2e083569e4b4ca1817a2d346091eb314In the middle of yesterday afternoon, a friend texted to let me know that our government had dropped a bomb on Afghanistan. And so all evening, as we gathered around tables and broke bread and shared wine, I had that image in the back of my mind: the image of our own capacity to kill, and of our fearsome eagerness to use it.

At the start of our worship, a monk rose and read a lesson from Exodus, the instructions for sacrificing the Passover lamb: Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household….  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute tumblr_nncaeqQmGf1utmbrco1_1280judgements: I am the Lord. Behind those words, I seemed to hear the drone of a plane, the slow opening of a cargo hold, the silent fall of death. The passage is striking in its ambivalence: God as dealer of death and of life, God as the one who judges, by what tenets we cannot know.

How different are the actions that Jesus gives us his last night: Washing the feet of those he loves. Kneeling before our humanity, even knowing that we will give him up to death. Offering his body. Offering his blood. For a Christian, these reveal the true nature of God: the God who serves, the God who loves, the God who offers himself to spare us.

Earlier this week, Sean Spicer scandalized our nation when he casually said, “he [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people.” It was a bizarre thing to say about a leader who had, in fact, killed eleven million people in the gas chamber. But, I have to say, Spicer was right. Hitler did not gas “his own” people; he gassed God’s people. Hitler did not own the people whom he gassed, nor was their ultimate loyalty given to him. People should not be in that kind of relationship with one another. If we even begin to think it, we begin to divide our world: “our” people/ not “our” people.

Scripture says otherwise. The only people we can gas are God’s people. The only people we can bomb are God’s people. The only people we can starve, torture, rape, imprison, or kill on the streets are God’s people. There are no people who do not belong to God.

This day, Good Friday, makes that clear. When Christ was crucified, hanging between two criminals, he chose to die with the lost. He chose to die with the broken, with the outcast, bc5aea349baed2bea35f49eee298920bwith the shameful, with those who were filled with shame. And he died, not only with them, but for them. We cannot claim that he died for us, but not for others whose sins are as red as ours. We cannot claim that he has saved us, without acknowledging that he has offered that salvation even to those we despise. We cannot claim that his mercy does not extend to the godless, to the pagan, to those who practice other religions or none — not when he cried out, with his dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

How quickly we arrogate to ourselves the prerogatives of God,  weighing and judging and dealing out death– forgetting that, in the Passover story, the greatness of God was shown, not in the slaughter, but in the fact that some were spared. The Talmud, the ancient commentary that forms the core of the Jewish faith, writes that as the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the angels in heaven began to sing and to praise God, but God waved them to silence. And staring into their shocked faces, he asked, “My children are perishing, and do you rejoice?”

The God we worship does not rejoice in the death of the wicked, but rather that they may turn from their sin and be saved. What does it mean to love the wicked? Look on his face, and see.

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Antichrist

picture-of-antichristI began my ordained ministry at a parish in Alabama, where the Antichrist was a Thing. People worried about the Rapture, or hoped for it; they read the Left Behind books; they saw themselves as spiritual warriors.

One man, who haunted our parking lot, seemed to have been driven mad while reading Left Behind. He wasn’t there often, but I came to know that if my day was going wrong in a certain kind of way, if the pastoral or ministry needs were cascading out of control, then the last thing that would happen as I was leaving the church was that he would accost me in the parking lot and demand to speak with me about End Times. I did not find it a redeeming conversation.

At the time, I thought much of this activity was fatuous; it was a way for people to feel that they were being religious while focusing their energy on something that was completely out of their own control and which would have no positive impact on the world. At its worst, as in the Left Behind series, this fixation was probably even unspiritual: it allowed people to feel superior to others, whom they felt free to torment and degrade in their imaginations, believing that it was all part of God’s plan. This is not the behavior that I believe was modeled by Christ.

Today, however,  I would point to a different danger: that in directing our attention toward the Antichrist, we miss the point that there are many antichrists, that, at times, each of us is opposed to the will of God in our lives and in the world.

A brief Google search on images of the Antichrist will pull up images of Obama, Trump, Putin, George W. Bush, and Pope Francis, together with Adolf Hitler, Desmond Tutu, and assorted mullahs. This is, at least, remarkably ecumenical, but it points toward the ease of using this term as a label for whatever we dislike or find objectionable in the world around us and in our leadership.

