Monday, June 30, 2014

5 THINGS I LEARNED PULLING WEEDS

A good day's harvest at the UW-Episcopal Center.
1. Trowels are fine, but a well-centered pull from where the stems meet the soil, using two hands if necessary, is at least as effective and far more satisfying. (In your encounters with weeds, being centered and grounded can up make for a lot you might have thought that you lacked.)

2. If you wonder if something's a weed, pull it. It's okay to guess wrong. The true plants will pull back. 

3. In an untended garden, the weeds are the tall ones.

4. Weeds have incentives toward weakness: if they break when you pull them, the root is preserved. You win the weed only when you pull to the strength it has no incentive to claim.

5. The roots of weeds grow in one direction. The roots of the true plants reach both deep and wide.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

ABRAHAM, ISAAC, AND CARDS AGAINST HUMANITY

Preached on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 6/29/14, at St. Barnabas, Richland Center, and the UW Episcopal Student Center, St. Francis House.

There is this game, Cards Against Humanity, that I really can’t recommend to anyone. It’s vulgar, crude, and displays an alarming irreverence for goodness and life. It’s disgusting, really. And a whole lot of fun, eliciting embarrassingly vile answers out of otherwise mostly good and decent people like you and me. The worst part is, there’s a Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition - every bit as offensive as the original. One night, after an evening of playing Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition, with some good friends who had just that night introduced me to the game, we talked about friends in common with whom we’d also be willing to play the game. It was a short list. Just like there are certain movies you would never watch with your mother, there are certain friends with whom I would never, ever play Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition. As we talked and reflected, it occurred to me that not being willing to play Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition, with a particular friend might be one of the higher moral compliments I could ever pay a friend. Indeed, after that night, I found myself wondering just what my friends thought of me, that they counted me worthy of playing the game with them.

I suspect many of us think about the Binding of Isaac in a similar way. God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. We do not think less of the friends who would not have played this disturbing game with God. Indeed, we wonder what is wrong with Abraham that he played the game for as long as he did. Even to the point of raising the knife. 

Child sacrifice is abhorrent to us. And, in other passages of Scripture, child sacrifice is clearly abhorrent to God. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? After all, there are some things you can’t undo, even if they’re not done. Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but Abraham did sacrifice Isaac. The knife was in the air.

Some of you might remember the famous experiment of Stanley Milgram, who was trying to figure out why, in the course of WW II, Nazi citizens and soldiers carried out atrocities seemingly born of blind obedience. In Milgram’s experiment, subjects were instructed to apply shocks, with increasing amounts of electric voltage, to unseen participants. These participants, hidden behind a wall, were clearly audible to the subjects applying the voltage. As the shocks were administered, the hidden participants first expressed pain, then objection to participation in the study, next screams, then louder screams, finally nothing. Even when the participants no longer showed signs of responsiveness or life, sixty-five percent of the subjects continued to administer the shocks, as they were instructed. 

Because the subjects didn’t know that the participants vocalizing their distress from behind the wall weren’t real, the subjects also didn’t know that, by the end, they had not actually killed the participants they didn’t know they weren’t shocking. That the subjects did not actually kill the participants was little solace to the subjects, who later realized they had been willing to shock strangers, even to death. You don’t see psychology experiments like these anymore, because the ethics of dismantling a person’s psyche like that have been rightly condemned as unconscionable. There are some things you can’t undo, even if they’re not done.

Still, in considering this wretched request God makes of Abraham, we must be honest. That Abraham is asked to make a sacrifice we would not make obscures the reality that we also, in our lives, make questionable sacrifices. The Old Testament may be appalling sometimes, but it is not more appalling than our own lives can be. For example, one could look at my life and make the case that my spending habits and material consumption, alongside the habits and consumption of others in wealthy nations, place a stress on the ecology of this planet in a way that could rightly be described as sacrificing future generations. Similarly, while well-meaning people disagree about the necessity of the sacrifices demanded by war, we do not question that the lives of somebody’s children have made our own freedoms possible. What is interesting to me, therefore, is not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice a child, but that we would act like we’ve never done it before. Indeed, even Abraham, in the chapter immediately preceding this episode, sacrifices his first son Ishmael - conceived by Sarah’s maid, Hagar - abandoning him and his mother in the wilderness, where the boy has little hope of survival, save for Hagar’s prayer and God’s intervention to deliver both mother and child. Truth be told, Abraham has sacrificed a child before, just not Isaac, and just not to God. 

