Digital Literacy Toolkit cover image

Digital literacy as religious leadership

The basic argument of my professional life is that lay and ordained ministers need digital literacy skills to do their work effectively.

Proclamation, education, pastoral care—nearly every task of religious leadership is a social practice. And nearly every social practice is becoming mediated in some way by technology.

Case in point: Recently I served on the faculty of Beyond Walls, the spiritual writing program at Kenyon College. Part of that experience was participating in an OpEd Project workshop designed to get the priests, ministers, and rabbis in attendance to claim their expertise and share it in public forums.

“The public needs to hear from thoughtful religious leaders,” the facilitators told us. And that requires some skills navigating today’s marketplace of ideas.

I know few religious leaders who navigate it better than fellow Beyond Walls social media instructor Sarah Lefton. I had a blast chatting with Sarah for the YouTube channel she created and for the podcast I help create. (Sneak peak: you can listen to the lightly edited interview audio here. A 10-15 tightly edited story is in the works.)

The lesson I relearned and relearned spending a week with Sarah? You’ve got to know your medium.

I want faith leaders in training to have the chance to learn the various media they will need to navigate when they land in congregations, schools, and other contexts. And I want them to have that experience regardless of the digital literacy level of their seminary professors and other mentors.

So I’m working with colleagues to create a Digital Literacy Toolkit for Theological Educators.

The site is a work in progress. Among other things, it is still incredibly slow.

But I hope you’ll have a look (maybe at our research-based list of literacies?) and consider either contributing or sharing with a theological educator who could themselves contribute—or could benefit from the resources we’re creating and collecting.

I can’t wait to tell you more about how all this is going.

Running through weeds & wheat

The parable of the landowner’s wise restraint

Image credit: “Running” by Mackenzie Black via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

I’ve been traveling for work the last the couple weeks, first in the Midwest and then in Germany. But at the beginning of the trip I got to spend a day with my sister in Wisconsin.

Rachel teaches baking at a community college and so has some flexibility to work other jobs in the summer. Currently she’s helping to manage the harvest at a small organic farm about halfway between Milwaukee and Madison.

My trip to the farm with her has given me a new appreciation for this passage from Matthew’s gospel.

When you can’t spray herbicides, you have to use every other trick in the agricultural book to give your crops a fighting chance. Even then, I’m told, you’ll probably end up like our farm owner from scripture—whether or not you have enemies sowing bad seed in the night.

That was certainly the case where I visited. In some fields it was hard to even tell the good crops from the weeds. I definitely believe that in some cases pulling the weeds would have been a problem for the produce.

I appreciated this lesson that sometimes no amount of care or agricultural cleverness can guarantee that a farm will avoid the weeds-and-wheat situation.

There is an alternative. Almost anyone who leaves the city for awhile this summer will at some point see farms that display a different reality: Row after row of perfect crops—wheat, yes but corn even more strikingly. There’s often not a weed in sight beneath those tall, straight stalks.

Of course, many of these seeds have been genetically engineered with immunity to herbicides and pesticides. Many of these farms also squeeze the last bit of nourishment out of depleted soils using industrial fertilizers.

But it’s worth noting that even big agribusiness cannot guarantee success in this struggle. Pests and weeds and blights can and do evolve. Exhausted earth cannot yield an increase indefinitely.

**

Of course, this is not a sermon about agriculture, any more than Jesus’s was. But the farmers’ situation in the parable and in today’s world is an apt illustration of … let’s just say the lengths to which we are willing to go.

The people who trained me to interpret scripture told me to be skeptical of the simplistic explanations that follow some of the gospel parables, the ones where Jesus lays out a narrow one-to-one correspondence between each literal element and its spiritual interpretation. These were likely added later by hand-wringing scribes and editors.

What happens if we lay aside the narrow reading of this parable? What if it isn’t a simple encouragement to perseverance for the faithful and a warning to all others that the clock is ticking?

What happens if we focus instead on the landowner’s wise restraint in the face of a quite natural longing—a longing to root out the ineffective to encourage the productive, to eliminate evil to protect the good.

Then this parable becomes a warning about the belief that we can fully identify, separate, and control the forces of good and evil. God knows we need the warning.

We want to rip out the weeds right now, stay on top of things, remove the threat. Even if we’re the kind of people who hope for the best, we usually fear the worst—and more often than not when we act out of fear we exacerbate the situation.

Whether we’re surveying history or today’s headlines, it’s hard not to start seeing this parable everywhere: I’ve noticed it recently in airport security lines and in the laments of educator colleagues about the folly of standardized testing run amok.

I saw it on grim display last week when I visited an East German state police jail—now a museum—that held political prisoners until they could be psychologically tortured into signing false confessions.

And I felt a last version of the parable leap back into my life after a momentary absence when I reconnected to our U.S. news cycle, filled with story after story of police violence, the communities it affects, and the accountability that is almost always missing.

When we believe we can understand and control the forces of good and evil, we sometimes cause ourselves or others unnecessary inconvenience or stress. Other times people will suffer or even die at our hands.

Against that backdrop, I believe this parable can be for us a warning against the constant temptation to let vigilance override restraint.

**

I was still at the conference that brought me to Germany last week when I got the email reminding me to choose a text to place on the today’s bulletin cover. I knew I wouldn’t be starting my sermon until the flight home, so I picked my favorite verse from among the scheduled readings and hoped for the best.

Obviously, you’re not hearing a sermon on the story of Jacob’s dream in the wilderness. Still, it seems to me there’s an important connection between his story and one last reading of the parable of the landowner’s wise restraint.

Jacob is, at this point in his life, a scoundrel. He’s out in the wilderness to have this fantastical dream because he’s on the run from his brother Esau—the brother whose birthright and blessing he has stolen.

And yet in this moment—when he’s basically a fugitive on the run—God chooses to bless him anyway, to renew in him the promise to his parents and grandparents to make of them a great nation.

