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Materno Amore: Letting Go to Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materno Amore

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

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

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

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

I see you there,
happy and home.

rose_mom_march_2016

 

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Arise, My Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the voice of Easter.

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

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

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A Singular Arc of Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Lenten Lazarus for Holy Week

Holy Week – it’s a rich but difficult week, filled with imperial politics and religious collusion, with betrayal, suffering, abandonment, and death.

I appreciate Holy Week for all sorts of reasons. I’m almost always grateful for its annual appearance. But I can’t say that I look forward to it, exactly. I can’t imagine any of us needing, much less wanting still more reminders about corrupt institutional systems and state-sponsored torture and mob violence. For that, we can just turn on the evening news – or keep up with presidential politics.

Last Sunday, many Christians heard some biblical texts that sounded a note of encouragement, subtle though it may have been.

We heard the ancient prophet Isaiah remind us that God is always about to do a “new thing,” make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

We heard Paul tell the Philippians that just trying harder at religious observance is basically rubbish. Faith is not about our own grasping after God; it is, rather, realizing ever more deeply that God in Christ has grasped us, has made us God’s very own, Paul says.

And as we embark yet again on a river of grief and loss this coming week, John reminded us that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; a reminder that love is strong, stronger than even the waters of death itself.

It’s interesting to me, though, that in that particular story at the beginning of John’s twelfth chapter, John directs our attention elsewhere; he makes resurrection almost an afterthought, a parenthetical remark.

He shifts the spotlight to a dinner party and a circle of close, intimate friends. Jesus is in Bethany, in the household he loved with the people he loved – Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead,” John writes. Oh, and Lazarus was also at the dinner table.

Quite honestly, if I’m sitting down to dinner with someone who had just recently been dead, I think I would have some questions. At the very least, I think I might want to pause and say, “So…how are you feeling?”

But no, John rushes past that part, as if he’s eager for us to see something else. He shows us two things actually, that have puzzled scholars and commentators for a long time.

First, Mary does something rather strange and scandalous. She breaks out that expensive, scented ointment, an aromatic lotion that she has perhaps been saving for a special occasion. And it is expensive – worth nearly a year’s salary!mary_anoints_jesus

Mary then proceeds to anoint the feet of Jesus with this precious lotion and then wipes his feet with her hair.

This is strange? Yes. And scandalous: Feet are not anointed unless you’re dead. Faces are anointed, heads are anointed – but here, Mary tends to the feet, and moreover, lets down her hair in public. Women didn’t do that in the presence of guests, not even in their own home.

Then the second peculiar thing: Judas was there.

Even Jjudas_jesusohn seems to think this was odd. Remember, John writes, this is the one who betrayed Jesus! And, he adds, he was a thief!

John, by the way, is the only one of the gospel writers to call Judas that – as if John doesn’t want u
s to miss how terribly strange it is to find Judas included in that circle of intimates, in that household Jesus held so dear.

Yes, all of this is puzzling – and I think John wanted it to be.

I think John wanted the tenderness of this ancient household to be just as unnerving and disorienting as resurrection. Better still: the fruit of resurrection is precisely an unimaginable intimacy.

Love is strong, stronger than even death, stronger, therefore, than all the forces that would divide and fragment us, all the hateful speech that breeds violence, all the categorical classifications that make us view each other with suspicion, as threats, as enemies.

For John, love scandalizes by dismantling the barriers between men and women, and even between the betrayer and the betrayed, and still more – bridging the gap between Creator and creature.

And all this around a dinner table as beloved friends share a meal.

I’m so intrigued that some of the earliest Christian communities and commentators read nearly every story in John’s gospel as a Eucharistic story, a story about the Table.

So this coming week I will be taking John’s story with me, something like a talisman of hope. I’ll take and cling to what John wanted us to see: Jesus sits at table, the bestower of life from the dead who is about to die, welcoming the intimate touch of a woman who should not have touched him and the companionship of the one who would betray him.

Resurrection is shocking, not least for the kind of intimacy it creates.

Perhaps a mashup of all three biblical texts we heard last week would help, too. Perhaps mushing Isaiah, Paul, and John together we can find some buoyancy for the week ahead.

The mashup might sound something like this:

I am about to do a new thing, God says. I will take hold of you, and make you my very own; you shall be my own beloved friends.

