True Wilderness

Lent always begins with mystery: Jesus, newly-baptized, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and there he remains, amid the shifting desert sands, for forty days. It is a strange place to begin: for the ancient Hebrews, the wilderness was both a place of danger and the place of encounter with God. Intimacy and danger, solitude and temptation. Our best and our worst selves, encountered when there is no distraction. 

Geoffrey Harpham writes of St. Anthony, the second hermit in Christian tradition, that he went into the wilderness to know his own heart. When he had lived in the big city and saw dancing girls, he could not know whether they were the product of his fantasy, or whether they were actually there. But in the desert, when he saw dancing girls, he knew that he lusted in his heart. His time away from others became a mirror — a mirror in which he could see himself clearly, offer himself to God for purification, and return to human society more capable of love.

Perhaps this strange Lent, with its anxiety and social distancing, its closing of schools and cancellation of the worship which normally sustains our souls, is, after all, inviting us to walk in the steps of Jesus. Our very disorientation has the capacity to show us to our selves in a new way. If you are self-isolating, what do you find in your smaller life which gives you joy? Whom or what do you struggle to live without? What are your temptations, your anxieties, the buttons which are getting pushed? How can you bring all that to God, and offer it to God to be transformed by love?

And what can you offer to your neighbor? Do you know someone in a high-risk demographic to whom you could bring groceries, someone lonely who might be cheered by a phone call? Could your children make cards to send to a senior center, whose residents are not able to be visited right now? What light can you shed?

If you look closely at the ministry of Christ, you will see that he did not refuse Satan’s temptations once and for all. Rather, he transformed them. Satan had whispered to him of hunger, of the power to do good, of ways to prove that he was holy. Jesus spent the rest of his life on those issues, but on his own terms, not on those of Satan. Bringing the presence of God, rather than bemoaning his own powerlessness. How can you make this time of trial a doorway into something which gives life?

What is a Jew?

A few days after the last U.S. Presidential election, I went to have dinner with some friends. When I rang the bell, the husband opened the door and greeted me, saying, “We will shelter you.” Not, “Hello!” Not, “Good to see you.” But “We will shelter you. We have already discussed it. If they come after the Jews, you have a place to hide.” That was the level of anxiety on the homes of our nation’s capital.

Since that day, I have had similar conversations with dismaying regularity. At dinners, at lunches, in the doctor’s office. Sometimes, it seems as if every person I know of Jewish descent is constantly taking the temperature of the U.S.: Is it safe to stay (here, in our homes, in the country of which we are citizens, the place we have worked hard to build, the only nation we have ever lived in) or do we need to flee? Where would we even go?

Nor have those fears proved unfounded. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting, which evoked compassion and support for people all over the nation and the world, including the support of faithful Muslims who offered to guard synagogues the next Saturday morning so that the Jews could worship without fear, has only been the most visible incident in a spate of anti-Semitic crime. Attacks targeting Jews rose 13% last year, worldwide; one incident in four took place in the United States. (Business Insider). The President and his advisors routinely tweet or re-tweet material playing upon dangerous anti-Semitic tropes, and Trump himself called Jews “brutal killers, not nice people at all” in a speech to the Israeli American Council three days ago.  Even today, as I was writing this, a shooting in a kosher market in New Jersey has been identified as a targeted act of hate.

Today, we awoke to the news that Trump intends to sign an executive order stipulating that Jews are a race or nationality, not just a religion. The idea was apparently suggested by Jared Kushner, who is himself Jewish, and who intends this to strengthen the federal government’s ability to combat anti-semitism on college campuses. However, it has raised serious alarm, and even panic, among the American Jewish community, who are only too aware of how the false assertion that Jews were “foreigners” rather than Germans was used to foster the anti-Semitism which led them to the death camps.

Nor is this fear ungrounded. This administration has been only too willing to suggest  that black people, Hispanic-Americans, and immigrants who have become naturalized citizens are not “real” Americans, that their presence is  somehow dangerous to American identity  — and Trump’s admirers have frequently extended that narrative of dangerous identity to Jews (as have people who are not among his admirers). The issue of American identity is hotly disputed right now, and even well-intentioned efforts could have unforeseen negative consequences.


