All posts by simonmainwaringpb

40,000 Questions

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I read an article recently that described the work of one of my old college professors, Paul Harris, a developmental psychologist who now works at Harvard’s education school. The work in question is about questions. Contrary to much received wisdom about how young children learn about the world they live in, which asserts that they do so by testing out their environment via a behavioral succession of trial and error, Harris contends that key to child development is an extraordinary volume of question-aksing. A 2007 study by psychologist Michele Chouinard found that children between the ages of two and five ask one to three questions per minute, equivalent to 40,000 questions over the span of those first crucial years of cognitive life.

This past academic year, I have been passing on the gift of teaching, first offered to me by Professor Harris 20 or so years ago, to my own college students as an adjunct professor at my local university. I fully admit that for students who have been brought up on a pedagogical diet of information delivery and recovery, my teaching style may well have been something of a pain. Full-time educators like to call it the Socratic method, which is just another way of saying that as the teacher, you ask a lot of questions.

miles-cole-illustration-260215I doubt that we got anywhere near 40,000, but I would hope that my students will have at the least got the impression about Theology this year that there are many, many more questions than there are easily articulated answers. If that is even partially true as a teaching outcome, then I will have succeeded. For it strikes me that our culture is so entrenched at present with easily articulated, or at times barely articulated answers, that the pedagogy of our public discourse almost wants to rule out questions before they are even enunciated.

The current daily dose of evening news Washington politics has that particular strain running right through the middle of it. Yet it is not just political life that suffers from an aversion to interlocution. For many of the students who ended up in my classroom this semester on a Thursday evening, the education system that had prepared them for college has increasingly preferred to view the cultivated mind as the one that can absorb what others think rather than one that can think for itself.

kid-answers.jpgYet, it is not enough for us to be people who will be inclined to ask questions; of ourselves or of others. Incisive intellectual discovery requires us to ask the right questions. Duncan Watts, who works for Microsoft Research, and is author of the book, ‘Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer’, argues that a ‘good’ question is both ‘interesting’ and ‘answerable.’ As a theologian, who does not work for Microsoft, I would contend with Watts’ here, and ask whether the most productive questions for theological inquiry are actually those that capture our interest because they evade being ‘answerable’, at least at first.

All of this has given me cause to reflect on the life of church community these past few weeks. In the life of our wider church, which as Episcopalians we call a ‘diocese’, I am leading a group that is charged with shepherding the process to find a new bishop to lead our church community. It seems to me that the success of that work will depend greatly on our ability to ask the right questions of ourselves and of God. The same can be said for our individual lives as they are played out in the company of others. The Church over time has called such a posture, discernment – the art of leaning into the Spirit of God, listening for the ways by which the divine life is moving within our own. Done well, it has the capacity to enrich our lives by raising up questions we hadn’t even realized we needed to ask.

mazeDuring one of my students’ presentations a few weeks back, one of them made the case for Christ’s presence in the sacraments as akin to the work of a supervisor. He stated that given that Jesus had begun certain practices in the life of the Church, Jesus wished to remain present within them in order to make sure we are keeping good on the promise, that we are remaining faithful to the vision of life together he had first intended. I told the young man making his presentation that ‘Christ as Supervisor’ was an image of God that would ring true for many in today’s workplace culture, although I am not sure always in a good way. That said, it is an intriguing way in to think about the divine life among our own: that ‘Christ the questioner’ might be present among us, asking of us if we as the Church have remained true to our calling.

Wherever you are on your journey, I pray that you can keep on asking the questions.

Be Not Afraid

madre_antonia_brennerPicture this scene*. It’s the Day of the Dead. On the outside, across the city of Tijuana, Baja California, the sounds of the fiesta, of music and laughter can be heard. People are enjoying the finest of food and the best of company, and they are remembering all those who have come before them whom they love yet see no more. On the inside, of La Mesa state penitentiary, there are others who are not seen, yet loved, lost in a dark place, yet not altogether bereft of the light. Sixteen men are barricaded in on the third floor. The power has been cut-off, and the only light is cast by the flames rising from the cell windows. They are up there, in that state, because something in them had snapped. Deprived of water and food, brutalized day after day, these men had decided to take matters into their own hands, and take over part of the prison.

Outside, a SWAT team has assembled, along with television cameras and the mothers and wives and girlfriends of the inmates are with them, crying out for their beloved not to be killed. The prison warden is not letting anyone in, nor anyone out, except one. She is dressed in a white habit, and stands there fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked, asking to speak to the person in charge. Nobody liked to say ‘no’ to Madre Antonia. She comes and goes freely into the prison because it is, in fact, her home. She had come to La Mesa in her fifties, leaving a life in Beverly Hills, to come and live in poverty alongside the forgotten men of Tijuana’s prison system and so became the closest thing any of them saw of love in their years of incarceration. She asks to be allowed in, to be with ‘mis hijos’, my sons.

do-not-be-afraidShe enters and walks into the darkness, stopping to pray with some of the men in the chapel, and then feels her way up to the third floor and to the heart of the riot. In a soft yet clear voice, she says to the leader, ‘you have to stop now. I know you have been suffering so much, but there is another way’. They throw their weapons out of the windows and go with Madre Antonia to sit with the warden and talk it all through; and so it was that night that an angel dressed in white spoke a word from God into the darkness of night: ‘do not be afraid’.

