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.


Where I’m From

The following is a multimodal poem remixing George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” for MSTU 5002: Culture, Media, & Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. If you’re interested, you can read my reflections here.












I’m from hand-painted sheets
thrown over PVC frames.
From costumes
questionably fastened to
quavery frames and voices
finding themselves
for the first few times.

I’m from the cult of Rube Goldberg,
nuts, bolts,
knots, lashes
—and minor lacerations,
hidden under damp sleeves
in damper basements.


I’m from who/what/where/why
‘cause when matters less for a monthly.
I’m from pica spaces and double trucks,
and eye strain from
late-night layout sessions.

I’m from jam sessions
cut not short enough
by parents who are
saints but not gluttons
for punishment.


I’m from giant monitors
when that meant
your advisor meant business.
From bathtub lab apparatus and
hoping against hope
to extend that damn debugger.

I’m from trip the light fantastic and
unleash The Hacker Within,
From ill-advised cups of coffee
and swearing off Microsoft Word.


I’m from amateur hour
drowning, floundering,
faithfully, gratefully.
I’m from nerds
making mousetraps—
not better,
but ours.

Hubble telesscope image

The waning (and waxing?) of religious imagery in the West

We don’t have public course blogs in my history of communication course. But this discussion board post seemed germane to the stuff I write about here.

But whereas polyglot editions of the Bible made scripture (‘the words of God’) seem more multiform, repeatable visual aids like maps and equations made nature (the works of God) seem more uniform.

I found this observation from Eisenstein to be really fascinating. I knew the familiar story of the decline in reliance on imagery in late medieval Christianity (more on that in a second), but I hadn’t considered the way that growth in reliance on imagery in the natural sciences might have been in a sort of implicit dialogue with the parallel but opposite trend within religious expression.

Charles Taylor, one of the foremost scholars of the decline of religiosity in North Atlantic cultures, argues in his tome The Secular Age that the changes taking place at this time disenchanted people’s understanding of the world (for instance, less belief in good and evil spirits duking it out in the forest or whatever). It’s not so much that science replaced religion. He argues that that’s too simplistic an account, and anyway the two disciplines ask and answer different questions. Rather, he says, a disenchanted worldview creates the conditions where the belief that there is no God is a coherent and sensible position.

I mention all this because it seems relevant to this trend of religion relying less on images (e.g., on “cathedrals … as encyclopedias in stone”) and science relying more on them. Related to Taylor’s idea of enchantment, it seems to me, is the idea of imagination. I’m all for a disenchanted worldview. I have two degrees in engineering physics. I find it challenging to engage with religious people who believe evil spirits are motivating their actions. I’m about as “disenchanted” as they come. But I do think that all of us, and maybe especially religious people, need a powerful imagination.

I think images are essential to our ability to imagine other worlds, whether those worlds are at the subatomic level, in “the heavens,” on other continents, or wherever. We especially need the ability to imagine the world around us being a better place than it is right now. We’ll never get there if we can’t.

And images can help jump start the imagination in powerful ways:
Hubble telescope image

Brain visualization

American Lobster larva

From where I sit as a religious educator, I am grateful that the Web has taken such a strong and dramatic turn toward the visual—and multimodal (a blind member of my previous church has helped me see that an over-reliance on images alone is just as problematic). I frequently use religious art, photography, video, apps, and social media in my teaching and spiritual mentoring. Other colleagues are investing significantly in multimedia resources and approaches to religious education (examples: here and here).

The Reformation media phenomena we read about this week really did change Western religious culture. I am glad that trends in media today are facilitating a major comeback for the role of images in the communities where I spend most of my time.

Michael Curry video screenshot

Conversations with/in Scripture

A sermon for Proper 20

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

If you’re like me, you heard or read these words and thought some version of “here we go again.” Here we go with Paul or his imitators encoding the social values of their time into scripture, and our having to deal with it.

