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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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Pentecost Matters: Convenience is Killing Us and Recycling Won’t Save Us

I found Lent rather harrowing this year, and these fifty days of Easter now coming to a close frequently sobering, with the long post-Pentecost “green season” looming in California as a mostly brown and brittle time, punctuated with wild-fire anxiety.

In fact, we’re expecting our first heat wave of the season this weekend, with the Day of Pentecost itself breaking the 100-degree mark; the National Weather Service has issued its first “red flag warning” of the year—a dismaying reflection of the color for this liturgical feast day.

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Political discourse and national policies have been setting many of us on edge for some time, not least for the gut-wrenching treatment of migrants and their children at the U.S. border with Mexico. This would have sufficed to bathe our liturgical patterns with unease, but these distressing moments have unfolded in the crucible of a planetary emergency I can scarcely comprehend.

A short list of that emergency’s features: living in the midst of this planet’s sixth great extinction event, which we ourselves have caused; an alarming range of foods and beverages testing positive for the carcinogenic compound glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup (even organic foods are not safe given the porous character of farming boundaries and “forever chemicals” lacing everything we touch); dozens of dead whales washing up on the western shores of the U.S., starving from lack of food or with their bellies filled with our plastic waste; otherwise pristine environments littered with micro-plastics (from the sea creatures at the deepest part of the deepest ocean trench to the crisp mountain terrain of the Pyrenees where it actually rains plastic).whale_air

I used to take some modest comfort when confronting these vexations by following an assiduous regimen of recycling; this too has collapsed toward the brink of despair—what we thought can be recycled efficiently, can’t; and what could be, no longer is. China’s refusal to take any more American trash and deal with our steady stream of barges bulging with “recyclables” simply revealed a nasty truth about Western approaches to “ecological management”: There is no way to live with the many conveniences we now enjoy without also damaging and, indeed, killing the very ecosystems that give us life.

That bears repeating: We can no longer live the way we do, and this will be profoundly inconvenient (a word, as Al Gore reminded us, that the modern West finds terribly distasteful).

The global juggernaut known as Capitalism lies at the root of this distress, but this means much more than dealing with questions of “free trade” or shareholder value. Scholar and journalist James Dyke aptly describes the situation like this:

Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere, the size, scale and power of which has dramatically grown since World War II… The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow…

The stark and grim reality of the “technosphere” is the depth of change now required to dismantle it; “conservation” is not enough and recycling will not save us. That is precisely the insight that shaped my Lenten discipline as I tried desperately to rid my daily life of single-use plastic and mostly failed. Achieving that goal would mean changing dramatically the way I live. And, frankly, I found this too difficult.

My longstanding attempt for quick-and-easy solutions to ecological disaster repeats a similar (and equally ill-founded) way to manage the sickening shock of crucifixion and death. Quite frequently in my life, whenever Easter arrived on the calendar, my spiritual temperature registered relief more than life-changing astonishment:

Whew! We sure dodged that bullet! Great to have you back, Jesus. Now, let’s pick up where we left off.

This is, of course, the very same posture Luke imagined the first disciples of Jesus to adopt in that first Easter season. Encountering the risen Jesus, they ask of him: “Is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) To which Jesus replies (patiently, I trust) with something like this: “No. This isn’t about going back or staying put; it’s about moving forward. It’s about something New.”

The great proclamation of Easter is not about restoration but rather resurrection, which is not a confirmation of what has been but rather a transformation who we are. This is what the flame-drenched outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost ought to signal—not the fortitude to keep living exactly the way we have before, but burning away the old to make room for a brand new kind of existence.

Pentecost matters—and by extension, the whole of the Church year—in large measure because of the reminders of hope scattered throughout its calendrical rhythms. More than this, for the sustenance needed to live with hope at all. I mean still more by evoking what matters for Pentecost, or the matter of Pentecost itself.

The celebration of the Holy Spirit has too often drifted toward the ethereal and immaterial, especially in the modern West, where the word “spiritual” carries with it at least a suspicion of the “physical.” That suspicion stands in stark contrast to how many of our ancestors in Christian traditions understood the presence of the Holy Spirit—a physical manifestation of a material reality, one that quite literally infuses our bodies, circulates through our arteries and remakes us (among others, see Dale Martin’s work on this).

