Tag Archive | guilt

Restoration of Communion

This is part three of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part one here, and part two here.  While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.

People come to worship.  These people are you and me.  We come with our residual ache, with our guilt and alienation.  We come with what Brueggemann sees as two forms of religious reductionism, that keep us from letting go of our residual ache and experiencing communion** with God and one another (p. 48).

The first reductionism is what he calls extreme subjective consciousness (p.48).   There is ONLY me.  The world revolves around ME.  This is especially true in the United States culture where we pride ourselves on our independence.  We can do it ourselves, thank you very much.   Although we are capable of caring for others, everything is about me, what I want, what I feel, what I perceive as important should be important to everyone.  The sense of community is greatly diminished.  We live in neighborhoods where we don’t know each other.  There is little thought of the greater good, the greatest value is what’s good for ME.  This reductionism leads us to build walls between us and our neighbors.


The second reductionism he calls extreme objective consciousness (p. 48).  There is ONLY God.  God is all powerful and always right.  There can be no dissent because God is almighty.  Because God is always right, if we disagree then we must be WRONG.  If we disagree we must deny ourselves and submit.  Injustice and pain are to be denied because this is the way God made things and we just need to accept it.  If God didn’t want the status quo then God would’ve changed it.  Because we are in compete submission to God, we cannot act to change circumstances because that would be unfaithful.  Because we are forced to deny our feelings and experiences, this reductionism leads us to anger and rage at God.

image.phpSome might balk at the idea that submissiveness is wrong.  Of course God is always right!  We should never challenge God!  But Brueggemann gives many examples where the faithful have challenged God.  The Psalms are filled with challenges to the way God has set things up.  Brueggemann reminds us of Abraham and Moses speaking out or challenging God’s decision-making (Gen. 18:23ff and Exodus 32:1-14, 33:13-16, 34:8-9, Num. 11:10ff).  “Conversations of serious engagement with God are not conversations in which God must always respond on our terms,” but that doesn’t mean they’re forbidden or that God doesn’t take them seriously (p. 60).  It is CRUCIAL for us to bring our sufferings, our hurts, our pleas, our displeasure, our COMPLAINTS even about God TO God.

“The preaching task is to guide people out of the alienated silence of exaggerated self, and out of the silence of denial and rage of an exaggerated God, into a serious, dangerous, subversive, covenantal conversation, a conversation that is the root form of communion.  Communion is not possible where speech is destroyed either by selfishness or by submissiveness”(p. 49).

Then, “Praise happens… when the isolation and alienation and denial of rage are overcome enough to permit speech”(p. 68).  Feeling heard is an indispensable part of any relationship.  Even when things don’t go our way, being heard helps us maintain our relationship with the other.  Praise is our ultimate destination, but when we’re in the midst of suffering praise is not easy.  When we’re expressing our anger with God praise is not easy.  It’s a journey, and sometimes that journey is L O N G.  But by staying in conversation/communion with God and with one another we are carried through to praise.  Staying in communion allows us to eventually get there.

“The sermon must be a modeling of a conversation in which all partners speak:  the speech of good friends, the speech of parent and child, the speech of sovereign and subject, the speech of creator and creature…. The initiative for a new conversation cannot simply begin with the voice of God, for God is already eliminated in alienation or too large in suppressed rage.  The new saving conversation must begin ‘from below’ in the cry of the oppressed, the grief of emptiness, the hurt of being forgotten”(p. 75).

I bristle at the idea that humanity must initiate this conversation/communion.  What I think is that God is open to us the whole time, but our acknowledgment and verbalization of our alienation or rage finally enables us to see God, to hear what God has been saying to us all along – opens us to finally realize it.  Like when the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).

I completely agree with Brueggemann that the sermon is a place for the modeling of a conversation.  Once people see the pastor struggling with God, they can give themselves permission to do the same.  Once people see the pastor struggling with his/her selfishness, it gives them permission to do the same.  I’m not saying the pastor is to lay out all their burdens from the pulpit – that’s inappropriate – what the pastor verbalizes are common human conditions, allowing people to recognize that wrestling with God is ok, that confronting our own selfishness is ok, once in a while giving a suitable personal example when it fits.   As a pastor, it’s my honor and privilege to help folks to start this conversation, this communion, with God and one another, and to keep it going.  It’s not always easy, in fact sometimes it’s quite difficult and frightening, but always important.  Even in the most loving relationships there are tough times.  But it is essential to keep talking…

questions to ponder:

  • Do I see myself as having an extremely subjective consciousness or an extremely objective consciousness?
  • How can I confront my selfishness?
  • Am I able to acknowledge when I disagree with God?  When I’m angry with God?  How do I express it?
  • How have I experienced God in conversation with me?  Have I felt heard?  How am I in conversation with God?  How does God hear me?

