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Pay Attention: Everyday Mysticism in Lent

Resurrection in the throes of Lent? Many Christians had a big dose of exactly that this morning as we heard about the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel and the story in John’s gospel about Jesus raising Lazarus from death.lazarus_tomb

So, that’s a bit odd. Isn’t this season for journeying toward suffering, torture, pain, and death? What’s all this resurrection business doing lurking around in such a somber season?

My answer: the invitation to practice everyday mysticism.

Bible stories sometimes make this difficult to see. Those highly stylized stories can sound as if they were unfolding in a mythological space far removed from the gritty particulars of ordinary, daily life. Those stories actually happen in real places with real people, people with particular histories and sensibilities, people with particular races and cultures and politics, people with joys, sorrows, triumphs, tragedies, and families.

I’m struck by the way John frames the story about Lazarus with touching details drawn from ordinary, household life. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were apparently close friends of Jesus. He spent time with them, perhaps even quite a bit of time, in their Bethany household.

I imagine Jesus going to Bethany to get out of the spotlight, a place to relax and to take some time off from a hectic public life, put his feet up, and unwind – just as many of us do in intimate households of good friends.

This makes the illness and death of Lazarus all the more poignant. This wasn’t a stranger that Jesus just happened to encounter; it was Lazarus, a friend, a companion, a confidant, someone like family. Upon seeing Mary and Martha grieving near the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus himself weeps.

John’s gospel presents what many theologians refer to as a “high Christology.” The very Word of God, present with God from the beginning of all things, through whom all things were made, this Word, John declares, becomes human flesh (John 1:14).

My own thinking and study on that stunning declaration is often enhanced by engaging with the great work done at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. I’m thinking particularly of the recent public forum they hosted on “deep incarnation.”

Rather than seeing Jesus as only a significant historical figure of the past, on the one hand, or on the other as a unique and thus isolated moment of divine revelation, incarnation is instead the story of God’s reach into the very tissues of material and biological existence.

Ponder that for a moment: the infusion and penetration of the divine deep into matter itself, down to the very cellular even quantum level. Ponder if you can that uncanny, unfathomable, and mysterious bond between God and God’s creation.

John, I think, would heartily concur with that view, and then quickly remind us that this very Word of God made flesh actually wept over the death of a friend, a friend known in the ordinary, everyday intimacies of household life.

John charts what Bill Countryman (among others) has called a “mystical path” into God’s own life. I used to think that meant that I needed to find a different path. “Mysticism,” after all, is for spiritual Olympians – monks and nuns, desert hermits, anchorites, abbots, and abbesses – or at the very least, for those who are better than I am at the daily discipline of prayer and meditation.

dinner_partyBut no, John’s mystical path can also be traced by crashing at a friend’s house after a long day, or by trying to comfort dear friends in the midst of grief, or by tidying up a dirty kitchen after a household meal.

Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century monastic and mystic in Paris, spent most of his working hours in the monastery’s kitchen, cooking and cleaning. He once said, “I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as I ever did in the Blessed Sacrament.”

He could say that, it seems to me, because he paid attention.

There are many different ways to observe this Lenten season, whether getting away for a silent retreat, giving up chocolate, or volunteering at a food bank.  What we do matters far less than paying attention while we do it. I’ve come to appreciate Lent for precisely that, the simple but profound invitation to pay attention and to notice the deep incarnation of God in the most ordinary rhythms of daily life.

Whatever it is you need to do to pay attention and to notice, that is your Lenten discipline. And it’s never too late to start.

It’s never too late to pay attention and encounter the mystery of God in the embrace of a friend, in the convivial chatter over a shared meal, in the random exchange with a grocery clerk, in workplace politics, in the backyard bloom of a rose, in the wag of a happy dog’s tail, in a hike through the nearby regional park.

John insists on this: the mystic lives an ordinary life in ordinary rhythms every day. That’s where God is. And it’s never too late to notice.

It’s never too late to notice the mystery of divine love that draws people together in households of intimates, a love that sometimes, perhaps inevitably, breaks our hearts.

It’s never too late, as Martha and Mary discovered, to notice that mystery of divine love stirring deep within us, even in our grieving.

It stirs there with the promise of new life.

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Giving Up Housework for Lent: A Lesson from Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps and housework – I’ve been thinking about both in these early days of Lent and what they might have in common.  I thought about this just yesterday, after hearing the news of Mr. Phelps’ death while I neatly folded laundry and scrubbed the kitchen sink.

Keeping a tidy house makes me happy. I’ve realized lately one of the reasons why. A tidy house distracts me from all those other areas of my life that are decidedly untidy – my neurotic worrying, half-hearted disciplines, and unanswered emails, among many other bits of quotidian clutter. I prefer gazing at my neatly arranged sock drawer rather than pondering a messy psyche.

That preference sometimes turns outward. The latest political sex scandal, the disgraced celebrity, the stupid comment from a pundit – at least I’m not that messy!

Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church have done some truly despicable things, most visibly by picketing ordinations and funerals with hateful placards. That over-the-top vitriol, so easily dismissed as ludicrous, can also easily mask the far more subtle but no less corrosive rhetoric from otherwise respectable clergy and churches.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” sounds better than “God hates fags,” but the former has done just as much damage – probably more.

Likeable religious leaders and credentialed experts exercise far more influence over impressionable teenagers and social policy makers than readily identifiable fringe figures like Mr. Phelps. Focusing attention on the overt messiness of Westboro Baptist Church can distract us from noticing what lurks around in the ostensible tidiness of mainline institutions. Cloaking anti-LGBT rhetoric with pastoral concern leaves destructive shame in its wake.

Lent takes courage. This season invites all of us, individually and collectively, to ponder what most of us try to avoid – our own clutter. That avoidance has a long history and a legacy of truly distressing effects. I offered one way to think about that legacy in my recent book, Divine Communion. There I suggest that our longings for intimacy and communion are most frequently interrupted by unaddressed shame. I put it like this:

I find it helpful to define shame as alienation from our own bodily goodness. When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships but also wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations. Expanding circles of shame, in other words, often operate in scapegoat-like fashion to expel the “other” from community—or nailing that “other” to a cross outside the city gates.

I avoid thinking about my own lingering sense of bodily shame by cleaning the house. I wonder how often our churches, our communities, and this nation do the same thing.

Lent isn’t about finally “getting things right” or berating ourselves for mistakes. It is about turning our gaze directly toward the messiness of our lives and finding God there – the God who seeks intimacy and communion with us. Finding our whole selves in that divine embrace will give us fewer reasons to inflict our own wounds of shame on others. This, it seems to me, is the profound hope of the Lenten season and the Easter promise toward which it points: God raises the Wounded One from death.

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Glossy Fashion and Adoring Flesh — an Epiphany!

magi_star“Enter, stage left, the Wise Guys.” That’s what a friend of mine in college liked to say about Epiphany, the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Stage “left,” I suppose, because these “wise guys” hailed from ostensibly “pagan” religious traditions. “Wise,” as I have come to see in recent years, because of their quest.

The Christian quest these days seems mostly marked with institutional anxiety. How will we save the church? In my view, that is entirely the wrong question. A better one: How will any of us participate in God’s own passion to save God’s fleshy creation? Perhaps if Christians attended carefully to that question, institutional anxiety would take care of itself.

It took me some years to see this, so let me back up a bit.

In the mid-1990s a friend from seminary ripped a page out of a glossy fashion magazine and sent it to me in the mail. The full-page photograph featured a rail-thin model, scantily clothed, and lying on piles of trash. She lay there with her eyes closed, lips colored slightly purple, and a man’s foot pressing down on her arm, planted there as if in triumph. It was an advertisement for the sneaker that man was wearing.sneakers_blue

My friend included a post-it note on the photograph: “Here’s an icon for Epiphany.” This confused me at first. I found that image disturbing for more than one reason: for objectifying women as disposable play things; for perpetuating masculinity as inherently domineering and violent; and for commodifying human bodies to sell other commodities, to name just a few. Pondering my friend’s note and that image, those disturbing qualities soon began to coalesce into an icon of human flesh, its denigration, humiliation, and abuse standing in desperate need of redemption. An ideal icon, in other words, for Epiphany.

The twelve days of Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar begin when gift-giving on the secular calendar ends, on Christmas Day itself. Those twelve liturgical days in turn end with still more gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. According to Matthew’s gospel account, magi from the East, perhaps astrologers or magicians from the region of Persia, present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Ancient Mediterranean societies sometimes used those latter two gifts for embalming, as burial spices. Matthew thus offers a literary foreshadowing of events to come. The child receiving those gifts shall not escape the fate of all mortal flesh. Indeed, he will suffer the kind of indignity no human deserves, but which continues to this day, even in the glossy pages of what passes for the latest fashion.

Icons serve as windows into an unseen or perhaps forgotten reality. The flesh portrayed in that disturbing “fashion” spread opens a window on Western culture and can help to strip away the sentimentality that so often drenches the Christmas/Epiphany holiday cycle. The original story behind those holidays actually startles, or it should.

Matthew describes the magi’s gift-bearing journey as a quest. But for what? They search not for an idea, a strategy, a program, or an institution, nor even a place, but instead for a person, a flesh-and-blood child. This child does not bear ideal flesh, the kind suitable for Greek or Roman statuary or for today’s cult of youth and beauty. The child eventually found and adored by the magi bears entirely unremarkable, ordinary flesh. Flesh ordinary enough to trade like a commodity on Wall Street, or to disrobe on Hollywood’s silver screen for quick titillation, or to go homeless and starving on city streets.

The flesh of that child appears bruised and conquered on piles of trash in a fashion magazine.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” The hint (only just intuited by ancient Persian astrologers), that gift (only barely grasped by gospel writers), the epiphany still so desperately needed today appears as this: with us and among us and in our very flesh, God takes great delight. Not abstractly or generally or vaguely but in all the material details of human life, the magnificent and tender ones as well as the heartbreaking and tragic.

communityProgressives and conservatives alike tend to extol the incarnation at Christmas, perhaps also at Epiphany, and each in their own ways. Relatively few make clear that the flesh of the Incarnation comes in a rainbow spectrum of colors (what modern Westerners call “races”), or that Western society has generally cared far more about male- rather than female-identified flesh (and still does), or that “flesh” stands for much more than whatever we mean by “human.”

