Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“Daybreak”— A Poem

This is a poem I wrote this morning. May your day be full of hope:


When the sound is birds,
and the harvest of night is gathering into
morning’s first blooms,
the silent prayer of the universe for every living, beating thing
stretches itself out across the plain of my heart in hope.

Maybe this is what He means when He says “even the stones will cry out.”

Faith from the Underside

Faith turned over to the side that doesn’t capture the light: the underbelly of trust in God—or is it distrust?—so often not shown.  At first glance, Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, Learning To Walk in the Dark, seems an exercise in gently poking at faith, like the study of some awkward specimen turned over under a microscope, helplessly squirming under the glare.

I love this about Taylor’s work. To paraphrase her own words in a local book signing appearance on Thursday, she is more interested in exploring the dimensions of human experience that can cause us to call into question long-cherished beliefs and theological moorings. Hers is an appeal as much to the so-called “Nones” who now number 1 in 5 Americans and 1 in 3 Americans under the age of 30, as it is to a shrinking church in North America now grappling with its own mortality and longing for More. (My own book Grace Sticks is written for just these sorts of “restless souls.”)

Before Learning To Walk in the Dark, there were Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, where the shedding of glib religious identity and answers becomes an invitation to become more fully human and more fully in love with this world. Darkness is the latest metaphor by which this gifted writer and preacher approaches the empty vortex of suffering, loss and evil, angling to review the lessons physical darkness can teach us and to put new flesh on the dry bones of old religious answers.

Hearing Barbara speak on Thursday was a breath of fresh air, challenging me, in a period of general ennui and distraction— “distraction from distraction by distraction,” as T.S. Eliot once put it, or maybe just that familiar sickness known as “writer’s block”— to keep writing about the underside of Christian faith.



Praying for Dead People?

And what the dead had no speech for, when living
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond with the language of the living. —T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

Last night at dinner we prayed for those who died in the tornadoes here in the South and for their families and loved ones.

Which is when our son asked one of those burning Reformation-era questions: “Can you pray for dead people?”

“I think so,” I said, not blinking—with all deference to the sixteenth-century church reformer, Martin Luther, whose camp I’m in on most things and who was probably turning over in his grave.

“I think so, too,” my husband said between bites of leftover meatloaf.

Sure, Jesus had once issued that weird directive about letting the dead take care of the dead. But that was in the context of a summons to follow Him, when following Him might conflict with familial obligations to care for the dead. (You can check out my post on this weird Jesus saying.) Sitting-around-the-dinner-table prayer, by contrast, didn’t preclude praying for those who have died, I reasoned. Besides, if there really is life beyond the grave, then the state of those who have gone before us matters, especially to their loved ones, not to mention God. And, if Love is stronger than death, then Love doesn’t respect even the seemingly permanent boundaries placed upon Her by death. Come to think of it, as a hospice chaplain I often hear grieving relatives share how they on occasion hear things or catch messages sent from their loved ones even after their loved ones’ death.

So there we were, praying for the dead over our cauliflower cheese and meatloaf, and I, secretly grateful for kids who ask the questions we often don’t think to ask and to which our own answers may surprise us.



Mental Health Break—”Stile Antico”

stepsindexSince it’s been a while since our last mental health break…today’s feature is the choral ensemble “Stile Antico” singing Thomas Tallis’ “Miserere nostri.” A friend introduced me to the group, and I’m so glad she did. Now they accompany me often in the car. En route to work sites. Picking up the kiddos from school. Between errands. As a reminder that this world is already touched with a bit of heavenliness—and that harmony between human beings, when it happens, is truly beautiful, worthy of seeking, and can be found.

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Easter Tremors

holy-women-at-christ-s-tomb16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1—8)

The bare possibility of resurrection is a scary thing to contemplate. Resurrection means life as we know it will never be the same again.

The women who had seen Jesus die on a cross could not have been prepared for what they would find in the form of an empty tomb that first Easter morning.  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

To tell the truth, resurrection can be scarier than death itself sometimes. I know this because these days I’m a hospice chaplain. I sit at deathbeds and hold the hands of dying people who tell me about their hopes and fears and everything in between. And, for every time I affirm the truth of the resurrection some day for those to whom I minister, I am also aware that just about every time I do so, the person before me will die.

Death is all around us. We all die. It’s the reality of this world. In some cases death is easier to become accustomed to than resurrection. And grief? Grief can so often settle into complacent ennui with the way things are. The way things will always be.

