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Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it time, finally, to repent?

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

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

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

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because they do.

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“Do not be Terrified”: Hope for the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Nevertheless: An Earth-Day Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before and After: Versova Beach in Mumbai

 

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

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Before and After: Deforestation and Reforestation in New England

 

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

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

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

Alleluia!

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Holy Saturday: Rest, Reparations, and Hope for Earth

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

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

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

Is it time to ponder reparations for the planet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late afternoon at the regional park

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Good Friday and Creaturely Lament

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

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

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

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

Song of the Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Maundy Thursday at the Creaturely Table

On this Thanksgiving Day, this day of Eucharist instituted, that old word for gratitude, I want more animals at the table. Or rather, to see them, the ones who have always been there with God in their shared flesh.

Grateful for the poet Alfred K. LaMotte, whose words express this wish, this vision, this reality-to-be-embraced better than I could. Let us not pretend we are not one family, all of us needing forgiveness, all of us creatures of the same God and gathered at the Table God sets for us all…

My Ancestry DNA Results

My Ancestry DNA results came in.
Just as I suspected, my great great grandfather
was a monarch butterfly.

Much of who I am is still wriggling under a stone.
I am part larva, but part hummingbird too.

There is dinosaur tar in my bone marrow.

My golden hair sprang out of a meadow in Palestine.

Genghis Khan is my fourth cousin,
but I didn’t get his dimples.

My loins are loaded with banyan seeds from Sri Lanka,
but I descended from Ravanna, not Ram.

My uncle is a mastodon.

There are traces of white people in my saliva.

3.7 billion years ago I swirled in golden dust,
dreaming of a planet overgrown with lingams and yonis.

More recently, say 60,000 B.C.
I walked on hairy paws across a land bridge
joining Sweden to Botswana.

I am the bastard of the sun and moon.

I can no longer hide my heritage of raindrops and cougar scat.

I am made of your grandmother’s tears.

You conquered rival tribesmen of your own color,
chained them together, marched them naked to the coast,
and sold them to colonials from Savannah.

I was that brother you sold, I was the slave trader,
I was the chain.

Admit it, you have wings, vast and golden,
like mine, like mine.

You have sweat, black and salty,
like mine, like mine.

You have secrets silently singing in your blood,
like mine, like mine.

Don’t pretend that earth is not one family.
Don’t pretend we never hung from the same branch.
Don’t pretend we don’t ripen on each other’s breath.
Don’t pretend we didn’t come here to forgive.

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Remember That You Are Dust (and Plastic)

Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin is given some career advice in the 1967 film “The Graduate” with a line that is ranked #42 in the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.

Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin that he wants to “say one word” to him, “just one word.” He asks Benjamin whether he’s listening, and Benjamin replies, “Yes, I am.” And Mr. McGuire utters the now famous, one-word line:

Plastics.”

He then adds, “there’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Actually, I can’t stop thinking about it, and not for the rosy future Mr. McGuire apparently imagined for this now ubiquitous petroleum and natural-gas by-product. I’ve been thinking about whether there’s anywhere, any possible place at all that I can turn to and not see something made from plastic, and I’ve been thinking that a greener, plastic-free Earth needs to take center stage in my devotions and commitments during these forty days of Lent.

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Surfing through garbage in Indonesia (2013)

Lest anyone think “ubiquitous” verges on the melodramatic or even just moderately overstated, consider the following short list of why this stuff really is everywhere (even where we, as a species, are not) and why it deserves crisis-level attention this Lenten season and long after.

  • Consider first the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch—there isn’t one, contrary to what you have likely heard and read. But there are many such patches. And that makes it worse than even having that one great big one to worry about. The garbage in these migrating patches (the largest of which is now double the size of Texas) is mostly invisible to the naked eye (plastics that have become translucent or very, very small) but still can be ingested, and regularly is, by marine life, causing choking, starvation, and other impairments. Current projections suggest that by 2050 there will be more plastic materials by weight in Earth’s oceans than fish. By 2050—that used to sound like a long way off; it’s only 31 years away.
  • Consider next something a bit less abstract, like a whale. Last summer, a pilot whale died in a Thailand canal and was found to have 80 pieces of plastic (weighing 17 pounds) in its stomach, which interrupted the whale’s ability to hunt for food; during course of being treated by marine biologists in their efforts to save her, the whale spit up five plastic bags. (That’s only one among several recent stories in the news about whales and their plastic-lined guts.)
  • Or consider where no human has ever been, some of the deepest trenches at the bottom of our oceans. Just recently it was discovered that the tiny creatures living in those trenches are—as you might have guessed—stuffed with bits of plastic. Eighty (80) percent of the small crustaceans collected for one such study had plastic fibers lining their digestive systems. Another study conducted in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific (with a maximum known depth of 36,000 feet, or nearly seven miles) showed a shocking 100 percent of all the crustaceans collected had ingested considerable amounts of plastic.
  • Plastic is so ubiquitous that we ourselves are now apparently ingesting it regularly without realizing it and without anyone yet having any idea what this is doing to our health. Small-scale trials recently showed traces of plastic lining the digestive systems of the humans studied. We’re ingesting the stuff perhaps by eating seafood that had eaten the plastic stuff we had thrown out earlier, or from tiny plastic particles that float through the air nearly everywhere (did you know that?) and just happen to land on our food, or from the bits of the stuff that slough off from the inside of our plastic water bottles.

