I added a page about my latest book project, For God & Country (in that order); Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals, under the About tab above, as well as a unique page on Facebook, and you can also find occasional updates about it on my Twitter feed. It will be released by Herald Press in 2013, around All Saints Day, a day that falls on the last week of the Christian liturgical cycle, right before Advent. On that day, the church remembers her dead, the “triumphant” members of the faith, who have a few things to say to us, the “militant” members. It also falls just ten days before Veterans Day in the United States, which has also been the feast day for soldier saint Martin of Tours for 1600 years…
Tags: fasting, feminine god, gender, lent, masculine god, sex, theology
Last time on the blog, I talked about Lenten fasts and how we are called during this season to refocus on God so that we can better identify the idols we’ve made in our lives. In part 2, I reveal what idols I might have made by describing the good that I’ve chosen to give up for the 40 days of Lent.
A few months ago, I was in California with family over the holidays. My family is an amazing bunch of people and I love them dearly, but with my religious zeal and all, I can be the black sheep of the flock. This last time I went back, I made it a point to ask my mom about her spiritual history, including what churches and traditions formed her and how she saw her own growth in terms of religion. It was a conversation we’d never had before because I kind assumed most of my family was vaguely (if not explicitly) agnostic, which I shouldn’t have done.
One night we sat up on her balcony after a winter rain, her with her glass of white wine and me with my can o’ beer. I listened as my mom described her catechism and confirmation in the Lutheran church in California. She told me how what she was taught didn’t jive with her innate impressions of God. Throughout her catechesis, she held doubts as to whether God was an greying bearded man in the sky whose temper could flare with little warning. Not one to hold grudges, she came to feel that her internal beliefs were fine to hold even if they did not adhere to what she was being told about God. “So… what do you believe about God?” I inquired.
My mom told me that to her, “God is a woman.” When I asked her what led her to believe that, she said “because God cries with compassion.” My gender and theology alarm bells were clainging symbols in my brain. I went on, stupidly and uncaringly, to suggest ways in which those things she said were (to use a seminary term) “problematic.” This might be part of the reason I am not training to be a pastor…
But when I thought about it more, I realized that gender is actually a characteristic that does not apply to God. I mean, we call God “Father” for many a varied reason, but God does not acutally have a penis (or a vagina, for that matter). Calling God “Father” allows us to personalize our creator, but it is something done for us, not for God. In our own intellectual finitude, we use blatantly inadequate words to describe the indescribale, for sometimes words are all we have.
As Ash Wednesday approached, and I wondered what idols I had made in my life, my mind kept returning to that converation with my mom. I had totally bulldozed over her own very valid (and, it turns out, not without theological precedent) experience of God in feminine form, all without ever questioning my own experience of a masculine god. I had my idol.
During Lent, I am giving up masculine pronouns for God.
By refraining from entertaining my masculine notions of God, I hope I can learn more about whether and to what extent I have reduced God to a man. If that sounds like a play on words to evoke Jesus, it is not intended, since the first and second persons of the Trinity are eternally distinct. They are of one being and substance, and yet are forever two persons and two natures. In other words, that Jesus had a penis does not mean God does. Furthermore, my fast will hopefully help me recognize more fully the inherent reduction necessary in referring to God as either a man or a woman. Remember, a fast is giving up a necessary good (like calling God “Father”) so that we can see if and how we’ve made that good an idol.
I know this might cause some consternation, some accusations that I am making God something that she is not. In my next and final post for Lent, I will try to get into some of the theology I realize is at play behind the scenes here. When we return, I’ll try to cover some more explicitly theological ground, and maybe address some concerns this Lenten fast raises. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments and I’ll respond as I am able. Have a solemn and fruitful Lent!
