I have never run a marathon, but I’m guessing these past five years come pretty close.
I began my seminary journey while my wife was in her second year in residence. After peering over her shoulder as she read books and wrote papers I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to try it for myself. But my full-time job at a church made the in residence schedule impossible but the distance learning track ideal. (I think I may have been the closest distance learning student in history, living across the street in the Red Bricks and occasionally turning in my distance learning assignments by hand!)
I dove in with a year of Hebrew followed by a year of Greek. (I know there were some other classes in there too but the perpetual stack of flashcards in my back pocket put a slight haze on everything else.) My life at church and life in seminary continued forward, each consistently feeding into the other, from pastoral care to developing curriculum to integrating whatever I was learning in class into the next teaching series I would develop. I never had to wait for an internship or teaching church to find ways to contextualize what I was learning for I was immersed in a church context from day one. (This is a unique feature of the distance learning program, an ongoing and organic integration of theory and practice.)
This rhythm continued on and on, year after year, one set of classes always leading to the next. The onslaught of languages gave way to the captivating world of church history which led to the ever-expanding world of systematic and constructive theology and more. And before I knew it I had arrived in the final semester of my final year. When I began my seminary journey in November 2008 I knew that the mythical month of May 2013 would someday emerge. But here it is, five years later, the finish line of my seminary marathon ready to be crossed.
Only graduation is less of a finish line and more of a checkpoint. For it is not the end of my education journey and faith transformation, but rather an extended warm up that will span all the years (and potential post-grad classes) ahead of me. I’m learning to “run” so that I can invite others to lace up their shoes and do the same. There is no “finished” but rather an “accomplished,” meaning all things are ready for the next step forward.
And my graduation is exactly that, the next step forward. I am grateful for my time at Western Theological Seminary. I have encountered ideas and authors and formed relationships with professors and students that will last longer than any degree program. And they are all running alongside me, empowering me to take each step forward as I continue to integrate theory and practice in my life, work, and ministry.
I’m writing a final paper for a seminary class (well, technically I am currently procrastinating writing the paper by writing this blog post) and have to make meaning of words like this:
The complexities and displacements of a theology of the Eucharist, based on a reading of the mediaeval Roman Rite, are not situated within a gesture which seeks to evade either a loss or a positivity. Rather, its recommencements, invocations, permeations, and significations are situated within a construal of language as that which both signifies and provokes a beneficent mystery which is not wholly other from the sign, although it cannot be exhausted by the sign. Instead, the theological sign includes and repeats the mystery it receives and to which it is offered, and as such, it reveals the nature of that divine mystery as gift, relationally, and perpetuity. (Catherine Pickstock, After Writing)
I believe that all things are good, all things are fractured, and all things are being redeemed. I believe that our human actions continue to break and build the world around us, a seemingly perpetual domino and infinite butterfly effect.
The narrative of scripture opens with the repetitive refrain that “it is good.” With this as our starting point we delve into a fractured world, perpetually falling apart and in constant process of redemption. The Spirit of God hovers over the chaotic waters of creation, an image that we continue to see in our world and lives today. The epistle to the first century church reminds us that in Jesus all things hold together. This “all things” even includes the chaos. And the gospel of John provides the much needed nudge in the ribs, telling us that the light of Jesus is the light of all people and all creation, an “all” that even encompasses the chaos.
Because God made it all. And God continues to make it all today. We hope for a day when God will make all things new, knowing that we are called to be both made new and join God in making all things new. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “This world and everything in it is a manifestation of God’s presence. Our goal and challenge is to find it and then act in such a way as to help others find it too.”
But our world is riddled with suffering. We can dream of a utopian “once upon a time” when all was well or hope for a utopian “someday” when all will be well again. But we only ever live between these two points, knowing the world as it is while we strive to create “what could be” or “what should be” out of “what is.” And the “what is” finds itself saturated with suffering.
The origin of this suffering is unknowable. From our limited perspective, it simply is. Rather than tracing it to some temporal “fall,” it is the ongoing consequence of human existence, from famine to farmer’s market, total genocide to Toyota Prius. Rather than a scapegoated human disobedience, it is our ongoing actions, both good and bad, that contribute to the perpetual and infinite butterfly effect that creates the world as we know it.
I don’t believe in a fall. I believe in a falling down and a getting back up and a falling down and a getting back up and a falling down and a getting back up and so on and so forth. God is the cosmic Alfred Pennyworth, reaching a hand to an ever-stumbling creation, lovingly saying, “Why do we fall down? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.” And God is always there, helping us to our feet, present with every fall and rise, every moment of breaking and building, curse and blessing, suffering and celebrating wrought with our lives.
