Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Post End Times Era

I've been reading some art history of the late 20th Century, and there's always discussions of modernism and postmodernism and whether those terms refer to a time frame or style or content.

I'm not really here to talk about all that.

The terms themselves have always amused me. The modern era in art is past, some say even the postmodern era is over and done. Postmodern is already sounding futuristic, taking place as it does after the modern era. In dance circles, it's in vogue to speak of "contemporary dance" rather than "modern dance," but again does this mean we're in a "contemporary era" or does it refer to a style?

But I'm not really here to talk about that, either.

I've also been thinking a lot about the state of the world. Yes, it always seems bad, yes there are always terrible things happening somewhere. It also feels like my particular nation, these United States, is in a particular mess. The polarization of the nation feels like it's gettingw worse, the poles drifting farther apart. Race relations seem to be more strained than they have been in decades. Women's rights are under fire. Gay and Lesbian folk have made some advances recently, but there's also push back that has targeted transgender folk in frightening ways. Over all, progress made for equality and civil rights are not only stalled but feel like they they're sliding backwards. The current election cycle is feeding (or feeding off of) these circumstances.

I've had a few friends on Facebook say things like, "Now would be a good time for that giant meteor" or, depending on their particular religious bent, "Now's a good time to come back, Jesus."

And as I read about modernism and postmodernism and thought about what those words mean, the thought crossed my mind, "Well, we Christians have always lived in the end times."

This amused me but I also stand behind it, too.

From the very start, the earliest Christian literature spoke of Jesus returning and they understood that would be the end of time. Some sects refused to marry in anticipation of the world ending. As generations died and time continued marching on, these expectations and hopes altered some, but even today, 2 millennia down the line, we still speak of Christ's return and we still have a multitude of sects that will explain what we mean by that differently and live our lives in many different ways according to those explanations.

I needed to think about that because honestly I'm feeling a little hopeless lately. And despite the apparent contradictions, for Christians, the "end times" are not really about death and destruction. Ultimately, the belief that we are living in the "last days" is a belief full of hope.

Because it's not really the end. It's a reset. It's a bringing into fullness the Reign of God (which has already begun in the preaching of Jesus). It is all things made new. It's not a "pie in the sky" but the hope of a new creation. Don't pay attention to the peddlers of fear and anxiety. The Revelation that John on Patmos received is ultimately about the world getting another chance

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away." [Revelation 21:1-5]

Yes, some of the talk of end times or last days in the Bible speak of wars and famine and disease---horrific things will happen and are happening now. I believe that the earliest Christians felt the same fear and uncertainty we do and they also worked to alleviate suffering among their communities. They did not live hopeless lives. They trusted that the Reign of God was at hand, here and still coming, even as they showed compassion for their neighbor, even in the face of the threat of death for doing so.

May we likewise look at our current situation and not lose hope but repent---turn around---and see that the Reign of God is at hand, even---or maybe especially---in troubling, uncertain, and violent times. May we have the courage to live into the love of God in Christ, even in the face of our own death, until there is no more mourning, crying, or pain. May we live into the post-end-times era, beginning even now. Amen. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Plagiarizing Luke

There was a police officer of high rank in the force. He had accumulated many honors and promotions over his years of service.

There were also several people, many people of color who he saw mistreated and killed. He himself did not mistreat or kill them, but he saw it happening.

At first he simply said nothing.

Then reporters asked him about it and he said, "We need to wait until there are more facts known."

Then there were 911 recordings from people being mistreated or civilian witnesses and he said, "We can't see what's happening, anything could have caused the officer to react in such a way."

Then there were video recordings that showed unarmed civilians, beaten, choked, shot to death and he said, "It's a dangerous job and sometimes it looks like they're going for a weapon. We have to protect ourselves."

Then the officer died and found himself in torment, his sins like flame burning his soul. He looked up and across a great chasm, he saw the victims of his colleagues, feasting and celebrating with the whole heavenly host.

The officer cried out, "God of Heaven and Earth, have mercy on me! Send one of these beaten, choked, or shot people to touch my lips with just a drop of water, for I am dry with this burning."

And a chorus of heavenly voices said, "In your lifetime, you had position and status and might have spoken out against the officers who were mistreating civilians, but instead you were silent or made excuses and so more and more died violent deaths. Now, here, their wounds are healed and their tears washed away and they feast and celebrate for their lives of terror are over. And besides, there is this great chasm between us, which neither you nor we can cross."

The officer cried out, "Then, Lord God, send one of them to my precinct and have them tell the officers to do better, to not make excuses, to not turn away from the evil they see anyone do, but that they should have courage to stand up to those who mistreat and kill."

