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The Slap that Truly Matters Comes from Earth

I’ve enjoyed watching Will Smith in some of his movies; I’ve never really cared for Chris Rock’s humor. And that’s as much as I want to say about either of them.

I know there are other things that probably should be said after their recent performance during the televised Oscars ceremony—topics that include race, and white supremacy, and patriarchy, and celebrity culture, and toxic masculinity, and…the list goes on.

I have some opinions—even passionately held ones—about all of those topics. But here’s what I really care about right now: while white America debriefs the spectacle of two Black men in a fight (hardly ever mentioning race, let’s note), the planet is literally burning up and I’m wondering exactly when Earth’s slap across our collective face will finally wake us up.

Statistics rarely help but here are a few to ponder: the Western third of the United States has basically run out of water and it’s not coming back (the Washington Post says “the West is tapped out”); nearly 75% of Earth’s land area is already degraded on the way to desertification (please read that again: 75 per cent of this planet’s land is on the verge of becoming desert); according to the U.N., 27 of the 35 countries at greatest risk from climate change are already experiencing “extreme food insecurity”—food shortages are soon coming to an American grocery store near you if they haven’t already.

I know, stats are mind-numbing, especially since Smith’s slap of Rock’s face this past Sunday evening has now garnered more social media views than all six IPCC assessment reports on global climate change combined. I have no hard data for that statistic, just the intuitive conviction that many, many more know what “The Academy Awards” is than what “IPCC” stands for (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); here’s an analysis of that agency’s sixth assessment report.

I didn’t want to write a blog post about any of this because everything feels demoralizing these days and hardly anything seems particularly ripe with any hidden fruit of hopefulness. I prefer to find reasons for hope and write about those, especially when I can recommend promising action steps—of which I have precious few to propose. But then it occurred to me: maybe it’s worth writing about “anti-action steps,” about the things we should stop doing.

I’d say it’s time we stop having awards ceremonies of any kind—no more Oscars, Grammys, Tonys, or local Tulip Queen Crownings at the local 4H Club come May. Just stop giving out awards for anything on a planet that is dying right before our eyes. Glitzy gowns draping over red carpets under the glare of media lights? Honestly, as my dear mother would say, that’s just tasteless in the midst of so much wanton destruction.

I’d say it’s time we stop all televised sports, all collegiate sporting events, every single music concert, each and every art exhibit, and any other gathering for the sake of “culture.” This planet’s ecosystems have selected us for extinction—exactly what kind of cultural artifact would you like to make right now and who would be left to enjoy it?

I’d say it’s time to stop going to school and earning degrees and teaching classes—just as teenager Greta Thunberg did for two years—because let’s get real: on what part, exactly, of a burning planet with little water and shrinking arable land for farming would you like to use all that fancy education? More to the point, what kind of job do you hope to have when food shortages in this “wealthiest country in the history of the world” leave our grocery stores mostly empty?

Some climate scientists themselves have said it’s time to stop issuing reports on climate change because no one is reading them and no one is doing anything about them. It’s time instead to go on strike. Good Lord, these are scientists—can we please pay attention?

It’s time we stop doing all these things (and more) because it’s past time to stop settling for half-baked measures from politicians who pander to their “base” constituencies—on both the “right” and the “left” not to mention the useless “middle.” As George Tsakraklides persuasively (alas) argues, our elected politicians feed us just enough empty promises about climate action to keep us mostly well-behaved and unwilling to rock the (leaky) boat. It’s past time to write to our legislators; as Extinction Rebellion urges, it’s high time for civil disobedience, and we Christians need to be clear that such disobedience counts as spiritual activism and sacred work; there is no “Planet B.”

It’s time for every single one of us simply to stop, to stop everything, right now, and let the buses run idle and the bakery shelves stand empty and the dry cleaning go unfolded and the construction projects languish unfinished and the garbage rot uncollected and the livestock roam unslaughtered.

And then, in that pregnant pause, it’s time for all of us to stand in the streets, or on our front yards, or along the sidewalks of our cities, or at the edges of shopping-mall parking lots and gaze upon what we have wrought, what we have allowed, what continues day after day despite what we have known for many decades is our collective suicide.

It’s time for us to gaze upon all of that and then refuse to do anything more until someone steps up, or multiple such ones lead the way into a different future, a future away from mutually assured destruction and toward something like collaborative renewal and collective healing for the possibility of shared flourishing—if it’s not already too late.

