Members of the Board of Trustees, fellow faculty and staff, families, friends, and especially members of the class of 2022:

It has been quite a journey.

Halfway through your college years, a global pandemic disrupted your lives and for the remaining two years completely transformed them. It did this to all of us, of course, but these were formative years for you; a time when the college experiences we take for granted were altered irrevocably or eliminated entirely. And while we all grumbled a bit, or a lot, and felt lost, and sometimes anxious, you handled the hassles and disappointments with grace. And we noticed.

Conventional wisdom has it that my responsibility today is to tell you to go out and change the world. I understand the sentiment behind this: we have faith in you, we see such promise, and there is so much reparative work to be done in this broken world. But the advice strikes me as a bit cynical, honestly, as well as an impossible burden to bear.

So on this important day in your life I want to suggest that you are called to something else. And “calling” is the operative word here. Many of you know your next steps professionally—what occupation will occupy the hours of your working life. Some of you don’t know that yet, and if you don’t, and if you’re a little uneasy about that, I hope you know that such openness can be a gift, a door of possibility to walk through, even with some trepidation.

But whatever it is you decide to do for money, your calling, your vocation is something else. You might get paid to be a mathematician or a mechanic, a painter or a professor, but your vocation is to live purposefully, gratefully, mindfully this one “wild and precious life” you have been given.[1]

And while this looks different for each of us, there are, I think, at least three essential elements to living out one’s calling in this world.

The first is beauty. We cannot be fully alive, fully flourishing human beings without beauty—the beauty of Creation and of supportive human relationships, the beauty of poetry, science, art. In the classical sense, beauty presumes integrity or wholeness.Something is beautiful (a painting, a peony, a person) when it is most fully realized, when it is utterly and altogether itself.

But brokenness, too, can disclose beauty. To attend with care to something injured or damaged—a friend’s wounded spirit, a distressed landscape—is to encounter a fragile beauty, which first requires the willingness to just be present, be with, and then the imagination to help gather the fragments into something whole, something healed.

I hope we have helped to cultivate a love of beauty in you during your time here. I hope we have expanded your idea of education beyond mere preparation for employment, such that it includes a calling and a desire to seek, enjoy, embody, create, and share beauty. And to do all this for no other reason than the sheer giftedness and goodness of it—the delight and deep joy of being caught up in the beautiful.

* * *

A second essential element for living a purposeful, grateful, mindful life is love. Love is the calling of each of us in this world. That we have evacuated the word “love” of its core meaning, which is to will and to work for another’s flourishing, makes it no less a claim on our lives. I hope you will carry the love you have found here in friendships and communities into the future that awaits you. I hope you will love those who are often deemed unloveable. By which I don’t mean tolerate them. Tolerance costs us nothing. Loving others–seeking their good, willing their happiness, choosing to spend time in their company because all persons have beautiful gifts to offer—this is the risky business of building the beloved community and of living more fully into our humanity.

I also hope you know your own belovedness. Isn’t it true that the hardest person to love sometimes is yourself? Some of you have had love withheld from you—something maddening and heartbreaking to those of us who have come to know and love you. I think of this line from the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz: I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. And as another poet has said, sometimes / it is necessary /to reteach a thing its loveliness.[2]

And I hope you’ll love the world. By which I don’t mean what is typically referred to as “the environment.” I mean particular rivers, creeks, lakes, oceans, mountains, glades, woodlands, trees, creatures, plants—all of whom have names and to whom we all are kin. I hope you’ll regularly find yourself happily lost on a walk in the woods. I hope you’ll dig in the dirt, plant a garden, and grow some of your own food. There is a cognitive richness and a moral significance to such physical labor. Don’t let a college degree and a desk job keep you from such pleasures that can, quite literally, keep us grounded us in this world. 

And if you are terrified by climate collapse—by the catastrophic harm that human action has visited upon the Earth, you should be. And you shouldn’t be optimistic. But you should be hopeful. Because hope is a discipline, as Mariame Kaba has said—something we have to practice every day: both a disposition and a will to act, even when we feel despair. Climate trauma is real, especially in places like Appalachia, and so is climate grief. And thus hope is not naïve. It is the personal and collective work of resistance to powerful interests that profit from the destruction of places, lives, and livelihoods. Do that hopeful work, not because you’re optimistic that all will turn out well but because such work is the right thing to do, regardless of how it turns out.

So love with hope: other people, yourselves, this bruised, abused, and beautiful world.

* * *

Finally, a third essential element of being true to the vocation of living purposefully, gratefully, mindfully is a commitment to justice. The philosopher and social critic Cornel West has said that “justice is what love looks like in public.”[3] But that hardly rings true to the lived experiences of so many people and to what we see around us every day.

Many of you know that we have established the Center for Restorative Justice on our campus. “Restorative justice” names a constellation of convictions and practices that redefines wrongdoing broadly and its impacts specifically. Where the modern judicial system focuses on offenders and their punishment, restorative justice expands the circle of stakeholders to include those who have been harmed and members of the community as well.

A core feature of restorative justice is the idea that harm creates social obligations—the necessity of taking responsibility, putting things right, repairing what is broken. This feature flows from a worldview that imagines we live—all of us and all of creation—in a web of mutuality, and that a rupture in that web is mended, or has the potential to be mended, less by arbitrarily applied punitive measures and more through the hard, often grinding work of conversation and collaboration, of encounter and risk-taking.

There’s nothing romantic about this and there are no guarantees. Restorative justice seeks first of all to tell the truth about what is going on. As a way of seeing and being in the world, it resonates with the theological anthropology of most of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions: no human being is expendable and mercy is not only for the so-called deserving.

Graduates: I hope you have gotten a glimpse of what restorative justice can mean for your own calling. I hope you will see no one as disposable, as erasable. I hope that when you cause harm, as we all do in ways large and small, that you take responsibility for it, do the work of repair, and that those affected by it meet you in a spirit of openness that restores you to them and to yourself.

* * *

So go from this place, dear ones of the class of 2022, to live beautiful lives, to love without counting the cost, to be fierce and tender advocates for restorative justice in this punishing world. Make interesting mistakes. Work with your hands. And your heart. Practice hope. And know that we will hold your wild, weird, beautiful selves in our hearts, as we hope you will hold ours in yours.

It has been quite a journey.

We’re eager to see where yours takes you next. We are cheering you on. And we love you.

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” in House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990).

[2] Galway Kinnell, “St. Francis and the Sow,” in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1980).

[3] Cornel West, Howard University speech, April, 2011.

“Open grieving is bound up with outrage.”

Judith Butler

My father died on May 15, 2020. The next day we learned he tested positive for Covid-19 on the morning of his death. He had been in failing health for almost a year, suffering the ravages of vascular dementia’s assault on the brain and the body. But the news of the test helped explain his rapid decline in the week or so before he died. My mother, my husband, and I had been with him in his last hours. We have tested negative for the virus and have developed no symptoms. Our current self-isolation isn’t much different from the sheltering-in-place we’ve been doing since mid-March.

It goes without saying that grieving the death of a loved one in the time of coronavirus is impossibly hard and heartbreaking and weird. Wakes, funerals, burials, flowers, food, visits—all the ordinary offices and familiar rituals of death that are part of the necessary grief work of the living have been disrupted, modified, or done away with. It is difficult to know what the lasting effects will be on those who have been denied the full power of these deeply embodied practices of mourning the dead.

What should not go without saying is that this pandemic has revealed who it is we consider grievable—whose lives are worthy of our collective mourning and whose are not. Among the tens of thousands who have died so far of Covid-19, it seems that prisoners are not as grievable as celebrities, and that we do not mourn African-American women from Chicago’s South Side as much as we do white men from the suburbs.

But what makes someone grievable? What status must be afforded a person or a community for all of us to meaningfully mourn their loss? In her book Frames of War, philosopher and social theorist Judith Butler suggests that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense.” I am writing this on Memorial Day when Americans sacralize the deaths of women and men who died in combat, some of them personally known and deeply loved by us. But the frame of war necessarily makes other women, men, and children—human beings who do not register as real to us—targets for destruction. In our public grieving of our own war dead, inside the frame of war, those we have killed exist with “no regard, no testimony, and [are] ungrieved when lost.” Because this is true, we ritualize days like this not with horror but with sentimentality. We couldn’t manage it otherwise.

Frames are saturated with power. Given the ways that power works at the intersections of and through the frames of race, class, gender, ability, health, nationality, etc., higher Covid-19 death rates among black and brown people have to do with decades-long, systemic injustices like redlining and lack of access to good work and quality healthcare. The stresses of this kind of carefully constructed poverty are predictors of conditions like hypertension and diabetes—the comorbidities epidemiologists talk about and the illnesses which make our African-American and Latinx neighbors more likely than whites to die from coronavirus.

Butler also suggests that at the edges of the frames through which the world is organized for us, it is possible to apprehend, if we are paying attention, the precarious condition of all those whose lives are targeted in one way or another. And this apprehension of another’s precariousness is implicitly an apprehension of our own. She writes:

“The recognition of shared precariousness introduces strong normative commitments of equality and invites a more robust universalizing of rights that seeks to address basic human needs for food, shelter, and other conditions for persisting and flourishing.”

While human biology has humbled us of late—we are all precariously situated vis-à-vis this novel virus—we are not all equally vulnerable. The vulnerable have been mostly invisible. But what if seeing the vulnerable and grieving the vulnerable dead became the measure of our actions in these precarious times? What if we took the outrage that always acccompanies grief and put it to work?

  • We might recognize that much of the rhetoric around the demand to “reopen the economy now” is really about disaster capitalism, which has always preyed on the most vulnerable.
  • We might decide that the Church is, in Pope Francis’ words, a field hospital for the sick–the opposite of a self-referential, dispensary of goods and services to which we think we have a right.

“It is to the stranger that we are bound,” says Butler, “the one, or the ones, we never knew or never chose.” It is in this recognition that we have the hope of finding grievable every precious life lost to Covid-19.


In my Environmental Theology course last fall, my students and I read Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction novel Parable of the Sower. The first volume in an unfinished trilogy (Butler died suddenly before the third book was complete), the narrative unfolds through the journal entries of Lauren Olamina, an African-American teen who navigates life in a dystopian America in the mid-2020s. Social, economic, and environmental collapse force Lauren and everyone else to survive however they can in a frightening, dangerous world.

Many have noted Butler’s prescience in crafting the Parable series in the early 1990s. Late capitalism, climate change, police brutality, mass incarceration, gun violence, the mistreatment of immigrants—all are themes that inform the narrative arc of the series, with the second book, Parable of the Talents, featuring a presidential candidate whose campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Butler may have had a sixth sense about the future but she was also writing in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office. Deregulation, deference to the N.R.A., and the decimation of black communities in the war on drugs gave Butler plenty to work with as she imagined a grim social reality twenty years into the new millennium.

But I’m a theologian and college professor, not an economist or social theorist, and so I have found Butler’s work illuminating for other (related) reasons. Because I assign Parable of the Sower in an Environmental Theology class, we are already interrogating some of the intersections that Butler’s intersectional novel is built on: What theological claims can be made—from the perspective of several religious traditions—about the linguistic construction “the environment”? How is environmental racism an indictment of both public policy and spiritual practice? If climate science paints an increasingly dystopian picture of our planet’s future, is hope a now-vacuous theological category?

Lauren, the daughter of a Baptist minister, develops her own belief system called Earthseed, the primary tenet of which is “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” While this echoes elements of Christian process theology and may or may not be attractive to readers with religious sensibilities, the novel also draws deftly on Buddhist insights and the wisdom of the Bible, as the title suggests.

Lauren is a reluctant prophet but a surprisingly capable one. As she flees her family’s walled compound in southern California in search of whatever safety can be found, others experiencing the same stresses, fears, and dangers are drawn to her: people of color like herself, a mixed-race couple, migrants, young children. This motley collection of folks is a liability to Lauren’s well-planned, well-provisioned quest, but she gathers them in and leads them on, since she operates on the assumptions that everything and everyone is connected, that difference is a gift, and that the flourishing of one depends on the well-being of all.

The logic of interconnectedness has revealed itself in the Covid-19 crisis. We can infect each other, so interconnected are we through biology and by how we inhabit and move through space. And we can take care of each other, interconnected as we are through our shared vulnerabilities.

Unsurprisingly, injustices have also been revealed in this crisis, for we are not all equally vulnerable. Lack of job security and unpaid sick leave, for instance, have become even more acute burdens for millions of people. Is this, then, a cultural moment in which the privileged, in the words of another Butler—critical theorist, Judith Butler—might finally apprehend “the precarity of others—their exposure to violence, their socially induced transience and dispensability?”

Speculative fiction, like much science fiction, is social commentary. Butler’s Parable novels are less about predicting the future and more about imagining justice in the here and now. Her vast literary corpus has inspired the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice, the Emergent Strategy movement, and the podcast How to Survive the End of the World. These efforts operate from a place of fierce hope, from the conviction that other worlds are possible.

Václav Havel famously wrote that hope is “the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” This is why the worst thing, whether its climate collapse or coronavirus, need not leave us hopeless, since hope is not about happy endings. Covid-19 presents the opportunity to practice hope concretely—politically, economically, and legislatively—because it makes sense to do so. Humane measures already being implemented could be the beginning of a new political economy committed to liberty and justice for all, not just a few. Other worlds are possible.

And as Octavia Butler tells us, in the wise words of Lauren Olamina: “Your teachers are all around you. All that you perceive, all that you experience, all that is given to you or taken from you, all that you love or hate, need or fear will teach you—if you will learn.”

Observations, laments, wishes, and perplexities at the end of a spring-like, spring break-Wednesday. In no particular order:

1. Why do so many people think that ‘democratic socialism’ means ‘Stalinist authoritarianism’ and why has Bernie failed to put miles and miles between the two?

2. Maybe the posthumous disgrace Jean Vanier brought on himself and his legacy will allow particular L’Arche communities and the leadership of L’Arche International to enter a spotlight that was always too much on him anyway.

3. Fig jam (or orange marmalade) + Gorgonzola cheese + fresh rosemary on warmed naan, slid into a very hot oven for a very short time = delicious.

4. Churches are almost never good at resolving conflict. The more I learn about and implement restorative practices/restorative justice in my teaching, the more I see the lost opportunities for repairing harm and mending brokenness in ecclesial communities of all kinds.

5. Reading social media posts by persons whose political views differ from my own sometimes feels like exhibitionism. I’m routinely shocked by what is exposed: ignorance and lack of nuance, yes, but it’s the cruelty that astonishes me.

6. I am moved by students who, when asked to read Rowan Williams’s The Body’s Grace, write essays of such erudition, insight, and tenderness. I didn’t teach that difficult piece nearly as well as they wrote about it.

7. A short run on a spring-like, spring-break Wednesday evening does a body good.

I am in a remote place of scenic beauty working on a project that, in part, explores how the world is given to us only through language, and how there is an intrinsic link between the loss of linguistic capacity (our ability to speak Image result for american flag tatteredtruthfully, to wield language responsibly) and the loss of the world (its destruction by forces of hatred and self-interest and our culture’s willing and often unwitting collusion with them).

And in the wake of two mass shootings (I will not call them “senseless”—they make perfect, inevitable, heartbreaking, enraging sense to me), I’m reminded that what people “see” is completely connected to how language shapes our seeing. So if the U.S. is constructed for you linguistically as the story of American exceptionalism with its various plot points of dangerous outsiders and protect our own and democratic socialism must mean Stalinist authoritarianism and the founding fathers were evangelical Christians and guns are a sacred right and why keep talking about slavery and Hillary should be in prison and why can’t gays just keep it to themselves and who’s to say humans are really causing climate change and young, white men who shoot up night clubs and Walmarts are mentally ill and thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers . . .

Then we will not get past this linguistic impasse where what I see is the story of America as an imperial project from the beginning with its various plot points of settler colonialism and lies and conquest and extermination and enslavement and racialized capitalism and the fear of the other and fearful white men who have always held all the power and astonishing cruelty to the most vulnerable and an unwillingness to be the least bit self-critical and God in heaven can’t you see the climate is effing collapsing and why do we tolerate for one second more a President who is obscene, wildly incompetent, and culpable . . .

But can both of us see the dead bodies? Hear something of their stories? Name the failures of language that keep us from keeping bodies, all bodies, safe?

I doubt it.

“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”

Hafiz Shirazi, 14th c.

Next week I’ll have my feet washed. And I’ll wash someone’s feet.

The Ekklesia Project will gather to explore the theme of The Church As Politics, addressing issues like “the rise of nationalism and the ascendance of populist figures, the widespread employment of racial and ethnic fears and grievances, attacks on governmental, judicial, journalistic and scientific institutions, and the increasing vulnerability of migrants, refugees and all displaced people.”

I’m writing the liturgies for our three worship services and I have landed us in lament. We will surface in speech and song–as many of the Psalms do–grief, rage, doubt, and despair. Wherever we may find hope in our time together–in worship, in the plenary sessions, in table conversations–I don’t want us to rush to it too quickly. It’s hard for people of privilege to sit with discomfort, to feel bereft of solutions, to resist the impulse to fix something (or someone).

