Baking, Brexit and the multicultural hope

(Spoiler Alert: If you are a fan of the BBC show ‘The Great British Bake-Off’, please note that the winner of that competition is named below…just in case you haven’t seen it yet.)


I have just come back from a week’s vacation in Britain. Our kids were delighted to see me back, along with my youngest child. I suspect part of that was because they love us, and I know that it was also because I arrived with a suitcase filled with British ‘sweets’. Each bag of ‘Jelly Babies’ and ‘Chocolate Fingers’ is a nostalgia trip all of its own, taking me back to a childhood spent in small town England, where even the weather was about average. It was Thomas Wolfe who said ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, writing of an author who writes a book with frequent and less than flattering references to his home town, much to the chagrin of its residents. One of the points of the novel is that it is hard to live into a life that you no longer can find yourself in. As I wandered along the aisles of the grocery store, picking out packets of unnecessarily high calorific value one at a time to the giddy delight of my five-year old daughter, I did question what it was that I was up to. You can’t eat your way back into the past, although I think there are some of us who have tried.


It turned out that the topic of food and belonging was high on the national agenda the week we were there. The BBC were expecting their highest ratings of the year for the final of the ‘Great British Bake-Off‘. Three newly minted mini-celebrities in their own right were competing to claim the other crown available to subjects of a monarchical system of government – the crown of public hero number one. The British love a common man or woman hero, and the eventual winner of the bake-off was right in that mold, Candice Brown, a physical education teacher in her local public school, a somewhat ironic profession for someone who has now beguiled a nation into eating themselves into the winter and perhaps beyond. She cried when she won and I suspect one or two others did with her. Record viewing figures of people watching three strangers bake on national television.It’s a great and odd story all at the same time.

brexitThe other major story – which seems to be always the other major story on that side of the pond – was Brexit. I think that it is safe to say that the United Kingdom is now officially in the depth of the Brexit-blues. In the space of our singular week there all of the major banks had threatened to leave London’s financial heartland for a more Euro-friendly destination on the continent; Prime Minister, Theresa May, was revealed to have warned Goldman Sachs in a private gathering of directors of the perils of a ‘leave vote’ before the summer referendum only to be all but silent during the then Cameron government’s public push for the remain campaign; and British Universities had seen a 9%-12% drop in EU applicants for their places the coming academic year. Incidents of racist hate speech, intimidation of ethnic minorities, and shameful comments made by one individual that refugee children from the just-closed ‘Jungle’ encampment in Calais were staying ‘three days too long’ in his Kent village while they were being processed for settlement in the UK brought the week’s sorry news cycle to an unsavory end.

It is safe to say that Brexit has laid bare how right Angela Merkel was when she publicly stated a couple of years ago that multiculturalism was a failed experiment. Add to that the rhetoric of our own presidential race, and it can be argued that much of the progress that we had taken for granted had been won in terms of multi-ethnic diversity and integration, women’s rights, and our sense of what it means to belong to a 21st century social democracy is now under question. I can’t help wondering if the fascination with a baking competition also serves as a timely and perhaps needed respite from what must at times seem like an ever-decreasing circle. And for those who have a connection with both sides of the pond, as I do, that our own reality TV winner should now be within a hair’s breadth of the Presidency is a parallel that I still find hard to fathom. Yet here we are, at a place in time when sectarianism is seemingly all the rage, and London’s 2012 Olympic vision of multicultural unity in our diversity seems now like a distant and even far-fetched dream.

sarahg_canadianculturaldiversityAnd so, we might well ask, where now is our hope? Theologians, when faced with such époques of apparent disintegration are less inclined to be nostalgic about a supposed golden age of the past (which makes my recent investment in the British candy industry doubly problematic) and much more interested in articulating what is called an ‘eschatological hope’. Such a hope, whilst with it sights set well beyond in the consummation of history and the reconciliation of all creation to its Creator, is rooted in the daily struggle of here and now and it does so not with a sense of defeat about the present moment but with deeply founded hope. Christians are called to be eschatological people, human beings who can see the already but not yet fulfilled kingdom of God in their midst. It is because of this that people of such a faith are able to see the bridges that join us one to another even in seasons of deep division and mistrust. They are able to see such bridges not because they trust in humanity’s capacity for goodness as much as they have set their lives upon the subversive power of a God whose love is so vulnerable and self-donating that it is able to withstand even the most over-cooked ego. Christians have this hope because in the end God’s grace is always more than our pride and privileging of the self over others.

And so, I wonder whether this might be a time for people of faith to call the people around them to a holy curiosity for one another, the kind that I suppose does turn a nation’s gaze to a PE teacher’s baking talents and weeps with those who weep for joy, sharing somehow in that moment of simple human connection. German theologian Paul Tillich called the divine the ‘Ground of All Being’, which to oversimply it is to say that you and I all get to share a space for existence that transcends any attempts we may muster to set us apart from one another. Multiculturalism does not need to write its obituary in the back pages of Brexit’s socio-political fall-out any more than the American dream of a great melting pot of humanity should concede defeat in our own season of political discord and polarization. If a baking competition has the power to remind people that they can still share life with one another, albeit via their television screens, perhaps you and I are capable of sharing life too.


