Friday, March 30, 2018

One and Only Noble Tree (a Good Friday meditation)


Once upon a time there was a forest full of trees, but it wasn’t so much the trees but the one tree that caused the trouble. You know the story. The woman; the fruit; the man. Serpentine transgressions. Was it gluttony, lust, or pride, I wonder. Selective hearing, maybe. In any case, they mistrusted both his words to them and his love for them. It is hard to know which breach was greater: the eating or that, afterwards, they hid themselves from God. Exile, swords of fire.

A friend of mine said, “avocado.” Avocado? Yes, he said, the fruit it must have been or would have been for him; the food that marked the sin. He was probably projecting, but I wonder sometimes what fruit would be ripe enough, enticing enough that I would forget God’s voice to me; that I would dismiss God’s voice to me.

Before too long, the man and woman, formerly of the garden, became fruitful themselves, found with child, but that had long stopped being an obvious good thing. Sibling rivalry. You know how that goes. Fruitfulness turned sour. Competing sacrifices. Because if loving God isn’t a game you can win over and against your sister, your brother, your neighbor why play? That counts as sarcasm; there are good reasons. But it’s fruit again, the parent’s sin, the cry of Abel’s blood. And Abel’s blood’s still crying. Good God, is Abel’s blood still crying.

And every night on channels one through nine, you can see him, you can hear him; they call him different names, but you can still hear Abel’s blood.

And it’s Abram and Sarai, Moses, Elijah, David, Elisha, Jonah, God bless him, and Nahum and all of God’s prophets, God’s judges and kings, the high priests of the people, trying to give God back Abel's blood.

Sometimes I pray when I hear it, and sometimes I laugh when I hear it; other times, when I hear it, I sink into my sofa and drip through to the ground, the weight of the sadness slaying my tears and as heavy -- oh, as heavy -- as the flickering light is blue against the wall.

They sprinkled blood, not Abel’s, on their beaten, wooden, doorposts that first, black night called Passover; that first last night in Egypt, just as God commanded. Prefigured Lamb of God. The Egyptians were howling; God, God was faithful, and the Hebrews walked out on dry land. Pillars of cloud. Columns of fire. And the Hebrews walked out on dry land.

But college freshman everywhere will tell you, when they’re talking to you at all, that unexpected freedoms are the hardest kind to handle. And the people who walked free from their mud bricks in Egypt had a hard time believing that the One who had freed them from their mud bricks in Egypt, would keep them, could keep them, from their mud bricks in Egypt. That they would be cared for. That God would bring them home.

And so, in an ironic twist, somewhere along the wandering road, somewhere among the endless, numbered, days that followed, the people who wandered and followed griped one time too many, and God brought back the snake. You know, the one that started the whole mess in the first place. He brought him back. With friends. Snakes to bite their heels. Some of the people were dying.

Moses cried for all of us, “God, make it stop!” and God had Moses fashion a separate snake, this one made of bronze, and put it on a pole; the people were told to look on the pole in order to be saved. And the ones who did were saved. And some millennia later, the disciple Jesus loved, the one called John, he saw that snake, and called it Christ.

Which brings us to a second tree that caused the trouble. One tree from the forest. You know the story. A man. With some women. And some men. They found him in a garden, with their torches, flaming swords. Sound familiar? Exiled Son of God. Or at least that was the goal.

The disciples had swords, too, but there would be no battle here. No repeated spill of Abel’s blood, at least not come from him. The cup first drunk at Passover, now come before the Lamb, and he names his willingness to drink it. And Peter, who would have fought for him, would not, will not, die with him, and the cock crow names the hour.

They gave the man a trial, the people did. Or close enough to one for their intentions on that day. And they dressed him like a king, and pranced before the powers, and the powers lost their power to the madness of the night. The night as dark as blood. The day that looked like night. And they crucified our Lord.

Once upon a time, this mother, she could smile. But darkness knows no friend.

Two trees by which to see the grief, to hear the cries and taste the blood of wars that will not cease. The rivers flowing blood. Our attempts to hide from God. Infernal blue light flickering. But eyes to see and ears to hear pick out a pin-prick hope against the darkness, even on this day, even here amidst the blood, if faint, if far off, glinting. And this is the pin-prick hope -- God’s own happy sadness -- the moment despair loses hope, becomes futile -- this is God’s secret: the two trees are one tree and his wounds heal the first.

The flaming sword extinguished now, Life’s tree holds high its fruit; and Christ himself, pressed, crushed, for us, becomes the very wine of heaven.

Heaven prepares the table for the feast. Even now, heaven prepares the song.



Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Past is Present by Tom Waselchuk

The following is a guest post by Tom Waselchuk, St. Francis House 1982-1990. I share it on the heels of yesterday's post, detailing St. Francis House's continuing involvement in the Sanctuary movement in 2018. Also, check out this post from a year ago that provides some additional historical context for St. Francis House's role in beginning the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s. Tom's article comes from that formative time. In this season of Lent, in which folks either prepare for baptism or are invited to reconnect with what it means to have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, I find Tom's story and invitation to action to be beautiful expressions of what it looks like to belong to each other as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ.

In the mid-1980s St. Francis House joined a nationwide, faith-based coalition called the Sanctuary Movement, the primary goal of which was to provide shelter and support to political refugees fleeing the widespread violence of civil wars in Central America. In the summer of 1984 one of those refugees, Carmen Maria Garcia, fled her home in El Salvador and, though seven months pregnant, waded across the Rio Grande, linked up with an “underground railroad” network that brought her to Madison and St. Francis House. Carmen’s son Dalton was born that October, and Carmen lived at SFH for about a year.


My wife Dana Johnson and I were deeply involved in the Sanctuary program, supporting and helping to resettle Carmen and other refugees while giving them a public forum to bear witness to the horrific conditions from which they fled. My intent here is not to go into great detail about the turmoil in Central America during those years. Rather I hope to shine a light on a history we, you and I, share by virtue of our connection to SFH and to ask you, dear reader, for material help for Carmen and Dalton.

In order to introduce you to these two amazing people, a little background into the conditions that caused Carmen to flee her home is warranted. The Salvadoran Civil War began after a 1979 military coup brought the Revolutionary Government Junta to power. Catholic activists protested against the junta's oppression of impoverished citizens. ├ôscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while saying Mass. On December 2, 1980, four Catholic missionaries from the United States working in El Salvador were raped and murdered by five members of the El Salvador National Guard. In December 1981 the Salvadoran Army brutally murdered over 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote. The details of all of these and other crimes are public record; suffice it to say that activities of the Salvadoran government, army, and National Guard created chaos, terror, and a flood of political refugees.

Dalton and Carmen
So, having escaped and begun a new life at SFH, Carmen and Dalton moved to the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago where Carmen became an active member of St. Pius V Catholic Church. She married and bought a house in Summit IL, and life unfolded. But then a series of misfortunes befell her. She was forced to quit her job in order to care full time for her husband who had suffered a brain hemorrhage following a fall. He died in 2007. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit and destroyed the equity in their home. Attempts to refinance were unsuccessful. After years of mounting debts, taxes, inflexible bankers, a freak flood (with crippling damage to the home), Carmen and Dalton lost their home in February 2017. Up against the wall, they decided their best option was to walk away from the crushing debt and start over.

Dana and I have kept in touch with Carmen from the very beginning. We are godparents to Dalton. We have, over the years, been able to help with small amounts of money to help with various expenses, school supplies, heating bills, rent payments and the like. The Garcias have never been what most of us would describe as “well off,” and we have always wished we could do more. In addition to offering them direct help, we’ve now organized a GoFundMe campaign to help put them on a more solid financial footing and get them back into a home of their own.

Dane Johnson, Tom Waselchuk, and Carmen Maria Garcia
For Dana and me, the past is indeed present. If you’re reading this, you too have a connection with St. Francis House. Perhaps you were around to witness the struggles and excitement of the Sanctuary Movement. More likely you weren’t, and you see this as a bit of history unrelated to you. Either way, we ask for your help. In a world of such desperate want and need, I feel almost sheepish to ask for this help from you. We are strangers to each other. But to quote Rev. Tom Woodward, pastor at SFH during the Sanctuary years, “While we have no legal obligation to assist Carmen, she was so critical to the church's witness through St. Francis House that we want to be of support for her at this time.”

I could not have foreseen this moment 35 years ago, but the past is indeed present and I want to bear witness to Carmen and Dalton, to assure them that memories remain and love of God’s people abides.

Here’s how to help. Donations can be made directly to Carmen and Dalton via this link.

There is also more information at the site about the specifics of their journey and their plans for finding a new home. You may also contact me if you have any questions about this effort.

Thank you.
Tom Waselchuk: twasel@gdinet.com

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Diversity Work on Campus, the Sanctuary Movement, and Other Good Gifts of this Tuesday

Today at Hillel, the professional organization of religious workers on campus (the aptly named University Religious Workers) enjoyed at our monthly gathering a rich conversation with Thomas Browne. Tom is Senior Assistant Dean for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) as well as the Minority/Disadvantaged student coordinator for CALS. 

Tom shared candidly, clearly, and generously about the on-campus realities that result in some students leaving their UW experience as "Badgers for life" while others leave beaten down, noting that students and faculty of color are disproportionately likely to find themselves in the latter camp. Though hopefully not news to the gathering in the "new" sense (because it's not), Tom illuminated the conversation with historical references, a clear summary of current university structures and initiatives, and areas for growth - including ways communities of faith on campus can support and share in this work.

Tom highlighted the support of Chancellor Becky Blank with respect to the work of diversity and opening the resources of the UW to all people. In particular, he drew attention to the following statement for which the hope is "that it becomes a part of the fabric of the UW."


The statement's language about excellence and its pursuit, and their relationship to diversity, called to mind the following quote of St. Francis de Sales that has been rattling around in my heart for the last come of weeks:
the Church is a garden patterned with countless flowers, so there must be a variety of sizes, colors, scents — ​of perfections, after all. Each has its value, its charm, its joy; while the whole vast cluster of these variations makes for beauty in its most graceful form.
There is both the variety of perfections and that perfection that requires our God-given variety.

Later on in the day, some interfaith and ecumenical colleagues and I met at Pres House with Rabbi Bonnie Margulis to talk about the Sanctuary movement in Madison, in which St. Francis House played an important historical role. Again, as with the university's desire to weave the commitment to diversity into the life of the university, we found ourselves imagining what it would look like for especially communities of faith on campus to make visible the communication of safe spaces, not just or even primarily in a residential sense, but spaces that visibly communicate a space made safe for conversation. Early in the day, Tom Browne had characterized such spaces my mutual trust and genuine respect: i.e., "I respect your background, and you respect I don't get it, but I'm here."

In the conversation with Rabbi Bonnie, we observed that the commitment to be people and places of sanctuary is very often in place, that is, is oftentimes already embedded within the faith traditions to which we adhere. What is needed then, says my friend and director of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry Ulrich Rosenhagen, is intentional connection to the peculiar aspects of our traditions that bring us into these conversations. These aspects for solidarity are, of course, diverse. So, for example, Episcopalians might point to the baptismal promise that Christ is there, in each one, to be sought and served. But how is it that people of faith who possess such foundations find it difficult to give them voice? Is there, somehow, a beautiful opportunity in the invitation to solidarity and partnered diversity exactly the possibility of reconnecting with each tradition's peculiar variety of perfection? In other words, what if Christian identity is not preserved in isolation, but rather quite the opposite?

In his marvelous little book, Being Christian, Rowan Williams writes that
...baptism means being with Jesus 'in the depths': the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need - but also in the depths of God's love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be
.... 
If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else. To be able to say, 'I'm baptized' is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected - you might even say contaminated - by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied. And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world. To put it another way, you don't go down in to the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!
When we are brought to be where Jesus is in baptism we let our defences down so as to be where he is, in the depths of human chaos. And that means letting our defences down before God. Openness to the Spirit comes as we go with Jesus to take this risk of love and solidarity..." 
None of this can be taken for granted or taken as obvious, least of all for Christians. In her thought-provoking book Disunity in Christ Christena Cleveland cites research that suggests that Christians can be more favorably inclined toward Christians who are different from themselves, by focusing on primary identities, like baptism. Alarmingly, being so inclined often results in harsher treatment toward non-Christians. This reality is so true as to likely be the Christian's basic experience and also the non-Christian's experience of Christians. In other words, the act of being present and connected to the unique perfections is necessary both because it will ground us and because the world is not accustomed to articulations like these in the name of Christ.

Lord, open our Lips. And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

"Why are you surprised when the weak turn out to be weak?"

The reflection below came as a gift  to me in the course of my week in Minneapolis. The week's gathering was hosted at the St. Jane House, a fabulous urban retreat center and a ministry of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis. The House takes as its motto a short quote from St Francis de Sales (1567-1622): "Be who you are, and be that well." In conversation with Brian, who keeps the house, I expressed appreciation for de Sales. He loaned me some books for the rest of my stay, including the book in which the following appears,“Set your heart free,” freely adapted into modern English by John Kirvan and published in 1997.

Lift Up Your Heart - But Gently!

Why are you surprised
when the weak turn out to be weak,
and the frail, frail?
When you turn out to be sinful?

When you fall 
be gentle with your frail, weak heart.
Lift up your heat gently,
accept your failure
without wallowing in your weakness.
Admit your guilt in God's sight.
Then with good heart, 
with courage and confidence in his mercy,
start over again.

It is tempting to condemn 
yourself with harsh words and even harsher feelings. 
But it does no good to lash out at yourself.
Seek instead to rebuild your soul calmly, 
reasonably, and compassionately.