*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

**Brueggemann gives a meaning to the word communion that is wider than its common use in the Church.  In liturgical traditions, communion almost always means “Holy Communion,” the Mass or the Eucharist.  But Brueggemann sees preaching as a verbal making of communion with preacher, listener and God.



God’s work and Human work

This is part two of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part one here.

It is vitally important that we come to acknowledge our residue of ache, so that we can come to a place of real healing.  Without acknowledging that guilt and alienation (residual ache) color our relationships with one another and with God, we live in denial – a denial that keeps us from experiencing the full joy (that is also the hard work) of giving and receiving love from one another and God.

We try to pretend that everything is “ok.”  We put our best efforts forward in front of other people and on social media.  I do it too.  Very seldom (if ever!) do we post pictures of our kids fighting, messy rooms,  or write about the emotional wreck we are after a fight with our spouse, the worries we have that a loved one is drinking too much, that we are spending above our means etc…  We also are loathe to admit when we have been in the wrong, when we feel unworthy, when we can’t measure up.  This pressure to present ourselves as perfect leads to guilt – not just over sin(s), but about EVERYTHING!  No, everything is not ok.  No I am NOT fine.  How often have we longed to say that, but stifle ourselves?

“It is folly to imagine that modern people do not struggle with the reality of guilt and the yearning for healing” (p. 31).

Dr. Brueggemann asserts that residual ache can only be dealt with once we acknowledge the following (p. 32):

  1. God notices our sin
  2. God takes it seriously and responds with anger and indignation
  3. God takes it seriously and is grieved and is “beset by profound disappointment”
  4. reparations are required


“The residue of ache is dealt with by sacramental action that mediates to us God’s own life given toward us”(p. 32)


1.  Try as we may to hide our sins and imperfections from others, try as we may to carry on as usual as if everything is fine – we can’t fool God.  God SEES.  God notices.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.

2 & 3.  In some traditions it might seem strange to think of God as angry with us, in other traditions it might seem strange to think that God can be grieved/disappointed/sad.  I see that both characteristics flow from God’s immeasurable love.  God can certainly be angry with us – but this is not God as an angry judge itching to condemn – this is God angry because God loves us and wants more for us than sin.  I love my husband and children with all my heart, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get angry with them.  But because I love them, my anger is accompanied by disappointment and sadness.  If I didn’t love them, I simply wouldn’t care.  God is sad/disappointed/grieved, because God LOVES.  When we focus only on God’s anger, we miss God’s compassion.  When we focus only on God’s grief and sadness, we miss God’s power and righteousness.  Brueggemann stresses that God’s anger and anguish always go together (p. 32).

4.  Brueggemann looks at Matthew 5:23-26,

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and then remember that your brother [or sister] has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother [or sister] and then come and offer your gift.”

“Jesus asserts that the making of reparations precedes offering to God.  Neighbor is the prerequisite for communion with God”(p. 34).  This is a serious statement.  It packs a punch.  It tells us we cannot sweep our actions towards our neighbors under the rug.  Jesus says, “FIRST be reconciled,” THEN come.  Notice Jesus DOESN’T say, “When YOU have something against your brother, go and make THEM do the reconciling.”  This isn’t about the wronged demanding justice.  This is about the guilty stepping forward and saying, “I did it, I’m sorry.  What can I do to make it better?”  Wow.

5.  Then Brueggemann looks at Hebrews 19:19-23.  The prelude to this text is realizing that no amount of human reparation will ever be enough.  We are left hopeless to make it better.  “Therefore GOD must intercede.  It is God’s self-giving love, God’s yearning, God’s care that deals with the residue of human ache”(p. 35).  God intercedes by the “blood of Jesus”(Heb. 19:19).  Jesus “does what we cannot do for ourselves”(p. 35).  “God’s way with us emerges out of God’s deep love that cannot stand by while we die of the poison” of guilt and sin(p. 36).  This comes as a huge relief because in the end we cannot possibly make reparations for all the wrong we’ve done to one another and to God.  We all “fall short”(Rom. 3:23).  If reparations were the complete prerequisite for relationship with God, then we’d all be doomed.  Oh, how we need the blood of Jesus – the One whom we proclaim to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29) – the lamb sacrificed for our sins on the cross.

However, the fact that we are ultimately driven to the cross does not excuse us from reparation.  God’s divine work does not “get us off the hook” from the human work of reconciliation.  It is dangerous to emphasize one at the expense of the other.  Brueggemann warns of “cheap grace” and “works righteousness.”

“Unless this news is artistically presented, the ideology of liberals will only hear social responsibility and reparations.  Unless there is artistry in articulation, the ideology of conservatives will only hear ‘blood atonement’…. I propose, then, that good preaching must address the quarrelsome contradiction among us concerning worship and ethics, priest and prophet, worldliness and sacrament…”(p. 38-39).

