I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Gospel of Mark

Another mini-sermon for you...

I have had several classes in this room and I am always struck by the quote on the wall by Elton Trueblood: "Jesus Christ can be accepted; He can be rejected; He cannot reasonably be ignored." Like most people, I grew up knowing of Jesus, I’d heard of him. But I was formally introduced to him over eight years ago. Since then, Jesus and I have had a tumultuous relationship. Whatever my struggles with him have been, however, I haven’t been able to ignore him. Elton Trueblood is right.

I must admit that when I realized our class readings had transitioned into the New Testament this week, I was a bit disappointed. There is something about the New Testament that keeps me at arms length. Of course, the character of Jesus is probably the biggest reason. And I suppose the fact that I was originally trained to read the New Testament by fundamentalist Christians doesn’t help. But there’s just something different about the stories, they don’t grab me and suck me in in the same way the stories in the Hebrew Bible do.

But, I’m probably being unfair. Maybe I’m trying too hard to ignore Jesus, to shove him aside, to devalue the stories that surround him. Because, as I read the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark this weekend, I was reminded of two stories. Two stories I have always loved. The story of the leper in chapter one and the story of the hemorrhaging woman in chapter five. These stories don’t allow me to ignore Jesus. In fact, they force me to look deeply at him. And more importantly, they challenge me to a better vision of and relationship with the world I inhabit.

Let me read these two stories to you:

  • A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)

  • Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (5:25-34)

Both of these people had been suffering for a long time. Because of their ailments, leprosy and bleeding, they were considered unclean and were not allowed to participate in community life. For years, they had been forced into painful isolation, but the gift of touch healed them.

A few years ago, I worked among the people often considered unclean today, the people shoved into the alleys and forced out of sight. The mentally ill and homeless. For two years, I worked among women in Spokane, WA and for the only time in my life, I was on a first name basis with a lot of the people begging for money on the street corners and talking to themselves as they wandered aimlessly through downtown. The people often considered too dirty or frightening or weird to pay attention to. Inside the center where I worked, however, these women were acknowledged and known by name. They were allowed their full humanity and freed from their isolation. The simple gestures of reaching, of looking, of listening, of touching, these gestures, just as for the leprous man and the bleeding woman, worked miracles. For two years I witnessed countless miracles in the lives of these women, all brought about through relationship.

I don’t know how many times I have read the story of the leprous man in chapter one, too many to count. But the power of this story, the power of Jesus’ first response, that of reaching and touching, has never weakened for me. I struggle with Jesus, I struggle with much about Christian theology, but I do not struggle with the message of this story. This man, most likely yelling “unclean, unclean” as he approached Jesus, was touched, probably for the first time in years. I can’t imagine the isolation that would come with permanent separation from human contact. It is clear that Jesus understood it, though, because his first response to this man was touch.

The story of the bleeding woman is similar, but not identical. She tried to stay hidden, she didn’t ask for Jesus’ attention, she attempted to gain the healing touch without forcing him to notice her. But it didn’t work. The healing comes from the attention, in the act of being noticed and included as a full member of society. Jesus stopped and wouldn’t continue any further until she was given this attention. He wanted to look at her, to hear her story and to voice his offer of peace to her. He didn’t want her to remain on the outside of society any longer.

These gracious acts of attention, inclusion and touch do not require divinity. So while I continue to struggle with theologies around Jesus’ divinity, I’m not struggling with his humanity. A humanity that I share, that I see in these two stories and that I saw at the center in Spokane. These stories challenge me to fully embrace my humanity and the humanity of everyone around me. They challenge me to look deeply into my life and figure out who I have stuck in the “unclean” category. I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted this task—it’s a difficult one. But as these New Testament stories tell us and as I witnessed in the lives of the women in Spokane, this work and the actions that can follow it, could prove to be miraculous.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


We had to write mini sermons from Isaiah in my Bible: Violence and Nonviolence class and read them to each other today. Here's what I came up with-

Isaiah: Chapter 24

  • Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled; for the Lord has spoken this word. (24:1-3)
This text offers an utterance of judgment and desolation. These are the first few verses in a chapter that continues to convey doom to all peoples, the earth, the sun and the moon; even the host of heaven. No one and nothing will be saved from the wrath this text speaks of.

In the middle of this chapter, however, there are a few verses of praise:
  • They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; they shout from the west over the majesty of the Lord. Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord; in the coastland of the sea glorify the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One. (14-16a)
There is unity in both desolation and praise. These verses speak of all people, both easterners and westerners from the ends of the earth. This praise, however, feels jarring and odd in the middle of a chapter of doom. But just as the judgment was interrupted with spontaneous praise, so the praise will be interrupted with an odd, secretive word of warning “But I say, I pine away, I pine away. Woe is me! For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously” (16b). This is not a chapter of joy and two and a half verses of praise cannot detract from the images of prisoners in pits and snares and an utterly broken earth.

