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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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Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.

If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.

All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.

I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.

Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?

The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.

The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.

Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”

The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:

  • Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
  • Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
  • Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
  • Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
  • Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%

So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?

Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).

  • John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
    John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
    John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
    John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.

John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?

Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.

Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?

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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 2: Re-Membering

Somewhere between the Borg and the Lone Ranger humanity thrives. How to define precisely where that Goldilocks sweet spot is (to toss in another cultural reference) varies depending on historical era and social location.

But we need to be very clear about this: The United States has never even come close to Borg-style “collectivism” (as Ayn Rand called it). To the contrary, the dominant Anglo-European (a.k.a. white) culture in the United States has instead preferred to idealize Lone-Ranger-style individualism, frontier independence, and to resist notions of shared responsibility (except in times of great peril, such as World War II).

In that light, it is nearly miraculous that the U.S. Congress ever passed the Social Security Act, provided Medicare for senior citizens, Medicaid to the poor, or food stamps for the hungry. Yet even those modest victories in shouldering one another’s burdens now stand at risk, especially if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win the election this November.

Social policy is important, but that’s not what’s really at stake in this election. Two very different visions for the future of this country are on the ballot this fall. And the differences are deeply philosophical, ideological, and yes, religious.

Faith communities of all kinds have an important role to play in these debates, not for the sake of imposing religious beliefs on anyone, but for bearing witness to our shared humanity in communities of generosity and service. (We can also draw on ostensibly “non-religious” sources for these important insights, such as this compelling piece that appeared recently in the New York Times on the “delusion of individualism.”)

Christian communities in particular would do well to reflect on our own traditions as November approaches. Here are just two observations among many.

“Socialism” is not Code for “Godless Communism”
Some self-styled “conservative” Christians still worry about this. A blog devoted to this anxiety actually referenced one of my blog posts as the writer issued a warning about liberal clergy undermining individual freedom in favor of state control.

I don’t take that anxiety lightly; I think Jesus actually shared it. Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire and died by its hand. He knew something about fragmented communities, and how religion can quickly acquiesce to imperial power, and what the struggles of the poor and outcast look like.

I think the first-century Jesus would have understood very well what led Ayn Rand to choose so definitively for the self against all its encroachments. Roman soldiers were present at nearly every street corner. They monitored every transaction at the temple in Jerusalem (prompting Jesus to acts of civil disobedience). They levied taxes “without representation” and demanded loyalty to the Emperor.

If you’re living under the kind of imperial power that quashes all individuality (or even perceiving yourself to be), opting for the self over all else makes sense. But Jesus chose a different path: creating a community of disciples whom he called his family; taking on the role of a servant, washing their feet, and telling them to do the same thing; and eventually giving his life for the sake of love.

Eucharistic Theology isn’t Just for Sunday Mornings
In a world of deep fragmentation and, as I suggested in Part 1 of this blog series, in a society perched on the brink of social “dismemberment,” the Christian celebration of the Eucharist has at its heart the Greek concept of anamnesis. We usually associate this word with memory, or the opposite of “amnesia.” But it evokes something stronger: the act of re-membering what has been torn apart.

Many Christian communities over the last few weeks have been hearing from John’s gospel on Sunday mornings about bread, about the feeding of 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish, about the “manna in the wilderness,” and about Jesus’ own body as the bread of the world.

Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus turned often to these passages in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to describe the Eucharist. And they did so by evoking the image of the many grains of wheat scattered over a hillside gathered into a single loaf of bread – the dismembered is re-membered as food for the world.

There precisely is where my theological conservatism and my social liberalism intersect. God gives God’s own self for the good of God’s own creation. And this creates a community whose members do the same thing.

The Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski of New Spirit Community Church often refers to the Eucharist like this:

What we do at this table is what we want to see in the world: all are welcome; there is enough for everyone; and no one is turned away.

Christians have something to say about Rand-style selfishness that now infects today’s political discourse. And we say it every time we gather around a table to share bread and wine, as we gather to re-member again what has been dis-membered.

