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Tina Turner and Maundy Thursday

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner sang that question in the 1980s. The peculiar faith of Christians offers an answer: everything.

Holy Week 2014: The hope of Divine Communion

Christianity began, not with an institution, or a doctrine, or a text, but with table fellowship. The many meals Jesus shared equally with the socially powerful and the least likely, the stories he told of wedding banquets and feasts, the tender washing of feet and the risky, self-offering of bodily vulnerability – all this and more set the Table around which the earliest Christians gathered. In short, love set the Table, and it turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Since then, texts, doctrines, and institutions have (sometimes well and sometimes poorly) tried to pass on that social witness to radical love, and for a singular reason: Love changes everything.

Landmark legislation and milestone judicial rulings can change many things (from civil rights to environmental protections). Strategy sessions and protest rallies can change the course of social policies and labor practices. All of these make a difference for a better world but they can’t give what each of us truly wants and what the world really needs: Love.

The Apostle Paul apparently agreed. To the first century Christians in Corinth he wrote:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

More than most people today seem to realize, the history of Christian reflection and practice simmers with love’s peculiar, life-changing energy.

“Love bade me welcome,” wrote the Anglican poet George Herbert in the 17th century, just as Julian of Norwich, writing two centuries earlier, insisted that “Love was our Lord’s meaning…and in this love our life is everlasting.” Maximus the Confessor, writing still earlier, in the seventh century, went so far as to name that divine love “Eros.” If Eros is love, he wrote, then that love which unifies all things is God.

Encountering Love, receiving it, and bearing world-changing witness to it defines the essence of Christianity’s peculiar faith. And I too often and rather quickly forget this.

So tonight I join millions of Christians around the world and return to the Table of Love. Today is Maundy Thursday, the day to remember especially the final meal Jesus shared with his closest friends and the mandate (from which we get the word “Maundy”) he issued at that Table: Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).

I go to that Table not first because I need forgiveness (though I certainly do), or because of religious obligation (though it is that). I go because Love draws me there.

I may not fully believe it and I might go haltingly. I will likely go worrying that I’m not quite ready or that my thoughts aren’t focused clearly enough or that I myself am not nearly loving enough to receive love. Nonetheless, Love draws me.eucharist_hands_bread_wine

A wise colleague once noted that “love changes us so that we can change the world.” What’s love got to do with it? Everything.

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Risk, Vulnerability, and Intimacy: A World-Changing Holy Week

Take, eat, this is my body.” Have you ever said that to someone? If you have, you probably did so privately, away from public view, and in a moment of romantic tenderness. It may have felt a bit risky and you made yourself quite vulnerable in saying it. That profound invitation is highly charged with intimacy – both in its offering and its potential rejection.intimacy_th4ree

Many Christian ministers actually issue that invitation weekly, sometimes daily, and rather publicly. Does that ritualized invitation sound risky? Does the rite vibrate with an intimate vulnerability? Do you or does anyone else gathered at the Eucharistic table blush when hearing those words? Take, eat, this is my body…

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Christianity’s annual pilgrimage through Holy Week. The events commemorated during this holiest of Christian weeks unfolded in a land occupied by an imperial army, exhibited all the narrative arcs of a classical tragedy, and culminated with a promise that still makes even the most devout among us at least a tad incredulous: love is stronger than death.

One of the focal points in this week spotlights a shared meal among close friends. This moment, I have come to believe, sheds indispensable light on the whole week and, therefore, on the very character of God revealed in Jesus – and in all those who seek to follow the same path into the mystery of God’s own life.

intimacy_handsMake no mistake: The path charted by this holy week beckons with a truly peculiar energy, more peculiar than its familiar liturgical cadences usually evoke. Peculiar not least for the kind of God this week proclaims: the God who risks vulnerability for the sake of intimacy.

Institutional Christianity has too often urged doing the right thing and living the right way so that we might persuade God to let us into Heaven. That urge reverses entirely the essence of the Gospel. The Eucharistic Table performs instead a remarkable claim: God makes God’s own self vulnerable to the ecstasies and foibles of bodily human intimacy.

“Take, eat,” Jesus says; “this is my body given for you” (Matthew 26:26). He says this with no guarantee whatsoever that this offering will be received well if at all. Notably, God initiates this moment of self-giving born from God’s own desire for intimacy.

Sexually intimate couples know, or at least intuit, what this holy week means. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it well when he noted that desire always carries risk because desire makes us vulnerable. Sex is an offering of the self, even in casual encounters, and very little can protect us from the potential of looking silly or feeling unwanted. “Nothing will stop sex from being tragic and comic,” Williams writes. “It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety, where we can venture into ‘exposed spontaneity’ . . . and find ourselves looking foolish or repellent.”

And that is divine risk, the very risk God takes with us and whole of God’s creation.

The gospel according to John foregrounds that astonishing risk by recounting hardly anything at all about a final meal but instead by describing the provocative moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:3–11). That bodily moment of intimate tenderness is followed by another. The disciple “whom Jesus loved” reclined on Jesus’ breast during the meal, presumably sharing the kind of whispered small-talk that intimates often do.intimacy_baby_foot

These two gospel moments portray what many couples, households, and friends experience in cherished moments of communal intimacy around a shared table. Yet a third moment in this story disrupts these expressions of intimacy with a yearning for redemption. In the wake of tender foot washing and in the midst of intimate bodily contact, John inserts a moment of disrupted affection. Jesus declares just then that one of his companions will betray him.