I’m thinking and pondering all these things after watching what should have been an unremarkable moment of feuding between celebrities on live television go viral on social media as we Western Christians approach the waning days of Lent and Easter is teasing us over the horizon.

I had some high hopes for this Lenten season as we emerge gingerly from the Covid-19 pandemic but I have mostly failed to preach repentance persuasively in this parish I’m privileged to serve because I really don’t know how to repent myself—only that I should.

“Crucified Land,” Alexandre Hogue (1939)

I’d like to harbor high hopes for the Easter season when Spring here in the northern hemisphere underscores with natural italics the reassurances of the new life embedded in the liturgical cycle.

But my hope runs terribly thin that we’ll stop much of anything or pause for long, if at all, or pay any serious attention to what climate scientists have been warning us about since 1896. Everything we know today about climate change we knew in 1970—and we’ve done nothing. The biggest spike in greenhouse gas emissions has actually occurred in the last twenty years.

This is precisely the kind of moment the world’s religious traditions were invented to address, certainly Christianity, with its endemic apocalyptic flavors. Religion exists for the end of the world—to remind us of its end (its purpose) while also helping us navigate its other “end”—its demise.

So I’m modulating my posture these days, adopting what I call “radically modest hopes.” I’m hopeful that Christian faith communities can become sites of climate refuge and solace as we face storms, droughts, famines, and civil unrest (all of which will not get better but will only continue and worsen).

I’m hopeful that a renewed discipline of shared worship in our congregations can create communities of genuine care, islands of infectious compassion and rejuvenating tenderness in a sea of violent divisions and toxic self-absorption.  

And I’m hopeful that playing with our companion animals and hiking in our forests and wandering along our beaches will soften a sufficient number of our hearts to fall back in love again with Earth.

Surely none of us is too old, ever, to remember what it’s like to fall in love: that heady rush of infatuation, surfing those tides of giddy daydreaming, and then that sudden realization that all you ever really want is the very best for your beloved. We cannot allow the modern Western forces of industrialization and the ongoing onslaught of global capitalism to keep rendering Earth an inert lump of coal for us to burn at will; we must love her back to health.

Sociologist William James Gibson calls this vital need a process of “re-enchantment” with Earth. Or as biologist and environmentalist Stephen J. Gould once urgently noted, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.

So, for the love of God—for the love of Earth—stop caring about that stupid celebrity slap and go take a hike.

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A Transfigured (Black) Jesus and a Eucharistic Solidarity

As Black History Month draws to a close, Women’s History Month begins this week on March 1. This moment on the calendar invites deeper reflection on the potent intersection of race and gender, and how that kind of reflection might shape the season of Lent, which also begins in this coming week.

To do that work—especially as a white man—I’m particularly grateful for the insights of M. Shawn Copeland, an American womanist and Black Catholic theologian who taught for many years at Boston College. She helped me think differently about a foundational question in Christian theology: what does it mean to be human in relation to God? How one answers that question shapes so much else of Christian faith and practice.

M. Shawn Copeland

For many centuries, the European (white) male was considered the “standard issue” human and thus the primary reference point for answering that key theological question. The whiteness of Jesus himself became a question in new ways during the 1960s, which Copeland writes about in relation to the (Black) Jesus of Detroit.

Among the many moments of Black American history that white people (among others!) should not forget, Copeland draws our attention to the “rebellion” of 1967 not far from where I currently live. The following is her synopsis of that moment and the blackness of Jesus that it surfaced (taken from her essay on the Black Jesus in the collection edited by George Yancy, Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do?):

“In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, a routine police vice-squad raid on an after-hours drinking club in a predominantly black neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, escalated into one of the most furious racial rebellions in modern times. Five days later 43 persons were dead, more than 450 injured, more than 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

“A little-known, yet highly symbolic, incident during those days involved a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the grounds of the major seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. At the intersection of West Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue, two blocks west of the site of the rebellion, stands a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which looked out on a then increasingly black neighborhood, even as the seminary faculty and students remained predominantly white.

“On the second day of the disturbance, an African American housepainter reportedly applied black paint to the hands, feet, and face of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At least twice, the color was removed, but black paint prevailed and, over the past four decades, the seminary has kept it fresh. In an interview during a 40th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion, the Assistant Dean of Sacred Heart Seminary’s Institute for Ministry, John Lajiness, said, ‘the City really has no other positive visible symbol like it. The painted statue speaks less of violence and more of the internal struggle for identity and the human tension which, intentionally or not, bled into making this statue an icon.’”

