Scrooge vs. Santa Claus: Rescuing God from Shallow Theology

I’m tired of reading bad ordination papers: twelve to twenty pages of poorly-written, theologically-thin, unimaginative discourse, intended to represent a ministerial candidate’s breadth of preparedness and depth of spiritual formation but more frequently sending me into despair over the future of leadership in the Church.

If it sounds harsh, it is — too harsh and too sweeping. Also, too often true.

In my denomination, the process toward ordained ministry includes goals in education, field experience, individual and collective discernment, prayer, and continual review of a candidate’s understanding of church, theology, sacraments, polity, etc. As these goals are measured and met, the candidate prepares an ordination paper that is presented to the ecclesial body for consideration and (ideally) affirmation.

The ordination paper represents a penultimate step toward one’s ordination, and as such it strives to be one’s best foot forward to the wider church body. Nevertheless, too many ministerial candidates submit ordination papers full of typos, incoherent sentences, theological vacuums, and regurgitated church history. “I don’t know” suffices for critical thought. “Our churches are autonomous” summarizes their limited perspective on United Church of Christ polity. “I’ll figure it out as I do it” represents their depth of pastoral vision.

And theology, Christology and pneumatology — that is, perspectives on God, the Christ and the Spirit — boil down to misappropriations of Santa Claus (with an explicit rejection of Scrooge), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s Aslan, and a personal Jiminy Cricket for us all. Fairy tales standing for faith. Disney characters substituted for creeds. Occasionally a candidate manages to wrap such shallow theology in fancy church words; sometimes not at all.

In my frustration with each new sub-par ordination paper that is distributed to the denominational body for approval, I’ve been looking for someone to blame. Have seminaries failed these candidates, that they cannot connect the dots between church history and current ecclesial trends, between liberation theologies and the real-life politics of gender & race? What education system neglected to hone the candidates’ grammar during their formative years or to introduce the use of that handy-dandy spellcheck device located in every computer?

What committee on discernment — in a candidate’s home congregation or in the local jurisdiction of a denomination — missed its opportunity to say, “You seem hard-pressed to articulate your faith in a clear way. How do you anticipate communicating faith and theology as a professional minister?” When did denominations decide to approve (and when did congregations opt to settle for) mediocrity in ministry, subliminally affirming a low bar for ordination candidates?

I concede that my cynicism has been brewing. The Church’s collective acceptance of tepid ministry (both in leadership and in congregational vision), with the accompanying flat theology, is evident not only in ordination papers, but also in the tolerance of pastors who oversee the death of Spirit in a congregation, and in the persistent election of comfortable white men to strong pastorates while wise and talented non-white-male ministerial candidates are called (or sent) to dysfunctional churches where they are chewed up and tossed out within three years…if they are fortunate enough to be offered a pastorate at all.

But this is not just a rant for the sake of a rant. The trends of religion in American reflect a growing disenfranchisement with and disengagement from the Church, its leaders, and its God. And who can argue? Why would those who have grown up in the Church continue to invest their time in congregations where Santa is the best analogy for God, an altruistic deity with only trinkets to offer on holidays but lacking the substance to speak to poverty and war? How can the Church expected to nurture its youth (and adults) toward mature faith when its pastors-in-training are being given a “pass” on their belief that the Spirit is a glorified subconscious, a holy Jiminy Cricket that nudges us along but lacks the authority and power to raise up prophets or impact a spiritual awakening?

Why would Christians (among others) not prefer the language of “spiritual but not religious” when American Christology is reduced to a bloodthirsty God requiring the sacrifice of a gentle Jesus; and a sanitized cross allows our encounter with God to be pretty and palatable rather than providing a hard lens for encountering our humanity and our systems of power? Critically-thinking Christians are distancing themselves from the Christian label not only in rejection of the bullying voice of conservative evangelical Christianity but also in resignation to the apparent lack of a Christian theology in our churches and ministerial leaders that has the strength to wrestle with and offer prophetic wisdom for this human existence.