But resurrection is a disruption in everything we’ve come to know and accept. It’s a disruption in living life on our own terms, even if those terms are less than ideal, less than whole, less than what’s better and more breathtakingly real for us. For this reason, maybe, we, too, are afraid and go running from the empty tomb.

This Easter morning, what are we most afraid of about a God who raises Jesus from the dead? Are we afraid this God might invite us to ditch old patterns of relating to ourselves and to our neighbors? Are we afraid that a God who rises from the dead might take these weary souls of ours and breathe new life into them? Are we afraid that a God who rises from the dead might ask us to do something heroic or out-of-the-ordinary, because the Resurrection actually means this God is invested in us and in how we live?

It’s Easter! Christ is risen! Don’t be afraid.

The Witness: A Good Friday Sermon


Maybe a Jesus like this is easier to stomach for a lot of us…
(Photo credit: Wenn)

For the last three years I’ve had the privilege of participating in an annual ecumenical and interracial Good Friday service, “Women’s Views of the Cross.” This year I’ll preach from the perspective of Mary, the mother of James and Joses, who appears for the first time in the Gospel of Mark as a witness to the death and burial of Jesus (Mark 15). For those of you who can’t be part of this wonderful worship experience, below is my sermon:

The Witness: Mary, the Mother of James and Joses

It is striking that Mary the mother of James and Joses only appears once in Mark’s Gospel— here—at the cross. Mary’s presence is remarkable for the very reason that the other disciples are absent; her presence will become especially important in just two days’ time when Mary will be able to say not only that she was there when they crucified her Lord and that she was there when they buried Him; but that she was also there on Easter morning to find the tomb so gloriously and frighteningly empty.

And for this reason alone our Scriptures remember an otherwise forgettable Mary the mother of James and Joses. In a day and age when women were considered unreliable, second-rate witnesses at best—as they still are in various places around the world—Mary’s word only really mattered to the early church because it was either her word or no real word at all. Only Mary, the mother of James and Joses, along with her friends Mary Magdalene and Salome, could claim based on firsthand experience what Christians have proclaimed ever since. In the form of the Nicene Creed. Christ was “crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried and on the third day rose again.”

We have Mary to thank in good part for this claim and its historical veracity—all because Mary bears witness to the death and burial of Jesus. Mary’s witness, and the witness of Mary Magdalene and Salome with her, means the difference between urban legend and the kind of good news we can bet our lives on.

But I wonder why Mary chooses to bear witness. She has to be afraid, maybe even for her life. After all, this is the same woman who, upon beholding the empty tomb, will run away trembling and bewildered and, out of fear, say nothing to anyone. Surely watching Jesus die has to be at least as frightening, even from a distance. The taunts and jeers of the crowd, and in the midst of them the loud, desperate cry of this once larger-than-life man now aspirating on a cross, are too much to watch. But she watches all the same—maybe from behind a veil of tears, her hands tightly clutching the other women’s hands, her body coiled in fear, grief and despair.

Mary, after all, is a mother. She knows the way her body has given birth to at least two children. How her womb had to stretch and expand to make room for the new life inside her. How those near-death labor pains like tidal waves had finally thrust up in bloody abandon two precious little lives now forever linked to hers.

Maybe this is why Mary stays to watch. Because she is a mother. Because she belongs to a sisterhood of women who, because they have brought life into the world, and because with their breasts and bodies they have nurtured and sustained that new life, have come to see that so much of what it means to be a mother is simply being there, no matter how scary or painful that might be.

Being there for scraped knees and bedtime stories and basketball games.

Being there for first steps and graduation days and broken hearts.

Being there even for death sometimes, like the mother I met the other day in a hospice room. Her 40-year-old daughter was dying from breast cancer, and through tears, this mother had uttered the words, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, but this mother was there, anyway. Because that is what we mothers so often do for our children and for our friends’ children. We are simply there.

Maybe this is why Mary chooses to watch Her Savior die on a cross—it wasn’t supposed to be this way, but she is being there anyway, for a man who has become like a son to her.

