4.18.2014

My writing lately

One of the great losses I experienced in graduate school was the loss of time to write creatively, for the love of beautiful words, for the joy of sharing sacred moments.

A year after graduation, I have slowly reclaimed this love. First, for myself and as a quiet worship. Then, as an expression of my work. Much of my public writing has been an outward demonstration of my own internal dialogue on the relationships between my faith, my relationships, and my professional life. These things are a tangled web of lovely messiness.

While the epoch of daily or even weekly blogging has likely ended in my life, I still work actively to cultivate new possibilities and imaginations through the written word. I'm just doing it in different places: an orange private journal, carefully written emails to friends, and on a group blog at my work place. This balance feels good.

For the lone subscribers still out there and creepers hoping to learn more about Alaina Kleinbeck, you can read my newer writings at Faith and Leadership. I write about material practices in the church, cultivating cultures of hospitality and nurturing young leaders in the church. While my audience is clearly those engaged in life in the church, often in professional ways, I like to think that others can enjoy what I write.

Happy reading.

4.23.2013

Boston, Big Fish, and Apocalyptic Endings


Friday morning was the kind of morning where everyone stares at the computer screen hitting refresh over and over and over again. What is happening in Boston? How many people died in Texas? How many Facebook friends have lost a loved one this week? Has my friend in critical condition after a complicated delivery improved? Refresh, scan, refresh, scan, refresh and scan again. My roommate sat in the frame of my bedroom door and lamented, “This never ends. It just doesn’t end.” These are the mornings, the days that remind us that endings betray us. Just as the thread of one story seems to be tying off, a new series of events and emotions unravels the fabric that the thread was fastening. The endlessness begins all over again and we search all the more for answers—the whos, the whats, and the whys—all that we cannot actually know. And yet we keep trying, clicking over, asking, staring, looking at each other with bewildered eyes, wondering if in fact this is the time, if this endlessness will be the final endlessness, the end.

In “Big Fish,” Will Bloom, the son of storytelling extraordinaire, Ed Bloom, finds his father’s tall tales endlessly disillusioning. From Ed’s dramatic and successful attempt to swoon his mother to the unbelievable story of Will’s birth to Ed’s fantastical accounts of his sales travels, Will believes his father is a deceiver of immeasurable quantity. The unbelieveability of the tall tales and the father’s insistence on their truth has eroded any faith the son has in the father. As Ed nears the end of his life, Will returns home seeking some reconciliation before his father’s life ends. Ed insists he won’t die lying in his bed. “How does it happen?” Will asks. Ed answers slyly, “Surprise ending. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.” Ed begins retelling his fantastical stories with gusto, his bravery in many of them fueled by a confidence in the certainty of his life’s surprise ending.

Wouldn’t it be grand to know the ending of our story? Research indicates that we enjoy stories more when the ending has been spoiled.[1] When we know the ending, we can relax and we can pay attention to the things that really matter. Ed Bloom isn’t bothered with his son’s need for factual information, he knows the ending and is too busy enjoying and paying attention to the fantastical ways of coming to the end. When we know the ending, our mind can filter through all of the sensory information we gather and collect what only what matters. Our emotional investment is placed confidently in relationships that will be there at the end. Our spirits, no longer anxiously attempting to make sense of the future of a thousand story threads, rest in what is in front of us.

Our seeing, our hearing and our knowing substantively change when we know the ending of the story. Ed Bloom knows the end of his story and his telling of the story reflects the ending that he knows. Paul knows the end of the Christian story, he saw it in the crucified Christ. His telling of the story, his words to the people of Corinth and Rome and Galatia, is textured with Ed Bloom’s sense of wonder and his own outrage at how easily the ending has been forgotten.

Forgotten and dismissed endings dim Will’s view of his father. Throughout the life of Ed Bloom, villians and foes of implausible origins and incredible variety press in against him, but Ed knows his ending and isn’t fazed by fear. Will knows that his father knows his ending, but distracted by the improbability of it all, Will doesn’t believe Ed, patronizes him and ignores him.

