New Blog: Thlipsis

I’m trying out something new. A couple friends and I have started up a joint blog: Thlipsis. Just remember I’ll be posting pretty much the same sorts of things I do here, but with a couple of interesting conversation partners, which will hopefully lead to more conversation (and more frequent posting!). I don’t know if I’m going to try to maintain this blog as well, or use them for different things, or what. So for now, look for me over there and consider this blog on hiatus. Thanks for reading!


Imitate What They Contain and Attain What They Promise #BlackLivesMatter

A few weeks ago, I was inspired to take up the practice of praying the Rosary. Part of me still cringes at the thought of it and feels a bit dirty, especially during the Salve regina and while reflecting on the last two glorious mysteries. But I can tell that it’s bearing fruit, so I’ll keep at it. “Wisdom is justified by all her children.” I used to have some rather common Protestant misconceptions about the practice. I thought that it was a rather legalistic way of ingratiating oneself to Jesus through his mother. To be fair, I have heard it said by some that Mary is somehow closer to us and more compassionate toward us than Jesus because she was just fully human, not also fully divine. That makes it sound like Marian devotion is necessary to supply some defect in the Incarnation, a heretical belief in all three branches of Christianity.

But the Rosary is actually a meditation on events in the four Gospels (and two others I don’t really believe in, but am rolling with for the time being). They are called mysteries, which I think is very apt. There is more to them than can be said discursively. They have to be meditated upon. One way to do this is lectio divina; the Rosary is another. It is like having a conversation with Mary about these 20 events. When I first started doing it, I was usually thinking about the doctrinal import of the mysteries and had some pretty important insights. Then I found myself focusing more on imagining them, often through the perspective on a particular character (a couple times, I’ve tried to meditation on the Lord’s Baptism from the perspective of the water). For the last week or so, I have found that I am mostly imagining the events taking place in Ferguson, MO, especially the sorrowful mysteries (agony in the garden, flogging at the pillar, crown of thorns, carrying the cross, crucifixion), but also the glorious ones (resurrection, ascension, coming of the Holy Spirit, and the two I’m a bit less sure about: the dormition/assumption of Mary and her coronation as queen of the universe).

Whole new aspects of the story emerge. When I pray the sorrowful mysteries, I see a story of oppression, state terror, and collaboration. When I pray the luminous mysteries, I see that they take place in a context of poverty. Likewise the joyful mysteries. But most significantly, when I pray the glorious mysteries, I see that the oppressed people among whom Jesus lived, died, and rose are not powerless.

I’ve seen this quote by Winona LaDuke a few places around the internet: “One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless.” About all I know of LaDuke is that she was Ralph Nader’s running mate, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the quote. But I think she’s getting at what I have been realizing through my meditations on the mysteries.

The black and brown communities of the United States are trying to tell us something. We have ignored their suffering at the hands of individual and systemic racism for too long. I have heard (and believed) that since the Civil Rights Acts undid segregation and guaranteed legal equality and we all know or at least say that black people and white people are equal, racism is a problem of the past. But our black and brown brothers and sisters have been telling us that this is a lie, and the evidence has been as plain as day for all who bothered to see it and not take refuge in their own rationalizations. Nothing new happened in the last few weeks. The sham of a justice system and brutality of law enforcement against people of color is not news. And people of color screaming this at white America is not (or should not be) news. All that’s changed is that for whatever reason, we’re not going back to business as usual this time. Communities of color have something to tell us, and God has something to tell us.

The wounds of Jesus made visible the reality of systematic violence and oppression that we might otherwise be able to ignore. No more than in the last hours of his life, he was oppressed. But he was not powerless. What kind of power did he have? I’m beginning to learn, but I can’t explain it. You’ll have to hear it from him. Try the Rosary if you want.

The death-dealing oppression of systemic racism is finally becoming visible to those who wish not to see it (even to me, the chief of sinners). That, it seems to me, is half of what our brothers and sisters are telling us. The other half is that they’re not powerless. Wherein lies their power? You’ll have to listen to them to find out. Listen up! #BlackLivesMatter.

