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Jesus Our Mother

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

“Julian of Norwich,”
Amy Zaleta Martinez

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

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

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

“Lost Sheep,” Sawai Chinnawong

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

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

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

“The Good Shepherd,” Sadao Watanabe
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Death is Easier

“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

We can make that joyous declaration because women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Women were the very first apostles of an Easter faith, and we must not take this for granted.

“Empty Tomb,” He Qi

The first-century Mediterranean world was a thoroughly patriarchal society: poor women had no legal rights whatsoever; they were never taught to read or write; and they were considered the property of their husbands.

Even wealthy women—who had only just a tad more freedom—even they could not vote, could not stand for political office, had no formal role in public life, and their testimony could not be admitted into a court of law.

Let us, therefore, note this very carefully: in that thoroughly patriarchal society, all four Gospel writers—most assuredly all of them men—make perfectly clear that women were the very first witnesses of Easter!

Luke takes this storyline still further (24:1-12) by noting rather painfully that the men to whom those women delivered the glorious news did not believe the women, and these men were some of the closest friends of Jesus.

This centering of women in what I would certainly consider the core story of Christian faith is not merely remarkable; it’s a miracle.

I think these Gospel writers are making a theological point by putting women on center-stage in the Easter story. And the point is this: the death-dealing world of patriarchal domination is over. There are lingering effects of that long history of domination, to be sure, some of them quite painful and long-lived, even traumatic. But that world of patriarchal violence will never have the final word; and indeed, concerning new life, women have the very first word.  

Still, I have to wonder: why did those male disciples refuse to believe the women? This should have been the happiest news they had ever heard. Why, in Luke’s words, did it seem to them merely an “idle tale”?

Luke suggests a reason with the question posed to those apostolic women by angels at the empty tomb: Why are you looking for the living among the dead? That’s an important question all of us should be asking ourselves quite regularly: why do we keep returning to worn-out patterns and toxic relationships and lifeless institutions?

Here’s an answer I’ve been sitting with for a while: because death is easier than new life.

Winter’s reluctance to yield to spring here in western Michigan this year reminded me of those cold wintry mornings over the last few months when the alarm goes off and the wind is howling and the snow is blowing and it’s dark outside.

On mornings like that, my Australian shepherd dog Judah and I both agree that it is far easier to pull up the covers and stay cozy and warm in bed.

Death is easier like that because life requires something of us. Life requires that we actually throw back the covers, get up, get dressed, and go out to engage with the world.

We seek the living among the dead because that’s what we’ve been taught and it feels natural; we already know how to nurse grudges and cultivate resentments and sow hatred and start wars…it’s actually quite easy.

We seek the living among the dead because it’s just easier to live conveniently and for our own comfort and among our own kind…even when we’re fomenting violence and killing the planet in the process.

We seek the living among the dead because death, in all its many forms, is so close at hand and so easy to find—in our communities, in our politics, and in our institutions.

And still, and yet, God is with us even there.

“Mary Magdalene on Easter Morning,” Sieger Koder

We can choose the familiarity of death and God will still be with us. God will never abandon us; not ever.

That’s good news, and there is even better news: The God who made us wants still more life for us, in abundance, the kind of vibrant life that we can scarcely imagine.

God has a dream; and especially in these Great Fifty Days of Easter, God dreams of a richer life for us, for all of us, for the whole of God’s creation. And God has turned this dream into a promise by raising Jesus from the dead, and God seals this promise with the testimony of women in a patriarchal society.

Yesterday morning in my little parish here in (snowy) Saugatuck, Michigan, we baptized a baby as part of our Easter Day jubilations. His name is George Alexander River Burt, and how wonderful that one of his names is “River”! Into that glorious river of new life that flows from an empty tomb, we baptized that dear baby in endless Alleluias and with a gladness that shall never die.

We also made some promises to George. We promised to do all that we can to ensure he never, ever hears anything about God that isn’t loving, graceful, and full of life. We promised to help him know that he is a cherished child of God, that he himself gives God endless delight.

