Body of Christ

On Paczki’s, Fat Tuesday, and Ashes

What’s going on with Packi’s and Mardi Gras?

Today in many grocery stores In Chicago you will find the polish pastry paczki, prominently displayed for sale. Today is of course Paczki Day, or Mardi Gras. If one is from New Orleans the celebration of Mardi Gras isn’t confined to this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Brazil and other Countries this SEASON before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival. Tomorrow, many Christians of various traditions will begin the season of Lent by receiving ashes on the forehead. This all may appear to be very disjointed and individualized. How does this all fit together? What connects Mardi Gras, the eating of paczkis and receiving of ashes upon the forehead?

A sense one may have from all this is individual indulgence followed by Forty days of individual self-denial. Celebration of life and abundance and the confrontation of mortality and limits. This picture isn’t entirely wrong but it largely misses the point. Carnival, Mardi Gras Ash Wednesday and Lent are all of a piece. We feast and we fast aiming for the same goal. In each we are preparing to receive again the mysteries of the faith of the church.

The dishes of Mardi Gras, are intended to use up items that one won’t be eating in one’s fast. In this way, the feasting of Mardi Gras is a holy act of preparation, so that we might be prepared (through not having in our cupboards empty of the items from which we will be fasting during Lent. Of course, buying the paczki from the grocery store on Fat Tuesday forgets this aspect of our feasting.

Preparing to Receive again the Mysteries of the Faith

Yet even if our feasting doesn’t literally empty our cupboards, we should recall that feasting and celebration of Mardi Gras are as much part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as is the fasting of Lent. However, we may observe the Lenten fast Today is part of that practice. Feasting today is part, our observing Lent.

In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday before ash is put upon the forehead and we hear “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are called to the observation of a holy Lent. What is a holy lent? It is one in which we take up with greater focus the practices fasting, alms giving and other acts of pious act of charity and justice. This all from carnival to Ash Wednesday up to Holy Week is all preparation. A holy Lent is one that prepares us to return to who we became through our baptism, ready to reaffirm those vows of baptism and receive again the mysteries of our faith, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. A holy lent is preparation is what we do as the Church, members of Christ. None of this is some individualistic celebration and navel gazing upon our individual mortality.

Unfortunately the way we often observe lent reduces it to individual piety, “What will I give up for lent” and we focus on one aspect of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) that we forget that this remembrance of mortality is to send us into the arms of Mother Church, the body of Christ, to regain and renew our being as the baptized who are being joined together as the body of Christ, holy stones of the holy temple of God. Our repentance, our fasting, our alms giving all are oriented to this goal or remembering who we are that we may be renewed by the great mysteries of our faith.

We should stop and question the ways we may individualize and separate ourselves off from this corporate feasting and fasting in preparation to receive the mysteries of our very being as the body of Christ. Lent is to return us to ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ. However, we observe Lent, we are to seek to be more like Christ and to grow more into our Baptism. If we aren’t focused growing father into Christ anticipating and preparing ourselves to renew our baptism and return to the Church, then we aren’t observing a holy Lent. So, do what your community or your spiritual director encourages you to do. Don’t worry if you are doing too little or too much, don’t worry about how strict or lax you are. Focus on being ready for Easter. Whatever you do have as your goal to renew and deepen your sense and understanding of yourself as a member of the Church, our mother.

Examining a practice “Ashes on the Go”

A few years back some priests and ministers experimented with getting Christian liturgy in the streets on Ash Wednesday with Ashes on the Go. I wonder if Ashes on the Go by focusing on the moment most individuated within the liturgy of Ash Wednesday if this fails to communicate the meaning of receiving these ashes in this time of preparation? Given that we already have the tendency to view Lenten disciplines as individualistic private pious acts disconnected from our being called back into the church and back to our baptism, there’s a danger this innovation reinforces individualistic interpretations of Lent and Lenten disciplines.

If Ashes on the Go is just this one moment of the Ash Wednesday liturgy I see “Ashes on the Go” reinforcing an individualistic pious interpretation of the day. How would one communicate the corporate nature of this act without a gathered body of believers? There would need to be some reminder in the liturgy of Ashes on the Go that those who receive the ashes should also be finding and involved with a local body of believers in following through on their having received ashes, some reminder of their baptism and membership in the body of Christ. Otherwise this innovation risks (whether the priest intends this or not) of reinforcing the individualized misinterpretations of Lent and Ashe Wednesday that are prevalent in our treatment of Lenten practices.

