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Jesus Our Mother

What a crowded day on the calendar! Tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It just happens to be Mother’s Day and also the commemoration of Julian of Norwich. Let the religious synthesizing begin!

“Julian of Norwich,”
Amy Zaleta Martinez

Let’s start with this: referring to Jesus as our “mother” certainly sounds like I’ve never really left my radical Berkeley roots behind, but those roots actually stretch down and back to fourteenth-century England and to Julian of Norwich, a much-beloved saint and mystic. She was far ahead of her own day concerning many things, not least in retrieving what we might call “feminine” aspects of God, including with her phrase “Jesus our Mother,” as she was fond of saying and praying.

After nearly dying from bubonic plague, she received a series of visions, what she called “showings,” or revelations of divine love. She is best known, I suppose, for insisting that “all shall be well,” but she was equally insistent that God is nothing at all except love, and that absolutely everything that exists is because of that love. In ways that are startling and beautiful, she weaves that insistence into her reflections on Jesus:

The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life … The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss … This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.

“Lost Sheep,” Sawai Chinnawong

All this past week I’ve been trying to figure out how to connect Mother’s Day with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the Easter season. Julian helped me notice in those efforts that most of the visual images of Jesus as a shepherd don’t actually show him “herding” any sheep. Those images instead show him looking for a lost sheep, or cradling a lamb in his arms, or hoisting one up over his shoulders to carry her home.

There’s something tender, something intimate and affectionate about these images, something we often associate with mothers. But there’s no reason not to associate such characteristics with men, and with our fathers. And there’s no reason at all not to suppose that God, the Source of All Life, is father, mother, brother, sister, friend, and lover, and still so much more.

On this Mother’s Day weekend I am of course remembering with much fondness my own dear mother, and I’m grateful for so many others who have been “mothers” to me, and that includes Jesus—thanks to Julian’s gentle nudges.

“The Good Shepherd,” Sadao Watanabe
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Follow the Jackass

I never thought much about donkeys growing up. I mean, why would I? It’s not like I saw many—or any—in the western suburbs of Chicago. But I did think a lot about horses; they were in all my storybooks about heroes and adventures. Horses seemed quite obviously more noble than donkeys.

There are some cultural reasons for these biases: Donkeys are usually the butt of jokes, they provide a convenient stand-in for the outsider, or the underachiever, or simply the useful nuisance we keep around to do the stuff we don’t want to do ourselves.

Let’s not forget the MTV Television series called “Jackass” and the ridiculous movie spinoffs it generated (I may have seen one). Those movies were about stupid humans, but the film’s title betrays the deeper human disdain toward the lowly donkey—the jackass.

Today there are roughly 40 million donkeys in the world and the vast majority of them—more than 90%—are found in rural societies and serve as pack animals, for transportation, and in roles of agricultural labor. Working donkeys are most often associated with those living in poverty, rarely ever with the wealthy or the powerful.

Every year on Palm Sunday we celebrate a “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem as if a hero had mounted a white horse to ride into our lives and save the day. But that is not the story that launches us into the Christian Holy Week.

“Entry into the City,” John August Swanson

The donkey, all on his own, makes perfectly clear that Jesus is not a military commander, nor a rival of the Roman Emperor or even the provincial Governor. So why were the crowds cheering his arrival? Let’s be clear: they were not mocking him but cheering him.

It has taken a very long time for me to let go of the “triumph” of Palm Sunday and appreciate what the donkey teaches (I wish so desperately to know that dear creature’s name). Here’s the lesson I need to learn: Jesus on a donkey is an image of God’s deep solidarity—with the laboring classes, with the downtrodden and forgotten, with those oppressed by Empire.

More specifically for our own day, that image signals God’s solidarity with migrant farmworkers; with women of color who are single mothers working two full-time jobs; with the indigenous people of this land who are still unable to find justice with our own government.

Those are the ones lining the streets of Jerusalem and cheering the arrival of Jesus on a donkey. Perhaps, they think, just maybe, God has not forgotten them, maybe (hope beyond hope) God is standing with them.

