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Beloved Community and the Irrevocable Deed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fresh Hope from the “Cold Storage”

A walk-in closet was tucked away in a basement corner of my childhood home. My parents called it the “cold storage.” It was always cool in there, even during sweltering, summer days in the suburbs of Chicago.

The Cold Storage was lined with shelves, most of them packed with canned goods – baked beans, peas, tuna fish, cranberry sauce. Boxes of dried milk and oatmeal and canisters of flour and sugar lined the lower shelves. The coolness of that space was soothing, a brief respite from a late-August heatwave, and the stocked shelves comforting, blunting our nuclear anxiety over the Cold War with the Soviet Union.food_storage1

Mom and Dad kept close tabs on those shelves, monitoring the inventory, checking use-by dates, replacing spent supplies. I grew up watching this routine, in the 1960s and 70s, occasionally afraid of falling bombs but reassured by the vigilance of my parents, our shared hope safely stashed away in the Cold Storage.

The Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the Soviets became Russians again in 1991. As a young adult, I looked back with chagrin on all that ambient anxiety in my childhood, not to mention the absurd confidence we placed in a basement supply bunker. I also learned that my parents hadn’t been saying “cold” all those years, but “coal.” That little closet had at one time stored coal for the furnace when the house was first built.

smokestacks2I chuckled, a bit ruefully, at the irony: we stored supplies for a war we would not survive in a room built for a fuel that burned us into a climate disaster few of us will survive if we don’t live differently, right now.

And right now I sit in my comfortable California home wondering how far away North Korea is and whether any of its missiles can reach the Pacific shoreline sitting just a few miles from my house.

Nuclear weapons and global warming tap a familiar anxiety and dusty memories. I recall that “cold storage” in the basement with a nostalgic comfort. No matter what might happen, I often thought as a child, at least we have those supplies, and Mom and Dad will make sure we have plenty of them, all of them up to date.

Where does my hope reside today?

More than one answer occurs to me, but I prefer just to say “church.” It sounds so old fashioned, past its shelf life, but I breathe more deeply on my way to worship, walk less hurriedly climbing the church steps, smile at familiar faces and receive hugs from longtime companions, some of them newer. We all gather in our collective Cold Storage, this one warming us in the light of day. We dip into some old, well-worn supplies, often delighted by how fresh they taste, grateful for a bit of comfort food.

We sing together, pray, listen carefully to ancient texts, gather around a shared table and open up the canned goods.

So ludicrous, really, to tend so carefully to these patterns and that building and those people. There must be better things to do with my time and energy.

I never thought like that as a child, as I watched my parents unlatch the door of a strange room and survey their stock of hope. The Cold Storage feels warm to me today, stocked with love and compassion and resilience — fresh bread from Heaven and the life of God.

I stand in it, week by week, certain that it wouldn’t protect any of us from a nuclear war or the effects of climate change; but I couldn’t live without it.

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Good Shepherd, Berkeley

 

 

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Love. Now More than Ever.

Many Christians heard a rather odd collection of biblical texts this morning (Genesis 24, Song of Solomon 2:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). As I reflected on each of these texts to prepare to preach on them, I kept coming back to this: the world-changing power of love.

Yes, it’s a cliché, and it still matters. The following are some observations about those texts and why Christians gathering at the Eucharistic Table still matters, and why churches trying to live a life-changing gospel still matters, and why love itself matters, now more than ever.

The passage in Genesis presents the story of Rebekah drawing water from a well, a providential sign from God (as the story goes) that this woman would be Isaac’s wife. There’s something like a Hollywood-worthy moment in this story when Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time and leaps from her camel, and when Isaac sees her, and – as the storyteller says – he loved her, and she comforted him as he mourned the death of his mother, Sarah.

Rebekah eventually gives birth to twins – Jacob and Esau – and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is not just a tender story of young romance, but a life-changing, history-shaping encounter with erotic love.

Or maybe not…there are too many sexy bits in this story, as some early Christian theologians seemed to think. As was common in the early centuries of Christian traditions, stories like this one from Genesis were read allegorically, filled with symbols of Christ and the Church.

In the third century, Origen proposed that Rebekah at first represents patience, which is honored with jewels from those who are wise. The meeting with Isaac then stands for the union of the soul with Christ. “Are you not yet moved,” Origen writes, “to understand that these words are spoken spiritually? Or do you think that it always just happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters?”