My concern is not so much that disenfranchised and/or disengaged Christians are opting for a private spirituality in lieu of congregational life. My fear is that they are right — that their leaving is an appropriate indictment of the American Church’s watered-down and disempowered God (ranging from a Disneyfied theology to the capitalistic prosperity gospel movement) — and that they will continue to be right for several generations unless denominations, congregations and pastors alike begin to insist upon, pursue and support ministerial candidates of theological depth.

You can join the conversation by commenting on this post or by sharing your thoughts on the article at Huffington Post.

Considering the Other

Before we read Mark 9:38-50, let’s reflect on this reading from James: “Are any among you suffering? You should pray. Are any cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? You should gather with the elders and pray over them. The prayer of faith will save the sick; the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:13-20)

Now I have a chip on my spiritual shoulder that impacts my approach to these closing paragraphs in James. My chip is shifting and healing, but I still notice it and I have to think through it. I share it with you in case it resonates with your own spiritual chip-on-the-shoulder about prayer. Two experiences color my perspective on this passage:

  1. First is simply that all-too-common experience of someone saying, “I’ll pray for you,” in such a way that you think they may not actually pray for you … or you suspect their prayer for you might not be your prayer for you. Certainly “I’ll pray for you” is often sincere, but sometimes it functions as a religious cliche that someone says because they don’t know what else to say. James 5:13-20 can sound like a condescending cliche: “Are you suffering? I’ll pray for you. (pat pat) Are you cheerful? I’ll pray for you. Are you sick? I’ll pray for you too. (awkward hug)
  2. When I was in college, I was part of a charismatic Christian student fellowship. Our group went on retreats with other college Christian groups during the school year, so we were always meeting other Christian students and talking about faith. On one retreat, I was in the women’s restroom washing my hands and another young woman came in, started washing her hands. There were many groups attending the retreat that particular weekend, so I didn’t know this student. But we made eye contact in the mirror and she said, “Has God spoken to you yet this weekend?” To this day I have no idea how I responded to her question; I only remember my shock that (a) prayer was a bathroom topic, and (b) that she had nailed me on my greatest insecurity in faith — prayer.

The irony of having written books about prayer is that I always struggled with prayer. The letter of James says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” but I had no illusion that my prayers had that kind of impact. My time in prayer was full of spiritual dead silence. It’s wonderful that my college peers on these retreats heard God’s voice; it’s wonderful that Elijah could pray and stop the rain, as James notes — but clearly I missed that lesson in Sunday School!

So I have to wade through my “stuff” when I read James’ exhortations on prayer, and maybe you have to wade through your stuff too as you think about prayer.

But — having noted our doubts and insecurities about prayer, having looked at them and now setting them down for the time being — it’s important to notice that James isn’t approaching prayer as an individual spiritual exercise or as a supernatural encounter. James is showing us that prayer is an attitude of community and prayer is a perspective on God’s presence in life. Prayer holds that perspective that God is in all things and amidst all circumstances — suffering or joy, sickness or discord. And prayer assumes the absolute necessity of community for the sake of healing — when there is sorrow, gather together; when there is brokenness, call the elders; when there is a reason to celebrate, call the whole community!

In our lives, sometimes we maintain a disconnect or discrepancy between aspects of life without realizing it; the same is true in our spiritual lives! We often say that we believe God is life and God is love … but there can be a disconnect between our statements on faith and our practices of prayer! When we enter prayer, sometimes we forget God as life and God as love, and we approach prayer as a feat of spiritual athleticism like we’re climbing a rock wall to reach a faraway God. And we contort ourselves in every way to reach the top but entirely miss the fact that God is the rocks we’re climbing and God is the air we’re gasping and God is the climbers beside us on the wall.

