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Beyond Bunnies: Unleashing the Wildness of God

Easter is no less commercialized than Christmas. I thought about this today and posted a pithy note on Facebook about it: “Global capitalism illustrated: moving effortlessly from the Harrowing of Hell to the Easter Bunny.” I’m not sure what I meant by that and I’m wrestling with it on this Holy Saturday evening.

I think was trying to say something about how markets rely on domestication for the sake of creating a commodity suitable for mass marketing and profit-making; an empty tomb becomes a Hallmark card. I’m not sure about the economics of all this, and I might be even less sure of the theology. Here’s what I’m wrestling with:

Among the many ways of journeying through this Holy Week, I try to pay attention to a story of resistance against the forces of religion-inflected empire, forces that brutalize whole populations; and a story of an instance of that resistance being met with heavy-handed law enforcement and mockeries of justice, agonizing physical torture, and a summary public execution; and a story of betrayal, abandonment, and risky tender care of the executed by terrorized friends.

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It’s a story not of tidy endings but of gut-wrenching perplexity, discounted testimony (from women), fear-drenched cohorts of erstwhile revolutionaries, and encounters with a stranger who upends the most basic boundaries on which we still rely for defining what life itself is, and what it means when it ends. At least one first-century gospel writer imagined burial cloths neatly folded in an empty tomb, as if Jesus had been napping and slapped gently awake by a watchful parent.

Perhaps. But if death is woven into the very fabric of biological evolution and the harmonies of ecosystems and the finalities of bereavement and grief, and if particular kinds of death stain its finality with outrage and despair—being shot eight times in the back by police officers in your family’s backyard while carrying a cellphone—then I imagine a rather different kind of God, wild and unleashed, the one dragging life out of the waters of untamable chaos at the dawn of time, a God tearing down the pillars of Death’s Dominion and yanking a lifeless body into a crack of all that rubble where light feebly shines.

A paltry analogy comes to mind. My Australian shepherd dog Judah loves to chase sea birds along a low-tide beach, where he inevitably gets mired in muck. I cannot merely call to him, shout out his name from the slightly more stable shore to release him from his muddy entombment. I must slosh through the muck, my feet and ankles and shin bones layered in stinky slime, and there lift his sixty-pound canine body out of the sea bed, one sloshy, painstaking step at a time. I heave. I pull. I yank. I do a big heavy-lift. I do this over vast distances.

So does God on Easter morning.

That story—its brutality and tenderness, its untamable effervescence—that story, I worry, is now offered by referring to the reliable turning of the seasons, with appreciable nods to a pear tree finally blossoming after a winter of bare twigs (which I myself have said in years past from an Easter-lily drenched pulpit), or the cuddly softness of bunnies newly born in a cozy nest as tulips begin to bud. Hallmark cards and multi-colored plastic grass and baskets of plastic eggs filled with chocolate rabbits—the familiars of my own childhood, which I have no desire to denigrate or dismiss (except for the plastic; we have to stop using plastic).

My fretting focuses not there but on mistaking the undeniable and spirit-soaring brilliance of winter morphing into spring for the tenacious God of life, the God who anoints a suffering servant to stand against the crush of imperial oppression armed only with compassion and loving intimacy, that same, wild God of irrepressible life who insists on interrupting our reasonable stories with a universe that is not only queerer than we imagine but queerer than we can imagine; the most familiar friend is the unrecognizable stranger. This is not just Spring; it is the Spring we recognize at once even though we have never before seen it, have never even dared to imagine it.

A wild God appears on our horizon, the One who will always find a domesticated shrine in the religious institutions that gravitate toward the comfortable rhythms of state power and all the benefits such power bestows on white men like me.

Perhaps I wrote that pithy Facebook post to myself—Easter as a hallowed space of comfort has yet to harrow my own collusion with the imperial forces of death.

Easter Day inaugurates a fifty-day season, every year. Thank God. This is by far more harrowing than Lent. Or it should be, or so I am supposing after a long week of wondering what the hell all these religious rites are really all about.

Hell. Back to that.

On this night, as tradition has it, Jesus harrowed Hell. I cannot imagine Hell was pleased.

May the morning’s dawn unsettle all of us with the wild, undomesticated life of God.

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The Harrowing of Hell as Adam and Eve are Raised by Christ

 

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A Holy Week of Canine Quotidian Care

judah_profile_032818I have been spending this Holy Week attending carefully to my Australian Shepherd dog Judah. After a “hot spot” appeared on his right cheek last week, the vet shaved a small portion of that cheek, put him on a course of antibiotics, and told me to “make sure he doesn’t scratch it.”

How in the world would I do that? Explaining this to Judah was out of the question. So I have been keeping watch, with a constant vigilance.

Thankfully, he is healing nicely, but I wondered whether this meticulous care would distract me from my Holy Week observance. I tend to think in grand arcs with epic stories and indulge in some thick theological reflection, often with a healthy dose of metaphysics tossed into the mix. Caring for a single creature, no matter how beloved, seemed rather beside the point of this most holy week of truly epic tales. But I now see my canine care as woven into the very point.

