Improvising Life: Embrace the Shake

I had a great time last weekend with the folks at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. For their all-church retreat they chose the theme The Improvising God: A New Theology for an Imperfect World. For many people, the struggle to understand God's presence and work in the midst of suffering is THE sticking point for faith. For some people, they're led to dismiss the idea of God altogether. Others grab onto notions about God's plan and purpose. I find the latter rather unsatisfying, not to mention problematic to the idea of God as love: it requires us to believe that God would bring about God's purposes by employing all manner of terror against the people God claims to care for. As David Bentley Hart wrote after the devastating tsunami several years ago, "It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome." 

I'm still working on a nuanced middle. As a follower of Jesus who finds truth in the stories of scripture, I see God's nature as one of self-limitation. Jesus wasn't just a piece of God, or God in disguise: Christ was fully God, which means it is fully God's nature to limit God's power and sovereignty. That's what I see in the gospel story again and again.

What God does is work improvisationally with us to say "Yes, and" in a way that moves us in the direction of the best wholeness possible for all. And how can we participate in that Yes-Anding?

I like to mix things up in my retreats and workshops. Lots of interaction, video, and music along with straight-up "lecture." We watched clips of people performing improv comedy, a speech by Stephen Colbert, and even a scene from The West Wing.

But the piece that really grabbed people was this TED talk by artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. In it he talks about how a nerve injury destroyed his ability to make the kind of pointillist art he felt so drawn to. Instead a doctor advised him to receive that limitation as a gift, to embrace the shake... which led him to find gorgeous (and FUN) new ways of doing art:

Hansen is describing the fundamental task of improv... and of life: to take what is offered and build on it in a way that brings about the best Yes for all concerned. It's well worth ten minutes of your time.

 

During the retreat I leaned a good bit on Brené Brown's latest book, Rising Strong, that talks about how we come back from failure--how failure becomes a source of our power instead of something we need to run from. For the Trinity group, Embrace the Shake became a kind of shorthand for that process.

When have you had to embrace the shake? I'd love to hear about it.

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Beyond "God's Plan"

This weekend I'm headed to Montreat Conference Center (aka God's Second Home) to learn, teach and play with the good folks of Trinity Presbyterian Church--Charlotte. Topic is The Improvising God: A New Theology for an Imperfect World. Through conversation, scripture study, video, and some interactive stuff, we're going to move from this:

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To this:

 

Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity.

-Daniel Pink, in a commencement address to Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

I'll let you know how it goes.

Read more about the theology of improvisation here. Or join the Facebook group. Or heck, invite me to come lead a workshop or conference for your group! Get in touch.

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*Mo-Ranch in the Texas Hill Country is God's True Home.

When Bad Theology Happens to Good People

The news from Moore Oklahoma is almost unfathomable. I lived in Tornado Alley during my teenage years, but they were quiet years for tornadoes. Honestly, I never took them seriously. Teenagers are invincible, after all. Whenever the subject came up we'd make jokes about trailer parks. It was classist privilege---I know that now, wrapped in a candy coating of "it couldn't happen to me."

It could. It certainly could.

I don't know if crazy stuff is happening more frequently or if it just seems like it because I've been on this earth long enough for stuff to accumulate. Not to mention the effect of cable news and Twitter. But it's tiring. It's not even happening to me and it's tiring. I'm tired of telling my kids to find the helpers. I've included the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance donation info so many times in emails to Tiny Church that I might as well incorporate it into the template on MailChimp.

But this post isn't about parenting or logistics. It's about bad theology that creeps in, even among those who studiously try to avoid it. My cousin lives in Moore, OK. For a little while folks didn't know if he was OK. He is. In his message he said that they'd recently moved to a new house. The new house is fine, but the old house is destroyed. Whoa.

And there it was, like a flash: Man. Someone's livin' right, I said to myself.

No.

No no no.

This is a good call for greater compassion on my part toward people who blurt out bromides in the wake of disaster, illness or suffering: God needed another angel in heaven. Everything happens for a reason. We're being punished for our sin. (Really. It's only a matter of time.) 

