The Problem of Evil

Photo from Burlington Free Press

The community where I grew up, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is reeling this morning.

33-year old Melissa Jenkins, a single mom and a high school physics teacher and basketball coach, disappeared Sunday night. Her car was found late in the evening, pulled alongside the road near her house, running, with her two year old son snug and safe in the back seat.

After a day of searching, police announced last night (press conference on WCAX news) that they believe a body found in the woods a few miles away is that of Jenkins (Burlington Free Press article).

I’m trying to place Melissa. She is less than a year older than I (I’ll be 33 in May), and she grew up in Danville, a few towns away, and taught high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, neighboring and rival high school to my own Lyndon Institute. Our sons are almost the same age. I don’t know that we ever crossed paths, but I went to school with one of her cousins.

Nothing is known or released about the circumstances of her disappearance and murder, but one suspicion that fits with a series of disappearances a few years ago in southern Vermont and New Hampshire is that she may have pulled over to help an apparent stranded motorist, leaving her son in the car to check someone or something (family are now suggesting she may have received a phone call from someone she knew, asking for help or requesting that she meet them someplace). That’s a behavior we pride ourselves on in Vermont: stopping to help a person in need. It’s just a random guess, but might explain why a devoted mom was separated from her son, a circumstance that saved the boy’s life.

A friend posted on my facebook wall late last night, asking what “Pastor Becca” would say to people in pain right now. This was my response:

I don’t speak about or preach about evil often. I don’t buy into some dude with horns and a pitchfork, and I don’t think “evil” has anything to do with political parties or contraception or who marries who. But days like today remind me that evil is real. We don’t get to blame some amorphous devil; it lives in us, in places where we thought it could never be. And the story of faith– any faith, really, not just mine– is that evil doesn’t have the last say. Death and violence and brokenness and grief and pain overwhelm us for a time, but they don’t win. They don’t get the last word. There is something more powerful, more true. I call it Love, which is just another synonym for God in my book.

Our news these past couple of weeks has been filled with violence and tragedy, and as those in the Christian faith prepare for Holy Week, we walk headlong into a story of violence and tragedy. Yes, there is hope at the end, an empty tomb, an open sky. But first there is a mob, a betrayal of trust, a denial of love, a mock trial, a beating, a gruesome execution. Before we revel in the glory of Love triumphant, we must face the darkness of evil. Not evil personified in a person or thing. Evil that lives in us.

It doesn’t matter if a person is 17 or 33, a teacher, a student, or an Afghani civilian, with a baby in the backseat, skittles in the pocket, or carrying a jug of water. No one deserves to die. And the suffering inflicted on them is not some random disaster, but is human evil, the worst of ourselves.

Yes, we are Trayvon Martin. We are Melissa Jenkins. We are the Afghani children. But we are also the soldier who cracks under pressure, firing into a group of his allies. We are the neighborhood watchman, overzealous in pursuit of his vision of justice, harboring prejudices about skin color and clothing choices. We are the unknown killer on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.

I don’t believe in a talking snake and a tempting fruit. I see all the evidence I need to of a fallen humanity, desperately in need of love, grace, and a way to start again.

This is the problem of evil. It is not God’s problem, but ours. It is not God’s creation, but ours. It lives in us; it maims and kills through us. We are a broken, brutal people, and we need a light of hope.

The story of faith– of any faith– is that there is something stronger, truer, deeper, than the darkness that lurks in our communities, our safe places, our very selves. There is something we can hold on to, to pull us back out of the pain and grief and anger and fear. There is something that has the last say over death and violence and despair.

I name that something. Its nature and name: Love.

More on Jesus and Religion – links galore!

I’m pleasantly surprised by the interest in my recent post in response to the “I hate Religion but Love Jesus” video. Thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting, and for linking to your own reflections.

In the spirit of fairness and follow-up, Rachel Held Evans drew my attention to this email exchange between the video’s creator, Bethke, and pastor/blogger Kevin DeYoung. In it, Bethke responds to DeYoung’s reflections on the video in a way that demonstrates thoughtfulness and maturity in the face of feedback. Kudos to him.

