Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Consequences of Dreams - Christmas VII 2016

The nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew is full of dreams. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is forever having a dream telling him to this or that. Take Mary for his wife, even though the child she's carrying isn't his. Leave Bethlehem and head to Egypt before Herod starts his attack on infant boys. Leave Egypt because Herod is dead. But go to Galilee because Herod's son is now ruling in Judea. Then there's the dream the Wise Men had (collectively?) to go home via a Herod-avoiding route. But then, that's pretty much it. We get one more dream, from Herod's wife, at the trial of Jesus.

I think it's interesting that Jesus never dreams. Or it's never recorded that he dreams. And that the dreams are, almost exclusively, dreams of warning.

I dream often. I even often (not always) relate them on Facebook the next morning. I puzzle over some. Some have felt "more real" than others. For instance, I often dream of my deceased parents, but have only had a couple of dreams where I felt like I was being visited by one or the other. In at least one instance, I feel like I got some motherly advice.

But for the most part, I don't think of them as giving me such specific direction as "Got to Egypt" or "Avoid Herod." Oh, nearly four years ago, when I knew I had a mass on my pancreas, but didn't yet know what it was, I had a dream that in a convoluted way seemed to be my body telling me that what was going on was serious but not life-threatening---and it turned out to be right. That's about the extent of significant dreams, though.

I know other people put more stock in dreams than I do. That's sometimes most apparent in the responses I've gotten when I post the dreams to Facebook (not that I always get responses). I find them interesting and I suspect they have something to do with my inner life, and sometimes I know what it is, other times not so much.

It's New Year's Eve, the date when we tend to look forward, make plans (or resolve) for a better year ahead. We dream, but mostly waking dreams. Wishes. Maybe some hope, but I tend to distinguish between wishing and hoping and mostly we engage in wishful thinking.

This last week of 2016, I've not slept well. There have been dreams, yes, and even one that was a bit disturbing (I almost never have nightmares). Nothing that I would qualify as a warning dream, but perhaps I'm not "reading" them correctly. My waking hours are full enough of warning. Maybe my dreams don't need them.

All this free-association on dreams, biblical and personal, leads me to one thought: dreams, if they mean anything, require action. Joseph had to act on his dreams. The Wise Men, too. For dreams to have consequences, they have to move beyond the realm of dream and into the world of decision.

As the clock runs out on 2016 and we begin 2017, it is this that we might best recognize. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Consequences of Humility - Christmas VI 2016

In all the New Testament, only two gospels, only Matthew and Luke, talk about the birth of Jesus. John and Mark are silent on Jesus' earlier life and none of the letters make reference to the infancy.

If we can call the first chapter of John's gospel a Christmas text, then I think this hymn from Paul might qualify as well:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]

No baby in a manger or angels singing, but an emptying of self to take on a lower status. It is Christ giving up the form of God and taking on human form. Incarnation. It is a hymn to Christ's humility. Humility, of course, comes from the root humus, which means earth (as in soil, not the planet).

My heroes, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, had a lot to say about humility, how it was what made all other service and love possible. It was a chosen posture that has many paradoxical consequences.

For one thing, humility has to be chosen in order for it to be humility. It's word relative, humiliation, is not humility---which is why we have a different word for it! Lowliness of stature that is not chosen is oppression, not humility. One has to have some level of power to choose humility.

For another thing, the powerful will always see the exercise of humility as a weakness. Or so they'll say. They'll say so even as they crucify, behead, or otherwise assassinate our humble ones.

We are dust and we return to dust. To know this and really own it (I don't yet, a few do) is to create fearlessness in the face of those who exercise power for their own ends, to the detriment of others.

With Mary, the teenage mother, we remember that God chooses those who are lowly. It is a defiant and costly stance. It is an obedience that leads to a cross. We know the cross is not the end of the story, but we also know the cross is real.

To sing Paul's hymn, to let the mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, is to invite trouble. And glory, true, but first trouble, real and bloody.

