Chaplaincy stories

Last September I began writing a journal with some of my thoughts and encounters during chaplaincy.  I’m going to start posting parts of it here from time to time… in the hope that God will be present in the stories, in the spaces, in the questions, in the love and hope at the heart of it all, sometimes deeply hidden but somehow always there.

Suffering can open us up or it can close us down.  Choose in this moment who you want to become.

You shall know a tree by its fruits.

A man with MS for 20 years just learned that he will be sent to a nursing home.  The say it’s temporary but he suspects that it will be forever.  No matter how he fights, the disease is still stealing his mind and his strength.  And the worst of it is, for right now at least, that the corporation is shrugging him off like a problem to be gotten rid of, he says.  They push him out and their problem is solved.  But his MS cannot be shoved aside.  His problem will never go away.  And when he says “corporation” over and over, I begin to suspect he means “God.”

“The corporation doesn’t care,” he says.

“Does God care?”

“Sure, but he can’t do anything about it.”

What is life if you suspect that God shrugs you off like so much problem to be gotten rid of?  And if that is not what God has done, then where the hell is he?

Blanket Blessing Worship

I am a chaplain at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  When someone is dying or has died, we lay over them blankets that volunteers have created, as signs of God’s presence and love in the midst of death and loss.  Their loved ones then take those blankets home, as a reminder of connection and strength in their time of grief.  Periodically we have a chapel service in which we thank the creators of those blankets and bless the blankets together.

This is a service I prepared for that purpose.  It is taken mostly from the Iona Community Morning Worship, but tweaked for an interfaith context and following the blessing theme.  Please feel free to use it as desired, in whole or in part, with proper attributions.  I’d love to know what you used it for, too, if you are willing to share.  Please let me know ahead of time if you want to adapt the parts I wrote.

Blanket blessing

Blanket blessing bulletin


Ash Wednesday

Last year on Ash Wednesday, I put ashes on foreheads of people walking down the streets of downtown Boston.  This year, I put ashes on foreheads of people in the intensive care unit.  This is the poem that bubbled up from me yesterday.

Today everything seems like a poem

That doesn’t quite rhyme,

With a little stutter in its step

While it tries to dance.

So reflection finds voice,

Incomplete lines and curated phrases.

Yesterday’s death was gentle;

Mortal, remember you are dust

And to dust you will return. But

Sometimes death is raw and frantic;

Sometimes death dons a half-ton of armor

And slices with meanness, posturing and blaming.

Sometimes death slips into the corners and sits there

Waiting to be noticed

Building a nest before anyone

Even invites it in.

“Are you the captain of this ship?”

she asked me earnestly.

“I’m not sure I’m the captain…” I said,

“Where are we going?”

“Will there be enough room?” she asked.

“Enough room for what?”

“For all the angels that want to go with us.”

“It will be a hard journey,” she says,

“but we have to learn to be brave.”

“We have to teach the children to be brave.”

Remember, O mortal, that you are dust

And to dust you will return. But

In life and in death, we are in God’s hands, I insist.

It’s so cold staring in the face of death.

I can’t just proclaim its presence and

Wait. I have to insist on

God. Somewhere.

“But am I?” he asks.

“Are you what?”

“Am I in God’s hands?”

“I think so…. I mean, I believe it to be true.”

When death came through his door,

his faith died the same day

As his grandfather.

A man who left a god-shaped hole behind

And whose shoes not even God can fill.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I just don’t know.”

And even here, at the end of this poem

That aches to be cauterized

Before too much life bleeds out

I have too few words that burn

Hot enough to do the trick.

Mortal, dear mortal, remember that you are dust,

And to dust you will return.

Death comes.

God remains.

Is that enough?

Zechariah’s Song

A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent

Preached at Timbercrest Retirement Community

(Luke 1 : 5-25, 57-80)

Zechariah could not remember clearly the first day he held these objects, the first day he sang these words. On days like this, it seemed he had been a priest forever. He could remember, though, his father and the way his hands had moved with the rituals, the way his voice had sounded. He had watched so closely, even then, as a small child, realizing the beauty and extra layer of holiness that came over the world in the midst of those actions. He knew that there was much of his father’s ways in his movements and he wondered how much of his grandfather there had been in his father’s patterns.

He remembered wondering as a child if he would ever grow tired of the rituals, if they would ever grow stale or sour. There had been times, certainly, when his mind was on other things, or when the rituals did not match his sense of the world, or when they just felt like another thing to do. But God never failed to surprise him again, whenever he needed it, with the depth of those movements and scriptures and songs. They became old friends, familiar and comfortable, but they also continued to open up the world to him in quiet moments of grace. They continued to reveal a God of mystery and love.

His greatest sorrow was that he had no son to pass all this on to. He knew he could trust God, but after years, even decades of unanswered prayer, he had mostly accepted that the priestly line of his family would end with him. But he still prayed every day. Every day on his walk to the temple, every day on his walk home, he prayed that these beautiful things of faith would not end with him. Sometimes he prayed fervently. But most of the time, now, he felt resigned and prayed this prayer as a matter of habit. He and Elizabeth were no spring chickens. It was time to think about cutting back and settling in and making arrangements. The time for children had passed. Still he kept praying. There was Abraham and Sarah, after all.

Many of the priests felt the longing to pass on these things of faith, he knew. The children growing up now couldn’t remember a time before Roman occupation. They couldn’t remember a time when the community of faith was strong, completely free to practice, when the songs of faith were full and confident. And they were becoming restless, dissatisfied, and sometimes violent. It seemed that young people were picking fights with the soldiers almost every week in various places around town. When this was all the children knew, Zechariah couldn’t blame them for not looking to faith. He could understand how these ancient things could seem irrelevant. And yet he longed for a return to the things of faith – the songs, the scriptures, the rituals – because he found in them the presence of God and he knew that clinging to the presence of God was the only way to find true peace.

So it was with a bit of heaviness and longing, a bit of eagerness and peace, but mostly with a quiet confidence, that he began his work this day. He would keep living his faith and his ministry because it was so much a part of him. He would be sad when the day came to stop, but he knew his faith – these songs, these scriptures, the smells and images and actions – would continue to be his companions, just as God would continue to accompany and guide him.

His group of priests was responsible for the main rituals at the temple two weeks a year. Each day, a group of priests did the worship in the outer courts, and another in the inner courts. And each day, one priest was selected by lot to go into the holy of holies. A priest only did that once in a lifetime. Zechariah’s turn hadn’t come yet, but he remembered what a significant day it had been for his father. His father hadn’t talked about a vision, but something had changed in him. Zechariah could see it.

So on this day, when Zechariah himself was chosen to take the incense into the holy of holies, he felt his heart skip a beat. Although God was everywhere, not confined to his temple, Zechariah had the sense that he was going to be walking straight into God’s bedroom.