Fear can be a powerful force in our lives. I am afraid of ‘large’ spiders, which in my case is anything bigger than my thumb. Perhaps it is God’s sense of irony that whenever there is a spider in our house I am the one who is called to assist in its capture and release into the wilds of Pacific Beach. I am sure that for most people, catching a spider takes all of a few seconds of effort, whereas for me, a large part of the evening will be dedicated to devising a failsafe scheme that ensures that said spider does not come within three feet of my skin. I sometimes wonder if my children plant spiders in their bedrooms just for the entertainment value of watching me trying to extract them. And of course, my wife knows exactly how to rile me when I am planning my own version of the D-Day landing for an arachnophobic. “Shall I just do it myself?” she asks casually. “Of course not”, I almost always protest, as if she has just suggested that I am no longer capable of tying my own shoelaces. “I’m just thinking”.

fear-06Many of our fears are visible and reasonable: like the fear of falling off tall buildings, or the fear of wild animals, or of large waves, or of the credit card bill after a particularly heavy month of shopping. Yet it is not the fear which is clear and obvious that we should be most concerned about, because much like my spider kept at more than arm’s length, if we can see it, we can avoid it. The fear we should be mindful of is the sort that does its work on us more quietly and unnoticed. It is such unseen fears that we have to be prepared to deal with.

About fifteen years ago I got a good lesson in dealing with fear from Wayne, a man in prison whom I visited every month or so at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution, in Norfolk. It is fair to say that there were times when I felt more than a little out of my depth. How do you find a common language for two such different experiences of life? There he was, brought up the hard way on the rough side of town, surrounded by drugs and gang life; and there I was, from a quiet English shire town, studying at a privileged university and whose only real cares in life were papers, grades, and where to take my to-be wife on our next date. Yet there we sat, the English cleric and the Boston gang member.

Torn paper with truth word behind it, black and white photoI never heard Wayne’s confession; never knew why he was serving time. What I did learn from Wayne though, was how potent a force fear can be if you let it into your heart – not the fear of others, but the fear that tells you that this is all that your life will ever amount to. For Wayne, there were two freedoms he had chosen to walk toward. One was the freedom that lay at the end of his prison sentence. The other was to be set free on the inside, which for him arrived in the form of poetry. Wayne wrote poetry of a poignancy and potency I had never heard; words etched on a page written from a heart that knew that if it was ever to be free, it would have to dream that hope could be found beyond the horizon of his present fears and failings.

This holy week’s remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ is an opening for us to name our own fears. It is a time for us to approach God with honesty, laying down those gods which we have clutched too close out of fear that the God who is beyond our grasping might not actually be available. This is a week for honesty and hope. You and I will never be able to receive the gift of life and the abundance that God calls us to unless we will be willing to name our truth. We fail and we have fears. Some are clear and plain to us, and for other fears and failings we need a community to help us see ourselves for who we truly are. May this journey to the cross be a way, for each who wish to travel it, of honesty and hope. ‘Be not afraid’, the angels said to the women who would find Jesus no longer entombed by death. Be not afraid, for you do not walk this way alone.

___________________

* The scene as described owes much to the wonderful book by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Life of Service in a Mexican Jail

Cracks in a Borderland

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in‘.

– Leonard Cohen

img_3766-copy.jpgI don’t know if Leonard Cohen ever made it to San Diego, but I wonder what he would have made of a scene I often like to cycle to on days-off. The particular spot is a bench on Mission Bay. From it it is possible to see in sharp relief two disparate worlds at once. To the Southwest is downtown San Diego, the heart of a city that so many  people love to visit or to live in. It has a great climate, beautiful scenery, a laid back attitude to living, and if you have the means, a good life can be enjoyed here in the endless summer. Yet in the background of that American dream of a place, from my bench I can see another world, obscured by topography and showing little more than the hills in the distance, yet it is there, the city of Tijuana, Mexico, across the other side of the borderland we live in.

BorderWallMcAllen-640x424Some people would like to build a wall here. We already have a fence. You can see it at the retail outlets in Chula Vista. Between Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren the fence is close enough to make out the make of cars and the writing on billboards on the other side. Some exchanges are meant to keep us at a distance from one another, and others are intended for a closer encounter. This Saturday will see the latter as folks from my church – my church on both sides of the border in the dioceses of San Diego and Western Mexico – meet at the fence for a service of Holy Communion, passing sacred elements between the bars, like holy contraband at a prison visitation.

2016_bordermass-9902_small_1We live in an open-sourced world yet in many ways also in profoundly closed-off societies. In Holland and France, Australia and Switzerland, Britain and the US, there is something of an opposite and equal reaction occurring to the seismic shifts of postmodernity. From a globalized market to the apparent end states of civic institutions, the digital age has thrown us into an intimacy not entirely of our own making and we are reacting like a patient weaned from their opioid too soon. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating the end of history and its triumph of liberal democratic values and multiculturalism. It is astounding to see how rapidly we have descended into a grim dystopian vision of nationalistic identity which leverages an economy of fear and misplaced anger. We hear that the reign of the ‘elites’ must come to an end, a blanket judgment cast upon intellectuals to politicians to anyone, frankly, who might claim any authorial voice other than the one purchased by wealth and outrage.

