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Hearing a Dog, Seeing a Human: Crossing a Border with Jesus

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped…”

I kept returning to those words from Isaiah (35:6) as I prepared to preach on a set of challenging biblical texts this week.

Reflecting on that prophetic promise, it occurred to me that there are some things we actually do not want to hear very clearly or that we wish he had never seen at all.

It has been troubling, to say the least, to hear overt forms of racism in this country the last eighteen months, both on our city streets and at the highest levels of government. Even more distressing in some respects is to see with greater clarity how those eruptions of ire tap into a long tradition of racial bias, a corrosive thread running throughout American history.

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White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, 2017

A hair-raising account of this appeared just recently in the New York Times. There I learned about Charles Henry Pearson, an Australian academic of the late nineteenth century, who warned that white men would soon be thrust aside by black and yellow races. He urged a concerted effort to defend particular parts of the world against such encroachments so that the “higher races” can live and increase freely, for the sake of their “higher civilization.”

I was dismayed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was rather fond of Pearson’s work, and was actually in communication with Pearson, assuring him of the “great effect” Pearson’s defense of the white race was having on “all our men here in Washington.”

Dismayed and then disgusted by the reminder of Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet,” a posture that led W. E. B. DuBois, in those early decades of the twentieth century, to describe the emergence of what he called “the new religion of whiteness.”

I read that piece from the Times while thinking about the passage many Christians heard this week from the letter of James (2:1-17). Quite frankly, I’ve been never been a fan of that biblical letter, and I often agree with Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer who apparently wanted to rip James out of the Bible entirely. But I read James differently this past week, perhaps like I’ve never read him before.

As you may know, those who have trouble with the Letter of James usually complain about not finding any grace in it. That was Luther’s objection, or what’s called “works righteousness,” the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works. But I don’t think James had anything like that in mind.

To the contrary, James is not the one denying divine grace in this letter; it’s those he writes about, the ones who treat the rich and powerful as if they are better than the poor and weak—they are the ones who deny grace. Those who play favorites, make distinctions, show partiality—they are the ones who fail to live their faith. Your faith might as well be dead, James writes, if you don’t treat everyone as equally graced by God, equally loved.

James pushed me this week to ponder favoritism itself, its corrosive, even violent effects, and how it manifests in the notion of “higher races.”

Why do human beings do this? Not all of us make such gross distinctions, of course, at least not publicly, but many do and it would seem many more are increasingly willing to do so openly. But why? Why classify and categorize and make such harmful distinctions?

At least one among many possible reasons occurs to me: we don’t really believe in grace.

Deep down many are convinced—because most of us were taught—that love and affection, even dignity and self-worth must be earned, and earned, and earned yet again.

For some, the fear of not measuring up can make the idea of a superior race seem quite attractive indeed—especially if you yourself could belong to that superior race, just by being born.

I am not proposing a singular origin for racism, nor a simple cause-and-effect mechanism for the complexities of white supremacy. I am, however, urging Christians to consider these cultural dynamics in the context of our faith. Just as James, I believe, would urge us to do.

In a world that is constantly forming us in the fear of unworthiness, shaping us with the anxiety over inferiority, dividing us—often violently—between the chosen and the damned, we need continually to be re-formed by love, nourished by a feast of divine grace.

Perhaps Mark’s Jesus can help (Mk 7:24-37). I mean, the Jesus who called a foreign woman a “dog.”

Let me quickly note that I, personally, do not consider it an insult to be compared with a canine. Given the types of human behavior we see displayed daily in the news, I would be quite happy to be thought of as dog-like.

That said, the current occupant of the White House has made clear on Twitter that “dog” is definitely not a compliment, especially when applied to women of color. The same could and should be noted about this nameless Syrophoenician woman in Mark who begs Jesus to heal her likewise nameless daughter, a woman who is compared to a dog begging for scraps of food.

Note the details with which Mark describes this scene. It takes place in the region near Tyre, a city well north of Jerusalem, farther north than the Galilee, definitely not a purely Jewish city, but one with deep Hellenistic influences. “Phoenician” names that region more particularly, and the “Syro-” marks the even larger region of Syria.

Mark is evoking a long history of land being carved up by various empires and kings, a history marked with border disputes, conquest, animosity, and violence.

syrophoenician_womanAnd then—as if this were not obvious—Mark notes that this Syrophoenician woman was a “Gentile,” or a better translation might be simply “Greek.” Not Jewish, in other words.

Sounds to me like a postmodern hybridized identity forged in the crucible of an occupying imperial force residing on contested borders with all sorts of socio-political intrigue and religious anxiety. This ancient text could have been ripped from the pages of the New York Times!

Even more so if we add a bit of economic class to this mix. Typical portrayals of this woman resemble a peasant, or someone at least lower in socio-economic status than Jesus. One biblical commentator, however, has argued against that usual grain of interpretation, suggesting instead that this unnamed woman could have been of significant means.

The combination of the proximity to Tyre and her Syrophoenician ancestry recalls the story of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah in the first book of Kings. There we read about Jezebel, a Phoenician princess condemned to be eaten by dogs—which puts a rather unsavory spin on those scraps falling from the master’s table.

In short, Jesus and this woman occupied vastly different spheres, worlds apart, and this difference was laden with value. Mark makes this clear by tossing in that reference to dogs—the difference between Jesus and this woman is as vast as that between species.

We can recognize these dynamics quite easily by looking to the U.S. border with Mexico, where children of asylum seekers are housed in cages.

Perhaps the point is made best by noting that this woman doesn’t even have a name; she’s a geopolitical marker, an ethnic designation, a gendered manifestation of religious rivalry.

Borders convert human beings into categories—silenced and invisible.

