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Death is Easier

“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

We can make that joyous declaration because women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Women were the very first apostles of an Easter faith, and we must not take this for granted.

“Empty Tomb,” He Qi

The first-century Mediterranean world was a thoroughly patriarchal society: poor women had no legal rights whatsoever; they were never taught to read or write; and they were considered the property of their husbands.

Even wealthy women—who had only just a tad more freedom—even they could not vote, could not stand for political office, had no formal role in public life, and their testimony could not be admitted into a court of law.

Let us, therefore, note this very carefully: in that thoroughly patriarchal society, all four Gospel writers—most assuredly all of them men—make perfectly clear that women were the very first witnesses of Easter!

Luke takes this storyline still further (24:1-12) by noting rather painfully that the men to whom those women delivered the glorious news did not believe the women, and these men were some of the closest friends of Jesus.

This centering of women in what I would certainly consider the core story of Christian faith is not merely remarkable; it’s a miracle.

I think these Gospel writers are making a theological point by putting women on center-stage in the Easter story. And the point is this: the death-dealing world of patriarchal domination is over. There are lingering effects of that long history of domination, to be sure, some of them quite painful and long-lived, even traumatic. But that world of patriarchal violence will never have the final word; and indeed, concerning new life, women have the very first word.  

Still, I have to wonder: why did those male disciples refuse to believe the women? This should have been the happiest news they had ever heard. Why, in Luke’s words, did it seem to them merely an “idle tale”?

Luke suggests a reason with the question posed to those apostolic women by angels at the empty tomb: Why are you looking for the living among the dead? That’s an important question all of us should be asking ourselves quite regularly: why do we keep returning to worn-out patterns and toxic relationships and lifeless institutions?

Here’s an answer I’ve been sitting with for a while: because death is easier than new life.

Winter’s reluctance to yield to spring here in western Michigan this year reminded me of those cold wintry mornings over the last few months when the alarm goes off and the wind is howling and the snow is blowing and it’s dark outside.

On mornings like that, my Australian shepherd dog Judah and I both agree that it is far easier to pull up the covers and stay cozy and warm in bed.

Death is easier like that because life requires something of us. Life requires that we actually throw back the covers, get up, get dressed, and go out to engage with the world.

We seek the living among the dead because that’s what we’ve been taught and it feels natural; we already know how to nurse grudges and cultivate resentments and sow hatred and start wars…it’s actually quite easy.

We seek the living among the dead because it’s just easier to live conveniently and for our own comfort and among our own kind…even when we’re fomenting violence and killing the planet in the process.

We seek the living among the dead because death, in all its many forms, is so close at hand and so easy to find—in our communities, in our politics, and in our institutions.

And still, and yet, God is with us even there.

“Mary Magdalene on Easter Morning,” Sieger Koder

We can choose the familiarity of death and God will still be with us. God will never abandon us; not ever.

That’s good news, and there is even better news: The God who made us wants still more life for us, in abundance, the kind of vibrant life that we can scarcely imagine.

God has a dream; and especially in these Great Fifty Days of Easter, God dreams of a richer life for us, for all of us, for the whole of God’s creation. And God has turned this dream into a promise by raising Jesus from the dead, and God seals this promise with the testimony of women in a patriarchal society.

Yesterday morning in my little parish here in (snowy) Saugatuck, Michigan, we baptized a baby as part of our Easter Day jubilations. His name is George Alexander River Burt, and how wonderful that one of his names is “River”! Into that glorious river of new life that flows from an empty tomb, we baptized that dear baby in endless Alleluias and with a gladness that shall never die.

We also made some promises to George. We promised to do all that we can to ensure he never, ever hears anything about God that isn’t loving, graceful, and full of life. We promised to help him know that he is a cherished child of God, that he himself gives God endless delight.

I led the gathered faithful in those promises with tears in my eyes because many of us didn’t grow up that way, with all those reassurances and with such fortifying confidence in God’s love for us. That’s exactly why we renew those promises for ourselves whenever we make them for someone else. And on Easter Day in particular, we also ask God to lead all of us out of our various tombs, whatever they may be, and into the shocking brightness of a new day.

Shocking, because God will be with us regardless of the choices we make.

And this is also true: God still longs for us to choose life, abundant life.

So let’s do it.

“Art of the Redemption 3: Resurrection,” Josef Zacek
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Harrow My Heart

Every human community has threads of resentment running through it and chunky grudges clogging up its communal arteries. This is certainly true—sometimes it seems especially true—in religious communities and in our churches. This is especially discouraging as well since many of us harbor rather high standards for faith communities, or at least some high hopes.

Since returning to full-time congregational ministry two years ago, I’ve been reminded of the sacred ground we all tread in parish life. Traces of heartbreak and the wounds of grief punctuate so many conversations, just as glimpses of joy and spiritual insight hover over our committees and circulate through our worship. I wake up every single Sunday morning astonished at the privilege of doing this work.

