On the Marginalized and the Oppressed

 We hear the term all the time as a sort of political trope, but can we recover something else, something more substantive from it?

For me, the political/social stance starts with practice: the public is built on the acts and practices in our own life. We can’t stand on the side of the marginalized and oppressed if we don’t also understand that wrt God we are most certainly marginalized, oppressed, rebels with no hope until God acted in our lives; we who were strangers have become friends of God. Pietist that I sometimes can be, becoming a friend of God is not forensic, or the broccoli before we get to the good stuff, rather it is the start. 

But I have also been thinking about the different ways that standing on the side of the marginalized and oppressed actually looks like:

• Giving the job to the ex-con for the third time

• Standing there in court, alongside, knowing that without your help they are in deep trouble…

• Guiding your construction company to create job training programs for kids in the city

• Visiting the irascible widow, the one whose son did not tell her that she had cancer….

Standing alongside is an act of solidarity and mercy.

Epiphany light

Image result for light winter

Kate Kooyman at The Twelve ponders the darkness that also accompanies us:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” Scripture promises. And we are in Epiphany, the season of light. For those of us who find ourselves plunged into darkness, let’s take heart: our God is not afraid of the dark. In fact, we serve a God who dwells with us, who stands by us, who even is revealed to us when the light is nowhere to be found.

The darkness is not safe, to be sure. But the thick darkness, too, is where God is.

There’s a lot of truth to that, that God is not afraid of the dark, and certainly is not absent in our own darkness. Yet all this comes across as too subjective. Epiphany’s light is more objective, a way out of darkness for that community of people seeking God. It is the practice and persistence of proclamation that puts the net below us when we find ourselves in our (subjective) darkness and turmoil.

A light to the path, the dull warmth in winter, the promise of spring, the testimony against despair.

Kate Kooyman, “God in the Dark.” Reformed Journal: The Twelve. 17 January 2019.

Finding Trump, Missing Jesus

Sometimes the pain of politics gets us, robs us. One plaintive cry from Facebook

I have been questioning Christianity since Trump took office. A lot of church members supported him (to my complete surprise) and I just couldn’t understand. I stopped going to church and I am now starting to question my faith, which makes me sad. I wonder “am I believing in something for good reasons or am I just following”. At first it just gave me pause for church but now has me questioning my faith. Does anyone have any advice?

Yes the faith map is so discouraging sometimes, especially if you are accustomed to gathering with conservative Christians of the Evangelical variety. So to break on politics means that you also give up a community that has in some sense nurtured you or given you a sense of place. Part of the underlying fear is that if you go to one of those “other” churches you will find an expressed faith that is not as vibrant, the thing that holds you currently with the church.

Spiritual communities give some needed resources in this time. First, there is simply the solace of friendship arising from a common task (not to dis the political, but in politics we tend to think instrumentally, that we are only as good as we give. the best spiritual gatherings have a sort of baked-in acceptance, as you are, where you are.) A second reason to consider a spiritual community is because the critique of this Trumpian time has such spiritual qualities, the turning away from others for the exaltation of self, say. The unwillingness to work for the common good. The shrinkage — the absence! — of compassion. Churches and other spiritual communities have some pretty deep wells that can help here.
And I do hear how alone you are in this. There are others of us out there, and we very much want you to know how embraced you are. Peace.

God the Stranger?

John Suk bravely explores what a  post-theistic stance looks like.

the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
 God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in.
 So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

Suk is obviously moving into some deeply personal waters, a way of knowing but not knowing as it were. As with all pilgrims, the language must be his; it is not language that one disputes.

But this business about “God as stranger” did catch my ear as another pilgrim. Leaving behind the ordinary narratives of the status quo is unsettling to say the least, not least because one must surrender in order to find. In the midst of this seeking, perhaps some caution on the meme of God as stranger is in order.

First, there is the nature of that very word, “stranger.” Already at the outset we are in world of us and Him, Our Angel of the Jabbok so to speak. Sneaking into that concept is the hint of self, that I still get to define God, even if God is a stranger, or an empty place at my table. I’m still (subtly) in charge.

Of course, to say God is a stranger is also to say that God is a stranger in the world I experience, that the world can’t speak.

Is that really the case?

Abraham Heschel in Man is Not Alone starts with this world, and more specifically our sense of wonder. The world contains a surplus of meaning; things inevitably point to something other. And off in the corner of our eye, are these experiences of the indescribable, the ineffable. Wonder. This certainly is a  sunnier way of encountering the Unknown.

Another challenge to the stranger is  the idea of forgiveness/hope. How do we start over again, what we do “the day after”? As with the wonder that rises from the surplus of meaning in the world, is there a surplus of possibility for my life? For our life together? Can we do something different? The possibility of transformation is every bit as strange as that of the unknown God.