God and Politics


A story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not become fire?

What if our vocation were to become fire, casting light on dark places? What if our calling in this world were to be as people through whom the brightness of heaven could be seen? What if we saw light and beauty as God sees it?

Perhaps these are not the normal questions you ask yourself when you brush your teeth in the morning, and it is unlikely that your fingers have turned to flame recently, but the truth about our sojourn on earth is that you and I walk in the presence of living miracles, six billion holy flames criss-crossing the planet every day. Some are risking their very lives as I write this, desperate to stay afloat across the Mediterranean in the hope of a future beyond the bombed out streets of Syria. Others are gambling working women and men’s futures on one rogue Wall Street trade. There are those who will save a life tonight and there are those who will take one.

deepr_human_dignityHuman dignity is the foundational premise of civilization. It is also fundamentally a theological truth. We are infinitely beautiful, fashioned in the image of a love-giving maker. As a Christian, I have to commit to the embodied difference of the other, to the irreducible right of that other to be valued and honored and seen as God’s own. The calling of Christians, indeed the calling of everyone, is to see each human life as God sees it: as infinitely valuable.

It is because of this Christian conviction of the inviolable value of others that I believe churches should find their voice in this most critical time in our national life. Churches should be free from electioneering because people should respected to think freely about their vote. Yet churches should also be free to take their place in the public square. The rhetoric of the last many weeks of campaigning has uncovered the fissures that pervade our life as a nation, fissures that are characterized and deepened by an increasing permission people feel to be able to speak of one another in ways that do no justice to their humanity. We have heard  entire ethnic groups and nationalities caricatured, people with disabilities mocked , women belittled and degraded, people’s body image maligned. Our vocation is to honor one another, and the churches’ vocation is to remind society of that calling, a calling that transcends political and religious affiliations. It is not possible for our political life to engage in such a mutually diminishing season of campaigning and still remain as it was before we began. Ugly and hurtful rhetoric impacts us all. We have all been lessened by these months of public conversation.


And so I appeal to the churches, to Christians, to any person of faith, ‘Why not become fire?’ Why not realize our vocation to cast light on dark places? Let us stand up as people of faith and call out with passion and power the denigration of human dignity when we see it around us. The desert fathers and mothers went to the wilderness in order to draw themselves and those who encountered them closer to the holiness of God. Perhaps we, as their legacy in Christian community, might do well to ponder where our wilderness places should be after this election, as we seek to heal and once more see our fellow human beings as a source of wonder and joy. Mahatma Gandhi once said when asked what he thought of western democracy that it was a ‘great idea’. It was a potent statement of subversion and hope. America is still a great idea; an idea worth fighting for.

A Blazing Fire

tumblr_static_deep-blue-ocean1About 170 years ago, Kierkegaard famously said that faith in God should feel like we are being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of water – the waves of the deep crashing onto the rocks below, the wind howling, nothing to hold onto but the trust that God is actually a reality. Since I learned of Kierkegaard’s love of the terrible awe of God, I have often felt that it was a shame that he never had the chance to meet my grandmother, because the two of them would have got on very well. By and large, I was afraid of my grandmother. I never heard her shout. She never once raised a hand against me. In fact, it didn’t take me too many years of life to stand as tall as she did with her diminutive frame. Yet my grandmother could fill me with dread.

When I was a child, my grandmother’s house on the coast of south east England was something of a wonder in my life. It was four storeys high, plus a cellar I never did dare to descend into. The reason for that was partly because I was convinced, as the 25th or so of her grandchildren, that the cellar was where she kept the remains of my various cousins who had dared to disobey her over the years. It was also because in my grandmother’s house, a number of the 30 or so rooms were out of bounds for little boys. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse into one of them and steal a vision of fine furniture, or a grand piano in the corner, or paintings that the young could barely look at, let alone breathe near. Her home was to me like a small palace of wonder and mystery; a museum of sorts with trinkets from my missionary great-grandparents in China and collection pieces from my eccentric great-Aunts’ assortment of knickknacks from Victorian Britain. ‘You have not come to something that can be touched’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it,  just might have well have been emblazoned on the doorframe of the front door.

cathedral_stpauls2One of my warmer memories of my grandmother was the one occasion I think when she came to hear me sing at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, as our parish choir sang evensong on Easter Monday while the Cathedral boys and men were on vacation. St. Paul’s was and still is a place of splendor even more untouchable than my grandmother’s home, and I can remember how the ushers, who directed traffic under the great cathedral’s dome, never smiled, but instead pointed worshippers to some dark huddle of chairs at the side for the unsuspecting visitor to stay absolutely still on, and at all costs, never to make a noise until the closing hymn. After all, this was God’s great English house, and it seemed that God didn’t care too much for visitors. As a child, then, both God and grandparents were fearsome things: like a blazing fire, something that cannot be touched.

