Writer: Chris Ahrens
It was as if everything had a point, and it was up to me to get my Burning Bush decoder ring and figure out the specific hidden message God had for me. I don’t do that anymore. I just look for signs of his presence, because I know they are there. He doesn’t hide. I am just blind.
-Dean Nelson, God Hides in Plain Sight
Dean Nelson is seated in front of me. I can see him, hear the warmth of his words and laughter. I am certain he is there, just as I am certain that I am in the room with him. God, according to the scriptures, is also in the room with us. But He can seem harder to locate than His creation. A true seeker, Dean Nelson finds God in a place many Protestants wouldn’t think to look-in a place that many of us non-Catholic abandoned during the Reformation. We may have been a bit hasty in our baby and bathwater discards.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego
Risen Magazine: Why did you choose to write about the sacraments?
Dean Nelson: I think it was Eugene Peterson who said that we talk about God in these veiled references. The sacraments are a way to talk about God without talking about God. We don’t end up talking about God, but the activity of God, the evidence of God, the experience of the sacred.
RM: Protestants don’t look to the sacraments.
DN: Protestants think there are only two: baptism and communion. They’re losing something by only focusing on two.
RM: Protestantism is a reaction, and sometime reactionaries miss out.
DN: The Reformation was a great thing and it was also an awful thing. We lost a lot during the Reformation. Part of what we lost were these great traditions and seeing the activity of God. Did the sacraments, for instance, get so parceled out that only priests could be the means by which to experience the grace of God? That just got a little screwy. Going back to the sacrament of confession, for instance-over a meal, you may start articulating things you didn’t even know you thought until you started hanging language on them. When you do, you realize you’re actually revealing something from your heart. In receiving it there’s a type of healing experience. Take one of the sacraments that Protestants do embrace, baptism-we’re all over the place as to what it means and how important it is. Some people say that it’s something that happens to a baby. Or they use a term like dedicate a baby, which is a type of baptism. Or, is baptism a public declaration of your faith in God and you wait ’til you’re a little older, a teenager or an adult. Or, you get baptized because what you really want is healing. Protestants use that word in a variety of different contexts. The way I address it in this book is… when Jesus got baptized by John, He comes up out of the river and the voice of God says, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” What Jesus got at that moment was a new identity-He knew who He was and the world knew who He was. That’s how I approach baptism in this book. It isn’t just an act at a baptismal portion in a church service. It’s an act of knowing who you are before God. There are moments in our lives when we have those revelations. It doesn’t rule out infant baptism, but baptism can be so much more. The whole point of this book is seeing the activity of God, or the grace of God being given to us in everyday life, not just at the prescribed moments when a church might have said, Now we’re going to have baptism, or you need confession before you can receive communion. Confession can be ongoing, confession can be experienced all the time; baptism can be experienced all the time.
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, the Timothy Robins character escapes from prison and digs his way out of the sewer system, going through the worst muck imaginable, through everybody’s waste, including his enemies’. He finally comes out of the sewer pipe into a river, and there’s a moment where he stands up out of the river and sheds those prison clothes. That was a baptismal moment. He had a new identity once he escaped that prison. He escapes that prison and becomes a new creature. I’m saying that we have those moments where we have similar types of experiences.
RM: For a writer, maybe writing can be a type of confession, and selling a book a type of absolution.
DN: Exactly, and when it’s received the person receiving it has a clearer idea of the state of your heart and probably the state of his or her own heart. And you receive some absolution, or healing. I think that’s one of the reasons we write.
RM: If you’re doing all right as a writer, you’re both the therapist and the patient.
DN: Yeah, getting things out to your peers is important and to those who will love you no matter what you write. You might reveal something really dark, or reveal something not in a very artistic way, and yet they’re going to receive it.
RM: As a Catholic kid, there was something about confession and talking to someone behind the veil. Yet, right around puberty confession becomes less honest.
DN: [Laughs] That’s one of the ways confession can be heard. I don’t think it’s the only way.
RM: Take me through the sacraments as you see them.
DN: I look at something like the sacrament of vocation, which over time was interpreted as receiving what in the Catholic tradition is called “Holy Orders,” which meant you were going into the priesthood or a convent. I studied these sacraments, and that isn’t necessarily what the sacrament of vocation was intended to be. It just evolved into that and became this kind of exclusive club of the professional class. I looked back and found that it began as an understanding that we all have a spiritual vocation, and that spiritual vocation is to participate in the redeeming and the restoring and the reconciling of all things back into a right relationship with God. That was the old understanding, then it evolved from vocation into occupation-that’s what your job was and the only time you received the sacrament of vocation was when you had this certain job.