But there’s still more to say about this story: God is also in solidarity with the donkey. After all, this beast of burden plays a starring role in this opening chapter of what we Christians call the holiest of weeks.

A donkey leads us into Holy Week!

So after we shout our “Hosannas!” it’s time to follow the Jackass into new life.

What might that look like?

Let’s start modestly. Let’s remember that this so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem features a city whose holiness is shared by at least three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The calendar this year all but begs reflection on those religious intersections. Even as Christians enter Holy Week, Muslims have already begun observing the holy month of Ramadan, and Passover begins this Friday—Good Friday.

While religious folks pray for peace in the world—and rightly so, and especially right now for Ukraine—religious folks have our own peace to make with each other. We need to work for peace with other Christians, with our Jewish neighbors, and with Muslims all around the world.

It matters that Jesus entered Jerusalem, that Holy City, not on a warhorse or as a general leading armies or in the garments of victory, but on the back of a donkey.

It’s long past time for us Christians to stop referring to this moment as “The Triumphal Entry”; this story should be called the “Parade of Solidarity.”

Poet Sylvia Sands writes so beautifully about this, about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. All over the world, she writes, donkeys are beaten, starved, tortured, and worked until they drop.

And Jesus chooses that creature to accompany him on his entry into Jerusalem, to lead the “Parade of Solidarity.”

This is how our Christian holy week begins, not in triumph, not even with a whispered hint of domination or any kind of “victory” but rather with the lowly, humble, usually disdained little donkey plodding his path into an ancient city.

The Church has mostly forgotten this but queerly retains it in our lectionary texts and calendar images: the holiest of weeks marks a path of new life for us, if only we would follow the jackass.

Another poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, prays in precisely that direction: “O God, give me courage to follow the Foolish way, / to go the way the world discourages, / the way of love.

“May Jesus,” he writes, “riding into a set-up / on his little donkey, lead me.”

The donkey is leading Jesus where we must follow if we wish to live. It’s where God desires to be in communion with us, where God is always already in solidarity with us and with the whole of God’s creation.

Those are lofty ideas and rather far removed from how most of us live day-to-day—but not so for the donkey.

Sylvia Sands poetically imagines that one, first-century donkey being so grateful for that one man’s gentle touch on his reins; and for that one man’s sweet voice on the road; and for that one man’s improbable invitation to join him in the work of redeeming love.

We are invited to that same work of love, to travel along that same road, and to take our lead from a donkey.

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The Slap that Truly Matters Comes from Earth

I’ve enjoyed watching Will Smith in some of his movies; I’ve never really cared for Chris Rock’s humor. And that’s as much as I want to say about either of them.

I know there are other things that probably should be said after their recent performance during the televised Oscars ceremony—topics that include race, and white supremacy, and patriarchy, and celebrity culture, and toxic masculinity, and…the list goes on.

I have some opinions—even passionately held ones—about all of those topics. But here’s what I really care about right now: while white America debriefs the spectacle of two Black men in a fight (hardly ever mentioning race, let’s note), the planet is literally burning up and I’m wondering exactly when Earth’s slap across our collective face will finally wake us up.

Statistics rarely help but here are a few to ponder: the Western third of the United States has basically run out of water and it’s not coming back (the Washington Post says “the West is tapped out”); nearly 75% of Earth’s land area is already degraded on the way to desertification (please read that again: 75 per cent of this planet’s land is on the verge of becoming desert); according to the U.N., 27 of the 35 countries at greatest risk from climate change are already experiencing “extreme food insecurity”—food shortages are soon coming to an American grocery store near you if they haven’t already.

I know, stats are mind-numbing, especially since Smith’s slap of Rock’s face this past Sunday evening has now garnered more social media views than all six IPCC assessment reports on global climate change combined. I have no hard data for that statistic, just the intuitive conviction that many, many more know what “The Academy Awards” is than what “IPCC” stands for (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); here’s an analysis of that agency’s sixth assessment report.

