Category: connection

2016: Communal Grief and its Lesson

In addition to the difficult personal losses we’ve sustained as a parish this year, public figures keep dying: actors, artists, musicians. People whose lives were creative offerings; they keep dying. This isn’t new: people die; we know to expect that. But it seems, to many of us, that it’s happening more right now. More frequently, more quickly, on a grander scale.

In social media and elsewhere, there’s a sense that 2016 is to blame for these deaths. It’s this year – we seem to be saying – which has, let’s face it, been a difficult one. Syria, Russia, the destructive violence of a divisive election cycle, and now this sense that amidst so much hardship, 2016 has robbed us of some of our favorites. We are hurt. We are indignant.

But this communal sense of grief is intriguing. It isn’t just that, for example, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, and Leonard Cohen died. Instead, the sense is that we lost them. It’s about us; that’s what’s different right now. Collectively, these losses feel like ours. We are weathering them together. In the story we’re telling, we occupy the position of the bereaved. Not as family members – nor even as individuals – but as a nation. We; me and you; us.

Witnessing this public reaction has brought to mind another time when loss felt communal: when it seemed to reach across class and race divisions and political divides. Most of us can recall that in the wake of 9/11, there was a strong sense of bearing so much death collectively. Even as we differed in our beliefs about how to move forward, we came willingly together to carry the pain. Few among us actually knew victims that day and yet: we had lost them, and along with them some sense of who we were.

A field of scholarship emerged in the decade following September 11th in which researchers considered that day and its aftermath through psychological, historical, sociological, and literary lenses. Theorists wrote about our collective grief, and a picture began to emerge of how it functioned. The sense was that our sorrow had much to teach about pre-9/11 culture. That the relief we found in collective mourning revealed a need to engage with those emotions in our own lives. Fear of death and resistance to grief are dominant norms in contemporary American society. For this reason, we as a nation struggle to allow ourselves sufficient space for the work of grief. We aren’t good at it. Considered in light of this cultural weakness, the atrocities of 9/11 offered space for depths of mourning that we, as a culture, otherwise avoided. We were already grief-stricken, the theory goes. But planes flying into buildings – the shock of it, the horror, the staggering death count – served as an invitation to mourn rigorously. To do so publicly. To do so in communion with one another. We could righteously lament all that wasted life, and as we did, we could perhaps yield more fully to our own unacknowledged distress.

It feels worthwhile to consider our collective reaction to the various deaths of this year through a similar lens. If we accept that for most of us, this particular grief is less about the public figures we’ve lost and more about our sense of having lost them, we gain access to insights about our current state as a nation. So too, if we take space to consider our scapegoating of 2016 as the reason we have had to endure these public losses, we might come to understand with more depth what this year has cost us.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed, and perhaps you’ve noticed it too. Public figures for whom we feel affection seem to be dying suddenly, and friends, families, and communities are commiserating with one another about the sadness and injustice of those losses. We’re sharing with those around us a sense of affront: coming together with humor, anger, and sadness. Thus I argue that this year, public loss is serving a profoundly important function: it is granting communion. This is so because when we see these emotions, we recognize humanity. We can’t not. Our grief makes us human. It helps us see ourselves in one another. It helps us look with kindness upon those around us in a way that we haven’t been doing enough of this year. And we’re leaning in to that grief, I think, for precisely this reason: we need to see one another; we crave it.

2016 was divisive. It saw unfold a polarity that has dangerous historical antecedents. In the U.S. alone, 2016 bore witness to threats and actualized violence against marginalized groups of citizens. It bore witness to anger, fear, and hatred. And perhaps most frighteningly, it revealed a widespread and startling resistance to the hard work of real listening. It gave rise to a destructive and ever-deepening sense that we as a nation are an “us” and a “them.” But however painful this is to face: anger, fear, divisiveness, and refusal to listen aren’t a product of this particular year. Instead, those reactions are a product of us.

