I live with a shepherd. His name is Judah, but he’s not a human being; he’s a canine, an Australian shepherd dog.
Just in case I’m in any danger of forgetting his genetic predispositions as a shepherd, he will sometimes circle around behind me on our walks when we’re crossing a street, to herd me safely across to the other side.
It was during one of those herding moments in downtown Saugatuck recently that my Christmas gaze landed on what we hear from Luke every year—the prominent role played by shepherds in the Nativity.
To break my sentimentality around that story, I need to recall some of the socially complex features of shepherds in the first-century Mediterranean world. They performed essential work to ensure the thriving of their communities but it was mostly thankless and invisible work. Shepherding was an occupation on the margins of that society, literally marginal as shepherds were required to do their work at a fixed distance from the city gates.
The work itself was challenging. Shepherds had to wrangle obstinate sheep and fend off predators, not only wolves but also larger animals, like bears and lions. They sometimes had to fend off humans, too, the sheep-stealers who would approach the herd under the cover of darkness. That’s why the shepherds in Luke’s story were awake that night, guarding the sheep.
Everyone knew how much they relied on shepherds for their economic flourishing but they were nonetheless treated as outsiders—“dirty, unsophisticated, brutish and vulgar,” as one commentator put it.
It takes little effort to imagine similar occupations in our own society today. I can’t help but think of the migrant farmworkers in the central valley of California, near where I used to live, and now closer to my new home in the fields and orchards of southwest Michigan during peak harvest.
In this affluent resort town, we live very near to a whole class of people most of us who live here seldom see or even think about, yet without whose work the shelves in our grocery stores and markets would have far fewer fruits and vegetables on them; some of these workers actually go hungry themselves.
To people like that, Luke says—from ancient shepherds to today’s migrant farmworkers—an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
Luke reports what this angel was sent to proclaim and he reports it this way: “I am bringing you good news,” the angel says, “good news of great joy for all the people.”
For all the people. So here’s at least one reason why Luke has this angel show up first to shepherds—to make clear that the good news meant for “all the people” really does mean all, no exceptions.
“For unto you,” the angel says, “is born this day, in the City of David, a savior”—not only for the wealthy, or the powerful, or the influencers, or the movers and shakers, but for all the people, starting with the ones whom we rarely see and who don’t seem to count.
Now, that would have been enough, more than enough, for that tiny band of shepherds to absorb. It’s not every day, after all, that an angel pays you a visit in the middle of the night and makes your hillside bright with the glory of God.
But there was more.
After this solitary angel delivered the message, the whole sky above them was suddenly filled with a host of angelic beings singing God’s praise.
That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Surely the splendor of a single angel would have sufficed to deliver the message.
What might Luke’s purpose be in giving us this Technicolor spectacle of heavenly radiance and divine praise? Why all the fuss?
Luke gives us some hints about this by starting his account of the gospel with an elderly, childless woman who becomes pregnant, and then a young, unmarried virgin who becomes pregnant, and throughout his gospel account with story after story of the powerless, the lonely, the fearful, the marginalized and outcast all taking center stage as the story unfolds about the baby born this night.
A single, solitary angel, no matter how splendid, would not suffice for Luke’s purpose. To those shepherds and everyone else who lives as they do—on the margins and invisible—for them Luke wants to ensure that they hear the good news:
you are not forgotten; you have not been overlooked; your lives matter and you count.
So…here’s a heavenly host singing just for you!
Yes, it is excessive.
Indeed, it’s just as excessive as the grace that embraced the prodigal son and that was offered by the good Samaritan to the injured traveler; just as excessive as the compassion given to the widow of Nain whose son had died, to the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears; just as excessive as the generosity shown to Zaccheus the tax collector and the Samaritan leper who was healed—these are just some of the stories that appear only in Luke’s account of the gospel.
Of course a whole heavenly host of angels would sing for just a few ragtag shepherds in a field. Because this is Luke telling the story, and Luke opens his account of the Gospel with a young girl praising God for bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
That song of Mary is found only in Luke as well.
May we hear her song throughout these Twelve Days of Christmas, echoed in that angelic chorus of praise. May we hear that song reminding us that the God we worship leaves no one behind; and showers grace first of all on those who are easily forgotten and dismissed; and for all of us becomes touchable, tangible love, a love we can cradle in our arms, like a baby.
I have been a bit surprised by where my routine of daily morning prayer has been leading me over the last two or three years. Reflecting on my own life, my friends and colleagues, the chaotic world around us, an unexpected phrase keeps surfacing: the need for healing.
