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Alleluia: The Great Nevertheless

The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection belong among the queerest stories in the Bible—peculiar, strange, and downright odd. They don’t conform to the expected plot of a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a neat, happy ending. The risen Jesus isn’t even recognizable by his closest friends (John 20:11-14) and it’s not entirely clear exactly what he is—he’s clearly not a ghost but not a resuscitated corpse either (Luke 24:39). He is still Jesus but new.

These peculiar stories belong to a larger set of biblical stories that we might group together under “The Great Nevertheless.”

It makes little sense to seek out an obscure nomadic tribe of people, enslaved by a powerful nation, and claim them as God’s own people. Nevertheless, God did so with the ancient Israelites.

Few today would take the humiliating public execution of an obscure itinerant preacher as an occasion for life-changing faith. Nevertheless, gospel writers did so with the story of Jesus.

Not many would look to a ragtag bunch of uneducated day laborers to turn the world upside down, defy government authorities, create new kinds of community, and generate a worldwide movement of countercultural practices. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit did precisely that with Jesus’s followers (Acts 17:6).

I find it easier to see and speak that great “nevertheless” in ancient texts than in my own life and especially in the wider world right now, a world engulfed with a viral fear and anxiety. Easter feels a bit sequestered in theological theory.

In such difficult moments, I am particularly grateful for church. I don’t mean the institutional superstructure; I mean the worldwide community of all those who are the living members of the Body of Christ, all those who can believe for me when I doubt, who can summon joy for me when I’m mired in sadness, who can trust on my behalf when I’m paralyzed by fear, who can shout “Alleluia!” for me so I can hear once again The Great Nevertheless.

On this particular Easter Day, I am also mindful of all those who are separated from families and friends, isolated in their homes or, alas, quarantined in hospital rooms. Few of these can summon enough Easter joy even to imagine speaking an “alleluia”; those on ventilators would be unable to speak it even if they wanted to try. Perhaps especially for all of them, the church throughout the world lifts its collective voice to proclaim an Alleluia! whenever and wherever all these others cannot.

To speak and shout and sing for those who cannot—this reminds of an Easter tradition I learned many years ago when I was in seminary. The liturgy for the Easter vigil in the chapel included something called the “great noise.” It happened upon hearing the presiding priest announce God’s victory over death and the gathered community would make a loud noise with whatever we brought with us: gongs, wooden clappers, kazoos, and especially bells.

As the Great Noise rose up as the Great Nevertheless from the chapel stalls, a seminarian stood outside in the bell tower, yanking on the rope attached to that gigantic bell with all his might. That bell pealed the news of resurrection across the Wisconsin countryside. A dear friend of mine, Cynthia Gill, later wrote about that moment with words I never want to forget:

In the chapel itself an orgy of bells, every person clasping his or her own personal Easter bell, ringing and ringing as though eternal life depended on it. And on through the liturgy, the ringing of bells. With every “alleluia” in a hymn, a chapel-full of arms raised with bells ringing. All the while, Michael [the bell] was joyously tolling—through the baptisms, through the communions, through the Easter party in the dining hall that went on and on into the wee hours of the morning. Children and students, faculty and staff, those who would never ring a proper bell again in their lives, took turns pulling on Michael’s rope with all their might, telling the Wisconsin countryside that their Lord and Savior had burst the tomb, that feasting, not fasting, was the order of the day. The gospel told the story; the bells tolled the story.

“Now I know,” Cynthia concluded, “that if I ever should lose my words, my voice, my vocabulary; if I ever lose the ability to comfort, to argue, to complain, I shall not lose the chance to proclaim ‘Christ is risen!’  For I still keep my little Easter bell close at hand, and come the Queen of Feasts, I too shall ring, ‘Alleluia!’”

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“Michael” the bell at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary

I am so grateful for all those who are bolstering my faith and my hope today with the loving acclamation of Easter joy. Their Alleluia is helping me voice the Great Nevertheless for all those who have no voice this morning nor even any bell to ring.

Faith is sometimes (often?) a struggle.
Hope seems just out of reach.
Nevertheless, Christ is risen!

Alleluia.

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Divine Solidarity

The traditional service of Stations of the Cross traces the journey Jesus made from condemnation to crucifixion and burial. I noticed something new on that journey after reflecting on it through the frame of pandemic.

At the fifth “station,” we remember Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Christ for him, for at last part of that excruciating journey. The gospel accounts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Simon, but something from Mark’s version caught my attention.

As Jesus struggles to bear the weight, not only of his cross but his impending death, Mark says that the soldiers “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21).

