Making Room for Paradox

The past few months have given testimonial to just how primitive we remain as human beings. The killing of 28-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in a suburb of St. Louis, and the ensuing protests and strong-arm police responses, has captured the attention of the international news media. I grew up in Brown’s neighborhood, and find it surreal to see daily films of the streets I used to walk with cousins and friends. My brother and sister-in-law spent the first two years of their marriage living in Canfield Green, the apartment complex where the young man was shot.  

The street displays of anger remind me every evening of a particular passage from the Christian scriptures, perhaps the most misunderstood clause in the Bible … for God so loved the world. It is a cliché in circles of faith to speak of God’s “unconditional” love. But, most of us have a very difficult time believing such an outrageous idea. 

John 3:16Deep down too many of us believe that God doesn’t “so love” the world as it is, but the world that might become. It is an image of love predicated on what you might become, and what I might become. Too bad such an understanding squeezes out room for paradox and mystery in our understanding of love. 

In contrast, a belief in unconditional love sets us free in our being and breaks us open to a new potentiality for our becoming. Behavior is modified on a certain path of development precisely because of having been touched by love, not to mollify a Being threatening consequences for an alternate course.  This is a tough thing to learn that usually requires a transformative experience of some kind.

My experience came as a young seminarian in a neighborhood not far from where Michael Brown was killed. In the 1980s I spent the better part of five years living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in north St. Louis. The police district of this community had the highest crime rate in the city at the time, and the metropolitan area had the unique distinction of the murder capital of the United States for many of those years. Drug deals occurred outside the window of my bedroom in full view every day, and acts of violence, murder and senseless killings occurred regularly on the mean streets of a 35-40 square block area.   

Neighborhood ProtestMost of the people living in that region of the city were good and decent folks. A significant number had the financial means to move to a better neighborhood, but chose to stay and help a struggling community. Eventually property values dropped to a level that made it difficult, if not impossible, to move. Many political, law enforcement and educational leaders had decided this neighborhood was a lost cause by the early 1980s. Too many politicians spoke in platitudes, too many police appeared lackluster in their commitment to the people in the community, and too many educators were ineffectual in inspiring youth and were merely approaching their vocation like a job.  

Since then, those problems continued to fester for an additional 30 years and set the table for the tragedy and spectacle that has followed Brown’s death.

In those years, I entered deeply into the experience of the neighborhood. I was robbed at gun point by five guys, burglarized five times, and caught in a half dozen situations in which I was not quite sure if I was going to get out alive. These became badges of common ground and experience with the community. I didn’t know one person in the neighborhood where I worked and lived that did not have a family member or friend shot, kidnapped, knifed or killed.

The first time I spoke at a funeral home—in a section of town just a short distance from the region now capturing international attention—a pastor with a scheduling conflict asked me to provide a reflection at the wake of a deceased young man who had shot his pregnant wife and then killed himself. Just as the service began, news arrived that the woman and baby had died. To this day I have never been in a room bearing such inconsolable grief or had to struggle to say something comforting before a mystery in life so far beyond my comprehension.

HandsThe cumulative effect of all of these experiences at a young age resulted in the beginning of a profound existential crisis. I began to not only doubt in an unconditionally loving God, but even the existence of a Divine Being. The riots in St. Louis the past few weeks have brought all of these memories back, as I struggle to find hope in a desperate situation with no easy exit. The news about Brown also brings back the memories of how I came to really believe in an unconditionally loving God. 

During that time of my life, living not far from Ferguson, a burned out former missionary pastor, who was also struggling with his own existential crisis, taught me what that love really is. He had recently returned from a challenging couple of years serving in Latin America. In a military crackdown, foreign-born priests and ministers had been rounded up, arrested and imprisoned.  Sometimes they were tortured and killed. Probably suffering from post-traumatic stress, and clearly harboring feelings of betrayal and bitterness, he returned to the U.S. and was assigned to one of the parishes in my region.

After a particularly long run of bad news in the neighborhood, this same pastor and I were having a cup of coffee one evening in the kitchen of a parish rectory.  We discussed recent events, reviewed personalities in the community, and assessed the lack of short-term and long-term opportunities for most of those individuals and the broader community. I struggled out loud with the ultimate meaning of it all. I also waxed and waned for some time on the litany of questions forming in my mind.  Chief among them was the Sisyphean realities facing a struggling poor person or a neighborhood like north St. Louis—the same of which exist in nearly all metropolitan areas in the U.S. and even around the world. What could you say meaningfully and with hope about life to those who had been dealt a hand with so few options? Macbeth’s observation seemed so dead on accurate:  “life … is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The inescapable logic of some of the most dismal existential literature seemed apparent.  

My burned-out friend responded with something directed as much to himself, I suspect, as to me:

“If God really loves humans, then what we live with here is the human condition God has loved through most of history. We walk into these situations with the hopes of changing the world for the better, but this only happens on a grand scale at certain times in history, and that’s not likely to happen during your life. Our call, our mission, and our real work is to love the mess. That’s where God is found – in the mess.  Nothing gets better until we take that first step.” 

Hands in ProtestAs bizarre as those comments seemed at the time, they rang true with crystal clarity on the level of my experience. From the moment of that kitchen conversation, I stopped trying to find God in this or that good thing amidst so many seemingly bad things. Rather, I sought to find God buried deep within the warp and woof of the mess of the human condition in one particular context – the context known by Michael Brown.

The more I performed this mental and spiritual exercise, the more I noticed something fascinating. No matter what was going on in the neighborhood, like most of the people in the community I admired the most, I could still find comfort in the situation, and particularly in the shared experience of carrying the community’s burdens together.

