Category Archives: Faith

Where is God in Hurricane Season?

God did not send Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Maria. I hope you know that.

Why didn’t God prevent Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Maria? Larry King asked a variation of this question on Twitter last night. If God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he prevent natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes? King noted that no religious leader has ever been able to answer that for him. The tone of the tweet was not antagonistic. It felt like an honest question mulled over a lifetime. It’s a question we’re all asking. And it’s not just about natural (or human-made) disasters. It’s about all kinds of tragedy and injustice and loss. It’s the cry of Jesus from the cross.

Before going further, let’s ask ourselves what we actually lose if start to allow for the possibility that God might not be omnipotent in the way we traditionally mean.

In philosophic and theological studies, the question of why terrible things happen to good or innocent people is known as “The Problem of Evil.”  Millions of attempts continue to be made to solve the conundrum as classically presented:  if God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, why does evil persist?”  Some answers are more satisfying than others, but none seem entirely sufficient in the moments they feel most needed.

Martin Luther said that we know God best through God’s love and compassion, not God’s power.  There’s something to that, but we’re still left asking “but if God has the power to prevent X,Y,Z, why won’t he?”

Luther also wrote at length about the suffering of Jesus on the cross as real spiritual trauma for God.  On the cross, Jesus (God in time and space and flesh and blood) experiences the quintessential human question: “God, why have you forsaken me?” On the cross, God experiences the human condition in totally, because on the cross, God experiences the feeling of being Godforsaken.  God experiences what we experience. God knows the pain we know.

We lose nothing, really, if we allow ourselves to consider the idea that God, who is mighty to save, may not be omnipotent in the way we generally think we mean.

My response to Larry King’s tweet was “maybe God isn’t omnipotent. but I do believe God is in the suffering and mourning and struggle. That’s why I follow the Crucified.”

It took the cross for God to know Godforsakenness. And God stayed on the cross. Christians follow a murdered God.  I think that tells us something.

If God isn’t omnipotent in the way we’ve traditionally said, how can we say God is mighty to save?

I think the answer to this part of the question lies in the call to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus.  To sacrifice confidence and trust in anything besides the love and compassion of God as the grounding of our being and the source of our identity.  The cross frees us from seeking our personhood or salvation in systems of politics, economics, and empire.  Naked and crucified, the God born in the poverty of the manger completes his final to move to total solidarity with us.  The life and death of Jesus are no quaint pantomime:  God knew hunger, tragedy, temptation, weakness, and loss.  God felt utterly abandoned by God.  We know and feel all of those experiences on the ebbs and tides of life.

In the person of Jesus, God found the fullness of God’s identity: the God who relies on the care of others for survival, the God who struggles within complex family systems, the God who celebrates at weddings and mourns the loss of friends.  The God who rejoices in our triumphs and the God who suffers the way we suffer.

Where is God in Harvey, Irma, and Maria?

God is in the shelters.  God is in the living rooms of family and friends where displaced people are finding hospitality and healing.  God is in the suffering and loss. God is in the hope of resurrection, in the kindness and compassion of strangers becoming friends. God is in the clean-up crews and buckets.

I don’t know what God is able to do about preventing human suffering.  I pray as if God can do every single thing.  But I do know what God is able to do in the wake of devastation.  Christians follow a crucified God, yes, but also one of Resurrection.  On the cross, God felt the horror of feeling Godforsaken.  In the Resurrection, proof of God’s attendant care breaks forth as Easter Morning.  Jesus was not forsaken or forgotten.  The power of God, mighty to save, manifests in healing after horror. We feel Godforsaken, but we aren’t ever really.  God’s attendant care is there in healing after horror. That’s another way God saves us.

I’m okay with the idea that the God who heals us might not have the power to prevent everything that hurts us.  Come what may, I always seem to find God in the aftermath.  None of this is to say with certainty that God’s not omnipotent in the classical sense.  But if God is, it seems God may have more to answer for than what the cross itself sets right. While it’s true that the frequency of extreme weather events rises with pollution, and while it’s true that so much of what we call evil or unjust is the accretion of broken people living broken lives, and while it’s true that none of that is God’s fault, a classically omnipotent God ought to be able to find a way around the human noise we throw up to heaven.  A classically omnipotent God, we hope, would say “regardless of your free will and brokenness, I have abolished evil, entropy, and want.”