Tenderness disrupted by betrayal – this distills in microcosm the human predicament. The fullness of that for which we yearn seems so impossibly and constantly out of reach. Intimacy is thwarted at nearly every turn, whether because of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or class, or neighborhood, or national borders. Surely somewhere, somehow we will find the intimacy of communion all of us seek beyond the imperial mechanisms of violence that seem always to disrupt the glorious intimacies of bodily life.

Whether in a shared meal or in tender foot washing, Eucharist displays an unimaginable hope in the most loving act imaginable—an unprotected offering of the self, both body and blood. The vulnerability of this offering bathes the Eucharistic Table with tender intimacy. It does something else as well: it indicts institutional Christianity for its own history of religious violence. From crusades and inquisitions to paternalistic and misogynistic repressions, the Church has betrayed the Table that ought to inspire an audacious hope.

eucharist_hands_bread_wineSexually intimate couples can remind all of us about where the holiness of this week’s hope resides: in the intimate offering of the self to another for the sake of life.

I’ve been quoting here from my two recent books, Divine Communion and Peculiar Faith. Those books emerged in large measure from the deep impact that more than thirty years of holy weeks has had on my spiritual/bodily self in the world. After all these years, I think I might finally be starting to grasp the deceptively simple and absurdly profound message of Christian faith: God yearns to be in intimate communion with God’s own creation. I am convinced that this insight can change the world.

The biblical writer known as Luke thought so too. In his account of the earliest Christian communities, he described the effects of these hopeful insights by quoting the violent detractors of their mission: “These people…have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).

May this Holy Week overturn your own world, and with it, the many other worlds we all inhabit. And may it do so as it has always done, with divine moments of risk and vulnerability for the sake of heart-rending intimacy.

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Glossy Fashion and Adoring Flesh — an Epiphany!

magi_star“Enter, stage left, the Wise Guys.” That’s what a friend of mine in college liked to say about Epiphany, the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Stage “left,” I suppose, because these “wise guys” hailed from ostensibly “pagan” religious traditions. “Wise,” as I have come to see in recent years, because of their quest.

The Christian quest these days seems mostly marked with institutional anxiety. How will we save the church? In my view, that is entirely the wrong question. A better one: How will any of us participate in God’s own passion to save God’s fleshy creation? Perhaps if Christians attended carefully to that question, institutional anxiety would take care of itself.

It took me some years to see this, so let me back up a bit.

In the mid-1990s a friend from seminary ripped a page out of a glossy fashion magazine and sent it to me in the mail. The full-page photograph featured a rail-thin model, scantily clothed, and lying on piles of trash. She lay there with her eyes closed, lips colored slightly purple, and a man’s foot pressing down on her arm, planted there as if in triumph. It was an advertisement for the sneaker that man was wearing.sneakers_blue

My friend included a post-it note on the photograph: “Here’s an icon for Epiphany.” This confused me at first. I found that image disturbing for more than one reason: for objectifying women as disposable play things; for perpetuating masculinity as inherently domineering and violent; and for commodifying human bodies to sell other commodities, to name just a few. Pondering my friend’s note and that image, those disturbing qualities soon began to coalesce into an icon of human flesh, its denigration, humiliation, and abuse standing in desperate need of redemption. An ideal icon, in other words, for Epiphany.

The twelve days of Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar begin when gift-giving on the secular calendar ends, on Christmas Day itself. Those twelve liturgical days in turn end with still more gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. According to Matthew’s gospel account, magi from the East, perhaps astrologers or magicians from the region of Persia, present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Ancient Mediterranean societies sometimes used those latter two gifts for embalming, as burial spices. Matthew thus offers a literary foreshadowing of events to come. The child receiving those gifts shall not escape the fate of all mortal flesh. Indeed, he will suffer the kind of indignity no human deserves, but which continues to this day, even in the glossy pages of what passes for the latest fashion.

Icons serve as windows into an unseen or perhaps forgotten reality. The flesh portrayed in that disturbing “fashion” spread opens a window on Western culture and can help to strip away the sentimentality that so often drenches the Christmas/Epiphany holiday cycle. The original story behind those holidays actually startles, or it should.

Matthew describes the magi’s gift-bearing journey as a quest. But for what? They search not for an idea, a strategy, a program, or an institution, nor even a place, but instead for a person, a flesh-and-blood child. This child does not bear ideal flesh, the kind suitable for Greek or Roman statuary or for today’s cult of youth and beauty. The child eventually found and adored by the magi bears entirely unremarkable, ordinary flesh. Flesh ordinary enough to trade like a commodity on Wall Street, or to disrobe on Hollywood’s silver screen for quick titillation, or to go homeless and starving on city streets.

The flesh of that child appears bruised and conquered on piles of trash in a fashion magazine.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” The hint (only just intuited by ancient Persian astrologers), that gift (only barely grasped by gospel writers), the epiphany still so desperately needed today appears as this: with us and among us and in our very flesh, God takes great delight. Not abstractly or generally or vaguely but in all the material details of human life, the magnificent and tender ones as well as the heartbreaking and tragic.

communityProgressives and conservatives alike tend to extol the incarnation at Christmas, perhaps also at Epiphany, and each in their own ways. Relatively few make clear that the flesh of the Incarnation comes in a rainbow spectrum of colors (what modern Westerners call “races”), or that Western society has generally cared far more about male- rather than female-identified flesh (and still does), or that “flesh” stands for much more than whatever we mean by “human.”

Today’s liturgical feast invites Christians to do what so many of us have been taught resembles a scandal if not a sin: adore flesh – not for the sake of fashion, but to be decidedly out-of-fashion. When Christian churches figure out how to do that and why, we will change the world (for the better).