Perhaps even more than these complicated relatives do, Jacob shows us that God doesn’t just work through moral superheroes in order to bring about good.

In fact, it’s God’s faithfulness to Jacob that drives his growth and transformation. He returns years later a better man. God didn’t give up on him. God forgave the bad and nurtured the good.

Just like Jacob, you and I are ambiguous characters. We have within us both good and evil.

So could it be that this God has the same plan for us?

Could it be that the weeds and wheat are not just or even primarily out there but are also in here growing together, composing us as flawed but nevertheless beloved children of the Most High?

Could it even be that our weeds are no threat to God bearing fruit in us if we can only learn to live with them by God’s grace?

I believe that so much of what tortures our relationship with the weeds and the wheat growing together in the world is that we do not want to think about the weeds and the wheat growing within ourselves.

God in Christ has promised not to make us free of evil and sin, but free from evil and sin. As in free from being determined by them. Not spotless, but redeemed.

God in Christ isn’t pulling weeds or spraying herbicides. God in Christ is patiently waiting for a harvest that is assured not by our vigilance but by grace.

Our destiny is to be gathered up—all made one by God’s reconciling love.

If we can trust that, then we can learn to see the tangled mess of life and growth as a field not of threats from our enemies but of fertile, patient possibility.

Binding of Isaac by Lawrence OP image (mosaic)

The binding of Isaac: A sermon about discernment

Image credit: “Binding of Isaac” by Lawrence OP via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

During my first year of seminary, my classmates and I went on retreat to a remarkable intentional community in the heart of Virginia’s capital.

The founder of Richmond Hill is a guy named Ben. He’s an institution in Richmond politics as well as its faith community. He’s a prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures’ sense of that term: bold, truthful in the face of others’ discomfort, a beacon of righteous moral clarity for better and perhaps occasionally for worse.

The whole weekend experience had a profound effect on many of us. In particular, Ben said something about discernment that weekend that has always stuck with me.

Along with all the important caveats that go along with a statement like this, he said, “Sometimes, sometimes, it’s very important to make a different decision from what your priest is telling you, or what your therapist is telling you, or what your friends are telling you.”

His point was that for our faith to do its most vital counter-cultural work, we sometimes have to go against prevailing wisdom, the formal and informal structures of power and authority, convention and convenience, recognition and prestige.

In other words, Ben said: “You’re going to have to make some difficult and unpopular decisions.”

I probably remember the whole thing so vividly because I have a streak of overly stark moral seriousness, a kind of black-and-white thinking that basically assumes the worst about the hard choices we all inevitably face in life. From deep within me, my angels and demons responded to Ben’s challenge with a grave “Amen.”

Don’t get me wrong: if I thought God were asking me to do something as terrible as in this story of Abraham and Isaac, I’m quite certain my first response would not be to say, in a serious tone, “Well, this must be my cross to bear.”

But I think the binding of Isaac terrifies me so much because if the command were less a matter of life and death, I know I’m capable of making myself pretty miserable if I’m convinced that God wants me to do something or if that something simply seems like the right thing to do. Maybe you know someone like that. Maybe you are someone like that.

I wonder, then, if you’ll humor me in a little thought experiment for we-the-sometimes-overserious: What might have happened if Abraham refused the call of God?

After all, for the later Hebrew writers that put this story down in scripture, child sacrifice was most certainly forbidden. And just on the human level, who could blame any hero for refusing this particular demand?

So let’s pretend Abraham says “no.”

Perhaps he tries to negotiate with God, like he later does standing outside Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe he tries begging, like Moses on Mt. Sinai interceding for his people.

Perhaps, like Jonah, he runs away. Perhaps, like Job, he digs in for a long theological siege.

Perhaps, like Peter, he remains faithful to almost the very end, but before the climax learns that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

Notice that all of these characters, in the end, have to reckon with the path God has put before them. Sodom and Gomorrah still fall. The Hebrews who were at Sinai never make it to the Promised Land. Jonah sulks his way through saving Nineveh, and Job sulks and sulks and sulks. Peter receives the resurrected Christ’s gentle chiding about his threefold denial on Good Friday—and then he spends his remaining days faithfully feedings Jesus’s sheep.

If we want to try to understand the binding of Isaac on its own terms, we should set aside for now the debates about the righteousness of God. The Bible assumes that God is righteous. And more often than not, it assumes that God’s will will be done, despite our frequent human frailty. So in this case: even if Abraham says no.

What’s interesting about this story is that it flips that script. Here God puts a difficult demand before a servant, and the servant listens. And the thing God supposedly wants the servant to do ends up not happening, because of course God never actually desired it in the first place.

God doesn’t want Isaac to die or Abraham to be anguished. He does want to know if Abraham is all in on this plan to become the father of a great nation. There are serious stakes here, but not the stakes Abraham believes are before him.

For his part, Abraham keeps saying yes: he rises early, collects his companions, makes the journey, carries the tools, answers the anxious question, ties up the son, raises the knife … and encounters God’s deliverance.

**

We will face difficult decisions in life. Sometimes they will seem utterly impossible—or downright wrong. And sometimes, sometimes, we should go on the difficult journey. We should keep saying yes, keep taking leaps of faith small and large, and do our best to be attentive to where God is leading us.

I think I’ve faced two decisions in my life whose stakes rose to something like what the tellers of this story are trying to evoke. Remembering Richmond Hill’s remarkable founder, let’s call them “Ben decisions.”

In both cases, I thought God was telling me to choose the harder, counter-cultural path, and so I did. This was no real virtue. It just was what is was.

In one case, I said yes to this “call” for quite a while. I even asked for God’s help resisting the easier path. And then something finally happened that gave me confidence to believe that I had been thinking about this decision all wrong, that what I thought was a call from God was actually my own inner voice calling from a place of pain that needed to be healed.