A simple verse, but it’s a poignant moment, with multiple layers.

I’m indebted to a Jesuit priest who reminded me, in connection with this Gospel encounter, of the Blanche DuBois character in A Streetcar Named Desire, and her often quoted line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

How much kindness had to do with Simon’s assistance in this story is an open question—Mark says he was compelled to carry the cross. But Jesus must have been grateful nonetheless for the temporary relief from shouldering that burden all alone.

COVID-19 disease is inspiring many of us to offer assistance to strangers in ways we hadn’t imagined even just a month ago. Perhaps we feel compelled to do so; perhaps it feels like kindness when we ourselves receive help from a stranger who just happens to be passing by.

For Mark, however, this Simon of Cyrene was not much of a stranger at all. And only Mark among the gospel writers makes this plain. Simon of Cyrene, Mark says, was the “father of Alexander and Rufus.” Today we have no idea who Alexander and Rufus were, but back then, Mark’s readers must surely have known—you know, that guy from Cyrene, Rufus and Alex’s dad; that Simon.

When the novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, I was concerned but not terribly troubled; it was, after all, far away in China, across a vast ocean. Then it got closer, in South Korea. Then closer still, Washington State. A few days ago, I heard from someone I actually know who is ill with the disease.

It matters differently somehow, with more texture and depth, to know someone who knows someone who was there; to know a friend of a friend who is in trouble; to know someone directly caught up in the drama, because then we are, too.

One more layer, because every story about Jesus is also a story about God. And this story, Mark seems to be saying, is a story about the astonishing nearness of God. God is not far off and distant, involved only with people we will never know and places we will never visit. Look, even old Simon from Cyrene is in the story—you know, Rufus and Alex’s dad!

Look, Mark seems to be saying, look how close God is; how near to us.

Look how deep God’s solidarity runs with us all.

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“Simon of Cyrene,” by Sieger Koder

 

I’m grateful for the ecumenical, online offering of this year’s Stations of the Cross co-hosted by a number of congregations here in the San Francisco Bay Area and during which I offered a version of these reflections.

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Terrifying Freedom, Liberating Service

Freedom—the word and the concept—has been showing up lately on social media, in court cases and congressional hearings, and randomly scattered through presidential tweets. Freedom has been showing up and getting tossed around as if its meaning is perfectly obvious or self-evident. I think it’s much more complex than most people imagine. I also think absolute freedom would be absolutely terrifying.

That is a rather odd thing to say in the United States of America, a country steeped in the language of liberty and individual freedoms as God-given rights. These words need and demand some context.

Especially in Black History month, we must be crystal clear that freedom from slavery is an unqualified good (tour guides on plantation museums still have to say this explicitly to tourists). Let us also be just as clear—as writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander keeps reminding us—slavery may have ended, but the racial caste system in this country has not. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, freedom is still only a dream for far too many in this country.

We might also ponder what “free” means in “free-market” capitalism when the whole system is chained to corporate shareholders demanding ever-higher profits and whether we ourselves have nearly as much “freedom” in this economic system as advertising executives would like us to believe we do.

The concept of freedom itself is indeed complex; but why would absolute freedom qualify as “terrifying”?

Just one reason among many: freedom can quickly turn into isolation and alienation, an experience of the world where the only reference point is the self. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was hiking in area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the “Emigrant Wilderness,” in terrain similar to the kind that trapped the Donner Party back in the 1840s. I knew the area fairly well but wasn’t paying the kind of attention one should when hiking in a wilderness area; I got turned around, lost my sense of direction, had no map, and could see no trail. I was in a sense utterly free and also thoroughly terrified.

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Emigrant Wildnerness, Sierra Nevada Mountains

Putting this in more positive terms, we humans are creatures who thrive on attachment, on a sense of place and community to provide an anchor in an otherwise tumultuous world; creatures who flourish, not alone, but in networks of relational loyalties and responsibilities. And let me quickly add: such networks cannot be fully duplicated online; the realm of Internet engagement is called virtual reality for a reason. (Some would argue for an important distinction between social media and online communities, but I’m not entirely persuaded by this.)

I worry that the kind of freedom praised in certain segments of American society idealizes a life without any constraint or duty; this romanticized notion of an untamed life of liberty stands in stark contrast to genuine freedom, the kind that enables us to live within proper parameters where we come most fully alive—alive to the self that is in vital relation to others and the land we all share for life.

All of this came to mind as I reflected on what many Christians heard in Church this past weekend from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 30:15-20), a book second only to Leviticus in the minds of many as an example of “legalistic religion,” or faithfulness as mere regulatory control, the Bible itself as the textual chains of constraint chafing against a glorious life of freedom.

