A sermon about kudzu and capitalism

This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday as part of our Be the Church series, the UCC’s initiative to get congregations thinking about what it means to be a church on the move.

My family is from southwestern Virginia, near the border of North Carolina and a short drive from the town that Mayberry was based on. Whenever we would drive down from the DC Metro to visit our relatives (which, after a certain point, was primarily for funerals), I remember seeing entire patches of fields or hillsides covered in this tremendous, verdant green vine with purple spikes of flowers. If you’ve ever traveled through this part of the country, you know very well what I’m talking about. It was growing everywhere and it seemed that if you stood still too long it would cover you, too.

This plant is, of course, kudzu. The government has deemed kudzu a noxious weed, an invasive species, an ecological moral evil. But the funny thing is that we’re the ones who put kudzu there. It was originally imported from Japan and planted by private citizens and federal landscape engineers as a means of preventing the erosion of hillsides that road construction, development, and industrial activity created as trees were plowed to make way for coal slag and farm land.

But because kudzu no longer serves that purpose, we’ve written it off. Yet it might be that kudzu has a grace all on its own, far apart from what we think of it. Nevermind its natural beauty, kudzu is an important land reclaimer and stabilizer. It compacts disturbed soil. It serves as a source of natural fiber, of material for basketweaving and other handicrafts. It is completely edible. It can be used as cattle feed. But because it didn’t stay in the box we wanted it to stay in, we simply judged it to be evil.

[NOTE: I didn’t include this on Sunday, but I realized it as I was driving home—there’s a troubling racial undertone to the way we label species “invasive” that we imported to the American mainland from distant lands to do a specific job that they stopped doing. I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks.]

The Bible tells a story about creation that stands in stark contrast to the capitalist utilitarian whims of a human society that thinks it knows what’s best for the planet. The Bible tells the story of community, and it is not a community that consists exclusively of humans; the Bible tells the story of a community whose starting place the interconnectedness of all of creation. The Bible would tell us that kudzu, for all the problems it causes, is good.

From the very first page of the story where God looks at everything that has been called into being and calls it “very good,” to the prophetic vision of the end of all things where “the lion shall lie down with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them,” from the Psalms where we learn that “the heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth God’s handiwork,” to what we have heard today—

From Job, that “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” to our Gospel passage where Jesus tells us that not even Solomon with all his riches was clothed with splendor comparable to the lilies of the field—

There is no honest way to read our Scriptures and not be hit over the head with the fact that God has a particular interest in everything God has made, not just in humans, and not just in what we believe about God up here in our heads. That’s to say, I think God is concerned with how we interact with the environment, because our story tells us that the environment was made for God’s delight and our use.

I say all that to say to make it plain that “protect the environment” is not some kind of ~liberal agenda~ that I’m trying to import into our worship this morning! In fact I don’t think you can even use the word “liberal” to describe what God instructs Israel to make happen in the first passage that we heard this morning, from Leviticus 25: “every seven years the land shall observe a sabbath.” That’s not liberal. That’s revolutionary.

I want to suggest that the way we treat creation itself what it is that we believe about God, and what we believe about our neighbors.

Let me say this a different way: none of us disagrees that we have a responsibility to care for the poor, but I wonder to what extent we consider how our relationship with the environment necessarily impacts the poor for whom we are caring. And that’s where we pick up with the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel today: “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” With that black-and-white warning still ringing in our ears, Jesus then turns our attention to nature. “Nature doesn’t worry about paychecks and bottom lines.”

In his teaching about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, Jesus is raising a point that should rattle us, but it’s hardly something he’s making up on the spot. In fact, what he’s doing is masterful: he’s plunging all the way back into the story of the Hebrew Bible to dredge up an incredible notion that we see all throughout the writings of the Old Testament, a treasure that only a people who had been freed from slavery in Egypt could really get.

God has a particular intention for the environment: the rocks, the grass, the fields, the animals, all life. God holds it all together. The poet writing the story of Job tells us, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” God’s loving-kindness is programmed into every single atom of matter that exists in this universe, meaning that everything—from the stars and galaxies all the way down to the bacteria crawling around our intestines—has a direct connection to the divine. On the first page of the Bible we hear, again, “God called it very good.”

And Jesus knows this deeply. Yes, there are some birds who get sick and die, or who get eaten by predators. Yes, there are some flowers that never get to bloom because drought gets to them. But left to its own devices, Nature has an inherent wisdom about these sorts of things, and returning to a right relationship with nature is one of the signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

That’s why we have this revolutionary idea in Leviticus 25: the sabbath of the land. The land shall observe the sabbath every seven years. How do we buy into the myth that the land exists only for our use and not as part of God’s beloved community? The Land doesn’t have the ability to consent to how we use it and yet we have been charged with taking care of it.

But where does the revolutionary power of God’s intention for our relationship with nature go off the rails? I think it happens precisely in that problem I’ve already identified this morning: we believe in the myth of the unique individual ego who is more important than anyone else.

The wisdom of Jesus’ teaching is that he understands we are way too anxious about having enough to ever let the wisdom of the land take over for us, to let the wisdom of God in the wilderness tell us that allowing ourselves to live in harmony with natural cycles—even just a little bit!—can be a way for us to rest and recover as well as for the land to rest and recover.

