salvation through kinship

I have been watching a lot of this show – Big Love – lately, and have been thinking a lot about the ideas around salvation that its characters and their context(s) have. In case you are not familiar with it, it is a show about a suburban polygamist family, with three wives living in houses side-by-side, each with their own children, and the husband going back and forth between the houses. The wives share the responsibilities for cooking, caring for one another’s children, and home-keeping. It is about their struggles with their pasts, their struggle to fit-in and appear “normal”, their struggles with the complexities of their relationship, and their attempts to be faithful to “The Principle” of plural marriage that they feel is their spiritual and religious calling, by way of their own interpretation of the tradition of Joseph Smith. (sideline: this show fits surprisingly well into the current milieu in the US and Canada of self-created new-age type religious or spiritual pursuits, where the only authority is God/higher power/divine energy and then the self to interpret, with no accountability to traditions or other persons.)

In many ways, more than anything else I think I would sum it up as being a show about desire. There’s the sexual side of desire that’s depicted – both for the adults and the teenagers in the show. There’s the consumerist-culture aspect of desire that’s depicted in one character’s compulsive online shopping and subsequent gambling compulsion. There’s the desire for success in business and enterprise that the husband in the show is constantly pursuing. There’s a desire for family and meaningful community that I think hooks the desire of the viewer as the idealized shared suburban home-stead is depicted. There’s a desire for acceptance and love that every character seems to be pursuing. There is also a desire for salvation, for eternal life, that characters often remind themselves and each other of as being the primary reason that they are engaged in this often difficult and complex family grouping. I think these various desires, their honest depiction and the forthright way they’re addressed, are what really make the show compelling – who among us can’t identify with desire, misplaced or otherwise, and the problematic pursuit of its fulfillment?

In many of the churches that trace their history to Joseph Smith (“Restoration” traditions, if you will, named for their pursuit of restoring Christ’s church to a perceived earlier and more accurate form), one’s salvation rests heavily on or in one’s family. If one isn’t at least married, and hopefully with children, one is risking one’s mortal soul. In Big Love we view an extreme playing-out of this situation, where the reward of ruling a planet comes to men who have multiple wives. But even in the more socially-acceptable, non-polygamist “regular” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, family in the here and nowis essential to one’s everlasting life later on.

I would say that in my denomination, which comes from the same Restoration tradition, there are still lingering idea(l)s of the necessity of family for salvation. I know many single people (including myself) in the church who have experienced pressure to find a (heteronormative) relationship and get married – even when that pressure is presented as seemingly “well-meaning” assumptions. I also know several married couples who have experienced pressure to have children, regardless of their own desires or abilities to include children in their family circle. Of course, people would never tell one another that their lack of spouse and family is a threat to their salvation, but nonetheless I think these pressures are the residue of the family-as-salvation formula that is found in the early Restoration churches.

While it’s problematics are clear to me, the salvation-through-kinship formula has a certain amount of pull on my own desires. For me, the two primary problematics are: the focus on salvation as something for the afterlife, rather than a work God is carrying out here and now; and the heteronormative assumptions about family that the formula prescribes. Both of these, I think, can actually be unbound from the tradition by using the tradition itself in creative and redemptive ways!

The idea of salvation as only being something for the afterlife is one that can even be taken apart by the Gospels, where Jesus talks about the “Kin(g)dom” that is already among us as well as being as-yet-unfulfilled. Joseph Smith had a focus on the importance of place and attempting to live here and now as if we are in God’s promised future – “Zion”. The heteronormative family-form prescription can, I would dangerously venture to suggest, be taken apart with the tradition’s most problematic and often embarrassing practice of polygamy. Now, let’s be clear, polygamy is not an ideal! Its assumptions about male patriarchal power, female submissiveness, and hierarchical placement of wives all make it very troublesome. However, what I am saying is that it is a way of having a non-normative family whose formation is grounded (ideally!) in the pursuit of a spiritual calling, a call to live in communion with others, rather than the pursuit of relationships and family for personal gain.

These thoughts of mine are still in their infancy, and I recognize their dry, tinderbox character that could easily be ignited by carelessness. However, I think it is high time we started talking more openly about how our sex lives, family lives, and desires influence and relate to our salvation, or our perception of our salvation. Perhaps by reclaiming the idea of kinship, of communion as location for salvation, and being more conscious of our desires and their both positive and negative pulls on our lives, we can move forward in paths of Christian discipleship that stand more strongly in the face of a far too individualistic and materialistic culture.

salvation is here

Salvation is a subject that doesn’t get a lot of airtime in many liberal Christian circles. You might even be troubled to see me use that word – salvation. But I’m a big fan of rethinking what we mean when we use certain words, so today I would like to redeem this word “salvation” for a bit. I’d like to propose that we are saved when we accept peace and live from a space of calm, not allowing ourselves to be caught up in the demands of our go-go-go world.

