Stuff I’m Writing (3 of 3)

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

When I started the supervisory education program in CPE, I noticed that there were hardly any meaningful trails about the process on the internet. I decided to write through my process. So I have some “public process notes” on the blog in order to keep track of some of my experiences.

Related to that, I’ve been working on materials for a committee appearance in early April. While I won’t go into much about the appearance on this side of the meeting, I want to put up a few thoughts from the three papers I prepared for submission to the committee.

This is a part of my theology theory paper—a major paper for the supervisory process. I’ll get feedback and work on it until it sings and is ready for the subsequent processes. This portion is around the mini-section on contextual theology and the incarnation, a major second step in the paper after I talk about sources of theology which emerge out of the narrative tradition of my African-American experience. There are quotes from James Cone’s God of the Oppressed and Smith and Riedel-Pfaefflin’s Siblings By Choice: Race, Gender, and Violence.

My experience shaped how I arrived at scripture, how often I visited the Bible, and how basic encountering the passage has been to how I encountered the God behind it. In that sense, I’m a contextual theologian. In my pastoral theology there are roots of contextual theology. Having sources like experience from which to draw theological language eventually brings me to God, the content rather than the periphery. God is who we were singing about in my younger days.

Traditional Christian formulations of God are Trinitarian. They are more than that for sure because God cannot be captured by our formulations. As is true in the grand historical human experience, God has been disclosing God’s person in many ways. I’ve “met God” through conversations with an addict named Lawrence who talked to me about beauty while painting the church. I’ve met God through the silence of a person who was struck by a loved one’s sudden death. God’s come in those moments and come to me. Always sensitive to me, to us, to the audience, God meets us in our specific conditions.

The incarnation where “God becomes flesh” is the striking example of this. Thurman called the incarnation “the great disclosure.” Through the incarnation God is at work, revealing, disclosing, and opening to others who God is. James Cone reminds us that Jesus is not a theological proposition restricted to the conceptual. Jesus matters because he is matter, because he exists outside of our heads.

He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom…Jesus is not simply a doctrine or even a particular event limited by time. He is the eternal event of liberation in the divine person who makes freedom a constituent of human existence. There is no existence apart from him because he is the ground of existence without whom nothing is.

I think of God as eternal, as essentially loving, as relatable. I think of the inextricable way that justice is the avenue whereby God’s loves. “In short, God is manifest to us through material means.” God expresses all that God is through particular means. We never is love without justice, mercy without reconciliation. One is the expression of the other, the explicit exhibiting the implicit. As Kelly Brown Douglas, a womanist theologian writing Christology, says, there is a compatibility between Christianity and acts of justice.

Spiritual care, then, as an incarnational act is an expression of God’s intention toward human beings, and that care is at the bottom of our work in CPE where we attend to our selves and our ministries. As an expression of love, our work is also an expression of justice. As necessary as people are to that theological articulation, the first actor is Divine. God acts, expressing love and justice—expressing God’s self—and people receive that action, respond to it.

People are created by God, and as created beings have a host of ways through which we interact with the world; we are emotional, intellectual, and physical beings. Each element of a person’s makeup is grounded in the Creator’s initiation and desire. Seen and unseen elements compose us. All of these avenues become vehicles through which God can reach, heal, teach, and transform us.

God touches the world through us, connecting with us—the incarnation, again, being an exemplary portion of this, a clinical encounter is another—and then connecting with the creation through us. God cares for creation in other ways which we cannot see. A chaplain’s role is to participate in God’s work in the world by, variously, cooperating with God to care for, protect, preserve, challenge, and observe the work of God through human interventions, through silence, and through the variety of ways we care. People are the means for and recipients of that care. Care is aware of the past.

In Siblings by Choice, the authors tell us the truth about the power of the past:

The past represents ways of knowing that emerge from struggle and can inform us today. The complex and ambiguous present is the result of the experiences, thinking, and struggles of our ancestors who were born and raised in civilizations and circumstances different from our own. Their struggles birthed the conditions under which our consciousness develops and our life narrative unfolds. From them we may gain wisdom for patterns of living that extend an otherwise limited perspective on the present.

Care isn’t beholden to the past. It honors the past, holds the past and present together, particularly as people struggle with the present crises of life such as death, sickness, loss, and change. But care is future-oriented, always looking for the right now connections between humanity and divinity.

Advent Post #23

“He has filled the hungry with good things but sent away the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53).

God loves rich people, even though this verse wouldn’t strike the early rich readers in antiquity as an invitational one. In fact, the verse is an extremely merciful one toward the rich person. The truth about Jesus, for anyone who looks at him seriously, is that he doesn’t intend to send anyone away. Sending away is seldom his posture.

More often, people leave him. He doesn’t generally send people away. Notice that throughout his ministry he hardly said “Get away from me.” Rather than that, he brought people in. He invited people to discussion. Sometimes he was irritated, angry, and frustrated, but in those feelings, he never really put people out. He stayed with people in their stupidity, arrogance, and misdirection.

