06 August 2016

Black and Blue and All

He startled me as I pulled my car door open.

It was cold by Oklahoma City standards. I was headed south to Norman for a recreational league basketball game. He needed a ride north.

But we were headed for the same highway. I sized him up and calculated it was better that he not startle someone else. So I told him how far I could take him, and he hopped in. He had a well-trimmed goatee and wore a brown coat and dark pants. I don't remember much about his story. Something I now regret.

I don't know if my suspicion was triggered by race or the situation. I experienced it like curiosity...and a self-congratulating sense of responsibility and helpfulness.

He asked me what I did.

His curiosity surprised me. We became two men, equals, talking.

I told him I wrote and edited. We only had a mile or so to drive.

Just as we reached the highway where our paths again diverged, he said I should write about affirmative action. I wasn't sure what influence he thought I had.

He said, “No, you have the people.”

I can't think of anyone who in so short a time challenged my perception of myself and others.

I have wrestled with the meaning of race and America's complicated history since Mom read us the story of George Washington Carver. As a kid, I checked out books of western art, first for the horses, then the stories.

Mom wouldn't let us pretend to shoot each other, so our friends' games of cowboys and Indians were out. It was the beginning of a different way of seeing, a way of seeing that grieved those killed and things lost or broken, a way of seeing that gradually opened my perspective to the wrongs others faced. Mom made others plausible.

At age 23, I met a friend who pointed out the whiteness of many home schoolers' lists of heroes. Her point was reinforced when my next job involved researching Sergeant William Carney and the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry and others...trying to find characters and stories that would bridge racial divides...recognizing for the first time the patronizing tone of some things I read...hearing offhand remarks that Martin Luther King Jr. was disqualified because he protested the Vietnam war.

There's cultural pressure on white people not to be racist—a word I've tended to associate with white supremacists. And we fear being called racists. So some of us scurry for the safe, logical idea of colorblindness.

This is also why a member of a minority who brings up racial issues—or who might have mixed feelings about #bluelivesmatter—seems “angry” or “racist” to a lot of whites.

That's why I felt so confused the night a bunch of us were at a steakhouse and a black friend and a Latino friend started joking about certain physical characteristics. What struck me then was that it wasn't fair. I couldn't make that kind of jokes, and I didn't have a category for my friends other than racist, since they drew distinctions based on race.

If I understand him, this is close to Robin DiAngelo's definition of “white fragility.”

pixabay.com (Public Domain)
I did not intend to feel superior that night, but there are many ways the power dynamics favor members of a majority, and in this kind of world, my friends are always aware of race. I, on the other hand, am largely unaware...until somebody points it out. Then I don't know what to do.

Cultural contexts and experiences lead all of us to have blind spots...and privileges. My German and Swedish immigrant ancestors had mostly economic obstacles to overcome. So their descendants tend not to have to think of race. We don't have to moderate our feelings when we express support for the police after five officers are murdered in Dallas, even though two black men died at the hands of two other police departments in the previous few days.

We have to think of money. I know what it is to feel economic limitations, like some things are not possible because we lack money or connections and lack the experiences required to relate to those who have them. The middle class friends I've discussed this with haven't understood.

But African Americans have traditionally had other and greater obstacles to overcome—slavery in the past...segregation...the threat of violence...and the sense the justice system is stacked against them. It isn't white lives that have systematically or historically been in danger from American institutions...and it hasn't been white middle class communities that feel deeply alienated from their police departments. So using statistics to say the rate of police brutality against blacks and whites is actually the same...completely misses the point.

At the same time, there's little thought about what whiteness means...which is a two-edged sword. Whiteness becomes simultaneously “normal” and also an invalid set. I don't say “empty” because it does have content that's ignored. And I say “normal” because this content gets smuggled into conversations in the shape of our assumptions.

Grandpa Paulsson immigrated from Sweden in 1928. My dad remembers his accent. Several aunts still go on about Swedish things, and one of my uncles initiated me by putting a piece of pickled herring on my plate at Christmas.

Mom's family's habit of opening presents on Christmas Eve turns out to be a German thing. And there was that time in Germany the buffet server greeted me in German instead of English, a moment more special for its rarity.