Paul, too, faced incredible villains and foes—church leaders too focused on Jewish law to include Gentiles who have encountered the gospel of Jesus, church members so bound up in their social status that they’ve forgotten to feed their hungry sisters and brothers, political and religious leaders who believe he is causing political insurrection and stop him by any means. But God revealed his Son to Paul while he was still a persecutor of God and, like a fool, Paul dedicated his life, his body, mind and spirit, to responding to the revelation, revealing it to be the freedom for Jew and Gentile from the bondage of sin and death (Galatians 1:13-16, 2:1-10). In receiving the revelation of the crucified God, Paul discovered his true end—not the fulfillment of the law in the being of Israel, but the fulfillment of the law in the being of Christ. He is free to dedicate himself fully, regardless of social, physical or emotional cost to this message of radical liberation from the powers of sin and death—personal, bodily, and corporate—because he knows his end is in Christ. He can tell a story that overturns every social division without fear of death because he has seen his end in the Crucified Lord. He can live in chains without fear because his ending in the cross has already freed him to live in ways previously unimaginable.

Sometimes when we play in theological candy land, we like to toy with the Greek word for end—telos. We use it to mark a sense of purpose, distinguishing it from the sense of finality and completion in English word end. But perhaps these two senses of the word end—purpose and finality—are not so far from one another. Paul and Ed know their ending—not how they die per se, but the purpose for which they live. Their ending is living, not dying, and so they do not fear their ending, their death. Death is not finality to Ed or to Paul. Ending is not finality to Ed or to Paul. Death in Christ is life itself. End in Christ is no end at all. Surprise!

As leaders, preachers, teachers in the church, how do we tell this ending to the story? How does knowing the ending change the focus of our attention? Are we, like Will Bloom, caught up in a debilitating fact finding mission, searching for the right word, the final word to share with our congregations and communities? Are we unable to believe that the fantastic and foolish is not always fiction and that fiction is not always false? When we fixate our eyes onto screens, refreshing news feeds in hopes of swift and safe endings to the heartbreaking news, do we demonstrate once again how deeply we have forgotten the end of the story? Are we so bound up in the 21st century’s 24-hour news cycles and Wikipedia’s endless gorge of useless information that we have forgotten how to know and explore meaning beyond them? Have we forgotten that our end is living not ending?

It isn’t just the most recent horror story that demonstrates our reliance on certain kinds of knowing to make meaning in this world. In the church, we demonstrate our dependence on the measurable and finite in our sermonic meditations: how to be a better you, how to achieve financial peace, how to be a more faithful spouse, how abundant tithing will strengthen your faith. The largest problem with sermons on finances, relationships (marital or otherwise), and healthy living habits is that they fail to remember the ending is living for Christ, not for ourselves, not for the finite. Questions about reducing debt and abundant living aren’t wrong necessarily, but answers that reduce such questions to their temporal end rob the askers of the surprise ending that death in Christ brings. In death to ourselves, our vanity, and even our piety, Paul taught that we find the greatest surprise: life in Christ (Romans 6). In looking at the finite and temporal through the end in Christ, our seeing, hearing, and knowing is transformed to attend to God’s radical liberating activity in our lives, in our time and space.  

Perhaps an ending is not something that we realize, meet, or accomplish, but it is something that we live. We may not find the endings to next week’s heartbreaking news story threads, but we can weave those threads into the story of the faithful, the people who love aggressors and visit the imprisoned, the people who wash wounds and hold the hands of the lonely, the people who feed the hungry and fight systems that have created such great hunger. These stories, the fighting faithful stories, do not end because they are lived and will continue to be lived by people who have already witnessed their end in the Crucified Savior. Like Ed Bloom, they do not fear death because they know that their surprise ending is really no ending at all. It is a new beginning, and endless swim in the river of life.

