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Tabling the Ashes, and Other Religious Choreographies for an Insightful Pandemic

Are you pausing to learn or just trying to get through as fast you can? How much of what we used to call “normal” is worth trying to retrieve? What’s one big “take-away” insight from living in the midst of this pandemic that you might not have had otherwise?

Could we agree that we all just need to take a huge nap before trying to build a new world together and that it might be useful if we all took that nap at the same time?

I think I’m inching closer to a big take-away insight from all this, and I’ll share it below, but I’m intrigued by the intermediate steps to get there, the coping and fussing and experimenting and adjusting and canceling and scheduling and revising—all the time! (Did I mention a nap would be nice?)

I’m also intrigued, having returned to fulltime parish ministry, to find my capacity for innovation strengthened by turning frequently to my grounding in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church. This is not unlike the old aphorism about jazz piano—learn your scales first. I used to say something similar in the seminary classes I taught on systematic theology—know first how to operate the interlocking gears and gadgets of doctrinal claims before trying to spin off those whirling bits of novel God-talk.

As many clergy have been discovering (while others are actively denying it), there are some things we can no longer do that we once thought we simply must do for effective liturgy, or more severely, for a “valid” sacrament. I continue to be grateful for my formation in what many consider the “rigidities” of liturgical tradition precisely because they shaped my sense of why we do what we do—and therefore how to omit those things responsibly by either replacing them with something else or inviting people to pray through the gap.

I still have a lot of thinking and pondering to do on the implications of liturgical leadership during a pandemic, but I feel the strong need to write these things down, even when they’re not completely formed. I worry that our (understandable) eagerness to “get through” this pandemic will mean rushing past the many lessons to learn and even “gifts” (if we dare use that word just now) of this peculiar time unless we take the time, right now, to record some of it.

As we lurch into Lent (remember a year ago when we were looking forward to being back in church on Easter—I mean, last Easter?) I’m thinking especially about two broad, gestating insights that could inform how I “do liturgy” even when we begin to gather again in person.

First, don’t pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t.

And second, creed and confession are more entangled than I realized; I’m not sure yet what that means, except it has something to do with healing.

So here a  few observations about both of these, and then a note or two about that bigger “take-away.” And I would love to hear from others, lay or ordained, about your experiences of church over this last year, either in conversation with these insights or others.

Everything is Not Okay and That’s Okay for Now
When I first arrived to Saugatuck, Michigan after driving across the country from Berkeley, California last summer, I kept wanting to create video productions for worship in my new parish that mimicked as closely as possible “real” church. After a few weeks of that labor-intensive effort, I began to wonder what in the world was “real” about church to begin with. I also started to realize that I was trying to pretend everything was still “normal,” except for being online.

Everything is not, of course, normal; hardly anything is, actually, and I stumbled into a space of liberation and relief by acknowledging that to myself and then saying it out loud to the other clergy and lay leaders in the parish. That freed up my energy to start noticing, prayerfully, just how not-normal things are and what this means for we pray and worship.

This past Ash Wednesday is a case in point. I considered, briefly, some of the clever and ingenious ways I was reading about from other clergy for how safely to impose ashes on foreheads, including sprinkling them on tops of heads instead. But I noticed again the hankering in my pondering for pretending that everything is normal when it isn’t. I also couldn’t imagine how anyone needed a reminder of their own mortality right now.

Ludovic Florent Photography

I decided to keep the ashes as part of the live-streamed liturgy that evening, but only in a crystal bowl that sat on the altar. They will sit there for the whole season of Lent, not as a reminder of our mortality but as a reminder of the promise God always makes at that Table: to bring new life out of death. We will then sprinkle those ashes around the parish memorial garden on Easter morning.

During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I blessed the ashes in their little altar-bowl with these words, borrowed and adapted from the Scottish Episcopal Church:

Living God of renewal and hope,
in their life palms draw sustenance from the Earth
and give of their own vitality to the air we breathe,
and to the animals they host and shelter;
in the worship of this community,
they help us mark with joyful anticipation
the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his death:
Grant, O God, that these palms now reduced to ashes
may remind us of the mortality we share
     with your whole creation,
and may also stand as a sign of your love,
     which is stronger than death.
May we recognize that love at work in us even now,
replanting our lives in the sure and humble soil
of your grace and generosity.
We pray all this in the name of Jesus
in whom you have become one with us in our mortal flesh,
and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Presiding this morning at our Eucharistic liturgy for the first Sunday in Lent, I was quite moved to see the little bowl of ashes on the Table as I prayed that we might all “prepare with joy for the paschal feast.”