It is truly unfortunate that the so-called “Old Testament” in the Bible has been so closely associated in the minds of many Christians with a rigid moralism and, even more sadly, with an image of an angry God. The Hebrew Bible actually offers some of the most tender images of God, the God whose heart breaks over injustice, who lures and woos the creation into loving relationship, who longs for intimacy and communion.

We might recall the context of that passage from Deuteronomy: God has liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and guided them through the wilderness for many years, and has now brought them to the brink of the “promised land.” Right there, on that brink, God gives them the law through Moses.

Notice that freedom from their life of bondage in Egypt does not mean the freedom to do whatever they please; it means instead the freedom to be in covenant with God.

The stakes are high at this juncture in the story of ancient Israel; the people have a choice to make, the choice is between blessings and curses, between life and death. “Choose life” is the repeated exhortation in this passage,  where full, thriving, flourishing life is intertwined with a conscientious observance of the Torah, of the law—an observance that binds us to each other and, as this text also makes clear, to the land itself, apart from which we simply cannot live.

Absolute freedom can indeed be absolutely terrifying, in part because we cannot know who we are apart from the others with whom we share an identity, the ones who make us who we are. And that is exactly what ancient Israel’s covenant with God was meant to foster—we cannot be who we are alone.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., declared more than fifty years ago, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It is no mere coincidence, then, that the rhetoric of absolute freedom is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and despair, increasingly self-medicated with opioids or suicide. Untethered from others, from community, from the land itself, we die.mlk_beloved_community

The stakes are just as high for the gospel writer called Matthew, from which Christians also heard on Sunday (Mt. 5:21-37). Perhaps more than the other three gospelers, Matthew will not let us separate Jesus from the religious observance of Israel.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, especially as Martin Luther framed it, many Christians think of Christian faith as a contrast between “law” and “Gospel,” or between “works righteousness” and “grace.” These contrasts aren’t wrong, but a bit too stark. Matthew’s Jesus interrupts those refrains with a bracing refrain of his own, one that should give us pause: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

That’s a really important “but” and it is not a repudiation of the law. To the contrary, each time Matthew’s Jesus offers that pairing, observing Torah suddenly becomes more difficult not less. Paraphrasing Matthew’s challenge might sound like this:

  • Do not suppose you are free of social obligations simply because you haven’t killed anyone, as if that suffices to build community—embrace instead a much deeper duty, the kind that heals anger and forgives faults.
  • Do not suppose you are living in a healthy marriage just because you haven’t had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse—recognize instead what lust actually is, the urge to own and control another human being like a commodity.
  • Do not suppose that justifying a divorce with the letter of the law releases you from caring about the welfare of your divorced partner—especially if that person is a woman in a patriarchal society.

Absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying because we truly do belong to each other—not only contractually or legally but, as it were, organically, like branches that cannot live without the vine.

I think of this whenever I gather around the Eucharistic table. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, Eucharist is about salvation and also covenant; it’s about liberation for sure, and still also obligation; it is certainly about freedom, and therefore, it is also about belonging—to God and to each other—and not just the others we like, but the ones we don’t understand, who irritate us, even those who try to thwart on our own thriving. We all belong to each other.

Quite early in Christian traditions, in the first couple of centuries, theologians wrote about salvation in terms of freedom. What God accomplishes for us in Christ, they wrote, is freedom from sin, death, and the devil—not so that we can then do whatever we please without constraint, but rather so that we can be free to serve Christ as living members of his Body.

The contrast worth pursuing here is not between “law” and “gospel,” but between a terrifying freedom and a liberating service, the kind that frees us from competition, revenge, and the corrosive effects of hate—which I take as helpful synonyms for “sin, death, and the devil.”

Table fellowship becomes ever more important in a world of increasing fragmentation—tragically disguised as “freedom”—and violent forms of tribalism—mistaken embraced as “liberty.” Eucharist instead bears witness to the hope of genuine, life-giving freedom, the kind that unites us to God-in-Christ, binds us to each other, and secures our service to this precious Earth.

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The Lamb of God in the Beloved Community

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Many of us heard that familiar declaration in church yesterday; John the Baptist said it about Jesus, not once but twice in the appointed Gospel passage (John 1:29-42). Some Christians hear it every Sunday at the Eucharistic table.

It’s worth noting that John did not say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your individual mistakes.” I don’t mean to discount our individual lives. I do mean to consider what this claim about Jesus might suggest about a concept of sin that was much more common in ancient Mediterranean societies than in our own day.

