Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How to Pray for Camp (& Other Things)


When I was a kid, we loved visits with Granny above just about everything else. Leaving “Camp Granny” was hard, but always came with one of Granny’s all-engulfing hugs, which was a pretty good consolation. Then, as we headed out the door, she’d say, “Be sweet to yourself,” and some version of “Stay safe and have fun!” If Dad was with us, he would chirp back in response to this last line, “Well, make up your mind!” And we’d laugh our way out the door.

I later learned that Granny’s ritual “Stay safe and have fun!" had begun in Dad’s own childhood. Predictably, his response came shortly after. From generation to generation, the exchange, “Stay safe and have fun!” and “Well, make up your mind!” has marked our leave-taking of one another.

On the most basic level, this exchange conveys our family’s love for each other. We want each other’s joy, which is not a small thing. Of course, fun and joy are not everywhere synonymous, but I believe my Granny’s desire that we have fun stemmed from the love that longs for another’s joy. There are plenty of places in this world where wanting the joy of the other person is not a given of being in relationship. In such places, we need to be ready to demonstrate what longing for another’s joy looks like. Likewise, with safety. Parents, for example, pray that our children will have friends who value the dignity of each person, along with the safety that attends that respect and dignity, exactly because we know that that respect is not a given in all relationships. 

My dad’s objection - “Well, make up your mind!” - takes this familial expression of love and exposes the tension between the twin desires for fun and safety, especially as read through the lens of an immortal adolescent.

When it comes to fun and safety, I am decidedly in the pro camp. I think fun and safety are mostly good things, with the caveat that Christians are called to lives of which self-sacrifice is a part, so safety cannot mean the absence of risks or loss inspired by love. (Such lives would not be “safe” but devoid of trust.) But, then again, God’s love can so ground and secure us that we become willing to risk and lose in love for God and the world God also loves. Score one for true safety.

It’s an interesting thing to think about the things you hope for people who are about to leave you and, equally, the hopes we have for the journeys on which we ourselves are about to embark. Fun and safety are good and right. Are they exhaustive? Probably not. Exhaustive is a pretty extreme word. Putting aside exhaustive, then, are fun and safety at the normative center of our hopes for our journeys? Maybe, depending on the context. What other hopes would be in the mix?

St. Paul’s list would want to add, if not lead with, “that God would be glorified,” and “that the others would be built up.” 

I’ll be honest, when I imagine my family holding hands in the car and praying before a family vacation, if I imagine us praying for a) safety in our travels, b) fun along the way, then adding c) that God would be glorified and d) that we would build up in everyone we encounter and especially our sisters and brothers in Christ, it starts to feel in my mind like a prayer from outside of the Episcopal tradition. 

When I keep thinking about it, though, the truly strange thing is that an Episcopal prayer tradition that contains as many as 15 opportunities to recite some version of “give glory to God” in one day of prayer (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) might produce Episcopalians who are not more instinctively shaped (myself first among us) to pray that God would be glorified in the activity we are about to undertake.

But here I am at camp. What does it mean to glorify God in a game of crazy kickball? What does it look like to glorify God in the Gaga pit? And after this week, what does it look to glorify God in all manner of meetings and appointments at which God won’t be mentioned? What does it look like to glorify God in my grocery shopping? In my relationship with my wife? My kids? What will it look like to glorify God and build up others on a summer’s vacation? Where will I speak up and give voice to the claims of the Gospel in the place where God would not otherwise come up? Alternatively, where will I ask God to quietly shape my presence in such a way that nonetheless conveys the conviction that the love of God matters for and peculiarly informs how I go about the work?

