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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

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Counting the Deaths that Count in Eastertide

I know how many people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School (26, not including the perpetrator and his mother) and how many died at the Boston Marathon bombing (3). I know this (without needing to “do a Google”) in part because these horrific events took place rather recently.

I know these numbers for other reasons, too. Both of those tragic moments happened in places where I can imagine myself visiting or strolling; I can easily see my godson’s younger brother as a student at Sandy Hook. And all but a few of those thirty-one people who died were white.

I have never visited a Sikh temple nor have I ever traveled to Pakistan. There are parts of the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) that I might drive through but likely never “visit.” Yet in all of those places adultssikh_temple_shooting and children alike have died, violently and recently. I have no idea how many unless I look it up and then search carefully through all the online search results:

Six died at a Wisconsin Sikh temple last August. Since the Sandy Hook shooting last December, 35 have been killed by gun violence in Oakland (10 miles from my house), four of them teenagers. In my own city of Richmond, 7 have been killed, one of them a teenager. (Slate offers a sobering but helpful interactive map of gun violence in the U.S., though the statistics are strangely hard to confirm.) Only God knodrone_strikews, literally, how many have died in U.S. drone strikes overseas. In Pakistan alone since 2004 drones have killed 2,358 people, 175 of them children. (Those numbers are disputed by various reporting agencies, but this animated graphic proves helpful and chilling.)

The vast majority of all those victims were not white.

Now, to be sure, these situations (let alone my  memory and attention span) are complex, multi-layered, inflected by news cycles, the “spectacle factor,” and so much more. The troubling fact still remains that I remember or know anything at all about white deaths on the other side of the country and so little about the deaths of people of color in my own backyard. Without resorting to Google yet again, I could not remember how many died just a year ago at Oikos University, a school affiliated with a Korean Presbyterian Church in Oakland (7).

I suspect something deep in the human psyche draws our attention rather naturally to the fate of those who seem most like us. If so, then white people (like me) need urgently to stretch beyond that natural tendency in a country where the vast majority of policy makers are white (and male); in a country where national news media train their spotlight on a small-town elementary school but not on inner-city streets; in a country where significant gun control legislation finally appears on the docket only after mostly white children are killed but not after mostly Asian students are shot by an Asian gunman. (The New York Times Magazine recently published a retrospective piece on the University of Oikos shooting titled, appropriately enough, “The Other School Shooting.”)

We count deaths, but some deaths clearly count more than others. I started pondering that disparity as I sat transfixed (like so many others) by the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I wondered why the whole country seemed fixated there but so rarely on Oakland, Richmond, Atlanta, New York City, or Chicago.

The specter of terrorism is clearly part of the answer. One of the Boston victims (who lost a portion of her leg in the bombing) said that it reminded her immediately of the September 2001 attacks. She was not alone, and that may be part of the problem. A commentator in London recently noted that Americans tend to panic over the prospect of international terrorism (shutting down an entire city) but seem to accept daily gun violence as routine. Those living with such violence, however, consider it anything but “routine” and more like terrorism. (Over the last two years such violence has gone up by 52% in the Bay Area where residents feel “besieged.”)

Since Sandy Hook last December through March 22 of this year, 2, 244 people have been killed by gun violence in the U.S. The demographics lurking behind those statistics are just as significant. White Americans are five times more likely than African Americans to commit suicide with a gun. African Americans are far more likely than white people to be killed by someone else with a gun. Suicide rates are the highest in states with the highest rate of gun ownership and tend to concentrate in rural areas. Homicides involving guns happen far more frequently in our cities. Digest those demographics for a moment and notice the polling data: Nearly 75% of African Americans support tighter gun control legislation while not quite half of white Americans do. (The difference between how we perceive suicide and respond to homicide matters here, too.)

Admittedly, I find statistics numbing and difficult to decipher. More visceral and gripping are the images of those Sandy Hook children and the carnage at a marathon finish line. Mia McKenzie by contrast finds those images numbing in what she names an “erosion of empathy.” Counting only the deaths that appear to count (judged by news media and Congressional action) has slowly worn done her capacity to care. Here’s how she describes it from a blog post I urge all of my white friends to read:

Some of it has to do with the fact that the wars and subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for more than a dozen years. For many of the younger folks I know, that’s the better part of their entire lives. It’s a whole third of mine. For a dozen years we have watched as the mainstream media has ignored the deaths of so many brown children, day after year after decade. I mean, they were ignoring the deaths of Black children all over the world, including here, way before that, but we didn’t have to see them ignoring it so blatantly every morning and afternoon and evening and night on TV (that 24-hour news cycle is a bitch; they have time for everything except our stories).

