Category Archives: Theology

A cold neighbor

It is snowing in Chicago, and I’m indoors, observing the flakes from the warmth and safety of a comfy chair.  I’ve watched folks trudging down the streets, fighting the wind and cold, and have offered up murmurs of thanksgiving for a cup of hot tea, and the cat warming my lap.  My mind wandered back to a day a couple of years ago when I had an early 8 am dentist appointment one Saturday.  I’d walked to the dentist (a mere five blocks from my home), but while in the chair, a heavy snow storm hit.  Winds picked up.  It was near white-out at times.

When I left the dentist’s office, my face was numb: not only from the bitter wind, but also from the anesthesia I’d been given.  It had been a lengthy procedure, wherein old fillings from a childhood overseas were removed (having been deemed of poor quality) and replaced with more modern, quality material.  As I crossed the threshold out into the wintry mess, I wiped drool from the side of my cheek.  Ugh.  My eyes had watered during the procedure, and I was very aware of the mascara smudged beneath my eyes.  The sting of the wind was making my eyes water more.

I trudged the first block through about 8 inches of freshly fallen snow.  Beautiful, really.  But I’d not gone prepared, and my tennis shoes were slick and full of snow.  I glanced up and saw a man walking my direction and thought great… another one of the neighborhood’s homeless… expecting a handout.

As he approached I attempted to not make eye contact.  But he called out to me: “Lady?”  I glanced his way.

“Lady… you look really cold.  Could I buy you a sandwich? Or a cup of hot coffee?”  He pointed at the McDonald’s nearby.  And I stood there, gaping at the irony of my situation.  I mumbled a thank you, and he led me by the hand over a drift and into the restaurant.  I accepted a cup of coffee, and had an interesting conversation with someone from the neighborhood I would never have otherwise met.

He graciously mentioned that it was his faith tradition to help the poor and those in need.  I asked him what church he attended, and he pointed to the local mosque.  I smiled and mentioned I was baptist.  We rejoiced in the commonalities which bridge our faith, our neighborhood, and the human condition.

Winter in the city.

Winter in the city.

 

Identifying factors…

I was born with a very distinct birthmark on my knee: a dark mole about the size of a pencil eraser, just left of midline.  My father has a similar birthmark, only on the back of his leg.

Recently my birthmark has changed size and shape.  It is raised some, and I’ve caught it when shaving my legs. I went to a dermatologist to have it examined.  The doctor reassured me that she thought it was likely nothing to worry about, but since it was bothering me, she’d remove it and send it to pathology to ‘just be sure’.

My folks live several hours from me, so knowing I’d have a little anesthesia, I thought it best to let my parents know what I was doing.  My mother’s initial response:  “So how will I identify you?”

Huh?  What do you mean? I asked. I rarely wear skirts and my knees rarely are seen.

“Your body.  That was your distinguishing feature.  How will I identify your body if something should happen?” she inquired, quite seriously.

Stunned, I joked “Geesh, mom… I hope there is more than just a leg left of me when they call you in to identify me.”  She did NOT find that amusing, but we both realized how ridiculous her comment sounded.

Since this conversation, however, I’ve had some time to reflect. I think her ill-assumption about my possible fate is founded in a theology in which sacrifice is considered the highest calling, and in which there is no limits to the lengths to which God might test us.  This Job-ian theology is a theology in which not only ‘bad things happen to good people’, but faith indeed increases the likelihood of such trauma.  As if there is a certain amount of evil out there in the world, and if you are strong enough, God will reward you by allowing you to absorb more than your fair share of it (I Corinthians 10:13: “He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear…”)

It is sick.