Jesus understood that humans are given to project our individual worries onto nature. Our fear of not having enough and our desire for more, for more than we need, is a major reason that we have generated an environmental and an ecological crisis that is impacting our day-to-day life perhaps only a little, but this same crisis has significant impact on the people who are most at risk. We need only to look at history: not letting the land rest, not working in harmony with the wisdom of creation, creates situations that generate suffering for a lot of people. That’s precisely what happened with the Dust Bowl. And even today we are still dealing with the ramifications of the multi-year drought and famine that contributed in no small way to the current political instability in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, that has created an untold amount of suffering.

That is why I say this is not simply a liberal agenda point, and it’s so tragic that we have let it become that in the first place. Misuse of natural resources generates suffering for people who don’t have the opportunity or the money to get out of harm’s way. Everything is connected. What if, instead of to a crowd of poor people, Jesus preached this to a conference room full of millionaires and oil execs?

The point here being: a church on the move as a community of people understands where it falls within the great scheme of nature’s interconnected web. Just as no human exists in isolation, neither does any church exist in isolation. Nothing is made new without that newness having ramifications for all aspects of that person’s life, of that community’s life, and how they relate to other persons and communities and nature itself.

So today is about the Gospel being good news for all of creation. To see that if the good news means that God is healing the world, and if I am called to love my neighbor, and if I am supposed to be made new, then that necessarily changes my relationship with the earth, its resources, etc. That all the cosmos is held together by the love of God.

I’m not speaking poetically; I’m speaking plainly. Look at John 3.17: “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world would be made whole through him.” It does not just mean you, individually, as an atomized unit. That has never meant “you get right with God while everything else burns.” No; the grace that we receive as humans made in God’s image, the grace upon grace that we have received out of all the fullness of God, is the very power that we as Christians have in our back pockets that can set us free from the striving after security that causes us to pillage the land of every possible resource and get upset when nature doesn’t bend to our whim.

I wonder if we can hear Jesus saying: “consider the kudzu of the holler…”

So what do we do? There are an infinite number of things we can do, from simple changes on our own to huge systemic changes, but in order for us to survive as a species we have to do something. That’s why our task as a church is to let our practices of thanksgiving and care and sharing extend to all of creation too. Our task as a church is to take the very grace that gives us a sense of belonging and newness in our individual lives and look for the ways that grace might move us away from fear and grasping to being able to see, once again, the fragile abundance of the planet that is the only planet we’ve got. Amen.

Millennials Are Neither Lazy Nor Entitled

I have heard it said one too many times that “millennials are lazy and entitled.” This is a damaging myth that needs to be put to rest, and likewise it is a myth which, if I hear it uttered one more time, will cause me to need to be scraped off the ceiling.

This is going to be a rant, and by way of disclaimer, it’s important that you know that this is not prompted by one particular occasion or another but is rather a response that has been bubbling up under the surface of my thought life for some time and has finally reached the point where it can no longer go unsaid.

Here’s the deal, y’all: spaces and organizations in which there is a cultural assumption that people my age are lazy and entitled are spaces and organizations that people my age do not want to countenance or support with their presence, gifts, time, labor, or witness.

If we are consistently being told by churches, non-profits, and corporations that we are lazy and entitled children that need to be treated with kid gloves, quelle surprise, corporate cultures are going to make pains to infantilize and patronize us at best, and at worst, simply tell us that we don’t matter. Naturally, we aren’t going to want to associate with organizations and corporations and other people who treat us like crap.

Yes, some millennials are, in fact, entitled and lazy.

And for every lazy, entitled millennial I know (and I know a few), I know as many or more baby boomers who are just as entitled and lazy, if not more so.  I personally know plenty of folks in older generations who refuse to countenance the realities of changing culture, who expect everything to be “as it always was,” who sing paeans to the 1950s as though they were a golden age (which they were not, unless you were a straight, white, Christian, cisgender man), folks who can’t be bothered to do the emotional labor required to learn about people who are different from them—to say nothing of learning how to live in covenant and yield mutually with someone who is unlike them.

And still more, for every lazy, entitled millennial I know, I can point to five times as many millennials who are taking matters into their own hands, who are busting their tails as entrepreneurs or growing professionals or community organizers or scholars or spiritual leaders or teachers or skilled workers or parents and who are making wild, beautiful lives out of the rough material they’ve inherited from older generations, fully aware that the promises made to previous generations are not to be taken for granted.

My news feed is full—every! single! day!—of brilliant young women and men in my age group who are getting it done in spite of the world constantly telling us that we’re nothing but lazy and entitled. We know we’re probably not going to have social security in the States, an NHS in the UK, whatever. We know our retirement funds will probably not keep up with inflation (I have a 401k and a UCC pension and a Roth and I FULLY expect to be working until I’m 80). We know it will take us 30 years to pay off our student loans. So we’re going to do what we can to make the best of the situation, and in the meantime, we’re going to demand rightly that older generations take ownership of the ways in which they have contributed to the situation we find ourselves in and work to adjust.

And if we happen to advocate for equality, inclusion, dignity, and social safety nets while we’re at it, so be it. It seems to me like that’s a lot less about “entitlement” and a lot more about making sure that the folks who come after us inherit the world better off than the way we found it.