I led the gathered faithful in those promises with tears in my eyes because many of us didn’t grow up that way, with all those reassurances and with such fortifying confidence in God’s love for us. That’s exactly why we renew those promises for ourselves whenever we make them for someone else. And on Easter Day in particular, we also ask God to lead all of us out of our various tombs, whatever they may be, and into the shocking brightness of a new day.

Shocking, because God will be with us regardless of the choices we make.

And this is also true: God still longs for us to choose life, abundant life.

So let’s do it.

“Art of the Redemption 3: Resurrection,” Josef Zacek
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Harrow My Heart

Every human community has threads of resentment running through it and chunky grudges clogging up its communal arteries. This is certainly true—sometimes it seems especially true—in religious communities and in our churches. This is especially discouraging as well since many of us harbor rather high standards for faith communities, or at least some high hopes.

Since returning to full-time congregational ministry two years ago, I’ve been reminded of the sacred ground we all tread in parish life. Traces of heartbreak and the wounds of grief punctuate so many conversations, just as glimpses of joy and spiritual insight hover over our committees and circulate through our worship. I wake up every single Sunday morning astonished at the privilege of doing this work.

I have also learned in fresh ways some perennial truths about life in community: resentment is far more contagious than joy, and the infection can linger for far longer than our memory of when we were first exposed. Still more: bitterness takes no work at all (though it is exhausting) and gladness requires effort (even though it is thoroughly refreshing).

These are the peculiar landscapes of human relationships, manifesting the often complex contours of the human heart. All of this is on my mind today, on this Holy Saturday. It’s one of my favorite days on the church calendar because it marks one of my favorite religious notions—Jesus harrowing Hell.

“Harrowing of Hell”

A few scant biblical references and a single phrase in the Apostles’ Creed—Jesus “descended to the dead”—eventually blossomed in Christian traditions into a full-blown harrowing of Hell itself, smashing its gates, and releasing its captives. All of this on the day in between crucifixion and resurrection—a busy day for Jesus and not only for altar guild members readying sanctuaries for Easter morning.

I truly love the image of Jesus fetching our ancestors from whatever limbo they’ve been trapped in for however long, but right now I need Jesus to harrow the rocky soil of my heart. “Soil” is the perfect image for this day, and for more than one reason. “Harrowing,” of course, most commonly appears among farmers and gardeners; we “harrow” the soil by plowing it and breaking up the hardened clods. And according to the Johannine account of the Gospel, the dead Jesus was buried in a garden tomb.

Those images occurred to me in the shower this morning as I reflected on how easily my petty grievances can harden my heart, parch my soul, and threaten to desiccate all that fertile soil, that interior field where I would much prefer to plant the seeds of faith, hope, and especially love.

I don’t know that I want the “three-person’d God” to “batter my heart,” as John Donne imagined, but I do think its earthy fields could use some plowing, some gentle rains of grace, and the warm sunlight of compassion.

“Easter Morning,” Jen Norton

On that first Easter morning, according to John, Mary Magdalene supposed that the risen Jesus was a gardener. We sometimes say that she “mistook” him for a gardener. But I don’t think that was a mistake at all. New life sometimes—likely often, perhaps always—needs some harrowing.

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The Slap that Truly Matters Comes from Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Crucified Land,” Alexandre Hogue (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gay Science: Learning Eucharistic Theology from Louis Weil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chapel at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary

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

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

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

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

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

Louis was also a gay man, openly and proudly.

And that (still) matters.

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A Lenten Discipline: Don’t Waste Your Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray instead for a change of heart.

Pray instead for a change of life.

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

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

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

Don’t waste your time on anything else.

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A Transfigured (Black) Jesus and a Eucharistic Solidarity

As Black History Month draws to a close, Women’s History Month begins this week on March 1. This moment on the calendar invites deeper reflection on the potent intersection of race and gender, and how that kind of reflection might shape the season of Lent, which also begins in this coming week.

