Don’t Look Away

A sermon on Matthew 10.24-39 for part of our series on worship, Becoming Fully Human.

I recently discovered the setting on my phone that tracks the amount of screen time I’m using every day with various apps. There’s nothing quite like your phone telling you, “hey, you need to chill out a little bit.” I think I clocked seven hours on Twitter back over the last weekend of May. Accordingly, these same settings also allow me to set limits with myself so that I can put my phone down if I’m spending too much time scrolling down the ever-running stream of Tweets and Facebook posts and YouTube videos that companies have engineered to be as addictive as possible.

I of course don’t need to tell you that we live in a society where our constant digital companions, our phones, or as I like to call them, our “nightmare rectangles,” are bringing up-to-the-minute reports of the world’s joys and woes to the palm of our hands at every moment of every day, waiting for us to look at them again. I don’t need to tell you about the addictive patterns that app designers have engineered into their products to play on human psychology, such as the sense of gratification we get when folks acknowledge something we say or do by “liking” our social media post.

But I am not about to preach the sermon on disconnecting that you think I’m about to preach. No indeed.

Because it is through the gift of hand-held supercomputers that we as a country are finally being forced to look at what has been happening under our noses for four hundred years and then some. On an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016, actor Will Smith made this observation: “We are talking about race in this country more clearly and openly than we have almost ever in the history of this country,” said Smith. “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”

Which is why several weeks ago many of us watched a nine minute and forty eight second video of a former police officer murdering George Floyd by pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck until he died. Which is why many of us now know the name Breonna Taylor, why many of us now know the name of Ahmaud Arbery, and the names of countless others who have been murdered by scared men huddled under the unimpeachable aegis of a silver shield pinned to their shirt. 

Before I continue: this is a sermon for fellow white folks.

Racist violence and police brutality shock us white folks. And rightly so: it is shocking. But it is not a surprise to those African-American and indigenous people who have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence for four centuries and change. 

But what do we do when we encounter these troubling events? It’s exhausting, and we can only take so much. Before you email me, let me affirm that it’s okay to take a break from news and to put our phone down to rally ourselves; that’s not what I mean when I say “don’t look away.” 

But it is not okay to look away and continue as though you had never seen it to begin with. It is not okay to ignore. It is not okay to forget. And it is not okay to excuse ourselves from the ways in which we, as white people, have been complicit in white supremacy’s imperial reign of terror, least of all us white people who gather under the shadow of a Roman cross and who proclaim the nonviolent revolution of the heart sparked by mighty acts of God in history, the crucifixion and resurrection of a homeless Afro-Semitic Jewish teacher with dark skin and curly black hair.

Indeed: the ability to look away is the height of privilege. Friends: don’t look away.

Hear again what Jesus says to his hearers in the passage from Matthew’s gospel: “…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

Remember again Matthew’s audience: ethnically Jewish Jesus-followers, folks who were most likely to fall into the cracks in society that opened up following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. Enemies of the state, enemies of the religious authorities as well. These were people who were shaking with fear of what was to come next in the midst of titanic changes that had disconnected them from their ancestry, their land, and their people. Everywhere they looked, reminders of Roman imperial might and the violence necessary to maintain Rome’s iron grip over the Mediterranean basin reminded them that they were nobody. 

And on the roadside, strange crops of fruit hung from felled trees: crucified bodies hung from crosses as a public service announcement from Roman overlords. “Don’t look away from this, lest you forget what Rome will do to you if you fall out of line.”

Yet Jesus’ message to his followers, to those nobodies over whom he sang his tremendous blessings—blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are the meek! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness!—those are the very same people whom Jesus calls to take up their crosses and follow him. These are the very same people whom Jesus urges not to fear those who can only kill the body, but to fear losing both body and soul, losing one’s entire identity, by losing their view of who they are in spite of who Rome called them.

Don’t look away.

Two millennia later, far removed from Emperor Vespasian’s reign of terror, we white Christians wear the cross as jewelry, we tattoo it on ourselves as a sort of tribal affiliation, we decorate our house with it, we gather around it in our houses of worship, having all but forgotten that the central symbol of our faith is a state-sponsored lynching tree. Under the shadow of the cross, our European ancestors crucified Christ all over again in the treatment of African and indigenous peoples during the age of imperialism. 