Imagine that you are an established person in your community—whether that’s a church, a nonprofit, whatever. What happens when, for instance, a number of young, bright, motivated, and fiery millennial adults in their 20s and 30s comes into your community? What happens when those adults begin taking leadership roles on boards and committees—as is a desire in many congregations? What happens when those millennials then begin to shift the direction of the community’s interests and priorities, through their intentional and honest effort, away from what the priorities of the organization 40 years ago were and towards the felt and discerned priorities of these young adults and the communities and concerns that they know and struggle with daily? Do you encourage their growing leadership? Do you bless their efforts? Do you go along for the ride with this new leadership?

Or is it much easier to continue to dismiss this generation out of hand as “lazy and entitled,” to throw a wet blanket on their sincere efforts, and content oneself with the way things have always been?

To paint an entire generation with such a broad brush based mainly on the media’s selective portrayal of us as being the scapegoat for why the economy is crashing is a surefire way to get us not to pay attention to you, and for the organizations and causes that you cherish to fade into obscurity as there is no compelling reason for new energy to come into those spaces and be nurtured by the wisdom of past generations.

It would be phenomenal if older generations could take a moment to get to know us and our priorities, needs, and unique gifts. It would be phenomenal, in the deepest sense of that word—as something to behold—if older generations could bless and encourage and empower us, instead of writing us off based on some crappy think pieces about millennials spending all their money on avocados.

Could you imagine what kind of synergy could emerge from the wisdom of older generations joined to the vigor and vitality of millennials? Yet those partnerships will never form if older generations, folks in the pews and in the board rooms and the legislature and the marketplace, continue to infantilize and patronize us while remaining blissfully inflexible and set in their belief that the world as it is in their view is exactly as it should be.

Instead of being written off as “lazy and entitled,” it would mean a tremendous amount if it could simply be acknowledged that we are a generation with our own priorities who have received a raw deal: we have been handed a broken economic system, a heritage of systemic racism and intergenerational poverty, and a polluted planet and told to “suck it up, buttercup” while being made to clean up an economic, political, and environmental mess that we did not ourselves make, all the while paying down the mortgages we had to take out to finance our education so that we would be employable for slightly over minimum wage while having to move back in with our parents for a few years after college. What we want, more than anything, is a chance.

And if we can’t find that chance in the communities that already exist, we will make our own communities and find our own chances.

De corporibus

I’m told I’m “too catholic.” But I can’t be “less catholic” without divorcing myself from the way I know and experience God through my physical body and my senses. God is not just a concept but is an embodied reality. Reason depends on our bodies as much as any other sense. This is the mystery of the “catholic imagination,” which, I would argue, is not the exclusive purview of Rome and never has been. It’s for Protestants, too!

I’m serving in a very mind-centered, conceptual setting, though, such as is the heritage of American Protestantism. This cogitatio-centrism, if such a coinage can be allowed, is simply the heritage of the Western trajectory of Enlightenment; once Descartes divorced the mind from the body, it was all over. Now salvation is conceived of in the West as an exercise of the mind, but the East has never had to deal with this because the soul and the body were never intended to be divorced within Christianity, and indeed, the East avoided many of the ravages of Enlightenment thinking.

Go to an Orthodox service, stand for the full two hours of singing, crossing, prostration, incense, and prayer, and tell me that the body doesn’t matter to the spiritual life. It absolutely does. Even as Hellenized as the Orthodox tradition is, it never lost its connection to the body, to our means of interfacing with the world into which God came by becoming incarnate in a body!

Non-Christian Eastern traditions, specifically, the Dharmic traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism—though they in general regard the body as simply the vehicle through which this incarnation of the soul makes its course through the world, still have stronger relationships to the body than any mainstream practice in Western Christianity. Yoga and sitting zazen come to mind immediately as practices that unite the spiritual life with the body, and it doesn’t require too much of a leap to suggest that there is something to be learned from these traditions’ relationship to the body.

So, if my practice of spirituality centers the way I encounter the story of Christ through my body—by bowing at the name of Christ, by making the sign of the Cross, by elevating the chalice—is jarring in my setting, maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because our being made whole (our “salvation”) is worked out in a cruciform, embodied way, not simply in the interior life of the mind.

The genius of Paul, for all the ways he got it wrong—speak up, ladies! —is that the body really is the locus in which God works, not in the mind exclusively. Because of this, to treat one’s body as the new Temple of the Presence is to love it, to lavish upon it, to embrace all that it is to worship God in the body.

The old wedding service in the 1661 Book of Common Prayer prescribes that these words exchanged between spouses in the sealing of their covenant: “with my body I thee worship. Shouldn’t we be able to say as much to God qua God? And shouldn’t we be able to pledge and show as much to the people in whom we encounter God throughout our daily lives—”with my body I thee worship?”

So, I will adamantly continue crissin’ and crossin’ so long as I have arms with which to do so. And I will continue endeavoring to worship God with my body and worship God in others with my body, with touch and posture and strength and speech that heal, not harm. I have to; my body is where God is working out my salvation with bread and wine and sobs and compassion and pain and pleasure and joy. Moreover, it is with my body that I witness the goodness of God and God’s desire for justice for all bodies.