May this holiest of weeks bring all of us closer to the Friend…last_supper_judas

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Advent 4: Comrade Mary

mary1
The Blessed Virgin Mary – it’s complicated.

It’s been complicated for a long time, ever since Christian men started telling Christian women to be like Mary – passive and submissive.

It’s complicated, not least because Mary’s traditional title includes the word “virgin,” which has cast a Christian spell of suspicion over human sexuality for centuries. (And this is certainly odd since I’m pretty sure Jesus’ brothers and sisters were not delivered by storks.)

So is Mary the model for humble obedience to the will of God? Or is she the fierce pioneer of God’s intervention into human history with radicalized love?

Yes, both; it’s complicated.

Christians arrive to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Mary greetsmary_elizabeth1 us. What she says ought to provoke in us what happened to her cousin, Elizabeth: our insides should twist and tumble and tweak (Luke 1:44).

Mary greets us in this week before Christmas having done quite a remarkable thing indeed: saying Yes to God. This is not easy.

This Yes is not passive submission, but deliberate, engaged, active participation in a divine encounter. This woman had precious few opportunities to chart her own course or even ponder it, yet she not only questions God’s own emissary but then boldly says Yes – as if that mattered, and it does.

Mary greets us as the One-Who-Says-Yes-to-God, and then tells us what this Yes means:

God has scattered the proud in their conceit.
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

Mary’s exclamation ought to send shivers down the spine of all those who wield power, whether through votes or by force or in the mechanisms of social privilege.

But no, not quite. That would be the rhetoric of the opposition party countering the power of the ruling class. Mary’s greeting is more revolutionary than that.

Mary echoes the words of Hannah, from centuries before her own time. Hannah lamented not having children of her own and dared to present herself in the Temple, repeatedly, to demand a divine remedy. The male guardian of that holy site even worried that she might be drunk. But then God answered her fervent prayers, and the prophet Samuel was the result. Hannah’s song of praise lingers in Mary’s exultations:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth…
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil (1 Samuel 2:3-5).

Mary2Mary, in solidarity with her ancient sister Hannah, greets us, not with cozy platitudes but a challenge: God is found among the least likely; God attends to the forgotten, the outcast, the throwaways, the utterly insignificant. God pays heed to the ones not even the most “progressive” among us try to feature in our programs of charitable assistance. Mary voices the astonishing solidarity of God with the absolutely voiceless.

Where God is, most cannot hear – but Mary does.

And so I think of my own mother, Rosemary, who died this year at the end of March. That faithful, pious woman who refused to let God off the hook. Like Hannah, she fretted over not having children – and complained bitterly to God about it (whether she complained about the result is another story…).

My mother was tender and tenacious, stubborn and strategic, frivolous and fierce. She was complicated; and so was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mothers do and speak and live what few take as important, significant, or laudatory. Most of us don’t even know the half of it.

Our complicated mothers are our complicated selves in countless ways, even as our social systems reduce us to the neatly drawn categories of gender, race, and religion. Mary said No to all of that by saying Yes to God – the God whom she encountered as our Uncanny Comrade.

Mary, too, is our comrade, who points to the outrageous God of Jesus by pointing at her own body – her rounded belly, the charges of scandal, the forced migration, the painful journey, the lack of any hospitality, the bloody, messy stable. Mary’s life and witness, her words and her body, are as complicated and as glorious as your body and mine. There, she says, in all that bodily complexity, right there is God.

But “comrade”? Why risk evoking a revolution? Because Mary voiced what Hannah voiced and my own dear mother voiced, each in her own way: take God seriously, and the world will not stay the same. Take God seriously, and your own world will turn upside down. Take God seriously…seriously enough to complain and cajole and insist and demand that God make good on God’s promises. That’s what mothers do.

Yes, it’s complicated, but not so terribly much. Because we are the story of Mary and her Child, a story of God’s unending, passionate love for God’s own creation.

So may Mary, the mother of a precious and vulnerable child, help us see the piercing love of mothers for their terribly vulnerable children – on the streets of Ferguson, in flimsy boats on the Aegean Sea, on the beaches of Greek islands, in our schoolyards playing, and in our backyards laughing.

May Mary’s brazen Yes animate our own affirmations of God’s justice, especially when it seems risky and unreasonable.

