Posts Tagged ‘death’

Finding Life in a Place of Death

// March 28th, 2016 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

This was the sermon from Easter Sunday:

When the women go to the tomb on that Sunday morning, they are expecting to find a corpse. Because Jesus died after noon on a Friday, it was not possible to properly prepare his body for burial. The women who had followed him all the way from Galilee returned on Sunday morning to complete the task. They would perfume the body with spices, then tuck it away in a little room to decompose. In about a year, their Jesus would be nothing more than dry bones, collected, rearranged, and moved to make room for another body, the dead piled on top of the dead. The women came to the tomb expecting death.

But a funny thing happened. When they arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled away. This stone is a large, heavy, wheel-like disc that rolls in a track. It is a cold, hard boundary between the place of the living and the place of the dead.

This is how we like it: death behind a wall where we can’t see it. Underground. Made up and dressed nice. Somewhere in the far future behind years of healthy eating and miracle drugs and desperate surgeries. We live as though life and death are binaries, separated by a wide chasm of good choices. But that boundary is not so thick, not so heavy, that chasm not so hard to cross as we would like to believe. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the hands of angels move it aside so that we can witness the truth.

The women came to the tomb expecting death and we often do the same. We worry about death. We fear it. But that fear turns in on itself and somehow brings death closer. We buy guns and build walls and pray to Jesus to take us home. But Jesus never left.

The women came to the tomb expecting to find the dead body of Jesus, the man who they followed from Galilee. For three years, they supported his ministry. They travelled the long road to Jerusalem, the road to suffering and death. They followed him because he offered them salvation.  He offered them freedom. He offered them equality. He offered them a voice, a voice that was their own. They came to the tomb expecting to find all their hopes and dreams lying dead, a lifeless body torn apart by a cruel empire.

Instead, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. It was not what they expected. They were perplexed, anxious, confused. Thankfully, there were some friendly angels in fabulous clothes to remind them of what they already knew: that Jesus told them this would happen. Speaking with the eschatological title “the Son of Man,” he told them that he must be handed over to sinners – for Luke, the wealthy elites who oppressed the common people – be crucified, and on the third day rise again.  This must mean that Jesus was, in fact, alive. They were in the wrong place to see the risen Christ because they were looking in the place of the dead. Where they expected to find death, they found a hint of life.

Both Mark and Matthew tell us that they left with joy, fear, and amazement, but Luke simply says they returned from the tomb and told everyone the Good News. Because the tellers of the tale were all women, the apostles were of course skeptical. You know how women are. They get all emotional and excited. They can’t be taken seriously. They certainly can’t be president. We need the reserved dignity and moderation that is the nature of men.

The Gospel of Luke has been called “The Women’s Gospel.” Luke features women far more than Matthew and Mark. For every parable about a man, there is a corresponding parable about a woman. Yet there is a tension in Luke’s treatment of women. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others have pointed out that, while Luke features women, he does not often give them a voice. Over the course of Luke and Acts, women become less prevalent. The resurrected Jesus does not appear to women in the Gospel of Luke as he does in Matthew and John. The women an empty tomb with an angel and men get the risen Jesus. And yet, here, I think, is an opportunity to read against the text or perhaps excavate things that Luke hints at, but can’t fully live into. It’s possible that Luke is describing what happened after Jesus’ death – the gradual marginalization of women – while suggesting that it should not be so.

Chief in the evidence against Luke is the fact that the women’s account of the tomb is dismissed. Peter believes enough to go check, but his amazement seems required to validate the claim. When Cleopas and another disciple meet Jesus unknowingly on the walk to Emmaus, they cite the women’s account with some skepticism. Though Peter was amazed at what had happened, the takeaway seems to have been that no one saw Jesus. Then he says to them: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” Perhaps I am being a generous reader, but isn’t it possible that Jesus is including the women among the prophets here? They spoke with divine beings and delivered the good news of the resurrection. In Cleopas’s remarks to Jesus, he repeats that it was the claims of the women that are in question and Jesus’ response is that they are foolish not to believe the prophets.

Luke’s Gospel has also been called “The Gospel of the Poor.” From the beginning, Luke sets up the story as a cosmic battle between good and evil and the good characterizes the lowly, the laborer, the outcast, where the evil characterizes the high-born, the powerful, the elite. Sinners are rich and the righteous are poor. The arc of the narrative is to overturn the current order to strike down what is high and raise up what is low.  It’s known as “The Great Reversal.” In many places in Luke, women are the representatives of the lowly, especially widows, those who depend on societal support. So if we are looking for the righteous in our world, we need not be restricted to the widow, alien, and orphan, though those are often good places to start. We simply have to find whoever is marginalized in our world.

When we are confronted with the weighty matters of glory, our first step should be to listen to the marginalized, to those who come face to face with suffering and death. When the black community says that they are being terrorized by police, as they did for years before the Rodney King beating, as they did for years before Ferguson, we have to listen. Instead, we wait for video – and not just one! After Eric Garner is strangled and 12-year-old Tamir Rice is shot and Sandra Bland is harassed, arrested, and found dead in her cell, we’re still not sure. We find ways to dismiss their claims, to blame the victim. We advise them on how to behave properly, to be respectful and do what their betters tell them to do.

When queer kids tell us about bullying at school and the rejection of their families that leaves them homeless, we tell them to toughen up or deny who they are. When women speak of their hardship in having their only source of medical care taken away, we tell them to just go to another doctor. When the impoverished cry out for food, shelter, health care, and safe communities, we tell them to move and get a job. When the victims of global poverty and endless war try to do just that, we tell them to wait and wait and wait. When people who experience death on a daily basis – sometimes literal death, but often the smaller deaths of being told they aren’t good enough, don’t belong, or don’t matter – when the suffering cry out to us we turn a deaf ear.

