Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fear, Humility, Lack, and Sorrow

The only daily devotional reading I've ever managed to keep regularly had been somehow related to the Desert Fathers. For about the last year, I've been using By Way of the Desert, a book of readings from the Abbas, paired (sometimes, I daresay, capriciously) with a verse or three of scripture. It's a good way for me to touch base with my desert heroes, some days revisiting old familiar sayings, other days finding things I'd either forgotten or overlooked before. Today's was the latter:

Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.

What kind of blessing is this? Who thinks this is any kind of "good word" (benediction)?

Among ascetics, who practice fasting and hold humility as the highest virtue, it makes a bit more sense, but I'm not really interested in unpacking all that tonight. Not directly.

 The word that leaps out at me is "fear." I'm not even going to try to guess what Eupreprius was talking about some 1,500 years ago (give or take a few decades). I can tell you what I have experienced just this week alone.

I have heard two different women, African American, one I know, one I was with in a writers' workshop this afternoon and only just met, both expressing fear at driving their car, a heightened vigilance at their speed, at their use of turn signals, at  having all proper insurance paperwork and whatnot up-to-date and with them. The driving references are directly related, of course, to the recent (unlawful) arrest and in-custody death of Sandra Bland. If that had been the only incident in recent memory, they might not have felt quite this fearful, but the last year has seen so many high profile incidents of violent death on Black bodies by police officers, well, who can blame them? I'm a little afraid for my black friends and acquaintances, too. Add in the string of burned black churches, the shooting at a black church, and all the resistance to relegating the Confederacy to the history books---if we are to receive fear as a blessing, some cups are running over.

The Abbas probably received this word as a reference to "fear of the Lord" (a tightly packed phrase itself) or maybe even of sin and hell. They likely also received the blessing of humility, want, and sorrow as a way of practicing their faith that kept them mindful of other people's lack and loss and also of their fundamental reliance on God.

What I'm fairly certain of is that fear can only be a blessing if we choose to respect the things beyond our understanding, not if it is sourced in terrorist tactics. Humility is a virtue only if practiced by choice, that to be humbled by oppression is not humility at all. Fasting may bring blessings, starvation only desperation. Godly sorrow, if it does not bring us to empathy and action for others who weep, is not Godly at all and more likely than not results only in crushing a person's spirit.

There are any number of disciplines we might take on to help us in our faith, in deepening our relationship and reliance on God. Demanding any of these disciplines on someone lacking in freedom to do otherwise wrecks relationships of all kinds.

In light of these friends' and acquaintances' expressions of fear for their own safety in this current environment of racial terrorism, I cannot hear Eupreprius' benediction without feeling the need to amend with these words:

 . . . and woe to you if you visit any of these on another human being.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


It's the best of times. It's the worst of times.

While waiting for this past weekend's Pride Parade to start, I briefly chatted with the rector of our congregation. We were, of course, all high on the Supreme Court's decision to make marriage equality the law of the land, but I couldn't help myself. I noted that the previous two weeks had seen the best and the worst of the United States broadcast loudly across the world. 

I was referring to the horrific shootings at the prayer meeting in Charleston. (The shooter prayed with them for an hour before he did it! Seldom do I use "bad language" with as much conviction as I did when I heard that detail.)

My rector briefly spoke about the ways the Episcopal Church needs to make real confession and repentance of their part in racist America---something she repeated in the next morning's sermon, bringing up how the Episcopal Church was funded in part by slave trade in it's early American years.

We like to think this is something that happened long ago, but it's still playing out. I think the spiritual scars of something like slavery is passed on for a few generations.

Most importantly, it's not going to go away by good white people pretending they're past it, that they "don't see color," that they do their part by not actively oppressing anyone.

I know because I live most of my life trying to pretend all that. It's easy to do. When you're white, privileged, it's easy to pretend that everyone shares your ease in life. It's jarring to be reminded it isn't working.

It isn't working because a 21 year old man is still filled with hate for people of color, enough so to shoot up a church room full of them.

It isn't working because over half a dozen traditionally Black churches have burned down in the last two weeks.