Creedal Confessions for Healing
For reasons I cannot yet fully articulate, this pandemic has heightened my awareness of the intimate relationship between what I believe and my failure to live fully the consequences of those beliefs. This has caused me to reflect in new ways on what I learned many years ago in seminary: not only sins or faults but also beliefs are items we confess, and both types of confession might actually play a significant role in our healing, both individually and corporately. (That’s a dense sentence because I’m not sure yet what I really mean to say.)

Reflecting in this way prompted me to wonder whether connecting belief and failure more closely in our liturgical language might assist us in deepening our shared sense of trust in God’s presence among us, as the Creator, the incarnate Word, and animating Spirit. “Trust,” after all, is probably the best synonym for faith.

I’ve been working on such a “creedal confession” for some time, and I’m considering using the following draft for our midweek service of Evening Prayer:

I place my trust in the creative power of God,
   maker of all things, known and unknown,
   source and sustainer of life;
       and I confess my failure to respect the dignity
       of every creature God has made.
I place my trust in the Word of God incarnate,
   who gathers us as a mother cradles her children,
   as a father who binds up wounds,
   as a lover who mends broken hearts;
       and I confess my share in the patterns of violence
       that fragment, divide, and harm.
I place my trust in the Divine Spirit,
   who animates the whole creation
       with the breath of life,
   drawing together all creatures
       with the assurance of forgiveness,
       the promise of healing,
       and the hope of communion.
Receive my trust, O God of endless compassion,
and strengthen me for your service. Amen.

Those two insights will continue to evolve, no doubt, and they can stand on their own as “keepers.” But we also just concluded a weeknight adult education class here at the parish (via Zoom, of course) on Matthew Fox’s new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond. I knew that Julian had lived during of bubonic plague in Medieval Europe; I had not realized that her entire life was spent encountering wave after wave of that disease.

“Lady Julian,” Evelyn Simak

And yes, I knew that Julian had a remarkably unswerving confidence in both the love of God and the goodness of creation in the midst of unspeakable bodily horrors. All shall be well—she didn’t merely hope this, she insisted it was true. Jesus told her so.

More than all of that, Julian-via-Fox has done something to my thinking right now that feels, if not “new,” then fresh. It’s this: the imperative to notice and address the links between and among climate change, this current pandemic, racism, sexism, misogyny, matricide, and patriarchy, all in a single “mystic-prophetic” posture.

I do believe the world’s religious traditions were made for just such a time as this—for just such a time, that is, for rooting ourselves sufficiently in those traditions to innovate.

Now, about that nap…

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Bad Theology Kills

It’s not so much what we say but what we do that really matters.

I hear that a lot and I’ve even been known to preach it myself. But it’s actually not entirely true. What we say about God and what we say about the Bible and what we say about each other can have profound consequences for how we live. For some, theological ideas can be a matter of life and death.

I make this point rather abstractly to help frame more concretely what just occurred at Washington National Cathedral. The Rev. Max Lucado was invited to preach at the cathedral yesterday, from the “Canterbury pulpit” as it is called, which is a high-profile, prestigious place from which to offer a sermon, and especially on a Sunday morning.

This was and is a controversial decision because of the Rev. Lucado’s opinions of LGBT people and our relationships, and especially his opinions about what God thinks of people like me. It is dismaying and confounding to see such a person invited to preach in that space; it tears open old wounds and triggers past traumas with the institutional church.

The fence in Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was tied and left to die in 1998.

Regardless of what he said from the pulpit (he said nothing about sexuality) the outcry over this, both before and after the sermon, was swift and direct, mostly (it should be noted) from LGBT people and our advocacy organizations. (See Susan Russell’s blog post on this latest instance of “throwing LGBT people under the bus” for the cause of unity.) Cathedral leadership, the bishop of the diocese, and others were also swift to suggest that Lucado’s invitation to preach was something like an “olive branch,” a way to initiate healing across an acrimonious divide. It was also suggested that the Rev. Lucado might be “struggling” with his previous positions on sexuality, and it’s important to help that process along (I’m unaware of any such public statements by Lucado).