When we wash each other’s feet, we’ll be reminded of the scandal of the incarnational faith we profess: how flesh and blood and birth and danger are central features of the story we live by, a story about poverty, homelessness, political oppression, refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, sham trials, torture, and capital punishment.

When we wash each other’s feet we’ll be reminded that divine love meets us in ordinary things, in ordinary ways: water for washing and the touch of human hands. We’ll be aware of how much our bodies (our feet, especially) embarrass us; how we prefer to live our lives (and our religious convictions) in our heads.

The ritual washing of feet in the way of Jesus is a political act. It witnesses to an alternative social order (hence the theme: the church as politics) in which power is found not in military prowess but in suffering love; in which leadership doesn’t depend on ego and the diminishment of others but on humility and open-heartedness.

The ritual washing of feet in the way of Jesus recalls the upside-down social order envisioned in that bold, defiant proclamation of Mary (no docile maiden here): He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53).

The ritual washing of feet in the way of Jesus signals radical dependence, not independence. It locates the truth of the gospel in human bodies–our own and the vulnerable bodies of our neighbors: the despised, the dispossessed, the detained.

The ritual washing of feet in the way of Jesus reveals that love is the only power that can bind people together and also set them free. From fear, from self-hatred, from the wounds of the past, from government cages.

No military parades or puffed-up politicians for me today. Would that the political order that fetishizes flags and demands my singular allegiance enact real justice–which, as Cornel West famously said, is what love looks like in public. Would that it had the courage to enact policies that say to every person: “I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”

It would feel like the caress of loving hands on weary feet.


A post from 2011, reworked and reposted a couple of times.

I can appreciate how difficult it must be to craft a good baccalaureate or commencement address. The need to avoid well-worn pieties while also offering something meaningful and true. The desire to be funny but not flip, Image result for graduation celebrationsufficiently serious but not heavy-handed, memorable but not (too) controversial. And the fear of being boring–that you’ll look out over the sea of faces and, oh my god, are they texting while I’m talking? 22-year-olds can be a tough audience; I don’t envy those who stand in front of them every graduation season and do their best to challenge and inspire.

But maybe we could retire that most tiresome of commencement clichés–the one which, in some form or another and with varying degrees of finesse and facility, will be dispensed to most members of the class of 2019, whether they’re graduating from community college or the Ivy League. The one that exhorts them to go forth and “change the world.”

Could we maybe set our sights a little lower?  What if we encouraged humility and tenderness, instead of the disguised workaholism we tend to ask of them?

What if we relieved graduates of the burden to go out and do “great things” and asked them instead to be attentive and useful, merciful and generous, wherever it is they find themselves? And not to stress about where they find themselves because sometimes when you find yourself in the place you least expected to be, you find yourself.

My hunch is that college graduates would be grateful to hear that their task is not to change the world. I think they know how deeply cynical, if well-meaning, this advice is. I remember one of my young Facebook friends posting: “Graduated yesterday. Today I save the world.”

A few years ago I had a student–a senior at the time–who, after reading Living Gently in a Violent World for our class, realized that all her academic work and life experiences had been preparing her for a vocation she hadn’t been able to name: to live in a L’Arche community where she would spend hours at a time feeding or bathing or otherwise caring for persons with profound disabilities. She understood that this would not be an exercise in charity or self-congratulatory do-goodism but would be damn hard work–yet purposeful work, transformative work. Work, that as the book’s subtitle suggests, reveals the “prophetic power of weakness.”

I think about Nicole at every graduation, as the considerable accomplishments of our school’s exceptional students are highlighted (and kudos to those bright and talented young people). But let’s face it, graduating from college to go forth and spend your days wiping someone’s dirty chin or butt doesn’t register any kind of social prestige. We might admire the selflessness of it but we hardly know how to claim it as a worthy way to spend one’s “career” after all the toil (and expense) of four years of college.

Change the world? If we can start with changing a diaper or changing our mind about what success is or how to measure happiness or what matters most in life we might have something to say to the students who are listening, who–despite being a little hungover or momentarily preoccupied with a text message–long to hear a word of grace for the uncertain world that awaits them.

Image result for grunewald crucifixion of christSeven Last Sayings
Wesley Chapel
West Virginia Wesleyan College
16 April 2019

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34

Have you ever felt abandoned? By a friend? By your family? By the church? By God?

Abandoned: ditched, deserted, disowned, discarded, isolated, repudiated, cast off, cast aside, cast out, left out, left for good, left for dead, forgotten, forsaken.


I suspect that those who have felt abandoned by the church or by God are not here tonight. That’s one of the ironies of Holy Week, isn’t it? That those who’ve been most wounded by Christianity aren’t likely to be present to discover, possibly, the consolation, ironically, at the heart of Jesus’ own cry of desolation.

We pronounce no judgment on their absence. We do not shame the friends who cannot be where people gather to tell this impossible story about friendship and betrayal, terror and hope, exclusion and mercy, imperial power and divine grace. A story given shape and substance in the life of a first-century Palestinian Jew whose raw, vulnerable humanity can sometimes make religious people like us uncomfortable.

For, if we’re honest, like the poet Mary Karr, we have to say to Jesus who hangs helplessly, raggedly, a little comically on the Empire’s preferred instrument of torture:

You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.

It’s a scene of utter humiliation, utter abandonment.

And we shouldn’t try to explain it. The words of abandonment, placed on the lips of Jesus by the Gospel writers appropriating the Psalms, are a mash-up of Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Which might mean that we have to live with the limits of language, the confusion of human speech, and with the truth that sometimes we can’t understand each other.

As one writer has said, “We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are.” And sometimes our stories, and the stories of people we love and of people we despise, are stories of forsakenness, of “belonging gone bad.”

The silence that ensues from that cry of desolation on the cross—a silence we can’t explain away with our noisy clamorings—is perhaps the opening of a space. And perhaps, in time, some will be able to safely enter that space and without fear speak their stories of forsakenness, of belonging gone bad.

Perhaps we can say to our wounded friends: we will hold your stories of abandonment and we will trust you with our own wild and weird stories, and together, maybe—who knows, this is fragile, fraught work—we will tell a different story.

A story of a first-century Palestinian Jew who emptied himself of every possible pretension, every temptation to power, every seduction of Empire. This peripatetic Rabbi, breaker of boundaries, of social taboos, of unjust laws, who taught that sin is the “addiction to being less than ourselves.”

A story which invites us into its telling, and into the consolation that there is no where in our own or anyone’s godforsakenness that the vulnerable, humiliated, abandoned Jesus hasn’t also been.

It’s a start anyway. Can we tell that story? Can we be that story?

My departmental colleague, Rob Hull, died unexpectedly yesterday. I would prefer to mourn his death in private and in person with others who knew and loved him, and I will do that. But public grieving in cyberspaceImage may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, ocean, sky and outdoor has come to feel obligatory in this age of death-notice-via-social media. I’m not a fan of the latter. But I do want to communicate my affection for my philosopher friend.

Rob was kind. I think this quality of his character comes to mind for a lot of people who knew him. I think Rob cared about kindness. Which isn’t mere niceness but a virtue that must be cultivated and practiced over time.

Rob loved our students. He loved teaching. He knew that to introduce undergraduates to philosophy was to create the possibility in each of them of becoming a lifelong lover of wisdom (what philosophia literally means), and to seek the good, to care about the right things, to live worthy, beautiful lives. We toiled, he and I, in a higher education landscape that increasingly devalues religion and philosophy; that regards such disciplines as superfluous for the job training program that many now consider college to be.

Rob’s students loved him back. They were moved by his care for them, how he asked questions about their lives, cared about their futures, encouraged their scholarship and their athletic gifts (he was famous for this), seeing them as whole beings: body, mind, heart, and spirit.

I was making cookies for my own students (we do that kind of thing here) when I began receiving texts and calls about Rob’s death. I experienced what I have come to know as a truth of human existence: grief begins in the body and it exhausts our bodies. When death comes unexpectedly we are caught off guard by the physicality of the sorrow we feel—in our limbs, our chest, our throbbing temples. Or by a sorrow that leaves us numb, and wondering why we can’t feel anything.

The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi said:

Don’t run away from grief . . . Look for the remedy inside the pain.

Why on earth would we do that?

Because the ground of grief, the root of sorrow, is love. We grieve because we love. And love, too, lives in the body. Love is what we are made for.

I think Rob believed this deeply and he practiced it, like anyone does, imperfectly. I think his students sensed that he believed it. I think his kindness to them in explicit, practical ways—whether they were stellar students or struggling students—was one of the ways he lived this conviction.

I will miss Rob Hull, lover of wisdom, lover of students, and the daily, unassuming warmth of his witness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

“Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye



Tears today for the beautiful life and work of Mary Oliver.

In late 2016 I submitted a solicited piece on her poetry to The Christian Century. They decided not to run it. We parted amicably on the matter (well, I Image result for mary oliver earth skirtswas a little vexed).

But that same afternoon I took a long walk on the beach (something Mary Oliver did almost every day of her life) and wrote another piece entirely in my head (something I never do).

I went back to the house where I was staying (I was on sabbatical and in Southport, NC at the time, thanks to my generous friend, Nola). I stayed up all night transcribing the thing. I sent it to The Christian Century the next morning (something I normally would never do—no editing? no second guessing? are you kidding?). It was received enthusiastically and ran as the cover story in April 2017.

The original piece was reworked and published last year in The Cresset, a journal dedicated to literature, the arts, and public affairs. It explored a topic that had consumed me for a long time: the charge of sentimentality in Oliver’s work. Responding to what I considered an irresponsible critique of Oliver in First Things (not surprised they published it), I noted how sentimentality as a putdown is often itself sentimental, and that it is almost always gendered in ways that go unnoticed and unreflected upon.

I love that piece.

Which is something the constitutionally-insecure me would never say. Why do I say it now? Because Mary.

Mary Oliver didn’t need to be defended or rescued by me. But today as the surprising waves of grief have washed over me, I’ve been reminded, again and  again, poem by luscious poem, how she and her life-giving words have saved me.

[NB: In his new book, He Held Radical LightChristian Wiman has a personal story about Oliver that is, by turns, tender, funny, wise, beautiful, and a little horrifying–in other words, classic Mary Oliver.]

And the poem below might be my favorite. It’s not well-known. Oliver wrote it when she was in her late 20s. Alone, it stands, in my view, as one of her best; if you know something about the trauma she endured as a child, it takes on an even deeper poignancy.

Rest well, Mary Oliver, lover of words and the world and their happy meeting. May the earth, as you once wrote, take you back tenderly.

“The Return”

The deed took all my heart.
I did not think of you,
Not ’til the thing was done.
I put my sword away
And then no more the cold
And perfect fury ran
Along my narrow bones
And then no more the black
And dripping corridors
Hold anywhere the shape
That I had come to slay.
Then for the first time,
I saw in the cave’s belly
The dark and clotted webs,
The green and sucking pools,
The rank and crumbling walls,
The maze of passages.

And I thought then
Of the far earth,
Of the spring sun
And the slow wind,
And a young girl,
And I looked then
At the white thread.

Hunting the minotaur
I was no common man
And had no need of love.
I trailed the shining thread
Behind me, for a vow,
And did not think of you.
It lay there, like a sign,
Coiled on the bull’s great hoof.
And back into the world,
Half blind with weariness
I touched the thread and wept.
O, it was frail as air,
And I turned then
With the white spool

Through the cold rocks,
Through the black rocks.
Through the long webs,
And the mist fell,
And the webs clung.
And the rocks tumbled,
And the earth shook.

And the thread held.


My title is from Malcolm Guite’s powerful poem “Refugee.” I was reminded of it after the death of a child on Christmas Day in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

So much for protection. This is the second child to die in a detention center in recent weeks.

It is scandalous and heartbreaking and criminal and infuriating and utterly avoidable. Yet we can hardly tear ourselves away from our carefully-curated-for-consumption-on-social-media Christmas celebrations to be purposefully outraged. I indict myself in this.

Guite’s poem reflects on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, observed each year in the Western Church on the fourth day of Christmas.

Sometimes referred to as the “slaughter” or “massacre” of innocents, it commemorates a subplot of the nativity story recounted in St. Matthew’s gospel: a petulant, paranoid ruler feels threatened by a child born to refugee parents and, with his ego and power unchecked, puts policies in place that ensure the death of young children across the region.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.

Because Christianity has long been domesticated in the American context, with sentimental versions of the stories associated with Christmas the quintessential proof of this, it is almost impossible to take in the raw, radical edges of the gospels’ infancy narratives and their explosive import for the social, economic, and political norms of the day–and for ours.

And so here we are at Christmas in 2018, caught up in cradles and creches and soft candlelight, unable to see that refugee Jesus

is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.

And unwilling to reckon with a petulant, paranoid ruler who feels threatened by children born to refugee parents and who, with his ego and power unchecked, puts policies in place that ensure the death of young children.


Image credit:



A homily I gave a few days ago at Holly Springs United Methodist Church, Holly Springs, North Carolina, at a mid-week Advent Evening Eucharist.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi 3:1-4

Let us pray:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
from the laziness that is contented with half-truth,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Deliver me and all of us, O Lord. Amen.

Prayer from Kenya, United Methodist Hymnal no. 597, adapted

Related image

Advent is my favorite season of the Church year. I wouldn’t say “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” since that phrase, as we know, has other associations. And now you have that sappy—I mean snappy—song stuck in Image result for advent modern liturgical iconyour head, don’t you? Sorry about that. Anyway, I don’t think the word “wonderful” gets at what is most profound about Advent.

The season of Advent is the Church’s ancient autumnal interval—a marking of the time between the end of the fall harvest and the coming spareness of winter, between November’s fading light and December’s inky darkness. Advent has a sense of the foreboding about it.

And not just because the trees are stripped bare and winter winds can come early—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It’s because our inner landscapes can sometimes seem as desolate as the outer ones. Achy uncertainty can blanket our spirits like a late-fall Carolina snowstorm covering everything in slate-gray stillness.

This sense of foreboding, this Advent spirit of achy uncertainty is due in part, I think, to the scriptural texts that the Lectionary, year after year, cycle after cycle, asks us to hear, read, sing, pray, ponder. These texts can be startling in their bleakness, their harshness. They are at once familiar and yet ominous, perplexing, inscrutable.

Recall St. Luke’s solemn tone on the first Sunday of Advent this year, with his warnings about “distress among nations”; people fainting “from fear and foreboding”: the charge to be “on guard” that the Lord’s Day not “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

This coming Sunday John the Baptizer—that most unsettling figure of Advent—will utter his famous words of welcome to those who came to him seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers!”

Anyone ever received that lovely sentiment on a Christmas card?

And then there is our text for this evening, the Old Testament reading appointed for the second Sunday of Advent.

The book of the prophet Malachi is a short one and the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Turn the page and you’re in the New Testament—ready to read about the birth of Jesus at the beginning of St. Matthew’s gospel. But Malachi doesn’t portend babies and mangers and shepherds abiding. Here we have, as we heard tonight and as you may have heard on Sunday, talk of fire and cleansing and purification. The coming Day of the Lord is not cheerfully summoned; there’s a question about whether it can even be endured.

And here we have more evidence of Advent’s sobering sensibilities, its achy uncertainties. This season is about the coming of a long-awaited messiah, yes, but it’s not only or even primarily about a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. These few verses from Malachi remind us that we begin the Christian year every Advent not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists between our deepest human longings and the reality of God.

And God, according to the prophet Malachi, is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” A refiner’s fire.

These are familiar words, especially if we’ve heard or sung Handel’s Messiah a few times. But we can too easily make the familiar idolatrous. We can forget that before the gospel is good news it is strange news. We can miss that the whole of Israel’s prophetic tradition, including the slim book of Malachi, seeks to say loud and clear and often “that things are not as they should be, nor as they were promised, and not as they must and will be.”[1] And we can misunderstand that metaphors like fire and soap and their refining, purifying properties are meant to call into question the dominant social reality of both the prophet’s day and our own.

In an Advent sermon in 1928, German pastor and later Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said this:

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.[2]

Bonhoeffer’s words suggest to me and perhaps to you that Advent might be the season of the liturgical year that reveals most profoundly how our social location determines how we read the Bible.

I’ll say that again: Advent might be the season of the liturgical year that reveals most profoundly how our social location determines how we read the Bible.

Because what we discover when we take in the sobering, unsettling scriptures of Advent is that they are difficult not because they are willfully obscure but because we are often willfully lodged in places of privilege and power, incapable of hearing them from the underside of history from which they come.

Refining fire is a horrifying prospect to those who benefit from the status quo. To the powerless whose daily lives are a struggle for survival, for dignity, the fire that would purify unjust systems, the caustic soap that would clean out corruption and abuse of power can’t do its work soon enough.

For those of us whose way of life depends on political, economic, and social systems in which power and resources are accessible to a privileged few, refining fire and caustic soap and the winnowing fork and the axe laid to the root of the tree and any number of Advent’s startling images can make us long for cradles and creches and toddler-shepherds in bathrobes. We prefer soft candlelight to refining fire, thank you.