Today’s liturgical feast invites Christians to do what so many of us have been taught resembles a scandal if not a sin: adore flesh – not for the sake of fashion, but to be decidedly out-of-fashion. When Christian churches figure out how to do that and why, we will change the world (for the better).

A changed world might well be what set those ancient wise guys on a long journey. Happy Epiphany!

(This post is a revised version of a section of my forthcoming book, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness. You’ll be able to pre-order it soon!)

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Merry (Messy) Christmas!

Carnal existence is wonderfully and terribly messy. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Most of us do notice, yet few Christians seem to talk about the messiness of bodily life at this time of year, when we celebrate the Word of God in the flesh.

“Away in a manger,” we Christians sing, while Mary tended to a baby who spits up and poops, like all babies do. And that manger? It smelled like pig saliva surrounded by the odor of cow shit.manger

Christians know all this at some level, but it’s rather remarkable how infrequently we talk about it. Progressives, like me, prefer to talk about the glories of bodily life after hearing for far too long about the “sins of the flesh.” Spiritual honesty and vitality demand more than that facile dichotomy.

If this feast of the Incarnation is ever going to break free of the titillating tinsel of cheery commercialism and actually seize the human imagination once again it will take both the glories and the humiliations of the flesh with the utmost seriousness – just as God did and does.

Bodies do exult with joys and pleasures sufficient to make angels sing. Bodies also grow weak, fall prey to disease, get very messy, and then they die. I think regularly about the messiness of bodies as I care for my 92-year old mother. Quite literally millions of others likely do, too, as they care for elderly parents with diapers on one end and dementia on the other.

Things can get just as messy on the inside as the outside. Each of us lives with a vast interior space crowded with all kinds of cultural voices: go on a diet; work harder; be more polite; stop being so uppity; know your place; clean the kitchen (like Martha Stewart pays someone to do).

Quite frequently all those voices reduce to just one – our own. Many of us could easily win the prize as our own fiercest critic. There’s a name for that voice; it’s called shame.

Christians spend a lot of time talking about guilt and forgiveness and hardly any about what forgiveness alone can never really touch – shame. I tried to write about this in my recent book where I defined shame as “alienation from our bodily goodness.” Everyone knows what that means and some need anti-depressants to address it. But bodily shame can just as easily issue outward as inward. In my book I described it like this:

When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation from bodily goodness can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can also exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships and even wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations.

hands_multiracial3I truly believe bodily shame lies at the root of human distress, and probably always has. We know that distress as racism, homophobia, economic injustice, and horrific self-loathing, which breeds all the rest. Christmas, this Feast of the Incarnation, invites us to come out from our shame and to discover anew – or for the very first time – the antidote to bodily shame in a divine embrace. Christmas invites us to imagine what for most is literally unthinkable: God takes great delight in our flesh, our smelly, delectable, terrifying, itchy, silky, unmanageable, glorious flesh. I tried to imagine that as I wrote this for that recent book:

Most of us take the skin covering our bones for granted, except perhaps when we bruise it or cut it—or perhaps when a friend grabs our hands in a moment of crisis, or our fingers intertwine with the fingers of a beloved partner. Human flesh feels remarkably soft and resilient, creased and textured, smooth and supple. Human flesh comes in a stunning array of colors for which just “black” and “white” seem terribly crude. Pink, mocha, tan, auburn, chocolate—these are just a few of the tints and tones of the flesh that can occasion joy for us, and for the God who made it…hands_multiracial4

Imagine, in other words, God taking great delight in your body. I mean the naked one, the one with creases and dents, the one with the quirky smile and crooked nose, the one that gets messy and tired and cranky, the one that you never think is good enough or does enough or measures up to today’s cult of youth and beauty. I mean the body you cover with festive holiday clothes and workaholic frenzy just as Adam and Eve covered theirs with fig leaves. God asked those first humans about that. Read about it in the third chapter of Genesis. Who told you, God asked them, to be ashamed of how I created you?

If we can start to imagine God truly loving our own, messy bodies, then we might start to see other bodies that way, too. That would change the world. And that would give angels reasons to sing yet again.

angels_sheperdsMerry (messy) Christmas!

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I don’t usually post sermon texts here (sermons are performance pieces and difficult to capture in text). But given the recent government shutdown drama, the spectacle of a deeply divided country, and all the horrors generated by a globally divided humanity, I want to share some reflections on what many churches will mark tomorrow, October 27: Reformation Sunday. The texts here are Joel 2:22-32 and Luke 18:9-14. (I’ll be preaching this live at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California at 11am. Join us!)

Many churches – especially Lutheran and Presbyterian congregations – will mark October 27 this year as Reformation Sunday. The last Sundaluther_thesesy of October each year is set aside to commemorate the day, October 31 in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg. (You have to be careful how you pronounce that word “theses.” Though of course Luther himself would appreciate a good scatological joke.)