I still remember the utterly overwhelming moment when I started believing that the good thing I wanted might be something God wanted for me. Like Abraham standing over Isaac, I got to experience the relief of the angel’s message: “don’t do this crazy thing—God has something so much better in store for you.”

In the other case, I think I probably made the right choice by staying the course I believed God had put before me. It was painful and difficult. I believe I learned lessons that I needed.

I would not, maybe could not, choose to do the same thing in the future. But I wouldn’t go back and change my original decision either.

As it did for Abraham, my willingness to stick with a costly choice has given me some small measure of confidence that I will have the trust and courage to follow God into difficult and unknown territory again someday.

**

What remains utterly unclear to me is how to tell the difference between the two kinds of “Ben decisions” we see reflected in different ways in the binding of Isaac. One is the kind where we assume the worst about what God wants from us but it’s really our own brokenness that brought us there. The other is the kind for which there is no way out but through to the other side, where God is genuinely waiting and drawing us onward.

In the first, the “flipped script,” we share in Abraham’s joy when we realize God’s will is more wonderful than we had feared. In the second, we share by grace in Abraham’s faithfulness. We partake in the sobering but also intimate experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil.

There’s no “answer” to the many thorny questions this text forces upon us, and maybe that’s the point. Because whether we make it through the valley, attempt the journey but falter along the way, or end up realizing God never sent us there in the first place, we can trust that there in the valley God will be with us.

Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Job, Peter and all the rest—the Lord was with them all the way.

Yes, God does sometimes ask very difficult things of us—though the journey may not be as it first appears.

What changes everything, for them and for us, is that we don’t have to walk alone. Indeed, we never are.

Abundance by Barbara Gilhooly photo

The abundant life of the followers of Christ

Image credit: “abundance” by Barbara Gilhooly via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fourth Sunday in Easter:

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Before we begin, one programming note: Today we will further reinforce the spiritual impossibility of avoiding mixed metaphors. You’ve been warned.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is informally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, but this reading from John’s gospel has Jesus describing his own role not as shepherd but as gate: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”

In the parable, the sheep go out each day to seek pasture—a place to safely graze under the protection of the light of day and the wise guidance of the shepherd. They come back each evening seeking protection from the night’s dangers and rest to prepare for the following day’s journey.

If Jesus is the gate, we sheep encounter him at least twice each day, reminding us in the morning that he sends us out with work to do and reminding us in the evening that we have labored enough for today. We go out, we come in. Exit and return.

This notion of a daily, almost rhythmic encounter with God makes me think of breathing, of the opportunity to breathe in God’s Spirit and empowerment in the morning and breathe out all my frustration and regret as I walk in the door each night.

I think these visions would be familiar to the disciples we hear about in our first reading, from Acts:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There it is again: Day by day. If we connect with God and with community day by day, by grace we grow in our awareness of the presence of Christ all around us. If we connect with God and with community day by day, by grace we slowly learn to be a little more patient with ourselves and others, and little more generous and grateful and full of joy.

Of course, commentators on this passage from Acts are right, I think, to be a little skeptical of whether it quite so straightforward for disciples to be disciples, and for the church to be the church. Even if they knew something about forming holy habits.

For example, it’s true that the economic system of the day was quite different, and there’s no doubt that the experience of tight-knit community and the apostles’ “signs and wonders” must have been very powerful.

Nevertheless, the thought that any group of people would pool their wealth and possessions quite so unselfishly and with such apparent unity of purpose—let’s just say I suspect the reality was occasionally more contentious. Certainly much of what comes later in Acts and in the Epistles suggests that frequent disagreements would soon follow. And of course there’s nothing wrong with disagreements.

But even if this account of the daily life of the earliest Christians is a bit nostalgia-tinged, I still find the overall picture believable. Indeed, we find stories like these throughout the history of our faith: ordinary people accomplishing remarkable things, and as this morning’s reading from 1 Peter reminds us, often enduring great hardship along the way.

What all the stories have in common is that these communities knew that God was helping them to accomplish this work, together, day by day. One shepherd. One flock. Also one gate, I guess.

A few months back I saw Martin Scorsese’s striking film Silence, based on a novelization of the experience of the Kakure Kirishitans. These were the “secret Christians” who practiced their Catholic faith underground during the Tokugawa shogunate in seventeenth through nineteenth century Japan.

The film focuses primarily on Jesuit missionaries who sneak into the country to support these communities and to search for their mentor who is rumored to have renounced his faith. But for me the most compelling moments are the early scenes of worship and fellowship in Kirishitan homes. When the priests arrive, they ask the villagers how they manage to practice their faith.

Their answer could be right out of the Book of Acts: Everyone here is a member of our secret church. We have a group of elders who lead us in prayer and teaching. We baptize our children. “We hide the Kirishitan images but God still sees us, yes?”

They had their Lord, and they had each other, and despite horrendous persecution they lived lives of quiet and courageous faith, day by day. They found pasture not in daylight but in shadows. They found it nonetheless.

And though their faces had become masks that could not show it, Andrew Garfield’s Fr. Rodrigues verbalizes what is evident in all the scenes of devotion and fellowship: “I was overwhelmed right away by the love I felt from them.”

I mention all this—an example of the the breadth and depth of experience among Christ’s followers—because we skipped the most important part of the parable. It might be the most important part of the entire gospel.

We got a preview in Psalm 23 in that famous line about our cups overflowing, but Jesus puts an even finer point on it at the end of today’s gospel: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life … that is the purpose of our daily encounters at the gate, of the rhythmic breathing in and out of God’s rejuvenating Spirit, of the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, of the breaking of the bread and the prayers, of pooling our resources to care for each other and those in need, of the God-given strength to endure suffering and to work for justice, of icons and rosaries hung on the wall or the rearview or hidden from authorities who do not approve.

The purpose of all these gifts is to experience abundant life. God wants to give us this life right now, each and every day.

