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Fresh Hope from the “Cold Storage”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does my hope reside today?

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Shepherd, Berkeley

 

 

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Cradle It — Tenderly, Fiercely, Queerly

This holy-day season offers plenty of queerness, enough to inspire some gritty hope and ignite a fleshy faith in a world that has run completely off the rails.

Do you hear what I hear? Racist taunts and misogynistic jokes and the derisive mocking of the disabled; stock market bells clanging with stratospheric heights while people huddle under highway overpasses without any home or hearth; the panicked whimpering of cattle herded toward their slaughter in filthy factory farms.

Do you see what I see? Syrian cities in rubble; sinking rafts on the Mediterranean Sea; a deadlocked American jury unable to convict; polar icecaps vanishing like morning mist; the Hijab torn from a tearful head of a Muslim, her face wracked with fear and foreboding.

Do you wonder, as I often do, what possible difference any of us can make in world such as this? I know and affirm the standard response: we need to strategize, and organize, and pull as many legislative levers as possible to yank us toward a society of peace and justice.

And still I wonder: can we avoid playing a tit-for-tat game of political power? Do we measure success by how many votes are cast? How many “losers” can we tolerate when we finally “win”?

Perhaps we need to return or begin and then stay rooted elsewhere, which this peculiar season with a cradle in it urges me to remember. The God who shows up as an infant marks a way forward, the way of the flesh – touching it tenderly, caressing it carefully, embracing it fiercely.nativity_guatemalan

How romantically naïve that sounds, if not thoroughly ludicrous. Except for this: the powerful retain their power by keeping us divided and fragmented; by telling us that some people cannot be touched much less loved; that whole populations belong behind walls, out of reach; that entire species are merely disposable for the sake of economic growth and profitability.

As a white man entangled in all the horrific machinations of white supremacy and misogyny, I’m grateful for Toni Morrison’s reminder of why a fleshy faith matters in systems of oppressive institutional power. In her novel Beloved, the character of Baby Suggs preaches to her fellow ex-slaves, urging them to love their flesh, to “love it hard”:

Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. … This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up.

Queerly, to work for a better world we must first and continually cradle the flesh and cherish it – I mean, really cherish it: hug it, feed it, sing to it, cuddle it, rescue it, stand up for it, brush out its matted fur, pour a river of cleansing tears over it as we massage it, adore it, and never, ever take it for granted.

Imagine your whole family doing this as a Christmas gift, setting aside petty disagreements and all the fretting over suitable presents and showering each other with hugs and kisses.

Imagine your neighborhood, your whole circle of friends and colleagues, pausing to hold hands and rub sore shoulders and linger in a protective embrace. And then more: inviting all those “others” to join you in that arc of fleshy touch – the stranger and alien, the differently colored and accented speakers, the hungry and lonely, the despised and abandoned.

Imagine people everywhere, starting in your own cozy nook and familiar cranny, and extending across this country and around the globe honoring and worshiping the flesh – assigning worth to it, as “worship” quite literally means.

Adore the flesh that God made, just as God does. Taking unimaginable delight in this flesh, God dives headlong into this whole beautiful, poignant mess with us, landing in a cradle. And for no other reason than endless, deathless love.

If we imagine these things and do them, we might hear a heavenly chorus of angels break into song once again, probably weeping as they do, overcome and undone by the glory of God…in cherished flesh.

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Green (Hornet) Grace

Welcome to the Green Season, when the polar icecaps are melting, the oceans are dying, and the air we breathe grows more toxic every day! The crafters of the Christian liturgical calendar didn’t have any of those climate catastrophes in mind, of course. They were literally unthinkable until recently. Yet the tragic if unintended liturgical irony persists.

Traditionally, liturgical vestments are green in this long season that follows the Feast of Pentecost and runs all the way to Advent (often the last Sunday in November). In the northern hemisphere, that color makes sense as crops are growing, fruit is ripening, and harvest is peaking up over the horizon. So also for the Church – Pentecost prompts growth, the blossoming of the Spirit’s work, and an anticipation of the divine harvest at the end of time, celebrated on the first Sunday of Advent.

Sounds great, but last month, just twelve days after Pentecost, a report was presented to the United Nations declaring that a massive, oceans-wide extinction of marine life is now underway and is all but inevitable. This should have been even more newsworthy than marriage equality in New York – we can protect the kids of gay and lesbian couples with the benefits of marriage but will we give them an inhabitable planet to live on?

There’s more at stake here than whether we should eat salmon. Think of the oceans as your own cardiovascular system – without it, you’re dead. And that report to the U.N. was just the latest of the “oops, it’s worse than we thought” reports about the devastating changes through which this planet’s climate is currently lurching. (Read about that report and others here.)

The planet is dying. Why aren’t we in the streets protesting vociferously the absurd policies of our world’s governments? Are we preaching about this from our pulpits?

So, green for this season? Really? What’s the color of sludge, or dead fish, or torpor?

No, none of those despairing colors will do, not even now, not if Pentecost is still worth celebrating. I’ll still go with green for this long season if it can stand for a vibrant hope. Yet even that needs a caveat. As some in President Obama’s own party have been reminding him lately, hope is not enough. And as Harvey Milk once said, “It’s not that we can live on hope alone, but that without it, life isn’t worth living.”

Maybe the Green Hornet can energize the hope of this season into action. I’ve always liked this about that fictional crime fighter: he doesn’t have any superhuman powers like Spiderman or Wonder Woman do. He was just an ordinary guy who grew sick of political corruption and rampant crime, someone who refused to believe that there were no solutions; he became a solution himself.

That sounds a least a bit like Pentecost. The Spirit doesn’t just snap her fingers and make things happen. She empowers people (and often the least likely by most standards) to transform, renew, heal, and generally “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). (Read my take on the “Peculiar Pentecost Agenda” here.)

We need to tap that world-changing energy again, especially given modern western Christianity’s abdication of nearly all environmental responsibility and its acquiescence, especially in the United States, to the beguilements of corporate profit in the name of religious patriotism, which have nearly eviscerated any traction the Gospel might have had for our current crises.

And I’m pointing that finger at myself. I’m no less culpable than anyone else for the planetary mess we now face. I still drive my car whenever I please, buy way too much useless stuff, and rather naively trust that “good” politicians will sort this all out.

Here’s the thing: They won’t. It’s up to us, all the ordinary, unremarkable but fabulous creatures of God, empowered by the Spirit, to turn this dire tide. Because of the hope that Spirit inspires, I refuse to believe that there’s nothing to be done – but what do we do?

I honestly don’t know. I do know that I need lots of “Katos.” The Green Hornet needed a companion, just as the so-called “Lone” Ranger did.

I can’t change the world by myself. The earliest Christians couldn’t, either. They needed a community. And so do we, especially in this “green season” when the icecaps are melting, the oceans are dying, and we’re choking on the air we make by just driving to work (if we’re lucky enough to have a job).

So, how should we do it? How can we make the green of this long season more than a liturgical color? Where do we find the Green (Hornet) Grace we need and what do we do with it?