We Are Better Than This: The Perils of Weaponized Grief

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Both the inadequacy of my thinking and the limitations of my discernment have been regularly revealed over the course of my life. Please know that I am painfully aware of both as I write what I am about to write. I offer these words, not as one laboring under the delusion of absolute rightness, but as an openhearted seeker attempting to give voice to a deep internal struggle that will not go away.

My soul is sad. The collective resentment in our nation has inspired people in recent days to weaponize one grief against another, thereby distorting the profundity of both. Insufficient and caustic interpretations of current events and recent tragedies are producing bitterness more than they are illuminating truth.

Allow me to explain what I am describing.

The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (all of whom are representative of a much longer list of black and brown people) have painfully awakened our nation to racial injustice and inequity that have been too frequently ignored or tolerated. Their deaths, tragic and terrible, bear witness to what I have come to understand all too well from personal experience—that people of color experience a very different world than I do as a white male. This difference finds expression in law enforcement statistics and documented social narratives. It reveals itself through observed examples of undervaluation and mistreatment. It can be heard in the cavalier articulation of racial slurs, the perpetuation of institutionalized presuppositions, and an exaggeratedly fierce defense of certain flags, mascots, and statues. It hides in patterns, rhythms, and ideas that have become part of the sociological air that we breathe.

The “difference” that I am describing inspires within me, not a sense of guilt, but a heightened attentiveness; not an apology for being white, but a recognition that being white grants to me societal advantages that people of color are not automatically granted.

At the heart of the cry “black lives matter”—a cry that resonates with particular clarity in the aftermath of the killings referenced above—is the conviction that the struggle for racial justice and equity must be taken seriously and embraced in order for all lives to be valued equally. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are heartbreaking affronts to our moral sensibilities. Their voices call to our hearts, beckoning us to affirm the sacred worth of black and brown lives and bodies in a world in which they are too often treated as though they do not matter.

The appalling shooting death of 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant at the hands of a 25-year-old black neighbor in Wilson, North Carolina is another recent tragedy, expansive in its scope. A precious young life senselessly lost. A family devastated. A community undone. Another act of unthinkable violence. Grief beyond words. A little boy denied the journey into youth and adulthood that he should have enjoyed. His killer, within a day, was apprehended, arrested, and charged with first degree murder.

The intersection of these profound grief experiences is precisely where things become complicated and troubling. Perhaps that fact should come as no surprise to us. Our stewardship over our grief, after all, is one of the most significant and complex forms of stewardship that we will ever practice. The content of that stewardship will either deepen a heart or harden a heart.

The burden in my spirit at present is that a portion of the nation is practicing what I am experiencing as a truncated or malformed grief stewardship. This malformation is taking the form of an all-too-familiar demonization of the media—as in, “Why has the media been so ‘deafeningly silent’ about Cannon Hinnant’s murder in comparison to the coverage of George Floyd?” Such language, of course, fueled by politicized fervor, carries with it an accusation against either the media’s perceived irresponsibility or assumed agenda or both. The consequences of this accusation are intensified resentment and more clearly defined battle lines.

The malformation also takes the form of a race-based subjugation of one grief narrative to another: “You say that black lives matter? I say that Cannon’s life matters! You say speak THEIR names? I say speak Cannon’s name!” The end result is that two experiences of grief are positioned unfairly and hurtfully against one another, thereby obscuring the realities that both experiences illuminate.

I believe that we are better than this. We are collectively wiser and more careful in our thinking than this. We are more compassionate and gracious than this.

When we pit the death of Cannon Hinnant against the death of George Floyd (irrespective of how noble we believe our intentions to be) and utilize the comparison a means by which to castigate the media, we run the risk of reducing the murder of a young boy to an instrument of demonization. Beyond this, when we utilize Cannon’s death as an opportunity to express resentment over the cultural energy that is currently being devoted to the work of ensuring racial justice, we unnecessarily kneel on the neck of the mattering of black lives.

It does not have to be this way. We can allow Ahmaud Arbery’s story be its own story. And Breonna Taylor’s. And George Floyd’s. And Cannon Hinnant’s.

For these multiple urgencies to be rightly honored, however, moral people have to resist the temptation to settle for insufficient and denunciatory interpretations that only serve, in the long run, to gaslight and obscure.

I believe that we are better than this. We have to be.

Jesus, a Canaanite Woman, and an Expanded Vision of the Kingdom of God

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 (Artwork: “The One with the Crumby Dog” by Ally Barrett)

The Lectionary Gospel for this weekend (August 16, 2020) is Matthew 15:21-28. It is a portion of Scripture in which Jesus finds himself confronted with a desperate and terrified Gentile mother whose daughter is “tormented by a demon.”

Interestingly, the same story is recorded in Mark 7:24-30. The primary editorial difference in the two iterations of the story is that, in Mark’s Gospel, the woman is a Syrophoenician, and in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a Canaanite. The common racial/sociological/religious denominator, however, remains intact in both versions of the encounter: This desperate mother is a non-Jewish female, meaning that she faces a two-fold dynamic that many in her social milieu would have been happy to highlight. First, she was a Gentile—a non-Jewish person—in a world where racial and religious categories were clearly defined, widely recognized, and fiercely maintained. And, second, she was a woman—a non-male—in a world where gender defined both social positioning and agency.