To grow up as a Jew is often an two-fold experience:  to be an ordinary person living an ordinary life, tending children, working hard, investing your gifts in the flourishing of your community; and also, always, to remember all the times that the gift of being ordinary has been taken away. To hear the stories of being made to be “foreign,” “dangerous,” “different.” To know how often your people have been made into scapegoats for systemic problems that had nothing to do with you. To see how frequently, when a person of your heritage takes a stand for something, the first response of someone on Twitter is to denigrate them as “a Jew” (as in the revolting tweet to the left

The Gospel of Luke tells us that a lawyer once approached Jesus and asked, “Rabbi, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus replied by pointing him at the Ten Commandments, ending with “love your neighbor as your self,”  the lawyer pushed and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ’s answer has become one of the most-loved of all his stories: the Good Samaritan. It tells of a man (a Jewish man) who was robbed and beaten and left for dead, and how the most likely people just walked on by, while a man who care from a despised minority chose to care for him. Jesus’ message is clear: that we are not called to have neighbors, but to be neighbors. To choose to claim one another even when that is difficult, even when caring for another person may impose burdens on us. 

What I’m saying is this: your neighbors, our neighbors, are frightened. What can you do to show them that they are valued, that they are integral to the fabric of your life and the life of your community? To help everyone understand that Jews are real Americans?


Of humility and community

A few months ago, at the request of a friend, I joined one of those neighborhood listservs — you know the type, the kind of place where people post everything from a request for the name of a good nanny to commentary on a proposed housing development to spare furniture that they are hoping to sell to a neighbor. The most interesting thing posted to date has been a request to borrow a pet pig for an advertising shoot. (This from a man named Kevin Bacon. Seriously.)

This week, however, things went in a strange direction when someone asked, “Am I actually hearing assault rifles at the firing range this morning??? Why???” The responses ranged between factual information to a debate on the Second Amendment, with a man objecting that the question was even asked, and then a whole bunch of people bashing “liberal bullshit.” Finally, someone demanded that the discussion be terminated, because the poster did not want this listserv to become a hostile environment. By which they apparently meant, they did not want it to become a place in which real-world issues could be discussed.

The thing is, this week saw a spate of mass shootings, in which large numbers of Americans were killed or injured while going about their daily lives. So there were good reasons that a person might be alarmed by the sound of rapid rifle fire. A lot of us are on edge. People are weeping when they drop off their children at school in the mornings; after all, we are a short distance from the site of the deadliest school shooting in American history.

I was struck by what wasn’t said in the discussion: that courtesy plays a necessary role in the maintenance of a community. That our legal rights ought be to lived out within the constraints of our moral obligations, which might possibly include having the tact not to terrify our neighbors at a particularly fraught time. Jesus, after all, commanded us to love our neighbor, and love requires self-restraint. We do not hit the person we love when we are angry. We do not insist on our own way, when that insistence will harm the person we love. We have enough trust to ask when something puzzling arises, rather than rushing to condemn.

We in this nation are blessed to have expansive legal rights, but we need to recognize that those rights constitute the foundation of our society, not its ideal. Our rights seek to strike a balance between personal freedom and the most fundamental needs of our society. But a flourishing society requires more than an endless assertion of self: it requires courtesy, respect, and self-restraint — which is to say, it requires us to make space for people who are genuinely different than ourselves. Sometimes, humility is the truest face of love.

What does the Lord require?

Friends, I have to tell you about Friday evening: the closing of Heads Up! Hartford. (Several of you were there.) Imagine a packed auditorium, swelteringly hot. In the front rows are fifty or sixty teenagers in green T-shirts, emblazoned on the backs with the famous words from Micah: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Behind them, a crowd of parents, relatives, and well-wishers, including a host of young people who had participated in Heads Up! when they were teens. On the stage, a drum-set, a podium, and a screen, on which young people took turns singing, dancing, offering photographs, and testifying to how they had been changed, and how they had learned the difference that one person could make in this world.

I was sitting next to my friend and colleague Rowena, who had been gracious enough to allow me to hold her six-day-old foster son. And so, all the time that these teenagers were speaking, I was alternately gazing down at his tiny, perfect face, thinking about how kids not much older than he were suffering and dying in cages at the hands of our government, and looking up again to see these bright young people who were trying to make a world fit for children like him to live in. A world fit for us all to live in.

What does the Lord require of us? The painters talk about chiaroscuro, by which they mean a technique in which the scene in a painting has one bright light source which illuminates some people or details while allowing the others to fall into deep shadow.  (Think of a sunbeam coming through a high window into a dark room.) The light, of course, is Christ, but in this world, it’s Christ coursing through us: Christ in our hands, our feet, our heart. 

