#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.

Unbeliever

Yesterday after my article on Queer Voices was published on the Believe Out Loud blog (which I still can’t believe happened, to be honest), I was contacted by an acquaintance from college who wanted to discuss with me the scriptural arguments against homosexuality. I declined politely. By the end of our email exchange he assured me that “as much as I wish we had a common faith, I don’t think that’s possible, so I must love and pray for you as an unbeliever.”

For a minute I wanted to punch him in the throat. Actually, for several minutes. For several hours. And I was fuming about it internally while I was in the midst of helping serve a funeral.

Of all the insults and denigrations of my humanity I’ve suffered in the past–faggot, queer, cock sucker, and worse, many of which I received before I had even come out–this somehow stung the most. I’d rather him simply have called me a “fucking queer” and be done with it. But no, he called me an unbeliever. And I was instantly reminded of everything that drives me absolutely crazy about Christianity in its present form: one’s relationship with Christ is, in the eyes of many who claim that name, is determined by your opinion on secondary issues. The fact of the matter is that one’s opinion on homosexuality is just that–an opinion!–and it has precious little to do with one’s relationship with Christ, even less so their salvation. But that is for another article.

“Unbeliever.” That word still rings so cacophonously in my ears, because I’m so un-used to it. I’ve never been called that in my life. I was baptized as a baby. I went to Sunday School, Church camps, VBS, Chrysalis/Emmaus weekends, Christian college, seminary! I was that kid, who perhaps called others unbelievers, but of all the abuse I suffered at the hands of my peers one thing was for certain, my faith in Jesus Christ was an integral part of my identity that could never be taken from me. I’ve experienced first hand the transforming love of God. It is that love that will not let me go. And I was reminded this as I received the precious body and blood of Christ in the eucharist during the funeral.

And as the love of Christ washed over me in that holy moment, in the presence of the new saint whom we were commending to God and the innumerable saints there gathered at the table with us, something very strange happened. I realized that I am indeed an unbeliever.

I do not believe in the God who judges people based on outward opinions and voting habits. I do not believe in a God whose love is stymied by theologies, even if they are woefully bad. I do not believe in a God who is capriciously malevolent. I do not believe in a God who loves all the right people and damns the rest. I do not believe in the God whose self-proclaimed prophet called me an unbeliever.

I believe in a God who slipped into skin and walked among his children. A God who ate with all the wrong people and welcomes them still to his table. A God who would not let death be the final word. A God who reaches across time and space to call his kids home, a God who runs to them with open arms, who heals broken hearts and binds up wounds. A God who lays down his life and does not hate. This is the God in whose presence the idols of dogma and right-or-wrong thinking crumble into pieces. This is the God whose love destroys us to raise us to new life. This is the God I know. This is the God whose final Word is Jesus Christ, and still Christ speaks today.

There is an amazing painting by Salvador Dali entitled Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina that depicts the assumption of the Imagevirgin Mary. This painting embodies everything about why I am still a Christian: from the zygote at the bottom of the painting, the body of Christ, the blessed Mother ascends, and in the presence of her and her son all of reality breaks down into waves of divine presence like fabric billowing in the wind. Everything loses form; but in the center of the painting is the Crucified Christ suspended in mid-air over the Eucharistic altar. Mary draws all the world into intercession before her son.

It is a great irony: I find that as my soul has grown, it no longer seems to have room for dogmatic right-or-wrong thinking. There is only room for the Christ whose death and resurrection brings new life to the whole world, whose presence nourishes, sustains, and unites us in one body under his headship. And as my soul stretches, that becomes the only thing I’m capable of believing at all. It’s perhaps possible that my soul will never stretch big enough to grasp the mystery of Christ, but I can only begin to take in that mystery by getting rid of all the non-essentials in order to make room for it. And if that means unbelief, so be it.

The Inordinate Love of God

NB: This is a sermon that I had written for August 18th, but the cards came up differently in the life of the parish that week and Mother Laurie took over for me with a timelier message.

Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen.

When I first got assigned today’s sermon, I took a look at the passages and had a sinking feeling about whether I were up to the challenge of preaching on family being turned against each other. I remember my own upbringing, how consistently my sisters and I seemed to be at each other’s throats about something or another, how my mom and I Imagewould have spats about the location of my personal effects, how my dad and I would get into an argument over how to tell when steak is cooked medium well (we still have that argument on a regular basis, by the way).

Sometimes these are inane squabbles, and sometimes these are serious arguments. Some of us have a lot more family tension than others; some of us are from broken homes, or abusive homes, and some of us don’t have a place to call home. All that said, we seem to do pretty well at dividing ourselves, so, thanks Jesus, but this message of being turned against one another in the very relationships that seem to give our life structure isn’t exactly news, much less good news. Really, Jesus? You bring division to families? Yikes, I don’t know if I can handle that. Rather, I don’t know if I want to handle that.

Jesus had a lot to say about families, including his own. We know from the other places in gospels that Jesus probably had just as much family dysfunction as the rest of us. His brothers thought he was crazy, and along with his mom they probably worried about his safety, not to mention the shame he was bringing upon the family. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ mom and brothers show up to one of his sold-out teaching events and try to get him to come home, and Jesus says, “my mother and brothers are the ones who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus is not beholden to first century cultural norms, which would dictate, in essence, “like father like son.” Merchants’ sons don’t grow up and become priests, they become merchants. Shepherds sons don’t grow up into governors, they become shepherds. Carpenters’ sons don’t grow up into messiahs, they grow up into carpenters. And if you’re a daughter? Well, forget it. At least your brothers get to have careers. I say all this aware of the acute irony that I’m a preacher’s son, and here I am preaching.

But Jesus pushes back against this concept of family-as-identity. He trades his expected family and instead makes a family out of all those who have no family, who have no identity other than their sin: prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, drunkards. Because for Jesus, a person’s identity isn’t determined by whose genes they have in their blood, but rather by whose breath they have in their soul.

The breath of God himself gives us life and existence. God is love, and God breathes that love into each of us. We exist because we are loved. And that is our identity: we are God’s beloved, without exception, without exclusion.

That is what we proclaim at baptism, that we are God’s beloved. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. And nothing, nothing, nothing can ever break, remove, efface, or deny that fundamental, sacramental reality–as real as the earth under our feet, as the air in our lungs, as the skin on our bones. As real as the bread which we break and the cup which we share.

That’s why we don’t say “I was baptized.” We say “I am baptized.” That is the core of our existence, indelible, unshakeable.

And because this God-love touches us and sustains us, it changes us–we are baptized by its fire, which burns away the strictures and structures of the world that say we are but slaves, that say we are strangers. When the Spirit opens our eyes to see our fundamental identity as that of beloved, we realize that the world has gotten it wrong: we are not slaves or strangers. We are sons and daughters of God.

And THAT is good news!

But for some reason, this love is divisive. Indeed, God’s love is divisive because it is a threat. God’s love is a threat to a world in thrall to death. God’s love is a threat precisely because God’s love is the final word; c’est pas tout ça! That’s it, that’s all!

And nothing–not people, or things, or hell, or death itself–can separate us from it. It is the criteria by which all human activities and relationships are shored up. It tears up vineyards that sprout injustice, it breaks down walls. It robs us of our safety and demands that we trust in God as he forgives our sins, which too are burned away.

We remember in the Eucharist: “when our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” That steadfast love is always present, always holding us, always enfolding us, always embracing us. It is arrests us, it transforms us, it burns us. We are called by him whose love drove him to the cross to destroy death for us to embrace this same love and to be set ablaze by it.