Prayer shouldn’t forget that God is life and God is love and God is presence, in its pursuit of ethereal heights; prayer should draw us closer to God in life and God in love. Prayer should draw us closer to the activity of God in the world and in community and in us. Prayer should draw us closer to the Other, teach us to recognize God’s presence not only moving in our own lives but moving in all life. Prayer should change our hearts by keeping us attuned to God’s heart beating through life. Prayer should heal our hearts, heal our lives, by stretching our hearts out from our own chests to meet the heart of God in another’s life.

There was an awful story in the news last weekend that revealed too vividly what’s at stake in our collective ability — or inability — to recognize the heart of God in one another; what’s at stake not just in being able to recognize God here and there, but in practicing at every moment the recognition of God in others. In a small town in Connecticut, in the middle of the night, a man received a phone call from his sister who lives next door. She thought someone was trying to invade and rob her home, so she called her brother for help. The man grabbed his gun, went outside. There was someone between the two houses, wearing a mask, carrying a knife. The man shot and killed the person in the mask. … It turned out that the person in the mask was his son.

Life is at stake in our willingness to recognize God in others. Prayer, James says, is a spiritual tool for training our eyes and our hearts to recognize God in another life, even in a life that is behind a mask.

The disciples came to Jesus: “There’s someone we don’t know, doing things that we don’t understand. He’s casting out demons and saying your name, but we don’t recognize him so we’re suspicious — we think he shouldn’t be trusted.” Jesus said, “Don’t stop him, just because he’s going about his work differently. He’s not your competition or your enemy. The cup of water that he shares is just as valuable as the cup of water you share.

“In fact,” Jesus said, “let me go a step further. Not only should you not interfere with his work of healing — I’m holding you responsible for his well-being overall. I’m holding you responsible for recognizing that his life is sacred too. If you cannot recognize God’s life within this man, it will be as if you are choosing to drown your own life.

“If your hand cannot extend in welcome to a stranger, it would be better for you to lose your hand than to miss encountering God in that stranger. If your foot refuses to cross a border or to walk on the other side of the tracks, it would be better for you to cut off your foot than to let your spirit be corrupted by your foot’s inability to recognize God’s presence in foreign and unfamiliar territories.

“Likewise if your eye cannot see God — living and breathing and dying — on the other side of a mask or hijab or uniform; and if your tongue cannot consider greeting God in the life of the other; it would be better to lose your eye or cut out your tongue than to live in the hell of the heart that has not learned to meet God in all of life.”

“What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? What good is life and community if not to experience God?” (Mark 9:38-50)

Prayer is not about our individual efforts of spiritual athleticism. It’s not about what Herculean effort we can make on the strength of our own spirits to reach God. Prayer is about considering the community and maintaining a perspective on God in all of life.

Prayer keeps us salty by putting us in a space where we must give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. The practice of prayer is the practice of considering more than just ourselves in this life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of recognizing God amidst all life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of considering God’s presence in one another — in community — over and over and over again, until we see past the masks & the assumptions & the stereotypes & the judgments. The practice of prayer changes us — heals us — by continually exposing us to the heart of God in all moments of life.

The alternative, if we take Jesus seriously, if we take the news seriously (not just this story out of Connecticut, but every story of war and abuse and violence) … the alternative to recognizing God’s movement through life, the alternative to acknowledging God’s presence in others, the alternative to prayer, is death. Prayer keeps us from the death of self-consumption — prayer keeps us salty — by putting us in a space where we give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. Prayer gives us life by keeping us in community.

So pray for one another: through suffering, through joy, through illness, through wandering. Expect prayer to tune you in — perhaps to God’s voice — but most of all to God’s movement! Give yourself the grace and the peace of not having to make some spiritually athletic effort to reach up to God; pay attention to God where you are, with the understanding that God will start to show up in more places, in more faces, than you anticipated as you pray. Let prayer be the space where the heart of God changes your heart and gives you a heart for others. Amen.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/30/12.

