When Isaac first appeared in my life last year, I described him to people as a “white lab.” His coat was mostly pale with a few brown markings, and the shape of his face revealed a Labrador Retriever. As he has become my co-pastor and companion, I wondered what the history was below that shedding fur. His lean figure and brown-spotted ears revealed that he was not a pure-bred lab. I had also heard that there was no such thing as a “white lab”–just a very light-colored yellow lab. Isaac’s coat was not light yellow; it was white! He also had what my friend and his rescuer, Jamie, called a “circus act.” He could stand on his hind legs for long periods of time, sometimes dancing from one foot to the other. That was not typical of the labs I had known.
After fearsome research, also known as a google search, I found a canine DNA test with good reviews. I placed my order and waited for the experiment. A few swabs of his mouth and a sealed envelope later, Isaac’s DNA was on its way to a laboratory in the midwestern United States.
There was a lot of discussion among my family and friends of what Isaac might be. Pointer, Irish setter, dalmatian, pit bull, and spaniel were all in the guesses. When the magic envelope of results was opened (well, clicking on the link in an email from the company), Isaac’s true identity was revealed:
1. Labrador Retriever (of course)
2. American Eskimo (Huh?)
3. Collie (Lassie? My Isaac? Really?)
How did an eskimo end up in the Mississippi delta? Along with the results came a description of each breed. I skipped the labrador page and went straight to the eskimo. It turned out Jamie’s description of the “circus act” was not far from the truth. American eskimo dogs are well-known for being trained for circuses: jumping through hoops, scooting around obstacles, and yes, walking a tightrope on their hind legs.
I had a Lassie hunting birds in the delta –while balancing on his hind legs. All I could do was scratch my head.
Looking at a mixed-breed like Isaac from the outside, we have no idea how many breeds are in his DNA, affecting his behavior and learning style. One of the reasons that these DNA tests are now available is to help with training mixed-breed dogs, to learn their personality traits. Below the surface is a wealth of possibility, not just for canines, but for all of us.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite verses of Scripture came from the story of Samuel anointing David king of Israel. It’s one that many of us probably learned in Sunday school. All of David’s burly, handsome, older brothers walked with royal struts by the prophet, Samuel. I always imagined Samuel oohing and aahing until a voice gently whispers to him, “Don’t look at his appearance or physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7, New King James Version). It’s one of the first and classic stories of the unlikely underdog receiving divine favor. And we love it because many of us have felt like David at some time: unnoticed and overlooked, always living in someone else’s shadow.
What strikes me now about that verse is that this is a story of embracing mystery. There is so much we don’t know that only God can know. It’s a story that reminds us that God sees the traits and characteristics in us that we can’t even see in ourselves. It’s a story that encourages us to look at ourselves, and each other, with the reassurance that only God knows the deepest confines of the heart. It reminds us that we only know so much–and that’s okay.
Even after Isaac’s DNA test, there is still so much I don’t know about him. I don’t know what in his background causes him to drink water as I pour it from a bottle. I don’t know why he bites his leash and tries to “walk himself” around the neighborhood. But I do delight in what I can find out about him. I rejoice as I learn about his tightrope-walking tendencies and incredible running speed. In the same way, we can give thanks as we learn more about each other’s “true identities” and gifts. Let us regard each other with the same, sacred awe with which God looks at our hearts.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
A poem for Steve Silvern and inspired by a reading of Hasidic texts on Yom Kippur
I am a shuttered lantern
By the coldness of my heart
Rusted by tears
Sprung from hopelessness
That I failed to wipe away
The dark is quiet
I cannot see
I cannot be seen
As I am stuck
The course of my life
Open my shutter
Shatter my darkness
That of me
Even though I fear
The flakes of
Oxidized by my guilt
To the light
I may see
I may see
What I do not want
I may be seen
Help me move
The comfort of stasis
The stasis of comfort
A being of light
Light is my center
Let my part
The Greater Light
Perhaps I will
So filled with light
So be it
What is shattered can be repaired
Shell by shell
Husk by husk
Be what I truly am
Let me be
Lighting the world.
Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us. – Thomas Berry
Friday, October 3rd was the Feast of St. Francis for the Christian church. St. Francis is most widely known as the patron saint of animals and the environment, and founder of the Franciscan order. And while this is appropriate for him, it is also true that St. Francis was known for his solidarity with the poor, something being clearly illustrated in the actions of Pope Francis in our day. St. Francis and his feast call our attention to something uniquely important to our day and our time — our troubled relationship with the wider community of God’s creation and its impact on the poor. Perhaps this combination has never been so acute. But for all the poignancy of that combination, the Feast of St. Francis is most commonly celebrated in the church as an event primarily for children and pets and our general aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of natural things. How can we move this feast and for what it stands onto the larger church calendar of salvation, redemption, holiness and justice? How can we advance the church’s appreciation for St. Francis past simply children’s programming and a nice annual feast about nature, forward to where it plays a vital role in informing true worship, engaged mission and right justice?
The New Poor
In our day the church is being challenged to expand its circle of awareness and concern to what some call “the new poor.” These include those made poor through our society’s pervasive and insatiable appetite for cheap goods, no matter the methods of producing them. These include those made poor by our tolerance for corporations shifting the true costs of production onto the backs of natural communities, poor human communities, larger society and the next generation; all who are then left to bear the suffering and clean up the mess, as long as the prices on the shelves and at the pump remain low, profits remain high and the resultant suffering remains mostly out of site for the privileged and the powerful. And the new poor also include those non-human communities that bear the suffering of displacement, disease, starvation and extinction as we destroy their habitat and the systems that sustain them, while writing them off as “the cost of doing business.”