That’s the hopeful vision we can and should take with us into the public square. I would call it “socialism,” but it certainly isn’t godless.

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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 1: Dismemberment

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”  Those words are starting to sound a bit quaint, aren’t they? They might soon be rather moot.

How about these words: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

Nearly 2,000 years ago St. Paul expressed theologically to the Romans what the framers of the U.S. Constitution aimed for politically. Both feel quite tenuous today.

To be clear, I do not mean that the “founding fathers” of this country were seeking to create a “Christian nation.” I do mean that both St. Paul and the pioneers of this country’s polity shared a simple insight that has proven, time and again, to be profoundly difficult to live. It’s just this: We’re all in the same boat.

Call it the “Body of Christ” or call it the “body politic.” In either case, your fate is tied to mine in countless and uncanny ways.

This is not some newfangled lefty slogan. We might remember the ancient Greeks in that regard, the fountainhead of modern democracy. (Yes, that’s an allusion to Ayn Rand; more on that later.)

Aristotle, for example, insisted that “the whole must of necessity be prior to the part.” (That’s from Aristotle’s Politics, book 1, chapter 2; read the whole thing here). Aristotle’s claim belongs to his extended argument for the necessity of a “polis” (poorly translated today as “city”) to extend the household and village into a wider circle of mutual exchange.

For Aristotle, individuals remain woefully incomplete without the “polis.” Even more, it’s actually unnatural for an individual to remain outside the communal bonds of the “polis”; humanity’s natural state is community, working always for the “happiness” (“well-being” might be a better translation) of all the others.

The distance we’ve traveled from Aristotle’s politics could not have been made clearer than by Mitt Romney’s choice for a vice-presidential running mate – Paul Ryan.

Much physical and digital ink has already been spent on Ryan’s affinity for Ayn Rand’s philosophy and how it has shaped his politics. Frankly, I think trying to make Ryan a Rand disciple isn’t very useful politically or culturally. He’s already distanced himself from Rand’s “atheism,” implying of course that he’s not in her ideological camp.

I think it’s much more helpful – culturally, politically, and religiously – to name explicitly what’s at stake in these philosophical and ideological issues, and it’s just this: Are we all in the same boat or not?

Ayn Rand believed that “boat” was a trap, the cultural version of the sinking Titanic. Find your own lifeboat and get away as quickly as you can so that you don’t get sucked under by the “common good.”

Rand promoted the self above all else, and any incursion from government or communal responsibility as an affront to the supreme autonomy of the individual. It’s not too much to say that Rand promoted “dismemberment,” the cutting of any ties that bind us to one another for the sake of enlightened selfishness. Do Mormon Romney and Catholic Ryan believe the same thing?

(For those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy, I highly recommend a great theological blog by a colleague of mine, the Rev. Richard Helmer, who wrote about this a few years ago.)

I believe Ayn Rand was simply mistaken on a most fundamental point: Human beings do not want most of all to be individuals; they want most of all to belong somewhere, anywhere. A recent story on NPR about the anatomy of a hate group made this perfectly clear in some troubling ways.

White supremacy groups recruit individuals who feel alienated, cut adrift, not really belonging anywhere. The most persuasive factor in motivating membership in a “hate group,” in other words, is the possibility of “belonging.”

NPR interviewed those who have left hate groups, which also suggested something quite astonishing. The most hated targets of white supremacist groups are white people who are not racists. The absolute need to bond, to create community, to have a shared “identity” is so strong that those who are most reviled by white supremacists are white people who won’t join them.

This presidential election presents a clear choice between two significantly different visions for the future of this country. It also offers a profound opportunity for religious leaders and faith communities to respond to the deep need for belonging, not with hate, but with compassion, generosity, and love.

