June 4, 2020

Random Thoughts on a Chilly Monday

NPU Grad 4 small

th_SnoopyIt is graduation season. Our youngest son got his degree from North Park University in Chicago on Saturday and we enjoyed the ceremony. Our immediate celebration was postponed because we had a limited number of tickets to the ceremony and had to deal with car problems, but the family is gathering next weekend to raise our glasses, catch up with each other, laugh, feast, and mark a milestone.

Congratulations to all of you who are rejoicing together over similar achievements this spring.

th_SnoopyI’ve been reading some of the most thoughtful, inspiring theology from the pen of Peter Rollins. As usual, I am a bit late to the party when it comes to Rollins’s work, but I am finding his 2006 book, How (Not) to Speak of God, jaw-droppingly good. Before I finish it and attempt a review, here is a passage for you to chew on.

Hence revelation ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown. This is not dissimilar to a baby being held by her mother — the baby does not understand the mother but rather experiences being known by the mother. In contrast, revelation is often treated as if it can be deciphered into a dogmatic system rather than embraced as the site where the impenetrable secret of God transforms us. In the former, revelation is rendered into an eloquent doctrine, while in the latter, revelation is that which transforms. We are like an infant in the arms of God, unable to grasp but being transformed by the grasp. Revelation can thus be described as bringing to light the secret of God in such a way that it remains secret. God is thus the secret who remains concealed in the sharing. We can thus not speak of a hidden side of God and a manifest side, for we must acknowledge that the manifest side of God is also hidden.

th_SnoopyAfter writing about God’s providential care for us yesterday, another aspect of the situation became clear to me last night. If we had not been trapped in traffic, crawling along for an hour on I-65 in central Indiana, it’s possible that the air conditioner part that failed might not have burned out until we had made it to Chicago. Then we would have been stuck in the city rather than in the place where we were cared for so well by a friend.

The threads of Providence that bring to pass the events in the world are wondrously woven together.

cincture-cI’ve been gathering gear for my summer interim role at our church:

  • My first alb and cincture
  • A High Celtic Cross pendant
  • Four new clergy shirts (gray and blue) for church office and visit days on Fridays
  • A ceremonial binder for leading worship
  • Three CD’s with the liturgies from the ELW hymnal so I can become more familiar with them
  • A commentary on the lectionary texts for the season

This part is certainly fun, and I’m grateful for some additional resources that came in that enabled me to purchase a few things. The anticipation is building, and I’m eager to get back to leading worship and preaching every week!

th_SnoopyI’m considering taking a day at Gethsemani or St. Meinrad’s before the summer begins. Any of you planning retreats in the near future? What are your favorite places to get away for prayer and contemplation?

th_SnoopyMother’s Day was yesterday, and I’ve been grateful that the church has grown over the years in understanding that this can be a difficult day for many women. Think of singles who desire to be married and have families and yet find themselves waiting, those who struggle with fertility problems, those who have miscarried, those who have lost children, and those with painful family experiences who find it hard to honor mothers that mistreated or abandoned them. And there are so many other situations and circumstances that make this a hard day for many women.

To them I offer this litany, which I found on James’s blog:

In peace let us pray to the Lord.
Lord have mercy

For all the women of God’s church across the face of the earth, who have loved and nurtured others into the faith.
Lord have mercy

For those who are single mothers and struggle to provide for their family.
Lord have mercy

For the poor and widowed whose child has been taken from them because they couldn’t care for them.
Lord have mercy

For those held captive by abuse who fear for their children and their life.
Lord have mercy

For those who are estranged from their chlidren.
Lord have mercy

For those have suffered the loss of a child either through miscarriage, abortion or the premature death of a child.
Lord have mercy

For those who have lost their own mothers and feel the dull ache of their loss.
Lord have mercy

For those who have never, and may never, have the opportunity to have a child.
Lord have mercy

For strength in joy and hope for all women and confidence in God’s care for them.
Lord have mercy

For . . .(names of women you feel led to pray for)
Lord have mercy

For all those who call on you from their hearts.
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy



  1. Robert F says

    I’m not redeemed by anything I do, think or believe; I’m only redeemed by the graciousness of God given to me in the love of Jesus Christ, who is filling my darkness with the light of his mysterious and elusive life-giving presence.

  2. The quote by Rollins is very interesting, however it seems a bit circular. I would love to read the wider context of his thoughts regarding revelation, though.