There was the young lawyer who wanted to know how to gain eternal life, the one who had mastered the commands, and who, with perhaps good pride, wanted to know “what else do you have for me to do, Jesus?” Jesus didn’t send him away. The call upon the man’s life did. He had to give up some stuff and we wonder if it was too much for him. We could say that about all the people who didn’t follow Jesus.

Mary’s song forecasts this. She says that God has filled and that God has sent away. God has provided for those who were humble or hungry. When you’re poor–which is lower than broke and much lower than “I don’t have what I want”–you’re usually hungry. You need God to provide, to make ways outta no way, to create meals when there aren’t groceries. When you’re rich, you choose what to eat.

Who does God bring closer? It’s a simple question with an unsettling answer. God pulls closer those who need, those who are without. In Mary’s language–which is poetic and musical and not to be treated in the same ways as we’d treat doctrine–that means the alternate behavior is to “send away”. But rather than God sending the rich away, I think of God, especially in the ministry of Jesus, as opening room after room for the rich. “There’s a place for you,” I see Jesus living.

As he goes after the forsaken, he opens his hand to those who have. He pursues the rejected, and he’s hospitable to the rich. Only he can do this. Not even his mother can do it perfectly, but he does. He still does. And we aim to live like him. God, during these days when Christmas is coming, grant us the ability to do what the Savior does, to go after those most put out and to be open to those may not come.

Advent Post #19

“…for he has been mindful…” (Luke 1:48)

Theology and reflection upon it is no good if it doesn’t touch real life. For decades in the last century alone, scholars quibbled and argued about how the academic discipline of theology did or didn’t relate to what people said in pulpits and around kitchen tables.

Theology has to relate to life because the God (Theos) who we make up words about (logy) is in real regular touch with life. The coming of Jesus–what theologians call “incarnation”–is God’s answer to how close God wants to be to the created world. God inhabits that world and God-in-Christ is human, living, breathing, serving, suffering, teaching, and dying in that world.

Another way of summing up the too-short life of Jesus is by repeating Luke’s words rehearsing Mary’s song in verse 48: for he has been mindful. The coming of Jesus is how it looks when God has been mindful.

There is particularity in his coming. He doesn’t come to a broad society but to Nazareth. His step isn’t into some bland, meaningless people glob with no ethnicity but to the Jewish people. He comes at a time in history, to a social and political location. He comes and everything around him screams the current problems of the day. And Jesus is mindful of those matters.

Jesus is not distant. He is in them. He cares. He’s present. He doesn’t run. He’s in it, in life, in the day and in the night. He sees what everyone else of his day sees. And he responds to it because he is mindful of his servants.

The generations called Mary blessed because the Lord noticed in her day who she was and who her people were. God had come. The same is certain for us. God comes not in Christ but in the Spirit, that fiery, uncontrollable, lively person who fills and breathes into us.

Knowing our lives, reading our news, and listening to our complaints, the Spirit comes to us the way Christ came to an expectant Mary and Joseph. God knows us and is aware of us in the same way that God was aware of Mary. The Lord didn’t stop attending to the needs of the world because Jesus came. If anything, Jesus’ coming upped the ante because it proved that all this mattered to God.

God’s coming in Christ was an unmistakable declaration that the whole show matters, from beginning to end. And we matter.

How would you approach the day if you believed that were true, if you believed that God comes to you today the way God came to Mary and that God-who-comes cares for you and is mindful of you?

Advent Post #18

“My soul glorifies…” (Luke 1:46)

There is a load of material in this passage, Luke 1:46-56. A lot worth thinking through. Even more worth, simply, accepting and trying to live.

What stands out to me as I sit to write is the way these words lift up the simple human tendency to exalt some thing, to raise above oneself some deity, to worship and glorify some lord. I think Mary’s words are everybody’s words. Even if we don’t call our deity “God,” even if we’d never use the word “soul” in a sentence to describe anything other than music, we raise and exalt and glorify things.

It is often a subtle behavior, this lifting. But it is there. It’s in our schedules, in the company we keep or refuse to keep. This raising is in my own proclivity to draw and turn inward for strength when my best help comes from someone else.

Mary’s words are a kind corrective. She is not harsh here. After all, she’s singing. Her poetic lyrics themselves lift and inspire. “My soul glorifies.”

When I was a child, I sang with the Soul Children of Chicago. We would gather each week on Saturday mornings to rehearse. We’d study and, after warming up our vocal chords, practice our parts. We’d hear the band and combine with them to make music. We would sing. After a while, I’d come to expect my Saturdays to have a sound. Singing and Saturday went together. When I thought of the day, I’d think in musical terms. Singing was normal, natural.

