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The Stupendously Superlative and Truly Amazing Grace of Ordinary Water

Living in California, I have come to appreciate rain in ways I never imagined I would back in my Midwestern childhood. The first rain of the season here after a long, dry summer is especially astonishing. As a friend of mine often says on that day, the rain feels like a shower of divine grace falling from the courts of heaven itself.rain_children

This past Sunday, Western Christians celebrated the baptism of Jesus, as we always do the Sunday after the Epiphany. Prompted by the biblical texts appointed this year, the day seemed devoted more generally to water.

Water is probably the most remarkable substance that can so easily be taken for granted. Without water, life itself as we know it would be impossible. Too much of it, and life itself is in jeopardy. A dramatic example of the latter happened just before Christmas Day, when a tsunami crashed unexpectedly through parts of Indonesia, killing hundreds of people.

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2016 Tsunami in Japan

As someone who enjoys wading through gentle surf on sandy beaches, I’m often startled by such reminders of how destructive water can be. One cubic yard of water—think of a box that measures three feet on each side—one cubic yard of water weighs just short of 1,700 pounds. Now imagine a tsunami wave rushing ashore with millions and millions of cubic yards of water. As one journalist suggested, we ought to imagine such a moment as row after row of armored tanks rolling over the land at fifty miles per hour.

Perhaps this is why the Psalmist compares the very voice of God to the sound of thundering waters (Ps. 29). That ancient poet would have us imagine the divine voice breaking the cedar trees of Lebanon, shaking the wilderness, making oak trees writhe, and stripping forests bare—not unlike what happened on the shores of those Indonesian islands.

Perhaps this, too, is why the biblical prophet Isaiah offered reassurances about God’s presence when we “pass through the waters”—that’s a way to describe tides of trouble, the depths of dread, a flood of despair. “When you pass through such rivers,” Isaiah declares, the God who formed you will be with you (Isaiah 43:1-7).

These are some good reasons to celebrate the baptism of Jesus, a profound image of divine solidarity, almost as easy to skip past and take for granted as water itself. There Jesus stands in the river Jordan, an incarnation of the great reassurance from Isaiah that God is indeed with us as we “pass through the waters.”

Jesus stands there, baptized by his cousin John in intimate closeness, and I keep thinking about water, its softness and sweetness, as well as its harshness and saltiness, and especially how utterly ordinary water is and still so vital and essential for life itself.

Reflecting this way on water—how it is both so ordinary and so remarkable at the same time—I wonder if this isn’t part of the problem so many people have with religion these days. I mean, how frequently religion is perceived as separate and distinct from the daily routine of everyday life, or more severely, as thoroughly irrelevant for how regular people live—in our homes, working at the office, playing with friends.

Many religious traditions, including Christianity, have unfortunately earned that reputation of exotic remoteness. But religion’s distance collapses pretty quickly in the ancient story about the baptism of Jesus, this year from Luke’s account of the gospel (Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22): water, a river bank, close friends (cousins), intimate touch, a beautiful dove—all this ordinary stuff of everyday life becomes an occasion for divine encounter.

Or as our Christian siblings in Eastern Orthodox traditions would say, these ordinary moments become moments of theophany—visible manifestations of God’s presence, not with neon lights or fireworks, but with stuff you could literally trip over or fall into on any regular, ordinary day.

Eastern Orthodox Christians mark and celebrate Epiphany in some wonderfully peculiar ways, including the “Great Blessing of Waters,” which sometimes means a whole lake or a river but in any case and at the very least blessing vast tubs of it.

Orthodox Christians most often bless themselves with holy water by actually drinking it, so they keep plenty of the stuff around their homes. They might drink a small amount every day with their morning prayers, or bless their children with it before they leave for school. They sometimes put a little bit of that blessed water in their food when they’re cooking.

Clearly, separating religious practice from everyday life would make no sense at all in these Orthodox households, and this is precisely because of what happened in the waters of the river Jordan so long ago. As God incarnate, Jesus was baptized not for the forgiveness of sins but to bless the water, to reveal its sacred character, to demonstrate the depths of divine presence in the material fabric of God’s creative work.