Humility leads to it, and saves us in it. The consequences of humility are trouble and peace within it.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Consequences of Hearing - Christmas V 2016

Luke's Gospel tells us about shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night.

You need to know something about shepherds in first century Bethlehem. They did not rank high on the social scale. They were dirty, smelly, probably of poor manners --- not the people you invited to a nice party with the nice china.

And this is who God chose to hear about the birth of the Messiah. Not the Temple, not the Palace, but the fields with smelly, poor, shepherds.

To me, the shepherds are one of the great dropped plot lines in literature. They see the angels, they go see the baby Jesus, they go back to work, never to be heard from again.

But it seems to me that there are consequences to being a witness to all this. There are consequences to hearing the Good News (glad tidings) of great joy. Can you really just go back to work after that?

Well, yes, you can when you have to in order to keep your job.

When Jesus began his public ministry some 30 years later, he attracted people similar to those shepherds. Fishermen (who handled nets of fish in days before easy access to showers) and such. Jesus told them the Reign of God was at hand and for them. Unpopular folk like tax collectors responded to Jesus. They heard in Jesus' words that their shady business (look, they had families to feed) did not automatically bar them from the love of God.

Certainly, the people from the Temple and the Palace heard Jesus, too, but they couldn't hear Jesus.

They were too rich or powerful or too concerned with being rich or powerful. Not being able to hear that God favors the poor, the outcast, the smelly, the morally questionable, they tended to ask Jesus about laws and morals, which Jesus usually turned back on them.

I think we in the so-called First World have a hard time hearing Jesus, too. We're too wealthy or concerned with wealth and we end up worshiping security.

Even as I write these words, I think of all the ways I can't hear Jesus. My material comforts and daily showers clog my ears in ways I seldom recognize in the moment. And, let's face it, hearing Jesus---or angels or any good tidings of great joy---has consequences.

The teachings of Jesus have shaped and guided my life. There is more shaping and guiding to come---if only I have ears to hear.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Consequences of Light - Christmas IV 2016

[Note: Yesterday was the Feast of John the Evangelist, but I got ahead of myself and posted about the Holy Innocents, who are actually remembered on this day. So things are a bit out of order and backwards. Welcome to my life.]

"I can't unsee that" is a common comment on social media, particularly something that is disturbing or unpleasant (which, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but that's another discussion).

Being unable to "unsee" something is, however, a two-way street. We may hold images that are unpleasant in our memory, but also the beautiful, the enlightening.

This is how it is with me, at least. And what's more, what has been enlightened, pushes back the darkness.

The Gospel of John, while having some of the best writing in the Bible, is problematic for me. John's Jesus is the most self-assured, most self-aware-as-God of the gospels. This is a triumphalist Jesus with little room for doubt or questions. (This is why, of course, that evangelistic organizations tend to hand out individual booklets of the Gospel of John.) Then there's the issue with it being most oft quoted by anti-Semites because it's written at a time when the nascent church was struggling with it's identity and separating itself from the parent religion, resulting in some easily twisted passages blaming "the Jews" for all manner of things.

I can't read the Gospel of John and not notice the problems with it

And yet it gives us so much more than problems. Like the famous opening lines:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

The light of all the people. The darkness did not overcome it. I cannot unsee that.

I feel a darkness in the world right now. An encroaching shadow that would like to overcome a lot of good accomplished. At this moment in my life, I feel a foreboding unlike anything I've ever felt before.

The Gospel of John teaches me darkness cannot overcome light.

I'm looking around for some candles to light.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Consequences of Weakness - Christmas III 2016 The Holy Innocents

[Edit: Hours after posting this, I realized I'd gotten ahead of myself a day. December 28 is when we remember the Holy Innocents. This entry should have been for John the Evangelist. So, this year, John and the Innocents are transposed. Perhaps I'll do better next year.]

In case the Feast of Stephen wasn't enough to check the triumphalism of Christmas Day, the church gives the Third Day of Christmas to the Holy Innocents.

