Friday, July 27, 2012

Wrestling with Doubt at Penuel

Lutte de Jacob avec l'Ange by 
Eugène Delacroix 
When I was growing up, I liked to be the one with all the right answers. I remember some of my classmates in elementary school asked me if I was genius, and now I have to wonder what exactly I was saying or how I was saying it that they lumped me in with such an abnormal group of folks. At the time, I depended on my book knowledge and ability to BS to make up for a poor self-perception. It's not easy to be the fat, four-eyed kid in grade school, but at least I had my answers.

I am no longer so overweight, and I usually wear contact lenses instead of glasses these days. I'm also still pretty skilled in BS. After all, what else should a B.A. give you? However, I'm not so sure about the answers thing any more. I still take pride in having a lot of knowledge in a variety of areas, but I'm a lot more comfortable with responding, "I don't know" to questions.

That includes questions about my faith.

I am undeniably Christian. I honestly do believe in almost all the points of the Nicene Creed, though at some points I might want to qualify my beliefs a bit. I even believe in the physically impossible things, like the immaculate conception and the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As I believe in an omnipotent deity, it's not difficult for me to believe that God could or would suspend the laws of physics to make a really good point.

However, the really tough questions, the ones about suffering, the existence of evil, the tightrope walk of Arminian free will, sometimes require an "I don't know". And the confession of uncertainty easily leads to doubt. If I don't know exactly what the origin of evil is, then how can I be sure of the benevolence of the God I worship? Or even her existence?

In the church we have few safe places where we can safely ask those questions. An awful lot of our ecclesial programming involves a confident leader proclaiming "truth! truth!" and the assumed response from the pewed followers is "truth received". And then we sing another song and go our separate ways, our lingering questions trailing after us like shadows before the twilight hour.

I think this tendency to leave hard questions and lingering doubt at the church doors also plays out in the kind  of discussion we do have during Sunday school, Bible study, and other programmed time. Many church-goers avoid controversial social issues because we will likely find disagreement, and disagreement violates the "truth proclaimed-truth received" equation.

I was reminded of this when I was in New York City with the newest cohort of young adult missionaries of the United Methodist Church. I was co-facilitating discussion about community organizing and worker justice, and I posed the question, "what has been your experience of justice in your faith context?" Several of the missionaries admitted that their churches never talked about justice. I had to admit back to them that my church had rarely talked about justice when I was growing up.

Of course there are theological reasons why a church may not discuss social justice issues like labor, women's rights, peace, and the environment. That church may follow a theology of glory, recognizing that this world is awful and broken but Jesus Christ will deliver us from evil in the next life. I personally disagree with such an emphasis on glory, siding much more Martin Luther in a theology of the cross, where Jesus Christ is present with us in all the tears and blood and shit that we encounter in our temporal lives.

However, the problem is that we have little space to discuss these important theological differences. Our consumerist culture begs us to continue shopping and watching the Olympics, which is, by the way, brought to you by Ralph Lauren. I think we often try to consume our faith in a similar way, but authentic faith is not to be swallowed whole. Authentic faith comes in the form of an unexpected opponent with whom we wrestle until daybreak, and even then we leave with a hip out of socket, a form that Jacob called "Penuel" because he saw the face of God and survived (Gen. 32:22-32).

I pray that we will create places we may call "Penuel", even if we must leave that place limping. However, if we leave limping in doubt, I have faith that God will carry us even when we are unable to walk.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Missional Life Beyond Formal Commissioning

"What are you thinking about?", my friend Rachel asked me. "You just look so pensive."
Rachel Keller and me (Joe Hopkins) in New York Harbor,
with the Statue of Liberty to the right.

I was deep in thought, lost in my imagination of what the tens of millions of immigrants must have thought as they moved across New York Harbor to Ellis Island. What did the Statue of Liberty mean to them when they first saw it?

I was on one of the New York Harbor ferries that transport tourists from Manhattan to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. With me were my United Methodist young adult missionary peers, a collection of 10 people from all over the United States who had been sent out for 2-3 years to serve in children's homes, youth centers, homeless service centers, and advocacy organizations (among others). We had converged on New York City to celebrate the completion of our terms and to continue our commitment to justice in the world.

But what would that look like? What does the future ever look like?

In the last two years I had served in the national office of Interfaith Worker Justice, working diligently to help coordinate campaigns, facilitate communication, and make sure the logistical i's and t's were dotted and crossed. IWJ had sent me to Madison, Wisconsin at the high point of union protests in February 2011 and then to Indianapolis in January of this year just before right-to-work legislation passed in the Indiana state house. Outside of the IWJ context, I had developed roots in the near-South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, getting involved in a little Lutheran church, helping to form a new grassroots power organization, and living the daily chaos that is my housing co-op.

I brought those memories, and many, many others, with me to the US-2 missionary end-terms. And my peers brought their own triumphs, setbacks, pains, and joys with them to share with the rest of us and with the staff of the General Board of Global Ministries.

However, we didn't just come together to share our individual pasts. As young adult missionaries, we learned about the uglier sides of church and society--how people are excluded and oppressed for a large array of reasons. While we mourned the pain of those experiences, we also got righteously pissed off. How can we as a church deny the full humanity of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer sisters and brothers? How can we collectively wash our hands clean of the blood that runs in the production and distribution lines of goods we use every day? How can we claim vitality by consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands, leaving all but the already privileged and powerful out in the dark?

We couldn't, wouldn't, and didn't claim such preposterously anti-Christ-like ideas. In response to our collective sharing, we made the compact to continue our mission, though under different auspices. We were leaving our placement sites for grad school, seminary, and the larger workforce, but we would continue to carry our commission with us. We do not need the hands of a bishop to urge us to justice, though we sure do hope that bishops will join us in our missional lives.

A few years ago, I learned from a Dominican priest at the Universidad Católica de Argentina that we can look at our lives as perpetual pilgrimages. David Wildman at Global Ministries would argue that we are all migrants, "undocumented Christians", living in an increasingly hostile world. So we wander, guided by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, in the missional life where we cannot return to the ignorance of a materialist, middle-class life.

In the missional life, I live in solidarity with the tens of millions of people who left all they knew to find a new home, beginning at Ellis Island. In the missional life, missio dei connects me to my young adult missionary peers and the global, apostolic and catholic church.

In the missional life, what I call the Red Poppy Fields, I hope to find you there, too.