We also cannot forget the many and manifold ways that White Protestantism in the United States became a safe haven for not just the overt wickedness of the Klan, but so often it fertilized the insipid apathy of good-hearted people like you and me who for generations have viewed white supremacy and racism as either a “them” problem, or worse, a non-existent problem.

Exempting ourselves by looking away from white supremacy in the Church is the pinnacle of willful ignorance and irresponsibility. It is nothing more than gleefully perpetuating a culture of white supremacy from a position of privileged innocence, a position of privilege that those suffering under the boot of systemic racism do not have. Talk about sacrilege.

Don’t look away.

Lutheran theologian Dr. Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus in Matthew knows that human nature is wont to remain comfortable in our denial so as to avoid exposure. And that we are also quite adept at dodging disclosure, making up excuses for sidestepping the truth. What is getting exposed, of course, is not just racism, but our complicity. Not just how deeply systemic racism is, but how the church as an institution expertly harbors racism. Not just how the church has relied on white privilege, but how it has kept silent in preaching the truth of the Gospel.”

Before the message of the Cross of Christ becomes good news for those of us in need of liberation, it first stands as bad news. It stands as an indictment of any system that wields terror and perverts death into means of conformity and control. It stands as an indictment of the complicity of religious and state leadership in creating a culture that trains us to watch the life drain out of those whose voice in defense of the powerless might incite resistance or a riot. It stands as an indictment of the inability of “law and order” to “protect and serve” anyone except the interests of those at the top of the pyramid scheme. And the cross of Christ sure as heck stands as bad news for any kind of status quo that we’ve constructed on a shaky foundation of comfort and denial.

Think about that the next time you see someone make the sign of the cross or get squirmy when you see one in public.

African-American writer Ibram X. Kendi argues that the very heartbeat of racism is denial, whereas the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession. Being an antiracist, says Kendi, requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.

It requires that those of us in Church who have long enjoyed the fruits of privilege be able to look at our reality through the lens of the cross so that what has been covered up may be uncovered. It means that those of us who make up this community of First Congregational Church have to keep our eyes open. It means we have to keep looking through that cross-shaped lens, even though we have been doing so much to come to terms with, and make amends for, the ways we have been complicit in or benefitted from white supremacy.

I mean, gosh, what might it say about our congregation that we’ve moved away from regularly including the gifts of confession and absolution in our worshipping life? What might it say about our congregation that our choices in how we gather, when we gather, what we gather around, and what kind of worshipping expressions we prioritize don’t speak the vernacular of the people right here in our neighborhood? What might it mean if we start to come to worship only in order to take our minds off of things sometimes, and we start to believe that’s all worship is supposed to be about?

Don’t look away.

Y’all, I get that these questions are hard and they are deeply, deeply uncomfortable for us to deal with. I mentioned this to the book study group on Wednesday night this past week, but this work is not unlike trying to pull honeysuckle or morning glories out of a shrubbery: you can pull and pull and pull but if you miss even one piece, that’s enough for it to start growing back. Such is the nature of racism and white supremacy. That’s why we need a critical eye, the kind of searching judgment that the cross of Christ proclaims.

To wit, we need the good news that only the cross can reveal.

For the cross of Christ proclaims that God is finally, absolutely, undeniably on the side of the oppressed. The cross of Christ proclaims that neither cross nor lynching tree can separate God from God’s beloved ones. The cross of Christ proclaims that no tyrant, no emperor, no president, no politician, no police union, no power in heaven or earth or under the earth can prevent God from raising up those who have been cast down, or prevent the captive from being set free, or prevent the dead from living again. The cross of Christ proclaims that nothing finite can destroy the Infinite. 

And for us white folks, for those of us whose roots run down the side of the oppressor rather than the oppressed, that same cross of Christ proclaims that you and I get to tell a different story, that we can be set free from our ancestors’ sins, and that we can be made Fully Human again.

“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Don’t look away! Amen.

Root & Branch

This is a sermon I preached in Union City, Michigan on the second Sunday of Advent. See if you can count the number of Ursula Le Guin references.

Back in 2014 I made a pilgrimage to Scotland. (I was ordained while I was there.) One of the places we saw was Glasgow Cathedral, in the center of the city, now a Presbyterian church: full of richly ornamented stained glass, of altar cloths and incense, of intricate woodwork and heraldry and portraits and symbols of worldly power.

