apoplectic

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Current Affairs

When the authors of Genesis 1 sat down to write a new creation story they were living as captives in Babylon. The Babylonians had their own creation narrative, which the Jewish people would have become quite familiar with, that said that the earth was created out of an act of violence and humanity was created to serve as slaves.

Scholars have noted for a long time some of the parallels to the Babylonian and Hebrew Bible stories of creation. But, there are two major acts of departure. In Genesis 1 the earth is not created out of an act of violence and divine domination, but out of the creative permission of God who “let” light be. And, rather than being created to be slaves, the opening chapter of Genesis says that we were created to carry the Divine Image.

The Israelite authors could have chosen to be narrow and bitter in their story, and claim that only their people were the bearers of God’s Image, and thereby shafting their Babylonian captors, but that is not what they chose to do.

All humanity is made in God’s Image.

All.

Every. Last. One. Of. Us.

To deny this foundational belief, and to claim that one race, one people, one nation is superior to any others is to blaspheme against the Image of God that is bore by them.

From the opening page of The Bible, any movement which claims “white supremacy,” “white nationalism,” or “anti-semitism” as its purpose is rendered in direct opposition to the vocation which these and all people are given to reflect God’s Image. In fact the very people who espouse these views are, in their espousal, blaspheming their own call to bear God’s Image into the world.

But, you don’t need to be a person of faith to believe that neo-nazies or white supremacists are purveyors of hate and reprehensible ideals. You just need to be human. You just need to be a decent person.

I am enraged that The President of the United States equivocated on his condemnation of these groups, and seemed to relish in doing so. I am enraged that elected members of Congress are withholding full-throated denunciation of The President’s lack of moral compass.

I am absolutely apoplectic of the silence of “Christian” leaders who got in bed with Trump so fully that they can’t bring themselves to distance themselves now. I’m speaking of Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr. These charlatans, these false apostles, these heretics who have sold out the Gospel of Jesus for a few scraps of political power, are founding members of the evil which is infecting our nation, our world, and the church.

This has gone so far beyond partisan politics. There are Republicans and Democrats who are people of honor, and are men and women of God. The Presidency of Donald Trump has been troubling to me on so many levels already, but, the current influx of racism, bigotry, and hate is a national crisis. A crisis of faith.

And a crisis which endangers the core tenets of The Bible as millennia of religious tradition has received them.

People whose pigmentation, nation of origin, education, social stature, faith, and economics has automatically bestowed unearned favor and privilege (like me) must not be silent. We must resist this President, this assault on our common humanity, and this denial of the responsibility we have been given to show the world what God looks like.

The Book of Revelation tells of the great multitude who will one day gather in God’s Kingdom for a great celebration: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9, ESV)

Those who outright deny the humanity (and divinity) of these other nations, races, and people; and those who choose silence in the face of hatred might want to plan ahead for an alternate party.

I’m pretty sure there aren’t Tiki Torches where they are going.

Book Review: Nurture the Wow

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book review

There I was, sitting at the town pool, with my newly minted teenager and my budding tween splashing around with their friends, and I was plunged again and again into memories both sweet and sour.

I remembered sitting on our bed, holding my wife, as we cried through our first miscarriage. A few days later, we gathered with our priest around the baptismal font in which we had hoped that that child would have been baptized in, and we prayed the Psalms of Lament.

I remembered the surge of love and ecstasy of wonder when I held my first child in my arms. The nurse bundled her up like a little burrito, handed her to me, and left the room. There I was all alone with this new little miracle, still covered in gray goo.

I remembered getting in over my head at work, and a dear colleague pulling me aside to ask if there was a picture of me above my children’s beds. I said, “… Uh, no…” He then proceeded to say that I should consider that so my children would remember what their father looked like.

Ouch.

Danya Ruttenberg’s Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting, provided the impetus for me to examine my parenting—both in the past and in the present—and to remember that my parenting is a spiritual practice. It’s not something that I try to fit my spiritual life around. It is the bulk of my spiritual life.

In this sense, the book was like the Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a pregnant pause to reflect back on the father I’ve been, and reflect forward on the kind of father I want to be, and that God wants me to be. Yes, I’ve been called by God to be a priest, but God has also called me to shape the lives, minds, and spirits of my little ones—and to be shaped and formed by them too.

