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A Standing Rock Thanksgiving

A recent social media meme pointed out the terrible irony of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at a time when Native Americans are being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and sprayed with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures.

I would add two more words to describe that confluence – fortuitous and Eucharistic.

I realize the risk in both of those words just now, especially a Christian liturgical word that has carried so much colonial and neo-colonial baggage, a religious rite that traveled with conquerors and pioneers who scattered, decimated, and killed the native tribes on the very land those same tribes now seek to protect. I take this risk hoping the ongoing standoff at Standing Rock will inspire more communities to engage in courageous and decisive action at the intersection of racial history and ecological fragility.standing_rock1

I fuel this hope, especially at this time of year, by remembering that Christian faith began not with a text or a doctrine or an institution, but with radical social practice – table fellowship. As the gospel writers portray it, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with the wrong people.

Who sat at your table – and whose table you joined – mattered a great deal in that first century society, nearly as much as the character of your sexual relations. Both food and sex perpetuated hierarchies of social value, relations of power that stratified ancient Mediterranean communities just as they do today. Jesus cast these hierarchies aside – much to the ire and even revulsion of many in his own community; this eventually cost Jesus his life.

The earliest Christians continued that practice of table fellowship, which they came to call “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At those shared tables, both then and today, Christians do two interrelated things: we remember the violence of a state-sponsored execution and we proclaim a hopeful faith in the God who brings new life from such pain and suffering.

Josiah Royce, a late-nineteenth century American philosopher of religion, described a genuine community as a people who share both memory and hope in common. People who share only memory but no hope often fall into a paralyzing despair; people who dwell on hope with no shared memory can easily drift into utopian fantasy. A genuine and indeed beloved community, Royce argued, will always share the intertwining of memory and hope. He applied this description to Christians at the Eucharistic table.

We have some daunting and likely gut-wrenching work ahead of us as Americans living in a deeply divided, fragmented, and increasingly hostile society. The wounds and scars that divide us are not new, of course, but for many white liberals like me, too many of those wounds have gone unnoticed for too long; we have not held enough memory in common and we have lived with too much untethered hopefulness.

America cannot be “great” nor can we move “forward together” without remembering more honestly and bravely how firmly our national roots are planted in a violent past, without hoping for a future in which my thriving and flourishing are inextricably bound up with yours.

The family Thanksgiving table likely cannot bear the weight of that crucial work. Perhaps that’s why our faith communities still matter – our synagogues, our churches, our mosques. Perhaps the standoff at Standing Rock can become the occasion for forging new modes of multi-faith solidarity, a fresh vision of shared tables on sacred land, a way through painful memories toward a hopeful horizon.

Perhaps so – and if so, then white Europeans will once again owe the courageous indigenous peoples of this land a profound debt of gratitude.

(Click here to support the water protectors at Standing Rock.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sleepwalking through a Cataclysm: A Pentecostal Wake-up Call

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God declares, “and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Many Christians heard that biblical text yesterday in church, for the Feast of Pentecost.

Prophecy only occasionally has anything to do with predicting far-off future events. Biblical prophets more often see the present with vivid clarity and then say uncomfortable things about it. That clarity of vision sometimes happens in a dream but mostly we have to be awake, with our eyes wide open.

As I thought about prophesy on Pentecost, here’s a short list of what came to mind: intractable social problems; dysfunctional political parties; erosion of the common good; a whole generation or more without any grounding in a religious tradition; and polar bears swimming for their lives without any ice in sight while poachers profit from slaughtering elephants. The list would be longer if I were more awake.

I believe most citizens of the North Atlantic (myself included) are sleepwalking through a cataclysm. I’m not sure what will wake us; perhaps only divine intervention can interrupt our somnambulist delusions.

