Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“I Want Jesus!”

Does it get any more kitsch than this?

“I want Jesus!,” my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter exclaimed the other day, as she grasped for the ceramic baby Jesus in the nativity scene on our kitchen table. These days when advertisers prostitute themselves for our dollars and every manner of holiday festivity competes for our time, my daughter’s un-self-conscious exclamation reminds me of what I really want, too, when I am obliged to stand still and face my inner neediness.

A friend has reminded me of theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ words: “It’s all about Jesus and the rest is bull shit.”  Hauerwas’ sentiments, I suspect, could not ring more true than around this time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of a Savior in a manger, because there was no place for Him at the inn.  We don’t have to worship God in an actual feeding trow at the nearest farm (or in our case, the local petting zoo) to appreciate the full significance of the imagery:  that we (or at least most of us, I suspect) relinquish only the rough-shod, unkempt, least-valued margins of our existence to One who has come into the world to indwell all of us and our world with His Holy Spirit.  Like a Lover who wants all of us but gets only a small part of us because our lives are too crowded and our hearts too restless, God waits for us to return to Him.

A friend recently lamented her forgetfulness of God of late- that she over the years had grown distant in a relationship that she knew was important.  I told her what my spiritual director once told me not long ago when I voiced a similar concern.  She said that my thirst for God would tell me when “to drink.”  I have found this to be true.

Somewhere, in the midst of the endless commercial bustle and incessant demands on our time, I suspect that there is a voice in every one of us which exclaims, “I want Jesus!”  Or, “God, where are you?”  Or, “God, will you show up?  I need you.”  Or, “God, is this holiday bullshit all there is? Because I want more.”

And the One who put that thirst there will lead us to water.

Don’t miss the next in our series, “Weird Jesus Sayings”:  “If anyone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven.  But if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven, either in the present age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).

 

 

The Minister and The Little, Black Dress

"Yes, I am waiting for a flood."

Much has been written about ministry and sex, sexuality, gender and, of most immediate and grave importance here, what to wear when you find yourself young, female and in ordained ministry.  The question has been so well-traversed that it can be tiresome. Those of us who find ourselves “in the business” know the familiar line, for instance, that open-toed shoes or sandals are a bit, well, “gauche” when paired with the standard clerical robe.  But where do we women priests and ministers draw the line when it comes to the clothing we wear out and about?  If the question has been well-traversed, it is because it can lead to a rather breathtaking landscape of potentially angst-ridden, wardrobe decisions.

The other day a friend and I at her suggestion ducked into a boutique consignment store in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.  My friend has nursed a love for New York fashion that, in keeping with a congressional staffer’s salary, is quick to spy the best in hot-off-the-runway deals and name-brand sample sales.  Clothes shopping, which can quickly leave me sapped and a bit depressed, acquires a new novelty when I am watching her shop.

There we were in a hip boutique store browsing the racks when she pulled out the dress and thrust it in my hands. “Try it on!,” she ordered.  If it was not the skimpiest, tightest, slinky little black dress I had ever seen, it was at least the skimpiest, tightest, slinky little black dress I had ever been encouraged to wear. If truth be told, my first impression was, “this looks slutty.”

I hemmed and hawed, but my friend insisted. “Humor me,” she said in her no-nonsense way.

And so I did.  I tried the dress on, and to my great astonishment, the dress fit in a skimpy, tight, revealing and flattering way.  It fit perfectly, so perfectly that my next knee-jerk protest to my friend’s offer to buy it for me (because I would never buy it for myself)- that maybe the dress made me look fat- fell on flat ears.  I kept protesting that I didn’t need it, that $35 was still too much to spend on something I might rarely wear when the money could feed a whole family in Africa for months.

“And because you would never buy it for those reasons,” my friend said, “I’m going to buy it for you.”

My vanity couldn’t argue.  The dress looked great in the mirror.  And no, it didn’t make me look fat.