“O GOD, whose only begotten Son, by His life, death, and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life, grant, we beseech Thee, that meditating upon these mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

[PS. I should hasten to make explicit that this is written from my white, male, straight, cis-gendered perspective. I have tried not to presume to speak for people of color or otherwise exercise white privilege. If I have fallen short of that goal, I welcome correction.]

My life flows on in endless song…

This is the long-delayed third and final post in that series on prayer.

[Preface: If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, I strongly suggest that you see a therapist. The way I am thinking about my own experience may or may not be helpful for you.]

I told you a few posts ago that I was struggling with depression. Fairly mild depression (dysthymia is the technical term), thank God. I’ve probably been having these symptoms for a few years now. Its hard to tell exactly how long, because there’s a fine line between having dysthymia and being a bit of a grouch with a cynical sense of humor. I also have issues with anxiety. Both of these tend to flare up a lot in relation to academic writing, and I have engaged in all sorts of less than healthy behaviors in order to cope with them (procrastination, facebook addiction, entertaining every possible excuse not to work on my papers or dissertation–often quite good excuses). This has resulted in painfully slow progress on my dissertation. But I have now reached the point in my dissertation process where this simply has to be the last year.

I resisted calling this depression for some time. This is in part because I have a certain mistrust of a medical system that sometimes treats very complex experiences as simple malfunctions of the body and brain to be solved with a pharmaceutical intervention. There is most definitely a spiritual aspect to the experiences we now call depression, to which psychiatry is fairly oblivious. I was (and remain) wary of our tendency to treat people who just–damn it!–aren’t happy as though they have something wrong with them. Also, I wanted to explore where these feelings came from and try to address them at their root, so I spent several years seeing a therapist in Chicago who employed a “non-pathologizing” method. It was a wonderful experience that is largely to thank for my transition to something resembling functional adulthood. I suppose that what changed in my new environment was not that my depression got worse or that I noticed something that I and my therapist had missed, but that depression became a useful way of thinking about what I was experiencing. So I started seeing a counselor in Madison, and after a few months, started taking anti-depressants.

We tend to treat going to therapy and taking antidepressants as though they quickly and magically solve whatever was “wrong” with someone. That’s not how it works at all. If you’re doing a more cognitive-behavioral mode of therapy, you’re working hard to rewire your brain (or is it a mind?). If you’re taking drugs, they mostly just make the symptoms milder so you can find mental and bodily practices that dissipate them, or at least let you cope with them. But it’s still work to find what those are.

And that’s where prayer comes in for me, and where even though I find the medical and psychological perspectives helpful, I have to treat this as a spiritual experience, and probably one in which God is trying to teach me something. Specifically, I am learning to love God in all things, and all things in God. I spent much of my summer in Indonesia reading Origen’s treatise on prayer. Highly recommended, though not for wholesale adoption. I have also been practicing centering prayer, a form of silent prayer in which you simply consent to God’s presence, and let God be present in a way that you may or may not be conscious of. I have also continued praying at least some of the Daily Office (I try to take Origen’s recommendation of praying aloud at least three times a day). I have come to think of prayer less as a spiritual feat and more as spiritual hygiene.

Origen says that the whole life of the saint is a prayer. Commenting on the beginning of the Lord’s prayer, he says that whatever else we may be doing, our heart should always be saying “Our Father,” with all the relations to God that entails. The daily disciple of silent and verbal prayer trains us to make our whole lives a prayer.

And if my whole life is a prayer, then the things that scare me so much, like my dissertation, are just another mode of prayer. And prayer is not scary for me (though I know it is for some people). I still experience sudden flare ups of fear or disgust, which used to paralyze me. By the grace of God and the ministrations of my doctors, I think I’ve turned the corner on this damned dissertation. My communion with God is the center of my being. Anxiety and all the other emotions that assail me are merely superficial. Ripples on the lake. Below them, the truth of who and what I am remains untouched. And the truth of what I am is communion with God. The practice I am learning is to go there when the anxiety or depression flares up, and wait for the waves to pass over. Because all they are is waves. But I have “a spring of water, gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14), “the peace of God which passes understanding” (Phil. 3:7). Writing is still a pain in the ass, but it can also be a prayer.

