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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.

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Gun Control and Cultural Violence: Prepping for the Debate

Is now the time for stricter gun control legislation? Revising the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? It is too soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy even to discuss these questions?constitution_wethepeople

Ezra Klein recently noted that “only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. … [T]alking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t ‘too soon.’ It’s much too late.”

If the recent horror in Connecticut will at last lead to substantial conversation, debate, and action on gun violence in the United States, we’ll need more than emotional anecdotes and constitutional arguments. We need data.

We’ll need something more as well: a fearless assessment of the cultural climate in the United States that not only breeds but also glorifies violence.

Here are some initial thoughts concerning both, and please join me in collecting the resources we need to mobilize our shock and grief into action.

Data Difficulties
“Assault weapons” are difficult to classify yet generally refer to any weapon that has or appears to have the features of a fully- or semi-automatic firearm (the former fires repeated rounds with one pull of the trigger; the latter fires a round with each pull of the trigger without the need to re-load).

Fully-automatic weapons have been regulated since 1934 (The National Firearms Act). Legislation enacted in 1994 regulated “assault weapons” (the broader term that includes a wide variety of semi-automatic firearms and those that appear to be so). But this legislation had a “sunset feature” and lapsed without renewal in September 2004.

Does regulatory legislation make a difference in curbing gun violence? Data-collecting agencies and other organizations are split on this question. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to claim that such legislation is effective.

This question is so difficult to address, in part, because “correlation” does not necessarily mean “causation.” Just because, in other words, a reduction in gun violence correlates to the passage of legislation does not necessarily mean that the legislation caused the reduction. That said, correlation is not irrelevant.

Consider, for example, that starting with the Columbine incident, there were five mass killings between 1999 and 2004, when the assault weapons ban expired. Since then, there have been twenty-six mass killings over the last eight years. Consider as well that in all of the mass killings over the last thirty years, 75% of the weapons used were obtained legally.

If these correlations will have any traction in the national conversation we must now surely have, then we will need to do some serious soul-searching.

“Soul Sickness”: The Cultural Climate
Assessing the cultural climate is even more difficult than mapping gun violence data. A host of factors will need to contribute to this long overdue and challenging national conversation, including issues of race, class, drug addiction, mental health, and also media and pop culture images.

AK74 Assault Rifle with Firing sounds, lights, and vibrations (available on Amazon for $34.95)

AK74 Assault Rifle with Firing sounds, lights, and vibrations (available on Amazon for $34.95)

Given yesterday’s horrific specter of children as victims, one place we might begin assessing our cultural climate is with toys, especially in the midst of this Christmas-shopping season. The effects of violent computer games and television shows on children involve the same “correlation versus causation” problem noted above, yet surely this topic belongs to any conversation we need to have about a culture saturated with violent images.

Note, for example, that the now-lapsed assault weapons ban defined those weapons as having particular features, including: a folding or telescoping stock; a bayonet mount; a magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip; and a grenade launcher (among others).

Why those features matter becomes shockingly clear by doing a simple Google search for “children’s toy guns.” (The image posted here is just one of dozens when I did that search myself.)

In a society where there are nearly ten times as many gun stores as there are McDonald’s restaurants and children’s toys mimic assault weapons, we are long past the time for a serious conversation about gun contradvent_candles2ol in a culture of violence. Let us prepare well for that conversation by collecting the data we need and fostering the courage it will require to examine the deep sources of our discontent.

Let us also pray. As God’s peculiar people, prayer matters. And in this season, let us pray ever more fervently for peace…and the will to act.

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Bubble-Work: An Advent Agenda, Part 1

Impatient prophets; a cranky Jesus; an apocalyptic Paul – that’s what Episcopalians have been encountering in the Bible lately if they are following the Daily Office lectionary this Advent season. This is hardly the stuff of holiday lights, cookie baking, or shopping malls.

