Monday, December 31, 2012

The Seventh Day of Christmas---Back-up to the Baptizer

John the Baptist. There's a character. He's more often associated with Advent, the season before Christmas, but indulge me here. He's an interesting piece of the story.

A couple of weeks ago, at the church I'm joining, John made an "appearance" as an interruption to the service, shouting and gesticulating wildly. Being theatrically trained, I watched for cues and realized soon enough that it was a performance, but it was convincing enough to truly frighten a few people in the congregation.

That experience has raised all kinds of questions for the congregation, but here's a few to think about in relation to Jesus.

A couple of years ago, in this blog, I wondered about "The Kind of People Who Follow Jesus." It seems it's worth wondering about the kind of people who point us to Jesus as well.

Consider: Here was the son of a Temple priest, probably heir to some kind of nice robes at the very least. Still, we find John, as an adult, on the banks of a river wearing rough clothes and eating locust and wild honey.

We'd probably shake our heads and wonder if he had a bump on the head or a bad experience with recreational chemicals. We'd be sad for poor Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are probably dead by now, and we'd wonder what might have happened had John been born to younger parents, who maybe would have lived long enough to see him into a more respectable life.

For the most part, I don't think many---if any---of us would have taken him seriously.

Many of the saints through the centuries have urged us to see Christ in the face of the poor. It's a practice worth keeping as I meet homeless folk daily in my life in the big city.

What I say next, I don't say with any glib expectation that this is easy or heartwarming, but I say it anyway in this season of Incarnation.

Maybe it's worth also listening. If we do not find the Messiah in their words, perhaps we'll be pointed in the right direction.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Sixth Day of Christmas---Of Man-Gods and Stars

The Gospels were written in a very different culture than what I experience as an American in the 21st Century. In my time and place, we want things to say what they mean and mean what they say. In Hellenistic Rome, they did likewise to a point, but not in the sense we think of reportage with just the facts. They wrote with analogy and symbolism and with mythological imagery that we would call "not true" when we it's mostly just not factual.

I have a hard time imagining the religious world of the Roman Empire. Here in Houston, Texas, there's a great deal more religious diversity than what I grew up with, but then where I grew up, in rural central Texas, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and two kinds of Lutherans pretty much made up the main claim to religious diversity. First Century Roman culture provided an expansive pantheon of religious expressions, some required by the Empire, some suppressed by it.

One of the religions (broadly defined) was the cult of the divine Emperor. Caesar was not only emperor but also a god worthy of worship. I'm not clear when or how godhood was was bestowed upon them---it appears sometimes it was while they were alive, sometimes after death.

Some years ago, I went through what I now refer to as my "Roman history phase." I was interested in what world Christianity entered and how it took hold. I don't know that I've retained any insights from that phase, but I do recall this story.

A custom at the death of a major figure was to hold games in their honor. These games, as near as I can tell, might be athletic competitions, chariot races, gladiatorial matches, maybe even theatrical events. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, some games were organized (in part, it seems, to placate an unhappy populace). During these games, a comet appeared in the sky. This comet was popularly understood to be the soul of Julius Caesar and a sign that he had ascended to godhood.

The text I was reading did not make this connection, and historically the event of Julius Caesar's death and the birth of Jesus is separated by 4 to 5 decades. Still, the immediate connection I made was the story of the Magi and star they followed to find Jesus.

Assuming that the story of Caesar's comet survived in popular consciousness for that long, I suddenly saw Matthew's story of Jesus' nativity as a dig at the Roman cult of emperors. Here is a presumably Jewish writer saying, "So, a star appeared at the funeral of your emperor and you think that makes him a god? Look, our savior was born God, a star shining over him from the start."

Boom! Take that Caesar!

As I think I said in a previous post, the stories are important, not in their factual details, but in the way they tell us who Jesus is to us. If there was a star (I feel certain I've seen stories of modern astronomers trying to account for a celestial event about the time of Jesus' birth), if there were Magi, I cannot say. I have no way to enter into a "prove this" sort of argument about those stories.

What I can enter into is a conversation about what that story means to us Christians, how we view Jesus as our true king or emperor, how we count the Reign of God that Jesus preached as the realm to which we pledge our highest allegiance.

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As a side note, I'm just going to say something that may or may not be read with some snark in it. I'm simply amused by this: We Christians, who generally will have little to nothing to do with astrology, nonetheless have in our scriptures the story of astrologers who somehow prove Jesus to be the Messiah. That is all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Fifth Day of Christmas---Practice Incarnation

The Word became flesh, we say, and marvel this time of the year at a baby holding all of God and all of humanity. We speak of "incarnation" as if it were something God did and we are somehow separate from it. We celebrate flesh and we denigrate it, often in the same moment.

We use "body-mind-spirit" as a marketing phrase and yet it seems most of us count each of those as distinctly separate "things," each important and somewhat connected but existing alone.

I bristle at the notion that we are merely spirit trapped in material. I bristle at the notion that we are only body, an animal with a particular personality. Without breath (ruach, pneuma, spirit) we are, in fact just a pile of water and some protein and carbon compounds. Without a body, we are just wind.

We proclaim Jesus fully human and fully God. Maybe we need to remember that we are fully body and fully spirit.

Just as I've said this Christmas season that there is a cost to following the Christ child and it include the ever-present shadow of the cross, I'll now say this notion of Incarnation is tightly connected to Resurrection.

The poet Wendell Berry has encouraged us to "practice resurrection" and this has become a personal mantra. I've asked performers working with me to do so as a movement meditation before rehearsals begin.

And today, it occurs to me that it might be just as important to "practice incarnation," and all the ways that might matter to those around us. If we teach that Christ took on flesh for the salvation of the world, we might consider that we are likewise enfleshed for reasons other than our own amusement.

Practice incarnation. Practice resurrection. Practice birth, rebirth, life.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Fourth Day of Christmas---Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today is the day we remember the slaughter of innocent bystanders, children under the age of two years old. How this became a "festival" day, I'm not sure.

If you want to read the story, it's in Matthew, Chapter 2.

Reading the story today, I'm struck by questions and demands of God that are, I realize, probably the questions and demands of a democratized world, where we understand us all to be equal and worthy of fair play. This is not the world of first century Palestine, where I believe it was more readily accepted that some people were blessed, protected, worthy and others weren't. Such is a world with royalty and birthrights and such.

Still, I can't help but ask how God could warn Joseph to take Jesus out of Bethlehem and not warn the other parents?

Well, no matter. This is the story we have and it's likely the writer of it was simply playing up how important the toddler Jesus was. That's how mythological thinking (as opposed to the more modern historical thinking, or news reporting mindset) works.

