In Colorado, A Cry From The Heart

Aurora, CO: Prayer vigil for victims of shooting (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Continuing to reflect on the evil in Aurora, Colorado… How it gripped a young man, James Holmes … How it relishes and feeds off of the rippled effects of violence in victims and families and ultimately anyone who hears the story … How it must be confronted with the lamentations of Jeremiah and the righteous accountability of Job. Job …who gets to ask God face-to-face why evil happens and gets no satisfactory reply.

Below is an excerpt from a lovely letter written by a Lutheran pastor in Fort Collins. It helped me keep my reflections grounded in the unknowable heart of God.

… In the coming days and weeks, you will probably encounter well-meaning people who will say to you, it is all part of God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it now. Everything happens for a reason. If these words are helpful for you to hear, I’m glad. But if these words tear at already-raw places in you and fill you with anger or despair, please know this: not all people of faith believe these things. I do not believe them.

The God I know in Jesus Christ does not use natural disasters or human-caused massacres to reward some and punish others. I believe God is able to reach into sin and death and pull out healing and life; this is a different thing from engineering tragedy for a so-called greater purpose. The God I serve and proclaim to others does not cause or desire human suffering.

I also suspect many of you, like us, may be asking why. Why did this happen? The media and the justice system will do their best to answer this question in the literal sense, trying to determine why James Holmes apparently entered a movie theater and began shooting at random. In a sense, however, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because even if we get a “why”–an explanation from the shooter, or a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that comes with time–these answers will still not be enough.

In its deepest sense, the question “why?” is not a request for a logical explanation; no logical explanation will justify or make sense of what is indefensible and senseless. It is a cry of the heart, an expression of grief. It is a cry as ancient as it was new again this morning. In the Bible, it is “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). …–Meghan Johnston Aelabouni, Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, CO

Read the whole letter.

Lenten Reflections on Marina Abramovic, Todd Bentley, and Performance Healing


Tip of the Hat to Vintage Jeannie‘s eclectic tastes that led me to performance artist Marina Abramovic and “Our America with Lisa Ling,” a new TV series on OWN. Both have prompted some esoteric reflections on Lent, Lenten disciplines, prophetic witness, and social healing.

From the Lenten prayer of St. Augustine: “O Lord, the house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.”

First, the strange world of Marina Abramovic. Abramovic, born in Belgrade, is one of the leading artists from the “live act” performance art movements from the 1960s and ’70s in Eastern Europe. The performance art and body art movements in Europe can be traced back to the Dadists in 1915 who created “anti-art” to shock and critique the values of a society that preferenced the pretensions of high culture while countenancing the brutality of World War I.

In Abramovic’s performance pieces, her body is the primary medium–taking her and her audience to the limits of emotion. She creates dangerous spaces. She says, “I’m interested in art that disturbs and pushes that moment of danger.” After the terrorist attacks in New York city on Sept. 11, Abramovic performed “House With an Ocean View” at a gallery in Manhattan in which she publicly mourned for 12 days, including fasting, weeping, sometimes tearing her clothes.

“For those twelve days, in perfect silence, she ate nothing and drank only water,” wrote art critic John Haber. “She had nothing with which to read or write. Nothing stood in the way of thought or sleep but lightheadedness and danger. She sought to ‘change my energy field.’ By the end, her flesh fed on muscle, just as in an earlier work, of incisions into her skin, muscle fed on flesh.” And hundreds came to the gallery to participate with her in the public ritual, her prophetic witness. So like Jeremiah weeping for an unrepentant people.

Last year, in preparation for a retrospective of performance art pieces at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic led a workshop at her farm in upstate New York called “Cleaning the House.” Participants slept outside and did not eat nor speak for four days. They engaged in a regimen of individual and group exercises, such as walking backwards in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single object for hours. The goal of these exercises was to enable them to become aware of their limits and to find their own “charismatic space.” They pushed their bodies and minds to learn something about their souls.

The trailer to the movie Marina (see above) tracks one of those workshops. Individuals are led through a series of exercises meant to sharpen their minds and shock their bodies. They go through a 4-day process of “cleansing.” Abramovic walks through the group with an “offertory basket” collecting everyone’s cell phones, IPAs, Iphones, etc.  They are asked to temporarily sacrifice communication in order to be present to themselves and their surroundings. They take a vow of silence. They sleep in the open, in the cold. They bathe in the river. They find a spiritual space where they can identify their own limits, the spiritual boundaries of another, and the impenetrable mystery that lies in the gap between the two. Participants come away completely transformed–shocked at how much more “human” they have become in just 4 days of intense study and training.

In “Our America with Lisa Ling,” the premier episode is devoted to exploring faith healing through Todd Bentley at Morning Star Ministries in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. Ling describes Bentley as a “rock star among faith healers,” and also points out he is a former drug addict whose adultery nearly derailed his ministry.