 

Before we read Mark 9:38-50, let’s reflect on today’s reading from James: “Are any among you suffering? You should pray. Are any cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? You should gather with the elders and pray over them. The prayer of faith will save the sick; the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:13-20)

 

Now I have a chip on my spiritual shoulder that impacts my approach to these closing paragraphs in James. My chip is finally shifting and healing, but I still notice it and I have to think through it. I share it with you in case it resonates with your own spiritual chip-on-the-shoulder about prayer. Two experiences color my perspective on this passage:

 

(1) First is simply that all-too-common experience of someone saying, “I’ll pray for you,” in such a way that you think they may not actually pray for you … or you suspect their prayer for you might not be your prayer for you. Certainly “I’ll pray for you” is often sincere, but sometimes it functions as a religious cliche that someone says because they don’t know what else to say. James 5:13-20 can sound like that condescending cliche: “Are you suffering? I’ll pray for you. (hug) Are you cheerful? I’ll pray for you. Are you sick? I’ll pray for you too. (pat pat)

 

(2) When I was in college, I was part of a charismatic Christian student fellowship. Our group went on retreats with other college Christian groups during the school year, so we were always meeting other Christian students and talking about faith. On one retreat, I was in the women’s restroom washing my hands and another young woman came in, started washing her hands. There were many groups attending the retreat that particular weekend, so I didn’t know this student. But we made eye contact in the mirror and she said, “So, has God spoken to you yet this weekend?” To this day I have no idea how I responded to her question; I only remember my shock that (a) prayer was a bathroom topic and (b) that she had nailed me on my greatest insecurity in faith — prayer.

 

The irony of having written books about prayer is that I always struggled with prayer. The letter of James says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” but I had no illusion that my prayers had that kind of impact. My time in prayer was full of spiritual dead silence. It’s wonderful that my college peers on these retreats heard God’s voice; it’s wonderful that Elijah could pray and stop the rain, as James notes — but clearly I missed that lesson in Sunday School!

 

So I have to wade through my “stuff” when I read James’ exhortations on prayer, and maybe you have to wade through your stuff too as you think about prayer.

 

But — having noted our doubts and insecurities about prayer, having looked at them and now setting them down for the time being — it’s important to notice that James isn’t approaching prayer as an individual spiritual exercise or as a supernatural encounter. James is showing us that prayer is an attitude of community and prayer is a perspective on God’s presence in life. Prayer holds the perspective that God is in all things and amidst all circumstances — suffering or joy, sickness or discord. And prayer assumes the absolute necessity of community for the sake of healing — when there is sorrow, gather together; where there is brokenness, call the elders; when there is a reason to celebrate, call the whole community!

 

In our lives, sometimes we maintain a disconnect or discrepancy between aspects of our lives without realizing it; the same is true in our spiritual lives! We often say that we believe God is life and God is love. But we can forget God as life and God as love when we pray, instead approaching prayer as a feat of spiritual athleticism, like we’re climbing a rock wall to reach a faraway God. And we’re contorting ourselves in every way to reach the top but entirely missing the fact that God is the rocks we’re climbing and God is the air we’re gasping and God is the climbers beside us on the wall.

 

Prayer shouldn’t forget that God is life and God is love and God is presence in its pursuit of ethereal heights; prayer should draw us closer to God in life and God in love. Prayer should draw us closer to the activity of God in the world and in community and in us. Prayer should draw us closer to the Other, teach us to recognize God’s presence not only moving in our own lives but moving in all life. Prayer should change our hearts by keeping us attuned to God’s heart beating through life. Prayer should heal our hearts, heal our lives, by stretching our hearts out from our own chests to meet the heart of God in another’s life.