Beyond the details of the dream warnings and successful escape of the Holy Family, this is another somewhat shocking story for the Christmas season, especially as understood by too many people, religious and secular. We have the birth of the savior, redeemer, liberator---and it's still a bloody, violent world. The Prince of Peace is despised and hunted and seen as a threat to the powerful; those who follow the Prince of Peace are likewise targeted.

And those mad with power (or simply mad) will not care who gets in the way.

Which is why we, in a democracy (writing from the standpoint as an American), must do our part to see that the powerful do not destroy the powerless. Even more, we need to help the powerful to see that their power is a mirage, an idol, incapable of making truly any more powerful than any of us.

We are all vulnerable. We are all powerless. We are all in danger of being innocent bystanders in the wars waged by those who don't understand this.

I'll close with a prayer I found on, the prayer appointed for today:

Blessed are you, weeping God,
whose heart is pierced by the cry of the innocent.
You receive into your arms
those whose lives are wasted in violence;
You confront the powers of fear
with the confident power of love;
and you help us to stand with all of your creation
which bears the weight of cruelty and greed.
For these and all your mercies, we praise you:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Blessed be God for ever!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Third Day of Christmas---Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist

Well, this is awkward. There are bits of Johannine literature that I find lovely, but much more of it is problematic, at least to me (and some other people). Add to the fact that I find no need to harmonize the various Johannine texts as being written by one individual (to me, it's fairly clear they're not, although they certainly are texts in conversation with each other, possibly from one community of early Christians), and I'm not sure what to do with this feast day. (Wikipedia has a pretty good overview of all this, for those who want to read up on it.)

It's also slightly humorous to me that John gets the third day of Christmas as his feast day, when we do not get a birth narrative from him, no angel choirs, no shepherds, no manger, nothing.

The Gospel of John is the most different of the four canonical gospels, and many scholars believe it to have the least relation to the historical Jesus.

And there's the whole thing with John constantly referring to "the Jews" as if Jesus and his first followers weren't Jewish, setting in motion a long and horrific history of antisemitism . . . well, here we are.

The Third Day of Christmas, the Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist.

We still have the poetry and mystery of that fist chapter of John. "In the beginning was the Word . . . "

It is the most incarnational of the Gospels, emphasizing the embodiment of God among humanity, the God with us (even if it is Matthew's Gospel that uses the name Emmanuel, not John). And if John and I might have a lengthy and occasionally heated discussion about what that means for each of us, I do still find that fist chapter of John, the traditional reading for Christmas Eve in liturgical churches, to put me in another mind-space, a place of pondering the God who has lived, is living, and lives on with us.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

How do we not catch our breath and hold out our hands for this promise?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Second Day of Christmas---The Feast of Stephen

Earlier today, I pulled out my Bible and read the story of Stephen, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6-8, primarily 6-7. (If you want to read it and don't have a Bible, you can find online Bibles easily enough. I mostly use the Oremus Bible Browser.)

A few things struck me about this story.

Like Jesus, he was brought before a council of judgment on trumped up charges. Unlike Jesus, he defended himself with a long monolog (amazingly long, really---the writer of Acts seems to have thought this very important to spend the parchment and time writing it out).

Stephen's "defense," if you want to call it that, was basically a recounting of the salvation story for Israel, from Abraham, through Moses, to the building of the Temple. He doesn't even mention Jesus by name in his speech, but he does tell the council that they are in line not with Abraham and Moses and David, but with those who opposed the prophets. He appears to give this history lesson because the charge against him is that he has spoken against Moses and the Law, against the Temple and its customs. He soundly demonstrates that he knows the stories of the established religion. Had he stopped with the recounting of the story of Israel without telling the council the part they play in it, he might have lived to be an old man.

But he spoke to the council without hesitation and with boldness that they were in opposition to the movement of the Holy Spirit. This was enough to get Stephen dragged out of the city and stoned to death.

The stoning is an interesting detail, given the contrast to Jesus' death. With Jesus, it appears to be a long-brewing plot with a desire to make the Romans the bad guys and so a death by Roman means---the cross, which the Jews were not allowed to use. With Stephen, he gets a quicker "trial" and is dispatched by a means allowed by the Law. The Jewish council seemed less worried about taking the matter of Stephen in their own hands. Not sure we can say why. Perhaps Stephen wasn't as popular as Jesus.

Of course, the ending of Stephen's story---paralleling Jesus' prayer for forgiveness for his murderers---has the added twist the most important voice of the canonical New Testament writings is there approving of the stoning. Saul, later Paul, is not participating in the stoning of the first Christian martyr, but he's present, watching, and approving. 

So on this Feast of Stephen, the questions that arise for me are:

In what way have I acted (or am acting) as the religion's traditionalists, throwing out the Spirit-filled voice on trumped up charges because I did not like what this voice had to say?

In what way have I stood by approvingly and how have I been converted to the very thing I persecuted? (I can answer that in one concrete way: I, a gay man, used to speak against LGBT folk in the church, or at least against their ordination, and I certainly wouldn't have been for anything resembling marriage rites for same-sex couples. I may not have stoned anyone, but I stood by and watched. Who do I stand by and approvingly watch get stoned now?)

When, where, and how am I willing to follow in Stephen's footsteps, speaking truth to power, willing to die for my convictions, and praying for those with rocks in their hands?

I've long believed that as the church calendar developed, there is something fitting and horrifically right that we remember Stephen on the second day of Christmas, the day after we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It's too easy to make these twelve days a sentimental greeting card about a newborn and angels.

There is joy in the journey, and there is a cost to discipleship. We forget the latter so easily, it's good we have Stephen to remind us immediately after singing "Joy to the World."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

First Day of Christmas---The Liberator is Born

The funny thing about Bible stories is that their importance is seldom in the facts behind them. More often, it is in the power of the story itself. The funny thing about stories is that who and where you are can intensify the power.

It took me a long, long time to come to this place. Let me say that up front. There was a time when my faith depended upon the stories in the Bible to be historical, factual. I no longer believe that to be the case.

But I do believe in the power of the stories. I also believe I can be much edified by the perspective of others. To that end, I offer this long paragraph from Dorothea Soelle's Thinking About God (page 41). Briefly, just before this paragraph, Soelle has been comparing orthodox theology and liberal theology (by which she means specific things, I think, but suffice to say, that'll get us to this paragraph).

