post

MLK: Minister of the Gospel

Images and reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., are of course flooding our social media feeds today. While I’m grateful to see him referred to often as Doctor King, I am dismayed by how many stories omit the Reverend part.

King was an ordained minister of the Christian Gospel. This was not somehow incidental or accidental to his world-changing activism; what he did and inspired is rooted in the socially transformative power of the Gospel itself.

Thirty-three years into a life of ordained ministry, and I’m still trying hard to learn the lessons King can teach about what a friend of mine years ago called “spiritual activism.” After serving as a full-time parish priest for my first three years out of seminary, I decided to go back to school for doctoral work. I did this because I realized even more profoundly in my pastoral work that theology matters. How we interpret the world and view ourselves in it—which is one way to understand what theology is all about—makes a significant difference in how we live in the world and the kinds of communities we create.

That conviction eventually led me to study some of the key figures in the emergence of American pragmatism, a distinctly American approach to philosophy that stresses the practical consequences of our ideas. The meaning of an idea or concept, in other words, is defined by the way it shapes our behaviors. I appreciate this approach to theology because it embraces the importance of both ideas and action; one without the other is sorely inadequate even for just daily life let alone for the living of Christian faith.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)

Among those key American figures was philosopher of religion Josiah Royce, who was convinced that the character of the whole universe is social and communal. For Royce this meant that evil most often takes the form of separation, fragmentation, and isolation, which then calls for the healing work of atonement, of re-uniting what has been torn apart. That healing work, Royce argued, is directed toward what he called “The Beloved Community.”

I was delighted to discover during my studies that Martin Luther King, Jr., also did doctoral work after seminary and that Josiah Royce had a profound influence on how King envisioned the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In short, Royce’s notion of the Beloved Community convinced King of the vital importance of bringing everyone to the table of healing, reconciliation, and justice.

That foundation later energized King to address even more directly the corrupting effects of militarism on the Western world (most notably at the time, the Viet Nam War) and the debilitating patterns of a global capitalism that consigned vast segments of the world’s population to permanent poverty.

In today’s world of entrenched animosity and hatred, I am reminding myself almost daily of King’s insistence that hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Christian love, he argued, “makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it’s directed toward both…seeking to preserve and create community. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.” I am astonished by that inclusive posture, which continually prods me beyond my own petty resentments.

King also practiced what he preached by building a community of organizers, preachers, artists, and musicians to collaborate on the strategies and postures of the Civil Rights Movement. This is often overlooked by (white male) commentators who apparently imagine King as single-handedly steering that movement as if he were a solitary captain at the ship’s wheel.

Just one among many counter-examples is the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who not only performed at many of the marches and rallies in the 1960s, not only advised King and others on strategy, but actually prompted King to “talk about the dream” during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

Royce described the galvanizing power of what he called the “Spirit” of the Beloved Community, a spirit that so clearly infused Martin Luther King, Jr., and equipped his many companions for the work of social transformation, the work of peace with justice, the work of deep healing and reconciliation.

And that is the work of Christian ministry.

Mahalia Jackson, March on Washington (1963)
post

With Us All the Way Down

“If you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

A father says that to his son in the short novel A River Runs through It, by Norman Maclean; you may have seen the film version of that story with Brad Pitt some years ago.

The river in that story is in Montana. There’s also a river running through Saugatuck, where I now live in Michigan.

And there’s a river running throughout the Gospel, and every year, right after The Epiphany, Jesus is baptized in it.

Do we expect to hear anything from any of these rivers?

Theologian Douglas Christie has noted that many of today’s environmentalists worry that we will not hear anything from any of our rivers because they have died, or because we are no longer capable of hearing them. Christie holds out hope, however, that there is still a presence in the living world, calling to us, and that we can hear it if we listen carefully.

So I wonder, what does that presence speak as Jesus is baptized?

Unlike my religious childhood, Eastern Orthodox Christians pay a great deal of attention to that story. They refer to it as the “Theophany,” or the appearance of God. And they offer a “Blessing of the Waters” to mark the occasion, and I mean all the waters—ponds, creeks, streams, rivers, lakes!

It would seem that for Orthodox Christians, the baptism of Jesus carries nearly as much significance as Christmas itself. Or more precisely: the Nativity of Jesus and the Baptism of Jesus are meant to convey the same profound truth about God’s fathomless and unending love for us and for the whole creation.

So what might this image of Jesus plunging beneath the surface of the water tell us about God? 

A colleague recently reminded me that we must never grow tired of saying that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead and whoever brought Israel up out of slavery in Egypt. That’s who God is.

In other words, God is for us, and never against us—God is always and unfailingly for our thriving and for our flourishing.

We must never grow tired of saying this because far too many have heard from an early age that the God who made us is angry, punishing, and vengeful. This is simply and absolutely not true. The God who made us is instead in solidarity with us.

This is what it means to say that Jesus is “God-with-us.” Jesus is God’s commitment to solidarity with us in the flesh, and for the sake of abundant life. And what better way to express this solidarity than to be immersed, to be submerged, to be baptized?

