Not So Pinterest Perfect

Originally published on the Emerging Voices blog, 3/11/2015. 

I am a mess.

I’ll take “This is not news” for 500, Alex.

But for real, though, my life is absolute chaos.

I run between being a full-time seminary student, a part-time web designer, a writer, a wife, a mom-to-be, and what feels like eight million other things during every moment of my life. And I have a feeling this isn’t exceptional–most of you probably feel the same way.

And yet, for some inconceivable notion, I have a Pinterest account.

Why? WHY?!? Why do SO MANY of us think this is a good idea? Raise your hand if you have a Pinterest account, but you haven’t touched it in months because instead of being all crafty and creative like you thought you’d be, you’re just left feeling like you do absolutely nothing with your time.

*Raises hand*

I even have a theology board on Pinterest. I intended to fill it with meaningful quotes from brilliant theologians and find a way to bridge the gap between my highly abstract theological mind games and my much more concrete compulsive social media habit. Instead, this board contains a handful of halfheartedly pinned Rumi quotes pasted over perfectly toned white women doing yoga and some stupid theology jokes.

Not exactly the intended result.

It’s strangely fitting, though. My theology isn’t pretty. It’s not even logical, most of the time. I’m making it up as I go, trying to work out a new hermeneutic every time I’m confronted with a new spiritual reality. Any paper I write that’s more than eight or so pages probably doesn’t have a consistent theological arc from beginning to end. I am the paragon of inconsistency.

In spite of this, my messy theology seems to work. It doesn’t fit any tradition’s doctrinal statements, and it’s almost certainly heretical. As I haven’t been hit by lightning yet, I have to assume that the Divine has seen worse.

As Womanist theologian par excellence (who I have the incredible benefit of having as a professor), Alika Galloway, says, “It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to work.”

And that much, it at least appears to do.

Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world if we don’t know what we believe. If it draws us closer to the Divine, to ourselves, and to the rest of Creation, if it causes us to keep asking difficult questions, if it causes for love to grow, then perhaps it’s good enough.

Advertisements

Miss Jane

Originally published on the Emerging Voices blog, 2/8/2015

Hello, friends.

I’m going to level with you: My thesis is due in less than a month and I am nowhere near done. As I tried to come up with something of substance to write about this month, I found myself completely at a loss. After several failed attempts at something more easily identifiable as an actual blog post, I’ve decided that, this week, story counts as a post, and so I’ve written the following snippet of fiction. Bonus, this also fulfills an assignment for one of my classes. So, I’m sorry I’m lazy, here, have a story.

Love, Denika


Miss Jane lives in 1502B, the downstairs half of this sorry old duplex. She, like the house, is seemingly indestructible, despite whatever acts of God or teenage boys eager to prove themselves may come our way. I have yet to figure out the age of either one; they both seem to have been in this neighborhood since before it existed.

Miss Jane wears her hair in a single tight braid, though her hair—like her spirit—is far too wild to be tamed by such constriction. She isn’t one for “beauty products,” but she is tidy and neat; despite the fact that she never seems to stop moving, her dresses are always pressed and not one of them bears a single stain.

Miss Jane never married or had kids of her own. “I don’t need a man, and there are too many babies to watch out for in this neighborhood to worry about my own.” And that she does. Though she has been known to yell at miscreants from her porch, she always watches to make sure they get home safe from school, and she knows every one of their names. The kids always wake up on their birthdays to find a plate of cookies has been delivered to them without any name attached, though the smell of baked goods emanates from 1502B as its own not-so-inconspicuous calling card.

Miss Jane doesn’t go to church—it’s hard to go to church here, since churches seem to come and go with the seasons, each intent on “bringing Jesus to this block,” yet seemingly unaware of what life is actually like on this block, and that, in spite of its crime rate and lack of curb appeal, this might be the closest thing to Nazareth one could find in this century—but she talks to God more than anyone I’ve ever met. If I weren’t so afraid of being struck by lightning, I’d say that God was taking direction from her, rather than the other way around.

I wouldn’t call Miss Jane holy. Definitely not to her face, and I don’t think I would behind her back, either. But she is real. She is fierce, and she is kind. She has both discipline and grace. And when she is near, She is close.

Dear Theology Professors

Originally published on the Emerging Voices blog, 1/8/2015. 

Dear theology professors,

I have a request. Though it may seem short on words (and definitely short on tact), it is quite complicated. However, I trust you are up to the task.

Please stop making your classes so boring.

(What? How can I possibly say this? I’m a theology student, after all, isn’t the topic innately interesting to me?)

No. It isn’t. I love theology and all its related fields. I enjoy studying it, interpreting it, and creating my own highly irreverent and usually wrong versions of it. But no amount of love for the topic will make some professors’ lectures interesting.