Or does Mary bear witness for another reason? Is it because she, like the other women with her, has followed Jesus and can’t imagine not following him now? Is it because she has served and provided for her son, James, and his miracle-making friend Jesus all along the way? How many times, I wonder, did Mary, like any doting Jewish mother, lay out a full spread of food for Jesus and these hungry young men after a long day of their treading all over God-knows-where? In between deliveries of trays of bread, figs and olives, and standing over steaming pots of matzah ball soup, I can imagine she peeked in or lingered at the door just long enough to catch the excitement in these men’s voices and the laughter and swagger as they traded stories of the day’s adventures or argued over who would sit at Jesus’ right hand.

Did Mary wish she could be among them then? At Jesus’ right hand…or maybe just at his feet, listening, like the other Mary we know from Scripture whose sister is Martha. Maybe Mary the mother of James and Joses also entertained Jesus over a meal or more, listening to this other-worldly, down-to-earth, rabbi-carpenter talk about His coming Kingdom as he ravenously downed bowls of olives and threw back his head in laughter.

Was Mary there when Jesus fed a crowd with only a couple loaves and a few fishes? Was she there when Jesus healed the sick? Was she there when Jesus cast out the demons of her friend Mary Magdalene?

If she was there in these moments, she is also remembering these things now as she bears witness to Jesus’ death. And she is struggling to find meaning in the dissonance of these pictures: a Jesus who can calm storms and walk on water and bring people back to life seems a far cry from this now taunted and forsaken Jesus on a cross. It’s possible that Mary is at the cross because she is still expecting Jesus to take his executioners up on their offer: to come down from the cross in one final victorious display of force. Like the Saturday Night Live spoof of a Quentin Tarantino-inspired “Djesus Unchained.” (Maybe you’ve seen it.)

Maybe Mary is waiting to hear Jesus say once and for all, “No more Mr. Nice Jesus.” Maybe with the same dead-pan masculinity of the actor Christoph Waltz—or not.

Maybe Mary, like the other disciples who could not stand to watch from afar, is waiting for a Messiah to put all of his enemies to shame. To show them once and for all who really is in charge.

And maybe this kind of Messiah is what we want, too, because if we’re honest with ourselves, a Messiah like this is easier to stomach. We want Jesus to make it easy for us to love Him in the eyes of the world. We want our lives to be pain-free and prosperous and full of feel-good miracles. We want to shield ourselves from God-forsakenness. We can’t bear to witness all the places in this world that are full of pain, heartbreak and forsakenness, whether they’re across the globe or in the darkest nooks and crannies of our own souls. We can’t bear to look real despair in the eyes and simply be there and pay witness. It’s too much for us, so we shield ourselves from the worst, most heart-wrenching pain this world has to offer.

A few years ago the haunting picture of a child in the Sudan dying from starvation while en route to a feeding center caught my eye. The picture shows an emaciated child huddling in despair and at death’s door. A vulture lurks several feet away.

The photographer who took that Pulitzer Prize-winning picture killed himself not long after. Bearing witness—being there—was too much for him: it broke him.

I wonder if Mary in her witness feels like breaking, too, so she seeks safety in distance. After all, she is there for Jesus’ crucifixion when even God the Father seems absent. Can we say the same about ourselves? Can we be there and bear witness to the pain and affliction that are all around us? Can we be present to those for whom God seems absent? Can we show up in the God-forsaken places? Or, are we too afraid? And if so, what are we afraid of?

My guess is that even with all her experience as a mother, Mary cannot possibly grasp or even imagine right now the real birth taking place before her eyes. My guess is that she cannot even begin to understand what this birth demands in the way of a Savior’s labor pains on a cross—and, that the power of God’s love lies precisely where we would not think to look—not in the back-slapping swagger of a Quentin Tarantino Messiah who wins with violence and worldly power, but in the gentle, non-coercive love of a God who lets Himself be crucified.

I suspect that Mary the mother of James and Joses has not even the faintest appreciation as she watches this Jesus in his final hours that this breaking open of Love Itself is what has to happen and is what this world so desperately needs. That there can be no other way for God to show Himself fully as Love incarnate…for her…for you…for me…for the world outside these doors.

Mary unknowingly bears witness to this Love breaking open and remaking the world. She does this by being present at the cross. By bearing witness and simply being there in the midst of tragedy.

And what she cannot yet know, she will soon discover in a short while—that in bearing witness and being present to Christ’s suffering, she will be among the first to experience Christ’s resurrection.

And the same is true for us: when we bear witness and are present to the God-forsaken people and places of this world, we, too, are positioning ourselves to be the first in line for the new life God promises, new life that is right around the corner. We’ll be the first in line to see the empty tomb. The first in line to hear the news that our Savior is not dead but alive. The first in line to catch the first faint rays of Easter morning light dispel the darkness.




