Justice, Kindness, and Executive Orders

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


 The readings for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany could not have come at a more pertinent and bizarre moment in our history. Last Friday, the president signed an executive order halting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and suspending refugee admission for 120 days. On that day, Trump spoke to the Christian Broadcast Network and stated that resettling Christian refugees would be a priority for his administration¹. This all followed a year-long campaign that called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, and the possibility of a Muslim registry. This executive order is consistent with his despicable comments on the campaign trail, and has already caused harm to citizens, immigrants, and refugees.

God bless the liturgy.

If there is one verse (besides John 3:16) that most Christians have burned into their collective memory, my guess is Micah 6:8. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This verse’s simplicity and its beauty combine to make it one of the most profound and challenging lines in the Bible. Though many Christians have this verse memorized, I wonder how many of us actively engage with what the prophet is asking. What does it mean to do justice? To love kindness? How is it that we can walk humbly with God? These are questions that we continue to wrestle with over a lifetime, often stumbling and finding that what we thought it meant maybe wasn’t so. I’ve found in my own experience that I often stumble while trying to perform ethical and linguistic jujitsu in order to avoid the clear implications of a text like this. I’ve argued my way out of doing justice by concluding that my context is so radically different from that of the authors. Surely, there are not the same kinds of expectations for us modern readers?

This attempt to avoid the implications are quickly dashed when we read the rest of Micah. Micah speaks directly to a context that is awash in corrupt and hateful government. He chides the chiefs and officials of Jerusalem saying, “Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong.” These words resonate for me as we witness an administration, supported by far too many, fulfilling promises soaked in racism, bigotry, and hatred. It is within our own context, our moment in history, that we are called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Now, I understand that many of us will have radically different ways of doing justice and loving kindness, but what seems clear to me is that silence and acceptance of legislated hatred is neither just nor kind. This means that we must find a way that is authentic to ourselves to support and defend those who are targeted by hatred, state-sponsored or otherwise. I know that this is not always easy. Many of us who hold significant amounts of privilege, and who have been awakened to the injustice and suffering of our neighbors (of which we have been ignorant for far too long), truly want to be allies and to stand with those who are bearing the brunt of this unbearable burden. Unfortunately, we just don’t know how. We’re unsure of our place in the struggle, we’re afraid to say or do the wrong thing, and we don’t understand the practical steps required of us. This discomfort prevents far too many of us from taking a stand, and our continuing absence furthers the suffering and discrimination of our neighbors. Rather than retreating from our discomfort, we need to lean in, understanding that these feelings of fear, inadequacy, and uncertainty are opportunities for us to deconstruct some of the ways we continue to contribute to a hurting world.

For me, the last week and a half is evidence that millions of people are doing just that. The Women’s March on the 21st was the largest demonstration in US history, with more than 3 million people marching. And when two Iraqi nationals were detained at JFK International Airport on Saturday, thousands spontaneously appeared to denounce the hateful executive order, and to demand the release of the detainees. Over the weekend protests popped up at airports around the country, including here in Minneapolis, and are scheduled to continue while the courts challenge the constitutionality of the order. I haven’t felt this hopeful in months. Like many, I have been swimming in negativity and despair, and have been tempted to just kick back and watch it all burn. But this week reassured me that there are millions of people out there doing justice and loving kindness.

While protesters gathered at JFK, I was with 2,000 other people of faith at an event hosted by ISAIAH called “Building our Prophetic Resistance”. An ecumenical and intercultural group of leaders challenged us to engage in 100 days of resistance, to embody the call of our faith, and to resist demagoguery and hatred. As I listened to preachers, teachers, senators, and mayors, I was struck by how close I felt to everyone in the room, like we had all come together in the same car or something. I only knew a handful of folks in the crowd, but it was clear to me that this group of people had assembled to support one another in the important and challenging work ahead. We prayed for each other, and we talked about the Spirit’s pull that brought us there. That room felt mobilized and ready to work together, and it was profoundly hopeful.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. This is the rallying cry I needed to hear, and it is the call I hope to follow. I vow to show up as fully and authentically as I can, and to pursue justice by calling out evil, opposing that which targets anyone’s dignity and humanity, and using the privilege I have to engage in political action. I will do so with the hopeful vision of the beloved community as my inspiration. I will love kindness by remembering that in the end the beloved community is made up of all people, not only those that agree with me. I will walk humbly with my God, knowing that I will not always be right, and will often make mistakes in word and deed. I will extend grace to myself and to others, with the hope that our ability to hold each other’s messiness will further our vision of the beloved community and the flourishing of all people. I’m going to lean into those places where I feel discomfort, grateful that these moments often lead to hope. We are in such need of hope. The words of the prophet Micah, and the response of people all over this country has reignited that hope for me, and though the darkness of this present moment still lingers and promises to advance, I am grateful for the light that sneaks in through the cracks and swallows it whole. Amen.


¹https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/christians-refugees-trump/514820/

 

 

 

 

Comfort is Not the Christmas Call

The Christmas season is upon us. We waited and waited in the agony of Advent. We anticipated Christ’s immanent arrival on Christmas Eve, singing Silent Night at candlelit services. We woke on Sunday morning, opened gifts with friends and family, and (some of us) made our way to church, where we shouted Joy to the World with what zeal we could. We celebrated the birth of Hope, the arrival of the Wonderful Counselor, with food, and family, and movie marathons (it was Lord of the Rings at our house). And, now that Christmas day has passed, and the New Year is just around the corner, I’m wondering what the implications are for the birth of Hope. What does it mean for the world that Christ is born? What does it mean for those of us who try to follow Jesus in our daily lives? It seems to me that there must be more to the birth of Hope than impotent platitudes about Jesus as our personal savior, or the promises that Jesus will heal the ills of our existential angst.

For much of American Christianity, Jesus has become an idol of comfort and the preservation of the status quo. At best Jesus asks us to be nicer at work, at worst Jesus mirrors all the ugliness of our brokenness and personal biases. There is a common refrain that if we will only accept Jesus into our hearts than all our personal suffering will be absolved. In this telling of the “Good News” (if it can even be called that) your suffering is your own fault, and the suffering of the world is a reflection of the unwillingness of individuals to make room for Jesus in their lives. Peter Rollins, in his book The Idolatry of God, calls this deferment, saying, “This strategy emphasizes techniques to help you step into the wholeness that you supposedly already have. In terms of Christianity, one is invited to attend conferences, read the latest book, pray more, read the Bible more, worship more, ad infinitum” [1]. This is a message heard over and over by Christians from churches, pastors, televangelists, and bloggers, especially in the realm of American Evangelicalism. And for many Christians, Christmas marks the day we celebrate the birth of this God-object Jesus, whose very purpose is to make us not feel so bad all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work and it fails to accurately convey the powerful and radical implications of the Christmas story.

