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.

Winning Words

I still remember my old way of talking about the work of God.CRUCIFXN

It’s a way that many in the American South speak about God’s work–“Jesus suffered and died a gruesome death that you rightly deserve in your place so you don’t have to.” No, something says in our gut, that’s not quite right. Could God be so ugly?

Not a small number of people have refused to speak about God like this. The idea behind this language itself originates in the late middle ages with St Anselm of Canterbury, and the idea is completely foreign to God-talk of the pre-Reformation Church.

But even then, the ideas hang heavy and heady in the imagination of disenchanted people for whom this was the bread and butter of a religious imagination that strove to remind them how worthless they were in the sight of God–as if God were doing us some cosmic favor and saying, “you owe me one.” And so some words still throb with a certain pained beauty–at the communion this morning we sang “How Great Thou Art,” which has that problematic line,

and when I think that God, his son not sparing,
sent him to die; I scarce can take it in–
that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
he bled and died, to take away my sin.

When my voice breaks with hidden tears as we’re singing, the faithful are queuing up at the altar rail to eat our glad-burden-bearing God.

Take, eat; this is my body broken

But this hymn doesn’t have to be read like that or sung like that, as if it were a celebration of a God gleefully beating his son into a pulp to get out of doing the same to us. No; here is poetry, here is a picture of the way God works in deep and radiant mystery. And I, singing it, do not have to reject the poetic cradle for this mystery.

Drink this, the cup of the new covenant in my blood

In the divine poetic, Jesus gladly bears the burdens of being human–perhaps even demanding that we cast our burdens on him lest we believe for a second that we are excellent enough to hide behind our effort. And he dies to take away sin by allowing himself to be plunged into the worst that humanity has to offer and dragging those things down to the grave whence they came.

We proclaim his death until he comes again

For Christians, anyway, the Cross is where we see God in God’s true incomprehensible form. It is no miracle that the God of life would rise from the dead; the real miracle is that God would die in the first place, identifying utterly and totally with God’s creatures in the process. The God who dies is a God who is for us, who feeds us out of the fruit of a divine sacrifice, whose broken body is reconstituted in the body of a broken and suffering Church that bears witness to a God who is for us up to and beyond death.

Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia

I hate what this hymn does to me. Every time I sing it I’m reminded of the men whose favorite hymn it is, of their witness to the power of a new-thing-doing, life-out-of-death God, a burden-bearing God, a world-inverting God. And so I weep, not for sadness, or nostalgia, or even the joy of having the burdens of human brokenness taken off my shoulders. I’m not really sure why I’m crying. Perhaps it’s just the utter weight of beauty, a burden itself heavier than stars and lighter than air.

Real Food

It is Lent, and we draw closer to the cross.

I’m something of a rebel at heart—not because I seek to overthrow anything, but because at the core of my heart’s understanding of the way this world has turned out, it is already overthrown. There is something grossly amiss with the world, and I think it only appropriate that those who call themselves servants of a breathing, dying, rising God adopt a perspective of rebellion against the rule of death, not by denying it wholesale, covering it over in the platitudes of Mickey Mouse religion, or worse, constructing a simulated reality out of the duck-faced, over-filtered, symbols that float through Western society divorced from meaning.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with Andrew Root’s book The Promise of Despair, the essential premise of which is that the darkness of death against which we rail is the very context in which we see the ultimate reality of what holds the universe together, the Crucified God, the One whose heart bleeds and dies over a world in thrall to death. The One whose death swallows up death forever.

One of my understandings of the sacrament of the Eucharist is that it is an affirmation of and participation in the overthrowal of the world by the death of Christ, the final defeat of the darkness that persists in those dark corners of the world. I harp on this at length but it is something worth harping upon because in the Eucharist we taste the crucified, dead God and welcome him into our bodies to raise us with him. The taste of dry bread and tawny port is the taste of death that’s been turned inside out–it’s a flavor that cries, “life!”

There is nothing more real than the Eucharistic meal, as far as I understand it. By that I mean there is nothing so closely connected with the founding and final order of things as a perfect love poured out into the most basic of human functions–breathing, eating, and drinking. But as basic as those functions are, there is something else that makes the Eucharist real: it acknowledges despair, that force which bakes and breaks us, presses and pours us. The liturgy of the Eucharist encompasses the whole of human experience.

Could it be that in consuming the bread and wine we become more real because of our participation in these symbols? I think so–and what a reality it is, a reality that is more real than the death-bent world around us, a reality in which victims and oppressors are reconciled to God and thereby to one another.