It isn't working because people still defend flying the flag of a slavery nation, there are still people saying things were better before desegregation, there are still people wanting us to believe that slavery "wasn't that bad."

I don't know exactly what to do next, but I know everything done up to now isn't nearly enough. Everything done up to now isn't working.

Celebrating good things is a good thing. Celebrating marriage equality is good, and I do. I believe we should celebrate when we celebrate, without apology or hesitation. There are good things in the world.


And it's time to get serious about repentance. Confession and repentance, but particularly repentance. Confession is not much good if we don't actively turn away from the things we confess. Turning away from all the ways we adhere to the systems of terror and death and oppression and fear . . . this is not accomplished with simple confession and a word of forgiveness!

People mired in their hate are not going to hear this. I won't even pretend to be talking to them.

I'm talking to the good white people out there who get along fine with their Black co-workers and invite the Black kids to their kids birthday parties. I'm talking to the fine white people who really want to move into a post-racial society and think they can do so because they don't experience racism. I'm talking to people who just don't want to make anyone uncomfortable with all this talk about race, least of all themselves.

I'm talking to people like me.

It's going to be hard work. It's so easy to go with the flow of white privilege when you have it. It's so hard to speak up when you see racism in action before your eyes, so easy to pretend that maybe something else is going on, not just that person is getting the raw deal because they have more melanin than I do.

It's the best of times and it is also the very scariest worst of times. We're on a road to some kind of hell and while I endorse celebrating what is good in the world, we need to be careful that we don't party while the fires rise up around us, destroying us before everyone can celebrate.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NES: The Last Person

[NES---Not Exactly Systematic---is an indefinite and unexpectedly infrequent series of more theological writings within Crumbs at the Feast. I've made a goal of reading heavier theology in 2015, and these entries are a result of those readings.]

Co-equal. Co-eternal. Inseparable, yet distinct. Fully this while also fully that.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit—three yet, one. First Person, Second Person, Third Person of the Trinity. That order.

When I began my readings on the Holy Spirit, I did so with a notion that it was this Third Person that we might most intimately know, might have the most interaction with in our spiritual lives. As I've read, I've started thinking the Holy Spirit has as much claim to being the First as the Third.

The last shall be first, yes?

+ + + + +

"God is Spirit," the Incarnation said. This is John's Jesus, the most self-assured and self-aware Jesus of the canonical gospels. Granted, a developed Trinitarian theology wouldn't emerge for two or three centuries, so we can forgive Jesus for not elaborating on the relationship. We only have from John that the Father sent Jesus, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, and the Father is Spirit.

It seems to me that you can begin anywhere in that circle and wind up with the same stories. To number the dramatis personae seems futile and, really, unnecessary.

+ + + + +

The Holy Spirit is said to have many attributes. Helper. Comforter, Advocate. My preacher friends often speak of the Spirit as muse, noting her presence or absence in their sermon preparation. Others attribute fortuitous meetings or events to be the working of the Holy Spirit, casting her as a sort of agent of destiny. There's a managerial aspect to the Holy Spirit, distributing talents to everyone, from drawing pictures to engineering to glossalalia. The Holy Spirit is associated with a loss of control, the source of spontaneous praise, prophecy, or other ecstatic expression.

I would not deny any of these.

For the purposes of this formulation of the Trinity, however, for my little experiment of placing the Holy Spirit as "first person," I submit that the primary attribute of the Holy Spirit is revelation.

+ + + + +

When, as a child, I had an experience of God's omnipresence in my backyard—God in the grass, God in the crepe myrtle and pecan trees, God in the clouds and in all the spaces in between—what words should I use to describe it? Should I say I met the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?

As I grew and slowed down the confirmation classes with my questions, who should I say was leading me into the pursuit of knowledge and understanding?

Which Person called me into seminary to study theology? Later, who called me into further study of the arts?

The correct question, I suppose, would be the indivisible Triune God, for where one is, three are. But experientially? I cannot say I met a resurrected Jesus who instructed me to meet him in Chicago. A stronger case might be made for the Father, who rears us, instructs us, guides us in the ways that we should go.