A century later, Ambrose supposed Rebekah symbolizes the soul at the font of wisdom, or perhaps Rebekah at her well of water is the church by the font of baptism, or as Isaac takes his bride to the tent, so Christ lures the wayward toward Heaven (though I’m not sure that sounds any less sexy than the story itself…).

For modern critics of Christianity, these ancient commentaries show how reluctant Christians are to deal with romantic desire, just to let sex be sex.

If some theologians didn’t read enough sex into those ancient stories, I read too much of it into Paul’s letters when I was a teenager. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments over not being able to do what he really wants to do and doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. I read that growing up as so obviously and self-evidently about sexual desire.

I mean, of course I read it that way! That’s how pious Evangelical teenagers think, can’t help but think that way, wish desperately at times they could think of just about anything else.

Paul captures that adolescent vexation precisely: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That was basically the first-century script for my mid-twentieth century hormone-ravaged youth group.

But Paul doesn’t say what exactly vexed him so terribly much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with sex, I find it much more useful these days to read Paul in relation to the socio-economic systems in which all of us are embedded, whether we like it or not: we cannot help but contribute to global climate change, for example, just by riding around in a car or purchasing nearly any item from nearly any store; we cannot help but participate in the institutional dynamics of white supremacy in this society, a system no one alive today helped to create but from white people benefit every day just by trying to live as “good citizens.”

Stop thinking about sex when reading Paul (if you can) and think instead about the suffocating systems of injustice in which we are steeped and through which we try our best to navigate: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even just a glimpse of those systemic issues can be paralyzing; analyzing them is discouraging; trying to dismantle them, exhausting.

“Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Many of the self-styled progressives in my seminary classroom are actually troubled by these words from Matthew’s Jesus, or at least suspicious of them. There’s too much work to do! No time for rest and we can’t possibly lay down our burdens in a world of injustice and violence with no time to spare! Or, as I actually heard an ordained minister say, “there will be plenty of time to rest when they lay me in a grave.”

So thank goodness for the Song of Solomon! Or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs. I am endlessly fascinated by that little book of erotic poetry tucked away in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible where most people can’t even find it. Even more, it carries with it a wonderfully peculiar history in Jewish and Christian traditions, especially among mystics (a history that shaped my book on sexual intimacy and the Eucharist).

The lectionary option to read that portion from the Song of Songs rather than a psalm kept pushing me back to erotic desire as I read the other texts, kept urging me to notice love and why it matters.

Part of what makes the history of this little biblical text so peculiar is how important the Song of Songs was to Medieval Christians and how it nearly vanished entirely among modern Christians. For centuries, the Song of Songs was the one text most often copied, the one text most often chosen for commentaries, and the one text most often selected by preachers. More Latin manuscripts of this erotic poetry exist than any other biblical book. More medieval sermons were preached on it than any other and it took its place along with the four gospels as among the most important; at times the Song of Songs was read more often than any of the gospels except John – and that’s because many thought John was early Christian commentary on the Song of Songs!

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He Qi: “The Song of Solomon”

What in the world is all that about? Simply put: for our medieval ancestors, only the language of erotic desire can capture our own deep longing for God. The yearning for encounter, for intimacy, and for communion among dear friends and spouses and loved ones – what the ancient Greeks called Eros – this is the very same desire that draws us closer to God.

I certainly never heard that growing up. I would have read Paul’s letters quite differently if I had. Modern Western Christians generally have been quite skeptical about mixing the language of faith with the messy entanglements of erotic longing. Some critique this rather pointedly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. God isn’t even mentioned once in the Song of Songs!

Yes, that’s true, respond the mystics. And that’s because God is the one speaking:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. …
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (2:13-14).

I can scarcely imagine how the world would change if that were the divine voice people heard – not the scolder-in-chief, the wrathful judge, the distant father from whom the best we can hope is tolerance. No, but the voice of the beloved, as the song writer says, the one “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” eagerly coming in search of the lover – for us.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the mushy Hallmark-card version of sentimental romance. To see and know ourselves as the cause of God’s ceaseless delight will forever change the way we see others and the world around us; we become even less tolerant of injustice, even more scandalized by hateful speech, even more committed to act boldly and courageously and beyond what we thought possible for the sake of a better world.

