Why: Laity

Last year, I wanted to take the Bibles out of pews. Have you seen that? At some churches, they have these things on the back of every pew that holds hymnals, Bibles and “get to know you cards.” Some places now have these on the back of each chair, or underneath the chair. As a kid, growing up in churches with chairs that folded up and made room for dozens of events throughout the week, with bare feet on hard cement floors and singing along to the words on an old school projector, I thought chairs or pews with built in book-holders were for the rich and old — probably because I usually saw in the churches that supported my parents which were full of old people and ostensibly rich by default (they were sending us money, weren’t they?).

This time last year, I wanted to walk through the aisles of such churches and pluck Bibles out of those holders. I wanted to take Scripture back from uneducated laity. I called a friend — after a hermenuetics class and flipped a lid with her. I was going on about poetry or narrative, about how people misinterpret passages of Scripture that aren’t didactic (such as the 10 Commandments, those are hard to misunderstand). It’s ironic to feel this, given my belief in the “perspicuity” or understandableness of Scripture by everyone (it was a big deal to the Reformers). Eventually, of course, I got over it. I’m even work in youth group now, where kids read their Bibles and misinterpret things all the time — like it’s their whole purpose in life, these kids end up with some weird theologies, trust me.

But last night, I was reminded why we need each other — laity and seminary student.

There’s a food pantry that serves seminary students and “the needy.” E and I go every couple of weeks, it’s good food which is fantastic because sometimes food pantries resort to quantity rather than quality. There’s certain merits to that approach; but it’s nice to have fresh fruit, meat and natural peanut butter. They serve the food in a  way that is incredibly respectful to our dignity, I need this food, seriously. But I never feel I am looked down on for that need. Last night, as they pushed the buggy of groceries out to the car, I had a lovely chat with Sue and Bruce who helped us load the food in the backseat and then asked how they could pray for us in the frosty night air. E, of course, being strong and humble said he couldn’t think of anything specific. I admitted to the woman that I’m struggling to be motivated at school and then I thought I ought to chime in on Ethan’s behalf so I asked her to pray for this house that he’s finishing.

“How should we do that?” she asked me, “I always feel selfish when I pray, you know, because I’m asking for stuff. How should we pray for his house he’s working on?”

I had to think, and think fast because it was frosty cold, my feet were already tingling from the ice beneath my booths and my cheeks were chaffing in the breeze. They were loading the last groceries when I said to her, “Well, I guess it’s more the heart. I mean, we want the house to finish well, and sell well of course. But it’s that I want him to be encouraged, to know that God’s walking with him in this, to know that he’s done a good job. I want him to finish strong, giving thanks, glorifying God. Yeah, I think that’s what we pray for.”

So she did. We held hands, all four of us in that icy parking lot on the windy hill. We bowed heads and that sweet woman prayed over us: for school, for work, for the food they’d just placed in our car.

This is why scholars need laity: to be reminded why we sit in class, research seeming minutiae and scribble our fingers down to the bone.

And this is why laity need scholars: to be reminded of the who, the what, the how we worship and remain in orthodoxy.

Because without one, the other would be lost in endless tracks of unnecessary philosophy and purposeless, too high and mighty to remember what it’s all about. And without the other, the one might fall into error, forget the past, or struggle to pray.

 

Why: hope and lent

Last week one of my highschoolers told me that hope probably doesn’t deserve to be a stand-alone sort of word. She suggested it isn’t a distinct concept, separate from any other idea we communicate with words. It’s overused, she pointed out, and as I listened to the State of the Union last night — given by a man whom I watched campaign on hope and take office my last year of college when the economy collapsed — I had to agree. To my student, hope is simply another word we use to describe something we really want, a deep and longing desire.

We were outside, amid trees stripped to grey nakedness, with ice under foot and clouded blue sky over head, dotted by geese who’ve flocked to our wide open spaces. She’s a cynic and I’ve only just started my recovery from cynic to hopeful realist. We plodded along after she said all that, each looking to and fro across a landscape seemingly barren and devoid of hope. Between us I could feel the silence grow, soft and fearful as I wrestled for words to speak since I so vehemently disagreed with her.