That moment in 1517 was Luther’s line in the ecclesial sand, a watershed moment in what was emerging as the Protestant Reformation. That movement redrew the map of institutional Christianity and therefore also the map of Europe, because it also marked the emergence of what we know today as “nation states” at roughly the same time and for reasons deeply intertwined with Luther’s agitations.

Needless to say, Reformation Sunday does not appear on the liturgical calendar used by Roman Catholics. On the other hand, given what we’ve witnessed so far from Pope Francis, I’d say with gratitude that the reforming spirit seems to be stirring in the Vatican these days as well.

That’s an important reminder, it seems to me, of one of the slogans those early reformers adopted: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, or “the reformed church always reforming.” (And I quote that in Latin because I find it mildly amusing that some Protestant theologians today still like to quote that slogan in the language of the institution their ancestors critiqued.)

More to the point: reformation is not an isolated event, relegated to a distant past some 500 years ago, but is rather part and parcel of what the Church always does – or rather should always do. It’s a reminder, in other words, that just like housework the Church’s work is never really finished. Or in more traditional language, conversion is not a single moment in the life of Christian faith but rather a lifelong process of transformation. Actually, some would say more than lifelong as death marks but one milestone – albeit a significant one – on our journey ever deeper into the life of God.

So I’d like to offer just a few observations about what this seismic shift in Christianity 500 years ago might still offer to our lives of faith today, what this dusty old moment from the past might still offer to that call always to be reforming. And I’m thinking especially of a twin concern shared by many of those early reformers – justification and sanctification. More precisely, being justified, or saved by grace alone through faith, and being sanctified, or transformed in the life of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great theological code words but, really, does this stuff matter?

Actually the Bible might help us find reasons for why these things do matter and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the lectionary texts for today signal the twin concerns I just mentioned. Luke’s Jesus tells a parable about a sinner finding justification before God and the text from the prophet Joel is often associated with the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit. So a few thoughts about each – and seriously, just a few. This topic has filled countless volumes.

First, justification: what in the world is that about? No really, what does this mean? Both the tax collector in Luke’s parable and Martin Luther himself could easily tell us. Luther, you might recall, was an Augustinian monk before launching on his institutional reform project. It was, Luther himself would say, a life of torment. He did everything his religious order demanded and the institutional church proscribed to lead a life of faith – and he was tormented by doubt. He was never fully convinced of his own salvation, he was never satisfied that God was satisfied with his efforts.

Never enough. Never enough. Never enough. … Oh, Martin, how I can relate!

Curiously enough, the turning point in his life came from reading carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther embraced as a sustained elegy to divine grace. The whole point of Christian faith, Luther realized, is not about what we do to justify ourselves but instead how God sees us through Christ, through the lens of divine grace – as cherished, and loved, and forgiven.

(Just a side note for the theology geeks among us: a similarly dramatic turning point occurred in the early twentieth-century life of the pioneering theologian Karl Barth when he also studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans; if you think the only thing to do with that letter is to refute Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in the first chapter, think again.)

Luke’s parable captures far more concisely what Luther experienced. There Jesus contrasts the religious leader who boasts of all his good works and the tax collector, a despised Roman collaborator and social outcast who bewailed his sinfulness. It was not the clergy person in that parable but the cultural pariah who returned home justified, Jesus says. And that is justification by grace through faith, as Luther declared in his world-changing insight.

I totally identify with both that tax collector and Martin Luther. Oddly enough, I did so especially in the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. In that tradition, preachers frequently issue “altar calls,” the invitation to turn one’s life over to Christ and be saved. I did precisely that as a teenager – multiple times. I responded to those altar calls again and again because I worried and fretted that the conversion hadn’t really “stuck.” I had to be sure, I had to know, I had to keep providing evidence that this time I really meant it. This time, God, really, I mean it.

And of course, just like Luther, I had missed the point. It’s not what I do – not even responding to an altar call – but rather what God does, that provides all the justification anyone needs. Or as my liturgy professor in seminary likes to say, we are “drenched” in grace.

Good news, to be sure. But there’s something more lurking around this text that deserves our attention. Luke’s parable is not only about the promise of divine grace; it is of course just as much a parable about not judging others.

No one’s life project is finished. No one has sufficient reason to boast before God. No one has it all figured out.

Or in more traditional language, this parable is calling of us all back to a profound posture of spiritual humility.

By saying that I just provided a classic illustration of a preacher preaching to himself with the hope that it might also be helpful to others. When I am convinced of something, I am not exactly known for sharing that conviction humbly. Yet I do believe we need more of precisely that, both in our political discourse these days as well as our religious circles.

Actually, that’s probably stating the case a bit too mildly. Some would say that the ideological and political divide in our country today is as bad as it has ever been, with each side unswervingly claiming the moral high ground. More still, religious conviction is fueling war and the rumors of war around the globe.boehner-obama

Yet even more: the despicable treatment of lesbians and gay men in Russia; the unabated practice of hanging gay teenaged boys in Iranian public squares; the draconian legislation in Uganda that makes “homosexuality” a capital crime. All of these moments and more spring from absolute religious conviction. Did you see the image of fully vested Russian Orthodox priests throwing stones at marchers in a gay pride parade? If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a scene from a Monty Python movie.

