must be in this order because the way we most truly know ourselves is to know God. As Augustine said, we know ourselves better in God than in ourselves. Our stories matter because God has made the remarkable (and at times seemingly foolish) move to intertwine our story within God’s story. God does God’s will, but God doesn’t rush past us. God wills that humanity be more than a blip on the celestial radar. Quite the opposite – in Jesus, God vested God’s full self in the human condition. Jesus was not a lab experiment. Jesus is the revelation that God is not distant. God goes local. God knows, as Hebrews tells us, all our human travail and weakness.

God knows these dark spaces intimately because God has suffered them, with us. Our pain matters – not because we are the center of the story – but because the God of the Universe endures our pain with us and longs for our pain to be no more. Our joy matters – not because the Universe will melt if we are not sated (our burden is heavy, but not that heavy) – but rather our joy matters because Jesus defeated everything opposed to joy and invites us into God’s kingdom where joy is evermore.

And every place where sin and death prevail and every place where joy is thwarted, every place in our story where we encounter injustice or loneliness or longing for freedom or a place of belonging – those are the places where Jesus wants to make our stories new.