Believing in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

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One of my favorite lines in Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen tells Alice that, as a youth, she sometimes believed in at least six impossible things before breakfast.  There are plenty of people, I suspect, who believe that is exactly what Christians do:  believe in impossible things.

I took a Logic course in college that required students to construct syllogistic proofs for God’s existence.  Aside from making us feel extremely clever, the method was kind of a non-starter for convincing the avowed agnostics of my acquaintance.   The Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why in his wonderful book, The Prophets, when he states outright that “there are no proofs for the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”

Still, even firm believers undergo crises of faith and doubt – when the world seems too dark and cruel to admit of the compassionate and just God at the center of our faith.  Natural disasters and tragedies can produce great crisis, but so can flinging oneself too long and hard at human problems that just keep coming without relief; all those times when on the evidence, death seems to win hands down.

ImageA few years back, the private letters of Mother Teresa were published, disclosing that the Saint of Calcutta had endured a crisis of faith for decades.  For anyone who missed the news stories of the time (2009), while she was pouring out her life for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa worried about the possible hypocrisy in the disparity between her belief and what she was publicly saying and doing.

Fortunately, it occurred to her at some point that the gap she was experiencing brought her close to the Christ, who in every Gospel save one, cries out on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus and Teresa shared the feeling of utter dereliction:  distant from the perceived certainty of God and God’s purpose.

What keeps people of faith from succumbing to such an experience?  Most of us need, from time to time at least, to feel the comfort of God’s presence, the sense that what we are doing in our lives has meaning, especially when those lives are coming apart.  When we lose the intellectual certainty we thought was part of our faith, we think we’re in trouble.  We forget that our knowledge of God resides in our sense memory and experience as much as it resides in our heads.  We forget Heschel, who happens to be right on this score.  We have never had proofs.  We have always, only, had witnesses to the God of history.

Mother Teresa was a witness.  Whether or not she felt God’s presence, she trusted – or acted as if, which may be the same thing  – that God would provide what she needed to continue caring for people the rest of the world had thrown away.  “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” she reportedly said, “But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness.  In the midst of death threats and constant opposition, he kept right on acting out the ways of a God of love.  Abraham Joshua Heschel was a witness – who said that his feet were praying when he marched to Selma, Alabama for equal rights.  Once we are looking, we see God’s witnesses everywhere.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out once that people rarely come to faith because arguments and proof have persuaded them.  Far more convincing is the sight of  “a world we’d like to live in,” he said, glimpsed through the trustworthy lives of God’s witnesses   That’s been true from the beginning and the living of faithful lives is still the most important thing we have to present to the world.

Alice is a delightful work of fiction, though we know that human beings sometimes do believe in impossible things.  The difference for people of faith is that we often have the proof of God’s people doing them anyway.  And that makes all the difference.


For the Week of Pentecost 16: Beating People Up with Religion

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bent woman_2In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus is teaching in a town synagogue on a random Saturday — the Sabbath.  When a bent and emotionally crippled woman approaches him, he interrupts his teaching and heals her with the words:  “you are set free from your ailment.”  An indignant elder immediately hurries over to chastize Jesus for breaking the Fourth Commandment (the law banning work on the Sabbath)  — and in a place of worship, no less.

All Jesus has to say to the religious official is: “You’re a hypocrite” and the battle is joined.  He points out that the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy”) also provides that God’s people enable their animals and servants and any aliens under their roof to rest on the Sabbath, with the obvious effect that they should not be tied up or yoked or in any way unable to rest.  How, therefore, could it be against God’s law to unbind this woman on the Sabbath?

Most of us would probably agree with Jesus’ perspective here.  However, we ought not make the mistake of thinking the argument was really about what does and does not constitute “work” under the Fourth Commandment.  It might be worthwhile for us to reflect on examples in which we or our own church leaders use religious teachings to bind others or keep them bound — much as the good law against work on the Sabbath was used as a weapon against Jesus’ freeing a middle-aged woman from her sickness.