All of this now makes me think of Annie Dillard’s wonderful appeal to church goers today that they might have ‘the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke’. She says,


On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return’. 

Isn’t that indeed Kierkegaard’s point with his image of faith as being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of the deep below? Faith must not be for us an experience that wraps us up in the comforting blanket of certainty and familiar religion; rather it must be the place in our lives to which we have been drawn out, suspended above all of our pretense at control and power, drawn out at last to a place of honesty and freedom.

Such honesty begins in our recognition of where it is we are gathering when we do in a church building on a Sunday and in whose name. To worship the living God is to come to a blazing fire, to draw near to a burning bush, to ground that is holy enough for us to tremble as we enter it, where wise prophets of old took off their shoes as they walked upon it. It is to come to a pillar of fiery light, illuminating the path of slaves set free.

3f19d0fYet the fire of God is not meant to make us afraid such that we stay away; it is meant to transform us, like slaves who finally taste freedom after bondage. The liberation the blazing fire of God gifts to us is one that sets us free from the tyranny of believing that the only vision of life available is the one we can muster for ourselves. For God’s blazing fire of light in our darkness is the voice of truth we so often repress that tells us we are beloved, that we are of God, that incarnate within us is all that we ever have needed to be and to live freely in this world.

Yet freedom does not come to us without cost. Fire burns. Like the smelter’s fire that refines its gold over and over again, each time removing the dross, the blazing fire of God’s love for us will bring into the light the gods we have fashioned in our attempt to give value to ourselves – our money, our standing, our power, our desires fulfilled. And as they are brought into view we will have to choose: either to continue to enslave ourselves to their empty promise of fulfillment, or to face the painful honesty of change. Such pain sets us free, yet truth be told, most of us are not ready and willing to embrace such an honest journey. Indeed, left to our own devices, many of us would rather spend a lifetime avoiding who and how we really are in favor of bumping along the surface, and take pleasure as a consolation prize for the happiness honesty might gift us with – which is why life together matters.

People pictograms on tree

To commit to life together in a community of faith is to be counted among those honest brokers in the kingdom of God, the motley crew of saints and sinners whose vocation it is to notice when one of us has been doubled over by life. For the blazing fire of God is meant not only for our own transformation, but for the freedom of others. Such fellow travelers are those who are to have the courage to be the hands of God in the lives of others, to dare to touch the untouchable blazing glory we each inhabit as children of a living God. And as such, the body of Christ is called to notice one another, to lift one another up, to see the blazing glory of God in the eyes of everyone that comes into their lives.

In this season of searing political rhetoric that burns as much as it enlightens, I wonder if our country could do with such people even more than it usually does. Everybody falls once in a while, even people who run for office. Everyone needs a chance to stand straight again. A fire blazes for each of us. Let’s look for it with awe and wonder.

What is our witness?

timthumbThis week I asked a group of college students what it is that makes a martyr a martyr. The context was a discussion of ancient Christian martyrs whose sacrifice for the sake of their faith was likened to the ‘pure sacrifice’ of their Savior. These late teens were discovering for the first time the claim that when Polycarp, the early 2nd century bishop, was burned at the stake he would not die for each time he was stabbed his blood would put out of the flames. The burning of his flesh was also claimed to have smelled like baking bread. I asked the students why people would want to make claims such as those. Why would someone want to remember another person’s death in that way? We were trying to get underneath the ideas not only for their appreciation of ancient Christian practices but for the sake of the practices that might end up defining their own lives. Having shared how the etymology of the word ‘martyr’ reveals that at its core it is about bearing witness, I asked them ‘What is your witness going to be?’. There were a few murmurs. It was nearly time for lunch after all. We will try again next class.

kneeling‘What is your witness going to be?’ is clearly a question for our times. Just this past week, the members of Garfield High School football team in Seattle, Washington, went to their knees as the National Anthem was played before the start of their game. It was a political statement of a group of young men who wanted to show their solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who has been kneeling for the anthem since pre-season in protest at the lack of racial justice in America in a spate of shootings of African-American men at the hands of police, the latest being just yesterday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to the Seattle Times, the Garfield High team members were rallied to kneel for the anthem not only because of Kaepernick’s protest but because they had discovered the words of the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner, which offer a chilling warning to slaves who might flee their owners,  “No refuge could save the hireling and slave; from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”. I imagine that this particular group of millennials, a generation perhaps wrongly characterized as suffering from political apathy, would have plenty to teach our nation about the sort of conversation we should be having about the words we choose, so unreservedly, to celebrate. Perhaps it is time we all took to our knees and ask for forgiveness for having retained that third verse for as long as we have.

