The world turned upside down: A sermon on the US Election

Lin Manuel Miranda made more than a few brilliant choices when composing Hamilton. One of the most subversive was attributing the last lines of the battle of Yorktown to the defeated British forces:

And as our fallen foes retreat, / I hear the drinking song they’re singing …  The world turned upside-down. / The world turned upside-down. / Down. / Down, down, down…

img_0207In so doing, Miranda signals that the revolutionary war is not an uncomplicated victory. It is the world turned upside down. It wasn’t supposed to happen. All reason would dictate that this rag-tag army in need of a shower could not defeat a global superpower. And, as the rest of the musical makes abundantly clear, the way forward from that revolutionary moment was all but clear.

When we look at our own moment in American history, we note that the world has turned upside-down once again. Whatever one may have thought about our recent election and the candidates in question before Tuesday, most people can agree that the result was a major upset. Defying all trusted polls and prognostications, Donald Trump is our new president-elect. That statement evokes many emotions. Shock from many people, even those who supported him. Perhaps relief or even triumph from some. Not to mention anger. Grief. And certainly fear, especially from those communities most vulnerable to acts of hatred and discrimination.

At this stage, all that we can be certain of is that the future of our country is uncertain and our way forward is unclear. Those who voted for Trump wanted change. Those who supported Clinton are largely terrified to see that change coming. Others still who voted third party or who maybe stayed out altogether felt disgust with the system of the world as it is. For better or worse, the world has turned upside down. It is what we might rightly call an apocalyptic moment.

I don’t know whether it is comforting or not to hear the words of our what is sometimes referred to as the “Little Apocalypse” from Luke’s gospel. On the one hand, if you came to church looking for comfort or assurance after the events of the election, you are not going to find very much here. On the other hand, there is some catharsis to the bluntness of Luke’s words. They captures the mood of what so many are feeling – not everyone, to be sure – but many.

Every fear someone might have about what the next four years might bring finds acknowledgment in this passage: Wars. Rumors of Wars. Plagues and Famines (brought on my global climate change). Insurrections. Bonds broken between friends and family. Echoes of instability and violence. We hear reflections of the deep divisions that cut across different parts of our country. The chasms of understanding that exist between us.

In the midst of this we hear the disciples’ plea – Lord tell us when all this is going to take place. They are looking for that same certainty we all so desire. They crave assurance about the future and what it will mean for them. Instead, all they get are these cryptic words of Jesus assuring them of nothing but that fact that there is much that is unknown. And challenging them to look at the reality of the world as it is, not as they (or we) would want it to be. That is the nature of this “little apocalypse.”

We are coming up on the end of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we celebrate “The Reign of Christ,” when we will reflect on the coming Kingdom of God.. We tend to think “apocalypse” refers to the end of the world. But the term in Greek literally means “unveiling.” In the context of scripture that, that often refers to an unveiling of what lies in the future – such as the end-of-time prophecies in the book of Revelation. But in this case, “apocalypse” refers to an unveiling of the reality in which we find ourselves in the present moment.

This apocalyptic moment calls us to look honestly at the brokenness of our world which is so, so far from the heavenly reality we are called to inhabit. The last few days have brought home to me that reality which is all so close to these words of Jesus that we hear. Not because of who won the presidential election, but because of the darkness this election has unmasked.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear before I go on. I understand that voting is complicated and each person in this community makes the best choice they can when striving to live our faith in the voting book. I am committed to Harcourt Parish remaining a place of welcome to all people where we assume the best in one another even in profound disagreement. And, while there is certainly a predominant political slant in our community, I make no assumptions about how anyone voted in this or any other election.

That said, we cannot look away from the racism and hateful language that singularly defined the campaign of the individual who will be our next president. We can’t look past the reality that the first black president will hand over power to a man openly—and enthusiastically—endorsed by the KKK. We cannot look past the reality that the incidents of hate crimes against various marginalized communities have risen more than they did after the 9/11 attack. That is the apocalyptic moment in which we live, however we voted last week.

There are a many people in the Christian world who want to rush to trust in the coming Kingdom of God. They proclaim God’s sovereignty as the only thing that matters for the Christian community. While it is certainly true that as Christians our ultimate hope must be that God’s supreme love will win out over all forms of injustice, the kingdom isn’t here yet. We may very well have much to face and endure before it manifests.

And it is in that word endurance that hope emerges in this apocalyptic moment. We are told those who endure to the end will be saved. What does it mean to endure? In this moment, I wonder if it might be how we bear with one another. How we support one another. How we work to empathize with one another and open ourselves up to see the reality others who are not just like us inhabit.

There has been much talk over the past few days of the need to come together as a country. We are called to reconciliation and healing. As a Christian leader, I share in that call to empathy and mutual understanding as the only path forward for our nation (or the church). But I also want to make something else abundantly clear, which is about where we place the burden for empathy in this moment. As a society and, especially as a church, we have a really unfortunate track record of putting the burden of empathy on those who have been victims. Victims of abuse are called in the name of Christian charity to forgive their abusers before they have had the time to name and work through their trauma. Victims of systemic racism are called to be the agents of reconciliation in a country where we cannot even admit that we have a problem with systemic racism. Members of the LGBTQ communities in the church are often charged to be the bigger people and show understanding for theological frameworks which cast their most intimate relationships or gender identity as inherently sinful.

