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When the BCP isn’t Quite Enough

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In the back of the Book of Common Prayer we teach our confirmands that there are prayers for all occasions. There are prayers for peace, for courts of justice, for an election, for times of conflict, for knowledge of God’s creation, and more.

But there are a few things that are not in the prayer book. And with the holidays bearing down upon us, I thought I’d write up a few prayers I’ve said over the years (for myself and for others) for those who also wished there were a few more prayers in the BCP.

  1. For Finding a Parking Space at the Mall

Almighty and Glorious Christ, when you walked the earth, you also could not find a place to rest your head. Grant now that the seemingly endless circling bears fruit in finding a place to rest my Corolla. Have mercy upon me, and grant this O Lord for me first and then all others who wander looking for a place to rest. Amen.

  1. Upon Receiving a Card from Someone You Forgot to Send One To

O God our King, who hast promised to attend to our petitions when asked in your son Jesus’ name, forgive me my forgetfulness and mercifully nudge _____________ to forgive me as well. Grant me fortitude of character not to claim their letter was lost in the mail or that I lost their address. Hear this prayer O Father who grants to God’s children every good and perfect gift from above. Amen.

  1. For Entering Toys R Us Two Days Before Christmas

O Lord, I beseech thee to grant me patience and good cheer as I descend into chaos and disorder. Grant that I may recognize your face in the screaming babies, the bratty children, and the unhelpful workers. Deliver me from impatience and grinchyness, I petition O holy God. Amen.

  1. For Driving to Pick Up Your In-Laws…In the Rain

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, as I travel to the airport. Grant safety and speed on I-95 to me and all other travelers in both directions. Thank thee that it’s LaGuardia and not JFK, and remember your servant O gracious God kindly this day and hour(s). Amen.

  1. For Patience when Someone Critiques the Kids’ Pageant for Inconsistencies with the Biblical Narrative

Almighty and eternal God, illuminator of minds and giver of wisdom, grant now to Thine servant patience and fortitude when dealing with ___________. Guide me on the way of thy glorious peace, and hear O Lord my petitions. Grant that quiet confidence shall be my strength and let my hands not reach to strangle the critical rascal. Amen.

  1. For Protection from Envy of Happy Couples

God of Love and Light and Warmth, remind me that your presence is enough and that there is glory in being single. Lead my feet and my heart to the path away from envy and bitterness when observing PDA, happy couples, and warm cuddles. Assist me in thine mercy not to cry during holiday rom coms or lie to great Aunt Sally when she asks if I’m dating anyone. Amen.

Online Impersonation as Rhetorical Tool

Online impersonation is nothing new on Twitter, and the fact that a number of celebrities have “TheReal” or “Real” prepended to their twitter handles is evidence of the numerous imposters out there in cyberspace. Because of the ease in the digital world to copy/paste and easily duplicate images and text, impersonation has become easier than ever.

While impersonating trolls have spread false celebrity rumors and created mischief throughout the twittersphere, a new case of impersonation has arisen in an academic and cultural debate occurring on Twitter. Rajiv Malhotra (@RajivMessage), a self proclaimed Hindu public intellectual, has been accused of plagiarism by Richard Fox Young (@richardFoxYoung), a professor of History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary.

A self-described parody account of Malhotra first appeared in February of 2014 with the handle @RajivMassage, a play on Malhotra’s actual twitter handle, along with “Rajiv Malhotra” as the name. The picture was one of Malhotra, presumably taken from his Quora.com account. The imposter played off of accusations that Malhotra did not know Sanskrit and paid money to boost his tweets. There was a break in tweets from June of 2014 until July of 2015 when the user jumped in on the debate about the plagiarism accusations.

Yesterday, a parody account of Young appeared on the scene with the more heavily innuendo driven handle @RichardFuxYoung. Unlike Malhotra’s parody, this account features Young’s current twitter photo in addition to his name.

It will be interesting to see how the events unfold in this discussion, which has already been riddled with name calling, inflammatory remarks, and not a small amount of innuendo and highly sexualized language. The form of satire and parody is nothing new, and political cartoons and caricatures have featured prominently in propaganda wars since the time of the Reformation and continues today in new forms (such as satirical publications like The Onion or tv shows like Saturday Night Live). What will be interesting in this conversation is the way that these farcical accounts contribute to the ethos of the prominent users in this debate. Some researchers (Coleman 1999; Dyer 1995) in CMC (computer mediated communication) hold up theories of deindividuation when individuals get caught up in their group resulting in loss of self-awareness. I wonder if these imposter accounts, as satire and parody, reinforce this group categorization by portraying the opponent in a caricatured way. Since the days of the satirist Juvenal, people have noted that often there is a truth exposed in satire and parody that lies beneath the surface of cultural consciousness. Do these caricatures then in fact mirror the perception of the opposing group? In other words, while on the surface the @RichardFuxYoung account is merely a parody account, what does this parody reveal about how those in Malhotra’s camp actually feel about Young? Similarly, a close analysis of the @RajivMassage account reveals the thinking of those in Young’s camp: Malhotra is not a “real” scholar who knows Sanskrit; Malhotra uses his money to buy influence; Malhotra trivially dismisses the plagiarism accusations.

