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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
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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
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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
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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.

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Easter and Eucharist for Earth

The religious training of my youth was steeped in what I call “escape hatch Christianity.” The subtle and sometimes explicit message from sermons and educational programs and just the ambient spiritual culture of those Western suburbs of Chicago shaped my impression of the Christian Gospel as the means by which we eventually escape Earth for a disembodied place called Heaven.

One can, of course, simply leave such religious images behind, as I did, but they also linger in public policies and in civic organizations and in how communities of all sorts treat Earth and her many ecosystems. If “heaven” is elsewhere, in other words, we can quite literally let this planet go to hell. More than a few books and scholarly articles argue persuasively for precisely those links over the last two or three centuries.

What if, instead, we pray as Jesus taught us, that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven” and then live accordingly? That has been a guiding question in (among other places) the social media presence we’ve been cultivating at All Saints’ Parish in Saugatuck, Michigan.

We observed and celebrated Black History Month in February, followed by Women’s History in March. Each stands on its own with its own integrity and significance. Taken together, however, they also frame in vital ways the month of April, which includes Earth Day on April 22–an important opportunity to provide a compelling religious alternative to “escape hatch Christianity.”

To that end, I’m inviting the parish to observe April as “Mother Earth Month,” for which both Black history and women’s history offer important insights. The history of the United States, for example, is marked throughout with the painful white/black divide and the sometimes violent segregation of Black people; this is not unlike the various ways in which modern Western culture has segregated itself from the vibrant ecosystems of the planet, setting humanity apart from and above all other animals.

“Mother Earth,” Starr Hardridge

Likewise, patriarchal societies perpetuate male dominance by subjugating women in both overt and subtle ways (just one among many of these ways in the U.S. is through income inequality; today, women make just 82 cents for every dollar a man makes). These patriarchal dynamics are replicated in humanity’s relationship to Earth, especially in modern Western culture in which the planet is objectified (just as women’s bodies are by men) and Earth’s natural resources are decimated.

April also marks, of course, the season of Easter as Christian communities celebrate with great joy the raising of Jesus from the dead and the assurance this provides that divine love is stronger than death itself. How might this Easter promise provide an occasion for considering the role played by ecological healing and renewal in Christian faith and in our celebration of new life? As part of that intention, we will celebrate Earth Day as a parish on Sunday, April 25th, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

In social media, especially on Facebook, we will also feature Native American artists each week and their portrayals of humanity’s relationship to the beautiful web of ecosystems on this planet. As a primarily white congregation here in Saugatuck, we want to avoid romanticizing indigenous communities and also resist treating them as exotic “others.” At the same time, many Native American tribes have historically lived in greater harmony with Earth and other-than-human animals in ways that have much to offer to the wider world. We pray such offerings might be received gratefully so that all God’s creatures might thrive and flourish on this “fragile earth our island home.”

May we find over the course of this month that Christian hope has nothing to do with escaping from this planet to a disembodied place called “heaven” but rather inspires the longing for that day when Earth will become fully the heaven of new life God has promised by raising Jesus from the dead.

“Mother Earth,” Angela Babby
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While it was Still Dark…

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”

That’s how John begins the story of Easter—while it was still dark.

I tend to be an early riser, usually earlier than the breaking of dawn. It could very well be my favorite time of day—it’s quiet, peaceful, and full of promise, the unpretentious stirring of potential for what the new day might bring.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”

We’ve been shut down and shut in because of this coronavirus pandemic for a year now. More than 550,000 people have died in the United States alone because of this disease. And we have yet to emerge fully into the light of a new day from the darkness of this pandemic.

This has been a dark time, indeed—but not because everything has been bad. To the contrary, darkness can sometimes provide the impetus for the most compelling insights, the medium in which seeds germinate and eggs hatch, the stillness that is sometimes necessary for the fragility of something new to emerge.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene became the first witness of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and thus became the “apostle to the apostles”—she’s the one who is sent to tell the others what has happened.

“The Resurrection,” Donald Jackson

John places this moment not in a graveyard but in a garden, and the new day about to break in this story is the dawning of a new creation. Among the many hints of this are the otherwise strange words the risen Jesus speaks to Mary.

“Do not hold on to me,” he says.

Do not cling to all that you’ve known before; do not cleave to the old patterns of relationship; do not recall only how things were in the past because this is the beginning of something new—a new dawn, a new creation, a new life.

No wonder John sets this scene not in a graveyard but in a garden.

No wonder Mary at first thinks Jesus is the gardener—in some vital ways, she was actually correct. The risen Jesus is not only the gardener but also the first fruits of God’s garden of new life.

Easter is not a ghost story.

We do not worship a resuscitated corpse.