Tags: Ash Wednesday, fasting, habits, idolatry, lent
Lent is a very important season in the Christian liturgical calendar. Spanning from Ash Wednesday until Easter, Lent is a time for penance, reflection, and fasting. Fasts are traditionally kept from the moment you recieve the ashes on your forehead until either Easter Sunday or until the ‘feast’ that Jesus held in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday (the night he was betrayed). Though Lent lasts six weeks, we usually speak of “The 40 Days of Lent” (which recalls Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert), since Sundays are often exempted from the fast. We also refrain from saying “Alleluia” in worship, as Lent is a time to “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark1:15, which is not uncommon to hear from the minister as they mark the sign of the Cross in ashes upon your forehead)
The Lenten fast is a popular practice for many Christians, but it is important to understand the purpose of a fast in order to experience Lent in all it’s troubling mystery. To fast from something is to give up something you need, not something you want (or shouldn’t have in the first place). Many churches, after all, cover up crosses and other elements of worship in their sanctuaries during Lent – and what could be a greater good than Jesus? For a lot of folks (including non-Christian fasts, like the Muslim month of Ramadan), fasting is from food, which is a good that our bodies need to survive. Voluntarily giving up a good is not so much about self-improvement per se as it is a way to better understand the very nature of our need, which for Christians, is ultimately God.
This is not to say that giving up a bad habit cannot be a good Lenten practice, it just isn’t a fast in its usual sense. I mention this because a professor of mine has rightly pointed out that for some, it would be good to give up chocolate for Lent (for chocolate is very good). But for other people in our highly cosmetic and individualistic culture, it would be better to give up giving up chocolate (for fasting has become starvation). Food is good for us – it is what we do with it that can be bad. The goodness of food has been distorted when we are lead into either obesity or anorexia nervosa. Whether you give up chocolate or give up giving up chocolate, Lenten fasts are about penitently refocusing our attention on God and trying to find where idols might be lying hidden in our lives.
Giving up a good helps us to see more clearly how we have made that good into an idol.
In the example of someone who suffers from anorexia, the good of their created body in all its beauty and dignity may have been abandoned for the idol of a tighter, more petite (or muscular) body that God frankly did not make for that person. For the example of someone who is obese, perhaps food has come to provide that which God alone can ultimately provide, instead of for simply bodily nourishment. (for this reason, the only possible “comfort food” is the body and blood of Jesus)
Or take sexual pleasure for example; sex having been created by God means that it is good, but it is also easily (and frequently) made an idol. Both pornography and (f)rigid chastity can skew the good that is sexual pleasure. As someone who has struggled with both, I think a compelling case can be made both for giving up pornography and for giving in to our healthy and well-moderated desire for physical intimacy with our significant other.
Fasting is not about giving up the bad things that Lent gives us reason to see, but about giving up the good things that we all too often have improperly made into idols. This brings me to my own Lenten practice this year; What good am I giving up this year, what might have become my own idol/s? Well, it begins with a story. One that I will pick up on in part 2… (so stay tuned!)
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.
Tags: Memorial Day, Reborn4thJuly, Veterans for Peace
I noticed that a video from last Memorial Day was posted by the local Veterans for Peace chapter that asked me to read an excerpt from Reborn on the Fourth of July. They don’t allow embedding,
so I won’t make this a page, but here is a link;
Looks like it can be embedded. You can find this clip under the Video tab above as well.
Remember the song “12 Days of Christmas”? That’s what we’re in right now; from December 25th until January 6th in the liturgical calendar is known as Christmastide – January 6th marks the day that the three wisemen, also known as Magi, visit the baby Jesus to give him gifts reminiscent of death; frankincense and myrrh were used in embalming and burials to hide the stench of death. I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s death a lot lately, in writing for my next book, For God & Country (in that order), Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals.
Jesus is said to have been “born to die” for us and for the world. From his birth, he was destined to be killed – his purpose, hie fate, if you will, was to die for us. From the moment he was born. You can’t have Christmas without Easter, no manger without Golgotha. It is poignant, then, that one of the readings for Christmas services is often from John’s Gospel (which oddly does not have a Christmas narrative); “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (v.1:5) But my book isn’t about death, it’s about service. It is about people that make (or should make) Christians think more deeply about their own beliefs. Two people have been in my mind the last several days; Judas and Longinus.
