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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.

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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…

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“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore

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Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.

That’s the Hobbit Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You need not have read the books or seen the films to appreciate that quote. Simply know that Frodo had been given an epic task many times his size—and the world’s survival depended on his success.

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Elijah Wood as Frodo in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” Gandalf responded, Frodo’s wizard companion. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide,” Gandalf declares. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What time is it, anyway? High time to wake up, take notice, pay attention?

Is it time, finally, to repent?

Haven’t we heard that before? Aren’t some of us sick of that word? Preachers, I mean, especially. How much time should this take, anyway?

Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)
Does anybody really care (care about time)
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

Those of a certain age will recognize those lyrics from a band called “Chicago.”

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

Chicago—where they broke some heat records this past summer, during this past July, the hottest month measured on Earth since records began in 1880.

“In those days…John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.”

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Anton Raphael Mengs, “St. John the Baptist in the Desert”

We always hear about that wild man in the wilderness in this second week of Advent; this year, we heard Matthew’s version (3:1-12). But what exactly does Matthew mean by “wilderness”? Are there any wild places left on this planet not contaminated by plastic? Did you know that nearly every day it rains tiny plastic particles at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, and at the top of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and likely over every mountain range on Earth?

It’s hard to know where my attention rightly belongs at a time like this, if not up there in the mountains, then maybe…

  • down here at the border, with the thousands of children separated from their parents, many in cages and put there by my government;
  • or maybe with more than a thousand incarcerated men of color fighting California wildfires for $3 a day and who are then barred from working as firefighters after their release from prison;
  • or where whales beach themselves, starving to death, their stomachs filled with plastic—presumably with whatever plastic hasn’t already rained down on pristine mountaintops.

These days are those days when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Wilderness—a place of purgation, of starting over, of being refined by fire—and who exactly is that preacher out there? Matthew says he’s the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.

Isaiah, it should be noted, had some peculiar notions about the wilderness, about wild places—where the wolf lives peaceably with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the baby goat, and the calf dwells amiably with the lion, that wacky place where bears graze with the cows (Isaiah 11:6-7).

More than a few Bible commentators quickly propose that these are really only metaphors, poetic ways of speaking, not about wolves or sheep or lions and bears, but of humans, and about that day when human warfare shall cease.

That sudden eruption of peace would be wonderful, of course. But I see no reason to shy away from reading Isaiah just as wildly as his wilderness, to let him stretch our credulity and push us beyond—far beyond—what seems polite and reasonable; after all, not everything in the Bible that sounds just a bit outlandish is only, in the end, a metaphor.

I mean this: the God who can inspire humans to beat their swords into plowshares is actually too small for a prophet like Isaiah. The God Isaiah apparently had in mind is the God who rewrites the biological scripts of predation and reweaves the very fabric of creation without any trace of violence or destruction. “No one,” he imagines this God to say, “will hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (11:9).

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John Swanson, “Peaceable Kingdom” (based on Isaiah 11)

I’m guessing this is why Paul quoted Isaiah directly, by name, in his letter to the Romans. We heard from that letter for the second Sunday of Advent, too, probably because Paul really did single out Isaiah by name. I had never noticed that before, and these days it makes perfect sense.

Perhaps only Isaiah is sufficiently outrageous for Paul, sufficiently wild with hope to qualify as a champion for Paul’s outrageous take on the Gospel. Let’s recall some of its glittering nuggets that he offers to the Romans: this is the letter in which Paul invites his readers to imagine God acting “contrary to nature” by grafting the wild branch of pagan Gentiles on to the one true tree of Israel (11:24); in which he reassures his readers that by dying with Christ, we rise (6:1-11); in which he describes the whole of God’s creation groaning with anticipation for the day of salvation (8:19-23).

This is the letter where Paul insists that nothing whatsoever can ever separate God’s creation from the love of God in Christ (8:38-39)—and this is the hope, he declares, that the scriptures (like the stuff that wild and crazy Isaiah wrote) are supposed to inspire in us (15:4), the hope which we cannot see but without which we cannot live, the hope each of us needs, desperately.

But wait. Why is hope so vital, so mission-critical?

Because without it, we could never take seriously the question Tolkien’s Gandalf poses to every generation: what will we do with the time that is given us?

In these days, in this time that has been given us, the answer to Gandalf’s question will likely be very difficult to utter much less live. It will mean the kind and depth of repentance few have ever attempted. It will mean living in radically and dramatically different ways.

It will mean tapping into hope as if our lives depended on it.

Because they do.

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Pentecost Matters: Convenience is Killing Us and Recycling Won’t Save Us

I found Lent rather harrowing this year, and these fifty days of Easter now coming to a close frequently sobering, with the long post-Pentecost “green season” looming in California as a mostly brown and brittle time, punctuated with wild-fire anxiety.

