Worshipping in the Paradox

Of note: last month, when it seemed that Twitter was about to go under, I started a Substack account. I think the place has potential, especially with new chat features, etc., but as yet, I’m not…um, finding a lot of readers there. So this and the next few posts will be re-shares from Substack, most of which were first re-frames of old Tweet threads. So it goes. Reflecting and refining is writing. Not everything I post there will come over here, so feel free to follow there, too.

In the afterword to Fundamentalism in American Culture (1980), historian George Marsden challenged readers to observe the way the church moves through the world (past and present) with both eyes open:

We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history…. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces for good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.1

He elaborated that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.

It seems to me that for most of us out here in the wide world trying to follow Jesus, the task of both theologian and historian are set before us each day. Every choice, every conversation, every worship service, every news article, every election, presents a challenge of evaluating our next right move in light of both Scripture and culture. Every moment is a little dance of deconstruction and reconstruction in real time.

Of course, we are not left to our own wits in this dance—the Lord is with us, directing our steps, teaching us to walk humbly in His path—but the paradox does hit us between the eyes with astonishing regularity.

As my friend Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt put it:

“There is a lie that says our delight must be unadulterated in order to be real, that we are only truly happy when we are only happy. But I am convinced that joy and grief are less like pigments that mix together and more like the warp and woof of a textile. They are threads that weave together into a profoundly human experience.”

In the dance of real-time church history, we can be filled with sorrow & anger at the shortcomings of God’s people and the wickedness the church perpetrates in God’s name, and yet long for its restoration from a deep place of love given by the Spirit.

Multiple things can be true at once.

  • The visible church can be a hive of consumerism, apathy, abuse, callousness, nationalism, and pride and yet still administer the means of grace each week to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for God’s sake.
  • The church as an institution can be entangled down to its bones with corruption, the cancer of pharisaism metastasizing through its leaders and members and yet bear within it a remnant of faithfulness, even in denominations or associations that reek of sin and self-righteousness.
  • A local congregation may take no public action and make no public statements on the brokenness and violence and sorrows in the world and yet be full of members who are, in Jesus’ name, weeping and praying and serving those who are ground up by a hard and cruel world.
  • A Christian can experience Sundays when it is hard (or even impossible) to muster the courage to go to church, and yet long to be in the fellowship of believers, to praise the Lord, to taste the bread and wine. 
  • A Christian can hate what the church becomes when it worships power and cultural norms rather than Christ, and yet love the church enough to cry out to God in lament that He would cleanse and reclaim and restore it as His own.

We long from our deepest guts for these contradictions to cease, and for the church to fully do justice and love mercy always in every place, but the place of contradiction is the place of work and of prayer.

And so we cry out at every gathering: 

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

And so, we who know the pain and the joy of the church at the same time pray fervently that God would:

Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, 
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

We are those who know all too well our own hearts. We know, as Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and so we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
A sinner. 

We can long for these things, pray these things, and yet be moved to righteous fury by those who try to hold the word of God and the people of God hostage to systems that devour the weak and prop up their power. Zeal for the Lord of Hosts does not make contradiction between fierce love, fierce lament, and fierce anger necessary. For our God is with us in our concern for His house, with greater zeal than we will ever muster.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:22-23). 

And yet the promise that God makes from His holy zeal is not the abandonment of his people, but our complete repentance and rebirth in the midst of recognition of our deep brokenness.

In the rest of Ezekiel 36, God promises:

  • To gather us in (v. 24)
  • To cleanse us from impurities and idols (v. 25)
  • To give us a new heart and a new spirit (v. 26)
  • To put *His* Spirit in us to enable us to do His will (v. 27).
  • That we will be His people and He will be our God (v. 28)
  • That he will save us from all our uncleanness and provide for our needs (v. 29). 
  • To bless us abundantly and remove our disgrace (v. 30)
  • To cause us remember our evil ways and grieve over them in repentance (v. 31).
  • To allow us to experience the shame of our wickedness for His sake. (v.32) 
  • To rebuild our ruins, to re-cultivate our desolate places, that life may again be found among us (vv. 33-36)
  • To hear our pleas so that all will know that He is the LORD (vv.37-38).

Again, all these things God does for His own sake. We pray with lament and anger and sorrow at our own failures knowing that God will not ultimately allow His name to be profaned by those who call themselves His people. We know that He delights in justice and mercy, and that He is still working out His glory in us.

