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A Contagious Hope in Times of Peril

We’ve been fussing and tinkering the last few days at Good Shepherd, the congregation where I serve in Berkeley. Fussing with how best we might offer an opportunity for prayer and worship without meeting together in person. We tinkered, too, because we wanted to get this right, or at least do the best we can with online worship because we’ve been realizing of late, as so many others have as well, that spiritual practice and religious traditions really do make a profound difference in our shared sense of wellbeing.

At its best, religious practice binds us together as a community—to shape us, challenge us, admonish us, and also to reassure us and comfort us in moments of distress and peril. For all of these reasons and more, we were committed to connecting in some fashion, to be encouraged and fortified by the sense of being woven together, even online, as a single Body with many members—to evoke one of St. Paul’s favorite images.

In this time of pervasive anxiety and unnerving uncertainty, the lectionary—one of our religious tools as Christians—the lectionary gave us some rich biblical texts for worship this morning.

From the Hebrew Bible, we heard the story of how David was chosen over and above his much more likely brothers to be Israel’s king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The storyteller quite directly tells us what we should learn from that moment of divine selection: do not judge by size or outward appearance alone.

Here’s just one of many ways to take that lesson to heart: let’s notice how astonishing it is that something microscopically small is right now bringing nation-states to their knees; how a virus, invisible to the naked eye, is toppling a global economic system.

What we humans build and construct, even what looks sturdy and seems permanent, is actually quite fragile and temporary. This moment seems ripe, in other words, to ponder anew where we ought to place our hope and trust.

Let’s be very clear about where, at least in part, our hope just now belongs: science.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by retired Navy Seal and Admiral William McRaven offered some powerful words of reassurance in that regard, a reminder that some of the smartest scientific minds on the planet are working on a vaccine, on treatments, and a cure for COVID-19; that some of the most experienced people in epidemiology and public health are mobilizing at all levels; healthcare providers are courageously and heroically tending to the sick. These are indeed hopeful signs for what are surely very troubling days ahead.

In addition to that great list, let me also note where I hear hope from the story about David: it’s a reminder that God often chooses the least likely tools, the most unexpected methods, and the usually overlooked people to accomplish what God intends in the world. Put in another way: hope appears precisely at that moment when it seems the most unwarranted.

Or as Admiral McRaven put it, “because the only thing more contagious than a virus is hope.”

Hope where there seemed to be none at all takes on flesh in the story from John’s account of the gospel that was also appointed for today (John 9:1-41). As some early Christian commentators have noted about this story of giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus is the one who seeks him out, not the other way around.

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Jesus offers sight to a man born blind.

This is what God is like, those commentators suggest, always pursuing us with more gifts than we even thought possible to ask for.

John tells a rather complex story about this man born blind, about his parents and the wider community to which they all belong. The complexity of this story, it seems to me, reflects the complexity of life itself and the very real perplexities we encounter in our relationships with God and each other.

Even the notion of healing is multilayered, both in this story and in our own lives. Of course, we stand in need of healing from this new coronavirus; and we also need a healing balm for our collective anxiety; and we also need healing for the deep social and political divisions in our society; and still more, we need to heal and revitalize our relationship to Earth, with her many interconnected ecosystems and habitats and species, “this fragile Earth,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “our island home.”

Yet one more layer from this story deserves attention: the perennial human response to suffering by asking why. The frequent assumption humans so often make in such moments is captured perfectly in this story, an assumption continues in some quarters to this day. It is the assumption, in the face of suffering, that someone must have sinned.

Typical for John’s Jesus, he does not respond in any neat or tidy way to this question, except to say that sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness.

John’s Jesus is crystal clear about this and it deserves repeating: Neither that man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness.

Hope where there seemed to be none.
Hope in the flesh, seeking us out.
Hope for more than we could think to ask.

These reminders about hope were beautifully framed this morning with the familiar words from the 23rd Psalm, which was itself a balm to hear in the congregation of the Good Shepherd.

As we confront still more difficult days ahead, let us hold fast to the assurance offered by the psalmist: God is with us. God is actually our shepherd, leading us to places of unexpected refreshment and renewal—green pastures and still waters.

And still more: God accompanies us through even the darkest valley, reassuring us that not even death can separate us from the shepherd’s care.

In the days and weeks ahead, may hope itself become the unstoppable contagion we spread for each other’s comfort and consolation…

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“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore

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Terrifying Freedom, Liberating Service

Freedom—the word and the concept—has been showing up lately on social media, in court cases and congressional hearings, and randomly scattered through presidential tweets. Freedom has been showing up and getting tossed around as if its meaning is perfectly obvious or self-evident. I think it’s much more complex than most people imagine. I also think absolute freedom would be absolutely terrifying.

That is a rather odd thing to say in the United States of America, a country steeped in the language of liberty and individual freedoms as God-given rights. These words need and demand some context.

Especially in Black History month, we must be crystal clear that freedom from slavery is an unqualified good (tour guides on plantation museums still have to say this explicitly to tourists). Let us also be just as clear—as writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander keeps reminding us—slavery may have ended, but the racial caste system in this country has not. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, freedom is still only a dream for far too many in this country.

We might also ponder what “free” means in “free-market” capitalism when the whole system is chained to corporate shareholders demanding ever-higher profits and whether we ourselves have nearly as much “freedom” in this economic system as advertising executives would like us to believe we do.