Right there is where the hope I need resides, in the divine embrace of the bodily and physical announced at Christmas, marked during Epiphany, tested throughout Lent, and raised to new glory at Easter; it is the essence of marking the season of Pentecost with the color green–the living, breathing, animating presence of God on and in Earth.

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This is not, to be clear, a hope that enables any passivity on my part, as if I can simply wait for God to fix the mess our species has made of God’s dear and precious Earth. It does mean that the transformation this planet now desperately needs is made possible at all by what Elizabeth Johnson compellingly describes as the “deep incarnation” of the Divine Word and the “deep resurrection” of life inaugurated at Easter. God’s creative and redeeming presence, in other words, runs “all the way down” into the deepest depths of God’s creation, to the cellular, atomic level.

That “great work” of God, the healing of our bodies and the body of Earth together, is the work to which the Holy Spirit calls us to join and encourages us to imagine and equips us to do. It is a call, and it does take courage, and we need help, because it will mean a complete and utter transformation of how we live.

Modern (Western) convenience is literally killing us and the planet. Recycling will not save us from this catastrophe, but conversion will, to use an old fashioned word that deserves a comeback.

If the “miracle” of the first Pentecost was the ability to speak in languages one had never learned to speak, then the equally miraculous Pentecostal moment we must pray for today is the ability to live in ways the modern West has not trained us to imagine—in a word, inconveniently.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Remember That You Are Dust (and Plastic)

Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin is given some career advice in the 1967 film “The Graduate” with a line that is ranked #42 in the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.

Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin that he wants to “say one word” to him, “just one word.” He asks Benjamin whether he’s listening, and Benjamin replies, “Yes, I am.” And Mr. McGuire utters the now famous, one-word line:

Plastics.”

He then adds, “there’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Actually, I can’t stop thinking about it, and not for the rosy future Mr. McGuire apparently imagined for this now ubiquitous petroleum and natural-gas by-product. I’ve been thinking about whether there’s anywhere, any possible place at all that I can turn to and not see something made from plastic, and I’ve been thinking that a greener, plastic-free Earth needs to take center stage in my devotions and commitments during these forty days of Lent.

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Surfing through garbage in Indonesia (2013)

Lest anyone think “ubiquitous” verges on the melodramatic or even just moderately overstated, consider the following short list of why this stuff really is everywhere (even where we, as a species, are not) and why it deserves crisis-level attention this Lenten season and long after.

  • Consider first the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch—there isn’t one, contrary to what you have likely heard and read. But there are many such patches. And that makes it worse than even having that one great big one to worry about. The garbage in these migrating patches (the largest of which is now double the size of Texas) is mostly invisible to the naked eye (plastics that have become translucent or very, very small) but still can be ingested, and regularly is, by marine life, causing choking, starvation, and other impairments. Current projections suggest that by 2050 there will be more plastic materials by weight in Earth’s oceans than fish. By 2050—that used to sound like a long way off; it’s only 31 years away.
  • Consider next something a bit less abstract, like a whale. Last summer, a pilot whale died in a Thailand canal and was found to have 80 pieces of plastic (weighing 17 pounds) in its stomach, which interrupted the whale’s ability to hunt for food; during course of being treated by marine biologists in their efforts to save her, the whale spit up five plastic bags. (That’s only one among several recent stories in the news about whales and their plastic-lined guts.)
  • Or consider where no human has ever been, some of the deepest trenches at the bottom of our oceans. Just recently it was discovered that the tiny creatures living in those trenches are—as you might have guessed—stuffed with bits of plastic. Eighty (80) percent of the small crustaceans collected for one such study had plastic fibers lining their digestive systems. Another study conducted in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific (with a maximum known depth of 36,000 feet, or nearly seven miles) showed a shocking 100 percent of all the crustaceans collected had ingested considerable amounts of plastic.
  • Plastic is so ubiquitous that we ourselves are now apparently ingesting it regularly without realizing it and without anyone yet having any idea what this is doing to our health. Small-scale trials recently showed traces of plastic lining the digestive systems of the humans studied. We’re ingesting the stuff perhaps by eating seafood that had eaten the plastic stuff we had thrown out earlier, or from tiny plastic particles that float through the air nearly everywhere (did you know that?) and just happen to land on our food, or from the bits of the stuff that slough off from the inside of our plastic water bottles.