As Matthew makes clear, the kind of “rest” promised by Jesus is not without burdens, but they are ever so much lighter when taken up with love.

The mystics actually warned us about this: If you hear that divine voice, truly hear the Beloved speak, be careful! The love of God will change you, unravel you, and remake you.

And that’s exactly what the world needs: people who are changed by love.

Come to Rebekah’s well.
Enter Isaac’s tent.
Gather at the Eucharistic Table, a foretaste (lest we forget) of the heavenly wedding banquet.

And then lay down the burdens that are not yours to carry.
Pick up the lighter one instead,
the one that matters,
the one that makes a difference,
the one borne because of love.

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A Holy Harrowing and an Empty Hell

Whom would Jesus leave behind? Spoiler alert: no one.

I grew up in a brand of Evangelical Christianity percolating throughout with an ambient anxiety. Despite swimming through a constant stream of rhetorical grace and bathed in the assurances of divine love, the tradition bred considerable consternation: would I, finally, be included among the saved? Do I have enough belief, believe the right things? Have I filed all my spiritual insurance forms?

The popularity of the Left Behind series of novels (including the movie version) puts a slightly different spin on this apocalyptic disquietude: finding assurance for one’s inclusion by excluding others. Or as a friend of mine from seminary more pointedly asked of such a strategy, “How many people have to burn in Hell for you to feel comfortable?”

Today is Holy Saturday – a celestial silence and an earthly pause between the desolation of Good Friday and the rousing announcement of Easter. A lingering grief weights our steps, tugging us back from the rise of anticipatory joy.  This is a peculiar slice of liturgically liminal time when nothing much seems stirring.

Not quite so for some strands of the traditions that would have us see Jesus quite busily at work on this day. One of my favorite icons captures the drama of his labor: Jesus harrows Hell, smashes its gates, and yanks a startled Adam and Eve from their graves and into the blazing light of a new day.chora_anastasis

I see little reason to suppose that Jesus administered orthodoxy tests after tearing down Hell’s fortress, or that he sorted and divided between the worthy and the unworthy prisoners of death, or that anything other than a heart hungry for love and for life – for that Love that is Life – made any difference in his liberating reach. And why should we suppose any of this given the scandalous grace of Jesus’ life and ministry?

In the realm of God that Jesus preached and lived, no prodigal fails to return, no sheep remains missing, no coin ever goes unfound (Luke 15). “Gather up all the fragments, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6). Jesus said this after feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish and with twelve baskets of leftovers, an auspicious number: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples. Apparently even Judas is scooped up among the rescued bits so that nothing and no one will ever be lost.

The Gospel astonishes – or should – in an American society where Syrian refugees are left behind (even after they are gassed by others and bombed by us); where children living in poverty are left behind in the decimation of public education; where low-income elders are left behind in a health care system designed for the comfortably employed and independently wealthy; where all of the planet’s other animals and its very ecosystems are left behind to boil, choke, starve, shrink, and whither for the greater good of corporate profits.

Christian faith offers ample reason to resist these political postures and policies with a Gospel that so many Christians – myself included – find difficult to embrace. Preaching and living this Gospel ought to send shock waves through our social fabric, ruffling the preened feathers of productivity, even foment revolutionary unrest.

Perhaps it’s just unsustainable, this profound message of unrelenting and unqualified grace. The rawness of this grace, its refusal to consider merit of any kind, grates against ambition and taints the laurels of achievement. Perhaps too many of us Christians – myself included – worry that grace itself is a finite commodity, precious but scarce, or maybe we too often live as the prodigal son’s older brother: resentful of Daddy’s generosity.

Whatever the reasons, I find this Holy Saturday both bracing and harrowing. That icon I love? It’s no throwback to a literal reading of Genesis, nor mere nod to a sentimental reunion with Adam and Eve. As an iconic representation of humanity’s origins, those figures are us, all of us, no exceptions. And we, all of us, are yanked from our tombs.

May the joy of Easter season about to dawn inspire us to live with and among all other creatures as if no one is left behind – because no one is.

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Beloved Dust, Take Heart

Almighty God, you created us out of the dust of the earth…

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you hate nothing you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent…

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create and make in us new and contrite hearts…

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…that we, too, may thoroughly love all that you have made.

