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Filtering by Category: Theology

Through the Ruins of the World  

Jean Hoefling

Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible.  
     —Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons

In his book of meditations on the icons of 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev's, theologian Henri Nouwen says this about the iconographer’s famous “Christ the Redeemer:”

When I first saw… I had the distinct sense that the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos. A sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of the world.

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Pain and Petition

Briana Meade

Today, I sit on the bed, looking at the piles of laundry. There is a pile on my right. There is a pile on my left, and there is a pile on the bed. Afternoon happens to be when I am at my weakest. The pain is like a splinter I can’t get out of my thumb, but in this case, that splinter is wedged deep in the space between my condyles and my skull. The  diagnosis I’ve been given is idiopathic condylar resorption—in other words, my jaw joint is disintegrating, along with the condyles. “Idiopathic” simply means no one knows why.

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Season of Holy Discontent

Jean Hoefling

In MacDonald’s classic story, the chronically neglected child, Phosy Greatorex, sits alone in church while the vicar preaches that God manifests his love by correcting human souls. Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, he quotes from the heart of Scripture. In her lonely desperation, Phosy pines for this chastisement, if that be the proof of love—any love. When the bitter pallor of an unfathomable loss visits the child on Christmas morning, her innocent acceptance of love’s visitation is so complete that she does not recoil, but gazes full-faced into the heart of her grief, embracing what she must. 

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Entering Openness

Jessica Brown

entering-openness-pic-edited Out of all the treasures in the Book of Common Prayer, to me chief among them are the collects, the compendium of short and beautiful prayers, and chief among these is The Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid:

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify they holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer was born before the advent of the Book of Common Prayer: a close version appears in the 14-century introduction to the beautiful text The Cloud of Unknowing—a text that prompts openness—nakedness, as the writer calls it—to God. Indeed, this prayer is called the Collect for Purity, but I think it is first for something else. The prayer pushes into the openness required for such purifying work to actually happen in the human heart.

The second half of the prayer (after the colon) does ask for purity—it’s a searing request, beseeching God’s work of purifying, cleansing, making new and re-fashioning our ability to love and praise him. It’s a beautiful request.

But I know my own heart. Or at least, I know it with brave, occasional glimpses down into its depths. I know how slow and weird it is. If I’m honest, I have to ask: how would such a request have any real traction in me—in the wild, wily, frightened and glorious expanse of this soul that I’m asking God to care for?

I think it’s because before any purifying action happens, I have to trust God’s ability to know—to see, behold, stare at, and hold—my heart, desires, and secrets. And I have to trust (as this prayer helps me to do) that God does not just know through cognitive cataloging: here is Jessica’s ugly secrets, here is her sad desires . . .

No. He knows via love.

God’s knowledge is woven, in divine DNA strands of holiness, with love. He cannot grimace or flinch away. That colon, those two dots stacked on top of each other, is kind of like a doorway. A threshold. And as we enter the openness of that first half of the prayer, as we open up our heart and desires and secrets, can we enter even deeper pools of grace?

But let’s face it: this real openness can be terrifying. Encased in elegant words of the English language, the reality of this collect is outrageous—like walking into a clearing during a lightening storm. It’s scary. And it would be foolish to think otherwise, that it’s easy for the soul just to open and ease into being known, when we have endless methods of hiding and the compunction to edit and prettify runs hard in the grain.

But perhaps, gradually, slow like how a tree grows, this real openness may become for us the safest place in the world. Sometimes during this prayer, I think of a little animal burying down into safe, warm soil. A badger tucking into his sett. An eagle settling into her aerie, the protected nook on the high cliff. Or a person, returning to the home where he or she is thoroughly known—the faults, foibles, the heavy and tired secrets, the treasured plans—and is welcomed through the doors.

Salvaged Prayers

Jessica Brown

2E2E8EE6-B7CD-4A21-BE94-9AA85F5E3F87Where does the voice of a prayer come from? What swirling mass of the soul congeals to form syllables, words, utterances—spoken, or not, into a place we trust is more than us?

My prayers are often rote. I don’t know what soul-mass is congealing to form such flaccid and half-hearted, exhausted petitions. Help me. I’m tired. Thank you. God, my head hurts. Please help me. Oh Lord this is a hard day, help me.

Sometimes I hear my prayers more than at other times: the ear of my ears open, as it were, and I can hear things in my prayers: a strain of distrust, a lash of anger—and so often, the deep, structural levels of selfishness and ego: help me help me help me.

I try to form sentences that are more appealing:

But your will, Lord, not mine, tacked on to please please please please—

or, to feel less selfish, I toss in something like, help others too, help them, Lord, help the people who have to work in an office with such a headache as this . . .

Sometimes the prayers come out as mean: oh my gosh God help me to forgive that crazy lady who can’t figure out how to run a computer and give me my refund . . .

or really angry: shit, God, how much more does this lady have to go through?—please just heal her already—what are you WAITING FOR—

or silly: ohpleaseGodhelpmestopdevoringthisbagofchips!

But mostly they’re just words rushed out from the quick of the brain, not looked at for any long time—it’s too painful, to stare at the meager, flinty words which expose such a lack of wisdom, kindness, balance, all that I want to pray with—slash and dash kind of prayers.