Gone are the days when a professor can adequately educate a classroom of students by droning on about whatever happens to be of his/her interest. Actually, I’m not sure those days ever existed. It should come as no surprise that both education and religion are changing–whether by choice or by force–and the old ways of doing things do not work anymore. Furthermore, we know so much more about learning styles and the human brain and memory and everything else that is wrapped up in education than we did 25, 50, or 100 years ago. It is simply ineffective to ignore this and teach the same way your professors taught.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I know anything about teaching. I am (and pretty much always have been) a student; I have yet to become a teacher. However, after three years of undergraduate theological education and two years of seminary education, I’ve definitely seen a lot of methods that don’t work–and a lot that do. Here are some conclusions I’ve drawn:

  1. Don’t assume that your students will learn effectively by way of any one teaching style. Some take well to lectures, others to discussions; some to tests, others to written assignments; some to reading, others to hands-on experience. No one of these is more or less valid than any other. Account for the diversity of learning styles in your classroom–your students have probably figured out what does and does not work for them, so it may be as simple as asking–and try to keep the structure of the class flexible enough to work for any of these styles.
  2. Stop assigning dead people. Yes, I know, Augustine and Luther are important minds in the history of Christianity (that is, if your students are even entirely Christian, which may not be the case), but let’s be real: All of us have read and/or will read them. I was required to take several church history courses in my undergrad career and need at least one for my M.A. I’m familiar enough with the important works. Even if your students aren’t, they will be too. If you’re sending your students out into the world with a 500-year-old (or possibly more) education, they’re not prepared to do theology in the 21st century. I’m tired of reading dead white guys. Chances are, your students are too. (If you teach history … I don’t know what to tell you.)
  3. Having a Ph.D. does not automatically make you good at teaching. Just like faith, religion, and theology are things you do, so is education. Study pedagogical theory. Practice teaching people who haven’t spent most of their lives as students. Learn from the greats. Yes, you may be an excellent educator by nature, but this is your career, something you have put most of your life’s work and time towards doing. I can’t come up with a single good excuse to not strive for better, and I am excellent at coming up with excuses.
  4. Don’t make the teacher-student relationship one-way. If you believe you are the only person in the classroom who has something to teach, you’re dead wrong. Strive to learn from your students. They may not have the letters behind their names, but they’re trying to respond to the same questions you are, and they might help you see things in a way you hadn’t previously considered. Disrupt the power structure and see how much more learning happens.
  5. Don’t be afraid to fail. When you try new things, some of them will invariably fall flat on their faces. A certain class structure or teaching style might not work. If you’re paying enough attention, it doesn’t have to be a train wreck. You’re allowed to get things wrong–it’s our responsibility as students to have some grace with you–just make sure you’re aware of what is and isn’t working.

I know this is irreverent and I know I don’t understand the plight of the educator. I know I’m getting a lot of things wrong. But I also know that I’ve spent a lot of time in classes where I didn’t learn a single thing, not because there was nothing to learn, but because the professor didn’t know how to teach it. Furthermore, some of the best classes I’ve taken have been ones that, until I was in them, I was exactly zero percent excited about, but the professor really knew how to teach. Who knows–maybe your class will be next.

Signed,

Denika Anderson, perpetual student and constant grouch.

On Defending My Space.

If you’ve been reading this blog for, well, any time at all, it should be pretty clear that I am, shall we say, vocal.

I have no hesitation in sharing my opinions, beliefs, and views. I enjoy debating and, to a somewhat sadistic degree, arguing. But I also believe that theology should be cooperative, i.e., my beliefs and your beliefs, not competitive, i.e., my beliefs or your beliefs.

People harp on moral relativism, but I think it makes things easier. At least in theory.

As annoying as I may be, this has gotten me far. I graduated from a prestigious, male-dominated Bible and Theology program with honors in 2012. I’ve maintained this blog for over two years and have picked up some writing gigs on the side. I’m a MA senior who has established herself as a significant player at her school. I am damn good at theology, and I owe that to my relentless desire to make myself heard.

But there are limits to anyone’s tolerance for BS.

My school is 48% women, 51% men, and 1% other, according to our 2012 stats. Women make up, essentially, half of this campus. And yet, if you listened in on a class, you’d never know it. Far more men speak up than women.

My school is 27% ecumenical and 73% ELCA. Again, you’d never know it without asking. I’ve read Luther for all but two classes thus far (excepting my consortium classes taken at another school). I have read Wesley once, Calvin never, Aquinas twice, and once, for a Pentateuch class, I read a Jewish author whose name I cannot remember. Hell if I’ve read anything by an author outside of the Judeo-Christian traditions. My professors teach Lutheran theology, and rarely leave room for ecumenical voices, unless they themselves are ecumenical. Lutherans get more of a voice than ecumenical students.

Furthermore, I am the ecumenical student representative for student council. I do not have the figures, but considering the other constituencies, I can reasonably put forward that I represent the greatest number of students for any representative, and yet I have one vote.

I am not a person of color, and I cannot speak to the experience of a POC at my school. Nor am I LGBTQ, so, likewise, I cannot speak to the experience of a person who identifies as LGBTQ. I am not a person with a physical disability, so I cannot write about what it is like to live that experience. I do not know the experience of most oppressed groups here. If you want to know the experience of a person who fits into these or other categories, you will have to ask them. What I do know is that I only occasionally hear POCs speak in class, I have never heard a student who identifies as LGBTQ associate their beliefs with their orientation, and my school isn’t even ADA accessible, so the few students we have who have physical disabilities are a definite minority and do not speak to their experience often.