A changed world might well be what set those ancient wise guys on a long journey. Happy Epiphany!

(This post is a revised version of a section of my forthcoming book, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness. You’ll be able to pre-order it soon!)

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Merry (Messy) Christmas!

Carnal existence is wonderfully and terribly messy. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Most of us do notice, yet few Christians seem to talk about the messiness of bodily life at this time of year, when we celebrate the Word of God in the flesh.

“Away in a manger,” we Christians sing, while Mary tended to a baby who spits up and poops, like all babies do. And that manger? It smelled like pig saliva surrounded by the odor of cow shit.manger

Christians know all this at some level, but it’s rather remarkable how infrequently we talk about it. Progressives, like me, prefer to talk about the glories of bodily life after hearing for far too long about the “sins of the flesh.” Spiritual honesty and vitality demand more than that facile dichotomy.

If this feast of the Incarnation is ever going to break free of the titillating tinsel of cheery commercialism and actually seize the human imagination once again it will take both the glories and the humiliations of the flesh with the utmost seriousness – just as God did and does.

Bodies do exult with joys and pleasures sufficient to make angels sing. Bodies also grow weak, fall prey to disease, get very messy, and then they die. I think regularly about the messiness of bodies as I care for my 92-year old mother. Quite literally millions of others likely do, too, as they care for elderly parents with diapers on one end and dementia on the other.

Things can get just as messy on the inside as the outside. Each of us lives with a vast interior space crowded with all kinds of cultural voices: go on a diet; work harder; be more polite; stop being so uppity; know your place; clean the kitchen (like Martha Stewart pays someone to do).

Quite frequently all those voices reduce to just one – our own. Many of us could easily win the prize as our own fiercest critic. There’s a name for that voice; it’s called shame.

Christians spend a lot of time talking about guilt and forgiveness and hardly any about what forgiveness alone can never really touch – shame. I tried to write about this in my recent book where I defined shame as “alienation from our bodily goodness.” Everyone knows what that means and some need anti-depressants to address it. But bodily shame can just as easily issue outward as inward. In my book I described it like this:

When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation from bodily goodness can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can also exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships and even wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations.

hands_multiracial3I truly believe bodily shame lies at the root of human distress, and probably always has. We know that distress as racism, homophobia, economic injustice, and horrific self-loathing, which breeds all the rest. Christmas, this Feast of the Incarnation, invites us to come out from our shame and to discover anew – or for the very first time – the antidote to bodily shame in a divine embrace. Christmas invites us to imagine what for most is literally unthinkable: God takes great delight in our flesh, our smelly, delectable, terrifying, itchy, silky, unmanageable, glorious flesh. I tried to imagine that as I wrote this for that recent book:

Most of us take the skin covering our bones for granted, except perhaps when we bruise it or cut it—or perhaps when a friend grabs our hands in a moment of crisis, or our fingers intertwine with the fingers of a beloved partner. Human flesh feels remarkably soft and resilient, creased and textured, smooth and supple. Human flesh comes in a stunning array of colors for which just “black” and “white” seem terribly crude. Pink, mocha, tan, auburn, chocolate—these are just a few of the tints and tones of the flesh that can occasion joy for us, and for the God who made it…hands_multiracial4

Imagine, in other words, God taking great delight in your body. I mean the naked one, the one with creases and dents, the one with the quirky smile and crooked nose, the one that gets messy and tired and cranky, the one that you never think is good enough or does enough or measures up to today’s cult of youth and beauty. I mean the body you cover with festive holiday clothes and workaholic frenzy just as Adam and Eve covered theirs with fig leaves. God asked those first humans about that. Read about it in the third chapter of Genesis. Who told you, God asked them, to be ashamed of how I created you?

If we can start to imagine God truly loving our own, messy bodies, then we might start to see other bodies that way, too. That would change the world. And that would give angels reasons to sing yet again.

angels_sheperdsMerry (messy) Christmas!

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I don’t usually post sermon texts here (sermons are performance pieces and difficult to capture in text). But given the recent government shutdown drama, the spectacle of a deeply divided country, and all the horrors generated by a globally divided humanity, I want to share some reflections on what many churches will mark tomorrow, October 27: Reformation Sunday. The texts here are Joel 2:22-32 and Luke 18:9-14. (I’ll be preaching this live at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California at 11am. Join us!)

Many churches – especially Lutheran and Presbyterian congregations – will mark October 27 this year as Reformation Sunday. The last Sundaluther_thesesy of October each year is set aside to commemorate the day, October 31 in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg. (You have to be careful how you pronounce that word “theses.” Though of course Luther himself would appreciate a good scatological joke.)

That moment in 1517 was Luther’s line in the ecclesial sand, a watershed moment in what was emerging as the Protestant Reformation. That movement redrew the map of institutional Christianity and therefore also the map of Europe, because it also marked the emergence of what we know today as “nation states” at roughly the same time and for reasons deeply intertwined with Luther’s agitations.

Needless to say, Reformation Sunday does not appear on the liturgical calendar used by Roman Catholics. On the other hand, given what we’ve witnessed so far from Pope Francis, I’d say with gratitude that the reforming spirit seems to be stirring in the Vatican these days as well.

That’s an important reminder, it seems to me, of one of the slogans those early reformers adopted: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, or “the reformed church always reforming.” (And I quote that in Latin because I find it mildly amusing that some Protestant theologians today still like to quote that slogan in the language of the institution their ancestors critiqued.)