Even Jesus needed some time to hear this woman clearly, to hear and see the human behind the border.

But he did hear her, eventually, and her daughter was healed.

It’s not just accidental, a bit of random chronology that leads Mark to place another story of healing right after this story of a nameless, foreign woman. Whatever divides us, fragments us, keeps us from hearing the grace of God—all of this wounds us, individually and collectively. And we, just like the man Jesus encountered, need healing.

Blinded by ancient prejudice, unable to hear beyond the walls of hatred, the voices of oppression muted by socio-political forces hell-bent on dividing us—we need to hear again, and then again, and still more the good news of the Gospel: God’s grace extends to all, no birth certificate or passport or green card or bank account or pedigree required.

Christian worship matters in a world carved up with borders, a world of nameless humans seeking to be heard and seen, a world where dogs become ciphers for human disdain and derogatory rhetoric.

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Eucharist at the California border with Mexico.

Christian worship matters in such a world when we gather around the Eucharistic table, and for a deceptively simple reason:

When we eat well, we see and hear better.

When we gather at the Table of divine grace, we see ourselves and each other better.

When we feast on grace and love, we see ourselves and each other better, though this can be difficult, especially when we hear the voices of our own racial bias and see our own complicity with forms of discrimination.

And that’s exactly the point of grace and love—to notice all those hateful borders that divide us, and then work together to tear them down.

And that’s the work, James would say, that makes our faith lively.

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The Laughable Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity is no laughing matter. Well, actually it is, just don’t tell jokes about it.

The trinitymodern Christian calendar confronts us every year with a Sunday devoted to an inscrutable doctrine one week after the exuberance of Pentecost, the gift of the flaming Spirit. This is always a challenge for parish pastors and preachers: Can I really say something that is “correct” yet still palatable? Spoiler alert: No, you can’t.

I’m not a fan of jokes about the Trinity told by preachers on Trinity Sunday. I’ve done this myself, many times, but I won’t do it again, not until I become a better (more divine) comedian.

Comedy takes many forms. I laugh the most when a joke shows me something ridiculous about myself that the jokester clearly shares. Solidarity is comforting, and it’s often very funny.

Religion presents far too much material for derision, the kind of comedy that evinces winces more than laughter. There’s plenty of material left for a different kind of humor, the life-giving kind, the kind that casts a bright light on the broken human condition we all share and that then appears in the spotlight of divine solidarity.

That’s not what I usually experience when preachers make jokes about the Trinity in a sermon about how they just “don’t get it.” Note to self and other Christian preachers: The Trinity is actually what countless Christians have proclaimed over many centuries to be what we mean by “God.” Let’s at least take it seriously; even more, let’s take it laughably.

The doctrine of God as Trinity carries profound consequences that really do bear on matters of life and death. Precisely because of this, preaching on it ought to be genuinely laughable. I’ll return to that laughter in a moment.

Why so deadly serious? Christian history presents a host of reasons, but I’m thinking today of contemporary Western society, especially in the United States, where virtually any genuine or effective notion of the “common good” has vanished from our public discourse. I consider this cultural climate a direct legacy of the severe individualism of the “European Enlightenment,” which extolled the virtues of individual reason. Important, necessary, glorious things sprang from this, but so did many dolorous wounds. Among them: every man (and especially every woman and child) is on her own, resolutely autonomous and adrift on a sea of impossible choices and hideous dead-ends. And the implications of this in a society of misogynistic white supremacy are legion.

The ancient societies who crafted Trinitarian doctrine lived with a decidedly different view of what it means to be human. I don’t mean to valorize their views (problems abound), but they did seek to make their understanding of God at least consonant with their understanding of human life, which is not a life of autonomous isolation but one that is entangled with countless other creatures utterly dependent on each other.

Right there the essence of God as Trinity appears—we do not worship an isolated entity, gloriously enthroned on a distant seat of self-sufficiency. Whatever “God” means, the word ought to inspire deep, essential, resilient sociality: communion.

Many other religious traditions harbor similar insights about the relational character of the Divine and I resist supposing Christians have any religious monopoly on this. And still, in contemporary American culture, where “Christianity” ostensibly holds sway, it’s high time to retrieve and recover and reconstruct the profound insight underlying that ancient doctrine: “God” is love, from all eternity, and therefore social and communal; God is communion itself.

Given how far Western society has traveled from this foundational insight, I do think sermons on Trinity Sunday ought to be “laughable.” Let us laugh, good-heartedly, at how desperately we Christians have tried to define and label and categorize divine life while resisting its implications for our own lives; let’s laugh at the stilted language of our creedajuda_rodeo_010617l formulas, not from derision but from profound humility; let’s laugh at the very idea that we are alive—stumbling, joyous, pained, glad, wounded, and ecstatic—and in our laughter, touch the life of God.

I frequently touch the amazing grace and absurdity of life itself as I watch my Australian shepherd dog Judah play on a beach and dance in the crashing surf. I laugh. From the belly. I shout and sing as I watch that dog embrace life in its fullness. It’s thoroughly, entirely, completely laughable. And my laughter revives my soul.

So let us not tell jokes about the Trinity. The best belly laughs don’t come from “jokes.” They come from seeing ourselves for who we are in the midst of pretending to be something else; from seeing our foibles not as tragedy but simply the sinews of our relational selves; from seeing all our stilted gravitas as just bad acting, the kind we can howl over and then tumble into each other’s arms with a sigh of relief that we don’t have to pretend anymore. We can just be riotously grateful for life. And laugh.

We don’t have to pretend to know everything, know how to do all the things, know how to be good or proper. We don’t have to pretend to be self-sufficient, or having all our shit together, or living as perfect grown-ups. We can just be the idiosyncratic creatures of a wildly loving God who made us for each other, for love. I laugh at this, when I can see it and feel it, the kind of laughter that soothes my belly.