We know that some fundamentalist Muslims have used their Holy Scriptures as a justification for terrorism and murder.  But we should also remember that Christians have interpreted our Bible to justify all kinds of violence, as well as slavery and discriminatory treatment under the law of people outside the white, male, property-owning norm.

Jesus’ issues with the “organized religion” of his time had to a great deal to do with the application of religious laws — not for their original purposes of legislating humanity and compassion and justice — but to enforce the power of those who had it and collaborated with it.  Jesus, who routinely hobnobbed with women and other have-nots of his society, was a living rebuke to the political and religious authorities of his time.

What is amazing is how quickly his words and behavior can move from the safely religious to the unsafely political.  Relevantly, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus cautioned that he came to bring division, not peace.  In the Bible, such division is reconciled by the Cross.  How do we reconcile the tender words of Jesus with the discordant effects they had then and still have when we apply them in real life?

Prophets in Ordinary Time: Checking In

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hoseaimagesThose of us lucky enough to have been introduced to the writings of the Hebrew prophets through the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel are elated that the lectionary readings at Sunday Eucharists — from now to the end of the year — include major snippets from those writings.  From Amos’ “Hear this, you who trample on the needy‚” to Hosea’s “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” we hear words of judgment on the deeds of the nations and the people’s apathy as they sit back and let it all happen.  And in the midst of judgment, we hear God’s words of passionate love and comfort, a promise of redemption and the rebuilding of the cities of our lives.

Their visions are poetic and dramatic and often startling.  They throw at us the “parade of horribles” that follow human collusion with corruption or indifference: wars, environmental degradation, damage to lives and loss of hope.  They also show us glimpses of beauty and relationship that are expansive beyond the limits of our own imaginations.  And they tell us that nothing is preordained, that God does new things.  Heschel said once that there are no proofs for God, only witnesses.   The prophets are such witnesses, and for Christians, the first to convey the powerful and living image of the incarnational God we know as the Christ.  Not surprisingly, it is they Jesus cited most often in describing the meaning of God’s kingdom.

If, as the prophets say, God is the One who hears the cries of the suffering and acts, we, clearly, are meant to do the same.  As the prophet Micah put it: do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  We are meant to be the people who live by God’s values.

Have a blessed week.

Patriotism and Faith …. 2013

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fourth-july-fireworksUsually, on the Fourth of July long weekend, we try to keep religion and patriotism in their own corners, lest we confuse them to our peril.  Still, there is a way in which they come together: in which Scripture speaks to our citizenship and the national celebration partakes of our faith.  Our national Independence Day is not a religious holiday, but it stirs in us much that is religious – that has to do with high ideals and high hopes and a dream of justice and equality that requires a deeply costly and sacred commitment.

It has been suggested that the founders of this country dreamed the nation into being.  Imagine it:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Those words are powerfully stirring.  But, it hit me with special force this year, what they describe is not self–evident.  It isn’t self-evident now.  And it wasn’t self-evident then.  The world in which the founders lived did not look like that.  Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves and even after the Revolution, the only people who had a right to vote were white men who owned their own property and had the deed to prove it.

Liberty? Rights? Equality? Hardly. But the vulnerability and the tenuousness of those convictions did not end the dream.  And new people picked up where the old ones left off.  In church today, we hear of Elijah’s healing of the Aramite voting rights protestgeneral by having him immerse himself in the river seven times.  (1 Kings 5:1-14)  Well, this country has needed to dip into the river more than a few times to keep on healing our national consciousness.  Between 1776 and now, African-American men have won recognition of their citizenship and the right to vote.  Women didn’t achieve that right until 1920.  And the truth is, it took the mighty Civil Rights Movement of the last century before African-Americans in all parts of the country really could vote without risking their lives and property – a right that is looking dubious given the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of critical sections of the Voting Rights Act.   Even so, between then and now, children have won a legal right to equal education, African-Americans and white people  won the right to marry an opposite sex partner of their choice, and, only last week, gay people in this country won recognition of their right, equal with all others in this country, to marry and create families.