Sound alarmist? A current catalogue of crises would begin with these:

  • About ten days ago this planet registered over 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a level not seen for roughly three million years, even while we frack for more gas and scrape the bottom of oil-sands barrels; the irreversible tipping point for global climate change swiftly approaches and we may have just passed it (here’s a startling graph of the problem).smokestacks2
  • We now live with the most severe gap between those who control not only national but global wealth and resources and those who have virtually nothing; even conservative economists consider that gap unsustainable and it maps closely to the widening gap in education.
  • Yet another gap widens with alarming speed, the one between ideology and facts; just witness what happened to Bill Nye (the “science guy”) when he noted for a Texas audience that the moon actually reflects the sun’s light (he was booed) or what a Christian pastor said about Christianity as the founding religion of the United States that now stands at risk from homosexual activists (this matters because that pastor is now the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia).
  • All the boring stuff about infrastructure will soon seem far less boring when this nation’s duct-taped electricity grid crashes, or when the more than 4,000 dams at risk of failure actually fail, or when the next 70-year old gas pipeline explodes; the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+.
  • The wildly disproportionate number of African American men incarcerated in the U.S. strongly suggests that Jim-Crow culture never really ended but merely changed tactics, which includes keeping the poor in poverty and restricting their access to education.

I imagine most people think about that catalogue of socio-political problems as discrete items on a check-list. Most of us likely recognize some of their intersections and overlaps. Relatively few, however, would include all of those and more in a description of a single event, as the word “cataclysm” suggests. But that’s precisely what I now believe we must do.

I believe we are witnessing in slow-motion a singular, cataclysmic unraveling of community, of the social bonds that have for millennia enabled humans to survive and thrive. Those bonds now include the indispensable relationships with varied ecosystems, both  local and global. To be sure, many of us enjoy resilient, thriving communal bonds, even if only in our households or neighborhoods. But this is not enough, not by far, not in an era of global commerce and planetary-interdependence.

Most of us are happily sleepwalking through this cataclysm, though mostly through no fault of our own. The very conditions that set the stage for this unfolding disaster have ingeniously hidden their mechanisms from view behind a screen of comfort. As I write this, I sit in a beautiful backyard garden surrounded by budding fruit trees next to a house with an affordable mortgage. Very little about where I sit would encourage me to wake up.

bible_us_flagMany would of course lay the blame for our sleepy state at the feet of religion, especially Christianity. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Marcella Althaus-Reid (one of the more traditionalist and therefore queer theologians I know) argued that Western Christians have been lulled into a compliant sleep by adopting Western cultural sensibilities as benchmarks for Gospel values. That wedding of modern Western culture and institutional Christianity may well qualify as one of the biggest blunders in Christian history, perhaps second only to the quasi-official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

To the many solutions Althaus-Reid proposed to this quandary, I would add this: divine intervention. I do not mean the kind Cecil B. DeMille imagined in his silver-screen Bible epics. Divine intervention will look today like it always has, vividly illustrated by Pentecost but without the special effects. Luke’s biblical account of the earliest Christians in his Acts of the Apostles relies on very few divine pyrotechnics. He portrays instead completely ordinary people doing wildly extraordinary things, all of them inspired and cajoled by the Spirit. Luke describes that Pentecostal effect: Christians turned the world upside down (17:6).

In the midst of an unfolding cataclysm, we need some world-changing prophecy. I’m actually very hopeful that the Spirit will do today what she has done so many times before – wake us up to see the world with prophetic clarity.

When that happens, we will need another gift from that same Spirit: the ability and willingness to understand one other beyond the many linguistic and cultural barriers that divide us. And still another gift: the love that makes friends from enemies and family from friends. And yet one more, perhaps above all the others: courage.

"Holy Spirit Coming," He Qi, 2009

“Holy Spirit Coming,” He Qi, 2009

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Counting the Deaths that Count in Eastertide

I know how many people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School (26, not including the perpetrator and his mother) and how many died at the Boston Marathon bombing (3). I know this (without needing to “do a Google”) in part because these horrific events took place rather recently.

