Tag: culture

Sanctuary

Sanctuary

As January 20th approaches and confirmation hearings begin for the Trump administration’s cabinet appointments, people all over the country are organizing and preparing to resist any dangerous and hateful action by the President-Elect and his team, churches and other religious communities among them. One of the ways that places of worship are committing to help those affected by possibly harmful legislation is offering sanctuary. This can mean a number of things to communities of faith, but primarily this means housing an individual facing deportation or arrest while lawyers and advocates work out solutions on behalf of them. There was a significant sanctuary movement in the 80’s that sought to protect Central American refugees who were fleeing violence in Guatemala and El Salvador, and it seems that the looming specter of a Trump Administration has ignited the movement once again.

The danger that many feel a Trump presidency poses to the US’s immigrant population centers around his inflammatory and hard right stance on immigration and refugees. Trump routinely promised on the campaign trail to deport nearly 2-3 million undocumented immigrants, saying in an interview on 60 minutes, “What we’re going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records…we are getting them out of our country”[1]. On top of this, he has promised to repeal the executive order known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which prevents those undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children from being deported for a period of two years and allows them to apply for work authorization. Since its establishment, nearly 800,000 eligible individuals have applied for DACA, publicly outing themselves as undocumented with the promise of protection. Senator Jeff Sessions (Trump’s nominee for Attorney General), at his confirmation hearing this morning affirmed that a Department of Justice under President Trump would have the constitutional grounds for repealing the order, confirming the very real threat that these individuals face.

In light of this, churches and religious communities all over the country have come forward to declare that they will provide sanctuary for those individuals facing deportation, in defiance of the incoming administration. Under the Obama Presidency particular spaces have been respected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including churches, hospitals, and schools, and have not been raided to make arrests. However, no one is certain whether or not a Trump administration would maintain this practice. This makes for some very uncertain and frightening possibilities for immigrants and for the churches who are stepping forward to provide sanctuary. No one is really sure what is going to happen.

The church I work for, and many of our neighboring congregations, have been in a process of discernment about sanctuary for the better part of a month. Many of our leadership has been attending training and informational meetings through ISAIAH, and last Sunday a young woman, who is herself one of the “Dreamers” who have received protection under DACA, spoke to our congregation about what is at stake for her if DACA is repealed. She would be separated from her family and deported to a country that hasn’t been her home for most of her life; a country that holds a significant amount of pain and trauma in her memory. When this young woman stood up and told her story through tears I suddenly grasped the importance of this movement. I have always been a supporter of the sanctuary movement, but it wasn’t until I heard her speak that I realized how vitally important the Church’s stand could be.

It seems to me that as Christians it is our responsibility to provide sanctuary to those who seek it. It is not merely an opportunity for service, it is the very thing that the Gospel calls us to do. And, as the Church, called to follow Christ and bring forth the Kingdom of God, it is the very thing we must do. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels routinely stands in opposition of wayward and violent power, be it state or religious, and implores his followers to care for the least among us. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:34-36). This theme is encountered throughout Christian and Hebrew scripture; “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34), “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). We are called to provide for those in need and to protect those in danger.

I would argue that the Benedictine tradition also affirms this fundamental principle of Christian hospitality. Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me”[2]. This idea of welcoming all as Christ has been on my mind daily since first reading the Rule, and I have tried to drill it deep into my being and to act in accordance with its wisdom. It stands now as a challenge to the Church in the US, as we enter into the next four years under an administration who has promised to target immigrants, refugees, and minorities. How do we welcome all as Christ, while simultaneously refusing to provide aid when we are able? How is it that we can claim to care for the least among us, while allowing dangerous state power to rip apart families and deport millions of our neighbors? It seems to me that we must pick a side, and take a stand.

I am grateful that so many churches have either declared themselves Sanctuary Congregations, or have begun the discernment process to do so. I know that many churches and religious communities simply do not have the space or resources to house undocumented immigrants, but I hope that they will find ways to support the movement with their time and money as they are able. The Trump administration poses a very real threat to so many people in our country, and I truly believe that Christians have a responsibility to stand between the powerful and the victims of power. If our brothers and sisters call for help, we must be prepared to respond in love and in welcome. We must say no to the abuse of power, and to unjust laws that destroy lives. We must reject the fear and hatred that so often divide us. When called on to provide sanctuary, we must provide it.

 

 

If you would like more information about the sanctuary movement here are some places to begin:

ISAIAH – in MN

Sanctuary Not Deportation

Sanctuary 101

Catholic Immigration Legal Network INC


[1] Washington Post

[2] Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English

*Photo Courtesy of kristintangen.com

Joy, Spiritual Practice

The Practice of Joy

“One day a hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. What kind of spiritual guide was this?

