Sunday, August 20, 2017

"Come Closer to Me" (Discerning Faithful Presence after Charlottesville)

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. 
Sermon preached at St. Dunstan's, Madison, on these readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15 in Year A. 

It feels like this morning’s psalm is haunting us today, and I don’t like the feeling of that. “How good and pleasant it is when brethren or kindred live together in unity.” I used to love that psalm. Who knows, maybe I will come to love it again. While I appreciate the comparison that follows that celebration of unity, what with its shoutout to fine beards and beard oils dripping down off of them (sounds kinda awesome), the celebration of unity named by the psalmist feels hollow this week. It may be good and pleasant when we do live in unity, but it doesn’t feel like we do very much of that right now. Not that Charlottesville represented a new thing, but Charlottesville is yet another in an exhaustingly long line - and now not even the latest - but belonging to a long line of honest and painful things that name the violence we do to the unity that God would give us. And the “we” who do violence refers to humanity, but “we” also refers to white people in America. For those of us miles from Charlottesville and the South, here in Dane County, it may be helpful to remember that you don’t need guns to do violence. I don’t say that as a way of shaming folks for things over which we may feel little control, but to begin to make our repentance specific. I take it as foundational to the Christian faith and counter-cultural to the world that there is life and hope in our repentance. And we need life and hope because unity worth oiling beards for feels a very long way away.

Speaking of unity. I saw a t-shirt the other day that said - it had this big heart in the middle and across the heart it said - I tolerate you. Now society has sometimes named toleration as a kind of virtue we want to promote, but limits to the virtue of toleration become obvious the moment someone tells you they tolerate you. Nobody wants to be tolerated. Toleration is for mosquitos. That should be a t-shirt! Still, one thing the deplorable white supremacy on display in Virginia reminded us is that, if toleration can be seen as a desirable goal, it is only because the human desire to end the lives of those we despise is something real.

But then there’s Jesus, calling us to something deeper than the noble restraint we show when we do not kill one another. Inviting us to a table with those we have wronged and with those who have wronged us. Pouring forgiveness in the cup. Washing our feet. Inviting us to the same. How do we get there from here?

Remembering Jesus’ words at that first last supper, Catholic priest James Martin tweeted out last week that, "Jesus asks us to love one another, to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another. 'Supremacy' is absurd to Jesus,” he said. Jesus invites us to gather at the table, where submitting to the reign of the crucified king also means making room for each other. That’s what unity is.

If a psalm extolling the goodness of unity is painful to read today, it at least comes with stories to encourage us for the difficult, good work of loving and making room for each other.

In Genesis, Joseph is talking to his brothers. And, actually, he’s been talking to his brothers for several chapters now, but they don’t know it's him. In everything that’s come before, they’ve known him only as the guy Pharaoh put in charge of food distribution during the famine that plagues Egypt and the surrounding region. Like everyone else, they’re just here for the food. The last thing they’re thinking as they negotiate the price is that the shrewd manager staring them down is the very same kid brother with the rainbow coat they had mercilessly left for dead in a ditch and then traded into slavery years before.

Psalm 105 remembers the story this way:

Then God called down a famine on the country,
    God broke every last blade of wheat.
But God sent a man on ahead:
    Joseph, sold as a slave.
They put cruel chains on his ankles,
    an iron collar around his neck,
Until God’s word came to the Pharaoh,
    and God confirmed his promise.
God sent the king to release him.
    The Pharaoh set Joseph free;
He appointed him master of his palace,
    put him in charge of all his business
To personally instruct his princes
    and train his advisors in wisdom.

It cannot be easy to receive wisdom from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. It cannot come easily to be mastered by someone you once sold to a master. But here they are. Joseph dramatically reveals himself to be the brother they had tried to kill. Whose brotherhood they had denied. On whom their lives now depend. Predictably, they are dismayed. Dismayed, because, it was his prediction of this moment, years before, that had caused them to hate him in the first place. They’d dismissed him as “the dreamer.” Now the apparent truth of the dream they’d dismissed is their nightmare. Unthinkably, God has used their hate to create the very situation that had filled them with resentment and, now, fear. Here, in his presence, they are undone. Now, the one they have hated is not only the one with the food they need, but also the one with power and cause to destroy them. Joseph’s brothers have created an either/or world in which either Joseph or his brothers must emerge victorious over the other, and for a while they thought that was them, the victorious, but now it is clear that, barring an unlikely strategic gaffe, victory belongs to Joseph. They brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged.

But then Joseph says the only words that could have made things even worse. “Get it over with,” they may have hoped. Be to me what I have been to you. They had no reason to expect otherwise. But then, these excruciating words: “Come closer to me.” There is another way. An unexpected future, a waiting embrace that will cost them every drop of the either/or logic they have made of their world. Come closer to me, Joseph says. And, remarkably, they do.

In Romans, Paul picks up this age-old struggle: does embracing the other on that side, in this case the Gentiles, undo the integrity of God’s promise to this side? Not at all! says Paul. No. God’s future, illumined by Joseph, refuses the logic by which our struggles with each other finally result in anything other than opportunities for God’s mercy to win us all back to God.