A pedagogy of the poor (part I)

I’ve an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine about the role of the church vs. the state when it comes to the poor.  Neither of us belong at all in the category ‘poor’–she is of an upper middle class white family who owns property, and has a graduate level education; I am a single middle class woman with graduate level education and a full time job. We tend to talk past each other when the subject of poverty arises, both getting defensive.  We’ve argued our own sides to the point of offending each other, then back off cautiously as neither of us wants to ruin a friendship.  At times I suspect we are closer in our opinions than we imagine, but I doubt we’ll ever completely see eye to eye on it.  I wonder if my status somehow as a TCK (third culture kid), particularly as one who grew up in the third world, however, colors how I understand the poor, as well as the potential role of government and church.

The fundamental divide, it seems, between her perspective and mine (and if she reads this, and I’m incorrect, she should correct me and help me better understand) is that she tends to think of the poor as ‘individuals in need of help’.  I’m uncertain if it is economic status, educational privilege, or mere ‘Americanism’ which posits her in the position of being the benevolent agent in these scenarios.  When she describes government subsidies and/or welfare, she regales me with stories of abuse: instances where entitlement is assumed and laziness is writ large.  I am unclear as to why it is that I react to her descriptions and responses with defense: as if I’m certain it is against me or my family that she’s making accusations or judgments.  Perhaps it is because I spent my childhood accepting handouts and gifts as missionaries, forever relying upon the proverbial kindness of strangers.

What must be equally accounted for is the fact that she accuses me of idealizing the poor. Whereas I hear her complaints against abuse accompanied by a tone of indignation (“the poor are stealing from me”), she hears my defense of the poor as coming through rose-colored lenses (a noble people, struggling in a noble fight).  It is likely the case that I do tend to idealize the poor, although I try to guard against it.  You be the judge.

John Steinbeck purportedly wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Indeed, it seems that the American dream is alive and well–upward mobility is assumed to be an option, indeed assumed to be a good, and a failure to be poor (our value, intelligence, morals, etc. based on our economic status).  Not only is it assumed that we can move up, but it is our responsibility to move up. Kurt Vonnegut commented: “It is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” ”

I’m unwilling, however, to assume that the American middle class is everyone’s ideal.  The underpaid working class seems to be caricatured into either  comic ‘redneck’ or as merely unwilling-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps ‘lazy’ (or some mixture of both). Might it be the case that for those able-bodied poor who never shift into the ranks of ‘middle class’, the drummers’ cadence marches them to other ends?  Or that they never imagined their world to be otherwise? Or….

I believe the poor have many gifts for those of us who aren’t poor, but only if we are willing to have our eyes opened to critique.  What we learn is more often about ourselves than it is about the poor (much in the same way that African-Americans can teach me what it means to be white, because I function within the haze of privilege, oblivious to the graces and opportunities my skin color affords me.)  These are a people with feet in both worlds (knowing what it is like to function on very limited resources, but also living within the ubiquitous aspirations and standards of the wealthy.)  The media spreads the gospel of the upper middle class, wherein needs are not only met but excess is normative.  We are thus trained to accumulate, to stuff our selves and our homes (this coming from an overweight woman just days after thanksgiving!), regardless of economic status or class.

 

Why I am a Christian Democrat

This is a reblog of an excellent post by Ellen Painter Dollar.

Why I am a Christian Democrat.

Binders full of women…

Thank you, Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite for this EXCELLENT piece on why we must continue doing feminist theology.

Thank you.

When pricked, I will bleed… eventually.

A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention.  It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause.  “Huh.  That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down at my hand.  Huh.  It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers.  I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken.  I only stopped when the wound began to bleed.  It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Bleed indeed!  It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open.  I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures.  Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…).  I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it?  I’ve yet to feel pain at the site.  The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand.  How remarkably odd!

That evening, as I laid in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio.  Antonio goes to great lengths to secure a loan for his friend: offering a ‘pound of flesh’ as guarantee.  The description of their friendship borders on the erotic.  Antonio doesn’t hesitate to help Bassanio (mirroring the words on Portia’s leaden casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”).   It was  Antonio’s unexplained depression — “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” —which stopped me in my tracks.  Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake, indeed soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than platonic love between the friends than meets the eye–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused  Antonio great pain.  The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.

