Wednesday, October 4, 2017

When We Don't Have Words Adequate

"What do I do?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Unpopular Thoughts, Part II

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Wendell Berry Quote I Can't Shake from My Head

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):
Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.
So, on the one hand, Berry's words could be read (though I believe it would be a misreading) to suggest that church that is true to itself doesn't have bills or financial concerns. In other words, one could walk away from Berry's challenging thesis bent toward an overly spiritualized gnosticism that is simply the mirror opposite of the one Berry is naming.

What is compelling, however, is the givenness Berry sees in the dependence of the church's identity on economic norms and the extent to which that situation robs the church of an identity and vocation that was never its own to choose, but which is and has always been its gift from God for the world.

As a priest, I have many times come to the realization, in conversation with someone come to me for counsel, that if I don't ask this particular question, it is very possible that no one else will. For example, the priest must be counted on to ask about the prayer life. It is a question that belongs, perhaps not exclusively but no less definitively, to the vocation of priests.

With respect to humanity's right relationship to the earth, Berry likewise sees the church as that peculiar people whose vocation it is to live proper love and respect for creation, as creatures of God. Consequently, such a people must seek awareness of the givens that have challenged its vocation by compelling us into concessions we did not even realize we had made.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

No Way! Way! The Impossible Possibility and Thanks for Robert Jenson

Readings for today. Sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie.

The Christian theologian Robert Jenson passed away this week. He was an amazing man, pastor, and scholar. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re normal. Even if you’ve never heard of Robert Jenson, his work almost certainly shaped the life of someone else who helped shape your life for the good. Globally regarded and a Minnesota Lutheran. A mentor and fellow Texan one-time told me that there, in Texas, all the denominations are at least partly Baptist. You’ve got Baptist Baptists, Methodist Baptists, Episcopalian Baptists, even Catholic Baptists. Episcopalians are Baptists who can drink. It’s the same kind of thing up here, Wisconsin/Minnesota, but instead of Baptists it’s a cultural tug of war, a tie between the Catholics and Lutherans. Lutherans like Robert Jenson, who shaped us for the good. It’s good to thank God for such a lover of Jesus. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. 

Theologians write a lot, and not always plainly, but one of Jenson’s most famous sentences was alarmingly simple: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.”

In that simple sentence, Jenson does a couple of things. First, he connects the Old and New Testaments, saying that it is the same God at work through the same people all throughout. One persistent, stubborn, beautiful mission working its way to fulfillment in Jesus. Israel, made a light to enlighten all people, salvation unfolding. Second, Jenson recognizes in Jesus the second exodus. You remember the first exodus: that’s Israel being delivered out of slavery in Egypt. Charlton Heston, walls of water, Pharaoh, plagues, and all the rest. Resulting in freedom for God’s people. Not just freedom, but impossible freedom made possible. The kind of freedom most of God’s people didn’t think to hope for any more because the lengths it would take to get there from where they were seemed utterly unattainable. Better to eat cucumbers in slavery. But over and over in the days after that impossible day, the scriptures would talk about what happened this way, “When there seemed to be no way, God made a way.”

You remember that exodus. Much later, when Jesus takes his buddies up on the mountain, and there is a terrifying cloud, and Moses and Elijah, and Jesus turns all glow-bug on them, do you remember that? The gospels tell us that Jesus was about to accomplish his departure, but the word for departure is exodus again. In other words, it’s the same God, persistently, stubbornly, beautifully working God’s mission to fulfillment, one more time. In other words, slaves are about to be set free again. In other words, the impossible is about to become possible and the freedom the disciples couldn’t even think to ask or hope for is about to become accomplished for them and for us. Freedom for God’s people one more time. This time from death. From death? How? Death is the original dead-end. But when there seemed to be no way, God made a way. So Christians come to this table and have learned to proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Time and again, this is the way of God’s people, remembering, proclaiming, living: once there was no way, but God made a way!

Think about that. Think about how this refrain, this faithful chorus, runs counter to how, even Christians, often talk about life and how it works. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Well, one door closed, but another one opened,” as if the naturalness of the path was a validation of it? As if the path of least resistance bears the stamp of divine approval. But Jesus, when he talks about doors at all, doesn’t talk about moving from door to door until you find the unlocked one. He talks about a widow, persistently banging on a neighbor’s door, in the middle of the night, until the neighbor gives up and comes down. And after the day faith died for the disciples, after that dark Friday they hadn’t yet learned to call Good, and they’re there, gathered in a room behind locked doors because of their fear, Jesus doesn’t find the door locked and move on. Where there seemed to be no way, God made a way. He stands before the the ones who’d cried, lied, and denied him and they tremble in his presence and he breathes his peace and forgiveness on the ones he is determined to call his friends. Impossibilities be damned. Christians don’t make a way by ourselves, but we have learned that our God has a knack for showing up at dead-ends, God has a heart for dead-ends, even us. And because God has a heart for dead-ends, Christians pray that, with God’s help, we are unlearning the fears that control us. Because when there was no way, God made a way.