Preaching, teaching, and living from this end, through this end, and with this ending does not mean that we suddenly quit telling the stories of the quotidian. Rather, like Paul shares with us the surprising transformation the ordinary loaf and wine into Christ’s redeeming, sanctifying, and unifying body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), we see the quotidian of our lives through the surprise of life.  We no longer see the meal as a time to feed ourselves alone, but as a time to share life with our companions, especially those who hunger. We no longer see our sermon as a time to offer advice or pitch-perfect exegesis, but as a moment to retell life’s story as God’s fantastic story of overcoming death with death. We peel back the hubris of the everyday life and reveal the surprise of life in Christ that lies within. We draw the community into the surprise ending that doesn’t end but keeps on living.




[1] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thriving101/201108/the-spoiler-paradox

12.28.2012

Holy, Innocent, Massacred

The senseless death of children has dampened many Christmas celebrations this year. But this is not the first Christmas derailed by the sorrow of incomprehensible loss. Too many mothers for too many years have quietly retreated from holiday dinner tables, tears of immeasurable grief staining their cheeks.

Matthew tells us in his gospel that even the very first Christmas was quickly shrouded with the brutal reality of untimely death. Herod, angered by the wise men's deception, ordered the death of all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. The inconsolable grief, the wailing and the lamentation of the mothers in Bethlehem echoes in the empty heart cavities of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who have lost their own holy and innocent young to massacre, cancer, careless driving, and war. In many church traditions, December 28th is set aside as the feast day of the Holy Innocents, a remembrance of those children murdered in Bethlehem so many years ago.

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Pieter Brugel, 1565-7
Today, the church sits in lamentation in the midst of celebration. Yes, our God is with us. Jesus, our Emmanuel, has been born, but all is not well. His presence breaks into the darkness in our world, but the kingdom is not yet fully known, the darkness not fully expelled. The brutality of being human has not yet been fully removed. Senseless death makes this all too apparent, too real, too painful.

Today is the day that we name the truth of Christmas: Bethlehem was not still, it was not lost in deep and dreamless sleep, the hopes and fears of the people of Bethlehem were met by the sword of a tyrant's army. This is the day that we put down our red cheer and don a grieving purple. This is the day that we can say that Christmas does not answer all our hopes and our fears, but brings an entirely new set of hopes and fears. This is the day that we remember honest celebrations do not tell lies of avoidance and denials of pain.

Today is the day our faithfulness is kept honest.

Faithfulness in this world of violence is not a life miraculously devoid of physical, emotional and spiritual anguish. Faithfulness shares the grief of the mothers of Bethlehem and Newtown and Durham and Syria. It knows incomprehensible loss, but does not claim to understand it or know its cause.

Faithfulness faces the brutality of our world and denies it the final word. It enters into places of bitter sorrow and abides with the brokenhearted. It rejects violence as our way of life and declares the mercy of an Incarnate God to be the truest mode of being. Faithfulness in this world names the truth of our pain and names Jesus as its overcomer, Messiah, Savior.

The feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us to pray in the midst of Christmas celebrations, Come, Lord Jesus, have mercy upon us.

12.10.2012

When we photograph our food

As an instagram-endowed people, capturing every beautiful moment of life in pixelation is part of the way that we make meaning in this world. We morph the images with filters and cropping, casting an instantaneous nostalgic sheen on the moment as it is happening. Our desire for belonging and beauty is constrained and distorted until it squares-up with the pre-imposed proportions of a tiny screen.

This phenomena and its absurdity is profoundly evident in our desire to photograph our food from this angle, with that filter, with the drizzle of sauce and a fork perched on the side of the plate. All this so that our faithful friends and following might know that what we eat looks as good as it tastes. All that while knowing that your animal-style burger from everyone's favorite West Coast chain is only a teensy bit less uninteresting than tomato plant flowers.

But this is not the wail of an uninterested and still complicit social media user, this is the wail against the injustices of which I am quite guilty.

When we photograph our food and declare it's greatness into the cyber-abyss, we lose sight of food's primary purpose in our lives--creative sustenance. Food becomes an object of our ego and not of nourishment. Food becomes about our individual greatness and not about the planet and the people that made the nourishment possible. The act of eating food is not only intrinsic to our body's survival, but it is a declaration of dependency on fertile soil, farming hands, and skillful kitchen work. The act of photographing food deadens our hearts to the nourishing and communal activity of growing, making, and eating it. It removes food's creative and sustaining qualities and morphs it unto yet another distorted device of exerting our wealth and privilege.

