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.

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.)

Pride and Pentecost

The fact that Pentecost is occurring on the same weekend as one of the largest Pride events on the east coast isn’t lost on me.

Pentecost is a weird spoke in the wheel of the year, but it’s an amazing one all the same. As the Orthodox hymn for the feast goes, “Blessed art Thou, Christ our God, Who didst make the fishermen wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them didst draw the world into Thy net. Lover of humanity, glory to Thee.” There’s a deep, deep transformation at the heart of the Pentecost experience, a great reversal–interesting that Luke, who is so interested in the Great Reversal, is the one who preserves this story for us: utterly unqualified people become the voice of God, calling the nations back into God’s fold.

Pride celebrations in June were begun in an effort to commemorate and celebrate the beginnings of what has come to be known as the “gay civil rights” movement, in particular the Stonewall Riot of 1969. As one telling of the story goes, the riot began when several patrons of the Stonewall Inn were being hauled away under false pretenses by police–they had done nothing wrong, other than celebrating who they were in the company of friends. As this was happening, someone shouted, “don’t just stand there, do something!” The ensuing chaos became the spark that enkindled a major wave of LGBTQ activism, identity-claiming, and fighting for equal protection under the law. No longer would people like me accept mistreatment for something they have no control over.

The whole Stonewall story sparks my imagination of the events of Pentecost, which need not be rehashed. Could it be that the prompting of the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles as tongues of fire and sent them out in the streets, as if the Spirit were saying, “don’t just wait here, do something!” And can’t Peter’s message to the crowd of people from all over the Mediterranean basin be summarized in similar words–“don’t just stand there, do something!”

Both Pentecost and Pride are seasons for owning identities. Pentecost sees catechumens being baptized and candidates receiving their holy orders as together they join in calling the world into the Ekklesia of God. Pride sees a celebration of people who are striving towards integration, called out because of their identity and difference from what was considered “normal.” Pride is fundamentally about finding comfort in the “counter, original, spare, strange” ways that make queer folk unique.

Could it be that, in the Spirit’s movement, we might see a little bit of Pentecost amid all the rainbow flags and Mardi Gras beads? Sure, Pride is not without its excesses and debaucheries (then again, neither is Mardi Gras, which is rooted in Christian tradition anyway). But it provides a rare opportunity for the Church and the LGBTQ community to share a common pool of experiences, images, symbols, and metaphors. Pentecost was, after all, that glorious moment when the languages that broke humanity apart at Babel were transcended by the Holy Spirit, and perhaps one of the tongues being given to the Church now is that spoken by God’s queer kids.

Both seasons seem to be grounded in an experience of the life-giving spiral of pain and triumph. Peter was not ashamed to stand up and speak out in the face of castigation and judgment; neither were the men and women at Stonewall ashamed to stand up and speak out. And like Pride, Pentecost is that time where we get to be proud to be the Ekklesia of God, to open ourselves to a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, and let that renewed awareness propel us to works of piety and works of mercy in our mission to transform the world with the love of Christ. And maybe, just maybe, the invitation stands open for us to listen to ways in which LGBTQ folks are preaching the Gospel in new tongues to us Christians, as the Spirit once again empowers the voices of those whom others have dubbed unqualified.

Meaty Memory

Because I function as a chaplain to the residents at my workplace, I’m known to wear a clerical collar from time to time. It always seems to catch residents off guard the first time they see me in it–here is this linebacker of a man with spiky hair, spikes in his ears, and tattoos running down his arm in the garment of a religious professional. To be honest it still catches me off guard a bit when I see myself in the mirror with a plastic rectangle digging into my neck–when did I become this contradiction of life and brokenness?

The last time I came to work collared up, one of my residents asked me, “what does a pastor do?” Despite having been to seminary for four and a half years and writing page upon page of ordination paperwork, I was more or less at a loss for a succinct answer to her question. So I rattled off the usual things: pastors take care of people, they’re there to help people when needed, pray for people, preach about Jesus, and so forth. Seeing that my off-the-cuff answer was not satisfying my resident’s question, I thought about it a little bit harder, and this unexpectedly fell out of my mouth:

“A pastor is a person who helps people remember things.”

What the hell does that even mean? What’s interesting to me is that, for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had some concept of what a pastor does. My dad is a pastor, so naturally what I see him doing is what I understand pastoral ministry to be. And since I made this observation about the role of the pastor, I’ve been thinking through what I’ve seen him do, and what I’ve seen other pastors do across the entire spectrum of Christianity, and what I myself have been doing as I’ve grown into my vocation–it’s all been the heavy-duty work of remembrance.

The “remembrance” I’m speaking about here isn’t simply walking through significant events as a mental exercise–“remember that time when…”–but rather, a kind of participatory remembrance that refreshes and enfleshes the experience of a person’s identity as they live their life in community. It’s that kind of meaty memory, anamnesis (as the liturgy nerds say), that isn’t simply remembering that “this happened to me,” but rather, “this happened to me and it is shaping my soul.” It’s that kind of memory we’re digging into when we throw water at folks and ask them to remember a baptism that many have no ability to recall mentally as it happened when they were so young. And yet, we still call them to remember things lost to the fog of time! The depth of anamnesis is something that happens in the community psyche, not the intellect of the individual, and in that depth there is great power.