I was in a quandary.  First there was the question of what we, as Christian feminists- (maybe not of the typical card-carrying sort, but feminists all the same)- were to do when it came to wearing something that made us feel sexually empowered but potentially objectified, too.  And then there was the overhanging dilemma of my priestly identity.  Within my Reformed understanding of the ordained minister as one called to a particular function, that of preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments, there was not a whole lot of help for discerning issues of what to wear on the job when performing this function- not to mention, when these duties were over. Sure, there was that good old book, the Bible, that we Christians hold dear, and passages like 1 Peter 3:3 (instructing women that our beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as “elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes”).  But where in there is there mention of what to do about the simple but suggestive designer dress at a rock-bottom price?

In the end, I let my friend buy me the dress on the condition that I only wear the dress for my husband on a night out and that I send her a picture per her request.  These days, when most of my “nights out” are to the tune of tomorrow’s spaghetti dinner fundraiser for my son’s school, fulfilling my friend’s request will demand a bit of creativity.  Or, I could do as my stand-up-comedian friend suggested and wear the dress to the spaghetti dinner.  We both chuckled at the scenario.

Still, now that I am beholden to fulfill my friend’s request, I find myself asking all Christians, feminists and/or ministers, male or female, in whatever combination, what they would have done in the circumstances.  To be or not to be…in the dress. That is the question.  Cast your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote here.

Spiritual Dissonances: Ground Zero and the W Hotel Bar

9/11 Memorial

Today is the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Probably the closest thing for my generation to that surprise attack by Japanese planes on Pearl Harbor in the year 1941 is 9/11.  On Saturday evening a friend and I visited the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.

When the taxi dropped us off at the entrance, we had to follow a quarter-mile of signs through a maze of temporarily erected dividers that cordoned off the site from the rest of downtown New York.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts to walk the long passageway: security guards peppered the path, ushering us through after checking our passes, followed by a baggage inspection line and then more walking, until finally the long serpentine path opened up into a wide, open space under the night sky.  There, under the city lights we, maybe a bit like medieval mystics having traveled a great distance in search of a meeting place with the sacred, had found our own modern-day shrine.  No, our destination was not the relic of some long-dead saint. But it was, in a sense, holy ground.  Holy ground because here, in the tragic deaths of those who had gone before us, we were reminded of our own fragility.  Our woundedness not just as Americans but as human beings.  Those two dark, gaping holes in the ground, their cavernous mouths drinking in an endless fountain of tears, and all around, inscribed in black marble, the names of nearly 3,000 persons who died when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell in the deadliest terrorist attack in our nation’s history, were a perpetual reminder of both our lostness and our hope for salvific meaning.

We stayed there for a while listening to a guide rattle off some trivia about the site. He pointed to the new World Trade Center buildings now under construction.  1 World Trade Center would be America’s tallest building.   “Was it a tribute to the indefatigable nature of the human spirit or a sign that in our hard-headed pride we never learn?,” I wondered.  Maybe both.

Then after paying our respects we were back retracing our steps through the labyrinth to the gift store where we watched a short video narrated in the words of 9/11 survivors.  The fountains of tears were distilled here in these few very personal accounts of loss- the sudden, violent tearing away of of siblings, children and lovers. These were the rivers of grief magnified in their parts as drops of tears.  The words that Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov puts in the mouth of his character, Ivan, a hardened skeptic in matters of faith, now come to mind: that Ivan would have to “return his ticket” to paradise if it required the tears of even one child. Evil after all seems perhaps most cruel and unacceptable when distilled in the tragedy of just one person, one child of God.

Our pilgrimage had come to an end.  Now we were looking for a bathroom.  The one closest to the memorial seemed to be at the W Hotel next door, which meant that we had to take an elevator up to the hotel bar.  We stepped out of the elevator directly into another kind of darkness, this time the swanky black lines of a club, heaving to the loud, electronic beats of dance music.  The waiters with their trays of cocktails passed by in black like shadowy muses, their offer much more than that of just drinks. Here was the promise of human sophistication in the form of whatever I would like it to be in the moment.  The siren calls of wealth, power, style and unending youthfulness.