Speak to your heart in understanding words: 
“Rise up my heart there’s still another time. 
Put your trust in God’s mercy, 
so that you will stand stronger in the future. 
Do not be discouraged, 
God will help and guide you.”

Pray with the Psalmist: 
“Why are you sad my soul, 
and why do you disquiet me?
 Hope in God: for I will still give praise to Him; 
the salvation of my countenance, and my God.” (185-187)




Soil Science and Salvation: the Dirt on Last Week's Trip to MN

Last week in Minneapolis I met with friends, colleagues, and leaders from around the Episcopal Church. We shared ideas, questions, images, and learnings from our various work in campus ministry, traditional churches, and community organizing. Here's a week-later sketch of some of what that productive time occasioned for me.

On the first night, we discovered a rich blend of hope and sadness. Hope, for the ways we have encountered God on the margins, in the cracks of the pavement so to speak, etc., which is to say the ways God continues to move and act in this world, surprising, sustaining, healing, restoring. Sadness, for the difficulties presented by an institutional decline we cannot fully lament.

At last year's national gathering of young adult and campus ministers, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry named some of the difficulties. The naming itself, by the Presiding Bishop, was inspiring and encouraging to many of us, as was his insistence that the stakes were not the existence of the church, but that part of the church sustained by the ways the church had accommodated itself to certain expressions of wealth. Additionally, Bishop Curry named the church's responsibility to protect the current generation of clergy from personal financial failure. I cannot overstate the helpfulness of this framing. After all, the years-long ordination process required many of us to assert that we could do no other than be clergy; if we had imagination for other careers, we were to do that, instead. Now, it is not uncommon for those in the process to be asked what else they will do to support (pay for) their vocations. It's different, not bad. And the ability of the Presiding Bishop to name the current reality while proclaiming his honest anticipation for the church to come is essential to leadership of the national church in 2018.

At that gathering last year in Austin, our worship included this song:



Chief among the acknowledgements that have attended confronting the church's institutional challenges is that we may have been measuring the wrong things. ASA (average Sunday attendance), for example. It's not that ASA is a bad number, but at best it's a number that needs another number. That is, it is not clear, exactly, what ASA measures. Faithfulness? Guilt? Consistency? Mission? The ability to find jobs with flexibility? Your guess is as good as mine. Plus, ASA completely punts more nuanced interest with respect to participation in the church. If, for example, forgiveness scholar Robert Enright is correct in his assertion that few people go to church to grow the church (my paraphrase), then we should always be theologically interested in a person's presence at church: "What does her presence reveal about how God is moving in their life, here and now? What is God showing them that leads them into the assembly of the faithful today?" I say "theologically interested" because I think theology informs how we read such moments. If Augustine, for example, is right that even gradually discovered awareness of our distance from God is a gift from God, then the story of a person's presence is also the story of the generous movement of God.

Back to the question of the things we measure. My friend Steve, who convened our Minneapolis gathering, brought to our time together the image of seeds and soil, along with the observation that it is naive to tend to church "plants" and the like without also tending the soil. Soil health may turn out to be our most important work. Steve shared this video:


After watching the video, I thought about how often the church is described as the thing we are building - the plant - such that prayers like this one become the exceptions that prove the rule. If, however, we are at least as much about soil health, then we'll plant some things, like kale, not because they will endure, but because they will remove toxicity from the soil. Likewise, other plants will benefit the soil as they become compost for it. In all of these things, we don't necessarily measure the plant lifespan but the quality of the nutrients each contributed to the health of the soil. In other words, compost adds a beautiful and encouraging dimension to drip castle descriptions of ministry.

Of course, all of this did nothing to diminish my long-time affinity for this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.

The soil / seed discussion is an important part of Bishop Curry's aforementioned discussion in Austin because the personal failures from which he notes the church is right to guard clergy are not purely financial. They are also the stress that results from the unrealistic matching of resources and objectives; they are the issues of self-esteem and identity that belong to those who are told it would all be different if only they did or were x, y, z, etc., when there is no proof or truth that any of this would be different if they did or were x, y, z, etc. Rediscovering the soil opens space for God's people to be in touch with the nutrients at the heart of the faith, and in a way that makes room for compost, that is, in a way that is capable of fruitful, God-open grief.

There's no denying that the church is changing. And also no denying that God continues to be seen in the changes and in the cracks where our institutions and individual identities grow weak. Indeed, this has been the promise all along. May God give us grace to follow in the way of the cross and find it to be the way of abundant life and peace.

More food for thought. "Can we manage it as an ecological system, instead of a crop?" (See below.)