That’s what this Sunday’s reading from Kings (2 Kings 2:1-14) is about. It’s one of the most beautifully told stories in Scripture: the pacing, the three-fold repetition, the feeling of inexorability, the intimacy of friendship and the certainty of death. But all this points toward the river, where Elisha, the young prophet, makes an extraordinary request: Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit. (2 Kings 2:9) Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit. Elisha is speaking about the transmission of responsibility from one generation to another, that when our elders fade and die, those who are younger must step up to the plate. 

We cannot take refuge in indifference. We cannot take hold of our own smallness and pretend we have no power. Vested in us is all the power of God — at least, all the power God pours into this world. It matters when we speak and when we are silent, when we act and when we refuse to intervene. It matters how large we draw our circle: whether we center our lives on our selves or on our families or on the immediate members of our communities or on seeking to effect the kind of change that makes things better on a wider scale. And it matters for whom we act: for people like ourselves; for people unlike ourselves; for people who have power and can help us advance; for people who have no power, and never will, but whom Jesus also loves. It matters, because in baptism, we have put on the spirit of Christ. And to Christ, no one is a stranger, and everyone is kin.

There’s a funny thing about Elisha’s request. He does not simply ask that Elijah’s spirit come upon him; he asks for a double measure of it. For twice the holiness and power of the greatest prophet Israel had known. Elijah, after all, had plunged the region into drought and restored the rain; had rebuked kings and slain false prophets; he had even raised someone from the dead. Twice that is a serious ask! 

Elisha must have known a basic truth: that what has been raised from the dead can be made to go there again. That the gains people have fought for and wept for and bent their bones to achieve do not simply maintain themselves. There is evil in this world, my children, and there is entropy, and the force of self-interest is mighty indeed. The freedom that our founding fathers and mothers pried out of the hands of the British was partial. Freeing the slaves took a whole ‘nother war, in which one man in six died in our nation — and even then, they were mostly not able to vote. Our factory floors are safe only because workers and unions worked for it. Our children have healthcare only because determined citizens fought for it. The good things in our nation did not come about by chance, and they will not be preserved by indifference. 

This is true, of course, on a small scale as well. The parent who has cared for a cranky-sick child, the husband who has partnered his wife through a major career transition, the grown child who has cared for an elderly parent, can all tell you the same thing: deciding to do the right thing is not the hard part. What’s hard is continuing to make that decision, day after day, when the initial sense of joy we get from doing something good wears off, and all we are left with is the slog. 

That’s why St. Paul’s words today are so important: because Paul knows, and we need to remember, that the choices we make each day cultivate our souls, bending them toward the light or into the shadow. The works of the flesh sound kind of bloodless in our translation, but listen to what Eugene Peterson makes of them: “loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” (Gal 5:19-20, The Message) Imagine saturating yourself in that every day, in all of it or in part of it. Imagine what would do to your health of mind, body, and spirit. 

But, of course, we don’t have to imagine, do we? Thanks to advertising and social media and 24-hour news cycles, we are, in fact, immersed in that stew. We can’t drive down a highway without seeing billboards, or turn on the radio without hearing ads or talk radio, or try to buy clothing without being subjected to images of who we should be and how much externals should matter, or go to the supermarket without reading tabloids and women’s magazines and men’s magazines which urge us to care for our selves, tone our bodies, decorate our homes, and to believe that sexiness is what matters, which show us image after image of the good life — but which are mute on the subject of virtue.

But if immersion in toxic or trivial things can damage our souls, the converse is true as well.”What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (Gal 5:22-23, The Message) Those are St. Paul’s words, again translated by Peterson. 

A few weeks ago, I reminded my congregation that God honors our choices; that God respects our freedom. St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)  He has to give that warning, because that moral freedom may be the scariest gift Christ gives us. And we do want to throw it away, don’t we? We hide in the darnedest of places, yoke ourselves to addiction and triviality and busyness —- but that gift of freedom is irrevocable. Christ grants us forgiveness, but his grace is not cheap.  We are not called to believe in Christ, but to follow him. Not to give intellectual assent, but to live with courageous compassion.

This week, the names of six migrant children who died in U.S. custody were released to the public. We prayed for them during the Prayers for the Dead. As a Christian leader, I am called to remind you that each of those children was created by God, just like our own; loved by God, just like our own; made to give God glory, just like our own. There is no politics compatible with our faith which allows us to condone these deaths, or the conditions which led to them. This is not about Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, immigration, borders, or any of that: this is about our fundamental moral commitments. Are we willing to be a country which kills children by espousing a policy of deliberate neglect?