But, slowly, slowly, the ear of my ears, as it were, is opening to another level of sound: not just the immaturity of my prayers (that was one level of honesty) but to something else, something altogether beautiful (a deeper level of honesty, if you will).

And that’s the way God salvages our prayers.

We humans salvage things. We glean and bring home and re-fashion. Ruth in the Bible walked behind the wheat pickers, gleaning the little grains left over in the wake. Some people know how to forage in forests and supermarket stalls alike. The best artists—be it songwriters, novelists, painters—see and hear things that others overlook, and tenderly these are brought home and re-worked into a narrative, or a sculpture, or a song.

The nonfiction film The Gleaners and I by Agnés Varda is a beautiful visual exploration of this human activity to glean and salvage—this capacity we have to forage, find, save, reuse, re-value. The potatoes that the potato farmers throw away because they do not fit the shape and size standards become sustenance for nearby gypsies. The heart-shaped potatoes are treasured and taken home by Agnes herself, who films them later slowly, lovingly. Agnes interviews people who find their food in trashcans or street refuse after open-air markets. She interviews others who take advantage of high storms and low tides to salvage all the oysters that the oyster-farmers don’t take. There’s a family who finds a disused vineyard. There’s a man who finds broken fridges, and brings them home to give to neighbors who need them.

One of the gleaners in the film describes what she does proudly, saying how her own mother taught her: “Pick up everything so nothing gets wasted.”

I re-watched the film recently, through this new prism of understanding how God salvages my prayers. It helped me realize that I can trust him to forage, find, save, reuse, and re-value the soul-stuff of my prayers. For if a human being can find such reusable worth and delight in something thrown away, how much more can God the primary Creator salvage from his beloved creation? These gleaners teach me about the tender, artistic, thrifty, imaginative nature of God’s listening ear to my prayers. When Agnes interviews the famous artist Louis Pons, who makes beautiful creations from refuse, he explains, “People think it’s a cluster of junk. I see it as a cluster of possibilities.”

This is the redemptive heart of salvaged prayer.

I think of my grandma Ruth, Dr. Ruth E. B. Smith, who saved up bits and tatters from the clothes that people in her family wore. Others might have thrown out or given away such clothing, but Grandma Ruth pieces together strips and squares to make vibrant, beautiful quilts. When I visit Texas, I sleep under one such quilt, and I know there are piece from my dad’s trousers and my mom’s prom dress woven into blanket keeping me warm.

I think of my father-in-law, who not only makes violins, but repairs them. One day, someone gave him a squashed, broken, moldy violin, asking him to do what he could with it. And Brendan repaired it. It didn’t go into the trash; it was carefully reworked and saved and made beautiful—made ready for music—again.

I think of my friend whose neighbor’s apples were all bruised on the ground and just starting to brown. Emilie brought them home in paper bags and made jars of chutney. They were not thrown in the waste bin, these apples; they were cut and stewed with onions and raisins, served out at mealtimes.

So, I think of my prayers, and then the Lord, salvaging everything. From out of my egocentric prayers, God salvages—maybe a plea for help that’s like robin eggshells, too fragile for breath but just right for a tempura mosaic.

From my angry prayers, does he gather red wool threads, dyed a little too dark for a sweater but perfect for a hot mitt?

From my silly prayer asking him to help me stop eating my chips while I’m stuffing my face: does he gather to himself a briar patch of desperation, good for telling stories about cheeky rabbits and other small creatures?

When I get lost in some meandering prayer-turned-soliloquy, almost forgetting entirely I’m not talking to myself about the miasma of my own problems—He never forgets we are in a dialogue. God gathers everything that has fallen to the ground, all the mussed and bruised words, the ripped and soiled sentences.

God creatively tucks them away, treasuring his lost finds, arranging and re-arranging until some startlingly lovely patterns emerge, designs made together in the merciful and beautifying dialogue of prayer.

Food for Thought

Joy and Matthew Steem

Still_Life_with_Cake - Raphaelle_Peale “It tastes healthy,” my friend benignly replied to my increasingly inquisitive gestures in the church potluck dining hall. The substance before us had the color of chocolate mousse; it had the consistency of chocolate mousse; it certainly felt like chocolate mousse on the tongue, but upon taking a mouthful, it immediately introduced itself with that telltale vegan, no sugar added, and nutrients aplenty sensation. It wagged its tongue at the sweet sultry flavor that chocolate offers—no sir, this stuff boasted dates, avocados, and coconut milk!

Now, I actually have a pretty strong affinity for quirky health-filled kitchen concoctions. Pinto bean brownies, dessert hummus, beet breakfast bars with chilli peppers and cardamom, gingered lentil goji berry cereal: these are things that find their way into my edible creations. Someone might call my concoctions bizarre, but most nutritionally minded people I know would call them wholesome, or guilt free, or maybe even innocent: and they would mean it as a compliment. Still, though, there is no denying it, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free food generally has that healthy taste about it. And to be honest, as a metaphorical concept, the whole healthy food versus yummy food dichotomy deeply troubles me. I struggle against the thought because as someone who aspires to a spiritually enriched life, I feel that the polarization relegates my pursuits to the healthy tasting section of the potluck table: the brownish, runny bland dish in a homely, well-used crockpot that people look at probingly before quickly darting to the next dish.