Still, experientially, all these instances have the essence of breath. This breath inspired certain actions or paths. My course feels driven by a metaphorical wind in my metaphorical sales, pushing me toward places I didn't always plan or expect.

God is Spirit. Pneuma. Ruach. Wind. Breath.

+ + + + +

What I am getting at is this: Whatever I may think, believe, experience about Jesus or a heavenly Father is not so much from having known them in a direct way. I begin to believe that the Holy Spirit is the starting place for all knowledge and understanding about God. What we know of the God of the Hebrew scriptures, who we must assume is the God Jesus called Father, comes to us via writers who wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit. We may approach Jesus as a man who taught and lived in an exemplary way, but it is the inspiration of the spirit that leads us to see the divine nature of this man from Nazareth. It takes the movement of the Spirit in our lives to inspire us to believe, it takes that inspiration—closely linked to imagination, too—to see the other two figures of the Triune God.

Hence, while the Holy Spirit comes third in our Triune formulations and, indeed, in the narrative of scripture, I begin to see the Spirit as the "person" of first contact with the divine. That anything of God is revealed to us is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the revelation that inspires our faith and the way we live our lives.

[Next NES---ousia and hypostasis!]

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Day 2015

The Reign of God is like a misty, grey Easter morning on which, if you turn your head the right direction, you find there is color that you've been overlooking.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Things To Do While Waiting For the Resurrection (Holy Saturday 2015]

Have doubts. Think about all the ways this is a huge disappointment, how it doesn't "work" or "play out" the way you expect or hope or think it should.

Make breakfast.

Remember the times you tried to leave all this mythology and superstition behind.

Water the plants.

Try to remember why you returned. Try to make sense of all the ways this has lead to more disappointment and hurt.

Pet the cat. Often. Repeat.

Forget it's a day of sadness and somber reflection and laugh at something inappropriate.

Notice the sink of dishes. Note there's time in the day to get to that later. 

Forget that you want to be pious and reverent and holy.

Notice how bad your toenails look and be embarrassed about letting someone get a close look at them last Thursday.

Feel remorse for acting pious, reverent, and holy.

Play another game or 10 of spider solitaire.

Wonder how you'd be spending the weekend if you'd grown up in a Muslim family.

Eat peanut butter straight from the jar.

Try to put yourself in the place of people who have left the faith, who are not thinking about Jesus today or hardly ever, who seem to live fully functioning lives without religious services of any sort.

Notice that picture in your Facebook feed that causes you to pause and long and lust and shrug it off as you scroll on.

Reason! Science! All lack of spiritual feeling! Contemplate these and all other arguments against the faith to which you seem inextricably tied. 

Be disappointed when you scroll back up and click on the link with the hot photo.

Realize that you're going to get up way early tomorrow for a service that you'd rather was happening tonight, but this is the community you've joined and so you're going to go with that flow.


Realize that Jesus is one of the few things for which you will get up so early. (Other things have been surgeries and film shoots. Compare and contrast.)

Decide that after the shower you will go buy a dress shirt that fits so you can dress up for the Resurrected Lord.

Prepare to present yourself, full of doubt and nonsense and lust and cat hair, to the community you call the Body of the Resurrected Lord. Prepare to sing songs. Prepare to watch someone get splashed with water and wonder if they know what they're getting into.

Say a word of thanks.

Among other things. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

All the Ways I Kill You [Good Friday 2015]

I hesitate to share this. I don't know how I feel it about it myself. I'm always saying we need to tell new stories, ones that don't use violence and this uses violence. It doesn't glorify it, by any means, but glory is in the eye of the beholder.

In any case, I'm sharing it. It's something I wrote a couple of years ago and performed at a Fieldworks Showcase here in Houston. The performance involved me "singing" these lyrics, although the melody is more like a marching cadence.

But here's how I'd like to present these words, if I did again outside this blog.

I would make a music video. All the images would be of homeless people, sweatshop workers, lynchings, the imprisoned, and other scenes of oppression.