With water and oil and ash and bread and wine the pastor gives the people footholds of memory:
“You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.”
“The body and blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Even at the grave we make our song: ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!'”
As the community gathers around its members and sees its members scaling the wall of human experience using these footholds, the community itself becomes a witness to the collective, meaty memories that have formed its individual members.

Clinging to the mountainside on her own footholds of memory stands the pastor, from Sunday to Sunday and in the 167 intervening hours ever beckoning: “remember who you are and whose you are! You are Christ’s own!” And she offers the bread and wine once more, she prays once more, she offers another sandwich, writes another benevolence check, baptizes another baby, buries another beloved friend, and stuffs another bulletin. More footholds emerge, and as the community scales the wall they begin to shine brighter with the radiance of Christ’s likeness.

So, that’s what a pastor does. I think. I’m still learning. But with joy I remember the footholds of memory that have formed me more into Christ’s likeness–my baptism, the temple of my childhood, Eucharists and mountaintops, tears and despair, confessions and penances, my orders and my doubt. And I am finding my voice, so that from my place on the mountainside I can call out: remember!

Talk Inclusive To Me, Baby

Let’s talk about inclusivity and the church.

And let’s not talk about how any one people group needs to be included more than any other; we progressive Christians have harped on that long and loud enough. If we truly believe in a God whose charge to us was a ministry of reconciliation, then we cannot get big heads about being inclusive while continuing to excise certain individuals and groups from the table. It’s become vogue to talk about inclusivity, but what does inclusivity really mean? There will always be a group that isn’t getting their fair share of the shalom of God, and our missional obligation is to right this imbalance of embrace in order to ensure that all people are welcome at the banquet table.

See what I said there? All people need to be welcomed at the banquet table of Christ. And the movement of embrace is the most powerful prophetic witness that we have. It is in embrace that evil is disarmed and hearts once opposed to one another are transformed into hearts that love one another. It is in the movement of embrace that God has embraced us in Christ, even in the midst of suffering the worst that humanity has to offer. The movement of embrace says to our oppressors, I forgive you, and to the ones oppressed, please forgive me. It requires humility, and in fact may be humiliating. Actually, it is humiliating, because Christ’s embrace of all humanity came from arms stretched out by an instrument of torture and a whispered and weary “Father, forgive them.”

Embrace welcomes the weeping Peter back into the fold.

Embrace welcomes the thief into paradise.

I would even go so far as to say that embrace can welcome Judas into the kingdom of God.

And Christ-bearing embrace, if we practice it in our lives, can welcome our Peters, our thieves, our Judases into the kingdom of God with us. Embrace can heal the world.

If we practice the movement of embrace, who will we find at the altar rail alongside us? In whom will we find Christ extending a hand, an opportunity to welcome and be welcomed? Do we have the boldness to take Christ’s hand in the other and ask them to dine with us? God help us that we would be so bold as to trust in the ministry of reconciliation which we have been given.

The Day We Murdered God

Good Friday is the day on which the Christian people remember our having murdered God.

People often ask for a sign. People often ask for God to show up miraculously. People often ask God to burst forth in a show of resplendent power and unparalleled magnificence. And to be sure, God can and has done so in the past–but when it came time for God to walk among us as one of us, when it came time for God to take on our human fleshliness, when it came time for God to change everything, we couldn’t handle it. God defied our expectations and we reacted against him. We tore him to shreds, threw a tree on his back and told him to get the heck out of our city. We nailed him there so he wouldn’t come back and challenge our status quo anymore.

We tricked ourselves, because in our killing God, God killed death.

This was the ultimate reversal of the status quo–our lives are no longer bent on a trajectory towards death, but thanks to Christ our God trampling down death by death, our lives are now headed towards life ever brighter, life ever grander, life ever more aflame with the love of God. Yet still today we try to tell God that we don’t want the status quo to be changed. Our deathly orientation allows us to unflinchingly trample over others in our efforts to postpone death’s inevitability. We steal from the poor. We exploit the weak. We destroy. We steal life from others so that we may avoid our own death.

But the way of God is to relinquish life for others. God relinquishes his inexhaustible life to give life to us all by destroying death. Indeed, to be a Christian is to be converted from taking life to giving it. It is no miracle that God rose from the dead; how could he, the author of life, not do so? The true miracle is that God would die. The true miracle is that God enters into that thing which humanity has feared most of all from its very beginning and ransacks it, taking its prisoners captive and setting them free in life come Sunday morning.

Today we remember death. Today we remember that we too will taste death. But we also remember that we look towards the great Sunday morning to come when death will fall still at last, its throes finally silenced, its power finally spent. And while we await that great morning to come we must continue giving up of our life and telling people the good news: death is dead!