Easter is the promise every gardener comes to cherish at this time of year: from the darkness of mulch and soil, new life will spring up.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

“Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Hold On to Me),” Graham Sutherland
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Flowers Delivered and Hell Harrowed: The Everyday Rhythms of Hope

It’s an early Saturday morning. Gentle rays of sunshine are trickling through stained glass, kaleidoscoping around the baptismal font. I lift the wooden lid from the font and liberate a small spider who had wandered in there, who knows how long ago; the stone hasn’t felt water’s blessing for some time.

I unlock the front door of the church to help Mary bring in the Easter lilies from her car; she’s perfectly named for this occasion. Mary co-directs the altar guild and there’s work to be done, even when the sanctuary will remain mostly empty of people tomorrow and we stream prayers and chants and bread and wine through pixelated images into people’s homes.

Margie and David were just here and we all looked for David’s glasses; he thought he might have left them in the sanctuary after preaching one of the Good Friday homilies yesterday afternoon. We looked in the sacristy but didn’t see them anywhere amidst all the religious hardware strewn about, the candlesticks and altar books and kneelers and linens that had been stripped away from the Altar on Thursday evening.

Tom arrives, and then Valerie, all of us in casual Saturday morning garb—I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and the leather jacket I bought with my mother at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The sixth anniversary of her death was this past Wednesday, and the rectory has been filled with the smell of roses since then; Bobbie and Margie brought the roses to me that afternoon, to help me mark that mid-week moment.

It’s a wonderfully strange day, this Saturday that sits betwixt and between, this day of ordinary patterns of everyday life that carry charged particles of hope and anticipation.

Not somewhere else, but here; not in some other time, but right now God moves and stirs among us. Holy Saturday reminds me every year about this everyday character of Christian hope. The drama of Maundy Thursday and the heartache of Good Friday have unfolded with whatever poignancy they hold for each of us still and then…Saturday. There’s cleaning to be done, some fussing with flowers, returning fair linens to the Table, freeing a spider from a dry font.

Meanwhile, as early traditions would have it, Jesus is not quietly dead in his tomb nor merely resting on this day but busily harrowing Hell. Descending among the dead, he tramples Hell’s gates beneath his pierced feet—the gates are destroyed, not only so no one need ever enter through them again but also to ensure that everyone there is freed—every single one.

One of my favorite icons of this underworld drama depicts Jesus yanking Adam and Eve from their graves, both of them apparently startled and maybe even a tad reluctant, unsure of what this new life might mean.

I appreciate that reminder, too: resurrection is not resuscitation, but something utterly new and fresh and disorienting. And also this: no one is left out of this shocking newness and no one is left behind.

Not a single one.

Harrowing of Hell, Church of the Holy Savior, Istanbul

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The Good Friday of Solidarity and the Vulnerability of God

The story Christians tell on this day, this Friday we insist on calling “good,” is quite familiar. The story is familiar not only to those who have attended church our whole lives or who have the read the Bible through many times, but even to those who may have never attended church or read the Bible even once.

Crucifixion was actually very common in the ancient Roman Empire. It was one of the tools deployed by imperial power to maintain control over unruly provinces. There were times in that period of Israel’s history when the roads leading to Jerusalem were lined with dozens and dozens of crosses, rebels and agitators hanging from them. Anyone who has ever feared state power or law enforcement knows this story.

“Stations of the Cross,” Ben Denison

We should note as well the sexual shame and humiliation that was likely part of this moment of physical torture. We don’t often think about that because it’s not mentioned directly in the biblical text; the biblical writer didn’t have to mention it because first-century readers would have known quite readily that aspect of this form of execution.

As one scholar has noted, “a striking level of public sexual humiliation” was most likely part of this story, what we would today classify as sexual assault, with all the bodily degradation it would have carried both then and now. Far too many people today and throughout human history know exactly what that kind of shame feels like.

There are other reasons why this story is so familiar—it’s so thoroughly human. Is there anyone who hasn’t known at least some kind of betrayal from a friend? Hasn’t everyone felt the fickle loyalties of a crowd, the dread of an angry mob, the terror of a tyrant—whether a neighborhood bully or an imperious thug? Haven’t all of us shrunk from our duties, hid from our obligations, denied our associations with the righteous troublemakers, even just once?

Living through a global pandemic, hasn’t everyone been reminded viscerally of their own mortality? Certainly not everyone has felt it to the same degree—privilege can still blunt the sharper edges of an otherwise precarious life, but certainly not forever.

The arc of this gospel story is, in all these ways, both quite particular and still also universal. This is precisely the source of its transformative power. It’s the familiarity of this story that grabs our attention, how easily it’s recognizable, how quickly each of us can find ourselves in it at least once if not multiple times.

Just there, in its horrifying familiarity, is where we might start to grasp the “goodness” of this day.