It’s a daunting task to try to balance these two in preaching.  There is work we must do, yet we can’t do it all – so we cling to the cross and beg for mercy.  But receiving mercy doesn’t excuse us from doing the work we can.  We must, we can’t, we beg.  We need all three. (Lutherans can be particularly vulnerable because of our emphasis on “grace alone.”  It’s true we can’t earn our way to heaven, but even Luther taught that good works were an indispensable part of the Christian life.)  Human work does not save us, but human work is what we are called to do through divine mercy.

Each Christian expression has their own sacramental actions that help mediate God’s action in Jesus.  In more liturgical traditions there is baptism, Holy Communion and Confession.  Through these actions we acknowledge numbers 1, 2, and 3 above – then God’s love and grace and mercy are proclaimed in word and deed.  We leave these sacramental actions freed and made new.

questions to ponder:

  • How can I make reparations for particular actions/things about which I feel guilty?
  • How can I bring the rest to God?
  • How do the sacramental actions in my tradition help me to let go of residual ache?

*Finally Comes The Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

Residual Ache

I confess I don’t read as much as I should.  Pastors should be readers – readers of the news to help with prayer, readers of theology that challenges and asks questions, because we need to be prepared for the questions our people are asking, and be able to address them in their struggles, readers of the gospel for obvious reasons (I hope!), and readers of contemporary culture so that we understand the context in which we live and minister.  So feeling the lack of reading input lately, I decided that I would read (or rather re-read) a favorite of mine for Lent.

poetWalter Brueggemann is a giant to me.  I discovered him in seminary and find his reading to be easily accessible and down to earth.  Theology can be so “heady” at times, and I’m a much more practical person – I need to find a way to apply something in my life, or understand how it can apply in the lives of others for me to find it interesting.  One of Dr. Brueggemann’s books has been swirling in my head for a while.  I remember it had a HUGE impact on me the first time around, but hadn’t looked at it in YEARS.  So, I decided it was time to look at it anew.  And I have not been disappointed.

If you haven’t read Finally Comes The Poet, and you’re a preacher (not that you have to be a preacher to appreciate it), put it on your list NOW.  Published by Augsburg Fortress in 1989, it’s as current today as it was then, because it speaks to universal timeless needs for people to hear from preaching.  If you read it a while back, I implore you to re-read it as I’m doing now.

One of the human conditions he explores in the book is the reality of what he calls “residual ache.”  Part of righting the wrong of sin is dealing with guilt and alienation  – feeling “bad” and separated from the one we’ve sinned against.  Brueggemann states, “…even when hidden, the alienation remains powerful and destructive,” and that, “Guilt, unaddressed, will finally kill” (p. 16&17).  How do we address the guilt?  How do we stop denying the hurt we have caused both God and neighbor?  There are two things.  Brueggemann uses Leviticus 6:4-5 as a guide for the first action.  He comments, “Guilt requires not simply equity and an even balance, but gift beyond affront.  It requires surplus compensation”(p. 25).  Reparation, pure and simple.  We need to pay back what we’ve taken, and then some.  The second action is “more difficult, because we cannot do it ourselves.  It must be done for us.  There is a weighty residue of ache that one cannot dispel by one’s own actions“(p. 26).   He goes on, “What remains unresolved is underneath guilt; it is more like taintedness, uncleanness”(p. 26).

Brueggemann then looks at Leviticus 6:6-7, which details the “guilt offering” of an animal.  He comments, “This remarkable text may sound strangely archaic to us.  In matters of guilt, however, we are archaic creatures who have not ‘outgrown’ the need for action outside ourselves…. What the priests in ancient Israel know is that the ache that is left from guilt, even after reparations, cannot be overcome by good works, by willpower, by positive thinking, or by romantic psychology.  The ache can be removed only by entry into the sphere of the holy… Such guilt requires the self-giving of God”(p. 27-28).

It’s just that simple – but just that HARD.  I think we suffer from the unwillingness to do both.

  • Either we don’t want to do the dirty work of reparation – thinking an “I’m sorry” is good enough, (or for some of us in the protestant tradition, thinking reparations sound too much like the Roman Catholic practice of “making satisfaction”), or we’re too proud to admit our sin or say “I’m sorry.”  It requires humility to admit we’re not perfect or need to make up for wrongs.
  • Or we don’t think we need God, that we CAN work it out on our own.  It’s hard enough to submit ourselves to another person to make things right, but many people just can’t stomach the idea of placing themselves at God’s mercy.  This requires intense humility, because while reparations are within our control, mercy and forgiveness are NOT.

In Lent, a special focuses for observers is repentance.  Admitting we act in ways contrary to God’s Will, and making changes to “turn around.”  Turning away from sin and to God.  I think Brueggemann’s diagnosis of residual ache is important for us as we go about our practice of repentance.  Residual ache weighs us DOWN, keeps us from true healing, prevents us from experiencing true joy in the Lord and with our neighbor.

I look forward to sharing more observations with you as I move through the book.  Till next time, a thought to ponder:  how do you see residual ache in your own life?