But a warning. In participating in the unity and mercy of God, we may find ourselves invited to a role in the story that is not the role we once had or the role we had wanted. Like Joseph’s brothers, the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel finds herself begging life from a man who, being Jewish, she was raised to despise. It can be difficult to receive wisdom or life from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. But as with Joseph and his brothers, her daughter’s healing comes when the women overcomes the instinct to claim a future without the other side. “Come closer to me,” she insists, and it’s all the more remarkable for Jesus’ gruff treatment of her. But as I’ve wrestled with Jesus’ difficult words to the Canaanite woman of great faith, I find myself uncertain whether I am offended for her or if my offense is simply a disguise for my desire to have a better place for myself in the story. What do you think? What would you do? Would you take Jesus’ offer to find your place in the story of God as a dog at the table? Remarkably, she does. Because she knows in her bones that place and position fail to accomplish what God might do in the space of surrender to the one she calls her king. Whatever her place, she longs for that table. Forsaking all else, she finds the mercy of God.

Our scriptures today are full of people who give me hope for the unity the psalmist names because, against all odds, they speak and accept the challenge to “come closer to me,” to step toward the other, even the despicable other, trusting that God will meet them both in the space of total vulnerability. 

What might it look like to come closer today? Theologian David Fitch thinks it might look like this. He writes, “Racism is a subjectivity formed within a social world. It is a social construct that teaches us (as white people) to think, feel and experience others of color in a way that is not conscious. To think we can change this racism by merely confronting it with words or protest misses the insidiousness of racism. No, we must go the next step and engage the racist with presence (not anger or violence). This may start with face to face nonviolent protest. But it must not end there. This is why addressing racial injustice ultimately requires the church filled by the Spirit to be viscerally present in the world.” Filled by the Spirit, we must be viscerally present. “Come closer to me,” Joseph says to his brothers. 

Finally, of course this will not be the last time in the pages of holy scripture that we’ll see a man left for dead unexpectedly standing before eleven of those whom he called his brothers. Jesus will appear before them on the other side of the walls of the hate and fear and pain they had locked themselves behind, and the disciples, very much like Joseph’s brothers, will see him and be dismayed and undone. They had left their Lord for dead, and so they will know what this moment should bring. They will brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged. But he will not destroy them. His breath on them will be forgiveness and peace. Their hearts will know his love as they haven't known it before. And we will marvel as we remember. We will find courage to come closer across every line of our hatred, righteous judgments, and fears, remembering that God in Christ has first come closer to us.



Amen.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Things I Didn't Learn in Seminary (But am Glad to be Learning Now!)

The whole "things they didn't teach in seminary" trope often comes up when clergy lament the difficulty of fixing a particularly cranky toilet or navigating a certain aspect of church finances. (I don't think it's bad for clergy to know these things, but there are probably cheaper places to learn them.) Of course, the comment is commonly tongue-in-cheek and can refer to particulars of a local context that either could not have predicted or, even if they had been predicted, would have only been relevant to one or two in the class. Even so, I think the question has lasting merit and is worth engaging from time to time: "What would have constituted adequate preparation for this?"

The list that follows is my realtime answer today. Probably different from my answer tomorrow, definitely different from yesterday's. The list doesn't replace or take for granted the things I did learn - Scripture, theology, CPE - and I should add that just because I didn't learn it at div school doesn't mean someone wasn't teaching it (or that that someone wasn't one of my professors, which is just to say I'm sure I missed significant pieces of the knowledge dropped on me along the way). In any case, this is my list and, if nothing else, you'll find links to six interesting books! Without further ado...

Community Organizing around the Presence of God

To be fair, I probably did learn a fair bit about this. But it was good friends made after seminary, with backgrounds in community organizing, who showed me that whatever I had learned was only a start. Community organizers showed me that the church's default question, "How many people showed up to X, Y, or Z?" didn't have to be a measure, and implicit endorsement, of the attractional model of being church ("If you build it, they will come"). For years, such a model led well-meaning Christians  to take turn-outs as a kind of referendum of a gathering's resonance, relevance, and/or content. So a poorly organized Bible study effort leaves church members bemoaning the "fact" that people in a given community "just don't take Scripture seriously." At the same time, Willow Creek famously acknowledges (a while back) that large numbers have, for years, obscured the reality that the church isn't realizing its goal of transformational discipleship.

Instead of taking turnout as a referendum on relevance, effectiveness, or something else, community organizers have taught me how to build toward a gathering from the baseline of relationships, and in ways that allow us to shape the thing we're building toward together. And that you can do this in measurable ways. Turn out is still important, and it's actually relatively predictable when you are organizing communities, because you're talking with, learning from, and listening to the people with whom you'll gather.

