The Holy Awkward with Pastor Ryan

Reflecting on where the UMC is…

There’s no denying I knew what I signed up for when I was approved for commissioning two years ago; I was prepared for the unpredictable space of pastoral ministry. I was aware of the constant balance of church and personal life. But I also knew I was walking into a hot mess.

If you ask me or my colleagues about the future of the United Methodist Church, we might tell you that the majority of our eyes have been glued to our denomination’s news sources than perhaps they ever have been, for some with the same attention given to the NCAA tournament. Some might tell you that they are soaking in the ambivalence knowing of their impending retirement. Others have already or are in the process of jumping ship. When you ask our local churches, however, many have no idea. Some are asking, “really?” Others are threatening an exodus.

My UMC colleagues and I, no matter which side of the conversation one falls, are living in a conditioned timeline that, in some ways, mirrors our own nation’s political primary season. No sooner had our Council of Bishops tasked a Commission to do the challenging work set before them of addressing the conflicting language in our discipline around human sexuality did outspoken groups and cells start bubbling up or chanting some version of Jesus Christ Superstar‘s “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening…” (At least it played out in my head that way). The faces and names of everyday clergy have now been aligned with sides to the extent to which our news channels and print sources have become politically-charged.

It is a peculiar year to have the opportunity to write my ordination papers when I know my interviews are just shy of a gathering of disparately-minded people where overdue change could come or the recycling truck will need to come gather the pileup of cans collecting by the curb.

It’s the tugging on my heart, daily and the very pain I feel when we preach “we, who are many, are one body” from the Communion table when that unity doesn’t exist from the moment one walks through the church doors. Sure, I wholeheartedly believe that we have unfairly drowned the conversation around human sexuality into a series of objective “issues,” but I also believe this has done a number on the meaning of vocation.

To me, vocation can easily become unnecessarily static. But I think the moment we think stability and security are wrapped up in vocation, we fall short of living in the tension of a dynamic God. When I think of vocation, I feel the scorch of the hot coal that touched Isaiah’s lips upon his call to prophesy. The fear running through his veins knowing that he, a man “of unclean lips” could be used by God in a world of “unclean lips.” A big piece of me looks at the UMC landscape and sees scorched earth while our own lips have been brushed with wasted coals. Words have done more harm than good. Justice has become a bad word instead of a divine attribute. Holy conversations around the diversity in interpretation have been viewed as unbiblical excuses to further an agenda instead of furthering the spread of an impartial gospel. Have we moved away from language of “Here am I. Send me!” to one of “Here I am. Sign me up!”?

The reality is sobering. We can’t approach February 2019 with rose-colored glasses nor can we completely discard the hope we have as Easter people. I recognize that I am wrestling with a call that is fluid, not sticky. My call is not bound to some pinnacle date where God found me on some mountain nor is it closed off from the realm of a God who makes the seemingly far fetched possible. The truth is, my theology is my constant, but my lived expression of it, my vocation is always open to change. My sincere prayer, though my heart is heavy with fear of no change around contours that currently exclude my LGBTQ friends, is that God can broach this mess with hot coals that counter complacency.

Posted by Ryan LaRock with

That phrase (“God is in control”), I don’t think it means what you think it means.

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(Image Who Walked in Darkness © Jan L. Richardson)

Before responding to any sort of call to ministry, I grew up never liking the phrase “God is in control.”  The way it sounded rubbed me the wrong way, nor did it sound at all reassuring.  It’s sort of like an easy access excuse in response to what one would hope is a “yes or no” question.  And why would I want to let go of something that I felt had not been resolved?  God is in control of what?  The projected course of one’s illness?  What may or may not happen when I have a panic attack?  The violence one has endured in a relationship?  The amount of time it’s taken me to receive that promotion?