When we look at our country on this weekend of celebration, we can see progress in our stretching for what the Rev’d Martin Luther King, Jr. called the justice toward which the arc of history is bent.  The process, hallowed by Jesus, of continuing to expand the circle of acceptable people, entitled to rights and God’s love.  And we can also see great gaps – in our wars, in the ways we treat prisoners, in our continuing racism and homophobia and plain old sexism, in the violence – physical and emotional — with which we continue to resort as a response to threat or fear.

But as it turns out, that’s where God is – in the gap.  God works in the struggle, the stirring, our recommitment to what we are about.   And, on this weekend, I believe God is calling us to renew our faith in his power and in his grace and in his goodness – to believe and to act — in hope – for the good of all those who are yet on the margins – looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Giving thanks for this country and thanks for the dream.  And letting our faith guide our citizenship in the knowledge that God’s plan is sure.  That God’s plan works through us.  And that God’s grace can provide all that we need to help heal the world.  One piece here, another piece there.  All in the gaps.

bakersfield+same+se+marriage+rallyHave a blessed week.

Early Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

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This coming Sunday is TRINITY SUNDAY — the supposed bane of preachers and object of mystification (or outright rejection) to everyone else.  It’s not  spelled out explicitly in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Gospels and no one can really explain it.  The peculiarly Christian doctrine that the Divine Being we call God is three persons –conventionally described as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, to put it mildly, perplexing.  To get students over the notion that Christians worship three Gods, one professor suggested only that it helped to think of the Trinity as “one What and three Who’s.”  Unfortunately, for many people, that leaves the doctrine firmly with Alice in Wonderland’s ability to  “believe in six impossible things before breakfast.”

We’re going to celebrate it anyway — because, without the doctrine of the Trinity, we have absolutely no way of understanding our own spirituality and ethics and theology.  Without the Trinity, we lack a grammar* for even speaking of the God of  our own experience.   St. John’s claim that “God is love,”  expresses exactly what Christians mean when we call God Trinity.   But an even better expression, I suspect, is the ancient image of Trinity as a dance — a continuous weaving and outpouring of creativity and expression and self-giving among the members — and it is in that image that we believe human beings are made.  We live and we work out our salvation in the relationships of love we have with our spouses and families, with all the other communities of which we are a part, with the rest of creation, and most assuredly, with God.*

For wherever you arperichoresis trinity:razorplanete worshipping this Sunday, I offer the words of this contemporary Trinity hymn by Richard Leach:

“Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun — the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.  The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.”*

Blessings to you.

*Thomas F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives (T&T Clark, 1994)

* E.g., Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Community and Christian Life (HarperCollins, 1991) or, my actual favorite: John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1997)

* Richard Leach, “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,”  (Selah Publishing Co., Inc., 2001)

Theology of Weegee: Quick Share

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God’s in His Heaven:  Theological Thoughts on Two Exhibits

Stromholm jacky

Stromholm: Nana, Jacky and Adèle Chanel, 1961

“God’s in his Heaven — All’s right with the world.
[Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, 1841]


And not by a long chalk. And some people choose an interpretation of meaninglessness. And some redefine the meaning of “all right.” And still others simply ignore the gap between religious claim and reality. But none of those are adequate for those of us who need “a faith that can encompass tragedy without reducing it to a meaningless episode….” 1

This seems particularly true on a weekend in which the whole country is mourning the specific tragedy of the mad shooting of the crowd watching “Batman” at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. There is no way to gloss over such evil with reassurances of a fundamentally good world. And yet.