I don’t often think much about healing, unless I’m knocked off my feet with the flu or a friend is facing a health crisis, and it hardly comes to mind at all when sorting through the jumble of American politics and social unrest—until recently. Now I can hardly think of anything else as my incredulity and consternation grow while reading the daily news.
The biblical texts many Christians heard in church yesterday inspired renewed attention to this theme that just won’t let me go, and for both personal and more widely social reasons. The more personal one: my Australian shepherd dog Judah has been suffering with a really nasty “hot spot,” a painful and terribly itchy skin infection on his butt. Dog people know what this means: Judah requires constant monitoring to get well.
I have been profoundly grateful to my two housemates, Todd and Miguel, who have been helping me and without whom I’m not sure how I would be managing to care for Judah. That alone, in a relatively small but still significant way, has reminded me that healing is far more social and communal than most of us likely appreciate.
And, conversely, the causes of dis-ease are more often rooted in complex social systems than most of us usually realize.
Back in the 1970s, the medical profession just assumed that corporate executives of major corporations were more likely than others to succumb to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks because of their high-stress positions. Later studies have shown that just the opposite is true: the lower one is on the social and economic hierarchy, the lower one’s life expectancy.
It turns out that social status is the most powerful determinant for health outcomes related to cardiovascular, pulmonary, psychiatric, and rheumatologic diseases and some types of cancer. People in countries with narrow wealth and income gaps, for example, enjoy a relatively high life expectancy compared to the United States, which has one of the lowest among industrialized nations.
Race matters for many reasons, not least because of the constant hyper-vigilance people of color must sustain in order to survive in a society of white supremacy; such vigilance keeps blood pressure elevated (even while taking blood pressure medication) and metabolic systems depleted (even on a healthy diet with regular exercise).
Issues of personal and collective health kept running through my thoughts as I pondered those lectionary texts. Healing itself became the frame through which I read them as I prepared to preach on them.
Each one of those texts—from the prophet Jeremiah, the letter to the Ephesians, and the Gospel according to Mark—each comes from a distinctive time and place, addressing its own peculiar concerns, and yet each one evokes for me a profound social disease that we have been living with for a long time, a disease that has now become so painfully apparent as to be all but intolerable.
I mean the institutional mechanisms that relentlessly divide and fragment the human family—divisions wrought by fear and hatred, fragmentation expressed in hostility and violence, and then experienced as isolation and alienation.
“Woe to the shepherds,” Jeremiah writes (23:1-2), “who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” You shepherds of my people, God says, “it is you who have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and not attended to them.”
How remarkably fresh an ancient text can sound, and even more so with a bit of historical context thrown in! In the midst of regional instability with mighty kingdoms vying for power, Jeremiah is writing at a time when a powerful empire is threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Judah from the outside while the kingdom’s own evil-doing leaders on the inside divide and fragment and scatter their people.
Still more consonant is the letter to the Ephesians (2:11-22), a letter obviously not written to the United States but to first-century Ephesians. And still, the diagnosis of the human predicament in that letter and its hope for healing again sound so remarkably fresh.
Think on today’s geo-political realities with these phrases from that ancient letter, phrases about those who were foreigners by birth, aliens to the commonwealth, strangers to the promise, separated by a dividing wall of hostility.
Think as well on these phrases of the hopeful promise in this same letter: the proclamation of peace to those who were far off and to those who were near, those who are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
This bears repeating: that letter was not originally written for us. And yet, and still, can we not hear in the otherwise arcane religious parsing of that text a lament over divided, fragmented communities and the passionate yearning for wholeness?
I would invite listening for those same themes in the passage from Mark’s account of the gospel that so many heard yesterday (6:30-34, 53-56), and especially what Mark describes right toward the end of that text.
It’s one of many stories about Jesus the healer. But I noticed something that I never thought about before: wherever Jesus went, Mark says, the people laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Jesus for a healing touch.
I find that an odd but compelling image—they laid sick people in the marketplace.
I usually think of these healing stories as encounters between Jesus and an individual, often in private. But this one is between Jesus and a whole mass of sick people, so many that they are laid out in a public place, likely in the center of town, and not just any place, but a marketplace—a place of commerce and economic exchange.
I always try to remember that there are no random details in these stories; it mattered to Mark that these people were laid out in a “marketplace.”
I also try to remember the context of these stories and why it matters: they come from a people under siege by an imperial power, occupied by the might of Rome.