But liberation theology with a Latin American stamp is quite different: here the theme of the virgin birth is not superfluous, but is bound up with the struggle for liberation. It is decisive for the liberator to come into the world from among the poor. The majority of people in Latin America are born out of wedlock; many do not know who their father is. The situation of the young woman who is expecting a child without being able to count on protection or help is quite normal. She gets into difficulties; perhaps asks an older friend like Elizabeth for advice; she is afraid of being abandoned, of being punished for infidelity. These are all normal situations which often happen in our society too. They are incorporated into liberation theology like this: Mary is one of us; she gives birth to the light, the liberator, the redeemer. In the gospel of the peasants of Solentiname, the angel who announces the birth to her is regarded as 'subversive': And Mary immediately also becomes subversive in listening to this message. I believe that she already felt as though she were going into the undeground. The birth of a liberator must be kept secret. That is a complete new approach to the story; it is quite different when one thinks from the perspective of the poor, moreover of the poorest, the wives of the poor. In this sense, the story of the virgin birth is not made superfluous by criticism, but understood in a different way. Here liberation theology takes up the orthodox paradigm, but at the same time understands it differently in the framework of this new exegesis, from the poor/for the poor. It no longer conveys hostility to sexuality and domination, but subversion and rebellion. For liberal theology the virgin birth is a stumbling block which is best removed. For liberation theology it is a piece of bread.

Things like the virgin birth are not things I'm willing to argue about. Whether it is a factual or historical event or if it is a mythologizing of Jesus' origins so as to convey in the shorthand of the day who Jesus was---these matters do not absorb my attention. What does catch my attention is that we understand something of what the story tells us about power structures in this world, and even more my attention is caught by the understanding that someone without any power has of these power structures.

From the perspective of the poorest (which is not who I am), the important piece isn't if Mary never "knew" a man. The important piece is that God chose to take flesh within (and hence among) the powerless.

We can look at the story as an example of God's power to create a baby without the benefit of sex, or we can look at the story of the example that God's power comes from weakness, or at least weakness as we tend to understand it.

This is big to me. This is where I lose language. While I can type words around this, I can't say anything that brings into focus the enormity of this---perhaps precisely because I am enormously privileged in my culture.

However this story of a virgin giving birth strikes you, whether you hold to the orthodox view or the liberal view or the liberationist view or some other view that is separate from or an amalgamation of these views---this Christmas season, I invite you think on Soelle's last phrase above.

How is the manger story, for you, in your place, in your circumstance, a piece of bread?

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An addendum: Several weeks ago, I ran into the Reverend Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We got to speaking of the importance of story (and the importance of a liberal arts education so one can hear and interpret story). I think I may have lied to him. 

I referenced Dorothee Soelle to him and spoke of her experience working and learning with women in Central and South America. I thought I was referencing the above passage, but I had it incredibly wrong. I thought what I told the bishop was a story from Soelle's Thinking About God, but I cannot find it back. If it was Soelle that I got this from, I'm guessing it was another book. Or else this was my own extrapolation from Soelle's words above. Or I'm just making up stuff. Anyway, what I told the bishop is something I still think is an interesting way of looking at the virgin birth story from the perspective of women who are poor and oppressed not only by their economic status but often further oppressed by the men in their lives. I do not believe this is original with me. 

I believe I read somewhere that for poor, uneducated women, the power of the virgin birth story is that they found strength to believe and hope that to bring God into the world, you do not need a man. 

Men might bristle at this---and surely men can and do bring God into the world---but for a woman who is forced to have sex, who is forced to bear children, who has no say over her own destiny, it is a subversive and hopeful and exciting thing to think that God (or, if you will, the Reign of God) can come without any of that forced-ness. A woman, an unmarried girl even, can give birth (literally or metaphorically) to someone or something that will change the world.

So this is the other thought I offer on the first day of Christmas: where in your powerlessness can you bring God's Reign into the world? Who is your Elizabeth, who you will consult and share in the secret joy of this birth? How does the Lord magnify your soul?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

You, Me, Love: Watch

Abba Arsenius contended that a monk needed only one hour of sleep each night, “if he be a fighter.”

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Love keeps vigil.

Watch your neighbor as yourself. Not in some creepy, spying way. Watch for depression. Watch for addiction. Watch for bullying. Watch for anger that leads to regrets. Watch me. I’ll watch you. Intervene where necessary. Love watches without judgment. Love watches without seeking power over another.

Love keeps vigil.

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Some things are beyond our control. Most things are beyond our control. I’m not entirely where I want to be at this point in life. Did I not keep vigil? Was someone not watching me closely enough? Had one of us been watching more carefully, intervened, could I have avoided this spot?

Or am I in this spot to watch for a miracle? 

Whether led to this place by God or stumbled here by carelessness, I must practice vigilance. I must watch with the presumption that I’m needed here. This does not excite me. Perhaps it should.

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All this watching and, honestly, I can’t see. Can you? Some claim they can. It’s not a moral failing, this blindness. It’s not my fault or my parents'. I can only hope to run into someone to put some mud on my eyes and open them, if only for brief moments. I can only hope that walking by faith, not sight, will get me somewhere . . . else.

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Abba Arsenius  was wrong, of course. We know everyone needs more than an hour of sleep each night. His dedication to keeping vigil remains admirable, however. I’d like to emulate his resolve. It’s just hard to know where to focus attention. There are many distractions, many problems, many points of overwhelm. I want to sleep in self-defense.

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It’s not only about my not being where I want to be. I know so few people who are. I keep vigil not only for myself, but for those around me. I watch for language that denigrates those who cannot defend themselves. I watch for power gone awry.

And for miracles.

+ + + 

I need more than one hour of sleep a night. Love keeps vigil.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


I won't lie. As the type of person for whom you're likely to buy an Eeyore plush toy (as someone has), I find being verbally thankful to be a, well, challenge. It's not so much that I don't see my many blessings as I find it awkward to enumerate them out loud. The fact that I have a somewhat dark sense of humor and more likely to see and comment on the ironies (if not absurdities) of life makes Thanksgiving a day that leaves me a bit in awe of other people so easily enumerating their blessings. Facebook magnifies this.

Which is not to say that this puts me in any kind of depressive state. Not at all. It just puts me in a sort of anthropologist role, observing customs I don't take part in. It's interesting.

And it looks like a good exercise.

Now, before I start in with my personal incomplete (how could it ever be anything other than incomplete?) list of blessings, I'd like to pause and note that my self-perception is that I tend to be a thankful person. As I pray throughout my days, the most often prayed prayer is "thank you." I hesitate to say more because it's often for things that sound a little "precious" in the worst sense of the word---the sorts of things that get made into "inspirational" posters or those Facebook pictures that are the modern version thereof. But, yes, I'm often grateful for a blooming flower in my path or a swarm of grackles that I find entertaining or even a bus pulling up as I reach the bus stop. It is, truly, the little things that find me breathing a "thank you" throughout the day.