All of these caveats from religious leaders, to put the matter mildly, are red herrings. We’re not talking about sitting down with family over a holiday meal and gently helping a dear old uncle come to grips with the reality of lesbian couples. We’re talking about a New York Times bestselling author of over 100 books with more than 130 million copies in print, who was named “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today magazine, has appeared numerous times on television, and was a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast.

What does such a high profile Christian minister think about people like me? Just two examples from his own writing in 2004:

He asks, rhetorically, “How will homosexuality impact our culture?” He then answers: “What about the spread of disease? If gay lifestyle and gay marriage is endorsed—what follows? Polygamy? Legalized incest?”

His “slippery slope” argument is familiar to many of us, of course, but he takes another familiar trope, the one about bestiality, to new heights, rather literally: “If they recognize gay marriage, what will keep them from the next step? Who’s to say that one man can’t marry five women? Or two men and two women? How about a commune marriage? Or a marriage between a daddy and a daughter or a woman and a giraffe?”

A woman and a giraffe”—might we not want a bit of clarification on this before asking someone to preach from the pulpit of something called “The National Cathedral”?

I wish I could make perfectly plain, somehow more viscerally clear to my “straight” friends and colleagues what it is like to be an LGBT-identified person and to read things like that penned by an ordained Christian minister. Perhaps if they felt their own stomachs lurching and their own hearts pounding and their own bodily shame galloping off the charts, their own empathy might deepen a bit. To see that same minister then invited to preach to thousands (online) from The National Cathedral is simultaneously outrageous and galling. I don’t know how else to say just how demoralizing and, for some, lethal these moments are, so I’ll just say this: bad theology kills.

Just talk to anyone who staffs a suicide hotline or any of the wonderful people who run the Trevor Project (devoted to preventing LGBT-suicides) or all those who keep LGBT community centers open for runaway LGBT youth—ask any of them what homophobic sermons and judgmental pastors do to the psyches of queer youth. It’s heartbreaking.

Yes, bad theology kills. It is also true, perhaps even more importantly true, to insist that good theology saves lives.

I can bear witness to all of this personally, in my own life, and have been doing so for more than three decades. Coming out of an Evangelical Christian community as a young adult, which had planted in me the notion that I was broken, flawed, and perhaps even unlovable because I’m gay, it took years for me to trust instead that God loves me unconditionally, without reservation, and whole-heartedly—years of work, that is, with precious little support for such work from the institutional church.

Yes, the world and the church have changed since I first wrestled with my own faith and sexuality. Things are better now—but not everywhere and not for everyone. We must never take for granted that people have heard, that they know, much less that they truly believe that God loves them. There are far too many messages to the contrary, too many messengers of hate standing uncorrected, too many vulnerable bodies hearing those lies to ever take the Gospel for granted. The struggle is not over if even one dear child of God thinks they are in any way unlovable.

So let me be even clearer: trusting in God’s love saved my life. It’s as simple and as profound as that. And I have devoted my vocational and professional life to helping ensure that others can trust in that love, too. I’m happy to do that work, even though the work is often difficult in a society where so much bad theology is so easily accessible—work that should not be made still more difficult by having a minister of bad theology preach on a Sunday morning in a cathedral of my own church.

If we’re going to do the work of reconciliation (to which I am also gladly committed), let’s not start with a sermon, especially from that pulpit. Let’s start by having a public forum after the liturgy, or with a published article from the Rev. Lucado on “how my mind has changed” (if it has), or a public apology for unintended harm. But please do not invite such a figure to preach until he makes clear that he does not think lesbians want to marry giraffes.

I mean, for the love of God—literally.

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Making Hope Visible: Advent and World AIDS Day

I remember the ambient anxiety of the early 1980s, back when people began to disappear. I knew a couple, Terry and Francis, who lived in New York.  Each of them worked for the same advertising company, sharing ideas and strategies both inside and outside of the office.  Quite suddenly, with hardly any warning, Francis struggled to manage work and home life without Terry, as if Terry had suddenly been snatched away by aliens from outer space.

