Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No Comfort

A reflection on Mark 1:40-45

If Jesus groaned against the ills
That ravage human flesh,
How can I be conent?

If Jesus raged against the ways
We stigmatize—dehumanize—God’s children in their sickness,
How can I acquiesce?

If Jesus risked his very world—his place in society—his freedom to move, to preach, to be
To redeem just one more from the ravages of illness
The scorn of the world
The banishment of the “Church”
How can I shrink back?

Give me no comfort, Lord, in the face of the sicknesses
That ravage your children
That are used as weapons to exclude and mark “unclean!”
That are excuses for fear, for hatred, for isolation;
Give me only your angry compassion
Your compassionate anger
And the decency to say “I do want to.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Some things I find comforting

At the risk of making this blog entry a turn-off from the start, I have to confess that I frequently feel quite dumb these days.  Whether it's in struggling through the latest reading of Calvin or Schleiermacher or from some historical figure in the church, or trying to do a basic exegesis (or any occasion that puts before me Greek requiring translating), or any conversation which puts a lot of current lingo out there (I still can't read or hear the word "emergent" without my mind flipping over to a scene of some ugly alien popping out of some poor Marine's chest in one of those Sigourney Weaver Alien movies), I haven't felt this stupid since the beginning days of my last degree.  I spent much of my first two years in my doctoral studies at FSU in a fog: Who the heck is Susan McClary?  Whaddaya mean, "postmodern"?  What do all these bizarre German words mean?  Given time I got over it, somewhat, but I spent much of that time feeling highly intimidated and inadequate to the task at hand, and some of those feelings crop up these days as well.

On occasion, though, some different sensations or realizations do slip through.  I don't know that they make me feel any less stupid, but they do give me some reassurance that my ineptitude is not necessarily going to be either permanent or fatal.  So, forthwith, some reasons why I don't feel like a complete washout is imminent, or at least may not be:

1) EVERYBODY struggles with "doing theology," even (or perhaps especially) the theologians.  Look, I don't see the title "systematic theologian" ever being attached to me in any professional or academic way, beyond that way in which any pastor (or any Christian, for that matter) is a de facto theologian.  I really can't conceive of taking on the kind of project Calvin undertook in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, or Friedrich Schleiermacher in his The Christian Faith--an attempt to apply a whole, full-fledged, systematic approach to the totality of theological process and thought.  (Calvin and Schleiermacher tend to be the starting points here because they do represent two principal attempts to do a systematic or at least comprehensive theology in the Reformed tradition, and because trying to do all fourteen volumes of Barth's Church Dogmatics in a two-semester sequence would lead to something truly horrific.)  But for all the erudition, rhetorical flair, and even intellectual rigor both gentlemen bring to their enterprise, even those big guns do get tripped up on occasion.  Something in book three, chapter four doesn't quite square with what Calvin said in book one, chapter eight, perhaps, or Schleiermacher's Proposition X seems to contradict Proposition X - Y.  And if these guys get tangled on occasion, I frankly feel a lot less down about my feeble attempts to put two and two together theologically.  I will still have to get enough together to convince the faculty here, a presbytery committee, and the denomination's examiners that I can be at least a functional theologian, but I'm not going to get it perfect.  And if that hasn't yet destroyed the church when coming from countless theologians, pastors, and seminarians before me, I sincerely doubt I'll be able to destroy the church all by myself with my methodological tremulousness.

2) There are a few things I do well, and they will help now and down the road.  I can write reasonably well (blog readers, in unison: "Really?  Will you be starting sometime soon?"), and that has some value.  I can speak with some degree of projection and clarity and variety and interpretation (thank you, Dublin High School Thespian Troupe 669, as well as many academic conferences), which can't hurt for one charged with preaching.  I have some facility with a hymnal, which many pastors don't, it seems to me.  (I suppose this point forces me to concede that my time at The Seminary Which Must Not Be Named, at least that part spent studying with Hugh McElrath and Paul Richardson, was beneficial for something other than meeting my future wife.)  The "I" in my INTP inclines me to listen before I talk, which should be beneficial.  As I go along other such abilities and gifts may yet present themselves to my attention, or demonstrate their usefulness.  

3) Any perceived "golden age" of the church was a myth.  The church has always -- let me repeat with italics, for emphasis, always -- faced difficulties and struggles, and many of them were generated from within and not applied from without.  Even the Acts 2 church, idealized as it is, still had to contend with the likes of Ananias and Sapphira, or with squabbles over the distribution of aid to Jewish or Hellenic widows.  And the churches among Paul's travels?  Some real winners there.  Frankly there have been some serious nutjobs out there at pretty much every stage of the church's history, just as there are a whole passel of nutjobs out there these days.  (The tricky part, of course, is agreeing on just who the nutjobs are....) And as I've hinted at an earlier post here, what many Protestant types look upon as the "good ol' days" of the church in the United States were anything but; with its all-too-cozy embrace of the American civil religion, I truly have to believe that the church gutted its witness and sowed the seeds for the increasingly post-Christian nation in which we live now.  (Yes, that will have to be expanded later.)  The miracle is that so much has been done right historically, despite the church in many cases.  So whatever form the church takes now, be assured it will screw up royally in some ways, and it will in that respect be no different from the church as it has existed for the past two millenia.  To the degree we're willing to shut up and follow where the Spirit leads, instead of telling the Spirit where to lead, we may mitigate that screwing up to some small degree.