My family is getting ready to head off on an RV trip across the country. We’ll all be living in extremely tight corners while taking in new cities and landscapes and cuisines and experiences together. Nurture the Wow has reframed this family vacation for me, as a sacred time to be with my family, and to see all the wonders and disappointment, the times we get lost and the times we lose our minds as opportunities to be shaped by each other, and by the One who always journeys alongside us.

Oh, AND, Danya totally reignited my passion for Buber’s I/Thou, introduced me to Max Kadushin’s concept of “normal mysticism,” and made me chortle at how Ram Dass can so miss the point. As a dad, I got SO much out of this book. As a priest, I’ve got the material for more than a few sermons.

One of my favorite lines of the book is:

Parenthood is supposed to magically transform us. I mean, it transforms us. Just not magically. The transformation is damn hard work. [Page 71]

So true. And, isn’t transformation the work of God? Isn’t that what it’s ALL about? Isn’t that the very essence of the spiritual life?

And, isn’t it just sometimes incredibly hard work? Daunting? Scary? Exhausting? Infuriating?

But, in the end, isn’t that what makes it so good?

[Nurture the Wow is available at Amazon and will be available in paperback later this summer. There is also an excellent study guide!]

the “God we want” and the “God we have”

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Religion

There’s an old saying that goes something like this:
God created us in his image… and we returned the favor.

Most of the time when we humans contemplate the Divine, we find ourselves mentally conjuring up a glorified projection of ourselves. Oh, this projection is bigger than us, for sure. This projection is omnipotent, and omnipresent, and omniscient.

As Aladdin’s Genie said it so aptly,
Phenomenal cosmic power!…

But, this vision of God sees the world through eyes that are almost identical to our own. The things we like have his celestial stamp of approval, and the things that we detest he desires to smite. This God votes like us, and is judgmental of the same people who we cast judgement upon.

If we’re peaceniks, then so is our God. If we’re live-and-let-live kind of people, then so is he. If illegal immigration so infuriates us that it keeps us up at night, then it does the same to God. If we’re disgusted by Arabs, or homosexuals, or the Teletubbies—then this God is on our side the whole way.

It’s just that this God does it from a higher register. His judgements and condemnations come with fire and brimstone that is ready to be cast from the heavens at any moment.

Some of us will even find ways to see divine cause-and-effect at work in the world. If a hurricane strikes the Gulf Coast, it’s because of sexual immorality. If a disease like AIDS takes off, it’s judgement on the gays. If terrorists hijack planes and crash them into buildings, that’s because of the abortionists. And, if the Supreme Court or Congress passes some legislation that we find abhorrent, then God’s retribution for this will come at any moment.

This understanding of God carries with it no measure of mystery, or unknowability. We don’t have to guess where he stands on a particular issue, because his position is self-evident.

At its best, this concept of God is the one who sits on our shoulder, rides shot-gun with us, and compels us towards what is good and right. At its worst, this concept of god is the impetus for people to strap bombs to their chests.

This isn’t the only way to see God though. God doesn’t always have to always be just a bigger version of ourselves.

American philosopher, John Caputo, says that instead of God being a projection of ourselves, any real God is far more likely to be a projectile sent to smash all of our preconceptions and ideals to smithereens.

I am not saying that God is a “projection” of human perfections on an infinite screen in the sky—as if we empty our real selves into a fiction called “God.” God, what is going on in the name of God, is not a projection but a projectile headed straight at us, a missile upending our narcissistic desires, a visitation that comes without invitation. This Projectile is an endless mystery. An unfathomable depth of which is there far more of that which we-don’t-know-that-we-don’t-know about than that which we-know-we-don’t-know-about.
( Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim. John D. Caputo. Page 125.)

This is the God of whom we sing,
Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.

Northern Irish philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins often uses the metaphor of a ship sunken into the sea to get at this. He says that while the sunken ship contains the ocean within it, and the sea contains the ship, the ship only has an infinitesimally small part of the ocean within it, while the sea contains the whole ship.

The ship, resting on the bottom of the ocean is filled and surrounded by the sea, but it can’t even begin to wonder where the limits of the sea are. It can’t find even a faint horizon where the sea stops, and there’s something else.

This, says Peter Rollins, is like us and God. Like the ship, we are filled and surrounded by God, and yet we only have the faintest notion of where God’s boundary is—if there even is a boundary.