But here’s the thing: Even if I am right about something, I am no less in need of grace than the person with whom I disagree. I am absolutely convinced that those Russian Orthodox priests are wrong. And I need divine grace as much as they do.

I read Luke’s Jesus as offering a not-so-subtle nudge to level the playing field. To do that, I need to revise how I associated myself above with the tax collector. I am just as much the Pharisee in this parable – probably more than “just as much.” And that’s why sanctification and not only justification was so important for the Protestant Reformers.

Martin Luther used a medical analogy to illustrate the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification. Being justified is like a doctor having just administered a sure and certain remedy for a fatal disease. The physician pronounces the patient cured (read “justified”) even though the next step is also required for a full restoration to health: a process of rehabilitation (read “sanctified”).

While I find that analogy useful, I have to say that I find it troubling as well. It’s probably a theological hangover from an Evangelical youth, but that analogy comes perilously close to identifying the human condition itself as fatally flawed, or as John Calvin would say, suffering from “total depravity.”

Now, to be sure, there are days when I read the newspaper and think that humanity as a whole is thoroughly and utterly depraved. But I don’t read the Bible that way and I don’t read my friends and colleagues that way. Do I read my detractors and enemies that way, as totally depraved? Of course I do. That’s why Luke’s Jesus makes me squirm.

And that’s why I appreciate that the reformers stressed sanctification as a process. No one’s life project is finished. No one has reason to boast. No one has it all figured out.

And indeed, that’s why Christians keep coming back to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday mornings. We might come to that Table for the reminder of the justification and forgiveness that God has already accomplished in Christ. Even more, we come to the Table to deepen the sanctifying process.

eucharist_contemporaryThis process of meal sharing at this Table invites us to see ourselves ever more clearly as cherished, loved, and forgiven so that we can see everyone else in the same way – everyone, no exception.

We have a long way still to go in that process. But by God’s amazing grace, the reformed church is always reforming.

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Sacred Desire and Table Fellowship

When Christians put the words “God” and “sex” together in the same sentence we usually want to say something about ethics. Or more specifically, something about policies and rules. What we need to do first and often is to say something theological and spiritual.

So what can sexual intimacy tell us about God?  Why and how has this question been downplayed in Christian formation and neglected in Bible study? What dimension of Christian faith have we tossed under the bed and how can we restore the link between food, sexual intimacy, and the longing for God as the hoped-for promise of Divine Communion?

divine_communion_cover_full_resThose are some of the questions I tried to address with my new book, Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy.

It just so happens that this book has been published as I mark twenty-five years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. I’m celebrating both on Saturday evening, November 2, with a Celebration of Sacred Desire and Table Fellowship – food, music, and a book signing! If you’re in the Bay Area, please celebrate with me! (Use the contact form below for more details.)

To entice, lure, and seduce you into reading the book, here’s a bit of Q&A helpfully compiled by my publisher with some excerpts from the book itself:

What prompted you to write this book?
“Christian communities have been wrestling with sexual ethics for decades but without saying nearly enough about sexual theologies. The hesitancy of modern Western churches to address embodied sexual relations in spiritual practice explicitly highlights a critical gap between today’s Christian communities and historical traditions that I aim to bridge with this book. As I attempt that bridge-building, I imagine both biblical writers and Christian theologians over the centuries teetering on the brink of making the truly audacious claim they longed to make but could not quite bring themselves to do: erotic energy sits at the heart of Christian faith and practice.”

So, sex plays a role in faith?
“Love lies at the heart of the Gospel. I do not mean the sanitized or sentimental versions of love that proliferate in greeting cards. I mean, rather, the many forms love can take, all of which exhibit an erotic character, the hope for encounter and intimacy. Christians can claim even further that this deep desire for love originates with God, whose longing for intimacy not only shines forth from biblical texts and theological traditions but also in every elegant, fumbling, joyous, and disappointing or even traumatic encounter we have with sex and sexual intimacy. Divine eroticism shines forth from all these moments precisely because God created their physical and material conditions. God has done something else as well. By making human bodies, with their complex physiology and all their various parts and organs, God has planted in each of us a carnal pathway for encountering divine love.”

What’s your goal with this book?
Overall, I hope this book will encourage Christians to find fresh and invigorating ways to talk with each other about their own experiences with erotic desire and their longing for union with God. That conjunction describes the One Story of Christian faith and its kernel of good news for all those who ponder sexual ethics and who seek to live in a world of reconciliation and wholeness, with each other and with this planet of God’s creation. Christian communities enact and proclaim this startling story every time we gather around a ritual table to share a simple meal of bread and wine—a remarkably erotic and hopeful performance of Divine Communion.”song_solomon_qi

Contact me for more information about the celebration on November 2:

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Food, Sex, and God

Those three words hold the key to everything. I don’t mean that food does, important as it is, or that sex does, as delicious as it can be, or even God, especially when that once-powerful word reduces to religious rules.