106898053_a_woman_wearing_a_burkini_walks_in_the_water_august_27_2016_on_a_beach_in_marseille_france-large_trans7s7bfnyh2wf3flaspa2wlzei-y5bzh9nswddv6qx6h0Of course, the spirit of liberty so celebrated here in the United States was first inspired by the revolutionary events that founded the modern Republic of France, a country it would seem in a convoluted struggle with what it means to be free to bear witness to one’s religious identity. An Australian Muslim woman was apparently harangued on the Villeneuve-Loubet beach in the south of France this week for wearing a burkini. According to the BBC, Zeynab Alshelh, a 23-year-old medical student, had travelled to Europe to show solidarity with local Muslim women who still face hostility despite a high court ruling overruling a ban on burkinis. It is a confused picture of what it means to be free in a country supposedly founded to safeguard the people of the state from the machinations of established religion. Secularism when enshrined constitutionally should mean that people are free to disagree, to express their worldviews without fear of censure. I suppose each of the nations we belong to must look more odd from a distance than they do from within.

publicfaithfinalSo where does this age of witnessing to witnesses leave those of us who proclaim a witness to an infinite source of hope and reconciliation? It is in many ways not a question that we can afford to take our time in answering. In just a few short weeks, the American people will cast their votes and elect someone to bear witness to American values and aspirations to the world beyond. Ours is a time when anyone, seemingly, can say anything, no matter how divisive or egregious, and find that their voice is not only heard in the public square but that it is celebrated. One of the candidates has run a large part of their campaign on the back of such a strategy. Given this, it behooves those who profess to have faith in a God of compassion, of other-oriented relationality, of self-donating love, should make their own voices heard and bear their own witness in public life however that opportunity might be afforded to them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously said that when people tell him that politics and religion should not mix he asks them which Bible they have been reading. Christianity is a public faith. It is intended to be expressed and enacted in the life of the world Christians believe God has not only made, but which God seeks the restoration of. There is a long way to go. Let’s not leave it all to the football players. They will need some subs sometime soon.

We the People


A week and a half back when I took my oath to become a U.S. citizen. I duly decked myself out in suit and Stars and Stripes tie – courtesy of my mother-in-law – piled the family into our minivan, and headed out for the naturalization ceremony, which was at the U.S. courthouse, downtown. I had imagined that there might be a fair few people there to take their oath and others to celebrate them from the viewing gallery, yet as has been my experience with much about life in America over these past 11 years, things were bigger than I had imagined.

The only place where I have ever seen a longer line is at Disneyland. It consisted of about 1700 to be U.S. citizens who snaked their way around two sides of the city block. If the Department of Homeland Security had staged it, I think it would have been hard to come up with a more diverse crowd. There were all manner of national costumes, 105 countries of birth represented, speaking who knows how many more languages and dialects. Filipino, Arabic, Spanish, all around me, bubbling over in excited anticipation for a ceremony that marked the end of a long, hard journey, which for some began with them leaving the country of their birth with only the clothes on their back and the children in their arms to take with them.


We the people’, were the words emblazoned on the cover of the brochure they handed us. We the people, a diverse, hopeful, buoyant, cacophony of immigrants. I was right back on Liberty Island, with Emma Lazarus’s New Colossus, 

‘A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome’.

It was an image of the kind of America I had wanted to belong to; the kind of world I want to belong to. Nation by nation, the judge invited us to stand and be applauded as a preamble to taking our collective oath. ‘Our strength as a nation is in our diversity’, the judge told us, and for that hour I truly believed he was right, and with each act of atrocious violence, across this nation, across France, across the Middle East, across this world, those words have meant more and more as a defiant hope in the promise of our global life together: our strength is in our diversity.

The West Wing

In order to make it to the naturalization ceremony in this country  you have to pass a test. I am one of those strange people who likes tests, and it had been a long time since I had had the opportunity to take a test in anything, so I duly devoted myself to a hard course of study in U.S. civics and history by watching at least two seasons of ‘The West Wing’ before I sat my exam. After all, being the hopeless overachiever that I am, only 10 out of 10 would do. I had to know the answers.

This is often how we see knowledge, isn’t it? We see it as a question of knowing the right answers about something. Since over a year ago and until November 8th, two political parties will have invested inordinate amounts of money, trying to demonstrate to us that their candidate has the right answers to the questions Americans are asking, and it would seem an equal if not greater amount of money will have been spent on letting us know how the other candidate has all the wrong answers to those questions. It’s not just politics. Religious belief is often seen this way. We either possess right knowledge or we don’t. We are either in the right camp, or we are off the reservation.


This is not, however, what the Bible means when it talks about knowledge. True knowledge is not something that can be taught as much as it is something that needs to be discovered. Just take Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man who wished to store up his treasured crops in greater and greater barns. As far as he can tell, a bigger barn is simply a wise investment, and there are many who have come to similar conclusions today in their own striving for accumulation. However, it is only when he is faced with the end of his life that he can see that his attempts at feeding his soul have been futile.