But these are the witnesses to the resurrection. Only by going to the cross and seeking out the dead can we find life. So, for those of us who are privileged – and I would bet that everyone in this room is privileged in some way – we can only see the resurrected Jesus if we walk alongside those who suffer. This is the Gospel. As James Cone says in A Black Theology of Liberation, “there can be no theology of the Gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community. This is so because God is revealed in Jesus as a God whose righteousness is inseparable from the weak and helpless in human society.” If we cannot even listen to those who suffer, we have no part of the Gospel.

We see this Gospel in action. Out of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland – the list, sadly, goes on and on and on – out of these tragedies, we see the BlackLivesMatter movement finally expressing the frustrated dreams of a generation that saw the hard fought gains of their mothers and fathers taken away – taken away in the War on Drugs, trickle-down economics, voter suppression, unequal housing and education – the list, sadly, goes on and on and on. Out of the AIDS crisis that devastated the gay community while the White House denied its existence, we got an organized resistance that fought for same-sex marriage and non-discrimination ordinances, and continues to fight to maintain what has been gained and gain even more for our queer family. Out of this latest in the ongoing assault on women’s rights and fundamental dignity, I believe we will see women empowered like never before. This is not “just” politics. This is the resurrection life.

It is not that this suffering and death is somehow justified or “worth it” or “serve a purpose in the greater scheme of things,” but that it can be redeemed. Those deaths – whether of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, or of queer people at the hands of parents and closeted bullies, or of women at the hands of abusive spouses or substandard medical procedures – those deaths can never be justified. They are never worth it. But contained within each of these moments of suffering, there is the possibility of new life just waiting to be witnessed and proclaimed and fought for. If we turn our eyes away from death, we never get to see life. If we cover our ears to lament, we never get to hear exultation. If we don’t go to the tomb and we don’t pay attention to those who do, we are fools and we will miss out on the greatest gift in all creation.

The women went to the tomb expecting to find death. But in that cold tomb of despair, they found the hope of new life. This is the Gospel. This is the Good News. This is the resurrection.

A Response to Charleston (preached Sunday, June 21, 2015)

// June 22nd, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I’ve been trying to figure out why the events in Charleston this week have affected me as they have.  Yes, it’s a tragedy.  Nine good people are gone from this world.  But let’s face it: this happens every day.  Every day, our news cycle is filled with death.  I become immune to it just like everyone else.  There might be a moment of outrage, a shake of the head, maybe a tsk tsk at whoever is to blame.  But we get over it.  We move on.  Lest we become mired in cynicism and hopelessness, we distract ourselves with cat videos or cooking shows or the new Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant that we just can’t wait to try.  These strategies work.  They make us feel better, but they never dispel the hopelessness.  They just set it off to the side.

This is white privilege.  We can set things off to the side.  We can choose to be outraged for a moment and then not be.  Our lives are not on the line.  We can set an entire people off to the side, a whole community, which is exactly what we do.

The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863.  It effectively ended slavery in the United States.  And yet, slavery continued in the state of Texas until June 19, 1865, which is now celebrated all over the United States as Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, the day that slavery really ended.  There is some contention over why it took two-and-a-half years for the Proclamation to have its effect.  Some say the messenger was killed on his way by horseback to Texas.  It was a dangerous time.  Some say that white slave owners simply didn’t tell their enslaved captives the news, which is probably true.  Why would they?  Some say that Northern generals held back the news so that Texas could provide a couple of more cotton harvests with free labor.  All or none of these may be true; the Internet is not entirely trustworthy.  But one thing we know: 250,000 black people enslaved by white people had to wait for two-and-a-half years to be free.  Whatever the reason, the end result is the same: white people prospered while black people suffered.

Black life in America is a life of waiting.  Two-and-a-half years to be free – that on top of centuries of kidnapping and murder, being bought and sold like a mule.  I listen to songs from the civil rights movement and I cannot believe how current they are.  “We Shall Not Be Moved.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.  Hold on.” These songs should be relics of a fight well fought and ultimately won, but we can dust them off at any time without fear of anachronism.  Langston Hughes called it “a dream deferred.”  Reverend King said, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”: “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”  Perhaps more hauntingly, he described “forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’”

We have raised the defense of King’s nobodiness to a pernicious art form.  Watch the news cycle any time racial justice is at stake.  Whenever a white person has appeared to act wrongly to a black person, check your social media.  Never read the comments, but sometimes read the comments.  We should know who is out there and how ideas become pervasive in our culture.  The Internet allows us to share information at such a rapid rate.  Coupled with the 24-hour news cycle to which a terrifying number of people are constantly glued, ideas move from suggestion to fact, from “could be” to “definitely” in the blink of an eye.  An idea is floated by bobbleheads then repeated until it becomes truth.

It’s called “shaping the narrative.”  We withhold judgment until the facts are in.  We get more and more information.  We hear from witnesses.  We listen to recordings of 911 calls and from cellphones that just happened to be on at the time.  We want to know who the characters in the narrative are.  What is their background?  What was their family like?  What were the immediate circumstances under which they entered our story?

All of this effort purports to be in service of the truth, but it is really in search of one truth: it’s not really the white guy’s fault.  We will feign ignorance until we can find a way to know that it wasn’t his fault.  We will lament that there was no video, until there is.  When there is video, we will determine why video doesn’t tell the whole story.  This document of reality is suddenly insufficient.  We pornographically analyze it frame by frame.  This is an aggressive move.  This is motion in his peripheral vision.  Threat, threat, threat.  Fear, fear, fear.