Ash Wednesday as an act of becoming church.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about confronting my own mortality, nor an individual penitence. It includes those things, but only as an act of joining with the other members of Christ. It is more importantly a collective entering a time of self-examination and repentance to be prepared to receive again the central mysteries of the faith of the Church.

In Ash Wednesday, we are asked as members of Christ to face how we have both individually and collectively exhibited a failure to live into the call l or baptism and our collective mortality. We are reminded that being a member of Christ isn’t a space of triumphalism nor a celebration of our ability as individuals to bravely face our limits. Rather, it is a space of humility, to again remember we need God and each other, to be what we are called to and that we often forget in a short time, what it means to be the body of Christ, we were initiated into at our baptism.

When we receive ashes, and reflect upon our mortality as an act of corporate repentance and humility, we are called back to who we are as baptized members of Christ Body, the temple of God.

As you feast today, and as you receive ash and begin your Lenten practice tomorrow, let it be focused upon return, renewal and receiving again the mystery of who we are as the church, baptized members of Christ. Then we can know that we are observing a holy lent no matter what we do, or don’t do, as we prepare ourselves to come face to face with the mystery of our Faith.

Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount

Unbounded Love as Resistance, Part 2.

The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes with the parable the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds on a rock as the foundation for the house. This builder who builds upon a firm foundation is the one who hears Jesus’ teaching and practices what Jesus teaches. Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice is to build upon a solid foundation.  The apostle Paul in his letters, also uses this image of building upon a foundation, which is Christ. However, we tend to treat the sermon on the mount as a structure that we are to live in and which we must remodel or deconstruct. The parable suggests that practicing Jesus’ teaching is more like building a structure than inhabiting something already in existence. The sermon on the mount provides a foundation for living in a way that builds upon Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teaching.

How is Jesus Christ and the teachings in the sermon on the Mount foundation? Are we building upon this foundation? What does it mean to build upon Jesus and these teachings of Christ.?

Taking Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount as foundation means reading the Sermon on the mount not so much as rules to be applied in all situations, but a teaching that gives us a dynamic life giving way of being. In hearing and studying the sermon on the mount we become familiar with this way of being.

Some aspects of this we won’t go into here: The Sermon on the mount is itself a summary of Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah. Jesus is describing himself in his own teaching, Jesus is the way and fulfillment of the Torah. As the Word made flesh Jesus is the Torah interpreting Torah.

Jesus’ teaching is a whole, not discrete isolated instructions. Only as a whole are they the firm foundation on which to build. Any one saying or teaching isn’t , isolated and discrete, able to stand on its own, rather Jesus’ teachings provide the interlocking basis for life and for our building upon this foundation. Take for instance the teaching of turning the other cheek this instruction is bound up with Jesus teaching on hate and murder, with the charge to love enemies, the charge to not worry, the blessing of those who seek after justice and righteousness etc… Seeing this as foundation and way of being means that every part is part of the other unable to be removed and atomised, and picked over for its supposed utility in following Jesus.

Once we accept Jesus and Jesus’ instruction as foundation, we are not meant to build upon this foundation individually by ourselves. This way of being isn’t an individualistic path anymore then the teachings of Jesus are individual disconnected rules applied by our own wisdom. We are to build upon this foundation with others, namely other baptized members of the Church.

This is Christ’s way of being, the very nature of the church. We can’t answer how we are to live out this way and build upon the foundation individually.  We can do this only as the body of Christ, only in conversation with others, both those who are living and those who have lived upon the foundation out in the past: Like St. Francis and St Clare, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica and the Benedictines, and the first monastics, like St Anthony of Egypt. The lives of the Saints show us how others have lived upon this foundation. This is a spiritual and Eucharistic practice of becoming Christ, it requires regularly taking in Christ and being with other’s who are baptized members of the body of Christ, encouraging each other to practice and build upon Christ and Christ’s teachings.

A note on false prophets and those who teach but don’t live on the foundation Christ:

If you still have misgivings about the Sermon on the mount or some of Jesus’ sayings, because some interpretations of the teaching seem to support the status quo, or oppressors, or the wealthy, remember Jesus warns against those who would twist his words for their own ends. Jesus warns of false prophets and those who would claim to speak for Jesus but do works that have nothing to do with the Jesus or Jesus’ way of being.

Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount with warnings against false prophets and those who say “Lord, Lord” and claimed to do great works in Christ’s name but who don’t do the will of God as found in Jesus’ teachings. The harmful interpretations of the sermon on the mount, come back to these false teachers and false disciples. We are called to watch out for those who distort the foundation or who teach but do not live upon the foundation of Christ. But such misapplication misinterpretation and false teaching doesn’t alter the solid foundation which is Christ. Turn aside from those false prophets, and those who claim knowledge but know nothing of Christ. Do not let them shake your confidence in this foundation and the life-giving way offered by Christ.

This was the final reflection in a sketch of a  theology of resistance that began with this post: Hope as Virtue and Discipline

Unbounded Love As Resistance: Standing against Sin and Evil, Part 2

Part 1: Love command as interpretive framework for the Sermon on the Mount

Part 2  Love command as Standing against Sin and Evil

A careful reading of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) reveals a humanizing act both for the one being struck and for the one striking the other. When a right-handed person strikes one on the right cheek, that person has back handed the other.  The back handed strike isn’t what takes place between equals. This isn’t a fist fight. This is an insult, an assertion of superiority over an inferior. Jesus’ instruction to turn the left cheek is to demand to be struck as an equal, or at least to prevent the insult from being repeated. This symbolically says “I’m your equal, I do not accept your terms. I will not strike back but if you wish to strike me again you must punch me like you would your equal.” This is love of enemy, seeing the enemy as human, like you, and insisting that your enemy also recognize your humanity.

Thus, when the elder King confronts the police officer for calling him boy, he was turning the other cheek (see part 1). He refused to be dehumanized by acting on Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek. This was a fulfillment of the command to love one’s enemies and inspired an entire generation of African-Americans to do likewise. Clearly, nonresistance to evil is neither acquiescing to, nor acceptance of dehumanization and oppression. Non-resistance of evil is choosing to in the face of evil act from the stand point of radical love. It transforms confrontations between the oppressed and the oppressor by humanizing and equalizing both parties. One who follow’s Jesus’ teaching, refuses to accept a dehumanizing act and simultaneously refuses to react in kind. This is what Jesus means when he speaks of loving our enemies.

This radical love both defines and empowers non-resistance. Non-resistance of evil proclaims, “I will not only treat the oppressor as human, but also with the dignity I demand from, and for all people, because we are all human and therefore all equally deserving of a beloved, dignified humanity.” The very same dignity an oppressor expects for themselves. A Christian response to oppression must invite the oppressor to both see the oppressed as equals and unmask any dehumanizing tactics employed by an oppressor. This approach to Christ’s teaching should inform every action in which a Christian confronts oppression.

In a paradoxical moment of great extremity Dietrich Bonhoeffer admitted that there are instances in confronting injustice, such as his moment in opposition to Hitler, when love of neighbor comes into conflict with love of enemy, e.g. Joining the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer recognized that in such extremities it might be impossible to maintain the unity of Jesus’ teaching of demanding humanity for all including the evil person. One may be required by Jesus love ethic to fail in loving one’s enemy, when the enemy is an oppressor and love of neighbor demands standing with and for the oppressed. Bonhoeffer did not attempt to explain away Jesus’ connecting hate and murder. The assassination of Hitler (even the attempt of it) lead him for the sake of Christ and the demand of love to violate Jesus love command in the name of love. Bonhoeffer admitted that his participation in the assassination plot was a failure of the demands of love and the Gospel for the sake of love and the Gospel. Bonhoeffer accepted this guilt and threw himself upon the grace of God.

Love of enemy, turning the other cheek, and non-resistance of evil support an ideal of radical love and radical humanization of all people. It also attempts to jar an oppressor out of their inhumanity. This radical love can also lead to an ethical paradox that traps us in the human inability to uphold Jesus radical love ethic. In those moments, the best we can do is embrace our flawed humanity and throw ourselves upon the love and grace of God. Such is the resistance of the disciple of Jesus Christ, member of the church the body of Christ. Some interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount attempt to protect us from the ethical contradictions taking this teaching seriously can lead to. Many interpretations treat Jesus’ teaching as a method of avoiding sin. But Christian monastics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr (as well as many others) show us that the life of the Church isn’t merely the avoidance of Sin, but a direct confrontation of sin which will exposes our human limits as well as our complicity with Sin. This radical confrontation is undertaken in the name of Christ and by the power of the cross so that Sin, injustice, and oppression may be driven out of our minds, our hearts and out of all creation. These are acts of exorcism dependent upon the work of God in Christ Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Unbounded Love as Resistance Part 1 and 2, is the second part in a three part reflection. The first part is on hope, “Hope as Virtue and Discipline” and the final reflection is “Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount”  These for blog posts make up a beginning sketch of my theology of resistance.  They are reflections that come out of reflecting on hope and the sermon on the mount with the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, between November 2016 and February 2017