May this blessed and ancient comrade in divine mysteries inspire us to see and treat all bodies as blessed – all of them, without exception.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Padvent_3_altrayer
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Advent 3: And Still, Rejoice

The daily newsfeed is hereby interrupted. That worrisome, wearisome, ongoing stream of animosity and violence, of bigotry and racism, of a global climate running amok now pauses, at least for a moment. And in that poignant pause, the sound of rejoicing.

No, I’m not hallucinating; I’m just attending to the Christian calendar.

Apocalyptic visions and prophetic denunciations launched us into the first two weeks of Advent (a bit like an infusion of religious caffeine to jolt us awake.) And now we arrive to what some churches call “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin for “rejoice.”

advent_gaudete_latin

“Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4)

There’s a rather complex liturgical history lurking behind all this, which only the truly religious geeks among us (ahem) likely appreciate. Advent used to have a much more Lent-like character and lasted longer (forty days, like Lent). The midpoint in the season was a time to relax our discipline, catch our breath, and anticipate more fully the coming feast – in this case, Christmas.

Thus the rose or pink candle for this week, to signal a shift in tone.

But isn’t this a bit too soon, far too early, grossly out of synch? I don’t see any pause in American-style xenophobia, no break in the outrageous political rhetoric, and few seem willing to relax their violent postures. If anything, the planet seems to be spinning even more wildly into a deadly spiral of chaos.

And still, rejoice.

That surely qualifies as at least peculiar if not offensive. Yet percolating in this odd calendrical rhythm is the equally odd character and energy of hope itself, which marks this whole season. In contrast to optimism, the object of hope remains unseen, often annoyingly elusive, perpetually beyond our grasp.

And still, rejoice.

Many Christians on the third Sunday of Advent will hear from the ancient prophet Zephaniah. True to form, this prophet is thoroughly disgusted by the state of his own community. God will “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” Zephaniah writes – humans, animals, birds, and fish. And that’s just the first three verses.

But that’s not what we’ll hear from him on the third Sunday of Advent. We’ll hear this instead:

Rejoice with all your heart…for God has taken away the judgments against you. God will save the lame and gather the outcast and turn their shame into praise (3:14, 19).

Same prophet. Same God. Same conflicted human society. The whiplash-like turn in this biblical text has little if anything to do with humans figuring out how to fix things. God will do something to make the shift, the same God who was angry enough just two chapters earlier to eradicate life as we know it.

Who can say, exactly, how God does this, or even why? Zephaniah is pretty vague about the whole thing. But he’s convinced that God will indeed do something, a game-changing move.

And so, and still, rejoice.

For several years now I have practiced a daily moment of gratitude, of giving thanks – for something, anything at all. It could be as small as having coffee in the morning or as large as a life-saving cure for a friend who was sick. It doesn’t matter whether or not I actually feel grateful; I give thanks regardless. And I have to say, this has been life-changing.

Recent psychological studies suggest that an old aphorism might actually be true: I’m not grateful because I’m happy; I’m happy because I’m grateful. Of course, ancient biblical writers beat these researchers to the punch by many centuries. The importance, even the primacy of gratitude appears in countless texts of the Christian Testament (see Philippians 4:6 among many others) and it marks the primary act of Christian worship – the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

Giving thanks when there seems no particularly good reason to do so can break the cycle of despair, open fresh avenues for engagement with others, and inspire that unreasonable and oddly motivating energy of hope.

And so, and still, and even more, rejoice.

John_baptistThat’s how I read Luke’s rather strange editorial comment about the preaching of John the Baptist, which many Christians will also hear on the third Sunday of Advent. After John warns about the coming judgment (“the ax is already lying at the root of the trees”) and urges a life befitting repentance, Luke notes: “so, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18).

Why would these wilderness diatribes count as “good news”? Here’s a possibility: In a world that seems so impossible to fix and so resistant to change, we can still do things that matter. For John, that meant clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, resisting corruption, and disengaging from systems of economic exploitation (Luke 3:10-14).

That won’t change the world! But it still matters.
We can’t measure the impact! But it still matters.
My voice is soft, my body slow, my courage weak! But it still matters.