He didn’t know what he was expecting when he started the prayers, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to meet an angel. Yet there he was.   Zechariah looked up from preparing the incense, and looked full in the face of an angel. He could never quite describe that moment or explain his fear, but Zechariah, terrified, fell to his knees.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” These words were etched into his mind and he recalled them a thousand times in memories of this day. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

It wasn’t that Zechariah didn’t believe, exactly. He had seen the miracles of God’s hand. He had heard the stories. It was just a lot to take in. He and Elizabeth would have a son? There hadn’t been a prophet among the people of Israel since Malachai… and his son, this son that he had longed for and nearly given up hoping for, would be a prophet? Not only a prophet, but a prophet to prepare the way for God? The Most High was finally coming? And his son was going to turn the people’s hearts to God…

“How will I know that this is so?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” As soon as he said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. As soon as he said it, he remembered Sarah and Abraham again. He had longed to follow in their footsteps and had formed his life around following the faith of his ancestors. In his own doubt he heard Sarah’s laughter. He realized that in all his attention to holiness, in all his prayer and singing, he still wasn’t really expecting God to show up and do something new. And he was ashamed.

The angel said to him with strength and kindness, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak until the day these things occur.”

Zechariah was never sure how much time had passed in the temple, but the people outside were restless by the time he returned. He started to speak the blessing expected of him. He knew it by heart. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” But when he tried, he could not speak. Though the words sprang to life in his heart in a new way – “The Lord be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” – he could not speak them. They could see it in his face, though. He had seen a vision and it had left its mark on him.

He went home and soon after Elizabeth conceived. The preparations for the baby began, and Elizabeth was in seclusion, Zechariah still unable to speak. He paid attention to life at home in a new way in those days. He watched Elizabeth make bread, and he sensed in it the same kind of holiness – the same practiced care, the same mundane beauty, the same gentle revelation – as in the priestly duties he so cherished.

He thought about what he wanted to pass on to this baby, this child. He hoped he would be able to prepare him well to be the prophet of the Most High. But he sensed that this child would go far beyond anything he could imagine. The old ways would echo through the ages, the scripture and songs and identity would find its expression in the future. But what was coming was also so different from what had been. Zechariah knew that he would need to let go and watch his son rise, and there would be a grief in that.

But first, there would be teaching and learning. Could he communicate fully the joy he found in God? Would he be able to offer John enough hope, even in the midst of occupation, to carry him through?

Zechariah’s prayers shifted. Now he prayed to be able to center himself so much in God, in the faith of his ancestors, that it would radiate to his son. His legacy had come as a gift, a surprise, and ultimately it would not be his. This child’s ministry would come through Zechariah, praise God, but not from him. If he held too tightly, he would risk making small the vision. If he did not give his whole self, he would risk making it anemic. And yet, with Zechariah, through Zechariah, in spite of Zechariah, Zechariah knew that God would work and would bring his reconciling plan to fruition. Zechariah had found himself again in the midst of God’s plan, and his life had its meaning because of its part in a larger and glorious tapestry.

Given all these wonderings, all this noticing, all this reorienting, Zechariah was sometimes very glad for his muteness. And he was bursting at the seams with praise. So after John was born, after his parents had cuddled and cared for him for 8 days, welcoming him to the world and beginning their vigil to watch who he would become, when it came time to name him, Elizabeth told the crowd that he was to be named John.

Finally Zechariah could speak again, and all his joy, his sense of legacy and purpose, his sense of hope and wonder… it all came bubbling out of him in song as he looked into his son’s face. Ringing with the ancient words and finding new rhythm in God’s new revelation, he sang of a God who is unfailingly good and of a world yet to be:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”

“Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

His neighbors were confused by all this, because they could sense the hand of the Lord upon Zechariah, and they asked “What then will this child become?”

Zechariah smiled to himself as he cradled this baby, protected and nurtured this new being. “What will this child become?” he wondered. This little one, who would be raised in the foundation of the ancient faith, would carry the beauty of the old songs and scripture, and yet would go far beyond what Zechariah could imagine now – this little one would be part of building, with God’s help and in harmony with what had come before, a glorious world yet unknown.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.

In Those Days…

A sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.

(Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:10-16, 1 Samuel 2:1-10)

Let’s pray.

God of light, we wait for you. Spirit of hope, we catch glimpses of you here among us. Christ of glory and vulnerability, come quickly. Grant understanding to our minds and courage to our hearts. Amen.


Over and over, lately, after people tell me their stories of illness and tragedy, of hope and healing, people have been talking to me about their sense that the world is crashing in on itself. Many of them point to particular events that make them especially fearful that “the day of judgment” is coming – that a biblically predicted apocalypse is around the corner. I have to admit, it makes me uncomfortable to have those conversations, but I am there to listen, so I keep listening.

Every year, the first Sunday of Advent, when we follow the lectionary cycle of readings we hear Jesus tell us of terrifying things – wars and rumors of wars, religious foundations destroyed, heaven and earth passing away, the day coming like a trap. And I don’t know about you, but every year I squirm a little. In this season of Santa and evergreen boughs, I don’t want to grapple with this passage. Yet there it sits, a speech often called “the little apocalypse,” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. God calls us to listen to the words of Jesus, so we keep listening.

So today we listen again together and see what we can make of it…. See if we can tease out what good news God is speaking into our lives through it.


I was sitting with a family, mostly in silence, as their loved one was in surgery to repair a ruptured aortic aneurism. He had been in surgery for 11 hours and it was going well until it wasn’t. I had been called to gather the family in preparation for the likely news of his death. As we waited for nearly an hour together, his wife said very little, but at one point she turned to me and said, “God has brought him through so much. He wouldn’t have brought him through so much just to take him now, would he? Surely God doesn’t want this, does he? Surely God wouldn’t do that.” Later, after the surgeon had delivered the news of her husband’s death, after she had collapsed and regained strength to stand, after some stories and many tears, after goodbyes in the presence of her husband’s body, she turned again to me and asked, “What do I do now? How do I live? He was my everything.”

In those days…. In the times when something so cataclysmic happens that there is an instant severing of the timeline of life, those are the questions people ask – What does it mean? Where is God? What do I do now?


In our passage for today from Luke, Jesus is approaching his own death. He knows he is leaving the disciples. They are wandering through the temple and the disciples are oohing and ahhing over the beauty of the structure and its decorations. Jesus brings them up short with the declaration that the temple will come crashing down. They ask two questions – When will it happen? And How will we know? – which sends Jesus into a long speech filled with terrifying predictions. The scripture from Luke for today is the end of that speech. Jesus, frustratingly, doesn’t answer the “when will it happen” question, I think because that isn’t the important question. The closest he comes to that answer is to say that it will happen to everyone on the earth. The question he does answer, alongside the “how will we know” question, is the question of “what do we do?”

In those days… when cataclysm seems to be on our front porch, beating down the door, when it seems that nothing can save us and the world can never be the same again, what do we do?


When I listen carefully to people who want to tell me about their fears of the apocalypse, I have noticed that they are asking the same kinds of questions. One man, whose wife was dying, told stories of her and then told me of the uncertainty and the waiting. But most of what he wanted to talk about was that she was suffering and he didn’t want her to suffer. When, later, he talked about the fear he had of the end of the world, he was asking the same question – What do the faithful do in the midst of suffering?

