Monday, May 11, 2015

Chaplaincy series: a new kind of praying

A.Hanson, Boulder, CO 2010
A long time ago, probably when I was a teenager or something. I read a magazine article that stated that it was cruel to say that you were going to pray for someone and then not actually do that. At the time, prayer to me was a very specific practice.  It was undoubtedly shaped by the Bible, and probably a few zealous sunday school teachers, and my own family that insisted that if your eyes were not closed during the prayer said before a meal, it didn't count.  In my mind, prayer was kneeling down, folding your hands, closing your eyes and bowing your head.  You could pray your prayer silently, but it was better if you prayed out loud.  I also had a particularly formative experience regarding prayer at Bible camp.  There as a well-meaning (if probably wrong) pastor who did a sermon illustration.  He held the end of a long rope and the other end was being held by someone on top of a tall rock at the side of the outdoor chapel. He would wave the rope up and down, and the person playing God, on top of the rock, would wave the rope back.  He implied that prayer was a transactional communication process and you had to put something in to get something out.  And that is how most of us think of prayer.  We put in some intercessory effort and God gives us an answer.

I am the witness to thousands of unanswered prayers. Fervent, pained, hoping against hope kind of prayers for something, anything, to be different. Prayer as a transaction just doesn't stand up to the rigor of a trauma center.  I need a different understanding.

About seven or eight years ago, when I was in the midst of one of the myriad faith crises of my twenties, I told a friend that I would "keep her in the forefront of my consciousness."  This was the closest that I could get to saying that I would pray for her. I didn't think that my humble words to some far off deity would change anything, but somehow I instinctively knew that I could hold her and her pain together with something greater than myself. As I got more involved in the church in recent years, this kind of hippy-trippy sort of prayer was shoved to the back burner in favor of liturgical prayers and ancient words that felt more meaningful to me. Many of the prayers that I heard being offered and even spoke myself in church were offered in earnest, but were without any real teeth.  Prayers like "courage", "wisdom", "understanding", and "acceptance."  These sort of blasé prayers happen without really putting God's feet to the fire.  They are general enough that it is possible to interpret any variety of outcomes as God's answering prayer.

The trauma ICU doesn't have time for well-intentioned prayers for understanding. Part of what I adore (and simultaneously abhor) about my work in the ICU is that all extraneous stuff is stripped away. There is literally no time for small talk or euphemism.  Life and death are so real that you can smell them. The prayers that are offered in the ICU are for life in the midst of death, relief in the midst of unimaginable suffering, and merciful and quick deaths.

I can no longer see prayer as a transactional form of communication with God.  Because most of the time, medical conditions in the ICU are more comparable to a runaway train than they are to a polite conversational exchange. Everything chaotic seems to happen at once, and time seems to stop and pile up on itself.  I, along with my patients, need a more comprehensive understanding of prayer.

I will continue to speak the intercessory words, because that alone is an act of pastoral care.  But I will hold them, and you, with a spirit of consciousness, along with the God of the universe. My tears are a prayer. That I carry you home with me and think about you when I am not at the hospital is a prayer.  When I hold your hand, careful not to disrupt your IV, that is a prayer. Prayer doesn't require wearing out the knees of your jeans, but it does require getting your hands dirty.

Chaplaincy series: "Chaplain, do you believe in God?"

We were in the surgical ICU, this patient and I.  He was there for an exacerbation of the lung disease that he didn't know that he had several days before.  I was there because his nurses called me because they did not know what to do to make him feel better. He was weeping.

I introduced myself. He continued to cry.  He didn't meet my eyes. I asked if I could sit down. He motioned to the chair next to the bed.

I sat in silence.

"Chaplain, do you believe in God?"

Nothing like a little chatty small talk to start off a visit.  My vow as a chaplain is to go with you wherever you need to go, so I am in this.

"Yes." (this doesn't feel entirely honest so I continue) "But no."

He responds, "What do you mean?"

"I believe in something way bigger than myself and in the things that I cannot explain.  But I see many things that make me question the existence of any sort of god."

He thinks for a moment. "Like people suffering?"

"Yes, like people suffering. I cannot reconcile what I see sometimes here in the hospital with what I have been taught about God in church, sunday school and the Bible."

"Me neither. What do you think happens after death?"

Without much thought I respond, "I have absolutely no idea."

He says, "That's good, because I think the same thing.  And I guess I don't think much about that either."

"Neither do I. I am more concerned with how we live now and how we care for each other."

He says with feeling, "You are doing a good job here. Most pastors aren't honest."

"About God?"

"About anything. They are so concerned with sounding like they know what they are talking about, that it is pretty much a bunch of shit, everything they say."

