Sex and Revolution Pt III: The Aligned Self

Sancta Colloquia Episode 308 ft. Rachel Cohen

In this episode, my friend, Rachel Cohen (@pwstranger), tells me her story. As I make mention of in the introduction, Rachel and I have been friends for the better part of a decade. Our paths have overlapped and split an overlapped again. We share some of that story in the episode, so I won’t go into detail here. Rachel also spends time throughout the episode telling her story of her self-alignment and realignment about her sexuality and embodiment with what she believed and was taught. Rachel’s story is unique and one that is best in her voice, so I won’t go into detail here about that either. What I will say about this episode is that Rachel and I cover good ground looking at the capitalization of self-gaslighting to peddle a false gospel and how we can monetize our shame and guilt for likes and retweets and shares, how certain schools of popular theology use the theme of brokenness and failure as a means of self-justification, and how the freedom of confession can be freeing for a moment and turn into putridness like manna kept longer than commanded. Rachel mentions that for her (and I’m guessing for many other people) there is a perception of thriving that is disconnected from the inner self. We can present as thriving while on the inside the core of the person is being suffocated and starved. The way this misalignment of the self persists is by controlling what information is accessed by the self. In other terms, you are dunked deep into the echo-chamber and held down so that liquid is your self’s amniotic fluid from which you can never be born. But is this actual “thriving”? No, it’s a perception of thriving according to the rule and approval of those around you. To actually thrive necessitates an ability to be *yourself* even in the midst of encountering new information, new people, and even information and people you disagree with and that/who disagree with you. You cannot find *your* voice if you are forced to speak a certain way, so gaining alignment and having “integrity”, Rachel explains, necessitates finding your voice for yourself and to come to your conclusions. No one gets to tell you what to think—even if you are informed by teachers and leaders and mentors, you decide what you are going to think. This ownership of thought is important especially when engaging with theology which is a form of human meaning making, as Rachel explains. And it’s important because here you can distinguish between shame that is healthy conviction and your own conviction because you transgressed *your* own boundary and shame that is destructive because it’s imposed on you by an external system. But this is only the first part of our conversation…there’s part II. So, start listening here and then get ready for part II…*

In part two Rachel goes into depth about the role a robust theology of suffering plays in the life of a queer person and how that theology is used by the dominant culture group to oppress and dominate the lgbtqia+ community. She shares more of her story and her journey while incorporated the work of Dr. Miguel de la Torre (Doing Ethics from the Margins) through out her sharing. We talk about echo chambers, shame, fear of being ostracized and exiled from the group…things that shouldn’t be synonymous with Christians but often are. In group and out group is the way the dominant group maintains its control and primacy, without the fear of exile…or hell (!) how else do you keep the dissenters quiet? To be honest, the episode is long, so there’s no way I’ve done it justice in this summary. So, find some time, crank it up to 2x speed and jump in. It’s a great conclusion to part III of #sexandrevolution

Excited? You should be. Listen to Part II here:

Listen here to Part I here:

Rachel Cohen is a licensed therapist who currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her lovely partner and dog. She has two Master’s degrees: one in Theological Studies, and the other in Counseling. While in seminary, Rachel began to examine and move beyond many of the deeply held beliefs and ideas that were pervasive in the evangelical Christian circles in which she was residing. It was also during this time that she began the complex and liberating journey of coming to understand and embrace herself as a queer woman. She is passionate about helping others untangle unhelpful narratives and ideas, discover more of who they are, and learn how to establish healthier boundaries with others. Her favorite recipe is BBQ salmon bowls with mango avocado salsa. Her favorite pastime is songwriting. She’s currently reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle and The Body Says No by Gabor Maté.
*In this episode Rachel and I speak about a podcast, Millenneagram, that I listened to late in 2019 and early in 2020 as part of my personal therapy practice as I was processing some major pain.  When Rachel and I recorded the host and producer of the podcast, @riverpaasch was not publicly going by “River”. Rachel Cohen brought this to my attention and I felt that I should add something here in the blogpost because it’s important. That podcast is no longer in production. And their work is profound and insightful, and I highly recommend hitting those old episodes as well as finding them on social media to learn from them.