Playing along borderIn such a torrid cultural landscape, it might be assumed that a borderland like San Diego-Tijuana would bear the marks of the apparent erosion of American values and the prospect of economic advancement for its citizens. Surely here the all-too porous lines of demarcation need shoring up. Get the bad ones out; keep the good ones in, is the mantra we hear. Yet as I sit on my bench and look out at the intersection of these two American worlds, what strikes me most is how little our life on this northern side of the line is influenced by the other world that lies to the south.

wpid-wp-1398956550902.jpgHomi Bhabha, postcolonial theorist and all-round difficult read, says that the third space between the two sides of a cultural encounter is a space of difference, where the identity of each is split between its appearance and its repetition. Each one mimics the other, and each incrementally alters the other as the encounter leaves a resistant trace of hybridity, where nothing after is quite the same as it was before. True enough, there is a considerable flow of economic goods and services across the Mexican border in this part of the world, and the cultural mores and cuisines can be seen and ingested, yet we in this border town are hardly changed at all, even incrementally, by the profoundly other existence of our fellow human beings to the south. For the truth is that such change requires the bridging not the walling-off of cultures.

wooden-bridge-451620_960_720Bhabha argues that bridges are for gathering as much as they are for crossing. The sharing of the broken body and outpoured blood of Jesus through the cracks in the borderline offer a hint of such a beginning. For when flesh touches flesh, when eye meets eye, when sorrow and silence is shared, we have a chance at communion, a communion no wall can render asunder. The great challenge facing the will of those who wish to wall off this open wound of a border is that once communion has been felt and lived and loved, it is a belonging not easily forgotten. So, go to the fence, and to the walls, and to the places where the cracks in our misunderstanding start to show, and look for light. There is no perfect offering. Just us. Now. One body, in the Body who made us all.

Over the Line

ashes-to-go-2016-3.jpgI wonder if you might picture a scene. A priest and with him a lay minister of the church, some ashes in hand, and the world at our feet. Behind us is the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Iridescent beauty as far as the eye can see, and not a bad backdrop for a piece of subversive theology. To our left is a man propped up against the concrete barrier that separates the boardwalk from the beach, with a sign that reads, ‘Homeless Vet: Any help, helps’. And to our right is the seemingly endless flow of traffic, of joggers and cyclists, men in business suits, and boys and girls dressed for a day at the beach. We are, unquestionably, out in the open, exposed, identifiably ecclesiastical in a decidedly post-religious corner of the world.

‘Ashes on the Boardwalk’ is what we advertise it as. Passers-by sidestep toward us to be marked as Christ’s beloved, and as they and I recall our common mortality, the world of the church and the world of the world meet on the edge of America. Yet that hour or so in the sun, whilst attracting stares, and some short-lived fame on complete strangers’ youtube channels, also offers us as the Church the opportunity to ask an all important question: ‘Is there anything you would like me to pray for?’

I ask it of each person as they come up to receive ashes. It is a moment of vulnerability, to be sure, to share with someone you don’t know the longings and pains you carry, yet I can see in the eyes and hear in the sighs of many of them that the question needed asking. ‘Please pray for healing for my sister’. ‘Pray for me to find my purpose’. ‘Pray for peace, I need peace’. The question of prayer and the requests then made bring what is a ritual encounter to another level, the level where the Church is most needed: to the encounter of the heart.

3298259294_51abf94d5f_bThe truth about Christianity is that ours is a faith intended to be lived in the heart and out in the open, in the places and spaces where we will encounter others. Faith belongs, as does the Church, at the threshold of things, in the liminal borderlands of the world where people’s hurts and hopes will be met by those followers of Jesus who will encounter them where they are at, right where they need to be met. Yet for followers of Jesus, it is not merely for a day that one might brave the public life and take one’s faith out for a run. The Christian life is an ongoing vocation to see and be seen by others.

However, if we are to encounter people at the heart of things, in the places in their lives where they need to be met, we will first need to be formed into a change of heart ourselves. Our healing is a prelude to any healing we might offer to others. Our calling to follow Christ requires us to repent, to turn back on the road so that we might face the direction in which Jesus beckons us to follow him, on a road to healing and self-awareness that will not merely do us good, but form us to do good in the lives of others, not of our own power but in becoming in that encounter those thin spaces where God happens within and between us.

33112068482_2f638f8c1e_o.jpgIn the end, grace always seeks to draw us out, and to cross the lines of demarcation that we draw between ourselves and others. May this be a season in the life we share as a nation that encourages fellow travelers to cross over such lines and meet one another just as they need to be met. In doing so, may they find that, as the needs of those around them are heard, and met, light arises in the darkness.

Alternative Power

dreaming-spires-photoI believe that the first time that I took my political ideas to the streets was about 20 years ago. I was in college, with, in truth, very little to complain about as far as my own life was going. I was a student at a university that was opening up my world. My school fees were paid by the government and each term I received a check from the Department of Education to help me with room and board. Aside from the weather, which I remember often as grey, life at university was pretty idyllic.