Y’know what I never see?  This kind of effort brought to bear in the service of proving a black person’s innocence.  It doesn’t happen.  Ever.  All we hear about black people is how big they are.  Their previous crimes.  Their suspicious behavior.  How rude they are.  Why don’t they respect authority?  Why don’t they comply?  Why don’t they sit down and shut up like a good Negro should?  To be black in America is to be guilty until proven innocent, to endeavor to be deemed, in the words of my grandmother, “one of the good ones.”  The black tax is in full effect.

It may seem obvious that this latest incident is the worst of the worst.  All suggestions of racism pale in comparison to the clear racist hate crime, the white terrorism, the assassination in Charleston.  Well, maybe not.  Fox News immediately ascribed fault to Christian persecution, even though Dylann Storm Roof passed twenty other churches on his way to Emmanuel AME.  Not one Republican presidential candidate cited race as a potential factor in this crime.  Even so, it is easy to dismiss this tragedy as the act of a singular, disaffected lunatic.  His actions take place in a vacuum without a broader context.  They certainly do not reflect on his white culture.  They did not derive from a broader social location.  They take no account of the confederate flag flying over his state.  He takes no comfort in a society that glorifies racism and treason from the principles of equality that bind this nation together.  He takes no notice of the ways that we regularly, consistently, compulsively diminish the cessation of black lives in America.  No, he was a just a lone actor, disconnected from any broader implications.  Therefore, we need do nothing but shake our heads in dismay.

President Obama is criticized for politicizing these deaths.  How does one politicize an action intended to spark a race war?  How is that possible?  In what way is a shooting intended to terrorize black people in the last place in which they felt safe, in the home church of a state legislator – in what way is that not a political act?  Sit down and shut up, black people.  You know what happens if you don’t.  What they mean is trying to harness a political will to do something about gun violence in America.

This is the fourteenth time Obama has had to stand up during his presidency and lament the tally of a mass shooting.  Nine people this time; twelve in a movie theater; twenty children and six adults in a school.  You know you are at the depth of evil when you can’t tell what’s worse: twenty kindergartners killed because they were defenseless or nine black people killed because they had come too far.  And, yes, the fact that I had to find some way of characterizing the reason for their deaths is a whole other level of wrong because nothing adequately explains what happened.  There is nothing that could make sense of these acts.

That is the secret of the media life cycle of these stories.  They are so horrible that we can’t fully make sense of them.  We are fed little tidbits that call our outrage into question.  Michael Brown stole cigars.  Trayvon Martin was suspended for marijuana.  Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun.  Dajerria Becton was mouthy.  Is that even a crime?  Mouthy?  I’m not a lawyer, but I question the mouthiness statute.  Oh, well.  The cop probably had a hard day.  Or felt threatened.   Or knew something was suspicious.  Might as well shoot somebody dead and work out the details later.

The events in Charleston are different – civilian perpetrator with a racist ideology – but they are only set aside by our constant dismissal of every other event.  We dismiss the vicious wrangling of a 15-year-old girl.  We dismiss the shooting of a 17-year-old boy by a white man who stalked him in the dark.  We dismiss the shooting of another 17-year-old boy by a cop who feigned an assault.  We dismiss the shooting of a 12-year-old boy by a cop who didn’t even bother to let his car come to a stop before firing and then neglected to provide even basic first aid for several minutes after they knew he was not a threat.  A child lying on the ground bleeding to death and no effort to save him.  By the time Dylann Storm Roof walks into the church in Charleston, what guideposts does he have to tell him that black lives matter, that these lives are precious in the eyes of God?  Honestly, if the national narrative around black lives is to be believed, I can’t think of a reason he should care.

As Christians, that is not our narrative.  Every life matters, but, in particular, the lives of the disenfranchised, the outcast, the different – these lives matter most to God.  In America, black lives matter most because black lives have been systematically excluded and devalued and destroyed for 500 years.  The Christian narrative is one of welcome.  The Christian narrative is one of hospitality.  The Christian narrative is one of justice.  I know it may not seem like that because of the pervasive attacks on an inclusive, compassionate, welcoming Christianity, but I promise the Good News of Christianity is hope for the hopeless, new life for those who have been beaten down.

If that promise is to be fulfilled, Christians need to act right.  The pernicious effect of the narrative surrounding racial justice is twofold.  Those who are inclined not to care about black lives are able do dismiss any events.  They are either completely understandable or completely unfathomable.  The perpetrator is either fully humanized with complex, nuanced motivations that are to be pitied, but understood, or fully distanced so that it bears no resemblance to any sort of recognizable humanity.  In any case, this person does not live where we live.  On the other hand, those who are inclined to care about these injustices are worn down.  Racism and gun violence seem to be intractable problems in America.  As Mike Yard said on the Nightly Show, “Let’s be real.  If they didn’t change gun control laws after Sandy Hook, what makes you think it’s going to happen now?”  I’ve seen friends online, committed liberals, state unequivocally that gun control is a dead end.  They won’t waste any effort on it.  And we’ve got a black president, so racism is over.  For those who care about justice, there seems to be no path, no way forward, no hope.

Perhaps I am naïve – and maybe naïveté is what we need now – but I think there is a way forward.  The first step is to absolutely, unequivocally refuse to accept the narrative that the small things don’t matter, that they are somehow justified or reasonable.  Only by paying attention to the smaller slights do we see the larger pattern of racism and injustice.

Second, we must act politically.  Reverend Pinckney was a state senator who fought tirelessly for the people of his district and the people of South Carolina.  He worked to eliminate poverty, police brutality, and racial discrimination.  Make no mistake, this was a political assassination.  It was not only an attack on the last place that black people might feel safe in a world that seems to want them dead, but an attack on black political power, an attack on the will to change the material circumstances of black people in America.  Some of those who now send their condolences promote the same system of white supremacy through the more civil avenues of voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts that suppress black political power.