I am shocked and frankly embarrassed by how often I forget this reality, how often I see the world through self-imposed blinders that allow me to fixate on the day’s usually inconsequential worries instead of its joys or even its worthy sorrows.

I hope you will spend a few moments with me thinking about the ways God desires your flourishing, you life abundant.

What does that look like for you? How do you experience it?

It can be as profound and overwhelming as the warm embrace of a loved one after a time spent apart or as simple as one slow, restorative breath.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. We are not quite halfway through the great 50 days. We cannot control what gifts we may be given in our continuing celebration of the season of new life. But we can control how we notice and receive them.

Enter through the gate. Live by the example of the saints who came before us. And trust that goodness and mercy will follow you all your days—because Jesus longs for you to experience life in abundance.

Imagination photo

Praying with scripture—and our imaginations

Fourth Sunday in Lent:

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

I wasn’t at the morning liturgies last week, but I have it on the sound authority that is the parish website that Mother Kate had a challenge for us: “You NEED to be praying and reading the Bible,” she said. “It is what sustains you through the dark times and the stressful times and the confusing times.”

I heartily agree, and I second another point she made: many of the rough patches in my own spiritual and emotional life have also come during periods when I’ve convinced myself that this need didn’t apply to me, not right now.

As years have gone by, I’ve noticed the change that happens when I return to my morning Bible reading after I’ve been lax for a while: the sense of relief, of familiarity, of the sure presence of Christ there within me. Having some daily or near-daily practice, however brief and however simple, is the way we invite God into our lives, and learn to see God already there.

The good news is, there are as many ways to pray as there are people who do it. Part of my job at Virginia Seminary was training others to think about a certain kind of social media use as prayer, or a certain kind of sitting with art or music. In fact, one of my favorites ways is with a podcast called Pray As You Go, which is produced by the British Jesuits and meant to be used while commuting. You can read a bit about it in today’s issue of The Messenger.

The genius of this particular prayer resource is that it makes digitally accessible a very old and very intimate form of prayer. Here’s how Jesuit Kevin O’Brien explains it in his book The Ignatian Adventure:

Ignatius was convinced that God can speak to us as surely through our imagination as through our thoughts and memories. In the Ignatian tradition, praying with the imagination is called contemplation … a very active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions.

Ignatian contemplation is suited especially for the Gospels, [O’Brien continues. W]e accompany Jesus through his life by imagining scenes from the Gospel stories … Visualize the event as if you were making a movie. Pay attention to the details: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the event. Lose yourself in the story; don’t worry if your imagination is running too wild. At some point, place yourself in the scene.

Now, I’m no skilled facilitator or even practitioner of Ignatian Contemplation. But in response to Mother Kate’s challenge, this week I tried “contemplating” today’s marathon gospel passage from John.

I’ll be honest, I have a lot of feelings about John’s gospel, some of which participants in our weekday morning Eucharists are probably getting tired of hearing about. But I think Fr. O’Brien would tell me, tell all of us, that our feelings—positive and negative—are a rich point of entry for the Holy Spirit to teach us something when we contemplate a biblical story.

Another entry point when it comes to this prayer practice is characters, and there’s no shortage of them in this passage. So I wonder if, as a sort of Ignatian thought experiment, we might try putting ourselves in the shoes of some of these characters. I wonder what we might learn. (You may find that  closing your eyes helps.) 

Picture yourself as one of Jesus’s disciples, walking along a busy stone-paved street near the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps one of your sandals has worn thin and you’re favoring that foot. Perhaps you’re the one who asks Jesus if it was the blind man or his parents who sinned. Do you feel rebuked when he tells you “neither”? How do you feel when he mentions that night is coming, that his light might soon depart from the world? Do you get excited or inspired when you realize Jesus is winding up for another healing? How do make sense of the bizarre ritual that follows—saliva turned to mud, a healing touch, a dispatch to the spring fed pool outside the city walls?

Picture yourself in the crowd as word starts to spread of what’s happened. Perhaps you yourself are arriving for a more commonplace ritual cleansing, and the commotion catches your eye. Do you believe the man’s claims that he is the beggar who was born blind? If so, are you perhaps envious of his good fortune? Do you run to tell others, or jostle for a better view as the tense conversations begin, or leave to find a quiet place to ponder what you’ve seen?

Perhaps placing yourself in the narrative helps you see something about the passage that you’ve never noticed before. I’ve always sympathized with the man’s parents, assuming they simply hid their elation for their son out of fear of the authorities’ angry suspicion. I realized this time they might also feel some resentment … for bringing this unwanted attention upon their family, perhaps even for disrupting their family dynamic and forever changing their long-time roles.

Perhaps placing yourself in the narrative lets God teach you something about you. In my case, I found it a little disconcerting how I resonated with what I imagined were the Pharisees feelings of frustration, of their sense of “losing control of the narrative” in this incident. So where in my life today is that kind of desire for control at work? How can I learn from the open-mindedness of the man born blind? How can I learn from Jesus’ patience, from his apparent comfort with offending when necessary, from his utter lack of fear of being misunderstood.

Perhaps placing yourself in the narrative help you have an intimate encounter with Christ. Our imaginations are a powerful place to meet Jesus—to feel his healing touch, to study his non-judgmental gaze, to be caught up in his loving embrace. It can be a little overwhelming. And some days it will be underwhelming.

I find this advice from Father O’Brien helpful, regarding Ignatian Contemplation or any kind of prayer: “[P]ray as you are able; don’t try to force it. Rest assured that God will speak to you, whether through your memory, understanding, intellect, emotions, or imagination.”

If we trust that God will speak to us as we spend time with scripture day by day, we begin to develop what one of my mentors calls a biblical imagination, “encourag[ing] honest religious conversation rather than stopping it cold.”