For the rich landowner, knowledge has to be discovered, for had been clinging to something, like the ‘alien people’ T. S. Eliot describes in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, mired in ‘the old dispensation’, ‘clutching their gods’. As long as he kept his grip tight on his wealth, his power, his supposed knowledge of what was best, he was unable to recognize that there was another way to live. His desire for wealth in the power of the world had impoverished him toward God.


To gain true knowledge requires us to let go of our previous certainties, to loosen our grip on our preconceived views of the world and its people. For in many ways, to truly know is a question of truly being able to see. It is for this reason that the Christian vision of diversity is not one that requires you to become like me, but a vision that recognizes that we are all to become like Christ, the one who truly accepts us for who we are, exactly as we are. What’s more, such a vision is not a once for all view of the world, but an ongoing process of being changed moved on of our singular view of reality to the infinite richness of God’s view.

In spite of my UK friends sending me pictures of a disgusted looking Queen, I think those Brits will still let me into the country – after all I still have that British passport and don’t plan on giving that up any time soon. It’s more a case that my tent got a bit larger the Wednesday before last. We need a large tent, don’t we. It’s a diversity worth working for, and glory worth finding in one another.

Church in an Age of Terror


Another day, another tragic, senseless act of violence visited upon persons who have little to no ability to defend themselves. Today, the heretofore tranquility of St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen in northern France, is beginning to come to terms with the brutal execution of Jacques Hamel, an 84 year-old Catholic priest who was murdered during morning Mass while four others were taken hostage. Fr Hamel’s killers are themselves dead. We will never know fully what made them choose him rather than another defenseless target. Perhaps the randomness of it is the point of those who seek to bring terror even to places seemingly far-removed from the centers of political power. ‘It could be anywhere next’, I suppose is the message they wish for the world to hear.

215b60540bafc83689b453e7c89382b445053_largeLorries plowed into scores of spectators, young and old, in Nice; gunshots fired from the roofs of a parking lot and shopping mall in Munich; a knife attack on the mentally disabled just west of Tokyo – each of them, and so many more in Kabul and Baghdad and beyond, ruinous and repulsively callous losses of human life. Such acts have their roots in mental instability, anger, poverty, and a jingoism whose myopic vision of the world has only enough room for a narrow slither of human life. We live in a time saturated by violent imagery and ideology, where each outburst of rage chips away at the edifice of what we had once thought of as the common good.


So, what of the church? There are militant atheists who argue that religious tribalism is what has gotten our world into the mess it is enduring in the first place. Such thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, claim that as a species we would make a giant step toward a more peaceable existence if we left religious thought and practice behind us. On one hand, it cannot be denied that religious institutions have proved to be effective vehicles for the human tendency toward extremism and exclusivism. On the other, it can be said that churches today in this age of terror have the opportunity to reach deep into their roots to be the alternative vision of life together that their vocation calls them to be.

school-of-athens1When the New Testament writers elected to utilize the Greek word, ‘ekklesia’ to refer to the gathering of individual followers of Jesus in the first century, dispersed and diversified as they were across the earliest diaspora of the Jerusalem church’s missionary expansion, they chose to take a common cultural reference point and offer it a resistive twist. ‘Ekklesia’ was the common term applied to the political assemblies of the hellenistic world, most notably and longstanding in Athens. The ekklesia was most simply the people called out to assemble. Ekklesia existed when the people, called out, had gathered. The New Testament writers, though, developed the concept of ekklesia to mean that the people called out exist as an entity, whether assembled or not. Thus, their identity as those called out is more than merely an expression of their having come together in one place, but as a presence in society beyond their gathering, constituted as followers of Jesus


Such an identity was not neutral about the society it embedded itself in. In the steeply hierarchical world of patronage, from slave to emperor, socio-economic power was constructed via a pyramid of servitude, expressed in public displays of social power such as shared meals and other civic celebrations. Thus, the ritual meals of the early followers of Jesus, the dispersed and gathered ekklesia, with their radically egalitarian table fellowship, along with the ekklesia’s place for the leadership of women and freedmen, and the economic mutualism of one local ekklesia extended to another via Paul’s collection of monies for poorer communities, all offered a potent counter-cultural ideology and set of practices.
ichthusLike the walls of catacombs that testify to the resistive symbols of the earliest followers of Jesus, these people of the ekklesia literally left their mark on a society that was otherwise based on subordination and violently imposed control.  These first ekkelsia were what Hauerwas today calls ‘communities of character’, collectives that seek to live into distinctive rules of life that engrave difference into the world, even as that world’s totalizing narratives of terror seek to deny room for difference to exist.

We need the church to be a diaspora of communities of character. We need people to be formed and to form a world that can articulate a counter-narrative to a culture of violence and division. We need a movement that will identify with its deep collective roots and live in the solidarity of those who are subjected to fear and loss. We need a church that will re-member the witness of the life of Jacques Hamel and hold out in the hope that the resurrection truth we have lived by will gift us all freedom one day: that life wins in the end.