More to the point: reformation is not an isolated event, relegated to a distant past some 500 years ago, but is rather part and parcel of what the Church always does – or rather should always do. It’s a reminder, in other words, that just like housework the Church’s work is never really finished. Or in more traditional language, conversion is not a single moment in the life of Christian faith but rather a lifelong process of transformation. Actually, some would say more than lifelong as death marks but one milestone – albeit a significant one – on our journey ever deeper into the life of God.

So I’d like to offer just a few observations about what this seismic shift in Christianity 500 years ago might still offer to our lives of faith today, what this dusty old moment from the past might still offer to that call always to be reforming. And I’m thinking especially of a twin concern shared by many of those early reformers – justification and sanctification. More precisely, being justified, or saved by grace alone through faith, and being sanctified, or transformed in the life of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great theological code words but, really, does this stuff matter?

Actually the Bible might help us find reasons for why these things do matter and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the lectionary texts for today signal the twin concerns I just mentioned. Luke’s Jesus tells a parable about a sinner finding justification before God and the text from the prophet Joel is often associated with the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit. So a few thoughts about each – and seriously, just a few. This topic has filled countless volumes.

First, justification: what in the world is that about? No really, what does this mean? Both the tax collector in Luke’s parable and Martin Luther himself could easily tell us. Luther, you might recall, was an Augustinian monk before launching on his institutional reform project. It was, Luther himself would say, a life of torment. He did everything his religious order demanded and the institutional church proscribed to lead a life of faith – and he was tormented by doubt. He was never fully convinced of his own salvation, he was never satisfied that God was satisfied with his efforts.

Never enough. Never enough. Never enough. … Oh, Martin, how I can relate!

Curiously enough, the turning point in his life came from reading carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther embraced as a sustained elegy to divine grace. The whole point of Christian faith, Luther realized, is not about what we do to justify ourselves but instead how God sees us through Christ, through the lens of divine grace – as cherished, and loved, and forgiven.

(Just a side note for the theology geeks among us: a similarly dramatic turning point occurred in the early twentieth-century life of the pioneering theologian Karl Barth when he also studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans; if you think the only thing to do with that letter is to refute Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in the first chapter, think again.)

Luke’s parable captures far more concisely what Luther experienced. There Jesus contrasts the religious leader who boasts of all his good works and the tax collector, a despised Roman collaborator and social outcast who bewailed his sinfulness. It was not the clergy person in that parable but the cultural pariah who returned home justified, Jesus says. And that is justification by grace through faith, as Luther declared in his world-changing insight.

I totally identify with both that tax collector and Martin Luther. Oddly enough, I did so especially in the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. In that tradition, preachers frequently issue “altar calls,” the invitation to turn one’s life over to Christ and be saved. I did precisely that as a teenager – multiple times. I responded to those altar calls again and again because I worried and fretted that the conversion hadn’t really “stuck.” I had to be sure, I had to know, I had to keep providing evidence that this time I really meant it. This time, God, really, I mean it.

And of course, just like Luther, I had missed the point. It’s not what I do – not even responding to an altar call – but rather what God does, that provides all the justification anyone needs. Or as my liturgy professor in seminary likes to say, we are “drenched” in grace.

Good news, to be sure. But there’s something more lurking around this text that deserves our attention. Luke’s parable is not only about the promise of divine grace; it is of course just as much a parable about not judging others.

No one’s life project is finished. No one has sufficient reason to boast before God. No one has it all figured out.

Or in more traditional language, this parable is calling of us all back to a profound posture of spiritual humility.

By saying that I just provided a classic illustration of a preacher preaching to himself with the hope that it might also be helpful to others. When I am convinced of something, I am not exactly known for sharing that conviction humbly. Yet I do believe we need more of precisely that, both in our political discourse these days as well as our religious circles.

Actually, that’s probably stating the case a bit too mildly. Some would say that the ideological and political divide in our country today is as bad as it has ever been, with each side unswervingly claiming the moral high ground. More still, religious conviction is fueling war and the rumors of war around the globe.boehner-obama

Yet even more: the despicable treatment of lesbians and gay men in Russia; the unabated practice of hanging gay teenaged boys in Iranian public squares; the draconian legislation in Uganda that makes “homosexuality” a capital crime. All of these moments and more spring from absolute religious conviction. Did you see the image of fully vested Russian Orthodox priests throwing stones at marchers in a gay pride parade? If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a scene from a Monty Python movie.

But here’s the thing: Even if I am right about something, I am no less in need of grace than the person with whom I disagree. I am absolutely convinced that those Russian Orthodox priests are wrong. And I need divine grace as much as they do.

I read Luke’s Jesus as offering a not-so-subtle nudge to level the playing field. To do that, I need to revise how I associated myself above with the tax collector. I am just as much the Pharisee in this parable – probably more than “just as much.” And that’s why sanctification and not only justification was so important for the Protestant Reformers.

Martin Luther used a medical analogy to illustrate the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification. Being justified is like a doctor having just administered a sure and certain remedy for a fatal disease. The physician pronounces the patient cured (read “justified”) even though the next step is also required for a full restoration to health: a process of rehabilitation (read “sanctified”).

While I find that analogy useful, I have to say that I find it troubling as well. It’s probably a theological hangover from an Evangelical youth, but that analogy comes perilously close to identifying the human condition itself as fatally flawed, or as John Calvin would say, suffering from “total depravity.”

Now, to be sure, there are days when I read the newspaper and think that humanity as a whole is thoroughly and utterly depraved. But I don’t read the Bible that way and I don’t read my friends and colleagues that way. Do I read my detractors and enemies that way, as totally depraved? Of course I do. That’s why Luke’s Jesus makes me squirm.

