Month: March 2016

“love’s risen body”

In the wake of a powerfully intense Holy Week, I am drinking tea and indulging in rich, meandering conversations. I am letting myself rest. But even as I offer space for the exhaustion of Church Work During Holy Week, I sense the ways in which I have been fed, made new, brought a little closer to whole by the journey. Boundaries were surrendered, yet much was gained. I trust that those of you who made space to move through the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter) came away with this sense as well. And I write – for those present and not, familiar and not – to share a sense of the undertaking. Because whatever your faith – however tethered to or skeptical of Christian doctrine you are in this moment – the stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture.

Maundy Thursday is when the church remembers the Last Supper. This includes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, offering them and us a new mandate to “love one another” (John 13:34). The liturgy ends with the stripping of the sanctuary, which reminds us of the empty cell into which Jesus is put for the night; enacts the stark reality of Good Friday; portrays the barrenness we fear in death; performs a kind of letting go; and reminds us that the Body of Christ was stripped. And yet here’s what most startles: whole communities come together and wash each other’s feet. They stand in a sacred place, take off their socks, and gather. They kneel before one another: strangers, friends, acquaintances, clergy, staff, children, parents. And one by one, they take bare foot in hand and cup water in palm. Whether you’re washing or being washed, it is a strange and vulnerable moment. It is awkward and humbling. We expose feet. We allow that covered part of ourselves to be held by another, to be loved. It takes surrender. And it changes us.  

This year, our deacon preached about mandates: his own to the parents of his pediatric patients, and Jesus’s to us. He said: mandates are bossy, but sometimes they’re right. Sometimes it’s right to tell a parent she should stay with her child. Sometimes it’s right to tell us to love. Sometimes it’s right to tell one another what to do. And so – with the Ubi Caritas filling the space around us – I washed a parishioner’s feet. And at first I felt all the usual insecurities: I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right. You know these voices, right? Then I remembered the deacon’s words about mandates and the love that Jesus calls us to in this story. And I thought that kneeling there – foot in one hand and water cupped in the other – I couldn’t fail at that. I couldn’t fail at loving. I kneeled down and loved the woman whose foot I held through the awkwardness and the boundaries I had to put down to do so. The mandate is that we love. And it sets us free because it means we get to let everything else go in deference. And in letting those old stories go – I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right – I discovered new wells of love. For the woman whose feet I was washing. For myself. For God. And it isn’t that it stopped being awkward; it’s that the awkwardness made it possible to get to that discovery: the letting go of my own sense of failure and the taking up of Jesus’s trust in me. Trust that I can love as he loved. And then I did.

Good Friday commemorates Jesus’s suffering and death. The altar is bare, having been stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The same people who only the day before kneeled down before feet and water now read the story of Jesus’s arrest, indictment, and crucifixion. The words of the angry (fearful) crowd would resonate with anyone in the room who is discomforted by oppression, by history’s incessant grasping for power. In The Heart of Christianity, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg argues that:

this is the political meaning of Good Friday: it is the domination system’s ‘no’ to Jesus. This is also the political meaning of Easter: Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and his vision, and God’s ‘no’ to the domination system….Thus the cross…indicts the domination systems of this world. Good Friday and Easter have a political meaning, even as they are also more than political. Indeed, it is striking how much of our religious language was, in the first century, theo-political language. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.

Together, as we read aloud the words of the frightened, human, unconscious oppressors, we at once collectively own our complicity in the systems of oppression that live on in our day, and rend our clothes in mourning over (if we’re following Jesus’s mandate) not just Christ’s unjust death, but the countless unjust deaths of history, and the countless unjust deaths to come. The oppression we enact on Good Friday is timeless.  

Indeed, this Good Friday our priest moved us backwards from the story of the ruling party’s attempted destruction of Jesus to that of his birth, which this year we celebrated only three short months ago. And recalling that new baby in the face of his eventual persecution (re)made fully human the man on the cross. And here’s the magical part: feeling his humanity made all those lives lost to injustice – all those lives we manage to ignore – fully human as well. And the act of seeing those lives made us fully human in turn. In Precarious Life, American philosopher and theorist Judith Butler asks if there might be something:

gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence….If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another? [Because] to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.  

Though the idea of vulnerability as a critical and misunderstood resource is currently of interest to theorists – and was the basis for my doctoral dissertation – I have never before seen it played out in a community setting. I’ve seen it function in the theoretical and in the personal, but never in the communal. But when we placed flowers on the cross this Good Friday, we did so with mournful eyes open to much that it would be easier not to know: that these precarious human lives are sacred and worthy, and that our most devastating failure is letting ourselves forget that. And in that space, together, we didn’t forget. Even if just for awhile. And it is fascinating to wonder what would happen if we all stopped forgetting, all together. What that might yield, even if we only did it for a day.  

