First-Century Ferguson

I do not mean that Ferguson, Missouri, is somehow a first-century locale, especially with all the twenty-first century military gear on display of late to keep unarmed protesters terrorized. I do mean that some first-century Christian insights might help some of us to think a bit differently about race and violence and Gospel in the U.S. today.ferguson_guns

For the last couple of years, I’ve started all of my seminary classes with this: “Christian faith began not with a doctrine, or a text, or an institution, but with a radical social practice: table fellowship.”

To be clear, I am convinced of the importance of teaching, words, and structure in Christianity, but all of that serves but one thing: communion with God and with each other, or table fellowship, in all its many forms.

I’m not an expert on race and racism. I’m a white guy, who enjoys much more privilege than I am actually aware of in my daily life, and I am committed to learning and doing what I can to dismantle racism – my own and this country’s. I am also a Christian theologian, and I do believe that Christian theology and Christian faith and Christian spiritual practice can make a difference in undoing racist structures and animating a vision of thriving life for all.

As a theologian, I try always to be mindful of this: First-century Mediterranean societies were no less stratified than the modern West. Food mattered a great deal back then, more so than in today’s fast-food culture. In the first century, with whom one shared food helped to maintain the strict social stratifications based on gender, class, ethnicity, and religion. Food and sex served the same purpose in those societies: maintaining a social hierarchy of value. Or more simply, some people mattered more than others. (I offer an extended commentary on this very thing in my book Divine Communion.)

First-century Christians, following the example of Jesus, interrupted that social dynamic with a bold move: eating with the “wrong” people. By doing so, they declared that all people matter, no exceptions. (Of course it took them some time to get to that insight and not everyone did, thus St. Paul’s frequent diatribes in his letters…)

I was reminded of that first-century insight by reading Acts 10 just recently. That text has been used often by LGBT people as an ancient analogue for the struggle to welcome sexual and gender diversity in today’s churches. Welcoming Gentiles into that early and mostly Jewish Christian community was cause for significant scandal – and it reshaped the whole movement. But I realized something else from my recent reading of that text, and I’m rather stunned that I hadn’t really considered it before.

In that ancient story, Peter and his Jewish companions spend several days in the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Remember, at that time Palestine was an occupied province of the Roman Empire, In this biblical story, the ones oppressed enjoy the hospitality and the food of their Roman oppressors! More than this, the Spirit is poured out on all of them (Acts 10:44-46)!

So many Christians read that ancient story in a very narrowly theological way; it is also, and just as much, social and political. The story is both because God is social, and thus political.

Can we imagine a wemmaus_supper_contemporaryorld in which white Ferguson police officers sit down and share a meal with African American Ferguson citizens? First-century Christians could imagine that. Can we?

I’m not suggesting a “solution” to the ongoing horror of race relations in the U.S. I am suggesting that finding such a solution will not happen without a table, without shared meals, without the totally irrational, seemingly impossible commitment to eat together. Remember 1950s’ lunch counters? It’s not just accidental that race relations in the U.S. orbit so often around shared food. Thiseucharist_contemporary matters.

This is the heart of Christian faith, in my view: God sets a table for all of us to enjoy. It’s now up to us whether we will sit there, with each other, and with the Other we have been taught either to fear or to despise.


Paul’s Wake: Coming Out as Christian on the Aegean Sea

By “wake” I mean the scant traces a boat leaves behind as it cuts through the water. I have no idea whether the Apostle Paul was afforded the other kind of wake, the one before a funeral. Both seem rather apt images for my upcoming Greek adventure.

I’ll soon be sailing the Aegean Sea on a fifty-foot sailboat with seven other gay men. Paul himself sailed this sea (at least nearby) on his missionary journeys, even though (of course) his ship’s wake disappeared quickly many centuries ago.

Paul’s theological wake remains, however, and in more ways than anyone can calculate. That wake is carved indelibly on the sea of Christian faith and spiritual practice. I’m actually a great admirer of Paul, even though I argue with him frequently.Paul the apostle

I’m going on this trip to relax but I can’t go without pausing to reflect theologically on the locale – especially since Paul’s writings have too often caused serious harm. Paul would be appalled by that damaging wake.

Paul exhibited extraordinary courage, erudition, and even deep pastoral care. Some of my most cherished biblical texts come from Paul: the declaration that “faith, hope, and love” are the hallmarks of Christian life, the greatest being love (1 Cor. 13:13); the insistence that in Christ there is no longer “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28); his timely image these days of the whole creation “groaning” as it waits for salvation (Rom. 8:22); and of course his game-changing crescendo that absolutely nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). And that’s a short list.