I’m referring to what modern Western people often have great difficulty in grasping—the notion of social, communal, or shared sinfulness. When John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean just the sum total of our mistakes as individuals; he likely had in mind the sinfulness of the world.

This actually does matter for us as individuals, but for reasons that grate against the individualism of the modern West. The near-constant refrain about individual accountability in the contemporary Western world is usually made without any reference to the social systems that shape our individual choices, decisions, and actions.

All of us are deeply entangled in economic, cultural, and institutional structures that form us and train us to live and think in certain ways. These constitute our “world” of behaviors and interactions, and we can be grateful for how such a world instills patterns of civility, kindness, even “good manners” (remember those?).

That same “world” of social conditioning, however, often favors some at the expense of others. Those who benefit from these institutional structures rarely had any hand in creating them even while they reap a reward from them; these structures and patterns of relating actually predate all of us, like “original sin.” This is what social theorists try to notice concerning patriarchy, or heterosexism, or white supremacy.

What kind of “world,” then do we inhabit here in the United States? The poet Mary Oliver responded to that question by imagining what future generations might say about us, and wrote this (from her 2008 collection, Red Bird):

We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people) for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say…that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not believe such things about American society in his own day—that its heart was small, and hard, and full of meanness. The fact that he did not believe it back then—in those days of whites-only lunch counters and police dogs and bombs that blew up little girls in Sunday school—that King did not apparently believe such a society was small of heart and mean actually takes my breath away.

Some would say he was simply foolish and naive; indeed, Malcolm X said as much about him. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not foolish, or naïve, and he wasn’t optimistic about this society, either; but he was hopeful, which is often an occupational hazard among ministers of the Gospel.

A “hazard,” because hope does not always feel very comfortable, and it can make us say things and do things that can look quite silly or foolhardy to others.

Hope can make us insist, as King said, that all of us, both black and white, are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”

Hope can inspire us to imagine, not the defeat of our enemies, but their conversion through love.

For King, the whole universe of God’s creation is moving toward a single goal, what he called the “Beloved Community.” King drew inspiration for that image, in part, from American philosopher Josiah Royce, who argued that “Church” is not optional but is actually an essential component of Christian faith. Why? Precisely because the problem Christianity tries to address is not how individuals get to Heaven, but whether genuine healing is possible for our deeply fragmented lives. Heaven certainly mattered for Royce, but we get there with others or not at all—which is exactly why the Apostle Paul turned so often to the image of the Body of Christ with its many diverse members.

This brings to mind King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed directly and exactly to people like me—white, liberal ministers. I find myself inspired and moved when I listen to King wax eloquent on the Washington Mall about his “dream,” but I squirm when I read his letter from jail.

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After defying an injunction against protesting, King, with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center) and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (left) were arrested and put in solitary confinement in a county jail in Birmingham, AL, on Good Friday 1963.

Those white, liberal ministers to whom King wrote were the ones who appreciated King’s work but wanted him to slow down, the ones who sympathized with “the race problem” but worried about what the solution would cost, the ones who condemned individual acts of racism but failed to understand how institutional systems made racism itself all but inevitable.

King had been exploring those themes for some time. In a speech that he delivered the year prior to writing that Birmingham letter, King outlined the “ethical demands of integration,” by which he meant much more than “desegregation.” King certainly applauded desegregating schools and places of business, but this was hardly sufficient for a path toward the “Beloved Community.” It is certainly useful that the process of desegregation can be legislated and regulated, but this just outsources justice to institutions whose hearts have not changed.

What’s needed instead, he argued, is integration—a social movement of the heart that leads toward the always unimaginable intimacy with people who are not just different from us but also those who have opposed our own thriving, even with violence.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Lamb who not only forgives sin, not only atones for sin, but takes it away.

Would we recognize the world without its sins? Would we even find such a world desirable? Do we prefer a world with its familiar sins to how strange and disorienting the world would be without them?

To whom does the “we” refer in those questions? At the very least, it refers to well-meaning white liberals, like me. In that same gospel passage from yesterday, people like me heard a hint of what following Jesus entails—nothing less than an identity remade in a world transformed.

The hint came from what Jesus did when he first met Simon, Andrew’s brother. Jesus gave him a new name: Peter.

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Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.

That’s the Hobbit Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You need not have read the books or seen the films to appreciate that quote. Simply know that Frodo had been given an epic task many times his size—and the world’s survival depended on his success.