Reflecting on that context, I turn often to biblical scholar Walter Wink and his riveting description of what “empire” actually entails. He refers to this as “The Domination System”:
The system is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all…from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism (from Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium).
Wink, among others, would urge us to read gospel stories of healing more directly in that context of imperial domination. Surely it is no mere coincidence that the symptoms Jesus often encounters among the sick and demon possessed mirror the effects of being colonized and taken over by an imperial power with economic and military force: irrational fears, dissociation, mania, psychosis, alienation from family and friends, isolation from the wider community, and all of this as a debilitating and disempowering trauma manifested in all manner of physical, psychological, and spiritual disease.
It mattered to Mark that the sick were laid out in a marketplace, a primary location for disenfranchising the poor, the outcast, and powerless. Let us also notice the means by which these people were healed—by reaching out merely to touch the garment Jesus was wearing.
I find this so moving, unraveling, bracing: Whatever else they hoped Jesus would heal, they were reaching out for connection, for belonging, for the restoration of relationship in the midst of alienation and fragmentation—in the midst of a marketplace.
Such a modest gesture, just reaching out for touch—but how vital in systems that oppress and isolate to hope once again for belonging.
Reading these biblical texts through that frame of a profound social disease quickly brought to mind the Eucharistic Table at the heart of Christian worship. What I have not often pondered about that Table suddenly appeared in bold relief: to approach it as a source of divine healing.
The Domination System wounds everyone, though clearly in varying degrees and with diverse effects. Empire will always train us to map our sense of self and self-worth to the color of our skin, how much money we make, the kind of work we do, whom we love, the genders we manifest, the number of degrees we’ve earned, if any.
Few of us have any idea who we even are apart from these classifying marks, all this “imperial branding.”
These wounds fester, often unnoticed, then suddenly appear whenever we treat those who are different from us with suspicion, or fear, or outright hostility.
Left untended, these wounds shape the institutions and organizations we create and populate, where the wounding continues from one generation to the next. Wounded people make broken and harmful systems.
We scarcely notice those cycles of transmitted wounds until God interrupts them, gently but surprisingly, by offering God’s own self to us. At that Table of self-offering, social status makes no difference whatsoever for the health outcomes of God’s grace and generosity—no birth certificate, passport, green card, driver’s license, paycheck stub, or insurance card required.
This healing gift of God’s own life matters, more than we might imagine. In a deeply divided and fragmented world, the Table invites what theologian M. Shawn Copeland calls “Eucharistic solidarity.”
We stand at that Table, Copeland writes, oriented toward “the lynched body of Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal.”
In his raised body—of which we are the members—God interrupts the structures of oppression and violence, offering us a new way of being in the world, “a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.”
I confess: in writing in this way about the Bible, about church and Eucharist, I frequently think I’m woefully naïve, a hopeful but mostly not terribly useful romantic.
And still, and yet, there must be a different way of being the world, there simply must be. And I’m not ready, not yet, to give up on the queer way Jesus modeled a wholly/holy way of living for the healing and flourishing of all.
Jesus modeled this most queerly, perhaps, at the Table. There the Domination System is not overthrown with retribution or violence (in ways some of his own disciples hoped he would lead). Instead, he offers hope that the System itself will be healed with the solidarity of love.
As Copeland concisely and so beautifully suggests, “the Eucharistic banquet re-orders us, re-members us, restores us, and makes us one.”
May it be so—for all its naïve hopefulness—may it be so.
Everyone migrates, whether a few short blocks every day or across continents over many weeks, and the land we cross doesn’t actually belong to anyone but God.
That claim scrambles how most people organize the world we currently inhabit. But I’m not sure if I’m willing to live its implications – a borderless world with no political boundaries, let alone gated communities, designated wetlands, national parks, secured parking garages, and countless other spaces marked with painted or fenced lines.
But I am sure of this: modern Western society perfected a system of belonging that has very little if anything to do with actual land and terrain and nearly everything to do with political allegiance and religious affiliation. And this, too: navigating that system – migrating – carries enormous economic and cultural consequences, often life-and-death choices. And one more thing: belonging is never clear and absolute, despite both legal and political rhetoric to the contrary; it’s always ambiguous, intentionally.
I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on television. I was fascinated by the behavioral patterns of different species of animals, including the mind-numbing treks whales take across oceans and the ones managed by butterflies over vast fields and mountain ranges. Canada geese caught my attention every fall and each spring, their honking migration punctuating my walk to school.