I want to stay safe and have fun. I want you to stay safe and have fun. But, my sisters and brothers, I want so much more for us than that.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Dear Senator": Addressing Gun Violence through the Lens of Taizé

A day after returning from the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust in St. Louis, I received an email from the Wisconsin Council of Churches asking me, with other religious leaders, to write relevant state senators to oppose a bill, currently in committee, that would remove the legal requirement for a permit in order to carry a concealed firearm. I find it particularly challenging to make space to articulate distinctively Christian positions on legislative proposals like this one succinctly. Isn't it enough, some  would say, to simply register your voice as for or against? Of course the answer is "No, that is not enough. In and by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have come to believe that more is possible. Come and see." Additionally, abandoning the public articulation of how faith informs these issues, like gun violence, only serves to underwrite the prevailing public assumption that faith is at the heart of problems like violence, an assumption that serves the interests of the State so well that the State would be foolish to question the assumption's veracity without prompting. This is my attempt to write my senator on the relevant bill and provide such a prompting through the lens of the Christian resources that shaped our time with the brothers of Taizé. 

Dear Senator Risser,

Grace and peace! 


My name is the Rev. Jonathan Melton. I am an Episcopal priest and the chaplain director of a campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, St. Francis House, a ministry with a long and active history of civic engagement. As your constituent and a person of faith, I want you to know how grateful I am for your service to the common life of this country and its people. I thank God for you, and I look for God in you.(1) 


I want you to know you and your work are daily in my prayers, especially at a time in which tensions across differences make dialogue and decisions that transcend the binary and reactive difficult. In such a time, claiming thoughtfulness and nuance that the soundbite cannot convey requires uncommon courage. I believe each of us is loved by a God who can call us into and sustain us in uncommon ways of being in this world, as reflections of God's love and for the good of one another. 


To that end, I am writing today to let you know that I oppose SB 169, the permitless concealed carry bill. Will you join me, and so many others, in opposing this bill? 


My colleagues have sent me talking points that they encourage me to include here. I'll include them at the end, in case they are right that statistics like this one - "since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws" - are new to you. But I suspect these statistics are not new to you. 


I trust my colleagues who have been at this work longer than I have to know which statistics will command your attention, but I think we all - they, you, and me - long to set our sights higher. After all, what is a concealed weapon except an accessory of fear and mistrust against another person? As a person of faith, confident in the power of liturgical rituals to shape persons, people, and communities, I grieve the daily formation our communities undergo as bearers of concealed mistrust and fear. Every cleaning of such a gun, locking of such a gun, remembering to carry such a gun reinforces a posture of mistrust for one another. Yes, we should oppose this bill, but we should also engage every local and political opportunity to call out our habituated hates and suspicions and invite us into spaces of developing trust. 


Obviously, such a call is beyond the scope of this bill, and yet you cannot credibly call for such opportunities later after having supported this bill. What I am asking is that you consider your opposition to this bill as a first step in claiming trust as an essential part of the common good. 


I realize that naming a particular and positive vision of the common good requires uncommon courage. We're not just talking freedom from but freedom for - positive freedom(2) - and we are talking about the hard and patient work of building trust in our communities. And so I pray for you to the God of uncommon courage, who is worthy of our trust, and I offer my support as one committed to walk and work with you and our neighbors as you risk speaking a vision of communities of trust. 


In the joy of the risen Jesus, 

Jonathan 

______ 


This bill would endanger the public by removing the common-sense protections that the Wisconsin Legislature put into place when it decided to allow people to carry concealed weapons. We should not remove reasonable requirements for background checks, training, and licensing for persons to carry concealed, loaded firearms in public places. 


Surveys show that most people, including gun owners, believe that a person should need to pass a background check and have training in order to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. 


Without permitting requirements, dangerous, irresponsible, and untrained people would be allowed to carry hidden, loaded weapons in public. 


Since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws. 


Educators and safety experts agree that allowing civilians to carry weapons in schools is not a good security practice. 


Please oppose SB 169 as a dangerous bill that would weaken the public safety protections that are already in place in Wisconsin's conceal carry permitting law.


___



(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p299

(2) William Cavanaugh on freedom (short video).

Monday, May 8, 2017

What the Beard Remembers:
Our Miscarriage & Making Room for 'Real'

In just less than two months, on July 7, 2017, my beard will turn one year old. That I'm two months out of a "yeard" means it has been about six months since Rebekah and I learned she had suffered a miscarriage. The realization, at the time, that my newbie beard would become a yeard about the time we would have met our child became an important personal part of my beard journey. I don't know what has led me to mark the time in beards, but it doesn't make less sense than the loss itself.

