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.”

Some Sölle

I recently read the short book Creative Disobedience by Dorothee Sölle. She was influenced by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Gogarten. Her work is excellent, pastoral, tangible, accessible; dare I say she’s the best of both of these scholars. Also, considering my own work engages both Bonny and Fritz, it made sense to me to begin reading Sölle; seems she’s my older sister here in this odd theological family.

What I am providing here is not a book review; sadly, I’ve no time for a quality book review. Rather my aim is to provide some enticing quotes from the text, encouraging you, beloved reader, to go get it and read it and take it to heart. I will use bold to add emphasis to parts I want to stand out to you.

“Basically, however, in a completely authoritarian model of obedience one never asks the question ‘why.’ The world loses its significance and is degraded to being but the raw material used in practicing formal obedience. That which is done is uninteresting. When obedience concentrates itself completely on a higher and guiding ‘other,’ it becomes blind, that is, blind to the world. It hears the voice of its master in a very narrow and exclusive sense but it sees nothing. it accomplishes the act of obedience for its own sake, recognizing no additional significance.

“An attempt has been made to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the obedience requested and carried out is given freely. To be sure an obedience freely given does mean a displacement of the power relationship and allows the obedience subject to maintain a certain semblance of honor. But the problem of worldlessness and the lack of objective concerns inherent in such a person-oriented obedience is only sharpened. A critique of obedience cannot satisfy itself merely by maintaining that those who obediently submit choose to do so freely. Blindness toward the world and total irresponsibility are still lacking in this variant of the authoritarian model.

“An obedience that is blind to objective concerns and to the world, that merely listens to what it is told, has divest itself of all responsibility for what is commanded. Obedience and not what is to be done is the sole motivation.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 15-16

“But it is precisely spontaneity for which Jesus sets us free. That which he requires does not presuppose the order of the world; that order has yet to be established in the future. Insofar as the human must first discover what God’s will is, the future of the world remains open.

“In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enter had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in the se schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?

“I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.

Creative Disobedience pp. 27-28

“A society is imagined in which it is no longer necessary to deny someone people their own subjectivity. Such an inhuman demand destroys the person on whom it is made. Those who require such a degree of self-sacrifice, or include it in their life plan, lose their freedom. He who makes use of another person as a means of achieving his own ends not only humiliates that person but also degrades himself. To treat another person as if she were a thing is to become a thing oneself, a servant to the functioning of the very ‘thing’ being manipulated. By demanding sacrifice, such a person destroys his own freedom. As the one in control he becomes the one controlled. In alienating others from that which they wish to be and can become, he alienates himself. Because he concentrates on domination, on employing others as means to his own ends, he loses all the other possibilities open to him. For example, he no longer pays attention to anything that does not fit his purpose. He loses the ability to enjoy ling because he must constantly reinforce his life by accomplishments. The relationship between people is so interdependent that it is impossible for one person to prosper at the expense of another. In the long run such exploitation proves detrimental to both.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 34-35

“The stronger a person’s self-identity–that which we have previously referred to as his or her being a subject–the easier partial renunciation becomes. in borderline situations the expression ‘partial renunciation’ can be applied to the runcination of one’s own life for the sake of the other. However, even then it is impossible for such a person to relinquish his or her identity for the sake of the other. And so one could formulate the thesis: The greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation. The more successful one is at living the easier it is for him or her to let go of life.

Creative Disobedience p. 39

“A person can, during the course of his lifetime, become more imaginative, or, on the other hand, he can give u more and more of his phantasy. He then becomes progressively poorer in his style of living and ever more fixed in that which he refers to as his life-experience or his understanding of people. This growing impoverishment of life takes pleasure in assuming the appearance of maturity, in feigning a full awareness of reality.

Creative Disobedience p. 51

“Jesus made people whole without asking for thanks. He fulfilled people’s wishes without requesting their validity. He allowed phantasy full reign without bowing to propriety. he took seriously the religious requirements such as fasting, the breaking of bread, and thanksgiving, but he was also able to put them all aside. He was at ease with friend and foe alike. The conventional classification of people in artificial groupings could be suspended at any time.

