Becoming Fully Human: Diversity

Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on July 19th, 2020.

Text: Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

One of the things I’m enjoying about living in Battle Creek is the fact that I have a yard of my own for the first time in… eight years. Some of you have seen it, some of you have been in it. I’ve become stupendously proud of the little patch of earth that I’ve been put in charge of. Yesterday I picked the largest zucchini I’ve ever seen off of one of my zucchini plants, nurtured by the earth that I’ve been given charge over. The thing was bigger than my head (and though my head probably appears small on screen, I assure you, it’s a whopper.)

All that said, having something to tend to is good medicine for the soul. Having a patch of earth that I have the privilege to care for connects me with my origins: after all, the words human and humus are closely related.

The problem is that my yard is not about to win any lawn awards for landscape design, for homogeneity of grass, for purity of my fescue, because my yard is weedy. Incredibly weedy, especially around the fenceline where forgotten logs and fallen limbs make it impossible to mow or even navigate with a weed eater. 

Even in the areas I’ve intentionally tried to cultivate a little, the weed situation is utterly insane. In spite of my best efforts to mulch my hostas and keep the weeds pulled, my yard continues to put out a crop of weeds that can very quickly take over the entire landscape if I don’t stay on top of them. (Thankfully there’s no HOA in my neighborhood, but still.)

What you all may not know about the history of lawns such as the ones that surround most of our homes is that they are an artifact of 18th century French aristocratic culture. The ideal aristocratic lawn is a monoculture, with only one species of grass occupying the majority of the space. A colossal amount of time, effort, land, and water goes into the maintenance of the palatial lawns that have become the default landscaping option for the suburbs in the West. 

Consider the dizzying array of powders and sprays and pellets and lotions and potions and creams and unguents and elixirs that one can buy at Lowe’s for the treatment of one’s lawn, one’s personal grass monoculture, where biodiversity and variety are things we actively resist and attempt to get rid of through, uh, let me check my notes here, oh yes SPRAYING POISON ON THE GROUND.

You may be at home, thinking to yourselves, “Pastor Nate is on a weird soapbox this morning,” and you would be right. Because I am. Stay with me.

American lawn culture treats land on the small scale in the same way that our colonizing ancestors treated this continent. American lawn culture insists that the right way to tend the patches of earth under our care are to weed out the undesirable species, fill in all the land with a nice, respectable, homogeneous fescue, and siphon water out of the local rivers and ponds and wetlands to maintain the a perfect green lawn that suffers no disruption from undesirables such as dandelions or clover or milkweed or violet or or mugwort or stinging nettle or wild strawberry or bittersweet nightshade or chickweed or poke sallet or four o’clocks or you get my point.

Nevermind the fact that each one of those plants is both ecologically important and has medicinal properties. Even the ones we consider “invasive” have their roles in the ecology, like kudzu, that holds the sides of strip-mined mountains in the South together long enough for the land to heal from its trauma, or like Japanese Paulownia, which grows so fast in one growing season that it is one of the most effective carbon capture technologies known to humanity. And never mind the fact that a homogenous green lawn, uh, does not occur on its own.

Have you considered what might happen if we apply the principles of lawn culture to, uh, say, people? I daresay the results might look quite a bit like the history of the United States. The issue is that we have a tendency to apply our standards for our lawns to people. Actually, that’s not quite correct: we apply our faulty people standards to the natural world, a world which resists such standards at all turns.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel, who was writing to a people in the midst of change as the Jesus movement was reorienting itself following the collapse of Jerusalem, very likely had in mind this common human situation when they chose to include Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat in this portion of their work. 

When we get caught up in a cause, when we get caught up in a movement, it is very, very common that we begin to look around at those who stand by us with an increasingly skeptical lens. When we see someone who doesn’t meet our expectations for how someone in our community should look or act or think or behave, we have a tendency to snap to judgment: “well, this person isn’t growing the way I expect them to be growing, therefore they must be a weed.” And so we run, panicked, to our authority figures: “there’s a weed growing in the wheat! There’s clover in the bluegrass! There’s milkweed in your fescue! Do something about it!”