All I want to say today is that when Jesus is talking to his church in Matthew’s gospel - and it’s one of a small handful of places where the word “church” comes up in the gospels - when he’s talking to those who gather in his name, and he’s giving instructions for what to do when one person hurts or disappoints another person, he’s not just giving moral rules for civil engagement and getting along, he’s inviting his church - his body - to embody with each other the truth that they worship the God who makes a way when there seems to be no way. Even with each other. In other words, when we pursue reconciliation, we proclaim resurrection. When we step toward the ones that others run from, we proclaim the God “who raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.”

This stepping forward isn’t the same as condoning or ignoring or using platitudes to smooth things over. It is confronting. It is saying, “You hurt me, but I won’t settle for a future in which we both hide from the truth and each other along the way.” Because the opposite of confronting isn’t condoning, but hiding out of fear. And our lives are defined by these attempts to avoid from one another. Call it hating from a distance. You can see this dynamic at work in the antagonisms that drive our society, people separating into “us versus them.” It is as if, from our quarantined perches, we wait, perversely hoping that that side will really screw up, say the unforgivable thing, because then we will be justified in moving on without them. We will talk about, but not to, and it feels almost right on social media screens, but then we remember, we glimpse some part of the person, still there behind the label that has justified our desire for a future in which they don’t exist. Only by now we can’t imagine how we’d ever step back toward the other across the chasm of antagonism. That’s not far-fetched; that’s the way of the world. And it’s not just the way of the world on the cultural meta-stage, but in my heart, too! And maybe yours. One time I noticed myself taking notes every time someone hurt me, let me down, or disappointed my expectations, in a given day. I even made a kind of daily habit of it. Rather than take those notes back to the others with the opportunity for them to help make the situations right, I made the notes so that I could remember to complain to my real friends later. Of course, “real friends” were supposed to be those who would agree with me and justify my righteous anger. And given how painful it can feel to be hurt by another person, you can make the case for what I was doing. Writing others off is a defensible position to take. But Christians have been saved from fear and so where others give up, we show up in hope.

How else can you explain lives like that of Nelson Mandela? Imprisoned in his country for decades. Called a terrorist by our country for organizing military resistance against state-enforced racial oppression. Freed and put in power, elected president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela refused vengeance on his enemies and instead sought a future in which the truth about the evils of apartheid would, case by case, be seen and spoken through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu), pain would be legitimated, forgiveness would be extended and gradually received, and the still-healing people would learn to step toward God’s good future together, making room at one table for everyone.

Sometimes, most times, it would be easier to give up than to do what Jesus says to do in Matthew’s gospel, especially when time and circumstance give you the upper hand on the ones who rejected you. But where others give up, Christians show up in hope. Because the stone the builders rejected (that’s Jesus) has become the chief cornerstone. Because once there was no way, but God made a way. Because to pursue reconciliation is to proclaim resurrection. Because the God we worship today is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

House Blessing Vlog: Footnotes & Links

Hey friends! Yesterday, we posted this video (below). Links spontaneously came out of our mouths, and we wanted to share them in an accessible way here. So, without further ado...

  1. Here is Debra Dean Murphy's amazing and challenging article about hurricanes, climate change, and justice here
  2. You can tune into my friend Ekene's radio show, The Blerd, WEDNESDAYS at noon, at 91.7 WSUM in Madison or online, here
  3. You can get Hauerwas' commentary on Matthew here
  4. Pope Benedict XVI says something like what I attribute to him about Peter and forgiveness in this great little book, Called to Communion
  5. Here's a copy of the prayer we prayed at the end: A Prayer for UW-Madison at the Start of a New Academic Year
  6. If you want us to save a House Blessing care package (they came out GREAT!!) for yourself or (even better) someone else on campus, let me know
  7. What else? Oh! We'll be posting a short vlog this afternoon (via FB live) to show you just exactly what the House Blessing care packages look like AND to introduce you to SFH's program intern, Mckenzie, who's going to tell us a little bit about a beautiful new practice that might change your ordinary life. Look for it! We'll see you then, and I hope we get to see some of you this Sunday at 5pm for our annual House Blessing(1) at St. Francis House. 
(1)Nerd note: I know, I know. It's technically "A Celebration for a Home." But you get it. It's beautiful. It expresses the Christian conviction, hope, and prayer that God would meet us in the gift of hospitality extended and received, and that God would help us make good beginnings of our studies, work, and all the rest of life. It's a good thing. See you there.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Welcome to Campus! (Hey, from the UW Episcopal Community)

Hey friend!