And this is a question that nearly everyone I meet in the hospital is asking in one form or another. I don’t have a ready answer for people, but after as much silence as is needed, sometimes I say something like this: I’ve seen suffering close people down into bitterness and vengeance and pettiness. I’ve seen suffering open people up into generosity, gentleness, and wisdom. I haven’t figured out exactly what makes the difference, but I think it is somewhere in the realm of hope.


Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world

is always ending



the sun has come

crashing down.


it has gone

completely dark.


it has ended

with the gun

the knife

the fist.


it has ended

with the slammed door

the shattered hope.


it has ended

with the utter quiet

that follows the news

from the phone

the television

the hospital room.


it has ended

with a tenderness

that will break

your heart.

But, listen,

this blessing means

to be anything

but morose.

It has not come

to cause despair.

It is simply here

because there is nothing

a blessing

is better suited for

than an ending,

nothing that cries out more

for a blessing

than when a world

is falling apart.

This blessing

will not fix you

will not mend you

will not give you

false comfort;

it will not talk to you

about one door opening

when another one closes.

It will simply

sit itself beside you

among the shards

and gently turn your face

toward the direction

from which the light

will come,

gathering itself

about you

as the world begins


~Jan Richardson


When Jesus wants to tell the disciples what to do, how to be, in the face of global suffering, (and I think we can also include local, even personal suffering), he describes a posture – literally.

Imagine for a moment a situation that makes you fearful. Sit with that sense of fear for a moment. Imagine your body molding itself into that fear.   What do you see? What do you sense?

Now, in the same situation, imagine that you can miraculously be certain that you are safe and strong. Then, bit by bit, you move into that posture of safety and strength. What do you see? What do you sense? What happens next in this scene?

In the fearful posture, I imagine many of you imagined yourselves frozen, curled in, hands over heads, faces, eyes. Perhaps you imagined yourself curled around someone you love or curled inside the embrace of someone else. Perhaps you were ultra alert, fists or weapon raised. Perhaps you were ready to run or hide. What is common to all of these postures is that the world is severely narrowed and fear often becomes its own perpetuation.

But when and if you were able to sense safety and strength, I imagine many of you found yourselves drawing up to your full stature, raising your head, opening yourself. This is the posture Jesus describes.

What should we do, Jesus, when all this happens? The question the disciples didn’t know they were asking, but the question Jesus knew to answer. What should we do, Jesus, when the world turns upside down?

Stand up.

Lift your head.



Stand up. Uncurl yourself. This is the same word that is used when Jesus heals a bent over woman. Find your rooting in the earth, find the strength in your legs and back, claim an openness in the center of your chest. Remember who God created you to be. Uncurl yourself. Stand up.

Lift your head. Look around. If fear, pain, suffering has a tendency to narrow our world, Jesus invites us to take a step toward broadening it again. When you look around, what you might see is that your suffering is not so different from others’ suffering. You might see that you are connected in a network that offers healing and companionship. You also might see that your suffering has not just an interpersonal context but a societal and perhaps even global context. You might look to the hills and see that your help is coming from God. Look around. Lift your head.

Wait. Don’t move just yet. Don’t rush into action. Action will come but it comes from a rooted place, not a purely fearful place. Take a beat. Wait.

And pray. Pray that you might escape. Pray that you might be strong. Pray that you might be connected and compassionate. Pray to express your trust in God. Pray in order to discover some trust in God. Pray that you might stand before Jesus – that you might stand with Jesus. Pray.

Stand up. Lift your head. Wait. Pray.

This is good news because this is a choice. What happens around you or to you may not have much to do with your choice. What happens inside you, in your feelings world, may not have much to do with your choice. But your posture, internal and external – that is your choice.

Stand up. Lift your head. Wait. Pray.

The difference between suffering that closes us down and suffering that opens us up? I think it is this – our ability to, in the midst of fear and uncertainty, stand in the truth of who God made us to be, look around and broaden our vision, wait on God, and pray.

These are momentary decisions that don’t often seem all that heroic. This choice of posture is in the daily routine, in the incidental interactions, in the small anxieties and pains. Those moments of standing and lifting our heads, practiced over and over in small ways, form us into faithful people, people of courage and integrity.


All of this calls for a sense of hope. Hope isn’t always a flowering and fragrant garden in the soul, although beautiful when it is. But there needs to be a seed of hope, however small. Jeremiah’s words from this morning’s scripture reading bring a vision of hope that is an oasis in the desert.

The ability to stand in the truth of who we are created to be, the ability to lift our heads and wait, relies on the kind of vision Jeremiah holds up for the Israelites in exile. In the midst of a desert, in those days God will bring lush pasture. Where there once was rubble, in those days God will raise dwellings. Where there was mourning, there will be wedding feasts. The scattered sheep will be gathered together and brought home to thrive in the protection of the caring and guarding shepherd.

It’s beautiful imagery. Jeremiah spends much time berating the Israelites for their sins elsewhere in the book, but in this passage, his apocalyptic imagination is overflowing with peace that seeks to comfort their yearning hearts.

There are many people and organizations in this world who will offer us ways to protect ourselves in the midst of societal chaos and fear. There are many ways we each will try to cover up the sense of powerlessness inside us. But many of those attempts, though they seem to save us, will make us smaller and more fearful.

Standing in the truth of who God made us to be, resting in the promises of God, means relying on the kind of vision that Jeremiah presents. Jesus says, “Stand up and lift your heads…” Why? “Because your salvation is drawing near.” Somewhere on that horizon you will see before you when you dare to look up, somewhere coming toward you, coming toward us, is salvation, restoration, reconciliation for the whole of God’s creation. And that includes you, and me, and all of us together.

So we steep ourselves in these traditions, in these visions. Hannah’s song in the scripture this morning may have seemed familiar to you because echoes of it are in Mary’s song. Hannah’s song rings with the tones of justice and reconciliation, celebration and confidence. Mary immersed herself in this tradition so that when her time came to imagine the salvation drawing near to her – when God called her to stand up, lift her head, and sing of a world not yet seen – it was Hannah’s vision that she turned to, Hannah’s vision that she refashioned.

In this advent, in these days, we begin with apocalyptic imagination in order to remind ourselves that God can make a way where there seems to be no way. To remind ourselves that the God who promises is faithful. To remind ourselves that though chaos is all around, God is even more deeply present and is bringing her realm ever more fully into being.

In this advent, in these days, we steep ourselves again in the stories so that when it is our turn to choose a posture of fear or a posture of courage, we are tuned to ring with the vision of wholeness that God has placed in us.

We stand up. We lift our heads. We wait. And we pray.

And as we glimpse the Alpha and Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, we wait in courage, hope, and breathless wonder, for him to come as a baby once again, and somehow – somehow – reconcile the world to himself.


When you seek courage in this life, heed the clarion call of Jesus that echoes through the ages: stand up, lift your heads, wait, and pray.