In Part 2, I’ll suggest what Christians in particular might offer to a society perched on the brink of dismemberment: a spiritual practice of “re-membering.” Stay tuned…

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American Idols: God-Talk, Part 1

There are some things for which we do not give awards but which Americans tend to idolize nonetheless. Today I’m thinking especially of individual liberty in relation to the supposed constitutional right to have weapons, as well as the murkier right to private property. (Gird your loins for this take on such Constitutional matters.)

We’re not likely to hear a conversation about liberty as a form of idolatry in our courts of law, but it’s high time to have that conversation in our churches. Is it really okay for humans to do whatever they want? Do we really want to codify that idea? Is there nothing that Christian faith and theology can offer to these questions?

As promised, this is the first of a three-part blog series on theological ideas and why they matter. And they matter not least for the people who were killed or injured in Aurora, Colorado today and for the many species that are, even now as I write this, going extinct on this planet.

St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa)

I begin with this fourth-century quote from St. Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.”

I take Augustine to be urging two things at once: to adopt a profound humility in our theological reasoning and to avoid idolatry at all costs. (Whether he himself managed to do this is beside the point.)

Individual liberty (a modern, western, Enlightenment concept) might seem a bit out of place in a cautionary tale about humility and idols. But I believe liberty might well stand as a cypher for western modernity’s presenting sin: putting the human in the place of God. This has been happening slowly but surely for about three centuries now, at least.

The many benefits of the Enlightenment’s stress on individual autonomy and human rights notwithstanding, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” come with a significant theological and, I would argue, social cost. Concerning the former: forgetting that Christian theological traditions have never understood freedom to be synonymous with the absence of constraint (spiritual freedom is always for the sake of doing something in particular not anything at all). Concerning the latter: elevating individual freedom over the common good (individual thriving is never an end in itself but something to contribute to the greater good). I believe both are illustrations of Augustine’s cautionary note about humility and idolatry.

Consider first the unrelenting, grotesquely well-funded, and usually vitriolic rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. For them, apparently, any gun-control legislation whatsoever is a pernicious infringement on the right to “keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We are facing yet again another moment when U.S. citizens ponder the role of guns in our common life. I think it’s important to note that violent crime has actually been decreasing steadily in the U.S. over the last few years, but mass killings have seen an increase. I’m not so sure that tighter gun control laws would have prevented what happened in Aurora today. But I don’t think that’s the point.

I think the point is the stress on individual liberty, that the individual reigns supreme in all matters of social and economic policy. I believe that is a form of idolatry, of replacing God with the human. Christians should say so, regardless of the policy implications.

Consider, second, that every single oil well, gas drilling operation, and fracking enterprise relies on a murky notion of the right to private property. (In those cases, property owned by corporations, but apparently the U.S. Supreme Court believes corporations to be individuals. But don’t single out the Supremes on this. I’m always amazed that the U.N. General Assembly’s “Declaration of Universal Human Rights” in 1948 included “private property” as one of those rights, in Article 17).

Here individual liberty comes home to roost in some vexing ways. Can you do anything you please with the property you own? No, but the constraints are wildly loose, and just try arguing any constraints at all in some parts of the U.S. and be prepared to talk to a shotgun (see the first consideration above).

The very notion that human beings have a “right” to “own” property and do with it mostly as they please flies in the face of a very traditional Jewish and Christian concept: stewardship. I’m well aware of the critiques of the biblical notion of stewardship over creation derived from Genesis. That said, are the problems with the concept of stewardship more difficult to deal with than the free-range property rights of corporations and, yes, individuals?

“Stewardship” means that what one stewards is not one’s own property. It is entrusted to that person or community for the one who does “own” it — or in this case, the One who created it. Sadly, most Christians seem to talk about stewardship only in relation to fundraising, and the planet is in peril because of it.

I return often to a wonderful 2009 book by a sociologist, James William Gibson: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. I believe his thesis can be reduced to this: environmental change won’t happen unless and until we cultivate a re-enchantment with nature. And we are faced with severe obstacles in that task on nearly every front, not least is the modern western view of “nature” as simply a “grid of private property” (page 72). Just imagine flying over the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. What would you see out the window of that plane? Mostly property lines – state, corporate, and individual. Where is the Creator of all this?