Additionally, it was in reading David Fitch's Faithful Presence that I discovered a marriage of sacramental practice and (the best of) evangelical sensibilities that grew my imagination for Christian community organizing that is intelligible to itself beyond a vague sense of being usefully disposed toward others. Fitch writes
This is the challenge of being a Christian today. We have forgotten how to live together in Christ's kingdom and invite the world along. Our collective imagination has lost the new possibilities for the world in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ. Instead, with the comforts of Christendom, we set up churches as organizations for maintaining Christians. When people...think of church, they think of large buildings where people gather to hear well-dressed men (mostly men) talk for an hour, usually from behind a pulpit. As a result, many of our sons and daughters cannot stomach the thought of becoming a pastor in these churches. 
Nonetheless, this is the task the church faces: political organizing for the kingdom. To be clear, this has nothing to do with national politics. It is the work of gathering people into God's presence, living together under the one reign of God in Christ. This way of life doesn't stay within the walls of a church building but bursts out into the world through all the circles of our lives. The task of church leadership today is to gather people into Christ's presence in all the circles of our lives. This is what faithful presence looks like. This is church. (emphasis mine)
As a seminary class, I imagine a blend of community organizing principles, sacramental theology, and Fitch, a CMA evangelical who goes around quoting cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in equal measure. 2017 is an amazing time to be alive.

Accountability Conversations

Call this the Matthew 18 class. Or don't and just skip to reading this book: Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. I'm not wild about the sub-title, but it works so long as "resolving" doesn't get read as "fixing the bad behavior of others." The book is not about that. The book is about conversing "about violated expectations in a way that eventually solves the problem and improves on the relationship." It sounds simple, but the authors observe that many times "we don't say a word because we don't know how to handle the conversation, or we fear that we don't know how. We're not bad people. We're just frightened." I won't rehash the whole book here, but I will say it's not about picking our battles and winning them. It's about meeting one another in the space of shared values, clarifying intentions in ways that allow the other to feel safe, and standing up for what one believes is important while being open to learning something new and being open to change. It's about being focused and flexible. In the words of the author, "How about you? Are you ready not to rumble?"

Leading through Questions

Jesus did a lot of it. I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be. It's definitely harder than having all the answers. And it's not the same as only saying, "How do you feel about it?" or "I've got nothing to add for you." Good questions are rare and incredibly substantial gifts for formation, discernment, and both personal and corporate development. Further, where answers tend to fill space, good questions open space, which is a special priority for me in light of Fitch's book (above).

Full disclosure: I haven't read (yet) any of the books that follow, but I asked a good friend what he'd recommend as resources for developing the ability to ask worthy questions, and this is the list he came up with.


That's my list. What's yours? What would you add?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why I Sold Back My Smartphone (& Why I Blame David Fitch)

Last week, I walked into my local Verizon store and said I'd like to upgrade my phone. "Sure," he said. "What do you have?" An iPhone 5s. "Great. And what do you want?" A basic phone, I explained. The cheapest you have. The sales guy gladly steered me toward the basic phones, but then something like this went down, when he tried to sell me a $150 basic phone:



To his credit, the sales guy subsequently backed off and happily sold me a $50 flip phone. "It's got no wifi," he shrugged.

Exactly.

Before I go on, a couple of notes:

1) I am not brave or courageous for selling back my iPhone. What I was was addicted to a piece of technology that suggested itself as the way to make every aspect of my life easier and more efficient, even if I didn't know yet how it could do that. Because, you know, "there's (always) an app for that." Did you know there is even an app for monitoring your iPhone use, ostensibly so that you can pare said use back to reasonable levels? Yeah, that went about as well as you'd expect. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the mere presence of a smartphone in a room is enough to inspire distraction. Many times, at lunch with a friend, if said friend got up to use the restroom, the phone instantly came out. Because it never really left. I was not in control.

2) I am not prescribing my action for others, and I don't judge smartphone users. Plenty of people I know manage to use their phones without using them to fill in the cracks of spare time between everything else. I was not one of them. One day last week I woke up and imagined myself continuing to fill in the beautiful cracks of between-things spare time with a must-be-productive-in-every-moment sense of iPhone urgency, combined with the device's lackluster record of coming through on the productivity promise, lived out over the next fifty years, and I had something like a panic attack. I had a clear sense of wanting another life for myself.

3) I am very, very aware of the insane amount of privilege involved in the decision. First, I had an iPhone to sell. Then, I developed (thank God) the audacity to resent a device many people could never afford. And I could sell it. And I could purchase some of the capabilities I'd be losing without an iPhone, like a guitar tuner, to compensate for what I'd be missing. And yet, as I have come to understand privilege, the goal is not to deny or "take off" privilege (as if one could!), but to leverage what privilege one has for others. Surely, leveraging privilege for others requires being present to others, and I believe I am better able to make that space without the phone. That said, I take seriously critiques of how I used my privilege in this discernment.

Relatedly, part of the discernment around the trade-in involved an app by app inventory for how I could change my phone habits without thoughtlessly shifting the burden of my decision to others. For example, surrendering my bank management app might have made me feel lighter at Rebekah's expense, if I had seen selling the phone as disconnecting from all of the responsibilities I had previously invested in the phone. One of those responsibilities is to stay connected to the news of the world around me and to stay active. I fully intend to keep a social media presence. Just not at the expense of a physical presence to my physical neighbors.