In studying responses to these false accounts and the networks surrounding them, much can be learned about rhetoric, discourse analysis, and social media. This blogpost is just the tip of the iceberg, and I am hopeful that more analysis of online impersonations will reveal more about the layers of interpersonal interaction in the digital world.

Mad Max is the Most Theologically Important Exodus Narrative in Film

[Spoiler Alert – this review contains spoilers and depends on prior viewing of the film]

Mad Max is being appraised as a smorgasbord of brilliant special effects, stunning visuals, and second wave feminism, but these lauds I will leave in the capable hands of the critics. I want to talk about the theological implications of this film’s narrative, for Mad Max may well be the most important Exodus narrative in film thus far.

We’ve seen this story before – a group of enslaved people are abused and mistreated by an overlord, a warlord, emperor, or some other tyrant. The unlikely-but-strong savior figure emerges and leads the oppressed out of bondage into the Promised Land. This is the story of the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. In Mad Max, we find what at first looks like a repetition of this age-old plotline. In a post-apocalyptic world, the film’s eponymous protagonist, Mad Max (Tom Hardy), is a half-crazed man who ends up aiding Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escape from the tyranny of the Citadel. The Exodus imagery is too abundant to be coincidental. The movie takes place in a desert wasteland, and though the escapees never refer to a “Promised Land,” they refer to a “green place” – an oasis and refuge from the tyranny of oppression and from the barrenness of the scorched earth. In a subtler hue, one of the defecting soldiers reveals that he is afflicted by boil-like lumps on his skin and lives under the threat of death by night fever. In another scene, we see a locust crawl across his skin. While not outright references to the ten plagues, these three taken together make it impossible to claim this is not an allusion to the plagues of the Egyptians. While stopped to do maintenance on their escape vehicle, one of the women cries out to the distant tyrant to forgive her and urges the others to return to their enslaved life. This incident echoes the Israelite’s constant complaint against God and Moses that they were better off in Egypt than wandering through the wilderness. When the “chariots” of the tyrant are in heavy pursuit of the escapees, they flee into a sand storm, where a wall of sand rising up on their left obliterates one of the pursuing vehicles. While this passage echoes the Scriptural description of the Israelite journey through the Red Sea, safety is not yet achieved and the pursuing army is not yet obliterated.

With these allusions and the basic plot structure of the movie, I was expecting a retelling of the Exodus story, only set in a post-apocalyptic world with stunning special effects. What I didn’t expect was that the explosions and the visual imagery is accompanied by a theology that acknowledges the shortcomings of Exodus appropriation and supplements it with a rich apocalyptic theology.

The Exodus narrative has been a powerful inspiration to many cultures in a variety of settings. In the U.S. the Exodus story was taken up both by white settlers seeing America as a Promised Land free from old European structures and impositions, and also by black slaves identifying with the not-yet freed Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians. This latter interpretation has been lifted up by liberation theologians to describe God as particularly concerned for the oppressed, a liberator, and one who delivers the poor from the powers, structures, and tyrants keeping them down. The problem this interpretation runs into is the unfortunate fact that the next episode in the saga of the Israelite journey to the Promised Land is the extermination and genocide of the people already living in Canaan. The genocide of the Canaanites prevents the narrative theology to move forward, for while affirming the unique particular love of God for the Israelites, streams in the Bible also acknowledge the love of God for all people. Some have thus wondered if the Exodus story is a dead end in liberation theology as it leads to a conquest narrative that displaces and exterminates the Canaanites, leaving no place in God’s kingdom for them.

Mad Max acknowledges the shortcoming of the Exodus narrative and pushes through towards a new ending to the traditional story. After escaping the territory of the tyrants, the escapees realize that their Promised Land has been destroyed and is not the place of refuge they had imagined. They prepare to cross a salt wasteland on motorcycles with enough supplies for 160 days (40×4) and no idea what lies ahead of them. Thus far we have seen a relatively faithful retelling of the Exodus narrative: there is a tyrant who enslaves his people, the people escape the pursuing armies, and the people prepare to wander through wilderness in search of a new promised land. And this is where the narratives diverge, for the escapees turn back. The fugitives (aided by a dramatic and terse Tom Hardy) realize that the only way to find life is by returning, overthrowing the tyrant and redeeming their home.