But here’s the good news in this strange text in this bleak season—and it’s Bonhoeffer’s words again from the same sermon in 1928:

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.

It turns out, as blacksmiths and jewelers know, that refining fire does not annihilate; it purifies to make something beautiful. We are forged in a fire that makes us able to “offer ourselves to the Lord in righteousness”—to see to the moral obligations that bind us to God and to our neighbors.

“Moral obligation” is the connotation of the Hebrew word for “righteousness” in this passage but it does not refer simply to the obligation of charity that we are so good at this time of year. Rather, it’s about the obligation to let go of what we think of as real, as stable, as ordered and uncontested—the systems, again, that serve and benefit us at the expense of others—and to inhabit that realm, that reign, that kingdom of righteousness which all of Advent is leading us to: where the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

I’ve included an image in our bulletin tonight by Everett Patterson, an artist based in Portland, Oregon who created this illustration in 2014. It is rich in JoseyMariaWebvisuals, in symbols and associations with the familiar story of a displaced couple in dire straits: an illegitimate pregnancy, harassment from political authorities, shunning and rejection from local businesses, an uncertain future.

I hope you’ll take the image with you and for the remainder of Advent and into the twelve days of the Christmas season ponder all these things in your heart. For, like the startling, unsettling texts of Advent, this image is about power. Who has it and who doesn’t. Like Advent, it reminds us that God resides with the powerless and invites us to live there, too.

And the power of Advent is that the one we are waiting for has already given us all we need to do this, to bear witness to his reign, to stand alongside and learn from those considered illegitimate—the harassed, the shunned, the rejected, those with an uncertain future.

For when the Word became flesh he didn’t just slip into skin like ours. And he didn’t come to impart wisdom to help us important people get on with our busy lives. He came, full of grace and truth, to show us that we are made for relationship, that we are most fully human when we live into God’s desired future envisioned by prophets like Malachi, where all abide in kinship and mutual care—where all oppression ceases, all are made welcome, all know their belovedness.

We need to be purified to see this vision of what God desires for all creation—to work for it and live into it. We need to be cleaned up. Fire and soap.

And we need bread. We need to be fed by the one who was born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, who gave his own body to be broken and shared. As we come to the table we offer our own brokenness—our anxieties, our blindness, our mixed-up priorities, and our toxic prejudices. And we trust that God will take all that we are and purify us, cleanse us, and make us beautiful.

This is our hope, in this season and in all the seasons of our lives.

Related image

[1]Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 21.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 185-186.

From the archives and in honor of the canonization this weekend of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: 

“And that is how Oscar Romero got disappeared by right wingers for a second time.”

Jon Stewart spoke these words at the end of a segment last week on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. The occasion was the Texas School Board’s recent decision to reject a PROMO9recommendation that Archbishop Romero be included in a world history curriculum standard about important figures who led resistance movements against political oppression. Stewart noted, with his usual stinging wit, that the rationale for the board’s decision was that Romero wasn’t famous enough. The absurdity of it: “let’s not teach this because no one knows it.”

Thirty years ago today Oscar Romero was gunned down with an M-16 assault rifle while celebrating the Eucharist for a group of nuns in a hospital chapel. In a sermon preached the day before, and broadcast across the country by radio, he had called upon the Salvadoran army to stop doing the bidding of the country’s corrupt military government.

I would like to appeal in a special way to the army’s enlisted men, and in particular to the ranks of the Guardia Nacional and the police—those in the barracks. Brothers: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: Thou shalt not kill!

No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations . . .

In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

American involvement in El Salvador’s government was direct: Jimmy Carter dramatically increased U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military during his presidency–despite Romero’s public plea that his country was “fed up with weapons and bullets,” and between 1980 and 1992 6 billion American taxpayer dollars helped to fund an oppressive regime and its death squads.

And so on March 24, 1980 Romero wasn’t exactly “disappeared” as so many of his fellow Salvadorans had been, but his life was brutally cut short, his prophetic voice silenced by a sniper assassin.

Yet his witness has endured. In 1989 Australian filmmaker John Duigan made Romero, introducing the first world to this third-world prophet of the people. A collection of Romero’s writings–excerpts from radio addresses, sermons, speeches, and homilies–was published in 1988 (paperback 2004), and is available in its entirety online. Romero’s compelling life and death and the liberation theology he espoused have been the subject of countless theological texts and treatises.

When prophetic figures like Oscar Romero are cut down in their prime, there’s a tendency sometimes to tidy up their image; soften their radical edge a bit; make their persona a little more palatable for mass consumption–in other words, to minimize the revolutionary qualities that got them killed in the first place. (Tim Tyson has written eloquently about this phenomenon in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr.).

So it’s important to remember the truth that Romero bore witness to with his words and his witness (which were one and the same): a truth that wounds but which also heals; that accuses but also liberates. The truth of Christ, of God’s abundant mercy and generosity incarnate in a life of sacrificial love–a life and love which refused violence in all its seductive guises.

Chris Huebner suggests that “the truth of Christ is not merely a belief uttered or expressed or otherwise made present by us. Rather, it is a performance enacted in and through which truth is given as an offering or gratuitous gesture.” Romero made of his own life this kind of offering, this kind of gratuitous gesture in which “the interruption of the violent world of mastery, possession, and control” was glimpsed “by a nonviolent offering of a radically different way of being and knowing called peace” (Huebner).

And for this he was felled on the altar of a small Salvadoran chapel, days before the start of Holy Week, his own body and blood mingled with the body and blood of the Eucharist. The peace that the Eucharist makes possible made Romero’s life possible, and in his violent death, martyrdom and truth were again revealed as gifts that make the ongoing witness of peace in the world possible.

For those of us who live and work in the tedium that often characterizes church life in America–the pettiness, the mind-numbing sameness of our squabbles, the countless ways we accommodate to state power and politics, the scandals that may yet undo us–Oscar Romero’s witness is an enduring challenge–and a gift. For constitutive of his life’s work was another gratuitous gesture: that of making God credible in the world.

Texas school children won’t find this out in their new history books and they will be the poorer for it. But the body of Christ gathered around his table around the world have, in the martyrdom of our brother, Oscar, the credible truth of God’s own life and love.

Thanks be to God.

In 2003, members of Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the funeral of Fred Rogers. They followed the same script, held the same signs, enacted the same dismal theatre of outrage they had at countless funerals before and as they would at many more.

Journalist Tom Junod talks about this near the end of the new, beautiful documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (He also wrote about it for Esquire in 2014—link above). Junod describes how he approached the protestors after the funeral and was drawn, as Mr. Rogers would have been, to the children among them:

There were so many of them, for one thing; the Westboro congregation turned out to be a young one, and even some of the lank-haired women holding signs and spitting epithets turned out be, on closer inspection, teenagers. And they were all so poor. I’m not speaking simply of their clothes, and their teeth, and their grammar, or any of the other markers of class in America. I’m speaking of their poverty of spirit. Whether they were sixteen or six, they looked to be already exhausted, already depleted, with greasy hair, dirty faces, and circles under their eyes that had already hardened into purplish dents. They looked as if they were far from home, and didn’t know where they were going next. They looked, in truth, not just poorly taken care of, but abused, if not physically then by a belief inimical to childhood—the belief that to be alive is to hate and be hated.

By the time Junod recounts this experience in the film, the viewer has been immersed in the theology of childhood that Mr. Rogers embodied in his life and work. He was no heavy-handed evangelist, of course—gentleness and utter guilelessness were his way in the world. The long-running Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was not explicit in its theological convictions but it was unintelligible apart from them. Which may be why he was relentlessly mocked by critics who for decades questioned his sincerity, his sexuality, even describing him as “an evil, evil man,” as Fox and Friends did in 2007. The cheery hosts breezily claimed, with characteristic ignorance of their own ignorance, that Mr. Rogers had help to raise generations of spoiled, narcissistic, entitled adults who didn’t realize that specialness must be earned.

A Wall Street Journal article was full of the same armchair Ayn Rand huff, though it struck a more patronizing tone:

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

But as the film points out, not didactically but with every frame featuring Fred Rogers, this criticism gets everything wrong. Without ever saying it directly, Mr. Rogers conveyed to children watching him in living rooms and in his many face to face encounters with children and their parents that they were persons of inherent dignity, worthy of love and capable of love by virtue of their creatureliness. “Love,” he said, at the beginning of his long career, “is at the root of everything: all learning, all parenting, all relationships; love or the lack of it.” Children, he believed, had complex inner lives and should be respected not condescended to; they should be valued and listened to for the unique, beloved human being each one is. Every child should be protected and given the opportunity to flourish.

The lack of love was at the heart of the second episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood but not overtly. It was part of a week long series—the very first week the show went into national distribution from its production base in Pittsburgh—on conflict, change, and distrust. In the episode, King Friday, one of a dozen or so low-budget puppets voiced by Rogers, was posting border guards and erecting a fence to keep out those calling for change. “Down with the changers!” he bellows, “because we’re on top!” The episode aired in February 1968 when images of Vietnam were the centerpiece of the nightly news. In the end, the fence came down, the guards were dismissed, but only through the bold civil disobedience of King Friday’s subjects.

In a 1969 episode, Mr. Rogers invited African-American cast member Francois Clemmons to join him as he rested his feet in a kiddie pool of cool water. The associations aren’t subtle: the segregated swimming pools of that era, the Christian practice of washing feet, the simple gesture of inviting a neighbor to sit and rest. (Clemmons played a police officer on the show; a strategic choice in the late 60s. The two reenacted this scene in a 1993 episode.)

Mr. Rogers was a practitioner of disruptive peacemaking which is, at heart, love’s redeeming work: bearing witness to another way of being and seeing in a world where the powerful rule by fear-mongering, the constant threat of war, and dehumanizing others. Disruptive peacemaking, the redemptive work of love, is both the dramatic, potentially risky work of social protest and civil disobedience and the ordinary acts of loving one’s neighbor with kindness, hospitality, friendship; it is seeing to their well-being in ways that may be modest—a homemade meal for a homebound neighbor—and may be costly, as in refusing in material, consequential ways to live by a story that would deny anyone their dignity and strip them of their personhood.

I wept pretty much through the whole of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and not only for the beautiful man that Fred Rogers was but for the fear-mongering, constant threat of war, and the dehumanizing of others that has become normative and maybe long-term 50 years after the beginning of Rogers’ work.

The travesties of the last few days seem beyond comprehension and yet the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the President and the calculated destruction plotted and carried out by his henchmen and henchwomen have become so routinized in only 18 months (only!) that systematic acts of child abuse seem as inevitable as they are horrifying and heartbreaking. The conservative corporate media defend the traumatizing of children (the effects of which will be lifelong; we know this) with the same breezy certainty they displayed in criticizing Fred Rogers (a life-long Republican).

Counterintuitively maybe, tenderness is also at the heart of disruptive peacemaking. That tenderness is utterly absent in our public discourse, that it is seen as weakness, especially in men, is something to be mourned. Tender men like Fred Rogers are marked men—mocked, belittled, dismissed, and regarded with deep suspicion, especially if they work with children.

Another tender man, the extraordinary  Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community a few years before Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began, says that “to love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”

This was Fred Rogers’ lifelong vocation. He practiced it fiercely.

God help us to do the same.

There’s a hint at the beginning of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri about where this wild ride is headed. Red Welby, owner of the billboard company, is reading Flannery O’Connor when Mildred Hayes, grieving mother of Angela, strides in–and, oh, this woman does stride–with $5000 in cash and a sorrow that has crushed her.

She pays for three signs on Drinkwater Road to get the attention of the town and to shame the police chief into doing more to solve her daughter’s murder. Chief Willoughby is beloved by the townspeople and dying of cancer and sympathetic to Mildred’s pain so it’s left to officer Dixon–a foul, thuggish, dimwitted racist–to deal with Mildred’s effrontery.

We soon learn that Mildred’s own cruelty can be breathtaking, hardened as she is by loss and suffering and guilt. “There ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other?” Mildred poses this question to no one in particular and when she answers it with “I hope not” we know that a capacity for compassion–we get fleeting, unsentimental glimpses of it–resides alongside her savagery.

It isn’t just that McDonagh’s film is populated with the grotesque and that it captures so exquisitely an ethos where violence and tenderness, ignorance and insight coincide in almost every frame, within every character. And it isn’t just that he seems to have taken to heart one of O’Connor’s enduring bits of wisdom: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

It’s that McDonagh seems to believe that one really can be changed in a moment, that a sudden flash of insight or truth can come like a purifying fire–quite literally in the case of Dixon or, for Mildred, from a despised enemy–and everything can change.

In the few reviews I’ve read, it’s Dixon’s transformation that comes under the most scrutiny for both its lack of believability and the unsatisfactory way it glosses his virulent, violent ways. I get that. Especially in this current cultural moment.

But I think about the ending of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The insufferable grandmother, the murderous Misfit. Each, in a startling blaze of terror, discovers the truth about themselves and each other.

She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them . . . 

“She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

It’s a flicker of grace in both O’Connor’s short story and McDonagh’s movie. Who knows if it will last. The film keeps us guessing about that. But maybe we can be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.


As the CNN anchor was about to introduce another segment on another hero in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, music began to play in the background.

It was almost imperceptible–so conditioned are we to expect this kind of artfully packaged reporting in the wake of so-call “natural” disasters. The intent is hardly disguised: “human interest” stories like these are meant to restore our faith in the basic decency of humans. And to boost advertising revenues for the network.

The cynic might say the latter is more important to network executives but we viewers reliably–storm after tragic storm–give them the data they need to keep at it. We consume these stories, are moved to tears by them (the music helps with that), and grant our permission again and again to be manipulated in such easy, overt ways.

To say this isn’t to denigrate the selflessness of ordinary people who often go to extraordinary lengths to help the vulnerable in times of crisis. (But maybe we could stop saying that Texans–or North Carolinians or West Virginians or whoever–are the very best at this; it’s not a competition and no one group has a monopoly on goodness).

The problem is what these stories of individual heroism do in aggregate, especially when they are accompanied by the rhetoric of “we’ll bounce back,” “we’ll be stronger than ever,” “this storm won’t defeat us.” They can misdirect our gaze to where we need to be looking most intently, with continual vigilance and no little righteous anger: at policies and programs and political institutions who bear direct responsibility for making the effects of naturally-forming hurricanes much worse than they would otherwise be.

We have known for a long time that emissions of heat-trapping gases are increasing the probability and intensity of heat waves, record rainfall, and storm surges. It doesn’t take rocket science (it’s climate science, Mr. President, and it’s real) to know that warmer oceans create more severe hurricanes.

We have known for a long time that easing restrictions on building in low-lying, flood-prone areas is to court environmental disaster which is to create social chaos. The explosive growth in Houston in the last few years is a sobering parable for our time: when you allow developers to pave over acres of prairie and pasture land that once absorbed large amounts of rainwater, you are responsible for a level of devastation and misery and loss of life that is staggering, and much of it avoidable.

When you have more than 1300 chemical plants, as Texas does, many of them in low-lying coastal areas susceptible to flooding, you get what happened last Thursday: the Arkema plant in Houston lost power, lost back-up generator power, took on six feet of water–all of which caused highly flammable organic peroxides to catch fire. The company had recently pressured federal regulators to delay new safety regulations, and the Trump administration obliged.

And when you have persons in control of agencies and institutions who deny the settled science on climate change, who actively undermine measures to ensure safety, you get, for example, an EPA chief whose entire public career has stood in opposition to the mission of the agency he now heads. Old news, I realize, and so bizarre as to be laughable, but the power being wielded, mostly in secret, is chilling to contemplate, breathtaking in its reach.

And so these agencies and institutions and the media that unwittingly conspire with them would have us focus on personal acts of charity rather than on corporate acts of injustice. It is a twisted reality of our time that affluent America has an interest in maintaining unjust social structures which create victims on whom we can lavish our charity. The poor as social project.

But justice comes before charity. The prophet Amos, after all, did not say, “Let charity roll down like mighty waters.”

So while we are, rightly, admiring the generosity of rescuers in motor boats, may we also, with vigilance and righteous anger, speak truth to power, saying loud and clear that justice is called for here. And justice, simply, as one prophetic voice of our time has put it, is “to sort out what belongs to whom, and return it to them.”

Our beloved dog, Duke, got sick the week before our family vacation and, even though we had witnessed his decline for years, it was beyond hard. And when he died at the age of 16 years and one day, we wept more tears and remembered a puppy who ate every shoe in sight; who once, when briefly left alone in the car on a cool autumn day, chewed through every seat belt; a dog who, like every dog you yourself have ever loved, showed us what living and loving with full-on joy and abandon looks like.

Duke came to us the second Saturday of September, 2001. On the morning of September 11 I took him to his first veterinarian appointment and saw the tumbling twin towers on the waiting-area TV. That day was always redeemed a little for us as it was also linked to this slobbery, unwieldy 12-week old bundle of energy and affection who would change our lives for ever, for good.

