Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Reflections on Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is hard to read. Its five chapters contain some of the most angry and resentful passages in the Bible. While even the darkest Psalms usually contain some words of assurance, the book of Lamentations only has a few hopeful verses.

The lamenting poet knows the promises of God but feels like none of them are true. “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2) is in direct contrast to God’s creative action which “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4). When we are suffering or when all we see is suffering, we question God’s promises or we wonder if they have been subverted (3:35-36). Along with the poet we might say “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” (3:17-18)

During the pandemic, some of the words in Lamentations might resonate with us as we try to understand a “new normal” separated from other people. It is a time of food insecurity when people “search for bread” (1:11), when the city is lonely that “was once full of people” (1:1) and cultural activities are suspended as “the young men [have left] their music” (5:14). In the United States it is also a time when economic and racial injustice are more clearly seen, bringing into question the true “greatness” of the country. Speaking about Jerusalem, the poet writes that onlookers sarcastically jeer and say, “is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?” (2:15)

I appreciate that this book is in the Bible because it speaks about reality. Suffering is a prominent part of the human experience and this book witnesses to the way that God’s people have long wrestled with the problem of human suffering. I believe that these words suggest that anger and lament are authentic expressions of faith rather than doubt. Too often in our culture we ignore pain and suffering and say “look on the bright side” or “just trust in Jesus,” like band-aids for flesh wounds. The pain of sufferings is even described in these terms: “he has made my flesh and my skin waste a way and has broken my bones” (3:4).

Liturgically speaking, what I learn from Lamentations is the necessity of lament: during times of crisis it is important to name the realities of suffering. Christian worship usually includes a time of confession to acknowledge sins, seek forgiveness and receive assurance. Perhaps this pattern happens too quickly. The chorus of “Great Is They Faithfulness,” one of the great hymns of assurance, comes from Lamentations 3, which has some of the only words of hope in the entire book:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The fact that these words are found among deep laments of sorrow makes them all the more profound. While we might seek a quick resolution from the sin and injustice of the world, the poet struggled through some 64 verses of lament before “calling to mind” this great hope, suggesting that we could do more to acknowledge our own realities in worship. Not only is our grief and suffering acceptable to bring to God, but we share it in Jesus.

– Mitchell Eithun, Pastoral Intern

Lamentations and Christ

Crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross, identifying his suffering with the Psalmist. Reading Lamentations 3 reminded me of Psalm 22. Both Lamentations 3 and Psalm 22 describe trapped (Lam 3:7, Ps 22:16) and threatened by lions (Lam 3:10, Ps 22:13). Further, Lamentations 4 perfectly describes Jesus’s descent to the dead: “The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life was taken in their pits” (4:20).  In Orthodox Christianity, Lamentations 3 is read on Good Friday. To me this association between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem  makes a powerful statement: Jesus suffers with us.  Jesus is present in our pain because his suffering is not unlike the reality of exile. If Jesus’s ministry, and the cross in particular, occurred in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), then Jesus’s death solidarity with all who suffer, including those who resonate with the deep suffering in Lamentations. The poet laments that “the punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished” (Lam 4:22) while Jesus cries, “it is finished” (John 19:30).

A cause for hope is that the ministry of Jesus sets in motion a new reality, the kingdom of God, which seeks reverses these painful realities brought about by iniquity and injustice.  In the midst of exile the poet laments that God “has made my ways crooked” (Lam 3:9). Preparing the way for Jesus in the midst of another occupying superpower (Rome), John the Baptist quotes the Isaiah’s promise of deliverance of exile in Isaiah 40, announcing that “the crooked [paths] shall be made straight” (Luke 3:5). Those under oppression in Babylon lament that “with a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary and given no rest” (Lam 5:5), but Jesus provides the parallel antidote: “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:28-30)

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern Pastor

Delight and the Song of Songs

To celebrate Easter, we’ve been looking at the Song of Songs in our studies on Monday evenings. It’s a book that celebrates delight and human bodies, which is especially helpful in this time of a pandemic when life feels a little less delightful and moving our lives on to zoom has made us feel a little less embodied.