Judas was a disciple, chosen by Jesus to follow the Son of God toward a life of faith. He was known as Iscariot, which is linguistically vague and difficult to pin down. It might mean he was a sicarii, a member of a group of Jewish assassins that used short daggers to murder political enemies, like the Romans who had a fortress on Temple grounds. If that was the case, he was familiar with violence and probably did so thinking he was doing it in service to his community. Somewhere along the line, he took it upon himself to sell Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver, betraying the Son of God with a kiss at Gethsemane. The guilt that overtook him for having contributed to the death of his friend led him to hang himself.
Longinus is the name that Roman Catholics give to the soldier present at Christ’s crucifixion, who would have been a member of the Temple Guard that reported somewhat to the religious leaders on behalf of Pilate, the governor. “Longinus” is derived from the greek word longche, for the long spear that soldiers used in battle and that was also used by the soldier to pierce the side of Christ to ensure he was dead. Longinus was executing capital punishment upon a convicted criminal, and would not have had any reason to think he was not serving justice.
Both these men contributed directly to Jesus’ execution at the hands of the state. They each probably knew violence intimately. Judas used violence against others and ultimately against himself, the only tool he felt capable of affecting the change he wanted to see in the world; first to rid the world of his enemies as a sicarii and then to rid the world of himself. He certainly felt guilt for his complicity, but instead of repenting, he continued down the path of violence. Tradition holds that Longinus, who was even more directly responsible for Jesus’ death than Judas, was converted upon seeing the Son of God die upon Rome’s cross. Conversion always follows contrition and repentance. Instead of going the way of Judas, Longinus’ conversion led him to confess Jesus as the Son of God and tradition holds that he eventually left the military to be discipled by the apostles and become a monk.
There are two ways violence resurfaces in the lives of those who are familiar therewith. One way is to implode, evidenced by Judas, who committed suicide after realizing what he had done to his mentor and friend. He had visited violence upon others, and it was the only way he knew to respond when he became his own enemy. The other way is to explode, as many veterans in our own era are doing; mass shootings, murder-suicides, or otherwise making sure the pain inside oneself is shared (involuntarily) by others. But Longinus shows us a third way to respond to violence, which is to repent of it and not allow the darkness to overcome the light within. This Roman military person did not let violence have the last word, but faith. Seeing his own victim, Jesus, dying on the cross, he confessed the man he murdered as the Son of God and at that moment began to follow him. After becoming a monk, he was persecuted, having his teeth pulled out and his tongue cut off. He kept preaching the good news clearly (perhaps not unlike another soldier saint, Francis of Assisi, who said “preach always, use words when necessary”), so the local governor, whom he had once served in uniform, had him killed.
To this day, Longinus is called Saint. Judas is known only as Betrayer. One chose the path of life, the other knew only death. There is a fork in the road, and one path leads only to the world, of implosion and explosion. The other, less traveled path, leads to life and faith. Choose the latter. It is always open to you. It was open to the very man who oversaw and even guaranteed Jesus’ death on the cross, and it is open to you.
This Sunday will be only the eighth time, in the 54 years that it has been celebrated, that Veterans Day will fall on a Sunday. Over the last several months, candidates have demanded a lot of our attention nationally and locally. With changes to campaign finance laws, this campaign has seemed longer, more vitriolic, and distracting than others I’ve witnessed in the 12 years I have been voting. What will be on our minds this Sunday might not be our veterans, and that reflects a troubling and dire situation that requires your attention.