What I’ve tried to do with this book is say that we all have a spiritual vocation, we all have holy orders, and those orders are to be a participant in the redeeming and restoring and reconciling of all creation back into right relationship to God. I use an example of going to my daughter’s middle school, where they had this program called “Dads at lunch.” It was basically crowd control. You’ve got all these middle schoolers in an outdoor eating area, and it’s like a prison riot now and then. I was available once a week and I could go in and have a presence there, with a big button on my jacket that said “Dads at lunch.” They gave me coupons for McDonald’s hamburgers. And this is their language, if I caught someone being good [Laughs] I gave them this coupon for doing something good. The secretary gave me like two or three of these coupons, which I thought was an interesting assumption on her part, that I would only see two or three kids doing something good. I saw in this drawer that she took these coupons from that there had to have been a thousand coupons in there. I said, Is there any restriction on how many of these things I can give out? She said no, and I stuffed my pockets with them.
I go out there and see all this activity, and if I saw a kid doing good, I’d give ’em a coupon. If I saw a kid sitting alone, I sit down and talk to them, ask them what they were reading and give them a coupon. Fights would break out, kids swinging backpacks and that. I’d just walk into the middle of it and say, Hey, who wants a coupon for a hamburger. Violence evaporates. Then kids started catching on to this over the weeks and would come up asking for a coupon. Then I started adding requirements to it, saying things like, Okay, see that kid over there eating alone? Go over there and spend ten seconds over there and find one good thing to say to ’em, and here’s your coupon. This became this really cool thing. Sometimes I’d give coupons for no good reason, other than the fact that I wanted to. It was grace. Through that Dads at lunch thing, I had a clearer understanding of what my vocation was, not to hand out hamburger coupons, but it was part of that redeeming and restoring and reconciling. Some of the tables had checkerboards painted on them, so I brought checkers from my house. You just have to sit on a bench and put checkers on them, and you draw a crowd. I had dozens of kids playing against me by committee. At the end of the game, everybody got a coupon. I think that those were my holy orders, to dispense some kind of grace in that moment, even though I wasn’t a priest. That’s one of the sacraments.
I look at last rites as not only a transition from this world to the next, but also other transitions in life where we experience the grace of God through that transition. As an example, when our kids learned how to read, it was a transition from us being the people responsible for them hearing what they heard in books, to them having that responsibility. Once they learned how to read for themselves, we were no longer the primary input for them. That’s a transition, and on the one hand I grieved that transition. I also celebrated what was them coming into these smart, reading people who were going to become responsible for some of their own inputs. I submit that we’re moving in those transitions all the time, and if we can see that happening, we can acknowledge something of the activity of God in those transitions. It doesn’t only have to be about death.
RM: A life and a death, a grief and a celebration occurs with most things, but rarely are they in balance. We’ve all been to funerals where it’s all celebration or all grieving.
DN: The mourning is part of the deal. I’ll give you another example-when my kids learned how to ride a bike, I would hold onto the seat and let go when they didn’t know it. I was pumping my fist, cheering for them and crying at the same time. Up until that point I was responsible for their transportation. You’ve just moved from one era to another, of letting go of your creation into the hands of God. That’s worth grieving over and celebrating.
RM: Why did you write this book?
DN: As a writer, sometimes you write stuff just because that’s the assignment. Your heart may or may not be totally in it. This started out as a book on marriage, because I was so sick of the way marriage was being discussed publicly. It evolved into something totally different. My first book was on fatherhood. This started over a bunch of political arguing over what a family is. I was reading the section in John, where Jesus is looking down from the cross. He looks at His mother and He looks at His friend and says to His mother, There is your son, and He looks at His friend and says, There is your mother. He just redefined family. By saying that He said, When I’m in the middle of it, you have a family. I think we’re wired to live in some sort of community. We’re created to be in some sort of relationship. It can get pretty whacky; it can be the Manson Family! What are gangs? Gangs are extended families. That’s what I started out doing, and then I began to wonder, Why do the Catholics consider marriage a sacrament? Then I started reading about all the sacraments and wondered, Where have these been all my life? We can be looking at these as a means for recognizing the activity of God.