This is why I am so grateful for the Liturgy, and for those churches who follow it. The liturgical tradition simply refuses to let us become complacent. We are not allowed to pine after the Jesus who brings only wholeness and inner peace. We are confronted instead with a continuous story of disruption, whether we like it or not. This was made abundantly clear to me as I sat down for morning prayer, the day after Christmas, and was reminded of Saint Stephen. December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions, and celebrates the faith’s first martyr. It struck me as particularly profound and challenging to be honoring the death of a martyr the day after celebrating the birth of a savior. Somehow it seems out-of-place, and even inappropriate to move so quickly from joy to despair, but this is exactly what the liturgy asks of us.

The story of Stephen is found in the book of Acts. There were complaints among the followers of Jesus (post-Ascension) that certain widows were being neglected when food was given out, and the Apostles decided to appoint seven disciples to serve as the church’s social workers, Stephen chief among them. Some people began to argue with Stephen, and when he proved too strong a debater, they convinced the council that he was a blasphemer who spoke against the Law and the Temple. Before the council, Stephen gives a powerful speech, wherein he recounts the family history of Israel from Abraham to Moses, and then condemns those present for their consistent and persistent persecution of prophets saying:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Acts 7:51-53

Burn. The council thought so too, and they forcibly drug Stephen out of the city to be stoned. As they stoned him, Stephen called to Jesus, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

I thought about Stephen and what the Christmas story meant to him; what implications the incarnational event had for his life. Did Stephen accept Jesus into his heart and find that comfort and peace were his reward? Clearly not. Stephen found that the call of Jesus is most often disruptive, and even dangerous. He discovered that a life devoted to service and empowerment of other people will always run up against power that is derived from oppression and exclusion. He discovered that the birth of Hope, and the following of its call, threatens our lives as we know them. This does not sound like the pliant and peaceable Jesus that we hear so much about in American Christianity, who is obsessed only with how much we say we love him, and with our adherence to strict and manipulative legalism. The Jesus that called Stephen came to mess stuff up.

This seems to run counter to the popular assumption that Jesus’ primary purpose was to bring wholeness to a broken world. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” We have domesticated Jesus for our own purposes, so that we can avoid the true implications of the Christmas story; that Being itself put on flesh and participated in human suffering, and in so doing calls us to a radical and dangerous way of life that includes, rather than excludes; offers mercy, rather than violence; that gives up our very lives for the sake of the Kingdom vision. Jesus destroys our conception of wholeness and offers us a new wholeness that looks an awful lot like brokenness. This is what Rollins means when he says:

“…instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, we shall soon discover something much more amazing and liberating: namely that the God testified to in Christianity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol.”[2]

This invitation is the struggle of the Christian life and is absurdly difficult for us to embrace. Temptation and distraction are everywhere, and it is so easy to forget how it is that Christ calls us to live. For me, this is where the true power of the liturgy is made manifest. What the liturgy provides us is not wholeness, nor a practice that leads to wholeness; rather, it provides us with a rhythmic and persistent engagement with the stories of our Christ, the call to us as Christians, and the challenge to reject the falseness of our desire to be comforted. It is impossible to read the Psalms every day and find oneself truly comforted. Our prayers in the litany call us to consider the suffering of the world and our role in it. We receive the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and we are challenged daily by the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. I have found that in this practice, the Christmas story takes on a more radical and challenging dimension than it has in the past. It reveals that the birth of Hope sets spark to the world and breaks everything wide open, and it seems to me that if the Christmas story does not inspire us to radically rethink our way of being in the world and make us truly uncomfortable, we may want to read it a few more times. Peace.

[1] & [2]Rollins, Peter. The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. New York: Howard, 2013. Print.

 

 

The Call of Christmas

Christmas is just a few days away and for people like me, the race is on to find those last-minute gifts on Amazon and pray that they will arrive on time. I do this every year; I think, “Oh I have plenty of time”, and then the looming specter of Christmas appears and I’m thrown into a panic. I’ve never been particularly crazy about the Christmas season, especially as it is celebrated in American culture. It’s just too stressful. There is so much pressure to have good cheer and to be obnoxiously joyful despite whatever reality you may be dealing with, and to pick the perfect present so your family and friends know how much you love them. It feels fundamentally inauthentic to me and so I get grumpy and cynical. It’s tradition.

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the swirl of consumerism surrounding the entire season of Christmas. I know that everything that can ever be said about the destructive relationship between Christmas and money has already been said, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think it’s an important conversation for us to be having, particularly in light of a 2016 that has been, in a word or two, a nightmarish dumpster fire. Just this week we’ve seen atrocity and horror in the city of Aleppo, the assassination of a Russian diplomat, continued nonsense and dangerous rhetoric from the President-elect, and a string of violent attacks across Europe. And that’s just the stuff that’s made the news. So, as I anticipate the celebration of Christ’s coming into this broken world, I’m wondering, what is our response? Are we to ring in the arrival of salvation, personified in the vulnerability of a child, with debauched and wanton expenditure, and the monetization of our dearest relationships? Or is there another way?

My first semester at seminary came to a close last week, and I found myself, for the first time in months, able to read a book of my own choosing. I decided to reread Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, which might not be the kind of escape I was initially looking for, but which nevertheless brings me joy. In the early part of the book Tillich describes three primary types of anxiety and the corresponding periods in history when each type was dominant (to be clear Tillich’s view of history and the corresponding anxieties are reflections primarily through a Western lens): the anxiety of fate and death and its expression at the end of ancient civilization, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation predominant in the middle ages, and our modern expression of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. As I read Tillich’s description I wondered if this was still the true expression of anxiety for our time. Is it a fundamentally spiritual anxiety that we see infecting our politics, economics, and relationships? The pull towards nationalism and fundamentalism on a national scale seems to confirm this, and Tillich’s words seem to describe so much of our political landscape:

“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference…

…Then man [sic] tries another way out…he tries to break out of this situation, to identify with something transindividual, to surrender his separation and self-relatedness. He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively” 1.