When we gathered for vacation on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida this past week we told funny, tender stories about Duke, who was named by Drew who, at the time, was an avid Duke basketball fan. That Drew would go on to become a Blue Devil-hating UNC Tarheel didn’t diminish one speck of affection for the name of our “Dukie.”

There are so many sentimental cliches about the love of dogs. In my experience all of them are true. But what I couldn’t have known was the grace Duke would show us in death. As we tended to him those last few days, when he already had significant infirmities–total deafness, the worn-out, painful hips that labs are cursed with–he never failed to register somehow, sometimes with the smallest gesture, how thankful he was for our presence, our care.

We buried Duke in the backyard of a house we likely won’t always live in but his body Duke at Duke Gardenswill lie here under green grass and white snow, season after season and, while I don’t envision a reunion with Duke in some meadowy heaven, I have the hope that the goodness that was his very being participates somehow in what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” And if I can live with the kind of integrity and fullness of life that was our Duke, and if I can die with the same grace and gratitude, I will have been made more fully human, in no small part, because of this beautiful animal.

Thank you for 16 years of friendship, dearest Duke, faithful companion to Debra, Jim, Drew, and Sean Patrick. You made us laugh. You made us proud. You made us better.

In an upcoming issue of The Christian Century I say a few things about Mary Oliver’s poem “Gethsemane.” It appears in her book Thirstthe first collection of poems published after the death of her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook. These poems speak of grief and loss and gratitude, and many also reveal the theological and liturgical edges of Oliver’s work during this period of her life.

She writes about worship with both whimsy and seriousness, and always in her exploration of scriptural theology is the natural world–trees and bees and oceans and honey locusts taking their necessary place in the cosmic story of redemption and restoration.

And because Oliver is not an academic theologian, not even, I would say, a conventional church-going Christian, she brings surprising insight to familiar stories. In “Gethsemane,” for instance, she notes briefly what is always highlighted, often tediously, about this incident recorded in the gospels according to Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake while he prays in a garden yet they soon fall asleep. Oliver, though, imagines that while humans might have let Jesus down in his moment of crisis and uncertainty, the rest of creation did not.

The “wild awake” world she conjures is arresting, jarring, especially on Good Friday. And on this Good Friday, when it becomes clearer with each passing day that we have neither a president nor a collective public will interested in seeing to the health of a planet in peril, Oliver’s poem is a kind of lament.

Yesterday the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” in a faraway place on mother earth. How can we “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’) in the midst of such Holy Week destruction and blasphemy? The destruction of our world, after all, as Wendell Berry has said, is “not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.”

Jesus prays in a garden. We are asleep. But the precarious earth, beloved of God, suffering unspeakably at our hands, is wild awake.

by  Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me.  But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me.  And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

There are scenes of such tenderness in Barry Jenkins’ exquisite film Moonlight that they are almost unbearable to watch. Not because the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur—not remotely—and not because part of the protagonist’s story is his struggle to know and name his body’s desires. In fact, that way of putting it—that Moonlight is a movie about sexual self-discovery—minimizes, I think, both the beautiful sweep of this particular story set in this particular place among these particular people and what it means to know ourselves as desiring beings.

Human intimacy takes many forms and “sexual identity” is not a term that defines one’s personhood in any way that approaches completeness. One of the most breathtaking scenes in the film is when Juan teaches Chiron (“Little”) to swim. It, like much of the movie, is bathed in blue light. As A.O. Scott writes in the best review I know of, scenes like this are “better witnessed than described.” But one thing that can be said is that in the soft, azure evening light Chiron is given a glimpse—maybe the first—of his belovedness. And Juan, too, who cannot be reduced to stereotype or to any of the tired tropes of lesser films about drug addiction and despair, seems to both reveal and discover his own capacity for selfless love. He sees Chiron. And he touches him, cradling him in warm ocean waves, offering him safety and calm for storms yet to come.

And isn’t that what we all want? To be seen and known, to feel safe and loved in the presence of another who wants our good? To experience the touch of another, in all its forms, that communicates our belonging and belovedness, whatever awaits us in this world?

+ + +

This week we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and we inaugurate a new president. In one way, the public liturgies of these two occasions will be similar because neither will be completely honest: most observances of King’s legacy will downplay or avoid altogether the radical political theology that got him killed and the personal moral failings that hurt people in his life. And the spectacle of inaugural politics will belie not only a deep divide in our country but a season of unprecedented unkindness and coarseness in which the dignity of many persons–of the vulnerable, especially–was called into question.

In other ways, the juxtaposition of these two events this week couldn’t be more startling. Precisely because of what we have witnessed these last many months, the life and work of King stands in solemn judgment on the body politic and the will of an electorate that brought us to this. For what King can teach us in this particular moment is perhaps less about community organizing and nonviolent resistance—though thank God for heirs of the movement like Rev. William Barber—and more about what it means to see, to behold with unashamed tenderness, the humanity of another.

We have not been willing to regard those around us in such ways, most especially those who are routinely stigmatized, demonized, thrown away. We have been told, falsely, that the first question in staking our claim in political life is “what will you do for me?” instead of “what does my vulnerable neighbor need?” We have been suspicious of and outright hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement because we’ve never seriously reckoned with white privilege and the kind of racism that does the most harm: deeply entrenched patterns of discrimination and exclusion in all institutions of American life.

And then a small, quiet movie is made. (But not without the help of white privilege in Hollywood). And we see the matter of many black lives—the material conditions that leave black bodies and souls black and blue, bruised in spirit, confronting injustices and indignities that would break us in a minute and that often do break these fragile sisters and brothers we don’t (want to) see or know.

+ + +

Part of what makes Moonlight hard to watch—while at the same time being absolutely urgent and essential viewing—is what it reveals about ourselves. When Chiron is grown and is able, despite his fears, to make a faltering gesture toward connection and communion, he acknowledges his desire in all its complexity, his humanity in all its fullness. And he is received with a grace rarely witnessed on film.

And isn’t that what we all want? To be seen and known, to feel safe and loved in the presence of another who wants our good? To experience the touch of another, in all its forms, that communicates our belonging and belovedness, whatever awaits us in this world?


My turn on the rotation at bLOGOS for the Third Sunday of Advent:

Isaiah 35:1-10 (vv. 1-6a, 10 in Lectionary for Mass)waxing-gibbous-hickory-moon-827pm-5468
Psalm 146:5-10 (vv. 6-10 in LM)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

“They’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim.”

Leonard Cohen

A confession: I do not know how to write about these Advent texts as if the events of the last month (and the many months prior) were politics as usual in the United States of America. You know—a couple of slick, scripted candidates square off, make promises they won’t keep; one emerges the victor, half the nation sighs and shrugs, and then we all get back to the business of our busy lives. Good God, no.

In fact, I think the events of the last month and what they portend for the future put into sharp relief the piercing critique that the texts of Advent bring to bear on the politics of fear and intimidation, on authoritarian rule and its contempt for truth, on stunningly ill-prepared leaders and their fragile egos.

The prophets of Israel saw both the farce and pressing danger of corrupt imperial power. And they were relentless in their attempts to rouse an anaesthetized populace who, as Walter Brueggemann notes, had “for so long lived in a protective, fake world that their perceptual field was skewed and with their best looking they could not see what was there to see.”

To read the rest click here.

Almost never do we change a person’s politics with verbal arguments—with reasoned discourse, dispassionate evidence, or passionate speech. It’s disheartening, really, blog-post-picespecially for people who care deeply about language and its power to compel, convince, convert.

But, God in heaven, do we try. With such earnestness, such determination. Why can’t you see I’m right? How can you not be persuaded by this or that article I just posted on Facebook?

With social media—no surprise here—I’m emboldened to say things I wouldn’t communicate in a face-to-face encounter with family, friends, or strangers. And for all that is “social” about it, Facebook and other media platforms are in fact hyper-individualized modes of consumption and dissemination, both through the user’s own choices and tendencies and Facebook’s algorithm logic, inscrutable as the latter may sometimes be.

But here’s the thing. Or at least one thing. A good argument—about anything—and how we make it well is less like a carefully-crafted press release and more like a performance piece, an embodied act intelligible within a set of other actions, convictions, stories, and dispositions.

When a lawyer makes a closing argument, it’s her body language as much as the written text—her physical comportment, her eye contact with each juror, that catch in her voice—that does the necessary work (or doesn’t). We don’t phone these things in—presence and embodiment are everything.

And when it comes to politics—by which I mean how human life is ordered for the good of all and how we routinely fail at this—the arguments we make about this or that “issue” are rooted in a wider set of concerns and convictions about what counts as the good life.

We have honest disagreements about this. And any hope we might have to compel, convince, or convert another to our vision of things is in how well—how beautifully, I would suggest—we perform, embody, live out, bear witness to our particular vision in a deeply social way, a truly social way. No pixels necessary. Real bodies in real time in real places.

From Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement to indigenous North Dakotans and their allies at Standing Rock we do this together. We do it as (if I can quote theologian Kathryn Tanner slightly out of context) “a genuine community of argument, one marked by mutual hearing and criticism among those who disagree, by a common commitment to mutual correction and uplift.”

So we might make something “public” on Facebook and we might talk about our “public discourse” and there is such a thing as “public policy” but the truth is we are members of communities, not members of the public. As Wendell Berry has said, a community is “a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, ‘we belong to our community,’ but never ‘We belong to our public.’”

May we inhabit our communities and engage other communities with the kind of compelling witness, beautiful belonging, that makes people say, “I want some of that; I could belong there.” And thus may we argue well.

But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body, 
leaving your bitter taste.

From “Rage” by Mary Oliver
in Dream Work, 1986

My sabbatical project includes giving some sustained attention to the prose and poetry of Mary Oliver, whose latest book, Upstream, was released last week.

Oliver is beloved by many. Only Rumi gives her a run for her money in terms of poetry sales in the American market. Yet there is a dearth of critical studies restore-my-heartof her work; accessibility in poetry seems to disincline serious scholarly engagement. It is true that her substantial output is mixed, a hazard for anyone in any field whose published work spans more than half a century. It’s also true, I think, that her best poems are not her most popular poems.

+ + +

In the last three weeks a cultural conversation about sexual assault has revealed anew and painfully what is a given: that the violation of bodies–and of minds and spirits–takes many forms. This “conversation”–a descriptor that may be too charitable for the actual exchange of words taking place–has reminded many people (mostly women, maybe, but not just women) of the first time they were “grabbed.” (One of those words that is as ugly as what it names). It has brought to the surface the ways that many of us have internalized, naturalized our fears–how hypervigilance has been our way in the world, how one man’s breathtaking crudeness and moral bankruptcy can leave us shaken for days. (Last week Michelle Obama shook with truth and power and eloquence. Watch the whole speech).

This conversation (okay, this talk-past-each-other shouting match) has made evident that the toxic masculinity which continues to harm boys and poison relationships of all kinds is tolerated with a shrug and a smirk, endorsed with a playful wink. It has shown us how damaging and disgraceful things said about Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, and others–over and over and over–barely register in our public consciousness but, hey, just say something about white women and we are all over it. 

+ + +

The theme that pervades the work of Mary Oliver is that of a continual call to attentiveness. Readers of her poetry usually take this, rightly, as a summons to tend to the natural world that she writes about so compellingly–to see it, know it, name it, cherish it. But such a discipline surely extends to the whole of life, to what it means to be a fully alive, fully present human being in the world. In this Oliver is a kindred spirit with Simone Weil who wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

This comes through in Oliver’s poems about people, places, causes she cares about–poems not as numerous, maybe, as the ones about ponds and swans and bears–but significant in her work nonetheless. And the call to attentiveness is present in less overt ways in her poems about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered from her father. These poems are instructive for how she (and we) might think about attentiveness not just as a necessary art for loving the world but as a skill for survival and ultimately for thriving as a human being. Her poem “The Journey” is written in the second person but is about her own life. (She has acknowledged this). In the closing lines Oliver says

. . . you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

One can practice this kind of determination–even if falteringly, in fits and starts, full of self-doubt–only if one has tried to be attentive to everything that has made the very daring of determination necessary, and has attended to one’s own wounds as an act of generosity to oneself.

And I think about how some familiar lines of Oliver’s take on new meaning when read through the lens of this current cultural moment. I would like to think they can be taken as an invitation to try and set aside our fears (but not our outrage), and as a summons not only to attentiveness but to courage. They are words born of the knowledge that to be a fully alive, fully present human being in this world–and to care about that kind of flourishing for all persons–is to speak, even when you’re shaken and shaking, and to tell all that needs to be told.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

From “Sometime” in Red Bird, 2008

“The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.”

Wallace Stevens

I have retreated from the world a bit to write about words and the world and the connections between them. I am mindful of the privilege of it–to be given time and space and money to do this kind of work. It also has its challenges–how, for instance, to thrive in one’s aloneness rather than succumb to loneliness.

I am also thinking and reading and writing about beauty, a word so vast, so large and deep, and at the same time so evacuated of meaning in a culture like ours. We mistake glamour for beauty and either chase it or deride it, without fully reckoning with how enslaved we are–whether we’re sentimentalists or cynics–to a soulless commodity culture that sets the terms of debates and conversations we can’t think or speak or act outside of.

And what of beautiful words? More than fifty years ago, novelist Walker Percy warned how, in a culture of cliches and jargon, words lose their ability to signify precisely, to name reality truthfully.

I think we’re starving for beautiful words in this age of cliches and jargon and of dis-graced speech–the graceless ways of our political rhetoric, the coarse and crass ways we talk to each other, especially on social media, a forum for human interaction that only emboldens these terrible tendencies. This linguistic crudeness falsifies our desires–makes us want to possess, own, control, manipulate. We don’t seek the well-being of the other with whom we speak (or to whom we respond on social media at 2 am); we aim to one-up.

And yet at this late stage in this political economy, what could possibly chastise us? Are we no longer capable of embarrassment or regret? Have we made our peace with our own reckless promiscuity with words?

By beautiful words, beautiful speech, I don’t mean flowery phraseology. I mean the kind of skilled care with words that moves, stirs, compels the hearer or reader with not only its loveliness but its beholdenness to goodness and truth. Beautiful speech is both playful and precise, serious and generous, honest and imbued with humility. Its rarity in our lives, both private and public, is grievous.

And what of this beautiful world? To listen to our current political discourse (and corporate media’s coverage of it), is to encounter not only feverish dishonesty–no gesturing at all toward the beautiful, the good, the true–but it is to surmise that the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants is of no material concern–unless that concern can be commodified, quantified in terms of economic benefit.

Given the All-Trump-and-All-Clinton-All-the-Time commitment of the major news outlets, one might be hard pressed to know about suffering people and threatened ecosystems around the world. Like a pipeline rupture in Alabama; like the massive protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline; like the terrifying trends related to climate change; like the years-long catastrophe that is Syria and its beautiful people. And so many more.

Where are the words we need so that we might be moved to love the world back to health and wholeness? Who will speak them and how will we hear them?

For me, for now, with a heavy sense of my own privilege, it is back to books, back to poems–the beautiful words of lovers of language and lovers of the world–and down to the river for a run in the late afternoon sunlight. All of which gives me some hope. At least for today.

“Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”


It’s been duly noted that there was much fear and loathing in Cleveland last week at the Republican National Convention. And it’s been widely observed that at their gathering this week in Philadelphia, the Democrats sought to counter the dread and despair with sunny optimism and heart-felt sing-alongs. Fear one week, no fear the next.

I wonder.

(Full disclosure: my upbringing and my instincts put me squarely in the camp of the Democrats. These people are familiar to me. I may not like all of them but I understand them. Republicans–for all the nice ones I know—can seem like exotic creatures: you know they exist but you can’t really explain them to yourself).

For all the carefully scripted idealism on display in Philadelphia, fear lurked in the corners, and sometimes showed itself outright on the prime time stage. The DNC leadership seemed fearful that Americans might take the Democrats for weaklings on national defense, wimps when it comes to taking on ISIS. They seemed fearful that they might lose women if they dared to nuance the abortion debate. They seemed to fear that disaffected Bernie supporters might expose that we live in, um, a democracy. Can’t have them shouting “no more war” when former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is touting Secretary Clinton’s military savvy.

Fear gets you a lot of things in politics, and in these contentious times it’s going to be exploited, as it always has been, by Republicans and Democrats alike.

And then there was the news of Fr. Jacques Hamel in Normandy, France, whose throat was slashed by a teenager claiming allegiance to the Islamic State while he said mass on an ordinary Tuesday morning. Corporate media outlets seemed to fear that if they gave the story any serious, sustained attention during convention coverage they would lose audience share and thus advertising revenue. It was an instructive moment in how “news” is always more manufactured than reported.

Even if CNN or CBS or any other cable or broadcast network had taken up the story of Hamel’s death, they too, I suspect, would have made fear their default hermeneutic. If elderly priests in quiet country towns aren’t safe, none of us is. And the whole “bring your concealed weapon to church” argument would have been given air time. All heat. No light.