But how does one explain hope?

It’s Ash Wednesday and there are people wandering the world with grey soot smudged on their faces in the form of a poorly drawn cross made by dirty fallen thumbs looking forward to redemption. But it’s a future redemption and today the ground is still hard and cold. Lent begins and we give things up: meat, sugar, drink or other things upon which we depend instead of finding rest in God. While the practice of fast is certainly formational, it’s also responsive and it’s worth considering in these winter months slowly turning to spring — what we are responding to.

There’s a thing that in seminary we like to call the “grand narrative” or a “controlling narrative” which serves as an interpretive lens for how one reads and interprets Scripture. As a good evangelical seminary, we usually consider this to be the story of Jesus Christ, the story of God coming in to save creation that has fallen down a winding rabbit hole towards greater and greater levels of chaos. We point to his words and the prophecies and the narrative of the seasons to say that Jesus will one day come again to restore and renew all things.

Lent, I think, the season of waiting and going without, is a response in recognition of this redemptive process. Recognizing that Jesus has come, and will come, and learning what it means to wait hopefully in the midst of this present age. Jesus is coming. He’s here, he has come. But I have not only been saved I am still in the process of being saved.* In a similar way, Lent reminds us that we are waiting. With creation we groan and wait and long for the renewal that comes in the end of times. We respond to the Gospel by entering into it; by acknowledging this period of waiting and hoping. Lent shows us we’re waiting, teaches us to long, and forms our hope for the future.

Hope, my friend said rightly, is an intense desire for something. I desperately long for violence to end, for wars to abate, for my family to come home. But there is more than just longing when it comes to the redemption of the world and the many things that make up that redemption. In the way that it’s used in political campaigns and  among high school lovers, hope is cheap and ill used, hardly needed as a word separated from desire and want. We want a better economy in the same way we hope for a job upon college graduation.

But this I’m learning: we don’t put our hopes in humanity and the world. We put it in the One who made those things and we put our faith in the promises handed down to us, the foundation of his faithfulness and the character that says he will fulfill what he has begun. This is what hope is, the faith and trust that God will see His promises through, the patient expectation that the earth will be renewed and the culmination of all things will include a new and distinctively different relationship with the One who is.

Hope is deep and more than simple desire. It pulls from the being of our person and rests on the foundation of previously fulfilled promises and the faith of those gone before us. Lent, the season of waiting helps us refocus that hope: away from created to Creator, towards coming redemption and fulfillment. Because in the liturgical season of waiting we are reminded that we are waiting existentially. We learn to long for renewal. We hang in suspension. This is the tension that Christians live in. Here, oh yes, here! But also not yet. We are expectant, anxiously so. We are waiting. And we know that it will come despite all our impatience! Despite persecutions, failures, and misunderstandings. We’re waiting, but not in empty desire.  We’re waiting in deep, founded, faithful hope.

_________________________________________
Phil 1. 6, 2.12

WHY: work matters

Four walls, three a blank cream just off the colour of pure white–which is, of course, the absence of all colour, creativity, and imagination. The fourth is blue and thank God, it’s the one we face. For six hours each day this week, seated at tables drawn into the shape of horseshoe collecting luck, this is where we sit and theologize about work.

Not about what you’d call vocational ministry, though that’s been a small part. After all, most of those 20 people in class are going into some kind of ministry as vocation, so the topic surfaces now and then. For five of the six hours, though, we’re not talking about the task of preaching, exhorting, comforting, evangelizing or doing otherwise “ministerial” work.

We talk about factories, the grinding sound of machines ringing in ears as the rivets go in, and in, and in, and in again. The same droning task, day after tedious, long day.

We talk about cooking, about chasing after little ones and putting those same littles to bed where they feign sleep in mid-day sun. We talk about cleaning, washing, teaching, disciplining, day after exhausting day.