I grew up in a settled suburb in one house for my entire childhood. Migration is what other species do, I thought, not humans. But of course, our species migrates constantly and always has. We began somewhere on the continent of Africa and then walked, for a long time, and filled the planet.
We migrate for many reasons – wanderlust, better resources, fleeing violence, escaping tyranny, following a lover who got a great job offer. But these movements are rarely unfettered.
Those people are taking our jobs. We don’t have enough resources for them. Our cultural heritage is being destroyed. They bring chaos and violence.
These are not new concerns. The ancient Israelites worried about “exotic” cultural practices staining their religious life (we find this in texts supposedly condemning gay men like me). Early Christians worried about “pagans” and gentiles corrupting their newly gestating faith (which would include, well, gentile men like me).
And yet, sacred texts likewise declare the primacy of caring for the stranger and sojourner in our midst (Leviticus 19:34 – the same book, ironically, that worries about exotic influences); insist on pilgrimage as a vital characteristic of faith (Hebrews 13:14); and portray Jesus himself fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his parents, presumably without a passport (Matthew 2:13).
I keep wondering why migration so quickly provokes anxiety and panic, and I keep returning to money and power.
Even in an age of multi-national corporations, Cavanaugh insists that corporate entities require national boundaries to regulate the flow of human capital – think Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley of California picking the fruit I buy at Trader Joe’s. Think as well on the fear they live with every day, which keeps them willing to work for wages I wouldn’t take and under conditions I would not accept.
That’s the money part. The power part is drenched in white supremacy. “Whiteness” is no less an invention of Euro-Americans than the borders defining nation-states; both will be defended to the death. Post-Civil War Reconstruction and the regime of Jim Crow made this perfectly clear: “Whiteness” depends on the proximity of a subservient “other,” a vast underclass of colored people against which “Whiteness” itself is defined. Equality is the presenting heresy in this worldview, not the mere presence of people of color.
“White nationalist” rhetoric would seem at odds with this view, but only at first blush. White nationalists do want to be separated from people of color, but not so far away as to lose reasons for their superiority. I recoil at the crudeness of this, its vulgarity.
Perhaps I recoil too much, sitting on my heap of white, male, economic privileges. I’m not talking about guilt – though it does linger unhelpfully around the edges. I mean: how many borders and boundaries am I willing to let dissolve and fade away in the light of the Gospel? How much do I rely on all those demarcations for my own sense of self and safety?
I struggle with these questions and can’t imagine trying to respond by myself. That’s why I keep going to church, to the Eucharistic Table, to that borderless access to divine life. There I can be reminded, or try to be, that we’re all in this together; that there is no safety in isolation; that our shared distress is rooted in powerful forces that would keep us separated. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t risk what I must, without others.
Protesting at rallies, lobbying Congress, advocating for policy changes, resisting the totalizing effects of global capitalism – all of that matters. These matter, too: dinner parties with our neighbors whose names we don’t know and who speak with an “accent”; noticing the people we work with whose skin color is different and whether everyone makes the same wage; stopping the car and talking with the fruit sellers on the corner, the day-laborers at Home Depot, the imam down the street.
We get to know people, care for them, find ourselves happily in solidarity with them, and we might suddenly decide to chain ourselves to a DACA deportee; if they go, we go. Because we, all of us, are a migratory species.
I like to imagine St. Paul nodding his head vigorously as he sits in prison, in chains, writing from his detention cell. That saint who insisted that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female (Galatians 3:28) – no green-carder, no passport-holder, no citizen, no refugee, no ESL graduate. There are only creatures of God, all of us longing for home, to belong.
I see this – not always, but often enough – as I migrate to the Table.
“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God declares, “and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Many Christians heard that biblical text yesterday in church, for the Feast of Pentecost.
Prophecy only occasionally has anything to do with predicting far-off future events. Biblical prophets more often see the present with vivid clarity and then say uncomfortable things about it. That clarity of vision sometimes happens in a dream but mostly we have to be awake, with our eyes wide open.
As I thought about prophesy on Pentecost, here’s a short list of what came to mind: intractable social problems; dysfunctional political parties; erosion of the common good; a whole generation or more without any grounding in a religious tradition; and polar bears swimming for their lives without any ice in sight while poachers profit from slaughtering elephants. The list would be longer if I were more awake.
I believe most citizens of the North Atlantic (myself included) are sleepwalking through a cataclysm. I’m not sure what will wake us; perhaps only divine intervention can interrupt our somnambulist delusions.