I have also learned in fresh ways some perennial truths about life in community: resentment is far more contagious than joy, and the infection can linger for far longer than our memory of when we were first exposed. Still more: bitterness takes no work at all (though it is exhausting) and gladness requires effort (even though it is thoroughly refreshing).

These are the peculiar landscapes of human relationships, manifesting the often complex contours of the human heart. All of this is on my mind today, on this Holy Saturday. It’s one of my favorite days on the church calendar because it marks one of my favorite religious notions—Jesus harrowing Hell.

“Harrowing of Hell”

A few scant biblical references and a single phrase in the Apostles’ Creed—Jesus “descended to the dead”—eventually blossomed in Christian traditions into a full-blown harrowing of Hell itself, smashing its gates, and releasing its captives. All of this on the day in between crucifixion and resurrection—a busy day for Jesus and not only for altar guild members readying sanctuaries for Easter morning.

I truly love the image of Jesus fetching our ancestors from whatever limbo they’ve been trapped in for however long, but right now I need Jesus to harrow the rocky soil of my heart. “Soil” is the perfect image for this day, and for more than one reason. “Harrowing,” of course, most commonly appears among farmers and gardeners; we “harrow” the soil by plowing it and breaking up the hardened clods. And according to the Johannine account of the Gospel, the dead Jesus was buried in a garden tomb.

Those images occurred to me in the shower this morning as I reflected on how easily my petty grievances can harden my heart, parch my soul, and threaten to desiccate all that fertile soil, that interior field where I would much prefer to plant the seeds of faith, hope, and especially love.

I don’t know that I want the “three-person’d God” to “batter my heart,” as John Donne imagined, but I do think its earthy fields could use some plowing, some gentle rains of grace, and the warm sunlight of compassion.

“Easter Morning,” Jen Norton

On that first Easter morning, according to John, Mary Magdalene supposed that the risen Jesus was a gardener. We sometimes say that she “mistook” him for a gardener. But I don’t think that was a mistake at all. New life sometimes—likely often, perhaps always—needs some harrowing.

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Pixelating Christ: A Hopeful Communion in Hybrid Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic may or may not be winding down, but what’s heating up are the assessments of “online worship” and what we think we have been learning as we enter the third year of this pandemic.

Among the many recent essays in that vein, two have seized a sizable share of social media buzz. Just yesterday, New York Times opinion writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren declared that it’s time to stop online worship services entirely. On the flip side of that coin, Church of England priest and theologian Richard Burridge argues in a new book that Holy Communion via online platforms (like Zoom) is “valid and effective.”

I’ll toss my hat into that ring by referencing an essay of my own that was published last year in Concilium about what I called “Eucharistic cyborgs” and the conundrums Christian congregations face when nearly all of the activities we call “worship” become vectors for a deadly infection. (That issue of Concilium, by the way, is well worth exploring for its theological and spiritual framing of the “post-human” in a digital world.)

We will likely be living for quite some time with a patchwork quilt of ecclesial policies and liturgical postures around these issues, and it’s far too early for definitive conclusions. We are, after all, evaluating innovations we had not planned on making, and using theological principles we are not sure directly apply, while quite a few of us are finding ourselves (surprisingly) grateful for a new set of tools and skills to use in this challenging era of religion’s putative decline.

As a parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I facilitate and lead worship in a hybrid space, with masked, in-person worshippers receiving the Eucharistic bread while offering a prayer for “spiritual communion” for those joining us online. The tension between these two forms of “communion” can, I hope, provoke fresh engagements with what communion itself means and why it matters in a world of pain and for the sake of healing.

Like most hybrid spaces, this one is not always comfortable and includes awkward moments. Naming that discomfort, pondering why such worship can feel awkward, is important for our ongoing discernment about why Church still matters for exactly such a time as this.

Do note the distinction between the broader category of “online worship” and the more sacramentally peculiar question of the Eucharist in that broad category. Personally, I endorse what the Episcopal Church seems to have adopted: embrace online worship but refrain from what has become known as “remote consecration” of bread and wine.

That distinction blurs when reading the two essays I noted above, and I find compelling arguments in both—on the one hand, I heartily endorse Warren’s reliance on physical proximity as paramount in a religion of incarnation and, on the other hand, I tend to agree with Burridge’s insistence that the cyber-distance between a presiding priest at the Eucharistic Table and an online worshipper should make no difference in the ability of the Holy Spirit to bless and, yes, consecrate bread and wine remotely.

Compelling arguments from both, but I am not fully persuaded by either author. I find Warren’s categorical dismissal of online worship not only hasty (watching someone die from Covid-related causes should quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that we can safely manage Covid infections); but she also seems insufficiently attuned to the pastoral benefits of reaching people unable to attend worship in person (just because the Church has found ways to do so in the past without computer technology does not mean we should eschew such technology today). In my own congregation, we have also appreciated the evangelistic reach of our streamed worship—we have been welcoming new members to our physical sanctuary on Sunday mornings who worshipped with us first online.