In the story, the Gentile woman begs Jesus to provide deliverance and healing for her daughter. Jesus, at first, ignores her, offering her the pain of agonizing silence in the midst of her maternal anguish. Had she expected the silence? Perhaps. After all, her gender, race, and religious identification were all wrong for the scenario. She was a non-Jewish woman, living on the other side of a covenant community’s line of demarcation. It may have been that Jesus’ silence was all too familiar to her, like a stale but recognizable air that she had to breathe in yet again.

The disciples, no doubt taking their cue from Jesus’ initial silence, implore him to send her away. It is the nature of discrimination, I suppose, to identify the outsider, label her, and work for her dismissal. This is precisely what the disciples do: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We do not normally like to think of the disciples of Jesus as perpetuators of discrimination or rejection. But discrimination and rejection are exactly the response that they offer to this hurting woman.

Those of you who are parents, imagine being treated so dismissively and disrespectfully if you were seeking help for your hurting or troubled child. Allow the pain of that imagined situation to become one of the hermeneutics that you bring to this Scripture.

But, no worries, right? Because Jesus is there. Surely Jesus will immediately rebuke the disciples for their discriminatory proclivities and hard-heartedness. Surely Jesus will immediately speak up for this hurting woman, thereby redeeming her suffering and restoring her beloved daughter to health. Surely Jesus will quickly manifest the love of God’s heart toward this woman and her daughter. Right?

Well, not exactly. At least not immediately.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says to the woman when he finally emerges from his initial silence. (Translation: “I was sent only to a particular people, and I’m afraid that you and your daughter are not a part of the people I was sent to save.”)

Again, utilize your imagination so that the gravity of this moment is not too quickly sidestepped. Ponder what it would feel like to be met with abject rejection from a healer about whom you have heard so much, simply because you were not a part of his preestablished theological itinerary.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman, stunningly, refuses to leave. She kneels, daring to show respect and reverence in the face of abject rejection. Then she speaks, with an even greater sense of urgency: “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds to her by moving from the already-articulated rejection to a pointed insult: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Translation: “Since I was sent specifically to the Jewish people, it would be inappropriate to take their designated salvation and offer it to ‘dogs’ like you and your daughter.”)

By the way, I am not exaggerating or distorting the text. This is Jesus. The One whom Christians embrace as Messiah. The One in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. The One who gave his life for the world but who, in this moment, seemingly dismisses and insults a heartbroken woman who is kneeling before him on behalf of her hurting daughter.

What would you have done if you were the woman who had just been called a “dog” by the healer from whom she had come to seek help? Personally, I probably would have been looking for a quick exit out of the encounter. If the rejection had not already inspired me to head for the door, the insult would have completed the task. Personal dignity is at stake here, not to mention the dignity of her daughter. This woman’s sense of urgency, however, seems to be far greater than her vulnerability to rejection. Instead of leaving the presence of the man who had just insulted her, she finds her voice and speaks directly into the insult: “Perhaps you are right,” she essentially says to Jesus. “Perhaps I am just a dog. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Remarkable, is it not? This Gentile woman, dismissed by the disciples, insulted by Jesus, somehow finds her voice, pushing back against the very insult that still permeated the air around her. She takes hold of the imagery that Jesus places before her and expands it so that she and her daughter might have a place in it: “Perhaps you are right, Jesus. Maybe I am lowly in the scheme of things. But do not even lowly animals deserve some crumbs and scraps from the table so that they do not starve?”

When Jesus recognizes that he has been met heart to heart and word for word by this woman whose determination seems to be every bit as deep as her concern for her daughter, he transitions from rejection to embrace, from insult to affirmation: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” We are told that, instantly, the woman’s daughter is healed.

Thanks be to God for the miraculous healing and the transformational grace of Jesus that it illuminates! But, what about the strange and painful journey it took to get there? Yes, Jesus ultimately restored the woman’s daughter to health. But what do we do with a Jesus who initially ignores, rejects, and insults?

Like many of you, I have experienced several sermons that have taken great pains to tidy up this moment of Scripture. I have probably even preached some of those sermons. “Jesus was only testing the woman, helping her to arrive at a faith response that she would not have been able to generate had he not put her through rejection and insult.” Or, “Jesus intended to heal the daughter all along. He simply had to drive the woman into a deeper desperation before the healing could be fully realized.” Or, “Jesus didn’t really mean the rejection or the insult. He was simply helping the woman to access a deeper sense of belief in the healing power of God.”

Perhaps one or all of these interpretations is accurate. Perhaps Jesus was simply leading the woman into a painful but important test, helping her to join him on the sacred ground upon which he is already standing. If you embrace such a reading of the text, I certainly will not divide with you over it.

What must be taken seriously, though, is that the text itself does not suggest such an interpretation. Nor does the text itself imply that Jesus was offering to this woman something other than an authentic, if spontaneous, response. Beyond this, even if this were a test to which Jesus was subjecting the woman, would it lessen our discomfort at all to think of Jesus testing a suffering woman by means of a rejection and an insult that would have seemed all too real to her, even if they were not “real” to Jesus?

When we think of Jesus’ Incarnation, his mystical journey into human flesh, we tend to make some assumptions. We sometimes assume, for example, that, as the Son of God, Jesus came into the world already holding the totality of his Father’s expansive and comprehensive worldview. We assume that Jesus never had to experience any growth, any change, or any development. If that is the theological assumption with which one approaches this Biblical story, the only alternative is to conclude that Jesus’ dismissive insult toward the woman is indeed nothing more than an elaborate, albeit hurtful, test, offered en route to his hidden and redemptive agenda.