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Elijah Wood as Frodo in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” Gandalf responded, Frodo’s wizard companion. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide,” Gandalf declares. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What time is it, anyway? High time to wake up, take notice, pay attention?

Is it time, finally, to repent?

Haven’t we heard that before? Aren’t some of us sick of that word? Preachers, I mean, especially. How much time should this take, anyway?

Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)
Does anybody really care (care about time)
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

Those of a certain age will recognize those lyrics from a band called “Chicago.”

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

Chicago—where they broke some heat records this past summer, during this past July, the hottest month measured on Earth since records began in 1880.

“In those days…John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.”

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Anton Raphael Mengs, “St. John the Baptist in the Desert”

We always hear about that wild man in the wilderness in this second week of Advent; this year, we heard Matthew’s version (3:1-12). But what exactly does Matthew mean by “wilderness”? Are there any wild places left on this planet not contaminated by plastic? Did you know that nearly every day it rains tiny plastic particles at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, and at the top of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and likely over every mountain range on Earth?

It’s hard to know where my attention rightly belongs at a time like this, if not up there in the mountains, then maybe…

  • down here at the border, with the thousands of children separated from their parents, many in cages and put there by my government;
  • or maybe with more than a thousand incarcerated men of color fighting California wildfires for $3 a day and who are then barred from working as firefighters after their release from prison;
  • or where whales beach themselves, starving to death, their stomachs filled with plastic—presumably with whatever plastic hasn’t already rained down on pristine mountaintops.

These days are those days when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Wilderness—a place of purgation, of starting over, of being refined by fire—and who exactly is that preacher out there? Matthew says he’s the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.

Isaiah, it should be noted, had some peculiar notions about the wilderness, about wild places—where the wolf lives peaceably with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the baby goat, and the calf dwells amiably with the lion, that wacky place where bears graze with the cows (Isaiah 11:6-7).

More than a few Bible commentators quickly propose that these are really only metaphors, poetic ways of speaking, not about wolves or sheep or lions and bears, but of humans, and about that day when human warfare shall cease.

That sudden eruption of peace would be wonderful, of course. But I see no reason to shy away from reading Isaiah just as wildly as his wilderness, to let him stretch our credulity and push us beyond—far beyond—what seems polite and reasonable; after all, not everything in the Bible that sounds just a bit outlandish is only, in the end, a metaphor.

I mean this: the God who can inspire humans to beat their swords into plowshares is actually too small for a prophet like Isaiah. The God Isaiah apparently had in mind is the God who rewrites the biological scripts of predation and reweaves the very fabric of creation without any trace of violence or destruction. “No one,” he imagines this God to say, “will hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (11:9).

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John Swanson, “Peaceable Kingdom” (based on Isaiah 11)

I’m guessing this is why Paul quoted Isaiah directly, by name, in his letter to the Romans. We heard from that letter for the second Sunday of Advent, too, probably because Paul really did single out Isaiah by name. I had never noticed that before, and these days it makes perfect sense.

Perhaps only Isaiah is sufficiently outrageous for Paul, sufficiently wild with hope to qualify as a champion for Paul’s outrageous take on the Gospel. Let’s recall some of its glittering nuggets that he offers to the Romans: this is the letter in which Paul invites his readers to imagine God acting “contrary to nature” by grafting the wild branch of pagan Gentiles on to the one true tree of Israel (11:24); in which he reassures his readers that by dying with Christ, we rise (6:1-11); in which he describes the whole of God’s creation groaning with anticipation for the day of salvation (8:19-23).

This is the letter where Paul insists that nothing whatsoever can ever separate God’s creation from the love of God in Christ (8:38-39)—and this is the hope, he declares, that the scriptures (like the stuff that wild and crazy Isaiah wrote) are supposed to inspire in us (15:4), the hope which we cannot see but without which we cannot live, the hope each of us needs, desperately.

But wait. Why is hope so vital, so mission-critical?

Because without it, we could never take seriously the question Tolkien’s Gandalf poses to every generation: what will we do with the time that is given us?

In these days, in this time that has been given us, the answer to Gandalf’s question will likely be very difficult to utter much less live. It will mean the kind and depth of repentance few have ever attempted. It will mean living in radically and dramatically different ways.

It will mean tapping into hope as if our lives depended on it.

Because they do.

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“Do not be Terrified”: Hope for the Apocalypse

The situation is dire, and the future looks grim; now is the time for hope.”

Typical critiques of religious faith include complaints about rosy-colored optimism, or a kind of mass delusion. But I have been reminded recently that what is often derided as “pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking” isn’t actually outrageous enough to be biblical. It’s only when our imaginations are truly stretched and taxed, when a vision of flourishing life takes incredulity to new heights, only then are we tapping into the astonishing promises of a wildly extravagant God.