“Black Jesus” at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit

If a white man cannot represent the sacred heart of Jesus (much less in marble), then the European male certainly cannot stand as the only, or even the primary answer to the question of what it means to be human. The (brown and Middle Eastern) body of Jesus resides at the center of the Gospel, Copeland reminds us, a body that was tortured and killed by the Roman Empire and raised to new life by God. To understand and embrace such a Gospel, especially given the social, economic, and political history of Western society, Copeland argues that women of color belong at the center of our theological work.

I’m not entirely sure what the consequences of that claim are for how I live, but I am convinced of how crucial it is that I keep reflecting on it and shaping my life because of it. Her book—Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being—helped convince me of this, and as Lent begins, I’m especially mindful of her work on the Eucharist.

Copeland recalls the gruesome history of lynching in the United States and how it prompted the same kind of terror as crucifixion did in the first century. Rather than avoiding that painful history, or feeling a vague sense of guilt about it (especially as white people), Copeland urges a practice of “divine solidarity.” To stand with and for those who are poor, outcast, and oppressed is to bear witness to the Gospel hope for a new world, a hope that shapes Eucharistic worship in Christian communities. Copeland expresses this in a powerful way:

“A Christian practice of solidarity denotes the humble and complete orientation of ourselves before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal. In his raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine practice of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination—recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self” (Enfleshing Freedom, p. 126).

Perhaps one of the ways I can take Copeland’s urgent call for solidarity to heart is to resist how I usually imagine the transfigured Jesus—with a shiny white face. As I prepare to preach tomorrow on the Transfiguration, a story often told on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, I’ll keep that Black Jesus of Detroit in mind instead, and even more as we move into the season of Lent.

Following Jesus on the road toward the Cross can itself be an act of solidarity if, as Copeland would urge, we see in him all the countless women of color strewn through so many forgotten stories of American history. Remembering them, even though we cannot now know their names, could contribute to how a “compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin.”

May that be the hope that breaks open an Easter dawn.

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Healing Shame, Changing the World

Perhaps you’ve seen the random placard in a football stadium crowd with “John 3:16” written on it. If you grew up like I did, you probably memorized that Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”

That’s supposed to be a life-changing snippet of Scripture, and it certainly can be. But for me, the two verses that come right before it prompted a profound re-orientation to Christianity entirely. This is rather odd, actually, because those verses are pretty obscure and they refer to a bizarre story from the Hebrew Bible.

I’m convinced that there are nuggets of spiritual insight here that carry the potential to change the world. To get there, I would invite you to consider that modern Christianity has focused so much of its attention on sin and guilt that it has left virtually untouched the issues of bodily shame and social violence.

“Redemptive Love of Christ,” Bronze door of the Grossmunster Church, Zurich

My own work as a teacher and pastor, my understanding of Christianity and the role Christian faith communities can play in the wider society, indeed my own life and sense of self changed significantly when I turned more directly to the problem of shame and its consequences (it prompted me to write a whole book rooted in this insight called Divine Communion).

What I’m referring to here, in shorthand fashion, is this: the problem of guilt says, “I did something bad”; the problem of shame says, “I am bad.”

Consider the difference between those two statements—having done something bad and being bad—it won’t take you long to feel the difference in your own body.

One of many social science researchers working on this issue is Brené Brown, and I would urge you to watch her videos and read her books just as soon as you can. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling…that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…”

Unworthy of love and belonging? That’s heartbreaking…and far too common.

We’re told this about ourselves almost constantly—our culture of celebrity; our idolization of wealth and popularity; mass marketing and advertising aimed at making us feel needy and empty without certain products; fitness crazes that make us hate our bodies; the list goes on.

Brown says that shame is likely the source of many destructive, hurtful behaviors; this sense of being unworthy of connection, she says, “can make us dangerous.”

She means, dangerous to ourselves (when we isolate and self-medicate) and dangerous to others (when we project our own unworthiness on those who are different from us and then punish them for it).

Needless to say, there’s a lot of resistance to dealing with issues of shame; ironically and tragically, a lot of people find it shameful to talk about shame—the problem feeds on itself, in other words. As Brown puts it, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

If, however, we cultivate our capacity for naming it and addressing it, we can weaken its power over us. We can, at long last, find healing—for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our communities, dare I also say, for our nation.

All of that is preface to the rather odd verses in John’s account of the Gospel that introduce the more famous one so many of us have memorized. In those verses, John’s Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (3:14).