Suddenly I noticed that there were more saintly clergy, cops, educators, and social workers in the neighborhood than I had noticed earlier. Even though there was much to truly weep about, I found more things about which to celebrate than to complain. I now had a new and growing understanding of what “God so loved the world” means. God doesn’t love a fabricated world in which everyone behaves or an idealized world in which people can reach the golden ring of a utopian society. No, God so loves the mess and if God loves it, so must we.  

Wheat We then come to a harder truth and paradox of us as humans trying to practice unconditional love. As humans, we can alleviate pain, but we also aggravate it and cause it. We can create beauty, but we also produce our own shore of ugliness. We can speak the truth, but our lives are equally riddled with falsehoods. We live in a mess and have melded into the mess, becoming indistinguishable from it. Our roots are interwoven with the wheat and the weeds.  However, God knows this and still loves. 

I find my prayer for all of those standing on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri to be that they find liberation in taking the next step into the heart of God, and learn to love through the mess. 

Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

Religion & the Yearning for Freedom

Freedom is a cry that echoes down the canyons of human history. One of the best metaphors for this echo in the human heart comes from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, New Colossus, which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

All of us yearn to breathe free about something. Many children bear the academic year with the dream of breathing the freedom of summer vacation. Teenagers live in anticipation of the freedom of their driver’s license, and someone in a dead end job lives in hope of the release brought by another job offer. My brother, Kirk, had Stage 4 throat cancer several years ago and yearned to breathe free of his illness during the worst of the chemo and radiation treatments, even with the final liberation through death. We want freedom in our personal life, and we want it in our collective existence as well, and we want it so powerfully that we can almost breathe it.

The United States takes a pause to breathe in its political freedom every July 4, with this year marking the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This document articulates a “mutual pledge” by a rabidly divided and unlikely group of people to join together and commit their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to the common cause of liberation from the British. Given the viscous ways King George dealt with insurrection, the pledge gives witness to the risks humans will take for freedom.

Moshe DayanLiberty is such a big deal because the human quest for it is one of our strongest instincts. We hunger for many kinds of freedom: the intellectual freedom to ask critical questions of an issue or a person in authority, the political freedom to support or resist a particular party or candidate, the financial freedom to not worry about the essential things money can buy, or the psychological freedom to live comfortably with the emotions, thoughts, and memories churning within our inner world. Resonating alongside Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, one of the founders of Israel, Moshe Dayan, once put it this way: freedom is “the oxygen of the soul.” The more we inhale, the stronger our soul becomes and the more we burn for liberty.

Since we are a school of theology, I like to emphasize that of all the freedoms essential to a flourishing life, religious freedom is arguably the most important. There is a raging debate on this point throughout the western world, with religion often seeming to lose the argument. The importance of religious freedom contradicts the thoughts of many, such as the so-called “new atheists” Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, who believe religion can only oppress human freedom and subjugate it to the narrow demands of clerical or authoritarian rule. They would argue that what is great in the human spirit withers before the altar of religious belief and practice.

Nelson Mandela statueI would argue that healthy or good religion liberates us like no other source. It can free us from the internal demons that haunt us, and the impediments to self-actualization that prevent us from growing into our fullness of character and personality. More importantly, it frees us from the fear of suffering and death. The person freed by good, healthy religion internalizes a famous saying by Nelson Mandela: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires (for freedom).” The liberty brought by religion empowers us to overcome the fear of the valley of death, and to walk into the valley of death with a holy indifference. During his cancer treatment, my brother walked into the valley so many times that it no longer scared him at all and he would have welcomed death almost as much as healing, something that annoyed his wife (and sometimes others who loved him) to no end.

Collectively, the liberty brought by healthy religion produces humans who are confident and courageous, and yet compassionate and humble; serious and willing to walk into confrontation, and yet joyful and committed to peace, grounded in the here and now, and yet also a citizen of the “not-yet” and the future. The human heart, mind and soul are tempered to become a proactive agent of change, regardless of circumstances, with a balanced, non-reactive, and focused sense of self and goal. This is the potential fruit of healthy, good religion.

Anyone seeking to change the world needs a working theory of this “oxygen for the soul”–why we yearn for freedom, what are its objects, why we are attracted to these objects of liberty, and what part of ourselves remains incomplete when freedom is denied us. Those interested in helping to build a better world also need a special skill-set for practically applying their theory to the real life dynamics of humans seeking liberty. This includes maturing through three “prepositions” of liberty–evolving through freedom “from” and freedom “to,” to arrive at freedom “for.”

Freedom Pillar“Freedom from” is a liberty that releases us from things that hinder us – the restrictions of youth or a job, the real or perceived repression or oppression of others, or the injustice of a policy or practice. This is the freedom we celebrate on that fateful day in July of 1776, when a motley group of colonists met to sign a pledge to stand up against Britain. “Freedom to” is the kind of liberty that allows us to pursue what we want or desire. We can smoke, drink, drive, buy a house or other consumer good, travel or stay home, go to school or drop out, begin a relationship or end one. The Founders summarized this “freedom to” in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and American jurisprudence has tried to preserve our individual right to define what those concepts mean for each of us in the widest possible way.

For those educated and formed by healthy religious traditions, however, the most important freedom is ultimately “freedom for.” You don’t need much experience in watching how people handle their freedom to realize that “freedom from” and “freedom to” can lead as much to destruction as construction in a life, a community and a nation. A healthy, integrative religion excels at strengthening our capacity to surrender our lives for something much bigger than casting off the limitations of our oppressors or pursuing our wants and desires. “Freedom for” empowers us to sacrifice our lives for a greater cause and to do so with joy and peace, bearing any cost, carrying any burden, and embracing any suffering in pursuit of a righteous goal. We can take on suffering in order to lessen the suffering of others, in the ultimate Christic act of solidarity. Most of America’s Founders, like most of the founders of any nation, have had some form of religion in their court. It gave them the power to place their quest for freedom in service to a higher calling and mission.