My point here is that whiteness is a range of things, that aren't universal. Many of them are wonderful to share, but we should understand when, as Lecrae recently pointed out, some of those things feel as foreign to others as...I don't know...the presence of Mexican flags at an immigration rally.

This is also where American individualism lets us down. We envision problems and solutions at the individual level. We want to treat other people as equals; so we imagine everyone is like ourselves...on the inside...where it matters. Unfortunately, that approach works about as well as thinking all the world speaks English.

Regardless of when our ancestors came to America, whether they were here before Columbus or whether they owned slaves or were slaves, we all inherit our shared history. But there are stories we won't know unless someone tells us.

In his Billboard essay, Lecrae called for humility...on all sides.

I write as a white guy. We need to listen...humbly...to let others interpret themselves.

There will come a time to talk together about what the stories mean. But first we listen.

That feeling of confusion, anger, even shame—tied to something unchangeable, interwoven with all our assumptions and experiences, separating us from others—can awaken us to a swath of human experience we only intermittently encounter.

Sometimes, I think, humility feels a lot like grief.

30 July 2016

A Gentleman's Guide...to Comedy

Just after the ensemble's “A Warning to the Audience,” Montague Navarro (Kevin Massey) begins by telling how he learned of his mother's disinheritance...because she loved a Castilian musician.

Robert Freeman and Steven Lutvak based “A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder” on Roy Horniman's “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” Their work won best musical at the 2014 Tony Awards and is playing in Seattle this weekend.
Navarro's new relatives, the D'Ysquiths, all played by John Rapson, turn out insufferable in all ways Edwardian nobility is insufferable to current sensibilities—social conventions, imperialism...banking.

Freeman said in the program interview, "...they're all loathsome in different ways, but in kind of the same way, in their attitude toward the little people, and their arrogance, which is silly. They are all silly people too."

And they all end up dying to hilarious effect...often as much from their silliness as from Navarro's opportunism. One is an inebriated clergyman, one an arrogant womanizer, one an entitled, gay beekeeper, one a vegetarian health nut, et cetera, et cetera. Their silliness is very up to date.

But there are two things taken seriously, namely love—or one popular conception of it, between mother and son and the etherial part of love between lovers that isn't institutional or physical—also, getting one's due. And, though I'm not sure this is how one thinks when setting out to be funny, it seems like taking these things seriously allows everything else to be funny.

It's a deconstructed Oliver Optic, believable because of the initial injustice and because director Darko Tresnjak and the cast tell the story on a stage within a stage, visualizing several different sides of the story.

The protagonist appears to some a picture of virtue and industry...even while relatives keep dying...and he keeps getting richer and ends up with a wife and a mistress.

“As time has gone by,” Lutvak said in the same interview, “I realize that what we are, in a way is a very low comedy in a very fancy box....”

Clever and thought provoking, as much from what it takes seriously as for what it finds funny.

15 July 2016

To the Meaning

A year ago last May my wife's occasional depression didn't go away.

At 17, I had a suicide plan. It involved grandpa's .22 and an irrigation canal. For several months at 31, I struggled to put in a full 40-hour week.

This wasn't that.

One friend set an appointment with the doctor. I asked another friend to recommend a therapist. We hoped something would “work.”

We learned to make flexible plans, to say we'd try to be there, to turn back if something was too much. 

August 30, Tina contemplated suicide.

I tried to think of something to do...to change...to help. Her mother came to visit. Tina's therapist sent literature—what helps and how to stay healthy in the process. We discussed the difference between self-harm and suicide. Friends reminded me to rest.  

One night some other friends talked Tina out of buying razor blades...via text message...while Tina wandered the super market.

My experience kept me from being shocked at Tina's pain. But nothing prepares a person for the not knowing what each day will bring, the uncertainty whether what you say or do gets through, the pain when a loved one harms herself, the helplessness. 

October 5, the folks at work had ordered pizza, I'd just sat down for lunch. My phone rang. I headed home, picked Tina up from therapy, and we went to the hospital. They asked a lot of questions and offered her a place in a voluntary stabilization program. She spent 5 hours there and called me to pick her up.

I locked up medicines...and knives...and scissors. Her mother came and helped us out again. I don't know how we would have made it otherwise. I couldn't have kept working like I did. 