And now may the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Resisting Empire

Inspired by a coffee conversation this morning with my flatmate (have I said lately how much I love my flatmate?)… reflections on empire and faith, informed by Mitri Raheb, Jean Zaru, John Howard Yoder, and William Cavanaugh. It’s an old paper, so it’s a bit long and academic but hopefully not too dry. =)

For this post, I summarize four books, noticing similarities and differences between them as a beginning exploration of how faith might encounter empire. He Came Preaching Peace is a collection of essays and speeches by John Howard Yoder, many of which are engaged with scriptural interpretation and interpretations of peace theology. This is explicitly an in-group communication for peace church people. Because of this, he does not take time to explain some of the foundations he might otherwise explain (for example, he names dualism and its dismantling as one of these foundations). Each chapter in this book stands alone; as with much of Yoder’s writing, themes arise repeatedly, but little effort is made to systematize or synthesize the various writings.

One of the primary themes in this book is love of enemies that is not based on pragmatism but rather obedience: “Christians love their enemies because God does so, and commands his followers to do so. That is the only reason, and that is enough.” (Loc 163) Likewise, he insists that we follow Christ even when the world is not ready to follow, even when systems of government will not give up fighting. The “call is simply an invitation to believe, really to believe, to believe even though many others do not, to believe even though the proof is not yet final.” (948)

Another theme that arises only early in the book but is helpful here is the understanding of Christianity as a nationality and of nationalism as a religion. For Yoder, this underscores a central understanding of Christ in relationship to the disciple, namely that Christ is Lord and evokes from his followers total loyalty. In War of the Lamb, Yoder will clarify this as a loyalty to a person and a covenant, not an adherence to rules or legalism. Yoder considers Christianity to be an identity requiring a loyalty that precludes and rises above national identity: “For Christians to seek any government’s interest – even the security and power of peaceable and freedom-loving democracy – at the cost of the lives and security of our brothers and sisters around the world, would be selfishness and idolatry, however much glorified by patriotic preachers and poets.” (241)

Another theme throughout the essays is that of rethinking power, wisdom, and strength. Along Pauline lines, Yoder sees the vulnerability and defeat of the cross as a revelation of a new kind of power and wisdom, a power of love and a wisdom that subverts the rules of violence. Nonviolent action is, for Yoder, an enactment of this kind of power: “When the Christian whom God has disarmed lays aside carnal weapons it is not, in the last analysis, because those weapons are too strong, but because they are too weak.” (311) This obedience trusts completely in the God who created human beings in their own image, and sees that image in the faces of those who would be enemies. When “we want a symbol of power that proves itself to us, without need for faith, by its own overwhelming impact,” (1211) instead we get a suffering Servant who yet somehow has power to transform.

Another book by Yoder, War of the Lamb, is a book published posthumously, planned by Yoder himself before death, and intended for a very different audience. In this collection of essays, he engages the ecumenical scene much more intentionally, engaging in dialogue with thinkers like Niebuhr and Cahill and with theologies like Just War Theory. Stassen says, in his introduction, that “Yoder is well known for arguing on behalf of an ethics of faithfulness rather than effectiveness (66),” but here, concerned with translation, he seems more ready to admit of some possible effectiveness. Similarly, his tone is much less confessional than the Christologically-centered, aforementioned book. For example statements like the following, while not admitting of any pure utilitarianism, open a door for talk about effectiveness and “working,” at least in a long-term and general sense: “Suffering love is not right because it ‘works’ in any calculable short-run way (although it often does). It is right because it goes with the grain of the universe, and that is why in the long run nothing else will work.” (83, emphasis in original)

This allows him much more sustained discussion about the connections between pacifism and just war theory (which, he points out, are more alike in their aims than different), a dialogue in which he critiques each tradition in terms of the other. Yoder suggests that nonviolence can learn discipline from just war theory, including a careful understanding of authorization, finite and attainable demands, and calculation of peripheral violence. Just war theory can learn to question whether all possible alternative measures have been considered. In the end, though, he heavily critiques just war theory as being good in principle but in all cases not taken seriously enough for it to provide an actual deterrent to war.

Seeking this kind of ecumenical dialogue, Yoder examines figures like Tolstoy (and his politics of hope), Gandhi (and his soul-force), and King (and his identity of means and ends), alongside the broader realms of church history (especially Constantinianism), Hebraic vision as seen in the Hebrew Bible, and apocalyptic literature. Throughout these examples, he speaks God’s sovereignty, loyalty to God rather than state, and the “certain victory of God” that is “correlated with his people’s faithfulness but not with their power.” (1308)

Several other themes in this book include love of enemy; a down-and-dirty guide to conflict resolution; a strong statement (and supporting argument) that conflict avoidance is not peacemaking and that conflict should be considered a sign of growth and creativity to be harnessed, not stifled; and the false dichotomy of withdrawal and involvement.

Alongside these two books, I also read two by Palestinian Christians with their own approaches to the violent rule of empire over their own subjugated people. The first was Occupied by Nonviolence, by Jean Zaru, a Quaker woman who has done much activism in the World Council of Churches, speaking around the world on behalf of her people. Her underlying affirmation is that the telling of stories is redemptive in itself – if stories are witnessed and told, which Zaru enacts as her own calling, those with the power to do something will act on behalf of the humans who are subjugated. “By telling our stories, we resist the diminishing of the reality of our lives. We resist vague and generalized abstractions, and we maintain the urgency and intensity of the concrete.” (200)

Given that, she tries to instill in her Palestinian students “a sense of empowerment, a sense of competence,… and a sense of optimism about the future. While we do not know what the future holds, we do know that we hold the future in our hands.” (275) In the midst of this, she names isolation and disconnection as a tool of the empire and understands faith and religion as nurturers of connection and relationship, and thus an antidote to the effects of subjugation.

Zaru emphasizes human rights, naming that those rights of Palestinians have been declared by the UN to be violated by Israel. She calls upon the UN to hold Israel accountable to following through on agreements and submitting to the discipline of the UN. At one point she goes so far as to say, “Conflicts can only be resolved politically and legally, on the basis of parity of rights and the global rule of law. “ (595) Regarding nonviolence, Zaru bases her commitment not to kill on human rights, as well: “My spirituality is rooted in the human dignity and human rights of all people, and the sacredness of Mother Earth.” (235) Zaru admits of a great struggle to keep faith in the midst of struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Finally, Palestinian Christian pastor and scholar, Mitri Raheb, begins his book, Faith in the Face of Empire, with the statement, “Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew,” a statement that (intentionally?) echoes African-American theologian James Cone’s statement that “Jesus is black.” Raheb continues on to take a several thousand year tour of the geopolitics of the area, demonstrating that this empire is only the most recent in a nearly unbroken line of occupation in Palestine. He also insists on the continuity of biblical and church history in Palestine (ie, that Christianity does not end in Palestine when Europe comes on the Christian scene). From those insights, he reinterprets the narrative of the Bible for Palestinian people. Rather than accepting the commonly held identity of Palestinians as Canaanites, he says that Palestinians today are like Israel at the time of the New Testament, and that Israel is acting as Rome. The twisting Israel has done of the story becomes an important point in Raheb’s construction: “Empires create their own theologies to justify their occupation.” (152) Raheb seems to agree with Zaru that the unheard story is the one that needs told, but Raheb is seeking to tell the story of a people as a whole, a story that finds its place in the sacred narrative of Raheb’s faith. This retelling rescues Palestine from being “theologically invisible.”