Christians on Ash Wednesday are reminded that we human beings are made from dust; perhaps we must now revise that liturgical wake-up call to include plastic.

Perhaps, but if so, I refuse despair. The hour is late but not spent, and we need to tell stories of hope—like this great 2018 story of an Indian beach painstakingly cleaned up and restored for a sea turtle hatchery.plastic_beach_cleanup

I invite you to join me in observing a hopeful and green-oriented Lent by brainstorming with me how to address our crisis of plastics. There won’t be just one solution and we can’t focus on just a single sector (whether public or private, households or industry). We need multiple solutions for every single aspect of our shared and individual lives on a planet this is quite literally drowning in plastic.

I’ll post some ideas here in this blog space. Please post your own in the comments, or find me on Facebook and post them there on my timeline. Let’s share resources, make a list, tell success stories, invite new ideas—let’s make every season of the church year green.

Meanwhile, let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create in us hearts that grieve what we have done to the beauty of your creation, that we, worthily lamenting the epidemic of plastic waste, may obtain from you the inspiration we need to help restore Earth and her creatures to health and vitality; in the name of Jesus, your creative Word in the flesh. Amen.

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The Stupendously Superlative and Truly Amazing Grace of Ordinary Water

Living in California, I have come to appreciate rain in ways I never imagined I would back in my Midwestern childhood. The first rain of the season here after a long, dry summer is especially astonishing. As a friend of mine often says on that day, the rain feels like a shower of divine grace falling from the courts of heaven itself.rain_children

This past Sunday, Western Christians celebrated the baptism of Jesus, as we always do the Sunday after the Epiphany. Prompted by the biblical texts appointed this year, the day seemed devoted more generally to water.

Water is probably the most remarkable substance that can so easily be taken for granted. Without water, life itself as we know it would be impossible. Too much of it, and life itself is in jeopardy. A dramatic example of the latter happened just before Christmas Day, when a tsunami crashed unexpectedly through parts of Indonesia, killing hundreds of people.

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2016 Tsunami in Japan

As someone who enjoys wading through gentle surf on sandy beaches, I’m often startled by such reminders of how destructive water can be. One cubic yard of water—think of a box that measures three feet on each side—one cubic yard of water weighs just short of 1,700 pounds. Now imagine a tsunami wave rushing ashore with millions and millions of cubic yards of water. As one journalist suggested, we ought to imagine such a moment as row after row of armored tanks rolling over the land at fifty miles per hour.

Perhaps this is why the Psalmist compares the very voice of God to the sound of thundering waters (Ps. 29). That ancient poet would have us imagine the divine voice breaking the cedar trees of Lebanon, shaking the wilderness, making oak trees writhe, and stripping forests bare—not unlike what happened on the shores of those Indonesian islands.

Perhaps this, too, is why the biblical prophet Isaiah offered reassurances about God’s presence when we “pass through the waters”—that’s a way to describe tides of trouble, the depths of dread, a flood of despair. “When you pass through such rivers,” Isaiah declares, the God who formed you will be with you (Isaiah 43:1-7).

These are some good reasons to celebrate the baptism of Jesus, a profound image of divine solidarity, almost as easy to skip past and take for granted as water itself. There Jesus stands in the river Jordan, an incarnation of the great reassurance from Isaiah that God is indeed with us as we “pass through the waters.”

Jesus stands there, baptized by his cousin John in intimate closeness, and I keep thinking about water, its softness and sweetness, as well as its harshness and saltiness, and especially how utterly ordinary water is and still so vital and essential for life itself.

Reflecting this way on water—how it is both so ordinary and so remarkable at the same time—I wonder if this isn’t part of the problem so many people have with religion these days. I mean, how frequently religion is perceived as separate and distinct from the daily routine of everyday life, or more severely, as thoroughly irrelevant for how regular people live—in our homes, working at the office, playing with friends.