If the unspoken measure of a respectable religion is that it doesn’t ask unreasonable sacrifices of its adherents, it is fair to wonder if this measure comes from our fundamental opposition to unreasonable sacrifices or if it is the case that by the time God finds us we, like Abraham, are already in the process of making those sacrifices to something other than God. Maybe we are always playing some version of the game, Cards Against Humanity.

From the beginning, the biblical story has been one of sacrifices made to things other than God. Adam and Eve sacrifice their obedience to the serpent, at the same time sacrificing the relationship God had imagined with them, walking together in the cool of the day. Shortly after, the sacrifices of Eve’s children to God become a point of contention, and what started as broken relationship with God finds social consequences: Cain murders Abel. Not long after, Cain’s descendants have so mastered the example of their forbearer that violence utterly defines the world. The same world God once called “very good” God is now sorry God has made.

But also from the beginning, God’s deep desire has been to bless the whole world: “be fruitful and multiply,” God said. Coordinating this project has proven a challenge. Now, in Abraham, God imagines a people born of a man through whom the whole world will finally be blessed. God imagines a world blessed through God’s covenant friendship with Abraham. The camera zoom tight in on Abraham. No pressure. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis (1) calls Abraham the “single human thread upon which [God’s] blessing hangs” (Davis 61). And, in today's story, we see God wondering, if not worrying: over against humanity’s history of unfaithfulness, can God trust Abraham with God’s dream for the world? The dream of children of Abraham and so also children of God made like the stars in the sky. What if, like nearly everyone else before him, Abraham is just in it for the milk and honey and lots of grandkids? What if Abraham isn’t as compelled by the part of the dream that says, “They will be my people, and I will be their God”?

In the end, then, the most disturbing aspect of this story, buried under the horror of child sacrifice, may be God’s alarming vulnerability. God loves Abraham, but/and God doesn’t seem to know how Abraham will respond to God's love. The love that will constitute the covenant relationship between God and God’s People leaves God vulnerable to the unfaithfulness of those whom God has chosen to love. This is surprising. Alarming. Did you know that the love with which God has chosen to love God’s People - to love you - is not a cubic zirconium imitation of love - a love that looks a lot like the real thing but keep two fingers crossed behind its back and holds back the fragile parts? But God’s love for God’s People - God’s love for us - is here revealed to be the honest-to-goodness, heart-laid-bare love of vulnerable self-offering, even uncertainty. God loves Abraham, so God is not sure how Abraham will act. Thus, by the end of the episode, there is something God did not know before the story that God now knows. In Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, the weight of the world lifts from the divine shoulders, and God's relief streams from the page to us. “Now I know…” God says. “Now I know.”

We know that this will not be the last time a Father is asked to sacrifice a Son in the beautiful, difficult, sometimes dark story of Scripture. The Father’s sacrificed Son will also be one of Abraham’s sons, and the sequel will be every bit as offensive as the original. But the faithfulness God longs for in Abraham and the faithfulness of God will finally meet there, on the cross, in Jesus, just as God imagined. In self-emptying love poured out for the world that God has, from the very beginning, longed with a vulnerable, covenant love, to bless. 

Today, just now, recalling this sacrifice, with outstretched arms and open hands, we come to touch this most unlikely blessing. The Body of Christ on our palms, on the very same hands that will touch and work and study and labor in the week that will come. The Blood of Christ on our lips, on the very same lips that will speak and kiss and bless and curse and sing and ask and wonder in days after this day. So we pray with our lips and our lives to be joined to the blessing we discover in Abraham, even the unprotected, vulnerable, against-all-odds love of our generous God for the life of this world; this world with whom God has sacrificed everything God has to be.


Amen.

_____


(1) I am deeply grateful in this and the following paragrah for Ellen Davis' courageous and refreshingly honest account of The Binding of Isaac in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, MA: Cowley, 2001, pp 50-64. I say courageous because it takes courage in this instance to suggest that God may be up to exactly what the text says God is up to, namely needing to know that Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Belonging(s) and Barbecues:
Irreverent Reflections On An Old Testament God


I'm reading the Bible in 90 days this summer with 75 of my closest friends, enemies, and distant acquaintances. The adventure's daily discipline has been - all of 12 days in - equal parts gratifying, confusing/utterly foreign, encouraging (especially the running blog commentaries of my friends), and hard as hell. 