The situation is dire, and the future looks grim; now is the time for hope.”

This is not new; we’ve been here before—exactly a year ago, in fact. And the year before that. And the year before that, just as our liturgical calendar insists. As Advent approaches and the liturgical year winds down, we start hearing from so-called “apocalyptic” texts on Sunday mornings, whether from ancient prophets or gospel writers.

I refer to these as “so-called” apocalyptic texts because of the unfortunate historical baggage the word “apocalypse” drags along with it, which is most often associated with unspeakable disasters.

So let’s remember that this ancient Greek word does not demand that we think of catastrophe when we hear it. The word “apocalypse” comes from a rather ordinary Greek verb that simply means something like taking the lid off a jar—which is why it’s often translated as “revelation.” In that sense, an apocalyptic moment is whenever something that was hidden is being revealed.

So let’s consider what that word might mean when we apply it to something more momentous than a jar, like human history. Most people assume that apocalyptic texts predict the coming of disaster in the midst of relative peace and calm. Remarkably, it’s more often exactly the opposite: in the midst of unfolding disaster, apocalyptic texts reassure us that hope is not in vain; beneath the repeated surges of social collapse and violence, there dwells an unconquerable joy. Or so most apocalyptic writers try to insist.

A classic example of this is the text from Isaiah appointed for today, which is one of my favorite texts about social and economic justice as well as the end to death and destruction.

It’s important to remember that the several writers who contributed to the one book called Isaiah did not, for the most part, live in happy times. To the contrary, many of the texts in Isaiah were produced following the unimaginable catastrophe of exile, of seeing God’s own people defeated by invading armies and carted away from their homes to a foreign land where they would reside for many generations.

And yet, and still Isaiah writes of hope in soaring terms, not because of what he was at that time able to see, but because of his trust in the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness, not ours, that makes all the difference for hope. And Isaiah imagines such divine faithfulness to sound like this:

I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating…
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight (65:17-19)

The situation is dire, and the future looks grim; now is the time for hope.”

A friend of mine said that to a small gathering of bishops a few years ago, and they seemed very perplexed by it. Even religious leaders can have trouble grasping the dynamics of hope in times of distress. Luke’s Jesus seems to be noting something similar in the hair-raising passage appointed for this day (21:5-19).

As Jesus enumerates impending disasters and world-ending scenarios, he points toward the one thing his listeners thought would be the most stable and secure, the one location of divine guarantee—the temple in Jerusalem. Even this, Jesus says, will be deconstructed and dismantled, every single stone of it.stones_israel

I read Luke’s Jesus in the light of Isaiah’s resilient hope: something old needs to die before the new thing God is creating can come about.

Letting go, clearing space, removing the rubble—even the most cherished bits of rubble—this is what faith sometimes demands when we live in hope.

But I’m also noticing something else in this gospel passage that I hadn’t quite noticed before. Luke’s Jesus says, “do not be terrified.” Most of us, I’m guessing, are more accustomed to hearing Jesus say, “don’t be afraid.” The stakes seem to have gotten much higher in this passage, traveling from ordinary fear to sheer terror.

As I pondered what that difference looks like, I thought about the high school in Santa Clarita, in southern California, the site of the latest incident of gun violence where three students died, including the shooter (he was a student, too), and I thought about how many students go to school every day in this country whose ambient fear can quickly turn into terror.

I also thought about all the young children separated from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico—some of them not much older more than infants. The latest count at the end of last month was a staggering 5,400 (though some agencies suspect the number is much higher). Terror must surely saturate those detention centers at the border, wounding and scarring not only the children being held there but all the adults who work there.

As if this were not enough, I was reading about the devastating brush fires in Australia, still burning out of control, and I came across a story of people helping kangaroos, possums, and koala bears who had been singed or badly burned in the fires; these are wild animals yet very readily and apparently gratefully accepted help from humans, even embracing them. The clinical director of the only koala hospital in the world summed up why: “[These koalas] are terrified.”

koala

It turns out that the Greek word for “terrified” can also be translated as “startled” and it appears only twice in the gospel according to Luke: the first time in the apocalyptic passage appointed for today, and the second time in a story about resurrection, about encountering the risen Jesus. Stories of resurrection are also apocalyptic and startling—stories that reveal the stubborn persistence of life beneath the shroud of death.