This chapter is apocalyptic. In vivid, sometimes sublimely beautiful language, it communicates the destruction of the earth and of unending punishment. Yet, oddly enough, this isn’t what I heard when I first read it. The second verse struck me and pulled me into a sudden awareness. I stopped and re-read it:
  • And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. (24:2)
To this list I would add, as with the mentally stable, so with the mentally ill; as with the fulfilled, so with the downtrodden; as with the pious, so with the atheists; as with those with all the answers, so with those filled with questions. The list could continue for pages. What surprises me is how well the original list in Isaiah still speaks to my era. People are still doing the same things, filling the same roles.

But this isn’t what struck me, what struck me was the fact of unity in both existence and in death. Human beings seem to find distinctions between everything and everyone. I understand that we need these distinctions in some ways to make sense of the world and to understand who we are as individuals. But, too often we allow these distinctions to take over and remove all mystery from our existence.

We miss the connection that we have to everything else in our world, simply through our shared existence and inescapable death. The world is an unexplainable miracle. The fact that I can think enough to even come up with distinctions is a miracle. The fact that I can feel both love and hate, happiness and anger is miraculous. To the list in vs. 2 I should also add, as with me, so with you. We all exist and we will all die. This is the mystery and the miracle that we all share and that we are all blessed and cursed by.

It is important to remember that the twenty-fourth chapter of Isaiah not only cuts down the distinctions between you and me, but also between you and me and the dirt, you and me and the sun and the moon, even between you and me and the mysterious hosts of heaven. The mystery of creation extends ever outward from every small, visible piece of existence towards every invisible and unknowable thing. When it comes to existence and death, we are a unified creation. In horrific and terrifying terms, the twenty-fourth chapter of Isaiah reminds us of this fact.

And yet, the book of Isaiah ends in terms of separation. The thirteenth and fourteenth verses of chapter sixty-five read:
  • Therefore thus says the Lord God: My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit. (65:13-14)
These verses read as an antithesis to Isaiah 24:2. I understand that directly comparing these two sections might be considered unfair to the text. I know that this book is about worshipping God correctly and speaks of God’s punishment of his people through their enemies. I know that various parts of this book speak of the desolation of God’s people and in other parts of the restoration of God’s people. And that at various times, God is punishing various people. But, I still find the direct comparison helpful. These two sections offer me a choice.

In the painful words of chapter 24, I feel a reminder of my relationship to all of creation. I feel the mystery of my connection to every other existent thing. In chapter 65, however, I read words of separation. Words that do not fill me with hope of restoration. The last two verses of Isaiah speak of this separation in even bolder terms:

  • From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (65:23-24)
I do not want to stand over the dead in celebration. I do not want victory and restoration at the cost of someone else's suffering. I also don’t want someone else’s victory and restoration at the cost of my suffering. I want the irrational possibility of unity. I want the irrational possibility that restoration will come and that it will look like vs. 2 in Isaiah 24: as with you, so with me. I don’t want this unity to come in desolation though, I want it to come with a word of hope. I want it to come with a continued and sustainable remembrance of our unity. A unity that comes through the mysterious, miraculous fact of our shared existence.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Interior Castle

What is the soul? Is it separate from the body? I am an embodied creature, I can't understand anything outside of my gut, limbs, thoughts and vision. I can look in mirrors, but I will never look myself straight in the eye. I must depend on others for that experience. I can look at the face of another and be looked at by another, but I cannot look upon the face of myself. I can cross my eyes and see my nose, but where does that leave me besides dizzy?

The seminary experience is intense. I am forced daily to look both inward and out, to decide what the big questions are and to struggle towards answering them. I have come to the conclusion that the big questions will never be answered. The big questions are by definition, (in my mind anyway) unanswerable. But the wrestling, that's where the work is done. So I don't believe in a God that speaks or watches or cares. So what. I do believe in the mystery and holiness of life. I believe in the mystery and holiness of prayer. I believe in the mystery and holiness of relationship. I believe in the mystery and holiness of nature, of roots and oceans.

Who am I praying to? I guess I'm not praying to anything. I'm simply expressing the deepest groans of my heart. I'm adding these groans to the collective groans building up in the air that surrounds me. I'm breathing in and out. I'm choosing life, even though I know death is coming.

I was utterly humiliated last week. I'm writing about my relationship with my mother and my draft was discussed in my class workshop. At the end I started sobbing. The wounds and demons of the relationship were too big, too raw to deal with in the detached mode one needs to remain in while in a critique situation. I left the room. I never wanted to go back. I am not a person who shows weakness. I am strong and I need people to know it.

In my Bible: Violence and Nonviolence class we've been reading the book of Judges. Chapter 19 is awful. Chapter 11 is awful. I've been struggling with them for a year now. How am I supposed to carry the pain of these stories within me, within my soul. I am a person who feels pain. The pain of animals taken to slaughter. The pain of the women I worked with at the Hearth in Spokane. The pain of poverty and racism I witnessed in North Lawndale in Chicago. The pain of the women in the book of Judges. My own pain over my failed relationship with my mother. Where do I put it? Where do I hold it?

I'm reading The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. I'm painting the seven dwelling places of the soul that she outlines. I'm giving a presentation about them to my History of Christianity class. I'm trying to understand them. I'm trying to follow her, even though my language of the holy is different than hers. I'm trying to understand how to find my soul. How to see it, how to feel it.