And the heavenly voices replied, "They have recordings and witnesses, they should pay attention to them."

The officer pleaded again, "But if one of these dead were to visit them, they would surely be convinced of the error of their way."

The chorus responded, "If they are making excuses with video recordings showing their error, so they will make excuses even if someone rises from the dead."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Jesus Sat Down, Stood Up, Talked Back

Christians read the gospels and the Pharisees and Sadducees are the bad guys among the religious authorities of the day. It is endlessly frustrating to me that the vast majority of Christians in the United States apparently want to identify with Jesus while acting like the Pharisees.

This is no small matter.

Christianity in the United States has become the rule enforcers, the morality police, the gatekeepers of who is okay and who is not. TV preachers will cry out for conversions (and money) while telling you how to be on the right side of the gate. They do not see how they are repeating the (apparently endless) cycle of the Pharisees.

Memorize some scripture, use it as a club, while overlooking this one: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."

Then there are the ways that Christianity has a long history of getting cozy with powers of the empire. In the USA, white Christians in particular are used to doing this. "God and country" becomes one idol. They do this without noticing how messed up it is, how it is "serving two masters" in ways similar to loving money/wealth. We will love one and hate the other. When we perceive the country as the one that keeps us safe and our lives orderly, we tend to love it more than the often chaotic love of God, with God's wild Grace not always making sense, being neither safe nor orderly.

There is too much going on lately, facilitated and sometimes obfuscated by social media. Things that have gone on forever in this nation are being uncovered by cell phone cameras and easy sharing across cyberspace. This is creating more visibility of the plights of some Americans, also more push-back from people who'd rather not see.

Here's the thing: Protest is never celebrated in its historical moment. Rosa Parks is a hero now, but we forget that the government called her a criminal in the moment. Pick a hero who is cited as a hinge on history for social change, and you'll see the pattern repeated again and again.

I see white Christians (in particular) all the time asking for oppressed peoples to behave nicely, don't stir things up, don't cause trouble, protest peaceably, always forgetting that peaceful protest is what got Rosa Parks arrested.

Yes, I'm thinking about a football player who is protesting by not standing for the national anthem, but that's not the end of it. The point is, the people who want to drag out Jesus' "render unto Caesar" and Paul's "be subject to governing authorities" are reading the letter of the law, not the spirit, an activity owned by the very best Pharisees.

We regularly, repeatedly, constantly forget that Jesus spoke to, encouraged, stood up for, healed, and preached to and about the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned. These categories are never the favorites of the powerful, the wealthy, the empire.

Jesus did not stand up for symbols of Roman Empire, as they oppressed not only his own, Jewish people, but other people without political clout. He talked back to religious authorities who were cozy with political authorities and Jesus got arrested and executed.

I don't know why this is so hard to recognize, but apparently it is and we have to keep saying it over and over again.

Alas, I'm sure it's not the last time I will say it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Beginning to Serve

They said of Abba Pambo that as he was dying, at the very hour of his death, he said to the holy men who were standing near him, “Since I came to this place of the desert and built my cell and dwelt here, I do not remember having eaten bread which was not the fruit of my hands and I have not repented of a word I have said up to the present time; and yet I am going to God as one who has not yet begun to serve him.”

Some thirty years ago or so, I recall reading in No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton that some people never find their vocation or, rather, that "their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong."

It had the effect of having a mirror held up to me.

Through the decades, as I've not ever really had what you would call a "career" but a series of jobs that has more or less sustained my existence, this has come back to me like a haunting.

Not that there haven't been some frayed thread of connection throughout my life. Theology and/or the arts have been there every step of the way. Sometimes one held more sway over my attention, at other times the other, but no conventional career in either ever took hold in my life.

Still, I have contended that my vocation swirls in the waters where these two rivers cross. Perhaps like two rivers meeting, the waters not only swirl, but get murky and muddy. Even more, I have contended that I am following God's calling on my life, even when I have failed terribly, even when some have told me point blank that it was not my calling.

Here in my middle ages, I'm not sure what I should think or say about all that. It's a tricky, iffy place to argue that failures (and some successes) are somehow within your vocational fulfillment. I puzzle over them, hold them up to God in prayer as some kind of burnt (or burned out) offering, and carry on as best I can.

This is all rather beside the point, however. Or at least beside the point I'm meandering toward just this moment.

The above saying from the Desert Fathers, about Abba Pambo's death, came up in my daily readings and it also has the effect of a mirror held up to me.

I'm not on my death bed (that I now of!) but I think I get what Pambo was getting at.

We're always at the beginning of serving God.

At the end of our lives, what will we have ever completed? What will we have done in service to God that God couldn't have completed any other way?