Further/Recommended Reading:

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation by Cheryl B. Anderson

Heterosixism in Contemporary World Religions: Problema nd Prospect by Marvin Mahan Ellison

To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedediah Jenkins

Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life by Margalis Fjelstad

Any poetry by Andrea Gibson

Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

Dostoevsky and Dialectical Theology

Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Hi! I decided to talk about one of my favorite books because I was inspired by a group of students and my academic research. I had fun working on this video. I hope you enjoy it.(It’s a bit longer than I had hoped it would be, but I definitely said the things I wanted to…and could have said a lot more!).

 

God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.

Law, Justice, and Faith

Sancta Colloquia episode 108 ft. Tim Fall

In this episode I come face to face with the law. Seriously. My guest is Tim Fall (Twitter: @tim_fall) and he’s a judge. Now, many of you may think that this might be my first time in front of a judge, but it’s not! I’ll save those stories for later…plus, a little allure never hurt. For now, let me talk about what Tim and I discussed. I’ve known Tim strictly through Twitter and have thoroughly enjoyed his Gospel-centric approach to the way he does theology: oriented toward the comfort for the beleaguered. Now, most of my beloved readers/listeners will know that I’ve a penchant for all things distinguishing Law and Gospel. So, when I found out that my Gospel-peddling friend, Tim, was also a judge my interest was piqued. How does one who is the categorical symbol of the law (a judge) proclaim the gospel so well? How is the distinction between the gospel and the theological function of the law struck when one spends the majority of their time upholding the civic function of the law? What I found out from my conversation with Tim is that it is important to maintain the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. One needs to let the law of the court and of society operate as the law and being detached here is key. Tim told me, wisely, that a judge is not in the role to be judging the personhood of the person, and it’s this that Tim carries with him to the bench. A good judge keeps control and remains open (neutral, as neutral as any human can be). But when Tim is not in the courtroom, he spends all of his time looking for ways to speak of the event of the cross, to proclaim Christ crucified, the judge judged in our place (to borrow from Karl Barth), the longed for rest for those heavy laden.  So come and listen to this conversation with Tim and take away a wealth of good information offered from the perspective of one who upholds the law as well as a word of comfort for your mind and body. 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

Tim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for 30 years with two kids (both graduated, woo-hoo!) his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California.

Tim does not normally talk about himself in the third person.

Recommended Reading/Works Mentioned in the Podcast:

Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Beyond Sex Roles, Gilbert Bilezikian
Persuasion, Jane Austen
 
Tim’s blog: https://timfall.com/
 

Christ our Crisis

Luke 4:1-12 (Sermon)

I remember my first existential crisis. I was five and staring out of a window at a massive cornfield on the other side of the road from our house in Minnesota. My eyes focused on the window screen. As the cornfield blurred, I examined the screen. Then my eyes refocused again, but this time their focus was my nose. This broke my five-year-old brain. For the first time I was aware of what I considered to be a distinction between mind and body, and I felt my disembodiment. Lauren was in this particular body…but maybe I could’ve been in another body? Born to a different family? Living in a different house?

Cue the crisis.

I’m not alone here in existential crises. I’m happy assuming that many of you have had one or two or one once a week. An existential crisis occurs because something external has radically altered the way we see our existence, which challenges us and causes us to doubt the permanence of our existence. The crisis is the bright light that shines into the dark recesses of our existence and exposes the truth of who and what we are: dead person walking with no way to escape the things that plague sleep, that cause fear, that wake regret. No matter how much make-up we wear or what suite we put on, we are that person and that person we are.

Lent is a that which points us to our crisis. Lent is not a feel-good-about-yourself-because-you-gave-up-sugar-for-40-days event. To borrow and expand the apt imagery Rev. Montgomery employed on Ash Wednesday: Lent is cleaning house. It’s not merely straightening up the rooms that will be seen by your guest, but going under the bed, to the back of your closet, even into the attic and basement and dragging out those boxes where you keep the stuff you’d never want exposed by the light of day. Lent is to be a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself, to quote the 4th step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without the crisis of the self in death, we have not the self in life; without Good Friday, there’s no Easter.