The concept of freedom itself is indeed complex; but why would absolute freedom qualify as “terrifying”?

Just one reason among many: freedom can quickly turn into isolation and alienation, an experience of the world where the only reference point is the self. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was hiking in area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the “Emigrant Wilderness,” in terrain similar to the kind that trapped the Donner Party back in the 1840s. I knew the area fairly well but wasn’t paying the kind of attention one should when hiking in a wilderness area; I got turned around, lost my sense of direction, had no map, and could see no trail. I was in a sense utterly free and also thoroughly terrified.

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Emigrant Wildnerness, Sierra Nevada Mountains

Putting this in more positive terms, we humans are creatures who thrive on attachment, on a sense of place and community to provide an anchor in an otherwise tumultuous world; creatures who flourish, not alone, but in networks of relational loyalties and responsibilities. And let me quickly add: such networks cannot be fully duplicated online; the realm of Internet engagement is called virtual reality for a reason. (Some would argue for an important distinction between social media and online communities, but I’m not entirely persuaded by this.)

I worry that the kind of freedom praised in certain segments of American society idealizes a life without any constraint or duty; this romanticized notion of an untamed life of liberty stands in stark contrast to genuine freedom, the kind that enables us to live within proper parameters where we come most fully alive—alive to the self that is in vital relation to others and the land we all share for life.

All of this came to mind as I reflected on what many Christians heard in Church this past weekend from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 30:15-20), a book second only to Leviticus in the minds of many as an example of “legalistic religion,” or faithfulness as mere regulatory control, the Bible itself as the textual chains of constraint chafing against a glorious life of freedom.

It is truly unfortunate that the so-called “Old Testament” in the Bible has been so closely associated in the minds of many Christians with a rigid moralism and, even more sadly, with an image of an angry God. The Hebrew Bible actually offers some of the most tender images of God, the God whose heart breaks over injustice, who lures and woos the creation into loving relationship, who longs for intimacy and communion.

We might recall the context of that passage from Deuteronomy: God has liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and guided them through the wilderness for many years, and has now brought them to the brink of the “promised land.” Right there, on that brink, God gives them the law through Moses.

Notice that freedom from their life of bondage in Egypt does not mean the freedom to do whatever they please; it means instead the freedom to be in covenant with God.

The stakes are high at this juncture in the story of ancient Israel; the people have a choice to make, the choice is between blessings and curses, between life and death. “Choose life” is the repeated exhortation in this passage,  where full, thriving, flourishing life is intertwined with a conscientious observance of the Torah, of the law—an observance that binds us to each other and, as this text also makes clear, to the land itself, apart from which we simply cannot live.

Absolute freedom can indeed be absolutely terrifying, in part because we cannot know who we are apart from the others with whom we share an identity, the ones who make us who we are. And that is exactly what ancient Israel’s covenant with God was meant to foster—we cannot be who we are alone.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., declared more than fifty years ago, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It is no mere coincidence, then, that the rhetoric of absolute freedom is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and despair, increasingly self-medicated with opioids or suicide. Untethered from others, from community, from the land itself, we die.mlk_beloved_community

The stakes are just as high for the gospel writer called Matthew, from which Christians also heard on Sunday (Mt. 5:21-37). Perhaps more than the other three gospelers, Matthew will not let us separate Jesus from the religious observance of Israel.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, especially as Martin Luther framed it, many Christians think of Christian faith as a contrast between “law” and “Gospel,” or between “works righteousness” and “grace.” These contrasts aren’t wrong, but a bit too stark. Matthew’s Jesus interrupts those refrains with a bracing refrain of his own, one that should give us pause: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

That’s a really important “but” and it is not a repudiation of the law. To the contrary, each time Matthew’s Jesus offers that pairing, observing Torah suddenly becomes more difficult not less. Paraphrasing Matthew’s challenge might sound like this:

  • Do not suppose you are free of social obligations simply because you haven’t killed anyone, as if that suffices to build community—embrace instead a much deeper duty, the kind that heals anger and forgives faults.
  • Do not suppose you are living in a healthy marriage just because you haven’t had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse—recognize instead what lust actually is, the urge to own and control another human being like a commodity.
  • Do not suppose that justifying a divorce with the letter of the law releases you from caring about the welfare of your divorced partner—especially if that person is a woman in a patriarchal society.

Absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying because we truly do belong to each other—not only contractually or legally but, as it were, organically, like branches that cannot live without the vine.

I think of this whenever I gather around the Eucharistic table. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, Eucharist is about salvation and also covenant; it’s about liberation for sure, and still also obligation; it is certainly about freedom, and therefore, it is also about belonging—to God and to each other—and not just the others we like, but the ones we don’t understand, who irritate us, even those who try to thwart on our own thriving. We all belong to each other.

Quite early in Christian traditions, in the first couple of centuries, theologians wrote about salvation in terms of freedom. What God accomplishes for us in Christ, they wrote, is freedom from sin, death, and the devil—not so that we can then do whatever we please without constraint, but rather so that we can be free to serve Christ as living members of his Body.

The contrast worth pursuing here is not between “law” and “gospel,” but between a terrifying freedom and a liberating service, the kind that frees us from competition, revenge, and the corrosive effects of hate—which I take as helpful synonyms for “sin, death, and the devil.”

