Daily and Deliberate Acts of Kindness

This past Sunday I realized that the wonderfully rich Season of Creation we’ve been observing for the last few weeks was missing something, something vital and crucial. As we celebrated St. Francis’ Day, I realized how much I have been missing all the other animals with whom we share this precious Earth.

“St. Francis of Assisi,” Jennifer Wojtowicz

Feeling the absence of animals in this season can help us name a bit more directly their absence in our lives more generally. As modern Western people, we don’t interact with other animals very much, unless we live on a farm or have to remove raccoons from our attic.

There are some good reasons for our distance from some animals, which the domesticated variety often obscure: the wider world of God’s creation is actually quite wild and feral, and even dangerous. Much to our chagrin, we don’t have full control of this planet, and a great deal of it remains far beyond our understanding. The passage assigned from the biblical book of Job for the Feast of St. Francis is meant to convey precisely that sense of an untamable world (Job 39:1-8).

Mountain goats at birthing time “burst forth” with their babes (v. 3). That verb in Hebrew means quite literally “split open” in the act of birth—a rather violent description. And do you really suppose that you are harnessing the full strength of an ox with a yoke? Oxen serve us at their pleasure, not ours (v. 9-12). And while the original Hebrew about the ostrich is mostly untranslatable (v. 13-17), the point seems to be how miraculous it is that they even survive given how thoroughly they neglect their own young.   

The world remains untamable and far beyond the reach of our understanding—not unlike God, actually. And that’s what Job wants to say rather emphatically.

Earlier in this book, Job runs out of patience with his terribly pious and self-righteous friends, who are trying to explain Job’s suffering to him. They want it to make sense (mostly, we should note, by blaming Job himself for it).

So Job urges his friends to “ask the beasts” (12:7), and they will teach you. Talk to the birds of the air and the fish of the sea; they will tell you. Speak to the earth and it will enlighten you, Job says. The God who made all of us, the beasts will say, is the same God who cannot be squeezed into your neat and tidy systems.

St. Francis’ Day at All Saints’ Parish 2020

I truly love the custom of “blessing” animals during worship on St. Francis’ Day. The weather was perfect for this here in Saugatuck on Sunday, and we welcomed some of those “beasts” into our outdoor sanctuary to worship with us, the ones we embrace as our companions. That we enjoyed their company with us while we gathered at the Eucharistic Table on Sunday was also a moving reminder that the word “companion” means “the one with whom we break bread.” This alone is a remarkable and beautiful thing: in a wild and feral world where so many other animals remain entirely beyond our grasp, we live with some of them as our companions.

I am constantly astonished by how much we do not know about this planet on which we live. We have, to date, identified and named at best only 25% of the species on Earth; more likely only around 10%! Many of these—we can’t know for sure how many—are now extinct because of climate change and we will never know what they were. That should be cause for our deep lament.

In a world of mass extinction and human violence, it matters that we treat these beloved creatures gently and kindly. We humans have not always done so. In fact, and to our shame, we continue to use dogs in laboratory experiments (usually beagles), and we still test beauty products and cosmetics on rabbits; from petrochemical companies to military installations, fish, monkeys, cats, owls, and pigs are all pressed into laboratory service against their wills and under tortuous conditions. (Faunalytics is a good source for learning more about animal testing and how to advocate for ending it.)

Beyond mere sentimentality, treating other-than-human animals with kindness is actually an act of repentance, and also a gesture of hopefulness for a better world. Yet one more added benefit: it might encourage us to treat other humans with the same kindness.

“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That Gospel passage is also assigned for St. Francis’ Day (Matthew 11:25-30). While most of us hear Jesus addressing humans in that verse, let’s notice that he uses the image of a “yoke”—in case you haven’t seen one recently, a yoke is a wooden frame or collar that joins two oxen together at their necks as they plow or haul a load.

It turns out that yokes have also been used, in ancient and modern societies, on human slaves during transport, to keep them from running away—a chilling reminder that how we treat other animals often gives us permission to treat other humans just as badly.