Bentley runs a school for would-be faith healers. Those who come are the addicted, the abused, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, the needy. With the praise band wailing in the background, Bentley – who looks like a biker in his black t-shirt, full-sleeve tattoos, and body piercings – mows down the line of the desperate, slaying them in the Spirit. It is powerful and pitiful, prayerful and spiritually pornographic.

It is also performance art: Bodies in space; the interacting of charismatic energies. Also with painful, though less dangerous, social commentary.

Ling visits two middle-aged sisters who have paid $600 each to attend Bentley’s workshops, hoping that when they bring their mother to one of Todd Bentley’s worship services she will be cured of her untreatable cancer. “Faith healing is,” Ling points out, “a multibillion dollar industry, and the sisters say these sessions are cheaper than medical treatments their mother’s insurance does not entirely cover.”

One commenter on the episode said, “Many turn to faith healing because they cannot afford treatment from conventional medicine (like the woman in the show with cancer who had to stop her chemo). There are many who want to go the route of conventional medicine, but when that is no longer an option for them, where do they turn? I hope that this show, and those like it, help others to see that we need to find ways of helping everyone have access to medical treatment (no matter what their financial situation may be).”

When the faithful are not cured of cancer or paralysis, Ling reframes (as people of faith have done for centuries in these situations trying to understand the mysterious ways of God). She looks at how the individuals have transformed their own lives with God’s help–turning away from drugs, leaving abusive relationships, gaining emotional and psychological strength–rather than emphasizing the somewhat suspicious snake oil of Todd Bentley.

At the end of the episode Steve, a man paralyzed for years who is convinced that the Lord will heal him through Todd Bentley, is not able to walk again. But when Ling kneels before him in his wheelchair asking how he understands what has happened, he instead pours out his prayers on her. He is compelled to release the spiritual energy built up inside him. He lays his hands on Ling’s head and she receives a peculiar annointing. All of which calls into question who or what was actually being healed.

Liturgy and ritual, stripping away illusions, prayer and healing, surprise and danger, temptations all are part of Lent. We experiment with who we are in our humanness, when masks are ripped away. We expose our wounds. We are vulnerable to Satan/hucksters selling us cheap grace.

Lent is a time to “Clean the House.” St. Augustine’s prayer continues: “My soul is ruinous, O repair it! It displeases Your sight. I confess it, I know. But who shall cleanse it, to whom shall I cry but to you?” We are such peculiar creatures. We choose such strange sins.

On the Outskirts of the Enlightenment: Prophets, Power, and Post-Modernism

Why is this issue of the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism of interest to Christians?  I’m working my way through an academic paper by Jesuit priest Hugues Deletraz on Post-Modernism Opens New Perspectives for Evangelization (see earlier post ‘Modernism has reached its limits‘) to understand what are the marks of this shift and how it helps us understand changes in institutional Christianity today.

While reading Deletraz’ paper, I also picked up Hopeful Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. I love Walter’s deep Bible study and contemporary wisdom drawn from the ancient sources. (I have the honor and pleasure of working right now as his editor at Sojourners while he’s writing Living the Word, our monthly lectionary reflections, for us.)

by Banksy

In Hopeful Imagination, Walter compares and contrasts the eras of the biblical prophets around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE with our current shift from  modernism to post-modernism. His premise is that the loss of the authority of the priestly dynasty and the temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty, centralized authority, legitimacy, and dominance in our own times. Here’s what he says:

“A variety of scholars are calling attention to the prospect that Enlightenment modes of power and Enlightenment modes of knowledge are at the end of their effective rule among us.  All of us are children of the Enlightenment. That cultural reality of the last 250 years has brought us enormous gifts of human reason, human freedom, and human possibility. None of us would want to undo those gifts, but they are gifts not without cost. The reality of the Enlightenment has also resulted in the concentration of power in monopolistic ways which have been uncriticized. Moreover, it has generated dominating models of knowledge which have been thought to be objective rather than dominating.

The evidence grows that the long-standing concentration of power and knowledge which constitutes our human world is under heavy assault and in great jeopardy. God’s work at transforming our world is apparent in the rise of Third World nations, the emergence of Islam as a vigorous political force, and the visibility of a variety of liberation movements. In the midst of such realities, we discover the ineffectiveness of old modes of power. American military and economic power is of course considerable, but it is not everywhere decisive. The limit of such power is matched by the limit of Enlightenment modes of knowledge, for we are coming to see that such “scientific” knowledge no longer carries authority everywhere. There is increasing suspicion of such knowledge because it has long been in the service of domination. Such knowledge arranges reality in ways that are not disinterested. Technique becomes a mode of control, and that mode is no longer easily or universally addressed.

Trust in these conventional modes of power and knowledge is matched by a growing uneasiness when those modes are critiqued or rejected.”–Walter Brueggemann (Hopeful Imagination, p. 5-6)

The question that runs through the communities addressed by the biblical prophets — particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and second Isaiah — during the paradigm shift brought on by the destruction of the Temple and the forced emigration of the Hebrews is this: Are the promises of God strong enough to deal with the current collapse of our “known world”?

It’s a question we are still asking.