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Pay Attention: Everyday Mysticism in Lent

Resurrection in the throes of Lent? Many Christians had a big dose of exactly that this morning as we heard about the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel and the story in John’s gospel about Jesus raising Lazarus from death.lazarus_tomb

So, that’s a bit odd. Isn’t this season for journeying toward suffering, torture, pain, and death? What’s all this resurrection business doing lurking around in such a somber season?

My answer: the invitation to practice everyday mysticism.

Bible stories sometimes make this difficult to see. Those highly stylized stories can sound as if they were unfolding in a mythological space far removed from the gritty particulars of ordinary, daily life. Those stories actually happen in real places with real people, people with particular histories and sensibilities, people with particular races and cultures and politics, people with joys, sorrows, triumphs, tragedies, and families.

I’m struck by the way John frames the story about Lazarus with touching details drawn from ordinary, household life. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were apparently close friends of Jesus. He spent time with them, perhaps even quite a bit of time, in their Bethany household.

I imagine Jesus going to Bethany to get out of the spotlight, a place to relax and to take some time off from a hectic public life, put his feet up, and unwind – just as many of us do in intimate households of good friends.

This makes the illness and death of Lazarus all the more poignant. This wasn’t a stranger that Jesus just happened to encounter; it was Lazarus, a friend, a companion, a confidant, someone like family. Upon seeing Mary and Martha grieving near the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus himself weeps.

John’s gospel presents what many theologians refer to as a “high Christology.” The very Word of God, present with God from the beginning of all things, through whom all things were made, this Word, John declares, becomes human flesh (John 1:14).

My own thinking and study on that stunning declaration is often enhanced by engaging with the great work done at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. I’m thinking particularly of the recent public forum they hosted on “deep incarnation.”

Rather than seeing Jesus as only a significant historical figure of the past, on the one hand, or on the other as a unique and thus isolated moment of divine revelation, incarnation is instead the story of God’s reach into the very tissues of material and biological existence.

Ponder that for a moment: the infusion and penetration of the divine deep into matter itself, down to the very cellular even quantum level. Ponder if you can that uncanny, unfathomable, and mysterious bond between God and God’s creation.

John, I think, would heartily concur with that view, and then quickly remind us that this very Word of God made flesh actually wept over the death of a friend, a friend known in the ordinary, everyday intimacies of household life.

John charts what Bill Countryman (among others) has called a “mystical path” into God’s own life. I used to think that meant that I needed to find a different path. “Mysticism,” after all, is for spiritual Olympians – monks and nuns, desert hermits, anchorites, abbots, and abbesses – or at the very least, for those who are better than I am at the daily discipline of prayer and meditation.

dinner_partyBut no, John’s mystical path can also be traced by crashing at a friend’s house after a long day, or by trying to comfort dear friends in the midst of grief, or by tidying up a dirty kitchen after a household meal.

Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century monastic and mystic in Paris, spent most of his working hours in the monastery’s kitchen, cooking and cleaning. He once said, “I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as I ever did in the Blessed Sacrament.”

He could say that, it seems to me, because he paid attention.

There are many different ways to observe this Lenten season, whether getting away for a silent retreat, giving up chocolate, or volunteering at a food bank.  What we do matters far less than paying attention while we do it. I’ve come to appreciate Lent for precisely that, the simple but profound invitation to pay attention and to notice the deep incarnation of God in the most ordinary rhythms of daily life.

Whatever it is you need to do to pay attention and to notice, that is your Lenten discipline. And it’s never too late to start.

It’s never too late to pay attention and encounter the mystery of God in the embrace of a friend, in the convivial chatter over a shared meal, in the random exchange with a grocery clerk, in workplace politics, in the backyard bloom of a rose, in the wag of a happy dog’s tail, in a hike through the nearby regional park.

John insists on this: the mystic lives an ordinary life in ordinary rhythms every day. That’s where God is. And it’s never too late to notice.

It’s never too late to notice the mystery of divine love that draws people together in households of intimates, a love that sometimes, perhaps inevitably, breaks our hearts.

It’s never too late, as Martha and Mary discovered, to notice that mystery of divine love stirring deep within us, even in our grieving.

It stirs there with the promise of new life.

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Queer Home Economics

What do civil marriage equality and the debt default crisis have in common? They are linked by a deceptively simple word: economics.