I know these numbers for other reasons, too. Both of those tragic moments happened in places where I can imagine myself visiting or strolling; I can easily see my godson’s younger brother as a student at Sandy Hook. And all but a few of those thirty-one people who died were white.

I have never visited a Sikh temple nor have I ever traveled to Pakistan. There are parts of the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) that I might drive through but likely never “visit.” Yet in all of those places adultssikh_temple_shooting and children alike have died, violently and recently. I have no idea how many unless I look it up and then search carefully through all the online search results:

Six died at a Wisconsin Sikh temple last August. Since the Sandy Hook shooting last December, 35 have been killed by gun violence in Oakland (10 miles from my house), four of them teenagers. In my own city of Richmond, 7 have been killed, one of them a teenager. (Slate offers a sobering but helpful interactive map of gun violence in the U.S., though the statistics are strangely hard to confirm.) Only God knodrone_strikews, literally, how many have died in U.S. drone strikes overseas. In Pakistan alone since 2004 drones have killed 2,358 people, 175 of them children. (Those numbers are disputed by various reporting agencies, but this animated graphic proves helpful and chilling.)

The vast majority of all those victims were not white.

Now, to be sure, these situations (let alone my  memory and attention span) are complex, multi-layered, inflected by news cycles, the “spectacle factor,” and so much more. The troubling fact still remains that I remember or know anything at all about white deaths on the other side of the country and so little about the deaths of people of color in my own backyard. Without resorting to Google yet again, I could not remember how many died just a year ago at Oikos University, a school affiliated with a Korean Presbyterian Church in Oakland (7).

I suspect something deep in the human psyche draws our attention rather naturally to the fate of those who seem most like us. If so, then white people (like me) need urgently to stretch beyond that natural tendency in a country where the vast majority of policy makers are white (and male); in a country where national news media train their spotlight on a small-town elementary school but not on inner-city streets; in a country where significant gun control legislation finally appears on the docket only after mostly white children are killed but not after mostly Asian students are shot by an Asian gunman. (The New York Times Magazine recently published a retrospective piece on the University of Oikos shooting titled, appropriately enough, “The Other School Shooting.”)

We count deaths, but some deaths clearly count more than others. I started pondering that disparity as I sat transfixed (like so many others) by the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I wondered why the whole country seemed fixated there but so rarely on Oakland, Richmond, Atlanta, New York City, or Chicago.

The specter of terrorism is clearly part of the answer. One of the Boston victims (who lost a portion of her leg in the bombing) said that it reminded her immediately of the September 2001 attacks. She was not alone, and that may be part of the problem. A commentator in London recently noted that Americans tend to panic over the prospect of international terrorism (shutting down an entire city) but seem to accept daily gun violence as routine. Those living with such violence, however, consider it anything but “routine” and more like terrorism. (Over the last two years such violence has gone up by 52% in the Bay Area where residents feel “besieged.”)

Since Sandy Hook last December through March 22 of this year, 2, 244 people have been killed by gun violence in the U.S. The demographics lurking behind those statistics are just as significant. White Americans are five times more likely than African Americans to commit suicide with a gun. African Americans are far more likely than white people to be killed by someone else with a gun. Suicide rates are the highest in states with the highest rate of gun ownership and tend to concentrate in rural areas. Homicides involving guns happen far more frequently in our cities. Digest those demographics for a moment and notice the polling data: Nearly 75% of African Americans support tighter gun control legislation while not quite half of white Americans do. (The difference between how we perceive suicide and respond to homicide matters here, too.)

Admittedly, I find statistics numbing and difficult to decipher. More visceral and gripping are the images of those Sandy Hook children and the carnage at a marathon finish line. Mia McKenzie by contrast finds those images numbing in what she names an “erosion of empathy.” Counting only the deaths that appear to count (judged by news media and Congressional action) has slowly worn done her capacity to care. Here’s how she describes it from a blog post I urge all of my white friends to read:

Some of it has to do with the fact that the wars and subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for more than a dozen years. For many of the younger folks I know, that’s the better part of their entire lives. It’s a whole third of mine. For a dozen years we have watched as the mainstream media has ignored the deaths of so many brown children, day after year after decade. I mean, they were ignoring the deaths of Black children all over the world, including here, way before that, but we didn’t have to see them ignoring it so blatantly every morning and afternoon and evening and night on TV (that 24-hour news cycle is a bitch; they have time for everything except our stories).

