Make A Mess

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Again with this quote:

As we pay attention to rivers and seas, we might also discover God’s fluid presence with the water.

When I baptize people I make a mess. The chancel floor is wet even before any water has been lifted from the font, because I pour it in from as high a height as my right arm will allow. It cascades down and tumbles out. The front pew sitters should wear raincoats.

You can hear it, you can see it, and you know it’s water.

The baptized–infant and adult alike–end up dripping, because I want the water to be the story. I’m no respecter of baptismal garments. I’m not innovating with language, and I’m not inflecting my speech for earnestness or drama.

Hear the water. Watch the water. Feel the water.

This is what I’ve learned in church: you don’t need an ocean or a river to get hit with the presence of God in water.

A baptism in an ocean or a river, though? That’s something I want to do once before I’m done. Until then, I make rivers on the chancel.



Just When You Though It Was Safe To Go Back in The Water

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

So here’s a provocative claim from Grounded: 

As we pay attention to rivers and seas, we might also discover God’s fluid presence with the water.

Swimming off Coronado Beach in San Diego during the summer of 2009, I drifted too far from shore and struggled to make it back in. The tide got a bit nasty. Successive incoming waves tumbled me like a clothes dryer. Each time I surfaced for air, I was facing in a different direction and had to reorient myself to the shoreline. Exhausted, I gave myself over to the waves and let them toss me toward the beach. When my feet implausibly found the bottom and I could stand upright, a lifeguard with a small crowd ran at me with an expression that said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I didn’t get back in the water that day.

On a youth beach trip in 2012, I punched and head butted Orange County waves with a reckless crew of teenage boys. Then one of those waves picked me up and flung me to the ocean floor, where my elbows and face dug into the sand while my legs and feet followed the wave forward, bending my back to what I was sure was breaking (a Californian later enlightened me that I had been “crabbed”).

I didn’t get back in the water that day either.

Waiting for the return ferry from Santa Cruz Island in 2008, I donned some goggles and a snorkel and putted around the kelp beds next to the dock, marveling at the colorful fish. But I swam straight into the tangled kelp and had to thrash furiously for several seconds to free myself. Luckily no one saw.

God’s fluid presence is with the water.

“Fluid” contains so many things: a weighted pull, a mindless drift, a violent tossing. If God is with the waters, then the waters are not to be entered carelessly.


God Made Dirt, And Dirt Don’t Hurt

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

There’s a question in this book nagging at me. It stems from Butler Bass’s description of a baptism liturgy she experienced during an Easter Vigil. “For the first time I realized,” she writes, “That at the center of the liturgy was a confusing, confounding spiritual metaphor: that salvation meant washing away dirt.

“The metaphors of church [strike] with an angular force against the metaphors of the garden.”

Is our easy acceptance of “dirt” as a metaphor for sin and its attendant descriptors like “soiled” keeping people like me from finding God in the dirt?

When my brother Robby and I were kids he used to drive me to frustration with his ready declaration, after eating something he’d dropped on the floor, “God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt.” It made me want to scream. Even as a kid such an attitude struck me as wrong-headed, even gross.

But what is this disgust with dirt about? More importantly, what is it doing? Here’s a critical observation from Grounded.

If ‘unclean’ and ‘being soiled’ become the dominant metaphors for sin, it is just a small step to the demonization of real dirt. If being dirty means we are an unclean people on an unclean land, dirt stands in the way of both holiness and dinner. Theologically, it can be difficult to experience soil as anything but a problem.”

What then? Do we purge our liturgies of dirt language? Um, no. “Dirty” and “clean” are metaphors, and metaphorical language has power for good and ill. If our loathing of dirt leads us to yawn at increasing soil erosion, we’re in serious long-term trouble. It would be a tragedy if our religious language contributed to such a calamity.

On the other hand, cleanliness may not actually be close to Godliness, but it does correlate, for one thing, to less disease.



Whose Afraid of The Big Bad Panentheist?