But, what if (and, please, bear with my prayerful exploration)…

…What if the Son of God came into this world fully prepared to expand his vision and understanding of his own ministry? What if Jesus’ Incarnation is not only a glorious event (which we rightly celebrate at Christmas) but also a progressive journey, impacted and shaped by every one of his encounters, including this encounter with a Gentile woman? What if the Word becoming flesh required the vulnerability of growth—vulnerability in which a Jesus (as human as he was divine) allowed himself to learn through experience that the Kingdom his Father sent him to inaugurate was even more expansive than what his disciples (and perhaps the Gospel writers) had originally believed?

In other words, what if Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is less of a calculated test and more of a kairotic moment in which Jesus experiences a genuine and existential confirmation of a more expansive vision for his mission and purpose, triggered by the brave prompting of a Gentile woman who simply would not go away?

If that were at all the case, then Jesus, in his stark encounter with this desperate woman, calls to mind the very church that is built upon his Lordship and governed by it. Every day, the church, like Jesus with the woman, is confronted with the challenge of reconceptualizing pre-conceived categories in order to manifest more fully a divine love and grace that stubbornly resist categorization. The church’s long and ugly history with racism and bigotry bears witness to how frequently we have been content with distorted vision and malformed worldviews. In practice, the church has often bailed out of the story at the point of insult and rejection instead of joining Jesus in the work of embracing the “other” and seeing the world differently.

It makes me all the more grateful for this Canaanite woman, who dared to see past the boundaries that the people in her world were all too eager to enforce. Her voice speaks God’s very heart into a painful moment, reminding even Jesus of what he was coming to understand more clearly in her presence—that there are no mutts in God’s ever-expanding Kingdom (or Kin-dom) and that no one is excluded in the salvation that God is envisioning for this world and offering to it.

If you have read this far, you might be at the point of saying, “No way! The Jesus I love and worship wouldn’t have needed to change or grow. It was just a difficult test for a woman who needed precisely the hard push that Jesus was providing.”

Perhaps you are right.

Personally, I am intrigued and strangely comforted by the thought of a Jesus who loved us enough to enter fully into every portion of the vulnerability of the human condition—including the vulnerability of having to grow and learn. And, when Jesus found himself confronted with the possibility that his mission was even more wide-ranging than the people around him had initially assumed, he did not blink or back down. Instead, he stepped beyond the well-enforced boundaries in order to bring salvation to a Canaanite woman and the Gentile world that she represented.

I am praying that the church never forgets who its Jesus is, especially in an age when the work of dismantling sins like racism and bigotry is more urgent than ever. Like Jesus, may his church dare to engage with the “Canaanite women” (marginalized and desperate souls) who are standing somewhere nearby, wondering if there are any “crumbs” for them from the tables we hold sacred. Like Jesus, may we hear the Word of God in their voices. May we sense the calling of God in their outcries. And may we discern the very face of God in their freshly illuminated countenances.

Loneliness, Isolation, and the Regathered Church

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(Artwork: “Loneliness” by Rudolf Brink)

During a recent conversation, a man who is not connected to any faith community but who knows that I am a clergy person asked a question for which I did not have an immediate response.

“After this pandemic, why would anyone want to return to church buildings? I mean, since so many churches are doing online stuff, why would there be a need for people to be in a building together?”

He was asking the question out of curiosity, not cynicism. The look on my face probably communicated to him that I did not have an exhaustive, or even adequate, response. Together, though, we found our way into what felt like a weighty exploration of some of the issues that were pertinent to his inquiry—issues such as the risks and merits of physical assembly; the unique energy of unison singing and praying; the simultaneous vulnerability and veneration represented by an in-person gathering of worshipers; and the differences between online connection and corporeal (bodily) interaction.

We did not come to definitive conclusions in our conversation. I walked away, however, feeling as through I had been unexpectedly ushered into a deeper contemplation of the complexities surrounding the sheer physicality of the regathered church. More importantly, I felt powerfully confronted by the “why” of my friend’s inquiry. “Why would anyone want to return to church buildings?”

I believe that part of the answer to this “why” has to do with the profound sense of isolation that our nation has been experiencing for many years and that COVID-19 has both illuminated and intensified. In a recent article entitled, “The Price of Isolation” (which appeared in the July 2020 issue of “Rolling Stone”), writer Alex Morris describes what many are calling the national “loneliness epidemic” plaguing America:

As individual as the experience of isolation may be, America as a nation entered this pandemic particularly ill-equipped to handle it. For years, we have been engaged in what former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called a ‘loneliness epidemic’…According to Steve Cole, the director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory, this ‘loneliness epidemic’ is actually a public health issue.

In the same article, Morris gives compelling statistical support for the widespread loneliness that he names:

According to the most recent census, more than a quarter of Americans live alone (the highest percentage on record) and more than half are unmarried (with marriage rates at historic lows). People are having fewer children, volunteering less, and reporting lower levels of religious and other forms of affiliation. These markers may all seem too anachronistic to say much about our modern age, but Americans also ‘feel’ more lonely: The percentage who say they are [lonely] has doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40.

Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, offers this additional statistic obtained via a large-scale survey in which participants were asked how many people they have in their lives with whom they would feel comfortable experiencing a deep, personal, and vulnerable conversation:

“In the Eighties, the average was three, but the most common response was also three. In the 2000s, the average was two, but the most common response was zero.”