Here’s part of their exchange. Bethke emailed Kevin in response to the latter’s blog post, and gave him permission to share it:

I just wanted to say I really appreciate your article man. It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100%. God has been working with me in the last 6 months on loving Jesus AND loving his church. For the first few years of walking with Jesus (started in ’08) I had a warped/poor paradigm of the church and it didn’t build up, unify, or glorify His wife (the Bride). If I can be brutally honest I didn’t think this video would get much over a couple thousand views maybe, and because of that, my points/theology wasn’t as air-tight as I would’ve liked. If I redid the video tomorrow, I’d keep the overall message, but would articulate, elaborate, and expand on the parts where my words and delivery were chosen poorly… My prayer is my generation would represent Christ faithfully and not swing to the other spectrum….thankful for your words and more importantly thankful for your tone and fatherly like grace on me as my elder. Humbled. Blessed. Thankful for painful growth. Blessings.

Grace and Peace,


I love Jesus, but I kinda like religion too

A lot of folks on facebook have been posting links to this video, where political science graduate and non-profit worker Jefferson Bethke seeks to “highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion” (text of video description). Mr. Bethke is a self-proclaimed healed pornography addict, and attends the Federal Way campus of Mars Hill Church (dot com) in Washington. For those keeping track at home, that’s the mega church pastored by Mark Driscoll (as opposed to Mars Hill Bible Church [dot org] in Michigan, pastored by Rob Bell– man, did that confuse me for a while). I won’t try to articulate my concerns about pastor Driscoll, but will refer you to the excellent critique of his particular brand of (in my mind, masochistic) Christianity by Rachel Held Evans here and here.

Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video has some merits and some pitfalls in my mind, and so I’m torn when I see it on facebook on my friends’ feed or as a recommended link by The Christian Left. Here are my thoughts on religion and Jesus and this particular video.


The video is thought-provoking and invites reflection and discussion. Case in point. Anything that encourages us to think about our faith instead of blindly following gets bonus points in my book.

The video challenges certain assumptions about religion and Christianity, which I think is helpful. For example, Bethke says that being a Christian and a Republican are not the same thing (nor are being a Christian and a Democrat!), and that we should be freed by Christ, not enslaved by what he calls “behavioral modification” through the rules and chores that he sees as religion. I think breaking free of the rule-based way of thinking about religion is important.

The speaker insists that Jesus doesn’t support self-righteousness. I agree, although I’m not totally sold that the video succeeds in demonstrating that.

The video clearly separates Jesus from religion with what I see as a beautiful distinction (if phrased in gendered language that makes me gag) “Religion is man (sic) searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.” Further, the words separate religion, which Bethke says he hates, from the church, which he says he loves, and that makes for good reflection as well. I fully agree with leaving behind some or all of institutional religion to follow Jesus, if that is what is needed.

We are asked “Would your church let Jesus in?” Not a new question, but an important one.

Finally, there are some beautiful words, phrases, and ideas here. I like “Religion says ‘do’; Jesus says ‘done’.” But my favorite:

If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean. It’s not a museum for good people; it’s a hospital for the broken.



I’m not sure what the speaker thinks religion is. He distinguishes it from “Christianity” as well as from Jesus, says he hates it, calls it an infection, and blames it for wars. But I’m not entirely sure what he means by “religion.” I suspect he may mean “institution,” but it’s not clear. I would define the broad concept of religion as a set of beliefs about the Divine (theology) and a particular way of living out beliefs (praxis), held in common by 2 or more people in a given place and time.

The video then blames this ambiguous concept of religion for war and attacks it for failing to feed the poor. Since religion, as I define it, is a series of beliefs and practices, it doesn’t really *do* or fail to do anything. Rather, religious people carry out actions and explain them using their theology and praxis. Religious people have gone on crusades and committed genocide, slavery, and rampant discrimination, claiming religion as their motivator. Religious people have also preached civil rights, resisted apartheid, lived among lepers, and given all their wealth to the poor, claiming their religion as their motivation. Maybe this is a little like saying guns don’t kill people, but I see religion as a tool, an implement, and in the wrong hands, yes, a weapon. It’s what we do with it that matters.

Bethke also decries religion for being a human invention. While I like the above-mentioned distinction that religion is humanity’s search for God while Christ is God’s search for us, it is presented as if this is a bad thing. We cannot simply receive God’s searching for us separate from our human responses. Yes, religion, church, prayers, worship songs, cathedrals, ministry programs, global institutionalized church, and YouTube videos are all human-made. And they are imperfect. What else would they be? The fallible, broken, human construct of religion is humanity’s response to and search for God. We’re still working on it and we don’t get it right, but we’re in it together with one another and with the Holy. We might show *that* a little grace, too. We never know how the God of the Universe might be able to use even the broken vessels of the church, her people, and each individual person of faith. I hear God’s good at that.