Finally, we need more black friends.  I know it’s a cliché.  When people say or do something racist, they simply say that some of their best friends are black and suggest that whatever racist thing they just did is forgiven or accepted or even supported by their black friend.  It’s all good!  But I think we need more black friends.  I really do.  Not just Facebook friends, but real friends.  Go to lunch.  Talk about TV or kids or aging parents or the terrible manager you work for.  It doesn’t matter.  Get together and talk.  Sooner or later, something will happen: a shooting, a city council meeting, a pool party.  It doesn’t matter.  Sooner or later, there will be a crisis with racism at its heart.  Without a relationship to facilitate honest conversation, we’ll have no role to play.  You can’t support someone through tragedy or celebrate in victory without the wellspring of a relationship to sustain us.  Crisis is no time to start.

To be the body of Christ is to be bound together in the heart and mind of God.  Though their lives on this earth have ended, their presence is still with us, sustained by the memories of their loved ones, the love they shared with their community, and God’s faithful, abiding grace.  We cannot change what happened to them, but we can redeem it.  We can commit ourselves to seeking a better path, to being agents of healing and transformation, to tear down the divisive structures of power that say that some lives don’t matter.  Let us abide with one another as God abides in us.


Taking Up the Cross

// March 5th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Sorry about the cold last Sunday.  Still learning about the building’s reaction to crazy Texas weather.  So our conversation was brief, but good.

I shared a little (maybe a lot) about the context of Romans.  Paul is often read through the eyes of previous interpreters and, in our contemporary context, Romans is often the source of our ideas about what it means to be “saved,” the how and the why.  Every time I read Romans, I encounter one of those verses that would seem to tell us that Jesus died because I am awful, because of something I did or said, because I’m just rotten to the core.  I read Romans and see that Jesus was a sacrifice made for my rottenness, that Jesus stood in my place for what I deserved.  Even after all the study I have done, I still fall into that reading.  However, there are other readings.

The Jewish Christians who started the Roman church had been exiled and now returned to find a church filled with Gentile Christians.  As you might imagine, there is tension.  Paul is writing to address that tension, to unify the church so that they might also unite with him in his proposed mission to Spain.  Thus, it is not a treatise on how and why we might be saved.  Rather, Paul cites the faithfulness that both groups have, the trust in God’s promise that is more foundational than law or conversion or ethnicity or history. Specifically, it is trust in God’s promise that life can come out of death, which was revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Most importantly, the Roman Christians have the opportunity to make that promise come true by being new life for one another.  The struggle and suffering of exile and persecution can be redeemed if they choose to live into that promise, to hold fast to one another in a difficult time.

It is the same in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus tells us that following him means to take up one’s cross.  If the cross of Jesus was the one cross, if the death of Jesus was the singular event to set things right, why follow him at all?  What is left to be done?  Why are there still crosses to bear?  While Paul uses the language of sacrificial atonement, he does not develop the idea, but instead returns over and over again to the idea of participation, of unity in Christ.  We live into the suffering and death of Christ so that we and our world might be transformed into a new life of love, peace, and justice.  Jesus did not carry that cross so that we wouldn’t have to; he carried it so that we would know the Way.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we continue to discuss the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus in this Lenten season.  This week, we will discuss the foolish ways of the world and the wisdom of the cross (1 Corinthians 1.18-25) informed by Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as depicted in John 2.13-22.  I figured out how to use the heater.

Grace & Peace,

Progress Report

The workday didn’t happen because it was freezing in the building.  My bad.  However, Mikal Beth got some more painting done this week (thank you!) and I did some odds and ends.  If you’d like to do some work on the building, check out our Google doc task list.  It is fully editable, so feel free to add on if you see something that needs to be done.  No shenanigans!

Fred and Ashley got a lot of stuff for the kitchen (big thanks!), but we still need some stuff from our registry.  We welcome any contributions!

Finally, we have studios to rent.  If you know someone who wants a small studio or office, send them our way.  They are small, about 80sf, but enough room for a desk or wall space for painting.  We’ll try to accommodate people as best we can.  We’re looking for $200/mo in rent.

Suffering and Redemption

// February 28th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Because Lent is a time when we tend to talk a lot about sin, I endeavored on Sunday to explain my framework for thinking about sin.  Some folks asked for a write-up, so here it is if you’re interested.

The reason this alternative view is important is that sin, in the Christian mindset, is thought to be responsible for evil, suffering, and death.  However, it is commonly thought that this is done through a bit of magic, the eating of an apple, and that the remedy is similarly magical, a ritual sacrifice.  My hope this Lenten season is to provide an alternate way of understanding that story that resonates more with our experience of being human, to connect the inner transformations of which we often speak with the transformation of the world in which we endeavor to participate.

One way that we commonly speak of suffering and evil that needs to be confronted emerged in our conversation on Sunday.  People often imagine that God causes suffering in order to impart some lesson, which sounds like something that many battered women and children hear from their attacker.  That is just not a God I want anything to do with.  However, it can’t be denied that we often learn things from suffering.  We find reserves of strength we did not know we had.  We find humility in the loss of control.  We find hope on the other side.  But perhaps it is better to understand those gains as redemption of suffering rather than its reason for being.  That is, rather than understanding God as one who makes us suffer so that we can learn these things, perhaps God is one who is with us in our suffering to help us turn it into something that brings life.  This is what we have always done with the story of Jesus.