The New York Times did run an opinion piece by a visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester in England. I’m not sure what “public ethics” is exactly but the professor, Paul Vallely, argues—with fear running through every line of his prose—that we must not call Fr. Jacques Hamel a martyr since that will only result in more deaths at the hands of terrorists—a kind of tit-for-tat jihadism: “our martyr for yours.”

Nor can we compare Fr. Jacques, says Vallely, to other priests like Thomas Becket or Oscar Romero, also murdered at the altar, since the latter two “knew the dangers they were facing, taking a stand against the civil powers of their day.”

Maybe Vallely thinks such things because he’s a “public ethicist.” But it’s astonishing and utterly wrong-headed to assume that because Fr. Jacques was simply “going about his lifelong business . . . as an everyday exemplar of quiet holiness, kindness, and love,” he didn’t or couldn’t have known the dangers he was facing.

To preside at the altar, to offer the sacrifice of the cross in the mass is to enact the non-violent absorption of human violence. It is, at its heart, a stand against the civil powers of the day.

Fr. Jacques, in these fear-filled times, whom I feel sure did not live in fear, pray for us.


“The violence [America] fears is the violence it engenders.”

Judith Butler, Precarious Life

“National self-righteousness, like personal self-righteousness, is a mistake. It is misleading. It is a sign of weakness. Any war that we may make now against terrorism will come as a new installment in a history of war in which we have fully participated. We are not innocent of making war against civilian populations. The modern doctrine of such warfare was set forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that doctrine.”

Wendell Berry, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear”

Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? Is there something to be gained in the political domain by maintaining grief as part of the framework within which we think our international ties? If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?

Judith Butler, Precarious Life

“We want peace; but most of us do not want to pay the price of peace. We still dream of a peace that has no cost attached. We want peace, but we live content with poverty and injustice and racism, with the murder of prisoners and students, the despair of the poor to whom justice is endlessly denied. We long for peace, but we wish also to keep undisturbed a social fabric of privilege and power that controls the economic misery of two thirds of the world’s people.”

Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Lights on in the House of the Dead

“Perfect love casts out fear (phobos).”

1 John 4:18

“What is my work?

Messenger,  Mary Oliver

“The error of economism [is] that of considering human labor solely 
according to its economic purpose.”

Laborem ExercensPope St. John Paul II

In a basic course on Buddhism, my students and I spend some time reflecting on “right livelihood,” one of the steps on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. They’re intrigued that a religious tradition would set parameters on what counts as legitimate work for human beings to do. I note in our conversation that there might also be such a thing as a Christian theology of work but in their eyes Buddhism is exotic (and thus de facto profound) and Christianity familiar (so they think) and, besides, Christianity is for many of them a dubious proposition altogether so they’ll just go with the Buddhist view, thank you. It’s a course on Buddhism after all so we go with it.

Our conversation is a reminder to me and an eye-opener to the students that for all the talk of “jobs” in our culture we almost never talk about work in the sense of work as elemental to our humanness. Work as the capacity to make something from something else (a kitchen table from a pile of lumber; a a book about modern art from a lifetime of study) for a good greater than oneself while sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, being remunerated for one’s efforts. Work in this sense is not equivalent to “gainful employment.”

Work is a part of our dignity as human beings. According to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions it is an outflow of our participation in the creative work of an ever-creating God.

Even in regard to work-for-pay, most religious traditions (and humanist ones, too) recognize the intrinsic worth of the worker—her right to fair treatment and to a just, living wage. Most economists, by contrast, don’t hold these assumptions as central; rather, the value of a worker is in his productivity, his usefulness in helping to ensure profit in a competitive market.

Within such a view, work is only about jobs, and to be concerned that everyone has a job is less about promoting “right livelihood” and more about increasing consumer spending. If people have jobs, they’ll buy more things, the economy will grow, all will be well.

Likewise, when politicians talk about jobs they’re not talking about work. They’re speaking, we know, to our collective anxiety about things we’ve been told to worry about: “lackluster employment numbers,” “stagnant wages,” “the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.”

I don’t mean to diminish the real, material difficulties of those struggling to find work-for-pay—the chronically unemployed, especially. But it seems worth asking what our jobs have to do with human flourishing, with the well-being of all creation, with our own creatureliness. Buddhism, Christianity, and other wisdom traditions invite us—urge us—to wrestle with such questions.

Donald Trump’s recent empty and irresponsible promise to West Virginians that he’ll “bring back coal jobs” highlights the complexity and urgency of these matters. He (like all politicians, liberal or conservative, left or right) assumes as a matter of course “economism”—the belief that factors and indicators like supply and demand, profit margins, gross domestic product, and access to markets—provide the overarching framework, the foundational paradigm for evaluating societal health and well-being. In such a system, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, human labor is considered solely for its economic value.

Moreover, in such a system, coal miners and other workers in similar relationships with corporations and outside interests, collude with their own oppression. This is exacerbated in Appalachia by an enculturated self-effacement: no group is more ridiculed and pitied than we are so we might as well ridicule and pity ourselves. This self-effacement (which may also be a twisted form of self-loathing) morphs into a kind of stoic pride. This pride may seem admirable, but in reality it undermines the interests and long-term well-being of people who do things like mine coal for a living.

I’m mindful of how offensive this can sound so let me be clear: I don’t wish to denigrate the risky work that coal miners historically have done and continue to do, nor the sense of accomplishment they feel in their vocation, and the benefits all of us receive from their labor.

But here’s the thing: I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians—whether they are connected to coal mining or not—absorb this narrative that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided regional group in America, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with hard, uncomfortable truths. And then cheers wildly as Donald Trump raises false hopes and exploits worst fears and resentments.

+ + +

What is our work?

It sounds a little hackneyed to suggest that, at least in part, work, including remunerative work, is less about making a living and more about making a life.

But isn’t it?

And the work one does that contributes to the making of a life can include bread-baking and neurosurgery, building a fence and mapping the human genome. We have wrongly internalized a kind of hierarchy of work that ascribes the most worth to those prestigious occupations assumed to be at the top. (There was a not-so-subtle paternalism in Trump’s speech in southern West Virginia last week). We drill into our children, for example, from an early age, that they need to go to college so they don’t end up “flipping burgers.” But what about the people who make our food or clean our offices when we go home at night? Are their lives worth less? Does our work matter more than theirs?

In his book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford tracks the educational apartheid that has given rise to these divisions, this hierarchy, and argues for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He also insists that “if thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”

No matter one’s vocation (a word that deserves its own post), a rich theology of work assumes that, along with the dignity of the worker, there are goods intrinsic to work worth doing well. Economism instrumentalizes work—treats it as a means to some other end. It may be this in part, but the work we do in the world—for pay, for the sheer pleasure of it, because we must—is, when it and we are at our best, its own deep joy and satisfaction.


(Part of this post is taken from some reflections I wrote in 2010 after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV in which twenty-nine miners were killed).


It’s my turn to write the lectionary reflection on bLOGOS, the blog of The Ekklesia Project:

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15 (RCL); Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 (LM)
Psalm 67 (RCL); Psalm 67:2-8 (LM)
Revelation 21:10- 22:5 (RCL); Revelation 21:1014, 22-23 (LM)
John 14:23-29

“When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then the unity brought us by our savior will be fully realized, for all [people] will be united with one another through their union with the one supreme Good.”Easter Lily 4666

St. Gregory of Nyssa,
from a homily on The Song of Songs

In a wide-ranging conversation with Bill Moyers early last year, writer Marilynne Robinson spoke about fear in American life. With eloquence and insight (and no little exasperation), she noted how we have managed to convince ourselves—or, rather, how we have been persuaded by powerful interest groups—that fear is really courage.

We fashion, she said, “little narratives” that make each of us the hero of an imagined drama and anyone else a potential threat. And all the ways in which we prepare (expect? secretly hope?) for our fear-driven stories to unfold constitute something of an addiction, a cultural obsession, a collective pathology.

Robinson’s insights are as timely as ever these many months later. Why is America’s culture of fear taken as a matter of course?

To read the rest click here.


A Holy Week post I wrote for public radio’s On Being with Krista Tippett:

As Lent moves toward its end–both in the sense of its conclusion and its purpose–I think of this powerful poem by Ariel Dorfman. Its subject matter is the execution by firing squad of a political prisoner, inspired by events during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s in Dorfman’s native Chile.

They put the prisonerOn Being Holy Week photo
against the wall.

A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him—strong,

gentle, saying goodbye.
—Forgive me, compañero—
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
and of
    those fingers on his arm
fills his body with light
   I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sound of the shots.

Scottish composer James MacMillan set the poem, entitled “Sun Stone,” for choir and organ as the final movement of his work, Cantos SagradosMusically, the text is framed by–or rather infused throughout with–this phrase from the Credo of the Mass, sung in ethereal tones mostly by the sopranos:

Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto.                           And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate
Ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.                       of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis.                                          For our sake he was crucified.

It is a work of excruciating beauty (cruciāre to torment, cruc-em cross) and the jarring juxtaposition of texts lays bare, obliquely not directly, the drama of Holy Week with its stark contrasts of power and weakness, cruelty and tenderness, unspeakable suffering and astonishing forgiveness. The passio of Jesus in the gospel narratives is the culmination of an obscure life lived in complete embodiment of the shalom of God–in the midst of political tyranny and dehumanizing violence, in suffering and death and seeming sure defeat.

During Holy Week Christians enact this painful drama that we might know more fully the Easter story that counters, subsumes, and transforms it. It is theatrical, disturbing, cathartic, and deeply necessary, for the torture of crucifixion and of firing squads (and of waterboarding, for the record) is, as William Cavanaugh has written “a kind of perverse liturgy [in which] the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” This anti-liturgy is met in the true liturgy of the Eucharist, where the body of the victim makes possible the creation of a new body which lives by resurrection hope and loves by a power not of its own making.

To read the rest click here.


In a few weeks I’ll begin a sabbatical year of travel, research, and writing. (Not that I’m counting the days or anything).

Sabbatical: from sabbath (shabbat), meaning to cease or stop or rest.

Academic sabbatical: a period in which one is to be demonstrably productive.

In my application for sabbatical leave, I noted this contradiction by citing an observation by Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts:

What “sabbatical” meant was that the land—your productive capacity, your brain, your heart—should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities. I found it particularly remarkable, and disturbing, that in the sabbatical seminar I attended no one spoke about improving the quality of the work of their sabbatical, only that they produce more, and faster.

I hope to take the “rest” part of sabbatical to heart but will also work, reasonably productively, I hope, on a project that is situated at the intersection of religion, science, and art; one that begins with an uncontested truth—our planet is in crisis—and proceeds with an unconventional claim: we have neglected the aesthetic response to this crisis. I want to show that at the intersection of theology and poetry lay fertile ground for confronting the problems of ecological degradation and matters of culpability, accountability, and the flourishing of all of creation.

I will not argue that poetry helps us to better appreciate the natural world (though poems can do that). Nor will I champion the polemical—poetry as argument for political change. I’m with Robert Lowell, the American poet who once confronted a Soviet bureaucrat who was urging more frequent exchanges between poets and superpowers for the purpose of promoting peace. “Art,” Lowell snapped, “does not make peace. That is not its business. Art is peace.”

I am most interested in the intrinsic connection between the loss of linguistic capacity (our ability to speak truthfully, to wield language responsibly) and the loss of the world (its destruction by forces driven by ignorance and self-interest and our culture’s willing and often unwitting collusion with them). Poetry, I will suggest, is one way to recover from this loss—not because it is “useful” but because, as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, it “offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion.’”

There’s much more to say and I’m grateful that I have a couple of summers and a couple of semesters to try and say it. But lately I’ve been thinking about the connections between poetry and politics. Not so much in the sense of how nice it would be if politicians spoke in more poetic terms but wouldn’t it, though? The linguistic gutter that Trump and Rubio have dragged us through is foul territory indeed.

But much more than that, what would it mean to attend to the aesthetic dimension of our political plight in this particular historical moment? To take account of the diminishment of language broadly (not just vulgar political speech) that keeps us from desiring, seeking, and living into the beauty we were made from and for? To even ask such questions in our current political culture sounds naive, a little ridiculous, even.

We would have to get our heads around the idea that language is creative of meaning, not descriptive of something we call “reality.” (An idea whose explication requires more than a blog post, I realize). We would have to agree that, on one level, at least, theology is the work of giving an account of the world that makes possible certain kinds of communities, produces certain kinds of people. The theo-poetic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. was about this kind of work: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” As is that of  Pope Francis: ““Give us a holy courage to seek new paths, that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.”

Where we have been paralyzed by information overload–almost all of it maddeningly contradictory–or polarized by soundbite one-upmanship, how might we recover the language, the speech-acts of shared responsibility and care, of mutual joy and delight, such that we might desire, seek, and work for the well-being of our neighbor above our own?

And how does poetry help with this?

Poetry, I suggest, is a kind of witness, a form of protest (things can be otherwise), a vision of wholeness out of disorder, for it is the art of making a new thing with the material—human language, a nearby dictionary—at hand. (No creation ex nihilo here. As Wendell Berry says, “poetry can be written only because it has been written.”)

But we don’t mine poems for meaning or to see what truths they might express for application to this or that situation. Good poems are “beautiful and pointless.” That is, they don’t mean; they—not unlike the liturgy—do. “Authentic poetry,” says theologian Rowan Williams, “is labour, it’s work: the doing of something which has its own integrity.”

So I vote for poetry.

I vote for exposing ourselves and our children especially to the contagion that good poetry is–poetry of all kinds. For, as Mary Oliver has said, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” And like a contagion, good poems, says Pulitzer prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, “want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—one could even say ceremony—might ‘save’ the world.”

Well, if not the world, then maybe our dismal politics.


From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee

Recently, a theologian friend penned a Facebook post that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The crux of it was this:

“It would be good for all people of faith to remember that any politician who invokes the name of God in order to bolster his or her poll numbers, or court an interest group, has taken God’s name in vain. It uses God for empty things, one of the gravest evils possible . . . Only the politician who dares to be silent about God could possibly be a person of genuine faith.”

This long-time friend had me at “it would be good.” But I suspect that for many Christians on both
the right and the left (and likely for some Jews and Muslims) this is exasperating if not infuriating
speech. Most Americans, it seems, take it as a given—as a good—that, in one way or another,
presidential candidates have to say something about God. Generally, Republicans embrace this expectation enthusiastically; Democrats variously so. The image of America as a “city on a hill” was conjured by the Puritan John Winthrop and invoked by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, enshrining the myth of American exceptionalism and the belief in God’s special favor on America as hallmarks of presidential politics.

When Jesus says the phrase “city on a hill” in St. Matthew’s gospel, he seems to be enjoining among his followers a witness  against the Pax Romana, not endorsing its strength or greatness. He was not a patriot or a champion of Empire or a would-be reformer of it but its willing victim. Arrested, tortured, tried, and executed on a charge of sedition, his aim was not to be the commander-in-chief but to embody a radically alternative politics—of non-violence and revolutionary love—to the sham political system and its death-dealing ways.

In 2016, a number of presidential candidates want us to know that their Christian faith will be central to their governance should they be elected, especially, it seems, as they plot violence against our enemies. They give no hint that there might be conflict between being a president and being a Christian. They routinely, as my friend put it, “use God for their political aspirations.” And they rouse people of faith from across a range of traditions, treating them as just another interest group—the evangelical vote or the Catholic vote (neither of which is a monolith)—and thus take God’s name in vain.

Much of the candidates’ Christian rhetoric either rings hollow (Donald Trump) or is unrecognizable as Christian speech (Ted Cruz). (Trump is also admired by many Christians for being blunt, unfiltered, and combative in saying what he thinks. Drunk people and three-year-olds also often speak this way. We don’t usually salute them for it).

Hillary Clinton has spoken of the importance of her Methodist faith, though one might wonder how her lucrative alliances with Wall Street investment firms, many of whose practices are unconscionable from the perspective of almost every religious tradition, would square with, say, John Wesley’s concern for the working poor. Or how her “boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine” is consistent with Wesley’s and Methodism’s call for judicial and prison reforms.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders. I have no idea if he would be a good president. That he has so expertly diagnosed many of our social and political ills does not necessarily mean he can apply the cure. Probably no president can. For all his (welcome) silence on the campaign trail about his religious heritage, there’s something appealing about a passionate Jew who angrily condemns corrupt bankers—echoes of rabbi Jesus and the money changers.

But Sanders, like Clinton, like President Obama, talks in tired tropes when it comes to abortion. The shallow slogans on both sides of this issue are evidence that 40-plus years of a poorly-conducted public debate has only entrenched the divisions and the false notion that this is and only can be a two-sided “battle,” and that to identify with one side is to feel no affinity for the other.

Fredericka Mathewes-Green’s recent essay on abortion unsettles all the tired tropes, even as the current presidential candidates routinely, if sometimes subtly, claim God for their side. And the fact that Mathewes-Green’s article appears in National Review means that left-leaning Christians will write it off before reading it, or likely won’t read it at all; that sacrosanct binary, that entrenched divide again.