In fact, we’re expecting our first heat wave of the season this weekend, with the Day of Pentecost itself breaking the 100-degree mark; the National Weather Service has issued its first “red flag warning” of the year—a dismaying reflection of the color for this liturgical feast day.

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Political discourse and national policies have been setting many of us on edge for some time, not least for the gut-wrenching treatment of migrants and their children at the U.S. border with Mexico. This would have sufficed to bathe our liturgical patterns with unease, but these distressing moments have unfolded in the crucible of a planetary emergency I can scarcely comprehend.

A short list of that emergency’s features: living in the midst of this planet’s sixth great extinction event, which we ourselves have caused; an alarming range of foods and beverages testing positive for the carcinogenic compound glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup (even organic foods are not safe given the porous character of farming boundaries and “forever chemicals” lacing everything we touch); dozens of dead whales washing up on the western shores of the U.S., starving from lack of food or with their bellies filled with our plastic waste; otherwise pristine environments littered with micro-plastics (from the sea creatures at the deepest part of the deepest ocean trench to the crisp mountain terrain of the Pyrenees where it actually rains plastic).whale_air

I used to take some modest comfort when confronting these vexations by following an assiduous regimen of recycling; this too has collapsed toward the brink of despair—what we thought can be recycled efficiently, can’t; and what could be, no longer is. China’s refusal to take any more American trash and deal with our steady stream of barges bulging with “recyclables” simply revealed a nasty truth about Western approaches to “ecological management”: There is no way to live with the many conveniences we now enjoy without also damaging and, indeed, killing the very ecosystems that give us life.

That bears repeating: We can no longer live the way we do, and this will be profoundly inconvenient (a word, as Al Gore reminded us, that the modern West finds terribly distasteful).

The global juggernaut known as Capitalism lies at the root of this distress, but this means much more than dealing with questions of “free trade” or shareholder value. Scholar and journalist James Dyke aptly describes the situation like this:

Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere, the size, scale and power of which has dramatically grown since World War II… The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow…

The stark and grim reality of the “technosphere” is the depth of change now required to dismantle it; “conservation” is not enough and recycling will not save us. That is precisely the insight that shaped my Lenten discipline as I tried desperately to rid my daily life of single-use plastic and mostly failed. Achieving that goal would mean changing dramatically the way I live. And, frankly, I found this too difficult.

My longstanding attempt for quick-and-easy solutions to ecological disaster repeats a similar (and equally ill-founded) way to manage the sickening shock of crucifixion and death. Quite frequently in my life, whenever Easter arrived on the calendar, my spiritual temperature registered relief more than life-changing astonishment:

Whew! We sure dodged that bullet! Great to have you back, Jesus. Now, let’s pick up where we left off.

This is, of course, the very same posture Luke imagined the first disciples of Jesus to adopt in that first Easter season. Encountering the risen Jesus, they ask of him: “Is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) To which Jesus replies (patiently, I trust) with something like this: “No. This isn’t about going back or staying put; it’s about moving forward. It’s about something New.”

The great proclamation of Easter is not about restoration but rather resurrection, which is not a confirmation of what has been but rather a transformation who we are. This is what the flame-drenched outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost ought to signal—not the fortitude to keep living exactly the way we have before, but burning away the old to make room for a brand new kind of existence.

Pentecost matters—and by extension, the whole of the Church year—in large measure because of the reminders of hope scattered throughout its calendrical rhythms. More than this, for the sustenance needed to live with hope at all. I mean still more by evoking what matters for Pentecost, or the matter of Pentecost itself.

The celebration of the Holy Spirit has too often drifted toward the ethereal and immaterial, especially in the modern West, where the word “spiritual” carries with it at least a suspicion of the “physical.” That suspicion stands in stark contrast to how many of our ancestors in Christian traditions understood the presence of the Holy Spirit—a physical manifestation of a material reality, one that quite literally infuses our bodies, circulates through our arteries and remakes us (among others, see Dale Martin’s work on this).

Right there is where the hope I need resides, in the divine embrace of the bodily and physical announced at Christmas, marked during Epiphany, tested throughout Lent, and raised to new glory at Easter; it is the essence of marking the season of Pentecost with the color green–the living, breathing, animating presence of God on and in Earth.

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This is not, to be clear, a hope that enables any passivity on my part, as if I can simply wait for God to fix the mess our species has made of God’s dear and precious Earth. It does mean that the transformation this planet now desperately needs is made possible at all by what Elizabeth Johnson compellingly describes as the “deep incarnation” of the Divine Word and the “deep resurrection” of life inaugurated at Easter. God’s creative and redeeming presence, in other words, runs “all the way down” into the deepest depths of God’s creation, to the cellular, atomic level.