We talk about working land, digging in with dirt beneath nails, with cracked worn creases and rough, hard callouses that are used to working until the light’s gone, until the work is done, until we’ve done all we can and turn to hope for good weather and God’s blessing.

We talk about the desks, the ivory towers, the glassed-in cages full of meetings with people who know too much and say too little (or very often the opposite). We talk about the hours, the consumption, the temptation for work to become all consuming.

And what does it mean–this work? What does it signify or do? Is there meaning, importance or is it just a means to an end? On my dresser there’s a framed manuscript from Stratford-Upon-Avon where a woman rages that all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Is that what will become of our work?

Even if that was the end of our work (and I don’t think it is–but more on that later), would our work still have meaning?

Yes.

There is something deeply human about working. It was commanded before the Fall, though certainly the curse has driven a thorn into something which was once so beautiful. Even still, it is good and useful and purposeful.

In the beginning of our world, our collective imagination and understanding of life, in the beginning of all that God created. He rested on the 7th day and somehow, in this workaholic culture, that often becomes the focus. But there were six days before that, six glorious days when God in His beautiful community of Trinity worked.

And He told us to work.

As the imago dei, as the representatives of the divine, we were told to work. Because to do something with the world, to look around, to see things and to make something is a great and glorious way to act like the creative One whose nature we reflect.

So your work, and my work, this blog, the book on your bedside table, the job that pays you on the 15th and 31st has meaning. In some ways, the products may have meaning but that is because they come from you. And you are the image of God, the image bearer who creates, constructs, designs and puts the final flourishes on that latte art, that blue print, that tea bag on the conveyor belt. So you, by your reflection of divinity, give meaning and dignity to that work, that act of creating, changing, adjusting and beautifying.

Your work matters, it has work and value– because you matter. However often we fail to fully reflect God and live out the imago dei, we still are because it isn’t something in us, it’s something we’re in. And when we lend that to our work, it has meaning.

So your work and mine–whatever it may be–has meaning.

Work work work

I’m sitting on the floor of my room, fighting my way through 200 pages of Miroslav Volf and looking forward to class tomorrow which will consist of another 6 hours on the Theology of Work. I have a headache, an upset stomach, a hurting ear and a very un-vaccuumed floor. The tea in my mug disappeared in moments, that milky brown colour of black tea with soy and my computer is very nearly dead after 13 pages of typed notes during class today. Have I lately said that I love school? Because I do, it’s simply fantastic. Someday, I’ll even learn how to not be so anxious on the first day of a new class, but for now, I just love it so much I’ll endure the nerves as I walk into the unknown for the next couple of weeks while we settle back into spring semester.

As Ethan merrily set out this morning to work (yes, we’re still sharing a car, it’s easier now that he lives close and  still a nice way to start the day), I was dreading class, feeling grumpy and in general overwhelmed. We did one of those “tell us why you’re here” introductions and why the class interested us. I had about ten minutes to formulate my thoughts on why I had decided to take a class that satisfies a requirement…. When the discussion finally rounded the corner to our section I heard myself talking about the man who’d dropped me at school after a a rather frustrating drive.

My man, I said, builds houses. He owns a construction business. Some people don’t think that’s ministry, but I do and I’m not quite sure why. I just think that it is. I want to talk about theology of work because there’s more to vocation and calling than being a pastor and, after all, the Jews didn’t have pastors so why do we seem to think that’s a high and mighty thing when Jesus was a carpenter, a tradesman, a blue collar man like mine? But I want to learn about this whole idea of “theology of work” so I can better explain to the people who look at me and seem to pity us as though we’re doing something less holy by building homes for people to live in rather than preaching to an already over-educated-glassy-eyed-elite.

I didn’t finish with that snarky of a sentence because one of the two professors teaching still sort of terrifies me despite several conversations with him which have assured me of his humanity.

You see, we sometimes elevate certain “careers” or “vocations” as though God calls people to higher work than others. We fawn over people becoming pastors and denigrate those who are lawyers. But what about assuring that children are placed with the right parent after a divorce (no matter how sad the reality of divorce may be)? How is that any less important than counseling that same child as a later adult and leading them into a healthier marriage than the one they saw fall apart? How is building homes and tilling the land any less than exegeting the scriptures about the importance of the resurrection–the rebirth of life that we see each year on a farm, in nature, cultivated by man?

