In 1595, the English Jesuit Robert Southwell wrote “The Burning Babe,” a startling, unsettling poem about the incarnation–which means, given Southwell’s rich theological imagination and deep Catholic piety, that it is also a poem about suffering and salvation. And about the human predilection to resist divine love.

371 years later, Denise Levertov penned “Advent 1966″ in which her vision of the “Burning Babe” is not Southwell’s blessed Infant “scorched with excessive heat” (though her poem is replete with references to Southwell) but dying babies in Vietnam–”infant after infant” . . . “flesh on fire” . . . “moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed.” (Full text of poem below).vietnam-war-photos-10

47 years after Levertov’s startling, unsettling poem, its indictment of the human predilection for violence is as timely as ever. Napalm has long been superceded in modern warfare, most recently by the surgical precision of drone strikes, but the incinerated dead are just as dead.

Some say poetry as raw political commentary is a bad idea. Indeed, Levertov’s friend and long-time correspondent, poet Robert Duncan, excoriated her political turn, insisting that the poet’s job is “not to oppose evil but to imagine it.” Yet Levertov’s work in the Vietnam era was as much personal as political. In “Advent 1966,” the subtext is the speaker’s vision–the increasing lack and loss of it: “There is a cataract filming over my inner eyes.”

This is the poetry of conviction, of wrestling with human failure and frailty in ways large and small. It is the poetry of despair–a refusal to make a leap toward hope that would put a tidy finish on the senseless and catastrophic.

It is fitting that Levertov locates her outrage, personally and politically, in Advent–whether or not something particular in December of 1966 occasioned the poem. In Advent, we are mindful of despair–in parts of the story that shape our Christian convictions and also in our own lives on these long, dark days when the senseless and catastrophic sometimes overtake us.

Writer and Anglican priest Fleming Rutledge points out that “a famous painting of the annunciation in the Cloisters in New York shows the embryonic Jesus slipping down a shaft of sunlight toward Mary–and he is already carrying his cross.” The incarnation–the feast of Nicene dogma, as Rutledge notes–is of a piece with a suffering Christ, a suffering world, a suffering you and me.

In Advent we live with that startling, unsettling truth, refusing to rush toward a tidy finish.


Advent 1966

Because in Vietnam the vision of a Burning Babe
is multiplied, multiplied,
                                               the flesh on fire
not Christ’s, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,

but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing as his vision but lingering,

cinders upon the earth or living on
moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed;

because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poet’s sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
is blurred.
                    There is a cataract filming over
my inner eyes. Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision,

seeing not the unique Holy Infant
burning sublimely, an imagination of redemption,
furnace in which souls are wrought into new life,
but, as off a beltline, more, more senseless figures aflame.

And this insect (who is not there—
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere,

or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned.

First Sunday of Advent  

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122 
Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

The story of the end, of the last word of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.

From Mark Strand’s  “The Seven Last Words”


Christianity makes the brazen claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the end of history, and the double-entendre is deliberate.

On the one hand, the consummation that Christ’s resurrection makes possible cannot be an event in history, enclosed by history, any more than creation can be an event enfolded in time. On the other hand, the life, death, Hickory Treeand resurrection of this first-century crucified Jew is the telos, the goal, the realized hope of all human (and non-human) existence. Jesus of Nazareth is history’s end.

In other words, the crucified and risen Christ not only completes history but ruptures it. Precisely in and through the historical contingencies of first-century Palestine—this specific set of laws and customs, that particular Roman procurator—the future, God’s good future, begins. In a backwater province of Empire, the truth of the triune God breaks history open not through political coercion or insurrection but with a revolution of forgiving, reconciling love. As John Howard Yoder put it:

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is . . . It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.

To read the rest click here.

When we have learned how to do something well, in the world generally, we say it has become “second nature” to us. Many are the second natures that have taken up residence inside us, from the way Aunt Sally threads a needle to the way Uncle Elmer votes. It Hauerwas celebrationdemands, finally, a thrust of our own imagination–a force, a new idea–to make sure that we do not merely copy, but inherit, and proceed from what we have learned.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook:  A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry

Last Friday I attended a celebration of the life, work, and friendship of Stanley Hauerwas on the occasion of his retirement from Duke Divinity School. It was an extraordinary day of honoring a man whose extraordinary generosity has shaped the lives and vocations of so many. There were funny stories and moving tributes. There was beautiful worship and scholarly discourse. There were smiles and sighs and laughter and tears. There was much tenderness.

Stanley’s Texas twang has always invited mimicry (and there was plenty of that, too). But the real concern with imitating Stanley Hauerwas has long been that his larger-than-life persona and his staggering intellectual output would create clones rather than independent thinkers, copycat theologians instead of original scholars. (In my experience, this has worried Stanley’s critics more than it has concerned Stanley or his friends).

Stanley himself has never gone in much for originality. He has often said that the theologian’s task is not to be original but to be a faithful custodian of the tradition entrusted to the Church. Yet he’s also famous for lines like this one: “I don’t want you to think for yourselves, I want you to think like me.”