God is committed to our thriving, not from a distance, but as one of us, fully immersed in the glorious fragility of the flesh.

I’m particularly fond of Daniel Bonnell’s painting (posted below) called “The Baptism of Jesus.” The image evokes a sense of Jesus diving into the river in a way that I have often done myself, and above him is the Holy Spirit taking the form of a dove, just like we hear in the Gospel accounts of this moment.

“Baptism of Jesus,” Daniel Bonnell

But notice something else as well—the shape of his body, especially beneath the surface of the water. Look carefully and you can see one leg is partially tucked under the other, and one knee is slightly bent. This is the classic shape of a body on a cross, with arms not stretched for diving but nailed to wood.

The brilliance of Bonnell’s image is his blending of baptism and cross, because the baptism of Jesus reveals God’s immersive solidarity with us, not only in our life but also in our death.

This is also the shape of our faith as Christians and how we are meant to live—not on the sidelines, not remotely, or from a distance, but fully immersed in the struggle for abundant life, especially among the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed; fully engaged in the work of striving for peace and justice, and to respect the dignity of every living being.

Those last few phrases come from the vows Episcopalians make in our baptismal covenant, but I do worry about how easily those vows can sound like a religious “to do” list, as if the life of faith is about checking off tasks; or perhaps worse, that our vows become a recipe to ensure divine favor.

I worry about such things because it has taken me a long time, many decades, even to start to hear the astonishing truth of the Gospel: it actually doesn’t matter what we happen to do or fail to do—God is present; and God is for us; and God seeks our thriving. Always.

That’s what caught my attention in Douglas Christie’s theological treatment of Norman Maclean’s novel, and I would invite you to pause over that moment with me just briefly. (And by the way, Christie’s book—The Blue Sapphire of the Mind—is on my list of top five best and most beautiful theological books I have ever read.)

In Maclean’s novel, a father says to his son, “I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

His son disagrees with him; the words, he says, are formed out of the water.

No, his father says, “you’re not listening carefully. The water runs over the words.”

Christie quotes this exchange to suggest this: the Divine Word that became flesh is older than silence and runs deeper than the water and is woven through both. (You might want to read that sentence out loud and let it settle into your bones and muscles.)

Here’s what I take from Christie’s insight: The Word calls to us from all the many rivers running through our lives—the flowing, dynamic streams of families, friends, other animals, places, events, and yes, actual rivers of water.

The Divine Word is present in all of it, calling us to pay attention.

Yes, we pay attention for the sake of justice and accountability but also and above all for reassurance. And do we not, all of us, need some reassuring? I mean this: that we are not alone, and that God is with us, and for us, always.

That is why Jesus was baptized, to show us just how deep and how far God’s solidarity with us goes—it goes all the way down, without end.

“Baptism of Jesus,” David Zelenka
post

Insurrection as Epiphany

This is a strange day, for more than one reason. For the western Christians, we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Gentile world. That world is represented by the Magi, astrologers from the far East who presented extravagant gifts to the infant Jesus.

Today is also the first anniversary of an armed insurrection against the government of the United States, which took place in this nation’s capital.

Reflecting on that national horror might deepen our appreciation for why Epiphany is a major feast of the Church, one that deserves attention, observance, and celebration. It also deserves our whole-hearted devotion—a devotion that relativizes and displaces all of the other loyalties we might otherwise harbor and even cherish.

It seems important to note first that I grew up in the heart of the Midwest, in the suburbs of Chicago, steeped equally in Evangelical Christianity and American patriotism. I loved this country back then, and I still do. What was revealed about this country a year ago is heartbreaking.

In addition to that word revealed we could say “appeared,” or “manifested,” or “shown forth.” These are all synonyms for “epiphany.”

There was an epiphany about this country a year ago: our deep divisions were revealed dramatically; a festering violence appeared and erupted; some of our fellow citizens manifested a profound disregard for the very lives of some of our elected officials, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice-President of the United States; the fragility of democracy itself was shown forth to the world.

What do Christians want to say (if anything) about an epiphany like that, especially given the epiphany Matthew portrays in the second chapter of his account of the Gospel? Do these two epiphanies have anything at all to do with each other?

There are likely multiple responses to that question, but I think we begin by pausing for longer than we usually do and puzzling over my phrase above the Magi representing the “Gentile world.” That distinction between “Jew” and “Gentile” certainly mattered for biblical writers, but most of us don’t talk that way today. No one in my little Midwestern parish wonders whether someone might secretly be a Gentile.

So that first-century language can quickly obscure why Matthew’s story should qualify as an epiphany—and not just any epiphany. Christians refer to this encounter with the Magi as The Epiphany.

Needless to say, religion can sometimes divide and fragment communities in much the same way as race and ethnicity can, or as sexuality and gender can, and certainly as partisan politics can. The Christian Church itself has been a source of division over the centuries, even violently so.

But let us notice on this day that embedded in one of the Church’s own ancient stories from Matthew are the seeds for a very different kind of world, one in which God is not the source of what tears us apart but is rather the energy that draws us together and the balm that heals us.