The priest, the nun, and the dance of mutuality

101562-fullThese past three days I have been in Pasadena, a place where in days gone by the wealth of the east coast would come to show the west coast how things are really done. It is one of those locations in our country whose buildings speak not only of a resplendent past but whose current occupants of said buildings are none too shabby in the economic wealth department themselves. Two particular buildings spoke to me this weekend: Pasadena City Hall, a veritable temple to civic power, which yesterday was the setting for what looked like something of an upscale fashion shoot, and All Saints Episcopal Church, where it happened the conference I was attending was taking place. The two buildings are just across the street from one another: one the seat of local government, the other a place of worship, of refuge, and a community striving to shake up the world one injustice at a time.


All Saints has become well-known both in its corner of Los Angeles and in the nation beyond as a church that has committed itself to live into the calling to be co-builders of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Their former rector, Ed Bacon, had even incurred the wrath of the IRS for blurring the lines between freedom of religious speech and the supposed separation of that freedom from congregants’ behavior in the voting booth. In the end, not much came of it, mostly because the IRS wasn’t the main thing; God’s unbounded compassion was and still is the main thing. It was appropriate, therefore, that the conference that I had been attending at All Saints centered around a conversation about generosity, generosity of all kinds that might flow out of a deep appreciation of God’s generosity toward us. Generosity cannot, though, be taught as much as it has to be seen, often in the life of another, in order for us to be able to see it in ourselves. All of us conference-goers were richly blessed this weekend by two such others, who profoundly witnessed to that power of generosity: a priest and a nun.


The nun is Sister Simone Campbell, a Roman Catholic sister, attorney, poet and advocate for social justice. Sister Simone has worked within the order of the Sisters of Social Service as an agent of social change for the past 50 years. In 2012, she famously led a two-week bus tour of the country through her organization, Network, to protest cuts in programs for the poor and working families in the federal budget. She describes her work not as charity to the poor but as striving for the transformation of the whole system, arguing that real generosity is that which allows our hearts to be broken open by the stories of our times, stories that will enable us to be changed to lead lives of generosity. She argues that we cannot be moved to generosity until our hearts have been broken and we have touched the pain of the world as real and so live into the narrative that we have received, the narrative of the broken life of Jesus that transformed everything.


Sister Simone’s vision and practice is of a life grounded in hope, in the possibility that, should we attend to one another’s brokenness, we might come to ‘obliterate the illusion that we are separate’, a hope articulated by the other truly holy human being who made the conference goers laugh and cry all in the space of the same sacred hour. This was the priest, Fr. Greg Boyle. Despite having made vows myself to serve the world’s needs through the mission and ministries of the church, it has been for me a rare thing to come across a truly holy person, a person who almost effortlessly is able to make God more visible. Such people have a magnetism; you want to spend time close to them, you want to listen carefully when they speak, and for me I want to learn, somehow learn, such that my life might make even a fraction of the difference theirs does for good in the world.


Greg Boyle is one such man. He teaches us to trust in a God who is too busy loving us to have any time left to be disappointed in us, and to believe on the fact that we are exactly what God had in mind when God made us. The work that Fr Boyle has built up among gang members in Los Angeles is the largest single gang intervention effort in the world. His commitment to the beauty of the person right in front of him has been the catalyst that has led to thousands of lives be transformed. He is a remarkable instance of the profound impact any of us could have on those around us should we choose to respond to God’s redemptive compassion for all creation. Yet, Boyle is clear that his work is not to save anyone but to receive them and be received by them. He shares story after story of how he is rescued daily from his own selfishness, his own egoism, the tyranny of his own self. For Boyle, ‘service is the hallway to the ballroom, and the ballroom is the exquisite dance of mutuality’. It is a beautiful image of how we might arrive, as Boyle puts it ‘at that point where there is no daylight between us’.

alston2-master675We are capable of profound generosity. I continue to marvel at our capacity as human beings to see one another in a seemingly endless myriad of ways. People across this wide world strive to see and be seen by one another even in the face of the potent forces of division and degregadation that confront them every day. For in the end, we are discovered and revealed for who we truly are by a Wounded Healer, by the divine life that dances within and among us, transforming us one wound at a time, setting us free to love as that divine dancer loves every last one of us, especially the poor and despised, those whom God perceives are trustworthy to guide us to the place beyond the boundaries we erect between us. I may never look at Pasadena in the quite same way again. Thank you God for this indescribable gift called life.

A Word to the Thinkocrats


I was listening to NPR the other week the morning after yet another presidential primary. The presenters were going through the same old post-mortem analysis of what this or that demographic’s electoral behavior means for candidate X and for candidate Y. After a while you learn to tune it out or turn it off, until the unlikely occurrence of a phrase that sticks in the mind. That particular morning, the phrase the NPR commentator used was ‘thinkocrats’. The journalist asking the questions, although not really following the answers, was quite taken by the word, ‘thinkocrats, I like that’. It turns out, as with any new word that you hear on public radio, there is already a website dedicated to the cause of ‘thinkocrats’, outside and presumably inside of the RNC. It  was founded in 2012 by the Iranian-American doctor, Pejman Azarmina and it describes ‘thinkocrats’ as leaders whose leadership style is heavily influenced by their ability to think critically and according to the values that they hold dear (


As an educator, the ability to think critically is something that I prize highly in others, and now and again in myself. Yet as the current primary campaign reminds us, this capacity that we all have to think critically, and creatively, and perhaps once in a while even originally, often gets mired in our desire to have our values hold sway.

