Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Here and There

Some years ago, when I last owned a car, I recall driving home after work and listening to All Things Considered on the radio and some horrific event was occurring on the other side of the world. I don't remember what it was exactly, probably something to do with our invasion of Iraq and the chaos that followed. It was horror that was ongoing, with no immediate end in sight. Death and destruction.

And I was in Houston, stuck in traffic, but in an orderly fashion, no fear for my immediate surroundings, the likelihood of anything blowing up around me quite small. Safe.

How can the world be so large to have my safety and that danger going on all at once?

This thought hits me now and then. How I walk home from the bus stop the few blocks down a dark but busy street, how I try to be aware of my surroundings but also not very scared while elsewhere people don't dare do  such things, some within the same city, some far away. Some don't walk in safety in daylight.

Or I'm sitting in a theater, watching dance or a play, aware that someone, somewhere is grieving. Or I'm in worship, singing praises while someone, somewhere is being crushed. It happens. I know it does.

How can the world big big enough to hold all this?

As usual, I only have the questions, no answers.

And still, I know the world is this small: In all these circumstances, people remain creative. Sometimes the creativity is a survival mechanism, sometimes an expression of the grief joy fear thanksgiving anger relief hurt healing. In all these circumstances, people still know songs and sing them. In all these circumstances people still fall in love and create new life, whether in procreation or the abundant life of community.

Lately, I've been thinking about places, populations, peoples where oppression is a given, defeat is likely, grief is expected. They exist in this city, this state, this nation as well as around the world. Given to melancholy as I can be, I've begun looking to them as teachers. They continue to have celebrations, ceremonies, song, dance, and color in their lives. They make these things happen anyway.

I've been thinking that's the abundant life of Jesus, who did not have a peaceful life and did not have an easy death, but he still spoke of abundant life.

It's crazy talk and the world needs it. If you pay attention, it's often the people who are most often crushed who believe it. They are, after all, who Jesus was talking to. The poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned.

We who are more affluent and free have things to learn about the Gospel. Our teachers are all around us, if we allow the world to get small enough. May we have ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to open.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

More than Soul, More than Body

Here's a fascinating article, which may give some people the willies. It's the story of scientists who believe they're close to the world first head transplant.

Discussing it on Facebook, I said more than once that the fallacy here, as I understood it, was the assumption that all our identity is in our brain, even that all our memories are in our head. I've long said that we hold memories throughout our bodies. The assumption that all this tissue and bone are just parts that are interchangeable, given some matches (blood type and such), is . . . it's just a fallacy. I think.

Mind you, organ transplants are an amazing gift. There are endless stories of lives saved via these miracles of modern medicine. I'm not speaking against them.

I've also heard anecdotes of people who received a new organ and then having new food cravings, only to learn the donor favored such foods.  (Is there research on this? Probably. Someone point me to it.)

To transplant a head is to do more than just replace an organ, it's to replace whole systems. With a single organ, it makes sense that one person would remain dominant. With a complete transplant of the nervous system, gastro-intestinal system, skin---well, I'm left speechless.

The article does speculate that, if successful, what may emerge is a new person, neither of the previous people---the head or the body---fully surviving. That makes complete sense to me.

Another article, posted last night to Facebook by a friend, is speaking to the idea that we store memories, particularly of pain, at the cellular level. Chronic pain might be sites in our bodies remembering trauma.

This also makes sense to me. What are my aching feet but memories of years working in retail, on my feet all day, on concrete floors?

There is so much that remains mysterious about who we are, how our identity emerges, develops. I can't help but think about this in spiritual terms. The Christian teaching that our identities are in our bodies, that our bodies are not inconsequential, but that we await a resurrection (one full of scars!) and, yes, transformation, but still fully who we are.

What this means to someone with a disabled body, I can only guess, and not mine to speculate on. I have sympathy for the man in the first article, the one with a withering and dying body, who is willing to grab at this chance for life in a healthy body. 

We have, to some extent, interchangeable parts and yet we are not simply cogs that have to match Ford to Ford, Honda to Honda. Perhaps one day science will unlock the secrets of the brain and how the systems throughout our unique bodies creates individual personalities, but I suspect that we will always find something inexplicable. Perhaps if these scientists succeed in their attempt with a head transplant, we'll learn a lot more.

