Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Where’s God in The Hunger Games?

SPOILER ALERT: Don't read on if you haven't read all three novels!

The Hunger Games presents us with a easily believable version of our future: cataclysmic war and environmental collapse sizzle democratic society, leaving a media-savvy dictatorship to repress the survivors for the sole benefit of the Capitol of Panem.  Suzanne Collins’ portrayal of the politics behind tyranny and rebellion rang true.  A divide-and-conquer strategy leaves the country’s outlying districts beholden to the metropole, and the grisly televised sensation of the Hunger Games keeps the Capitol’s masses entertained and the districts’ residents terrified.  The rebellion leans also on broadcast media to unite the oppressed behind the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution, eventually beating the regime at its own belligerent game.  A politically astute allegory of today’s haves and have nots, indeed.

But one aspect of this post-apocalyptic world escaped Collins’ imagination: the life of faith.  Of course, there are reasons for its omission: fear of offending those who care little for religion, or the sheer page constraints of an already hefty trilogy.   Unfortunately, the story’s silence on issues of faith left a critical dimension of the characters’ depth and believability unrealized.  

This is important to me as a fan of young adult fiction, and as a Christian studying to become a priest in the Episcopal Church.  While I believe that faith in any of the world’s great religions would have lended punch and drama to the narrative, I am able to speak only from a Christian perspective in what follows.

Perhaps the author thought bringing up God would run counter to the suspension of reality she sought in these novels.  But the contemporary connections she penned in are unmistakable: the obvious geographical and political references to the United States, the traditional nursery rhymes, the fashion aesthetics, and above all, the technology.  The Hunger Games present a world that could be ours in just decades’ time.  So how and when did religion—or just plain spirituality—scamper off the scene?  What might its inclusion have added to this compelling read?

First, faith strengthens resolve.  What was Katniss doing in the Justice Building after she’d just volunteered as tribute in place of her sister?  Freaking out, understandably.  But a belief in something larger than herself may have helped calm her during those tragic moments.  A particularly Christian parallel to her self-sacrificial choice can be found in the decision of Jesus to offer himself to the governing authorities as a model of a life lived with moral integrity, regardless of the cost.  Contemplating Jesus’ action may have helped Katniss understand her altruistic (and desperate) move as part of a Love larger than what she felt for Prim.  Sharing these observations with the reader would have revealed a new side to Katniss and foreshadowed the role she’d play in the social upheaval to come.  Instead, in this instance and in others we are led by Katniss through moral decision making that is uncritical, even emotionally detached (consider her assassination of President Coin, an ethically problematic action at best).

Faith also adds moral drama.  This could have cut several ways.  Maybe Peeta struggled within a restrictive religious upbringing that made Katniss’ libertine aura that much more attractive.  Or resounding existential questions around the twin facts of an omnipotent God and a devastatingly evil police state could swirl beneath the plot’s surface.  What about the wrestling with the dilemma of a religiously-prohibited action, such as murder, in the face of a “game” that demanded it?  Collins left these and countless other sharp subplots in her imagination’s quiver.

Finally, faith offers realism.  The Hunger Games nailed the political dimension of its narrative, and tackled terrible psychological trauma with care.  But by failing to mention how faith might have played a role in the ability of characters to withstand violence, survive grief, and sustain hope, Collins missed an opportunity to delve deeper into the sources of human motivation and resilience.  Instead, readers were invited to assume that Gale’s cold anger, Katniss’ impulsive courage, and Peeta’s endearing and enduring love were all they needed to make it through Panem’s maelstrom of violence.  This authorial choice resulted in an unnecessary hollowness of character that called the larger realism of the narrative into question.

Collins wrote a superb young adult trilogy in The Hunger Games.  There are plenty of reasons to keep faith off the story board, but in so doing she missed a chance to flesh out her characters, intensify the drama, and strengthen their resolve.  Perhaps she thought these drawbacks acceptable so as to avoid the backlash from people of faith that might have come from an unsavory portrayal of religion in the novels.  Take The Golden Compass, the first of Philip Pullman’s sci-fi trilogy: its lavishly imaginative and alluring plot would have certainly scored three screenplays if it weren’t for the stiffly, almost gratuitous anti-religious message of the books.  Who knows?  If we faithful are so sensitive as to bemoan the lack of a faith in a post-apocalyptic thriller, perhaps Collins decided God needed to take a fictional break from us in the future as well.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Today I thinned my carrot and lettuce seedlings.  This is a kind of pruning that leaves the leafy survivors more room to thrive.  What can I uproot from my life that will give air to that which God hopes will grow?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon at All Souls': Still(ing) Suffering

Here's the text of the sermon I preached today at All Souls' Episcopal Church in San Diego.  I've pasted it below.