Unbounded Love as Resistance: The Sermon on the Mount (part 1)

Jesus’ Love ethic as the interpretive center of the Sermon on the Mount

There is an extremism in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, parallel in Luke 6 as the Sermon on the Plain). Many in the history of the church have attempted to soften the teaching or restrict the application of the teaching to a class of Christian. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin, injustice, and unrighteousness. The sermon on the Mount is also, an articulation of Jesus’ ethic, the way of life or being for his body, the Church.

This ethic or way of life is nurtured in the soil of the Torah. The teaching is enriched by going beyond surface adherence of the commands of the Torah, so that one can dig into the richness of the Torah as life. This ethic also has its source in a radicalization of the Love command taught in the Torah: Love of God and neighbor as self. Jesus accepts this Love command as a summary of the Torah. In the sermon on the Mount love of neighbor (if neighbor is taken as someone one knows and with whom one shares an affinity) is radicalized as love of enemy. This radical neighbor love exposes how we justify our failures to live by the Torah and love of neighbor by cordoning off from ourselves certain others. We know this well: treatment of our in group (whatever that might be) stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the out group. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes explicit that the way of love Jesus shows and exhorts us towards doesn’t allow us to hate anyone even those who may harm us, that is our enemies.

Jesus’ love ethic and love command has two elements. One aspect is seeking to be neighbor to all (shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The answer to that question is the seeming non-sequitur question “Am I a neighbor?”). The other is love of those who do not return my love – love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death.

If we conceive of love only as sentiment, we make pure nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. This radicalized ethic shows that the basis of love for Jesus isn’t only an emotion but also an action that extends love to all possible persons and all circumstances. Jesus’ teaching tells us that what is usually grounded in an emotive response to familiarity and affinity, is deeper and grander than our habitual way of understanding love. Love is more human and more divine than we realize or usually notice.

The Sermon on the Mount or Plain needs to be interpreted from this extreme love ethic rooted in the Torah and its summary as “Love of God and love of neighbor as self.” radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on “neighbor”. This is accomplished first through focus not on others but the self being a neighbor in any and all circumstances, this focus on self being neighbor and in the command to love one’s enemies.

Love of Enemy, Resist not the evil person and turning the other cheek

To hear correctly Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek we must keep in mind that they occur in the portion of the sermon called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said (interpretation of the Torah…. but I (Jesus) say to you (new teaching on the Torah)…”. When we look at this section from the perspective of Torah summarized as love of God and neighbor as self, we can see this section as rooted in Torah and not it’s rejection. Jesus always has the Torah as the basis of the radicalized way of living and being he leads his disciples into, and moves it towards the extremity of the Torah’s meaning at points almost seeming to enjoin doing the opposite. Except that the Torah is never abandoned, but s clarified trough Jesus’ teaching. This is what is going on in the antitheses. Jesus isn’t questioning Torah but offering a different or new interpretation based on the love ethic.

Jesus’ teaching to ‘resist not evil” and turn the other cheek are often interpreted without reference to the love ethic. As often as not these sayings of Christ have been interpreted by powerful and privileged Christians to insist that the poor and the oppressed not upset the status quo, and endure their lot in life. While also being interpreted as not applying to Christians exercising the power of the state. There are interpretations of love of enemies, turning the other cheek and resist not evil all which subject the one suffering evil or oppression to accept the dehumanizing condition in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaching is turned into a defender of the status quo, rather than a uncompromising insistence on love that upend established order.

James Cone in his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X recounts Martin Luther King Jr’s account of influences of Kings child hood in Atlanta and of the example of his parents as key to his views. One of the incidents Cones recounts from Kings autobiography is an incident of King’s father being pulled over by a police officer when King was a child.  Cone quotes King as saying that the elder King didn’t turn the other cheek but that the elder King insisted on being treated as a “man” and an equal. When the police officer called the elder King “boy” the elder King’s reply was that the younger king in the car with him was a boy but that he was a man. Turning the other cheek in Martin Luther King Jr.’s account is the opposite of standing up and demanding that one’s humanity be recognized in the face of degradation, oppression and injustice.