And this is the interpretation of the Gospel that takes into account the full account of the Scriptures. I was sitting in Central Park the other day speaking with a friend about one of her sermons on Isaiah (43). At the center of this chiasmic passage is the assertion that God loves Israel and they are precious in God’s sight. However, also in this passage is a statement about how God will hand over Egypt and other nations to suffering in order to ransom Israel. Clearly, Egyptians would hear this passage very differently from Jews (or anyone hearing this passage who was not from Egypt, Ethiopia, or Seba). And that is the fundamental problem with the Exodus narrative – some people groups are excluded and cast out from the kingdom of God. But in this same book in Isaiah (19), we know there is a bigger story. We know that the God will bring all nations to God’s self, including Egypt.

This is the gospel. All things will be made new. All people will be brought before God. The Greek term apokatastasis is used to indicate this renewal of all things as all of creation is redeemed. Mad Max acknowledges that the world is broken, some powers need to be challenged and even removed. But even the oppressors are not without a need for redemption. When they arrive back at the place of captivity, the Citadel, it is the young boys being bred for war that lower the drawbridge and raise them back up into the city. The oppressing people, without their tyrannical leader, are offered redemption. The narrative of the film does not downplay the importance of the role of the oppressed, the differently abled, or those struggling through psychological trauma. But in the end, it is not just these who are saved, but they lead the whole of the people, oppressed and oppressors, into redemption.

In this retelling of the Exodus narrative, the particularity of the oppressed is highlighted, but in the end, the change in structure and power affects all people. And this is the way forward in using the Exodus narrative theologically – the story does not end with deliverance from oppression and bondage. The story continues until all people, including the oppressors, are included in the kingdom of God.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

“I wonder, what difference does this make in your life, Michael?” This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot as I am now thoroughly underway in my last year at Princeton Theological Seminary. It weighed especially heavily on me on Sunday as I left church, where my Sunday School class was challenged to think about how the Psalms and the Bible in general were incorporated into their lives. Could I, in good conscience, tell all these young adults to read the Bible, to pray, and to memorize Scripture? What difference does all of this make? Does this even make a difference in my own life? I could not shake this question on the hour-long drive to Philly, where I was meeting someone for brunch. Then, as often happens, the coffee, breakfast burrito, extra potatoes on the side – and sitting across the table from a really attractive person – made me forget this crisis of existence, faith, and religion. (And for those keeping track, it was Not drunk brunch. Alcohol did not aid this time in forgetting my troubles.)

As I was driving home, I remembered that I had to get prizes for a game at youth group that night. The need to purchase the chocolate prizes, combined with my gas light turning on (for those of you on the revised common lectionary, yes, this was last Sunday when we read the gospel passage about the ten bridesmaids, five of whom ran out of oil), prompted me to swerve out of the exit lane from I-95 to 206, settling for the long way home. Mostly because I didn’t want to have to make any left turns and minimize clover leafs.

While my GPS freaked out and kept babbling, “Recalculating…Recalculating…Recalculating,” I cruised down Route 1 toward Trader Joe’s. On the side of the road, there was a car pulled over with the hazards blinking, and about 20 yards down the road, there was a woman walking with a gas can. And then I drove right past her and parked at Trader Joe’s.

I got out of my car and looked across the highway at the gas station on the other side of Route 1, across six lanes of traffic and a median concrete barrier. Apparently, the woman with the gas can also saw the gas station, because she stood on the opposite side of the highway looking for a break in the traffic. And at this point I found myself walking towards her. Since it was a highway, there was no break in the traffic. And so the woman’s efforts to run across the highway were thwarted, and I was right behind her before she heard me yelling, “Excuse me, Miss, do you need a ride?” It was kind of hard to be heard above the roar of car after passing car.

After we went to the gas station, (I gave in and made four clover leaf turns by going to the gas station before Trader Joe’s, but who’s counting?); and after her profuse thanks; and after her tearful story of how she had just come from Philly saying goodbye to her children before leaving to spend the holidays away from them for the first time; and after she swore I was sent by god; and after I dropped her back off at her car; I went back to Trader Joe’s for my chocolate.

And I wonder. I wonder if, contrary to the gospel reading, maybe those with oil will lend their oil to those without. I wonder if the woman had been white if someone would have stopped for her. I wonder if someone would stop for my mom if she ran out of gas. I wonder how many cars passed her as she walked along the highway with that empty gas can. I wonder if there is a god above who sent me to her. And still, I continue to wonder: What difference does this make in your life, Michael?

My Church is Prettier than Yours

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“I’m going to teach you a lesson!”

It’s been a while since I’ve heard those words.  Probably since my days of playing on a playground.  There aren’t many days when I can say that God/the universe/life has said, “Michael, I’m going to teach you a lesson!” but today was definitely one of them.

And worse, today’s lesson was a lesson in humility.