“He never brought new virtues and duties. It was fulfillment he offered to those with whom he dealt, a certain sense of wholeness, of well-being, which made virtue and its practice possible. He did not fulfill duties; instead he changed the situation of those whom he met. His phantasy began with the situations but always went far beyond them.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 52-53

“The liberated human being is so strongly aware of him or herself as a self-determining subject that partial denials become possible. The expression ‘partial denial’ may seen inappropriate when it is applied to Jesus, but I use it in order to underscore the fact that a person can never deny his own identity simply at the will of another. In this sense Jesus too never denied his own identity. It is more appropriate to say that his death was the final substantiation of his identity, of the unheard of assertion ‘I am the life.'”

Creative Disobedience p. 58

It appeared to be forgotten that for Jesus ‘God’ meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. The feeling of possessing a full life, the fulfillment of Jesus, was lost. It was as if one wished to promise people something more and greater than the fulfillment of Jesus–a participation in divine life which is realized only after death. With the help of this beyond, this still to come, fulfillment was defamed, and the transformation of this earth in view of the possibilities for fulfillment remained subordinate.

“We still secretly feared that the realization of selfhood could only be achieved at the cost of others, suspected that it was the robbery of others, because we viewed the earth itself and the projected possibilities for fulfillment as constant and immovable. If instead the world is seen as moving toward a goal, if God is experiences as active in history and not merely posited as resting beyond nature, as eternally being, then the possibilities for fulfillment are multiplied. Then phantasy ceases to be a thing for children and poets–that which Christian history has made of it. The person is once again given the courage to say ‘I,’ without, in so doing, taking anything from anyone else.

Creative Disobedience pp. 64-65

Sex and Revolution I: Intimate Embodied Dance

Sancta Colloquia Episode 306 ft. Nicole Perry

In this episode, I had a very interesting and engaging conversation with Nicole Perry (@danceNdrama1) about intimacy, vulnerability, body, and relationship. It feels like we touched on all the aspects of what it means to be intimate with another person. Intimacy is such an interesting thing and something that humans being crave. Intimacy and the desire for intimacy is very natural. Yet, it seems that in one form or another external institutions (the Church, culture, media, etc.) love to dictate to us what this intimacy should look like. The problem becomes that in the pendulum swing from the Church to media sexual penetration is the primary focus. But what Nicole demonstrates throughout this dialogue is that intimacy is what *we* make of it. Nicole, an intimacy director/choreographer, deals with intimacy on the stage in dance and performance. There are ways, according to Nicole, to perform intimately that isn’t just playing to the normal trappings of “sex-sells.” In other words, you can express intimate moments on the stage in ways that do not employ actual kissing and actual acts of sex. Part of the power of a well-performed intimate scene on the stage is built around the idea of alterity: “…your body is your body, [your] boundaries are your boundaries…” This ability to say no and to be present in the no means that you can then be present in the yes, as Nicole says, “Yes only means yes if you can say no.” Now, this isn’t just about acting, and Nicole makes that really clear. One of the highlights of this discussion is that obtaining substance of self on the stage with and among others translates into real life presence. This means we can now talk about consent if there is an ability to say no and be present, we can now talk about intimacy in boundaries (this relationship exists here and has *this* intimacy) without having to devolve into penetration as the only means by which to express this intimacy. In fact, we could argue that the church and media destroy the concept of intimacy and thus sex by making sex the ultimate and glorified cow of intimacy. In this way, the person is never allowed to cultivate confidence in her intimate-talk and intimate-actions and thus falls into the trap that a sort of desire, like, love, and attachment must become sexual. It was such a pleasure to speak with Nicole and hear how much her life on the stage causes her to be a substantial person in real life. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here 

Nicole Perry is an intimacy director/choreographer, as well as director and choreographer in South Florida. Recent credits include Imagine: a Journey in Dance at the Kravis Center, choreography and intimacy direction for the US premiere of The Glass Piano at Theatre Lab, and intimacy choreography for In the Heights with Measure for Measure Theatre, where she is the resident intimacy choreographer. Nicole is a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst through Integrated Movement Studies. She is a member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and an apprentice at Intimacy Directors International. Nicole founded Momentum Stage, a non-profit providing resources for performing artists.