Colin Mathewson
All Souls’ Episcopal Church, San Diego
June 24, 2012
Year B, Proper 7
Still(ing) Suffering
The trouble began with a hammer.  Rick had volunteered to take on a weekend remodel  job for his boss to earn some extra cash on the side.  Things had been tight lately at home: His wife Gail had lost her job as a school district admin in the latest round of budget cuts.  Their two girls were both in college and living at home.  Tuition sure had risen since he was in school.  Then that blasted hammer slipped out of his hands at the wrong moment, smashing his customer’s Italian vase into more pieces than seemed possible.  His first feeling was confusion: the vase’s explosion seemed disproportionate somehow.  Like it had been cracked already.
Things went downhill fast after that.  “One too many mistakes, Rick.  Sorry to have to do this to you, but I’ve got to let you go.”  Unemployment checks insufficient to sustain the precariously balanced household financial deck of cards.  COBRA was too expensive, so Rick and Gail opted out and put the kids on the school’s health plan instead.  Then Gail discovered her tumor.
Yea, it had been a rough ride.  So when his friend offered his fishing boat to Rick for a solo overnight trip, he accepted gratefully, relieved to have a moment free from the anxiety that had blanketed the house these past months.  The weather was fine as he pulled out of the bay, the early morning quiet interrupted only by the occasional sea lion bark and gull cry.  But as the coast faded from view the wind picked up, the swells began to roll.  It was time to return, it had to be, his gut told him.  But Rick felt frustrated that even this small gift of time had been taken away from him.  It couldn’t hurt to keep going a while longer.  He turned parallel to the coast as a precaution, he rationalized.
The sunset was blindingly spectacular, and the waves seemed to calm a bit: or was that just what he wanted to see?  As dusk eased into night, the storm reengaged forcefully.  Soon water was splashing over the side.  Now it was time to go home.  But then a too-big wave, a wave from nowhere, an inexplicable wave, tossed the boat nearly on its side.  The engine gave out, swamped.  The boat’s radio crackled with static: Had his friend mentioned something about that, he wondered?
Adrift, Rick had lost his way.  Dangerously.  Panic set in quickly, but not before his anger bloomed fresh and raw.  This was not fair.  None of this was.  “What do you want from me, God?,” he screamed.  Then chuckled in spite of himself, knowing that he hadn’t spent much time with God lately.  His choice.  But really: his life has exploded too loudly, too brashly---like that cursed Italian vase.
Does God cause us to suffer?  Job lost his livestock and children and health.  True, God didn’t lay a finger on Job, but God let Satan loose on him with precious few caveats.  In our reading from Job today, God bellows a litany of omnipotence.  So what was God doing, then, while Job suffered?  The psalmist continues this idea: the LORD speaks and the waves rise high by stormy wind.  And doesn’t Paul through his list of trials suggest that God was behind them as some sort of masochistic power play?  We feel forsaken at times by those we love, by nature, by God.  These times call for silence while grief rocks and roils.
But God did restore Job’s fortunes.  Two-fold, in fact.  God’s action was life-giving, redemptive, saving.  
Paul is a maniac for the gospel.  He’s asking the Corinthians to collect a generous contribution for the Jerusalem church, so he’s pulling out all the stops, including a list of his persecutions.  He is persuading, not complaining.  Paul leads with the power of God’s loving grace, not judgemental punishment.
My brothers and sisters, here is the good news:  But God is not behind our suffering, but rather beside us, calming the storms that will be calmed and sitting next to us when they will not.  God responds to our suffering.
Job’s fortunes were restored two-fold, but his children were not brought back to life.  Job spent the rest of his life grieving those dark, dark days, even as his newly blessed life blossomed around him.  How can we know why we suffer?  We stand before the sheer mystery of God and realize all our words contain a radical contingency.  God is with us on the cross in Jesus and at the foot of the cross in Mary.  Silent in the face of pain.  Suffering is a mystery that is our lot in this blessedly difficult life.  God is not behind our suffering, but beside us in it, loving us and holding us and crying with us.  And that is good news indeed.
The rain fell thickly.  Water sloshed on the deck, drenching his shoes, wetting his heels, now slowing his shins as he shuffled through it.  Rick couldn’t tell whether it was fresh or saltwater, just that his time may be up.  Maybe it would be better to end it all.  No one would know he jumped overboard.  They’d know about the storm.  He mulled over what he had to lose.
Gail.  The kids.  Something flickered inside of him.  An image splashed across his mind: the four of them riding together down a waterslide a few years back, before the troubles had started.  The look on Gail’s face: I can’t believe you got me to do this.  Rick’s wily smile in response.  The crash into the pool at the bottom.  Pure child-like delight.  As he gripped white-knuckled to the wheel he gingerly peeked deeper into himself.  Past the shame.  Past the guilt.  Past that crust of numbness.  Past the despair.  Past these . . . and then in his mind’s eye a door came into view, revealing a man sleeping soundly on a cushion.  “Wake up!,” he cried, all pride gone.  “Help!  Where have you been?  Don’t you care that I’m about to die?!”  The man rose and smiled, embraced him, and said, “I’ve missed you.  Be still.  Be still.  Be still.”  Rick dropped to his knees and cried.
The coast guard cutter’s horn sliced through this reverie; Gail had called Rick’s friend, concerned, earlier that night.  Rick found himself home more quickly than he could have hoped, safe.  A calm warmth radiated from within.  “Weren’t you worried, dad?,” his daugher asked.  “I was, until I cried for help.”  He fell asleep then, surrounded in slumber by those whom he loved.  He was loved even more greatly, inexplicably, still.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


