‘Tis the State of My Discontent [3]: Thoughts on Running the Race, Space, and Place

[This is the third and last post in this series. This post probably stands on its own but for background search through some of my past posts in the ‘Our Story’ category or check out part one here and part two here.]

Housecleaning

I realize from the start here that not everyone will understand my approach to this series of posts. This is painfully obvious in some of the comments I’ve received. These comments comprise three basic types (NOTE: I moderate ALL my comments so if your comment appears on my blog then your comments are not the ones in question here). They are…

The Negative Type – the basic message here is “Just suck it up and quit your whining, you’re complaining too much.” (I’m not making it up here, this is a direct quote from a comment I received.) One commenter even stated that because I haven’t been able to provide for my family and provide insurance for my wife that God is judging me and that I am ‘worse than an infidel.’ (No, I am not kidding.)

The Fatalistic Type – the basic message here is that God’s will is going to be done no matter what, and there is nothing you can do to stop it (even if it means being homeless as one commenter stated), so (and here we are back to this) quit your whining (to which they then they add) and just praise God.

The Individualistic Type – the basic message here is that all I need is just me and Jesus. After all I (individually) am the ‘bride’ of Christ and all I (individually) need to do is focus more on my (individual) relationship with Jesus and then my problems won’t seem so big. No community needed – just me and Jesus. (I can’t even begin to describe the theological difficulties here.)

What is clear from some of these comments is that for some what I have written amounts basically to a lack of faith on my part. Most have expressed their well meaning concern whereas at least two have been downright judgmental and even called my status as a Christian into question. What is also clear is that these responses lack anything of the categories remotely resembling the language of lament or the need for community, and at least from my perspective seem very uncomfortable with real and raw human experience and as a result are extremely theologically ‘thin’. I think a strong case can be made that the result of such theological ‘thinness’ is to fail to really listen to the other and to react in judgmental, fatalistic, and individualistic ways.

Its honestly hard to not let these types of comments get to me (especially the one about me not providing health insurance for Christie and this making me an infidel or worse). But I want to avoid the temptation to spend too long parsing these responses. That would sidetrack me I think from where the real theological work for me is right now. My aim in the remainder of this post is to give some thoughts related to running the race well, the importance of space, and the intersection of exile and place in the hopes of moving towards something hopefully resembling a philosophically and theologically thick description of these things in relation to my own experience, especially as of late.

Thoughts on Running the Race

The one thought at this time that comes to my mind when I think of running the race is “I’m tired!” To be honest I am not sure how I can go on. My lungs burn and my legs are heavy. I want to remain fixed on the prize that my liberating King has for me for running the race well, but I need a sabbatical. I remarked somewhere recently (it may have been to a friend or in a recent blog, not sure which) that if someone were to offer to provide financially for my family and I to take a three month sabbatical in the mountains I would accept it in a heartbeat.

One factor in my tiredness has to do with my current job working for a mental health organization, which involves significant tensions currently. My experience in pastoral roles and as a theologian makes it hard for me to work within the mental health system (at least as I’ve experienced it here, I know many fine mental health practitioners, but though varying from state to state it does seem to me that the mental health system is very broken). But beyond these sort of tensions, and more to the heart of the issue, I am also simply and plainly relationally and spiritually spent (is it ok if I admit this?). Just recently I had the experience of meeting with one of the persons I help … and there was nothing. Emotionally and spiritually I was scraping bottom and there was nothing.

Most would call this burnout. But what I am feeling is not burnout and I have a feeling that the ‘burnout’ epidemic we sometimes hear about with pastors is not really burnout. It is more a spiritual/relational emptiness and perhaps numbness that comes from giving everything and never really getting a real day off, a Sabbath, or a sabbatical. (I think I am only now beginning to realize the true effect of being a trauma chaplain resident at a level one trauma hospital, the busiest in the nation, had on me.) Burnout you can perhaps help with some time off, better boundaries, and better time management (the kinds of things the behavioral health world would advise). But this spiritual emptiness and numbness goes deeper than simple ‘behavior management’ … this sort of thing requires wholistic spiritual refreshment.