Yet, as idyllic as it was, the world still pressed in against the windows of the vaulted ceiling libraries and old English pubs, and it gradually dawned on me that a political life in the world no longer needed to be a practice I observed in others; I could also take part in it myself. I was buoyed by visits to the Oxford Labour Club by then, junior shadow minister Tony Blair and his vision for a more just Britain. A few months later, I had the chance to shake hands with Desmond Tutu and heard his account of the profound struggle for freedom the black population of South Africa endured under apartheid. Something in me was stirring.

Earlier in the year I had slept with others overnight in the main shopping area in protest at the high incidence of homelessness in the city, and so having had a taste for at least a modicum of activism, when the opportunity came to join a group heading off to a march in London, I took it. I can remember piling onto a bus in the early morning in Oxford, and marching along a few streets until we made it into one of the Royal parks for a concert. There were no counter-protests. No scuffles or any sort of animosity I could see at all. It was all very British, and orderly and at the end of the day we headed back home to the dreaming spires of Oxford and to our essays and cloistered college quads.

20-Iraq-March-Getty.jpgSome five years or so later in seminary, I had stepped from being a participant to becoming just a little bit more of an organizer, trying to stir the hearts of my fellow seminarians to join me at a peace rally, again organized in London. My theological studies were opening up new literary worlds and I can remember being particularly taken by the beautiful imagery of Amos, as he describes ‘justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’. I wanted my practice to mesh with my theology.

Why do we march? Why do we get on the move with others, taking over streets and singing songs with complete strangers? We do so because we feel something stirring in us, a call to action, and a desire to move beyond the complacency of passivity and indifference. In short, we feel that we have to do something.

Indifference to the plight of others is one of the easiest of the sins of omission. The New Testament letter of James puts it simply, like this: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” That for one, makes sinners out of us all.  Since I got married and moved from student life to professional work, the apparent reasons for inaction seemed to have multiplied: not enough time, or energy, or both; too many conflicting commitments; the packed schedule, the full inbox, the pull of expectations tugging in opposite directions, and before I had noticed, the taking of my political ideas to the streets became something that I used to do, when I was closer to twenty than I am to fifty. Yet God is faithful. As the second letter of Timothy says: ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’ He cannot disown himself, the God abiding in me and you, calling us to seek out that kingdom born of Jesus, yet promised to us all. He cannot disown himself and we cannot disown each other.

Indifference-5321269_XL.jpg

The first stirrings of dissatisfaction with my political inactivity appeared in my heart when a neighbor of ours attended a meeting of the governing body of our church wanting to make plain that he took exception to how we were ‘welcoming the homeless’ into his neighborhood. It was when he referred to people living on the streets as rats that something turned within me. Since that meeting, we have held two memorial services for a homeless man and woman, and listened each time to the gifts of beauty and grace that each of those lives offered to the world, and I knew as we gave thanks for their lives that thanks was not enough.

And so we organized, and a little under eighteen months ago, we founded the Pacific Beach Homelessness Coalition, raising awareness and building bridges and breaking stereotypes one encounter at a time. Our church building has hosted a tiny house of prayer to help focus our minds and hearts on the needs of those around us, and the coalition has held  a ‘Tiny House Expo’ – building houses and relationships at the same time.

img_5997This long road brings me to the Women’s March on Washington, the standing in a bone-crunching crowded San Diego downtown street, unable to reach the rest of the contingent from our church, and doing all I could to keep my kids of getting knocked over through the hour and more speeches and rallying cries. Once more, after quite a hiatus, I was back on the streets on the march with others. I was there because while women are still underpaid and passed over more often for promotions at work than their male counterparts, while they still fall victim to more sexual assault and are objectified by billionaires and bigots alike, indeed while they are not yet treated with the full dignity that God bestows on all of us, man, woman and child, there is a compulsion to be there. Yet this time there was something more. As we stood there, literally rubbing shoulders with strangers, one of the women turned to me as said, “I want you to know why I am marching today.” She pointed at my daughter, “it’s for her. I’m marching for her”, and as she said it, I realized, so was I.

people-powerAt the same time, I was also there for something more than just her. Of course. We all were. And it was happening as we marched, an alternative picture of power replicated across cities in America and the world, from its epicenter in Washington to London to  Paris to Sydney. Place by place, person by person, power was being renegotiated not in the corridors of power in Washington but on the streets of power’s lived articulation, where women and men and children make life together. Were there more people on those streets than had been there the day before at the President’s inauguration? Who can say? Those are alternative facts to the concerns of the people on those streets who brought their children to walk with them; alternative to the irrepressibility of the imagination wherein another power is birthing.