My folks sent food and came to see us. I wrote e-mails, asking friends and family members to pray. Friends brought food. Friends came for visits.

All the questions Tina asked, I was asking too. Why so much pain? Why did God give us depression when we thought we might be having babies? 

Some think these questions mean, “What's the benefit?” They say, “God is teaching you something,” or they try to find some other silver lining.

Some translate the question, “What's going on?” They might say, “brain chemistry” or “development.” There's some insight here. Or some might say, “There is suffering in the world because of sin....” There's some insight here too...and a lot of other questions, such as how much power God has, whether he's good, and what he's thinking of.

I wonder if the bigger question—one nearer what we really want—is meaning. 

Joshua Seachris of the University of Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion suggests that what we want is a framework or a narrative to make sense of...things...what Seachris calls “existentially charged elements of life.”

In “Man's Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl argued the search for meaning is man's primary motivation: “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” 

Meaning, Frankl argued, is always there, is unique to the person and even to the situation, and is discovered “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

Between her darkest hours, Tina put together care packages for other hurting people. She cried when friends' babies passed away. She quit church and Christian music. But Broadway still reached her with something...not exactly hope...but something...and that was hard to do. 

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Tina started getting stronger, even though she wasn't feeling stronger. We bought Jim Brickman tickets when she thought she'd like to go. It was worth it just for the possibility. Colleagues bought us tickets to see Mannheim Steamroller. It was the first time we'd been out in quite a while.

In February, she started wanting her life to change...instead of only wishing the pain would end. 

She entered a 3-week program. We both learned a lot about expressing needs, dealing with anxiety.

What does all this mean?

I don't know. We're still on this journey. But this question might lead to wonder...rather than despair.

09 July 2016


As in a dream
surrounded by familiar things
familiar faces, and some new
familiar situation
stripped of sense.

Strange new words
one new face
asks if I'm okay
I say, “Fine.”
Rising, nameless urgency.

not understood
heart twisting, squeezing
Get up!

Cast out
it's dark
some small relief
I'm in a basement.

murmuring, buzz
distance, hiding
from the singing crowd
the rising menace.

Footsteps approach
bringing shoes
I had forgot
a smile
pauses the crescendo.

I try to breath.
He asks if I'm okay.
I nod.
The swelling song
breaks over me again.

I writhe
no words
one word
comes through the curtain

An admonition
as from a sermon.
Wait, there's a door!
Too bright outside.

The singing
rises faster
closing in

Wake up squirming
not knowing:
in the world?
or in my head?
I try to breath.

02 July 2016

When It Happens Here

Maybe it's always a surprise when something punctures our illusions.

Dad watched Jimmy Swaggart on our black and white television. We had Swaggart 8-tracks in our van. And we lived on campus at an Assemblies of God college. But when a couple students came for Sunday dinner and the conversation turned to televangelists and scandal, I didn't feel like Swaggart's infidelities had much to do with us. I was only eight or nine.

More recently once-popular Evangelical seminar speaker Bill Gothard admitted “holding of hands, hugs, and touching of feet or hair with young ladies” that “crossed the boundaries of discretion and were wrong.” The website Recovering Grace had spent the previous two months publishing first hand accounts. But I'd already wearied of answering questions whether I agreed with Gothard's teaching on authority or against adoption, and those departures grew until Gothard wasn't relevant to me.

Then last year “In Touch Weekly” published a police report, revealing reality television's Josh Duggar molested four of his sisters and another person as a teenager.

It was like whatever illusions I still had about rules and good intentions—or my own distance from a case—suddenly bent in on themselves.

I know the sense of privilege—even community—around shared commitments to “melodious music” and “courtship.” And I know the siege mentality that maybe prompted Mike Huckabee to defend the Duggars against those "trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story." He writes of "running to" the Duggars with his support.

My family, many friends, and the Duggars have been in the home schooling program Gothard founded, the Advanced Training Institute. Some of us were vulnerable in one way or another—looking for answers to dysfunctions, for ways to live our faith, for a way to stop feeling alone. 