Cue the crisis.

Then Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was lead by the Spirit into the desert, in order to be tempted forty days by the Slanderer (devil). 4:1-2a

Our gospel reading from Luke forms a bridge between Jesus being baptized in the Jordan and the beginning of his ministry.[1] Thus, I’m picking up where I left you: in the Jordan with Jesus, with the one who stands in solidarity with God and with Humanity and who answers the divine question posed to humanity: whom will you follow and with whom will you stand?

Being filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus exits the Jordan and is ushered into the desert (the wilderness[2]), thus, steps into the solitude of a desolate wasteland. The focus is solely on him; this then becomes the locus of our eyes and the orientation of our ears. We are to look and listen, being quiet visitors because it’s not (primarily) about us, it’s (primarily) about Jesus, the assumed son of Joseph who is (and has been equipped to be) Jesus the Christ.[3] We watch as the battle wages in a realm that is cosmic in proportions[4] as the Slanderer takes on the Christ.[5] And this battle will establish in concrete terms what Jesus proclaimed in his baptism in the Jordan: I am for God; I stand with God.[6]

As in the Jordan and in this battle with the Slanderer in the wilderness, Jesus is not only Christ standing in solidarity with God but Jesus the Christ standing in solidarity with humanity—the overlap with Israel is no accident.[7] Where Israel failed, Jesus triumphs. Where Israel grieved the spirit after their baptismal event (crossing the ground of the Red Sea between two walls of water); Jesus follows the leading of the Spirit after his baptism event in the Jordan. Where Israel clamored and complained about hunger, Jesus resists the temptation to feed himself; where Israel spent 40 years, Jesus spends 40 nights; where Israel was God’s son disobedient, Jesus is God’s son obedient.[8]

The first generation of Israel, liberated from the captivity and bondage of Egypt’s oppression and enslavement, was sentenced to death for their disobedience, never to enter into the Promised Land. Jesus will enter the Promised Land, the presence of God, and establishes that he is the Promised Land: he is the Son with whom God is well pleased. And where this Son goes so too does the presence of God, for where he stands there established is holy ground. And as the presence of God does, so too will Jesus: illuminate and expose the people for who and what they are.

Cue the crisis.

And he ate nothing during those days and when they had completed he was hungry. The slanderer said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone so that it may become bread. And Jesus answered him, “It is written that humanity will not live by bread alone. 4:2b-4

The first temptation is rather basic: the Slanderer plays off of Jesus’s hunger. Jesus, you need food, so, being the Son of God, just turn this stone into bread.[9] The Devil here is addressing a very basic human need: hunger. In his hunger, Jesus stands in solidarity with humanity in his flesh. He is hungry. Jesus’s answer doesn’t create a dichotomy between flesh and spirit; it’s not as if Jesus has suddenly become an airatarian or that he thinks that the flesh is bad and only needs spiritual food. He doesn’t. The picture is larger than that. Jesus’s hunger is a real and present need; however, it’s not only by bread that humanity is nourished, but primarily by the word of God. For forty days and forty nights Jesus existed in the wilderness with nothing but the word of God. [10] There was no manna this time; there was just the word of God.

Also, it’s the word of God that sustains the entire cosmos,[11] from the wheat that grows and is turned into the bread we eat to the heartbeat of the one whose hands made that bread. Everything is sustained by the all-powerful, creatio ex nihilo, word of God. This is Jesus’s claim. Drawing some sort of hierarchy between spirit and flesh would do disservice to the incarnation as a whole and negate the depth of the temptation.

Being hungry reminds us of our humanity and our utter and total dependence on something outside of ourselves to live. We don’t actually “earn” our own food; for without the one who prepares the food, we are up a creek without a paddle. We think we are “self-made,” and when God withdraws his sustaining word, we drop to the ground like flies mid flight. If the earth stops turning, you can neither run fast enough to budge it nor will you have the air to fill your lungs to do so. We believe the illusion that we’re autonomously functioning particles. And the dastardly thing is we perpetuate the illusion by repeatedly demanding others (less fortunate than ourselves) to function as such. We do not and cannot go it alone; how dare we ask others to do so.