The point of this is to say, we hear the voices, mostly, of white, able, straight men who are usually ELCA.

And when someone who does not fit those criteria speaks up, we get emails telling us we need to be less vocal in class.

Or we are asked to qualify our beliefs based on our experience (e.g., “As a woman…,” “As a non-Christian…,” etc.). Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for identifying our contexts. But if I have to, everyone has to.

I am tired of defending the space I take up.

I am confined by labels–some true, some not–and those labels allow others to not have to deal with what I have to say.

At least once every week, I get asked, “So why are you here?” This is not a friendly conversation about my life journey or why I want to study theology. I have never heard this asked of any of my friends who fit the norm here. The answer is obvious for them, and they don’t upset the status quo.

But me, I rock that boat with such fervor and fury that I think some fear they might just fall overboard.

What is it about opposing views that we are so damn scared of? Why am I more of a threat than my brothers who are white, male, able, straight, etc.?

And it’s not just me. I know I’m intense but I’ve seen it with others. People are mocked behind their backs for being vocal about their views, and I can only imagine what’s said about me.

I am the only person who gets to decide how much space I take up. I don’t want to dominate conversations. God knows I do not want to run this school. I just want to be heard, really heard, without being an outsider.

I am tired of defending my space.

Beatnik Theology

Hey everyone! Yet again, I am recycling material I wrote for a class. Such is the life of a seminarian. This was my final project for my J-Term class on John Cobb and Process Theology. Enjoy!

I am relatively certain that the field of theopoetics exists because, at one point, John Cobb, Alan Ginsberg, and Homer walked into a bar. This is obviously facetious, but nonetheless, the form of epic poem as conceived in ancient Greek mythology and the zeitgeist of the Beat Generation have much in common with Cobb’s process theology, especially in terms of narrative. Though the three speak, on the surface, to different locations entirely, their concepts are not altogether dissimilar. All three focus not on the final destination, per se, of any moment, but on the journey that brings one there.

As an exercise in this, I have penned a set of poetry found in the latter part of this essay that seeks to draw these together. This, however, is something to explore later. First, it is necessary to explore exactly what is meant by Cobb’s process theology.

Cobb writes at length in works such as Is it Too Late? and Reclaiming the Church about particular issues in Christian theology and praxis, namely, the climate crisis and the state of the church (respectively). While these are certainly wise and informative, they are not the nexus of his theology, and focus more on the practical implications of process thought than on process thought itself. Therefore, they are not my area of concern here.

The primary, fundamental element of Cobb’s process theology is concrescence, if nothing else.[1] Concrescence refers to the process by which a moment happens or is actualized. It is hard to say where it “begins” and “ends” because this process is a cycle that repeats indefinitely. Some would start with God, others with the past, others with the present, but nonetheless, this does not start and end anywhere in particular. Cobb, however, chooses the human prehension of the present moment, and therefore, I will begin there..

In the present moment, every element of the past is prehended, or considered. Some of these narratives are accepted and some are rejected; some are prehended consciously and others subconsciously. For a dynamic being, in this case, for the sake of simplicity, a human, this prehension has the responsibility of shaping the next moment and creating a new present reality. This is the subjective stage of concrescence. This is the supplemental stage.

In this process of prehension, the initial aim from God, that is, God’s suggestion or will for that moment or God’s superject, is also prehended. This is the means by which novelty enters any given situation. God sends forth the initial aim from God’s primordial nature and it is accepted or rejected to varying degrees.

Once this process of prehension has occurred, the superject goes forth from the moment of prehension to create a new objective datum that is received into the consequent nature of God and becomes a part of the objective past. This is the satisfaction stage. The next moment will then have this moment, as well as all of history, to prehend in its time. This then becomes the conformal or initial stage, and the cycle repeats.[2]

I suggested earlier that this understanding of concrescence is the primary foundation for Cobb’s theology. Primary implies that there are secondary elements, and perhaps tertiary and beyond. These secondary elements are found in the process of concrescence: creation, God, Christ/Logos/creative transformation, the soul, and humanity. In a surely heretical way, they each fit somewhere in the elements of this process.

Creation can be said to be the objective past, as well as (perhaps confusingly) also the future. It is everything that has ever happened and the possibility of what could happen, but is not subjective or capable of prehension as it does not presently exist in such a way. It informs the present moment without acting on its own.

God is fairly easy to point to in this process, as there is an element named God as part of its fundamental description. God is the supplier of the initial aim from God’s primordial nature and the being into which every objective moment is received (in God’s consequent nature). In this way, God is temporal, but not spatial.

Christ, or the Logos, or creative transformation, depending on how one wishes to explore and understand the concept, could be said to be God’s initial aim. This Christ is transcendent and eternal but also does not have actuality until it becomes part of the present moment. This is the novelty I mentioned previously, the way in which God acts in our realm and creates new experiences.

The soul could be considered to be the present moment, or perhaps, the act of prehension. Cobb claims that beings that possess a prefrontal cortex have souls, and are therefore capable of prehension.[3] This is in comparison to, say, a rock, which exists in each moment, but stays relatively static throughout time and tends not to change unless acted upon by an outside force. The degree to which a being is sentient impacts the degree of prehension that occurs in its soul. This soul is, by nature, social and interconnected to all things as prehension is interconnected to all of history.