Now, I don’t want to waste this article wagging a green finger at the church and calling us to shame, for that is neither Gospel nor helpful. The place of healing and recognition to which we need arrive is neither shame or fear, but rather joy, hope and love. For I believe what the Senegalese poet and naturalist, Baba Dioum said is true:
In the end, we will protect only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.
Others have adapted this to say, We will not save what we do not love, and we cannot love what we do not know. In other words, the heart of our task is to “familiarize” (make family) not just our human kin, but the whole family of God’s created order. This lovemaking, then, cannot be the fruit of protest politics or self-denial of certain conveniences (as important as those are in our day). It is, rather, the work of inclusion and drawing near. And to do that, as the church, we need to let God’s good creation more fully into our assembly and fellowship, which are the places where we learn to love each other. How do we begin? Here are some ways.
First: End the false competition between valuing people and valuing nature
It is time to end the false divisions that often frame these issues: tree huggers verses people lovers, wilderness lovers verses urban lovers, the economy verses the community or human needs verses animal needs. It is especially time to end associating false and misapplied theological divisions such as flesh verses spirit, eternal things verses earthly things or paganism verses Christian salvation. We must not allow a separation of people from nature or environment from people. Those false dichotomies are the weapons of political maneuvering and dishonest debate. It is certainly not in the biblical witness to make a division of life on God’s created earth into a sacred human enterprise on the one hand and a profane and secular earthly existence on the other. The biblical witness, when taken as a whole, affirms the value of all God’s good creation from beginning to end – the land, the trees, the animals, the stars and the human community, all as one worshipping and suffering community, groaning together and looking together for the salvation of God, the redemption of all bodies and the renewal of the earth.
In particular, the Christian church must work to end the false separations we have created and sustain in our language and prayer, music and practice; by speaking and acting as if God is solely concerned with the human enterprise while the rest of creation is but a stage and backdrop for our human drama. We must begin to include in our speech, prayers and praise, the presence and voice of our fellow congregants: the four-footed, the finned, the rooted, the winged and all life that surrounds us and fills our lives. We must begin to more fully pray for them, and with them, and allow them to pray, in their own voices, with us. And this cannot be done as only cute lessons for children or occasional accommodations to nature lovers or environmental activists; but as the right engagement in God’s full gospel of salvation, which, as Paul writes in Colossians Chapter 1, “was proclaimed to every creature under heaven” and who, as he writes in Romans 8, like us, “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” In other words, we are all in this together.
Second: Expand our thinking beyond good stewardship of material things to include right relationship with holy things.
Wendell Berry describes the issue this way:
Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy.
Wendell is not using the word “blasphemy” lightly here. It is a religious term with transcendent meaning. It indicates a violation of the sacred. It points to an affront to God. It means that the wrongness of this situation is beyond the human level and beyond our human scope and timeline. And what he is putting his finger upon points a way forward for placing these issues into heart and center of the Christian church, which is the worship of God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
The “destruction of nature” to which Wendell refers can indeed serve as a call to stewardship and justice, but it must also serve as a mirror reflecting the spiritual disconnects between the world’s behavior and God’s intention for life on earth. Naming these destructions as blasphemy extends to the church an invitation to not just advocacy for a cause, but also to repentance and a restoration of some vital missing elements of Christian holiness, discipleship and gospel salvation. In this is a role for the voice of our religious faith, by reclaiming the earth as sacred and all God’s creatures as holy.
Third: Place self-control, kindness and contentment as centerpieces of our faith practice.
I think particular seasons and times in life do call for particular strengths from us. The church has done this before. In times of war or great conflict, the church has needed to be a people who simply embodied that British mandate of WWII – “Be calm, and carry on.” But then, in times of great struggle for justice, the church has needed to reach deep and find her strength in compassion and demonstrate her willingness to walk in the shoes of the stranger or the oppressed. And now, in this time of overwhelming technological power, runaway consumption and a disregard for our impact upon God’s whole beloved community of life, the challenge for the church is to embody the values of contentment, gentleness and self-control. Perhaps as much as anything, the church could model the love of Christ for the world through restoring to the center of its life together the historical practices of simplicity, contentment, gentleness and kindness. For in this, the church has not been counter-cultural at all, but rather has stepped fully into the rat race of consuming, competing and complaining. Perhaps what the planet most needs from the church in our day is to embody the life of a people of God who, in the name of Christ, choose simplicity, gentleness and contentment as the hallmarks of their lives. What a powerful witness that would be. How counter cultural that would be. How healing that would be.
Last: Find joy and love in the beauty of the earth and the inclusion of all living things.
In the end, as we have said, we will save only what we love. And the converse of that is also true: We will be saved only by what we love. In the end, as Thomas Berry has said, “Only our sense of the sacred will save us.” So, in the end, this challenge is really is not about a heroic church sent out to rescue an environment “out there” or about mobilizing a passionate religious response to “save the planet.” In the end, it is not just the planet that needs saving – it is we ourselves that need saving. And it is not just our place on the planet that needs rescuing, it is also our souls and communities, lost on an endless treadmill of running, grasping and getting, that need saving. The environmental crisis without is but a mirror image to the spiritual crisis within. By letting the rest of creation into our worship, prayer and family life, and by letting them into our hearts, our own hearts will be saved. Because as we let them in, we will in turn learn to love them. And as we learn to love them, we will recognize their holiness and worth. And as we recognize their holiness, we will then come to recognize our own holiness and worth. And in that knowing, we too will be saved. For that is, after all, the Gospel of salvation.