Surely the peculiar faith of Christians has something to say here – peculiar, that is, especially for white Christians in this Easter season as we  celebrate the resurrection of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew executed by an imperial army outside the city gates. Would that death have attracted dozens of television camera crews and even more front page news stories?jesus_as_palestinian

Perhaps we need an Eastertide discipline as much as we do a Lenten one. A modest place to begin might be noticing the deaths that count and why they do. The U.S. Congress may have (inadvertently?) done just that by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to four African American girls – fifty years after they were killed in a Birmingham city bombing.
MCNAIR ROBERTSON COLLINS WESLEY

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Living on the Edge

This peculiar day reminds me of the 1990 film, “Postcards from the Edge,” mostly because of its wonderful title. I imagine Jesus sending one of those postcards especially today, called “Holy Saturday” on the Christian calendar. It would read, “Don’t be afraid.”

Edges can certainly trouble and terrify when living on the edge of foreclosure, or the edge of terminal illness, or the edges of a crumbling relationship. Edges can also intrigue and entice as gateways, portals, and thresholds.

In ancient mythologies “liminal deities” preside over doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman pantheons, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of gateways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.janus

“Holy Saturday” sits on the potent edge between Good Friday and Easter, and it certainly qualifies as a peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves preparing for tomorrow’s liturgical festivities. Christian tradition has Jesus busy with something else.

On this day in the Christian imagination Jesus descends into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

chora_anastasis3One of my favorite depictions of this sacred edge resides in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. More accurately, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

I love Advent and Christmas for the reassurance that flesh matters. I love Epiphany for its expansive horizons of who celebrates God in flesh. I pay attention to Ash Wednesday (for the sake of my mortality) and Lent moves me to live for what matters. But Good Friday proves painful and Easter somehow premature. I love this day in between, this day that sits on the edge. It feels both honest and fantastical all at the same time.

Reflecting on edges I nearly always think of a beach, that liminal space where land and sea meet. Most human beings seem ineluctably drawn to those sandy liminal locations – dry yet also wet; solid but shifting; navigable while also treacherous. Humans stroll along them, launch ships from them, enjoy bonfires and picnics on them—and occasionally fall prey to their unpredictable dangers. A “day at the beach” can entail hours of frolicking in the surf yet they always lead back to the familiar comforts of a place to stand, or more likely to sit and enjoy food and drink.

I imagine the Eucharistic Table sitting on that kind of liminal edge, where Christians share bread and wine on the edge between memory and hope. There we remember suffering and death even as we proclaim resurrection. The former is barely past; the latter hasn’t quite yet arrived.table_beach

To me, Easter is above all a liminal, edgy season, which “Holy Saturday” captures so well. This season invites us to live on the edge, refusing to remain mired in a broken past yet not quite sure what stepping over the horizon will look like. Edgy living is both hopeful and humble, marked by a confidence about the future but without any swagger.

It also takes courage to live on the edge, which is why I’m grateful for this peculiar day and the postcard I imagine Jesus sending from his sojourn among the dead: “Don’t be afraid.”

As a spiritual practice I enjoy returning to some of my favorite hymn tunes and writing new lyrics to accompany them. I did that this Lenten season with the wonderful American folk melody, “Land of Rest” (you might recognize it from the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on US National Parks). I offer it here for a bit sustenance for our lives on the edge.

Harbor Home

From mountain high and ocean deep
along a distant shore,
a starry host with vigil keep
a bright and open door.

Unfurl the sails to conquer fear
‘midst gale and storm-tossed wave,
the Spirit guides all creatures dear,
these mortal ships to save.

The Table set in trackless seas
where Christ before us trod,
will chart the course with mysteries
to harbor home in God.

