I had a great time last weekend with the folks at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. For their all-church retreat they chose the theme The Improvising God: A New Theology for an Imperfect World.
For many people, the struggle to understand God’s presence and work in the midst of suffering is THE sticking point for faith. For some people, they’re led to dismiss the idea of God altogether. Others grab onto notions about God’s plan and purpose. I find the latter rather unsatisfying, not to mention problematic to the idea of God as love: it requires us to believe that God would bring about God’s purposes by employing all manner of terror against the people God claims to care for. As David Bentley Hart wrote after the devastating tsunami several years ago, “It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.”
I’m still working on a nuanced middle. As a follower of Jesus who finds truth in the stories of scripture, I see God’s nature as one of self-limitation. Jesus wasn’t just a piece of God, or God in disguise: Christ was fully God, which means it is fully God’s nature to limit God’s power and sovereignty. That’s what I see in the gospel story again and again.
What God does is work improvisationally with us to say “Yes, and” in a way that moves us in the direction of the best wholeness possible for all. And how can we participate in that Yes-Anding?
I like to mix things up in my retreats and workshops. Lots of interaction, video, and music along with straight-up “lecture.” We watched clips of people performing improv comedy, a speech by Stephen Colbert, and even a scene from The West Wing.
But the piece that really grabbed people was this TED talk by artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. In it he talks about how a nerve injury destroyed his ability to make the kind of pointillist art he felt so drawn to. Instead a doctor advised him to receive that limitation as a gift, to embrace the shake… which led him to find gorgeous (and FUN) new ways of doing art:
Hansen is describing the fundamental task of improv… and of life: to take what is offered and build on it in a way that brings about the best Yes for all concerned. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
During the retreat I leaned a good bit on Brené Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, that talks about how we come back from failure–how failure becomes a source of our power instead of something we need to run from. For the Trinity group, Embrace the Shake became a kind of shorthand for that process.
When have you had to embrace the shake? I’d love to hear about it.
Several people recommended that I read David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which is a theological reaction to the 2004 tsunami. The book has been rich as I contemplate an improvising God. It’s also violated my no-church-books-in-summer rule. It’s hard to read serious theology, however engagingly written, when it’s 97 degrees. But I digress.
Here’s a choice bit that critiques what you might call a “high doctrine of providence” which is woven into the Reformed Tradition (of which Presbyterians are a part).
There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
photo: A temporary school on the sandy beach on the Tamil Nadu side of Pulicat, one of the largest lagoons in India. When islands here were partly submerged by the the 2004 tsunami and families lived in temporary shelters, this school was a hub of education and social activities. Credit: climatalk via photopincc
I was googling around the other day and I came across a live version of one of my favorite songs, by George Wurzbach and Karen Taylor-Good. Here’s George and Rob Carlson (and friends) performing “Much Better View of the Moon”:
If I lose my job… I’ll sleep ’til noon.
If the news is bad… I’ll watch cartoons.
If my house burns down… I’ll have lots more room
and a much better view of the moon.
It’s a song about improv, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Life is just one big improvisation, isn’t it? Even meticulous organizers like me know that deep down, planning is akin to rocking in a rocking chair: it gives you something to do—and there’s something soothing about it—but it’s not going to get you anywhere. Things happen that you didn’t anticipate, and you have to adjust. With luck and grace, you “yes-and” the thing, accepting and building on whatever gets thrown at you. Accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it, by the way. But a spirit of improvisation leads us to be curious, to ask, “Well, OK. Now what?”
We are made in the image of God, and God is a master of improv. This I believe. I don’t know what that means when stacked up against sturdy preacherly words like eternal, immutable, absolute, all-knowing, perfect. I just know that when I look at the sacred texts I see a God who iterates. Who pivots. Who encounters the world as it is, not as God planned it to be. Who yes-ands all over the place.
When I spoke to NEXT Church in Rochester last November, I described this God not as a planner, but as one who is reactive, who sizes up the situation and engages. Someone came up to me afterwards, bristling at the term: “Reactive sounds like a knee-jerk position. What about responsive?”
Maybe. Maybe. No, he’s right, responsive is good. The family systems folks would approve. Still, I like reactive because there’s something automatic in the term. Instinctive. Unpremeditated. If God is love, then love jumps into the mess without a lot of careful consideration, using whatever’s on hand. A socially awkward ex-con. An unwed teenage mother. Twelve Galilean knuckleheads.
Our congregation was rocked last year with the death of eight year old Jacob. He died of ALD, which took his older brother Eric’s life just three years before, also at age eight. The family grieves, the church grieves, and different people wrestle with the loss in different ways. From where I sit, there’s no making sense of something like that. It’s terribly sad. It’s a planet-sized loss. And no God I want any part of willed that to happen.
What happens next in that family’s life is not my story to tell at this point. It’s still unfolding anyway. But let me say, it’s a hell of a yes-and.
It’s a brand new view of the moon.
I used to walk through this world cautious and oh-so-serious
‘Til the life I was living was merely a near-death experience.
Then I changed my story when I finally saw
Where I was wasn’t where it was at
And now I’m alive, I let destiny drive
And I’m stretching out in the back.
My Facebook feed is ablaze with righteous anger and defiant opposition to the god preached by James Dobson and others. (Google his remarks if you want.) The sentiment is rather consistent, at least among my gaggle of mostly mainline Protestant/Episcopal friends:
This is not the God I recognize and not the God I pledged to serve as a minister of the gospel.
It is good and right to shout No to the Dobsons and their distorted god. As I said on Sunday morning:
No, by the way, to the idea that God let this madness happen because we no longer pray in school. Like clockwork, the political and religious pundits have suggested exactly that. Imagine what kind of a god that is. A narcissistic thug who would allow such carnage because we don’t pray in the time and place and manner that god specifies. No.