You don’t have to adhere to a religious tradition to change the world in a positive way. But, healthy religion is so powerful and has been so influential in human history precisely because it liberates us like no other kind of freedom.
Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has built its curriculum around not only the exploration of freedom, but also its integration into our learning. Students are free to question here, to explore the vast complexity of the human heart and mind, and the various ways of looking at God through the ages. The goal is integration of academic learning, personal and spiritual development, and skills for changing the world through building environments of deep, but respectful, freedom. The profound weight of responsibility that comes with this freedom is also a fundamental dimension of the curriculum.

One of the great blessings of this moment in history is that an increasing number of people are recognizing religion as a liberating force. And, more people know that healthy religious belief and practice, when lived reflectively and within communities of vibrant faith, can truly set us free.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

Jackie Robinson & the Class of 2014

For well over a century, Seattle University has served as an incubator for those believing in the possibility of a better world and learning how to make an effective effort to start making it happen, and our graduates keep telling us (and showing us!) that this is what our degrees do for them. The Class of 2014 graduates will join a proud tradition of practical idealists from past generations. They will engage the world like many former students did when they went on to serve as dedicated pastors and chaplains, heads of social service agencies, couples and family therapists, teachers and consultants, school and university professors and administrators, artists, inspiring business and governmental leaders, lawyers and politicians, compassionate healthcare professionals…and in many other professions.

Although Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is only 17-years old, this is the 42nd year Seattle University has celebrated a group of graduates majoring in masters’ level theology and ministry degrees. Since most people consider a generation to change somewhere between 25 and 40 years, the school is into impacting its second generation of students.

Jackie RobinsonFor those who are baseball fans, the number “42” is important. It is the jersey number for one of the world’s most famous baseball players, Jackie Robinson. When the Brooklyn Dodgers started Robinson on first base on April 15, 1947 the team ended six decades of relegating black players to the so-called Negro Leagues. More significantly, the day he walked onto the field he and the Dodgers set in motion the destruction of the “color line” that had divided the United States since before its founding.

Jackie Robinson went on to do many things, include becoming the first black vice-president of a major American corporation and a powerful social activist. But, it was his baseball playing that ignited a spark that grew into the forest fire of social ferment we all know as the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of years of stereotyping African-Americans began to unravel as one man demonstrated his superior skill in a game with 18 players and a little white ball. This is counterintuitive. But so is most of the ways God works with humans and the seriously flawed world we have created.

Karl DownsJackie Robinson was not hatched a fantastic athlete. He had family and friends rooting for him, coaches mentoring him, and teachers teaching him. They not only taught him the content of authenticity, but helped him achieve one of the most difficult things for humans to learn–faith in oneself to make a difference. Robinson had a deeply devote mother, and a dynamic pastor who nurtured his faith, Karl Downs. He was also supported by the man who hired him, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, a person equally serious about his Christian faith. Jackie Robinson only did what he did because of a cloud of witnesses coming before him and walking along side of him in times trial and glory.

It was this mixture of influences that gave Robinson the courage and discipline to turn the other cheek when he regularly received racial insults on the diamond, from the stands, and on the streets. In the process, he modeled the Jesus-like behavior that served as the primary political and social methodology of the Civil Rights Movement.

Water and rockNot everyone becomes a Jackie Robinson. Civil Rights came about because there were people doing small but great things from the moment the first African slave stepped off of a ship onto American soil. Like water wearing down rock, these people and their efforts accumulated over generations to make slow, incremental changes in the environment, creating a growing hunger for a more just, humane, and kind world in congregations, schools, communities, and ultimately the entire nation. Because of mostly invisible women and men of faith and vision over many generations, America was ready to experience a fiery call for justice when Jackie Robinson crouched next to first base on what is now tax day in 1947.

In order for change to occur in the world, you first need scores of humans tilling the soil and planting the seeds for a new age. Those seeds may take root in a year or two, or maybe not for another 20 or 30 years. Or, like most of the great social causes in human history, perhaps it will begin to emerge long after the original instigators of change have passed from the scene. This multi-generational commitment is the only way to make real, lasting change in the human condition. Some of our graduates will never have a prominent role or visibility in society. Others will assume positions of prominence in church and society, and still others may become a Jackie Robinson and show up on cable news shows.

But, all of them will wear away the rocks that keep us from embracing God’s vision for our world.

Jackie Robinson changed a nation by hitting and catching a little white ball because he made the journey to authenticity that allowed him to make the most of his time in the sun. It remains to be seen how the graduates of our 42nd year change the world. But, they, too, have taken the long road to authenticity and it will be fun to watch.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

The Next Generation of Visionaries

If our world did not have visionaries, we would all still live in caves. Visionaries catch a glimpse of something on the horizon that the rest of us cannot make out. They “see” beyond the here and now, the limitations of our frames of reference, the myopia of our institutional structures and the blind spots in those critically important (but imperfect and limited) “tribes” that form us as children and sustain us as adults – our families, our communities, our churches, our places of employment, our societies.

The best visionaries see a different world before their eyes, but also can motivate–with their vision or their personalities or both–enough humans with the potential to turn a vision into a reality. Effective visionaries not only reach for the stars; they help their companions grasp those stars, and even one day live on them.

Green Screen, visionaryVisionaries come in different varieties of effectiveness. Some talk passionately about a better or different world to those around them, but get little traction with their idealism. They provide a kind of entertainment and distraction to life, but do not really change it. Others become teachers attempting to inspire the next generation. They write books or give speeches that inspire segments of the population, but do not really play a substantive role in realizing a vision. Like Moses, they point to possibilities for the emergence of a better world, and perhaps offer a map to the destination but cannot walk very far along the path on that map themselves.