We need to get over that. In this moment, the burden of empathy lies first and foremost with those who have power. No doubt many Christian people found their conscience compelling them to vote in different ways. But those who made the choice to support a candidate—for whatever reason—whose rhetoric legitimizes hatred towards women, people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, the disabled community, Muslims (the list goes on) have a particular burden on them to stand up and disavow that rhetoric. The burden is on those who elected our new government leaders to speak up and demand protection for marginalized communities. They are called at this time to affirm the dignity of every human being in the name of Christ.

They also have the special burden at this time to understand why people are afraid and grieving. There can be no excuse for any of us – whether or not we supported the new president-elect —to claim ignorance about why a person of color is afraid for their safety. There can be no excuse for any of us to claim ignorance about why a same sex couple might suddenly be afraid their marriage will be deemed invalid.

Many here today (not all, but many) are deeply grieved about the outcome of the election, and confused as to how anyone could make allowances for the offensive comments that have been made. And yet, despite that grief and confusion, are not at this moment in particular danger from increased acts of hate and discrimination. It is our burden to reach across the aisle in the opposite direction and understand the factors that led someone to support a candidate we cannot begin to understand. It is our obligation to reach out to neighbors, coworkers, or fellow parishioners and offer to hear their story—their fears and concerns—as well.

As we endure and persevere together we are also called to make this current reality reflective of God’s reality. In the coming weeks and months, how will you work to build a better America? Regardless of political affiliation will you join with local groups who are rising up to oppose the increased bullying and harassment we are already seeing in our local community? Will you give support to organizations committed to equality and justice? Will we all work to acknowledge and repent of the role we have played in producing a society so fundamentally broken?

Perhaps the greatest thing for us to remember today is that the work of reconciliation and endurance is not the work of a political party or a government structure. It is the work of human beings bearing with one another in self-giving love that defies all reason.

My favorite song in Hamilton isn’t actually “The World Turned Upside Down.” It is actually “It’s Quiet Uptown.” For those not familiar with the musical, Alexander has had a widely-publicized affair which itself causes his wife Eliza deep pain. Soon after their son Philip tragically dies in a duel defending his father’s honor. These events leave Alexander and Eliza deeply estrange and their family broken.

There are moments that the words don’t reach. / There’s a grief too powerful to name. / You hold your child as tight as you can / And push away the unimaginable.

Towards the end of the song, Eliza and Alexander finally reconcile, in a moment that echoes that unspeakable grief at the beginning:

There are moments that the words don’t reach / There’s a grace too powerful to name  … Forgiveness, can you imagine.

In a musical overflowing in powerful moments, these words are my favorite. And they always strike me as profoundly Christian. Grace is powerful beyond all words. Perfect forgiveness is something that does defy our imagination. But Eliza and Alexander only reconcile because Alexander spends this entire song staring into the reality of his wife’s grief and pain. They only reconcile because Alexander makes the equally unimaginable act of staring into the reality of his own fault in causing his wife’s pain.

These moments of grace, forgiveness, and repentance are the building blocks of God’s kingdom. Let us work together to build a reality that defies what we can possibly imagine, in the name of Christ.


John Crichton, America, and Me

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a borderline pathological obsession with the early 2000’s Sci-Fi network original series Farscape. Anyone who knows me really well knows that I have had, at times, a complicated relationship with my American identity (typed as I hold my Canadian passport close to my Timbit-loving heart). These two sentiments are not unrelated.


I’ll not confirm nor deny if I own this John Crichton T-shirt.

This time last week, I started a re-watch of Farscape with some friends here in Gambier.  As we began the first run of episodes, someone pointed out that Ben Browder, who plays series protagonist John Crichton, is the only American in the cast. I suppose that’s not an utterly surprising fact for an Australian-produced series. At the same time, Crichton’s national identity is no accident. As I commented to my friend, every aspect of Crichton’s character (both the good and the bad) springs from his prominent identity as AMERICAN.

Crichton is deeply flawed, and the series is not afraid to highlight his psychological issues. He is obsessive, putting his own interests–whether that be knowledge of wormholes, his quest for earth, or romantic interest Aeryn Sun–above everything else. He is brash and impulsive. His brilliant plans fail more than they succeed. It’s pretty clear that these qualities are seen, at least in Crichton’s mind, as uniquely American. I always see Crichton’s definitive moment coming in the final run of the show’s fourth season, when the madman bursts into an alien war council with a bomb strapped to his hip and proceeds to jump onto a table declaring: “I am an AMERICAN. And what does an American want? Democracy? No! Capitalism!” I appreciate the critical light Farscape is able to shed on some of the more troubling attitudes American can express with respect to the rest of the world.