I think it’s very telling that the most “problematic” protest behaviors to WASPs is the use of the human body to interrupt, to demonstrate, to witness. That’s why they can’t handle non-violent direct action. That’s why they can’t handle school walk-outs: if you want to be heard, WASP theology says, if you want to matter, do it with ideas and reasoned arguments. Yet words and wit only go so far when it comes to the arresting power of the body.

A body that speaks the truth is the most dangerous body to institutions and systems who derive their very power from the subjugation and control of bodies, because if you attempt to subjugate or control a body, you are attempting to subjugate and control the God who dwells therein. And if the Hebrew Bible taught us anything, it’s that God is not one to be subjugated, controlled, put into a box, or made into part of the imperial skyline.

So, don’t be afraid of your body, for it is a gift and a grace. You are your body, and if you are baptized, you proclaim daily with your body that you are Christ’s own.

Coming Out of Good Earth

Today is National Coming Out Day.

I.

One may wonder why LGBTQ people have to “come out” in the first place—well, think of it as a kind of proclamation. There is something different about us that is good and holy in its own right and it is not up to the norms of the prevailing society to give us intrinsic value. That value is inestimably and ineffably given to each of us at the moment of our entrance into this life by the One who calls us out of the dust of the earth and names us.

To come out is to name that we too, with our different ways of loving and walking and seeing in this world, are of good earth. We give voice to the fire in our bones and name the goodness of creation. We claim our blessing: “out of good earth were we made, and good we are.”

II.

For those who would accuse us of celebrating and identifying with “sinfulness,” perhaps studied consideration of what “sin” actually is would be a worthwhile endeavor—so often we call “sin” that which doesn’t jive with our societal norms. Pepperoni pizza remains an abomination, after all.

Yet I’ve grown completely tired of engaging in any conversations around the so-called “clobber passages;” any number of qualified scholarly luminaries have shown time and again that these passages do not provide the right to exclude and “reprove in the Lord” that many so desperately want. I won’t countenance this particular conversation because it’s so boring. Instead I have decided to take the posture of demanding of people the reasons they would seek to exclude and eliminate with the same vigor with which I have been asked to defend my own existence and my own insistence in being part of my faith tradition.

My existence, my belovedness-in-God, my walking in the Jesus pilgrimage is not up for discussion. Nor are my inalienable rights to life, liberty, and equality. Nor are the inalienable rights of those who, for accident of birth into different race or class or nation or way-of-being, have had their rights called into question. My freedom as a gay man is bound up in my black neighbor’s freedom, in my woman neighbor’s freedom, in my immigrant neighbor’s freedom, in my white cis-het neighbor’s freedom (from the fetters of privilege and prejudice!). Until we are all free, none of us is—for we are all made of the same Good Earth by a Good Maker.

III.

To come out is not cheap for many, if not all of us. While I am grateful for the privilege I enjoy of having a supportive family, a network of ride-or-die friends, and connections to faith communities that understand the mystery of the Good Earth, those came part and parcel of walking through a journey of loss. Others are not so fortunate and have either lost everything, including their lives, or are forced into silence and shame by the ungrounded fear that others have of them.

And so today my heart is with those who cannot name the goodness of the soil from which God called them for fear of silencing, rejection, loss of social and financial support, and the very present threat of psycho-spiritual and physical violence; moreover my heart is with those who have come out at great cost to their security and safety. May we all be so brave and so willing to let go of those things that tether us in order to show forth God’s handiwork.

A postscript.

To my ally friends: thank you. Know well that today is -not- the day to come out as an ally. If you must act, do so tacitly by lifting up the stories of LGBTQ people and succoring those for whom coming out has come at great cost.

Hammering away at silence

I remember reading an article from 1999 that described John Coolidge Adams’ process when working on his nativity oratorio, El Niño. The writer (whom I don’t remember and I can’t find the article) describes Mr. Adams working at his Finale workstation and playing through the Act II opener, a setting of “Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar,” up to the point where he hasn’t written anything else and the music cuts off abruptly. Mr. Adams then begins writing there, entering notes and chords one-at-a-time, in the writer’s description, “hammering away at silence.”

In a separate interview regarding preparations for the premiere in Paris, Mr. Adams remarked that, at the initial rehearsal of the same movement, it couldn’t quite come together. There was a part of him that worried about the movement being “a compositional mistake”—problematic for the rest of the act, considering his admittedly “genetic” style of composition wherein the first note and the last note of a piece are linked by progressive evolution.

I often find that in approaching any writing projects, whether musical or whether prosaic, that my task is much like his—akin to a sculptor, hammering away at a block of silence or a block of white screen one character, one word, one phrase at a time. I have to get several thoughts out, I have to step aside, I have to come back and take up the instruments again in order to continue saying what’s down in my bones but I can’t get out. It’s a cycle; moreover I can never feel satisfaction in something I’ve written until it moves beyond me entirely.

Even when I complete a work it’s not done until it’s read; a sermon isn’t “done” being created until the final “amen.” I wonder what this magic is—we could easily say it’s the Holy Spirit, in the case of things ecclesial. And I wonder whether it’s not the same God who prompts sermons who fills in the space when glyphs and notation emerge from the page or the screen and are interpreted in time.