Caring for just this one creature in the midst of so many other concerns brought the death of Jesus to mind in a particular way. After all, his death on a cross was just one among many thousands of such executions carried out by the Roman Empire. Why should this particular one matter? There are, clearly, all those thick theological reasons I could offer in response. But the question occurred to me quite differently as I gazed on Judah: why care so terribly much about one among so many others?

Joseph of Arimathea came to mind, who cared tenderly for the dead body of Jesus, ensuring a proper burial—a tenderness not without social and political risk. I’m thinking, too, of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (as Mark’s gospel account named them), the ones who cared about proper burial spices for this one among so many.

Judah has, in other words, brought to mind the singularity of care. I mean the intensity of focused attention, but also the care devoted singularly, to just one. Why does this matter? Should it?

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As he often does, Judah also reminded me this week of our ecological crisis currently wreaking havoc among so many species—so many individuals. Just as we now face an unprecedented moment of human migration, with more of us on the move than ever before, many of the other animals with whom we share this planet are also on the move, joining a growing number of climate refugees; indeed, half of all species on the planet are moving and shifting because of climate change, and with consequences far beyond what we can now predict or even imagine. Theologian Christopher Southgate has urged us to think of this present era as the “new days of Noah” and how God might be calling us to assist some of those creatures in their migration to safety—perhaps we can save enough for a species to survive.

In the midst of all this, can it possibly matter to care so singularly about just one?

Yes, it can. Caring for Judah over the last five days, I have noticed a remarkable focus in my attention and energy, which is usually and otherwise scattered throughout the flotsam of multitasking responsibilities. Such singular focus is itself notable in a world of constant distractions.

More than this, the kind of focus matters, too. I have been concentrating my attention on a body, on flesh, and quite particularly a patch of flesh about the size of a nickel. As John insisted in his account of the Gospel, the Divine Word became flesh. As noted eco-theologian Andrew Linzey has argued, the suffering of Christ is a divine solidarity with the suffering of all animals, of all flesh.

Caring so narrowly for just a slice of an ecosystem, or so particularly for just a single individual can indeed seem pointless in the face of global urgencies. And still, such focused, quotidian care matters for a whole wide world of peril. It matters first, perhaps, for our own character. We will not save that which we do not love, as the old aphorism has it. Practicing the love for an individual creature instills and nurtures a habit of loving much more widely. If we can become creatures who love, we will become creatures who can save, protect, and nurture.

More than all this, a species is not just a conglomerate of generic flesh. We know this (or perhaps try to remember this) about ourselves, about Homo sapiens, but rarely about other animals: a species consists of distinct individuals, each and every one miraculously and remarkably individual. I have learned this from the beloved dogs who have shared their lives with me over the years. Not one of them has been exactly like the others. It matters to care for just this one because there is no other just like this singular one.

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The implications cascading from this Holy Week spent with Judah are far too many to enumerate here. Not surprisingly, they tempt me to travel once again along those familiar grand arcs into thick theological reflection. That still matters, too, if we can start thinking and acting differently, for example, about the horrors of factory farming (in which, as Matthew Scully notes, we treat living beings like crops), as well as the distressing analog to this in the mass incarceration of African American men in our prison system. Each one — on the farm, in prison, migrating — each one is a unique, irreplaceable creature of God.

I’m taking all of this with me into Holy Saturday, when a singular creature of God is laid to rest in a tomb. When the stone is rolled away, that singular moment of God’s unimaginable Yes to life extends beyond that singular one to all of us, and indeed to every creature, as the apocalyptic writer John would have us believe. There, in that text, John sees a vision all creatures of Earth (all animals, insects, and fish, as Denis Edwards urges us to imagine) united in a single song of praise to the Lamb, the symbol of the crucified and risen Christ:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13-14)

I’m musing on just that as I sit here just now with Judah to make sure he doesn’t scratch his cheek. This focused attention matters for him. It matters for me, too. And I pray it will matter in new ways for the whole glorious breadth and astonishing depth of God’s beloved creation.

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The Ten Commandments and Moral Injury in a Society of Wounded Souls

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us the last few years of her life when I was in grade school. I have many fond memories of those years, including how grandma helped me memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the twenty-third psalm (each one, of course, in the stately cadences of the King James’ version of the Bible).

That’s a classic collection of texts, which later in life I found perplexing and even abrasive. I mean, a set of commandments (carved into stone, according to the ancient story) on the one hand, and on the other, poetic verses about God as a gentle shepherd leading me through both verdant pastures and scary valleys alike and eventually bringing me safely to God’s own home.ten_commandments

As a young adult, that collection of memorized texts came to symbolize the dissonance I associated with the religion of my youth, constantly extolling the glories of divine grace while at the same time monitoring our adherence to rules and regulations.

That contrast is at least part of the reason why an increasing number of people today identify as “spiritual but not religious.” For some good reasons, many people today associate religion with institutional bureaucracy and rule-making. Or more pointedly, keeping institutional rules for the sake of the institution itself.

I sympathize with that critique of religion, which I myself have made many times. So I’ve surprised myself in more recent years by adopting a slightly different posture toward religion and its rules, or what I would prefer to call “disciplines and practices.”