I know that we, do not all share one set of political alliances: that’s the beauty of Christ, that he calls us together to learn from one another, and calls us to love one another even when we do not agree. I also know that each one of you is a person of deep good will.   And I suspect that most of you are as devastated as I am about this. My friends, there comes a time when being devastated is not enough. We can so easily allow our sense of horror and grief to become a placebo which allows us to believe we are good people, when in reality we are doing nothing to move the bar.

I am a woman whose family perished in camps, and I am begging you: please: Phone our legislators. Write to them. Attend the demonstrations which will be taking place around the country this week and in the weeks to come. Send money to the ACLU and the Immigration Law Clinic at U.C. Davis and other organizations which are working to turn this policy around.  The time for passivity is over; each of us who is person of good will needs to put skin in the game, just like Jesus did when he took on our flesh and our blood and our pain and our death because he was not willing to allow us to go on suffering alone.

What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Today, that looks like not allowing children to be killed. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

Turning our hearts

Today is the Feast of Nativity of John the Baptist, the day when a fierce wildness entered the world and began to call it to account. The story is a strange one: an elderly priest, alone at the altar of God; an angel who brings him good tidings, then strikes him mute when he is not quick to believe; nine months of silence, while the child grows in the womb; finally, a naming: John, which no one in that family has been named before.

It is a story of the upending of the human order of things — even of those aspects of it which were believed to have come from God. The smoke of the incense scatters on the wind of the angel’s wings. The orderly naming of family is broken, so that something new may come into the world.

And why? According to the angel, so that one will come “to turn the hearts of fathers to the children.” (Luke 1:17). It is a strange phrase; it rings oddly on our ears, which are more accustomed to the fifth commandment, which enjoins children to honor their parents. But to honor one’s children is to be attentive to the future: to be aware of the kind of world we are bequeathing to them.

We’re not doing so well at that, these days. Tens of thousands of children have been detained at our borders, in subhuman conditions, denied soap, toothbrushes, or warm blankets, sleeping on concrete floors and trying to eat frozen food which has not even been reheated. If these conditions had been imposed by their own parents, the U.S. government would have intervened to place the children in protective custody; today, the government inflicts such harm, while too many Americans remain silent or passive or complain but do nothing. Of the children who were born here, 21% (about fifteen million) live in poverty. Approximately 1.5 million schoolchildren are wrestling with homelessness. And that’s without even looking at the state of the ecosphere, which threatens to take away our first, last, and best home if we do not change our ways.

We need the witness of John the Baptist today. Harsh, acerbic, scathing as he was, still — he pointed to a God who is utterly transcendent, to a God whose pure goodness simply will not tolerate the harm we inflict on one another. Because when we turn our world over to our basest instincts, when we allow cruelty to supplant the law of the land, the true name of judgement is Love, and the true name of accountability is Hope, and the true name of repentance is Mercy. God’s mercy on us, and ours on one another.

Copyright: Ben Wildflower

Notre Dame et Notre Seigneur

My heart was broken this afternoon when word of the fire at Notre Dame de Paris began to circulate. Over and over, I went to the web, checking the news, staring in horror at the images as the flames grew larger, as they spread across the roof, as the magnificent spire finally, slowly, tipped sideways and fell. 

So far, the authorities are saying that no people have been harmed; for that we should be glad. It was only a building — a structure of stone and glass. But to write those words about Notre Dame de Paris makes a mockery of truth. Notre Dame was built of stone and glass, but also of hope and faith and prayer. When her architects developed the technology to break free of gravity, to craft buttresses and point arches and calculate weights and make stone soar toward heaven, they taught our spirits to soar beyond our earthbound frame as well. A cathedral may be only a symbol, but we need these signs; we need to see and touch and feel the beauty that makes us yearn for heaven. They teach us, somehow, to be more: here, now, while we are still in flesh. They show us the beauty of incarnation: what happens when something transcendent takes an earthly form.

And yet, for all their horror, there was a kind of beauty in those images of loss: the red-gold flames licking round the delicate tracery of the spire, the slow elegance of its fall. It evoked, for me, the loss we will see later this week, when a man whose beauty was beyond compare is lifted high upon a cross, then falls. 