In the weeks following the Great Blessing of Waters, Orthodox priests typically visit all the members of the parish to bless homes, families, and any companion animals that live with them, sprinkling all of them with that blessed water—a visible, tangible weaving together of the human and the divine, the earthly and heavenly, the deeply mysterious and the routinely ordinary.

I’m especially taken with how Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware writes about this:

What we are doing at each celebration of Epiphany, at every Blessing of the Waters, is to reaffirm our sense of wonder before the essential goodness and beauty of the world, as originally created by God and as now recreated in Christ. Nothing is intrinsically ugly or despicable… The Great Blessing of the Waters is in this way a proclamation that the universe around us is not a chaos but a cosmos. There is glory in everything; this is a world full of wonder (The Inner Kingdom, p. 71).

More than just “taken” with that view, I am so very grateful for it these days when our political discourse does seem to me irredeemably ugly, and when (I must confess) I think of some of my fellow human beings as utterly despicable, and when I can see only the whirl of chaos we ourselves have created and forget so easily the essential goodness and beauty of the world that God has created.

One of the many reasons why religion still matters, and why there baptismal fonts in churches, and why Christians gather around a table of a shared meal week after week is not because it’s only in churches that the infinite mystery of the Living God is made visible and tangible. To the contrary, all the religious stuff in officially designated holy spaces is meant to remind us that all of our everyday stuff carries the potential to knock of us off our feet with God’s presence—if only we would notice, see, listen, touch.

The renowned rabbi and theologian of Jewish traditions Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the same point:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual,” he says, “is to be amazed (for more on this approach to spirituality, go here).

Reading that insight from Heschel, I can’t help but think of my Australian shepherd dog Judah. I’m thinking especially of the beach in Marin County where he loves to play in the water. We’ve been there dozens of times and he never grows tired of it.

I know he remembers the place well; he whines and whimpers and scratches at the rear car door as soon as we pull off the highway and start heading toward the coast. He knows exactly where we’re going, and every time he acts like it’s the first time he’s ever been there.

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Judah at Rodeo Beach

I watch him run and gallop and bark and yip and frolic in the surf as he chases seagulls—again and again he chases them as we grows ever more salty, sandy, foamy, and gloriously wet. For him, everything is phenomenal; for him, everything is incredible; for him, that beach is a theophany, a visible, tangible manifestation of divine delight. And for me, his wiggling, panting body is likewise a theophany of divine joy.

I also can’t help but think of the priestly ministry of Este Gardner, the vicar at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, where I have been privileged to worship for more than twenty years. One of the many things I have come to appreciate about Este is her use of superlatives.

I admit that I was a bit perplexed by this when Este first arrived to Good Shepherd. Can absolutely everything, I wondered, really be astonishing and gorgeous and stunning and spectacular as she often likes to say?

Yes, I realized, yes it can, especially if we insist on treating the ordinary as occasions for amazement, exactly as Rabbi Heschel proposed.

Exactly as the voice from heaven declared when Jesus was baptized.

Exactly as Christians remember at the Eucharistic table every week, as God presents God’s own self to us in the ordinary stuff of bread and wine.

As all of us at Good Shepherd bid Este farewell in her impending retirement, I’m not only grateful for the grace of the Eucharistic table; I’m also grateful for Este’s reminder that the grace is indeed stupendously amazing.

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Glossy Fashion and Adoring Flesh — an Epiphany!

magi_star“Enter, stage left, the Wise Guys.” That’s what a friend of mine in college liked to say about Epiphany, the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Stage “left,” I suppose, because these “wise guys” hailed from ostensibly “pagan” religious traditions. “Wise,” as I have come to see in recent years, because of their quest.

The Christian quest these days seems mostly marked with institutional anxiety. How will we save the church? In my view, that is entirely the wrong question. A better one: How will any of us participate in God’s own passion to save God’s fleshy creation? Perhaps if Christians attended carefully to that question, institutional anxiety would take care of itself.

It took me some years to see this, so let me back up a bit.