During the final dress rehearsal for El Niño prior to its world premiere, Mr. Adams describes the run-through of “Pues mi dios” as having an “otherworldly scintillation,” if I’m remembering that interview correctly. There’s something beyond him as composer, beyond the notes on the page, beyond the performers, that hangs in the air and makes it electric.

I’m extremely hard on myself regarding my creative work. And yet, even when I know when an essay is a dud or there are twenty glaring improvements I can make to a piece of music or there are ten more points that spark in my intuition as I’m interpreting my manuscript to my congregation, there’s a je ne sais quoi when all is said and done that has bound together writer, interpreter, and audience in a synergistic and synchronistic experience of creation.

Maybe part of our purpose, our telos, as sentient beings is to be able to participate in creation by observing what’s already there and by contributing our own riffs on it. That might be the task of the gathered Church too, and it’s certainly the task of those of us—pastors, rabbis, imams, poets, whoever—who have been called by the stories in our bones to give voice to them, even when the words aren’t there, even when we too are starting down a block of silence or a blank screen. But the words always come, whatever their quality, through faithful hammering.

Crissin’ and Crossin’

Is it possible for a Protestant to be Too Catholic?

I serve a church in a heavily Catholic part of Cincinnati, and my parking spot is immediately across the street from a large Jesuit parish replete with parochial school and daily masses. Fortunately the fires of reformation zeal have cooled in the last 500 years and at this point we’re not at each other’s throats about the primacy of the Pope. Most of our spats are over use of parking these days.

Now, because I was ordained in the Independent Catholic tradition, I have a decidedly Catholic approach to the way I approach worship and devotional life. “High Church” might be a better phrase, but in the imagination of the people I serve, “High Church” and “Catholic” are the same thing.

There are the outward things for sure: I wear vestments in worship. I reverence the altar when I enter the chancel. I bow at the name of Jesus Christ. I make the sign of the cross at certain points; I use manual actions during the Eucharist and pray a prayer (from the UCC Book of Worship!) that hearkens to the earliest known Eucharistic prayers—prayers which, of course, were written by Catholics.

But there are inner postures too that can be considered High Church, like my devotion to the Eucharist, my conception of the communion of the saints, or my belief that liturgy and our worship spaces can be big and beautiful because such experiences point to a big, beautiful God.

I haven’t received feedback yet that I’m too Catholic, but my churchmanship hasn’t gone without notice. When I first celebrated last year at the UCC congregation where I was filling in for a clergy friend, our musician came up to me and said, “I ain’t seen that much crissin’ and crossin’ in YEARS—but I loved it!”

As it happens, I’m in good company in the United Church of Christ, specifically thanks to the work of two folks from our tradition’s history, Philip Schaff and John Nevin. These two men were both part of Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania and through their scholarly work contributed to what is now known as the “Mercersburg Movement,” which has played a vital role in the overall trajectory of ecumenism that we see today in the existence of things like the World Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, and even Vatican II.

Nevin and Schaff believed that, throughout the history of the Church, there has been a continued thread of catholicity, that is, what is believed everywhere by everyone, and they particularly saw this as tied to Communion as being something that shows us in a unique way how Christ is present in, with, and around the community of the baptized at the Table in the same way Christ is present in, with, and around the bread and wine in the Eucharist.

They saw the challenge that a particularized form of German Reformed Christianity in the United States posed to the notion of a Church that was truly for all, and concerned foremost with the mandate to unity, they understood the Eucharist as central to the life and witness of Reformed Christians too, just as much as it was for Roman Catholics. And so the Mercersburg group endeavored to offer the Reformed Church ways of reconnecting with its roots in Eucharistic celebration by setting pen to paper and using their scholarship to craft forms of worship that were conversant with the earliest Christian traditions.

They were, of course, panned for being too Catholic.

What Nevin and Schaff seized upon in their work and in the theological tradition that followed in their footsteps was the idea that Christian unity cannot take as its point of departure a particular inculturated form, but rather it must begin with the Eucharist as its source and summit. We continue to see this position reflected in evolving social statements from the UCC General Synods, especially ones like the 1993 statement on becoming a multicultural and multiracial church. Unity is not the same as assimilation to a particular form; unity is, instead, to be approached from a posture of eucharistic expansiveness.

Moreover the UCC as a denomination endeavors to embody a liberal style, that is, we are intentionally making room for expressions and interpretations of our faith that expand our hearts towards fuller justice and inclusion for each individual Christian as well as each of the individual congregations that compose our covenanted community. It’s also why not every one of our congregations necessarily has the same feel or even the same socio-political priorities.

I’m aware that my particular form of worship is not the same as everyone else’s, nor would I ever try to force someone to adopt my own practices. Freedom of conscience in matters pertaining to doctrine and worship is key to the functioning of our denomination. The snare is always the particular, yet the table is always bigger than the snare, and I think we’ll be surprised to find that the Church is way more catholic than any one of us Protestants is ready to admit—even if competition for parking remains pretty tight.

When we get tied down to particulars, we lose sight of the vision of the alternative empire that stretches across humanity like a net and catches everyone in its weave, or that starts in the small and particular and expands outward to provide shelter for everyone, like the mustard seed. The communion table, connected to the font, connected to the doors of the church and into the world of the community, provides the framework by which God’s people can be blessed, lifted up, broken, and sent out to share the good news of an alternative empire of peace and justice with the whole world, which is literally what the word “catholic” means to begin with.