Yesterday, I trudged through a day and a half's worth of Numbers (making up for my inability to stay awake the night before - my only compelling resemblance to the lives of the first disciples). Rough. 

As a preacher, I've always found resonance with Moses, putting up with a stiff-necked and grumbling people. (I'm looking at you, Church.) Moses: "God, if you're not gonna take this burden of a people from me, shoot me now. In your mercy." Been there. 

But now, trudging through Numbers, I *am* the grumbling people. Hell, reading the eighth iteration of Israel's troops, their placements and lineage - to say nothing of the CTRL+C/CTRL+V account of their eventual offerings to God at the tent of meeting - I find myself siding with Israel, wondering if the people wouldn't have been happier in Egypt, too.

Freedom from Egypt had looked good on paper. 

But...

Well, there's the constant attention to what is becoming an all-consuming relationship. Endless, unexpected sacrifices (1). Tedious requirements with respect to physical space and material things. Hidden, fine print the people didn't see coming and which is becoming increasingly easy to resent.

It's all so much like parenting. Or marriage. Or pretty much any other relationship with the power to transform/destroy a life.

We thought, perhaps wishfully, that God would save us from sacrifice, not require it. So this is all a bit disappointing.

And before we skip to how Jesus - say Christians - has saved us from our desperate attempts to produce sacrifices that will (we think) save us - war, for example - I find myself needing to stop and confess that this is not the life with God I wanted, for the Israelites or myself. 

For example, one of the especially compelling challenges I find in these first of the Old Testament books is the significant counter to conventional (21st century American) notions of property rights. The permanence of property rights - and so also of socioeconomic divisions - is challenged clearly by the Jubilee (which some scholars wonder if Israel ever observed), and also by the limits God places on the allowable possessions of the Levites. The worst part is, Jesus will, in Luke's gospel, call himself the Jubilee, and the early church of the book of Acts will "hold all things in common." So we can't even call this an Old Testament flub to which the Gospel provides a corrective mulligan toward greater respectability. 

Additionally, while my wife finds the concept of sacrifices offered for unintentional sins problematic, it seems to me of one piece with the growing case of the Hebrew Scriptures that I am not my own, insofar as I need others even to see my sin. The assumption that I need others to see my sin connects, in my mind, to the South African ubuntu Desmond Tutu describes as the idea that "a person is a person through other people" - in this case, the people of God, with whom I share all things and discover 1) who I am as a beloved child of God and 2) how my life is *actually* oriented relative to this truth.

All of this rubs against everything I've been raised to believe being a human is about, namely a) sacrificing as little as possible and b) being in charge of the sacrifices I make. So while I pretend to be offended at the barbaric, unpredictable, and offensive Deity of the Hebrew Scriptures, now you know better. Even my disgust at the crude and vulgar God of the Old Testament can't be trusted. I've got too much at stake to simply be truthful. So alongside my true questions I mix in my elaborate effort to keep at arm's length the One who would dispossess me, in the end, of both the things I possess and my attempts to build an identity out of the things I possess - belongings, reputation, even my humility. Nothing is safe. Everything is threatened. 

The only lasting thing is
the identity that bubbles  
up like water from the ground, 
springs out as river from the rock, 
comes as gracious gift of God. 

____


(1) To be fair, the endless barbecue commended throughout the Pentateuch is more than a little appealing to this Texan. I mean, who doesn't go to Rudy's Barbecue in part for the "pleasing aroma" that will cling to one's clothes for days after? I get it, God. I do.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Church!


Because the Holy Spirit is your life. That's why we say it: it's the Spirit of the living God that you receive today as life.

What a gift. What a mess.

At the moment of your birth, dear Church, the preacher got mistaken for the disorderly, drunken uncle. Unfortunate, but understandable. It happens. Peter. There was smoke and fire, and, before it's done, the moon will turn to blood, the sun go out, the prophet says.  

Happy birthday. Make a wish.

There were lots of people there that day. The crowds were thick and hot with sweat, what with all the fire and all. And the friends of Jesus on whom the fire fell spoke languages they didn't speak - the lingua francas of the crowds - people from all over. Most everyone involved thought long and hard about painting over their fears of the mess with facades of disinterested curiosity. Amusement. Hoping to God they could get out of the spotlight and be reduced, somehow, to spectator status.

It was so much like life: mess and smoke and broken people from all over, threat of blood, and the wrong but profoundly ordinary certainty that we won't be understood.