The reality is that even today if you were to ask me how I feel about it,  I’d tell you that my feelings haven’t changed in the slightest.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that a phrase like this is completely void of any positive connotations, but I do want to stress the importance of engaging in language about God in a way that actually reflects our beliefs, not simply because something sounds good.  No surprise, it is in the most challenging of spaces where we can get into the most theological trouble.  Where words of intended comfort can easily become weapons of discouragement or distortions of God’s involvement.  Trauma, abuse, rape, grief, mental health, infertility, all situations that lend themselves inconveniently to murky theological waters where our outlook on God can radically transform in a split second.  A space where we are drawn into the blurred lines that exist between human limitation and God’s providence.

What is God’s providence, you might ask?  Certainly one of the more challenging aspects of God to define with the limited human knowledge we have at our grasp.  But in an attempt to capture it, we might look at as the manner in which God relates to us.  It answers the question of just how much God is involved when one event or another challenges that response.

But definitions aside, “God is in control” is a theologically heavy statement to make, particularly when one feels that their own control has been robbed of them.  When the last thing one wants to do is surrender everything to God as their life seems to be fading away before their eyes, mentally, emotionally, physically, even spiritually.  When helplessness claims the upper hand over confidence.  And when we find ourselves subject to the control of forces certainly not of God.

My theology professor, Willie Jennings, touched on the way the more we spout off this phrase in casual parlance, the more we lean into an unhealthy fantasy of God.  That is, a God who inhabits the minutiae and whose intimate involvement in creation is overly deterministic.  A God who is the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain of any and every possible thing that may come our way.  “God is in control,” in other words, is a classic instance of perceived providence.  Where what we think we know about God’s agency can work not only against the recipient of said one liner, but also against God.

On the one hand, I find that the phrase promotes a view of God who is okay with us coming out on the other side of whatever situation with a tainted body or an afflicted state of emotions.  The body is already a vulnerable piece of who we are, and so for that very delicateness to be exacerbated by sources beyond our control is terrifying.  My anxiety disorder has been my body’s constant battle with losing control.  When my safety or stability are in any way threatened, I find myself in a heightened state of panic.  When I have received convoluted health news, when something has gone wrong with my car, when I have been victim to abusive language, my sense of control over my body goes out the window.  And so if one were to respond to my situation with “God is in control,” it begs the question in my mind: Did God really want and desire this for me?  Does God want me not to worry about having a grip on what I am going through?  Because in the moments where I have felt as if I was succumbing to a control by anyone other than myself, my image of any sort of control from God has felt like a slap in the face.

In my opinion, to say “God is in control” is to subject ourselves to a complex rationale for how God is (or is not) working in a situation, which more often than not, leaves us more in a wavering state of faith because we are always anticipating some resolve to a predicament.

Second, “God is in Control,” to put it bluntly, is a half-ass suture to, quite often, a much deeper wound.  In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, a certain image began circulating on the internet that said the following:

“Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools?  Signed, a concerned student.” 

This followed with: “Dear concerned student, I’m not allowed in schools.  God.”

If theological ignorance were such a thing, it might be in this very hasty rationale.  Here, it’s as if we are criticizing God’s degree of presence (or lack thereof) in order to arrive at an understanding for an atrocity that really cannot boil down to trite cliches.  For presuming God’s relation to events on our own terms devalues the very providence of a God whom we trust is faithful.  To justify aimless or inexplicable actions with some divine correlation simply draws us further and further away from a God who calls us to pray, calls us to lament.  And yet in this day and age, prayer and lament, two things very much a piece of us as Christians, take a back seat to twisted portrayals of God’s role (in the case of Parkland, God’s perceived absence).

So…is there an alternative to such phrases?  In John 1, we hear of the Word becoming flesh:  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1:10-11 NRSV).  Well, who are we to completely deny the very doctrine of the incarnation when it comes to God’s providence?  To me, these very words in John reflect the very concern I have with resorting to “God is control” language, that even a God whom we proclaim to have lived among us in our likeness can be omitted from our daily wrestlings.  And so, what if reclaiming our understanding of God’s providence is less about assigning God a part to play and more about allowing God the space to move?  God with us A God who lives among us, not above us.  A flesh that encountered the temptations of power, prestige, and security that we experience.  A flesh that was exposed to the horrific and corrupt things of this world.  And yet, a God who abides, not as some fleeting thought, but a constant presence.

Posted by Ryan LaRock with