Raheb, like Yoder, has a vision of a strong God that calls for a loyalty that supersedes all other loyalties: “Believing that there is something more powerful than the empire is an important and necessary step toward questioning it. God questions the omnipotence of the empire. As well, seeing God on the other side of the empire queries and challenges the morality of the empire, which is a key link in its weakening. Faith in God becomes a strong factor in mobilizing people against the empire. Whereas armies might not dare to challenge the empire because of the power imbalance; faith in God can provide the necessary motivation to go against the empire even if doing so means sacrificing one’s life.” (1451)

Raheb sees isolation and division as intentional strategies of empire that aid in subjugation: “restoring a sense of community across ideological differences and geographical barriers is crucial for any community living under occupation. Occupied people often start to fight among themselves concerning the best way to resist the empire and consequently end up fighting one another instead of fighting the empire.” (1693) Cultural memory involved in telling a counter theology that locates Palestinian people in the story of salvation is Raheb’s primary weapon against this fragmentation. Raheb does not speak much explicitly of nonviolence, but his program of resistance is a nonviolent one.

Many similarities exist in the three authors, sometimes expressed and drawn forward in different ways. In theologies of nonviolence, all three authors mention this fragmentation and division as a primary problem to overcome when resisting evil systems. Thus, for all three, a primary solution is reconnection and community. However, for Raheb and Yoder, this connection is found through connection with a larger collective narrative. For Zaru, this connection is found through the telling of individual stories. Raheb and Zaru, in this, are much more attentive to silenced voices and invisible peoples than Yoder is.

All three base their nonviolent resistance, at least to some extent, on their understanding of the imago dei in all human beings. Zaru’s strategy for reform relies on the human rights being acknowledged but also enforced by UN and the national community. Likewise, her conviction that it is not right to kill comes from an understanding that even the perpetuators of empire have human rights and dignities. Yoder, on the other hand, has his eyes almost exclusively fixed on the nature of God rather than humans – seeing the image of God in humans is important because not to acknowledge that would be to violate their Creator.

Raheb seems to base his nonviolence on the conviction that violence does not work. Raheb writes, “violence is a culture unto itself; it is not something one dons like a hat when dealing with the ‘enemy’ and then sets aside at the end of the confrontation. Once violence enters the arena, it creates a culture that is very difficult to eradicate. In fact liberation in the true sense also means liberating the ‘enemy’ from its own violence.” (1914) Zaru’s conviction on this is less solid, and sometimes her anger at the Israeli empire comes through in a retaliatory tone. All three see evil as systemic, but Raheb and Yoder are more able to maintain hope for persons involved in evil to be redeemed – a foundation for love of enemy for both of them.

Given all of this, I argue that a nonviolence based not on human rights but on the story of God is a more durable and powerful weapon against occupation than an understanding of human rights and individual imago dei. First, as all of the authors note, isolation is a technique of occupation to keep people submissive. William Cavanaugh also draws upon this dynamic in relation to torture in his book, Torture and the Eucharist – the intended action of state torture (or the oppressive action of empire) is not primarily on human bodies but rather on social bodies, effected by atomizing those social bodies through breaking communal bonds. If isolation is the problem, the solution is connection. I am not convinced that Zaru’s storytelling, because of its individual focus and human rights emphasis, truly connects people to each other in the way she obviously intends. Both Raheb and Yoder rely, for connection of a whole people, on a narrative (for Raheb) or a God (for Yoder) under whom all the people can be connected and see themselves as one unit. This is partly problematic, however, because the narratives and images of God that Raheb and Yoder suggest might not be the narratives of each individual, so a feminist critique would perhaps note that the new narrative has just as much power to be imperial as the Israeli empire (in the case of Raheb).

The second reason that nonviolence based on human rights and an individual conception of imago dei seems to me to be less effective is because of the difficulty of maintaining a posture of nonviolence. Yoder’s insistence that we are nonviolent because of obedience to a God we trust, whose victory is sure and nonviolent, is helpful here, I think. Zaru wants to say that all humans are equally deserving of human rights and dignity. At the same time, occupation takes a psychological toll that she is devastatingly good at describing. Zaru relies on a hope or optimism that Palestine will be free of occupation. Raheb’s long view of constant occupation for millennia makes that a difficult optimism to hold on to. To say that the arc of the universe bends toward justice is not empirically justifiable most of the time in everyday life. It is even less so in the face of constant occupation. This hope in the power of nonviolence, then, must be based on something other than efficacy or it will not last. Thankfully, as Yoder points out, the character and story of God are possibilities for the basis of this unlikely and sure hope. Likewise, in the midst of occupation, it is not immediately clear that the soldier, the torturer, the bomber have equal human rights or equally have the image of God mapped onto them. Zaru’s righteous and understandable anger at points in her writing point to this reality. Thus, the need not to violate others, the imperative to love one’s enemy, in the face of real evil like long-term occupation, must have a basis in the character and plan of God rather than in the human evidence.

I return, however, with gratitude to some of my feminist colleagues’ voices echoing in my mind, to the question of privilege, authority, and power. Zaru perhaps has been given fewer authorizations to tell the kind of sweeping metanarrative that Yoder and Raheb attempt. Zaru perhaps has experienced the kind of silencing that can happen under even well-intentioned metanarratives. The question here is how this narrative that Raheb and Yoder propose as a collective understanding can keep itself from becoming either a tool of empire or from twisting itself into the narrative of empire. Yoder would say, I think, that because the power of the cross is in vulnerability and the wisdom of the cross is in foolishness, that this is a power and a wisdom that can never be used by empire – it is perhaps immune to misuse. However, his confidence in the “city on a hill” and “two types of people,” though not themselves coercive as he has stated them, would not take much human meddling (not to mention human power/privilege) before they might turn into weapons of exclusion and separation rather than love and faith. This is also called into question by Yoder’s own twisting of the Gospel narrative to justify his predatory and abusive sexual behavior toward women within the realms of his individual power.

Raheb calls to his readers to understand the message of the New Testament as one of connection beyond boundaries. This echoes Yoder’s love of enemies and vulnerable power of the cross, while also providing a helpful corrective to possible sectarian impulses (which Yoder would vehemently deny!): “I argue that the whole New Testament is a collection of narratives that challenge the then-existing exclusive national and religious narratives. The New Testament introduces a new lens; instead of identifying with one people over against the others, which is the traditional way of forming one’s identity, it calls people to reflect on the entire process of identification as misleading.” (1234)

All of this begs the question that I hope you’ll begin to answer for yourselves in your own contexts, for us as a body of Christ-followers: How do we tell collective counter-narratives that resist becoming tools of empire, that resist silencing dissenting voices from within those counter-narratives?  How do we identify as a people who belong and still resist excluding others?