The muck and chaos of the day threatened to overwhelm the day, but it didn't.

John Paul II, descended from that first disreputable-seeming preacher, observed one time that the chaos of the tongues that day was for the end of understanding. "Each one understood." So, he said, teachers perhaps embody best the spirit of the Pentecost: unglamorously translating truth into a language familiar to us, teachers help us understand.

It doesn't have to be fancy. Or scary. While seemingly okay with fancy, we Episcopalians frighten easily at the prospect of things like speaking in tongues. At its heart, though, the miracle was about understanding - about the Gospel made known in its simplicity, such that each one understood.

I pray that the lives of we inheritors of Pentecost continue to move simply and toward understanding. God's love letters to the world, our lives, read in simplicity and love - that is, accessible to others through the generous, sometimes messy, and cruciform love of Jesus.

Not as a counter, then, but as a compliment to the disheveled, frightening mess that was the fiery backdrop for your birth, I delight to share with you what Paul will call the Spirit's fruit, a wondrous gift, for your birthday, dearest Church:

"...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-25).

Happy birthday! And many, many more.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Follow the Friendships:
A Less Than Cutting-Edge New Proposal for Discernment, Ordination, Mission, Ecumenism, Generous Self-Offering, and Everything Else Followers of Jesus Might Be Tempted To Do


At lunch with a friend the other day, I asked him about his first few years in campus ministry. It's been wonderful, he said. "Slow, patient, immensely rewarding. Frustrating. Growing." Like me, my friend's work on campus is of the church-planting kind. We started talking about learnings.

I mentioned my from-time-to-time loneliness. Not the loneliness of physically being alone. Blessedly, I am surrounded by students, colleagues, friends, and a small army of alumni and supporters from local (and increasingly not-so-local) churches. No, the particular loneliness I shared with my friend comes from the commitment to continually challenge my imagination for living on the edges of a missional understanding: being with and for others - especially neighbors, unhooking the ministry of St. Francis House from the predictable ecclesial tropes of guilt, judgment, and the preservation of the institution. "No strings," our students call it.

We haven't mastered "no strings. Indeed, my prayer is that we wouldn't ever master it, so much as it would master us. We aren't there yet, but we are committed to becoming so mastered. We aren't better at this vision than anyone else, but we are beginning to get to a place where we can see that to be committed to this vision can/will entail not being as committed to other things traditionally associated with the good work of the Church. For example, we don't do many meetings, and I don't value conference tables in our space. (Looking ahead to the fall, I think most of the conversations worth having in the life of the Episcopal Center will happen on walks, because it's simply silly to keep meeting here to talk about living life there. Meeting, not meetings.)

It's the unhooking that's lonely.

To be honest, the unhooking is also exceedingly good and incredibly energizing. The unhooking is what opens me to receive the Gospel again through the fresh eyes of my students. The unhooking is what challenges me to receive new possibilities of the Gospel. The unhooking is what finally lands me outside of my head and, reliably, outside of my comfort zone. To forsake one's comfort zone is to discover new life. And also to be, from time to time, lonely.

My friend expressed some resonance with my loneliness. Unexpectedly, he said that the next time God calls him to an adventure in ministry, he'll start with a team of friends. Not building and becoming friends with a team, but starting with a team of friends committed to a common focus. "Why wouldn't I, if I could?" he asked.

My friend got me thinking. When Jesus sent the disciples out, two by two, I wonder how they paired up. Did Jesus have to pull the old youth group schtick and count them off 1-2, 1-2, 1-2? Did James and John lock eyes the moment Jesus announced the mission, to seal their partnership in silence? Did Judas look around with a lonely hopelessness, with no one there to match his gaze? Surely Jesus let them go out as friends.

I won't speak for other denominations, but the polity of the Episcopal Church does not put a premium on partnered friendship in (at least) ordained ministry. Notoriously, seminarians are counseled not to trust the laity with vulnerable friendship, and oftentimes for good reasons. Some churches can still afford assistants, but that number is small and shrinking. (Thus, "clericalism" in the life of the Church usually indicates a dynamic around a cleric, singular, because the laity, broadly speaking, see little in the way of relationship modeled by clergy.) Large staffs are luxuries. 