If this is Jesus intended teaching (accept and don’t stand against dehumanization) then what sense can we make of the Beatitudes, when what we see in the Beatitudes is the humanizing of those who are being dehumanized. When the Beatitudes are together with the command to love enemies, then we have a radical stance against dehumanizing any human being whatever they may do or have done, or however monstrous we may view the other. To refuse hate, even to refuse to hate one’s enemy but instead to love them, is a humanizing way of life that has no boundaries.

Jesus Christ’s love ethic is meant to humanize everyone and to eradicate within each of us the desire and need to dehumanize those who threaten us. We will next explore, In part 2, “turning the other cheek” and “resisting not the evil person” from this perspective of Jesus’ ethic as a humanizing way of life, that refuses all forms of dehumanization, and the ways in which this radicalism can lead us into a contradiction that is the very nature of our call as the church to confront (not avoid) Sin, unrighteousness, and injustice.

A prologue to this post is Hope as Virtue and discipline. The prologue this post and the following two posts on the Sermon on the Mount entail a sketch of my theology of resistance.

Leave your thoughts on how you’ve been taught to understand “turn the other Cheek” and “resist not the evil person.” How does viewing Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of a radical interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of love without bounds, including those who seek to harm us, reinforce or challenge interpretations of the sermon on the Mount you believe or have been taught?

The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


When God-with-Us is no Comfort: Feast of Holy Innocents

Scriptures Readings: Holy Innocents:

The sound track for this post:

:

What are we to make of the feast of the Holy Innocents? What is happening as we remember and celebrate these innocents, the unknown number of infants and toddlers who are martyrs? To what do these innocents witness? In what way do they give witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Rachel weeps for her Children. Rachel a collective ancestral name, one of the mothers of Israel. Another name for Israel, just as Israel is also known as Jacob.

This is a strange feast combining lamentation and celebration of these martyrs, the Holy Innocents: infants and toddlers slain by king Herod.  The lamentation of Rachel refusing to be comforted.

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escape being warned to flee to Egypt. The hymn “Audit tyrannus anxius, in the Benedictine Daily breviary, for Holy Innocents speaks of these infants murdered by Herod as martyrs, and rejoices that these innocents are in the presence of God. It’s an unsettling sentiment. We, I suppose, are more likely to escape with Mary and Joseph than to sit with Rachel.

We, of whatever persuasion of Christian, we fail to let the reality of this day sink in. There’s the rushing to contemplate these infants in the presence of God singing the hymn of praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” without contemplating the horror of this moment.  The opposite response is to merely focus on the tragedy, which is making use of the tragedy to insist on the relevance of the Gospel and proof text the social gospel as a means to chastise those who seem indifferent to suffering injustice and oppression. We are avoiding what is most troubling: After God’s coming to be with us, God in human flesh, Jesus, escapes the massacre of the innocents, but God does not prevent the massacre.

We need the space of faithful Lament. We need the space to sit with tragedy when we see no action of God in which we are confronted with overwhelming evil and the power of death unleashed, and life squashed. We need a space to lament when Life has no answer. “Rachel refuses to be consoled.” Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was also speaking of his time and the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In this story, there is the permission to not be consoled, when there is no comfort to be given.

In the Benedictine Daily Breviary, there’s a contradiction in celebrating this day: on the one hand the hymn appointed doesn’t let us grieve or lament (this is a feast day after all celebrating martyrs), but in the Day Time prayers we are invited to lament; the scriptures appointed for the day are from lamentations.

I wonder if there’s something to this contradiction. An invitation to in celebration not let ourselves be consoled. We are invited to lament the continued power of death even as God is with us in the word made flesh. The contradiction invites us to remember that this lament and lack of consolation is as much part of the Christmas story as “Peace on Earth, and Good will toward all.”

In a mash-up of Luke and Matthew and John, what we find is that not long after God in human flesh is born, and the angels announce tidings of great joy, and proclaim “Peace on earth and Good will towards all”, this proclamation is contradicted by Herod.  At the moment God moves into our neighborhood in the Word made flesh, Death rears its head and strikes and God is powerless. God with us doesn’t stop Herod from his destructive and death filled evil ways. More troubling is that God with us draws out Herod’s furry and God with us becomes an occasion for Herod’s tyranny as he seeks to stamp out the Word made flesh.