 

Life is funny.  I spent two hours poring over the chapter on humility in Rule of St Benedict and the Rule of the Master, parsing the Latin and dissecting the theology.  But I did not learn the lesson I was supposed to learn.  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”

My lesson was a two-step process.  Step one was hearing my priest’s homily.  The lesson started with a joke.  An Episcopalian and a fundamentalist walked into a bar.  The fundy sat down at one end of the bar, ordered a coke, and pulled out her Bible to study.  The Episcopalian sat down at the opposite end of the bar with his Gin and tonic.  The bartender who knew them both, asked the Episcopalian, “Hey, aren’t yall both Christians?”  The Episcopalian replied, “Oh but I’m an Episcopalian. Unlike that close-minded, unthinking, bigot, we love everybody.”

Ouch.  That hit me in the gut.  I am proud of my denominational identification.  I’m proud that I’m an “open-minded” liberal.  I’m proud of my post-evangelical theology.  And there’s nothing really wrong with that, I don’t think.

But there is a problem when I look down on my neighbor, my siblings in Christ, and judge my fellow human beings for being narrow minded.

As my rector said last week in his homily, “We’re all just trying to make it.”  We’re all doing our best.  And if my best is an interpretation of the world and the Bible in a way that is incongruent with another’s interpretation, that does not make me a better, holier, or more enlightened person.

In Sunday school, I was really excited to share with my middle school students a lesson on Christian symbols and sacred space.  And they were, by the grace of God, excited to learn the material I was presenting.  We talked about the beauty of church architecture and the treasury of beauty behind the symbols.  I get giddy when I talk about the beauty and richness of the church’s symbols.

As we wrapped up the classroom portion of our lesson and got ready to head into our 143 year old sanctuary to identify symbols, a student asked a question I had not prepared in my lesson.

“Michael, I visited one friend’s church and it was just rectangular. It wasn’t shaped like a cross. And it didn’t have that special arch.  Why is that?”

Well, I explained, maybe they weren’t aware of the richness of the symbolism in the Christian tradition and they didn’t know…

“But,” my student cut me off, “God told them to make the church like that.  Why would God tell them to build a church like that?”

Wow.  I was not expecting that.

I don’t know, I responded.

My mind was racing.  The symbols decorating our church are more beautiful than bare walls.  The trefoils, quatrefoils, and vesica pisces adorning my church were objectively more beautiful than the warehouse looking structures housing meetings of my iconoclastic-prone evangelical brothers and sisters. The Chagall windows in St Stephen’s in Mainz communicate more truth than the undecorated opaque windows in the reformed chapel on campus here. Right? I started to doubt my convictions that my view on beauty was truly objective.

Maybe, I offered as a tentative answer, Maybe God told them to build a building like that because it doesn’t look like a traditional church.  Sometimes people have been hurt by the church.  Sometimes people associate traditional church with pain.  So maybe by looking different from that, then these buildings become more inviting to those people.

“Oh. That makes sense.”

I don’t know if God tells people to build churches in a distinct architectural style.  I don’t know if God works like that.  But I do know this: my brothers and sisters are doing the best that they can, and God can work through that.  And I know that God does work through that.

My church is not better than the EV Free church down the street.  The previous Anglican church I attended in Chicago where my rector spoke in tongues was not better than my more formal Episcopalian church here.

In Biblical language, God gives different gifts and does not issue the same call to all.

In other words, diversity is a good thing.  And we are all supposed to love another.  There is no law against loving one’s neighbor.  And there is no excuse not to.  Whatever our disagreements on theology, ecclesiology, soteriology, or church architecture, that is no excuse for looking down on a brother or sister in Christ.

My church is not prettier than yours.  As my best friend told me today, we proclaim in the creed that we believe in one catholic church. The church is bigger than my building. The church is bigger than my beliefs.  We are one.  And in our unity, there is beauty. And in our diversity, there is beauty. Like a mosaic, each piece is handcrafted to fit a specific space. And while each piece may look funny when held up in isolation, it is beautiful, for it serves a specific function. And when one steps back and sees the whole, the unity of the entire work is mesmerizing. Thus it is with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I don’t have a lot of faith. But I have faith that the God who created the world is painting a mosaic in history, using each diverse piece to create a masterpiece.

I disagree with a lot of people on a lot of things.  But I’m 23 years old. I don’t have anything figured out.  And I’m learning to be humble enough to see the Beauty in the opinions that differ from mine.  Even if they do look like an old warehouse.

The Trinity goes FBO

in a relationship

The Trinity Goes FBO
(or the Trinitarian councils in a tacky and improperly nuanced way)

God is single.

God is in a relationship.

God is…it’s complicated.

A while ago I wrote a piece with my girlfriend at the time entitled, “Why We Aren’t FBO.”  It was mostly a joke, and a pretty bad rationalization for why we weren’t putting our relationship status up on facebook.