I offer all of this, because I’m coming to believe more and more that the first understanding of God—the God of the Projection—is where we end up associating God with power, and might, and glory. Not because we’re filled with those things, but because we so desperately want to be.

And, perhaps even more, we are captivated by the notion that we could cozy up to such a font of power—and that this being with phenomenal cosmic power sees the world, our friends, and our enemies as we do. And, unlike us, this God is willing and able to let loose upon those who so deserve our—I mean HIS—ire.

In the West we’re seeing the phenomenon of the Prosperity Gospel, which is nothing more than the incarnation of religion when it takes God Our Projection to its next logical position: If God is all powerful, and if God loves us, and if God loves the people who love, and hates the people we hate—if we stay on God’s good side, then God will want to give us our every desire.

This God (Who we might more correctly call “Narcissus.”) wants us to be rich, and comfortable, and healthy, and be self-actualized. And, so all we need to do is name it, claim it, and pray for it.

Oh, and call now. We take Visa and MasterCard. Operators are ready.

This complete bastardization of the Christian Faith is spreading like a malignant disease through the Church. It used to just be found on television at two in the morning. Now, it’s gone mainstream. Their books are bestsellers. Their churches are filled to the rafters. And, their theology is popping up like metastases in otherwise mainline, mainstream churches.

If it’s not being preached from the pulpit, it’s at least holding sway from the pews.

It’s spewing from the mouth of guys on the YouTube with crosses on their caps, with titles like “coach” who bold claim that what we need is a more “violent” Christianity.

I’m sorry. But, you can have violence, or you can have Christianity. You cannot have both. You cannot claim that actually pushing your way to the front of the line is something that God wants us to do.

He says that there’s violence in the Bible—and in that he’s right. But, when does that violence ever lead to anything good? And, when did Jesus call for it?

It’s beyond God-as-projection. It’s a religion which turns religion 180 degrees around from a focus on God, completely focusing on us instead.

This Me-First kind of religion is infesting our politics, our national discourse, and our ethics and morals—if we can even call them “ethics and morals” anymore. But, more on that later. If heretics like “Coach” Daubenmire have much of an audience, this the infestation has reached the church.

I don’t claim to know the fullness of God. I’m just a ship, submerged in a sea.

But, I do know a charlatan when I see one.

breaking up the party: a radical proposal to save the republic

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I am a Democrat, mostly because I believe that in a capitalist society we need strong social safety nets for the poor, the sick, and those disadvantaged in any way. But, there are many Republicans who I know, love, and respect. I believe that a strong Republican Party is necessary to check safety net thinking with the ideals of limited government and fiscal responsibility.

While I generally stand on one side of that equation, I believe that having an opposition is good for the country. Balance and a rigorous debate are, I think, vital for national health.

But, this is not a time for party politics. This is not a time for debate on the typical matters of national interest.

We have a President who is obviously off the rails, and there’s a strong possibility that he has committed criminal and/or treasonous acts. Investigations to determine this are being cut off at every pass both by the President and Congressional Republicans.

It’s the latter that concerns me the most. As I see it, Congressional Republicans are, by and large, complicit in stifling any real, unbiased inquiry. In my view the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader bear the vast amount of responsibility here.

Can we save the GOP? And, more importantly, salvage the country?

Maybe.

So, here’s my proposal: We take party politics out of this.

1) I propose we dissolve the Democratic Caucuses in the House and Senate and form a Patriot’s Caucus. This caucus would consist of the Democrats in both houses AND any GOP congressmen/women who are ready to put country above party.

If there are ~23 Republicans in the House who are willing to go with this, then this party of Patriots will become the majority party. If there are 3 such people in the Senate, then they become the majority party there.

2) This new caucus would need to carefully select new leaders, who were consensus candidates – with special care in the House, for this person could be a new speaker, and most importantly and germane to this discussion, third in line of Presidential succession.

3) Other than the basic tasks that need to happen to keep our country moving, this new caucus would focus solely on investigating the Russian influence in the last election, alleged collusion by the Trump campaign, and potential criminal activity by Trump or any of his associates. With current leadership sidelined in a new minority, they are completely neutered as protectors of the administration.

4) After a thorough review, and should it be determined necessary and prudent, the House and Senate bring articles of impeachment against the President and Vice President.

5) The new leader of the Patriot Caucus in the House becomes the President of the United States.