We will continue to have good reasons to be terrified, perhaps increasingly so as ecosystems falter and previously secure institutions collapse. So it seems to me that what we Christians do in churches will matter more and more.

Gathered at the Eucharistic Table, we can remember the faithfulness of God, the God who startles us by bringing life out of death. We might also remember the possums, the kangaroos, and the koalas.

Why? Because in times of distress and terror, it’s quite natural for human communities to divide and fragment and splinter; some unsavory types will almost always exploit those moments for their own gain, as we see today in detention centers and concerning gun violence.

We must bear witness to another way, the way of deep solidarity. Just as possums, kangaroos, and koalas reached across the species barrier to embrace their rescuers, we must learn anew how to reach across the many lines that divide us from each other; that, too, is what the Eucharistic Table offers. And we will need this more and more.

After all, the situation is dire and the future looks grim; now, now is the time for hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Nevertheless: An Earth-Day Easter

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead for multiple reasons. Among those reasons: it reminds me and helps me to look everywhere around me and inside me for the God who perpetually brings forth new life from death and decay. Or put in another way, Easter urges me always to hold on to the hope of new life, especially when despair seems easier.

Biblical writers offered this reminder constantly and not only with reference to the first Easter. Nearly every story in the Bible turns on the “Great Nevertheless.” Joseph was left for dead and sold into slavery; nevertheless, he prospered in Pharaoh’s household and saved the land from famine. Abraham and Sarah were far too old to have children of their own; nevertheless, Sarah bore Isaac, the firstborn of a mighty nation; the people of Israel languished as slaves in Egypt; nevertheless, God raised up Moses to lead them into freedom; Jesus was crucified and killed by the Roman Empire; nevertheless, God raised him from the dead as the first fruits of an unimaginable process of renewal and new life for the whole creation.

That’s just a short list of the many biblical stories that invite us to hope when hope seems in desperately short supply. On this Earth Day which is also Easter, I confess to finding it difficult to hold on to hope for this dear planet of God’s wondrous creation. Nearly every day, it seems, a new report emerges about how much worse our climate change catastrophe actually is—faster temperature increases; worsening CO2 emissions; sea levels rising more quickly; still more species disappearing; extreme weather events as the new normal. Despair seems not only easier than hope but more reasonable.

Right there is at least one reason to keep telling the Easter story year after year: in a world where despair seems the most reasonable course, we need to remember that God has entered the story with us, showing up among the most familiar characters, plunging into the classic plotlines as one of us, and healing our despair with a love that is stronger than death.

On this Earth Day Easter, I choose to give my heart to that story (the original meaning of that ancient Germanic verb “to believe””) and to look for Easter hope in a world of despair. Here are just three places to find that hope. There are many more! Let’s spend these great fifty days of the Easter season sharing these stories with each other and renewing our Easter commitment to Earth.

Plastic
I began the season of Lent trying to come to grips with the problem of single-use plastic. And it’s a huge problem. We simply must stop using it and making it. The good news: cleanup is possible, as a remarkable story from an Indian beach can remind us.

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Before and After: Versova Beach in Mumbai

 

Deforestation
Forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate on this planet, at exactly a time when we need more forests to scrub the air and deal with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The good news: reforestation is possible! The story of New England’s once decimated forests, now nearly restored after 150 years, is a great story of Easter hope.

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Before and After: Deforestation and Reforestation in New England

 

Species Extinction
I was shocked and dismayed last year to realize that we are losing between 150 and 200 species every day on this planet, which is a rate much higher than would be true if our species weren’t around. The good news: intentional care and action can bring a species back from the brink and into thriving.

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Humpback Whales have made a comeback from the edge of extinction.

Our current climate change crisis is indeed a planetary emergency; we must treat it as such and act accordingly. And on this Easter Day devoted to the Great Nevertheless, let us act with joyful hope. God is with us in this story, and Christ is risen.

Alleluia!

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Holy Saturday: Rest, Reparations, and Hope for Earth

In some Christian traditions, Jesus spent the day between Good Friday and Easter busily harrowing Hell, toppling its gates and freeing all the dead who were dwelling there from ages past. This is the divine version of “no child left behind” but for every human, and I would now revise this to mean “no creature left behind.” The whole creation finds healing and liberation in the unfathomable mystery of Easter.

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“Harrowing of Hell” (Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1490)

But here we still live, in that great liminal day between imperial crucifixion and the divine burst of new life. If Jesus were to harrow Hell today, he wouldn’t have to travel very far from where most of us live—next to toxic waste dumps, petroleum refineries, poisoned water supplies, landfills brimming with plastic. Earth herself needs to rest, to recover, to repair.