And that’s why I appreciate that the reformers stressed sanctification as a process. No one’s life project is finished. No one has reason to boast. No one has it all figured out.

And indeed, that’s why Christians keep coming back to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday mornings. We might come to that Table for the reminder of the justification and forgiveness that God has already accomplished in Christ. Even more, we come to the Table to deepen the sanctifying process.

eucharist_contemporaryThis process of meal sharing at this Table invites us to see ourselves ever more clearly as cherished, loved, and forgiven so that we can see everyone else in the same way – everyone, no exception.

We have a long way still to go in that process. But by God’s amazing grace, the reformed church is always reforming.

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Living on the Edge

This peculiar day reminds me of the 1990 film, “Postcards from the Edge,” mostly because of its wonderful title. I imagine Jesus sending one of those postcards especially today, called “Holy Saturday” on the Christian calendar. It would read, “Don’t be afraid.”

Edges can certainly trouble and terrify when living on the edge of foreclosure, or the edge of terminal illness, or the edges of a crumbling relationship. Edges can also intrigue and entice as gateways, portals, and thresholds.

In ancient mythologies “liminal deities” preside over doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman pantheons, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of gateways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.janus

“Holy Saturday” sits on the potent edge between Good Friday and Easter, and it certainly qualifies as a peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves preparing for tomorrow’s liturgical festivities. Christian tradition has Jesus busy with something else.

On this day in the Christian imagination Jesus descends into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

chora_anastasis3One of my favorite depictions of this sacred edge resides in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. More accurately, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

I love Advent and Christmas for the reassurance that flesh matters. I love Epiphany for its expansive horizons of who celebrates God in flesh. I pay attention to Ash Wednesday (for the sake of my mortality) and Lent moves me to live for what matters. But Good Friday proves painful and Easter somehow premature. I love this day in between, this day that sits on the edge. It feels both honest and fantastical all at the same time.

Reflecting on edges I nearly always think of a beach, that liminal space where land and sea meet. Most human beings seem ineluctably drawn to those sandy liminal locations – dry yet also wet; solid but shifting; navigable while also treacherous. Humans stroll along them, launch ships from them, enjoy bonfires and picnics on them—and occasionally fall prey to their unpredictable dangers. A “day at the beach” can entail hours of frolicking in the surf yet they always lead back to the familiar comforts of a place to stand, or more likely to sit and enjoy food and drink.

I imagine the Eucharistic Table sitting on that kind of liminal edge, where Christians share bread and wine on the edge between memory and hope. There we remember suffering and death even as we proclaim resurrection. The former is barely past; the latter hasn’t quite yet arrived.table_beach

To me, Easter is above all a liminal, edgy season, which “Holy Saturday” captures so well. This season invites us to live on the edge, refusing to remain mired in a broken past yet not quite sure what stepping over the horizon will look like. Edgy living is both hopeful and humble, marked by a confidence about the future but without any swagger.

It also takes courage to live on the edge, which is why I’m grateful for this peculiar day and the postcard I imagine Jesus sending from his sojourn among the dead: “Don’t be afraid.”

As a spiritual practice I enjoy returning to some of my favorite hymn tunes and writing new lyrics to accompany them. I did that this Lenten season with the wonderful American folk melody, “Land of Rest” (you might recognize it from the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on US National Parks). I offer it here for a bit sustenance for our lives on the edge.

Harbor Home

From mountain high and ocean deep
along a distant shore,
a starry host with vigil keep
a bright and open door.

Unfurl the sails to conquer fear
‘midst gale and storm-tossed wave,
the Spirit guides all creatures dear,
these mortal ships to save.

The Table set in trackless seas
where Christ before us trod,
will chart the course with mysteries
to harbor home in God.

(Words: ©2013, Jay Emerson Johnson
Music: Land of Rest, American folk melody)

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The Mayans Were Wrong, but Mostly Right: Advent and Apocalypse

World-ending moments are no laughing matter; I take them quite seriously. But let’s be clear about this: whatever might happen on December 21, 2012, it won’t even come close to resembling 2012, the blockbuster film by Roland Emmerich (even though I enjoyed watching it).

mayan_apocalypseLet’s be clear about this, too: as 12/21/12 unfolds mostly like every other day, that won’t mean that the Mayans were “wrong.” It will mean that certain interpretations of a wonderful artifact of an ancient civilization were wrong. But that doesn’t mean that the ancient Mayans have nothing to say to us today.

I think the Mayans were profoundly right about this: time has punctuation points. That insight seems embedded in the calendric genius of that Mesoamerican people. All sorts of worlds come to an end on a regular basis – personal, familial, social, political, and ecological “worlds” end with astonishing regularity.

Just reflect on the otherwise mundane moment of your childhood world ending in an onslaught of hormones that ushers in a new world of adolescence and eventually adulthood. Consider the world of collegiate companionship and study ending with “commencement.” How about the intimate world of marriage ending in divorce? And didn’t the world of Medieval Christendom reach a dramatic end in the Protestant Reformation? How about the world of established churches ending in the American Revolution? Is the world of heterosexual privilege ending with each new moment of legislated marriage equality? How much of the world of Jim Crow lingers even after the Civil Rights Act?

All sorts of “worlds” end all the time, nearly every day. The question is not if they will end but rather what we shall do in their midst and in their wake.

World-ending moments can mark profound beginnings as well, even when they seem to elude us. That’s how I read the Mayan calendar, not about specific dates but about punctuation points: worlds end and new ones emerge.