Surely the peculiar faith of Christians has something to say here – peculiar, that is, especially for white Christians in this Easter season as we  celebrate the resurrection of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew executed by an imperial army outside the city gates. Would that death have attracted dozens of television camera crews and even more front page news stories?jesus_as_palestinian

Perhaps we need an Eastertide discipline as much as we do a Lenten one. A modest place to begin might be noticing the deaths that count and why they do. The U.S. Congress may have (inadvertently?) done just that by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to four African American girls – fifty years after they were killed in a Birmingham city bombing.
MCNAIR ROBERTSON COLLINS WESLEY

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The Squeaky Gate: Holy Week and Social Transformation

“Cosmo, you’re gonna die.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from the film “Moonstruck.” The line comes from Olympia Dukakis’ character, Rose. She says it to her husband, who has been seeing another woman. Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Left unaddressed in that great exchange is whether there might be anything worth dying for, or whether it matters if there is, and how it might make a difference, to anyone.

Those are some of the profound themes of this “holy week” that Christians in the West are living through just now. The Internet machine is abuzz with images for this week, ranging from the traditional to the kitschy, while clergy scramble to find ever better ways to tell that familiar story (in more worship services than they usually care to count).lamb_slain

In a high-tech, globalized world of smart phones and Google glasses, the story of this week can seem not only familiar but a bit quaint if not worn-out and tired. Returning to this story year after year feels a bit like the cattle gate I encounter in the regional park every day with my Australian shepherd dog, Tyler. When I unlatch it and swing it open, the hinges squeak…loudly.

Tyler looks up at that latch every time as if the sound annoys him. The story we Christians tell in this holy week can seem just as old and squeaky.

palm_sunday_queerBut there’s more than one way to tell that story, and the wonderful sermon I heard two days ago on Palm Sunday reminded me of just one of those ways. The preacher, Christine Haider-Winnett, is also the co-president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, an organization founded in 1975 to advocate for the full inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic Church (watch Christine talk about her work on HuffingtonPost Live).

Christine invited us to see the so-called “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem as a protest march, an uprising against the imperial power of Rome. In contrast to the parades of soldiers on horses with spears and swords, Jesus rides in on  a donkey with palm fronds. She reminded me, in other words, of where to look for God this week – in movements of resistance to institutional and state power.

As the Supreme Court of the United States hears two cases this week on marriage equality, Christine helped me find traces of that first century uprising in the rallies for justice taking plmarriage_march_carsonace throughout the country. (My friend and colleague Susan Russell wrote about this very thing.)

But Christine reminded me of something else as well: my own privilege as a man who can be ordained in my church and who also enjoys the comforts of an upper-middle class lifestyle. The institutional power of the Church and the imperial power of the U.S. have treated me pretty well indeed.

The squeaky old story we Christians tell this week invites me to walk beyond the gates of my privilege. They invite me to walk not just with Jesus but with all those with whom Jesus would walk today – and that’s a long list.

If the palms from this past Sunday can serve as signs of resistance to empire, the cross this Friday reminds us of the cost of that resistance. Telling the story that way requires courage, something I can rarely muster on my own. That’s why I’ll be gathering with others this week. I need to hear the old story told in multiple ways and I need help in figuring how to live because of it.

Like Cosmo, we’re all going to die. So this week urges me to live a life that matters, and that could well come with a hefty price tag. That’s why this coming Sunday matters, too. Love-making and justice-work are never wasted efforts. As Christians will declare on Easter, love will always have the last word, which will also become the first word for new life.

gate_regional_oarkI actually like that squeaky gate in the regional park, even if Tyler finds it annoying. Beyond it I see green pastures and clustered trees full of birds and creek-lined gullies. This week I hear the voice of God in that squeak: walk this ancient path; cross through the gate; I’ll go with you.