Instead of thinking of Bible stories in isolation, we juxtapose them against the backdrop of our lives. We see ourselves and our situations reflected in part within the great canvas that is the mythos of our faith. Or it goes the other way, and modern-day Biblical characters or situations start to jump to our attention as we survey the world around us. A biblical imagination doesn’t try to force analogies or equivalencies, but it does take note of resonances, parallels, and departures.

I prepared most of this sermon on Thursday, against the backdrop of the impending healthcare vote that never happened. In that context, this passage about Jesus’s conflict with the authorities and a man who got stuck in the middle has increased my appreciation for the messiness of social change, of consensus building, of perhaps following or perhaps changing the rules, of doing our best to care for each other with the tools and resources we have.

Living together, to say nothing of leadership, is hard—whatever side we find ourself on in the conflicts of our day. It takes creativity and inner stillness to begin to dream a new reality into being. I think Jesus navigated his conflicts so powerfully, and started such an important movement, precisely because he had a powerful imagination.

No coincidence, then, that we can meet him in ours.

Photo: “Imagination” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Screenshot: Monty Python's God

Ash Wednesday: Don’t grovel!

As on so many of our most significant holy days, on Ash Wednesday we are challenged to try to integrate a couple of at least seemingly unrelated ideas and rituals.

The first is the “Invitation to a Holy Lent,” which offers the context that this season began as a time of preparation for baptism, and a time when those who had been “separated from the body of the faithful” by “notorious sins” were “reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”

But rather than sitting in some kind of “I told you so” judgment, the early church saw this as an opportunity for the entire community to reconnect with Christ’s “message of pardon and absolution,” and “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

There are a lot of ands in those words Mother Kate will read in a few minutes. Baptism and reconciliation, penitence and forgiveness, pardon and absolution, repentance and faith. Why this insistence on pairing ideas, on balancing out our liturgy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could think about one thing at a time?

I’m not so sure. Let’s consider another unusual element of this service. After we’ve received our ashes, we will work our way through Psalm 51 and pray together the Litany of Repentance. It can be an overwhelming experience, as some quick excerpts might help illustrate.

There’s verse 6 of the psalm: “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth / a sinner from my mother’s womb.” Whoa, lot to unpack there, even if we don’t take the psalmist literally. Or how about this item from the litany: “We have been deaf to your call to serve.” One glance at my calendar certainly makes that point to me. And here’s a confession that’s bound to have a banner year all across the political spectrum: “[F]or uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”

I don’t know about you, but the longer I sit with all that is wrapped up in the middle section of this liturgy, the more tempted I am to despair. To wallow, even.

The reason we need the balance of all those ands is clear from all our readings: no wallowing. That is not the point of this season. Not even a little bit.

Just take it from St. Paul: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So that we might become the righteousness of God. I don’t know exactly what that means, but clearly God has more important work for us in this season of examination and preparation than to wallow in what holds us back. If we find ourselves amid some uncomfortable truth, our task is to remember that this knowledge will be a key to our growth in love.

Seen through this lens, even Jesus’s admonition about practicing our piety before others becomes a call to skip the moroseness and move on to the thanksgiving and amendment of life: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” Yes, wallowing can feel like an end in itself, but it binds us rather than freeing us.

Penitence and forgiveness, baptism and reconciliation, pardon and absolution, repentance and faith. Let’s go ahead and add crucifixion and resurrection, death and life. The ands are what keep the difficult aspects of this season in perspective and give it its proper meaning. The ands keep pulling us toward God, helping us resist the urge to stay in orbit around ourselves. The ands say to us clearly and persistently: the point isn’t your sins, it’s that God wants you to be free from the weight of them.

Maybe you’ll need a reminder of that balance, and of that pull of hope, throughout these forty days. Maybe you’ll just need a chuckle. Either way, in those moments I suggest a YouTube search for “Monty Python – God,” wherein you will hear the following:

 GOD: Arthur!  Arthur, King of the Britons! [God calls down. The king’s company drops to their knees.] Oh, don’t grovel!  If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.

ARTHUR:  Sorry—

GOD:  And don’t apologize.  Every time I try to talk to someone it’s

“sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I’m not worthy.”  What are you

doing now!?

ARTHUR:  I’m averting my eyes, oh Lord.

GOD:  Well, don’t.  It’s like those miserable Psalms—they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!

ARTHUR:  Yes, Lord.

Yes, the Pythons are a bit hard on the psalms, and yes, this and sounds more like an or.  Still, I’m not really kidding about this strategy, if you think you’re someone who needs it. For some of us the temptation to grovel is almost overwhelming when we are confronted by a full and honest view of the challenges in our lives: the ways we need to grow, the ways we cling to old habits, the ways we shut out God and others, and yes the incontrovertible fact that we are dust and shall return to same.

So “to make a right beginning of repentance,” I invite you, when you receive your ashes, to look for the and in the midst of that experience.

Perhaps you need the reminder that your creator who made you from dust is in every moment sustaining you as well. Perhaps you’re ready for the liberating experience of lowering your defenses for a time, of letting go of the control we all crave and cling to.

Perhaps those ashes are meant to teach you that the dirty mess of our lives is holy precisely because it is messy. It’s so easy to forget we’re all struggling to do our best amid circumstances that pull us in many directions.

If you have trouble remembering the and these forty days, and even if the Monty Python trick helps, think about this happy coincidence: The mark on our foreheads today will be a cross, of course, but maybe it’s also a plus sign. In this equation, that doesn’t have to mean adding one more thing to our busy lives. It does mean adding an awareness of the hope and peace and joy and wholeness that are Christ’s great gift to us.

So remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return AND and to dust you shall return. AND Remember that you are precious in God’s sight.  Remember that you are precious in God’s sight.

Salt in hand photo

You are the salt of the earth

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany:

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12];  Psalm 112:1-9 [10]; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

I can still remember the angriest I ever got in seminary. It started, I am not surprised to notice upon reflection, with me sticking my nose into someone else’s business.