But I think it’s possible to be a Christian who doesn’t lobby for the overturning of Roe v. Wade but who has deep, deep concerns about abortion and its practice in the United States. It’s hardly ever acknowledged, for example, that abortion and capitalism are intimately linked but, as Mathewes-Green notes, “we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.”

Would-be American presidents may always feel this pressure—either from within or without—to cloak themselves in religious garb, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly; to see themselves as saviors of a sort, as those called to run “the greatest country in the world” and thus have a powerful hand in running the world. This seems laughable when it comes to the kind of servant leadership, the kind of counter politics that a crucified messiah asks of his followers. But it’s not funny. Especially when the religious rhetoric we’re hearing is so charged with murderous hate.

But, then again, there’s Bernie Sanders. I don’t think he has aspirations to run the world. He is—unlike almost every other contender in the race, Democrat or Republican—without affect or grandiosity. I don’t know that I’ll vote for him. I don’t know that I’ll vote. It’s not a settled question that Christians have an obligation to or even ought to. (Another idea that may seem exasperating if not infuriating to many.)

But I like Sanders’ rumpled, scruffy, scrappy ways. I like how he is both erudite and populist. I like that he doesn’t talk in soundbites and that he refuses to simplify hard, complex problems. I like his passion and compassion. I don’t know that he has ever adequately described the democratic socialism he espouses to the satisfaction of his critics. And maybe he can’t, given most Americans’ knee-jerk alarmism when the phrase is uttered.

But I think he articulates a vision of political community and human flourishing that is compelling and worthy of consideration in an era of astonishing injustices toward those on the edges. And yet it is one of the deep ironies of this political season that among many Christians, for whom Sanders’ vision of the good ought to have at least some resonance, he is at best dismissed and at worst reviled.

But he carries on, a flawed human being for sure, a predictable politician in many ways. But also, consistently, rightly, leaving religious pandering out of all of it.

Took a turn on the bLOGOS rotation at the Ekklesia Project website:

Widow's Mite - Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Widow’s Mite – Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 (RCL); I Kings 17:10-16 (LM)
Psalm 127 or 42 (RCL); Psalm 146:7-10 (LM)
Hebrews 9:24-38Mark 12:38-44

For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. 

Mark 12:44

By the time we get to the familiar text in this week’s Gospel reading—sometimes referred to as the story of the widow’s mite—Jesus has made his so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. More street theatre and political satire than victory parade, the festivities end with Jesus casing the temple late of an evening. He returns the next day and turns over a few tables, infuriating the religious authorities and confounding everyone else. He enters the temple a third time on the third day (a detail not extraneous to Mark’s purposes, we might suppose), and offers an accusatory parable. Pharisees and Herodians are dispatched to trap him; they find themselves amazed instead. He bluntly tells some Sadducees: “you are wrong . . . you are quite wrong.” Third up are the scribes, for whom Jesus reserves his most caustic criticism:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.

Jesus then takes a seat “facing” (kateanti) the treasury. This detail, too, seems deliberate on Mark’s part: a short while and a few verses later Jesus will “face”—the same word in Greek—the temple mount as he foretells its imminent destruction (13:3).

 From his choice seat, Jesus carefully “scrutinizes” (etheōrei) the scene, observing “how the crowd put money in the treasury,” and noting that “many rich people put in large sums” (41).

Just the day before he had directly attacked the temple establishment so we might assume he’s still seething a bit. Not because a sacred place had been profaned by commerce—the temple was an economic institution as well as a religious one. Rather, Jesus is scandalized by the exploitation of the poor in their attempts to participate in Israel’s cultic life.

But his anger at what he sees in the temple treasury has a sharper focus. He has just depicted the scribes—the temple lawyers—as not only religious hypocrites but also as abusers of their fiduciary power: “they devour the houses of widows.” (40)

To read the rest click here.

There are the contradictions in the man himself: Pope Francis presides over an institution of enormous wealth, power, and privilege, while in his very being embodying—effortlessly, compellingly—the poverty, humility, and simplicity of the way of Jesus.

This was evident at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday night: wealthy donors sitting in prime seats while the Pope gave a beautiful shout-out to women religious—in the cheap seats—who have been much-beleaguered by the Vatican in recent years.

There are the contradictions in the giving of his astonishing speech to Congress: One could describe it as power speaking truth to power, while at the same time starkly, radically calling into question America’s notions of what actually counts as power and truth.

There are the contradictions in the canonization of Junipero Serra: Pope Francis is clearly the antithesis of what the colonial project embodied—and what it wrought—yet he sanctioned the sainthood of a man whose life and legacy leave deeply troubling questions about the Church’s collusion with the worst of globalization. Supporters of Serra, the first saint canonized on American soil, summon the mildest of endorsements: at least he wasn’t as bad as the others.

(This one, I admit, mystifies me. As a Catholic friend noted: The Serra canonization was rife with missed opportunities and bridges left unbuilt. Yes and yes).

What to make of these and other such contradictions?

It’s hard to avoid striking the stance we all learn as heirs to modernity–that of the autonomous self with its view from nowhere and its reasoned, privately-held “opinions” offering or withholding approval for this or that position, this or that pope. In relation to Pope Francis (and to Catholicism and Christianity generally), such a stance generates questions like “do the Pope’s words and the Church’s actions align with my own securely-held convictions?” or “Does this or that doctrine (or political idea or economic policy) square with what I believe?” These seem like reasonable questions; we can hardly help asking them, even tacitly.

But they assume, wrongly I suggest, that the Church is an organization I belong to—like the Kiwanis Club or the Junior League—and, as such, the unencumbered “I” gets to negotiate my relationship to it on my own terms. Rather–and I know how weird this sounds to those outside of Christianity and even to many within it—the Church is the sign and sacrament of Trinitarian communion. “The individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, linking anthropology and ecclesiology in ways unintelligible to our default understandings of both self and church.

What this means, in part, is that as members of Christ’s body, the Church, our primary identity is that of those who share in the divine life of God, with all of the real-world, nitty-gritty implications of such a claim (political, social, economic; implications of race, gender, and class). The true humanity we take on in baptism summons us to the freedom to love beyond the bounds of family, tribe, and nation. This is the nature of the ekklesia itself, as it bears witness to the new creation made possible in Christ through the power of the Spirit: we are the community of the baptized whose love for the world (the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy) glimpses the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a love without partiality because its source is the Trinitarian love-in-communion that transcends every exclusivism. It is not a love that we muster by our own power, through force of will or personal resolve. Rather, it is a love imputed to us and efficacious through us. We are its vessels, not its wellspring.

So what?

What does this mean for the contradictions I feel in this historical moment? It means that I am part of a body of flawed, weak, striving, broken, yearning, conniving, beautiful, irritating, struggling human beings. (If one more student tells me they can’t go to church because of the hypocrites . . . ). Messed up though we are, who we are is not dependent on who we are, thank God.

And so in the big, messy house that is the Catholic Church we live with people we might not agree with, who can make us a little crazy. But we know that our membership in this body is not based on like-mindedness but on the One who gathers us at his table and feeds us that we might then scatter and feed a hungry world.

Who knows? The canonization of a colonizer might open the way for repentance and reconciliation. And Pope Francis, in America, and in his everyday life and living, shows us, with great tenderness and love, what might be possible.

I was interviewed by Mary Ann McKibben-Dana of The Englewood Review of Books for their latest issue. We talked about my new book, Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms. Here are a few excerpts.

ERB: You do a good job of putting happiness into a broader and deeper context than the sometimes banal version of happiness that popular or consumer culture wants to serve up. Still, I found myself having to translate in my head what you meant versus the way the word is used colloquially.

DDM: A theological account of happiness has some affinity with certain cultural conceptions of the term, even as it critiques much of what Westerners mean by it. We are created for happiness. Human beings long for steadfast, deep-seated contentment, for full and satisfying lives, for fundamental well-being, but modern marketing has seduced us into thinking that such happiness is found in the endless pursuit of things—not in the things themselves,
interestingly, but in our insatiable desire for the next thing, the next experience, that next feeling of happiness. Of course, advertisers brilliantly exploit the fact that this quest is illusory. (On this note, I have found the recently concluded TV series Mad Men—about Madison Avenue in the 1960s—particularly suited for this kind of theological exploration).

Classic Christian doctrine has insisted that we are happy only in God, but also that such happiness is found in relationship with others as we seek to be like God in goodness. And Jesus shows us very concretely, very specifically, what God’s goodness looks like; we don’t have to wonder or guess. Happiness, then—our flourishing together in the goodness of God—is relentlessly social, unavoidably political, and delightfully (and sometimes riskily) countercultural.

ERB: You ask a wonderful question in the health chapter: “What are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight body we have become? How do we address—with grace, not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women and children who are members of the Eucharistic body?” You answer that in your book but I wonder what you might share with readers here.

DDM: Increasingly grim health statistics (skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and cancer) have mostly to do with food— eating the wrong kind and too much of it. At the heart of Christianity is a ritual that has to do with food—bread and wine that we believe is Christ’s body and blood given for the well-being of all who partake of it. That we have failed to see the connections between these two kinds of eating—one to our detriment, one to our salvation—is due, at least in part, to the pervasive idea that what matters most in the Christian life is our spiritual well-being. We are dualists, basically; we believe that each of us is an immortal soul housed in a temporary body.

But this is Plato, not Jesus. In the New Testament, the word for “salvation” implies cure, remedy, recovery; it connotes the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Jesus doesn’t save disembodied souls; he rescues whole persons—body, mind and spirit— that they might live abundant lives of wholeness and happiness and bear witness, that this is the way of the kingdom here and now. Yet our contemporary imaginations are held captive by the dualistic view. If our bodies are sick or chronically obese, at least we’ll be well when we get to heaven— so the thinking goes. It’s no wonder, then, that most churches are bereft of resources to address these mounting health crises in a rigorously theological, responsibly biblical sort of way.

But for those who want to try, who sense that these problems are not, at root, a failure of individual willpower but a crisis of community, we begin where we always do—at the Eucharistic table. From the sharing of this simple meal flow sermons, studies, and conversations about physical health; community gardens; adventures in eating slow and eating together (we often eat to to our harm when we eat alone); and a reckoning with our complicity in unjust food systems.

ERB: Moving on to your third section, my perception is that many theologians are okay with beauty so long as it has a sense of utility—so long as it points us to truth or right living. What’s your response to that? Can and should beauty exist for its own sake?

DDM: Yes, there’s a long-standing tradition of valuing beauty for its benefits. I note in the book that one of the few occasions when Wesley allowed himself to be caught up in beauty was when he read Homer’s Odyssey during a long stretch of riding horseback. His journal entry on this occasion is uncharacteristically effusive and he reveals a kind of playfulness and delight often absent in his reflections on art and beauty. Still, for Wesley, Homer’s true value lies in how he (and poetry generally) can be instructive for the moral life.

But if the best of the Christian tradition has held that beauty inheres in the beingness of things, then of course beauty does not exist primarily to serve our interests or agendas or moral advancement. To insist that it must reveals something of the arrogance and solipsism to which we are easily prone. In the book, I mention the gospel story of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Jesus says of her action that “she has done a beautiful thing for me.” On one level, I suppose we could read the utility of the action: she prefigures Jesus’s burial, she does a beautiful thing for the sake of something else, etc. But I’m more persuaded by the idea that this unknown, unnamed woman simply makes beauty visible: she bears the beauty of the divine image in self-emptying action. For all that seems extraordinary about this tender act, it offers for us a witness, a model for how we, too, in ordinary, everyday ways might learn to be possessed by beauty, to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.

To read this issue’s full table of contents, click here.
For more about Englewood Review of Books, click here.


Archbishop Oscar Romero has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s no doubt a coincidence that this happened on Memorial Day weekend; much more significantly, it’s the feast of Pentecost.

And it’s a remarkable thing.

Both church and state villified Romero in his lifetime and in the early years after his murder. For the Vatican, the fear was that Romero, with his Marxism-infused rhetoric, was a practitioner of liberation theology. (He was). For the state–the governments of El Salvador and the U.S.–Romero was an obstacle to securing popular support for El Salvador’s regressive, repressive military government. (True again).

Oscar Anulfo Romero, bookish priest, reluctant archbishop, firebrand preacher and populist, was a thorn in the side of both the religious and political establishments.

We know now, and have always known, of course, that the corrupt government that Romero called out time and again–always with unflinching honesty and Christ-like charity–was supported and defended by the United States. By Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. By six billion dollars in military aid to prop up a regime which oversaw unspeakable abuses of the Salvadoran people, a breathtaking range of human rights violations: torture and rape, the disappearing of dissidents, the slaughter of priests and peasants as a matter of course.

This weekend, if you’re Catholic, if you’re Christian, if you’re human, you have to take this historical reality into account.

But much of our memorializing will trend, as it always does, toward the jingoistic, the simplistic, the cliche-riddled hyperpatriotism that does a disservice to the women and men who fight and die in wars conceived by powerful men whose own sons and daughters are largely spared the suffering and the dying.

Surely it’s possible to honor the selflessness that’s part of soldiering and to mourn the fallen without slipping into the kind of sentimental white-washing that denies the complexities and ambiguities, the compromises and betrayals, both large and small, that the war dead knew well?

Why, then, can’t we–in their stead, on their behalf, for their sake–be honest enough to honor such truths?

On Pentecost, we celebrate a most unlikely gift: that a beleaguered and bewildered band of followers of a failed Messiah (he didn’t stick it to Rome as many had hoped) became a body, his body, for the sake of a broken, suffering, war-torn world. Through the Spirit’s power, this body is the sign, servant, and foretaste of God’s reign of justice and shalom.

One of the readings for mass this weekend is from 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul describes the unity of the body. As members of the one body, our lives are linked with sisters and brothers everywhere–in El Salvador, Syria, Iraq, and the ends of the earth. We are the church not in lordly domination but in solidarity with the suffering.

Many Protestants will hear Paul’s words to the Romans where the same spirit of unity and humility obtains: the whole creation groans and waits; we don’t know how to pray as we ought but we trust the Spirit’s sighs of intercession for us. This, too, is the posture the people of God are called to assume–not one of might-makes-right or of glorifying death but one of hope and humility in a world that aches for peace.

Our brother, Oscar, bore witness to this in his life and his death. And for that, they killed him. May we remember and memorialize his death and all deaths, this day and every day, with the truth-telling they deserve.

Blessed Oscar, pray for us.

Murphy_25117e (2)-page-001

From Chapter One:

Being Human, Being Happy

Popular advertising slogans could lead a person to think that happiness is what human beings are made for. Coca-Cola invites us to “open happiness.” At the International House of Pancakes it is “come hungry, leave happy,” while the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain Golden Corral entreats: “help yourself to happiness.” Disneyland, since the mid-1960s, boasts that it is “the happiest place on earth.” We feed children “happy meals,” strive for a “happy medium,” admire the “happy-go-lucky” (who seem to live by the mantra “don’t worry, be happy”)—all while trying to find our own private “happy place.” Even one of our nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, asserts that human beings have an “unalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness.” Happiness, it seems, is ever on our minds (and on our stomachs, if the corporate restaurateurs are to be believed). We want desperately to be happy.

But what counts as genuine happiness? If, as corporations like Coca-Cola and Disney would have us believe, happiness can be had in the products and experiences we consume, why are we—the savviest shoppers in the history of modern advertising—notoriously unhappy?[1] At least one answer to this question can be found in poet John Ciardi’s observation, made half a century ago, that advertising and the whole of our economy are based on “dedicated insatiability.”[2] It isn’t that consumerism makes us happy by satisfying our desires for material goods or attractively packaged experiences; rather, our consumer culture trains us to be perpetually dissatisfied. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.[3] So the happiness I might feel at acquiring a new pair of shoes or a luxury vacation (increased, perhaps, if I believe I got a good deal on the purchase) is not only a kind of temporary pleasure since soon enough the newness of the product or the experience will fade and my euphoria with it. Rather, American consumer culture teaches me that the pleasure of consumption is itself in the very process of acquiring my good deal: advertisers want me, want all of us, to be addicted not to things but to the endless pursuit of things. And most of us seem all too happy to oblige.

Yet even if we concede that the happiness held out by marketing campaigns is fleeting if not false, shallow, and ultimately unsatisfying, why do we still find ourselves seduced by the promise that happiness can be ours if only we can secure the ideal job or the perfect mate, if we can just lose those excess pounds or raise successful children or have the respect of our peers? Perhaps this promise lures us because a hunger for happiness is at the heart of what it means to be human. As theologian Paul Wadell observes: “The story of our lives can be read as one unfolding search for happiness because we relentlessly pursue whatever we think will be good for us; whatever we suspect will fulfill us, delight us, bring us peace, and deepen the meaning of our lives.”[4]

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, but it has defined ultimate happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. We are created in the image of God, bearing something of the divine within us, and thus communion with our Creator—and with all of creation—is central to what it means to be fully human. Famously, St. Augustine declared that our hearts are restless till they find rest in God. The Westminster Catechism opens by asking what is the purpose of our lives as human beings, and answering with: to love God and to enjoy God forever. And St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is intimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy. And while there are many goods intrinsic to a life of happiness—food, shelter, satisfying work to do, enough money to live on, art and music and beauty of all kinds to stir our imaginations, friends and loved ones to enjoy all of these things with—the highest good and our ultimate happiness can be found, Aquinas believed, only in God.