There is a more select group of visionaries. They not only see a more hopeful, promising horizon; they have the ability to draw around them a group of people who can build the boat to get their comrades to the horizon. Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has always aspired to prepare students to become these kinds of visionaries, and we have had many graduates who have achieved this level of transforming themselves and the little area around their world.

Robert KennedySome people considered Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, this kind of visionary, one who could have made substantive changes in American society and perhaps the world. Raised in the lap of luxury, Robert became involved in politics only because his big brother encouraged him to do so, even accepting the position of U.S. Attorney General under the older Kennedy’s presidential administration. Bobby always had a social conscience, and as Attorney General (1961-64), sought to prosecute organized crime in American society, particularly its involvement in the trade unions.

But, Bobby Kennedy came into his own as an American visionary only after the assassination of his brother, John. The younger Kennedy developed stronger attitudes about the nation’s responsibility to respond to the plight of the poor in the United States, the need to redistribute wealth, and the importance of America reevaluating its outsized role in the politics of other nations. In the process, Bobby became a strong and controversial voice for social and political change. When he spoke to crowds, he projected an authenticity that not only inspired them with a vision, but also motivated them to get involved in changing the world. He seemed particularly adept at attracting the kind of people who could build an organization that could turn a vision into reality.

When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, the youngest Kennedy brother, Edward, eulogized his sibling with a three-minute speech that is considered one of the best examples of American political rhetoric. It captures the heart of the kind of visionary the School of Theology and Ministry would hope to produce through our educational and formational processes. My brother, said Edward Kennedy in his eulogy, should be remembered “simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Back to MethuselahThen, summarizing the life of a visionary with a paraphrase of the Serpent in George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah, Edward said “some men (sic) see things as they are and say, why? He dreamed dreams that never were and said why not?” (For a video clip of the eulogy, see here)

Like other tragic visionary figures, Robert Kennedy was killed before he had much of a chance to see how far he could change the nation and world he loved into the vision he had received of a more just and humane place. His good friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a famous biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), and wondered throughout its pages what might have happened if the younger Kennedy had become president. Schlesinger seems to think that Bobby could have inspired the nation and built the institutional structures needed to promote and sustain his vision. As Schlesinger notes, however, we are only left with speculation. The assassin robbed the world of the chance to see.

George Carlin (Image from about a vision is exciting and fun, but trying to realize it is extremely hard work; and, it is a task of the many, not the one or the few. As the comedian George Carlin once quipped, playing off of the Shaw quote used by Edward Kennedy: “Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don’t have time for all that!” <Image from>

Sadly, Carlin is right. Most people in the world do not have time to catch a vision and its implications, let alone become a drum major and laborer to bring that vision to fruition. But, fortunately, history shows that visionaries do not need a large number of collaborators:

Jesus calls disciplesJesus began the Christian movement with only 12 leaders, most of them moderately to significantly dysfunctional, according to the testimony of the Bible. Islam began with the Prophet Muhammad gathering around him an unlikely group of poor, weak and wealthy clans who shared only a discomfort with the materialism of Meccan society. Mary Eddy Baker built the Church of Christ, Scientist, from a “little band of earnest seekers,” in the late 19th century, and in the mid-20th century the Shinnyo-en Buddhist sect (now more than 1 million strong throughout the world) began with the passionate commitment to peace, harmony, and bridge building across human division through a vision of a Japanese aeronautical engineer and his wife after they lost a child.

Intentional, SeattleU STMSeattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has had an abundance of visions and visionaries associated with it over the past 17 years in particular. The school began with an “intentionally ecumenical” vision that Christians from divided denominational perspectives could deepen and ground their particular kind of Christian faith, while simultaneously opening themselves to the insights of other Christian perspectives. There was an assumption buried in this vision – everyone becomes a stronger Christian in their own communities by taking seriously the insights gained by other historic Christian traditions. But, the real work of the school is encouraging and educating the next generation of visionaries, whether they want to transform congregations, prisons, hospitals, the military, or impact the broader society on issues like poverty, educational inequalities, or the raft of other issues plaguing the human race at this moment in history.

Over the past six years, the School of Theology at Seattle University has been refreshing and maturing its own original vision of a school dedicated to building understanding, harmony and collaboration in a diverse and too often divided world.

Five years we began wrestling with the religious pluralism of our timFaith & Family Homelessness Projectes, creating a degree for interfaith students, and strategically engaging religious leaders of the region to promote better understanding and to look for common causes in creating a better world. Among other things, this has culminated in working with 14 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations and nearly 18,000 people to see what we can do collectively to impact family homelessness in Western Washington. More recently, we have launched a project to integrate into our curricula the best thinking in economic literacy and management–the complicated financial issues that every visionary must attend for a vision to become a reality. The school has also reimagined not only how to integrate spirituality with the best training in clinical psychological therapy, but also how to best position our graduates for the kinds of jobs that will allow them to impact both their clients and the world around them.

Interreligious InitiativeLastly, we have built in the past few years a strong tradition of “public theology.” Faculty members have taken every imaginable opportunity to engage the local media. And, we attempt to equip our students not only to lead people within church organizations, but also to bring the values of love, compassion, hope and justice to those who do not share a particular religious worldview. As part of this project we have launched a program helping young pastors become leaders in society as well as their congregations.

The weight of these efforts, and several others, has required the faculty and staff over the past year to spend a great deal of time trying to understand a common narrative to explain all of these activities. We have had long, detailed discussions about the vision that is emerging, and the way we are trying to operationalize this emerging vision.