A friend of mine told me about some of his friends in San Francisco, David and Brad.  They had moved there as roommates a few years earlier from the Midwest.  They might as well have been a couple as they spent nearly all their spare time together exploring the city, taking trips to Napa for wine tasting, or sailing on the Bay.  Just as suddenly as Francis had, David found himself alone, without Brad by his side.

Before long we knew more about the aliens who had been snatching these people away.  They were given names like pneumocystis pneumonia and kaposi sarcoma.  Some of us began referring to this phenomenon like a thunderstorm; no one knew where or when the lightning would strike next.  The storm itself was given a name, too. At first it was called GRID (“gay-related immune deficiency,” or what the New York Times called a “new homosexual disorder”) and then eventually HIV and AIDS (“gayness” was removed from the nomenclature but not from the stigma, which today’s younger generations have apparently revived by hesitating even to hug people infected with the virus).

aids_ribbon_earth

As it sometimes happens, this first Sunday of Advent—“New Year’s Day” on the Christian calendar—coincides with World AIDS Day. The strangeness of what many church-going Christians are hearing from Matthew’s gospel on this day actually sounds eerily familiar to those of us who lived through the pre-anti-retroviral drug years. In that gospel text, Jesus describes the early warning signs of the world’s end: two will be working side by side in a field, Jesus says, and one will be taken, the other left behind. Two will be grinding grain together, he says, and one will be taken, the other left behind (Matthew 24:36-44).

That ancient text describes rather well what life was like for many of us in the 1980s and early 1990s. British theologian Elizabeth Stuart writes about those years and recalls how, with very few exceptions, the vast machinery of the institutional church simply abandoned the sick and dying when they needed its ministry the most, in a time of deep anxiety and even terror. Stuart recalls something else as well: in the face of apocalyptic distress, we learned in new ways how to care for each other. “Lesbians and gay men sat in hospitals together,” she writes, “went to funerals together, and stared death in the face together.”

Back then, queer people offered a tangible reminder of what church ought to look like and why it should matter: in world-ending moments, we need visible signs of hope.

aids_ribbon_candles

This is also why New Year’s Day on the Christian calendar always presents us with apocalyptic texts, with stories and images of the world’s end. This can remind us, first, that all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly (to which the history of World AIDS Day bears witness), and then second, why the coming of Christ matters for each of those endings—a coming, as Matthew’s Jesus says, that is always unexpected.

To be sure, these texts sound threatening and ominous. But there is another kind of tone running through biblical texts and Christian traditions that also rightly belongs to the apocalyptic genre; it’s the tone of longing and yearning for intimacy, the tender tone of desire. It is—and this may be just as unexpected as a thief in the night—the tone of God’s own desire to be in communion with us.

Biblical writers present us repeatedly with precisely this God:

  • The God who goes searching for Abraham and Sarah in the distant land of Ur.
  • The God who goes searching for Joseph residing in Egypt.
  • The God who goes searching for Naomi, who brought Ruth along with her.
  • The God who goes searching for God’s own dear people in exile.
  • The God who comes as the Lover searching for the Beloved; the one who searches for us as one of us, in the flesh.

The hope we all need in world-ending moments can appear quite simply and quietly, as the touchable presence of accompaniment; it is the hope of not being alone.

Can we adopt that kind of hope today? Is the Creator God still with us, as ecosystems collapse and species disappear? What does hope now look like in this present age of anxiety and barely-contained terror?

We queer people offered visible hope to each other as our late-twentieth-century worlds unraveled. As worlds unravel again today, God calls us to that queer work of embodied hope again. Let us make it our shared Advent discipline—just in time for Christmas—to (re)assure each other of the One whose name stands forever as Immanuel—God with us.

advent_1_1_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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Hope for Healing: Eucharistic Solidarity in the Domination System

I have been a bit surprised by where my routine of daily morning prayer has been leading me over the last two or three years. Reflecting on my own life, my friends and colleagues, the chaotic world around us, an unexpected phrase keeps surfacing: the need for healing.

flag_healing_jennifer_luxton

Image by Jennifer Luxton

I don’t often think much about healing, unless I’m knocked off my feet with the flu or a friend is facing a health crisis, and it hardly comes to mind at all when sorting through the jumble of American politics and social unrest—until recently. Now I can hardly think of anything else as my incredulity and consternation grow while reading the daily news.