Matthew—ostensibly the most “Jewish” of the four accounts of the Gospel—Matthew puts this story about the Magi right at the very beginning of his account of the Good News. Matthew is the only one of those four gospel writers to give us this story of the Magi, and with it, he would seem to be urging us to let go of any sense of ownership of this story—it belongs to no one and to everyone—and he would urge us to resist any tribal triumphalism, to surrender any privileged status we imagine ourselves to have in relation to God’s love and grace or, for that matter, because of any national origin!

“Adoration of the Magi,” He Qi

The Magi declare with their gifts an astonishing and enduring beacon of hope: God is the one who presented a gift, the gift of God’s own self to us. And the “us” leaves absolutely no one out. The offering of God’s own self is for the whole world, for all people, indeed for all of God’s creation—no exceptions.

It’s time to revise how we describe the Magi; rather than saying the Magi represent the “Gentiles,” we need to say more clearly that the Magi represent all those we never imagined would be included, or those we thought would never belong with us or we with them, and the ones who never seem quite deserving of God’s love as they turn out to be the very first ones to witness that love in the flesh.

For quite some time over the last year, I thought it rather unfortunate and quite shameful, frankly, that a violent insurrection occurred on Epiphany, spoiling the feast, tainting it, and marring its brightness.

And honestly, how terribly parochial of me! As if my own distress, my own wounded patriotism, or my own country’s bruises are the full measure of whether a religious festival can still inspire us!

Beyond any doubt, plenty of other wounds and bruises and catastrophes have landed squarely on January 6th over the centuries, whether they were personal and familial heartaches or national blunders or global disasters.

What now seems so much more plain is how perfectly appropriate for all those wounds to land on this day. And for Americans on this day, the conjunction of Epiphany and insurrection seems nearly ordained.

Because now, our need for healing has appeared more clearly, and the source of our healing has been more wonderfully revealed.

“Epiphany,” James Janknegt
post

Abbey Road

The eleventh studio album by the Beatles, released in 1969, takes its name from the location of EMI Studios in London. The cover image of the band striding across Abbey Road quickly became a pop culture icon. That image came to mind as I worked on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas and as I reflected on roads and abbeys. Here’s what I mean…

In new ways this year it occurred to me that nearly all of the stories in this Christmas season feature people who on the move: pregnant Mary with Joseph journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem; shepherds left their fields and flocks to go see the baby in a manger; the Magi leave their home to follow a star; and when these stories turn grim, an angel warns Joseph to flee from King Herod’s murderous rage. He then takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they become political refugees.

When Herod eventually dies, an angel again visits Joseph and this time tells him that it’s safe for them to return to Nazareth—and so they migrate yet again!

All these external, physical journeys were surely accompanied by internal, spiritual ones. I think Matthew hints at this, in a rather understated way, when he brings the Magi’s story to an end in his second chapter of the Gospel: After the magi presented their gifts to Jesus, Matthew says, they “left for their own country by another road” (2:12).

They went home differently—yes, they did so for fear of Herod but also because they were different people now. We cannot encounter the Word of God in the flesh, Matthew seems to say, and remain unchanged.

Mobility and migration have marked human life from the dawn of time. We are a species constantly in motion, it would seem; whether we have lived in the same neighborhood our entire lives, or whether we’ve lost count of the geographies and communities that we’ve tried to call home, we rarely sit still.

Not all of these migrations are voluntary, of course. We are currently in the midst of a worldwide migration crisis with more displaced people and refugees than at any other time in recorded history—roughly 80 million or so. 

That number is only going to grow as our climate catastrophe and ecological collapse push people toward more habitable zones on this planet. It’s already happening around the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest basin of freshwater. Duluth, Minnesota is even advertising itself as a hub for climate refugees!

We are living today in a time of profound, even turbulent change, physical and emotional movements. and chaotic social migrations. We need to face an unraveling world directly because how we live through such a time like this matters. Biblical writers thought so, too, as they frequently linked physical migrations and the spiritual movements of heart and soul.

Theologian William T. Cavanaugh offers some help in making our outer and inner journeys a matter of spiritual practice. In his book Migrations of the Holy, he proposes three different types of human mobility, of what it looks like when humans are on the move.

The first is the mobility of the “migrant,” whose identity is defined by national borders. By controlling who and what crosses those boundaries, nation-states actually control our perceptions of other people. Borders of all kinds create the oppositional dynamics of “us” and “them.”

The second type of mobility belongs to the “tourist.” Borders are important for this type, too, because borders create that sense of “home” and “abroad.” And the tourism industry relies heavily on that distinction between “domestic” and “foreign.” Borders of this type can also exist inside one’s own country, marking the difference between cities and farms, for example, or the industrialized north and the agrarian south, or the establishment East Coast and the Hippie West Coast.

I’m especially intrigued by Cavanaugh’s third way of thinking about mobility, with images of the medieval “pilgrim.” Pilgrimage is a spiritual form of mobility very different from both migration and tourism. Pilgrims embark on a journey of repentance, almost always in company with others, and for the sake of deeper communion with God.