This is hard work. Taking visions from talk to action always is. However, any visionary worth his or her weight knows that the work is worth it, and in the twilight of one’s life there will be no regret for the time and effort spent. As H. Jackson Brown, Jr., put it in P.S. I Love You:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

Life is…

One of the most important fill-in-the-blank tests of our existence is the answer we give to the question: “Life is…. “ Everyone has a response to this question. Those interested in theology wrestle with the question in deliberate and concrete ways. The question “life is…, constitutes, in fact, the primary question for the discipline of study.

But, most people do not spend a great deal of time pondering how they fill-in-the-blank. How they answer the question resides on the fringes of their awareness, part of the assumptive world underneath their daily consciousness. When we approach “life is…” from this non-reflective perspective, we fill in the blank non-verbally, through the things we value, the ways we act and spend our time and money, and the kinds of decisions we make, big and small.

Chapel of St. IgnatiusWhether we answer, “life is…,” with reflective nuance or just unthinking action, the real test of our response occurs in our last moments of life. I had an uncle who, I think, deep down filled in the blank with “life is a cheat.” Although he had a loving wife, two healthy children, friends, a good career, a charming house, he found life unfulfilling and his last moments were painful to watch. He struggled horribly letting go of a life he never managed to fully live. Meanwhile, it seems my father completed the sentence “life is” … with “a gift to both relish and surrender.” In the last days of his life he sat in a hospital bed in a great deal of discomfort but spoke enthusiastically about the ideas in Winston Churchill’s famous 4-volume history, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which he inherited from my grandfather and always wanted to read and finally finished about a week before his death. Surrounded by his family, and visited by his best friends in his last two days, he robbed death of its sting in the end, releasing his grip on life to the Mystery he came to know as God, a Divine Presence he learned trust in good times and bad.

Both my uncle and father had wonderful and tragic things happen in their life. They had dreams realized and dreams dashed, led productive lives serving their family, community and nation. Both served in World War II, experiencing at very young ages the human potential for courage and selflessness, hatred and barbarity, mean-spirited narrowness of heart and mind and true transcendence. Both were men of faith and both died too young. One of their chief differences was this: they filled in the blank, “life is ….” differently.

Life is Good, logoAs it turns out, answering the question of “life is” has become a commodity. In 1989 two brothers came up with the idea of creating a clothing brand that filled in the blank of “Life is …” with the simple word “good.” John and Bert Jacobs, who were troubled by the impact of the media’s obsession with negativity, started placing their half-glass full philosophy onto comfortable t-shirts. In two decades they have built a business that started in the back of a van and grew into an international operation with 250 employees and a projected income in 2012 of $100 million. Their simple affirmation of life on shirts and hats is represented by a smiling stick figure named Jake, who enjoys simple pleasures in life – hiking, coffee drinking, bike riding, fishing, sitting pleasantly by a campfire with an equally happy dog.

Life is Crap, logoPessimists and cynics, not to be outdone, soon countered with their own clothing line: “Life is crap.” This negative assessment of the gift of life is ornamented by stick figures doing things that go wrong – such as falling off a mountain bike into a tree, paddling a kayak into the shipping lane of a destroyer or having a bird defecate on its head. The idea for this company began with two Americans trapped in a pub in a uncharacteristic snowstorm in England. Over a few beers they exchanged barbs with an elderly Englishmen. “Don’t you hate it when things like this happen?” the elderly gentlemen said about the weather. “Sometimes life is crap, eh mates?” Thus was born yet another wrinkle on the philosophy of pessimism.

In the world of educational assessment, fill-in-the-blank tests are designed to evaluate our ability to recall a particular word or concept with only a few contextual cues. “The general leading the northern troops in the Civil War …” for instance, should surface in the mind of a history student the name of Ulysses S. Grant. The theory is that if you can associate the name to the context of the Civil War you must have learned at least basic knowledge of the American War Between the States. “Life is …” provides a completely different kind of fill-in-the-blank question. It invites the broadest context of all – our very existence – and asks the respondent to surface concepts representing our fundamental orientation to the human condition.

As the human quest for knowledge has evolved through the 20th and into the 21st century, the need for technical know-how has almost completely swamped the forms of learning most associated with helping us to fill in the blank: “Life is ….” Human knowing has been boiled down, like so much cabbage, to the technical knowledge needed for doing specific tasks or jobs.

So, perhaps the t-shirt industry is a wake up call for us all. We have to answer the question “life is…,” whether we want to our not, and life is, indeed, sometimes good and sometimes crap. But, it is also much more. Life is….

ArrowExciting and boring.
Pleasurable and painful.
Fulfilling and disappointing.
Joyful and sad.
Inspiring and deadening
Profound and mundane
Filled with love and hate.

In a school of practical theology, you learn to embrace and celebrate everything that is good, true and beautiful, but you also look closely beyond the veil of what is bad, false and ugly. You learn to make distinctions that complexify your understanding of the world, even as you become more docile, even childlike in accepting a profound simplicity underneath its mysteries. You learn that death and loss are necessary aspects of a life well lived. You learn to risk more generously with the most precious resource we all have – our time – which can be squandered lavishly on people and causes that are deemed central to our truly discerned vocation in life. Theology teaches you how to answer “life is…” for yourself, and helps you learn how to help others answer the question for themselves. There is no more important form of knowing in these difficult times, and no more important question facing our lives.

C.S. Lewis once said he believed that on the other side of the grave each of us would come to realize that we had been in heaven or hell for our entire existence. What he meant was this: how we answer the question “life is…” ultimately determines how we interpret our experience of life from the beginning. Such is the power of the question. It can lead us to heavenly bliss, even though we have horrendous challenges, or make us feel like we are trekking through hell, despite a life overwhelmed with blessings.

I have always found this a disturbing idea. We aren’t sent to heaven or hell in this life (or the next if you believe in it), Lewis is suggesting. Rather, we choose it in the ways we interpret the gifts and difficulties entering our lives, in the way we fill-in-the-blank: “life is….” We can conclude our days either like my uncle or my father. The fruit of our lives is also tied closely to our orientation. Take, for instance, the founders of Life is Good and Life is Crap.