I didn’t want to write a blog post about any of this because everything feels demoralizing these days and hardly anything seems particularly ripe with any hidden fruit of hopefulness. I prefer to find reasons for hope and write about those, especially when I can recommend promising action steps—of which I have precious few to propose. But then it occurred to me: maybe it’s worth writing about “anti-action steps,” about the things we should stop doing.

I’d say it’s time we stop having awards ceremonies of any kind—no more Oscars, Grammys, Tonys, or local Tulip Queen Crownings at the local 4H Club come May. Just stop giving out awards for anything on a planet that is dying right before our eyes. Glitzy gowns draping over red carpets under the glare of media lights? Honestly, as my dear mother would say, that’s just tasteless in the midst of so much wanton destruction.

I’d say it’s time we stop all televised sports, all collegiate sporting events, every single music concert, each and every art exhibit, and any other gathering for the sake of “culture.” This planet’s ecosystems have selected us for extinction—exactly what kind of cultural artifact would you like to make right now and who would be left to enjoy it?

I’d say it’s time to stop going to school and earning degrees and teaching classes—just as teenager Greta Thunberg did for two years—because let’s get real: on what part, exactly, of a burning planet with little water and shrinking arable land for farming would you like to use all that fancy education? More to the point, what kind of job do you hope to have when food shortages in this “wealthiest country in the history of the world” leave our grocery stores mostly empty?

Some climate scientists themselves have said it’s time to stop issuing reports on climate change because no one is reading them and no one is doing anything about them. It’s time instead to go on strike. Good Lord, these are scientists—can we please pay attention?

It’s time we stop doing all these things (and more) because it’s past time to stop settling for half-baked measures from politicians who pander to their “base” constituencies—on both the “right” and the “left” not to mention the useless “middle.” As George Tsakraklides persuasively (alas) argues, our elected politicians feed us just enough empty promises about climate action to keep us mostly well-behaved and unwilling to rock the (leaky) boat. It’s past time to write to our legislators; as Extinction Rebellion urges, it’s high time for civil disobedience, and we Christians need to be clear that such disobedience counts as spiritual activism and sacred work; there is no “Planet B.”

It’s time for every single one of us simply to stop, to stop everything, right now, and let the buses run idle and the bakery shelves stand empty and the dry cleaning go unfolded and the construction projects languish unfinished and the garbage rot uncollected and the livestock roam unslaughtered.

And then, in that pregnant pause, it’s time for all of us to stand in the streets, or on our front yards, or along the sidewalks of our cities, or at the edges of shopping-mall parking lots and gaze upon what we have wrought, what we have allowed, what continues day after day despite what we have known for many decades is our collective suicide.

It’s time for us to gaze upon all of that and then refuse to do anything more until someone steps up, or multiple such ones lead the way into a different future, a future away from mutually assured destruction and toward something like collaborative renewal and collective healing for the possibility of shared flourishing—if it’s not already too late.

I’m thinking and pondering all these things after watching what should have been an unremarkable moment of feuding between celebrities on live television go viral on social media as we Western Christians approach the waning days of Lent and Easter is teasing us over the horizon.

I had some high hopes for this Lenten season as we emerge gingerly from the Covid-19 pandemic but I have mostly failed to preach repentance persuasively in this parish I’m privileged to serve because I really don’t know how to repent myself—only that I should.

“Crucified Land,” Alexandre Hogue (1939)

I’d like to harbor high hopes for the Easter season when Spring here in the northern hemisphere underscores with natural italics the reassurances of the new life embedded in the liturgical cycle.

But my hope runs terribly thin that we’ll stop much of anything or pause for long, if at all, or pay any serious attention to what climate scientists have been warning us about since 1896. Everything we know today about climate change we knew in 1970—and we’ve done nothing. The biggest spike in greenhouse gas emissions has actually occurred in the last twenty years.

This is precisely the kind of moment the world’s religious traditions were invented to address, certainly Christianity, with its endemic apocalyptic flavors. Religion exists for the end of the world—to remind us of its end (its purpose) while also helping us navigate its other “end”—its demise.