When I say something like that to Tyler, he’s always glad he listened.

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Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.

If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.

All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.

I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.

Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?

The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.

The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.

Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”

The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:

  • Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
  • Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
  • Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
  • Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
  • Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%

So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?

Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).

  • John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
    John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
    John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
    John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.

John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?

Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.

Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?

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How to Vote: Food and Sex Edition, 2012

Tax policy is important but mind-numbingly obtuse. Let’s cut to the chase – come November 6, will we cast our votes for a “you’re-on-your-own-and-good-luck-to-you” country or a “we’re-all-in-this-together” country?

Does Christian faith offer anything at all for how we might answer that question?

Let’s start with a five-pound roasting chicken, stuffed with pats of butter and a quartered onion. While it’s roasting, set the table with a lovely blue-and-yellow Provencal tablecloth, two plates of the “harvest pattern” china, two elegant wine goblets and a couple of candles.

You will also want to boil some red potatoes, assemble some cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes on a plate with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and open a bottle of wine. Cut some flowers from the garden and place them in a cut-glass vase on the table. Select the light jazz playlist on your iPod and get ready to greet your enchanting guest with a lovely hors d’oeuvre of smoked oysters and assorted cheeses.

You could also plan a tasty dessert. But dessert will probably entail something other than food.

If you don’t think food and sex have anything to do with politics or religion, you haven’t read your Bible lately (you do have one, right?). Food and sex are often deeply connected if not indistinguishable, especially when we throw religion into the mix, not to mention politics.

Two of the most basic human activities – eating food and having sex – have been the most frequently regulated human activities in nearly every society and historical era, and religion has most often been the means to regulate them. Politicians are usually the ones to insist on enforcing those regulations.

While a bit strange, that does make a certain kind of sense. I believe all humans share at least this much in common: the desire to be loved, to be cared for and wanted. The desire, in other words, for “communion.” That’s a potent and powerful desire, and sharing food and sexual intimacy are just two of the obvious ways to meet that desire.

Of course religious traditions and institutions will want to police something that potent. Look no further for evidence of this than the 50-year debate over whether lesbian and gay people can preside or even participate in the ritual meal of Christian communities, a meal called in some circles “Holy Communion.”

All of this came to mind as I prepared to preach this past Sunday on a set of rather peculiar biblical texts. The Hebrew Bible story about Eldad and Medad is one of my favorites (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). The story begins with complaints about food but quickly morphs into a power struggle over legitimate membership.

The struggle emerges when the Spirit of God is poured out on all the elders of the people, including two of them (Eldad and Medad) who were not, as it were, on church property at the time. This of course prompts a scandal (they weren’t following the rules!) as well as a great aspiration from Moses, who longs to see the Spirit poured out on everyone.

So if you have ever been excluded, marginalized, left out, made to feel less than human because of your skin color, your body shape, your education, your gender, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic status, or just because you didn’t happen to show up at the right place at the right time – well then, Eldad and Medad are your patron saints! They’re standing right by your side, cheering you on.

The lectionary also included a portion from Mark’s gospel (9:38-50) and echoes the same theme but takes it a step further. Those who are not against us are for us, Jesus declares, and then he adds a warning. In everything you do and say, he insists, make sure that you don’t prevent anyone from believing in me.

Let’s put it this way: If a religious institution or religious leaders have ever blocked your path toward God, prevented your deeper engagement with the sacred, or made you stumble on your way into divine life, Jesus said it would be better for them to tie a big boulder around their necks and jump in the ocean.

He then goes on to say even harder stuff about cutting off body parts if they are offensive, which would be better than missing out on the big heavenly banquet that is yet to come.

I read this admittedly unsavory gospel passage as an urgent reminder: nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than following our desire for divine communion. And God help those who block any person’s path toward that desire!