The rhythms of the Christian liturgical year and their attendant biblical texts are supposed to interrupt “business-as-usual” and often quite rudely. Over the last couple of weeks those texts for this season have presented Isaiah’s denunciations of wealthy comfort, Jesus’ confrontations with self-satisfied religious leaders, and Paul’s urgent call to prepare for the coming “Day of the Lord.” I think that qualifies as “rude” two weeks before Christmas, at least in the United States.

advent_bubble3It’s especially rude here in the San Francisco Bay Area “bubble” where I live and work. Professionally, this bubble allows me teach theology and use the word “queer” positively without giving it a second thought. Personally, this bubble keeps me remarkably safe if I want to hold hands with another man in public.

Life outside the bubble is a bit, well, different. I often say that wryly, even tongue-in-cheek. But something usually interrupts that smugness to remind me that my bubble-privilege comes with responsibilities.

Those reminders have been building, nearly tsunami-like on the horizon. They urge me to remember what the Santa-clad Starbucks cups and the roof-top Rudolph on my suburban block can so quickly obscure inside the Bubble: Advent prepares us to be changed by Christmas so that we can change the world.

Among the many ways Advent has been calling me to put my bubble-privilege to work, here are just a few:advent_kadaga_pope

  • The “Kill the Gays” legislation in Uganda has been moving forward, and one of its primary proponents, Uganda Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, just received a blessing from the Pope at the Vatican. Kadaga, you may recall, rather famously promised the passage of this legislation as a “Christmas present” to Ugandan Christians. Let the record of ironic moments duly note this: The Ugandan delegation was in Rome, in part, to attend the World Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights.
  • In the wake of the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to hear not one but two marriage equality cases this term, Justice Antonin Scalia made some rather curious remarks at a gathering in Princeton. He tried to defend the legitimacy of legislation that relies on moral condemnations of homosexuality. More pointedly, Scalia wondered (rhetorically?) whether we can’t have any moral objections to murder if we can’t have moral objections to homosexuality. So I guess people who object morally to my dating another man should feel just fine about killing me as well.
  • The distance between Uganda and Antonin Scalia shrinks considerably in the light of anti-LGBT violence. The number of “official” anti-gay murders in the U.S. in 2011 was the highest on record. The less-than-murder versions of anti-LGBT violence ought also to give us pause.
  • While a gay-friendly Mosque where men and women can pray together held its first service recently in Paris (at an undisclosed location for security reasons), All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena has been the target of ugly emails and threats (from Christians!) just for hosting an Islamic group. Peace on Earth and good will to all? Hardly.

That’s just a short list of the people and places “lost in the valley of the night” and the hope of a “people who are climbing to the light.” Those are of course lyrics from Les Miserables, the film version of which opens on Christmas Day. That musical also includes a question perfectly suitable for Advent: “Beyond the barricades, is there a world you long to see?”

Substitute “bubble” for “barricades” and my Advent agenda quickly takes shape.

advent_candles2Advent is about a new world, the world we long to see when we attend carefully to the visions of ancient prophets, the exhortations of Jesus, and the apocalyptic ranting of Paul. The birth Christians will celebrate in just eleven days evokes far less about the endearing qualities of a baby and much more about the new world God wants to midwife.

I am profoundly grateful for the bubble in which I live and work. Advent urges me to tap that gratitude for a world-changing agenda. In Part Two of this post, I’ll outline just a few nodes of that agenda as we prepare to be changed at Christmas so that we can change the world.

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I am my Relations: Marriage Equality Matters Chrisitianly

I would move to Big Eden in a heartbeat – if it actually existed.

Big Eden is a fictional U.S. mountain town depicted so lovingly in the 2000 film of the same name, written and directed by Thomas Bezucha.