Welcome to campus! Whether you are new to Madison or returning, we are glad you are here. A bunch of us have been praying for you and this year in your life, and we look forward to connecting! 

A great first opportunity to connect is tomorrow (Wed) night, at 7pm at the St. Francis House Student Center (1011 University Ave). We'll have snacks, teas, and coffee, and a chance to meet other folks. A little after 8, we'll pray Compline together to end the evening and begin the new year. Everyone is welcome. 

This Sunday at 5pm, I hope you'll join us for our annual House Blessing Eucharist
​We'll pray for the different spaces in the Episcopal Center and have house blessing care packages for you and any​ friends you'd like to share them with. Christians usually bless homes as a way to ask God's help to make good​ new beginnings and as a way to name our intention to live our ordinary lives​ -​ in our homes​, classrooms, and workplaces​ - in ways that are shaped by God's love and call.

​One of the things the student leadership and I have been praying about already is how crunched life can feel at this moment in time. College. Politics. Work. Anxieties. Time. Relationships. Finding meaningful ways to act in the world. What else? SFH is committed to being a community and ​place where we make space together, over against the crunch, seeking to be present to God, each other, and ourselves. What does it mean to make space for "the life that really is life" (1 Timothy 6:19)? As that commitment/question resonates with you, I invite you to come, connect, share your gifts, and find new friendships and belonging. 

​That's all for now. Holla on FacebookCheck out the calendar. Call me for coffee, anytime. And I hope to connect with you soon.

God's good peace as you settle in and make your way and the new semester begins. 


Ways You Can Jump In (this week)*
  • Help us put together care packages this Wed at 7pm!
  • Come early on Sunday, at 4:15pm, to play an instrument or lend your voice at worship. Email Mckenzie for details/questions/to let her know you are interested. 
  • Read a Scripture on Sunday (come 5-10 min before 5pm). Email Jonathan.
  • We're looking this week for help next week, at the RSO fair (Sept 13-14, 5-8pm). Can you help cover a shift? Let Kate know!
*WYCJI is a new feature this year, which comes from our hope that you make yourself at home here. We'll do our best to communicate opportunities clearly and would love you to join us in any (or other) of these ways!

Last thing

Most weekly emails come from Kate and are way shorter than this, but we're excited to welcome you well, and I hope this email gives a sense of what SFH is about. If you're rather not receive them, though, let Kate know at any time. Peace, friends!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Permaculture & the Subversive Promise of Passions Lived Generously

The St. Francis House student org leaders gathered for the first meeting of the new year year yesterday. Our first-ever program intern made the us dinner and shared a new way to connect over food. It was really beautiful.

At the outset, we connected over my new favorite thing: the 10 questions from Inside the Actors' Studio, shamelessly stolen from one of my go-to podcasts, who stole it first from IAS.

One of the 10 questions is "What turns you on, creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?" My answer is "When people open their lives and share their unique passions in ways the rest of us can engage and touch." I love being invited into the beauty another person sees in something that I wouldn't have seen that way by myself. And it's amazing, I think, how contagious vulnerable beauty-sharing can be, even when that passion is very different from my own. 

Enter Mark Shepard, whose video I'm watching today. He calls his work "easy," and I'm glad it is for him. And I'm so glad he is sharing his passion. And while the prospect of his work catching on in a global way feels like climbing 10 Everests put together, he makes the impossible feel possible and accessible before adding this tantalizing and subversive promise to his project at the end: "The whole doom and gloom fear industry might go broke."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Gift of Conversions & the Upside-Down Kingdom

Sermon preached at St. Luke's and St. Francis House, for the 12th Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A. Here are the readings.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it got late, and the shopkeeper put things in order and called it a day. He closed shop and went home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves broke into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves didn’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearranged all the labels, the price labels, on the items in the store. So cheap things now had four digit tags. And really precious things were made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrived at the store and didn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appeared any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness of the rhythms of life, it was just another day. Then the customers started arriving. They, too, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them began interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now were, as if the mislabeled labels reflected true values of things. And they’re still doing that now, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.

Kierkegaard says that our world is that shop.

Cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and sometimes our devotion). We sometimes attach our lives to these cheap things. We make too much of them. Meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them, so we miss them altogether. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.

And yet. Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. Sometimes, a person finds herself doing double takes between twin mismatched realities, and she thinks to herself, “Well, that can’t be right.” You peel off a label of a precious thing called cheap and you decide to elevate its place in your life. Likewise, you peel the high-priced label off of the cheap thing and make room in your life accordingly. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles.