The Great Vigil of Easter is the church’s celebration of the resurrection. It’s when we’re granted the impossible grace to move through the suffering we looked squarely in the eye on Good Friday and into, to recall Borg’s words, “God’s ‘yes.'” Into Jesus’s forgiveness of his persecutors. Into an alternative to power-hunger and intimacy-avoidance and vulnerability-fear. Into an abandonment of the myth of sovereignty. Into the empty tomb. It’s when we’re offered the space to imagine what might come from our willingness to love as God loves. And in that way, it functions as radical cultural resistance.  

We are sold versions of life everyday: versions that are expensive; that cost us the ability to see one another; that teach us to long for power and wealth over grace and compassion. Barrett Lee, who preached at this year’s vigil, writes that in contemporary American culture:

[we] are inundated with a relentless onslaught of guarantees and certainties from advertising slogans, political campaigns, and religious ideologies. And each time one promise collapses under its own weight and proves itself to be a lie, another one is waiting to jump up and take its place. Each ideological idol promises to give us the world, if only we will bow down and worship its golden image. Faith, in this context, is the ability to question these promises, doubt these certainties, and refuse to bend the knee to anything less than the mystery of God’s own self.

Gathered together on this night – telling this sacred, mysterious story that has been handed down to us; having been reminded in the days before of Jesus’s mandate to love; having recalled our own tragic yet deeply human ability to ignore and even induce the suffering of others – we refuse the golden image. We bend down only to mystery and miracle. We remember that Christianity is not:   

preserved in unchangeable dogmas, but is passed down as a story told in poetry and prophecy, in water and oil and light, in bread and wine.

The stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture. This is so because the Triduum is an invitation to embrace – even if only for three short days – our own precariousness, and that of others. To imagine what it is to live with the mandate of loving held high above all other demands. To look human cruelty squarely in the eye not as a way of vilifying ourselves and one another, but in an effort to understand. To see. To suffer alongside, and recognize, and uphold, and surrender, and love.  

On Easter morning, in the wake of all this, our priest offered these lines from the R.S. Thomas poem “The Answer”:

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

The Triduum works this way, rolling away the artifices of death and power and violence – of destructive cultural conditioning and stagnant questions – and leaving us gathered, in community, around “the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.” And it is almost impossibly sweet to imagine what we, together, might go on to do in its wake.

 

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prayer & social justice

On behalf of our youth, families, and leaders, I am thrilled to announce that this July we will pilgrimage to St. Meinrad Archabbey for a monk-led exploration of the relationship between prayer and social justice.

This plan arose from our youth community’s sense that though there is much we would change about our world, it is hard to know where to begin: where to lend our voices, how to be of meaningful service. That uncertainty can lead, as we all know, to a kind of paralysis: I long to contribute, but if I cannot discern a clear starting point I may just feel lost and overwhelmed.

It also arises from our discomfort with the false division between prayer and activism. Culturally, even as Christians, we often perceive these concepts as limited and dichotomous. We treat prayer as something incidental or ornamental – an aside from our lived reality – and activism as something we do on the outside, for others, and not for ourselves. We rarely allow ourselves to see prayer and activism as deeply connected to one another, and to the very work of being human. When tragedies occur, we often first hear a call for prayer, and then a call to do something. We submit that this division is worrisome, inaccurate, and even dangerous. We submit that prayer is doing something, and that doing something is prayer.

As baptized Christians, we are called to minister. In our youth group this year, we are especially reflective about the origin of this call because we have been privileged to witness the baptism of one of our members, and we will witness that of another at the Vigil on Saturday. In our baptismal covenant, we promise that with God’s help we will continue in the prayer life of the apostles. We also promise to seek and serve Christ in those around us, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And we vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. We enter into this covenant with God, and then we set about the work of understanding what it means: how these promises relate to one another, and how they call us to live.

In Being Christian, Rowan Williams reminds us that “baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else. To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps [us] separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people….To be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say contaminated – by the mess of humanity.” In baptism we are made clean, Williams goes on to say. But we are also, ironically, “pushed into the middle of a human situation that…will not leave us untouched or unsullied.” As baptized Christians, we know this paradox, even as we struggle to understand what it means. And so our St. Luke’s youth have chosen this pilgrimage. We will learn from and amongst Benedictine monks, whose life work is to pray for the world. We will strive to perceive the action that arises from that work of prayer, and to understand as well the inverse: that when enacted on behalf of Christ, activism is a way of praying.