Further Resources:

http://nicoleperry.org/

Dr. Robyn and Activist Theology: https://activistheology.com/ The quotes were taken from Robyn’s reflection in a class given by their partner, Erin C. Law, who is one of my Laban teachers. If they are still holding classes when we get closer to broadcast, I can send you a link. I know Robyn is on Twitter as @irobyn . Erin is on Instagram as @erin_c_law .

Further reading: ugh, so much. But, Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski was a game changer. How Emotions are Made by Lisa  Feldman Barrett is also really great to thinking about emotions in context. I’m sure I will do much more reading between now and then and can send updates!

Audre Lorde “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”

Momentum Stage: https://www.momentumstage.org and some courses:

Ethics of Touch for Teachers of Movement: https://www.momentumstage.org/arts-education/touch-course

Consent for Performers: https://www.momentumstage.org/arts-education/9xv8spp402plnz9m9bpsqwpk784jnw

Also, The Consent Awareness Network, working to legally codify what is ‘consent’.

Sojourner Truth, Embodiedness, and the Erotic

Sancta Colloquia Episode 301 ft. The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch*

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, my first ever guest, Kate Hanch (@katehanch), allowed me to talk with her (again) to celebrate the 3rd season of Sancta Colloquia. What a crazy and wild ride it’s been since we first talked. So much has gone on, so many conversations had, so much has changed due to growth. This time Kate discussed Sojourner Truth and her influences and deification of the erotic, specifically intersectionality and black feminism. Kate explains who Sojourner Truth was and her vital impact in preaching and embodiedness. Kate shares about Truth’s own embodiedness when she walks away from her slave master with her son; she doesn’t run, Kate stresses, she walks. And there is everything embodied and present in walking, specifically walking away. Kate emphasizes that there is humility in the lives of women that is not humiliation or shame but more about vulnerability and openness to God and to others. In this way, bodies can become as God (deification).  We have bodies and we experience the world and God in our bodies; we experience others through our bodies. Kate explains that sanctification, through the lens of Sojourner Truth’s life and preaching, is an ongoing process and a coming together with the erotic. Kate pushes the erotic energy of connection of this mystical union toward God and toward others. In a world that is (too?) obsessed with the erotic only as sexual gratification of taking from an other, Kate, with Truth, allows for a broader and more robust definition which see the erotic as self-embodiment and not just sexual gratification. Self-embodiment goes hand in hand with self-awareness (being in your body and aware of it, the intentionality of being) and this self-awareness is, for Kate, part of the erotic. As the conversation moves, Kate exhorts the listener toward waking to the image of God within. That this awakeness is about being powered (from the self) and not empowered, which implies that the power is coming from without–your power is coming from within. And you are not merely given a body (embodiedness) but you are bodied: you are a flesh and blood creature experience the divine sensations of the body and this fuels your substantial presence in the world (living into ourselves and enjoying ourselves with our bodies–minds connected to a body–erotic connecting to coming closer to God in sanctification). Sojourner Truth reminds us that we live and love (agape, philos, eros) in our bodies, we receive and take into our bodies, we give from our bodies…we self-give with humility and interdependence.

 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

 

Kate recently defended her PhD dissertation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. It is entitled “Prophetic Humility: A Feminist Theological Account.” She reads medieval women and 19th century black women preachers as theologians, tracing a humility that is not humiliating from their work. Kate grew up Baptist in Missouri. She attended Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City where she received her MDiv. She was ordained at Holmeswood Baptist Church, a Cooperative Baptist Church in Kansas City, where she served on staff before starting her doctoral education. While working on her dissertation, she has taught at the graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education levels through multiple institutions. Her scholarly work is published in the Liturgy JournalThe Review and Expositor, and Perspectives in Religious Studies. She has a chapter entitled “Light from Pre-Reformation Women’s Theological Contributions” in the book entitled Sources of Light: Resources for Baptist Churches Practicing Theology that was released in 2020. She also has two other chapters under contract in edited volumes about women and theology.

Kate currently serves as an associate pastor at a Methodist church in St. Charles, Missouri. She lives in the exurbs of Missouri with her husband Steve. She likes laughing, hiking, and singing along with Weird Al Yankovic. Follow her on twitter at @katehanch or Instagram at @kate_hanch.

