Sunday, May 30, 2010

Faith in a Poem

Sometimes, in the life of faith, someone else watches to keep your tent from blowing away. Sometimes, when you're stronger, you watch for someone else. This is why we're called to be the body of Christ. Faith is not for the faint of heart or for the individual. It's for the community and the community is for the individual. I think this poem expresses our need for one another well.


by Amy M. Clark

My seatmate on the late-night flight
could have been my father. I held
a biography, but he wanted to talk.
The pages closed around my finger
on my spot, and as we inclined
into the sky, we went backwards
in his life, beginning with five hours
before, the funeral for his only brother,
a forgotten necktie in his haste
to catch this plane the other way
just yesterday, his wife at home
caring for a yellow Lab she'd found
along the road by the olive grove,
and the pretty places we had visited—
Ireland for me, Germany for him—
a village where he served his draft
during the Korean War, and would like
to see again to show his wife
how lucky he had been. He talked
to me and so we held
his only brother's death at bay.
I turned off my reading light,
remembering another veteran
I met in a pine forest years ago
who helped me put my tent up
in the wind. What was I thinking
camping there alone? I was grateful
he kept watch across the way
and served coffee in a blue tin cup.
Like the makeshift shelter of a tent,
a plane is brought down,
but as we folded to the ground,
I had come to appreciate
even my seatmate's breath, large
and defenseless, the breath of a man
who hadn't had a good night's rest.
I listened and kept the poles
from blowing down, and kept
a vigil from the dark to day.

"Arc" by Amy M. Clark, from Stray Home. © University of North Texas Press, 2010.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pronouns and Pronouncements

Contemplation of the Trinity often leads to discussion about language. Can we refer to the Spirit as "She"? What about God? Do we have to say "Father"? The following is a reflection around some nuances of that discussion.

Whenever I consider the changes to worship, theology or language, I think first about Luther’s understanding of the first commandment. Luther said, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends… that is really your God.”[1] It is too easy for change for change’s sake to be made into an idol and, conversely, it is too easy to remain unchanged because of the idol of tradition. When we are seeking alternatives to what we have, we must first explore the why before the what. Is our change meant to correct “years of wrong” by substituting one set-in stone decision for another? Are we looking for how the Spirit may lead us to a deeper understanding of God in our midst or are we looking for a more tightly defined orthodoxy? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but unexamined faith is worth even less; it has the potential to harm the image of God for our neighbors.

Revisiting Paul Tillich’s thoughts on Trinitarian symbolism, the signs and names we attribute to the Holy, Holy, Holy help us comprehend how God is in community with us. Without that variety, the symbols lose their potency and, with that loss, their effectiveness in answering our ultimate concerns. Rosemary Radford Ruether argues once Christianity becomes the dominant cultural voice, the more the nuanced language of the New Testament loses its tension and, correspondingly, the more we need to look for the deeper metaphors that are present in our biblical tradition. Ruether specifically points to feminine imagery in the gospel of Luke and the comparisons of God to a woman adding yeast to flour (creating) or searching for a lost coin (redeeming). For Ruether, the rise of Christian belief and, thus, organization led to the weakening in understanding of the Father God, whom Jesus called, “Abba.”[2]

Yet, does simply stirring in new God-as-mother imagery really solve the problem that is, at its root, a creation of God our in our image, instead of considering in Whose image we were made? In order to address my ultimate concerns (Tillich), God must be different from me. “Why am I here and what will happen to me after here?” are not questions that I can satisfactorily answer from within myself, for myself. I need to look at the communion of the Trinity and the community around me to have those questions answered. Abrupt changes due to cultural alterations disrupt my understanding and re-stir the anxiety of those questions within me.

Simply alternating pronouns for God creates a binary trap, away from which even Paul tries to move believers. Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV) When there is no longer male and female, it is God’s undoing of what humans set in place in the Garden of Eden. The separation from one another that also separated us from God is undone through the righteousness and power of Jesus Christ. Our redemption and unity in creation must be considered anew daily, along with our baptisms, as a way of recognizing the death of the old Adam (and Eve).