RM: The title made me expect a Creationist book.
DN: The title was the publisher’s idea. The title I used was a definition of jazz: Ordered Disorder With Sudden Bursts of Revelation. When you listen to jazz you think, These guys aren’t even playing the same thing, then all of the sudden it comes together and you think, I get it.
RM: Currently society seems to be doing that, breaking down where it seems nobody is playing the same thing, and there’s a hope that it will all come back together.
DN: Well, everybody’s improvising and you hope that there’s a rhythm section somewhere in the background holding it all together.
RM: Our politics and our religion tend to be reactionary.
DN: And extreme, and I’m not sure how fruitful that is. Some of these religious groups are so certain and so full of fear, essentially, which is where extremism comes from. I think it’s been born out that the most common phrase in the Bible is “Fear not.” I want to say, How’s that fear-based theology working out for you?
RM: When I was a Catholic, it was all fear-based. When I became a Protestant it was all the happy-faced Jesus.
DN: Um hm.
RM: Okay, let’s get back to the sacraments.
DN: We started talking about confirmation. I look at confirmation as a quest into spiritual depth. Once they’ve acknowledged a personal relationship with Christ, a lot of people stop there, or try to recreate that moment. Confirmation, the way I understand it, is to become a little more educated about God, and take the relationship to another level.
RM: I always thought of it as a Catholic bar mitzvah.
DN: [Laughs] The way it evolved was like that-it became this acknowledgement that you learned some stuff, memorized some stuff and were confirmed.
RM: I was expecting a great revelation when I was confirmed, but nothing happened. It seems we began looking at the sacrament itself as the revelation, rather than it pointing to the revelation.
DN: Exactly. The sacraments became the thing, as opposed to the sacrament becoming the lens by which we see the thing. The sacraments are just lenses helping us see God more clearly. I can’t speak for all believers, but I think that all of us start out as believers and then think, This is it? I want to know a little more. So, you start to learn a little more. Then you realize that there are a great many rooms in this spiritual life you can explore. The example I use in the book is where we had a neighbor who lived next door to us in Athens, Ohio. Athens, Ohio, is where Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. There’s nothing to do there. I had two little kids and my wife. Here we are in the middle of winter and it’s overcast and gray and on the verge of snowing all the time. Our neighbor came over and said, Hey, do you want to bring your kids over one of these nights and see all our Christmas decorations? We go to their house and stand on the porch. She never lets us in; we just peer through the windows. Part of the way I understand confirmation is that there are a whole lot of experiences we can have if we just get off the porch.
RM: What about communion?
DN: I think there are some profound moments in the Eucharist experience where you receive God in those elements. The point I’m trying to make is that’s not the only time you experience God. Haven’t you ever sat around a table, and you’re sharing a meal together, and there was a transcendent quality to that meal-you just know that you’ve tapped into something much greater than the food that’s on the table. Most often at our house, it happens around the kitchen table. There are those moments when you know you’ve experienced something so much greater than just sitting around a table. I hope that there will be a lot of Catholics and lapsed Catholics like you that won’t be offended that I handled the sacraments in a new way. I have to say that one of the reasons I’m a Christian is that I started reading Catholic writers. I started reading Thomas Merton, and thought, This guy is proof that you don’t have to check your intellect at the door to be a person of faith. All the believers I had read to that point were almost anti-intellectual.
RM: We can forgive you for how you’ve handled the seven sacraments, but you’ve come up with an eighth.
DN: [Laughs] I’ve been associated with non-profit groups for many years. I saw a sacramental dimension to being in service to another person. I think it’s part of a vocational call, to serve another. It is in service that I think we see something about the nature of God and the activity of God. It could be something as simple as your neighbor across the street who’s been hospitalized and nobody’s mowed his lawn for a while.
RM: What did you learn by writing this book?
DN: I learned that you can see God everywhere; not in that pantheism sort of way. I learned that you really can see God in the nitty-gritty and in the details and not always in the big, gee whiz stuff. I learned that spirituality is about seeing. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks about how we always need to be cleansing the lens. Once you start cleansing the lens, it’s astonishing what you can see. The mystics called them “thin spaces,” thin spaces between heaven and earth. There’s very little division between them. Those thin spaces are all around us.
Dean Nelson’s new book, God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, is available in bookstores and online.