Having rejected and resented “religion,” Bethke replaces religion with something else that looks a lot like… religion. He replaces it with a series of beliefs about the Divine and implies a way of living out some of those beliefs in practice.

Furthermore, I don’t like the theology he presents in place of “religion.” It’s very strong on substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus took on our sin and bled and died and did we mention the blood? for us– you can read some of my reactions to this theology here). It’s also very dominated by masculine, hierarchical, and violent language. I get squeamish about blood dripping down Jesus’ face and him dangling on a cross thinking of me. Just not my thing. It may move us away from adherence based on fear to adherence based on guilt, but I’m not sure that’s a drastic improvement.

Finally, rejecting religion undermines the important function of accountability it serves. The video itself suggests some good theology and some bad, and the praxis is largely unknown or perhaps irrelevant. In the context of a “church” or dare we say a “religion,” there are other believers present against whose wisdom we check our theology and praxis. If my relationship with Jesus teaches me to hate gay people or club baby seals, who is to correct me if “religion” is vile and my personal interpretation is all that matters? Rather, the institution of religion, for all its faults, serves as a clearing house, a sounding board, a discernment group. Call it what you like, but it keeps the crazies at bay. When corrupted, yes, it mistakes the prophets for the fanatics (because there are fine lines already), and Jesus is crucified. But when it tries to let God work, it can also lift up the Desmond Tutus and the Mother Teresas, and it can resist the false prophets of Fred Phelps and his ilk. All of us individually searching for God are bound to make mistakes. In the grouped-together theology and practice of religion, our mistakes can indeed be amplified and multiplied, and more to our shame. But the good that we do, the times that we reject discrimination and violence, the voices we lift for the outcast and oppressed, the compassion we extend in word and deed– these can also be amplified and multiplied and tested, empowered, and equipped.

In Summary:

I applaud the video for raising questions and provoking discussions, for challenging outdated assumptions about religion and for lifting important, beautiful, inspirational concepts about what the love and grace of God are like. I support the sentiment of serving Jesus, even where that breaks from the institutionalized church (perhaps especially there!). I agree with the critique against what the video’s text description calls false religion. I hate false religion, too. But I remain unconvinced that the theology and (lack of) praxis lifted up here in place of such false religion are better, or a place that I would feel comfortable, and I believe the demonization and rejection of religion as a whole is throwing the baby (possibly the baby Jesus) out with the bath water. Instead, I would affirm the rejection of false religion, and the call to make the church and individuals therein more faithful to the true ministry of Christ. Let us swim in the ocean of grace.

It’s. Still. Christmas.

People of faith, we have a problem. It’s not that people say “Happy Holidays” (as a contraction of Holy and Days, ‘holidays’ actually reveres all of the sacred and special days in this season, from Solstice to Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to Christmas to Watch Night to New Year’s Day). It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas.

It’s that there are two Christmases.

One Christmas season starts on the day after Thanksgiving, maybe earlier. It features songs about snowy weather and Rudolph and Frosty and poems about Saint Nick. For it, people decorate in red and green, put up lighted trees and wreaths, and buy lots and lots and lots of gifts. It celebrates in its own way the spirit of generosity, the specialness, even sacredness, of giving and receiving, of being with the people you love in the midst of the cold. Santa reigns supreme on this Christmas, which arrives with tremendous fanfare on the morning of December 25, when households are filled with light and merriment and food and presents. And then the holiday ends. By December 26, the trees are down, the lights shut off, the music off the radio.

I celebrate this Christmas. I will not begrudge you if you do as well, whether or not you consider yourself Christian. It is a fun and good holiday, and teaches good values and practices joy.

But it’s not the only Christmas.

The other Christmas begins not after Thanksgiving, but after the season of Advent. It starts, like all good holidays in the tradition of its ancestral faith, at sundown– sundown on December 24. For this holiday, people decorate first in blue or purple for advent, but most primarily in white and gold. People sing songs about angels, shepherds, and a certain baby. They put up trees and wreaths and lights, yes, but also nativities and candles. This season arrives sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes with solemn prayer, sometimes at 5:30 or 7 pm, or 11 pm (which we somehow call “midnight”), and again on the morning of December 25. On this Christmas, the one who reigns supreme is a baby, born to set his people free. Jesus own this Christmas. It’s his birthday, and as such, it too embraces giving and family and joy, but it also teaches holy expectation, God’s promises, new birth, and the presence of Christ in the midst of the world’s ordinary brokenness.