So I’m modulating my posture these days, adopting what I call “radically modest hopes.” I’m hopeful that Christian faith communities can become sites of climate refuge and solace as we face storms, droughts, famines, and civil unrest (all of which will not get better but will only continue and worsen).

I’m hopeful that a renewed discipline of shared worship in our congregations can create communities of genuine care, islands of infectious compassion and rejuvenating tenderness in a sea of violent divisions and toxic self-absorption.  

And I’m hopeful that playing with our companion animals and hiking in our forests and wandering along our beaches will soften a sufficient number of our hearts to fall back in love again with Earth.

Surely none of us is too old, ever, to remember what it’s like to fall in love: that heady rush of infatuation, surfing those tides of giddy daydreaming, and then that sudden realization that all you ever really want is the very best for your beloved. We cannot allow the modern Western forces of industrialization and the ongoing onslaught of global capitalism to keep rendering Earth an inert lump of coal for us to burn at will; we must love her back to health.

Sociologist William James Gibson calls this vital need a process of “re-enchantment” with Earth. Or as biologist and environmentalist Stephen J. Gould once urgently noted, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.

So, for the love of God—for the love of Earth—stop caring about that stupid celebrity slap and go take a hike.

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The Gay Science: Learning Eucharistic Theology from Louis Weil

The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil died this past week at the age of 86. Tributes have been pouring into social media platforms from around the country and around the world for a man who was a “pillar of the church,” a “giant in liturgical scholarship,” and an “architect of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.”

Louis was one of my teachers and mentors, a dear friend, and also a gay man.

Louis’ sexual orientation matters for several reasons, not least in this era when LGBT civil rights are once again being contested (most notably in Texas and Florida), but also because the Church will still (in many locations) happily receive the tireless offerings of time, talent, and treasure from her LGBT members as long as we don’t mention the “gay part.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and otherwise uncategorized queer people have always populated the Christian Church from the very beginning, but only the scarcest few have been known and named that way prior to the modern period. Naming ourselves, coming out, and being known carries a cost, even today. And for those who grew up when Louis did, the price could have been his vocation and career.

Rather than once again erasing a hard-won identity marker or pretending that being gay didn’t matter or play any role in what someone like Louis Weil offered to the church (which is an incalculable gift), I want to urge all of us who identify in some fashion as “LGBT” and who knew Louis, even only casually or briefly, to start sharing gay stories about him—the painful and the joyous. This matters not only for the integrity of his legacy but also for all the queer kids, clergy, and teachers out there who need to know (and for some of them, as a matter of life and death) that the Communion of Saints is now a bit gayer than it was. I’ll start:

I came out as a gay man while I was a student at Wheaton College (the private Christian one near Chicago) and struggled mightily with how to remain a Christian. I thought becoming an Episcopalian would help (and it did) but not sufficiently to exorcise all my homophobia demons. As Louis confirmed for me years later, homophobia often sends down the toughest roots in gay people themselves; forty years later, there are still more left to yank out of my heart and soul.

I managed to get into the ordination process and start seminary by making a foolish vow—not the first time God has heard one of those. I promised the rector of my sponsoring parish at the time—this was in 1984—that I would remain celibate as a condition for securing his approval to seek ordination.

This whole arrangement felt fraught and tenuous, as foolish vows usually do. I was entirely unsure of how to live or what to think as I told this story to Louis. I sat in one of his enormous wingback chairs in his living room, in a house I would come to know well during my time at Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin. Louis was my academic advisor, and our decades-long friendship began right there, in my first week of seminary, as tears trickled down my cheeks.

“I feel called to priesthood,” I mumbled, “but I’m gay. I don’t know how to do this.”

“I don’t either,” Louis said, kindly. “Nobody does. That’s why we need God’s grace—and each other.”

Perhaps only other LGBT people will understand why that simple sentence changed my life. It was one of the very first times I felt completely safe as an out gay man in a church-related context, and the tears turned quickly from a trickle to a flood, washing me with gratitude—or as Louis would say, “drenching me in grace.”