I read this passage, in other words, as a proclamation of the ridiculously offensive generosity of the Gospel. God invites everyone to the feasting table – no exceptions, no kidding. The ones we like and the ones we avoid; the ones we admire and the ones we despise; the ones who seem to us so clearly deserving and those who seem worthy of nothing but punishment – all of them, all of us, are invited to the Table, no exceptions, no kidding.

Early Christian frescoe of an “agape feast.”

“Ridiculously offensive” generosity of the Gospel? Yes. How could it not be in a world such as ours so deeply marked by unrelenting divisions, violent hostility, and entrenched partisan and sectarian bickering? These divisions are actually so deep that they just seem “natural.”

Make no mistake: regardless of one’s political loyalties, it is deeply offensive to suppose that not a single one of those dividing lines matters. That is the good news of Christian faith. We really are all in this together.

Make no mistake about this, either: there are indeed religious communities today – from Minnesota to New Jersey and San Francisco – that are policing, monitoring, and regulating who may have access to the feast of divine generosity. These communities and their leaders are doing this based on whom people choose to love. This should be a source of deep outrage for all people of faith, just as it was for Jesus.

God sets the Table and invites everyone, without exception.

All of this might not help you make ballot decisions about everything, but I hope it inspires you to proclaim the kind of good news that really could change the world. And our world longs to hear it, that eternal call of the Lover to the Beloved: “Come, my love, the feast is ready; and I have prepared it just for you.”

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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 2

John Hammond created a controlled environment in his laboratory. It looked quite different in the jungles of Jurassic Park.

Morality and ethics too often seem designed for controlled environments and pristine conditions – which hardly describes any human community I know. The great divide in the United States between a “pro-life” and a “pro-choice” position provides a classic case in point. Both positions make assumptions that rarely obtain in the real lives of the people they supposedly describe.

It’s time to retire these labels as utterly inadequate for addressing the complexities of our social context and the profound mystery of life itself. I do not mean that we should abandon goals, ideals, and principles. I do mean that they are always contextual and more complex than we first thought.

In the first of this two-part series, I declared my own position: I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.” Simply put, I want to affirm the sanctity of life by affirming a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. Of course, there’s nothing “simple” about that.

So here I’ll go back to Jurassic Park to suggest why the language of both choice and life are problematic and propose a possible alternative. This is definitely a work in progress; help me make it better!

Contextual Choices and Dino-Bait
To put it mildly, running away from a hungry T-Rex limits one’s choices. The effects of a tropical storm, electrical outages, and an unfamiliar terrain limited those choices even further in Jurassic Park.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about carnivorous dinosaurs, but every culture and human society shapes and determines the limits of our choices, sometimes just as severely as the situation in Spielberg’s film.

I don’t believe anyone is truly free to choose anything apart from the cultural contexts that shape even our most privately held desires. Most of us are usually quite unaware of how deeply others around us and the wider society shape what we think, what we want, and the choices we make.

“Liberals” generally find these contextual limits on choice perplexing if not repugnant. Modern western culture continues to laud the rugged individual, autonomous and free, even when its limits appear in bold relief. (See my recent blog series on Jesus and Ayn Rand.)

Robert O. Self’s recent op-ed in the New York Times describes particularly well the significance of context for the choices all of us make. Or rather, the significance of refusing to acknowledge the difference context makes in our ability to choose “freely.” His analysis of dividing “culture” from “economics” alone deserves careful reading.

Continuing to insist on a woman’s “right to choose” not only perpetuates the illusion of context-free choices; it also places a burden on her that no one should have to bear alone. Rather than the language of “pro-choice,” perhaps it’s time to talk about the “dignity of discernment.” How could we create spaces and communities for women to engage in discernment with dignity about their bodies and relationships?

Liminal Life and Dino-DNA
Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight’s geeky character) stole dino-DNA from Jurassic Park for his corporate backers. So, did he steal life in that moment or only the potential for life? Do you know the difference? Can any of us really be so sure what life itself is let alone when it begins? How about when it ends?