The dissonance between this concocted, artificial paradise and the picture we had beheld only minutes earlier in the lights under an open sky was striking.  I had again been transported into another world, one that pretended that human fragility and loss and the pervasiveness of evil and our passing away were mere phantoms. Here in the dim light of a W hotel bar the only thing that seemed real was our own self-importance.  Still, I couldn’t put away the images we had just seen.  Images that told another part of the human story.  They had made their impact.

 

 

“I Gotta Have Faith”

"I gotta have faith." - George Michael

When gay singer George Michael recently put off his tour because of a bad case of pneumonia that landed him in the intensive care unit at the hospital and drew family and long-time partner Fadi Fawaz to his sick bed, members of the group, “Christians for a Moral America,” reportedly prayed for Michael to die as God’s judgment on his “satanic lifestyle” (The Huffington Post).

The latest reports suggest that Michael is “steadily recovering,” and contrary to rumors circulated by the above-mentioned group that Michael has AIDS, Michael has “no other underlying condition” besides pneumonia.  Which I guess means God isn’t answering their prayers quite as they would have liked.  Maybe if they put their petitions to a beat, something edgy, with a sprinkle of the “religious” in its lyrics, something like “Faith,” or “Like Jesus To A Child,” they’ll do better at persuading God to strike George dead with AIDS.  Or, if not AIDS, maybe a thunderbolt?

I suspect this is just another example of how we Christians are obsessed with sexual sin over all else. I wonder what would happen if we used our voices just as loudly to decry the evils of war or economic injustice or human degradation, and did so with a view to fanning the flames of God’s new life as it springs forth. New life in war-torn streets and for families who have lost their homes to foreclosure. Rebirth in places where oppression has crushed the human spirit. Recovery for people who find themselves on dead-end roads. Hope and healing for the sick regardless of their circumstances, no matter how they ended up there, because we worship a God who is God not of the dead but of the living (Matthew 22:32).

 

Backhanded Compliments: Weird Sayings Continued

"Can I take this off yet? It's starting to itch." -John the Baptist

“I’m telling you the truth: John the Baptist is the greatest mother’s son there ever was.  But even the least significant person in heaven’s kingdom is greater than he is.”  Matthew 11:11 (translation is N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

It can almost sound like Jesus is paying his buddy from birth a backhanded compliment here.  Sure, John may be an exceptional prophet.  He may even be an Elijah (11:14).  As one who gestures to the coming kingdom of God, calling on God’s people to repent from his post in the wilderness, John stands in a long line of Jewish truth tellers; and like any good prophet, he is about to be killed for his message.  In only a short time his head will be served on a platter to Herod Antipas in exchange for a stripper’s cheap tricks.

But “if you think John is great, you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet,’ now that I’m here,” Jesus seems to be saying.  And there is a sense in which our impression is true. Jesus is paying his quirky cousin with the hair shirt and a palate for locusts and honey a very big compliment with a twist. He is dispensing high praise with a curve ball at the end of it.

Because for as much as John has faithfully lived out a life under God’s rule, he has yet to see the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.  John’s career is ending just as Jesus’ has begun.  John has caught glimpses of that kingdom, a divine order in which the blind see, the lame walk and those in bondage are set free, but he has yet to see the full implications of a “God with us.”  He has yet to catch the full meaning of a God who dwells with God’s people in the person of Jesus Christ.  He will not live to see Jesus crucified as one “high and lifted up,” parodied as “the King of the Jews;” nor will he witness the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ.

And now it is as if Jesus is saying that all that John has pointed to is here in the flesh. So that all that John represents, in the way of the prophets and the law and centuries of talking and dreaming about a time when God will dwell among God’s people, is incredibly important and meaningful because it has anticipated this “God-with-us” moment in Jesus.  Apart from Jesus, John, the prophets and the law are not inconsequential; they represent the greatest human efforts to incarnate God’s love and care for creation; but in the god-man Jesus their truth finds its greatest, fullest, realest embodiment.