That’s not the reality we seem to experience.  But that doesn’t mean God isn’t here, isn’t moving, isn’t active, isn’t real.  Jesus was killed by systemic injustice and the evil choices of his enemies.  Jesus was raised to glory by the God whose attendant care is there, healing after horror.

 

The Rapture Is Not Happening On Saturday, September 23

There are no hidden codes in the Bible.  That’s not what the Bible is.  That’s not how the Bible works.  That’s not how any of this works.

That said, here’s a video playlist of some songs that either directly or indirectly call to mind the end of days.

First, because I can’t shut up about it: “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles

“Come Pick Me Up” by Ryan Adams.  This is the “I wrote this song today. It probably sucks” version.  Which is also the best version.  “When they call your name, will you walk right up, with a smile on your face?  Will you cower in fear in your favorite sweater with an old love letter?”

“I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” by Larry Norman, covered by DC Talk.  You don’t have to agree with the theology to behold the beauty of these vocals or the sadness of the prospect that this vision might be true.

“The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash.

“The Wanderer” by U2 and Johnny Cash.

 

Listening to 80s Music with Karl Barth

Very thoughtful survey. I’ve thought of Das Nichtige as “nothingness” because it consists of all that God opted not to create, and that because there “is” God and the things God opted to create, there must also be “not God” or “the nothingness.” Am I misreading Barth there?

Pop Culture and Theology

By Jack Holloway

I make a lot of “best of” playlists. Recently, I made a playlist of what I think are the 150 greatest 80s songs (find it here). I listened to hours and hours and hours and hours of 80s music, soaking it all in, and, like the Apostle Paul, “examining everything carefully, holding fast to everything good.”

I primarily study the theology of Karl Barth, and so I thought a lot about Barth’s theology as I contemplated the music I was listening to. Barth talks about God’s No and Yes, God’s wrath and redemption, judgment and forgiveness, and on and on. He thinks Christians should move from one realization to the other, from understanding our sinfulness to God’s forgiveness, from seeing sin and death to believing in God’s redemption.

“Human experience and thought,” he says, “would proceed in a straight line from despair to even deeper despair…

View original post 1,500 more words

Black. Lives. Matter.

It doesn’t matter that Dr. Tisha Brooks and I share a hometown, or that she, her husband, my wife, and I all graduated from the same college.

What matters is that what she’s saying here.

The Stockley case is egregious.  If you’re not a person of color and have had a hard time understanding that Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist or militant operation, and that saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean saying “Only Black Lives Matter,” I’d be happy to talk with you.  You’ll get my perspective as a Christian who also happens to be white.

What Tisha is saying here is vital for such a time as this.

Brooks

Message from Tisha
Repost from Instagram @phdgirl24
・・・
This morning the “not guilty” verdict from the Stokley trial was released here in St. Louis and I got into an unexpected and heated debate with my landlord, who argued that the answer to problems like these is voting and Jesus, but not in his words “being in the streets.” I couldn’t disagree more for 3 reasons: 1) I’m currently writing a paper about activism as spiritual practice; 2) many of the people in my community are voters, Jesus-followers and are protesting in the streets as we speak; and 3) the Jesus I follow was always in the streets (or in the homes) of people who were marginalized, powerless, outcast and alienated from society. To the dismay of those in power, Jesus hung out with, listened to, and stood alongside of the poor, the sick and exiled, prisoners, prostitutes, and “the least of these.” In fact, it was this refusal to align himself with those in power that led to his crucifixion.
We are followers of Jesus because he was radical. We are followers of Jesus because he was a revolutionary. We are followers of Jesus because he has always been clear about where he stands. And though we are not allowed to hang this #blacklivesmatters sign in our window or post it in the front yard, because we do not own the property we stay in, we want to make it clear where we stand. We stand with Jesus, in the streets, in full support of those who are committed to being his hands and feet in this very broken and unjust world.
Activism = Jesus in the Streets.
#stl #stlouis #justice #jesusinthestreets #activism #protest #spiritualactivism#blacklivesmatter #professorslife #blackprofessor #speaktruthtopower#civildisobedience #faithandjustice #wherewestand #visioncarriers

Call to Worship: God Is Still Speaking

In the beginning, before we were born, before our grandparents met, before people fought over boundaries, before there were countries or planets or stars, in the beginning, before we were born,

there was God.

Before we learned to write or speak or even think words, God’s name was the rush of the wind in the reeds, the migration of continents, the burning of stars, the movement of love in the cosmos. Before all of these, God began speaking.