The Holy Trinity is deadly serious—not because we have to get it right, but because in trying to do so, we might just laugh at ourselves and find ourselves alive, together.

Let’s say that from our pulpits this Sunday, the feast of the Holy Trinity, and then laugh—good-heartedly, from the belly, as we fall giddy into the embrace of all those others who make us who we are. The humans, the dogs, the cats, the trees, the oceans and their beaches. All of it.

It’s so laughable, I want to cry.

And I often do, the tears laced with traces of a divine joy.

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A Pentecostal Revolution

It’s the Eve of Pentecost, when the Great Fifty Days of Easter are drawing to a close. I’m thinking of many things—language and its privileges; numbers and their deceptions; Empire and its disruptions; fear-soaked rooms and the gift of breath.

I’m thinking, in short, about the revolutionary character of the Feast so many will celebrate tomorrow with, perhaps, a contained exuberance that ought to be unleashed, for an upending revolution for the people. For all creatures. For the planet.

The Pentecostal revolution in brief:

Language. As a cis-gender, white, gay male who identifies as a Myers-Briggs INFJ, I would have written the Pentecost story differently. To preach the Gospel to a wildly diverse collection of domestic and international travelers to Jerusalem (as Luke portrays this in Acts 2), I would imagine that whole vast crowd suddenly understanding Aramaic when the disciples preached (likely their native tongue). That seems neat and tidy to me.

But, no. Luke tells of all those diverse peoples hearing the Gospel in their own native tongue, from people who never studied their language. The “miracle” of Pentecost is not a mono-language or universal code; it’s the honoring of cultural difference. And I want desperately these days for “language” to stand for more than human speech. Other animals are speaking Gospel to us; will we listen?

Or how about this more crude query: English-only America? Oh, please. Live with me for a day on my block in my California town. Pentecost happens here every day.

Numbers. That “upper room” where the “disciples” gathered and where the Spirit blew like a flaming tornado—just eleven, right? Twelve original apostles minus Judas. Not according to Luke. Read Acts 1 and 2 together and it would appear that at least 120 people were gathered on the day of Pentecost receiving the divine breath to speak Gospel boldly.

This actually matters if it wasn’t just eleven men who were possessed by the Spirit on that day. It was men, women, and children—just as the prophet Joel described (as Luke has Peter declare in Acts 2). More than this, Pentecost, and thus the Spirit of God, is for all, everyone, no exceptions.

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“Holy Spirit Coming,” He Qi, 2009

Empire. The very last thing imperial institutions of power want, what they dread, is solidarity. The only way empires can sustain their control is by dividing and segmenting the populations they want to rule. White against black. Straight against gay. “Gainfully employed” against the “welfare queen.” The list is endless.

Not just on the Day of Pentecost but throughout Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christians break down the walls of fragmentation (or try to) for a vision of divine solidarity. That might help to explain why so many of them are thrown in jail in nearly every other chapter of that biblical book.

Fear. My own life of faith changed dramatically, years ago, when I stopped worrying whether doubt would destroy my faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; fear is. Because nothing can unravel the intimacy of trust and the rootedness of faith more quickly than fear. Very rarely do the gospel writers portray Jesus as saying, “don’t doubt”; mostly he says, “have no fear.”

After Jesus had been executed by the State, his friends and disciples gathered together in shared fear; his fate might soon be their own. In John’s resurrection accounts, Jesus appears among these fear-ridden friends and says, “receive holy breath” (20:22). “Breath” can also be translated as “spirit” in ancient Greek.

Perhaps the Feast of Pentecost is, above all else, the celebration of fear’s banishment. We no longer have anything to be afraid of—though we will surely experience anxiety and trepidation and paralyzing fear on occasion. But in the end and through it, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Breath, will respirate with us, bringing our shallow, gulping gasps into rhythm with God’s own loving and confident beat.

The implications of a Pentecostal revolution seem endless to me. They include: dismantling the racism of mono-lingual cultural diatribes; exploding the male-dominated hierarchy of so much of institutional Christianity; refusing the machinations of Empire (nation-state) that would divide and fragment us; and breaking the chains of fear that enslave all of us in countless ways, short-circuiting our dreams and paralyzing our actions.

It didn’t take long for the institutional church to canonize Luke’s spirited account of the Gospel and sequester the Spirit’s holy disruptions in creeds and catechisms. We, the people of this peculiar Christian faith, must reclaim Pentecost for what it is: a vision, a call, an empowerment for revolution.

But not revolution for its own sake. Luke has Jesus announce his ministry with words from the ancient prophet Isaiah, with these marks: good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed (4:16-18). And Jesus announces this as the work of the Spirit.

May it be so for us.

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The Gift of Tears

Crying in public is a bit embarrassing for most of us, especially those from particular cultural backgrounds (white people like me have been trained to consider it a sign of weakness). Some occasions might call for it (funerals), but crying, or shedding tears, is not usually sought after.

So I became intrigued some years ago by references in Christian traditions to the “gift of tears.” Ignatius of Loyola even urged us to pray for this “gift.” More than a few sources map such tears to penitence, of feeling genuine sorrow for our sins. But that just skims the surface of what I’m now appreciating as a genuine gift–public chagrin be damned.

I stumbled on a quote recently from the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa:

It is impossible for one to live without tears who considers things exactly as they are.

Set aside for the moment whether anyone can ever consider things “exactly as they are.” I do not take Gregory to mean that tears are inevitable only when we confront the pain and suffering of the world around us (there is certainly plenty of that to garner more attention). They come as well with moments of encountering the indescribable joy and gratuity and beauty of God’s creation when we pause and notice, even in our fumbled attempts to pay attention.