The Vatican Diaries: A Review

vatican-diaries-bookSex. Money. Power. Corruption. Controversy. Scandal.

Since the 1980′s Catholic News Service reporter John Thavis has been covering all of it and more—not from a post in Las Vegas or the nation’s Capitol but from (of all places) the Vatican.

Which may explain why Thavis prefaces his New York Times bestseller The Vatican Diaries (Penguin) with this epigram from St. Augustine: “This is the very perfection of man, to find out his own imperfections.”

And, if Thavis’ goal is to introduce the reader to the Vatican warts and all, he achieves it— but with a balanced and almost empathetic tone in places, for which I was grateful. I, after all, had my own initial prejudices to dispel at the outset, being tempted to dismiss Thavis as yet another journalist with an aggressively secular axe to grind thanks to (maybe) a year too many in Catholic school with stern, wrist-slapping nuns; and here I was glad to be proven wrong. Thavis writes his book with a view to contextualizing and better understanding how horrors like the sex abuse scandal and embarrassments like “Vatileaks” could happen. As Thavis puts it, “The Vatican Diaries was written precisely…to pull back the curtain on an institution that is largely misunderstood.” What emerges is, by Thavis’ own telling, a very “human” portrait, one that unveils and explores the various personalities, motivations, tensions and limitations that operate within the extensive bureaucratic sprawl of the Vatican.

Thavis’ chapter on the disgraced founder of the religious order, Legion of Christ, is especially effective at bringing into sharper relief these often hidden contours. The implicit questions at play within these pages are: how could a priest, in this case the charismatic Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, be virtually worshiped for decades by so many admirers (including the late Pope John Paul II) as a paragon of spiritual and moral virtue—this, while all the while leading a dark, sordid personal life that included the sexual abuse of hundreds of boys and the siring of children with a number of mistresses?; what systemic sins and oversights can conspire to allow for and even propagate this sort of outlandish dissonance at the expense of so many innocent children? While Thavis never directly answers these questions, he painstakingly weaves a story that just as painfully lays out the circumstances for how a monster like Father Maciel could come to thrive under a veil of secrecy, living and dying in ignominy without truly being brought to justice for his crimes.

The problem of Father Maciel is one lens among many through which Thavis offers fascinating close-up views of the often bumbling, contentious, eccentric, misunderstood, well-meaning, inspired, and, misguided human beings at the helm of the world’s largest church as they navigate various crises and controversies; and there are plenty of saints and sinners to be found. While most of the book is pre-Pope Francis, devoting itself to developments during the time of Pope Benedict and, to a certain degree, his predecessor John Paul, Thavis helps to contextualize the import and promise of the current pope. Pope Francis’ installation represents a radical  break with the recent past, even as it belongs to the swing of a pendulum that will no doubt come around again some day. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants a fair, balanced and captivating insider’s look at the Vatican and who seeks to understand both the beauty and frailty of one of the world’s oldest institutions.




Lent Madness

For more on this story, see the original NPR story at http://www.npr.org/2014/04/02/297822374/for-lent-madness-reverend-pits-saints-against-each-other.In an effort to infuse this often somber season of Lent with a little humor and motivational pizzazz, one Episcopalian priest in Massachusetts has invented “Lent Madness.” Four years ago Rev. Tim Schenck started the initiative, which pits some 32 saints in a basketball-type bracket squaring off as rivals for the coveted “Golden Halo.” (I’d like to know what sort of award the Golden Halo actually entails.) For Schenck, Lent Madness is a way to put flesh and blood on often flawed and far too often idealized saints from church history.

John Wesley.

Catherine of Siena.

Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The contributions of these very real people come alive in a winning way that can inspire those of us struggling to live out lives of faith as saints and sinners all of us.

All of this leaves me wondering, which saints would you have in your line-up? And, if you had to bet on this year’s winner of The Golden Halo, who would it be?

Wasn’t April Fool’s Day Last Week?—World Vision, Evangelicals and Gays

April Fool’s Day seems a fitting day to review what happened last week, when, within just two days of announcing its decision to hire gays in recognized same-sex marriages, World Vision reversed its decision. An official statement from World Vision president Richard Stearns communicated “heartbreak”— “over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.”