And in this new divine order that God is unleashing in the person of Jesus, the “least” of those who see what God is doing and join God there are “greater” than John the Baptist.  The “least” of those who meet Jesus and get to know Him- and in doing so fall in love with and hitch their lives to a God who never gives up on us and loves us to the end and beyond- will be “greater” in the kingdom than John the Baptist.

What a wild, unfathomable mystery- that in Jesus the kingdom of God is fulfilled, that in Jesus, we discover God’s kingdom over and over again, that in Jesus, we can be there with each new moment, as if being reborn again and again to the Spirit-breathed reality around us.  My gratitude for this gift is beyond words.  Even so I still can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy in the hair shirt.

The Advent Conspiracy: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

Black Friday shoppers line up at Macy's in Manhattan.

“Foxes have their dens and the birds in the air have their nests.  But the son of man has nowhere he can lay his head.”  Matthew 8:20

“Black Friday” has come and gone, but the staggering figures remain.  Americans spent a whopping $11.4 billion, averaging $400 per consumer- the most ever spent on a single day, according to an NPR report.  The pictures corroborate this: 9,000 people lined up outside Macy’s in Herald Square, New York to be the first to get in on the deals.

And here Jesus offers a strikingly discordant reality.  Which is really a claim on the lives of those who would follow Him.  One that is truly peculiar.  Peculiar for a peculiar people.

If even foxes and birds have their homes, Jesus is as one even poorer- or freer- than they.  He- “the son of man”- has “no place to lay his head.”  A bit weird and a bit cryptic, don’t you think?

Because whereas we, or a great number of us, as the statistics would suggest, enrich ourselves with an extravagance of things, Jesus travels lightly, making his home along the way with the poor and the forgotten of our world.  While we, many of us, captivate ourselves with more and more stuff, Jesus invites us to leave our captivity for a free stretch of highway, our windswept hair and the thrill of the ride keeping us alive more than any new set of shoes or the latest piece of technology will.

The adventure is full of pain and glory, Jesus seems to be saying. But when we join Him we add our names to an undercover party of “co-conspirators” with an important job to do.  A job that involves being “on the move” in the world around us. We are “peripatetic” insofar as we make ourselves available to God’s mission of healing and restoration rather than let ourselves be weighed down by our possessions. We are “refugees” to the degree that we find ourselves out of place in a mall at midnight the day after Thanksgiving, camping out to shop as if our lives depended on it, and instead go where Jesus roams.  To the places where Jesus finds welcome. Among the poor, the sick, the afflicted and those who wish to “see.”  In a smelly stable just outside the outskirts of town on the margins of power.

When we go to those places we will hear God’s voice.  We will hear God speaking to us.  A bit like the tender sounds of a small baby nursing at his mother’s breast.  It is even possible that then we will drop our bags- all of those material things that weigh us down and have told us who we are- and worship God.

To learn more about how you can join the Advent Conspiracy, go to www.adventconspiracy.org.

Can I Get a Witness?

"I hate silence when it is a time for speaking." -Kassia

If there were any doubt that women were preachers before the twentieth century, this should put it to rest once and for all.  The ninth-century nun, Kassia, was probably the most famous in a line of women preachers who put their sermons into musical poems of sorts and sang them. (I, for one, am relieved that we Presbyterians haven’t borrowed this particular strain from the Syrian homiletical tradition!)

Tradition holds that Kassia used her voice so much that it landed her in hot water (or helped her elude some close calls, depending on how you look at it): as one of a handful of candidates for royal marriage to Emperor Theophilus in 830, she reportedly passed up the opportunity (whether knowingly or unknowingly remains unclear) by speaking out on behalf of women. Then she went on to found a monastery in Constantinople in 843 and become its first abbess. (You go girl.)