Its real purpose, I think, by which I mean its only fruitful purpose, is to ask us to think deeply about what is of Christ and what is not, which is a rather different question than asking who is of Christ and who is not. Jesus commands us to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit the prisoner, to heal the sick, to gaze in reverence and wonder at the lily, the bird, all the beauty of this earth. Whatever in our life and in our culture supports these commandments is pro-Christ; whatever undermines our individual or collective capacity to live into them is antiChrist, at least in the small-A sense.

The issue is not who does things that oppose the will of God, because we all do them, most of us frequently. As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Our work, and particularly in this Lenten season, is to foster the good and to turn from what is evil, not because it will never recur in our heart, but because it will recur, over and over again, and the only thing we can do as people striving to be holy is to turn away each time.

There is a need, in this work, for mutual accountability. When we see one person tending in a strongly unChristlike direction, we do need to point it out, to protest, to remind them of the best that we are called to be, that being human involves caring for the least of us, each day. But we won’t get there by demonizing people as Antichrist. We will only get there by speaking to the Christ in them, no matter how deeply buried it seems to be.

And if they are utterly resistant, then it is the work of the rest of us to protect the vulnerable and aid the victims, for in truth, there will be casualties if cruelty becomes the new normal. What is antiChrist is, ultimately, not a matter of doctrine, but of our humanity. We can be human, or we can be antiChrist. Let us choose humanity.

 

What is good

Last week, I spent a few days in the home of a long-time friend, who is dying. She was fragile and gaunt, could barely move her body in its bed, had not eaten in weeks. Together, her husband and I tended her: took her to the bathroom, smoothed her bed, brought her cups of water. When she dozed, we talked.

He is a philosopher, one of the better-known ones of the late-twentieth and early twenty-Jeffersonfirst centuries. And so, when he read about the new healthcare proposal, he leapt right over the details of what was and was not in it, and summed up the situation: We need a more robust debate about public versus private goods.

I was amazed. I tried to think of the last time I had heard an issue summed so succinctly, and could not. But, of course, he was right. When the founders of our nation crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they sought to create a republic, a respublica, which means, “a commonweal,” or “a public interest.” Both words imply a sense of shared good: that there are good things, desirable and necessary things, that we cannot have alone; things that we can only have if we give them to one another.

In the United States, of course, that ideal has always been in tension with another ideal: cowboythat of the independent individual, the loner who needs no one and nothing to survive. The first Europeans to come here needed that mentality: they were leaving behind everything that made life “civilized” — their homes, communities, extended families, books, land, commerce, furniture — in order to seek something else that they had not found: wealth, freedom of conscience, adventure, a different kind of liberty. (I omit mention of the slaves who first came here in 1619; I’m not sure what they were seeking, but coming here wasn’t a choice they got to make. Once they arrived, I’m guessing they were seeking to make the best of a bitter lot, or to break away and try again.)

The thing is that both of these ideals are good ones (minus the slaves): We flourish best under circumstances that allow some self-determination, and we also need the good things that come with community: education, friendship, infrastructure, the fruits of trade, support when things in our lives go badly wrong.

During my lifetime, however, the discussion of public goods has developed an odd character. Often, those goods are spoken of in derogatory ways, as if they were good enough for those who need them (but only those who are damaged would really admit the need). We privilege the car over the train or bus; the homeschooler over the families who use public schools; the desires of the sports enthusiast over the need of communities to keep their children safe from gunfire; the right of the industrialist to pollute over the common-weal of clean water and breathable air (without asking how necessary the product of that industry really is). In all these things, our public conversation allows the so-called “rights” of the individual to predominate over the “goods” of the community.  And if anyone dares to speak up for the common goods, we have a rejoinder for him or her: “that’s redistribution.”