There are of course many other forms of American idolatry – the flag, the institution of marriage, free-market capitalism, home ownership, and the Super Bowl, to name just a few. And of course, theology itself can easily become an idol, and Augustine was particularly keen to guard against that.

I’ll make suggestions in response to all that in the next two blog posts in this series, including how we might think about creedal statements in Christian history and also how the “erotic” is indispensable to “traditional” and “classic” Christianity. So stay tuned.

For now, as a beginning, I’ll offer this: Extolling the virtues of individual liberty belongs on a slippery slope toward idolatry, to replacing God with the individual human. I think that’s where any discussion of theological ideas – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, radical, or reactionary – needs to begin. Are we trying to deal with an encounter with the living God, the Creator of all, or an idol?

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps our Muslim sisters and brothers say it best:

“There is no God but God (lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh).”

That claim could, quite literally and practically and thankfully, change the world.

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When “Liberal” Rhymes with “Theology” It’s Time for Evangelism

I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.

Set aside for the moment all the problems involved in defining those highly-charged labels. I think lots of people would find it intriguing if not compelling and attractive to suppose that one’s social liberalism could derive from one’s theological conservatism. It’s a wonderfully peculiar notion and it apparently suffices to short-circuit the otherwise rational brains of journalists (among many others).

The New York Times has now joined both the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net (among other media sites) in providing a rather odd spin on the recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Ross Douthat’s opinion piece is a breath of fresh air after the acerbic screed offered by Jay Akasie in the Wall Street Journal (of course the bar was set rather low…just sayin’.) And while Mr. Akasie’s piece has gone viral in the religious blogosphere, including here, I hope Mr. Douthat’s piece will too. It deserves attention.

Mr. Douthat offers the relief of reasonableness in the current slurry of religious commentary on General Convention, including what I take to be his clarion call for evangelism. I embrace that call, but for reasons that I think are significantly different from his. Indeed, I think he made some significant missteps in his piece; more on those in a moment.

The bottom line: Mr. Douthat argues that liberal Christianity needs to recover a “religious reason for its own existence.” I beg your pardon, Mr. Douthat, but you haven’t been paying attention – those religious reasons (plural) have been articulated aplenty. Take solace, though, in knowing that you are not alone. Hardly any other major media commentator understands liberal theology as theology either.

So I write this as a passionate liberal and a committed conservative, even though those labels are ridiculously malleable. And that’s exactly the point. If what lots of people are seeking (as Mr. Douthat hints at in his piece) are ways to embrace the historical traditions of Christianity while also adopting socially progressive postures toward cultural issues, well, come on over to the Episcopal Church!

The fact that Mr. Douthat would apparently not comprehend my invitation speaks volumes about the evangelistic task now facing Episcopalians following our General Convention. And that’s my point here: We Episcopalians need to be much more proactive and far less apologetic about our love of tradition for the sake of social change. Episcopalians? How about ALL self-styled progressive Christians? Come on folks, that’s what the world is hungry for!

In that light, here’s where I believe Mr. Douthat stumbled:

Misstep #1: Liberal Values Derive from Culture Alone

He didn’t quite say that, but according to Mr. Douthat, the latest General Convention merely confirms that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

That’s an astonishing claim in at least two respects. First, unless he and I were observing different conventions, the materials considered by those gathered recently in Indianapolis required some rather heavy theological lifting just to read let alone to discuss. And second, just because some positions adopted by a church body might align with the values and positions of “secular liberalism” does not, ipso facto, make them non-theological or somehow irrelevant to church life or redundant or…

Actually, I’m not entirely sure what point Mr. Douthat wished to make with that claim. But he does imply (though he refrains from saying so directly) that ostensibly liberal positions indicate a reliance on secular values rather than theological reasoning. He mitigates that charge by referencing the robust theological works that were part of the Social Gospel Movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alas, he doesn’t seem to connect the dots between then and now.