It's a terrible story, included only in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men, after consulting Herod, have just found Jesus (not in a manger but still in Bethlehem and apparently not quite two years old) and then they have a dream (dreams are Very Big for Matthew's Gospel) that warns them to avoid Herod on their way home. Herod, in his rage, orders all the male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. Joseph, however, has a dream that warns him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt before this can happen.

There's so much to unravel in this story, not the least of which being why all the parents of infants couldn't get a dream to get out of town? In higher criticism, we talk about how Matthew is concerned with giving symbols that a Jewish readership/listener would recognize. Hence all the references to the Prophets. (I contend, however, Matthew is sufficiently Hellenized to have conflated the Hebrew prophets with the Greek oracles, and the damage done follows us to this day. But I digress.)

I don't want to talk about all that this year. (So if you got bogged down in that last paragraph---don't worry about it.)

Anyone who has read any of my Christmas postings over the last few years know that I read the Gospel stories as political stories. They're not only political stories, but they definitely take place within a particular political situation, with men who exercised power absolutely. And here's what I want you to notice.

When people with power (absolute or not) feel threatened, they tend to do what they need to in order to keep their power and position. Powerful people seldom consistently do nice things for poor or weak (physically or politically) people. The weak are apt to become collateral damage in their efforts to maintain power (note every war ever waged).

And what's more, they don't care if you support them or not. They appreciate the support while they have it, but ultimately don't really need you when they have a larger agenda.

We don't really know how many infants were killed in this slaughter. There's no extra-canonical reference to it, so it's questioned if it really happened or if it was just a literary device for Matthew to reference Rachel and her children. I've read an article somewhere years ago that took into account the assumed population of the time and figured that if it happened, it was likely under 20 male infants in all of Bethlehem. So if it really happened, one theory goes, it wasn't a big enough slaughter to be recorded anywhere else. For the Empire, it was just another day at the office.

But assuming it did happen, are we to assume that all the families who lost infants were anti-Herod? Probably not. Surely some of those families liked Herod and his rule well enough, and if they'd had a chance to vote, whould have voted for him.

There's where I want to draw your attention. Even in my country, our democracy, it's never safe to assume that we're safe because we support the president in office. If they feel sufficiently threatened (or if they have a sufficiently fragile ego), they won't care if you voted for them or not. If they feel that a broad-based pogrom is justified, there will be no protection for anyone. There won't be time or bureaucracy enough to figure out which of the little people are worth protecting. They're after this one goal, and if it takes out all the infants in a town to achieve that goal, so be it.

Now, this isn't to cause paranoia or fear---it's just describing how things are. It's not even a call to exercise our (in the USA) Second Amendment Rights. Those rights won't mean anything if the full fury of Empire comes down on you.

It's to say that while most of us are weak, lacking in political power, we have a God who became flesh and lived among us----not among the powerful, among us, the weak. He resisted and saved a few people. He was crushed but he lived on in a community that, at it's best, continues to resist Empire.

Obviously, I'm not naming names this season. The names are less important than the patterns.

We often quote Paul and his assertion that in our weakness we are made strong. I actually do believe that. Nothing I wrote above is an argument against that.

As I ponder the consequences of Christmas, however, I simply state: Here are the consequences of being weak. It is our strength, yes, and the blood is still real.

A note about today's photo: This was an accidental photo taken last summer. I had my hand pressed against the lens and pointed at the sun when I accidentally hit the button to take a photo. This photo, therefore, is my flesh as seen through the sun. It seemed like a good photo for today.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Consequences of Speaking- Christmas II 2016 The Feast of Stephen

The Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr recorded in scripture. We remember his witness and his stoning before the Christmas dinner leftovers are barely touched.

It's a peculiar and torturous form of execution, stoning. Look it up and you can find different practices over the centuries, but there are a few things worth noting.