4) My new phone stinks. I regret nothing, and it stinks. I won't glamorize T9 texting. It took me five minutes the other day to confirm a lunch date with a colleague: "Okay. See you then!" Auto-replies are my friend. But I made the switch so that I would talk more and text less. To that end, it works and it's great.

My new phone's name is Fitch. I named it after David Fitch, whose recent book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission has come like balm to my soul at a needed time. To grossly generalize, the book introduces a) the disciplines of sacramental practice to evangelicals, on the one hand, and b) a robust theology of submission to the lordship of Jesus in sacramental/liturgical traditions like mine, on the other. Even if that characterization is not exactly right, the space of intersection Fitch explores between historically evangelical and liturgical emphases is rich and full of life.

I named the phone Fitch because I want to remember, on those days when not having Google Maps makes me late to a meeting, why I made this decision. To be faithfully present to God's presence.

In a world crunched by antagonisms and ideologies (for which my iPhone was sometimes a homing device!), Christians - says Fitch - are called to open space, to make space, to be present to God's presence in our midst, with one another and others, and to proclaim that "Jesus is Lord and at work renewing all things - making a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)."

Friends, we are called to make space. To live with. To proclaim. To be present.

Surely, selling back a smartphone doesn't make a person present. But it's a start. Admittedly, it's a start I hope gets better. I'm improving, but I confess I spent my first couple of days without a smartphone instinctively reaching for its ghost. Still, it is a start, and one I hope will both a) ask more of me over time and b) prepare me to be up for the ask. I want to make space, to live with, to proclaim, to be present. All with God's help.

I was sitting in a book group with David Fitch and Rebekah at last week's Gathering of the Ekklesia Project. We were just about to start. Suddenly, Fitch's smartphone went off. Startled, he turned it off and threw it down, with some visible (theatrical) disgust. "So much for presence," he said.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Becoming Capable of Life-Giving Failures

Five years ago, right before St. Francis House sent a few of game people to our very first student organization fair, a long-time campus missioner friend gave me a call. I asked him if he had any advice for engaging the event. "Yes," he said. "Be sure to communicate to your folks that advertising doesn't work. I'm not saying it won't, but it doesn't. And I'm not saying you shouldn't. I am saying, ask your crew whether they think it's worth doing, even if nobody becomes a member of your community as a result of the effort. If they say, 'yes,' ask them why."

I did as my friend suggested, and I was relieved when the students did not appear to be as discouraged as I was at the unsurprising news that church advertising seldom yields fruit directly. I asked them if we should go ahead with our presence at the student organization fair anyway. "Yes," they said. "Okay, great. Why?" Silence. Then one said, "It will make us think about and give voice to  what this community means to us." YES. "I'm in," I said.

Because of this prior conversation, when the unexpected opportunity came up for one of our students to fill a 30 second spot on university radio during the fair, the student jumped at the chance. Only, he didn't answer the question he was given, exactly. Instead, he started with "St. Francis House saved my life..." and told his story. Standing nearby, watching this student, listening to his voice roll through speakers and echo into the halls of the Kohl Center and across campus, I welled up with tears.

Because we had asked the questions, "Is this worth doing, even if no one shows up as a result?" and "Why?" the student was willing to tell his story in an unexpected moment on an unexpected platform  and bless a lot of people. After asking the questions, we made space, in community, for the students to discern and answer them.

In the larger church's ongoing conversations about numbers, attendance, and the rest, it is sometimes helpful to ask ourselves, "If no one shows up as a result, is this worth doing anyway? Why?" And I also think the logic holds if we run it in the other direction, "If a ton of people show up as a result of this thing, is it worth doing anyway? Why?"

Numbers are not bad, but they aren't self-justifying, either. Numbers are helpful partners to lift up what we are about, but they can only do so when, in a given project or moment, we know what we are about. Do we give ourselves permission to be patient and take the time it takes to ask why the thing matters and then create space for the answers?

Two helpful leadership questions I picked up from Pope John Paul II are, "What light do the scriptures shed on this issue/opportunity/challenge?" and "Who can we ask for help?" When we are in touch with the reason that fills our hearts we become capable of even failures that sustain us. Equally, we detect the emptiness of successes that do not satisfy. We notice the difference between relying on grace and controlling the outcome. Most of all, I suspect we become in those moments people whose lives are put in touch in new ways with the story of God, of which God is patiently making us a part.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

"You Have No Idea What You Are Doing" (A Wedding Homily)

After both of the readings we just heard, which Ian and Anna chose, but especially following the lesson from 1 John that Aunt Jane just read, I feel like maybe the best a preacher can hope to say in this moment is, “Yes! That! What she said.”

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.” Do you hear how, read on this day, in this moment, these verses sound less like a should, like a thing to do, like a burden, and they become more like the opening of an impossible possibility made true? As if it has just dawned on the lover that the love of God, made known in Jesus, received in the heart, might be shared, with another person, across a lifetime, and this dawning comprehension fills both souls with life as when the sunrise breaks the night. “Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.” We can love one another because “we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”

Amen, Aunt Jane, amen.

