I took Paxton to his first specialty, curated, beer store. If Asheville had a different motto than ‘cesspool of sin,’ it might be ‘beers and babies.’ This was one of those father-son bonding moments I’ve dreamt about, like eating hotdogs at a baseball game or monthly dates to the barber shop. Let’s fire up the grill and talk about last night’s Cavs win. But he’s only four months old and we have twenty and a half years before we can sit on the deck and share one. I'm optimistic. After all, he was relatively interested—his big, curious eyes scanned the colors on the shelves and then looked over at me paralyzed by the selection. It’s a big world, son.
The United States has largely operated under the assumption that beer is beer. It’s a lager, brewed with pilsner malts, with a pale straw hue that resembles, well, it resembles urine and sometimes tastes like it. Craft beer has opened us up new horizons: ales and pale ales and India pale ales; stouts and porters; dubbels, trippels, and quads. One drink is bitter—piney, resiny. Another is heavy, chocolatey, sweet. Beer is no longer a commodity, but a means to express creativity and aesthetic—an experience that engages all five senses. Drink it long enough and you might start to grow a beard, wear flannel, and talk about subtle notes of citrus, mango, and white bread crust.
This infinite diversity is derived from basically four simple ingredients: water, grain (malts), yeast, and hops. In 1516, the German Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria decreed that beer should contain those four ingredients and nothing more. There’s leeway for exploration and experimentation in the way they’re combined, but also strict boundaries—partitions where a drink ceases to be a beer and might better be classified as something else altogether. Our modern craft scene doesn’t abide by the purity laws, though the four staples are ubiquitous. We might call it traditioned innovation, a term about leadership coined by Gregory Jones.
One of my favorite podcasts, Homebrewed Christianity, has the motif ‘brew your own faith and theology.’ The host once said that your faith doesn’t have to taste like a watered down Natty Light. Hallelujah. How do we brew something tastier? The Wesleyan tradition has said that there are four ingredients to brew good theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. There’s a great complexity and diversity in the stream of the Christian theology, but we all pull from the same four ingredients--though, in differing combinations and weight.
Methodist pastors are trained to use these four ingredients as a tool to deliberate and defend theological questions and quandaries—to demonstrate faithful and unfaithful theological positions. It’s a tool, an imperfect one, to get the conversation started. In our ordination papers for the United Methodist Church we had to pick an issue or question and put it through the gauntlet. Here’s how it works:
Scripture: Does Scripture address this concern? Water is the life force of beer and Scripture is that for theology. Without it, you might end up with something interesting, but it won’t be God.
Tradition: Has this ever been addressed in the history of the church? What is older is not always better, but you’re less likely to stumble upon something that’s never been discovered before. There’s a whole host of streams—ask them for recipes, drink from them, share the brew. Tradition will help you taste different notes that you couldn’t quite pick up on your own.
Reason: Does this make sense in light of Scripture? You might ask if the taste is balanced. John Wesley championed pragmatism; there’s no use in pursuing something if it’s contrary to common sense.
Experience: Have I heard God speak to this issue in my life? God’s not trapped in the Bible or the fourth century, but God still speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. Theology should be experienced, tasted. What’s the point of doing theology if it’s going to sit on a shelf?
"the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason."
If your theology is watered down look at the ingredients and see if something is missing. Am I immersed in Scripture? And not just for sermon preparation, but for my own personal formation? Reason is about worshiping God with my mind, loving God with my intellect. Do I have tin-man theology—all brains with no heart or experience? Attend to the spoken Word, Sacraments, song, and liturgy and let the Holy Spirit wash over you. How about the great tradition: am I conversing with communion of saints? Maintaining, revising, and re-appropriating the spirit of the work that has done centuries ago? You can accept what you’ve been taught in Sunday School, or you can brew something tastier.
“Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
The quadrilateral has been been depicted as a square, each corner represents one of the four ingredients. Or, it’s drawn as a stool with four legs, one leg for each element of the quadrilateral. Take a seat. It will hold you up. But the ingredients are not entirely distinct from one another like the image portrays. They interpenetrate one another, whether we are conscious of it or not. Reason, for instance, is socially constructed, not a separate authority that operates distinct from the other three ingredients. Nor, should they be entirely equal in weight—Scripture is primary in that it gives shape to the rest.
Here’s another helpful image, though imperfect:
Theology is work for a chef. The entire process is inherently creative and permeated with joy, amazement, and wonder. It’s about savoring the process, even the mistakes and endless questions, and becoming attune to the way your spirit connects with something you will never be able to control or completely understand. This is not about perfection. You’ll never get there. But you might learn to love mystery more deeply, to taste and see that the Lord is good. Then, taste again.