Christians on Ash Wednesday are reminded that we human beings are made from dust; perhaps we must now revise that liturgical wake-up call to include plastic.

Perhaps, but if so, I refuse despair. The hour is late but not spent, and we need to tell stories of hope—like this great 2018 story of an Indian beach painstakingly cleaned up and restored for a sea turtle hatchery.plastic_beach_cleanup

I invite you to join me in observing a hopeful and green-oriented Lent by brainstorming with me how to address our crisis of plastics. There won’t be just one solution and we can’t focus on just a single sector (whether public or private, households or industry). We need multiple solutions for every single aspect of our shared and individual lives on a planet this is quite literally drowning in plastic.

I’ll post some ideas here in this blog space. Please post your own in the comments, or find me on Facebook and post them there on my timeline. Let’s share resources, make a list, tell success stories, invite new ideas—let’s make every season of the church year green.

Meanwhile, let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create in us hearts that grieve what we have done to the beauty of your creation, that we, worthily lamenting the epidemic of plastic waste, may obtain from you the inspiration we need to help restore Earth and her creatures to health and vitality; in the name of Jesus, your creative Word in the flesh. Amen.

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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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Hearing a Dog, Seeing a Human: Crossing a Border with Jesus

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped…”

I kept returning to those words from Isaiah (35:6) as I prepared to preach on a set of challenging biblical texts this week.

Reflecting on that prophetic promise, it occurred to me that there are some things we actually do not want to hear very clearly or that we wish he had never seen at all.

It has been troubling, to say the least, to hear overt forms of racism in this country the last eighteen months, both on our city streets and at the highest levels of government. Even more distressing in some respects is to see with greater clarity how those eruptions of ire tap into a long tradition of racial bias, a corrosive thread running throughout American history.

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White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, 2017

A hair-raising account of this appeared just recently in the New York Times. There I learned about Charles Henry Pearson, an Australian academic of the late nineteenth century, who warned that white men would soon be thrust aside by black and yellow races. He urged a concerted effort to defend particular parts of the world against such encroachments so that the “higher races” can live and increase freely, for the sake of their “higher civilization.”

I was dismayed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was rather fond of Pearson’s work, and was actually in communication with Pearson, assuring him of the “great effect” Pearson’s defense of the white race was having on “all our men here in Washington.”

Dismayed and then disgusted by the reminder of Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet,” a posture that led W. E. B. DuBois, in those early decades of the twentieth century, to describe the emergence of what he called “the new religion of whiteness.”

I read that piece from the Times while thinking about the passage many Christians heard this week from the letter of James (2:1-17). Quite frankly, I’ve been never been a fan of that biblical letter, and I often agree with Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer who apparently wanted to rip James out of the Bible entirely. But I read James differently this past week, perhaps like I’ve never read him before.

As you may know, those who have trouble with the Letter of James usually complain about not finding any grace in it. That was Luther’s objection, or what’s called “works righteousness,” the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works. But I don’t think James had anything like that in mind.

To the contrary, James is not the one denying divine grace in this letter; it’s those he writes about, the ones who treat the rich and powerful as if they are better than the poor and weak—they are the ones who deny grace. Those who play favorites, make distinctions, show partiality—they are the ones who fail to live their faith. Your faith might as well be dead, James writes, if you don’t treat everyone as equally graced by God, equally loved.

James pushed me this week to ponder favoritism itself, its corrosive, even violent effects, and how it manifests in the notion of “higher races.”

Why do human beings do this? Not all of us make such gross distinctions, of course, at least not publicly, but many do and it would seem many more are increasingly willing to do so openly. But why? Why classify and categorize and make such harmful distinctions?

At least one among many possible reasons occurs to me: we don’t really believe in grace.

Deep down many are convinced—because most of us were taught—that love and affection, even dignity and self-worth must be earned, and earned, and earned yet again.

For some, the fear of not measuring up can make the idea of a superior race seem quite attractive indeed—especially if you yourself could belong to that superior race, just by being born.

