Monday, November 13, 2017

Extra Oil: Prepared not to Know, Becoming Friends of Uncertainty

What if it doesn’t go the way you planned?

What when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

The college admittance or job promotion you unexpectedly landed. Or unexpectedly didn’t land.

The big break years in the making that - while exciting at the time - in retrospect, didn’t in fact break the way you had thought it might, and has left you looking for a bigger one. And uncertain what you’re looking for, exactly.

The season when friendships stopped coming easily.

The death of a loved one.

The once-upon-a-time breathtaking romance that abruptly turned into hard work.

Unwanted interruptions of physical and mental health, others and your own.

What do you do when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

When it takes longer? Or goes faster? Or misses some other mark of your expectation?

What meaning do you make of such moments?

Are they signs that you are doing life wrong?

Are they punishments for past decisions, actions, inactions, or neglect? 

Are these moments the interference, the fault, of other people, from whom you need only to be freed?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story of his second coming, his making things right. And there are two ways to miss the coming, it seems. One is to not expect. To not show up with a lamp. To not stay up for the bridegroom with the others. Just stay at home, business as usual, as if there’s not a party in the offing. The first way to miss the coming is to not expect it. The second way to miss the coming is to expect it. Or at least to expect that it will go as you expect and not run late. Expect that you won’t need extra oil, but presume that God’s working things out will unfold exactly according to the schemes and schedules in your heart and head. Extra oil is another way to name the difference between expectation and what happens. Extra oil names the gift and capacity to be trustingly present, even when the expected doesn’t happen like we expect. As one scholar notes about this story, “the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay.”

To expect what we don’t expect puts us in the terrible bind of never knowing when we can writing something off. Never knowing whom we can safely discard, which may be why Jesus follows this story by telling his disciples that whatever they do to the least of these they do unto him. When you don’t know the end, you can’t dismiss the now.

When Jesus’ disciples ask about the end, the only thing Jesus says with reliability is that no one knows the time, it won’t be as soon as they think, there will be a lot of suffering between now and then, but that suffering is not itself the end. In other words, make friends of uncertainty, be prepared not to know. Pack extra oil.

To prepare for a delay is, definitionally, a tricky thing. But then, maybe that’s what airport terminals and hospital waiting rooms are for, to give us practice. Practice for the surrender that necessarily must happen when we are not in control of the timing. What does it mean to be present when you don’t know the timing? Or to stay present when you’re out of gas and weak? Them’s the fault-lines of patience and hope. Stanley Hauerwas writes that “the foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”

"In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do." What have you been taught to do? 

What does it look like to consider these things, what you’ve been taught to do, not as a one-off performances you can schedule, but rather as the character to which you commit your life, with God’s help, such that it becomes the you you are even when you’re not even trying, or when you’re too tired to try? What have you been taught to do? Could God make these things, things like turning to and resting in, the grace of him who died for you, the default of who you are? What does it mean to be taught to watch for Christ? And how can you watch for Christ with your life?

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our 
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by 
your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our 
life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 
ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen. (BCP, p100)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Socially Selective Decency and the God Whose Compassion Makes No Exceptions

If I ask you about the Hebrew Scriptures - the Old Testament - what comes to mind? How would you summarize the Law and the Prophets, in a nutshell? Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Jacob and Rebekah. Ruth. Job. Jonah. What else? Lots of violence, maybe (almost certainly).

Here's Jesus' take on that question, admittedly sharpened to the question of law [see today's lessons]: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Is this Jesus taking a red correcting pen to an Old Testament most of us lost respect for a long time ago? Making it simpler. More accessible? Is he taking welcome, creative, and surprisingly contemporary liberties with respect to the 613 (give or take) commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures? Not exactly. He’s quoting. He’s citing Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus’ originality is his simplicity, the framing, the organizing when he says these two are the source of the rest, but the content itself isn’t his. He’s using words pulled from memory - and specifically from the Hebrew Scriptures that, as a faithful Jew, he carries in the memory of his bones.

Who cares, you might say. A good thing’s a good thing, you might say. Six hundred and thirteen was way too many, anyway, you might say. Can’t keep up with that. I’ve got a life to live. Let’s be honest, even ten was a stretch. Right, Moses? I’m on the clock. Keep it pithy. But two? Two, you got my attention. Two, I’m all about. And these two? Totally got it. Thanks, Jesus. I’m all over it.