Table fellowship becomes ever more important in a world of increasing fragmentation—tragically disguised as “freedom”—and violent forms of tribalism—mistaken embraced as “liberty.” Eucharist instead bears witness to the hope of genuine, life-giving freedom, the kind that unites us to God-in-Christ, binds us to each other, and secures our service to this precious Earth.

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Manger Matters: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Shame

In the Christian tradition of my youth, Christmas always anticipated Good Friday and Easter. Jesus was born in order that he might die for our sins; the manger mattered, in other words, merely as a means to a greater end—the cross.

Stressing the significance of the cross is certainly not “wrong,” but I have become convinced how inadequate that one symbol is to meet the multivalent challenges of being human. The manger matters all on its own, a vital symbol of the hope we now need for the flesh—our flesh as humans, the flesh of all other animals, and the fleshy body of Earth.

Ancient storytellers remind me of this, especially in the multiple ways one can read the so-called “fall” of humanity in the opening chapters of the Bible. That classic story is not only about guilt, but just as much about bodily shame—“who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11) How one reads that ancient story shapes how one celebrates Christmas. Atonement, for example, cannot heal our bodily shame; perhaps the only thing that comes close is Incarnation, the divine embrace of the flesh that so many of us treat so casually, at best, or worse, hatefully and violently. (I wrote about this in my 2013 book, Divine Communion. I offered some Christmas reflections based on that book when it was first published.)

John’s account of the Gospel makes incarnational hope explicit, declaring that the divine Word became flesh (1:14). I’ve been wondering recently how else that particular account can become a source of healing for our shame, an assurance of God’s own solidarity with us in the flesh. John is certainly not shy about multiplying the metaphors we might use to invite bodily encounters with God; how might such an invitation shape your Christmas celebration?

For these Twelve Days of Christmas, I offer here a canticle based on the full arc of John’s account of the Word dwelling among us. I offer it with hope for the world’s healing, with prayers for divine blessings on all of God’s creatures, and as a reminder of the dearness of flesh itself, which God so tenderly cradled in a manger.

Light of the World

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Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.

That’s the Hobbit Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You need not have read the books or seen the films to appreciate that quote. Simply know that Frodo had been given an epic task many times his size—and the world’s survival depended on his success.

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Elijah Wood as Frodo in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” Gandalf responded, Frodo’s wizard companion. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide,” Gandalf declares. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What time is it, anyway? High time to wake up, take notice, pay attention?

Is it time, finally, to repent?

Haven’t we heard that before? Aren’t some of us sick of that word? Preachers, I mean, especially. How much time should this take, anyway?

Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)
Does anybody really care (care about time)
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

Those of a certain age will recognize those lyrics from a band called “Chicago.”

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

Chicago—where they broke some heat records this past summer, during this past July, the hottest month measured on Earth since records began in 1880.

“In those days…John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.”

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Anton Raphael Mengs, “St. John the Baptist in the Desert”

We always hear about that wild man in the wilderness in this second week of Advent; this year, we heard Matthew’s version (3:1-12). But what exactly does Matthew mean by “wilderness”? Are there any wild places left on this planet not contaminated by plastic? Did you know that nearly every day it rains tiny plastic particles at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, and at the top of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and likely over every mountain range on Earth?

It’s hard to know where my attention rightly belongs at a time like this, if not up there in the mountains, then maybe…

  • down here at the border, with the thousands of children separated from their parents, many in cages and put there by my government;
  • or maybe with more than a thousand incarcerated men of color fighting California wildfires for $3 a day and who are then barred from working as firefighters after their release from prison;
  • or where whales beach themselves, starving to death, their stomachs filled with plastic—presumably with whatever plastic hasn’t already rained down on pristine mountaintops.

These days are those days when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Wilderness—a place of purgation, of starting over, of being refined by fire—and who exactly is that preacher out there? Matthew says he’s the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.

Isaiah, it should be noted, had some peculiar notions about the wilderness, about wild places—where the wolf lives peaceably with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the baby goat, and the calf dwells amiably with the lion, that wacky place where bears graze with the cows (Isaiah 11:6-7).

More than a few Bible commentators quickly propose that these are really only metaphors, poetic ways of speaking, not about wolves or sheep or lions and bears, but of humans, and about that day when human warfare shall cease.

That sudden eruption of peace would be wonderful, of course. But I see no reason to shy away from reading Isaiah just as wildly as his wilderness, to let him stretch our credulity and push us beyond—far beyond—what seems polite and reasonable; after all, not everything in the Bible that sounds just a bit outlandish is only, in the end, a metaphor.

I mean this: the God who can inspire humans to beat their swords into plowshares is actually too small for a prophet like Isaiah. The God Isaiah apparently had in mind is the God who rewrites the biological scripts of predation and reweaves the very fabric of creation without any trace of violence or destruction. “No one,” he imagines this God to say, “will hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (11:9).

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John Swanson, “Peaceable Kingdom” (based on Isaiah 11)

I’m guessing this is why Paul quoted Isaiah directly, by name, in his letter to the Romans. We heard from that letter for the second Sunday of Advent, too, probably because Paul really did single out Isaiah by name. I had never noticed that before, and these days it makes perfect sense.