    • Michael Z says

      That’s true of much of Rollins’ writing. He’s really more of a poet than an essayist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I quite enjoyed _How (not) to speak of God_ and have also been very inspired when I’ve heard him speak in person.) I like him especially because he keeps stressing that the place of unknowing and ambiguity and uncertainty that we are always trying to escape from, is in fact the place where we meet God.

  3. My all-time favorite place for prayer and reflection is Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Petersham, MA. The monks there are Maronites, one of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches… probably too far for your upcoming retreat, CM, but if you ever make it back up to New England…

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    It’s definitely NOT “a chilly Monday” where I am.
    Heat wave, highs well into the 90s.
    Global Warming(TM) media angsting expected.

    • There’s an old saying in Indiana warning people not to plant flowers before Mothers Day. This year the saying was good advice. We had frost last night, but by midweek will reach the mid-80’s.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And guess what day my house’s AC decided to break down?

      • We’re under a frost advisory tonight, after setting a record low last night. We’re nearly a month past our average last frost date and the forecast high for Wednesday is nearly 90. Crazy.

  5. Aidan Clevinger says

    Are “dogmatic systems” and “an impenetrable secret by which God transforms us” mutually exclusive? Why can’t revelation provide both?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Just that usually it goes out-of-balance one way or the other.

      As happens with so many other things in Christendom.

    • I don’t think he would completely discount dogmatics but strongly encourage us to acknowledge our limitations. He would also remind us that dogmatic theology is a child of modernism which exalts Reason and seeks intellectual certainty. Rollins, on the other hand, thinks that Christian mystical tradition with its emphasis on mystery and “unknowing” is a promising way to do theology in today’s post-modern environment.

      • Robert F says

        The sociologist and amateur Lutheran theologian (describing himself as a very theologically liberal though politically conservative Lutheran) Peter Berger recommends that we adopt an attitude of “epistemological modesty” in our assertions about absolute truths of any kind; but he would contend that it’s exactly reason which leads us to this modesty, because reason is the only tool we have to measure the truth claims implicit in our mystical and revelatory experiences when they are finished and we wake up “the morning after” to find ourselves back again in the mundane world of ordinary experience.

        The problem with this approach to Christian thinking is that behind a lot of the concern with exactitude of doctrine in Christianity lurks the fear that we may end up in eternal hell if we don’t get it right. And it’s hard to get around dealing with hell because in the Bible Jesus himself refers to hell far more than any other figure does. Speaking for myself, I’ve tended to proceed down the path of embracing mystery and unknowing, but I’m always aware that in doing so, I may be ignoring a central aspect of the teaching of Jesus himself, and this makes me very uncomfortable. But I really don’t see any other way to proceed that doesn’t lead me to a place where I’m insisting on the absolute truth of doctrines that I’m actually not certain of myself; I’ve tried to go down that road before and it has only led me into further confusion and doubt.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Chaplain Mike, you’ve opened the opportunity to say several things, so thanks!

    First congratulations on the graduation of your son. Have fun when the celebration day arrives.

    My grandaughter just graduated from Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana this past Saturday. I have to brag a little, as she earned her BA in biology, summa cum laude and with honors. And now in just a few days she starts working on a Master’s at St Francis University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, working toward becoming a physician’s assistant. She has always been an excitable and almost hyper person, so the last few days have been great fun for us.

    Peter Rollins is the kiind of theologian I can like, even though I know nothing about him except what has been said here. I like him because I’ve always thought that our carefully put together dogmatic theologies in actuality tell us very little. One person’s dogmatism seems to be the other’s loathing. So I’m not sure what these theologies have ever really achieved for us.

    As to traveling to and fro on the road: I was thankful when my body finally landed safely back at home Saturday. The driver I rode with frightened me many times. He is about 77 years of age. He fixed a sandwich while driving, spilling mustard on his shirt, Then the phone rang and he had dig it out of his pocket. More than once we were on the wrong side of the road, or in the middle. Being a farmer he also had his eyes on the fields more than the road. However we did have very interesting conversations about farm equipment, preferably Massey-Ferguson! So– thank God for home!

  7. petrushka1611 says

    I went to my old church yesterday, and in between the usual scriptures and bromides, the assistant pastor said, “The greatest work of righteousness any woman can do is to be a mother.”

    I thought of a lady my age (late 30s) whom I’ve known since we were teens. She was raised by very strict parents, and the few times a guy has been interested in her, they’ve shut it down. She still lives at home, and will most likely never get married. She and her sister have sung at that church for years. I was glad she wasn’t there to hear that — even though the assistant didn’t mean it that way, it was a complete slap in the face for people in her situation. To say nothing of women who have lost children.