But the old monk said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So the hunter did. Then the old man said, “Now shoot another.” And the hunter did. Then the elder said, ‘Shoot your bow again. Keep shooting; keep shooting; keep shooting.’ And the hunter finally said, ‘But if I bend my bow so much I will break it.’

Then Abba Anthony said to him, ‘It is just the same with the work of God. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break. Sometimes it is necessary to meet other needs.’ When the hunter heard these words he was struck with remorse and, greatly edified by Anthony, he went away. As for the monastics there, they went home strengthened.”[1]

 

We’re a few days into 2017, and already the world feels heavy. The politics, the war and violence, the hatred and the fear of 2016 have followed us into the new year. Any hope that we might wake up from our nightmare is all but gone, and we are left now with the important and difficult work of justice, love, and peace. There is no question that the work ahead for those who would stand against hatred and wayward power will be challenging and often demoralizing. There is no question that there will be failures and setbacks, but there will be victories and celebrations as well. The key will be our ability to withstand the onslaught of hopelessness and apathy. For those of us who seek to follow Christ, and who hope to bring a vision of the Kingdom into the midst of our broken yet beautiful world, we will need to develop resiliency. To accomplish this, I believe, we must engage in the practice of joy.

Joy is an experience that does not come easily to me. My range of emotional experience lies somewhere between everything-is-awful-always and things-are-ok-for-now. The middle ground between those two poles is my sweet spot, which doesn’t make me the most optimistic or the most cheerful. For many who know me this may seem like a misrepresentation, and they may point out that I am often bright, and talkative, and friendly. However, like any good introvert, my foray into positive extroversion requires an immense payment of energy. This means that my experience of joy often requires very focused and dedicated work. It is not something that I casually slip into. I need to limber up and prepare myself for those moments of energizing and exciting joy, and I need to practice gratitude when I encounter joy in those quiet moments. I believe that this is true to some extent for each of us. Joy is foundational to our ability to live in this world fully, and as such it requires our attention and our discipline. This is why we must not simply experience joy, but we must practice it.

This is something that monastic tradition has known forever, and is reflected in the story of Saint Anthony above. The desert fathers and mothers understood that seriousness about the work of God and holy struggle were vitally important, but like the hunter’s bow there is the danger of destruction looming within the person who does not practice joy. Our call as Christians is a serious one, and requires that we continually stay awake to the injustice and oppression faced by our neighbor, but without joy we risk losing the capacity for hope and love. If we fail to practice joy long enough, we often find ourselves simply mirroring the anger and the hatred of the oppressor, and engaging in reactionary action rather than the visionary action of the Kingdom. Without joy, it all falls apart.

On Christmas Day many churches, mine included, sang “Joy to the World” as we celebrated the birth of the Christ child. I stood in the pew, and I mouthed the words, but inside I could feel myself rejecting the very premise of the song. I felt a dark cloud hovering over me, and I thought only of the hatred and violence experienced by so many, for so long. I thought of Syria, Philando Castille, Pulse Nightclub, and the kidnapped Nigerian girls. I thought of Donald Trump rallies, ISIS, David Duke, the ugliness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. The song droned in my ears and I refused to participate. I felt like I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, feel joy until things improved. Maybe next year; maybe the next election, or when there is peace in Syria. Maybe I’ll feel joy when the news cycle doesn’t look so abysmally dark. Maybe…But, as I began to consider the New Year, and how I will live into the next 365 days I began to see the failure of that thinking. I know that as the year unfolds, and I seek to live out the call of Christ in my small corner of the universe I will experience anger, and I will experience despair. I will feel impatience and fear. Those are experiences that don’t seem to need our permission to enter our lives, they show up in reaction to events quite naturally. And, if we stand front and center and allow the torrent of anger and frustration to consume us, then they will do just that. Joy, it seems, needs our permission or our attention, to enter our lives. It often requires more effort on our part, and for it to have any lasting effect on our being it demands discipline.

As Epiphany approaches, we may take some direction from the Magi, and seek joy out. The story of the “Wise Men” and their pilgrimage to the Christ child is one that many of us remember from Sunday School. Many a nativity set comes with three, often gaudily dressed Magi, bearing gifts and riding camels. From Matthew’s Gospel, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (Matt. 2:1-2) These are not passive fellows, waiting at home with their feet up for their joy to simply happen upon them. They have taken it upon themselves to seek their joy out. The Magi follow the star over many, many miles “…until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (v. 9-10). This is a powerful example of the practice of joy.