And if I were ever to find out that that’s the kind of being god is, I think I’d have to renounce my ordination and go sell insurance, because that god and I would be finished.
So, No to that.
But what do we say Yes to?
The answer I’m hearing, and affirming myself, is that God weeps with us in the wake of what happened in Newtown. That God’s was the first heart to break that blood-soaked day.
But that’s not enough. Not near enough.
God is more than the Chief Griever.
So what are we willing to affirm? I hear loud and clear the god we reject. But after Friday, and after so many other tragedies that we can’t even name them all… who is the God that we preach?
This is what I’m thinking about almost constantly.
Here is the thing that has come into focus for me since posting this.
Many people are rejecting Dobson’s comments altogether by saying, “God did not allow this to happen.”
And yet, if God is an omnipotent deity—if God has the capability to intervene in human history and in our individual lives—then technically, God absolutely did allow it to happen. It’s just that we reject that God allowed it to happen for the reasons that Dobson et al put forth.
But God allowed it to happen.
Unless we’re also willing to reject or mitigate God’s omnipotence.
Which is what I’m pondering so strenuously, and have been really since little E died three years ago, and certainly since his brother J died in September.
Our church is continuing its year-long theme, “Who is our neighbor” with an emphasis on health issues in our community. On Sunday we had a guest speaker, so my sermon is a little more concise than usual:
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2012
Another thing God didn’t “intend to happen.”
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
We’ve got about nine days until the election, and I think I speak for many of us when I say, “Thank God. Make it stop.” …The ads, the phone calls, and the soundbites. It’s been a particularly bizarre season for soundbites. Barely a week seems to go by without a political candidate putting his foot in his mouth. This week a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was asked about abortion. Many people who are pro-life make exceptions in cases of rape—in fact, most people do—but this particular person does not, and he said,
Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
My intent in bringing this up is not to talk politics, but theology. What do we believe about good things happening out of bad, even terrible, circumstances? Does that mean the bad thing was part of God’s plan?
Some are inclined to give Mr. Mourdock the benefit of the doubt—he wasn’t saying rape is good, he was saying that life is good, regardless of how it comes about. Others said his theology is flawed: pregnancy through rape is not the work of a good God, but a consequence of an evil human act and a burden that no woman should be forced to bear.
What’s more, I read countless reflections this week by people, friends, who have been victims of sexual violence who were hurt deeply by his words. A few weeks ago in worship we heard Jesus’ words, cautioning us not to create a “stumbling block” for others. Mr. Mourdock’s comments created a painful stumbling block for those who are still struggling with the painful aftermath of these traumas.
Let me put to you another situation: a few weeks ago I read a blog post by an Episcopal priest and a breast cancer survivor. She talked about the impact of cancer on her life, and she gave thanks for friends and family who supported her, she gave thanks for the strength to withstand the treatment, and she gave thanks for world-class medical care and the means to access it—something not everyone has. And then she said, “And thank you, God, for cancer.”
Thank you for cancer.
She went on:
Because of cancer I learned lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn. Because of cancer I discovered a depth of love, faith and gratitude I never knew existed. Because of cancer, I learned that bad news is best handled when infused with the Good News.
Is she right? Does God make cancer happen? Is Richard Mourdock right, about God’s intent? Does everything that befalls us have God’s fingerprints on it?
The question of God’s involvement in good and evil has puzzled theologians for thousands of years. The fancy theological word for that question of good and evil is “theodicy.” And for many people living in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, it is the sticking point for faith. It’s hard to reconcile the existence of a good and loving God with the holocaust or the killing fields in Cambodia. And it’s not a problem we’re going to solve at Idylwood Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012. But Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus gives us a few pieces to the puzzle:
God is a God of mercy. Repeatedly Bartimaeus calls out “have mercy on me!” Mercy is compassion. Mercy is kindness. Mercy is care. Does that sound like a God who makes cancer happen, who is so bent on granting the gift of life that God will use a rape to make it happen? There is nothing merciful about that.
God does not impose on us. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume. He doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus wants. He asks, and he waits for the answer. God is not a presumptuous God. Ultimately we are given the dignity to ask for what we want, and to make meaning of our experience for ourselves. I read a reflection by a woman who became pregnant through rape and made the audacious decision to keep the baby. And for her, there was redemption in that decision. And that’s the key phrase—for her. It’s her right to make meaning of her experience; no politician should do it for her. No clergyperson should either. I wonder about the priest with cancer—it’s fine for her to thank God for it but I sure hope she doesn’t insist on her parisioners’ doing so. If God, if Jesus, is gentle enough to ask, “What do you want? How do you see your life and your need?” then that is our call as well. God does not impose, and neither should we.
We are partners in our healing. Bartimaeus has to get up and go to Jesus. There is no remote-control healing here. He’s gotta get up and move, he’s got to ask for what he needs in order to receive it. That means that we avail ourselves of the medical technology that we are fortunate to have. That means that if we’re overweight or a smoker or making poor choices with our diet, we are called to do something about it, not hope for a divine rescue.
And again, that’s the problem with Mr. Mourdock’s theology. If God is the author of everything that happens, then what’s the point of striving for wellness, or going to the doctor? What’s the point of doing anything?
That doesn’t mean that our efforts are always successful. We know the heartbreak of people who do everything right, who make all the right choices, and who still suffer from disease or injury. There’s no getting around that.
And principled people can come to different conclusions about abortion and when life begins. But Mourdock’s theology is wrong. A God of mercy, a God who does not impose on us, a God who asks us to be a partner in our own healing, desires our wholeness…desires our peace… desires our shalom. And not just our wholeness and peace and shalom, but that of this world that God loves.
In Christ, God is reconciling the world. Thanks be to God.