Several years ago I found it quite convenient to partake in an exclusively strict superfood laden regimen. I had some spare time on my hands so I figured taking the effort to prepare really healthy stuff would be a good experiment in how it made me feel.  For months I ate sprouts, beans, kale, spinach and tofu—it was a banquet of nutrition packed awesomeness. And then a friend of mine, who happens to be an excellent cook, came to stay with me.

During the week together we feasted on homemade buttery shrimp bisque, Greek pasta salads that luxuriated in feta cheese and oil, crème brulee and cake so delightful that I could have written romantic odes to it. Meal after meal I quietly moaned to my friend, “I didn’t know food could taste this good.” Every meal was like a Dionysian festival betwixt my lips.

When my friend left and the culinary expedition ended, I felt as though I had two stark choices for restocking my refrigerator: sprouts or stroganoff.  I approached my food choices as I sometimes subconsciously approach life: I could make the healthy and responsible choice or the delicious and enjoyable one. My mouth, accustomed to the sweet joys of butter, sugar and cream howled for satisfaction, my body, slightly sluggish but staunch, quietly demanded some veggies. I had to make a choice, there was only room for one.

What I am seeing more of is that, as a general concept, enjoyment and responsibility are not necessarily as dichotomous as I sometimes have been led to believe though. Surprising as it is to me, my pursuits can’t quite be compacted down to the category of a vegetable or a cake. This is particularly applicable to a nuanced spiritual perspective. In an excerpt of Miroslav Volf’s book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized Worldposted in Christian Century, he says:

In choosing between meaning and pleasure we always make the wrong choice. Pleasure without meaning is vapid; meaning without pleasure is crushing. In its own way, each is nihilistic without the other. But we don’t need to choose. The unity of meaning and pleasure, which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is Love.

This is truly magnificent news, for it tells me my dichotomy is off. Love personified has constructed a world in which, when approached from a spiritual lens, proffers things both beneficial and satisfying. Our spiritual awareness, far from making us and our world the unappealing undercooked onion puree in the potluck of life, enhances flavor.        

The Almost Theology of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Brad Fruhauff

"MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." by Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons “The only [religious story] that stuck with me was something Sister McKenna said, . . . ‘God is love.’ It’s simple, and a little sappy, but, that’s the version I like. God is love; the thing that holds us together. And if that’s true I don’t think he’d punish you for making a mistake. I think he’d forgive a mistake.”

      —Skye (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S1.E9)

Because I love a lot about the new Netflix series Jessica Jones, I was all the more disappointed when it resorted to cheap shots the first time Jessica encountered a religious person—a Catholic woman who seems to thank God that her son is home, now, albeit strapped to a machine because a villain stole his kidneys. Jessica doesn’t say anything specific to the woman, but it’s clear the show views her faith with derision.

And maybe it should, since she has some confused theology. But theology wasn’t the point; faith was simply a narrative device, and it’s disappointing to see that in an age of “tolerance.”

It reminded me of the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I cite above. It’s a much more mainstream show, and yet it probably does better at taking persons of faith seriously, if not faith itself. Skye, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, makes this speech to Hannah, a Christian woman who believes God has abandoned her to be haunted by demons because of an error at work that killed four people. Hannah, like most TV Christians, has some bad theology, and Skye’s response almost looks like good theology. One wants to say, “Yes, God is love. Of course he’d forgive her.”

Of course, she wraps that truth in a fallacious elision of God and love. Surely, as the ground of our being and source of our love, God does in some sense hold us together, but Skye hardly means all that. The important part of her speech, rather, is where she says, “that’s the version I like.”

Our sin natures will not always like what’s true, so this is really more bad theology. Still, to writer Jed Whedon’s credit, he takes spiritual concepts like guilt and atonement seriously. In the climax, we learn the “demons” are really an admirer named Tobias who has gotten stuck between dimensions. Tobias admits he caused the accident and has been trying to atone by protecting Hannah, and he begs her forgiveness.

Here’s where it gets weird again, but still in interesting ways.

Agent May has her own guilt, a story that haunts her even as other agents mythologize it. She intervenes to help Hannah and Tobias, but when Hannah says, “Only God can forgive you,” May chimes in,

“And he won't. You can’t undo what’s been done. That will be with you forever. But trying to hold onto this life, clinging to the person you thought you could be: that’s hell.”

We know that's the last word because it concludes the action of the climax and, we learn, it is what Coulson (read: dad) told her after her own traumatic choice. It needs to be said that this gets the gospel all wrong in its attempt at tough love. May’s right that Tobias can’t save himself, but stoic resignation is not God’s way.

However, if a popular show is going to have a Christian character, and if it’s too much to ask that that character’s faith is not simplistic, superstitious, or downright scary, then I at least appreciate the way S.H.I.E.L.D. treats the religious characters with dignity. They deserve closure and reconciliation, however screwy their notions. And that has moral power and aesthetic integrity.