In the meantime, all I have to say is: be gentle with your body and the bodies around you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Contradictions and Guidance

It is said of Abba Agathon that he spent a long time building a cell with his disciples. At last when it was finished, they came to live there. Seeing something during the first week which seemed to him harmful, he said to his disciples, "Get up, let us leave this place." But they were dismayed and replied, "If you had already decided to move, why have we taken up so much trouble building the cell? People will be scandalized at us, and will say: 'Look at them, moving again; what unstable people!'" He saw they were held back by timidity and so he said to them, "If some are scandalized, others, on the contrary, will be much edified and say, 'How blessed are they who go away for God’s sake, having no other care.' However, let him who wants to come, come; as for me, I am going." Then they prostrated themselves to the ground and besought him to allow them to go with him.

+  +  +

In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. The old man said, "Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything."

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The second of the sayings  from the Desert Fathers has been one that has guided me for some time. In my late thirties, I realized that I had often moved away from things just because they were unpleasant, jumping to something else just because it was different. I had decided that I would stay in the "cell" I was in at the time and I would move to something next. That seemed right at the time, and as you may find in the Fathers stories and saying, I was "much edified." 

The top saying seems to contradict the second. One calls for stability, the second calls for going away "for God's sake," even if you've only stayed somewhere briefly. 

This is the beauty of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They understood that not everyone had the same calling.  If some one came to them and wanted to be their disciple, they would teach them the discipline they kept, but neither did they demand that everyone live their life. 

This is freedom. 

We tend to want a lesson, a directive, and have it be true and correct for all time. Some are, I suppose. But I also recall a pastor saying, some years ago, something about how we tend to agonize, crying out in prayer, "Oh God, what should I do?" And God, with a shrug, answers, "I don't know. What do you want to do?" 

This is not license. 

A lot of times, we know what isn't good for us but we can't seem to leave it behind. Other times, we are so afraid of the good that is right in front of us that we can't sit still to accept it. 

This all takes a lot of discernment and discernment isn't simple. My desert heroes spent many years in prayer and contemplation to be able to make a decision like Abba Agathon. A novice certainly shouldn't look at his example and think that snap decisions are the leading of the Spirit. 

I'm somewhere in all of this, of course. I'm neither able to claim brand new novice status, neither can I boast of being Abba Agathon's equal. I don't feel free to speak openly of all that spurred this week's post. 

Suffice to say, I'm writing to myself, "thinking out loud," if the light clicks of this keyboard count as "out loud." What is my discipline and where is my freedom? 

The questions seem worthy of sharing publicly, however private the answers may turn out to be.




Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Restoring Joy

On my way to worship, I came across this praise.
It's no secret that I'm given to some melancholy now and again. Maybe more now than again. Eeyore.

Oh, bother.

So, joy is not my natural state. I do have, however, moments in a week, little cracks in my Eeyore-ness that keep me going.

One such thing is the number of flowers I come across regularly as I walk about Houston. This past Sunday, as I walked the few blocks from bus stop to church, I came across some beautiful flowers, which I've since learned are called duranta. Deeply purple, they seemed to sing out with their color. I took a picture of it with my phone and posted it to my Facebook wall with the words, "On my way to worship, I came across this praise."

They were, indeed, a botanical alleluia.

There are terrible and scary things in the world. Terror, brutality, political maneuvering, war, disease. The list of more specific things that trouble me just this moment is impossible to complete and so I won't start it.

And still I believe in joy. Praise. Love. Despite all the ways I fail in them and yet I believe in them.

Which brings my ping-pongy mind to Psalm 51, particularly this petition of the psalmist:

Restore to me the joy of your salvation . . . 

It's a penitential psalm, full of confession and remorse, but the psalmist knows joy is possible and it may be found in God's salvation, in the deliverance and restoration God brings.

Which is full of words that need unpacking, but not just this moment.

What I think I want to get at here is this: Praise, joy, alleluias---these are practices as much as feelings. There is always much work to be done in the world and it will wear you down like a drip on sandstone. There is time for worry, particularly if it moves us to action, but we needn't be washed completely away by it.

In all things, we are to give thanks, St Paul told us. We always forget.

Occasionally, there's some deep purple duranta to remind us.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reading With the Church - A Rant and a Lament

This past weekend, I attended a symposium, celebrating the life of Pauli Murray, a Black, queer, feminist legal scholar and Episcopal priest from the last century. It was an enlightening and encouraging event and I recommend everyone look her up and learn more about her amazing life.

But that's not what I'm here to write about this week.