Sound alarmist? A current catalogue of crises would begin with these:
About ten days ago this planet registered over 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a level not seen for roughly three million years, even while we frack for more gas and scrape the bottom of oil-sands barrels; the irreversible tipping point for global climate change swiftly approaches and we may have just passed it (here’s a startling graph of the problem).
We now live with the most severe gap between those who control not only national but global wealth and resources and those who have virtually nothing; even conservative economists consider that gap unsustainable and it maps closely to the widening gap in education.
Yet another gap widens with alarming speed, the one between ideology and facts; just witness what happened to Bill Nye (the “science guy”) when he noted for a Texas audience that the moon actually reflects the sun’s light (he was booed) or what a Christian pastor said about Christianity as the founding religion of the United States that now stands at risk from homosexual activists (this matters because that pastor is now the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia).
All the boring stuff about infrastructure will soon seem far less boring when this nation’s duct-taped electricity grid crashes, or when the more than 4,000 dams at risk of failure actually fail, or when the next 70-year old gas pipeline explodes; the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+.
The wildly disproportionate number of African American men incarcerated in the U.S. strongly suggests that Jim-Crow culture never really ended but merely changed tactics, which includes keeping the poor in poverty and restricting their access to education.
I imagine most people think about that catalogue of socio-political problems as discrete items on a check-list. Most of us likely recognize some of their intersections and overlaps. Relatively few, however, would include all of those and more in a description of a single event, as the word “cataclysm” suggests. But that’s precisely what I now believe we must do.
I believe we are witnessing in slow-motion a singular, cataclysmic unraveling of community, of the social bonds that have for millennia enabled humans to survive and thrive. Those bonds now include the indispensable relationships with varied ecosystems, both local and global. To be sure, many of us enjoy resilient, thriving communal bonds, even if only in our households or neighborhoods. But this is not enough, not by far, not in an era of global commerce and planetary-interdependence.
Most of us are happily sleepwalking through this cataclysm, though mostly through no fault of our own. The very conditions that set the stage for this unfolding disaster have ingeniously hidden their mechanisms from view behind a screen of comfort. As I write this, I sit in a beautiful backyard garden surrounded by budding fruit trees next to a house with an affordable mortgage. Very little about where I sit would encourage me to wake up.
Many would of course lay the blame for our sleepy state at the feet of religion, especially Christianity. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Marcella Althaus-Reid (one of the more traditionalist and therefore queer theologians I know) argued that Western Christians have been lulled into a compliant sleep by adopting Western cultural sensibilities as benchmarks for Gospel values. That wedding of modern Western culture and institutional Christianity may well qualify as one of the biggest blunders in Christian history, perhaps second only to the quasi-official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
To the many solutions Althaus-Reid proposed to this quandary, I would add this: divine intervention. I do not mean the kind Cecil B. DeMille imagined in his silver-screen Bible epics. Divine intervention will look today like it always has, vividly illustrated by Pentecost but without the special effects. Luke’s biblical account of the earliest Christians in his Acts of the Apostles relies on very few divine pyrotechnics. He portrays instead completely ordinary people doing wildly extraordinary things, all of them inspired and cajoled by the Spirit. Luke describes that Pentecostal effect: Christians turned the world upside down (17:6).
In the midst of an unfolding cataclysm, we need some world-changing prophecy. I’m actually very hopeful that the Spirit will do today what she has done so many times before – wake us up to see the world with prophetic clarity.
When that happens, we will need another gift from that same Spirit: the ability and willingness to understand one other beyond the many linguistic and cultural barriers that divide us. And still another gift: the love that makes friends from enemies and family from friends. And yet one more, perhaps above all the others: courage.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.
If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.
All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.
I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.
Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?
The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.
The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.
Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”
The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:
Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%
So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?
Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:
“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).
John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.
John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?
Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.
Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?
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 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)
Tax policy is important but mind-numbingly obtuse. Let’s cut to the chase – come November 6, will we cast our votes for a “you’re-on-your-own-and-good-luck-to-you” country or a “we’re-all-in-this-together” country?
Does Christian faith offer anything at all for how we might answer that question?
Let’s start with a five-pound roasting chicken, stuffed with pats of butter and a quartered onion. While it’s roasting, set the table with a lovely blue-and-yellow Provencal tablecloth, two plates of the “harvest pattern” china, two elegant wine goblets and a couple of candles.
You will also want to boil some red potatoes, assemble some cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes on a plate with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and open a bottle of wine. Cut some flowers from the garden and place them in a cut-glass vase on the table. Select the light jazz playlist on your iPod and get ready to greet your enchanting guest with a lovely hors d’oeuvre of smoked oysters and assorted cheeses.