Come to me, Jesus says, all you heavily-burdened humans, all you tortured creatures, every weary species and I will give you rest.

If you find yourself moved when you see an act of kindness, you are touching the very heart of God. As theologian Robert Neville says, this is the God who treats us with kindness in Christ.

That’s not usually how most people hear the Gospel described. But let’s recall that the root of that word kind is kin. When we treat someone with kindness, we are treating them as kin, with kinship, as if they are members of our own family. That is the good news of the Gospel—by treating us kindly in Christ, God is treating us members of God’s own family; we are loved as God’s own kin, and we are called to love all others in the same way.

Indigenous communities made these vital connections a very long time ago, including the practice of referring to all other beings on this planet as our “relatives.” Surely our engagement with climate change and the need for ecological renewal and healing would deepen significantly if we thought of ourselves and all other creatures of the same God as members of a single family.

St Francis’ Day at All Saints’ Parish 2023

How we speak about these things matters, because the way we speak shapes our behavior. I learned just recently, for example, that in the traditional Hawaiian language you don’t refer to yourself as the “owner” of a pet. The word instead is “kahu,” and it has multiple meanings: “guardian, protector, steward, and beloved attendant.”

A kahu is someone entrusted with the safekeeping of something precious, something cherished. What a kahu protects is not their property; what they protect is part of their soul.

Many centuries ago, St. Francis urged us to think and pray in exactly this way, and even more expansively still: not only did he refer to other animals as his siblings, but also the many other features of God’s creation—like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”

Perhaps just a single day devoted to Francis is not enough, not in this age of climate chaos and ecological disaster. Perhaps we need to be remembering him every single day as we seek to live ever more gratefully for all of our relatives, and as we seek to live ever more gently on this precious Earth.

This ecological commitment begins, perhaps, not with “random” acts of kindness, as the old aphorism would have it, but with deliberate ones.

Every single day.

“St. Francis Mandela,” Giuliana Francesca

Sighted and Woke

Here is an astonishing thing!

The man born blind says that in the iconic story from John’s account of the Gospel, which many Christians heard in church this week (John 9:1-41). Jesus grants that man sight and the man then exclaims his astonishment to a bunch of religious leaders who care more about the rules of their religion than the amazing gift he had just received.

“Healing the Blind Man,” Edy LeGrand

The whole story is rather astonishing, actually: it addresses the connection between sin and health (there isn’t any); it raises the perennial puzzle about human suffering; and it prompts all sorts of questions about God’s action in the world. It’s an ancient story but it captures perfectly the impatience so many people today have with religion: why in the world would religious leaders refuse to see a miracle just because it violates their religious customs?

But we need to pause right there and name directly that this story has been used over the centuries as one of the tools for Christian anti-Semitism. There is a long and ugly history of that in the Church, and the deeper we travel into Lent and toward Holy Week, the more frequent these problematic texts surface in our lectionary.

As Good Friday approaches, Christians must never forget our own shameful history of calling Jews “Christ killers.” We must remain vigilant about this; it is far too easy to causally or inadvertently repeat violence in our worship. (A former colleague of mine, a priest and church historian, has done extensive work on this; this short piece of his is a good place to start thinking on these matters.)

The “religious leaders” I just noted above, for example, are of course Jewish leaders. And the story from John has been interpreted by some in the past, and still today, as a story about how these religious leaders were blinded to the very presence of God standing among them.

Now, it is likely true, as some biblical scholars have suggested, that John’s account of the Gospel emerged from an early Jewish-Christian community that had been expelled from its local synagogue. In many of these gospel stories we can see traces of that ancient conflict, of a religious sibling rivalry. The story of the man born blind and granted sight is a prime example of this—an early follower of Jesus is expelled from his synagogue!

Thankfully, there is more to be said about these texts. John himself and some later interpreters took these stories of religious conflict as occasions to reflect much more broadly on the human condition itself, and who God is among us, and what God is calling us to do for the sake of healing and to help our communities flourish.