That’s a linguistic difference worth making on this third Sunday in Lent when many Christians heard once again the recitation of the “Ten Commandments” and when most Episcopalians heard an intriguing prayer to begin their worship this morning, a prayer that reads in part like this:

Keep us, Almighty God, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…

Notice how the desire to be kept bodily and defended from adversities in that prayer is paired, nearly intertwined with the desire to be kept inwardly, in our souls. Whatever that vital, animating essence of human life is that we call “soul,” apparently it can be damaged, as that prayer notes, by “evil thoughts.”

Any rule worthy of being kept, in other words, ought to help protect our souls from becoming wounded.

That sounds terribly abstract and old fashioned; but it’s actually quite concrete and contemporary. Witness the epidemic of post-traumatic stress among soldiers returning from combat, most recently from Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress may have nothing to do with being physically wounded; as some scholars and counselors are noting, these military personnel suffer from “moral injury,” or that which might assault and hurt the soul (see also the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University).

Or consider the psalm appointed for this Sunday in Lent, which begins by noting how the heavens declare the glory of God and how the skies show forth the Creator’s handiwork. In that very same psalm, the psalmist also glories in God’s law, which, declares the psalmist, revives the soul, just as God’s statutes rejoice the heart and should thus be more desired than even the finest gold!

I like to think this is why my grandmother helped me memorize the Ten Commandments—to treasure them more than material wealth and to protect my soul when it falls into danger.

I dare say, such danger lurks around nearly every corner these days, disguised as the ordinary routine of the modern world. Ana Levy-Lyons urges us to notice this with her recent book, No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments.  A society perpetually enamored with freedom and liberty, she writes, cannot begin to fathom why commitments, communal support, and shared rules are so crucial for resisting the temptations of modern life.

The “temptations” she has in mind infuse a corporate-driven consumer culture in ways we scarcely recognize, streaming toward us endlessly in advertising, entertainment, and the digital monitors populating nearly every public and private space. We’re fooling ourselves, she notes, if we suppose we’re smarter than that vast cultural machine, able simply to say No to what is actually slowly killing us.

To reach “escape velocity,” as she puts it, we need some serious counterforce—exactly what the Ten Commandments in particular, and religion more generally, provide.

I can’t help but wonder whether John had something like this in mind with the temple in Jerusalem, an obvious and potent symbol of religion, its institutions and rules, its disciplines and practices. The story from John’s gospel for this Sunday is sometimes described as Jesus “cleansing” that temple, healing it, as it were, of its moral injury. The “soul” of that sacred place had been damaged, its worship and piety reduced  to a mere mechanism of exchange, as if bartering and trading one item of value for another could ever reveal how deeply the Creator God delights in the Beloved Creation.

jesus_cleansing_temple_contemporaryNo, Jesus dramatically insists, the crude mechanisms of a marketplace do not revive the soul, do not rejoice the heart, do not come anywhere near the precious value of those religious disciplines that can clear the clutter and create space for the healing of our wounded souls.

Notice in this familiar story what is not so familiar about John’s version: how early it appears in his account of the gospel—the second chapter! Most Christians, I wager, usually think of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables as a story that comes rather late in the gospel narrative, something like a culmination of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. But John puts this moment right up front, one of the very first stories he recounts in his account of the Gospel.

That is a prime story-telling location that every story-teller wants to leverage for the greatest narrative effect. So, why this story in this prime spot? Obviously, we can’t know with any certainty but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that John understood this story as one of the key components for framing the kind of account of the gospel he wanted to offer. This seems even more likely given what John has Jesus say about the Temple, or rather, how Jesus confused the religious leaders by talking about the temple of his body. This is, after all, the Gospel writer who declares in his opening verses that the Word of God became flesh.

This surely matters in a culture where far too many black and brown bodies are treated as disposable objects; in a culture flooded with #metoo hashtags, each one of them marking a moment of turning a woman’s body into a commodity to own and control; in a culture where a constitutional right to own guns takes precedence over the safety of our schools and the lives of our children.

If the language of “harming our souls” still seems just a bit too clunky, then let us speak instead of how many people today keep spiraling farther into alienation and loneliness (witness the British prime minister recently created a new governmental “minister of loneliness” to address this). Or we might pause to realize just how many turn to consumerist excess to medicate an epidemic of bodily shame, and when this fails, anti-depressants and opioids, or (which is often easier) purchasing and stockpiling assault weapons.

In such a world as this, religion and its disciplines have perhaps never been needed quite so desperately.

Or perhaps the world has never been quite so desperate to remember what it has mostly forgotten about religion: its purpose is the thriving and flourishing of life; and perhaps too many religious leaders themselves have forgotten this about religion.

Or as Jesus declares a bit later in John’s gospel, the point of all this is that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

That declaration from John’s Jesus can remind us how the ancient biblical writer introduced the Ten Commandments and the frame through which to read them and live them:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(Exodus 20:1).

The rules worth keeping—the rules we simply must keep—are the ones that liberate and give life.