(Words: ©2013, Jay Emerson Johnson
Music: Land of Rest, American folk melody)

shore_water_distant

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The Squeaky Gate: Holy Week and Social Transformation

“Cosmo, you’re gonna die.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from the film “Moonstruck.” The line comes from Olympia Dukakis’ character, Rose. She says it to her husband, who has been seeing another woman. Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Left unaddressed in that great exchange is whether there might be anything worth dying for, or whether it matters if there is, and how it might make a difference, to anyone.

Those are some of the profound themes of this “holy week” that Christians in the West are living through just now. The Internet machine is abuzz with images for this week, ranging from the traditional to the kitschy, while clergy scramble to find ever better ways to tell that familiar story (in more worship services than they usually care to count).lamb_slain

In a high-tech, globalized world of smart phones and Google glasses, the story of this week can seem not only familiar but a bit quaint if not worn-out and tired. Returning to this story year after year feels a bit like the cattle gate I encounter in the regional park every day with my Australian shepherd dog, Tyler. When I unlatch it and swing it open, the hinges squeak…loudly.

Tyler looks up at that latch every time as if the sound annoys him. The story we Christians tell in this holy week can seem just as old and squeaky.

palm_sunday_queerBut there’s more than one way to tell that story, and the wonderful sermon I heard two days ago on Palm Sunday reminded me of just one of those ways. The preacher, Christine Haider-Winnett, is also the co-president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, an organization founded in 1975 to advocate for the full inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic Church (watch Christine talk about her work on HuffingtonPost Live).

Christine invited us to see the so-called “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem as a protest march, an uprising against the imperial power of Rome. In contrast to the parades of soldiers on horses with spears and swords, Jesus rides in on  a donkey with palm fronds. She reminded me, in other words, of where to look for God this week – in movements of resistance to institutional and state power.

As the Supreme Court of the United States hears two cases this week on marriage equality, Christine helped me find traces of that first century uprising in the rallies for justice taking plmarriage_march_carsonace throughout the country. (My friend and colleague Susan Russell wrote about this very thing.)

But Christine reminded me of something else as well: my own privilege as a man who can be ordained in my church and who also enjoys the comforts of an upper-middle class lifestyle. The institutional power of the Church and the imperial power of the U.S. have treated me pretty well indeed.

The squeaky old story we Christians tell this week invites me to walk beyond the gates of my privilege. They invite me to walk not just with Jesus but with all those with whom Jesus would walk today – and that’s a long list.

If the palms from this past Sunday can serve as signs of resistance to empire, the cross this Friday reminds us of the cost of that resistance. Telling the story that way requires courage, something I can rarely muster on my own. That’s why I’ll be gathering with others this week. I need to hear the old story told in multiple ways and I need help in figuring how to live because of it.

Like Cosmo, we’re all going to die. So this week urges me to live a life that matters, and that could well come with a hefty price tag. That’s why this coming Sunday matters, too. Love-making and justice-work are never wasted efforts. As Christians will declare on Easter, love will always have the last word, which will also become the first word for new life.

gate_regional_oarkI actually like that squeaky gate in the regional park, even if Tyler finds it annoying. Beyond it I see green pastures and clustered trees full of birds and creek-lined gullies. This week I hear the voice of God in that squeak: walk this ancient path; cross through the gate; I’ll go with you.

When I say something like that to Tyler, he’s always glad he listened.

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Unleashing “Django Unchained”: Epiphanies for White America

White Guilt won’t solve anything. Neither will White Denial. Trying to figure out where one sits on that spectrum is a distinct privilege for white people, like me. People of color don’t have those moments of luxury, those moments when they get to pause and wonder about all the complexities of a social and political system designed to favor white people and white communities.

As I sat in a dark theater watching Django Unchained last week I was glad for little light. What I watched belongs in shadows and in dark corners and all those places where human beings rightly cower in the face of horror. Watching that film I felt assaulted by violence, torn by conflicting loyalties, wrenched by poignant moments of tenderness, amused by reversals of fortune, and appalled by the human capacity to act with unspeakable cruelty. Yet none of that compares to what African Americans feel when watching the same film. Of that, at least, I am certain.django

I’m eager to learn from my African American colleagues and friends about their responses to that Quentin Tarantino film. It is of course quintessentially Tarantino – ridiculously violent, comically absurd, and horribly distasteful. For all its excess, the film prompted me to discern anew how to live as a white person in a society still reeling from the legacy of racial brutality.