Finally, humanity is most like the superject. This is the realm in which we act and decide. We respond to our prehensions and to God’s initial aim and act accordingly. We relate to all of creation. We create a new future as we go. This is not unique to humanity, but, as one could argue that humans are the pinnacle of sentience as far as we know, then humans have the greatest capacity for creation of new moments as well as prehension.

Taking full poetic license, I have crafted characters that represent each of these five secondary elements. These are further explored in the poetry that follows, but first it is necessary to introduce each of them. Though in my earlier exploration of the process of concrescence, I began with the concrescing moment or supplemental stage, for this, I will begin with the past or the initial stage. I previously paired this with creation, and, considering Cobb’s emphasis on the climate crisis, I have constructed the character of the Prophet for this role. The Prophet calls out for change and action but is incapable of facilitating the level of change needed on its own. The Prophet is similar to an activist, not a religious “future-teller” as we might conceive.

Next, then, is God, or, as I call the being, the Sage. The Sage is keeper of village stories and/or wisdom, similar to the character found in Greek and Norse mythology. The Sage is a person seldom listened to or heard properly, but is stories, when understood as intended, have the potential to do great good.

It then follows that the Logos, as the emanation from God, should be explored. I have named this character the Muse. Like Cobb’s Logos, the Muse has no actuality until embodied in one way or another. Like Cobb’s creative transformation, the Muse is the means by which inspiration comes. Finally, the Muse is accessible by anyone and everyone, but requires intentionality.

Next is the soul, or the Visions in my terms. This is defined here not as a prophecy or trance-like experience, but is more in line with such things as motivation, goals, existential desires, and so on. The Visions are plural because the soul, in Cobb’s definition, is social in nature and I thus find it necessary to refer to this character as a collective.

Finally, we reach the Poet, or the character representing humanity. The Poet has a unique role in society as one that can determine the ethos and, to an extent, the fate of a generation. Humans as the highest beings we know have the potential to do the greatest amount of good or evil. Likewise, artists (such as the Poet) have so much impact on society that it can almost be said that they move the world along. The Poet characterizes and shapes the future. Though it would seem this is the beginning of change from a human perspective, this is actually the last possible element of subjectivity before a moment becomes an objective datum.

I began this explanation by calling upon the Greek tradition of epic poetry and the Beat Generation’s zeitgeist. It does make sense, then, that I make a case for its incorporation. Greek mythology, like most mythology, seeks to explain the world and why things happen. Epic poetry follows a character through his or her quest and the process of becoming a hero/ine.[4] Process theology follows everything that exists in the process of becoming itself and thus the transformation is not altogether different. Additionally, particularly Greek mythology and epic poetry incorporates the gods into the framework, making it particularly fitting for a theological discussion.[5] The one glaring exception would be, in epic poetry, there is often a final destination, whereas process theology would not argue for this.

Similarly, the Beat Generation bears much in common with process theology. The openness to spontaneity, the focus on human connection with one another and with the rest of the universe, the willingness to experiment, and the rejection of preconceived understandings characterize both.[6] The names for the characters I have chosen draw from relevant characters in this time period.[7]

It is hard to go much further into this without infringing on the necessary liberties and nuances of the following poetry. Thus follows my exercise in theopoetics as an attempt to explain Cobb’s process thought.

O Muse, sing in me, and through me tell the story…[8]

The streetcorner Prophet shouts for justice

To a ticker-tape parade of empty ears.

Immobile on its own

The prophet lives in the age of great dreams.

But following through is not a virtue

And one soldier does not an army make

(Especially when the war is undetectable by sophomoric radar).

Its words, unintelligible groans

And its pamphlets covered in foreign scribbles.

Is it because we don’t understand?

Or because we don’t want to know?

We exist in its realm

Without noticing—

There’s too much to hear so we tune it all out.

Heaven forbid

We actually be motivated to something.

Higher callings are the aspiration of starry-eyed academics.

Not I, ever the pragmatist.

I am an island.

Our apprehensions

Only take account

Of moments we have already seen

And provide different names

For the same thing.[9]

The wizened Sage

Sits on a bench in the middle of the village

And waits.

It is present, but does not intrude.

It is in harmony

With the imminent world,

But somehow beyond it,

Like light from a distant star

That only reaches the Earth after millions of years.

It keeps the stories of this village

Neither locked up nor shouted from the rooftops,

Like open secrets

That we might chance to know

If we take the time to listen.

All the while, new stories are being written,

And it knows them all.

Its identity is wrapped up in narrative

And seems lacking without.

“Listen, child,

Listen to the stories being told all around you.”[10]

Though seemingly ancient,

The Sage always has a new story to tell.

The Muse, like a drug,

Beats, beats, beats

Through veins and arteries.

Same old drug

But always a new experience.

Common sense

And modern piety

Tell us that drugs are bad.

But oh, for the way it transforms,

The novelty it brings.

Should we desire inspiration,

We would be silly to reject it.

This bodily experience

Is somehow transcendent;

This drug has no meaning

Until it’s ingested,

But takes us to somewhere

We have not yet been.