ImageThe film focuses on a small mountain town as the residents welcome back one of their own, Henry Hart (portrayed by Arye Gross), who is something of a prodigal. Henry had been sojourning in New York City as a successful artist but returns home to care for an aging relative. Quite improbably but also believably, these characters eventually nurture a budding romance between Henry and another man, a local Native American storekeeper. The story unfolds with humorous plot twists, miscommunications, and poignant family moments among this town’s residents, who engage their own faults and foibles gracefully and always with a view toward what makes each of them so compellingly human.

In short, Henry discovers what this idyllic mountain town had apparently known for many generations: he is his relationships.

Any critique of that film based on the centrality of a gay man in love with another man is merely a cypher for the far more radical and revolutionary vision of the film: individuals don’t exist; each of us is our relations.

ImageThat’s a hard and bitter pill to swallow for those who drink deeply from the well of modern western culture. Individualism and individuality are the taproots of whatever any of us think about the meaning of life in North Atlantic societies. Hard to swallow because that meaning is our relationships.

All of this matters for many reasons, not least this: the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to consider not one but two marriage equality cases and the ongoing refusal in far too many Christian communities to recognize the potential for sanctifying love in same-sex couples.

For many years a friend and colleague resisted marriage equality in practice but not necessarily in theory. She resisted in part because of the horrific history of patriarchal domination in the institution of marriage (expressed in no small measure by her partner’s refusal ever to be called a “wife”).

So imagine my surprise when she asked me to officiate at her San Francisco city-hall wedding in 2003 when Mayor Gavin Newsome opened that floodgate. I agreed enthusiastically despite my perplexity. I then found her later recounting of its effects illuminating. My family, she said, finally understood my relationship – we were married.

I actually wish and pray for a society that is not built so extensively on the marriage bond. There are so many other types of relationship that make our societies run that I’m loathe to invest so terribly much in just one.

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a North-Atlantic world where “marriage” actually means something about who we are because it says something about our relations.

Each of us is our relations.

This is an ancient Christian theological insight. Christians believe in a Trinitarian God who is God because of God’s relations. We, all of us, Christians claim, are created in that image. We are who we are because of our relations.

I’m evoking admittedly abstract notions here for at least two reasons: 1) the predominance of theological arguments against what should be a civil matter concerning social justice; and 2) the bizarre claim that same-sex marriage not only has no theological basis but is actually heretical.

Both reasons are unfounded, to put it mildly. Concerning the first, “religious marriage” ought to play no role whatsoever in deliberations of what constitutes a legitimate legal contract in the eyes of the law. Period.

Concerning the second, many more Christian faith leaders need to come out and be absolutely clear about this: There is nothing theologically that prohibits same-sex marriage. I’m not referring here to history (though that would be a good argument, too). I mean, human beings encounter God in our relations, because that’s how we’re being Imagecreated.

The “wedding of one to the other in love that overflows in creativity” is not just an image of God; it’s the image of two human beings whose love contributes to the transformation of the world. That’s called Trinitarian theology. Each of us is our relations…marriage is one of those relations.

To be clear: no one in a free, democratic country like the U.S. needs to be religious to benefit from civil contractual protections. That any Christian community wants to argue otherwise is ludicrous.

Beyond that, Christians have many more peculiar reasons than not, including deeply theological ones, to insist on (not merely permit) full marriage equality, both civil and religious. It expresses, no matter how partially, God’s own Trinitarian life.

Marriage equality matters, Christianly. Don’t let anyone (including the United States Supreme Court) tell you that same-sex marriage is “unchristian.” The opposite is truer: Same-sex marriage participates in the Triune life of God.

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Popping the Lid Off: AIDS, Advent, and Hope

All I want is a cure and my friends back.

The list is long – breast cancer, world hunger, or what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” In a deeply patriarchal, violent world of unrelenting corporate profiteering, I want a cure for all those maladies and more.

aids_ribbon_earthOn this 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, I’m thinking especially about HIV. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, I saw those simple yet poignant words on a t-shirt: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

Perhaps that’s just too much to hope for. Yet, tomorrow also marks the beginning of Advent, a Christian season perfectly suited for wildly peculiar hope. Both wild and peculiar especially on the first Sunday of Advent, when most Christians will hear, not about Christmas, but about fantastical world-ending scenarios in apocalyptic biblical texts.