And if it is, is that a problem? Generosity used to be seen as a virtue. It was considered good to help others, righteous to meet the needs of the poor, virtuous to contribute to the upbuilding of the community. No less a figure than St. Paul, upon leaving the city where he had expended more missionary effort than in any other place, reminded them, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

The rub is in that one word: weak. No one wants to be among the weak, but the truth is, none of us can avoid it forever. Illness, unemployment, dislocation, war, pain, the demands of caring for others, even the urgencies of love, will, inevitably, mean that, at some point, we need something from one another. I cannot drive my car out of the driveway without someone to build a road; cannot give birth without someone to attend me; cannot see my friend to a peaceful and holy death without the ability to purchase medicine to ease her pain. Does this make me a “taker”? Of course it does, but in other ways, I give.

That, of course, is what a respublica was intended to be: a common space in which our gifts and ideas can be shared with one another for our mutual flourishing. It was intended to be mutual, and it was intended for more than mere survival. In caring for one another, we live into our fullest vocation as human beings.

Of course, there is a secondary debate here: whether it is ennobling to give when that giving is compulsory (as in a national system of taxation). In a world of small towns and villages, that might be a relevant question. In such a world, we would most likely know who was in need; we’d know them by name and be able to reach out, one on one. But the truth is that many of us (most of us?) no longer live on that scale. Our cities are too large for the intimacy of that kind of giving, our countryside too spread out. The Europeans settled their land in villages, clusters of homes surrounded by fields, but we settled ours in ranches and plantations, in which one family often lives hours from their nearest neighbors, even by car. We no longer know who is in need or how to help them; that’s why we build networks of care in order to do the work that keeps us human.

It may sound corny, but when I pay my taxes, I am glad to think of children going to school, of policemen patrolling streets, of clean water running from taps all over this nation because of the check that I am writing. More: I am proud to think of people in South Sudan being fed, of scientists working to cure ebola or limit the spread of the Zika virus, of refugees building new lives, just as my grandparents and great-grandparents had to do.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used to speak of the Beloved Community, which is another name for a Republic. It takes the idea of a republic and emphasizes its moral and spiritual foundations. “In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” (from the King Center website)

The African word, ubuntu, has a similar sense. It means, “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Or, put another way, “In your welfare lies my welfare.”  Try looking that up in Google, and you’ll find a lot of individualist memes, things like: “Don’t Worry, I’m working my ass off every day so you can drink, smoke and tattoo your welfare & unemployment checks away; it’s OK, really!” (That’s one of the more polite ones.)

Is that the world you want to live in? Or is it time to remember that the root of “commonwealth” is “commonweal”? What things should be shared goods? What dignity can we bring one another through what we offer and through what we receive? In what ways are we impoverished when we care only for “our own”?

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“How Can We Sing in a Strange Land,” by Bobbi Baugh, at bobbibaughart.com.

 

 

What we need

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
— William Carlos Williams

I apologize for my long silence. I was praying at Eucharist one day, a few months ago, and heard the words, “hidden with Christ in God,” and so I have been living into that for a while. What drags me back into the light today (at least, into the light of electronic communication) is — improbably — the President’s budget proposal, which begs a question of anyone who truly seeks what is sacred: What does it mean to be a human being?

Put simply, the proposal suggests a brutalist answer, one which focuses attention on our most basic needs, and which uses a limited definition of both “basic” and “need.” The brutalistBrutalists were architects in the mid-twentieth-century who sought inexpensive solutions to the problems of low-income housing, shopping centers, and government office buildings. The result was a series of cheap concrete buildings, often made up of repeating modular units: heavy, blocky, utilitarian, uninspiring. The ones that still litter our landscapes. The ones no one wants to live in.

We have one at my college, a dorm built in the 1960’s. We used to have animated debates about it: was it better to live in it, or to live across from it and have to look at it? Opinion was strongly divided, but it all focused on one question: how could one best avoid it?

To be fair, brutalism had its points: it was cheap. It allowed necessary structures to be built. It did allow the poor to be housed, although often in conditions they found degrading. No one loved it. I think, at some unspoken level, we recognized it as inhumane.

famineBut what is humane? The proposed budget removes all funding for arts and humanities. This implies that they are “extras,” the icing on the cake, less necessary than food or heat. From one perspective, that is undeniably true. Without food, any of us will die in a few weeks. Without water, only about three days, and that’s in a cool climate. Many of us — even those who are artistically engaged — go longer than that without visiting a museum or taking a paintbrush in our hands. We can survive without art.

