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Tabling the Ashes, and Other Religious Choreographies for an Insightful Pandemic

Are you pausing to learn or just trying to get through as fast you can? How much of what we used to call “normal” is worth trying to retrieve? What’s one big “take-away” insight from living in the midst of this pandemic that you might not have had otherwise?

Could we agree that we all just need to take a huge nap before trying to build a new world together and that it might be useful if we all took that nap at the same time?

I think I’m inching closer to a big take-away insight from all this, and I’ll share it below, but I’m intrigued by the intermediate steps to get there, the coping and fussing and experimenting and adjusting and canceling and scheduling and revising—all the time! (Did I mention a nap would be nice?)

I’m also intrigued, having returned to fulltime parish ministry, to find my capacity for innovation strengthened by turning frequently to my grounding in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church. This is not unlike the old aphorism about jazz piano—learn your scales first. I used to say something similar in the seminary classes I taught on systematic theology—know first how to operate the interlocking gears and gadgets of doctrinal claims before trying to spin off those whirling bits of novel God-talk.

As many clergy have been discovering (while others are actively denying it), there are some things we can no longer do that we once thought we simply must do for effective liturgy, or more severely, for a “valid” sacrament. I continue to be grateful for my formation in what many consider the “rigidities” of liturgical tradition precisely because they shaped my sense of why we do what we do—and therefore how to omit those things responsibly by either replacing them with something else or inviting people to pray through the gap.

I still have a lot of thinking and pondering to do on the implications of liturgical leadership during a pandemic, but I feel the strong need to write these things down, even when they’re not completely formed. I worry that our (understandable) eagerness to “get through” this pandemic will mean rushing past the many lessons to learn and even “gifts” (if we dare use that word just now) of this peculiar time unless we take the time, right now, to record some of it.

As we lurch into Lent (remember a year ago when we were looking forward to being back in church on Easter—I mean, last Easter?) I’m thinking especially about two broad, gestating insights that could inform how I “do liturgy” even when we begin to gather again in person.

First, don’t pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t.

And second, creed and confession are more entangled than I realized; I’m not sure yet what that means, except it has something to do with healing.

So here a  few observations about both of these, and then a note or two about that bigger “take-away.” And I would love to hear from others, lay or ordained, about your experiences of church over this last year, either in conversation with these insights or others.

Everything is Not Okay and That’s Okay for Now
When I first arrived to Saugatuck, Michigan after driving across the country from Berkeley, California last summer, I kept wanting to create video productions for worship in my new parish that mimicked as closely as possible “real” church. After a few weeks of that labor-intensive effort, I began to wonder what in the world was “real” about church to begin with. I also started to realize that I was trying to pretend everything was still “normal,” except for being online.

Everything is not, of course, normal; hardly anything is, actually, and I stumbled into a space of liberation and relief by acknowledging that to myself and then saying it out loud to the other clergy and lay leaders in the parish. That freed up my energy to start noticing, prayerfully, just how not-normal things are and what this means for we pray and worship.

This past Ash Wednesday is a case in point. I considered, briefly, some of the clever and ingenious ways I was reading about from other clergy for how safely to impose ashes on foreheads, including sprinkling them on tops of heads instead. But I noticed again the hankering in my pondering for pretending that everything is normal when it isn’t. I also couldn’t imagine how anyone needed a reminder of their own mortality right now.

Ludovic Florent Photography

I decided to keep the ashes as part of the live-streamed liturgy that evening, but only in a crystal bowl that sat on the altar. They will sit there for the whole season of Lent, not as a reminder of our mortality but as a reminder of the promise God always makes at that Table: to bring new life out of death. We will then sprinkle those ashes around the parish memorial garden on Easter morning.

During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I blessed the ashes in their little altar-bowl with these words, borrowed and adapted from the Scottish Episcopal Church:

Living God of renewal and hope,
in their life palms draw sustenance from the Earth
and give of their own vitality to the air we breathe,
and to the animals they host and shelter;
in the worship of this community,
they help us mark with joyful anticipation
the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his death:
Grant, O God, that these palms now reduced to ashes
may remind us of the mortality we share
     with your whole creation,
and may also stand as a sign of your love,
     which is stronger than death.
May we recognize that love at work in us even now,
replanting our lives in the sure and humble soil
of your grace and generosity.
We pray all this in the name of Jesus
in whom you have become one with us in our mortal flesh,
and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Presiding this morning at our Eucharistic liturgy for the first Sunday in Lent, I was quite moved to see the little bowl of ashes on the Table as I prayed that we might all “prepare with joy for the paschal feast.”

Creedal Confessions for Healing
For reasons I cannot yet fully articulate, this pandemic has heightened my awareness of the intimate relationship between what I believe and my failure to live fully the consequences of those beliefs. This has caused me to reflect in new ways on what I learned many years ago in seminary: not only sins or faults but also beliefs are items we confess, and both types of confession might actually play a significant role in our healing, both individually and corporately. (That’s a dense sentence because I’m not sure yet what I really mean to say.)

Reflecting in this way prompted me to wonder whether connecting belief and failure more closely in our liturgical language might assist us in deepening our shared sense of trust in God’s presence among us, as the Creator, the incarnate Word, and animating Spirit. “Trust,” after all, is probably the best synonym for faith.

I’ve been working on such a “creedal confession” for some time, and I’m considering using the following draft for our midweek service of Evening Prayer:

I place my trust in the creative power of God,
   maker of all things, known and unknown,
   source and sustainer of life;
       and I confess my failure to respect the dignity
       of every creature God has made.
I place my trust in the Word of God incarnate,
   who gathers us as a mother cradles her children,
   as a father who binds up wounds,
   as a lover who mends broken hearts;
       and I confess my share in the patterns of violence
       that fragment, divide, and harm.
I place my trust in the Divine Spirit,
   who animates the whole creation
       with the breath of life,
   drawing together all creatures
       with the assurance of forgiveness,
       the promise of healing,
       and the hope of communion.
Receive my trust, O God of endless compassion,
and strengthen me for your service. Amen.

