Turning the other cheek … and the other ear

Earlier this week, our daily office lectionary offered this little not-at-all-challenging bit of scripture:

Luke 6:27-36

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Jesus has something of a reputation of proposing a touchy-feely “lets all get along and love each other” message, at least in comparison to the allegedly fire and brimstone God of the Old Testament. But then there are times when we cannot escape the fact that Jesus poses some pretty tough spiritual challenges to us. I will confess, I struggle when I read these words of scripture. It is much, much easier (not to mention so much more self-validating) to see ourselves as victims than to extend the hand of charity and grace to those who have hurt us. It is so much easier to seethe in anger than to pray for those by whom we have been damaged. This is up there with that annoying “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” when it comes to spiritually convicting teachings of Christ.

But there is another reason why this passage gives me pause — aside from the challenges it poses to my own life of faith. It is the fact that this passage as those like it can be so easily used to validate oppression and injustice. Victims of abuse are expected just to let go of their hurt without going through a natural, healthy process of grief and anger. Historically marginalized groups are expected to extend the hand of reconciliation to the oppressors without any acknowledgement from those oppressors of corporate guilt.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there is a reason Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who do us wrong. Sinking into our own self-righteous anger, closing ourselves off from the prospect of extending the grace of forgiveness is not the path to spiritual wholeness and salvation. On the other hand, it is not the place of the powerful to tell the hurting what forgiveness looks like. We are doing something wrong if we interpret Jesus’s words in such a way that we place undue burden on those who have historically suffered to just … get over it. To express their anger, frustration, rage in a way that makes US feel more comfortable.

It does not take a huge hermeneutic stretch to apply these thoughts to what is currently happening in Baltimore this past week, as decades of racial tensions and gross social inequality boiled over to the surface. I have thought long and hard about how to respond to the events of the past week. As a priest, I feel I must say something. On the other hand, what can I say? Do we really need another white blogger evaluating–whether to sympathize with or condemn–the actions of Black Americans? All I can say is to pose the question of what would it look like for EVERYONE to take these challenging words of Jesus to heart. To recognize that Jesus’s call to love our enemies is not a burden unduly placed on the historically weak, but an obligation aimed even more directly at the historically powerful and privileged, among whom I include myself.

Maybe part of what Jesus is getting at in his teaching is that we extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we differ. Maybe we do not understand why the black community feels so disenfranchised … or, indeed, feels that their lives do not matter in the current cultural climate. But rather than responding with a posture of judgment or condemnation, we have an obligation to respond with humility. To at least try to hear and understand the issues at the heart of the current issues. To face hard truths even when it makes us uncomfortable–trust me, I have felt uncomfortable and defensive when I hear frustrations vented against “white Christianity” and its obliviousness to racial issues. I also know there’s quite a lot of validity to those frustrations and I need to be willing to hear them. That doesn’t mean that we always have to agree. But it does mean we have to start by listening to those who have not historically had their voices heard.

When it comes to the current racial issues, especially what’s happening in Baltimore, a good place to start is Ta-Nahisi Coates (really, just read everything he’s ever written). Someone on Twitter that I’ve really appreciated following recently is Broderick Greer, who brings a challenging and moving Christian perspective to hard racial truths. His recent speech at the College of William and Mary is deeply convicting and well worth reading. Christena Cleveland as well offers helpful words on how to truly listen with humility.  (Side note, if we think systemic racism is merely a problem of the states, one need only check out Desmond Cole’s recent column in Toronto Life).

In the end, my decision on what to say about Baltimore is to say … nothing. But to listen, and hopefully to hear. And to pray for everyone. For those rioters who burned down private property. For those offering peaceful demonstrations. For the police officers … most of whom are ordinary men and women trying to do their job as best they can. For my friends on facebook referring to rioters as “thugs.” Maybe even, when I have the spiritual strength, for the reporters on Fox news. Maybe I’ll work up to that last one.

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Thoughts: Searching for Sunday

I often get asked why I shifted from my early Evangelical Christian foundation and found a spiritual home in the Anglican tradition. Without missing a beat, my answer is always the same: the sacraments.

FullSizeRenderBread. Water. Wine. Oil. Hands. Ordinary things which become for us conveyors of God’s presence and God’s grace. We are physical, embodied people. So is our Gospel … and so is our Church. The sacraments assure me that our faith is not just a set of abstract, idealized statements about God. Our faith is manifested in signs and symbols — the touch of a hand, breaking of bread. Our faith is not an intellectual exercise about “believing” the right things. But our faith is about touching, tasting, and encountering God in ways that go beyond propositions and language.