That’s how I read the Christian gospel texts as well. Those texts seem to offer a truly peculiar insight about world-ending moments. Precisely when the “world” of the first-century Jesus movement appeared to reach a tragic end with crucifixion, just then something new blossomed forth. That’s the logic of Advent as well, though wonderfully peculiar: the birth of a baby signals the end of a world. A new one is coming…

Ah, but there’s the rub, right? How do we cope with our various worlds ending even when new ones are peaking over the horizon? Why do worlds usually end in pain? What do we do with all that suffering?

In the face of such questions, I can only hold on to the glimmers of light, the slight flickers of a single candle in the darkness. Whatever spiritual discipline I can muster, it’s rooted there: nurturing the embers of hope when advent_candles2world-ending moments loom:

  • For four years I lived in a domestic world in which my mother lived with me. That world ended when Mom moved, this past October, to an elder-care residence. She’s safer there and I’m saner. But that world-ending moment is still tinged with sadness;
  • My childhood world of Evangelical Christian faith collapsed when I came out as gay man at Wheaton College (in Illinois!). A whole new world emerged in its wake, but I was deeply saddened by that experience of abandonment;
  • My friends who divorce, friends with miscarried pregnancies, a fire in a church building, a dear one with cancer, a beloved pet who dies, moving to a new city – lights flicker in all this but threaten to go out in the flood of violence.

At least twenty-seven worlds ended this past Friday in Connecticut, punctuated by the horrific deaths of children. These worlds echo the ones that end nearly every day in every Metropolitan center in the U.S. For me, it’s hard to imagine anything worse.

In the midst of world-ending moments, I don’t look for “answers” anymore. I look for relationships. I don’t see any other way forward. So if you want to prepare for world-ending moments, let me suggest a “to do list.” (And I would gladly welcome suggestions for how to do these things and to add to the list.)

  1. Love Fiercely. Very little if anything matters as much as this. Even more, it’s the one thing that lasts. “Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs, 8:7) because “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Don’t ever miss an opportunity to love, because love is stronger than death.
  2. Forgive Freely. So many of us hold on to so much that really doesn’t matter. Let it go. I mean the small slights and the big ones. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to human community. How can we possibly forgive what seems unforgivable? I don’t know. But I do know that upon that question so much depends.
  3. Act Boldly. You don’t have to stand at a podium on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to do this. You can write a letter, send an email, actually talk to your Starbuck’s barista. Just break the shells of our isolation. Meet your neighbors. Visit your local food bank. Volunteer there.
  4. Huddle Close. Forget Martha Stewart holiday planning (trust me, this is difficult for me). Just relish being close to loved ones. Establish beachheads of fierce love and free forgiveness in your home. Hold all those wacky people close. Relish the “word made flesh” in them, even if you can’t speak it.

communityHere’s the thing: worlds end. In the end, I turn to this, from the prayer for the first Sunday of Advent in The Book of Common Prayer: “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” That “armor” is love.

Just love.

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Church Metrics and the Widow’s Mite: Butts on Pews

‘Tis the season for church stewardship drives and, thus, clergy panic attacks. I suspect many diocesan health insurance plans see a spike in anti-anxiety medication this time of year, and for good reason. Funding congregational ministries is time-consuming and expensive, especially in shrinking congregations.

The latest news about mainline decline only fuels this traditional consternation. Changing demographics, empty pews, a crisis of relevance, worn-out evangelism methods…the list goes on and on. What to do?

I do think attending carefully to demographic studies and surveys, as well as the latest “best practices” about community organizing is important. But perhaps not quite so important as all the panic around it might otherwise indicate.

Theologically, I’m convinced that the Church is in the business of putting itself out of business. The mission of the Church, after all, is not the Church but the coming reign of God. Josiah Royce, an early-twentieth century philosopher of religion, urged us to look for “no triumph of the Christian Church.” He meant that the point of the Church is not the Church but that toward which it is supposed to point: The Beloved Community.

That said, what do we do in the meantime? In this “mean time,” what are we to do before the divine reign of the Beloved Community is a reality? There are many responses to that question that we all need to consider carefully. Here’s just one: stop obsessing about how many butts sit on pews.

That’s much easier said than done when bills have to be paid. But is that the only way Christians want to measure the effectiveness of their witness to the Gospel?

I posted recently about the tragic fire that destroyed a portion of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California. This church has been a beacon of Gospel hope to me in so many ways for nearly twenty years. While I’m torn, sad, and devastated by what that fire wrought, I’m also profoundly grateful for what it has inspired, not only in me but in the small community that gathers there, week by week.

The Rev. Este Cantor, the Vicar at Good Shepherd, preached a remarkable sermon a few weeks ago. The lectionary passages that week included the gospel story of the widow who gave all she had to the Temple while the wealthy gave only a small portion of their wealth. That is of course a classic “lectionary set-up” to encourage people to give more in stewardship season, to give “sacrificially” for the cause. Este didn’t go there. She went somewhere else that I found profoundly moving.

I share some excerpts here of her sermon not only for the hope she inspired among us at Good Shepherd but for the insights to be mined from it about the mission of the Church and how all of us might think differently about pledge campaigns in our congregations. Among those insights, I offer just two:

1. Beware of Institutional Survival
Este’s sermon reminded me of the late Walter Wink’s great insight about institutions: whenever any institution devotes more energy and time to its own survival rather than to its mission, that institution has become demonic. Este took that insight to heart with the familiar story of the widow’s mite:

If we listen to today’s gospel passage carefully, we are warned away from the common interpretation of the gift of the widow, that she is a virtuous model for the ultimate sacrifice. In the beginning of the passage Jesus tells us of the scribes, who wear their expensive long robes, and have the best seats in the synagogues, and who also devour widow’s houses. What is implied is that the true order of the Kingdom has been corrupted. Instead of supporting the poor, the temple is supported by taking every cent the poor possess.