Linda Holmes, writing in a completely different context today, talked about the difference between a reaction, and a thought, and a conclusion. A reaction is just that---an initial response, easily tweeted but not much of substance, unless we examine it, test it, develop it into a thought, and maybe in time, a conclusion. If our reaction doesn't survive that scrutiny, we should let it go.

The trouble with a lot of our public discourse, whether we're talking about Sunday night's episode of Mad Men (I gather something bizarro went down?) or dozens of people perishing in an F5 tornado, is that we don't get past the reaction stage. "Someone's living right" is a reaction. It's an understandable one---even though I don't see this cousin much, I don't want to see him suffer---but it's ultimately false. It's a product of the lizard brain.

So what do we do with our reptilian reactions? We hold them under the microscope. No, maybe they are the microscope, or the telescope, and we peer through to see if they bring other parts of our lives into sharper view. If they do, maybe they are worth keeping.

And if we're religious, we also press them like flowers between the pages of our sacred texts, and see what happens. Sometimes they crumble from the pressure. And sometimes they hang together.

But "someone's livin' right" doesn't hold together. Neither does "it's because of gay marriage." (Because seriously. In Oklahoma?)

The trouble is, when it comes to suffering, the more we work with our reactions and our thoughts, the less conclusive we become. Christian Wiman's latest book, written about his struggles with faith in the midst of cancer, is an elegantly devastating case in point. He writes in My Bright Abyss:

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Yes: Who is this God who makes it all better? Who punishes the wicked and rewards the good with uncanny precision? Tell me, New Atheists, about the God you don't believe in. I don't believe in that God either.

And yet, like Wiman, I continue to wrestle in faith, even though conclusions are increasingly hard to come by. I continue because there is heart-wrenching beauty happening in Oklahoma tonight---it's in the caring efficiency of hospitals and shelters; it's in the scrabbling through the rubble; it's in embraces between neighbors. That beauty is not the work of God. That beauty is God. That's all I can say for certain... and even that's not very certain at all.

Friday Link Love

Can you believe this is my 108th Link Love? That's about 2 years of collecting bits and pieces of stuff. Like a magpie. I should probably go on hiatus at some point. Don't want to get stuck in a rut. Maybe this summer. In the meantime... here we go!

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Modern Art Desserts -- Brain Pickings

This is from a few weeks ago--I've been saving it.

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More at the link.

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Perfectionism as Paralysis -- David Foster Wallace

Courtesy of The Dish and a good adjunct to my post about perfectionism and failure the other day, an animated clip of DFW talking in 1996 about perfectionism, ambition... and tennis:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=w5R8gduPZw4

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The Good Kind of Crazy -- David Lose

After filling me in on some of the latest and greatest ideas she’s had about the church she leads, she stopped and said, “You know, you’re about the only person I know who doesn’t think I’m crazy when I talk this way.”

“Actually,” I replied with a smile, “I think you’re crazy too. But the church needs crazy right now.”

...My friend is perceived as a little crazy. She’s not content with the same old thing, only better. She wants something new. So she has the youth of her church lead worship and participate in the sermon. She doesn’t do confirmation anymore, but instead finds ways to gather her youth around conversations about faith, life, and life lived faithfully. And this summer they’re not singing hymns at her church, but pop songs. And talking about popular YouTube videos. And other crazy stuff.

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On that note... maybe this is an example of the good kind of crazy, albeit from another era:

100 Years Later, a Time Capsule is Opened -- Yahoo! News

The First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City dug up and opened its Century Chest, a time capsule that was buried under the church 100 years ago.

The artifacts inside the copper chest were remarkably well intact. Credit for that goes to the church's Ladies Aide Society, the group that buried the capsule a century ago. The group buried the chest in double concrete walls and under 12 inches of concrete, according to Fox News.

As my friend Alex Hendrickson said, "Varsity level church ladies." Seriously.

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For a Student of Theology, Poetry Reverberates -- NPR

My favorite class in seminary was The Preacher and the Poet, so Robert sent this to me with the subject line "MaryAnn bait."

I read a lot of theology, both for my degree and for my professional track, and sometimes I think poetry, whether or not it's explicitly religious, is one of the best modes that theology, or talking about God, can take. ... Poetry is a form where the language is under so much pressure, and that can really bring about these wonderful surprises and insights in our ways of talking about God or thinking about our faith.