Perhaps only Isaiah is sufficiently outrageous for Paul, sufficiently wild with hope to qualify as a champion for Paul’s outrageous take on the Gospel. Let’s recall some of its glittering nuggets that he offers to the Romans: this is the letter in which Paul invites his readers to imagine God acting “contrary to nature” by grafting the wild branch of pagan Gentiles on to the one true tree of Israel (11:24); in which he reassures his readers that by dying with Christ, we rise (6:1-11); in which he describes the whole of God’s creation groaning with anticipation for the day of salvation (8:19-23).

This is the letter where Paul insists that nothing whatsoever can ever separate God’s creation from the love of God in Christ (8:38-39)—and this is the hope, he declares, that the scriptures (like the stuff that wild and crazy Isaiah wrote) are supposed to inspire in us (15:4), the hope which we cannot see but without which we cannot live, the hope each of us needs, desperately.

But wait. Why is hope so vital, so mission-critical?

Because without it, we could never take seriously the question Tolkien’s Gandalf poses to every generation: what will we do with the time that is given us?

In these days, in this time that has been given us, the answer to Gandalf’s question will likely be very difficult to utter much less live. It will mean the kind and depth of repentance few have ever attempted. It will mean living in radically and dramatically different ways.

It will mean tapping into hope as if our lives depended on it.

Because they do.

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“Do not be Terrified”: Hope for the Apocalypse

The situation is dire, and the future looks grim; now is the time for hope.”

Typical critiques of religious faith include complaints about rosy-colored optimism, or a kind of mass delusion. But I have been reminded recently that what is often derided as “pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking” isn’t actually outrageous enough to be biblical. It’s only when our imaginations are truly stretched and taxed, when a vision of flourishing life takes incredulity to new heights, only then are we tapping into the astonishing promises of a wildly extravagant God.

The situation is dire, and the future looks grim; now is the time for hope.”

This is not new; we’ve been here before—exactly a year ago, in fact. And the year before that. And the year before that, just as our liturgical calendar insists. As Advent approaches and the liturgical year winds down, we start hearing from so-called “apocalyptic” texts on Sunday mornings, whether from ancient prophets or gospel writers.

I refer to these as “so-called” apocalyptic texts because of the unfortunate historical baggage the word “apocalypse” drags along with it, which is most often associated with unspeakable disasters.

So let’s remember that this ancient Greek word does not demand that we think of catastrophe when we hear it. The word “apocalypse” comes from a rather ordinary Greek verb that simply means something like taking the lid off a jar—which is why it’s often translated as “revelation.” In that sense, an apocalyptic moment is whenever something that was hidden is being revealed.

So let’s consider what that word might mean when we apply it to something more momentous than a jar, like human history. Most people assume that apocalyptic texts predict the coming of disaster in the midst of relative peace and calm. Remarkably, it’s more often exactly the opposite: in the midst of unfolding disaster, apocalyptic texts reassure us that hope is not in vain; beneath the repeated surges of social collapse and violence, there dwells an unconquerable joy. Or so most apocalyptic writers try to insist.

A classic example of this is the text from Isaiah appointed for today, which is one of my favorite texts about social and economic justice as well as the end to death and destruction.

It’s important to remember that the several writers who contributed to the one book called Isaiah did not, for the most part, live in happy times. To the contrary, many of the texts in Isaiah were produced following the unimaginable catastrophe of exile, of seeing God’s own people defeated by invading armies and carted away from their homes to a foreign land where they would reside for many generations.

And yet, and still Isaiah writes of hope in soaring terms, not because of what he was at that time able to see, but because of his trust in the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness, not ours, that makes all the difference for hope. And Isaiah imagines such divine faithfulness to sound like this:

I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating…
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight (65:17-19)

The situation is dire, and the future looks grim; now is the time for hope.”

A friend of mine said that to a small gathering of bishops a few years ago, and they seemed very perplexed by it. Even religious leaders can have trouble grasping the dynamics of hope in times of distress. Luke’s Jesus seems to be noting something similar in the hair-raising passage appointed for this day (21:5-19).

As Jesus enumerates impending disasters and world-ending scenarios, he points toward the one thing his listeners thought would be the most stable and secure, the one location of divine guarantee—the temple in Jerusalem. Even this, Jesus says, will be deconstructed and dismantled, every single stone of it.stones_israel

I read Luke’s Jesus in the light of Isaiah’s resilient hope: something old needs to die before the new thing God is creating can come about.

Letting go, clearing space, removing the rubble—even the most cherished bits of rubble—this is what faith sometimes demands when we live in hope.

But I’m also noticing something else in this gospel passage that I hadn’t quite noticed before. Luke’s Jesus says, “do not be terrified.” Most of us, I’m guessing, are more accustomed to hearing Jesus say, “don’t be afraid.” The stakes seem to have gotten much higher in this passage, traveling from ordinary fear to sheer terror.

As I pondered what that difference looks like, I thought about the high school in Santa Clarita, in southern California, the site of the latest incident of gun violence where three students died, including the shooter (he was a student, too), and I thought about how many students go to school every day in this country whose ambient fear can quickly turn into terror.

I also thought about all the young children separated from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico—some of them not much older more than infants. The latest count at the end of last month was a staggering 5,400 (though some agencies suspect the number is much higher). Terror must surely saturate those detention centers at the border, wounding and scarring not only the children being held there but all the adults who work there.

