Only One Love Needed

About ten or so Christmases ago, I worked as a San Francisco hospital chaplain and was called in to see a young man who apparently needed to get his affairs in order. He was dying of AIDS, a disease that had hit the headlines in that neighborhood twenty or so years earlier but by now was just another horrible way to leave this life.

As I entered the room, the shadow of a man who lay there was betrayed by beautiful photographs of times past, looking hearty and young, and surrounded by the family that now with some trepidation approached his deathbed. As we settled into our visit, he let me know that what he really needed was for me to help his mother see that this was the end, and that he needed her to help manage the sale of his car, and distribute his clothes and music collection and so on. His face was so thin that his Jesus-Birthcheekbones protruded and his lips pursed as he spoke. Surely these were the last days.

And then, his mother came in, quietly and gently. He looked at me, and began to rehearse with her the litany of instructions he needed to get off his chest. His mother simply sat, holding his hand. When he had finally finished all that he had to say, his mother cupped his head in her hand and said to him, ‘You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I love you’, and the cares of the world that had laid heavily upon his shoulders, melted away.

‘You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I love you’. Might Mary also have spoken thus?

True love, the love that is born before the beginning of time, is a gift that can only ever give itself away and the more we try our best to capture it, to hold onto it tightly, the more it evades our grasp. During her lifetime, Mother Teresa used to face criticism for her work among the dying poor from people who said she should have done more to combat the reasons why people end up in such abject poverty in the first place. Her response to such criticism was simple: we choose to offer those who are dying some final days and weeks of dignity and love, to remind them that they too are children of God. The gift of love that we offer is a fleeting gift as is the gift of life.

Every year, members of our church go out into Pacific Beach on the Thursday night before Christmas Eve to sing carols in the bars. Despite the fact that all we bring with us to give away are some candy canes and a carol or two, not everyone wants to welcome us in. Some are burned out on religion – ‘I don’t need to hear that kind of %$12058887444_6548931756_h#& man’; others don’t want to scare away the customers – ‘Have you tried Mission Boulevard?’; others just don’t have room in the inn – ‘You need to make an appointment’. Others are more welcoming: some find it quaint, others ask if we take requests and then film us on their cell phones, and others still sing along loudly, arms swaying in the air. Yet, there are others still, for whom someone else is present with us, whose love had once touched their lives, like the 30-something woman who lingered, asking for ‘just one more’ carol, who stared and stared at us as we sang; or like the homeless man sprawled out on Garnet, like a soul washed up by the last tide.

Do they remember the last time they heard the words, ‘I love you’? Do you? The story of a babe in a manger, God and child, almighty king and vulnerable newborn, is not a sentimental tale that wishes the world were more kind and caring. God’s good news to us in Jesus is not a hallmark card gospel, it is the story of love that takes loss and pain seriously. It is light in the darkness. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.’

So what about you? Are you with Mary? Are you with the mother of the dying AIDS patient, willing to let go of the most beautiful thing in the world? Are you with Teresa of Kolkata, who believed that no one is beyond the redeeming power of love’s last light? Are you with the carolers on the sidewalks and alleyways of this city’s streets, willing to say to those whose path is darkened, ‘I love you’?

In other words, my brothers and sisters, when all of the songs have been sung, and the presents opened; all the mulled wine drunk and Christmas cheer spread to those near and dear, will you remember the young mother, Mary, who was willing to give herself away to a love that one day she would lose? Will you love with such a love? For only one love is needed to let the light of Christ shine in the darkness; yours.

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Light in the Darkness

Starbucks-JesusThere are times when I don’t know why I come here to try to write, to Starbucks that is. It’s noisy out here in in this slightly grimy outdoor seating area on Mission and Garnet. I feel a little like St. Francis, with a dozen or so starlings perched on the chairs next to me, looking for some crumbs. I don’t have any, just a strong coffee, a laptop, and the hope that a coherent thought will come to me soon.