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The Best Lesson My Kids Ever Taught Me -- Practicing Families

The author describes the experience of having a newborn and always having to think about the next thing. Ohhhh yeah. That kind of extreme time maximization is part of what led us to Sabbath, when we can turn off (or at least mute) those endless calculations:

I was always planning ahead for the next step of the operation. It’s breakfast time. Eat because we have to get dressed! Get dressed because we have to go to baby class! Finish baby class so we can get home for nap! Get nap started so I can have writing time! Hurry, hurry through writing before the baby wakes up! Get ready so we can go to the park! Finish up at the park so we can get home so I can make dinner! And on and on…We were still on that hamster wheel, still always urgently moving forward to the next item on the agenda.

It wasn’t my schedule that was the problem. It was the fact that during every activity we engaged in, my mind was already on the next one.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth: Glimpse Inside an Active Volcano -- Colossal

I didn't do Kid Link Love this week but if I had, this would've been featured. Volcanoes are so awesome. This planet is doin' stuff:

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Speaking of Kid Links, I shared this one with my girls:

A Wet Towel in Space is Not Like a Wet Towel on Earth -- NPR

I've gotta think that zero gravity tourism will happen in our lifetimes. Which is irrelevant for me since I get motion sick on a porch swing. So I'll have to content myself with videos like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=o8TssbmY-GM

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Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. We've got a party Saturday night and I'm leading a retreat after church on Sunday. A full weekend but a good one. Peace.

A Much Better View of the Moon

moon_gal I was googling around the other day and I came across a live version of one of my favorite songs, by George Wurzbach and Karen Taylor-Good. Here's George and Rob Carlson (and friends) performing "Much Better View of the Moon":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXG32pnA0X8

If I lose my job... I'll sleep 'til noon. If the news is bad... I'll watch cartoons. If my house burns down... I'll have lots more room and a much better view of the moon.

It's a song about improv, which is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Life is just one big improvisation, isn't it? Even meticulous organizers like me know that deep down, planning is akin to rocking in a rocking chair: it gives you something to do---and there's something soothing about it---but it's not going to get you anywhere. Things happen that you didn't anticipate, and you have to adjust. With luck and grace, you "yes-and" the thing, accepting and building on whatever gets thrown at you. Accepting something doesn't mean you have to like it, by the way. But a spirit of improvisation leads us to be curious, to ask, "Well, OK. Now what?"

We are made in the image of God, and God is a master of improv. This I believe. I don't know what that means when stacked up against sturdy preacherly words like eternal, immutable, absolute, all-knowing, perfect. I just know that when I look at the sacred texts I see a God who iterates. Who pivots. Who encounters the world as it is, not as God planned it to be. Who yes-ands all over the place.

When I spoke to NEXT Church in Rochester last November, I described this God not as a planner, but as one who is reactive, who sizes up the situation and engages. Someone came up to me afterwards, bristling at the term: "Reactive sounds like a knee-jerk position. What about responsive?"

Maybe. Maybe. No, he's right, responsive is good. The family systems folks would approve. Still, I like reactive because there's something automatic in the term. Instinctive. Unpremeditated. If God is love, then love jumps into the mess without a lot of careful consideration, using whatever's on hand. A socially awkward ex-con. An unwed teenage mother. Twelve Galilean knuckleheads.

Our congregation was rocked last year with the death of eight year old Jacob. He died of ALD, which took his older brother Eric's life just three years before, also at age eight. The family grieves, the church grieves, and different people wrestle with the loss in different ways. From where I sit, there's no making sense of something like that. It's terribly sad. It's a planet-sized loss. And no God I want any part of willed that to happen.

...Twice.

 

What happens next in that family's life is not my story to tell at this point. It's still unfolding anyway. But let me say, it's a hell of a yes-and.

It's a brand new view of the moon.

I used to walk through this world cautious and oh-so-serious 'Til the life I was living was merely a near-death experience. Then I changed my story when I finally saw Where I was wasn't where it was at And now I'm alive, I let destiny drive And I'm stretching out in the back.