But art is a force that creates us. It always has. Go back to the dawn of humanity, go back cave art 1
all the way to our Neanderthal cousins, and you will find us making things. Something about the act of creating is inherent in our humanity; it points to the more — to the thing that separates us from other animals, however much we may have in common.

Food, drink, a modicum of safety: we all need these, but to make them the sum of what we need is debasing. It misses something fundamental about human beings. We are more than the needs of our bodies. We are more than the sum of our labor. Give us meaningless work; give us repetitive tasks; take away our creativity, and you have taken away something of who we are.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 

The miser does not miss out by obsessively counting his gold. He misses out by failing to notice what is not his gold. Not everything can be bought and sold. What is most worth having is truly beyond price.

 

 

 

 

The edge of the knife

dsc_0873Go into the best kitchen store you know and pick up the finest knife they’ve got. Feel the smooth grain of the wooden handle in your palm. Trace the ways the light falls off the blade. Then turn it until the edge is facing upward, and see the thin, thin line of steel. So thin is the line between rage and fear. Then ask yourself: How would I balance compassion on the edge of that knife?

 

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Compassion comes from heart, and if you put a living heart upon the edge of that knife, it will bleed (at best) and most likely be broken. That’s why Jesus commands us, over and over again, “Be not afraid”: because Christ’s commandment was that we live compassionate lives, and fear drives out mercy.

We live in a time of great fear; I actually cannot remember when sane, peaceable, law-abiding Americans have been so frightened of one another. What will the Republicans do next? What will the Democrats perpetrate? The questions are in the very air we breathe. It’s as if the names of our legitimate political parties have become something foul, insults rather than a recognition of the diversity of views in our republic. I am on retreat at a monastery, and every time we are not in silence, the fear emerges in questions, comments, bitter humor. The fear becomes its own self-reinforcing circle: we speak from our heart with people who (mostly) agree with us; they reply with what is in their hearts (which reinforces much of what we fear), and, instead of feeling better, we all end up more angry and frightened than before. My friends, This is not productive.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us,”Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love… Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate [anyone], but to win his friendship and understanding.” Elsewhere he adds, “Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning 3-lighted-lanternviolence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

If we who strive to represent the Prince of Peace, if we who seek to live compassionate lives, resort to name-calling, denigration, or verbal violence of any kind (not to mention physical violence), we merely perpetuate the degraded and degrading discourse we seek to interrupt. No, my friends: the only way to “fight back” (and I put those words in quotes because even our language of resistance partakes of the violence we seek to overcome) is to replace false language with true, violent language with love, fearful language with the courage of those who put their trust in Christ.

And the only way to do that is to look at him, my friends. Look at Christ. Look at him, and look the beauty and grace that are manifest around us: in the faces of children, in the cherryswiftly-falling light that brightens the sky, in the grace of the deer, in the generous laughter of friends, in the amazing kindness that we receive each day from so many unexpected faces and hands.

If we cannot see the grace we yearn for, we cannot bring it into the world. If we cannot name the beauty and honor of a compassionate soul, we will have great difficulty in modeling it for others. We would do well the follow the teaching of St. Paul, who wrote,  “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The first soul we must save from the chaos is our own.diwali-image-6

Love Doesn’t Wait

trueloveIn the hallway outside the monastery gift shop, there is a gray metal cart which contains a selection of used books that people are invited to take at will, leaving a donation as they see fit. A few of the books are taken quickly; others languish for months. Among the latter right now is the True Love Waits Bible,  a brightly-colored paperback aimed at convincing teenagers to wait until marriage before they become intimate with their partners. Inside, it contains the text of the New International Version, interspersed with  full-color inserts relevant to its project.

Whatever you might think of it, I was struck today by the irony embedded in the title: the message of Jesus, of course, is that true love — God’s love — doesn’t  wait.

God’s love doesn’t wait. God’s love comes down from heaven and compresses itself in the tiny space of a womb because it would not wait for people to seek God out. God’s love wades into the waters of the Jordan to be made clean because it was not willing to wait for people to seek that holiness on their own. God’s love walks from village to village along the dusty roads of ancient Israel, seeking out people where they are, rather than waiting for them to seek him. God’s love presses upon the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, the outcast, and the women, because they did not believe they could seek God and be welcomed. God’s love broke bread, broke flesh, walked into a loveless courtroom, stretched itself upon the cross and laid itself in the tomb, because it was not willing to concede that there be one space in which it had not sought out the reluctant, the frightened, the condemned, the hopeless, the loveless, the broken.