It matters because we can never see the full impact of even the smallest gesture or the seemingly insignificant act. It is enough to do what we can, and then trust God to do that oddly mysterious thing that Zephaniah seemed so convinced that God will do.

And so, whether or not it feels like the right moment, rejoice.

 

The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; aadvent3_rosend, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

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Advent 2: Peculiar Prophets for a Peculiar Faith

What or who, exactly, is a prophet? Among the many possible responses, try this: Prophets simply cannot digest the crap of their own societies. They take it in and it burns in their hearts and minds, like a severe case of acid reflux. And out spews lava-hot invective that has mostly nothing to do with anticipating a cozy fireside scene with a baby in a manger.

The modern rhythm of Advent devotes the second week of Advent to prophets, and especially to John the Baptist, the path-burner for Jesus. John is no modern day front man, no feel-good warm-up act to get the crowd pliable and eager for the real deal. John instead relishes calling out the religious leaders who visit him in the wilderness as hypocrites, a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).

John_baptist_herod

John the Baptist preaching to religious and civic authorities

John clearly never took the Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people. Yet John is pretty mild compared to his ancient forebears. Episcopalians have been reading from Amos during Morning Prayer the last couple of weeks, a prophet who could barely contain his disgust at the sight of his own people oppressing the poor, giving lip service to religious duty, and growing fat on clever strategies for economic exploitation.

“I hate, I despise your festivals,” Amos imagines God saying, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). Set all that aside and “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

Amos is not alone. On the second Sunday of Advent this year, many Christians will hear from the ancient prophet Malachi. When God sends God’s own messenger, Malachi writes, who can possibly stand it and endure? That messenger is like a refiner’s fire (3:1-4).

The baby in a manger so many anticipate in these early December weeks comes only on the heels of the flame-throwing prophets, the ones who speak to unsettle, disrupt, and cajole. The ones who make plain why the world needs that baby in the first place.

So why doesn’t God just fix the mess? Why doesn’t God rend the heavens, come on down, kick some butt, and set things right?

Well, maybe God does exactly that – through us, a peculiar people of a peculiar faith who listen carefully (if not anxiously) to God’s peculiar prophets. Perhaps we are the ones who take in the white supremacy, the violence against women, the xenophobic diatribes of privileged politicians and spew it back with righteous indignation, the kind sufficient to light up the fires of change.

Perhaps, but quite honestly, that is just not me. I can flame and rant on Facebook with the best of them, but then take it all back (with the delete button) when I worry about losing friends. I’m not really any good at standing on street corners spewing harangues nor marching into institutional hallways of power and demanding justice.

Mostly, I’m just not any good at taking risks all by myself, as ancient prophets so often did, not to mention modern ones, too, like Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whmlk_dream_speechat I can do and will do this Advent season is join with others. I mean, go to church and gather around the Eucharistic Table.

Not terribly prophetic at first blush, to be sure. But then I recall how often Jesus got into trouble for table fellowship, for eating with the wrong kind of people, and how the earliest Christian communities did the same thing and kept winding up in jail for it. And still today, when Christians set a Table in the midst of a deeply divided society and say, “All are welcome here.”

In a society marked by so much fear and suspicion, the Table invites a shared vulnerability and a revolutionary intimacy – and even that starts to sound quite prophetic indeed. I don’t mean that Christian worship does this automatically or that Christians haven’t sometimes or even often forgotten the radical character of this liturgical act (we have) or that the Table hasn’t been easily co-opted for nefarious gain countless times in Christian history – it has.

I do mean that God makes space at the Table where grace can happen. Breathing space for the kind of grace that makes friends from strangers and neighbors from enemies; the kind of grace that transforms betrayal and violence, not with revenge or retribution but with tenderness and care; the kind of grace sufficient to inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things for the sake of peace and justice.

I go to that Table to find the solidarity I need with others – and God has already beat me to it. First and foremost, the Table marks God’s deep solidarity with us, before any of us even thought to ask, the very point of that baby in a manger. This divine solidarity, to be clear, will not keep us safe from violence or moments of doubt or making mistakes. But it will foster courage, the kind of fearless and peculiar faith that creates prophetic communities.

The Table will not solve our problems; Christianity’s peculiar faith and prophetic potential isn’t about solutions at all. I do think it’s about creating the conditions for gracious generosity, bold risk-taking, and astonishing intimacy – conditions from which fresh solutions just might emerge.