What I suspect Suk is reaching to is not an epistemological stance, nor an ethical one, but something more intimate. To speak of God as stranger is to whisper another, softer prayer, not that we may find, but that we may be found, and that being found  we may find ourselves beloved.

Physics and the laws of the heart

On Christmas Day, the New York Times published a column about Jeffrey Wright, a physics teacher in Kentucky. It’s not his teaching skill that merited the article, but his living with a special needs son, and a lecture he delivers each year to his students.

“There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”

Insourcing and the Spirit

David Gruesel brings an interesting comparison between the return of insourcing and our spiritual life.

What Foster and Willard (and others) have helped us to realize is that our bodies can cooperate in our spiritual development, or be a hindrance to it. Renewed interest in spiritual disciplines like fasting, daily prayer and service has helped reconnect our bodies to our beliefs in the same way that insourcing has helped GE reconnect manufacturing know how with its design and marketing expertise.

While I have little to say about embodiment, particularly in the time of Advent, nonetheless, I think we may be missing  the point of the return of manufacturing. What is returning is the knowledge gained by practice. It’s not only that one can make the product faster but that the firm also adds an internal capacity of understanding the nature of the problems. I would suggest that the Christian analog to this is the work of mission.

The congregation (and individuals) often out-source their mission and discipleship. some one else does, not me, as it were. The way to grow in Christian life is to engage in the work of discipleship and mission. And that means more than my devotion to spiritual disciplines and my private growth. I learn by doing, by engaging this world, by the practice of listening and doing.

It’s not a program, it’s a process. It’s social; it’s congregational. Like a Body.

How do we bear witness?

Eric Verhulst is bothered by the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) of the Christian Reformed Church. And it’s not just that he takes solid, conservative opinions (which he does). Something else is at work with such an office. As he explains it,

These policy matters are quite complex and interconnected – welfare, immigration, environment, the national debt, defense, and so on. There is room for a wide range of opinion that falls within the bounds of Christianity and Reformed thought when it comes to specific policies to be advocated or enacted. In claiming to speak for the denomination, OSJ effectively cuts off that debate before it even gets started, declaring this policy Christian Reformed and that one not.

Even though I speak from the other side of a partisan divide, I broadly agree with this understanding of the complex, interconnected character of the sort of problems we face.  That said, it is difficult to see how the church (denominationally or congregationally) can easily escape wrestling with them. It’s part of being embodied, of taking up social space.

Likewise, as Verhulst also notes,  there may be a number of approaches that will fall within the boundaries of a faithful walk.

But does this preclude taking a particular stance?

The function of the OSJ is one common to all church groups. There will be some committee thinking about how to speak about and to the complex inter-connected  issues in which the church must live out her life.

It seems inevitable that we have to speak. Or more precisely, you and I will have to make decisions for ourselves, in the voting booth etc about issues like that of immigration. How will we decide? How do we integrate that back into Christian life? And where do I get that information?

The very fact that we may come to a particular issue with an existing framework, part of our particular culture, further complicates the matter. On some highly charged items, information outside of our received frame can be very hard to hear (e.g. I have this all the time with the WSJ). Additionally, we bring our own background to the table; a person from Hamilton ON may have a significantly different view of the issue from that of the person in Hamilton MI.

Finally, I have long thought that the real need in the church has been he formulation of biblical and theological frameworks for understanding the issues, rather than particular policy statements. Left and right, there is a noticeable tendency to think simplistically, to cover the issue with some easy Bible verses as if that gave the solution. Perhaps a better way would be to think of social witness as a sort of spiritual discipline — such an approach would modify the policy-advocacy framework we all can so easily fall into.

Discipleship is a matter of embodying truth in our lives, by word and action. It is framed and shaped by or participation in the life of the Church itself, so in that sense our actions are never autonomous, or for that matter, self-evident. The mystery of Grace here, as elsewhere, is that such embodying does in fact convey a whiff of the Grace that is possible. Framed by the life of the Church, such political commitments then can also be free from the univocal nature of the political, where one has to be all in for one side or another, where one is constantly being tempted  –invited– to be consumed by passion.

Proof Texts and Faith

For a number of educated folk in the Christian Reformed Church, the resignation of John Suk from ministry hit hard. Was he right? wrong? His intellectual objection to the standards of the CRC were certainly part of it. In Losing our Religion,  Bryan Berghoef explores the problem and especially the difficulty of 16th century texts. What sort of authority can these have for the church today? He frames it in particular in the context of hermeneutics and the differences in exegesis between then and now, between a proof-text model and that of the present-day narrative theology. Two paragraphs present something of the problem:

For example, nearly every single point of doctrine in the Canons are made by quoting a single verse from varied and disparate sources like Ezekiel, Moses, Paul, and all too infrequently, Jesus. This ‘systematic’ approach to theology has been disregarded by the leading and best theologians today who prefer a narrative approach to theology in which the themes and storylines of whole texts are used, rather than the ‘hunt and peck’ method of proof-texting that can be (and has been!) used to justify just about anything.
So many of the doctrines we are demanding adherence to were ‘constructed’ out of verses taken out of texts that were not actually concerned with that particular point at all, when read in light of the whole.