Ever since, I haven’t been a huge fan of displaying all my dating (mis)adventures on the most popular social network.  But I may have found a use for the ternary distinctions within the little drop down menu on facebook.

Single.  In a relationship.  It’s complicated.  These are the three basic categories one can fall into on facebook.  I’m including engaged, married, civil partnerships, etc. under “in a relationship.”

If God had a facebook, what would God’s relationship status be?  I think that it depends upon which person (hypostasis) of the Trinity we looked at.

“Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

God is single.  God is not married, God is not composite, and God is one.

God is not made up of multiple substances or essences.  God is simple, to borrow a term from philosophy, meaning that God is not a composition of multiple parts.

But God is also in a relationship.  God is Father.  And God is Son.  These two persons of the Trinity share the same substance and are both equally God.  “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God,” to quote the creed.  God is related to the Son not because the Son was created or made by the Father, but because the Son is eternally begotten of the Father.  What does that mean? Eternal begotten-ness isn’t really something I can easily wrap my head around.  Christ is just as much God as the Father.  God is not Father in the sense of primacy, cause, or power, but is Father in the way that the Father relates to the Son.

So that’s the way the Father and the Son relate.  What about the Holy Spirit?  Well.  It’s complicated.  The Father/Son relationship is complicated enough.  As for the Holy Spirit?  Well.  It’s hard to pin down.  And this is a source (pun intended) of the biggest break in Christendom, the split between the East and the West.  The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.  And maybe from the Son.  But regardless, the Holy Spirit moves in every action the Trinity makes.  But as to how the Holy Spirit relates to the other members of the Trinity?  It’s complicated.

Unconvinced

Unconvinced.

 

I remain unconvinced that it is better to live than to die.  At the end of a season of a fairly sinister depression, I sit here writing in favor of life, but unconvinced that it is indeed an advantage to continue on this path paved of time and space in this homo sapien body.

What is it about life that compels us to continue living?  Is it the relationships we’ve crafted and the duty in those relationships?  That certainly is one compelling factor, but alone, it is not enough, for what are the odds that in whatever dreams may come, the connections made in this life persist?  Is it the simple joys found in life?  Perhaps.  But alone, they are not enough.  Perhaps the beauty of a butterfly of the majesty of a sunset can distract one long enough to forget the starving masses on the planet and the thousands of victims crying out for mercy across the globe, but in the end, the pain is as real as the pleasure.  Is it because we can help others on this earth?  Perhaps.  But alone, this is not enough reason to continue.  For all our striving, all our work, all our efforts, what dent in this world will we make?  People have been slaving away trying to make this world a better place for millennia, and what do we have to show for it?  People are just as selfish, greedy, and murderous as the time of Cain.  It is foolishness, as the Franciscan prayer admits, to think that we can make a difference in this world.

Let’s face it – the reasons offered on those websites and pamphlets are all pretty much bullcrap.  “Somebody loves you.”  Somebody loved Hitler.  That doesn’t mean his life was worth living.   “You are special.”  So what?  How does that solve my self-worth question?  Uniqueness is not a measure of worth.  “You have something to add to the world.”  But will that outweigh what I take away?

What then is the reason we keep moving and keep breathing?

What is my reason?  Through my depression, I tread through my Antinomian background back into orthodoxy.

I grew up with the doctrine, “We are saved by faith, and faith alone.”  And I still hold onto this our Protestant creed.  But it’s really hard to hold onto this fact, for the implication in so many of the Sola Fide sermons I heard is that works don’t matter.  It really doesn’t matter what I do, because in the end, it’s all and only Jesus who effects salvation.  And if Salvation is the all important thing, then why try to do any good works?  I’d fallen into the hole of Antinomianism, from which I perennially have to dig myself out.

 

A quote attributed to Gandhi, popularized in the movie Remember Me, claims, “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it.”  Robert Pattinson’s character then comments, “I tend to agree with the first part.”  And I tend to agree with Rob Patt.  If our actions will be insignificant in the course of history and if our actions are useless in Protestant religion, then what’s the point?  Remember Me goes the route of the Jewish proverb, “Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.”  The protagonist invests in his family and his friends, impacting their lives in positive ways, rendering his life worthwhile.

So is this the answer?  It’s not satisfying.  And perhaps I have succumbed to the solipsistic zeitgeist, but where is the personal fulfillment in impacting others?   Especially when I am regularly confronted with the knowledge that I often hurt those who are close to me?  Inevitably, I hurt the ones I love.  And those I don’t love.  Does the good really outweigh the bad?

Well, I don’t have an answer.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t make sense to keep on living.  But few things we do in life make sense.  And I’m pretty okay with that.  I’m pretty okay with living and I’m content to keep on breathing.