The obvious reading is that the "you" is Jesus---and I'm posting this on Good Friday, so, yeah---but I was also thinking of all the people who "die for my sins." The people who make my cheap clothes, make my cheap food, who make my comfortable life by being uncomfortable, even unto death.

So, read these words and picture Jesus if you like, and then think also of who, if we do it unto them, we do it unto Jesus.

I wish I were a two year old
stomping feet and tantrum cry
turning heads in the cereal aisle
make a mess to watch you clean
all the while saying you're so mean

shouting MINE shouting NO
shouting I DON'T WANT TO GO

a two year old can shriek and pout
I wouldn't care, I couldn't count
all the ways I kill you
all the ways you die for me

I wish that I liked beer

adult beverage, adult me
a good excuse do as I please!

self indulgent selfish punk
you can bet I'm a mean ol' drunk

slurring fuck, slurring you
slurring think you're gonna do?

if I were a drinking man
I could bear, I could stand

all the ways I kill you
all the ways you die for me

I wish that I liked guns

cut this metaphoric crap
concretize the murder rap

pull the trigger, hear the pop
make your mama holler stop!

crying kill! crying die!
crying hey hey crucify!

If I were the shooting type . . .

here's the body, here's the grave
there's nothing left here to be saved!

All the ways I kill you
all the ways you die for me

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Prayers of the People [Maundy Thursday 2015]

The congregation to which I belong, St Stephen's Episcopal, and Grace Lutheran Church, a few blocks away here in Houston, have started a tradition of sharing Maundy Thursday services, in particular because Grace Lutheran is used on Thursday evenings each week for Montrose Grace Place, a service to homeless youth. So while Grace's facilities are occupied, St Stephen's plays host to this service. I particularly like it since my heart is still pretty Lutheran (don't tell the priests at St Stephen's, which is really to say don't remind them because they know) and this brings together my two families of faith.

The planning committee for this service asked me to write the Prayers of the People for this service. I was happy to comply. Lacking anything else to say this evening, I offer those prayers to the internet. At least one is fairly specific to our congregations, but I invite you to pray the petitions you can with us.

(For those who were at the service, these are the prayers as I sent them to the churches. There may have been editing/corrections. I haven't done a line by line comparison, in case anyone notices any differences.)

Prayers of the People
Maundy Thursday, 2015

CLERGY: Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs, saying we hear your commandment to love one another as you have loved us.

We come before you this night, O God, to remember and re-enact the final hours of your Incarnation, Jesus, Emanuel. May the whole church, all over the world, be stirred afresh by his example, serving with a sacrificial heart. Let all your many churches use their differing gifts to complement one another and live in holy friendship. We hear your commandment to love one another

as you have loved us.

Great God of justice and mercy, our world is full of instant news and sudden startling images. We pray for your Spirit to move among all who hold authority, from nations' elected officials to terrorist cell leaders, that all people might live in peace. Let your servant church ever be a witness to the powerful, loving our enemies and healing those broken by conflict. We hear your commandment to love one another

as you have loved us.

Your abundance, O God, is everywhere around us and yet there remain people hungry and in need of life's essentials. Strengthen our ministries to the homeless and poor, even as we act as advocates on their behalf to the wealthy and powerful. We hear your commandment to love one another

as you have loved us.

We lay before you our concerns as two congregations of your Church, Grace Lutheran and St Stephen's Episcopal, friends in Christ and co-workers under your Reign. We are both facing changes in our parish lives, some hard, some exciting, all moments for new creation. Comfort our anxieties, give us vision, show us how to love those you have entrusted to us. We hear your commandment to love one another

as you have loved us.

Many of us are hurting in body, mind or spirit. We pray for your healing touch for all who suffer in any way. Among us, we pray for _____________, also for these we name silently and aloud. [pause] Help us be your instruments of restoration to health and wholeness. We hear your commandment to love one another

as you have loved us.

We remember those who have died, friends and family, and all the saints who have borne witness through the ages until we find ourselves in this moment before you. May we be faithful to you and one another into our final breaths. We hear your commandment to love one another

as you have loved us.

CLERGY Into your hands, O Lord, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.