But another place we traveled as our gang of misfit Christians was a small cave.

En route to that cave, we snaked down a single lane road and rounded a bend before our route took us through acres of Scottish timber plantations after a recent logging harvest. The whole area looked as though it were a Christmas tree farm after the December rush: nothing but stumps and short scrubby bushes of heather as far as you could see.

When we finally stopped the car and got out, we trudged through a thicket of heather and nameless weeds, down a nearly invisible rock path, and through an ancient wooden fence, we made it to the cave, where innumerable pilgrims before our group had left candles, rosaries, crosses, and flowers, caking the damp cave walls with prayers. Above the entrance to the cave, roots from the trees growing above had grown deep into the granite cliff face and seemed to be holding together the whole thing. This small cave at the end of a deep inlet from the sea was the place where an ancient saint, Columba, was said to wait and pray while awaiting permission from the local king to establish the now-famous monastery on the island of Iona.

The story of Christianity in Scotland (which we as the United Church of Christ are inheritors of) has as much to do with this forgotten, nearly impossible-to-find cave as it does with the cathedral in the city center—perhaps even more so. And it has as much to do with the gentle roots that hold that cave entrance together as it does with the gentle strength of roots that hold us together.

I imagine the seemingly barren hills of the timber plantations as I read this passage from the prophet Isaiah: he sees, as I saw, the hillsides barren, the forest felled. He sings of such devastation to a people weary of despair, of uncertainty, a people whose land has become a waste of stumps as far as the eye can see after wars and conquests and exchanges of power and the failed promises of politicians and kings.

Isaiah sang to an Israel who was continually caught in this boom or bust cycle that no king or governor or head of state could break. A king gets it right for a while. Then they start getting it wrong, then things get bad. It goes completely off the rails before a new king steps to the throne and does a better job. And then their successor screws it up again. And it happens again, and again, and again.

Such is the pattern of Israelite kings, such is the pattern of rulers and politicians throughout time and space, even today: they talk big talk, they falter, and they fail to keep their end of the deal. They fail to be what they are supposed to be. To Israel, kings were supposed to be champions of the people, defenders of the poor and widowed, protectors of those without other recourse. They rarely were.

To an exhausted audience, Isaiah sings of a coming ruler who will finally, put an end to this unending wheel of boom and bust. Someone who will finally make justice and equity manifest for everyone. Someone who will bring about a reign of peace that will completely change how the world works, turning enemies into friends, drawing us back to right relationship with the natural world, and healing the planet.

I don’t know about you but I’m not aware of any head of state who has successfully brokered a peace treaty between lions and lambs, between foxes and hens, between predators and prey.

Yet, we Christians have traditionally understood Isaiah’s dream as being fulfilled in Jesus… but we look around and see, gosh, extortion, predatory behavior, state-sanctioned violence that continues to push people to the margins for being the wrong color or the wrong gender or the wrong sexuality or the wrong tax bracket. If Jesus was supposed to fix all of this, it seems like he did kind of a bad job. So interpreters sometimes post-date the healing of the world: “well, Jesus will actually fix it all when he comes back, no big deal, right?”

What’s happening here?

Nothing is as it seems when we’re talking about God. Those of us who have been around church long enough should know that by now. And before we focus all of our attention and energy on may or may not yet happen, perhaps we should look down at the ground we’re standing on now to understand more deeply what it is that’s happening right beneath our feet. What has happened. For the God that Jesus shows us is a God who moves silently and sideways, springing new life upon us when we least expect it.

For though the Israelite vineyard, and the Assyrian forest that replaced it, have been brought down to the ground, felled and razed, Isaiah sings that there yet remains a shred of life in the roots of Jesse. Those roots survived the chaos, the war, the fire, the felling; out of the seemingly dead stump, a new shoot emerges when the spirit of God calls it forth.

There are, of course, plants in nature that do this naturally. It’s not that shocking when it happens. But what we overlook is that plants that do this aren’t desirable, pretty, useful ones. Pines, maples, birches, cherries, those trees don’t just grow back when you chop them down. Yet there are some that do: plants like kudzu, like paulownia, like Bradford pears—species that we consider “invasive.”

