A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.

 

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A Failure of Imagination

On the same day when my article appeared on New Sacred about how a progressive faith isn’t defined by issues, Susan Jacoby was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air.

It was in fact just yesterday. Just yesterday, on my way home from the gym, I caught the end of Terry Gross’s interview with Jacoby. She’s the author of the new book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion which I’d only heard of because I read an article she’d recently written for the New York Times but it wasn’t the article or even her book publicity that grabbed my attention. It was when she said this on the radio:

I can’t imagine falling in love with a devoutly religious person. Now, that I will fully acknowledge, many could call that a failure of imagination on my part. But, it is important to me. To me, it would be like falling in love with someone who thinks a woman’s place is in the home. <She laughs.> And I know that women have fallen in love with men like that but it’s something fundamental to me. Human rights. That people are equal under law simply because they are human beings.

Jacoby had been asked if she could ever possibly fall in love with someone who just so happened to be a person of faith. This was her response. She couldn’t imagine it.

It’s something that Jacoby had repeated earlier in the conversation. She could never imagine raising children or sharing a life together with someone who didn’t agree with her on the issues. It seems that human rights is at the heart of those issues that concern Jacoby most and that obviously a person of faith wouldn’t share this perspective.

I have feared the same thing. I have wondered if it could or would ever be possible to share a life with a man who didn’t share my progressive Christian faith, but then I fell in love.

I fell in love with an atheist.

I’m a progressive Christian and I fell in love with an atheist.

It was a failure of my own imagination, to borrow Jacoby’s words, to believe that we had to agree on every single issue. We agree on human rights. We agree that my place isn’t in the kitchen but we don’t agree on everything. I would love to meet the couple that does. I don’t believe it’s possible. And it is makes it more interesting.

How boring to love someone who agrees with everything you believe to be important! Where’s the challenge? Where’s the learning? Where’s the opportunity to grow and change within that loving relationship?

No thank you.

I would prefer the struggle. I’ll complain about it. I’ll bemoan that it’s hard especially when it comes to raising children together but love is more powerful than when or how that child gets baptized. It’s bigger than how we choose to tell our children that Mommy and Daddy believe different things, but you’re still going to church. (That was a deal breaker for me.) He doesn’t have to agree. He certainly doesn’t have to convert but he does have to be supportive of me and what’s important to me just as much as I have to listen to what’s important to him.

We both need to support each other. That’s what’s important, not the tenets of faith. Not the issues which we bring to the ballot box. It is the support that we give each other that changes things. It changes everything. That’s what I could never really imagine. I never really believed it was possible.

I was too strong willed, too hotheaded, too opinionated. I wasn’t going to balk and I sure as hell wasn’t going to change, but I met my match.

It was my own failure of imagination to assume that wasn’t possible.

 

More Questions Than Answers

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It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.

A DIY Faith

It was only a month ago that I dared to imagine what might be possible with the good folks gathered from #NCLI15. Together, we dared to imagine to get past the headlines preaching decline and destruction of the church and we did so by entertaining these popular trendlines from crowdsourcing to the sharing economy to the local movement to DIY.

Each trendline was its own breakout group where we got to talk about what this thing is and how it functions. Then, we tried to grasp what it might mean for the church. Is there good news in these trendlines that counter the narrative of decline? It was assumed by the organizers that the answer is obviously yes. These trendlines tell another story. That’s what we were supposed to feel in each breakout group.

I remained unconvinced.

I remain unconvinced. As much as I wanted to believe that there is another story, it felt like a gimmick. It felt so forced that each breakout session seemed to conclude with some aphorism of faith that we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Maybe we need to hear those things again. Maybe they are still true.

Maybe that’s the whole point but it’s hard to sit with that old, old story when there are big promises of something new and exciting.

It introduces a different kind of despair because the other thing the headlines continue to tell us is that those people out there don’t want that old, old story. They’ve heard it before. They are not interested.

I wonder if that’s the destructive story that we’ve claimed as gospel. People don’t want religion. We’ve come to believe this so much that we’re contorting ourselves to be new and exciting when what we really want — what we really need — is the old, old story. Because there is no news like good news.

While religious leaders and organizations have slumped into despair because no one wants our old, old story, the good news continues. It’s still out there. It’s still happening.