How might we seek out joy in our own lives? How might we engage in a practice of joy, understanding it as an important element of our call as Christ followers, as those who seek justice and mercy in this world? When the bigness of suffering seems to cloud our vision, I believe it will be in the small things where we will most consistently find our joy. For me, I have committed to spending more time with my wife, and with those people I love. I have limited my time spent rabbit-holing the endless negativity of certain sectors of the internet. I have borrowed a little more fiction from the library, and have set aside time to read just for fun. I have sought out ways to serve those in need in my immediate community, and I have committed to practicing gratitude in the midst of these efforts. These things are not meant to replace or distract from the work of justice, advocacy, and contemplation. They are supplements that I hope will help me to build resiliency in this coming year. This world is hurting, and it needs the work and dedication of those who are devoted to following Christ. But we must not neglect the practice of joy, or we risk turning into that which we fight against, and losing the vision for what it is we are fighting for. No matter how dark the world may seem, we are allowed the experience of joy, if we will only follow the wisdom of the Magi and seek it out. May our practice of joy reignite our desire to do justice, to seek peace, and to love with our whole selves. Amen.

 

[1] Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

*Photo Credit: Kristin Tangen

Uncategorized

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.

 

 

Uncategorized

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.

Standing Rock

Voices in the Wilderness

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
     ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
     “Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

 ‘I baptize you with* water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Matthew 3:1-12 Gospel reading for 2nd Sunday in Advent


John the Baptist, clad in camel hair, points and gestures from atop a rock in the Judean wilderness. Repent, he cries. He shouts down the religious elite who have appeared amongst the people, and promises the coming of one more powerful than himself. One who John the Baptist is too unworthy to carry the sandals of. “I baptize with water for repentance but…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

This image of John the Baptist is one we have encountered since Sunday school. A rugged and unkempt prophet, living in the wilderness on honey and locusts. In the movies, he is always shouting, perpetually angered and unafraid to name that which angers him. He is someone, I think, most of us would avoid if we saw him shouting in the street. And yet he is one of the most important characters in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus says, “…among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

What is it that continues to draw us to this itinerant prophet? For myself, it is the seeming single mindedness of the man. His dedication to the future, and his consistent appeal to a better world. He withdraws from the life of world (many scholars think John may have belonged to the Essenes) and preaches repentance. And not repentance only to the weak, but also to the powerful. It is this dogged pursuit of righteousness and justice, even in the face of powerful violence, that is the defining characteristic of the Baptist. It is this pursuit that results in his imprisonment, and finally in his execution.

I hear the words of the Gospel on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I am drawn to the dedication of a person so convinced of the truth and necessity of his words that he can do no other, but shout them for all to hear. In this shouting, there is more than simply judgement or admonition. There is an invitation. An invitation into baptism and the practice of repentance. An invitation to wake up and see the world as it is, to see ourselves as we are, and to ask if we can do better. Once we have asked that question we are invited to do just that.

John the Baptist is also a character that offers hope. In many of the most famous paintings of the Baptist he can be seen pointing. Always he points to the coming of Christ, to the incoming and indwelling Kingdom of God. The Baptist points toward a future of possibility, and peace and justice. In this gesture, he asks that we not focus too intently on him, but on what is to come. He asks that we repent so that we might hope, and that our hope might encourage us to repent.

Events of this week caused me to consider again this voice crying out in the wilderness. News broke on Sunday that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied an easement permit to Dakota Access, and would begin to seek out alternative routes for the 1,200-mile-long pipeline that would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois *. The news was seen as a victory by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and the thousands of other water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp.  Images swirled around the news showing the camp and its supporters celebrating the decision.

For months, water protectors have been gathering at the camp and at various construction sites to demand that Native rights and sovereignty be upheld, and that the pipeline be rerouted or eliminated completely. They have faced violence and arrest from private security and law enforcement, while the rest of the world largely ignored the struggle. And now, after all that they have faced, after months of gathering at Oceti Sakowin, after water cannons and attack dogs, the water protectors can celebrate this decision by the Army Corps of Engineers as a victory, and can say that giving voice to justice and the side of right can bring about change. Those voices that cry out from the margins and demand that we look towards a better future, that call us to repent, are themselves pointing towards the coming hope and a future of possibility.