Because our world is stricken with dis-ease. Yet even still, God is present and active and never giving up. The most fractured pieces of this good creation are held and taken up by God. In the cosmos of our creator, everything belongs, even if we cannot readily see its place in this present moment. Every system and power, no matter how fractured or distorted, is being redeemed by God and the people of God.
Who is Jesus?—an ominous question that is in some ways commonplace and in other way completely taboo. We live in a narcissistic world where we proudly proclaim, “Jesus, thou art mine,” perpetuating a buffet of options for Jesus, from latte drinker to mixed martial arts fighter to homeboy to co-pilot and more. Take your pick; Jesus can be whoever or whatever you want him to be. A name uttered as a curse in one breath and a prayer in another, Jesus is as ubiquitous as small talk about the weather and as off limits as discussing politics at a family reunion. Yet through it all, the all too deserving question remains—Who is Jesus?
Every answer is undoubtedly biased and incomplete. Yet the consistency and misrepresentation of the question prompts a response, albeit the perpetual first word and question in an ongoing conversation rather than the final statement or punctuation in a debate. What follows is not exhaustive, but initial.
Jesus is the divine sophia, the eternal logos.
He is the image, ikon, and avatar of the invisible God.
Jesus is the son of man, come with the clouds to display a new and our true humanity.
He is a rabbi and prophet, inviting us to find our present life as a part of the age to come, proclaiming in method and message the reign and realm of God.
He is our savior, our advocate, our ally.
Jesus is a finger pointing at the moon, directing my gaze to God and God’s work in the world.
He is the living Buddha and living Christ.
He is an archetype of suffering, death, and resurrection.
Jesus is a lightning rod on the cross, absorbing all sin, evil, violence, and injustice upon himself and letting it do its worst. The cross is not God’s penalty or punishment or any sort of cosmic child abuse but simply profoundly God’s place-sharing with a broken and fractured world.
Jesus reveals the domination system and its myth of redemptive violence, exposing our mimetic desire and scapegoat mechanisms; he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is fully and truly human; a model and example for our inhumanity, for our life and suffering, for love and justice and forgiveness, for resurrection and New Creation.
Jesus is a pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He is the embodiment of the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God. Jesus was and is, for Israel and the world, that which according the Jewish people and their scripture only God could do and be: the end of exile, the forgiveness of sins, the embodiment of the Temple, the fulfillment of Torah, the year of jubilee.
When Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper he reminds us of Christ’s words, “This is my body.” And when Paul speaks of the people of God he reminds us that “you are the body of Christ.” This sacrament that points us to Christ’s body points us immediately to the people we are communing with. The Word continues to be made flesh, tabernacle-ing among us. God has hands: they’re attached to your wrists.
In this way, Christ is ubiquitous. He continues to be “God with us” in this “us with us.” The divine is manifest in the daily. Borrowing the words of St. Patrick, Christ is with me, before me, behind me. Christ is in me, beneath me, above me, on my right and left. Christ when I lie down, when I sit down, when I arise. Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me, in the mouth of every one who speaks of me, in the eye of every one who sees me, in every ear that hears me.
The only body of Christ I can know today is the body that I see and feel around me, holding me when I am weak, carrying me when I fall, and journeying with me on every road between Jerusalem and Emmaus that I find myself traveling.
This morning I revisited the “spiritual autobiography” I wrote almost a half-decade ago as a part of my application to seminary. While much of it was quite familiar (it is my life, after all), I was surprised to find such continuity with my concluding paragraphs and the way I hold my life, faith, and call today.
Every day is an adventure. Every day is a new opportunity….I seek to find God in all things, all people, and all places, and to help any and everyone to the same. I am journeying forward into every changing day….And I seek to be fully present in every day while always remaining full of excitement and anticipation for every tomorrow.
Every day leads me to new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways to bring them into reality. Every day I seek creativity and a holistic spirituality and formation as I relate to others, God, myself, and this world. Ever day I have hope, knowing that I can live in such a way as to be and bring God’s New Creation into the present, finding God in all things, and helping countless other people do the same.
Every day leads me to an ever-ominous tomorrow, full of mystery and intrigue, but most of all potential, and I gladly welcome each and every one.
The question “Who is God?” is the theological implication of the philosophical question, “Is there a God?” Presupposing that yes, there is in fact a God and that this God chooses to and/or is able to be revealed to humanity and all of creation, one can then postulate who or what kind of God this is. Our postulation, however, is perpetually impeded and limited by the constructive confines and contextual nature of language as our meaning-making capacity.