So, it should come as no surprise that Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Searching For Sunday, deeply resonated with me. I have long felt an affinity with Evans’ reflections on her own spiritual journey, as she relates it on her blog. Not just because we are the same age and share a name. Like Evans, I know what it is to be a good southern Evangelical, and what it is to have a neat and tidy childhood faith knocked down and rebuilt. And now it would seem that we have both had our faith renewed at least to some degree by the sacred mystery of the sacraments:

When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life again. They got God out of my head and into my hands. they reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed, it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They remind me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.” (xvi)

Yes, pretty much that.

I don’t pretend to be much of a book reviewer. Then again, Searching for Sunday is the kind of book that defies critical assessment. It does not pretend to be a worked out idealized theology of the church. For which I am profoundly grateful. When I was in seminary, our systematic theology professor made the comment: There is no such thing as the “invisible church”, there is only the church. In other words, there is no abstract spiritual assemblage of those souls redeemed by the blood of Christ. There is only the church. Living, breathing women and men struggling to live out lives following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Sometimes imperfectly. But always tangibly, physically, in relationship with one another.

Evans’ book is as perfect a testament to the muddled, messy nature of the “visible church” as any I could imagine. Through third-person anecdotes and personal reflection, Evan shares genuinely profound insights into the ability of the church to both hurt and heal its members. It would be easy to focus on the “negative” aspects of church experience that Evans describes: What happens when the church makes no room for divergent political opinions? For people suffering mental illness or depression? How do we account for the pain the church has inflicted on LGBT people? But, perhaps it is that same realness of the church that is its blessing and its curse. The church is real … it is human. And if it is human, the church has the power to inflict tremendous pain.

As Evans reminds us, though, we are always pulled back to those pesky sacraments. The sacraments which remind us that God is present here–in the material things of this world. A touch of the priests’ hand in the sacrament of reconciliation offers the assurance than sins have been heard, and absolved. A touch of oil on a forehead offers the promise of spiritual wholeness. And it is the same human hands which have the capacity to hurt that perform these sacraments, both in formal liturgical rituals and in the sacramental nature of everyday life. It is indeed the human reality of the church which offers the promise of hope, of reconciliation, and redemption. Recounting her participation in the Episcopal confirmation service of two close friends, Evans notes that our baptism vows do indeed speak to the heart of our faith, lived out in the community of the church: “Repent. Break bread. Seek justice. Love neighbor. Christianity seemed at once the simplest and most impossible thing in the world” (194).

In the end, I think Searching for Sunday presents all of us who would call ourselves Christians with a lofty challenge–the challenge to love one another, even in the midst of profound differences and disagreements. To remember that a faith grounded on the central truth that God became a person cannot just be a matter of ideas and convictions. It must be lived out in our bodies and in relation to one another. When we break bread together, we are one body — we are the church. Messy, frustrating, but a refreshingly real gift from God, even when we don’t realize it.

Let the Big Children Come to Me

Earlier today, I was at one of our regular local clergy gatherings. As we prepared for the celebration of the Eucharist, someone noticed that we were sitting near the children’s area of the church. Naturally, comments followed, as the hosting clergy jokingly invited the rest of us to–if need be–connect with our inner child by making use of the colouring books and other such activities.

While the suggestions were offered in a tongue-in-cheek manner, it has to be said that adults embracing what were one exclusively child-dominated activities seems to be a growing trend. Amazon.ca offers a whole selection of “adult colouring books.” But perhaps more telling is the business which is making a lot of news in recent days: An adult preschool opening in Brooklyn, charging between $333 and $999 for a month-long program in arts & crafts, napping, and show & tell.

It seems at least some pundits and social commentators are troubled by this apparent infantilization of today’s grown-up population. Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick recently shared her thoughts on the subject, critiquing “Preschool Mastermind” as yet another sign that (particularly American) adults of late refuse to “grow up.” She states: “You see infancy in its politics (relentless folksiness, speeches for simpletons), dress (jeans, t-shirts, baseball caps), cuisine (food in cutesy rounded shapes), identity (life tracked on Facebook, with high school being the peak), and pop culture (movies about comic book heroes).”

It's fun to be a kid!

It’s fun to be a kid!

Perhaps it is my own predilection for comic book movies (I just rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy last weekend … I’m hooked on a feeling!), or my tendency to only ever be seen in jeans when not in a collar … but I took a certain offence to Mallick’s comments. Perhaps offence is too strong a word. Perhaps it is more accurate to find the “grown-up” world her column advocates to be … undesirable. And, frankly, I might go so far as to say that spiritual maturity is not necessarily reflected in personal maturity. At least not in every situation and as those who look askance at adult colouring books or super hero movies seem to suggest.