And yet, for all his flaws, Crichton’s “Americanness” by an large enables his survival. More than his obsession with wormholes, Crichton is defined by optimism and hope. Throughout the series, Crichton survives an onslaught of truly terrible events thanks to nothing more than his own stubborn resilience. The motley crew of Farscape rises above impossible odds mostly because Crichton is not afraid to innovate and improvise. In the series premiere, Crichton stands with co-star Aeryn Sun as she faces rejection from the Peacekeeper military force, the only life she has ever known. When Aeryn declares that she cannot possibly join Crichton in exile because being a Peacekeeper is all she has ever known, Crichton does not hesitate a moment before declaring: “You can be more.” That is Crichton in a nutshell. Always believing something better is possible. Always expressing a sense of hope and an indomitable spirit. Always willing to see the best in people. Isn’t that the essence of all that good and nobel (dare I say, “Great”) about America?

[Here be spoilers]: In the show’s fourth season, Crichton finally achieves his long-held dream of returning to Earth and, more specifically, America. What with Farscape being Farscape, it is a bittersweet reunion — Crichton has been far too damaged ever to go home again. But Earth and, more specifically, America has changed too. Crichton, who learned optimism from his astronaut father, is distressed to see both his father and his country respond to the promise of genuine space exploration with nationalistic fears and increased competition between different countries. In outrage, Crichton challenges his father — stressing that he only survived all of his ordeals by believing in that very American sense of hope. Crichton, sucked through a wormhole into distant space in 1999, asks, “When did that change?” He receives the answer: “September 11, 2001.”

If there is one thing I take away from my beloved Space Muppets and their critical examination of what it means to be an American it is this: Americans are at our best when we believe we can be more. We are at our best when we believe the world is better than it may be at the moment, and when we hold ourselves to that standard. We are at our worst when we descend into ourselves and our own petty fears and obsessions. We are at our worst when we promote our own interests at the expense of others.

I spent the last eleven years as an American ex-pat, and I would be lying if I said I haven’t been experiencing some degree of reverse culture shock since returning from the True North Strong and Free. But I have also been pushing myself over the past several months to rediscover all that is great — exceptional, even — about the country of my birth. If American’s greatness lies in anything it is the fact that we have always pushed ourselves to be more. To be more inclusive. To embrace more freedom for all people.

Like John Crichton himself, American is a mixed bag at times. So is Canada. So is the Church, if we’re being honest. But we keep moving forward, not backward. Because if we have any greatness to speak of, it is in always striving to be more. Not less.

A Beauty, a Beast, and a case for salvation by Works


The cover of McKinley’s retelling. This may be the book I have reread the most in my life.

Growing up, there were certain things brown-haired, bespectacled, nerdy girls had in common. We knew Belle was the best Disney princesses (even if the Disney princess machine was not quite a *thing* yet in the early 90s). But we also knew Disney blatantly stole the best parts of its classic 1991 feature film from Robin McKinley’s 1978 debut novel Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Ok, I can’t back that claim up. But still … Giant libraries containing every book you could ever want to read … including books that had never been written! A castle full of enchanted servants! A prince who was probably more attractive when he was the beast … you get the idea.

I was reminded of McKinley’s take on the tale as old as time earlier this week when we went to see local Mount Vernon Arts’ production of the Disney stage musical (a really great production, by the way!). For while Disney owes much to the original story, not to mention McKinley’s depiction of the bookish bell, the mouse industrial complex made one (unsurprising) change to its source material. The Disney version of makes Beauty and the Beast a story about “love.” The Beast must learn to love another, and be loved in return. At no point is there any question — this is a story of romantic “true” love.

It has to be noted that this is quite a significant departure from more conventional retellings of the tale, whether that be McKinley’s two versions (she wrote a subsequent novel Rose Daughter in 1997) or Jean Cocteau’s 1946 cinematic classic (also undoubtedly an influence on Disney). Typically, the Beast’s objective is not to get a young woman to fall in love with him, but rather agree to marry him. As Beauty and the Beast grow closer in trust and friendship, their nightly dinner together is punctuated by the Beast’s poignant question: “Will you marry me?”

As a kid, the terms of the Beast’s enchantment in Disney’s version struck me as more desirable. After all, in those other stories, the Beast (at least initially) does not particularly care if Beauty “falls in love” with him. “Love” as a concept is beside the point. He just needs to find someone — anyone — to agree to marry him. Disney, in its every more romantically aspirational way, connects the Beast’s plight with the concept of “love.” Love is transformative. Love is redemptive. Especially romantic love.

That is all well and good. But “love”–especially that oh so idealized romantic love–is also very abstract. What does it mean for the Beast to fall in love with Belle, or for Belle to fall in love with the Beast? At what non-arbitrary point in their feelings for one another do we cross this magical threshold into Disney-fied “TRUE LOVE”? For all the seeming lack of romantic sentiment to the traditional story of “Beauty and the Beast”, there is certainly weight behind the Beast’s nightly proposal to Beauty. The terms of the Beast’s enchantment will be lifted not when he can entice another being to “feel” some abstract emotion, but when that love is lived out in action — in the agreement to marriage, with all the mundane, daily acts of commitment and self-sacrifice that entails. There is something far more real, far more tangible, behind the traditional tale’s call for Beauty to be willing not just to feel some warm fuzzy feelings for the Beast but ultimately to agree to marry him. It makes for a much more powerful story.

Love requires action. For all that the Disney version seems to promote an abstract concept of emotional “feeling” we nevertheless see the end of the Beast’s imprisonment only when that love is followed up in action. The Beast allows Belle to return to her father. Belle comes back and admits her feelings to the Beast.