When we proclaim something so extravagant, so wasteful, so irresponsible, so dangerous, it’s little wonder that our families should show up at our door wondering whether we’ve lost our grip on reality, because it seems so at odds with the pattern of the world. But behind this outward appearance is the deeper reality of God’s unrelenting, never-failing, never-giving-up love. This extravagance breaks into our tragedies and holds us so tightly, so intensely, that nothing can separate us from it. And that love will not let us go.

Oh love, that will not let me go!

I rest my weary soul in Thee;

I give thee back the life I owe

that in thine ocean’s depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.

For some this love really did take them all the way to the point of giving up their lives for its sake. Jonathan Daniels. Maximilian Kolbe. And sometimes this love faces us in the wake of loss, entering into our grief and reminding us that those whom we have lost are still beloved by God. Not were beloved by God; are beloved by God. When the world seems so unsafe, so violent, so brutal, so utterly divided, we remember that the brokenness of the world is a reality that is giving way to a greater, truer, brighter reality. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

So thanks be to God for his extravagant, burning love. Thanks be to God for love that divides. Thanks be to God for the love that creates our identities, that redeems us from sin, brokenness, and death, and sustains us in eternal life.

If any of you are like me, which I suspect you are, you know that it’s very hard to stay cognizant of our belovedness. Life piles up. Dishes go undone, papers get turned in late, tires go flat, bank accounts overdraw, jobs get lost, relationships end, loved ones pass on. In those moments of blackness it’s very hard to feel beloved.

But thanks be to God that our belovedness has naught to do with feeling beloved. It is a fact. Fire is hot, the sky is blue, we are beloved. It’s non-negotiable. You are beloved. We are all beloved. And all means all, no exceptions.

Thanks be to God.

Somatic Reflections

I got a tattoo this weekend.

It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and it’s certainly not anything I rushed into. After years of thinking about it, I finally got up the nerve to design my ink and find an artist. And so on Saturday afternoon I had the words “Благослови душа моя Господа” inscribed into my chest in black ink: “O bless the Lord, my soul.”BNZsBS0CQAElgB1

My decision has raised a couple of eyebrows, but it’s also garnered a watershed of support from friends. Why would I do something like this? Well, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s been almost a year since I came out and walked through the ensuing divorce. And the last year has been a journey of healing and re-centering of my identity that I really never expected I’d ever face in my life, and undoubtedly it has been one of the most challenging and yet uplifting periods of time in my life. As I’ve mentioned previously, when the bottom dropped out of my life and nothing seemed to be immune from falling into the abyss, the only thing that remained was the presence of God, and the only thing that I could do was bless the Lord.

Why Russian, then? I owe the fact that I’m still alive and in my right mind today largely to a dear friend of mine, an Orthodox priest who is a fellow Slavophile. So my choice of language is a tacit tribute to his ministry and to the Orthodox spirituality which he showed me that helped me maintain my grip on sanity.

In a certain sense, this tattoo has a sacramental character: an outward and visible sign of an inward transformation. I am not the same person I was a year ago. I was then still living in fear, and indeed to escape that fear I had to enter into the depths of it and live it out. A lot of my old ways of thinking, of knowing, of living died when I finally let go of the fearsome grip I had on my tightly constructed facade and stepped out into the light of day. Stepping into that light meant letting go of safety; it meant letting go of the lie-founded patterns of hiding and shame that I knew, and instead embracing the day-brilliant and flaming truth of God. It was another conversion, part of the life-long conversion to the image of Christ in me. And as I continue to put old ways of thinking, those childish ways, behind me, I will continue being converted to Christ. The call of the Church is to embrace this conversion and facilitate it–not a conversion to any way of political affiliation, dogmatic assertion, or social obedience; no, not at all. The conversion that the Church must recover and facilitate through her mission and ministry is the conversion to live as the glory of God, humans fully alive and living fully in the divine light unto which Christ leads us daily.

And that’s something that should cause a soul to bless the Lord.

Stupid Dreams and God’s Will

The will of God for us is to do the work that lies in front of us.