Some, like Josh Duggar's sisters Jill Dillard and Jessa Seewald, experienced abuse. Some, like Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, were in a position to report it. I suspect I'm not the only one...not a victim and not a witness...who now feels the gravity of these events in ways I didn't experience before. It's like realizing the food has suddenly gone bad and wondering how long you've been eating...or how many others have been harmed...and why you didn't notice it before...and what to do about it now.

Josh Duggar's statement describes his actions as inexcusable, details the steps he took afterwards, and says, “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”

He only mentioned victims in passing.

As Joel Miller pointed out, “Public apologies very often feature people saying they accept full responsibility without actually accepting any. And the religious version of this is particularly irksome because the offender doesn’t really feign any acceptance of responsibility. Jesus already has it covered, and the rest of us better not judge....”

In her Patheos post, Libby Anne argues cases like Josh Duggar's should be treated as crimes, not just sins. She equates “sin” with “mistake,” and she's not alone.

We religious believers might think we believe sin is more serious than crime, but the things we say and do communicate the opposite. “Mistake” is one word Huckabee used in his statement.

But sins aren't just mistakes.

Sin is betrayal—directly of the victims, of one's own humanity, and of the community.

In her post, “Sexually assaulted in a Christian home: A victim speaks,” pediatric intensive care nurse Jen Bicha writes, “Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. Taking the appropriate and necessary steps to report and prosecute abuse is not unforgiving. It is in fact the most loving thing someone can do, because it can help to protect other potential victims. Admitting your sin and confessing it does not negate the consequences of your actions....”

Maybe this is something only victims can teach us...if we'll listen...and grieve the horrors done within our safe places and our sanctuaries...and in our families.

08 May 2016

The "Perfect" Mother

I'm sitting here in my PJs at 4:50 am contemplating Mother's Day. Remembering Mother's Days of years gone by, with hymns of motherhood and sermons on Proverbs 31. Of all the mothers standing up... getting prayed for... being handed carnations. I remember as a little girl being in awe of all of the perfect mommies with their curly headed darlings and longing for the day I could be among them.

I think we've got it all wrong.

What about the mothers of angel babies? What about the mothers who definitely DON'T have it all together? What about the dads, daughters, and grandmothers who are left to raise the family when mom is gone? What about mothers who are left to raise the kids alone? What about those who long to be mothers and never will? What about moms whose children are so far from where they dreamed they'd be that they could hardly stand up with all those “perfect mothers”? I could go on and on...

Guess what? Those “perfect mothers” you see when you stand and look around on Sunday morning? Not perfect. And how about you check out those women who are still sitting down. The ones who have lost little ones, choking back tears in the back. The ones who take care of your children in Sunday school with the love they would pour out on their own children, who rock your little ones to sleep in the nursery. So many women with so much pain and longing and exhaustion and disappointment.

Now, I happen to think my mother is an amazing woman who has done an amazing job of raising her kids to the best of her ability. I think my mother in law raised an amazing man. I should know. But do you know why I really believe this? Let me point you to a historical character who best illustrates the key to motherhood.

No, I'm not talking about Susanna Wesley, who had a whole bunch of kids and probably loved Jesus and that's about all we know of her. No, I'm not talking about a mother at all. I'm talking about a man who was the scum of the earth, who lost his own mother as a boy and turned to slave trading rather than God. Yep, I'm talking about John Newton, the man who is famous for being a wretch. Why? Because of what he wrote. “Amazing grace,” he said. “Through many dangers, toils and snares”-- sound like motherhood? My moms are incredible because of the grace of God, any way you look at it. Their greatest gift to us is the picture they painted of grace. That they love us no matter what we do, that they are loved no matter what they do.

I can move on because of grace. God loves me. I've had to wander to figure that out-- maybe not to the extent that John Newton did... but God loves me no matter what I do. God cares for me no matter what. I don't understand it. I don't know why motherhood and life are surrounded by such pain. But grace. Grace. A man I don't care for much (to put it lightly) described grace as “The desire and power to do what is right”... *EVIL ALERT* Grace is knowing that even if we do absolutely nothing right, that God loves us and is for us. Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

That's what I hope you hang on to this Mother's Day. Ignore the moralistic hymns about “the Christian home” and the sermons based on Solomon's description of one woman. See through the facade of perfect motherhood that society worships today. Hold on with all your might to the grace of God, and give a mother in pain a big hug today. Tell her she matters. Tell her that her little one in heaven matters. Tell him he's doing a great job as a father-mother. Thank her for raising her kids in grace. Bring someone a meal, or a latte. Be real. And live in grace.