We hear many cries for “love” all around us. Genuine “love” for one another is the solution to the gaping racial chasm that exists in our country. “Love” will heal our political divisions. In the language of our faith, we speak of “love” for God and for our neighbor as the source of our salvation. And yet “love” is not an abstract feeling. Love, especially Christian love, must be an incarnational reality. Our love is lived out and made know in how we give of ourselves to one another. One might say indeed we are indeed “saved” (for lack of a better term) not by faith or love alone, but by the works of charity, compassion, self-sacrifice born out of our love for one another. What will we do to make that love known?

#BlackLivesMatter (again)

While recently on vacation, Leeman and I spent most of Amanda’s daily naptime binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black. I was fixated on what this latest season had to say about the corporate for-profit prison system and what happens to our collective humanity when we view one another as profits rather than people. I was totally on board with this being the strongest season of the show to date.

Then the last two episodes happen. Here be SPOILERS:

The climax of the season occurred in the penultimate episode of the season, when tensions between the new authoritarian guards and the prison inmates culminate in a (peaceful) demonstration. The guards rush in to break up the protest and, in the ensuring chaos, a young, inexperienced guard inadvertently takes the life of fan-favorite character Poussey Washington. Given the racial dynamics explored over the course of the season, and the staging of Poussey’s death to evoke the real-life police killing of Eric Garner, the writers made an undeniable connection to the #BlackLiveMatter movement. That would all be well and good, except that the series attempts to portray a “balanced” outlook on the reality of law enforcement repeatedly taking the lives of black men and women.

As the series comes to its conclusion, we see two warring perspectives on what went down in that fatal moment. On the one hand the guards immediately jump to a defensive narrative — Poussey must have been armed, she made the first attack, their colleague was just defending himself. The inmates, on the other hand, demand justice for the death of their friend — she was innocent, someone must pay! Adding to the complexity of the situation we see the prison’s Public Relations team searching for the right angle. They ultimately determine the guard in question must be the sacrificial lamb for the good of the prison’s reputation. They find the most aggressive pictures they can to paint a picture of this confused young man as potentially dangerous and hardened. (Indeed, what makes this plot point particularly odious is the appropriation of what the media actually does when a young black man is killed by the police).

The season ends with a press conference in which Joe Caputo. prison warden, refuses to give in to the narrative that the guard is totally to blame for Poussey’s death. Caputo lays out the complexities of working in a prison system, even a minimum security facility. Ultimately, he argues, the young man made a mistake but did the best he could in the situation. Caputo’s failure fully to indict Poussey’s killer leads to a full-fledged prison riot and a cliff-hanger ending for the season.

It is difficult to know how to interpret Caputo’s final moments. The whole season laid out something of a battle for Caputo’s soul, as he sought for ways to affirm the humanity and dignity of the women in his prison against the corporate interests of his employers. One might read Caputo’s comments as his utter failure of moral courage–but I’m not sure that is what the writers were communicating. In the midst of all the various “agendas” — whether the guards defending one of their own, the inmates passionately demanding justice, or the corporation looking to defend its public image — Caputo lays out a seemingly nuanced, measured take on the situation. He speaks from his own personal convictions — not defending or exonerating the young man, but not indicting him either. Indeed, the actor who plays the guard in question, has encouraged a nuanced reading of the situation, noting that “good people make mistakes.”

A part of me can appreciate what the writers were trying to do. It is tempting always to look for nuance in complex situations. Indeed, the story of an immature young man thrown into an impossible circumstance where he makes a horrific, unintentional mistake makes for really compelling drama. It is also a grossly irresponsible statement to make in light of current events.

We live in a world where police repeatedly kill black men (and women) without just cause or due process and get away with it. This year alone, the police have killed well over 100 black men. Just this week two more names were added to the tragic black victims of police brutality: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Both deaths caught on video. Nothing to suggest the police who killed them were in any immediate mortal danger.

It is all well and good to look for nuance and complexity. It is all well and good to explore what leads someone sworn “to serve and protect” to make the fatal mistake that results in the the loss of a life. But there then comes a time when we must stand up and say that some issues are NOT complicated. Some situations do not merit nuanced discussion. There come times when we must declare that “mistakes” that lead to the repeated executions of black men and women don’t deserve discussion or measured responses. We must declare that Black Live DO INDEED Matter and that those who take them should be held responsible. We must name injustice for what it is if we are to have any hope of working together to create a world that reflects the true love and equality of God’s kingdom.

The other option is to be Joe Caputo. No one wants to be Joe Caputo.


Out of the Locked Room

download (2)This past Sunday, Christians around the world read the Gospel account of the Risen Christ appearing to his followers (John 20:19-31). Traditionally, this 2nd Sunday of Easter is known as “Thomas Sunday,” as this annual Gospel passage features the infamous figure of “Doubting Thomas” and his need to see the wounds on Christ’s body to believe the account of the resurrection. But if we only focus on Thomas, we miss so much of what this text has to offer us.