Happiness as Gift-in-Community

But how does that work exactly? What would it look like to discover and experience complete happiness in God? For Aquinas, attaining ultimate happiness is a matter of our becoming like God in goodness. But this, too, sounds far-fetched—impossible, even (and perhaps not a little presumptuous). How can we become like God in anything?

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or take or make, something we earn or deserve or accomplish, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness is beyond our own powers and capacities. It is not, as much talk-show psychology would have it, something available within ourselves if only we would reach down deep enough to find it. Rather, genuine happiness comes to us through grace; it is a gift. “The God who wants our good,” Wadell says, “gifts us with the happiness we seek.”[5] Our lifelong task, then, to repurpose a beautiful phrase from novelist Marilynne Robinson, “is to put ourselves in the way of the gift.”[6]

The happiness we were made for, that comes to us as gift to be received rather than goal to be achieved (or interior state to be accessed) is, as Scripture makes clear, relentlessly social. This is at least one reason why seeking happiness through the exercise of individual choice in a market economy is a futile quest. In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn that God created human beings for friendship with one another and with God, and the book of Revelation describes powerfully the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—for which all of creation is destined. Thus the Bible reveals, from beginning to end, that the gift of happiness is deeply social, “ineluctably political.”[7] “Political,” in this sense, has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together. There is no human thriving, no genuine happiness apart from life lived in connection with others as the good is sought and practiced and enjoyed and witnessed to. For Aristotle, this meant that the polis is “more than a pact of mutual protection or an agreement to exchange goods and services … [it] is intended to enable all, in their households and their kinships, to live well.”[8] In Christian terms we would say that through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into a polis—the communion of saints being one way to name it—and that in the Eucharist we are nourished and sustained as a community of friends who, week after week, year after year, enact our desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to be drawn more and more deeply into the goodness of God. Yet even in the polis of the worshiping community, our attempts to “become like God in goodness” are not our own moral achievements. As we have said, all of this comes through grace and as gift.

To learn more, click here.


[1] Harris Poll Happiness Index.

[2] Ciardi, “Is Everybody Happy?,” 18.

[3] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 35.

[4] Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life, 2.

[5] Wadell, 16.

[6] Robinson, Gilead, 134.

[7] McCabe, The Good Life, 25.

[8] Aristotle, Politics, III, 9. Quoted in McCabe, 38. (Italics in McCabe).



If slow food is a thing–a good thing–is there such a thing as slow art?

In Wallace Stegner’s beautiful novel, Crossing to Safetythere are moving descriptions of the city of Florence. The book tells the story of two couples who become friends during the Depression and who, many years later, spend a year–one of them is on sabbatical–living in this beautiful city. IMG_5726

In a year, one could possibly take in what visitors like me try to see in a week.

There’s something about gorging on art that feels like stuffing oneself with food–just because it’s there, just because you can. But gorging isn’t feasting and how do you do the latter when there’s just not enough time?

This is a good problem to have. I’ve been in Florence, Italy for a week. I don’t mean to complain.

But it can sometimes feel like the worst of smorgasboard consumerism, the silliest kind of checklist tourism: “we did the Uffizi today” (or the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery). I don’t think so.

I have seen some of the most breathtaking paintings, frescoes, statues, and other objets d’art in some of the world’s most glorious churches, museums, piazzas, and palaces. But I have also at times felt such sensory overload, such emotional exhaustion, that looking at one more chapel ceiling, one more gallery of paintings is all but impossible. Okay, it is impossible.


There is such a thing as the antipasto of an amazing Tuscan meal, the foretaste of a magnificent banquet. That I have experienced.

And it has been so very good.

Arrivederci, Firenze.


If the places in which fast food is eaten are aseptic and nondescript, let’s rediscover the warmth of a traditional osteria, the fascination of a historic café, the liveliness of places where making food is still a craft . . . 

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food: The Case for Taste

I don’t think it’s an accident that the slow food movement was founded by an Italian.

Ristorante-Paoli-firenzeIn my brief, limited experience, meals in the city of Florence are occasions for conviviality more than caloric intake.

Convivium: from the Latin meaning “to live with,” but also suggesting “joyous feasting,” even “carousing together.”

In this city of beautiful food and the people who serve it, I think of a scene in Life is Beautiful–a film written and directed by and starring Roberto Benigni (another Italian), that is by turns charming and haunting.  In the scene, Guido, the main character, is schooled in the art of waiting tables:

Think of a sunflower, they bow to the sun. But if you see some that are bowed too far down, it means they’re dead. You’re here serving, you’re not a servant. Serving is the supreme art. God is the first of servants. God serves men, but he’s not a servant to men.

I notice this distinction in the men and women who wait and serve in this city. No hovering. No smothering. Just competence and confidence with humility in the work they do.

Another favorite writer says this:

“Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”

In this age of eating fast and eating alone, we hardly know how to cultivate taste–which isn’t the prerogative of the affluent only but the call of every person to desire, to enjoy (and to have access to) good, delicious, nutritionally dense food.

I think that the food-related health issues that our culture currently faces (obesity, the steep rise in type-2 diabetes, for instance), are, at least in part, crises of taste. And at least one solution to the increasing–and increasingly global–problem of overconsumption is not deprivation—not endless scrimping and skimping and counting and calculating, but (re)discovering the myriad pleasures of eating.

To take delight in good food mindfully prepared and beautifully served (even if done so by ourselves) is to acknowledge our dependence on the gifts that sustain our very lives. It is to practice conviviality: to abide with, carouse with, feast with family and friends at the abundant table of creation.


And then there was Michelangelo’s David.

And I couldn’t speak. And I really don’t know what to write. Really.david-hand-760x970

In a crowd of Japanese school children and a host of other tourists and visitors, I was completely overwhelmed, completely overcome.

For all the things going through my head in those moments and the hours since, I come back to this one thing: Michelangelo represents the humanism of the high Renaissance, and every first-year Humanities student can list the characteristics of this movement–the celebration of human achievement, for one.

But in trying to take in this astonishing feat of human achievement, I was struck–am struck–by the power of art to make us more human, to make us more fully what we are meant to be, to make us beautiful.

Much more needs to be said about this, for sure, and in contemplating the David all day, I am exhausted and bereft of words. But this at least:

We don’t take in a profound work of art in order to possess its beauty but rather that we might  be possessed by beauty ourselves, that we might learn what it means to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.


With some free time today, I had hoped to make it to San Marco, a church and monastery-now-museum, where Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (mentioned in day two’s post) lived and delivered his fiery sermons to the citizens of Florence. More famously, the painter, Fra Angelico, was also a monk, and later the prior, at San Marco. Coppo_di_Marcovaldo._Madonna._1250-60_Santa_Maria_Maggiore,_Florence.

Under the patronage of Cosimo the Elder de Medici, Angelico’s art adorned both church and cloister–his crucifix on the high altar and his frescoes (along with those of other artists) installed in individual cells. And they’re still there.

One of the most iconic images of the Renaissance–Angelico’s Annunciation–is placed at the top of a staircase, its figures life-size, the landscape backdrop of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary very similar to the courtyard of the Florentine monastery.

Not that I saw this or any of the other glorious art of San Marco today. There were some unexpected delays and changes in plans. Another day, I hope.

But walking back toward the hotel, I found myself alongside the outer north wall of a church so non-descript that I wouldn’t have known it was a church, save for a small, modest sign indicating that it was Santa Maria Maggiore. I ducked inside.

And I had that experience that I’ve had several times already in this stunning city: Outward appearances can be deceiving. Not always, of course. When you gaze upon the Duomo or the Church of Santa Maria Novella, they are–in very different ways–imposing and impressive. You know, so to speak and to a certain degree, what you’re getting into.

But a church like Santa Maria Maggiore, plastered and de-plastered numerous times through the centuries, does not spill its secrets or flaunt its treasures. From a busy street one enters the quiet, dark interior and finds one of the most antique churches in Florence. Built in the 10th century, Romanesque and Cistercian, Santa Maria Maggiore has three aisles with pointed arches on square piers. There are striking paintings of two episodes from the story of King Herod, and the left chapel features a relief in gilded wood of Madonna and Child.

There is much more, of course, but this was all I could take in during the few minutes I had.

This brief experience today was about more than “never judge a book by it’s cover”–as true and useful as that old saw is. It isn’t despite plainness and simplicity that beauty often shines forth. It’s that the plainness and simplicity are always part of the beauty–of buildings, of people.

But it takes work to see that. We are hard-wired, perhaps, to respond immediately, to be moved viscerally, by the visually striking. And it strikes me, in this city of ancient and medieval churches, that American Christians often want the spectacular, the dazzling, the entertaining in their worship experiences, especially.

What is ordinary, what is plain or simple, what has been steadfastly unspectacular through the centuries–praying the liturgy of the hours, for example–seems manifestly uninteresting to us.

But in such plain beauty are secrets revealed, treasures discovered. If only we have eyes to see.

As you climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo, the stunning cupola that tops the altar area of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, you think about the 467 stone steps to the summit. You think about the narrow passageways. You think about the dozens of people ahead of you and the dozens behind you. You think you should just take deep

In 1420, Filippo Brunnelleschi, a goldsmith with no formal architectural training, won a contest to build an enormous airy dome that he claimed would need no visible, fixed supports. There are two domes, actually–two concentric shells, the inner one of herringbone-patterned brick nestled in the larger, taller one, with tension rings and tie beams between them to reduce stress and distribute the weight evenly. The city planners and church authorities didn’t know if it would work–no one did. Except maybe the goldsmith.

You ascend on the stairway between the two domes, feeling the cool of the herringbone brick on your hands, seeing the beams above your head. As the stairs lead you out onto the interior walkway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatically frescoed dome ceiling above. (Brunnelleschi designed and constructed it bare; apparently there have been proposals through the centuries–time is measured in centuries in Florence–to restore the ceiling to its pristine whiteness).

Like other domed ceilings in churches and basilicas, the bottom tier depicts scenes of hell and judgment. The artists who painted the Duomo’s ceiling, Georgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, offer shocking, gruesome, ghastly scenes of deadly sins and the horrors of hell.

There is something theologically interesting (of course there is) about both the architecture and the art. On the walkway, the hellish frescoes are too close for comfort. The figures are simply enormous. Depictions of the beatitudes, the virtues, saints, angels, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mary, Christ–all of these seem very far away indeed.

As you leave the inner walkway and climb the remaining steps to the top of the dome, the steps are steeper, the passages even narrower. Light pours in at intervals from openings in the stone, but it is intermittent, fleeting. You feel like you’re groping, not striding, toward the summit.

And then when you step out of the darkness, when you complete the journey of many step and emerge into the light of a late Tuscan afternoon, when all of Florence is bathed in golden sunshine and even the hills and groves beyond the city are visible, you think about your life. About the precariousness of your own journey of many steps. About the light that sometimes seems intermittent, fleeting, but which always, always appears. And you realize it is Lent and that this is fitting, and that soon it will be Easter.

And you are grateful.


The planet Venus in last night’s sky. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus today at the Uffizi Gallery.

This work of art was like none other of its time. The first Renaissance painting to portray a nude woman in a non-Christian context–only Eve heretofore–The Birth of Venus was controversial from the start. Commissioned by Birth-Venus-Bott-LLorenzo di Medici, likely as a wedding present for a cousin (it would have hung over the marital bed), the painting barely escaped destruction at the hands of a zealous Dominican monk. During Carnivale of 1497, Girolamo Savonarola organized what came to be known as the bonfire of the vanities.  He ordered a house to house search of costumes, masks, wigs, cosmetics, musical instruments, and other objects deemed ill-suited for the devout. Also caught up in the banning/burning were precious manuscripts and various works of art. The night before the beginning of Lent that year, the great pile of “vanities” was set afire. Botticelli himself, who had been captivated by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, contributed some of his own work to the blaze.

But Venus survived.

To stand in front of this magnificent painting is to be overwhelmed by qualities that one does not encounter in most paintings in the Uffizi, or in Renaissance art generally, where subjects (and subject matter) are weighty and substantial and realistically rendered. (Notice the impossible postures/positions of Venus and the figures representing the Zephyr winds). The Birth of Venus is charming, graceful, lyrical, ethereal, delicate, and deeply sensuous. It celebrates human desire.

And to my untrained eye, it seems to be, ultimately, about beauty. It invites one to contemplate physical beauty, erotic beauty, not as voyeur, but in recognition of the truth that we are creatures who hunger for beauty, who are made from beauty and for beauty, and who must learn that all desire is a desire for beauty.


Wendell Berry

I knew her when I saw her
in the vision of Botticelli, riding
shoreward out of the waves,
and afterward she was in my mind
as she had been before, but changed,
so that if I saw her here, near
nightfall, striding off the gleam
of the Kentucky River as it darkened
behind her, the willows touching
her with little touches laid
on breast and arm and thigh, I
would rise as after a thousand
years, as out of the dark grave,
alight, shaken, to remember her.


A stunning sunrise over the city of Amsterdam more than made up for the lack of sleep on the flight from Washington, DC.  Unexpectedly, our flight to Florence was diverted to Pisa–too much wind on the ground for a safe landing. Also unexpected: exquisite views of the Italian Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. Such spectacular grandeur, IMG_5407such ancient beauty. And then finally entering Firenze, as it is known in Italy, a city which in some ways looks like any other but in most ways like no other.

A late afternoon walking tour of the center city–brief glimpses of the Cathedral (God in heaven, the glory of every part of it), the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza della Signoria–how will we bear the beauty of it all in the coming days?

As night fell, the sight of Jupiter in the east of the cobalt-blue sky. He stood brilliant, silent vigil over a sea of tourists and Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune Fountain, which I’m not sure what I think about. It’s either much-loved or much-reviled, I hear. At first sight of it, Ammannati’s teacher, Michaelangelo, is said to have quipped, “what a beautiful piece of marble you have ruined.”

As we walk past the Galleria Uffizi (on the schedule for our second day), a classical guitarist plays “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the film The Mission and written by Italian composer, Ennio Morricone. It is beautiful beyond words.

And then, walking back to the hotel, along the Arno river, Venus shines bright in the western sky, and I know that I am in love.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6the-adoration-of-the-magi-1510-1
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Lectionary for Mass

Welcome home, my child. Your home is a checkpoint now. Your home is a border town. Welcome to the brawl.

“Song of the Magi,”Anaïs Mitchell

They are as familiar as any in the cast of characters that make up the mash-up we know as the Christmas Story.

The “wise men from the East” in Matthew’s gospel join the shepherds and angels found only in Luke to populate children’s Christmas pageants everywhere. With tinfoil crowns on their heads and festive tablecloths draped over their tiny shoulders, solemn preschoolers reverently place wrapping-paper-clad boxes at the feet of makeshift mangers. Parents and grandparents sigh and chuckle. Video and still shots are posted to Facebook before “Silent Night” has been sung and happy applause has been rendered.

Christians high-church and low have ritualized these stories (even as they have conflated them) in this very recognizable and much-beloved form. And why not teach children (and others) in such ways—through embodiment, performance, spectacle?

But for those who may be weary of the inevitable kitsch of this rite of passage, and perhaps especially for those who wonder if the whole nativity narrative isn’t just another fairy tale, it’s worth noting how the story of the wise men in Matthew (and also of the shepherds and angels in Luke) is rooted not in cuddly cuteness but in the politics of domination and costly resistance to it. 

To read the rest click here.

I had the privilege of making a quick trip to East Tennessee this week to give the homily at Adoration, a contemplative, ecumenical service of Word and Table. We observed the Solemnity of All Saints.

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm 24: 1BC-2, 3-4AB, 5-6
1  John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12A

Let us pray:

Great God of light,
as the radiance of these candles dazzles our eyes,
so may the light of your Spirit illumine our hearts and minds,
that we might behold your beauty—in word, in sacrament, in one another.

+ + +

When my two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.” This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

 Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As are all of us. Each one of us.

And for some of us, we find this to be a daunting proposition: to try and live—whether or not we bear the name of a saint—into the vocation of sainthood. Because for most of us, sainthood suggests sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster.

We think about our lives that often seem so small. We regret choices we have made. Hurts we have inflicted. Friendships we have allowed to languish or worse. We consider how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of discipleship. We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints?

When Jesus speaks these familiar words in St. Matthew’s gospel—what we call the “Beatitudes”—he gives his first hearers and us something of a litany of sainthood:

Poverty of spirit.
A hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Cleanness of Heart.
Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

These are the states of being, the conditions of life, the qualities of character that Jesus says are blessed by God. And blessedness here, the New Testament scholars tell us, means something like “happiness.” But this word, too, gives us pause: Happy are the poor in spirit? Really?

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, and it has defined happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is ultimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy.