Recommended Reading:

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Joy Bostic,  African American Female Mysticism: Nineteenth century religious activism
Margaret Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America
Jeroen Dewulf, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves
Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition
Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Compiled by Olive Gilbert and Frances W. Titus, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her “Book of Life.” Also a Memorial Chapter, Giving the Particulars of Her Last Illness and Death. Battle Creek, Mich., 1884
Nikki Young, “Uses of the Erotic” for Teaching Queer Studies,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, no. 3-4
Keri Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US: Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Don’t Move so Fast

Matthew 3:13-17 (Homily)

Christmas is over and now we are thrust into the day to day of regular life. Entering the second week of school, it can feel as if we never had Christmas break. Everything picks up where it seems to have left off. Even for me. Even though I’ve an entirely new grade of students sitting at my desks, it’s as if they were always there. Humans are quite remarkable that way: resilient. New becomes normal quickly.

But yet, the events of Christmas did happen. The baby was born. As someone who has had a baby (or a few), I know for a fact that life does *not* just go back to normal within in a day or two. It changes. Forever. And in light of Christmas, the life of the world changes. And yet we seem to skip right over it like we’re in some cosmic competitive game of religious hopscotch.

Our liturgical calendar doesn’t help us either. Liturgically, we moved from the epiphany—the affirmation of Jesus as God incarnate, the long-awaited Christ—to the baptism of Jesus–the affirmation of the affirmation, if you will. So, it would seem we’ve all just moved on from Christmas and are thrust headlong into the descent to Good Friday.

But there’s still Christmas work to be done. This is exactly what happens as Jesus is baptized. As Jesus is baptized and he is affirmed in his divine sonship and belovedness, he leaves the Jordan and will proceed with his ministry. For Jesus, there is Christmas work to be done—it isn’t strictly about getting to the cross as fast as possible. That event will happen and in its own time. But first, there’s healing, feeding, finding, and releasing that needs to be done. African American pastor, author, civil-rights activist, and theologian, Howard Thurman,[1] writes,

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.[2]

However, I want to highlight something that isn’t in the text: I want to add a pause for a moment before we all head out of the Jordan and out of Christmas. Before we do anything, we have to find our footing in Christmas. Before we can even begin to appreciate and understand Easter, we have to locate ourselves in the event of faith in the encounter with God in the season of Christmas. To become substantial actors and doers of the work of Christmas, we must find ourselves encountered by God in Christ born a baby in a manager; we must be encountered in a way that undoes the very fabric of our preconceived notions of the world and of ourselves. Because it is in this encounter where we are brought to the end of the selves we think we are in a world we think we know and ushered into the selves we are but didn’t know in a world we hadn’t seen but see clearly now. We must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We are of no earthly good unless we come to terms with who and what we are; we can’t pull someone else up if we don’t have our own good footing in our known strength and ability.

And in order to do this, we need a moment. We need a pause. And there’s no better week than this week—a week dedicated to your wellness. Take these next few days to just be, to just exist; to feel the sensations of the miracle of breathing, the exhilaration of physical existence, and the weight of emotional life. Take time to look and see, listen and hear, touch and feel; take time to notice the beauty of your friends and of your own wonderful and absolutely amazing creation.

Slow everything down. Live. Take that deep and much needed inhale and release a slow exhale. Be present. Receive and give. Rest. Press into being. Lean. Be aware of your mind and body. Be embodied. And remember you are loved. Beloved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman?scrlybrkr

[2] https://www.bread.org/sites/default/files/downloads/howard-thurman.pdf. This poem, as well as the idea for this homily, came to my attention by mention from a colleague I was listening to recently.

Revelation upon Revelation

A Birthday Reflection

I know this is a week late, but, nonetheless, it appears. My Birthday revelation. 

There is no real coherence to this post; the only common ground is that over the past year I’ve learned a lot as I am wont to do. But, last year was hard. Very. Hard. I had revelation upon revelation about people: they aren’t always who they say they are. I know that this seems like quite the kindergarten thing to learn, but sometimes, even as “wise” adults…we must learn this lesson again. 