To do that work—especially as a white man—I’m particularly grateful for the insights of M. Shawn Copeland, an American womanist and Black Catholic theologian who taught for many years at Boston College. She helped me think differently about a foundational question in Christian theology: what does it mean to be human in relation to God? How one answers that question shapes so much else of Christian faith and practice.

M. Shawn Copeland

For many centuries, the European (white) male was considered the “standard issue” human and thus the primary reference point for answering that key theological question. The whiteness of Jesus himself became a question in new ways during the 1960s, which Copeland writes about in relation to the (Black) Jesus of Detroit.

Among the many moments of Black American history that white people (among others!) should not forget, Copeland draws our attention to the “rebellion” of 1967 not far from where I currently live. The following is her synopsis of that moment and the blackness of Jesus that it surfaced (taken from her essay on the Black Jesus in the collection edited by George Yancy, Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do?):

“In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, a routine police vice-squad raid on an after-hours drinking club in a predominantly black neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, escalated into one of the most furious racial rebellions in modern times. Five days later 43 persons were dead, more than 450 injured, more than 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

“A little-known, yet highly symbolic, incident during those days involved a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the grounds of the major seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. At the intersection of West Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue, two blocks west of the site of the rebellion, stands a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which looked out on a then increasingly black neighborhood, even as the seminary faculty and students remained predominantly white.

“On the second day of the disturbance, an African American housepainter reportedly applied black paint to the hands, feet, and face of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At least twice, the color was removed, but black paint prevailed and, over the past four decades, the seminary has kept it fresh. In an interview during a 40th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion, the Assistant Dean of Sacred Heart Seminary’s Institute for Ministry, John Lajiness, said, ‘the City really has no other positive visible symbol like it. The painted statue speaks less of violence and more of the internal struggle for identity and the human tension which, intentionally or not, bled into making this statue an icon.’”

“Black Jesus” at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit

If a white man cannot represent the sacred heart of Jesus (much less in marble), then the European male certainly cannot stand as the only, or even the primary answer to the question of what it means to be human. The (brown and Middle Eastern) body of Jesus resides at the center of the Gospel, Copeland reminds us, a body that was tortured and killed by the Roman Empire and raised to new life by God. To understand and embrace such a Gospel, especially given the social, economic, and political history of Western society, Copeland argues that women of color belong at the center of our theological work.

I’m not entirely sure what the consequences of that claim are for how I live, but I am convinced of how crucial it is that I keep reflecting on it and shaping my life because of it. Her book—Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being—helped convince me of this, and as Lent begins, I’m especially mindful of her work on the Eucharist.

Copeland recalls the gruesome history of lynching in the United States and how it prompted the same kind of terror as crucifixion did in the first century. Rather than avoiding that painful history, or feeling a vague sense of guilt about it (especially as white people), Copeland urges a practice of “divine solidarity.” To stand with and for those who are poor, outcast, and oppressed is to bear witness to the Gospel hope for a new world, a hope that shapes Eucharistic worship in Christian communities. Copeland expresses this in a powerful way:

“A Christian practice of solidarity denotes the humble and complete orientation of ourselves before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal. In his raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine practice of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination—recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self” (Enfleshing Freedom, p. 126).

Perhaps one of the ways I can take Copeland’s urgent call for solidarity to heart is to resist how I usually imagine the transfigured Jesus—with a shiny white face. As I prepare to preach tomorrow on the Transfiguration, a story often told on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, I’ll keep that Black Jesus of Detroit in mind instead, and even more as we move into the season of Lent.

Following Jesus on the road toward the Cross can itself be an act of solidarity if, as Copeland would urge, we see in him all the countless women of color strewn through so many forgotten stories of American history. Remembering them, even though we cannot now know their names, could contribute to how a “compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin.”

May that be the hope that breaks open an Easter dawn.

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Pixelating Christ: A Hopeful Communion in Hybrid Spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With Us All the Way Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptism of Jesus,” Daniel Bonnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptism of Jesus,” David Zelenka
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Divine Vulnerability

The Gospel according to John has a nativity story, just like Matthew and Luke have one, but I can’t quite imagine making a children’s Christmas pageant from those opening verses of John.