We miss, for example, that as the scene opens, all the disciples are locked away for “fear of the Jews” (we’ll bracket aside John’s problematic anti-semitism for the moment). The point is not so much what the disciples are afraid of, but the fact that they are indeed locked away. In the absence of their teacher, their mentor, and their friend — they are trapped by their own fear. They have trapped themselves in a metaphorical tomb of fear, even as Christ himself is rising from the literal tomb. When Jesus appears among them he does a couple of interesting things: He greats them with words of peace. He breathes on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. And then he commissions them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” More specifically, he commissions them specifically to go out into the world to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. He sends them out into the world, in other words, to bring life, peace and freedom to a world desperately in need of them. Which brings us to poor, unfortunate Thomas. Yes, he doubted. But when he encounters Christ the second time, when he has the opportunity to see and touch Christ’s wounded body, Thomas becomes the first disciple to make the proclamation: my lord and my God.

This story for the second week of Easter is not just about making a intellectual argument for accepting the truth of Christ’s resurrection (important as such arguments may be). Rather, it is a story about those of us who proclaim to be followers of the Resurrected Messiah. It is a challenge for us to move out of the tomb and prison of fear which can so easily beset us to a faith which embraces life and freedom. It is a faith that compels us to go forth in the name of Christ and proclaim the presence of God’s outrageous love for our world. And it is a faith that calls us to the courageous conviction that sometimes the way to true life more abundant requires dying to ourselves.

Now let us discuss certain legislation being passed around our country in the name of protecting religious freedom and places of worship. Legislation which gives organizations the right to discriminate against fellow human beings on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Legislation which denies certain individuals the ability to use a public bathroom without embarrassment. Even legislation that gives security teams at churches the right to kill in the name of “security”.

I know that I am for the most part effectively preaching to the choir in this blog post. I know most people reading this are appalled by such legislation. But I think it is worth considering for a moment why such legislation stands against the spirit of the Christian proclamation. For one thing — these laws hurt our fellow human beings. Whatever the position certain religious communities hold on human sexuality, surely there is a way to express those convictions without actively harming others made in the image of God. But perhaps more importantly, such legislation gives into a spirit of fear. It reflects a mentality of drawing battle lines and protecting what is one’s own, in place of a proclamation of Christian hope.

The question for all of us, wherever we fall on the political/theological spectrum, is that challenge — can we leave the place of fear and accept the challenge to share in Christ’s risen life? Can we live in hope, faith, and love of one another?

On Annunciation and Good Friday

Good Friday 2016

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.


“Christ is placed in the arms of his mother”; stations designed for Harcourt Parish by Barbara Tazewell.

John Donne wrote those words in 1608, one of the rare years, such as now in 2016, when Good Friday falls on March 25, the date one which the church typically recognizes the Festival of the Annunication to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is indeed seemingly incongruous to fall on the same day–indeed, it will not happen again for another century. The promise of the birth of Christ linked together with Christ’s bloody, brutal death. Donne’s poem hints at this incongruity with lines such as “The cedar plants itself and falls” and that wonderful image “Gabriel gives Christ to her and he her to John”

And yet Donne also makes the observation that these two events, incongruous as they might seem are indeed two sides of the same coin. “As in plain maps the furthest west is east.” Indeed, there was a period in the early centuries of the church (when dates were always shifting around) when the annunciation and Good Friday coincided intentionally. While we could get side-tracked with many many implications from that, there is one that I particularly want to highlight. This is something of a theological soap-box for me, namely the place of the doctrine of the incarnation in our observance of the crucifixion.

In my Palm Sunday sermon, I mentioned that a central image at the heart of our Christian faith is the kenosis, the self-emptying, the outpouring of Christ. That self-giving begins in the the work of the incarnation, when God comes to dwell with us in human form, but it culminates in the work of the cross. The ultimate act of self-denial, self sacrifice. Utter humility.

Good Friday is a day when we look with honesty at the darkness of our world. Both the cosmic–terror attacks, on going racial injustice. And the utterly personal–short tempers, unreflective consumerism. This is a dark day. But it is also the day that God confronted that darkness head-on. In defiance of the powers and principalities of a world that so often tells us to look out for ourselves … God gives of himself. Utterly. Completely. Willingly. The ultimate act of love. The work of reconciliation that is first signaled in the Angel’s proclamation to Mary comes to its completion in God’s willing self-sacrifice. And so Christ can cry from the cross “It is finished.”

Many of us are uncomfortable with Good Friday. Which is fair enough because there are some terrible theories in the Christian tradition about what it is that happened today. We rightly push against the idea that of a vengeful God who demanded human blood to atone for our sinfulness. But I also want to push against the idea that I hear preached and affirmed in our more progressive Christian circles that Jesus wasn’t really “supposed” to die. He was a victim of human betrayal. Good Friday didn’t need to happen. The violence of this day says more about us than it does about God. It seems we either cast Jesus as the hapless victim of a tyrannical deity or an angry mob. But in doing so we often rob the Christian narrative of its drama. The drama of God’s totally self-giving love for us. The drama of power displayed through weakness. Of defeat that will give way to victory.

There is another poem that links this theme of incarnation and crucifixion together, this one by Madeline L’Engle:
O you who bear the pain of the whole earth,
I bore you.
O you whose tears give human tears their worth,
I laughed with you.
You, who, when your hem is touched, give power,
I nourished you.
Who turn the day to night in this dark hour,
light comes from you.
O you who hold the world in your embrace,
I carried you.
O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore,
I played with you.
And I, who with all others, died for,
now I hold you.
May I be faithful to this final test,
in this last time I hold my child, my son,
His body close enfolded to my breast,
the holder held: the bearer bare.
Mourning to joy: darkness to mourn.
Open, my arms: your work is done.