Tillich’s assessment seems to me all too familiar as I consider the rise of the radical right, the proliferation of “fake news”, and the general defensiveness on all sides of political, religious, and cultural ideologies. The authoritative imposition of meaning on individuals seems to me to be a phenomenon encountered on both sides of our political and religious discussions, and I have myself felt the anxiety associated with this desire to have questions answered in a way that supports my particular community. This desire to combat the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness drives so much of our interactions as citizens, family members, and consumers. And, it is this final category where I believe our battle with emptiness comes into direct and powerful authoritarian conflict with our spiritual lives, and with our “celebration” of Christmas in particular.

In Tillich’s estimation, people who have had beliefs breakdown or worldviews blown apart are driven to devotion after devotion as the objects of their devotion inevitably prove to be lacking. However, it seems that the power of consumer culture and the idol of wealth is that where other objects of devotion seem to have limits or boundaries, our devotion to wealth and consumption simply draws us in deeper and deeper by offering more, ever more. We don’t seem to hit that wall wherein we experience the true emptiness of wealth and consumption because we have been convinced that there is no such wall. There is always more to be had, more to buy, more to accumulate. It’s a kind of fail-safe in the economic system; if you don’t feel fulfilled than just keep consuming more.

Not only that, but our economic system and the producers of goods actively facilitate the kind of anxiety we are discussing so that a solution can be sold to compensate. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, says:

“This is more than just a continuing attempt to make a product better; it is what the General Motors people called ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ How can we be content with a mere two blades when the current standard is five? How can we be content with an iPod that downloads two hundred songs when someone else has one that downloads a thousand? The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough, I am happy with what I have.’’ 2

The anxiety of emptiness has become a tool of marketers and producers and is used against us as a way of propping up a fundamentally empty idol. And yet, it is this idol that we lift especially high as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing our desire to give good gifts to our friends and family. I am not suggesting that we all renounce wealth and material goods. I am simply asking that we examine the cognitive dissonance between commemorating the birth of Jesus (who spoke far more about the dangers of wealth and unjust economics than he did any other topic) with devotion to the principles of consumption. I think we may be missing the point. We consume at astronomical levels to honor the Christ who said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This is something I simply cannot reconcile, and yet I do this very thing every single year. I stress and agonize over what gifts to get for family and friends, making up arbitrary dollar amounts in my head that, somehow, are supposed to accurately convey my feelings of love and affection. I spend money that, frankly, I don’t have because I would be ashamed to say I can’t afford that. I day-dream about the gifts I might get from others, and feel disappointment if I do not receive what I expected. I contribute to an inequitable and immoral economic system that targets particular communities, and makes silent the voices of the oppressed. And yet, in the midst of this I sit in the pew and sing praises to the Christ who has been born in a manger, and who’s life and call will challenge me to a radical reexamination of my world and my place in it. For the love of God, there must be a better way.

I have been watching coverage of the siege of Aleppo and wondering what it means for me to be a Christian, at Christmas, in this particular time in history. Is there, perhaps, some greater responsibility calling out to us from the story of the Nativity, the flight to Egypt (this story should give us all shivers right about now), and the slaughter of the innocents? Can I celebrate Christmas in the way I always have if I am aware of the incomprehensible suffering of the Syrian people, or the suffering of those neighbors nearest to me? After all, what is it that I am celebrating? Christmas is not a birthday party. Christmas is the declaration that hope has entered a broken and frightening world in the person of Jesus. That “…a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christmas invites us to participate in the saving work of God, as the hands and feet of the very Christ we celebrate. This invitation is to serve, and to serve those among us who need it most. This requires generosity, but unlike the false generosity of consumption and wealth, the generosity exemplified by Christ is sacrificial and self-emptying. This generosity seeks justice and is generally unconcerned with our own comfort. This generosity is hard, but it is what we are called to do.

This is what Martin Luther spoke of in his famous Christmas sermon on the Nativity:

“There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem…and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided…Why does he [sic] not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him? It is altogether false to think that you have done much for Christ, if you do nothing for those needy ones.”

Ouch. So, as we gather with our family and friends this Christmas, and as we sit in the pews on Christmas morning, consider the ways in which you might declare the hope of Christ in the world. How does our celebration of the birth of Christ inspire us to embody that hope in our own lives? Can we take a break from our culturally-crafted-consumer-Christmas and consider instead where it is that hope and light are needed? How can we engage a world as people emboldened by the compassion, mercy, simplicity, and justice of Christ? I think that if we begin to reframe the ways in which we celebrate and remember Christmas, we may find that the anxiety and fear that pushes us ever deeper into the idolatry of wealth and consumption begins to fade, and that we discover instead the true implications of the Christmas story; hope, generosity, love, and justice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have presents to wrap…

Merry Christmas.

 


1.Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1952. Print.

2.Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008. Print.

3.Luther, Martin. Sermons Of Martin Luther The. Ada, MI: Baker Group, 2000. Print.

What the Hell Are We Waiting For?

I’m not really good at waiting. Once I’ve decided I want to do something, I want to do it right away. I’ve always been this way. So here comes Advent with all its language about waiting, and I start to feel a little itchy. I understand, and can appreciate, the beauty in the expectancy and the here-but-not-yet-here-ness of it all. But I’m still feeling a little antsy. What the hell are we waiting for?

I have found myself asking this question a lot lately. What the hell are we waiting for? It rattled through my head as I watched video footage of water protectors at Standing Rock being attacked with water cannons, flash grenades, and pepper spray. Hundreds of people who have gathered peacefully to demand that the Dakota Access Pipeline not be allowed to run through sacred lands and to endanger the water supply, have routinely faced state sponsored brutality while the rest of the country goes about their daily lives. The reporting on Standing Rock is woefully inadequate, and if it were not for water protectors and alternative media posting videos and images on Facebook and Twitter we might never know the scope of violence that the water protectors have faced. And I think to myself; What the hell are we waiting for?

What more do we need to do or say for the demands at Standing Rock to be heard? How many more videos of violence against peaceful protectors do we need to see before we are compelled to act; to stand in solidarity with Native American voices, to demand that our political leaders and representatives stop the pipeline before it’s too late. What are we, the Church, waiting for? As followers of Christ are we not called to stand between victims of violence and those who intend them harm? Are we not called to demand the careful and sacred stewardship of Creation? How many scientific studies, case studies, and personal stories do we need to hear before we heed the warning about the immanent dangers of climate change? What the hell is going to become of the world while we as Christians are busy waiting?