Two of my international student classmates were having a heated conversation about the interpretation of scripture. One was an evangelical man from East Africa, one a high church woman from Southern Africa. They had very different approaches.

I entered the fray with some arrogant Western comment about how there was no such thing as a talking snake and no such thing as “the plain sense of scripture.”

“And don’t even get me started on parables,” I huffed. “Surely if Jesus wanted us to take the scriptures literally, he wouldn’t have chosen such an ambiguous mode of teaching.”

“My friend, what is ambiguous about the parables?” he asked. He was perfectly calm.

“What about ‘You are the salt of the Earth!’How can we possibly know what that’s supposed to mean?!”

And then he told me. Calmly, confidently, convincingly. I honestly can’t remember what exactly he said, but it was probably not so different from what I’m about to share with you.

The argument, of course, went on and on, well past when we needed to get our dishes back to the kitchen. Long enough that temporary onlookers asked me about it the next day. Long enough that our other classmate lost interest and left. Long enough that I’m still embarrassed about how I behaved.

I was salty. My friend was…salt.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe what I said about interpreting scripture—and for that matter about how the whole point of parables is that they speak in many ways.

But my friend knew something I didn’t yet: That we have to make our own sense of scripture throughout our lives—and then we have to believe it. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes change our mind. It doesn’t mean we don’t listen to others’ viewpoints. It doesn’t even mean we don’t occasionally throw up our hands and say, “I’ve got nothing here.”

It does mean we do our best with the material in front of us. I think part of the point of today’s material is that “salt-of-the-earth” people are like my friend:

They’re confident, but humble. They know they have a role to play, but they don’t draw attention to themselves, at least not just for attention’s sake. As a bishop once pointed out to me, Jesus didn’t say, “You are the pepper of the earth.” This doesn’t mean salt of the earth people won’t occasionally serve, as the prophets often did, as salt in the wounds of those who stand in the way of justice. Salt of the earth is not intended to be trampled underfoot, by presidents or anyone else.

Like salt, Christians are also called to be reliable, in for the long haul. More on “losing our saltiness” in a minute, but of course that very suggestion is alarming because it’s not an idea we’re familiar with. We learned in high school chemistry that if equal parts sodium and chlorine are doing their ionically bonded chemical thing, they form a strong matrix of interconnection with a practically unlimited shelf life. To be the salt of the earth is to run with patience our own race and to encourage all those runners we’re bonded to.

(By the way, if you’re tallying mixed metaphors, I think we’re bound for the double digits by the time the morning is out. My only defense is that Jesus racked up quite a number himself this week.)

**

Confident, humble, reliable, encouraging. If you’re starting to picture someone in your life who is “salt of the earth,” then I think this rhetorical device is doing the work Jesus needs it to do. Because, of course, we draw on metaphors and parables when we’re trying to get at some subtle quality or combination thereof, to put our fingers on a common experience that is hard to describe but easy to recognize.

As I prayed about the gospel passage this week, I thought immediately of several members of one of the communities I’m a part of this semester. I’m taking a course on research methods grounded in civic and social participation, and our convening theme is “Youth and Wellbeing in an Age of Mass Incarceration.” To lay the groundwork for that theme, we watched on Monday a film that has been screened here at St. Michael’s but that I had not yet seen: Ava DuVernáy’s shattering Netflix documentary 13th.

If you don’t know the film, it explores the legacy of an exception in the constitutional amendment that banned slavery and involuntary servitude: “except as punishment for a crime.”

I thought I understood and could enumerate the many ways American society has found to demonize and criminalize black and brown bodies, and black and brown communities. But if you haven’t seen the film yet, all I can say is that to have those dots vividly connected through generations of policies that intentionally and effectively passed the baton of racial oppression … well it left us all speechless, regardless of how many times each of us had seen the film.

Our class has a “Vegas rule,” as in “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But I think I can be faithful to that rule and make a general comment about the experience. I estimate that 60% or so of the folks in this class are people of color. A common theme among their reflections was how hard it is to live in our society without hating it, and to be engaged in racial justice work without giving up. And yet here they are, enrolled in a course that by the second class session had all of us feeling nauseous and worse about the reality behind and before us. When I hear the phrase “salt of the earth” this week, I cannot help but see their faces, give thanks for their witness, and continue seeking ways to do my part.

**

I don’t have to tell you that our society needs “salt of the earth” people very badly at the moment. Not just to defend the human rights and human dignity of immigrants and refugees. Not just to counter rhetoric that scapegoats and antagonizes Muslims and poor communities of color. Not just to defend our ailing environment. Not just to strive for responsible global citizenship at a time when we are more interconnected than ever.

We need such people because all of us are bound to lose our saltiness from time to time in the days and years to come. “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says in Mark’s version of this mini-parable. But might I suggest that when that fails, have salt in those around you. Check in with each other. Show kindness to one another. Find joy whenever you can, and share it like a lamp on a lampstand.

Most of all, we need “salt of the earth” people because without salt, none of us has a chance at our most difficult challenge: striving to do what is right without also wanting to win. It is very hard to keep those two things separate, but I believe our futures and our very souls depend on it.

That’s not to say we aren’t witnessing and participating in genuine struggles whose outcomes matter, nor that those outcomes won’t produce the feelings associated with winning and losing.

But honest to God, I think this is the full point of these parables. Salt doesn’t win out against blandness, it’s simply there, transforming the dish by its presence. Light doesn’t defeat darkness, but even a little of the former changes our experience of the latter. A city built on a hill isn’t intrinsically better than one built in the valley—it’s just there for us to see when we look to the skies.

I don’t know how to work for what I think is right and also not want to win. That’s why I’m glad Jesus assures us we are salt of the earth and not that we should try to be.