The older I get, the more I seem unable not to cry. An image of a suffering elephant or polar bear on social media can moisten my keyboard with tears. But so can images of human kindness. Or when I’m playing and running with my Australian shepherd dog Judah on a beach, I sometimes find myself crying as I laugh at his antics–it’s too beautiful and I am overwhelmed.

Maybe that’s what Gregory meant by considering things “exactly as they are.” Not that we see things that way, but we consider them. We ponder, contemplate, pray, talk with friends, share meals, pet a furry dog, smell an explosion of hydrangea blossoms, and in some fashion we consider that beneath, within, throughout all of it we find the stubborn resilience of the God of Easter.

berkeley_spring_042418Christian faith is rooted in the crucified but risen Christ. We must consider the suffering and death, the ongoing crucifixions all around us, and still we also consider the blazing light of an unbelievable Easter, the rising of life from death. Both, when well considered, can prompt the “gift of tears.”

I’m keen now to do more research on the biology of tears, the neurotransmitters that register some event or moment that then triggers the ducts at the corners of our eyes to overflow with a salty stream. Why? Does it cleanse? Clarify? Baptize?

I read some years ago that the chemical composition of tears changes depending on the emotional state that produces them. I don’t know if this is true, but if so, the “gift” of tears might well offer more than public chagrin; it might mark a moment of divine encounter.

I read the daily news, listen to the radio, talk with friends–so much to grieve and mourn, and so much to notice with gratitude. Through and in all of it, every  moment, joy will one day come. It will come. It will most surely come and reveal all and everything in beauty. (I just started to cry as I typed that…)

May these next few weeks of the Great Fifty Days of Easter wet your cheeks–or salt your tongue, muddy your paws, water the fragile blossoms of beauty you stumble upon in your quotidian rhythms.

May the gift of tears redouble our commitments to change the world and, because of that, renew our hope for what we cannot now imagine.

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Beyond Bunnies: Unleashing the Wildness of God

Easter is no less commercialized than Christmas. I thought about this today and posted a pithy note on Facebook about it: “Global capitalism illustrated: moving effortlessly from the Harrowing of Hell to the Easter Bunny.” I’m not sure what I meant by that and I’m wrestling with it on this Holy Saturday evening.

I think was trying to say something about how markets rely on domestication for the sake of creating a commodity suitable for mass marketing and profit-making; an empty tomb becomes a Hallmark card. I’m not sure about the economics of all this, and I might be even less sure of the theology. Here’s what I’m wrestling with:

Among the many ways of journeying through this Holy Week, I try to pay attention to a story of resistance against the forces of religion-inflected empire, forces that brutalize whole populations; and a story of an instance of that resistance being met with heavy-handed law enforcement and mockeries of justice, agonizing physical torture, and a summary public execution; and a story of betrayal, abandonment, and risky tender care of the executed by terrorized friends.

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It’s a story not of tidy endings but of gut-wrenching perplexity, discounted testimony (from women), fear-drenched cohorts of erstwhile revolutionaries, and encounters with a stranger who upends the most basic boundaries on which we still rely for defining what life itself is, and what it means when it ends. At least one first-century gospel writer imagined burial cloths neatly folded in an empty tomb, as if Jesus had been napping and slapped gently awake by a watchful parent.

Perhaps. But if death is woven into the very fabric of biological evolution and the harmonies of ecosystems and the finalities of bereavement and grief, and if particular kinds of death stain its finality with outrage and despair—being shot eight times in the back by police officers in your family’s backyard while carrying a cellphone—then I imagine a rather different kind of God, wild and unleashed, the one dragging life out of the waters of untamable chaos at the dawn of time, a God tearing down the pillars of Death’s Dominion and yanking a lifeless body into a crack of all that rubble where light feebly shines.

A paltry analogy comes to mind. My Australian shepherd dog Judah loves to chase sea birds along a low-tide beach, where he inevitably gets mired in muck. I cannot merely call to him, shout out his name from the slightly more stable shore to release him from his muddy entombment. I must slosh through the muck, my feet and ankles and shin bones layered in stinky slime, and there lift his sixty-pound canine body out of the sea bed, one sloshy, painstaking step at a time. I heave. I pull. I yank. I do a big heavy-lift. I do this over vast distances.

So does God on Easter morning.

That story—its brutality and tenderness, its untamable effervescence—that story, I worry, is now offered by referring to the reliable turning of the seasons, with appreciable nods to a pear tree finally blossoming after a winter of bare twigs (which I myself have said in years past from an Easter-lily drenched pulpit), or the cuddly softness of bunnies newly born in a cozy nest as tulips begin to bud. Hallmark cards and multi-colored plastic grass and baskets of plastic eggs filled with chocolate rabbits—the familiars of my own childhood, which I have no desire to denigrate or dismiss (except for the plastic; we have to stop using plastic).

My fretting focuses not there but on mistaking the undeniable and spirit-soaring brilliance of winter morphing into spring for the tenacious God of life, the God who anoints a suffering servant to stand against the crush of imperial oppression armed only with compassion and loving intimacy, that same, wild God of irrepressible life who insists on interrupting our reasonable stories with a universe that is not only queerer than we imagine but queerer than we can imagine; the most familiar friend is the unrecognizable stranger. This is not just Spring; it is the Spring we recognize at once even though we have never before seen it, have never even dared to imagine it.

A wild God appears on our horizon, the One who will always find a domesticated shrine in the religious institutions that gravitate toward the comfortable rhythms of state power and all the benefits such power bestows on white men like me.

Perhaps I wrote that pithy Facebook post to myself—Easter as a hallowed space of comfort has yet to harrow my own collusion with the imperial forces of death.