In the mid-1990s a friend from seminary ripped a page out of a glossy fashion magazine and sent it to me in the mail. The full-page photograph featured a rail-thin model, scantily clothed, and lying on piles of trash. She lay there with her eyes closed, lips colored slightly purple, and a man’s foot pressing down on her arm, planted there as if in triumph. It was an advertisement for the sneaker that man was wearing.sneakers_blue

My friend included a post-it note on the photograph: “Here’s an icon for Epiphany.” This confused me at first. I found that image disturbing for more than one reason: for objectifying women as disposable play things; for perpetuating masculinity as inherently domineering and violent; and for commodifying human bodies to sell other commodities, to name just a few. Pondering my friend’s note and that image, those disturbing qualities soon began to coalesce into an icon of human flesh, its denigration, humiliation, and abuse standing in desperate need of redemption. An ideal icon, in other words, for Epiphany.

The twelve days of Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar begin when gift-giving on the secular calendar ends, on Christmas Day itself. Those twelve liturgical days in turn end with still more gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. According to Matthew’s gospel account, magi from the East, perhaps astrologers or magicians from the region of Persia, present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Ancient Mediterranean societies sometimes used those latter two gifts for embalming, as burial spices. Matthew thus offers a literary foreshadowing of events to come. The child receiving those gifts shall not escape the fate of all mortal flesh. Indeed, he will suffer the kind of indignity no human deserves, but which continues to this day, even in the glossy pages of what passes for the latest fashion.

Icons serve as windows into an unseen or perhaps forgotten reality. The flesh portrayed in that disturbing “fashion” spread opens a window on Western culture and can help to strip away the sentimentality that so often drenches the Christmas/Epiphany holiday cycle. The original story behind those holidays actually startles, or it should.

Matthew describes the magi’s gift-bearing journey as a quest. But for what? They search not for an idea, a strategy, a program, or an institution, nor even a place, but instead for a person, a flesh-and-blood child. This child does not bear ideal flesh, the kind suitable for Greek or Roman statuary or for today’s cult of youth and beauty. The child eventually found and adored by the magi bears entirely unremarkable, ordinary flesh. Flesh ordinary enough to trade like a commodity on Wall Street, or to disrobe on Hollywood’s silver screen for quick titillation, or to go homeless and starving on city streets.

The flesh of that child appears bruised and conquered on piles of trash in a fashion magazine.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” The hint (only just intuited by ancient Persian astrologers), that gift (only barely grasped by gospel writers), the epiphany still so desperately needed today appears as this: with us and among us and in our very flesh, God takes great delight. Not abstractly or generally or vaguely but in all the material details of human life, the magnificent and tender ones as well as the heartbreaking and tragic.

communityProgressives and conservatives alike tend to extol the incarnation at Christmas, perhaps also at Epiphany, and each in their own ways. Relatively few make clear that the flesh of the Incarnation comes in a rainbow spectrum of colors (what modern Westerners call “races”), or that Western society has generally cared far more about male- rather than female-identified flesh (and still does), or that “flesh” stands for much more than whatever we mean by “human.”

Today’s liturgical feast invites Christians to do what so many of us have been taught resembles a scandal if not a sin: adore flesh – not for the sake of fashion, but to be decidedly out-of-fashion. When Christian churches figure out how to do that and why, we will change the world (for the better).

A changed world might well be what set those ancient wise guys on a long journey. Happy Epiphany!

(This post is a revised version of a section of my forthcoming book, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness. You’ll be able to pre-order it soon!)

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Unleashing “Django Unchained”: Epiphanies for White America

White Guilt won’t solve anything. Neither will White Denial. Trying to figure out where one sits on that spectrum is a distinct privilege for white people, like me. People of color don’t have those moments of luxury, those moments when they get to pause and wonder about all the complexities of a social and political system designed to favor white people and white communities.

As I sat in a dark theater watching Django Unchained last week I was glad for little light. What I watched belongs in shadows and in dark corners and all those places where human beings rightly cower in the face of horror. Watching that film I felt assaulted by violence, torn by conflicting loyalties, wrenched by poignant moments of tenderness, amused by reversals of fortune, and appalled by the human capacity to act with unspeakable cruelty. Yet none of that compares to what African Americans feel when watching the same film. Of that, at least, I am certain.django

I’m eager to learn from my African American colleagues and friends about their responses to that Quentin Tarantino film. It is of course quintessentially Tarantino – ridiculously violent, comically absurd, and horribly distasteful. For all its excess, the film prompted me to discern anew how to live as a white person in a society still reeling from the legacy of racial brutality.