Values are everywhere. In a way, they are what Foucault called the rules of formation that influence how we talk about and act in relation to any particular subject or discourse.  In my own part of the world, one such discourse is homelessness, a complex social phenomenon that is currently colliding with repetitive force into some pretty strongly held values that are shaping our public conversation.


Much of the discourse that has held sway in our neighborhood around the issue of homelessness has focused on three E’s: encroachment, enabling, and enforcement. Encroachment: in how some housed residents feel that the pristine image of their Pacific Ocean paradise with million dollar properties in tow has been blurred at the edges by homeless people whom they perceive to make the neighborhood less clean, more dangerous, and decreasingly attractive to tourists and renters alike. Enabling: in the degree to which churches and other service-oriented agencies are perceived to be making a bad situation worse by encouraging homeless people to be homeless in our particular corner of America, presumably rather than in some other corner. And enforcement: because with all of this is an underlying feeling of powerlessness and frustration that people are not being held accountable when they don’t abide by the law.

simplify1What these three E’s often tend to lead the public conversation about homelessness to is a simplistic analysis of an increasingly complex set of problems, such as: ‘there are good homeless people and there are bad homeless people’; or, ‘people need a hand up not a hand out’; or, ‘if churches would just stop feeding people, then being homeless would be less attractive and so less people would be homeless in the first place’. What the three E’s reveal, apart from the fact that the study of Socrates should be part of the common core in this country, are the values that lie at the heart of many a presidential politician’s platform: the need for individual moral responsibility and for people to stand on their own two feet.

were_our_brothers_keeper__enrico_bertuccioliAs a Christian, the sticking point that I have always found with those two particular values is that moral responsibility is never entirely a matter of the individual and that in the end, in reply to Cain’s question to God following the unseemly demise of his kin, Abel, yes we are our brother’s keeper. In the end, we belong to one another as human beings. John Zizioulas, the Greek Orthodox theologian, goes as far as to argue that there is no such thing as the individual as such, and that we have our being in communion with others. In other words, the modernist conception of the individual is a false construct. Our personhood is only ever to be found in the other. It is a profoundly significant Christian conviction that says that my personhood can only ever be found in the lives of my brothers and sisters, among others, who live on the street. I am a being in communion with them.


This evening, as I was talking with one of those brothers on the sidewalk following the meal that our church had just served to 80 or so folk who are hungry or homeless or both, one of them doubled back on himself after he had said good night just to tell me that without this meal he would have no idea how he would manage. What is happening in that moment, do you think? Enabling? Charity that hurts, that prevents that person from getting a grip on their life’s purpose and destiny? Is this naive compassion on the part of those serving the meal? Yet could it also be a much-needed source of dignity – a brief respite from the brutality of the street for relationship, and conversation, and for the recovery of human kindness?  Or is it just hope, or all of the above at once?


Primo Levi says that everyone needs a witness. Everyone. Rich, poor, gay, straight, man, woman, housed, homeless –  we all need a witness to our very existence. Human life is infinitely complex and so demands of us infinite patience in seeing it, in attending to its unique expression found in each human person. The Church is a community on earth that is called to pay attention to such complexity. It is called to be something akin to a body of ‘thinkocrats’, of people who are willing to dwell with those whose complexity some in society do not wish to remain with, not only for the sake of others but for our own. For as the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, in the shalom – the deep and abiding peace – of the city, we shall find our own, and in the life I bear witness to, and you bear witness to, we shall find ourselves.


Hope in Hollywood

SSteSlide1Recently I visited St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, a parish located just a stone’s throw from Sunset Boulevard that had once been the church of Cecil B. DeMille and other silver screen movers and shakers. In its heyday it was the place where people came to be seen. Since then and through much of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the church along with that particular neighborhood in Hollywood had been in terminal decline. The numbers and the energy had dwindled to the point that when the current priest arrived right at the end of the last century, on his first Sunday only seven people showed up for worship, and that was a good day! The place was run down. It was dark and dangerous at night and all manner of illegal activities were happening on and next to church grounds.


17 years later, St. Stephen’s has housed multiple partnership ministries that has included a theater company, a fine arts preschool, an urban intern program, and a small urban farm project. In the sanctuary there is Jazz on Sundays for the morning worship and boxing classes on Tuesdays. It’s a story and a half of transformation to be sure, but all of this started with one particular ministry known as Hope in Hollywood which taught at risk youth to breakdance.