But are you?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. 

C’mon, if we’re talking likelihood/probability of your followthrough, you’re telling me you wouldn’t trade those two doozies for a couple hundred commandments of busywork? 

I would! In a heartbeat.

Some days I do.

What these two summarizing commandments lack in quantity, they more than make up for in degree of difficulty. Even our society appreciates the difficulty of what Jesus is asking because, as much as society wants to value things like love and inclusion, notice the words we use to expand on what love and inclusion might mean when we descend to the level of details in our civil discourse: we use words like tolerance and coexistence. But tolerance is an admittedly low bar. Tolerance is for mosquitos. Tolerance is for immune systems with respect to outside toxins and pathogens. As in, “he’s developed a tolerance to the mold and asbestos in his apartment.” And coexistence simply names our past failures to restrain our real desire to choose a future in which the other has no part, violently if necessary. Is this what love is? Love the Lord your God. Tolerate the Lord your God? We say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are trying to be a basically good person, but have you noticed how, in recent conversations like #metoo, and with respect to the insidious and relentless evils of racism, even that bar has been lowered of late? The new word, the new goal is decency, which in part is meant to communicate there are no gold stars and cookies awarded to those people, especially white men, who manage to simply do the right thing on occasion - and that this is an important corrective to hear can't be emphasized enough, over against the privileged, self-protecting posture of the ally who is more concerned for how he appears than the words and well-being of his sisters and brothers - but if we relent after that, if we stop after that, if that’s as far as we go, if we aim at decency and hit it squarely, if we settle for a prophetic word spoiled and turned only into one more opportunity to shame or conquer each other, if we don’t still press on together beyond prerequisites toward something like actual, living human respect, if we aren’t bold enough to risk submitting pictures of what the good life is and so also what the common good might be and, with these, to give accounts for what true love and mutuality look like, do we only underwrite the pervasive, general ambivalence for what it means to be a good person, much less what it is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?

And are you really telling me you wouldn’t trade all of that mess for something far less complicated, more straightforward, like a grocery list, even if it was a thousand items long? Or what if, instead, I could give you an endless list of outrages to like, dislike, or share on Facebook and other social media? What I’m saying is it’s a trade many of us already make, maybe because we can’t imagine what the two commandments would look like, here and now, not just in 2017 but in the corners of my neighborhood that overlap my life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love God and your neighbor. If only it were so easy. But love is complicated. In society’s terms, love is for the deserving. Which means you can score exemptions from loving some people. It sounds like a deal you should take, at first hearing. But then you realize that rules used to exempt you from loving the indecent people will eventually be used to justify someone’s exemption from loving you. Now, relax, you’re not necessarily unloved yet. You’re just condemned to the terror of potentially becoming unloved at any moment. Relax, maybe you can channel that fear that love will not leave you at the slightest or gravest misstep. Just don’t mess up. Ever. No, you don’t need to be perfect, well, maybe you do, but decent’s a start. You can promise me that much, can’t you?

Can you?

I can’t. I can’t promise you I am decent. 

And if I can’t promise you decent, isn’t it getting ahead of ourselves to think about the far off land of soul-deep, self-emptying love? What if I’m not decent? Where would I get some cover, I assume you can get it somewhere, some counter-exemption for things like the literal slavery of other people that makes our smartphones possible? I know, that’s just it, some things we can’t change. But that’s the point, that if I’ve got to land on the platform of decency, can we all acknowledge that it will have to be selective? And what if I find myself internally convicted for something for which there doesn’t yet exist a popular social critique? Dare I confess it? Introduce it? Better to hide it. Keep it quiet in a silence that numbs my soul of feeling and settles for a semi-salvation for which there’s sufficient social agreement.

You don’t need Facebook to know you fall short of decent. You have a conscience. Better, you have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God and baptized into Christ’s own death and resurrection. But while seeing your brokenness and the ways you miss the mark are themselves gifts of God, our very baptisms can confound us for the pain of the brokenness and struggles we see but cannot simply, for seeing, change by ourselves. And Facebook can inflame the muscle spasm of the soul, but it cannot speak its healing. Nor does it know the stakes of the pain it inflames. But you know the stakes. Not decency or reputation. But life that participates in God’s mending of the world. And that participation begins with the commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. But not in the way you think. Your participation in God’s mending of the world does not begin with your doing these things. It begins with Jesus’ doing these things. While you and I were still broken and a mess (way back then and an hour ago), he loved you as the neighbor he loved as himself. The law and the prophets hang on these two commandments because the law and the prophets hang on Jesus. May we learn, with God’s help, to do the same.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

When We Don't Have Words Adequate

"What do I do?"