I am not proposing a singular origin for racism, nor a simple cause-and-effect mechanism for the complexities of white supremacy. I am, however, urging Christians to consider these cultural dynamics in the context of our faith. Just as James, I believe, would urge us to do.

In a world that is constantly forming us in the fear of unworthiness, shaping us with the anxiety over inferiority, dividing us—often violently—between the chosen and the damned, we need continually to be re-formed by love, nourished by a feast of divine grace.

Perhaps Mark’s Jesus can help (Mk 7:24-37). I mean, the Jesus who called a foreign woman a “dog.”

Let me quickly note that I, personally, do not consider it an insult to be compared with a canine. Given the types of human behavior we see displayed daily in the news, I would be quite happy to be thought of as dog-like.

That said, the current occupant of the White House has made clear on Twitter that “dog” is definitely not a compliment, especially when applied to women of color. The same could and should be noted about this nameless Syrophoenician woman in Mark who begs Jesus to heal her likewise nameless daughter, a woman who is compared to a dog begging for scraps of food.

Note the details with which Mark describes this scene. It takes place in the region near Tyre, a city well north of Jerusalem, farther north than the Galilee, definitely not a purely Jewish city, but one with deep Hellenistic influences. “Phoenician” names that region more particularly, and the “Syro-” marks the even larger region of Syria.

Mark is evoking a long history of land being carved up by various empires and kings, a history marked with border disputes, conquest, animosity, and violence.

syrophoenician_womanAnd then—as if this were not obvious—Mark notes that this Syrophoenician woman was a “Gentile,” or a better translation might be simply “Greek.” Not Jewish, in other words.

Sounds to me like a postmodern hybridized identity forged in the crucible of an occupying imperial force residing on contested borders with all sorts of socio-political intrigue and religious anxiety. This ancient text could have been ripped from the pages of the New York Times!

Even more so if we add a bit of economic class to this mix. Typical portrayals of this woman resemble a peasant, or someone at least lower in socio-economic status than Jesus. One biblical commentator, however, has argued against that usual grain of interpretation, suggesting instead that this unnamed woman could have been of significant means.

The combination of the proximity to Tyre and her Syrophoenician ancestry recalls the story of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah in the first book of Kings. There we read about Jezebel, a Phoenician princess condemned to be eaten by dogs—which puts a rather unsavory spin on those scraps falling from the master’s table.

In short, Jesus and this woman occupied vastly different spheres, worlds apart, and this difference was laden with value. Mark makes this clear by tossing in that reference to dogs—the difference between Jesus and this woman is as vast as that between species.

We can recognize these dynamics quite easily by looking to the U.S. border with Mexico, where children of asylum seekers are housed in cages.

Perhaps the point is made best by noting that this woman doesn’t even have a name; she’s a geopolitical marker, an ethnic designation, a gendered manifestation of religious rivalry.

Borders convert human beings into categories—silenced and invisible.

Even Jesus needed some time to hear this woman clearly, to hear and see the human behind the border.

But he did hear her, eventually, and her daughter was healed.

It’s not just accidental, a bit of random chronology that leads Mark to place another story of healing right after this story of a nameless, foreign woman. Whatever divides us, fragments us, keeps us from hearing the grace of God—all of this wounds us, individually and collectively. And we, just like the man Jesus encountered, need healing.

Blinded by ancient prejudice, unable to hear beyond the walls of hatred, the voices of oppression muted by socio-political forces hell-bent on dividing us—we need to hear again, and then again, and still more the good news of the Gospel: God’s grace extends to all, no birth certificate or passport or green card or bank account or pedigree required.

Christian worship matters in a world carved up with borders, a world of nameless humans seeking to be heard and seen, a world where dogs become ciphers for human disdain and derogatory rhetoric.

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Eucharist at the California border with Mexico.

Christian worship matters in such a world when we gather around the Eucharistic table, and for a deceptively simple reason:

When we eat well, we see and hear better.

When we gather at the Table of divine grace, we see ourselves and each other better.

When we feast on grace and love, we see ourselves and each other better, though this can be difficult, especially when we hear the voices of our own racial bias and see our own complicity with forms of discrimination.

And that’s exactly the point of grace and love—to notice all those hateful borders that divide us, and then work together to tear them down.

And that’s the work, James would say, that makes our faith lively.

