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Cradle It — Tenderly, Fiercely, Queerly

This holy-day season offers plenty of queerness, enough to inspire some gritty hope and ignite a fleshy faith in a world that has run completely off the rails.

Do you hear what I hear? Racist taunts and misogynistic jokes and the derisive mocking of the disabled; stock market bells clanging with stratospheric heights while people huddle under highway overpasses without any home or hearth; the panicked whimpering of cattle herded toward their slaughter in filthy factory farms.

Do you see what I see? Syrian cities in rubble; sinking rafts on the Mediterranean Sea; a deadlocked American jury unable to convict; polar icecaps vanishing like morning mist; the Hijab torn from a tearful head of a Muslim, her face wracked with fear and foreboding.

Do you wonder, as I often do, what possible difference any of us can make in world such as this? I know and affirm the standard response: we need to strategize, and organize, and pull as many legislative levers as possible to yank us toward a society of peace and justice.

And still I wonder: can we avoid playing a tit-for-tat game of political power? Do we measure success by how many votes are cast? How many “losers” can we tolerate when we finally “win”?

Perhaps we need to return or begin and then stay rooted elsewhere, which this peculiar season with a cradle in it urges me to remember. The God who shows up as an infant marks a way forward, the way of the flesh – touching it tenderly, caressing it carefully, embracing it fiercely.nativity_guatemalan

How romantically naïve that sounds, if not thoroughly ludicrous. Except for this: the powerful retain their power by keeping us divided and fragmented; by telling us that some people cannot be touched much less loved; that whole populations belong behind walls, out of reach; that entire species are merely disposable for the sake of economic growth and profitability.

As a white man entangled in all the horrific machinations of white supremacy and misogyny, I’m grateful for Toni Morrison’s reminder of why a fleshy faith matters in systems of oppressive institutional power. In her novel Beloved, the character of Baby Suggs preaches to her fellow ex-slaves, urging them to love their flesh, to “love it hard”:

Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. … This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up.

Queerly, to work for a better world we must first and continually cradle the flesh and cherish it – I mean, really cherish it: hug it, feed it, sing to it, cuddle it, rescue it, stand up for it, brush out its matted fur, pour a river of cleansing tears over it as we massage it, adore it, and never, ever take it for granted.

Imagine your whole family doing this as a Christmas gift, setting aside petty disagreements and all the fretting over suitable presents and showering each other with hugs and kisses.

Imagine your neighborhood, your whole circle of friends and colleagues, pausing to hold hands and rub sore shoulders and linger in a protective embrace. And then more: inviting all those “others” to join you in that arc of fleshy touch – the stranger and alien, the differently colored and accented speakers, the hungry and lonely, the despised and abandoned.

Imagine people everywhere, starting in your own cozy nook and familiar cranny, and extending across this country and around the globe honoring and worshiping the flesh – assigning worth to it, as “worship” quite literally means.

Adore the flesh that God made, just as God does. Taking unimaginable delight in this flesh, God dives headlong into this whole beautiful, poignant mess with us, landing in a cradle. And for no other reason than endless, deathless love.

If we imagine these things and do them, we might hear a heavenly chorus of angels break into song once again, probably weeping as they do, overcome and undone by the glory of God…in cherished flesh.

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Seeds of Faith for a Harvest of Justice

I have taken recently to wearing a “Black Lives Matter” wristband. I do this not to earn political correctness points – as if white men needed any more points; as if a few more points could balance the injustice ledger; as if disarming the violent machinations of late-modern-global-capitalism had anything to do with points at all.

I wear the wristband for reasons having mostly to do with faith.

This past Sunday, many Christians heard a series of biblical texts, all of which orbited around faith – what it looks like, how it feels, why it matters. According to Luke, first century disciples urged Jesus to help them: “Increase our faith!”

I’m sure people of color in the United States would plead for something a bit more specific: “Increase justice!” Could faith have anything to do with justice? Good Lord, I hope so. But how?