 

Dispossessed

immagine1In Dwight Zscheile’s edited collection, Cultivating Sent Communities: Missional Spiritual Formation, theologian Christian Scharen argues for the Church to adopt practices of ‘dispossession’ as it seeks to express its missional identity in contemporary society. Citing Donald MacKinnon who speaks of the need for Christians ‘to live an exposed life’ as integral to their ‘sent-ness’, dispossession implies a certain exposure to sight, a movement toward visibility for a church that for centuries has been accustomed to being seen on arrival as it were, as people crossed the threshold from street to sanctuary. Such a movement toward exposure, argues Scharen, is possible if grounded in the movement eternally present in the Trinity. Here he draws on Rowan Williams’ reflections on mission seen as ‘a matter of dispossession’ wherein the Church is sent, as the Son is sent of the Father, as life outpoured for the world, willingly dispossessed through the Spirit as God’s reconciliatory movement for the sake of the world. What Scharen invites us to imagine here is a kenotic, self-emptying common life wherein the identity of the Christian is not secured by our possession of the Church but in our receptivity to the other; in how much space we have made to receive the other through the outpouring of our selves. Such dispossession, thus enables the body of Christ to become a eucharistic people: taken, blessed, broken open, and given for the world.

our-ladies-church-night-prayer-serviceOne of the images that Scharen uses to express what such a Church might look like is from Oslo, Norway, where one community, the Oslo Domkyrka, leaves its doors open not only through many of the weekday hours but through the night Friday to Saturday for what it calls Night Church. During these small hours of the night, the sanctuary becomes an open space where people can wander in and engage in various stations scattered around the building, lighting candles in a giant orb representing the world in one or folding prayers into Jesus’ sculpted open hands in another. The space is open like this from mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday morning. A meditative prayer service is offered during the time and staff are available for conversation. In other parts of Scandinavia, night church happens several times a week, such as at the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen,  Denmark, open every Thursday, Friday and Sunday night.

What might it mean to be a Church that keeps watch with those who seek to pray and rest and search for the divine life in the darkness of night? Dwight Zscheile’s introduction to his edited volume invites an answer to that question in the form of wonder. He encourages the Church to imagine Christian formation – the shaping of the people of God to the pattern of Christ’s life poured out for the world – as practices that cultivate wonder, ‘wonder about the mystery of God’s presence and movement in our lives; wonder about what God might be up to in our neighborhoods and world’. The ‘night church’ offers a glimpse of what it might be like to be people who accompany those who wonder for God on their own terms, dispossessing ourselves of the notions that have shaped what church-going looks like with its protocols and procedures, from the cultural norms of charismatic Spirit-filled praise and worship to the intricacies of high Mass. ‘Night church’ worship, whether held at night or at other times and in other ways calls for clergy and lay leaders to gather the church as a body curated more than presided over as the liturgy, the ‘work of the people’, is co-created among fellow travelers.

panagia-theotokos-orthodoxpost-virgin-mary-orthodox-icon-byzantine-painting-ikona-59-orthodoxAs much as the ‘night church’ offers a fascinating window into the shape of what Christian community might look like as a people dispossessed, the other side of dispossession is that the prime mover of that self-emptying is Christ, one whose possession of us means that we are, with Mary, theotokos, God-bearers for the world. Here we might think of German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann’s vision of the Church as held in tension between two poles. One is of identity, the contrast that the Church offers to the world which in its counter-cultural nature has the capacity to be a catalyst for change in wider society. The other is of relevance, not here a church that people might care about because they believe it matters in their lives, but a church that cares about the world and sees it as relevant to the Church, seeking to confront systemic evil and standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.

If truly lived into, such a twin possession as Christ’s own – grounded in an altogether other value system than the dominant power system of the world – makes Christians susceptible to the same rejection by the values of the world that crucified the vagabond rabbi of Nazareth. When we dispossess ourselves of the world’s monetizing of our presumed value in society and its trappings of status and power, we invite the possibility that our standing in that society will be devalued, counted, as Paul says, as loss. Yet it is only when we can embrace and live into this twin vocation of dispossession – our assumption of control over the sacred on the social landscape and our attempts at social power and value – that we can begin to live into the sent-ness of the Son, and live that ‘exposed life’ that mystically is able to make Christ more visible to others. How though might a community of faith, thoroughly versed in church life as we know it, cultivate such a manner of life together? What practices might bring us to live out such a vision of discipleship in Christ?

Concept Of CommunicationDiana Butler Bass has described an emergence within mainline protestantism of churches that she would characterize as ‘intentional’. Intentional congregations are in her words, ‘highly tuned to spiritual authenticity and communal coherence’ and tend toward higher levels of discomfort with their cultural context. Such congregations locate this spiritual authenticity within their particular appreciation and life within tradition; the dynamic lifeblood of the shared life of faith not valued because it is old to some degree or other but because it acts as a tap root into the incarnated life of Christ himself. This sort of connection with the past is not though an anamnesis that merely recalls events of ancient times, it is rather a re-membering, a joining together with the events of the past to become in union with them as one embodied community. In such a vein, to partake in the Eucharist is somehow also to participate in the last supper of Jesus with this disciples, and to be baptized in Christ is also mystically to be present at Jesus’ own baptism.

