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Arise, My Love

In the end, we are raised in love, just as in the beginning we are made from love.

And love is strong, stronger than most of us can imagine. As the ancient poet once wrote:

for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).

Today, apparently, we need even more to remember that love is stronger than hate. From one end to the other, the world seems awash in fear and terror as so many thrash about with a violence fueled by a relentless suspicion if not a deep loathing.

I cannot imagine how to solve any of this, yet on this Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection, I try to remember this: love is strong, stronger than fear and terror, stronger than violence and hatred.

I try to remember that, and then I wonder how the world might change if Christian churches everywhere preached and lived love, and only that.

Imagine Christian congregations organizing all of their worship, business practices, and pastoral care to ensure that you and everyone else feels unmistakably wanted, desired, and loved — that you know yourself as desirable and lovable, without any question or doubt.

Imagine returning week-by-week to a place where you catch an invaluable glimpse of what it looks like to live without any shame, being free of guilt, and having no fear – a glimpse of love’s amazing strength.

Imagine a lifetime of catching that glimpse and hearing that declaration of love and how it would shape and form you. Imagine coming to the end of your mortal existence when you are laid lovingly in Earth by the community who cherished you. Imagine at that moment realizing with considerable astonishment that the arc of your life has only just begun, a moment when you hear once again the voice of the One who made you:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. . .
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (Song of Solomon, 2:13b, 14b).

That is the voice of Easter.

Listen for it; let it remake you; and then ensure that everyone else hears it, too, no exceptions.

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Christ harrowing hell, dragging Adam and Eve from their graves.

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The Slow-Motion Shipwreck of Theological Education

shipwreckBoth the Apostle Paul and Jonah have been appearing recently in the daily office lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Both stories feature shipwrecks: the one Jonah averted by having himself tossed overboard (Jonah 1:11-12) and the one that destroyed the ship Paul was on but with no lives lost (Acts 27:21-26).

Both stories suggest a way of thinking about what’s happening in graduate-level theological education today. Both stories offer assurances of God’s presence in the midst of disaster. Both stories make me wonder: Does the ship really matter?

For some years now (decades?) we’ve been witnessing what amounts to a slow-motion shipwreck of seminary education. The current turmoil at the General Theological Seminary is only the latest example (read more about that here), as is the similar but less public uncertainty at Episcopal Divinity School, not to mention the closing of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary as a residential school for the Master of Divinity degree in 2008.

Those examples come from my own denominational home, but similar moments are unfolding nearly everywhere in higher education. If you work for a divinity school attached to a university – especially if it’s Harvard or Yale – you may have no direct experience of all this, but everyone else in the theological world does.

Each school, of course, must deal with its own particularities (and they can be quite complex, if not confounding and infuriating, as the Crusty Old Dean reminds us). Yet I am convinced that the current upheaval of seminary education mirrors a broader tectonic shift in institutional Christianity itself, at least in Europe and the U.S. Others have noticed this long before I did, including all those involved in “emergent Christianity.” But here’s the obvious question that no one (yet) can answer very well: what exactly is emerging from all this?

To suppose that something is emerging at all sounds rather hopeful. But let’s be clear: the whole thing is a shipwreck of epic (biblical?) proportions. And still, I am profoundly hopeful.

I have no fix-it plan for the future of theological education on which to base my hope. But I do take solace in remembering that ours is not the first generation to face moments of uncertainty and crisis. That rich history reminds me that every ship eventually wears out, or simply splinters in the throes of storm-tossed seas. Perhaps that’s the point: the ship matters far less than where we’re going, even when we can’t see over the horizon.

Getting to that unfamiliar shore will mean swimming for our lives away from the shipwreck, and prior even to that, recognizing that the ship is a wreck. If we do that, as Paul insisted, everyone gets out alive and actually thrives. Or, as Jonah ruefully realized, repentance matters.

In no particular order, here are three of my current observations about the sinking ship and the new shore that beckons:

  1. Good Mental Health Resists Binaries and Extremes

My therapist urges me regularly to avoid binary extremes. That seems like sound advice for Christian churches and seminaries. Most Christian churches, for example, live and operate today as if the twentieth century never happened. Seminaries have followed along that same path, forming church leaders using a model developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. That model was helpful then, not so helpful now. Or as my therapist also likes to say, that was a good coping mechanism when you were growing up, but it’s not useful as an adult. The ship carried Paul to Malta – where it was time to abandon it.

I’m actually very grateful for the deep formation I received in the Anglo-Catholic tradition from my Episcopal seminary back in the 1980s. It was spiritually nourishing, theologically inspiring, and intellectually stimulating community. Indeed, I was so deeply formed in that seminary community that I really didn’t want to leave – perhaps Jonah felt the same way in the belly of a fish. Trying to replicate that seminary pattern of life as a priest in a suburban Chicago parish was perhaps not disastrous but certainly less than helpful.