Several years ago while I was working on my Master of Divinity I struggled with a book that refused to leave room for salvation, though it used the word “redemption” instead. I liked a lot of what the book said but could not go as far as it could in saying that there is no room for redemption, why, I wondered, did I have this deep discomfort with leaving that out? I decided to go talk to my teacher about this and as she listened and asked questions we discovered that I was just dealing with a different notion of redemption or salvation than the book conceived of. I and the book agreed that it is not possible to find ultimate and final redemption or salvation because the world is constantly in process and never does and never can come to some final static, resting point of redemption or salvation. I, however, don’t think of salvation or redemption in those sort of ultimate or final terms. To me, salvation is fleeting, it is the glimpses of grace that we see on a daily basis. There is salvation and redemption in a chord sung so perfectly by a group that we all feel deep down in our beings a sense of unity and satisfaction. There is salvation in resting in a moment of silence that holds my centre. There is salvation in the arms of one that I love.

I’m purposely trying to reframe how we look at salvation here because I think it is a powerful concept for understanding the profound difference that is made when we choose to walk a path of love, devoting ourselves to nursing the flourishing of the world, rather than getting caught up in the demands of our culture.

Salvation and redemption connote transformation, a change in life that is profound. In order to facilitate the building of a more peaceful world we need to transform our lives, we need to step out of our comfort zones, we need to risk living more simply, giving more generously, loving more lavishly, and living more peacefully.

We can all be witnesses to resurrection, to the joy of letting go, to living by dying, to new life through a peace that passes all understanding, to grace abundantly and freely given.

the tragedy of the cross

taizecrucifixThis week I was asked to share a sixty-second soundbite of my thoughts on the resurrection for the next YAK podcast. Could there be a more difficult task, or a more important task than that for a Christian theologian? With four-and-a-half-plus years of theological education and almost 27 Easters under my belt it is a task I ought to be able to carry out. The resurrection is really the defining event of the Christian religion, and any good theologian should have some kind of soundbite, suitable for public theologizing, that’s ready to drop at a moment’s notice.

And so after thinking about it for several days I decided that my own theology forces me to not just make a comment about the life-affirming message of the resurrection, or the belief in living out our collective Christian lives together as the resurrected body of Christ, but to start with the tragedy of the cross and the agony of Holy Week.

The beauty and wonder of the joy of new life and birth is lost if we don’t first live through the pain of life. It is cruel and tragic that a relatively young prisoner of conscience would be put to death for his beliefs. This reality though is that of many whose lives are lost for unjust reasons. I also don’t want to move too quickly through the pain of Holy Week because the holy times of our own lives often are not over in a week, the tragedies of abuse and violence seem unending at times. And Christianity has often been guilty of pointing only to the resurrection in the face of violence, or pointing to the theme of joyful sacrifice – theology that I’m a big fan of until it tells a woman and her children to keep returning to an abusive husband because it is “their cross to bear.”

If we do not take the time to live in the pain of Holy Friday and the hopelessness of Holy Saturday the joy of resurrection will be lost on us and the pain that is the reality of our lives, all our lives, which gives birth to joy, is numbed and left for nought. My resurrection soundbite will have to wait for tomorrow, for today I am still living in the despair of loss.

why i heart rob brezsny

Below is my horoscope for this week from Free Will Astrology. Could there be better wisdom for a pastor?
“The composer Stravinsky had written a new piece with a difficult violin passage,” writes Thomas Powers, quoted in the book Sunbeams. “After it had been in rehearsal for several weeks, the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said he was sorry, he had tried his best, the passage was too difficult, no violinist could play it. Stravinsky said, ‘I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.'” Keep this story close to your heart in the coming week, Aquarius. It will give you the proper perspective as you, too, go about the work of doing the best you can at a task that is virtually impossible to perfect.

May you eat an unfamiliar dessert in a strange land at least once every three years.

May you wake up to salsa music one summer morning, and start dancing while you’re still half-asleep.

May you spray-paint Rilke poems as graffiti on highway overpasses.

May you mix stripes with plaids, floral patterns with checks, and yellowish-green with brownish-purple.

May you learn to identify by name 20 flowers, 15 trees, 10 clouds, and one extrasolar planet.

May you put a bumper sticker on your car or bike that says, “My god can kick your god’s ass!”

If you bury your face in your tear-stained pillow and beg God to please send you your soul mate, may you not slur your words in such a way that they sound like “cell mate.”

May you dream of taking a trip to the moon in a gondola powered by firecrackers and wild swans.

May you actually kiss the earth now and then.