Green screenThe two friends creating the company Life is Crap seem to have created successful business. You can get in on the success by buying a franchise and make money selling your own Crap. But, the Jacob brothers have done something quite different with Life is Good. They started noticing that people going through rough times had a strong affection for the clothing made by their business of optimism. Then they found out about 11-year-old Lindsey, a little girl with terminal bone cancer who became a darling of the media and always wore Life is Good apparel for interviews. “Before I was sick, I took my life for granted,” she told a reporter, “but now that I might not live as long, I want to make sure I enjoy and appreciate it every day.”

The Jacob boys were inspired again. They started Life is GoLife is Good, foundationod charities and festivals for children’s causes. They raised $52,000 the first time, $250,000 a few years later and $1 million in 2012. They continue to attempt to spread the message about the goodness of life in more durable ways than clothing items.
In selling their own fill-in-the-blank answer to “Life is….,” it seems they learned what theologian Miroslav Volf has considered one of the greatest fruits of a life of faith: learning to grow as a human being from the love of pleasure to the pleasure of love. Those who learn to truly love others discover that life is, indeed, good. Even when it is crap. My father learned this lesson well in his life. I’m not sure my uncle did. In the end, it made all the difference.

But, perhaps Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer have captured Volf’s insight in a more concrete fashion for our day and time. They wrote the music for the international blockbuster stage play, Les Miserable, and wrote a moving song for the main character Jean Valjean. One of the lyrics is a quote from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name: “to love another person, is to see the face of God.” When you see God’s face in our fractured world (whether you recognize it as such or not), it is a lot easier to say Life is Good.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

The Prophetic Voice of Dr. King, Jr.

For most of my adult life I have known people of faith who have liked to think of themselves as prophets. In certain areas of western culture, particularly among Christian seminarians, prophets are often perceived as cool.

Prophets are courageous and see through the mythologies of their times, penetrating to a deeper level of reality than their contemporaries. They seem to live at a higher elevation in the moral universe than the rest of us, and are filled with a righteous and purifying anger, a common emotional feature of heroes in western cultures, especially the United States Prophets inhabit a special human realm because they are called to stand toe-to-toe against forces of evil or oppression. They speak a God-revealed truth about life at a particular moment in history and set in motion social changes that heal the broken, bind up the wounds of those most hurt by social sin, and set captives free.

The Prophet AmosFor many, prophets can embody a kind of holy detachment from the hideously imperfect muck of the human condition. They are often imagined as John the Baptizers, living in the real or theoretical wilderness and out-of-step with cultural conventions like dress and lifestyle. For some of us, prophets are even fantasied with unruly hair, a grungy look in clothing, and even the wild, driven eyes of the revolutionary consumed by the fire of a vision. From this position of detachment from the forces of culture, the prophet boldly challenges those who have abandoned the old ways to slip into paths of corruption and degeneracy.

When I was a young seminarian working in a diverse, poor (and sometimes violent) neighborhood, I thought, along with many of my fellow seminarians, that I wanted to serve as a prophet. I imagined a prophet must live a life of unparalleled joy and purpose, laser focused on God’s will for the world and fearless in following the path of righteousness. However, the more I delved into the scriptural testimony of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Joel, and Ezekiel, the more I questioned my naïve assumptions. I came to realize there is really little coolness in this necessary ministry to church and society.

Over the last few weeks, Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges has been guiding students at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry through a course entitled “Prophetic Preaching for Radical Welcome” which grapples with some of these very same and challenging nuances of prophetic voice.

In fact, one of the chief characteristics of a real prophet is that he or she does not want the job. Moses preferred a quite life tending his father-in-law’s sheep herd and tried four times to convince God to send someone else to speak to the Pharaoh (Exodus 3-4). Jeremiah tried to use the excuse of youthful inexperience to get off the hook of giving prophetic utterance (Jeremiah 1:6). Jonah ran in the other direction and had to have a close encounter with a big mammal to grudgingly muster the motivation to embrace his God-given prophetic task. When prophets go about their work, it also seems that they do not find it even remotely enjoyable. After preaching to Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree to sulk (Jonah 4:5-6), and both Moses (Numbers 11:15) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4) hated their prophetic burdens so much that they asked God to kill them and put them out of their misery.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.If prophets are important to the human condition, and you would have a very difficult time making a case that they are not, every culture should get a reality check from time-to-time about who a prophet is, what a prophet does, and how a prophet goes about performing his or her mission. Fortunately for Americans, we get a chance to reflect on the prophetic role once a year in January during the nationwide commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. <Photo credit:>

Most Christians would claim King as part of the Christian tradition’s prophetic tradition. He certainly left a prophetic mark on American society by challenging an entire nation to think and act according to biblical principles of justice. But, his life and work challenges the conventional image of how God’s cry for justice manifests itself through fragile humans.

First, Dr. King was not detached from society; he was immersed in it – its problems, the complexity and elusiveness of solutions, and the soiled institutions of both church and society. He was perennially frustrated that these institutions did not live up to their moral values. But, he learned to live with the frustration and disappointment and never allowed cynicism to either destroy his vision, diminish his convictions, or demonize his enemies.

Second, he didn’t yell at people from the sidelines. He was an incredibly polished orator and rhetorician. King was also multilingual. He modified his message to fit the audience he addressed so the largest number of them could find an entry point into the challenging egalitarian vision he presented. Martin Luther King, Jr., also did not exude righteous anger so much as compassion, confidence, persistence and an intense devotion to a national vision that applied the words and concepts of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to all people equally.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Third, we know from King’s life that prophets (at least in our time) need more than words and noble intentions; they need sophisticated skills in the inner dynamics of institutions. They need to understand the psychological and spiritual dynamics of the individual heart and mind, small group dynamics, how to analyze social situations, skills in translating a message to different audiences and so much more. More difficultly, they need to know themselves inside and out; they need to learn how not to lose heart in times of trial, and how to expand both their patience and their tolerance of others.