The biblical texts many Christians heard in church yesterday inspired renewed attention to this theme that just won’t let me go, and for both personal and more widely social reasons. The more personal one: my Australian shepherd dog Judah has been suffering with a really nasty “hot spot,” a painful and terribly itchy skin infection on his butt. Dog people know what this means: Judah requires constant monitoring to get well.

I have been profoundly grateful to my two housemates, Todd and Miguel, who have been helping me and without whom I’m not sure how I would be managing to care for Judah. That alone, in a relatively small but still significant way, has reminded me that healing is far more social and communal than most of us likely appreciate.

And, conversely, the causes of dis-ease are more often rooted in complex social systems than most of us usually realize.

Back in the 1970s, the medical profession just assumed that corporate executives of major corporations were more likely than others to succumb to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks because of their high-stress positions. Later studies have shown that just the opposite is true: the lower one is on the social and economic hierarchy, the lower one’s life expectancy.

It turns out that social status is the most powerful determinant for health outcomes related to cardiovascular, pulmonary, psychiatric, and rheumatologic diseases and some types of cancer. People in countries with narrow wealth and income gaps, for example, enjoy a relatively high life expectancy compared to the United States, which has one of the lowest among industrialized nations.

More recent studies suggest that, all other factors being equal, race is even more detrimental to health outcomes than economic status; African Americans and Latinx people in the U.S. exhibit worse health outcomes than white people of the same class.

Race matters for many reasons, not least because of the constant hyper-vigilance people of color must sustain in order to survive in a society of white supremacy; such vigilance keeps blood pressure elevated (even while taking blood pressure medication) and metabolic systems depleted (even on a healthy diet with regular exercise).

Issues of personal and collective health kept running through my thoughts as I pondered those lectionary texts. Healing itself became the frame through which I read them as I prepared to preach on them.

Each one of those texts—from the prophet Jeremiah, the letter to the Ephesians, and the Gospel according to Mark—each comes from a distinctive time and place, addressing its own peculiar concerns, and yet each one evokes for me a profound social disease that we have been living with for a long time, a disease that has now become so painfully apparent as to be all but intolerable.

I mean the institutional mechanisms that relentlessly divide and fragment the human family—divisions wrought by fear and hatred, fragmentation expressed in hostility and violence, and then experienced as isolation and alienation.

“Woe to the shepherds,” Jeremiah writes (23:1-2), “who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” You shepherds of my people, God says, “it is you who have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and not attended to them.”

How remarkably fresh an ancient text can sound, and even more so with a bit of historical context thrown in! In the midst of regional instability with mighty kingdoms vying for power, Jeremiah is writing at a time when a powerful empire is threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Judah from the outside while the kingdom’s own evil-doing leaders on the inside divide and fragment and scatter their people.

Still more consonant is the letter to the Ephesians (2:11-22), a letter obviously not written to the United States but to first-century Ephesians. And still, the diagnosis of the human predicament in that letter and its hope for healing again sound so remarkably fresh.

Think on today’s geo-political realities with these phrases from that ancient letter, phrases about those who were foreigners by birth, aliens to the commonwealth, strangers to the promise, separated by a dividing wall of hostility.

Think as well on these phrases of the hopeful promise in this same letter: the proclamation of peace to those who were far off and to those who were near, those who are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

This bears repeating: that letter was not originally written for us. And yet, and still, can we not hear in the otherwise arcane religious parsing of that text a lament over divided, fragmented communities and the passionate yearning for wholeness?

I would invite listening for those same themes in the passage from Mark’s account of the gospel that so many heard yesterday (6:30-34, 53-56), and especially what Mark describes right toward the end of that text.

It’s one of many stories about Jesus the healer. But I noticed something that I never thought about before: wherever Jesus went, Mark says, the people laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Jesus for a healing touch.

I find that an odd but compelling image—they laid sick people in the marketplace.