Amen. It is finished.

“Goodbye ‘Room'”

So, I watched the Oscars last week. Which introduced me to Brie Larson’s award-winning performance in Room. Which inspired me not only to watch the film (and marvel at not only Larson’s performance but also that of her young co-star Jacob Tremblay) but also to read the novel and watch pretty much every interview with the cast I could find. I may be slightly obsessive.

Room-by-emma-donoghue-bookIt is difficult for me to figure out exactly why the story of Room captivated me as much as it did. I mean, Brie Larson’s performance is phenomenal, but the novel and the film both deal with some graphic and traumatic material. If you aren’t familiar with the premise, Room tells the story of five-year-old Jack and his relationship with “Ma,” whose real name we never learn in the novel.  Jack (our point-of-view character), has spent his entire life in a place he knows as“Room.” From Jack’s perspective, room  is the world. It is a good world. He has his friends like “Bed” and “Lamp” and “Table,” and he has a very set, normal routine. It takes a bit before we realize that “Room” is in fact a prison. It is the garden shed of a man who kidnapped “Ma” as a teenager and Jack is the outcome of her sexual assault.

Without given too much away, the pair eventually do escape and the rest of the novel is a fascinating exploration of the most mundane elements of the world, encountered by someone who has no frame of reference for them. Escaping from “Room” and encountering the world for the first time is the real trauma for Jack, not the imprisonment itself. He is confused by colors beyond what he experienced in Room, and going to a mall becomes like something out of a horror movie. We soon come to realize that there is a cost—there is something that Jack must give up—in order to experience all the wonderful things he has been deprived of for so long. He must give up the innocence, the simplicity, we might even say the perceived safety of “Room,” in order to experience life as a fully realized human being.

For all that “Room” deals with difficult subject matter and has an incredibly extreme premise at its core, there is something utterly universal in its message. Not only in Ma and Jack’s relationship as a universal reflection on parenting in all its complexities–without ever veering into the sentimental. But also in the whole question of what it means for each of us to step out of the simplicity and innocence of childhood as we grow up. Upon his escape from “Room,” Jack does indeed encounter much that pushes him to the limits of comprehension, but he also gradually discovers exciting things that he can take delight in–ice cream, and dogs, and playing ball in the back yard. When Jack and Ma have the opportunity to return to “Room” one last time, Jack realizes it is far smaller than he remembered, asking his mother “Did it shrink?”

While “Room” is most explicitly a meditation on what it means for us to “grow up” and move beyond the limited scope of our childhood understanding, I think there is also a more subtle challenge to how we approach the issue of faith. There is something relatively “safe” about faith in an understandable, controllable God who sits around rewarding good people and punishing bad people. If we offer the correct input–are decent people, good citizens, nice to one another–we will be counted as “good people” in the grand cosmic scheme of the universe. And yet, I cannot help but feel that God as revealed in the Christian narrative is a God who cannot be contained in such a clear-cut, rational box. The story of the Prodigal Son, which we heard in as our Lectionary Gospel just this past week, confronts us with the image of God as the father who runs out and embraces us even when we fundamentally do not deserve it. God offends our (at times) limited human understanding of what is “just” or “fair”, what is “right” or “wrong.” God cannot be controlled by our behavior because God loves us wildly, radically and somewhat absurdly, if we are honest about it.

We can try to lock God into boxes and limited categories of “righteousness” of our own making. But it seems if we do that, we settle for a spiritual reality that is far more impoverished that what God would wish to offer us. We all need to break out of “Room” and risk the greatness of the world.




In Shocking Twist: Oscars both Racist and Sexist

Several years ago, I was attending an academic conference with a group of colleagues from Toronto. As we gathered one evening for dinner, a male friend observed that the women in attendance were “so lucky” that we “got to” have so many different options for how we could dress for potential events, whereas men were sadly restricted to the uninspiring “business casual” option of blazer and slacks. Unsurprisingly, the women in the group quickly assured him that this state of affairs was not a gift to us, but a deeply sexist social structure which invariably guaranteed we would somehow be inappropriately dressed for any event we attend. Fortunately, the man in question is (still) a very good friend with a good sense of humor, so he took our outrage in stride and appreciated why his observation might have been a touch oblivious with respect to the lived experience of the women in his acquaintance.

I recalled that conversation last night as I (for some reason) watched the 88th Annual Academy Awards. It is no secret that for two years now the Oscars have come under criticism for the omission of black actors and filmmakers from nominations. Host Chris Rock did not disappoint when he confronted the #OscarsSoWhite movement head-on in his opening monologue. Honestly, I’m not sure what was more entertaining — Rock’s monologue itself or the awkward laughter from the audience as they were forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the ingrained racism of the film industry. Perhaps most brilliant was Chris Rock’s articulation of what he dubbed “sorority racism”:

But here’s the real question. The real question everybody wants to know, everybody wants to know in the world is: Is Hollywood racist? Is Hollywood racist? … Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. No, no, no …

… Is Hollywood racist? You’re d*** right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist.