Miscarriages, for example, happen for a number of reasons. Most occur because the fertilized egg simply wasn’t biologically viable. It had the potential but failed to achieve all the miraculous things required to actualize that potential.

Would Arizona’s Governor Brewer classify a miscarriage as an illegal abortion? That doesn’t seem any less absurd than what the law she just signed does in fact do: define pregnancy as starting two weeks before conception, before the egg ever encounters a sperm. If the desire for ever greater precision in these matters now extends to the potential for life, then it’s likely time to ban male masturbation.

Declarative statements about life seem far more elusive after standing with a family at a hospital bedside as a loved-one sits in a coma; the heart beats but the brain has stopped functioning. Is that life? Agonize with that family before you answer. I have, and I have no satisfying answer.

Any attempt to define precisely when life begins or ends is futile. It’s always messy, it never conforms to “Plan A,” it perpetually offends everyone’s sensibilities, and it belongs in the realm of spiritual awe, not hackneyed political debates.

Rather than the language of “pro-life” (is anyone really “pro-death”?), perhaps it’s time to talk about the “integrity of inquiry.” Life, after all, is not self-evident. It always refers to a particular entity, and is therefore always a matter of degree, quality, and circumstance. Whether we’re talking about ovulation or hospice-care, everyone deserves to inquire about what life is with integrity, with all the complexities and ambiguities on the table.

The language of “choice” and “life” will likely persist in our public debates for some time. While they do, I will continue to insist on at least this much: no more bloody coat hangers and knitting needles in back alleys. The lives of desperate women mean too much to subject them to that.

But I do hope for more: dignity in discernment, integrity in inquiry, and compassion in community.

I refuse to believe that such a position is too much to ask, even in the vexing polarization of the U.S. But it will mean that “liberals” might need to let go of the supremacy of the individual just as “conservatives” will need to let go of their certainty about what life actually is.

It does seem abundantly clear, however, that we cannot rely on political discourse alone to provide this kind of space. We need faith communities and religious leaders willing to take courageous stands in ambiguous situations – both for the sake of women’s bodies and for sake of the profound mystery of life.

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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 1

I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.”

Set aside for a moment how problematic those labels are. Set aside as well (just for the moment) how detrimental the polarization of these labels is. I’m convinced that a lot of Christians work hard to occupy that very peculiar and apparently contradictory space that I just declared, but few talk about it. There are good reasons for the silence – this is a precarious and complicated space, not at all easy to describe let alone defend.

I am convinced that so many of us stumble over this particular moral/political issue because we try to craft positions in the abstract, philosophically or theologically. Think about the scientist creating an ideal laboratory environment for an experiment. More often than not the lab results don’t work out there in the “real world” because context nearly always trumps ideals.

So I want to frame this attempt at describing my “pro-choice-because-I’m-pro-life” position by turning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. I’ll say more about the position itself in Part 2, but here I want to underscore how important it is to frame it with real life and not abstract principles.

I take Michael Crichton’s story and Spielberg’s film as the quintessential judgment on all human attempts to capture, contain, control, and circumscribe the untamable energies of life. I also see in that film a poignant testament to context; even the best ideas and well-laid plans will falter and fail without due attention to the particularities of contextual realities.

Keep both the vagaries of life and the complexities of context in mind as I offer just three Jurassic observations to frame what I’d like to propose in Part 2 of this mini-blog-series. (Click here if you need a primer or refresher on the film).

Paddocks and Ghettoes
John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park in Crichton’s story, was both a genius and a fool. He tried and ultimately failed to separate carnivores from herbivores in elaborately protected “paddocks.” Okay, let’s just call them ghettoes.