Our journeys have brought us to worship…but we travel from vastly different beginnings. On this World Communion Sunday, we are but a small part of the larger church that raises our hands and hearts to you. From places as thirsty as the Sahara and as green as the rain forests in South America…from the loneliness of an empty home or from the chaos of a violent one…we come to you Lord as we are.
Whether our hearts are prepared to meet you or our thoughts are racing, full of this morning’s worries, quiet us enough that we can hear you singing over us.
Remind us that we have the joy and privilege to call you Father with one voice along with our brothers and sisters who call you ah-TYEHTS, El Padre, Abba, Mon Pere, Baba…
Like an exquisite bouquet of different flowers brought together as a fragrant offering, your children call out to you.
In moments this week where we find ourselves quarreling, give us unity…
When we find ourselves hungry, give us a longing to feed our brothers and sisters…
When we find ourselves at a loss for words, give us arms that reach out to heal each other…
Most of all, help us to truly SEE each other as the brothers and sisters that we are…one family…one church.
In Jesus’ Name and with Hope to be more like Him, we offer our prayer.
A sermon preached on Rosh HaShanah Evening, September 4, 2013
This is the birthday of the world. Among other things, this day, Rosh HaShanah, is the commemoration of the creation of the world by G-D. One does not have to be a Biblical literalist to believe the miracle of existence should be celebrated. Forget flashy subversions of natural law, unconsumed burning bushes, and splitting seas. The fact that we are, that anything is, is sufficiently amazing to cause us all, from time-to-time, to stop in wonder and to marvel.
That there is something, we know. What some of that stuff is, from pine cones to pandas, we learn more of every day. But why? Why are we?
It can be considered a futile task to try to say anything about G-D, for what can we say that we know is true? Yet, each individual is a puzzle to him or herself and the question of why; why am I? Will arise in the mind suddenly and unexpectedly for some and constantly for others. But even before the question of individual purpose, we can ask the corporate question. Why are we? Why are there human beings or, on some planet circling a distant start, why are there any thinking feeling beings like us?
I have a proposal, a gut feeling that has been with me for decades. G-D was lonely. The Soul of Creation wanted someone to love, to communicate with. I know that this implies some lack in the Creator of Heaven and Earth. But while we have from time-to-time, from Saadia Gaon to Maimonides onto the modern day, embraced philosophy and found our way to the perfect, unchanging philosopher’s god, this was not the G-D with whom we sought relationship in our joys and in our sorrows.
It was the G-D of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah we cried out to in our despair and who we somehow knew shared our tears of joy in moments of triumph or exultation. This G-D, who we can speak of as the friend of Abraham, this G-D we can imagine being lonely. And so, here we are.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying The Soul of Creation is like a lonely and despairing fifteen year old girl who becomes pregnant to have someone to love and someone to love her. This child is having a child to have a living doll, a pet. It does not occur to the young girl that this baby will differentiate itself from her. Rather, think of an adult woman, who seeks to have a child, well aware of the challenges and responsibilities, but is also aware of joys of watching that child come into his or her own. Indeed, the adult woman knows she is opening herself up to the possibility of greater pain and fear than she has known before. She also embarks on child bearing and child rearing knowing that the goal is a differentiated person, a mature, whole separate person. Those of us with adult children who have become distinct, caring people, know the amazing joy of moving into a position of friendship with our children.
Let us see G-D as such a woman, such a mother. She knows, before we exist as a species, that we will disappoint and we will rebel. Furthermore, She knows that such rebellions are part of the path to full personhood. So, in our mythic past, when we enter the terrible twos by eating the fruit and being exiled from the safe playpen of Eden, that was as it should have been.
Our purpose is to grow and to mature fully into our role as cocreators with The Most High. Not to become little gods, but to become worthwhile company to that which is beyond our full understanding. The mystics will say we are never fully apart from G-D, but I feel deeply within myself, that as attached as we are to The Holy One, it is our purpose to become as fully ourselves as we are able.
It is good to remember that a parent loves his or her child through dirty diapers, drawn on walls, broken windows, teenage rebellions, and on and on. Indeed, in creating, G-D opens the door to pain as does any human parent. G-D suffers with us, as a parent does. The mystics teach that G-D’s presence, the Shachina, went into exile with us after our Temple was destroyed-a parent sharing her children’s pain. I like the image of writer Lois McMaster Bujold. Her character, speaking of her lover, says, “When he is cut, I bleed.” So to does the Holy One bleed with us, when His/Her children are cut.
We can interpret some of our most fundamental texts to support this. I was privileged this summer to study Torah with R. Dr. Leila Gal Berner. We looked at the Sh’ma and Veahavtah. In Shema Yisroeal Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad, the early 20th century philosopher, Herman Cohen interpreted Echad not as one, but as alone. But in Cohen’s case, he meant alone in the sense of singular and unique.
R. Leila interprets echad as alone in the plain sense of the word. That is, there is no one with whom G-D can be in relation. G-D is alone and, indeed, lonely. Now, R. Leila goes on, in light of this interpretation of echad as alone, to read the beginning of the Veahavtah:
You must love The Eternal, your G-D, with your whole heart, with every breath, and with all you have.