A student spoke these words into a beginning-of-the-year group conversation in early September. The group was collecting topics and questions our community wanted to explore over the course of the semester. We were popcorn-naming topics like pluralism and salvation and the psalms and liturgical practice and Colin Kaepernick and racial justice and it was the same day hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. This student's question, she said, was specifically about her concern for her abuelo, who was then-lost to the blackout that engulfed the whole island. "What do I do?" she said. "That's my question today."

This student's abuelo has since been accounted for; he survived the storm and is well. But her question, "What do I do?" hasn't gone away.

Systemic racism, police brutality, and flag controversies/liturgies. What do I do?

The U.S. upholds its steadfast commitment to the death penalty over against its newfound commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. What do I do?

The military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned us more that 50 year ago now determines us and our livelihoods in ways we can't even see anymore, much less change. What do I do?

Las Vegas and so much horrific, senseless death. What do I do?

Thoughts and prayers are popularly dismissed as insufficient, and it's important to both see and name how politicians have hidden behind these words. Still, the invalidation of thoughts and prayers in a world in which the direct ability of the citizen to shape public policy is not always clear or believable, even if it is finally true, raises existential anxiety to a thundering crescendo of the soul: what can I do?

There are senators to call, and we should, but the phone calls don't lift the haunting question from our shoulders, don't make the crises go away. Neither does the self-righteous other-shaming that saturates our social media. Gun laws will help, and it is hard to argue with grief that takes the shape of calls for legislative action in the face of the unthinkable, but even then, there will be steps forward and steps backward, and it will be one day, even if it is not this day for you, difficult to know what to do when one of the things we are doing along the way is discovering the limits of what we can do. 

Which isn't to say we should stop. Which isn't to say passivity is an option. But it is to say, says the preacher, that we need, daily, new and renewed imaginations sustained by the God who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

Please hear me now. We should not stop, but we should sometimes pause. We should make time and space to reflect, to recenter, so that the future passage of background check legislation, for example, doesn't represent the full victory, doesn't stop us short of critically examining and challenging the American culture of war and military might which gun violence imitates, as if this country's unique propensity for gun violence and her unprecedented-in-the-history-of-humanity levels of military spending were distinct and separate realities. Lest we settle for and lazily celebrate our bipartisan shortcomings. Lest we give up on the prophets' dreams that do not fit either party's platform. Lest we come to believe that it really is us versus them and not one family in need of deep listening, new life, and healing that neither "side" can accomplish for or apart from the other.

What if, for healing, it is okay to be empty? To not be sure what comes next? What if clinging to the answer I am sure of prevents the new possibility I do not see? (Which is not to say one shouldn't risk submitting the answer, only that to submit an answer with an open hand is a special kind of love). What if, for healing, we need to be empty? What if being empty involves being present to God and one another when, without answers or certainty, we show up anyway? Empty of answers, full of our exasperation and grief. But, then, it's a real question: without the certainty of solutions for the things that grieve us, what do we possible have to give one another?

In Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes,
Some people, who cannot see what nourishment they could be bringing, do not realize that they can become bread for others. They have no confidence that their word, their smile, their being, or their prayer could nourish others and help them rediscover trust. Jesus calls us to give our lives for those we love. If we eat the bread transformed into the Body of Christ, it is so that we become bread for others.
Others find their own nourishment is to give from an empty basket! It is the miracle of the multiplication of the bread. 'Lord, let me seek not so much to be consoled as to console.' I am always astonished to discover that I can give a nourishing talk when I feel empty, and that I can still transmit peace when I feel anguished. Only God can perform that sort of miracle.
Vanier hints at the possibility that our emptiness itself can be a gift of nourishment for others. In Silence and Honeycakes, Rowan Williams tells the story of a desert monk who seeks out one of the elder (and legendary) desert monks. The elder asks the young monk about his spiritual shortcomings and temptations. The younger denies having any, for which the elder names his thanks before confessing his own shortcomings and temptations. "To tell the truth," says the younger, "it is the same with me." Exactly by not having the right answer, the elder opens space for what was, until then, unimaginable movement forward. I do think humility and the self-emptying that is confession will play an important role in the diffusing of our present antagonisms.