Those are my questions going into the course and I’m looking forward to developing my thoughts about E’s work, about my work, about how we are building the kingdom in our apartments, our conversations, our businesses and our writing. Maybe, by the end of the week, I’ll have something a bit more articulate put together; something about work being ministry no matter the field.

For now, however, I’ve got to get back to Volf so I can get started on that paper. . .

Peace, even on harried Mondays

It started with the dreams, muddled and confused as the chiming of an ill timed alarm broke into them. The world outside was dark and still, with only the faintest rumbles of the city coming back to life. A truck slid on its way up the snow covered drive from the parking lot, tires failing to grip the icy asphalt so cold and uncaring.

And then, in the kitchen, with breakfast on the stove and a half packed bag, waiting for clothes and books beside the lunch of last week’s tacos. Barefeet pacing back and forth, and the knock on the door; apologies for running late and further rush as I went between rooms, gathering, discarding, chewing half cooked oatmeal and wishing for more time.

Finals week descends upon the seminary like a slow and creeping illness. We saw it from a distance but the advance was crushingly fast when it came overthe last hill and hurtled upon us. He has six papers due by Friday, I have two for Wednesday and she is scrambling for three presentations. There is ice on the ground and we’re skating uncontrolled through the end of the semester, hoping to finish strong, praying for good grades and earth shifting revelation amid blue books and scantrons.half cooked oatmeal and wishing for more time.

E is working late, pulling longer shifts of deconstruction, tearing down shelves, cabinets and wall paper. He lives before the sun arrives and watches her retreat long before returning home to dinner and fevered study-time on the couch. For it’s finals week and I’ve picked up extra hours at work, I’m walking home through frosted night and scrounging time to memorize dueteronomistic history, shades of free will and latin phrases we inherited from an ancient mother hidden in cathedrals  and far off lands. There’ll be roast chicken for dinner, crisp and lush, brined and finished in the crock pot—the miracle worker of women who work and cook from scratch. And there will be cider to keep awake in the black night of study.

It’s the fourth week of Advent; we’ve met God the Father, Holy Spirit, Hope and now we’re to find peace, sense it and know it the way I know the darkness of my soul. But we’re pushing to buy a truck in 21 days, send out jam and Christmas cards, thank yous and wedding gifts. I’m barely functioning somedays, always sluggish and torn in too many directions. The shock of bitter cold December tears at my lungs on the walk to and from school. The kitchen is piled high in crusted dishes, there are clothes on the floor and hair in the bathroom sink.  There’s war in the world, strife in our homes and stress in our lives. I’m to know peace, but in the midst of this?

Yes. In the midst of this.

In the freezing walk beneath brilliant stars.
In the moment of encouragement as the door closes and the professor prays over students about to be examined.
In the meals of free ingredients from the local food pantry.
In the warmth of my quilts as I shut my eyes to the mess and climb wearily into bed.
In the love of arms about me, in the fleeting moments we have together.
In the hope of the future, in the remembrance of the past, despite fear and stress of the present.

Peace, in all this, and more—so much, so all pervading that it cannot be described or exhausted.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

WHY: Reformation Day

Today, most of America will dress up in fun or scary costumes and parade through streets of decorated houses where they can collect candy and show off their outfits. Others–the older crowd which has not yet put childhood behind them but can no longer Trick or Treat door to door –will make their way through parties and bars in an escapade of costumed identity: their chance to be someone else and not be looked down on for engaging in escapism.

I, on the other hand, and several others will not be celebrating Halloween. I’ve never actually gone trick-or-treating though my family did attend “Harvest” Festivals growing up. And while this is not a polemic against Halloween and the celebration that I still can’t wrap my head around, it is an interesting juxtaposition to what my friends and I will be celebrating:

Reformation Day.