These plants carry the bulk of their growing power not in their trunks or branches, but in their roots. In their rhizomes, which spread out and gather strength until the growing season dawns again. They grow with such vigor that botanists call them invasive when it might just be that their wild ways are the wisdom we need in a burnt-over world. A Paulownia tree’s dumbfounding growth—40 feet tall in the course of one growing season—makes it one of the most efficient carbon capture technologies on the planet. And kudzu, the vine that ate the south and wiggled its way into my own heart, now holds together hillsides and mountains with vast networks of entangled roots that are nearly impossible to cut out entirely.

These plants, ones which we’d rather forget about—or worse, eradicate—are simply doing what God has called them to do: to grow, to flourish, despite what we humans expect good plants to do. So it is with the branch shooting upward, 40 feet in a year, from Jesse’s buried roots: this branch does not rule according to human expectations, but attends to matters unseen. So Isaiah says, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

Where is the strength of the branch to do all of this? It’s in the roots, which put out branches when the spirit of God calls them forward. And it is not the branch alone that does the work of healing the world, but indeed, the root system is what holds the soil together, that binds it, that purifies it, entangling all the other roots in the burned-over hillside in its grasp to heal the soil, to make it whole again.

Friends, we must remember our roots. The Church—you and I, ordinary folk—find ourselves entangled wholly in this holy root system called Christ. Because of that, we cannot judge by eye or ear alone. We can only judge by the heart.

So long as the roots of Jesse spread outward through all the soil of the world and send up shoots wherever they will, those roots will entangle ours too, connecting us to the wisdom of God that taught roots to grow in the first place. And because of that, the Branch might show up in the wildest places imaginable, breaking through the burned-over earth, the wreckage of war, barren thickets of hatred and addiction and scarcity. Places where only the heart, not the eye or the ear, can see as good.

Though the era of the institutional Church has died off, there remains yet life in the roots underneath the ground. Churches are closing. Religion is becoming an increasingly forgotten part of society. And still we find ourselves as a society in the boom and bust cycle of powerful men seeking power for its own sake at the expense of those at the margins.

Indeed, I have yet to see the wild promises of which Isaiah sings. I ask, we ask, “how long, Lord?”

To which God says: look around, kid. So let me tell you about the wild branches I have seen shooting up from the earth.

I’ve not seen a lion lie down with a lamb in peace, but I have seen enemies become friends, and I have seen estranged family relationships come back together in spite of all odds and quite in spite of individual egos. I have seen Churches say “no more” to unchecked voices of hatred and take a stand with those at the margins.

I’ve not seen children playing safely in the den of an adder, but I have seen children wounded by the world turn deadly poison into medicine for healing others who have suffered trauma or loss. I have seen Church communities throw open their doors to create safe, enriching spaces for children that the powerful would rather forget about.

I’ve not seen cows and bears out to pasture together, but I have seen strangers welcomed at a table where all are fed and there’s more than enough to go around. I have seen, through regular folks coming together, the land defended from capitalism run amok, and nature healed; new life sprouts up in pockets where God’s peaceable reign has spread its wild roots.

And just like real roots in nature do, the Root of Jesse, the power that we Christians call “Christ,” never forces, it never coerces: simply by growing does a root rend boulders. Simply by growing into our hearts does Christ rend the walls of fear and scarcity that keep us locked in a perpetual cycle of violence and exclusion against one another.

It’s not big and sexy, but it’s deeper magic, a more mind-bending miracle than all of the world’s weirdness.

Our celebration of Advent reminds us that the Root of Jesse and its Righteous Branches are too big to be contained to the confines of human government, as those who first heard Isaiah’s song expected them to be. They will, and have, so spread that they’ve worked subtle tendrils into the soil of our own hearts, of human hearts—we whose True Name means soil.

As we prepare once again for the flourishing Root of Jesse to sunder the rocky soil of our souls in this perpetual dance of growth, decay, and growth again, let us look to where righteous branches towering out of long-forgotten stumps signal the arrival of God’s reign of implausible peace. Amen.

31.

It’s been some time since I’ve written here.

I’ve gone and made it to 31 years old, quite in spite of every indication to the contrary. This was one of the busiest years of my life but I daresay one of the most important years of my life all the same.