So, why do I come here – this place of 70 something men in lycra shorts and expensive bikes, this place of homeless twenty-somethings who eye me with some suspicion, this place of men making deals on their cell phones, women making their way yoga mats in hand? Why here to look for a good word to share? I come here because here is a crossroads. Here I can see the world pass by. People here are busy and they are bored; they have no time to spare and they have a whole day to kill; they are filled with purpose and they have lost all memory of what a purpose-filled life could feel like.

Isn’t the gospel, good news for the world, something that a person should be able to smell, to touch, to taste, to feel, as well as to hear? Isn’t it Saint-John-the-Baptist-websomething that the whole of a person should be able to experience all over their being? I imagine that that is how John the Baptizer might have felt all over his being, camel hair scratching his skin, wild creatures his food, wild thoughts his companions: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’. Did he say that just once, or did he say it again and again, turning it over and over in his mouth, so that when the time came and he saw his Savior face to face, he could know that he was ready?

There is a man who lives on the street near here known as ‘Chuckles’. He has been given the name by other fellow street dwellers mostly because roaming the allies as he does day in day out, he can be seen talking to himself, over and over, and then every so often chuckling over something he has said. Roald Dahl’s character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka, says that talking to oneself is the only sure guarantee of intelligent conversation. I don’t know what Chuckles would say about that, and who could ever know what John the Baptist would think of such a thing, but my guess is that the wilderness is a pretty lonely place. Like vacant alleyways where the only people who you see do not want to see you back, the wilderness is not a path to make straight if you are faint of heart. If seeing is believing, then it is fair to say that the wilderness dwellers of this world have a long time waiting to believe.

What is it like, do you suppose, to walk the wildernesses of Syria today? For Syrian ChristianYezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains are rescueds, what thought must there be of Isaiah’s prophetic hope that the oppressed will be freed, and the captives released? What is it like, do you suppose, to walk such a wilderness way as a black person in Ferguson, Missouri, or as a gay person in Uganda, or as a political dissident in Mexico or China or for the millions on countless other wilderness ways? If our good news, our hope in the wilderness, is not real there, if that news is not good there, then can we be sure it is good at all, unless of course our good news is only good for the fortunate, for the affluent, for the few not the many?

I look up from my keyboard. A dog of the homeless twenty-something couple is chewing a bone. A bird perches on the table next to my coffee cup. She turns her head one way and then the other. And then the man who often comes into the church office to use the phone, and who is always wearing a Chargers jersey, wanders slowly by, almost mournfully. We exchange a look and a nod, and I am reminded that John the Baptist was not Elijah – not the one whom the Levites and priests hoped would come to settle their disputes and sort out the clean from the unclean, and put this world in order before the messiah might come – he was a wild wilderness man who testified to another kind of light. And the light, the one John proclaimed the coming of was not a king as such, but the child of an impoverished young couple who also pounded the pavements in search of a place to stay. And so, I recall, once again, why I am here, at Starbucks: because hope can be found in the wilderness, we just have to be patient enough to notice its form.

To sit in the not so pleasant outdoor seating at the Starbucks at a busy Pacific Beach crossroads, wearing a priest’s collar just a few blocks from our church is not only a reminder that the world around us provides a good word to be shared; it is also to remind that world as it passes by, whether by informing the hungry that we have a breakfast and a dinner here every week or simply by sitting here typing, that the Church has a good word to say in return.

2014_7_Wilderness_ph1FIXThere is hope in the wilderness, just as there is hope in the green valleys of our abundance. And such a hope is like a year of the Lord’s favor, a jubilee, where like a second exodus, the bonds of oppression are broken, and the devastation of many generations, as Isaiah puts it, will be repaired. Yet this hope does not change with the same speed that we have become accustomed to through our daily and weekly processions in and out of department stores who no sooner have urged us to decorate our hearth and home like turkeys, then urge us to make the way straight for Santa and Spongebob, and then before we can blink, it is the turn of St Valentine, and then St Patrick, and then the red, white and blue of Presidents and Memorial Days and Fourth of July parades and before we know it the beaches are crowded, the churches are empty and Chuckles still wanders the alley looking for hope in the wilderness. Yet hope is here. Our light, Jesus, is coming; he has come. It is just that real hope – that which we might really set our life upon – is a gentle spirit. He came to his own, yet his own did not recognize him.