I worry and I fret that even half of the violence or even a portion of the denial of human dignity portrayed in that film captures the historical reality of institutional slavery. But that’s White Guilt talking and it’s not helpful. Equally unhelpful is to suppose that all that horror is neatly sequestered in the shrouds of history and has nothing to do with us today. That’s White Denial talking.

If Djangodjango2 Unchained is going to contribute anything more than Oscar-worthy performances all of us will need to unleash its dangerous message. And Django is dangerous in the same way the Christian Gospel is dangerous, and for this reason: flesh matters.

Tarantino would seem to elicit precisely the opposite as we see flesh flayed, beaten, punctured, ripped apart, bleeding, and generally abused in nearly every manner imaginable. Perhaps that’s the wake-up call Christian communities need if we’re going to take our incarnational faith more seriously – to take human flesh more seriously.

epiphany_magi2I saw Django in this Christian liturgical season following The Epiphany – the feast of the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh. This season in concert with that film poses some gut-wrenching questions for white Christians like me. What kind of “flesh” do we mean, really? How is my white flesh consistently considered better than other kinds of flesh, not just abstractly or theoretically but concretely, in the communities where I work, worship, and play? What can and what should I do about that?

This liturgical season began with the story of the Magi traveling far from home, asking questions, and offering gifts when they arrived. White people committed to dismantling systemic racism can follow that same pattern by leaving our comfort zones, learning what we need to know by asking uncomfortable questions, and then offering ourselves to the divine mission of respecting and celebrating all and not just some flesh.

Regardless of the cinematic merits of Django Unchained, unleashing its insights in this season following the Epiphany and leading into Lent could provoke some profound conversations and conversions. I like to remember that those words – “conversation” and “conversion” – come from the same linguistic root. Engaging in genuine conversation makes us vulnerable to life-changing insights, exactly what all of us need in a society built on white supremacy. (One of those insights might link the portrayal of violence to the problem of violence, though Tarantino himself rather testily disagrees.)

At the very least Django beckons white people to consider why and how our white flesh still matters more than any other kind – and that would surely be an epiphany worthy of this peculiar season.

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Viagra and Liberal Christianity: An Agenda for 2013

Happy New Year and many thanks to the readers and followers of “Peculiar Faith”! I’m grateful for your engagement with my attempt to chronicle, nudge, describe, and construct a truly lively Christian faith and practice for the twenty-first century. I started this blog with the hope of contributing to the vitality and resurgence of a socially- and politically-engaged Christian faith that takes seriously the importance of critical and constructive theological work. Your comments, re-posts, and shares have been wonderfully encouraging.

The data crunchers at WordPress offer a great statistical snapshot at the end of each year for their bloggers and while I’m sure my stats are quite modest compared to most other bloggers, I’m pleased with the number of views and the quality of comments in 2012.

Here’s an excerpt from the year-end report:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. “Peculiar Faith” had 26,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

(If you’re interested in more fun stats, click here to see the complete report for this blog).

More than numbers, I’m intrigued that men messing with women’s bodily integrity and a robust liberal Christianity appear to have been the topics of most interest to readers of “Peculiar Faith.” I take this as at least one indication of the passion and concern many share for the broad intersection of social justice and Christian faith. That’s what I’ll keep writing about in 2013, including a two-part post coming soon on my own religious resolutions for this new year.

For now, may the peculiar light of the Incarnate Word continue to shine in a world that so desperately needs it. And many blessings in the weeks and months ahead!

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A Night for the Unprepared

O holy night, I’m not ready. And as the poets remind me, that is precisely the point.

fox_winter

 

 

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances – but is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord; you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
         –Mary Oliver, “Making the House Ready for the Lord” (2006)

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild,
where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
          –Phillips Brooks (19th century)

May light shine in the darkness,light_window
hope quickened beyond belief,
and peculiar peace be with us all…

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The Mayans Were Wrong, but Mostly Right: Advent and Apocalypse

World-ending moments are no laughing matter; I take them quite seriously. But let’s be clear about this: whatever might happen on December 21, 2012, it won’t even come close to resembling 2012, the blockbuster film by Roland Emmerich (even though I enjoyed watching it).

mayan_apocalypseLet’s be clear about this, too: as 12/21/12 unfolds mostly like every other day, that won’t mean that the Mayans were “wrong.” It will mean that certain interpretations of a wonderful artifact of an ancient civilization were wrong. But that doesn’t mean that the ancient Mayans have nothing to say to us today.

