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.