It's a collective execution. It's not a single executioner dropping the guillotine, pulling the trigger, opening the trapdoor beneath the noose. There are executioners, a community of them, acting in agreement. Sometimes the judge who set the sentence gets to throw the first stone, sometimes a witness to the crime.

Sometimes this first stone-thrower purposefully uses a small stone that couldn't possible kill on first strike. Wound, sure, but not kill. It's an execution sometimes designed to take a while. In terms of a quick and painless death, it ranks with crucifixion as being among the least humane.

And what did Stephen do to get this condemnation?

He talked back. He spoke up. Really, he just defended himself.

Do some good things, get some recognition, and the powerful will come along and try to tear you down. The powerful will see your popularity as a threat to their power and so they'll turn public opinion against you if they can. They'll lie if they have to.

The writer of Acts takes pains to create parallels between Stephen's arrest and execution and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but in one matter the stories differ. Stephen speaks up and gives an extended defense of himself.

Not that it mattered.

We observe these saints and martyrs days with some admiration for their courage, witness, and faith. There are numerous women and men throughout the last 2,000 years to admire, both named and unknown. They are worthy of admiration. At the same time, I regret that their lives played out that way and would wish there would be  no more. I might hope that I would be so courageous in the face of persecution, but I really wish it not to happen.

We don't get to choose these things. Did Oscar Romero set out to be murdered when he spoke up for the poor? I don't think that's how it works. Still, he spoke up because it was right and true. His death was quicker than Stephen's but the lineage is the same. Replying to power, telling power where it is wrong and misapplied, can and often does get you killed.

We need not be surprised if it comes to our turn.

I've long found it interesting and instructive that we follow the birth of the Incarnate God with a martyr's feast day. It's a tension of celebration of God's humility followed by the cost of it. At our best, we accept this and continue to work of Jesus, inspired, like Stephen, by the Holy Spirit. Occasionally you have a powerful person giving up their power to follow Jesus, but it seems more often they cling to the power, ignoring their shared Image of God, deny the Image of God in others, and serve only their ego and amassed power.

Speaking out has consequences and our frail bodies receive them.

 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. [Acts 7:54-57]

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Consequences of Incarnation - Christmas I 2016

Being human has consequences.

While (or just before) angels were singing to shepherds watching their flocks by night, a young woman, a teenager by most estimations, was giving bloody birth to a child in less than optimum conditions.

Our story goes that this newborn was God incarnate. In-carne. God made of meat.

This baby, named Jesus by his mother and her betrothed, was all the mess any other baby is at birth. He had to be cleaned up before he was wrapped in swaddling clothing.

No doubt, his diapers stank.If Jesus was a child like any of us, he had a colds, scraped his knees, and knew all manner of hardships a child might experience in first century Palestine.

Because those are the bare minimal consequences of being meat. We bleed, perspire, vomit when we're sick. We defecate, urinate, expectorate, ejaculate. We're gross.

It's a wonder, really.

Our story goes that the God of all creation became meat and all the mess that entails.

Stinky diapers and runny noses, yes, but also the world of the senses, experienced within the nerves running through the meat. One might argue that the God who created everything would know the scent of roses and the softness of skin and the music of birds and depth of a starry night.

But can God, who is the fullness of creation, understand hunger? And would  a pot of stew smell as good until you experienced hunger?

This meatiness is frail and strong, able to feel pain and ecstasy. We are full of healing capacity and ultimately corruptible. 

I am about equal parts full of faith and full of doubt bout these stories, but they have shaped and are shaping my life. Today we tell the story of baby Jesus, who we also say was fully human and fully God. Full of glory and full of frailty.

I am pondering this year the consequences of it all, because there were, are, will be consequences.

Friday, December 2, 2016

#adventword #light

I took two photos this morning and couldn't decide . . .

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I've come to the conclusion that I need a break from blogging, at least on the weekly schedule I've been keeping since June. I may return to my "when an idea strikes" mode or I may not return until Advent (just around the corner, really.