We can’t escape that this passage from 1 Timothy just kind of exudes empire, and a particular approach to living in one as a religious minority.

“Keep your head down. Stay out of trouble. Trust that the lords of the realm were put there by God and that your conditions are under God’s determining control.”

Of course, we know that many Christians of this time took a more active and sometimes antagonistic approach to the powers that be. Christian martyrs defied convention and authority with deadly consequences. The early church embraced patterns of relationship and community that flew in the face of social convention—and the people around them noticed.

Some of this we know actually know from scripture, and I think that points us to a disconcerting but ultimately empowering reality: Scripture does not speak with one voice. The authors of scripture are always in conversation with each other and even themselves, sometimes copying what came before and sometimes arguing with it, but always engaged. [Big shout-out here to Judy Fentress-Williams of Virginia Theolocial Seminary.]

Amid all this witness bound together, not every school of thought is so blase about the notion of kingship. There’s a stream of thinking in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s ambivalent and sometimes even hostile to the notion of monarchs. [Technical term: E-Stream. More here.] Also priests, usually, and generally any source of centralized or hierarchical authority.

One representative of this school is the book of Deuteronomy, the second law, the law for living together in the land of promise. Here mutuality rather than hierarchical authority is the primary mechanism for keeping the peace—so you better not move your neighbors’ property marker.

The prophet Jeremiah also belongs to this tradition. The King mentioned in the passage we heard this morning, sought after but unfound, isn’t one of the kings in the line of David, nor a conquering foreigner. The King here is God Almighty, and indeed this school’s very point is that when you put someone besides God at the very center of a community’s life together, bad things happen.

For Jeremiah and his ilk, “pray for the king” is strange advice, even if it’s true that the king too is subject to God. Jeremiah would say, “Pray for repentance. Pray for the deliverance and restoration of our people, for a balm in Gilead. Pray that God would write the law upon our very hearts so that we each may keep it, and find favor in God’s sight.”

Now, it’s not like the Book of Jeremiah and the First Letter to Timothy are polar opposites or describe a relationship with a different God. They just have different perspectives on the life of faith in community.

This, I think, is a very good thing. It means scripture speaks in different ways to different people, or to the same people at different points in their lives. It gives the scriptures resonance no matter the social or political season.

That these ancient writings can still speak to us so powerfully is a testament to the working of the Holy Spirit and to the surprising unity that can be found among the diverse chorus of biblical voices.


If you’ve been reading your Looking Ahead these last two weeks, you may be getting an inkling that all this talk of conversation is leading toward a preview for next week’s Social Media Sunday. Well, you’re not wrong.

If scripture is a conversation, then it’s also an invitation. The church may have decided long ago to stop adding books to the canon, but that doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

God writes the covenant on our hearts as we gather to reflect on what it means in our lives. Jesus is made present to us and others not just by the media of bread and wine but by our stories of how his grace and mercy have made a difference for us. Our collective participation is key.

I think Jeremiah would dig the whole social media phenomenon. Of course, his assorted public relations stunts (like burying his underwear) would get tons of shares and retweets, and we have to assume that the guy liked the attention. But I think he would also love how these media connect us. If we let them, they can put us in deeper conversation with a broad community of believers for support and companionship amid our own daily cycles of captivity and restoration.

As a sort of warm up for next week, let me share a couple examples.

For starters, I recommend that after church you google “Michael Curry video.” High in the results should be a teaching clip our Presiding Bishop released this week.

Not only does Bishop Curry present a very concrete vision of how what he calls “The Jesus Movement” should look in the Episcopal Church, he also gives us a helpful mnemonic device by which we might identify the common message of this movement:

Loving, liberating, life-giving.

If you wanted a concise way of summarizing for others what the Episcopal Church is all about, you could do a lot worse than to share this video. Or remix it. Or post some other response. I guarantee you Bishop Currie would love to have your voice in the choir.