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Hope for Healing: Eucharistic Solidarity in the Domination System

I have been a bit surprised by where my routine of daily morning prayer has been leading me over the last two or three years. Reflecting on my own life, my friends and colleagues, the chaotic world around us, an unexpected phrase keeps surfacing: the need for healing.

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Image by Jennifer Luxton

I don’t often think much about healing, unless I’m knocked off my feet with the flu or a friend is facing a health crisis, and it hardly comes to mind at all when sorting through the jumble of American politics and social unrest—until recently. Now I can hardly think of anything else as my incredulity and consternation grow while reading the daily news.

The biblical texts many Christians heard in church yesterday inspired renewed attention to this theme that just won’t let me go, and for both personal and more widely social reasons. The more personal one: my Australian shepherd dog Judah has been suffering with a really nasty “hot spot,” a painful and terribly itchy skin infection on his butt. Dog people know what this means: Judah requires constant monitoring to get well.

I have been profoundly grateful to my two housemates, Todd and Miguel, who have been helping me and without whom I’m not sure how I would be managing to care for Judah. That alone, in a relatively small but still significant way, has reminded me that healing is far more social and communal than most of us likely appreciate.

And, conversely, the causes of dis-ease are more often rooted in complex social systems than most of us usually realize.

Back in the 1970s, the medical profession just assumed that corporate executives of major corporations were more likely than others to succumb to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks because of their high-stress positions. Later studies have shown that just the opposite is true: the lower one is on the social and economic hierarchy, the lower one’s life expectancy.

It turns out that social status is the most powerful determinant for health outcomes related to cardiovascular, pulmonary, psychiatric, and rheumatologic diseases and some types of cancer. People in countries with narrow wealth and income gaps, for example, enjoy a relatively high life expectancy compared to the United States, which has one of the lowest among industrialized nations.

More recent studies suggest that, all other factors being equal, race is even more detrimental to health outcomes than economic status; African Americans and Latinx people in the U.S. exhibit worse health outcomes than white people of the same class.

Race matters for many reasons, not least because of the constant hyper-vigilance people of color must sustain in order to survive in a society of white supremacy; such vigilance keeps blood pressure elevated (even while taking blood pressure medication) and metabolic systems depleted (even on a healthy diet with regular exercise).

Issues of personal and collective health kept running through my thoughts as I pondered those lectionary texts. Healing itself became the frame through which I read them as I prepared to preach on them.

Each one of those texts—from the prophet Jeremiah, the letter to the Ephesians, and the Gospel according to Mark—each comes from a distinctive time and place, addressing its own peculiar concerns, and yet each one evokes for me a profound social disease that we have been living with for a long time, a disease that has now become so painfully apparent as to be all but intolerable.

I mean the institutional mechanisms that relentlessly divide and fragment the human family—divisions wrought by fear and hatred, fragmentation expressed in hostility and violence, and then experienced as isolation and alienation.

“Woe to the shepherds,” Jeremiah writes (23:1-2), “who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” You shepherds of my people, God says, “it is you who have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and not attended to them.”

How remarkably fresh an ancient text can sound, and even more so with a bit of historical context thrown in! In the midst of regional instability with mighty kingdoms vying for power, Jeremiah is writing at a time when a powerful empire is threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Judah from the outside while the kingdom’s own evil-doing leaders on the inside divide and fragment and scatter their people.

Still more consonant is the letter to the Ephesians (2:11-22), a letter obviously not written to the United States but to first-century Ephesians. And still, the diagnosis of the human predicament in that letter and its hope for healing again sound so remarkably fresh.

Think on today’s geo-political realities with these phrases from that ancient letter, phrases about those who were foreigners by birth, aliens to the commonwealth, strangers to the promise, separated by a dividing wall of hostility.

Think as well on these phrases of the hopeful promise in this same letter: the proclamation of peace to those who were far off and to those who were near, those who are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

This bears repeating: that letter was not originally written for us. And yet, and still, can we not hear in the otherwise arcane religious parsing of that text a lament over divided, fragmented communities and the passionate yearning for wholeness?

I would invite listening for those same themes in the passage from Mark’s account of the gospel that so many heard yesterday (6:30-34, 53-56), and especially what Mark describes right toward the end of that text.