That’s certainly peculiar, but is it hopeful?

The word “apocalypse” has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. The ancient Greeks may have used the verb apocalypto when they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off”; we usually translate it as “to reveal.”

I like that image for sifting through biblical texts and Christian history in search of vision to feed our hope. Here are just a few things we might find when we pop the lid off:

Hope for the Nations
Readings for the first Sunday of Advent will sometimes include something from the last book of the Bible. There are lots of nasty bits in the Revelation to John, completely unsuitable for young chiltree_of_lifedren. In the last chapter, however, there’s no more Armageddon, no more terrifying horsemen, no horrific tribulation, but instead an amazing vision of the City of God. A river flows from that city, and on the banks of that river, a tree. The leaves of this tree, John writes, are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2).

John did not say that those leaves are for the healing of “Christian nations,” or “nations that we agree with,” or “nations that never committed war crimes,” or “nations never guilty of slavery or colonialism or economic imperialism,” or “nations that we might like to visit as tourists on vacation.” Looking forward to healing rather than vengeance surely qualifies as a counter-cultural hope.

Hope for Gate-Crashing
Not long after John’s revelation, a theologian by the name of Origen took the lid off again and found the irresistible love of God. The love of God, Origen declared, is so compelling that not even the Devil and all his fallen angels will be able to resist that love forever. Eventually, Origen believed, everything and every creature would find a blessed home in God.

That’s a compelling vision indeed – so compelling that just a few centuries later the institutional church condemned it as heresy. They put a lid on it. And that’s not so surprising. If an institution understands itself primarily as a gatekeeper, it won’t look very kindly on those who insist that there’s no longer any gate to keep. Gate-crashing is a deeply hopeful spiritual discipline.

Hope Beyond Hope
Fast forward a few more centuries and we find the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived at a time when bubonic plague was decimating most of Europe in ways difficult to imagine. Anyone who lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis has a sense of what Julian must have witnessed – bodies suddenly and mysteriously falling ill; bodies falling all around her; bodies dying in such numbers that they literally piled up in the streets with no one to bury them.

In the midst of that devastation, Julian had some visions. The lid popped off and this is what she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Was she just delusional? Julian herself wondered the same thing. She was surprised by these “showings,” as she called them, these mini-apocalypses. “This can’t be true,” she wrote. “Holy Church teaches that sinners are condemned to hell.”

But the showings persisted: “All shall be well.”

These irruptions of wild hope and fantastical visions throughout Christian history emerged from a truly impertinent question: Can God be trusted? Will God really keep faith with us even with bodies falling all around us?

That was playwright Tony Kushner’s question in a moving prayer he wrote in 1994 for the National Day of Prayer for AIDS: “Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate so lightly, so infrequently from sky to parched ground?” Can you be trusted, God, really?

Kushner speaks for so many when hope seems little more than a bread-crumb trail in a messy life, or a glimmering ember in the fireplace teetering on the edge of going out.

It’s the rare individual who can summon a hopeful faith alone. The rest of us need some help. We need those fantastical visions that sprout up quite unexpectedly in the middle of troubling biblical texts, or those moments of stupefying hope punctuating a disturbing Christian history.

aids_ribbon_candlesProbably most of all, we need each other. When my faith is weak, I need people whose faith is strong; when my cup overflows, I can share it with others.

I was reminded of this just last night at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco during a lovely event honoring two colleagues and their remarkably hopeful work to end AIDS and comfort the grieving.

That event was “church,” a reminder of why I keep doing what many Christians do on a Sunday morning. There are many reasons. But on the first Sunday of Advent, I need a community that isn’t afraid to say wildly peculiar things and find it hopeful: All I want is a cure and my friends back.