Onto this beautiful anchor, the gift of God’s love, I only want to add this one, hopeful encouragement:

Anna and Ian, you have no idea what you are doing. To say that you do not know what you are doing is not some snarky cynicism from a preacher; it is probably not even news to you. It is simply descriptively true. You know that you are promising to love each other, but you do not know what the love you promise will ask of you because life is beautiful and wild, full of gifts and also difficult. No one who gets married knows what they are doing. None of the rest of us who will witness your vows today know what you are doing, either. That’s why it is the church’s wisdom to cover all the bases: sickness and health, richer and poorer, better and worse. Because, who knows? Of course, life will almost certainly give you seasons to practice each of these, but those seasons will be only partly predictable. The unforeseen grief will seize you and you will not know why. From under the parched ground of the dry season you were certain would never end, the unexpected joy will bubble up. In every season, trust that you are loved. God is with you in it all. Let your trust of God’s love be the source of your love for one another. Let your marriage be a pilgrimage of trust. Or as Aunt Jane read to us, “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

My family and I met Anna nearly five years ago. And we have known Ian for the past couple of years, too. I have known both of them to be incredible people. And I know in my head that incredible people are usually attached to other incredible people, so it is a great joy to finally see the rest of you. That Anna and Ian know God’s love and are able to share it today is probably at least mostly your fault. By your love lived in shapes of generosity and forgiveness, both extended and received, you have shown them what it means to abide in love, even when love is difficult and costly. 

Ian and Anna, when love is difficult and costly, do not be afraid. This is not a sign that you are beyond love but that you are near the heart of the love of Jesus. Give and forgive and give and forgive one another and others again and again and again. Walk toward that love, even when you don’t see the way. 

Finally, when it comes to your marriage, that you do not know what you are doing does not mean you shouldn’t, or can’t, do it. (And I guess it’s too late now.) No, it means that your marriage is a light of faith to the world. You know very well, and I have gotten to know in each of you, that God has given the two of you everything you need to walk this life together in ways that will grow God’s love in you and make you holy. What’s more, you do not do this thing you do not know alone. I mentioned them before, but take a second to look around and soak in all of those just in this space who are committing their love and their prayers to your flourishing. These are not spectators with scorecards in front of whom you will be asked to perform your lives. This is the Body of Christ that is with you and for you. Even as you deeply love, you are deeply loved.

And most of all by God.

“Love one another,” Jesus tells his friends, “just as I have loved you.”


Amen.




Friday, June 30, 2017

Although We Are Weeping, Lord Help Us Keep Sowing

I spent four days last week at the national gathering of Episcopal young adult and campus ministers. God touched my heart throughout the time, particularly through the truthfulness of the worship and the leadership of the presiding bishop. This is my rambling attempt to give voice to the balm I encountered in Austin. 

National gatherings of Episcopal young adult and campus ministers are wonderful and complicated. Wonderful, because of the presence of so many amazing people whom God has also called to this peculiar work. Happily, I enjoy rich local relationships among my clergy sisters and brothers and, ecumenically, among my lay and ordained campus ministry colleagues. Most of the time, however, I must choose between being physically present to professional gatherings of Episcopalians or campus ministers. One or the other, with precious little overlap. In Austin, however, I shared fellowship with 80+ Episcopal young adult and campus ministers for four days. The uniqueness and dearness of the opportunity is never lost on me. 

Complicated, because all national gatherings of the church are complicated. Because recent general conventions have taken as their business whether or not to have general conventions. Because the geographic regions, called provinces, that have defined especially campus ministry relationships for decades, with the national funding that attends them, are probably enjoying their last days. Because "national" is a lot of church and different understandings of Christian faithfulness to squeeze into one space. Because (wonderfully) there are so many different shapes and sizes and expressions of young adult faith communities that we have to lean into each other to see, hear, and appreciate the distinctive gifts of God in each context.

For all of these reasons, it was especially meaningful to have Presiding Bishop Michael Curry with us on the conference's first full day. We shared Eucharist and an open town hall, both of which Bishop Curry engaged with his characteristic enthusiasm, candor, and love of Jesus. In talking with a conference organizer, I learned that Bishop Curry had originally planned to spend even more time with us in small groups, but an unexpected flight change nixed the possibility. When Bishop Curry began his sermon by saying, "I know what you do and that it is good and hard work. I see you and want you to know what you mean to the church and the lives of young adults. That's why I'm here," it was as if he touched our hearts with holy unction. (I wrote one time about the importance of vision in ministry and the words, "I see you," in particular. I learned from the example of Bishop David Reed in West Texas, and I continue to believe, that just such vision is the central work of bishops, and of course not just bishops.)