I don’t have a why, and frankly, for now, I don’t need a rational why.

Perhaps the answer lies in grace.  Grace is that marvelous concept that overrides karma.  It is what Christians believe is foundational to salvation, and really, it is what keeps the world from tearing itself apart.  One Manhattan church’s wall is etched with Gandhi’s phrase, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Grace is at work somewhere.  No matter how badly one screws up, damnation is not the punishment.  The world operates under eye-for-an-eye, crime incurs punishment, and bad decisions incur bad consequences.  But maybe there’s something Else at work in the world.  Something that forgives wrongs and cancels debts.  Something that lies outside the bounds of rationality.  Something that doesn’t make sense.

In a cause and effect analysis, in a religious scoreboard, and on scales of relational altruism, I come up short.  There’s no reason to keep on breathing, bleating, and beating.  But I still do.  I suppose the answer is hope.  An irrational hope.  That is unconvincing to my head.  And barely convincing to my heart.  But barely is enough.

There may be a tiny sliver of good I might be able to do in my corner of the universe, and so here I go foolishly trying to make a difference in this world.  There may be a few people to whom I can show love, and so here I go, doing my best to find some handle on that ever-elusive altruistic love for those around me.

It doesn’t make sense, and I remain unconvinced.  But despite that, I cling to hope, I pray for grace, and I continue living.

Explosive Silence: Reflections on 4.15

Explosive Silence

Boston. 4.15.13

Curses spewed out of my mouth as I got into my car to head back to Princeton Monday afternoon.  That was the beginning of my work trying to process the events that transpired in the hour before, and I haven’t gotten much farther than a mouthful of curses.  So I beg your patience as we work through this event together.

The Facts

For four hours, my mom and I stood at the sidelines two blocks from the finish line, waiting to see my dad pass by.  When he finally did pass by, he waved and kept on running, without even giving my outstretched fist a bump. (Though the lady in front of him misinterpreted my screams of, “Go dad!” and gave me a high five.)  My mom and I guessed, rightly, that he didn’t stop and chat for a few seconds, per his normal custom, because he was trying to set a new Boston personal record of under four hours.  As my mom and I headed back to the hotel, we heard a loud boom.  We happened to be on Boylston, where the race finishes, a couple blocks away from what seemed to be a pillar of white smoke rising up. As we strained to see what was going on, the second explosion happened.  Above the sound of the crowd around us, it was hard to know what was going on.  I tried to ignore the screams I heard, thinking they must belong to a child who was frightened by the loud explosions, which could have been harmless pyrotechnics, as far as we knew.  As we walked down the street towards our hotel, casting anxious glances behind us, we started to hear the sirens.  An ambulance raced past us at a breakneck speed.  Maybe one of the runners collapsed at the finish, and he or she is being rushed to the hospital – it happened with a lot of runners last year.  That’s what I told myself.

Not certain of what was going on, I told my mom that we needed to get back to the hotel, as that was where my dad would meet us in the event of an emergency.   As we walked briskly towards the hotel, we passed one young man running away from the finish line yelling into his phone, “There was a bomb! I’m okay, but there was a bomb!”  As a good 21st century skeptic, without seeing proof of this with my own eyes or on twitter, I was hesitant to believe this man’s testimony.  Maybe he saw the explosions and jumped to the conclusion that this was a bomb.  It could have been a practical joke.  That’s what my brain told me as we ran across the street to our hotel a few blocks from the finish line.

Upon entering the hotel, no one else seemed to know much of what was going on.  I checked the omniscient internet.  And then it began to sink in.  I went to the bathroom and as I walked in the door it hit me.  My dad had finished minutes before those explosions went off. The explosions really were right at the finish line.  These were the facts as I knew them.  Then the speculation began.  Was he okay?  What would happen if he were not?

As I stepped outside the bathroom and found my mom, we discovered that the phones weren’t functioning, due probably to the high volume of calls and texts overloading the phone network.  But my dad’s phone was in the room next to the lobby.  Even if he was okay, we couldn’t reach him.

And so we sat.  And waited.

The television at the hotel bar was on, but there wasn’t any new information on the screen.  The only good thing about hanging around the bar was the Macallan 12.

Then my mom got a text from an unknown number.  It read something like: “This is Eugene – I’m okay – heading to hotel now.”  My body was too tense even to feel the relief that washed over my mind.

My mom and I went out to the street corner to wait for my dad.  We realized that because of the traffic and police lines, that he may not come back his normal route.  Not wanting to miss him, I went back to the hotel. To wait. Some more.

As I was standing in the lobby, consulting the equally ignorant news stations trying to figure out what had happened, my mom and dad came in.

End Scene 1 of Michael’s traumatic experience in Boston.

Not the Facts. Also known as Verbal Processing or Reflection.