This is not a command. This is a plea, a cry to be loved. This is Divine pathos. Holy love for us is given unconditionally as, in a healthy parenting relationship, the parent’s love for the child is unconditional. But The Holy One, The Alone One, The Lonely One, is the parent, ever hoping for His/Her child to return that love and, in the fullness of time, to return that love with a growing level of maturity and understanding. As we each wish to be seen, in-so-far as we can, as finite beings,
G-D wishes to be seen by us.
The Theology of creation implicit in all of this is that G-D created both out of a desire to love and be loved, an awareness of aloneness, and a willingness to pay the price of pain and disappointment for the eventual payoff of independent, free-willed beings with whom to be in relation. Our purpose in this schema is to be loved and to love. We are to pierce the veil of separateness that we perceive between us and The Holy, to see and be seen. We are to mature as a species and as individuals to be worthy partners of The Holy One.
But, as does any theology, this has implications in terms of our ethics and our behavior. If we wish to answer the call to love The Eternal, your G-D, with your whole heart, with every breath, and with all you have, how are we to do so?
Whether we believe that we are each distinct individuals, enholied by the breath of G-D by our very natures, each containing a spark of The Divine; or we believe that we are no more separate from G-D than an individual wave is from the ocean, each human being partakes of The Holy. So it is, that our easiest, most common encounter with G-D is in facing our fellow human beings. In being face-to-face with our fellow, we are face-to-face with G-D.
Thus, if we are to heed the call to love G-D, we must, as a matter of course, love our fellow human beings. If we are to care for G-D, we must care for those around us. If we are to pierce the wall of aloneness around The Holy One, we must reach out of our own aloneness, not only to the singularity of The Creator, but into the prisons of loneliness that trap our neighbors. The simplest, though perhaps not the easiest, way to love G-D is love our neighbor. Note that implicit in this, as we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and we are to love our neighbor as a means of loving G-D, we must, even in our deepest place of despair and brokenness, find a way each to love him or herself.
Furthermore, if love, as it should, implies action, then we must strive to demonstrate our love both in compassionate action and an adherence to justice and righteousness in our actions.
But G-D is not merely reflected in our fellow human beings. As the Psalmist says, there is no place without G-D. All of creation speaks to us of the Holy One. We are but travelers in a world that is both surely G-D’s and the birthright of future generations. As such, if we are to love G-D, we must love G-D’s creation and tread lightly as we pass through the world; preserving what we can and ever mindful of our roles as lovers and cocreators, strive to repair what is broken.
So it is on this, the birthday of the world, we ask, why are we here? We respond, we are to love G-D and be loved. We ask, how can we love G-D, so mysterious and beyond our ability to fully grasp with either mind or heart? We can love G-D by loving both our fellows and ourselves, each of which partakes of The Holy One in their very natures. We can love and care for the creation that is the Handiwork of The Eternal.
Let us be the children beaming love back to our Holy Parent by demonstrating our love for one and other, causing Her/Him to rejoice in our becoming more fully the individuals we are meant to be; our best selves, ever growing and maturing.
May you, may we all, be inscribed for a year of blessing and meaning, a year of discovering ever deepening capacities to love, and a year of bringing forth the love of others through our own acts of loving kindness and so breach the veil of loneliness between human and human and human and G-D.
Commentary on Photo (and the 2012 Tennessee Football Season): Lindsay Minton- “How much more humble can we get, we’re 4-7?”
If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, it’s likely you’ve grown painfully accustomed to my often half-hearted, predictably cynical, and endlessly limping efforts to remain tethered to a faith my economic livelihood depends so desperately upon.
You may have even decided long ago, after yet another attempt on my part to grab your internet attention with a salaciously entitled post about the ABSOLUTE NECESSITY OF FOLLOWING MY LINK TO A POORLY EDITED ARTICLE ABOUT HOW CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICALISM IS FAILING THE WORLD, that you know (almost) exactly what I’m going to say before I bother to type it.
“Yada, yada, yada: Democrat this…Gay people that….Racism over here….White privilege to your left…Miley Cyrus…Millennials leaving the church….Pugs.
Dude, we get it. You’re unsuccessful attempts to convince us that the Christianity we reject on an almost daily basis is in fact not Christianity at all, but rather some sort of Dooney & Burke knock-off faith from Canal St, are painfully obvious.”
Ironically, for a writer of my “pedigree,” this is what those of us in the biz would term a “best-case” response scenario.
There are of course, other, we’ll say “less generous,” appropriations of my loosely affiliated sentence fragments on the divine. Appropriations defined more by offense and less by boredom and lack of interest, due not un-entirely to my usual straw-person like presentation (and subsequent evisceration) of what they consider to be bedrock components of their life, faith, and eternal security.
For many people, to question God and faith, is the equivalent of punching their grandmother outside a Cracker Barrel. And to then write about it on the internet in a-Floyd Mayweather-early-round-TKO-2-gloved-fists-raised-in-the-air-triumphantly-gloating-over-her-rocking-chair-covered-body-sort-of-way-is really just crossing the line.
So, if you’re bored, I get it.
If you’re offended, I get it.
And, if, on the off chance there are at least 2 others of us out there, you happen to somewhat agree with me, I get it (?).
Which brings me, haltingly, to 2 of my least favorite moments in the Gospel accounts of Jesus:
“Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more so that nothing worse happens to you.” — John 5:14
“Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” — John 8:10-11
First things first: no, I do not hate redemption stories.
For the record, I watched the entire second season of Heroes in hopes that it would eventually right the ship.
(Sadly, I am nothing if not loyal, at least when it comes to NBC programming.)