I mean this: putting those three words together illumines the source of human distress and, at the same time, the hope that can lead us homeward.

eucharist_contemporaryFood, sex, and God intertwine at the very heart of Christian faith and spiritual practice. They always have, yet no one told me this when I was a child growing up in the Evangelical Bible belt. I still don’t hear it today, not from conservatives or from liberals.

What I do hear from pulpits and pod-casts sounds one of three themes, sometimes in combination: we have failed and need forgiveness; we need to work harder for social justice; mainline Christianity is over – next!

I mostly agree with each of those declarations, and they don’t say nearly enough. Missing from each is the proverbial elephant in Christianity’s living room. Nearly every Christian sees it sitting there and hardly anyone talks about it – hunger.

Human beings are hungry. We hunger for food in our bellies (essential for survival). We hunger for physical touch (essential for thriving). We hunger for intimacy (the very thing for which God makes us). These are not separate and distinct hungers; they describe the one and fundamental human desire for communion.

Over the last twenty-five years of ordained ministry I have, slowly but surely, come to see what I do and why when I stand at the Eucharistic Table. I stand there and I give voice to a deep and ancient longing, echoing among all the others standing there with me – the hope of communion. Or more precisely, the hope of being at home in our own bodies without shame, at home among others without guilt, and at home with God without any fear all at the same time.

So yes, we all need forgiveness; even more, healing the bodily shame that leads to isolation and violence. Yes, we need to work harder for a more just society; deeper still, for a world freed from the fear of difference. And mainline Christianity? I’m not worried about it. God’s own desire for communion will continue to lure us together, making friends from enemies and families from strangers.

I believe all this more than I might have after spending so much time in ecclesial debates over “homosexuality.” I used to complain – much like Pope Francis just recently did – that those debates merely distract the Church from attending to more important matters. I now see all those years of struggle as a divine gift.

The resilience of lesbian and gay people and the visibility of our relationships in Christian churches have prompted a profound question that we might not otherwise have asked. What do Christians really want to say about sex? I don’t mean only ethically. I mean, what do we want to say theologically and spiritually about sexual intimacy?divine_communion_cover_full_res

The best way to answer that question is to take it with us into a shared meal of bread and wine, to the Table of Divine Desire. Doing that unleashes a panoply of insights, which I try to chronicle in a new book due out next month – Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy.

Of course I hope you’ll buy the book (also available on all e-reader platforms). Even more, I hope it will spark prayerful conversation in Christian communities about hope itself – the world-changing hope catalyzed by food, sex, and God.

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Church-Making or Change-Making?

How will we save our churches? Should we?

Like many other clergy and theological educators, I have thought a lot about the first question and not nearly enough about the second.

Membership in mainline Protestant churches, as so many realize, has been declining steadily since the 1970s; many congregations have closed. That trend has accelerated in some regions, even among more conservative and Evangelical churches, which paints an equally bleak future for free-standing seminaries. Graduate-level theological education itself seems vaguely quaint to many, and to others woefully out of synch with a rapidly changing world. (See this analysis from a seminary professor.)

We suffer from no dearth of ideas and programs to reverse all these trends. But I’m still haunted by that second question – should we?

I’m haunted even more by something I heard the late biblical theologian Walter Wink say some years ago. He said it to a gathering of clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. This is what he said: “Whenever an institution devotes more resources to its own survival than to its mission, that institution has become demonic.”

I certainly don’t consider Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley “demonic,” which has remained a small mission for each of its 135 years and has faced more than a few moments of possible closure in that history. Yet the congregation has met those moments of anxiety best when it worried less about getting more members in the pews and focused more on how to address the needs of the neighborhood in which those pews sit.

eucharist_contemporaryGood Shepherd helps me to remember that the mission of the Church is not over – because the Church has never had a mission. God, however, does have a mission, expressed in various ways: to gather all peoples on the Holy Mountain where they learn war no more (Isaiah 2:1-4); to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19); and to ensure life in abundance for all (John 10:10) by dissolving the social barriers that divide us (Galatians 3:28) in a city where all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:14).

The question today (as it has always been) is not whether churches will survive but how Christian communities can participate better and more fully in God’s own mission of reconciling love and transformative grace.

After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Tulane University decided not to rebuild. The university decided instead to re-invent itself for hurricane-katrinathe sake of rebuilding New Orleans. “Faculty and staff lend their expertise” to create an educational opportunity for students to engage in the “largest urban renewal project ever undertaken in the United States.” The broader mission of the school derives from that vision: to equip graduates to do that same work in their own communities around the country and the world.

Here’s a thought experiment: Consider the last 100 years as a century-long socio-political hurricane in Western society. In the wake of that devastation, the Church decides not to rebuild but to re-invent itself as a networked hub of spiritual leadership for social transformation. Clergy would still preach, preside over sacraments, and provide pastoral care in this vision. They would do all this, however, not for the sake of making churches but for the sake of remaking society – a world where all can thrive and flourish.