Veterans are everywhere; we stand behind you in the grocery store line, sit next to you in class, and even worship beside you in church every week. What we have in common with one another is not always the easiest bond [kb1] to understand. Some say the martial fraternity is made up of courage, tenacity, and strength. To be sure, what I saw in my own combat deployment in 2004 reflected heights of human charity I’ve failed to witness before or since; soldiers standing in the line of fire for one another, risking their lives for civilians and comrades alike.
But there is another trait we veterans hold tragically in common. In 2009, CBS conducted a study that found over 17 people killed themselves every day (they also explain the numbers), a rate higher than any other recorded in our nation’s history. The one thing these people had in common? Former military service. More recently, it was found that current members of the United States military were taking their own lives at a rate of one every day, itself another tragic statistical record of epic proportions. Suicide is currently the leading cause of death among our troops, those men and women we ask God to bless.
It is a partial truth to say that the martial fraternity is held together by common virtues. As evidenced by those startling statistics, the other half of that truth is that we hold in common feelings of mental and spiritual despair that can lead to suicidal ideation and self-harm. Just this past Election Day, when we exercise the gift of democratic process that military members of the past helped ensure, 17 veterans and one service member took their own lives. The same happened the day after, and the day after that. It will happen this Sunday, the very day on which we are called to express our gratitude for their service, a service less than 1% of the American population is willing to shoulder.
As Christians, we have a dual call; not just to recognize people for their good deeds but to help reconcile people to their loving Creator. Pastors, priests, and other religious leaders who have been called to ministry have veterans in their midst, must minister to the unique needs of our nations veterans. Here are some ideas, from a veteran who has seen both successes and failures. Not all of them might translate directly to your own congregation, but I hope they germinate and sprout more ideas
- Do not “out” veterans in your congregation. To honor the veterans in your congregation, think twice before asking veterans to stand during the service. To be sure, military service is to be celebrated. But much of it also needs to be mourned; doing the things that must be done in war takes a heavy emotional and spiritual toll. By asking veterans to identify themselves, you risk exposing wounds that need tending, not just heroes that deserve to be celebrated. Listen carefully to your congregation and discern care individually; what works for one veteran (like being recognized for their service) can be harmful for another (who might have had to commit necessary evil and whose conscience has not yet been reconciled). And find ways to both celebrate and mourn the realities of military duty in corporate worship.
- Say something. After over a decade at war, veterans are being met with deafening and ambiguous silence. Months go by in the news without mention of the fact that men and women are still dying in Afghanistan. For those who are recently returned, the silence makes clear that for America, war is not a subject to be talked about, not to be shared with the community that ultimately sent you in their name and with their blessing. I’ve heard the silence described in military terms my compatriots hear on duty; “Shut up and drive on.” But Church is not supposed to be silent, solitary, and stoic. Silence is not an option, it is a betrayal that forces us to shoulder the burden of moral discernment alone, perpetuating the very isolation Christ breaks by being the Word. Do not demand identification by asking that they stand, evoke participation by making clear the relevancy of military service to the life of faith. Consider preaching off the lectionary (if you have one),Appendix B of my book Reborn on the Fourth of July lists the appearances of military personnel in the New Testament. Soldiers are whispering to you from the pages of the Gospels and, at the same time, looking up to you from the pews. Listen to the former and you will certainly have the attention of the latter.
- Let veterans self-define. During Vietnam, many veterans were met with condemnation and scorn, and early on in the Global War on Terror, we were met with platitudinous gratitude. People should not be either villainized or venerated simply for being veterans; we must not focus exclusively on either their failures or successes, since every veteran has a bit of both. Monster or hero, veterans are still human beings capable of doing ill or good. Within a worship service, or one-on-one in pastoral relationships, be sure not to assume anything about a veterans service, good or bad. It is almost certain that he or she (and warriors across time) did things they are proud of, things for which they feel shame, and many things they simply cannot easily label. Neither should you, at least not without their guidance. Instead, see the moral upheaval as a gift to the church, a reminder that nobody is merely as evil or charitable as his or her best or worst actions suggest. We all fall short of the glory of God and yet are redeemed by the work of his son, Jesus Christ. Do not feed our ego or our bad consciences; feed our souls.