We’re going on a God-hunt: Interacting with Way to Water

Here’s another break from my Anabaptist Spiritual Guidance series (which I promise I’ll continue) in order to review a book that has a lot to say to that topic. Callid Keefe-Perry, a talented colleague of mine at Boston University, has written a primer on theopoetics and invited several people to participate in a blog tour of it this week. You can get the book here, and catch the other wonderful blog posts here (more to come tomorrow, too!).  I got a review copy for free from Wipf and Stock Publishers for this purpose (yay for free, new, really good theology books!).

Do you remember the children’s poem that begins “we’re going on a bear hunt”? In it, we go on a bear hunt and meet obstacles – tall swishy grass, squelchy mud, a gi-normous mountain, and a dark wood. In each case, the poem continues, “we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, we can’t go around it, we’ve gotta go through it!”

Somewhere along the line, I began to take up the practice of “going on a God-hunt” periodically in my life. During those times, I go tiptoeing through dark woods, sploshing through deep mud, swaying through tall grass in my faith, always on the lookout for signs, always expecting God to be around the next corner or behind me or right beside me… expecting to be surprised by joy in my encounter with the divine in just the place I wasn’t looking.

This posture is a big part of what I hear Callid pointing toward in his book, Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer. He interacts with thinkers and writers who have been instrumental in the upwelling movement of theopoetics throughout its history, and makes a compelling case for theopoetics as a full-bodied way of knowing and approaching an untameable God – as a whole epistemological framework.

In theo-logic, we too often look for systems, categories, boxes to stuff God into. In theo-poesis, we seek to interact with the God that keeps breaking out of those boxes, that keeps becoming and creating.

One of the striking things in this book is the tension and oscillation between cataphatic and apophatic ways of knowing, between words and silence, thought and experience. Our theological God-hunt, if we are doing it well, says theopoetics, tips us into awe and wonder at the unnameable-ness of God. But that awe and wonder calls forth fountains of words, stories, songs, dances, art….

Callid himself, in the midst of this book, struggles with this paradox: on the one hand, theopoetics is a slippery subject that keeps wriggling out of academic conventions; on the other hand, Callid’s passion for the topic, his conviction that it has something important to offer theology and the world, has him searching for words; but as soon as words are put to the page, God has moved again, requiring endless unsaying and resaying, and tipping us again to art and silence.

Given this tension, Callid has done brilliantly in assembling a “bricolage” of thinkers and approaches, of poems, essays, testimony and vivid images alongside more systematic academic language.

The way of knowing (aka, epistemology) outlined in this book, both through the writers Callid engages with and through his own perspectives and interpretations, has much to offer the world of theological study. As someone who is passionate about nonviolence, I see this as a way of getting at a nonviolent truth-seeking akin to Anabaptist ways of knowing, but with more grace and rhythm. This kind of process and propositioning is antithetical to coercion, while fostering a creative openness to individual and communal revelation.

And this book spins into some really interesting questions. First, if theopoetics is at least in part about making space for voices and ways of speaking that don’t sound like the typical academic theological voice, I find myself wondering where theopoetics is already being done in congregations and among laity.

In my own denomination, I sometimes stumble upon a kind of farmer-poet, with her hands in the dirt, who has a straightforward way of truth-telling that has its own poetry. I think also of hymn writers and liturgists who craft their words with care and prayer.

While it is true that this is a helpful corrective for many congregations, pastors, and academics, I wonder about how to lift up and celebrate the places where it is already happening. This is resonant with an underlying premise of theopoetics that we must remain open to being surprised by wisdom from any source – we must expect God to show up in exactly the places we aren’t looking. In that way, theopoetics is a posture that is always pushing past itself.

My second question is more a matter of emphasis. The Pietist in me loves the sense of seduction, devotion, and mystery that theopoetics entails. The Anabaptist in me wants to push toward the sweaty, earthy, communal particulars: how do we do that kind of devotion and poetry on a communal level? To this, Callid begins to provide answers through taking a look at possible implications on the pastoral, congregational, and public levels. There are some exciting possibilities here that are certainly worthy of further exploration. I look forward to reading the next book someone writes on this!

This was a great book to read to both encourage a God-hunt posture, and also to provide tools for squelching through the mud on the way.

The end of the child’s poem has us meeting the bear and running away, eventually vowing to never go on a bear hunt again. I think theopoetics might caution us that the God we might eventually find on our God-hunt is an untameable and ultimately unnameable reality. We might be tempted to run back to our boxes and systems and categories when we encounter that mystery, or we might be tempted to give up the God-hunt altogether.

But the God that surprises us on our search is also a seductive and wonderous God that calls us back, again and again, to the search. The God that surprises us with joy and wisdom where we least expect it, leaving a wafting smell of delicious wholeness in the air, also seeks communion with us, so that at the same time we imagine ourselves on a God-hunt, God is also on an us-hunt.

And so our saying, unsaying, dancing, searching, yearning, creating, calming, laughing, resting, and reaching continues…

Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 3: Ritual and Mystagogy

Mystagogy (mist-uh-go-jee) is one of my favorite words, not just because it is so delicious to say but also because it is a part of the early church practice that I think deserves reclaiming. Stick with me as I explain.

In the 3rd and 4th century church (and perhaps earlier), the process for becoming a Christian was a lengthy one, and it included instruction and discernment all along the way. Progressively more of the things of the faith were entrusted to the seekers as they traveled that path.

Before baptism, the seedling Christians were taught creeds, hymns and prayers. Only after baptism did newly planted (“neophyte”) Christians participate in the experience of communion.

Teaching about the rituals of baptism and communion happened after the experience of those rituals, and it was called “mystagogy,” meaning “teaching of the mysteries.”  Ambrose wrote this about it in the 4th century:

Now is the time to speak of the mysteries and to reflect systematically on the sacred ritual actions. We should not have considered it helpful to those not yet initiated, but rather a betrayal of them, if we had decided to give such a detailed explanation before baptism. Indeed, it is better for the light of the mysteries themselves to have inundated you as a surprise than it would have been for us to have given an explanation beforehand.

(quoted in Clarahan’s article, “Mystagogy and Mystery”)

Here’s why I think this has something to say to us and a possibility to offer to an Anabaptist vision of spiritual guidance…

Most churches do one of two things around rituals. Some churches explain the rituals before hand, drawing out the theology and symbolism. This approach risks flattening the rituals to one or two meanings and prescribing those meanings for a congregation.

Other churches never explain or explore the rituals, desiring them to stand on their own and be revelatory of God without words. This approach also risks flattening the rituals, through of a lack of intentionality regarding theology and practice.

Mystagogy offers a third option. The experience is allowed to stand on its own, full of mystery and inspiring seemingly infinite layers of meaning. Yet the exploring of those layers of meaning has a place to find expression, in words and in community.

The Anabaptist tradition is very ritually rich. As Christians formed by a steady rhythm of Love Feasts, our theology concerning Kingdom finds a most life-giving context in the washing of feet. As a tradition formed by a regular practice of anointing and service (often experienced as worship), our theology of reconciliation and justice finds a most full-breathing context in the caring touch of hands.