You could also plan a tasty dessert. But dessert will probably entail something other than food.
If you don’t think food and sex have anything to do with politics or religion, you haven’t read your Bible lately (you do have one, right?). Food and sex are often deeply connected if not indistinguishable, especially when we throw religion into the mix, not to mention politics.
Two of the most basic human activities – eating food and having sex – have been the most frequently regulated human activities in nearly every society and historical era, and religion has most often been the means to regulate them. Politicians are usually the ones to insist on enforcing those regulations.
While a bit strange, that does make a certain kind of sense. I believe all humans share at least this much in common: the desire to be loved, to be cared for and wanted. The desire, in other words, for “communion.” That’s a potent and powerful desire, and sharing food and sexual intimacy are just two of the obvious ways to meet that desire.
Of course religious traditions and institutions will want to police something that potent. Look no further for evidence of this than the 50-year debate over whether lesbian and gay people can preside or even participate in the ritual meal of Christian communities, a meal called in some circles “Holy Communion.”
All of this came to mind as I prepared to preach this past Sunday on a set of rather peculiar biblical texts. The Hebrew Bible story about Eldad and Medad is one of my favorites (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). The story begins with complaints about food but quickly morphs into a power struggle over legitimate membership.
The struggle emerges when the Spirit of God is poured out on all the elders of the people, including two of them (Eldad and Medad) who were not, as it were, on church property at the time. This of course prompts a scandal (they weren’t following the rules!) as well as a great aspiration from Moses, who longs to see the Spirit poured out on everyone.
So if you have ever been excluded, marginalized, left out, made to feel less than human because of your skin color, your body shape, your education, your gender, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic status, or just because you didn’t happen to show up at the right place at the right time – well then, Eldad and Medad are your patron saints! They’re standing right by your side, cheering you on.
The lectionary also included a portion from Mark’s gospel (9:38-50) and echoes the same theme but takes it a step further. Those who are not against us are for us, Jesus declares, and then he adds a warning. In everything you do and say, he insists, make sure that you don’t prevent anyone from believing in me.
Let’s put it this way: If a religious institution or religious leaders have ever blocked your path toward God, prevented your deeper engagement with the sacred, or made you stumble on your way into divine life, Jesus said it would be better for them to tie a big boulder around their necks and jump in the ocean.
He then goes on to say even harder stuff about cutting off body parts if they are offensive, which would be better than missing out on the big heavenly banquet that is yet to come.
I read this admittedly unsavory gospel passage as an urgent reminder: nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than following our desire for divine communion. And God help those who block any person’s path toward that desire!
I read this passage, in other words, as a proclamation of the ridiculously offensive generosity of the Gospel. God invites everyone to the feasting table – no exceptions, no kidding. The ones we like and the ones we avoid; the ones we admire and the ones we despise; the ones who seem to us so clearly deserving and those who seem worthy of nothing but punishment – all of them, all of us, are invited to the Table, no exceptions, no kidding.
“Ridiculously offensive” generosity of the Gospel? Yes. How could it not be in a world such as ours so deeply marked by unrelenting divisions, violent hostility, and entrenched partisan and sectarian bickering? These divisions are actually so deep that they just seem “natural.”
Make no mistake: regardless of one’s political loyalties, it is deeply offensive to suppose that not a single one of those dividing lines matters. That is the good news of Christian faith. We really are all in this together.
Make no mistake about this, either: there are indeed religious communities today – from Minnesota to New Jersey and San Francisco – that are policing, monitoring, and regulating who may have access to the feast of divine generosity. These communities and their leaders are doing this based on whom people choose to love. This should be a source of deep outrage for all people of faith, just as it was for Jesus.
God sets the Table and invites everyone, without exception.
All of this might not help you make ballot decisions about everything, but I hope it inspires you to proclaim the kind of good news that really could change the world. And our world longs to hear it, that eternal call of the Lover to the Beloved: “Come, my love, the feast is ready; and I have prepared it just for you.”
Set aside for a moment how problematic those labels are. Set aside as well (just for the moment) how detrimental the polarization of these labels is. I’m convinced that a lot of Christians work hard to occupy that very peculiar and apparently contradictory space that I just declared, but few talk about it. There are good reasons for the silence – this is a precarious and complicated space, not at all easy to describe let alone defend.