6) After this, the two parties could align themselves as they were before all this mess, or decide to do something creative.

I believe that this would not only solve our current crisis, but it might also solve one of the biggest problems our country has seen over the past several decades: Hyper-partisanship.

If we could come together, not as Democrats and Republicans, but as patriotic Americans in this moment of crisis, then maybe, just maybe, we might forge the relationships and trust that are necessary to break the fever which got us to this spot in the first place.

Call Them What They Are: Heretics

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Current Affairs

So, when is it going to be acceptable to call them “heretics?”

By “them” I’m referring to the might-is-right, me-first, prosperity-focused, gun-toting, Muslim-hating, purveyors of right-wing-talking-points-as-Gospel crowd.

You know. The ones who believe Trump – a thrice married man with wandering hands and a foul mouth – was “God’s choice.” The ones who reflexively defend the State of Israel even when they completely forsake 3,000 years of Jewish teaching through unconscionable policies towards Palestinians. The ones who would rather keep refugees out of our country – even women and children – when not one refugee has committed even a single act of terror on American soil.

When can we call them heretics?

Because they are.

They might call themselves “Christian.” They might have large “ministries” that have global reach. They might have “churches” or “Christian” universities. They might run otherwise perfectly fine international relief organizations.

They also might believe in the Trinity, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and fervently proclaim Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But, just because they might pass a basic doctrine test, they completely and totally forsake everything the Bible ever said about mercy, grace, concern for widows, orphans, and strangers, sacrificial love, and judgement of others.

Here, the scion of the great Billy Graham promotes a completely safe and selfish vision of our faith. Here, Franklin Graham whistles by the refugees who are lying in a ditch by the side of the road, forsaking any sense of sacrificial service to those in need.

Greater life has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13

Forget the fact that refugees in America have been found to be no threat. Forget the fact that security experts have said that specifically denying Muslims entry into our country is exactly what ISIS wants to highlight in their recruitment propaganda.

Forget all of that. It’s expressly against the teachings of Jesus, AND presented by a “Christian” leader.

Heresy.

I mean, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. But, the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind: Blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. Anointing a culture of violence is antithetical to the faith espoused by the Prince of Peace, the one who tells us to pray for those who persecute us. The one who says if they take one cloak from us, we should give them the other.

[While writing this article, I grabbed a tweet from Jerry Falwell Jr., criticizing Nordstroms for succumbing to pressure from “liberals” and dropping her clothing line. In the few minutes between grabbing the tweet, and posting this article, Falwell had deleted the tweet.]

I’m sure there are “liberal” Christians who thought Obama walked on water, and could do no wrong, and that misses the mark too. We simply cannot conflate “real” Christian values towards one side of the political spectrum, and demonize the other (Whichever one we happen to be on). And, we cannot baptize a presidential administration, or political party and defend their every action and position from the pulpit or on Twitter.

To do so is to forsake Jesus. And that, is heresy. Or, if it’s not heresy, then I don’t know what that word means anymore.

The emerging American “Christianity” bears strikingly little resemblance to the faith that Jesus taught. Or, that the Torah teaches. Or, that the prophets cried out.

We can argue doctrine or theology. We can have differences in our approach to sexuality, worship styles, or whether we choose to employ Lucite pulpits. There are many things that we can agree to disagree on. We can even disagree on what’s important, central, and necessary.

But, when you so divorce yourself from the basic teachings and example of Jesus, then you become unmoored from anything that can even loosely be called “Christian.”

It really isn’t enough to believe that Jesus died for your sins, if you discount everything Jesus said prior to his death on the cross. One of my favorite priests, Gray Temple, once said that “Jesus is not merely a hematological function.” He bled for us, but he also taught us.

He taught us that the meek inherit the earth. That we are not to judge the speck in someone else’s eye lest we miss the plank in our own eye. He taught us to love, unconditionally. And to love our neighbor – which includes everyone on the face of the earth. He even taught us to love our enemies. He taught us to welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry. He told us to be like the one who jumps into the ditch to save the one in need, at the expense of our own comfort and safety. He taught us to turn the other cheek, and not retaliate upon the one who strikes us.

If the faith we are preaching and proclaiming doesn’t resemble these teachings, that’s fine. It’s a free country. You can do what you want.

Just don’t call your thing “Christian.”

And the rest of us should call it what it is: heresy.