Wednesdays became like Saturdays. During the summers and from the fall season and through the winter, we’d have the second rehearsal date and it would feel like we were filling our days and weeks with music. After a three-hour session on a Saturday morning, Wednesday night came quickly. Getting ready for a trip, practicing for a performance or a recording or a concert, my mind was given to music. My soul was too.

Those rehearsals and all those performances shaped me and my life. With all those other Soul Children, my soul was influenced, shaped, and made. I was made into a singer.

Come back to Mary’s words in her song. All those days she spent with Elizabeth impacted her. There was Mary with her kinswoman, being made into a mother. She watched this other mother through the last days of her gestation while awaiting the fulfillment of whatever God was doing. And Mary’s soul was influenced, shaped, and made. And in her words, her soul glorified.

Like the music we naturally made when we practiced first alto and second tenor, giving glory was what Mary naturally did. It wasn’t effortless. Any singer or poet or writer will tell you of the countless days behind a phrase, the long experiences underneath a line or flat or sharp. There was effort but there was also nature.

I wonder what my week would be like if I accepted that as fact. This is what my soul naturally does. Without toil, without increasing skill, without rigorous instruction or preparation or particular stress. There’s no sweat involved anymore, but nature. At this point, after these days, I commonly do this. I glorify.

So who will get my glory? Who will benefit or receive what I commonly do? What God will be for me a “Savior”? These feel like the pressing, relevant questions of the season.

Advent Post #7

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be…” (Luke 1:31)

In Gabriel’s words are promises, promises and warnings. I’m sure that God doesn’t grant us one without the other.

It would be wonderful if it wasn’t true, but unfortunately for those of us who are inpatient, it is true. Nowhere near the human experience do we get favor or grace or promise without the edge of angelic and prophetic pause.

When I was in graduate school at Wheaton, my first course was with Dr. Walter Elwell, and that class put me on a life course to get to know Jesus. It was entitled, “The Life and Teachings of Jesus,” and I’m pretty sure it was responsible for my abiding interest in this beautiful, misunderstood Member of the Divine Community.

We talked about who Jesus was, and even though it wasn’t a course on Christology proper, it was my basic introduction to a theology of Jesus, who he was, what he did, and what following him meant.

As I look at the angel’s words above in Luke 1, I remember Professor Elwell’s consistent reminder of the plain life of Jesus, the context of his life, the texture of his days, the culture surrounding him, and what some of the grand expectations for Jesus must have been.

He was to be great. He was destined to retain a kind of kingship that could only come as a result of God’s promise. But promise was also warning. God would never do the things the angel said without adjusting everything and anything to accomplish those high words.

The problem with God’s promise, as spoken through Gabriel, was the way “The Lord God” would fulfill those words. God would go about making good on the promise in unacceptable forms. Jesus would live a life of service and goodness only to be killed for that life. Jesus would forego life’s pleasures and take up what can only be called a humble, if not poor, existence. He would trade heaven for earth, and no matter how you slice that transaction, he lost.

His would be a life of substitutionary, exemplary, and saving significance, and yet, that life would cost him dearly. It would cost him all. He would be called Jesus but so many other, and worse, words. He would live up to the high words and be brought down by lower words.

In Gabriel’s promise was a warning, but I’m hardly ever close to the warnings of angels. I choose to hold the promises high. Still, a life of following Jesus is a life of being called by worse names, a life of being downgraded more than uplifted, a life of being undone by those you serve rather than truly exalted.

It is a life that is too much to ask for. It is, really, too much to walk in those steps. It is more than we can do. At least without the commanding clarity which comes from the chief communicator for the world’s best communicator. There is something there, and it does feel too great to be faithful to the life Jesus offers. Frankly, I feel very unsteady with Gabriel’s words, with Jesus’ later words, and with following.

May this Advent bring us the balanced reminders which always come with God’s words. We are more than what we gravitate to. The Christian life is longer and lower than grandeur. May we be brought to that life in its fullness, even when it offers us the most unexpected and unacceptable things. And may all the goodness and grace we need be there in those daily futures to sustain us.

Advent Post #1

Over the next few weeks, Christians will, knowingly and less-knowingly, journey through Advent. I didn’t grow up acknowledging the liturgical season itself. I’m still fumbling through what it means to begin a new year at a time that is different from the generally accepted chronology of the fiscal year or the calendar year or the academic year.

Mentioning Advent–which is, for the Christian, the beginning of the year after Christ’s death, “AD”–is itself a slight departure toward another time. I’m not making all efforts to live by the liturgical calendar, but last year I wrote reflections for Lent for my church, so this year I’m putting this into my life as a personal assignment of the soul: to meditate in written form through Advent.

I’ll park in Luke’s gospel, particularly the latter part of chapter 1. Let’s see how it goes.

For this post, I’ll simply list the passage and for each week I’ll do the same, filling the spaces between the passages with a daily meditation.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. “For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)