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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.

Abandoned.

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: https://suzannezoole.com/portfolio/the-holy-innocents/

 

 

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