So that defensive little paragraph out of the way . . .

I am thankful for a growing creative community. The dancers and theater people who are new to me, who have invited my participation in projects I wouldn't thought to audition for, you are all blessings and I'm grateful for you.

I am thankful for a new church community that has been supportive of creative endeavors in ways that I'd given up hope for ever experiencing. This is an awkward, ongoing transition, but one that has blessed me. I am grateful for this beyond saying.

I am thankful for friends who are simply friends, who include me despite not necessarily getting me and my priorities. This is a rare and precious thing, and I am grateful.

I am thankful that I get to express myself not only through performance, that I also have had small outlets for my creative writing. While my literary pursuits have been a back-burner sort of deal lately, that I've managed a couple of small accomplishments in that area this year has been gratifying. Such a blessing. I am grateful.

I am thankful for animals. I've always loved animals and as I said above, I tend to notice them. Houston has had a great year for lizards---I've seen dozens and dozens of tiny hatchlings since late summer---and I love them. I love the sparrows and wrens in the bushes, I love the obnoxious grackles and pigeons on the sidewalks. I especially love the many cats I see daily, most of all the one that lives with me. These creatures are blessings to my everyday life and I am grateful.

I am thankful for all the above and so much more. I puzzle over the extent of my blessings and the fact that so many of them are accidents of birth and geography---had I been born to other parents or in another country, there are so many ways I'd not live in the abundance that I take for granted. I puzzle over how my blessing might bless others, how the abundance I live in can be shared, not only with the immediate neighbor who shares this culture of abundance (which, paradoxically, creates a culture of want---but that's another post for another day), but with those who seriously lack, both near and far away. It's easy to fall into some sort variation of "survivor's guilt" by wondering about these things---why do I have food daily while others have food on a much less regular basis? But this isn't a day for such things. I mention it only as a reminder that blessings that don't flow through us are dead blessings.

So I am thankful and do my best to live in a quiet state of thanksgiving. I also try to remain mindful that these blessings dare not stop on my head, but that they overflow into not just a life of abundance, but into abundant life all around.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Of Elijah and Legacies

(Clearing out clutter, came across this bit of doggerel written on a church bulletin from the Thirteenth Sundy after Pentecost (August 10, 2008). It's written in response to the Old Testament lesson, I Kings, chaapter 19, starting at the 9th verse. It's just an example of how I argue with Scripture.)

Why are you here, asked God
I am alone--no one is with me, said Elijah
And God gives him no compatriots
Only heirs
And violent murdering heirs at that.

God, if violence is my legacy
Give me no heirs
If those who come after me are charge to kill
Forget it.
Forget me and leave me out of it.

Except Elijah heard God in silence
Not in wind, earthquake or fire
In silence--but not in peace?
Elijah heard
An oracle I reject

In peace, let us pray to the Lord
Lord have mercy on those
Elijah's heirs would kill
In peace
Come to us now.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Requiem for a Red Headed Wild Woman of God

The Rev. Katherine “Kathy” Merrell Glenn died peacefully in her sleep on September 5 in her home in Tacoma, Washington.

So began the email I received from Kathy's address. 

I cried a bit, noted her passing on Facebook (where all life's events are recorded, it seems), and wrote these few remembrances in the thread of condolences that followed: 

things that come to mind about her---her telling me how she sat in a jail with a parishioner all night, not because he was innocent (I don't know if she knew) but because he was her parishioner and she was his advocate. her heartbreak over a run for bishop that turned ugly and resulted in very harsh and libelous things said about her from other clergy. her joy in her daughters. her clapping when she was happy. The way we should have been told to leave during a compline service at St. David's/Austin, because she'd just gotten back into town and we were too happy see each other to keep silence (though honestly, we tried!). her wrestling with God over the untimely death of a parishioner due to a brain tumor---and when this wild woman wrestled, she wrestled hard. she may have left the river with a limp, but God knew it was a real fight! her intense faithfulness to God in the wrestling and her undying conviction that God was LOVE! (dammit!) and that meant something more than words on a button or bumper sticker. Tender and fierce and so full of joy and laughter. (so of course she had her enemies!) In hearing of her death, I'm reminded of who I'd like to be . . .

But there's more I want to say, and I probably won't say it all here. I will say we were in seminary at the same time. She was a senior when I started, but we'd already started a friendship while I worked at the Austin Augsburg Fortress store (now closed). Always smiling and laughing, the type my more Eeyore-ish self is drawn to, I remember when I told her that I was going to start seminary the next fall. I was ringing up her purchases at the store. She was, as would be usual, more excited and happy for me than I was. 

Behind the laughter and smiles was a serious woman of God. She was passionate about the love of God, the love and joy she'd experienced as a disciple of Jesus. There aren't many people I can compare her to. Somewhere along the way, I started calling her the Red-Headed Wild Woman of God. Her wildness was the sort of Holy Spirit wildness, aware that the love of God blew where it would. She did her best to hang glide in those currents. I find myself reaching for words I don't have. 

I reference above the grief and anger she had over losing a parishioner to a brain tumor. This was the darkest I ever experienced Kathy. She told me of driving out of town, in her valley community in Colorado, and throwing rocks and yelling at God. He was younger than she was, in better health, generally, than she was. She was grooming him towards significant lay leadership in her parish. She saw gifts in him that would go to waste if he died. She spoke of feeling the helplessness of God as she yelled and hurled rocks. Even as she prayed---demanded---healing, she knew God was not going to heal him. I also had a terminal friend at the time, and we spent a lot of money on phone bills, wondering what it meant to worship a God who seemed helpless in the face of our friends' impending death. The main thing we agreed upon was also feeling God's grief as well as God's helplessness. Somehow, in ways I can't explain, we experienced Jesus more fully in these conversations. We knew something more deeply of a suffering God. 

She spoke of wanting to write a Christology. I'm guessing she never got very far. While she was healthy enough to minister, she ministered. I suspect when she became too infirm to minister, she was also too infirm to write very much. I do remember one conversation wherein I had expressed a lot of my theology falling away, pretty much dropping out from under me. In that conversation, I said that if I still believed, if I was still a Christian, my Christology was taking a nosedive. She said, "That's the right direction." 

I don't even know if she knew it, but just words like that were a comfort. I don't know if she was like this for everyone, but for me, she always said something that comforted me. Usually while making me laugh, too. 