Can church-making serve the kind of change-making the world needs today? That question, it seems to me, could channel institutional anxiety into constructive energy for renewing Christian witness and ministry.

That energy has been percolating for a number of years now. It has inspired some Christians to embrace what Phyllis Tickle has been chronicling so diligently: Emergent Christianity. (See also Emergent Village as well as something a tad edgier here and Darkwood Brew.) A lot of not-explicitly-Christian-or-particularly-religious people have tapped into that energy, too. Some of these are social entrepreneurs or social innovators committed to social change for good (See the Social Capital Markets conference and its newly created people of faith track as well as the pioneering work of Ashoka in higher education.)

hands_collaborationBringing together those worlds of emerging Christian witness and social innovation could catalyze exactly what the world needs – not more institutions but a diverse movement of spiritual renewal and social transformation.

That very possibility has seized the institutional imagination of Pacific School of Religion, the seminary where I teach in Berkeley. A new strategic vision, programming initiatives, compelling partnerships – all of this will unfold in this academic year and has already begun with a cohort of “Changemaker Fellows.”

I’m convinced that theological ideas and spiritual practice play an indispensable role in social transformation. I believe we still need churches and seminaries to provide those resources for leadership. The question all of us need to address much more collaboratively, creatively, and constructively is why, and then of course, how.

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Go On Ahead — I’ll Catch Up

God knew what she was doing when she shoved wolves and humans together and said, “I think something cool is going to happen here. Make something of this, you two.”

And make something we did. Many biologists and anthropologists alike believe that homo sapiens and canis lupus familiaris would be unrecognizable today apart from our interspecies bond. We have been nearly constant companions on this earthly pilgrimage for at least 15,000 years. We learned to read each other (dogs often did better at this than we did) and we discovered that collaboration ensures our thriving (a lesson humans might want to consider a bit more carefully these days).

Sad to say, human beings have been far less kind to what became known as the “dog” than the other way around. I have returned often to this image in one of the dozens of dog books I’ve read over the years: every loving pat, every kind word, every home made for a dog slowly but surely heals a history of human cruelty. (Next on that list in my view is the outright ban on puppy mills.)

tyler_tulipsYesterday I had to say goodbye to a beloved canine companion, an Australian Shepherd dog named Tyler. (For anyone facing a similar situation, I highly recommend reading this blog post on how to make the most difficult and loving decision we are called to make for the animals who grace our lives.)

I rescued Tyler from the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society when he was nine years old. He had already been at that shelter for six months because no one wanted to adopt an “older dog.” He was a bit overweight, not terribly well groomed, and a bit listless; but oh, ever so sweet. I can give this old guy two or three years of a happy home, I thought.

Turns out that regular exercise, grooming, and love stretched that estimate to six-and-a-half years. He lost weight, got his energy back, and became an integral part of my life in every respect. He died just shy of his sixteenth birthday.

I learned a lot from Tyler. A short list begins with this: be sure to take time to roll vigorously in the grass at least once a day; never say no to an invitation to play; enjoy a nap in the afternoon sunshine as often as you can; and always greet your friends as if they had just returned from an expedition to the Artic.

It’s not quite true to say that I “rescued” Tyler. It really was a mutual rescue operation. When I adopted him I was basically glued to electronic devices for nearly every waking hour. Adding a dog to the house meant making time for hikes and affection. I had already been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for fifteen years before Tyler came along and, to my chagrin, I knew nothing about parks. When I brought Tyler home I googled “off-leash for dogs” and discovered this amazing thing called the East Bay Regional Park District. A wonderful park was less than two miles from my house! Tyler and I spent countless hours running, playing, hiking, and exploring in those parks. I think it may well have saved my life; it certainly renewed my soul.tyler_oyster_beach

The peculiar faith of Christians includes affirming the resurrection of the human body after death. I cannot say in all honesty that my faith in that claim is always constant and unwavering. It’s difficult and complicated. But when I do believe it, I cannot imagine that God would care only about human flesh. After all, God created all of it, including the flesh of the beloved canine who was showered with my tears and kisses as he journeyed on.

Today I believe in the resurrection of the body – all bodies. And I choose to believe today that Tyler has gone ahead of me on a journey all of us will take. I dare to believe he might be waiting for me – even as he frolics and plays and takes a good roll in heavenly grass. I know – it’s peculiar. But today, I believe it.

So here I offer some words in honor of Tyler. I am of course heartbroken but hopeful – he’s gone on ahead and he’ll have lots to show me when I get there.

Go On Ahead – I’ll Catch Up

I imagine that you’ll limp a bit and stumble at first.
You have some healing to do with those hips and joints.
But it won’t take long. Trust me.
I know you love to run and that’s what you should do.
It will soon feel like home, oddly but perfectly.

So go on ahead. I’ll catch up soon.
Don’t look back but for a moment, and listen!
Over the strange haze that enfolds you just now
you’ll hear a familiar whistle in a voice
you’ve never heard before but have always known.

The laughter of creek-water over stones,
the scampering of field mice on their mounds,
the cry of a hawk in a pale blue sky and
the whisper of a soft breeze in the pines.
The Voice calls to you, just for you –
run and play.