And, this week, God’s love marched. God’s love marched in DC and Los Angeles and Chicago and London, in Malawi and Antarctica and Rome and Berlin and in a thousand lgoode_170121_1413_0004-0communities so small you’d have trouble finding them on the map, but not so small that God’s love couldn’t find them and plant in them its seed. The marchers didn’t say, “True Love Doesn’t Wait” in those words, but they proclaimed it in a thousand other ways. They proclaimed it by standing there in the heat or the cold with people who do not look like them or speak their language. They proclaimed it by advocating for creation, for diversity, for one another. They proclaimed it in the solidarity of tired feet and joyful hearts.

Love is patient with human frailty, but impatient with our cruelty. Martin Luther King wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”Love never forgets that when we delay doing what is right, the pain is not felt proportionally. Health insurance, pollution, immigration policies, failure to redevelop former industrial areas — each of these impacts some people more than others. Each of them will be more real, more raw, to some of us, while others can go about our lives in ignorance.

But the love of Christ calls us to love everyone. And that’s a stunner, because the only way we can get there is acknowledging that my neighbor’s need may be more pressing than my own mere desire, and that the same goes for the stranger as well. The only way we can get there is by grace, because there is no other force that can give another human being such power over our own heart.

Love can’t wait. Our brothers and sisters who are hurting are God’s beloved children, the very ones God’s love is seeking out. We can be part of that love, or we can refuse it, but in refusing it to others, we limit its capacity to transform our own lives. So let us pray for that grace, with our lips, with our hands, with our feet, and with our our lives. The dignity we save may be our own.

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Maelstrom

mlkThis has been quite a week! Russians, leaks, Russian leaks, salacious tapes that may or may not exist, Obama’s farewell address, Trump’s press conference, attacks on the press, attacks on Representative John Lewis, protest marches, confirmation hearings, vitriol, controversy about the Presidential Prayer Service, controversy about repealing the Affordable Care Act, controversy about whether the National Cathedral Choir should sing at the Inauguration: on every  corner, it seems, there is not a taco truck, but a newsboy, crying, “Scandal! Scandal! Scandal!” And, following just behind, a quiet murmur of anxiety: Is this the new normal?

Sometime just before 1960, Thomas Merton wrote, “In a massed crowd, there are always new tidings of joy and disaster. Where each new announcement is the greatest of announcements, where every day’s disaster is beyond compare, every day’s danger demands the ultimate sacrifice, all news and all judgment is reduced to zero. News becomes merely a new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the noise that went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it, so that eventually everything blends into the same monotonous and meaningless rumor.”*

Could there be a better description of the week we have just lived? Or of its danger? In the chaos that is being engendered, the thicket of rumor and stagecraft and truth and lies, the trivial is held up as having the same weight as what is of deadly importance, until everything is emptied of its value. And we, the people, are left in such a continued state of ferment that there is nothing left in us to reflect upon where our call to make a difference truly lies.

And reflection is called for. We who live in the shadow of the sixties are accustomed to seeing pictures of action — marches, sit-ins, Freedom Rides — but behind each of those actions were days of careful and creative thought. What would put pressure on the system, and how? What character would be demanded of participants, and how could they be trained to increase the likelihood of success? In a world of daily indignities, which were worth fighting first, and in which order? That careful thought, encompassing Scripture, theology, natural law, human law, historical precedent, and lived human experience, laid the groundwork for successful (if partial) transformation of an oppressive system into a less oppressive system.

In times like our own, contemplation — careful thought — should precede all action, lest the action itself turn out to be mere empty noise in the echo chamber, confusing all, aiding nothing.

______________________________

*Merton, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” in Raids on the Unspeakable.

Joyful servants

14671088_999349690193541_218837363721844786_nA few weeks ago, someone asked me whether I had visited the church next door to the monastery. I had, in fact, wandered over there, but, as someone who has served only urban parishes, it had not occurred to me that they might leave it open for prayer. So, since today dawned bright, with a light dusting of snow, I went over to see it. It was utterly lovely.