Sadly, the only Pauline text most LGBT people know instead is the one from his letter to the Romans. There he describes same-sex sexual activity as “para phusin” (1:26-27), or what biblical translators typically render as “unnatural.”

To honor all those who have suffered harm because of this one biblical text (and some have taken their own lives), I hereby dub my upcoming Aegean excursion “The Unnatural Tour.”unnatural_tour_big_map

I call it that not in spite of Paul but to respect his pioneering insights in that world-changing letter (countless people have had course-changing moments by reading that letter to the Romans, including Augustine in the fourth century, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, and Karl Barth in the twentieth century, to name just a few).

Consider Paul’s astonishing declaration later in that letter where he describes God’s grace with the same peculiar phrase – para phusin (11:24)  Paul uses that phrase only twice in the writings we have from him and both in this letter to the Romans. The first refers to sexual practices; the second, to divine grace. But how to translate it? Against nature? Contrary to nature? Above nature? Or just “unnatural”? Whatever it means, Paul seemed perfectly fine with using it to describe both sex and grace.

So I embark on an adventure in Paul’s wake, the one that disappeared long ago and the one that remains. I go on “The Unnatural Tour” with some anxiety as well. Will my gay sailing companions (whom I have not yet met) find it odd, disturbing, or annoying to be sailing with a theologian? Will I even tell them that they are?

Sad but true, it’s often more difficult to come out as Christian among LGBT people than it is to come out as L, G, B, or T among Christians – at least the kind of Christian one bumps into here on the Left Coast of California.

To live with more anxiety about revealing one’s Christian faith than revealing one’s sexuality actually feels like a relief for those of us who grew up in mortal terror of coming out sexually. But that relief comes with profound sadness and not a little anger. To set the joys of bodily intimacy against the good news of the Gospel distorts both, and far too frequently in tragic ways.

So I set sail with a bunch of gay men, not as a missionary but with honesty. I hope they will discover two things: 1) priests and theologians really can have fun; and 2) the source of their bodily yearnings for intimacy is in fact God, who made them for bodily joy. (By exhibiting the former, I hope the latter becomes obvious.)

map_linesI’m also relishing this: When the gay cruise ends, I will wash up (via ferry) on the shores of the island of Patmos. There, reportedly, the seer known as “John” was exiled and wrote what became the last biblical book of the Christian Testament.

As an eschatology geek, Patmos might be the highlight of my trip, even though it comes at the end (appropriately). I’ll visit the legendary cave on that island where pilgrims mark the spot of John’s visions. I’ll also be staying at the hotel on that island (complete with a spa!) where the restaurant is called “Apocalypsis.”

I’m sure that everyone working there has heard every joke imaginable about their “apocalyptic meals.” But just in case they haven’t heard the campy versions from a gay priest, I’ll make sure they do.

I’ll be my campy theological self on Patmos and on that boat with gay men because it just might prompt a Gospel moment – a moment appropriately and wonderfully encountered in Paul’s wake.


The Village People on Easter

I confess: I still enjoy dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People, complete with all the goofy hand gestures that accompany each of those four letters. A dance floor filled with people, arms stretched above their heads to make a “Y” – it looks like a prayer meeting.

That song became something like a gay anthem way back in the disco days of the late 1970s. Earlier this year, some activists suggested including that song in the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Sochi, to protest Russia’s stance toward LGBT people. But Victor Willis, the song writer, insisted that he really didn’t have gay men in mind at all when he wrote it.

Willis’ protests notwithstanding, The Village People have endured as gay icons, not least for their costumes. The biker, the sailor, the soldier, the cowboy, tvillage_peoplehe American Indian, the construction worker, and the cop – these hunky cultural stereotypes fueled the erotic fantasies of many gay men (including me). This might make The Village People rather gay, certainly kitschy, but not terribly queer.

Something far queerer happens toward the end of Luke’s gospel account, a story that features another kind of village that many Christians will hear about this weekend, as we always do on the third Sunday of Easter.

emmaus_breaking_breadAn alluring stranger joins two disciples of Jesus traveling along a road toward a village called Emmaus. When they arrive, they invite this stranger to join them at the village inn. There, sitting at table, the stranger breaks bread. In that moment the disciples finally recognize the stranger as the risen Jesus; in that same moment, he disappears (Luke 24:31).

But wait! What happened to the joyful reunion part? If not a Hollywood-style orchestral soundtrack why not at least a hug? Or as Dorothy put it in the Wizard of Oz, “My! People come and go so quickly here.”