And, these days, not a moment too soon.

 

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:advent21

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the day for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Advent: Let it Be Strange and Unsettling

Tucked away between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the four Sundays of Advent. I love this season, in part because it’s probably one of the more counter-cultural moments on the Christian calendar. While the wider society gears up for the “holidays” (a.k.a. shopping) and “Christmas” music floods the airwaves, the new liturgical year begins, not with the baby Jesus in a manger, but with the second coming of Christ at the end of time.black_friday.jpg

On the first Sunday of Advent, many Christians will hear (perhaps with some alarm) a whole array of biblical texts rooted in apocalyptic or eschatological sensibilities. Most mainline or “liberal” congregations likely find this quite perplexing, maybe even a bit embarrassing. But I think we should let this first Sunday of the new year remain strange and unsettling; let’s keep it odd and disruptive enough to inspire hope.

We might recall, for example, that the Greek word eschaton means “last thing.” But “last” can mislead us. Rather than referring to something like a final chapter, “last” most often refers to a fresh beginning in Christian traditions; the end of this world inaugurates new life in God.

“World” deserves further scrutiny as well. That word in biblical texts rarely if ever refers to planet Earth. The Greek word usually translated as “world” is kosmos, at once more expansive than this planet (the whole of reality) and much smaller than Earth (one’s own social location or neighborhood). In that sense, all sorts of “worlds” come and go with some regularity, whether the world of one’s personal relationships, or of one’s biological family or a professional career, or the “world” of commerce, of nation-states, and ecosystems.

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Detail from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”

I imagine few Christians relish delving into these apocalyptic themes on a Sunday morning while thinking about buying a Christmas tree that afternoon. Yet in a world of violence – whether overseas in distant deserts or European cities or in our own backyard – the strangeness of Advent can remind us about the vital and disruptive character of hope itself.

“Business as usual” simply will not do in a society marked by gross income inequality, violence against women, and so many unexamined social policies rooted in white supremacy. Each of those “worlds” Christians should be glad to see end. Frankly, given the current state of affairs, I’m not optimistic that they will end any time soon.

That’s why I need Advent’s unsettling insistence on hope.

Unsettling, because hope inspires us to live in anticipation of a new world, even when we can’t see how things could possibly change.

Unsettling, because hope urges us to act on behalf of a new world that we can’t yet see (Romans 8:24-25).

Unsettling, because hope might convince us to set aside old, familiar things, even the most comfortable things, to make room for the new thing that God is constantly bringing about (Isaiah 42:9 and 43:19).

To be sure, apocalyptic texts and traditions can sometimes fuel armed conflict as a strategy for social change, or portray the world neatly divided between the saved and the damned, or simply breed complacency and neglect over this world in favor of the next one yet to come. That’s why Advent 1 cannot stand alone. We need the rest of the liturgical year to guide our vision toward the presently unimaginable – a world of peace with justice where all can thrive and flourish.

When that unimaginable world seems so terribly far out of reach, complacency feels easier – or more accurately, the paralysis of despair. That’s when I need to be troubled and startled into a fresh encounter with hope.

The shopping can wait. So can the Christmas tree. And, for right now, so can the baby Jesus. Right now, I need to sit with the strange and unsettling rhythms of Advent.

May this season stir up our collective imaginations for a different world – and the courage to help usher it in.advent1

The collect for the First Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus  Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.

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Redeeming Christ the King

I begin with confession: I have a strong affinity for movies that feature the forces of good triumphing over the forces of evil (the two being quite clearly distinguishable) and especially if there’s nail-biting battle scene where the hero rides in on a white horse at the last minute to save the day. Think Gandalf on said horse leading the riders of Rohan to save the good guys at Helm’s Deep in the “Lord of the Rings.”

gandalfAnother confession: I do actually like the fuss over royalty. I don’t mean celebrity; there’s a difference. I mean the grace and understated authority of, say, Queen Elizabeth II. The idea of swearing fealty to a beneficent monarch – especially if she could actually fix things – appeals to me.

Given these confessions, the Feast of Christ the King ought to be a slam dunk in my book. Many Christians will celebrate this feast on November 22 this year, which brings the long season after Pentecost to a close. This makes a great deal of liturgical sense. As the Christian calendar ends (the first Sunday of Advent on November 29 marks the beginning of the new Christian year), we Christians laud our King and anticipate the coming Kingdom of God – and given recent world events, not a moment too soon.