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

The one foray into the weeds of theological discourse that Grounded allows takes us into the field of “pans,” namely pantheism and panentheism. The book is arguing for a more wholehearted appropriation of the latter of those two pans among the ranks of liberal Protestants.

Here’s how Bulter Bass spells out the distinction between the two pans:

Pantheists believe that God is everything, and everything is God . . . Panentheism is the idea that God is with or in all things.

Both of these terms earned spots on the theological no fly list I learned at my evangelical Christian college and in a subsequent Systematic Theology course I took at a bible college in Kansas City. They failed, I was taught, to appreciate the transcendence of God. Pantheism makes no distinction between the Creator and the creation (which is idolatry), and the distinction panentheism makes is too fine to withstand scrutiny. Too much rests on prepositions.

Grounded’s enthusiasm for panentheism as a compelling theological lens for our era proceeds from a place of ecological concern. We heirs of the Industrial Revolution have unleashed havoc on the earth’s soil, a sin that has flowed from a theological framework that allowed us to see the soil as a thing out of which to extract value.

Not only did that [Industrial] revolution move us away from the soil; it also turned the land into an object to be managed instead of a relationship to be experienced. Western religion, often afraid to lose the Creator-creation distinction, quickly baptized theologies that distanced God from the dirt and emphasized human lordship over the land.

Yep. I cut my teeth on those theologies. I wonder how much of my difficulty with finding God in the dirt stems from them.

Panentheism rests on solid theological footing. It places a great deal of weight on the relational nature of God as Trinity. “With,” “for,” and “in” are really important prepositions for talking about who God is and what God is doing. I’m not spooked by the panentheistic collapse of transcendance, because I don’t think immanence and transcendance are the opposites I was taught they are. It is God’s way to be with us–and, to Grounded’s point, with the soil–by way of being not-us, and to be bigger than us by being with us.





I Can’t Find God in The Dirt

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Four years ago my neighbor and I transformed a tiny patch of the courtyard we share in our condo complex into a two-tiered garden about 10 feet long and four feet wide. We filled it with good soil and planted tomatoes, tomatillos, beans, and some herbs. We created compost bins out of trash cans.

You wouldn’t believe the way things grew in there. It was more than we could use. It was an unqualified gardening success.

I say, it was a gardening success.

It’s still growing herbs, but the neighborhood cats have done a number (two) on the soil, and what started as a collaboration is now a one-woman project, as I progressively lost interest about half way through the second year. Now it is my neighbor’s garden.

I thought a lot about my gardening failure as I read “Dirt,” the second chapter of “Grounded.”Butler Bass is discovering God in her garden, in a dusty New Mexico chapel, and lots of other “dirty” places she used to detest. For the first time in her life, she’s finding life in soil, and “Grounded” is her attempt to describe that finding in theological terms.

She’s not alone in her finding, of course. She notes that gardens are proliferating on church grounds, on school campuses, even in abandoned urban lots. Farmer’s markets are everywhere. Community supported agriculture projects are easier than even to join. There is a growing consciousness in the culture of the mysteries hidden in the dirt.

My church has a farm plot on it now that a local nonprofit cultivates. Butler Bass writes about The Garden Church, and there’s also Farm Church (the founder of which I interviewed here). These churches are attracting people who are yearning to experience faith out-of-doors, in the dirt.

I tried to love the dirt, but I just couldn’t. I can theologize about the relationship between creation and composting, but I don’t, like, feel it, you know? The walls of a sanctuary don’t bother me one bit, and even before I sought those walls out my faith was being formed by other indoor spaces: college dorms, community centers, coffee shops. My experience of God has been disproportionately interior and urban. I have not found God in the dirt.

Maybe I was trying to hard. Maybe I lack the attention span. Maybe I’m too busy being a pastor and a spouse and a parent. Whatever it is, I’m disappointed about it, and “Grounded” is making me want to keep trying.


You Say You Want A Revolution–Er, Institution?

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Grounded wants to document a “revolution” occurring in the world and the church. There are several threads to this revolution. One of them is the demise of institutions–including religious ones.