Let’s be clear about that for which we are asking sacrificial giving. Is it only for institutional life-support or a transformed society, a new world? (If you’re clergy, don’t answer that question too quickly.)

2. Look Beyond the Pews
This is a truism worth repeating: We have no idea what our witness accomplishes. If we measure our witness to the Gospel by how many sit in our pews on Sunday morning we will likely miss what the Spirit is doing with what we offer. In the wake of Good Shepherd’s fire, Este offered this in her sermon:

In the midst of the shock and sadness, the chaos and the ugliness of cinders replacing objects of beauty, there have been the unmistakable stirrings of new life. Perhaps the most surprising response came when I walked the neighborhood to pass out a small flyer meant to thank our neighbors for their support and concern, and to assure them that we would rebuild. I thought I would be through in about an hour, but the first neighbor kept me for forty minutes! He couldn’t stop saying how much the church meant to him, how it was an “anchor to the whole neighborhood.” He wanted to know when we would have a fund-raiser and how else he could help us.  Everyone I spoke with was greatly relieved to hear that we were going to rebuild. They gave me their contact info and asked me to keep them up to date on our progress. These were people who have never darkened the door of our church, except perhaps for a neighborhood meeting or a concert. It was as if they worship in this church in a different way. They were obviously very glad that we are here, doing what we do, perhaps even rejoicing that we make our spiritual offerings whether they are with us or not.

How, I have to wonder, is that experience captured in Pew Research surveys of religious affiliation and practice? Never, ever underestimate the witness of a building, a program, a sermon, a concert, a community meeting! What any church does cannot be measured by how many people sit in the pews on a Sunday morning.

Clearly, Christian congregations face enormous challenges today. Yet the Spirit of God is moving among all of us and doing things that we cannot now imagine or appreciate. I believe this from reading the Bible and from studying Christian history.

But I do all this peculiar Christian work for another reason as well: my worship experience with a tiny band of resolute “sheep” of the Good Shepherd who mourn the loss of their beloved physical space yet insist that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).

That remarkable declaration of hope from Paul is the heart of the mission of the Church. Let’s reclaim it.

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Matter Matters: The Fire in the Belly of Christian Faith

I’m a Christian for many reasons. Chief among them is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. But that sounds too abstract. Let me try to be clearer.

Every scrap, every jot and tittle, every tiny bit of matter matters in the grand scheme of divine reality, which includes everything, absolutely every tidbit of every last chunk of everything. Reflect on that in your own life and don’t stop when you come to something you think is trivial, silly, dirty, shameful, fleeting, self-indulgent, gratuitous, or unworthy. Everything matters. Matter matters, absolutely.

Or try this: ever stumbled on 40-year old baby clothes in the attic? Do you have a “junk” drawer full of ostensibly meaningless artifacts of a history about which no one knows anything? Ever find some photos that took you a moment to identify and place?

Matter matters. This peculiar grounding in matter for Christian faith came vividly to light this past weekend when the gorgeous and quirky little mission congregation where I have been affiliated since 1992 suffered a devastating fire on Saturday night.

The carpenter-Gothic gem of West Berkeley was built in 1878 and has lived through every earthquake since then, as well as 1960s Black Panther breakfasts in the parish hall, an MCC and an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation, Head Start and after-school tutoring programs, pioneering liturgies, ridiculously ambitious fund-raising schemes, scrappy communities of Gospel resilience and hope, and not a few moments when everyone wondered whether we would survive.

This fire is certainly not an end for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, but yet another beginning. But that’s not my point here. I invite you to look at, contemplate, and reflect on the photo posted here of Good Shepherd’s interior post-fire.

This photo breaks my heart and it re-energizes my hope. That confluence of grief and hope sits at the very heart of Christian faith and it shines forth from this photo. Notice the Eucharistic Table still standing there, bathed in light from the opening of the (sadly, tragically, horribly) destroyed stained glass window of the Good Shepherd.

The stained glass was destroyed but not the light, and it shines on the Table. For more than a century – for 134 years to be exact – that Table has borne witness to a truly astonishing and peculiar claim: God brings forth life from death. That is the kernel of the Gospel. We don’t just remember the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus at that table. We remember as well the promise of new life, of resurrection – of bodily life. Matter matters.

Both must be proclaimed, both the memory of pain and the hope of life. The former without the latter leads only to despair; the latter without the former leads only to utopia (literally “no place”). Christians live in that peculiar space in-between, that liminal space between sensible despair and ludicrous hope. Christians place a table in that space, and we share bread and wine there.

Good Shepherd has stubbornly and gracefully provided a witness to that Gospel claim in countless ways over the last 134 years. We have done so very rarely with platitudes or slogans. Good Shepherd “sheep” have been diverse, coarse, down-to-earth, and nitty-gritty in their spirituality – precisely what Jesus would expect. (The now-destroyed Good Shepherd window bore witness to all of this in the wonderfully eccentric “sheep” portrayed in it; we’ll just have to reproduce and update those markers in that window’s next iteration.)

I was sorely tempted over the last few days to deny how deeply saddened I am by this fire. I didn’t want to grant that much significance to a building. After all, the Church (with a capital “C”) is not physical structures but people.

Of course that’s true, but there’s more. Places, neighborhoods, buildings, sidewalks, stained-glass windows, baptismal fonts, altar books, historical records, and linens – all these things matter. Matter matters.