Many religious traditions, including Christianity, have unfortunately earned that reputation of exotic remoteness. But religion’s distance collapses pretty quickly in the ancient story about the baptism of Jesus, this year from Luke’s account of the gospel (Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22): water, a river bank, close friends (cousins), intimate touch, a beautiful dove—all this ordinary stuff of everyday life becomes an occasion for divine encounter.

Or as our Christian siblings in Eastern Orthodox traditions would say, these ordinary moments become moments of theophany—visible manifestations of God’s presence, not with neon lights or fireworks, but with stuff you could literally trip over or fall into on any regular, ordinary day.

Eastern Orthodox Christians mark and celebrate Epiphany in some wonderfully peculiar ways, including the “Great Blessing of Waters,” which sometimes means a whole lake or a river but in any case and at the very least blessing vast tubs of it.

Orthodox Christians most often bless themselves with holy water by actually drinking it, so they keep plenty of the stuff around their homes. They might drink a small amount every day with their morning prayers, or bless their children with it before they leave for school. They sometimes put a little bit of that blessed water in their food when they’re cooking.

Clearly, separating religious practice from everyday life would make no sense at all in these Orthodox households, and this is precisely because of what happened in the waters of the river Jordan so long ago. As God incarnate, Jesus was baptized not for the forgiveness of sins but to bless the water, to reveal its sacred character, to demonstrate the depths of divine presence in the material fabric of God’s creative work.

In the weeks following the Great Blessing of Waters, Orthodox priests typically visit all the members of the parish to bless homes, families, and any companion animals that live with them, sprinkling all of them with that blessed water—a visible, tangible weaving together of the human and the divine, the earthly and heavenly, the deeply mysterious and the routinely ordinary.

I’m especially taken with how Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware writes about this:

What we are doing at each celebration of Epiphany, at every Blessing of the Waters, is to reaffirm our sense of wonder before the essential goodness and beauty of the world, as originally created by God and as now recreated in Christ. Nothing is intrinsically ugly or despicable… The Great Blessing of the Waters is in this way a proclamation that the universe around us is not a chaos but a cosmos. There is glory in everything; this is a world full of wonder (The Inner Kingdom, p. 71).

More than just “taken” with that view, I am so very grateful for it these days when our political discourse does seem to me irredeemably ugly, and when (I must confess) I think of some of my fellow human beings as utterly despicable, and when I can see only the whirl of chaos we ourselves have created and forget so easily the essential goodness and beauty of the world that God has created.

One of the many reasons why religion still matters, and why there baptismal fonts in churches, and why Christians gather around a table of a shared meal week after week is not because it’s only in churches that the infinite mystery of the Living God is made visible and tangible. To the contrary, all the religious stuff in officially designated holy spaces is meant to remind us that all of our everyday stuff carries the potential to knock of us off our feet with God’s presence—if only we would notice, see, listen, touch.

The renowned rabbi and theologian of Jewish traditions Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the same point:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual,” he says, “is to be amazed (for more on this approach to spirituality, go here).

Reading that insight from Heschel, I can’t help but think of my Australian shepherd dog Judah. I’m thinking especially of the beach in Marin County where he loves to play in the water. We’ve been there dozens of times and he never grows tired of it.

I know he remembers the place well; he whines and whimpers and scratches at the rear car door as soon as we pull off the highway and start heading toward the coast. He knows exactly where we’re going, and every time he acts like it’s the first time he’s ever been there.

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Judah at Rodeo Beach

I watch him run and gallop and bark and yip and frolic in the surf as he chases seagulls—again and again he chases them as we grows ever more salty, sandy, foamy, and gloriously wet. For him, everything is phenomenal; for him, everything is incredible; for him, that beach is a theophany, a visible, tangible manifestation of divine delight. And for me, his wiggling, panting body is likewise a theophany of divine joy.

I also can’t help but think of the priestly ministry of Este Gardner, the vicar at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, where I have been privileged to worship for more than twenty years. One of the many things I have come to appreciate about Este is her use of superlatives.

I admit that I was a bit perplexed by this when Este first arrived to Good Shepherd. Can absolutely everything, I wondered, really be astonishing and gorgeous and stunning and spectacular as she often likes to say?

Yes, I realized, yes it can, especially if we insist on treating the ordinary as occasions for amazement, exactly as Rabbi Heschel proposed.

Exactly as the voice from heaven declared when Jesus was baptized.

Exactly as Christians remember at the Eucharistic table every week, as God presents God’s own self to us in the ordinary stuff of bread and wine.

As all of us at Good Shepherd bid Este farewell in her impending retirement, I’m not only grateful for the grace of the Eucharistic table; I’m also grateful for Este’s reminder that the grace is indeed stupendously amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borders convert human beings into categories—silenced and invisible.

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

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

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

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

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

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Eucharist at the California border with Mexico.

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

When we eat well, we see and hear better.

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

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

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

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