Bold of us to assume that we’re in the appropriate position to make that call. 

But it’s understandable: in the way groups of humans work, those little surprises that pop up here and there—folks who fall outside the lines of our expectations, people who don’t match our expectations, people who are insistent on their right to be here, or queer, or neurodivergent, or non-English speaking, or who have a mental health thing going on, or who are simply just a pain in the butt (like we all are sometimes, let’s be honest)—those folks often threaten our sense of group cohesion. They threaten our security, our safety, our feeling of control. God forbid our lawn get out of hand.

But hear the master’s words from the parable again: “ln gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” 

The master’s words are stunning, because they speak of a long-lived patience that is subtle and supple enough to let the “offending species” live out their life. (The weeds didn’t choose to be there, after all; they got tossed there by circumstance.) So he says, Let both of them grow together, for their roots are so intertwined that removing the offending parties would damage the integrity of the wheat. Let both of them grow together, for we are not even sure which of the rogue seeds are indeed weeds or not. Let both of them grow together, for those weeds might be the source of medicines we didn’t know we needed. 

For even something as simple, as ubiquitous, and as hated as the dandelion can be food and medicine when allowed to flourish.

We all have that one weed, don’t we? That one person or group of people or situation in our life whom we absolutely cannot stand. That one influence that we would love nothing more than to see bundled up and tossed in a fire. For Matthew’s author, it was those people who had ended up as part of the Jesus movement but who weren’t invested in it or intent on seeing Jesus’ teachings flourish. For most of us, it’s usually those people we see something of ourselves in that we don’t want to admit. 

As an example, consider the increasingly common trope of some conservative, homophobic, bible-thumping preacher being caught soliciting men on a gay dating app after hours. That thing we like the least in someone else is often a clear view into the things we like least about ourselves. 

Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but if we learn to begin to ask ourselves the question, “why does xyz person or situation bother me so bad,” we might be surprised at what we learn about ourselves. I wonder if that’s not why Matthew’s author is also the writer who relays Jesus’ famous dictum, “judge not, lest you be judged.”

To say this another way, the weeds in our field often give us a taste of our own medicine.

But I don’t want to get too far lost in the weeds. I want to dial it back a little bit to Jesus’ first line of the story: “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” If we catch this line, the story can really knock us off our chair. 

The emerging reality of the kingdom of heaven, this thing that Jesus proclaimed was already within us and ready to burst through the soil at every turn, and the very thing that Matthew’s author was upset about not being pure enough, is the very idea that invites the kind of patient acceptance of diversity that allows everything in the field to flourish in its own way.

Friends, if we would embody the kingdom of heaven (or the “reign” of heaven, if the word “kingdom” bugs you), we would do well to look around us at the things that demand the largest investments of patience, of energy, and of loving attention to be okay with: a child’s behavior problems. That one person in the PTA who tries way too hard. A problematic relative. An obnoxious ex. A group of people or an idea that we look at with skepticism or fear.

Those challenging people in our life, diverse and manifold as they are, carry within them the same image of God that you and I both do. And it may be that we wound up in the same field due to circumstances quite beyond our control but now that we’ve been growing together long enough our roots are so entangled that to rip someone out of our lives might uproot us, too. 

If we welcome the gift of diversity, instead of fighting against it, we might find it a little easier to allow ourselves to grow together. If we allow ourselves to grow together, we might just discover that what we’ve called weeds, Christ calls food. What we’ve called noxious, Christ calls medicine. What we’re ready to bundle up and throw into the furnace, Christ lets shine with the righteous in the reign of heaven. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen. Amen.

Becoming Fully Human: Learning

Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on July 12th, 2020.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 2016 science fiction film Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. If you’ve not seen it, do yourself a favor and go watch it: it will be time well spent. The plot of the movie follows the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life; twelve alien spacecraft appear hovering ominously over various spots all over the surface of the earth. 