We Mock Jesus

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Current Affairs / Jesus / terror

Many commentators and pundits are writing articles and issuing statements of how they fear this new administration is eroding the basic fabric of our democracy. I share some of their fears. But, I also fear that the basic fabric of the Christian faith is eroding before our eyes. I hear talk of “Jesus” and “Christianity” but what follows looks nothing like Jesus, and resembles nothing of the faith that he came to bring us.

America First

It’s not just “America First” that concerns me—though it certainly does. But, it’s the constant drumbeat of we will only take care of our own before we even think of caring for someone else that scares me to death. Starbucks offers to hire 10,000 refugees, and people go nuts. We will handcuff elderly women and small children in airports because “inconveniencing” them is preferable to us being in any danger. Maybe we’ll think of taking in refugees, but only if they are Christian.

Jesus’ life was defined by being sacrificial. He gave of himself, and asked us to give of our selves. As Philippians 2 tells us, Jesus emptied himself that he might humble himself to live among us as one of us—even to the point of death. Before Paul launches into the Christ Hymn, he precedes it by saying, “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus emptied himself. And we are to do the same. The faith of Jesus is not about us putting ourselves ahead of everyone else. No, Jesus’ faith is the opposite. We are to empty ourselves in order that others may go first. And, sometimes that means putting ourselves in harm’s way. Sometimes that means so aligning with the persecuted, that we become persecuted too.

Now, I get it, it’s hard to build a national security policy around this. We need to protect our people, our children, and the vulnerable people who are here. But, if we are going to say that we are followers of Jesus we cannot get there by casting others aside so quickly.

Damn the Vulnerable

Our faith—from the opening pages of the Hebrew Bible right on through to the closing pages of the New Testament—is build solidly on the foundation that we care for the vulnerable, the poor, the downtrodden. In the Old Testament there is a triad that we see over and over and over again: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. God repeatedly says that we are to care for them, and woe to anyone who afflicts them.

Then Jesus ramps it up in Matthew 25 identifying himself as the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the stranger. By serving them, we are really serving him. And, this whole section is summarized as the “judgement of the nations.” It’s the nations who don’t care for the vulnerable who are cast to eternal torment, and the nations who care for the vulnerable who are ushered into paradise.

Whether it be immigration policy, access to healthcare, or policies towards the poor, the homeless, and the hungry—the followers of Jesus are always called to stand with the needy. Always. No exceptions.

Refugees

Jesus was a refugee. After he was born King Herod sought to kill him, and his parents took him to Egypt for safety. Jesus was literally a refugee in Egypt. The cries to keep Syrian refugees out of our country is antithetical to the faith we are supposed to espouse.

The Old Testament is filled with references to caring for those who are in your land.

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Again, it is hard to build a national security policy around this. I understand that. Terrorism is a real threat, and we need to protect people from it. But, we cannot claim to follow Jesus if we are so willing to throw people fleeing the horrors of their homeland under the bus. They are trying to save their lives, and the lives of their children. You would do the same.

That we have a dark history when it comes to this should give us even more pause. While Hitler was exterminating the Jews, we turned many boats full of men, women, and children away from our shores. And because of that, they perished. Their blood is on our hands.

Demonizing other Faiths

The Hebrew Bible is pretty clear that the People of God are not to partake in other religious devotions, and that idolatry is expressly forbidden—but, there is no wholesale condemnation of other people whose nations worship differently. Jesus certainly never does this. Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, which was the worldwide headquarters of the “Pan” cult. In festivals celebrating and worshipping Pan, devotees in Caesarea Philippi would perform ritual sex acts on goats. I mean, it’s about as dark of a place in the ancient world as you can imagine. But, Jesus takes his disciples there—and what condemnations does he rain down on the Pan worshippers? None. He doesn’t even mention it. It’s not how Jesus works. Jesus would rather bring Light and Truth to people. and have them come to a decision to follow him, than demonize people who have yet to find it.

Followers of Jesus cannot get caught up in the denigrating of other faiths and religions. We just can’t do it. We are to love them as our neighbor, and show everyone the Light and Truth of God as we have come to believe it. The way we proclaim our faith is primarily through our lives of outrageous love, forgiveness, and grace.