The suffering and death of Jesus is the specifically Christian way of examining the problem of evil, suffering, and death.  In the face of tremendous loss and humiliation, the followers of Jesus had to try to explain what happened.  They had to try to make meaning out of this tragedy.  We still do that today.  It is the story that we tell and retell and interpret into our lives.  Through our God-given hope and humility and strength we redeem this tragic event.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death, theologically, personally, and socially.  We will examine Paul’s writings on the subject in Romans 4.13-25 and the story found in Mark 8.31-38, both important texts for the theology of substitutionary atonement, the theology to which I am hoping to provide an alternative.  One programming note: during Lent we are doing a silent meditation at the beginning of the service, so please try to arrive by 11am and enter quietly so as not to disturb others.

Grace & Peace,

Progress Report

We are still working on the building.  Special thanks to Mike Trozzo for all the painting time he has put in.  There are a few things we could use some help with.

First, labor.  There is still more painting to be done.  We have a board meeting scheduled for this Sunday after church.  However, we realized that we might need more work and less talk, so it will be a Board Meeting/Workday.  We would love to have your help.  We’re going to order pizza for lunch.  (To see what tasks are available for your labors, please see our Google doc task list.)

Second, buy stuff!  We’re slowly filling in furniture needs, but there’s always more.  We started a registry list at  Just pick something out and buy it.  All the shipping is set up.

Finally, we have studios to rent.  If you know someone who wants a small studio or office, send them our way.  They are small, about 80sf, but enough room for a desk or wall space for painting.  We’ll try to accommodate people as best we can.  We’re looking for $200/mo in rent.  Email

My Understanding of Sin

// February 28th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Because Lent is a time when we tend to talk a lot about sin, I endeavored on Sunday to explain my framework for thinking about sin.  It differs from things we might have heard growing up in a modern American Christian context, whether Catholic or Evangelical.  In the spirit of this church’s emphasis on questioning and conversation, I am not stating that this is the only or right or best way to think about sin.  I am only setting it forward as a starting point that frees us up from some of the issues that plague other frameworks and to try to shift the conversation away from personal piety and guilt.

There are traditionally three ways that sin is considered.  First, behavior.  Sin is doing the wrong thing.  Second, as a condition.  When Eve ate the apple, it stained our nature so that we are evil from birth.  Finally, relationally, socially, and cosmically as systems that sustain injustice.  Not only are humans flawed, but the world is fallen, incapable on its own to produce the Good.  Each of these ways of thinking about sin generates a different response to sin and those ways are not always compatible.

We can see examples of this in the early Christian writers wrestling with the question of salvation: By grace?  Through faith?  By works?  Is it our behavior or God’s that matters?  And what are we saved from?  Our own condition or the injustice of the world?  In my opinion and in my experience as a pastor talking through issues of suffering and evil with people, our explanations of sin lead only to confusion and frustration, rather than the experience of freedom promised by the gospel.  So, here is my understanding of sin, which I hope will serve as the backdrop for our conversations throughout Lent.

It is a fact that we live in a finite world.  Existence is marked by scarcity, limits, loss, and ends.  To exist at all requires the possibility of non-existence.  To be, to have a point of view, is to understand that there are things that are not us.

These limits create fear.  We fear scarcity.  We fear death.  We fear the powerlessness of confronting all the not-us that is beyond our control.  Our psyche is structured to deal with this, to defend us against the threat of the world.  Our fears pile up to become delusions, doubts, and desires that help us cope with our finitude.  In themselves, they are not bad.  We hunger, so we know to feed ourselves.  We tell ourselves we are capable even when we are not sure.  We question things to find truth.  However, those good things can swallow us up and become our whole identity, so that each of us is nothing but a monad of fear colliding with other fearful bits of isolation in the world.  We no longer see the world clearly and become convinced that we are not enough and the world is not enough to bring about wholeness, peace, or justice.  The reality of the world and the formation of our psyche in response to its limitations is the condition of sin.

Out of that condition, we make choices.  You can see how a failure to see the world clearly might result in some bad choices.  We often choose to live into that fear rather than overcome it.  We fear scarcity, so we hoard.  We could trust that there is enough if we trusted one another to share.  We fear judgment, so we isolate ourselves or compulsively pursue perfection.  We could accept grace.  We fear loss and failure, so we disengage from the world, keep everything in our bountiful imagination.  We could have some beautiful failures and invest our hope in the next thing.  All of these choices to live into fear rather than hope are sin.  Note that this is not so much something to feel guilty about, but something to endure, overcome, and redeem.

Of course, our choices produce results.  The trick is that these results do not directly correlate to either our intentions or our calculations.  Sometimes, things simply don’t work out as we had hoped or planned.  Sometimes, things work out far better than we had hoped or planned.  But, either way, those results tend to inform our future choices.  If we take that risk and live into hope instead of fear and it ends badly, we’re less likely to try it again.  Fear is reinforced; we are cast further down into the condition of sin, our escape seems even more impossible, and our choices become more distorted.

The terrible reality is that fear has a lot of power in a finite world and we tend to structure our world in response to fear rather than hope.  Politics, economics, even ethics, are designed to cope with scarcity and limits.  We quantify, manipulate, and exploit our world and even one another.  This is what Martin Buber calls the It-world.  It, like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, is necessary.  We must design systems to distribute goods.  We must, at times, regard one another as objects to be used.  But, also like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, we can allow this to become our full understanding of reality.  We live entirely into the It-world and forget that there is a You-world out there, full of people to be related to with compassion and vulnerability.  Worse, the structures of the It-world become entrenched systems of power that exploit and oppress.  They become so pervasive that they seem to be the nature of things.  Gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, age – all manner of ways of dividing and labeling one another – are assumed to be embedded in the fabric of reality, each person occupying a predetermined place in a predetermined order.  In such a system, there is no room for the story of the individual, no room for vulnerability or variation, and no room for transformation.  This, too, is sin.