What then does Rachel and her “holy innocents”, her saints, these martyred infants, give witness to? Acknowledging God with us and God at work in the world, is not consolation for suffering oppression and tyranny. God’s solidarity with us isn’t necessarily a comfort. These innocents as martyrs and saints must be among those numbered who in addition to “Holy, Holy, Holy”, sing out “How long…

On this day during the joy of Christmas we join our voice with those dressed in white before the throne singing not only “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but also in lamentation sing “How long, O Lord!”

*Edited for clarity and corrected typos, 12/29/2016

Feeling Safe and Secure without Grief or Lament

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The above passage is the Hebrew Scripture reading  for today (Sunday September 25th, 2016, proper 21)  according to the Revised Common Lectionary. As I prepared the sermon today I could not shake that this word of Amos’ could be addressed to White Christians (and White people in general). The response to police shootings repeatedly shows a general inability by many white people to grieve for the loss of life. Rather, in general the attitude of whites is to immediately turn to questioning the actions of the victim of the shooting. I didn’t preach on this, but this leads me to wonder what is the source of our inability (as White people) to grieve, to lament, to weep with Black folks? Why is it that if you are White ones first response to a Police shooting of a black person isn’t lament and grief but defense and justification?

Part of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about America and its moral and ideological superiority, and its destiny on the world stage. This story we tell ourselves is why the action of refusing to stand for the national anthem, by Kaepernick and others following him, elicits such an angry response.  The anthem and the flag (and pledge of allegiance) are the central sacred objects of this story.  To suggest, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, that racism and white supremacy is at the core of our mythology and that it taints the sacred objects of our civil religion shakes the security of those who are secure in the conviction of  the innate goodness and rightness of America: its institutions, mythology, and civil religion. White Americans are, not surprisingly, offended by the suggestion that what we hold sacred isn’t so holy.

(If you are a person of color who sees something useful in the American mythology for bringing about the remedy to your continued oppression and unequal treatment, I’m not criticizing your use of that mythology for your own ends. I’m speaking of how the mythology also works against liberation among white Christians, and whites generally.)

Because of our clinging to this narrative of American destiny as guardians of liberty, if we grieve it isn’t necessarily  over the injustice, oppression, and pain, but is over our loss of innocence and  feeling secure in our goodness.

The difficulty Whites have with truly grieving for and with the victims of police murder and violence is due to the depths and extent of racism and white supremacy. White supremacy is entangled within the philosophies, ideologies, and faith we’ve been taught to revere.  To admit that racism is still a problem, to admit that our system is still (even after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement) racist and white supremacist shakes us to our core. It is difficult to understand how we haven’t reformed racism out of our system, therefore the problem can’t be with the system, it can’t be the police so it must be the victim of police violence.

But this is where the mythology works against seeing the truth. We can’t accept that Francis Scott Key as a slaveholder didn’t have African-Americans in mind as citizens of “land of the Free and home of the Brave”. This is the problem : those that instituted our sacred institutions and mythology and ideology had themselves in mind and people like them and not people of color.

For White Christians what stands in the way of grief is the causes of the division between white and black, white and people of color in  American Christianity. We often talk about the White and Black Church as if that separation of Christianity into white and black was some accident enforced upon the church by some external force. Worse still we talk about the black church forming without recognizing that the Black church formed because white Christians refused to worship with and ordain Black Christians. Whites left the black Christians or forced them out, not the other way around. Denominations that are White or predominantly White today have yet to really face and renounce what created them.

When white people choose to remember their immigrant origins, we tend not to recall that we are here in part due to deliberate quota’s that favored Europeans over other immigrant groups. We don’t think about the huge swath of land now owned by white people who were European immigrants isn’t an accident of amoral and natural forces of history but due to U.S. Government policy with the full cooperation and consent of White Christianity, It was due to the deliberate policy of the  U.S. government toward Native American people, and recruitment of poor Europeans to settle land taken from Native Americans as they were rounded up on small tracks of unwanted land.