And I? I shall wait, and work, and laugh, and cry
until you show me that new brook,
the unknown path through a wild forest,
running in your circles with glee and pausing
to bump my knee with your wet nose to goad me,
urging me on to run with you down the road –
the very road God has made just for us.

That will be The Day.

So go on ahead now.
Don’t worry and don’t look back.
I’ll catch up.

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Sleepwalking through a Cataclysm: A Pentecostal Wake-up Call

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God declares, “and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Many Christians heard that biblical text yesterday in church, for the Feast of Pentecost.

Prophecy only occasionally has anything to do with predicting far-off future events. Biblical prophets more often see the present with vivid clarity and then say uncomfortable things about it. That clarity of vision sometimes happens in a dream but mostly we have to be awake, with our eyes wide open.

As I thought about prophesy on Pentecost, here’s a short list of what came to mind: intractable social problems; dysfunctional political parties; erosion of the common good; a whole generation or more without any grounding in a religious tradition; and polar bears swimming for their lives without any ice in sight while poachers profit from slaughtering elephants. The list would be longer if I were more awake.

I believe most citizens of the North Atlantic (myself included) are sleepwalking through a cataclysm. I’m not sure what will wake us; perhaps only divine intervention can interrupt our somnambulist delusions.

Sound alarmist? A current catalogue of crises would begin with these:

  • About ten days ago this planet registered over 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a level not seen for roughly three million years, even while we frack for more gas and scrape the bottom of oil-sands barrels; the irreversible tipping point for global climate change swiftly approaches and we may have just passed it (here’s a startling graph of the problem).smokestacks2
  • We now live with the most severe gap between those who control not only national but global wealth and resources and those who have virtually nothing; even conservative economists consider that gap unsustainable and it maps closely to the widening gap in education.
  • Yet another gap widens with alarming speed, the one between ideology and facts; just witness what happened to Bill Nye (the “science guy”) when he noted for a Texas audience that the moon actually reflects the sun’s light (he was booed) or what a Christian pastor said about Christianity as the founding religion of the United States that now stands at risk from homosexual activists (this matters because that pastor is now the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia).
  • All the boring stuff about infrastructure will soon seem far less boring when this nation’s duct-taped electricity grid crashes, or when the more than 4,000 dams at risk of failure actually fail, or when the next 70-year old gas pipeline explodes; the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+.
  • The wildly disproportionate number of African American men incarcerated in the U.S. strongly suggests that Jim-Crow culture never really ended but merely changed tactics, which includes keeping the poor in poverty and restricting their access to education.

I imagine most people think about that catalogue of socio-political problems as discrete items on a check-list. Most of us likely recognize some of their intersections and overlaps. Relatively few, however, would include all of those and more in a description of a single event, as the word “cataclysm” suggests. But that’s precisely what I now believe we must do.

I believe we are witnessing in slow-motion a singular, cataclysmic unraveling of community, of the social bonds that have for millennia enabled humans to survive and thrive. Those bonds now include the indispensable relationships with varied ecosystems, both  local and global. To be sure, many of us enjoy resilient, thriving communal bonds, even if only in our households or neighborhoods. But this is not enough, not by far, not in an era of global commerce and planetary-interdependence.

Most of us are happily sleepwalking through this cataclysm, though mostly through no fault of our own. The very conditions that set the stage for this unfolding disaster have ingeniously hidden their mechanisms from view behind a screen of comfort. As I write this, I sit in a beautiful backyard garden surrounded by budding fruit trees next to a house with an affordable mortgage. Very little about where I sit would encourage me to wake up.

bible_us_flagMany would of course lay the blame for our sleepy state at the feet of religion, especially Christianity. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Marcella Althaus-Reid (one of the more traditionalist and therefore queer theologians I know) argued that Western Christians have been lulled into a compliant sleep by adopting Western cultural sensibilities as benchmarks for Gospel values. That wedding of modern Western culture and institutional Christianity may well qualify as one of the biggest blunders in Christian history, perhaps second only to the quasi-official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

To the many solutions Althaus-Reid proposed to this quandary, I would add this: divine intervention. I do not mean the kind Cecil B. DeMille imagined in his silver-screen Bible epics. Divine intervention will look today like it always has, vividly illustrated by Pentecost but without the special effects. Luke’s biblical account of the earliest Christians in his Acts of the Apostles relies on very few divine pyrotechnics. He portrays instead completely ordinary people doing wildly extraordinary things, all of them inspired and cajoled by the Spirit. Luke describes that Pentecostal effect: Christians turned the world upside down (17:6).

In the midst of an unfolding cataclysm, we need some world-changing prophecy. I’m actually very hopeful that the Spirit will do today what she has done so many times before – wake us up to see the world with prophetic clarity.

When that happens, we will need another gift from that same Spirit: the ability and willingness to understand one other beyond the many linguistic and cultural barriers that divide us. And still another gift: the love that makes friends from enemies and family from friends. And yet one more, perhaps above all the others: courage.

"Holy Spirit Coming," He Qi, 2009

“Holy Spirit Coming,” He Qi, 2009