I am convinced that so many of us stumble over this particular moral/political issue because we try to craft positions in the abstract, philosophically or theologically. Think about the scientist creating an ideal laboratory environment for an experiment. More often than not the lab results don’t work out there in the “real world” because context nearly always trumps ideals.
So I want to frame this attempt at describing my “pro-choice-because-I’m-pro-life” position by turning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. I’ll say more about the position itself in Part 2, but here I want to underscore how important it is to frame it with real life and not abstract principles.
I take Michael Crichton’s story and Spielberg’s film as the quintessential judgment on all human attempts to capture, contain, control, and circumscribe the untamable energies of life. I also see in that film a poignant testament to context; even the best ideas and well-laid plans will falter and fail without due attention to the particularities of contextual realities.
Keep both the vagaries of life and the complexities of context in mind as I offer just three Jurassic observations to frame what I’d like to propose in Part 2 of this mini-blog-series. (Click here if you need a primer or refresher on the film).
Paddocks and Ghettoes John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park in Crichton’s story, was both a genius and a fool. He tried and ultimately failed to separate carnivores from herbivores in elaborately protected “paddocks.” Okay, let’s just call them ghettoes.
Nothing in the U.S. (I would argue any country) is free from the dynamics of race and class and more broadly the attempt by every society to cordon off some segments of the population from the others. The attempt to do that in Jurassic Park by separating meat-eaters from veggies proved disastrous. Every similar human attempt ends in precisely the same way; we are likely witnessing just the latest iteration of that failure in the uptick of gun violence in the U.S.
We cannot have a conversation about “family planning” (and everything that innocuous moniker implies) without talking about gated communities and “sacrifice zones,” those places where U.S. society has consigned all the expendable ones, all the “undesirables,” all those who might stand in the way of corporate profits. For more on this, I cannot recommend highly enough two recent books by Chris Hedges concerning this vexing morass of social and political issues. (See/read the Bill Moyers interview here.)
It would certainly be easier if we could approach all of our ethical dilemmas by analyzing ideal states. Have you ever said “well, all things being equal” when trying to make an argument? I have. Sadly, there is no such state. We can’t pretend we don’t live in a society of paddocks.
If we’re going to talk about contraception, abortion, and reproductive health, we must talk about the racial and economic paddocks in which those issues exhibit a range of meanings and implications that fall well outside our neat-and-tidy moral systems.
Lab Coats and Cassocks The managers of Jurassic Park sought to control such a potentially dangerous environment with one simple innovation: ensuring at the time of conception that every dinosaur would be female. This would guarantee no unwanted reproduction – “unwanted,” of course being a cipher for “disrupting our plans for making profit from a well-controlled theme park.”
There’s a long and troubling history in western culture of trying to control reproduction, from the pseudo-science of racial differences rooted in phrenology to the eugenics programs supported by some of the biggest corporate financiers in the early 20th century. I mean folks like Carnegie and Rockefeller.
Human reproduction has been one of the most highly regulated activities in nearly every human society in every historical era. Religion has most often been the preferred way to regulate it. Let us not, however, assume we have passed into an enlightened era where science corrects religion’s excesses. The development of the birth control pill originated with those who were mostly concerned with eugenics, with controlling human reproduction based on race, ethnicity, ability, and “desirability.”
One might wish that science played a stronger role in today’s political discourse, but we must not think that everything labeled “scientific” is value-neutral or benign. Today’s reproductive technologies and their applications alike are deeply embedded in the discourses of what matters to the dominant culture of this society.
We should also remember that the Jurassic Park experiment failed. The dinosaurs found a way to reproduce, or as Sam Neill’s character put it when he found a dino egg out in the field: “Life found a way.” It always will. And surely that alone should inject a bit more humility in everyone’s approach to what “life” means.
Roars and Whimpers The penultimate scene in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park features a T-Rex roaring beneath a fluttering banner that reads, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Old paradigms never exit the stage gracefully, or with a whimper. They usually roar their way into oblivion.
Of course, the sequels to Jurassic Park make clear that even dinosaurs can make a comeback. So let us consider carefully our current political and social climate with reference to a centuries-long legacy of male privilege in western culture. I hear it roaring, do you?
I do not mean that men are dinosaurs. I mean that the system currently still shaping North Atlantic societies that organizes its polices, institutions, laws, and religious communities by stratifying a society based on maleness is doomed, no less so than T-Rex or the Brontosaurus – but none of us should underestimate the effects of those final roars.