Stick with me here, because we need to know two interrelated things for this peculiar verse to make any sense.

First, the image of a serpent was a powerful one for ancient Mediterranean societies. Among the several meanings of this image, serpents could symbolize healing—the shedding of a snake’s skin evoked renewal and new life, for example. Serpents could also be dangerous and deadly, and this was important, too. That mix of risk and hope lingers in the old aphorism about how to soothe the effects of a hangover—you just need some “hair from the dog that bit you.”

More directly: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

The second thing we need to know is that the story John’s Jesus refers to is from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story about the ancient Israelites as they are bitten by poisonous serpents which make some of them ill and more than a few of them die.

God instructs Moses to do a very strange thing in response: to make a bronze image of a serpent and then lift it high upon a pole. Anyone who looks upon that image, God says, will be healed—and they were (Numbers 21:9).

Some have suggested that this story influenced the development of the familiar image of a snake wrapped around a pole as a symbol for the medicinal arts. Others have suggested that the “rod of Asclepius” wielded by the god of the healing arts in Greek mythology is the origin of the healthcare symbol. In any case, across these cultural contexts, the insight remains: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

John apparently wants us to think about that ancient story in relation to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. If so, John invites not a mechanism of atonement to secure forgiveness; John wants us to gaze on the source of our pain for the sake of our healing.

If unnamed, untreated bodily shame can make us dangerous, as Brené Brown says, then let us seek out the cure for that disease within the disease itself—being fully human. God actually does this for us in Jesus—God becomes human, becomes the very source of our shame so that God can also become our cure, lifted high for all to see.

I am truly convinced that naming, addressing, and healing bodily shame would change the world. So much of our distress, our self-loathing, our fear and hatred of the “other,” our destructive behaviors and ecological suicide erupts from that grim pit of unacknowledged shame.

That’s not an easy trail of ideas to follow, I realize. Thankfully, John’s Jesus offers multiple ways for us to see his meaning. The very next verse, the famous one, is Jesus making his meaning plain: “for God so loved the world.”

That’s the key, right there—God’s love.

“For God So Loved the World,” Marguerite Elliott

Forgiveness is a great antidote for guilt, and we all need it, but it won’t touch our shame and it won’t mend our violent divisions and it won’t soothe our social heartache.

The only thing that will touch all of that and then heal it is love—and not just any kind of love, but the love of God, who does not love us from afar—as if ashamed of us—but instead becomes one of us.

Not to condemn the world, John says, but so that the world might be saved.

For God so loved the world…

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Living Temples

Worshipping in Jerusalem involved a fairly complex economic system put in place by the ruling class and religious leaders of the temple. The poor were exploited, collusion with Rome was manifest, and Jesus tossed up the whole thing.

Sometimes referred to as the “cleansing of the temple,” this Gospel story of social disruption is a pivotal one in the narrative arcs of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the religious and political establishment in Jerusalem finally decides they’ve had enough of Jesus-the-troublemaker, and they begin to plot his demise.

“Cleansing of the Temple,” Peter Koenig

But John, as usual, is different. John’s version of this drama at the temple appears in the second chapter, which is way too early for anything “pivotal” (John 2:13-22). Why would John put this story right up front?

Back up with me for a moment and recall one of the many significant differences between John and the other Gospel accounts: John has no Eucharistic narrative. This is rather shocking, actually, but true: John’s Jesus does share a final meal with his friends but he does not refer to the bread as his body or the wine as his blood at that meal.

Does this mean there is no Eucharist in John’s Gospel? No, not necessarily. Some commentators have supposed that all of the stories John tells were recounted week by week around the Eucharistic table in John’s community. In that sense, every chapter in John’s gospel is either about Eucharist and Easter or points to Eucharist and Easter. This, it seems to me, shines a wonderfully peculiar light on the cleansing of the temple.

The temple story comes right after another notable moment when Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine. A wedding, a feasting table, wine—aha! It’s a story about Eucharist!

Moreover, John begins the second chapter by noting that Jesus goes to that wedding “on the third day.” Now that’s an odd detail to include, unless we recall that Jesus was raised from the dead on the “third day.” Easter!

All of this frames what comes next, when Jesus goes to the temple. Our attention falls quite naturally on the physical disruption Jesus causes there, but that’s not really where John seems to want our focus. Rather than the crash of overturned tables, the crescendo in this story is the invitation to see what the true temple of God’s presence really is and where it resides—it is not a building; it’s a body.