It must be said that there is still much work to be done, and there is danger that a Trump administration may overturn the decision. Energy Transfer Partners will most certainly challenge the decision, and will seek ways to continue building the pipeline across sacred Native lands. In fact, on Monday, Energy Transfer Partners said as much. But this victory by water protectors points towards a future and a world that we can hope for. Like the Baptist’s finger pointing towards the incoming hope of the world, we can also point in the direction of hope ourselves. We can hope that this decision sets a precedent for future government and Indigenous interactions. We can hope that as a nation we might follow the example of our Native brothers and sisters in pursuing energy policies that consider the protection and intentional stewardship of creation. We can hope that the wisdom of peaceful resistance may filter into the national consciousness, and that we may begin again to listen to those voices among us that cry out in the wildernesses of our own world. The cynic in me wants to smash all this hope with a hammer, but I am going to reject that line of thinking. There will be fights ahead but the strength and perseverance of the water protectors offers us a glimpse at something so much more hopeful.

This victory comes also with a renewed invitation, like that of the Baptist. It calls for us to repent. It asks that we reflect on the events at Standing Rock, and those that lead up to this decision, and ask if we can do better. Can we truly begin to hear the voices of Indigenous people, and repent of our history of violence and genocide? Can we seek ways of living in this world that do not harm and corrupt the incredible gift of creation? One thing is for certain, we cannot lose sight of the work ahead. We cannot rest on the good feelings of this victory for our Native brothers and sisters. Rest assured, vigilance and resistance will be called upon again. The pursuit of justice, and of the future world of possibility must be relentless. Victories must be celebrated, but we must also continue the work before us. We must continue having conversations with those around us who might think differently than we do. We must be ready to stand with those who face oppression. For some of us that means finding ways to participate in action and conversations that are already happening around us. There are organizations all over the country working to support and advocate for Native rights, and environmental justice. If this movement awakened something in you (as it did for me) then seek out ways to continue the work in your daily life. Small acts of justice and peace in the daily monotony of our lives contribute to the larger pursuit of a better a world, and your voice is needed.

Another thing we must consider, one that we can observe in the Gospel reading from Sunday, is the continued call to repentance John extends to the Pharisees and Sadducees. This “brood of vipers” shows up as John is baptizing, and bears the brunt of John’s righteous anger. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. John really lets them have it. He speaks truth to power and reveals its own hypocrisy and sinfulness. But, John does not send them away. He does not say “This invitation to repentance is not for you, nor is the soon to arrive salvation unavailable to you”. He calls them also to repent, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. As nasty and as angry as John’s words sound, he is still inviting the Pharisees and the Sadducees into the incoming beloved community, the Kingdom of God. And this is what we must remember as we seek to engage those we might consider our enemies, those who hold seats of power, or those who pursue and inflict violence. We must call out what is evil, but we must do so while pursuing the hope that all the world will one day be reconciled to each other. If we are to have hope for the future it will require that everyone come along. This means that we must consider the ways we talk about issues of justice. We cannot continue to play into the division and politicized rhetoric that contributes to fear and anger. We need everyone. John cries out in the wilderness hoping that everyone will change, and it is our responsibility to cling to that hope, however unlikely it may seem.

In the season of Advent, we await the coming of the Christ; of the future world of possibility, hope, and peace. We hear John crying out in the wilderness, calling us to repent and we hope to respond. I hope also during this Advent season we might identify those other voices crying out in the wilderness, begging to be heard, and asking for us to respond in the hope of the incoming Kingdom. Our responses will vary, but let them all seek to live into a reality that grounds itself in hope. Find those small ways in your own life that you can be about the work of justice. Seek out organizations and communities that are focused on pursuing this work. Your voice and your hands are needed at all levels. Let it also be known that, as we saw at Standing Rock, when one voice crying out becomes many the world can be changed. Amen.

*NYTimes “Protesters Gain Victory…”

Spirituality

Stay Awake

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. – Matthew 24:36-44 NRSV


The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent always catches me off guard. It’s dark and a little bit scary. There’s a reminder of the horror of the flood, people being taken away, and God is compared with a thief. And here I thought we were just getting ready for tiny, smiling, baby Jesus and buying gifts for our family. We get none of that as Advent begins. We get a warning. Stay Awake.

These two words stuck out to me, as I am sure they did for many, on Sunday morning as my pastor read them. It was these two words that caught her attention as well. It’s a command that many of us are attuned to at this moment in our history. For a lot of us our world is quickly becoming a scarier place, and for many others our fears and concerns are being confirmed rapid fire in the words and actions of people. We are hyperaware of the fear and the danger swirling around us, and so many of us are primed for a fight. Stay awake we hear and we tighten our fists and prepare to stand up and defend those in our midst who are targeted by hatred and violence. We hear Stay Awake and we think about Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Standing Rock, Immigrants and Refugees, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. Stay Awake because oppression shows up while the rest of us are sleeping.