The trade-off between narrative and proof-text theologies presents an implicit argument that should be brought out, why the new narrative theology is qualitatively better than older forms. This position is not so much argued as assumed. In a pragmatic sense it may very well better accommodate the patterns of our thinking, but that said, I’m not sure that is a sufficient base from which to criticize the Reformation texts.

(In a post-modern sense, I am not wedded to either view. The point is that the contemporary cannot be privileged without also establishing its superiority according to some criteria. Does there exist a final hermeneutic? I rather doubt it.)

Underneath, I hear an argument of sorts being advanced, that the latter produces better spiritual fruit, that it is perhaps generates a better spiritual connection. I want to respect that, although I find that discipleship — the process of conviction-action-reflection/worship seems a better path to spiritual fruit than hermeneutics (this is likely a left-over from my childhood Methodism).

So we come then to the matter of “proof-texts.” This strikes me as being particularly cultural, speaking more to present cultural dis-stances than of a process. The Forms of Confession are theological documents, not the result of biblical exegesis. Rhetorically, I would suppose that behind most of the points we could find pre-existing commonplaces of texts; this is not the invention of proof-texting. Rather I see two things going on: first an adornment: what we say theologically is adorned biblically, the citations not only providing a formal connection but in themselves asserting a Reformed conviction about life in the Word. We put on the texts not merely as manipulation (though some do this), but as a way of confessing, even promising that we ground our life in God’s Word.

Secondly, in a more political mode, the use of proof-text, of drenching our thoughts in Scripture is a way of asserting something close to the priesthood of all believers; it is a protest, a counter to priestcraft with its reservation of truth for the “educated” or the elite. In the Reformation period, such a use of Scripture was deployed against the elaborate typological or allegorical readings of the medieval and patristic period, this being part of the rising tide of a more reason/fact oriented western intellectual tradition. At the congregational level in Reformed circles, the proof text then is a way of socially keeping the domine honest. It’s a dialogic approach.

Finally, there is the matter of our stance. Proof-texting, the drenching of life with the Word — this is what “those other folk” do, the ones at the third-tier Baptist schools. We reserve the Bible for the big stuff, but not the daily parts of our lives; proof-texting (and our discomfort with it) is a class boundary. And yet. I don’t know how I can be aflame with God (to borrow from the Desert Fathers) without it.

Or as the song goes, humming to myself on my tasks:
Sweeter are thy words to me
Than all other goods can be;
Safe I walk, thy truth my light,
hating falsehood, loving right.

Talking Faith

In No More “Enemy Turf,” Ed Kilgore lays out the rationale for engaging on cultural issues away from

Yes, certain demographic categories may be “lost” to conservatives if you insist on a winner-takes-all definition, and no, aggressively pursuing support among such voters isn’t worth it if it involves abandoning key principles or essentially adopting the opposition’s point of view. But reducing the margin of defeat on “hostile ground” is often achievable simply by paying attention and not wilfully repelling voters, and in the end a vote is a vote whether it comes from a segment of the electorate that progressives are “winning” or “losing.”

Kilgore notes in particular, the contribution of Amy Sullivan and her recent post in the Washington Post. At least some progressives are not only finding their voice but making important electoral inroads into these once off-limit constituencies.

Of note, he may also underestimate his own contributions, at least for me.

In those ugly days post-2004, Kilgore’s matter-of-fact faith at his old blog, Donkey Rising, along with that of Sullivan and a few others including an up-and-coming state senator from Illinois helped nurture the link between faith and progressive politics. Both articulate a language of hope that is larger than individualism, or the temporary appeals of self-interest.

Whether we talk about Ayn Rand, Romney’s always-switching policy nihilism, austerity economics, or shrinking back from our schools and universities, the conservative turn to the local, private, individual is a turning away from hope. it speaks of a failure of imagination and a settling for second best. Faith and progressive politics alike speak not only of hope for oneself, but of a hope for others, for our communities.  And it is hope that lets individuals pick up the generations-spanning task of justice.

Worn Out

Here’s a touchy subject. How many of you feel encouraged or discouraged, hopeful or despairing, about the health and vitality of the CRCNA?

Part of this strikes me as a sort of spiritual warfare. If we’re spiritually serious, conflict is wearing — we know the cost not only for us but for the other side. This weight sinks in, makes it hard to move sometimes. Sure we can stir ourselves to combat on our side, but no, that’s not what we want.

Do I ache for the CRC? Sometimes. Most of the time my yearning is a little more basic: help me to push back against the other dreary parts of my life. Tell me about hope. Help me to persevere. Reassure me. If you’re helping your people do that, live that life of faith — eh, the CRC will take care of itself. That part of our life is in the hands of God.