Even with large staffs, the best scenario - ordinarily - is that one is able to grow the possibility of friendship across the staff with which a rector surrounds herself. Rarely, if ever, does the Church start with and build on friendships. The old school custom in which staff submitted their resignations to incoming rectors is the closest thing I can find in the habit and practice of the Church that would make beginning with friendship possible (bringing in one's own friends). To say that bygone practice is not now fondly regarded is of course an understatement.

That the Church rarely starts with friendship is curious to me, because Paul says that the ministry Christ invites us to share is the ministry of reconciliation. It is hard to imagine real reconciliation without friends (or enemies, for that matter, which is a challenge surely requiring the presence and honesty of holy friends).

To be sure, one of the great lessons of Church is that we don't pick Jesus' friends. I remind myself daily that I am likely a friend someone wishes Jesus hadn't chosen. As Will Willimon might say, "You want Jesus? You're stuck with the Church." Indeed, unexpected friendships are one of the great gifts of being Christian. But even Willimon spent the better part of several decades working with his close friend Stanley Hauerwas. It seems silly to enter work this challenging apart from the presence existing friends.

A friend of mine recently told me that her Rector had left her church to take another position. To make matters worse, she said, within a week the Assistant left, too. While recognizing and discussing the real pastoral challenges such a congregation faces, I eventually smiled and said, "You have such a gift." "What do you mean?" my friend asked me. "Y'all are financially sound. You warrant two clergy. It's just bad luck, really. No scandal of leadership. That means you can tell the next Rector of your parish that she can pick a friend to work with. Do you know that most of us can go a lifetime in ministry without ever having that opportunity?"

In the New Testament Church, discernment for ordination appears to have been an only slightly fancier version of this: some apostle would come upon a person of faith from the community of faith and ask herself or himself some version of the question, "Would I take her/him along with me? Is this a friend with which I'd enroll in this thankless task?" It wasn't a rhetorical question. It was an actual question necessitated by the assumption that ministry required friends. The modern laying on of hands - an important sticking point in ecumenical conversations for Episcopalians - can be seen as a (perhaps) too diluted version of being willing to touch and be with this person - to claim them as a friend in ministry. 

And of course good clergy will rightfully invest much to cultivate friendships among themselves and so will find unofficial spaces between the letters of the polity to generate ministries born of friendship. An interesting question, though, is how a reimagined polity could actually legitimate and encourage this energy and its subsequent ministries. Projects like The Easter People Podcast and others like it are demonstrating that the work of friends is often inherently compelling and interesting to the rest of us, for they show us what it looks like to act and imagine creatively with others, which is a necessary prerequisite to being God's public people in the world. 

When LeBron James famously took his "talents to South Beach," the decision was monumental not because of the botched ESPN public relations disaster, but because it was the first time someone with James' ceiling chose winning and playing with friends over maximum earnings and perceived legacy. At the time, conventional wisdom held that the Miami Heat wouldn't be able to afford anyone beyond their "Big 3." In fact, the opposite turned out to be true: countless skill players lined up for a chance to play with a team they recognized to be build on friendship, sacrifice, and the best chance to do something special. 

My sense is that more and more young Christians - like my friend and myself - would be seriously willing to entertain the kind of monumental "decision" LeBron made, foregoing traditional prizes of reputation and wealth in exchange for the opportunity to live the Gospel with friends. The willingness of these Christians to forgo reputation and wealth is a good thing, because if ministry wasn't going to make you rich before, I have no idea how the kind of friendships-in-ministry I'm proposing pay the bills. But exactly for these reasons, they will be teams capable of the sacrifices only friends can make: "greater love has no one than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends." And teams of friends engaged in sacrifice for love of Christ and the Gospel will, indeed, do something special.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

5 Things I Want To Remember, Day 1
#SummerOfScripture14

1. This. (And all the other photos friends shared today from the places where they started the journey.)


2. What John Walton says is really going on in the six-day creation.



3. In the second creation account, the water that covers the face of the earth comes from the ground, not from rain, which - says my footnote - "comes and goes capriciously." As a Texan whose home state has no natural lakes and little rain - but does know spring-fed rivers! - I find this nuance beautifully compelling for Eden and the waters of baptism. For truly, to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus is to be immersed in the water that comes from the ground.

4. Earth, ground, dust, and land are everywhere part of the story - from Adam's curse to Abraham's promise, which means (at least) that this conversation with Ellen Davis and Wendell Berry is very much worth your time.

5. The fear that lead the people to build a tower at Babel - "that they would be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" - is precisely what building the tower led to.