In this framework of sin, the tensions between the different ways of talking about sin are eased.  There is no conflict between the condition of sin, sinful behaviors, and the injustice and evil of the world.  The nature of the world forces us to make choices that have outcomes and those outcomes either support or resist injustice.  It is a self-sustaining loop.

The good news is that the remedy also consists of overlapping, intersecting constructs.  Those walls of fear that we use to keep the finite world from harming us can be taken down.  Instead of focusing on loss and limits, we can turn around – repent – to see promise and possibility.  But that is not enough.  We also must break the systems of power that capitalize on fear to oppress and exploit.  It is not a question of whether faith, grace, or works is operative, or even primary, in the work of salvation.  They work in concert, each bringing its own potential for transformation that feeds the others:  trust and faith in God and God’s children; the vulnerability and humility in accepting grace; and the courage to work against the oppressor.  This is salvation.

It is worth noting that this is not radically different from a lot of traditional Christian theology.  Augustine is more nuanced than contemporary interpreters give credit.  Evagrius Ponticus’s demonology is almost a perfect analogue of modern psychology.  These authors and others were wrestling with the weighty issues of human experience.  Unfortunately, we have whittled them down to frightening caricatures, using fear to drive membership, and we have largely failed in Christian education to teach people to think critically or take their own experience and reason seriously.  We are left with only guilt and fear to transform people’s lives.  I think we can do better.


// November 1st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Last night was good.  As has become our annual tradition, we made a lot of food and bought a lot of candy.  Good friends come over to help us eat and drink and pass out candy to thousands of kids that swarm our neighborhood.  As always, it was delightful seeing all the tiny adorable kids in their tiny adorable costumes.  There’s nothing that can melt your heart like a tiny, shy superhero hiding behind his mother.  Before we moved to Dallas, we never had trick-or-treaters.  Parents had given into fears of crime or, in many cases, that there was something evil about Halloween, replacing it with a Fall Festival or a Trunk-or-Treat in the parking lot of the local megachurch.  It’s a shame, really.

Halloween is the first in a trio of days, Hallowtide, that confront death to bring new life.  On All Hallows Eve (Halloween) we mock death so that, with the Apostle Paul, we can ask, “Where, O Death, is your victory?  Where, O Death, is your sting?”  We put on costumes and celebrate.  Some costumes are frightening, but we know that under that gruesome mask is a child.  Some costumes are expressions of a child’s dreams, that one day he or she will be a princess or a hero.  Fear and hope, bound together in a parade of children.

Saturday is All Hallows Day, the day we venerate the saints, the hallows, of the tradition.  As we have discussed in our series on saints, these people exemplify in their lives and legends who we might imagine ourselves to be as people of God.  Of course, this often says more about the people canonizing a saint than the ones being canonized, so the stories of the saints are offered as stories we might like to tell about ourselves.  To our local pantheon of saints this year we added five (well, six): Dorothy Day, Joe Strummer, Sergius and Bacchus, Teresa of Avila, and Molly Ivins.  Each of these points us to the Way of life in God, whether through contemplation, a relentless pursuit of justice, or a broader view of what is possible.  We honor the saints by telling their stories and trying to live into parts of those stories, so that we have our own to tell.

Hallowtide culminates in telling our own stories on All Souls Day.  This is the day that we remember those we have lost.  Contrary to modern common wisdom, we do not come into this world alone and we don’t leave it that way, either.  We are brought into this world by those who have come before, by those who have built the world we have, for better or worse.  Someday, we will leave this world, having made it better or worse, to those who come after.  The world is finite and we are mortal, but everything is connected in God, so that every beginning is an end and every end a new beginning.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we remember those we have loved and lost.  You are invited to bring photos, icons, or sentimental objects to place on the altar, to light a candle in remembrance, and to tell stories of the lives of those who have come before.

Grace & Peace,

The Freedom to Be Formed

// June 28th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We have just passed Juneteenth and we are quickly approaching the Fourth of July, so freedom is on our minds.  Perhaps it is always on our minds as freedom-loving Americans.  And we are a Baptist church (it’s true!), so freedom is at the heart of who we are.  However, Paul did not write in a time of freedom.  Everyone lived within a domination system, a rigid hierarchy.  At the bottom of that system was slavery.

Slavery was simply a part of the way Paul’s world was organized.  It was pervasive, absolutely commonplace.  Slaves were a part of any household of sufficient wealth and size.  They were, sort of, members of the family.  They, sort of, had some legal rights.  They were, sometimes, well educated and, sometimes, had high-level jobs, like accountants and managers.  But they were still slaves.  Property.

When Paul compares the Christian Way to slavery (Romans 6.12-23), it can be awkward for us.  Slavery is a thing of the past.  We now stand on the right side of history.  Our faith is not about enslavement, but about freedom.  But Paul knew then what we still live today: we are all parts of systems of power and influence and we are all formed by those systems.  We are certainly freer than the people of 1st century Palestine, but we are never completely free.

Our greatest freedom comes in our choices to support or resist the systems of power in which we find ourselves.  Where do we buy our clothing?  Who made our electronics?  Which store do we shop at?  Where does our food come from?  What kinds of families do we embrace?  How do our votes change the lives of people who are not us?  We choose what we bind ourselves to and so we choose how we and our world might be formed.  Paul’s prayer for us would be that we bind ourselves to those things that bring life rather than death.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss slavery, grace, and a welcoming spirit.  Also, note that we will have a meeting after church to discuss the space we are looking to lease.  See details below.  Hope to see you!