Easter Day inaugurates a fifty-day season, every year. Thank God. This is by far more harrowing than Lent. Or it should be, or so I am supposing after a long week of wondering what the hell all these religious rites are really all about.

Hell. Back to that.

On this night, as tradition has it, Jesus harrowed Hell. I cannot imagine Hell was pleased.

May the morning’s dawn unsettle all of us with the wild, undomesticated life of God.

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The Harrowing of Hell as Adam and Eve are Raised by Christ

 

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A Holy Week of Canine Quotidian Care

judah_profile_032818I have been spending this Holy Week attending carefully to my Australian Shepherd dog Judah. After a “hot spot” appeared on his right cheek last week, the vet shaved a small portion of that cheek, put him on a course of antibiotics, and told me to “make sure he doesn’t scratch it.”

How in the world would I do that? Explaining this to Judah was out of the question. So I have been keeping watch, with a constant vigilance.

Thankfully, he is healing nicely, but I wondered whether this meticulous care would distract me from my Holy Week observance. I tend to think in grand arcs with epic stories and indulge in some thick theological reflection, often with a healthy dose of metaphysics tossed into the mix. Caring for a single creature, no matter how beloved, seemed rather beside the point of this most holy week of truly epic tales. But I now see my canine care as woven into the very point.

Caring for just this one creature in the midst of so many other concerns brought the death of Jesus to mind in a particular way. After all, his death on a cross was just one among many thousands of such executions carried out by the Roman Empire. Why should this particular one matter? There are, clearly, all those thick theological reasons I could offer in response. But the question occurred to me quite differently as I gazed on Judah: why care so terribly much about one among so many others?

Joseph of Arimathea came to mind, who cared tenderly for the dead body of Jesus, ensuring a proper burial—a tenderness not without social and political risk. I’m thinking, too, of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (as Mark’s gospel account named them), the ones who cared about proper burial spices for this one among so many.

Judah has, in other words, brought to mind the singularity of care. I mean the intensity of focused attention, but also the care devoted singularly, to just one. Why does this matter? Should it?

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As he often does, Judah also reminded me this week of our ecological crisis currently wreaking havoc among so many species—so many individuals. Just as we now face an unprecedented moment of human migration, with more of us on the move than ever before, many of the other animals with whom we share this planet are also on the move, joining a growing number of climate refugees; indeed, half of all species on the planet are moving and shifting because of climate change, and with consequences far beyond what we can now predict or even imagine. Theologian Christopher Southgate has urged us to think of this present era as the “new days of Noah” and how God might be calling us to assist some of those creatures in their migration to safety—perhaps we can save enough for a species to survive.

In the midst of all this, can it possibly matter to care so singularly about just one?

Yes, it can. Caring for Judah over the last five days, I have noticed a remarkable focus in my attention and energy, which is usually and otherwise scattered throughout the flotsam of multitasking responsibilities. Such singular focus is itself notable in a world of constant distractions.

More than this, the kind of focus matters, too. I have been concentrating my attention on a body, on flesh, and quite particularly a patch of flesh about the size of a nickel. As John insisted in his account of the Gospel, the Divine Word became flesh. As noted eco-theologian Andrew Linzey has argued, the suffering of Christ is a divine solidarity with the suffering of all animals, of all flesh.

Caring so narrowly for just a slice of an ecosystem, or so particularly for just a single individual can indeed seem pointless in the face of global urgencies. And still, such focused, quotidian care matters for a whole wide world of peril. It matters first, perhaps, for our own character. We will not save that which we do not love, as the old aphorism has it. Practicing the love for an individual creature instills and nurtures a habit of loving much more widely. If we can become creatures who love, we will become creatures who can save, protect, and nurture.

More than all this, a species is not just a conglomerate of generic flesh. We know this (or perhaps try to remember this) about ourselves, about Homo sapiens, but rarely about other animals: a species consists of distinct individuals, each and every one miraculously and remarkably individual. I have learned this from the beloved dogs who have shared their lives with me over the years. Not one of them has been exactly like the others. It matters to care for just this one because there is no other just like this singular one.

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The implications cascading from this Holy Week spent with Judah are far too many to enumerate here. Not surprisingly, they tempt me to travel once again along those familiar grand arcs into thick theological reflection. That still matters, too, if we can start thinking and acting differently, for example, about the horrors of factory farming (in which, as Matthew Scully notes, we treat living beings like crops), as well as the distressing analog to this in the mass incarceration of African American men in our prison system. Each one — on the farm, in prison, migrating — each one is a unique, irreplaceable creature of God.

I’m taking all of this with me into Holy Saturday, when a singular creature of God is laid to rest in a tomb. When the stone is rolled away, that singular moment of God’s unimaginable Yes to life extends beyond that singular one to all of us, and indeed to every creature, as the apocalyptic writer John would have us believe. There, in that text, John sees a vision all creatures of Earth (all animals, insects, and fish, as Denis Edwards urges us to imagine) united in a single song of praise to the Lamb, the symbol of the crucified and risen Christ:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13-14)

I’m musing on just that as I sit here just now with Judah to make sure he doesn’t scratch his cheek. This focused attention matters for him. It matters for me, too. And I pray it will matter in new ways for the whole glorious breadth and astonishing depth of God’s beloved creation.

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Messy Bodies, Smelly Dogs, and the Christmas Gift of Repentance

Many Christians were launched into this third week of Advent with the fiery rhetoric of John the Baptist. He’s an odd figure, in more ways the one. His desert roaming and locust-eating offer a stark contrast to inflated Santas on glittering front yards and reindeer shimmering on rooftops.John_baptist

John stands as a forerunner, a figure preparing the way for Jesus. Not so terribly odd for this season, except for the grating substance of his message: repentance.