Cue the crisis.

And the Slanderer lead Jesus and in a moment of time pointed out to him all the kingdoms of the inhabited earth, and he said to Jesus, “I will give to you the authority of all of this and the glory of these, for it has been handed over to me and to whom I wish I give it; therefore if you might worship in my presence, it will all be yours. And answering, Jesus said to him, “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and you will serve only him.” 4:5-8

In his letter to Theophilus, Luke already mentioned, in 2:1 and 3:1, that the “emperor” is the authority of the kingdoms of earth. Now, it’s the Slanderer who actually has authority.[12] Luke pulls back the veil: the kingdoms of humanity are under the authority of the Devil. On top of that, the Devil can offer these kingdoms to Jesus all he wants, but they’re only the Devil’s as a higher authority (God) delegates them to him.[13] Comically tragical.

Jesus’s answer is short and sweet: I worship God alone, and him only do I serve. And considering Jesus’s divine standing as the Son of God, these kingdoms are already his. But God does not work within Devil run systems and structures that work against God’s plan.[14] Just because these kingdoms will be and already are Jesus’s kingdoms does not mean that they are as they should be or that they’ll stay standing. In Christ, a new reign is being ushered in and it will look vastly different. What has been considered blessed (wealth, power, strength, popularity) will be flipped on its head.

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 6:20-26

Cue the crisis.

Then he brought Jesus into Jerusalem and placed him upon the edge of the temple and he, the Slanderer, said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written that he will command his angels concerning you in order to protect you and that by their hands they will carry you, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And answering, Jesus said to him, “It is said and written that you will not put the Lord your God to the test.” 4:9-12

Jesus is brought to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and then is told, by the Slanderer, to test God. The Slanderer uses the “It is written” formula for himself. He uses Psalm 91 to try to recruit Jesus to his plan to test God. Here’s the portion of Psalm 91 in play,

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 91:9-12

Psalm 91 is not about testing God to see if God is faithful to God’s word. Rather, it’s about those who find their allegiance to God and are in God’s presence. It’s about obedience to God.[15] While Israel was courted by infidelity and succumbed to the temptation, Jesus won’t.[16]

But there’s more to the Psalm. Here are the next two verses:

You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name. 91:13-14

There’s divine rescue through suffering mentioned here and not merely from it.[17] Jesus calls the Slanderer out because it’s not about protecting his foot from striking a rock, but that that very foot will crush the head of the serpent prophesied long ago in Genesis 3:15. The Psalm the Devil uses is the Psalm of his demise. Jesus’s “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test” may as well be, “Check mate.” The Offspring of the Woman has been born and that Offspring is Jesus the Christ. Devil best run. And he does.

And when all the temptations finished, the Slanderer kept away from him until a point in time. 4:13

As the Slanderer flees until his next appointed time of engagement with the Christ, keep this in mind: Jesus will now go forth and begin his ministry by calling those who shouldn’t be called according to our standards, and engaging with those who are relegated to the fringes and margins of society. The world is about to be turned upside down.[18] Christ’s foot will step and strike the cornerstone of the kingdom of humanity, rendering it to dust because of dust it was made, and he will establish himself as the new cornerstone of the Reign of God—through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.[19] Those in charge, those wielding power and authority for their own gain, those turning a blind eye to the poor and hungry, naked and homeless…they best run.

Cue the crisis.

In your encounter with God in the event of faith you become aware you are grafted into the story of Israel: the story of failure upon failure upon failure. This narrative moment in the gospel of Luke is hardwired to transcend time and space, confronting all whose eyes are turned and ears perked by the scene before them: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, being tempted by the Slanderer and winning.

Witnessing this event, we are brought to the reality that we would not have won, that we would have succumbed to each and every one of those temptations, and would have given far more for far less. We are exposed for wanting. We would have conjured the bread from stone, we would’ve sought our own power and fame no matter the cost, we would’ve tested the Lord our God. And we do these things. Everyday.