Even more germane to this notion of scripture as conversation is a fascinating app known as Parallel Bible. The idea of Parallel is that anyone with a camera can illuminate the words of scripture in an app, just like the medieval monks did on the printed page.

Members of the Parallel Bible community post photos to accompany particular verses, often reflecting on how the verse is meaningful in their lives. Browsing the app, or Parallel’s printed edition of the Sermon on the Mount, is a great way to peek into the lives of fellow disciples.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from illuminating a verse of scripture on whatever social media platform you prefer. If you’re connected to me on social media (and yes, that’s an invitation), you’ll see that I took a stab at a verse from today’s rather challenging gospel passage, which I’ve otherwise managed to avoid this morning.


Speaking of avoidance, you’ve perhaps noticed that in this conversation with scripture, I’ve been a little short with the author of 1 Timothy. I’ve not exactly bent over backwards to appreciate the broader point of this passage. Let me briefly do so now.

We keep our heads down and pray for the king because we have work to do. The reading goes on to remind us that Paul was “appointed a herald and an apostle,” a direct messenger and brand ambassador for the “loving, liberating, life-giving” message of Jesus Christ.

This tiny piece of the conversation is important because we have received the same charge. Smartphones and broadband Internet aren’t responsible for giving us this mantel. We put it on at our baptism.

But smartphones and broadband Internet have added to the countless means by which we can practice this vocation. If you haven’t considered that possibility before, in the weeks to come you’ll get a chance to practice if you so choose.

But whichever means we choose, I hope this week each of us will rise to the challenge of sharing the message of love, life, and liberation. Join the conversation in ways appropriate to our own voice and our own context. That’s what it means to go forth in the name of Christ. So here we go again.

Lord's Prayer altar

Sermon: (The Lord’s) Prayer

Proper 12

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

I spent most of the last week in Alexandria wrapping up my formal employment at Virginia Seminary. Among the many joys of being with my colleagues one last time was learning that a book project I’d been rooting for is moving forward.

The book is a biography of one of my spiritual role models, a brilliant and holy man named Mark Dyer. Bishop Mark dined with kings and lived in monasteries and studied obscure theologians. But he was also, as they say, the kind of guy you could have a beer with.

Bishop Mark was incredibly kind but not afraid to let you know he disagreed with you. He was “in love with the life” of Benedictine religious community, but he was still excited by the prospect of a visit to Universal’s Harry Potter theme park.

And over the course of maybe ten conversations, he taught me more about Christian living than probably anyone except my parents.

Like all great spiritual teachers, Bishop Dyer knew how to help people cut through the clutter of their life to address the things that really matter. He told me that he spent his life trying to convince people that Christianity and especially prayer should be simple.

Not easy. But simple.

I think of Bishop Mark and of this point when I hear passages of scripture like today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. “Lord, teach us to pray,” a disciple asks. That sounds like the kind of complicated question you better buckle in for.

Yet Jesus’s primary answer is just 42 words:

When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

Besides advice on prayer, this is simple, direct, concrete theology. Jesus tells us we should address God as someone who will care for us, someone who wants a relationship. He reminds us that this God is holy and is actively working to bring about a better world.

He challenges us to depend on God for our needs—especially the daily inspiration to choose reconciled life with our neighbor. And he gives us permission to be honest about the fears we face.

That’s it. Nothing about how often to pray or for how long. Nothing much about fancy prayer techniques or precise formulas. Nothing about what happens if we don’t do it, nor much about what happens if we do. Though he does tell us in parables that God will listen and respond by giving the good gifts we ask for.

Indeed, if Bishop Mark were here, I think he’d tell us it’s no coincidence that the only real commentary in this passage involves this issue of being honest with God and ourselves about what we want and need.

I love Jesus’s first illustration: a friend knocks on our window late at night and shouts in that he needs to borrow some bread. “Sorry dude! Kids are in bed, candles are out, not gonna happen.”

But Jesus knows what we know: we’re not gonna leave our friend hanging, especially if that friend is persistent about it.