I laugh, "You have nailed it.  Thank you for your honesty."

We talk awhile more about his experience with faith and prayer and God.  At the end of the visit, I am moved to tears and I tell him that I have very much enjoyed the visit and that this conversation was a gift to me. He squeezes my hand and waves goodbye.  I continue crying, because of the honesty, the real-ness, and the sweetness of the sacred in that interaction.  My interaction with this particular patient summarized so much of what I have struggled to put into words as a chaplain.

I have wrestled with, fought, cursed, cried, and perseverated about who God might be and what God might be up to in light of all of the suffering and hell I see every single day. Nothing is simple.

I see the very limits of human faith and understanding abut all sorts of moments of uncertainty, both in my life and in others, and I have often felt like Jacob, yelling at the angel of God, "I won't let go until you bless me."(Genesis 32:26).

I have been blessed with uncertainty.  I have been blessed with struggle.  I have been blessed with a vulnerability and a brokenness and a willingness to say, "I have absolutely no idea."

I believe in a God of immanence and transcendence.  I believe that there is no where that God is not.  I do not believe that God causes illness or injury or sends trials to test one's faithfulness. But a God of immanence is everywhere and in all things and there is no where that God is unwilling to go in this world.  I believe in a God of transcendence, that there are things that lie outside the realm of our understanding.  I do not know what this means for the afterlife or heaven or if there is some place paved with streets of God, but I believe in a God of mystery.  I believe in a macro-God that works on a scale that is outside our realm of comprehension.  I don't always see what God could possibly be doing on the day to day level of all the suffering in this world, but I do believe that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and reconciliation and love. I have no proof of the existence or identity of God, just that some force of life and love seems to dwell within me and within others.  I still believe that humanity is basically good, and in our faces, we reflect God to one another.

I have struggled with whether or not I could be a pastor.  I have been accompanied by doubts and questions of faith my entire life. I never settled for easy answers and I never asked easy questions. Sometimes I feel as if I have nothing to offer except my own story of brokenness and questioning and experience of God. I will never be "executive teaching pastor" because I have no illusions that I am some sort of expert.  I may have a graduate theological degree, but that left me with more questions and a deeper sense of the mystery of God than it did with answers. I preach what I know, which is a God of reconciliation and a God of love.  A God who knows what it is to suffer and knows what it is to die, and by going into those places of darkness and death, vanquishes them. There is no place that God is not willing to go or has already been.  And today that is enough.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Biblical Marriage part 3: What can the Bible offer about marriage now?

Marriage has been on my mind a lot lately.  I am planning my own wedding to my lovely partner, Katrina. In the course of this planning process, I have been thrown into a world where everyone has advice and everyone has an opinion. In the midst of all of these minute details, we keep reminding each other, at the end of all of this, we get to be MARRIED.  To each other!

It might be subversive in some circles that two women are getting married to one another and being so damn excited about it.  But honestly, it is the most ordinary of things. We love each other. We want to spend our lives together. We want to make vows to that effect in the presence of God, our family and friends, and each other. We want the same legal and financial benefits and protection that are permitted other couples.

Marriage is a concept that has been hijacked by those who think it belongs to them and who have a desire to keep it from people like me.  The Bible has been used and abused to justify the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman only.  In my previous posts on the topic, I dug through the Hebrew scriptures, the Gospels and the Epistles to expose the variety of ideas of what constitutes "Biblical Marriage" and the non-existence of a monolithic concept of marriage much to the chagrin of a specific subset of Christians.

My good friend Andy challenged me this week to see if there was anything salvageable in the Bible about marriage. Is there anything that it can offer pertaining to marriage now? Katrina did not ask my parents for a whole bunch of cattle as a bride price for taking me off their hands, just as I did not give her parents seven years of servitude for her hand in marriage.  We are both wearing gold rings on our fingers, so we failed at that too. And furthermore, our sort of marriage just would not have happened in the ancient near East, or in the early Christian church.  Marriage at that time was about an exchange of property and about strategy for improving one's position in the world.  It was not necessarily about love, but it was a lot about faithfulness.

So that is where I start.  I am a Lutheran, so I value the contributions of Martin Luther to theology and to an exploration of what God is up to in the world.  Martin Luther writes that marriage is a legal estate, but also a sacred estate for living out one's vocation in this world.  Martin Luther's theology is clear that marriage is about serving one another in Christian love.  Each spouse belongs to each another.

(I will concede that Luther described marriage as between a man and woman, but he too was a product of his time, with regards to gender roles, sexual orientation, and so on, so I will continue in his revolutionary spirit and apply the spirit of his work to my own marriage.)