I usually think of these healing stories as encounters between Jesus and an individual, often in private. But this one is between Jesus and a whole mass of sick people, so many that they are laid out in a public place, likely in the center of town, and not just any place, but a marketplace—a place of commerce and economic exchange.

I always try to remember that there are no random details in these stories; it mattered to Mark that these people were laid out in a “marketplace.”

I also try to remember the context of these stories and why it matters: they come from a people under siege by an imperial power, occupied by the might of Rome.

Reflecting on that context, I turn often to biblical scholar Walter Wink and his riveting description of what “empire” actually entails. He refers to this as “The Domination System”:

The system is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all…from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism (from Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium).

Wink, among others, would urge us to read gospel stories of healing more directly in that context of imperial domination. Surely it is no mere coincidence that the symptoms Jesus often encounters among the sick and demon possessed mirror the effects of being colonized and taken over by an imperial power with economic and military force: irrational fears, dissociation, mania, psychosis, alienation from family and friends, isolation from the wider community, and all of this as a debilitating and disempowering trauma manifested in all manner of physical, psychological, and spiritual disease.

It mattered to Mark that the sick were laid out in a marketplace, a primary location for disenfranchising the poor, the outcast, and powerless. Let us also notice the means by which these people were healed—by reaching out merely to touch the garment Jesus was wearing.

healing_woman_touchI find this so moving, unraveling, bracing: Whatever else they hoped Jesus would heal, they were reaching out for connection, for belonging, for the restoration of relationship in the midst of alienation and fragmentation—in the midst of a marketplace.

Such a modest gesture, just reaching out for touch—but how vital in systems that oppress and isolate to hope once again for belonging.

Reading these biblical texts through that frame of a profound social disease quickly brought to mind the Eucharistic Table at the heart of Christian worship. What I have not often pondered about that Table suddenly appeared in bold relief: to approach it as a source of divine healing.

The Domination System wounds everyone, though clearly in varying degrees and with diverse effects. Empire will always train us to map our sense of self and self-worth to the color of our skin, how much money we make, the kind of work we do, whom we love, the genders we manifest, the number of degrees we’ve earned, if any.

Few of us have any idea who we even are apart from these classifying marks, all this “imperial branding.”

These wounds fester, often unnoticed, then suddenly appear whenever we treat those who are different from us with suspicion, or fear, or outright hostility.

Left untended, these wounds shape the institutions and organizations we create and populate, where the wounding continues from one generation to the next. Wounded people make broken and harmful systems.

We scarcely notice those cycles of transmitted wounds until God interrupts them, gently but surprisingly, by offering God’s own self to us. At that Table of self-offering, social status makes no difference whatsoever for the health outcomes of God’s grace and generosity—no birth certificate, passport, green card, driver’s license, paycheck stub, or insurance card required.friendship_park_communion2

This healing gift of God’s own life matters, more than we might imagine. In a deeply divided and fragmented world, the Table invites what theologian M. Shawn Copeland calls “Eucharistic solidarity.”

We stand at that Table, Copeland writes, oriented toward “the lynched body of Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal.”

In his raised body—of which we are the members—God interrupts the structures of oppression and violence, offering us a new way of being in the world, “a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.”

I confess: in writing in this way about the Bible, about church and Eucharist, I frequently think I’m woefully naïve, a hopeful but mostly not terribly useful romantic.

And still, and yet, there must be a different way of being the world, there simply must be. And I’m not ready, not yet, to give up on the queer way Jesus modeled a wholly/holy way of living for the healing and flourishing of all.

Jesus modeled this most queerly, perhaps, at the Table. There the Domination System is not overthrown with retribution or violence (in ways some of his own disciples hoped he would lead). Instead, he offers hope that the System itself will be healed with the solidarity of love.

As Copeland concisely and so beautifully suggests, “the Eucharistic banquet re-orders us, re-members us, restores us, and makes us one.”

May it be so—for all its naïve hopefulness—may it be so.

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The Laughable Holy Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so laughable, I want to cry.

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

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The Word in (Accented) Flesh

Found in Translation

The guys who run the corner store speak Arabic,
smiling as I dash in for milk and coffeepot filters
on a frosty Saturday morning, still wearing my slippers,
or grabbing a tamale, a fish taco for a late lunch
at the back counter, where the women speak Spanish.

