#blessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Desired Family

A couple of days ago my friend Alan posted on hir blog a striking reflection on Luke 8.19-21. The gist of Alan’s argument was that Jesus did not come to protect so-called “traditional” family values, but rather through his ministry created a new sort of family relationship that was not tied to bloodlines and family structures but rather whether one was within the desire (thelema) of God–that Jesus’10447055_657248383161_7838373164928455718_n teaching deconstructs prevalent notions of family that existed in the Greco-Roman world and persist to today. God’s reign does not only bring shalom to heteronormative middle American nuclear families, but to those of us whose families look a little weirder than normal.

The myth of the nuclear family still pervades Western imagination. Even in the gay rights movement what we essentially see is a retrofitting of the nuclear family myth to include same sex parents as opposed to the expected opposite-sex pairing of mom and dad. The same sex parents adopt or have children through surrogacy in order to achieve the required 2.5 broodlings, and perpetuate the familial structure that has been ingrained in the American psyche since the days of I Love Lucy. That’s the kind of family the media feeds us, the kind of family that makes it into a prime time sitcom spot (even though I adore Modern Family).

Many of the arguments for inclusion from the Christian equality activists–bless them!–even seem to focus on including this kind of family, without really considering whether the image of family that their activism endorses is really appropriate for the ones on whose behalf they speak.

But what about those families that aren’t quite as normal looking? What about those families that don’t fit the expectations of popular imagination? What about those families I like to describe as “post-nuclear,” whether by accident or by choice? Childless couples? Single adults? Close more-than-friends, not-quite-couples? Monastic communities? Non-custodial parents? The mentally and physically disabled? Extended relations all gathered under one roof? Celibate LGBTQ couples?

We frequently use the term “family” in a sort of quasi-nostalgic way when we speak of our work “family,” or our college “family”–what we typically mean is our incredibly close friends, but we use an image-caked word to conjure exactly how close they are. We mean people with whom we share life in common. In the economy of thelema that Jesus’ preaching advocates, it seems as though the sex-soaked bonds of genos and patria are being dissolved in favor of a vision of family that rests in shared life in common, where a community can be a locus of soul-making and bestowing blessing upon its individual members–and moreover, a community where we can respond to being desired by God by communally desiring God in return.

I know this is the case for me–my family is queer all on its own, though I’m the only person in it who identifies as queer. I’m a divorced, gay, non-custodial parent who lives 1,200 miles distant from my kid, born the old-fashioned way in my previous mixed-orientation marriage. My experience of what “family” is has been redefined by virtue of accident and geography, and it is decidedly non-traditional–but I’m still my child’s father by blood, her dad by choice, and our relationship is such that it opens deep wells of love within me that I’m never quite sure are there until I hear, see, or touch her. It’s astoundingly difficult and yet this “family arrangement” pulls riches out of my soul I didn’t realize lay buried under my own fears and doubts about whether or not I’m still her dad at the end of the day.

In the household of God it’s as if we are still living under one roof, and in that space I find us both in the divine thelema, living as family together with my blood relatives as well as those brothers and sisters, those with whom I share not blood but an experience of living in the divine desire. Together our love for Christ and belovedness by Christ grafts us into a gene-transcending family tree. And that familial space becomes an environment in which we can indeed grow into the full stature of the maturity of Christ, for whom “family” meant an unwed mom, a foster dad, petulant half-brothers, and a band of friends who loved him in absurd and beautiful ways.

I think in some ways it is a calling to embrace a queer way of doing family, because the witness of a queer family tells the world that shalom is not just for the socially privileged, for the normal, for the regular. The beauty of divine desire is that it embraces the weirdnesses that we all carry with us throughout our life. And my concern in all of this is whether or not our churches will be inclusive enough to recognize the way that divine desire is already knitting people together into divine families, weirdnesses and all. Perhaps one day they will; until then, we’ll keep on being family.

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!

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.