At one level, this restoration is a gift freely given in spite of our wickedness, but never without rooting out and despising our wickedness. God will restore and judge. God sees the evil, and He knows our love and longing. He has woven it through His word, and given us cries of anguish to deliver back to Him in prayer.3

Cole Arthur Riley sums this up better than I can:

Those who refuse or neglect to tap into the sorrows of the world may find joy elusive. There is so much that is worthy of lament, of rage. Joy doesn’t preclude these emotional habits—it invites them. Joy situates every emotion within itself. It grounds them so one isn’t overindulged while the others lie starving…joy says, Hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.4

As we take our daily steps in that dance, may you be strengthened to hold on to the tension and see that joy and sorrow don’t have to fight each other to be true. May you pray like prayer matters, with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.

Notes

  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-60.
  2. Ibid., 260.
  3. “Whenever I dig into the Psalms I have this thought: how could I give up on Christianity? I have barely even tried Christianity.” — Andy Stager
  4. Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 165-65.

Image: Slot Canyon, Washington County, Utah. October 2016.

How to Think Like a Child of God

Originally posted here

Bless the rainy days
That interrupt the careful dance of plans
Pushing you into
Attention to other lives, other needs,
And back to your soul.

Bless the quiet drone
Of branches dripping on foggy windows,
That make you look out
On the familiar, damply rearranged
To absorb your stress.

Bless the gift of God
Poured out on the righteous and unrighteous
To soothe aching roots
And prepare the wintering world to rest,
Rebuilding its love.

Bless the sunny days
That catch your face in their hands and lift it
To see in clear light
Every texture and color and shadow,
Even of your heart.

Bless the blinding blue
Of a sky scrubbed clean enough to see through
Right up to heaven
And reflect incomprehensible depth
In each frost crystal.

Bless the gift of God
Shined down on the righteous and unrighteous
To warm and to fill,
Stirring the air to life for all creatures,
Under rays of peace.

Image: Delighted Child in Rain, Hamilton County, Tenn., September 2022.

Tweeting at the End of the World

An Elegy for Twitter, as It Goes the Way of All Flesh

I think about quitting social media sometimes, like many of you probably do. I was a late adopter (and still, to this day, have never had a Facebook account), but after jumping in, the tropes of wasted time and distraction resemble my habits a bit much for comfort. This idea, though, keeps me around: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” ~ Simone Weil.

Now, amid the slow-motion bulldozing of Twitter‚ the platform that finally drew me out and sucked me into this world, I’m realizing just what a gift that attention is. Many others have written persuasively on why they’re staying (for now), in the midst of the takeover and dismantling of much of what made it the quirky and crazy place it has been. I want to add a few notes to the chorus.

The People You Meet
Lots of hay gets made about how too much of our lives are lived in self-created echo chambers. Tired of hearing things that call our identitarian beliefs and habits into question, we sort into ever-splintering groups that close us off from encountering opposing views (and the humanity of those who hold them). Twitter has always had tools that facilitate that habit but just as many features that break it down. In short, it has been a place that helps me attend to those I might otherwise not encounter.

It has put me in touch with so many folks I can’t easily connect to in other ways, and spawned or deepened more than a few friendships that spill over into offline life. It introduced me to subcultures that focus less on pushing out opposing views and more on discussing the world as it is through a particular set of interests. History, Publishing, Poetry, Literature, Psychology, or Theology Twitter are some key spaces, but there’s also Theater, Ornithology, and Satire Twitter, and of course Weird Christian Twitter.

Each of these subgroups invests time and attention and, dare we say, love, into the discourse around their discipline. Sure, there are bad apples in each, and they are not ordinarily filled with sanctified conversation, but I’ve learned so much and been stretched by the people who have given me and countless others the generosity of attention when we want to know more about what they are most passionate and wise about.

This is not even to mention the lifeline Twitter has been for activists, resistance groups, abuse victims, and so many others to gain a hearing. Some have to clamor for attention denied. As Kyle J. Howard put it, “Marginalized folks…have built community [on Twitter]. It’s provided them a voice to cry out against abuse/abusers as well as challenge systems. Including people and systems now in power over it.” But, he adds, “If you aren’t invested and you have power…[goodbye],” lamenting the quickness with which many celebrities, politicians, and academics have bailed since the platform’s takeover.

Twitter as Window and Mirror
Perhaps the thing I’ve come to value Twitter for most is its ability to predict character.

Whatever else someone may say in books or articles or on a stage or from a pulpit, their behavior here is most telling. It’s not even necessarily the words (though sometimes those, too), but the ways they handle responses (whether they are trolls or “dunkers”), what they share offhandedly about their non-professional interests, etc., are all very revealing. These behaviors are often disqualifying, especially for people in positions of influence or leadership in churches or other (putatively) Christian spaces.