As if this were not enough, I was reading about the devastating brush fires in Australia, still burning out of control, and I came across a story of people helping kangaroos, possums, and koala bears who had been singed or badly burned in the fires; these are wild animals yet very readily and apparently gratefully accepted help from humans, even embracing them. The clinical director of the only koala hospital in the world summed up why: “[These koalas] are terrified.”

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It turns out that the Greek word for “terrified” can also be translated as “startled” and it appears only twice in the gospel according to Luke: the first time in the apocalyptic passage appointed for today, and the second time in a story about resurrection, about encountering the risen Jesus. Stories of resurrection are also apocalyptic and startling—stories that reveal the stubborn persistence of life beneath the shroud of death.

We will continue to have good reasons to be terrified, perhaps increasingly so as ecosystems falter and previously secure institutions collapse. So it seems to me that what we Christians do in churches will matter more and more.

Gathered at the Eucharistic Table, we can remember the faithfulness of God, the God who startles us by bringing life out of death. We might also remember the possums, the kangaroos, and the koalas.

Why? Because in times of distress and terror, it’s quite natural for human communities to divide and fragment and splinter; some unsavory types will almost always exploit those moments for their own gain, as we see today in detention centers and concerning gun violence.

We must bear witness to another way, the way of deep solidarity. Just as possums, kangaroos, and koalas reached across the species barrier to embrace their rescuers, we must learn anew how to reach across the many lines that divide us from each other; that, too, is what the Eucharistic Table offers. And we will need this more and more.

After all, the situation is dire and the future looks grim; now, now is the time for hope.

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Nevertheless: An Earth-Day Easter

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead for multiple reasons. Among those reasons: it reminds me and helps me to look everywhere around me and inside me for the God who perpetually brings forth new life from death and decay. Or put in another way, Easter urges me always to hold on to the hope of new life, especially when despair seems easier.

Biblical writers offered this reminder constantly and not only with reference to the first Easter. Nearly every story in the Bible turns on the “Great Nevertheless.” Joseph was left for dead and sold into slavery; nevertheless, he prospered in Pharaoh’s household and saved the land from famine. Abraham and Sarah were far too old to have children of their own; nevertheless, Sarah bore Isaac, the firstborn of a mighty nation; the people of Israel languished as slaves in Egypt; nevertheless, God raised up Moses to lead them into freedom; Jesus was crucified and killed by the Roman Empire; nevertheless, God raised him from the dead as the first fruits of an unimaginable process of renewal and new life for the whole creation.

That’s just a short list of the many biblical stories that invite us to hope when hope seems in desperately short supply. On this Earth Day which is also Easter, I confess to finding it difficult to hold on to hope for this dear planet of God’s wondrous creation. Nearly every day, it seems, a new report emerges about how much worse our climate change catastrophe actually is—faster temperature increases; worsening CO2 emissions; sea levels rising more quickly; still more species disappearing; extreme weather events as the new normal. Despair seems not only easier than hope but more reasonable.

Right there is at least one reason to keep telling the Easter story year after year: in a world where despair seems the most reasonable course, we need to remember that God has entered the story with us, showing up among the most familiar characters, plunging into the classic plotlines as one of us, and healing our despair with a love that is stronger than death.

On this Earth Day Easter, I choose to give my heart to that story (the original meaning of that ancient Germanic verb “to believe””) and to look for Easter hope in a world of despair. Here are just three places to find that hope. There are many more! Let’s spend these great fifty days of the Easter season sharing these stories with each other and renewing our Easter commitment to Earth.

Plastic
I began the season of Lent trying to come to grips with the problem of single-use plastic. And it’s a huge problem. We simply must stop using it and making it. The good news: cleanup is possible, as a remarkable story from an Indian beach can remind us.

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Before and After: Versova Beach in Mumbai

 

Deforestation
Forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate on this planet, at exactly a time when we need more forests to scrub the air and deal with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The good news: reforestation is possible! The story of New England’s once decimated forests, now nearly restored after 150 years, is a great story of Easter hope.

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Before and After: Deforestation and Reforestation in New England

 

Species Extinction
I was shocked and dismayed last year to realize that we are losing between 150 and 200 species every day on this planet, which is a rate much higher than would be true if our species weren’t around. The good news: intentional care and action can bring a species back from the brink and into thriving.

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Humpback Whales have made a comeback from the edge of extinction.

Our current climate change crisis is indeed a planetary emergency; we must treat it as such and act accordingly. And on this Easter Day devoted to the Great Nevertheless, let us act with joyful hope. God is with us in this story, and Christ is risen.

Alleluia!

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Holy Saturday: Rest, Reparations, and Hope for Earth

In some Christian traditions, Jesus spent the day between Good Friday and Easter busily harrowing Hell, toppling its gates and freeing all the dead who were dwelling there from ages past. This is the divine version of “no child left behind” but for every human, and I would now revise this to mean “no creature left behind.” The whole creation finds healing and liberation in the unfathomable mystery of Easter.

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“Harrowing of Hell” (Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1490)

But here we still live, in that great liminal day between imperial crucifixion and the divine burst of new life. If Jesus were to harrow Hell today, he wouldn’t have to travel very far from where most of us live—next to toxic waste dumps, petroleum refineries, poisoned water supplies, landfills brimming with plastic. Earth herself needs to rest, to recover, to repair.

Is it time to ponder reparations for the planet?