Part of why we like rituals in our antiauthoritarian tradition is because they are both communal and individual. Their meanings are not prescribed and yet we participate together; in ritual we have opportunity to build something together that is larger than the sum of our individual meaning-making.

And yet I am convinced that we do ourselves a disservice and risk losing the centrality of our rituals altogether if we do not find ways of exploring these mysteries communally. In thinking about how to draw more communal connection from the rituals we undertake, mystagogy is a promising option.

Here’s an imagining of what a practice of mystagogy could look like in the church:

In the Church of the Brethren, young people are often baptized on the Sunday before a midweek Love Feast, so that this central ritual can be one of their first communal experiences as a baptized Christian. After this first Love Feast, a group of people could gather together to recognize, affirm, and explore the meanings, individual and collective, that arose from that ritual.

The hope in this kind of group would be that it would flow out of existing relationship and into continuing relationship. Although the group would especially hold the new person and their experience, the giving and receiving would be shared.

The group might include a range of ages, backgrounds, and experience levels with the ritual. The group could be conducted similar to a “Listening Hearts” model of group discernment, or it could be a kind of clearness committee. In both of these models, a primary emphasis is on listening for the Spirit in the midst of the group and the individual, and working together to name and claim the movement of the Spirit.

Something like this could be extended to small groups that did not particularly focus around a person’s first experience but rather fostered a general sensitivity to layers of meaning found in ritual. It could also extend to experiences like anointing.

Although Anabaptists as ordinance Christians do not want to go too far into saying that our rituals have any saving power in and of themselves, we do often find our hearts stirred and our lives shaped by these rituals. A forum to acknowledge and build on those stirrings and shapings feels crucial to communal faith development.

After my baptism, at which an elder in the church told me I looked like a new bride, and after my first Love Feast, at which another beloved elder 60 years older than me washed my feet, I was brimming with meaning and questions and inspirations. Those things found a container, eventually, in the life of the church and in my own life of discipleship and faith. But I find myself wondering if the richness of that – and of what is present in each member of the body – could have been brought more fully to bloom within the community had there been a space dedicated to those explorations of meaning.

This kind of small-group mystagogy practice could provide a container for fluid and overflowing meaning, inspired by ritual, that provides a way for the Spirit’s movement to be named and celebrated. And all of this is put forward with the faith that naming and celebrating the movement of the Spirit is one of the ways we attune our hearts to continually notice and move with the Spirit in all of life, and in all our actions.

Sabbath Hymns

For those of you who are interested, here is music for four of my hymns. If you print the music, check the copyright info for the songs. I think two of them are public domain, but the other two are definitely not.
Use and share at will… just give credit where it’s due and talk to me if you want to adapt any of them. I also welcome feedback!

Sing Praise to Our God

On This Blest Day

Sabbath Sweetness

O God, We Come to You This Day

For the Life of the World: Toward a Sacramental Understanding of the Church

Taking a wee break from the spirituality series to offer this reflection I wrote last year around Alexander Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World, one of my all-time favorites.

“The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom – not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called “sacraments,” but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the “world to come,” to see and to “live” it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself” that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And his joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.” (113)

Alexander Schmemann, originally writing For the Life of the World in 1963 from his position as dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, puts forward in this book an Eastern Orthodox view of the church as a sacrament. While many of his statements are difficult to understand and appreciate from a liberal Western perspective (and perhaps others are experienced as just plain wrong), there is much that Western Christianity potentially has to learn from this view of church. I advocate that, just for a moment, we suspend judgment on the hierarchical, patriarchal, and hetero- and andro-normative extensions and implications of this theology as posited by Schmemann, and question whether there are other aspects of this theology that can be helpful while not requiring that we buy in to the more negative aspects.

Foundational Analysis

At least three assumptions of Schmemann’s framework must be understood before the book can begin to make sense. First, Schmemann takes the experience of liturgy as his authority (7, 8). This view fits within a full framework of participation in liturgy as participation in the Kingdom, but this is certainly not a common starting point even for the most high-church of Western thinkers. Because of this, Schmemann appeals consistently to words from liturgy, in the way a Protestant might appeal to words from scripture or a Catholic might appeal to church tradition – as authoritative in their own right, requiring no prior claim for justification.

Secondly, Schmemann assumes, as does much of Eastern Orthodoxy, that death (not sin or evil, as Protestants and Catholics respectively tend to assume) is the primary problem or condition of humanity. In this framework, then, life is the salvific antidote offered by God, particularly life in the Kingdom. This life is offered by way of participation in and full communion with God through Christ, a participation in the Trinity that Schmemann sees as both mystical and physical, not wanting to define physical as “real” and mystical as “unreal,” as Western thinkers tend to do, but rather seeing the wholeness of both together as “real” (135-151). Thus, in place of emphasis on understanding of God (typically Protestant) or on holiness (typically Catholic), Orthodox theology tends to include emphasis on participation in and becoming entirely one with God, or theosis, as means and end of salvation. Once again, this participation happens, for Schmemann, primarily through the liturgy, which then reveals to Christians the true nature of the whole world as sacrament.

Finally, Schmemann does not claim to give a systematic theology (7, 8, 20) and is, in fact, working within a background tradition that leans toward the apophatic. Western arguments (especially academic ones) are often judged to be true or not based on whether the argument is internally consistent. Western judgments also often assume that the observer can have some objective distance from the argument; even though hermeneutical models would tend to dispute this in theory, this assumption is often operative nonetheless. This way of judging does not work for apophatic modes of reasoning, which lean toward the aesthetic and poetic, and by virtue of that, often have internal logical inconsistencies. So Westerners are left with a looming question of how to measure this kind of argument, which deals so thickly in paradox. Do we have other ways of gauging truth?

Ultimately, suspending judgment about Schmemann’s argument is about trying to step into the shoes of the author, not only seeing what he sees but also, for a moment, attempting to measure with his ruler. Is there something of truth here, even in the midst of contradictions? How might we know it? I submit that, if we are truly to see what Schmemann and other Orthodox thinkers see, we must see texts like this as Schmemann himself advocates seeing all of worldly life – as somehow sacramental; as stained glass that is not, itself, inherently good but that is intended to allow the light of truth to shine through. And further, from my own Anabaptist tradition, which is in its own way apophatic and sacramental, I submit that we must learn to know a tree by its fruits, never seeking pure utilitarian use but yet always asking, “In what ways is this life-giving?” with the assumption that everything in the created world has the potential to be life-giving. There are many risks inherent in this kind of measuring (as with any system of measurement), not least among them the risks of absolutizing individual or group subjectivity and of instrumentalizing theology. However, for now, to take Schmemann on his own terms, I suggest we attempt this mode of measuring.


For Schmemann, the problem with Western theology and secularism (as it was experienced in the 60s, we can assume), is that humans are constantly dividing the spiritual from the physical, and Western religion has accepted that division too entirely. Human tendency is to love the things that satisfy, as ends in themselves, Schmemann says, while forgetting that they are simply paths toward the ultimate end of communion with God. For Schmemann, God has provided the physical world to be “transparent to God” (16): “When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence” (17). The church, then is the location of God’s reminder that all of life is sacramental. Schmemann argues that when all are in perfect communion with God (note here the Orthodox emphasis on theosis), the church will no longer exist because it will no longer be needed. Now, in our imperfection, when we get stuck in desacralizing the world; the church, and Eucharist in particular, is meant to be a sacramental “entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world” (27).