John’s “nativity story” is cosmic in scope, rich in metaphysics, and conceptually dense in its prose. Countless philosophers have spent a great deal of time pondering the very first verse: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

That lofty language, stretching back to the dawn of time, sets the stage for an equally mind-bending claim in the fourteenth verse: the Word that was with God from the beginning, that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Not everything about this “prologue” to John’s account of the Gospel, however, is quite so abstract. John writes of a divine advent, a coming into the world that is marked by very human, down-to-earth realities—feeling out of place, like a stranger in one’s own land, even outright rejection.

This Word-made-flesh that John extols with such lofty language actually seems quite precarious. So whatever John means by “nativity,” that sense of vulnerability—the notion that God shares vulnerability with us—that is what makes John’s version of the story not just astonishing but also life-changing.

Notice where John begins, with three simple words: in the beginning. These are of course the first three words of the Hebrew Bible, the very first chapter of Genesis: in the beginning.

This is, in part, why some scholars treat John’s gospel as early Christian commentary on Genesis. The refrain in that first chapter of the Bible about the goodness of God’s creation runs throughout John’s gospel as well.

Goodness stumbles, of course, with the so-called “fall” of humanity in the third chapter of Genesis. And “stumbles” would be too mildly phrased for some. That “fall” has led far too many Christians to suppose that just being human is a problem that we must overcome; for others, God’s creation more generally is therefore suspect, or tainted, or even irredeemably spoiled, and Earth itself is disposable.

But that’s not John’s gospel at all.

To the contrary, John frames his account of the Good News by reminding us that the very Word of God is intimately involved in the creation of the whole world, in every aspect of it, from the very beginning. The universe, all that exists, has always been and remains God’s own handiwork; the imprint of God’s own hand is on everything.

This declaration, by the way, has direct bearing on our current climate catastrophe. Among the many reasons why ecological collapse is so distressing, theologian Elizabeth Johnson pointedly reminds us that our wanton destruction of ecosystems and habitats and countless species of plant and animal amounts to an act of blasphemy.

She can say this, without reservation or hesitation, precisely because of John’s close intertwining of God’s own creative Word with God’s creation.

This cosmic framing of John’s Gospel sheds further light on that pivotal fourteenth verse, what we might call the “Christmas verse” in John—the divine Word, with God from the beginning, and through whom all things were made, that Word becomes flesh.

Let’s pause here for a short lesson in ancient Greek. John had some choices in how to express this pivotal claim about God dwelling among us. He could have said that the Word became a person—prosopon. Or, he could have chosen to say that the Word more generally became human—anthropos.

Either of those two words is how most people likely hear that key claim from John, that the Word became a person or a human. But John didn’t choose either one of those options. John chose this instead: the Word, he wrote, became sarx—and that’s the Greek word for “flesh.”

And with that word—flesh—John signals how God chooses to be among us, not in garments of splendor or cloaked in military power or with superhero strength but in simple, frail, vulnerable flesh.

This prologue to John’s Gospel is not about the birth of Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman; Christmas is not the story of a divine superhero coming down from the sky to save us. The story of this season is far more astonishing than anything Marvel Comics has dreamed up: Christmas celebrates the Creator God choosing to accompany the creation—as part of it.

Consider what this means: Our vulnerability as fleshy creations of God is not a problem to overcome or a condition from which we need rescue or in any way cause for shame. No, our shared vulnerability as God’s creation is precisely where the Word of God meets us as one of us, in the flesh.

Surely in this time of ongoing pandemic and ecological fragility, we don’t need any further reminders of our own vulnerability or the weakness of our fleshy bodies and of the body of Earth itself; we know all this only too well.

Perhaps what we do need—what the whole wide world needs and what God is calling Christians to manifest with boldness in the world—is the reminder we hear from John: Christmas celebrates the God who meets us in our vulnerability by becoming as vulnerable as we are.

That’s what it means, John says elsewhere, to speak of God as love.