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***Image 2 was created by Ludovic Florent for his 2014 exhibit, Pousièrres d’étoiles (“stardust“).

***Image 3 is part of Oliver Valsecchi‘s 2009 series “Dust,” that explores the figure of the phoenix rising from the ashes — and in this case, actual ashes from his fireplace.

***Image 4, Reiko Murakami, 2014.

Text taken from or inspired by the Book of Common Prayer, 1979

 

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Seeds of Faith for a Harvest of Justice

I have taken recently to wearing a “Black Lives Matter” wristband. I do this not to earn political correctness points – as if white men needed any more points; as if a few more points could balance the injustice ledger; as if disarming the violent machinations of late-modern-global-capitalism had anything to do with points at all.

I wear the wristband for reasons having mostly to do with faith.

This past Sunday, many Christians heard a series of biblical texts, all of which orbited around faith – what it looks like, how it feels, why it matters. According to Luke, first century disciples urged Jesus to help them: “Increase our faith!”

I’m sure people of color in the United States would plead for something a bit more specific: “Increase justice!” Could faith have anything to do with justice? Good Lord, I hope so. But how?

Among the texts many of us heard this past Sunday, this portion from the ancient prophet Habakkuk sounds rather eerily as if it were written just yesterday:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save? …
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

Even so, Habakkuk writes, “the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk explains what that looks like for him: “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart, and I will keep watch” (2:1).

That prophetic posture reminds me that living by faith means, in part, paying attention. Clearly, we are saturated these days with constant news and images and campaign soundbites and tweets and Facebook status updates – I’d rather not pay quite so much attention to all of that.

As a white man, however, my Christian faith demands paying attention to the resurgent and more visible dynamics of race and gender in this country – more particularly, the pernicious effects of white supremacy and the stubborn resilience of misogyny.

As a white man, I can easily overlook or never even notice how the institutions and policies of American society are set up for my benefit. I need not look any farther than my own campus and classrooms to see the dynamics of privilege swirling around my whiteness and maleness. Not needing to notice all this is part of the privilege of being white and male – and some will defend that privilege vigorously, with violence if necessary.

Black Lives Matter” now encircles my wrist as I try to do what Habakkuk did – to stand at the watch post and pay attention. In a society that wants me to take my white privilege for granted, this wristband brings that privilege to my attention whenever I glance down at my keyboard to do my work – it’s in my field of vision right now, as I type this. It urges me to pay attention and do whatever I can to make my work matter for justice.blm_wristband

How puny and trivial, I often think. What in the world (quite literally) can I do as an affluent, white, male, priest, and academic that would make even a dent in the well-established, centuries-old systems of dominance and oppression? By myself, probably not much. But with others, far more than I realize. That’s how I read what many of us heard from Luke’s Jesus this week:

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5).

Filipe Maia, a colleague of mine, preached brilliantly on this text. He reminded me that it’s not very likely that Jesus just chose those species of plants randomly, as if any kind of seed or tree would do to make his point.

The mustard plant common to the Middle East is not usually cultivated because it spreads quickly all on its own and germinates easily in desert conditions. It tolerates not only hot and arid conditions but survives even wild fires. It doesn’t need much depth of soil and grows comfortably on rocky hillsides. Its sticky seed coatings cling to the hides of animals and spread over vast regions. Or, as we might say today, the mustard plant is an invasive species.

Mulberry trees can grow much larger than mustard plants. Once they’re established, they send down deep roots and grow thick trunks and need very little tending; they are stubborn, resilient, and can live well for many generations, often more than 75 years – they seem immovable and permanent.

Here, then, is what I heard Luke’s Jesus say: If you think you don’t have enough faith, or that it doesn’t matter, or that nothing you do ever really makes a difference, or that silly little wristband is just your latest nod to consumerist impulses to soothe white guilt, think again.

Faith can take root in the driest conditions and the roughest terrain; it will germinate more quickly than you imagined, and its sticky seeds will quietly spread beyond where you thought possible; before long every hillside will blossom with its bright colors.

The seeds of faith will respond to even the slightest gesture of nurture and the tiniest hint of water. Faith itself will quietly spread, I heard Jesus say, and it will eventually overtake even the most resilient trees, uprooting their deep and stubborn systems of pride and prejudice, of hostility and violence – even the ones planted deeply in your own heart and soul and body.