It has to be said that throughout the Gospels we do not exactly see Jesus rolling his eyes at grown-ups trying to be more like kids. Quite the contrary. What does Jesus say? “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as them” (Mark 10:15). We are called again, and again, to embrace our faith and to approach God precisely as children. But what exactly does that mean?

If there is one thing I have learned from the last 18 months of parenthood is that the emotional life of a child is honest and open — in all of its lows and all of its highs. A child can express joy and wonder in a way that is completely open and honest. Children show love. Sure, children are emotionally unstable narcissists who need a firm guiding hand. But they are also totally without a compromising ego. They show pure delight, without worry of what others with think. They aren’t concerned with appearance or being “cool.” What would life be like if all of us grown-ups permitted ourselves the freedom to take wonder and joy in the world around us? What if we all permitted ourselves to like things (un-ironically)? What if we allowed ourselves the vulnerability to be genuinely loved and to genuinely love others? That strikes me as a pretty good world to live in. It might look a little bit like the kingdom of heaven.

I like to think that most days I do a pretty decent job of pretending to be a grown-up. I keep on top of my bills. Like many people I struggle with the balance between commitment to my vocation and my family. I dare say I have a degree of emotional and intellectual maturity. But I would be incredibly sad if I ever let those markers of maturity stand in the way of letting in a healthy dose of immaturity from time to time. Sometimes that immaturity means watching Farscape all the way through for the 5th time (my love of which knows no shame). Sometimes it means taking giddy delight in discussing the intricacies of Eucharistic theology. Sometimes it means laughing with my own child.

At the end of the day, I probably agree that adult preschool is a kind of silly idea. But maybe we need “adult preschools” and “adult colouring books” (as bizarre as they might seem) because we have forgotten how to live as children in our everyday lives. Maybe the question we need to ask ourselves is not how we can be more “mature” and more properly “grown up”, but how real maturity means knowing when it is time to let ourselves be “immature.” Remembering to whom the kingdom of God really belongs.

Good Eats

Happy Easter one and All!

Admittedly, it is cold soggy afternoon, not feeling much like a festive day within the octave of Easter. Still, there are chocolates on my desk and lilies adorning the church, so a bit of rain cannot dampen my festive spirit. I do have to confess that I have always loved the Easter season. Perhaps even more than Christmas. Maybe it has something to do with still being something of a southerner deep in my heart that I take far too much delight in seeing at least the hopeful signs of spring after a long depressing winter.

Easter is a feast, and feast means good food. A fact that I am all the more inclined to celebrate after an unfortunate gastric illness nearly put me in the tomb on Good Friday — not a penitential practice I would wish to make an annual occurrence. Alas, but my leg of lamb intended for an Easter feast has been consigned to the back of the freezer. Perhaps for Pentecost. I really do like food, it has to be said. And it is not just the part of my spirit that looks forward to warm weather I claim from my southern heritage. I also stick to my southern roots when it comes to my culinary preferences. For me, the 11th commandment is “Thou shalt not put sugar in thy cornbread.”

We even got to meet Alton Brown, even if Amanda was a little suspicious.

We even got to meet Alton Brown, even if Amanda was a little suspicious.

This is one of the reasons I was so excited when Leeman and I had the chance to catch Alton Brown live just before Holy Week kicked into gear. I’ve always loved Alton Brown, and not just because he is from the city of my birth (Atlanta, Georgia). I appreciate someone who prioritizes the brilliance of a cast-iron skillet and the goodness of butter, as any respectable southerner should. I hold to many of the lessons on cooking I learned from my years of following his guidance. The man taught helped me face my fear of roasting a turkey for the first time–and he’s gotten me through every Thanksgiving for the last decade. Even in active labour, I was explaining to my midwife Mr. Brown’s rules for never stuffing or basting a turkey.

But what I love most about Alton Brown is the JOY he takes in cooking, and the fun he has with food. When so many “foodies” these days seem oppressed by their own sense of self-importance–or, worse yet, seem almost afraid of food that may not be properly organic/whole/free range/etc–Alton Brown’s levity is a breath of fresh air. It is a rare person who can host a TV cooking show that prominently feature sock puppets and sophisticated culinary technique. It’s no surprise that Alton Brown’s live show would be a mixture of stand-up comedy and over-the-top food gadgetry. The man made a gigantic easy-bake-oven powered by stadium lights and used fire extinguishers to make carbonated ice cream, for goodness’ sake. Good times were had by all.