October 31st is the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. The 95 Theses were a challenge to various practices in the church of his day and were a plea for change and restoration. Luther hoped the church would find her way back to apostolic practices and greater devotion to the gospel of grace. He challenged the church and that is what we will celebrate tonight at a pub called the Cheeky Monk. We’ll lift imported Belgian Beers created by Trappist Monks and cheer his bravery as he stood against the status quo to defend the faith and the true church.  Knowing he faced excommunication and even death, Martin Luther stood firm: Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. I can hear his voice, shouting across the centuries: hold on to God. Hold firm, hold fast.

But that is not the end of Reformation Day and tonight, as we toast a great hero, we will also mourn the disaster that began nearly 500 years ago. While he may not have meant to start a revolution within the church, that is essentially what Luther helped to cause. We have around 30,000 denominations today and an incredible divide among East, West, Protestant and Catholic. Though it was not the first division within Christianity, the Reformation was perhaps the greatest rift in the history of the church. We have not been united since and the bitterness on each side can be overwhelming. I have Protestant friends who believe Catholics are an unsaved and even I myself am uncomfortable when my Romish friends refer to me as an “anonymous catholic.” The animosity on both sides can be astounding.

In a year when the country faces greater division than usual, I’m reminded of the destruction that our arguments, our pride and our preferences may cause within the church—and by extension the world. Believers hurl insults across the voting booths, towards their own brothers and sisters. But how would we know any different? If you’ve read the works of the Reformers, you know the name-calling, the belittling, the refusing to compromise and extend grace. Division is everywhere.

I’m thankful for Martin Luther and I’m glad he nailed the indicting Theses to the door of that great old church. Rome stood in error and needed correction. But the destruction that has resulted from those years of “reform” has been widespread. Today is an important day to remember the greatest commandments: love God and love one another. My prayer, as we toast the great Luther tonight, is that we will work towards unity within the church for the sake of our witness to a broken and needy world. Change must begin with us, and the place to start is our bruised and battered divided churches.

WHY: I belong in Grad School

Last night we had out midterm for Old Testament: Ancient Israel. I hadn’t studied much which was nerve-wracking. I had a lazy weekend (something I needed after being gone the last two weekends), and I worked two full days before the midterm. I also had dinner at a friend’s house on Monday (poor planning on my part). So, let’s just say, it was a cram fest yesterday afternoon when I finished work half an hour early because I worked through my lunch. E showed up two hours before the exam and we got down to work.

I filled up my water bottle a minute before class started, walked in, swept up my blue book from a generous friend and settled in the back row with empty seats on either side. The professor smiled at us, prayed and then lit up the powerpoint with the three essay questions. As people started to read, there was a general sharp intake of breath when they reached the second question on the Copenhagen School and Silberman and Finkelstein.

I, on the other hand, grinned. And as I settled down to write, I actually enjoyed myself.

WHY: possible blog change

I read a decent number of blogs, personal friends, scholars and church leaders. Lately, I’ve been convicted about the state of my own blog in regards to several of my friends (like Kacie) and several theologians I read. The purpose of this blog was always to keep in touch with friends and family–originally while I was traveling and planning to go abroad. More recently it’s been a way of cataloguing thoughts and the journey of being in graduate school.

But I’ve been thinking lately about writing more academically or at least writing something with greater purpose. I don’t have much to offer to the academic community but as I’m looking at working towards a PhD in the future, I think I might want to start considering and discussing thoughts about theology.

But there is the over all hesitancy to do so, because I haven’t much to say.

Don’t worry, I wouldn’t take down this blog because I enjoy getting to share funny stories from friends, roommates and classmates. On a more academic blog that wouldn’t be possible or appropriate, I suppose. Of course, I’m also trying to figure out if it’s possible to keep the two together.

I suppose the exciting newsy sort bit of all this processing is that I’m looking forward and that’s a big deal. I had a long talk with a professor last week and now I’m realizing that I might be able to actually say something that’s original or creative. I might have something worthwhile to contribute to the world of academia.