God won’t leave us hanging either. We don’t know what form our answered prayers will take, but we can be sure that God is listening and will respond, even if that response is just the strength to make it through another day. I think the more honest we are about our needs, the more likely we are to notice when God answers our prayers.

I remember seeing Mark after a long and painful summer. I told him about the poor decisions I’d made and all the bad habits I’d fallen into. “How’s your prayer life?” he asked. I gave him some answer that basically boiled down to “it’s complicated,” and his reply was that it shouldn’t be.

“Your first prayer in the morning should be for yourself,” he said. “Tell God how you’re feeling and what you want. Don’t hold anything back. Think about the psalms—the people who offered those prayers didn’t withhold a single negative thought. God is big enough to handle whatever anger or sadness or fear you might be dealing with.” God is big enough to handle it.

At a time when negative feelings seem to drive our public discourse, I can’t help but wonder how different our world might be if we first brought our anger, sadness, and fear to our discourse with God.

I think this simple and honest approach to prayer gets to the core of why we do it in the first place. We shouldn’t pray because we think it’s our duty. We shouldn’t pray because we think God wants to be buttered up before responding to our pleas.

We should pray to consciously invite God into our lives. Whatever else we add, it should help us feel close to God, dependent on God, loved by God. The living Christ is already pleased to live within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer should help you remember and celebrate this reality.

I know this passage is about the Lord’s Prayer, but let me tell one last story about Bishop Mark and the psalms.

“When you’re reading the psalms,” he said, “just stop when you hear that verse where God seems to be speaking right to you, right in the place where you are today. Wherever it connects, just stop and sit with it, even if you’re praying in church.”

He told me that he’d at first had a problem with this advice when he received it from his novice master, the senior monk supervising his formation: “But what if we all stopped at the same time when we’re singing the psalm together?” Mark asked. His master replied, “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

The final measure of our prayers isn’t their beauty or their length or even their regularity. It’s their ability to bring us close to God, to make God real for us wherever we are, present in and among the many real challenges we face each day.

Honesty and vulnerability are all that’s required. Words? Very much optional. But especially on the days when you’re at a loss for them, remember Jesus taught us a simple prayer that has everything we need.

Photo credit: “Lord’s Prayer” by Ryan Stavely via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stained glass image

Starting grad school (and a newsletter)

Pentecost feels like a good day to announce what I believe has been a Spirit-led discernment process:

In September, I will start full-time Ed.D. studies (that’s doctorate in education) in the Communications, Media, & Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. I’ll miss being the digital missioner in the CMT@VTS, but I look forward to ongoing collaboration on several e-Formation initiatives.

There are too many people to thank for me to even make a go of it here. But I can’t not mention the person who envisioned and nurtured this vocation the last four years: Lisa Kimball. To say I couldn’t have done it without her would be an unpardonable understatement. Thanks, boss, for literally everything.

If you want to keep up with what I’m doing and continue to get resource suggestions, e-learning commentary, and of course podcast rhapsodizing, please subscribe to this new newsletter. My ‪#‎vtsdigimin‬ students inspired me to put it together.

I take very seriously my responsibility to share what I’m learning with the church, so don’t be shy with suggestions or requests.

Syrian refugees waiting for a train

Sermon: Imagination and empathy in the season of the Incarnation

Second Sunday after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Audio | Text:

Happy second Sunday after Christmas. The prayer book says we are in the season of the Incarnation, but I prefer to think of these days between Christmas and Epiphany as the season of imagination.

I believe our primary job as disciples is to claim the Christian story as our own, to learn to find our strength and our hope in the great saga of God’s loving relationship with the world. If that’s true, then there is no better time to practice than when we gather around the manger and marvel at the Christ child.

You see, I have a hard time imagining myself in the place of, say, Paul, making courageous and unpopular speeches before hostile crowds and rulers. I make a lousy imaginary Peter, afraid to drop everything and follow a teacher who challenges me to let go.