Luke’s village people underscore the peculiar character of Christian faith and indeed its queerness. “Queer” not so much for its LGBT sensibilities but for its refusal to give what so many of us want: a clearly defined God we can grasp and control.

Luke set the stage for that moment several chapters earlier, when Jesus appeared in glory on a mountain. There, Peter did what I would have done and excitedly proposed to build a booth, a place to capture and contain the glory (Luke 9:33). But Jesus refused to be boxed in and captured, just as he did in a village called Emmaus.

First-century Emmaus and twentieth-century Village People – together they can remind us about the risks and dangers in trying to categorize, classify, and capture both God and humans. On the one hand, we risk living with little more than an idol, and on the other, all the dangerous cultural divisions drawn by race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender of the kind NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling just recently displayed.

Black men play basketball. Asian women are bad drivers. Gay men lust after American Indians, especially if they just happen to be construction workers. Familiar stereotypes are easily dismissed but they linger, fortifying the categorical assumptions most of us adopt nearly every day.

The familiar made strange.
The reliable unraveled.
The status quo ecstatically undone.

These are the peculiar hallmarks of Christian faith and they invite us into queer moments of encounter. In the midst of what we think we already know – racial profiles, sketchy neighborhoods, exotic cultures, the familiar stench of decay and death – right there strange new life awaits. Queerly enough, according to Luke, hospitality is the best way to see it.

For Luke, it takes a village to raise the ensign of Easter over the familiar categories of our despair. Even The Village People can help when we see their campy costumes as parodies and we dance not with categories but with people, our arms raised in the shape of a “Y” – or even better, as a “V”.village_people_ymca2

God’s victory over death appears when we break bread with strangers, and even more in the courage to dance with them.


The Best Easter Egg Ever

There’s a scar on my left index finger. A visible reminder of that moment when I was twelve and accidentally closed my father’s jack knife over that finger’s middle knuckle. Not just a visible reminder. If I bump that finger just right and hard enough the nerve endings quiver, triggering a vivid memory of pain, a bodily flashback to the twelve year old I used to be, and in some ways still am, yet changed.

Mary Magdalene stood weeping near an empty tomb. She spoke to someone she thought was a gardener. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him as the risen Jesus (John 20:16). Stranger by far than an empty tomb are those gospel moments of resurrection when the closest friends of Jesus fail to recognize him. John quite oddly insists that the disciples finally rejoiced in their recognition only when they saw the scars on his risen body (John 20:20).

Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion as if it never happened. Trauma denied or repressed is trauma that will haunt us forever. Easter startles and transforms not by covering over pain and suffering but by bringing new life up from its depths.

I venerated the “old rugged cross” on Friday with a congregation still rebuilding from a devastating, traumatic fire. The bell tower survived the fire, including the wooden cross that had stood at its peak for nearly 137 years. That cross survived the fire but apparently not the many decades of weather erosion.gs_cross_full

The wood of that cross had rotted and decayed, despite the many layers of paint, and the whole thing will need to be replaced. Removing it from the tower, the contractor discovered something else: the very center of that cross had deteriorated so severely that a swallow had built a nest inside. Egg shell fragments still remained there with the nest, a quiet witness to the nurturing of life in a symbol of death. Surely the best Easter egg ever.

And that was the cross we venerated on Good Friday.

gs_cross_nest_exposedI knelt there to touch and kiss that crumbling cross to remember my own bodily fragility, my fears and anxieties, the betrayals I have endured and the ones I have perpetrated, the love for which I yearn and the loves I have spurned. Into those depths God has plunged to build a quiet nest of new life.

Easter invites us to follow Mary to the tomb, weeping. We go there with the grief of mistakes and loss, with the regrets over what could have been but never was, with all the scars we still carry and that still jangle our nerves with what might still be. We go there, not in spite of all these memories and hopes that make us who we are but because of them.

Just there and just then, we hear our name.



Moonstruck on Good Friday

This year’s “Paschal moon” just happened to coincide with a lunar eclipse. Not just any kind of eclipse but the kind that creates a “blood moon,” an appropriate image and color for Holy Week.blood_moon

This week’s stories and symbols carry more than most of us can take in all at once – bodily intimacy, vulnerability, loving tenderness, betrayal, imperial violence, suffering, and death. All of these populate human experience at various times to some degree and always have. Yet discerning or inserting God in these experiences lends further intensity to their already mysterious character.

Mysteries inevitably invite the urge to unravel and solve them (think Sherlock Holmes) and perhaps even more so for the religious variety. Encountering the uncanny mysteries of both love and death, human beings seek quite naturally to “make sense” from them; the results can range from the incredulous to the oppressive.