I’ve certainly had a few minor relapses in the last weeks. In fact, this post is pretty much an avoidance tactic. I still depend on your prayers, and on the prayers of all the saints. But I am mindful of this: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Lord, grant what you command!

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

Radical Islam

Another anniversary, another military campaign, and more talk from both sides about the threat of radical Islam.

Every time I hear or read a statement from a politician about the threat of “radical Islam,” I want to cry. Let me tell you about radical Islam. Radical Islam is planning your day around prayer, as a reminder that the whole world is not about you, but about God. Radical Islam is spending one month out of the year eating and drinking only before sunrise and after sunset out of solidarity with all those who can’t just have a bite whenever they want. Radical Islam is giving more money than you’re comfortable with to meet your community’s demands, not because you feel good or get recognized, but because God commands it. Radical Islam is knowing that the place where you live with people who look, act, and think like you is not the holiest place on earth, but that the whole earth is holy. Radical Islam is believing and not being afraid to say that there is no God but God, and that God has come to the aid of humans by instructing them how to live in the world God has created. I am a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. But I thank God for radical Islam. And if I don’t have to apologize for every misdeed of every Christian every time Christianity is mentioned, then my first association with “radical” Islam should be radical submission to the God who created the whole earth and loves it, and not whatever these politicians are talking about.

May God guide the footsteps of all peoples into the way of peace.

À propos of nothing…

I remember when I first read the trial of Nat Turner. It was very difficult and painful. On the one hand, I found his killing of children reprehensible. And having the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, I wished that he had found some nonviolent means of protest.

But then I realized, especially as I read the words of the white judge and lawyers, that the demand for nonviolence on the part of an oppressed and enslaved people by their oppressors and enslavers is groundless. I wish that Nat Turner had not killed so many people, including children. But I also recognize that my white ancestors waged total war on their African slaves, as my society does in a different way on their descendants.

I believe that creative nonviolence is the only way to truly transform societies and bring meaningful peace. But as a member of the dominant group, my desire for nonviolence on the part of my own society’s oppressed people is not wholly disinterested. I wish Turner had resisted nonviolently, but I am in no position to say he had any obligation to do so. When the oppressed choose nonviolence, it rises above the realm of obligation into the realm of grace. And grace is, by definition, unmerited.


Edit: I’ve just remembered that someone who overlapped a bit with me in the Ph.D. program wrote a dissertation on violence in Christian theology in reference to Nat Turner. His name is Karl Lampley. I do not know if the dissertation has been published yet.

Where Prayer Has Been Valid ( or Report #1 from Indonesia)

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” -Psalm 24:1

Two days ago, my wife, our Protestant language teacher, and I went to the royal cemetery of Imogiri, near Yogyakarta in south-central Java, where we half observed and half participated in an Islamic ceremony at the tomb of a Javanese sultan (the line between being a polite observer and a participant being quite thin in these parts). We were asked to don traditional Javanese clothing, and climb barefoot to the top of a hill, where we all sat or knelt, while the leader and Muslim participants chanted in Javanese and recited surahs of the Qur’an in Arabic in front of the door of the tomb. The leader then opened the door, swept the tomb, and then invited us to come in. The ceiling was very low, so there was no choice but to assume a reverent posture. We (or at least I) thought of what we were doing as simply paying our respects to the dead by dropping flower petals on the grave and leaving a small amount of money for the upkeep of the tomb. We were then asked to assume the prostrate position of Islamic prayer, resting our foreheads at a certain spot next to the grave. There was a small indentation from many previous pilgrims having done the same.

After our descent, the three of us went up another hill to pay our respects to the three most recent deceased sultans of Yogyakarta. Our teacher explained on the way that we were not praying to the dead, but asking them to pray for us, and that it was customary to ask their prayers for a specific need or wish. When we got to the top, she spoke in high Javanese to a man in traditional Javanese garb, who took our flower petals and, after asking our names, prayed in a mix of Javanese and Arabic while holding them over a fire that he lit. We then approached the graves on our knees, dropped a few petals on each, and said a prayer. I prayed for peace and success with my dissertation in the coming months. I addressed my prayers to God, but afterward, I told the sultans that I was grateful for the prayers of all friends of God. I crossed myself afterward.

