Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Ash of Wednesday and the Goodness of Dust

This year Ash Wednesday meets us with a level of welcome I cannot remember in my lifetime. The sobering refrain, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, cuts through every and any claim of personal or social sovereignty. We all have the same beginning and will arrive at the same end. 

I am just as much a collection of dust as those at the head of a nation. You are just as much dust as your closest friend and most feared foe. We are all dust and to dust we shall all return. 

A few other musings on this first day of Lent. 

We are all complicit. 
The call to a season of prayer laced in confession is not solely a means to identify the social sins of systems, institutions, and powers that be. There is an urgent place for this; Lent for too long was primarily about personal piety. Yet, we miss the point if we close our conscience to how each and every one of us is complicit in varied distortions of what it means to love God and neighbor and to live into God's dreams for a world just and whole. Lent dares us to be leary of exposing the splinters in the eyes of another without awareness of the planks in our own retinas. This is a liturgical gift in a world bent on finger pointing, wall-constructing, blame shifting, wedge driving, and enemy making rhetoric unable to usher in an alternative reality to what we know is not even close to good enough. When we acknowledge each of us contributes to the problem, only then can we work towards preferred solutions and reformations.

We are all limited dependents. 
Each Ash Wednesday, we reclaim and reaffirm the creation narrative of God making humanity from the dirt only then to breathe life into the nostrils. We are dependent creatures whose existence is a gift and preservation an act of grace.* This dependency assures us none of us alone can save the world from the chaos that is. We can merely play our part alongside fellow image bearers and light sharers and rest in rhythm, too. And rest indeed. Play, too. Resistance cannot be fueled on the fumes of those naive to their own limitations and humanity. Which is why the Resurrection story at the end of the 40 Days is so critical- deliverance over death is not our achievement but God’s forward looking and leading gift to all of humanity. 

We are all finite. 
Finitude does not have to be despairing. Instead, the temporal nature of our existence liberates us to prioritize the holy and give preference to the most sacred. We are reminded no person or empire has escaped an end; all are subject to finitude. Which means we are to refuse to allow even the most unjust powers to rob us of the joy of living as much as it is in our ability to do so. Turn off the news and spend time with your children. Get off the mobile device and go for a run. Read a novel. Play an instrument. Eat. Drink. Be Merry. Celebrate love the best and most intimate way you know how. Invite a stranger to be a guest at dinner. Refuse to allow despair to claim the blip of time called your life. Lenten tradition reserved Sundays as a break from the forty-day fast. This is largely the reason.

We are all from goodness.
Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return. At first glimpse there is an absence of love and hope. Then we dig into the creation narrative and remember humanity was birthed out of the land God called good. Dust is both the beginning and remnant of what was once good. To be marked with the dusty cross each Ash Wednesday is to confess a collective call to return to the goodness from our shared beginnings. To taste the ash as it it falls from our face is to remember that even out of the ash God can and will resurrect new life and make all whole again. It is as if we should say, remember you were created out of goodness and to goodness we will all return. 

Blessed Ash Wednesday. May your Lent be a sobering holiness. 

*As Karl Barth once wrote, “If [God] loves us; if He has preferred our being to our not-being; our loveableness to our unloveableness that is for us the ever-wonderful dynamic of His love. For it is grace not nature” (Church Dogmatics II.1, p. 281).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Parenting as Proclamation and Apprenticeship

Karl Barth did not write a lot about children. He wrote even less about parenting. But what the greatest theologian of the 20th century did pen on the matter parallels his emphasis on proclamation as central to the call of the Christian:
"Children are not by nature parents' property, subjects, servants or even pupils, but their apprentices, who are entrusted and subordinated to them in order that they might lead them into the way of life." (Church Dogmatics Vol III.4 p. 243)
This is a sacred yet heavy daily reminder. Our kids are our primary congregation; the living room, car rides, dinner table, bed time rituals, and everywhere we gather as a family are our most treasured pulpits; the way we manage conflict, interact with neighbors, talk about current events, elevate the cause of those most vulnerable to injustice and hatred, and how we spend and share our money become critical catechesis as we model the way of life called Christian discipleship.

Even how we respond to their angst and fears, questions and curiosities, tantrums and disappointments, and occasional locking of horns with siblings or parent can be as formative as any Bible story. These moments can be platforms to proclaim the gospel with as much grace and love as any preacher.

Maybe even more so.

And when our children embrace us in the morning, kiss us goodnight, and maybe even leave a picture at the base of the bedroom door after a long and tense day of child wrangling that leaves us feeling like complete failures, we become as much their apprentices as they are ours.* They proclaim the good news of God's love, joy, and forgiveness and lead us in the way of life.

We do well to pay attention.

*Picture above from my daughter on one such occasion. I was a mess when I saw this, only to glance into her bedroom and be greeted with a smile and whispered, "I love you, Daddy."

Friday, January 27, 2017

Beatitudes Remixed...Again

The Revised Common Lectionary can be quite providential. Only a week removed from the recent inauguration, when Jesus' preface to his sermon on the mount was read as part of the imperial liturgy, the same text pops up as the lection for preachers. 

And as I did nearly five years ago, here is my revised midrash of those whom Jesus called blessed, anointed, privileged, and at the forefront the inauguration of God's dreams for the world made new. These remixed beatitudes are upside-down prayers for these days whereby we reclaim the subversive nature of the biblical narrative written by those in the underbelly of empire. 