The figures of the Trinity release us, through faith, from the binary trap of our world of sin. In loving relationship to one another, the one God reminds and shows us how to move together and how we think of the Three affects our ability to understand that reminder. If only “female” part of the Trinity is the Spirit, sent out from the first two members with a pat on the head, we risk projecting our cultural experiences onto the Spirit. That perspective risks the understanding the Spirit as not quite on the same level as the other Two Persons, just as women are somewhat perceived to be not on the same level as men. If the Mothering God is the one who suffers with us and is present in our pain, this is a subliminal way of portraying the lot of women as suffering. Finally, naming Jesus as a “Daughter” in an ultra-feminist Trinitarian formula runs up against the heresy of not recognizing the fully human, historical person of Jesus who, in human form, was a man.

To come back to my original thoughts, caution is needed in alternative Trinitarian formulas, but avoiding them or uncritically embracing them makes an idol of words and masks the depth of God in three persons. The variety of symbols for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit expresses some of the richness of God’s ability to exceed our needs, desires and expectations. We know we cannot save ourselves, but it is interesting that many of our attempts at linguistic change are approached from the idea of “redeeming” the history of the church.

If I refer to God as “She” when I preach, I do not undo the Crusades. I do not make God more palatable for someone who struggles with the word “Father” because of past experience. I do not make up for clergy abuse or undo hypocrisy on the church council. And if I think I do anything of those or similar things, I am making an idol of myself. However, if I listen to the Word with an open heart and believe that it is alive among us, the Spirit can guide me, and others, to new ways to express God, Three in One.

The first commandment is the easiest to break because we are always looking to affirm what we know to be true. If we ponder more deeply what we believe to be true, we may be still enough to look for how God, Living Word, Water and Wind, is graciously working in, through and for us and expanding our understanding and our faith.

[1] Kolb, Robert and Wengert, Timothy J. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000. p. 386.2

[2] Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk. Boston, MA: Beacon Press,1993. 65ff.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Holy Trinity

This coming Sunday (May 30) is my favorite in the church year, Holy Trinity Sunday. I like this Sunday for many reasons, the first among many being that this is a good Sunday to encourage and support our faith in the mystery of God and how God works.

In honor of Trinity Sunday, I'll be posting some excerpts from work I've done before on the Trinity. Some of this is a little more scholarly in tone than what I usually post here, but I'll edit it a bit and I think it's good fodder for conversation- with me, in your house, with fellow followers of Christ, with people who reject the Good News because of doctrines like the Trinity.

As the Gentile Christian movement began to stream from the Jewish establishment that was its original riverbed, the triangle formed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit began to look confusing to those who believed in the monotheistic base of the faith. The intensity of the struggle to defend the core monotheistic values is difficult to describe. By the time of Justin Martyr (100-165), there was an emphasis on the three, but not as much on the one. Grant quotes Justin’s apology, “we confess the most true God, the Father of righteousness and chastity and the other virtues, untouched by wickedness… we honor and worship him and the Son who came from him and us these things… and the prophetic Spirit.”[1]

Not, in its entirety, the most stalwart of Trinitarian formulas (Justin does put an “army of angels” before the Spirit), the phrase is nonetheless recognizable even to Christians today as part of what we believe. Within Justin’s basic formulation, one can see what will form the fodder for various heresies and struggles to come. Are all three the same in essence? How do the Son and the Spirit come from the Father? Is there a hierarchy? It also became important to establish Jesus as both coming from and being God and having been fully human. Between the efforts of the Cappadocian fathers, Irenaeus, the councils at Chalcedon and Nicea, and countless others, the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to one another and to the world was hammered out- both in positive and negative theology (what is and what is not).