For pilgrims, the destination matters far less than the journey itself; and that journey intentionally joins the outer mode of movement with the inner movement of the Spirit.

Significantly, pilgrims relied on abbeys along their pilgrimage routes, religious communities that were designed as places of hospitality, worship, prayer, and education—which sounds to me like a wonderful model for what it means to be church, and why church still matters, especially at a time of such profound change and disruption as we are living through today.

It is significant that this pandemic has been prompting some truly vital questions that we might not have pondered otherwise, or certainly not to this degree.

I will never say that Covid-19 has in any way been a gift—too many have died, too many are still suffering, too many are debilitated by anxiety; it has been horrible. But it can teach us some lessons, including this: what we used to call “normal” now resides in the pandemic’s shadow, and we’re not going back there, nor should we want to.

That’s an unsettling realization, to put the matter mildly, but journeys of transformation are always disorienting, just as they were for the shepherds, the Magi, and certainly for Mary and Joseph. No one in these stories “returned to normal”—can you imagine those shepherds encountering a heavenly host of angels, running to the stable in Bethlehem, and then just returning to their sheep as if nothing at all had happened?

All of these characters were changed by the journeys they undertook, and for Mary and Joseph, also by the state-sponsored terror they escaped by fleeing to Egypt.

Let us be sure, though, to note this about such stories: God does not make bad things happen just to teach us a lesson—that is not the God of Jesus Christ; set that God aside.

The God we do worship brings good things out of the bad in a process of redemption. Living faithfully with that insight means learning how to trust that God is with us, and that God is coaxing good things out of even the most tragic moments.

That’s a discipline Christians can practice week by week at the Eucharistic Table. We do not give thanks for bad things at the Table; but we do give thanks for the goodness of God in the midst of bad things. At the Table, we remember the Cross as a way to renew our hope in the Resurrection—and that hope is in part made visible by how we live with each other. and the kinds of communities we cultivate together, and the ways we bring new life to blossom precisely where it is least expected.

I am convinced that a lot more than just a few people are hungry for this religious approach to life even when they can’t name it. And just like abbeys were for medieval pilgrims, today’s churches can in fresh ways become places of hospitality, prayer, and education in a time of deep anxiety and stress.

A thriving congregation bearing witness to the transformative love of God would be a truly wonderful thing to emerge from this truly horrific pandemic.

Might it be so, and may all of us, just like those Magi, take that abbey road homeward.

post

Divine Vulnerability

The Gospel according to John has a nativity story, just like Matthew and Luke have one, but I can’t quite imagine making a children’s Christmas pageant from those opening verses of John.

John’s “nativity story” is cosmic in scope, rich in metaphysics, and conceptually dense in its prose. Countless philosophers have spent a great deal of time pondering the very first verse: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

That lofty language, stretching back to the dawn of time, sets the stage for an equally mind-bending claim in the fourteenth verse: the Word that was with God from the beginning, that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Not everything about this “prologue” to John’s account of the Gospel, however, is quite so abstract. John writes of a divine advent, a coming into the world that is marked by very human, down-to-earth realities—feeling out of place, like a stranger in one’s own land, even outright rejection.

This Word-made-flesh that John extols with such lofty language actually seems quite precarious. So whatever John means by “nativity,” that sense of vulnerability—the notion that God shares vulnerability with us—that is what makes John’s version of the story not just astonishing but also life-changing.

Notice where John begins, with three simple words: in the beginning. These are of course the first three words of the Hebrew Bible, the very first chapter of Genesis: in the beginning.

This is, in part, why some scholars treat John’s gospel as early Christian commentary on Genesis. The refrain in that first chapter of the Bible about the goodness of God’s creation runs throughout John’s gospel as well.

Goodness stumbles, of course, with the so-called “fall” of humanity in the third chapter of Genesis. And “stumbles” would be too mildly phrased for some. That “fall” has led far too many Christians to suppose that just being human is a problem that we must overcome; for others, God’s creation more generally is therefore suspect, or tainted, or even irredeemably spoiled, and Earth itself is disposable.

But that’s not John’s gospel at all.

To the contrary, John frames his account of the Good News by reminding us that the very Word of God is intimately involved in the creation of the whole world, in every aspect of it, from the very beginning. The universe, all that exists, has always been and remains God’s own handiwork; the imprint of God’s own hand is on everything.

This declaration, by the way, has direct bearing on our current climate catastrophe. Among the many reasons why ecological collapse is so distressing, theologian Elizabeth Johnson pointedly reminds us that our wanton destruction of ecosystems and habitats and countless species of plant and animal amounts to an act of blasphemy.

She can say this, without reservation or hesitation, precisely because of John’s close intertwining of God’s own creative Word with God’s creation.

This cosmic framing of John’s Gospel sheds further light on that pivotal fourteenth verse, what we might call the “Christmas verse” in John—the divine Word, with God from the beginning, and through whom all things were made, that Word becomes flesh.