Grace & Peace,

New Space

At our church planning retreat in May, there was a strong consensus that having full-time space was one of the critical next steps for this church.  We have done “church-in-a-box” for a long time.  It puts a considerable burden on those who set up and tear down every Sunday and limits what we can do with services and any other programming.  It is time to find a home.

We have looked at a few properties that were serviceable, but one has just become available that is far more than we could have hoped.  The building is a beautiful mid-century modern at the intersection of Jefferson, Rosemont, and 10th on the border between Winnetka Heights and Sunset Hill.  It is 2600 square feet, with a large space at the front that has big windows and lots of light, much like Kidd Springs.  There are also 9-10 smaller rooms in the back that will support a kitchen/dining/lounge area, dedicated childcare, and office space, as well as leaving some rooms to sublet to artists as studio space.  Everyone who has seen the space is excited about the possibilities!

Perhaps the best part is that it is affordable.  As you probably know, property in Oak Cliff can be expensive to rent, but we think we can have this space for about what we are paying Kidd Springs right now.  The numbers:

$1375 in rent + $600 in utilities (max) – $800 in studio rentals (4 rooms @ $200 each) = $1175/month.

In theory, this is budget-neutral.  In reality, there are some variables.  First, we’re not sure about the utility costs, but the manager said that $600 seems high.  Second, it does depend on keeping those extra rooms occupied and paying.  We have already talked to a few artists who are interested, but no guarantees. If costs do come in a little high, we would have to increase giving or dip into our savings.  There will also be some initial costs, such as painting and furniture.  Our resourceful designers and architects are already looking out for deals and we have already had people approaching us to contribute to those costs.

There will be a Q&A at the end of church tomorrow.  Please bring any questions or concerns.  If you are not able to attend, please email with any questions or concerns.  We will make our best effort to allow our standard two weeks to vote on a lease, but if there is a strong consensus and we need to lock down the space or lose it, we might have to cut the time short.  So please register your thoughts and opinions as quickly as you can.

Come, Ye Sinners

// June 21st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I lamented in church last Sunday that I miss the altar call.  Certainly, it is damaging in a lot of ways.  However, what I like about it is it puts a person to a decision.  If Jesus is, in the words of theologian Schubert Ogden, the decisive re-presentation of God in that the words and works of Jesus put a person to a decision, then it seems fitting that a church should have a time when we are, in fact, put to a decision.  Perhaps the reason many churches don’t, including ours, is that this decision has become so intertwined in the public consciousness with the problem of sin.  Nobody wants to talk about sin.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I was at an emergent church conference a few years ago and a man at my table explained that he was there to see what the emergent church was about.  He said that he liked a lot of what he had read, about rethinking the ways that churches are organized and the way that we worship and reflect on our tradition and the way we allow for questioning and hospitality.  What he did not like is that we do not talk about sin.  I was somewhat taken aback, but I realized that he was mostly right.  And it’s not just the emergent church movement; mainline churches don’t often talk about sin, either.  We talk about love and grace and justice, which all sound nicer.

As I talked to this man throughout the day, I learned that he was from Yugoslavia.  He watched family members die in the war.  He saw violence and starvation and rape.  He escaped to teach theology here in the States, but he can never forget what he witnessed.  Seeing such evil in the world, he needs theology – and the church – to account for sin, to deal with it in some way.  It can’t be ignored.

For most Christians today, if you ask about sin and salvation, they will provide some version of what is known as “atonement theology.”  There are different nuances, but the gist is that we are so bad and God is so good that Jesus, an innocent, had to die in our place to pay for our sins.  Most people believe that this is what Christianity is about.  Those who do not like the implications of this theology (violence and blood as necessary conditions of forgiveness; evil as an essential condition of being human; etc.) might reject the faith altogether.  Or remain in the faith and simply not talk about it.  Those who embrace it might make it sound friendlier, focusing on God’s love for us rather than God’s need for blood.  There is a growing number of people who argue against this theology, but it sometimes leaves us without a coherent way to talk about sin and, particularly, the way the Bible talks about sin.

Over the next few weeks, the lectionary brings us Romans and Matthew.  Specifically, we have Paul’s thoughts on sin and Matthew’s ideas about hell and condemnation.  These probably sound like ugly topics because of our history with those notions.  But I believe there is something in the discussion of sin, and even hell, that is liberating.  We read these texts through the eyes of Anselm and Luther and Calvin and uncritically accept that this is the only way, that we are “sinners in the hands of angry God,” dangling over the fires of Hell, begging only for mercy. This is not the God that I know.  This is not the way I understand myself as a human being or the relationship I have with God and others.  Like Paul, I understand any discussion of sin in the Christian context to be a conversation about freedom, reconciliation, and wholeness.

I hope you will join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about sin and the freedom of life in God.  There is a lot to unpack here, but I have every confidence that God will show us the way.  I promise there won’t be an altar call.  Not this time.

Grace & Peace,

From Death into Life

// April 18th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff, DART Stations of the Cross

This is the season when we sit with death and find the way to new life.  Doug Pagitt says that every preacher has four sermons that get preached over and over and over.  I guess this is one of my four.  I’ll take it.

Last night was our Maundy Thursday service.  It was a very Church in the Cliff night.  It was small and intimate.  We ate and drank.  We laughed a lot.  We might have cried a little.  Maundy Thursday is a celebration turned farewell.  It is the Passover meal celebrating the ancient Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt, but it is Jesus’ last Passover meal with his friends.  There is a sweetness in a farewell that we should savor when we are lucky enough to have one.  He knew that he was leaving, going where they could not go, and he asked them to do one thing in his absence: love one another.