Because the Eucharist and the liturgy of the church are the place of ascension and reorientation for Christians, Schmemann then points out what he sees as the reorienting factors in the words and rites of the liturgy. For example, he writes against the doctrine of transubstantiation because for him the bread and wine do not become something entirely different and new – rather, God reveals the inner and inherently sacred core of these material things, a core that was always there but usually hidden to the human eye, and a core that holds the possibility of revealing God through materiality. This sacred core is infused within the whole material world, to Schmemann’s thinking. Interestingly, this emphasis seems to hold the possibility of allowing for both a radical break between the church and the world, and also a radical love of the world on its own terms as a sacrament of God.

Schmemann is clear that participation in liturgy of the church provides an experience of the Kingdom: “The very goal of this [liturgical] movement of ascension is to take us out of ‘this world’ and to make us partakers of the world to come… But this is not an ‘other’ world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us” (42, emphasis in original). This understanding of the purpose of liturgy, far from being an escape from the world, seeks to propel us back into the world with new vision:

It is here, at this moment [of confirmation and anointing], that the pseudo-Christian opposition of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ is denounced, abolished, and revealed as a monstrous lie about God and man and the world. The only true temple of God is man and through man the world. Each ounce of matter belongs to God and is to find in God its fulfillment. Each instant of time is God’s time and is to fulfill itself as God’s eternity. Nothing is ‘neutral.’ For the Holy Spirit as a ray of light, as a smile of joy, has ‘touched’ all things, all time – revealing all of them as precious stones of a precious temple. (76)

He makes this same case in relation to the liturgy of the Eucharist, baptism and confirmation, the Christian year, marriage, ordination, death, and mission, both using those aspects of liturgy and church life to confirm his vision and using his vision of the church to tease out new and fuller meanings of those rituals and life events.

His chapter on death is particularly interesting to me and underlines the Orthodox view of death. He insists that the Western church has, by and large, adopted the pre-Christian view of an immortal soul and mortal body. Thus, he writes that the Western Christian attitude toward death is essentially death-denying, as is Western culture in general. He prefers to see death as absolute – when we die, every part of us dies – but as overcome by God’s bestowal of new life. “Death is not only the end, but indeed the very reality of this world” (96).

Christianity is not a reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is the Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained… Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. (99-100)

In this view of death, the church then becomes the entrance into life in Christ, an entrance into life that redeems death, not by making death disappear but by replacing it with new life.

Schmemann also connects this view of death, as opposed to what he sees as the prevailing Western Christian denial of death, as avoiding the pitfalls of a religion that “helps.” As with many aesthetic theologians, Schmemann insists that faith (as beauty) cannot be instrumentalized. He rails against a Christianity that seeks to “help” rather than to simply be true. He sees this desire to “help” as part of a capitulation to secularism and as stemming from a duality between spirituality and materiality. If the church is a sacrament, as he insists, it cannot be instrumentalized to meet particular needs but must be met and experienced on its own terms. On the other hand, if church is made relevant or utilitarian or helpful, he insists that it has lost its sense of the wholeness of creation and is seeking to simply meet material (or spiritual) needs, assuming a division between the two.

Edging into analysis…

The difficulty with this, again similar to aesthetic theologies, is that it becomes difficult to measure and judge what is “true,” especially if experience becomes the authority, as it is for Schmemann (particularly liturgical experience). You will remember that I suggested that we might, for a time, use “life-giving” as a ruler (for Schmemann this might be more accurately “communion-enhancing”), but measuring by that ruler can easily become just as instrumental as measuring by the ruler called “helpful.” It is also clear that suspending judgment or measurement entirely is dangerous. Thus, we stumble on a paradox. On the one hand, perhaps we can recognize the need for emphasizing the wholeness and the truth of avoiding pure instrumentalization of faith. On the other hand, any measurement (and humans must always be measuring) requires a move, however slight, toward instrumentalization.

While struggling with this paradox, we must address some of the extrapolations of Schmemann’s theology that we have attempted to set aside until now. Schmemann’s view of marriage is highly sacramental (as should not be surprising at this point), but it is also highly patriarchal, in keeping with much of the Orthodox Church’s practice in general. He draws connections between Mary and brides that end up prescribing tightly gendered roles – passivity in women, kingship in men. Although he does a little gender-bending, implying that men must incorporate feminine qualities, and although his portrayal of virginity and love are not entirely oppressive, they still uphold male dominance and power structures. (This is not to even mention the fact that there is no place in his structure for LGBT people or expressions.)

Likewise, although the sacramental nature of the church and the world can be liberating and could foreseeably cause a turn toward seeking justice and reconciliation in the world, seeing it as God’s precious creation and as inherently sacred, this view still sees the world as entirely under the Christian God’s purview. This is a highly confessional book, seemingly not very interested in constructing an apology to the outside world. In our pluralist climate, it is not clear to me how (or if) Schmemann would deal with dialogue between faiths.

In trying to parse this question, we again stumble upon an inconsistency. On the one hand, the world is sacred inherently and the Christian needs only to see it as it really is. On the other hand, when the world is revealed as “it really is,” one gets the distinct impression that for Schmemann, it is revealed as not only sacred but also as being within a Christian framework. It seems that in an interfaith dialogue, this theology is clearly inclusivist in perspective, and yet a perspective that would see a Hindu as inherently Christian at her core, does not take the existence of other religions as seriously as they deserve – indeed does not truly see other religions as inherently sacred.

Because this book is from 50 years ago, I find myself wondering how differently Schmemann would approach these topics now. The Orthodox Church remains hierarchical and patriarchal, hetero- and andro-normative, and highly confessional, so perhaps his perspectives on these topics would not have changed. However, culture and its questions have changed substantially since Schmemann was writing, so perhaps he would have new answers.

Schmemann’s ecclesiology points a way beyond the dualism of Western Christianity, and particularly underscores just how much that dualism affects our very way of speaking of, thinking about, and judging theology. It provides a helpful possibility of a new way to play with the church/world dynamic that, as mentioned above can hold in tension radical discontinuity with radical love. It also can hold together a sense of the chosenness of the church and a deep humility; if the church is a sacrament, then it is not the locus of grace by any merit of its own. Likewise, if the church is only needed because broken humanity cannot experience the world the way it is meant to be, then the more need we have of church, the more humble we as humans must be.

All in all, I am not certain if the deep flaws in Schmemann’s (and Orthodox) theology mentioned above are inherent to this kind of theology, or if there exists a possibility of adopting and reframing the sacramental orientation of the theology in such a way that it precludes those weaknesses. Because I find so many helpful counterpoints to Enlightenment rationalist Christianity, as well as helpful counterpoints to Postmodern relativist Christianity, I advocate a posture of discovery and play in regard to the view of church as sacrament, all the while also maintaining a careful and iterative evaluation of its outcomes.