It was about as likely as my being an astronaut or a ballerina, and a lot less sexy. As I sat on the floor of my seminary apartment and waded through the tome for my theology class, I thought, “I want to do this when I grow up.”
What was “this” exactly? Pen a thirteen-volume, ninety three hundred-page work that offered beautiful and intelligent answers or a systematic theology to the very real questions of Christianity, just as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth had done.
The desire to make this my life’s work might have been there, but the skill and the temperament were not.
Raised in a Socratic Theater that starred my father and me in opposing corners, I learned early on how to question and tear apart rather than painstakingly build something new and beautiful. When I was young, my dad used to drill me at the dinner table. He would sit in his chair as if it were a throne and give me an ethical dilemma—abortion, euthanasia. Then the two of us would argue about it. Argue implies anger. This was, as Faulkner repeats in his story “Barn Burning,” without heat. It was cold. Rational. My dad would say something, I would respond, he would easily dismantle my argument, which would show me how wrong I was, which felt like how stupid I was, which left me as silent as a stone in a blizzard.
If I had friends over, when we made it to the sanctuary of my room, they would ask, “Does your father always talk to you like that?”
I could never defeat my father in those arguments that left an indelible mark on my personality. I got very good at seeking, questioning, leaving in tatters, and growing silent before walking away.
The sign above the door reads Paranormal Activity 4. Do the parishioners worshipping in this movie theater get the irony? Or worry about the residue the films leave behind? What do swear words and bare breasts do to a “sanctuary”?
I am here because of a sandwich-board—who would have church in a movie theater?
I am here because I don’t have any answers.
Am I here because I don’t want anyone else to have any answers either?
Here I am is something different altogether. It’s what I said to God in a church in Prague when God’s fishhook pierced and pulled me into the light. Here I am, Lord is biblical. It’s why I went to seminary years ago, and it’s a hymn that still makes me weep whenever we sing it in church.
I sit in one of the stadium-style seats just as the service is starting and watch as a boyish-looking man in jeans and a red shirt bounds to the front of the theater. “Welcome, welcome. Let’s stand and pray. Father, we just want to thank you for the opportunity to come here and worship this morning. Father, we continue to encounter your presence here and in our lives and we thank you in Jesus’s name.”
The prayer continues—most sentences either beginning with “father” or ending with “in Jesus’s name.” I gave up referring to God in the masculine years ago, in seminary actually, because of the sometimes troubled relationship with my father, because the men in seminary told me that the Bible said women were supposed to stay silent in church. They also called me “honey.”
Using father to refer to God gets the wasps buzzing in my middle, but at the same time, I have to admit that the refrain of “father” and “in Jesus’s name” creates a rolling rhythm that one could get lost in.
After the prayer finishes, lyrics appear on the huge screen. Whenever we sing the words Jesus or love, many lift their palms to heaven, punch the air with their fists, or wave slowly as if it is a hot day and God is leaving.
I used to do the same at the outdoor Christian concerts I went to with my high school boyfriend. As the songs of praise pulsed beneath the blue skies, I would lift both hands and let the Spirit wash over me. When I got older, I made sure I only thought about God. Anything else felt messy and dangerous. Looking around the movie theater, I miss the joy of being overcome.
Let’s be honest. I also judge everyone whose hand is up.
Applause breaks out when the music finishes and the pastor stands again. He says that while he will pray for all of our needs, this morning he wants to bring a special prayer to God. He invites a man to the front. I remember seeing him earlier by the bagel and coffee bar in the lobby.
“Bob got some news this week,” the pastor says. “He has bladder cancer. It’s an aggressive cancer, and we just want to pray over Bob today. I invite you to extend your hands toward Bob. Father God, we know you can heal Bob we just ask that you heal him from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet in Jesus’s name. You have the power to do this and we need you to keep the evil one away.”
Amens ripple around me.
I readily acknowledge evil (how can one not?), but I have a difficult time believing that there is an actual malevolent presence, or evil one, lurking on the edge of our lives, waiting to pounce. Maybe that makes me easy prey.
Not that I can come up with my own definition of evil. Evil is not the darkness, because seeds need the dark soil to grow just as I need the cool darkness of a forest path to center myself. Evil is not where God is not, because if God is God, then God is in everything. If God is in everything, then God is in the evil heart. But how is God in the evil heart? Evil is like pornography. I know it when I see it.
That’s a cop-out. Jesus—fine—evil is that which ravages creation and the soul.
“And father God, Bob knows that he has to quit smoking so we pray that you will make him hate cigarettes we pray that anytime he thinks about having one that he will be filled with disgust we ask this in Jesus’s name. Father God, let him be healed. Amen.”