Let’s pause here for a short lesson in ancient Greek. John had some choices in how to express this pivotal claim about God dwelling among us. He could have said that the Word became a person—prosopon. Or, he could have chosen to say that the Word more generally became human—anthropos.

Either of those two words is how most people likely hear that key claim from John, that the Word became a person or a human. But John didn’t choose either one of those options. John chose this instead: the Word, he wrote, became sarx—and that’s the Greek word for “flesh.”

And with that word—flesh—John signals how God chooses to be among us, not in garments of splendor or cloaked in military power or with superhero strength but in simple, frail, vulnerable flesh.

This prologue to John’s Gospel is not about the birth of Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman; Christmas is not the story of a divine superhero coming down from the sky to save us. The story of this season is far more astonishing than anything Marvel Comics has dreamed up: Christmas celebrates the Creator God choosing to accompany the creation—as part of it.

Consider what this means: Our vulnerability as fleshy creations of God is not a problem to overcome or a condition from which we need rescue or in any way cause for shame. No, our shared vulnerability as God’s creation is precisely where the Word of God meets us as one of us, in the flesh.

Surely in this time of ongoing pandemic and ecological fragility, we don’t need any further reminders of our own vulnerability or the weakness of our fleshy bodies and of the body of Earth itself; we know all this only too well.

Perhaps what we do need—what the whole wide world needs and what God is calling Christians to manifest with boldness in the world—is the reminder we hear from John: Christmas celebrates the God who meets us in our vulnerability by becoming as vulnerable as we are.

That’s what it means, John says elsewhere, to speak of God as love.

post

First to Shepherds and Migrant Farmworkers

I live with a shepherd. His name is Judah, but he’s not a human being; he’s a canine, an Australian shepherd dog.

Just in case I’m in any danger of forgetting his genetic predispositions as a shepherd, he will sometimes circle around behind me on our walks when we’re crossing a street, to herd me safely across to the other side.

It was during one of those herding moments in downtown Saugatuck recently that my Christmas gaze landed on what we hear from Luke every year—the prominent role played by shepherds in the Nativity.

To break my sentimentality around that story, I need to recall some of the socially complex features of shepherds in the first-century Mediterranean world. They performed essential work to ensure the thriving of their communities but it was mostly thankless and invisible work. Shepherding was an occupation on the margins of that society, literally marginal as shepherds were required to do their work at a fixed distance from the city gates.

The work itself was challenging. Shepherds had to wrangle obstinate sheep and fend off predators, not only wolves but also larger animals, like bears and lions. They sometimes had to fend off humans, too, the sheep-stealers who would approach the herd under the cover of darkness. That’s why the shepherds in Luke’s story were awake that night, guarding the sheep.

Everyone knew how much they relied on shepherds for their economic flourishing but they were nonetheless treated as outsiders—“dirty, unsophisticated, brutish and vulgar,” as one commentator put it.

It takes little effort to imagine similar occupations in our own society today. I can’t help but think of the migrant farmworkers in the central valley of California, near where I used to live, and now closer to my new home in the fields and orchards of southwest Michigan during peak harvest.

In this affluent resort town, we live very near to a whole class of people most of us who live here seldom see or even think about, yet without whose work the shelves in our grocery stores and markets would have far fewer fruits and vegetables on them; some of these workers actually go hungry themselves.

To people like that, Luke says—from ancient shepherds to today’s migrant farmworkers—an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

Luke reports what this angel was sent to proclaim and he reports it this way: “I am bringing you good news,” the angel says, “good news of great joy for all the people.”

For all the people. So here’s at least one reason why Luke has this angel show up first to shepherds—to make clear that the good news meant for “all the people” really does mean all, no exceptions.

“For unto you,” the angel says, “is born this day, in the City of David, a savior”—not only for the wealthy, or the powerful, or the influencers, or the movers and shakers, but for all the people, starting with the ones whom we rarely see and who don’t seem to count.

Now, that would have been enough, more than enough, for that tiny band of shepherds to absorb. It’s not every day, after all, that an angel pays you a visit in the middle of the night and makes your hillside bright with the glory of God.

But there was more.

After this solitary angel delivered the message, the whole sky above them was suddenly filled with a host of angelic beings singing God’s praise.

“Seeing Shepherds,” Daniel Bonnell

That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Surely the splendor of a single angel would have sufficed to deliver the message.

What might Luke’s purpose be in giving us this Technicolor spectacle of heavenly radiance and divine praise? Why all the fuss?

Luke gives us some hints about this by starting his account of the gospel with an elderly, childless woman who becomes pregnant, and then a young, unmarried virgin who becomes pregnant, and throughout his gospel account with story after story of the powerless, the lonely, the fearful, the marginalized and outcast all taking center stage as the story unfolds about the baby born this night.

A single, solitary angel, no matter how splendid, would not suffice for Luke’s purpose. To those shepherds and everyone else who lives as they do—on the margins and invisible—for them Luke wants to ensure that they hear the good news:

you are not forgotten;
you have not been overlooked;
your lives matter and you count.