When I read the story of Jonah running away from God, that one immediately resonates. But my imagination has thus far not been dexterous enough to find a proper analogy to being swallowed and regurgitated by a giant fish.

But it’s Christmas time, and let me tell you I have played this role of a shepherd. I’m 32 years old and don’t have children. That means if you call me up and say you want me to come meet your new baby this weekend, even this evening? I am all in.

Even if we’re not that close, even if you send a messenger instead, the answer is “yes, I would love to stop by and meet your baby.” If it’s OK with you, it’s more than OK with me. Gloria in excelsis. Demos gracias a Dios.

I don’t really mean to be flippant here. When I held my godson at his baptism, I understood that he was not the savior of the world. But holding a baby, even just beholding, especially a newborn? I don’t think there’s any surer route to contemplating the mystery and the miracle of God at work in the world, or of the saving power of love.

I don’t know exactly what it would be like to look at a child in a manger and somehow to know he was God’s only begotten son. But I think I can imagine it, and I think this season is special because we’re invited to try.

Of course, as we all know, imagination is also dangerous, biblical imagination perhaps most of all. Not every story is shepherds keeping watch by night, or calling us each by name, or opening wide the gates of the sheepfold.

And in years when we have two Sundays before Epiphany, we’re forced to grapple with this sad fact faster than you can say “We Three Kings.”

As we heard just a minute ago, our story this morning actually fast forwards slightly: “After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

So much for “all is calm, all is bright.” Too quickly, this becomes a story of violence in the streets, of fear and bereavement for too many.

Even our fortunate holy family does not get off easy. We can well imagine the impact of their secretive travel to a strange land. On the long road to Egypt, and in the difficult months that followed, I wonder what Mary and Joseph would have thought about. How they made sense of their plight. How those reflections would have shaped their future identity as a family.

We might imagine Joseph thinking about his namesake, the Joseph of the Book of Genesis, who was first left for dead and then sold into slavery before coming to prominence and power in Egypt.

That Joseph was quick to point out how his whole misadventure-turned-deliverance was intended by God for good. Those parallels could have been some comfort to a young refugee couple doing the best they could for their son.

Turning back to the text, we notice even the family’s return is plagued by uncertainty and displacement. Because of still another unjust leader taking power and best avoided, the family receives another dream, sets off on another journey, and settles not in Judea, as they seem to have planned, but in Galilee.

Luke tells this story differently, of course, and we’ll never know how things really went down for the holy family. But whether or not they spent time as refugees in Egypt, they seem, like many poor people, to have had some kind of itinerant existence, an existence these gospel authors are trying to get us thinking about.

And if we let our imaginations continue to doodle in between the lines of their narratives, it isn’t hard to picture these experiences as fundamental building blocks of Jesus’ later character and teachings.

I wonder, might the story of a family encounter on the dangerous road have served as a kind of experiential first draft for Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan?

I wonder, might growing up in a family with a refugee consciousness have opened Jesus to the kinds of socially transgressive exchanges he was always having—with foreigners, with single women, with children?

I wonder, might that same ethos have set Jesus on his own wandering, itinerant path? After all, he could have become a more place-bound guru like John the Baptist, or a refined city slicker like Paul. He seems to have preferred the road.

I wonder if distant memories of hunger on the road might have made Jesus the teacher of crowds all the more insistent on feeding them before their long journeys home.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Might we imagine today that Jesus’ family experience shaped his imagination, his ability to look with love and compassion on those he met? And might we use this occasion for committing ourselves to that same empathetic curiosity and caring?

The year we have just begun will be another year of grappling with how to welcome the stranger, how to offer safe refuge and generous hospitality to those who, like Mary and Joseph, fled terrifying violence and now seek a safe and humane place to raise their children.

We live in New York City, and this is an election year, and the violence in places like Syria, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala shows no signs of stopping. The question isn’t going away just because it resists easy answers.

What I do know is this: the power of imagination is essential to our flourishing together.