“Destroy this sanctuary,” Jesus says, “and I will raise it up in three days.”

There’s the third day again!

This story really is about Easter, and it’s also about Eucharist, about the bodily presence of God.

Remember, this is the same Gospel that begins by declaring that the Word of God became flesh. In this second chapter, John could not be more direct: when Jesus referred to the Temple, John writes, he was speaking “about the sanctuary of his body,” his flesh as the temple of God’s presence.

As John makes clear throughout the stories he tells, it’s not only the body of Jesus that manifests the presence of God but the bodies of many others, too, including the flesh of the doves, the sheep, and the oxen, all of whom Jesus liberates from their marketplace captivity in the temple.

The micro-economic system Jesus disrupts, in other words, reduced bodies to commercial goods; it turned the flesh into a commodity for buying and selling.

“Jesus Drives Out the Moneychangers,” Douglas Blanchard

This is clearly not a problem that is neatly sequestered in first-century societies. Reflecting on this Gospel passage for today, I thought back to my years of living in California and the many things I learned there; some of them were deeply troubling. I’ll mention just three.

First, in the central valley, lined with farming communities, it’s not uncommon for a gay teenager to come home from school and discover the locks on his house have been changed and to find his belongings piled on the front lawn. With nowhere else to go, he will likely migrate to San Francisco and live on the streets as best he can.

I also learned that Interstate-5, running like a spine through the middle of the state, is a primary corridor for sex trafficking, for transporting young women, even girls as if they were livestock, from ports of call to brothels. California actually has the highest rates of sex trafficking in the whole country.

And third, the fresh produce I loved in California was of course picked mostly by Mexicans and others from Central America who are forced to keep picking even during wild fires and during this pandemic and always in the midst of toxic chemicals with no safety gear.

The bodies of gay teenagers tossed out of their own homes.
The bodies of young girls trafficked by sex traders.
The bodies of migrant farmworkers picking our fruit.

These are the temples of God’s presence, just as our own bodies are also sanctuaries. How often do we treat bodies as temples? Do we ever?

How would our lives be different, how would the world around us change, if we treated bodies reverently, with reverence? Not just some bodies, not only the bodies like ours, not only the bodies of our own species, but all bodies as living temples? What would that be like?

This story from John unites the sanctity of bodies with the critique of religious economics. And just as he does in all of John’s stories, Jesus presents his own body in that temple as the very presence of God. John then reminds us in that when that body is rejected, betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and killed, God raises it up.

This bodily reminder of Easter can shape the rest of our Lenten journey in some profound ways. I’m praying for the courage to let this story renew my commitment to treat every body with the reverence it deserves—as the temple of God’s presence.

Will you join me?

“Christ Overturning the Moneychanger’s Table,” Stanley Spencer
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The Beauty of the Cross

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

This invitation shapes the hard road in Lent toward Holy Week and therefore, one might say, the challenge of the whole Christian life. But what does it mean?

“Take Up Your Cross Daily,” Stephen Hanson

The image of the cross and the urging to “take it up” (as many Christians heard from Mark’s Jesus just yesterday), has certainly meant more than just one thing over the last 2,000 years. Some of those meanings have been hurtful and damaging, and we might spend some time this Lent seeking forgiveness for how we Christians have used our central image in harmful ways.

We might recall, for example, those moments when someone might say, “Well, that’s just the cross you have to bear.” They say this as if violence is just obviously a means to a greater end, or perhaps (more insidiously) that some of us must bear burdens so that others may thrive.

Not long after coming out as a gay man (way) back in the 1980s, I remember some of my Evangelical friends assuming I would be leading a life free of sexual intimacy because, you know, that’s just the “cross I would have to bear.”

More severely, battered women in situations of domestic violence are sometimes told to stay with their violent husbands because, well, that’s just the “cross they have to bear.”

People say things like this, often with the very best of intentions, usually because they don’t know what else to say, and also without any awareness of what this implies about our relationships with each other and our conceptions of God.

To say to someone who is suffering, maybe even terrorized, likely afraid or even alone, that their situation should be embraced as a spiritual discipline is simply not the Gospel; it would certainly not come from the God of Jesus Christ.

Among the handful of things I am absolutely sure about concerning God, this is one of them: God does not demand sacrifice from us in order to love us. I don’t mean that sacrifice itself is inherently bad—many of us make sacrifices both small and large for our children, our spouses, our friends, and good causes of all kinds. But God does not demand that we make sacrifices to earn divine favor.