Here’s a run-down of everything that happened:

  • In October 2018 I attended the State of the Art Astrology Conference in Buffalo, New York. It changed my life. On the final morning of the conference my grandmother fell at her home in North Carolina. Given that she was 92 years old I didn’t expect that she’d make a full recovery, and this proved true on the following new moon. I wrote about it here.
  • In November 2018, I offered an ancestral feast for the first time on All Saints/All Souls, beginning a newfound love affair with my blessed dead. On the Thursday following, my grandma died. A week later my beloved and I spent nine car-sick hours in a car with our dog winding our way down US-58 to attend her funeral in Danville, Virginia. The funeral homily was a full-on fire-and-brimstone affair, preached by a family friend. Michael and I were both shaking by the end of it.
  • In December 2018, my daughter spent Christmas with us. I made a conscious decision to begin being slightly more open about all aspects of my life and ministry after a come-to-Jesus meeting with a trusted friend who encouraged me to “let my light shine.” (It meant I’d actually say ‘I’m a pastor and an astrologer’ out loud when people ask.) We also spent some time with Michael’s family-of-choice in Memphis.
  • In January 2019, I was elected to the steering committee of the Association for Astrological Networking. During the final week of the month, I left my job after the congregation I was serving decided—without my knowledge or input!—to rescind their status as an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. I also found out that they were rejecting LGBTQ candidates for the settled position out of hand (I was an interim). I have never left a job without first lining something else up in my life. This was the first time I ever did so, and it was tremendous, fearsome, right—and my choice had the full support of my judicatory. (I hope it’s the only time I ever do so.)
  • In February 2019, I was offered another call at a congregation in another part of the country. One of the search committee members referred to undocumented migrants as “those illegals” and complained loudly about how homelessness was ruining San Francisco. I turned the call down. By some miracle I began to be able to support myself—by the skin of my teeth—on income from my consulting work. I did my damnedest to be faithful. (God certainly was.)
  • In March 2019, I worked my ass off. At one point I saw five (five!!) clients in a single day, which is a ton of mental and emotional energy. Jailbreak the Sacred found its way to me and so I learned how to host, record, and publish a podcast. The kiddo spent her spring break with us, and I decided I’d spend my in-between time at the Episcopal congregation I did my seminary internship at. It was time well-spent.
  • In April 2019, two very interesting things happened: the week following Easter I had a lucid dream in which I was teaching in Japan in Japanese, and a tangle of synchronicities pointed me further in that direction. I began learning Japanese again in earnest after piddling around with it as a weeaboo sixth grader. The second thing that happened was a mystical experience while at a cabin at the Red River Gorge with my beloved that cracked open my world in ways I had never anticipated. Oh, yeah, I also started writing a book.
  • In May 2019, I began learning all 2200 常用漢字 (joyo kanji)、the 2200 Chinese characters that Japanese high school students are expected to know by the time they graduate. I also got a book deal for a book entirely unrelated to the book I had started writing in April. I finished Book One and started immediately on planning for Book Two. I also attended the Northwest Astrological Conference (NORWAC), made some wonderful new friends and industry connections, and began planning my next professional steps. I was also hired as the sabbatical replacement minister for one of the most incredible churches I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and serving.
  • In June 2019, my daughter came for her summer visit with us; she’s now completely hooked on Pokemon, which means that we’re doing our job well. I finished and submitted the manuscript for Book Two, viz. the one that will be coming out on January 7th of next year. My job at Union began during Pride Week.
  • In July 2019, we visited my family in Virginia for a week, and then returned to Lexington. I kept on learning Kanji and wrote a research paper for a conference journal—which conference has now been postponed. July was otherwise unremarkable except for the fact that I stopped going to the gym due to being completely burnt out with my lifting routine. Time for something different.
  • In August 2019, I premiered a piece of music at church and had an utter come-to-Jesus moment with regards to my financial health. I opened a Roth IRA! I made a conscious spending plan! I also began re-training my entire body for bodyweight fitness and calisthenics. I feel better than I have in a long time as a result.
  • In September 2019, I finished learning all 2200 kanji (their semantic meanings and writing, anyway). I also returned to editing Book One after putting my podcast on hiatus for the time being. On the final Sunday of this month I’ll have another premiere of a new work, this time by the combined forces of the church choir and our local college’s choir.

This is a very “tell” instead of “show” post but after having written close to 150,000 words in other forums I’m not really pushing myself to make this blog post a literary masterpiece. Let the record show that my life is full and that I’m wildly, wildly happy.

 

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.)