Similarly, Dean Cynthia Kittredge, quoting Ellen Davis, rightly sees the ancient practice of lament - modeled in the psalms, inhabited by Christ - as the possibility of emptiness that, spoken in the presence of God, can nourish, can "trace a movement from complaint to confidence in God." 

What do I do? If you are empty, be empty. Be empty in the presence of God. I believe the student did that when she asked the question she couldn't answer answer in the presence of her sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. If you are empty, be empty. And trust God enough to share that, too. For the sharing, even of emptiness, is the beginning of the Offertory movement that begins the Eucharist, is the beginning of blessing, new life, and hope. The lifting up of brokenness for which we have neither words or answers is itself a gift of God that leads to the banquet of God.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Unpopular Thoughts, Part II

"Thinking NFL players are 'protesting the flag' is like thinking Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation." @jeffisrael25

Relatedly. It's a hard conversation, but I am deeply grateful for the charitable friends with whom I have shared it and from whom I have learned. The conversation is the one that opens itself to exploring that and how it is both possible and good to
  • support the remarkable people who serve this country in the military AND 
  • grieve and challenge the military-industrial complex that increasingly defines this country's relationships with the rest of the world, its own land (read Wendell Berry!), its approach to education, policing, incarceration (watch 13th!), and a bunch of other issues through which - significant among other problematic things - white supremacy is systematized and habituated. 
To confuse these tasks is to fail one another in the basic human obligation to listen and tend to each other. Moreover, to pit these tasks against each other is to leave the military-industrial complex, an ailment common to both "sides," unnamed and spared our critical reflection. Indeed, one of the glaring holes of the military-industrial complex is that it leaves little to no space for veterans to talk about the sacrifices this country asked of them (google '22 Kill'!). The absence of such a space is not patriotism; it is politically and financially incentivized dishonesty, very little of which has to do with the military personnel of this country and which hides behind other people's public disagreements over whether to stand or kneel. 


It does not dishonor one's country to pray for its healing and the making right of broken things anymore than it dishonors our military to pray for peace and the flourishing of people. Moreover, I do not know anyone who prays prayers for peace more fervently than my friends who have served in the military.


But the flag carries multiple symbols for people, and so the president is retweeting photos of amputee veterans in an attempt to shame those who would help us see the incompleteness of our freedoms. It is hard but important for white folks to see and own that no one is free in the charade of white supremacy, 
  • which I do not wish to uniquely attach to the present administration (lest the nation become complacent) and 
  • which simultaneously mocks the flag, our conception of freedom, and those who have served the military of this country for or under both. 
It has taken too long for white athletes (and many others of us who are white but not athletes) to join the human chains (actual and metaphorical), but they are there now, which is a significant step. 


Prophets come to heal our blindness, and the reactive response of the powerful reveals that our blinding has not been an accident. You know you have been made a pawn in someone else's game when the subversive next step that threatens to undo it all is the befriending of the side you are being told to despise.


Postscript: It is entirely possible that this short post takes too much for granted the story of Nate Boyer and Colin Kaepernick's remarkable friendship in ways that would have been better to make explicit. If that's the case, here's the story to compensate for the deficit.

PPS The above analysis is only implicitly Christian, in its valuation of friendship and its desire to see discourse shaped by truthful speech, but the post largely punts the still more difficult conversation about allegiance with which Christians are obliged to wrestle. As a student one time said to me, "Allegiance in the church? How would that work? We only have one pledge to give." Right. Another post, maybe, would consider the relative generosity of the Book of Common Prayer's rubric "The people stand or kneel" and the undeniable discomfort that comes from recognizing that the present debate is about how not if national liturgies should be performed. 

I do think it is important to name here on that score the work of folks like David Fitch, who would contend that mutual submission under the Lordship of Jesus, as we come together and listen to discern Christ's presence in our midst, is important to understanding the kind of friendship God in Christ has opened to us and so also the kinds of friends we might hope to become, even with people who are not Christian.