I should note first at least two ways in which I have come to appreciate how the story we Christian tell about this day is not “good.” First, it is not good to use today’s story as a way to justify violence as the means to achieve greater purposes. Second, it is also not good to suppose that God the “Father” killed his only “Son” in order to forgive our sins; I actually do embrace the vital notion of atonement as part of the good news of Christian faith, but God doesn’t kill anyone to achieve it.

That point deserves repeating: the purpose of the horrific act of humiliation and torture that Jesus endured is not somehow to placate an angry God; honestly, that’s a monstrous idea. No, what is on display in this violent story is instead a profound and even beautiful moment of deep solidarity between God and God’s creation, between God’s own beloved and us. 

God freely chose to enter into our own vulnerability and fragility, to know it and embrace it. And God freely chose to do this because of unimaginable love.

The poet Sylvia Sands has written about this as she reflected on Jesus falling beneath the weight of carrying his own cross to meet his death. This is what she wrote:

Eat dirt.

We all like to see the mighty fallen.
Here’s God in the dust…

Except…
crumpled and tumbled beneath his cross
he resembles nothing so much as
a child.

Grown-ups don’t fall down, do they?
Well, not often.
Not unless they’re
drunk, crippled, down and out,
mugged, starved, queer-bashed,
frail, raped, stoned,
or plain suicidal.

He’s there in all those of course.

Dear Jesus of the gutter,
Friend to all humankind,
I cannot forget it was Roman feet you saw,
ready to kick you onwards…

Just as later,
your sisters and brothers
would see jackboots in Auschwitz.

So it is hard to watch you squirm,
debased, degraded, filthy,
beneath your cross.

But where and how else could we understand
your solidarity with the dispossessed?

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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Set the Table with Love

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save.”

That’s a line from a poem by Adrienne Rich and I’ve been thinking about it this week and for this Maundy Thursday night in particular as Christians gather at the table of remembrance, the Eucharistic table of both memory and hope.

As Christians hear the story of Passover from Exodus this night and Jews are this week observing it, my heart is moved by all those ancient Hebrews who never made it out of Egypt, who died enslaved before Moses was even born.

I’m thinking about all the Jews and communists and gypsies and gay men who never made it out of Buchenwald or Dachau or Auschwitz before those camps were liberated, and my heart is so moved.

After this past year of pandemic anxiety, surely all of our hearts are moved by all we cannot save—by the more than 550,000 who have died just in the United States alone before they could be vaccinated, all those who are now so terribly ill.

This is why religion still matters, just a few of the reasons, in an age when so many prefer to be “spiritual” instead. Religion helps us mark time and name sacred space, just as God commanded Moses and Aaron to do at the first Passover—“this month shall mark for you the beginning of months,” God says (Exodus 12:1-2).

We human beings need such marking and naming to orient ourselves to each other and to the world around us; so many of us have felt so adrift in these days and weeks and months (how long, really?) of this seemingly endless pandemic precisely because of having so few markers for time, so few places to go for space.

For Christians, tonight begins the great three days of Holy Week—the “triduum,” as it’s called in Latin—and our worship continues unabated from this night until Easter morning. Tonight begins one extended liturgical celebration stretching over three days.

There is no dismissal after the Maundy Thursday service, nor after the Good Friday service, because these services do not end; the ordinary passage of time is caught up and transformed by the shared observance of the mystery of our salvation—the Table, the Cross, the Empty Tomb, all of it as one single arc of divine grace.

Christians also heard from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tonight in which he reminded them that what he received from the Lord about the Table is what he handed on to them (1 Cor. 11:12-26).

That phrase—“handed on”—is what tradition is, what memory means for religion, the handing on of that which binds us together here and now and also to those who came before us and to those who will come after us.

For the ancient Israelites and for Paul and for us, these vital reminders are rooted in the importance of memory itself.

The kind of memory we practice as religious people is not just the opposite of forgetting. The memory Christians practice at the Table is in response to the violence of fragmentation and division; it’s a re-membering of what has been dis-membered and torn apart—the kind of recalling that heals and makes whole.

This then is what Christians might embrace about religion itself on this holy night: marking time and naming space at the Table; receiving from those who came before us the love Jesus had for his friends and for us; handing on to those who will come after us that same love that we dare believe can reunite what has been torn apart, that can stitch us together into a single body with many members, that might actually offer healing to a world of violence.

I cannot imagine doing any of this on my own. I must, by some unimaginable grace, “cast my lot” with others, the ones who share food, dream of love, and leave no one behind.

This is why I cherish now those words from the poet Adrienne Rich. Here is what she wrote:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

As Christians at the Table, as Jews gathered for a meal, as the lonely, the broken, the castaway, and the frightened, may this Passover week and these tender services of the Christian Triduum bathe us in the love that will heal us.

All of us.

Together.