My seminary classmate probably did want to convince me of the importance of interpreting scripture a particular way. As it turns out, he didn’t, nor of course did I convince him.

But in resisting the temptation to win the argument for winning’s sake, he certainly convinced me that he knew what it means to be salt.

Man in cathedral photo

Why I’m a Christian

A sermon for Advent 1:

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

As most of you know, I’m a doctoral student up the street at Teachers College. It is a seriously inspiring place: a racially, geographically, religiously diverse community united by a desire to serve others and the common good.

In the tumult following the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an identified Christian leader in the midst of that community. And while no one has asked me this in as many words, I’ve been thinking about why I am a Christian at all, and what witness I might make in these days. I suspect some of you have been asking similar questions.

I wish my answer were more inspiring and, frankly, more religious. But trusting with St. Paul that by the grace of God I am what I am, let me share with you my somewhat selfish and overly pragmatic answer:

Christianity is, for me, a sustainable, humane way to live in the world and to treat myself and others. To put it another way—and I swear this feels to me like a statement of love and gratitude—I don’t know how I would live my life any other way.

Whenever I find myself adrift, or hopeless, or lonely, or afraid, it’s the patterns of Christian living that, by grace, will lead me home: daily prayer, dependence on others, a willingness to sit with silence, a commitment to letting go of control as often as I can. Oh, and really good art, Christian or otherwise.

My faith—yes, partly my beliefs, but mostly these practices—is how I make it through my days, how I meet the risen Christ in the midst of them and know him to be my Lord.

Of course, I lose track of these practices all the time, and some of them I’m pretty lousy at to begin with. I know we all get separated from what grounds us. This is a sermon about what happens afterward.

In those moments, the Christian tradition has two basic messages for us, in my opinion two ways of exploring the same idea. And two seasons in which to explore it.

One of those messages we hear in the spring: repent, turn back, commit once again to living your life dependent on God’s grace and forgiveness.

The other message is like unto the first, and today is its high holy day. That message is even simpler: “wake up.”

Lent’s call to repentance speaks in particular to the ways we choose to turn from the path. The church’s new year’s alarm clock, this first Sunday of Advent, addresses the reality that most of the time we simply run on spiritual autopilot. We’re asleep at the wheel.

You know what time it is, [Paul writes to the Romans and to us] how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

There’s also this from Jesus himself:

[I]f the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

In other words, life is too short and too full of both opportunities and pitfalls to give it any less than our best, to be anything but keenly alert for the truth that needs telling, the love that needs sharing, the beauty that calls us to rejoice.

I am a Christian because our faith has baked into it a rhythm that I believe can overcome complacency, even in a year when we are numb from the alternating low- and high-grade alarms that tell us we have already slept too deeply and too long.

But what do we do with the anxiety, guilt, or even panic that besets us when we realize we have overslept? I think the prophet Isaiah has a suggestion:

In days to come

   the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

   and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.

   Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

   to the house of the God of Jacob;

And from Psalm 122, one of the great “Psalms of Ascent” that tradition says were used by pilgrims arriving in the Holy City:

I was glad when they said to me, *

   “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Now our feet are standing *

   within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is perhaps the Hebrew Bible’s grandest metaphor for the place of divine encounter. It is where heaven and earth meet—and in that union can be found the Shalom of God Most High.

Our tradition knows, our God knows, that to wake up is only the beginning of our transformation. We must also go up in the cosmic sense conveyed in these powerful texts. Go up for inspiration, for hope, for the perspective that the powers and principalities of this world do not dictate our destiny.

I hope that for you coming to St. Michael’s is one such place of encounter. But I hope you have others as well. I can tell you that the Met is one of mine. And the walk through Central Park to get there.

I am a Christian because God does not leave me alone and unequipped to handle what I see when I wake up to the reality of my own life and the lives of those around me. But our journey to Jerusalem is not for solace only but for strength, not for pardon only but for renewal. When we gather to experience the Almighty, we are making preparations.

A theologian of my acquaintance calls this idea “baptism as expulsion,” this uncomfortable reality that we are forgiven, inspired, and empowered in order to be sent out for service. Or we might paraphrase the prophet Isaiah by saying we go up to Jerusalem so that we can learn to light up the world:

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

   to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

   and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

   and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

   neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,

   come, let us walk

   in the light of the Lord!

God wakes us up to lift us up and lifts us up so that we can go and do likewise for each other, so that we can teach the life that our Lord taught us, making peace despite our addiction to violence, partnering with others despite the temptation to serve only ourselves.

I myself am often short on the courage for this work and, and, on other days, the goodwill it requires. I am a Christian because God can work through me not despite of these shortcomings but because of them, can work with us not despite our shortcomings but because of them. When we are weak, God’s power is especially present among us, as Mother Kate mentioned in her sermon on Christ our peculiar King.

I am a Christian because the collective genius of generations of the faithful, inspired and emboldened by a God of compassion and justice, has discovered a pattern of living in this world: Wake up from sleeping. Go up to experience the grace of God. Light up a path of gracious living and share that light and life with those around you.

I am a Christian because this pattern of living acknowledges the worst in us yet still expects the best from us. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Hope image

A Parable of Grit, and Hope

A sermon for Proper 24:

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

A friend and I play a sort of ongoing game of long-distance tag. We’re both interested in character formation, and we’re enchanted by one idea that is currently en vogue. Researchers call it grit.

Our obsession with popular discussions of grit has gotten a little out of hand. You can tell because of all the bad jokes. Last time I tagged her with an article, I added the groaner “The grit that keeps on giving.” She still has the best one, though: “I’ve got so much grit, my mama shoulda named me sandpaper.”

At the risk of taking grit researchers’ work totally out of context, I gotta say that the woman in our Gospel passage today is just such a person. Grit is about consistency of interest and perseverance of effort, and I think those ideas are closely related to who she is and what’s going on in this reading.