I fully support reparations for the descendants of African slaves in this country, and for indigenous tribes decimated by American genocide, and for many others as well. Perhaps now is the time to add Earth to that list, to offer this planet a reprieve from the daily torture we inflict on her ecosystems and many creatures, some space and time to repair and renew.

This is of course impossible; we cannot simply stop doing what we’re doing, not even for a day let alone what is more genuinely needed—at least a whole year. Impossible at first blush, perhaps, but not after a moment’s recollection of how quickly the world’s wealthy pledged astonishing amounts of money to fix Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It’s time they stepped up again, acknowledged that their wealth came in large measure from raping the planet, and chip in some reparations.

In 2018, the world had 2,208 billionaires with a combined net worth of approximately $9.1 trillion. If we created a planetary reparations fund and demanded a simple tithe from those wealthy folks, we would have quite a tidy little sum to get us started on what is now necessary: stopping most human activity and resting; the fund could go toward ensuring certain vital services remain operating and that people are fed while the planet rests, resets, repairs.

Holy Saturday is the perfect day on which to contemplate such a harrowing idea as we dare to hope for resurrection. It is a good day, perhaps, to plumb the depths of God’s grace, to journey with Jesus to the roots of our distress and resurface with hope.

I’m grateful for theologian Elizabeth Johnson and her elegant, eloquent words for precisely that hope. May her words accompany us into the blazing light of a deep resurrection, and inspire a renewed commitment to this planet, our shared homeland:

In our day we discover that the great incomprehensible mystery of God, utterly transcendent and beyond the world, is also the dynamic power at the heart of the natural world and its evolution. Groaning with the world, delighting in its advance, keeping faith with its failures, energizing it graciously from within, the Creator Spirit is with all creatures in their finitude and death, holding them in redemptive love and drawing them into an unforeseeable future in the divine life of communion (Quest for the Living God, 198).

Late afternoon at the regional park

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The Stupendously Superlative and Truly Amazing Grace of Ordinary Water

Living in California, I have come to appreciate rain in ways I never imagined I would back in my Midwestern childhood. The first rain of the season here after a long, dry summer is especially astonishing. As a friend of mine often says on that day, the rain feels like a shower of divine grace falling from the courts of heaven itself.rain_children

This past Sunday, Western Christians celebrated the baptism of Jesus, as we always do the Sunday after the Epiphany. Prompted by the biblical texts appointed this year, the day seemed devoted more generally to water.

Water is probably the most remarkable substance that can so easily be taken for granted. Without water, life itself as we know it would be impossible. Too much of it, and life itself is in jeopardy. A dramatic example of the latter happened just before Christmas Day, when a tsunami crashed unexpectedly through parts of Indonesia, killing hundreds of people.

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2016 Tsunami in Japan

As someone who enjoys wading through gentle surf on sandy beaches, I’m often startled by such reminders of how destructive water can be. One cubic yard of water—think of a box that measures three feet on each side—one cubic yard of water weighs just short of 1,700 pounds. Now imagine a tsunami wave rushing ashore with millions and millions of cubic yards of water. As one journalist suggested, we ought to imagine such a moment as row after row of armored tanks rolling over the land at fifty miles per hour.

Perhaps this is why the Psalmist compares the very voice of God to the sound of thundering waters (Ps. 29). That ancient poet would have us imagine the divine voice breaking the cedar trees of Lebanon, shaking the wilderness, making oak trees writhe, and stripping forests bare—not unlike what happened on the shores of those Indonesian islands.

Perhaps this, too, is why the biblical prophet Isaiah offered reassurances about God’s presence when we “pass through the waters”—that’s a way to describe tides of trouble, the depths of dread, a flood of despair. “When you pass through such rivers,” Isaiah declares, the God who formed you will be with you (Isaiah 43:1-7).

These are some good reasons to celebrate the baptism of Jesus, a profound image of divine solidarity, almost as easy to skip past and take for granted as water itself. There Jesus stands in the river Jordan, an incarnation of the great reassurance from Isaiah that God is indeed with us as we “pass through the waters.”

Jesus stands there, baptized by his cousin John in intimate closeness, and I keep thinking about water, its softness and sweetness, as well as its harshness and saltiness, and especially how utterly ordinary water is and still so vital and essential for life itself.

Reflecting this way on water—how it is both so ordinary and so remarkable at the same time—I wonder if this isn’t part of the problem so many people have with religion these days. I mean, how frequently religion is perceived as separate and distinct from the daily routine of everyday life, or more severely, as thoroughly irrelevant for how regular people live—in our homes, working at the office, playing with friends.

Many religious traditions, including Christianity, have unfortunately earned that reputation of exotic remoteness. But religion’s distance collapses pretty quickly in the ancient story about the baptism of Jesus, this year from Luke’s account of the gospel (Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22): water, a river bank, close friends (cousins), intimate touch, a beautiful dove—all this ordinary stuff of everyday life becomes an occasion for divine encounter.

Or as our Christian siblings in Eastern Orthodox traditions would say, these ordinary moments become moments of theophany—visible manifestations of God’s presence, not with neon lights or fireworks, but with stuff you could literally trip over or fall into on any regular, ordinary day.

Eastern Orthodox Christians mark and celebrate Epiphany in some wonderfully peculiar ways, including the “Great Blessing of Waters,” which sometimes means a whole lake or a river but in any case and at the very least blessing vast tubs of it.