The need to define the roles and relationship within and without the Trinity is also rooted in our need (as human beings) to understand the relationship of the Three and the One to ourselves. Beyond theological and historical need, the Trinity must be clarified for our own spiritual and psychological needs. Paul Tillich describes these needs as part of our ultimate concerns. It is enough of a struggle to accept the gifts of grace and faith and understanding the bonds of love between the members of the Trinity, united in one another, can help us understand the love of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for us. We use specific symbols for the members of the Trinity, which stir in us remembrance, appreciation and comprehension of their actions in, through and for us. Tillich says:

The questions arising out of man’s finitude are answered by the doctrine of God and the symbols used in it. The questions arising out of man’s estrangement are answered by the doctrine of Christ and the symbols applied to it. The questions arising out of the ambiguities of life are answered by the doctrine of the Spirit and its symbols. Each of these answers expresses that which is a matter of ultimate concern in symbols derived from particular revelatory experiences. Their truth lies in their power to express the ultimacy of the ultimate in all directions. The history of the Trinitarian doctrine is a continuous fight against formulations which endanger this power.[1]

Understanding God as Creator, Father or Life-Giver illuminates what we are not able to do for ourselves: bring ourselves into our fullest being, create from nothing and parent with an all-encompassing love. Seeing Jesus in a lamb, an empty cross or footprints stirs in us the recognition of reconciliation beyond what we could do ourselves or even know to ask for. Thinking about the Spirit as a wind blowing through the world, a feeling rising within or an anointing being poured over helps us grasp, in some small way, the reality of the continued action of the Holy in the world.

Though we can recognize them individually with their symbols (that meet our ultimate concerns), together the members of the Trinity also meet our need to understand relationships and mutual love. God sent Jesus, as part of God’s self, to show the way to welcoming arms of a Parent who never forsakes. The Spirit proceeds from them as a promise and a sign that we are not in the world without God. The relationship of the three to one another reminds us God, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is in the same kind of loving, sending, divided and united relationship with us. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us, as believers, to understand the three notes that make up the chord of God. Our faith is not divided among three distinct deities, but enriched by the mystery of a God who is so self-giving that there is no limit, except that of our minds to conceive, to how God can act in, through and for all of creation.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

p. 286.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Here is one of my big secrets. It's hardly a secret (or that big), but nonetheless...

I don't like to exercise because I'm not good at it.

I know that sounds ridiculous. It sounds as crazy to me as it does to you. But I don't enjoy doing things that I'm not good at and I enjoy doing things at which I am proficient or excel.

Now there are things that I don't LOVE to do, but need to be done and I don't suck at them... so I do them. I'm hardly an expert dishwasher loader (though if sheer number of times counts for expertise), but I do that. I'm not an expert lawn mower, but I do that. There are things which I do that I don't enjoy, but I do them.

If you've known me for years, you might say I'm "indoorsy", but I don't think so. I like being outside.

I like hiking. Fishing. Camping. Playing with the dog. Swimming. Canoeing in peaceful circumstances. I enjoy them when I'm doing them (mostly) and when I'm done, but the motivation...

And just straight up exercise... the thing you should do every day... I just dread it. You could argue that I need to find something I enjoy or that I'm doing it wrong or that I just need to get over it. You might be right on all counts.

In my head, I should be able to sprint like a deer, jump up and slap a volleyball, concentrate and flip my feet over my head in a back hand spring, be an Olympian if lacking the opportunity to try out for the competition. Instead, I'm sweating, ungraceful and much slower than I'd like to be. It's not character-building, it's humiliating and annoying.

Here's the reality that I need to accept. I can't be great at everything. I can't even be good at most things. I can be gifted in the areas in which I'm gifted and then the rest is just stuff I have to do. I can't do it all. I can't read myself fit. I can't pray myself fit. I can't sleep or eat myself fit. I can't journal myself fit. I just have to get up and put one foot in front of the other, for a significant amount of time each day, a little more quickly each time.

So I put fitness goals ahead of myself. And I work toward them. Because my faith in God's love of the body won't let me neglect mine.