This is a reminder we need, particularly those of us who hold a significant amount of privilege. Our friends in communities of color, and the LGBTQ community, do not have the luxury of falling asleep. They are awake to the violence and oppression they face on a daily basis. But those of us who might not be directly targeted by policies of a certain President Elect, or by the hatred and violence perpetrated in his name, may be tempted to take a break from the outrage and the fear and do something else for the time being. This is a dangerous mistake. This is the kind of silence that contributes to violence and oppression. Stay Awake, Jesus commands. Do not fall asleep while Muslims in this country are threatened with a registry. Do not fall asleep while immigrants in this country are threatened with deportation and arrest. Do not fall asleep as white supremacists bend the ear of the President Elect. As Christians, called to serve and stand with the vulnerable and the targeted among us, we cannot fall asleep. We must stay awake.

This means that we must also Stay Awake in the small details of our own daily lives. It is so simple to become distracted by the noise on the news or to lean heavily on the efforts of large organizing bodies. While the ACLU, water protectors at Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter are doing incredible and critical work which we should support and participate in, it is vitally important that we begin our work in our homes and places of employment and education. Advent is about repentance which requires a turning away from the ways in which we have fallen asleep to our call as followers of Christ. Often the first signs of this turn up in our most intimate relationships; with our partners or spouses, parents or siblings, friends, and even with ourselves. Do we lash out in anger at home while decrying anger in public? Are we becoming lost in the swell of consumerism around Christmas, but neglecting to find gratitude in simplicity and relationships? Are we abandoning our spiritual practice? These things may seem small or trivial in the grander scale of staying awake, but they are incredibly important.

I often joke that I have inherited the family legacy of a quick temper. Unfortunately, in action, it’s not very funny at all. This isn’t the righteous anger of justice, this is the petty anger of inconvenience. I know that it takes extra work on my part to avoid spikes of anger in certain environments or when I do particular things, and if I neglect that work and let my anger drive me I become empty of any ability to feel compassion and empathy. I’m not able to hear the legitimate concerns or fears of another person when I am in the midst of one of my temper tantrums. Blinded by rage is a very accurate description of the effects of anger. But I am reminded by Jesus to Stay Awake. I cannot afford to be blind. I cannot afford to be asleep. I need to be awake to the small daily interactions that require my care and my attention, so that when I am called upon to stand against oppression and injustice I can do so from a place of health.

At the Stand Up For Racial Justice general meeting a few weeks ago the crowd of nearly 800 people were asked to talk to a neighbor about what or where it is that they go to recharge, to rest and recuperate. I was so grateful for this reminder that in the work of standing against oppression it is important that we act out of a place of health. Movements need people, and people simply cannot act when they are emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or physically exhausted. We need to stay awake to our own needs as well. As followers of Christ we are routinely called into difficult and uncomfortable spaces, whether they be in our own relationships, or in the larger pursuit of justice that looks like Jesus. Sometimes praying for our enemies isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, and we find that we first need to take some time to pray for ourselves. This self-focused work is just as important as the other-focused work we hope to do. They are simply different sides of the same coin.

For me this inner work is centered around the Liturgy of the Hours and Centering Prayer. I have become uniquely attuned to the ways in which I am affected when I neglect my practice. I begin to feel scattered and reactive. My temper flairs quicker and more intensely, and I become much more concerned with myself than with the needs of others. Thomas Keating says about Centering (Contemplative) Prayer:

“Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists”. *

I have found this wisdom to be true in my own life, experiencing the results even when I fail to understand the process. What I know is that my spiritual practice, the care of my soul, is foundational to my ability to give myself to any endeavor; be it my marriage, a friendship, my work, or the pursuit of justice. This sense of the divine in all things is coupled with a greater sense of humility, born of the realization that all of creation is connected in a beautiful and complicated way. This is why I have been so grateful for the discipline of daily prayer. It has awakened me, and helped me to Stay Awake, to the truth of our interconnectedness, to our collective belovedness, and to my own identity as beloved. For Benedict, it was the discipline of ora et labora, prayer and work. The two are interconnected and each serves to build the other up.

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday in Advent paints a terrifying picture of loss and impending doom. In our day, when so many are seeing doom on the horizon, we must heed the command of Jesus and stay awake. It will be so easy for us to be swallowed by our fear and our anger, and to turn from the important work ahead. Apathy becomes a tempting idea when hope seems lost and power seems absolute. But as followers of Jesus we must stay awake. We must build ourselves up for the work ahead, and we must care for and about those small daily tasks and interactions that empower us to do the work of justice. Our world cannot bear the burden of our slumber. It needs for us to stay awake.

  • Keating, Thomas. Open Mind Open Heart. New York, NY.: Continuum, 1991. Print.
Uncategorized

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

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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…

Uncategorized

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.