The church is a small stone building dating from the 1850s, perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson and what looks like half of God’s creation. Inside, it tells of its community’s loving care. It is still trimmed for Christmas, an abundance of greens and ribbons and clove-studded oranges carefully arranged on the altar, the reredos, and each candle-lit pew. It would have taken hours to arrange all that, even in a church that seats, perhaps, seventy, in a pinch. There are two good windows, Tiffany or excellent imitations, depicting faith and hope. As you enter, there are signs for their food pantry, which operates both here, on this country road, and also in a neighboring town. On the rear doors, as you leave, there is a sign: “Servants Entrance.”

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi came to offer their gifts to the infant Christ. It is a good day to remember that, while the Magi were flashier, the shepherds got there first — and never really left. All over the world, there are tiny communities of faithful people doing the work of God: celebrating beauty, holding out hope to those who most need it (and who among us does not?), living their faith as servants of God in this world he has given us.

They are never certain of their future, or even of their present. Many of them are located in economically marginal communities; others gather in places where their very faith is against the law. But the love of Christ compels them on, and they shed all the light they can, while they are able to do so. Beside their legacy of caring service, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Magi look like paltry toys.

May God bless them and us, day by day, and may our light shine bright. Amen.

Being church: costly love in a difficult time

weepingchildWhen I was first ordained, I was asked by the Bishop to serve on the Missions Committee of the Diocese, which directed the collective efforts of about 35,000 Episcopalians to carry out Christ’s work of mercy and justice in our world. Together we created ministries to meet the needs of unwed mothers, to support at-risk youth in becoming men of promise, to reach out to our Spanish-speaking neighbors and draw them into our congregations, to offer nurturing summer camps for children living in deep poverty, to send missionaries around the world, and to lobby our state government for policies that better supported the lives of the poor, the sick, and those on the margins of our society. We were a group of people with strong — and often strongly contrasting — opinions, but I respected most of them.

The one who puzzled me was a man who appeared to be in his forties. He was utterly opposed to much of what we were doing, and particularly did not believe that we should attempt to influence government policy. He believed that the needs of the poor should be met by private acts of charity, that we, as citizens, had no responsibility for one another’s welfare at all. I could not figure out why he wanted to serve on the Committee; he surely didn’t add much to our work.

After about two years, we were gathering for our next meeting, when this man entered and the staffer who supported our work greeted him, “Hello, Daddy!” I was perplexed. It turned out that he had just adopted three Hispanic teenagers and become a parent. He was radiant with joy; it was clear that he was eager for this challenge, that he would devote himself wholeheartedly to erasing the history of loss those boys had gone through and to helping them grow into faithful, confident young men.

It took my breath away. All the time he’d been opposing reliance on governmental intervention, I had assumed that he was just looking for a way for people to keep their own money for themselves and for their families. I could not have been more wrong. When he was advocating for private action, he didn’t mean sending ten dollar gifts to the Red Cross. He meant that we, as Christians, should wrap our whole lives around those who were in need, forming deep and lasting and transformative relationships that had the power to heal both them and us. That grace was costly, and we were called to be agents of that grace, even at the cost of our own comfort, leisure, and material prosperity.

I was thinking about him this morning because it seems to me that where he and I differed has a lot to say to Christians and other people of good will in our country right now. We who are liberal Christians have faith (often deep faith) in Jesus, and we also have faith that our government will be responsive to the real needs of its citizens. That second type of faith has been shaken now for a lot of people, who do not believe that the incoming administration will prioritize the needs of those who most need the support of their communities. (Of course, the election results also revealed that the government we trusted was failing to create opportunities for a large percentage of its citizens to lead meaningful lives.)

What do we do if we can not trust our government to do the right things? Perhaps, buried helpin this situation, is a call to the church really to be the church. Not to be the church that talks about love and justice and mercy, or even to be the church that makes small gestures to ease the burden for some of its neighbors, but to be what the church was in the early years of its history: the place which cared for the broken, the hungry, and the sick, not with the scraps of its wealth, but with everything it had.