01 April 2016

Descartes, Ada the Ayrshire, and Easter

Growing up, we had a copy of “Ada the Ayrshire,” Ada being something like the dairy cow combination of Dagwood Bumstead of "Blondie" and Calvin in “Calvin and Hobbes.” In one sequence, she has her head through a fence to get at some grass and then reaches back through the fence...wrapping her neck around a fence post.

So naturally I wondered what side a cow is on when she has her head through a fence. Does her essence reside in her head or her heart?

My respect for Descartes notwithstanding, “I think; therefore, I am,” is a very odd statement.

None of us thought about existing...or chose to exist...before it happened to us.

You might realize you are because you can think. But rocks don't think as far as we know. Yet anyone who has had a rock in a shoe knows rocks exist, even though rocks don't think.

And you get rid of a rock in your shoe not by thinking but by dumping it out...unless you're dreaming...in which case you might be able to fly.

"Portrait of René Descartes," By Jan Baptist
Weenix. Public Domain.
Descartes, if I understand, began his search for truth by rejecting the things he found occasion to doubt. The thing he could not doubt was his mind.

He observed the senses might be deceived, and the body is mostly perceived by the senses. So he eventually concluded that the mind was more real or more true than the body.

But it seems the human mind ordinarily depends on the body for existence, even though the body depends on the mind for consciousness.

So meaning, as I imagine it, comprehends the whole of existence and thus the whole experience...not just the intellect but the body and the passions. It connects the person together and connects the person to something...beyond the person himself or herself. In that sense, maybe, meaning is some expression of relationship to a bigger idea of being. Meaning is the way we experience beauty. 

Beauty, like truth, is universal, but not a single ideal. All people have beauty, but some are beautiful in this way and others in that way.

There are different ways of discussing reality, in fiction and art for example. There are some things more true or more to the essence of things, but there are only real things. Unreal things are theories or constructions or jokes that depend on some reference to what's real in order to have meaning. You can know a Muslim or a scientist for example, but you cannot really know Islam or science in the same way. 

There's another sense in which we speak of meaning.

Whether you're learning a language or talking to someone, it doesn't matter what you intend...except where you can clarify...as I've had to do...that I didn't intend to say this or that. And this exception proves the rule because, in saying what you meant not to say, you make what you did mean to say more clear to the hearer or reader. That is what matters: what the other person hears.

In all these senses of meaning...we bump into relationship.

Even God, we experience through relationship. That's one reason why it sometimes appears there is no God. We attribute things to anthropology, which is partly true, like attributing being to thinking. 

But if God is as big as we imagine he would be in order to be God...then we would not expect to trip over him in the living room or to see him peeking 'round the moon. We would expect him to be the ground reality of all being in the first place, which might feel to us as though he didn't exist, because we'd not be able to imagine without first being in order to imagine.

We might even expect God's activity to look like natural processes or human activity. We would experience them in relationship to one another...like we experience rivers and valleys or chickens and eggs...but they are all subject to the essence of being itself.

So God might be seen through the chicken and the egg and the river and the valley. But he is not those things, and he does not relate to us the same way we relate to him any more than we relate to pottery the same ways pottery relates to us.

This is not to say that we only relate to part of God. If God is a being at all, we relate to all of him. We just have to expect he's a different kind of being than we are. We have our reason for existence in Him. He has his reason for existence in himself.

So maybe the days of creation in the Bible really are billions of years or even phases of varying length. It wouldn't change whether the Bible is true because the length of the days is not the point. God is.

It also makes sense that if God is the creator...by whatever means...that we'd find in him, as in the world, community, which would make the trinity plausible.

And that brings us to a manger, to water made wine, to a cross, to a tomb, to a God with us...who suffers with us...to a promised new creation. It brings us to eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses who weren't expecting the resurrection, but who staked their lives on the truth of their story.

We come to a story that makes more meaning of more of the human experience than anything else I've encountered.