It is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest.  It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion.  The words on the lead casket echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ (Matt 19:29)–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things. Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. Evil’s plans (in this case, the Jewish merchant, Shylock) are thwarted, and it all works out in the end. But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted?  What if Antonio paid with a pound of flesh? What if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?

Can there not be limits to where my devotion might take me?  A recent reading the introduction to Craig Keen’s The Transgression of the Integrity of God pushed these buttons for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students of Keen’s) describe a radicality in his devotion which is dangerously inspiring: that nothing would get in Keen’s way of his discipleship.  “Everything was up in the air.  Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which  he felt himself called.  Marriage, school, career–everything.”

Such language stirs the valiant among us to nobel ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations.  Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitude of daily life for others to attend to.  In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will).  Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that the God worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?

It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhārtha Gautama more compelling than the teachings of Jesus; certainly more so than many of the ‘followers’ of Jesus.  While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’, Siddhārtha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

When immersed in the pseudo-evangelical holiness world, is it possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential? The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility to those left holding your urn.

The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path.  Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Oddly, this middle way bears a strong resemblance to holiness…

Devastating theology…

At the conservative holiness seminary I first attended, I was trained to be cut-throat in my evaluations and assessments of my peers (well, of their work, but it never really stops there, does it?).  When I first came to a liberal seminary to study feminist theology, I took on Dr. Dwight Vogel (a professor)  and dismantled his argument in front of a class.  I was ruthless. He initially got flustered and turned red.  But then he very calmly collected himself and asked me to step outside the room.  He politely said that a blood bath wasn’t the kind of theological discourse anyone at this seminary was interested in, and that I needed to step back and tone it down.

I was embarassed–almost wounded by his remarks–and fearful of what the latter half of class might bring.  But when we returned to class, he said to the group “You know, Donna is right… I hadn’t thought that through.  Donna, will you come up here and let’s talk it all the way through so we understand the significance of the argument you made, and where mine falls short.”

I vowed to never destroy someone theologically again.  He modeled for me nonviolence and respect.  And put me on a path towards peaceableness.

Orders of salvation…

This piece was written a while ago, but is one of the incidents which prompted me to study theology after nursing school. I couldn’t move beyond the fact that salvation seemed to come in various forms.

Jenny put her call light on and motioned me to her bedside.  I questioned to see if she was having any pain.  She indicated that she just wanted company; the hospital after visiting hours can be awfully lonely, especially on the oncology unit.  Knowing she was single and had no family close to share her burden, I sat down and asked her about the middle-aged woman she had been laughing so heartily with earlier that day.  She relayed the following story to me regarding her double mastectomy two years before:

“I couldn’t stand to look at myself,” she commented.  “The hollowness to my profile…reduced to the appearance of a schoolboy.  The scars that move in all directions from my armpits to my sternum—the keloid ridges and lack of sensation.  There is nothing feminine about this.  There is nothing sexy about this.  I didn’t want to be touched.  I didn’t even want to leave the house.

“I don’t know why she insisted upon seeing it.  But after refusing to meet for weeks—mostly because I didn’t want to be seen in public—Linda called and announced she was coming despite my protests.  She surveyed the messy house with a hint of surprise in her eyes but didn’t comment or pass judgment.

“She merely took me by the hand and led me back to my bedroom.  ‘Let’s see it!’ she demanded.  My protests fell on deaf ears.  I stood there feeling humiliated and angry.  Why was my best friend placing me on display like some freak circus act?  Tears of frustration and misunderstanding slid down my cheeks.  She was unrelenting.

“Finally I acquiesced.  She stared me straight in the eye, holding my gaze as I unbuttoned my blouse and slid my camisole strap off my shoulder.  I saw her eyes descend from my face and I stared stoically over her shoulder.  A hand reached out and traced the edges of my scars…but I couldn’t feel it.  She bent forward and I glanced down uneasily.  Very tenderly she kissed the mangled tissue.

