Sunday, April 20, 2014

Old Tombs, New Life

Listen to Audio on SoundCloud

There are some things that only God can do. 
Jon Bruno is the Bishop of Los Angeles.* Before becoming Bishop Jon served an inner city parish in gang territory. Sitting in those pews among the maids and the mechanics and the janitors and the waitresses were members of rival gangs. 
You could describe some of these young men and women as former gang members. They had undergone a remarkable transformation of heart, soul, and mind. They hadn’t just quit an organization. They were new people. Compassion, respect, and vulnerability had displaced violence, contempt, and intimidation as the defining core of their lives.

Edward Burne-Jones' "The Morning of the Resurrection"
But they hadn’t gotten there all at once. And they certainly hadn’t gotten there on their own. There are some things that only God can do.
Most of the gang members in that parish were just that. Gang members: murderers, thieves, drug dealers. 
Don’t get the idea that these intimidating young men and women had rushed to church because they had seen the light and amended their ways. Against their better judgment they slipped into the back pews, eyeing everybody with suspicion. Their hearts raced when they recognized members of other gangs. They may have exchanged blows and gunfire with some of them.
Gangs do not offer an exit strategy. Well, that’s not entirely true. The tomb is a gang’s exit strategy. You get killed and you’re out. You try to get out and they kill you. In other words, you’re already in the tomb. You’re just waiting for it to be official.
And so gang members stumbled, staggered, and wandered into Bishop Jon’s parish because they had the faint hope that the tomb was not the last word. That maybe, just maybe, God offers a way out of the tomb and into some new life that they didn’t yet understand. 
As it turns out, God does get people out of their tombs. That’s what we celebrate Easter morning. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

God's Not Dredd

What follows is a variation on the theme from "Healing Passion." Some portions of that earlier post form part of this one.

A recent movie called “God’s Not Dead” has received attention in various Christian circles. While it’s not on my to-see list, I do know that it turns on the idea of proving God’s existence and includes as its antagonist a philosophy professor who insists that God is dead. 
Apparently, a crucial element of the plot is that this professor requires students to sign a document rejecting the existence of God or to receive a failing grade in the class.
Just for the record, I taught the classical proofs for God’s existence every semester as a philosophy professor. None of my colleagues would have dreamed of having students sign such a ridiculous document. Instead, we taught students the critical thinking skills needed to think through their faith and to defend it for themselves.

Many if not most of my philosophy colleagues in fact believed in God. Their spiritual objections were not about God, but about the idea of God peddled by so much of organized religion. 
Apparently, my former colleagues have much in common with today’s young adults. They are likely to say that they are spiritual but not religious. The God they hear many churches talking about—the God they see proclaimed in the attitudes and behaviors of many church-going people—contrasts sharply with the holy longing they feel in their souls and the glimpses God has given them of himself in their lives.
And no wonder. Listening to what some pastors and some believers say about God, I don’t believe in him either. That’s because they make God sound remarkably like the graphic novel character Judge Dredd.
So I want to take some time talking about who God really is by focusing on his self-revelation in the Passion of Jesus. An appropriate title for these reflections might be “God’s Not Dredd.”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Healing Passion

Adrianne Haslet-Davis loves dancing, and she excels at it. An award-winning ballroom dancer and an Air Force vet, she returned from her tour of duty in Afghanistan ready to pursue her dream of dancing in—and winning at—ever higher levels of competition all across this country.
She says, "Dancing is the one thing I do that when I do it, I don't feel like I should be doing anything else ever. I feel so free.”
Celebrating their return home from the war, Adrianne and her husband Adam attended last year’s Boston Marathon. They were standing only a few steps away from the second bomb blast. Adrianne felt the explosion’s impact. She knew that she had lost her left foot when she heard Adam screaming and saw him holding her severed limb.
How do you ever set a thing like this right? Searing pain. Permanent disfigurement. A dream shattered. A life forever altered.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Man Carrying a Boy"
There is an ache at the heart of our world. Adrianne’s story brings that ache into sharp relief, just as millions of other lives might do should we draw near enough to see and to feel.
Parents grieving children who die before their time. Children terrorized by abusive parents or crushed by want and neglect. Victims of unspeakable sexual violence. Families shattered by insurmountable poverty. Lives consumed by chronic hunger.
There is an ache at the heart of the world. How do you ever set it right? 
The wonder is that this ache fails to defeat us, that we do not tumble either into despair in our own suffering or into indifference to others so as not to disturb our own temporary comfort and good fortune.
The wonder is that we yearn for something, for someone, to set things right. And that is precisely what God is doing in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Only, God does it in a way that stands our accustomed way of seeing things on its head.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fair Is Not Enough

It’s not fair. Life that is. Life is not fair.
So, where is God in that?
I’ve had plenty of reason to think just those thoughts. Maybe you have, too. Let me share a vivid memory with you from my childhood.
I was the new kid in the first grade class at Louisville Academy, just starting to feel like I might actually fit in. Louisville sits in the midst of south Georgia farmland. Fewer than two thousand people live there.
Not many people move into Louisville. They are not practiced at making strangers feel at home. Add to that that I was burdened with a profound speech impediment, and you’ll understand why I struggled to belong.
Gregoire Michonze's "Figures Talking in a Village"
One day we had a substitute teacher. The only activity I remember from that class session is an art activity. I traced a squirrel and then colored in the picture. All of us crowded around to tell the substitute about our drawing.
With all my classmates peering over my shoulder, the teacher asked me, “What is that?” 
“A squirrel,” I said
“A squirrel.”
“Go sit down and come back when you learn to talk.”
I can still feel the blood rush to my face and the eyes of all my classmates staring at me. Lacking a soft palate, I was physically incapable of making the “s” sound. All the breath passed through my nose and a sound emerged something like, “Hwhwquirl.” The teacher’s words reminded me (and announced to my classmates) that where I came from and how I was made meant that I did not belong.
Life is not fair. 

Where was God when I was born with a cleft palate, when my parents couldn’t afford to get it fixed, when that church-going lady told a deformed, vulnerable little boy to sit down and shut up because she couldn’t understand his distorted speech?
If you insist that God can be God only if he prevents suffering and heartache, injustice and oppression, cruelty and indifference, then you are going to have a very difficult time finding God in this world.
But as it turns out, God does his very best work in the midst of the worst that this world throws at us. That’s one of the lessons we learn from the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


BrenĂ© Brown introduced me to the phrase “shame storm.” If you’re like me, you’ve been caught in one before. You just didn’t know what to call it.

Shame storms can be triggered by all sorts of things, and they may take different forms for different people. But in essence shame tells us that we’re no good. We don’t measure up.

Picasso's "Breakfast of a Blind Man"
Don’t confuse shame with guilt. They’re really very different. Guilt is actually helpful. When we know that we’ve done something wrong, we feel remorse. Our contrition leads us to change our ways and to mend fences.

Shame, by contrast, devastates and dismantles us. In the midst of a shame storm, I’m likely to say to myself, “You’re an idiot.” I feel like a fraud who’s been found out. My only option seems to be to lock myself in solitary confinement, to hide myself from the world that surely rejects me now that I’ve been exposed for what I am, and to kick myself unconscious to save everybody else the trouble.

Here’s an example of one of my shame storms.