Orthodox Christians most often bless themselves with holy water by actually drinking it, so they keep plenty of the stuff around their homes. They might drink a small amount every day with their morning prayers, or bless their children with it before they leave for school. They sometimes put a little bit of that blessed water in their food when they’re cooking.

Clearly, separating religious practice from everyday life would make no sense at all in these Orthodox households, and this is precisely because of what happened in the waters of the river Jordan so long ago. As God incarnate, Jesus was baptized not for the forgiveness of sins but to bless the water, to reveal its sacred character, to demonstrate the depths of divine presence in the material fabric of God’s creative work.

In the weeks following the Great Blessing of Waters, Orthodox priests typically visit all the members of the parish to bless homes, families, and any companion animals that live with them, sprinkling all of them with that blessed water—a visible, tangible weaving together of the human and the divine, the earthly and heavenly, the deeply mysterious and the routinely ordinary.

I’m especially taken with how Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware writes about this:

What we are doing at each celebration of Epiphany, at every Blessing of the Waters, is to reaffirm our sense of wonder before the essential goodness and beauty of the world, as originally created by God and as now recreated in Christ. Nothing is intrinsically ugly or despicable… The Great Blessing of the Waters is in this way a proclamation that the universe around us is not a chaos but a cosmos. There is glory in everything; this is a world full of wonder (The Inner Kingdom, p. 71).

More than just “taken” with that view, I am so very grateful for it these days when our political discourse does seem to me irredeemably ugly, and when (I must confess) I think of some of my fellow human beings as utterly despicable, and when I can see only the whirl of chaos we ourselves have created and forget so easily the essential goodness and beauty of the world that God has created.

One of the many reasons why religion still matters, and why there baptismal fonts in churches, and why Christians gather around a table of a shared meal week after week is not because it’s only in churches that the infinite mystery of the Living God is made visible and tangible. To the contrary, all the religious stuff in officially designated holy spaces is meant to remind us that all of our everyday stuff carries the potential to knock of us off our feet with God’s presence—if only we would notice, see, listen, touch.

The renowned rabbi and theologian of Jewish traditions Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the same point:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual,” he says, “is to be amazed (for more on this approach to spirituality, go here).

Reading that insight from Heschel, I can’t help but think of my Australian shepherd dog Judah. I’m thinking especially of the beach in Marin County where he loves to play in the water. We’ve been there dozens of times and he never grows tired of it.

I know he remembers the place well; he whines and whimpers and scratches at the rear car door as soon as we pull off the highway and start heading toward the coast. He knows exactly where we’re going, and every time he acts like it’s the first time he’s ever been there.

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Judah at Rodeo Beach

I watch him run and gallop and bark and yip and frolic in the surf as he chases seagulls—again and again he chases them as we grows ever more salty, sandy, foamy, and gloriously wet. For him, everything is phenomenal; for him, everything is incredible; for him, that beach is a theophany, a visible, tangible manifestation of divine delight. And for me, his wiggling, panting body is likewise a theophany of divine joy.

I also can’t help but think of the priestly ministry of Este Gardner, the vicar at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, where I have been privileged to worship for more than twenty years. One of the many things I have come to appreciate about Este is her use of superlatives.

I admit that I was a bit perplexed by this when Este first arrived to Good Shepherd. Can absolutely everything, I wondered, really be astonishing and gorgeous and stunning and spectacular as she often likes to say?

Yes, I realized, yes it can, especially if we insist on treating the ordinary as occasions for amazement, exactly as Rabbi Heschel proposed.

Exactly as the voice from heaven declared when Jesus was baptized.

Exactly as Christians remember at the Eucharistic table every week, as God presents God’s own self to us in the ordinary stuff of bread and wine.

As all of us at Good Shepherd bid Este farewell in her impending retirement, I’m not only grateful for the grace of the Eucharistic table; I’m also grateful for Este’s reminder that the grace is indeed stupendously amazing.

bread_wine

 

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Christmas Eve and the Creaturely Flesh of God

The baby Jesus was human. More importantly still, an animal.

Most English speakers use the word “animal” for something other than human. But of course, we humans are animals, too. The Latin word anima simply means “breath.” Whatever is breathing is an animal.

This matters for the Twelve Days of Christmas, a season to celebrate God’s intimate embrace of creaturely flesh, and it matters on a planet in the throes of an ecological crisis. Christmas matters as a celebration of God’s solidarity with the whole of God’s creation and not only humans.

The Gospel according to John points us in this direction by insisting that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14). As theologian David Clough notes, the key Greek word in that verse is not anthropos (human) but sarx (flesh), which is used elsewhere in the Christian Testament of the Bible as an inclusive term for all living things, just as writers in the Hebrew Bible used “flesh” to evoke the whole of God’s living creation.

Clough goes on to argue that the foundational Christian claim concerning the incarnation, therefore, “is not that God became a member of the species Homo sapiens, but that God took on flesh, the stuff of living creatures.”

More pointedly, Christianity does not offer an escape hatch from the material world of the flesh, as if all the gloriously messy realities of embodied life are sinful or evil (as the Christian tradition of my youth seemed to suggest). Christian faith invites instead a thoroughly materialistic spirituality.