 

Why Church?

In recent times, I’ve often seen top ten lists as to why you should or why you shouldn’t do something: people argue valiantly and vehemently in favor of or against such things as yoga or sleeping or avocado toast. And it follows that, especially in light of the shifting reality surrounding religiosity in America, those of us who remain committed to the big, messy, family dinner called “Church” may want to actually consider why it is that we continue to be part of this community that, at its worst, has been toxic and destructive in the lives of so many.

[disclaimer: swears ahoy!]

But I love the Church, because I have seen the Church at its best. I, a gay, over-educated, Diet Coke-addled, world-weary millennial clergy person, still show up and still demand that God’s people practice God’s welcome, even though there are some people in the Church who would rather I just shut up and sit quietly, even though there are some people who—I speak from direct experience here—would rather me be dead. As Emily Joy says, “My ass will be in that pew more Sundays than not, if only to look up at that crucifix above the altar with defiance and wonder and say See? I’m still here. I often suspect that I have outstayed my welcome in organized religion and am becoming more of a thorn in their side than I am worth but what can I say? I like to have a place to bring casseroles.”

When church is at its best, it is a great place to be. But for many of us “church” brings up some difficult memories and emotions, too. Church is a place where dysfunction and toxic relationships happen just as much as in any collection of people. And I own my own part in that. And at the same time I also own the fact that church truly can be “Church At Its Best” if we also admit that we can’t be perfect but we can be good; we will fail miserably but we covenant to forgive and repair the damage.

If you’re on the fence about visiting for the first time, or if you’re wondering whether you should come back, consider this my Top Ten as to why I, a person who has every right to ditch the Church, still continue to pattern my life around it.

TEN: Come and be blessed. Not the “hashtag blessed” of vapid Instagram queens showing off their latest Lush bath bomb, but rather, real blessing—Church is a place where you, your entire self, can be called “blessed,” that is, be acknowledged as very good because God made you. You don’t have to check any part of yourself at the door when you walk in, whether it’s your brain, your doubts and beliefs, your sexuality, your gender—all of that matters to God and it matters to church at its best too, because you matter, and you are blessed.

NINE: When shit hits the fan, when the bottom falls out of your life, it’s pretty cool to be connected to a community that can lift you back up. Because, to be honest, when everything’s going wrong isn’t the time to begin a relationship with God and we will never try to say, “Oh, your life sucks right now because you don’t have Jesus.” I know that coming to worship regularly helps me have a solid foundation for when life inevitably throws curve-balls and I find myself standing there, mouth-agape and clueless, both as to what has happened and what I’m supposed to do now.

EIGHT: We aren’t all about money. We are an organization that has operating expenses, sure, but the money we use we are trying to use as judiciously and responsibly as possible for what matters to us. If you can’t give, don’t. But walking alongside Jesus helps us reorient our relationship with money and free us from being slaves to it. It can also open us to new ideas about economic justice and fair wages, because at the end of the day, there can be enough for everyone according to their need if we give according to our ability, which is one of the underpinning messages of the Old Testament.

SEVEN: Any good church will have good food, because eating food with friends was one of the things Jesus was all about. It’s not accidental that the kingdom of God is described like a banquet.

SIX: Churches offer immediate ways to get involved with helping the community. If you want to help, chances are there’s something you can immediately jump in and start doing, whether it deals with racial justice, income inequality, food insecurity, gender justice, LGBTQ inclusion—most churches already have something ready to go and your energy could be put to good use.

FIVE: If you want to start something new and have a knack or a gift for something in particular—photography! nursing! social work! carpentry! flamenco dancing! yoga!—there’s a community of people who want to bless you in doing that.

FOUR: No one is asking you to believe anything you don’t want to believe or behave in a particular way. Because we’re a community we say things like our Statement of Faith or the Lord’s Prayer together, and we are in this together. If you can’t believe part of the statement of faith, or if part of a prayer makes you squirm, you don’t have to say it. I’ll say it for you. On the same token, there isn’t a single major doctrine in all of Christianity that I haven’t at some point ditched wholesale and reclaimed in my own way later on in a way that was healthy and appropriate, but what enabled me to do that was being part of the Church.

THREE: The world says you have to work 50-60 hours to make it, to be someone, and that if you ever take any time to yourself you are being an irresponsible member of society (at best), or at worst, a parasite. Church breaks that myth wide open and gives us time during the week to be truly human. We’re not meant to work ourselves to death; we’re meant to cultivate and enjoy the goodness of the world. The idea of Sabbath is revolutionary.

TWO: Bread and wine, water and oil, hugs and paper and casseroles and pancakes and carwashes and all the ordinary stuff of our life becomes extraordinary in the Church and somehow God shows up through all of them, breaking me open and helping me to be more kind and compassionate with others (even when I don’t very much feel like being kind or compassionate at all).

ONE: Jesus is f*cking awesome. Where we profoundly screw things up, Jesus enters into the ugliness and says, “I’m still here.” And then Jesus does something amazing with it if we let him, and raises the dead. Jesus will show up and give you bread and wine and things you never thought possible will happen.

We know that many of us who are already in church do a lousy job of following Jesus and emulating him in our lives, content to keep on crushing and destroying and screwing people over, but Jesus hangs out in the midst of all of our garbage and the worst of what we have to offer, taking it in, destroying it, and raising us from the dead with him.