Second things second: why, after liberating individuals who’ve been held captive for years to a socio-religious juggernaut of shame, does Jesus implore them, in true tent-revival fashion, to “go and sin no more”?
It’s almost as if you can feel, 2000 years later, the deflation welling up in the eyes of the man, the woman, and the disciples eavesdropping just off stage, when Jesus, after whipping the crowd into a frenzy with a rousing finale, plays hot-crossed buns un-ironically for his encore on the pan flute.
Really, “go and sin no more”?
That’s the big finish?
I stood in the rain for 3 hours, sat through FOUR opening bands, and an eternity’s worth of set changes, and you close with this? Honestly, I’d rather watch Kanye implode at Bonnaroo endlessly with no bathroom breaks, than this.
Now, as a sheepishly progressive internet pastor, I often feel it’s my job to cover-over the less desirable components of my faith as a way of presenting a pristine, deeply relevant, and hopelessly inclusive message of redemption to the blogosphere.
But, as I’ve started ordering black coffee from Starbucks, discovered more grey hairs in the drain plug, and now know what “escrow” means, I’ve found that what makes faith in this Jesus and the world he articulates compelling, isn’t pushing my weight against the broom-cupboard hiding all the parts I find undesirable.
It’s trying to figure out how, even in the midst of my endless confusion and disagreement,
to include, and in so doing,
to make space for an alternative future.
However, I do have one more but(t):
In all the ways I’ve been invited to read these words over the course of my life, it was usually through the boringly bifocal lenses of bombastic conservatism or weak-kneed liberalism: resulting either in covering-over the sharp edges of Jesus’ disappointing conclusions or putting them on poster-board hand bills we had printed at Staples as a way of proclaiming our fidelity to the “hard truths of Scripture”.
But Jesus, as is his custom, chooses neither, and disappoints both.
Because, in his understanding, the one that resulted in his death I might add, the Temple, the law, even faith itself, had become corrosive, toxic, and destructive:
Faith became the tool by which the weak, the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the widow, the eunuch, the impure, and the sinful met their terrifying ends at the hands of the strong and the righteous…
for the sake of national purity and liberation.
Faith, rather than being the redemptive element inside the dehumanizing machinations of a “godless society,” instead became that which baptizes inequality and judgment as collateral damage in a God-ordained fight against evil.
In light of this, I would argue that Jesus, rather than reasserting the tired answers of this way of believing in the world, is instead turning the whole thing on it’s head. Primarily, by commanding what many of us would consider to be an impossibility (we all sin right?), I believe he’s outlining a new location for the determination of our sinfulness:
not one that finds its genesis in Temple and law, but flesh and blood.
Thus, in his understanding of sin,
whether we keep kosher or not,
whether we lean left or not,
whether we find it necessary to picket UT home football games (honestly, I don’t necessarily disagree with this approach, I did watch the first half of the Florida game) or not,
the question Jesus invites all of us to religiously reflect upon is:
“are your neighbors better off because you believe in this, or are they not?”
Because in this way, the only prooftext, the only requirement, the only litmus test for fidelity to a God who breathed life in to the first humans, wandered around in the wilderness with them for 40 years, and even took on flesh and blood himself and moved next door…is whether or not those around you are loved, embraced, and accepted independent of their socio-cultural-economic-religio-sexual purity markers.
In a famous sermon given just a few days before his demise, Jesus comments on the fate awaiting the Temple in which he was currently speaking:
“Do you see all these great buildings? replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” -Mark 13:2
Which naturally scandalized the religious professionals in the room, as he locates the presence of God not in steeples and yellowed scrolls, but in a 30-something rabbi and his would-be followers proclaiming the nearness of God to all those hiding under the bed of totalizing religious fascism.
So may you, whether in your blistering conservatism, bleeding-heart liberalism, or even your militant moderation remember that our chosen lenses are foreign viewpoints for a God who steps in-between those throwing stones and those receiving them in order to invite us into an alternative way of being together in the world.
A way that no longer requires enemies or stones or temples or condescending blogs or those weird calvin-n-hobbes-peeing-on-everything-bumper-stickers.
A way that invites all of us to reflect upon our ceaseless toxicity, proclivities for hatred and alienation, and even our own darkness, and in so doing, leaving us little time for the religiously-motivated public shaming of others as they shuffle zombie-like and bedraggled through yet another disappointing Saturday afternoon.
Because, as Jesus humbly reminds us:
when all of us sin, none of us do.
well, sort of.
Photo Credit: Eric Minton
To read more from Eric Minton at his blog.
Conner handed me a strangely shaped, bulky package wrapped in heavy paper.
“Be careful. It’s breakable.”
I carefully unwrapped the one package to reveal three pieces: a cup, a saucer, and a stirrer.
“Thank you so much,” I said. “I love it.” I really meant those seven words, but hidden in them was a question that sometimes accompanies gifts.
How does this work?
A cup, a saucer, and a stirrer seem like simple, straightforward gifts. And they usually are. But this particular cup had a pointed base to it. When Conner turned away, I tried setting it on the counter, but it toppled into my hand. The bottom of my new coffee/tea mug was like a top that wouldn’t spin. Instead, in my hands, it only fell down. I finally swallowed my pride and said, “Uh… dude… how does this work?”
Conner laughed and took the cup from me. He placed the orange cup in the yellow saucer, which had an indention in the center. The mug sat upright, and he two puzzle pieces became one. He placed the stirrer, which was shaped and painted like a human arm, alongside the mug.
Light bulb in my head was now in the “on” position.