Yet how exactly these acts of re-membering the tradition of the Church are done and what exactly they mean for us remains what Dorothy Bass calls the ‘ongoing argument’ of Christian discipleship, thus making the ‘practicing congregation’ a dynamic learning community, fluid in its interpretation yet fixed in its commitment to seek out a deeper communion with the God and his world. The commitment to practice is key, for mission as dispossession requires the repeated attempt to grow deeper into the mystery of God rather than further into the distractions of religion lest the practices themselves merely become another act of possession that stands between the practitioner and that true communion.

new-growthSo, can we be dispossessed? Can we learn to be learners of a Way that will beckon us to give ourselves away to God, shaped by the practices of a kenotic life shared with fellow travelers? Epiphany, the season of God’s manifestation, is a great time to ponder such things. ‘Sing a new church into being’, the hymn says. It goes on: ‘Dare to dream the vision promised, sprung from seed of what has been.’ New life is emerging, fruit born of the ancient seeds of our dispossession and of our hope.

More Rollercoasters Please

deadliest-coaster-622x415This past week, our family headed out to an amusement park along with what felt like half the population of Orange County. We whizzed and whirled, span and splashed in hourly intervals as we otherwise whiled away our time in lines that snaked slowly around loudspeakers playing Frosty the Snowman on an unrelenting loop. And then came the question: who was going to go with the one  daredevil child who wanted to be shot up into the air 250 feet and then dropped to the ground at 50 mph. The ride, if that is the word, is called ‘Supreme Scream’, which is actually a pretty accurate description of what happened in our case. “I’ll go with you”, I said, with unconscionable haste. And so they strapped us in, feet dangling, heart racing, face whitening. We waited, and waited, and shook more than a little. Then with a jolt, we began to rise.

I’m not a great fan of sheer drops. 20 feet off the diving board is enough to put me over the edge, so 250 feet took me out of my comfort zone by more than a little. Finally, we reached the top, sank just slightly, and waited. The waiting is of course only necessary inasmuch as it adds to the terror. I looked at my son; he was loving it. And then, down we shot. I screamed like a baby all the way down. Legs kicking, hands clinging on for dear life, and a mad glee emerging within. When we finally reached the bottom, I had aged at least three years and my stomach was somewhere near my sternum. I looked over at my son again and the look of unalloyed joy on his face said it all. “Let’s go again”, he announced immediately. And so we did. Not on the ‘Supreme Scream’ this time, but the 200 feet high 82 mph ‘Xcelerator’. And so it went.

roller_coaster_track My reasoning, such as it is, for this new found commitment to being strapped in and scared out of my wits is simple. It is a brief yet essential new year’s resolution: draw closer to my children. Parenting to me is the most challenging and joyful and mystifying thing that I know. As I stumbled off rollercoaster after rollercoaster this week, I saw in the joy our children found in sharing that experience with us an affirmation that what any child wants perhaps more than anything from their parents is their solidarity, for them to be alongside them.

confusing-authenticity-with-perfection This desire to be alongside others is a profound human need. Yet to draw near to others requires us to be willing to be seen as we really are. Solidarity does not spare us disappointment or pain as much as we might resolve to fill our lives with joy and fulfillment. And if we are to meet people as we are we have to be prepared to enter into a an authenticity most of us are not accustomed to. Yet in many ways, the vocation of the Christian life is one that calls us to live authentically. Rowan Williams speaks of Christian identity as that which we live into when all of our pretenses, the games we play with one another and with ourselves about who we are, are ended, and we accept the true name God alone calls us by.

We cannot know what sort of rollercoaster ride this year that lies before us will be. I cannot know what sort of parent I will manage to be through it. All we can know is that should we dare to live more deeply with one another, coming alongside one another as God comes alongside us in Christ, then we might have the opportunity to know a life and find richness in the joys and sorrows of others. I plan on riding more rollercoasters. You?

Insurgent Savior

because-jesus-faith-ceramic-mug-root-1kei1018_1470_1This year, if you are truly struggling for something to buy for that relative back east whom you hope not to see more than a couple of times a decade, you could do worse than take a look at hallmark.com. For instance, there is the ‘Because Jesus’ mug. Indubitably, if you wish to confound Great Aunt Mabel, send her one of these and she will never speak to you again because all of her time will be occupied with trying to figure out ‘what’ because Jesus… Of course, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Jesus is best consumed, it would seem, when most open to modification. One could imagine an entire evangelism campaign centered on the ‘Because Jesus’ slogan. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, I will stand on your street corner preaching loudly to the neighbors. ‘Because Jesus’ is happy to be Jesus, I will be happy to play Christian rock on my car stereo at high volume with the windows down at busy intersections. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, we will invade your country until my Jesus is also your Jesus – although I suspect that last one might pre-date the mug by a year or two.

becausejesus1

The ‘Because Jesus’ mug intrigued me when I discovered it because it speaks to how pervasive the customization of Christ has become. For instance, the other day, I went shopping. One of my great shortcomings as a preacher is that I rarely ever shop. It might count as a spiritual discipline – I’m not sure. Either way, unless someone is talking about ‘what happened in CVS this morning’ on NPR, I can feel from time to time that I might be missing something important about life in America. It was reassuring, therefore, to have the opportunity to go shopping this week at my local grocery store. At last I was in the mix with everyone else, navigating meter upon meter of wrapping paper and Christmas tree decorations.