Another remembrance I wrote on Facebook:
oh goodness. She was like the second person I came out to! Maybe first. i took her for a walk in our pasture. Because it was me, I had to do it in the form of a vaudeville routine. "Kathy, I think I'm in love, but there's good news and bad news. The good news is he's Lutheran . . . "

Kathy was one of those (many) people who seemed to have been just waiting for me to come out. In so many ways, she was there in seminary preparing me for my own coming out. Again, I don't know how consciously she did that. But we had several conversations about homosexuality and the church, me being the conservative-leaning seminarian who wrote at least one paper on why gay and lesbian people shouldn't be ordained. She argued with me, but since it was Kathy arguing, she did it in a way that made me realize she was one of those people I could trust when I reconciled with my sexuality. 

Talk about finding a safe place to start coming out! Glory, could God have given me a safer person for those first cautious steps out of the closet? 

As happens with friends separated by miles, our frequency of contact eventually dwindled. At one point, I'd thought I'd lost her completely. She always had a list of health issues, and there was a move wherein I lost track of her. I'd asked around and someone told me they thought she had died, but I couldn't ever get confirmation from anyone. Then out of the blue, I got an email from her. "Kathy! I'd heard you were dead!" Well, she had almost died in the previous year and we had a long phone conversation catching up on that. Then we dwindled again and I guess the last I was in contact with her was early this year, when I told her I was visiting an Episcopal church. But I don't know how her health was at that point. She didn't answer emails all the time, so I never knew what an unanswered email might mean. 

But she almost always ended them with "I love you Neily." (She's one of, like, three people who I let call me "Neily.") I almost always signed off (or ended phone calls) with, "I love you Kathy Glenn!" 

Goodness, the world is a less joyful place without her. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Midnight Mystery and Miracle

I've been sick the last couple of days. Some sort of stomach virus passed through (pun intended). This included a fever of 101 at one point, a discussion of West Nile virus and its symptoms on Facebook (diarrhea not included on the CDC website, so I felt in the clear), and a LOT of sleep. My cat, for whom I'm simply a big (and willing) hot water bottle anyway, loved it.

The fever has broken (like the first fever) and I'm on the mend except my stomach is still a little not quite back to normal and . . .well, I slept a lot. I still feel tired or maybe just a little weak, but I'm not sleepy.

I tried going to bed this evening. I read a book that I had been enjoying and ended up finishing it after two hours. It disappointed me a little bit, especially in that it seemed to become a different novel about halfway through, but in general, it held my interest to the end. I put it on top of the scary and precarious pile on the nightstand next to my bed (how I've never been killed by a book avalanche is a mystery), turned out the light and lay on my side with my cat against my stomach.

And I couldn't fall asleep.

The cat repositioned himself to the crook of my ankles as I noticed my ear was pressed against my arm just right so that I could hear my blood rushing through my veins. It sounded much like the sound when I go to get my EKG. I marvel at this sound that signals life in this body and I marvel that it can stop, practically without notice. Or with trauma. Or for whatever whenever. Mortality thoughts.

Yes, this is what the midnight hour, a bad stomach, and an inability to sleep begets.

And I start wondering if there is any good reason why I get to sleep in this bed, mortally threatened by an eclectic library, my feet warmed by a miniature predator. I start wondering why I'm not on the street, sleeping with the crowd down on Preston near Minute Maid Park. I start wondering why I'm not sleeping in a big country house surrounded by woods and the sounds of whippoorwills.

I wonder why I'm not sleeping.

Being sick, having a snuggly if opportunistic cat to warm my feet, having some amount of discontent, having some amount of success and forward movement . . . all in one week . . . so I lay in bed, thinking thinking thinking why why why.

And why not.

"The frightening thing is not dying. The frightening thing is not living." (T-Bone Bunett)

"And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" (Talking Heads)

"You know, it never has been easy, whether you do or you do not resign. Whether you travel the breadth of extremity or stick to some straighter line." (Joni Mitchell)

I was hoping a destination would reveal itself if just started typing, but I end up quoting songs. Which is a sort of destination, I guess.

My blessings are my own---not everyone could bear them. My curses, likewise.

As I look at the clock in the lower corner of my computer screen, I see it's 1:44am. My stomach is gassy and uncomfortable. I'm middle-aged and sleep with a cat in a narrow bed. If I lay the right way I can hear the blood rushing through my veins. I have oodles of books, all of which I love, even the ones I didn't like. I've never spent a night of my life outdoors.

It's all mystery and miracle and sometimes when I have too much sleep, if I'm not exhausted, these things will keep me awake, even if I'm feeling tired or maybe just a little weak.

There's my destination. It's all mystery and miracle.

And to all, a good night. Or good morning, as the case may be.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Changing Churches (part 3 and the end for now)

Some random thoughts and I'll probably leave this alone for a while again. After all, I haven't actually joined the new church, just started the "inquirers classes." But some things that flash through me now and then.

+ + +

Someone said it shouldn't matter what kind of church I join (Episcopalian or Lutheran) because it's all one Body of Christ. Yes, I pretty well agree with this. I have longstanding connections to Episcopalians, seeing as how I attended seminary on an Episcopalian campus (although in in a Lutheran program). I've long enjoyed interactions of varying sorts with Episcopalians. 

My angst about joining an Episcopalian church (and I'm quite comfortable calling it "angst" with all the things that might mean) has to do with the networks and systems that I'm already familiar with. I have a joke about not wanting to leave the Lutheran church because I know pretty well where all the traps lie in those woods and I didn't want to learn where the traps lay in any other woods. 

But it may be because I have been to seminary that I hesitate all the more. I'm more acutely aware of the subtle differences in theological perspectives and, perhaps more important to me, hierarchical structures. I know how to move among Lutherans. I know where offense may be given or taken, I know how to talk to the hierarchy, I know the power the hierarchy has. This is slightly different in the Episcopal church and it makes the ground shift a little beneath me. I can't go into specifics, but as I say, it's subtle. Suffice to say, that this sort of thing is the best and worst of denominational politics (which can be good as well as horrific).

I stumbled upon my own analogy there. Yes, changing churches is a bit like an earthquake. I'm terrified of earthquakes. It's why I've never visited the west coast. I can't imagine anything more unsettling than the ground beneath me shifting and shaking. Changing churches---denominations---is, for me, something akin to being in an earthquake, where you're shaking and things are moving about, falling, and suddenly things are not where you left it.

And that includes things like my support of organizations like Lutheran World Relief. A few dollars out my paycheck goes to LWR every month and I doubt that will change anytime soon. I continue to think they do good work. But now I'm confronted with Episcopalian equivalents, and I imagine they also do good work. Is there some dissonance in supporting these things across denominational lines? It's a foolish question in many ways. And the ground continues to shift underfoot . . .