Even in my weakness and exhaustion, I really do hope that I am running the race well. I’ve never really been concerned about resume building. I have simply tried to follow God in the missio Dei wherever that leads. If I may use the ‘F’ word, thus far it seems I’ve seen a lot of failure – failure as a ‘traditional’ church minister, failure as a church planter, and failure as a chaplain even (in some respects), and now failure as a worker in the mental health field. But mistakes (oh boy, yeah a lot of mistakes) and all, it has shaped me into the particular person that I am today – one who still has as his aim to run the race set before him well.

However, not just any old definition of ‘well’ will do. I believe we have to define it in theological terms. The goal (telos) of what might be described as a ‘well lived life’ is distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional. My aim is to live my life in a way that is unintelligible if 1) the triune God we Christians worship does’t exist (a la Hauerwas), 2) or is separated from the biblical narrative and story of Christ, and 3) or is severed from the missional activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the church for the sake of the world. This is how I see the race set before us, but I’m tired. I need rest. It occurs to me that since our first miscarriage the one thing C.C. and I haven’t been able to do is rest. We are both tired.

Thoughts on The importance of Space

I think there is something we know inherently about the importance of space. Space seems to transcend the physical, even while including the physical. Space also has to do with the atmosphere created, the way it feels, the intangibles. Teachers try to make their classrooms a creative ‘space’ for learning, retailers and marketers try to make their stores a ‘space’ where you will buy stuff, guys everywhere try to make a ‘space’ where they will impress the girl, and newly married couples try to create a ‘space’ in which to raise a family. In terms of my own depletion and exhaustion, I have concluded that space is a big issue – or, perhaps better put, the lack of it. There are three expressions of space I’ll discuss here.

Let’s consider physical space first off. When we were at Logsdon in Abilene we felt extremely blessed in terms of physical space to exist as a family. We had gone from extremely small accommodations to a three bedroom rental from the school. Never mind the fact that it was drafty, freezing in the winter, burning up hot in the summer, and had some of the ugliest wallpaper ever in the kitchen … I loved it. I was able to get an old desk and make myself an office with my books. A place to study, ponder, pray, and refresh. This was taken away when we moved to Houston as both our apartments were very small (and I lost my desk). And now we are in even smaller accommodations as we live with my in-laws. While grateful for the hospitality, it has been difficult to create a space here that is refreshing.

Much of this is due how physical space and relational space intersect. When we moved from Houston Christie and I both wanted to reclaim our marriage as we had both been chaplain residents and that had taken its natural toll (being a CPE resident is a bit like working two full time very demanding jobs, times that by two for us). We have been able to do this some but in many ways the physical space hampers the relational space needed for us to do this. This in itself is draining for me and for us both as well. It seems that any place we go there is always someone else there.

Finally there is what I call liturgical space. This has to do with our rhythms of life, how we mark time, and how that forms us as humans. One of the ways that I have sought to take care of myself and ensure that I was refreshed was to be sure that I was living out of the story of Christ on a daily basis. To do this I follow the Revised Common Lectionary readings and the liturgical church calendar. This gives me a way of exchanging the ‘rat race’ of life and going to a job for the life giving routine/rhythm of a vocationally filled life – it gives me a different way to mark time.

I have tried to keep my liturgical disciplines going during this time of transition, but I’m still depleted. I think that a large part of this has to do with the fact that my regular practice of silence and solitude has been compromised.  Since we have been here in Carlsbad, and having tried an array of places (the library, the local coffee shop, IHOP, my own desk at the house), I have not been able to find or create the needed space (physical, relational, or liturgical) for silence and to be alone that I need for truly wholistic spiritual (which includes the physical, relational, and liturgical) replenishment. The result – I’m wiped! Silence and solitude as disciplines help create the conditions and space which I need to be refreshed. I’m just not getting much silence or solitude!