I’ve had occasion of late to reflect on art that speaks to the incarnational sense of God’s presence in the things which are “not all right,” the bits about death and war and cruelty that provoke us all to look to God for some sort of accounting as we simultaneously point a finger at each other. There are two exhibitions currently on display at the International Center of Photography that reflect such a theology. The main attraction is “Murder is My Business,” which carefully curates the crime and calamity photos taken in New York between 1935 and 1946 by photojournalist Arthur Fellig, better known as “Weegee.” The second, “Les Amies de Place Blanche,” shares Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm’s photos of the community of transexual prostitutes he befriended and lived among in 1960’s Paris. Both shows are artistically stunning. But, as important, the photographers convey the sad and harrowing realities of particular worlds without dictating despair. Between the two of them, they create a grammar that negotiates what Patrick Miller once called (in another context entirely) “the very thin line between the redemptive and the demonic possibilities for life on this planet.”2

Weegee tenement fire

Tenement fire, Harlem, 1942

Mother and daughter looking up at the top floor, where another daughter and her baby are trapped

Weegee and Strömholm share a humanity, but what bends their work, I think, to a artistic theology that matters is their ability to uncover flashes of connection in a world of only sometimes mitigated tragedy. Weegee’s work here seems harshest because it is wholly unvarnished. He shows us horrible, catastrophic things, people bloodied and savaged, senselessly killed, and in anguish over the death of a husband or brother. He shows it all without cheapness or sentimentality or any effort to invoke sympathy or opinion. Like a good war photographer, Weegee shows us exactly what happened and how, and what everybody looked like when it went down. What he shows us is beautiful, though it is beauty “infiltrated” by as-yet-unredeemed reality.3

CRI 208183

Weegee: My Man, 1941

One striking thing is that virtually none of Weegee’s pictures would be likely to appear in any major newspaper of our own time. They are just too lurid, too graphic, too invasive. Worse, the crowds that gather at a crime scene in Weegee’s photos are far from innocent bystanders. They are entertained. No matter what has happened — a fire, a murder, a tragic accident — the crowds stand there looking on with interest: men, women, and children. They are as fascinated as motorists crawling past the scene of an accident hoping to see something horrible.


For all that, Weegee’s photos also leave his subjects — pretty much all of them — with their innate dignity. A series of shots of men under arrest for cross-dressing on one wall was particularly impressive. The arresting officers mock them, but the men themselves (labelled “boys dressing as women” on the photo margins) do not look either shamed or ridiculous.

Weegee  man arrested

Weegee  man arrested 2

By contrast, Christer Strömholm’s much smaller show aims to do more than document. Strömholm, the “father of Swedish photography” (who knew?) can be read as raising “issues about identity, sexuality, and gender,”4 but the impact of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” is much broader than that. In his foreword to the book of the same name, Strömholm described the work, in part, as about “insecurity… humiliation…, the quest for self-identity, … the right to live, … the right to own and control one’s own body… [but also] about friendship.”5

At bottom, Strömholm claims this body of photos as “about friendship.” And that friendship is not only his own. The women he records have befriended each other and Strömholm documents their creation of a community.

Stromholm  Jacky 1961

Strömholm, Jacky, 1961

A rough kindness infuses the entire series. Strömholm’s shots are honest and ineluctably dissonant, but he also seems protective of his subjects. There is such a huge gap between their hopes and their prospects, and he catches their yearning as almost palpably beautiful. He paints the beauty of their wounds. And, in fact, his final judgment is of beauty.

Neither of them presents a Thomas Kincaid sort of world for the solace of anyone. But by presenting worlds we know to be true, they honor us and communicate the place of the divine in what seems most broken. Both shows are on through the summer.
1 Gregory Wolfe, “The Tragic Sense of Life” in Image, Issue #61 (Spring 2009)
2 Patrick Miller, “Poetry and Theology, Theology Today (speaking of Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
3 In*The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism* 57. no. 1 (1999): 7 in @101, Peg Zeglin Brand speaks of “Beauty infiltrated by the dangerous, transgressive, bizarre, grotesque and the horrible.”
4 Christopher Harrity, Advocate.Com/Artist Spotlight, 5/29/12
5 Christer Strômholm,Les Amies de la Place Blanche, Reprint of the 1983 edition, Arman Iman Éditions, Dewi Lewis Publishing (March 13, 2012)