Goodness knows I don't know what is to come, or where I'll end up or where this fool's errand is going to twist and turn.  I'm pretty sure I'll go to my grave feeling as though I could have and should have done more, no matter what happens.  I may regret that I did this at all, or I may regret that I didn't do it much sooner.  But I alone do not have the power to destroy Christ's work in God's world.  And if I have the sense to shut up and listen and follow where the Spirit goes and love even when I don't feel like it, I may actually be a useful device for some good things in the church and the world.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

On the eve of aging yet again...

So clearly blogging is not so easy at the height of my class schedule.  It's been two and a half weeks since last this space was filled, and frankly I should probably be doing something else.  It's not as if I don't have a couple or twenty books to read and stuff to translate and write and lordy knows what else.

Yet today hasn't been a great one for getting work done.  From who knows where came a grinding headache, bad enough to be accompanied by a little nausea -- not my usual kind of affliction by any means.  It seems to be easing off, though I'm keeping the lights off for now.

Meanwhile ominous weather threatens.  Today has been quite lovely--blue skies and temperatures around sixty degrees--but Richmond and vicinity might finally be about to get its first real taste of winter weather.  We have an actual Winter Storm Watch and everything!  Anywhere from two to five inches of snow is forecast, depending on your preferred source of forecasts.  Since much of the accumulation might well be after nightfall, it could even lead to a delay of classes on Monday morning.  That sounds ominous itself; with three two-hour classes somewhat back-to-back, all of which have difficulty getting everything discussed within the bounds of the class period, a delayed (and reduced) schedule sounds positively frightful.

Add on the more mundane stresses.  Trying to get a exercise routine going, and not succeeding so well at the moment; having some trouble adjusting to a changed dosage of my blood-sugar medications; still adjusting to the poverty (fiscally speaking) of seminarian life, and seeking more financial aid to help alleviate it some; the lack of success at finding the kind of part-time work I had hoped to find, either in a church or perhaps teaching at a community college or something similar (which of course ties in to the previous point)...and of course these differing stresses overlap.  Keeping up with coursework has been challenging enough with just the eight-hour job in the seminary library's Instructional Resource Center; how far behind would I be if I were also teaching a music appreciation class somewhere?  I've done it before, mind you, but I was a lot younger and, I don't know, spunkier then.

And there comes the other bit of fun; tomorrow is that once-a-year occasion that reminds you that you're no kid anymore.  Forty-seven isn't that old, I do realize that intellectually.  If you're "only as old as you feel" I waver between being seventy-five and being not much older than my twentysomething classmates.  Yet forty-seven is also rather advanced in terms of the proportion of my life probably remaining to me.  Chances are reasonably good my life is more than half over, and even if that's not the case I'm probably not the best candidate for continuing to be an active pastor into my nineties.  That doesn't feel like much time to do whatever I end up doing with this fool's errand.

Still, though, I have passed that point where I can no longer imagine doing anything else.  I don't remember if I've mentioned that one of the elements of this new direction that jazzes me most is the planning and design of worship.  Those occasions, sporadic as they may be, when I've been able to participate in the planning of chapel services here--even the smaller chapels on Thursday--have excited and touched me like very few things I can remember in many, many years.  If I were to be cut off from that now I might well shrivel up and die.  The exaggeration is not as much as you may think.  Even as much as I fumble and foul up at translating Greek (I still cannot remember tenses to save my soul), I cannot imagine giving it up when delving into a New Testament text.  Church history fascinates me (and I do love the reliance on primary sources for studying it).  On occasion I may even be close to getting the hang of theology, though I doubt it.

So there is my place.  Even as the clock ticks and circumstances do not cooperate, I am bound by love and fascination to be where I am, doing what I am.  So I keep trying for more financial aid and jobs, try to get my schedule of reading and writing in order, take advantage of those joy-making opportunities when they become available, and rejoice in an entirely-too-patient-and supportive wife who is making me chicken and dumplings for surviving to forty-seven.

I've had iTunes running as I write this.  First came George Chadwick's Symphony No. 2 and Symphonic Sketches, pleasing joys from my previous life.  The order of things selected for play then skipped ahead to U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)," and is now finishing up Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay."  Love that tune, but hearing it now does cause me to realize I'm not that guy.  Even if it's brief, I do have something to live for.  Things are certainly changing, and I with them.  I'm not in that dead-end despairing place.  Too much to live for, even to fight for a little if need be.

So back to work.