But for the moment, I need to concentrate on a couple other bigger projects, also get some personal stuff in order.

Thank you for reading and watch for more. Places to see what I'm up to include my Facebook author page and on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

This and That

No one big idea this week . . . too much swirling . . .

I'm so weary of this election cycle. It's bringing out the worst in everyone, including me. And while I don't mind going on record as saying Donald Trump cannot ever be president, I find myself so very angry about his candidacy. I'm angry that there are enough people in the country to make him a candidate and that this candidacy has emboldened the uglier aspects of humanity---xenophobia, racism, misogyny, to name a few. White supremacists are speaking openly about voting for him and how they see him as a way to push their agenda forward (because, according to at least one piece I read, some don't think he goes nearly far enough).

I really thought some progress had been made last century. I see it all unraveling and falling apart in this candidacy.

And in the end, even if DT does not win, the cycle will linger on because the people who are his followers are still going to be there. I'll have to live in the same country with them. I have to think about how to respond with Christian love and compassion.

Anger is fine up to a point, but it quickly can bubble over into knee-jerk reactions and hate. I feel that ledge, frankly. I do not want to fall off it.

This second presidential "debate" (Lincoln/Douglas it was not) was so disturbing to me. Okay, the debate itself was just frustrating.

Wait, I can't call it a debate anymore. Can I call it, I don't know, the embarrassment? Because I was embarrassed by it. We'll go with that.

So I actually watched the embarrassment---something I haven't done with other debates. I saw what was going on and it was pretty awful, DT's sort of stalkerish behavior.

Listening to women via social media afterward made me realize how awful it was. HRC handled herself remarkably well after hearing how it affected some women. The behavior reminded some of personal molesters. One friend said her therapist had warned her to avoid cop shows, which tend to pander with the "woman in peril" trope, but she said she never expected that she'd need to be warned about a presidential debate.

I mean, presidential embarrassment.

I don't even know what to say. Two candidates in a town hall meeting created a situation where a friend with childhood sexual abuse in her history felt like she had to employ tactics to prevent a PTSD flashback. This is not a high point in American history.

I'm embarrassed.

And angry.

I'm not going to dwell on this, but I'm just going to put out there that the juxtaposition of The Embarrassment with what the calendar calls Columbus Day feels pertinent. The Embarrassment feels like a natural consequence to colonialism, genocide, slavery---all the things that helped create this nation.

Really, I'm just going to let that sit there. I just wanted to say it. 

I believe in creativity and so let me pause to say I'm working on a novella again. I have a very rough draft in long hand (yes, I like doing what I consider my creative writing in long hand first) and as I'm typing it up, I'm doing rewrites and such. I had hoped to have a completed, submittable draft by now, for a contest, but i don't and that's okay. I've got a good chunk typed up/rewritten and I'm feeling good about it, mostly. There will be more rewriting/editing, but this second draft will me much less of a mess than the first draft, which is a decent accomplishment.

It's a very personal piece and some dreams have been generated by it. I like that. Like most of my fiction, it's quiet. It won't be a wildly popular piece, as might happen for more action oriented pieces. It's really okay, I don't want to be James Patterson or even Stephen King. I wouldn't mind being Marilynne Robinson, but I know I needn't pretend.

So anyway, this is all to say, there are good things, as always. I'm not in a rage 24/7. I have fairly significant moments of bliss, actually.

I can wish I were a better writer, but I've no doubt that this is why I'm here. The pleasure is its own affirmation.

I am angry a lot these days. Creativity gives me a break from it

My heroes, the Abbas and Ammas of the desert, had things to say about anger, about not letting it take up residence and to do our best to resolve it before nightfall. I'm failing them these days but I do find myself paying attention to the stories and sayings about anger when they come up in my daily readings. I notice things they do and say to strangers that they come across in the desert. Not all of them are there to be there disciples, and yet they practice radical hospitality to their enemies.