I'm coming off an exchange with a blog editor about a recent piece I wrote, and appreciate what came of the process.  I wish there were more opportunities for similar feedback in our daily lives (although this could quickly become very annoying!)  I found that my writing really improved as I was encouraged to iron our the wrinkles in the text I knew were there but hoped no one would notice.  Perhaps this is an invitation to begin some form of the daily examen, a fixture of the Ignatian spiritual exercises.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Vigorous Vocab

I could write about Robin every day, especially given the current theme I'm working with: growth.  But I'll try my best to hold back!  Today she said her Aunt Kayti's name for the first time, and also "lamb" and "rabbit." What I loved most though were the deep, almost hysterical belly laughs she belted out while I gave her some bedtime strawberry kisses.  Those bell-like rings will stay with me the rest of the night.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Patient relationships

Growth has a lot to do with patience.  I noticed this in myself today while getting to know a church member: in the past I think I would have been interested in moving the conversation faster to the "punch line," the "important" part where we get stuff planned so we could get stuff done.  But I've been learning just how critical relationships are, so I'm slowing down.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ordinary Time and Growth

The months between the liturgical seasons of Pentecost and Advent are often referred to as "ordinary time."  Green vestments and linen are used, perhaps to signify the slow and steady growth encouraged within this bounded space.  Which reminds me: time to water the garden!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Does God Want You to Be Thin?

Commenting on “Does God Want You to Be Thin?,” Time magazine, June 11, 2012

It’s hard not to feel a bit jealous.  Saddleback Church recently launched the Daniel Plan, a church-based diet regimen that includes small group accountability sessions, expert opinion, recipes, and exercise classes before Sunday services, and the program appears to be working: some 15,000 participants have lost a collective 260,000 pounds to date.  An impact on that scale would make any organization proud.  This organization happens to be a church.

Of course, this isn’t what church is about.  Right?  Like a good Episcopalian, the notion of church as self-help seminar makes me deeply uncomfortable.  But I can’t deny the presence of real spirit—dare I say Holy Spirit—behind the scenes.  Atrophied bodies wearied by years of unhealthy eating are being restored to wholeness, to God’s greater glory.

The steadily insistent drone of church decline whines on in the background of many mainline minds.  When will the next generation walk through our doors?  They may never enter, many of us worry.  This is because many of our churches have largely remained on the sidewalks outside the mainstream cultural arenas where the tech-savvy and media-overloaded milennials work and play.
There’s a reason for this, of course.  The allure of cultural relevancy has drawn many churches down a theology-diluting, non-challenging path of Christian worship that can make church feel more like a rock concert or a shopping mall than a sacred place of prayer.  Straddling the sacred and the secular is risky business for churches.  Not being a Saddleback Church member, I’m not in the position to comment on its place along the cultural relevance spectrum.  Given its enormous Sunday attendance, however, they’re certainly meeting folks at least halfway between the day-to-day grind and the transcendent.  

By and large, many of our mainline churches aren’t structured for such liturgical relaxation, and that’s a good thing: traditional worship can keep mission drift safely at bay.  For the Episcopal Church, our weekly celebration of the Eucharist presumably turns off many, as does the strange vestments and not-of-this-century hymnody.  Perhaps because we have a clear sense of ourselves, at least through the lens of our common worship, we may have lost over time a concern for attempting the messy but necessary work of helping make sense of what we do for the newcomer.  This includes recognizing the me-first and more-is-better cultural milieu in which we live and move and have our being.  Preaching is a critical moment for such cultural awareness and interpretation work for new and seasoned parishioner alike.