One of the ironies in this documented loneliness is that online communication is thriving. According to market research, US adults will spend, on average, 82 minutes per day engaged in online social networks. It inspires a question: How can we possibly feel isolated and lonely when we have so many Facebook friends?

Therein may lie a portion of the struggle. A connection on social media, after all, is certainly no guarantee of relational intimacy or authentic vulnerability. The instantaneous posting of strong opinions about controversial subjects (without the mitigating dynamics of body language, eye contact, and vocal inflection) can often lead to a greater sense of isolation, especially if people are inclined to treat social media as an opportunity to weaponize their perspectives, intensify philosophical battle lines, or belittle opposing views. As one person said to me recently, “it seemed like it was a whole lot easier for me to like people when I didn’t know all of their opinions.”

Another factor to consider is personal temperament and, in particular, the introvert/extrovert dynamic. Both introverts and extroverts need community, but they experience it in different ways. Introverts will often expend emotional energy in the very same moments that extroverts are gaining it. This fact has led many introverts to celebrate their introversion during the recent quarantine. “Are you kidding me,” an introvert exclaimed to me the other day. “I was built for quarantine! My whole life has been a preparation for social distancing.” As a strong introvert myself, I smiled at her observation. Over the years, however, I have learned how dangerously easy it is for me to hide behind my introversion, utilizing it as emotional fuel for pushing away relationships, even in those moments when I desperately need and crave them. What I am describing is complicated, to be certain, but important not to overlook: Extroverts may feel isolated and lonely in their lack of opportunity for authentic interaction. Introverts, by contrast, may feel isolated and lonely within a temperament in which their solitude can become as confining as it is necessary.

All of this brings me back to the question my friend asked: “Why would anyone want to return to church buildings?” If returning to church buildings were solely a matter of institutional maintenance or resuming familiar habits and routines, then the question itself would be wholly rhetorical. But the heart of the “why” is more spiritual and ontological than that.

We gather in-person as the church to remember in our very bodies the truth that is at the center of our Gospel—the truth of a God who became flesh; a God who would settle for nothing less than an in-person relationship with humankind; a God who ate with us, drank with us, broke and bled with us, and invited us to touch his scars; a God whose incarnation transforms the corporeality of a weekly in-person worship service into a renewed experience of the redemption of one’s very flesh.

We gather in-person as the church to hear the sounds and experience the movements of the people around us, thereby remembering that our physicality is part of an embodied community.

We gather in-person as the church to encounter afresh the mysterious yet palpable vitality produced by unison laughter and weeping, congregational singing and praying, and the shared acknowledgement of one another’s physical uniqueness and its communion with the physical uniqueness of others.

Most of all, we gather in-person as the church to declare that the nation’s loneliness epidemic is neither the governor of the human spirit nor the end of the human story.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not calling for a lessening of COVID-19-related protocols and security measures. Quite the contrary, the in-person community we experience in the church must be the safest environment that we can possibly create, thereby ensuring both the doing of no harm and the protection of the most vulnerable in our midst. (Which is to say, please where a mask, keep your distance, and honor the church’s safety protocols!) This post is not a call for an irresponsible regathering or an abandonment of our precautions. Rather, it is a call to remember why we are inclined to regather in the first place—not to keep our buildings open and to perpetuate the institution, but to reengage a communal physicality that reminds us of our shared humanity, even as that same communal physicality groans for redemption.

Personally, I want to come back to the regathered church with a greater attentiveness to the profound loneliness that many of us (including this writer) are experiencing. I want my awareness of the loneliness epidemic to make me more intentional about the nurturing of relationships, the initiation of personal conversations (even at a distance and through masks), and the giving and receiving of love. Most of all, I want churches, most of which are inclined to describe themselves as “friendly” even when they are not, to recognize and affirm with new energy that every soul that ventures through the doors of the building (and every soul that does not) matters deeply to the heart of God and should therefore matter deeply to the church’s people.

In short, I long for the church to manifest its creed in gatherings where people feel known and not ignored, valued and not dismissed, honored and not mistreated, relationally pursued but not accosted, loved and not manipulated.

There are no quick fixes for widespread loneliness or a prevailing sense of isolation, and the last thing I wish to offer is a shallow response to a profound struggle. At the same time, I believe that a safely regathered church—and safely regathered faith communities in general—can become instruments of healing in what must be treated as a long national journey toward the rediscovery of embodied community. A regathered church, if approached and maintained rightly, can become for an isolated people a sacred ground on which to stand with other journeyers and a holy space in which to engage with them in the urgent work of seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, and (eventually) touching and being touched.

Billy Joel, in his most famous song, wrote about the eccentric patrons who would gather at a bar to hear him play: “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” It was a creative way of describing the strange and mystical dynamics of in-person community. Even when we feel lonely in a gathered crowd (which is the case for many in the church, I think), the physical presence of other people, the language of their bodies, and the very cadence of their breathing can become a tangible and comforting reminder that we are not unaccompanied in the journey.

To put it simply, the drink we share in the church is nothing less than the cup of salvation. And we do not drink it alone.

Over the Top and Under the Knife

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If you are interested at all in wrestling with Scripture, I invite you to spend some time with me in the struggle. It will take some time. Struggles normally do.

I have been reflecting recently on this weekend’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament—the harrowing story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).

While God’s saving intervention at the end of the story comes as an enormous relief, the fact that God calls for such a sacrifice at the beginning of the story remains a deeply troubling reality. Who would ever want to worship a God like this—a deity who demands the ritualistic killing of a beloved child?