Our best ideas

Never seem to come from sober minds.

Rooted to the earth

And stretching towards the sky

Bodiless Visions grasp hands

And together draw out the prana[11]

That comes as a side effect of sentience.

Arms branching out forward and back

The past and future are of no concern.

In this moment

Their feet, their roots are their focus.

They are now.

A channel for all of history

To become all of the future,

They contemplate without dwelling

And consider without worrying.

The Visions create a melody

Of notes sung and unsung.

The next note not yet chosen

And the previous chord no longer rings in the air.

Young and hopeful and

Worldly and cynical and

Always curious

The Poet is porous

Soaking up the world around it.

Strong and courageous and

Scared and anxious and

Constantly considering

It thinks about the line

That does not yet have words.

Beautiful and honest and

Ugly and deceitful and

Never completely certain

It realizes just how heavy

These lines are.

With that, it writes.

It is all in the same city

Where the Prophet shouts

And the Sage abides

And the Muse inspires

And the Visions sing

And the Poet writes.

Each a different thread

In a tapestry woven

Of chaos and order

Each moment weaves a new story.


[1] John B. Cobb Jr, A Christian Natural Theology, second edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 50-54.

[2] Terms and explanations of the process of concrescence taken from the author’s compilation of class notes.

[3] Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, 19.

[4] Stephen Cushman and Roland Greene, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition, “Epic” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 439-448.

[5] Cushman and Greene, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 443-444.

[6] David Sterrit, The Beats: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 22-26.

[7] Taken largely from the language used in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, 57th printing (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2001), 9-28.

[8] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by George Chapman, edited by Tom Griffith (Hertfordshire, GB: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2000), book 1, line 1.

[9] Ben Gibbard, “Different Names for the Same Thing,” in Plans (New York, NY: Atlantic Recording Corporation, 2005).

[10] Denika Anderson, “Mama G. and the Immanent Music,” Wandering the Desert, November 8, 2013, https://wanderingthedesert.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/mama-g-and-the-immanent-music/.

[11] Term in yoga for life force or energy.

Where Process and Mental Illness Meet

Hey all! Over this past J-Term, I took a course on Process Theology. As this is the parent field from which my future field–theopoetics–comes, I found it to be one of the most interesting and engaging courses I’ve ever taken, despite the 8:45 a.m. start time and the three and a half hour classes that met four times per week. As an assignment for it, I wrote a (short) sermon from a process perspective on mental illness and the church. This is that sermon.

Let us begin today with a brief exercise. I would like everyone to stand up (as you are able) and greet four people. There is no rule regarding who you need to greet; they need not be strangers or friends, people who look like you or do not, or nearby or across the room. Any four people will do.

You may have noticed some demographics of the four people you greeted. You may have considered their respective ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, levels of physical ability, height, weight, eye color, hair color, and the list continues. We take in incredible amounts of information about a person just by seeing them, and interacting with them brings even more, such as noticing accents, levels of energy, or even signs of recent illness. We are bombarded with information in these interactions, and, for better or worse, we store that information in our brains as the characteristics of a given person.

One thing you probably did not notice, however, was if any of the people you greeted has a mental illness. There are signs, yes, but they are not often visible in such short interactions. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health informs us that 26.2 percent of the population—roughly one in every four people—has a diagnosable mental illness.[1] That means, statistically speaking, one of the four people you greeted deals with the harsh realities of mental illness on a daily basis.

This is difficult news for most people, and rightly so. It is heart-wrenching to know that a quarter of the people we know and love struggle with their own minds, bodies, and the chemistry between them.

Why, though, should this be of particular concern to people of faith? Is there a reason that, as religious and/or spiritual people, we should care more about mental illness than a person who does not associate with religion or spirituality?

The simple answer is, yes. We do need to care more. We claim to be people of hope and thus have a responsibility to share that hope. The beautiful thing about hope, too, is that it is an unlimited resource. Like the flame of a candle that can be infinitely shared without any decrease in its original light, hope can spread without being sacrificed.

Some of you might be thinking, “Yes, I agree, but what do you mean by ‘hope?’” To you, I say, good question! Hope is a difficult concept to pin down, as, like other such concepts as love, happiness, success, and peace, it means different things to different people. Regardless, hope is an extremely powerful and meaningful word to those who struggle with mental illness.

Hope, for us, as people of faith, means this: we trust that God is active in our realm and is innately in relationship with all of creation—humanity included—without exception. We trust that the God in whom we believe does not make us suffer and desires that our lives be full of good things. We trust that this God does not stand back and let us suffer, but tries relentlessly to inject hope into our brokenness with each passing moment. We trust that this God is the Hope Divine.

Let us follow the proverbial rabbit trail for a moment and discuss the word “broken.” When we think of this word, many of us picture a shattered dish, or perhaps an electronic device that has lived out its functioning days. I would suggest that, when using this word in relationship to living beings, we think of it more as a broken bone. There is pain, suffering, and difficulty in such a situation, but there is also immense room for healing. The bone might never look quite the same again, as that past fracture has become part of its history and has left scars and memories in its wake, but it will become functional and whole again, with the proper help. In this way, people with mental illnesses can be said to be “broken”—in need of healing—but not terminally so. There is room for hope.

