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A Contagious Hope in Times of Peril

We’ve been fussing and tinkering the last few days at Good Shepherd, the congregation where I serve in Berkeley. Fussing with how best we might offer an opportunity for prayer and worship without meeting together in person. We tinkered, too, because we wanted to get this right, or at least do the best we can with online worship because we’ve been realizing of late, as so many others have as well, that spiritual practice and religious traditions really do make a profound difference in our shared sense of wellbeing.

At its best, religious practice binds us together as a community—to shape us, challenge us, admonish us, and also to reassure us and comfort us in moments of distress and peril. For all of these reasons and more, we were committed to connecting in some fashion, to be encouraged and fortified by the sense of being woven together, even online, as a single Body with many members—to evoke one of St. Paul’s favorite images.

In this time of pervasive anxiety and unnerving uncertainty, the lectionary—one of our religious tools as Christians—the lectionary gave us some rich biblical texts for worship this morning.

From the Hebrew Bible, we heard the story of how David was chosen over and above his much more likely brothers to be Israel’s king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The storyteller quite directly tells us what we should learn from that moment of divine selection: do not judge by size or outward appearance alone.

Here’s just one of many ways to take that lesson to heart: let’s notice how astonishing it is that something microscopically small is right now bringing nation-states to their knees; how a virus, invisible to the naked eye, is toppling a global economic system.

What we humans build and construct, even what looks sturdy and seems permanent, is actually quite fragile and temporary. This moment seems ripe, in other words, to ponder anew where we ought to place our hope and trust.

Let’s be very clear about where, at least in part, our hope just now belongs: science.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by retired Navy Seal and Admiral William McRaven offered some powerful words of reassurance in that regard, a reminder that some of the smartest scientific minds on the planet are working on a vaccine, on treatments, and a cure for COVID-19; that some of the most experienced people in epidemiology and public health are mobilizing at all levels; healthcare providers are courageously and heroically tending to the sick. These are indeed hopeful signs for what are surely very troubling days ahead.

In addition to that great list, let me also note where I hear hope from the story about David: it’s a reminder that God often chooses the least likely tools, the most unexpected methods, and the usually overlooked people to accomplish what God intends in the world. Put in another way: hope appears precisely at that moment when it seems the most unwarranted.

Or as Admiral McRaven put it, “because the only thing more contagious than a virus is hope.”

Hope where there seemed to be none at all takes on flesh in the story from John’s account of the gospel that was also appointed for today (John 9:1-41). As some early Christian commentators have noted about this story of giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus is the one who seeks him out, not the other way around.

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Jesus offers sight to a man born blind.

This is what God is like, those commentators suggest, always pursuing us with more gifts than we even thought possible to ask for.

John tells a rather complex story about this man born blind, about his parents and the wider community to which they all belong. The complexity of this story, it seems to me, reflects the complexity of life itself and the very real perplexities we encounter in our relationships with God and each other.

Even the notion of healing is multilayered, both in this story and in our own lives. Of course, we stand in need of healing from this new coronavirus; and we also need a healing balm for our collective anxiety; and we also need healing for the deep social and political divisions in our society; and still more, we need to heal and revitalize our relationship to Earth, with her many interconnected ecosystems and habitats and species, “this fragile Earth,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “our island home.”

Yet one more layer from this story deserves attention: the perennial human response to suffering by asking why. The frequent assumption humans so often make in such moments is captured perfectly in this story, an assumption continues in some quarters to this day. It is the assumption, in the face of suffering, that someone must have sinned.

Typical for John’s Jesus, he does not respond in any neat or tidy way to this question, except to say that sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness.

John’s Jesus is crystal clear about this and it deserves repeating: Neither that man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness.

Hope where there seemed to be none.
Hope in the flesh, seeking us out.
Hope for more than we could think to ask.

These reminders about hope were beautifully framed this morning with the familiar words from the 23rd Psalm, which was itself a balm to hear in the congregation of the Good Shepherd.

As we confront still more difficult days ahead, let us hold fast to the assurance offered by the psalmist: God is with us. God is actually our shepherd, leading us to places of unexpected refreshment and renewal—green pastures and still waters.

And still more: God accompanies us through even the darkest valley, reassuring us that not even death can separate us from the shepherd’s care.