And we, what will we do with that terrible sight — with the image of beauty that perishes? Will it transfigure us, teach us the hardest thing of all? Will we learn to allow ourselves to be consumed, to let the flames burn away our dross, then that which is of some worth, then the whole, knowing that what God is creating in us — in our souls, in our hearts, in our lives — is infinitely more than what is perishing? Will we learn to trust that out of the wreckage of our sin, our broken hopes, our failures large and small, still God is creating a flame that will light the lives of those around us?  Will we see, with Flannery O’Connor, that in the fire of divine mercy, which caresses and saves sinners and saints alike, that everything is grace, and in that furnace of divine generosity, even our virtues must be burnt away?

For now, we mourn: for Paris, for Christ, and for ourselves. Holy Week is the time of stripping away. It calls us to lay down our fantasies, our hope of achieving glory on our own, to come face to face with reality, with truth, with our own stunted love — which is yet love. There will be time enough for resurrection in days to come. For now, 

 we, who have always thought

of happiness as rising, [must] feel

 the emotion that almost overwhelms us

whenever a happy thing falls.  **

**Rainer Maria Rilke, The Tenth Duino Elegy

Love and Judgment

91DOib3bA8L._SX569_All this week, my friend Kym and I have had a texting chain going about Advent calendars — those funny calendars with twenty-four numbered doors or drawers that people use to count down to Christmas Eve. It started when Kym sent me a link with the note, “Amazon is a minion of satan.” When I clicked on the link, I found an ad for an Advent calendar entirely filled with high-end beauty products, aptly named “Ritual.” Kym added: “not sure the message of Advent is luxurious comforts.” Then I scrolled down the link and found a calendar which contained a lego Star Wars figurine for each day of Advent, which I secretly wanted, so I sent that back. Kym didn’t think that one was quite “on point” either. And so we were off, sending them back and forth, until I stumbled upon an Advent calendar filled with our favorite perfume. Finally, I sent her my hard-earned wisdom: “We could be having a great Advent if only we did not believe in Jesus.”

We were playing, of course, with the enormous gap between Advent as a time of spiritual preparation and Advent as the lead up to Commercial Christmas. The tension between these two paths — one focused on mercy to the neediest among us, and the other on extreme shopping — is so obvious as not to need comment, even though most of us struggle in vain to balance them well. But that obvious gap conceals a more profound theological one, the gap which leads us to look back toward the sweet scene of the baby in the manger while the Biblical texts are pointing us toward the Second Coming.

At the most basic level, the reasons for this are obvious. Just about anyone who’s ever seen a baby will tell you: that face and those wriggling fingers are the finest proof we have for the existence of God. Infants move our hearts; they stir our sense of wonder and compassion, bring out our kindness and give it strength to win out over anger, exhaustion, and fear. They are everyday miracles, even without stars and angels and frankincense brought to a manger. And the Second Coming…well, it’s scary, weird, beyond our imaginations — and, for some, not even part of our consciousness.

But underneath this substitution is a significant theological danger, because while the Child in the Manger can be sentimentalized until it is far from its original evocation of self-sacrificial love, the Final Judgment is beyond our capacity to tame. That is the 440px-Stefan_Lochner_-_Last_Judgement_-_circa_1435point: Advent is about preparing ourselves for an encounter with the living God, who cannot be managed or domesticated, but only served, revered, and adored.

Christ conjures that cosmic God in his apocalyptic evocation of the coming of the Son of Man: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” (Luke 21:25) In past years, I’d have written off such rhetoric as poetic hyperbole; now, the daily news of climate change makes it seem all too jarringly possible. Which ever way you lean, Christ is summoning a God whose mere presence shakes the stars and shatters the waves of the sea.

In response, all we can do is prepare: keep alert, keep our hearts ready and our lives in order — because, and this is the good news in the Gospel — because this cosmic God is on our side. This untamable, uncontrollable God loves us, and in all these frightening portents, God is bringing us redemption, calling us to righteousness, which is God’s image planted in us.

In 1223, the young St. Francis was moved to set up a creche with an ox and an ass, then to invite people from the surrounding towns to come hear him preach about “the babe of Bethlehem.” It was the first nativity scene, and what I find astonishing about it is that there was no Christ. There were no shepherds, no kings, no holy family. There was a just a setting — a setting that pointed toward what was not visible, what never could be visible again, except in the faces of the men and women gathered around it, hungering to hear the Word of God.