People with mental illnesses can often look at their lives as broken, shattered pieces that no amount of super glue will put back together. How could the hope of which we speak possibly enter in to this situation? It seems to be unfixable, and in many cases, there might be a lot of evidence pointing towards this, but it is not the case.

While a person with a mental illness is staring at the shards of his or her being scattered around him or her, the Hope Divine steps in and sees intrinsic beauty. The person sees something that was once whole, where the Hope Divine sees beautiful, intricate pieces that can make a new thing. The person wonders what happened to the lovely piece of pottery that once was, but the Hope Divine sees a mosaic waiting to happen, and while the person is consumed by the loss, the Hope Divine takes advantage of every moment as an opportunity to inject a new perspective into the story of that person’s life.

It is often difficult to pay attention to God’s aims, however. This is especially true for people whose internal narratives are so loud and overwhelming that hearing a story other than the one they know and believe to be true feels impossible. We have faith in a relentless God of reckless love and unabashed hope, and we trust that this God lives up to these expectations, but we do not claim to believe in God’s omnipotence or think that we have no role in doing God’s work. We are mediators of this hope and have the blessed opportunity and responsibility to speak this into the lives of others around us.

Remember too that people of faith are not exempt from this kind of suffering. According to the Pew Forum, roughly 54 percent of United States inhabitants attend religious gatherings regularly.[2] [3] When combined with the previously mentioned 26.2 percent of the population with diagnosable mental illnesses, basic statistics informs us that around 14 percent of people in this country are regularly attending religious services and have a diagnosable mental illness. This is not an “us and them” situation; this affects all of us without exception.

Therefore, this is not a “mission” or “evangelism.” We are not talking about something those of us in this building have and those outside it do not. This is, however, a way of living—we are called to live as people of hope. It is our responsibility to point to the intrinsic beauty in the broken pieces of our lives, whatever those pieces might be. We are to live as artists, creating mosaics with a zealous fervor that the attention of others might be drawn from the brokenness to the beauty being created from them. We point to the “something new” that hope inspires in a situation and try to show how the difficult and sometimes terrifying parts of our histories can tell a new story.

As we leave this place, let us be people of hope for those who are suffering, and speak new life into even the bleakest of situations. Amen.


[1] “NIMH: Statistics: Any Disorder Among Adults,” National Institute of Mental Health, accessed January 21, 2014, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/Statistics/1ANYDIS_ADULT.shtml.

[2] Information adapted from “Portrait and Demographics of United States Religious Affiliation,” Pew Research Religions & Public Life Project, accessed January 22, 2014, http://religions.pewforum.org/portraits.

[3] “Regularly” is here defined as attending religious gatherings at least once per month.

A Fire That Won’t Be Put Out

I recently had a classmate email me to say that the anger often present in my posts (for an online class) is inappropriate and destructive.

To which I had a number of reactions, involving some rather salty language and several cups of coffee.

(Coffee fixes everything.)

But, after I stopped imagining how satisfying it would be to scream at this classmate, it got me thinking. What is it about anger that Christians don’t like? Why is it so unwelcome in the church?

“Authentic” is one of those words that gets thrown around in Christian circles like it’s a volleyball. Frequently flying left and right, but no one is really in contact with it for long enough to actually pin down a definition and a practical application. We claim to want to be authentic, but then, when someone in our community doesn’t fit the Shiny Happy People Who Are Satisfied With Whatever Happens And Never Get Mad At God, we (at the very least) shy away from them, and often encourage them to be happier.

Jesus Wept, I don’t know how many times someone has told me to “Delight in the Lord” or “Talk to Jesus about it.” And the next person who does is getting thrown out a window.

I don’t know about you, but all this has ever done is made me angrier.

Our emotions are real. As sentient beings, we have the ability to experience a wide range of feelings. If we really want to be authentic, we would embrace and encourage these emotions, not stifle all the darker, bolder, or greyer ones.

And, frankly, yes. I am angry. About a lot of things. I am angry about terrible theology that persists despite thousands and thousands of years of theological evolution. I am angry at the way the church continues to say it cares about the whole of creation, but is not on the forefront of change. I am angry that I feel so unwelcome in most churches. I am angry that my history and most Christian theology are asynchronous. I am angry that people still use “God’s ways are not our ways” as an excuse for incoherent, illogical, or unrealistic theology. I am angry that the church is den of irresponsibility and privilege. I am angry that there are so many people who put the Bible on a higher plane than living, breathing humans.

I. Am. Angry.

And I love it.

Because, for the first time in my life, I’m free. I’m not shackled by the need to make square pegs fit in round holes. I’m free to point out the flaws in the church and the whole of creation and do something about it. I’m free to scream and shout and curse the heavens and mourn the perpetual “who gives a fuck, it’s all temporary anyway” attitude of most Christians. I am free to be genuinely, truly authentic to myself and my spirituality.

And I know I’m not the only one.

I know there are countless wearied souls cringing on Sunday mornings. They are terrified by the contents of the Bible. They are enraged by the conduct of Christian leaders. They grieve those pushed to the outside. They are furious about the way people cling to centuries- or even millennia-old beliefs that have never really worked within reality.