Lies, Lies, and Darned Lies

Speaking of Truth… Well, you know what I’m going to say. We absolutely cannot traffic in “alternative facts” and utter ridiculousness—whether it be about crowd size or birth certificates. Someone once said that the truth will set us free (John 8:32), and we need to feel secure in the truth, no matter what it is.

Remember who the Father of Lies is. (John 8:44)

Kindness Matters

People living 2,000 years ago were told that you could tell who was a Christian by how they loved one another. If you tried to say that today, it would be followed by riotous laughter. We have utterly failed to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. We have certainly failed to follow his command to love our enemies (Matthew 6:43–48). If anything shames God about his self-professed followers today, I think it’s this.

Today you are more likely to know Christians by their hatred of Muslims, by their willingness to slash healthcare and welfare, and by their acceptance of detaining women and children in airports. But, you will not know Christians by their love.

And, that has to change.

Mockery

If we stay on this course, we will make a mockery of Jesus and the Christian Faith until there is nothing left except the words “Jesus” and “Christian”—but they will be words that resemble nothing of the actual Jesus and the actual faith he brought and taught. That notable “Christian” leaders with last names like “Falwell” and “Graham” champion such heresy is a sign to the world that Christianity is completely unmoored from the life and teachings of Jesus.

You can be a Christian and be a Republican or a Democrat. You can be a Christian and have voted for Trump or Clinton. You cannot be a Christian and put yourself before others, forget the vulnerable, demonize religions, and fail to love your neighbor so spectacularly.

The Constitution may just be strong enough to hold our democracy together, come what may. I fear that the church isn’t as strong, and that those who are ready and willing to love sacrificially, care for the vulnerable, and see everyone as their neighbor will pass us by.

And, if we continue down this path, maybe they should.

Advent 4a: the center that wouldn’t hold

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I’m intrigued by Catherine Keller’s theological archaeology, where she raises up Nicholas of Cusa, an obscure 15th century cardinal and mystic.

Nicholas mused on the cosmos as a product of its Creator, and which, he presumed would therefore have to resemble its Progenitor. He assumed, that since God is infinite and without bounds, then it would be reasonable to assert that the cosmos is likewise infinite and without bounds.

Extrapolating on this crazy thought, he said that if it has no bounds, then there is no circumference. And, if no circumference, then, *ipso facto*, it has no center.

And, if the cosmos has no center… then the earth isn’t the center of anything.

He says this nearly a century before Copernicus, and well over 150 years before Galileo.

That is just astounding.

And, for a people whose entire conception of their world rested on the fact that we live on an earth that is in the center of a universe, in which the sun and everything else revolves around us – that must have been utterly disconcerting. Disturbing.

Decentering. (Literally.)

To be unseated from the center of creation must have set off a cultural panic attack. (Just ask Galileo who had been sent to his room without supper.)

Our entire identity rested on the notion of us being special, which for us meant, central. In the middle. in the spotlight.

But no, says Isaiah, we don’t need to be in the center to be special. No, for God isn’t just at the outer-reaches of the cosmos. God isn’t just in nebulae and black holes. God isn’t just on some throne a million light years away in some heaven that no rocket can reach.

God is, of course, in all of those places. And many more. But, that is not all.

No Isaiah says. God is with us. Emmanuel.

It is not our place in the universe which makes us special, it is God’s place in the universe. Rather, it is God’s predilection to want to cozy up beside us, walk before us, abide beneath us, and reside within us that makes us so.

Matthew’s Gospel was written at a time when the people of Jerusalem were licking their wounds in the Syrian city of Antioch. The Great Temple had been thrown down, the vessels destroyed, and the priests slaughtered. The People of God wondered “why” and what they were to do next. Was it because they had sinned? Had God abandoned us? Were we now like Job, soon to be laughed at and mocked while sitting in the ashes?

Matthew’s reminder to these people was that while the whole world seemed to be thrown off its center, all was going to be ok, because Emmanuel – God is with us. If those People of God had been able to stick around for fifteen more centuries they would have learned from dear Nicholas that not only had the world been thrown off its center, but there was, in fact, no center to begin with.

“Nevermind,” the cardinal from Cusa might say. For God is with us. On good days, and bad days, and every day in between. On days when we can summon up the courage to stand, and on other days when we can’t do more than cower under the covers.

God, the One Without Bounds, the One Without Circumference, and the One Without a Center, abides with us. Today. Always. Wherever we might be.