Blessed are those whose spirits have been crushed by systems and institutions, who seek solidarity in the midst of darkness and despair, and those who hold onto hope by their finger tips, God’s dreams for the world include you.

Blessed are those whose grief runs deep and others who enter into the suffering of their most vulnerable neighbors, God’s comfort and peace extends to you.

Blessed are those who humbly extend love and kindness, the movers and shakers of this world who subvert narratives of power and privilege and yet your names may not appear in headlines or history books, you already know the joys of God's kingdom here and yet-to-come.

Blessed are those who long for the world to be made right, whose commitment to justice is the marrow in their bones, and who organize resistance movements against perpetuates of fear, hatred, prejudice, and abusive rhetoric that breeds oppression, for you will find validation in the good news that God is reconciling the whole world.

Blessed are those who offer second-chances, cultivate empathy, quest for greater understanding, error on the side of mercy and love, and dare to believe noone is beyond redemption, for you understand what it means to be whole and human.

Blessed are those motivated not by self-interest but by a concern for those frequently labeled "least" among us, who surrender the temptation for self-preservation and choose instead the good of the whole, for you have the eyes and ears of the Spirit. 

Blessed are those who choose peace over violence, love over vengeance, and grace over retaliation, who work towards the end of war, seek to heal the rifts in our neighborhoods, and labor tirelessly to ensure our schools and communities are made safe for our children, for you best reflect what it means to be called God’s people in the world.

Blessed are you who have linked arms with the oppressed, extended sanctuary to the refugee, protested violations of human rights as embodiments of prayer, and do all these things and more as extensions of a deep commitment to the Way of Jesus even at the risk of arrest and the threat to your very lives. You join the long history of prophetic witnesses and will find joy in the resurrection parade of the Messiah and the movement of this gospel.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Parades...or Three: Revelation as March of Prayerful Protest

In the span of twenty-four hours, there were two parades.

One celebrated the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States and what we call the "peaceful transition of power." The pageantry was full of the sacred symbols and liturgical rhythms of the national religion we call American democracy, whose new priest walked the streets of Washington D.C. to sounds of both praise and disapproval. 

The other hinged on peaceful protests and demonstrations in the name of women's rights and varied intersections with demands for justice for people of color, LGBTQI+, immigrants, the interfaith community, and more. The collective sense of urgency was no doubt heightened by the inauguration of Donald Trump just one day earlier, whose fear-based rhetoric, history of offense and abuse of women, and slander related to immigrants, Muslims, people with disabilities, and African Americans became the target of placards created by those who organized and exercised their right to demand better. 

This parade was not without its critics, too. 

There is no question, this nation is at a critical crossroads. The world as we know it is at a crucial turning point evident in this "tale of two parades." 

And yet again, the biblical narrative cuts through the dualism of our world and temptations to bifucate solutions and offers a third way. There is a third parade, whose attendees are too vast to count and agenda unapologetically tilted towards those slain by all systems of power and privilege. This march of holy protest assures us dreams for a world made whole, right, and just again cannot and will not be overcome by the powers that be; there is a different reign breaking in that trumps all others. 
"Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, 
'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and mightand honor and glory and blessing!'
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the seam and all that is in them, singing,
'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and mightforever and ever!'
And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' And the elders fell down and worshiped" (Rev. 5:11-14)
The pageantry of this apocalyptic parade is laced in subversive imagery (see also Revelation 4). John borrows the imperial symbols, traditions, and religious iconography that surrounded the inauguration of new "leaders," who claimed divine status and appointment, threatened detractors, and crucified criminals and "fake-news" subscribers (read: those who spread a gospel not in line with Rome) as testament to their fragility and insecurity. John countered with an alternative parade and a subversive anthem of allegiance echoed by resistors the powers thought they had silenced. At the apex of this holy occasion, the Elected One, the Lamb, takes the scroll as the elders fall in worship, harps in hand, and offer "bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).

We can only imagine the content of these bowls full of prayers offered by leaders of the faithful resistance in the midst of rampant militarism, religious persecution, abduction of detractors fed to lions, an economy based on slavery and unjust tax systems, reduction of women and children to subservient status, fear of the foreigner, and legislation that segmented the elite from the poor and hungry. Surely these ancient petitions would have been an encyclopedia of their times as told from the vantage point of the empire's underbelly. They could have been colorful placards of early protest movements led by those victimized by the beast. 

This context breathes a level of comfort to those looking for time-tested solidarity. 

In our day, there is great energy swirling around current socio-political events and the American election. For some, this energy has leveraged a particular brand of change and thirst for ideological return. For others, the energy is fueling a fire that threatens to burn quests for social progress and equal opportunity that have been pursued over the last several generations. So the masses have taken to the streets. 

What John reminds us is neither to be overcome by despair nor provoked by emperor and empire to replicate the very evil we despise. Instead, we are to offer our prayers of protest and organize labors for justice and peace, even join varied marches, as such actions are gathered in bowls of incense before the throne of the Lamb. There we find an Elected One, surrounded by leaders of the faithful resistance, most able to identify with those victimized by the powers who then promises a universal resurrection he has already inaugurated.

So faithful saints, in our quest for justice and peace, let us pray fervently as we march onward and refuse to let our placards be the end of our advocacy. And let us do so in a way that pledges allegiance neither to a party nor flag, but to the Lamb of God who alone is able to take away the sins of the whole world. 

This is our only anthem of assurance.