“Our eyes met and she stood upright and held me close.  Together we cried—grieving the loss and the indignity—but mostly grieving the space that had developed between the two of us.  Her restorative touch and sensual acceptance reinstated my personhood.  She is my best friend.  She saved me.”

Hidden in plain view…

This is a piece I shared with at my church a couple years ago.

When a systematic theologian is asked to write a concise statement of what it is she believes, the temptation is to simply repeat the Nicene Creed or some other ecclesial-sanctioned confession of faith and let that ‘timeless classic’ stand for itself.  I suppose there are ways in which I could in good faith do this: not that I personally can give rational assent to each aspect of the creed (I’m not unwilling to entertain the idea that there are aspects which might not bear up under the weight of ‘historical’ or scientific scrutiny), but rather that I trust that there are those in the community who can say for me, and therefore hold for me, the things of my faith tradition which I cannot simply hold on my own.  I am unwilling to dismiss the witness of those who can hold them.

So how does a closet creedalist find herself at home with a congregation who is proudly (and at times, defiantly) non-creedal and non-dogmatic?

It seems I’ve spent a lot of time in closets in my life—literal and figurative closets.  I was a hider as a child.  Not that I had anything particularly shameful to keep hidden from others, but I was the child that hid in the hopes of being found.  The household I grew up in was passionate about ministry—so much so that as a kid I often felt erased from view in contrast to those with ‘real’ needs (whether physical or spiritual).  I tested this theory of erasure at a very early age. My mother reports occasions when she would suddenly become aware of my absence, and eventually find me in repose in the back of a closet somewhere—I’d waited so long for anyone to notice my absence that I’d fallen asleep.  I became consciously aware of this personal ritual while my folks were missionaries.  At the age of 13 I’d come home from boarding school after having been away for 10 months, closed the door of my bedroom and laid under the bed for hours.  I remember quietly playing with the geckos who shared my hiding place, all the while imagining that my parents were frantically searching for me.  I emerged, disappointed and unnoticed, only when I was hungry enough to go to the kitchen for food.

I hid in similar closets at boarding school where we missionary kids were indoctrinated with the notion that our parents were out and about doing “the Lord’s will”.  Any trouble or infraction we committed was chastised with the fear that if we were disruptive enough to merit parental intervention, we were likely distracting them and preventing them from their real calling—spreading the Good News.  Even when circumstances felt abusive or I was just plain homesick, I stayed in my closeted state.  I remember our scheduled time on the ham radio early on Sunday mornings—that 10 min weekly window where we could talk ‘privately’ with our parents in the village—with the whole country listening in (what else was there to do when there is no TV or radio?).  Their questions of ‘how are you?’ were met with dutiful and respectable closeted answers: “I’m fine.”  

During my first seminary degree, I became a closeted woman in a mostly-male school. No, it wasn’t a ‘Yentl’-type moment—I wasn’t into breast binding or cross-dressing.  But as one of just a few women out of 350 students, I learned the patriarchal philosophies and theologies that served as currency.  I had purchase because I excelled at the argumentative, combative learning style—besting the brightest men around me. I was ‘one of the boys’.  Eventually graduating with honors, I was hired as the seminary president’s ghost writer and became professionally closeted—writing sermons and speeches for which he received credit.  In my writing I could pass as a man.

I spent years as a young woman, closeted in the heterosexual world where everyone assumes the young are marriages-waiting-to-happen.  Just this spring I was invited to speak to the General Executive Council of the American Baptist Churches—USA, and was both surprised and tickled to be introduced as having been invited to speak because they wanted to hear the perspectives of “a young adult”.  I joked about this as I took the podium, asking the group just how long I might be able to continue pulling off that moniker—seeing I’m almost 40.  One gentleman spoke up and explained, “you are considered a young adult until you get married”. “Wow…” I thought, “I never will reach maturity in your mind, given my orientation.”  Apparently, I’m also a closeted adult.