In the end, that's what will do it for me. I can rationalize my opinion of my body. I can ignore other people's opinions.

But this...

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body," 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

That, I can't ignore.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Reverend Ham

Some of you know and some of you don't that the Lutheran Church in Lake Woebegon has a new pastor. Reverend Barbara Ham came to Lake Woebegon just before Easter to fill in between the abrupt departure of Pastor David Inqvist and the next pastor (whomever that will be). Apparently, Pastor Barbara has caused quite a stir among Prairie Home Companion fans because Garrison Keillor describes her as overweight, gossipy, an ineffectual preacher and someone who talks on her cell phone in public restrooms.

Longtime PHC fans have expressed frustration with Keillor that the appearance of a female pastor in Lake Woebegon is so disappointing.

I don't think Keillor thinks for a second that all female pastors are like this. But I do think (and I believe he does as well) that some are. GK isn't creating a caricature, he's simply telling it like it is.

Pastors aren't talented and virtuous because of their gender. They are through dedication, patience, hard work and the gifts of the Spirit. Poor pastoral habits aren't limited to men, there are plenty of women in pastoral office who abuse their power, who don't have appropriate boundaries, who don't practice good self care or whose talents lie somewhere other than in the pulpit. That's just the reality of the pastorate and church life.

Rev. Ham is a fictional character and she no more represents all female pastors than Pastor Inqvist did all male ones. But she does represent the reality of the church- pastors are people too.

We'd all like our pastors to hold to the orthodoxy we don't have the patience for, practice the faith we don't have the discipline for, sit with the mystery that we don't have the openness for and love those we don't have the time for. But church doesn't work like that.

Pastors work hard. They lie awake and think of you when you're sleeping. They sit in their cars and weep when they know you're aching, so they can be stronger in your presence. They provide a backdrop to weddings and funerals- scanning the situation to help things be as smooth for you as possible. They stare over Bible texts and pray for guidance to say what God wants you to hear. They seek creative ways to help you hear it. Pastors will pull weeds, meet the ambulance, trim beard hairs, literally feed people, wait with the dying, sit in silence, engage in email correspondence, go on field trips, sing to spiders, show up early and leave late.

Pastors will also swear, get exasperated, feel confused, get sick, make decisions that result in poor outcomes, interpret Scripture wrongly, say things they don't mean, procrastinate, have feet of clay, ignore burning bushes, adopt heterodox beliefs, question their faith, sing flatly or sharply, forget the words to the Lord's Prayer, lay in bed on Sunday morning and wish they didn't have to get up, and sometimes wish they could jump in a bush when they see you coming.

Pastors are leaders of the baptized- ordained for order, not because they have special powers. They dedicate their lives to being where others might not be able to be, to praying when others cannot pray, to trying to explain what's explainable and to holding you through the inexplicable. But through all that- they are still people.

Reverend Ham isn't bad woman pastor. She's just a woman pastor who's not all she could be. What remains to be seen is how people will respond to that. Will Clint Bundsen call the Bishop and say, "I think this pastor needs a sabbatical and some continuing education. Could you send us a more intentional interim and give us some direction here?" Will the Church Council say, "Pastor Ham, we know you're here to help us, but these are the things that are important to this congregation. Here's a little bit of our history. We need help understanding ourselves and then understanding how we relate to the rest of creation." Will Rev. Barbara have the patience and insight to listen to that?

Pastors work alongside a congregation. Too often we think of them as working for a congregation and we only do that when we realize there's a problem in the relationship.

It's a complicated relationship, that of a pastor and a congregation, but at its best the relationship should have mutual and healthy support that causes everyone involved to remember Who is really in charge.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Sometimes you meet people and you assume that brief encounter encapsulates the entire experience you will have together. That's why I often encourage people to remember that they may be the one encounter another person has with Christ in a day or week or more. It sounds very New Age to say that our actions have a ripple effect, but I don't mean that in a "woo-woo" way. I meant it from the deepest need the world has for the gospel. People need good news and the message of salvation by grace through faith is what so many are hungering for.