This question pressed on me again as more news of the president-elect’s administration appointments became available. I have heard from news reporters, pundits, and Facebook friends “Let’s just give the President-Elect a chance”. Let’s wait and see. I’m sorry, but what the hell are we waiting to see? Are we waiting to see if Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims will continue once he’s in office? Because the last week or so his transition team has been trying to justify the possibility of a Muslim registry in the United States. One of his surrogates even used Japanese internment camps as a precedent for such action! Try again. Are we waiting to see if the president-elect will begin to distance himself from alt-right extremism and neo-Nazis? Because yesterday a video of Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, showed him speaking to a room full of men shouting “Hail Trump” while giving a Nazi salute. The response from Trump’s transition team stated that Trump “…has continued to denounce racism of any kind…” *. What is missing was the president-elect actually denouncing racism. And it’s not as if this is the first time Trump has failed to unequivocally denounce racism in his name. So again, what the hell are we waiting for?

My impatience rages as I look at the world I love and see it so broken. I don’t want to wait. I want salvation and judgment and peace and mercy and love, and I want them now. And every day that I fail to see these things, I just keep asking myself; What the hell are we waiting for? What the hell is God waiting for? Fix it already.

In an address to the German nation in 1942, Paul Tillich writes “…the Advent season surely announces the coming light and not the growing darkness, the coming salvation and not the coming destruction! What does such an announcement have to say to the German nation today? Can you feel today what you once felt in the weeks of Advent? Do you have anything to which you can look? People cannot live if they have nothing for which to hope” **. Hope. It seems like such a faraway concept in a world that is so very broken. But hope is built into the very foundation of the Christian faith. The yearning of the people for God’s salvation in the desert, Mary’s pondering and expectation, the moments before Lazarus emerges from the rock, and the empty tomb on Easter morning. Hope is simply the waters that Christians are called to swim in. Hope has always been a difficult concept for me to engage with. It is hard for us to see hope in the midst of violence and hatred. And yet, I have a post-it note on the wall in front of my desk that reads “Hope is anticipated joy” (Moltmann I believe). I look at those words each day and I try to remind myself that I am allowed hope. More than that, I deserve hope. I am expected to hope. It is my duty as a follower of Christ to be about the business of hope. As Christians, we preach resurrection; that death does not have the final word. We participate in the story of the people of Israel who cry out “…from where shall come my help? My help shall come from the Lord” ***. The Christian faith is always anticipating, always about the practice of hope. And it is a practice. Hope is not idleness. It is not comfortably waiting for some omniscience to distribute to us joy and peace and love. It is the active waiting of service and gratitude and joy. So perhaps I need to re-frame my original question. Maybe rather than ask “What the hell are we waiting for?” I need to ask “How the hell are we waiting?” When pressed, we can all articulate what it is we are waiting on. We know, for the most part, what we want the world to look like. But we often need help understanding how it is we go about hoping such a world into existence.

This means that while we hope in Advent for the coming of Christ, we must also be about the hope that Christ is already present. This means that we need to see the here-but-not-yet-here Christ in the gathering of water protectors to defend sacred lands and in their demand for the protection of holy Creation. We need to see the hope of the present Christ in the congregations and church bodies across the nation who are denouncing hatred, becoming sanctuary spaces, and standing with and for those whose lives are threatened. We need to see the present Christ in intimate and vulnerable relationships of friends and family. We need to see the present Christ in those spiritual practices that replenish us and ground us. This seeing does not mean that we take some position of naïve optimism, or rest on the often-dangerous claim that “God is in control” and leave it at that. It simply means that we must have the presence of mind to reject the dominion of despair and see with eyes trained to perceive the experience of hope around us.

I believe that this is the work of spiritual community. Hope is not a solitary act. It cannot be if it is ever to be truly realized. This is a practice that we must engage together. The liturgy of the Advent season will call us into an engaged and focused expectancy. We will say together “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come”. For some of us fasting is an important practice during Advent. Refraining from certain foods or activities as a sign of repentance and purification, preparing ourselves for the coming world of hope and its salvation. We will gather with our spiritual communities, families, and congregations to pray for wisdom, guidance, and the strength to be hope in the world as followers of Christ. These practices engage the spirit and strengthen us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. They refuel us to do the work of hope in service of the other, solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, and acts of mercy. They empower us, so that when we are asked “What the hell are you waiting for?” we can respond with “Let us show you”. Thanks be to God.  

 

http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/21/politics/alt-right-gathering-donald-trump/

**Tillich, Paul, Ronald H. Stone, and Matthew Lon. Weaver. Against the Third Reich: Paul Tillich’s Wartime Addresses to Nazi Germany. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

***Psalm 121

Together

It has been a very difficult week, and I don’t think I have any new words for how people are feeling. For myself I’m feeling grief, anger, and sadness. I’m feeling guilty and ashamed. And I’m feeling betrayed. Betrayed by my own ignorance, and by the Church, at least its expression here in the United States.

What was clear to me when the final announcement was made that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States, was what a small world I was living in. I went into the evening confident that there was no way in hell the country would elect someone as dangerous and divisive as the current President elect. Even as he gained more and more states I felt confident that the map would begin tilting in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Any minute now. My wife and I watched well into the night and were eventually left stunned and dumbfounded. It felt like a nightmare. It still feels like a nightmare. But, it is now clear to me that I have almost no idea what the rest of the world looks like outside of my own safe little echo chamber. I don’t understand the hurt and the pain of huge swaths of our country. I don’t understand an expression of Christianity that sided with a person like Trump who extols the virtues of power, aggression, and self-obsession. I do not understand.

This week, article after article has encouraged those of us who reject sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and hatred in all its expressions, to get organized and let the incoming administration and the world know that we will not sit silently while hatred and fear become the law of the land. Yesterday, that call was made more urgent by the news of Steve Bannon’s appointment as Chief Strategist in the Trump cabinet. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, is a white nationalist who peddles in xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and hate. If there was any hope that President Trump might tone down his alt-right agenda, it must certainly have flown the coop by now. I am echoing the call of many, and asking that we make our voices heard. That we not be conquered by despair and apathy. I am asking that those of us who try to follow Jesus make it known that policies of hatred and bigotry are not consistent with our vision of the Kingdom. I am asking that we stand in solidarity with those who are targeted by these policies, even when (especially when) that requires us to place ourselves, mind and body, between victims of oppression and the oppressor.