Tonight is DART Stations of the Cross.  It commemorates the Passion in words and pictures while riding a train.  I know it sounds odd, but it is oddly affecting.  This is Good Friday.  The name of this day has always bothered me because it glosses over the real pain and loss of the Passion.  It points us forward.  It signals that this is the day that Jesus’ work is done, forgetting that his work is done while sweating blood.  Jesus ached so much for the state of the world that his anguish was literally seeping out of him.  Those who loved him, those who had the courage, saw every step that he took on his way to Calvary.  In the Stations of the Cross, we have the opportunity to do the same.  We do this not for guilt, but for compassion, to feel with Christ and to thereby feel with all those who suffer.  In the Stations of the Cross, we ache for the world; we bleed for it.  Imagine if our concern for the world seeped out of us, unable to be contained.

Then there is the quiet of the tomb.  We must not forget that Jesus was dead.  For some of us, that remembrance might be a day of silence, of prayer, of meditation.  I will be doing some of that.  I’m also going to see Southern Baptist Sissies, the story of four gay men growing up in a Southern Baptist church.  It looks funny and, in some ways, incongruous with the day.  However, in remembering Jesus death and time in the tomb, we must also remember the people that we as Christians have forced into silence and solitude for so many years.  The closet is a tomb.  Fortunately for many, the stone has been rolled away.

What we learn from our queer kindred is what we learn from our own experiences: there is always the promise of new life.  The loss of loved ones, of jobs, moving to a new place, relationships severed, a plan failed, a hope dashed, or just dying to the person others expected you to be – there is always the promise of new life.  The mistake is in thinking that those losses don’t continue to have some claim on us, that they cease to be a part of who we are.  New life is only possible when we contend with death, when we live through it and give it its proper due.

Easter is not exactly Christmas; it is not birth, but resurrection.  It is all the more joyful for knowing the alternative.  The bloom of the wildflowers, the greening of the world, puppies playing in the park, and picnics and potlucks, and the Beloved One of God lives again – life is so beautiful.  So let’s celebrate.

Please join us for the remainder of our Holy Week activities.  We will be handing out prayer cards for DART Stations of the Cross from 5-7pm at Mockingbird Station this Good Friday evening.  Tomorrow, for Holy Saturday, we don’t have any official plans, but I encourage you to go see Southern Baptist Sissies at 2:30pm at the Texas Theater.  Then please join us for our Easter celebration, 11am Sunday at Kidd Springs Rec Center.  Following the service there will be a picnic potluck in the park, weather permitting.  The Kittos have graciously volunteered their house, 310 S. Montclair, if there is rain.

Grace & Peace,

Holy Week: A Meditation on Death

// April 11th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Next week is Holy Week, the culmination of Lent and the gateway to Eastertide.  During Holy Week, we remember the last week of Jesus’ life and the death that has come to mean so much.  Growing up in a prosperous Southern Baptist church, we didn’t do Holy Week, or even Lent, for that matter.  We talked about Palm Sunday, but the gist of those sermons was how wrong the Catholics were and how wrong the Jews were before them.

They were wrong, we were told, because they focused on Jesus’ death.  The Jews failed to understand that Jesus was primarily concerned about the afterlife, so they thought that his death was a defeat.  They sought an earthly king instead of a heavenly one.  The Catholics got that part, but still paid too much attention to Jesus’ death.  We were regularly reminded that there was a reason our crosses were empty.  Oh, what we missed.

You don’t just get to have Easter.  As the story of Lazarus reminded us last week, we must die before we can live again.  It is painful.  Nothing can make up for that sense of loss.  We never simply accept it or move on.  It must be named and grieved and we must allow it to become a part of us.  Loss becomes a persistent memory that is shaped and molded to give meaning to whatever comes next.  That’s why we have Holy Week.

Jesus’ death was the great loss of the movement he began, the movement that eventually became our Christian faith.  Over the last 2000 years, we have defined that defining event in various ways based on our current experience: a model of martyrdom; a sacrifice of atonement that frames our judgment; a wise teacher and provocateur that was executed too soon.  But at the heart of all of our meaning-making is death.

Jesus moved boldly toward that death.  When he came to Jerusalem, he provoked the powers.  He marched into town with a parade of peasants.  He attacked the merchants in the temple.  He embarrassed and exposed the religious authorities.  After the provocations, he retreated with his closest friends to say goodbye.  He told them he loved them and asked that they remember him.  He prayed to God, to find his final resolve and then he surrendered himself to the inevitable.

Jesus died well.  Jesus died for a reason.  Jesus set things in order before he went.  Jesus made sure that the things he lived for continued after he was gone.  Dying well means living well.  It means living in such a way that new life is possible, even after we are gone.  In Holy Week, we remember how to die well, to rehearse grief and loss, and to make it meaningful for us today.  Without that, there can never be new life.

Please join us throughout Holy Week.  We begin Sunday morning, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, for Palm Sunday, a celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  On Thursday, there will be a Maundy Thursday service and meal at the Shirleys’, 221 S. Edgefield Ave. at 7pm, commemorating the Last Supper.  For Good Friday, we take the show on the road with DART Stations of the Cross, a moving meditation on the intersection of the Passion and contemporary life.  We will be handing out prayer cards between 5pm and 7pm at Mockingbird Station.  On Saturday, we recommend viewing Southern Baptist Sissies, a film of a play about four young gay men growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, showing at 2:30pm on Saturday the 19th.  There will be a Q&A with the director following.  Finally, on Sunday, we celebrate the resurrection in our Easter Sunday service with a picnic potluck in the park following.  It would be wonderful to see you at some or all of these events.  Truly.

Grace & Peace,