+ + +

One thing that has become apparent to me in the last half decade is that graduating from seminary 15 years ago was more significant than I might have thought for a bit. I came out of seminary and thought I'd just go back to being another person in the pew and be just like I was before seminary. For a bit, that worked, facilitated by a pastor who understood that to be my desire. People seem to assume that I didn't pursue ordination because I'm gay, but after four years of seminary, I still could not discern a called to ordained ministry. I went to study, but that was the only call I ever discerned: study.

This gets complicated and is a book in itself (which I've tried to write and it got stuck). Suffice to say that I had a moment, at the turn of the century, when next to everything I believed fell away and I wasn't sure if I was a Christian anymore. (Perhaps that's still open to discussion!)

As I became more involved in a congregation again, I found those years of "formation" were not completely shed. This is a problem insofar as I have opinions---educated opinions, even---on how a church might be arranged and run. Having lost many layers of theology along the way, those opinions are not always in the mainstream. To an extent, I can tolerate the mainstream way of things, but once I entered positions of church leadership, I realized I was at odds with pretty much all the other leadership.

It became very difficult to navigate my feelings---my ecclesiological doubts go pretty much to the foundation of how a congregation might arrange itself.---and live in that "trained to pastor, but not a pastor" space.  But once you're enmeshed, it's next to impossible to get disentangled.

So it became apparent to me that I needed to change altogether. To keep with the seminary training, I began to think of it as time to "put in my mobility papers," Lutheran pastor language for letting the Bishop know it was time to change parishes.

One more illustration. I had proposed a performance installation for the lenten Wednesday evening services. I'd offered or proposed other things before, which were always turned down, but this felt different and thought it might have a chance, if a slim one. In the committee meeting wherein I proposed this, I was asked, "Is this something you really want to take on?" In that moment, I knew I had done a very poor job of telling this congregation who I am. I answered, "This is what I'm trained to do," but inside my head, I realized that people saw only the seminary education, not the two degrees in the arts. It was turned down ("Not the right time"---the answer I generally got and should have learned long ago usually means "Never," especially if you hear it more than twice) but even more, I knew I had an image of someone other than I wanted to be seen as. I have to take responsibility for some of that, and at the same time, I didn't now how to turn that around.

So here I am. Changing churches.

+ + +

 This is new on many levels for me. One of the oddest things for me is to change churches without moving. Anytime I've changed church membership, it was because I've moved to a new city. 

Doing it this way cannot help but highlight that something was, if not "wrong," then certainly not "right." I'm trying to make the change without talking smack about the congregation I'm leaving. There are lovely people there who have been nothing but kind to me. Are there complaints I have? Obviously. Are there ways I'm at fault? Obviously. 

I've tried to reflect publicly, here, primarily on my own character flaws or else my own shifts in what I discovered I needed. My disappointments are also plain, I guess, if not specifically, then between the lines. 

The truth is, it was never a good fit. I nearly left years ago and stayed because  friend was going through cancer there. Between then and her death, I thought I had maybe found a way to be a member there, but it was short lived. 

This challenges my ecclesiology, such as it is. My ideal is that it shouldn't matter what church you belong to, but I know it's only an ideal. Even so, I thought this might be "close enough." It wasn't. And it's a divorce in an earthquake and it's weird and uncomfortable and . . . freeing. 

All the ways I'm broken, I know no congregation is going to feel completely comfortable. And as I said at the start of this post, I'm only in inquiry classes at the new church, so who know what might happen there as I step forward in this journey, not always having enough light for the next step. 

But for now, this seems right. I've felt affirmed from many directions. My broken bits seem, so far, to fit better in this new congregation. Time will tell.

I'm becoming quite comfortable with the notion that this may be my next "call," and that in a few years it will be perfectly fine to once again put in my mobility papers. After all, we're all one Body of Christ. It shouldn't matter where I worship. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Changing Churches (part 2, we'll call it the "Pride Edition)

I'm a gay. I write for gay publications using my real name. Generally, even if we've just met, you'll learn fairly quickly I'm gay, not because I wear rainbows, pink triangles, or feather boas (not that there's anything wrong with wearing any of those things), I've just learned to sort of let it be known with at little fanfare as possible. Maybe it's a conversation about dating, or some hottie from Hollywood, or any number of things that happen pretty easily in daily conversation, but unless I feel personally threatened, I don't hide. (I'll probably try to move out of a group of burly men speaking violently of gay folk---I've little interest in being a martyr in the modern sense.)

But Pride weekend . . . I generally don't do it. I don't care for crowds. I don't care for drinking. I don't care for noise. I seem to have that thing where I have a hard time picking out individual voices in a noisy room, so I can't have easy conversation without most of it being "What?" My friend Margo, a speech pathologist, told me the name of this thing, but I've forgotten it already. Anyway, in noisy crowds, I tend to just watch other people talking, but it all sounds like barking dogs.

So, if you've ever been to a Pride event, you maybe can see why I don't care to go.

This year, I was going. Through misadventures with Houston's rotten public transportation (upon which I rely daily but the weekend schedules are awful), I didn't make it. But I really intended to go because earlier this week, I realized that walking in the parade with people from the church I'm joining would be . . . I don't know . . . good.

Mind you, the church I'm leaving didn't do Pride parades and I didn't really care if they did. I did care that being gay was still treated a bit as something to keep secret. I think by the time I left, most people knew I was gay, but I would still have people speak of this reality in hushed tones, as if we didn't want some people to overhear, as if it were a secret to be protected. I understand they're now starting a process for becoming a Reconciling congregation, which surprises me because I've been in those meetings in the past, the "why do we need to do this when we say we welcome everyone" conversations. (That's perhaps a post for another time, but those conversations always annoyed me greatly.) But if they're moving forward with that, I'm glad and happy for them. I hope its a good move for them and that they're able to reach the growing gay community near that church.

All of which to say, I'm not leaving that church because they weren't a Reconciling congregation. I never made decisions about church attendance based upon that status, so long as LGBT folk weren't denounced from the pulpit.

What attending this new church has done for me is tell me that I've turned a corner on that. I didn't mind that I was only one of maybe three gay men in the congregation. (I always heard rumors of a lesbian member, but I was never able to figure out who that was!) But once I started attending this new congregation, I began to be moved by the visible presence of couples and families in the pews. It was a comfort I didn't even know I desired. I highly valued the racial mix of my former church, and this new church has that, too (although I'm quick to acknowledge that both are still predominantly white congregations). Seeing gay couples in church seems, right now, to be a balm to some sore I didn't even know I had.