In the days and weeks ahead, may hope itself become the unstoppable contagion we spread for each other’s comfort and consolation…

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“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore

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Terrifying Freedom, Liberating Service

Freedom—the word and the concept—has been showing up lately on social media, in court cases and congressional hearings, and randomly scattered through presidential tweets. Freedom has been showing up and getting tossed around as if its meaning is perfectly obvious or self-evident. I think it’s much more complex than most people imagine. I also think absolute freedom would be absolutely terrifying.

That is a rather odd thing to say in the United States of America, a country steeped in the language of liberty and individual freedoms as God-given rights. These words need and demand some context.

Especially in Black History month, we must be crystal clear that freedom from slavery is an unqualified good (tour guides on plantation museums still have to say this explicitly to tourists). Let us also be just as clear—as writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander keeps reminding us—slavery may have ended, but the racial caste system in this country has not. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, freedom is still only a dream for far too many in this country.

We might also ponder what “free” means in “free-market” capitalism when the whole system is chained to corporate shareholders demanding ever-higher profits and whether we ourselves have nearly as much “freedom” in this economic system as advertising executives would like us to believe we do.

The concept of freedom itself is indeed complex; but why would absolute freedom qualify as “terrifying”?

Just one reason among many: freedom can quickly turn into isolation and alienation, an experience of the world where the only reference point is the self. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was hiking in area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the “Emigrant Wilderness,” in terrain similar to the kind that trapped the Donner Party back in the 1840s. I knew the area fairly well but wasn’t paying the kind of attention one should when hiking in a wilderness area; I got turned around, lost my sense of direction, had no map, and could see no trail. I was in a sense utterly free and also thoroughly terrified.

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Emigrant Wildnerness, Sierra Nevada Mountains

Putting this in more positive terms, we humans are creatures who thrive on attachment, on a sense of place and community to provide an anchor in an otherwise tumultuous world; creatures who flourish, not alone, but in networks of relational loyalties and responsibilities. And let me quickly add: such networks cannot be fully duplicated online; the realm of Internet engagement is called virtual reality for a reason. (Some would argue for an important distinction between social media and online communities, but I’m not entirely persuaded by this.)

I worry that the kind of freedom praised in certain segments of American society idealizes a life without any constraint or duty; this romanticized notion of an untamed life of liberty stands in stark contrast to genuine freedom, the kind that enables us to live within proper parameters where we come most fully alive—alive to the self that is in vital relation to others and the land we all share for life.

All of this came to mind as I reflected on what many Christians heard in Church this past weekend from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 30:15-20), a book second only to Leviticus in the minds of many as an example of “legalistic religion,” or faithfulness as mere regulatory control, the Bible itself as the textual chains of constraint chafing against a glorious life of freedom.

It is truly unfortunate that the so-called “Old Testament” in the Bible has been so closely associated in the minds of many Christians with a rigid moralism and, even more sadly, with an image of an angry God. The Hebrew Bible actually offers some of the most tender images of God, the God whose heart breaks over injustice, who lures and woos the creation into loving relationship, who longs for intimacy and communion.

We might recall the context of that passage from Deuteronomy: God has liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and guided them through the wilderness for many years, and has now brought them to the brink of the “promised land.” Right there, on that brink, God gives them the law through Moses.

Notice that freedom from their life of bondage in Egypt does not mean the freedom to do whatever they please; it means instead the freedom to be in covenant with God.

The stakes are high at this juncture in the story of ancient Israel; the people have a choice to make, the choice is between blessings and curses, between life and death. “Choose life” is the repeated exhortation in this passage,  where full, thriving, flourishing life is intertwined with a conscientious observance of the Torah, of the law—an observance that binds us to each other and, as this text also makes clear, to the land itself, apart from which we simply cannot live.

Absolute freedom can indeed be absolutely terrifying, in part because we cannot know who we are apart from the others with whom we share an identity, the ones who make us who we are. And that is exactly what ancient Israel’s covenant with God was meant to foster—we cannot be who we are alone.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., declared more than fifty years ago, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It is no mere coincidence, then, that the rhetoric of absolute freedom is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and despair, increasingly self-medicated with opioids or suicide. Untethered from others, from community, from the land itself, we die.mlk_beloved_community

The stakes are just as high for the gospel writer called Matthew, from which Christians also heard on Sunday (Mt. 5:21-37). Perhaps more than the other three gospelers, Matthew will not let us separate Jesus from the religious observance of Israel.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, especially as Martin Luther framed it, many Christians think of Christian faith as a contrast between “law” and “Gospel,” or between “works righteousness” and “grace.” These contrasts aren’t wrong, but a bit too stark. Matthew’s Jesus interrupts those refrains with a bracing refrain of his own, one that should give us pause: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