The man five blocks closer to the highway,
who launders my shirts, always asking about my dog,
speaks Chinese, though never directly to me,
nor to the women in the storefront next door,
where Mom used to get a pedicure in Vietnamese.

The paperboy is a middle-aged man from Indonesia,
his old car belching fumes just as dawn breaks
along a quiet street, waking me every morning
with news of a world divided, like my neighborhood
divvied up by race and class and ethnicity-as-trade.

Learning to speak gratitude or an occasional please
with sounds I never heard or voiced as a child
crinkles my cheeks and wrinkles my chin,
adding fresh lines to the ones earned with laughing,
tears from losses running through canyons of joy.

These make a map from our faces.

The Beloved travels these shaded furrows,
undaunted by the cacophony of accents
carving creases of consternation into every brow,
simply relentless, tireless in the desire for home,
with us – all of us.

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Advent 1: Just Come Already

Just Come Alreadyrend_heavens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Officer Krupke and Our Social Disease

I watched the film version of West Side Story for the first time on television in my early teens. I loved everything about it and I also encountered something new that puzzled me.

In a scene roughly half way through, members of the Jets street gang sing a parody of their experience in the juvenile justice system. Action sings about being arrested, going to court, being sent to a psychiatrist, and then to a social worker.westsidestory_krupke2

“Hey,” he declares, in response to the social worker’s diagnosis, “I got a social disease!”

I had no idea what that meant and it scared me. Was it contagious? What are the symptoms? Would I be arrested by officer Krupke? I thought the police were my friends!

I now know more: All of us in the U.S. live, and move, and have our being in a society of hostility and violence. From militarized police to “total destruction” presidential rhetoric, from hate-speech rallies to brutalized transgender people just trying to pee and a circulated memo at a major technology company about the inferiority of women, we – all of us – have a debilitating social disease.

As I noted in a recent sermon on white supremacy (published here), most of us want to isolate troublesome individuals, the “radicalized” foreigner, the disgruntled teenager, the psychotic co-worker. Few of us want to examine or even acknowledge our shared psychosis. The problem is not a few bad apples in the barrel; the problem is the barrel.

Or perhaps the television commercial for Palmolive dish washing liquid from my youth says it best: “You’re soaking in it.”

I’ve been struck recently by a number of studies and articles on chemical addiction, especially the low success rate of twelve-step programs. I have some good friends for whom Alcoholics Anonymous has been life-saving and life-changing; they are the exception. Twelve-step programs have a “success” rate of between 5 and 10 percent.

Meanwhile, I know more and more family members, friends, and colleagues who are “self-medicating,” whether by over-drinking or with anonymous sex hook-ups or binge eating or just increased isolation. I, too, drink too much and struggle with nicotine addiction.

I am convinced: treating addiction as an individual’s problem to overcome misses entirely the root of the problem. We, all of us, have a social disease. And only a social response will offer and lasting hope and healing.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the exploding homeless population – and our many failed attempts to address this problem – renders our social distress in visible bodies. Armando Sandoval coordinates “homeless outreach” programs for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. He named our social disease rather pointedly:

“The issue is societal. It’s not BART, it’s not SFPD [the police], it’s not the justice system, it’s not the public health or mental health departments. It’s everything.”

Deeply embedded in all this – “infected” – most of us have trouble seeing the precise character of our plight. The following is my attempt, in outline, to “see” it, not for my own healing, but our healing. As ancient Christians insisted about salvation, my healing is inextricably bound up with yours. We have to work this out together, the diagnosis and the treatment.

My brief outline is in three parts: a personal encounter with our shared dis-ease; some theological theory; a bit of spiritual practice from Jesus.

Apocalyptic Hazing
Like many others, I was shocked recently by the revelations of violent “hazing” at Wheaton College in Illinois, my alma mater. Five Wheaton football players stand accused of doing felony-worthy things to a fellow student. The details are contested and fuzzy and still being adjudicated. Still, I responded with fury and outrage on social media; I ranted; I remain dismayed by the school’s response (a slap on the wrist or just a “pat on the head” for the accused).