This flies in the face of much of the conventional advice on managing a social media presence. We’re regularly warned of the temptation to “stage-manage” our lives, cultivating the image we want others to see (and then letting that image govern our in-person interactions, too). This can be a real risk, but on Twitter it’s most often worked in reverse. It’s a place where we are tempted to vent our spleens, rhetorically pound adversaries, and trash-talk for the adulation of our friends. We feel these urges in other places, too, but because “Twitter is not real life”—an excuse more than a truism, even if the majority of people in the world and the majority of our neighbors and colleagues aren’t on the app—we feel free to act.

To be sure, many things that animate conversation on Twitter have little bearing on daily concerns at home, work, and church. Except that the people we allow to disciple us through books, pulpits, TV appearances, podcasts, etc. are there, and often behave in awful ways. I first started noticing this during the last presidential administration, where the people in my life most likely to downplay or be unaware of the former president’s most excessive outbursts were not on Twitter—where these flagrant displays were most visible (even unavoidable). I see it now in the furor over CRT, theological debates, Christian nationalism, church politics, pandemic responses, and more. The people who don’t participate on the platform only see the public, crafted messages of those driving controversy, and don’t take into account their motives, connections, and grand strategies which they often brag about to their followers.

In this way, Twitter has been an indispensable aid to my discernment, patience, and wisdom. It’s a little bit of a window into someone’s soul—not exhaustive, and not sufficient on its own to “know” a person, to be sure, but an indicator of what fills and moves them. Whenever someone recommends a book, a podcast, etc. to me, my instinct is to go visit the author or speaker’s Twitter profile. Usually it’s a fairly strong indicator of whether they are trustworthy, whether they are humble, whether they are curious, whether they are kind.

As one of the best (or at least most invigorating) Twitter users I know, David Dark, said: “Twitter is a level playing field. In this sense, Twitter can be gospel. Good news is relative to context. Twitter’s also a helpful form of public documentation. If your perceived power depends upon controlling people through private intimidation, Twitter is an existential crisis.” We become what we amplify.

Twitter as Catch-22 of the Writing Life
When I think about why I’ve sometimes felt like leaving Twitter long before its current troubles, it usually has to do with the rock-and-hard place bind it presents to writers. It’s both a time suck of repartee and a tool for gaining readers. It’s both a place to connect with other authors and a place to send some of your best work off into the ether of unread thoughts. Twitter has been for me a constant tension between “keeping the oven door closed” on the big ideas I’m working out and having a quick outlet for the smaller ones that opens space in my mind for the bigger ones to breathe.

It is also a place of quick, sometimes harsh, feedback on your words. When writing, it’s easy to get lost in the search for le mot juste, working hard to craft phrases tailored to resonate and be re-shared by an audience. But honing quotable messages, intentionally or not, often leaves thorny situations and hurting people out of the picture. Something may make all the sense in the world to you—send Tweet—but you’ll find out fast if it hasn’t been properly field-tested in the hard work of sanctification or showing mercy. I come back often to this reminder from Sharon Hodde Miller on testing the truthfulness of an idea: “1. Is it true for the poor? 2. Is it still true when my ‘enemy’ says it? If the answer is ‘no'”‘ to either one, then the statement is either false, or incomplete.”

This feedback has undeniably shaped my writing style, expanded my horizons of interest, decompartmentalized my thinking, and given me courage to keep adding to the big conversation in the cloud. I know Twitter has provided this experience for many. The number of people who might otherwise never have realized they had something to say and the capacity to say it well that the platform has “launched” (for good or ill) is astonishing. I think Hannah Anderson sums this up well in reflecting on her own experience.

“I would never have become a writer, been exposed to new ideas, or made the connections that sustain my work without [Twitter]…whenever I hear folks talk about wanting to shut it down, I think, ‘You must already have access to a social and communal networks that let you accomplish what you want to accomplish in life….’ I will *never* get over how social media and digital age changed my life and let a [stay-at-home mom], pastor’s wife in a conservative, rural context develop her gifts and mind and find a calling to write. Never. I honestly don’t know how to convey this sufficiently (so much for being a writer!) but considering the shape of modern life, the isolation of the nuclear family, and the challenges of rural ministry, being able to connect w/ others online was a godsend.”