If you’ve been trained in the ingredients then you don’t need a recipe—there’s traditioned innovation. You’re able to improvise and create something delicious. Each brewer will throw in different amounts of the ingredients at different times, but the water is always primary. Steep it in Scripture and new flavors will blossom, sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter. Tinkering takes place—you’ll learn what fits where, when something is off, or when you need a little more of this and that. Let the work ferment for hours and years until you have something worth drinking. An experience of God will pervade the entire enterprise.
Which brings me to the fifth element, call it a bonus, and that’s community. Beer tastes better when it’s shared. The same goes for faith and theology. It’s about sharing a table with a world that’s really thirsty. Join together with a community, especially one that’s diverse, and taste what others are brewing. You’ll start to think differently about what you’ve made for yourself. Refine. Brew again. Enjoy.
I’m given a fresh start every Monday—a white page, a cup of coffee, and strangers sharing a pew. Not everyone is so lucky. A bad sermon usually lives a couple hours until it’s forgotten. Those who do remember usually don’t retain what was said or how I said it, but how it made them feel and want to live their lives. So I till the soil. Again. It’s a moment of limitless potential; what will come, where I’ll be taken or surprised, I cannot say. But there will be a first word, like the first stroke on a canvas or the glob of clay that’s slammed on the wheel. Fragments are joined together, and it’s all seemingly random, until it’s not. There is nothing, then something. It’s ex nihilo, out of nothing—almost.
But I know better. It’s never that romantic. Sometimes it’s a lousy date and the conversation takes a bit of work. I grab the first idea that darts from here to there and pin it down. It’s a starting place. I grab the second and then third until something starts to flow and take shape.
I used to wonder what would happen if nothing showed up, but something always does, even if it means reaching into a tornado (and more often, the stillness before the chaos) and grabbing whatever I can hold on to. Inspiration always has a genesis, a becoming that actualizes from somewhere— a conglomeration of places, like whatever is bringing me life or what happens to be the morning’s news or a Phd who has dedicated her life to one author, one chapter, one verse in this book. This collides with God and a church that is trying to find its way. It’s all chaos until the Spirit of God comes to hover over it.
All of this has been said too many times, in much better ways. What’s more interesting is whether God has the same issues. It reminds me of the very first two verses in Scripture:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
It’s one of my favorite heresies—that God doesn’t create from nothing, but rather in and with the anarchy. And, as far as I can tell, it’s more faithful to the creation poem. Where’s ‘the nothing’? The first couple of lines of Genesis reminds us that God creates from, or with, the deep—the tehom. Darkness covered the ‘wild,’ ’waste’—the ‘chaos.’ And God swept over the face of the deep. Catherine Keller writes beautifully about this, demonstrating that the chaos isn’t necessarily evil, but an opportunity—more like a resting note or a semi-colon. (She also continues to show how creatio ex profundis dismantles Christian imperialism, patriarchy, dominance, the oppression of people of color. Give credit where it’s due). *See footnote*
Creation has its genesis in the midst of chaos.
And doesn’t it always?
Here’s why it matters: creation is still creating, which is something we don’t have to look very far to notice. The universe expands, organisms mutate, creation is renewed out of destruction. That’s good news because some lives are filled with more chaos than order. The loss, anxieties, the hunger, the war. The chaos is not from God’s hands, nor is it necessarily serving a divine plan, but it can still be a catalyst for something else—not back toward the life you had before, but to find the courage to venture into the formlessness where there is great suffering, but maybe also grace.
When we are in the dark waters, or find ourselves wading and hanging on to a life preserver, God creates. Can the church go together, with God, into the deep and see what can be created on the other side?
It speaks into the story of Jesus who self-empties into the world, into the darkness of a womb as the Spirit again hovered over the waters. He makes space in the chaos of a young girl engaged to Joseph. His ministry was about the waste: barrels of water to wine and five leftover loaves feed the people. It’s the people who are pushed into the margins because they don’t fit neatly into the order of the world who are most likely to receive. The chaos of Good Friday as the sky darkens and the earth shakes collides with forgiveness, light, resurrection and something new emerges that was not possible before. It’s messy--even Jesus' body is hard to parse, where the divine begins and the natural ends. And we are held captive by hope that our lives can be the same.
In the Hebrew Bible the only subject for the verb ‘create’ is God and it’s above my pay-grade to know whether it began from nothing or with material. But we, made in God’s image, surely co-operate in God’s endless creativity as God’s love spills over and into every dark crevice of our world. The creation poem helps me to remember that there was disarray and waste before something new emerged. That's true for us, too. Beautiful photographs, the hymns with the greatest thrust, are born in and out of destruction—an act of resistance and a testament to the light.
Each week I embrace creation in the messiness of the quiet, blank screen, the bad sentences, the repetition, the smell of bagels and coffee. I start with disorder and then, there is becoming, a genesis.