At the beginning of the Bible we learn that the happiness we were created for is friendship with one another and with God, and at its end we have heard, this very night, of the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—that all of creation is destined for:

“A great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . “

This is the happiness we were made for:  to contemplate the beauty of God. John’s vision isn’t one of leaving anyone behind; it is the eternal adoration of God in the communion of saints.

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or make, something we earn or deserve, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness comes to us through grace. “The God who wants our good gifts us with the happiness we seek” (Paul Wadell).

Scripture also makes clear, from beginning to end, that the happiness we were made for is deeply social, ineluctably political. “Political” in this sense has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together.

Thus the Beatitudes—indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount in which they are set—are not a list of ethical mandates for the individual or a prescription for self-actualization. What Jesus blesses are not moral states he orders his followers to achieve—be meek! be merciful!—but the conditions of our shared life as we seek to flourish together in the goodness of God.

So for instance when Jesus says, “happy are those who mourn,” we know that he is not enjoining chin-up cheerfulness in the face of blinding sorrow. Rather, we have it on Jesus’ authority here that “in deep sadness human beings are in God’s hands more than at any other time” (Dale Bruner).

But there is another kind of mourner: the one who weeps with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). And here we might see Jesus as the one who makes known what blessed mourning looks like. At Bethany, Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus, and through his own tears, transformed the grief of his friends and the suspicion of his skeptics.

Blessed are those who weep with those who weep.

In our lives, we have the privilege of making a gift of our own tears as we attend to those who grieve—the wounded, the weary, the broken, the broken-hearted.

But in truth we find this to be a very difficult thing. Tears are profoundly intimate. They reveal our human frailty like almost nothing else. The grieving often suffer alone because they do not know how to receive the tears of another—their own can be bewildering enough.

And those who might offer comfort to the grieving by weeping with them are also often embarrassed by tears—their own and the tears of others—and at a loss with how to be so exposed and unguarded; how to simply be with another through unstoppable tears.

But “God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] to make of ourselves a gift of unbounded love” (Pope Benedict XVI).

If genuine happiness is learning to be like God in goodness, then those who mourn and those who weep with them know something of the vulnerable heart of our good and gracious God.

On the feast of All Saints we are reminded, happily, that we do not go it alone on this journey of living into the blessedness, the happiness we have been called to, created for. The New Testament never uses the word “saint” in the singular. There are only saints in the plural.

In trying to live into the gift, the vocation, of sainthood—into the gift of happiness—we have the witness of other saints: beloved people in our own lives and the beatified, canonized saints of the Church, many of whose countenances surround us here tonight like the great cloud of witnesses they are in these beautiful icons.

Yet these beautiful, iconic witnesses to our faith are not persons whose lives are beyond our reach. As Dorothy Day once said: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

We pray to the saints—or, rather, we beseech the saints to pray for us—not because they were perfect but because they weren’t—because they, like us, lived messy lives. They had regrets. They inflicted hurts. They struggled with pettiness, pride, a shaky faith.

Yet in the midst of their flawed, imperfect lives, they were men and women who relished life as a gift, and who realized that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away (William Stringfellow).

 + + +

A great American tradition on Halloween is to carve a pumpkin into a grinning lantern. We set it by the front door as a sign of hospitality to strangers and guests. According to our faith, offering hospitality to strangers and guests is a way to experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet where all of us will be welcomed into the presence of Christ and invited to feast at his table.

Tonight we, too, experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet as we partake of this holy meal set before us. We sup with the saints of the ages. And we sup with the saints beside us in this room even now.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2).

Until then, we have this meal. We have each other. We have the witness of those in whom we see the goodness of God, who show us what blessedness, what happiness, looks like.

With them, we are saints in the plural.



On a long drive the other day, I heard an NPR story about an adventure playground in California where kids can “play wild” on a half-acre park that has the deliberate vibe (and potential danger) of a junkyard. The day before that, the TED Radio Hour featured a talk by Gever Tulley, founder of The Tinkering School, who says that when kids are given sharp tools and matches, their imaginations take off and they become better problem-solvers.

These stories are part of a trend in which Americans (or at least American journalists) are beginning to question the overprotection believed by many to characterize modern American parenting. In Europe, by contrast, risky, junkyard playgrounds have been around since the end of World War II, when their construction was spurred by the conviction that children who might grow up to fight wars shouldn’t be shielded from danger; rather, they should meet it, early and often, with confidence and courage.

Recently, when a mother in Florida was arrested for allowing her seven-year-old son to walk alone to a city park a half-mile from their house, talk shows, blogs, and Facebook news feeds lit up with impassioned responses, revealing a deep divide over this issue: either the mother’s actions constituted criminal negligence or we are now criminalizing commonsense parenting. (Important class issues that come into play here received only scant attention).

Such a set of cultural concerns could only come about through a particular confluence of factors. Perhaps the most significant is our increasing fearfulness, individually and collectively. Much of it is unfounded, a good deal of it misdirected, almost all of it cultivated dishonestly and exploited shamelessly by those who stand to gain by it. What we ought to fear–that honeybees may soon be extinct, for one thing, and that half of the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last hundred and fifty years, for another–is overtaken by any number of false worries: that there is something called “the gay agenda,” that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, and (the one that keeps us up at night regardless of our politics) that we are largely failures as parents.

There is also the factor of the kind of anthropology of children we operate with. In a market economy, children are regarded alternately, though sometimes simultaneously, as commodities/consumers or burdens/liabilities. We routinely think of children as “instruments” for our own fulfillment, “objects” of our (micro)management skills, “projects” for reform or redirection. Of course, we love our children and, of course, we don’t use this language when speaking of them or to them. But we swim in the sea of global capitalism with its discourse of cost-benefit analysis, investment and return, and profitability. Often at the heart of both child-bearing and child-rearing are questions of affordability and the pressure to compete, the latter of which we seem to pass on to our children as readily as we give them our curly hair or nearsightedness.

Our theology of children often doesn’t fare much better. While the Church has rightly insisted that children are gifts from God–not commodities and certainly not burdens–parents, congregations, and clergy often unwittingly regard children as personal possessions. When an infant is baptized, the whole community makes long-haul promises to help nurture the child in the way of discipleship. Yet when that child is not the sweetly-sleeping cherub in her mother’s arms but a rebellious teen making disastrous choices, we often turn away–embarrassed for the family, hopeful that the kid will get the professional help she needs. It’s not our business, we tell ourselves. It’s a private matter. We wish them all the best.

What we don’t seem to get very well is that in the mystery of baptism we discover that our lives are linked with all those–children, women, and men–who have been baptized into Christ. And because we believe that all people–all children, women, and men everywhere–are created in the image of God, our lives are also linked with those of other faiths and those of no faith. No exception.

But what about the children of Gaza–the traumatized and suffering, the dead and dying? What about the refugee children at our southern border? Why is it that we cannot conceive that they are our children, too? that our lives are inextricably, quite inconveniently, linked with theirs?

We feel sorry for them–perhaps deeply sorry–but when we make them into objects of our pity, we engage in a kind of emotional self-indulgence that may soothe our own discomfort for awhile (at least until the next human catastrophe appears on our screen) but which changes nothing.

All the while we  worry that our own children won’t be tough enough. We debate the parenting skills of a single mother in Florida. These are preoccupations of the safe and the privileged. It’s only if our children are secure, after all, that we can contemplate filling their lives with more risk.

In the meantime there are children living daily under conditions of unspeakable danger. Theirs are playgrounds of death, not of their own choosing. They inhabit junkyards of ruined hopes, ruined lives.

Would that we might be accused of overprotecting them.





Third Sunday After Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 10:40-42

When I first began attending mass several years ago, I was struck by the kind of welcome I received. Or, rather, the kind I cead mile failtedidn’t. Raised in the over-eager Protestantism that hovers and fawns over every guest at worship (a well-meaning practice; I’ve engaged in it myself), Catholics were noticeably cool, it seemed—a little distant, even.

This wasn’t (and isn’t) calculating or conspiratorial on their part—nor on mine now as a Catholic. Any given group of parishioners at any given mass is not following a script about how to treat newcomers to the liturgy. And I don’t mean to suggest an absence of warmth or kindness; I’ve never experienced that in a Catholic church and I hope I’ve never communicated it. But I do think that the Eucharist—week after week, year after year—trains worshipers to know, even if they don’t or can’t articulate it theologically, that it is not the people or even the priest who does the welcoming; it’s Christ who does so.

All of us—long-timers and first-timers alike—are Christ’s guests, receivers of his gracious welcome.

And yet when we think about the welcomes we experience in other settings, most of us—Catholics and Protestants—find it difficult, I think, to be on the receiving end of another’s generosity. It seems to go against our sense of pride or self-sufficiency to be vulnerable in ways that would cause others to freely offer us welcome or refuge, harbor or hospitality. Interestingly, we don’t mind paying for such things—a nice hotel stay, a day at the spa—but this is because the hospitality industry is about market exchanges, not true acts of gracious, gratuitous, no-strings-attached welcome.

To read the rest click here.



“To inflect the inner silence, to give it body, that’s all we’re doing.”

Li-Young Lee, A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith

I walk out of the guest house toward the Abbey church a few minutes before midday prayer. Already the air is steamy. The scent of manure in nearby pastures is faint but insistent. We’re in Indiana, though farther south than Louisville. Weather- IMG_3949wise, it feels like Dixie. In the quiet of the church is coolness and the lingering fragrance of incense, as earthy and pungent in its own way as the compost on the fields.

* * * * *

One of the readers this week is a monk who has the voice of a baseball announcer. Not basketball. Not football. Baseball on the radio in the 1950s. If he told me that Stan Musial had just hit a line drive to win the game for the Cardinals, I’d be able to see it. When he tells me that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” I believe him.

* * * * *

What does it do to, in, and for a human body to sing so much of a day, every day of your life? There’s all the interesting science about how slow chanting can induce a rhythmic pattern and rate of breathing with significant health benefits. And there’s the very interesting science of synchrony in singers’ heartbeats. But what does all this have to do with the way you live? the way you love?

* * * * *

At times there is a kind of holy tedium that sets in when praying the divine office. I speak only for myself in this. I notice it especially at vigils–it’s early, it’s long. It’s not really sleepiness, though. Is there such a thing as reverent boredom? Can I offer that, too, with my morning prayers?

* * * * *

At times a single musical line–like the alleluias in the responosry for First Vespers on the Feast of the Ascension–almost breaks your heart. And heals it, too.

* * * * *

At mass on a Tuesday the presider tells us that we bring all our zeal, all our sin, all our brokenness, every time we gather for the Eucharist. “Conversion,” he says, “is literally on the table.” Like the baseball-announcer-monk, when he says this, I believe him.

* * * * *

St. Meinrad Archabbey
The Feast of the Ascension

(I spent a month here last summer. It is good to be back).

Easter A
John 20:1-18
(RCL); John 20:1-9 (Lectionary for Mass)Tulip 7576

You have to preach to those for whom the resurrection narrative is known inside and out, is loved and adored, is the sense-making story of their life in God, their life with others, their life in relation to all the world. What is there to say?

You have to preach to those for whom the resurrection narrative is science fiction or harmful propaganda. They may be in church this day only to please a mother or grandmother. (There are worse things). They may smirk. They may sleep. They may pity your benighted ignorance. What is there to say?

You have to preach to those who are curious but who would never let on that the story of Jesus’ rising from the dead sometimes keeps them up at night. They have a healthy dose of the same skepticism as the group above, but unlike them, they have a hunch that truth can be revealed through means other than the scientific method. What is there to say?

You have to preach to those who long for subtlety and sublimity in an Easter sermon. They may share a good deal with group one but, like group three, they also live with a fair amount of uncertainty about things. They think that poetry and art might be the best media for conveying the story of Easter. What is there to say?

Much is welcome about the Church’s signature Feast: the glorious music, the sparkling Alleluias! after the soberness of Lent, the bursting forth of springtime (at least in the northern hemisphere). Yet how does the preacher communicate Easter’s strange, improbable story to this strange, improbable gathering?

To read the rest click here.

There are so many sources of wistful regret to choose from, so many different clocks to mark time.

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

With the imposition of ashes imminent–this stark ritual signalling the onset of a season starker still in its confrontations with mortality and its fleshly (and fleshy) deprivations–I am reading about food. Glorious food.

Miriam’s Kitchen is the 1997 memoir of Elizabeth Ehrlich, a smart, skeptical, secular Jew who, in her mid-30s,  found herself, despite herself, drawn to kashrut–the dietary laws of Judaism. Her gentle yet resolute mother-in-law, Miriam, and the memories of her grandmothers’ kosher Brooklyn kitchens beckon Erhlich toward a way of eating–a way of life–that causes her to wonder: “have I consented to my own oppression?”

But the food. God in heaven, the food.

Honey cake and mandelbrot, mushroom barley soup and noodle kugel, potato pudding and summer squash, cheese danish and chocolate sour cream cake. (Did I mention cake?). And more than a dozen other dishes, recipes included. (Once when I taught this book in a Women and the Bible course at an all-women’s college, we brought many of these dishes to class one day. I remember how text, tradition, food, faith, and gender–and the quotidian realities of their complicated convergence–came to life for us in the extravagant meal we shared).

And as Lent arrives I think about the many ways we often regard food as an enemy. There is, of course, something toxic about much of our contemporary relationship to food–the literal poisoning of our bodies with chemicals and additives, the alarming rise in chronic conditions like obesity, type-2 diabetes, and coronary disease. We are prone to promiscuity in our eating; we can be mindless gluttons.

Not for nothing, the day before Ash Wednesday is known as “Fat Tuesday,” but how does this observance make any sense in a culture of excess where all meals easily become feasts of overconsumption?

A kosher Lent–a fit or proper Lent–might mean giving up the practices of individualizing–in mostly negative ways–our relationship to food: Shared abundance–not private obsession in the form of, say, counting fat grams or giving up chocolate–might be the better Lenten discipline.

Ehrlich makes this observation:

Kashrut, I believe, gave Jesus his great opening. He ate with the common people in their homes, when other learned teachers wouldn’t. Poor folk might not have had enough wooden bowls, ceramic vessels, and cooking implements to adhere perfectly to dietary laws. They might not have enough knowledge or resources to make their kitchens kosher enough for the standards of a truly learned man. Jesus swallowed his own squeamishness, perhaps, sat down and broke bread. You can get to heaven without all of this, he taught. I can see the appeal.

But oddly enough, and at the same time, trying to be kosher confronts one with the ultimate impossibility of perfection. Finally you have to live with your accommodations, the limits of being human. As with a calculus problem, the solution may draw close to an imaginary line, but never quite get there. At least, I’m sure I never will.

Her last point here–about living with limits–is Lenten theology at its best. We are finite creatures. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Yet in our finititude, in the boundaries set by our being human, lie the possibilities for experiencing the fullness of life we were created for. During Lent we ponder this paradox.

But too often we make the Lenten experience an exercise in personal heroics–as if it were a solo trip, a competition, even. Whatever challenges we face in the wilderness of our own temptations, we are pilgrims together on the journey to resurrection light and joy. Sharing our lives, sharing food (did I mention cake?): fitting ways to observe a holy Lent.

Epiphany 5ALuminous Darkness
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:13-16

Who among those who have read the gospels does not know that Christ has made all human suffering his own?

Origen, “On Prayer”

On Sunday, when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, my breath caught a little. I didn’t know him, of course, though I’ve admired every performance of his I’ve seen. (Oh, the power of cinema to make us feel like we know the actors we love—indeed to make us love them in the first place.) Hoffman was an actor of astonishing intuition and virtuosity. As one writer put it, “he could nail a part in one punch, summoning the richness of an entire life in the smallest gesture.”

It would be tempting to narrate Hoffman’s all too brief life and tragic death within the tired tropes of celebrity culture (money can’t buy you love; movie stars are desperately lonely people) but, thankfully, I’ve seen none of that in the moving tributes I’ve read to Hoffman’s life and art.

In particular, James Martin, SJ, recalls spending time with Hoffman in preparation for the off-Broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot:

Phil, as everyone called him, projected a unique blend of relaxed intensity as a director . . . He approached the text with an almost scholastic seriousness, carefully attending to every line in the script . . . From time to time, to illustrate a thorny point, or to describe the emotion that might underlie a scene, he would offer a story from his own life. “Did you ever have this experience?” Phil would ask, and recount a tale illustrating despair, or hope, or joy, or betrayal or trust . . . When I asked Phil Hoffman about his directing style on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” he readily agreed with the inherent strength of the parable—or, in his words, the personal anecdote—in its ability to communicate more than a strictly worded directive . . . In Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not follow was always that person’s own decision.

For all that was luminous about Philip Seymour Hoffman—his generosity and kindness, his immense talent—he, like all of us, struggled against darkness. His was in the form of an opiate addiction that he would not conquer. But also in his art, he revealed the “luminous darkness” of the human condition.  “He could take the most pitiful souls,” writes Ryan Gilbey, “and imbue each of them with a wrenching humanity. The more pathetic or deluded the character, the greater Hoffman’s relish seemed in rescuing them from the realms of the merely monstrous.”

To read the rest click here.