Access to nourishing food is not a given in our world. Hunger and malnourishment is a reality on our planet, in our country, in our communities. The privilege of copious consumption is to be confessed and not to be flaunted. Food is to be shared in the flesh, passing the plates and casserole dishes around the table, not on the screen, as a scrolling image of roasted vegetables and grilled meats. Food is the simplest way to nourish another person, to bring meaning and purpose to your relationship with them.

Food is the means by which God continues declare Jesus is enfleshed in this world, nourishing the people. When photographed, the body of Christ appears simply to be bread, no filter or accoutrement can morph it to appear otherwise. But when passed from one hand to another, the bread is the body of Christ, nourishing hearts, minds and souls so that they the nourished will go and do the nourishing--one weeding and water, one inevitably messing baking session, one meal at a time.

No photograph can ever do that.


12.06.2012

Beauty Pageants in Wartime


“Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things.” Joel 2:21

There are times when I read those words in the midst of great sorrow and I wonder who are these rejoicing people? Who are the people of God who feel as though ‘great things’ have been done? Can they not see my brothers who are suspected of crime simply because of their skin color? Can they not see my sisters who struggle to feed their children while working tirelessly at low-paying jobs? Can they not see our mothers wrenched in grief at the loss of their children to harrows of war? Can they not see our fathers demeaned and discouraged at the loss of meaningful work? Can they not see our neighbors and friends spatting endlessly? Where is God in the midst of this crazy mucked–up world? Why would I rejoice?

Between the years of 1992-1996, the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina was decimated by years of warfare and siege. The people who managed to survive the fight and live in the city lost access to water, electricity, gas, and public transportation. In 1993, in the midst of this unimaginable anguish, people of the city gathered in a basement, avoiding sniper fire and held the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant. Participants carried banners that read “Don’t let them kill us.”

Beauty pageants in wartime seem futile and silly. But in 1993 in Sarajevo, the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant was a gathering of hearts and minds in resistance against the evils and anguish of war. It was a moment to celebrate the gift of beauty and life and to remember that life is not mere survival. Taking time to celebrate life told the world that the people of Sarajevo were not giving up.

Imagining life in Sarajevo in 1993 is next to impossible for me, but the wreckage of life isn’t far from my doorstep. Sometimes, the holiday season doesn’t turn my heart towards warm gratefulness, but towards embittered pain. Rockwellian images of peaceful tables full of turkeys and smiling families remind me that life isn’t as it should be, or what I want it to be. Despite these vast differences, the people of Sarajevo remind me that pain, fear and fighting (whether in war or in our families) is not the final word on life. The prophet Joel, who gave us these words to be glad and rejoice, also gives us these words of the Lord, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” (Joel 2:27).

God exerts a real and abiding presence in the midst of Israel, proclaiming that death and sorrow and hunger and fear for the future are not the final word. God does not leave His people in pain, but enters into our pain and bears it with us. This isn’t an abstract idea, but a real and living person in Jesus Christ. We can take time in the midst of our lives and our struggle to be glad and to rejoice because we do not struggle alone. Whether Thanksgiving and the impending holiday season is a time of easy rejoicing or wrought struggle, we can peel back the corners of our daily existence and see that there is God with us, Immanuel. And for this God, we lift up our hearts and say a Great Thanksgiving.

__

This post originally appeared in the Duke Youth Academy Holiday Newsletter. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.

12.04.2012

1:18:33:18

The concluding conversation of one of my courses this semester centered on marks of discipleship. What makes a disciple of Christ? What makes someone a Christian? As informed as a room full of graduate students studying scripture could be, our conversation sat at the brink of mere speculation. Informed speculation, but still just speculation. The mystery of the fate of the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus, the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and so many others forced us deeper into scripture, asking what Luke wants us to know about following Christ.