The Chapel at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary

I cannot begin to list or calculate all that I learned from Louis Weil liturgically and theologically, nor all the rich reasons he illustrated for why Eucharist stands at the very center of Christian faith and practice. To be clear, I don’t mean that Louis taught a “gay Eucharist,” but it does matter that he knew, from the inside out, what a whole-hearted, full-throated, and loving welcome means and why it is mission-critical to whatever the Church wants Eucharist to do and perform.

And that word matters, too—perform. Louis was himself an accomplished musician (at the piano and organ) and was a lover and patron of the performing arts. Without question, that love shaped his convictions about Eucharistic liturgy in ways that in turn shaped generations of clergy in making the Eucharistic Table a place of invitational beauty. Now that I have returned to full-time parish ministry after years of teaching in a seminary (just as Louis had), everything I do at the Table—and which has garnered so much grateful attention in this parish—is thanks entirely to Louis.

One thing more has garnered attention here about my work as the rector of this parish—being gay. Being fully out in the search process for a parish in an LGBT resort town, I honestly didn’t think being gay would matter much here. It does. (And I can see the impish grin on Louis’ face as I write this.)

I’ve been surprised by the resistance from some in this parish to including explicit mention of LGBT people in our congregation’s welcome statement, and by the discomfort (among some) when I fly a rainbow flag on the rectory, and also by the tearful hugs at the local LGBT Pride festival when queer people see our church’s booth—in 2022, even now, making religious support for LGBT people fully visible and explicit still matters; for some it’s life-changing, and for others it’s life-saving.

I am grateful beyond words for all that I learned from Louis Weil, and for all that he offered to the Church that he loved so dearly, which did not always know how to love him back. Now, as I stand at the Eucharistic Table in this parish, week by week, I am reminded of his great exhortation to parish clergy: “keep the main thing the main thing.” And that “main thing” is our Eucharistic worship, which carries a grace powerful enough to welcome all to the feast of God’s love, no exceptions. For the centrality of that foundational insight in our Prayer Book worship, the Episcopal Church can thank Louis Weil.

Louis was also a gay man, openly and proudly.

And that (still) matters.

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A Lenten Discipline: Don’t Waste Your Time

Imposing ashes on the foreheads of a community slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t seem redundant, exactly, but it certainly felt poignant. Preparing for that moment, I recalled two classic touchstones in Christian faith that seemed suddenly more vibrant and fresh than they had for years.

First, we are sinners. I know that sounds terribly old-fashioned, but it’s also true. We fail regularly to live the kind of abundant life Creator God intends; we too often prevent others from flourishing because of the way we live.

We do not always act justly, we have trouble loving mercy, we forget to walk humbly with God, to quote the prophet Micah’s summary of what God asks of us (Micah 6:8).

A second great theme on Ash Wednesday is of course our mortality. We are finite creatures and we will one day die—each of us, no exceptions, all of us returning to the earth from which we came.

Connecting these two themes seems especially urgent given the state of, well, everything. We could begin with this: as mortal creatures, time is of the essence. We simply don’t have time for small visions, or petty resentments, or the refusals of shared flourishing born from bitterness. In the shortness of time, sin is whatever keeps us from thriving; or more simply, we just don’t have time for bullshit anymore, and likely never did.

The time is now—not next year, not next month, not even tomorrow, but right now is the time to remember or perhaps realize for the very first time that God takes great delight in every single thing God has made.

There is absolutely nothing about God’s creation, not one creature of any kind, not one human being, that God does not love madly and wildly. The opening collect for the Ash Wednesday liturgy makes this clear and it’s one of my favorites in The Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”

For some people, that claim is life-changing; for far too many, it’s life-saving; and for all of us, it’s mission-critical because time is short.  

Lent is a time to clear out the toxic clutter, to remove whatever prevents me from seeing myself as a cherished creature of God.

Lent is a time to stop whatever I might be doing that prevents others from seeing themselves as cherished creatures of God.

Lent is a time to understand more deeply that our way of life as modern Western people is damaging and destroying this cherished creation of God called Earth—and time is short.