christmas-greeting-cardsI had gone shopping to look for a couple of Christmas cards. The first thing that struck me was how very difficult it was to find a card that was just about the birth of Christ and not also about something else. Card after card read something like this, ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come…May Your Christmas be as Bright as Your Smile’. I couldn’t send that. I’m an Episcopalian, we’re not supposed to encourage smiling. I kept on looking, but in vain. I could feel the color drain out of my face as yet another promising piece of artwork was undermined by the reminder that the real reason for the season isn’t Jesus; it is me. I was everywhere, and there was little I could do to stop it. ‘Treat yourself to something special this Christmas’, it said as I tried to make my escape down the cosmetics aisle. Towering letters hung over me as I made a left down by the wine – ‘Have an extra merry Christmas on us’. It was all I could do to make it back to my office at church and put BBC‘s ‘Lessons and Carols from Kings’ on a repeated loop on YouTube.

img_5887I lived a cocooned life, and I liked it, I guess. Yet, following a period of lying down in a dark room for a while, I realized something: Jesus was cocooned too. The Lord of all creation, lost somewhere between the super sale on candy canes and dashboard bobbing Santa heads. From this dark epiphany, the day only descended. That evening, my family and I went out to see a neighborhood nearby which at this time of year can be seen from space. We knew that we had arrived at the right place because the kids no longer needed to ask if we were there yet. In fact, they could no longer speak at all, such was the mesmerizing bedazzlement of the several million lights that twinkled in the night sky in San Diego suburbia. ‘Why are we here?’ I mumbled faintly to myself, but it was too late, I had been sucked into their sinister game. I too gawped and gaped and guffawed.

IMG_5880.JPGIf you have ever imagined a scene that you would construct outside of your house if neither money nor sanity were an object, then you would have imagined it too late – because it would have already happened here. My family and I had stumbled upon another reality altogether. Frosty was there, and the entire cast of Frozen, many times over, were with him. Santa was a staple, as were his reindeer. Yoda made a surprise appearance. One resident had even stuffed his car full of soft animals and pretended that this counted as a Christmas display by crudely placing a couple of fluorescent stars on his hood. I knew that should this man – for it had to be a man – ever came out of his house, eye contact would have to be avoided at all costs. It was at this moment, somewhere near to a giant Homer Simpson trapped in a giant Manhattan-themed snow globe that I decided that perhaps it wouldn’t be all that bad to give up the priest thing and move into illumination sales. This street alone could pay for my kids to go to college.

IMG_5885.JPGAnd then it happened. The renegade house. Simple. Understated. A crib. A message. A name surround by light. I was saved from what surely would have been a disastrous career as a salesman. Jesus was back; a holy insurgency amidst the festival of festivities. I stood there and admired it for a while. As I did, I imagined that in centuries gone by, perhaps it was so that the great, towering cathedrals of medieval Europe dominated the local landscape so much that it was the Church that made the locals’ heads swing as religion sought to dominate the cultural imagination. Perhaps, then, this is a fitting circle – that we have come back to the backwaters, to the one, anomalous house that had room for a family in flight and great need. The Light of the World born behind the main thoroughfare, in a place fit for animals and their muck. An insurgent God, whose love will not extinguish a dimly burning wick. There it was. Grace upon grace.

Come, Emmanuel.

The Truth Shall Set Us Free

hot-news-illustrationI was listening to a radio piece on NPR this week about the role of fake news in our country. A segment from the Diane Rehm Show was played wherein Scottie Nell Hughes, political editor of RightAlerts.com, claimed the following: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts”. Syntax would also seem to be on the way out, but that is another issue. The first thing that struck me about this statement was that it was, rather ironically, not a fact. It was itself a piece of ‘fake news’. Facts, it turns out, are still with us. For instance, it is a fact, that now in my early 40’s, if I run around a soccer field for 90 minutes trying to keep up with players in their 20’s, I need to lie down in a dark room the following day while my body responds to the shock. No amount of fantasy will change that reality. I am no longer as spritely as I once was.

It turns out, though, that Ms. Hughes wasn’t really talking about facts but belief: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.” For Ms. Hughes, the possession or not of the facts is not the operative thing; it is whether people believe they have facts or not, even if they don’t have any at all. If they believe that a claim about the world we live in can be supported by facts, then that belief in the possibility of facts is as good as having the facts themselves.

5c91cf319caeaf5979c47a452a3b262bThis certainly seemed to be the train of thought that North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch utilized when he fired his assault rifle in the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington last weekend because he believed it lay at the heart of a Democratic Party child sex-trafficking operation. Mr. Welch had apparently been motivated to carry out the attack by false allegations made on multiple social media sites. It is a living study in the power of persuasive falsehood. Mr. Welch seemingly believed that there were facts that supported the theory about the pizzeria being part of a sex-trafficking operation, even if those facts were not actually at his disposable the day he decided to carry out his own ‘investigation’.