Several things about this experience struck me. First was the reverence and enthusiasm with which our teacher explained and participated in the rituals. Unlike Javanese Catholics (who are possibly the most passionate practitioners of traditional Javanese piety), Javanese Protestants experience more tension with Islamic and traditional Javanese observances. In my limited experience, their services tend toward the megachurch style. They represent a modernist tendency in Javanese Christianity, which is also present in Javanese Islam. But our teacher called the places we visited holy as matter-of-factly as if she were talking about the weather, and there was never a question of whether we would participate in the rituals, albeit in our own Protestant way.

I think this is related to the second thing I noticed, which is that I too was struck by the holiness of the places, though I am neither Javanese nor a Muslim (and am, in fact, an active believer and practitioner of another religion which holds beliefs that directly contradict the Islamic doctrines of God and the prophets). But I think that whatever one’s theology or observance, everyone experiences this place as holy.

The third thing that struck me was the generosity of our hosts, who allowed us to observe and participate in their ceremony without any question, and even showed remarkable patience with two obnoxious Swiss tourists. They were very advanced in holiness.

So what does it all mean?

I believe that the one God is a Trinity of three Persons, one of whom became incarnate as the human being Jesus of Nazareth, who died and rose again for our salvation, that he will return as the judge of the living and the dead, and that nothing can or needs to be added to what was revealed in him. And yet, these followers of a later prophet who worship, not Trinity, but absolute Oneness are holy, and I can feel that I am supported by their prayers, as I am by the prayers of Christian saints.

I believe that all the earth was created by God, and that God is present everywhere, and may be worshipped anywhere in spirit and truth (as do Muslims, with the provisio that one should face the proper direction). And yet, Imogiri is a holy place in a way that most other places are not, and it is especially fitting that God be worshipped there. I’ve been to a few other such places, but rarely have I felt it this powerfully. I envy Catholics, who are more open than most Protestants to the special presence of God in special places, and am glad that this is also a feature of Anglicanism, and that I was able to be open to it here.

And I believe that God loves Javanese pilgrims, American and German scholars, and obnoxious Swiss tourists as they are, and yet draws out what they shall be. And I am grateful to our hosts for demonstrating that.

And in the words of a fellow Missourian who turned Anglican in adulthood, “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an ordering of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. What the dead had no speech for when living, they can tell you, being dead. The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere, never and always.” And also Java.

[Update: For the record, it turns out I misunderstood my teacher. She is actually Catholic. But I leave the post unchanged.]

Me in traditional Javanese attire at one of the entrances to Makam Raja Imogiri.

Me in traditional Javanese attire at one of the entrances to Makam Raja Imogiri.

The Feast of Holy Innocents

It is fitting and proper that we remember terror in the midst of this joyful season, and pray for the victims and perpetrators of terror, including the states of which I and most of my readers are citizens. It is fitting that we pray for children in South Sudan and Syria. And in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and all places where terrorist cells or American drones operate (and leave it God to judge which is worse). I pray for the children of Palestine who live in the shadow of that damned wall and bear the daily burden of occupation and state-sponsored terror, and for children killed by suicide bombers. And come to think of it, there’s a wall along the southern border of the US, and its shadow stretches into our northernmost cities. I pray for persecuted Christians, and I pray for those persecuted by Christians. I pray for every child and youth who was driven to suicide by bullying. I pray for children whose water is poisoned by fraking. I pray for children of communities victimized by poverty, inadequate schools, mass incarceration, and the self-serving policies ostensibly meant to help them. The list goes on. I can’t recite it all. They are all known to God.

The message of this day isn’t that Christianity is so great for taking note of the innocent victims. Christianity and most other religions (and secular ideologies) have high ideals of human dignity. And Christianity, most other religions (and secular ideologies) have piss poor records of treating people according to that dignity. The message of this day, and of Christianity, is that the world needs a savior, and has one. And to that savior, we pray: Lord, have mercy on all sinners, of whom I am the chief. Heal us of our victimization, and heal our victims. Amen.