This Christmas does not end on December 26.

From a theological perspective, this Christmas does not end at all, of course, but in this context, I am speaking purely seasonally, practically, decoration-ally. This Christmas, Jesus’ Christmas, lasts for twelve days (there’s a song about that somewhere), and ends on January 6 with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi– traditionally a more appropriate time for giving– as the Wise Ones reveal the global significance of the baby Jesus and present gifts to him out of love and reverence.

I want to pry these two Christmases apart. The “secular” Christmas and the “sacred” Christmas (how I dislike that language!). The Santa Christmas and the Jesus Christmas. I think they should have two separate names. We could name the Jesus Christmas lots of things: Noel, Nativity, the Feast of Christ’s Birth. But I’m not willing to say that Santa can have the name Christmas. Good luck getting it back from him and his holiday, but it’s not his to keep. I mean, it’s got the other guy’s name in it, and the word for church service. Christ. Mass. Christmas. It’s kind of a word owned by the Christian tradition, even if the holiday no longer is.

So I don’t know what we call SantaTide, the Season of Giving, St. Nicholas Day. It’s a great holiday, and I celebrate it with joy and find it holy.

It’s just not the same holiday as Christmas, a holiday that I am still celebrating, with songs of Gloria and twinkling lights. I think we can celebrate both faithfully– those of us who choose to– and I think we can, in pulling them apart, offer up ways for people who dislike Santa’s bent toward consumerism or people who find the baby Jesus a myth from a faith not their own, a way to celebrate their holy day, their holiday, without having to buy into the other.

This is my new mission, as I enter a new year, but not yet a new season of the church (nope, not celebrating Epiphany on January 1 either, lectionary watchers!). How do we tease out St. Nicholas Day (like St. Patrick’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day–  once named for a saint, but now cultural holidays with their own metaphors and themes) from the Nativity of Christ? Come to think of it, how do we reverence the beauty in our cultural celebrations and our religious ones, in ways that allow each to be holy in its own way?

And don’t even get me started on the Easter Bunny. We’ve got a few weeks before that candy comes out at least, so I have some time to prepare.

Spiritual but not religious, part the millionth.

In response to the whole “spiritual but not religious” conversation (links within my link), I just want to say exactly what Pam said.

That, and the funeral home in town sends all the grieving “spiritual but not religious” families to me for memorial services, and it’s all sacred to me.

I do not think it means what you think it means…

I went to bed last night.

My husband, awake an hour earlier than I this morning, was the one who told me that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. operatives. I read the headlines and watched the President’s speech, and skimmed through Twitter, and began to develop a nasty, sickly feeling in my stomach. Cheering and celebration and glad shouts of “justice!” and “peace!”

As Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I was relieved, however, when I looked at my Facebook friends’s feed, to see so many people expressing mixed emotion, relief mingled with sorrow, dismay at our fellow countrymen and countrywomen’s jubilation. As I wrote and as I read so many times today, I cannot celebrate the death of another human being, no matter how cruel, horrid, or vile. I can’t call killing a just solution, or a means of peace. And while I can acknowledge that, for some, there may be a measure of healing in closing this chapter of bin Laden’s evil legacy, any jubilation at another’s killing rings painfully familiar to me.

I remember the cheers from places around the world in the wake of 9/11, as men, women, and children gave thanks for the deaths of American civilians. I wonder if, to God’s ears, our cheering now sounds the same. I imagine our claims of justice must seem so provincial and narrow.

My friend Jeremy has written a wonderful post about “justice,” and what we might mean by justice, whether retributive justice or restorative justice. I highly encourage a reading of his thoughts, especially where he turns his reflection back on what we do to build justice in all kinds of situations.

Myself, I think retributive justice is a bit of an oxymoron. I don’t think retribution is just; I don’t think killing is just. Add this to the very long list of why I would make a terrible President; I can’t condone death even for the worst of our “enemies.” I see that perhaps it “had” to happen. I congratulate and thank the team of people who worked to have it done effectively and relatively safely. But I can’t go so far as to call it justice. And I certainly can’t call it peace.