Emmanuel.

advent 3a: chucking the wrench

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Advent / Christology / Gospels / Jesus / Lectionary / New Testament / Religion / Year A

It’s a Saturday in the middle of winter, and the heating system in your church breaks down. It’s cold outside, and somehow seems even colder inside. The air stings, and the pews are frigid. You can’t imagine having sweet little old ladies sitting on them tomorrow, but you don’t want to cancel church again. It’s been a snowy winter.

The HVAC company van rolls into the church driveway, and the technician gets out with a clipboard and a toolbox. It’s the weekend, so labor is going to cost you time-and-a-half, but you have no other option.

He heads into the furnace room, and proceeds to take the equipment apart to diagnose and repair the problem.

After being there for several hours, you know that the technician is feeling your anxiety. He’s feeling pressured to get this thing fixed for the morning. There isn’t any time to have a part ordered. This thing needs fixed today.

With tension in the air, you walk into the furnace room, and ask the technician, “Are you the actual repair man, or should I be waiting for someone else?”

He backs away from the furnace and looks at you, as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”

Replay that story again, but this time from the perspective of the HVAC repair guy. It’s Saturday. You wanted to be with your spouse and kids. But, here you are in this church trying to work a miracle on this machine that has so much neglected routine maintenance on it, it’s not even funny. You know that they have church tomorrow, and so you’re trying to fix it with what you have, instead of putting in an order for a new part. And, after several hours, the hapless minister—who’s been hovering like an anxious mother bird—insults you by asking if he should be waiting for someone else to come and actually fix this thing.

The fact that you didn’t chuck your wrench at the minister’s head should land you on a list for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is what John the Baptist does to Jesus. Jesus has been preaching, and healing, and exorcising, walking on water, and raising people from the dead… and John sends his disciples to ask Jesus:

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I wonder if John sent them there—to the person that he knew very well was the Messiah—because he wanted to put his own disciples in the position where they could question him. He pushed them to push God.

His disciples weren’t to be the kind that just sat quiet and still, and did what they were told. No, they were the kind of disciples who questioned everything and anything. They stood in the long line of people who dared to ask God what in the world He was up to. Like Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and Habakkuk, and Job—John the Baptist’s disciples were going to learn how to walk up to God and ask God a question.

Because by doing so they would learn that God welcomes such things. In fact God yearns for such attention and willingness to engage in a real relationship. God would not throw a wrench at them. God would love them.

And, by forming his disciples in such a manner, they would follow in John’s footsteps, preparing the way of the Lord wherever they went.

advent 2a: a turn of repentance

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Advent / Gospels / New Testament / Religion / Status / Temple / Year A

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

As John bellowed these words you had been clapping and whistling, chanting and laughing with the crowds—jeering at the sad faces of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The crowd was electric with John’s verbal lashing, and was merciless with their own taunts.

The long-fringed robes and the broad phylacteries of the religious leaders, which they had put on as a demonstration of the depth of their faith, now clung to them like a jester’s costume.

They had come to see what John was up to, and they had fallen into a trap. They had come to watch him, and yet they had become the focus of attention.

And then… with the laughter and shouting still hanging in their air… John the baptist turned from the Pharisees and Sadducees—the keepers of the Word and the tenders to the Temple—and he turned towards… you, and the people around you. With fierce eyes, lit like from within, he looked you over from top to bottom.

While you had moments earlier joined in on the jeering of the professionally religious, whose faults are freely available for all to see, and who make such easy targets, now you feel those same words stuck in your throat.

What fruit have I bore? Where are my sagging branches, heavy with the fruits of righteousness and compassion? Where have I shown myself to be on the side of God? Where have I been an agent of peace? Where have I stood on the side of the oppressed and impoverished? Where have I shown that the poor in spirit are the ones who are truly blessed?

The stones, lying at my feet… could these stones be shown to be more faithful than I? Children of Abraham?

John the Baptist, seething in anger that his sermon had been used as a means to mock and jeer others—to set them as unwelcome outsiders—looked at you. He turned and gazed over his shoulder at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, standing there stung, like they had just been spanked, and worried that they were about to take another round.

John then walked over to them. He gestured to one of them, and the man took off his phylactery and handed it to John. John strapped it to his forehead. He motioned to another for his fringed-robe, and the man gave it to him. He draped himself in it.

Then he looked across the crowd towards us, and he said:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.