I hope that we in the church will always have the humility to acknowledge that we too need gracious care, that we too are in need of being “raised from the dead.” Come to Church to get to know Jesus, because he’s bigger, more expansive, more open, more welcoming than any of us could ever hope to be.

(This post was inspired by, and in a way adapted from, a similar top-ten by The Rev. Anne Russ of Argentina Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock, AR.)

simmering silences

My lenten practice this year is to be kind to myself, and in so, to better know God.

God is unknowable in God’s essence, but only in God’s energies. That is a tenet to which I have ascribed for not a short time—ultimately to say that one can “know God” is any unfiltered, unmodulated way is flatly wrong (since any of our thoughts, our filters, our metaphors, are ultimately created things). God is knowable only in the darkness between the things that God is clearly not.

In other words, God is audible silence and visible darkness.

I’m not sure why I’m on about this; I think perhaps that the cognitive and emotional effort with which I’ve been pressing into my pastoral, professional, and creative endeavors have been causing me again to ask “where is God in this?” It’s certainly not as though I am making the kind of harried “I MUST FIGURE THIS OUT” attempts at coming to know God that characterized my adolescence, and to be sure I’m quite comfortable with silence and darkness.

I want to be connected to the ground of being in a way that brings me into inner quiet and the balance that the intensity of my personality—a flamboyant enneagram Four with a strong 3 wing, a romantic achiever, a pursuer of ego projects—needs in order to be healthy. I angst a lot, and frequently I try to pass off my groundless angsting as prayer. To be sure it can be that, but I think my rambling and railing can ever-so-gently mutate into a kind of self-flagellation which has precious little to do with communing with the Uncreated Ground of Being and more in common with working myself into an emotional froth so I can feel everything, that is, so I can feel special.

This is the Four’s modus operandi, after all.

This isn’t bad; it too belongs, and it’s part of me, but it is without a locus of immaturity and an opportunity for me to grow. To wit, I want to pray well, and to pray honestly, and to pray in such a way that I am not demanding things of God—although the last time I ‘prayed extemporaneously’ it was as though I was God’s HR manager and I was giving the Divine a gentle but firm talking-to about areas for improvement. I think we have a precedent for this in the Psalms, at any rate, and I believe God can handle it.

But I want to cultivate a spirit of silence, a spirit of “integrity, humility, patience, and love,” as St. Ephraim the Syrian beseeches, “and let me see my own sins and not those of my brother.” I pray the daily office (not faithfully), I receive the Eucharist (not regularly), and I do my best to live at peace with my neighbor—though my loveable-yet-culpable pettiness shines through more often than not.

I’m attempting centering prayer, known better in the secular world as “mindfulness meditation.” I’m still too new at it to even pretend like I know what I’m doing, and I won’t even bother to rehash the practice here when the term be-Googled yields more information than one could possibly assimilate in several sittings, but my initial inclination is that it is cultivating kindness, in the very least to myself.

I learned the practice first from a seminar led by an Orthodox monk in my pre-death-and-resurrection days, but the practice has come back into my view through my recent quiet exploration of the mystics—Merton (via Richard Rohr) and Julian of Norwich, especially. It’s called the “prayer of the heart,” or “contemplation,” depending on who you ask, but the point is the same: to find silence and to be present therein.

Because the spirit of “integrity, humility, patience, and love” which I’m seeking is in as much to help be humble, patient, and loving toward my own person inasmuch as it is toward God and my neighbor. I can be phenomenally cruel to myself; I can say things to myself with ease which I would never dream of saying to another human being.

Can I love myself as God does? Most likely not. But to be able to be as gentle, patient, and kind towards myself—for I too am an icon of God—may be within my ken, inasmuch as I am called at obligated by my baptism to strive to be gentle, patent, and kind toward my neighbor. I will fail, and failure belongs as well.

At the very least, I feel zen’d-out, and by millimeters less dependent on my go-to coping skills of stuffing my feelings with drink and food while wallowing self-loathing because of the drink and food. And that’s a kindness, and a mercy.

 

in the indicative

I’m just past the threshold on the opposite end of a long, dark tunnel. The light hurts my eyes. And like a puppy who was abused freshly brought to a caring home at last, I find myself learning to trust, learning to not be afraid of the passing shadows or sudden noises that pervade typical life. When will the other shoe drop in this newfound place of peace and comfort? More terrifying, what if it doesn’t?

For once I am not in crisis mode, as I have been since, oh, 2009. Part of this is simply growing up and entering into a deeper sense of self. Part of this is abandoning the toxicity of a religious imagination that only valued me inasmuch as I could be something I wasn’t. And still part of this was getting out of the situations that held me in thrall to crisis-as-normative.

But there is now a new normal, and the task before me is to learn how to live not out of fear of an imagined shoe-drop but rather to live in contentment and contemplation of the way things have turned out, aware and open to deep joy and acceptance of the things that are. To no longer live in the subjunctive. To give my poor beleaguered limbic system a break.

To wit, I stand on the other side of a series of difficult interactions, decisions, and circumstances that have consumed the bulk of my twenties. Before me there’s a vast expanse of an open field-forest-mountain-range-vineyard laying before me (oh Shenandoah!) and now there are four demesnes that beg my attention—I would lavish it upon them.