Social gospel tent meeting in the late 19th century.

Misstep #2: The Episcopal Church Eschews Theology

Here Mr. Douthat is not at all coy about his perspective, and this misstep follows logically from the first one. If the Episcopal Church adopts a socially liberal position, it must have borrowed it from culture, not theology. This assumption has been around for a good long while now, and I keep puzzling over it, trying to make sense of it.

I can only suppose that self-styled conservatives are irritated and annoyed when self-styled liberals actually do our theological homework. That’s the only way I can make any sense of Mr. Douthat’s description of the Episcopal Church as “eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

As a theologian in the Episcopal Church, I certainly find it difficult not to be defensive about that statement. So let’s back up a moment.

It is true that in Christian history theological traditions have frequently served institutional preservation. That historical tendency has made the words “theology” and “conservative” seem naturally and obviously paired, like bread and butter (or I guess for Anglicans, like scones and jam). But correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and that can be annoying if one expects theology to serve socially conservative positions.

Unfortunately, that annoyance can create blind spots, for both “liberals” and “conservatives” alike. Consider, for example, the now infamous Windsor Report, which was prepared by a commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The report called on the Episcopal Church to provide theological justification for that ordination since, apparently, we had not done so. This came as quite a surprise to many of us on this side of the Pond who wondered what had happened to the decades of theological work that we had done on precisely that question. Is there some kind of theological “Bermuda Triangle” in the middle of the Atlantic that swallows up “liberal” texts?

The response to that call came in the form of a document called “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” which was commissioned by the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (I was privileged indeed to have contributed to that work). The document provided our biblical, historical, and theological rationale for the ordination of Bishop Robinson and a lengthy appendix detailing the history of that work stretching back to at least 1976.

I’ve heard nary a word about it since (further evidence for my “Bermuda Triangle” theory).

So now consider what just happened in Indianapolis. Those of us who worked on the same-sex blessings project were committed to grounding our work in Scripture, drawing from historical traditions, and providing sound theological arguments. The result was a report that contained theological essays, pastoral care and teaching materials, guidance concerning canon and civil law, and of course the liturgy itself – a report of nearly 100 pages.

I really don’t think I’m being defensive by insisting that Mr. Douthat reconsider whether the document we prepared illustrates an eagerness to “downplay theology entirely” among Episcopalians. Frankly, that’s a cheap shot and not worthy of your journalistic skills, Mr. Douthat.

Misstep #3: Liberal Nuns Dilute Catholicism

In an otherwise cogent and well-written column, I’m a bit perplexed by Mr. Douthat’s nearly gratuitous critique of Roman Catholic nuns. He seems to argue that the Vatican needs to interrupt the socially liberal American nuns lest we lose the socially liberal institutions that they have founded and operate. Maybe I’m the only one, but I find that incoherent.

Here again I can only assume that sound theological reasons for socially liberal advocacy simply scramble the radar for some people. After all, one of the best examples outside of the Episcopal Church for a robust theological liberalism is actually (wait for it) the tradition of Roman Catholic social teaching. I don’t mean the latest declarations from Benedict XVI. I mean the rich resources one can find in: “Rerum Novarum” (a late 19th century encyclical on the rights of workers in relation to capital, among other astonishingly “socialist” ideas); or “Gaudium et Spes” (a brilliant piece of theologically sophisticated social analysis from the Second Vatican Council); or “Economic Justice for All” (the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the US economy in 1986, with important sections on biblical and theological reflection).

Media commentators are no less tone deaf to Roman Catholic social teaching than they are to any other instance of theologically informed progressive Christianity. Quite honestly I fear that way too many people today in North Atlantic societies (journalists or not) simply cannot wrap their heads around a “conservative” theological position that has socially “liberal” consequences.