It’s like, “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”

This is an excellent observation of the deeply systemic racism that continues to exist even in the “nice” corners of the world, as Rock describes in his monologue. The corners of the world which are happily progressive and liberal, yet still poisoned from the toxic well of White Supremacy that has been the consistent undercurrent in our nation’s history. We all agree that overt discrimination should be illegal, but we remain uncomfortable seeing people of color in iconic roles or positions of authority. As Lupita Nyong’o recently observed, this type of insidious racism is harder to fight because it is a “battle of the mind,” not a legal battle.

So as honest, and as necessary, as Rock’s observations on the racial dynamics in Hollywood may have been, it nevertheless angered me to see him miss the mark so completely on Hollywood sexism. Even as he skewered the marginalization of black actors, Rock made an entirely unnecessary crack at “not being invited” to Rihanna’s panties–effectively reminding the incredibly accomplished performer that she remains little more than a sex object. Even more troubling to me, though, were the closing lines of his monologue when he took issues with another popular Oscars hashtag, Amy Poehler’s infamous #AskHerMore campaign. The movement challenges Red Carpet reporters to ask women questions about their acting craft or the characters they have chosen to portray, not about their appearance. Observing that “men all wear the same thing,” Rock brushed off the movement with the crack that “not everything is racist, not everything is sexist”:

There’s this whole thing, “Ask her more. You have to ask her more.” You know it’s like, You ask the men more. Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism.

They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits, O.K.? Every guy in there is wearing the exact same thing.

You know, every guy there might be wearing the same thing — because they know they will not be held up to public scrutiny by the media like every woman who has the audacity to set foot on a red carpet. It’s true no public figure will get it right on every issue all the time. And, honestly, I wasn’t looking for Chris Rock to take up the feminist cause in his monologue. The issue of racism in Hollywood is one that needs to be confronted without a bunch of white women (like myself) jumping in and saying “Look at me!” But the fact remains Rock DID address the issue. He, as a man, perpetuated in the same sort of systemic oppression he was calling out in his monologue. Yet, maybe in so doing he provided the perfect example of how all of us are complicit in so many varied forms of oppression. We must indeed always be vigilant regarding how we can support those struggles which are not our own and be open to correction when we inevitably fail.

White Supremacy, “Wild Seed” and Wider Perspectives

The nice thing about being married to someone who impersonates a white supremacist is that one does become more aware of what sorts of issues are arising in the white supremacist community. While maybe not the desired outcome of their energies, racist and misogynistic ire can serve the helpful purpose of highlighting individuals of whom one was (shamefully) unaware.

IMG_0505As, for example, when certain pockets of the “weird fiction” community became quite incensed at an emerging movement to have H.P. Lovecraft’s likeness removed from the World Fantasy award, in favor of a less divisive figure. One name being put forward to assume this honor was the female African-American author Octavia Butler. The moral of this story is that angry voices on the internet introduced me to Butler as someone whose work I should probably have read years ago. I recently finished Wild Seed, the first installment in Butler’s “patternist” series, and it was indeed unlike much of what speculative fiction has to offer. Not least because a book like Wild Seed by no means allows its audience to ignore issues of race, gender, and identity. But, like all good literature, it grounds such grander social themes in very human characters.

Wild Seed tells the story of two immensely powerful individuals–Doro, who kills and inhabits any body he desires, and the shape-shifter Anyanwu. Perpetually hunting for new people with “special” abilities to incorporate into his genetic breeding program, the three thousand-year-old Doro locates the centuries-old Anyanwu in her small African village. With promises (and threats!), Doro lures Anyanwu back to his New York community where he is the effective slave master to a collection of individuals who must obey him to have any hope of survival, and whom Doro treats as little more than breeding stock in his quest to forge a genetically superior human race. Having been born in freedom (and possessing power nearly rivaling Doro’s own), Anyanwu is “wild seed,” never able to be fully controlled by Doro.

So much could be said about Butler’s depiction of race and gender in these two central characters–from Anyanwu’s attempt to hold on to her native identity in a European culture, to the various sexual boundaries Doro forces his children to cross. But the heart of the matter is how Doro and Anyanwu relate to their respective bodies. Specifically how unlimited they are to one particular embodied experience. Doro is effectively bodiless. Anyanwu questions whether he is an embodied being at all, as he seems to be pure spirit, merely “borrowing” but not truly inhabiting the bodies he kills. Anyanwu is, alternatively, almost pure body–her ability to assume various forms stems from her intimate knowledge of her body down to the smallest molecule. And it is significant that, though she may take on any form she chooses, she willfully identifies with her original form — a young black female body. If Doro holds the position in Butler’s work as ultimate oppressor, it cannot be overlooked that he is a being in no way restricted by his body.

To be unlimited by bodily limitations is, in Bulter’s writing, the ultimate power. Not because Doro–or Anyanwu–possess great physical power. But because they are in some fundamental way immune from the reality every one of us faces–we must all nagivate this world as people with specific bodily experience. That fundamentally matters if we are part of historically marginalized groups. No man can understand what it is for me to live in a female body, just as I cannot imagine what it is like to navigate a white-dominated culture as a person of color.