Thoughts on Exile, Vocation, and Place

I have described my experience of late as an exile of sorts. It seems that most people I have spoke with take exile to imply some sort of sinful disobedience – exile is punishment. I’ve been asked (sometimes in a perplexed, inquiring tone and once or twice in an accusatory one), “Do you think you did something wrong?” or “Why do you think God would punish you?” or “Where do you think you were disobedient?” But the idea of exile itself need not involve some sort of disobedience. God can certainly chastise as God sees fit, but there can still be many experiences of exile that are not the result of sinful disobedience. Sometimes exile can be self imposed, or the natural outworking of bad choices (that are not necessarily sinful), or one of the maladies that accompanies what John of the Cross termed the ‘dark night of the soul (something I am intimately acquainted with).

Eugene Peterson in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places describes living in exile as “jerky and spasmodic, anxious and hurried, with little sense of place or grounding” and declares “these are the same exilic conditions lived through by the people of God in the 6th century B.C.” (64) Exile has a long history in the story of the people of God. In this story, the feeling of exile is theologically related to the loss of place – exile is about displacement.

Dis … place … ment.

That word seems overflowing with theological significance for me. I think it gives something behind why Zephaniah 3:16-17 became ‘our verse’ for Christie and I after the loss of our first baby to miscarriage – and why it has continued to resonate with our experience all these years. I’ve felt displaced for quite some time (it hasn’t just been a recent Carlsbad, NM thing). This can probably be most clearly seen in that in the 14 yrs C.C. and I have been married, we have lived in eight different towns and we have moved 13 times.

I shake my head as I look back over what I have just written. How could it be that someone like myself, who is a student of postmodern theology, big as it is on contextual narratives, has been captive to the distinctly modern story of displacement (with the loss of place in American culture we could say that we have what could be called an epidemic of homelessness). I must confess, it has been sometime since I felt like I was at ‘home’. Indeed, one way to describe my exilic experience is a sense of homelessness. The question then is, where is ‘home’ – where am I, are we, to be ‘placed’?

Drawing upon some of his earlier work, in his ‘Sixth Study’ in Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur speaks of what he terms ‘emplotment’, which can be described as “the capacity to bring together the features of a text into a coherent temporal flow.” The ‘texts’ in question here are us (both individually and communally) and Ricoeur speaks of emplotment in relation to what he describes as ‘the self and narrative identity’ – basically who we are becomes formed by the ‘plot’ of our lives, we emplot ourselves in a narrative and storied fashion as we go. But for a narrative or story to be what Peterson describes as ‘grounded’ it also needs ‘placement’ – it needs to be placed somewhere locally (all lived spirituality is local). So in addition to Ricoeur’s notion of emplotment I propose we might also consider the idea of ‘emplacement’ as well. This in turn calls forth the desperate need for a theology of place.

At this point another Peterson quote from Christ Plays comes to mind, a quote that has been haunting me for at least a year now. Peterson says this,

Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people. (76)

Look at that last line again, “this land … this neighborhood … these trees and streets and houses … this work … these people.” In my exilic homelessness this line captures beautifully what I crave, a locality in which to work out my vocation (regardless of what job I may have or how I pay the bills) as pastor/theologian lived within the nexus of race, space, and place.

But where?

Well, the place where I grew up no longer feels like home, it is no longer my place. And a slew of other places where we have lived just seemed ‘temporary’ (the great enemy of emplacement): Ft. Worth; Glen Rose; Portales, NM (our first exile); Carlsbad, NM (our present exile); Stafford; Houston (even though we love Ecclesia Houston still felt temporary); and even Plainview (where we lived for five years). The place where we have lived that did not feel temporary (even when we were packing to leave for Stafford/Houston) was Abilene, TX.

This land, neighborhood, trees and streets and houses = Abilene.

These people (our community) = Crosspoint Fellowship and Hardin-Simmons University/Logsdon Seminary.