The main character, Louise, is a professor of linguistics at a California university. She also happens to be grieving tremendous personal losses at the time of the arrival. She ends up drafted by the United States military to serve as one of the team of scientists and researchers who must learn the aliens’ language from ground zero and serve as interpreters between humanity and our visitors. The aliens don’t speak in sounds that the human voice can replicate, so they resort to using a written language that looks like giant, floating coffee rings.

One of the reasons I love this movie is that, far from being a standard alien action popcorn flick, Arrival is much more a meditation on the nature of thought, of language, and of history. As Louise deciphers the aliens’ language, she learns it, such that she can begin to generate their writing, with the aid of a computer at first, but eventually on her own. And something very curious happens, which is the main plot beat of the movie: learning the visitors’ language changes the way that Louise thinks. Not just in a simple, oh, I thought this about the aliens before, now I think differently; no, it literally changes the way that Louise’s psyche conceives of thought, of time, and of the unfolding of history.

Anyone who has ever taken the time to learn a second (or a third, or a fourth) language can attest that the process of learning a language can, and will, change how you think. It forces your brain to make connections that weren’t there before, to re-wire old pathways that had gone long unused, to stimulate new growth; it’s why learning languages is, anecdotally, a solid strategy to fend off dementia and Alzheimers.

But even more importantly, acquiring a new language enables us to make connections to communities of people with whom we’ve never before interacted. It enables us to bridge the divides in our society in uncanny ways. And when the world is in a season of unprecedented change and conflict, those connections are, perhaps, our most valuable resource.

To say it another way, when we encounter change, one of the most important things we can do is learn to think differently. 

Remember, then, the rag-tag community of people in the throes of change to whom Matthew’s author wrote this account of Jesus’ life and teaching. For these people, it was clear: their old ways of thinking no longer served their present reality. Such was the case for Jesus’ own audience as well.

See, many in the early Church assumed that Jesus was going to return, like, presently, like in the next year or so, to finally punt Rome out of Judaea and to bring history to its grand culmination under a reign of peace, with the glorious temple of Jerusalem at its center and Jesus sitting on the throne of David. But following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, this vision of hope was rapidly dying off. We can hear Matthew’s audience whispering to themselves furtively in the night as they steal away to the catacombs to worship their crucified and risen outsider god: “it wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? How long is it going to take for him to come back? What if he doesn’t?”

The challenge which Matthew’s audience faced was the challenge of learning to think differently. They faced the challenge of reinterpreting the teachings they had received from Jesus via his disciples for the reality of their situation. So what did Jesus teach, anyway? And how did he teach? What did they have to work with? What could the Holy Spirit use in that moment to open up new avenues of realization and understanding for this community?

Any of us who grew up going to Sunday School probably have the word “parable” rolling around in the back of our memory, collecting dust. And what we have in today’s reading is precisely that: a parable. That word, “parable,” means a story that takes a couple of different, disparate elements and “throws them together.” A parable is a thrown-together story, literally, meant to awaken the hearer to new connections and new possibilities. The situations they present are sometimes impossible, sometimes improbable, but always wondrous, and the problems they present aren’t meant to teach us a fact or a figure, or a static chunk of knowledge. Rather, the struggle to understand a parable, to get our minds around it, is the point of a parable. 

To say that differently, a parable doesn’t teach us what to think so much as it teaches us how to think. In this, they’re much like a Zen koan, a “riddle” that doesn’t have a solution per se, but seeks to lead you into thinking differently. Yet we don’t even need to look to Japan or India for this kind of wisdom: Judaism had its own tradition of this kind of story, known as a mashal, of which there are plenty of examples in the Hebrew bible. And undoubtedly, Jesus would have been a master of the mashal. 

Because of the nature of a parable, or a mashal, or a koan, there’s usually not one correct interpretation, either: each encounter with the story presents an opportunity to make a connection that wasn’t there, to find something new, or to have our well-worn ways of thinking diverted into uncharted territory.

I personally can’t think of a better medicine for our current situation where we stand in 2020. 