Image source

Friday Link Love: Nude Dancers, Suburban Living, and the Empathic Rat

First, a link to my article at catapult magazine for their 10 Things edition: 10 Ways to Savor Your Time in 2013. Annnnnd.... away we go:

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Time-Lapse Images of Nude Dancers Created with 10,000 Individual Photographs -- Colossal

Obligatory Colossal Post. Lots more at the link:

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Five Easy Things to a Happier Year -- National Catholic Review

I'm keeping it light on the New Year's resolutions/intentions this year. I'm already running a half marathon, promoting a book and planning the next one---that's plenty to keep me busy. Plus I'm all about the improv and less about the major planning. But I can get behind these:

Be a Little Kinder.  I think that 90% of the spiritual life is being a kind person.   No need to have any advanced degrees in theology or moral reasoning, and no need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religious traditions, to get this: Be gentler and more compassionate towards other people.

I like the one about enjoying nature more. Reminds me of one of my father-in-law's practices. When he comes home from work, he takes a moment between car and house to look up. Just to see what the sky looks like. I love that.

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Why Do Americans Have Less Vacation Time Than Anyone Else? -- Big Think

This one gets in my craw. It's not the most pressing issue we face, but it is a justice issue and a spiritual issue:

Like many of you, I am on vacation this week. For most Americans, Christmas week represents about half of the time off we will enjoy all year long. Compared with Australians (at least 4 weeks off, plus 10 public holidays), Brazilians (22 days of paid leave with a 33 percent salary vacation bonus) and the French (at least 5 weeks off and as many as 9 for many public employees), we are seriously bereft.

Look at how the United States stacks up against the rest of the developed world in number of mandatory days off each year:

Screen_Shot_2012-12-23_at_10.02.37_AM

What is that all about, do you think?

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How People Live in the Suburbs: A Vintage Illustrated Gem -- Brain Pickings

How People Live In The Suburbs was published as part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including How People Earn and Use MoneyHow Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us — all, sadly, out of print but delightful if you’re able to secure a copy.

Click the link above for more images. These are just cute and bizarre:

B0006CK9FS

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The Five Types of Work That Fill Your Day -- 99U

I'm still using Toggl to keep track of how much time I spend on creative work, connecting with people, and doing logistics. Read more about that process here.

But based on this article it would be interesting to do an audit of my time to see how much of my day is spent on Reactionary, Planning, Procedural, Insecurity, and Problem-solving tasks. Good tips here for how to bring things into a frutful balance for your situation.

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The Power and the Allegory: A Book of Interviews with Madeleine L'Engle -- BookForum

The book itself is called Listening for Madeleine. From the BookForum article:

L’Engle’s faith was deeply untraditional. A mathematics professor who advised her on A Wrinkle in Time says the three beings who guide Meg on her interplanetary journey—Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which—were meant to be angels, but they could just as easily be mistaken for witches. And the novel’s dominant image of evil is an undefined blackness that casts its shadow across a wide band of the universe, including Earth. Camazotz, a planet controlled by the blackness, is not a hotbed of violence and depravity but a vision of perfect order. All the houses are identical, the children bounce their balls in perfect unison, and anyone who refuses to submit to the program is punished. “I am freedom from all responsibility,” the evil power croons to Meg. But she recognizes that this is a false consolation, a substitution of conformity for equality. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” she screams.

The fundamental lesson is that it’s OK—even desirable—to be a misfit.

Looking back, I'd say that A Wrinkle in Time formed my early theology as much as (or let's be honest, more than) the Bible.

Incidentally, I'm putting this post together on Thursday, and Caroline is in the chair next to me with the new graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time. I gave it to her for Christmas and she's already on her second reading of it.

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A New Model of Empathy: The Rat -- Washington Post

I expect there is more of this going on in the animal kingdom than we want to admit:

In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.

The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.

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May your weekend be filled with a small hoard of chocolate chips... or whatever delights you.

An Improvising God

Many years ago I worked for an interfaith organization that did work in the Third Ward of Houston. One of the congregations there overlooked a building that had been tagged with graffiti. Various people had painted over the graffiti, but it always came back with a vengeance. So the congregation worked with an artist to design a mural that incorporated the graffiti into the design. The wall was never bothered again. I can't find a picture of the wall, but a Google search suggests that this is a common approach to graffiti. I remembered that today when I saw this piece on Colossal: Brilliant Urban Interventions by OakOak Turn Crumbling City Infrastructure into a Visual Playground. Click the link for more, but here are two of my favorites:

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I've been thinking for some time about the rules of improv as they relate to life, church work, and even our ideas about God. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and---to accept what is offered and to build on it. That's what I see in these images, and in the Third Ward mural. (Listen to Stephen Colbert talk about yes-and in this YouTube video; skip to minute 18:00 for the pertinent bit. Or just watch the whole thing, because Colbert.)