14 February 2016

Thank You Note

Thank you for list'ning when
I don't know what to say.

Thank you for caring when
I don't know how to feel.

Thanks for the every day
experience of love.

Thank you for making sure
I brush my teeth at night.

Thanks for the clothes you wash,
and fold, and wash again.

Thank you for saying you'd
live anywhere with me.

Thanks for the food you fix
and pack into my lunch.

Thank you for sharing all
of you, your sadness too.

Thanks for the musicals
I've seen because of you.

Thanks for the joys and for
the friends you share with me.

Thanks for the way you smile
the music of your laugh.

Thanks for your beauty and
your anger and your pain.

Thanks for forgiving me,
and thanks for being mine.

Thank you for the courage
that you show every day.

06 February 2016

An “Unspiritual” Christian: On Pentecostalism, Liturgy, and Wandering

A Gothic arch soars over the altar, almost to the ceiling. A crucifix hangs within the arch. A smaller niche on each side provides further relief within the building's modern concrete circularity. Six sections of pews radiate out and up from the altar steps to the entry from the narthex.

Sunlight streams in through the tall, narrow, stained glass windows. Worshipers pause and bow toward the altar before entering their pews.

It was the last Sunday before the Advent season at Holy Apostles in East Wenatchee, Wash. I slipped into a back row.

And I thought about the physicality of worship.

I grew up in Pentecostal, Assembly of God, churches and remember stories of George Müller and miraculous answers to prayer. There were family camps and revival meetings—places God's power was supposed to move in special ways. I have a cousin who paints water colors as part of her church worship team.

At one of those revival meetings, the evangelist prayed I'd receive the “infilling of the Holy Spirit.”

But nothing happened. And I wondered what was wrong.

It's perplexing in a church where God apparently “speaks” to almost everyone or at least where being “baptized in the Spirit” provides warrant to believe one's intuitions come from God.

When Presbyterian pastor, Robert Drake of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C. gave nine chapel lessons at a summer journalism program I attended, the rigor of reformed theology felt like a coming home and growing up and working out of things—accepting God's sovereignty in “gifts of the Spirit” to accepting God's sovereignty in the “doctrines of grace.” 

Stadt- und Pfarrkirche St. Marien,
Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany,
where Martin Luther preached.
That's why I sought out Christ the King Presbyterian Church the next year when I moved to Oklahoma City.

But by the time I returned to Coulee City, Wash. nine years later and was confirmed at Bethel Lutheran Church, I had also come to desire the sacraments.

That surprised me.  

In his article, “Surprised by Sacraments,” Dale M. Coulter notes trends toward sacramentalism within Pentecostal thought. He wrote, “When one considers many of the basic impulses of Pentecostal spirituality, these trends are not so surprising.” First, he writes, “Pentecostals have always held to a sacramental view of the world in which God is immanently at work.” And second, “Central to Pentecostal spirituality is a theology of encounter that accents a conscious experience of divine presence.”
In another article on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby inviting members of the Catholic Charismatic group, Chemin Neuf, to live at Lambeth Palace, Coulter continues, “In my view, Pentecostalism is nothing less than a modern version of Christian mysticism. Its twin emphases of sanctification and the charismatic mirror the monastic movement from penance to ecstatic union.”

But perhaps it's not just a Pentecostal thing.

In her article, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy,” Gracy Olmstead tells the stories of young Evangelicals who found their way into more liturgical traditions. She even finds some Baptists incorporating liturgical elements into worship. 

It's a trend Rachel Held Evans equates with the broader trend of young people leaving church entirely. She's written on CNN's Belief Blog, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions—Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.—precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being 'cool,' and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

It's plausible. The biggest differences between myself and my friend Gentry McKeown who rejected theism, for example, have less to do with what seems wrong in American Evangelicalism and more to do with how we ended up processing it.

Melissa Cain Travis, an Assistant Professor of Christian Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, identified enough with Olmstead's subjects, she started reading other accounts as well. In one post, she mourns how a common romaphobia has led to a loss of “incarnational worship.” She wrote, “Simply put, incarnational worship and devotion recognizes and celebrates the Lord’s use of the material creation as a means by which the reality of the Holy Spirit can be perceived by those who are in Christ.”