Conner, a potter, then told me the story behind the “mug” and its creator. He had just returned from an artists’ gathering in Sandwich, Illinois, where he’d met another potter named Cory McCrory. She had a collection of whimsical cups, saucers, and stirrers that could be mixed & matched. He described some of these pieces to me and how hard it was to choose. I looked at the orange mug with the word, “CREATIVITY,” in black letters across the front.
“So, how did you decide on this one?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seemed right.”
Four years have passed since I placed the cup, saucer, and stirrer on a shelf in my home. For the most part, the ensemble has been art to view and not to use. I was always afraid of breaking it, of letting the cup slip out of the saucer and spill hot coffee everywhere. I would opt for a mug with less of a story, a mug that could be replaced.
Until a few weeks ago.
I shuffled my slippered feet across the den towards the kitchen and my 6 a.m. cup of coffee. The orange of Cory’s cup caught my eye as I walked by. It just seemed right to take it off the shelf. It just seemed right to wipe the dust with my fingers. It just seemed right to carry the saucer on my left hand, as my right hand held the cup and stirrer in place. It just seemed right to pour coffee into it and to see the word, “CREATIVITY,” face me as I drew the drink towards my lips.
I realized in the dawn of an August morning that I’d recently left a lot of my own creativity on a shelf, too. In the busyness of everyday life, in the rush of to-do lists and calendar obligations, it had become more and more difficult to carve out time to draw, to play music, to write, and simply to nurse the creative spirit. I liked to admire what artists like Cory and Conner created but neglected to admire what I might be able to make, too.
When Paul writes about the gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12, he reminds us that “there are different spiritual gifts but one Spirit” (12:5, Common English Translation). Just as we all have spiritual gifts, we all have creative gifts. The source of all these spiritual and creative gifts is God, from whom “all good things” come. Why do we spend so much time ignoring the treasures on the shelves of our lives when God desires that we share them as the gifts they’re meant to be?
Cory McCrory’s creation calls me to create, too. In the body of Christ, let us use our gifts to stir one another to activate their gifts, too.
all good things to each of you,
* Much of this and other recent blog posts was inspired by the July/August issue of Alive Now magazine.
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
Teresa was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Albania in the year 1910. Her father died when she was not even ten years old. As the youngest child in the family, it’s hard to say what kind of impact this had on her but it’s never easy to watch a parent die. Anjezë must have felt abandoned and confused. Anjezë had experienced the cold and striking hand of death in her life long before it feels necessary. As must be the case, she moved on with the help of her mother and siblings and was brought up in the embrace of the Church.When she attended services, she would often hear the stories of missionaries and saints and be enamored with the stories. The telling of those stories dug into Anjezë’s mind and heart and planted a seed that would bloom many years later. She expressed a feeling that God was calling her to be one of these people. Her story was just beginning and still she sensed that there was a call upon her. She would follow this call at the age of eighteen and leave her home forever. She became a member of the Sisters of Loreto and moved to Calcutta, India, to be a nun and teacher for the poor in Calcutta. Anjezë took her vows in 1931 and took the name Teresa in memory of Thérèse de Lisieux, the matron saint of missionaries.
Teresa felt a tension between her calling to help the people of India and their continued suffering. In 1943, famine and disease rampaged through the poor people of Calcutta. In 1946, violence between Hindus and Muslims was escalating and cascading through the populace. Though she had already felt a calling upon her life and had answered it by becoming a nun, she felt another call. She would refer to this as her “call within a call” and it included helping the poor, diseased, and needy by living among them and providing them care, sustenance, and hospitality. Instead of simply providing for their physical needs, Teresa felt a call to love and embrace the poorest of the poor and treat them as she would like to treat Jesus. The Sisters of Loreto were doing good things by providing education and assistance to the needy–they were living into their call–but Teresa was called further to dwell among the needy and commune with them so that they might know that they were loved and welcome.
Life was not easy for Teresa and she often found herself tempted to return to the comparatively easy life of the convent. While begging for food and supplies in the streets of Calcutta, Teresa became a part of the people she had previously been ministering to with some detachment. As Teresa sacrificed her detachment she heard the voice of temptation call to her, “Come now, go back to the good work of the convent. You’re beating yourself up for a people who don’t care. You’ve become weak and can no longer help them. Go back to the comfortable life of the convent.” Teresa eventually would refuse the siren call of comfort but not without being sorely tempted and challenged. In 1950, her “call within a call” became a reality when a new religious order was founded: the “Missionaries of Charity.”
There was an abandoned Hindu temple in Calcutta that Teresa noticed one day. She began campaigning with the Indian government to allow her to use it to take care of the needy. Their appreciation of her work with the poor became manifest when they allowed her to convert it and use it. She turned it into the “Khaligat Home for the Dying.” This building was a place for poor and needy individuals to come and find comfort and care while they died. There was no charge for their services.Teresa wanted to offer a loving death to anybody regardless of their station or influence. It was not only for Christians but for any religion. Regardless of their religion, they were welcome and provided an honorable and comforting death. Muslims were comforted with the reading of the Quran while Hindus were offered water from the Ganges. Christians were given their last rites and prayed with. The goal was not conversion of the people but, rather, caring for them because of a deep and passionate love.