Closets are functional spaces: rooms for shelving and storing the parts of ourselves we aren’t prepared to deal with (either personally or publicly).  I believe this is how I’ve remained a closet creedalist at Lake Street Church: the bits and pieces of my faith heritage which don’t quite fit often sit shelved—only to be pulled out and worn on special occasions, if at all.  But I’ve also experienced the liberation of spring cleaning, where closets are opened and laundry and baggage are aired.  Items are sorted: some cleaned and restored and replaced in the closet to return to someday in the future; these are often items of sentimental value.  Other items don’t seem to fit any more—and these are sent out on consignment.  Finally, some items are deemed rubbish and are simply trashed.

These periodic spring cleanings do me good.  Spring cleaning helps me find hidden treasures—items I’d put away—maybe they were inappropriate for the season, or the size wasn’t right at the time—but are now comfortable and wearable—available for public viewing and consumption. It also reminds me of bits and pieces that were forgotten and repressed and allows me to clean house and open up more space within.

So here I stand before you, out in the open: an uncloseted, single, adult woman who refuses allow her needs and desires go unseen or unheard any longer.  It is after all, Pride Sunday.  Interestingly, it is also the Sunday of the American Baptist Church’s Biennial Meetings.  The irony of the two coinciding is not lost on me.

I believe I’ve also been a closeted Baptist (and I suspect I’m hardly alone in this).

I became a member of Lake Street Church 4 years ago.  The decision to join was not undertaken lightly.  Oh, it was easy to want to count myself among the members of such an inclusive and warm community.  It became more difficult, however, when I realized that joining such a community meant embracing the ‘baptist’ moniker in my professional life.  The bi-lines of articles of mine in print would heretofore read, “Baptist theologian”.

Frankly, my Baptist closet was pretty full.  As I began sorting through this closet, I discovered all sorts of musty old baggage: stereotypes of Baptists which did not meet my experience with either the leadership or the congregation of LSC (such as blatant sexism, homophobia, and fundamentalism).  When I thought “Baptist” it was images of Jerry Fallwell, not Bob Thompson, that immediately came to mind.  At the very least, I knew that becoming “Baptist” would raise some eyebrows amongst my feminist colleagues in the academy.

But it was a particular congregation which captured my imagination and forced open the doors of that Baptist closet.  And I began to explore the theological underpinnings of what it was that could possibly allow for both the Jerry Fallwells of the world, and the Bob Thompsons of the world, to co-exist under the same rubric.  And I was delighted to discover that the theological foundations for such diversity were at the core of Baptist theology itself—understandings of freedoms which all Baptists claim: the freedom to have access to and interpret sacred texts; the freedom of the individual to work out their own spiritual journey in their own unique way; the autonomy and freedom of the local congregation to create communities of grace and justice that are relevant in their particular locales and to their particular congregants; and the freedom of the church from the state.

It turns out that being Baptist provides for the very conditions under which we can be who we are.  Being Baptist allows space for me personally to open up my closets and begin that painful but necessary process of spring cleaning.

I suppose what has appealed most about the Lake Street (and therefore Baptist) tradition to this feminist is the inherent modesty in the church’s theological claims.  Our divisions are not hidden or protected.  Our history and politic is not (nor can it be) swept under the rug.  And because opinions range vast, we cannot pretend to speak decisively and representatively ‘for all’.    To quote a well-crafted line of Ted Peters, “Tentativeness, as opposed to dogmatic swagger, can be a virtue in theological situations such as this.”

It is in recognition of this theological heritage that I have begun to embrace and take pride in Baptist Life.

So here I stand before you, out in the open: an uncloseted, single, adult Baptist woman who refuses allow her needs and desires go unseen or unheard any longer.  It is after all, Pride Sunday.

*Of course, the perpetual adolescent in me (I am a closeted adult after all) wants to arrive at the next Biennial meetings in full Lake Street force proclaiming in honor of the Stonewall riots, “We here.  We’re Baptist.  Deal with it.”  Or better yet, in the spirit of Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a Baptist?!?”