But there’s something to be said for the desire to continue living in deathly fantasy. As much as I know my reality, my destiny, is to be bound up and reconciled in the body of Christ to my wrongdoers and the ones whom I have wronged, there is yet a desire to allow the wall of hostility to linger just a little longer. That deathly pull makes me say, “no, I don’t want to dine with those people.”

If I am to accept the reality of my belovedness, I must accept that I will ultimately have to be reconciled to the people who pulled their World Vision sponsorships because of people like me. I will have to be reconciled to the single-issue voters and toxic pundits that continue to see folks like me as a blight on society, unworthy of the name “beloved.” I don’t want to embrace those people right now. I want to shield my heart from being ground further into a pulp, and so I resist reconciliation. In those moments I want the specter of death to keep me apart from those people.

Holding on to deathly fantasies may give me some sense of protection now, but as with everything, that protection is false; it too is burned away by the warmth of Real Food, along with everything else that Love destroys in the process of saving us from falsehood. But the good news is that our wounded memories will, in the presence of reality-shaping love, become a source for a wildly hopeful future in which my heart will be changed–and their hearts, too–so that at long last I can embrace my estranged brothers and sisters as Esau did Jacob.

And out of that wild fountain of hope comes this, a hope down in my bones: when at the last Death and Hell are swallowed up, hatred and bigotry will go with them, and we will finally live.

My First Death Threat

I got my first death threat from a complete stranger tonight. I suppose this is one for the scrapbook.

Oddly enough, the death threat was not from a bible-beating Christianist, as I expected when I first read the words of the threat. Rather, it was from a fellow gay man who accused me of associating with the wrong sorts of people–viz., people who hold a side B perspective on the issue of homosexuality, and people who are knowingly in mixed-orientation marriages. According to this individual’s reasoning, because I associate with these people and support their dignity, I am  weak; I am betraying the legacy of Stonewall and contributing to the denigration of the LGBT population.

Do what now?

If it’s not already obvious, I’ll go through the rigmarole of once again publicly affirming my side A orientation and my full support of LGBT equality in both civic and ecclesiastical arenas. But at this point I’m tired of laying out my stance. I simply want to love and be loved–and this desire to love and be loved flows out of the core of my identity as one beloved, as one sealed as Christ’s own forever. Interesting that I am in the sole possession of a God-man who spent most of his time with “the wrong kind of people.”

I am baptized. I am under oath and seal to affirm the dignity of all humanity, even those with whom I disagree. And because of my baptismal identity and my participation in the eucharistic feast, I am obligated to embrace those who disagree with me. I am obligated to meet them at table and be fed by our brother Jesus. And I hope that, God willing, when I become a priest, I will offer them the same bread of hospitality and life-giving embrace that Jesus has offered me. I continued going to my conservative seminary even after coming out because this was a reality that we held to as more significant to our community than our varying opinions on human sexuality (and, believe you me, mine were way different than the better part of the student body). But I was embraced there, I was beloved, and not once was I ever treated as less-than because of my sexuality or my opinions regarding inclusion and equality.

One of the benefits of a high Eucharistic theology is the realization that, at each Eucharist, we join at table with all who have ever dined there throughout history, many of whom did not understand the dynamics of sexual orientation and had no basis by which to relate positively to God’s gay kids. Will we agree? No, we probably won’t. But–I come back to Wesley once again–if we cannot think alike, may we not at least love alike? In the economy of the Eucharistic Feast, all are equalized, all distinctions are leveled out–the mighty are put down, the lowly are lifted up, the hateful are given to loving, and the hated are given to belovedness.

And so I will speak for dignity–I will speak for the dignity of those who hold side A and those who hold side B, for the dignity of those who know what they believe and for the dignity of those who believe nothing, for the dignity of those who have been at home in the Church their entire lives and for that of those who have had their homes ripped away from them at the hands of the Church. I will speak for the movement of embrace. I will speak to end memories and to create a new reality for those who can remember nothing but division and exclusion. I will speak until my (presently non-existent) partner and all brothers and sisters and I can dine at our Brother Jesus’ table in peace with Phil Robertson and Gene Robinson, with Sarah Palin and Rachel Maddow. Because our God is the God who destroys the dividing wall of hostility, making out of the oppressors and the oppressed a new people whose name is Beloved. Because our God is a God who would rather die than see us continue to hurt each other.

Because our God is the god who says “no more!” with his last breath, and “I make all things new!” with his breath after that.