Prayer moves us. In mystery and with no regard for our ability to comprehend it, prayer moves the world. It can happen in stillness, in darkness, in quiet communion with God. It can also happen in movement: in “the middle of a [messy] human situation.” As a youth community, we long to understand the interplay between prayer and activism, and how that interplay might guide us as we grow into ourselves, and into our baptismal covenant. We long to grasp our communion with God, with one another, with all the company of saints, and with an unjust and sometimes devastating world not as disparate pieces of our lived experience, but as a unified path towards wholeness.

Thank you for your prayerful support of these young parishioners. It is a privilege to serve them as they explore this vital, complex, and substantive work. I know they will have much to teach us on the other side of this journey.

hold you

The last couple of nights in my house – when we’ve finally gotten into pajamas, and brushed teeth, and read all the books – my almost two-year-old has asked me to climb into his tiny toddler bed so he can, in his words, “hold you.” He wants to hold me. After more than twenty-three months of holding him – at all hours of the day and night; in carriers and with just my arms; in response to calls for “uppies” and in the face of vehement protest – he wants to hold me.

Which to be clear is awkward. Those little bird arms stretching around both sides of my neck. My face right up against his. My body held tense so as not to put the whole weight of my torso onto his still impossibly tiny arm. Being held by a two-year-old is awkward. And yet it’s maybe the most clearly I’ve ever seen myself in him. Hold you, I have said to the world a thousand different ways, not so much minding the awkwardness. Hold you, we say to God’s world, to humanity, every day, though every day we fail to do so well. Hold you, we whisper, longing to gather ourselves around something much bigger than we are. Hold you, we whisper to God. And so when my son says hold you, I let him. And I sing quietly, my face an inch from his, until he finds sleep. It seems necessary not just to accept the awkward discomfort of this moment, but to grant that the awkward discomfort is central to the experience. The act of holding – be it literal or symbolic – is hard.

I thought of this yesterday when Fr. Randall preached about Lazarus’s sister Mary, and that glorious nard, and Jesus’s feet. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.* When he preached about how, among other things, that moment must have been so intimate to watch, too intimate for those not naturally at ease with intimacy. There must have been an instinct to look away. And maybe that instinct accounts for part of Judas’s judgement: Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?* And really maybe that discomfort accounts for Judas’s betrayal at large: it must have been hard for those who found comfort in first-century cultural boundaries not to sometimes look away from Jesus. Not to do whatever it took to be able to look away.

Often when I wonder what to fall back on in this work – and for that matter in parenthood, and for that matter in marriage – I think of the recurring theme in E.M. Forster’s novels: “Only Connect.” If forced to choose between two options, I want to choose connection. I fall short of this every day, but it’s worth striving for. And it has its downsides. I used to washed my car weekly. Now my car sort of looks like it’s being driven by a hoarder: toddler socks, measuring cups, ripped coloring pages. It’s been a long, long time since I got a full night’s sleep. I’m betting most parents reading this can relate. But yesterday I watched our parish kiddos recite Psalm 126, which they’ve been working on for weeks. And we wrapped up a parish-wide Lenten Study in which we endeavored to see as fully human those we might be inclined to dismiss. And we listened to a sermon about the intimacy of what was maybe the only worthy thing Mary could think to offer the man who gave her brother life again. And our parish kiddos finished the icons they’ve been creating this Lent: objects lovingly made to help them and us draw closer to God and those who’ve done God’s work. Connection, intimacy, all just there for the looking.

I’m thinking that we’re all way too busy. And that it’s hard to know what to prioritize. So it helps to remember Mary and that gesture of love because she could have made a thousand more practical choices, and instead she made one that Jesus understood. One that meant touching our Lord, anointing him, showing him her devotion. One that he saw not as extravagant but as holy: Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.* She wanted to hold him. And it was awkward, and impractical, and connective. And it was just right.

As we move towards Holy Week, maybe it will be of service to hold this image of Mary in our minds. To see in Judas – and in this election season, and in plenty of contemporary culture around us – where fear of intimacy leads. And to choose, when we can, not to look away. St. Luke’s parents: consider bringing your kiddos to the Maundy Thursday liturgy at 7pm that night. If enough of our little ones come, I can make a foot washing station just for them. And Fr. Randall will be on hand after to answer questions they might have about the powerful stripping of the sanctuary that closes that liturgy. Our Kids Do Good Friday Liturgy at 5:30pm the next night will offer a glimpse of Jesus’s death that is both age-appropriate and moving.

Let’s move into Easter fully ready to look. Fully ready to teach our young ones to look. Seeing the intimacy of both Jesus’s death and his resurrection. Being open to saying hold you to God and, when it is safe and right to do so, saying it to our brothers and sisters here on earth as well.

*  Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Icons made by the children of St. Luke’s, Lent, 2016

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