Realizing this about God eventually convinced me of this: God would never, ever intend harm. Honestly, if each of us chanted that as a mantra every day during Lent, the world would change for the better.

But what about the cross?

That’s a big question that deserves a range of responses. Here’s just one proposal for the Lenten season and it begins by going back to Christmas.

Back then, on that most holy night, we celebrated the Word of God in the flesh—but not just any flesh. It was the vulnerable flesh of a newborn baby, newly born not in a house but a barn, a baby born into a province occupied by an imperial power, a power that regularly terrorized and oppressed his people.

That baby grew up and told his friends about his impending death—but not just any kind of death. It would be a death after bodily humiliations and with public shaming for political purposes and through the means of state-sponsored execution.

From cradle to tomb, Jesus experiences the fullest possible range of human life: care, tenderness, joy, and friendship, and also the precarious qualities of mortal existence on the margins of society and among the least powerful of his world. Jesus experiences all of this not only by the “accidents” of his birthplace but through his own choice to live and act in solidarity with those even more marginalized than himself—fishermen, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the demon-possessed, the outcast, the forgotten.

The cross stands as the supreme example of the solidarity he lived his whole life, not only with his own conquered people but also with the betrayed, the abandoned, and the tortured.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell

Why would anyone stand in that kind of solidarity with anyone else? Why would anyone freely choose to follow that way of the cross?

I can think of only one answer: love.

That’s what makes the cross a thing of beauty and not only an ugly reminder of state-sponsored torture. That’s why the fourth-century deacon Ephrem of Edessa could imagine the cross as a tree that blossoms in the spring. That’s why an ancient Latin hymn brings me to tears every Holy Week:

Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

This life I live, Jesus says, and this death I die, this is what God’s love looks like.

So, how then should we live?

Mark’s Jesus suggests this:
Give yourself away.
Lose your life.
Take up your cross.

Mark phrases this exhortation to individual disciples, but I think it applies equally as well to communities of discipleship, to the work of creating communities of radical love.

I’m not sure the world needs anything more than just that right now, I mean something like this:
communities who are safe standing with those under threat;
communities of the powerful standing with the weakest;
communities born in the center of privilege standing at the margins;
white communities standing with people of color;
human communities standing with other-than-human animals.

Communities like that, standing in solidarity and vulnerability—standing in love—might be the most beautiful thing in the world.

That’s a Lenten road worth traveling.

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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…

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“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore

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Remember That You Are Dust (and Plastic)

Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin is given some career advice in the 1967 film “The Graduate” with a line that is ranked #42 in the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.

Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin that he wants to “say one word” to him, “just one word.” He asks Benjamin whether he’s listening, and Benjamin replies, “Yes, I am.” And Mr. McGuire utters the now famous, one-word line:

Plastics.”

He then adds, “there’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Actually, I can’t stop thinking about it, and not for the rosy future Mr. McGuire apparently imagined for this now ubiquitous petroleum and natural-gas by-product. I’ve been thinking about whether there’s anywhere, any possible place at all that I can turn to and not see something made from plastic, and I’ve been thinking that a greener, plastic-free Earth needs to take center stage in my devotions and commitments during these forty days of Lent.

plastic_indonesia_2013

Surfing through garbage in Indonesia (2013)

Lest anyone think “ubiquitous” verges on the melodramatic or even just moderately overstated, consider the following short list of why this stuff really is everywhere (even where we, as a species, are not) and why it deserves crisis-level attention this Lenten season and long after.