Bishop Curry's sermon went on to take the shape of prophetic encouragement. Citing the prophet Jeremiah, he said something like
"Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord." You know something is important in the Bible when the writer says it twice! "They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream." You know how the saying goes, 'The key to the fruit is in the root!' "It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious..." Are you hearing what I'm saying, church? "In the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit." Jer 17, ff. 
The sermon continued in equal parts challenge and encouragement, all of it against the backdrop of psalm 126, which we had sung together after the Old Testament reading. "Although we are weeping, Lord may we keep sowing." Well, the people around me sang it. I sat and wept.

As Bishop Curry named the drought and the difficulty of the work, he opened space to name in ways we aren't often afforded (or that we don't often take) that weeping and sowing so many times share the same space. Recently, at lunch with a board member, when asked how I was doing, I said, "Really good. There is so much that excites me. I can't wait for the summer and the projects we have lined up. Also, I am really exhausted. But it's not that I'm excited for somethings on some days and exhausted about other things on other days. I'm excited and exhausted about the same things on the same days." But this refrain from psalm 126 came closer to the heart of it:

"Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing," and my heart was opened to name in one space the simultaneous presence of great joy in the gospel and multiple layers of political, ecclesial, and personal grief. Kind of like the women as they left the empty tomb with "fear and great joy," but with space for tears and wounds.

It has been an especially difficult year politically. Despite the broadly left-learning nature of the Episcopal church, the year has been difficult - as Kathy Cramer's work demonstrates - for members of both parties, as well as those of us who believe that, though it is probably possible to vote without succumbing to idolatry, doing so requires thoughtful practices, the help of God, and the help of the church. There is so much we would have be different than it is. So much that is broken and, some days, feels like it might break us.

Although we are weeping.

Mainline Christianity may have more than 23 Easters left, but a half-century of decline has been physically, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting. What's worse, by failing to name the 1950s for the anomaly is was in terms of church growth, many church leaders have presented the decline through lenses of guilt, failure, and shame. Try harder. Act smarter. All of it an eerie parody of the "have more faith to be healed" theologies that mainliners have publicly despised for years. Even now, it takes special effort to make clear that the new proposed ways of being church are not with the goal of making things like they were. Lazy clichés like this one have not helped.

Seminaries have only recently begun to formally acknowledge in their coursework that the future of ordained ministry is not full-time, a welcome admission that begins to back away from false narratives of guilt and shame. (Bishop Curry's acknowledgement of this reality at the conference was the clearest such acknowledgement I had ever heard from a leader of any mainline denomination.) The church is changing. Bishop Curry simultaneously claimed the exciting possibilities of the church's transformation while naming the church's responsibility to help guard young clergy from personal financial failure. More and more, it is becoming clear to 21st century Christians who had despaired of the church's future that the future is bright. God's church will not cease to be. Anxiety for the church's future is primarily a product of our financial idolatry.

Tangentially, to the extent that the financial flourishing of the 1950s was a byproduct of America's post-war identity as a nation of war, Christians cannot completely lament the transition, apart from its sheer difficulty.

The transition, while hopeful, is continually mired in the (sometimes dishonest) grey areas between mission work and managed decline. Further, it is not clear how the church's diocesan polity survives even those aspects of the transformation that give me great hope (for an example of what gives me great hope, see David Fitch's Faithful Presence).

Although we are weeping.

On a deeply personal note, I've already written about our miscarriage, nine months ago next week, and how the grief was/is unlike any my wife and I have ever carried. I did not control it and certainly could not hide it, and so I openly shared our pain with staff and members of the St. Francis House community. The community of faith loved us and walked with us.

Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing.

Every proclaimer of the Gospel meets in her life a moment of hesitation, a pause, brought about by the prospect of simultaneously weeping and sowing. I remember the first time, some months after my ordination, that I had to preach on a Sunday morning following a difficult conversation (read, fight) with Rebekah, on Saturday, that we hadn't resolved. I was upset at my shortcomings and not at all put together. "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," I said, and I preached anyway.

Thank God that God's strength is made known in and in spite of our weakness, that the Good News of Jesus is that we need not hide before God. In the face of all kinds of grief, still we are sowing. Living our need of God, we discover words of proclamation. God helping, we do. And from time to time we are stopped short, we marvel, that the seed sown in our sorrow has grown up and blossomed. That our grief did not stop the beauty of God's Word. We keep walking, limping, blessing, and blessed.

A dear mentor one time observed to me that, in Revelation, God promises to wipe away every tear, not that there won't be tears to wipe. Painfully, beautifully, weeping and sowing belong together, for in our honest tears, there is the hand of God, gentle on our faces.