I am finishing the last part of this post as we are visiting Abilene for the weekend – the first time in 2 1/2 years we have been able to see in person many folks that we consider family. I simply can’t shake the gut level feeling we belong here, that feeling of suddenly taking a deep breath after holding your breath for way too long. Hermeneutically speaking faith, life, and mission make sense here. Abilene feels like home. Place, people, and the mission of God … woven together. Sure, we can be missional anywhere we find ourselves – its just for us this place called Abilene feels like the most natural place, or locality, for us to join Father, Son, and Spirit in the missio Dei and work out our vocations together in community with these people.

‘Tis the place and the people, I believe, where and with whom my discontent can be set at ease.

All this of course brings up even more questions … which will have to wait till another post. Until then thanks for reading.

May the shalom of our liberating King Jesus be with you.

Christopher J.H. Wright on ‘The Bible and the Mission of God’

When people ask what kind of theological research I enjoy (yes, I said ‘enjoy’ – I am bit of a theology nerd) I usually break it down into three aspects that I see as interwoven and interdependent. These are trinitarian theology (the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit and our participation in the divine life), narrative theology (our participation in and formation by the biblical narrative and the story of Christ), and missional theology (our ecclesial participation in the missio Dei of which Father, Son, and Spirit are the dramatis personae or primary actors). I see these as intimately interrelated with how we are created in the imago Dei, sexuality, how we should view human relationships, the nature of the church, and (yes) the mission of the church.

On the mission of the church, one of the best books I’ve ever read is Christopher J.H. Wright’s monstrous 535 page The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. The product description on amazon.com reads,

Most Christians would agree that the Bible provides a basis for mission. But Christopher Wright boldly maintains that mission is bigger than that–there is in fact a missional basis for the Bible! The entire Bible is generated by and is all about God’s mission. In order to understand the Bible, we need a missional hermeneutic of the Bible, an interpretive perspective that is in tune with this great missional theme. We need to see the “big picture” of God’s mission and how the familiar bits and pieces fit into the grand narrative of Scripture. Beginning with the Old Testament and the groundwork it lays for understanding who God is, what he has called his people to be and do, and how the nations fit into God’s mission, Wright gives us a new hermeneutical perspective on Scripture. This new perspective provides a solid and expansive basis for holistic mission. Wright emphasizes throughout a holistic mission as the proper shape of Christian mission. God’s mission is to reclaim the world–and that includes the created order–and God’s people have a designated role to play in that mission.

Folks often ask me for a good primer on missional theology and I find that I can’t recommend Wright’s book because, well, 535 pages does not a primer make. So, I was rather pleased when I ran across the two videos below which are something of a condensed version of the book. In the videos Wright covers ‘God with a Mission’, ‘Humanity with a Mission’, ‘Old Testament Israel with a Mission’, ‘Jesus with a Mission’, ‘The Church with a Mission’, and ‘What does it mean to read the Bible from a missional perspective?’

In the first video Wright covers ‘Reading The Whole Bible For Mission: What Happens When We Do?’ and asks ‘a biblical basis for missions’ or ‘the missional basis of the Bible?’

Christopher Wright – Reading The Whole Bible For Mission: What Happens When We Do? from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

In the second video Wright covers ‘God, Israel And The Nations: The OT and Christian Mission’ – which is good to counteract the tendency all to often to leave Israel and the Old Testament out of our story as Christians.

Christopher Wright – God, Israel And The Nations: The OT and Christian Mission from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

A fuller outline of the videos can be found here and here.

Jesus vs Religion [1] – What Do You Think?

Evangelicals love their clichés. No, they really do!

We hear them after a huge disappointment, “God obviously has something better in store for you.”

We can hear them at the break up of a longstanding relationship, “Well, he/she just wasn’t the one. You just need to wait on God’s timing.”

We can hear them at the death of a child, “God just needed another angel in heaven.” (This is but one of the many well meaning, yet completely unhelpful and theologically vacuous clichés offered to C.C. and I as we suffered through losing three babies to miscarriage.)