What does it mean to follow Christ in 21st century North America? I am pretty sure that owning one day, 18 hours, 33 minutes and 18 seconds of Christmas music isn't part of Christian discipleship. But I do. I have 36 versions of Silent Night that could play for over 2 hours in consecutive, non-stop Silent Nighting.

It's ridiculous because I don't even like Christmas music that much. I am not one of those nutters that starts playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving and then has to get her fill mid-July because "OMG, it just makes me so happy." I like Christmas music an average amount. Which is to say, I like Advent hymns the most and if Perry Como comes on, I'll probably crank it up. At the same time, I listen to other music in December because I can only take so much sugar in my ears.

And yet, my computer houses a lot of Christmas music. The majority of it lauding the coming Savior's birth who will radically change the world, bringing peace and making all things new. Apparently, my consumption of audible bytes stands outside of this newness. I'm fairly certain the song I've listened to the most in this engorged collection of holiday tunes, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), drives a muted, subtle, and dulling wedge between my heart and the Lord who came into this fierce and wild world to save all of us. I stand convicted of my own ideation of discipleship, a rich young ruler believing herself to be a follower of the law but cannot sell all of her things, turn away from her commercialized Baby Jesusware and follow Christ.

I don't even know how to follow up that paragraph without relativizing the seriousness of the situation.

Lord, have mercy.


10.11.2012

Dissemination vs. Discernment in Catechesis

Last night, I caught a moment of Nate Silver's Fresh Air interview. He shared that according to IBM, 90% of the world's data has been created in the last two years. After fumbling around a distinction between knowledge and data (are videos of cute kitties real knowledge?), Nate explained how discernment is the critical task of education today. Information abounds, but how do we know what to believe?

This is why catechesis is essential to our life as Christians. In the ancient church, catechesis was a process of discerning one's calling and life as a Christian. It length varied from 40 days to 3 years, but consistently included mentoring, conversation and teaching on Christian beliefs, rigorous prayer, rituals of initiation (baptism!) and a commitment to ongoing instruction. Catechesis wasn't indoctrination, trickle-down education, or memorizing the Five Chief Parts (questions and answers!). Catechesis was the beginning of a family relationship between the believer, the church, and God.

Tim Keller recently announced the release of "The New City Catechism." Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this. In the announcement, he affirms the relationality of learning, but frames the relationship between the teacher and learner in a hierarchical manner. Some people have knowledge. They will disseminate it to others:
The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning. It creates a true community as teachers help students—and students help each other—understand and remember material. Parents catechize their children. Church leaders catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones.
Discerning truth doesn't seem to play into the educational pedagogy behind the creation of the catechism and students don't shape or help the teachers, parents or leaders. At least, it not in Keller's presentation of it.

This mode of disseminating facts via questions and answers that someone else has created doesn't work for most people. It especially doesn't work for our brothers and sisters in poverty and pain. They don't need someone who is educated and resourced (in a particular kind of way) to write their questions for them. We each have our own questions based on our own experience. We need the wisdom of the church to walk us through the ways God has answered the questions of the people through the person of Jesus Christ and the history of the people of Israel. We need help filtering faithfulness from funk.

The problem with a question and answer format proposed here is that it presumes to ask our questions for us. It offers definitive, even irrefutable responses in a world filled with a plurality of opinions and options. If I disagree with this "irrefutable response," I can simply go on and create my own set of "irrefutable responses." The challenge for the church today is finding a way to offer discernment and wisdom for the broad spectrum of people in our churches and denominations without claiming to speak the questions and without claiming the ability to answer questions satisfactorily for all people.

As a person who thinks about the church and her people regularly, as someone deeply concerned about the most faithful practices of forming disciples, I have to pause and ask if 16th century catechetical models are the best, most faithful practices for today. I have to wonder if the questions of someone else (who is likely more educated than me and the rest of us) will push me deeper into relationship with others and with God or if they will simply register as "more minimally information" on my radar. Not because the answers given aren't full of truth, but because the mode of learning isn't transformational.