Making sense from the death of Jesus has animated Christian ideas of atonement for centuries. Some of those ideas convert the mystery into a mechanism of exchange (Jesus died in my place); others rely on blame and scapegoating (to which the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism bears painful witness). Love and death, especially as they intertwine, will always elude our sensible grasp.

This week’s lunar eclipse brought Rose to mind, the Olympia Dukakis character in the film Moonstruck. Rose sought eagerly to solve an irritating mystery: why do old married men chase younger women? Her brother finally ventures an answer: “They fear death.” Armed with this insight, Rose confronts her husband, who has been having an affair with another woman. “Cosmo,” Rose says, “you’re gonna die, just like everyone else.” To which Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Science solved the mystery of “blood moons” and Rose solved the mystery of adulterous husbands. The mystery of Good Friday remains, not to be solved but pondered and embraced: God’s own unfathomable journey through creaturely life, suffering, and death. And this, Christians have tried to say with our peculiar faith, is the journey toward new life.

cross_window_flowerSome strands of Christian history resist explanatory mechanisms and let the mystery stand, inviting and piercing. These are the strands I will take with me to Church this afternoon where I will venerate that old rugged cross – the strands that place that cross on a green hill; the strands that portray that cross as a flowering tree; the strands that see clearly an instrument of imperial torture and, just as clearly, the strength of divine love, a love stronger than death.

I will take with me the mysterious fourth century vision of Ephrem of Edessa, who imagined the “carpenter’s son” fashioning the cross into a bridge over which souls can flee from the region of death to the land of the living. That bridge, in turn, buds as a tree in spring, blossoming with desire:

Since a tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

I will go to the cross today with the words of an ancient hymn, written some two centuries after Ephrem. I will sing these words, not with understanding, but as one struck by divine vulnerability and intimacy – yes, as one moonstruck with love:

Faithfcross_treeul cross above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.


Tina Turner and Maundy Thursday

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner sang that question in the 1980s. The peculiar faith of Christians offers an answer: everything.

Holy Week 2014: The hope of Divine Communion

Christianity began, not with an institution, or a doctrine, or a text, but with table fellowship. The many meals Jesus shared equally with the socially powerful and the least likely, the stories he told of wedding banquets and feasts, the tender washing of feet and the risky, self-offering of bodily vulnerability – all this and more set the Table around which the earliest Christians gathered. In short, love set the Table, and it turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Since then, texts, doctrines, and institutions have (sometimes well and sometimes poorly) tried to pass on that social witness to radical love, and for a singular reason: Love changes everything.

Landmark legislation and milestone judicial rulings can change many things (from civil rights to environmental protections). Strategy sessions and protest rallies can change the course of social policies and labor practices. All of these make a difference for a better world but they can’t give what each of us truly wants and what the world really needs: Love.

The Apostle Paul apparently agreed. To the first century Christians in Corinth he wrote:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

More than most people today seem to realize, the history of Christian reflection and practice simmers with love’s peculiar, life-changing energy.

“Love bade me welcome,” wrote the Anglican poet George Herbert in the 17th century, just as Julian of Norwich, writing two centuries earlier, insisted that “Love was our Lord’s meaning…and in this love our life is everlasting.” Maximus the Confessor, writing still earlier, in the seventh century, went so far as to name that divine love “Eros.” If Eros is love, he wrote, then that love which unifies all things is God.

Encountering Love, receiving it, and bearing world-changing witness to it defines the essence of Christianity’s peculiar faith. And I too often and rather quickly forget this.

So tonight I join millions of Christians around the world and return to the Table of Love. Today is Maundy Thursday, the day to remember especially the final meal Jesus shared with his closest friends and the mandate (from which we get the word “Maundy”) he issued at that Table: Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).

I go to that Table not first because I need forgiveness (though I certainly do), or because of religious obligation (though it is that). I go because Love draws me there.

I may not fully believe it and I might go haltingly. I will likely go worrying that I’m not quite ready or that my thoughts aren’t focused clearly enough or that I myself am not nearly loving enough to receive love. Nonetheless, Love draws me.eucharist_hands_bread_wine

A wise colleague once noted that “love changes us so that we can change the world.” What’s love got to do with it? Everything.