In this Eastertide season of Feasting, someone like Alton Brown inspires us to take JOY in what are indeed “Good Eats”–the abundance of creation that God has given to nourish and sustain us. It’s worth noting that Alton Brown is a person of faith. I have to believe that the delight he takes in the quirks and creativity of cooking come from a spiritual place. If nothing else, he evokes a sense of thankfulness in feasting, as he one said in an interview:

“I do. Yeah. I say grace. I’m a big believer in grace. I happen to believe in a God that made all the food and so I’m pretty grateful for that and I thank him for that. But I’m also thankful for the people that put the food on the table. The people that grew the food, the people that got the food to me. I think that being grateful, being thankful, makes food tastes better, actually, and it’s something that we should take time to do. I do.”

May we all approach this season of bountiful feasting with a similar attitude of Grace.

The Mind of Christ

Over the past few days, have spent more time than I care to admit absorbing the debates about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act recently passed in Indiana. Suffice it to say, the situation troubles me deeply. Let me not mince words. The situation at once deeply saddens and angers me.

While there are a lot of issues in play concerning legislation supporting the idea of “religious freedom,” lets be honest. The bulk of people supporting RFRAs–especially those potentially giving BUSINESSES the freedom to discriminate based on deeply held religious beliefs–are doing so because they are afraid Christians might be compelled by the state to offer services to same-sex weddings (or some similar situation). This is what boggles my mind. It makes me sad to see my brothers and sisters in Christ choose to value ideological purity over basic kindness to fellow human beings–whether or not one agrees with their sexual identity.

On the other hand, proponents of the right to discriminate on the basis of religious belief are an easy target for criticism. Not to mention, Jesus has some things to say about avoiding planks in our own eyes.  If I am being honest, I must admit that the quest for ideological purity that trumps basic human decency is not restricted to the right and it is not restricted to people of faith. It is a universal human temptation. Recently, Richard Beck has written about the tendency for progressive Christians to present the same puritanical impulses as the conservatives they (we) so passionately criticize. A failure to live up to the standards of “social justice” becomes a moment for public shaming. Though not an example from the church, just look at how quickly Jon Stewart’s Daily Show replacement fell from hero to villain when potentially racist tweets surfaced. Now, I think it is perfectly legitimate to call someone, especially a public figure, out for problematic statements. But the black and white mob mentality troubles me. Tevor Noah could only be “good” or “bad”, there is no room for him to be a nuanced, complicated human being with room to gradually mature (note the most troubling tweets were several years old).

Whatever our political perspective, it is fair to say we are, as human beings, naturally drawn defending our concept of what is RIGHT. Obviously, that impulse manifests itself in a number of ways, some of which are more problematic than others (like when you start taking about effectively legalizing discrimination. For the record, that’s not cool). But it is the same impulse nonetheless.

As we move into the final days of Holy Week and meditate on the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I find myself wondering what would happen if we all–across the political spectrum–allowed ourselves to be wrong(ed) one in awhile. What kind of witness would it send if conservative business owners in Indiana said–“We cannot condone homosexuality but we will refuse to shut our doors to gay and lesbian couples in the name of Christian hospitality”? Letting go of the need to be “right” and morally “pure” — isn’t that a radical image of the sacrificial love Christ calls us to show one another. What if those of us on the more progressive end of the spectrum refused to write others off completely when they fail to live up to our expectations. To see people–even those with whom we disagree–as fellow human beings made in the image of God and not disembodied opinions flashing across the screen on Facebook?

The Agony of Christ in the garden, carved on the Mount of Olives.

The Agony of Christ in the garden, carved on the Mount of Olives.

In this most dramatic of liturgical moments, it is worth remembering that our faith as Christians is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, who humbled himself for us to the point of a shameful death on the cross.  And we are called to have “that same mind” in us that was in him–to do nothing out of selfishness, but to regard others as better than ourselves (as St Paul says in his letter to the Philippians):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

“Rightness” never enters into the Christian faith.  The role of Jesus Christ in the Christian story is fundamentally unfair, not right. Our Christian faith is one that affirms strength in weakness.  It is a faith that finds its greatest victory in defeat.  We can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to win every battle if we are truly following in the example of Christ.  I’m sure all those who are zealous on any extreme, and especially those supporting the legislation in Indiana hold the convictions they hold out of a desire to be right.  But I wonder if maybe they would actually be serving the faith better by letting go–by allowing themselves to give up their “right” to be right all the time. To allow the possibility that they might be wrong.  It would certainly win them more credibility with the public and maybe be a better Christian witness.

So where does that leave us?  Most of us probably aren’t inclined to fight political battles all the time.  But I’m sure we all have those little places in our lives where we want to make sure everything is fair, everything is right. Perhaps one of the simplest ways to live out our Christian vocation (and to embrace the commandment to love one another which we hear on this Maundy Thursday) is simply to let ourselves be wrong sometimes. Not to be consumed with making sure everything is “fair” and putting our emphasis on how to love our friends, our spouses, our co-workers in true humility.  This is what it means to have the “mind of Christ.”