You see, there’s a longing I have: to fit in. I have never. I just don’t. I still don’t. And the irony is that I care but don’t care because I’m a 5 who idealizes belonging but then when I get it, I hate it. I guess here I say: lolz. I think sometimes I fear my own individuality. It’s quite fierce and not even I can wrestle it to submission. It’s an alligator, and I’m not one to wrestle alligators. I think this year I’ve learned through some very traumatic mediums: That I’m okay; that I’m enough. 

And I am enough. I know, a protestant priest preaching such drivel…but I believe this. I am content in me–trust me, this has been put to the test this past year…and even so: I am content. It took some great loss, some great trial, and some great self reflection: I am enough. I’m okay. Even if I have “original” sin, it doesn’t mean that I’m inherently “bad,” that all I do is crave wicked. I don’t. You don’t. It’s not a sin to be okay on your own, or to feel one inside of your own skin. That’s not “sin.” It’s not a sin to feel whole and entire in your flesh; it’s not a sin to like yourself. (By the way, there’s no real righteousness in consistently hating yourself or debasing yourself through your own self-criticism; you don’t get the gospel more than me because you think you’re shit. B-t-dubs, that narrative your listening to is not the gospel at work but your broken-ass script you use to keep yourself insulated from prospects of confession and new life.) You can like yourself, and you can like the idea of self-change without it becoming a self-righteous thing. Sin is better defined as that law you use to discern who is “in” and who is “out”; sin is better defined not as individuality but as a “bird” flipped to the rest of humanity–just me!. Sin is better defined as a hatred of self that devolves into a selfish self-non-awareness that steals from the rest of the community your very presence. To love yourself is not pride; to love yourself is an acknowledgement that the One who made you knew exactly what the One was doing. To think you are better than everyone else is bad; to love yourself is not to think that you are above everyone else but that you are worthy of the love that you have received and will receive and will give.  

But aside from that here are some of the things I’ve come to learn this past year:

  1. Everyone reveals themselves; you just have to wait. Doesn’t matter who they say they are, actions speak louder than words. I get tired of people lying to me and speaking crap to me and putting the table cloth of “encouragement” on top of it. Doesn’t matter. That shit stinks to high heaven. Substantiate your words or don’t; just, please, don’t waste them. Our world is so full of useless words, there should be a global call to all who care to use words that have meaning…meaning that incorporates their own being. I tell my students: substantiate your words with yourself. It’s why I like for them to use the first person singular pronoun…I think thisI feel that… If you put yourself behind your words you can’t hide from the attack that may come, and maybe you’ll think about what you say before you say it. What if we reclaimed words, used fewer, and let ourselves be in more of our words…   ….   …. what if?
  2. Speaking of words…Let others tell you who they are. This concept coincides with the first: everyone reveals themselves, and so we should let others tell us who they are rather than determining who they are especially when they protest that you have them wrong. One friendship that went very south was one where I could not speak for myself or convince the person that their perception of me was based on a few poorly developed ideas of me. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you have to yell and shout at deaf ears to be heard. That type of relationship is not a friendship of equals; that is a situation of some sort of domination. You know who you are–even at your worst–no one gets to tell you who you are…especially someone who has known you for only a few months. Experiencing this, I’ve become more adamant about holding back judgment about other people. Let them tell you who they are–even the hardest to get along with–everyone has a story. Think: Gabby Gabby from Toy Story 4. She seems so evil but she has a desire, a story that drives her: to be loved, to be some kid’s comfort. We could brush her off as evil; but she’s not. She has a story. But if we turn the movie off midway she remains evil…but if we let her tell her story…she resonates with us on a human level. I hope we all listen to others. (Also included here is anyone who needs to control you to make their world more calm…this is also a means to dominate and tell you who you are and determine who you should be.)
  3. People who love you aren’t stupid for loving you. I think we struggle with this sometimes…At least I know I do. I was bullied in middle-school. I was fat and ugly and there wasn’t one person there who wouldn’t let me forget it. Except for a small table of other “outsiders”. A table at the cafeteria where I found refuge but where I also found discontent. I found myself looking down on those who liked me because they weren’t the ones who were of status…what’s love if it can’t get you somewhere? What’s love if you do nothing but hate yourself? While I know now that I radically misconceived love, I find that I (we?) still struggle with those who love us. If we have that self-contempt that is so extolled in some theological circles, we will perpetually question those who love us…they’ll always be mistaken. But they’re not.  Now, bear with me: I’m a mom, I know unconditional love and I love…like LOVE my kids. I’d go to fist-a-cuffs over any one of them. There is unconditional love; I’ve felt it. But it’s hard to believe that anyone else would ever unconditionally love us that doesn’t *have to*. But there are people like that who also do not share the same or similar genetic code as you do. There are people who love you just because and do not have to. I won’t name mine because they should know who they are (if not, text me, I’ll send flowers or chocolates….) Don’t forsake these people who love you just because; don’t forsake them just because you don’t love yourself. Let these people tell you a different love-story with you. I guarantee that love-story is better than your hate-story. I cannot guarantee that that story will be a happy ending…but that right now that love is real…don’t let it go. 
  4. and last…Don’t hide your story. I’m famous for this. Well…this sounds hypocritical after an exhortation to be yourself, to let others tell you about themselves, to substantiate your words, and to receive love as is… I promise that I substantiate my words to the best of my ability, that I try to love those who love me and let them love me in return, and that I am myself. But there are somethings or (rathter) something that I still wrestle with: anger over years lost. I’m writing this portion because I think it’s important to my story and because I think I’m not alone. I’ve had years stolen from me; and I hate it. I want those 7 years back more than anything. 7 years of catastrophic self-destruction. I was so angry; I was so lost. I hated me and the world for nearly a decade. I wanted to self-destruct, to implode, to cease to exist.  I wanted to go supernova leaving only a destructive black hole in my wake. My anger coursed through my veins and around me. I was destruction. Everything I touched was dirt and not gold. I hated myself in a visceral way for nearly a decade. And then Christ. And then I encountered God in Christ by the Spirit in the event of faith and I was yanked out of my self-de-struction and oriented toward the world in others-con-struction. But there is still part of me that wants those 7 years back. Those 7 years of anger and self-destruction. I feel that I’ve lost those 7 years. But then recently I realized…those 7 years (and the ones preceding that time) are the reason I am who I am. I know…I know pain; I know turmoil; I know (deeply) existential crisis that brings you the brink; I know darkness; I know trouble; I know that surge of guilt and resentment that courses through your veins where you think you won’t survive before it moves from the warmth of you inner elbow to the pulse of your ankle. I know. And while I wrestle with my age in light of this loss, I realize…that I am who I am because of it. So I cannot resent it fully. I can’t hat it fully because I’d never change who I am, I’d never change my story, I’d never change the fact that I can sit in the deep, deep darkness and those “lost years” are part of my story. Not many of us can say that…but I can. I can sit with you…I promise. I’ve a decade of pain so deep that allows me to be with you not matter what. I’m here with you, in the darkness, no matter what; I mean that with all my person; and I have no problem showing you. Just ask….

So I say this to conclude: I’m 44 and unashamed after many years of feeling regret for having “lost” those years. I’m 44 and don’t want those 7 years back because they’ve deeply formed me. I’m 44 and a whole person, content with herself and who she is now. In my 20s, I never thought I’d make it this far; I’m proud that I have. I’m here, I’m present, I’m active, and I’m not going away anytime soon. And I just don’t quit. #ThatsAPromise #ThatsAThreat

These are my birthday reflections. And to reflect on a question from last year: Am I happy with who and where I am? I have to echo last year’s response: Yes. I am very happy with who I am and where I am. 100%, yes.

Contemplating 2018

What I’m Carrying with Me into 2019

The following are musings…take them as that…

Over the past few years I’ve learned to take on the orientation of looking forward rather than backwards. I spent the better part of a decade contemplating the things that happened to me and the scars these things left on my body (mind and soul). I credit this to a theological disposition that prevented me from seeing self-actualization as a good thing. I am what I am, was my motto and there I stayed…for years. I kept my trauma and victim narrative in my tight grip and read from it daily; the lines being so known and second nature to me that there was barely any distinction between the narrative and regular speech. And the concept of “that was then” and “this is now” was anathema; the two were too blended for me. Then was now. What was will always be, is what I had intellectually established. I was trapped.