Kassia’s hymnic sermon, “To the Harlot,” is both personal, in its moving identification with the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume before Jesus’ death, and universal, in its invitation to share in this woman’s worshipful repentance. The sermon eventually made its way into the Triodion, the Byzantine church service book for Lent:

Lord, the woman who fell headlong into a multitude of sins still recognized your Godhead, and joined the ranks of the Myrrh-bearing women.
Dropping tears she carries myrrh for you before you were laid in the tomb; crying out: Alas! what dark night envelops me; what gloomy, moonless, madness of abandonment is the lust for sin I have.
But take this offering of my spring of tears, you who guide the waters of the seas through the paths of clouds.
Stoop down to me, for the great grief my heart bears; you who made the very skies bow down, before the face of your ineffable self-emptying.
How I shall kiss your immaculate feet! and once again I shall dry them with the hair of my head; those feet whose steps Eve once heard, at dusk in paradise, and then hid herself in fear.
Who can ever sound the depths of my sinfulness or the profundities of your judgments, O My Savior, the Deliverer of our souls?
Do not pass by this your handmaid, you who have such boundless mercy.

For more on Kassia, see John McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition (New York:  Orbis Books, 2001)

Stay tuned for next weird Jesus saying tomorrow:  “Foxes have their dens and the birds in the sky have their nests.  But the son of man has nowhere he can lay his head.”

Kingdom of Heaven Acrobatics: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued…

“Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law and the prophets.  I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them!  I’m telling you the truth: until heaven and earth disappear, not one stroke, not one dot, is going to disappear from the law, until it’s all come true.  So anyone who relaxes a single one of these commandments, even the little ones, and teaches that to people, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  But anyone who does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  Yes, let me tell you: unless your covenant behavior is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get in to the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:17-20 (Translation compliments of N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

If there were any evidence that could possibly draw into question the claim that God cannot contradict God’s Self, then this would be it.  On the one hand Jesus seems to be saying that strict adherence to the commandments in word and deed will make a person “great” in the kingdom of heaven; on the other, Jesus holds up a bar that not even the Pharisees in their rigorous application of the law can reach as criteria for entrance into God’s kingdom.

Which can leave us asking, “which is it, Jesus?”  Weird indeed.

Unless what Jesus is doing here is introducing a totally new paradigm.  A “revolution” as N.T. Wright puts it, in our whole mode of living and being in the world.  An existence to which the commandments point, as trail markers of sorts on the way to a full revelation of God’s justice, but one which also requires a complete reversal of old habits of thinking and living.

Because we like the Pharisees, I suspect, can easily slip into patterns of relating to God that ultimately point back to us and our own efforts to measure up.  To play by the rules.  To live within a certain rubric of conventional goodness.  So that if we’re not stealing or committing adultery, we can convince ourselves that we’ve got it together.  That “we’ve arrived.”  Or, in a similar stroke, if we are stealing or committing adultery, we can persuade ourselves that there is now no hope for us in the kingdom of heaven.

But notice that Jesus does not set up a paradigm by which one’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven depends on how well one keeps God’s laws.  Sure, those of us who have been exceedingly “good” may find that we are “greater” in the kingdom, just as those of us who have been a bit more “naughty” may find that we are “less” there. But the ultimate paradigm shift is in the notion of how we find ourselves in the kingdom in the first place. Because what Jesus seems to be saying here is that we find ourselves in the kingdom not by making our goodness or lack thereof the focus, but rather by joining the revolution that Jesus has now begun in his life, death and resurrection.  A revolution that begins with God’s remaking of our own hearts and ends when the heavens and earth pass away, and when God, with just a little help from us, has finished restoring the whole world to the way it was meant to be from the very beginning.

So there’s a sense in which Jesus is taking all that the Pharisees have come to understand about their world and reinterpreting it for them: he is validating their experience of God’s love and care in the prophets and the commandments, but also setting it out under the light and asking them to take another look at it, this time with a bigger, God-breathed perspective.