I say "about six months" not because I don't remember the details, but because the miscarriage was excruciatingly and unexpectedly protracted. Rebekah began spotting on November 11, her birthday, and it wasn't until a week later on November 18, my birthday, that a doctor's test results confirmed our fear. Even now it's hard to find words for the hell of a week of not knowing and the visceral, physical, wildly embodied grief that followed for months.

Research shows that between 10 and 25% of all pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Before November I wouldn't have been able to tell you that statistic, but Bek and I have never taken pregnancies for granted. We have walked with and prayed for many dear friends whose courage, vulnerability, steadfastness, and love through miscarriages, infertility, and other struggles have inspired us and challenged us to new imaginations for what holy friendship looks like. We have made a practice of sharing pregnancy news with certain people early on, partly to keep us accountable for needing them and not walking alone should something happen. After November, the love of friends kept us standing.

As we told family and close friends about the miscarriage, a significant number of them shared that they had also suffered miscarriages. Many times, this news was shared in loving ways that sought to honor and not diminish the particular pain Rebekah and I felt. The kinship of suffering opened existing friendships to new conversations in ways that nourished the souls of both parties. Other times,  people told us their stories in ways that felt like invitations to suck it up, get back to being a person who didn't cry in meetings, and join them in the good and noble practice of carrying pain in secret. Even now, I'm not sure what made the difference in how I heard the invitations.

For my hearing the invitations differently, I don't fault any of our friends. God knows we needed them all. I especially don't judge anyone for not having the words they wanted to have. God knows I didn't. More than anything, I think our society's culture of concealing hard things became the context for how I received the words differently on some days than others.

I don't think The Culture of Concealing Hard Things thinks too hard about perpetuating itself, because it has the benefit of occupying the default position. Instead, it takes thoughtfulness and courage to make room for real in the land of the scripted. Here's the closest thing, then, this reflection has to a thesis: in the land of the scripted, Christians and churches should be pioneers of making room for the real.
"Here's the closest thing this reflection has to a thesis: in the land of the scripted, Christians and churches should be pioneers of making room for the real."
In advocating for the real, I want to say that no one should feel an obligation to share their story or their suffering out of turn, before they are ready. That said, as a Christian, I do think it is a tragic mistake to presume that I can know when I am ready, much less to know my self and my story, by myself. In any case, it has taken me six months to sit down and write this and, I'm not sure what makes this day different than the ones on which I did not sit down and write. I think I write in part out of trust and gratitude for others who have blessed me by sharing their hearts. I know I write in part because every experience of suffering, my own or another's, leaves me holding the question for which I have no good answer: "Why do we spend so much of our waking hours pretending that our lives are less vulnerable, fragile, and beautiful than they are?"

When we do not feel like real life has the bandwidth to carry the suffering of others or our own - in other words, when we experience another's burden as an interruption to be overcome - we must ask ourselves, "Of what do we imagine the uninterrupted life consists?" You know, after all the real is gone.

We carry lots of things that fill the real: the challenges of parenthood, the challenges of being parented in unsatisfactory ways, alcoholism,  poverty, sexual assault, racism, discrimination of general and very particular kinds, God's presence, God's absence, depression, the unique burden of PTSD on men and women of the U.S. military, the three big things you would add next, and a million others, and every corresponding emotion and experience of it. For most of us, we share so little of what we feel. But I for one am not convinced that a world in which people don't cry in meetings is a good or worthy goal.

There are clearly political dimensions to each of these realities, with corresponding actions we can and should take to improve the situation of people in pain. But/and/also, there is also so much good to come from being present to one another even when we cannot resolve each other's pain. I thank God for so many friends who were present to us in this way. I marvel that among the many things it means to be called God's friends are bearing others' burdens and having burdens borne by others, too. The gift of presence that walks with, bears hard things, listens well, and makes room for even our pain to be a publicly admissible part of ourselves is a gift that communicates as little else can the unsurpassable love of God made known in Jesus Christ.