Why did I have such visceral responses and why did I rant so much? At least two reasons.

The first feels like “Matthew Shepard PTSD.” The original reporting of what happened last year at Wheaton included a description of the student being stripped, tied to a fence with duct tape, and left there overnight. Nausea washed over me as I read this, ripples of dread and deep sorrow. The image evoked with uncanny resonance what had happened to Matthew back in 1998, even under very different circumstances.

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The fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

The second reason reaches back to my childhood, echoes of being bullied by the jocks in grade school and Jr. High for being a sissy and acting girly. I read the story about Wheaton, plastered with a photo of hyper-masculine football players in their uniforms. It shuttled me back to those agonizing moments when I was pinned to the ground by a group of jocks, hardly able to breathe. I can hear their taunts: “Did you bring your dolls to school, faggot?”

No one is born dreaming of torturing a young man like Matthew Shepard. No one just “naturally” throws sissy boys to the ground as they walk home from school. These things are learned – not just from “bad” parents, or “failed” schools, but in the crucible of a violent society laced with toxic forms of masculinity and seasoned with white privilege.

My African American colleagues have taught me this over the years: in a society drenched in white supremacy, everyone is racist, no exceptions. We all live with a social disease expressed with multiple symptoms.

My visceral response to the (latest) Wheaton scandal qualifies as apocalyptic for that very reason, as the word “apocalypse” suggests: it reveals what has always been there.

Theological Theorizing: The Domination System
None of this is new. It’s actually quite old. The texts of the Christian Testament in the Bible are shaped by living under the imperial thumb of the Roman Empire. This isn’t just dusty history, but a frame for noticing that thumbprint on our lives right now.

The late biblical theologian Walter Wink offered a compelling way to read first century gospel accounts through the lens of what he called the “Domination System,” a system employed by every imperial power, whether ancient or modern.

[The system] is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all … from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism.

Diarmuid O’Murchu brilliantly (in my view) applied Wink’s diagnosis to the stories of demon possession in the gospels. The loneliness and isolation of the “possessed,” O’Murchu notes, mimics precisely the effects of living under the Domination System.

The gospel accounts hint at this, O’Murchu writes, as “evil spirits represent unmet needs. The spirits inhabit the inner empty shell caused by feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, disempowerment, torture, pain, and alienation.” Don’t most of us feel one or more of these things just looking in a mirror first thing in the morning?

But we can’t treat these symptoms as if only individuals suffer from them; the symptoms point instead to a social disease shared by all.

O’Murchu proposes a path toward healing marked by the “companionship of empowerment.” Exorcism is only the first step; healing means, finally, restoring relationship. Think of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8), restored to his community, or the young child foaming at the mouth and lifted up by Jesus to be given back to his parents (Luke 9). Or think Lazarus, raised from a tomb of death but still bound. Jesus turns to his beloved community: “Unbind him,” he says to them (John 11).

Most of all, this: Jesus lived the healing he preached and practiced around tables of shared food.

Jesus at Table
I begin every one of my theology classes with this: “Christian faith did not begin with a text, or a doctrine, or an institution, but with radical social practice: table fellowship.”

The gospel accounts portray how often Jesus got in trouble for eating with the wrong people. In that first century context, those with whom you shared food mattered as much as those with whom you had sex. Both food and sex were the primary ways to mark social dominance in a system of hierarchical value.

Jesus cast those systems aside and ate with the wrong people.

He did this because his people, and the wider society, the whole human race suffered from a debilitating social disease: oppression, fragmentation, isolation. And only a social response would suffice: all are welcome at the Table.

This is ridiculously pedestrian and wildly profound: We must eat with the wrong people. It’s our only hope.

Ditch your self-improvement book. Stop berating yourself for that second, or third, or fourth glass of wine. Reject all those messages about your flaws and shortcomings. Do this: Set a table with food and invite everyone you know – all of them, including officer Krupke.

Accompany others. Be accompanied.

Love someone. Be loved.

This is totally ridiculous. It’s also the peculiar faith of Christians, who hope because of love.

We, all of us, suffer from a debilitating social disease. Only a social treatment can heal us.

It’s called Love.

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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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