And the beauty and adventure of a relationship with Jesus are that we, too, have the opportunity to let God hold up the things that we, like the Pharisees, enshrine as necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom, that place where God’s justice and mercy kiss each other and where our hearts beat with God’s love.  We have the chance to let God shine God’s light on these same things so that they appear as if for a first time to us.  So that we, in the process, are “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” as the apostle Paul describes (Romans 12:2).  In that moment, we can choose to exclaim with wonder and gratitude.  Or, we can keep on lighting incense at the old shrines.

 

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving for Emmy

We were sitting across from one another in the monastery dining hall, eating our lunch in silence per the rule.  We hadn’t met yet.

“Would you like to come to my party?,” she blurted out.  Loudly.

Heads turned.

“I’ll think about it,” I whispered back, a bit embarrassed.

Two days earlier we had been sitting in a room full of other strangers also there to retreat.  I was there to begin writing a book, but upon suggestion chose to sit in on one of the weekend sessions.  A funny thing, really, because it was one of a series of workshops on the topic of “Boundaries.”

There we were, each of us familiar only with the sound of our own voices which we had been instructed not to use too often while there.  We were here to escape the noise of the world outside the walls of this place.  To open our ears to what God might be saying to us in the stillness.

“I take lithium for bipolar disorder,” she turned around to say to the couple behind her, strangers like the rest of us.  She said it loudly enough for all of us to hear.  “The last time I was here I had lithium poisoning,” she exclaimed with almost mischievous glee, like someone who having been afflicted with something for so long can actually see the humor in it.

Some of us exchanged nervous glances.  Others laughed awkwardly.  I was thinking, “It’s a good thing she’s here– at a retreat on boundaries.”

Earlier, during the question and answer time, she had issued another exclamation: “Have you noticed how the windows of the church are blue, but it looks yellow inside?”

It is amazing how community can form even in silence, though, when the silence is worshipful and orients around God in our midst.  At first, I was afraid of her, maybe of how her experience with bipolar illness touched the circle of my own struggles at times with depression- but by the end of my weekend at the monastery, I was grateful for her.  Grateful for her transparency in the same way that I was grateful for the boundaries that separated us.  That cordoned her off as a unique child of God, with an experience that witnessed to the pain and glory of Christ in our brokenness.

In a few minutes she had told me her life story.  How at the age of 19, while in film school at New York University, she had had her first “manic” episode: she chased a truck barefoot through the streets of Manhattan and ended up in bed with one too many men.  How after that there were the drugs- she had tried all kinds.  She had even given herself away to some loser guy for a bit of cocaine.  Which had landed her in a halfway house, where she had a nervous breakdown.  She had been clean for nine months but then relapsed.  Because of the same loser boyfriend.  For years she had fought the diagnosis of “bipolar disorder.”  But now, at the age of 36, she had written an autobiography about how through these experiences she had “overcome.”  And now she was writing a second book.  On pigeon tongue. (Apparently her second degree was in linguistics.)  Hmm, I thought, wondering how much of this was grounded in any reality.

But I listened.  And as I listened, her eyes latched on to me with an almost furious intensity: they were the eyes of someone struggling to find some sort of authentic connection from a place far away.  I wanted to help her even as I wanted to turn away.

On the last day we were in the church for noon prayers with the monks.  She strode un-self-consciously over to Father Michael.  “Look at my new tattoo!,” she exclaimed with childlike enthusiasm, baring the right side of her arm with pride to the priest.  He patted her shoulder.  “Emmy (a pseudonym), you are a very courageous girl,” he said, gently.

Some of us couldn’t help but smile.  And be grateful.  Grateful for this person made in God’s image.  Grateful for her courage and her joy in the midst of a life that had dealt her cards that we would have all liked to give back for her sake.

For Emmy and for all those like her who this Thanksgiving struggle with mental illness or any kind of affliction, I give thanks- and ask God to bless them.

 

 

 

 

Food for Thought: Would You Agree?

"Jesus doesn't hang in corporate board rooms, he hangs in McPherson."

 

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