Concerning Burridge, I would (ironically) cite Warren’s arguments about embodiment as a rebuttal to his apparent disregard for the significance of being physically distant while only visually and audibly present online. I think Warren rightly worries that online worship makes embodied presence optional for too many people, or akin to a “consumer preference,” rather than essential and vital to sacramental efficacy. She likewise proposes that bodily risk itself is inherent to the story of God’s Word becoming flesh and that our avoidance of all risk (which is never actually possible) amounts to a form of resistance to divine embodiment.

Reading those two writers side-by-side, I realize and I freely admit that my embrace of worship online but not consecration online is probably incoherent. But I still think it matters, theologically, that the Church has always insisted that the priest must touch the bread and wine to consecrate it, and I cannot do that for the bread and wine that people have at home while they watch me on a screen.

I suppose one could argue (and some have, like Burridge) that the Holy Spirit can just as easily bless the bread I touch as the bread people themselves hold at home. Perhaps, but I certainly wonder whether inviting people to treat “cyber touch” the same as we would “physical touch” underestimates just how physically touch-deprived so many have become during these last two years of social distancing in a pandemic; I am so grateful to see my friends on a screen, and yet for months I have longed finally to hug them once again. That longing is the very foundation of the liturgical insistence on touching the bread.

These conundrums seemed utterly novel and to appear quite suddenly in the spring of 2020, but the Church has actually wrestled with the liturgical theology at the root of such questions for centuries, including during times when Eucharist was interrupted or not permitted. Christians have always found ways of “being Church” nonetheless, and we are in one of those moments once again—a “moment,” by the way, that certainly deserves a healthy dose of patience and generosity toward each other as we sort this out.

Like many others, I had to grapple with all these issues in “real time” wrestling simultaneously with how to stream anything online and what it means liturgically to do so. I offered no conclusions about such matters in my essay for Concilium but I did land on some questions that I continue to find theologically stimulating and pastorally compelling; in various ways, I keep inviting the congregation here in Saugatuck to land there with me.

For example, are we human online? That question is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. Having now clocked hundreds of “Zoom hours” in committee meetings and worship gatherings alike, I wonder what physicality and proximity actually mean in relation to bodies. Just how close exactly do we have to be to one another to be “in proximity”? And what does it mean to be “physically present”? Do we suddenly become immaterial when we enter a Zoom room? As a theologian who appreciates the concept of “deep incarnation”—supposing that God’s Word incarnates all the way down to the microscopic, cellular level—I cannot help but wonder why I resist the notion of God’s Word showing up in a pixel.

On the brink of Black History Month, I’m also reminded of womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s concise declaration that the “body provokes theology.” She offers that declaration with the Eucharist clearly in view, insisting that the Table has material significance for how we treat racialized and gendered bodies. This is especially so because of the bodily communion the Eucharistic Table performs and what Copeland insists must be our Eucharistic solidarity with the oppressed, forgotten, tortured, maimed, and lost.

Do virtual bodies provoke theology in the same way that Copeland so persuasively argues that physical bodies do? Or does that question assume that our electronic digitization makes us substantially (note that word!) less human?

Another womanist theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas, has argued why we should even care about such questions. The carnal or fleshy character of Christian faith matters, she argues, for how we address a misogynistic society of white supremacy. Sexism and racism flourish, in other words, in contexts where our bodily lives are not honored with profound respect. So it’s at least worth wondering whether online gatherings can sustain bodily engagements sufficiently to promote social justice.

All of these questions strike at the very heart of our shared distress in a world of runaway climate chaos, unrelenting racialized violence, and gendered oppressions. These are material, bodily concerns for which Eucharistic worship provides vital framing and shaping. For that reason (among others) the parish that I’m privileged to serve as rector will continue to stream our worship services online and we will continue to refrain from “remote consecration” of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

I believe and I hope that such an approach to worship is a coherent balance to strike for the sake of refreshing our shared engagement with what communion itself actually means at a time when we are more desperate for its depths than we likely realize. I mean “communion” in the widest sense—communion with each other as humans; communion with other species; communion with the ecosystems of Earth; and therefore communion with God-in-Christ.

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With Us All the Way Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptism of Jesus,” Daniel Bonnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptism of Jesus,” David Zelenka
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Divine Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not John’s gospel at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ascension Day Audacity

Fog on the Kalamazoo River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter and Eucharist for Earth

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother Earth,” Starr Hardridge

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

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

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

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

“Mother Earth,” Angela Babby
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Flowers Delivered and Hell Harrowed: The Everyday Rhythms of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a single one.

Harrowing of Hell, Church of the Holy Savior, Istanbul

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The Good Friday of Solidarity and the Vulnerability of God

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

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

“Stations of the Cross,” Ben Denison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat dirt.

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

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

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

He’s there in all those of course.

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

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

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

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

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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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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