During one of the panels, a panelist brought up how she believed that we, as a culture hate reading, that clergy seldom realize how little their parishioners read (or, rather, how much time clergy spend reading in comparison to most laity), that there are endless resources for all of us if we just took the time to read. She brought this up in response to a question from the floor, I believe, and after she said all this she summed up with, "We don't know our history." (I probably have grossly misrepresented her words, which were eloquent, but I think this is the gist.)

I was floored that someone said this for me. She said it for me. She didn't know and maybe I should track her down and let her know, but it was terribly affirming for me.

Because I'm a reader.

I've always been a reader and while I know many people who are much more voracious readers, it's just a part of my identity. I don't know how to not be in a book. (Unless it's when I'm in a play, as I was recently, and then I'm reading and re-reading the script.)

And, honestly, I've experienced the church not reading and it always disappoints me.

You've experienced this, too, I bet. You may even have been the person I'm about to complain about. It's okay. Jesus still loves you and I probably (probably) do, too. But here we go.

There's a study group or book group and you come excited for the conversation.

And no one has done the reading. Even if it's a relatively short assignment (which, to me, is under 20 pages), most people have not done the reading. Still everyone shows up because they want to hear about what everyone else read.

Which is, you know, cool. I've achieved some sort of resignation about this.

But it's also disappointing. In my more bitter moments, I refer to the resulting conversations as "sharing the ignorance of the ages."

It's hard to come out as disappointed about these things because we live in a time where we're stuck between some people encouraging education and other people being anti-intellectual. There are the people who revel in expanding knowledge and there are those who dismiss the pursuers of knowledge as "elitist."

I don't pretend---education creates as many chasms between people as it builds bridges. I know that, have experienced that.

But more than movies or internet articles, reading books, getting a longer narrative, getting a broader view of any one subject, is how we become a knowledgeable people.

The panelist is right---it brings us a sense of history and where we fit into it.

There used to be a phenomenon that I'm not sure exists anymore, but communities used to form around bookstores. Feminists found each other at the woman-centric bookstore. The gay bookstore was a place for the newly coming out to find out about what other gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender folk experienced. Religious bookstores served much the same purpose. They were touchstones for communities, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or . . .

Reading connects people, helps them build their own identities and creates empathy for people who have different identities.

And it plays into class issues. We have to be real about that, too. There is a reason for the stereotype of a well read bore, the ivory tower elite who is out of touch with people outside their income and education bracket. I've experienced it. I've done it. I've already said education creates chasms as well as bridges.

Look, as a Christian of the Lutheran heritage, I don't believe that being a reader has anything to do with the wider themes of grace, mercy, forgiveness, or salvation. I believe that we all have access to these regardless of, well, anything. Reading can, however, open up such themes, bring them into wider and deeper understanding.

I simply wish more people liked to read. I do believe reading opens up our hearts as well as our heads. It helps us experience things vicariously which can build empathy.  It can give you knowledge that helps you form not only opinions but informed opinions, which are much easier to put into action in meaningful ways. It expands our imaginations and helps us picture a better world.


We can appreciate who we are, what our heritage is (the good and the bad of it) and begin to see a path for building something upon foundations laid by those who have come before us even as we work to correct their mistakes. Reading helps us avoid the problem of sharing the ignorance of the ages.

(Unless, of course, you're reading crap books---but that's perhaps a different rant for another time.)


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Peace Love and My Wit's End

I didn't start Crumbs at the Feast to be a place of "inspirational" or even "devotional" writings. At least I've never thought of it that way. I don't know that I could succinctly define what I'm up to with this blog, but after 300+ entries, I must be up to something.

I have my worries about this world. Sometimes this blog is about those worries and sometimes I try to offer ways to think about them. At my best, I've hoped to offer some peace and maybe even a path to love.

But of course, the question always comes up: What does this mean?

As usual, I have to answer via negativa. Peace does not mean smooth sailing from here to the grave. Love does not mean warm feelings for someone dear to me.

I've often wondered about people who live under persecution, people who claim the name of Christ in situations where that was dangerous, life threatening. I've never felt that in my life. I may have occasionally felt slightly ostracized or simply looked at askance for being a practicing Christian, but I've never felt in danger. I've perhaps felt more ill at ease about being a gay man in certain situations and there are certainly places I don't consider going because I'm gay, but I also know it's easy to find my safe bubbles (which can just as easily pop, but I still have them).

Where do martyrs find peace? How do the persecuted love?

I'm ill at ease a lot lately. The political climate in the United States feels pregnant with something ugly and dangerous. If I were a certain kind of Christian, I would be safe. If I were straight, I'd be safe. Since I'm a white male, I can travel incognito for a time, but eventually I out myself, as both gay and the wrong kind of Christian. For the most part, white males are safe.