And they are silenced.

But, the first time we are finally bold enough to feel those emotions, to make them known, that’s when we become free.

And I, for one, would rather be angry and free than happy and in a cage.

A Different Desert Story

Hi all. Again, sorry for having been gone for so long. This is another repurposing of an essay I wrote, and I thought it might be fitting here. Again, anything that seems out of place is probably a relic of the prompt. I’m happy to explain further or answer any questions as you find necessary. Enjoy.

It seems both aptly fitting and horribly out of place for me to write about the presence of God right now, while I am in the midst of searching and yearning for any taste of the presence of God in my own life. On the one hand, I feel so much more connected to the Israelites in this moment than I ever have before; on the other hand, I sense a good deal of cynicism and loathing in the way I think, and thus write, about God. It is a very interesting and perplexing dichotomy in which I find myself. Given the choice, I am not sure that I would write about the presence of God in this season; actually, I am quite convinced my choice would be to run fast and far from it. However, I somehow feel called deeper in, as though I have my own wandering in the desert to do. That, and the small matter of its necessity for a decent grade in this class, is why I will continue to search for the presence of God, both through this essay and throughout this season, despite the warnings of my better nature.

Truth be told, I have been writing about the Exodus for quite some time, but only just realized it minutes before I sat down to write this essay. I run a personal blog entitled “Wandering the Desert” in which I explore issues of theology, ecclesiology, and sociology. I initially titled it this way after two different stories, the first being the many times in which Jesus found himself in the desert (or wilderness, but “Wandering the Wilderness” sounds far too much like the name of a poorly written teen adventure novel), the second being that of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These stories, and the framework for my blog, were always about leaving the world (or in my case, western Christianity) behind and exploring and growing in a place that, despite its threats, is somehow safer for this activity. I am beginning to think a third desert archetype needs to be incorporated, and is perhaps the most fitting of all in this season, namely, the Exodus story. I am not leaving “civilization” in strength, but in weakness; I am not boldly pursuing God, but waiting for God to find me and lead me through a place much too far from home.

I am aware that the prompt for this essay has instructed me to explore many different episodes of the presence of God, or, rather, to not limit this exploration to one episode. Rather than looking at many short episodes, however, I find it more compelling to look at the presence of God through the book of Exodus as a whole. Where might God be found in the wandering of the Israelites through the desert? How might God be present in their pain, anger, and hopelessness? Are they pursuing God, or is God leading them? Where does God show up when they cannot, and perhaps do not want to, see God?

It appears, at first glance, that this story is a triumphant one. God, in all God’s sovereignty and power, delivers the Israelites from the evil empire of the Egyptians. This would line up with Brueggemann’s first motif, that of deliverance. This reading has merit, yes, and certainly has its place, but it is (in my opinion) overused, and also not the lens through which I would like to view this story in this moment. Right now, this is not a triumphant story, but one of fear, of sadness, of desperation. God is found not with the mighty scepter of a king, leading the Israelites into glory, but with the comforting, outstretched arms of a mother consoling her child who has just woken up from a nightmare. The worst may be over, but the night still looms, and the morning seems to be a distant, even impossible, future. God makes Her presence known, comforts Her child, and leads this child through the darkness.

Perhaps, then, one ought to read this story as the establishment of the Israelites as God’s covenant people. God has joined with the Israelites and has made a covenant with them. Brueggemann highlights Exodus 6:7, “I will be your God and you shall be My people.”[1] The Israelites are a claimed people in relationship with a God. Again, this reading has much merit, but does not speak to me in the same way. Continuing with the earlier metaphor of mother and child, God’s action is not so much of establishing and reminding the Israelites of a relationship, but merely being present in the midst of incredible hopelessness. This story is not only about God saying to her child, “I am your Mother, and you are my child,” but more about simply being the arms that hold the Israelites as they wander aimlessly through the desert.

It would then appear that Brueggemann’s third motif—presence—would be the one with which I resonate most. However much I like the idea of God’s presence, I do not understand it or feel it in the Exodus story in the same way. Brueggemann notes the need for the Israelites’ holiness in order to experience the presence of God.[2] Again, this is not untrue, nor is it without its place, but I would read it differently. This perhaps stems from my belief that the Law was not divine in origin, but this is a different discussion for a different time. God breaks in to a world and to a people who need to be comforted and loved, to know that there is someone who is genuinely concerned with their well-being and desires to care for them. If I were a terrified child, I would not want my mother to remind me that she is my mother, but simply to hold and console me as I struggle to find hope.

So what then does this mean for us? How does the comforting and consoling presence of God impact 21st century western Christians who do not often find themselves wandering around in the desert, searching for basic necessities for survival?

Truth be told, I do not have a good answer to these questions. Perhaps, though, this can be a message about fear and hope. Perhaps we need to learn to be comfortable with tension, even to throw ourselves into it. Perhaps it is time for us to go deeper and broader, to allow ourselves to reckon with our hopelessness and fear, to wander our own deserts, and give God space to make God’s presence known, not only in joy and beauty, but in pain and suffering as well.