We might wonder about blindness, for example, and what prevents us from seeing the presence of God at work in the world. How have we prioritized institutional structures at the expense of divine grace and creaturely flourishing?

As many interpreters of this story have noted over the centuries, those with physical sight often cannot see what truly matters; and those who are physically blind sometimes have the clearest vision. How might we distinguish between outward sight and interior illumination?

As John Chrysostom noted back in the fourth century, this story from John features Pharisees, the most prominent leaders of that first-century religious community. He does this, Chrysostom supposed, to underscore an uncomfortable truth about religion itself in every century: it provides no guaranteed access to spiritual awakening.

Surely this is a cautionary tale for every religious institution, and about human institutions of any kind, especially when their primary goal becomes merely survival rather than mission. When power and influence are threatened, institutions become defensive, isolated, even blind; and sometimes, willfully and intentionally blind.

A prime example of this is almost daily in the news: in the state of Florida today, textbook publishers are scrambling to comply with so-called “anti-woke legislation.” The writers of these textbooks are struggling, for example, to figure out how to write about Rosa Parks without mentioning race, or that she was Black, or why she was told to stand up on that bus when all she wanted to do was sit down.

This is ludicrous. Let’s remind ourselves and our neighbors that the term “woke” first appeared way back in the 1960s as street slang for being fully aware, for seeing the world as it actually is—to be aware of the need for racial healing and reconciliation; aware of the need for social and economic justice; and today, aware of the peril our planet faces from global climate chaos. (Not surprisingly, there are complexities attached to this word and it’s worth noting its more recent evolutions and convolutions.)

To “be woke” is “to see” as clearly as we can, and the lectionary for this fourth Sunday in Lent even paired John’s story with a first-century version of being “woke” from the letter to the Ephesians: “Live as children of light,” that letter-writer says, and expose unfruitful, shameful works. “Sleeper, awake, and rise from the dead!”

To see the world as it really is, in all its irreducible complexity—broken and beautiful, lively and wounded—to see this is like waking up from a very long dream, as if coming back to life.

I’m particularly intrigued by how often ancient interpreters of John’s story invite an earthy Christian faith—an item to add to the “woke” list for a planet in peril.

Consider the fourth-century deacon Ephrem of Edessa. The blind man’s eyes were opened with dust, he noted, the very stuff from which he was made at the beginning of creation. Remember that you are dust, we said at the beginning of this Lenten season; and perhaps we should add this: “with the dust of earth you will be healed.”

Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century proposed that the ground is law and saliva is grace. The law without grace is parched and arid land from which no life can come. “So,” Caesarius says, “let the saliva of Christ go down to the ground and gather together earth. Let the one who made earth remake it, and the one who created it recreate it.”

Ambrose of Milan, going back to the fourth century, urged us to notice that Jesus tells this blind man, whose face is now covered in mud, to go and wash in a pool of water; this is the font of Holy Baptism, where we are cleansed from the stains of sin, like washing mud from our face to see!

“The Man Born Blind,” Ronald Raab

John seems to love earthy symbols to portray the mystery of God’s presence among us, and in us, and around us. In this story of the man born blind and sighted, the symbol is earth itself, the soil, and it becomes the symbol of God’s healing presence when mixed with water—and with our own human saliva!

(Fun fact to share at your next cocktail party: some centuries ago the Church decided that if emergency baptism were required, you could use your own spit.)

There are some things that once we see them, we can never “un-see” them; they change our lives and how we live. The whole season of Lent is supposed to be like that, every single year—ongoing, lifelong conversion to the Gospel, a process of seeing everything altered, new and fresh.

This iconic story from John really gives us far too many things to see, all at once: the Creator of light giving sight to the blind; the creature of dirt being healed with mud; the waters of baptism pooling in our own mouths.

Here’s what I hope to see better, and what we all need to see together: earth as healing and also the healing of Earth—with all her peoples and all her many creatures. This is the great work to which God is always calling us, now more than ever.

To see this truly, the world would look different, and we would live differently; it would be like waking up; it would feel like rising from the dead.