Last week, Dr. K looked at me across the table and said, “so, with that thought, you’d be a Biblical Studies person and your concentration would be–” he paused, perhaps to let me brace myself for the news “–New Testament. And you’ll have to learn Greek.”

“and German too, probably,” I said with a heavy sigh.

“and German too.”

But he was serious. He told me I could study where I want and under who I want. He seemed a bit hesitant, nodding slowly as he considered it, “yes, well, he’s taking on PhD students now, but the question is how much longer he’ll do that. He’s getting a bit old.”

It was startling, I mean, Dr. K thought I could do this. And then dinner at Dr. B’s with Beth and Jonathan, B told me that I could learn Greek and German. He said I didn’t need to worry about it so much.

People believe in me and frankly, that’s mind-boggling.

So I started thinking about what this means, what this looks like and how I’m to get started now. One way of doing that is to start a blog where it’s more academic or less personal. But I’m waylaid at the crossroads: who would listen to me? Dr. N has us practicing theology in our reflections on John Feinberg’s No One Like Him and I’m embarrassed just reading them in front of class! Let alone giving it to the world wide internet to be picked apart and exposed for logical fallacies and grammatical errors.

But it’s something worth thinking about, I suppose.

WHY: my mentor

CJ is my mentor, both literally (for school) and honestly (she is God’s heart to me). I wish I could number all the reasons why she’s a gift from God in the wake of G&J moving south.

Yesterday, at our weekly “meeting” which is usually a walk or a lounge in a new coffee shop, I told her all the things i have to do for next week: two papers, a presentation and a devotional for my office (sort of). I also work at a conference this weekend for high school girls. And next weekend I have the Fall Retreat for my own youth group…. Needless to say, I was expressing some stress.

We talked about E and all my consistent emotional confusion there (some day I will explain this more fully). I said I was so busy and preoccupied with school that I didn’t mind the fact that he was stuck in the mountains though I did want to see him in a distant sort of way.

And then she asked what I was going to write for the Christmas Devotional that goes out to staff, board members, donors, alumni, etc. I recited a couple of basic ideas: kingdom, Mary, in breaking of God’s reality to ours, advent as waiting, maybe something about my high school girls. She looked at me with the half grin that always says she’s going to call bull on something I’ve said. And with her one cheek puckered up into her bright blue eyes, she said through the lower half of her sideways smile,

“can I just be honest and say, all those things are easy? too easy.”

“well, I’ve thought about writing something more personal but I don’t know how to narrow it down. I don’t know how to write about my own stuff.”

She leaned forward and said, with hands clasped together in anticipation, “what does Jesus coming mean to you?”

I didn’t even have to push down the normal backlash against such postmodern language. The answer came immediately. My eyes welled up with tears as I sort of shrugged and said, “hope. hope that things will… get better. that someday I’ll be whole again. and lots of stuff. but hope.”

CJ settled back into her chair with a nod.

“then that’s what you write about.”

WHY: Hard is Good

This week I had to write my first (short) paper for a theology class. It was pretty great, but pretty intense. I’ve read 200 pages of a massive philosophy book on the Doctrine of God and I had to expound on a theme from those pages and then explain why it was important for an aspect of the Christian life.

The paper itself wasn’t overly difficult. I sat outside under a warm blue sky where the clouds glowed such a brilliant silvery white that you could hardly look at them. Mambo and D stopped by which provided a good amount of laughter and ended with an unexpected dinner that I hadn’t provided for myself. I wrote about immanence and transcendence–the topic I’ve always scribbled about in Eastern Orthodox classes. And even as the headache settled in due to serious concentration on not enough coffee, I thought, it’s such a privilege to study here. It’s so great to be challenged by Hegel, Altizer and Hick. I love that my mind is sometimes stretched and twisted while I wrestle through philosophy and theology. Because the mind is a gift to be enjoyed and a tool to be sharpened and I’m so blessed to have a chance to do both.

Especially on warm September days, with boys playing futbol and yelling in spanish while children scream past on bicycles and I dream about a kitchen with unopened boxes and a room with a view.