Teresa later would go on to found what she called the “City of Peace.” This was a home for people afflicted with Hansen’s disease (what we might call leprosy). In this place, those who were outcast and feared were welcomed and loved by people unafraid of them or their suffering. Teresa’s heart broke for these people and so she cared for them as best she knew how. Further, her heart was broken for the many orphans in Calcutta and so she founded the”Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart.” This was a place for orphans and homeless youth that provided shelter, food, education, and–most importantly–the love that all people feel drawn to. She did more than provide for physical needs but also lived with and loved the outcast so that they might know they were human. The curse of leprosy, poverty, and homelessness is more than simply lack of physical things but also the dehumanization that takes place when society overlooks and fears you. Teresa resisted that tendency by radically loving and welcoming all people–not so that they would convert but so that they might know love more abundant and free. In her lifetime, the Missionaries of Charity would spread to many other countries and throughout India. Teresa had started a wildfire of love that no barriers could stand against.
Teresa was not without her own doubts and fears, however. It would be a mistake to suggest that her faith was a matter of doubtless devotion and no fear. Her journals reveal long periods of time when Teresa felt that God was silent to her. She ached and yearned for God’s presence and communion in the suffering and heartbroken words of her journal. Even Teresa of Calcutta–the loving provider to millions–went through a “Dark Night of the Soul.” Like many Christian saints–St. John of the Cross and Thérèse de Lisieux, for example–Teresa walked through a valley of despair where there was little hope and she seemed to be enveloped by God’s silence. She maintained her faith in the face of her doubt and persevered in her calling even when she wondered if it was all a dream. Even when Teresa might not have had faith, her faith still had her.
Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. This was only one of many awards that Teresa received for her service and ministry. She received the Nobel prize “…for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress…” She was offered a banquet like all recipients but she refused to attend or even acknowledge it. It was cancelled. She asked that the $192,000 that she was supposed to receive be given to the poor of India. She stated that she had no use for earthly rewards unless it was to help ease the suffering of another. In her speech, she offered sound advice on how peace could be birthed into the world. She suggested that the first act of any peacemaker should be to go and love their family. Further, she identified that the true killer of peace was not physical lack but, rather, emotional lack created by being outcast from society–the most grievous wound for the needy was their own dehumanization.
Teresa began experiencing cardiac complications in 1983. When her health worsened, she offered to step down from leading the Missionaries of Charity but she was asked to remain. Her heart continued to weaken and fail while she also contracted malaria. Finally, on September 5th, 1997, Teresa died. She had lived a life of calling (and calling within calling) that led her to pour herself out for others so that they might know life and love more abundantly. She had provided for a loving death to so many people in her own lifetime and provided for her own loving death as she went home to her reward for a life of service and devotion to those whom Jesus said he would be with.
When I was 5 years old I had a rat-tail.*
(*NOTE: the addition of the hyphen between these two decidedly embarrassing dance partners adds, what I believe, to be a more “scientific” rendering of a hairstyle worn almost exclusive by people screaming “Dale YEAH!” from the cheap seats of Bristol Motor Speedway each spring.)
There’s nothing quite like-after enjoying a pleasant and unexpected lunch with your father who initiated the meeting because he wants to pass on “something meaningful” to you-feeling the oddly smooth fibers of your childhood neck tickler* after it’s been hermetically sealed in a sandwich bag for the last 23 years.
(*NOTE: “neck tickler” is trademarked. At your next dinner party please cite your sources.)
My life is a bad Southern-Gothic novel.
Ever since that fateful lunch, I’ve found myself continually trotting this embarrassing uncle of a childhood memory out anytime I find judgmental distance, snobbish disdain, or overly-spiritualized vitriol laying waste to the Cracker Barrel patrons, Q-Tip piloted late-model Town Cars, or vapid party guests discussing bar height in their newly purchased downtown lofts in front of me.
Because, for years now, I’ve spent the better part of my waking hours mentally eviscerating the people around me:
What they wear.
Who they read.
Where they went to school.
Why they do what they do.
Who they voted for.
What music they listen to (and if you say “everything” I WILL PUNCH YOU IN THE STOMACH AND REFUSE TO APOLOGIZE AFTERWARDS.)
Who they do or don’t date.
What movies “speak to them”.
Initially, I had no medium upon which to paint these witty and withering critiques, but now, thanks to the INTERWEBS, I have a captive audience*.
(*NOTE: I mean “captive” in the truest sense of the word. If you don’t believe me, try to have an eye-contact heavy conversation with anyone under 40 over dinner.)
Now every party, every drive home, and every eternal Hobby Lobby register experience behind someone’s great Aunt who only uses checks because credit cards are the first step in the insidious plans of “the beast and the Antichrist to make one global market in order to oppress the faithful” is a prop, is fodder for my endless struggles for meaning, identity, and belonging.
If I can judge, condemn, and proclaim loudly from the friendly confines of my keyboard what I don’t want to be or do or say or vote for or listen to or believe then I will at some point eventually discover what I actually do want to be and do and say and believe…right?
So I get it when, in our strains to reach for the authenticity endlessly bouncing around in the backseats of our souls, all we manage to come up with is snark.
Honestly, sometimes snark is all I’ve got left in the tank, and the more I leverage the lives, choices, partners, hair styles, and recreational activities of the humans in front of me for the laughs and the likes and the shares and the retweets…the more my actual (and probably my internet) soul, dies.
Maybe we could put it another way:
When the only thing that links you to another person is the previously agreed-upon verbal, political, religious and/or social disemboweling of another:
and you are
This is why I’ve decided to wear that lock of my rat-tail in an amulet around my neck.