Thank you for showing up in the vulnerable space of love that walks with. Thank you for risking love without a script, where neither of us claims to know what comes next and so we relent and trust God together. Maybe improvisation like this is what it is to love without fear.



Saturday, April 8, 2017

Love the Fish: A Wedding Homily for Sarah & Tony

A rabbi had a friend who remarked, over a shared dinner of fish, how much he loved fish. The rabbi looked at his friend. “You love fish, huh? You loved the fish so much you took it from the river, boiled it, and ate it. You don’t love fish. You love yourself. You love how fish makes you feel.” 

Tony and Sarah, I give you the secret you already know to the fullness of joy in your marriage: love the fish. Love one another.

Some important clarifications before we go on: 1) you, of course, are not fish, and 2) the rabbi was not necessarily endorsing a vegan lifestyle. For our purposes today, let’s call it a metaphor. Love the fish. Love one another.

How will you know when you are loving the fish? That you are loving each other for more than how the other makes you feel or meets your needs? I am not asking this question rhetorically, because I know you both well, have come to count you good friends, and I know that this question is one you already cherish and already live. This question is one you are ready and prepared to answer with your lives, even when you don’t have all the answers in your life. Sarah, Tony, your generous, self-giving love for each other and the world around you is obvious and evident and inspiring and, yeah, sure, a work in progress, and yes, also, a thing for which all of us today in this space thank the living God. For such a love is surely God’s good gift.

For their part, Sarah and Tony tell me to tell the rest of you that they blame you for imparting this self-giving love to them. To ask them, the love to which they are committing today is their partaking in a gift they steward because of the love and example of a great cloud of witnesses of which each of you is a treasured part. A great cloud of witnesses, seen and unseen, has made this love real for them. 

I do not know how you taught Tony and Sarah by your lives to love the fish, but if I had to guess, I would guess that it was by imitating your giving and forgiving. Learning through your lives generosity and forgiveness; sharing the space of life with you as you gave of yourself and received gifts from others with humility and grace. You taught them to love the fish, too, when you forgave others and received forgiveness in turn, when you saw and named that you had grieved another person, and in that moment you put your love for that person above yourself. 

These two ways of being, generosity and forgiveness, which are really one way of being, are twin lights that illumine the love of God in this world and they reside near the hearts of all those who know that the love of God knows them. So generosity and forgiveness name the love of Christ that invests in another’s flourishing, even at the cost of other lives you might have lived instead.

And that’s marriage, right? And certainly parenthood. Not unlike monastic life, marriage is choosing to surrender choices and so to let go of other lives we might have lived. The good and unexpected news is that there is freedom and joy in choosing fewer choices. But the freedom of fewer choices doesn’t come in marriage’s being easy (spoiler alert: it isn’t), but freedom and joy come in learning to trust that the number of choices in our lives is not the most important thing about our lives. The freedom of fewer choices is the freedom of knowing God’s love and coming to trust, more and more and together, your identity as beloved of God with all your life. So, years from now, don’t just reread the Song of Songs nostalgically as a story into which you both rightly inserted yourselves on your wedding day. But read it frequently, yes, as a picture of your love for each other, but also as a picture of God’s love for each of you and both of you together. Read the parts we didn’t read today, and let it make you blush. Remember that the same Jesus who says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” is the Jesus who springs for fancy wine at the end of the party. And who delights in you both and who shares your joy today.

Sarah and Tony, continue to let the love of the Winemaker be the source of your own. Let his love challenge and delight you. Let the cup of this table continue to sustain you in the good work of loving each other and others.

Finally, a different rabbi also had some friends over for a shared meal, a different meal, a breakfast of fish on the beach, and he remarked, over breakfast, how much he loved them, how much he loved his friends. He held out his wounded hands and breathed God’s peace and forgiveness on them. “Love one another,” he had told them days before, “Just as I have loved you.”


Amen.