I love that. It is so easy, in this season, to become trapped in the lie of our more populated creche sets; to think that we can arrange Jesus, arrange Mary, to suit our needs, our taste, our desires, and even our decor. That’s probably why the Second Commandment forbids graven images: not out of concern that we will worship them, but that they might lead us to see ourselves as the ones who can create and manipulate gods. But the theologian Howard Thurman reminds us that Jesus is a “religious subject rather than [a] religious object.” It is God, not ourselves, who is active in the life of faith. God acts upon us; God forms us; God moves us. God is not our plaything or our puppet.

What is called for is not ingenuity, but humility — the openhearted acceptance of God as God is, which alone allows us to accept ourselves and our world as we are. And in that humility is our salvation, not because God covets a groveling people, but because this world cannot actually be made to serve our raw desires for long. When we try to recreate the world in our own image, it does not take long for us to suffer a jarring collision with reality, which seeks our love, not our control.

By the time Francis created that manger, he was twenty years into a radical commitment to Christ that led him to forsake the wealth into which he was born and embrace a life of of poverty. He and those who followed him labored with their hands alongside the poor, asking no wages, hoping that they might be given bread at days’ end. They traveled from village to village, preaching and teaching and caring for lepers, and they slept in huts and in caves. They sought Christ in the lives of the poor, wrapped their own strength around tending the needs of others. They had prepared themselves to meet with joy the One who born among the poor and fled as an infant to exile in an alien land.

And so, this Advent, let us remember: the love of God comes to us, yes, and it comes with a purpose and a direction. It casts the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. It fills the hungry with good things, and sends the satiated away. It summons us unknown.jpegfrom our preoccupation with self and with family, and urges us to embrace our “responsibility to [those] whose only claim on [us] is the height and depth of their need.” And this is a deeper and more profound spiritual challenge, not only to love the Babe of Bethlehem, who is inherently adorable, but to love those who are not: all the babies in all the mangers who cry out for our compassion and mercy. And so this judgment to which we each go is really gift: in holding us accountable to what is holy and true, it frees us from all that is not love.

In the end, love remains.


Quotes are from Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.

If you want to see an actual, Kym -approved Advent calendar, click here:

What Kind of God?

images-1At the beginning of my last year in seminary, I stepped into a class on evil. The professor, Shannon Craigo-Snell, opened the class by reading us a passage from John Calvin. I don’t have the precise reference here, but it described heaven as a place of transcendent joy and emphasized that even when our world below was shaken, still all in heaven was clear and calm and bright. Craigo-Snell put down the text and asked us, “Do you find that comforting?”

It was a day or two past 9/11, and I did not find it comforting at all.

Our nation was reeling; fire still burned in the twisted heap of steel and glass that had been the Twin Towers; trains had pulled into the station in New Haven and disgorged cars full of the injured; and I did not know much, but this I did know: if these things did not trouble God’s peace, I wanted no part of him. We had enough — more than enough — of indifference in this world. I wanted a God who cared. 


All these last few days, the words of the kaddish have been going through my mind:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say, Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the Name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort, to which we say, Amen. 

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel, to which we say, Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high bring peace to us and to all Israel, to which we say, Amen.

It is an astonishing thing to pray when a person we love has died, not least because it never names or even mentions the dead. At the dawn of grief, the Jew is to rise and proclaim that God is magnified (even when God seems to be powerless), that there is a plan (even when we cannot see it), that our grief does not diminish the majesty and beauty of God, who shines beyond our earthly pain, even beyond our words of comfort.

Is that what Calvin meant?

And then, there is the refrain: “to which we say, Amen.” In the world of kaddish, it is the human act of assent that binds together the transcendent God and this broken world. Please note: this is not an assent to what is broken. Rather, it is assent as a form of resistance: stitching this world back together by asserting God’s majesty and holding it up against whatever seeks to impede its way.

Is it enough?


Perhaps not, but it is what we have.


There is no gesture that can atone for the fact that a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor was gunned down in her synagogue in Pittsburgh. No words that can make it be all right that two differently-abled brothers who dedicated their lives to kindness and hospitality will not be in their pew next Shabbat. Just as there is no human achievement which can make up for the cartwheels that the children in Sandy Hook will not get to turn, or for the lunchtime banter that Philando will not be able to exchange, or the sermons that Clementa Pinkney will not preach. Each loss — every loss — tears a hole in the fabric of the universe — a hole we cannot repair, but can only honor with our grief and our wonder.

But we can hold onto the hope that one day, those holes will be no more. That one day, those lives will be restored. That God’s plan will be fulfilled — not because God is indifferent to our loss, but because God finds our loss intolerable.