Those two insights will continue to evolve, no doubt, and they can stand on their own as “keepers.” But we also just concluded a weeknight adult education class here at the parish (via Zoom, of course) on Matthew Fox’s new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond. I knew that Julian had lived during of bubonic plague in Medieval Europe; I had not realized that her entire life was spent encountering wave after wave of that disease.

“Lady Julian,” Evelyn Simak

And yes, I knew that Julian had a remarkably unswerving confidence in both the love of God and the goodness of creation in the midst of unspeakable bodily horrors. All shall be well—she didn’t merely hope this, she insisted it was true. Jesus told her so.

More than all of that, Julian-via-Fox has done something to my thinking right now that feels, if not “new,” then fresh. It’s this: the imperative to notice and address the links between and among climate change, this current pandemic, racism, sexism, misogyny, matricide, and patriarchy, all in a single “mystic-prophetic” posture.

I do believe the world’s religious traditions were made for just such a time as this—for just such a time, that is, for rooting ourselves sufficiently in those traditions to innovate.

Now, about that nap…

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A Contagious Hope in Times of Peril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jesus_heals_blind_edy-legrand

Jesus offers sight to a man born blind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

good_shepherd_kelly_latimore

“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore

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Manger Matters: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Shame

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

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

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

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

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

Light of the World

nativity_blue_star

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Jesus and “Obama-Care”: Christian Socialism Inches Forward

No, Jesus was not a socialist (viral FaceBook images notwithstanding). But he did preach a radically prophetic message and he also lived it, including all those stories about miraculous physical healing.

The current brouhaha over healthcare in the United States is not “just” a secular, public policy issue. It is a deeply Christian one. A deeply spiritual one. And therefore a deeply human one. How we treat our own bodies and how we help others treat their bodies and how we structure our “body politic” so that no one need suffer just because they don’t have money or just because they don’t have a job or just because they are not legally married – all of this cuts to the heart of nearly every worldwide spiritual tradition and practice, including Christianity.

For those who think Christianity cares mostly or only about “saving souls,” reading gospel accounts of physical healing and restoration might be a good idea – perhaps especially when vilifying access to healthcare these days so often relies on describing it as “atheistic socialism.”

Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary this coming Sunday will hear not just one but two among many such healing stories – and both about women! (Yes, that mattered then just as much as it matters today.) The snippet provided by the lectionary from Mark’s gospel presents a bold and audacious woman reaching out for help – Jesus provides it (somewhat despite himself, one should note), and a grieving religious leader whose daughter had died.

There’s lots of intrigue to read between the lines of this short passage – politics (who has access to the healer); religion (circumventing proper clerical hierarchies); and culture (who counts, what matters, and how power is distributed).

Let’s just focus on the “access” part. The audacious (and, sadly, nameless) woman in this Markan passage (5:21-43) tosses aside political, religious, and cultural taboos to get what she needs – access to healing. Now this could be an isolated, stand-alone story with no further implications for our own political, religious, and cultural climate today. But St. Paul suggests otherwise.

The lectionary this Sunday also includes a snippet from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (and if you ever despair over today’s ecclesial culture, just read both of those letters and imagine the community Paul was dealing with!). On the surface, this is a strange and even rather boring little passage from Paul’s letter. But I think it carries a wallop (2 Corinthians 8:7-15).

Paul is apparently dealing with a community marked by uneven resources (sound familiar?). Some have lots of “means” while others have none but lots of “eagerness.” Paul wants them to work together to complete the good work they started. (And I can hardly resist reading this passage from his letter through the lens of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding healthcare reform: “it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”)

Paul is crystal clear in this passage. Those who are blessed by abundance and those who are in need must work together as a single body, each providing what the other lacks. Paul cites his own religious tradition for this by noting, and I quote: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” So, “Occupy Rome,” anyone? I mean of course, ancient Rome…oh, okay, today’s Rome, too. Who has “too much””? Who doesn’t have enough? These are not “socialist” questions only; these are profound biblical, Christian questions. Why aren’t we asking them in our churches?

I love this passage from Paul. Abundance is not a sin. Neither is need. The point is that all work together so that all have what they truly need.

Ordinarily I would feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse to connect the dots here. But given the vitriolic rhetoric over healthcare reform in this country, I think it’s worth doing.

So herewith I connect the dots: If you’re wealthy and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that access to healthcare is available to everyone, like Jairus in Mark’s story. If you’re middle-class or poor and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that your insightful gifts are offered boldly and audaciously, like the woman with a hemorrhage in that same story from Mark.

So, no, Jesus was not a socialist. But Paul clearly was, and he was a socialist because of his encounter with the risen Christ.

People waiting for health services at a “free clinic.”

Worried about that label “socialist”? That’s okay. Just read his letters to the Corinthians. Oh, and his letter to the Romans, too. Read those letters in their entirety, not just snippets. But don’t miss this: We are all members of a single body. If anyone weeps, the whole body weeps. If anyone rejoices, the whole body leaps with joy. No member is expendable. No member is better than any other. We’re all in this together. That’s called “socialism.” Or rather, that’s called the Gospel – Good News.

The “Affordable Care Act” just affirmed by the United States Supreme Court is not a panacea. We have much more work to do. And here’s the truly peculiar thing: Both Jesus and Paul gave us the theological reasons to do that work.

So let’s do it.