Among the texts many of us heard this past Sunday, this portion from the ancient prophet Habakkuk sounds rather eerily as if it were written just yesterday:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save? …
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

Even so, Habakkuk writes, “the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk explains what that looks like for him: “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart, and I will keep watch” (2:1).

That prophetic posture reminds me that living by faith means, in part, paying attention. Clearly, we are saturated these days with constant news and images and campaign soundbites and tweets and Facebook status updates – I’d rather not pay quite so much attention to all of that.

As a white man, however, my Christian faith demands paying attention to the resurgent and more visible dynamics of race and gender in this country – more particularly, the pernicious effects of white supremacy and the stubborn resilience of misogyny.

As a white man, I can easily overlook or never even notice how the institutions and policies of American society are set up for my benefit. I need not look any farther than my own campus and classrooms to see the dynamics of privilege swirling around my whiteness and maleness. Not needing to notice all this is part of the privilege of being white and male – and some will defend that privilege vigorously, with violence if necessary.

Black Lives Matter” now encircles my wrist as I try to do what Habakkuk did – to stand at the watch post and pay attention. In a society that wants me to take my white privilege for granted, this wristband brings that privilege to my attention whenever I glance down at my keyboard to do my work – it’s in my field of vision right now, as I type this. It urges me to pay attention and do whatever I can to make my work matter for justice.blm_wristband

How puny and trivial, I often think. What in the world (quite literally) can I do as an affluent, white, male, priest, and academic that would make even a dent in the well-established, centuries-old systems of dominance and oppression? By myself, probably not much. But with others, far more than I realize. That’s how I read what many of us heard from Luke’s Jesus this week:

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5).

Filipe Maia, a colleague of mine, preached brilliantly on this text. He reminded me that it’s not very likely that Jesus just chose those species of plants randomly, as if any kind of seed or tree would do to make his point.

The mustard plant common to the Middle East is not usually cultivated because it spreads quickly all on its own and germinates easily in desert conditions. It tolerates not only hot and arid conditions but survives even wild fires. It doesn’t need much depth of soil and grows comfortably on rocky hillsides. Its sticky seed coatings cling to the hides of animals and spread over vast regions. Or, as we might say today, the mustard plant is an invasive species.

Mulberry trees can grow much larger than mustard plants. Once they’re established, they send down deep roots and grow thick trunks and need very little tending; they are stubborn, resilient, and can live well for many generations, often more than 75 years – they seem immovable and permanent.

Here, then, is what I heard Luke’s Jesus say: If you think you don’t have enough faith, or that it doesn’t matter, or that nothing you do ever really makes a difference, or that silly little wristband is just your latest nod to consumerist impulses to soothe white guilt, think again.

Faith can take root in the driest conditions and the roughest terrain; it will germinate more quickly than you imagined, and its sticky seeds will quietly spread beyond where you thought possible; before long every hillside will blossom with its bright colors.

The seeds of faith will respond to even the slightest gesture of nurture and the tiniest hint of water. Faith itself will quietly spread, I heard Jesus say, and it will eventually overtake even the most resilient trees, uprooting their deep and stubborn systems of pride and prejudice, of hostility and violence – even the ones planted deeply in your own heart and soul and body.

This, we might suppose, is why the psalmist wrote so confidently – with such absurd confidence – the words so many Christians recited this past week:

Do not fret over evildoers;
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
For they shall soon wither like the grass,
and like the green grass fade away.
Put your trust in God and do good; …
Commit your way to God in trust,
for God will bring it to pass (Psalm 37).

I find it impossible to cultivate that kind of trust on my own; I need others to help me.

mustard_hillsidesThe peculiar faith of Christians has nothing to do with lone-ranger style heroics or herculean efforts. It’s actually simpler and more profound: take your tiny little seed of faith and combine it with the seeds of others. Plant those sticky seeds.

Here in Northern California, I’m surrounded by images of what a shared and sticky faith might yield – hillsides covered in the glorious colors of faith and justice.

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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.