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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Interactive Way of the Cross on the Campus of UW-Madison

A prayer walk for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, bringing prayer and local history together, using the stations of the cross and prayers from the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003. Each location has been matched with prayers from the BOS; those prayers appear as the last photo for each location.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Impossible Possibility of Faith: Bearing the Cross that Feels Light

A particularly important (and beautiful) passage from Rowan Williams' Silence & Honeycakes, which I'm re-reading with friends this Lent.
Jesus says in Matthew 11:30 that his yoke is easy...but we can hardly forget that he also tells us to pick up and carry the cross. To see - to feel - the cross as a light load is the impossible possibility of faith: letting our best-loved pictures of ourselves and our achievements die, trying to live without the protections we are used to, feels like hell, most of the time. But the real hell is never to be able to rest from the labours of self-defence. It is only very slowly indeed that we come to see why the bearing of the cross is a deliverance, not a sentence; why the desert fathers and mothers could combine relentless penance with confidence and compassion.
A friend shared the following video with me the other day, and it powerfully captures what Williams calls resting from the labors of self-defense. Crucially, Christians are called to recognize the ways our labors of self-defense often take the shape of violence toward our neighbors. In other words, I think it is a profound mistake to hear Manning's words as purely private. To confess self-defense is to confess how we daily embody our mistrust of God in our relationships one another and others. There is such truth and mercy in the Lord's Prayer when the petition for daily bread, trusting God for the "just enough for today" (à la manna in the wilderness), is immediately followed by a petition for forgiveness.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Refugees, Sanctuary, & the Church in 2017


This is a resource post, which means I promise fill it with what I hope are useful links for you. It also means that the post will be even better if you share additional resources in the comments below! 

My first sustained attention to the concept of "sanctuary" probably came with the release of the 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was fifteen years old. I had been raised, though, in an Anglo-Catholic tradition that emphasized the absoluteness of the confessional's confidentiality, which seemed to me to be consistent with the concept. Still, even multiple film viewings didn't mask the incompleteness of my education.

I start with Quasimodo because, with the return of the sanctuary movement in 2017, my recent experience in conversation with local leaders is that many of us carry a heart for the work while simultaneously carrying holes in our knowledge of the movement and so also what we're getting ourselves into. There's good news here. Presbyterian minister John Fife didn't know what he was doing, either, when he started the sanctuary movement in the early 1980s. As it turns out, sanctuary means lots of things. As it turns out, caring and showing up to the conversation is a good enough place to start.

But history helps. Which is why I can't commend enough two short podcast episodes from 99% Invisible:
99% Invisible is a podcast "about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world." The show has been criticized by some for departing from its stated mission to produce these two episodes, which is a fascinating and, I contend, misguided critique. For surely the political involvement of the United States in the governing of other countries constitutes "unnoticed architecture and design" that shapes our world. Which is why the history helps.

History is also what John Fife and his peers turned to when they began the sanctuary movement. They turned to the Underground Railroad movement of the early and mid 19th century in which Christians (and especially Quakers) were also instrumental as a template for their work. Just as the podcasts above provide a helpful history when considering the sanctuary efforts of 2017, history helps as Christians continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery. An excruciating documentary I can't recommend highly enough in this regard is 13th, which documents the constitutional transition from slavery to the systemic incarceration of African-Americans in the United States. 


So, in 2016, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman said in an interview with Harper's writer Dan Baum
We knew we could make it illegal to be either against the way or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.
The sanctuary movement was similarly subjected to the interest of the government, which enlisted informants to pose as sanctuary volunteers who recorded meetings and even worship services as evidence later used to indict leaders of the movement. In the trials that followed, prosecutors successfully filed court motions that disallowed the defense from presenting arguments about, among other things, the enforcement of immigration law and religious freedom. Maybe read that sentence again. Most fundamentally, it was refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, countries whose dictators were propped up by the U.S. government as part of Cold War posturing, who were being denied access to this country under existing asylum laws (because to do would require formal acknowledgement of evils enacted by the governments the U.S. was propping up). It is impossible to separate questions of justice from questions of design.

_____


When I was called to be the chaplain at the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center in 2012, I knew I was stepping into a rich history of pronounced social awareness and activism. My predecessors transformed the Episcopal Center into a medical clinic for protesters during the Vietnam War resistance, for which the University of Wisconsin-Madison was something of an epicenter.

Charley Taylor, speaking at SFH's 100th anniversary event in October, 2015. 
For more on Madison and the Vietnam War, check out 
the stellar documentary The War at Home.

In the 1980s, too, St. Francis House provided sanctuary to refugees of Guatemala and El Salvador, with families sharing rooms and spaces traditional reserved for students. When people talk about the sanctuary movement today, it is usually this historical moment to which they refer, when the Christian community openly challenged the federal government's enforcement of asylum laws. 

Like many churches, St. Francis House has changed since 1980. Not in its commitment to justice or the service of Christ in all persons, but as an institution, as a building, even. As the university landscape is always changing and evolving, so too with us. The rooms refugee families inhabited in the 1980s were torn down some years ago to make room for the adjacent student apartment building. It was a brilliant and visionary move to maintain an Anglican/Episcopal presence at the University of Wisconsin, and the change of space will not prevent St. Francis House from carrying the sanctuary mantel again in 2017, but the change does mean that carrying the mantel will not look exactly like it did, and not just for St. Francis House. In 2017, sanctuary is not just a movement among churches. Cities, counties, and other institutional structures also claim the commitment. So the imagination will be new, and that is good and right. But that the imagination will be new does not mean that we must start from scratch. The history of the designs of injustice and their resistance (and sometimes faithful defiance) are there for us. They are our conversation partners and our cheerleaders in the work ahead. We should keep their stories close and cherish the chapters we have the privilege of living. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lent & Learning How to Die


Today we begin the season of Lent. Here, on day one, we stand forty days, give or take, from the earliest, most ancient holy days of the Christian church: days that remember the death and resurrection of Jesus - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When we say that Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also saying that Christians are baptized into those ancient days and, therefore, into God's time. So Lent is the season by which Christians remember our baptism and rediscover our place in God's story.