What then do we do with the rich legacy of our traditions in a world our ancestors never could have imagined? That question need not and should not rely on binary choices. “Formation” is not necessarily bad; the “tradition” is not irrelevant; leading and sustaining communities of counter-cultural Gospel witness is imperative. Yes, and still, we can’t keep repeating how Christians were formed in the tradition a century ago just because we don’t want to reinvent the whole thing from scratch. Mental and spiritual health will resist extremes, even when the middle way (remember that?) seems unclear or muddled.

  1. Karl Barth Won

Some years ago a colleague from another seminary made some arresting observations about contemporary theological education that have stuck with me, not least this: Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy won the day in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidence of this victory infuses nearly every seminary curriculum for the Master of Divinity degree, regardless of where the school falls on the conservative/liberal spectrum. Those curricula begin with Bible, then move into Church History, and then tie them together with Systematic Theology – those are the three sources, in that order, that Barth insisted constituted the only sources for revelation.

I can hear the howls of protest now, mostly from my liberal and “progressive” seminary colleagues. To which I would gently ask, why then do so many seminaries persist in that pattern? What if we began the M.Div. degree instead by taking field trips to art museums, city council meetings, and economic development organizations as if these were also sources of revelation? (I mean, aren’t they?) Following each excursion, students and faculty could engage in shared theological reflection, regardless of how biblically, historically, or systematically sound the reflection is. The academic disciplines come later, as tools for honing and refining our reflection.

Useful? Naïve? Not academic enough? I don’t know, but does Barth continue to win?

I actually appreciate many of Barth’s insights but continue to worry about the patriarchal and paternalistic (if not actually infantilizing) patterns of formation that so often attend that Barthian approach to theology. (Here’s just one exhortation to remember that seminarians are actually adults.) Seminary “formation” matters as we often get in our churches what our seminaries model in their pedagogical styles (and believe me, that can and does keep me up at night).

We might try reshaping seminary education for collaboration and mutual goal-setting.  We could do this by resetting learning outcomes every year based on the particularities of each incoming class rather than the standards set by an academy (let alone accreditation agencies) that may have little if anything to do with what Christian congregations need today. That would be scary but maybe also liberating. To be both we need constantly to ask whom we (denominations and seminaries) are trying to please and appease, and why, in the standards we set.

More pointedly: Do seminaries serve accrediting agencies or academic journals or the Church?  I no longer believe we can just assume to answer “all three” without caveat or qualification.

  1. The Gospel (Still) Matters

Whatever “Gospel” means remains contested, and rightly so. The stakes are high. At the same time, I am struck by how many seminarians struggle to integrate their faith (including the “mystical experiences” that many of them are too chagrined even to mention) with their academic work.

I know, I know: we theological academics insist that scholarly work is part and parcel of “spiritual” experience. And yes, “deconstruction” is a necessary prerequisite for a “constructive” approach to a mature faith. Yes…and, students still struggle. And then they graduate, get ordained, and lead congregations filled with people just as hungry as they are to figure out whether and how the Gospel still matters in a broken world.

In particular, I worry that too many Euro-American Christians focus on the shipwreck and never ponder the island. More traditionally, the central proclamation of the Christian Testament has virtually disappeared from center stage: resurrection from death. In part, this kind of reticence about the Gospel reflects a fatal flaw in the model of theological education derived from the 19th century, when “resurrection” got lumped in with all the other “mythological” stuff that belongs to a pre-enlightened age.

This fatal flaw appears in liberal circles whenever we insist that human beings always have the ability to build something new out of the wreckage of disaster. We don’t have to trot out Pelagius (yet again) to worry about that kind of “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps” theology. For conservatives, the fatal flaw appears whenever Christian communities fixate on a better life beyond the grave to the exclusion of all else. That seems like a sure and certain recipe for denigrating this planetary arena of God’s creative work. Climate change, anyone?

Neither of these approaches seems convincing enough to abandon the shipwreck and swim for an unknown shore. Both of those views tend to evacuate God from the messy, joyous, invigorating, exasperating, triumphant moments of daily life. That’s precisely where most people going to church today want to find God. Do they?

I do believe something is “emerging” from the detritus of modern Western Christianity. Perhaps we could still call it “Gospel” if it features Jesus rising from the dead – the central proclamation of the earliest Christians. What in the world could this mean?