In order to grieve what is happening in our streets requires no longer sitting securely in our comfort and safe place of America: no longer sitting comfortable in the belief that we are slowly progressing away from ignorance into enlightenment. We aren’t’ here because people didn’t know better back then.  No! Whites and White Christians seared their conscience and then created reasoned justifications to support a system that was to their benefit.

I’ve written subsequently about how my immigrant Swedish family through our settling Wisconsin and California play into what I’m talking about above. But even this second blog post is just beginning to tease out the depths of our racist system, what lies behind the persistence of systemic racism in spite of reforms and the reformers. What I believe is that this all persists because it is in the very structure of our society, it wasn’t that Racism and White supremacy was an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit came into existence, rather it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: Do not be afraid, Part 3

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Fear is powerful and at times needed. Fear alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies for confronting that danger, either by fighting or fleeing.  Jesus though calls us to not fear those who would have the power to end our life, “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body”. Why might Jesus tell us not to fear such a threat as someone who has the power, opportunity, and means to kill us?

I suggest part of the reason Jesus encourages us to not live in fear even of those who can kill us, can be found in reflection upon the tenor of the GOP national convention in July.  That whole week the GOP and Donald Trump wanted us to be afraid, to be very afraid. We were told to Fear the terrorists, fear the refugees who might be terrorist, fear immigrants and the list of what to fear continued on. One may argue that there’s no need to fear these things. The terrorists aren’t refugees Yet there are those who aren’t controlled by any legitimate government nor represent a nation who seek to harm the U.S. and its standing in the world. There is a real danger, though, not an immediate danger to most of us residing in the U.S. One may even want to counter that it is more realistic to be afraid of a random person carrying a legal firearm than an Islamic Terrorist (who actually kill more Muslims than Americans).  Whether or not what the GOP and Trump wish us to fear is based in any actual potential threat, the effect is still the same: the focus on who or what is feared, a focus that doesn’t allow us pay attention to much else, let alone seeking to find other possible responses than fight or flight. Fear works at its best in instances of immediate threat, in which we can immediately respond in either standing to fight or in getting away. Then the fear and adrenaline can dissipate once the threat is dealt with. But to fear that there are people in the world who may harm or even kill when that threat isn’t imminent keeps us from seeing the larger picture. Fear about generic and non-immediate threats allows us to be manipulated by fear mongering and we begin to fail to make a distinction between actual imminent threat, possible future threat, and plausible but unrealistic threat. We saw this mix of real and unrealistic fear in the GOP convention in July.

Yet, Jesus’s remarks aren’t only set against this jumble of undiscerning fear mongering. For Jesus, the reason not to fear isn’t that the fear is misplaced, but that it is generic and not immediate. When we live in fear even if of a legitimate but not immediate threats our focus is still on the fear and the feared. Jesus, says do not be afraid of some future possibility that there are people in the world who can harm you.

In order to demonstrate this, Jesus goes on to say that if one must be afraid of a possible future bodily threat, then be afraid of God. Jesus isn’t counseling actually fearing God, but if one is going to fear a potential real future threat, God serves as good as anything else to fear, after all, God is much more threatening, and then at least your focus would be on the source of ultimate meaning and of all life. Jesus is pointing us to an awareness and a way of being beyond fight or flight of our fear response.

What is Jesus doing here? I suggest that the reason Jesus says to not be afraid of even legitimate possible future threat is that we know God the creator of the universe who knows us intimately and lovingly knows odd details about us (the numbers of the strands of hair we have on our heads). We are intimately known by and sacred to our creator. So if we are going to fear a legitimate but future potential threat then we should fear God, but if you know God, when you come to know God, you are aware that God is a ridiculous thing to fear. For the members of Christ’s Body, we know something further about this God who knows intimate details about ourselves that we can’t know about ourselves; this one not only cares for us but is joined with us in our humanity and suffers with us. In Jesus of Nazareth God went to the extremities of life even death.  This one who cares and upholds our life also knows what it is to suffer, to be oppressed and abused and knows what it is to die, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.  This is the God we know and love.

Now this doesn’t tell us what to do in the place of actual imminent threat. But it can and has led many to face and submit to violent death without fear. Yet, it has also led others to flee in the case imminent danger, until it was no longer time to flee the threat. To not be afraid doesn’t mean to be passive and do nothing in the face of a threat. But, it is to be put in the place of discerning beyond fight or flight. It allows us to be critical of all calls to fear something by the powerful (including the call of the Clinton campaign for us to fear a Trump presidency.).