So…here’s a heavenly host singing just for you!

Yes, it is excessive.

Indeed, it’s just as excessive as the grace that embraced the prodigal son and that was offered by the good Samaritan to the injured traveler; just as excessive as the compassion given to the widow of Nain whose son had died, to the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears; just as excessive as the generosity shown to Zaccheus the tax collector and the Samaritan leper who was healed—these are just some of the stories that appear only in Luke’s account of the gospel.

Of course a whole heavenly host of angels would sing for just a few ragtag shepherds in a field. Because this is Luke telling the story, and Luke opens his account of the Gospel with a young girl praising God for bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

That song of Mary is found only in Luke as well.

May we hear her song throughout these Twelve Days of Christmas, echoed in that angelic chorus of praise. May we hear that song reminding us that the God we worship leaves no one behind; and showers grace first of all on those who are easily forgotten and dismissed; and for all of us becomes touchable, tangible love, a love we can cradle in our arms, like a baby.

post

One and Only Noble Tree

Today is Holy Cross Day. This has always seemed to me like a strange time of year to remember and venerate the central symbol of Christian faith. We’re nowhere near Holy Week or Easter, and even Lent is a long way off. On the other hand, every single Sunday in our liturgical lives as Christians, even during Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; likewise every Friday is an invitation to remember the passion and suffering of Jesus on the cross. Liturgical time is not particularly linear or even logical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Today’s commemoration stems from fourth-century accounts about the Emperor Constantine and the buildings he constructed in Jerusalem to mark the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; those sites were purportedly dedicated on September 14, 335, and eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, this mid-September day has been a time for reflection, though not so much on the death of Jesus per se but on the cross itself.

Yes, a bit odd perhaps but I’m reminded rather vividly these days, in an era of heightened ecological awareness, that the wood of that cross was once a living tree. The wood itself, as some strands in Christian traditions would have us ponder, “remembered” its own life as the Lord of Life was hung upon its “branches.”

What I appreciate about this view of the cross is how an otherwise “inanimate” object can still “remember” life, how life is still buried within it, perhaps like the faintest of heartbeats. Indeed, even some early depictions of the cross picture it as a slowly budding tree, as if still rooted, as if still living, as if by being touched by the flesh of the Incarnate Word of God, the life within the wood itself surfaced and blossomed.

Thinking about the cross in this way stretches my imagination and invites me to see life in every nook and cranny of everything God has made. Strictly speaking, there are no “inanimate objects” anywhere in the universe; everything pulsates with life from the Creator. This stands in shocking contrast—perhaps, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson has labeled it, “blasphemous contrast”—to the pervasive treatment of Earth’s ecosystems as a vast storehouse of lifeless stuff for us to mine, harvest, and burn at will.

And so I pause on this Holy Cross Day, not worried in the slightest about how oddly timed such a commemoration might be. The Cross will stand for some time to come for ongoing pain and suffering experienced by God’s creation. Perhaps as well the hope, deeply buried within that suffering, of God’s own life still to come. As with most artifacts and rites of a Christian life, this one is a complex brew of memory and hope—of recalling the death of Jesus and still proclaiming the (startling) promise of new life.

I am helped in all of this, as always, by music and by hymn texts. And every year on Holy Cross Day I recall one of my favorite hymns from Holy Week. It always brings me to tears. It’s an ancient text—some have placed it as early as the sixth century. It invites an astonishing level of adoration for the cross, not as an instrument of death but as the means to see anew the resilient presence of God’s own life. I offer two of the verses from that hymn for our shared pausing and reflecting. The text is by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus and you can find it in the Hymnal 1982, #165 and #166:

Faithful 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.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty 
gently on thine arms extend.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
post

Transfigured Love in the Nuclear Age

The contrast could not be starker: on the one hand, a moment of transfigured splendor on a mountaintop, and on the other, a moment of unimaginable destruction and annihilation. I’m referring first to the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by Peter, James, and John; and then second, to the detonation of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima.  I’m pairing these because of our calendars: today is a “Feast of our Lord” when we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus; it is also the anniversary of the first atomic weapon used in wartime.

Yes, the contrast is stark, but the similarities are also striking: both of these commemorations include a brilliant, blinding flash of light. In Matthew’s account, Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2). Horrifically, we could say the same thing about the skies above Hiroshima seventy-six years ago today. Not long after becoming an Episcopalian, when I was learning about the liturgical calendar and the rhythm of common prayer, I was dismayed when I realized this confluence on the calendar—how could we possibly celebrate that wonderful Gospel story on a day with such a terrible wartime history?

“Transfiguration,” Lewis Bowman

Over the years since then I have come to understand that question differently as I realized that religion is not supposed to be kept “pure and untainted” by the world. To the contrary, as people of faith we’re supposed to “get our hands dirty” as we show up in the public square and at city hall and wherever power is marshalled for hate and violence rather than love and peace. Religion that’s kept separate from the world is not a religion rooted in the incarnation of the divine word, whose transfigured splendor is meant to inspire and illuminate our participation in God’s own mission of transformation in the world around us.