The most painful part of this experience was the silence. Between the outbursts of the explosions and the text from my dad, my mom and I were stuck in a deafening silence.  Silence from my dad.  Silence about what had happened.  Silence about whether or not we were in further danger.

And this silence was hell.

No it was not the hell that those who were injured in the blast experienced.  No it was not the hell that those who witnessed the explosion (my dad, who was fewer than 100 yards away) experienced.

But it was a hell.  And in some ways, this is the same hell that we’re living in now: the hell of uncertainty.

When I told people that my parents and I were safe, many said something along the lines of “thank God.”  And I couldn’t do it.

 

God is silent.

 

That’s what my brain shouted at me as I sat in the traffic trying to get out of downtown Boston back to Jersey.  That and a stew of unrepeatable curse words.

Why would God let this happen?  How was God involved at all?  If God was responsible for the seemingly random coincidental events that kept my dad safe, was God responsible for the seemingly random coincidental events that led to the 8-year-old boy being killed by that blast?  I don’t know.  God is silent about it.  But if we attribute one sequence of events to God, in which we find no supernatural residue, what prevents us from attributing another?  Do we only dare attribute the good things to God?  Do we thank God for keeping the other runners safe?  There is no indication that God had anything to do with that.  I refuse to blindly attribute only the good to God when there is as much evidence that God was involved in safety as in harm.

 

God where were you?

Where are you?

Give me more than silence.  For this is hell.

**Note: Don’t crucify me as a heretic yet. There’s more to be written. Bear with me as I process. This will take some time.**

I Give Up.

I just have so much free time.  I find myself sitting around wondering what I’m going to do next. Maybe I’ll go fly a kite, write a letter to a friend I haven’t seen in a while, start working on my book, or watch the Star Wars The Phantom Menace.  In the words of Sweet Brown, who swept the Internet earlier in 2012, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Speaking of time, today is the first Sunday of a new season in the liturgical calendar.  If you don’t follow the church calendar, we just entered into the season of Lent, a time historically of fasting in preparation for Easter.

There is a lot of stuff written about the origin of the fast of Lent and the practices that accompany this church season.  But I’m not going to discuss that here.  Because we don’t got time for that.

What I do want to talk about is fasting.

Lent is a fast.  Yes, it is a time of penance.  Yes, it is a time of self-reflection and self-examination.  And yes, both penance and self-reflection can be done by actions added to one’s daily routine.  But primarily, lent is a fast.  And a fast is not primarily about adding devotional practices to your life but about giving something up.

Maybe in your self-examination you realize that you need to replace certain actions with ones that are more meaningful or beneficial.  But it starts in giving something up.

Today, I have a million things competing for me time.  Books I need to read for class, church, work, correspondence with friends, talking with my mother, eating.  All these things compete for my time, and some things get pushed out of the picture.  Often it’s eating.  I ate six meals last week. And that’s not because it’s Lent.  That’s my life.

And it’s not far from the lives of a lot of my peers.  I don’t know a lot of people who complain about having too much time.  In fact, that’s one complaint I don’t think I’ve heard ever. Or at least in the last few years.  Some people have suggested that Lent is a time to add new devotional practices: to add new virtuous deeds and actions.  Maybe.  But maybe not.

Life is full of events.  Of tasks.  Of people.  Of to-do lists.  It’s often overwhelming.

And the last thing I need is to add something else to my schedule.  Well maybe not the last thing.  The last thing is probably cocaine.  Or an abusive relationship.  Or to see another ad for 50 Shades of Grey on the train.  But you get the idea.  I’m busy.  You’re busy.  We’re all busy.  And why?  In chapter 22 of The Little Prince, the small hero of the book observes the train carrying loads of people here and there, and for what purpose?  I have to constantly keep my guard up against this aimless running through life.  I work, I work out, I study, I read, and I write.  And wherefore?  What telos or aim am I doing all this for?

In Lent, this time of fasting, we give something up.  Or multiple things.  And in that vacancy, in that hole, in that absence in our lives, we find time.  We find energy.  We find rest.  We find God.  When we add things, we are saying, I’m in control.  I can manage my life, and make time for the important things.  And maybe you can!  More power to you.  But if I add something else to my schedule it’s one more thing that I control.  It’s one more thing that *I* am doing.  Lent is about saying, “Not my will, but Yours.”   And so I choose to make a sacrifice.  I can’t just try harder like in the gym.  One article I was reading said, “If you’re not seeing any results, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough.”  And this is true in the gym.  And this is true in life.  Results are tied to action and effort and work.  But lent’s not about human results. It’s about Divine infusion: realizing our own human dependency and letting our will be bent towards something other than ourselves.

Lent’s not about giving up eating Zurich’s sausages.  Or about being responsible with alcohol (my personal sacrifice this season).  And it’s not about praying more or reading the Bible more.