I think the Mayans were profoundly right about this: time has punctuation points. That insight seems embedded in the calendric genius of that Mesoamerican people. All sorts of worlds come to an end on a regular basis – personal, familial, social, political, and ecological “worlds” end with astonishing regularity.

Just reflect on the otherwise mundane moment of your childhood world ending in an onslaught of hormones that ushers in a new world of adolescence and eventually adulthood. Consider the world of collegiate companionship and study ending with “commencement.” How about the intimate world of marriage ending in divorce? And didn’t the world of Medieval Christendom reach a dramatic end in the Protestant Reformation? How about the world of established churches ending in the American Revolution? Is the world of heterosexual privilege ending with each new moment of legislated marriage equality? How much of the world of Jim Crow lingers even after the Civil Rights Act?

All sorts of “worlds” end all the time, nearly every day. The question is not if they will end but rather what we shall do in their midst and in their wake.

World-ending moments can mark profound beginnings as well, even when they seem to elude us. That’s how I read the Mayan calendar, not about specific dates but about punctuation points: worlds end and new ones emerge.

That’s how I read the Christian gospel texts as well. Those texts seem to offer a truly peculiar insight about world-ending moments. Precisely when the “world” of the first-century Jesus movement appeared to reach a tragic end with crucifixion, just then something new blossomed forth. That’s the logic of Advent as well, though wonderfully peculiar: the birth of a baby signals the end of a world. A new one is coming…

Ah, but there’s the rub, right? How do we cope with our various worlds ending even when new ones are peaking over the horizon? Why do worlds usually end in pain? What do we do with all that suffering?

In the face of such questions, I can only hold on to the glimmers of light, the slight flickers of a single candle in the darkness. Whatever spiritual discipline I can muster, it’s rooted there: nurturing the embers of hope when advent_candles2world-ending moments loom:

  • For four years I lived in a domestic world in which my mother lived with me. That world ended when Mom moved, this past October, to an elder-care residence. She’s safer there and I’m saner. But that world-ending moment is still tinged with sadness;
  • My childhood world of Evangelical Christian faith collapsed when I came out as gay man at Wheaton College (in Illinois!). A whole new world emerged in its wake, but I was deeply saddened by that experience of abandonment;
  • My friends who divorce, friends with miscarried pregnancies, a fire in a church building, a dear one with cancer, a beloved pet who dies, moving to a new city – lights flicker in all this but threaten to go out in the flood of violence.

At least twenty-seven worlds ended this past Friday in Connecticut, punctuated by the horrific deaths of children. These worlds echo the ones that end nearly every day in every Metropolitan center in the U.S. For me, it’s hard to imagine anything worse.

In the midst of world-ending moments, I don’t look for “answers” anymore. I look for relationships. I don’t see any other way forward. So if you want to prepare for world-ending moments, let me suggest a “to do list.” (And I would gladly welcome suggestions for how to do these things and to add to the list.)

  1. Love Fiercely. Very little if anything matters as much as this. Even more, it’s the one thing that lasts. “Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs, 8:7) because “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Don’t ever miss an opportunity to love, because love is stronger than death.
  2. Forgive Freely. So many of us hold on to so much that really doesn’t matter. Let it go. I mean the small slights and the big ones. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to human community. How can we possibly forgive what seems unforgivable? I don’t know. But I do know that upon that question so much depends.
  3. Act Boldly. You don’t have to stand at a podium on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to do this. You can write a letter, send an email, actually talk to your Starbuck’s barista. Just break the shells of our isolation. Meet your neighbors. Visit your local food bank. Volunteer there.
  4. Huddle Close. Forget Martha Stewart holiday planning (trust me, this is difficult for me). Just relish being close to loved ones. Establish beachheads of fierce love and free forgiveness in your home. Hold all those wacky people close. Relish the “word made flesh” in them, even if you can’t speak it.

communityHere’s the thing: worlds end. In the end, I turn to this, from the prayer for the first Sunday of Advent in The Book of Common Prayer: “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” That “armor” is love.

Just love.