That said, what can mainline churches learn from the Daniel Plan’s success to date?  These days mainstream culture is much more likely to co-opt Christian symbols and celebrations rather than the other way around: the Christmas liturgical season became a shopping season; apocalypse is a blockbusting movie money maker in its tidal, glacial, bestial, and cosmic forms; and Jesus appears on Saturday Night Live to chide Tim Tebow’s embarrassingly public displays of piety.  But the Daniel Plan is doing the opposite: it is sidling into the $60 billion weight loss market with ease and influence.  In the process, it may be a freshly effective evangelical medium.

See, the genius of Saddleback is its recognition that everyone knows how to lose weight: eat better and exercise more.  But few do this on their own.  Instead, humans need each other for accountability and fun.  They need community.  As public finances wither and mall security forces expand, our truly public spaces continue to shrink.  As we rely more on Facebook for our socializing, we crave face-to-face relationships.  Church is one of the last bastions of honest-to-God community left in the modern postindustrial world.  The Daniel Plan proves that church offers something that science or society alone cannot offer: an accountability and meaning-making system that transforms lives.  Alcoholics Anonymous came to this insight decades ago in its insistence that participants embrace a Higher Power.  Importantly, Saddleback incorporated expert medical opinion into its program design, a welcome example of the usefulness (rather than danger) of science vis-à-vis faith.

Modestly sized mainline churches ought not try to be something they aren’t: megachurches.  But how might churches organize across an area (within a denomination, or ecumenically) to create more enticing programs on a more substantial scale?  For example, why do so many churches run their own sparsely attended Vacation Bible Schools, when a pooling of nearby churches could offer kids more fun and more learning?  And for the love of God, where are our small groups that meet during the week for Bible study or just some simple fellowship and prayer over dinner?

The Episcopal Church boasts liturgical content rich in meaning and sonorous in tone.  Our embrace of reason alongside scripture and tradition keeps us importantly open to the ever-important science v. faith debate.  Our willingness to find common ground through our practice of worship, while leaving space for different theological and political opinions, has enabled our church to weather recent ideological storms with some measure of flexibility and grace.  But the sheer weight of what we do together, the seriousness with which we carry out our worship and praise, may have left many Episcopal churches flat-footed at a time when nimbleness reigns supreme.  Perhaps a diet plan wouldn’t be so bad for us, either: exercising our cultural savvy and imagining new ways to be church may enliven a new century of work together, with God’s help.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Preaching Excellence Conference Sermon: Advent 1

Here's the text to a sermon given at the Episcopal Preaching Foundation's Preaching Excellence Conference in Richmond, Virginia May 27-31:

Advent One, Year B
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Christ Beside Us, Waiting
The dawn’s warm orange glow bathes Jerusalem.  The men sit quietly in the shadow of the Mount of Olives, its western side as yet unwarmed by the morning sun.  From their rocky vantage point over the olive trees they take in the spread of cemeteries before them, fading from view as the slope eases into the valley below.  The horizon is broken by rugged hill lines, but the men’s attention remains drawn to the holy city’s daily awakening.  Buildings constructed of local stone shine gold in the light.  Gold thus centers the men’s sight on the Temple Mount, the centuries’ old site of sacred worship.  Present political tension buzzes the air; past faithfulness intones chant-like from graves; future end-times expectation bears down upon the east-facing beautiful Golden Gate, the door through which the Messiah will enter on the Day of Judgment, as prophesied by Zechariah.
Good morning, Jerusalem: yesterday, today, tomorrow.
On the rocky mountain ledge we sit beside Jesus as his first four disciples—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—ask their teacher when the stones of the temple’s stunning buildings will topple.  Jesus concludes his warnings with these difficult lines: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
Jesus didn’t know how many more sunrises there would be.
We’re still waiting, and many of us are getting impatient.  There is something deeply ingrained in the human psyche that seeks always to know what comes next.  It’s a comfort and security thing.  So when it comes to what happens next and finally, we’ve really got to know.  This end times tension engages many of our coping mechanisms: denial, as embodied by the long and lavishly marketed Christmas (shopping) “season”; fear, as seen in the running tally of miscalculated “apocalypses,” the latest falling on May 21 of last year; and fascination, as imagined by the Left Behind book series.
But what about faithfulness?  The liturgical season of Advent is the church’s look into-the-not-yet-risen-sun, the hopeful but still-shadowed space set apart by Christians for their generations-long watch for Christ.
We thus proclaim in faith, O Christ, that you are coming: vulnerable as a baby, victorious as a Messiah.  Yet you are here, we also believe: surely in the Bible we meet you and your words which “will not pass away,” those words that lead us deeper into interior dark spaces in order to heal them.  You are here in the single mom in need of a favor and the aunt with cancer, but also those with whom our souls yearn for reconciliation: the alcohol-abusing homeless man we judge, the infuriatingly smug politician we curse, the annoyingly smiley megachurch members we pity (while secretly envying their average Sunday attendance!)  You are here as we listen in prayer for forgiveness, for reassurance, for sure and certain hope.
Christians follow the psalmist in singing: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides for ever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and for evermore.”
  Indeed, Christian faithfulness rests squarely on biblical bedrock; the Hebrew Scriptures comprise the stories of God’s people struggling to maintain faith in a God for whose deliverance they often had to wait much longer than they would have preferred.  This is no exception in today’s readings of Isaiah and the psalm.  These texts lament the disaster that has befallen Judah, most likely Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.  In its wake there is recorded an honest reckoning, corporate and penitential in character.  There is also the heart-wrenching cry: “Stir up your might and come to save us!”  This painfully honest introspection and painfully sincere expectation found their fulfillment in God’s faithfulness, in God’s restoration and deliverance.  For the people of God faith became possible because of God’s faithfulness.
Paul, a faithful Jew, continued this Jewish tradition of interpreting the events of his day through the lens of the Hebrew Bible.  His blinding encounter with the risen Christ drove this scriptural wrestling; his letters eventually became the earliest contributions to the baby New Testament.  What it meant to live between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the final days gripped Paul’s attention, as can be seen from today’s letter to the Corinthian church.  Paul asserted that by faith we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ will certainly return.  But where is Christ in the meanwhile, and what is our relationship to him?  How can we relate to Christ in this spiritually awkward in-between time?
Paul claims that Christ is coming and that Christ is here.  We are “in” Christ Jesus by the grace of God, and this wholly encompassing, embodied quality to our relationship with Christ leads to enrichment “in speech and knowledge of every kind.”  Such spiritual gifts thus strengthen us in our waiting for the “revealing of our Lord.”  So Christ strengthens us through our membership in his body in order that we might have the spiritual resources to wait for his return.  Whoa: there’s mystery there.  God is good and faithful, we affirm, alongside all those who have heard and believed this spectacular Pauline claim over twenty centuries of Christian experience of Christ’s presence among us.
We know you are faithful to your people, O God -- and so we wait for you, especially in this season of Advent.  We embrace the spaciousness of this spiritual landscape and face its shadowed, doubt-ridden uncertainties, its devastating call for honesty as we name and claim our personal and social sins.  We corporately breathe, catching our breath and praying in this moment of ancient transition for clarity: of purpose, of vision, of love.  Instead of striving to do more than we can handle, even when done in your Name, keeping us too busy to hear your saving word, in this introspective season we recognize the gift of grace that is to watch for you around us.  We can only do such honest soul-searching in the light of your gracious presence.  You are coming, and you are here beside us.
In these minutes before the sun crowns majestically over that blessed Mount, when the city’s saffron light-soaked veil yet drapes the landscape, in the moment when time itself has caught its breath—between night and dawn, between faithfulness and fulfillment—Jesus and his disciples sit steadily beside us on that solid rock-of-faith ledge: watching, and waiting, and longing, together with the church and its saints across time and space: watching and waiting for Christ.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Given to Water

the pebbled beach stretches before us 
yawns, still waking up
insistent waves rake against rock
baptizing shore incessantly
with Robin in my arms I jog imbalanced
a 25-pound toddler clinging to my left while 
the ground slopes seriously to the right
given to water
so is she: wiggling loose from grip, I let her down
and watch her waddle-sprint across the wind-whipped beach
last spent waves greet little shoes
bell-like laughs ring from her belly
I scoop her up and stride farther still
until, passing a dilapidated dock
we spook a heron into flight:
startled, speechless, we witness
primal escape to safety
now loping more easily, the sand sturdier here
I turn in circles as I run with Robin
“moh,” “moh” she cries and signs
we dance, we two, to a song of creation
divinely designed in Eden to harmonize 
the two of us to each other, to all people
the kingdom of heaven a concert of 
insistent waves and herons wings
belly laughs and serious sand
given to water