We moderns, who are inclined to rebel bitterly against even the simplest of resented inconveniences (such as wearing a mask to preserve the common good) blanch at the story. A God who demands extreme sacrifice to the point of suffering and grief?! Preposterous! Absurd! Unacceptable! A violation of our rights!

But perhaps therein lies the revelation. Perhaps the entire point of the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is to provide a confrontation with a scandalous and outlandish God who dares to demand a trust that accommodates the obliteration of our preferred courses of action and a faith that abides even when what we love most is taken away from us.

Yes, God intervenes. Yes, God ultimately prevents the sacrifice (thereby revealing that our God, unlike many of the deities worshiped in that time, will never require the ritualistic destruction of our families—a truth that contemporary church leaders would do well to remember in regard to their own families). But Isaac’s father, Abraham, does not know the end of the story at the story’s beginning. He only knows that he is being called by God to do the unthinkable and to trust God enough to believe that even the grief of losing a child will not take him beyond what God can heal, redeem, and restore.

If this Abraham/Isaac moment were the only moment of Scripture that we had, we would be in serious theological trouble. Thankfully, the rest of the Bible provides for us the full truth about God’s heart. God is neither a cruel and ruthless fiend who devises our distress nor a sadistic tyrant who orchestrates our misery. Rather, God is the Provider of deliverance and redemption; the Author of good and salvific stories; the One who, in the fullness of time, stepped out of eternity and into our history in Jesus; the Savior who walks and weeps with us, who breaks and bleeds with us, and who crawled onto a Roman tree in order to make the very sacrifice that he would not allow Abraham to make.

This is our God.

And, when we interpret the Abraham/Isaac chapter through the lens of the entire God-Story, we can live with the chapter’s pain and preposterousness. Why? Because we know God’s trustworthy heart. So did Abraham. So did our Jewish siblings who maintained their faith during the barbaric and dehumanizing horrors of the Holocaust. So did our African-American siblings who sang their faith through decades of slavery. So do we, even when it seems like God has forgotten about us or taken away what we love the most.

We know God’s heart.

It is a heart that holds us in our most traumatic anguish.

It is a heart that loves us relentlessly, weeping over our suffering, even as we are called upon to endure it.

It is a heart that demands nothing less than the holistic surrender of everything we have, not because God is a tyrannical megalomaniac, but because God knows that surrender is the only avenue to the saving intimacy that God longs to experience with us.

It is a heart that asks us to remember that, even in our most debilitating and heartbreaking moments of loss or sacrifice, we live in the tender embrace of a devoted Parent who will not allow the knife to be the end of the story.

Truth be told, it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the story, just as it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the midst of our most unfair hardships and sacrifices. Then again, perhaps God understands what we do not—that, in a world of radically disordered priorities, only a willingness to sacrifice and surrender will reorient our scattered minds and hearts to the things of God.

(Artwork: “The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall)

The Regathered Church

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(Artwork: “Returning to Church” by Eunhye Cho)

It is an anxious and exciting time.

Many of our churches are preparing and planning for a congregational regathering that will make it possible for people of faith to return (with several added precautions) to some kind of in-person worship and spiritual formation.

The temptation is to see the regathering as a return to “normal.” My suspicion, however, is that “normal” was one of the very first casualties of the global pandemic. In the post-pandemic  church (or, perhaps more accurately, the “regathered church in the continuing pandemic”), “normal” has given way to “untraveled,” and “business as usual” has become “building the plane as we are flying it.” For the Church to see its situation rightly, I believe it to be essential for the Church’s people to look upon their regathering, not as a return to what was, but as a series of sacred opportunities for newness.

Here are some of the opportunities that I am envisioning.

Regathering is an opportunity to redefine and reconfigure our relationship with our buildings and facilities

For several months, we have confirmed with unprecedented clarity a truth often affirmed in our theology but forgotten in our practice. The truth to which I am making reference is this: The Church is not defined, limited, or governed by its architecture.

Since mid-March, this important truth has found fresh expression and validation in the church’s ministry outside of its buildings and facilities. We have had to let go of our architecture for a season in order to become, in the deepest sense, a church without walls. For the last three months, we have been a church in mission and ministry through our online connection; through the nurturing of deeper relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, and other congregants from whom we are physically separated; and through our compassionate attentiveness to the most vulnerable members of our congregations. In short, it has been a season for rediscovering the Church’s heart—a heart that beats, not in the maintenance of our architecture, but in the unfettered and unhoused work of praying and being prayed for, ministering and being ministered to, loving and being loved.

As we regather in our sanctuaries and fellowship halls, my heartfelt hope is that we will be mindful of what we have learned or relearned over the last few months and that this mindfulness will help us to re-enter our architecture with these freshly-clarified convictions:

  • That church buildings are sacred spaces (because of the activity that occurs there) but not the definers of the church’s ministry
  • That church buildings are resources to be stewarded, not sacrosanct shrines to be revered
  • That Trustees are entrusted primarily to be facilitators of ministry, not landlords
  • That a commitment to keeping the doors of the building open is neither an adequate vision for ministry nor a sufficient justification for a church’s continued existence

As we regather, I pray that our spirits will be elevated by the beauty of our sanctuaries, the grandness of our altar spaces, and the familiarity of our stained glass windows and time-tested furniture. I pray that we will also re-consecrate our architecture with the kind of petition that clarifies a right relationship with our facilities—a petition that might sound something like this:

O God, who is worshiped in our building but who is in no way contained by it: Pour out your Spirit upon every room of our facility, that you might be glorified by the ministry that takes place here. Regather us in this sacred space, but also deliver us from every temptation to deify our architecture. Make it possible for authentic songs of praise to resonate in the sanctuary and hallways, but also set us free from every tendency to treat our building as the object of our worship. Set apart this sacred space for your purposes, but, more than this, set apart your people to be your Church more faithfully.