    When they passed around the microphone asking for people to give testimonies about their mothers, I was sorely tempted to say something about that, but I didn’t feel I could. Or I wimped out.

  8. Peter Rollins, eh?
    Heh, heh. Just you wait…

  9. I’m just really not impressed with the Rollins quote. It sounds nice, but I think it reduces to jibberish. “…not as that which makes God known or leaves God unknown, but rather that makes God known as unknown…” Seriously? Wherever you go, there you might be? Not impressed. Too Zen for me.

    I recognize the value in admitting the limitations of human reason and dogmatic systems. The whole idea behind dogmatic systems is that they are based off what can be known about God because he bothered to communicate it to us. I understand that God’s Word transforms us rather than just enlightens us. But that claim is itself part of a dogmatic system (Lutheranism, btw). Yes, God is so much bigger than we could ever contain within the pages of a book, and what is written in scripture is only what we need for salvation. But let’s not minimize how critically important that is. God is mysterious, but not everything about him is. The primary point of revelation is not the mysteriousness of God: It’s what IS revealed about him (that he is a merciful, gift-giving God) that is important. I’ll take a dogmatic system giving me mercy and grace any day before a nebulous mystery.

    we must acknowledge that the manifest side of God is also hidden.

    Yes and no. Jesus walked plainly in front of the 12 disciples. He was not hidden from them at all. They did miss the point for quite some time, but in His time God helped them to understand. I reject any dogmatic system which claims this doesn’t happen. I just don’t see the merit in systemic skepticism, unless of course, you don’t believe the Christian scriptures. I get that like the disciples, dogmatic systems often miss the point completely, but I still think they are capable of getting the right idea, especially now that we have the New Testament. I don’t want to misunderestimate the ability of man to continue to screw up what is clearly revealed, after all, we do need illumination, but we have the Holy Spirit now. We can and will know about God whatever he wants us to.

  10. David Cornwell says

    It’s interesting that replies to the writings of Rollins from those who disagree with him are mostly of the dogmatic variety. There is a Christian mindset that worries a lot about not having the answers. Thus fundamentalism and it’s various offshoots will always thrive. It’s scary NOT to know.

    I’ve always thought that the bible and it’s stories speak for themselves. But we seem not to be happy unless we can read back into them the meanings we desire.

    • There is a Christian mindset that worries a lot about not having the answers.

      Careful there… It almost sounds like a theological “have you stopped beating your wife?” Either you agree with Rollins, or your pontification is a coverup for deep seated insecurities about your own uncertainty? I know you’re not going there, but just remember that most dogmatic systems are not afraid to leave many significant questions unanswered. In fact, dogmatic systems are built around protecting the central mysteries of the Christian faith (incarnation, Trinity) from those who insist on having a reasonable explanation for them (early church heresies).

      • Are you certain that you can’t be intellectually certain?
        It sounds like this guy “knows” an awful lot about God for one claiming that we can’t know. He doesn’t remind me of an infant in his mothers arms. Infants don’t know that they are infants. He comes across as one who says that he has seen beyond the curtain and knows secret truths that the rest of us do not.

        God does not address us as infants in His Word. He gives us clear statements. This all sounds like an excuse for us to be lazy, or hedonistic. “what are you saying God? I am just an infant and can’t understand you so I’ll just go over here and indulge my sin nature because You are so awesome and wonderful that I could never understand you. I am just an ignorant, blithering fool who can’t get it…oh look, I’m in a situation where I would benefit from lying. What God? what are you saying? I couldn’t quite get that…”

        God gives us clear instructions, and it is not “works based salvation” to obey God.

        Once again, how does he know all this stuff if we are all just infants. He just undermined his own premise, and the very reason for even writing a book. Infants can’t read, or reason. Both skills are required to read his book.

  11. Radagast says

    I went on a men’s retreat a few weeks ago. Enjoyed it but I consider it more mainstream… meaning I got my time for prayer but its more for church groups. My favorite is when I go to Saint Emmas which is a community of Benedictian nuns. These retreats are silent retreats and gives me a chance to really get back in touch with my spiritual self. I very much enjoy these, more and more as I grow older…

  12. scrapiron says

    “What are your favorite places to get away for prayer and contemplation?” Hands-down it’s the campsite on the Canadian side of Lower Basswood Falls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Takes a hard day’s work to get there, but it’s worth every paddle stroke and portage step.