So the question is how we live our faith in the world, not whether we do, and that will always mean engaging faithfully with politics. I do not mean partisanship—the politics of one party over another. I mean politics in the broadest sense, which is what all of us do every day as we interact and relate with each other and the communities around us for the sake of shared interests and the common good, and ultimately for the thriving and flourishing of God’s whole creation.

The gospel writers invited this kind of analysis in their accounts of the Transfiguration, which functions as a pivot point in their storytelling. As soon as Jesus is transfigured and comes down from the mountain, he “sets his face to go toward Jerusalem,” as Luke put it (9:51), to that city where imperial politics and institutional religion were deeply entangled.

Entangled”? How about testing the first atomic bomb at a place called “Trinity”?

Roughly three weeks before the detonation over Hiroshima, the technology was tested at a site in New Mexico with the code name “Trinity.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist for the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, was the one to name that site. He was inspired to do so by a sixteenth century poem by John Donne, including these lines:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Oppenheimer was eventually horrified by the weapon he had helped to create and lived with nearly unbearable regret. As he would later recall, as he witnessed the first explosive test, he thought of a famous line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The explosive force of an atomic detonation is truly overwhelming and gruesomely destructive. Nearly everyone knows this, but what the world does not appreciate nearly as much is the far greater power of love. I don’t say this sentimentally, as if a loving feeling conveyed such energy. I mean instead the kind of love that speaks the truth, heals wounds, confronts injustice, and breaks down even the longest-standing barriers to harmony and peace.

So on this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day that coincides with atomic destruction, offers a compelling invitation to ponder together what kind of power we wish to release into the world.

As I reflect on these powerful intersections, I’m reminded of another writer, a scientist, theologian, and poet of the early twentieth century, Teilhard de Chardin. He was convinced that in this dynamic, ever-evolving universe, God and humanity working together would one day transform—let’s just say transfigure—the world with love. May we remember that hope and confidence with the words Teilhard himself wrote:

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.

“Transfiguration,” Cornelis Monsma
post

LGBTQ Pride Month: Praying at the Intersections

Same-sex sexual acts have been legal nationwide in the United States only since 2003. Read that sentence again—I identify as a gay man and even I am shocked by how recent that is. That moment came as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

As LGBTQ Pride Month launches today, it might be helpful to recall why that case in 2003 mattered so much and also why it’s still important that faith communities pay attention to this history. Not only to the history but also to the crucial intersections this month invites for our commitments concerning racial justice and gendered equity, and still more, for ecological renewal.

First, let’s recall this: prior to 1962 in the United States, same-sex sexual activity was illegal in all 50 states and punishable by fine or imprisonment or coerced psychiatric hospitalization and electroshock therapy. (The term “homosexuality” itself was invented by nineteenth-century medical researchers and carried with it the stigma of pathology that could in theory be “cured” or reversed.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, the police routinely raided gay bars and lesbian clubs and arrested patrons merely for gathering there. These laws changed slowly, state-by-state, until a series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1996 and 2015 finally decriminalized “homosexuality” nationwide and granted same-sex couples full marriage equality.

A turning point in that history came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back when the police raided that bar. The “Stonewall Riots” launched the modern gay liberation movement in the United States in new ways. Anniversary marches began the very next year, and by 1971 more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and Europe remembered that watershed moment with “Pride Parades.” Today, those celebrations and rallies occur all around the world and in nearly every town and city in the United States. Embracing these public expressions of sexual identity with pride is an attempt to reclaim human dignity after decades of being shamed or coerced into silence.

Rather than supposing that “pride” is a “deadly sin,” as many religious communities have long taught, some embrace pride as a path toward flourishing; in contexts where self-denigration and violence are expected, pride is actually lifesaving. This has also been true in various ways for communities of color struggling against structural racism and for women grappling with patriarchal structures of oppression.

“Between Worlds,” Delita Martin

While gender, race, and sexuality are distinct aspects of everyone’s identity, they also overlap and intersect in some complex ways. Indeed, those “intersections” can help all of us appreciate our own multiple layers of identity and how labels simply fail to express fully the richness of human life and relationships.

Anne Sisson Runyan helpfully reminds us that paying attention to the “intersections” isn’t just about adding layers of identity, one on top of the other, like a big stack of labels. As she notes, “women of color actually experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women. In this sense, gender is always ‘raced’ and race is always gendered.”

As a white man (albeit a gay one), I had a lot of trouble appreciating that sense of racialized gender when I first encountered it; but of course, people of color get it right away. As Runyan explains, “racialized sexist stereotypes of white women portray them, under the still-prevailing legacy of the Victorian age, as passive, physically weak, undersexed, and needful and deserving of protection. In contrast, racialized sexist stereotypes of black women…under the still-prevailing legacy of slavery and colonization, construct them as aggressive, physically strong, oversexed, and undeserving of protection.”