*Pump your breaks, orthodoxy police. Could I be anthropomorphizing God? Probably. I have no real theory worked out, and that’s ok. I get it—creation out of nothing helps us maintain the distinction between God and the world, that we are ontologically different, and don’t lapse into pantheism. God is transcendent, with an infinite difference from us, not dependent upon anything for something to become actualized. And God creates, not out of necessity, but out of excess love that spills over…blah, blah, blah.*
Much more can be said, but not for the purposes of this blog or probably 99.9% of the readers.
It’s accurate to call most day-to-day life ‘interruption.’ The phone rings when I’m in deep thought and I have to swim to the surface to deal with a question about who is buried where in the cemetery. The kid, whichever one, wakes up with a warm forehead and the Sesame Street binge begins. I get up to cook dinner and Eden will cling to my leg and say, “Dadda, be the monsta!” Both kids are down for a nap, which is a miracle in itself, and I try to write something. Ten minutes later Pax needs to work out some gas and I quit writing mid sentence to put his legs in bicycle mode. I never thought that there would be a time in my life that I’d forget to brush my teeth.
I also wonder why I keep a bulletin journal, because anything I plan to get done will not be completed in my timeline. I must be a masochist. When I was young, my mom had hung a sign in our kitchen that said, ‘raising kids is like being pecked to death by a duck.’ Every disturbance is another dull peck and I’m slowly wasting away. I used to wonder if I was going to precipitate my parents’ premature death. Now, I wonder if these kids are contributing to mine.
Schedules and to-do lists leave all parties in a bad mood.
I’m working on a sermon on ‘The Good Samaritan,’ and there’s absolutely nothing new to say, so I try to just say the same ole’ really well. It is, perhaps, a story about being interrupted. It starts with an interruption from a lawyer testing Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ willingness to be interrupted might be the hardest virtue for me to imitate—people always trying to touch him, trick him with questions, catch him in the act of defiling the sabbath day. Sure, he stole moments here and there, often alone on the mountaintop, but didn’t he ever want to lock himself up in the bathroom where the children couldn’t find him?
Jesus goes on to tell a story to this lawyer about a Samaritan who is willing to have his life interrupted. It's a difficult story, not because we don't want to be merciful, but because of our own agendas and schedules. I'm sympathetic to the two religious professionals who walk past the man in the ditch. It’s not that they are bad people, it’s just that they’re going over notes for the Bible study, or trying to reconcile some contradiction in the Torah, and they don’t see the man struggling for help. I’ve never felt so understood and exposed at the same time.
Every time I write on “The Good Samaritan” there is some kind of interruption, but I think it’s because the story makes me more sensitive to them. Either that, or the guilt is heavier when I ignore them. This time, there was a knock on the door. A frowning woman limped in and and asked if I had a toboggan. Wait a second: first, it’s the middle of April. Why are we still asking for toboggans? Second, can we settle on what to call these knit hats we wear on our heads? Is it a toboggan? Is it a beanie? Both sound ridiculous. Can we name it something else?
I decided that perhaps God was calling me to be the ‘Good Samaritan.’ I ask her to come into the church to sit down and talk. We go through the clothes lying around the lost and found. I direct her toward the easiest place to locate a knitted hat. Did I just pull someone out of the ditch? Probably not. I'm never quite sure who rescues whom.
It later dawned on me that she was the Good Samaritan, an unlikely hero rescuing me from worship planning and phone calls. It’s rare that we consider that we are the one in the ditch—maimed and in need of help. But it’s possible that I was, and there, right in front of me, was a hand helping me from the ditch of self-importance, busyness, and general anxiety. I often forget the reason why I sit in that office in the first place.
Maybe the point is that we can be saved by interruptions, like a flash mob on a mundane Wednesday. Not always. But sometimes. They are at least a reminder that you are not the author of your own life. What would my life be if I wasn’t interrupted by a girl, a child (then another one), or this God?
This seems to be the way that God works—interrupting people with road trips, pregnancies, and dreams in the night. It’s never convenient. Lives are flipped upside down. Uprooted. Or, they take a hard u-turn. This is, after all, a God who interrupts our world by taking on flesh, and then asks to take residence in our hearts and minds. Christianity asks us to be wasteful, and profligate, that we take a break from efficiency and embrace the interruption as an opportunity to see God's face in a new and unexpected way. Unfortunately, there is all the time in the world to be interrupted. It hurts and then it might save. We're rescued from the ditch.
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.” CS Lewis
Last night I planned to continue slogging through season five of The Americans. This is a joyous slogging, but I am punctual in my 9:30 pm appointment with sleep. And recently, a toddler who will not sleep due to this fear of monsters will interject loudly over the television saying things like, “I don’t have a mommy or a daddy.” There's nothing worse. Not because it's pitiful, though it is, but because I'm tired of parenting for the day. And I have no choice but to rest with the orphaned girl until she falls asleep. She rubs my elbow (weird, we know) until she drifts off to sleep.
Can I find a way to allow it to save me?
Pax: a greeting signifying Christian love ; kiss of peace.