So here, at what may (or may not) be the end of Twitter as we’ve known it, I’m grateful. I also hope it doesn’t fully die as a platform and community, even as I take steps (working on blogging more, opening a Substack account, starting a public Instagram profile, making sure I have people’s contact info, etc.) to hang on to some of its benefits in other ways. Though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that Twitter has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Image: My Neighborhood Cemetery at Sunrise, November 2022.

The Gift of Mushrooms

Mushrooms carry an almost unintelligible magic. One minute they’re seemingly not there. The next, after a rain, they have taken over the world—coming up in every shape, size, and color in every corner of forests and neighborhoods. Once they’re out, they seem to disappear almost as quickly, spoiling like the rotting wood or decaying tree roots from which they grow, just at an astonishing speed. Even what we call them hints at wrapping our minds around something just out of reach of full comprehension: toadstools, puffballs, stinkhorns, death caps, fairy rings.

Of course even what we think of as mushrooms, are really just the flashiest part of much larger underground networks. These fruiting bodies (sporocarps) sprout from a tangled mass of threads (hyphae) collectively called the mycelium, which lives on long after the mushroom we see rots. What grows in the dark is the real life of the organism, and nothing visible would exist without it.

Even these types of networks represent only a tiny fraction of the species we call fungi. Mycologists and other scientists are still figuring out ways this mysterious branch of life on earth—no longer thought of as plants like they were, even as recently as my high school biology textbooks, but as a whole kingdom unto themselves—interact with the rest of life.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the way fungal strands embedded in the roots of some nut trees function as an underground superhighway for information, nutrients, and more. These symbiotic mycorrhizae, she says, enable “the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates.” Beyond that, they “may form fungal bridges between individual trees so that all the trees in a forest are connected” transferring nutrients from healthy trees to struggling ones and allowing the trees to co-regulate nut production and set the tempo for the life of the whole forest. “All flourishing is mutual.”

I’m thinking of this wondrous mystery because I’ve witnessed a metaphorical mycorrhizal network among some friends on Instagram this summer, as we share photos of mushrooms we’ve found, writing poetry or other reflections on these tiny miracles, and basking in the joy of creation together at whatever level we’ve dived in to amateur mycology. We didn’t set out individually to create an Internet mushroom cabal, but the manmade mycorrhizae we call algorithms brought a snowballing cascade of vibrant photos into our shared feeds.

But is it just an algorithm? Though I’ve learned not to underestimate the power social media exercises in our lives, I won’t cede this—the symbiosis of mushrooms popping up simultaneously in Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado, and Virginia and the call to bask in wonder that my friends and I felt—to some artificial intelligence. If all flourishing is mutual, that is by design. God speaks in beauty as well as words, and calls us to attend to the world for our own good and the good of others. The interconnectedness we experienced over these posts is a gift.

The depth and breadth of our neural networks, as vast and complex as any mycelium and carrying a flow of information that none of us fully comprehend, is also still being researched, continually astonishing us with the web of knowing God has sewn into each of us. Absorbing the delicacy and grandeur of the world around us can attune us to God’s peace. Circulating ever-present reminders of creation can also attune us to each other. Networked loveliness can co-regulate us just as surely as fungi facilitate the health of the forest.

We share wonder with others as a way to stay alive together. Beauty springing forth to be observed by one of us can be shared to nourish others struggling to see the goodness of life at the same time. When one of us is strengthened, that gift is not for us alone, but for the strengthening of others as well. Art—even sharing phone photos of mushrooms on a social platform—is a response to something true and good and beautiful that can’t help but invite others to come and see.

As part of her story, Kimmerer writes of the wonder she uncovered by struggling to recover the Potawatomi language of her people. One of the first words that sparked her desire to find out what was hidden in her then-missing language was puhpowee—which could be translated as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” She writes, “As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed….In the three syllables of this new word I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent.” 

The mystery behind this word born of gazing at wonder sticks with me. The same God who pushes forth mushrooms after a rain is working out grace in the hidden places of our lives. The encouragement of new life from old that he nudges me to notice in my backyard or on a hike are worth meditating on. The sunrises and sunsets that paint the world every day are worth staring at and writing poems and prayers about. The glint of light on a fish’s scales or a rainbow in a waterfall or the ripples on a desert dune deserve all the attention we can spare. 

The flashes of beauty in this world are as fleeting as the life and death of a mushroom. They’re easy to miss. But they are so frequently given, it’s never too late to look up. I pray I will never stop straining to see or stopping to say “look at this!,” because the wonder that others want to (need to!) see it too will never stop amazing me.

Featured Image: Mushrooms in the golden hour, Hamilton County, Tennessee.