Attending carefully to the rich diversity of human experience eventually expanded “gay liberation” to include “lesbians,” and then “bisexuals,” and more recently “transgender people” in cultural and religious efforts for justice and inclusion. These labels, however, don’t work for everyone. Many African Americans, for example, adopted “same-gender loving” or “SGL” in the 1990s as a way to distinguish themselves from primarily white notions of “gay and lesbian.” There is also a long history among indigenous peoples in the Americas of using the term “two-spirit” as a way to name how gender and sexuality don’t fit into the neat binary boxes that often accompany European ways of describing the world. And still others prefer the word “queer” as a way to name their experience of not “fitting in” with any modern categories and expectations.

“Renewal,” Nancy Desjarlais

The complexity (and the richness) of these intersections grow when we expand this kind of analysis to include other species and the wider worlds of intertwining ecosystems. Leah Thomas is the founder of the online resource hub for Intersectional Environmentalism and writes compellingly about the urgent need to foreground the lives, experiences, and voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in movements of ecological renewal.

“Innocent Black and brown people are the most impacted by climate change,” Thomas writes, “but those same people are not present in environmental policy.” Just as race and gender are often co-constructed, environmental activism is typically populated with white people and actions are directed toward locations where predominantly white communities are affected. As Thomas notes, the health and vibrancy of BIPOC communities around the world are the only adequate standard by which to assess our progress on ecological renewal as well as the degradations we’re inflicting on ecosystems.

Given the history of religious condemnation of LGBT people, communities of faith bear a particular responsibility to promote social justice and to respect the full dignity of every human being, and indeed, of all creatures of the same God. “Pride Month” is an opportunity to make that commitment visible and intentional in every way we can and at as many intersections as we can name.

All Saints’ Parish, where I have the privilege to serve as the rector in Saugatuck, Michigan, will be “praying at the intersections” of human identities this month and endeavoring to appreciate in deeper ways the rich diversity of God’s creation, especially when gender, race, sexuality, and ecological renewal all coincide and overlap and intersect.

We will also be posting profiles on our Facebook page of LGBTQ pioneers in the Episcopal Church as well as artists who come from “two-spirit” indigenous communities in the United States. I hope and pray that these posts can elicit the complex beauty that arises from the intersections, those potent locations where God’s handiwork shines brightest when the fullness of our diversity is embraced and cherished.

“Harmony,” Alima Newton
post

Ascension Day Audacity

Fog on the Kalamazoo River

Forty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the “Ascension.” Luke narrates this moment most directly: “As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). More than a few churches celebrate this day with elaborate liturgies and triumphal music even though the story itself seems terribly difficult for our modern Western minds to accept—how far “up” through Earth’s stratified atmosphere did Jesus have to go before reaching “Heaven”?

Many years ago, the talented organist at my seminary underscored the understandable incredulity so many have about this day. As we were processing out of the seminary chapel after marking this feast with great solemnity, with bells and incense and medieval chant, the organist deftly inserted a familiar but unexpected tune into the lines of the closing hymn. I finally realized what it was: “Up, Up and Away in my Beautiful Balloon.”

I always appreciate that wonderful mix of the utterly serious with whimsical light-heartedness. And still, and yet—really? Jesus lifting off the Earth like a SpaceX rocket? Isn’t this kind of, well, embarrassing?

I was reflecting on these things early this morning as I walked along the Kalamazoo River with Judah, my Australian shepherd dog. A heavy fog blanketed the harbor as the dawning sun struggled to wedge its way through the misty curtains. Judah chased a duck down one of the docks and it looked like he might disappear into oblivion where the dock ended and a thick gray wall obscured the water’s edge. That’s a wonderful image, I thought, for the Ascension, much better than thinking of Jesus rising endlessly up through the sky.

The point of today’s commemoration is simply and profoundly this: wherever life happens to take us, Jesus has led the way.  Whether it’s a major vocational decision, how to navigate a broken relationship, or just figuring out where to find some love and solace in a brittle world, we can’t always see the best way forward—but Jesus has led the way. Life itself offers few if any certainties, except of course that each of us will one day die. As we make that journey toward the mysterious edge between life and death, we don’t know with any precision what that crossing will hold for us. But we can be confident in this: Jesus has led the way.

I return often to an insight gleaned from a teacher many years ago: the opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s fear. I have plenty of doubts, actually, and I live with a lot of uncertainty about many things, every day. But in this Easter season, and on this Ascension Day in particular, I choose not to fear what lies beyond that line of fog. I choose not merely to tiptoe my way down the dock before me but rather sprint, as Judah did, trusting that the one who has gone before me will guide me still, beyond where I cannot yet see.

To be clear, I’m not talking about guarantees or anything like failsafe spiritual practices. I’m choosing to trust and to not be afraid. I’m choosing to live with confidence and to urge the congregation I have the privilege to lead to do the same. What this broken and weary world needs right now is not timidity or reticence from faith communities, and certainly not any more fear, but rather great courage and boldness.

Judah showed me what an Ascension Day faith looks like this morning with his reckless romp toward a foggy edge—it’s the audacity of hope.