In a lucky or unlucky coincidence, I had been asked to lead the opening devotions in the Vermont House of Representatives today. I often use props or clever alliterative verses. Not today. I thought about the many quotes I’d seen batted around today: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11); “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” (Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the many calls for peace.

Peace. Now there’s a word I think we misuse. Only one death I know of has ever been a cause for peace, and even there, my theology of atonement gets a little shaky when we call his death “Good.”

And so this is what I prayed.

O Life and Hope, Holy One. Today we breathe a sigh. A sigh of relief, perhaps, for the death of a violent and brutal man. A sigh of fear for retaliation that may lurk around the next bend in the road. A sigh of resignation that the work and danger have not passed, only changed. A sigh of hope that we may know peace.


We pray for peace.

More than the absence of violence, of terror, of danger, of bloodshed.

The presence of justice, kindness, forgiveness, and hope.

Peace for our nations. For weapons to be laid down. For men and women to return home from the battle fields. For us to learn the craft of war no more.

Peace for our world, for the places where hatred is bred, where oppression and violence and extremism forge killers out of children. Peace that is hope and tenderness and compassion, that is Shalom and well being and goodness. Peace that does not subdue violence, but renders it obsolete.

Peace for the dead, for all who died, civilians and soldiers, Americans and allies and combatants and enemies. Peace for those who died in towers and on planes, in military operations and in bombings and raids and suicide attacks. Peace and rest for those who have died.

Peace for loved ones who mourn: for all who have lost a mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, spouse, friend. For those who feel that the death of a man can bring long-awaited justice– peace. For those who feel that adding to the dead cannot bring back the dead– peace. For all who mourn and grieve and seek healing not in headlines and history, but in the slow agony of living– peace.

Peace. Deep Peace. Your Peace.

Peace, Jesus told his disciples, divine peace, holy peace, is not the world’s peace.

And peace, the song says, must begin with us, with me. As I take and live each moment in peace, in hope for a better world, in compassion and care for all around me. Peace.

May it begin with me.


(i don’t think i’d ever heard the representatives voice “amen” in response. until today.)

Inspiration and Hope: Why I am part of MFSA

I am part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action because it both inspires me and gives me hope. For me, MFSA lifts up the greatest strengths and addresses the greatest areas of weakness in my denomination.

One of the biggest things that drew me to The United Methodist Church as a college student was the denomination’s commitment to mission work that equips and empowers, and never uses assistance as a bait-and-switch conversion tool (read more about the UMC’s values with respect to relief work here). So many times, I hear people who are skeptical about organized religion say things like, “Christians talk a good game, but they don’t actually try to live like Jesus.” I believe that the UMC and MFSA stand in counterpoint to this view. Although not an official board or body of the UMC, for me MFSA has functioned as the heart and soul of our denomination, inspiring us to continually seek peace and people’s rights, to address systems of poverty, promote progressive initiatives, and work for justice in our own church. Foremost for me, I appreciate a strong witness for pacifism, as I believe that organized religion has too often been used to sound the drums of war.

MFSA inspires me by holding my denomination to a high standard in seeking peace and justice, which I understand to be at the heart of the Reign of God as Jesus proclaimed it. That witness calls the UMC to be the best representation of Christ’s body that we can be.

And yet, we are far from perfect.

Like any human institution, my beloved denomination struggles to be a faithful witness to the vast and encompassing love of God. We fall short in our pacifism; we do not stand strongly enough in defense of the natural world, which we have been told to care for; we botch our inclusivity. We have not fully broken free of– let alone repented of– the racism and Anglo-North-American privilege that saturates so much of our movement. We cut couples off from the blessing of the church and deny the call of God to ministry in persons based on sexual orientation. And we spend so much time arguing about these things– particularly the last– that we neglect our call to be Christian community and extend the love of Christ to the world for its (and our!) transformation.

There are days when that list of shortcomings makes me want to give up.

But for the witness of MFSA, which reminds me that I am not alone. I am not the only one who wants to see a stronger pacifist stance. I am not the only one who weeps when I have to tell a couple I can’t marry them.

I am not the only one who believes that we cannot tend souls without tending bodies, and we cannot preach a just and inclusive Reign of God unless we work for a just and inclusive human society.

MFSA gives me hope by naming the places where The United Methodist Church needs to become more Christlike, and building community to lovingly call us to that work. None of us needs to carry the weight of our brokenness alone, nor shoulder the burden of our need for healing as a denomination.

And that’s why I’m part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Why are you?


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