This does not set my mind at ease. I love many people who are not white males.

I find myself at my wit's end these days. I can't believe what I hear in the news. I can't believe the choices we have for our highest office in the land. I can't believe what I hear supporters of these candidates saying. It's really the supporters that worry me most, because without them the candidates would not be the candidates.

I do not think peace and love means what feel good gurus mean when they talk about them.

I think there are ample opportunities on the horizon and now here to discover what they mean.

If I'm sounding paranoid, I assure you I only mean to sound worried.

I leave you to ponder these words of a poem by William Alexander Percy. It has been set to a hymn tune or two, which is where I first encountered it. These words have always challenged and unsettled me.

They cast their nets in Galilee 
Just off the hills of brown
 Such happy simple fisherfolk 
Before the Lord came down

Contented peaceful fishermen 
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that fill’d their hearts  
Brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
 Homeless, in Patmos died. 
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, 
Head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace, 
But strife closed in the sod, 
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing– 
The marvelous peace of God.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

simul/et

Sometimes, it's hard to tell if we are getting more and more polarized or if the internet and social media just make it appear that way. And maybe that's beside the point.

The last week or two, with violence erupting once again in the U.S., as black men are mistakenly murdered by police and then the retaliatory shootings of cops in Dallas, it seems there's a lot of entrenched ideas about . . . well, everything.

Every conversation about racism is a powder keg, it seems. Perhaps that is built into the situation and it's a situation built, most certainly in the U.S., by white people. And so many white people reading this have already gotten defensive.

I'm not sure I can trace my thought process on this, but one night I was responding to a post on Facebook and observed that for some white folks, we hear the phrase "white privilege" and we worry that this means we're accused of being intrinsically evil and for others of us, we find it a fitting description of something we've experienced.

I worked for several years in retail. Those stories from black people who say they're often followed in stores just for showing up black? Let me confirm them. The very few times that I was told by management to keep an eye on someone, it was a black person. I'd ask why and be told they looked suspicious, which I figured probably just meant black and so I didn't follow them around because I had a smidgen of awareness. Never mind that more often than not, our shoplifters were blond. The point is that when I first heard the phrase "white privilege," it gave a name to my experience in retail.

I've seen a lot of posts in the last week arguing about "Black Lives Matters." I don't know about about you, but when I first heard the phrase, I got it. I understood what it meant. While so many people see an invisible "Only" in front of it, I understood the silent "Also" at the end.

But too many people can't seem to grasp the thought that white people are privileged in this society and that white people can still be good people. We can't seem to grasp that a slogan that lifts up black people doesn't push down anyone else.

Maybe a  good ol' Lutheran slogan us useful here.

Simul justus et peccator.

Simul - et. At the same time - and. We are justified and sinners. Not either/or. Both/and.

It occurs to me that I am both, anti-racism and a racist. I recognize and decry the sin of racism and I recognize that it is part of the fabric of my life, woven into how I move as a white male in a culture built by white men. I can say I have white privilege while recognizing the injustice in the system that gives it to me. I can say that black lives matter while knowing that I have benefited from a culture that has said that my life mattered more.

Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans "that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." I don't think he says this to guilt trip us and I would make all kinds of nuanced arguments about what "died for us" means, but it is fairly central to Christian theology that our salvation comes through grace, before any kind of deserving, without any kind of entitlement. We are justified---saved, if you will---while we are still sinners.

Accepting this takes some measure of humility. I don't want to be a racist, and yet if I reflect upon my meeting of certain categories of humanity---I still have initial reactions based on race. I recognize that is bad, it is a sin. As much and as often as I can, I try to confess that sin, if only to myself and God, and try to move past it.

After some internet conversations, I have mixed hoped about whether these few words will make a difference. Still, I type these words, hoping that they might open a crack for someone to understanding and love for people who are not our enemies.

Perhaps I type these words with the hope given to me by Abba Poemen:

Abba Poemen said, “Water is soft, and stone is hard. But if you hang up a bottle of water so that it drips onto a stone, it will wear it away. Thus it is with the Word of God. It is soft, and our mind is hard, but those who hear the Word of God often open their hearts to the fear of God.”

Simul - et. It is Gospel hope for us as we move forward in these troubled, violent times. Perhaps it is a window through which you can see white privilege and that black lives matter and maybe a host of other things as well.

It's a word that reminds us that we needn't be perfect ourselves before we speak out for justice.