Fourth, King did not dress counter-culturally, but rather wore rather expensive, neatly pressed suits. He looked like the American icon of his time: the tailored Mad Men look, walking comfortably in the nation’s halls of power, even at a time in which an African-American man was not welcome in those halls. King came from solid middle-class African-American stock and he knew to win over hearts and minds of a hard-hearted people to a tough message required that he challenge only so many of the cultural conventions of his time at once.

Perhaps one of the most instructional aspects of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is that we know far more about his personal life than we know about most prophetic figures. King was a human first and foremost, not a plaster cast saint living on a different moral plane than those he challenged. Scholars and journalists have dissected and scrutinized his life to embarrassing levels of detail. His many imperfections are a part of the public record: his marital infidelities, his corner cutting on his doctoral dissertation, the smoking and drinking that he enjoyed out of sync with the Christian culture promoted by his Baptist roots. Yet, God used this imperfect and sinful human as a “drum major for justice,” (using one of his favorite images of himself).

The broken features of our personality, the weak links in our character, and our propensity for certain sins are all magnified under the stress and strain of a prophetic vocation. King’s life reminds us there is a constant risk of our own personal destruction in the cauldron of controversy occurring when prophetic utterance collides with the injustices of contemporary reality. Had King lived out the original dream for his life, living the intellectually rich and somewhat insulated life of a professor in a 1960s seminary or university, how might his life have looked differently? It is likely he could have maintained greater control over his personal imperfections. He would certainly have kept them less public.

When you look at the fullness of King’s life you get a better appreciation of what Martin Luther meant when he told Melanchthon “be a sinner and sin boldly” (see here). The current Pope Francis often talks about the risk of engaging the world in its messiness, to avoid becoming so sin obsessed that we fear taking risks in living and preaching the Gospel. God’s mercy awaits us all in our efforts to make the world a more just and humane place.

One of the great gifts in knowing so much about King’s life is having a greater sense of the degree to which a prophet’s loved ones must also suffer. We know little of the challenges faced by the families of the minor and major prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. We know too much about the pain caused to Coretta Scott King, Martin’s wife, and their children. Prophets pay an expensive price for the office of their ministry, and so do all those around them.

It is more than coincidental that King’s day is followed by an entire month focused on celebrating Black History Month. Every February school children are introduced to a long list of prophetic individuals in American history. These men and women changed their communities, regions, and eventually an entire nation, building upon each other’s work and inspiring future generations to take up the cause of racial equality.

Prophets come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and most of them are never recorded in the annals of history. In reflecting on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important to remember how many prophets with his message hammered on American society before substantive change occurred. African-Americans in North America lived in poverty for
246 years of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 151 years ago in 1863, and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago in 1964. As Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson told a large crowd at the Search for Meaning Book Festival this last month, black Americans have spent more time in slavery than freedom. Actually, she said, they endured the burden of slavery for 246 years. Lots of prophets have come and gone in that time period, each changing the culture in incremental steps. And, they walk among us still, although King is the one history will remember.

Martin would have been the first person to remind us that his message and advocacy for justice made in-roads in the United States only because it built upon the courageous work of countless men and women who came before him. Like King, those people devoted their lives to making the world a better place on their exit than their arrival. And, like the young Baptist preacher who was cut down in the prime of his life they feel an insistence and urgency in making our nation and world more worthy of our dignity as daughters and sons of God.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

The Power of Hope to Transform the World

The capacity for hope is one of the marvels of human history. No matter how rocky the road, how steep the climb, or how dehumanizing the situation–humans have an uncanny ability to dream of something greater than the here and now, and believe they can, against all odds, achieve goals beyond themselves. This is a soul power that has transformed civilizations and resurrected broken people and communities throughout history. Traditionally, hope is one of three theological virtues. Along with faith and love, it has been seen as a kind of internal combustion engine fueling all the other virtues empowering humans to create their world, not just react to it. Although St. Paul considered love the greatest of these three virtues us (I Cor. 13:13), hope sustains us when faith and love seem to waver.

JiminyCricket.pngWe have often conflated hoping and wishing in western cultures, particularly the United States. Jiminy Cricket is the icon of this conflation process. As he sang: “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you.” Jiminy, as you may recall was a talking cricket and sidekick of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet hoping to become a real boy. We can’t expect a talking cricket to appreciate the full complexities of human hopes and dreams, even if he can articulate a central mystery of life and help a friend keep motivated in the pursuit of his dreams. Carlo CollodiBut, the original storyline from the 19th century Italian political activist, Carlo Collodi, lacked much of the saccharine of the Disneyfication of Pinocchio, but the role of hope, the belief in dreams, and the importance of tenacity in the face of discouragement and disillusionment is part of the author’s original allegorical tale. Collodi treats the relationship between hoping and wishing more carefully. Certainly not all of our heart desires will come to us. The wisdom of the adage: “take care of what you pray for, you might just get it,” works for hope, too.

Rudy, film posterMost humans are moved by stories of women and men pursuing a dream in the face of adversity and resistance. From Collodi’s 19th century Adventures of Pinocchio, to W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 masterpiece novel, Of Human Bondage, to the 1993 sports flick, Rudy, to the more recent exploits of dwarves, elves and hobbits a la J.R.R. Tolkien–every few years our culture serves up fictional and nonfictional stories that allow us to cheer for the underdog, the dreamer who hopes against hope, manages to endure unbearable hardship, and rises above the Fates.