Who has not seen a young painter in a museum intently copying a Vermeer, or a Van Gogh, and believing himself on the way to learning something valuable? (Oliver).

As I took in the rich celebration of this charismatic, controversial man, I noticed that his students, colleagues, and friends revealed, again and again, that they had taken in the best of Stanley’s life and work–trying it all on, seeing what fit, what didn’t, what needed tailoring or tweaking or fine-tuning. They had studied him intently–attending to the contours of his art, the broad strokes and finer nuances of his craft.

And in the thrust of their own imaginations they did what the best imitators do: they bore witness. With honesty and straightforwardness they engaged their teacher. They described Stanley’s work better than Stanley often does. They praised him. They pushed back. They took risks.

But there is also this:

What most of us long to imitate in Stanley Hauerwas is, I think, his attentiveness to the people around him. It is Stanley the teacher who makes me want to be a teacher like him: passionate about texts and deeply interested in the well-being of students. I believe that Stanley loves his students.

Such talk, of course, in this age of assessment and learning outcomes, sounds ridiculous. But the art of teaching is an act of giving oneself away in love for the sake of what (and whom) one loves, without reservation or embarrassment. I have experienced this as Stanley’s student; I hope my students experience this in me.

And here, I think, is the difference Christ makes (the theme of the celebration last Friday): Stanley taught us, in his writing, in his teaching, in his being, that in the body of Christ we have time enough and all that we need to cultivate friendships, to practice patience and generosity, to pay attention to beauty, to teach students and to love them as Christ loves them. In this, it isn’t the imitation of Stanley that we aspire to, but imitatio Christi.

Still, Stanley has been our companion on the way, our teacher and our friend. Thanks be to God for such gifts.

There’s a trend in the trick-or-treat business that I find a little sad. It’s called “trunk-and-treat” and it’s popular in church parking lots. The idea is that open car trunks are decked out in Halloween decor (usually not the gross or scary stuff), stocked with lots of candy, and then pirates and ladybugs, superheroes and Disney princesses go car to car filling up their treat bags.

I understand the rationale: it’s considered safe for the kids; it’s a no hassle, one-stop-shopping excursion; there’s some stimulation for the adults as they have other adults to talk to. And it’s part of a larger effort in many churches (especially in the south) to remove Halloween from local neighborhoods and park it on the church grounds, literally – to clean up the holiday’s image and minimize its dark undertones.

But the thing is, Halloween has always been connected to Christianity, and its preoccupation with death is inseparable from its religious roots. All Saints Day, November 1 – the day that Christians commemorate the saints of the Church who have died – is also known as All Hallows. So October 31 is All Hallows Eve or Even, contracted from the Old English into “Halloween.”

November 1 was also the beginning of the new year for the ancient Celts. October 31 marked the end of their growing season and on that night they would pay tribute to the spirit world with gifts of food to insure that next year’s crop would be bountiful. It was a time for communicating with the dead and receiving wisdom from the ancestors to help secure future prosperity.

And so All Hallows Eve has always been intertwined with the angricultural rituals of Celtic folk religion. In ancient times huge bonfires were set in order to frighten away evil spirits. In medieval times the pagan and Christian traditions merged, with children going door to door begging for “soul cakes” for the wandering spirits. if no treats were offered, the beggars would play pranks. Trick or treat.

This crisscrossing of the pagan and Christian is not unusual in the Church’s history and is no cause for alarm. Christmas, for example, is celebrated on December 25 not because this is the date of Jesus’ birth — no one knows when he was born — but because of a popular Roman celebration. Saturnalia — a festival devoted to Saturn (and before that to the sun-God Mithra) was a raucous affair of much feasting and merry-making. Church authorities tried forbidding it, insisting that Christians not take part, but to no avail. So they adopted it, adapted it, and in the year 336 turned it into the commemoration of the nativity: Christmas — the “Christ mass.” And many of the beloved traditions we associate with Christmas — garlands of greenery, trees lit with candles, the yule log — have their roots in these pagan, pre-Christian traditions.

And so, too, with the traditions of Halloween: the carved pumpkins, our fascination with death, dressing up and going door to door. I don’t want to get too heavy-handed with the theological significance of these rituals but there is something to the idea that we open our door to strangers on a dark, autumn night, a grinning lantern on the porch to light their way. It’s a small gesture of hospitality, a willingness to want to know our neighbors. (Of course it’s also about the candy).

There’s also something about the risks of hospitality and neighborliness in Halloween’s rituals. Sometimes doors are closed and locked, houses dark — hospitality denied, neighborliness feared. The work of community is harder than we think. But when we offer a gift to a stranger (a cup of cold water, a Snickers bar on Halloween), we are also learning to receive gifts from strangers — to be transformed by encountering Christ in them. They might be wearing a mask (a vampire mask, say, or the mask of loneliness or irritability), but we all wear masks, all the time. Discarding them is the work of a lifetime.

Halloween in a parking lot is safe and of course we want our children to be safe. But opening our doors on the night before All Saints Day can be a surprising gift of grace — hospitality given and hospitality received. Death comes for us all but, until then, dare we give ourselves away in small gestures of friendship and neighborliness?

