It is on Memorial Day that we so often witness a cultural nod to the official day; the parades, flag waving and speeches. But in reality, for a public in which a very slender percentage actually know anything about war and its human costs, it is a day off, a barbeque, a long weekend. When you talk to combat veterans who actually witnessed and participated in the horrors war they are much more circumspect about such observances. Please don’t find one and quip, “Thanks for your service.” For many that is an uninformed comment that demonstrates a total lack of understanding.

Soldier MarlantesAfter Karl Marlantes graduated from Yale in 1968 and before going to on to graduate work at Oxford, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. As a result of his action as a lieutenant he became highly decorated. After return to civilian life Marlantes not only pursued a distinguished career. He also continued to exorcise the demons of his wartime experience. In hisĀ  2011 memoir, What it is Like to go to War, he describes, as much as anyone can, theindex real experience of the warrior and war. Like many who have served in similar ways, including those who have recently returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marlantes attempts to give voice to the alienation, sense of betrayal, and guilt which accompanied him. Writing this memoir was one of the many ways ways he sought to heal the inner wounds of war. And the following excerpt is taken from his memoir:

Karl Marlantes“Returning veterans don’t need ticker-tape parades or yellow ribbons stretching clear across Texas. Cheering is inappropriate and immature. Combat veterans, more than anyone else, know how much pain and evil have been wrought. To cheer them for what they’ve just done would be like cheering the surgeon when he amputates a leg to save someone’s life. It’s childish, and it’s demeaning to those who have fallen on both sides. A quiet grateful handshake is what you give the surgeon, while you mourn the lost leg.There should be parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of the sword sheathed once again. They should be conducted with all the dignity of a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for those returned. ..

Veterans just need to be received back into their community, reintegrated with those they love, and thanked by the people who sent them…

There is also a deeper side to coming home. The returning warrior needs to heal more than his mind and body. He needs to heal his soul.”

The Shunned Bride

Posted: May 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

It was a lovely wedding – an outdoor-on-the-farm kind of affair replete with pasture and small gazebo for the small wedding party. Best of all it was for my nephew and his betrothed. He had asked his uncle to perform the ceremony and I was delighted. As they made their vows I remembered his childhood, the great successes he enjoyed as well as some of the challenges he confided to his uncle along the way. The wheel turned and I was filled with joy.

The only sadness had to do with the bride’s family, or should I say the lack of them. None of her family, save one sister, showed up for her wedding day. The rest of us assumed the roles normally occupied by fathers and mothers. Why?

Her family belonged to a religious movement that was more cult-like than anything else. The way they enforced uniformity of the flock was to “shun” them if they stepped out of line. In her case she stepped over more than a line; she stepped out of that religious group once she separated from her unhappy marriage. At that her family shunned her. Her parents would not even attend their own daughter’s wedding. The rest of us, her new family, tried to compensate.

After the ceremony, as we stood drinking lemonade under the willows, a stranger meandered up to me carrying a question. It took her a while to put it into words. I suppose she felt awkward asking the minister such a thing. The gist of it was this: “Did her family refuse to attend the wedding? Because she stepped out of line, left an unhappy marriage, and found joy in a new one? Well, I am a spiritual person, I think, but not really religious as it goes. I don’t affiliate with any group. So I guess my question is what does that behavior, shunning your own daughter on account of some church doctrine, have to do with God? I mean, doesn’t faith and belief have something to do with loving God and each other? And what does that have to do with Jesus anyway? I thought I’d just ask somebody who should know these things.”

I told her that she had asked exactly the right question. Indeed, what does this have to do with God or the God of love? But I also suggested that it had nothing to do with Jesus, one whose entire ministry was about welcoming all manner of social outcasts to his kingdom meals. I could never imagine Jesus condoning or even imagining that shunning a daughter for non-conformity would have the slightest thing to do with God.

I think lots of people who understand themselves to be “spiritual but not religious” have many of the same questions about the practices of the church in its many forms. So much of what we preoccupy ourselves with, the kinds of issues that seem so important, have so very little to do with God. And most of these people will have exactly the same kind of disgust that the woman under the willows had with a family who shunned their daughter for so-called religious reasons. And they are right.

As long as religious communities define themselves by hate and not love they will continue the long slow slog not only into irrelevancy but also into something repulsive, the kind of thing from which moderns will flee. Pick your issue. With each renewed effort to reject some person or group on the basis of our own self-righteousness, we will secure our shrinking territory as the loneliest place in town.

They no longer have any time for this foolishness. We shouldn’t either.

This is the place we go
to settle for the easy way
the course of least resistance
where we cannot fail,
little is expected,
and when we repeat the same routine
one more time
because it is so safe
the old familiar suffocation begins to return
and the smell of dry rot
is so strong
that we can hardly stand the stench
of what has already begun to decay
in the middle
of the lowest common denominator

EFT for Christians BookcoverHats off to fellow EFT practitioner Sherrie Smith for her new book, EFT for Christians (Energy Psychology Press, 2015). A a person immersed in both medicine and faith she has done an admirable job of integrating science and religion when it comes to EFT. She spends lots of time on the science and physiology of EFT. And she does this from a faith standpoint, as one who has a foot in both worlds.

I recommend her work to anyone who wants to explore the effectiveness of EFT and integrate it into mainstream Christian thought and practice with integrity.

I just had lunch with three veterans – two from Vietnam era service and one from two deployments in Iraq – and their stories were oh so familiar: They all know veteran friends who have taken their own lives after returning to civilian life. This epidemic rolls on without much awareness on the part of the general public. The fact that known suicides keep coming at an average of 23 each day is shocking. We have lost more combat vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to suicide than on the battlefield.