That word more than merely grates. Repentance is one of those words that makes a growing number insist on being spiritual but hell-no-not-religious.  It qualifies as one of those “trigger words,” especially for those who have heard it only in tirades of condemnation.

As a gay man, I heard that word as a young adult not only as judgment on my sexual desires but for my bodily self, who I am in the world. I came to internalize that judgment, thinking of my very own flesh as wrong, bad, even disgusting. This is what leads a shocking number of young people to suicide; one would be too many. Quite frankly, I am astonished with gratitude that I am still alive after those many years of suffocating religion.

My life changed dramatically in my mid-twenties, when a dear friend recounted the confession he made to a priest about being gay. In essence, this was the content of his confession: “I confess that I have been rejecting the goodness of my sexuality and the divine gift of my bodily desires; I repent.”

My friend told me this, transforming entirely my concept of sin and repentance, not to mention my image of God. Repentance, I realized, is not primarily about remorse; or rather, such regret is not its purpose. The word itself means turning, changing one’s mind, shifting the course of one’s whole life. To repent is to turn away from shadowy realms and toward the light, toward the light of thriving, flourishing and fleshy life, a life of joy, just as God intends.

This Advent season, now on the brink of the Christmas season, is drenched in bodily stuff, in flesh. Biblical writers don’t often dwell on abstract concepts but turn often to bodily images to convey spiritual insights – particular places, landscapes, banquets, other animals. Christmas celebrates newborn flesh in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle and sheep. Bodily, fleshy stuff matters, more than we can imagine; it’s precisely there, in bodies, where we encounter the mystery of God.

Here in the United States, we’ve been living through a period of rather intense moments of bodily stress. The killing of African Americans by law enforcement officials over the last few years has brought black bodies newly onto center stage. The seemingly unending wave of sexual misconduct cases has brought bodily vulnerability and bodily power into the spotlight of our entertainment industry and Congress alike. The entire planet is becoming increasingly aware of the many bodies living in the midst of a climate crisis; the body of Earth itself is groaning (as the Apostle Paul noted many centuries ago). Bodily, fleshy stuff matters – more than we can imagine.

These are indeed distressing moments but perhaps also fruitful ones of repentance, of turning around and changing our minds about flesh and bodies. This matters in Western culture where bodies of all types are objectified, categorized, made into commodities to buy and sell. Perhaps BlackLivesMatter and the flood of “metoo” hashtags and starving polar bears can prompt a profound moment of repentance, of turning toward the flesh once again, not as a consumer product but where the One who creates it is pleased to dwell, with abundant joy.

We need to be intentional about this. It won’t “just happen” on its own. And this is why, in part, I live with a dog. My Australian shepherd dog Judah will not permit me to sit in front of my computer forever; he insists on hikes, playing, wrestling, running down a beach, getting dirty, smelly, and covered in sand and mud and ocean foam. He stands panting after all that rolling about in the muck, panting happily as he stands there as a complete and utter mess; it’s glorious.

judah_rodeo_090916 (2)I actually love the smell of a wet, dirty dog. I sometimes bury my nose in Judah’s furry neck and relish that earthy, canine odor. It speaks flesh, a word made flesh, and there I remember: God really does love this glorious mess – God loves me.

On the endless list of things we all need to do in this “holiday” season, I would add one more and put it at the top. In your encounters with others, all of them, notice that we are bodies with flesh. With colleagues, reach out a hand to touch a shoulder; with strangers, shake a hand and feel your skin against skin; with friends and family, make sure you embrace them – a lot. And don’t ever miss an opportunity to fondle the silky ears of a dog, scratch the chin of a (willing) cat, or take delight in that tumbleweed of animal fur rolling through your living room.

All of this seems ridiculously inconsequential, hardly the revolution we now need. But it matters more than we can imagine, this regular, deliberate, intentional reminder of the flesh we are, the flesh God loves.

There are many reasons why physical touch has become risky these days. There are many more reasons why it is so urgently necessary, the reminder of our fleshy bodies, the stuff through which God chooses to speak and be known.

Repent, turn again toward the flesh, where God takes great delight to dwell, with an abundance of (messy, smelly, confounding, liberating, intoxicating) joy. That’s the gift I wish I could place under every single tree – wrapped in Judah’s beachy scent.

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Advent 1: Just Come Already

Just Come Alreadyrend_heavens

Come, God,
Just come, already.
Rend the heavens,
Like Isaiah said,
And come on down.

(Please do some mending after
the rending, too; we’ve shredded
so much of what you’ve made.
Sorry about that.)

Or come up,
Or come over,
Wherever you are,
Just come.

(We’ll gladly set aside our
postmodern convictions and
deconstruction strategies, and
all those hermeneutical suspicions)

Because we’ve been weeping
Too long, and lip-biting yearning
Too long, and running around the den
tearing up the sofa,
ripping up the carpet,
breaking windows
Too long, waiting for you to come home,
blaming each other
and killing each other
Too long, and pining away
Far too long for your sweet face,
And your lovely voice,
And your tender touch,
For so long

We’ve forgotten
The love that makes us
Write these things,
Crying softly,
Making a bath of hope
from our tears.

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Many Beautiful Names in an Idolatrous Nation

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Quite honestly, I often wonder if I worship the same God as some of my fellow Christians.

In some respects, the answer is quite obviously yes, Muslims and Christians do worship the same God. Allah is, after all, just the Arabic word for “God” (which many Arabic speaking Christians use), like Dios in Spanish or Theos in Greek. The one God is known by many exquisitely beautiful names – at least ninety-nine of them, as Muslims would say.

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The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah

But there’s more at stake here than theological precision for its own sake. Theology always makes a difference beyond its own confines. Theological ideas wriggle their way into cultural customs, social policies, and lynch mobs. Those ideas can also shape, I constantly trust, communities of radical hospitality and social justice.