What draws us to such stories, which are often loved much less by critics than the general populace? When the heroes of the story will not give up, will not allow life to break their spirit, will not settle for a world that doesn’t measure up to their dreams of goodness, beauty, truth or some accomplishment, we connect with a part of ourselves that is waging an equally daunting challenge in our own lives. Or, perhaps we just feel that we too might have such heroism and tenacity lurking somewhere deep inside us. Maybe if circumstances ever demanded it, we could release this propensity from the dungeons our fearfulness, our lack of imagination, or our loss of trust in ourselves, others or God.

Hopeful dreamers are not stymied by the limitations trying to crush the fire in their bellies and souls. They adapt around limitations; they build a new creation from the embers of dreams broken by disappointment and discouragement. More importantly, hopeful dreamers transform into someone different through their arduous journey; they are transformed in the heat of imagination to become a harbinger of a new reality, one more in conformity with a dream than the grit and grime of daily existence.

TheologyPart of the work of theology is to explore the ground and source of our hoping and dreaming, to peel back the biological, chemical, and neurological processes in operation when we see a horizon beyond ourselves and experience the energy to cross oceans and mountains to get to it. A task of theology is get underneath these processes to the spiritual technologies of human consciousness making us nuclear reactors of hopes and dreams. Good theologians get to rappel down with students into the depths of the human consciousness, to discover the precious gems of the human soul, such as the nature and dynamics of hope in our lives.

Harriet TubmanThe great abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, understood this process intimately. As she once said: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Tubman could have added, “you also have the hope within you, if you are courageous enough to connect with it.” She knew, unlike the star-wishing Jiminy, hope provides one of the fuels for drawing the world closer to a dream, rather than allowing the world to crush a dream into pie-in-the-sky musings. We can’t expect the heights of human wisdom from a talking cricket, but we can from those tempered in the hard work of theological inquiry.

Many are surprised to learn that theology is not just about teaching dusty prepositional statements about faith that have been made by other believers in different times of history. They are surprised to discover that theological exploration is also about helping a student awaken his or her soul to the capacity of hope. Many are also shocked to learn it is about assisting the student in going beyond hope to a lifelong commitment of the energies of the heart, mind, and will to the foolishness of chasing a dream truly worthy of the imagination of a child of God.

Hope is so important because without it we are left with a stifling, pallid grayness, an absence of much of the excitement and joy making life an adventure, and calling forth from our depths one of life’s greatest joys – the discovery, identification and embrace of a personal vocation and mission. Hope is, in fact, one of the seeds of a new creation. When it takes root inside of us, all kinds of remarkable things can happen.

Through next month’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, we will Search for Meaning Book Festivalcelebrate hope with many of the festival’s authors, and particularly through the work of the keynote presenters. Two remarkable women, both Pulitzer-prize winners, will grace the dais this year. Both have explored the nature, texture and terrain of human hope, and they have explored this terrain in places that seem to leave little room for luxury of imagining a world different than the one given to you.

Katherine BooThe morning keynoter, Katherine Boo, in her book, Behind Beautiful Forevers, notes that a young boy with no education, living in one of the worst slums on the planet, and wanted for attempted murder still believed in his ability to overcome the challenges facing him and his family. He believed, she said, that his own dreams “properly aligned to his capacities.” In fact they did not.

Some of the greatest dreams achieved in our world did not align to the original capacities of the dreamer. It takes hope to transform us into something more than we once were. One of the marvels of Boo’s book is that it explains the workings of hope in a community of people in a hellish neighborhood on the outskirts of the thriving Indian city of Mumbai. At times it seems the community also lives on the outskirts of hope itself. However, as her book demonstrates for us: the worst of this world’s poverty and marginalization cannot extinguish our capacity for hope and dreams. Little wonder Boo has been compared to Charles Dickens.

Isabel WilkersonAlso at the festival, as an afternoon keynote, Isabel Wilkerson will recount the force of hope that animated an enormous African-American population between 1915 and 1970. As she notes in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, six million African-Americans migrated from the south to northern and western cities during this period, driven by the hope of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones. The siren call of hope beckoning them to a distant land in search of a better life left an indelible mark on the entire culture of the United States. Hope always leaves a wake. It dashes over those not sharing in a dream, as well as those who do.

Week of Prayer, SeattleU STMYou will see other signs of hope in this e-newsletter. This has been the Week for the Prayer of Christian Unity, an annual pilgrimage of the spirit in Christianity, reminding all Christians that we have yet to begin to realize the promise of unity Jesus called his followers to recognize, claim and express in their life of faith and action. Given the divided history of Christianity, this ecumenical instinct is first and foremost an expression of hope, as is the announcement of upcoming Interfaith Harmony Week celebrations at the school.

Lilly Endowment, Inc.You will also note that Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has received two Lilly Endowment, Inc. grants–one designed to create programming so young pastors can learn how to become leaders in church and society, much as the recently honored Martin Luther King, Jr., learned to do in Montgomery, Alabama, as he stoked the fires of the Civil Rights Movement. The second grant is to develop new models for keeping seminary student debt more manageable for future religious leaders. Both grants are investments in the hope of creating something new for the role of religion in society.

The School of Theology and Ministry is one of only a few seminaries in North America invited to participate in these grants. Lilly has recognized for many years that the school, and the broader university, is a seedbed of hope for a different church and a different world.

Alexander Pope, poet“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” goes the famous quote from poet Alexander Pope. And, so it does. But, many do not know this full passage from the famous work An Essay on Man.

“The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”

It is the life to come that beckons to the human (and Divine) power of hope. As we enter into the deep stillness of the winter months, may we nurture the hope within us and wait patiently as it calls forth from us some of the best qualities of the human soul.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD