Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Parent/Curmudgeon Overthinks Trick-or-Treating




My son is nervous about trick or treating tonight. Honestly, I don't know why he shouldn't be. "Don't take candy from strangers," he hears. "Except today. They'll be LOTS of candy. Oh, and the candy givers, like the candy takers, will be anonymous, you won't know who it is, but she or he will be dressed as the kinds of things that inspire the fears that lead adults to instruct children not to take candy from strangers."

"C'mon! It'll be fun!"

We've told him he doesn't have to, but he doesn't want to miss out on the candy. He's determined to go. Shaking with fear. Despising the whole thing. Willing to do what it takes. This breaks my heart.

[For all you "fixers" out there, relax. J's gonna be just fine, and we're going to help him find a path tonight that feels good and right to him. My point is to appreciate his dilemma from his vantage point.]

It's an interesting question for grown-ups, too: what principles are you willing to grow accustomed to breaking against your better judgment, what values are you committed to compromising, because you wouldn't want to miss out on the candy, metaphorically speaking, because "it's just what it takes"?

I'm not suggesting that mistrust of strangers is a principle worth building a life around. I am only observing that children have often been formed around this one. I am suggesting that adults often insert children into confusing conflicts of self-contradiction, and that it takes an alarming lack of self-awareness not to confess these predicaments to our children. 

But exactly because I don't believe mistrust of strangers is a principle worth building a life around, I'm intrigued by the ritual combination of trust and generosity we exhibit at Halloween and how it might become a building block or door toward something more. Why do we meet each other at the threshold of our strangeness as monsters to each other, our worst fears come true? Does our mutual monstrousness serve to justify the distances we'll keep from each other after the day is over, or does it do the opposite, inspiring us to open doors to even those we're trained to fear? From the other side of the door, how does the practice inform our willingness to ask for help when we need it? Does this night deter us from outing ourselves as monsters in need or inspire us to knock on strange doors, confident in the welcome we'll receive, even when we feel like strangers to ourselves? How does the Christian faith inform our imagination for these things?

I risk over-thinking, I know. But it's not lost on me that a nation wrought with anxiety over refugees at its borders is about to reflexively practice large-scale hospitality without much thought tonight. When it happens, it feels so close to something good, something beautiful, but it also feels so very close to the opposite of good and beautiful, a mockery of the hospitality we would refuse when in matters. What does it mean that we practice the instilling of fear in each other? How might we do otherwise with at least as much intentionality? 

So many questions and, I know, it's *just* trick or treating. But I don't think my son is the strange one tonight; I think the ones (like me) for whom the contradictions are normal have an opportunity just now to grow for the Good.



Monday, October 29, 2018

If Evil is a Hole (A Challenge of Eradicating Hate)


The challenge right now is that, if Augustine is right, evil is a hole. A tear in the fabric. And you cannot tear out a hole. I mean, you can, but only by tearing out the good fabric around it, erasing every good row surrounding the hole. Burn the sweater. Sacrifice the innocents. Even then, you didn't tear out the hole, you tore up the project. You just started over, which is its own kind of hole, or at least constitutes an invisible failure to undo the hole; the emptiness the hole contained still there, made normative and set free.

Eradicating others is hate. Eradicating hate, then, if it is to be the worthy task we believe it is, demands a thoughtful and dedicated subversion of the verb's common usage; demands a new imagination.(1)

"Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that," said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It helps me to consider the eradication of holes. To eradicate a hole is to mend torn cloth, is to pick up dropped stitches, is to reach out across the chasm of disorder until fabric touches fabric again and, there, go to work. Hard work. Good work. It is not work without conflict or accountability, but the work includes these for the purpose of making old things new and making whole things out of holes.  God knows this work is tedious. God knows this work has costs. God calls this work love, says it's patient. It is God's way with us, with me. Holiness is at once our calling and God's gift.

It helps me to remember that we are one fabric. Sometimes I see it, maybe we sense it, but I do not in a given moment have on hand the most true word for it. Others supply attempts at proper names for the fabric we might be. Words like "American" or "patriot," but approaching refugees expose the limits of false words like that, words that fabricate the essence of the fabric, that fabric which is not less than God's love for each of us, and all of us, together; that fabric made known as we discern the ways we belong to each other because we belong to God, which truth I have gleaned, to the extent I have gleaned it, through the love of the one whose garment was seamless.

_______________


(1) Expanding on the idea that "eradicating hate requires subversion of the verb's common usage:" The Rev. Fleming Rutledge once lamented that the church jettisoned too soon military language in our hymns and elsewhere (think, Onward Christian Soldier). The loss, she says, was our ability to reclaim that language in ways subverted and redeemed by the crucified King. As we use our language of fighting and eradicating hate, we must never forget that we are participating in that delicate work of subversion and redemption. My friend Deanna recently unearthed and shared a hymn by Jan Struther that provides a beautiful illustration:

When Stephen, full of power and grace, went forth throughout the land, 
he bore no shield before his face, no weapon in his hand; 
but only in his heart a flame and on his lips a sword 
wherewith he smote and overcame the foremen of the Lord.

When Stephen preached against the laws and by those laws was tried, 
he had no friend to please his cause, no spokesman at his side;
but only in his heart a flame and on his eyes a light
wherewith God's daybreak to proclaim and rend the veils of night.

When Stephen, young and doomed to die, fell crushed beneath the stones,
he had no curse nor vengeful cry for those who broke his bones;
but only in his heart a flame and on his lips a prayer 
that God, in sweet forgiveness' name, should understand and spare.

Let me, O Lord, thy cause defend, a knight without a sword;
no shield I ask, no faithful friend, no vengeance, no reward;
but only in my heart a flame and in my soul a dream, 
so that the stones of earthly shame a jeweled crown may seem.



Sunday, October 14, 2018

Trust, Entitlement, & the Terrifying Possibility of the Second-Best Taco


Dev and Arnold are friends in a Netflix series I enjoy called Master of None. In an early episode, the two friends are shown wondering what to do next. Tacos, they decide. They’re going to go eat tacos for lunch. But there’s a big problem. An exasperated Dev explains the situation: “There’re so many taco places, we’ve gotta make sure we go to the best one! Let’s research.”

“Great,” says Arnold. “I’ll sit here and do nothing.”

Hours pass in a dramatic, condensed time-lapse scene in which we see a series of images from the “research”: Yelp reviews, Instagram posts, photos and hashtags, desperate texts to friends, “Yo! Where the best tacos at?” The agony is palpable and real. Dez cannot imagine not eating the best taco for lunch. Finally, satisfied that he’s found it, Dev wakes his napping friend to announce the verdict.

“Great, let’s do it,” says Arnold.

But tragically, by the time the friends arrive, the taco truck is closed.

Dev protests to the food cart owner who is in the process of closing up shop: “What are we supposed to do, huh? Eat the second best tacos in New York?

The struggle is real.

And not just for Arnold and Dev.

It’s seemingly part and parcel of the information age: that you and I can see and know and potentially have the best, like never before in history. There’s an app for everything, true, and, more specifically, most of the apps exist to help us purchase different aspects of our lives more efficiently. There are even websites that allow students to scope out and rate the best professors, maximizing experience, living your best life, your perfect life. Because what else are you supposed to do? Enjoy the second best taco? And if you can’t enjoy the second best taco, if you can’t be sure there’s not a better taco truck than the one you’re at, how can you be expected to be present, really present, to anything at all?

Poor Dev and Arnold. Poor us. But also, poor rich man today in Mark’s gospel; rich man who is in a lot of ways a prototype of our ourselves; rich man who is our forbearer in following and all its difficulties; rich man who is our ancestor in acquisition and all its attending anxieties. He’s asking Jesus about eternal life, but from the get go we sense that something about the conversation is off. He’s asking about eternal life, but the conversation reads like a checklist confirmation, like he’s providing appropriate documentation at the DMV in order to receive a license he plans to pick up on the way home from work or proving his qualifications to the bank, in order to secure the mortgage to finance his next venture, operating under the assumption that there is some combination of deeds or depository of reputation and respectability that would make him deserving of eternal life. That is, he’s bringing his righteousness with the expectation of a successful transaction. Now, he’s open to the possibility that he might not have enough (yet), but he is also confident that there’s nothing out there that Jesus might add that he can’t yet acquire and later contribute to the equation. But what combination of deeds is equal to life with God? It’s not just that the math won’t square, but also that the rich man’s attempts to solve the puzzle this way reveal that he can’t imagine eternal life as anything other than yet another material good to add to the ones he already has. Conceiving of life with God this way, as a prize to win from God for behavior, rather than a life to live with God, and - God forbid - supposing he’s denied this transaction, what’s the man supposed to do? Live his second best life now?  

But what if eternal life, life with God, is not something acquired by grasping?

Jesus looks at the man, loves him in the midst of all that’s rattling on inside him, and invites him to acquire the one thing he doesn’t have: awareness of his own lacking or, put better, a sense of God’s overwhelming goodness. Trust this, Jesus says, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity and so make space in yourself, in your soul, for the possibility of a living trust of the Kingdom of God.

Give away what you have. Not just the things, but with them the admiration and affirmation of others who conflate your wealth with your deserving. Give up your standing. Hold nothing tightly. Forsake false guarantees that isolate you from other members and other parts of the Body of Christ. Be generous, and be open. Risk needing help and risk being helped, both by God and those around you in the community of faith. Make room to be loved, even on the days you are sure you are a fraud. Do not be afraid to celebrate the riches and gifts of others, for they do not condemn you. Eternal life is not a game to win or lose but a gift to be received.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Namely, you don’t lack anything yet. There’s no room for gifts or grace or surprises of God in you. But wait, I have an idea: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The rich man’s response is uncomfortably predictable. All silence. “How terribly shocking,” observes Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “to discover that, after all, you love [something] more than you love eternal life.”

How difficult to discover that the thing you lack is all you have.

The man is crestfallen, and the disciples are terrified. Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of the rich man they ask Jesus, “If not this dude, Lord, who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer gives hope, but it’s not a hope that backs away from the difficulty presented by wealth and his earlier invitation to leave it: “With God all things are possible.” Trust God, then, and not these other things. Trust God, then, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity. Let your love be sourced in God’s. Rest in the love of him who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself. Breathe this love. Receive this love. Let it be your balm and greatest confidence, that this love is for you. Walk in this love. St. Paul puts the invitation this way, in words so familiar you know them by heart: Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it’s late, and the shopkeeper puts things in order and calls it a day. He closes shop and goes home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves break into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves don’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearrange all the labels, the price labels, on every item in the store. So cheap things now have four digit tags. And really precious things are made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrives at the store and doesn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appears any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness, the ordinariness, of the rhythms of life, it’s just another day. Then the customers start arriving. They, too, don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them begin interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now are, as if the mislabeled labels reflect the true values of things. And they’re still doing this thing, misjudging the true worth of things, to this very day, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Clinging to Control (On Suffering, Entitlement, and Job)

Sunday's readings. Can I be honest? The book of Job makes me nervous. I don’t like the idea that God would allow suffering in order to win an ill-conceived parlor bet with the devil. What’s the over-under on how long Jonathan would last? (Don’t let the Satan get wind of it!) God takes the over with Job. In a more traditional gambling format, I’d like to think I’d be given a significant point spread to cover, making allowances for the effects of parenting-related sleep deprivation. But then again, Job starts off with ten kids! On just those grounds, Vegas should give me better odds than Job. But I know better. I also know that suffering like Job’s hurts like hell. The sores and potsherds of today’s reading are just the beginning of his pain and the loneliness that comes with it.

Of course, the parlor bet need not be literal. It’s hard to imagine God having anything to win back from the devil, anyway. Instead, the exchange that begins the book of Job serves to identify the central question relevant for all that follows. Disappointingly, the book isn’t primarily interested in why people suffer. Instead, as John Walton observes, the book asks from the divine perspective if there’s such a thing as disinterested righteousness, that is, righteousness that isn’t in it for what I might get out of it; you know, righteousness that has its beginning and roots in God; righteous in which we sometimes by the grace of God find ourselves, like the old hymn says, lost in wonder, love, and praise.

My family and I are Calvin and Hobbes junkies, and there’s a favorite strip in which Calvin asks his teacher, Ms. Wormwood (named after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters), what guarantee she can give him that the education he’s receiving will set him up for success in life. “Calvin,” she replies, “What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” To which a visibly deflated Calvin despairs, “Well, in that case forget it.”

This strikes me as exactly how most of us imagine life with God and what it’s like. Like Calvin, sure, we might grumble at the elbow grease required of us, but we console and motivate ourselves (or don’t) with assurances of the payoff. As the life of faith goes, what we get out of it will more or less equate to what we put into it. We think.

It’s good news, bad news, right? Bad news, because we’ve got our work cut out for us, good news because at least we are in control of our fates. But it’s exactly that last part - the assumption that deserving is how God relates to God’s children - to which the book of Job makes its singular and strongest objection.