Inscription_Theatre_Leptis_Magna_Libya.jpgOf course, people have always been economical with the truth if it has suited them to do so. Adam and Eve didn’t get us off to a good start with that one. However, the current shift away from fidelity to the facts presents a certain crisis for society at large in an age when information is not only so readily available online, it is also disseminated across vast swaths of people via media that is able to influence individual and collective views and actions at a whim. The Roman Empire was good at propaganda. They emblazoned it amidst their civic spaces in the form of great archways and inscriptions making clear to the populations that they had subdued, that life in the Pax Romana was a life worth embracing. Resistance was not only futile, it was suicidal. What the Romans did not have was the ability to tweet or post or ping millions of people in a single communication. They did not operate on the principle of media saturation as a means to enter the minds of possibly otherwise reasonable people capable of discernment. Falsehood erodes our capacity for discerning truth. The more we are immersed in a universe of falsity, the harder it is to discern reality from the construction.

191942Truth matters. Counter to Ms. Hughes’ assertion that we are in a post-factual age, the Church must take up a role that has always resided at the heart of its theological life: the practice of truth-telling. Liturgically, the act of truth-telling takes the form of confession. There can be no reconciliation, no real relationship, no opportunity for mercy to birth authentic forgiveness without that which we have done and that which we have failed to do being laid out in the open. Human beings need the light of truth-telling as fundamentally as they need air and water. Truth does indeed set us free because it provides us with the opportunity to start over again in our lives amidst the complexities of  friendship and love, of common life and individual ambition. Truth enables grace to be felt in our lives as a living and transformational power. Without truth, grace remains only an abstract hope, not a present gift.

truthu-png_1_20150221-394Dorothee Solle once remarked that the phrase, ‘The truth will make us free’, is an invocation to God so that the truth may not be forever buried in lies. We live in a time when the truth is indeed in danger of being buried. For every falsehood that is uttered about the ‘dangers’ of certain immigrant groups living in America, the promise of America   as a nation of all-comers is diminished, until the values that we may have assumed were held in common are no longer visible in our life together; they are buried beneath a facade of fear and exclusion. Solle incites the Church to take up its vocation of truth-telling trusting in a God who does not stand in power over the world, but who is ‘grieved as we are’, ‘small like us’. It is in this ‘small God’ that we must place our hope, for the struggle to proclaim the truth about one another is a struggle that most often begins from the underside of history. The Church will need to sharpen its skills of attentive listening if it is to be a conduit for truth that has the capacity to set us all free. We will have to listen and we will have to speak, over and over, until our hearts beat with the longings of God himself. Truth upon truth, one life at a time.

In Praise of a Politician

_92255475_senatorludlamHe is courageous and honest. He has stood up publicly to speak the truth about something to an entire nation that most of us can’t even tell our friends and family. He has been praised for how his bravery has opened up a country-wide conversation about something that really matters. And to boot, he is a politician. His name is Scott Ludlam, deputy leader of the Green Party and a Senator in the Australian Parliament. Last week he announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from the Senate in order to treat depression and anxiety. How many of us would have that fortitude?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately one in five adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness each year. Nearly 7% of U.S. adults had a major depressive episode last year and 18% experienced some form of anxiety disorder. When you target specific demographics, the prevalence of poor mental health is striking. According to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness. Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition, and 46% of people who are homeless live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

10182645744_00a02d4e11_zYet the prevalence of poor mental health, even among those demographics who suffer disproportionally in our country, needs to be considered alongside the relational impact that being designated as suffering from mental illness can have. In my own work on mental health and the Gospel of Mark (Mark, Mutuality and Mental Health) I learned of the profound impact that stigma can have on a person’s sense of identity and agency. Such relational dynamics have been found to lead to discrimination that takes a number of forms. One study found that more than half of respondents in a U.S. survey said they would be unwilling to spend an evening socialising with, work next to, or have a family member marry a person ‘with mental illness’. People known to have suffered poor mental health can face prejudicial behaviors ranging from denied insurance policy applications to opportunities for employment or career advancement.

14718869408_5e2be622f6_kThe tragedy added to this is that a significant percentage of those who struggle with the psychological and social impact of mental illness face this cocktail of challenges alone, often untreated and kept hidden. Again, according to NAMI, only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Across ethnicities, the picture is worse: African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate of Caucasian Americans in the past year and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate.

All of this – the under-treatment of mental illness, the persistent social stigma, and the disturbingly high incidence rate among certain demographics and at-risk populations – makes Scott Ludlum’s act of speaking truth to societal power with regards to his own struggles a timely reminder that public servants can act for the common good. On this, our Election Day, a politician half a world away offers us a glimmer of what it might look like if our own political leaders lived more fully into their vocation. In The Republic, Plato argues that in order to properly govern one must be a lover of wisdom, balancing intellectual capabilities with the virtues of self-control and discipline. Our politics is meant to offer to the ‘polis’, the city and by extension the nation, the best of us.

hopePerhaps the most generous thing that could be said of this election is that the best of us is yet to come. That is, after all, the great promise of democracy – we get to start over. We need to start again, profoundly so. People of faith, no matter how they vote today, can play a crucial part in that, for we are among those who trust in hope, not as an act of blind optimism but as the strength found in the God who makes all things new, even those parts of our lives that look well-past repair. Tomorrow we have a chance to start over. Let us each play our part and find our own voice of honesty and courage.