Cue the crisis but don’t fear the crisis. According to this story: Christ is the crisis. And if Christ is the crisis, then he’s in the crisis—he’s with you in the thick of it. It’s the crisis that brings you to the fullness of your humanity—body, mind, and soul—because it’s in this crisis where you realize you need an other. Christ is the incarnate Word of God who sustains your very life, who is very God of very God worthy of your worship and obedience, who surpasses all testing because he’s the fulfillment of all promises. God dwells in your crisis as God dwells in the gallows, with the dry bones, with those who are dead in their trespasses because God’s righteousness is that which calls to life what is dead.

“A miracle happens, the miracle of miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this impure being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God become for him a life-giving encounter…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[20]

Cue the crisis because crisis is the heart of Lent, the heart of the Great Litany. Cue the crisis and throw yourself at the feet of God whose property is to always have mercy, and find life.

 

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 191. “Luke 4:1-13 presents a number of key elements linking it, some almost subliminally, to surrounding material, helping to ensure its interpretation as a bridge scene moving Jesus from his endowment with the Spirit to his public ministry.”

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.1.59.260, “On the old view the wilderness was a place which, like the sea, had a close affinity with the underworld, a place which belonged in a particular sense to demons. It was to encounter there that He was led there and kept His fast there. For Him as the Son, the One in whom God was well pleased, this had to be the case. …His way will never be at a safe distance from the kingdom of darkness but will always be along its frontier and finally within that kingdom. But already at the outset it brings Him into confrontation and encounter with it.”

[3] Green 191, “He was baptized, the Spirit descended upon him he was the assumed son of Joseph-these all portray him in a passive mode. Now he becomes the deixic center, the one around whom the narrative and its actants are oriented, the one preparing to take the initiative (4:14-15) for which he has been equipped.”

[4] Green 192, Pericope is a clash of “cosmic proportions” the devil takes on Jesus, God’s son, who is full of the Holy Spirit, “This account thus exhibits the basic antithesis between the divine and the diabolic that will continue throughout Luke-Acts.”

[5] Green 191, Luke’s narrative emphasis lies on the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus, thus, “Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus is full of the Spirit, and inspired by the Spirit. His central, active role is therefore fundamentally as God’s agent, and it is this special relationship and its implications that lie at the root of Jesus’ identity in Luke-Acts. Not surprisingly then it is this that will be tested in the encounter between Jesus and the devil.”

[6] Green 191-2, “Luke 3:21-38 was in its own way integral to the demonstration of his competence indicating his possession of the requisite credentials, power, and authority to set forth on his mission. But these are not enough. They must be matched with Jesus’ positive response to God’s purpose. Hence here Jesus will signal his alignment with God’s will in a way that surpasses the evidence already provided by his display of submission to God at his baptism. In the OT and in subsequent Jewish tradition fidelity to God was proven in the midst of testing whether direct activity of the devil. In the present scene, the testing conducted by the devil seeks specifically to controvert Jesus’ role as Son of God either by disallowing the constraints of that relationship or by rejecting it outright.”

[7] Green 193, “The similarities are sufficient in scope and quantity to show that the narrator has drawn attention deliberately to Jesus in his representative role as Israel, God’s son.”

[8] Green 192, “Correlation to Israel’s testing in the wilderness:

  1. divine leading in the wilderness (Deut 8:2- cf. Luke 4:1);
  2. “forty” (Exod 16:35; Num 14:34; Deut 8:2, 4; cf. Luke 4:2);
  3. Israel as God’s son (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; cf. Luke 4:3, 9);
  4. the testing of Jesus is analogous to that experienced by Israel and the scriptural texts he cites derive from those events in which Israel was tested by God (Deuteronomy 6-8); and
  5. though Jesus was full of the Spirit and followed the Spirit’s guidance, Israel ‘rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit’ (Isa. 63:10)”

[9] Green 193, “These ingredients of ‘setting’ are in fact integral to the first test. Jesus’ fasting has resulted in his near starvation and this foregrounds an immediate need, the provision of food.”