Regathering is an opportunity to reshape liturgy and expand doxological creativity

For decades and maybe longer, the church’s conversations about worship have all too often been reduced to liturgical arguments and unnecessary dichotomies, the end result of which has been the frequent stifling of creativity and the elevation of personal preference over liturgical diversity. This season of regathering, however, opens the door to revisiting congregational worship with fresh eyes and hearts, having been away from typical orders of worship for a number of months. Perhaps it is time for pastors, church musicians, worship leaders and worship planners to commit themselves, not only to the incorporation of what is familiar, but also to experimentation with what may feel completely new.

How might the offering of testimony, for example, become part of worship, so that important stories of faith, pain, healing, and redemption might be told?

How might congregational prayer become an interactive practice, so that the experience of prayer is more communal and less monological?

How might the proclamation of the Word be reconceptualized, so that, on occasion, it might become less of an extended presentation and more of an unscripted congregational conversation about how Scripture is being heard, understood, and applied?

How might the presentation of our tithes and offerings become an intentional coming forward (a different kind of “altar call,” if you will) instead of remaining a routine passing of the plate?

How might the congregation be invited to experience a wider variety of music so that worship becomes less about personal preference and more about the glorification of a God whose majesty deserves and demands nothing less than musical diversity? (This question, of course, takes on a new level of depth and complexity in light of recent concerns about congregational and choral singing and their connection to the spread of infection. Perhaps this is the related question to ponder: What new and safer methodologies might congregations need to employ in order to help a congregation to “sing” even when singing is not permitted?)

I do not pretend to know what reconfigured worship might look like in each specific context. But my sincere hope is that those who are responsible for the creation and organization of congregational worship will utilize this season of regathering as a unique opportunity to reimagine the way we worship instead of simply settling for a return to patterns that may no longer be sufficient for the new song of praise that the post-pandemic church longs to sing.

Regathering is an opportunity to streamline and recreate the Church’s administrative leadership

I heard a pastor phrase it this way recently: “The ‘shelter in place’ restrictions forced our committees to focus on more strategic agendas…Our Zoom meetings led to some of the most fruitful and meaningful conversations that our committees have ever had. I want to keep that going when we go back to meeting in person.”

I believe that this pastor was articulating an important point—that the regathered church affords to us a unique opportunity to reimagine our ecclesiastical administration. For some churches, that might involve a transition to a single board governance structure. For other churches, it might involve staff reconfigurations and new job descriptions. For all of us, it will involve more intentional meeting agendas, so that our administrative conversations are more focused on missional priorities and less on institutional maintenance.

Regathering is an opportunity to re-ground ourselves in our unifying Story and reframe our often divisive sub-narratives

Granted, there is not complete agreement on what constitutes the Church’s “unifying Story” and “divisive sub-narratives,” which makes it difficult to treat this point as anything more than a vague hope. But, for me, it is a hope that is worth naming, embracing, and nurturing.

What do I mean by our “unifying Story?” I mean the Story of the Triune God as told in our Scripture and Creeds—the Story of a Parent who creates and recreates, a Son who saves and redeems, and a Spirit who transforms and equips. It is the story of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, whose invitation into a saving relationship is as unmerited as it is beautiful. It is the story of sanctification and discipleship, in which the grace of Jesus Christ is magnificently at work to bring our lives into alignment with who God created us to be.

Our often divisive sub-narratives are not insignificant, to be sure. In fact, one churchperson’s sub-narrative might be another churchperson’s significant priority. It is not my desire to downplay the complexity and difficulty of navigating this territory. But my sincere hope is that this season of regathering will become a time of theological recalibration during which congregations might re-learn the deeper Story that unifies; re-clarify what might constitute both our defining non-negotiables and our “think and let think” negotiables; and recommit to the life of discipleship to which our Story calls us.

Regathering is an opportunity to re-ignite the Church’s missional relationship with the world

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our world is yearning more deeply than ever for the hope and truth that the Church is uniquely equipped to offer. Hungry people need healthy food. Addicted people need ministries of recovery. Struggling students need tutoring. Community institutions (like schools and hospitals) need strategic institutional partnerships. Lonely people need relationships. Disenfranchised people need advocacy. Voiceless people need a voice. Lost people need Jesus.

This season of regathering is a clarion call for churches to rediscover their missional commitment to their communities and to reinvent their presence in their neighborhoods so that the regathered Church becomes known for its risky outreach, its missional experimentation, and its stubborn refusal to settle for isolation and self-preservation.

Indeed, the Church’s people are planning and preparing for regathering.

May the regathered Church’s prayers be fervent.

May the regathered Church’s worship be vibrant.

May the regathered Church’s discipleship be faithful.

And may the regathered Church’s ministry be a ray of hope to a hurting world.

A Sickening Story and the Injustice It Illuminates

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Truth be told, I do not know exactly what to write or how to write it. But I feel compelled to write…

…something.

As I process a story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.

I refer to the story of the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, during what, for Ahmaud, was a Sunday afternoon jog in a neighborhood that should have felt like safe and familiar territory to him.