This is a personal journey for me---I'm such a planner at heart. If I can plan it, I can control it. If it all fits on the calendar, then it will fit in real life. But life doesn't work that way, and the older I get the more I see the limitations to planning. It's not that planning is useless. But what's more important is cultivating the grace and especially the skill to adapt to changing situations. Like Eisenhower said, "Plans are nothing; planning is everything." I take "planning" to mean preparation, analysis, skill-building, and discernment.

This improv stuff is also a pastoral thing. When I arrived at Tiny, there was some discussion of making a five- or ten-year plan. It just didn't seem right. Especially in a small church, where deaths and departures of just a few key leaders can fundamentally alter the makeup of the church. Plus I think the world is changing too fast. You have to know your values and your purpose, but a ten-year plan? Makes no sense to me.

And all of this has theological dimensions. As I've written here before, the idea of God's Plan doesn't work for me. It really never has. And it doesn't work for a great many people. But an improvising God... that's a God that intrigues me. And I think we see some of that God in scripture.

I'll be thinking and writing about these things a lot in 2013. (I'm also trying to figure out how to get myself into an improv class, which will take some MacGyvering of my schedule.) In the meantime, I began work on some of these ideas at the NEXT Church regional gathering in Rochester last November. Click here to get to the audio of that presentation.

Incidentally, my friend Ashley Goff is also doing some work with improv as it relates to liturgy. She will be speaking about this at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte in March. She rocks, and the conference will rock.

Dobson's God is a Feckless Narcissistic Thug. Now What?

My Facebook feed is ablaze with righteous anger and defiant opposition to the god preached by James Dobson and others. (Google his remarks if you want.) The sentiment is rather consistent, at least among my gaggle of mostly mainline Protestant/Episcopal friends: This is not the God I recognize and not the God I pledged to serve as a minister of the gospel.

It is good and right to shout No to the Dobsons and their distorted god. As I said on Sunday morning:

No, by the way, to the idea that God let this madness happen because we no longer pray in school. Like clockwork, the political and religious pundits have suggested exactly that. Imagine what kind of a god that is. A narcissistic thug who would allow such carnage because we don’t pray in the time and place and manner that god specifies. No.

And if I were ever to find out that that’s the kind of being god is, I think I’d have to renounce my ordination and go sell insurance, because that god and I would be finished.

So, No to that.

But what do we say Yes to?

The answer I'm hearing, and affirming myself, is that God weeps with us in the wake of what happened in Newtown. That God's was the first heart to break that blood-soaked day.

But that's not enough. Not near enough.

God is more than the Chief Griever.

So what are we willing to affirm? I hear loud and clear the god we reject. But after Friday, and after so many other tragedies that we can't even name them all... who is the God that we preach?

This is what I'm thinking about almost constantly.

UPDATE:

Here is the thing that has come into focus for me since posting this.

Many people are rejecting Dobson's comments altogether by saying, "God did not allow this to happen."

And yet, if God is an omnipotent deity---if God has the capability to intervene in human history and in our individual lives---then technically, God absolutely did allow it to happen. It's just that we reject that God allowed it to happen for the reasons that Dobson et al put forth.

But God allowed it to happen.

Unless we're also willing to reject or mitigate God's omnipotence.

Which is what I'm pondering so strenuously, and have been really since little E died three years ago, and certainly since his brother J died in September.

Wholeness

Our church is continuing its year-long theme, "Who is our neighbor" with an emphasis on health issues in our community. On Sunday we had a guest speaker, so my sermon is a little more concise than usual: MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church October 28, 2012 Mark 10:46-52

‘Wholeness’

46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

We’ve got about nine days until the election, and I think I speak for many of us when I say, “Thank God. Make it stop.” ...The ads, the phone calls, and the soundbites. It’s been a particularly bizarre season for soundbites. Barely a week seems to go by without a political candidate putting his foot in his mouth. This week a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was asked about abortion. Many people who are pro-life make exceptions in cases of rape—in fact, most people do—but this particular person does not, and he said,

Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

My intent in bringing this up is not to talk politics, but theology. What do we believe about good things happening out of bad, even terrible, circumstances? Does that mean the bad thing was part of God’s plan?