The fault for that lies not with journalists, but with Christians – with people, that is, like me, and with institutions like the ones I work for right now: seminaries and congregations who simply haven’t figured out how to “message their message.”

So I’m grateful for Ross Douthat’s column. I think it issues a clarion call to Episcopalians to do what most of us haven’t been trained to do: articulate loudly and clearly and evangelistically why the theological traditions of Christianity carry the potential to transform society into the Kingdom of God.

Our ancestors in the faith understood the importance of doing that. Now it’s our turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s do it.

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Stop Making Sense

Ever talk so crazy that people thought you were drunk? Ever babble out a fantastic idea so quickly that it sounded like gibberish and your friends thought about calling for an ambulance? Ever said something or done something while you were so terrified to do it that you thought you might be crazy?

Hold that thought for a moment and think about politics and social policy. Democrats generally think Paul Ryan’s budget proposals are just plain nuts. Republicans generally think that President Obama’s approach to health care is certifiably loony. But Rep. Ryan thinks his budget makes perfect sense; President Obama believes the Affordable Care Act is at least a step in the right, sensible, sane direction.

Most of our political, economic, and social policy debates transpire with the assumption that the most rational, sensible, and logical position should win the day. For many, that is clearly not true. For some it is. I can scarcely believe that western civilization now needs to debate what “reasonable” or “sensible” or “logical” actually means. But here we are.

So, unless we’re ready to spend the time, energy, and expense to recalibrate an entire country’s understanding of what a sensible analysis of the facts might actually look like (and I can’t imagine what that even means), then I say it’s time to stop making sense entirely. (And yes, I’m inspired here by a great song by that wonderfully quirky band, The Talking Heads.)

It seems to me that Christians might have something to offer to all this political brouhaha about the eminently sensible adoption of the genuinely nonsensical. It seems to me that Christians might have something to say about the abundant life that issues from claims that sound so terribly irrational. It seems to me that Christians might actually bear witness to the transforming power of visions for a radically different kind of world – even if, and especially if those visions just don’t make any sense.

It seems to me that when Christians talk so crazy that people think they’re drunk, well, something like the Spirit might be at work. Something like that happened to the earliest Christians during a moment that Christians will celebrate tomorrow: Pentecost. I think it’s high time for some more of that outrageous crazy-talk from Christians and Christian communities. It’s time to turn the world upside down (that’s how the biblical writer of Acts described what the early Christian community did – 17:6). It’s time to stop making sense.

If you don’t think the world today needs overturning, here’s a short list of a world gone off the rails: an unprecedented gap between the filthy rich and the dying poor in the U.S. and around the world; legislation everywhere limiting a woman’s choices over nearly everything about her own body; “fracking” this planet for natural resources with earthquakes as the “cost of doing business,” not to mention polluted drinking water that you can actually ignite with a match; obscene displays of white supremacy among politicians, religious leaders, neighbors, a resurgent KKK; LGBT teenagers killing themselves because of self-righteous clergy who prefer worshipping the sanctity of maleness rather than God. Oh, the list goes on and on.

It is way past time to stop making sense. It is way past time to reject all these sensible proposals for economic stability. It is way past time to interrupt rational discourse with visions.

We need Christians who talk so crazy that people think they might be drunk. We need Christians who live so crazy that their friends and families suggest psychotropic drugs. We need Christian communities with such crazy visions that the news media call them for interviews, and city councils worry about what happens in church buildings on Sunday mornings, and the Department of Homeland Security opens a file on them for fear of sedition.

If you think any or all of this sounds just plain nuts, read the biblical “Acts of the Apostles.” Want a blueprint for a Christian revolution? Ever wonder what the Christian “gay agenda” looks like? Read Acts.

I recently read this wonderful description of Pentecost from Richard Rohr:

We have been waiting for what will come… It is the day we are always waiting for but are never prepared for… It is that day when we can speak and be understood at last, the day when we can babble incoherently and people do not laugh, when it is okay to love God without apology or fear, when we know that all of the parts are different and yet all of the parts are enjoying one another.