I let my arm drop to my side.
The conversations I’d had with my father at the dinner table had trained me to do exactly what my seminary professors wanted us to do—question, deconstruct, dig until I had unearthed deeper meanings and more questions. While many of my classmates floundered (they told me they weren’t used to questioning their faith), I was thrilled each time we were assigned a paper or a test. It was another chance to prove we couldn’t know anything. I blossomed—I could finally win these arguments, and I had the As to prove it.
Theology was my favorite. I’d heard the stories about God and Jesus all my life. I’d even felt God, but only with the intensity and brevity of a lightning strike at a church camp when I was eleven. God was there.
But then I went back to real life and God wasn’t there. Au contraire, theology said. It offered me pages and pages of proof that God was constant and reliable, present and active. This was not the simple God of a little girl’s heart, but the awesome God that made the Nothing recede in order to create flesh and moon.
The first few weeks of seminary, I reveled in this God’s complexity, or maybe I reveled in the fact that I could understand how complex was this God’s complexity. At the time, the distinction didn’t matter.
Before long, seminary turned into the storm that hit the disciples when they were out fishing one night. Wind and wave (or homework and more homework) crashed over me and my classmates.
For instance, we were required to learn Hebrew so we could read the Old Testament in its original language. But this wasn’t like learning Spanish or French, where many words sounded like their English equivalents. The only way I could learn the Hebrew vocabulary was to use mnemonic devices for almost every. Single. Word. Tzadique was righteous, and I remembered it by thinking it sounded like the name of a righteous Klingon from Star Trek. Derechk was way, and that was easy to remember, because we passed oil derricks on our way from Minnesota to Texas. It was exhausting and time-consuming, and yet learning Hebrew was like stepping through a gate—it invited me into that which was open and free. With no vowels (or vowels that had only been guessed at and added later) it had uncertainty embedded in its very DNA. As I practiced the words that sounded like no other words my tongue had ever made, my mouth felt rich, wise, and earthy. The poetry of it—for instance when it said that God was angry, what it really said was that God’s nostrils flared—invited me to imagine, to join the act of creation.
“Are you tired of political ads yet?” the pastor asks at the start of his sermon. The presidential election is three months away. Everyone laughs and nods.
“I’m concerned because morality is on the line. Morality is being legislated. It doesn’t matter who is voted in. It’s not a man or a woman, but God who is going to turn it around.”
“Of course we want the most God-fearing person voted in,” the pastor adds, “and that’s why we needed to start getting fired up about prayer. And do you know who really needs our prayers? College students who walk with Christ, because universities are dark places. Professors inundate these kids with lectures about evolution. In this challenging environment, we need to pray, ‘God, sustain them.’”
I teach at a university.
The pastor also tells us that we have gotten tolerant of sin—“The sinner we love. But sin has to disturb us.” He explains that’s why the word “family” is in the name of this church, because a family has certain rights, and one of those is loving confrontation. “Because I love you, I need to confront you. God uses that to grow us.”
Later that afternoon, I walk my dogs in the field behind our house. My palms brush a weed that looks like wheat. I “shuck” it with my thumb and forefinger and sow the seeds in this little kingdom.
My Border Collie bounds through the tall grass ahead of me. She is free in this field, but if I chose to call her right now, she would have to obey. I have power over what she can and cannot do.
Which is what the pastor was talking about when he brought up sin. It makes sense that he framed his discussion of sin within the context of a family. As parents, my husband and I encourage our children to behave in ways that will make them healthy and happy. We also direct them away from behavior that could lead to destruction (fast or slow) and death. Why shouldn’t a church, a family of God, have the right to do the same to me?
Because religion often says whatever it is we want said, or as Anne Lamott puts it, God just happens to hate the same people we do. How, then, can there be any objective definition of sin?
Since I teach at a university—a “dark place”—would the Holy Spirit compel the pastor to pull me aside and engage me in a loving confrontation? Possibly. There are times when my students look gobsmacked because of how complicated things can get. For instance, I’ll point out that freedom is a beautiful value. However, after September 11th, security was something else that many of us valued. Both values are good and yet often in direct conflict with one another, so, I’ll ask my students, how do we live, how do we communicate, how do we make decisions or laws if you and I hold different but noble values?
What about the man who had bladder cancer? Smoking tobacco is one of the most important known risk factors for bladder cancer, so should he have been confronted about his habit before it was too late?
Who gets to name sin? Who has the right to scold?
I accidentally step on the leash that tethers my smallest dog to me. When his little body jerks to an unexpected stop, he yips. “Sorry,” I say, bending down to pet his gray head. I wish he listened better so he could be trusted to run free through these fields—but even if he did listen, what waits at the edge of sky, ready to pluck him up and away?