That’s a really important “but” and it is not a repudiation of the law. To the contrary, each time Matthew’s Jesus offers that pairing, observing Torah suddenly becomes more difficult not less. Paraphrasing Matthew’s challenge might sound like this:

  • Do not suppose you are free of social obligations simply because you haven’t killed anyone, as if that suffices to build community—embrace instead a much deeper duty, the kind that heals anger and forgives faults.
  • Do not suppose you are living in a healthy marriage just because you haven’t had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse—recognize instead what lust actually is, the urge to own and control another human being like a commodity.
  • Do not suppose that justifying a divorce with the letter of the law releases you from caring about the welfare of your divorced partner—especially if that person is a woman in a patriarchal society.

Absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying because we truly do belong to each other—not only contractually or legally but, as it were, organically, like branches that cannot live without the vine.

I think of this whenever I gather around the Eucharistic table. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, Eucharist is about salvation and also covenant; it’s about liberation for sure, and still also obligation; it is certainly about freedom, and therefore, it is also about belonging—to God and to each other—and not just the others we like, but the ones we don’t understand, who irritate us, even those who try to thwart on our own thriving. We all belong to each other.

Quite early in Christian traditions, in the first couple of centuries, theologians wrote about salvation in terms of freedom. What God accomplishes for us in Christ, they wrote, is freedom from sin, death, and the devil—not so that we can then do whatever we please without constraint, but rather so that we can be free to serve Christ as living members of his Body.

The contrast worth pursuing here is not between “law” and “gospel,” but between a terrifying freedom and a liberating service, the kind that frees us from competition, revenge, and the corrosive effects of hate—which I take as helpful synonyms for “sin, death, and the devil.”

Table fellowship becomes ever more important in a world of increasing fragmentation—tragically disguised as “freedom”—and violent forms of tribalism—mistaken embraced as “liberty.” Eucharist instead bears witness to the hope of genuine, life-giving freedom, the kind that unites us to God-in-Christ, binds us to each other, and secures our service to this precious Earth.

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The Lamb of God in the Beloved Community

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Many of us heard that familiar declaration in church yesterday; John the Baptist said it about Jesus, not once but twice in the appointed Gospel passage (John 1:29-42). Some Christians hear it every Sunday at the Eucharistic table.

It’s worth noting that John did not say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your individual mistakes.” I don’t mean to discount our individual lives. I do mean to consider what this claim about Jesus might suggest about a concept of sin that was much more common in ancient Mediterranean societies than in our own day.

I’m referring to what modern Western people often have great difficulty in grasping—the notion of social, communal, or shared sinfulness. When John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean just the sum total of our mistakes as individuals; he likely had in mind the sinfulness of the world.

This actually does matter for us as individuals, but for reasons that grate against the individualism of the modern West. The near-constant refrain about individual accountability in the contemporary Western world is usually made without any reference to the social systems that shape our individual choices, decisions, and actions.

All of us are deeply entangled in economic, cultural, and institutional structures that form us and train us to live and think in certain ways. These constitute our “world” of behaviors and interactions, and we can be grateful for how such a world instills patterns of civility, kindness, even “good manners” (remember those?).

That same “world” of social conditioning, however, often favors some at the expense of others. Those who benefit from these institutional structures rarely had any hand in creating them even while they reap a reward from them; these structures and patterns of relating actually predate all of us, like “original sin.” This is what social theorists try to notice concerning patriarchy, or heterosexism, or white supremacy.

What kind of “world,” then do we inhabit here in the United States? The poet Mary Oliver responded to that question by imagining what future generations might say about us, and wrote this (from her 2008 collection, Red Bird):

We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people) for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say…that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not believe such things about American society in his own day—that its heart was small, and hard, and full of meanness. The fact that he did not believe it back then—in those days of whites-only lunch counters and police dogs and bombs that blew up little girls in Sunday school—that King did not apparently believe such a society was small of heart and mean actually takes my breath away.

Some would say he was simply foolish and naive; indeed, Malcolm X said as much about him. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not foolish, or naïve, and he wasn’t optimistic about this society, either; but he was hopeful, which is often an occupational hazard among ministers of the Gospel.

A “hazard,” because hope does not always feel very comfortable, and it can make us say things and do things that can look quite silly or foolhardy to others.

Hope can make us insist, as King said, that all of us, both black and white, are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”

Hope can inspire us to imagine, not the defeat of our enemies, but their conversion through love.