Marriage clearly means much more than joint checking accounts. But let’s not assume that love, companionship, and sexual intimacy have no economic implications. If economics didn’t matter, we wouldn’t care how employers or health care providers or the Church Pension Fund treat same-gender relationships.

And while the debt default crisis makes great partisan drama, that’s just the tip of a vast ideological iceberg, which now threatens to sink the Ship of State on which all of us depend in countless ways, whether we’re single or newly married or somewhere in between.

Christians don’t have to be professional economists to notice that both the Bible and Church history are packed with economic images at nearly every turn. Those images do not a fiscal policy make, to be sure. But they can help to shape a Christian voice in the public square, as some religious leaders recently discovered as they get arrested in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for doing precisely that.

Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann once remarked that he wished Episcopalians would take the Bible just as seriously when talking about economics as they do when talking about sexuality. But those are not separate concerns; they are deeply intertwined in what I like to call the Gospel vocation of “queer home economics.” I know that “queer” word is troubling, but I don’t mean it as just shorthand for LGBT people. I mean it more broadly as strange, odd, and just peculiar.

I think it’s worth remembering that the word “economy” derives from the combination of two Greek words: oikos, or house, and nomos, or law. In that sense, organizing the daily operations of one’s household, from grocery shopping to meal preparation and bill paying to laundry, describes an economic effort to create a home that functions for the benefit of all who live there – which is precisely what “homemakers” were taught to do in high school courses called “home economics.”

Professional economists do something similar but on a larger scale, with towns, cities, counties, states, and nations, and increasingly, how all of those interrelate in a global household – clearly much more an art than a science.

In Christian traditions “economy” has also been used to talk about God. This doesn’t make God a cosmic banker setting heavenly monetary policy. Consider instead “divine economy” in the more “homey” sense. If the world is not only God’s creation but also God’s household, then God-the-home-economist seeks to create a vast, lively household in which all thrive and flourish.

Insert Jesus into this mix and something rather peculiar if not rather queer happens. Consider the shepherd Jesus described who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7), or the man burying treasure in a field and then selling everything he has to buy that field (Mt 13:44), or the woman turning her house upside down to find one missing coin (Luke 15:8), or getting rid of all possessions to purchase the one pearl of great value (Mt 13:45).

Those are all economic images Jesus used to describe what he called “the kingdom of God” and by most economic standards today, Jesus was a lousy economist. It makes no economic sense to put ninety-nine sheep at risk for the sake of just one or to liquidate one’s resources for the sake of buried treasure or a single pearl, no matter how valuable, or to devote so much time and effort to recovering one coin.

Early Christians took the economic implications of those parables to heart as they blurred the distinction between private household economies and larger societal ones. In the Acts of the Apostles, those Christians understood such revolutionary economics as an indispensable component of their faith and, indeed, as a matter of life and death (Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-7).

Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for this economically peculiar work by reminding them that a wise householder brings out of the household treasure not only what is old but also what is new, surprising, and fresh (Mt 13:52). Even more pointedly, he reminded them what happens to old wineskins when they’re filled with new wine – eventually they burst (Mk 2:22).

I wonder whether it’s time for the U.S. economy to “burst” and make way for a different vision. Our political system is clearly broken. Both parties are deeply beholden to Wall Street and corporate balance sheets. Among the nations, the U.S. ranks 30 in life expectancy, 31 in infant survival rates, and 37 in quality of health care. That’s a short list in an economic situation that will take more than just a little tweaking around the edges or raising a debt ceiling.

Christians engaged in queer home economics will do so not only for the treasure, the pearl, and the coin, but especially for that one out of a hundred who is lost. Or perhaps those thousands who are “lost” without any health care because they don’t have a job or aren’t married to someone who does; or those millions starving in Somalia (currently the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet while the US debt ceiling grabs all the headlines); or the appalling conditions of the factory workers outside the U.S. who make our tech gadgets, like the computer on which I’ve written this blog.

Whether or not the U.S. defaults on its debt next Tuesday, the Christian household of faith has a lot of work to do. We could start by imagining not just eleven but hundreds of religious leaders being arrested in the Capitol rotunda, and not just in D.C. but in every state capitol around the country.

If we did that, Jesus, the peculiar home economist, would surely be right there with us. And he would likely have some suggestions about what to do with all those money-changers’ tables (Mk 11:15-18).

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Voicing a Vision: Compulsory Marriage, Part 3

Marriage is not necessarily sinful, just a distraction from the more important work of ministry. That was what the Apostle Paul seemed to think (1 Corinthians 7:25-32); and the Church has never figured out what to make of it.