Song of Songs is a bit of a confusing book, at least partially because it’s an unusual genre in the Bible (e.g., a love poem) and Christianity has not always been very good at talking about sexuality. The following two reflections have helped us appreciate the text more fully.

Laura de Jong, who is a pastor, speaks passionately about how this Song awakens delight and longing in all of us, irrelevant of our marital status:

“Because this greatest of songs is about many things, but not just about human sexuality. And its not just an allegory of God’s relationship with his people. It’s also about longing, and excitement, and living deeply, and sucking the marrow out of life, and whimsy, and delight, and beauty, and language, and community. And it’s about God. What he has done, what he is doing, what he will do. The Song of Songs is an invitation to life.”

Laura de Jong, “The Greatest of Songs.”

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a theologically profound article about sexuality and desire:

“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.”

Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace.”

As the article is quite theologically dense, if you’d like some help understanding it, Debra Rienstra, a writer and professor, has summarized his work: Rowan William for dummies on sexuality.

Hope this Easter

It has felt odd celebrating Easter this year, as it’s hard to celebrate when we do not get to be physically with many of those we care about. Besides the challenges of social distancing, more and more of us here in the United States are experiencing COVID-19 close up, either knowing someone who has become sick or becoming sick ourselves. There is tension between the sadness and uncertainty of this time and the hope and joy of Easter. 

Tish Harrison Warren has written an encouraging article in Christianity Today that proclaims the hope of Easter in the middle of the challenges of this time:

“The truth of the Resurrection is wild and free. It possesses us more than we could ever possess it and rolls on happily with no need of us, never bending to our opinions of it. If the claims of Christianity are true, they are true with or without me. . . . .

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives. But the actualities that we now face in a global pandemic—the overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the collapsing global economy, and the terrifying fragility of our lives—ought to put an end to any sentimentality about the Resurrection. . . .

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. . . . If Jesus is risen in actual history, with all the palpability of flesh, fingers, bone, and blood, there is hope that our mourning will be comforted and that death will not have the final word.”

In honor of Easter, we’re going forward with a new study on Song of Songs. We start tonight. Join us! We’ll keep looking at Lamentations on Saturday, though, holding the tension of the sadness of this time.

Good Friday and Sabbath

Lent is almost over. Good Friday is day 39 of 40. This has been an unusual Lent, with more lament and inconvenience than usual. 

As I have grown in faith I have come to realize that the death of Jesus has meaning on many different theological levels: being enthroned as true ruler of the world, exposing the scapegoat mechanism of the empire, providing atonement for sin, modeling the way of self-sacrifice, standing in solidarity with those who are unjustly punished, becoming the suffering servant. How does the death of Jesus resonate with you?

After spending some time with resources from the Bible Project, the interpretation that resonates with me this year is that of Sabbath rest. Perhaps the most famous reference to this idea is the the sign of Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Drawing on eschatological notions of a future Sabbath (mostly from the Psalms), some scholars have concluded that the Sabbath rest that Jesus experiences while his body is in the tomb is a prefiguring of a cosmic rest that all people will some day experience in Christ.

While for many people the pandemic is not a time of “rest,” it is a time of great inconvenience in which we must refrain from our routines and community activities. In this way our experiences reflect the  “inconveniences” of the Sabbath such as prohibitions against buying and selling. On a larger scale this time might reflect the intent of the year of Jubilee — a total socio-economic reset for the land and the people, which is presented as a super-Sabbath (Lev 25). Our current “rest” has only come because of a time of great “reset,” and one that reveals economic and racial injustice in our US context. 

But there is hope. The effort for a more just world in which all creation flourishes together is headed by Jesus, the one who starts by announcing the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:19) and is crowned the “Lord of the Sabbath.” In this paradoxical time of rest and inconvenience and lament Jesus has gone before us and is with us now as we walk our own “lonesome valley.” We sojourn with Jesus wondering what we can learn from suffering, how we can grow in faith and what we might do in service of God’s great acts of re-creation. 

How is this time of quarantine like an extended time of Sabbath? What have you learned about yourself by being inconvenienced? How can this time draw you closer to God? I invite you to meditate on Jesus’s invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

– Mitchell Eithun

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”