And we can hear them from tracts meant to supposedly explain the gospel, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

I’m sure that many find clichés helpful. I don’t. In my perspective clichés (like these above and others floating around out there) reduce faith to mere self help motivational pseudo proverbs that claim the look and feel of wisdom but lack any of the substance. To often clichés run rampant over the realities of human experience, dismissing pain with a few words, and sucking the mystery out of God’s activity in our lives. Clichés lack any real theological promise to narrate us into the story of our suffering and liberating Messiah. While it may be true that each cliché is based on a ‘truth’ or represents a ‘truth’ they fail to account for how ‘truth’ is lived out contextually in the lives of real people and their theological shallowness twists and distorts whatever ‘truth’ might be embedded in them.

In the evangelical circles that I grew up in there were two clichés that were absolute favorites…

“I love Jesus but hate religion” and “It’s a relationship … not a religion!” Oh, and let’s not forget, “Religion says ‘do’ but Jesus says ‘done!” (ok, so I guess that makes three not two).

These were even favorites of mine when I was in high school and as a newly called minister after high school. There is even another variety that has popped up that goes, “I’m spiritual but not religious” (which is thought by some to more inclusive than the standard evangelical clichés). The fact is that this sort of thing still seems to resonate with the experience of a great many people, as the response to the spoken word video by Jefferson Bethke that recently went viral shows.

This video has garnered a kajillion views. Many of my facebook friends shared this video on their wall and had nothing but the highest praise saying things like, “This guy gets it!” But Bethke also drew a host of responses in the form of critiques of what many of these persons saw as the promotion of a false dichotomy.  These are some of my favorites:

1) From Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Why St. Francis Loved Jesus AND Religion.

2) From Christianity Today, The Business of Jesus vs Religion, and “why you can’t reconstruct a stripped down, organic, anti-corporate version of what you think Jesus should be.”

3) A Catholic response in the form of a spoken word video:

4) The ‘Internet Monk’ blog on Why I Just Can’t Hate Religion, Though I Love Jesus.

5) Brian LePort at ‘Near Emmaus’ responds with two great posts: Remember, Jesus Practiced Religion too! and Christianity Against Religion.

6) The normally peace loving folks over at the ‘Mennonite Weekly Review’ pull no punches with: The ‘I hate religion but love Jesus’ approach (and YouTube video) is simplistic, unbiblical and dangerous.

7) In addition to the Catholic spoken word response above, here is a Lutheran version (my apologies that we are still waiting on the Baptist version):

8) The ‘Tall Skinny Kiwi’ himself, Andrew Jones, has the skinny in his post: Religion: Love it and Hate it. He summarizes, “There is such a thing as dead, empty, powerless religion which God rejects” … “And there is also religion done right.”

9) Mike Morrell in a rather comprehensive post, Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.

10) Christian Piatt at ‘Red Letter Christians’ on Hating Religion, Loving Jesus: A Well-Meaning False Dichotomy.

11) Kevin DeYoung at the ‘Gospel Coalition’ blog asks, Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really (see here for a Follow Up on the Jesus/Religion Video with some interaction between DeYoung and Bethke).

12) And finally, Ed Cyzewski at ‘in.a.mirror.dimly’ with a wonderful post on Why Theologians Should Buy the Religion-Hating YouTube Guy a Fruit Basket.

Nowadays, even while trying to understand where Bethke is coming from (having been there once myself), I tend to agree with many if not most of the points made in these critiques (but not all, just because I link to it does NOT mean I agree 100% with it). My contention though is that there are even deeper concerns at the heart of this conversation about Jesus vs religion (as far as I can see) that most people are completely missing. I am going to get these in another post that should be up in the next day or two. For now I think we can say a couple of things completely clearly. First, Bethke is not the first to say these sort of things. The pitting of Jesus against religion has a long pedigree in modern evangelicalism. Second, its very clear this is a conversation that’s long overdue (and that needs some definite theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical thickness to it).

So, before I add my critique and response let me ask:

Do you love Jesus but hate religion? What is the relationship between Jesus and religion? Or do you think Jesus vs religion is an unhelpful false dichotomy? What do you think?

I look forward to reading your comments. Play nice though.