It’s just more of a DIY kind of faith. It’s what the non-profit Kevah is doing to bring people together in studying the Torah. Reading the Torah isn’t new and exciting. It’s something that is expected of any Jew or any Christian or any Muslim. As people of the book, we’re actually supposed to read those sacred words. We’re supposed to meditate on them and try to figure out what in the world they mean. Kevah is inviting people to study that old, old story in groups of their own creation. Be it geographic or demographic or particular topic of interest. They form their own groups — and then Kevah offers them a trained teacher. There’s a fee that comes with that finder’s fee. But, once that match is made, the group gets to create its own adventure in Torah study.

open-343297_1280It’s not a gimmick. It’s not forced. It’s responding to a genuine need that what people really want is relationship. We want something genuine and real. We want people that we can trust surrounding us in a sacred circle so that we can ask the hardest questions and know that we won’t be shunned or mocked.

There is no reason to despair because this DIY approach is creating something that religious institutions and religious leaders have completely failed in doing. It’s not something I really understand but it’s something I hear about from people that stumble into the bible studies I’ve led. They haven’t felt loved. They haven’t felt supported. That’s what they are looking for as much as that sacred study. So, when they come to bible study, they are very quiet. They think they have to be an expert in Greek or Hebrew more than their own lives. So, they don’t speak.

It makes me sad every single time. Because, for whatever reason, we have focused so much on the text that we have forgotten to listen to each other’s hearts. We aren’t focused on the people before us but on the words on the page. Those words matter but they matter so much more when they are connected to the person holding the text beside me. Sometimes that means we go off topic. Sometimes it means that there are more questions than answers. Of this I am convinced, as much as the trendline wants us to believe we can do it on our own, the truth is: we can’t.

A DIY faith is one where we realize that we are each called to be disciples and apostles and teachers. There are some that are set apart to shepherd us. I am one of those ordained people that gets to do that cheerleading but I know that I can’t do it on my own. I can’t change the headlines all by myself. I need others that will help me. This is something that I’ve tried to instill in the churches I’ve served. The pastor doesn’t need to be at everything. She doesn’t need to teach every class. She doesn’t need to lead every prayer. She doesn’t need to have any idea for every new program because the better ideas are out there in the congregation. I created my own DIY approach in this step-by-step guide about how to start a small group ministry which you’ll find in my Ideas and Resources page. Download it. Use it. Because I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone. We must do it together.

That’s the old, old story that never gets tired. It’s the gospel we need to remember when the headlines tell another story. We need each other. We need every disciple, every apostle, every teacher and every person with a crazy idea that will help us re-member that good news within ourselves.

In the Middle of the Story

The question always comes up in Bible Study when we find ourselves talking about Jesus. Somewhere in the middle of the Gospel, no matter which Gospel we’re reading, we find ourselves studying a particular passage after he’s born and before the real trial has begun. There’s just been a healing or some other sign. And someone will imagine how Jesus feels at that very moment.

I ask them to stay within the story. I ask them not to jump ahead. Or read outside of the selected verses because it’s so very hard to stay in that moment. We know the whole story. We know how the story will end. We know what will happen to Jesus. We know what we’ve been taught about him so that it’s so very hard to stay in the moment. It’s hard not to hear the hymns we’ve sung for years and the creeds we thought we’d long forgotten reverberate against the words in that particular passage. Because it’s all there. No matter how hard we try to push it away and just be in that moment in Christ’s life. It’s all there.

But, that’s not how it is in our lives. We are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it’s going to end up. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. There are things that we desperately wish would happen. There are things that we are trying with every ounce of our being to make happen. We’ll fight like hell for those things, but in the middle of the story, what we notice most is the resistance. Not God’s wonderful works. Not what God has done. Or even what God might do.

We notice what we can’t make happen. And yet, the psalm invites us to sing.

Sing of God’s praises. Sing of God’s wonderful works. And remember.

Remember the wonderful works God has done,
    the miracles, and the judgments God has uttered,
O offspring of God’s servant Abraham,
    children of Jacob, the chosen ones.
Psalm 105:5-6, NRSV

Remember how it was for Abraham and maybe — just maybe — you’ll see that same wonder working in your own life. Seek God’s presence and strength. Because you and I are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it will end. We don’t know what will happen next. We know what we want but perhaps instead of seeking that next thing, it’d be worth spending some of that energy on seeking God’s presence and strength. Because we’re in the middle of the story and we don’t know what will happen next. But, no matter what, we will need that presence and a whole lot of strength.