While there has never been a coherent tradition of “marriage theology” in Christian history, we can say this much: the Church usually reacts to whatever else is going on in the wider culture or in its own ranks, whether in response to Greco-Roman marriage practices, the privileging of monastic vocations, or the emergence of an official state contract that decided how to divvy up property for legitimate heirs (which happened relatively late in European history).

Today’s complex socio-religious landscape threatens to lure the Church into that familiar, reactive pattern – either the Church embraces or rejects the State’s decisions about civil marriage.

Civil marriage equality ought to be a no-brainer for the Church – it’s a civil contract to which any couple should have access. But is that all the Church wants to say about marriage? Will the Church simply baptize Las Vegas wedding chapels and be done with it? Couldn’t Christians offer something a bit more compelling, something people want to hear but don’t expect the Church to say?

The Church has an unprecedented opportunity today to voice a vision of human relationships that speaks to how people really live their lives, and in the process, advance what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” I don’t know everything about what that vision ought to entail, but here are just a few thoughts toward it, clustered around families, finances, and fidelity (yes, I like alliteration).

1. Families

A recent congressional hearing on the “Defense of Marriage Act” highlighted the paucity of coherent arguments among those who oppose marriage equality. Among the several absurd things now on the congressional record is this: “Marriage makes a family.”

No, actually, it doesn’t. Civil marriage makes a contract between two people. That contract comes with a lot of benefits, but “family” is not among them. My mother and I are a family, not because we have a contract but because of the love, care, compassion, and commitment of our relationship. That’s what “makes a family.”

The Church could voice a vision about families by, well, turning to Jesus. When told that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him, Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And when he was dying on the cross, Jesus looked at his mother and his beloved disciple and said, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27).

Let’s be clear here: The State does not (and probably never will) recognize either of those two Gospel forms of family as a family. But the Church can and should do that. If the Church did, thousands of people would be profoundly grateful.

2. Finances

If I lost my job tomorrow, my health insurance would become exorbitantly expensive. Linking health care to employment is among the more absurd features of American culture. And marriage matters here because of another absurd feature of American culture: If you’re unemployed but married to an employed person, you can get access to your spouse’s health insurance.

Why in the world should affordable health insurance be linked to whether or not you’re married? As I noted in Part One of this mini-series, health insurance is just one reason why the so-called “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get access to a physician.

There are many other financial benefits that attach to marriage, and the Church might turn to Jesus (again) for developing its own voice. Jesus looked rather askance, to say the least, at the privileging of some types of social relation over others.

The Church could voice a different vision by insisting that we no longer live with economically or socially privileged relationships. Everyone should have equal access to what everyone needs to thrive and flourish, regardless of the relationships to which they are called – both human and other animals. I know that sounds like socialism. Don’t blame me; blame Jesus.

3. Fidelity

Everyone knows what “infidelity” means without having to spell it out – a spouse broke a sexual rule. But that kind of marital fidelity emerged in human history mostly to protect property inheritance rights for legitimate heirs.

Biblical writers had a dramatically different view: faithfulness is not about what one cannot do, it is instead what enables one to do something better. The Hebrew prophets denounced the “adulterous” practices of Israel because they weren’t caring for orphans and widows, or showing hospitality to strangers, or tending the land responsibly, or practicing economic justice for the poor. Faithfulness to their covenant with God would have enabled them to do all of that and more.

The Church could offer a compelling vision of fidelity by paying attention to Jesus (again). We know a good tree, Jesus said, not just be looking at it but by the kind of fruit it yields (Matthew 7:16).What does your relationship (of whatever type) enable you to do to make the world a better place?

Civil marriage contracts don’t make families, and they don’t create financial justice for all, and they don’t empower people with the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). That doesn’t make civil marriage “bad,” just short of the Gospel mark toward which the Church could and should aim.

But covenantal relationships (of various types), entered into deliberately and with spiritual intention, can create families, and promote economic justice for all, and bear fruit in households and communities of remarkable generosity, hospitality, and compassion.

That’s the vision the Church could be voicing today by saying unequivocally two things at the same time: 1) civil marriage equality is good and necessary for social justice; and 2) civil marriage equality is not nearly enough for a Gospel vision of human thriving.

If the Church voiced that vision, we’d see many more people saying “I do” to queerly Christian discipleship.