[10] Karl Barth CD III.2.44.67, “It is only apparently the case that the Matthean text says less and is more reserved, as though in the phrase ‘not by bread alone’ Jesus had recognised that man does indeed live by bread too, but that he also needs the words proceeding from the mouth of God. For in this case the trite application that man has not only bodily but also spiritual needs is so obvious that the explication is a priori brought under suspicion. The fact is that during the forty days in the wilderness Jesus did not live by bread at all, but according to Mt. 42 He was an hungred, and yet in spite of His hunger He was still alive. Again, His answer to the tempter is a quotation from Deut. 83. But in this passage ‘living by bread’ is not one necessity to which ‘living by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ is added as a second. On the contrary, the reference is to the miracle effected by the World of the Lord, which consisted in the fact that for forty years God led Israel through the desert, and that where there was no bread, and the people seemed likely to die of hunger, He nevertheless sustained them, namely, by the manna which neither they nor their fathers knew. It was in exactly the same way (except that now there was no question even of manna) that God sustained the hungering Jesus in the desert.”

[11] Karl Barth CD III.2.44.67, “This divine communication brings it about that He lives and is sustained, nourishing and quickening Him. Even the bread which, if He were not in the wilderness, He might sow, reap, grind and bake, or even purchase or steal, could not give him life as [humanity]. This is given Him by the almighty Word of God, whether he has bread or hungers in the wilderness.”; see also CD III.4.55.347

[12] Green 194, “At the outset it is worth noting two sources of irony present in Luke’s description of this setting. First we have been led to believe that ‘all the world’ was under the charge of the Roman emperor (2:1; 3-1)- Now however, in a way clearly parallel to the scenario painted in Revelation 13, we discover that the world of humanity actually ruled by the devil.”

[13] Green 195, “Whatever rule the devil exercises is that allowed him by God; he can only delegate to Jesus what has already been delegated to him. What Jesus is offered, then, is a shabby substitute for the divine sonship that is his by birth.”

[14] Green 194, “The perspective he thus outlines is fully at home with the language of reversal and portrayal of hostility characteristic of Luke 1-3, even if it goes beyond them in identifying the activity of those human and systemic agents that oppose God’s plan and God’s people as manifestations of diabolic rule.”

[15] Green 195, “Fundamentally the issue here is akin to that in the first test. Jesus is radically committed to one aim, God’s eschatological agenda; the devil has an alternative aim a competing agenda. He wants to recruit Jesus to participate in a test of the divine promises of Psalm 91. In doing so, the devil overlooks the critical reality that the psalm is addressed to those who through their fidelity to God reside in God’s presence; even in the psalm faithful obedience to God is the controlling need.

[16] Green 196, “Jesus does not the deny the promises of God the devil quotes at him but he “…does deny the suitability of their appropriation in this context. He recognizes the devil’s strategy as an attempt to deflect him from his single-minded commitment to loyalty and obedience in God’s service, and interprets the devil’s invitation as an encouragement to question God’s faithfulness. Israel had manifested its doubts by testing God. But Jesus refuses to do so (cf. Deut 6:16).”

[17] Green 196, “Moreover the devil fails to recognize an even deeper mystery known already to the believing community of which Luke is a part, that divine rescue may come through suffering and not only before (and from) them.”

[18] Of note, from W. Travis McMaken’s Our God Loves Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “Appendix 1: Must a Christian Be A Socialist (Helmut Gollwitzer 1972)” trans WTM. “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a cull unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by a privileged minority so that only the modes t remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

[19] Karl Barth IV.1.59.264, “We cannot ignore the negative form in which the righteousness of God appears in the event handed down in these passages. This is unavoidable, because we have to do with it in the wilderness, in the kingdom of demons, in the world unreconciled with God, and in conflict with that world. It is unavoidable because what we have here is a prefiguring of the passion. But in the passion, and in this prefiguring of it, the No of God is only the hard shell of the divine Yes, which in both cases is spoken in the righteous act of this one man. That this is the case is revealed at the conclusion of the accounts in Mark and Matthew by the mention of the angels who, when Satan had left Him, came and ministered unto Him. The great and glorious complement to this at the conclusion of the passion is the story of the resurrection.”

[20] Helmut Gollwitzer “Forgiveness are One” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). 43.

The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.