Contrary to prevailing narratives, Lent (or Christianity, for that matter) is not about self-improvement or becoming better people. Lent is about learning how to die. That makes the preacher's task on a college campus difficult because, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are in the middle of establishing personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.

Your personal and professional development matters; it is full of loving gifts from God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of them matter as much as, or apart from, the identity God first gives you through the waters of baptism. So Lent is not about disparaging your other vocations; it is about lifting up this first one, sometimes digging it out from the bottom of the pile or retrieving it from out of the dustbin, so that you can see all the others by its light. Lent is remembering that, no matter what else life holds, you are never less or more than the child dearly loved by the living God whose Son's life, death, and resurrection make it possible for you to lose your life in love without fear, for the glory of God and the building up of God's people.

Now, if (like me) you were baptized a longtime ago, you might not remember the words. But at your baptism, the Christian community invited the Holy Spirit to hover over the waters, and it was like a reenactment of the Spirit hovering over the waters back in the beginning, the book of Genesis, at creation. It was the same, but different. This time, the Spirit and the waters announced God's new creation. Then the water found you and a voice spoke these words over you, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And later, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." And these words count more than all the awards you will ever accumulate and all of the failures you can possibly manage.

The question that drives Lent is what trusting God's love for us and our neighbors above everything else, even our best accomplishments, goodness, and deserving, can mean. So Lent is about learning to die.

A dear friend of mine, Evelyn, spent the last of her eighty-plus years in an assisted living center. Though she would occasionally lament that the view through her window never seemed to change much, she was, on the whole, an infectiously positive woman. "I am thankful!" she would say every time I'd visit. She was thankful for her family, which included her church family, and all that her eighty-plus years on this earth had meant. More than anything, she was thankful for God. One day, though, Evelyn carried a sadness into our visit. I asked her about it. "I am thankful," she said, "and I have had to give up so much. I am thankful for my family, but I don't see my family as much as I'd like to. I am thankful for my memory, but I can't remember as much as I want to." Then she pointed to a ball of yarn and two needles. "My eyes are dim and my fingers hurt. I can't knit. And I loved to knit." She pointed around the room at her handiwork. It was true, knitting everywhere. "Tell me," she said. "Why would he take that from me? I think I am ready to die; I am not afraid to die. But why would God take that from me?"

Baptism reminds us that, just as Jesus was stripped at his earthly end, we too will be stripped. Sooner or later, there will be a day when strength and memory fail, when even the assurance that we have made a difference in the world might not make a difference to us. At that moment, will we have lost our worth before God? Through the waters of baptism, the Spirit cries, "No! God forbid!" And neither have those you do not recognize as worthy of love lost their worth before God by our negligence and self-interest: those with dementia and mental challenges, those we exploit for personal gain in this country and across the globe, the obviously unsuccessful, the prisoner, the outcast. Stand with these and you will discover the gift of God's love without condition, the Spirit's breath and mercy. In this light, as it claims God's love, baptism is the gift of dying before your death.

So a world-renowned author went to a spiritual friend and said she was having a hard time deciding what to give up for Lent. She had no obvious vices, and was loathe to take on meaningless spiritual busywork. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, "What if you gave up reading?"

I don't know if she did, but there was likewise once a wealthy man who stood before Jesus and said that he, too, had no obvious vices. After a thoughtful silence, Jesus asked, "What if you gave up your wealth?"

I wonder, if Jesus wanted to tug this Lent on an equivalent thread of trust in your life, questioning that which you have come to rely on as a primary basis of your identity, a sign of your goodness and deserving, of a worth that has taken the place of your baptism, what question would Jesus ask you? Would you be willing to pull on that thread this Lent, if it could mean the emergence of a renewed trust in God?

Lent is about losing everything we thought made us the wonderful people we are until there is nothing left but God's love for us and the call to trust God's love and mercy to the end. Such a trust will involve turning from some actions toward new ones, because we will be given the gift of seeing how many of our actions toward each other are different ways of protecting ourselves from the need to trust God. This is one reason why you cannot do Lent by yourself, because trust of God and love of others belong to the same equation. You can measure the one by the other. Trust in God goes with generosity and vulnerability toward the outcast and stranger. So Christians learn trust together and discover that trusting God turns us into God's gifts for each other and gives glory to God. Like Israel's wanderings in the wilderness, Lent will call us to walk with God together, because the Christian life is not about impressing God by moral performance, being good, but trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.

Amen.