This, we might suppose, is why the psalmist wrote so confidently – with such absurd confidence – the words so many Christians recited this past week:

Do not fret over evildoers;
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
For they shall soon wither like the grass,
and like the green grass fade away.
Put your trust in God and do good; …
Commit your way to God in trust,
for God will bring it to pass (Psalm 37).

I find it impossible to cultivate that kind of trust on my own; I need others to help me.

mustard_hillsidesThe peculiar faith of Christians has nothing to do with lone-ranger style heroics or herculean efforts. It’s actually simpler and more profound: take your tiny little seed of faith and combine it with the seeds of others. Plant those sticky seeds.

Here in Northern California, I’m surrounded by images of what a shared and sticky faith might yield – hillsides covered in the glorious colors of faith and justice.

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Keep on Dancing

I know some churches where lots of dancing happens on Sunday mornings.

I know some gay dance clubs where lots of praying happens on Saturday nights.

Turntables

For many years, I failed to notice the deep intertwining of these spaces, the blurring of the categorical lines and boxes that supposedly mark the difference between “sacred” and “secular.”

I grew up in a religious tradition that treated dancing with a great deal of suspicion and attended a college where social dancing of any kind was forbidden. Even after setting aside that religious perspective, I mostly overlooked the glittering sparks of divinity flying off the sweaty bodies of gay dancers and the spiritual glow of otherwise dingy warehouse clubs where we all felt safe, safe enough to be ourselves.

No, more than that: I learned how to be myself in those clubs. I learned friendship and devotion, comradery and betrayal, ecstasy and grief. I kept my sanity on those dance floors in times of anguish and with friends and lovers who likely saved my life more than once. I understood far better what Christian liturgy meant on Sunday morning – and why I should bother going – by dancing with all those other queers on Saturday night.

For years I enjoyed dancing in gay clubs for more reasons than I appreciated at the time. The light of that appreciation dawned brighter one night some years ago on a dance floor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I wrote about that night in my book, Peculiar Faith, and how odd and transformative it was on that particular night and in that particular place to feel completely at home in my body with all those other bodies. With few exceptions, we weren’t dancing as couples that night but all together, each of us dancing with all the others. It was one of the few times in my whole life when I felt, without any doubt, that I truly belonged somewhere.

I felt the Gospel, in other words. I felt the Gospel residing securely and cozily in my very own body.

I don’t mean that gay dance clubs are perfect slices of Eden. They aren’t, and neither are churches. But I did at least touch and taste that night what I have come to believe is the very hope of Christian faith: to be completely at home in our own bodies without any shame, completely at home among other bodies without any guilt, and completely at home with God without any fear – all at the same time.

Experiencing “home” with that kind of depth is sadly quite rare and perhaps becoming rarer still in a world of so much fragmentation and isolation and violence. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the peculiar faith of Christians can rise to meet these yearnings for home; more oddly still, most churches could use some help in that work from gay dance clubs.

From eighteenth-century English “molly houses” to twentieth-century nightclubs, LGBTQ people have persistently carved out spaces of safe haven, gathering with others often at the risk of physical harm. Far more than venues for drinking alcohol and finding sexual liaisons—though that happened too—these spaces of homeward longing catalyzed shared reflection, strategizing, and deep bonds of affection. All of this redrew the cultural and political map of Europe and the United States.

Someone else just recently noted these things about queer spaces as well – the President of the United States. Responding to the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Barack Obama noted that gay bars stand for more than dancing; they provide places of “solidarity and empowerment.”

That sounds like Church, or what church could and ought to be. Consider what a friend of mine reported hearing from a speaker at the vigil held in Oakland, California, the night of the shooting. “When they kill black people, they kill them in church; when they kill gay people, they kill them in the clubs.” A voice in the crowd then responded, “sanctuary is sanctuary.”

The purpose of terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, is to terrify us and divide us. Queer people have known this for a long time – and still we gather. The earliest Christians knew this too; and still they gathered to celebrate the mysteries of faith, often under threat of imperial persecution.

This is scary stuff – the very stuff of terrorism. Yet as a wise colleague of mine once said years ago, “You cannot do Christian theology from a place of fear,” he said. “The only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.”

A second-century Christian said mostly the same thing by declaring that “those who do not dance do not know what is coming to pass.”