  • Consider first the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch—there isn’t one, contrary to what you have likely heard and read. But there are many such patches. And that makes it worse than even having that one great big one to worry about. The garbage in these migrating patches (the largest of which is now double the size of Texas) is mostly invisible to the naked eye (plastics that have become translucent or very, very small) but still can be ingested, and regularly is, by marine life, causing choking, starvation, and other impairments. Current projections suggest that by 2050 there will be more plastic materials by weight in Earth’s oceans than fish. By 2050—that used to sound like a long way off; it’s only 31 years away.
  • Consider next something a bit less abstract, like a whale. Last summer, a pilot whale died in a Thailand canal and was found to have 80 pieces of plastic (weighing 17 pounds) in its stomach, which interrupted the whale’s ability to hunt for food; during course of being treated by marine biologists in their efforts to save her, the whale spit up five plastic bags. (That’s only one among several recent stories in the news about whales and their plastic-lined guts.)
  • Or consider where no human has ever been, some of the deepest trenches at the bottom of our oceans. Just recently it was discovered that the tiny creatures living in those trenches are—as you might have guessed—stuffed with bits of plastic. Eighty (80) percent of the small crustaceans collected for one such study had plastic fibers lining their digestive systems. Another study conducted in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific (with a maximum known depth of 36,000 feet, or nearly seven miles) showed a shocking 100 percent of all the crustaceans collected had ingested considerable amounts of plastic.
  • Plastic is so ubiquitous that we ourselves are now apparently ingesting it regularly without realizing it and without anyone yet having any idea what this is doing to our health. Small-scale trials recently showed traces of plastic lining the digestive systems of the humans studied. We’re ingesting the stuff perhaps by eating seafood that had eaten the plastic stuff we had thrown out earlier, or from tiny plastic particles that float through the air nearly everywhere (did you know that?) and just happen to land on our food, or from the bits of the stuff that slough off from the inside of our plastic water bottles.

Christians on Ash Wednesday are reminded that we human beings are made from dust; perhaps we must now revise that liturgical wake-up call to include plastic.

Perhaps, but if so, I refuse despair. The hour is late but not spent, and we need to tell stories of hope—like this great 2018 story of an Indian beach painstakingly cleaned up and restored for a sea turtle hatchery.plastic_beach_cleanup

I invite you to join me in observing a hopeful and green-oriented Lent by brainstorming with me how to address our crisis of plastics. There won’t be just one solution and we can’t focus on just a single sector (whether public or private, households or industry). We need multiple solutions for every single aspect of our shared and individual lives on a planet this is quite literally drowning in plastic.

I’ll post some ideas here in this blog space. Please post your own in the comments, or find me on Facebook and post them there on my timeline. Let’s share resources, make a list, tell success stories, invite new ideas—let’s make every season of the church year green.

Meanwhile, let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create in us hearts that grieve what we have done to the beauty of your creation, that we, worthily lamenting the epidemic of plastic waste, may obtain from you the inspiration we need to help restore Earth and her creatures to health and vitality; in the name of Jesus, your creative Word in the flesh. Amen.

advent_bubble3

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The Ten Commandments and Moral Injury in a Society of Wounded Souls

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us the last few years of her life when I was in grade school. I have many fond memories of those years, including how grandma helped me memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the twenty-third psalm (each one, of course, in the stately cadences of the King James’ version of the Bible).

That’s a classic collection of texts, which later in life I found perplexing and even abrasive. I mean, a set of commandments (carved into stone, according to the ancient story) on the one hand, and on the other, poetic verses about God as a gentle shepherd leading me through both verdant pastures and scary valleys alike and eventually bringing me safely to God’s own home.ten_commandments

As a young adult, that collection of memorized texts came to symbolize the dissonance I associated with the religion of my youth, constantly extolling the glories of divine grace while at the same time monitoring our adherence to rules and regulations.

That contrast is at least part of the reason why an increasing number of people today identify as “spiritual but not religious.” For some good reasons, many people today associate religion with institutional bureaucracy and rule-making. Or more pointedly, keeping institutional rules for the sake of the institution itself.

I sympathize with that critique of religion, which I myself have made many times. So I’ve surprised myself in more recent years by adopting a slightly different posture toward religion and its rules, or what I would prefer to call “disciplines and practices.”

That’s a linguistic difference worth making on this third Sunday in Lent when many Christians heard once again the recitation of the “Ten Commandments” and when most Episcopalians heard an intriguing prayer to begin their worship this morning, a prayer that reads in part like this:

Keep us, Almighty God, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…

Notice how the desire to be kept bodily and defended from adversities in that prayer is paired, nearly intertwined with the desire to be kept inwardly, in our souls. Whatever that vital, animating essence of human life is that we call “soul,” apparently it can be damaged, as that prayer notes, by “evil thoughts.”

Any rule worthy of being kept, in other words, ought to help protect our souls from becoming wounded.

That sounds terribly abstract and old fashioned; but it’s actually quite concrete and contemporary. Witness the epidemic of post-traumatic stress among soldiers returning from combat, most recently from Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress may have nothing to do with being physically wounded; as some scholars and counselors are noting, these military personnel suffer from “moral injury,” or that which might assault and hurt the soul (see also the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University).