But, I am asking us to do something else as well. Something that struck me as I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. One of my professors mentioned that Bonhoeffer has been a comfort to her in the last week, and it inspired me to return to his writing. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, dated 14 August 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:

“In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing to change this, nor can the demigods and lunatics who know nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris. Of course, one can cultivate human relationships all too consciously in an attempt to mean something to other people…it may lead to an unrealistic cult of the human. I mean, in contrast to that, that people are more important than anything else in life. That certainly doesn’t mean undervaluing the world of things and practical efficiency. But what is the finest book, or picture, or house, or estate, to me, compared to my wife, my parents, or my friend? One can, of course, speak like that only if one has found others in one’s life. For many today man is just a part of the world of things, because the experience of the human simply eludes them. We must be very glad that this experience has been amply bestowed on us in our lives…” *

Here is wisdom for us today, written over 70 years ago by a man imprisoned by a totalitarian government hell bent on the destruction of the other. We must be about the business of people, before we can be about the business of politics and religion. It seems that often, even our own families can be torn apart by the destructiveness of partisanship, politics, and doctrine. It sounds so trite, but the most important work we can do in the service of equality and justice, is at home and in our neighborhoods. It is the work of affirming the dignity and belovedness of all people, starting with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and the members of our worshipping communities. One of the things that struck me as my wife and I watched the election results, and as it became clear what message was being sent to women in this country by a Trump Presidency, was the realization that I still had so much work to do dismantling my own unconscious sexism. This realization was spurred by the love I have for my wife, for my mother and my sisters, and for all the incredible women in my life. These fundamental relationships require so much care and focus, and are often our starting points for healthy relationships with others. If our relationships at home are a mess, that often shows up in other ways and can interfere with the ways we encounter the world. The fostering of relationships is the beginning of justice, and is central to the call of Christ as we encounter him in the Gospels. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” **.

This means that for those of us seeking to stand in solidarity with the victims of hateful ideologies we must also begin the more fundamental work of building relationships with those we want to stand with. If we speak a powerful truth but are unable to realize that truth in the expression of our own lives, I think we may be nothing but clanging symbols. Can I still believe that racism is bad if I don’t know any people of color? Of course I can, but my call to destroy the systemic walls that separate us ring a little hollow if I haven’t even begun to destroy the walls in my own life. We must be about the business of human relationships, and stop seeing groups of people as one of many items in the “world of things”.

I would place politics and religion firmly within Bonhoeffer’s “world of things”, at least as it applies to the way we encounter people. This entire election we have talked about voting blocs as if they were not made up of individuals with their own stories and contexts. I have conveniently focused my own outrage on the right, or Evangelicals without actually engaging the people around me who might claim those identities. As we organize efforts to combat the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia it will be important for us to find the balance between denouncing dangerous ideas and holding those who encourage them accountable, and engaging productively and proactively with those in our own lives who think differently than we do. This will require a healthy dose of humility and patience, and if I’m honest, I don’t know if I have that capacity yet. I certainly wouldn’t expect it from anyone else either. I’m only suggesting that we will need to find ways to be about the business of human relationships if we want to see the kind of lasting and powerful change that looks like the work of Jesus.

Again, this is why I love the invitation of Benedictine Spirituality. At its heart the Rule of St Benedict is about how people live and work together. What has struck me this week as I encounter the Rule is how many chances a disobedient monk is given in the monastery. When a monk is disobedient he may be instructed to eat alone, or work separately from the rest of the community. And yet, the monk remains under the care of the Abbot. In chapter 21 Benedict says:

“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for the wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matt 9:12). Therefore, he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

I am less concerned with who we may assign the role of excommunicated brother in our own contexts, than I am with the Rule’s demand that we engage with those who we might otherwise dismiss. I’m not suggesting that it is the job of the oppressed to reason with the oppressor, but I am suggesting that those of us who can must be about the business of human relationships across the dividing lines in our contexts. It is the only way that a better world will be made possible.

I’m with Bonhoeffer here. I believe that human relationships are by far the most important thing in life. I think that so many of our divisions are curated without either side knowing one another. We fear the other because we don’t know the other. That doesn’t mean that all people are gentle and lovely once you get to know them. It doesn’t mean that hatred and fear are not governing principles for some people. It just means that much of these dark and frightening ideologies are grounded in the fear of the unknown. It means that to truly love someone, they must be known to us in a way that honors their authentic self-expression rather than our characterization of them. This election revealed to me how sheltered I am from the experiences of people unlike myself in this country. It has challenged me to work intentionally on the relationships I already have; seeking to always provide a safe space for expression and conversation, dignity and respect. It has also challenged me to engage with people outside of my existing circle. Not to observe them like some kind of anthropologist, but to build relationships that can traverse ideology, class, and experience. So that I can curate a practice of empathy and compassion. That is the foundation out of which justice flows; love rather than fear. If we continue the practice of dismissing people and dehumanizing them, despair wins and we keep fighting the same battles over and over again. I refuse to let despair win. Not anymore. If we’re going to fix this, we are going to need to do it together.

*Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Letters and Papers From Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

Psalm 120

I am grieving. I am afraid. I am sorry.

 

In my distress I cry to the Lord,
   that he may answer me:
 ‘Deliver me, O Lord,
   from lying lips,
   from a deceitful tongue.’


 What shall be given to you?
   And what more shall be done to you,
   you deceitful tongue?
 A warrior’s sharp arrows,
   with glowing coals of the broom tree!


 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
   that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I had my dwelling
   among those who hate peace.
 I am for peace;
   but when I speak,
   they are for war.

 

A light shines in the darkness…

Political Idolatry

So, it’s Election Day and I couldn’t be any more exhausted by the spectacle of the last two years. I’ve already heard folks on the news discussing their relief that this day has finally come. That finally the nation will put to rest this campaign rhetoric, stump speeches, and stupid CNN countdowns. I think I can understand this feeling, though if I’m honest I am feeling a little differently. At this moment, as the polls are opening, and lines are forming, I’m feeling a twinge of fear, and a healthy mix of shame and disappointment. I do not feel very good about the state of our politics, our religious institutions, our national media, or even with the fundamentals of how we as citizens interact with each other. Mostly, the last two years have left me feeling pretty gross.