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, there are many steps we must take to heal and to guard against still more violence. Whatever else we do, though, let us make sure to dance – and hold hands, and share hugs, and kiss each other.

Dancing is not a luxury and it is not frivolous. Dancing is the bodily necessity of joy and the rhythm of courage. And still more: While LGBT people dance for a host of reasons, a thread of commonality weaves all of it together. In a world of oppressive social structures, unwelcoming religious institutions, and constant threats of violence, we dance for hope.

This – in addition to having lots of fun – is why I find dancing with other LGBT people so compelling. We do live in a world of rampant bigotry, physical insecurity, and risks to personal safety; and still we dance, and at times with joy shaking loose from our bodies and gratitude lighting up our faces.

I dance and I see the luminous presence of God.

No shame.
No guilt.
No fear.

Keep on dancing.

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Materno Amore: Letting Go to Love

My mother died last year, during Holy Week. Today marks the first anniversary of her death, during Easter Week.

I like that liturgical progression. Last year, I united her death to the passion of Jesus. This year, I remember her in the blazing light of an empty tomb.

I did a lot of remembering for her those last few years as her own memory disintegrated, as one image after another from her long and full life slowly pixelated into confusion. I didn’t mind repeating myself, and I took some delight in reporting old stories like fresh news. Still, I did have two books published during those years, which she didn’t quite seem to grasp. I so wanted her to grasp it, like giving her a crayon drawing from kindergarten to put up on the fridge for all to see.mom_jay_banquet

I so wanted her to be proud of what I had done and accomplished, what I had become. But that soon mattered very little. What mattered so much more was how her face glowed with a widening smile whenever I walked into her room. She didn’t care what I had done or where I had been; nothing else mattered but being there, together.

That sounds like God to me, or the God I think Jesus wanted us to know. For all my preaching and teaching about grace and divine generosity, I still try to get God’s attention with my clever tricks, my long work days, by taking so few days off. In the end, none of that matters, not really. God just beams with delight whenever we walk in the room.

Mom lived with me for nearly five years, then in a lovely assisted-living residence for the last three. Hard moments punctuated those years and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I learned so much about her and about me and about the two of us together.

Not least, I learned a bit more what it looks and feels like to love, and then let go. Mothers likely do this, I realized, not just once or even occasionally but constantly, perhaps even daily. They do it when we’re two; they do it when we’re twenty-two, and forty-two, and still – mine never stopped trying, finally, to let me go.

That’s part of what I learned from caring for my mother: we do let go but only to love differently, more deeply and fully.

Maybe that’s the peculiar rhythm of Christian faith in this season: we travel through betrayal, suffering, and death, and finally land in front of an empty tomb. How much of God did we let go this year? Enough to love ourselves differently, others better, the world more tenderly?

Rosemary – my mother’s name. This week my house is filled with the scent of roses, her favorite flower. Dozens of them fill shelves and table spaces. They make me so happy, just by being there when I walk into my house at the end of the day. And I will let them go when the petals fall, and love my mother still – but differently.

Materno Amore

You grabbed hold of me
as I drifted out
of the shallow end.
You gripped my forearm
and pulled me gently back
where I could safely swim and play,
home and happy.

You always did this
when I swerved toward the scary deep,
drove a car, landed a new job,
bought my first house.

I bristled at that grip,
strained against the restraint,
but felt it finally as love,
fierce, resolute, and tender,
as you let me go
when I was safe –

as I let you go,
finally, to be safe
in God’s shallow end of life,
where the breathing is easier
where rest takes no effort,
where you lounge now,
without any worries
about who might drift away.

I see you there,
happy and home.

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Arise, My Love

In the end, we are raised in love, just as in the beginning we are made from love.

And love is strong, stronger than most of us can imagine. As the ancient poet once wrote:

for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).

Today, apparently, we need even more to remember that love is stronger than hate. From one end to the other, the world seems awash in fear and terror as so many thrash about with a violence fueled by a relentless suspicion if not a deep loathing.

I cannot imagine how to solve any of this, yet on this Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection, I try to remember this: love is strong, stronger than fear and terror, stronger than violence and hatred.

I try to remember that, and then I wonder how the world might change if Christian churches everywhere preached and lived love, and only that.

Imagine Christian congregations organizing all of their worship, business practices, and pastoral care to ensure that you and everyone else feels unmistakably wanted, desired, and loved — that you know yourself as desirable and lovable, without any question or doubt.