We might begin by imagining ourselves in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, or what passed for shoes in their time. With God’s help, we might continue by imagining ourselves in an overloaded ship on dangerous waters, or what will pass for a ship when the reality at home becomes sufficiently terrifying.

With God’s help, we might learn about the work of those already serving refugees here and abroad, like Episcopal Migration Ministries and the UN Refugee Agency. We might explore where we fit into this important work.

Most audaciously of all, we might imagine that a tiny baby in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has the power to inspire us to loving actions large and small, including actions that make life a little more bearable for families like his.

Image credit: Syrian Refugees in Vienna by Josh Zakary via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).


#DigiWriMo post: One world, one life in The Digital Cathedral

I’m participating, as I’m able, in Digital Writing Month (#DigiWriMo). Drafting some sections for an upcoming book chapter (with Lisa Kimball) on digital media for ministry felt like a great way to honor the spirit of that endeavor and still get some work done.

In other words: this is a draft.

Allow me to make a bold prediction. When practical theologians interested in ministry and technology look back on the first few decades of the twenty-first century, they will talk about the time before and the time after Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

In this 2015 collection of ministry field reporting, Anderson developed a compelling and relevant metaphor to elucidate the following principle:

Digital spaces and practices infuse or supplement physical spaces and practices.

Anderson was certainly not the first or only digital ministry practitioner to free us from the paradigm of “virtual” ministry in a separate “cyberspace.” Meredith Gould dedicated a chapter to the subject in her 2013 Social Media Gospel helpfully titled “Virtual Community Is Real Community” (ch. 6). And before that, Elizabeth Drescher’s analysis of our modern cultural “habitus” in Tweet If You ♥ Jesus stressed that our patterns of life use technology to integrate, rather than separate, the various spheres of our lives.

So this non-binary conception was already instilled among those active in conversations about digital media ministry. What’s so helpful about Digital Cathedral is that it teaches this idea with an appeal to a deeply entrenched and familiar community ministry model: the cathedral.

A cathedral is connected to its neighborhood or village by an intricate and essential web of relational, cultural, and physical connections. Cathedrals blur the line between member and non-member, believer and non-believer, sacred and secular. Cathedrals offer a very old and very flexible way of being church, a way of being church that will become more and more essential as the cultural patterns created by the Baby Boom (which gave birth to the “program” era of church) continue to wane. Cathedrals create a public space for honest theological reflection and conversation. So does the Web.

Anderson’s point is that technology allows us to live as ministers in a way that more closely resembles the patterns of a cathedral canon than it does the role of pastor/chaplain/program manager/cruise director to a discrete congregation. Integrating digital practices allow us to be more public, present, playful ministers. [This needs to be fleshed out better.]

In other words, The Digital Cathedral invited us into an era in which we think less about the technology and more about the ministry. We have a long way to go. Hence chapters (here: blog posts) like this one.

Man with 3D printer

Learning from libraries

There’s a great article in the New York Times today about public libraries retooling as “stuff-braries,” places to learn the guitar, borrow some snow shoes, or connect to a 3D printer.

As per usual with such articles, I found it hard to not read the whole thing by substituting “libraries” with “churches” and considering the implications. Consider this sentence:

“[Libraries] realized that the way you best serve your community is to look like them,” Professor Lankes said. “For some, that means 3-D printers. For others, it means fishing rods.”

Or this one:

The economic downturn forced many public libraries, especially in urban areas, to close branches, curtail hours and cut staff even as demand for their services by job seekers increased. To make up the difference, many libraries turned to foundations, private donors, friend groups and corporations for support.

Or this one:

The move toward electronic content has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate our physical spaces and enhance our role as a community hub.

What can churches learn from libraries, especially as both aging cornerstones of American institutional life make sense of, and common cause with, the Maker Movement?

Read the whole thing here.

Image credit: “Fab Lab Exeter Library” by Devon Libraries via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).