T-Rex will not go quietly into that good night and there are plenty of whimpers in that roar’s wake – not least are the cries heard from women who might be forced to have abortions, which “progressives” don’t like to talk about. (Check this out in China, but also in Massachusetts.) How can we possibly have a conversation about life, about contraception, about science, about human thriving while all our voices are drowned out by the roar of white male privilege?
I would love to consider what life means and what conception entails without the roaring voices of mostly male politicians who want to insert vaginal probes in women’s bodies, or those who think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape,” or lobbyists who pretend that race, class, and economics play no role in crafting social policies about reproductive health.
Maybe someday we can; but not today. So in Part 2 I’ll suggest why “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are just about the most misleading labels one could imagine for this topic of deep concern, how we might talk differently about this vexing topic, and what a peculiar Christian response might look like. Stay tuned…
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.
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.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” Those words are starting to sound a bit quaint, aren’t they? They might soon be rather moot.
How about these words: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).
Nearly 2,000 years ago St. Paul expressed theologically to the Romans what the framers of the U.S. Constitution aimed for politically. Both feel quite tenuous today.
To be clear, I do not mean that the “founding fathers” of this country were seeking to create a “Christian nation.” I do mean that both St. Paul and the pioneers of this country’s polity shared a simple insight that has proven, time and again, to be profoundly difficult to live. It’s just this: We’re all in the same boat.
Call it the “Body of Christ” or call it the “body politic.” In either case, your fate is tied to mine in countless and uncanny ways.
This is not some newfangled lefty slogan. We might remember the ancient Greeks in that regard, the fountainhead of modern democracy. (Yes, that’s an allusion to Ayn Rand; more on that later.)
Aristotle, for example, insisted that “the whole must of necessity be prior to the part.” (That’s from Aristotle’s Politics, book 1, chapter 2; read the whole thing here). Aristotle’s claim belongs to his extended argument for the necessity of a “polis” (poorly translated today as “city”) to extend the household and village into a wider circle of mutual exchange.
For Aristotle, individuals remain woefully incomplete without the “polis.” Even more, it’s actually unnatural for an individual to remain outside the communal bonds of the “polis”; humanity’s natural state is community, working always for the “happiness” (“well-being” might be a better translation) of all the others.
The distance we’ve traveled from Aristotle’s politics could not have been made clearer than by Mitt Romney’s choice for a vice-presidential running mate – Paul Ryan.
Much physical and digital ink has already been spent on Ryan’s affinity for Ayn Rand’s philosophy and how it has shaped his politics. Frankly, I think trying to make Ryan a Rand disciple isn’t very useful politically or culturally. He’s already distanced himself from Rand’s “atheism,” implying of course that he’s not in her ideological camp.
I think it’s much more helpful – culturally, politically, and religiously – to name explicitly what’s at stake in these philosophical and ideological issues, and it’s just this: Are we all in the same boat or not?
Ayn Rand believed that “boat” was a trap, the cultural version of the sinking Titanic. Find your own lifeboat and get away as quickly as you can so that you don’t get sucked under by the “common good.”
Rand promoted the self above all else, and any incursion from government or communal responsibility as an affront to the supreme autonomy of the individual. It’s not too much to say that Rand promoted “dismemberment,” the cutting of any ties that bind us to one another for the sake of enlightened selfishness. Do Mormon Romney and Catholic Ryan believe the same thing?
(For those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy, I highly recommend a great theological blog by a colleague of mine, the Rev. Richard Helmer, who wrote about this a few years ago.)
I believe Ayn Rand was simply mistaken on a most fundamental point: Human beings do not want most of all to be individuals; they want most of all to belong somewhere, anywhere. A recent story on NPR about the anatomy of a hate group made this perfectly clear in some troubling ways.
White supremacy groups recruit individuals who feel alienated, cut adrift, not really belonging anywhere. The most persuasive factor in motivating membership in a “hate group,” in other words, is the possibility of “belonging.”
NPR interviewed those who have left hate groups, which also suggested something quite astonishing. The most hated targets of white supremacist groups are white people who are not racists. The absolute need to bond, to create community, to have a shared “identity” is so strong that those who are most reviled by white supremacists are white people who won’t join them.
This presidential election presents a clear choice between two significantly different visions for the future of this country. It also offers a profound opportunity for religious leaders and faith communities to respond to the deep need for belonging, not with hate, but with compassion, generosity, and love.
In Part 2, I’ll suggest what Christians in particular might offer to a society perched on the brink of dismemberment: a spiritual practice of “re-membering.” Stay tuned…