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Healing Shame, Changing the World

Perhaps you’ve seen the random placard in a football stadium crowd with “John 3:16” written on it. If you grew up like I did, you probably memorized that Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”

That’s supposed to be a life-changing snippet of Scripture, and it certainly can be. But for me, the two verses that come right before it prompted a profound re-orientation to Christianity entirely. This is rather odd, actually, because those verses are pretty obscure and they refer to a bizarre story from the Hebrew Bible.

I’m convinced that there are nuggets of spiritual insight here that carry the potential to change the world. To get there, I would invite you to consider that modern Christianity has focused so much of its attention on sin and guilt that it has left virtually untouched the issues of bodily shame and social violence.

“Redemptive Love of Christ,” Bronze door of the Grossmunster Church, Zurich

My own work as a teacher and pastor, my understanding of Christianity and the role Christian faith communities can play in the wider society, indeed my own life and sense of self changed significantly when I turned more directly to the problem of shame and its consequences (it prompted me to write a whole book rooted in this insight called Divine Communion).

What I’m referring to here, in shorthand fashion, is this: the problem of guilt says, “I did something bad”; the problem of shame says, “I am bad.”

Consider the difference between those two statements—having done something bad and being bad—it won’t take you long to feel the difference in your own body.

One of many social science researchers working on this issue is Brené Brown, and I would urge you to watch her videos and read her books just as soon as you can. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling…that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…”

Unworthy of love and belonging? That’s heartbreaking…and far too common.

We’re told this about ourselves almost constantly—our culture of celebrity; our idolization of wealth and popularity; mass marketing and advertising aimed at making us feel needy and empty without certain products; fitness crazes that make us hate our bodies; the list goes on.

Brown says that shame is likely the source of many destructive, hurtful behaviors; this sense of being unworthy of connection, she says, “can make us dangerous.”

She means, dangerous to ourselves (when we isolate and self-medicate) and dangerous to others (when we project our own unworthiness on those who are different from us and then punish them for it).

Needless to say, there’s a lot of resistance to dealing with issues of shame; ironically and tragically, a lot of people find it shameful to talk about shame—the problem feeds on itself, in other words. As Brown puts it, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

If, however, we cultivate our capacity for naming it and addressing it, we can weaken its power over us. We can, at long last, find healing—for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our communities, dare I also say, for our nation.

All of that is preface to the rather odd verses in John’s account of the Gospel that introduce the more famous one so many of us have memorized. In those verses, John’s Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (3:14).

Stick with me here, because we need to know two interrelated things for this peculiar verse to make any sense.

First, the image of a serpent was a powerful one for ancient Mediterranean societies. Among the several meanings of this image, serpents could symbolize healing—the shedding of a snake’s skin evoked renewal and new life, for example. Serpents could also be dangerous and deadly, and this was important, too. That mix of risk and hope lingers in the old aphorism about how to soothe the effects of a hangover—you just need some “hair from the dog that bit you.”

More directly: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

The second thing we need to know is that the story John’s Jesus refers to is from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story about the ancient Israelites as they are bitten by poisonous serpents which make some of them ill and more than a few of them die.

God instructs Moses to do a very strange thing in response: to make a bronze image of a serpent and then lift it high upon a pole. Anyone who looks upon that image, God says, will be healed—and they were (Numbers 21:9).

Some have suggested that this story influenced the development of the familiar image of a snake wrapped around a pole as a symbol for the medicinal arts. Others have suggested that the “rod of Asclepius” wielded by the god of the healing arts in Greek mythology is the origin of the healthcare symbol. In any case, across these cultural contexts, the insight remains: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

John apparently wants us to think about that ancient story in relation to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. If so, John invites not a mechanism of atonement to secure forgiveness; John wants us to gaze on the source of our pain for the sake of our healing.

If unnamed, untreated bodily shame can make us dangerous, as Brené Brown says, then let us seek out the cure for that disease within the disease itself—being fully human. God actually does this for us in Jesus—God becomes human, becomes the very source of our shame so that God can also become our cure, lifted high for all to see.

I am truly convinced that naming, addressing, and healing bodily shame would change the world. So much of our distress, our self-loathing, our fear and hatred of the “other,” our destructive behaviors and ecological suicide erupts from that grim pit of unacknowledged shame.

That’s not an easy trail of ideas to follow, I realize. Thankfully, John’s Jesus offers multiple ways for us to see his meaning. The very next verse, the famous one, is Jesus making his meaning plain: “for God so loved the world.”

That’s the key, right there—God’s love.

“For God So Loved the World,” Marguerite Elliott

Forgiveness is a great antidote for guilt, and we all need it, but it won’t touch our shame and it won’t mend our violent divisions and it won’t soothe our social heartache.

The only thing that will touch all of that and then heal it is love—and not just any kind of love, but the love of God, who does not love us from afar—as if ashamed of us—but instead becomes one of us.

Not to condemn the world, John says, but so that the world might be saved.

For God so loved the world…