This is slightly revised from a post written in October 2010.

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

This week’s texts present the preacher with a dilemma that is perhaps all too common: How to find new life in old words: familiar admonitions in the Epistle lesson, a well-known parable in the Gospel of Luke.

Preoccupied with the problem that money presents for kingdom living, Luke begins this week’s story as he did last week’s: “There was a rich man.” The tradition has named him “Dives” (Latin for “rich man,” first used by St. Jerome in the fourth century) and his life is one of prodigal extravagance and a callous disregard for his poor neighbor, Lazarus. The suffering Lazarus, who knew no peace in his earthly existence, rests, in death, in the arms of Abraham. Dives, no surprise is consigned to the torments of hell.

The story’s description of the “great chasm” between these two men might tempt us toward an analysis of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in today’s global economy. And we wouldn’t be wrong to see the parallels between the scene Jesus describes in the parable and the realities of our troubled world.

But that temptation can keep us at the level of abstract analysis. We find ourselves talking about “the poor” in deeply sympathetic ways, all the while realizing that we hardly know any poor people.

So what is there to say?

We know we have issues with money. Indeed, we’re so conflicted about our relationship with money, and so weary of our anxiety over our conflicted relationship with money that we’re not sure where to begin. It seems we’ve had this conversation before—in our own heads, even in our churches—and we’re as conflicted and anxious and weary as ever. (And also deeply aware that this is so quintessentially middle class of us).

To read the rest click here.

We live small lives.

Perhaps this is one explanation for both the sad spectacle offered by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at Sunday night’s Video Music Awards and our culture’s round-the-clock obsession with it since.

Americans are famously preoccupied with sex and with the sexual antics of the famous. This might seem like another reason for our fascination on Sunday night, but it is simply a corollary of the proposition: We live small lives.

Fifty years ago today the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In many ways, our collective (and selective) memory has softened the sharp edge of King’s radical vision of a just America.

Three days ago a 20-year-old pop star–starved for attention? desperate to shed an image? (mis)managed by corrupt media moguls?–gave a painful-to-watch lesson in how white, privileged female celebrities, ignorant of history and easily exploited by “the industry,” appropriate minority cultures with disastrous consequences.

Cyrus may have intended homage (she solicited material for the performance–apparently without irony or a twinge of guilt–by requesting “something that feels black”). What she offered instead was an example of “the privileged having unchecked access to the cultural trinkets of marginalized people.”

And while she probably thought she was giving artistic expression to female empowerment, she was, in fact, working the tired tropes that objectify and make available for public consumption women’s bodies. (Or, rather, a highly stylized, commodified version of the female form.) And the sexism here: for all the moral outrage directed at Cyrus, there’s been little said about Robin Thicke’s role (and his abominable hit song) in both the minstrel show and the misogyny.

And while the issues raised by this whole sad story are not unimportant, it’s been interesting to ponder this week why it is that all my students knew about the VMA performance on Sunday but none of them knew that the Supreme Court nullfied a key provision in the Voting Rights Act this summer.

Dr. King dreamed big. But we live small lives.

The bud 
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes
it is necessary 
to reteach a thing its loveliness . . .

Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”

I devoted a good bit of time this summer to thinking and writing about beauty.SAC 1681

How it is that modernity (and modern Christianity) are the poorer for abandoning the ancient idea that beauty is in the beingness of things–atoms and daisies and persons and prime numbers and everything.

How it is that contemporary life has taught us to regard beauty as consumable, reducing it to “the ornamental and innocuous pleasant.” (Stephen Garrett)

How it is that our task as creatures of a God who is beauty, truth, and goodness is not so much to possess beauty but to understand how it possesses us–how beauty is at the heart of what it means to be human.

And then the fall semester began and I was caught up in syllabi and course rosters and faculty meetings and the grim bureaucracy of a higher education philosophy that expects us to regard students as customers to satisfy, revenue sources to retain at all costs (awkward pun, I realize; we need to keep these students so they can pay us). This philosophy is so pervasive across the disciplines and across campuses everywhere that we don’t even question it much anymore.

And beauty seems absent. And who can blame her.

And on the first day of class I look out at a sea of faces telegraphing everything from anxiousness to indifference, eagerness to sleepiness. And what’s with the two young men on the back row who chatter away under their breath the whole time I’m talking despite a gentle warning (it’s the first day, after all) and a few daggered stares?

And what does beauty have to do with any of this?

I’m not completely sure, but here’s the thing. Or at least one thing:

I want these anxious, indifferent, eager, sleepy students to see the beauty of our common work. As we delve deeply into texts, as we risk failure and embarrassment in our class discussions, as we ask hard questions about impossible things (God, and faith, and the nature of evil), I want them to find it beautiful–to see the intrinsic worth of our work, not to calculate its potential contribution to their future plans or their personal satisfaction.

At the risk of sounding sentimental and presumptuous, I want to help reteach them their own loveliness–or help reveal it to them for the first time. I want them to know–perhaps more than anything–that they are beautiful.


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