Notice a similarity between those we would call monsters and those we would call hero; the men tried at Nuremburg said they were “just following orders,” while numerous Congressional Medal of Honor winners have said they were “just doing [their] jobs.” It is a thin line between sinner and saint, between the violence we condone and the violence we condemn. The silence of the church forces that distinction upon the shoulders of an increasingly young fighting force. The average age of WWII soldiers was 29 years and 12% of Americans served, for Vietnam it was 23 years old and about 9% of the total population. For the Global War on Terror, the average age of a first-time deployment is only 19, and less than 1% have served.
Ours is a generation insulated from war. Those who have served, like me, are facing returns home to communities increasingly ill-equipped for the unique traumas GWOT veterans faced. As Christians, we too often fall into partisan camps equally isolated from the lived experience of combat. We have lost touch not only with our own veterans, but with traditions that might otherwise heal them. For example, did you know that Veterans Day is also the feast day for a 4th century Bishop by the name of Martin? After an assignment to a unit that protected Caesar, he told Julian at the Battle of Worms that as a Christian he could not fight (though he protected the emperor for 25 years prior, without having been sent to the battlefield). The founding father of both the Jesuits and the Franciscans were soldiers, Francis turning his back to the 4thCrusade in 1204 and Ignatius laying his sword and armor at the foot of a statue of Mary in 1522.
If tradition isn’t exactly your denomination’s cup of tea, the New Testament has a number of passages to reflect upon: the soldiers at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:14 (which might not say what you think), the soldiers overseeing Jesus’ passion who mocked him only to repent and confess him Son of God (days before any apostle mustered the same courage), Cornelius the “devout and God-fearing” centurion from Acts 10, or the sea-borne Julius ( and Paul’s nearly Eucharistic meal) of Acts 24. Since my conversion in 2006, I have not once heard a sermon preached on a Sunday that dealt directly with any of these figures. If I had, I imagine it would have saved me (and any devout and God-fearing veteran) months or years of searching for where our particular story, our experiences in the military, had relevant and meaningful things to say to and hear from this life of faith we call Christianity.
Tragically, I’ve rarely (if ever) heard of a pastor taking the initiative to display that the martial story has an integral place in the Bible and in our shared Christian identity. When it has been attempted, most of what I’ve heard has been little more than partisanship, not much but to tell soldiers and veterans that our military service has either guaranteed our place in hell or in heaven. Military service does neither, but it does teach us one thing; the greatest love that people can have for one another, to lay down our lives for our friends. When I wore the uniform, I knew the men and women beside me would lay their lives down for me, and I for them. On Sundays, I’m not so sure.
Don’t make the mistake of relegating Veterans Day to just some other federal holiday. It is not just the nation’s chance to recognize those who have volunteered to risk their lives for their countrymen. It is also a chance for the church to learn from her own soldiers, like Martin, Francis, of Ignatius. The church has a different set of founding fathers and mothers that form and inform us. Martin, whose November 11th feast day predates Veterans Day by 15 centuries, left a career in the army to wander the countryside healing the sick, eventually being cajoled into becoming Bishop of Tours. Francis of Assisi was a Prisoner of War who turned his back on war to adopt extreme poverty in obedience to God’s command to rebuild the Church. Ignatius devoted himself to education (without the benefit of a GI Bill) and went on to found the Jesuits, God’s own Marines known for devoted service.
Warriors across Christian history have loved the church, would die for the church. There is not a single veteran I’ve spoken to in six years for whom the holy fire of loyal service has been extinguished. Do not overlook their presence in your own congregations and the amazing gifts they have to offer. All we wait for is an invitation. Veterans Day, Martin’s feast, is your chance to explore, evoke, and graciously receive the beautiful and tragic gifts God gives through us.