Imagine returning week-by-week to a place where you catch an invaluable glimpse of what it looks like to live without any shame, being free of guilt, and having no fear – a glimpse of love’s amazing strength.

Imagine a lifetime of catching that glimpse and hearing that declaration of love and how it would shape and form you. Imagine coming to the end of your mortal existence when you are laid lovingly in Earth by the community who cherished you. Imagine at that moment realizing with considerable astonishment that the arc of your life has only just begun, a moment when you hear once again the voice of the One who made you:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. . .
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (Song of Solomon, 2:13b, 14b).

That is the voice of Easter.

Listen for it; let it remake you; and then ensure that everyone else hears it, too, no exceptions.

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Christ harrowing hell, dragging Adam and Eve from their graves.

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A Singular Arc of Solidarity

I understand the sequential logic – final meal, betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection. It follows a perfectly sensible order laid out in a ritual pattern over three days, each punctuated with distinct, poignant moments.

I understand all this but I don’t always experience Holy Week that way. I often find the moments bleeding into each other, I suppose quite literally. The chronology sometimes seems out of whack to me as I feel the final meal digesting quite early in the week, the suffering on a day when feet should be washed, and I see an odd light lingering about the old rugged cross.cross_light

I had similar trouble with distinct chronological moments during my mother’s final illness and her death last year. Next week will mark the first anniversary. Actually, in “liturgical time,” this week is that milestone, since she died during Holy Week.

I thought I could hear the music that would be played at her funeral before it was chosen, while she was still ill in the hospital. I’m nearly sure she laughed and teased me about Judah, the Australian Shepherd dog, while she was barely conscious in hospice care. I could see the shadow of death lengthen across her smile weeks before, but didn’t realize this until much later.

Perhaps most of us live with blurry edges around temporal sequences. I wonder if most of us just make up neat and tidy progressions to make it easier to tell others about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. I wonder if distinct moments in time are simply fictions, or at least their distinctness from all other moments probably is, a grand and pervasive illusion.

I find such queer uncertainty peculiar, yes, but not disconcerting – at least not in Holy Week. The oddities of these particular days trace but one, singular arc of divine solidarity. I mean, the Immanuel we celebrated at Christmas – “God with us” – really is, not occasionally or sequentially or intermittently but always and all the way down, as it were, with us.

That’s what I have trouble with. I have trouble accepting that the God who creates me also chooses to dwell in deep solidarity with me – in every respect, at every moment, under every condition, and for a future beyond my imagining…which may well have already happened.

I do have trouble accepting this, yet the more I do the less willing I am to put up with a world of violence and injustice and speech riddled with hate; to tolerate any city where anyone could be hungry or lonely or afraid; to countenance a neighborhood street where an old woman is too terrified to walk outside, or a dog runs loose and thirsty and panicked, or a child begs to play and no one listens.

I have trouble plunging full-hearted into the Triduum Sacrum – the three sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. I am afraid of what that singular arc will compel me to do and to be. I’m afraid I will no longer care about time and what it costs; afraid that I will let go of the future that has already happened so long ago; afraid that I will simply give myself over to a world in pain, throw myself into it with the wild abandon of trust, loving and hoping it toward the better.

This, surely, was the simultaneous terror and resolve of Jesus.

Lately, I have been appreciating how M. Shawn Copeland reflects on such things, and here, how she brings these three days into a singular focus of unraveling grace:

A Christian praxis 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 praxis 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.

I can detect no sensible sequence in her eloquence, no logical passing of one distinct moment to the next. I read only about such chronologies interrupted by the Presence, the One-With-Us, forever and not yet but still now and then, always.

I care about so much that actually matters very little. So each year I try to pause over the slivers and slices, the tiny glimpses that are so easily passed by and over, as if they could not possibly matter – the fragrance filling the room; the drop of a tear on the top of a foot; the brush of a hand against another reaching for bread; a smudge of wine on the lips, a brushing of vinegar; aromatic spices prepared by fingers shaking with grief; streaks of rosy sunlight at dawn.

bread_wineWe need not braid such moments together, as if to construct something useful from fragments, something at last recognizable. The entire arc of solidarity resides in each moment, resides all the way down and rising up always as a singular offering: the Divine Companion.