Last February, in the middle of a cold snap, I got a call from a young couple to see if I would be willing to do their wedding. They really wanted to have it outside and every other pastor they had contacted said no. There was some urgency. She was pregnant. He was about to deploy for a year to Afghanistan. They were both from Florida. I figured if two kids from FL wanted to get married outside in 14 degree weather, then this pastor from Alaska could accommodate them.

Besides, I was pregnant. And my husband was about to deploy to Iraq. Everyone else said no, including the military chaplain, but they were determined and I hoped that by meeting with them and talking to them before the wedding- I would nourish seeds already planted by the Spirit that might help them turn to a church later in their lives.

We met and talked about what they knew about one another, the difficulties of being married during deployment, the stresses that they might anticipate, the reality that there was much we couldn't anticipate or know.

I married them in the dim light of a Saturday afternoon, near the picnic pavilion at Otter Lake on Fort Richardson. Several of his friends showed up in uniform. Her friends were all in Florida, but the guys encouraged her that day, as well as teasing the groom. It was frigid and she shivered in a sleeveless dress, while I struggled to turn pages in my Bible with my mittens. It was a very, very short service with their promises to each other, my Bible reading and reminder of God's love that was binding them together and which was there for them to lean on in good times and bad. I prayed for them and they kissed. Then everyone whooped and yelled and I served as de-facto wedding photographer while the "wedding party" lined up in the snow.

I've thought of them off and on, mostly in the context of how cold that day was. A few fleeting prayers when they came to mind and then...

This week, in my local paper, there has been a series of stories about a soldier, recently returned from Afghanistan, who shot and killed his wife and daughter and attempted to kill himself. He's still non-responsive.

It took me a couple days to put together the details, but when a picture of the little family ran- I recognized them together. When I did, I felt stunned.

I don't believe I could have done much more for them than I did. They both had strong, supportive families and other support networks. I was just a tangential intersection in their life.

I see the comments people make about the situation. Either that he must have been a monster to do a thing like this. Or he was a victim, through his military service, without enough support and there are three tragedies here.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, though there are more than three victims.

The answers could be no more war, more help for soldiers/airmen/Marines and their families, gun control, Prohibition, prayer... and the list goes on.

That's not my answer.

The tagline for The Shadow was "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

I think the real question is "Who knows what gaping depths ache in the hearts of all creation?"

God does.

I don't say that in a flip "Jesus is always the answer" way. I say that from the bottom of my heart. Within my life, within my work, within my heart, I know that people long for answers, for truth, for light, for control.

If God doesn't know the depth of that struggle, if God doesn't understand it, if God doesn't care, then nothing matters. Nihilistically, we climb the ladders and slide down the chutes. Life sucks and then you die.

But if God does know, if God does care, if God does understand, then we have hope. We believe that new growth comes from death. God came among us as one of us, in Jesus, so that we might know it's not our struggle that saves us. We're saved by our faith in the gracious One who struggles and aches alongside us.

Will this knowledge help the families associated with this tragedy? Maybe. Maybe not.

But it helps me. It helps me from saying "Screw it."

I believe that God was there, muttering about how free will was a bad idea, but the only way this will work. I believe that God was holding the mother and child in their last moments and was there to welcome them to eternal rest. I believe that God was with the shaking, angry, and terribly afraid young father who felt like there were no other options.

I don't think for a second that this was God's will. But I do believe that God was present for every moment.

And that's why I believe living a faithful life matters. Because in believing that God does care, then we are compelled beyond ourselves to share that love and care with the people around us. And it's phone calls, covered dishes, late nights, letters, hugs, listening, holding tissues, prayer, compassion that can save lives. It's God that saves souls.

Sometimes in a situation, you wonder if there was anything else you could have done. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes, no. Sometimes someone else could have done something more. Sometimes there was nothing more to be done.

Rest in peace, R and K. Be at peace, K.