An MD/PhD student came to me at the start of a year like this one a few years ago and said, “Jonathan, I’ve realized something. I can be first in my class or I can be a person who takes care of herself and those around her, engages the community of faith, nurtures her soul, and gets nine hours of sleep every night. I can't do both. I’m not sure being first in my class is worth what it will cost. I’m not even sure it will make me a better doctor. I’m making the choice not to pay it.” True story, years later, I was sitting at a table at a mutual friend’s wedding reception with this student and her fiancé, and one of the other guests at the table - new to both of us - says to this student, out of the blue, “You look so well rested!” And I thought, “Who says that??” But then, I thought, if anyone did deserve to have it said of them, it was this student.

Maybe you have had one of these life-relabeling moments in your life. Something you had thought was worth everything, you came to question or reevaluate. Another thing you hadn’t valued very much at all emerges, unexpectedly, as precious and beautiful in a way you hadn’t seen before, and you know you will, from this moment on, commit your life to it in a particular way; that is, you can see already how the distance from where you are starting from to the place where that beauty will call you will mean a change in your life, and it might even be hard, and you say yes anyway. You feel yourself to be on the edge of willing alterations to the ways you think about and move within the world. And ordinarily such a prospect would have been scary, if not terrifying, but instead you are energized by and made open to the possibility of the new thing you could be. Christians have historically called these moments conversions, when God moves us to bring our lives into line with true labels, and these conversions happen even from within the life of faith.

It’s not that the confusion is news. You might have suspected that something was up, that some of life’s labels had been swapped. The trick is discernment, which ones go where, how to undo the mess and make things right, and we are here in part because we believe discernment is a team sport. Together, weekly, we open our hearts and the scriptures and ask God to make our imaginations more like God’s imagination. We watch throughout the stories of Scripture as Jesus pulls “cheap” labels off of people on the margins and puts the cheap labels on performances of prayer that are just for show. We marvel as so-called weak things like patience, generosity and vulnerability, gentleness and humility, self-giving and forgiving get raised up in his story above traditionally big-ticket items like power and wealth. And this episode from Matthew's gospel is maybe one of the biggest’ bandaid-ripping, label-switching moments in the whole story of Jesus.

They’re in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples. The place is named after Caesar, the emperor. They’re standing near a temple named for the emperor, who sometimes goes by the title, “Son of the living God.” Sounds familiar. In other words, Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is about to get political. Peter is about to call Jesus a king, and the thing about calling certain people kings is that it can un-call other people kings, even when you don't say it exactly that way. Because when it comes to allegiance, you only have one pledge to give. But Jesus doesn’t look much like a king, which may be why one theologian has observed that, these days, we ask the state to give us the things we used to ask God for. Because Jesus doesn’t look much like a king, which is why Jesus calls Peter’s answer, Peter’s attempt to rearrange the labels, a miracle. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

What does he mean when Peter calls Jesus king? What does it mean when we, too, call Jesus the Messiah?

To call someone like Jesus a king is a little bit like Peter’s saying he found God’s kingdom in the produce aisle, just behind the bananas. It’s not just that the kingdom’s been mislabeled, in terms of value or worth, it’s been mis-shelved altogether. Because Jesus doesn’t look anything like the usual label called, “king”. Kingdom labels play by the usual kingdom rules of political territories, patriotism, and securing a place above the others. This label is so well known it's in our bones. What was the old, thoroughly misogynistic game we used to play as kids? King of the hill? You know, where someone stood over the others on a pile of something until someone else pushed them off of the pile, and one empire gave way to another, but nothing was new, because the old rules applied, where the point of the game was still to push others down in order to rise up and secure yourself a kingdom for as long you could. That's the label we all learned for kingdom.

Of course, Jesus is nothing like this. What on earth made Peter call Jesus a king? A gift from the Father, Jesus says. The beginning of a conversion Peter himself doesn’t yet understand. The revelation of what the true kingdom, God’s kingdom, is.

In Luke’s gospel, this question will come up again. Jesus’ followers will be playing by old label rules, jockeying for position in the kingdom of Jesus, and Jesus will say, enough. Them’s the world’s rules, but that ain’t how we roll in this kingdom. And then he will confer on them a kingdom that looks like a table at which there is room and food enough for everyone. This table. Where old kingdoms coerced, this one opens up. Where old kingdoms secured the prosperity of the monarch, this monarch freely dies on the cross to free his subjects who had become subjected to sin and death. Jesus inaugurates this new kingdom when, on the night before he died, he breaks the bread he calls his body and gives his life for them. God’s kingdom is made known at this feast and this table on which is poured the cup of forgiveness, for you and for many.

And if this is true kingdom, what do we make of the others? After all, when it comes to allegiance, you only have one pledge to give. Will we really pledge allegiance to the kingdom of the crucified king and all it entails? And if we do, what does this undo about the way we think about the world and how we move within it? A world in which cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and sometimes our devotion). In which we attach our lives to these very same cheap things, and we make too much of them. A world in which, meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.

Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles. They are the mercy of God.


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.


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.


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.