This is how God responds to what is intolerable.

Why do we force ourselves to tolerate what God cannot?

What is this thing called “freedom”?

Karl-Hoecker-album-Laughing-at-Auschwitz-(1)eIn the last week, there has been a vigorous debate concerning a few incidents in which a member  of President Trump’s leadership was refused service at a restaurant, and in which two others were heckled while trying to eat Mexican food at local establishments. The debate has focused on the idea of civility: whether and to what degree our nation is harmed when the tenor of discourse becomes rancorous.

I do not wish to engage that debate; I genuinely do not know how I feel about those incidents, or how I would locate the line at which civil discourse becomes beside the point. But I would like to take the incidents as an excuse to explore a theological issue, because underneath the actions of the protesters was an intuitive understanding of human freedom — an understanding we badly need to clarify for our own time.

You see, “civility” is only the uppermost layer that these incidents engage. The more profound issue involves freedom and accountability. It is fundamental to Christian theology that human beings are moral free agents. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is all about that freedom (and its misuse): God places human beings in the garden of the world, charges them to help it flourish, and gives them free scope to do anything — eat anything, touch anything, talk to anything — except one single tree, which is barred from their reach. Giving them that commandment gives them their freedom, to obey it or to risk the natural consequences of disobedience. The very prohibition constitutes them as moral free agents.

That freedom has led too often to our harm, but it remains intact. Over the course of our lives, not one of us will exercise our freedom with perfect love; that’s what sin is about. But each of us always has the chance, in every decision, to act with love or against it. Even in situations where both options are pretty bad, still, we have the freedom to choose which seems to us better, and which seems to us worse. That freedom constitutes our human dignity: it is the fundamental way in which we have been made in the image of God, who, when Moses asked God’s name, replied, I will be who I will be.

The people who are arguing that government workers should not be engaged during their private time are adhering to the custom that federal employees check their politics at the office door. There has been a lot of cynicism about that concept in the blogosphere 646and in certain media, but I am the child of federal workers, and I can say that they and their colleagues did their best to render faithful and informed service to this nation under Presidents and Congresses of both parties. And they kept confidential what was meant to be kept confidential, and they spoke their opinions to the national leadership both when they agreed with what was being done and when they disagreed in principle or thought they had a better way to accomplish the goal. I was and am proud of them for honoring this tradition, and I continue to believe that it is the best option for our nation.

But I also knew there were orders they would not have followed, situations in which they would have resigned their posts rather than assist in actions or policies which they felt to be fundamentally misguided. Our nation allows for that, too: even our soldiers, who are part of the strongest tradition of obedience in our nation, are expected to disobey if they are ordered to massacre a group of civilians or to commit torture, and we condemn them if they do not. Indeed, we more than condemn them: we put them on trial and hold them accountable.

This boundary points to the fact that our status as free moral agents does not stop when we enter our office door or step onto the floor of a factory or even when we march onto a field of battle. In every circumstance, we still have both the freedom and the obligation to choose what we are willing to be part of and how we are willing to act. We are never reduced to obedient parts of a machine, people who must only hear and obey; we are always called to live in consonance with divine love.

I was born into a Jewish family, and one of the challenges of being born with that Karl Hoecker album Laughing at Auschwitz (7)heritage is knowing that my ancestors were slaughtered by nice people. (I say that without irony.) Most of the people who killed my ancestors were loving parents, good citizens, careful cooks, lovers of good music, churchgoers, people who were kind to their friends. I would probably have socialized with them without any qualms at all. In fact, the pictures attached to this post are of Nazi concentration camp workers, doing things I enjoy doing: eating blueberries, laughing in the sun with their friends, tending small children, playing with a dog. They lacked only two things: courage and integrity. And when the war was over and they were put on trial in Nuremberg and held to account for their actions, each person said more or less the same thing: We were only following orders. We did what we were told.

Without courage and integrity, even the best of us can be led to commit irreparable harm. Without courage and integrity, it is impossible for us to claim and inhabit our freedom. To me, the most harrowing thing about this policy of separating parents from children has been the fact that our border agents were willing to carry those orders out. I know what it is to be under pressure; I understand that they have to feed their own families, and that sometimes we make compromises to meet those obligations. But ripping toddlers away from their parents is so far on the other side of any red line I can imagine being willing to live with that their compliance takes my breath away.