Appreciating the material world not merely as a grand “stage” on which the human-divine drama plays out but as the location of divine encounter and the vehicle of divine grace has profound implications for how we treat all animals, human or otherwise.

We could begin by noting the mind-numbing scope of animal consumption. Conservative estimates suggest that 56 billion farmed land animals are slaughtered every year on this planet for food. That’s roughly 153 million every day, or 6 million every hour, or 106,000 every minute. These figures do not include marine animals or animals killed for sport or who die in zoos, circuses, and municipal shelters.factory_farm

(For the latest figures on animal consumption, see the online animal kill counter here, and the Animal Equality site for conditions on factory farms, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For resources on protecting the welfare of farmed animals, see CreatureKind, founded by David Clough).

How we treat other animals—whether in factory farms or on exotic hunting safaris—has a direct bearing on how we treat other humans. Feminist scholar Carol Adams noted back in the 1990s the correlation between how meat for consumption is packaged and how women’s bodies are similarly “packaged” in popular culture. Historian Thomas Laqueur analyzed early modern approaches to human sexuality that compared the “brutish” sexual acts of other animals to the “lower classes” of Europe. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas urges us to notice how white supremacy is maintained, in part, through the hyper-sexualization and thus “animalization” of black women and men. And these are but recent examples in a long history of dehumanizing through animalizing, as nearly every human society has done to its enemies before going to war with them.

Meanwhile, as the Apostle Paul insisted nearly 2,000 years ago, the whole creation is groaning with anticipation for the coming day of salvation (Rom. 8:19-23). Christmas marks the dawning of that eager hope, and other-than-human animals were most likely among the first witnesses of that glorious dawn.

The former Episcopal bishop of Alaska, Steve Charleston, offers an elegant reminder of that most holy night when the Word of God became creaturely flesh and of the animals (human and otherwise) who bore hopeful witness:

Now, on this day, all the animals turn, wherever they are, and look toward that place, that one place, where long ago they gathered, drawn by a wordless summons, to see the future of creation born, lying in straw, a sleeping hope, nestled safely among them. The animals know that this is the eve, the beginning. They sense the great cycle of sacred time, they know the meaning of the change to come. Now, on this day, on this eve of everything, they make ready the welcome they have prepared, since before the star above them first appeared, set alight by an unseen hand.

Kiss your spouse, hug a friend, pet your dog or cat—celebrate the flesh on this most holy night. And let us commit during these twelve days of Christmas to change the way we live with all other animals.nativity_animals_3

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María and José: A Christmas Story of Divine Solidarity

The story is worth telling again, every year, for the good news of divine solidarity. I mean God’s solidarity with all of us, and especially with the most vulnerable, the fearful and insecure, the terrified and lonely ones.

Biblical writers offer more than one way to tell this story, which I take as an invitation to keep retelling it in fresh ways so that we can hear it, and upon truly hearing it, to live differently, and by our living, to glorify God.

However we tell and retell the story, Luke would urge us to remember that Jesus was born in an occupied province of the Roman Empire (Lk 2:1-2). We must tell this story, in other words, with politics, and economics, and the environment in view, and whatever else shapes the bodily conditions of God’s beloved creation, including today’s unprecedented wave of global migration (read about that here and here) as both humans and other animals move and flee toward survival.

It doesn’t matter whether the first century figures of Mary and Joseph qualify exactly as “refugees” in the modern sense. What does matter is the God revealed in their story is the God who is always in solidarity with the migrant poor, the lost and outcast, and the violently oppressed. This is the God who inspired Matthew to refer to Jesus as Emmanuel (“God with us”), and John to claim that the divine Word became flesh, and Luke to write about shepherds–the working poor of the first century–startled by a host of angels.

I’m grateful to Todd Atkins-Whitley, a friend and recent graduate of Pacific School of Religion, who retells Luke’s version of the Nativity with the refugees at the U.S./Mexico border fully in view. I heard the good news of God’s solidarity in fresh ways by reading Todd’s inspired retelling. With his permission, I offer it here and commend it to our shared Christmas contemplation and sacred, incarnational activism:

The Nativity According to Luke (2:1-20), Adapted at the Border

In those days, a decree went out from the Attorney General  that domestic violence and gang violence would no longer be considered grounds for asylum and a proclamation went out from the President that denied asylum to migrants seeking refuge through alternate means of entry. These were not the first restrictions on migration issued by various men who served as president of the United States.

Multitudes fled their own towns of origin to seek asylum. José also went from the town of San Salvador in El Salvador to the port of entry at the southernmost border called Tijuana because gangs had threatened to kill his family if he did not pay them. He went to seek asylum with María, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

While they were there, the border crossing was closed and border patrol agents fired tear gas canisters at them, throwing María into premature labor. And she gave birth to her firstborn son in a tent in a make-shift camp inside an abandoned municipal sports complex and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a crate, because there was simply no place for them to go in either country.

In that region there were women working in the maquiladoras, making electronics by day and night for foreign-owned companies seeking cheap labor and lax environmental laws. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of the God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of Tijuana a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a crate.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “¡Gloria a Dios en el cielo más alto, y en la tierra paz entre los que él favorece!

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the maquiladora workers said to one another, “Let us go now to the Benito Juarez Sports Complex and see this thing that has taken place, which God has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found María and José, and the child lying in the crate. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the maquiladora workers told them.

But María treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

The maquiladora workers returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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