I will lavish it upon them, given that I’m now living in the indicative.

I. Relationships. To myself, to the divine, to my family first and foremost. Renewing, strengthening, and propelling my bond to my daughter as she becomes more and more an individual (six going on sixteen, help Lordt). Forging deeper and tighter cables of love for my partner as we prepare for marriage. Cultivating understanding and growth with members of my family system. Inviting friends to dinner. Deploying periphrastic phrases will-he nill-he to make a rhetorical point.

But these chains of love and friendship are the very backbone of my existence as a functioning adult, or so I proclaim. It’s time to square proclamation with the reality of things.

II. Household. Frankly, it’s time to get my financial shit together. I have a pipe dream of somehow, some way, completing an additional graduate degree in the human services—because I’m a masochist, that’s why—and I can’t responsibly do that until, at the very least, my consumer debts and other financial obligations as they stand now are taken care of. I’m working a dream job with phenomenal opportunities for growth, so I have no reason not to do this. I’m even more beholden to the stewardship piece of spiritual development given that I now actually have something to, you know, steward.

III. Creativity. Not only have I neglected this space for too long, I’ve also been neglecting a major part of my soul, to wit, music. Ideas for this opera or that sonata or this dance suite have been kicking around in my head unabated but I’ve lacked either the presence of mind or the energy or the sheer chutzpah to make those ideas become a reality as I hammer away at the block of silence in my workspace.

At the same time, too, words make their way to the fore and fall unrealized into the fulminating abyss of ever-present distraction. Oh Blog, how I love thee! And yet how I have drawn distant, or worse, navel-gazey (and I’m doing that right now, flagrantly). I’d been starving Euterpe* and Erato** for the sake of paying too much attention to Melpomene’s*** call to self-loathing and self-limiting. Such shouldn’t be the case, given the need to practice creation is as much a part of my existence as the need to breathe oxygen. Forgive me, muses.

Though, admittedly there is space for grace here—there’s good reason one in constant crisis can’t be creative. Now my muses can breathe again.

IV. Contemplation. This is perhaps the most crucial to the whole process: learning not to live in the future or the past, but simply in the present, aware of how the world is throwing itself at me, screaming to be observed and appreciated and contributed to in the sheer raw realness of the moment.

For this is not something to be tacked on as an addendum, but a modality through which everything else must be filtered. All exists because in the loving inclination of the Universe’s engine of joy, everything belongs.

And in that I claim that while I cannot live in the future, I am shaped by its unbounded goodness; by the same token, I am not beholden to my past despite having been brought to this place by my very journey through it.

Indicative. Present. Presence. And all is yet grace.

*the muse of music
**the muse of lyric poetry
***the muse of tragedy and emo MySpace pics

#blessed

What phenomenal power is there in the sacred practice of naming the goodness of something? To bless it? After all, blessing—benedicere, bendecir, bénir, evlogeo—at least in the languages I know—literally means “good-saying.”

Goodness is not perfection, goodness is not spotlessness or the meeting of expectations. “Good,” is an earthy, visceral quality: “good” is what one calls the bloody, screaming mess of birth. Good is an orientation towards further creation, further life, further love.

And “good” is what God called each part of existence as God made it. In the way that the poet who put down the Hebrews’ creation myth, it’s as if God is taken aback with the goodness of that which the Word produced: God sees it and reflects, “oh, hey, this is good.”

God names goodness throughout the creation poem, always with a note of surprise, and yet always noting creation’s goodness while it remains unfinished—light without celestial bodies, seas without land, land without life, life without sapience, sapience without wholeness, humanity without community.

To wit, the whole creation is good, even in its imperfections. And that God is constantly improving God’s own handiwork is a comfort, because it frees us from the need to get everything right on the first go, to have everything nailed down. It’s work.

So the poem goes—the divine works at creation in an exhausting process that requires God, upon its completion, to rest, having named the goodness in all God’s work, blessing it, calling it “very good,” turning “tohu wa-bohu” into “tov ma’od” and leaving it in the hands of those bearing the divine image to continue to work.

I daresay that the naming of the goodness of each thing created is integral to its creation, and with that, it is integral to our continued obligation of creating our world. The poem gives us the model: as God names unfinished, unperfected works “good,” so are we given license to name as “good” those parts of our lives that we are yet collaborating with God and with each other to create, even when they are dark or unfinished.

It could be that in those spaces that are imperfect or unfinished we have an opportunity as co-creators with God to be taken aback, saying, “oh, hey, this is good.” And the hard, imperfect, unfinished spaces are work. They take it out of us. They are exhausting. Yet deep down there is, below everything, an engine of surprised joy and self-giving love driving the whole operation, between each of us, in the midst of wale and waste so overwhelming that it pulls our attention from the task at hand.

I say all this to say that the practice of blessing is crucial to our ongoing collaborative work with God in creating the world, because when we are in the midst of imperfection and unfinishedness, there is yet goodness there, because goodness is inherent to the unfolding work.

Though the wale and waste threaten to overwhelm, when we are exhausted from the work of creation, we can look to those unfinished spaces and bless them, saying, “darkness, you are good, and I commend you away from nothingness and towards creation, to the goodness that drives the universe.”