It is in this deep belonging and sacred commitment that we can come as close as to the fidelity and faithfulness of God to us this side of heaven. And scriptures have a lot to say about faithfulness...

From Ruth 1:16, "…where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God."

From Psalm 89:1-2, "I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens."  

And scriptures have a lot to say about emotional support as well, another sacred task of the estate of marriage...

From Galatians 6:2, "Bear one another's burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ."

From Psalm 68:19, "Blessed be the Lord who daily bears us up; God is our salvation." 

And contrary to what some people would have you believe, the Bible contains some pretty erotic stuff as well, for the purpose of marriage is the mutual consolation and companionship of both, and the intimate expression of that love...

From Son of Solomon, 8:6-7, "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.  If one offered for love all the wealth of one's house, it would be utterly scorned." 

Scriptures do not offer a literal prescription for what marriage is in our world. But they do offer guidance on faithfulness, emotional fidelity and support, physical intimacy and expression of love, and God rejoicing in unions of love and mutual respect. God rejoices in the love that Katrina and I have for each other (even if some of God's people decidedly do not) and blesses our union.

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Biblical marriage part 2: What the Bible actually says about marriage in the Gospels and the Epistles

Today I return to my exploration of what the Bible actually says regarding marriage. The previous post examines marriage references in the Hebrew scriptures.  Part 2 of this series explores the Gospel writings (Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, and John), the Pauline Epistles, and the general epistles.

Once again, there is no real consensus on what constitutes "biblical marriage" and in fact, there are a variety of mentions of marriage.

Jesus rarely mentions marriage in the Gospels.  When he does, it is primarily in the context of discussing Jewish law pertaining to adultery and divorce. In Matthew 5:32, “But I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”In a conversation with Pharisees about divorce, in Matthew 19:8, Jesus repeats what he said previously, which is a saying of Moses. This same conversation is repeated in Mark 10:2-12.

Jesus makes a very bold statement about adultery in John's Gospel, chapter 8, verses 1-11, Jesus meets a woman who was caught in adultery and brought before him by the Pharisees.  The Pharisees say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”  Jesus responds in verse 7, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus is far more concerned with other topics besides marriage, who is allowed to be married, and what happens once they are married.  He has many more exhortations to tend to the poor, to worship God and to love one's neighbors.  When Jesus does mention marriage, it is generally to point out the discrepancy between the laws of the world (in his conversation with Pharisees) and the mercy of God. Jesus tends to err on the side of grace.

Paul's letters to various Christian communities, and the other more general letters to Christian communities that do not have defined authorship, have generated controversy and have provided quite a bit of fuel for "biblical marriage" debates.

When reading this letters, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, these letters are written to a specific community in a specific place and time.  There are often circumstances precipitating the letter.  It can be useful to view them as memos or social statements in response to a specific need or concern.  These letters are not the direct word of God, they are not the direct word of Jesus, and we are only ever going to be eavesdropping on their message because they were not written for us.  They were included in the Bible because of what they reveal about God and God's people.

Next, it is important to know that the metaphor of marriage is one used throughout sacred texts to describe the relationship between God and God's people.  This is not a new metaphor, but one that was used throughout Hebrew scriptures.  The concept of marriage that Paul describes was not really one of love, but one of property and inheritance.  Marriage was used to grow and strengthen families, businesses, kingdoms, and so on. It is probably more analogous to royal families in Europe throughout history than it is to marriage as known by Americans. Marriage was a covenant, a contract, also a familiar metaphor in sacred texts to the original audience.  Therefore, it has overtones of obedience, fidelity, and submission.  When Paul or other epistle writers reference marriage, it is important to hold all of this information in tension with what is stated.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:4) He also writes, “to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than be aflame with passion.” (7:8-9)  

Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church” (5:22)  He gives the direction of “husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:23).

In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” (Col 3:18-19)

The other reference to marriage comes in 1 Peter, where it is written, “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct when they see the purity and reverence of your lives (1 Peter 3:1-2).  This same passage cautions against braiding one's hair or wearing gold jewelry or fine clothing. Husbands are told, “show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.” (verse 7). 

According to Paul, marriage was about obedience.  These verses have been used and abused to argue that women should be submissive to men, when Paul is attempting to make an analogy about obedience to Christ. The purpose of most of of Paul's letters are exhortations to stay faithful to Christ, so it is fitting that marriage would be used. The author of 1 Peter is disputed, and cannot be attributed to Paul, so it is not clear who is exhorting women to accept the authority of their husbands.  But while the Bible states this, it also argues against gold jewelry, so if you plan on adhering to standards of "biblical marriage" it is not compatible with wedding bands or diamond solitaire engagement rings.