And that’s where I am feeling the most challenged as a follower of Jesus. How do we engage with a world so toxic without becoming a part of the toxicity ourselves? This has always been a challenge for the world’s religious, but it has been highlighted for me as the election has droned on. We have seen commentary after commentary about the Evangelical vote, and have witnessed the complete and total high-jacking of the Gospel in service of a political platform by leaders on the right and the left. We have made idols of our politics and the fruits of that labor have been on national display for the last 18 months or so. When we make and worship idols, whether they be politics, religion, or God herself, we find ourselves quickly descending into to traps of tribalism, violence, and fear. It didn’t work for the Israelites in the wilderness, and it’s not working for us now.

Christians on the political left and the political right often read the Gospel as an affirmation of their politics, but then quickly flip it around to commandeer the supposed authority of the Gospel for their own political position. This is why we see so many articles and blogs about how Jesus would or would not vote, as if that question makes any sense at all. This is not to say that the Gospel is not political, of course it is. But if we encounter the person of Jesus as someone who came to operate within the existing power structures of empire, I would suggest that we take a second look. Over and over again we will encounter a Jesus who simply has no time for the politics of the day, or for the institutional structures that maintain them.

Greg Boyd in his book Myth of a Christian Nation says, “…we must also recognize that people who have diametrically opposing views may believe ‘they too’ are advancing the kingdom, which is all well and good so long as we don’t christen our views as ‘the’ Christian view. As people whose citizenship is in heaven before it is in any nation (Phil 3:20), and whose kingdom identity is rooted in Jesus rather than in a political agenda, we must never forget that the only way we individually and collectively represent the kingdom of God is through loving, Christlike, sacrificial acts of service to others. Anything and everything else, however good and noble, lies outside the kingdom of God”*. This is a powerful reminder to me that our responsibility as followers of Jesus, in the midst of the ugliness of politics, is to serve one another in humility and love. This includes those that we disagree with, even those who we believe are the enemy. Enemy love and sacrificial service are the Jesus platform, and this orientation radically repositions us in the context of politics and empire.

The reason I feel so gross this morning as the polls open, is that to this point I have not seen the willingness to serve one another, or the humility required for enemy love. Not only has it been absent from the broader public, but it seems to me also absent among those of us who claim to follow Jesus. This is certainly true for me. I have spent this entire election routinely participating in the kind of dark and angry rhetoric that dehumanizes those who disagree with my politics. I have justified my politics by using the Gospel and the person of Jesus as talismans of my own political agenda. I have dismissed entire groups of people as unworthy, simply because of their political or ideological positions and choice of leadership. I have done all of this while pretending that it was my faith leading my politics, rather than the other way around.

I want to be clear, I am not saying that Christians should not vote, or be politically active. I am voting today because I believe it is important for us as citizens of the empire to demand better of our leaders and systems. I can tell you as well that I do believe that the rhetoric and policy of one of the nominees is flat out dangerous and wherever I am able I try to criticize those ideas that I believe cause harm. I am asking that we reconsider how we do politics. I am asking that we lead with humility and service, and that we strive to affirm the belovedness of all people, regardless of politics or ideology. If we are unable to do this, then the fallout from the election tonight will just continue to drive us apart and make the world a truly more dangerous place.

In Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict the monks are instructed, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away from someone who needs your love”**. I’m going to reflect on this chapter as this day unfolds, and I hope that it will inspire me to reconsider the ways in which I have approached my politics. I hope that those of us who follow Jesus will relinquish our grips on the empire way of doing things, and claim instead the service and humility of the kingdom of God. I hope that we can begin to come together, affirming our essential belovedness, and live into the wonder of the beloved community. Because, when the polls close and a new President is elected, there will be a lot of healing that needs doing, and I want to be a part of that.

*Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

The Jesus Movement

I was lucky enough this morning to attend an event sponsored by the Kaleo Center called “Examining This Moment Through Movement Eyes”. Beth Zemsky and Dave Mann facilitated the conversation, and focused on the ways in which we understand social movements, and how we might determine where we find our current movement in context. It was a fascinating conversation that beautifully illustrated the movement of movements. That’s right, movements move. Often these movements transition in quantifiable cycles, and it is possible to track movements as they cross various thresholds that seems to be common in all social movements. Beth asked us to envision the movement of movements as a wave. There is energy even before the wave begins to break, it rises from the ocean and peaks before descending back towards the surface, then begins to rumble again. Much of our exercise this morning was to attempt to discern our location on this wave. In Beth’s example the wave of social movements begins by framing and clarifying a worldview, then as movements rise they begin to develop infrastructure and transformation goals. The peak of the wave is mass mobilization. As the movements begin to descend the wave they often begin to professionalize roles that once were happening in the streets, this then transitions into reactive organizing, and finally movement maintenance. Using this metaphor, I think many of us can see ways in which the movements we have encountered or been a part of track neatly along this trajectory. I began to think about efforts for racial justice, economic equity, environmental stewardship, and the fight for LGBTQ rights. But my mind quickly went to another movement. The Jesus movement.

Ok, I know, that whole Jesus movement jargon is a little overplayed, and can seem a little hokey. But, I think it is an accurate moniker for this thing that began with the ministry of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. I wondered, as I listened to Beth and Dave explain the nature of social movements, what if those of us who try our damnedest to follow Jesus began to see this faith through movement eyes. What if we could locate ourselves on the wave of social movement movement? What if we discover that we are not where we think we are? What if we find that, in fact, we are snuffing out the rumbling needed to push the wave skyward?

I can begin to see the Jesus movement as it moves along this wave. There is no better example of worldview clarifying than the Sermon on the Mount. It’s important here to clarify that this framework is not a set of issues, but a narrative about how the world might look. The Gospel of Matthew illustrates this beautifully;

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” *

Here is the framework (There is a lot more, so check it out) for the Jesus movement. This sets the stage for all the ways in which the movement will engage with the world. We see this lived out in the healing ministry of Jesus, in the feeding of the five thousand, and ultimately the death of Jesus. It is this framework that begins to develop the collective identity of the people who follow the fellow from Nazareth, and it is this framework that will help to carry the movement on after Jesus is no longer present.

We might imagine that our next location on the wave of social movement movement begins at Pentecost. It is that strange tale of tongues of fire and the many spiritual gifts that begins to frame the movement’s infrastructure. We are introduced to the community model of the Jesus movement in the Acts of the Apostles, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” *. Here the Jesus movement takes shape in the form of collective engagement with the aforementioned worldview. The goals of this movement seem to be primarily relational; feeding the hungry, and sharing the economic burden of the community. The movement continues onward and upward.