I wonder, where is your Starbucks?

Two Presidents, One Vision

Iconic-ArchitectureA couple of weeks back I was fortunate enough to be present as two presidents addressed the several thousand Bible and religion scholars who had gathered in San Diego for the annual Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion conference. It sounds riveting, I know. Having spoken at the same convention at about the same time of day – albeit to a much smaller crowd (think single figures) – the prospect of a presidential address given by a biblical scholar may not have been every convention attendees idea of a good night out on a Friday right around dinner time in sunny San Diego.

2175042537_67410a94fd_zAll the same, my wife and I dutifully went along leaving behind three delighted children and a babysitter and a movie, and gathered in the subarctic conditions of the convention center’s air-conditioned great ballroom. The president we came to listen to that night was Fernando Segovia, who was a remarkable choice as President of the Society of Biblical Literature for two reasons. Firstly, he is the first since SBL’s founding in 1880 to be from the global south. Secondly, Segovia’s scholarship speaks to the guild from a vantage point that still sits somewhat at the margins of biblical scholarship. As one of the foremost proponents of a postcolonial approach to biblical interpretation, the ways of reading texts and contexts that Segovia brings to the fore concern issues that are prevalent in much of the global south: endemic poverty, structural violence against women and disempowered groupings and individuals, and widespread and deep-seated corruption at almost every level of society.

201210-w-college-libraries-george-peabody-libraryYou might be thinking that this was some date night for my wife and I, yet, in truth, as Fernando Segovia addressed the several thousand individuals who had gathered there something more entered the room. Segovia’s vision was that the work that might be done back in the libraries and seminar rooms of the universities and seminaries that were represented there that night might come, at last, to take the world seriously as a context biblical studies might speak to and from. Mass poverty; profound shifts in our understanding of identity around matters of ethnicity, nation and religion; a global climate crisis; struggles for political freedoms and representation – all were presented as pressing issues that the cloistered world of academic pursuits must address. We left the convention hall enlivened and inspired by a man who had said that learning matters, not only for its own sake but for the sake of the world we share with one another.

Perhaps in your own working life none of this is new. Perhaps your life is so inextricably linked to the welfare of the world around you that you do not need any inspiration. My suspicion is, though, that most of live out an existence that is disconnected from the welfare of others. For, in spite of the fact that the low-cost of the items at our local grocery is directly dependent on the poor wages and working conditions of the laborers who pick the fruit and harvest the vegetables we buy, most of us do not make the conscious effort to shop as if the welfare of others actually mattered. Similar disconnects could be pointed out across life as it is spent in a global village. Moreover, many of us are conditioned to believe that the vast inequities of this world are so much beyond our contending with that there is simply nothing we can do about it other than try to go about living a quiet and peaceable life as best we can. It took a second presidential address to name that myth for the deception it truly is.

Jimmy-Carter-SBCAt the heart of the edifice of the attempt to fashion a global free market economy is the argument that states that if everyone were just left to their own devices, without the interference of government or stifling regulation, then the sheer tenacity of the human spirit would be enough to lift millions out of poverty. Therefore, the best thing a decent person in the global north can do is get out of the way, and when retirement comes, keep the peace and play lots of golf. President Jimmy Carter is the antidote to such a blatant fiction. It has been 33 years since he left the White House and the presidency, yet at the spry age of 90 he still travels extensively, seeking to incite and invigorate debate and action that might make a tangible difference in the world. His latest book focuses on women and their plight for justice and well-being in today’s world. Through the work of the Carter Center, millions of lives have been affected for the good through combating various diseases or by working with divided communities on conflict resolution.

Make-it-countYet, it is not the achievements of the Carter Center that stand out most prominently for me. It is simply the witness of one human being, who decided at some point in his life that being President of the United States was not enough of a contribution to the world he lives in and that the enduring vocation of being human is to give for the betterment of others as long as breath still moves in the body. Who would have thought that a convention of Bible and religion scholars would have offered such an inspiration? I only hope that at 90 years of age, I will be able to look back and say with anything near the same satisfaction that I have made my one life on this earth count. What about yours?