The issue includes what has come to be defined as PTSD, but it is much more than that. It also includes moral injury, the violation of one’s internal moral code. It also has something to do with the radical disconnect between the soldiers we send into battle and mainstream culture. They represent a very slender proportion of the population, these vets do. Their service – often far away and remote in public consciousness – is a very abstract thing. And we – all those who by extension sent them to where they were wounded in body and soul and took the lives of others – have done little to welcome them all the way home. We have not provided a place of cleansing, purification, acceptance, adjustment and belonging.

This issue is so very important on many different levels. And it doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum or how you happen to assess whether any particular war is just. As long as we send men and women to war we are responsible for their eventual healing. Efforts are now afoot in Columbia, Missouri to do just that. We are organizing networks of vets, their families and those who work with them to find a better solution.

Our plans include hosting seminars to present the primary issues at stake such as moral injury, establishing healing circles in which wounded warriors may find healing on the other side of their deployment, and retreats for veterans to address their inner wounds and seek the transformation that may come through community and spirit.

This is no small thing. It will require efforts from the faith community and others to address it. In the end this crisis itself may make us more circumspect about the ways in which we send young men and women into harm’s way. And those who have been there and know what it really means will raise the most serious and relevant questions.

Dinner Church

Posted: April 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

This week I attended the Spring Convocation of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. In addition to the exceptional preaching of Jeremiah Wright (just doesn’t get better!) we had presentations that centered in one way or another on Food and Faith.

In one of the sessions Christopher Grundy, professor of Liturgics and Homiletics and Dean of the Chapel, shared the fruit of his sabbatical labor. During past months he has been exploring the role of food and meals with the earliest Christian communities, those referenced in the New Testament but also those in the first few centuries. Liturgical scholars often refer to the Christian meal experience that evolved into what we now call communion or the eucharist as “proto-communion,” that which led to what became communion.

Hallmarks of the earliest strand of the tradition included: communal worship gatherings around a complete, however simple meal; food brought by congregants; a symbolic/liturgical moment during the meal that included a recitation of the words of institution in the last supper, prayers and songs; and gathering up the leftovers to take to those who could not attend and the poor.

This last feature – going out with the bread/wine/food – is an interesting hybrid of what we now might call home communion and meals on wheels!

The closest analogy to our present day experience would be the pot-luck church supper. Everyone gathers, brings parts of the meal, and shares it together. The difference would be that the pot-luck would be the worship – just by adding features of worship to it, i.e., song, prayer,scripture, testimony, Jesus’ words about the bread and wine.

During Grundy’s sabbatical research he visited numerous communities of faith centered around just that, a meal. One of the most interesting ones was St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, New York. With its simple beginning of twelve people meeting in a home, it has grown to two twenty-five person meal sections that meet in rented space. That meal format and sacramental sharing is their worship and community life rolled into one.

Other communities make a special point of gathering outside to eat in a city center, distributing food to the hungry while eating and worshiping together. At least one dinner church encourages its members to always invite those outside the community to dinner so that strangers might become friends.

It like it. The model, of course, is limited by the size of the community, but that’s okay. You’re not going to use a dinner church model when you have one thousand congregants that gather at the same time in one space (or are you?). That’s one reason the early Christian house church model of the first few centuries changed when Christianity became the religion of the realm under Constantine. They became a church of empire that met in large public spaces. What was an original real meal became a symbolic one.

This reminds me very much of the slow church movement and the way it insists we slow ourselves down in the community to plunge into it more deeply. One of the most counter-cultural and spirit-filled things we can do today is flee from “McChurch.” And Dinner Church, like Slow Church and maybe even the early table fellowship Jesus shared with disciples and diverse people from the community, may provide one of the answers.

As we explored the resurrection appearance texts taken from the Gospel of John this Easter morning I noted how John’s stories reveal 1st century competing narratives, leaders and traditions – all vying for preeminence. What tradition and which leaders should be viewed as authoritative? For John, a tension existed between Peter of the Jerusalem community, the “beloved disciple” of the Damascus community, and the Mary Magdalene community. He didn’t even touch on Paul’s missionary churches and his Gospel re-fitted for the Gentiles. All of these movements – and many more – existed simultaneously in an incredibly diverse tapestry of Jesus followers.

Following this earliest generation, the diversity continued. There never existed anything like a homogeneous church. There were always movements of Jesus people. This continued until empire eventually established uniformity in creed, Bible and leaders and defined what was and was not orthodox. Then non-dominant groups came to be labeled as heretical and persecuted with abandon.

That simple knowledge of the first generation of Jesus people corrects a false impression that we in the 21st century are the only ones who have ever waded through incredible theological diversity, competing Christian claims and multiple movements. That is not true. It has been that way from the beginning. In our own time and place – in a context of religious freedom, mass communication, wide cultural immigration – the American ethos is incredibly religiously diverse. But not unique.

Of special interest to one of my friends in attendance was the influence of Mary Magdalene, her leadership and community that was systematically suppressed. She was part of the inner circle of Jesus, the first to witness the resurrection, and the one who would share the Gospel first-person authority:

“Mary Magdalene gives me extra enthusiasm and inspiration. Thank you for reminding me of her important role. It’s all very mind boggling but exciting and hopeful!”

Happy Easter. May you find in the empty tomb not emptiness at all. May you find the presence of something absent, a mystery haunting the world, the spirit of life that prowls the cosmos and the hearts of those who dare receive it.