The peak of this Jesus movement seems to me to be the slipperiest moment to pin down. As the “good news” continued to spread across nations, states, and continents, those people known as Christians began to carve out their own space in a culture dominated by state-sponsored paganism. When Christians refused to sacrifice to Caesar, or when public perception of the Jesus movement skewed too sacrilegious, persecution by the authorities became a possibility. An argument could be made that Christians were mobilized in an effort to create space to peacefully worship without fear of repercussion, though someone much more informed than I will have to make that argument. I am much more persuaded that the mass mobilization, the peak, of the Jesus movement is to be found in that small and simple community recounted in the book of Acts. I’ll have to think some more about this.

Our next move seems much clearer to me. The professionalization of the Jesus movement seems to have begun when the Church accepted a position of power under the rule of Constantine. This marked the end of the small and simple, mobilized energy of the Jesus movement, and the beginning of the Institutional Church (I realize that Church history is much more complicated than this. But, for this little thought experiment, let’s just agree to play along.). Shane Claiborne, in his book Jesus for President, illustrates the Church’s slip into reactive organizing, “…as the love affair between church and empire grew more intimate, the emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of the empire, making it a crime not to be a Christian. That’s when things got even messier. The first recorded instance of Christians killing pagans occurred shortly after…” **. Once Christianity had successfully asserted its power, the movement (if it could still be called that at this point) began the necessary maintenance needed to sustain its position and power. It would be easy for us to argue that this is the situation we find the Jesus movement in today. Plodding along at the bottom of the wave, asserting its authority in an effort to maintain its perceived power. But, I wonder if something else might be at work.

I’m wondering if the Jesus movement is once again rumbling below the surface, preparing to birth the next wave of its movement movement. Phyllis Tickle often spoke of the Church’s “rummage sale” that seems to happen every 500 years. In her book The Great Emergence, Tickle discusses three consequences of this cyclical upheaval; (1) a “more vital form of Christianity…” emerges, (2) the dominant expression of the Jesus movement is reconstituted into “two new creatures”, and (3) the movement spreads further than it has previously ***. I think Phyllis Tickle’s assessment corresponds well with this idea of viewing the scope of Christianity through movement eyes. The language of emergent or emergence Christianity, which Tickle describes, has already lost much of its potency, but it seems to me that the “emergent movement” was simply the beginnings of the Jesus movement’s attempt to re-spark the energy needed to clarify its worldview in this new context. Maybe, maybe not. But, what if?

I think there is some wisdom for those of us who seek to follow Jesus to reframe our experience with Christianity through movement eyes. Movements are transformational, institutions seek to preserve. If a truly transformational Jesus movement is starting to rumble once again, then we will need to begin the hard work of discerning the values and strategies of the movement that will carry it forward in this new context, and building intentional and appropriate infrastructure. We will need to know ourselves, and that means we will need to, in the words of Beth Zemsky, “imagine the WE”. I get incredibly excited at the possibility of re-energized and re-focused Jesus movement. One that embraces the framework of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and seeks to mobilize around a relational community of disciples. I am hopeful that as the Church we can discern the narrative of this movement, and begin to create and support a space for profound transformation. And, if I’m honest, when I listen closely, I think I can hear it happening already. Thanks be to God!

*NRSV

**Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

***Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.

Belonging

I’ve been reflecting lately on the importance of community in the health of the individual. Finding myself in a time of transition between a number of communities I have been confronted with the loss of community, or at least the perceived loss of community, and with the uncomfortable task of trying to establish new connections in new communities. At the same time, I have tried to remind myself of the vitally important connections that remain even when the structure of community as I have experienced it fades away. It’s exhausting. I long for that community structure that offered so much reprieve from all the other stressors in my life. The comfortable one that I knew and loved. I can feel its absence like a lost loved one. I suppose in essence I am mourning. It was this sense of mourning that really got me thinking about community as an aspect of spiritual health.

Benedictine spirituality is founded on the principle of community. The Rule was written to offer guidance to monasteries in the 5th & 6th centuries, and Benedict’s first chapter is explicit that the monk that lives with other monks in a monastery is to be preferred to the lonely, itinerant monk. The subsequent 72 chapters illustrate the ways in which monks are to live in community. The monks are instructed to eat together, to work together, and to pray together. They are to be obedient to each other and to the abbot, and to seek to outdo the other in mercy, humility, and service. It is in these acts of community that the monks are brought into ever closer communion with God, illustrating the immanence of God in midst of community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” *.

This is why most of us go to church. Because we have experienced the closeness of God most intimately in the gathering of people around ritual, music, and fellowship. I know for myself, the worshipping community, at its best, has been the place where I find comfort, support, and challenge. It’s been a place where I can safely allow my vulnerabilities to be seen and still find acceptance and love. At its worst, it’s been a place where vulnerability is seen as inconvenient or inappropriate. Where competition and divisiveness are allowed to interrupt the stated purpose for gathering in the first place.

It is this diversity of possible experiences that can make the loss of community so anxiety producing. We are not guaranteed a community that will support us. We are not promised the same level of trust and mercy that we may have encountered in previous communities. It’s like breaking up with a person you were in love with, and then comparing all subsequent suitors to that one who made you feel so safe and cared for. It’s a difficult process that many of us have to face. We lose and leave communities for so many reasons. Maybe we move, or get a new job. Maybe we are called to a new community, or perhaps the community is simply unable to gather anymore. For whatever reason, this loss is something we all face. And for many of us, this loss is the first time we may realize how vitally important our communities are to our spiritual and mental health.

I wonder if so many of us ignore the importance of community because of how radically connected we are every second of every day. At any moment we are able to communicate with many thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat. We often find some level of value in the number of “friends” we can accumulate on our various social media platforms. Now, there are plenty of good arguments for the veracity and effectiveness of online communities, but I wonder if those online communities that truly create a sense of belonging and support are the minority, rather than majority experience. For myself, I often think that my “online community” offers the appearance of community, just enough for me to neglect the more intensive work of building lasting community relationships face to face. This may postpone that feeling of loss, but eventually I find myself realizing that my Twitter followers and Facebook friends cannot offer the kind of belonging I need to experience that closeness that drew me to community in the first place.

In the midst of thisexperience of loss, and this entrance into new community, I have been especially grateful for those relationships that are the foundation of my belonging. My primary community is that experience of belonging and acceptance with my wife. When it seems that all other connections fall away, or are unable to fit within the busyness of daily life, I am fortunate to have the nurturing and loving belonging in the community of marriage. This is where all of my experiences of community have their beginning. I am grateful also for those other relationships that are able to survive and continue in the face of transition, busyness, and time apart. Without these experiences of belonging, the loss of a particular community would be simply too heavy to bear.