The book of Job means to shatter the idea that certain inputs will result in particular outputs when it comes to matters of faith or, put more crassly, that God is an object for our manipulation, that if you input faith and piety, God will output favor of a particular shape on you. You know the line. It’s the way of thinking that says that if things look grim for you, it’s because you messed up or haven’t prayed hard enough, your faith isn’t great enough. And, lest we dismiss that line of thinking as ridiculous, a few chapters from now, Job’s friends will suggest exactly that, in order to account for his suffering. It’s amazing the stupid things people will say in the attempt to regain control of terrifying things. If you suffer, you have brought it on yourself. If you prosper, you have likewise brought it on yourself. Neither inherently true. The attractiveness of this logic is that it locates you in the driver’s seat of your life. Everything that happens to you becomes a manifestation of your self-expression and unique identity and, along with these, your faith. One challenge to this logic, aside from the way it simultaneously creates a breeding ground for potential self-loathing and unfounded boasting, is that none of us decided to be in the first place, so the process of expressing one’s unique identity becomes a game of catch-up from the get-go.

If people have sometimes made habits of thinking about the life of faith in this way, give x, get y, the bad news is that the situation is not any better outside of, nor is it limited to, the life of faith. Consider the observation of professor Kate Bowler when she writes that

Fairness is one of the most compelling claims of the American Dream, a vision of success propelled by hard work, determination, and maybe the occasional pair of bootstraps. Wherever I have lived in North America, I have been sold a story about an unlimited horizon and the personal characteristics that are required to waltz toward it. It is the language of entitlements. It is the careful math of deserving, meted out painstakingly as my sister and I used to inventory and trade our Halloween candy. In this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and keep my share. In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away.

In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. As everything begins to slip away, this is Job’s dilemma. It is also Kate Bowler’s dilemma: as a newly appointed professor with a husband she loves and just-born child, Kate was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35. She writes

The treatment at Emory begins at the end of October. I am tired most of the time, but I feel driven to catalog everything and wring every bit of time for all it’s worth. I start to write. In bed, in chemo chairs, in waiting rooms, I try to say something about dying in a world where everything happens for a reason. Whenever there is a clarifying moment of grief, I jot it down. And then, in a flurry, I shoot it off to The New York Times, not thinking too much about whether it’s any good, but sending it because I have been infected by the urgency of death. Then an editor there sees it, and puts it on the front page of the Sunday Review. Millions of people read it. Thousands share it and start writing to me. And most begin with the same words, “I’m afraid.” Me too, me too.

“I’m afraid of the loss of my parents,” writes a young man. “I know I will lose them someday soon, and I can’t bear the thought.” “I’m afraid for my son,” says a father from Arkansas. “He has been diagnosed with a brain tumor at forty-four, which would have been devastating enough if he had not already lost his identical twin brother to the same disease a few years ago.” These letters sing with unspeakable love in the face of the Great Separation. Don’t go, don’t go, you anchor my life.

In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. Evidently, Job’s, Kate’s, and ours is not a world of fair. And yet God is with us. If it sounds like too much, or not enough, we maybe have a better handle on the disciples’ confusion, disappointment, even anger these last few weeks as Jesus repeatedly predicts his own betrayal, death, and resurrection; his disciples insisting that a future so out of control cannot be saving. Or, maybe more honestly, that a future so out of control is just too scary to follow.  Of course, the news that we do not in a real sense control either God or our lives does not mean the end of our hope, but it does mean the necessity of trust; in a real way, the surrender of certainty creates the possibility of trust.

Which is maybe why Jesus keeps pointing his disciples to children and the poor, human beings beloved of God who do not need to be told that their lives are many times not their own; that they are left to the whims, and at the mercy, of others. As if to sharpen the point of this pencil further, Jesus will next encounter a rich man in search of salvation and, though their exchange, invite the whole Church to surrender whatever may remain of our sense of entitlement and control - for what can the possession of these mean in the hands of those who follow the crucified Christ? - inviting us to forsake our clinging and, with outstretched arms, discover with our lives generosity, trust, and the capacity to be surprised beyond the modest scripting of our imaginations.

After recounting in painful detail letter after letter from strangers happy to explain exactly why she was facing what she was facing, Kate Bowler writes to name the exceptions:

But many people write to me like family. “As a father, I am truly sorry.” “I’m a mother and I wish I could give you a hug right now.” They want to comfort me, but their experiences tell them that life is never fair. “I want you to know how much I’m praying for you and grateful for your faith. I’m sorry that we must say, like Job, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’” Yes, yes, yes. Yet will I trust in Him. I don’t know what the word “trust” means anymore, except there are moments when I realize that it feels a lot like love.

Yet will I trust in Him. I don’t know what the word “trust” means anymore, except there are moments when I realize that it feels a lot like love.

Amen.