However God is revealed, God is understood within the limits of human language. All language is implicitly abstract, a culturally agreed upon metaphor endowed with meaning. Therefore to speak of the “who” or “what” of God is always to speak within these allegorical confines. Understanding God as having “personhood” is a concept forever tainted by the water of personhood in which we swim. Yet in recognizing this linguistic limitation, one can state confidently, based on general and special revelation, who God is.
For in every beginning and still today we find God hovering over our formless and void tahom. God is my very breath, sustaining me and all of creation whether or not we know or even acknowledge it. Breathing isn’t really something that I do but something that I witness as it happens. In the same way, God is always present, always close. God is present in and experiences all suffering and celebration. God is my first cry at birth and my final sigh at death.
And sometimes God is even white, straight, and male. Because God is and is not all of the categories, compartments, labels, and boxes we create and impose. God is Creator, Christ, and Spirit, One, often understood as a social or economic Trinity, distinct “persons” of one essence or identity.
Love does not say, “look at me, I am beautiful, I am sublime, I am glorious,” but love is that which points to the other and says, “they are beautiful, they are sublime, they are glorious.” Neither God nor love are an object in and of themselves but rather the light that allows us to see all things as they truly are. And when we look close enough we can find God in all things. For God is the presence and energy that created it all and continues to create and sustain it all today.
God is known as eternally unknowable. God can barely be apprehended but never fully comprehended. God is always beyond understanding yet mysteriously and graciously within reach. God is the ocean on which we float, a lazy river and a perfect storm. God is the ground of being. God is not “a being” but is rather “being” itself. God is simply complex.
God simply is.
Sometimes I like to match my socks and tie to the church season. And while we’re not quite to them yet, this morning’s chapel at Western Theological Seminary was centered on the season of Ascension and Pentecost. And so naturally, I wore red.
I was designing and leading this morning’s chapel with two classmates, Brad and Deb. We were the last student led chapel of our two-week intensive and so as I never do, I didn’t want to settle for just “another chapel.” I wanted to offer something theologically robust, creative, and experiential.
Our draft for chapel was due a few weeks ago (as a part of one of our classes). We had a plan. And it was a good one, with an intentional intermingling between an Ascension Psalm and an Ascension hymn, a proclamation centered around God breathing life into “these dry bones,” and some mindful breathing. But then in the middle of a class discussion I had a glimmer of an idea, called Brad and Deb aside, and pitched it to them. And they loved it. And so did the class (to whom all three of us are immensely grateful as they significantly helped provide specific shape and form to our concept).
We scrapped what we had planned and opted instead for a more “Pentecost” type experience. It would either be the best thing ever or go up in tongues of fire.
After a simple responsive reading and a mindful reading (with space to ponder) a psalm, we transitioned to the “praise” section of the chapel. Only instead of having a song or hymn or reading prepared we trusted the song or hymn or reading of praise that the Spirit was already brewing within us. With a simple progression building on the piano, I invited everyone to stand and put a spirit-filled hum or alleluia or the word or phrase they pondered to melody, our many voices joining as a Pentecost experience of praise.
I’m not sure what everyone else was singing – I could hear snippets of words and phrases from around the room as well as Tim Brown standing next to me – but my “praise” was simple: Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers ’till I reach you.
But this beautiful and spirit filled experience was not the end of our gathering. Brad stood up and read a selection from Acts 2, the breath of God filling the people of God, humanity as the medium for the divine, the word of God spoken and once again made flesh. Similar to our self-authored hymn of praise, Brad asked who among us had a word of God, an insight, an idea, a thought, a question.
After a moment of silence the room began to erupt. It was as if the wind of pentecost filled the chapel, giving breath to our lungs and tongues of fire on our lips. The Psalm was revisited and given spirit-filled commentary. Words of hope and encouragement were spoken. And God was in this place.
As the room settled to a contented quiet, Brad stood and said, “This is the Word of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.
[The myth of redemptive violence] does not seek God in order to change; it embraces God in order to prevent change. Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations but a tribal god worshiped as an idol. Its metapor is not the journey but the fortress. Its symbol is not the cross but the crosshairs of a gun. Its offer is not forgiveness but victory. Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies but their final elimination. Its salvation is not a new heart but a successful foreign policy. It usurps the revelation of God's purposes for humanity in Jesus. It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous.
And it is immensely popular.
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