For more centuries than anyone can count, religion has provided the tempo for the drumbeat of war and the music of peacemaking alike. There are so very few “innocent” or “agenda-free” religious questions. And those questions can show up in unexpected places.

Consider the recent imbroglio over a “hazing” incident at Wheaton College, my alma mater, which included occasional references to what happened there to Prof. Larycia Hawkins. A tenured professor, a woman of color, and a Christian, she was dismissed from the college in 2016 after standing in solidarity with Muslims. The official reason for her dismissal was her supposed violation of Wheaton’s statement of faith, her insistence that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

The “hazing” of a student by some of his football teammates happened just one month after Prof. Hawkins left the college. The details are fuzzy and contested, but some reports of the “hazing” indicated that “Islamic music” was played during the incident and Islamic slurs were used to taunt the student. Whether or not any of this is true, it has re-ignited a social media conversation about Christianity and Islam in America.

So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? It matters to think about that question carefully and to respond with more than a “yes” or “no,” especially in today’s American cultural climate and the wider global realities where so much depends on how we humans live with religious difference – or whether we can.

I’d like to offer some observations about that question in two steps. First, I would propose a distinction worth making between prayer and worship. They certainly overlap, but worship always remains vulnerable to idolatry, to which the United States has recently fallen prey in particularly virulent ways.

Second, there is nearly as much religious diversity among Christians today as there is between “other” religions. It behooves us to ponder how we manage (embrace?) our own diversity before trying to address a religious tradition not our own. In doing so, I’m convinced, we find fresh ways to learn from and admire religious “others.”

But first, a brief preface.

I offer these reflections as a Christian priest and theologian. As such, I live with some convictions about God, and why my love of Jesus matters in those convictions (a love, by the way, that many Muslims also share, but differently). The longer I study Christian traditions, however, my list of certainties about God grows shorter.

Whenever I crave just a tad more certainty, I try to remember fourth and fifth century cautions. Like this one from Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.” Or this, from Gregory of Nyssa: “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

I do love the many texts of theology, both ancient and contemporary. I love them, not because they sharpen my conceptual acuity but because they invite me and then lead me (if I let them) ever deeper into the fathomless mystery of deathless Love.

So, the question at hand, it seems to me, is not about God but about us and our varying conceptions of the one God (at least in the Abrahamic traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims). How might we think about this? Here are my initial two steps:

Prayer and Worship: A Venn Diagram
Grant for the moment that there is but one God. When we’re fervently praying for healing, rescue, discernment, courage, love, or countless other things, I don’t think she cares whether we get her name right – there are at least ninety-nine of them, after all.

Pray with all your might to the Source of All, Deathless Love, Wonder-Beyond-Words – just pray. In due time, *God* may well reveal a divine name just for you.

Worship, on the other hand, carries some risk. The word itself comes from Old English and means, simply, “acknowledging worth.” My own list of people and places and things deserving such acknowledgement is endless. I’m still moved (often to tears) when hearing the phrase from the marriage rite of an older version of the Book of Common Prayer. The vows taken by the couple include this: “With my body I thee worship.” What a glorious declaration of God’s wonderful creation!

Here’s the risk: assigning worth to something that is dangerous, harmful, or violent. Biblical writers were, to put it mildly, preoccupied with this risk. They called it “idolatry.”

Rather than pondering whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, more than a few Americans might want to ponder whether they are assigning worth to the modern nation-state – the kind of worth that belongs only to *God*.

This has been a constant danger in American history (“In God We Trust” stamped on our money), but it now appears unashamedly around every corner – fetishizing the flag, covering one’s heart to swear allegiance to that flag, making “America first.”

Whom (or what), one must ask, do Americans worship?

Diversity Starts at Home
The canon of Scripture used by most Christians includes many more names and images and symbols for God than appear regularly in Sunday morning worship. More of us might engage in respectful encounter with religious difference if we engaged with our own religious diversity more honestly, as Christians.

Drawing on ancient Hebrew texts for a Christian insight about this, consider Leviticus and Isaiah.

The writer of Leviticus portrays a warrior God who demands absolute covenantal purity and strict distinctions between Israel and all other nations. The writer(s) of Isaiah, on the other hand, portray an amorous God of social justice and peace-making who invites all the nations to the holy mountain for a banquet.

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The Holy Mountain of Feasting in Isaiah (Abigail Sarah Bagraim)

I believe these various biblical writers are writing about the same God, but their perceptions and understandings could not be more different; and the implications of the difference are actually quite profound. (If a space alien landed and was given only those two biblical texts, that alien would likely conclude that they refer to two different “gods.”)

The gospel writers portray Jesus as deeply rooted in the faith of his Israelite ancestors. But in which ancestral understanding of God was he rooted? Luke gives an unambiguous answer: In the fourth chapter of his gospel account, he has Jesus quote from Isaiah to launch his ministry.

If at least Luke rooted his perceptions of Jesus drawn from Isaiah’s perceptions of God, then it seems to me that Christian mission ought to focus on inviting all the nations, all the religions, all the races, and creeds, and ethnicities to the holy Mountain of God to feast at a banquet. And this, I am convinced, would actually change the world.

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Jesus reading from Isaiah to inaugurate his ministry (Luke 4)

The change will come by focusing less on whether African-American football players obey their white owners and stand for the national anthem, and more on where anyone’s true allegiance ought rightly to belong.

The change will come when American Christians think differently about refugees from Islamic countries, about Muslims building mosques in “our” cities, and how to stand in solidarity with our Jewish siblings when their synagogues are defaced. The change would come from seeing all of them and us trying to pray to and worship the same God.