That “great work” of God, the healing of our bodies and the body of Earth together, is the work to which the Holy Spirit calls us to join and encourages us to imagine and equips us to do. It is a call, and it does take courage, and we need help, because it will mean a complete and utter transformation of how we live.

Modern (Western) convenience is literally killing us and the planet. Recycling will not save us from this catastrophe, but conversion will, to use an old fashioned word that deserves a comeback.

If the “miracle” of the first Pentecost was the ability to speak in languages one had never learned to speak, then the equally miraculous Pentecostal moment we must pray for today is the ability to live in ways the modern West has not trained us to imagine—in a word, inconveniently.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Nevertheless: An Earth-Day Easter

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead for multiple reasons. Among those reasons: it reminds me and helps me to look everywhere around me and inside me for the God who perpetually brings forth new life from death and decay. Or put in another way, Easter urges me always to hold on to the hope of new life, especially when despair seems easier.

Biblical writers offered this reminder constantly and not only with reference to the first Easter. Nearly every story in the Bible turns on the “Great Nevertheless.” Joseph was left for dead and sold into slavery; nevertheless, he prospered in Pharaoh’s household and saved the land from famine. Abraham and Sarah were far too old to have children of their own; nevertheless, Sarah bore Isaac, the firstborn of a mighty nation; the people of Israel languished as slaves in Egypt; nevertheless, God raised up Moses to lead them into freedom; Jesus was crucified and killed by the Roman Empire; nevertheless, God raised him from the dead as the first fruits of an unimaginable process of renewal and new life for the whole creation.

That’s just a short list of the many biblical stories that invite us to hope when hope seems in desperately short supply. On this Earth Day which is also Easter, I confess to finding it difficult to hold on to hope for this dear planet of God’s wondrous creation. Nearly every day, it seems, a new report emerges about how much worse our climate change catastrophe actually is—faster temperature increases; worsening CO2 emissions; sea levels rising more quickly; still more species disappearing; extreme weather events as the new normal. Despair seems not only easier than hope but more reasonable.

Right there is at least one reason to keep telling the Easter story year after year: in a world where despair seems the most reasonable course, we need to remember that God has entered the story with us, showing up among the most familiar characters, plunging into the classic plotlines as one of us, and healing our despair with a love that is stronger than death.

On this Earth Day Easter, I choose to give my heart to that story (the original meaning of that ancient Germanic verb “to believe””) and to look for Easter hope in a world of despair. Here are just three places to find that hope. There are many more! Let’s spend these great fifty days of the Easter season sharing these stories with each other and renewing our Easter commitment to Earth.

Plastic
I began the season of Lent trying to come to grips with the problem of single-use plastic. And it’s a huge problem. We simply must stop using it and making it. The good news: cleanup is possible, as a remarkable story from an Indian beach can remind us.

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Before and After: Versova Beach in Mumbai

 

Deforestation
Forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate on this planet, at exactly a time when we need more forests to scrub the air and deal with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The good news: reforestation is possible! The story of New England’s once decimated forests, now nearly restored after 150 years, is a great story of Easter hope.

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Before and After: Deforestation and Reforestation in New England

 

Species Extinction
I was shocked and dismayed last year to realize that we are losing between 150 and 200 species every day on this planet, which is a rate much higher than would be true if our species weren’t around. The good news: intentional care and action can bring a species back from the brink and into thriving.

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Humpback Whales have made a comeback from the edge of extinction.

Our current climate change crisis is indeed a planetary emergency; we must treat it as such and act accordingly. And on this Easter Day devoted to the Great Nevertheless, let us act with joyful hope. God is with us in this story, and Christ is risen.

Alleluia!

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Advent 1: Just Come Already

Just Come Alreadyrend_heavens

Come, God,
Just come, already.
Rend the heavens,
Like Isaiah said,
And come on down.

(Please do some mending after
the rending, too; we’ve shredded
so much of what you’ve made.
Sorry about that.)

Or come up,
Or come over,
Wherever you are,
Just come.

(We’ll gladly set aside our
postmodern convictions and
deconstruction strategies, and
all those hermeneutical suspicions)

Because we’ve been weeping
Too long, and lip-biting yearning
Too long, and running around the den
tearing up the sofa,
ripping up the carpet,
breaking windows
Too long, waiting for you to come home,
blaming each other
and killing each other
Too long, and pining away
Far too long for your sweet face,
And your lovely voice,
And your tender touch,
For so long

We’ve forgotten
The love that makes us
Write these things,
Crying softly,
Making a bath of hope
from our tears.

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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.”

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“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).