God said “I Am!” This is the Word that went forward creating all things. The Word was with God. The Word was God. Through God’s speaking Godself into space and time, all things were made.  Because God said “I Am,” God said “You Are.” In this way, all things were made.

After people began to fight over boundaries, after they’d charted maps and named stars, after they’d fled war and weather, this great I Am, which is God, became flesh.

In the tongues of the nations, he was called God With Us, God Saves.  He was called Emmanuel.  He was called Jesus. 

He was called the Messiah, the Christ, the One Anointed as prophet, priest, king.  The Word become flesh, the breath of God living and breathing, the Word who had brought forth all things.

God came as us. God came for us.  The God who spoke creation is here.

God found us hurting and needing and hungry.  God found us broken, afraid.  In the infant of Bethlehem, in the crucified God, we find God sharing our lot.  Speaking the language of our experience.

And God is still speaking.

Through the rush of the wind, through the courses of stars, through the turning of great wheels in the deep,

Through lowly birth, through a life on the margin, through betrayal by friends, through false accusations, through the injustice of empire, through death on a cross, I Am is speaking.

I Am says “We Are.”

Considering Jonah and Noah in Light of Harvey and Irma

I said earlier that  I’d been re-reading the flood narrative in Genesis.

The devastation from Harvey, and, soon, Irma, compels me to say something about what God isn’t doing.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on America.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on the world.

God is not sending these storms, period.

Remember the story of Jonah?

God (Yahweh in the text) calls Jonah to cry against the city of Nineveh, “for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah wants nothing to do with this mission, and embarks for Tarshish instead.  He doesn’t get far.  Trapped in the belly of a great fish, Jonah offers an incredible prayer:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

“And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

Jonah preaches a warning from God in Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people, from beggar to king, repent of evil.  God responds in kind.

Jonah gets lit.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

I’m going to repeat the most important part of this passage, ignoring, for a moment, Jonah’s impossible dramatics.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

God could have left Nineveh tore up from the floor up.  (The justice of such an action is another matter.)  Rather than sending calamity, God sent a prophet.  Rather than a tidal wave or a series of storms or an earthquake, God sent correction.  Jonah held Nineveh in contempt; God wanted its people to repent and flourish.

In Jonah, God does not send calamity.  God sends correction.

The devastation from Harvey, Irma, and other natural disasters are not punishments from God.  Modern-day Jonahs, eager to see the things they despise brought to ruin and claim the destruction as mighty acts of God, be warned.

As for Jonah’s (and would-be Jonahs’) histrionics:

“Yahweh replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

But Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?'”

This stands in quite the contrast to the moody, brooding God of the Noah’s Ark narrative.  In that story, Yahweh (still smarting in familial dysfunction?), kills almost every man, woman, child, and animal on Earth with a great flood.

One of these stories is partly about the nature of God.  One is partly an attempt to explain an historic calamity in concert with the notion that God is all-powerful and good, and is also a claim that God has established a certain covenant with a certain elect band of people.  “Good” people.  And whatever these stories seek to say about God, they say an awful lot about the nature of people.  Jonah longs for the destruction of people God would rather save.  The writer of the flood story hedges that the payoff of a national god who can control nature will be worth the scandal of having that god kill innocent children.

These stories are “about” God, but they are more fundamentally about how we can only understand God in conversation with others.  Left to our own devices, we inevitably cast God in exclusionary terms.  We become like the writer of the flood narrative’s darkest moments.  We become like Jonah.

As I said yesterday:

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such and undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

I don’t know what God is literally able to do in the face of calamity.  But I know God does not send it.

For the victims of these and all raging storms, let us pray with Jonah:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Amen.

 

Robert W. Lee IV

A few thoughts on Robert W. Lee IV, because I’m a Christian, I’m a UCC pastor, I oppose White Supremacy, I don’t believe BLM is a terrorist group, and, on a lighter note, I remember when MTV mattered.

First, my criticism of Lee (and MTV), which has nothing to do with anything he said after his first few words.