Nothing in the U.S. (I would argue any country) is free from the dynamics of race and class and more broadly the attempt by every society to cordon off some segments of the population from the others. The attempt to do that in Jurassic Park by separating meat-eaters from veggies proved disastrous. Every similar human attempt ends in precisely the same way; we are likely witnessing just the latest iteration of that failure in the uptick of gun violence in the U.S.

We cannot have a conversation about “family planning” (and everything that innocuous moniker implies) without talking about gated communities and “sacrifice zones,” those places where U.S. society has consigned all the expendable ones, all the “undesirables,” all those who might stand in the way of corporate profits. For more on this, I cannot recommend highly enough two recent books by Chris Hedges concerning this vexing morass of social and political issues. (See/read the Bill Moyers interview here.)

It would certainly be easier if we could approach all of our ethical dilemmas by analyzing ideal states. Have you ever said “well, all things being equal” when trying to make an argument? I have. Sadly, there is no such state. We can’t pretend we don’t live in a society of paddocks.

If we’re going to talk about contraception, abortion, and reproductive health, we must talk about the racial and economic paddocks in which those issues exhibit a range of meanings and implications that fall well outside our neat-and-tidy moral systems.

Lab Coats and Cassocks
The managers of Jurassic Park sought to control such a potentially dangerous environment with one simple innovation: ensuring at the time of conception that every dinosaur would be female. This would guarantee no unwanted reproduction – “unwanted,” of course being a cipher for “disrupting our plans for making profit from a well-controlled theme park.”

There’s a long and troubling history in western culture of trying to control reproduction, from the pseudo-science of racial differences rooted in phrenology to the eugenics programs supported by some of the biggest corporate financiers in the early 20th century. I mean folks like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Human reproduction has been one of the most highly regulated activities in nearly every human society in every historical era. Religion has most often been the preferred way to regulate it. Let us not, however, assume we have passed into an enlightened era where science corrects religion’s excesses. The development of the birth control pill originated with those who were mostly concerned with eugenics, with controlling human reproduction based on race, ethnicity, ability, and “desirability.”

One might wish that science played a stronger role in today’s political discourse, but we must not think that everything labeled “scientific” is value-neutral or benign. Today’s reproductive technologies and their applications alike are deeply embedded in the discourses of what matters to the dominant culture of this society.

We should also remember that the Jurassic Park experiment failed. The dinosaurs found a way to reproduce, or as Sam Neill’s character put it when he found a dino egg out in the field: “Life found a way.” It always will. And surely that alone should inject a bit more humility in everyone’s approach to what “life” means.

Roars and Whimpers
The penultimate scene in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park features a T-Rex roaring beneath a fluttering banner that reads, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Old paradigms never exit the stage gracefully, or with a whimper. They usually roar their way into oblivion.

Of course, the sequels to Jurassic Park make clear that even dinosaurs can make a comeback. So let us consider carefully our current political and social climate with reference to a centuries-long legacy of male privilege in western culture. I hear it roaring, do you?

I do not mean that men are dinosaurs. I mean that the system currently still shaping North Atlantic societies that organizes its polices, institutions, laws, and religious communities by stratifying a society based on maleness is doomed, no less so than T-Rex or the Brontosaurus – but none of us should underestimate the effects of those final roars.

T-Rex will not go quietly into that good night and there are plenty of whimpers in that roar’s wake – not least are the cries heard from women who might be forced to have abortions, which “progressives” don’t like to talk about. (Check this out in China, but also in Massachusetts.) How can we possibly have a conversation about life, about contraception, about science, about human thriving while all our voices are drowned out by the roar of white male privilege?

I would love to consider what life means and what conception entails without the roaring voices of mostly male politicians who want to insert vaginal probes in women’s bodies, or those who think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape,” or lobbyists who pretend that race, class, and economics play no role in crafting social policies about reproductive health.

Maybe someday we can; but not today. So in Part 2 I’ll suggest why “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are just about the most misleading labels one could imagine for this topic of deep concern, how we might talk differently about this vexing topic, and what a peculiar Christian response might look like. Stay tuned…

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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 2: Re-Membering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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