Some LGBT people stay in predominantly straight congregations---sometimes even in congregations that are hostile to LGBT people---out of a sense of call, a call to be a witness to people that gay folk are, sometimes, even oftentimes, people of faith who sometimes, even oftentimes, stay away from church because we really don't feel all that welcome. One or two people have suggested that my former church is considering becoming Reconciling because I was there, maybe because I've now left. I don't know about that, but if so, may it be a movement of the Spirit, not just about me.

But the lack of open welcome to LGBT folk at the former church was only one reason why I'm changing congregations, and in my mind, it was a small part. Now that I'm in a congregation with a larger, visible presence of LGBT folk, I realize it may have been bigger than I realized.

And for that reason, I'm sorry I didn't make it to walk with them in the Pride parade this evening. I'm very thankful to have found a place that is willing to have that presence and witness at Pride. I think there's some sort of healing in it for me. Maybe. Time will tell.

It's just a strange thing to find comfort for an ache you didn't even know you had.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Changing Churches (part 1, probably)

I'm in the process of changing churches.

It's a little surprising, even to me.

I'm not only changing congregations, I'm changing denominations.

If you read the last year or two of this blog, it's clear that I've been unhappy. In some ways I'm unhappy with the larger church, in other ways it was with a particular congregation.

Not everything about this change will be for public consumption. So much of this decision has to do with me and my failings as well as the failings of the church. I want to be careful not to air dirty laundry. Still, I feel like I want to unravel it somehow. Not unravel, untangle. Sort it out.

There are questions of identity involved. I'm Lutheran. I don't know that I'll ever not be Lutheran. Yet, here I am, signing up for the "Inquiry Group" of this Episcopal congregation. Will I ever be Episcopalian?

And yet, I recall at least two other times in my adult life, when I nearly left the Lutheran communion. Once was in my mid-twenties when I became enamored of the Roman Catholic church and even started the process of becoming RC. And then I didn't. It was a strange moment, but it was almost like throwing a switch. I was becoming RC one week, the next I was back in a Lutheran church.

The second time I nearly left the Lutheran church was during my failed attempt at becoming un-churched. This was about 10 years ago, when all my theology fell through a suddenly opened, previously hidden trap door. I went about saying, "I still believe in God, I just don't know what I believe about God." I moved to Chicago for grad school and tried not to go to church and still found myself in a pew at least twice a month. I lived in a neighborhood with four Lutheran churches and none of them felt right. The last six months or so that I was in Chicago, I attended the neighborhood Episcopal church---which I admit was very comfortable, very much a place to explore my un-churched-ness at the time. I never joined. I graduated and moved back to Texas, but there's no doubt that had I stayed in Chicago, I would have become Episcopalian then.

So maybe this is just a delayed inevitability.

I've said it feels like I'm breaking up with someone, getting a divorce. I have no idea what a divorce feels like, but all the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment must be somewhat similar to what divorcing folk feel. In retrospect, this was a marriage I was sort of pushed into, that I wasn't sure about from the beginning, but I went into it, even experienced some periods of hopefulness that I might finally settle in there.

But the hopefulness and settled feeling never lasted long. I gave it eight years. The last year or two, it came to a head and something needed to change.

So I'm changing congregations, even denominations.

The uncertainty and fear that I feel in this moment feels like the kind of uncertainty and fear that is pregnant with creativity. Possibility. It feels right.

It's going to take some processing. Maybe doing it publicly will help someone else. Maybe it's just an exercise in public self-reflection and no one cares.

But here we go. It's a definite new chapter in my life.

Monday, April 30, 2012

A Note on Science and Belief

Belief in God isn't for me, some fact we're taught or given. It isn't a lesson like "if you drop an apple, it'll fall to the ground."

It's an experience that gives context to the facts.

If, at one time, our best observation and understanding said, "the sun travels around the earth," finding out otherwise doesn't mean that our ancestors in faith who believed were unfaithful or heretics for writing poetry thanking God for the sun's daily travel. It means we now write songs of praise for the yearly trip that the earth takes around the sun.

And if we once thought mythologically and made up stories to explain a creation that gave credit to God for our being, the fact that we now investigate scientifically and think that we have generations of development---yes, evolution---behind our being makes us no less indebted to God.

Why is this such a threatening idea?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jesus, Judas, and Friends

They were friends, you know. Knew each other well, traveled around together, ate together. All that.

And really, setting aside Jesus being Lord and all, it's just one of those things that happens with friends. Visions differ or change or were misunderstood.

Maybe you've been betrayed. Maybe you've betrayed. Maybe no one was betrayed but everyone goes away feeling some trust was broken.

Or we're just broken.

I had an acting teacher in college who said over and over that no one plays villains. Every character we play had to believe s/he was doing the best thing, whether for the world or for the self, but really doing the best thing.

So I sympathize with Judas. Surely he thought he was doing something for some purpose---we can argue what. Something about Israel, maybe, or when Jesus said "the Reign of God," some other picture came to Judas' mind than what Jesus had in mind.

It just all got so terribly out of hand. And however passively, he had the help of the other disciples.

"Do quickly what you are going to do."

"Could you not keep awake one hour?"

In the night of the new commandment---that we should love one another---deeds are quickly done or else sleep overcomes. A nap. A kiss.

Jesus. Judas. A few other friends. Everything broken.

Remain here. Stay awake.

I mean well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Love Casts Out Fear

I'm not even going to name names. The photo is reference enough. There are plenty of blogs full of justifiable outrage and protest---I feel it and I've made my share of comments here and there. But for this moment, stepping back from the outrage, the confusion, the sadness, I just have two thoughts, both having to do with the Image of God.

1. The Image of God is in every, single one of you. In every single one.

We're scary sometimes, but more often than not, we're taught that someone else is scary. I was taught it, you probably were, too.

This is an old thought, an old practice that I've written about before.

I ride public transportation. For the most part, I do not find this scary---I know some of you do, a lot of my "car friends" in Houston do. But for the most part, it's simply not. It's the working poor, getting to and from work, sometimes with families in tow. I'll even go so far as to say some of the more heartwarming moments of my day come from watching interactions on the bus.

And sometimes, there are scary people on it. I won't go into the markers that make me uncomfortable. They'll be different for you, anyway, so just imagine what you find disconcerting in another person, and you can bet you can find that in the seat next to you on the bus. Not everyday, but occasionally.

Now, next time you see that person with that trait that discomfits you, please, just take some deep breaths and remind yourself: that person is made in the Image of God. Try it. See if it doesn't expand your idea of God. And give you pause about how much you would like to get away from that person.

I'm not saying it's some sort of magic spell of protection. But it calms me. Helps me love the stranger, no matter how strange. I can't offer any kind of proof, but I swear it's relaxed me enough to even make the other person relax. (I admit, I may be projecting.) In any case, if you love God, look for God in that scary person. Every one bears the Image of God.