I worry and I fret that even half of the violence or even a portion of the denial of human dignity portrayed in that film captures the historical reality of institutional slavery. But that’s White Guilt talking and it’s not helpful. Equally unhelpful is to suppose that all that horror is neatly sequestered in the shrouds of history and has nothing to do with us today. That’s White Denial talking.

If Djangodjango2 Unchained is going to contribute anything more than Oscar-worthy performances all of us will need to unleash its dangerous message. And Django is dangerous in the same way the Christian Gospel is dangerous, and for this reason: flesh matters.

Tarantino would seem to elicit precisely the opposite as we see flesh flayed, beaten, punctured, ripped apart, bleeding, and generally abused in nearly every manner imaginable. Perhaps that’s the wake-up call Christian communities need if we’re going to take our incarnational faith more seriously – to take human flesh more seriously.

epiphany_magi2I saw Django in this Christian liturgical season following The Epiphany – the feast of the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh. This season in concert with that film poses some gut-wrenching questions for white Christians like me. What kind of “flesh” do we mean, really? How is my white flesh consistently considered better than other kinds of flesh, not just abstractly or theoretically but concretely, in the communities where I work, worship, and play? What can and what should I do about that?

This liturgical season began with the story of the Magi traveling far from home, asking questions, and offering gifts when they arrived. White people committed to dismantling systemic racism can follow that same pattern by leaving our comfort zones, learning what we need to know by asking uncomfortable questions, and then offering ourselves to the divine mission of respecting and celebrating all and not just some flesh.

Regardless of the cinematic merits of Django Unchained, unleashing its insights in this season following the Epiphany and leading into Lent could provoke some profound conversations and conversions. I like to remember that those words – “conversation” and “conversion” – come from the same linguistic root. Engaging in genuine conversation makes us vulnerable to life-changing insights, exactly what all of us need in a society built on white supremacy. (One of those insights might link the portrayal of violence to the problem of violence, though Tarantino himself rather testily disagrees.)

At the very least Django beckons white people to consider why and how our white flesh still matters more than any other kind – and that would surely be an epiphany worthy of this peculiar season.

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Holy Flesh!

As the Twelve Days of Christmas come to an end, I offer here, first, a multiple choice question, and then a poem.

First, the question – human flesh is: a) a commodity to trade and sell for profit; b) ineligible for food, housing, or medical care if it’s the wrong color; c) unworthy of basic civil rights and dignity if it’s involved in same-sex sex; or d) a divine revelation.

The Feast of the Epiphany, which we mark tomorrow on the Christian calendar, celebrates option “D.” That still qualifies as an epiphany after all these many centuries since the birth of Christ precisely because options “A,” “B,” and “C” seem quite reasonable for far too many people today.

The ancient sages (those “wise guys,” as I like to call them), who traveled from their home country while following a star, did not make their journey in search of an institution, a text, or even an idea. They went in search of a flesh-and-blood infant.

The magi may not have understood precisely who it was they found (frankly, I don’t either – do you?) but that doesn’t matter. The star’s light declared the wonderfully and amazingly peculiar, something that can, even today, spark a revolution: human flesh is divine.

If more of us actually believed what Epiphany declares, I dare say the world would change. The world would change not just because of what people might perceive about Jesus but also and even more because of what all of us would perceive about each other: In our flesh, in yours and mine, the holy shines forth.

And now the poem. This is another of my attempts to bring some of this into verse. (This particular poem also appeared a wonderful little collection of Advent and Christmas poetry edited by L. William Countryman, Run, Shepherds, Run!) A blessed Epiphany to all, and may it change the world!

 

A Silent Promise

Light comes back

as it always does

just before Christmas Day

like finding a treasured keepsake

forgotten in attic recesses

and I start to think about Hoovering up

brittle evergreen needles,

fingering the stubborn ones

out from a wooly carpet’s fibers.

 

Light comes back slowly

tracing an ancient arc

across the winter sky

and I kneel on hardwood

straining to scoop up

a stray ornament

from a dusty corner

just out of reach

with sunlight

dappling my vision.

 

Light comes back

with a promise

silent as the stars –

This simple, tender flesh

covering our hands

wrinkling our knees

layering our faces

shall be seen

revealed as a divine gift

for this world

indeed, an epiphany.