But thinking is hard, isn’t it? So Matthew’s author has included for our benefit one interpretation of the parable of the sower to get us started, but the rule of parables is that you don’t start with the interpretation, you start with the challenge of the story itself and let it speak to you in the moment. And you let the story do its work on you.

Which brings us to the parable of the sower. How might this story work on us?

As I was marinating in it, as well as in the interpretation Matthew’s author provided for us, I had this thought: just as parables change the way we think, so does the process of learning languages. And the interpretation Matthew gives here suggests that what is sown in the world is something that needs to be understood by its hearers in order for it to take root, right? For a message to be understood, it has to be communicated in a language that the receiver understands.

Our congregation’s native culture is the culture of liberal, educated, upper middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. With that culture comes a language of sorts: the way we think about and communicate what Church is and what Church is for. It comes with expectations—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant expectations, specifically—about what effective ministry looks like. And White Anglo-Saxon Protestant language and culture is what so many of us know and expect. We have certain cultural expectations for how we carry ourselves in worship. We have certain expectations for music. We have certain expectations of our visitors, and we have certain expectations for how people should participate in the life of the Church.

The issue though now is that, by and large, the neighborhood around this church is not, in general, upper middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. 

Which makes me wonder: what if we are broadcasting our message as a congregation in the wrong language? What if the way that we’re attempting to go about embodying God’s love is in a language that the folks in our backyard don’t speak or understand, or worse, have no desire to engage with because it’s entrenched in colonizer ideals? What if the most important thing we can do right now as a congregation who is not gathering on Sundays for worship is to spend time learning the vernacular? The vernacular of working class, non-white, unchurched people.

I wonder how many of us immediately thought that I was drawing a parallel to us as the sower, and the neighborhood as the soil. That very assumption, that we, the insiders, somehow have something to offer them, the outsiders, is one of the most dangerous assumptions of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.

One of the gifts of parables is that you can turn them around on yourself. 

In fact, it might not be that the neighborhood needs our message at all. It might just be that we are the hard, packed down soil, unable to receive what God wants to teach us through our neighbors, who don’t look or act or think like us. It might just be that we are the rocky ground, where new ideas spring up but because of our entrenched patterns can’t take root as wither as soon as they sprout.  It might just be that we are the thorns choking the life out of people who are searching for God in the community because they don’t meet our expectations. 

I wonder how God continues to throw seed at us in the form of people who are different from us, who have different priorities or ways of viewing the world, yet that seed gets eaten up by birds and withered by the sun and choked out by the tangling brambles of “we’ve never done it that way.” I wonder how God might be able to turn and till and fertilize us to make us good soil once again.

If we can learn a new melody, we can learn a few words in a new language. If we can learn a few words in a new language, we can learn a lot of words in a new language. And if we can do that, we can learn new ways of thinking, no matter how old or world-weary we are. And if we can do that, we can change our thinking. Even now, I’m consistently stunned by the people whom I never in a million years would have expected to be taking up the cause of racial justice and reparations loudly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. People in their 60s, 70s, 80s! People who learned, who grew.

Remember: learning a language changes the way we think. It’s not just about being able to translate our message for advertising purposes. If we take time to learn the vernacular of our neighborhood—the music, the culture, the concerns, the hopes, the challenges, all of it—we won’t just be able to communicate our message clearly. We’ll be able to build real relationships across the artificial, arbitrary lines of redlining, of white supremacy culture, of socio-economic disparity, and of race and ethnicity that so often prevent us from understanding one another. We will be the ones who end up changed. And I daresay, if we have any desire at all for our church to continue to exist, we must allow God to turn, to till, and to enrich us so that we can become good soil once again. Pleasant? Absolutely not. Crucial? Without question.

If do so, if we sit at the feet of Christ in our neighbor and learn the language that Christ wants to speak to us in, we will end up turning into the good soil, where those who hear and understand the message of God’s love can take root, and flourish, and end up yielding a harvest bigger than we could ever have imagined. Amen.

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.