In the physicality of liturgy, there is something gracious—reassuring. It reminds us of the mystery.

Writing from an Orthodox perspective in, “For the Life of the World,” Alexander Schmemann said, “The Eucharist has so often been explained with reference to the gifts alone: what 'happens' to bread and wine, and why, and when it happens! But we must understand what 'happens' to bread and wine happens because something has, first of all, happened to us, to the Church. It is because we have 'constituted' the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in his ascension; because he has accepted us at his table in his kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to bread and wine.”

Later he continues: “But this is not an 'other' world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us. It is our same world, redeemed and restored, in which Christ 'fills all things with himself....'”

Schmemann is speaking here in something other than modern categories.

Indeed, it seems the sacred vs. secular dichotomy might really be spiritual vs. material. Even Christians who reject the materialists' rejection of the “supernatural” still seem to accept the materialist distinction between the material and “spiritual.” So that what's left is an ethereal ghostly shadow of what the Hebrew prophets or the historic church would have understood. 

The gospel then becomes about spiritual salvation rather than the new creation.

In her essay, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Mary Karr describes how poetry and prayer brought her to the Catholic faith. She writes, “...the Church’s carnality, which seemed crude at the outset—people lighting candles and talking to dolls—worked its voodoo on me. The very word incarnation derives from the Latin in carne: in meat. There is a body on the cross in my church. (Which made me think at first that the people worshipped the suffering, till my teenage son told me one day at Mass: 'What else would get everybody’s attention but something really grisly? It’s like 'Pulp Fiction''...).”

Indeed, when I was baptized at age 11, I did not feel particularly spiritual, but I could feel the water. And the invocation of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," hinted at something more.  
We said communion was only a memorial, but every month Pastor Dennis Cooper read or recited, "...But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body." (1 Corinthians 11:28-29).
Maybe its some human herding instinct that leads us to find meaning in shared activities.
I tend to think it's not—or that's not all it is—if for no other reason than that we experience the physical world through our senses and, though our sense of what we call the spiritual is not the same, it also does not seem as different as we moderns tend to think. 

Baptismal font and high altar of Stadt- und Pfarrkirche St. Marien,
Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany.

16 January 2016

The "Right" Church

The Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist,
Spokane, Wash.

There were seven or eight other people in the pews at Saint Luke's Episcopal Church for the 10:00 a.m. service last Sunday. 

There were almost the same number in the choir, and nearly everybody shook my hand. Rev. Frances Twiggs' sermon took each of the Baptismal Covenant's last five questions in turn. 

“Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Communion was open to all. So I went forward. 

When I met her later, Twiggs explained the art pieces around the nave and side chapels were part of an exhibit from the Gruenwald Guild, an ecumenical artistic community near Leavenworth, Wash. 

I felt welcomed.

And conflicted.

Most Sundays this last year I've been in church somewhere—the Lutheran churches, the Catholic church, the Southern Baptist church, the Assemblies of God church, the Acts 29 church, the Missionary Alliance church, the community church. I go. I think about worship services, sermons, worship spaces. And I wonder if I'm asking the right questions.

If all Christians are part of the body of Christ, what justification is there for worshiping with one part of that body and not another?

To be fair, some answer this question by saying some churches, like some people, may depart from the larger body of Christ by their teaching and practice. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians to excommunicate the man who had taken his father's wife. And how exactly this works itself out is perhaps what the Anglican Primates were discussing this week.

But near the end of a recent episode of “Blackish,” Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) and her husband, Andre (Anthony Anderson) are deciding, after visiting a couple churches, that they might keep looking. 

“It took us three months to find the right mattress,” she says. “So, I mean, it's okay if it takes us a minute to find the right church.”

“I know,” he says, “Find the right people, the right community, see if it's right for us.”

Whatever I like to say about doctrine, liturgy, opportunities for service, or small groups, sometimes I think it's code for “what makes me most comfortable”—“what's right for me.”

But as plausible as it sounds , it's also nonsensical.

What's the point of church, if it isn't mostly about God?

Twiggs asked me how long we've been in the area. I said a couple years.

She's recently moved from Brooklyn, N.Y. She asked me what brought us here. I said work.

Work brought her to these parts too, she said, but then she added, “well, God.”