It’s one of many stories about Jesus the healer. But I noticed something that I never thought about before: wherever Jesus went, Mark says, the people laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Jesus for a healing touch.

I find that an odd but compelling image—they laid sick people in the marketplace.

I usually think of these healing stories as encounters between Jesus and an individual, often in private. But this one is between Jesus and a whole mass of sick people, so many that they are laid out in a public place, likely in the center of town, and not just any place, but a marketplace—a place of commerce and economic exchange.

I always try to remember that there are no random details in these stories; it mattered to Mark that these people were laid out in a “marketplace.”

I also try to remember the context of these stories and why it matters: they come from a people under siege by an imperial power, occupied by the might of Rome.

Reflecting on that context, I turn often to biblical scholar Walter Wink and his riveting description of what “empire” actually entails. He refers to this as “The Domination System”:

The system is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all…from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism (from Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium).

Wink, among others, would urge us to read gospel stories of healing more directly in that context of imperial domination. Surely it is no mere coincidence that the symptoms Jesus often encounters among the sick and demon possessed mirror the effects of being colonized and taken over by an imperial power with economic and military force: irrational fears, dissociation, mania, psychosis, alienation from family and friends, isolation from the wider community, and all of this as a debilitating and disempowering trauma manifested in all manner of physical, psychological, and spiritual disease.

It mattered to Mark that the sick were laid out in a marketplace, a primary location for disenfranchising the poor, the outcast, and powerless. Let us also notice the means by which these people were healed—by reaching out merely to touch the garment Jesus was wearing.

healing_woman_touchI find this so moving, unraveling, bracing: Whatever else they hoped Jesus would heal, they were reaching out for connection, for belonging, for the restoration of relationship in the midst of alienation and fragmentation—in the midst of a marketplace.

Such a modest gesture, just reaching out for touch—but how vital in systems that oppress and isolate to hope once again for belonging.

Reading these biblical texts through that frame of a profound social disease quickly brought to mind the Eucharistic Table at the heart of Christian worship. What I have not often pondered about that Table suddenly appeared in bold relief: to approach it as a source of divine healing.

The Domination System wounds everyone, though clearly in varying degrees and with diverse effects. Empire will always train us to map our sense of self and self-worth to the color of our skin, how much money we make, the kind of work we do, whom we love, the genders we manifest, the number of degrees we’ve earned, if any.

Few of us have any idea who we even are apart from these classifying marks, all this “imperial branding.”

These wounds fester, often unnoticed, then suddenly appear whenever we treat those who are different from us with suspicion, or fear, or outright hostility.

Left untended, these wounds shape the institutions and organizations we create and populate, where the wounding continues from one generation to the next. Wounded people make broken and harmful systems.

We scarcely notice those cycles of transmitted wounds until God interrupts them, gently but surprisingly, by offering God’s own self to us. At that Table of self-offering, social status makes no difference whatsoever for the health outcomes of God’s grace and generosity—no birth certificate, passport, green card, driver’s license, paycheck stub, or insurance card required.friendship_park_communion2

This healing gift of God’s own life matters, more than we might imagine. In a deeply divided and fragmented world, the Table invites what theologian M. Shawn Copeland calls “Eucharistic solidarity.”

We stand at that Table, Copeland writes, oriented toward “the lynched body of Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal.”

In his raised body—of which we are the members—God interrupts the structures of oppression and violence, offering us a new way of being in the world, “a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.”

I confess: in writing in this way about the Bible, about church and Eucharist, I frequently think I’m woefully naïve, a hopeful but mostly not terribly useful romantic.

And still, and yet, there must be a different way of being the world, there simply must be. And I’m not ready, not yet, to give up on the queer way Jesus modeled a wholly/holy way of living for the healing and flourishing of all.

Jesus modeled this most queerly, perhaps, at the Table. There the Domination System is not overthrown with retribution or violence (in ways some of his own disciples hoped he would lead). Instead, he offers hope that the System itself will be healed with the solidarity of love.

As Copeland concisely and so beautifully suggests, “the Eucharistic banquet re-orders us, re-members us, restores us, and makes us one.”

May it be so—for all its naïve hopefulness—may it be so.