For King, the whole universe of God’s creation is moving toward a single goal, what he called the “Beloved Community.” King drew inspiration for that image, in part, from American philosopher Josiah Royce, who argued that “Church” is not optional but is actually an essential component of Christian faith. Why? Precisely because the problem Christianity tries to address is not how individuals get to Heaven, but whether genuine healing is possible for our deeply fragmented lives. Heaven certainly mattered for Royce, but we get there with others or not at all—which is exactly why the Apostle Paul turned so often to the image of the Body of Christ with its many diverse members.

This brings to mind King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed directly and exactly to people like me—white, liberal ministers. I find myself inspired and moved when I listen to King wax eloquent on the Washington Mall about his “dream,” but I squirm when I read his letter from jail.

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After defying an injunction against protesting, King, with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center) and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (left) were arrested and put in solitary confinement in a county jail in Birmingham, AL, on Good Friday 1963.

Those white, liberal ministers to whom King wrote were the ones who appreciated King’s work but wanted him to slow down, the ones who sympathized with “the race problem” but worried about what the solution would cost, the ones who condemned individual acts of racism but failed to understand how institutional systems made racism itself all but inevitable.

King had been exploring those themes for some time. In a speech that he delivered the year prior to writing that Birmingham letter, King outlined the “ethical demands of integration,” by which he meant much more than “desegregation.” King certainly applauded desegregating schools and places of business, but this was hardly sufficient for a path toward the “Beloved Community.” It is certainly useful that the process of desegregation can be legislated and regulated, but this just outsources justice to institutions whose hearts have not changed.

What’s needed instead, he argued, is integration—a social movement of the heart that leads toward the always unimaginable intimacy with people who are not just different from us but also those who have opposed our own thriving, even with violence.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Lamb who not only forgives sin, not only atones for sin, but takes it away.

Would we recognize the world without its sins? Would we even find such a world desirable? Do we prefer a world with its familiar sins to how strange and disorienting the world would be without them?

To whom does the “we” refer in those questions? At the very least, it refers to well-meaning white liberals, like me. In that same gospel passage from yesterday, people like me heard a hint of what following Jesus entails—nothing less than an identity remade in a world transformed.

The hint came from what Jesus did when he first met Simon, Andrew’s brother. Jesus gave him a new name: Peter.

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Manger Matters: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Shame

In the Christian tradition of my youth, Christmas always anticipated Good Friday and Easter. Jesus was born in order that he might die for our sins; the manger mattered, in other words, merely as a means to a greater end—the cross.

Stressing the significance of the cross is certainly not “wrong,” but I have become convinced how inadequate that one symbol is to meet the multivalent challenges of being human. The manger matters all on its own, a vital symbol of the hope we now need for the flesh—our flesh as humans, the flesh of all other animals, and the fleshy body of Earth.

Ancient storytellers remind me of this, especially in the multiple ways one can read the so-called “fall” of humanity in the opening chapters of the Bible. That classic story is not only about guilt, but just as much about bodily shame—“who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11) How one reads that ancient story shapes how one celebrates Christmas. Atonement, for example, cannot heal our bodily shame; perhaps the only thing that comes close is Incarnation, the divine embrace of the flesh that so many of us treat so casually, at best, or worse, hatefully and violently. (I wrote about this in my 2013 book, Divine Communion. I offered some Christmas reflections based on that book when it was first published.)

John’s account of the Gospel makes incarnational hope explicit, declaring that the divine Word became flesh (1:14). I’ve been wondering recently how else that particular account can become a source of healing for our shame, an assurance of God’s own solidarity with us in the flesh. John is certainly not shy about multiplying the metaphors we might use to invite bodily encounters with God; how might such an invitation shape your Christmas celebration?

For these Twelve Days of Christmas, I offer here a canticle based on the full arc of John’s account of the Word dwelling among us. I offer it with hope for the world’s healing, with prayers for divine blessings on all of God’s creatures, and as a reminder of the dearness of flesh itself, which God so tenderly cradled in a manger.

Light of the World

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Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it time, finally, to repent?

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

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

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

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because they do.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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“Do not be Terrified”: Hope for the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

koala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Nevertheless: An Earth-Day Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before and After: Versova Beach in Mumbai

 

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

easter_newengland_forests

Before and After: Deforestation and Reforestation in New England

 

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

easter_humpback_whale

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

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

Alleluia!

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Holy Saturday: Rest, Reparations, and Hope for Earth

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

harrowing_hell

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

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

Is it time to ponder reparations for the planet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late afternoon at the regional park