Butler-Bass takes it as a given that most peoples’ experience of institutional, organized religion these days is either bad or boring. There’s plenty of data to back that up. At the same time, religious belief remains widespread. “Spiritual-but-not-religious” is a well established self-descriptor for growing masses of North Americans who, when asked for their religious affiliation, report “None.”

So, “People believe, but they believe differently than they once did.” This amounts to a revolution, and our religious institutions are mostly on the wrong side of it.

I’ve gone back and forth in my conviction about institutions. I worked for awhile on a national initiative that wanted to rescue civic engagement  for young adults and that drew heavily for inspiration on books like Bowling Alone and Loose Connections. I marched off to a big institutional flagship seminary in a fit of devotion to organized religion.

My devotion waned during my first decade as a pastor, though, for a couple of reasons. One, the people most committed to preserving church institutions for their own sake seemed to me to be the people doing it the most harm. And two, I read a lot of people like Diana Butler-Bass who were urging the church to get over its institutions and find new, “missional,” ways to connect to the “Nones” all around them.

But now I’m experiencing a renewed concern for strong religious institutions which has everything to do with exposure to broad-based relational community organizing. Community organizers organize  institutions, not individuals. They are obviously committed to organized institutions–many of them religious–and they’re doing undeniably powerful things.

I don’t know if the church should assume that the world has moved on from religious institutions and run headlong into some ill-defined post institutional expression of church.

It’s also clear to me that doubling down on our institutions–from congregations to national denominations–is not getting us anywhere. Our neighbors are finding little compelling evidence that those institutions are worth their interest or commitment.

Where are you on this? If all of the structures of organized religion disappeared tomorrow, would that be an advance for faith? Or would it be the worst thing ever?





I’m Not Buying Bottom-Up Just Yet

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Grounded is an assertion of a revolution. It wants to show how contemporary spirituality in North America is leaving behind a top-down conception of the human/divine relationship, one in which God exists “up there” and we “down here” and which relies on Scripture and church authorities to show us how to avoid ending up “down down there.”

This assertion looks to the shifting institutional and community structures of modern life for reinforcement: “In the twenty-first-century world, top-down institutions and philosophies are weakening–and that includes top-down religions.”

She goes on:

At the same moment when massive global institutions seem to rule the world, there is an equally strong countermovement among regular people to claim personal agency in our own lives. We grow food in backyards. We brew beer. We weave cloth and knit blankets. We shop local. We create our own playlists. We tailor delivery of news and entertainment. In every arena, we customize and personalize our lives, creating material environments to make meaning, express a sense of uniqueness, and engage causes that matter to us and the world.

I’ve been hearing some version of that claim for at least 15 years, and I am far less enthusiastic about heralding it today than as a seminary student. I’m not sure it’s totally true.

For one thing, that “countermovement” very often feels like a lifestyle trend available mostly to college-educated white people (and I say that as one who, decked in flannel and covered in facial hair, has brewed beer and made my own deodorant). Agency-claiming may be the order of the day for some, but the vast majority of people across the globe are more crushed today than ever before by a very top-down mechanism that asserts its profit-making agency with ruthless force.

I’m not sure that consumer habits like shopping at Whole Foods and curating Spotify playlists constitute a meaningful shift in how we are interacting with the world and experiencing spirituality. My uncertainty about that has a lot to do with the very top-down corporations that are profiting from these bottom-up choices.

Take Uber, the ultimate bottom-up operation and the poster child for the new peer-driven networked reality. My friend calls it an oligarchy. A small group of people who created a tech product are amassing a fortune on the labor of millions of independent workers to whom the company owes no institutional commitment like health care or auto insurance.

The world Grounded is describing is very much one I want to live in. It’s just that I’m less inclined to see evidence of it in the things Butler-Bass points to.

What about you? Am I being overly negative? Is the world really shifting in this respect?