Yes, I harbor fantasies of Christ-as-Gandalf riding in on that great horse and solving the terrorism problem. And yes, I would gladly bow and genuflect before Jesus, my Lord and King. But I am deeply troubled.

The trouble began some years ago by reading and listening carefully to feminist critiques of male power and the way institutional Christianity supports male dominance over women (and basically everything else). That dominance is made explicit in our accolades for “Christ the King.” The trouble deepened by delving into the history of the Roman Empire’s appropriation of Christ as a figure of imperial authority, wedding “church” and “state” in a bond that has wreaked cultural havoc ever since.christ_pantocrator_dome

Given those problems, I sympathize with efforts to revise this last Sunday of the year with language about the “reign of God” or even the “divine commonwealth.” I suppose we could try using the language of “governor” or “president.”

But no. The problem is governance itself, lordship, reigning, presiding, ruling, or in short, power. I’d like to think humans capable of discerning the difference between beneficial and malignant power. Alas, we are easily beguiled by power and mostly, it seems to me, incapable of imagining (much less enacting) a non-coercive power – or even articulating what in the world that means.

In a world of violence and terror, power itself is a dangerous concept, even when wielded by the ostensibly beneficent. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us years ago, hate can never cast out hate; only love can do that. And so I wonder about power itself in the light of Dr. King’s insight and in a world where “kingly” power is all too evident in its ghastly effects.

I found some solace in these vexations, for a time, by returning to my Evangelical roots. Rather than anticipating a worldly kingdom, I turned inward and focused on the need for Christ to “reign” in my heart, to transform it and rule over it. And, of course, there too the problem of coercive power remained.

A student reminded me of this rather pointedly in one of my classes last year. I made an offhand remark about how “compelling” and “irresistible” God is as a source for transformation. The student objected. “Anything that even sounds like coercion is not God,” he said. I objected in return, but only half-heartedly; he was right. (And I thank God for the gift of teaching, from which I learn so much.)

There is no throne in my heart from which Christ needs to reign and there is no throne on this planet just waiting for Christ to sit in it – even though I still long for both moments. Ah – longing! That’s where my attention belongs.

A world of violent power doesn’t need Christians gathered to one-up the world’s power with the “true king,” no matter how we dress it up. If the world needs anything from Christians it’s the way the Gospel could inspire us to create desirable spaces. I mean, spaces where we can remember desire itself, or perhaps touch for the first time our deepest longings, yearnings, and hopes.

What God does in Christ, in other words, is lure us toward love, planting within us the desire for love and connection, for justice and peace, for unimaginable reconciliation. The divine lure toward love, vulnerability, and trust – that alone will change the world.

This year, on the Feast of Christ the King, many Christians will be hearing these words from John’s Jesus as he stood before Pilate, representing the might of Rome: “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting…”

The “kingship” of Christ has nothing to do with fighting, with dominance, with victories defined by how many losers are subdued or killed. The “kingship” of Christ has nothing to do with power at all of the kind that any of us now know.

Christ the King rejects kingship in favor of vulnerability, the kind born from love, the kind that breeds trust, the kind that changes me so that I can help to change the world. If that’s what “kingship” is, I would gladly genuflect – and then stand up and start loving.

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Don’t Drop the “T” — Put it First

Childhood friends teased me for “playing with dolls” rather than “playing army.” High school football players called me a “woman” when I auditioned for concert choir. A friend from my church youth group once told me that the “least I could do is sit like a man.” He said this when I crossed my legs by folding my right knee over my left knee rather than resting my ankle there.

All of that happened before I came out – either to myself or to others – as a gay man. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not separate and distinct; they are deeply intertwined. Indeed, at the root of “homophobia” is a thinly veiled misogyny, or more pointedly, a profound gender panic over the erosion of male privilege.

Every gay man should already know this, if not from direct personal experience, then surely from witnessing the treatment of women in our patriarchal society. Sadly yet also understandably, some gay men are among the most sexist.  I say “understandably” not to excuse misogynistic postures but to appreciate the depth of patriarchal formation that shapes everyone, even (especially?) gay men, who have been told relentlessly to “act like a man,” or “butch it up” in public, or who puzzle over “straight acting” in personal ads.