Risk, Vulnerability, and Intimacy: A World-Changing Holy Week

Take, eat, this is my body.” Have you ever said that to someone? If you have, you probably did so privately, away from public view, and in a moment of romantic tenderness. It may have felt a bit risky and you made yourself quite vulnerable in saying it. That profound invitation is highly charged with intimacy – both in its offering and its potential rejection.intimacy_th4ree

Many Christian ministers actually issue that invitation weekly, sometimes daily, and rather publicly. Does that ritualized invitation sound risky? Does the rite vibrate with an intimate vulnerability? Do you or does anyone else gathered at the Eucharistic table blush when hearing those words? Take, eat, this is my body…

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Christianity’s annual pilgrimage through Holy Week. The events commemorated during this holiest of Christian weeks unfolded in a land occupied by an imperial army, exhibited all the narrative arcs of a classical tragedy, and culminated with a promise that still makes even the most devout among us at least a tad incredulous: love is stronger than death.

One of the focal points in this week spotlights a shared meal among close friends. This moment, I have come to believe, sheds indispensable light on the whole week and, therefore, on the very character of God revealed in Jesus – and in all those who seek to follow the same path into the mystery of God’s own life.

intimacy_handsMake no mistake: The path charted by this holy week beckons with a truly peculiar energy, more peculiar than its familiar liturgical cadences usually evoke. Peculiar not least for the kind of God this week proclaims: the God who risks vulnerability for the sake of intimacy.

Institutional Christianity has too often urged doing the right thing and living the right way so that we might persuade God to let us into Heaven. That urge reverses entirely the essence of the Gospel. The Eucharistic Table performs instead a remarkable claim: God makes God’s own self vulnerable to the ecstasies and foibles of bodily human intimacy.

“Take, eat,” Jesus says; “this is my body given for you” (Matthew 26:26). He says this with no guarantee whatsoever that this offering will be received well if at all. Notably, God initiates this moment of self-giving born from God’s own desire for intimacy.

Sexually intimate couples know, or at least intuit, what this holy week means. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it well when he noted that desire always carries risk because desire makes us vulnerable. Sex is an offering of the self, even in casual encounters, and very little can protect us from the potential of looking silly or feeling unwanted. “Nothing will stop sex from being tragic and comic,” Williams writes. “It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety, where we can venture into ‘exposed spontaneity’ . . . and find ourselves looking foolish or repellent.”

And that is divine risk, the very risk God takes with us and whole of God’s creation.

The gospel according to John foregrounds that astonishing risk by recounting hardly anything at all about a final meal but instead by describing the provocative moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:3–11). That bodily moment of intimate tenderness is followed by another. The disciple “whom Jesus loved” reclined on Jesus’ breast during the meal, presumably sharing the kind of whispered small-talk that intimates often do.intimacy_baby_foot

These two gospel moments portray what many couples, households, and friends experience in cherished moments of communal intimacy around a shared table. Yet a third moment in this story disrupts these expressions of intimacy with a yearning for redemption. In the wake of tender foot washing and in the midst of intimate bodily contact, John inserts a moment of disrupted affection. Jesus declares just then that one of his companions will betray him.

Tenderness disrupted by betrayal – this distills in microcosm the human predicament. The fullness of that for which we yearn seems so impossibly and constantly out of reach. Intimacy is thwarted at nearly every turn, whether because of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or class, or neighborhood, or national borders. Surely somewhere, somehow we will find the intimacy of communion all of us seek beyond the imperial mechanisms of violence that seem always to disrupt the glorious intimacies of bodily life.

Whether in a shared meal or in tender foot washing, Eucharist displays an unimaginable hope in the most loving act imaginable—an unprotected offering of the self, both body and blood. The vulnerability of this offering bathes the Eucharistic Table with tender intimacy. It does something else as well: it indicts institutional Christianity for its own history of religious violence. From crusades and inquisitions to paternalistic and misogynistic repressions, the Church has betrayed the Table that ought to inspire an audacious hope.

eucharist_hands_bread_wineSexually intimate couples can remind all of us about where the holiness of this week’s hope resides: in the intimate offering of the self to another for the sake of life.

I’ve been quoting here from my two recent books, Divine Communion and Peculiar Faith. Those books emerged in large measure from the deep impact that more than thirty years of holy weeks has had on my spiritual/bodily self in the world. After all these years, I think I might finally be starting to grasp the deceptively simple and absurdly profound message of Christian faith: God yearns to be in intimate communion with God’s own creation. I am convinced that this insight can change the world.

The biblical writer known as Luke thought so too. In his account of the earliest Christian communities, he described the effects of these hopeful insights by quoting the violent detractors of their mission: “These people…have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).

May this Holy Week overturn your own world, and with it, the many other worlds we all inhabit. And may it do so as it has always done, with divine moments of risk and vulnerability for the sake of heart-rending intimacy.


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.


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.


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!)