Or consider the psalm appointed for this Sunday in Lent, which begins by noting how the heavens declare the glory of God and how the skies show forth the Creator’s handiwork. In that very same psalm, the psalmist also glories in God’s law, which, declares the psalmist, revives the soul, just as God’s statutes rejoice the heart and should thus be more desired than even the finest gold!

I like to think this is why my grandmother helped me memorize the Ten Commandments—to treasure them more than material wealth and to protect my soul when it falls into danger.

I dare say, such danger lurks around nearly every corner these days, disguised as the ordinary routine of the modern world. Ana Levy-Lyons urges us to notice this with her recent book, No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments.  A society perpetually enamored with freedom and liberty, she writes, cannot begin to fathom why commitments, communal support, and shared rules are so crucial for resisting the temptations of modern life.

The “temptations” she has in mind infuse a corporate-driven consumer culture in ways we scarcely recognize, streaming toward us endlessly in advertising, entertainment, and the digital monitors populating nearly every public and private space. We’re fooling ourselves, she notes, if we suppose we’re smarter than that vast cultural machine, able simply to say No to what is actually slowly killing us.

To reach “escape velocity,” as she puts it, we need some serious counterforce—exactly what the Ten Commandments in particular, and religion more generally, provide.

I can’t help but wonder whether John had something like this in mind with the temple in Jerusalem, an obvious and potent symbol of religion, its institutions and rules, its disciplines and practices. The story from John’s gospel for this Sunday is sometimes described as Jesus “cleansing” that temple, healing it, as it were, of its moral injury. The “soul” of that sacred place had been damaged, its worship and piety reduced  to a mere mechanism of exchange, as if bartering and trading one item of value for another could ever reveal how deeply the Creator God delights in the Beloved Creation.

jesus_cleansing_temple_contemporaryNo, Jesus dramatically insists, the crude mechanisms of a marketplace do not revive the soul, do not rejoice the heart, do not come anywhere near the precious value of those religious disciplines that can clear the clutter and create space for the healing of our wounded souls.

Notice in this familiar story what is not so familiar about John’s version: how early it appears in his account of the gospel—the second chapter! Most Christians, I wager, usually think of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables as a story that comes rather late in the gospel narrative, something like a culmination of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. But John puts this moment right up front, one of the very first stories he recounts in his account of the Gospel.

That is a prime story-telling location that every story-teller wants to leverage for the greatest narrative effect. So, why this story in this prime spot? Obviously, we can’t know with any certainty but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that John understood this story as one of the key components for framing the kind of account of the gospel he wanted to offer. This seems even more likely given what John has Jesus say about the Temple, or rather, how Jesus confused the religious leaders by talking about the temple of his body. This is, after all, the Gospel writer who declares in his opening verses that the Word of God became flesh.

This surely matters in a culture where far too many black and brown bodies are treated as disposable objects; in a culture flooded with #metoo hashtags, each one of them marking a moment of turning a woman’s body into a commodity to own and control; in a culture where a constitutional right to own guns takes precedence over the safety of our schools and the lives of our children.

If the language of “harming our souls” still seems just a bit too clunky, then let us speak instead of how many people today keep spiraling farther into alienation and loneliness (witness the British prime minister recently created a new governmental “minister of loneliness” to address this). Or we might pause to realize just how many turn to consumerist excess to medicate an epidemic of bodily shame, and when this fails, anti-depressants and opioids, or (which is often easier) purchasing and stockpiling assault weapons.

In such a world as this, religion and its disciplines have perhaps never been needed quite so desperately.

Or perhaps the world has never been quite so desperate to remember what it has mostly forgotten about religion: its purpose is the thriving and flourishing of life; and perhaps too many religious leaders themselves have forgotten this about religion.

Or as Jesus declares a bit later in John’s gospel, the point of all this is that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

That declaration from John’s Jesus can remind us how the ancient biblical writer introduced the Ten Commandments and the frame through which to read them and live them:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(Exodus 20:1).

The rules worth keeping—the rules we simply must keep—are the ones that liberate and give life.

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Lent 1: Be Undone, Be Remade

The Spirit leads into a wilderness.pinecrest_lake_jan_2017

 

Surely goodness and mercy shall attend us at every step.steps_beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Human One was in the wilderness with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

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God of the desert, may we recognize the tempter when he comes; let it be your bread we eat…you alone we worship.beach_wave_feb_2017_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***Images: Jay Emerson Johnson, 2016-17

***Text: the Gospel according to Matthew (4:1), according to Mark (11:13), the Psalmist (23:6), the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.