But God is relentless and pursued me through relationships (both good and bad), drawing me deeper and deeper into God’s self, forcing me to reckon that I was determining the future by clinging to the past and slamming the door shut on potential and possibility (all that is and makes up the unknown future). In other words, in my resistance to look anywhere else but behind and use only the words my trauma and pain gave me I was, full stop, objectifying God. Can I be better? Can I move on? Can I alter? Scary questions for one whose mind is made up concretely on the past as all determining. It was like staring into an abyss and stepping out into it. Letting go and letting God–though extremely cliche–is truest here. Giving myself over to the encounter with God in the event of faith demands that I be stripped of all things that I’ve clung to, stripped of my history and grafted into Christ’s, born again as I was born originally: naked and vulnerable.

This event-encounter is not a medium for me now to know God more fully; I’ll never claim to know God in totality or close to it. God self-discloses God’s self and there’s a contextuality to that self-disclosure: what I experience in the event-encounter with God will be different from what you experience; both marked by the language of death and rebirth, the experiences are still different. And not just personal to you and me, but from decade to decade and era to era. The consistency and constancy being that, from our human perspective, God is very much in the business undoing our preconceptions of God, bringing those who are comfortable into chaos, bringing those who are in chaos into comfort. Always the encounter in the event of faith undoes and redoes, but it never looks the same; like snowflakes, the encounters are all different.

What I can say is that this event-encounter with God brings me into a more substantial relationship with and to myself. To think that being rendered naked and vulnerable is the surest state to be in is paradoxical. But the paradoxes ring out over and over again: in death: alive; in weakness: strong; in losing oneself: found. But then somehow the paradox make sense because when I’m stripped down to just my flesh (naked and bare) I am more fully myself than when I am hiding behind my clothes, my past, my doctrines, my knowns, my relationships. Losing my determining of myself according to my pock-marked-by-trauma history, letting that form of self determining go leaves me with two open hands, beggar style, kneeling at the rail of the word of God to recreate me. No longer controlled by the myths of the world or the one’s I’ve created or the ones that others have given me, I’m free to be substantiated by the life giving and life sustaining word of God, the word of God who threw the stars into place, the word of God who became incarnate in Christ, the word of God that perpetually goes forth from age to age, uniting all the world unto God.

2018 seemed to drive this all home over and over again. Through the very good and the very bad, being thrust into God was the overarching theme. And the beauty of it was: becoming more me. There were times when I thought that certain negative relational events I was enduring were going to destroy me and crush me. Yet, I was neither destroyed nor crushed; far from it. I was made stronger and more solid. Being forced to let go of my trauma-victim narrative(s) allowed me to be a better theologian of the cross: having the ability to actually call a thing what it is and to take from it what I need to while discarding the rest. It allowed me to be finally present in the moment, in the feels, in the tears and cries, in the pain and to intentionally stand up and walk–not in order to run away or find a place to hide, refusing to accept things, but in order to face the shit head on without fear because I’m established totally and completely in God. Thus, I can’t help but say that I’m rather grateful for these negative relational events; I’ve learned and grown so much through them. I’m a better person, more solid, more substantial. I’m bringing this into 2019.

2018 taught me that there is a huge distinction between my trauma-vicitm narrative/script and regular speech. Throughout therapy, I’ll say something, and my therapist will stop me and say: “You know that’s the trauma-victim narrative again, right? Did you hear it?” And for a long time I’ve always responded with: but that’s how I think, that’s normal. But through the majority of this year my response has been different. “Yes, I hear it loud and clear.” Understanding this distinction is part of my strength and having a different script to pull from is vital. I’m bringing this into 2019.

And this leads me to thank those friends and family in my life through whom God encounters me last year and (hopefully) this year, 2019. I want to thank you, the people who repeatedly call me higher and remind me to move forward. And the people who challenge me to push my limits. The people who call me out and correct me *because* they love me, and the people who are patient with my many questions and much pushing back to understand things more fully. Thank you to the people who cheer me on in my successes and comfort me in my failures; and the people who just seem to like me (you all baffle me, frankly :D). Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I express love in loyalty and you have it.

And those are my personal musings about 2018.

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.