It could mean a new world rising from the malaise of a dead economy, one tailored for the wealthy at the expense of the poor; it could mean rising from a dying planet in a new vision of ecological relation; it could mean rising from the constant death knell of racial injustice and violence into a world where diversity is embraced as a gift; and yes, I do believe it means rising from the death of our mortal bodies into the incomprehensible, eternal life of God. (Naturally, I have more to say about that, which you can find in chapter 7 of Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness.)shipwreck2

To see all of those moments woven into a single garment of effective theological education will mean attending carefully to both Paul and Jonah. As Paul’s ship fell apart, those who were able swam to shore; those who couldn’t swim grabbed pieces of the crumbling ship on which to float ashore (Acts 27:43-44). We need the pioneers who just jump in and swim. We also need those who see valuable pieces in the flotsam to save and preserve.

Jonah, of course, resisted nearly every moment of God’s gracious renewals. He was even resentful of God’s grace to the penitent! But he nonetheless stands for a remarkable act of courage. Throw me overboard, he tells the floundering ship’s crew, and you will be saved. They did, and they were.

The curmudgeons among us (and I can certainly fit that bill at times) still have something to offer to this moment, even if it’s only the courage to let God have God’s way, as Jonah (resentfully) did. That, too, counts as profound witness.

Courage will, of course, mean change. It will mean changing how I teach. It will mean changing how student success is evaluated. It will mean changing seminary curricula. It will mean changing the governance structure of our schools and our congregations/denominations. It will mean changing how Christians live in the world. It means all this and more because the Gospel changes everything. It always has and always should, if it’s Gospel.

I’m not prepared for those changes. No one is. And that’s the point. As Rowan Williams once observed some years ago, “The Gospel cannot be both palatable and transformative at the same time.” Paul had the same insight when he was knocked off his feet on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-5), as did Jonah, when he had himself cast into a turbulent sea.

If the Gospel is (re)emerging from today’s tumult, it will not be comfortable. But it will be life-giving.

beach_breakfastMay we be gentle with each other as we swim to shore or, as the case may be, as we are vomited up on a beach. Who knows? Perhaps someone waits for us there, cooking breakfast (John 21:4-14).

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The Morning After

Christ is risen – but the clergy are dead tired.

That’s one version of an old joke about the grueling schedule of Holy Week services leading up to Easter morning. Not just clergy, of course, but choir members, flower arrangers, brass polishers, administrative assistants – just about everyone dealing with Easter preparations can feel a holy hangover coming on the morning after.

In the wake of all the liturgical fuss – and I do love the fuss – I start to reflect on what everyone was thinking. Kind of like hoping everyone liked the New Year’s Eve party while you throw out the empty champagne bottles. How many different views of resurrection, we might wonder, resided in our various congregations this Easter Sunday? Did they believe “it” – I mean, really?

I, for one, can believe nearly anything in a beautifully decorated church with an angelic choir providing a divine soundtrack to an inspiring sermon. But what do I really believe in the still, quiet aftermath?

Resurrection is difficult, much more so, it seems to me, than incarnation. Proclaiming “God with us” at Christmas feels good, especially with a cuddly baby as a prop. A battered, tortured body that won’t stay put in the grave where we put it feels, well, unsettling.

Other than the inevitability of taxes, Easter breaks the one rule everyone is taught to accept as inviolable: the finality of death. Few find that rule pleasant, but at least it maps out the playing field with tidy boundaries. Human life stretches from cradle to grave; that’s it. For the fortunate among us, the span between those two borderlines is long and full. But blur those boundaries, even just a little bit, and the queerness of Christian faith starts to shimmer.

For me, the queerly good news of Easter is just this: it dissolves certainty.

If we really can’t count on death like we used to, then the playing field expands toward a new horizon over which none of us can presently see. For me, that’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time.

Among the queerest of the queer biblical stories are the ones about Easter. Consider the account in Luke 24. There we read about two grieving disciples who encounter a stranger as they travel to a village called Emmaus. After inviting the stranger to share a meal with them, they finally recognize him as none other than the risen Jesus; and in that very moment, he vanishes.

Road to Emmaus #2, Bonnell

No reunion hug. No war-story swapping. No debriefing of all those betrayal moments. No orchestral swell of music for the Hollywood ending. Jesus instead slips through their fingers. There’s no “there” there. Nothing to hold on to.

And that, it seems to me, is queerly good news.

If we know something with absolute certainty, we can be tempted to take it for granted; ask no more questions; set it aside; move on to something else. We might believe that we can control and manipulate it; use it; own it.

The risen Jesus will have none of that – no shrines, no monuments, no treatises, no creeds, no liturgies, no institutional gate-keeping. The risen Jesus instead starts sprinting away from us over that inscrutable horizon, egging us on to follow, giving us no compass points to do so.

I’m a full-throated Easter Christian – I believe death was not the final word for Jesus. And because I believe that, I believe that death is not the final word for any of us. But I have no idea what that means or what it looks like. That faith (which is not certainty) expands my playing field well beyond a game and into something like an adventure, where the next chapter is always waiting to be written – always.

That’s not a hangover you’re feeling; that’s the tug of morning-after energy. It’s urging you to step into life. New life.