That’s why another colleague refuses to call this parable by its traditional name, “the parable of the unjust judge.”

If we focus on the judge, then this becomes a parable primarily about who God is. God, like the judge, will respond to the entreaties of those with grit. “And will not God grant justice” to those who cry out day and night?

But parables are an imprecise form, and their statements of what God is like usually need caveats. In this case, we have to hasten to add that surely God is a more proper judge, granting justice not from a desire to silence or otherwise be rid of our cries for help but in order that justice might be done. The why of God’s justice is important, and the parable sort of obscures that.

Thornier still is the issue of when justice comes, if it comes at all. Because there sure seem to be many modern-day justice seekers who, whether persistent or not, have yet to experience the deliverance that our widow does. Focusing on the judge begs hard questions that will sometimes keep us up at night. Why them? Why us? Why me? Doesn’t God care?

Let’s set those questions aside for a minute. Because if we’re instead treating this passage as the parable of the persistent widow—and if we’re focusing our interpretation on her—then this parable stops seeming to focus on how God is both like and unlike the unjust judge. Instead, it’s a parable about grit.

Try to imagine yourself in the widow’s shoes—shunned by society for being a woman without a spouse, mistreated by some unjust opponent, actively ignored by the person with the power to put it right. Each day, you find him in the courts and press your case. Each day he sends you away.

How do you start to feel? Well, my imagination leads me to the conclusion that there would be good days and bad days. On the bad days, it probably feels like going through the motions, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day reliving the same futile 24 hours over and over, only to end up right back where he started. Some days, the familiar dance steps are the only force pulling you along: another day of justice sought, justice delayed.

But what about on the good days? Here again, I imagine a couple different kinds. Sometimes you probably feel defiant. Dang it, I am going to go knock on that jerk’s door and get in his face and not take no for an answer, at least not a final one. I’m not backing down.

And on the best days, you find the courage to risk real hope. Today is the day we break the cycle. Today is the day I get through to him. I’ve thought that before and been disappointed but I’m willing to believe again, at least for today, at least for right now.

I think the widow’s secret, the secret to grit, is that we need to be OK with all three kinds of days. To stay in the game, to hang in there in the midst of adversity, sometimes means admitting that today may be a wash but that we can and should try again tomorrow.

And I think the spiritual version, grit with God, if you will, is realizing that God is OK with our having all three kinds of days too.

When we’re full of hope, the risen Christ is there nurturing it, reminding us that God wants the best for us and will triumph over over evil. When we’re feeling defiant, the Christ who knocked down tables in the temple, and seemed to delight in defying the powers that be, inspires our witness to what is right. And when we’re feeling abandoned, when we’re tempted to throw in the towel, the Christ whose friends deserted him will wait with us in our dark hours—whether we think to invite him or not and whether or not we can always feel his presence.

It’s that unceasing presence, that willingness to share with us in our pain while we wait for deliverance, that helps me, at least, to make some sense of this passage, to want to proclaim it as good news. That unceasing presence can help us in days like these, when many people in many walks of life are feeling a distinct absence of hope.

Luke frames the parable of the persistent widow with these words: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Pray always. Don’t lose heart.

Those feel like empty words unless we know something about their speaker. But when they come from Jesus, who gave his life as a plea for us to believe them, I pray that by grace we can learn to trust those words. When they come from Paul, who has a thing or two to say about them and endured prison and worse for his witness, I pray that by grace we can learn to trust them.

And when they come from this parable’s persistent widow, one of many gritty Biblical women who dared to hope against hope, I pray that by grace we can learn to trust them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hoping against hope this week. In late 2014, one of my Virginia Seminary colleagues wrote this:

Today marks the 207th day since more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. These Christian and Muslim girls have been described as the intelligent and bright hopes of their communities, which is why the girls were so eager to return to school and complete their exams last Spring, in spite of the threat of terror activity in that area at the time. Since their original capture, some girls have escaped, but most have not. The Nigerian government reports that it is increasingly unlikely that the girls will ever be recovered, as Boko Haram has apparently sold girls into marriages and dispersed them.

Nevertheless, that colleague assigned us individual girls to pray for. I’ve prayed most days since for Awa James, Deborah Ja’afaru (found!), & Ladi Joel. So when I read on Thursday, Day 913, that 21 girls had been released, I Googled around for a list of names. Deborah was on the list. Awa and Ladi were not. 21 families are rejoicing with particular joy. So many more continue to wait and hope.

The God of justice hears their prayers, and the prayers of all who wait for the Lord, not with annoyance but with tender compassion and, I believe, a share of our longing and grief. On the good days and the bad days, may grace inspire us to join the company of the persistent widow and all who dare to hope for deliverance.

Image credit: “Hope” by Jan Tik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Meditation Journeys ad screenshot

Prayer Hack: Virtual reality meditation

A lot of my new colleagues in the CMLTD program at Teachers College are interested in virtual reality for education, so I’ve recently been paying a bit more attention to this emerging technology than I previously had.

When I got to the lab on Saturday, I had to grab a Google Cardboard and try out the new Mediation Journeys series from New York Times Virtual Reality.

 

Google Cardboard

 

The idea is to experience a guided meditation in a beautiful space in an immersive way. I tried out the cliffside ocean meditation.

The narrator sounded like former Buddhist Monk (and Headspace app co-founder) Andy Puddicombe, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. Whoever it was, he took me through a five-minute meditation that encouraged me to use the details of the landscape to stay present to the (yes, quite lovely) moment.

I wouldn’t say it rocked my spiritual world, but I enjoyed the experience and would like to do it again using a smart phone that doesn’t have a cracked screen protector.

Looking for other virtual connections to mediation spots? My favorite is the Resurrection Chapel at the National Cathedral (they also have plenty more).

You should also check out Randall Curtis‘s photospheres of churches and other beautiful places.

Update: Randall created a Google Photos group for sharing church Photospheres.