2. The "Otherness" is what makes us all holy.

Part of ancient Hebrew thought is that God is completely other than us. I begin to wonder if this is the image we carry. Our own unique strange(r)ness may be, I think, that Imago Dei spark. .

God can be strange. God can be scary. God can evoke awe---fear! God can set us in situations that surprise us and disquiet us---all the while reassuring us that nothing separates us from the love of God.

Again, this isn't some kind of magic. I'm not saying that there isn't real danger in other people, but if we could just try, every now and then, to take stock of our discomfort and not react out of our initial fear, we might find the other person is not only harmless, but that they may open us up to a revelation of who God is. We might find we have capacity for a love that isn't warm fuzzy feelings, but is a healthy respect and awe of one another. We might find an encounter with holiness.

Really, all I'm saying is slow down. Try a little respect and a lot less suspicion.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . ..

Monday, March 5, 2012

God Spoke to Abram . . . so why not you and me?

This past Sunday, those of us who attend churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary heard once again the story of Abram hearing God and following, even though God was talking kind of crazy.

It's a curious thing, this hearing and following. "Your descendants will be more than the number of the stars, even though you and your wife are approaching 100 years old and you as yet have no children." It's a laughable proposition. Ask Sarah.

We know how the story goes. Abram, renamed Abraham, begins to wonder if there wasn't something he was missing, and so he tries some alternative means of fulfilling God's promise, tries to follow with some alternative paths that just seem to make more sense.

Abraham didn't get it: it's not the sanity of the call, it's the following that matters.

And it doesn't matter if your spouse or father or mother or sibling or friend or boss or church or anyone laughs. The laughter doesn't matter. The following does.

The second-guessing and substitution activities don't matter. The following does.

I seem to need recurring reminders of this. I kind of needed it especially this weekend. So, well played, RCL, well played.

Then, there's this group that I follow on Facebook, who intrigue me and yet I haven't really fully investigated them. They call themselves Realistic Living, and their Facebook page posts all kinds of pithy soundbites from contemporary (or at least 20th Century and forward) theologians. (Actually, they posted something from Sojourner Truth the other day, so I guess it's theologians from all over the timeline, but they tend toward 20th and 21st Century.)

Now, understand, I don't think God micromanages these things, and yet there are times when coincidences are welcome and if we see God in it . . . well God is everywhere . . .

So Realistic living posted this quote from Howard Thurman: "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

This seems to follow the following of Abraham quite nicely. Following, it seems, is what makes us come alive.

As one coming alive (over and over), I tell you I needed to hear these messages.

I write about them here because maybe you needed to hear them, too.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

News of the Day: We're All Gonna Die

It's sort of funny, but I don't really believe it. I mean that whole dying thing. I find it hard to believe that it could happen to me.

It's ridiculous, given that I've had a couple of brushes with death. Somehow, surviving makes me more confident that I'm indestructible.

My grip on reality is sometimes tenuous. I know.

The Ash Wednesday thing . . . I actually do sort of believe in it, maybe precisely because I don't believe in my own mortality. It's probably real healthy to have someone state bluntly, "you're dust."

My heroes from the 4th Century, the Desert Fathers, often spoke of death, the importance of keeping it ever before us. With a few notable exceptions, the Abbas have seldom steered me wrong in spiritual matters.

So I went and got ashed this evening. I'm gonna die. You, too. It stinks. I don't like it one bit. But there it is.

No use in ignoring it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Election Year Blues

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
(John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, (1834–1902), otherwise known as Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887.)

I don't know anything else about this quote other than what I just learned from a 10 second web search. Still, it seems like an apt quote to ponder this election year.

Election year. Ugh. The circus has been going on for months and it's only begun.

It's troubling to me how much religion gets tossed around in these election years. Even more troubling, to me as a Christian, is how Christianity gets tossed around in election years. So much of the time, I don't see recognize the theology I try to live out expressed from campaign trails. More often than not, I'm embarrassed by how Christianity is used, and I mean used by these candidates.

I'm not likely to write much about the election. Those who know me and know who I'll be voting for and those who have followed this blog can probably guess. I'm a left-leaning, queer, Christan---most of the time. There are also all sorts of ways that I hold to traditions and honor the past---and anytime we start talking about preserving traditions, that's inherently conservative talk. There's a lot of ambiguity in terms like "conservative" and "liberal" for me, and I find myself leery of people who use them with absolute certainty and conviction.

Am I liberal? Some would say quite so. Am I conservative? Others would say quite so. What do I say I am? I admit, I try not to, at least not in those terms.

What I am fairly certain about is that this line between "conservative" and "liberal" is drawn in the shiftiest of sand. It turns out that once you claim one of the labels, you're given a test to determine if you/re conservative or liberal enough.

Ack. Talk about test anxiety.

Here's the thing: Jesus was a liberal, shaker-upper of the status quo. Yes he was. He was also an adherent of the law and customs of his people, which is really right in line with being conservative. I laughed at a recent opinion piece I read that suggested, in that always popular game of making God in our image, that Jesus was spiritual but not religious. How can one look at the gospel accounts and say Jesus wasn't religious? He was repeatedly in the Temple. He read scripture there. "On the night in which he was betrayed," or so we're told, he was observing a ritual meal with his disciples. These are religious activities. Fairly conservative ones at that.

So I wish---with all the futility of wishful thinkers---that we could stop claiming Jesus as being on "our side" during these political seasons. I mean, Jesus is on "our side" in a broad sense in that Jesus is for us. All of us. The more important question is always, "am I on Jesus's side?" That's the important question because I think, whoever we are, whatever our stance, however well intentioned and scripture informed we may be, Jesus is going to surprise us. And probably tick us off a little bit in the process.

That quote up there about power . . . I think the best thing we can do during election years is to remember that we are voting for politicians who are, at some level, seeking power There may be all kinds of rhetoric about serving the country, but let's face it, there's power in those seats and power will always try to maintain itself. That's the surprising thing about Jesus, if we're to believe the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians. Jesus never maintained his power, but emptied himself of it. No one we vote for is going to do that.

God is not conservative and God is not liberal. God is, however, an extravagant lover, bringing abundant life, bringing the sort of justice that cares for orphans and other at-risk people over maintaining power. At least, that's what's been running through my head the last few days, every time I've heard people talk about being conservative or liberal. I'm just trying it out here. Let me say it again.

God is neither conservative nor liberal, but extravagant.

May we, as we vote our conscience (and maybe the lesser evil?), see a way to live our lives in this extravagant love, in this abundant life.