Ultimately, it’s about creating a vacancy to let us realize our dependence upon God.

For me, this dependency isn’t realized in adding more devotional practices.  It’s not in any human effort.  It’s in making sacrifices.  Giving up things that I want.  Saying, “Not my will, but Yours.”

I’m Not a Heretic. But even if I am…

Love Thy Neighbor.

This is the second greatest commandment.  And I don’t like it.  I just don’t.

Maybe this is just a reflection of how far I’ve yet to go on the road to sanctification, but I’m just not feeling the love-thy-neighbor vibe.  The car that crawls seven mph under the speed limit on the one lane road, the customer who covers the bathroom floor with toilet paper, and whoever decided to put a Qdoba next to my store are all actively absent from my love-list.

Tonight, as a couple of girls were leaving the store, I said, as I do in my nice Southern way, “Night! Yall be safe out there.”  One of the girls turned around looking confused and continued to walk out the door.  My coworker then told me it sounded like I said, “I love you, Claire.”  Or something like that.  Yeah.  It was embarrassing.  Maybe they’ll come back, and then I can tell them how I really don’t love them.

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out how to love my neighbor: the teenage girls for whom I make grande white mochas and tell “I love you” to – the older person crawling at a snails pace on the highway – the taxi drivers in Philly.  And Christians.  Oh Christians.  How do I love them?

I’m a pretty nice guy.  I’m a pretty gracious guy.  But when people start attacking me saying everything short of the words, “Michael is a heretic,” it’s extremely tempting to start throwing up defenses and going on the attack.  But that’s not what Jesus would do.  Actually he might have.  He had some good zingers in there.  And a whip.  Whi-chaaa! I don’t know how to onomatopoeia a whip sound.  I picture Jesus, like Indiana Jones with his whip.  That’s probably blasphemous.  And why conservative Christians hate me.

My first instinct is to stitch a red “H” onto all my clothes for “heretic.”  In the fashion of Hester Prynne.  Or Emma Stone in Easy A.  Actually, definitely more like Emma Stone.  Cranking some Joan Jett’s “Don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation” and stitching H’s on all my clothes was extremely tempting.  But I resisted the temptation. And decided to write this instead.

So what do I do with those who disagree with me?  Most of the time I’m willing to say, “You know, there are two perspectives here, and I can see where you’re coming from.  I believe this because of X, Y, and Z, but I can see how because you believe A, B, and C, you get to D.”  But what about when I’m right?  When I know I’m right?  When the other party is just being ridiculous?

How do I constructively reach out and love him or her?

Option 1.  Ignore them.  That’s the advice I gave to one of my friends a while ago.  When people are getting on your nerves and being ridiculous, just ignore them.  That’s really hard.  And seems like it’s bypassing the issue.  Because there’s still unresolved animosity in me towards them.  And if I just dismiss them as ridiculous, that does not give adequate reception of their person.  For every person is complex and made in the image of God.  I would not want to be dismissed as ridiculous, so following the golden rule, I can’t dismiss others as crazy-folk.  So what do I do?

Option 2. Do I try to engage them in some kind of academic, scholarly discourse? Do I issue forth a set of theses and sally forth with my commentaries, my theology textbooks, and my seminary training, ready to crush their beliefs?  That’s not the way.  As Philip Yancey said, “No one ever became a Christian because they lost the argument. [sic…the grammar makes me cringe, too. But you get the point].”  In the same way, no one ever came to a Michael-Toy-view of the world because Michael won the argument.

So what now?  If dismissing them is derogatory, and if engaging them in a debate is futile or unproductive, what courses of action do I have left?  I want to love them.  But how?

Maybe the way to do this is to find some common ground.  Experience the person behind the argument.  Find out what goals we have in common.  Pursuit of Truth, Beauty, Justice, these things have to be common ground, right?  Even if I don’t believe in Sola Scriptura, or the Bible’s inerrancy, or a God who is active in this world, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to change the world for the better.  I too want to cast out demons from the possessed.  (Mark 9:40, Luke 9:50)  Maybe not literally, but metaphorically, I too want to cast out injustice, oppression, and untruths out of this world.  I am not against you, my dear brethren who call me heretic.  Our practical goals are the same.

I see the good you want to do.  I want to do good as well.  I am not against you.  I am not against Christ.  Therefore, according to the gospels of Luke and of Mark, I am for Him and His kingdom.

I may not have all my theological ducks in the same row that you do.  But I promise that we are pursuing the same end.

Neither of us has a monopoly on Truth.  Neither of us has a monopoly on God.

Therefore, let us work together to further God’s kingdom. Without quarrel, without hostility, and without indifference.  Let us work together for good.  With humility, with grace, and with love for each other.

Neighbor.  I love you.

Let’s do this.