Towards the end of the novel, Anyanwu herself spends several years living effectively as a white male plantation owner in 19th century Louisiana. Perhaps her most poignant observation comes when she observes to Doro that, though she will not own slaves, she had become oblivious to the horrors of the slave culture surrounding her plantation. As Anyanwu notes, living as a white person for too long blinded her to the plight of those she would never have ignored before.

If I remember nothing else from Wild Seed, it will be that passage. It is a subtle but powerful reminder to those of us who navigate our culture in bodies afforded the privilege of not needing to be constantly mindful of our racial identity. It is a challenge for us to do the hard work of being mindful of those whose lived experience differs significantly from our own.

Yet more life lessons from Sleepy Hollow

In his “Letters to Malcolm” (one of by favorite books on prayer), CS Lewis stresses that we cannot bring to God only those petitions that we feel are worthy of divine attention. We can only be honest with God about what is on our mind at any given moment if we are to have any hope of integrity and authenticity in our spiritual lives.

And so, following Lewis’s sage advice, I could offer profound thoughts on our annual Lenten pilgrimage. I could talk about what a great experience it was to offer Ashes-t0-Go for the first time in my new campus community, and the vital importance of the church to in going out of our buildings to engage with the very earnest spiritual hunger in the world around us. Or I could write about Sleepy Hollow, the guiltiest of my guilty pleasure TV obsessions. The supernatural crime procedural recently return from its mid-season 3 hiatus, and all signs point to the writers taking a renewed interest in pretty much the only thing that makes the show worth watching–the fantastic performances by leads Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie. For which my unashamed fangirl heart is incredibly grateful.

I have written about Sleepy Hollow here before. Partially that is because I am a lover of the ridiculous (need I sing the praises of Galavant yet again?) and it is hard to get more ridiculous than a show about a temporally displaced Ichabod Crane serving with his faithful companion LEFtenant Abbie Mills as the two witnesses destined in the book of Revelation to thwart the apocalypse as prophesied by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Or something? It’s hard to follow. But I also find it fascinating (and depressing) to reflect on how much Sleepy Hollow was something of a victim of its own success.

Sleepy Hollow was a surprise hit of the 2013-4 TV season. And it was amazing, not to mention one of the most racially diverse series on TV–featuring not only the brilliant Beharie herself, but Lyndie Greenwood as her sister Jenny, the delightful Orlando Jones has police chief Frank Irving, and John Cho as Abbie’s former police colleague. It was awesome. Nobody made a big deal about it. And people loved it. You can read read my previous thoughts on that subject here.

Then season two happened. I have no evidence to back any of this up, but it is as if some group of executives started making decisions less born of creativity and more from a desire to build a bigger and bigger audience. Unfortunately, this led to foregrounding the stories of the white characters (some of whom were needlessly introduced) while marginalizing others, including Abbie Mills. You can read my previous thoughts on the subject here.

Which brings us to the present third season. I am delighted that the writers have learned from the error of their ways and are once again foregrounding the relationship between Ichabod and Abbie. All the same, I am frustrated at how increasingly bland the stories have become–did I mention Ichabod and Abbie are the only reason to watch the show? All I want is a zombie George Washington or cryptic theologically problematic Biblical references! Is that too much for a priest to ask? Instead we have gone from the Horsemen of the apocalypse to … Pandora? And some generic “nameless” deity. Yet again, it seems creative choices are being made by writers and produces not in the attempt to make fun or compelling television but to reach as broad an audience as possible. In so doing, they have done a pretty good job of alienating that fan base which gave them such unexpected success two years ago. And they have effectively diminished one of the truly unique projects on network TV. Only seven episodes remain before the almost certain cancellation of the series.

Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us, whatever our situation in life might be. In the church, for example, we are always searching for new ways to be “relevant” to the world around us. To a degree, that is absolutely right. We must constantly seek new ways of connecting with an ever-changing culture (see above, re: Ashes to Go), and we must always work to break down those barriers which rightly give people pause before crossing the threshold into our religious communities. But we must be wary not to do so wholly at the expense of those traditions which give our faith shame and meaning in the first place. It is a delicate line to walk.

Even outside the context of the church, though, it strikes me there the focus of our various endeavors can be so easily misguided. All too often, social media fails to be a source of genuine human connection and becomes a context where we are all trying to build “likes” and “followers” or “up-votes.” Rather than building friendships, we build platforms, presenting highly curated versions of our lives. We might think of what has become of the state of our democracy when candidates across the political spectrum perform for the approval of voters, not any sense of personal integrity. Or, in the context of the classroom we work for top grades and academic standing — which means we fail to take risks because it might mean bringing down a perfect GPA (a state of mind I know all too well).

I think the most any of us can strive for–whether in our spiritual lives, our friendships, or our work–is authenticity. Perhaps even vulnerability. Because if we are always working to satisfy others, rather than embracing our own unique God-given identity, our lives might be safe and comfortable, but they will always be a little more shallow–a little less quirky and unique–than they could be.

The only think I have to add is that if I stuck with three seasons of Sleepy Hollow and Abbie and Ichabod never actually get together, someone at Fox owes me a lot of money. It’s 2016. I promise the interracial couple won’t bite.