This Place is an Altar

black and white image of a large hall filled with chairs and an altar at the front, presumably a church, that is completely empty. By Jason Bruner.

Pastor David—strong, sincere, and confident in his pressed shirt and polished shoes—greets me in the doorway. “This place,” he pauses, looking me in the eye, “is an altar.”

He seems genuinely glad to have an American in attendance, but I am in an entirely different sort of mood.

I’m in Kampala attempting to conduct research on the history of Christianity and medicine, but a staff strike has closed the libraries and archives for most of my trip. And the foreign, bureaucratic process that I hoped would result in a government office’s stamp of approval felt like trying to walk through an M.C. Escher drawing.

Though it is a short trip, I am depressed and lonely. I miss my wife and daughters. But the real problem is not the research or the strike or the distance.

The real problem is that I have been among people for whom faith matters, and not just in the sense of really believing things, but in the sense that they know they wouldn’t be alive—in a strictly biological sense—without it. For them, it is vital, in every sense of that word.

This vitality makes me aware of an absence: What do I have? Do I even believe in God anymore? Does it matter? [Read more…]

Against “Amazing Grace”

hymnalIn a world in which it seems that just about everything seems to be complained about online—bitch, bitch, bitch, moan, moan, moan—ad infinitum, here’s a little beef I’d like to proffer, that I don’t recall having seen anywhere yet:

I despise “Amazing Grace.”

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the notion of grace itself, God’s unmerited favor given in the gift of his son to save us from our sins—the distinctive Christian soteriology. It is not, therefore, the theological concept I doubt—though as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I’m probably a bigger fan of the book of James than a lot of my Protestant brethren.

I don’t even have an issue with the hymn’s composer, John Newton, that poor former British slave trader, who was haunted by the dehumanizing work he had pursued, though not enough to leave it for decades. It was good for him to repent, and write against slavery. I am glad he found forgiveness, despite the horror he perpetuated. (I believe that forgiveness can, indeed, be received. Even for horrendous evils.)

It’s the hymn that’s the problem. [Read more…]

Gotta Dance

2350196127_9f6e774f0b_zMy mother was a dancer. I use the term dancer in the most flexible possible way, to mean: “One who dances.”

She said that she had always wished to be a ballerina—an image that didn’t compute with my childhood understanding of my mother, a labor room nurse who played racquetball at the YMCA, and otherwise attended a smattering of sports events in which my siblings and I competed.

She wore tight jeans and therapeutic sandals, and most of the dancing I saw her do was with her friends in the neighborhood on Friday afternoons, when everyone finished work and school, and the children played while the women drank wine coolers and bumped hips to Neil Diamond hits.

For the children, women dancing and drinking in the living room with the massive stereo speakers turned way up, was something to be avoided. So we played hide-and-seek, Legos, Barbies, and otherwise averted our eyes to the mothers.

[Read more…]

Thin Places, Part 1

DSC_0176A few summers ago, my husband Tom and I were in Dublin for a week, and one day, we took a tour bus to two ancient holy places—thin places, the Celts would have called them: spots where heaven and earth are very close to one another, where the ordinary distance between the two collapses.

When I was an evangelical teenager, I thought the idea of thin places was sort of cool, another way to describe that feeling I got when I sat on the beach during vacation and saw an especially vibrant sunset, or stood on top of a mountain and spun slowly to take in the vista. The world was transformed in a moment of extraordinary beauty, and so was I, for a little while.

I felt close to God, closer than I felt singing hymns or listening to sermons. Church, in its very weekly-ness, wasn’t extraordinary like that. I’d never been one of those “on fire for Jesus” types, like my friends who raised their hands in worship, but when I felt that spark, I thought maybe for a while I was like them. [Read more…]

Dancing on the Way to Prison

By John Bryant

Worshipping HandsI’m standing in a circle with thirty singing and swaying old men and we hold each other’s hands because of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and signal the presence of His Spirit by fluttering our fingers during certain parts of the song, the fluttering strange at first and then completely appropriate and satisfying.

There is an old man in front of me with wide forehead and dark eyes and he is bald and tall and strong and he is dancing. He shakes his hips and leaps on one leg and then the other in those impossible khaki shorts he wears in winter, and he looks like he would’ve been a murderer or bouncer or head of a biker gang if he’d not been made a perfect child and clown by the Holy Spirit.

We release hands and begin another song, and these strong old men fold their hands behind their backs like little children holding flowers for girls and they put their voices into the middle of the circle where the song gathers like a creature rising out from fire and for all their gruff, worn appearance the singing is impossibly loud, sincere, and generous. [Read more…]