I share here just a few of my own memories of why the Good Shepherd space matters to me and I invite you to offer your own memories of your own spaces that matter in the comments. Let’s create an online tapestry of why matter matters. Just a few of my hallmarks:

  • Baptizing my godson, Louis Peterson, at the font that stood beneath a lovely stained glass image of an angel playing a violin;
  • The baptism of Paula White under that same violin-angel; she was baptized as an adult, and she actually plays the violin;
  • The day when James Tramel was released from prison, where he had been ordained, and stood beneath the Good Shepherd window with his faith family;
  • The blessing of the union between the Rev. Kathleen Van Sickle and the Rev. Barbara Hill back in the 1990s – a service designed by the congregation and approved by the bishop;
  • Passing the latest newborn baby around the congregation during a service, as if the baby belongs to everyone – which is true;
  • Ringing the bell in the tower on the first anniversary of the 911 terrorist attacks with Berkeley Fire Department representatives present; that tower originally served both the church and the surrounding neighborhood as the fire tower (graceful irony – that tower survived this fire!);
  • Overflow seating in the tiny narthex on an Easter Sunday morning as the building itself tried its best to accommodate joy.

Matter matters. All these memories and so many more are firmly attached to the fading wood, the yellowed glass, the unraveling carpet, the warped floors, the uncomfortable pews, the wheel-chair ramp, the pulpit that so many preachers have gripped with white knuckles, the nails in the beams where Christmas greens were hung, the Easter flowers were draped, and the Pentecost banners were tied…

Yes, matter matters. But so do the memories, which no fire can destroy. That’s the Gospel. Nothing is ever lost. All is bathed in the light of promise.

I am not grateful for the fire; I am grateful for the way its grief has reminded me of what matters.

(If you are so inclined, we Berkeley sheep of the Good Shepherd could use your financial help. Go here to make a secure online donation)

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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 2: Re-Membering

Somewhere between the Borg and the Lone Ranger humanity thrives. How to define precisely where that Goldilocks sweet spot is (to toss in another cultural reference) varies depending on historical era and social location.

But we need to be very clear about this: The United States has never even come close to Borg-style “collectivism” (as Ayn Rand called it). To the contrary, the dominant Anglo-European (a.k.a. white) culture in the United States has instead preferred to idealize Lone-Ranger-style individualism, frontier independence, and to resist notions of shared responsibility (except in times of great peril, such as World War II).

In that light, it is nearly miraculous that the U.S. Congress ever passed the Social Security Act, provided Medicare for senior citizens, Medicaid to the poor, or food stamps for the hungry. Yet even those modest victories in shouldering one another’s burdens now stand at risk, especially if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win the election this November.

Social policy is important, but that’s not what’s really at stake in this election. Two very different visions for the future of this country are on the ballot this fall. And the differences are deeply philosophical, ideological, and yes, religious.

Faith communities of all kinds have an important role to play in these debates, not for the sake of imposing religious beliefs on anyone, but for bearing witness to our shared humanity in communities of generosity and service. (We can also draw on ostensibly “non-religious” sources for these important insights, such as this compelling piece that appeared recently in the New York Times on the “delusion of individualism.”)

Christian communities in particular would do well to reflect on our own traditions as November approaches. Here are just two observations among many.

“Socialism” is not Code for “Godless Communism”
Some self-styled “conservative” Christians still worry about this. A blog devoted to this anxiety actually referenced one of my blog posts as the writer issued a warning about liberal clergy undermining individual freedom in favor of state control.

I don’t take that anxiety lightly; I think Jesus actually shared it. Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire and died by its hand. He knew something about fragmented communities, and how religion can quickly acquiesce to imperial power, and what the struggles of the poor and outcast look like.

I think the first-century Jesus would have understood very well what led Ayn Rand to choose so definitively for the self against all its encroachments. Roman soldiers were present at nearly every street corner. They monitored every transaction at the temple in Jerusalem (prompting Jesus to acts of civil disobedience). They levied taxes “without representation” and demanded loyalty to the Emperor.

If you’re living under the kind of imperial power that quashes all individuality (or even perceiving yourself to be), opting for the self over all else makes sense. But Jesus chose a different path: creating a community of disciples whom he called his family; taking on the role of a servant, washing their feet, and telling them to do the same thing; and eventually giving his life for the sake of love.

Eucharistic Theology isn’t Just for Sunday Mornings
In a world of deep fragmentation and, as I suggested in Part 1 of this blog series, in a society perched on the brink of social “dismemberment,” the Christian celebration of the Eucharist has at its heart the Greek concept of anamnesis. We usually associate this word with memory, or the opposite of “amnesia.” But it evokes something stronger: the act of re-membering what has been torn apart.

Many Christian communities over the last few weeks have been hearing from John’s gospel on Sunday mornings about bread, about the feeding of 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish, about the “manna in the wilderness,” and about Jesus’ own body as the bread of the world.

Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus turned often to these passages in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to describe the Eucharist. And they did so by evoking the image of the many grains of wheat scattered over a hillside gathered into a single loaf of bread – the dismembered is re-membered as food for the world.

There precisely is where my theological conservatism and my social liberalism intersect. God gives God’s own self for the good of God’s own creation. And this creates a community whose members do the same thing.

The Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski of New Spirit Community Church often refers to the Eucharist like this:

What we do at this table is what we want to see in the world: all are welcome; there is enough for everyone; and no one is turned away.

Christians have something to say about Rand-style selfishness that now infects today’s political discourse. And we say it every time we gather around a table to share bread and wine, as we gather to re-member again what has been dis-membered.

That’s the hopeful vision we can and should take with us into the public square. I would call it “socialism,” but it certainly isn’t godless.