The shooting took place on February 23rd, 2 ½ months ago. I am processing the story now only because of the recent emergence of a video that has placed Ahmaud’s shooting starkly and graphically in our country’s consciousness.

“We don’t know all the details,” some will be quick to declare. But we know enough to be reminded of this inescapable truth: It is not the same America for Ahmaud Arbery as it is for the men who had both the agency and falsely-perceived justification to arm themselves and confront him. The shooters and the victim lived in the same geographical vicinity. But, in terms of their standing in a nation that is still plagued and driven by systemic racism, Ahmaud and the men who pursued and shot him were light years apart.

I hear it from so many of my white colleagues, even in the church: “Enough with the racism talk! It’s only an issue because you are making it one!” Some are inclined to make their rejection of the conversation even more pointed: “There is no such thing as ‘white privilege.’ It is nothing but an artificial social construct designed to perpetuate a liberal agenda and to manipulate the conversation.” I have heard such sentiments. I suspect you have as well.

But the tragic story of Ahmaud Arbery reminds us of how wrongheaded and dangerous such sentiments are. The moment I am tempted to believe that systemic racism no longer exists or that white privilege is not a reality, I simply have to spend a moment telling myself this truth: That, as a white male, I could travel to any suburban American neighborhood right now, park my car, even put on a mask (given the COVID-19 dynamics), and take a leisurely jog without giving a single thought to either my wellbeing or the possibility of being presumed guilty of a crime. If that is not a societal privileging based upon whiteness, what else could we possibly call it? To ignore or deny such privileging’s continued impact upon the moral dynamics of our nation compromises and even corrupts the integrity of our nation’s very identity.

The story of Ahmaud Arbery brings all of these things and many others into quick and unnerving focus. It is a story not to be minimized, not only because of the depth of its tragedy, but also because of the urgency of what it illuminates.

As I write these words, I am keenly aware of the fact that I write them from a place of privilege. All that I have to worry about is the possibility of being misunderstood or mischaracterized or tuned-out or resented, none of which is life-threatening or even remotely risky. But I want this privileged voice to speak about the stories that matter most, and the story of Ahmaud Arbery is one of those stories.

It is a story that matters to his family and friends.

It is a story that matters to a nation still burdened by the weight of a racism that produces such a story.

It is a story that matters to faith communities, including the Church, where narratives about justice and the sacred worth of all people must frame Ahmaud’s shooting as an agonizing affront to any theological worldview grounded in Truth.

It is a story that matters to the broken heart of this writer, who, while not always knowing how to write or how to speak, longs for his inadequate words to be interpreted as both an outcry against the injustice that Ahmaud experienced and a call for a shared recommitment to the dismantling of the systemic racism that makes such injustice all too common.

I will say it once more—As I process this story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.

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Redemptive Weeping and Wondrous Resurrection

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(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Jordan Douglas)

 

Some preachers this weekend will focus on John 11:1-45.

Check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

What does Jesus do when he finds out that his friend Lazarus has died? Well, to put it as simply as Scripture does, he weeps. We weeps over the sadness that death causes. He weeps over death’s unparalleled ability to silence voices and to break hearts. Jesus…weeps.

And please, do not overlook or minimize these tears. The tears matter. They reveal the nature of the Divine Heart.

Jesus, after all, is the incarnation of the God we cannot see. In him, we are told, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. If we have a Jesus who weeps, then we must also have a God who weeps. Not a God who orchestrates misery and then watches our pain and death and cancer and quarantines from a safe emotional distance, but a God who enters with us into the depths of our suffering and who allows divine tears to commingle with ours.

That is why the tears of Jesus are so vital to our understanding of God. They saturate our deepest consciousness with the compassion of a God who takes everything we experience personally and feels it all deeply. Everything. In Jesus’ tears, we find a God who has invested so completely and so passionately in our journey that this God cannot help but internalize the joys and sorrows of our vulnerable pilgrimage. When we grieve, the heart of God grieves. When we suffer, the heart of God suffers. When we weep, the heart of God weeps.

Where is God in the face of COVID-19? God is right here, in the mess of it all. God is in the anguish of the addict who is desperate for community in a time of social distancing. God is in the despair of the grieving widow who cannot experience the physical embrace of loved ones in her loss. God is in the fear and dread of those vulnerable souls who have grown weak and weary with a sense of isolation.

Where is God? God is right here. Closer to us than our own breathing, more intimately connected to us than our own thoughts. That is who God is—a vulnerable, scandalously-intimate, deeply-feeling Parent who does not cause our suffering but who enters it, embraces it, and weeps over it.

But the weeping is not the end of the story. It never is with Jesus.

“Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And the dead man, leaving death behind, comes out.

Yes, God tenderly weeps. But this God also resurrects and restores! It is the story of Lazarus. The story of Jesus. The story of the church. The story of a hurting people who are heartbroken over a nation quarantined.

God is weeping, and God is resurrecting! Weeping over our devastation, but resurrecting us into bold new hope. Weeping over our sorrow, but resurrecting us into unexpected joy. Weeping over the rhythms of death, but resurrecting us into a grand and glorious newness of life.

So, be encouraged, friends. You are not weeping alone. There is One who cares about your pain more than you do who embraces you in the midst of it and weeps with you in a lifechanging intimacy. Best of all, when the weeping is finished, this same One will bring you forth into a new life where viruses lose their governance and where death itself relinquishes its authority.