This is why I’ve found that remembering all of who we are, especially the missteps, the false-starts, the times we took a fashion risk that continues to haunt the pages of our family photo albums and our dreams, is the only way we can carve out enough space and oxygen for other people in the room to come to the very same redemptive conclusions about their own stories.
That being, even in our worst selves, we’re worth the breaths we’re taking now.
The 17th century Rabbi, Susya of Hanipol, famously reflected with a far away look in his eye:
“When I die and stand before the Heavenly Judge will I not be asked why I was not like Abraham or Moses? To such a question, I could provide a very convincing answer.
No, when I die I will be asked only one question, the answer to which will determine whether or not I take my place in the world to come: “Why was I not Susya?”
And to this I will have nothing to say at all.”
Despite the constant queries of late 90s bracelets in every color inviting us to reflect upon just what exactly Jesus would do,
none of us will ever be like Jesus.
Ironically enough, the central claim of Christianity actually depends upon our failure to reproduce the life of Jesus, because it repeatedly attests to his uniqueness across the eons of human history.
Just listen to how he’s often described by those interrogating the world one wrist at a time:
The question of your existence isn’t why aren’t you more like Abraham or Moses or even Jesus.
It’s why aren’t you Susya?
That is, of course, if your name is Susya.
Who you are isn’t how successful, handsome, thin, wealthy, well-read, educated, fertile, polite, genteel, or faithful you are when compared to others filling the cocktail party or Irwin Tools Night Race @ Bristol in which you find yourself.
It’s why aren’t you, the person who uniquely lives in a very particular time and place with very particular offerings and ideas and thoughts and dreams and doubts and fears, you.
The great lie of our world (and often even our faith) is that both this life and the one following it, are crowded.
It’s the idea that there’s only so much space and meaning and grace and redemption and love to go around. So much so, that each time someone discovers their own belonging a sudden fear wells up within us that ours is now in peril.
I would argue, the bedrock of the Christian story is that, at our core, humanity has a fundamental misunderstanding about distribution,
cosmic and otherwise.
In short, there’s more than enough room for all of us, that is of course, when we stop trying to stand in someone else’s place.
So may you, as you drive and pray and slick back your neck tickler and work and “read more tweets” remember that you aren’t behind or ahead, you are only beside. And in that discovery may you realize the counterintuitive beauty of the fact that you aren’t the only one with baggage, confusion, angst, and regrettable fashion in the room.
Which, I guess is what the divine voice has been whispering to us ever since that first afternoon in a garden many years ago:
“it is not good for man to be alone.”
amen to that.
To read more from Eric Minton, click here.
Lightning and thunder made for a wet Tuesday morning in the delta, and my dog, Isaac, was pouting for two reasons.
1. Bad weather scares him.
2. I had to leave him alone at home during that bad weather
Like any good pet parent, I prepared for these unfortunate circumstances. I wrapped him in a snazzy, gray “thunder shirt” that makes him feel snuggled in storms. I turned on the television to reruns of Law & Order to drown out the noise. No matter what I did, when I walked out the door, Isaac gave me a look that said, “How dare you go to a required clergy meeting on a rainy day? Doesn’t your district superintendent know that I need a playmate this morning?”
Thankfully, Isaac made it through the bad weather solo, and I survived a morning of meeting with fellow preachers. To reward Isaac for his good, brave behavior, I brought him to my office for the afternoon.
When we got to the church office, we were both wet from the steady rain, and I had lots of paperwork to unload. I wiped him off with a towel and began organizing the papers in my purse. I heard a slurping sound and looked up to see Isaac licking a jug of water near my coffee pot.
Oops. I’d forgotten to give the thirsty dog a drink of water!
Rain was pouring down, and Isaac’s bowl was in the car. I sighed. After being in an out of the rain all morning, I felt like I’d already had four showers, and I didn’t care to take a fifth. I looked around the office for something to use as a water bowl. My favorite coffee mug? Um, no. I love Isaac, but we don’t share dishes.
There’s a shelf in the office filled with my “sacred” pieces, vessels for our two sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. It includes chalices and patents, white linen cloths, a travel set for Communion, and a ceramic shell used for baptism. One of my mentors had given me the baptismal shell when I was ordained. When I baptize someone, I dip the shell in consecrated water and pour from the shell onto the new member’s head. It’s one of my favorite, “holy” pieces.
It’s also the size of a dog’s small water bowl.
I love formal worship, and when it comes to the sacraments, I can be a bit “high church.” Some of my friends even joke with me about when I’m going to become an Episcopalian! Would I be breaking some kind of rule to use a “sacred” piece to quench my dog’s thirst?
He licked his lips and leaned his nose towards the shell. I picked up the jug of water, poured into the shell, and set it on the floor. Isaac lapped plain water from a holy bowl in a few seconds, then nudged the jug for more. Of course, I obliged.
In the final chapters of Exodus, the author carefully details the furnishings of the tabernacle. From lamp stands to bronze cherubim, every object is holy, also defined as “set apart for a purpose.” The furnishings of our worship spaces today also carry sacred meaning, just like my shell. We are not called to idolize the object but rather to regard with holy fear the One represented in that vessel.
Such vessels also remind us that we are God’s instruments. We are set apart for purposes, too, and we need to walk in righteousness. Part of our calling is to share the “water of Life” with one another. God desires that we give a drink of cold water to the “Isaacs” among us who are thirsty for God’s love.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be holy without being “holier than thou,” and set apart without being islands. Let us quench each other’s thirsts as we live in awe of eternal life. And for any of you who wish to be baptized at St. Luke or Shipman Chapel, I promise to wash the shell first.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.