The change will come when we extend our vision beyond Abrahamic traditions and realize a common quest shared by all humans (and likely other animals, too): to find our place in a universe utterly beyond anyone’s understanding and to make meaning from our lives together, in a world where only wonder understands anything.

Are we worshiping the same God? It doesn’t matter to whom the word “we” refers. The only way anyone will know the answer is when everyone lives a world of justice, bathed with peace, and where all creatures thrive and flourish.

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Beloved Community and the Irrevocable Deed

“How good and pleasant it is,” declared the psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity.”

Many Christians recited that verse from Psalm 133 during Sunday worship yesterday. What a striking contrast between reciting what is “good and pleasant” and recalling Charlottesville, Virginia descending into chaos and violence, hearing with dismay the hate-filled speech, lamenting a country deeply fragmented.

Like many others, I long for just the right words, the most effective rhetorical posture, the finely-tuned strategy – anything at all to fix this broken society.

I pondered this as I sat and prayed with the other biblical texts for yesterday’s liturgy – the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Paul writing about Jews in a letter to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. These texts reminded me how deeply embedded we are in systems far larger than ourselves, systems that divide and fragment us with cycles of injury and vengeance, systems that remain invulnerable to reason, and logic, or just a “better argument.”

We are not dealing with mere partisanship here or ideological differences, as if all we need are persuasive facts to correct wrong-headed ideas.

Cornel West was among a line of clergy in Charlottesville who stood arm-in-arm to face a phalanx of white nationalist demonstrators. West is no newcomer to this work and witness; he’s been around the racism block many, many times. West described staring into the eyes of those demonstrators and noted: “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”west_charlottesville

What has recently become more directly visible, and its expressions more emboldened, has deep and stubborn roots. Festering in this country’s past is not only the institution of slavery but the construction of race itself as the means to justify and perpetuate the superiority of white people over all others. This creates a social system that cannot be uprooted or dismantled by fiat, much less by street brawls.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have ended slavery as an institution, but it did not dispel the social system or its enduring legacy. Michelle Alexander reminds us how that system perpetuates itself in ever new guises – at first as “Reconstruction,” then “Jim Crow,” and today, in the “mass incarceration” of young men of color.

It’s tempting, in other words, to isolate problematic individuals – whether as neo-Nazis or white nationalists – and to suppose that rebuking them or arresting them or punishing them will solve the problem. But we are not dealing with a few bad apples in the barrel; the barrel itself is the problem. Or as a poet-activist recently proposed, white supremacy “is not a shark; it’s the water.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King understood the deeply spiritual character of this system of injustice and its hateful expressions, for which only a deeply spiritual response will suffice. This insight shaped the six principles of nonviolence that guided his life and work.

Principle #3, for example, urges us to remember that we are seeking to defeat injustice, not people. “Evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”

How easy it is to forget this in the heat of confrontation and conflict, yet so vital to remember: the hate Cornel West encountered is just as soul crushing and corrosive for the hater as it is for the targets of their hate.

King believed that the only meaningful and lasting solution is for all of us, together, to create and sustain what he called the “Beloved Community.”

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what King meant by this, which is certainly much more than a social club. That galvanizing image first appeared in the work of Josiah Royce, a late nineteenth-century philosopher of religion.

For Royce, the communal bonds we share with each other, the ones that make us human together, are torn apart by treachery. Royce called that moment of betrayal “the irrevocable deed.” He chose that language carefully, to underscore the severity of treachery and its debilitating legacy, how it refuses to dissipate just by ignoring it or pretending it never happened. Apologies alone will not suffice to heal the rupture of betrayal; the deed still stands as irrevocable.

Treachery, Royce argued, demands atonement – for both the betrayed and the betrayer. This will mean creating something new, not in spite of that irrevocable deed but because of it. This new thing Royce described as the Beloved Community.

Royce turned often to the story of Joseph in Genesis, the climax of which was appointed for yesterday’s worship (Gen. 45:1-15). Recall how the story began: out of envy, Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him and he was sold as a slave into the house of Pharaoh.  Over time, Joseph becomes a trusted servant and even a “lord of Egypt.” And this: his ability to interpret dreams saves the whole land from a terrible famine.

Among those he saves, of course, are members of his own family, including his treacherous brothers. The storyteller does not give us a “forgive and forget” moment but an extended family reunion in which Joseph insisted that his brothers remember what they did to him. He insists on this, not for vengeance or retribution but to build something new and hopeful from their shared memory – the essence, Royce proposed, of “atonement.”

hands_multiracialGenuine community, Royce argued, the Beloved Community, emerges from a shared memory of betrayal and a shared hope for new life.

Countless “irrevocable deeds” litter our past, some festering like an open wound, others leaving only traces of a scar. What transpired in Charlottesville is but the latest manifestation of what Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin” – racism. Unless and until we tell that story truthfully, remember it together courageously and humbly, the irrevocable deeds of white supremacy remain un-atoned.

Royce would argue that Christians already know what that kind of truth-telling looks like, or have at least a hint of its rhythms whenever we gather at the Eucharistic Table. At that Table, through a shared memory and a shared hope, the same God who made something good from the evil done to Joseph makes something good from us – the Body of Christ.

In a world torn apart by hate and violence, what Christians do at the Eucharistic Table matters. The Table matters; I have to believe this. At the Table we cease to be fragments – divided by race and nationality, split apart by color and gender, betrayed by envy and sold into the slavery of countless cycles of injury and vengeance – at the Table we are knit together into a single body, bound together by love and grace. This, at the very least, is our hope.

Learning to tell the truth in and with love at the Table will not solve our resilient divisions; but I am convinced it’s the only path on which a graceful solution will appear.

Martin Luther King, Jr., urged us along that path with familiar words that never grow old:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

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