In my little parish yesterday we heard Matthew’s Jesus (6:1-6, 16-21) being just as plain about this as he could be: don’t waste your time on empty religious gestures; don’t bother being pious for piety’s sake—it’s worthless and pointless.

Pray instead for a change of heart.

Pray instead for a change of life.

Pray instead—as we heard the prophet Isaiah urge (58:1-12)—pray instead in ways that loosen the bonds of injustice and that let the oppressed go free and that provide bread for the hungry and housing for the poor—that’s true religion.

Pray instead, Isaiah says, so that you yourself become light in another’s darkness, water for another’s desert, a builder of dwellings laid waste and repairers of the breach for many generations—that’s the only religion that really matters.

Yes, we are sinners and time is short. But we can make good from the time we have if we repent of our sins and embrace the Gospel, which is nothing less than the abundant life God intends for all.

Don’t waste your time on anything else.

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Pixelating Christ: A Hopeful Communion in Hybrid Spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With Us All the Way Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptism of Jesus,” Daniel Bonnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptism of Jesus,” David Zelenka
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One and Only Noble Tree

Today is Holy Cross Day. This has always seemed to me like a strange time of year to remember and venerate the central symbol of Christian faith. We’re nowhere near Holy Week or Easter, and even Lent is a long way off. On the other hand, every single Sunday in our liturgical lives as Christians, even during Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; likewise every Friday is an invitation to remember the passion and suffering of Jesus on the cross. Liturgical time is not particularly linear or even logical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Today’s commemoration stems from fourth-century accounts about the Emperor Constantine and the buildings he constructed in Jerusalem to mark the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; those sites were purportedly dedicated on September 14, 335, and eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, this mid-September day has been a time for reflection, though not so much on the death of Jesus per se but on the cross itself.

Yes, a bit odd perhaps but I’m reminded rather vividly these days, in an era of heightened ecological awareness, that the wood of that cross was once a living tree. The wood itself, as some strands in Christian traditions would have us ponder, “remembered” its own life as the Lord of Life was hung upon its “branches.”

What I appreciate about this view of the cross is how an otherwise “inanimate” object can still “remember” life, how life is still buried within it, perhaps like the faintest of heartbeats. Indeed, even some early depictions of the cross picture it as a slowly budding tree, as if still rooted, as if still living, as if by being touched by the flesh of the Incarnate Word of God, the life within the wood itself surfaced and blossomed.

Thinking about the cross in this way stretches my imagination and invites me to see life in every nook and cranny of everything God has made. Strictly speaking, there are no “inanimate objects” anywhere in the universe; everything pulsates with life from the Creator. This stands in shocking contrast—perhaps, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson has labeled it, “blasphemous contrast”—to the pervasive treatment of Earth’s ecosystems as a vast storehouse of lifeless stuff for us to mine, harvest, and burn at will.

And so I pause on this Holy Cross Day, not worried in the slightest about how oddly timed such a commemoration might be. The Cross will stand for some time to come for ongoing pain and suffering experienced by God’s creation. Perhaps as well the hope, deeply buried within that suffering, of God’s own life still to come. As with most artifacts and rites of a Christian life, this one is a complex brew of memory and hope—of recalling the death of Jesus and still proclaiming the (startling) promise of new life.

I am helped in all of this, as always, by music and by hymn texts. And every year on Holy Cross Day I recall one of my favorite hymns from Holy Week. It always brings me to tears. It’s an ancient text—some have placed it as early as the sixth century. It invites an astonishing level of adoration for the cross, not as an instrument of death but as the means to see anew the resilient presence of God’s own life. I offer two of the verses from that hymn for our shared pausing and reflecting. The text is by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus and you can find it in the Hymnal 1982, #165 and #166:

Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty 
gently on thine arms extend.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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Ascension Day Audacity

Fog on the Kalamazoo River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter and Eucharist for Earth

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother Earth,” Starr Hardridge

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

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

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

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

“Mother Earth,” Angela Babby