Eusebius, the great historian of the early church, recounts that in a time of plague, everyone who could fled the city of Caesarea — except the Christians. They stayed behind to nurse the sick, and not just their own sick: any sick. Many of them died, but when the plague was over, that whole city had seen the beauty that Christ could bring about: a culture of people who put the needs of others first because they were committed to live God’s love. And the church was flooded with people who wanted to be part of that, because it was the highest and best thing they had seen.

For so many people in our culture, Christianity has become synonymous with judgmentalism and hypocrisy, but case after case shows that when people are confronted with the Real Thing, with a church that lives mercy, they see and recognize the authentic beauty of Christ. Perhaps God is issuing an invitation to all our shrinking churches to stop being about themselves and start living for the good of the world. Perhaps God is issuing an invitation to all our growing churches to remember that personal holiness only matters when it spill over in acts of love — and that our own families are a starting point for that love, not its terminus. Perhaps God is reminding all of us that when he took on flesh and blood for us, when he exposed himself to all the risks of human mortality, he was showing us the way of life. Not to avoid risk of death (personal or communal), but to embrace it with both hands for the sake of the love that was to be found among those who would perish without us. For the sake of our love for those who would perish without us.

Tomorrow is the feast of Epiphany, when the infant Christ first became known to the Gentile world, and not just to a handful of shepherds and an innkeeper who could not find a place to shelter him. But Epiphany is not just in the past: it is for all of us, every day, to show the love and beauty of Christ, in small ways, and, yes, in large ones, too. What kind of costly love might you have to offer? What could you do for Christ if you were not willing to let your fear prevent you?

 

Work

chapelThe monks among whom I am living are contemplatives by vocation, which means that their central work is prayer. There are other kinds of monks, of course: monks who teach or research or found medical missions in far-off lands. And this order is not purely contemplative: they have maintained a presence in Africa for decades, and that work has involved schools. Nonetheless, here, they pray.

The official part of the day begins at 7:00 a.m., with Matins, the first of five public worship services that structure their time. The monastery bell tolls ten minutes before each of these offices, a clear sound calling everyone to pay attention, rouse themselves from distraction, and converge on the chapel. For me, living outside of the monetary proper, it means a quick walk through the snow-dappled woods, sometimes with the sun beginning to rise over the mountains, sometimes with rain or fog obscuring the river and the mountains beyond.

The monks make their way into chapel matter-of-factly, with much of the affect of choirmonksconstruction workers swinging their lunch pails. They bow and sit down in their stalls, and then they prepare to pray. Many of them read over the psalms or Scriptures in other languages (Greek, Hebrew, their own native tongue), bringing them fully to mind before they have to bring them to God. Others compose themselves, stilling their spirit to the here-and-now.

When the bell rings again, an invisible unity occurs. Each monk (and many of the visitors) prays the Angelus, the traditional prayer that marks the hours: a roomful of silent people all thinking the same words at the same time. Then the bell-ringer comes to take his place, and everyone rises around him. The officiant mouths, “Lord, open our lips,” and we’re off, the monks’ voices blending in pitch and in tempo, the rest of of us quietly speaking or chanting along.

Today marked the beginning of the monks’ annual Long Retreat, a ten-day stretch in which the house is closed to visitors. The monks themselves keep silence and a reduced schedule of liturgy: three services a day instead of five. It seems strange to think of needing a retreat from what most of us would consider to be a life of retreat, but the difference is apparent immediately. By evening, the monks enter the chapel in a different way: easier in their carriage, more loose-limbed, with a more visible focus. It reminds me that prayer is work; to pray well requires a disciplined focus and attention that does not come cheap.

It is a thing completely at odds with our world of instantaneous gratification, in which messages fly halfway around the world in seconds, and an hour can seem like a long wait for a reply. To sit still for days, weeks, years, next to the same people (whom you cannot avoid), eyes and heart focused on what cannot be seen, is a demanding praxis. It requires patience, hope, and a rare courage. And it enables a kindness that is a privilege to behold.

In the sixth century, a man transcribed a collection of sayings from the early monks. In one, a brother asks Abba Pimenion, “What is faith?” Pimenion replies, “To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbor.” What kind of roots would you need in order to put that into practice? What kind of wings might you grow if you did?