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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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A Night for the Unprepared

O holy night, I’m not ready. And as the poets remind me, that is precisely the point.

fox_winter

 

 

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances – but is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord; you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
         –Mary Oliver, “Making the House Ready for the Lord” (2006)

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild,
where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
          –Phillips Brooks (19th century)

May light shine in the darkness,light_window
hope quickened beyond belief,
and peculiar peace be with us all…

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Popping the Lid Off: AIDS, Advent, and Hope

All I want is a cure and my friends back.

The list is long – breast cancer, world hunger, or what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” In a deeply patriarchal, violent world of unrelenting corporate profiteering, I want a cure for all those maladies and more.

aids_ribbon_earthOn this 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, I’m thinking especially about HIV. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, I saw those simple yet poignant words on a t-shirt: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

Perhaps that’s just too much to hope for. Yet, tomorrow also marks the beginning of Advent, a Christian season perfectly suited for wildly peculiar hope. Both wild and peculiar especially on the first Sunday of Advent, when most Christians will hear, not about Christmas, but about fantastical world-ending scenarios in apocalyptic biblical texts.

That’s certainly peculiar, but is it hopeful?

The word “apocalypse” has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. The ancient Greeks may have used the verb apocalypto when they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off”; we usually translate it as “to reveal.”

I like that image for sifting through biblical texts and Christian history in search of vision to feed our hope. Here are just a few things we might find when we pop the lid off:

Hope for the Nations
Readings for the first Sunday of Advent will sometimes include something from the last book of the Bible. There are lots of nasty bits in the Revelation to John, completely unsuitable for young chiltree_of_lifedren. In the last chapter, however, there’s no more Armageddon, no more terrifying horsemen, no horrific tribulation, but instead an amazing vision of the City of God. A river flows from that city, and on the banks of that river, a tree. The leaves of this tree, John writes, are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2).

John did not say that those leaves are for the healing of “Christian nations,” or “nations that we agree with,” or “nations that never committed war crimes,” or “nations never guilty of slavery or colonialism or economic imperialism,” or “nations that we might like to visit as tourists on vacation.” Looking forward to healing rather than vengeance surely qualifies as a counter-cultural hope.

Hope for Gate-Crashing
Not long after John’s revelation, a theologian by the name of Origen took the lid off again and found the irresistible love of God. The love of God, Origen declared, is so compelling that not even the Devil and all his fallen angels will be able to resist that love forever. Eventually, Origen believed, everything and every creature would find a blessed home in God.

That’s a compelling vision indeed – so compelling that just a few centuries later the institutional church condemned it as heresy. They put a lid on it. And that’s not so surprising. If an institution understands itself primarily as a gatekeeper, it won’t look very kindly on those who insist that there’s no longer any gate to keep. Gate-crashing is a deeply hopeful spiritual discipline.

Hope Beyond Hope
Fast forward a few more centuries and we find the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived at a time when bubonic plague was decimating most of Europe in ways difficult to imagine. Anyone who lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis has a sense of what Julian must have witnessed – bodies suddenly and mysteriously falling ill; bodies falling all around her; bodies dying in such numbers that they literally piled up in the streets with no one to bury them.

In the midst of that devastation, Julian had some visions. The lid popped off and this is what she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Was she just delusional? Julian herself wondered the same thing. She was surprised by these “showings,” as she called them, these mini-apocalypses. “This can’t be true,” she wrote. “Holy Church teaches that sinners are condemned to hell.”

But the showings persisted: “All shall be well.”

These irruptions of wild hope and fantastical visions throughout Christian history emerged from a truly impertinent question: Can God be trusted? Will God really keep faith with us even with bodies falling all around us?

That was playwright Tony Kushner’s question in a moving prayer he wrote in 1994 for the National Day of Prayer for AIDS: “Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate so lightly, so infrequently from sky to parched ground?” Can you be trusted, God, really?

Kushner speaks for so many when hope seems little more than a bread-crumb trail in a messy life, or a glimmering ember in the fireplace teetering on the edge of going out.

It’s the rare individual who can summon a hopeful faith alone. The rest of us need some help. We need those fantastical visions that sprout up quite unexpectedly in the middle of troubling biblical texts, or those moments of stupefying hope punctuating a disturbing Christian history.

aids_ribbon_candlesProbably most of all, we need each other. When my faith is weak, I need people whose faith is strong; when my cup overflows, I can share it with others.

I was reminded of this just last night at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco during a lovely event honoring two colleagues and their remarkably hopeful work to end AIDS and comfort the grieving.

That event was “church,” a reminder of why I keep doing what many Christians do on a Sunday morning. There are many reasons. But on the first Sunday of Advent, I need a community that isn’t afraid to say wildly peculiar things and find it hopeful: All I want is a cure and my friends back.