“My name is Robert Lee IV, I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville…”

Robert W. Lee IV is Robert E. Lee’s fourth-great-nephew.  I believe the wording of this introduction was meant to make W. Lee seem like direct descendent of E. Lee.  I don’t know why MTV or W. Lee chose that wording or wanted that framing.  And maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe that’s just how I’m hearing/reading it. Being a fourth-great-nephew and bearing the name Robert Lee and speaking out against supremacy is no less compelling to me than being a direct descendent, but I feel like the statement started from a less than clear place, which is a shame.  Also, saying that the statue itself was the center of violence makes it sound like most of the so-called Alt Right protestors were really there because of the statue.  As evidenced by their own propaganda, we know this to not be the case.

Lee continued:

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”

True.

“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”

If you’d asked me in 1996 if I ever thought I’d see a pastor talking about God’s call on the VMAs, I would have laughed in your face.  Lee is absolutely right here: we must answer God’s call to confront racism and supremacy head-on.  The same is true for any injustice.

I have seen absolutely nothing to make me believe that Black Lives Matter is what its most vocal detractors say it is.  I’d welcome a one-on-one discussion with anyone concerned that BLM somehow promotes black supremacy or is engaged in terroristic activities.  Yes, I believe all lives matter.  So does BLM.  If you know me personally and want to talk about this, please, let’s.

If there was any area of Lee’s statement that I could understand people reasonably taking umbrage at, it would be with regards to the Women’s March, and for reasons you might understand even if you don’t embrace them.  Observers who felt that the March was primarily concerned with abortion, or that it largely ignored the concerns (and input) of women of color, might take issue with Lee’s reference to it as a model for confronting racism and supremacy.

Lee and his Winston-Salem church have received tremendous backlash for the appearance. He’s since resigned and issued this statement, which begins:

“I’m writing this statement to make sure that people are able to read in my own words what has happened to me over the last three weeks so that the events of my leaving Bethany United Church of Christ might be understood from my perspective.”

“It began when MTV invited me to speak out at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles as a descendent of Robert E. Lee who is committed to speaking out against white supremacy and the hatred that had permeated our country.   The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee. I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy.”

Let’s be clear: Lee is right about his duty, not just as a member of the Lee family, but as a Christian and a child of God.  He also strikes me as a young, 24-year-old pastor seemingly blindsided by the reaction from within and without his congregation. I have no idea whether he talked to his church about his statement before he made it.  I hope he did. If he didn’t, he should have. We don’t know what did or didn’t go on behind the scenes.  Whether or not it would have made a difference isn’t the point.

My assumption, and it is only an assumption, is that the faction at Lee’s church taking issue with his statement were more upset with his lifting up of BLM than with the fact that the Women’s March had less overtly in common with combating white supremacy and racism.  I may also be grossly underestimating how much of the negative response is from people who don’t want the statues to come down.  And lest anyone think there’s no such thing as a liberal or progressive that opposes abortion, I know many people like Melissa Linebaugh.  The seeming near-zero-tolerance policy among many progressives for people who oppose abortion is likely part of the backlash.  While the Women’s March wasn’t “a march for abortion,” as such, it’s not hard to see why many people have that sort of view of it.  It’s part of Lee’s pastoral job to understand that, and to be in conversation with his church before he goes on national television.  And maybe he did and maybe he was.  Again, at this point, we don’t know.

I haven’t seen a statement from the church.  I’ve looked.  Its Facebook page is down.  Its website isn’t very current.  This piece from the Chicago Tribune has a few more details, and some important elaborations from Lee:  “‘The uncomfortable media attention and differing views with me by some of the congregation — and I want to make it very clear that it was not all of the congregation — made it clear that I was no longer welcome there,’ he said, adding that he’s also received positive messages.”

If Lee left the church because most of its members can’t abide the idea that he supports bringing the statues down, or because they’re so convinced that BLM is covertly in favor of black supremacy that they can’t see themselves to conversation and resolution, they should be called to task.  We don’t (and likely won’t) know the specifics of their broken relationship, nor how long it’s been broken.  That’s partly to Lee’s credit.

Because there’s much we don’t and won’t know, let’s say what we do know:

Racism is evil. Racial supremacy is evil. America is divided in ways we don’t even understand and are perhaps much further from understanding than we’ve been given to think.  Robert W. Lee is right to use his family name to fight racism and supremacy.  All people are right to fight racism and supremacy.  Even agreeing on that, we won’t always agree on the best ways forward. All ways forward require forbearance, listening to each other, respecting each other, and upholding each other’s dignity and worth.  In times like these, those basic precepts seem sadly radical.  We have more work to do than we know, and more than we have the strength for.  Build us up, Holy Spirit. Build us up.