Gay Rights Next BattlegroundThe consequences of all this have become more apparent and dire with the increasing visibility of those who identify as transgender. The recent arc traced from former Olympic decathlete Caitlin Jenner’s gender transition to the defeat of a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance has now generated an open letter from some (anonymous) “gay/bisexual men and women” urging us all to “drop the T” from that ubiquitous LGBT acronym. This, they argue, is crucial as “trans ideology” erodes the “rights of women, gay men and children.”

To appreciate just how misguided and even dangerous this letter is, we need to review some ancient history here, both civic and religious, which is far from over and past. That history continues to haunt this present moment in ways we cannot afford to overlook.

Historically, and speaking frankly, sex has most frequently been understood as an act of penetration – a body party of one person is inserted in the body part of another. Gender is mostly irrelevant in these ancient views. Whether it concerns a vagina, an anus, or a mouth, penetration marks what counts as “sex.”

Not just coincidentally, “penetration” also describes conquest, battlefront victory, and more generally how one dominates a weaker party. That’s the point. To “be a man” and to “be a warrior” have been synonymous for most of human history. It’s not just lust that leads conquering armies to rape everything in sight in the ancient world; indeed, it’s not about lust at all but power and dominance – or I suppose we should say the lust for the power to dominate.rome_rape

For the ancient societies that produced biblical texts, both “good sex” and “good worship” exhibited these dynamics of dominance and submission. As biblical scholar Stephen D. Moore succinctly puts it, sex in the ancient Mediterranean world was basically “eroticized inequality.”

Keep those ancient historical markers in mind and consider these more recent ones:

  • Christian men in the 19th century worried about the “feminization” of Christianity and tried to create a more manly and “muscular” depiction of Jesus.
  • The term “homosexuality” itself was coined by 19th century medical researchers to describe “inverted” men, men who acted as if their genitalia and emotional lives turned inward — just like women.
  • Prior to World War II in the U.S., only the “submissive” partner in male same-sex sexual acts was considered “homosexual,” because he was “acting like the woman.”
  • Emasculating African American men (treating them like women) has been a constant tool of white supremacy, from plantation slavery to anti-miscegenation laws and contemporary police brutality.
  • Joking about the supposedly tiny genitals of Asian men belongs to a larger project of feminizing them for racist purposes.
  • The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq involved U.S. soldiers (both male and female) humiliating Iraqi prisoners with sex acts, basically making them submissive, “like women.”
  • After Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire, conservative religious objections exhibited a significant shift in rhetorical strategy and moved away from the story of Sodom’s destruction, and toward the supposed “gender complementarity” of human beings in the biblical creation accounts.
  • For decades, street violence and bullying has focused not on loving relationships but gender nonconformity, on “femmie fags” and “bull dykes” and even more on the transgender among us.
  • More than a few contemporary Christian men have now returned to the anxieties of their 19th century forebears and are deeply concerned once again about the “feminization” of Christianity and turning Jesus into a “sissy.”

Drop the “T”?

Far from it! It’s actually high time we put the “T” first in our social analysis, political activism, and theological reflection. Perhaps then all us (especially white men) would understand better what biblical theological Walter Wink called “the domination system.” That system – just as pervasive in our civic and religious institutions today as it was in the first century society of the Gospel writers – creates hierarchies of value and sustains them with violence, the very system Jesus sought to dismantle.

Drop the “T”?

No way. Not when so much of our distress — from racism and colonialism to militarism and ecological disaster — is fueled by the deeply entrenched denigration of all things feminine. Not when so many gay men think that “marriage equality” protects them from the patriarchal-industrial complex that no amount of “straight acting” will blunt. Not when white, affluent gay men have never paused to consider what their civil rights have to do with working class women of color.

Drop the “T”?

That’s a great idea if you want people to focus on trivialities (like who uses public bathrooms) rather than the urgent task of dismantling the systems that place men over women, white over black, straight over gay, and humans over all other animals and their ecosystems.

Drop the “T”?

Absolutely not. To the contrary, the peculiar faith of Christians would urge us to put the “T” first for a world of peace and justice in which everyone can thrive and flourish.

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