So be not afraid, and oppose the powerful, but do not fear them. Don’t focus your attention on such potential threats.  Focus on God and the transformative work of God’s coming kingdom in the world through Jesus Christ.

Part two can be found here and part 1 here

Listening to the Mind of Christ In Time of Crisis: Nothing is Hidden that will not be revealed, Part 2

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed.”

This Gospel text came to mind as the succeeding revelations that followed the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail leak, that lead to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s stepping down as DNC Chair, which revealed the likelihood of Russian Intelligence as the source of the e-mails, and giving a possible glimpse into Russian attempts to influence the current election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this one instance we had a cascading set of revelations of things done in secret (that even people would have rather been kept under wraps). I wondered is there something hopeful in these things coming to light? Depending on your political slant or loyalty one may spin those revelations one way or another, but that isn’t the same as something hopeful being found in the unveiling of secrets.  I wondered, and still am asking is Jesus here talking about a sign of the Kingdom of God?  In contrast to the hypocrisy that acts like yeast hidden in dough, unseen except in its eventual effects. Does the truth of the transforming work of the reign of God in the world simply expose what is hidden?

DNC e-mails and Russian covert operations aren’t the only thing being brought into the open this election, overt White-supremacy and racism has come into the open in the wake of Trumps campaign and rhetoric. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric has made overt white-supremacist feel they can more publicly display their opinions and attitudes. While dangerous and frightening I think this bringing out into the open what we as a culture and society had effectively kept out of sight.  What is hopeful in this is the possibility to also then recognize and bring to light the covert and social acceptable white-supremacy and racism

Overt and Covert White Suppremacy

Above image found in a the Salt Collective Facebook Page post August 8th 2016 p

Part of Socially acceptable white supremacy and racism, is being exposed as in the arena of policing and lethal force use against people of color. Exposure in and of itself doesn’t solve things, it can even worsen situations.  Such is the case of people feeling free to come out in the light and overtly show their White-Supremacy KKK affiliation, etc., creates a less safe environment for POC. The exposure of the DNC e-mails and Russia’s involvement has ratcheted up anti-Russian sentiment and rhetoric and accusations of collaboration and infiltration eerily and frightening analogous to Cold War Anti-Russian and Communist rhetoric and accusation.  Things being brought into the open in and themselves isn’t’ necessarily hopeful.

While things coming to light and into the open that were once hid away and in secret are often frightening and carry danger, there’s also the hope that once exposed change can happen. When overt white supremacy is hidden away it is possibly more difficult to see more covert-white supremacy. When certain things are kept under wraps and hid in a corner where there is no light there’s the possibility for yeast like hypocrisy to invade and lulled into a false sense of security and sense of progress

Due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s,  overt and some forms of covert white supremacy were through Federal intervention, legislation and legal decisions brought to an end. Along with the ending of de jure white supremacy overt expressions of white supremacy where rightly marginalized and relegated to the privacy of one’s own secretly held opinions. Since overt white supremacy was now taboo and no longer supported by law gave the impression to many of us that white supremacy is merely a matter of attitude and hate, that could be addressed by individualistic transformation, ignoring the way that the de jure elimination of overt White Supremacy didn’t address or change the more covert and structural aspects of White supremacy woven into the very fabric of our nations consciousness, history and legal and political and economic realities. With the ascendancy of Trump giving people permission to express their overt White supremacist has exposed along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the lie that White supremacy is just in the past and simply has to do with personal hate of another person or fear of a group of people.

There is an opportunity in this moment, especially for White members of the body of Christ, to fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of white supremacy in American institutions (including our denominational institutions) and turn aside not only from the overt white supremacy but all forms of it. As these things come to light we can truly repent and let our POC siblings in Christ to tell us how we should respond, and taking their cue rather than attempting to justify ourselves and our attempts to reform the White systems of government, and white religious institutions.  When things are exposed hypocrisy comes to light and there is the opportunity to repent.  Then change, healing injury, and mending what is broken can begin What is hidden away only fester and remain unacknowledged and unchangeable.  This is the hope of Christ’s word’s what you speak in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  This is often painful, even frightening and far from safe, but it offers the opportunity for true repentance and radical transformational change of the Beloved Community God sent in motion in the life death resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Next week Part three, “Be not afraid.

And if you missed last week here’s the link to part one An Hypocrisy that is like Yeast