As hip and innovative as the new priest was when he first arrived 17 years back, he was still running a church, and for most youth in Los Angeles choosing between a night out with their gang friends and going to church, the church is going to lose, every time. Yet something changed when the rector of the parish learned of a non-profit based out of Texas who wanted a Los Angeles base to get kids out of street gangs and back on track with their lives through the medium of breakdancing. At first it was slow, but as the youth workers went out onto the streets letting the youth know that there was a place they could learn to breakdance, really well, plus spray their graffiti art on three specially erected walls week after week, youth who would otherwise have never set foot on the grounds of a church began to show up, in their three’s, and their four’s, until they came on Saturday nights in their hundreds. They came, I believe, for one particular reason: in Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, they had found a place where the gift that they had to share – in this case breakdancing – was welcomed to be shared; a place where all of them could be met and accepted; a place where they could start to come home, to themselves.


My experience at St. Stephen’s, bearing witness to the extraordinary work of transformation that has happened there both to the community as a whole and to the individuals we met there gifted me inspiration to look at my own church community also as a space where people might come home. Just this week, a regular at our Thursday morning breakfasts for the hungry and homeless shared with me what it meant to have our church in his life. He said, ‘this is the place that I come to break me out of complete isolation. If I didn’t have here, I would be lost to myself’. Later that day it rained pretty hard, which in southern California practically solicits a general outbreak of panic and mayhem, unless of course you are three. I saw one such three year old, a preschooler here at St. Andrew’s, that rainy lunch time, come right up to the down spout that drops a good 60 feet to the ground creating a splash zone that Sea World would be proud of. She was wearing rain boots and a waterproof jacket and stamping in the water as it splashed up into her face. I thought to myself, this is the place where she comes to play – this preschool and this sanctuary, where children sing loud songs and together we share the wild and wonderful tales of our faith. This too is a place where she can come home.


These lessons of hope, from Hollywood to Pacific Beach are reminders for me that the business of the church, perhaps more than anything, is to be a witness to and a catalyst for transformation, the transformation that takes place when each of us recognizes how it is that our home is found in God’s grace. With so much talk these days about the decline of organized religion, it seems to me that there is still plenty of hope around, weaving in and out of our lives with the same tenacity and tenderness with which the Holy Spirit first breathed life back into the broken body of Jesus, our Lord. This is the season of new life. Let us trust in that. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sharing the Gift


What gifts do you share?

For Dagmar Nordberg, the gift she chose to share was the gift of hospitality and simple human kindness. Dagmar is a museum director, in the southern Swedish town of Ronneby, a picturesque place of about 12,000 people. It has cobbled streets and a bucolic river which flows gently by the farmer’s market which meets weekly on its banks. Sweden, as you may well know, is ranked to have the freest press in the world, its parents are entitled to up to 480 days paid leave when a baby is born or adopted, and it has the some of the best rates of life expectancy, and educational achievement on the planet. Roneby, Sweden, you could say, is quite literally, a pretty nice place to live.

Waliullah Hafiz, or Wali for short, also lives in Roneby, but he is not from there. Wali is from Kabul, Afghanistan. Kabul has endured war of one variety or another for four decades. Its buildings bear the scars of its most recent persecution at the hands of the Taliban; its people bear them too, including Wali. Wali worked as a fuel transporter for the army, but fled Kabul when the Taliban beat him into a coma because he refused to help them smuggle gas bottles out of an Afghan army base which the Taliban planned to make into bombs.


Leaving Afghanistan to save his life, his journey as a refugee took him all the way north to Sweden, and eventually to a train platform in Ronneby, when on one bitterly cold Scandinavian winter’s morning, Dagmar Nordberg wandered by a man standing there in T-shirt, jeans and cotton shoes. As she passed him, she said, ‘It’s winter’, almost in protest at the barely dressed stranger. Wali simply replied, ‘I know, M’am’.

It was his politeness that made Dagmar stop, and as she looked at him she knew that something was about to happen, in her. An epiphany of sorts. She recalls that in that moment of decision she realized that he was a lost refugee and that she could either go on with her life, or help him. Something did change. Dagmar took Wali in. Several months later Wali is now learning English, and the Swedish Government is helping him serve an apprenticeship as a forester. The final step will be to re-unite Wali with his family by bringing them to Sweden. I once was lost, but now am found. The simple gifts of hospitality and human kindness were shared and two people from vastly  different parts of the world met and in that meeting everything changed: hope was risen from the dead.


Not all of us will get to change a life like Dagmar Nordberg did, but all of us get to share our gifts. As Martin Luther King Jnr. famously said, ‘Anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace [and] a soul generated by love.’ Any one of us can give, any one of us can work to meet the needs of others, and our world needs those individual acts of love and compassion, of sacrifice and service, to go on, town by town, street by street, life by life.

The church has a word for the kind of service extended to a complete stranger that happened on that platform in Ronneby, Sweden. It is called grace; the opportunity one person offers to another to start again. Easter is the season of God’s generosity, of God’s grace. It is the season of our hope. May we each take that gift and share it.