The turn of events went something like this:

1) World Vision announced its decision to hire gay Christians in recognized same-sex marriages, with the disclaimer that in no way was World Vision making a political statement in support of gay marriage.

2) Then, popular bloggers like the more progressive evangelical Rachel Held-Evans, who has had close ties to World Vision, took to the blogosphere in a show of support, encouraging like-minded readers to adopt a World Vision child—this while a tidal wave of fierce protest came from another segment of evangelical Christians outraged by World Vision’s decision and threatening to drop the children they sponsor through World Vision.

3) Then, within two days, psych—“April Fool’s Day,” in other words—World Vision would not be hiring married gays after all and would continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Enter here that favorite, often misused code word with which evangelicals (particularly conservatives) have a love affair, “Biblical authority”—as if granting gays in same-sex marriage an equal opportunity to employment meant that World Vision would now no longer be taking the Bible seriously…Huh? [Note: a better substitute for the term "Biblical authority" would be "conservative evangelical interpretation." Can I say again how much I squirm whenever I hear the term "biblical authority"—not for what it really ought to mean, but, rather, for how it is so often co-opted for one particular, politically conservative agenda in the church?]

Sadly, I’m not surprised by how things ended. My own course of development in following this chain of events went from initial surprise at World Vision’s first announcement to anger to resignation and reflection.

Sure, I was surprised when World Vision came out with this very public stance. Having worked for World Vision before, and having much respect for the organization—as I continue to hold—I had wondered why the organization’s leadership had felt so compelled to force into the open an implicit fault line among supporters? Surely there had to be a persuasive reason.

And then I began to feel angry when the threats of discontinued child sponsorships began to pour in: why should one change to guidelines in a Christian organization’s employee handbook hijack the far more important and urgent needs of poor children in the developing world?

And yet, it has. And this sort of thing happens all the time. Over and over again churches and Christian communities divide over their interpretations of “biblical authority,” and the mission of God suffers. Churches bicker over issues such as women’s ordination and the submission, or lack thereof, of women. And the mission of God suffers.

I have a number of good friends who are committed Christians living lives of Christian hospitality to the world, who happen to be gay and in committed, sometimes marital, relationships. Because I love them, and because I believe that in Christ sexual orientation, like every other human category by which we seek to divide ourselves, shouldn’t have the last word, I find it hard to understand the vehemence of protest that resulted in World Vision’s April Fool’s Day moment; I find it hard to understand even as it does not surprise me.

The church in the time of the apostle Paul had its own battles of course—about dietary differences, like eating kosher or food sacrificed to idols, or about the practice of circumcision. It is striking in these instances to see how Paul on the one hand seems consistently to acknowledge the expanding compass of God’s grace (which will now include not just Jews but Gentiles) while, on the other, to be sensitive to the needs of those Paul dubs “weaker in faith”—those, for example, who refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols for fear of contamination.

I am inclined to consider today’s disputes over sexual codes of conduct within the church and within Christian organizations like World Vision a contemporary manifestation of this same sort of dispute that once forced the letter-writing hand of the apostle Paul in his own time. My friends who are deeply committed Christians and happen to be gay in committed, monogamous relationships have their own consciences to contend with; just as we all must contend with our own consciences with “fear and trembling,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. For the sake of those “weaker in faith,” for whom a sexual code of conduct really does become the exclusive means by which we define who is in and who is out within any particular Christian community, there is in Paul’s letters a note of gentle sensitivity. We must not put a “stumbling block” in front of the faith of another Christian—even if we find assurance, with our own consciences, of God’s freedom in Christ.

That said, Paul’s letters remind me that if, as Martin Luther King once put it, “the arc of the universe bends towards justice,” the arc of God’s grace is ever bending wider and larger. Like a mother’s womb making room to house her child and prepare for birth, that arc is forever opening and expanding to receive the “stranger” in our midst, be they the black slave or woman preacher or polygamous tribal chief or gay couple with a heart for following Jesus to wherever Jesus takes them. In fact, if I had to place a bet, I’d gamble on grace over the law any day—or, at least on the days when I’m most aware of the sins in my own closet.


“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Each week in hospice a team of doctors, nurses, chaplains and social workers meets to discuss every patient in their care. Usually the meeting starts with a few moments of silence remembering those who have died in the preceding days, followed by a short meditation from the chaplain. Yesterday a colleague read this poem, “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver. The poem is still with me this morning. Here is Oliver reading her poem “Wild Geese”:

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