It is possible, of course, that some of them support this policy and can carry it out in good conscience. That is also an issue: when cruelty is deliberately embraced as a tactic, we are all the poorer. But whatever those hecklers, those protesters, that restauranteur thought they were doing, they held out to our nation’s leadership and to the rest of us a reminder that no authority in heaven or on earth overrides the freedom of conscience of even one human being: on earth, because God has endowed us with moral freedom, and in heaven, because God is bound by God’s own decision to offer us this gift.

I will close with some words from Vatican II: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and, therefore, bearing a personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accordance with its demands” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 2).


A Cathedral in Time


I have a confession to make: Over the years, I have preached the Sabbath as a matter of duty, but without great conviction. For most of my life, nobody I knew honored it — literally, not one person. And I empathized. I’m a single working woman, trying to manage the same pressures of time and occupation as the people I’m preaching to: when you’re working fifty hours a week (or more) and trying to care for a home, tend animals or children, see friends at least once a year, keep up with the news, volunteer for causes you support, and be a good citizen, something has to go — and that something is, most often, reflection. And besides, I’m a priest; I work on the Sabbath. It’s the one day I can’t take off.

The first time I got a sense of what I might be missing was when I moved to New Jersey, to a town in which a large number of my neighbors were Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The first Saturday I lived there, I woke up and took the dogs out. Something was different. It niggled at my mind. As the day went on, I realized what it was: noise. There was no sound of cars, no leaf-blowers, lawn-movers, television sets, none of the usual Saturday-morning occupations — just the occasional soft sounds of conversation from families out for an afternoon stroll. Adults pushed seniors in wheelchairs or babies in carriages. Small children danced around their parents, while teenagers talked to one another. Everything I saw — every single thing — was about cultivating rich relationships, the kind of relationships that all too often get squeezed out of our lives by the eternal press of Busy. And it kept on like that, week after week, year after year: one day in which our humanity was more important than our usefulness. One day in which we could remember who we are.

Jonathan Rosen, the author of a wonderful and rich essay named The Talmud and the Internet, writes of computers as “a cathedral not in space but in time, harder to see, but no less grand.” It’s as good a description as any of the Sabbath: a cathedral we build to fence off time so that we can offer ourselves to God and to one another. It’s a beautiful idea, and, I have come to see, a deeply necessary one.

But it took the last year in the life of our nation for me to see just how necessary it is. You and I are living in a field of constant manipulation, in which advertisers, politicians, meme-creators, and businessmen want us to do anything at all but think. An example: this morning, a woman I have known for years posted an article that asked, “Why didn’t liberals care about kids at the border under Obama?” My first reaction, of course, was that they had; there was considerable outcry about the need to respond compassionately to the wave of unaccompanied minors. My second was to remember the lack of compassion shown when those kids were transported by bus into their new hometowns in Red states, and when the buses were met — all too often ( but then, once is too often) — by mobs of angry people yelling at them to go home.

But my third reaction is the one that matters: I pulled back and was able to see the strategy that was being used here. You see, my friend who posted that article is a woman of deep compassion. But the article was doing everything possible to push her to avoid engaging that compassion: it worked to deflect its readers’ attention away from the actual issue — children who were in desperate need, both during Barack Obama’s presidency and now, during Donald Trump’s — and re-focus it into pointing fingers at members of the opposite political party and blaming them for all the problems of the world.

More and more of the content we are being fed works like that: it tries to deflect us from what matters, turn us around, and whip us into a storm of mutual recrimination.  And it works, largely because we do not pull back long enough to realize how we are being used. Or just how destructive these tactics are, both to our nation and to our humanity.

The truth, of course, is that many of the problems of our time have no simple cure. They are large and intractable, and no one — not one president or politician or talking head or think-tank leader or innovator — has the answer that will make it go away. Putting together a suggestion for improvement is risky, precisely because any suggestion will be so imperfect, so incremental compared to what’s really at stake. And so it’s safer — politically safer — to encourage us to blame one another than it is to risk the chance of failure.

But incremental improvement is still improvement, and the big problems can be bent into better trajectories only when we are willing to work together. Divide and conquer may win elections, but when it becomes our modus operandi as a nation, we all lose. And in our effort to resist being drawn into that tempest of finger-pointing, sabbath is among our best tools. We begin to remember the humanity of others when we take time to remember our own. We regain the capacity to live from our better selves when we set aside time to be with the people and things who nourish them. We remember that before God commanded us to work, he gave us life, and that his most fundamental teaching is not that we win, but that we love.

Heart in the stone fence