This piece too is familiar. In the wake of September 11th, 2001 – in addition to uniting us with one another in sorrow – collective grief led us to search for someone to blame. In part as a result of that search, we retaliated against hidden terror cells in Afghanistan. Whatever your sense of the political necessity of the bombs we dropped, few would argue that the killing of Afghani citizens brought about collective healing. Facing that lesson, we would do well to acknowledge that as painful as 2016 has been, 2017 will not heal us in any substantive way. This is true, again, for the reality articulated above: anger, fear, divisiveness, and a refusal to listen are a product of us, not this year. We will only be free of those realities when we refuse to perpetuate them.

With this in mind, I want to suggest that as we welcome 2017, we do so with a sense of having acknowledged our collective sins of 2016: foremost our willingness to allow our brothers and sisters to be defined by a short list of political associations and perceived as less human whenever that short list differed from ours. I want to suggest that we recognize in our cathartic sense of collective grief an indication that some of what this year has cost us is the ability to see ourselves as one in Christ: to understand ourselves as in communion. And I want to urge us to see in our reaction to public loss an immense and unmet need for connection. To meet that need in other, more intimate ways. To reach out, in this new year, across the divides we’ve let define us; to begin again the work of listening and seeing to which Christ calls us.

Paul tells the Ephesians, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Public figures need not die for us to know ourselves to be one dwelling place for God: to understand with gratitude that which joins us together as one holy temple in spite of our differences. Enormous as our current cultural divisions truly are – and critical as it is that we commit ourselves to the work of addressing them – our shared grief reveals that part of our suffering comes from our willingness to give in to those divisions. It is worth considering what – of ourselves, of our culture – might begin to change if instead we “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” by seeing one another as members of God’s household; by listening; by committing ourselves to kindness. We may well discover that such work lends itself to the political aims we are otherwise finding frustratingly unmet.

May this new year of our Lord bring you healing, comfort, and communion. May you enjoy one another with the freedom and unguarded pleasure of our creator God. And may a collective desire to meet one another in full recognition of our shared humanity heal us and our wounded nation, showing us a worthy path forward.

Advertisements

the covenant as written by our little ones

In preparation for the Pentecost baptisms, we spent some time in Children’s Chapel a few weeks back looking at the Baptismal Covenant. Because so many of our kiddos were baptized as babies, these occasions for renewal and recommitment feel especially rich. For each of us, even as adults, new depths of understanding come each time we make these promises. But especially for our children, the covenant has the potential to serve as an awakening. When they hear us speak these words, children are invited into a relationship with God, and with all of us in Christ. And when they begin not just to hear but to speak these words themselves, they set out on their own path towards God. They begin to grasp how behavior shapes belief. They become Christian not because we are, but because God is calling them into the practice of Christianity.

And so I offered our children only the questions of the covenant, and gave them space as a community to craft their own answers instead of teaching them our collective, scripted responses. They were delightfully thoughtful and engaged with one another throughout this process. Their answers – which I copied verbatim once they’d settled on language they all more or less agreed with – are endearing and witty, and not at all surprising given the vibrant community of children we have here at St. Luke’s. But they are also largely theologically sound, and have the potential – if we read beyond or perhaps into the many amusing barnyard references – to help us deepen our own understanding of this piece of our tradition.

To me, that’s the highest potential payoff of intergenerational spiritual practice: the opportunity that arises again and again to learn from one another. To be, from our birth to our death, at once students and teachers. So as we head into a summer of more shared intergenerational worship, I offer these covenant responses as an invitation. May we tune carefully in to the fruitful truth that our children have as much to teach us as we have to teach them. And may the promises we make to God be both illuminated by and illuminating for those of any age on this path alongside us.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, who created us, pigs, chickens, and blankets.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God?
I believe in Jesus the son of God, who lived and died and lived again. He heals people. 

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in God the Holy Spirit, who comes like wind or like fire to help us understand the Word of God. 

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will keep doing prayers, receiving the body of God, and doing the chicken dance. 

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will return to God. 

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
I will proclaim that God is happy and loves us.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will eat chickens with others and try to see good in them.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will be nice and a good listener, sharing what I have and doing the pig dance.

 

 

 

“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.

 

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

IMAG1190_1.jpg