I don't know what this means for me. Immediately. I really am trying to pay attention, though. To the Abbas and Ammas and to this election and to the people who are more adversely affected by it and to the people who would brush off the adversely affected.

Something has to change in this nation and beyond. Anger has to stop being the underlying emotion between so many human interactions. Less knee-jerk, more hospitality. Or something.

I'm working on it.

Dear God, help us work it out. I'm not ready for the end of human history yet.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Skip Week

I'm not posting a "real" blog post this week because I'm trying to make some huge progress on a bigger work of fiction this week.

If you are a regular reader and have been stopping by weekly since Pentecost, thank you and I'd welcome any thoughts you have about this blog. I admit it's not the most tightly focused religious blog on the net, but I'm not sure how that's received. So if you're reading this and have been reading Crumbs at the Feast for a while, I'd appreciate a word or two about why, what you hope to find when you come here, what you'd like to see more of. Also, if there's a better day of the week besides Wednesday for new posts, or if weekly is too much, not enough, etc.

No pressure to address all that, but if you're of a mind, leave a comment below or send me an email at neilellisorts at yahoo dot com.

This past year has been a change in my blogging activities (from whenever I feel like it to weekly, for example) and I feel more change is in order for 2017. Here's where you can help me shape those changes.

Thank you, and blessings on you week.

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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Contradictions and Guidance

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

+  +  +

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

 +  +  +

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

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

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

This is freedom. 

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

This is not license. 

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Restoring Joy

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

Oh, bother.

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

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

They were, indeed, a botanical alleluia.

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

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

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

Restore to me the joy of your salvation . . . 

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reading With the Church - A Rant and a Lament

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

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

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

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

Because I'm a reader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Peace Love and My Wit's End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe a  good ol' Lutheran slogan us useful here.

Simul justus et peccator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Shooting People

I'm going to tell a story with as few details as possible, because it's not exactly my story to tell. It was told to me, and it haunts me.

Some kids were being a nuisance, getting onto someone's property, doing some damage, minor but still damage on land that was not theirs to mess up. This someone, a woman, was complaining to her neighbor about these kids, about how she'd asked them to stop and they continued anyway.

The neighbor said, "You have a gun, don't you?"

"Yes," answered the woman.

"Well, you know that if they're on your land without permission, you can shoot them."

Thankfully, the woman was appalled at the notion enough to not take the advice. She didn't want to shoot teenagers, she just wanted them to respect her property.

What I heard in this story is that we no longer, as a culture, assume that it's wrong to shoot people. It seems to me we actively look for reasons to shoot people, now. We look at the law for when we can shoot people rather than look for ways to avoid it.

A friend recently posted on Facebook, in response to a horrific family shooting in the suburbs of Houston, about how we "prepare our hearts" to shoot one another.

I think there are so many ways we prepare our hearts for violence these days, from the games we play and the entertainment we consume to the fear and hatred of the unknown that we feed and turn into political movements.

I don't want to ban guns, but I do want our hearts to change.

I don't want to censor anything, but I do want our hearts to change.

This business of shooting people is ultimately a heart issue and if I take anything from the Gospels  and the desert mothers and fathers, my 4th Century Egyptian teachers, it's that we prepare our heart for life, service, love.

But it seems we have much work to do. So many people are afraid and we know that love is hard when we're full of fear.

Still we teach: Love casts out fear.

We have work to do with recognizing the holy in each other. We look at differences and we get suspicious to the point of paranoia.

Still we teach: We are all made in the Image of God.

I keep saying I really only have one or two things to say. These two teachings of the Christian faith are basically it. We are made in the Image of God and when we see some difference in each other, that just may be an aspect of God that we can't contain in our own self---for surely no one of us holds the full Imago. Surely we have to share it, to complement one another. We need to set aside fear and suspicion to learn something of God that we don't find in ourselves.

We have to stop preparing our hearts for violence. We have to stop shooting one another. We have to be brave enough to love even when teenagers are messing up our property.

We have to prepare our hearts for life giving (said with more than one meaning) love.