This desire for community, and spiritual community in particular, is built in to the faith tradition I claim as my own. In the person of Jesus, God revealed God’s relational essence. Jesus is simply not interested in claiming a position of above and beyond, but rather claims a position of among and within. Jesus reveals God to the people by intimately connecting in community. It is the foundational structure of the Jesus movement. This structure is confirmed again and again by those traditions that react to a Christianity that loses touch with this primary value by refocusing again on the community. Monasticism, Anabaptists and Quakers, emergence Christianity, and New Monasticism. There is a sense that this return to community is healing in and of itself, and this seems to me to be absolutely true.

It is this belief that has challenged me to push through the awkwardness of establishing new relationships and new communities. I know the healing that can come from a safe and accepting community, and I acknowledge that, for myself, I simply cannot be without it. I am hopeful that I will find belonging in a lasting and loving community, and I continue to pray that we all might find this belonging. Find that community affirms and supports you. That challenges you, and asks you to challenge yourself. Do not settle for accumulating followers, and don’t let the loss of one community prevent you from seeking another. We all need belonging, we need community. Thanks be to God.

 

*NRSV

Caring for the Sick, Including Ourselves

I woke up this morning to a congested head, a headache, and the chills. I don’t often get sick, but when I do I always feel compelled to just push through it. I don’t have time to get sick. There is simply way too much to accomplish in twenty-four hours, and I am not about to neglect those duties. Of course, I often pay the price for this later, but I never seem to learn well enough to do it differently the next time around.

So, this morning, I forced myself out of bed for Lauds. I could barely keep my head up, but I was determined to start my day the way I wanted to start my day, illness be damned. I made it to the Benedictus before I couldn’t keep my head up any longer. I popped a couple Dayquil and crawled back into bed. As I drifted off into sick sleep, I thought about what being sick in the monastery looks like. What would Benedict have to say about my inability to make it through prayer?

Luckily, Benedict is very explicit in the Rule. Chapter 36 is entitled “The Sick Brothers”, and in it Benedict lays out the care for brothers who are ill, and the overarching theme of this chapter is radical compassion as spiritual practice. Benedict says, “Care for the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” *. For Benedict, caring for the sick is not only our duty as Christians, but is an opportunity to serve another as we would serve Christ. This compassion for the sick even supersedes some of Benedict’s most rigorous rules. The sick are given their own room, they receive a personal attendant, and they even get to eat meat. It’s as if Benedict throws the book out the window in order to serve the sick brother or sister.

This is where I confess my own shortcomings when it comes to caring for the sick in my own life. As I said before, when I get sick I feel like I cannot take time to recover, I need to power through it and just hope it goes away eventually. This lie I tell myself filters into the way I treat those around me who are sick. My wife often receives the brunt of it. When she feels sick (as she is right now), I find that my first thought is, “Well, get over it”. Not compassionate in the least. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would let sickness stop them from doing the things they need to do. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t. This judgmental and unreasonable response to another person’s need is completely antithetical to the nature of Benedictine spirituality, and of decentness itself. But, if I refuse to care enough about myself to consider my health and recovery, how can I ever expect to care for someone else who needs my care and compassion?

I suspect that I am not alone in feeling like I simply do not have time to get sick. So much of this feeling is wrapped up in my fear of being perceived as weak. As an American man it has been programmed into my mind that sickness equals weakness, and the worst thing an American man can be is weak. So we push through it, neglecting our own self-care at our peril. A survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that 36 percent of men only went to the doctor when they were really sick, and psychologists who looked at this survey speculated that societal and cultural sensibilities about what is “manly” may also play a role. “According to one study by researchers at Rutgers, for example, men who strongly endorsed old-school notions of masculinity – the ideal man being a strong, silent type who doesn’t complain about pain – were only half as likely as other men to seek preventive health care” **. Even if we don’t fully endorse this image of what a man is, we’ve picked up enough messages over the course of our lives that remind us to be tough, and to push through the pain. Unfortunately, this masculine myth may help to explain why women tend to outlive men. We’d rather appear tough and capable than take care of our own health needs.

Part of becoming whole selves is the requirement that we care for our own well-being. This is something that is often rejected in our culture of efficiency and productivity. We apply these values even to our health and our relationships. We avoid the necessary maintenance of our bodies and minds so that we will not be perceived as lazy, or unproductive. It’s bad enough that we do it to ourselves, but this poor treatment of our own needs often is transmitted to those around us. This is exactly why I struggle to be compassionate when my wife becomes ill; I’m buying into the myth that sickness equals weakness, and weakness gets in the way of my productivity.

I wonder if this mindset plays a role in the battle for Paid Sick Leave in congress. Many people in this country have to decide between missing work and losing out on a paycheck, or recovering from an illness. It seems like common sense that people should be able to recover and not be put in economic danger, but our cultural value system rejects this notion. Time is money, and time off shouldn’t be rewarded. A New York Times article published last week discussed the Obama Administration’s rule that all federal contract workers will be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. This piece-meal effort to enforce paid sick leave nationwide is in response to congresses refusal to pass the Healthy Families Act. The article states that “…more than 35 percent of private-sector workers do not have access to paid sick leave” ***. That is a huge number of people who may not be able to recover from an illness, or be able to care for a sick family member, without jeopardizing their economic position. This is not an experience that I know personally, but I cannot imagine the fear that illness might represent to those who cannot afford to recover. I hope that our leaders will do the right thing and mandate paid sick leave nationwide.

To care for the sick is to see a person as worthy of love and compassion. It is to recognize the Beloved in them. Benedict’s admonition to serve the sick as we would serve Christ, reminds us that the love of God in Jesus is to be found in the hands and feet of our brothers and sisters, and our willingness to care for their needs as we would care for our own. This means that we must learn to recognize the Beloved in us, so that we can also learn to care for our own needs. If we cannot see our own worthiness, we will never be able to see it fully in someone else. When we can see our brothers and sisters in this light, we will find that we are willing to throw whatever rules impede our compassion, straight out the window. So, rather than continue to play into the myth of sickness equals weakness, I’m going to get up, take a few more Dayquil, and go get my wife and I some soup. Just like Benedict would do.

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**http://www.everydayhealth.com/mens-health/men-and-doctors-understanding-the-disconnect.aspx

***http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/business/economy/paid-sick-leave-government-contractors.html