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A Pentecostal Revolution

It’s the Eve of Pentecost, when the Great Fifty Days of Easter are drawing to a close. I’m thinking of many things—language and its privileges; numbers and their deceptions; Empire and its disruptions; fear-soaked rooms and the gift of breath.

I’m thinking, in short, about the revolutionary character of the Feast so many will celebrate tomorrow with, perhaps, a contained exuberance that ought to be unleashed, for an upending revolution for the people. For all creatures. For the planet.

The Pentecostal revolution in brief:

Language. As a cis-gender, white, gay male who identifies as a Myers-Briggs INFJ, I would have written the Pentecost story differently. To preach the Gospel to a wildly diverse collection of domestic and international travelers to Jerusalem (as Luke portrays this in Acts 2), I would imagine that whole vast crowd suddenly understanding Aramaic when the disciples preached (likely their native tongue). That seems neat and tidy to me.

But, no. Luke tells of all those diverse peoples hearing the Gospel in their own native tongue, from people who never studied their language. The “miracle” of Pentecost is not a mono-language or universal code; it’s the honoring of cultural difference. And I want desperately these days for “language” to stand for more than human speech. Other animals are speaking Gospel to us; will we listen?

Or how about this more crude query: English-only America? Oh, please. Live with me for a day on my block in my California town. Pentecost happens here every day.

Numbers. That “upper room” where the “disciples” gathered and where the Spirit blew like a flaming tornado—just eleven, right? Twelve original apostles minus Judas. Not according to Luke. Read Acts 1 and 2 together and it would appear that at least 120 people were gathered on the day of Pentecost receiving the divine breath to speak Gospel boldly.

This actually matters if it wasn’t just eleven men who were possessed by the Spirit on that day. It was men, women, and children—just as the prophet Joel described (as Luke has Peter declare in Acts 2). More than this, Pentecost, and thus the Spirit of God, is for all, everyone, no exceptions.

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“Holy Spirit Coming,” He Qi, 2009

Empire. The very last thing imperial institutions of power want, what they dread, is solidarity. The only way empires can sustain their control is by dividing and segmenting the populations they want to rule. White against black. Straight against gay. “Gainfully employed” against the “welfare queen.” The list is endless.

Not just on the Day of Pentecost but throughout Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christians break down the walls of fragmentation (or try to) for a vision of divine solidarity. That might help to explain why so many of them are thrown in jail in nearly every other chapter of that biblical book.

Fear. My own life of faith changed dramatically, years ago, when I stopped worrying whether doubt would destroy my faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; fear is. Because nothing can unravel the intimacy of trust and the rootedness of faith more quickly than fear. Very rarely do the gospel writers portray Jesus as saying, “don’t doubt”; mostly he says, “have no fear.”

After Jesus had been executed by the State, his friends and disciples gathered together in shared fear; his fate might soon be their own. In John’s resurrection accounts, Jesus appears among these fear-ridden friends and says, “receive holy breath” (20:22). “Breath” can also be translated as “spirit” in ancient Greek.

Perhaps the Feast of Pentecost is, above all else, the celebration of fear’s banishment. We no longer have anything to be afraid of—though we will surely experience anxiety and trepidation and paralyzing fear on occasion. But in the end and through it, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Breath, will respirate with us, bringing our shallow, gulping gasps into rhythm with God’s own loving and confident beat.

The implications of a Pentecostal revolution seem endless to me. They include: dismantling the racism of mono-lingual cultural diatribes; exploding the male-dominated hierarchy of so much of institutional Christianity; refusing the machinations of Empire (nation-state) that would divide and fragment us; and breaking the chains of fear that enslave all of us in countless ways, short-circuiting our dreams and paralyzing our actions.

It didn’t take long for the institutional church to canonize Luke’s spirited account of the Gospel and sequester the Spirit’s holy disruptions in creeds and catechisms. We, the people of this peculiar Christian faith, must reclaim Pentecost for what it is: a vision, a call, an empowerment for revolution.

But not revolution for its own sake. Luke has Jesus announce his ministry with words from the ancient prophet Isaiah, with these marks: good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed (4:16-18). And Jesus announces this as the work of the Spirit.

May it be so for us.

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A Holy Week of Canine Quotidian Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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