Some are inclined to give Mr. Mourdock the benefit of the doubt—he wasn’t saying rape is good, he was saying that life is good, regardless of how it comes about. Others said his theology is flawed: pregnancy through rape is not the work of a good God, but a consequence of an evil human act and a burden that no woman should be forced to bear.

What’s more, I read countless reflections this week by people, friends, who have been victims of sexual violence who were hurt deeply by his words. A few weeks ago in worship we heard Jesus’ words, cautioning us not to create a "stumbling block" for others. Mr. Mourdock’s comments created a painful stumbling block for those who are still struggling with the painful aftermath of these traumas.

Let me put to you another situation: a few weeks ago I read a blog post by an Episcopal priest and a breast cancer survivor. She talked about the impact of cancer on her life, and she gave thanks for friends and family who supported her, she gave thanks for the strength to withstand the treatment, and she gave thanks for world-class medical care and the means to access it—something not everyone has. And then she said, “And thank you, God, for cancer.”

Thank you for cancer.

She went on:

Because of cancer I learned lessons I didn't know I needed to learn. Because of cancer I discovered a depth of love, faith and gratitude I never knew existed. Because of cancer, I learned that bad news is best handled when infused with the Good News.

Is she right? Does God make cancer happen? Is Richard Mourdock right, about God’s intent? Does everything that befalls us have God’s fingerprints on it?

The question of God’s involvement in good and evil has puzzled theologians for thousands of years. The fancy theological word for that question of good and evil is “theodicy.” And for many people living in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, it is the sticking point for faith. It’s hard to reconcile the existence of a good and loving God with the holocaust or the killing fields in Cambodia. And it’s not a problem we’re going to solve at Idylwood Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012. But Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus gives us a few pieces to the puzzle:

God is a God of mercy. Repeatedly Bartimaeus calls out “have mercy on me!” Mercy is compassion. Mercy is kindness. Mercy is care. Does that sound like a God who makes cancer happen, who is so bent on granting the gift of life that God will use a rape to make it happen? There is nothing merciful about that.

God does not impose on us. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume. He doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus wants. He asks, and he waits for the answer. God is not a presumptuous God. Ultimately we are given the dignity to ask for what we want, and to make meaning of our experience for ourselves. I read a reflection by a woman who became pregnant through rape and made the audacious decision to keep the baby. And for her, there was redemption in that decision. And that’s the key phrase—for her. It’s her right to make meaning of her experience; no politician should do it for her. No clergyperson should either. I wonder about the priest with cancer—it’s fine for her to thank God for it but I sure hope she doesn’t insist on her parisioners’ doing so. If God, if Jesus, is gentle enough to ask, “What do you want? How do you see your life and your need?” then that is our call as well. God does not impose, and neither should we.

We are partners in our healing. Bartimaeus has to get up and go to Jesus. There is no remote-control healing here. He’s gotta get up and move, he’s got to ask for what he needs in order to receive it. That means that we avail ourselves of the medical technology that we are fortunate to have. That means that if we’re overweight or a smoker or making poor choices with our diet, we are called to do something about it, not hope for a divine rescue.

And again, that’s the problem with Mr. Mourdock’s theology. If God is the author of everything that happens, then what’s the point of striving for wellness, or going to the doctor? What’s the point of doing anything?

That doesn’t mean that our efforts are always successful. We know the heartbreak of people who do everything right, who make all the right choices, and who still suffer from disease or injury. There’s no getting around that.

And principled people can come to different conclusions about abortion and when life begins. But Mourdock’s theology is wrong. A God of mercy, a God who does not impose on us, a God who asks us to be a partner in our own healing, desires our wholeness…desires our peace… desires our shalom. And not just our wholeness and peace and shalom, but that of this world that God loves.

In Christ, God is reconciling the world. Thanks be to God.