Seriously, check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

The Lord’s Supper and Virtual Worship

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My spirit soars with particular energy whenever the people of the church spend time in the depths of authentic theological conversation. Presently, such theological conversation is happening robustly around the church’s virtualization (i.e., the church’s movement to online settings) in these days of quarantine and social distancing. It may be that the current theological searching and wrestling is part of God’s creative redemption of these difficult days.

Perhaps some of the most compelling recent theological discourse revolves around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The driving question in much of the conversation is this: Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually? Or, to put in another way, can we share the sacramental bread and cup when we are connected online but not physically present in the same geographical space?

(Note: I address these matters as a United Methodist clergyperson, speaking from a United Methodist perspective. I will honor other denominations by allowing their voices and leaders to speak out of their own sacramental theology and tradition.)

Allow me to cut to the proverbial chase: In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop—Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi—has made it clear that United Methodist Churches in Western Pennsylvania are NOT to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in virtual settings. My sense is that the Bishop has issued this directive for no other reason but to guard both the theological identity and the ontological integrity of the sacrament (which is precisely what we count on our Bishop to do). I am grateful for Bishop Cynthia’s clarity and leadership in this regard.

Beyond this practical and clear directive, however, the theological conversation around the Lord’s Supper and its proper celebration continues to find compelling expression. Some have been quick to articulate their strong opposition to “virtual Holy Communion” on the grounds that such a practice would constitute the “disembodiment” of the sacrament—i.e., the removal of the sacrament from its necessary concreteness and its physical community. According to this argument, the act of virtualizing or digitalizing the Lord’s Supper would dangerously distort both the sacrament’s incarnational nature and its celebration of a fully-embodied Christ whose living presence calls for a fully-enfleshed community.

On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the Holy Spirit is hard at work to redefine and reconfigure “embodiment” in this season of crisis where disembodiment (i.e., social distancing) has become a necessary norm. According to this line of thought, the Holy Spirit’s sacramental work cannot be confined by the church’s physicality and is just as efficacious in a virtual connection as it is in physical congregation. Those who espouse this perspective are likely to suggest that prohibiting a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper irresponsibly elevates the physical over the metaphysical, thereby generating a truncated sacramentology in which the Holy Spirit is not given adequate space in which to usher an isolated people into a transformational communion with the real presence of Jesus and with one another.

So, here we are.

I would suspect that neither “side” in this sacramental discourse is comprehensively right, and that both perspectives (and other perspectives between them) articulate important priorities that help to illuminate what is ultimately best for the church’s practice. Wherever it is that you land in the spectrum of the discourse, I encourage you not to allow your position to become so soundproof that you fail to hear what is right or helpful from other voices.

My personal conviction is that the entire conversation is helping the church to develop and clarify what might be called its theology of embodiment. What do I mean by “theology of embodiment?” I simply mean the church’s understanding of how God coordinates the mystical territory between “essence” and “substance;” between “in-person” and “online;” between the corporeal and the virtual. In other words, a theology of embodiment wrestles with this question: “What truth and illumination does the Incarnation—the “in-the-flesh-ness” of God in Jesus—bring to our understanding of physicality, virtual connection, and the sharing of the bread and cup?”

The church’s current theology of embodiment does not permit the church to validate or sanction an online or virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To put it simply, the church has a long history of interpreting the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of a living Christ who is embodied in the bread and cup, the consecration of which demands a physically gathered community whose corporeality bears witness to the very flesh that the Incarnation redeems. Will that interpretation change over time as our experience of virtual community continues to expand? Time will tell. But an altered sacramental interpretation would require a substantially reworked theology of embodiment.

Again, Bishop Cynthia’s instruction to the United Methodist Churches of Western Pennsylvania not to celebrate virtual or online communion is both clear and helpfully binding, which is essential to remember in our development of a unified sacramental approach.

If you are a pastor or church leader, I encourage you to continue to offer creative and safe ways for your people to experience connection, worship, prayer, and community. Utilize the telephone with new urgency. Livestream and record your worship where possible. Set up phone and video conferences for your meetings and Bible studies. Consecrate the chambers of cyberspace so that they might become tabernacles. Help your people to embrace the truth that not even a necessary social distancing can prevent the church from being the church.

In this temporary abstinence—or fast—from the Lord’s Supper, consider celebrating an online “Love Feast.” The Love Feast is a communal meal that has a rich history in the church. While it is not to be confused with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is a meaningful way for a congregation to experience a shared meal on those occasions (such as this season) when it would be inappropriate for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. I smile at the thought of the churches of my district and conference enjoying a small meal safely in their own homes while at the same time seeing the faces and hearing the voices of other church members with whom they are connected online.

Here is a link to a page with more information about the Love Feast and how to celebrate it as a church:

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-love-feast

It hurts to be taken out of our normal practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, to be certain. And yet, it occurs to me that, while we are not able to share physically the bread and cup, we are finding remarkable ways to honor one of our most important eucharistic prayers:

“…Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

Through the creative ministry efforts of our churches in recent days, we may be doing our best-ever “eucharistic” work in “BEING” the redeemed body of Christ until such time as we are able to share the bread and cup once again. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is making our risky and innovative ministry into a metaphorical sacramental bread that we are breaking with our desperately hungry communities. I am encouraged by the thought of that. I hope that you are as well.

When we return to the table of the Lord’s Supper soon, we will be hungrier for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation than we have ever been. What a celebration that will be!

A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.