Another seminary semester is drawing to a close, and it has been beyond fruitful. I have grown spiritually in the past four months perhaps more significantly than I’ve grown over the past four years. My private journal entries belie this in shocking, colorful fashion–the swears and tears, scribbles and scratches, all testimony to a soul undergoing continued transformation. I wouldn’t say there was a single pivotal moment, but rather a series of themes that found their way woven throughout the semester–leitmotifs, if you will, whose subtle recurrences pointed me in the direction and sent me along the path of the risen Lord.

To attempt to encapsulate them all in one blog post is futile, but I want to take some time to write my way through them as I process them. I have the added benefit of getting to see these themes come to life in short order as I begin field placement next week.

The one theme with which I want to begin my chain of reflections is the theme of the will of God–specifically, the finding and doing thereof. One of the wisest voices at the seminary is a godly woman named Marilyn Elliott (in my opinion, she should be the seminary president, but that is for another post). At a daily mass a few weeks ago her homily stressed the sentence that began this post: the will of God of for us to do the task that lies right in front of us.

Marilyn told a story about a trip she and some friends took to hear wisdom from another wise and godly woman, expecting to hear something earth-shaking. Instead, they were told the exact same thing that Marilyn told us in her homily. And it was a let down.

So often–and this is the peculiar curse of seminarians and those preparing for ministry–we become awash in dreams of grandeur. We want to do “a great thing” for God, whether that is missionary work in Africa or feeding the hungry masses or fighting for equality or so forth. Is very easy to become intoxicated with one’s own dreams and put words in God’s mouth, calling our ideas his “will.”

But this isn’t how Jesus worked. Remember that wonderful chapter in Mark’s gospel: when Jesus worked, he paid attention to that which was right in front of him–a bleeding woman, a little girl, the “hidden ones” of society. But the bleeding woman realizes that when Jesus looks at her, she is no longer hidden. She is no longer an anonymous body in the crowd of people pressing in around him. Because Jesus paid attention to her, her face and her identity were revealed to the world through him. She was made whole in body, spirit, and society.

And Jesus didn’t start that day off thinking about healing the sick and raising the dead, I suspect. No; he simply went about his day and did precisely the task that was in front of him. He had no seminarian aspirations. He simply did what happened to him.

Can we as Christian leaders do what happens to us? Or is our vision so clouded with our stupid dreams that we baptize and call “the Lord’s work” that we don’t see the task that’s right in front of us?

Guilty as charged, my journal reminds me.

Resurrection and Recovery

Lent was a difficult time this year.

More difficult than usual. I spent much of it dealing with further fallout from the divorce, namely the issue of what am I to do when my ex and daughter move 600 miles away, the issue of how I’m to remain a good father, the issue of how I’m to embody and practice that what I preach even in the face of immense frustration.

In all frustrations–not just the divorce fallout, but even the daily vicissitudes of life–I continue to be faced with the reality that I am still in recovery. I never react as graciously as I want to. I never meet adversity with the beatific patience that I wrongly imagine myself embodying. As much as I want to be entirely sanctified I’m not yet, and acknowledging that is in and of itself yet another source of frustration. But all this is supposed to have evaporated at the empty tomb, right? Easter was supposed to fix all of this and I should be singing Gaither songs and eating my weight in Starburst jellybeans and laughing in the face of Satan right now…right? Then why is life still hard?

The challenge of Easter is balancing the fact that Christ is risen from the dead with the seemingly contradictory fact that I–that is, all of us–still live in a world that is full of doubts and subtly simmering anger and laziness and causes for being pissed off, many of which a self inflicted. This time is when the apostles were wrestling with the fact that Christ had risen from the dead, a celebratory time indeed but a time when much of what they knew about the world had been pulled out from under them. And this is the challenge that everyone who encounters the Risen Christ has to wrestle with.

Easter is a season of recovery, a season of paradigm shifts, a season of shoring up our various oddities and idiosyncrasies and stupid crap that prevent us from really encountering the risen Christ. The great question of Easter is, “okay, now what?”