This is not self-doubt or self-flagellation or self-pity or self-anything other than a recognition that even someone like Abba Pambo, who lived a disciplined life that his contemporaries called holy might cultivate an attitude of humility so that they understand all their work is naught before the grace of God.

I've had some little successes over the years---I joke that some day they'll finally add up and I'll be an overnight success!---but however I want to frame them within the larger understanding of serving God . . . it's true, I've not really begun.

And if Pambo never got started, it may be that I never really will, either.

So is this license to give up? To chuck whatever meandering, second-guessing vocational quest I'm on and watch more TV?

I don't think so. I'm going to say that this life of guessing wrongly (or simply never settling on any one guess) is somehow, somewhere doing something for the Reign of God. In the midst of the swirling, muddy waters of my intersecting interests, I hope to cultivate some little humility. Certainly, I've not always done so.

Speaking of swirling around in muddy waters, I feel this blog post is not very clear. I think that's okay.

Really, the point is that today and tomorrow and the next day---I will begin to serve God.

I will always be beginning to serve God.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Cultivating Wonder

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. [Psalm 19:1]

An anole, bright green, presses himself against the  stem of my plumeria, hiding in plain sight. It's been there all summer, my plumeria pal. It knows, now, that I see it and doesn't immediately skitter away each time, but lets me take a picture. It's not exactly a pet, but a companion to greet me many days this summer. I smile when I see it.

Sunsets are both extraordinary and common----they happen daily but still offer something new each time. Just last night, I saw a sunset with layers of clouds, lower ones dark, illuminated from the other side, higher ones glowing like coals in a dying fire. One of these, elongated and parallel to the horizon, had a shadow across the middle of it, a dark stripe in the glow. Farther off was a more vertical cloud, I saw, throwing a shadow across the the horizontal one. Surely this happens now and then, and yet I'd not noticed anything like it before. There's always something new to notice. 

One evening, I was walking to my apartment after dark and noticed something moving on the sidewalk, a bug. I squatted down to get a closer look. I didn't immediately recognize it but took some pictures of it. It was covered with dirt, as if it had just crawled out of the ground. Taking a better look at it once I was inside, and getting confirmation from Facebook friends, I realized that this was a cicada, on its way to climb a tree and shed its exoskeleton, to stretch it's new wings and buzz off into the night. Like any number of children who grow up in cicada country, I've found hundreds, maybe thousands of the abandoned exoskeletons on tree trunks and I've been fascinated by the delicate remains of metamorphosis. This was the first time in my life, as best as I can recall, that I saw one still in that shell, moving toward it's transformation. It seems odd that it should happen after five decades, but I'm delighted to have seen it.

I take a lot of pictures. I don't fancy myself a photographer, exactly---I know a few and I know they go about it with a different mindset, a different attitude and certainly with much better tools than I have or aspire to have. I'm also clumsy especially with my new phone. These touch screens find me tapping unintentionally. Every once in a while, I find I've taken a picture accidentally. Most of them are you average up-nostril or blurry shoe shots, but occasionally something happens wherein I have no idea what it is and it has the appearance an abstract expressionist vision. I sometimes post these to Facebook with a line like, "Please enjoy this photograph. I don't know what it is." Creativity often follows, as some friends will interpret with wild fancy and invention.  

These are some ways that I cultivate wonder. Awe. Given as I am to melancholy, given as I am to despair over news stories of endless brutality around the world, I find I have to do this. It is a choice. Wonder comes more easily to some than to others and perhaps it comes easier to me than to some, and yet I find I have to purposefully look out for the extraordinary in the world or else the horrors of the world crush me. The cultivation of awe is not an escape from the work of speaking against the horror. It is the sustenance that allows for yet another difficult conversation about racism, classism, brutality, and the need for compassion. 

I'd say I cultivate wonder to feed and strengthen compassion.

What strikes me as wonderful and awesome may not be what sustains you and feeds your compassion. What I do know is that we need more compassion in the world, more empathy, more willingness to live with others who are different from ourselves. The world can be a terrifying place, indeed, there are some terrifying people in it. But our tradition tells us that love casts out fear. 

And like wonder, we have to practice love. It may have to begin with a lizard or a bug, but they are practices.

I'm writing to remind myself. I have to practice these things. I forget sometimes. Often. 

But the grace inherent in any small discovery can be enough to sustain us. There are wonders all around us, even in my concrete environment of Houston. I believe these are signs of God's grace breaking through, reminding me that the heavens tell of God's glory. So does a muddy bug, crawling on it's way toward release and flight. 

God's grace and glory---I have to turn my head and heart---repent---to see it some days. Other days it pops up in front of me, unexpected. Such are my main sources for hope that the world can be saved. 

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.