If God is only present in the light of the morning, I do not want a relationship with that God. Luckily for me, and for us, our God is present throughout the night. Now we must begin our own exodus, go out into the night, and let God find us there.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 65.

[2] Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 66.

God in the Garden

Hey all. I know it’s been ages since I last wrote–school and a significant health issue have eaten up all my free time, and then some. I’m back, but only sort of. Today, I’m posting a section from a paper I just wrote concerning the Trinity. Since I’m not a huge fan of classical theology, and I bet a lot of you aren’t either, I decided to give you a taste of a different understanding of the Trinity. Enjoy!

As a person who has a deep theological persuasion towards connection to the created world, it seems rather natural (at least to me) that my understanding of the Trinity would utilize an agricultural metaphor. Instead of using terms like “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” which I find to be somewhat restricting, arcane, and oppressive, I have chosen the terms “Creator,” “Gardener,” and “Harvester,” respectively. One may think of the plant being tended by this Trinity as many things, from the broad—all life—to the specific—a given individual or, perhaps (for the purposes of this response), congregation. I will address them in this order based on functional chronological process, not any form of hierarchy or preference.

The first of these, the Creator, is the one who builds the environment in which life may flourish. In this metaphor, the Creator articulates the rhythms of the Sun and Moon, sets in motion the patterns of the weather, providing essential sunshine, rain, temperature, and the like, and tills the soil and fills it with nutrients. Though one could make these claims literally of God, I intend them metaphorically. The Creator is about origins, or, to put it differently, is the source of life and the provider of the necessary elements by which such life may be sustained.

The second person in this Trinity is the Gardener, who cultivates life in the environment crafted by the Creator. The Gardener plants the seeds, tends to the sprouts, waters and fertilizes them, weeds the garden, provides stakes and trellises when necessary, and, overall, helps the plants to grow to their full potential. This role requires intimate connection with the plants. This means that the Gardener is, essentially, the one who teaches and guides the plants and provides them with the sustenance they need.

The Harvester, then, is the third person in this Trinity. I am sure this appears to be quite an odd title for such a being, and thus I must clarify, the act of harvesting in this metaphor is not an entirely accurate mirror image of the act of harvesting completed by actual farmers. The Harvester is not taking the fruit of the plants and selling it for a profit, or even using it as personal sustenance, but is rather helping it to fulfill its purpose. Fruit that stays on the vine is not doing much good, and will eventually rot without ever having nourished a single being. The Harvester takes that which has been cultivated by the Gardener and puts it to work in the world, or, rather, the Harvester is about commission, sending that which has been brought to fruition in the plants out to where it will be of the best use.

I am aware that this appears to be rather modalistic, but I would counter this critique by stating that it is not really possible to explain Trinitarian mathematics in any way that does not push the bounds of modalism, subordinationism, or Unitarianism. Thus, I have made my best attempt to develop some semblance of a working theology, a process that is by no means complete. The picture given here is a snapshot of where I am in this process, flaws and problems included. As a final note in this train of thought, I would like to press the point that while these three roles are distinct, I have yet to meet a farmer or gardener who does not fill each of these roles at some point in the fertile season. The three roles are indeed one person.

Please note that any phrases that seem out of place are likely connected to other parts of the paper or the class itself. I am happy to clarify if necessary.

Theology Paper Writing Drinking Game

So, the husband and I were on our way home from Church, and we decided that there needed to be a theology paper writing drinking game (because those two things go together when you go to the Porch). We’ve come up with the following, ensuring that seminary students everywhere will either fail miserably or pass with flying colors, depending on how you handle your alcohol.

*Wandering the Desert takes no responsibility for poor grades, hospital bills, or otherwise negative consequences incurred as a result of this game.

1. Any time you use the words hermeneutics, context, exegesis, metaphor, rhetoric, allegory, or criticism, take a drink.

2. Any time you start typing in Greek (or Hebrew), finish your drink.

3. Any time you reference Jesus, turn water into wine, then drink it.

4. Any time you reference Luther, drink a beer, then complain about it to the nearest woman.

5. Any time you reference egalitarian (or feminist, et cetera) theology, drink the same thing as the nearest person of the opposite sex is drinking.

6. Any time you reference an Emergent theologian, drink a local microbrew craft beer.

7. Any time you reference a conservative theologian, don’t drink, it’s a sin and you’re going to Hell.

8. Any time you quote the NIV, drink a Coors Light, because that is what you are doing theologically.

9. Any time you reference:

  • an Early Church theologian, drink wine.
  • a Medieval/Renaissance theologian, drink beer.
  • a 19th-20th century theologian, drink a scotch.

10. Any time you reference a non-white theologian, drink something foreign.

11. Any time you reference the Trinity, pour three different drinks, then pour them all in one glass, and drink it.

12. Any time you have a footnote that spills onto a second page, take a drink.

13. Any time you have more footnote on a page than actual content, finish your drink.

14. Any time you reference your prof’s favorite theologian, take a drink.

15. If you finish your paper more than twenty-four hours before you have to turn it in, drink ALL THE ALCOHOL, because this will never happen again and you need to make the most of it.

If you have any additions, please leave them in the comments. I’m looking at you, Rob.