 

There was an awful story in the news this past weekend that revealed too vividly what’s at stake in our collective ability — or inability — to recognize the heart of God in one another; what’s at stake not just in being able to recognize God here and there, but in practicing at every moment the recognition of God in others. In a small town in Connecticut, in the middle of the night, a man received a phone call from his sister who lives next door. She thought someone was trying to invade and rob her home, so she called her brother for help. The man grabbed his gun, went outside. There was someone between the two houses, wearing a mask, carrying a knife. The man shot and killed the person in the mask. It turned out that the person in the mask was his son.

 

Life is at stake in our willingness to recognize God in others. Prayer, James says, is a spiritual tool for training our eyes and our hearts to recognize God in another life, even in a life that is hidden behind a mask.

 

The disciples came to Jesus: “There’s someone we don’t know, doing things that we don’t understand. He’s casting out demons and saying your name, but we don’t recognize him so we’re suspicious — we think he shouldn’t be trusted.” Jesus said, “Don’t stop him, just because he’s going about his work differently. He’s not your competition or your enemy. The cup of water that he shares is just as valuable as the cup of water you share.

 

“In fact,” Jesus says, “let me go a step further. Not only should you not interfere with his work of healing — I’m holding you responsible for his well-being overall. I’m holding you responsible for recognizing that his life is sacred too. If you cannot recognize God’s life within this man, it will be as if you are choosing to drown your own life.

 

“If your hand cannot extend in welcome to a stranger, it would be better for you to lose your hand than to miss encountering God in that stranger. If your foot refuses to cross a border or to walk on the other side of the tracks, it would be better for you to cut off your foot than to let your spirit be corrupted by your foot’s inability to recognize God’s presence in foreign and unfamiliar territories.

 

“Likewise if your eye cannot see God — living and breathing and dying — on the other side of a mask or hijab or uniform; and if your tongue cannot consider greeting God in the life of the other; it would be better to lose your eye or cut out your tongue than to live in the hell of the heart that has not learned to meet God in all of life.

 

“What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? What good is life and community if not to experience God?” (Mark 9:38-50)

 

Prayer is not about our individual efforts of spiritual athleticism. It’s not about what Herculean effort we make on the strength of our own spirits to reach God. Prayer is about considering the community and maintaining a perspective on God in all of life.

 

Prayer keeps us salty by putting us in a space where we must give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. The practice of prayer is the practice of considering more than just ourselves in this life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of recognizing God amidst all life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of considering God’s presence in one another — in community — over and over and over again until we see past the masks and the assumptions and the stereotypes and the judgments. The practice of prayer changes us — heals us — by continually exposing us to the heart of God in all moments of life.

 

The alternative, if we take Jesus seriously, if we take the news seriously (not just this story out of Connecticut, but every story of war and abuse and violence) … the alternative to recognizing God’s movement through all life, the alternative to acknowledging God’s presence in others, the alternative to prayer, is death. Prayer keeps us from the death of self-consumption — prayer keeps us salty — by putting us in a space where we give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. Prayer gives us life by keeping us in community.

 

So pray for one another: through suffering, through joy, through illness, through wandering. Expect prayer to tune you in — perhaps to God’s voice — but most of all to God’s movement! Give yourself the grace and the peace of not having to make some spiritually athletic effort to reach up to God; pay attention to God where you are, with the understanding that God will start to show up in more places, in more faces, than you anticipated as you pray. Let prayer be the space where the heart of God changes your heart and gives you a heart for others. Amen.

 

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/30/12.

Expanding

I stretch my arms wide — wider still, opening my spine —

feel my feet reaching their roots into the rocky ground beneath,

breathe in Adirondack mountain air on the edge of this valley,

and invite the spectacle to embrace me with its holy life.

If beauty was a wave, I would be drenched — joyfully soaked!

When I turn away from the gift of this panorama,

back to my daily living, O Resplendent God,

keep my heart wide-eyed in deep appreciation

of the breadth & depth & diversity of your essence in creation.

Surely your goodness extends beyond what my eyes can see,

is more than what my soul can begin to comprehend!

O Holy Expanse, expand me by your sheer glory!