That’s one of the best summaries of Pentecost I’ve ever read – and it’s totally bonkers. And I think it’s high time Christian communities today articulated something – anything — with the same visionary power.

Of course, this is hard work. There’s lots of practical stuff we need to address here, lots of strategizing to be done, lots of rational, common sense, logical planning. But I firmly believe that even the best strategy will stumble and fail if there’s no vision animating it.

So, what’s your vision for the world? What’s your vision for your city? What’s your vision for your family, your life? Can we finally stop talking about “sensible” budgets, policies, and rules and finally start talking about the kind of world we want to live in? Can we finally start speaking out loud our visions for the world we want, no matter if it sounds crazy?

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump here, crazy is as crazy does; so let’s get crazy.

Happy Pentecost!

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“Behold thy Mother” — Marriage, Family, & Salvation

Jesus created a family. Would voters in North Carolina or at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church recognize it?

That question occurred to me as I read the full transcript of President Obama’s interview this week about marriage equality. He mentioned the word “families” or “family” explicitly at least five times and referred to the various families he knows even more. (Read the transcript of the interview here.)

In fact, Mr. Obama talked about families more often than he talked about fairness and equality. And that’s exactly where the emphasis belongs. Fairness and equality matter so much because families matter so much.

Those who are opposed to marriage equality seem to worry most about what will happen to the “traditional” family. So on this Mother’s Day weekend, Christians might want to pause and consider just one traditional biblical family, the one Jesus created.

Go back to Good Friday for a moment and to John’s gospel. As Jesus is suffering the throes of an ugly death, something quite beautiful happens. He looks around and sees only a few of his intimates nearby, including his mother. And then he speaks to her: “Woman, here is your son.” Then he turns to the “disciple whom he loved” who is also standing there and says, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, the disciple took Mary into his own home (John 19:26-27).

So who is this “disciple” in the story? Is it the same one, the “beloved disciple,” that reclined so tenderly against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper? Is it the author of the gospel itself, who recounted the first miracle of Jesus at a wedding? And by the way, where did all the other male disciples run off to at this moment, leaving just this one man with some women at the foot of the cross? (About that question, many gay and lesbian people could offer hundreds of anecdotes in response; but I digress.)

This is a rather peculiar moment. In the midst of profound suffering and on the verge of death, wouldn’t Jesus have other more pressing things on his mind than family planning? On the other hand, what else could be more urgent than what will become of those he loves once he’s dead? Could families be a matter of life and death? And isn’t that how many Christians would also describe “salvation”?

In this wonderfully peculiar gospel moment, Jesus explicitly creates a family. I would guess that this particular family had already been formed prior to this moment, but here Jesus doesn’t want to leave any doubts.

Nor should we have any doubts about this: only a very few jurisdictions in this country would even recognize what Jesus created as a family. And I wonder what would happen if Christian churches took a vote on it. Would our synods and general conferences and assemblies vote to recognize the mother of a dying man and that man’s male companion as a “family”?

The beloved disciple took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his own home. Today, that household arrangement would face significant hardship without social security survivor benefits, IRS allowances in the tax code, and access to health insurance. These aren’t obscure social policy details, which is exactly why Mr. Obama spoke so frequently this week about families.

Some gay and lesbian couples cried as they watched our President declare support for marriage equality and “straight” allies shouted with jubilation and many religious leaders voiced a hearty “Amen.” They did this because of the most biblical and traditional reason there is: family.

In this Easter season, Christians celebrate the promise of new life. Mother’s Day celebrates the traditional family. Jesus wonderfully blended the new and the old as he was dying, by reminding us what family really means, just as President Obama did this week.

So here’s a peculiar thought: Mr. Obama’s interview would hardly be newsworthy if more politicians and religious leaders alike actually read the Bible.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.