We walk on, and I look at the leash in my hand. My spirit used to run free. The older I get, however, the more I tether my self. It doesn’t always obey. As I sat in that theater, I wanted to join in, to believe like they did, to be so overcome with the Spirit of God once again that I could lift my hands in rapturous praise. I wanted a God I could understand, a God who was proactive and involved in the world.
That’s why I lifted my hand when we prayed for the man with cancer. In that act, I was acknowledging that maybe the pastor was right: maybe bigger forces—good and bad—hover at the edges of our lives, waiting to be invited in. Perhaps as we prayed, goodness and light flew through the crown of that man’s head and spread throughout his entire body. After all, the sign above the door to that theater told us we were entering a space where we could expect paranormal activity. It could be that simple.
It’s not that simple.
When I read the assignments in my theology class back in seminary, the questions that had seemed delicious started to pile on and suffocate. We spent most of the class immersing ourselves in Barth’s theology. He talked about the very beginning of the relationship between creature and creator—where and how it all began—and also what God was continuing to do. Barth believed that “no creature could be if it did not please God continually to confirm and guarantee and thus to maintain it.”
The more I read Barth, the angrier I got. When I read, “And no creature could be if it did not please God,” God no longer felt good, loving, or kind. God felt culpable. It pleased God to allow Hitler to live?
This was more than an existential game I couldn’t stop my mind from playing. I was going to seminary to be a pastor. People would turn to me for answers when all I had were questions. If a child in my congregation were to die, how could I comfort the grieving parents when my first reaction would be to lay the child at God’s feet and ask, “It did not please you to let this child live?”
The more I learned about God, the more I felt lost in a darkness and surrounded by teeth ready to tear apart all that was whole.
I was wrong. God didn’t get rid of the Nothing when light first shone. God only hid it underneath a cold corner of the sky. The Nothing could find me, reach inside and make all that ached hurt even more.
The field my dogs and I walk in is for sale. I cried when I first saw the sign, because this field is my wide-open sanctuary. It houses my living altars of wood. Machines could invade next month and leave behind cookie cutter cul-de-sacs and beige carcasses with cavernous insides.
If I pray hard enough, will God stop the world’s pain? Save the man at the church? Protect this field? Since it means so much to me, is it a sin that the owners are selling it? Is it a sin for me to pray no one will buy it?
In the face of all of this (and more), an easy and joyful faith seems impossible. The despair—whose residue I am all too familiar with—makes every thought and interaction sticky and exhausting. Residue is gross. It’s what gets left behind when the bathtub drain clogs. It’s also annoying. Like the residue from a label on a jar. You can work and work to get it off, and yet it remains. Steadfast. Holding tight to the breakable, the fragile. Holding tight to that which amplifies the light when you hold it up to a window.
My father is dead. Our relationship could be difficult, but I miss him—the way he sat in a chair as if it were a throne, ate butter straight out of a dish, and sometimes called me Bessie, something no one else has ever done. God, I want my dad to walk into my house and sit down at the kitchen table. I would offer him fresh baked bread and a huge knob of butter and I would . . . I would what?
Tell him that I had finally figured out where it was that I had lost track of God—it wasn’t in seminary. It was during our dinner table debates. It would sound like an accusation, even if I didn’t mean for it to sound that way, but I probably did.
Maybe my father would explain that he wasn’t out to defeat me in those conversations, even though that’s what it felt like at the time. It could be that those talks were his way of trying to understand life and all that he had witnessed as a doctor. Maybe he would say he wanted to believe like I said I did back then (like I wish I did now). As he dipped his slathered sourdough in his coffee, maybe Dad would say, “Do you really want—do we really need—a God who is obvious, simple, and predictable? Isn’t it better to imagine a God who lives beyond our expectations, who refuses to reside in easy answers, who is wholly unmanageable?”
My first reaction would be to argue, because isn’t that what we always did? But I hope I would stop and notice how he held his coffee cup. If I could do that, I would see this was as important to him as it is to me.
Karl Barth lived from 1886 to 1968, which means he was constructing his systematic theology during the grim reality of the 20th century. He had to write answers for God before, during, and after the Holocaust. He had to embrace the complications of life and the realities of evil, conjuring hope out of literal ashes. Listen to the good news—God and creation are in a relationship, he said over and over for nine thousand pages. God continues to act.
I hear a sound above me. When I look up, I see a flock of trumpeter swans flying over. Their long white necks point south like arrows, and they play the briefest and quietest trumpet fanfare I have ever heard.
I lift a hand and wave.
Cover photo by Hanny Naibaho.