May you find many good excuses to say what physicist Niels Bohr once did: “Your theory is crazy, but it’s not crazy enough to be true.”

pastoral epiphany

epiphany flowersYesterday was the Christian festival of epiphany – the day that we celebrate the arrival of the wisemen from the east, come to worship baby Jesus and offer him gifts. Yesterday I had the chance to offer a gift of my own in service, I allowed my name to stand as a nominee for pastor in my home congregation. In the Community of Christ we have annual business meetings where the pastor is elected by the congregation. I’d let some people know that I was willing to let my name stand, but ultimately the decision came down to either accepting or not accepting the nomination. It was scary, it was awkward, but also exciting. I was the only one nominated, and now I am the new pastor of the Vancouver Community of Christ.

This is the kind of work I have been preparing for for the last four and a half years of my life, and ultimately, it really just comes down to me finally saying “enough with the learning! time for some doing!” I have long felt called to ministry as my vocation, and now, even though it is in no way a “normal”, paid full time job, I feel like I am finally getting a step closer to what it is that I ought to be doing with my life. I know it won’t be easy, in fact I keep trying to remind myself that this will be hard work and I should be prepared for much pain and difficulty. However, at the same time, a huge part of me says “yeah, so?” Could there not also be enjoyment, fulfilment, newness, even in the midst of the pain and difficulty?

I’m excited to be in the midst of a congregation that is wanting to ask questions about where they are, where they want to be, how they want to be together, what they want to spend their money on, and what kind of help they need. I like the fact that I will have an opportunity to guide a discernment process in relation to what they want to do next and who they’d like to be, and what they will need for that journey.

flowers and branches

I’m scared of the usual stuff: rejection, disappointing people who care about me (even though I know in my heart that they will love me no matter what), failure at the tasks I’m given, making mistakes, the list goes on. Even though I know these aren’t necessarily rational fears, they are still there. And then there are also more subtle fears, fear of uncertainty, and fear of losing control or never having control – these are ongoing creations of my mind, however, and plague most people I think, delusions that we are in control or can have control over people and things. I know very well that I will make mistakes, that I will mess-up, that I will find myself in situations where all I can answer is “I don’t know”. There is also a fear of burnout, of being overwhelmed, of being too stressed, but those, too, seem like things I can handle, with careful and intentional self-care and support networks.

There is also a strange fear, however, of success too. I use the word “success” very reluctantly and loosely, because how can one really gauge “success” in a church? But there is a lingering fear of actually maybe finding something that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that I want to keep doing. For a seeker, the prospect of finding something, anything, can be a frightening one, what is one supposed to seek for anymore?

So I have a new beginning in life to celebrate, one with uncertainty and excitement, one that will bring new challenges, new learnings, and hopefully allow me to offer myself in service to God.

(A side note on the pictures in this post: on new years day I decided to test-drive the ikebana holder my sister got me for christmas, so I bought some flowers to play with. I first put together the arrangement in the first picture, with some starbursts my aunt gave me, it seemed rather epiphany-like with the bursting and the stars and the wintry branches. The second photo is the ‘leftovers’ bouquet, which I admit is now my more favourite of the two, with the lively white flowers nestled amidst the stark branches, it’s really quite striking and lovely I think. Maybe if the pastor gig doesn’t go well I’ll become a florist.)

bound to the city

A brief reflection inspired by John Caputo’s On Religion:

In the radical Yes to possibility is the implicit sacrifice of status quo, of normal, predictable existence. When we open ourselves to the possibility of love, when we make ourselves vulnerable so as to live the Yes, we are taking a risk, making ourselves uncomfortable, binding ourselves to the passion of God – a passion which, at least in the Christian tradition, leads to The Passion, namely a hill, a cross, a conviction, a crucifixion. The Yes is a path so uncertain that we risk nothing less than everything. Any “religion” that demands anything less than everything ought to arouse suspicion. “We are supposed to be crucified to the world” says John Caputo in On Religion (54). This is a path where victory is always ironic, triumph always suspect.
Here, at the end of Christendom, we who find ourselves in the so-called “mainline” churches are discovering anew what the cruciform path looks like. Could it be that from the belief of victory through death, we too, in our triumphant religion, have inevitably reached the point where we must allow Christianity itself to be crucified as/with Christ? Ought the task of churches really be “survival” or “growth”? I would argue that a posture of openness to possibility, embodied in and through radical hospitality, is our proper work in the world – not survival or growth. We must allow ourselves to be humbled, levelled, bound by the love of God.
The city is perhaps one of the best examples of where radical hospitality is most needed and where it is put to the greatest test. There is no more important place for “religion without religion” (Derrida), for religion without the dogmatics, victory cries and dominations. Today we are called to do theology – and likely implicit, not explicit theology – in all of the places where justice must be enacted in the city, where devoted service is needed.