Is it time to ponder reparations for the planet?

I fully support reparations for the descendants of African slaves in this country, and for indigenous tribes decimated by American genocide, and for many others as well. Perhaps now is the time to add Earth to that list, to offer this planet a reprieve from the daily torture we inflict on her ecosystems and many creatures, some space and time to repair and renew.

This is of course impossible; we cannot simply stop doing what we’re doing, not even for a day let alone what is more genuinely needed—at least a whole year. Impossible at first blush, perhaps, but not after a moment’s recollection of how quickly the world’s wealthy pledged astonishing amounts of money to fix Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It’s time they stepped up again, acknowledged that their wealth came in large measure from raping the planet, and chip in some reparations.

In 2018, the world had 2,208 billionaires with a combined net worth of approximately $9.1 trillion. If we created a planetary reparations fund and demanded a simple tithe from those wealthy folks, we would have quite a tidy little sum to get us started on what is now necessary: stopping most human activity and resting; the fund could go toward ensuring certain vital services remain operating and that people are fed while the planet rests, resets, repairs.

Holy Saturday is the perfect day on which to contemplate such a harrowing idea as we dare to hope for resurrection. It is a good day, perhaps, to plumb the depths of God’s grace, to journey with Jesus to the roots of our distress and resurface with hope.

I’m grateful for theologian Elizabeth Johnson and her elegant, eloquent words for precisely that hope. May her words accompany us into the blazing light of a deep resurrection, and inspire a renewed commitment to this planet, our shared homeland:

In our day we discover that the great incomprehensible mystery of God, utterly transcendent and beyond the world, is also the dynamic power at the heart of the natural world and its evolution. Groaning with the world, delighting in its advance, keeping faith with its failures, energizing it graciously from within, the Creator Spirit is with all creatures in their finitude and death, holding them in redemptive love and drawing them into an unforeseeable future in the divine life of communion (Quest for the Living God, 198).

Late afternoon at the regional park

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Good Friday and Creaturely Lament

The death-dealing imperial machine of ancient Rome killed Jesus. The same machine is killing planet Earth, though that machine now appears under different names: global capitalism; single-use plastic; neo-liberal nationalism; the tyranny of convenience among the well-intentioned.

There is much to grieve in a world of violence and destruction, but such a world calls also for lament. As Walter Brueggemann so frequently reminds us, lamentation is not just sadness; to lament is to insist on transformation, to resist any notion that the world cannot change. Lament can create communities of transformation, bonding us together, by God’s grace, in shared efforts to dismantle the imperial dynamics of domination and death.

We humans, I’m increasingly convinced, are not alone in our grief, nor in our lamentations. Other animals, other creatures of the same God (to borrow Andrew Linzey’s felicitous phrase), mourn the loss of habitats, the spoiling of ecosystems, the runaway disaster of fossil fuels and oceans brimming with plastics. I have more recently become persuaded that all these other animals not only mourn but also engage in something like lament, perhaps even with something like hope. Or as the poet Sylvia Sands supposes, the mourning generates a new kind of song for a different kind of dawn.

On this Good Friday, let us grieve; let us also lament, which is the only way I can see to make this particular Friday “good.” Other animals can help us in this, as Sylvia Sands so poignantly suggests…

Song of the Bird

He loved us,
birds of the air.
Listen to his stories
of ravens and eagles –
and even sparrows:
two sold for a farthing,
and not one falls to the ground
without the Father knowing.

Here I am,
perched on his cross
eyeing those thorns
burrowing blackly and blindly
burrowing secretly, searingly
into his brow.

Tell me,
where is that damned dreamy
dove of peace now?
His beak is longer and stronger than mine.

Look, I’ve tried
I’ve flown into,
under his sweat-soaked,
blood-drenched,
once beautiful hair.

I’ve tried to wrench out
one, just one, of those thorns.
I’ve beaten – nearly broken – my wings
against his face;
and all I’ve done is
to draw more blood.
Fierce are those thorns
force-driven into his head.

With what strength I have left
I am flying,
flying away from my failure,
flying away lest I forget
the music trapped in my breast
for sunset and dawn:
flight and music –
his gifts.

As I fly
a hoard of young sparrows
come twittering and taunting,
laughing and crying after me:
Red breast! Red breast!
Who ever saw a red breast before?

I glance down as I fly
and see my breast flame crimson
against the gathering dusk.

The fellowship of his sufferings:
in my heart, as if to break it
creep sunset and dawnbreak,
and in my soul a new song is born
with which to greet them.red_breasted_grosbeak_1