#TheStruggleIsReal (Or, My First Post on “Grounded”)

This is the first post in a series about Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Grounded: Finding God in The World–A Spiritual RevolutionI heard her talk about it last week at the Claremont School of Theology, and it just arrived this week courtesy of the Los Angeles County Library.

I blogged pretty obsessively about her last book, Christianity After Religion. You can check out those posts here.

Butler-Bass is a uniquely important voice on the mainline Protestant landscape; she is a church historian and a religious sociologist, but, most importantly, she is a disciple of Jesus trying to experience God in a maddening contemporary landscape. I hope blogging about Grounded creates space for constructive conversations about the things she’s grappling with.

The first claim that resonates with me is a personal one, and not historical or sociological. It’s worth quoting at length.

Much to my surprise, church has become a spiritual, even a theological struggle for me. I have found it increasingly difficult to sing hymns that celebrate a hierarchical heavenly realm, to recite creeds that feel disconnected from life, to pray liturgies that emphasize salvation through blood, to listen to sermons that preach an exclusive way to God, to participate in sacraments that exclude others, and to find myself confined to a hard pew in a building with now windows to the world outside. This has not happened because I am angry at the church or God. Rather, it has happened because I was moving around in the world and began to realize how beautifully God was everywhere.

I suspect some version of this struggle is shared by most congregants in mainline North American churches. I also suspect it’s shared by lots of those churches’ leaders.

Church is my vocation.I get to pick the hymns and creeds and to craft the prayers and sermons. Still, the leeway I have to bend the traditional language of worship to egalitarian and communitarian sensitivities only goes so far.

The struggle is a yearning for an experience of the beauty and the power of God in the day-to-day grind, including Sunday. Masculine pronouns aren’t the real problem.

Butler-Bass is about to drop the hammer on the western expression of a heaven-bound God mediated by a hierarchical church as out-of-touch and in dire need of revision.



Remember That Time When Someone Interrupted Diana Butler-Bass?

I’ve written about Diana Butler-Bass on this blog a lot. So let me use this space to tell you about the time she was speaking at an event I helped organize and someone in the audience stood and shouted out in the middle of her presentation. Yeah, that happened.

“I’m sorry Diana!” she abruptly shouted from the balcony, and every muscle in my body tensed up. I knew something like this might happen here, on this second evening of our national conference, when, concurrently, Butler-Bass would be addressing a sanctuary of over 700 people and two presbyteries on the east coast would be casting potentially decisive votes to ratify 14-f, the amendment that will give PC(USA) clergy permission to perform same-gender marriages. We warned her beforehand that, should news of a decisive vote hit Twitter during her talk, there could be some disruption.

I knew it could happen, and still everything in me froze. It felt wrong and rude and like a derailing of something I’d worked on. I sighed a deep sigh as the interruption continued. “Amendment 14-F just passed. Everyone can marry!” Immediate applause. Almost as immediate standing ovation, an ovation that lasted well over a minute.

With each passing second of that ovation the tension I felt between decorum and consideration on the one hand and righteous celebration on the on the other hand relaxed and reclined into celebration. We firmly believe in creating space in the middle for people who don’t agree to feel heard and respected, and some feared that this celebration compromised that middle space. But I think the middle has moved on us, and trying to hold this space is like holding a hotel reservation long after the band has left town.

Diana was gracious. She welcomed the Presbyterians on behalf of the Episcopalian Church, which is years ahead of us in recognizing same-gender marriages. Then she incorporated the event into her presentation like it was planned all along.

I heard someone denounce the celebration as evidence that NEXT has made up its mind on this issue and is not truly neutral. But the NEXT church was always going to be about inclusion, inclusion as a practice and an ethos, though, and not simply an Issue. This gathering normalized inclusion in concrete ways; preachers told stories about transgender members and about their same-gender partners. And, of course, the entire assembly stood and cheered the achievement of marriage equality.

I don’t think that celebration compromises NEXT’s ability to be a space for people who disagree or who aren’t lauding 14-f’s passage. It seemed to me an authentic response that demonstrated the heart of the Church that will be NEXT.